The View

There’s a story that at the start of WWII, Australian military strategists were worried about the rapid advance of the Japanese Army. The Clarence River Wilderness Lodge’s Camp Kitchen has a photograph of some concrete tank traps that at one time were arranged across the Clarence River at Paddy’s Flat. The idea was that these concrete structures would halt the advance of the Japanese invaders. The story is that the Australian Forces believed the northern part of the continent was impossible to defend. So the claim was that the ‘Brisbane Line’ had been drawn from north of Brisbane, with the idea that everything above that line could be sacrificed to protect the south eastern population areas. Now I am not sure about the historicity of all that, but we wanted to see the tank traps, and we were told on good authority that they were still there.

Leonie, Erin, James and I hopped into the Subaru, with first stop in Urbenville (50 mins away), where Erin hoped to get some phone reception. By tethering my phone to my Vaio notebook, we would have internet on the road. Alas, Urbenville’s phone reception turned out to be pretty poor. Poorer than we needed it to be. So we thought the best idea was to drive along, while Leonie watched the phone’s reception indicator. The moment we would get three bars, we’d stop, connect the phone to the computer, and Erin could enrol in her Uni classes. We drove into a small place called Mulli Mulli, a small settlement of indigenous people, and all of a sudden we had five bars! We drove into a side street and pulled over. What was really interesting was that my PC found someone’s wireless service, and connected – so there we were thanking the people of Mulli Mulli for their hospitality!

Back in Urbenville, we visited Glad’s shop again to find out about the condition of some local roads. The shop assistant told us how you could get a great view of the surrounding area from a fire tower, about 15km down the road. So we drive the 7 km to North Yabbra Road, and another 7km to the track to the Fire Tower. The walk to the top was a steep and strenuous 20min climb. A steady and persistent pace seemed to be the trick. It occurred to me that the ascent to the fire tower stretched my cardio vascular system better than the stress test I had undertaken a few weeks before. I have never had any heart problems, and have never felt any reason for concern. Even when recently I found out that my heartbeat was a little irregular, I was relaxed about it, and subsequent tests showed there were no issues. As we walked up the mountain, with my heart rate at around 190, I started to wonder what would happen if I started having serious chest pain. There was no anxiety, or fear. Just a thought. It’s funny how in an instant, your thoughts can take you to the deep recesses of your soul. The thought pressed deeper: “Well, what would happen? What would you do?” It caught me off guard a little. So I let it play out. I imagined having to sit down, with Leonie, Erin and James gathering round. Someone would have run to the top of the hill with my phone, and call for an ambulance. The thought dug in deeper, and I reminded myself that whether the phone works or not, or whether the ambulance arrives on time are not the really big questions. I went deeper, and said, simply, “Dave, you are mortal. One day you are going to die.” Whether it was this day or another day, it was OK, because the life God has given me in Jesus is life that cannot be taken away. I was comforted to feel real peace about that. I was just happy to live the life God has given me in the here and now. And with this I pushed on.

How long did it take to think all that through? It is amazing how quickly it can happen. It might have been ten seconds, not much longer. Even so, a deep sense of peace and a more textured life perspective has come out of it. I think it has helped me feel more resolute, more settled, and more confident of God’s assurance of life. It has deepened and renewed my commitment to live heaven’s life in the here and now. To see and seek God’s goodness more in the land of the living.

Arriving at the top was glorious (see pic, with Dome Mountain in the foreground, looking north toward Brisbane Ranges National Park), and all the more for the hard work of the walk. Climbing to the first level of the fire tower, we had a near 360° view across volcanic plugs like Dome Mountain and Edinburgh Castle, beyond Urbenville and Woodenbong, and to the southwest down along the valley toward Upper Tooloom.

Descending down the track to the car, we deflated the tyres to 24psi for a softer ride on the unsealed roads, and headed for Old Bonalbo, and 12km further, Bonalbo. I am not sure why one of these settlements is ‘old’ and one is not, but as you would expect, while Bonalbo was a larger town than its ‘older’ counterpart, it was still very small.

