The Sunlander. Queensland, Australia

The Sunlander train travels between Brisbane and Cairns; a distance of 1680kms (about 1045 miles) and is described on their website as “one of Australia’s great journeys”. I wouldn’t go that far but it was interesting on several levels.

The Sunlander at Roma Street Station

There’s something about state run enterprises that always leaves me wishing that someone who really cared or had a vested interest ran the business. If you’ve been lured to long distance train travel by movies like “Murder on the Orient Express” or “North by Northwest” (one of my all time favourite movies) you’d be a bit disappointed by the “ordinariness” of the Sunlander. Having said that, a long train trip on an ordinary train is a thousand times better that a long bus journey or driving oneself.

Both my wife and I like long train journeys, so on the 18th of this month both of us went first class on the Sunlander to Cairns.

Engogirl in our first class sleeper

First class doesn’t really mean classy, it just means that you get two bunks in your sleeper. Economy class has three bunks in the sleepers.

Economy class sleeper

There are also tiny little “roomettes” for people travelling on their own and of course there is also plain old Spartan seating.

If you really want an up-market train experience on the Sunlander, closer to what is shown in the old movies, there is another class called “Queenslander class”. Twice a week, two extra cars are added to the Sunlander and for double the cost of a first class ticket you can purchase a berth in Queensland Class which caters for the well heeled looking for that old time luxury train trip complete with better quality meals. The hoi poli with cheaper tickets are barred from the extra cars.

On a side note the whole concept of “Queensland class” seems to be an oxymoron, as there is very little that can be considered classy in Queensland. Queensland is to Australia what the deep south is to the US. Queensland has the most decentralised and most evenly dispersed population in Australia, which means more people live in the rural areas there, than do people in other Australian states. Queenslanders tend to be down to earth laconic types with not all that much time for fripperies like comfortable travel, good food and civilised company like us effete Mexicans (that’s what Queenslanders call all us people from “south of the border”).

Besides sleepers the Sunlander has a rather nice club car which serves alcoholic drinks

The club car

and a restaurant car serving better than expected food in surroundings that evoked thoughts in my mind of industrial workers canteens.

Engogirl having breakfast in the dining car

Whilst waiting in line to be served (Table service? Don’t be silly! That’s only in “Queensland class”) I met an older Scottish couple and ended up discussing live theatre.

The Scottish theatre goers 

I was told that they like to see live theatre in the various places they travel and they had enjoyed a show in Melbourne so I suggested that they might want to see “Pig Iron People” at the opera house on the way back home via Sydney. They were a vibrant couple who were very engaged by culture, full of life and good humour. As we were chatting an older Queenslander with deeply suntanned leathery weather beaten skin, dressed in thongs (flip-flops), stubbies (shorts), short sleeved shirt and a broad brimmed felt hat (it was night) was being served at the counter when we heard the following exchange, “how do you want your steak cooked?”

Blank stare, “what do you mean?”

“How do you want your steak cooked? Rare, medium rare, medium or well done?”

Further look of non-comprehension, with “I don’t care, whatever”, grunted out in response.

“What sauce would you like with it?”

Blank stare again.

Not waiting for a question seeking clarity, the woman at the counter continued with, “Diane, mushroom or pepper?”

“I’ll have it with gravy” was grunted back.

The woman at the counter, realising that the guy had no idea said, “mushroom is the closest to gravy that we’ve got” to which our cocky (as in cow cocky which is Aussie slang for country person, usually a farmer or grazier) replied, “yeh that’ll be right”.

So there was this guy, possibly in his sixties who’d probably never had a steak cooked properly in his whole life. I found it hard to understand such a mind set. He seemed almost malevolently ignorant. He was a guy that  seemed to be so uninterested in what was outside of his little world. Back in the early 1970’s I went on a long train ride in western Queensland and I met people there in the outback who’ve never even been to their state capital, and the old bloke ordering the steak reminded me of those people and that time.

Like they say about Queensland, it’s more of a state of mind than a place.

High tack tourist tat. Atherton, far north Quensland, Australia

The town of Artherton is the commercial hub of the Atherton tablelands and it’s a small town with a small town’s charm. In the middle of the town is a store that sells crystals, geodes and the like. You can even have a photo taken of you aura which should be pimped as an “intelligence test” using a camera.


This motorised eyesore almost ruins the look of the whole town

The people who run the shop called the “Crystal Caves” have the self propelled eyesore in the photo above, parked a few doors up the road to advertise their business.

As the original Kath and Kim would say, “noice!”

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Expectations versus reality. The Esplanade Lagoon, Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Most people who visit Cairns have no idea that although it is right on the coast, it doesn’t really have a beach. Cairns has dark, sticky, smelly mudflats instead. Not only do the mudflats only gradually slope off into the water, requiring a slog of hundreds of metres (yards) through the stinking ooze to water deep enough to swim in, there are sometimes also salt water crocodiles (the worlds largest crocs) out there that think that people are on the menu.

Tourists fly in from all over the world to Cairns which is the hub for trips to the Great Barrier Reef and they come looking for what Australia is famous for; beaches. Trouble is that Cairns has no beach that anyone with any sense would swim at so the local council has built a large salt water pool that is known as “The Esplanade Lagoon”, which backs up to the seawall that separates the city from the mudflats.

