Blog 99

e335b6cc53ad7431d5351305b28654f2.jpgGeelong by night

Yes. There are now 99 blogs on my website. On the 20th of January this year someone living in Canada where it was a Saturday and probably pretty cold, read 49 of them. Well … ‘read’, looked at, clicked the web address, spent a moment, ‘visited’. Some sets of statistics would allow me to know how much time this person had spent per click. However despite the welter of information available to me, that is missing. Nonetheless I suspect that because he or she went carefully through various series (apparently) it might have been more than a moment. 

Could that be because of their addictive quality? Mmmm. Yeah … probably. That’s my story. But even though in October last year someone from Malaysia seems to have either read one blog 62 times on the same day or be suffering from untameable chorea of the index finger, a hard-eyed analysis of the available data suggests that this has happened just the once.

But yes, there are 99 blogs which I have launched off into the ether. Each time there are some fairly predictable results, and just as often there are results which are well beyond my capacity to predict. It’s no news to say there’s a lot happening out there in the digital universe that is incomprehensible to the common man or woman.

* * * * *


The purpose of preparing these blogs is not to deliver careless slights designed to undercut Geelong’s inexorable rise as an international powerhouse.

They began as long-ish pieces of writing about travels. Originally I circulated these by email in Word files accompanied by other files of photos. Sue Mann, Ms Digital Technology herself, pointed out that you, one, could do all this much more efficiently by using a blog shell and suggested WordPress, which is where you are right now. 

WordPress has its virtues. Unless you write to surfeit (which I do) it’s free, it’s pretty simple to use and incorporation of photos has improved recently. It also has its failings. The capacity to format is very limited. (See my ‘Contents‘ page for a good example of how things go wrong.) Just the one font for example; just the one text block. It huffs and puffs if you try to stuff too much into the one piece, and sometimes expires if you’re open too long which produces the familiar infuriating losses. 

But, and this is important, all my stuff is in here now. It’s not just that I’m old and failing or lazy. Moving to another format would be like shifting house. What happens, I wonder, if it goes down? Unless I take steps — steps in the fog, I don’t know what they are — I lose the lot I guess. And that would disappoint me.


Sphinx Hotel, Thompson Rd, Geelong West (maybe Rippleside, but round there)

To return, my purposes: The blogs did begin as long-ish pieces of writing about travels. So they’re aides memoire, and they work very well like that. I am my most serious, consistent and appreciative reader. I am sometimes given pause by the way they ‘become’ the trip or the experience. If I go back to read my journals or look at all the photos I took I can find another story. But I don’t mind that. The finished articles are already the result of after-the-fact sitting down and thinking about what happened, going back over journal entries, collecting more information to try to make sense of puzzles and fill in gaps, and filching other relevant material and images from the internet. 

And then I publish. Or as we say these days, ‘share’. To ask why is to flip the lid off a well-populated can of worms. Why do we do publish? I suppose I want to show you what I’ve made/ to tell you what I’ve been doing or thinking about. Something like that. 

Unknown.jpegEven though there are bigger issues to be resolved here — how come everything on the internet is ‘free’? — it’s not to make money. Several unknown people have contacted me about ‘monetizing’ the site, but even if I wanted to there are so many reasons why that wouldn’t work. The most promising proposition would have yielded about $130 a year and I would have had to make some serious changes to what I wrote and wrote about, how often, how long and how it was set out. It might generate a vast new audience and produce $135 a year. Or I might as though by magic become Taylor Swift. But, hey, nice of them to think of me.

Do I want a vast new audience? Not really. In a resolutely old-fashioned way, I send notification by email to about 100 people I know, friends, relatives, contacts from the road. Maybe 40 of them read it and, although I hope not, it is quite possible that some find it annoying. But there’s always the bin. Bottom left. Easy.

Also in a resolutely old-fashioned way, most of them are not ‘followers’. Twenty people have chosen to be automatically notified by email when there is a new post; 15 others use WordPress and get a notification of anything new in their newsfeed. (There. Lost half my audience already with this dizzy sophistication.) As well as a couple of friends I know, these 15 include ‘Surviving Victim 2015’, ‘Angels of Passion’ and ‘The Riparian Times’. I have the idea that WordPress might be bunging random oddities into this list for the purposes of encouragement.

Brief pause for entertainment: Excitement at Geelong’s Eastern Beach.


I don’t think I’m looking for approval although that, of course, is most welcome. In this primordial version of digital interaction, my readers rarely ‘like’ what they’ve read. But some, a few, are diligent commenters. Among this crew Joan Holt, Andy Webster and Jane Cav are the standouts. Some blogs draw more comment than others and I hazard for very differing reasons. The first blog about the death of Girin Flat might have reminded readers of their own experiences of the ’70s; The Knee might have garnered a sympathy vote; The Miracle pulled in the footy crowd; and The Nakasendo Trail (see below) is usually people asking me questions.

The most generous ‘comment’ has been a long email from Michel Faber who went to the trouble of providing a very thoughtful and positive response to ‘Dancing with Mr Su’ as well as a boxful of suggestions for copy edits. This, from the author of The Crimson Petal and the White, one the the 21st century’s really good books, made several of my days.

That’s what people do. They send me emails — emails not texts or tweets or likes or ‘comments’ — and we correspond. It’s the old days round here and one clear purpose is to keep in touch. 

But in terms of purpose, I’d say, beyond anything, it is just what I do and have been doing since I could, which is now a long time ago.

More fun at Eastern Beach


What happens?

When I send out my notice very generally speaking 80-120 people visit the new blog that day, 45-60 the next day. It tails off after that. Generally speaking.

Supporting something the makers of soaps have long known, the blog about Mitzi and Simon’s wedding got 480 views in the 12 hours after it was posted. (How does that happen? Who are these people who want to look at the wedding of someone they’ve never met and never will? How do they find out?) The post about the Boat People was also comparatively popular, very quickly. One reason might have been that it was shorter than usual. I note that since my first blog was published on October 12, 2012 — ‘London’, the beginning of a trip to Europe — the number of blogs I write in a year has diminished but their average length has doubled. Could be a mistake. (TLDR. Look it up. It’s modern.) However, 180 people, about 175 more than I anticipated, have had a look at Dancing with Mr Su which is about 35,000 words. It was a pleasant surprise to find that there was a market even of that size for this precious set of 20-year old memories.

Someone looks at something every day, every single day! (it’s busy traffic out there), on average 18 times. A heap of this traffic, the considerable majority, is people looking at my blog on The Nakasendo Trail, the reason being that it has been hooked up to Oku Japan’s Facebook page. It has received 9997, 10,014, 10,017 hits since I wrote it in September 2013. This shows several things but primarily the power of Facebook (from which I abstain). 

I have gone back to read this blog lots of times a bit puzzled and vaguely wishing it was a bit less feeble. Maybe I could have tarted it up a bit more, filled out more of the detail.  But I also think these people could have been reading about the crisis of Catholicism as visible in the decorative effects of St Peter’s, or the distinctive religious sunglare of the epistle to the Ephesians. Far more interesting. But the excellent Adam Downham from Oku (who was good enough to meet up with us on Shikoku) has written: ‘Our team often point your blog out to guests curious as to what the trail is like; there’s no better honest description since the newspaper articles, as grateful as we are to have them, tend to speak in hyperbole.’

And I would never ever ever indulge in hyperbole. Never. Not even if the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse rode in here right now. Six.

The men of Geelong … and the womengeelong-beach-victoria-11495.jpgUnknown.jpeg




The greatest number of hits in any one day (1744) came after a Croatian site, ‘Dubrovackidnevnik‘ (‘Dubrovnik Diary’) made reference to a small portion of Croatia: Don’s Party which with Bosnia: Not Don’s Party are two of my all-time favourites. A sort of half-hearted and confused umbrage had been taken to my comments about Dubrovnik, a sacred site on its promontory there in the Croatian consciousness.

‘A group of tourists recently published a report from Croatia on their blog, and about Dubrovnik had some criticism. ‘It is very beautiful from a distance. Up close it’s another old town with highly polished limestone streets, including the famous Stradun down its centre,’ the tourists wrote. The criticisms were directed at prices. Namely, tourists wrote that they paid a lot for the most common food. [in fact — ‘Dubrovnik didn’t have as many tat shops as Venice, but it had its share. We paid a lot for ordinary food. Despite its remarkable history as an independent and highly civilised state, we were at a tourist destination.’]

‘Most of the text on Dubrovnik is related to the Homeland War and the attacks by the JNA during the war years. ‘Why would anyone bomb the world heritage? Because of little attention or because you’re stupid. Or to see where you could go with it. Or simply because you do not care,” the tourists wrote. They also visited Cavtat, but they had only praise for it.’

You might be sharing something with your friends, you might think you’re just sharing something with your friends, but of course you’ve thrown yourself on the mercy of the digital cosmos. Once you put it up it’s in the ether, the heavily populated void where anything can and does happen.

I know that if there is a hit from Turkey, it’s probably Onur; Croatia, Don; India (when he’s there) Geoff; Poland, Marta. But today, let me look: 32 from the United States, 6 from Malaysia, 8 from Canada, three from Singapore, two from The Netherlands, one from the UK, and one from Serbia (and will they have read … yes they have … On Being Serbian. I bet they were completely mystified.) I have no idea who any of them are, nor what they are making of what they are reading.

The same is true of course of any author who publishes. However there are well developed gambits, advanced strategies, indeed whole inclinations designed to manage the issue. How much can we tell about Shakespeare’s precise nature or that of Jane Austen from what they wrote? Very little. They are extremely well-disguised; the work is the thing. (As a counterpoint we could always throw in Norman Mailer I guess.) But generally they don’t insert pictures of themselves and their close friends and relations for just anyone to contemplate, and for that matter in order to match the correspondence of text and pictorial evidence.

What’s with this willing abandonment of privacy? Is it perhaps unwitting? If ‘witting’ means ‘fully conscious and attentive’ then there might be something in that. You just do it. And compared with the Twitter wars and the complete abandonment of mannerly and civilised discourse in digital comment, I have got off scot-free. Scot-free. (Originally meaning exempt from Royal levies. Wonderful.) Maybe it’s a process of keeping your head just so high. Not very. Finding the sweet spot whereby you can imagine yourself as an authorial and public figure free to write what you like while retaining an illusion of privacy.

With this in mind, if you search ‘McRae’ or even ‘McRaeblog’ (which is most of the unique address of the site) you will go for dozens of pages before there’s any sign of it. However if you Google ‘Frognie Zila’, and why the hell would you, coming in at number six is this.

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 12.12.13 pm.png

And when you go there you will find what’s below, a photo I have taken included in a discussion of what was in Le Printemps in the French Quarter of Shanghai. Note: I have never pulled this out of the run of the blog, nor titled/captioned the photo nor in any other way given it an individual identifier. So how did that happen? Crrrrazy eh. frognie-zila.jpg

I did Google ‘Frognie Zila’ because I was getting so many hits on this as the entry point to my site. When you search, nearby you will find access to an article: ‘6 Bad Brand Names in China: Lessons from intertextuality’ (which includes the same photo, cropped but almost certainly pinched from my site) which says a number of useful things that I had only provided as implications.

Vladimir Djurovic in ‘Branding Mag’ writes: ‘From a purely verbal identity perspective, Chinese consumers have minimal recognition of the name (there is no Godzilla in Chinese culture; frog is not read as evidently as for a Western English speaker). This illuminates the importance of the underlying Chinese name as the verbal identity asset which carries brand equity in China, while the alphabetic name functions as a more visual asset and plays a lesser role in anchoring the memories and brand associations.’ (The other five dud names: ComeBuy; Lance From25; Helen Keller (a brand for spectacles!); Greenland Being Funny (for a shopping mall); and Biemlfdlkk. It is a worthy  but wordy article.)

All serious writing is palimpsest, and the internet is making it easier and more routine.

There now. That’s the educational function of this blog served.

* * * * *

Geelong? Ah it’s just Geelong. I spent ages 1-8 there, and much as I wanted to, just not quite old enough to go off the wheel into the water at Eastern Beach (see pic above). It’s quiet down there at the other end of the Bay. If you use it as your blog’s yardstick, you can, you know, pump it up a bit. Like, help out.


* * * * *

Palimpsest. A Footnote. (Another problem with WordPress: you can’t have proper footnotes. No ‘foot’ I suppose.) Originally: parchment or other writing material that the writing has been scrubbed or scraped off so it can be reused. In contemporary usage: something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form. In my mind: the building up of layers of borrowings and allusions to thicken out meaning.

The Knee


Yes. My left knee. And the mighty muscle groups of my thundering hams (att. G. Ainsworth), visible in this new (to me) form of imaging.

The knee is the largest and most complex joint in the body. As is customary when finding out more than skin deep things about the body, the correct response is to reel back in awe. Not a simple hinge, its components glide and roll about on each other.

images.jpegThe posterior and anterior cruciate ligaments are key elements holding it together. Appearing in pink in the middle of this simplified illustration, they are ‘cruciate’ because they are arranged like an ‘X’, a cross. The medial ligament at right here protects against excessive lateral movement. They can all be torn from their moorings or ruptured. Ruptured ACL? 9 months after surgery before you’re going again.

Knees are the body’s shock absorbers. The load exerted on each knee joint during walking is three times body weight (bang 240kgs, bang 240kgs, etc and that’s just strolling along), climbing stairs about four times, squatting more than five. Cycling interestingly is only 1.2. Swimming too is lower because of the supported nature (bike seat, water) of each activity.

The major cushioning apparatus is visible in the digram above as well. The two ‘disks’ made out of fibrous cartilage are the medial and lateral menisci. They protect the ends of the bones from rubbing on each other and effectively deepen the sockets into which the femur, the thigh bone, attaches. They play a role in shock absorption, and when the knee is forcefully rotated and/or bent, can be cracked or torn.

The white material on the end of each bone represents hyaline cartilage preventing bone from ever rubbing on bone. Many times smoother than Teflon, the smoothest artificial substance ever produced, this form of cartilage — most unusually — lives without a blood supply and therefore can’t heal itself. Once it has formed in childhood, the cells hardly grow or develop further. Wear and tear is irreversible. If the cartilage is cracked, torn, or worn through, the bone of the joint itself will suffer. We call that osteoarthritis. Bone grinds on bone. Inflammation and pain result.

* * * * * *


Does that look it needs a replacement? I asked the radiologist. Mmmm, she said nodding sagely, not much daylight there.

I have had trouble with my knees since my early teens. ‘Long-jumping into hard pits’ was one causative diagnosis. Sore knees stopped me playing football for what I like to think would have been the pinnacle of my glory days. I had my first (of three) athroscopies of the knee more than 30 years ago. (Arthroscopies: key hole surgery of the knee to tidy up tears in the cartilage surface and remove floating pieces, now widely discredited in terms of impact and usefulness.) An osteopath looking through my history recently found the first reference to knee pain in 1991. Lately, coming down mountains, not going up so much, the grind of bone on bone is so tangible that I imagine I can hear it, and sometimes I can.

However. However. However.

Have you had any trouble washing and drying yourself because of your knee? How much has pain from your knee interfered with your usual work? (including housework)? Could you do household shopping on your own? Could you walk down a flight of stairs? I even struggled with, How would you describe the pain you usually have in your knee? (It’s not regular. It comes and goes. Sometimes it hurts. A lot. But you know … )

These are questions from the Oxford Knee Score to assess what sort of intervention you might need with graded multiple choice answers. Answering best and as honestly as I could I scored 42, the interpretive key for which was ‘Mate piss off. There’s nothing wrong with you. Step out of the way for people who actually need help.’ And you go along to the surgeon’s rooms and are sitting with mostly men, just as it happens, who are knotted up with arthritis, need help standing and then get along, just, with a stick.

An imposter perhaps?

Eighteen months ago I had a discussion with a most impressive Irishman, a knee surgeon, who pointed to what the right questions for me were. Eighteen months later I went to see him again and talked about lying awake at night with pain, beginning to drag my left leg consistently, and taking far too many anti-inflammatories which were beginning not to work. I seemed to have made up my mind and he didn’t dissuade me.

One salient issue is just how long the artificial joint might last. If the answer is 15 years and you’re 55, you might want to think about that. But if the answer is probably 20 years, as it seems to be at present, and you’re nearly 70, well …

So I washed myself down with chlorhexidine, told forty people serially what my name and date of birth were, and de-suited up.

* * * * * *

“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

— Oscar Wilde

Unknown.jpegThis quote, although intended to reflect on the performing arts, also quite aptly defines the goings on in a surgical operating theatre. The term ‘Theatre’ conjures images of live drama and suspense. It is a rather appropriate and symbolic idiom. Historically, the first operating rooms were amphitheatres in which the surgeon, dressed in street clothes, performed operations on a raised table or stage, surrounded by several rows of students and other spectators who could observe the case in progress. Needless to say, this was by no means a sterile environment but the spectacle was certainly captivating.

Brian Devitt, my splendid Irish surgeon, to the left above, wrote and shared this.

The structure of the operating room has evolved over time. In reality, the amphitheatre no longer exists, having been replaced by smaller, less populated, and cleaner rooms. Nevertheless, the symbolism continues. There is a still a well-established routine. The actors (surgeons) are adorned in distinctive costumes (scrubs, gowns, and gloves) for the show. Next, the patient, the main character in the production, is wheeled into the room for the performance with prodigious ceremony, assuming centre stage under the spotlights to join the awaiting cast (scrub nurses and junior doctors) for the main act.

The operating room is a surreal place with countless rules, which are policed by the ever-vigilant theatre sister. As a medical student this is one of the most foreboding venues one must venture during rotations. With so much going on, you are always in someone’s way, despite trying to conceal oneself, chameleon-like, against the walls: ‘Don’t touch this. Don’t stand there. Keep your hands in. Stop breathing.’ Life is less ominous as a doctor when there is a specific role to play. In a junior capacity, the doctor is often the whipping boy, suffering a baptism of fire in this high-pressure setting. Although, with added experience and seniority, the now surgeon assumes a greater leadership role within the team.

The theatre is generally a very calm environment. Most cases are routine and have a set procedure. The most hectic period is at the beginning of the case when the anaesthetized patient is wheeled into the operating room on a trolley and transferred to the operating table for surgery. Orthopaedic surgeries normally require a very specific set-up, and in some cases a specialized system of traction is employed to facilitate the reduction of a fracture. Following this, the surgical site is painted with antiseptic solution and isolated with sterile drapes. What follows next is probably one of the most simple, yet effective advances in reducing surgical complications in recent times; the surgical time out. Everyone stops. A checklist is read out, detailing the procedure, highlighting that the correct side has been marked, and ensuring the necessary equipment is available and appropriate antibiotics have been given. Finally, surgery can begin.

To watch a gifted surgeon operate is like watching Riverdance. Every step, each movement is choreographed and purposeful. The surgeon speeds up during routine dissections and debridement [removal of damaged tissue], but slows down when making critical decisions and approaching vital structures.

Each team member should be synchronized to facilitate the surgeon. As is often said facetiously, the assistant’s job is to make the surgeon look good. There’s generally not much room for conversation during a case. Commands are given clearly and succinctly. The scrub nurse is a crucial team member, supplying the correct instruments swiftly, safely and ergonomically to the waiting surgeon. In many cases an experienced nurse will know what the surgeon needs before he asks. The eponymously named instruments can be confusing, particularly to the junior surgeon. An exhortation is often heard to ‘give me what I want, not what I ask for.’

Thankfully, in most cases the final scene of these endeavours finds a healthy, happy patient. Life in theatre is tough and tiring but very rewarding. Once the final curtain has been drawn, sleep is not difficult to find. That sleep is deep, restful and well earned.

* * * * * *

I asked the physician consulting on my case if they cut the bone out or if it was just resurfacing. These questions… you don’t even now what you’re asking half the time. He stifled a roar of laughter and indicated that yes the bone would most certainly be cut out. Not only that, but it would hurt like buggery.

This is one absolutely consistent theme of people who I have spoken to about knee replacements. The one area of absolute agreement among participants, qualified professionals, relatives, onlookers, grocers who have met someone once whose cousin … is the degree of pain, described by my consulting physician as ’10 times worse than a badly-sprained ankle (or, in technical terms, 10xb-sa). … And it doesn’t stop!’ he amplified. ‘Not immediately anyway.’

So I woke up in an opioid-induced haze. Not asleep yet not quite awake, and unsure if those cows I was chasing were real ones, and if they were what I needed to do about it. These are the glories of Targin, a mixture of oxycodone and naloxone. Oxycodone is a narcotic pain reliever and naloxone belongs to a group of medications known as opiate antagonists used to lessen the constipation caused by oxycodone. But in case that doesn’t work, and it doesn’t appear to, there are regular doses of Coloxyl and other incentives to internal movement.

How was I feeling? Fine. Great. I got out of bed — a cautious and controlled swing of the new one, it could have fallen off — and tested it on the floor. In terms of stability (and feel) it felt remarkably like it did before.Boy, did I get told off. In my defence, I did this because I was making an extra effort to urinate. I ate and drank and watched a series of television programs which wandered in and out of my conscious reality.

The next day I walked 647 steps — I know that because I had my phone in my pocket — and tackled the stairs down to the coffee shop. The nurses began calling me One Day David.

The second morning was the only time it really hurt, but even then maybe only 2.6b-sa or even less. A second chemical weapon was employed which blasted this problem to smithereens.

* * * * * *


Now here I am eight days later sitting at home blogging away and uncertain about tone management. 

It’s going well. Can I say that? Just nice and flat? Going well. Last night it hurt but I’ve been off everything but Panadol (and anti-inflammatories and blood thinners — no one’s taking any chances here) for a few days, and I have this visual metaphor of the knee unfreezing — it remains quite swollen — and exposing the actuality of what is under the ice. Pain in this case means not being able to find a comfortable rest point. Wherever you put the leg, you need to move it again immediately to try something else. There will be a name for that.

That’s on the one hand. On the other I walked up to see my GP today — I suppose that’s about a kilometre — and going up and down stairs is no problem. In fact I’m back to normal pattern (one step, next step, next step, not one step one step, next step next step) for going up and am close for going down. I’m not doing my physio in an orderly way because I think I’m getting quite lot of incidental exercise, and while walking is easy there are certain lifting actions that feel like a horizontal incision is being ripped apart with the terrible mental presentiment that that is actually what is happening. I tend to avoid actions like that. And any lateral pressure. There is some disorder in any recovery.

Three months they say before walking is as normal, another few weeks before I can drive a car. In the meantime I have no trouble getting to Trutrack for a coffee fix.

So. Good I guess. But not triumphalist. I’m not running down the road to the gym yet, and I’ll be sitting round quite long enough to have me chafing. But yeah. Good I guess.

And mightily grateful for just how skilled these clever, kind and thoughtful people who advised, operated on and nursed me were.Slide2CAC.JPG



Mountains #2



Greetings from Railton, Tasmania. Topiary Capital of the Southern Hemisphere.

And no it wasn’t planned. That was just what she happened to be wearing that day. (Donald Trump on the right do you think?)

But let’s continue on with our journey through prime mountains. Begin by mounting Sheffield’s finest viewing platform.IMG_0031 (1).jpg


MT ROLAND (15/1/18)

Altitude: 1233m

Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 4.40.20 pm.pngAs far as I can tell this range is called the Mt Roland Regional Conservation Reserve. But Mt Roland is the highest peak with Mt Van Dyke the second highest.

Coming from the east, as visitors do, it’s the beginning of the Western Tiers. I drove past it years ago and it took my breath away. The dolerite crags just seem to soar impenetrably.

Route: There is a track up the face which has been closed because of its danger. There is also a ridge walk from one end to the other which would probably take several days.

The standard track is 4 km along a firetrack which actually climbs quite a bit, a very steep but relatively short climb up a creek gully (400m up in just over kilometre), 3 km across a button grass plateau and a nice little bit of bouldering at the end. Height gain of 600m. and about 16 km there and back.

On a good day like we had it is quite an easy walk — medium more correctly, it does have the climb up the creek gully. But we’ve tried five times and failed twice, mostly because of weather — it’s Tassie after all — although one time a late start didn’t help. 

Just to be clear, this is where you are headed. The looming presence is intermittent, but tangible and enough to leave you dangling. How on earth are you ever going to get up there?IMG_0052.jpgMt Roland is not isolated. It’s only 15 km from Sheffield (with great murals, Mural Capital of the etc.), and the plains surrounding it are littered with holiday houses and farms wanting to make the most of the formidable view.


You start from O’Neill’s Rd. This road quickly shifts into a rough four-wheel drive track gaining height quite steadily as it sidles up across the foothills of the cliffs. It runs through a glorious wet, eucalyptus forest with massive stands of tree ferns.


After half an hour there are stands of curly-branched John Glover gums the name of which I don’t know. I used to look at his paintings and think he had a visual infirmity when it came to trees. But then I started looking and found them all over the island.IMG_0048.jpg

This section is completed when you come to a log bridge spanning a gully with steps formed on the other side. Lots of steps. You’re going up a crack that is not the one in the picture below (another section of the Mt Roland range) but which is very like that one.IMG_0097.jpg

In or after wet weather, of which there is plenty here, the track is both muddy and slippery and in places a water course. We’ve moved into nothofagus country which means lots of mosses, lichens and exotic tortured shapes, Lord of the Rings country.IMG_0062.jpgIMG_0064 (1).jpg

It was neither wet nor muddy on this lovely day and we duly popped out at the rest point at Reggie’s Falls with certain of us raring to go after cup of tea.

You walk almost straight out onto the plateau with its wonderful views, button grass and expanses of flowering alpine heaths, bushes and orchids. There is a kilometre or so of duckboard to get you across what can be wetlands.

IMG_0070 (1).jpg

IMG_1101.JPGFake Mt Roland (above) is to your left. It looks a lot like you’re walking over to the high point but actually that’s only a precursor. There is still another 40 or so minutes to get to the peak with dead but still lovely scorparia flowers on the way.IMG_1126.JPG




IMG_1123.JPGI don’t want to go on about this but that rocky track is a water course in the wet. It can look like the ‘track’ at the left which is actually near Tongariro in New Zealand. But not today. No impediments today. Simply a perfect day for walking.


You go up this gully visible between the two rock outcrops in the photo above, climb left, and you’re there. And on a day like this, ‘there’ is quite something.




MT FIELD WEST (22/1/18)


Altitude: 1434m

Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 4.41.22 pm.pngLook at that for a mountain! The peak is the lump to the right. The Naturalist, another peak only 5m lower is to the left of that on top of a crowd of ‘organ pipes’, columns of dolerite, a very hard igneous rock which when weathered collapses into boulders. Dolerite columns and boulder fields are found almost everywhere in Tasmania.

Climbing Mt Field is not the issue. Getting there is.

If you look at the photo again you will notice Myrna crossing one of the endless boulder fields that make Mt Field such a challenge. (There is a Mt Field East too, a congenial domestic climb for a Sunday afternoon. But for the sake of simplicity today the destination will be called Mt Field. Both of them are only an hour and a half from Hobart.) 

Route: There is only one ‘direct’ route to Mt Field. But I may never get to the peak again so we thought for the sake of completeness we’d include a major deviation.

Urquhart’s Track up from the Lake Dobson car park, Snowgum Track across to Rodway Hut. That’s all normal. But then out across Tarn Shelf, up over Newdegate Pass and back to K Col intersection. From there resume the normal route out up the spur and across the pincushion plateau. Back the most direct way through Lion’s Den.

The Lake Dobson carpark is at 1000m. But you have to climb over the Rodway Range before you can start the ascent of Mt Field again, so up to 1300m over boulders, down 200m, up 450m. About 25 difficult km. A big day.

IMG_0173.jpgWe began very early for us. We were walking around Lake Dobson at 7.00 and got up the gravel road to the ski huts quite smartly. Someone, possibly the skiers, has built a kilometre or so of duckboard across a shelf going in the right direction which is always most welcome. We were at Rodway Hut (below on the left) before 8.00. With magnificent views of Lake Seal a few hundred metres below and Tarn Shelf crisp in a very clear morning, that could have been satisfying enough.IMG_0186.jpgTarn Shelf is a destination in itself.

Eight tarns (alpine lakes, often glacial) big enough to go on a medium-scale map, a dozen or so smaller, so as you walk through them you have all these water effects and reflected light as well as the remarkable alpine vegetation — including pencil pines and some pandanus — squeezing itself in between the rocks.IMG_0187.jpgIMG_0198.jpg

Further along there are stands of dead pencil pines dramatically weathered.IMG_0203.jpg

We got to Newdegate Hut at the end of the Shelf by 9.30 and set off over the Pass after cup of tea.IMG_0207.jpg

The views from the top of the Pass were consistently grand this day. Unusually, long perspectives were possible.IMG_0221.jpgDuckboarding takes you across the very top of the Pass through the pincushion and water pools. Mt Field is sitting over in the distance with its top in cloud which remained there for most of the day.IMG_0231.jpgWe got this clear view of the bird’s head of Mt Field and The Naturalist as we skirted back along the Rodways.IMG_0234.jpgAnd this is what you’re looking for. It never seems to come. Newdegate Pass is visible just to the right of the outcrop, The Watcher. Not apparently far, but it’s a mushy, rocky track with two or three boulder fields and plenty to trip on.

Turn right (left in the photo) with gratitude. Time for lunch. Except we did another hour.

Round the base of the horseshoe on to the ridge …IMG_0236.jpg

Past the much photographed Cleme’s Tarn …IMG_0237 (1).jpg

Up through the bushes …IMG_0238.jpg

And the rocks…IMG_0240.jpg

Through the mist on the plateau …IMG_0247.jpgIMG_0250.jpgThat’s from the top — a currawong welcoming us.

We turned around and had been walking for ten minutes when it all cleared.IMG_0258.jpgThat’s the peak of Mt Field West.

And this is The Naturalist which we thought we would also climb.IMG_0255.jpg

In the far centre distance of that photo above you can see a boulder field which stands between us and getting home (about half way actually). This one.IMG_1325.JPG

We got to the top of that, there was an elegant little alpine garden, and then an hour or more getting through the Lion’s Den, a valley of boulders which asks for huge steps, jumping and hand climbing — quite a lot for that time of the day. There are no photos because no one seems to take photos of the Lion’s Den. They’re too busy just trying to get through it. Not for the faint of heart. I think I had just gone into a slightly dismayed version of automatic.

We got back to the car at 7.30 scarcely able to move. It had been overly ambitious. I admit it. Freely.

A week has passed. This time next week I’ll be lying in hospital with a canula or two plugged in my arm dazed and confused with a big bandage on my left knee. And? Je ne regrette rien. These are photos of a precious adventure.

Mountains #1


It might boil down to the view.

Many words have been written about the attraction of mountains and in fact the historical anomaly of contemporary interest. They used to be things to be avoided, homes of hobgoblins, monsters and wraiths. When in the fashionable mind they became romantic spectacles, it was not to actually tangle with them. Observe, applaud if you must, and then leave well enough alone.

Australia doesn’t have much in the way of mountains. Too old. And the ones it does have you mainly walk or even drive up rather than climb. So why bother?

I was sitting on top of a boulder at Seager’s Lookout still a bit ragged from a major encounter with Mt Field West — this, Myrna explained, was a hair of the dog — when we discussed this most recently.

Grandeur. What would grandeur be? Bigger than usual? Certainly. But there is something else about the light, often generated by the eccentric and highly changeable weather you get in mountains, that could suggest an encounter with grandeur. Yes you do see how things are and how they are made, geologically anyway. 

Yes you can see how things are laid out and you are given an idea of scale — and of your own very limited importance. You see things that you can’t otherwise see. Ever. Like what grows in alpine areas above 1000m in Tasmania, in summer one of the world’s great floral shows.

All mountains, even ones which are proximate, have their own character. Above, for example, is Feathertop, the Queen of the Alps. There is no King. With its narrow ridge and winter cornice it is unlike any other mountain nearby, and the walk from where Myrna is standing to the summit, head out all the way, is a blue ribbon affair. I like to get to know them. But who knows why? That’s the question, isn’t it?

Flipping the focus, there’s the challenge. Can you? What will it be like? How hard will it rain? How soft will the snow be? When will it start hurting? Even when you’ve done it before, you just never know.


But it’s probably just the view. (The Ovens Valley from the top of Feathertop.)

* * * * * *

Myrna rarely needs persuasion to climb a mountain. I thought I’d like to climb some of my favourite mountains again before getting a new knee. Just in case. You never know. This is a record of that experience. 

* * * * * *

MT FEATHERTOP (27/10/17)

Altitude: 1922m

Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 4.47.01 pm.pngRoute: there are five ways up Feathertop, including the one noted above which starts near Mt Hotham at an altitude of about 1600m. We thought we might go up the Bungalow Spur which starts in Harrietville (alt. 500m). It is a common route for people planning to camp on the mountain but 1500m up, a big climb. About one-third of its 12km length is the remnants of an old tramway on a reasonably generous grade. We planned to go up and down in a day.


The track starts in thick alpine forest following a creek before jumping up along a steep rocky track. Once you get to the top of that section you’re on the tramway and you just have to lie back into the idea of a long steady climb.

You begin to get glimpses through the canopy like this confirming that you’re getting somewhere.IMG_0603.JPG

Feathertop has been burnt fiercely several times in the last decade and some of the landmarks have gone — Wombat Gully for example — and that was a good one because it proclaimed progress and used to be good spot for a cup of tea. But you can tell you’re rising. The dominant trees are now large and crowded Stringy Barks rather than the tall but spare Mountain Ash further down.

For a kilometre or two around the halfway mark a storm the previous week had brought down lots of dead trees left after the fires. Even the living ones are very shallow-rooted in the rocky soil.IMG_1372.JPG

There was another patch where the stags were monumental.IMG_1367.JPG

Two-thirds of the way you pass the site of the ‘Bungalow’ of the Spur. Nothing remains except a cleared area, some grass and a few bits of cement. What it says is that ahead there is a steeper climb through snowgum on broken rock for 40-50 minutes, but at the end ‘head out’ near Federation Hut where people camp. And it’s a good moment.IMG_0619.JPG

IMG_1379 (1).jpg


You cross that hill ahead, the bottom of Little Feathertop, on a very weathered track and come to this wonderful snow gum, almost the only one on the ridge that survived the fires, and only because of its isolation.img_0659 (2).jpg

IMG_0418.jpgThe rest is still mainly ‘old man’s beard’, dead trees now above new growth. Snow gums don’t shoot from the trunk or branches after burning but they do regrow from the base.

And then you’ve got to get up the top, a steep rocky climb to gain another 200m vertically.thumb_IMG_0657_1024.jpg

IMG_0641 (1).jpgAnd we did. We’d been lucky with the weather, and getting down was the usual kilometre too far, but it was in sum a great delight.


