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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24 Neville Bonner



In Story 6, I talk about the Minjungbal Aboriginal Reserve where the Minjungbal people used to live. Ninety years ago, a remarkable man was born there on a blanket beneath a palm tree.

His name was Neville Bonner and he became the first Aboriginal Australian to be elected to the nation's parliament, where he served as a Liberal Party Senator for Queensland.

I first met Senator Bonner (as he became) when I was working in Parliament House, Canberra. He had his office across the corridor from my boss, who was Minister for Science.

I met Neville again when I moved to Townsville. He had lived on nearby Palm Island for seventeen years and made frequent trips back to visit old friends. Palm Island is an Aboriginal settlement that began life as a penal institution. People creating problems for the authorities were sent there.

They came from different clans with different languages and customs. Not surprisingly, the outcome was appalling. Alcoholism and violence were a problem from the start and persist today. Yet Palm Island has produced some totally remarkable people. Neville is one and Olympic champion Cathy Freeman is another.

Neville worked as an administrative officer on the island and developed his impressive political skills in that position. He also made an income as a diver collecting shells for the button industry. In those days, high-quality "pearl buttons" were manufactured from seashells, which fetched a good price on the international market. Neville recalls that his business was destroyed by the advent of plastics. One day, he had a pile of shells worth thousands of dollars. The next, his shells were worthless.

The collapse in the market for seashells meant he had to find another way to earn a living. The problem was he lacked a school certificate and all those other bits of paper employers expected to see. Neville decided that he had to find a job for which no qualifications were needed. He racked his brain and concluded he had no option but to become a politician. That is just one of Neville's many self-effacing and entertaining stories. He had others about the Aboriginal people and their way of life.

If anyone has a better photograph of Neville for me to use, please let me have it.


25 Flying Foxes



Okay! They're not foxes. They're bats but not ordinary bats. They have a wingspan of more than 70cm (over 2ft) and their main food is fruit. There was a colony in the mangrove swamps near our hostel.

Their constant screeching formed a distant background noise and we got used to it. Then, one day, it was eerily quiet.

We investigated and found the bats had gone. They had relocated to a patch of eucalypts beside our favourite pub and were making a nuisance of themselves. The beer garden was once a place for a quiet chat. After the bats arrived, you had to yell to make yourself heard.

My book on native animals describes bats as nocturnal. That means they are meant to sleep during the day and most do. They wrap their wings about their bodies and hang upside down like seedpods. But there are exceptions to this simple rule.

As in all societies, it's the delinquents that cause problems. They are forever flying off and picking fights. Just look at that vicious character in the photograph. He's trying to dislodge an innocent sleeper from her perch.

And it's not just the noise that's disturbing. The creature's toilet habits are a major cause for concern. It's not their fault that they're overcome by an uncontrollable urge to defecate upon take-off but it does cause serious problems for a pub with a car park below their flight path.

Bat poo contains all the essential ingredients of paint stripper. The slimy green ooze not only smells foul, it cuts into the paintwork of your car. People stopped using the pub's car park and that affected business.

Fortunately, it was not all bad news for the pub's owners. They lost a few regulars but gained others. The tour buses started coming. The best time was late evening when the bats were preparing to fly off for a bite to eat.

Thousands circled overhead before leaving. The buses disgorged their passengers. Eyes turned skywards to observe the amazing phenomenon. The bats left and the people headed for the pub's bistro.

I have taken a satisfactory picture of the departing bats since light levels are always low. The photograph gives an idea of what it's like when they fly off.


26 Tree Frog



In most countries, frogs are regarded as interesting but few people think of them as beautiful. In Australia we adore frogs. We photograph them, paint them and write poems about them. That tells you a lot about our frogs.

Australia is home to many species and some are highly colourful. The green tree frog stands out as one of the best loved and most appealing. It lives in the warmer and wetter parts of the continent and, like most amphibians, its numbers are dwindling.

When we arrived in tropical North Queensland from chilly Canberra, thirty years ago, green tree frogs were plentiful. They lived in our garden and their tadpoles developed in the pools of water that collected in the broad leaves of ornamental plants.

