Friday, December 19, 2008


It's a few days before Christmas and you've got nothing better to do than look through some Flinders Ranges pics - right? Well here's you chance - a motley selection of 147 shots of rocky lumps in the north. A little hard to see the point of a 'scenic survey', but at least you can try guessing which peak is what. The only catch is today is the last day!
Also, DEH is looking at rejigging the walks around Wilpena - see the draft plan here. So, if you have ever wondered how to write 96 pages of mumbo jumbo about changing a few walking tracks, this is for you. There's no panic on this one - you've got till the end of Feb to have your say.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Two bits of good news - both long overdue - for Arkaroola in the far northern Flinders Ranges:

Firstly from their website: Great news! Since 14 November, a total of 100.8mm (about 4 inches or 400 points) of rain has fallen over Arkaroola. As at today (12 December), the Arkaroola Creek is still running 0.5 metre deep and young seedlings are coming up everywhere - Marg reports that if you concentrate, you can even see a slight tinge of green!

Secondly, it's reported the mining exploration waste dumped in Arkaroola by Marathon Roesources is now 'cleaned up' - see story. Now all that's required is for the government to put the kybosh on any further exploration or mining in the sanctuary.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Spending a day looking at the Coorong always gives food for thought. It was a year or so since I'd been there and in that time the news media has been running hot with stories about the 'fate of the Murray' and the 'plight of the Coorong and Lower Lakes.' And it's true, a lack of water coming down the river has put the screws on this place. But this problem has been brewing for decades. Just ask Dr David Paton at Adelaide Uni.
Anyway, if all you ever knew about the Coorong came from the media, you might imagine the place had gone to the dogs and the only thing left was toxic mud and rotting fish. But as I sat there looking across the lagoon to the peninsula, staring into the breeze coming straight off the Southern Ocean, I must say the sly - and sometimes odd - fascination of the place seemed as strong as ever.
One of the things I like about the Coorong is its unapproachable quality. Lots of people drive past and see it but you can't really get into it that easily - unless you go to the trouble of tackling the ocean beach in a 4WD or poking about the lagoon in a boat. Even then, the heart of the peninsula lies there pretty much untouched.
So what you’re left with is this horizon of scrub and dunes, the distant boom of the surf beach and a strip of dark, rippling lagoon that's empty of people most of the time. I like the fact that it gets to me, that it has this stillness and air of mystery that can't be dispelled simply by going to a lookout or taking a' scenic drive'.
It gets to other people too. A few weeks back ABC radio's David Bevan sounded bewildered when he asked Allan Holmes of the Department of Environment & Heritage why the place seemed so deserted. Nor did Allan have a terribly convincing explanation.
Now, suddenly, the region is part of an 'environmental crisis.' I think it’s a pity it took the lakes to start shrinking dramatically and for farmer’s livelihoods to be threatened before people started taking notice. It would be great if, as well as via the calculus of science and economic worth, we could value these places for their intrinsic quality, their mystery and the kind of beauty and poetry Colin Thiele gave us in Storm Boy. I guess my point is that, crisis notwithstanding, a lot of that poetry is still there and should be remembered. Then again, I run into the perennial problem for us self-confessed, tree-hugging wilderness aesthetes everywhere: what happens if too many of people start running around ‘valuing’ the place? Will not some of the mystery vanish, and those wordless questions the long, lonely Coorong seems to ask of us slip though our fingers like dry sand?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


As someone who lives on the semi-rural outskirts of a provincial town on the opposite side of the world I seem to pay a disproportionate amount of attention to what happens in The New Yorker. Among my private pleasures is trying to sort out the message - if any - behind the illustrations that adorn their cover every week. The issue I've just found in my letter box (November 24 - The Food Issue) shows what looks like shelves in a fruit and veg shop.
It's a bright, cheerful display but there seems to be a subtext. The trays on the middle shelf have labels from parts foreign and sunny. So this is either a wistful comment on the onset of winter in the US. Or a subtle reminder of the town's reliance on food grown in other parts of the world and therefore the 'food miles' issue.
Either way, given that the tray at the centre of the cover is branded "AUSSIE LAND" I boldly suggest this is the first time the word Aussie - or possibly anything Australian - has appeared on a New Yorker Cover.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


