Mike started his working life as an astrophysicist and made his way into tourism via the scuba diving industry. He built one of Australia's first backpacker




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НазваниеMike started his working life as an astrophysicist and made his way into tourism via the scuba diving industry. He built one of Australia's first backpacker
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19 Angus

In my last story I told you about Angus who went bull chasing with his dad. You'll probably guess that he didn't grow into the sort of adult who wears a business suit and sits behind a desk. Angus grew into the tough, leathery sort of bushman that I describe in my novels. Some people accuse me of exaggerating. Let me assure you I do not.

In so far as Angus received an early childhood education, he got it from the School of the Air and private tuition from his mother. His younger brothers were scholastically inclined. Angus was not. So, when his maternal grandfather put up money for him to attend an expensive boarding school, Angus was not enthusiastic.

It was the prestigious sort of school that his mother had attended in England. She came from an upper-crust family and had taken off for Australia as a pioneer backpacker. Her parents were impressed when she told them that she had met a yachtsman called Luke who owned a colossal grazing property in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

She recalls their shocked expressions when they met her future husband. With his sun-beaten features Luke looked more like a labourer than a gentleman and he spoke with a heavy Australian accent they could hardly understand. In short, Luke wasn't the sort of chap they wanted as a son-in-law.

Grandfather was keen to claim Angus for the upper classes and the young fellow, now twelve, arrived at his new school suitably attired. Things went badly from the start. Angus regarded his new mates as toffy nosed. At least, that was the expression his mother used when describing her son's disdain for his peers. I suspect Angus used stronger language.

He was particularly miffed because the toffy-nosed kids wouldn't believe the stories he told about life back on the farm. They accused him of lying. Fists flew and the staff had to intervene. Angus didn't fight by the rules and invariably won.

He lasted a few years in his new environment before returning to the bush. By then he'd got all he wanted from school. His marks in English literature were abysmal but he excelled in a certain sort of mathematics. Put a dollar sign in front of the numbers and Angus would talk about interest rates, inflation, leverage, earnings and the other financial tools needed to run a business.

He's now in his forties but looks older. The dry air and harsh rays of the tropical sun have aged his skin. His cattle property is near Luke's and he runs it in conjunction with a tourist venture that he set up for fishermen visiting the region to catch barramundi.


20 Long Meadow



There was a time when Australia rode on the sheep's back or so the expression goes. A nation at the far ends of the Earth had to produce commodities that could be transported by sea and didn't need refrigeration. Gold was one and wool was another.

By the time Dave was born the boom times for wool were over. The price had collapsed and the family farm was too small to yield a decent living.

In desperation, his father resorted to all sorts of means to supplement the family income. At one time he was shooting kangaroos and selling the hides to tanneries and the flesh as pet food. When the market for pet food dried up, he boiled the roos in forty-four gallon drums and fed the meat to pigs. The porkers enjoyed cooked roo and there was a steady demand for pork.

Life became more desperate. Twelve-year-old Dave found himself learning how to shear. He was already helping his father dock tails from woolly bums and castrate rams. The neighbours were having similar trouble and all members of the family were called upon to help.

On one farm, a fifteen-year-old spilt concentrated sheep dip over his lower body and died before he could receive medical treatment. The boy's father later committed suicide. Dave found that particularly depressing. It was bad enough for the wife and daughters to have lost one member of the family. Losing another was devastating.

Low wool prices and a worsening drought brought matters to a close. Dave's parents walked off their land. They were behind in their mortgage payments and the farm no longer belonged to them. Like others, they gathered up their remaining possessions and went into the "long meadow".

For me, the term had no more than historical interest. The early colonial governments created broad stock routes so that sheep and cattle could be droved to market. In time, sealed highways developed along many of them, which is why many Australian roads have wide grassy strips on either side.

For Dave, the term conjured up feelings of helplessness and despair. The long meadow was a place of last resort. It was where you went when there was no feed left on your land. When your flocks had consumed the last blade of grass, you took them onto the highway so they could eat the grass on the sides of the road. He and his father rode in front on their horses.

The rest of the family followed behind in the farm truck. After ten days, they reached Goondiwindi, on the New South Wales/Queensland border, and sold what remained of the their animals. Dad used the money to buy a caravan and signed up with a firm of contractors as a combine harvester driver.