MT DIFFICULT/ GAR (28/12/17)

Altitude: 809m

Mount-Difficult-e1448857381905-990x280 (1).jpgThe peak’s nobility is complex, not obvious, perhaps because you have to fight a bit to get there. After climbing, the route enters from the right and makes its way across the face of the scarp.

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 10.41.38 am.pngRoute: Mt Difficult (Gar — Jardwadjali for nose) is the highest peak in the Grampians’ Mt Difficult Range, a fishhook-shaped affair in which the mountain is only just located. Our usual track has been to enter at Beehive Falls, climb up to the plateau, do the there-and-back leg to Briggs’ Bluff then eventually come down to Troopers Creek campsite.

Fires had closed this track until recently — the tops were still unrecognisably bare — and Troopers Creek campsite was still closed. We still could probably have come down there but it would have meant a 6km walk back to our car along Roses Gap Rd.

We’ve done that before, but this day it was in the mid-high 30s and very muggy, and after 16km of scrambling we mightn’t be in the mood. So, just there and back. In at Beehive Falls, forget Briggs’ Bluff, straight on via the slightly rerouted track to Mt Difficult and back again. About 20 km. Altitude gain, about 650m. But rough work.

Below, the trig point is just visible to the right of Myrna’s hat.





From Roses Gap this classic Grampians gravel track, undulating gently besides a creek bed, takes you to Beehive Falls 1.5km away. Most climbs throw you straight in without letting you catch your breath. This is 20 minutes of amiability.

We’ve been to Beehive Falls at least five times and I can’t remember them ever running. A finger-thickness trickle was coming over as we climbed up.

As I have remarked many times it’s hard to take photo of ‘steep’ or ‘high’ and this is another failed attempt. Assume ‘steep’, and dry loose rock.IMG_2178 (2).jpg

As I remembered it you got to the top of the falls — 200 or so steps as well as the loose rock path — and then, for some relief, you were out on the plateau. But I had forgotten.

This comes next.


thumb_IMG_0883_1024.jpgIMG_2177.jpgSomewhere on that cliff face is the track. And like these things often do, it goes on and on. Four or five distinct false dawns.

Going up I knew it was steep but we just chugged along. Coming down — sliding, barely in control, on my bum — I had no idea how we’d got up there. That, to some degree, is the nature of going up and coming down.

Once up on the plateau and an unusual 30 minute walk almost in a straight line along flat rock strata, Briggs Bluff with its bird’s mouth dominates visually. The Wimmera Plains stretch out uninterrupted to the north.IMG_2181.jpgAnother climb follows, steep and high steps up into the bottom of a vertical scarp which the track chases, climbing past caves sometimes gradually sometimes steeply to a crack in the cliff. From here you get the first view east.IMG_2185.jpgLake Lonsdale in the distance. But that’s the track. Through the regrowth and down a sharp and rocky V to the intersection with the loop which overnight campers follow. It’s been opened recently as part of the trail from one end of the Grampians to the other. We haven’t walked it and won’t today.

It’s all very dramatic in a Grampians sort of way.IMG_2182.jpg

A stiff climb up huge inclined slabs of sandstone. Red face. It was hot and we could have done with a couple more litres of water. There is none on the mountain.IMG_2187 4.56.41 pm.jpg

This is to gain enough height to walk somewhere near the contour before the final boulder scramble to get up into the peak. Scrambling where you have to use your hands that is. The track has already been a scramble. I’d forgotten. No photos of the last stage because I was cactus. IMG_0914 (1).jpg

But the view, the view …IMG_2189.jpg



Now let us cross Bass Strait for the second two — a symphony in dolerite.



Boat People

A knock at the door of one of the ‘scattering’ of cottages in Coburg, Victoria, just before Christmas 1852. Christina McAskill answered. A ragged young man stood there. ‘Your cousin Helen, Malcolm McRae’s wife, came on the ship Ticonderoga. I am Christopher [aged 17], her son. We were landed at Point Nepean and I have walked from that place with another young man [probably Finlay his younger brother]. We followed the beach till we came to Melbourne.’

Their epic 100 km walk through this most foreign of lands had taken them eight weeks. They had survived on shellfish and water offered by local Boon Wurrung Aboriginals. But Helen (aged 41), her daughter Janet (11), and her sons John (15), Farquhar (6) and Malcolm (2) were dead.

They had been among the 795 passengers (and 48 crew) on the Ticonderoga, a double-decker clipper, just 52m long, chartered by the Highland and Island Emigration Society to bring ‘cleared’ Scots to Australia. Campbells, McDonalds, McKays, and McWilliams as well as McRaes were on board.

There is some evidence that people who were already sick embarked from Liverpool. There is also evidence that conditions on the boat were appalling. ‘The ship, especially the lower part was in a most filthy state, and did not appear to have been cleaned for weeks, the stench was overpowering, the lockers so thoughtlessly provided for the Immigrants use were full of dirt, mouldy bread, and suet full of maggots…’ Of the 795 passengers 199 had been under seven.

At least 100 died on the way. (19 were born during the 90 days in transit.) Another 380 had ‘the fever’ (probably typhus) or dysentery when they disembarked at Point Nepean just inside the Heads of Port Phillip Bay. ‘The Argus’ reported that all told more than 180 died. Generated by this incident, what became known as Ticonderoga Bay became the site of Victoria’s first quarantine station.

Christopher and his father served out their indentured positions and went on to become farm workers and eventually owners. I’m one of around 800 of their descendants.

* * * * *

I was offered 500 words to tell a story for the Australian McRae newsletter, and that’s it.

It’s a story all right. My father thinks Christopher’s walk might be apocryphal. It would be too grand, too heroic, too unimaginable for his taste. However it is true that Christopher did arrive out of the blue at his mother’s cousin’s house in Coburg and that he was not transported with the main group who over time were ferried by boat to Melbourne. There is plenty of evidence for everything else.

This is one remnant of the experience at Point Nepean.


Christopher himself made a rough memorial at Pt Nepean out of wood with this inscription. Later proving himself to be a very capable newspaper correspondent, he probably didn’t include the spelling mistakes. His memorial degraded with time but was seen by a mason who also happened to be a McRae and who decided to construct his own facsimile out of stone. And it’s still there.

 * * * * *

‘Boat people’ have always been arriving and settling elsewhere, often unbidden.

‘Clearing’? ‘The enforced simultaneous eviction of all families living in a given area.’ It was a process that took place over 150 or more years in Scotland: a transformation from subsistence to commercial farming, from common ownership and operation to the establishment of sharply-defined individual/ family property. In Das Kapital Marx described the clearances as ‘the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism.’

In the Highlands those evicted were often moved to coastal regions where kelp-gathering and -processing was one way of making a living. But in the first half of the 19th century the bottom fell out of kelp prices, landlord debt reached record levels and the same famine that began in Ireland in 1845 due to failures in the potato crop gripped Scotland. It was this famine that gave rise to the Highland and Island Emigration Society which sponsored around 5,000 emigrants to Australia from the affected areas of Scotland.

These are likely to be the remnants of a McRae croft on the Isle of Skye which we went looking for and found on a walk. The story was that one of the methods of eviction the (Scottish) landlords employed was to burn the roof timbers of these buildings. There was nothing available to replace them with.CNV00037.jpg

There were 27 McRaes on board the Ticonderoga initially (the dead were thrown overboard, sometimes in groups of ten) and lots of other Highlanders but they had also collected about one-third of the company from south-west England — Cornwall, Somerset, Devon — where presumably the same sorts of things were happening.

It’s a refugee story.

 * * * * *

The arrival of the Ticonderoga attracted attention. We know that because it was covered by ‘The Argus’, a newspaper of the time.

Terrible state of Affairs on board an Emigrant Ship at the Port Phillip Heads – Intelligence was brought to Williamstown, on Wednesday evening last, by Capt Wylie, on the brig Champion, from Adelaide, that a large ship, named the Ticonderago [sic] ninety days out from Liverpool, with upwards of 900 Government emigrants on board, had anchored at the Heads. A great amount of sickness had occurred among the passengers, more than a hundred deaths having taken place, and almost a similar number of cases being still on board. Nor was this all. The doctor’s health was so precarious that he was not expected to survive, and the whole of the medicines, medical comforts etc, had been consumed. (Just as it happens the doctor referred to survived and had a family here. He was comedian and writer Michael Veitch’s great-grand father.) 

These things occur to me.

The first gesture at European settlement of Melbourne occurred in August 1835, that is people stepping off a boat intending to stay, find and build a way of life in that place. These events are occurring only 17 years later when ‘Melbourne’s’ population was 23,000. ( A year later in 1853 after the discovery of gold, it was over 100,000.) That tiny settlement has a newspaper, and quite a sophisticated one.

In addition, it is a newspaper which can publish news (from 100km away) the day after the event occurs (6/11/1852). 

There is a public scandal. You can understand that issues of shipping and disease, especially when combined, might excite people living 25,000 km away from ‘home’ in very fragile circumstances. But the situation is such that there is a capacity to be scandalised. It’s possible. There is no cover up. The newspaper leads with the story. The journalist appears to have had very good access to any information he seeks.

Loud voices are raised. The commentator ‘Observer’ writes (‘The Argus’, 31/12/1852): ‘Being a sea-faring man and curious to know the state of the vessel which had been the scene of such unparalleled disease I went on board, and very soon ceased to be surprised at anything which had taken place on board this ill-fated vessel. The miserable squalid appearance of the passengers at once attracted my attention, and on looking down the hatchway, the smell and appearance of the between decks was so disgusting, that though accustomed to see and be on board of slave vessels, I instinctively shrank from it.’

Aspersions are cast.

‘I have no hesitation in expressing it as my decided opinion that the disease in this ship was mainly caused by the carelessness and inattention to cleanliness on the part of the master and his officers, and the want of ventilation. … Why is this ship allowed to come and vomit her diseased and dying freight in the midst of an over-crowded city? Men despair of the Government ever doing anything effective in these matters, unless it is forced upon them by the voice of the people through our independent press.’

Denials are issued.

From a report issued by the Land and Emigration Commissioners (11/2/1853): ‘Mr. Latrobe says of the ship itself, that “looking to its structure and capacity, no vessel could have been better suited to the purpose, and there can be no doubt but that under circumstances securing the unbroken maintenance of order, cleanliness, and general discipline, a yet larger number of persons might have been conveyed in safety to the colony.” But he adds, that “with an unorganised body of emigrants of the classes selected for the “Ticonderoga,” little surprise can be felt that no ordinary exertion of abilities could suffice to introduce at once system and order, and overcome that repugnance to cleanliness and fresh air which distinguished certain classes of the labouring population of Europe.”’

So it was the victims’ fault! Not keen on cleanliness and fresh air!

This is a refugee story. It could have been in today’s paper.





One of our guide Meakan’s great photos. This is another one.


The blue-winged kookaburra, a northern variety. Every morning they would wake me at dawn or just a little before with their throaty cries that try so hard but never actually emerge into a laugh. Happy sure, but not riotously so.

That night in Cooktown I had been woken by what I thought was the dimp dimp dimp of a mobile phone alarm. Dimp dimp dimp dimp dimp. It went on and on till I decided to take action and go and stir up the owner. I knew just who it would be and I was going to provide her with a piece of my mind. But it wasn’t coming from a tent. It was coming from the bush, a bird. It didn’t stop, not immediately anyway, but somehow that made it okay, the beginning of a very good day.

IMG_1500.jpgBlack Mountain, 20 km out of Cooktown, a huge tumble of unusual granite boulders, and one of our party did take a tumble, grazes and blood everywhere, but he remained otherwise unscathed.

I was looking forward to seeing the (Aboriginal) Quinkin rock art at Split Rock. It was a pleasant short walk off the track.IMG_1516.jpg


88aa20dd47373e2f25724faecc541a76.jpgPeople who read books to children might recognise the source of Percy Trezise and Dick Roughsey’s Quinkin series with the wicked Imjim, the generous and helpful Timara and Turramulli the giant Quinkin. Reportedly there are better preserved paintings in the ranges nearby but the ones we saw were at least a taster. It’s a bit hard to see but that’s an Imjim on the right below for sure. The tail is the giveaway.IMG_1507.jpg

We are some distance from rain forest here. For a start we were travelling through lake land.

feature_image.jpgIt didn’t look wet (this is a filched photo), but sometimes it is — very wet. With only about 2.7 percent of Australia’s land area Cape York produces more run-off than all of Australia south of the Tropic of Capricorn, which is to say 65 percent of the country.

dugong-image.jpgIt is also an area remarkable for its wild rivers. Nowhere in the world is there such a concentration of these rapidly disappearing natural features. The Normanby, Hann, Kennedy and Morehead systems, for example, drain into Princess Charlotte Bay, the large bite taken out of the eastern coast (and an important habitat for dugong, at left). The Jardine further north is the largest perennial river in Queensland.


There are more than 120 riverine lagoons in the Rinyurri/ Lakefield National Park. In the wet they are absorbed into waterways. In the dry the water and the wildlife depending on it become concentrated in particular locations. So you get these remarkable aggregations of bird life like the magpie geese above and the black swans below. Hundreds of bird species. Freshwater crocodiles enjoy feeding on them.Fiona_Harper_Image_82052-black-swan.jpg

We came to Lakeland Downs, an oddity, quite a lot of land under cultivation in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t take any photos and no one else seems to have either. A further oddity is that Clyde Foyster, sand mining tycoon who cleared 8000ha. of bush here in the 1960s and put in bores for year round water supply, called his ambitious spread Lakeland — not after the lake land, but after William Lakeland, a gold prospector.

It went bad — problems with supplies, failure to take into account the poor quality of the soils, unforeseen pests and diseases — and he sold it in 1974 to someone else who wanted to have go. What was there when we were there? Maize, sorghum, might have been some bananas, other types of fruit and perhaps some sandalwood, a long term proposition, a few other bits and pieces — but enough to support a town of 200.

We went through tiny Laura (popu. 80) — famous, but mainly for being ‘the end of the line’ — and on past Old Laura homestead. Derelict, but with its Queenslander shape intact. IMG_1518.jpgThis is downstairs of one in better nick in Coen, Coen’s museum in fact. Spare.IMG_1560.jpgA few hours drive away, what’s left of Breeza homestead.IMG_1532.jpg

These buildings are up off the ground for purposes of air circulation, to provide some cool shade in the understorey but also, I read, because the insect layer here stops about 1.5m off the ground. There would be enough to annoy you here without insect infestation as well. 

I asked the truck to stop so I could take the photo of Breeza. I like the sculptural mass of these old buildings and the patina and colours of the weathering. They belong in the landscape in a way which I’m sure was never consciously intended. And they’re important memorials — and rare. Rare to the point of being tourist landmarks. Just left, they murmur and croak about hard times and struggle, remnants of something tried that hasn’t worked — not just here anyway — isolated versions of one line of history for which in this part of the world there is not much evidence. People have lived and worked here. Whitefellas. Blackfellas adapted rather better … and left far fewer traces.

laura_dirtroad (1).jpg
What we were doing was driving through the tropical savannah which covers northern Australia, a quarter of the country. Open enough to allow grasses and scrub to grow. Monsoonal enough to keep things alive; also monsoonal enough to leach the shallow soils each year. And red. An ideal climate and environment for the oxidisation of iron which attaches to clay particles. We were driving through rust. (Below, vivid in the late light at Archer River.)IMG_1562 (1).jpg
Unknown.jpegScreen Shot 2017-11-21 at 3.34.49 pm.pngKalpowar Crossing in Rinyirri National Park was one of my favourite camping spots.

One of the reasons was that we arrived at the same time as a huge flock of red-tailed black cockatoos. I had no idea that there could be so many in a single flock. They wheeled and swooped and turned and wheeled again. They were simply magnificent.

Another was that we were five days away from phone reception and five days away from the nearest grog shop. Although the latter had been attended to with enormous care. (‘How many have you got left in the Eskie? Four?’ ‘Nah six. … Seven! And I’ve got another two slabs in the truck.’)


A third was that the Normanby River flows next to the camp site. Flowing water (with a crocodile warning sign), and surprise — fossils. And — call that a guide! THIS is a guide. Meet Rick, the Old Hand, who was showing Meakan and Hayden the ropes.IMG_1526.jpg

I don’t know the name of what we were looking at, but it was a good one.



And we came to the Nifold Plain.

One of the interesting things about the Nifold Plain is that I can’t find anything about it. It’s not in the books; it’s not in Wikipedia; in fact it’s scarcely on the internet. But after ten or twelve hours of savannah, it was striking.IMG_1540.jpg

img_1467.jpgA naturalist would exclaim over the diversity of environments in Cape York. Myself, less so. I am inclined to go to sleep when in motion and a passenger. After 40 minutes in the truck I’d jolt awake and seem to be looking at exactly the same thing I’d been looking at when I nodded off. But this was different. A bit of a thrill.

These structures generated a hot fizz of local interest in the ant world.

Ants, mate. Extraordinary. Did you know that some species farm aphids, eating the honeydew the aphids release from the ends of their alimentary canals? They milk the aphids by stroking them with their antennae, a process you can watch right here.

Some species build rafts and bridges, sometimes out of the dead bodies of their colleagues. Some Cape York ants propagate plants which they then use as their homes. The epiphytic host plants secrete a chemical which allows the ants to determine just where to drop the seeds which they have collected. Then, for purposes of fertilisation, the ants poop on the seed.

Others farm fungi having domesticated it to their purposes 65 million years ago. Attine ants cultivate species of fungi that don’t produce spores, which means they can’t spread their own seed. 

They started this farming in the rainforest, but domestication happened in drier climates like deserts or savannahs. In these climes, the fungi grew best inside the comparatively moist underground colonies that their ant overlords created. Over time, this turned into an inability to grow outside of the nest, because they were genetically incapable of doing so. And similarly, the ants lost the ability to make a key amino acid, asparagine, which the fungus provides them. And voila: mutual dependence. 

But I hear some shrieking in the background.

Yes these are ‘magnetic’ mounds, but they are not anthills. They are termite mounds. And termites are not even in the same biological classification Order as ants. Ants have antennae with elbows, waists and pointy noses, and they can see. Termites don’t, and can’t.

Termite mounds house a colony and provide protection for the colony to breed, care for the young and store food. Individual termites are not all the same, but belong to different castes that have different roles. These castes include the winged ‘reproductives’ that are males and females capable of breeding; and sterile males and females that are divided into ‘soldiers’ and ‘workers’. Reproductives that successfully mate are the founders of new colonies and become the king and queen. Usually there is only one queen in a colony, but Amitermes laurensis (named after Laura Station in Cape York) may have many queens in each mound.

magnetic_termite_mound.jpg‘Magnetic’ mounds are tall, thin and wedge-shaped with the longer axis oriented directly north-south. The one at left is a dramatic and fairly rare example of what all of these mounds are like. In the morning the sun shines full on their eastern face. At this stage the western face is not only in shade, but also insulated from the hot eastern face by the thick, solid core of the nest.

There can be up to 8°C difference in temperature between the two surfaces. In the afternoon the reverse happens and the western face becomes much hotter than the eastern. At midday, the hottest part of the day when no shade is cast, only the thin upper edge of the mound is presented to the sun so minimum heat is absorbed. We know that the termites shift from one side to the other away from the heat.

So ‘solar’ mounds perhaps rather than ‘magnetic’ mounds. Either way, remarkable.

We got back on the main road north (‘The Peninsula Developmental Road’) at Musgrave. Musgrave was the headquarters for building the telegraph line which allowed direct communication from Laura (and therefore Brisbane) to Thursday Island. To deal with the climate, the poles were galvanised iron affairs freighted from England (still in good shape today!) and galvanised wire weighing 120kgs per kilometre. It took two years (from 1883) just to survey and clear a route. It opened in 1887 but required constant maintenance, not least because the local Aboriginal people found they could smash the ceramic insulators to make excellent cutting tools.IMG_1549.jpg

This is the Telegraph Station today, still with its wooden shutters to keep out spears, its corner gun turrets from which to shoot at intruders, stairs and water tanks built in the interior of its hollow square kept safe out of the way of marauders. This was the provision for life in the whitefellas’ wilderness.

‘Maybe less interesting’, I wrote in my journal, ‘for its past rather than its very active present. Christ, there’s lot of traffic here.’ Plenty of grey nomads certainly, but heaps and heaps of trucks, on their way to Weipa and back mainly, but elsewhere as well. Today this is how supplies get to where they are supposed to go. Still a dirt road, and just the one, but with a lot of work happening on it.IMG_1567.jpg


At left a Land Cruiser at Archer River where we spent a night. A victim of The Wet: trying to cross a creek, swept off into the main flow, pulled out some time later.

action-transport-river-481784-o.jpgIf you want to follow the Old Telegraph Track directly you can. It contains 13 river crossings, one of which is Gunshot Creek which hardy souls wanting to test their 4WD driving skills look forward to. You enter here.


We didn’t go that way. We went off to Portland Roads, Chili Beach and Lockhart River.

IMG_1613.jpgAnd here’s the thing. One thing anyway. Across this vast expanse — we drove 2069 km over 11 days, one way, Cairns to The Tip, coming home on the ‘barge’ — even if you have a very well equipped 4WD the places you can go are well-defined and limited. You don’t go wandering; you stick to the track and, if you have an expansive tour like ours, you will go to a version of Everywhere.

And if you start casting through the horde of images on the net, you will find they are pretty much of the same things, down to the angle of the photo. At right a case in point, with me bullying Hayden to be a witness figure for a bit of derelict machinery at Wenlock River goldmine. You’ll have no trouble finding a hundred or so pics of the same bit of rusted junk/ important historical artefact. This suggests that in Cape York Every traveller goes Everywhere, and that Everywhere has surprisingly limited features and dimensions.

It requires a certain type of patience that applies right through the outback. I have no doubt the people who live in places like this are deeply affected by their environments: a different attitude to time for example, horizons at once endless and at the same time very narrow. Conversation might mean something different, and there will be, is, endless disdain for the opinions and attitudes of itinerant visitors and other outsiders.

A version of this also applies to people who travel these tracks for pleasure. Their most important destination is nowhere, somewhere no one has ever been before. Very hard to get there of course. 

But there is a seduction in the stillness in the early evenings — which close in very fast here, we’re in the low latitudes — perhaps with the crackle of a fire, the ziiiip of another Goldie opened, a quiet, and unsophisticated, joke. You don’t think about this country and its history. You feel it. And if you talk about it, scrubbing at its surface, you tell stories of where you’ve been — and where you’re going next. Gear. Roads. Camps. Equipment. Roads. Camps. Gear. Even if you’re not asleep, you’re certainly in bed by 8.30. The Eskie needs to be sorted out before 6 the next morning to get the full benefit of the chill at 4.00.

Screen Shot 2017-12-11 at 4.02.07 pm.pngSo … Portland Roads, Chili Beach and Lockhart River.

IMG_1581.jpgPortland Roads was a big surprise. (Named by Cook: ‘Portland’ for the Duke of Portland, ‘roads’ meaning somewhere safe for ships to lay up.)

During the last World War there were, we were told, 7000 American soldiers, tucked off the sides of the road between Lockhart and Portland Roads. Portland Roads was the port for supplies to the Iron Range airfield near Lockhart River, also built by the US Army.

There are remnants of this time: rusted tracks, sleepers, wooden pilings where the wharf would have been.

But today Portland Roads looks like a very very small and quite beautiful seaside resort. There’s a public phone, a cafe, some shacks, accommodation for rent. It did seem like we might have discovered nowhere.

Unknown.jpegUnknown.jpegThat was what Edmund Kennedy found. There is a plaque here that almost tells his story.

Edmund Besley Court Kennedy J.P. on 13 November 1848 while exploring in Cape York Peninsula left Carron, Wall, Douglas, Niblet, Taylor, Carpenter, Goddard, and Mitchell near the mouth of Pascoe River [just north of Portland Roads] and sought succour at Cape York. En route he was fatally speared and 3 men died. Aborigine Jackey-Jackey sole survivor of advance party reached waiting ship ‘Ariel’ which rescued survivors Carron and Goddard at Weymouth Bay on 30 December.

Kennedy himself seems to have been a decent and capable man, somewhat unlucky in his adventures. He made two expeditions into the interior of NSW and Queensland looking for the ‘big river’ that must flow into the Gulf of Carpentaria, in both cases finding he had to turn south-west to follow Cooper’s Creek and the Barcoo. Monster if failed efforts, both of them.

Some indication of just how difficult the Cape York expedition was can be gleaned from the fact that after nine weeks they had travelled 60km from the coast and just 20km north of their landing point. They had sheep (sheep!) and carts which were abandoned almost immediately in mangrove swamps and bogs. ‘The storeman was found to have stolen food from the supplies. He was demoted to labourer’. That would have sorted that out.

StateLibQld_1_186643_Sketch_of_explorer_Edmund_Kennedy,_ca._1848.jpgNorth of the Pascoe River, seven months in, Costigan, one of the four remaining in the advance party, accidentally shot himself. Luff (‘Luft’ in one memorium) and Dunn were left to look after him and, despite searches of the area not long after, no trace of them was ever found. Having crossed the appallingly difficult bogs of the Wet Desert, Kennedy was just 30km from Cape York when he was speared in an attack that is described as ‘not to have been directly provoked’. (As illustrated by an anonymous contemporary, at right.) Jackey-Jackey buried his body, but it was gone when he led the rescue party from the ‘Ariel’ back to the site. In all, ten of the group of 13 died.

The memorial in Sydney’s St James Church suggests that Kennedy fell, sacrificially ‘in the 31st year of his [life — so young all these ‘explorers’] to the cause of science, the advancement of the colony and the interest of humanity. Flebile principium melior fortuna sequatur’ (‘An unhappy beginning followed by better fortune’. More accurately: In optimam partem ab initio infelix secuta est finis. ‘An optimistic beginning followed by a shocker.’)

After the colonial government honoured his remarkable efforts with a silver breastplate and an honorarium of £50, neither of which he ever took up, Jackey-Jackey died aged 21 after falling into a camp fire, reportedly drunk. He wasn’t from the Cape. He grew up in what we now call the Hunter Valley in NSW, a Wonnarua man, and hence he would have been almost as much foreigner here as Kennedy, but much better at living off the country.

His name was actually Galmahra/ Galmarra. But the term (spelt more usually) ‘Jacky-Jacky’ entered the language, and as Shane Maloney writes: ‘For whites it was a generic dismissive, denying blacks their individuality and hence their dignity. To blacks it meant a collaborator, the subservient native complicit in his own people’s dispossession.’

IMG_1585.jpg‘Unmissable’ Chili Beach looked like a tropical beach should: bright white sand, palm trees, along a long curved beach. 

However at the shore line was a thick rope of coral spawn drying in the sun producing an extraordinarily pungent smell that sent me back to the truck.

Notable also was the amount of rubbish left by the ‘independent campers’. At most of the places you might want to stop in the Cape, river crossings, truck bays, lookouts, were empty cans, grocery packaging, nappies, smokes packets — the things self-contained, independent travellers have to leave behind I guess. At Coen, huge trailer loads of rubbish arrived when we were there. Someone had been cleaning up.

I must say that wasn’t true of the campsites — near here Cooks Hut in the middle of dense rain forest — that we used.

Lockhart River. I went there first years ago and arrived in the middle of a party that seemed to involve the whole town. One of the guys told me it was the Rasta capital of Australia and he had a red yellow and green rastacap and a cigar-sized spliff (he would want me to say) to prove it.

We were staying in the visitors’ quarters and the early part of the night was punctuated by noise associated with moving drunks into the lockup over the road to sober up. But about 3.00 I was awakened by what I thought was heavy rain. It turned out to be 20 or 30 ‘leather’ (furless) dogs running down the lino in the corridor before turning left through our room, out the window and onto the veranda.

From this later brief visit Lockhart seemed no longer the wild west town it had been then. The new school building looked schmick, and we paid a visit to the art centre home of the Lockhart River Art Gang.  At the time some of its members and its manager Enoch Perazim (a very slick operator from Papua New Guinea) were preparing for a major exhibition in Houston and other American cities. Amazing. This tiny isolated speck with its 20 artists is a player in world art.

Cheryl-Accoom.jpgCheryl Accoom is one of them. She’s 25 now, but at 17 had already exhibited internationally. “I was born in Cairns and I grew up in Lockhart with my Nana, I went to school in Lockhart, my great Grandmother was a painter at the centre and she told me to come and paint at the arts centre. So first I came as a cleaning lady, but I started painting here and I liked it. My paintings are about colours and how those colours say what I am feeling. I would like to keep painting. I feel happy when people buy my paintings.” A most merciful relief from more carefully tutored artspeak.

Art Gang art is distinguished by the brilliance of its colours as well as its local reference.kjt_lhgq-ilcthbvo4buhdrl9kzviccbd65zfamabxq.jpgIt’s an Irene Namok lying down, with Josiah Omeenyo on the wall. It will cost you a five-figure sum to buy either.

IMG_1571.jpgArt lover trying, and failing, to leave the Lockhart River art gallery at the appropriate departure time.

IMG_1589.jpg170px-Eclectus_Parrot_(Eclectus_roratus)_-6-4c.jpgCape York is an important destination for serious birders. On the Lockhart Road we saw a female Eclectus Parrot. Just. It’s the red dot, and a big deal. I’m not sure just how the spotters came to spot this one, at left, about 60-80 metres away — beyond the clear comprehension of my telephoto lens anyway — mostly staying at home in its hole. Much prized in New Guinea for their colourful feathers, females look like the photo on the right. Males are a brilliant green.

IMG_1641.jpgThen from one side of the Cape — it’s narrowing — to the other. Weipa.

This beach is bauxite. If you mash up that gravel into powder and heat it to 200°C in a pressurised solution of sodium hydroxide, remove the waste and heat the resultant crystals in a rotary kiln at 1000°C you’ll have aluminium oxide. But if you want to build a plane, there are more steps and a great deal of electricity involved.

Getting hold of bauxite here is not, in mining terms, onerous. You scrape off the overburden, often just a metre or two, if that, then dig and cart the next few metres and send it off in a ship. It’s as simple, and difficult, as that. Then you put the overburden back and say, Wow! Good as new. But as Rick the Old Hand says, what in the meantime has happened, just for example, to the water table? That mining process will happen across several thousand square kilometres near here.

Weipa, at present, is a flourishing regional centre, by far the biggest town in the Cape. We did washing, internet, grog purchase and mooching around here with the sounds of a rodeo, which I would love to have gone to, as well as gun shots providing a soundtrack to the night. We did go on a first class ‘ecological’ boat tour; birds and creatures in the open air with a cool breeze.IMG_1632.jpgIt wouldn’t be a blog about FNQ without a croc pic. I’m not sure why crocs get people so excited. This one was just waking up for the season. Moving but sedentary. There were dozens of birds in near proximity fishing and preening without anxiety.

It was an issue. Here we were at a great beach or river, it’s 35°C, and we can’t swim. Crocs! Somewhere. Possibly. Invisible. But … you know … risk management. Fruit Bat Falls was one place we could swim. Given to evaluative reactivity, Myrna thought it was the best ever. It might have been the relief, and she may well have forgotten those fabulous gorges in the Kimberley, but it was a delight.IMG_9851.JPG

Moreton Telegraph Station, with Emma who had recently arrived from Cambridge in the currently Disunited Kingdom.IMG_1647.jpgThis is a cafe/ shop/ rest area/ ex-Telegraph Station, and the bits and pieces tend to describe it and its function quite well. A couple of pies of uncertain age in the pie warmer, a serious effort to make good plunger coffee. The odd relics pinned to the walls, insulators plonked on the bench. The T-shirts for sale. There would be some dusty postcards on the back wall with the jokes about women/ wives/ blonds nearby. Did I mention this was hard country?

Emma hadn’t been to the Tip yet. It would be a full day there and back. But she had plans. What did she make of it so far? ‘Most amazing experience ever. People are so friendly.’

IMG_1692.jpgIn a highly competitive field the five or ten km before the Jardine River won the prize for Absolute Worst Corrugations Ever. They were so bad they almost stopped the truck. Other people had veered off the road and set up their own hoon tracks which had become just as bad. They were ferocious, but we eventually got to the crossing. Our truck is the second vehicle in this picture. Ferry crossing: $110. With trailer: $145. There’s a lot of fuss about this.

I have mentioned that the Jardine carries the most water year round of any river in Queensland. Last year it rose so high in the wet that the ferry which at the time was cable-anchored to a series of trees some distance up on the bank behind where I’m standing, came adrift and began the journey downstream. The climate/ weather here has an impact on EVERYTHING.

We looked at crashed plane bodies and old bits of mining machinery and various evidence of World War II and a derelict communications tower. I think I took this snap at Injinoo Beach. Maybe it was Roonga Pt. Maybe I was a bit off the air.IMG_1708.jpgBUT you could run the country with these two.

Meakan and Hayden, on this trip apprentice guides/ hosts/ cooks; on the next trip fully-fledged guides etc. The souls of amiability and courtesy, they were reason enough to go on the tour. Hayden was a driver, mechanic, had been a butcher, knew his way around most mechanical and electrical things, nature enthusiast, charming, fit, delightful. Meakan, dirt bike rider, photographer, with a spectacular singing voice, had been a nurse, was a cook, charming, fit, delightful — the very flower of Australian youth, bless them.

Screen Shot 2017-12-17 at 8.32.41 pm.pngWe had set up camp for several nights at Seisia Beach, Bamaga’s port. This was the evening view from the beach with the islands of the Torres Straits stretching out well past the horizon. We’d got to the far far north. The Tip was 38km away, and I wasn’t sorry. It had been very good, but somewhat ironically I was enthusiastic about getting out of confined spaces.


Screen Shot 2017-12-19 at 11.23.54 am.pngWe went to Thursday Island which deserves it’s own story. And we went to Somerset which does too, but you’re less likely to come across it.

(On this inferior map, Somerset as a whole is the red area. Somerset settlement was in the bay off the passage on the north-eastern tip. Albany Island off the coast. The Tip itself is the northernmost point. Prince of Wales and Horn Islands off to the north-west.)

* * * * *

In the previous blog I mentioned the Jardine boys ‘shooting their way from Bowen to the Cape’. Well, they kept right on shootin’ …

images.jpegJohn Jardine left his home in Scotland in May 1839 funding his move to Australia by selling his Captain’s commission in the Dragoons. He tried farming near Wellington in NSW but failed and got a government job, Commissioner for Crown Lands. Ten years later he was retrenched leaving him with ten dependents and no occupation.

He moved to Queensland and in 1861 was appointed as Rockhampton’s Police Magistrate and Gold Commissioner. When the new settlement of Somerset was established near the tip of Cape York in 1863, he became Police Magistrate and with his third son, John, erected the first buildings there.

images-1.jpegBut the story is really about his eldest son, Francis Lascelles Jardine, the legendary Frank.