After a spell of downtime to have a bionic knee installed, my brother Jonathan has returned to the photographic fray. For a person of polar obsession and peripatetic instincts, living in suburban exile in Kansas City with a bung leg has been a steep ask. So it's heartening to report he's regained his liberty. And this time he's in northern Canada hot on the trail of polar bears. There were days not that long ago when the Earth's Poles and the creatures that lived there seemed unbelievably remote, as well as totally removed from what we humans could do to this world. Not any more.
By some strange correlation, as the ice melts, the world shrinks. And I'm not talking about the land that disappears under water. What I mean is, our fate is now ever more clearly linked to all sorts of phenomena, all over the world. So if a polar bear no longer has a floe to go with, then that's something for people on the other side of the globe to ponder too.
You can follow Jonathan's progress at a new blog:

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Just in case you need to know why a walk in the bush makes your prefrontal coretex feel so spiffy here's the answer:

Attention Restoration Theory (ART) provides an analysis of the kinds of environments that lead to improvements in directed-attention abilities. Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish. Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative.We present two experiments that show that walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve directed-attention abilities as measured with a backwards digit-span task and the Attention Network Task, thus validating Attention Restoration Theory. (For more info go here.)
In other words our animal brains need the gentle prodding we get mooching about in the shrubbery. Though you have to wonder what happens to this soothing restoration process if you step on a snake.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Back in September the Wilpena Resort changed hands after 50 years in the Rasheed family. Now the famed Arkaba Station just south of Wilpena Pound is going under the hammer on November 14. Another branch of the Rasheed family - Dean and Lizzie - have been at Arkaba for 24 years. They undertook a major program to rehabilitate the property and its buildings. In recent years they have played host to visitors staying at their homestead and B&B accommodation. When I visited them last year Dean & Lizzie were generous with their time and clearly very attached to this country. And with good reason. Arkaba has always been one of the most atmospheric and significant properties in the Flinders. The towering Elder Range looms overhead but there is real beauty - and diversity - across all its habitats, including the glorious rolling hills that merge into the Moralana Valley.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Almost every week somebody seems to mention an intuition about changes in seasonal patterns. (In my part of the world it's usually about rainfall - or the lack of it.) Occasionally people even have stories of plants and animals that appear affected by climate change. As well as this anecdotal stuff there is, of course, some serious science now being employed to micro-monitor the impacts in ecosystems. But for a very different take on the climate question check out this wonderful - if somewhat disturbing - story in the New York Times. That original tree-changer old Henry Thoreau is often lauded for his philosophical postures and contemplative prose. But as this tale reveals, his ideas were cantilevered off a lavishly detailed knowledge of the natural world.


Barack Obama spent today campaigning in the rain in Pennsylvania - in a town called Chester. Every time I see this man of the law standing tall, or hear him speak in that deep, steady voice, I can't help but think of Atticus Finch.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


For 15 years James Woodford has dashed around the country penning stories as the environment scribe for the Sydney Morning Herald. Some of these features, including the ripping yarn of discovering the Wollemi Pine, have blossomed into books. Along the way James has also been busy handcrafting another story -the tale that is his life. Not content to simply report on issues that tether us to the fate of the natural world, he wanted to enact the kind of altered relationship with the environment that was the ultimate corollary of many of his newspaper articles.
The result is Real Dirt, a book that is part memoir and part sit-com, with a dash of self-help and a little DIY confessional thown in for good measure. As an opening fracas with a dinghy suggests, it's not all plain sailing. In fact it takes nearly a 100 pages for James to steer his life into the relatively serene waters of the family circumstance and 120 acres of south coast NSW that he now calls home. He writes with candour about his early relationships, and the multiple pressures of keeping up with work while learning about fatherhood and all the practical stuff of creating an ecological life. As James reveals, even seemingly straightforward tasks like installing a rainwater tank, can be fraught with perils.
Yet, for all the avid discussion of solar panels and worm farms, what appears to matter most is a deepening intimacy with nature. The sheer drive to make things happen, to carve out a different future based on a respectful pact with his environs is impressive. And as the story arc of the book suggests, this drive has many sources but the strongest is an elemental joy that James and partner Prue share in their surroundings: the forest, the returning vigour of the bush and the ever-changing waters of their lake.
Parts of Real Dirt reminded me of John Blay's wonderful Part of the Scenery, another wise account of hard-won connections with a natural life on the NSW south-coast. In these strange times it does no harm to be reminded by such books that what really counts are not more government bailouts or Hollowmen-style initiatives, but people getting their hands dirty to change their lives for a better world.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