For the next few years they lived the life of nomads, moving as far north as Central Queensland then back down into New South Wales as the season advanced and harvesting began in the cooler parts of the continent. Being the son of a harvester had its problems but there were advantages. Dad no longer had financial worries and his health improved. Mother was more relaxed and Dave saw light at the end of the tunnel.

Schooling was under control. He admits to flunking School of the Air. Peer pressure put an end to that. The kids, in his travelling entourage, were determined to get a decent education. Everything was arranged when they arrived in a new town. The teachers were expecting them and there were friendships to be renewed amongst the locals. Dave left school at eighteen and joined Queensland Rail as an apprentice electrician. He stayed with the railways for a while then set himself up in private business. Like me, he was a keen scuba diver and worked on the dive boats in his spare time.

Farming is never easy but it's not as difficult as it once was. The tyranny of distance has been eased by better roads and advances in telecommunications. A lot of the smaller farms have gone and more economically viable holdings have emerged to take their place. There are fewer farmers and those that remain are more prosperous than those of a generation ago. Weatherboard homesteads with corrugated iron roofs are being replaced by prosperous dwellings that would not look out of place in a modern city. There are those who feel nostalgic about the vanishing past. Dave is not one of them.


21 Sex orgies



GRADUATE STUDENTS at James Cook University of North Queensland are engaged in pioneering studies of sex orgies ...

I wrote that in a press release thirty years ago and the story took wings. The university achieved instant fame and I received newspaper clippings from all round the world, testifying to its success.

When I say fame I mean fame not notoriety.

The students and their professors had good reason to be proud. For the first time ever, the amazing phenomenon of mass coral spawning had been identified and subject to scientific investigation.

Corals are sedentary creatures, confined to coralline structures, so getting together for sexual reproduction is out of the question. Instead of copulating, the small animals produce vast amounts of eggs and sperm and cast them to the currents. There's so much of the stuff that chance fertilisation is bound to occur. The slicks of coral spawn are so big they can be seen from space.

The slicks had been observed by fishermen but had not been subjected to scientific investigation. That was thirty years ago and the first marine science research centres had only recently been established in northern Australia. Very little tropical marine science had been done.

There was still an immense amount of basic information to be gathered. The general (and mistaken) view was that the slicks were algal blooms.

The students investigated the slicks and discovered the amazing phenomenon of mass coral spawning. What's more, it was the first time the phenomenon had been identified anywhere on Earth ... which tells you a lot about the state of tropical marine science in those days.

Why hadn't coral spawning been observed in the Caribbean? That was puzzling to say the least. The corals must spawn there. America has lots of marine scientists. Why hadn't they seen it?

The mystery was solved when the corals spawned the following year. It then became apparent that they synchronise their sexual activity using the phases of the moon as a clock. The tiny animals are so diligent in their timekeeping that they hit off within a couple of days of one another ... and that goes for all species. It truly is one huge sex orgy.

The orgies occur but once a year, towards midsummer, and are over within a few days. If you are not around to see what's going on, you miss out. In the Northern Hemisphere, coral spawning occurs during university term. The American marine scientists were in class teaching so they missed out.

By doing it at the same time, the corals produce such a vast quantity of spawn that predatory fish can't possibly devour the lot. Enough of their offspring survive to settle down and form new colonies.


22 Fish traps

When I ran our backpacker hostel in Townsville, I had an Aboriginal friend called Jack. He was a city dweller but maintained his Aboriginal roots.

Jack knew a lot about wildlife and had relatives living in remote parts of the Northern Territory. He often visited them and had a wealth of stories about traditional Aboriginal life.

Jack drove a big 4WD vehicle and took hostel guests on field trips into the surrounding bushland. One day I went with him to see some ancient Aboriginal fish traps in Cleveland Bay, south of the city.

The area is a rich habitat of mangrove swamp and mudflat, washed over by the tide. Fish venture into the shallows to feed at high tide and run the risk of being stranded when the tide goes out. As Jack said, it is an ideal area for fishing.

He was scathing of white Australians who claim his ancestors had no concept of ownership. Did they really think that a spot like this wouldn't be highly prized and fought over? It would be staked out. Markers would be put in place to identify which clan had rights to a given stretch of shore.