Bonalbo offered the best promise of a counter meal. We found the Dog ‘n’ Bull, and we were keenly aware that they had found us. The locals picked our car as being from out of town – the Qld licence plates a giveaway. It felt like all eyes we on us, and they probably were. This happens in country towns, but perhaps not to the same degree as it did in Bonalbo. We wondered about why this would be so. In the end we put it down to the Kingdom Hall a block away from the pub: perhaps people thought we were new JWs. We were quite sure all concerns evaporated when we entered the Dog ‘n’ Bull. We were pretty sure no Jehovah’s Witnesses would ever do that…

[more next time…]

Clarence River – June 2010

You don’t have to travel far out of Brisbane to feel like you’re in the country. Take the Mt Lindesay Highway through Beaudesert, and there you are. Rolling hills, dairy farms, and typically improvised country architecture. The occasional odd coloured house – purple, aqua, pastel blue, a more common sight in a beach town, somehow dislocated. An enormous, twice extended undercover area attached to a farmhouse becomes a shed minus three walls. And on the road, the quintessential bucolic driver, riding the brake, grossly under the speed limit. These are not drivers who have accidents. These are the drivers that cause them.

The highway wiles and wends its way through the Great Dividing Range, passing north of the Mt Lindesay plug (pic). This section of the Mt Lindesay Highway is very windy – you won’t want to be in a hurry!

After Woodenbong, the next major town, and the last town before our destination, is Urbenville. Urbenville is decidedly un-urban. A small town: a clutch of dwellings, a newsagent cum gift store, a general store, a petrol outlet, a small hardware store. We happened upon the newsagent, after a newspaper, essential material for starting the fire in our Clarence River cabin.

The ‘newsagent’ – rather overstated in the case of Urbenville – provides a selection of typical newspapers, and magazines which develop the female mind: New Idea, Women’s Weekly, Dolly and Cleo. For those wanting to maintain mental activity, there are several editions of That’s Life and other puzzle books. In Urbenville, this is the centre of local knowledge. Stories are shared, some under muted whisper and past the back of fingers. The unexpected bonus was ‘Glad’ [not her real name], who seemed to be the owner. Glad wore a fleecy top, track pants, a cigarette, and a hacking cough. Face riven with years and tinged with nicotine. Hair, died badly red, grey regrowth and tied back, almost severely. The shop was permeated with Glad’s second hand smoke. We guessed that staying too long would mean the presence of Glad would be taken with you for the remainder of the day.

An electronic bearp, another customer: “Does anyone know where I can get any kittens?”

The shop assistant calls across the shop and down the hall to Glad, who is sitting in a not terribly easy chair, watching TV, “Glad, do you know anyone who’s got any kittens?”

“Anyone who’s got what?” rasped Glad.

“Kittens! Anyone who’s got any kittens! You know, little cats.”

Glad’s cough axes through the room, and then. “Nope. No idea…”

“Sorry, no idea who’s got any kittens” announces the shop assistant, with no thought to the superfluity of her words.

“Orright then, thanks” says the customer. And that was the end of it. Why anyone would be asking about kittens in an Urbenville newsagent did not seem to matter.

We left, with our newspaper, thinking about Glad. Wondering why she doesn’t think about presentation, the impact of all her smoke on anyone who walks in, and so on. Our thought was, that’s just how life is for some. This is their life. A day to day, hand to mouth movement, making just enough money to stay ahead. And we thought of how it might have been. An inviting shopfront, a few chairs, some good coffee, and no smoke. Any visitor would still get all the information. They could buy the paper, the magazine, the map, whatever, and they also would be met with a small oasis of life, even in Urbenville.

How much can a koala bear?

We have just had a wonderful few days visiting Colin & Wendy Warren. They have a bush block in Cape Otway, just off the Cape Otway Lighthouse Road. They’ve had the bock for a few years, and have done some work clearing a small section. One day this will be the site of a holiday home, but at the moment, there’s a caravan, a bush shower, and a fireplace (see image), a rope swing and a drop dunny. Very simple, and very relaxing.

We have great memories of coming here with our entire family about 10 years ago. The block was much the same, a little less cleared than it is today. Our girls loved exploring, and playing with their cousins on the amazing rope swing. Occasionally we would hear a koala, and better still, see one.