The other day I tuned into the last debate for the US presidential elections. Sitting there in my lounge room watching the TV, I couldn't help noticing that one candidate was tall, dark and unflappable, while the other was small, devious and scrappy. Then I happened to turn and look out the lounge room doors to see our two dogs looking in and, well, take a look for yourself:

Bark Obama & John McPain?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


A couple of days soaking up the sights in Bathtub Gorge prompted the following idyll thoughts:
  • Despite 30 years of waddling around the Flinders Ranges, the place continues to surprise and amaze.
  • Even though we walked this gorge back in 1986 (I think) I don't remember much about that trip. (Which, I guess, might help to explain why the place continues to surprise.)
  • As time goes by the significance of the geology here looms larger and larger - and it's all powerful when you're wedged in the gorge. (This, in turn, might explain why the amazement element is alive and well.)
  • The Heysen Range is one of the most underrated walking areas in the Flinders. The Heysen Trail shoots north up Aroona Valley but the peaks and gorges it glides past offer some remarkable detours. And, as always, it's a jolt to be reminded that so much of the best of the Flinders - like Bathtub and the country to the north - is outside the national parks.
  • The effects of 10 years of below average rainfall are very evident. Though the Heysens always get a bit of winter moisture, Bathtub did not seem to have had a major flow for some time. As with the gorges we visited near Moolooloo last year, it could do with a big storm to scour and clean up the pools.
  • Even though it was school holidays, we saw no other walkers. There were however several car-based campers in the Aroona campground. In the carpark at the end of the walk we did meet a few daytrippers who asked quizzical questions. Bushwalking, it seems, is still a bit of a novelty.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Ever since my first Arkaroola bushwalk in 1976 the place has always seemed special, different and just a little bit, well, strange. The rocks and terrain were like nothing else in the Flinders. As the years have passed, this intuition seems to be borne out by all sorts of scientific news.

The latest bulletin is coming up this Thursday at Melbourne Uni’s Selwyn Symposium, when scientists will reveal the discovery of an ancient underwater reef high and dry near Arkaroola. Dating back 650 million years, this priceless relic contains new evidence of lifeforms that were bopping about in the oceans during the climatic bunfight known as the Neoproterozoic.

And this in the same week that Greens MP Mark Parnell and other parties, including perhaps the Libs, move once again to ban uranium exploration and mining in Arkaroola.
Here’s hoping the powers that be finally recognise Arkaroola is much too valuable as a scientific treasure and tourism icon to turn it into another hole in the ground. We've got plenty of mines in SA and more on the way. But there's only one Flinders Ranges - and there's nothing else on earth quite like Arkaroola.

(UPDATE 29 September: The Melbourne Uni team's reef discovery has created a wave of publicity for the area, with coverage from local media to the international press. What really seems to get the headline writers revved is the notion of the start date for animal evolution being pushed back by 80 million years.
This is even more astonishing, given that Arkaroola's tourism pioneer Reg Sprigg was the last person to redefine this frontier in a big way with his work on the Ediacaran fossils.
Arkaroola has been known for its geological wonders for a long time and while it is true that some mining and exploration has happened here in the past, the idea of a large-scale mine being thrust into the heart of this significant landscape is unthinkable. Any government that went down this path would create a national and international scandal.)

Sunday, September 7, 2008


The Wilpena Pound Resort has new owners. "Anthology" a new outfit headed by Grant Hunt, the former boss of travel-industry giant Voyages, has taken over the legendary Flinders Ranges resort from the well-known Rasheed family. Backed by Gresham Private Equity, Anthology has also recently purchased the Bay of Fires and Cradle Mountain Huts Walks in Tassie. "We began Anthology with the dream of creating one of the world’s finest experiential travel brands," says Hunt. "We have a strong belief in nature and most of our assets will tend to be nature based, but not exclusively. We believe very much in conservation and the protection of the environment... and particularly the notion of using the very best of local produce, local art and local people.” As it happens Grant Hunt is also on the board of Tourism Australia which recently - and quite rightly - included the Flinders in their National Landscapes program.

While Wilpena's new owners are promising to revamp the existing facilities in time for Easter 2009 it will be interesting to see what new directions the resort might take longer term - especially if it offers the kind of guided walking and accomodation experience that has been so successful in Tasmania.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Yes, it's semantics, but the fuzzy notion that wilderness is a place beyond human influence has surfaced once more:

"A STUDY has identified 40 per cent of Australia - 3 million square kilometres - as the largest intact wilderness on Earth, ranking in quality with the Amazon forest, Antarctica and the Sahara desert. "Few Australians realise the extent and quality of their own wilderness," said Barry Traill, a wildlife ecologist who co-authored the study identifying 12 regions of Australia that "remain almost completely untouched by humans". "As the world's last great wilderness areas disappear under pressure from human impact, to have a continent with this much remaining wilderness intact is unusual and globally significant," Dr Traill said.