The Esplanade Lagoon in Cairns

Although crocodiles are very dangerous and there have been a few attacks around Cairns there is usually only one death a year, on average, attributed to them nationally. To put things into perspective, bees kill three people a year here in Australia.

What were they thinking? The Mantra Hotel, Mooloolaba, Queensland, Australia

My wife and I stayed at the Mantra Hotel in Mooloolaba two weeks ago and I was struck by what an odd bathroom design our room had. One quarter of the shower stall, come spa, was see-through plexiglass that allowed a view into the bathroom from the bed.

What were they thinking?

I found myself wondering about what the design of the bathroom implied about the people who stayed at the hotel.

I can understand that watching a co-operative member of the opposite sex showering or using the spa could be considered quite erotic by most people. What I doubt is, that most people would admit to the desire to watch someone from the comfort of their bed, use the can. The provision for such a voyeuristic option implies that the designer (and the person who O.K.ed the purchase of the shower stall) thought that most guests would want to.

My little sunburnt angel. Cairns, Queensland, Australia

This is a photo of my wife (Engogirl) having the first decent sleep she has had for the last week or so. We went to bed at 9:30 last night and this photo was taken at 9am this morning.

Engogirl is a real trooper and not a party pooper

Sometimes, travelling can be so exhausting and daunting. We came up to Queensland for a conference in Surfers Paradise, on big dams here in Australia. We thought we may as well go all the way up to Cairns to do a couple of days diving on the Great Barrier Reef (before global warming kills it off) . We also thought it would be a good thing to travel up the coast by train in a sleeper.

What with all the conference schedules and dam tours (or should I say, “tours to dams”?), early train departures and poor sleeping conditions on train and boat, complete with recent strenuous physical activity, we are totally worn out and ache all over. Today we were supposed to be going on a trip up to Kuranda on an old steam train but we both decided that we’d rather sleep in and have a relaxing day resting before we fly back home tomorrow.

Engogirl has been a real trooper over the last couple of days. Unlike me, all this full on travel and outdoor experience thing is still quite new to her.

I grew up near the ocean and learnt how to scuba dive when I was 14 years old back in the days when all you were really told was, “don’t come up faster than your air bubbles”. I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve snorkelled and spear fished, because I’ve done so much of it over the years. I also backpacked around various foreign countries for 11 years roughing it, before going home.

Engogirl grew up, a little back from the coast, and going to the beach was not a part of her upbringing. The ocean is still “terra incognita” to her, and uncomfortable travelling hasn’t been on Engogirl’s agenda either. The first time Engogirl had ever snorkelled was on our honeymoon in Bali, four years ago.

Two days ago, my wife tried scuba diving for the first time out in the open ocean about 30km  (about 20 miles) off the coast. Scuba diving isn’t all that difficult but it is a bit disconcerting breathing underwater. “It just ain’t right, I tell ya!” Never mind that the ocean is full of things that can view us a food and there was no land in sight.

I’ve never thought that scuba diving was that interesting and I just went along with Engogirl to keep her company and to reassure her. We did our dive together and Engogirl said to me afterwards that she thought that snorkelling was much better. I so totally agree. So we spent the rest of our time on the reef snorkelling.

I can’t really describe how glorious it is to share amazing experiences with people you care about, but I can tell you that I love it. After two days of diving, it was difficult to get Engogirl out of the water she was loving it so much. There was no more fear or hesitation, just joy and I was glad to be a part of it.

Unfortunately the sun was so hot and Engogirl didn’t put enough sunscreen on the back of her legs and she got a bit sunburnt. To make matters worse she slipped on the deck and barked her shin.

So as I looked at Engogirl sleeping so peacefully this morning I was taken by how strong she had been over the last couple days breaking through various fears, dealing with discomfort and pain. It’s times like this morning when I realise that I married the right woman and I know how lucky I am.

Dam-nation at Traveston. Queensland, Australia.

In our spare bedroom at home I have a poster on the wall that is titled: Everything I needed to know about life I learned from Mr Spock. It lists a series of succinct Vulcan bon mots to live by. For me, the most resonant maxim is “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.

Recently I visited the site for the proposed Traveston Dam as part of a tour of dams in the SE Queensland region. Of the six dams we visited, Traveston was an anomaly in that it was not yet built, but was merely a proposed dam site.

One of the major issues facing Australia is the security of water supplies into the future as we face global warming and climate change. This has been brought forward as a priority because of several recent years of drought and many of the dams in Queensland are at record low capacities. You know things are bad when engineers are almost ecstatically happy when a dam is only 40% full, because up until recently, some have been as low as 16%. The proposed dam at Traveston Crossing will help manage the flow of the Mary River to mitigate flooding and to supply water to the larger urban areas to the south.