His obituary in the chief newspaper of the time described him, on its front page, as ‘A wonderful and truly remarkable man, an amazing specimen of strong and vigorous manhood … who truly blazed the trail.’ He was also known by at least some of the area’s original inhabitants, the traditional owners as we now would say, as Debil Debil Jardine.

1870146-JL015-Frank_and_Sana_Jardines_Grave.w1024.JPGThis is his grave at Somerset Beach. It is both small and square. Frank was buried upright. This could be because ‘he bowed his head to no man’, or because it was the only way to deal with the corpse of such a dangerous man.

When his father was posted to Somerset, it was typical of the family, Frank especially, to look for an angle to turn a profit. Beef cattle seemed a good bet at the time. The increasing number of passing ships needed reprovisioning; the ‘hungry Dutchmen’ of Batavia might be persuaded to trade. So for several peppercorns the family purchased land surrounding the planned settlement. Frank and his brother Alexander decided to overland 42 horses and 250 cattle from Bowen to Cape York, around 2000km through country mostly unexplored by Europeans, accompanied by four whites including a government surveyor, and four Aboriginals.

7567452534_49c8337d3a_b.jpgThey left 14 May 1864 and arrived at Somerset ten months later with, according to various accounts, 25 horses and 200 cattle, 15 horses and 120 cattle, or 12 horses and 50 cattle — and according to all accounts in tatters, starving, living off bush turkey eggs, wearing ‘emu feather caps’ to ward off the rain, and were led to their final destination over the last two days by a group of Cape York natives who had been sent out to find them. ‘Alicko, Franko, Jocko, tobacco,’ their finders famously greeted them. (‘natives’: Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal people, very distinct racial groups as a rule, intermingle to some degree at the top of the Cape.)

They had crossed 12 major rivers including what was later named the Jardine. Five months in, they lost more than half of their food supplies (‘520 lbs of flour, all the tea, all the jam apples and currants’ among other things) and a lot of their ammunition in a grass fire (possibly lit by local Aboriginals). They had watched stock go mad and die from drinking salt water. Along with dozens of other completely improbable adventures, perhaps hysterically, and not in the ‘funny’ sense, they had chased Aborigines disguised as trees — running — for two miles. They had crossed what Frank designated the ‘Wet Desert’: vine, scrub, bog, mangroves. 

MM8175_130323_53108-540x360.jpgTheir stock had wandered off. Endlessly. There had been bitter arguments about where they were between the Jardines and Richardson the surveyor who seems to have decided as a result to be silent for most of the journey.

They had not factored in The Wet, and on Christmas Day 1864 it began raining and didn’t stop from Camp 67 to Camp 91. Violent tropical rain, not Scotch mist or the titatattatat of the English Downs, but the sort of rain that leaves you wet to the skin through four layers of clothing in half a minute. No celestial navigation was possible of course.

In a typical story, the advance party of Frank, Alick and Eula spent three days covered in a thick layer of beef fat against the cold and the mosquitoes waiting to find a way across flooded Cowal Creek.

It would have been thoroughly revolting.

For their efforts the white members of the party were lauded to the skies. Frank and Alick were elected fellows of the Royal Geographical Society and provided with a major grant. The Queensland government offered to reimburse elements of the cost of the expedition but Frank turned it down because the venture’s purposes were for private profit, evidence regularly cited of his integrity (‘a delicacy and nobility of sentiment as rare, unfortunately, as it is admirable’). In fact a year or two after when things had turned down his father sought reinstatement of the offer.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography, a generally sober affair, suggests that ‘[the exploration party] was constantly harassed by Aboriginals’. Today that might be considered an odd perspective. ‘They fought their way through the wild myalls (‘uncultivated Aboriginals’) of the north’, writes Ion Idriess in 1947.

‘Two blacks dropped, blood welling from the small holes drilled in their foreheads. Their companions, howling in superstitious awe at this demonstration of the white man’s magic broke and fled into the heavy scrub. ‘”Nice shot Alex,” Frank grunted. “Same to you”, Alex grinned and they returned to the chores of making the camp’ (from The Rifle and the Spear, Lack and Stafford, inter alia an account of this expedition published in 1968).

How many Aboriginals were killed by the Jardine party is uncertain. Frank counted his own tally at 47 and that of the party at over 200. They were certainly responsible for one of the three recorded major massacres of native Australians, all of which as it happens took place on or near our route: Palmer River, Battle Creek and Mitchell River.

The Jardine party came upon a large tribe fishing on the Mitchell River’s banks. Unsure of their situation the men swam across to the opposite bank to get their spears. Some were thrown. ‘The natives at first stood up courageously, but either by accident or through fear, despair or stupidity, they got huddled in a heap, in, and at the margin of the water, when ten carbines poured volley after volley into them from all directions, killing and wounding with every shot with very little return. … About thirty being killed.’ (Frank’s words in his journal) Sixty-nine rounds were fired, so it could well have been more.

Anyone who has written about this has not described the likely state of mind, the murderous but also absent state of mind, of someone who has been walking/riding for several months in unknown country not being entirely sure where they were going, hungry, tired, blanked out, full of strange and unaccustomed mental processes, attacked by paranoia and other fears, a gun sitting between you and death … although perhaps that’s what Patrick White’s Voss is about. This is in no sense meant to be exculpatory, but what was going on was in no sense Boys Own fun.

images.jpegWhat happened subsequently when Frank’s belly was full, when he had a comfortable bed to sleep in at night next to his Samoan Princess wife, Sana Sola (at left), eating off the silver dinner service he had had created from Spanish doubloons found in a coral reef nearby, when he had a pearling business with the Premier of the state as his under-the-counter partner, when he had gained complete control of the military garrison at Somerset … now that could be seen as Boys Own fun.

Frank’s father remained in his role as Commissioner until December 1865 when he returned to his old office at Rockhampton. But in 1866 Frank returned to settle on a station on the outskirts of Somerset settlement. He was appointed Police Magistrate in 1868 and remained in the area in various roles, official and private, until he died of leprosy in 1919, five decades during which there was a constant undercurrent and occasional breaking waves of violence and repression.

A documented example. The Gudang people whose land Somerset had claimed had chosen to make themselves useful to the settlement, laboring, fishing and gardening in return for concessions of food and clothing as well as protection from tribes to the south and the Badu people in the strait to their north. As a result the tribe generally had good relationships with the colonists, until one member was reported to have stolen a tomahawk. Jardine determined that a public whipping was suitable punishment. The Gudang were shocked at this and two marines were subsequently speared, one dying later. Jardine organized a reprisal party which shot and killed five Aboriginal men and a young boy, and made a proclamation that for the future no native was to come within the perimeters of the settlement on pain of death.

Frank himself personally ‘executed’ two of the four Aboriginals who had taken part in the expedition north with him for stealing weapons. There is also well-documented evidence of him shooting to kill at intruders on Albany Island across the narrow strait from the deck of his house. By all accounts he was an excellent shot.

In 1873 he was recalled Brisbane to be the subject of a government investigation, not for his treatment of the native peoples, but because of the highly suspect nature of the intertwined relationship between the government’s and his own private interests. (Inquiries are only ever held into the interests of the inquirers.) For example, he was the seller, auctioneer, sole bidder and finally owner of a government boat. The buyer fortuitously managed to get it for quite a good price. This boat became very useful to his bêche de mer harvesting interests, interests whose labour force seems to have been made up almost entirely of indentured workers in contravention of Queensland’s Kidnapping Act (1869) specifically designed to stop such ‘blackbirding’. One of Frank’s responsibilities was administration of that law. This investigation came to nothing, Frank said he didn’t; no one said he did. The principal witnesses against couldn’t afford the trip to Brisbane and no one stepped forward to help them. 

These were lurid times embroidered with myth and legend as well as baffling hard facts. For example he probably did not pick up children and bash their brains out on tree trunks. It seems unlikely that he was responsible for the genocide of the original inhabitants of Prince of Wales Island — it was more likely measles. It also appears he did not a) kill or b) support Wini or Weenie, the cannibal Barbarian White Man King of Badu.

However the public record indicates that he was a frequent and vociferous proponent of ‘stern measures to contain the blacks’. He did establish a ‘fortress’ at his new holdings, ’Bertie Haugh’ (after his sons) on the Ducie River, with loopholed walls, 50 rifles and three 12 inch swivel guns. And he did provide advice that black corpses should be branded because, if they were, native people would never go near anything with that brand on again. 

The Colonial Secretary provided these reasons (in 1861) for the establishment of Somerset: ‘A port of refuge; a store depot; a coal port; a control post over the Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders; a centre for geographical research, missionary enterprise and colonisation; a military defence post; a sign of the influence and prestige of Great Britain and, with highest hopes, the future Australian Singapore’.

StateLibQld_1_163711_British_Marine_Camp_on_Somerset_Hill,_Cape_York,_Queensland,_ca.1869.jpg(Above, Somerset settlement (the big building is the barracks) and bay with Albany island in the background.)

Port Essington (about 200km as the crow flies from today’s Darwin in the Northern Territory) had been a disappointment. It was urgent to have a port in northern Australia, but Somerset was not a good choice. The Albany Strait from which one would enter the harbor is narrow, has difficult and strong currents and is subject to steady south-westers for much of the year making harbouring difficult. A marine barracks was built, a hospital, quarters for a naval surgeon and the lieutenant in charge of the marines and three cottages for married men as well as the Government Residence (into which Frank and family moved after the marines left). At one time Governor Bowen thought it showed promise as a site for a sanitorium.

Over time the buildings all gradually fell into disrepair until Frank’s copra plantations and gardens and the big house were all that was left. Government_House_at_Somerset,_Cape_York,_Queensland.jpegFinally the big house (above) was burnt down in 1960. Officially ‘vandals’ are held to be responsible.

There’s not much left there now except a memorial to the ‘Coming of the Light’, the arrival of Christianity in the Torres Straits, Frank’s grave, Sana’s grave and a memorial to Major Herbert Somerset ‘Boy’ Vidgen, Frank’s grandson, ‘Last of The Real Pioneers’.IMG_1762.jpg

This is colonialism in all its naked glory. The isolated outpost. Seat of government 2800km away. Supplied by ship three times a year. Protected by soldiers and guns. No road contact or telecommunications till 1887. No supervision. The Big Man. The Tower of Power. An Autocrat with a huge sense of entitlement and an invincible belief in the rightness of his own views and actions. ‘Hard but fair. Cruel to be kind. Etc.’ Constant unrest. The conflict between private and public interest, often realised as private interests being funded from public sources. The struggle between military and civil authority. Constant unrest. The second wave of invasion, more domestic than the first: the missionaries, the graziers and pastoralists, the shopkeepers, the tradesmen, the miners, the tourists and their providers, but still an invasion soaking up most of what’s precious — as well as some of what isn’t, and there’s plenty of that — from the original cultures. That second wave of the invasion … it is still underway up here. 

Now go and read Heart of Darkness and tell me that it’s a work of fiction. (And yes, there are credibly confirmed cases of cannibalism on and near the Cape, a lot of them.) Mistah Kurtz — he not dead.

[Steve Mullins’ Doctoral dissertation ‘The Pioneer Legend of Frank Jardine’ was fine reading on this topic. Frank’s own account of the expedition is seminal.]

* * * * *

38km to Pajinka, the locals’ name for The Tip.

I hadn’t realised in my ditsiness that this was the main reason a number of my fellow travellers had come on this tour. They wanted to have been to The Tip. The mood became infectious.

It was the usual slog over corrugations through wetter savannah and some rain forest, past a derelict holiday resort being eaten at great pace by vegetation. But the car park was clear and the path to the beach short. My buddies went for the lure like greyhounds.IMG_1729.jpg

And lo and behold, there it was.IMG_1735.jpg The TIP! Pajinka. Cape York. York Island on the left. Eborac Island (Latin for ‘York’) on the right. (A theme is emerging.) Those islands will have proper names too, TSI names, but I don’t know what they are. As far as I know, not far, the tiny strait between doesn’t have a name.

IMG_1741.jpgJust as we arrived, a tinny (a small aluminium boat, how you get round in this area) shot through — most appropriately.

I was moved. I didn’t try to help myself. Quite moved. Teary-eyed moved.

It was a beautiful day; the sea was aqua and sparkling; the islands were an elegant surprise; the entry point was along a lovely beach. The Tip itself was clearly demarcated and hadn’t been destroyed by tourists — just a modest sign, and a few plaques glued to the rocks professing love, devotion, excitement, resolution and surrogacy for the pain of those who hadn’t made it.

Whatever ‘it’ was, we had.

IMG_1740 (1).jpg

* * * * *

Well that’s gone on forever hasn’t it. Apologies. 2069 km worth.

Next day we donned our hi-vis vests and set off on this ship, the ‘barge’ which delivers goods all along the coastline, the only way of getting things in or out during the Wet. Two most uneventful days back to Cairns.IMG_1772.jpg

We left people sitting on the beachIMG_1781.jpg

and a guy staring at the fish at from Seisia pier.IMG_1776.jpg

They’ll still be there when you arrive.


‘We Queenslanders like to pump up our tyres about how easy going we are, what good people we are, especially compared with the spivs from the south.’ (Courier Mail 9/8/17 p. 63)

In the interests of full disclosure: What follows has been written by a spiv from the south.

* * * * * * * * * * IMG_1375 (1).jpg

A rather wet way to start. Yes. In that sense. The BIG Golden Gumboot, Tully, adorned with Green Tree Frog. IMG_9975.JPG(Real one at left, at rest on a shower partition at Bamaga.) Under maintenance. Presumably to get that thick layer of gold leaf burnished to full lustre.

I searched through my photos for a photo saying ‘wet’, and failed. Plenty of red dust and savannah; but the rain forests just look dark, rivers feeble, lagoon country like someone’s dam. Beaches look tropical (palm trees, what heft they have) but not wet in any general sense. Crocs are parked on the side of what look like creeks. Failure.

We weren’t there in The Wet of course. We were there at the end of one of the driest and warmest ‘winters’ ever recorded. But still.

Tully — an average rainfall of over 4m, 150 wet days a year and in one 48-hour period in March 1967 1.3m of rain fell. Formidable. For comparison with news just in: ‘The US National Weather Service now says some parts of Houston and just west of the city have received a Texas record of 50 inches (1270 millimeters) of rain as Cyclone Harvey stalls over Texas.’

5946964-3x2-340x227.jpgEvery year the Queensland towns of Tully and Babinda compete for a more modest version of the Golden Gumboot, signifying the country’s highest rainfall. Tully holds the record for the highest ever annual rainfall in a populated area of Australia (7.93 metres — 312 inches — in 1950), but Babinda has held the trophy now for several years. It can be seen here in the Post Office window.

It was hot every day and we might have had 8 drops of rain in four weeks. So … best I could do.

* * * * *

Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 2.00.28 pm.pngFor those unfamiliar with Australia, a quick orientation.

Cape York Peninsula, often referred to just as Cape York, is the bit in the red rectangle, very recently (in geological time) part of a land bridge connecting with New Guinea — and Asia, the probable route by which Australia’s Aboriginal people arrived on the continent at least 50,000 years ago.

1200km north of the bottom red line is the real Cape York, The Tip, the northernmost part of Australia, named in 1770 after Prince Edward, Duke of York and Albany by British sailor extraordinaire Lieutenant James Cook. The northern sections of the Great Barrier Reef run in fits and starts all along that coast line.

Townsville, Cairns and Tully might just get into the bottom corner on the coast. Above Cairns in that vast area, fewer than 20,000 people live, 4,000 of them at Weipa, a mining town on the west coast and 1,500 on Thursday Island just off The Tip, a disproportionate number of the latter being Federal and state public servants. Most of the rest are Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people living in scattered and remote communities.

A sealed road extends to Cooktown, about half way up. For about four months a year the rest of the very few roads are turned into impassable slush by The (monsoonal) Wet. The remainder of the year is, usually, dry.

* * * * *


We arrived in Townsville, one of my favourite bits of Queensland. The same population as Geelong’s [Official Blog Yardstick], a tick under 200,000, a military town, its buildings spread like a huge handful of dice strewn along the Ross River back into the hinterland and north along the Bruce Highway towards Cairns. Its outlying suburbs are more than 20 km from ‘the city’. (Appearing above in a photo taken from Castle Hill which dominates the town, to my mind, very attractively).

‘The City’ is currently a collection of desultory surf and T-shirt shops, others hanging on for dear life, a Coffee Club where the coffee tasted exactly same as it did when I used to drink it at the Coffee Club in Logan, south of Brisbane — no good. Every second shop front is empty, the streets semi-deserted.
Unknown.jpegAll this is embedded in one of the nicest collections of colonial architecture in Australia, big pastel and white buildings (except for the old Customs House at left) with high ceilings and deep loggias in their upper storey exteriors.

charters_towers_1_by_megan_mackinnon.jpgThe best strip of these has been turned into nightclubville with extravagant and outback-shameless promises of what its hostesses can and will provide for cashed-up FIFO (fly in fly out) mine workers.

We weren’t there at 3am on a weekend so missed the fun. Instead we were two of the three audience members in the 650-seat cinema offering ‘Atomic Blonde’.

Just like a lot of Queensland, Townsville is decentralised: it sprawls languorously. That’s one reason why I like it. And I like it because, according to the by-lines, most of the daily Townsville Bulletin is written by two very hard-working 16 year-old girls. I like its difference to home.

I like its Palmetum, a rambling collection of the complex and intriguing botanical family ArecaceaeIMG_1308.jpg

I like the Tobruk Memorial Pool on The Strand.IMG_1271.jpg

It seems so suitable that this was the training site for the most successful Australian Olympians ever, the swimming teams of 1956 and 1960. Actually in 1956 women only. The men were quarantined at Charters Towers. Charters Towers. Would Charters Towers even have a pool? Whatever. But there were measures in place to ensure there was no monkey business. This is what made Australia great. There should be more of it.

IMG_1279 (1).jpgThese facts are memorialised at the pool. Myrna is near a photo of the 1960 team, 28 of them. I easily recognised 24 of the names. This is what you can learn as a child. Roger Pegram and Gergaynia Beckett escape me, but Lorraine Crapp … .

IMG_1278 (1).jpgMurray Rose, Dave Dickson, Jon (no h) Henricks (no d) and John Konrads set a world record here for the 4 x 200 freestyle relay.

These are names to conjure with. Janis Konrads who had polio as a child, for example. A Latvian migrant who set 28 individual world records and won the 1500 at the 1960 Olympics before becoming the Australasian director of L’Oreal, later descending into some rocky terrain with periods of mental illness. His sister Ilsa was the best looking member of the team.

It’s still a great place for a swim. 

IMG_1322.jpgI like that there aren’t many tourists, except for the ones on their way to Magnetic Island five or so km off the coast.

We were too. Maggie as we old hands say. We spent a day there. We got advice but it turned out the ‘best beach’ was rife with algae and the ‘best restaurant’ was closed and for sale. Resort life. So we went round the corner to The Tamarind and met Rina and her off-sider who provided Spanish Mackerel and Red-Throated Emperor, both w. chips. The SM was the sort of texture I like in a fish; the RTE a bit rubbery and too closely reminiscent of its origins.

In the course of their consumption we were told that this very restaurant had recently been judged the 2nd best fish restaurant in Australia, that Rina works 18 hours a day 24/7, that she is actually a chemical engineer who invented the formula for Morning Fresh dishwashing liquid, and that she abandons the island late October because in summer it gets ‘too hot too humid too disgusting’.

Because it’s Queensland and thus different in its own special and mysterious way, that could all be true. But I just pass this information on to you without comment. That’s my role.  

A little later after the stingray incident (wife saw stingray and left water. You might remember Steve Irwin, Steve, Steve Irwin, a very important person to many Queenslanders and A GREAT AUSTRALIAN (killed by stingray. Quote, with just a tinge of unfortunate irony: ‘I have no fear of losing my life — if I have to save a koala or a crocodile or a kangaroo or a snake, mate, I will save it.’) but not as great as Bindi especially after she won US Dancing with the Stars And how about Terri and Russell Crowe what a great great Australian family that could be He’s not really a New Zealander anymore he owns an NRL football team Yeah I know I know He can’t be Prime Minister but he doesn’t want to be Too much of a come down really and he wouldn’t be able to be in films anymore She’s American though isn’t she I’ve heard she shafted Bob Steve’s dad He’s not allowed on zoo property any more Did you know that Yeah yeah Big shame eh Speaking of weird but good things do you know how many times Brocky Peter Brock won Bathurst Six out of seven years Two triples Two like three-in-a-rows Yeah knew that He was great pretty good looking too Too right Ok then how about Russell Ingall This is a trick question isn’t it Yeah Twice but once it was V8 Supercars Still counts though How old would he be now do you reckon Dunno you got your phone google it Hang on 53 Thought he’d be older Who do you reckon goes through the internet changing people’s ages every year Not me mate I can tell you Be a job wouldn’t it Geez I’m getting a thirst on me thinking about it It must be 4 o’clock by now Mate it’s bound to be 4 o’clock somewhere in the world Ha Ha Ha Ha Yeah I know I know I know You got the nibblies Get me a Goldie out of the Eskie will ya Yeah Nah I think I’ll start with a Red today Ta Any idea where I could get some leaf spring load helpers for the van Mmm probably Ironman they’ve usually got everything ya want Cheers…) we met another couple, the man of which had trained with Percy Cerutty at Portsea and whose father had come to Magnetic Island from Victoria every year between the end of second world war and his decease. The alive man hadn’t been back for 46 years and had come to distribute his mother’s ashes at the foot of a rock formation called The Sphinx. As I say, I just pass this on.

Although we found one good walking track, that day Maggie was looking a little shopworn and unloved. And I remembered on the way home on the ferry that if we’d gone just a bit further north we would have come to the Palm Island group, which far from being a resort has a history within living memory of being a concentration camp — not a death camp per se, but a place where the government forced people to live. In this case Aboriginal people who were choofed off from the mainland regardless of tribe, history, virtue (there was some denomination of ‘trouble maker’), health (lepers were sent to nearby Fantome Island), or any other clearly discernible consideration besides annoyingly black skin and taking up space on fertile land. People from at least 57 different language groups were relocated to Palm — a key ingredient in a very fine recipe for disaster. 

On a surprise inspection of the main island’s prison during a visit in the late 1960s, Senator Jim Keefe and academic Henry Reynolds found two 12 year‑old girls who had been incarcerated by the Island’s chief administrator because ‘they swore at the teacher’.

The 1999 edition of the Guinness Book of Records named Palm the most violent place on earth outside a combat zone. The evidence? A murder rate 15 times higher than that of the state of Queensland, an extraordinary rate of assault, a life expectancy of less than 40 years, the highest rate of youth suicide per capita in the world, and a total of 40 fatalities by suicide over a period of three years.

That’s 1999, after the bad times were over, after everything got fixed up… right? Cameron Doomadgee’s death was a long time coming, the tip of a pyramid, the culmination of decades of repugnant and unjustifiable behaviour by politicians, administration and police.

I visited Bwgcolman Community School (‘boogl-mn’, the Aboriginal name for the island) several times ten years ago and, while they were trying hard, it was still no one’s idea of a good time. These sorts of things leave stains that are almost impossible to eradicate. I thought about this when I read about the Jardine brothers and party ‘shooting their way from Bowen to The Tip’ in the 1860s. According to some accounts, Frank’s personal tally: ‘at least 47 blacks’. His party’s: 200+. 30 dead certainly at the ‘Battle of Mitchell River’. It’s only a sort of paradise. For some.

2012-08-31 TV 113 Stitch.jpg

Some years ago on a work trip I was staying in Townsville’s ‘Sugar Shaker’ almost exactly at the time of the first phase of the incidents the late Inga Clendinnen recounts in her essay ‘Postcard from Townsville’. The Sugar Shaker is the round building with the quiff, still there, still just a little eccentric. Like her I watched the ‘parkies’ living in Hanran Park with their goon bags (cask wine) but modest, untroubling and private ways. Like her I came back some months later and found things dramatically changed.

‘Postcard from Townsville’ provides one of the best imaginable 10-minute reads about a certain sort of today’s Aboriginal Australia. You can read it all from both links above. Short. Pithy. Potent. The bit where she deliberately bumps into the guy’s burnt arm is not to be missed.

When your heart drops into your boots because you can’t manage history — and I really don’t want to stop you reading on — there are always trades. Always.

I don’t know what she, one of Australia’s truly great historians, was doing there. But what I was doing there, mostly, was observing and working with some of the most successful Aboriginal education in the country: great kids, great teachers, great results, from stable successful families living a life they really enjoyed — which included Culture as well as culture (JT and the Cowboys).

But this is what was Hanran Park today.IMG_1336.jpg

What had struck me when I looked down from my sugar-shaker tower was how separate these people were. They knew us — they had known us for two hundred years — and they didn’t want any part of us. We would walk smartly past in our suits and city heels carrying our satchels. The buses would tear over the bridge, while they sat around under the trees and talked. The economy of their ragged, precarious lives, the elegance of their adjustment to minimal means and no possessions seemed to mock our aspirations, our zest for action and accumulation.

I have often said the title of the book I would write about my time in Blackfellaland would be ‘What do you give people who want nothing you’ve got?’

* * * * *

Leaving Townsville we drove through, literally, hundreds of kilometres of cane fields jammed between the mountains of the Divide and the coastline. It was the middle of harvest and the Tully crushing mill was going full tilt.


Sugar. In 2016 the 4,600 Australian growers produced 4,772,390 tonnes of which 2/3 was exported. Sugar. After wheat, Australia’s second largest export crop with a total annual value of $2.2 billion. Second biggest producers in the world after Brazil. Sugar. Around 95% of the sugar produced in Australia is grown in Queensland. Sugar. The Powerhouse of the Queensland National Party.

And Sugar. The no food food. 

In the developed world the greatest disease burden at present is attributed to high blood pressure, a disease of over-nutrition and a diet dominated by animal-sourced and processed foods—in other words, more meat, dairy, eggs, oils, refined grains, soda, salt, and especially sugar. In 1776, Americans consumed on average about 2kg of sugar annually. Today, that figure is 148kg, half of which may be fructose, taking up about 15 percent of their diets. Mounting evidence suggests that added fructose in the form of table sugar and high fructose corn syrup triggers processes that lead to liver toxicity, type 2 diabetes and many other chronic diseases. Not to mention the empty calories on which obesity is built.

As they would say in north Queensland: Sugar eh. I had a hot dog at the football last Friday night which I swear was 1/4 sugar. Just when the farmers are becoming so advanced and ecologically careful. Bummer eh.

But also bananas and MANGOES. Hoorah! Had a very good Mango Everything right here.IMG_1349.jpg

And when you move inland up onto the Tablelands: corn, tea, coffee, avocados, cashews, macadamias, custard apples, limes, flowers, potatoes and other vegetables, peanuts, passionfruit, pineapples, basil, melons, papaya, grass seed, turf … anything you can imagine, you can grow up on these wonderful rolling volcanic uplands high enough to mitigate the ferocity of the sun down on the coast.

IMG_1352.jpgWe found Wallaman Falls 30 km from Ingham and even closer to Trébonne. (Where do you live? Verygood. Yes I know, but …)

Never heard of them and they were fantastic. Australia’s highest falls: 268m of unadorned delight. We almost didn’t go. It was late in the afternoon, steep and windy road with plenty of wandering cattle, hungry, etc etc … but so glad we did.

It was two hours down to the bottom with lots of warnings about rough surfaces. But if you’re planning to go I’d leave time for that.

We went down a bit of the way and when we came back a wind was driving the bottom section of the drift far across to the left. Just remarkable.


One of the things you do when you go to Cairns is visit the waterfalls on the Tablelands. This one, Millaa Millaa, is famous as the site for a Sunsilk shampoo ad: gals flipping their long hair out of the water followed by a liquid crescent of pearlescent globules with the nicely symmetrical falls in the background. Several busloads of young people arrived and that’s what the girls did. The boys swam across the pool, with their phones.IMG_1393.jpg

The tropics have a way with plant life. This is a ficus (fig) letting down its air roots on Townsville’s Strand. It is an old and noble one, probably 10m from one side to the other from this angle.


IMG_1415.jpgTo my surprise up on the Tablelands we found some very tall bull kauri tucked away in the rain forest along with two huge ficus consummating a long term relationship.

The density of the rainforest canopy doesn’t allow much low growth. The forest floor is often quite denuded. That’s why Strangler Figs make so much of their environment. No thicker than your finger, they make their way up the trunk of a host towards the canopy before dropping air roots and gradually building the density and scale of their presence around the trunk. The host frequently dies.strangler.jpg



The one at right below is quite well established.



But, further below again, the Curtain Tree near Yungaburra, more than 500 years old and National Heritage-listed, is of a different order.

A tree has fallen and been trapped in the crook of another tree. The ficus has got busy and lo and behold! A natural wonder and a tourist attraction.

Not a good photo. It was in late twilight and hard to figure out just how to catch its stunning eminence. But you get the idea.IMG_1405.jpg

We must move north. We’re scarcely out of the suburbs. One last pic. Myrna’s comment: ‘Exactly at this moment there are probably no happier men on earth.’IMG_1434.jpg

‘Tropic Jazz’, Cairns Esplanade, and at least while we were watching no one stormed the stage.

* * * * *

IMG_1477.jpgWe’d got into a reasonably comfortable box on the back of an Isuzu truck with ten others and three guides. A tour. A 14-day trip to The Tip, camping. Beginning here.

The Daintree River with ferry and people going south.


This could be thought of as the southern boundary of FNQ, Far North Queensland, or rugged outback coastal Qld, or the entry to Cape York. It actually is the entry to the Daintree Rainforest, declared a World Heritage Area in 1988.

The Daintree is the oldest tropical lowland rainforest on Earth with some species over 135 million years old: a unique collection of flora, fauna and insect life preserved in unusually complex and diverse form. It has over 3000 species of plants, and contains 395 species that are listed as either rare or threatened. 28% of Australian frog species, 40% of birds, 34% of mammals and 65% of the ferns can also be found here. Over 12,000 types of insects make it their home, including the sandflies which generated a family trip to the hospital during our first visit. 

One thing they would like you to know about the Daintree is that it is big — 1,200 sq km which might sound a lot until you consider that could be, and is, 60 x 20 km. Up this way that’s a home paddock. For example, further north, Rio Tinto mines 3,860 sq km of bauxite reserves near Weipa and is investigating further expansion. And, for example, Government statistics show that about 4,000 sq km of mainly marginal land were newly cleared in Queensland last year. (‘Mainly marginal’ for pastoral and agricultural purposes; the communities of plants, animals and birds destroyed would not agree.)

There’s a bitumen road that takes you round the Daintree’s western side, but with the rest of the revellers (some 500,000 annually now, up from 20,000 when we were there last in 1990) we went the adventurous way, a narrow bitumen track towards Daintree (the village) followed by one to Cape Tribulation, rougher but still accessible in the dry by 2WD vehicles, and then the scarcely-there Bloomfield Track a long, grinding, steep, corrugated and dusty 30 km. north back to the bitumen.

From my window the most prominent feature was how much of what I had thought of as ‘The Daintree’ (actually three national parks, one of which is Daintree National Park) had been developed and settled: not only resorts, tourist facilities, cabins and houses in the forest, but grazing land in use. Most of the flatlands in fact had been developed.

There is a story. There is always a story.

It seems to have all begun in 1978, the year of the scientific study which re-defined the nature of this area and, for the first time, its significance. Under the 19-year premiership of Sir Johannes ‘Let me tell you, what is good for Queensland is good for Australia’ Bjelke-Petersen, the Queensland coastline was enjoying a massive rash of investment and development which crept progressively north, ‘opening it up’. And in 1978 a group of Cairns real estate developers bought up as much of the privately-owned pastoral land in the Daintree as they could ending up with parcel of 8,523 hectares which they subdivided into 1,136 blocks for sale. The local Council knocked back this proposal but its decision was over-ridden by the state government.

Even though these blocks were a bit slow to move (limited infrastructure, no mains power, gas or reticulated water, access by ferry and dirt road only, difficult or impossible for three to four months a year) they sold, if often for just a snatch of song. Blocks of up to 8ha., for example, were advertised in the Wall Street Journal for US$18,000 each. Many were not built on because of site and other difficulties, but about 35 percent were. Thus there is a legacy of freehold properties — 85 sq km. of them — in the heart of the Daintree Lowlands surrounded by the National Park and the World Heritage Area.

There have been various attempts by governments to resolve the problems created by the residential subdivision. In 1984 the Federal and State Governments spent $23m buying back land as well as developing eco-tourism infrastructure. By 2000 100 blocks had been bought back (500 offers of sale were made) with a plan to secure another 442 (which didn’t happen). In 2004 the Federal Government committed $5m to the Daintree for land preservation. In an act of either pie-eyed innocence or desperate cynicism, this was largely diverted to ‘landholder education’ rather than the promised land buyback.

In 2010 361 of the 1,136 blocks had dwellings on them, and this very minute 41 are available for purchase: $910,000 to low 200s, mainly round Cow Bay.


And then, and then, back in 1983, the state government proposed to upgrade the track to Bloomfield as an all-seasons road through the newly-declared (in 1981) national park. There were all sorts of reasons given including the customary ‘opening up the north’ (and helping those damn blocks move faster) but also ‘to deter bird trappers and orchid thieves’, and thwart illegal migrants. The Aboriginal Elders of Wujal Wujal community at the northern end of the track wanted faster access to the Mosman shops. A certain amount of hell broke loose.


British pop-singer Cliff Richard was among the people to protest (from afar). It actually took only a few weeks to drive the bulldozers through the first blockade although they were held up for some time further down the track by people in trees who refused to come down. The protestors were also outflanked by bulldozers coming in from the north and eventually the road was completed in three weeks.

But not very capably. During the first rains much of it melted away in washaways and landslides. It became completely impassable. It was rebuilt over four months a year later but when opened in October, the driest month, 30mm of rain fell overnight and the bus containing the dignitaries became bogged. (This was the track we were travelling and no 2WD vehicle would have got through the first river crossing.)

Thus began 35 years of dissension and acrimony. Cape Tribulation, a major feature of the area, was named by James Cook after the hull timbers of the Endeavour were queered by the reefs off shore. He and his crew survived largely because the reef they hit not only holed the boat but plugged that hole with a large piece of coral. But, yes, ‘tribulation’.

From time to time from the Daintree to The Tip a series of voices spoke to me — where they came from I don’t know — saying: ‘Don’t fucking tell me what to do!’ It’s hard country this.

In this region Greenies/ hippies/ southerners/: middle-class interfering abstract/theoretical environmentalist suckholes versus Locals/ rednecks/ plunderers: working people, common sensible, practical, knowledgable folks.

And it’s been a bit wild. Blockades of car bodies on beaches, burnt toilet blocks, locked gates, locked gates forcibly unlocked, locked gates built closed, threats of shootings … And as with most issues, it’s not just bilateral; it’s more complex than that.