Nothing against the good Dr Baz, but, given the very point of this story was to promote the idea of 5,000 indigenous rangers being employed to look after the country, his choice of words is unfortunate. The truth is that Australia's 'wilderness' has been altered, cherished and cared for by indigenous people for 60,000+ years. To talk about a land "untouched by humans' has echoes of the the dodgy 'Terra Nullius' argument. Nevertheless, Dr Traill is on the right track with his general point - that we have big chunks of country where nature prevails and that we should get stuck into lending nature a hand.

While on the always-prickly subject of defining wilderness, the often-prickly British author Jonathan Raban, now self-exiled in Seattle, appealed to my inner-outlaw with this comment in a recent Granta interview:

It always seems to me odd to call a place a wilderness when every wilderness area in the US bristles with rules and regulations as to how you can behave, what you’re allowed to do, and is patrolled by armed rangers enforcing the small print. They’re parks, of course, not wildernesses at all. A wilderness that’s truly wild is beyond human rule . . .

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


The natural assets of our deep north have been boosted by the purchase of Marion Downs Station by Perth-based Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC). (See story) Together with neighbouring Mornington Station - which AWC snapped up in 2001 - this means a hefty 6,700 sq km of the central Kimberly is now under their umbrella - an area nearly three times the size of the ACT. This is easily the biggest conservation news in the region for many years. It also puts the spotlight on the remote heartland of the Kimberley plateau, an area under-represented in the regions's potpourri of parks and reserves. Rising costs - particularly fuel prices - have made many Kimberley cattle properties marginal operations. Yet it seems those who have called for World Heritage listing and a National Park of Kakadu-proportions in the region will have to be content with the intervention of private outfits like AWC. As discussed in a previous story, the era of new National Parks on a grand scale appears to be over.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


What happens when a company dumps 22,800 bags of mining waste in a Wilderness Sanctuary? Hefty fines? Criminal proceedings? A ban on further operations?
How about none of the above.
That's the scenario with mining company Marathon Resources and the mess it created drilling into Mt Gee in Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary. After several months of ballyhoo, the SA government has asked for the waste to be cleaned up and . . . well, actually, that's all they've asked. To catch up with the saga see Bill Doyle's blog and Greens MP, Mike Parnell's site.

The Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary - including Mawson Plateau - is some of Australia's greatest arid high country. The place is a geological wonderland and a biodiversity stronghold. Even allowing commercial mineral exploration in the heart of these ranges is bizarre enough. But to contemplate full-scale mining here would be a crime against nature - and commonsense. Even Liberal Party hardnut Nick Minchin agrees with that - see story and this one.
(The top pic above shows Arkaroola, looking southwest across Mt Painter; the shot above looks due west towards Freeling Heights.)

Monday, August 4, 2008


Another sortie to what is fast becoming a second home. (The 'becoming' would go even faster if the ferry fares weren't so steep. ) From Island Beach we made pilgrimages to the south coast and Cape Willoughby (see pic of the nearby 'zawn' with its fetching granite cliffs).

As always KI impressed, and not for any single highlight, but the way the experience builds as you gad about the island. Winter here is very special, although the impact of the big January bushfires was plain to see in Flinders Chase where the mallee scrub is only now beginning to reshoot. Squeezed in a quick look at the snappy new Southern Ocean Lodge at Hanson Bay. The place was empty when we arrived, which rather highlighted the scale of the lodge's 'great room.' It's a striking piece of architecture with views along the bay's craggy shoreline. This is a resort with a difference: remote, wind-lashed, highly styled and ultra-exclusive. It takes a while to get your head around what's going on here and it prompted a loud discussion later that night on the merits or otherwise of such places. Suffice to say, I feel a story coming on.

