White caps on the Coorong

Four years ago I wrote a blog called ‘The Mouth of the Murray’ which took up issues related to the depradations of the Murray-Darling river system after years of drought and decades of misuse.

The blog was quite widely read, opened anyway, which pleased me because I felt great concern about what was (and still is) a massive environmental problem. From Goondiwindi and Warrego to the mouth, 3000 kms, there were issues getting worse. But rivers die from the mouth up and so it was the Coorong that was the most vivid canary in the mine.

The Coorong is a coastal dune lake, a body of water bounded by a coastal dune and fed from time to time by ocean water — not unheard of but not so terribly common either, and the Coorong is a very large one. From the mouth to the end of the southern lagoon is about 110 kms and while its width varies it can be up to 4 kms. It is also a very precious one recognised under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance.

In the screen shot above you can see Wellington where the Murray enters Lake Alexandrina. You can also just see its mouth near Mundoo Island. Goolwa is to its left and then to the right you can see the long green strip of the Coorong (an attempt at the Ngarrindjeri word kurangk meaning ‘neck’).

This is what it looked like when we were there four years ago, a dry salt pan with a tiny amount of vestigial plant growth.

And this is disastrous because the area’s ecology will be transformed by events of this scale, potentially almost nothing alive, potentially permanently.

But there has been rain. Lots of it, and while the floods have been described in terms of human catastrophe it is an ill flood that blows no ecosystem good.

The water from the Namoi, the Lachlan, the Macquarie, the Castlereagh and the Condamine, the Barwon, the Gwydir and the Paroo, has been working its way down the system, reconnecting and reinvigorating the Darling, filling the Menindee Lakes and in the Murray’s case swamping the Barmah Forest along with the outskirts and suburbs of the towns along its banks.

You think, well I do anyway, that all this water will take just a day or two, or a week maybe, to travel the length of the system, but it doesn’t. When we were in South Australia at Christmas the major flood level of the Murray at Renmark was going to take four or more days — it seemed uncertain — to arrive at Mannum about 400 kms away. The water is travelling downstream of course but it’s also spreading spreading spreading finding places that have been flooded before but this time seeking out new adventures.

At Murray Bridge when we crossed it in early January it looked like this, three or four kilometres wide.

On the other side of the bridge it had divided and turned into two monster streams.

The ferries had been closed at Tailem Bend and Wellington. But at Tailem Bend, about 30 kms downstream, it had resumed discipline, swollen and busy, but not yet spilling its bulging rolls over the flood plain.

It had been raining here too. Langhorne Creek had had its regular floods in October and most unusually, even the salt pans on the landward side of the road had plentiful water in them.

Melaleuca nesophila, Honey Myrtle, a Western Australian native, was growing like crazy throughout this part of South Australia. It seemed perfectly suited.

You can see it at left below out the front of this shack and its bin. It is I think the second last house before the Coorong National Park begins, and from its front door …

… da dah. You can see this. The Mouth: 200m of open water, not a dredge in sight. (They were in fact parked several kilometres back towards Goolwa, but not in use, possibly saving some of the $6m a year that their use otherwise costs.) It was a fabulous sight.

From here to get anywhere else you need to retrace your steps off Hindmarsh Island, so back to Goolwa. We had seen people — and a dog, not quite the thing in a national park — on the point overlooking the mouth and had some lukewarm ambition to do the same. But we found the road closed at the Goolwa Barrage a long way from where we wanted to get. Although you can’t see it in the picture of the Barrage below, for the first time in ages the five Murray barrages (see here) were open in a major way. Since 5 January 576 gates have been open; the usual figure is more like 40.

A few days later we crossed the river again at Murray Bridge and began the trip down the side of Lake Alexandrina to rediscover the Coorong. This is what we found: a glorious expanse of water.

We need some video here because Jack’s Point, everywhere we walked really, was awash with bird song. Saw some flying, but they were otherwise hidden in the bushes, with a dozen different calls trilling away.

Finally. Proof. The Coorong has its own numinous quality partly because of Colin Thiele’s book Storm Boy in which pelicans and their chicks play a central role. And here they were. A squadron of 15 or 20 pelicans in front of us, with many more flying about. These ones were feeding avidly with gulls ever so correctly pinching the remnants from the swarm of fish!

Remember this photo?

Currently there are fish in the Coorong. And if there are fish in the Coorong, there is so much else.

And you might note in the somewhat indistinct photo above with the pelicans, there are white caps. Quite a stiff breeze was blowing on shore from the south-west.

Despite the mighty expanses suggested here, the Coorong might be a couple of metres deep at its deepest. The idea of white caps on its surface is strange and elusive. But here it was, pretending to be a real sea. Was being a real sea. White caps. On the Coorong. Frankly, hoorah.