Take ‘old’ for example. What does ‘old’ mean? Strange that it could be a contestable notion. But there have been pastoralists in the Daintree since the 1880s. It’s been a very good place to fatten cattle driven down from the drier north and west, a process which has dramatically changed the vegetation. The striking and useful red cedar that was widespread has now been logged to the point of local extinction. In 1934 a massive cyclone destroyed most of the vegetation round Cow Bay so you don’t get forest giants or monster curtain figs there. These current plants aren’t ‘old’ in the sense that old growth forest in Tasmania is old — single plants, trees, several hundred years old. They are old as species however. Not hundreds of years old, but more than 100 million years old, and found nowhere else on earth. Does that matter? And if it does, can that importance be made intelligible?

Unique? Pristine? The Wet Tropics Management Authority with formal oversight of some aspects of this neck of the woods acknowledges that there are at least 500 weed species and 38 vertebrate pest species known to inhabit the World Heritage Area. One of the latter is feral pigs. (‘Government pigs’, ‘Anna Bligh’s pigs’. They hide in the rainforest — where they can’t be shot — and come out and wreck the cane fields and productive enterprises further south at Mosman. That’s a common story.) We can all agree they do damage and that they should be wiped out but we can’t agree about how. The RSPCA insists, and has lobbied into law, that pigs must be killed, and killed only by trapping followed by a single shot immediately behind the ear. Trapping. Execution. There is no other way. Readers of Bacon Busters and habitués of piggin’ want a great deal more licence. And there’s the fact that in the Flinders Ranges hunters and their dogs were a very important means of reducing feral wildlife. Could that be salient?

Then there are the Greenie-ish tourist operators who are furious that the Daintree is the only place in Australia where no public provision is made for power supply. Mike Berwick, despite losing many votes 4-3, mayor of the Douglas Shire from 1991 to 2008, Bloomfield blockader, leader of the greenies, architect and proponent of the ‘undevelopment’ blueprint (no building or development permits to be issued which operated in the shire for several years), weeeell  … he lives on the strip of the northern bank of the Daintree where a couple of properties, his included, have access to mains power. And everyone knows. A guy who operates a green-tinged resort/ restaurant in Cape Trib with walks and careful land management, spends $35,000 a year on generating his own power creating a lot of greenhouse gases in the process. If he was on the grid, he thinks his power bill would be about $900. 

You find these controlled rants tucked into holiday information and accommodation websites. (The latter is a good read, comprehensive and clear.) But from elsewhere:

‘Getting toilets rebuilt at Cow Bay Beach as soon as possible is top of the list, as is increasing the tortoise-like speed at which National Parks are replacing the Cape Tribulation Toilets destroyed by an arsonist early this year. … It is not about power, we already have a power committee. It is not about Berwick bashing or arguing about which political party is responsible. It is not about trying to remove facilities from other communities who worked hard to get them. It is not about Global Warming, Agenda 21, Aliens, Domestic Violence or any other issue. I will use the ban hammer if it gets off track.’

We got out of the truck at Cape Trib for half an hour, but even without doing so and for whatever reason, that’s a bit how it felt. A low rumble. Tribulation. Perhaps I hadn’t had enough breakfast. But when we got back to the bitumen at Wujal Wujal, a very neat and, from the most superficial of views, well-organised Aboriginal community, I was just as pleased.

* * * * *

image.jpegCooktown. Literally a breath of fresh air. It blew the roof off our poorly-pitched tent twice during the course of our night there.  

Cook hauled the Endeavour from the open water round the point to the left — it took him five days of trying before the weather conditions were suitable — careened it and tied up to a tree just near the start of the contemporary building. The tree’s remains are visible in the first rate local museum, and ‘careen’, a word I’ve wanted to work into the conversation for some time, is the process of sailing a ship as far up the shore as you can at high tide and securing it so that, at low tide, you can work on the hull.

Imagine. 20,000 km from home, 7,000 from the prospect of any useful assistance (at Batavia, or Jakarta as it is now known), and there you are pasting up the hull of your boat with canvas and tar, local green timber and nails manufactured on the site, in full knowledge that somehow you’ll have to find your way forward through these endless reefs.

Cook wrote: ‘It is remarkable that in the whole course of our voyage we had seen no place that our present circumstances could have afforded us the same relief’, and they remained there for seven weeks.

During this time: ‘One of the Men saw an Animal something less than a greyhound; it was of a Mouse Colour, very slender made, and swift of Foot‘ — the first recorded sighting of a kangaroo by a European. Shortly after one was shot.

1984071009.jpgI have far more to say about Cook than can be included here, but a most remarkable man — his diaries of the next few months are hair-raising. He didn’t ‘discover Australia’ and didn’t pretend to have. After, again, so nearly coming to grief several times sailing north in and out of the Barrier Reef, and after another 850 km as the crow flies, he landed on what he called ‘Possession Island’ (at left, with memorial).

I satisfied myself of the great Probability of a passage [Torres Strait], thro’ which I intend going with the Ship, and therefore may land no more upon this Eastern coast of New Holland, and on the Western side I can make no new discovery, the honour of which belongs to the Dutch Navigators, but the Eastern Coast from the Latitude of 38 degrees South down to this place, I am confident, was never seen or Visited by any European before us; and notwithstanding I had in the Name of his Majesty taken possession of several places upon this Coast, I now once More hoisted English Colours, and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern coast from the above Latitude down to this place by the Name of New Wales. [The copy of his report proffered to His Majesty had ‘New South Wales’.]

It might be noted that the first recorded contact between Europeans — a ship’s crew captained by Willem Janszoon, a Dutchman — and Aboriginal Australians occurred in 1606, 164 years earlier, I repeat 164 years earlier, on the western coast of Cape York.

Cooktown. Lovely.IMG_1478.jpg


2000km from its seat of government, Brisbane, three grand — perhaps formerly grand — hotels and this convent, now museum, 2,500 reasonably fixed inhabitants, and somewhere to buy cheap-ish grog.IMG_1489.jpg

Alluvial gold was discovered in the Palmer River several hundred kilometres inland in 1872. In 1874 Cooktown had a post office, and by 1880 a population of about 20,000. Not to mention 47 licensed pubs within the town boundaries (by 1874), a number of illegal grog shops and several brothels. Bakeries, a brewery and a soft drinks factory, dressmakers and milliners, a brickworks, a cabinetmaker, and two newspapers. An unfathomable explosion. Gold will do that. But we’re in the wet tropics here. For three months a year there was no way into or out of the Palmer.

Several thousand Chinese were among that population. They came originally as prospectors, but many established market gardens, supplying the town and the goldfields with fruit, vegetables and rice, while others opened shops. 

A contemporary account included in ‘Northern Territory Times and Gazette’ of 28 August 1875 provides fascinating commentary: about attitudes to the Chinese, about perceptions of their work habits, about the climate, about the gold finding experience, and about the prospects of European settlement of northern Queensland. A sample:

Cooktown is situated so near the great [Asian] ports that empty out their surplus coolies into neighboring countries, the facilities for reaching the goldfield are so unusual, the expense is so comparatively slight, that, apart from other considerations, it is small wonder that John Chinaman is hurrying here, with his stick and baskets filled with pots and pans, as fast as he can.

The whole secret of the matter is that certain Chinese merchants in Hongkong and Canton have excited the cupidity of their countrymen with the most extravagant accounts of the riches of the Palmer. Placards announcing the astounding fact that gold paved the highways of Cooktown — that men picked up nuggets of fabulous size at the diggings as easily as a schoolboy picks up shells on the beach — were paraded in the streets; a fever seized on the swarming population who daily tread each other down for a bare subsistence in these great Eastern ports …

At the present time there cannot be far short of 5,000 Chinese on the goldfield; and so far as it is possible to judge of events future by events past, the number will shortly double that figure. As to the feeling here with regard to the Chinese it is, with the exception of a few interested parties, decidedly hostile to their admission. Meetings were held to discuss the question, and pass resolutions adverse to the action of the Government in permitting such an influx. A deal of “tall talk” was indulged in; and under all the deprecatory motions to the head of the Cabinet in Brisbane on the question, there was an ugly under-current of threat.

But our anonymous correspondent has quite a different take.

All this outcry is raised idly and to no purpose. That the Chinaman will get gold and make a living where a white man — even if he were a Scotchman — would starve is an acknowledged fact. Apart from this, I maintain that the Palmer is peculiarly fitted for a Chinese goldfield. The climate and the hardships of the living are much less deterrent to the Chinaman than the European digger. … To him the heat that thins the blood and levers the brain and unstrings the nerve of the inhabitants of a colder climate is but an accustomed and genial warmth. He is not choked by the dust — has he not learned to endure it in the stifling streets of Canton? The burning sun does not dry his skin, and parch his throat, and sap his strength; but invigorates his tropic nature, and enables him to toil on. …

See the incoming [European] Palmer men. How the flesh has left their bones, how gaunt and haggard, yellow-eyed and aged, they are — with all the spring and elasticity of their constitutions gone with the fresh red and white of their national complexion. They have got gold, maybe-ay ! and, what is far more important, they have drunk deep of the Palmer pestilence, and carry with them the seeds that will ripen into disease; they have lived ten years in one. …

To urge against [the Chinese] that they are not settlers or colonists is no argument at all; not one digger out of a thousand ever becomes a settler on the soil, and not one out of ten thousand will ever be so in this part of the colony. In fact, experience here shows us that the first thing a digger does in making a pile is to go south by the very first boat; nor is he at all likely to return unless compelled by dissipation or improvidence. … No European would settle here from choice — the climate is bad, and his instincts warn him to leave it.. There is in my opinion no more chance of Northern Queensland becoming settled with a permanent European population than there is of British India.

He was at least partially right. Descendants of these Chinese adventurers remain in Cooktown today.

There were no such apologists for the Aboriginal people of the area, the Guugu Yimithirr, who as part of this same demographic explosion were forced off their land. The Cooktown Herald, 8 December 1875: ‘The natives wholly ignorant of the terrible firepower of fire-arms, and confiding in their numbers, showed a ferocity and daring wholly unexpected and unsurpassed. Grasping the very muzzles of the rifles they attempted to wrest them from the hands of the whites, standing to be shot down, rather than yield an inch….’ It was an unequal struggle. Whole tribes were wiped out.

More than anywhere else I have been in Australia this feels recent, tangible.

But perhaps that was later. In urban repose. There was much of beauty and intrigue to come (and a lot more photos).IMG_1542.jpg




An Encounter with China


I was a member of a group of 23 Australian teachers who visited parts of China for four weeks in the summer holidays of 1998. This was an in-country teaching fellowship program organized by the Asia Education Foundation (AEF). Similar tours are conducted in India, Viet Nam, Japan, Korea, Laos, Thailand and Indonesia each year. They were instituted to improve teachers’ first hand knowledge of countries they teach about and to encourage the use of Asia as a site for study.

Applicants for fellowships are required to develop a curriculum project that they will complete using their experiences overseas. They come from each state and territory from government and non-government schools and contribute part of the cost. Systems and schools contribute the rest. Some have travelled before and some haven’t. Some speak the language of their host countries and some, like me, are coming with the barest knowledge of the reality of their destinations.

Our first two weeks were spent mostly in towns of 15-20,000 people in Yunnan Province, which borders on Myanmar in the far south-west of China about 800 kilometres west of Hong Kong. Jiang, a word which will recur, is one word for ‘river’. Yunnan, rugged and hilly as befits the eastern end of the Tibetan massif, is home to many of China’s ethnic minorities, ‘hill peoples’ and is described by the Lonely Planet Guide as being an ‘isolated frontier region’. Dali and Jing Hong are drawcards for more intrepid European tourists but Yunnan remains out of some of the mainstreams of Chinese life and is in some ways strongly reminiscent of other parts of south-east Asia. Even in winter — when we were there — the climate is mild and sunny.

We worked our way via two minibuses south from the capital Kunming to Jing Hong 50 kilometres from the Myanmar border, visiting schools and teaching classes in English. From there we flew back to Kunming and took one of the world’s great train rides to Chong Qing in central China. From there we flew to Beijing and later to Shanghai.

I work as an education consultant, but my job in this case was to write some pieces about what happened. I don’t know whether this trip to China was exceptional in any regard with other AEF fellowship trips, to China or elsewhere, but it was a densely packed and luxurious set of learning experiences. That was partly due to the excellence of the organizer/leader, Kathe Kirby and her Mandarin-speaking support, Jing Li who teaches at Belconnen High School in the ACT. The company and friendship of other participants, all new to us, was another important factor.

Writing about China is like writing about the world, 1.2 billion people, mainly Han, but many not; a country which is stupendously modern, futuristic, in some ways and deeply traditional in others, covering an area 25 percent bigger than Australia, some of it hotly contested by its original inhabitants. And I’m no Sinologist. Like other participants I prepared by reading and have since searched out additional information. But nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced. Rather than re-iterate apologies for my ignorance and the slimness of my contact, I will do so here, stressing that these are one person’s views shaped by a very specific context of four weeks in another country.

Mr Su will make his appearance in due course, as will the dancing. But the ‘dance’ itself has got something more to do with the thrill of finding unexpected common humanity.



All [the European foreigners] talk of is material profit … and with the meretricious hope of profit they beguile the Chinese people … They know not of the Heaven-ordained relationship between Sovereign and Minister, between father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger, friend and friend, yet we propose to require them to conform to the five principles of duty! It seems to me that one might as well bring together dogs and horses, goats and pigs in a public hall and compel these creatures to perform the evolution of the dance!

                  — Wu Ko-tu, Court Censor, from a report to the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi,  1861

With their little pig eyes and the large pigtails/ And their diet of rats, dogs, slugs and snails,/ All seem to be game in the frying-pan/ Of that nasty feeder John Chinaman./ Sing lie-tea, my sly John Chinaman,/ No fightee my coward John Chinaman,/ John Bull has a chance, let him if he can,/ Somewhat open the eyes of John Chinaman.

                  — Text from a Punch cartoon, 1858

Katherine Hellman, a young woman who works as a therapist in an elementary school in Harlem, knew what I meant by a disjunction that was almost more than one could absorb. She grew up in a wealthy family on the Upper East Side, assuming, as a girl, that a normal home was a Park Avenue duplex with Magrittes, as she put it. When she first started working in Harlem, she always felt a tremendous pressure, on returning to her own world, to tell what she knew — to try to convey, for example, that that day she had visited the home of a student where there was no furniture. ‘I have never conceived of such a thing,’ she said. ‘I wanted to bring people from my world to the apartment with no furniture. It seemed like important knowledge. You have to see it — if you haven’t seen it there is something about it you might not get.’

                  — Suzannah Lessard ‘The Split’ The New Yorker Dec 8 1997 72-73 [my emphasis]

Nothing to worry. Everything happens in China.

                 — excerpt from a fax from Mr Su

 * * * * *TAM Square 2.jpeg

CHINA. The very word. Unused in China. (Chinese refer to their country as Zhongguo in the Pinyin rendering of two ideographic Chinese characters for ‘middle’ and kingdom’ — the centre of the world.) Ultimate origin unknown, says the Concise Oxford; it appears first in first century AD Sanskrit. Used adjectivally in Australian English: Chinese torture, Chinese burn, Chinese whispers, Chinese boxes, Chinese puzzle, Chinese Scrub, Chinese checkers, and the clincher, Chinese swimmers. ‘Chinese’: a stand-in term for mystery and cruelty, and now cheating with drugs. Now doubt these things lent colour to my expectations of what I might find there.

I remember a surprising amount of what I was taught at school, but I can’t recollect even a passing reference to China except a mostly joking discussion about the way in which gravity would deliver the Yellow Peril to our doorsteps.

When I told people I was going to China I was surprised by the number who had been there already. One good friend who worked there twice, each time for many months, showed me his photos, but gasped and sighed when I asked him to tell me about it. ‘Ahhhh … China. David, I couldn’t possibly begin to explain.’ I found others who had been there in the late 70s and early 80s for reasons of their sympathetic attitude, not necessarily to communism as they explained, but to Maoism. They had learnt songs, eaten heartily and felt they had been granted access to parts of the country which had been denied to others. Their memories were fond with the romance of early adulthood.

I found someone who still wished to call herself a Maoist. Having just finished Harrison Salisbury’s book The New Emperors, I asked which aspect of Mao’s life she found so compelling: the concubines? The drugs? The flighty unexplained changes of attitudes and purpose? The mad cruelties? The distance from reality?

I remembered another friend — a drafted conscientious objector to the war in Viet Nam who could quote from the Little Red Book and had Mao posters and the epic art of peasants rising to throw off the yoke of running dog imperialists all over his walls — and wondered about the nature of the conjunction of his radical libertarianism with the strictures of communitarian living. Despite a series of disclaimers, C. P. Fitzgerald’s seminal work, The Birth of Communist China, written in the early 1960s with great style and lucidity, glowed with the same sort of hope and sense of human possibility which might be going to be realised through the Revolution. Did they perhaps know something I didn’t?

I was sure that this was a land of great events. Jung Chang’s best seller Wild Swans and Harry Wu’s books on his travails and his determination to share his experience of the brutality and repression of the current Chinese government had confirmed that in oblique ways. Like many others throughout the world, I had been deeply affected by the image of the lone person shifting around with great courage but also robotically, in front of a tank in Tian An Men Square. The guide books suggested that a fair amount of wrestling with officialdom and a surfeit of bureaucracy was likely. Other glancing impressions created complementary expectations of drabness and control, a strong Army presence, vigorous centralization and authoritarianism to mange the teeming hordes and their bicycles.

But what I retained of those impressions did not necessarily focus on China. They confirmed an impression, strengthening as I get older, of the tyranny and mania implicit in any radical solution driven by a single ideology. That applies as much to the Victoria I live in as the China, or elsewhere, I don’t. The film Raise the Red Lantern was more real to me as an ascription of place than the television broadcasts of Tian An Men Square. Like Farewell My Concubine and to a lesser extent Yellow Earth and To Live, it provided a sense of foreign-ness and unknowability, thrilling in its own way, that underpinned my misty prejudices.

I have asked myself many times where I thought I was going, what my expectations were, and the answer is always the same: actually no idea, murky, a blank.

* * * * * *

Kunming.jpegBut it was a real plane we boarded for Kunming at Singapore’s Changi airport, the sort you’d get to take you from Melbourne to Sydney; a real plane with multi-lingual air hostesses and food and drinks and cushions and call buttons and windows to look out of. It had Yunnan Airlines painted in its exterior in jade green, and was … well, scrutable.

Two comfortable and uneventful hours later, during which I discovered that one of our party had played in the ruck for Melbourne 30 ago and that Kunming had the same population as that mighty metropolis, we started our descent over Lake Dian (‘Green’). Getting lower, I was reminded of coming into Amsterdam with thousands of rows of plastic cloches covering crops of vegetables. In the sun the earth, where it was visible, was startlingly orange. Then the plane dipped round to the south and there was Kunming, like a white monument with hundreds of truncated spires.

The heavy Army presence for international arrivals was two boys sitting truculently behind a desk with their caps askew. With great courage and insouciance, I motioned that I’d like to take their photo and they smiled sheepishly as the flash went off.

Our guide appeared. Wearing a Chicago Bulls top and a pair of Levis. ‘Hi I’m Tony. Tony Tiger, English and Chinese names together. Welcome to Spring City where the weather is always beautiful.’ A lot of climatological information, each item repeated twice, followed. ‘I’m taking an Australian tour group of students to Tibet in a fortnight. Sixteen days of busing and camping.’ Ah so we weren’t actually the first Europeans to arrive after Marco Polo. ‘You’re gonna have a wunnerful time Tiger Tony is the name of an American company. I’m gonna be famous like that. I’m gonna be famous like that.’ Wild laughter.

‘We’re going to your hotel, Golden Dragon, have some dinner, they maybe you like to walk around, have a look. Quite safe, but stick to main streets; the lanes maybe be a bit different. You might get lost. Main street is Beijing Lu, Beijing Street you know, goes all the way to Beijing. Uh?’ Gales of wild laughter.

The Golden Dragon was plush. Air con, en suites, 24 Television channels with as much CNN, ESPN and MTV (from Mumbai in India, and hosted by perkily rude and delightfully self-possessed presenters with thick south London accents) as you’d care to watch. The local channels looked a lot like the ones we’d left behind at home.

In the hotel’s shopping centre you could snap up a Rado watch for 46,000 yuan (A$9,000), or a 3.5 carat diamond ring in a massive gold setting for ¥348,800. Balenciaga shirts, cashmere jackets and coats, Lacoste corduroy trousers and polo shirts, a T-shirt for 450, ropes of pearls, Zippo lighters, the ubiquitous perfumes, Lee jeans, jackets and shirts which had probably been manufactured locally. Same stuff we left behind at Changi really.

You could also get sheep’s milk from Australia, a prized elixir with many remarkable properties, at 78 yuan for a 50 gram jar. This commodity is known in Australia more familiarly as lanoline. Besides the large bottles of liquor hosting snakes and lizards, the stand-out item — and this was in the jewelry display — was ‘Certification from Mao Zedong Centennial Birthday’, a nicely framed certificate for which one would pay ¥38,800. I examined this closely, looking for, like, part of an ear or a smear of authenticated DNA, even a thumb print, but it just seemed to stand as was. I didn’t purchase.

Feeling tired and a little disoriented, we ascended the staircase to dinner. Concrete has been turned into an artistic medium in much of Asia and here was a case in point — a delicate curvature that would put most spines to shame. In between the manifold courses we watched our first dances with the wealthy burghers of Kunming and surrounds. And wealthy they would have been if they could have afforded a night out at the Golden Dragon. They ate and ran, something I discovered was commonplace. You eat and eat early to feed your body, and when you finish you don’t loiter and chat; you do something else.

Watching the dance, I wondered in my excitement (fully an hour after arrival) if this perhaps was China, the elegance, the grace, the controlled athleticism of four beautiful young women and two equally beautiful men who absorbed the music and transformed it into something visually exhilarating — so accomplished and so exact, so professional without it being professional. One focus was the hands and their weaving, winding motions with fingers bent far back towards the outside of the wrist, balancing candles in one case, holding butterfly fans in another; moving bodily without appearing to do so by delicate shuffles and transpositions, all with impassive absorption. Then I was struck by how similar what I was watching was to much south-east Asian dance. The headware and the costume would have been the only marked distinguishing features from many Balinese dances.

The small crowd, now decimated by the departure of the burghers, applauded wildly at the conclusion. Some brave characters who had assimilated very quickly joined in on stage.

Taking a deep breath, we departed for Beijing Lu. But first we had to cross Huncheng Nanlu, a broad boulevard like Beijing Lu, and encountered what I think of as ‘soft driving’ for the first time. Soft driving is like the confluence of streams of water, considerable streams at this intersection. There were traffic lights, but that night they were unintelligible to me and seemed to be ignored more generally. The cars, buses, trucks and bikes murmured to each other with their horns and bells, sometimes a little stridently when the invisible rules of this game were ignored and a rock surfaced in the stream. No one was going very fast and so negotiating within millimetres of each other and of pedestrians was both anticipated and realised. There was a singular lack of aggression and exasperation as the weft and weave worked their way through the tapestry of traffic. We drove a long way in Yunnan, sometimes hair-raisingly, and no doubt there are crashes, but the only accident we saw was a truck which had gone over the shoulder on a mountain road because of a displaced load. Soft driving is a very smooth and patient rush.

So, caressed by the traffic, we crossed safely and headed north.

Beijing Lu was lit up, not so much by its shops and street lighting as by its inhabitants. The street was alive with young people on a night out, on a promenade. Couples arm in arm and small groups chatting excitedly ambled along the footpaths, going nowhere special, perhaps down the hutongs (lanes) to the night markets for some barbecue or sweets, or peering into the shopfronts which were now as often as not populated by families watching TV, ironing, drinking tea.

It could have been High St Newtown on a Friday night or Lygon St or Rundle Mall: but it wasn’t. Our fellow promenaders looked so stylish, so healthy, so happy and confident — and so sober. All of life ahead of them and nothing in the way. It was in the body language, the sense of things going right, with the voracious appetite of youth to learn and experience innocently, more or less forgotten in our media, on full display. No drugs, no drunks, no gangs, no police, no army. They were all somewhere else that night.

And they were anything but drab. The young men wore 80s suits with very broad shoulders and deep reveres — the turn of the collar in the front of the jacket — made out of dark tweed in a vast range of patterns, shirts and ties as flamboyant as a scuttle of stockbrokers in the middle of a bullish run. Suits were popular with the immaculate young women as well, in a range of colours that stretched the imagination. Solid reds, greens, yellows, oranges, with contrasting panels and insets: a dash of velvet here, some lace there, an embroidered rose, some rhinestone set into an upturned collar, remarkable buttons, a belt of black chain. Skirts ranged from very short to very long. Like something familiar, but not what we had seen before. The influences were manifold but the effect was local, and prosperous.


A block off Beijing Lu we found a market devoted almost entirely to women’s clothing, a hectare or more with hundreds of shops replete with dresses, slacks, gowns and underwear for every occasion. These were arrayed on mannequins, the moulds for which must have been bought as a joblot from the US in about 1958. Fair-skinned (greyish really) and mostly fair-haired, high cheek bones, blue-eyed, unsmiling with fire engine red pouts, narrow waists with deep breasts, tiny feet, and plaster hair-dos the like of which may not exist anywhere any more. Kiss curls, odd bobs, hair bands, comb-ups, ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ fringes. Identical mannequins re-appeared in cities and shops, large and small, wherever we went. Someone had a monopoly … aha! yes, a light dawns — someone also known as the People’s Republic of China. A monopoly of mannequins. Amazing.

Foreigners are not terribly common in Kunming. The promenaders would turn to check our progress, some calling out ‘hello’ and otherwise enquiring about the state of our health. We did our best to say ‘ni hao’ in return.

Further up Beijing Lu a vast advertising hoarding was attached to a pedestrian bridge. To its left was another huge billboard, which suggested that the epic art of the revolution with its massive peasants straining for a crack at the future having conquered the past had found a new medium. In separate frames Steven Seagal, Danny De Vito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in full Mr Freeze regalia were, if artistically enhanced, all recognizable. Come and watch guns, knives, swords and romance, the billboard says, in a universal language. China has the largest cinema market in the world, 55 percent of global movie audiences.

beijing Lu.JPG

It was a clement evening in Spring City, and although we managed to find some crowds next day in a department store, the promenade was unhurried and fluid. Plenty of fast food but no McDonalds. We bought some just-baked biscuits from a version of a hot bread shop that might have pre-dated the word ‘shop’, and considered our discovery that we were still on the same planet, so very much the same planet, that it was warm and as welcoming as one might expect, that it was temperate and hard-working, and that the sun could shine on Chinese and juwairen (outsiders) alike. Perhaps those discoveries were the result of my original ignorance and naivete, but all learning has a starting point, and if everything I had thought turned out to be wrong, as it more or less did, I didn’t mind one bit.

Spring City, until my mind is changed again, will be mellow; and Beijing Lu on a Friday night will be just a treat.



                  ‘Presents are light, but friends are heavy.’ (Mr Su)

The four.jpegThey marched into the Golden Dragon, the four of them, looking as pleased as Punch — blow out those cheeks and let the tones resonate!) Mr Zhang and Mr Huang and Mr Xu and Mr Su (in order above). (Purse your lips, curl your tongue and give a short whistle — Xu, Xu, Xu. You can practice for some time without getting it right.)

Mr Zhang had a car. That cut him out from the herd. No one else much had a car where we were going. But he didn’t own it. It belonged to the same mob who provided the mannequins, and he was a driver. I mistook his role for that of sort of personal assistant/ chauffeur to Mr Su, but I was a long way wide of the meaning of democracy in action. If you have an approved purpose you can organise a car, an interesting thing in itself, and for the two-day drive from Mojiang to Kunming you needed a car.

Mr Zhang had no English, but he was a great communicator — I had better and easier conversations with him than with some of the Chinese teachers of English we were to meet — providing the first of many encounters with the very high level non-verbal communicative skills that many of our Chinese hosts displayed. It might be something about the language that makes you use everything you’ve got including, of course, tones, and gesture to get meaning clear.

Mr Huang was a English teacher and was immediately recognizable as a type. In schools I know, people would say of his ilk, ‘Mr Huang? Indispensable. First here, last to leave; always wanting to see if there is something he can do to help.’ He would be the person who marked out the oval at 5am on the day of the athletic sports and collected the flags at the end. He almost quivered with alertness, wired in to everything that was happening, and later played basketball in exactly the same manner.

His English was like my best foreign language. You compose carefully, maybe getting held up by a bit of vocab that’s missing. But then, satisfied, you deliver your conversational offering in a manner suitable to the completion of a task which has taken you a great deal of effort: a flourish, head back from the shoulders, hand thrown forward: and how was that one! And then, if it was a question, hope that no one would answer or at least not at any length. So while the group chatted away, my friend Mr Huang would suddenly pounce: ‘And how then do you like our gracious country?’

Mr Xu (Mr Xu. Mr Xu. I’m still practising.) was also an English teacher from Mojiang, in his early twenties and as bright as a button. His English was excellent and he was a key organiser, the king of the buses, who stayed with us for the fortnight we were in Yunnan, and was one of the factors that made travel so easy and the experience so memorable. Immensely good-humoured, he had the world at his finger tips and nothing was too much trouble for him. He would explain with a courtesy and patience that I would like to be able to reproduce.

Mr Su A 1.jpeg

And Mr Su. That great man, Mr Su. Nut brown and sparkling with vitality.

Mr Su was the reason why we were there at all. Now Principal of Mojiang Regional Teachers College, he had been principal of Mojiang No 1 Middle (secondary) School when one of his teachers was awarded a scholarship to spend some time in Australia. This teacher, Tao Ying She, now working internationally as an engineer, spent some time teaching at Hawker College in the ACT in 1990 where he became friends with Mark Hall who, with Mr Su’s help, organized the first visit by Australians to Mojiang.

‘What was my idea? It was difficult to decide. The government had not decided to make our town open. But the central government had a policy of open-ness, has said that we should learn from Western countries. So I thought, yes. Some should come. I have never met any foreigner at the time. I think hmmm … yep … very very good thing. We could learn a lot from foreigners. I would hear the language spoken which I have taught for so many years. They too can learn from our schools, our people and our country.’

It was, I think typically, a courageous decision. He had stepped over the cautious parochialism of his regional cadres and chosen to interpret the policy of the central government in his own way, reaching out to the idea of a higher good.

‘When Mr Tao returned he made a report. We know some things about Australia but very little. Mr Mark Hall had visited and when he returned he wanted more to come back. He teaches Chinese and wanted to know Chinese more. He made a plan — the Bamboo Trail [which entailed travelling up the rivers to Mojiang from the south]. I like to have PE teachers to learn some more about PE, and so a large group came for four days. They are very satisfied. We learned from each other so much, so much. From that time we have had groups of Australian teachers and students, maybe 136 persons.

‘The best thing for us is that we learn more English. Teachers and students can talk with native speakers, can make students study English harder and harder. After these activities, they feel it is not so difficult to learn to speak. They are excellent students. They work hard and live simply.’

Mr Su decided to become a teacher very young. His father who died when he was eight had been a teacher, as are his two sisters. ‘I loved and respected my teachers. I primary school I thought I would like to be a teacher. When I was young I liked to learn very much. My family’s rules are strict, and they think it is a good discipline to learn languages.

‘I went to Pu’er [a larger town 150km. south of Mojaing, famous for the quality of its tea] where I studied for three years. I had to leave my school where I knew everyone and had many friends. Some of my classmates came with me, but from then on I liked to make new friends. Yep. I like to make friends very much.’

In 1962 he went to the University of Kunming’s Teachers College.

‘At this time the Cultural Revolution began. We had no lessons at all. We just stayed at the College and had some political study and discussions. At the beginning we were involved. Later on, some of us not so interested. But for the first time you could go anywhere, you could travel. Sometimes I went Lancang [pron. ‘lun shung’] or Jing Hong, but everywhere there were Red Guards.

‘We waited for a job for two years. In October 1968 I was sent to Mojiang Middle School No. 1. At Mojiang the students did not come back [to school]. There were no lessons. They stayed in their farms and villages. Teachers had nothing to do for one year. The government organized teachers to do farm work. I could do that because I came from a village. Then school began again. Many children came back and we could teach.

‘But at that time there were no exams. When students don’t have exams, they don’t work very hard. In our school I think the students were good. They were obedient. But it was a time when you had to be very careful.’

mr-su-1.jpgHe was telling me this, drinking cup after cup of green tea from his personal thermos, sitting in the Spartan principal’s office at Lancang decorated only with an arm and chest expander hanging from a peg on the wall. Ten days earlier when we’d talked about the Cultural Revolution he had mentioned that 600 people had died in Mojiang, a town of about 20,000, and that teachers were disproportionately represented among that group. How did he feel about that? ‘Mao did many great things. He was a very great leader. But this … very bad, very bad thing.’

These experiences had not diminished his interest in education and belief in its centrality.

‘To be a teacher you must learn a lot of knowledge, about every field. When I was in College I learnt Chinese, English Language and Chinese History and I played sport. To be a teacher you must look widely. For me it is not so difficult to be a teacher … and I have children. Now my students are teachers, and I love that they are teachers. They do their job better than me!’

He had recently been studying Chinese History again to teach his own students, and what he was learning was very much on his mind. ‘Chinese must know that China is a very old country with a long history. Many famous people tried to make China stronger. They have failed. Too big. Too many people. No good government. Policy is a most important thing. A lot of Chinese people work harder and harder to make China strong, to progress. They must work harder for our country. Make our country richer. Every Chinese people.

‘Chinese government found the problem in education. Most of the students study only to enter a higher level. When they grow and have to do some job, their abilities are not so good. Our educational rules must change.

‘If the teaching is orderly, regular, consistent, students can learn a lot of things. Teaching methods have changed but not so much I think. If students want to go on they have to study hard, and the teachers must prepare their lessons very carefully. But every year children talk back a little more to their teachers. They have more free time, more things to choose and they lose what is good for them and their futures.

‘In the future I don’t know what will happen. The level of life [standard of living] will improve. This is happening all the time. Such a big change in my lifetime. The important thing is to release students’ abilities, and teach them how to learn to learn. That is the education for the future. But spiritual life may suffer and, and education has two purposes both of which must be respected: the material life and the spiritual life. The spiritual life is what might suffer.’

The key.jpegWhen we arrived at the Nationalities School at Lancang he gripped my arm and pointed at a slogan on a plinth with a huge golden key mounted on it. ‘This is what Deng says: “Education must confront modernization. It must face the world, and it must face the future.” That is what I think too. That is why you are here.’