In the dry season, they survived by shrinking into compact forms. When I first saw them in this state, I thought they were dead. Attached to my garden wall, like desiccated corpses, they reminded me of the scarabs of ancient Egypt.

When the rainy season came, an extraordinary transformation took place. The first downpour soaked their skins and their colour returned. They stirred. Long agile limbs reached out, suckered feet fastened onto wet surfaces and, within hours, they were back in the trees hunting for insects. Soon they were going about the business of being responsible adults concerned with the survival of their species.

The tree frog is still with us but not in such spectacular numbers. They have fallen victim to a malaise that is threatening amphibians worldwide. There is some evidence that the threat is receding. On a recent camping holiday in the rainforest I spoke to biologists monitoring frog numbers. They were optimistic that a turning point had been reached with some species.

I have done my best to create suitable habitats for frogs in my garden. I've put in shallow pools with trickle irrigation and I kill cane toads and other introduced species that are threatening native species.


27 Cane Toad



I first came upon them in a campsite in Central Queensland. That was about forty years ago, soon after we arrived in Australia from England. I got up in the middle of the night and found that the sprinklers had come on and the grass beneath my bare feet was comfortably wet.

I took a step forward and something brushed against me. I jumped back fearing a snake and the thing hopped away. The movements were froglike but the thumps were far too heavy for a frog.

I returned to the tent, put on a pair of shoes and armed myself with a torch. The lawn outside was covered in toads with bodies the size of saucers. The huge amphibians were luxuriating in the wet grass, grunting contentedly as the torch flicked over them.

I skirted the sprinklers, reached the toilet block and was confronted by an even more impressive sight. The lights came on automatically and the floor was suddenly alive. Toads were everywhere, fleeing into cubicles and piling up in corners as they tried to escape. Mounds formed and collapsed as squirming bodies fed themselves down outlet pipes.

We were living in Canberra at the time and the cane toad had not yet reached that far south. Years earlier, it had been introduced into northern Australia to eat beetles threatening the sugarcane crops. Like many attempts to solve ecological problems, the solution was far from ideal. The toad found habitats outside the cane fields and was soon competing with native amphibians for food and territory.

Many native species are now threatened. The toad has reached South Australia and stringent measures are in place to prevent it from crossing into West Australia. The conclusion of many experts is that the measures will ultimately fail and the most we can do is delay the creature's march across the continent.

Like many householders, I do my bit. I kill the toads whenever I see them and create habitats in my garden for native frogs. The toad has poisonous glands and care must be taken when handling it. A neighbour lost a dog that bit one. Other people have lost cats.

Our customs officers are as strict about plants and animals as they are about drugs. Please cooperate. You could be carrying an environmental time bomb in your luggage. The smallest things can multiply with appalling consequences.


28 Strangler Fig



When it comes to a fight, the leafy jungle is just as competitive as the concrete jungle. No holds are barred in the race to the top. In the concrete jungle the ultimate prize is money and power. In the rainforest it is sunlight and power.

Plants need sunlight to prosper and some need a lot. That poses problems if you start life on the forest floor. As a lowly seed you won't make it to the top unless a gale blows down mummy and her friends ... a bit like waiting for the boss to die.

This gloomy scenario applies to most rainforest trees but not the strangler fig. In corporate terms, its strategy is takeover followed by asset stripping. It issues an attractive share offer (figs). The birds (punters) act as intermediaries. They take the figs, digest the bits they want and discharge the rest ... otherwise known as toxic assets.

The toxic assets (seeds) are deposited in the upper branches of a potential victim (tree) and sprout. The seedlings have a place in the sun and prosper at their host's expense. They plant roots in their host's bark and sap its strength.

Their next trick is to send down aerial roots. These reach the forest floor and dig themselves in. The fig's life as a strangler has now begun. Shoots spring up and envelop the host. In time it dies and the triumphant fig takes its place.

If you take a walk in the rainforests of Queensland and northern New South Wales, you will see strangler figs and their hosts in various stages of takeover.