The Darling Downs, New Year 2016

DSC00369Main Street, Clifton, with a message for you all.

The Darling Downs are a plateau in southern Queensland, beginning 120 or so km west of Brisbane.

We arrived the most common way, through the Lockyer Valley one of the ten most fertile places in the world according to list makers with such things as an interest, and scene of extraordinary floods in 2011. The scarp at the end of the valley takes you up 650m quite promptly and the temperature falls 5 degrees which was one of the reasons why we were there. The road up the scarp was swarming with police. A big arrest had been made in the Valley: drugs, guns, money, etc. That was not one of the reasons why we were there.

It’s fertile on the Downs as well. Beef, pork and meat packing once, sheep a bit further out; these days more corn syrup and sunflower and safflower oil. But a lot of money was made and some of it at least was spent in Toowoomba.DSC00296

It has snowed in Toowoomba when I’ve been there in the past, a distinct oddity for Queensland, but precipitation could be a theme. Some say the name ‘Toowoomba’ is a corruption of the Aboriginal word ‘tchwampa’ meaning ‘water sit down’ an idea I like. The big town (110,000 souls, second biggest inland Australian city) sits on and around swamp drained by the East and West Creeks.

When the Lockyer Valley flooded so did Toowoomba, but the water didn’t rise with the sullen inexorability that flood water so often does. imagesIt rose in a blaze of furious anger, a two metre wave from nowhere in ten minutes. The ground was completely sodden when the town got 70mm of rain in an hour, 150mm on that day. At least partly for the commentary, this is the clip of the event I like the best. DSC00349

The two people who died were washed off the bridge to the left. It scarcely seemed possible when we were there.

The eastern edge of the scarp is also the absolute defining point of the Great Divide. None of this water contributed to the floods in the valley below. It will all have run off into the Condamine, a river with folkloric resonances, before finding its way to Lake Alexandrina not so far from Adelaide 2500km away.


The strip shops in the main drag are being cannibalized by two giant shopping malls at its western end and three or four others plopped where cars can get to them.DSC00330

It can feel a bit like it looks above. But for all that it’s a university town and you can find areas with a bit of groove. A lane decoration for example.DSC00338

It has Queens Park. In fact it has 150 public parks and gardens including the all star rose gardens which were well past their best when we were there.
DSC00343Old Toowoomba has wonderful plantings more generally — plane trees, camphor laurel, crepe myrtle, jacaranda, European species, everything seems to grow here — providing plenty of shade on a hot Queensland day. New Toowoomba (below) not so much.DSC00362






And it has some of its built heritage. They seem to be more respectful of that, in some parts of Queensland at least, than in other parts of the country.


DSC00340In 2015, the Vault was designated Australia’s best adult nightclub, possibly supplanting the city’s 2008 win as Australia’s Tidiest Town.

We left Toowoomba and drove south ambling over the Downs deviating via Nobby and Clifton to Warwick, and then east to the coast through Legume, Woodenbong and Beaudesert, a very fine drive.

Three food photos.

Ordering at Jilly’s, ToowoombaDSC00294

After 45 k.s. 9am Saturday Morning, Cherry Tree Cafe, WarwickDSC00378DSC00381



Fishburger at Carole’s Arts and Crafts, Woodenbong

220px-Steele_RuddONOURSELECTIONFLYER4‘Steele Rudd’ (Arthur Hoey Davis) wrote On Our Selection (the original Dad and Dave stories) while living in this area. He was born in Drayton, the original site of Toowoomba and now a suburb. I was pleased to discover that he ‘detested his struggling but admirable family being made into comic yokels, and had nothing to do with the radio program. Davis had a profound respect for the pioneering Australian woman, and he was particularly incensed by the use of ‘Mum’ when referring to Mrs Rudd.’ Hoorah.

This might be like Rudd’s Pub in Nobby. Mr Davis may or may not have sat at a table here writing.DSC00365And Jackie Howe who once shore 321 sheep in 7 hours, 40 minutes, using hand shears (October 1892, at Alice Downs Station near Blackall Qld) is commemorated in Warwick because it is near where he was born. It is important to scrape things like that into a pile which over time will take form.

Glorious Mt LindesayDSC00390

And the purpose of our visit. This is how Australians celebrate 70th birthdays.DSC00396• • • • • • • • • • •

DSC00346Back to Toowomba, one of the really remarkable things about it is schools.

As you enter Toowoomba from the road up the scarp there is no choice but to veer right or left around the two kilometre perimeter of Toowoomba Grammar and its vast grounds.

Should you choose to do so, you can stay at the Grammar View Motel and what you will see when you look, as of course you must, is this (below) … and a great deal more. The ‘more’ that I could see that day included a groundsman mowing patterns into the turf of Old Boys Oval in front of the agapanthus display.