But the slogans of politics could never do justice to Mr Su and his beliefs as he lived them. They are too abstract and arguments about them and their meaning too arbitrary and ethereal. What he offered, in this instance, was his friendship and his vitality and warmth to a group of foreigners. He was at his finest singing ‘Country Roads’ to a karaoke screen, roaring with laughter, offering toasts, chatting so openly with strangers, magically causing our luggage to appear after it had been left behind hours away on a broken down bus, glowing with pleasure at the obvious success of our contact. One form of his finest anyway. I have no doubt that he was an inspirational and quite firm leader as well. His career and the esteem in which he was held locally attested to that. A great man.

He left us at Jing Hong. We had drunk some whiskey together the night before to say farewell because he was leaving for the long drive back to Mojiang very early in the morning. But when we woke up on the rock hard beds we thought we would like to say goodbye once more. So I pulled a jacket on over my pyjamas and stuck my feet into my boots and we went down to the foyer. We waited for an hour and half before he appeared beaming. ‘Ah good sleep. Good sleep.’ As well as a great man, a human being, one of us.Mr Su B.jpeg



countryside 1.jpegIt didn’t take very long to get out of Kunming. Because all time in China is synchronized to Beijing time, it was very early and the sun appeared to be struggling to rise. When it did we were looking at a highway that will eventually, soon, link Bangkok with Beijing and the vivid yellow flowers of rape crops. We passed endless streams of light blue trucks carrying lignite, hard black coal, and timber and minibuses packed with passengers and their luggage. The haze turned out not be the mists of early morning, but smoke coming from a rack of coal-burning power stations set back into the hills on the right. Every so often there were villages with cultivated fields jammed hard up against their walls. The most majestic buildings were white- and blue-tiled petrol stations, decorated in gold.

It was still twilight when we stopped. We were not yet in the bush but we were in the country. The prosperity of Kunming was behind us. I got out of the bus and wandered over to a statue on a large column. I asked Mr Huang who it was. He told me but I can’t remember, not a figure from the 20th century I gathered. Street sweepers were busy collecting rubbish into piles, and the shops were just opening. These shops sold the essentials of life — piles of bottled soft drink and water stacked in tiers, cigarettes, salt and pepper, slabs of tofu, toothpaste, small packets of tissues and sacks of rice. Bowls of broth with noodles were available for those who wanted to eat out for breakfast.

I climbed back on. We had stopped for toilets, and this was a challenging set of conveniences. Communal, no walls at all, with slots in the concrete floor above huge piles of faeces. I had noticed the smell in the street and wondered where it was coming from. People are sometimes described as turning green, and it’s a nice if slightly overblown image. But as my fellow travellers returned I noticed that the face of one of them was actually, discernibly, tinged with green. Nauseous.

Discussions of toilets and their condition absorbed a good deal of time on the buses, possibly more than any other subject. It did seem a turning point in coming to grips with how others might live. Sanitariness was one topic, but I guess the issue of privacy was more fundamental, a significant symbol of difference that stood for far more than its manifestation in concrete rather than porcelain. After a week some of the interest had died off, accommodation had been reached, in fact it became a rather discomforting shock to be back in first world conditions when we returned to Kunming. We all slept badly. But if the conversation slackened and there was a need to engage the group, ‘toilets’ reappeared on the agenda.

We’re soft I thought as I sat on the bus watching the street, and there was something ‘hard’ to see. Immediately below me was a very thin man, his legs tied up in rags, bare feet horny and cracked from rough use, a leather jacket tight round his torso. His eyelids seemed pegged back so that his stare would not be interrupted, and his eyes were like electricity. He had a dead cigarette butt and a lighter which he twirled in a mad dance. He made no distinction between animate and inanimate objects as he jerked and twisted, addressing them from between clenched teeth and then pulling away. He would carefully place his talismans on the road, and then snatch them up again in a manically personal dance drawn up from a well of very deep organic disturbance.

I think I was the only one watching. Passers by parted around him, going about their business.

We saw a small number of beggars in Kunming hauling themselves along on trolleys or otherwise getting themselves around on battered limbs, and blind children outside the Silk Market in Beijing being pushed by their parents towards the wealthy tourists. But China would be a tough place to have a disability.

My memories are so full of richness it takes someone else to look at the photos to remind me of how comparatively poor the Yunnanese outside the big cities were. They ate well, food was fresh, plentiful and very high quality. No dairy products of course, but it was pointed out that they make you fat, if not necessarily clumsy and graceless. The fat and spoiled Chinese children, so beloved of Western media, were nowhere in evidence. But this plenitude was not everywhere. We were told that at the time of our visit and for some years previously, millions of the population in north-west China were stricken by famine and facing starvation. Millions. The scale. The scale. As a result of the famine in the late 50s and early 60s, exacerbated if not generated by the Great Leap Forward, more than 50 million died.

The teacher housing that we were invited to visit was spare and, according to our standards of great largesse with space, cramped. Furniture was what was required and little else. For decoration there were some glass display cases filled with objects precious to their owners. Farm houses were built out of concrete block and had two or three rooms with a concrete terrace, often with lines crowded with hands of drying tobacco, where the inhabitants cooked and sat. The comparatively few village houses we saw had dirt floors and thatched roofs. For children living there, to go to secondary school meant travel to a centre which might be 60 or 80 kilometres away, boarding during the week in living conditions which tended to replicate what they would have been used to in the village or farm, doing their own cooking, washing and mending.

Basic — with none of the fetish about choice we were caught up in. But below basic was big trouble.Countryside #2.jpeg



In our hotel in Yuan Jiang we were woken by a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ broadcast over the town public address system followed by a selection of Broadway favourites including ‘New York New York’. It wasn’t expected.

For some reason I was late. I’d been absorbed in the market where my colleagues had seen their first cooked dog, teeth bared in grimace. It was past the 50 varieties of ground chilli and the endless stalls od green produce, just in behind the butchery where the skill of finding some culinary or other use for every part of an animal was brilliantly on display. I missed seeing the dog, but not much. I was mesmerised by the range and quality of the live fish. Where did they come from?

The buses left for the school, and I found myself in the back of a car driven by Mr Zhang talking to Mr Su about the impact of the Cultural Revolution. We were held up for 15 minutes by the ubiquitous road works before coming to the exquisite countryside, water buffalo wandering across in front of the car, snowy mountains in the deep background.

Yuan Jiang Middle School was lie many of the other schools we visited in Yunnan — four storeys of concrete frame filled with porous red brick, bagged with mortar and covered with white ceramic tiles, polished concrete floors, an open corridor on each level, steps at their end. And as became customary, the corridors were crowded like opera stalls with students and teachers wanting a good clear look at their visitors. But they were also looking out over a small lake, excellent feng shui, and picturesque in the extreme. The boarding areas were set back in the trees past a hard dirt soccer field.

Aiyin Si Tain.jpeg

The first teaching experience in China. We had been to a school at Ershan, but had only listened to speeches of welcome, drunk tea, eaten peanuts, lolly bars and mandarins for luck, and spoken somewhat tentatively to the teachers. We weren’t into it yet: not quite sure of the protocols. I was seated under a portrait of The Great Helmsman but further along the wall were identically-sized portraits of Len Nin, Niu Dun (Newton) and Aiyin Si Tan (Einstein). These would reappear as frequently as those of Mao. Now, a day later, this was a moment of truth I was looking forward to recording. The Australian teachers were armed with plans and pictures and puppets and songs and signs and stickers and puzzles and posters; and I was armed, serenely expectant, with my camera and note pad.

I was standing on the forecourt quietly, thinking about where I would start, when Jing flew up to me and said, ‘You must teach. There is a class without a teacher.’ Teach. Teach? ‘Yes. Teach.’ Oh no. But … ‘At the end of the corridor. The ground floor. ‘Ooooh. Teach. Oh no. What was it they were doing? What songs had my professional comrades been singing? Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree. Heads, shoulders knees and toes. Teach. Ooh. No plan. No nothing. No can’t do it. No no no. Sorry, but no.

Class of 50.jpeg

I entered the classroom in a cold sweat. You don’t trifle with Jing. Sixty faces. Or it could have been two thousand. ‘Hello’, I said. A roar came back. ‘Hello.’ ‘Hello again’, I said. ‘Hello again’, they roared. That’s it, I thought. That’s me. I can’t think of a thing to do.

By training and trade I am a teacher. I have taught kids this age (13 and 14) for seven years, and kids a bit older for another four. I have given perhaps six or maybe eight hundred talks to audiences of teachers, business people, anyone who cares to step up really. But they weren’t young speakers of Chinese in Yuan Jiang.

‘My name is …’ What is my name? How should I render it appropriately, finding the right pitch between academic formality and ambassadorial friendliness? How do Chinese teachers require their students to refer to them? Ho ho ho. More basically, who am I anyway? Mr David? Mr McRae? McRae David? The depths of my ignorance are unplumbable. I think I was chatting to myself as I wrote my name on the board, but I’m not certain.

I turned around and ask if they have something to write on. Write? On? Gesturing furiously and looking at the vast range of bookish type things they have on their desks. What Australian fourteen year-olds would keep in their lockers, these children had very neatly stacked on the front section of their shared desks. Must be some blank paper in there somewhere, but I don’t know that there is.

‘Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree/ Merry merry king of the bush is he … ‘ oh terrible, just terrible. Would you teach that song, that deep and sustaining efflorescence of our native culture even in the most straitened of circumstances? The tune just hacks away, and the words … ‘oh how gay your life must be.’

‘Just a minute. Won’t be a sec.’ I fled.

I was going to find Myrna my wife to see if she had something I could steal to use — an idea, some pictures, anything. I was going to se if something came to me while I was walking. I was going to think what would fill an hour with reasonable dignity. I was going to buy some space to settle. Because in truth I was in a white panic, a lumpy grey-haired figure in a blue shirt running up and down stairs and along corridors, past all sorts of educational scenes stamped with success: roars of laughter, active groups, attentive students and there were 54 others waiting for me downstairs.

I couldn’t find Myrna and didn’t know what I would have done if I had except to interrupt her class. I stopped running, just walked fast and took some deep breaths. Uh huh. ‘I am going to teach you a song. It’s called “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree”. It’s about … a bird.’ We hadn’t seen a bird for days and wouldn’t for another ten. They may be on the menu in southern Yunnan and seem to have disappeared. ‘A bird. It laughs.’

Now I don’t do a bad kookaburra, but I did this time, the worst kookaburra you have ever heard in your life. And what would you make of it if you’d never heard one before? A bird? Or some nutcase up the front of the room making strange noises at you? ‘What did you do at school today Li?’ ‘Well we had some Australian visitors and one of them was supposed to teach us. But do you know what he did?’ Young Chinese would be far too polite and generous to explain.

Well, I thought. Well. One of the interesting things about teaching is that it doesn’t allow you to take a break for a few minutes to get organised. That would be a bit like Placido Domingo stopping in the middle of an aria and saying to his audience, ‘Just feel like I need a cup of tea, so chat among yourselves for a few minutes.’ It doesn’t happen. When you’re on, you are on. The show must go on. Not only that, when I looked around, these charming young faces were so forgiving but also so expectant, they must be offered something.

Some lumps were beginning to form. The last job I had done before we came to China was a review of the Learning Assistance Program in the ACT and I had been thinking about the strictness of the relationship between the usefulness of language and its learnability. I was also starting to feel distinctly claustrophobic stuck on my teaching platform in this room, and I thought maybe there was something outside, something that might save the situation, and me.

And there was. I waved my young stars out of the room and we went down to the lake. Normally in that situation you would chat to a few students, strolling along, keeping an eye out for stragglers. But all I could offer, like the dog, was teeth bared in rictus. We arrived at the lake. I held up my hand in a stop sign and, blue shirt dripping from accumulated sweat, made my pronouncement. ‘This’, I said. ‘This is a lake.’ And I was so pleased with myself, I burst out laughing. ‘Yes, this a lake.’ Tapping ear, ‘Say after me: lake.’ ‘LAKE!!!’ they roared. Clearly I was well on my way to becoming a successful teacher of English a foreign language. ‘Say it again.’ ‘LAKE!!!’

And so we investigated fishing with vigorous casting and reeling in, and the drain that ran into the lake and water and getting wet, until the lake was pretty near exhausted as a teaching resource, and there were 45 minutes left to go. I paused briefly to consider whether or not they were actually allowed out of their classroom (almost certainly not) and in the same instant dismissed that as a problem. Special occasion. My cobalt blue shirt was turning black from the sweat.

We did Walking. Walking with long strides, walking on tip toes, walking quietly, skipping and hopping, until we got to the boarding area where we found a mother with her baby. And bless me if the baby wasn’t wearing a hat, HAT!!! And a jacket, and boots. These are boots BOOOTS!! And this is a very tolerant mother with a lovely smile. And we stamped up the steps to the oval: ONE. TWO. THREE … FIFTEEN. And this my friends is a soccer pitch. But no it wasn’t. I was corrected immediately. It was a football pitch. Of course. Sorry. We put three of the bigger boys on front of the goal and had a volunteer take an imaginary free kick. GOAL! GOAL! GOAL!! we shouted, and some of the boys ran round like mad things but mercifully there were no belly skids into the gravel.

On the far side of the pitch we found some firewood and a cart. Axeless, we chopped and stacked; we pulled the cart and we pushed it. Below the pitch was the kitchen, so down the stairs: ONE. TWO. THREE. … The workers in the kitchen looked startled but accommodating, and we found POTS and PANS and WOKS (Woks? Wok is Chinese word, I was gravely informed. Oh yes indeed. Sure, but um … ) and all manner of produce, our feast for lunch. And then it was time to go home or at least back to the classroom.

I was breathing heavily, not quite sure what I had done, except that the hour had passed. There had been time for a very short revision: they had remembered ‘fishing’ and ‘rod’ and ‘push’ and ‘pull’, so hoorah for that at least. I wanted to sit quietly somewhere by myself and recover. No rest though, no time to mull over mistakes now past: there was dancing to be danced.

We were invited up on to the soccer, pardon, football pitch to watch and join in a variety of Yi circle dances. I was still breathing hard in the warmth of the sun but became absorbed by the elegance and daintiness of what we were trying to copy so clumsily.

At lunch at every table there was a frenzy of talk, a hubbub, a din. Toasts in beer, glasses emptying, wonderful food. Everyone wanting to talk about what had happened to them, what the school was like, how fantastic the kids had been, how hard it was teaching in a foreign language, what had worked and what would be thrown away — the sort of thunder where you would like every party to start. The Yuan Jiang teachers were not infected by the mood; they had shared and prompted it from the start. Their first visit from Australians, any Europeans for that matter, was a dynamite success.

And then the fans started to arrive. There had been some collecting of autographs during the dancing, but as we left the dining room the kids came from everywhere, holding out pieces of paper, text books, anything they could get heir hands on. And the cards started to arrive, and the precious photos, and two pink plastic covered notebooks with a page each of carefully inscribed Chinese characters, and a letter addressed to a copy of my unintelligible signature and some toys, a panda and a cat, a silk handkerchief — and my heart just broke.

‘I’m Chinese. Here you are. Goodbye. Student Hu Hua.’ ‘Hello my name is Yang Ji Xian.’ ‘Thank you. My name is Huan Jia Jie.’ ‘Happy New Year from Zhoa Li Ling.’ ‘Best wishes for you. My name is Hong Li.’ ‘Yang Wei.’ ‘Yang Chun’, ‘Li Xiao Ye.’ ‘Li Yun Mei.’ ‘Best wishes for your holidays. Yang Qang.’ ‘To a good friend from Song Yu.’ ‘ Forever wishes Li Qing.’

What had we offered that could match this unforgettable outpouring of affection and generosity? I simply can’t imagine.



Local practice gives to those who succeed in the examinations at Canton an accolade that reminds one of those reserved for the gods at their solemn festivals. Although tiers of other examinations still lie ahead, the country people see passing the licentiate’s exams in Canton as the mental and social triumph that it is, the due reward for years of sacrifice and patient study. All those who pass the final rounds of this degree, once the awards are posted, assemble dressed in red caps, blue outer garments, and black satin boots, and proceed together in sedan chairs to the Confucian temple of Canton, to pay their homage to the sage. Thence they process to the offices of the educational director to express their thanks and receive their investitures: two gold flowers for their red hats, a red wreath, and a cup of celebratory wine. Leaving the hall one by one, with their relatives and friends crowded around them, they are escorted home with ‘drums, music and streamers’, to worship their ancestors and pay homage to their parents. The next day, with presents all prepared, they pay formal visits to their tutors who made their successes possible. Any young man can nurture dreams like these.

        — Jonathan Spence God’s Chinese Son (1997:24), a history of Hong Xiuquan who fomented the Taiping Rebellion during which 20 million people died. Hong failed his civil service exams in the year 1836.

‘Our children are everything to us.’

        — Mr Li

I had prepared for the second class I taught. The topic, chosen with some deliberation, was ‘choice’, with associated vocabulary such as ‘like’, ‘dislike’ and so on. The activities were polling favourite colours and activities, along with a game of heads or tails. The students were exceptionally bright fourteen year-olds at Mojiang, Mrs Chen’s superstars.

It was hard to judge the impact of the lesson because Mrs Chen both insisted on translating and intervening to ensure that no one got anything wrong. There was not the faintest tinge of the anarchy of my experience at Yuan Jiang. She stood next to me on the teaching platform casting her own most effective pedagogical spells. Considering the topic of the class, her role somewhat undercut its purpose. There was in fact no choice in how to respond and she was there to make sure this was the case.

I think Mrs Chen would have been an exceptionally good teacher. She was experienced, most professional and her class was beautifully drilled. But there would never have been any edge in her work. I doubt whether she had spent five minutes in the last ten years wondering if there was any alternative to the way she was teaching. This was not true of all the teachers we met. Some, like Miss Feng, so serious about her vocation, wanted to explore all sorts of questions about her work no less profound for their familiarity.

In the afternoon I ran a seminar, an ‘expert’ session, on teaching English for about 20 teachers of English from Mojiang and other district schools. I proposed that while there was no one best way of teaching English, the quickest and best way to learn a second language was consistent use. But there are factors which will influence how this can happen: The nature of the school and the way it is organized, the available resources, the number of students in a class, the amount of time devoted to the study; the background knowledge and skill of the teacher, their personality and energy levels; the age and skill level of the students, their disposition to learning a second language and their expectations about what might and should happen in a classroom; and what the community and government expected about the same arena. This would be as true in southern Yunnan as it would be anywhere in Australia.

class of 50 3.jpeg

There are three and only three ways to teach I suggested — telling, showing and doing together. I tried to model this by my 20-minute lecture (telling), by discussing copies of a picture book about learning English we had brought (showing) and by pairing up Chinese and Australian teachers to leave the school and undertake some self-chosen task together using English as the medium of communication (doing).

I think my hypothesis that doing was best was proved. Listening to the lecture was arduous for many of those there, the enormous disparities in their English capabilities clear. The small group discussions about the book and other matters were very lively, but it seemed that the paired ‘using English’ excursions were the most effective settings for learning. Among other things, the roles were more equal. But even the idea that I was venturing a hypothesis about teaching for which a single set of experiences might provide some evidence one way or the other, left us all swimming in rocky cultural waters.

Mr Su A.jpegWhile the participants were wandering round the markets, posting letters, buying warmer clothes and souvenirs, meeting relatives and so forth, I chatted to Mr Li (above right), the deputy principal at Mojiang who came further south with us, about what had transpired. My Li had a profoundly intellectual and very broad grasp of educational issues as well as excellent English. He had heard nothing new, and was rehearsing its implications, something I think he had done many times before. He thought teaching methods would change if schools had more resources, more teachers and if the rigidity of the examination system was lessened.

But Mojiang could have smaller classes. In a big secondary school like Mojiang, teachers generally teach two one-hour lessons a day. Each lesson is very carefully prepared and the teacher ‘models’ what is to be learnt, both in terms of content and performance. There is a great deal of book work on exercises which are largely transcription, producing a huge correction load which is completed daily by the teacher. (Otherwise the students would have nothing to do their work in.) But that load could be lighter.

Mr Su slipped me two tertiary-level English exam papers for me to suggest which would be better to use. They differed mainly in length. Perversely, I thought the longer one was better; but both, to Australian eyes, were odd. One question I remember was:

    An English friend invites you to dinner at six o’clock. At what time should you arrive?

  1. Fifteen minutes before six o’clock?
  2. Six o’clock?
  3. Fifteen minutes after six o’clock?
  4. Thirty minutes after six o’clock?

This very question has bothered me for years, but I searched fruitlessly for the answer. I wanted to talk to Mr Su about the fluidity implicit in such situations, but he knew what he wanted to know and it was which paper was better.

Teachers have a role and a status in China they don’t have here. Their pay comes in about the same comparative level, let’s say about the five-eighths mark where 1 is ‘rich’ and 0 ‘impoverished’; they don’t pay tax and housing is heavily subsidised. Both Mr Li and Mr Su lived on the Mojiang campus. But education matters more and is taken far more seriously. At 9.30pm we would be walking around the streets of these southern rural towns and a gush of students would emerge from the school gates where they would have been doing their homework. In the shopfronts families would be supervising the work of younger children. Education is a family responsibility. Both the child and the parent must protect the future of the family through educational success.

Michael Bond, a psychologist born in Canada but who has lived in Hong Kong and other parts of China for more than 20 years, has extensively investigated research which seeks to identify and isolate distinctively Chinese cultural characteristics from the perspectives of social psychology. He presents some of his findings in Beyond the Chinese Face: Insights from psychology. The core of his book begins:

The Chinese child is brought up to regard home as refuge against the indifference, the rigours and the arbitrariness if life outside. This feat is encouraged by indulging then infant, restraining the toddler, disciplining the school child, encouraging the students to value academic achievement, and suppressing the divisive impulses of aggression and sexuality throughout development. Constantly during this process one is taught to put other family members before oneself, to share their pride and their shame, their sadness and their joy. Family relationships become a lifelong affair, with family activities continuing to absorb the lion’s share of one’s time and responsibility (1991:6) [Could this still be true in 2017? Maybe only by implication …]

If this is indeed the case, the Five Confucian principles of Duty nominated by Wu Ko-tu in 1861 (see p.2) are still very much alive and well, still at the heart of social relations. In Australia in Asia: Comparing cultures, a collaborative work (1996) edited by Anthony Milner and Mary Quilty, the many (Australian) authors provide their best shots at a similarly difficult task — cross cultural generalisation. One key idea from its chapter on education:

In Asian societies … to be fully human, to be adult is to know one’s place in relationships. The key value in a society such as this is harmony in relationships. … Ritualised interchange and deference to superiors forestall conflict and prevent confrontation or disagreement (ibid: 84) [Reflect on the events of Tian An Men Square in that light.]

It goes on to suggest that, among other things,

Western approaches to education are often seen as exotic in the Asian region. … The emphasis on debate and argument, the fostering of individuality, and the insistence on an egalitarian relationship between teacher and student run counter to strongly held values in many Asian societies.

Educated Australians take on school knowledge as their own individual knowledge. … In this process, authoritative knowledge is always seen only as a resource to draw on in developing one’s own knowledge. The novel ideas, personal fancies, interests and opinions valued in the West as signs of independence are not acceptable in most Asian classrooms. … [They] express ignorance of the norm — the ‘truth’ — and are thus evidence of a lack of education (ibid: 70-80). [Consider the exam question I quoted. The real issue is not when you should turn up for dinner, but whether you can remember the ‘correct’ answer provided by the teacher or text.]

A good teacher knows a great deal; the best teacher knows ‘everything’. [Note Mr Su’s similar comments on this subject.] The task of the teacher is to know the content, to organize it systematically and to present it in clear, vivid language. Elementary mastery means to have ready, correct recall of factual knowledge from memory. Students imitate a good teacher’s display of learning until they have perfected the replication of the teacher’s model and they know it by heart (ibid: 90).

To teach is to model: there is no applause here for the stumbler groping towards competence. Such a student makes a poor model. Only the good student who supplies a model answer to the question is allowed to act as a model for other students (ibid: 91). [See Mrs Chen’s interventions as a case in point.]

A harmonious relationship between teacher and student requires that students do not challenge the teacher. A teacher may even interpret a question as criticism: an indirect suggestion that the teacher has not been clear or lacks knowledge. Questions also waste the time of other students and risk showing up the questioner as lacking in diligence or ability. … the attributes of a good student are those of the endurance athlete: patience, precision, tenacity, fortitude and regulation of tempo (ibid: 92). [In this light, just how bad was my performance at Yuan Jiang …]

class of 50 2.jpeg

Because of the nature of the language, becoming literate in Chinese is a differing sort of task than becoming literate in English. Each different word is represented by one or more ideographs (pictorial characters). Thus a ‘complete’ keyboard, for example, would have more than 5000 keys; to read an ordinary book or an upscale newspaper requires a vocabulary of more than 3000. A ‘Thousand Character Mass Education’ movement began in, of all places, France during the first World War among the Chinese labourers working behind the Allied lines. One of them, James Yen, decided to do something about the illiteracy that plagued this group. Recognising the difficulty and length of time required for coming to terms with and memorizing this many characters, devised a more limited vocabulary of 1000 characters closely corresponding to the language actually used by this group of workers. When imported to the home country, this was an important step in developing mass literacy.

But the significance of extensive rote memorization to development of literacy should not have to be underlined. However, as noted in Comparing Cultures, ‘Although a student achieves mastery through repetition and memorisation, one cannot assume that this repetition is mindless. In China, for example, repetition and understanding are not separated; the precise form of the words is vital to the idea (ibid: 86).

Similarly the task of writing is far more complicated than that of working with Western alphabets. Neatness, balance and attention to detail require a level of fine motor coordination that would be unusual to find in Australian students of a similar age. A teacher of Chinese among our party was chary about producing any written Mandarin because it would be deemed infantile by its Chinese readers.

I have no doubt that the ‘special’ nature of these two fundamentals of education have a wide-ranging impact on what happens elsewhere in Chinese education — in pedagogy, in learning styles, in the concern for exactitude, even in the unquestioning acceptance of authoritative sources.

Bond reaches five conclusions, each of which have strong implications for the distinctive style and flavour of Chinese education, one of which follows naturally from this discussion of memorisation.

The need to master ideographs reinforces an academic emphasis on memory, attention to detail, and lengthy homework. It also strengthens a predisposition towards perceiving stimuli as whole rather than a collection of parts, and high spatial intelligence. (op cit: 118).

The other four are similarly significant.

  • The Chinese believe in the naturalness, necessity and inevitability of hierarchy. It is self-evident to Chinese that all men are born unequal. An efficient society requires a broadly accepted ordering of people. The alternative to hierarchy is chaos (luan) and anarchy which are together worse than a harsh authority.
  • The bases of this inequality are achievement, usually academic, wealth and moral example. The last is especially important for commanding political authority.
  • Laws negotiated by men are rigid, artificial and insensitive to the changing circumstances of life. The judgment of wise and compassionate men is a better way to regulate personal, social and political relationships. [For decades the People’s Republic of China had only two areas of law: one, concerning national security, and the other, astounding given what has been said about the importance of family, the one child rule.]
  • Man exists in and through relationships with others. The goal of socialization is to train children for lifelong interdependence with others by developing skills and values which promote harmony (ibid). [And right there is the heart of our differences.]

Bond notes that all these factors exist in other cultures, but it is their combination and ubiquity in China which he believes is unique.

These generalisations are like Platonic forms, instructive and useful as abstracted reference points, but their manifestations in our reality were various. The closer we got to the border with Myanmar, the more the cracks in their universality appeared.

Our experiences of Chinese schools to this point had been a bit like a tour of Australian Disadvantaged Schools Program Schools — my favourites. They’re always going for something, DSP schools, because they’ve got no choice. They have no room for bullshit and you just have to get on with it, every day. And out of the struggle of working in one, apart from learning how to teach, you may be able to rejoice in the richness of your professional life.

Mojiang No. 1 was an example of the competitive ethic at work. It enrolled the more capable students exiting the range of primary schools in the district. It had been more like a well established provincial high school carried along by the climate of its own and its community’s expectations. It had a certain, and this seems ridiculous to say, but, comfort. (I might say the same situation, less obviously regulated, exists in any Australian town where there are two or more secondary schools. One will be ‘posher’ and more staid with than the other/s with a clientele to match.)

At Lancang the seams were visibly moving apart. The kids weren’t in uniform, the welcome was less organized and, an important signal, the head boy and girl provided speeches of welcome (in English). The girl’s speech was immaculate, perfectly formed and delivered; but Bob (‘my English name’) broke out. He spoke from the deepest passion in his heart, a passion that tested and finally soundly beat his vocabulary, a romantic in a classical setting. He may one day be a formidable politician.

After the welcoming speeches, the kids ran in! and this was obviously, if not anticipated, entirely acceptable. I remember them as ‘swarming’. Impromptu classes took place all over the shop. It was wild, and it was fun. I laugh out loud thinking about it.

At the concert that night … and yes it was that night, after 10 hours of driving over cobbles in minivans with six people sick, with Mr Dennis in his new suit and white polo neck skivvy waiting for three hours to welcome us at the guard post four kilometres outside town … at the concert that night on the outdoor basketball courts, half the lights out and the PA system not really working and sitting up like Prince Charles in a large wicker throne with three kids on my lap, yes that night … I had more or less lost my voice and was hoping we would not be responsible for another ten items worth that night.Lancang.jpeg

Besides excellent and hot green tea, what was on offer? Not just a swathe of elegant ethnic dances, but as well they provided a kung fu routine, sang ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’ and another song in English the precise nature of which escaped me, and performed great little playlets that they had made up themselves, in English! Active learning in action. Mr Li was set back just slightly by this display of nouvel vague education out in the sticks.

And what did this show? To me at least, it showed that exactly the same sorts of division in school flavour and practice exist in China as they do in Australia. Lancang was more free, was breaking away from the orthodoxy. It had, let me tell you, hold your breath, pause — naughty students. I have a series of photos of one whole class becoming rowdy, and they may have got rowdier still without the tiniest reminder about appropriate behavior.

Orthodoxy may be challenged unconsciously, as was probably the case at Lancang, because in context it is simply unsuitable. It can also be challenged because, measured against absolute standards, you know your best efforts to achieve success are going to fail. The dice are loaded. From Lancang Middle School No. 1 we went a further step down, one harder again, to the Lancang ‘Nationalities’ School. (We would call ‘nationalities’ ethnic minorities.)

I have no doubt that these shifts we were observing had something to do with the diminishing proportion of Han, the dominant Chinese ethnic group (93 percent overall) among the population. The closer we came to the border, the more Lahu, Dai, Daishu, Yi and Miao people increased in number and prominence. They seem supported quite honorably by the central government which tends to leave them alone, often the best form of support when the alternative is oppressive forms of assimilation. It was suggested that, depending on relative economic and political circumstances, they migrate regularly across the apparently porous borders between China, Laos, and Myanmar. Most remarkably they are exempt from the one child policy.

And at the bottom of the pecking order, housed in a former PLA barracks, we were visiting a school composed only of ‘nationalities’ students from surrounding villages. (An aside: Lancang had been nearly totally destroyed by an earthquake less than decade ago. The barracks had been subsequently rebuilt. Mr Li and the Lancang-ese were comfortably philosophical about the earthquake: ‘In many ways, it is good to start again, to clear out the old …’)

dancing Nats.jpeg

The dance stage at the Nationalities School was a strip of ageing red carpet over old newspapers on the dirt under the shade of some cedars. And there we saw a boy dance who was indissolubly the dance. His utter confidence and pride, his grace and fluency, merged so completely with the music that it was startling. Truly. I have never seen anyone dance like that boy and I don’t expect to again. It was breathtaking.

The principal made an unexpected departure from the norm. In his welcoming speech he gave us a case report on the state of the school. It was excellent, both the report and what it indicated about the school. They were getting kids off to college in increasing numbers, exam performance was improving — and it was a school with spunk and vim. He didn’t say that, but it was obvious. I left feeling that those kids were in very good hands. Hooray, the Lancang Nationalities School. Keep up the good work.

A few weeks later, a world away, we visited our last school, the alma mater of China’s Premier Jiang Zemin in Shanghai’s French Quarter — the East China Model Middle School, another type of school that was familiar. We were ushered into the Board Room for a PowerPoint presentation about the school, its leadership, staff and famous former students who besides Jiang, include the only Chinese person [to that point] to have played basketball in the NBA. The presentation included a scan through the contents of the school’s very sophisticated website.

The dances here were ballet, classical French ballet, including a stunning interpretation of that rousing old Aussie anthem ‘Clip a Sheep’ (Click go the shears, sung in Chinese by a Year 8 student) replete with the most graceful sweeps of hand and arm to indicate shearing and some nuzzling motions designed perhaps to obtain the full benefit of sheep’s milk. Other items included a re-dubbing of five minutes of the film Jane Eyre, a committed recitation of ‘The May Queen’ with background music, and a dramatic version, in English, of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. For the finale, thirty or so senior students in contrastingly coloured uniforms provided a very capable version of ‘Hand in hand we stand’, the anthem of the previous summer Olympiad. The whole school watched this concert, and watched us watching this concert, via a closed circuit television network accessible in every plush classroom.

But despite this welter of technology and high culture, they were kids like any others, just as susceptible to a game of heads or tails. They wanted to know about the bands Australian kids listened to, and the cool ones were familiar with Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam. Mention of Michael Jackson drew a broader response. They also knew about ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and Shakespeare, but giggled with embarrassment at the play’s theme. Kids, like any others, but growing up in a culture ripe and vivid with its own character.

The idea that education is the key to the future seems cemented far more solidly into this culture than it is in ours. Chang Chih-tung’s nineteenth century dictum, ‘Chinese learning for essentials; Western learning for practical applications’ does not appear to be under any threat. School achievement is and will continue to be defined in academic terms — not by sporting prowess, social success or what we might think of as personal fulfillment. That gives a teacher with a class of 50 a big head start.



The beauty of a moment lingers on far beyond it in time/ Full moon magic moving invisible strings that rule us

                  — part of a repeating pattern on the curtains at Mojiang Primary School No. 1

The existence of an itinerary doesn’t necessarily mean you know where you’re going. In the buses we had been weaving in and out of the steep hills on dirt roads and rough tracks, always getting somewhere, but without a map orientation was difficult. This day was a case in point. We were off to Bixi, wherever and whatever that was, and it was the crack of dawn.

countr 3.jpeg

As the buses wound their way through the rills of mist, long vistas of orange terraces with green-topped hills would open up, their reflections appearing on the water in the paddies. By the side of the road huge stacks of fire wood were piled. It was all strangely still and inanimate, as it often was, apart from the occasional water buffalo lounging along. Now and then we would pass a stand of upended mud bricks drying in what would later be the sun, and we stopped at one point to take photos of a group of twenty or so people plucking geese in preparation for a wedding feast.