29 Homicidal safaris



Outback travel has its problems and we always tried to ensure that our hostel guests were properly prepared before setting out. Our main effort went into seeing that they had enough spare water in case of emergency. One year we had to warn them not to go at all. A serial killer was loose and he was murdering tourists.

Bodies were being found in the remote outback and there were disturbing reports of missing persons. One came from a car hire company that had rented a car to a German tourist. The young man had failed to return it and the police were concerned that he was yet another victim.

The car was small and red. An alert went out and a helicopter pilot, mustering cattle, caught a glimpse of it in some bushes. The Special Weapons Squad was called in. Helicopters landed and a loud hailer was used to order the occupant of the car to come out with raised hands. He responded with heavy weapons fire and was killed in the shootout that followed.

When the police examined the body they found, to their immense surprise, that the dead man was the missing German tourist. As their investigations continued, it became evident that he had come to Australia to go on a killing spree. Not surprisingly, the incident aroused considerable media interest.

An Australian TV team went to the young man's hometown and interviewed his distressed parents who couldn't understand how their dear boy could have done such a terrible thing.

A German TV team went next door and interviewed the neighbours who told a very different story. Even as a boy he had frightened them. He had a fascination for guns and went around killed animals. He had a criminal record at an early age. To their amazement, he had been employed as an armed security guard at the American Embassy.

The Americans weren't the only ones at fault. The young man had been able to purchase a veritable arsenal of weapons upon entering Australia. I hasten to add that our gun laws have since been tightened and are now amongst the strictest in the world.

The incident had a sequel. Like most people I assumed the Special Weapons Squad was a police unit. Friends in the army told a different tale. They had mates who were there when the German was killed. The police called in the army. When the boys were shot at with heavy-calibre weapons they knew how to respond.


30 Grandma's Secret



Every army has them and they are usually called camp followers. The ladies of the night perform a vital function that is often overlooked in history books, which tells you a lot about the people who write the books because there's no shortage of information.

It's not hard to find, as I discovered when I agreed to help with an oral history project to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Oral history is what you learn by talking to old people about what they did when they were young. It is important because it records things that don't get written down when they happen ... sometimes for good reasons. The oral historians who recruited me to their team were professionals with academic reputations to defend. I had nothing to defend and didn't share their inhibitions about delving in murky corners.

The Battle of the Coral Sea was fought in 1942 from bases in northern Australia. Tens of thousands of virile, young American troops flooded into a region from which most women and children had been evacuated. Not surprisingly, they found themselves desperately short of female company.

The academics lacked my sort of contacts. While they were interviewing former mayors and church leaders I got talking to the father of one of my diving mates. He was a police officer in 1942, aged twenty-four and based in Townsville, which was the main garrison city at the time.

He told me about the Curtin Express. I'd heard the name before and thought it was some sort of coffee shop. The truth was far more interesting. The name referred to a train authorised by Prime Minister John Curtin, in 1942, to solve the problem of loneliness amongst the troops. The Mob (Aussie for organised crime) lent a hand and passed round the word that the train would leave Melbourne on a certain day and travel north to Townsville. Any female person could travel free of charge.

The train became known as the Curtin Express and the ladies who travelled upon it were called Curtin girls. I interviewed some and was told about others. One was a formidable woman who used the proceeds of her wartime endeavours to found a business empire.

That was explosive stuff. I'd unearthed information about the murky past of people who had carved out highly respected places for themselves in the post-war years. The academics didn't want any part in it.

They weren't interested in the ladies but I couldn't stop thinking about them. Their remarkable story had to be told in some way, even if that meant casting it as a work of fiction. That's how my novel Curtin Expresswas born. It is a mystery thriller set in the recent past.

Twenty-year-old David agrees to collect a suitcase from Hong Kong and take it to Australia. The request seems innocent but the case contains dark secrets and David's life is thrown into turmoil when he gets to Canberra. Like a genie escaping from a bottle, the past rushes in and he is propelled on a mad flight, through the vastness of Australia, pursued my hired killers. His friends mount a rescue operation. To succeed, they must delve into the past and uncover the reason for David's plight. Their inquiries follow the path I took in my investigations.


More books by Mike

You'll find them on my Smashwords Book Page
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