One thing we noticed this time around was that there were plenty of koalas. Around the perimeter of Col’s cleared area, which might be 1000m2 or so, there were about 12 koalas visible. Now for many, this would be wonderful, and in one way, it is. Who would not be captivated with the sight of these furry little creatures, who are probably the little darlings of Australian tourism? What we saw, though, told another story. These koalas have actually reached plague proportions in this part of the world. Constant feeding on Manna Gum leaves, such high numbers are depleting the stands of Manna Gum in the vicinity of Col’s property. Several trees are dead, most are distressed, few are healthy.

I am no environmental scientist, of course, but my observations were that this was not just a problem on Col’s block. All through the vicinity the Manna Gum stands are under attack. On one excursion to Parker River, we could see tall Manna Gum skeletons standing above the tree canopy (see picture, above and to the left of the beach area). Is this further evidence of koala blight? Driving from Cols block in Otway Park through to Blanket Bay, the picture appeared consistent. These cute, furry little critters were doing a great deal of damage, and in some cases bringing irreversible change to the environment.

It’s interesting that even in places of wonderful natural beauty, you can still see that there’s something wrong with our world. Creation seems to groan here as much as anywhere else. How can something as cute and cuddly as a koala be the cause of such damage and degradation?

And what interventions, if any, should be undertaken? Is this just nature doing its stuff, and we let it take its course? It seems that the effect of this will eventually be the destruction not only of the local manna gum population, but also the koalas that feed from them. Who would want to lose both? What else could be done? People have started banding trees with a plastic/polymer jacket. This prevents any animals from climbing the banded trees. Or should there be a koala cull? Can we bring ourselves to cull this iconic Australian species? Sounds terrible, but this might ensure the survival of a healthy koala population, the manna gums as a food source, and a balanced environment. These are thorny questions that defy easy answers. Whatever happens from here on will cause grief and pain. For the environment in trauma, for the koala population, which will probably die out once they’ve depleted their food source, and for the people who see this terrible story unfolding every day.

Grace and peace,


Time to pull over?

It is easy to drive too long without a proper rest. Both Leonie and myself find that two hours is a comfortable time. Especially when the road is straight and the scenery a little featureless, it is very easy to lose concentration. This is why highway authorities put ‘rest areas’ along the highway. It is here that a few things need to be said about the road side stops in New South Wales along the Newell Highway. In a word, the greater majority of these are pathetic. If you want to pull over and rest, sure, you don’t need much. Everything changes, however, if you want to get out of the car…

For a start, the rest stops on the Newell Highway often a basic shelter constructed in a clearing with little creativity or beautification. There is rarely a toilet. I am a tax payer, and I know all this costs money. The reality is, however, that there are lots of taxpayers driving this highway every day. They all need to rest every two hours or so. But on the Newell, most of them are greeted with a 44 gallon drum for rubbish, a dusty parking area, and on closer inspection, toilet paper and other bits of ‘refuse’ left by previous travellers. They get to enjoy all this under the shade of the aforementioned shelter. It’s all a bit ugly, and who would want to do it?

My thought is this: if we are really concerned about driver fatigue the authorities would do something about it. And if there was any sense of aesthetics they would make rest areas the kind of places that people would want to use. They would install composting toilets, put in a few plants, and an information board about the local area or the original inhabitants (or what happened to them).

Places like that would be way more relaxing than some of the highway service centres we have seen. These are typically a few service providers in collaboration with a fuel stop. These places have toilets. They have fast food. Some have good coffee. But they are soulless and sterile. Sitting in one at Wallan on Sunday I found myself wondering what the occupants did for any sense of community. The clientele of itinerants changes constantly, and with the centre located along a section of Hume Freeway there was no town centre or village to give it a sense of place.

For me, the best places to meet people are in the towns along the highway. Here you can talk to the locals, and at least get some sense of what the town is like. Outside the towns, a thoughtfully constructed rest area is much more relaxing break than buying fast food somewhere. You can smell the bush, hear the birds, and feel the breeze.

If government would consider this, and act on it, the end result might be something that encourages drivers to rest more effectively. Travellers would have a more pleasurable driving experience. Roads would be a safer, and people would be happier.