DSC00347Unlike the built cacophony of somewhere like the University of Melbourne for example, it is all of a style. And that style is palatial. And it is not alone in that regard. Concordia (Lutheran), Fairholme (continuing Presbyterian), The Glennie School (Anglican) and Downlands (Catholic) have equally sumptuous facades.

But they are just plums in a much bigger pie. Toowoomba has 32 schools educating primary students and 21 for secondary students. Certainly they collect students from all over the Downs, but this would still appear to be a surfeit.

The schools are often almost cheek by jowl. For example, Glenvale Christian School and Darling Downs Christian School sandwich Glenvale State School almost sharing fences. Glenvale Christian School, ‘Kindy’ to Year 6, has an enrolment of 97, while Darling Downs Christian School (which is not Christian Outreach College Toowoomba or Toowoomba Christian College) and is designed to promote ‘a redemptive relationship between each student and Jesus Christ’ has an enrolment of 184 Years P-12.

This is the growth area: not the schools that charge you $30 grand to get in the gate, but the ones which charge $5 grand and then get topped up by the Commonwealth Government. And in some cases, too often, who ‘teach all their subjects from a Biblical worldview’ which may inter alia indicate that the earth is 6031 years old, that Adam (930) was outlived by Noah (950), and that the sentence ‘Now Terah lived seventy years, and begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran’ (Genesis 11:26) suggests that at the age of 70 Terah had triplets, and that that is worth arguing about. I saw all this on a giant wall poster, 20m long by 2m high, called ‘World History’ at a school in the Riverina not so long ago. It made me deeply uneasy.

Of the 21 secondary schools, six are government schools. I could work out the proportionate enrolment but suffice it to say Toowoomba provides more than a hint of the new world of fully privatised school education. It will of course never be fully privatised because, if you have a choice, you don’t want yobbos, tarts, oddballs, noisy kids, blacks*, druggies, and ones who don’t know what the right thing to do is. You don’t want unnecessary trouble. So there will always need to be a home for the residualised unless you want them on the streets, and the shopkeepers don’t fancy that.

[* ‘The College is all inclusive and inter-denominational. We also welcome students from indigenous backgrounds.’ So blackfellas as well as everyone. Splendid.]

I began my secondary schooling in Hamilton (Victoria) a town not unlike Toowoomba in some ways: a regional centre of a very wealthy grazing area. The bottom hasn’t quite fallen out of its economy but its population has been static for a long time — it could never quite crack 10,000 — and the principal of the school I visited there recently described the current social bifurcation: ‘The town is splitting in two: the ones who are going okay and the ones, more of them everyday, who are stuffed.’

It was always a bit like that. My father was never going to be invited to join The Squatters’ Club. But the school — a government school — I went to was excellent. Very strong in science, history and art, but good across the board. Solid, orderly, well administered, excellent morale, it had 890 students. Over the road was the Tech School, another government school, all boys, again very good at what it did. It had about 400 kids. Monivae, a Catholic secondary school then just for boys, which had been recently established, had around 200 (including Pat Dodson who I remember playing football against). Hamilton and Western District College (private, boys) and Alexandra College (private, girls) had about 400 between them and across primary and secondary years. Note that as happens today these kids were being collected from all over the place. Lots of bus travellers; and Pat was from Broome.

I had reason to visit one of these schools recently. Unsurprisingly things had changed. Monivae had girls and 608 students. The Colleges amalgamated years ago. The new institution has an enrolment of 477. A new Lutheran school has a P-12 enrolment of 199. (In what respect is that viable?) I can’t find the enrolment of the new Plymouth Brethren school, Glenvale. It could be 50-80 (and it could be a sister school of Glenvale school in Toowoomba which has as part of its mission statement: ‘With humble reliance upon the grace of our sovereign God, in order to assist Christian parents to fulfil their educational responsibility, and complementing the work of the Christian Church, to nurture our students in the fear and admonition of the Lord.’)

And my alma mater? Amalgamated first with the Tech School and then with a primary school, it now has a total enrolment across Years P-12 of 487 and a fragile reputation. That’s what two decades of neo-con thinking and sleight of hand distribution of federal funds has achieved.

Free? No not really. Secular? Increasingly less so. Compulsory? Absolutely. Trouble? In due course, nothing surer.

Warwick High looked like I want my schools, across the board, to look like. Confident, stable and proud.DSC00377

• • • • • • • • • • •

As you’d expect the edge of the scarp provides much-coveted building sites. Kara View Court had just been opened up. Big blocks, big houses, several of them far more interesting than these.DSC00353

But going back to the highway we drove past a gated community.