This trip also served as a kind of a family reunion with my brother Jonathan and his crew on a visit from their home in Kansas City. Despite a recent knee replacement he was busy taking pics on our days out and about - though alas our schedule didn't allow for any penguin spotting. Jonathan's recent book Flipping Brilliant does however showcase his beloved birds and their jaunty life wisdom.
THE FLINDERS IN 3D (June 2008)
A somewhat surreal experience being wedged in a tiny theatre watching Tim Baier's images of Arkaroola in the northern Flinders Ranges. All those bright horizons and vast spaces appearing in a darkened room. Adding to the strangeness was the fact that we the audience were wearing 3D glasses to savour the effect of Tim's dual camera work. As a result the images had a richness of detail and perspective that was startling and a bit unnerving as well. There were some stunning effects with rock textures and wildlife as well as the landscape shots. At times the grander images with a big depth of field made the scenery seem eerily diminished, like something out of toytown or a episode of Gumby. Still, it's early days and there's no denying the incredible solo effort he has put in. For me the story behind the making of the images was almost as fascinating as the pics themselves - another example of how wild country can fire up individuals to do inspired work.

Speaking of Arkaroola, in the first week or so June they had 39mm of rain, the first decent falls for some time. That's some welcome news for the good folk at Arkaroola who have been grappling with the proposed mine at Mt Gee

But for a last minute change of heart 20 years ago, home for us would have been in the Blue Mountains - a bush block at Mt Victoria no less. So there was a bit of emotional freight associated with returning - albeit briefly - to the mountains after a long absence. Old friend David Wagland and family did make Mt Vic - and more recently Wentworth Falls - their home and we paid them a visit. A stroll down to the falls revealed the imposing drama of the cliffs and the valley views beyond. Not hard to fathom what drew us to this neck of the woods so many years ago. Even though we ended up living on the Hawkesbury, all the salient details of the sandstone country still surrounded us. Forget the opera house - for me Sydney as a region is defined by those gritty outcrops of grey and orange rock, angophoras and the sandy creeks crowded with banksia scrub.

DEEP BREATH (May 2008)

Just a few days after finishing a water-related story in which I allude to Tim Winton, up bobs his new surfing novel Breath. For years now Tim has been saving me a lot of strain by punching out the novels I could/should have written, if only I had the talent, dedication, a flowing pony tail and, in this case, the nerve to plunge into wild surf. (As it happens the story I was working on sketches my aversion to thrashing about in cold water.) Anyhow - Breath ripples with Tim's trademark mix of poetic gristle and matey vernacular. By the by, it seems to me there's a doctoral thesis up for grabs for someone who wants to divine acquatic themes in Aus Lit. As well as Tim's extensive coastal ouvre there's Richard Flanagan's, Death of a River Guide, Robert Drewe's The Drowner, Roger MacDonald's Water Man and doubtless many more.
STERN WORDS (April 2008)

It's taken me several decades to get around to doing the walk up Dutchman's Stern just outside Quorn. No sane reason for this delay - apart from a bias for the northern Flinders. Anyway, the walk was excellent. Yes, it's another grunt to a summit but the way the walk unfolds, the varied vegetation and the sense of disclosure the track offers adds up to rewarding encounter. Even though you're close to civilisation - the townships of Quorn and Port Augusta - the place feels remote. This contrasts with Mt Remarkable where the views are dominated by the surrounding farmland. We spent a night up top with a full moon and mild easterly breezes. (This experience triggered an article for Wild - out mid September.) The toddle down off the summit the next morning was a glorious traverse of the sugar gum forest in the amphitheatre of Stony Creek.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

PINK BAY (March 2008)

Over Easter we dropped into Sea Dragon Lodge at Pink Bay (above) near Cape Willoughby on Kangaroo Island. This is a tiny cove on the north east coast of the island with fine views across to the mainland and timbered ravines of Deep Creek. The Lodge is perched above the bay not far from the lighthouse precinct. Steve & Gail Lane bought the place last year and have plans to extend the lodge. It's currently being rented out with the option of having tours and meals included. Apart from the bay and its rocky shoreline, the property also has a big patch of coastal scrub and a health array of woodland birds and other wildlife.
UNDER THE VOLCANO (February 2008)

Two weeks on the go in northern NSW - mostly deep in the forest hinterland between Byron Bay and Tweed Heeds - was a quite a change from my usual arid haunts. And especially on back of three bumper months of rain in the region. These forests are simply wondrous to behold and it was inspiring to meet so many people who have made these places their home and a lifelong committment. (see more about this in my story Early Warning in the July issue of Aus Geo). The fact that there is such a strong bush ethos being forged right on the doorstep of the rampant Gold Coast is one of those confounding ironies that Australia seems to specialise in. Thankfully I could retreat to the forest to ease my addled mind. One of those escapes is the basis of Immersion Therapy, the latest installment of my Wild Life column , in Wild.