And then we arrived at Bixi. The bus pulled up in the village square next to a pile of rubbish complete with its own scurry of pigs near the memorial well full of dark green and very smelly water. We walked down the hutongs to the primary school past something that, because of the arrangement of its pews, looked a little like a church. But the television set in the iron cage where an altar might otherwise have been suggested that this was the town’s entertainment lounge. A sharp turn right, up a narrow hilly hutong and the school was at its end.


The kids were at morning calisthenics, in their lines stepping forward, arms raised, arms down, leg stretch one way and then the other. I joined in at the rear as discretely as possible. I found ten minutes of exercise in the morning and in the afternoon did wonders for my alertness. In the staff meeting room the tea, cigarettes and mandarins were duly proffered and I wandered outside to find a small horde of pre-school children who had gathered to see what the fuss was about. ‘Pre-school’ in this instance actually means ‘not yet at school’, not participants in some sort of kindergarten. I found a photo book of native Australian creatures and sat out on the verandah and ‘read’ it to them.

bixi 1.jpeg

This experience had two features. The first: I was going through this picture book and doing well on ‘crocodile’, ‘kangaroo’, ‘koala’ and so on until I came to ‘long-tailed grey potaroo’. Never heard of it. It looked like a rat and the kids seemed to be assuring me that they knew what it was and in fact had several at home. The second: after I had been through the book twice pronouncing the English names with a flourish, the kids copying with great gusto, one three year-old turned it back to the start and then proceeded to teach me their own words for each of the creatures, correcting my clumsy pronunciation as we went. So smart, so quick, so confident, such adept learners.

Back down the hutongs to the buses accompanied by the infant throng. This time it appeared that we were going even further up into the hills to a market which Mr Huang told me was called Chung Ling.

We arrived several centuries back in time, at a blind cleft in the hills, the first Europeans of any sort to bother the locals — who weren’t wearing ethnic dress for display, but because it was their clothes. There were a number of ‘tractors’ that we had become accustomed to, ingenious pieces of engineering, a stationary diesel motor with a large fly wheel to which you could attach any sort of belt or pulley you wished, including one which, connected a simple gearing arrangement, would pull you, your four wheels and your cab along. The outskirts of the market were devoted to livestock, mainly buffalo but with some donkeys, small ponies and goats as well. They were all untethered, restrained by nothing other than the prospect of the punishment they would receive if they moved. A couple did move while I was watching and the punishment was severe. The RSPCA would find China a challenging environment in which to work. Blankets, big slabs of tofu, musical instruments, posters, articles of clothing, baskets, pottery, fruit, vegetables, smokes, plenty of smokes: the sorts of things, perhaps, you would expect to find. A lot of the exchange was straight barter. We were in another version of the cash-less society.

The next port of call produced one of the most directly affecting moments of the trip. We bused back to Jing Jiang school near Bixi. We had been surrounded a high degree of material poverty all day and Jing Jiang was no exception. But at the stop we climbed off to find several hundred children lined up along the street, and in their light blue and white uniforms, and clapping. The teachers were at the head of the line in dark suits, each one with the tags still on the sleeves indicating they had been newly purchased for the occasion. Their first European visitors were going to be warmly welcomed, and with a sinking feeling of embarrassment I wondered if it was perhaps too warmly for the good of the hosts.

bixi 2.jpeg

Imposters, I thought, as we walked down the clapping lane. I am an imposter. What can I offer in return? This thrill, this politeness, this warmth. At the end of the line a 10 year-old girl was kicking some pigs out of the way. But it wasn’t the end of the line. We turned the corner and for another two hundred metres winding up a steep hill there were light blue and white uniforms all the way up to the gates of what must be one of the most picturesquely located schools in the world, right on top of one of these very high hills. The clapping had grown louder, and I burst into tears. The location must have had something to do with it, but I think it was mainly just looking at these children. They must have clapped for fifteen minutes or more before filing back to assemble on the basketball courts. Why were they clapping? Obedience? No doubt. The way all visitors were welcomed? Whatever it was, none of us, I think, had felt quite like this before.

Trina and I were given a tour of the science room, distinguished by having some glass-fronted cases on one wall containing ancient and very dusty specimens (possibly surplus potarooos) and a chart of the circulatory system. The school building was new, financed by a special World bank loan and supported by a sister school in Shanghai, but was anything but flash. Just bricks and mortar; and rather like parts of Europe in the eleventh century, sparing use of glass as a public sign of some wealth. Some. The boarding quarters were sub-Spartan, rough living on the ground.

We were hustled off to lunch. Several days had gone by and it was still only 12.30. As a sign of the esteem in which we were held, they had killed two goats for our lunch. ‘Very, very special’, noted Mr Su wagging his head sagely.

You may like goat. It has a stringy heavy texture and a flavour that to me says ‘goat’. Millions of people across the world think it a delicacy. I think, in this instance however, that one and a half of the two would have been left behind for those who could really enjoy it. Bixi mao tai.jpegA large aluminium pot of mao tai (a spirit made from sorghum) had been produced and the toasts (gan bei ‘empty glass’) which began slowly picked up in intensity. A gan bei is fine if the bei is not so big and the portion modest, but the glasses were large and the portions were like everything else about this visit, extremely generous. Paul, a picture of strapping youth, swears he discreetly disposed of his helpings out the window. Myself, a picture of aged decrepitude, well … I felt I had to do my best. It was my responsibility. Half a glass of mao tai seems to fluoresce all the way down to the stomach, and subsequently.

But after several toasts, the world appeared a better place. Never better really than where we were, in the company of people with whom we didn’t share a language, a value system, a way of life, a standard of living — but still had found some common platform of good will.bixi 3.jpeg



Chicken and pork fat covered the floor of the big room on the third floor of the Mojiang Hotel. After four days this space had very much become our home. We had met, eaten, drunk, sung, chortled and whinged there. From the window you could check if your washing had blown off the lines. It had been a huge day, for the hotel as well as us. We think there may have been at least six weddings celebrated there during its course and the staff may have fed as many as 2,500 people, and that’s a lot of bones to be spat discreetly between the knees onto the floor.


It was our last night in Mojiang (above). We had already been to Bixi and the Vocational School and had exchanged a visit to Lianzhu No. 2 Middle School for our time at Chung Ling market — a big day. For the evening Mr Su’s carefully typed itinerary said, ‘Enjoy’ (an exhortation not to be trifled with) ‘the ethnical dances performed by the Mojiang students.’ We also had to enjoy the ethnical dances performed by the warmly welcomed Australian friends, not to mention their singing. This is the point at which we turned to Ted for survival. Ted teaches at a primary school in the Coromandel Valley among the hills of Adelaide and was one of the reasons we heaved a sigh of relief during the preparatory teleconference. He was a serious bush dancer, had clap sticks, his mouth organ and repertoire of good ideas that made him worth even more than the pleasure of his company.

Jing had taught us:

Yi shan yi shan liang jing jing/ Mantian duoshi xiao xing xing/ Gua zai tianshang fang guangming/ Haixiang xuduo xiaoyanjing

If you start with ‘twinkle twinkle,’ you’ll probably get the rest right. We added ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Country Roads’ and ‘Eidelweiss’ from the karaoke (better known by our hosts than by us. ‘Five Hundred Miles’ was the other southern Yunnanese hit. When I tried to sing it to my class in Shanghai it had lost its resonance and I was confronted by the … ah … continuity of its lyrics.) Helen was going to provide ‘The Locomotion’; but then we had to dance. After our concert planning meeting we had gone up to the roof of the hotel under the clothes lines which had presented their own challenges and, with the other residents peeping from their windows, practised. Thank god for Ted. ‘One two three four,’ he went. ‘Back two three four. In two three four, back two three four.’ Round and round and in and out. Oi! One two three etc etc. I have forgotten the names of the dances. Ted knew them all and he was an excellent teacher.

We sat down to our choi sun, broccoli, and rape stalks, chop bones, chilli chicken, steamed buns with red bean filling, tomato omelette, tofu, roasted peanuts, broth with noodles, steamed rice (as an after course), and chips, chips of potato covered in sugar. The meals had been moulded to our preferences as read from what we left after we had finished. Sugared chips represented an almost inspired understanding of what Westerners really like to eat — carbohydrate, fat and sugar — all in one, almost as good as a doughnut. I was bit soggy really, I had made the most of the mao tai at lunch time and, while not badly hung over, I was ready for a snooze. The evening was going to require a deep intake of breath and a purposeful stare. I settled back into a beer or two.

If we were going a bit slowly, the local performers were not. The third floor was filling rapidly with a staggering array of colour and costume, clutches of kids everywhere huddled round hand mirrors with makeup brushed and sticks of colour. The buzz had begun.

‘Camilla’, dressed to kill, and English teacher who wants to be a tour guide and one day will be, as our host along with a senior student who repeated her words in Chinese. There was no discernible change in the background roar from the audience when we were warmly welcomed for the hundredth time and directed again: ‘You will enjoy the program presented by the students of Mojiang Middle School No. 1.’

The big room was not an enormous room and it was packed with several hundred people. We were the drab. It was a kaleidoscope of colour — sequins and sparkles, red, white, blue, black gold and green — and like a kaleidoscope, as the focus shifted so did the clusters of colours, as the members of the ‘programs’ seated themselves. So here we have eight sets of flowing white pants with horizontal red stripes, light blue embroidered jackets and large black head dresses covered in sequins. There we have bright orange skirts with tight bodices and the fullest of skirts, next to bright red bow ties topping gauzy shirts. Ten, at least, out of ten for done-up-ness.

The first program began with six younger boys in groups of three, bent from the waist with their heads touching. A frolicksome brass tune struck up, hey hey lah dee day, something like that, and round and round they went, then back again in delicate little shuffles. Six girls joined in, long plaits flying, working their way between the boys who were now upright and prancing. Their moves were constantly surprising — down on the floor, up again, lined up in formation, so precise, so competent. I couldn’t place the music, and then I could. It sounded like fairground music coming through what the English would call a tannoy, fast and furious. Rah rah tiddle liddle liddle. Now they were passing round sheets of paper folded like books with large characters on their front which became props for a rowing action. They finished and the crowd roared. It was all such a surprise.

The second item was danced by four older girls with large winnowing baskets lined with red foil, less frenetic, more graceful, bodies weaving, sprung from the knees, a matter of counterpoint. This was followed by a stamping circle dance in traditional costume to a song we heard a lot which sounded like ‘Dong xi ri Dong xi ri dah dah dah dah, dah dah dah dah/ Dong xi ri’ and so on, a rousing anthemic song. A young girl danced an exquisite solo, a dance like we had seen in Kunming at the Golden Dragon, the first ‘Chinese’ dance of the night.

The Mojiang teachers then sang ‘Ten Little Indians’ with all the verve they could muster. This was followed by ‘The Long and Winding Road’ from the karaoke sounding like the dirge that it is. The damage was repaired immediately by a rendition of ‘Country Roads’ that everyone in the hall appeared to know and join in with. The hall rang with unison clapping.

dancing 2.jpeg

Then another ethnical dance. The eight girls in the flowing white trousers with red stripes had put on aprons embroidered in light blue, silver, white and red. The feature of their dance were pairs of sticks with bells attached that they could shake and tap. This was another intricate whirling dance. Then suddenly they would stop, motionless. Then sway their hips and upper bodies before whirling off again with a tinkle of bells — so apparently easy, so fluid.

The next had a narrative, a mating game. The boys began, dancing togther. Then the girls. The boys again. This time the girls had their hands cocked to their ears to overhear what the boys were up to. Then they began to intermingle, one gender dancing around the stationary members of the other gender before swapping. Finally they joined into pairs and, as Ted would say, stripped the willow. This dance finished with the dancers throwing handfuls of glitter over the audience.

And so it went, on and on; they would perform, we would perform. We didn’t get much better, but the evening did.

dancing 1.jpeg

My highlight was a group of seniors who did their own version of a hoe-down to music which my daughter tells me was ‘Cotton Eye Joe’. The boys wore jeans, white shirts and hats, the girls black skirts ranging from long to very short, white vests over blue T-shirts and short black socks which were emphasized as they did their delicate and exact little jumps. It was fast and furious, the boys with their thumbs in their belts riding their steeds, the girls hitch-hiking and then urging their mounts along with winding motions, big knee lifts, the boys shadowing the actions of the girls. Where had this dance come from? It was Oklahoma — ‘The cowboy and the farmer cain’t be friends.’ They appeared to just stop but with the last chord, they banged into a dramatic tableau. Ah the dance, the dance.

dancing 3.jpeg

This was just like the show. When it was over, it wasn’t. It was time for photos and autographs and chat. No one wanted to go home. My sogginess had been replaced by an overwhelming feeling of exhilaration. Myrna was bailed up by a group of young boys with so much to say. ‘We warmly welcome you. Do you like the dance? Do you like our school? Do you like our country? Do you have a good time? Do you … do you … we … ‘ and then, as happens, the vocab just runs out. Finally, ‘We … we love you’, one pronounced. It was that sort of night.




I had always thought that jade looked like plastic and, although there is that remarkable carved jade carriage in the middle of the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney, beneath notice. But that was before.

Jing Hong came at the end of an exhilarating but solid set of school experiences. People have asked me what we did at night. Well, lots of things — concerts, karaoke, eating, chatting, packing, night markets, walking — but I was always glad to get into bed, tired by the intensity of the trip and its myriad parts. Jing Hong was a break, a free day at the end of another long bus trip, and it had a backpackers’ cafe (the Mei Mei) which served European breakfasts. Breakfast for 23 plus, cooked on two gas rings is a tall order and so we pored over the menu the night before. Muesli, yoghurt, bacon and eggs, coffee, toast, jam, pancakes — a bit pathetic really to think we might have been slavering over such offerings. But slaver we did.

When it came to the point, the muesli was a big pile of rolled oats, the yoghurt some tofu-ish lumps, the bacon and eggs a test, but the banana pannos, yum. The coffee wasn’t great, but the Golden Dragon in Kunming had been charging the equivalent of $5 Australian for something darkish and wet of lower quality. When in China … that’s the clear message.

So we lay back into these delights and chatted, watching the endless stream of cyclists, some with utterly improbable loads, and eavesdropping on European escapees talking about their adventures in Xishuangbanna (the local area which draws tourists to, among other things, its stone gardens). The day was beatific. Myrna and I hired some bikes and rode aimlessly over the bridge across the Mekong and watched cheeky dogs who weren’t as obviously conscious of their possible fate as they might have been. We found a market where we bought a post-modernist bag (which demonstrated influences from camouflage jackets, Hollywood, the Chinese and various other unknown flags) for approximately nothing, some Nashi pears, a pineapple (the speciality of Xishuangbanna) and some biscuits.

What more could you want? You could want jade.

Near our hotel in Kunming had been a … what? A jewellery supermarket, I suppose. It had rubies from Burma, star sapphires, emeralds and amethyst from Sri Lanka, a certain amount of gold, a profusion of sparkling bits and pieces. But what it really had was jade. Rings, broaches, ornaments, necklaces, mounts for clocks, bracelets — a sea of green.


The neophyte approaches. It might be like looking at the aisles of prepared food in an American supermarket. You’re sure there must be something reasonably inoffensive that you can eat there somewhere, but how would you know? It’s what you like yourself, isn’t it? If you like milky jade or the lime green, who is to tell you the sea green is superior? Then there is something about the clink the jade piece makes when it is on a string and you hit it with something solid. Got your string or your piece of cotton on you? What clink? Do you want it to sound clunky or bell-like? And if you can find a bell-like clink…  well I couldn’t. Flaws. What are we looking for here? No jade is clear, inscrutable substance that it is. With prices for apparently similar objects varying by 10,000 per cent it should be more articulate. We thought the safest bet was to buy the cheapest that we liked, and so emerged from the supermarket with four bracelets, not unlike green marble but more transparent, for 60 yuan ($12) and some rings. Over the road Myrna bought a pair of circlets for ear-rings bargained down to 80 yuan.

It might be its very inscrutability that gets you in, but I quickly learned that it was nothing like plastic. It has as much character as any organic substance. So when we cycled past Jade Alley in Jing Hong, a street about a kilometre long which has little but jade shops in it, we cycled in. About 40 metres in. That was far enough.

My dear companion had become absorbed by jade and so we went through the stock, not just the stock on display but the stock from out the back, the good stuff, beautifully wrapped in envelopes of multi-leaved paper. The staff was a man in a Mao suit, a sure sign of elderliness, and a younger woman who might have been his wife. He wanted a sale; she wanted the right price. They had their piece of cotton, but I had only the glint in their eye to guide me about respective clinks. Nonetheless, the good stuff didn’t have to explain itself. It seemed visibly superior. Myrna bought a bracelet, a racehorse next to the Clydesdales she had bought in Kunming, finer, translucent, a brightish white with a streak of green viscera through one side. It went clunk satisfyingly and cost 180 yuan.

This objet was admired to the extent that Kathe rushed back to that shop before the plane left and bought a big one, a good one, milkier than Myrna’s with a variety of lovely shades of pale green. Eight hundred.


Later, as they say. A day later. Soft sleepers have four-berth cabins and, whatever you do, four into 23 leaves three. So Kathe, Jing and Ted shared their cabin with a Chinese gentleman who turned out to be a jade dealer. Jade! Let’s talk jade, let’s show how clever we have been with our purchases. He laughed a lot that jade dealer, as I suspect jade dealers must. When you’re dealing with something so mutable as taste in luxury items a capacity to laugh might be considered essential.

He laughed even louder when the pieces came out for valuation. What was good? The Clydesdales produced modest praise, the ear-rings with their grass green-ness and their translucency some applause, but the pieces de resistance were worth, well a good laugh in a train going to Chong Qing. A shame really to have to revert to the shamelessness of: I bought what I’m wearing. I paid a price I’m happy about. I know what I like. I like what I bought. It’s not a completely water tight syllogism, but it makes some sense. And if it doesn’t, you can always have a laugh.


Later again. Ten days later. We are in the Shanghai Museum’s Ancient Chinese Jade Gallery. The jade pieces, intricately carved, are white, black, almost clear, turquoise, grey, ochre, mother of pearl, orange and amber as well as green. The same piece — rings, ornaments, buttons, axes, vases, heads, serpents, dragons — is often multi-coloured. The jade is particulate, marbled, swirly and solid as well translucent. I am unable to administer any clink tests.

However, the prize piece, a wine vessel with three serpents from the early Qing Dynasty, about 30cms high, glamorous in a way which transcends glamour, seems to be fashioned from a rain cloud.jade-vase.jpg



This is Hell, this is hell, I am sorry to tell you,/ It never gets better or worse/ But you get used to it after a spell/ Heaven is hell in reverse.

           — Elvis Costello ‘This is Hell’ Brutal Youth

I had been facing the 22-hour train trip from Kunming to Chong Qing (‘ching’) with some minor trepidation. I like train travel, but it seemed a very long time. However the soft sleepers were exactly that, the lulling motion of the train on the very modern hard-coupled tracks laid on concrete sleepers, barely more than an occasional ‘ccct ccct’ compared with a full-blown ‘clickety clack clickety clack’, had me asleep in no time.

We woke to the train going in the wrong direction. During the night it had been shunted and the engine attached to the opposite end. Over the 600 or so kilometres we had covered the landscape had changed to become more ‘Chinese’ as ‘Chinese’ exists in Chinese art — gorges swathed in mist with occasional boat traffic, towering cliffs, plains punctuated with single dramatically distorted trees: and more ‘Chinese’ as I remembered from documentaries and travelogues — huge power stations and factory buildings in stained grey concrete, dormant paddies and all sorts of remarkable arrangements for irrigation. The most obvious sign of life this early was a funeral on a hillside, a procession of people dressed in white carrying huge white wreaths. The villages, still sparse, now had tower blocks for accommodation. The dominant colours had changed totally from the blue of the Yunnanese sky and the orange of its soil, to grey and soft green. And it was cold.

After a time there was a repeating pattern out the murky windows of grey tower blocks, next to lacy market gardens exquisitely laid out along the contours of the land, next to huge deltas of rubbish cascading down into the water courses, back to grey tower blocks.

Chong qing.jpeg

It was nearly dark again when we arrived. There was a problem getting our luggage because it was dinner time and, well … it was dinner time. We stood on the platform watching as the trains came in. After one or two disembarkations we began estimating how many people were on each of them because the populations of large country towns were arriving in a regular stream — five thousand, six thousand at a time. After Kathe and Jing had gone modestly berserk, the luggage arrived and we entered Chong Qing.

Chong Qing means something like ‘double good luck’ and is the largest city in Sichuan at the confluence of the Yangzi and Jialing Rivers. Major industrialization began in the 1920s and it became the capital-in-exile of the Guomintang during the Japanese invasion of 1937 and remained so until 1945. Its population could be 3 million if you count the inner city, or 17 million if you count the conurbation. It looked like the latter, not that I could see much.

We had arrived in Gotham City. A friend had been here recently and before we left told us that Chong Qing was her version of hell. Our guide, the amazing Grace, who hadn’t thought to meet us inside the station, told us that Chong Qing averaged 27 clear days a year, and this wasn’t one of them. From the bus park outside the station through the ribbons of whatever was in the air, the lights of a shopping strip were visible. Looming high above it a massive patch of black and then, almost too high to credit, the lights of a series of tower blocks. And then, even further beyond another patch of black, like the northern lights, like an illuminated message from god, were rows of neon. I just had to stop and catch my breath. You’ve seen ‘Batman II’. Like me, you think the art direction went completely over the top. Well, here we were on set, with no computer gimmickry to supplement unreal reality.

The bus trip to the hotel only enhanced this impression: though a tunnel, glimpses of huge viaducts, the rivers are down there somewhere, and whoosh we passed a pylon for one of the major bridges, huge tower blocks everywhere built into the sides of steep steep hills, vast tips of rubbish, apartment stores, shafts of light in the gloom, another tunnel, and an express motorway lit with glimmering yellow light. Just where were we going? Could it be like a Batman film, that we were going to skid to a halt precipitously on a broken bridge thousands of meters above whatever was below, or even plunge over?

We were actually going to the Renmin Binguan, the People’s Hotel, and if the people were staying there, which didn’t appear to be the case, they would have been the happiest of campers. Modelled on the Temple of the Kingdom of Heaven in Beijing, the hotel was one of series of circular buildings, the largest of which housed a massive conference hall where national Party conferences occur. After checking in we walked around to one of the great feeds of China in a restaurant associated with the hotel. The members of our party who went off to shop missed the majestic dancing fountains in the People’s Park.

It had, of course, not cleared in the morning. Grace had promised us pandas but, at the time dawn should really have occurred, revealed that pandas would not be available. Why? ‘Sometimes in China there is no explanation’, she explained. I can take or leave pandas. They are not high on my agenda. But instead she took us to an artists’ colony which, if you could see, would have overlooked the Jialing River and might have been situated quite picturesquely. The colony and its artists themselves were stale with age and fatigue. There were some nice woodcuts. The rest … Then Grace who was fast becoming our whipping girl, put on Chiang Kai Shek’s villa set in Eling Park. I had forgotten places like Eling Park existed — bad dodgems, concrete hedges, crook food, Coca Cola, Fanta and Sprite, stalls selling tourist bits and pieces for substantial prices — like a distillation of bad English seaside resorts in the 50s. Besides tunnels to all sorts of places to allow a fast getaway, Chiang Kai Shek’s villa had pedestal porcelain toilets. I think for the foreign guest that would have been its main attraction. It was the first time I saw a cheong sam in China (for sale to tourists), and there were lots of carved jade, coins, and other things you might buy if you absolutely had to divest yourself of money.

Chong qing 2.jpegThe other virtue of Eling Park perched on top of what might have been, if you could have checked, a mountain-ette, was that you could look down the sheer cliff faces, which still managed to attract and sustain their share of rubbish, at the bleakest accommodation you can imagine — ten and fifteen storeys of scabrous concrete with washing ever so optimistically hung out on the terraces, and surrounded by the customary piles of refuse.

Now I have a detailed theory about Milan and the Sforzas role in the building of a fundamentally belligerent society based almost entirely on a full bottle of orange juice spilling out into my day bag. There are circumstances of the most incidental sort which colour a traveller’s fleeting impressions of a place. So stepping back more objectively, what else do I know about Chong Qing?

It is famous for its heat in the summer, one of China’s ‘Three Furnaces’ — the others being Wuhan further down the Yangzi, and Nanjing, further again. Its population is currently swollen by, literally, millions of unemployed workers from the surrounding regions who are exercising their illegitimate right to free trade in the shoe shining and pencil selling businesses. There is an immense turnover in building as commercial interests redevelop the sorts of tower blocks I could see from Eling Park. This is being resisted by the poor and unemployed, who will also become homeless if the developments are carried through. There are no bicycles to be seen because, I would think, only a fool would try to cycle round its hills. There are, however, cable cars.

More soberly, Chong Qing represents one possibility for China’s future. In 1996 77,000 factories across the country were closed at a stroke. The quality of the air and water would have improved immeasurably as a result, but how many workers with apparently secure jobs would have watched that security evaporate? If there were 100 workers in each of those factories, not an unreasonable estimate — 7.7million. What would they do? Chinese society is organized in work units. When you are no longer a worker where do you belong? What are you going to live on? Where are you going to live? When the shoe cleaning business is running a glut, and all those who need pencils have them, what then? And the piles of rubbish. Once this rubbish would have been organic and would have degraded as it washed down the rivers into the ocean. Now, with the advance of civilisation, a good proportion of it is polymer-based, singlet bags, polystyrene containers and the like, and this will float out into the Pacific, possibly arriving at Bondi in time for a surf carnival if it hasn’t already been engorged by a now dead fish or sea bird. One world, made emphatically real. This is a study in surfeit. For the first time in China, I thought there might be far too many people.

Chong Qing is what China could easily become. It might be for that reason that Chong Qing is one place I feel I must return to, as an unsolved puzzle on which I have spent too little time. I want another look, ah … that is, if … well conditions of visibility, that type of thing. The next time I may avoid Grace and her destinations and obfuscations, and I may see Batman, or at least The Joker, the person so obviously in charge.



TAM Square.jpeg

Tian An Men Square was crusted with ice and the wind was bitter in the darkness. But just as one will walk miles to stand under the Eiffel Tower on arrival in Paris, we were there — a vast open space where two million people can stand in reasonable comfort, Mao’s mausoleum at its southern end, a 20 metre-high portrait of him at the northern end over the entrance to The Forbidden City, and an obelisk at its centre.

This obelisk, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, achieved its own sort of fame during the struggles of 1989, but the Square had also been the focal point for a public demonstration against the Gang of Four led by Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, in 1976, some few months before Mao’s struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease terminated. This occasion was the death of Zhou Enlai, Mao’s widely respected colleague and for many years the public face of China in foreign affairs. While hundreds of people were arrested and beaten, Deng Xiaoping was the focal point for blame and he disappeared from public view for the third time in his remarkable career.

At the base of the Monument is a sign, in its own way a reminder of the potency of the Square as a political symbol. It says, among other things, in English just as it is written:

  1. The Monument to the People’s Heroes is a major national revolutionary cultural relics. Please keep the Monument solemn, respec-tidy and in good order. …
  2. Presenting wreaths, baskets of flowers, garlands and small flowers to the Monument must be approved by the Tian An Men Square Administrative Committee. Registration of formalities should ne made five days ahead.
  3. No photos, Videos or film — making inside the Monument’s protective fence without permission.
  4. No writing, carving, hanging or placing anything on the Monument. No sitting and lying down on the ground. No joking and playing, destroying the public properties. Keep off from the grass [invisible in any direction from the base of the Monument]. No entrance of inflammable and explosive materials to the area.
  5. No spitting, throwing cigarette ends, waste paper, fruit skins or cores. No urination in the area.
  6. Any violators should be punished by the Tian An Men Square Administrative Committee and other department concerned. More serious cases should be punished sternly according to the law.

Get past the Chinese English, and that’s a very clear statement. No nonsense please!

To that list can be added, no entry to the Square after sundown, as we discovered in the freezing air. Members of the People’s Liberation Army will help you firmly but politely to understand. There seemed little alternative but to try to persuade a restaurant into feeding us some Peking Duck and beer — it was after 7.30! — even if they did want to be paid beforehand so that the cashier could go home.

The Square is flanked by the Great Hall of the People and the Revolutionary History Museum, the latter closed from 1966 till 1978 in order that history could be re-assessed and appropriately re-defined. These two buildings face each other symmetrically across the Square, massive icons of Communist revolutionary architecture. Beijing with its vast boulevards and its majestic public building is nothing if not grand. And accessible. There was nowhere we wanted to go that we couldn’t, and no sense of control or repression, for wealthy white Australians at least. But the ‘hello’ people had largely been cleared away from the forecourt of the Forbidden City. ‘Hello people’ are people who for their livelihood sell tourists postcards, cheap maps, souvenirs, hats and other dross, and say ‘hello’ loudly, frequently and insistently — a whole desperate commercial language in one word.

With its covering of compacted snow, the Forbidden City looked pristine and pure, aesthetic but somehow unintelligible. Nine hundred and ninety-nine and a half rooms — home to Emperors, their families, their concubines and their eunuchs — assembled, might I say, like a Chinese puzzle. Secrecy, enclosure, self preservation, and self memorialisation, both alive and very dead. The stone slabs on the ground are seven layers thick to foil tunnellers. As much as anything it seemed like a prison, duplicated in modern times at the Zhongnanhai Compound (in the next block west) where Mao and his family, followers and concubinage lived on and off for many years. Leading China, any country, comes at a ferocious cost.

The Temple of the Kingdom of Heaven which had ample ‘hello people’ was not much more intelligible — gloriously photogenic, but redolent of another time and place which required study for access. This view might have ben influenced by the fact that it was minus 10-15C. Icicles from the water vapour of my breath formed on my beard and moustache, and despite thermal underwear, down coats, gloves and hats, staying warm was the over-riding preoccupation. The white surgical masks that I had always assumed were used to protect cyclists from air pollution were quite useful for keeping that part of your face warm in weather like this.

The next day was even colder with an intermittently brisk wind. The Ming tombs were a spectacle among their white carpet, but the Shengdao (‘god street’) leading to them with its pairs of huge sculpted figures and animals defining the curved path to Heaven was better. It might have been because of the sense of participation, estranged and alien participation but participation nonetheless, available from retracing this ancient path. The same weather became more bearable. The windows of our bus driven by ‘No. 2 best driver’ fogged up and then froze almost as soon as we boarded for a newly restored section of The Great Wall (more correctly ‘walls’ said the tourist who had read the guidebook) at Juyongguan, the ‘first best of eight scenes of Yanjin’.


From the pass where the bus stopped, the Wall snaked up a long ridge rising high, six or seven hundred metres, above the valley floor. Paul, Myrna and I had been reading Jon Krakauer’s account of the 1996 disaster on Everest Into Thin Air, and as we looked up at where the wall peaked we knew the importance of ‘turn around time’. We set off up the icy steps at a pelt with spindrifts of snow whipping across the walled passage. I decided to be satisfied at the second last guard house, but Ann appeared, vastly fortified after her illness, to ‘short rope’ me to the summit. If Armstrong could actually have seen The Wall from the moon, I would be very surprised. In the surreal-ly clear air it had merged into the grey of the valley wall just a few kilometres away.

* * * * *

We had accomplished the transition from teachers to tourists with frightening ease. To this point we had been accompanied by the paraphernalia of tourism — cameras, day bags, ‘sensible’ clothing and footwear, dirty clothes — but they were supplementary to the hefty hoard of teaching materials and presents. Even though there were times I felt intrusive, it was possible to believe that we were on a mission of substance. We actually had been I think. Friendly contact between people of very different cultures can never be any harm. Chong Qing had been little more than a striking stopover. But now that we were in Beijing with ‘Lily’ a guide of considerable skill and knowledge, we were on tour and our role and personae had changed.

Far more than previously, our comparative wealth had become apparent, and as a result, within our narrow ambit of materially-based social exchange, we were in a position of command. How much? How Much! Phhoooar, fugggedaboudit! ‘Hello people’ exist, of course, because we do. Something of the arrogance of the tourist was returning because of the medium of exchange was not labour, that great leveller, but simple wealth, and shopping had become more important than anything but eating and sleeping. The ’traps’ awaited us — the silk shop (awful), the cultured pearl shop (I liked the tie and vest made out of pearls but only to remember as the essence of dagginess, a word, a concept even, which might not exist in Chinese), the cloisonné factory (interesting, and said something important about the nature of Chinese art), the Friendship stores (utterly charmless). A tour bus can be as confining as any gaol.

On our free day, Myrna and I strolled down Jiangguomennei Dajie, part of the ‘first ring road’, to the major Friendship Store and the Silk Market, past the vast glassed-in cathedrals of banking and commerce, past the McDonald’s and the Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Dunkin’ Donuts and the DéliFrance, along the 30 metre wide footpath with scarcely a person in sight. In temperatures like this even Beijing does not teem. Neither did the Friendship Store. ‘Disinterested’ means ‘objective’ but is in common use as ‘uninterested’; the shop attendants were both. Our taxi driver searched for traffic and found it, bringing us to a standstill for 25 minutes before dropping us four or five kilometres from where we wanted to go. There, a tourist story! Silly taxi driver. We wanted to go to Wang Fujing, the George Street, the Bourke Street, of Beijing, to which we walked with the aid of a good and very cheap map bought against advice from a Hello person.

Wang Fujing was bustling with vigour and commerce, anything from great clothing bargains to the New World department store which is easily recognisable as another Harrod’s (well, like Harrod’s, but definably not Harrod’s) with prices to match. At the end of this street, however was the China Art Gallery where we wanted to go. There was an exhibition of art works from a range of countries competing for the ‘world prize’ in Chinese art. Mainly water colours and calligraphy, some contestants (mainly from the US) had stepped outside traditional bounds and, I fear, out of the contest. The winner, modern in this context, was a realist monochrome portrait in brown of grandfather, father and son, seemingly representative of pre-revolutionary Chinese traditions. It was good, but there were some interesting competitive criteria at work. Certainty, exactitude and convention stood out, as well as reference to the past. It was a metaphor as good as any for the education system.

 * * * * *

‘Everything happens in China’, wrote Mr Su, and he was right as always. Because, before leaving for Shanghai, we had an appointment at the Australian Embassy. And it was thus we found ourselves drinking Twining’s English Breakfast tea and eating familiar biscuits in a lounge with walls decorated by huge canvasses by Ginger Riley and photographs of Australian cities and the outback. And in this very comfortable environment we recovered the purpose of the trip, switching from tourists to scholars again as we listened to Ric Smith, Australia’s Ambassador to China, himself a former teacher, provide a series of touchstones for our experiences. He knew his business. What he said made me think enough to want to write something about it separately.