He pointed to a large rock on which a shield had been painted then took us to another. There were half a dozen or more, painted in natural pigments and still visible despite the passage of time. They were spaced out along the shoreline and bore a striking resemblance to European coats of arms.

Jack said he could recognise religious paintings and these were quite different. They were clan totems and they marked boundaries. They were there to say where one clan's rights ended and another's began.

We went down onto the mud flats to see what we could find. Jack said he used to go there when he was a boy. He and his mates would camp out and live off what they caught and what their mums had provided.

The old traps consisted of pools and channels lined with stones. Fish got lost in the channels and ended up stranded in the pools. You could take the fish or leave them to swim to freedom at the next high tide. If need be, you could block off channels with stones to stop fish escaping.

The Aboriginal people never took to farming. Having tried to grow things in Australia's harsh climate. I'm not surprised. Why farm when so much is freely available?


23 Climate change



I am not going to get involved in the reasons for climate change. That has become a highly politicised subject and is best avoided when you want to talk about outcomes. Suffice it to say that climate is changing all the time and sometimes with profound consequences for landforms and lifestyles.

The Great Barrier Reef owes its existence to climate change. The story of how this happened was being researched when I took a job at James Cook University in Townsville as its press officer. That was back in the 1980s and the university was one of the few scientific research establishments in northern Australia.

The university's geologists and marine scientists combined in a joint project to drill into the reef and take core samples. They proceeded in much the same way as archaeologists do when they dig to uncover the past. The project was condemned by green activists who claimed (quite erroneously) that the researchers were drilling for oil.

The scientists ignored the protests and went ahead with the full approval of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which is responsible for the preservation of the Reef.

We now know that the Reef, in its present form, dates from the end of the last Ice Age, 18,000 years ago. At that time, vast amounts of water were locked away as ice in Antarctica and elsewhere. Sea levels were 120 metres (400 ft) lower than at present. When the ice melted, the sea rose and made its way inland.

In those not-so-far-off days, a string of low hills dotted the coast of what is now northern Queensland. They were the eroded remnants of an earlier barrier reef and were covered in vegetation. The rising water reached the hills and made islands of them.

Coral animals were washed in from the continental shelf and formed fringing reefs about the islands. The reefs grew upwards as the water continued to rise. Since coral needs light to grow and prosper, the growth was fastest in the shallows. Corals in low-lying areas got left behind and died. The result was a string of sharply defined reefs along the line of the former barrier reef. In a sense, the old reef system was reborn.

About 6000 years ago, the melting largely ceased and the sea reached something like its present level. This had a variety of consequences and one was the development of reef flats. Corals cannot live out of water for more than a few hours. The sea is flat and that sets a limit to growth in the upward direction.

If you dive on the Barrier Reef, you will come upon extensive areas of reef flat. The corals that grow there are robust ... built to withstand crashing waves. If you venture to the edge of the flats you will often encounter a cliff-like drop-off. The corals that live on the drop-off tend to protrude outwards to catch the light. Further down, in calmer waters, more delicate corals grow.

In geological terms, the Barrier Reef is very young. It is old by human standards but not so old as one might think. Aboriginal people were living in Australia when the Ice Age came to an end 18,000 years ago.

One of my friends is an archaeologist and he obtained carbon dates for that period from material in cave deposits on the nearby mainland. He concluded that the ancient coastal hills would have been tribal lands. People would have hunted and made their homes upon them. Did they known the sea was swallowing up their land?

It was an interesting question and we decided to speak to geologists.. They told us that the rise in sea level was neither continuous nor steady. Decades might pass and little would happen. Then a rapid change could cause the shoreline to advance by as much as 10 metres a year in some places.

We thought of the fish traps built by Aboriginal people and still in working order. An advance of 10 metres a year would engulf them within a decade. Whole tribal lands would be lost within a human lifetime. Then we thought of other parts of the world and recalled that the Indonesian islands had been joined to the Asian mainland during the Ice Age and the North Sea had once been dry land.

I pictured my northern European ancestors following bison over the vast expanse of tundra between Scandinavia and the western highlands that would one day become the island of Great Britain. New obstacles would arise. Lakes would form and get bigger. The sea would encroach and eventually the herds would cease their migrations. In time, the hunters would need more than a canoe to visit their relatives on the other side of the North Sea.

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