It was in the month of November that Kublai returned to Khan-balik. And there he stayed till February and March, the season of our Easter. Learning that this was one of our principal feasts, he sent for all the Christians and desired them to bring him the book containing the four Gospels. After treating the book to repeated applications of incense with great ceremony, he kissed it devoutly and desired all his lords and barons to do the same. This usage he regularly observes on the principal feasts of Christians, such as Easter and Christmas. And he does likewise on the principal feasts of the Saracens, Jews and idolaters. Being asked why he did so, he replied: ‘There are four prophets who are worshipped and to whom all the world does reverence. The Christians say that their god is Jesus Christ, the Saracens Mahomet, the Jews Moses and the idolaters Sakyamuni Burkhan, who was the first to be represented as God in the form of an idol. And I do honour and reverence to all four, so that I may be sure of doing it to him who is greatest in heaven and truest; and I pray to him for aid.’

           — Marco Polo, The Travels

The criticism of enemies is never listened to nor taken into account by the devout. The Moslems were not deterred by Christian comment upon their theology; the Puritans paid no heed to Catholic invective; both sides accused the other of every vice of authoritarian oppression, both sides persecuted those who did not accept their doctrine; to both sides their own was the ‘free’ world. If such critics are listened to, the hearer must wonder why those of the opposite opinion, presumably sane men, can possibly accept and submit to doctrines described as an atrocious perversion of the values of human existence. But the credulous listener would get this same impression by accepting the criticism of the other side.

When Chinese Communism is examined it is easy to see the characteristic defects of a dogmatic religion and a totalitarian system, but this in no way shakes the faith of the Chinese in their new regime, and in no way explains how it came to exercise its present authority over the minds of men. The political revolution which changed China from a monarchy to a Communist authoritarian state was paralleled by a literary and cultural revolution which had an equally profound effect on thought. The military success of the Communists would have been in itself insufficient to secure the new regime had it not been accompanied by a conversion which has aligned the great majority of Chinese intellectuals behind the Communist movement.

           — C. P. Fitzgerald, The Birth of Communist China

It does not matter whether the cat is black or white, so long as it catches the mouse.

           — Deng Xiao Peng

Beijing rules, to the second ring road.

           — A contemporary Chinese saying. The second ring road is about five kilometres from the seat of government.

* * * * *

What do we know about China?

It has lots of people; and they’re not like us. But above all it is on the other side politically. It has been for fifty years. During the Cold War, while Russia was the dangerous bear, China was the Red Dragon, more proximate, more likely to … invade? After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it remains as the single major remnant of communist ideology. It is authoritarian and doesn’t understand freedom. Not like us, no, not like us at all. Local Party Secretaries were present at a number of our school visits. Hah, we thought, hah. Proof. Political control of education. Not like our schools. The fact that these folk may have had about as much influence as our School Council presidents didn’t faze us. Not at all.

It has dissidents who are treated harshly. Not here, not at all. Freedom, individuality, liberation. That’s us. And not them.

But then, on the whole, we don’t know much about China. Before turning to the Ambassador’s observations about the present, for context we should consider some facts about the past.

Nineteenth century China was ruled by the Qing, Manchurians who had invaded the south in the mid seventeenth century. The queues (‘pig tails’) which so caught the eye and imaginations of European visitors somewhat later were signs, initially at least, of the Manchurian hegemony. As one historian puts it, the initial invasion was held up by the Great Wall. However the Qing were granted passage by a Ming General in order to form an alliance against a peasant revolt which threatened his control. As so often seems to happen, the General and his troops were swept aside by what followed. No one likes a traitor. This is in 1644 and even then uprisings by the oppressed peasantry were by no means isolated incidents.

The nineteenth century was a time of foreign incursion on the Chinese coast, marked by sporadic and bitter wars with European powers seeking to establish trading sites with terms highly favourable to themselves. Major wars with Britain occurred in 1839 and 1860, with the French in the 1880s, with the Germans and the Russians in the early 1890s, and then with Japan in 1894-95. Recovery from one set of disturbances was truncated by the generation of another. Chinese society itself remained internally fractious with disputes based on religious and ethnic divisions. In mid century the Taiping Rebellion managed to combine both these elements with the rise of a ‘Chinese Jesus’ supported by the Hakka people a sub-group of the Han.

And yet life in the hinterland remained largely as it had been for many centuries. Jonathan Spence and Annping Chinn write:

China in the late nineteenth century retained astonishing continuities with what we know of the country in the third century BC when it first became a unified state ruled by an autocratic emperor. Successive regimes might have standardized the written language, put in place a massive centralised bureaucracy, and built canals and road systems to link the big commercial centres, yet in 1890 Chinese lives remained generally unaffected by these changes. Most people still spoke dialects unintelligible to those from other regions, practised folk religions in a bewildering array of local temples, raised families and arranged marriages according to local traditions, and dealt with the bureaucracy only when they absolutely had to (1996: 11).

In 1900 revolts in Shandong and Hebei led to the ‘Boxer’ Rebellion (so called because of the martial arts practised by the ‘Boxers’), the sharp end of a nationalistic uprising against foreigners. With great force and cruelty, British, French, German, Russian, American and Japanese forces launched a series of reprisals against the Boxers and their supporters. As well as other cultural humiliations, China was required to pay crippling reparations to the victors including fines equal to 450 million ounces of silver.

Despite this war, efforts were made by the Qing to ‘modernise’ in terms of building railways and more sophisticated forms of communication, of reforming the education from its Confucian basis and of developing an industrial base that would among other things service greater military power. images.jpegThe Chinese Nationalists (the Guomindang) led by the indefatigable Sun Yat-sen (at left) recognized that the success of these reforms might result in the Qing retaining power far into the future and resisted, both peacefully and through a series of violent revolts. The ‘Last Emperor’, Puyi, was three years of age when he ascended to the throne in 1898 and his Manchurian regents were politically incompetent. China was moving irrevocably moving towards some other form of governance.

In 1909, the first provincial governments which had some elected members were established and in 1910 sent delegates to a national assembly. In a story as old as time, these ‘advisory’ instruments of government began to claim control over finance and taxation and to demand a say in military planning and development. The gradualist reform planned by the Qing collapsed. The 1911 the army mutinied in Wuhan, leading to widespread outbreaks of anti-Qing violence and disruption. Manchu garrisons were attacked and their inhabitants massacred. On the second last day of 1911 a Chinese Republic was announced, centred in Nanjing with Sun Yat-sen as its titular head. The first national government was elected in 1912 and with that the Qing Dynasty was overthrown.

But by 1913 Yuan Shikai, a politician with a strong military base had instigated a crackdown on members of the Guomindang and Sun Yat-sen was exiled. In that year Yuan forced the dissolution of parliament, but died himself shortly thereafter. Zhang Xun led a brief restoration of the Manchu dynasty, but the central government was fragmented and weak. Domestic uprisings followed by cruel suppressions and attempts at even more rigid governance were common. A number of regionally-based warlords chanced their arm at power fiercely taxing the local populace to support their ambitions. Opium, introduced by the British decades earlier, was an additional major source of income. Even so, historians suggest that this was a period of massive growth in business and trade. The Qing railways were moving goods on an unprecedented scale and sales techniques learnt from America were ensuring they were sold on arrival. That’s modernisation.

China’s first official and formal act in international foreign affairs was to declare war on Germany in 1917 and more than 100,000 Chinese joined the Allied effort in France, travelling to Europe via Canada. But the circumstances surrounding this alliance, revealing that Japan had been granted remarkable territorial and commercial concessions in China, came to light during the Armistice Treaty negotiations in 1919. These revelations produced outrage and prompted the May Fourth uprisings against the government.

CKS.jpegRussian Comintern agents began arriving in China and creating ‘peasant associations’. In 1922 the Comintern agent Borodin struck a deal of cooperation with Sun Yat-sen and the nationalist Guomindang which he was rebuilding for the third time. Russian arms and ammunition followed. Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 and after a messy struggle he was succeeded as leader by Chiang Kai-shek (at left) who, if such terms have any meaning, took the Guomindang further to the right.

These ‘surface’ events should be set against an environment in which there was constant turbulence — sporadic outbreaks of strikes and worker and peasant uprising, increasingly repressive responses, warlords juggling to add to their power, large semi-private armies being raised, and used, foreign powers seeking to add to their influence through various forms of intervention. In 1920, for example, there were more than 90,000 foreigners living in Shanghai’s ‘French Concession’ and ‘International Settlement.’

In 1928 the Japanese began military incursions in the north purportedly to protect their investments in Manchuria. The invasion proper did not occur until 1937. The Japanese term for this was the ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’ war. Eight years of Sino-Japanese war yielded 3 million Chinese deaths in combat, 18 million dead civilians and 95 million displaced refugees, in addition to quite specific horrors such as the rape of Nanjing, and experimentation with gas, biological and bacteriological weapons on civilians. This unconcern for human life was not confined to the Japanese side. One contemporary estimate suggests that 1.4 million Chinese conscripts died of disease, malnutrition or maltreatment before seeing any action against the Japanese.

Another feature of this period, the civil war between and nationalists (the Guomindang) and the Communists can be dated from the beginning of the Long March in 1934 until 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan. Desperate times.

The point of this most cursory sweep across a century of history is to gesture towards the ferment and turbulence, the cultural humiliations, the horrors and cruelties on which modern China has been built. Whatever other judgments may be made about the last 50 years in China, the Communist government has kept the country together and relatively free of the depredations of foreigners for that period.

What this government did was largely of its own Chinese design; and what they created and saw through was one of the strangest social experiments of all time and certainly one on the grandest of scales. Casting back over that thumbnail sketch, the Communist Revolution becomes far more intelligible. If the prospect of gaining some forms of freedom meant chaos, and chaos which had dominated which had dominated at least the previous fifty years, who would not have chosen the sacrifices required for the prospect of order and national unity and strength? The extreme, and destructive, gestures of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution can be understood as binding mechanisms, elements of corrective national discipline and posture, carving off the weak, the querulous and the questioning for the greater good of the masses — a hard but intelligible logic.

Reading about Mao and revisiting the Little Red Book, I have been struck by how much his idea of governance is an art work, a long Chinese poem, internal to its author, whole and consistent in itself, untainted by connection with reality and what was actually happening. Deng’s story is the antithesis. He could make things happen, an organiser and a manager, a realist and pragmatist, an embodiment of another very longstanding version of Chinese culture — the survivalist. He built the bridges over which the country is now crossing to an uncertain destination. China now confronts another revolution, no less profound that what happened in the early 1950s.

From my notes and not to be held as verbatim, this is how Ric Smith, Australia’s Ambassador to China saw the moment.

Last year (1997) was a very big year for China. Deng died, as was expected, but the transition was smooth with little disruption to political process indicating the increasing maturity of the leadership cadre. Hong Kong was handed over and the idea of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ was put into place, something very hard to sustain, and yet it has worked without any obvious shocks. The Party conducted its 15th Congress [these occur every five years], a major review of direction, policy and leadership. Li Peng will step down as Party Secretary [he has now been replaced by Zhu Rongji]; this is accepted. The most important and reassuring thing was that the Congress confirmed the reform agenda. The forthcoming National People’s Congress will agree to the directions from the Party Congress.

The Premier Jiang Zemin visited the US quite successfully, despite protesters appearing wherever he went. President Clinton will visit shortly and the issue of World Trade Organisation membership will be closer to resolution.

However the country still faces huge economic challenges, especially in the context of the turmoil in the Asian region. It has coped so far. China has little foreign indebtedness. It has US$140 billion in reserves and a currency which is externally unconvertible and thus it has a buffer from the influence of the international money markets. But it may suffer secondary effects. It has a very high level of trade with both Korea and Japan. Most of its foreign investment comes from Asian countries. There are 308,000 state-owned enterprises of which most are insolvent in our terms. Over US$120 billion is owed to banks which are, or course, government owned.

The pace of reform is very gradual. One of the major hurdles is reform of the financial system. There is no modern capital market. Nor is there any well-established commercial law. [There has never been a legal system as we know it in China. Wise man have been trusted to make decisions on a case by case basis.] For decades there were laws only regarding family planning and national security. The last decade has seen several hundred laws passed, but there is still a void of legal and judicial practice.

Relations with Australia were strained during the last election. Did the public discussion represent a significant and long term lurch back to a Eurocentric view of the world? The Dalai Lama’s visit was deemed to be an important slight. However relationships are currently improving. The Embassy’s new strategy includes:

— a substantial direct dialogue in human rights issues (shifting from the UN as a vehicle)

— discussions on regional security and defence issues (for the first time)

— developing consistency across consular operations

— focusing on commercial success and tourist access to Australia for Chinese. Two aid programs have been developed, related to human resource development and environmental works, to meet the most pressing elements of national need.

Pauline Hansen’s ideas have been less of an issue in North China than South China and South-East Asia because of comparatively limited media coverage. The Chinese are ‘interested and curious’, but the alert ones recognize that this perspective has long existed in the Australian populace.

There is a National Environment Planning Agency, but the problems are huge (1.2 billion people, 22 percent of the world’s population on seven percent of its increasingly fragile arable land). There have been forty years of ‘development at all costs’ industry policy, including the disaster of the Great Leap Forward, and ten years of 10-20 percent economic growth. Last year one million villages elected their own councils. Increasing pressure is coming from local committees and candidates on environmental issues on such immediate grounds as ‘there used to be a river here and now we have no water’, ‘we can’t breath any more; people are getting sick’. As in Australia there is a constant interplay between centralization and decentralisation, and negotiation about the form of government expenditure. One thing that is known is that the wealth of an area distinctly influences the nature and resourcing of schooling.

Communism is already well diluted. Deng was the bridging factor; a remarkable transitional figure and great pragmatist. The economic changes are generating their own pace of social, cultural and political change. Freedom to travel, increases in personal wealth and increased exposure to the rest of the world and especially Western ideas and experiences all carry an impact.

Our discussion finished with conjecture about whether the spread of wealth and maintenance of good order may be retarded by increasing democratic rights. And they may. ‘Liberty’, at least in its rather limited manifestation as the right to vote may, perhaps even should, come after a full belly and a roof over your head have been achieved. These needs are not in conflict but are rather interwoven and interactive with no strict hierarchy of formulation. But then of course, there’s Tibet. To understand Human Rights properly may mean to understand them without capital letters and without reference to the misty clouds of universalism.

I recently read in an American journal that ‘The large political questions seem mainly settled.’ Oh no, I thought. Not really. Not while money is in circulation; not while testosterone remains a hormone.



[with comments in italics added after a visit 15 years later]

pudong.jpgThe Huangpu makes a final broad sweep before it enters the East China Sea. The Suzhou Creek enters at the apex of the bend, feeding a river already massive by Australian standards. Countless barges with a freeboard which can be measured in millimetres diligently slosh along in its opaque water. Ferries costing almost nothing one way and nothing at all coming back, honk that they are ready to depart.

On the western bank is a scene — whether as an oil painting, a massive photograph or the real thing — in front of which Chinese from all over the country like to have their photo taken. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, opened to great acclaim in 1921, is the standout building in a long row of examples of muscular European imperialism, sans flair but solid with just a whiff of indomitability. It’s the Bund, old Shanghai, the main drag of the International Settlement, centre of banking and commerce and goodness knows what else for a hundred years from the middle of the nineteenth century. Shanghai was a fishing village on the silt flats of the Yangzi delta with a population of considerably less than 100,000 before the British established a trading concession here in 1842. The French followed, establishing their own Quarter which is still quite identifiable.

As you lean on the river wall and look across to the eastern bank, it is not possible, not at all possible, to ignore the Pearl Television Communications Tower, a vast rocket of a building awaiting take-off. There is a taller tower in Kuala Lumpur; but this is Shanghai, a metropolis of eight million, which must surely be one of the great cities of the world. The Pearl Tower, across the river in Pudong, is a potent symbol of where China may be heading.

Not eight million anymore. Fifteen years later, around 25 or 27. Maybe 40 depending on where you draw the line. Regardless, Shanghai is either China’s biggest city or biggest conurbation. And the Pearl Tower is no longer the dominant landmark on the Pudong bank. It’s good. Great. Fabulous really. But one among many. And the big lump in the background with the three cranes hanging off will be 640m high when it is finished, more than 200m taller than the Petronas Towers in KL. They were working at 10.30 on this gluggy night. I noticed the cranes move; then saw a bucket of concrete on its long journey up.

Nor would the ferries cost nearly nothing any more. Shanghai is a world city and charges accordingly. I saw a very ugly watch for 6.3 million yuan in a shopping mall devoted exclusively, exclusively, to shops like Cartier, Bulgari, Ermenegildo Zegna, Ralph Lauren and so on. We also saw department stores full of Sino-ey knock-offs. No not Zegna, Frognie Zila.

We didn’t have to take the ferry either because there is now a tunnel under the Huangpu and for 70 yuan return you can go on a very strange underground traverse with a new attraction/distraction every 30 metres or so. (Magma falls, ooomm, cosmic fossils, oommm, meteor shower, oommm, giant waving air puppets, ooomm, etc.)

We had a couple of days in Shanghai to finish, at leisure as Lord Rowland would say, excited about revisiting the National Museum, looking at Pudong and just wandering around with the prospect of satisfying an unfulfilled penchant for dumplings and pork buns.

Visibility wasn’t much of an improvement from Beijing when we arrived and we were both very tired: 32 interviews in the can, about eight hours of video. Tiring. And that seems to have happened last time as well.

The maximum temperature was still hovering around zero and the air was thick with misty smog. The changes in climate and the density of our activities had taken some toll. On the first night in Shanghai we seemed to walk forever to find our quota of dumplings, Chinese pastries and beer. Homesickness was apparent, there was some trouble about rooms, and … well, all of those things. It looked like Shanghai might be a bit of a slog.

The next morning as we wandered through the hutongs, I found some lip balm for my badly cracked lips in a chemist shop, and was tempted by the vast range of aphrodisiacs and the pillow of roots which, had I slept on it, would have cured senility. My grey hair indicated great age to the shop assistants. The narrowness of the streets and the height of the buildings said city, said people, said, even stationary, plenty to look at, plenty to do. We took the ferry over to Pudong and went up to the observation platform of the Pearl Tower. Even with the limited visibility, you could see perhaps 80 or a 100 buildings going up, almost growing as you looked like bamboo in a tropical rain forest. Directly below us you could see the ingenious lattice-like rafts of concrete which have been devised to allow tall building on silt. (On the other side of the river Shanghai’s buildings had subsided several metres when comparative measurements were made between 1925 and 1960.)

In the afternoon we rode the helter-skelter of Shanghai’s traffic system, now on the ground, now up in the air on the ‘viaducts’ of its (not really) freeways, now in a tunnel under the river, now in Pudong proper. Our hosts had brought us to a tower block perhaps fifteen kilometres from the heart of the city and we were escorted up to the thirtieth floor to look at a model of a new development. Mmm … a model. Very nice thank you. Then we looked out the window, and there it bloody well was. Most of the dormitory accommodation was in place with its swimming pools, the villas for the wealthy were there in neat rows, the great sprawl of low rise factories ran west to the horizon and the market gardens to the north had been razed in preparation for more building.

There are currently about 12,000 active major building sites in Shanghai city and, it is guessed, about 15 per cent of the world’s cranes at work. Economic growth (albeit from a relatively low base) has averaged 15 per cent per annum for the last few years. Investment at an estimated rate of US$50million per day is being poured into this area, one of three free trade sites in China. (The others are north of Beijing and in Guangzhou, the province abutting Hong Kong.) The call of the biggest market in the world has been heeded and those with capital have flocked to get their share. The Ricoh factory, assembling fax machines, we visited was a model of technological enterprise — antiseptic, superbly organised, good wages and working conditions — and this is one of a hundred thousand. Consider what one such enterprise can mean to a country town in Australia; then multiply by thousands, hundreds of thousands. I had an image of Bill Bixby turning into the Incredible Hulk, shirt ripping, trousers too short, a new massive creature emerging into the world with its goals and directions not entirely clear.

The sheet anchors of the vast population, almost constant war, famine and ideology have in the past held China’s economic development back. But there is a very strong sense that they have also made the country tough. The world awaits China like the delights of a fun park. Let’s go. Let’s see how many of these rides have some interest and value and, more to the point, let’s see how many we can make some money from. Good at that, the Chinese. Focused. 

Here’s an answer to the question: What do you do when you ‘do’ the future? You go for it. You surge forward on the basis of your instincts and your naked need to do so. You draw on all that restless, unsatisfied energy. You push forward without necessarily thinking about where you’re going, not with any larger view anyway — fire, ready, aim. This is the full tilt unadulterated blast of testosterone, and to unaccustomed eyes it is astonishing. It is a sight every Australian should see. 

Fifteen years ago all that was visible. Now it’s happened. It’s all different. There is still an apparent capacity to make impossible things happen and keep happening. Focus on the future not the past.

I was so tired that night I went straight to bed before dinner. One more day, one more push uphill. My journal says: I find myself missing the accessibility of Mojiang and Lancang — the strength of the interaction between people perhaps. Yet now a chance has come to have some more classes. I felt a bit ambivalent about that, though I would really like to. I just wish I felt fitter. [Most of the party including me had come down with the flu.] But there is not one thing I would have missed. Even tonight I wonder what the others are up to, what splendors I am missing. Maybe I’m just promiscuous.

In the morning I searched the book department of the local Friendship Store unsuccessfully for the longer and more academic version of Beyond the Chinese Face which I had seen in Beijing and wandered around the jade counter. I bought some collections of largely inscrutable Chinese cartoons (punch line: ‘Both the young and old need to carry things on their necks.’ Uh huh. Mmm. If I showed you the drawing it wouldn’t help.) Lunch was at 10.30-ish. Foooofff. Was I up to that?

Lunch, which turned into a party with a banquet as its centrepiece, was put on by the staff of East China Model Middle School at a restaurant with which it had some association. Both were in the French Quarter, full of vivid life and not a little elegance: close to the barrage of cyclists and steam and market calls and taxis and beautifully dressed women and street sellers; close to one of the world’s beating hearts overflowing with the energy of cosmopolitanism and the wealth of several thousand years of relatively unmediated history of its own; close to the founding epicenter of Chinese communism and the site of a number of its most important moments; close to the dens of iniquity which had provided just one Tong with an average of six million dollars a week from opium and prostitution in the 1920s; close to the nightclubs, shops, dance halls and entertainment centres, to the electric trams, restaurants and cinemas of the same period; close to the new subways; close to the shops in Nanjing Lu, more exclusive and more filled with the fire of commerce than those in Beijing. Close to the thrilling mix of flavours that make a city great. And Shanghai is a great great city.

There was a time when the populace of Shanghai had more cars than the rest of China combined, and now, again, writes Beverly Hooper: ‘China has become a consumer society with a vengeance’ (1998: 17). She cites figures from the Chinese Statistical Yearbook of 1996 which indicate that in 1982, 16 of every 100 urban households had a washing machine, one a colour television and 0.7 a refrigerator. The comparable figures for 1995 were 89 percent (washing machine), 90 percent (a colour television) and 66 percent (a refrigerator). The three ‘most desired’ products at the end of the Cultural Revolution in the mid ‘70s were a bicycle, a watch and a radio. By the early ‘80s these had been supplanted by the three products mentioned above; and now it not possible to say. Consumer demands and wishes have simply become too various. Hooper quotes from the magazine ‘Chinese Youth’ (March 1993):

Some say the ‘three main products’ are a video, CD player and air conditioner. Some say they are gold jewellery, new furniture and a modern kitchen. Some say they are a telephone, private apartment and a car.

This diversity translates into eight categories of ‘desires’ related to: comfort, time, health, beauty, entertainment, education, ‘exhibition of tender feelings’ (like, for example, sending gifts or flowers) and peace of mind. Just like us. The ‘massive disparities between the newly wealthy and the mass of the poor’ is noted by a historian about Shanghai in the 1920s. It applies equally today. Again, just like us. It was appropriate that one of the day’s activities was a session with a member of Shanghai’s branch of Austrade.

I have written a little about the school elsewhere. The welcome was as generous as it could have been anywhere else, and the teaching and the contact just as interesting and stimulating. I could have stayed longer, but we were off to watch a jolting, bucketing 3-D sensurround film, to eat dinner at Shanghai’s Hard Rock Café (I note quite incidentally that in Penang one can eat at ‘Granite Hollywood’. Cultural adaptation can be a very fluid and immediate process) and to an acrobatic show, before returning to the Peace Hotel in a self-caught bus (see parentheses above) for a meeting. Yes, a meeting. A meeting to celebrate, to draw waverers into line, to get some shit off the liver, and then to drink some expensive beer in the Peace Hotel Bar, listening to the resident Dixieland jazz group, renowned I think mostly for their age. Some of them may have been listening, at least, to the same sort of music in the same bar in the same hotel before China became communist.

Back to the present … [2012 anyway]


Bayden had commented on the rabid addiction to the mobile phone evident everywhere but certainly making it hard to get attention in shops. Maybe you had to ring up the shop assistants. He had come to Shanghai for some time-lapse footage from the 48th floor of the JW Marriott hotel through the crystalline air. And visibility was shocking. From his window we could see part of the People’s Park covering the main subway station and site of Shanghai’s main cultural edifices. It was once the racecourse. The building with the red-roofed tower to the bottom was the Club building. The Grandstand was reputedly the largest in the world in its day, and no doubt was. The turf was described as “smooth as a billiard table”.

National Museum. Even the coins seemed interesting and I found something newly fascinating about calligraphy which has left me cold in the past. I could see the individuality of the styles and the variation according to purpose. And there was the jade.

We topped up with some dumplings at a street shop over the road from the Museum and walked off to the French Quarter. It all seemed much more knowable than last time. Hundreds of shops with what one might describe as ‘cutting edge fashion’, including dead set no worries ‘pop ups’.popup-shop.jpg

We found some contemporary art, in sum somewhat discombobulating and not really the feel of having grown naturally out of the environment as was the case at 798 in Beijing. But the top floor had a well hidden restaurant full of style, welcome and nice food.

Our waitress sent us off to her pick of Shanghai’s art areas, hutongs off Taiking Road. There was certainly plenty of art there but it turned out to be like a gigantic Camberwell Rotary Art Fair — nothing wrong with that, and a cultural statement in its own right; but not exactly what were looking for. More the deflated tank made out of leather.

The French Quarter still has its charms with ten of thousands of plane trees planted, I believe, by the British. In a photo I’m looking out the window of a Printemps department store. Printemps in Paris provides a very cheering shopping experience. I think we were expecting something the same with perhaps some nice coffee and a macaroon. Incorrect. We worked our way without success through the various offerings of the food hall and, on further exploration, realised we were in a shop (maybe like most other shops in the world) full of pretty awful Chinese knock-offs.

But we had a very fine walk and we found all the appropriate vestiges of humanity including the rather grand house from which Chou En Lai fled the Guomintang spies in 1942, and the insect market. We could have picked up a couple of quality cicadas cheap but didn’t know if we could get them back into the country. However damaging to my reputation, I’m glad there’s a photo from the insect market. It wouldn’t be China if there were no freakshows included.


Finally it was clear, the last day, and everything took on a new hue. And it was just like it was last time.

* * * * *

If the developments on the east bank of the Huangpu are generated by testosterone, the throb of the west bank comes from the firm palpation of oestrogen — people, their families, their neighbourhoods and their social futures, history, time spent, lessons learnt, as well as their intersection with the things that the east bank, Pudong, produces. When you face the world, you face its calamities, disappointments and treachery, as well as its material richness and splendour. You face the facts of overpopulation and the common challenge of a sustainable future. You face consumerism and its distinctly unpleasant offshoot, commodification. And you have to face the ways in which we might get on together.

The acrobats. That laconic forum for minor miracles, the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, learnt a lot of its tricks from Chinese acrobats. And here we were in the presence of the teachers. The performance began at a very high pitch with tumbling and juggling, and then ascended — a suitable metaphor for the nature of our experience in China. Here was a young man balancing on four layers of rolling slats, standing on one foot, flicking first one, then two, then three, and finally four soup bowls simultaneously from his other leg to catch them on his head. Later, seven young women did handstands on chairs balanced one on top of the other in a long arc. Oooo, we went with the rest of the audience. Aaaaaah. No. Not possible. But with aspiration, discipline, patience, endless practice and a certain carelessness about the possible consequences, it can be done. And this might be a suitable metaphor for the future of the next great world power — China. 


AODALIYA (The Pinyin word for my home country)

Coming home to Melbourne from overseas often feels like arriving at an absolute terminus.


The light was startlingly sharp and clear, buildings had their edges starkly defined. The air was fresh and clean. Airport West and Gladstone Park were spread out over the hills of the western peneplain like butter on toast, like heavy carpeting. Where were the people? Where were the cars and the bikes, the markets? At that moment this society seemed much stranger than the Middle Kingdom — provincial, hollow, cozily self-satisfied, struggle free. Blank with exhaustion, I wanted to leave again immediately. I felt I had left far too much behind.

By Brunswick Road, with its neat trim houses in neat trim gardens, so clean, so familiar under a grey sky, I was looking forward to seeing the kids, and when I saw five weeks worth of mail on the kitchen bench and the notepad full of phone messages, I realized it would not be long before I was swallowed whole again. Life doesn’t wait. For the teachers school was a couple of days away. Most of us had snuffles and coughs or worse. Ten days later I found myself in another country. Life really does not wait.

My experiences and reactions are very much my own. We hadn’t all enjoyed what had happened equally or in the same way. But the evaluations of the trip generally had a sense of ‘wonderful’ about them. How could it be otherwise really? Travel, food and lodging organised; an extraordinary itinerary spread across what turned out to a kind of sequence between rural and traditional China and its urban and cosmopolitan futures; great opportunities for access in the warmest and most arresting of ways to slivers of the population who appeared to be as happy to see us as we were them; a professional purposefulness and camaraderie. A great banquet of experiences, all laid on.

And group travel? Travelling in a group is not good. Not ‘good’, not g-o-o-d. ‘Good’ is much too slim a word for that range of experiences. There were five or six times when I felt like dropkicking one or another of my companions into oblivion, probably a few less than one or another of them felt like doing the same to me. The dynamics of the group were a study in themselves: the ways people found a buddy; the teams of interest that formed; the gender differences; the various levels of energy, enthusiasm and compliance; the emergence of confidence and independence in unfamiliar environments; the confidences proffered and exchanged in the long bouts of travel. But in all its complexities and its gossip and its spats, it was good. A shared experience, particularly when it has an element of challenge, is always something special.

What did I learn? In my evaluation I wrote that: ‘it ranges over issues like language, art, culture, food, lifestyles, family patterns, child rearing, early and late education, teaching conditions, agriculture, housing, environmental management, costs and expenses, domestic life, occupations and life chances, weather patterns, ceramics (and jade), similarities with other parts of Asia. There is not enough room to write it all down. It was the world.’ A new world, for me at least.

I have written here, of course, about some of the things I learned and the experiences which gave rise to that education. But the thing I have remained preoccupied with is how you can live normally with entirely different cultural ideas about what might be normal. It has made me wonder about the way in which freedom and poverty might be related. There is something about the baggage of our material possessions which isolates us and which intervenes in the directness of our experiences. What do we buy with our wealth? We buy space, we buy privacy, and we buy separation, exclusion and loneliness. We buy our way into communities which are homogenous and unthreatening, mates who talk our language, who work in the same field, who share our interests and judgments. We buy our way into gated estates with security guards at the threshold. It’s more comfortable that way.

And more peaceful. Some years ago I was studying the impact of changes to school work organisation. One dramatically successful school had been troubled by a constant ripple of fights and physical flare-ups. Over a period a several years these had become virtually non-existent. The factor that I thought might have made the most diference was the increase in the size of the teaching spaces. They had shifted walls so that each class of 25 to 30 now had half as much space again in which to operate. The kids weren’t getting in each others’ faces in the same way.

Chinese do get angry. We witnessed some furious anger, from zero to a hundred in milliseconds. They may be disciplined, but they are anything but phlegmatic. However, they have developed a modus vivendi suitable for their circumstances — just as we have. It’s there as clear as day in ‘soft’ driving, in the nature of their attachments to and treatment of their children, in the fact that a Communist regime could be established. I have learnt something about that.

I have learnt that acquiring Mandarin by a non-native speaker is tough but may be within the realms of possibility. I have learned that independent travel in China is entirely feasible. But above all I think, I have learned that among the perplexing warp and weft of cultural cloth there is a great deal that is shared and contiguous, as well as so much that is alien. And, as a result, I have developed another vantage point to think about myself and my world. And that is a solid prize.

Here is an example. Yesterday I had a small argument about the desirability of more strenuously encouraging homework. The other side suggested that such a thing would be an infringement of the rights of students and of teachers. And I saw again the kids pouring out of the gate of Mojiang No.1 at 9.30pm. Where will you want to live? I thought. Chong Qing or Shanghai? And if it is to be Shanghai, then steps will need to be taken. Lots of homework. Lots.

And how did I learn these things? It was by being there. To return to one of the epigraphs: ‘You have to see it — if you haven’t seen it, there will be something about it that you will not get.’ You can watch the football on TV, but if you think that that is the experience of being there you have made a very serious mistake. And it was being part of it. In her journal Myrna, reflecting a common theme, wrote:

I think that the contact with the teachers and students has made this trip come alive in this exceptional way. The people are like me and other people I know, except they are so friendly and hospitable. I keep feeling that the people are just like at school — I feel that I am used to them. I’m surprised it is so much like being at home, the level and type of interaction is so equal.

As they say, travel broadens one, a splendid and honourable cliché, and this sort of travel more than most. All travellers are otherwise unoccupied, out of the rut and adrenalised: hoping for good companions, for good experiences, for the best. Perhaps this misinforms their (my) judgment. (I have wondered if I want this experience qualified by further contact.) But good travellers are permeable to other types of experience. They discover ‘scale’ and can place things where they belong — as the locals do. And after the experience you do ‘get it’ better, you do have some touchstones, you do have a sense of the surrounds in at least three dimensions and possibly many more. ‘It has been the ultimate in professional development’, wrote Sandra, with ‘ultimate’ heavily underscored.

When I was training to be a teacher I was very taken by existential theories of learning. Adventure camping had underpinned and formed this attraction. It was the idea of placing the learner in a situation from which he or she couldn’t help but learn — and it made sense to me. There would be loose ends, serendipities and epiphanies, but the core of the experience would be unavoidable even if the range of learning would be very hard to define precisely.

In an age of endlessly defined ‘outcomes’, the popularity of these ideas has waned. But could someone who had been involved in this trip to China have lived through it in a capsule which reproduced their life at home? I think not. It could have been hated or found disturbing, but it could not have been without impact. That’s what happened to us I believe. We actually did have that joke idea of the ‘70s, an existential experience.

And what did we offer our hosts in return? The chance to speak English with native speakers? Certainly, but I do hope it was considerably more than that. Perhaps just being present, on show, for them to make up their own minds about the nature of some foreigners at least and to determine their own reactions. Perhaps that is what matters.

A lot of this has been written looking back over our photos and from the video of the dancing that Ted so generously made for me. I am reminded again of how visual souvenirs eventually become the trip and am glad I have so many. I am grateful too, to have had this chance to live it all again. As I have been writing I have been there again — promenading on Beijing Lu with those thrilling young Chinese, stopping the buses to set off crackers in the Yunnanese hills, gasping at the development in Pudong, popping packets of tissues at lunchtime in the big room at the Mojiang Hotel, gazing up in disbelief at the lights outside Chong Qing station, in Beijing in the cold eating Peking Duck, hurtling around the bush roads in buses, vomiting comprehensively in that wretched hotel in Si Mao, walking down those human lines of welcome and reading with the little kids at Bixi, and talking with Mrs Chen, Mr Huang, Mr Li and that great person, that great Chinese person, Mr Su.

Mr Su may come to Australia this August. I wonder what his story will say.

* * * * *

Mr Su did come, part of a large delegation with all appropriate political coverage.

He found our schools odd and anarchic. The delegation as a whole was shocked by teaching which seemed so undisciplined and that at times students might even have their back to the teacher. I think he found the natural environment unremarkable although the group as a whole enjoyed the native creatures at Healesville Sanctuary: the obvious creatures, rather than the subtle ones. They came for dinner to our place and were stunned by its space, ‘luxury’ and especially the white goods on display.

But as the toasts mounted up none of it mattered. We became the mates we were again. Just chatting away.mates.jpeg

An email from the Australian Embassy, from two years ago, when I wanted to find him again:

 Hi Kathe

We at last tracked Mr Su Hou down. He seems to have based himself in Simao. As you will see in the attachment, he gave his daughter’s address and phone number as a contact. She (Su Mei) lives in Kunming and I imagine speaks English.

One of our Chinese staff and I had a more than one hour phone call with him. He mainly spoke Chinese and I couldn’t catch all of it. So our Chinese staff member prepared the attached summary of our phone call. You will see that the names of Australians that led visits is written as we heard Mr Su’s pronunciation, although he pronounced your name perfectly. He downloaded a lot of detail plus some of the “reason why” and  “benefit” detail from his perspective which we were chasing.  I think you will find the summary interesting.

Yours, Tony.

THE Memorable Event for Su Hou

Kathe Kirby’s first time visit to Mojiang prefecture when was also the first time I met with Kathe Kirby. They visited Menglian prefecture where a place with a mainly ethnic minorities of Dai. Australian Teachers had been to poor countryside and local residents welcomed them by ways of roasting Chinese spirits and killing goats. Three days they lived in “Bamboo” building hotel. And even trying to eat the big bees after convinced by local people, they felt good about the taste.

They visited 24 schools mainly included kindergartens, elementary schools and high schools. At least three times to visit to children special needs school in Simao. They would send a numbers of presents to children on every visit.

Australian teachers had a variety of entertainment with local people. They singing and dancing to their hearts’ content at night and playing firework, music accompanied by drumbeats reverberates throughout the villages. Australian teachers regarded it as an exciting experience. 

He knew.



Barr, Pat (1970) Foreign Devils: Westerners in the Far East: the sixteenth century to the present day Penguin Books, Harmondsworth

Bond, Michael Harris (1991) Beyond the Chinese Face: Insights from psychology OUP, Hong Kong

Fitzgerald, C. P. (1964) The Birth of Communist China Penguin Books, Harmondsworth

Hopper, Beverley (1998) ‘Keeping up with the Wangs: Consuming desires in post-Mao China’ Asia Pacific Magazine 9 & 10, 17-22

Milner, Anthony and Mary Quilty (eds) (1996) Australia in Asia: Comparing Cultures OUP, Melbourne

Polo, Marco (1958) The Travels Penguin Books, Harmondsworth

Salisbury, Harrison (1993) The New Emperors: Mao and Deng, a dual biography Harper Collins, London

Spence, Jonathan and Annping Chin (1996) The Chinese Century: A photographic history Harper Collins, London

Spence, Jonathan (1997) God’s Chinese Son Flamingo, London

Taylor, Chris et al (1996) China: A Lonely Planet travel survival kit Lonely Planet Publications, Melbourne























Here above are samples of the first two.

Looking over the Old City (the smallest, oddest and most under threat) to the towers of Pudong separated by the Huangpu River. I’m craning out the window of our AirBnB on the 23rd floor of a tower block with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and, bless it, a washing machine with an excellent place to dry clothes — and a wall decoration worthy of record.

IMG_1855.jpgIt turned out to be an excellent place to begin, on the fringe of the tourist bubble, but next to another tower block full of restaurants and a huge supermarket. Our entry to the Old City from the south was up through a ‘normal’ street studded with noodle and dumpling shopsIMG_1824.jpg and the hordes who wanted to take photos of junior foreigners.IMG_1834.jpgThat the Old City exists at all is a phenomenon. It is vigorous with popular life, hundreds of tiny shops with odd collections of sale items, complex sculptural versions of wiring,  people still doing their washing in troughs in the street belting it into sparkling submission with long poles, sitting, eating, chatting, watching. Apparently it was declared a Historical Cultural Scenery Area in 2006 preserving it from the depredations of developers, if not tourists. The closer you get to City God Temple and the Yu Gardens the more dense they become.


It was a walk to the Bund from where we were. There was no shortage of other photographers. Having your photo taken here is an important Chinese pastime.thumb_IMG_1257_1024.jpgAnd below is the view to the other side, dominated by the office towers of New China. The first time we went to Shanghai ‘the bottle opener’, still under construction at the time, was the big building. The Shanghai Tower, all 628m of it, now ummm towers over everything else.

I’ve written about this part of Pudong elsewhere. It is a reminder that one-third of the world’s billionaires are Chinese.IMG_1840.jpg

We were in Shanghai for the purposes of child-minding while our daughter and son-in-law were working for/with a Chinese drum manufacturing company. The modern world.IMG_2004.jpg

With 25 or so recruits from the company and elsewhere they spent several days developing and practising a performance for the Shanghai International Music Expo which was a spectacle in itself; no idea how many hectares of display space, tiring just to look at. I’ve checked: in total 2 sq km of indoor space; 3 sq km, of outdoor display space; 17 display halls each one bigger than Jeff’s Shed (a Melbourne yardstick of ‘big’).thumb_IMG_0403_1024.jpg

Three generations of gorgeous gals here. The third one is on the banner behind. The spectacle (Fr.) was deemed a success.thumb_IMG_0458_1024.jpg

And we feasted yet again.thumb_IMG_0491_1024.jpg

For this part of the journey we were living in the third face of Shanghai, the one where most of its population lives, the endless forests of tower blocks that make up 7/8 of the city. This is the view from the window of our hotel.IMG_2068.jpg

Not Shanghai Disney or Madame Tussaud’s, although we went there too, but somewhere being turned into living spaces.


Each night some of the street corners provided old style commerce and life: here wok- and Bbq-cooked food; on the opposite corner, fruit and vegetables from the back of a truck. Below, after a big feed inside, passionate dance.IMG_1889.jpg

One night we went for a walk after dinner to shake down the jellyfish, chicken feet, chilli greens and blood jelly, just a stroll round the blocks and, lo and behold, stumbled on hundreds of people on several street corners dancing, guǎngchǎng wǔ, public square dance. It was a surprise but apparently more than 100 million people participate. (So a tiny minority activity! Ah … you can say things like that about China.) I didn’t partake but a gallant gentleman inquired if my wife was interested and of course she was. Crummy photo of a memorable event.thumb_IMG_0494_1024.jpgWe returned to the luxury tourist version of Shanghai for the last two days and had a luxury tourist version of a good time: mooched round, ate Macca’s, bought things, went to Mme. Tussaud’s most successfully, and made an assault on Shanghai Tower.

It is a simply magnificent building, nine blocks stacked on each other inside a glass sheath with a twist and an inset, and yes, 628m high, the second highest building in the world.

As will be obvious the weather had been fine and hot and the air relatively clear for the duration — until the last day, the day of our ascent.IMG_1344.JPG

We spent modest fortunes getting to the 128th floor and sawIMG_1345.JPGI had in mind something more like


But what the hell. We can do it again next time. 

Two eccentric faces that don’t really count.IMG_1312.jpg

That’s called ‘stopping in the middle of a panorama’.

We found the painting below in M50, Shanghai’s arts precinct with its intriguing contents. It probably tells China’s contemporary story — and a tale of the world’s future — and illustrates that the new empire will not be completely bereft of irony.thumb_IMG_1331_1024.jpg

HOT AUSTRALIA: DRY (Flinders Ranges)

I love a sunburnt country/ a land of spreading plains/ Of ragged mountain ranges,/ of droughts and flooding rains. (Thank you Dorothea. )

Two-thirds of Australia receives on average less than 350mm (14 inches) of rain a year.


Lake Eyre: average annual rainfall 150mm, average number of days when rain falls per annum 12. Marree: average annual rainfall during the 1990s, 75mm.

We were heading in the direction of those two places. (Marree is the dot in the middle right of South Australia.) I was expecting the landscape to be dominated by dust and sand and the fiercely red rock of the Centre. Like — deleting the vegetation — on the way up or down Mt Ohlssen-Bagge (actually part of Wilpena Pound):IMG_1130.jpg

But even further north this rock bank at Arkaroola shows the remnant effects of heavy summer rains (an unusual weather event, climate change). IMG_1110.jpg

Mulga, spinifex, callitris (native pine), samphire, bluebush, various types of saltbush and cassia spread over the hill, and in the foreground are stands of the abruptly named Dead Finish. Three things, we were told, survive a drought here: euros (a species of small and congenial kangaroo), feral goats and Dead Finish. Dead Finish is a member of the acacia family and up close looks like this. IMG_1143.jpg

Adaptation it’s called.

4808832-3x2-340x227.jpgI chose the 14 inch isohyet because that’s the measure that George Goyder, South Australia’s Surveyor General in the mid-19th century used to differentiate land suitable for agriculture and, the vast majority, that likely to be subject to drought. Goyder’s Line appears below. We were travelling up and beyond that northern intrusion.

Goyders_Line_within_South_Australia.pngGoyder was one of those wise people who give you a considered and sensible view, an expert view based on evidence he’d spent nearly three years collecting — and is then ignored. He provided his report in 1865. 1866 and ’67 were unusually wet years and so prospective farmers, intoxicated by the possibilities of new ‘unclaimed’ land, planted crops well north of the line, sure that rain would follow the plough. A Trumpian maxim if ever there was one. Just nuts. 

Kanyaka Station was selected in 1852. Two years after, Hugh Proby the English aristocrat responsible, died aged 24 trying to cross the Willochra Creek in a flash flood. On his tombstone a quotation from the gospel according to Mark: Take Ye Heed, Watch and Pray: For Ye Know Not When The Time Is.

Not the time … nor what to do with this land.


The station was sold on and that was when these buildings (the homestead) with stone walls 45cm thick were built. Cattle were replaced by sheep just in time for the 1869 drought when 20,000 starved to death. The 70 families living on the station left, but even so blocks of land were being offered here in 1879 with the suggestion that groundwater was available ‘at very moderate depths’. How many times were stories of this kind to be played out in this country?

Not that far from here European explorer Edward John Eyre, born in very damp and English Bedfordshire, stood on a high point of land looking north out over the vast salt pan he named Lake Torrens and decided so far, no further. ‘The whole was barren and arid-looking in the extreme, and as I gazed on the dismal scene before me I felt assured, I had approached the vast and dreary desert of the interior.’

He called that protuberance Mt Hopeless. This is in a great Australian naming tradition. There are several other Mt Hopelesses. Eyre himself named Mt Deception and Mt Distance. Then there’s Mt Desperation, Mt Disappointment, Mt Despair, Mt Misery (there are five of these in four states), Mt Buggery, Mt Scabby, Mt Isolation, Mt Mistake (several), Mt Failure and Mt Terrible. And that’s just the mountains — which could be expected to be majestic, invigorating! Don’t start on other natural features. I am happy to note that there is one Mt Glorious and one Mt Useful.

This is part of an ongoing story of failure to come to terms with what this country actually is and how it works. I note in passing that the Adnyamathanha, Ngajuri, Nukunu and Barngala peoples had been living here successfully for many thousands of years.

IMG_1236.jpgNot a great photo, illustrative only, but these are sheep tracks about latitude 30 degrees south, way north of where I’d say they should be. Such is the fragility of this country — at least to the predations of hooved and two-legged creatures, it is otherwise brilliantly adapted to its climate — they could be 100 years old. They could also be more recent. We did see some sheep near here.

How long does the dry Australian bush take to recover from incursions like this?

In 1855, after and as a consequence of the Eureka uprising, the Victorian government introduced the first formal traces of the White Australia Policy, a head tax of £10 on Chinese immigrants to the colony. (This was a lot; the journey from China would have cost £10-12.) So instead of landing in Victoria, the Chinese landed in South Australia. Between 1857 and 1863 for example, 16,261 Chinese males and one female landed at Robe, occasioning a walk of 500-600km to the gold fields. Others, far fewer, disembarked in Adelaide and followed a path which went through Victoria’s Little Desert. 150 years later, despite not having been used since those times (the Victorian law was soon repealed as ineffectual), the track they took through the Little Desert is still clearly visible.

That’s how long it takes. Forever.

• • • • •

We flew to Adelaide and began by spending a few days there.


This is a good photo for these reasons. It is unexpected. (Two women sitting in an unusual configuration inside an art installation at the Art Gallery of SA. The furry things on the carpet are intended to be read as rabbits. I’m pretty sure.) The very satisfying balance and level of interest of the background items. The faces of the women, directly addressed to the camera, composed and resolute, confident but not noisily so. In it. In the photo.

How they are dressed will tell you a certain amount about a) the weather and b) Adelaide, Melbourne’s doting little sister. Paul Kelly sings:

And the streets are so wide everybody’s inside
Sitting in the same chairs they were sitting in last year
(This is my town!)
All the king’s horses all the king’s men
Wouldn’t drag me back again
To Adelaide Adelaide Adelaide …

IMG_0960.jpgYeah well. I’ve spent a lot of time in Adelaide and it’s better than that, especially for a visit. 

But I know what he means about the streets.




We went the long way north through Clare and its vineyards, going through Yacka with its late afternoon shadows.IMG_0973.jpg

On the outskirts of Port Augusta’s excellent Arid Lands Botanical Gardens we stood where it is believed that Matthew Flinders did when he first saw the eponymous ranges. This is the top of Spencer Gulf which wanders off into the desert in a barely defined series of water holes and salt pans. Oddly, they are mangroves in the foreground.


230px-Matthew_Flinders_watercolour_1801_a069001.jpgFlinders was 27 in 1801 when, in command of the British Naval ship Investigator, he surveyed and mapped the entire southern coast of Australia from Cape Leeuwin (the south-western ‘corner’ of WA) to Sydney. In the following two years he circumnavigated the continent in the same boat despite it leaking badly for at least half of this epic journey. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. 

He married just before he left on his first voyage intending to take his bride with him, but this was forbidden by the Admiralty. On his planned return home from Sydney his ship failed near French-controlled Mauritius. Suspecting espionage, the Governor detained him on the island. Thus it became nine years between him leaving England and seeing his wife again. IMG_0741.JPG

You will be glad to know she had remained loyal to him and within a year of his return they had a daughter. They really don’t make ’em like that anymore.

It is believed he is buried somewhere under what is now platform 15 of London’s Euston Station. He’s here in bronze, somewhat ill-used, with seagull, outside Melbourne’s St Paul’s cathedral.

Not widely known is his contribution to the naming of Australia, at the time called New South Wales (the east coast) by the English and New Holland (the west coast) by the Dutch and French. I note in passing how very little it is like either South Wales or Holland. Cartographer/ adventure writer Alexander Dalrymple had called it Terra Australis (“the Great South Land’) in a 1771 publication, but Flinders was the first to use the term ‘Australia’ (all in capitals) on a map.

‘There is no probability, that any other detached body of land, of nearly equal extent, will ever be found in a more southern latitude; the name Terra Australis will, therefore, remain descriptive of the geographical importance of this country, and of its situation on the globe: it has antiquity to recommend it; and, having no reference to either of the two claiming nations, appears to be less objectionable than any other which could have been selected. Had I permitted myself any innovation upon the original term, it would have been to convert it into Australia; as being more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth.’

Directly influenced by Flinders’ reasoning, Governor Macquarie recommended its use to the British Colonial Office in 1817. Hastening slowly, in 1824, several years after Macquarie had left his post, officials of the Office agreed.

But Flinders didn’t name the ranges after himself. Governor Gawler did so in 1839. Flinders referred to them only as a ‘rugged chain of mountains’. It is unlikely that the Adnyamathanha (‘mountain people’, pron. adya-mar-thayna, usually quickly like a low rumble) would have had a name for the ranges as a whole. They would have been much more particular in their interests. But in deference to their original inhabitants, they are now referred to as ‘Ikara’, Adnyamathanha for ‘meeting place’.


Meeting place — Emily’s Bistro, Quorn. Quorn is one end of the steam train ride which will take you through the Pichi Richi Gap to Port Augusta and back again. This table was on an excursion run by a woman who, on the day, as you can imagine, was very busy. What a good woman. The guy in the hat was more a lingering presence.

• • • • •


Wilpenapoundfromspacewithnotes.jpgTwo versions of Wilpena Pound. The resort where one stays is on the creek transecting the eastern wall about half way up visible in the overhead aerial photo. 

St Mary Peak/ Ngarri Mudlanha circuit. It was an icy morning when we began the walk, about minus five, and sharp on the fingers and nose.

This is where we were heading. It is marked ‘St Mary Peak’ on the aerial photo above.

We had climbed Mt Ohlssen-Bagge (named awkwardly after a business partner of the surveyor’s! So much for local reference) the day before for a bit of acclimatisation and I had been surprised by how verdant the whole area was. Only a bit arid at this time. I was even more surprised on this morning by spending an hour or two walking through a forest of tall callitris, quite obviously on the wet side of the hill.

IMG_1062 (1).jpg

img_8973-1.jpgThis was as easy as it looks, a walk in the park; but we needed to gain about 800m so the climb didn’t start too far away although its early stages were painless. Cup of tea about now and I’ve stripped off to a T-shirt by 10 o’clock. It might have got to about 22 glorious degrees.

IMG_8983.JPGAnd then it got steeper: sandstone zig-zags, loose rock, smallish grass trees, elegant little bushes with very sharp spines. This is on the way up to Tanderra (‘resting point’) Saddle, the last bit of which requires some hand climbing.




Tracks to peaks like this one are usually constructed with a deviation round to the rear of the scarp with a climb up the tilted slabs which often provide their own interesting labyrinths. That was the case here.IMG_1080.jpg




And as is also usually the case, it took 20-30 minutes longer to get to the top than I thought it would. But the views were spreading out and fabulous.


Below, some of the rim of the Pound from the Peak, with Dogs cap, cup of tea and drawing pad.IMG_1076.jpg

The ranges snake off north in paired sinuous waves. Intoxicating. The Heysen Trail, South Australia’s long distance walk, just visible in this photo, runs down the middle.IMG_1082.jpg

Back the way we came for two km before the descent onto the floor of the Pound. We’d been leap-frogging with a young couple on the way up but the girl rolled her ankle and they had decided to go back the quickest way, so we were probably on our own during this leg.

IMG_1087.jpgThick casuarina, in places growing across the track, suggested that it wasn’t heavily used and its surface of sharp broken rock the size of tennis balls suggested why, but after four or five km. we got back into another callitris forest with sand (and a couple of blisters) under foot.



A stone garden with callitris in the foreground, river red gums signalling nearby (intermittent) water in the background. Late sun, long shadows. Time to get home. Still six km or so to go.IMG_1091.jpg

This is a heavily waymarked walk — they look after you in South Australia — and we were timing our 200m sprints when we were interrupted by Hill’s Homestead and the North Wilpena Creek, almost running, which you accompany for the last few km.IMG_1094.jpg

21km, nine hours — and with an hour fooling around and eating and drinking that’s about what it took us. Myrna thinks it could be the best one-day walk she’s ever done. 

• • • • •


This is a restored version of the Hill family homestead in its original location. It housed the parents and their nine children. Some of them must surely have slept outdoors. They lived here for five years before even this was built.

Colonists encountered Wilpena Pound in 1850. It was surveyed in the following year and the lease, one of the very first to be issued in this part of South Australia, was taken up that year by the Browne Brothers. The station was established by their partner, twenty-five year old Henry Price, who decided to build the homestead and station headquarters near Wilpena Creek which drains the Pound.

In 1861 Price paid £40,000, a fortune, to become sole owner and manager of the station. At the time of sale its total area was around 2,000 square kilometres (!) and it was carrying more than 17,000 sheep, and 5,000 cattle. Price built that up to more than 33,000 sheep and 4,000 cattle. But after the great drought of the mid 1860s, ‘when not one green thing was left alive’, fewer than 1,000 sheep were left and no cattle.

Owners came and, especially, went — a steady stream of failure — for the next 40 years until 1899 when the Hill family from Hawker took out a lease over the Pound, deciding to try agriculture, something never before attempted so far north. The great drought of the 1880s had proven the validity of Goyder’s Line, and Wilpena is 150km further north. But being in the shadow of some of the highest mountains of the Flinders Ranges, rainfall in the Pound is a little higher.

There is a series of information plaques near the homestead of which my memory is imperfect, but I remember these things.

The conditions the government attached to their lease meant that they were required to run 120,000 sheep on their holding. Insane. But they did, until hit by another drought at the end of which they had fewer than 2,000 left. That was when they decided to turn their hand to wheat. You can still see the area they cleared for this purpose.

But then, besides getting supplies in — they had a struggling vegetable garden, but every other single thing — they had to get their crop to market and the only feasible point of access was along the creek. They spent 11 months constructing a road, a ‘corduroy’ track consisting of logs laid perpendicular to its direction. But they had to get up and over a huge tilted rock slab, called ‘Sliding Rock’ today, which they did by drilling holes and binding their logs to heavy steel pins driven into those holes.

This may be one of those stories — but when they got their wheat to Adelaide (via ship from Port Augusta, after 300km by horse and cart from the Pound), it was believed to be of exceptional quality and some of the best ever produced in the colony.

1912 and 1913 were drought years, but they still managed to get some harvest. Then on Christmas Day 1914 — and I do remember this from the plaques — huge dark clouds gathered and the Pound received rainfall such as European settlers had never experienced. The deluge exited the Pound through the creek gorge and completely destroyed every part of the road they had spent the best part of a year building.

The family left very soon after. For keeps. I wonder how long the discussion went before that decision was made.

• • • • •

old-trucks.pngJust thinking about this has brought back a sharp memory from the distant past when I was working pickling wheat near Beulah in the Victorian Mallee region.

‘Pickling wheat’ at that time, about 45 years ago, meant driving around a war surplus 1940s Chev truck with a Heath Robinson contraption on its back. (That is actually them at left, a pic stolen from the history section of Hannaford’s website. You can find anything on the net.)

You started the machine by hauling on a huge leather belt to turn the stationary engine over. Advanced farmers would pipe the wheat into the hopper through an auger then out the other end straight into a silo, but when I was pickling most farmers would bag in-bag out. You could do about 300 bags on a good day. I developed a huge callus on my right knee from humping bags. And dreaded doing barley. There was no option but to burn or throw away your clothes after 50 bags of barley. The prickling was unbearable.

The process would get rid of chaff, stones and dirt so the seed would run smoothly down the drills when it came to planting. The remaining seed was also covered in ‘pickle’, a dust of copper phosphate as standard, mercury if they wanted to pay more, to keep out rodents, bugs and a number of diseases. Lord knows how much mercury I inhaled. It wasn’t really an Occ health and safety type of job, but for an impecunious student it was very lucrative.

But the point, the point. A company called Hannaford’s, still going, had a monopoly on this process. Their picklers — they preferred young Methodists, and theological students if possible — would be assigned a region where they would do all the farms. I did Murtoa, Beulah and Minyip — all pretty close to the Goyder Line which actually runs through Beulah. It had been a good year, but regardless of what you’ve harvested you still need seed.

The deal was ‘the pickler’ would stay with the farmer where he finished for the day — and this was a sort of highlight for all concerned. In the month or so it took to do a region, ‘the pickler’ would become a figure in the community. I slept in a canopied four-poster bed with silk sheets; I slept in an overturned dunny on a horse hair mattress. Dinner was often a feast, but at least one night it was half a slab of beer. More if you wanted it.

I was 40km or so west of Beulah heading towards the Big Desert country working for two bachelor brothers. They had state of the art machinery and an amazing machinery shed with a full concrete floor in which absolutely any farm engineering task could be accomplished. We finished their wheat, augered from memory, and they carted me off to cut out a sheep and kill it. It was skun and hung for mmm maybe half an hour. The legs were butchered off and cooked in an open fire — which was their kitchen. Quite well-equipped, but most definitely outdoors. That was dinner.

I had mistaken their house for a small derelict wooden shed. They turned out to be one and the same. The boys slept in swags under a nearby tree, and that night I slept in the house in a double bed shared with their 80 year-old mother. I encountered her for the first time as she clambered in. During the course of the night neither of us was molested.

The old days are still pretty current some places.


• • • • •

When you go to the Flinders Ranges you are well advised to keep travelling north to the Gammon and Northern Ranges. It’ll be a dirt road and you won’t have it all to yourself.IMG_1111.jpg

But it’s worth it. It’s another sort of country, a geological wonderland. The southern ranges are folded sedimentary layers — the Pound just happened that way, large dimension folding. The northern ranges are all sorts. 

The Arkaroola Protection Area, our destination, is the first place radium-rich minerals were discovered in Australia. The overlying layers of sandstone, siltstone and granites are about 1600 million years old making them a billion years older than much of the rest of the rock in the Flinders Ranges. (Ah we toss these terms around as though they are imaginable …) These rocks were impregnated with uranium and thorium. About 440 million years ago (Ma) as these elements decayed they heated the 12km thick rock blanket until it fractured and in sections melted. This happened again around 299 Ma which produced an enormous geyser explosion. These events and their consequences are unique to the area and have left behind an astonishing array of exotic but readily accessible minerals (so to speak). 

IMG_1126 (1).jpg

The camera’s auto controls have taken some of the sting out of it, but this patch of rock was fluorescing so vehemently it was hard to look at in the sunlight without sunglasses.

The ‘township’ of Arkaroola (below) with Griselda Hill immediately behind, has no stable population. IMG_1121.jpg

Even the longer term inhabitants leave in the summer. You see tourists mainly, but first European interest was geological and the settlement retains a scientific flavour. There are two astronomical observatories, a stone wall built to mirror the actual geological form and makeup of its location, and a ‘gem chamber’ with a roof open so that the sun can shine in on the collection of crystals and other rock stars of the mineral world. Above the urinal in the restaurant is a colour chart so that you can assess your degree of dehydration.

I like all that, the assumption you take an intelligent interest in where you are — 610 square kilometres of wilderness sanctuary. 

Like further south, the area’s first people are the Adnyamathanha. One of their dreamtime or creation stories says that Arkaroo, a mythical monster, drank Lake Frome dry. He then crawled up into the mountains. When he urinated he created the waterholes that are a feature of the area. His movement over the land created Arkaroola Creek. (A poor photo of a rendering of this story on a cave wall.)Unknown.jpeg

Edward Eyre (in 1840) and George Goyder (1857) were the first Europeans to get this far north. From 1860 to 1863 there was a small failed settlement nearby, at the Yudnamutana copper mine. Drought drove the miners out. Settlement didn’t occur again until 1903, after rubies and sapphires were discovered. In 1910 a copper smelter was built at Yudnamutana and later uranium was discovered nearby by Sir Douglas Mawson, more famous for his explorations in the Antarctic.

The land was always marginal and projects failed quickly. Uranium exploration persisted sporadically and led to the development of a relatively good road in by optimistic companies. In 1935 the Arkaroola property was fenced and an eradication program begun to get rid of the feral donkeys, camels and goats which had done enormous damage to the environment. 

Unknown.jpegIts contemporary history begins with geologist Reg and Griselda Sprigg (at left with son Doug who still shares the running of the place) purchasing the pastoral lease in 1968. A student of Mawson’s at Adelaide University, Reg had first come to the area on a final year field trip. 

After Sprigg had established himself as one of the world’s pre-eminent geologists and had set up his own consulting geological and geophysical companies — involved with Santos, Cooper Basin, Moomba Gas Fields, mining uranium, nickel, copper, petroleum — and, in short, made a lot of money, Mawson asked his former student to do what he could to protect the area, which he thought was the world’s greatest open-air museum of geological history.

When the Arkaroola pastoral lease came up for sale in 1967 Sprigg tried to persuade the SA Govt to purchase the property and declare it a National Park. But they felt it too remote, and finally said if he felt so strongly about it he should buy it himself — which he and his wife Griselda did in 1968. Reg decided it best to open it up to tourists and use the profits to fund environmental projects. As it turned out the Government had been correct. It was a long way for visitors to come, and they came in small numbers. So most of the funding for buildings, tracks, other infrastructure and conservation came from the Sprigg family.

47 years on, the native flora and fauna are in excellent health and the majority of the property remains weed free. One species under threat was yellow-footed rock wallabies. We saw dozens of them, most elegant creatures.IMG_1184.jpg

Just before we were there Arkaroola had been visited by representatives of the World Heritage Commission. It was whispered that their off-the-record briefing suggested that the WHC could never hope to be as well-versed about the property as the incumbents and would simply be intrusive and a nuisance. It would be better looked after with the present regime maintained.

It has three zones: the Mawson Plateau Wilderness Zone (no tracks/no vehicle access); the Ridgetop Zone (one track only with locked gates; used only by Arkaroola vehicles), and the Multi-use Zone. Walkers have access to the whole property. And we walked through this amazing country.

We did three half-day walks which could be hooked up. Mawson Valley/ Spriggina provides a useful introduction. Flora, fauna, geology — wonderful. img_1133.jpg

You can see clumps of spinifex on the incline to the right of the track. Sturt’s Desert Rose at left.
 An ant feasting on Curly Mallee flowers.IMG_9160.JPG

We followed this with a walk along Acacia Ridge full of glorious views, the buildings of the resort at mid-left.IMG_1200.jpg

But the best walk was Barraranna Gorge: IMG_1158.jpgweird rock strata, IMG_1161.jpgtillite (‘foreign’ rocks as big as a football embedded in the background material)IMG_1168.jpg and dramatic rock pools in sumptuously coloured settings.IMG_1178.jpg

You need to go on the Ridge Top Tour which provides AWD access to one of the sections of the preserve otherwise off limits. And what ride it is. When you don’t think you’re going to tip off the track you are aware of this heart-palpitating scenery. The highlight, and furthest point, is Siller’s Lookout. Access to it looks like this.sillers_peak.jpg

And yes there was another vehicle up there, the usual tour ‘bus’ with a cracked differential housing. The plan was to drain and flush the differential and then weld the crack sufficiently to get the truck back. Not a job I’d like. Myrna preferred to walk as I tried to take a photo of what it felt like.IMG_1228.jpg

We might have been paying for thrills and spills but we got as well a very fine lecture on the history and geology of the area and views like this. Broken Hill is about 400km somewhere over there.


• • • • •

Copley is where you get back on the bitumen, but Leigh Creek is only five km away.


Unknown.jpegLeigh Creek is a government-owned town on the edge of the desert (annual average rainfall: 205 mm). It is for sale as its original purpose, to house the workers and their families who provided the labour force for the Leigh Creek open cut coal mine 22 km north of the town, ceased to exist when the mine was closed in 2015. At the time Leigh Creek was a ‘modern’ (I quote) mining town with a ‘modern’ shopping centre, a series of neat ‘modern’ roads and small, attractive plots of land on which standard ‘modern’ houses had been built. (Nothing is ‘modern’ these days. ‘Modern’ has come to mean slightly outmoded.)

And there it is, just plonked by the side of the Outback Highway with its lush green oval and its big school and its shopping centre and its population of 125, down from 2500 at its peak in 1987.


Leigh Creek Area School (pictured, with lone student), 560km north of Adelaide, is in the hot arid zone of South Australia’s northern Flinders Ranges. Our students come from Nepabunna, Iga Warta, Copley, Lyndhurst, Beltana, Leigh Creek and station properties. That’s how Leigh Creek’s entry on the MySchool website begins.

It goes on: The closure of the mine and reduced numbers have taken an emotional toll on students, staff and community. The grieving process continues as, on a daily basis, people are losing friends and services within the town. On top of this families are dealing with job losses, unemployment and uncertainty about the future and how to make transitions. The site improvement plan placed an emphasis on improving student well-being. As the year has progressed we have also worked towards development of improved social skills that enable students to build new social groups as old ones disintegrate. Our aim has been to keep the school as a secure part of students’ lives and of the town.

What will happen here? Who will want to teach in a school in such obvious decline (and not of its own making). 96% of families in the bottom SES quartile, just under 50% Aboriginal: they’re not the reasons why it’s in decline but they are additional reasons why it might be very hard work.

map.jpgMost of the current working population is engaged in the recovery and rehabilitation of the mine site. One aspect of this process is to diminish the prospect of spontaneous combustion. (!) 

This photo from the official closure document  illustrates the relative sizes of the mine and the township. Also pictured bottom left looking like small black snake is Lake Aroona which was disappearing not just because of the minimal rainfall but the silting occurring as a result of the degradation of its surrounds.

This has now been managed and improved to the point where it has become a model for other reclamation processes.

The closure of the mine is not a concern for grief. Originally its purpose was to make South Australia self-sufficient in energy production, but the coal was of such poor quality that the plant where it was burnt in Port Augusta had to be specially modified to accommodate its inadequacy. Massive new solar farms are being built in hot and dry South Australia and this site itself is being tested for possible methane production.

We come. We go. And then there is what we leave behind …

• • • • •

Finally, a few words from Don Watson’s book ‘The Bush’ (which should be learnt by heart by every Australian child):

Close, even cursory, examination might reveal that the bush is not a dangerous neurotic, that drought and all the other defects in the country are really defects in our thinking, and even that mateship, which is built and exercised less on our love of the bush than our fight with it, is half humbug and baloney. In this case our mental slate will be that much cleaner. While we’re at it, we might as well own up to the carnage: a bit of truth and reconciliation will help us to grow up. Then, denatured though we are, we might work out what we owe the bush, what we want from it, and what is reasonable to ask from it. It’s not just food and wealth, marketing icons, and movies about bush-nurtured sociopaths and felons: we need to do more than leverage our vast and marvellous estate. Much better to know it and ourselves.IMG_1238.jpg