About half an hour before we reached the proposed dam site at Traveston Crossing, we were shown a slickly produced video (it sounded suspiciously like propaganda) that addressed environmental and community concerns. The video also made a point of informing us that a panel of seventeen eminent engineers and three engineering professors were involved in the selection of the dam location and design. Interestingly, of the 1.6 billion dollars allocated for the construction of the dam, two-thirds of that money has been earmarked for peripheral projects including forestry plantation as a carbon offset; upgrading local roads and fire-fighting facilities; provision of sporting facilities for local clubs and 32 million dollars for a freshwater fish and turtle study centre associated with the University of Queensland.

Looks like everybody has their snout in the trough.

One thing I noticed with the video is they kept on referring to the water usage on the Murray River, located about 1000km away. It seemed to me that they were comparing apples with oranges as the Murray has been dammed for 100 years, with 70% of its water removed from the system by irrigators. According to the video, the Mary River was only going to have 10% of its water diverted, and I couldn’t see why they continually referred to the Murray as it seemed to be such a different case.

Another issue addressed by the video was the compensation packages to local landholders, which to me as an outsider with no vested interest in the area sounded like an exceptionally generous offer. Apparently 65% of the people affected by the dam have already taken up the government’s offer to buy their land and then lease it back from the authorities at a peppercorn rent for the next three years. After that, they would be charged rents at 25% of the going commercial rate until the property is inundated.

This government offer sounded to me like an excellent opportunity for the savvy operator to purchase another property while working their original property until it is no longer viable and it seemed to me to be a fair proposition. I thought the whole video presented the government as being not only concerned but also very understanding and generous towards the people it was about to dispossess.

It seems I was not alone, as there were sympathetic murmurings among the engineers on the bus, saying ‘it was the only right thing to do anyway’. As an outsider, I was pleasantly surprised by how thoughtful, considerate and magnanimous everybody involved seemed to be. Not at all what I would have expected, and it made me feel proud that I live in a country with such decent attitudes.

So it came as quite a surprise as we turned off the main highway towards the proposed dam site, that a ute (pickup truck) with a “NO DAM” sign on its back window pulled out in front of our coach to reduce our progress up the road to a walking pace.

The ute was one of those large-engined, high-powered vehicles owned by testosterone-fuelled meathead types, so it occurred to me that his concerns probably weren’t environmental.

As we turned into the proposed dam site area we were met by local landowner protestors carrying placards printed with “NO DAM”, “DON’T MURRAY THE MARY” and “THE TIME IS NIGH FOR BLIGH” (the Queensland premier).

On the bus with the dark forces

As we passed the protesters, one of them ran forward to hit the bus. This futile and impotent rap on the side of the bus elicited rolled eyes and stifled snorts from the engineers on board. There were security guards at the gate that did not let the protesters through with the bus and we were taken to where the dam wall is to be located for a talk and refreshments. As we got off the bus, I turned and asked one of the engineers who was nearby: ‘why are the protesters comparing the Mary with the Murray?’ ‘Because people like that don’t take the time to read all the reports and don’t understand the facts involved.’

During the presentation of the proposed dam’s layout and specifications, a media helicopter circled overhead. All of a sudden I had the sensation that I was in the camp of dark forces and that somehow I was involved in something that was wrong. Or at least that’s how I thought it would be perceived by somebody who was on the outside, looking in.

During our lunch, I spoke to various engineers about the protestors, and every single one of them said that people have a right to express their displeasure at projects that they didn’t agree with and that it was entirely understandable that some people would never be happy about leaving their homes; no matter what the compensation package was.

I also found it interesting when talking to different engineers, how varied their opinions were about what was the best dam design for the area. When I pointed out the variance of their opinions, they just laughed and said “you’ll never get 100% agreement on these issues; the only way you’ll ever get agreement is to take the interested parties, lock them in a room and don’t allow them to leave until they’ve come to a consensus”. Now I know why the video made a point of alluding to the eminent engineers and professors; because they know that whatever they put forward will get questioned, and that shattered the illusion I had that engineers deal in concrete facts and absolutes.

After our short stop, we returned to the coach and were taken via a side road to avoid the protesters to see the next dam on our schedule. Borumba Dam was of interest to the tour group due to recent upgrade works to raise the dam wall height as well as repairs that had been performed on the spillway and plunge pool after some particularly heavy rains several years ago. Our coach was taken into a roped-off area guarded by security personnel (this had not happened before at the other dams) and the police were also in attendance. As we exited the bus we were led over to a covered area to hear another presentation by the project engineer responsible for the upgrade works. As we sat listening to his talk, the protesters from the previous site visit turned up. There were about twelve or fifteen of them and they waved their placards in our direction, trying to attract our attention. One large sign even said ‘feel free to talk to us’. They were quiet and very well behaved and stood behind the roped-off areas, under the gaze of red-shirted security and the police.

After the presentation, I noticed a few of the engineers talking to some of the protesters and their interactions seemed quite friendly and cordial. As I passed by the protesters myself to use the toilet facilities, I was handed a leaflet by one of them and engaged in conversation.

The spokesman for the protesters and his mate

The protester told me how they wanted to stop the dam because they didn’t want the Mary River to become overutilised like the Murray. And I told him that according to what I had heard, its utilisation was going to be nowhere near as high. He then shifted his tack, to say that the environment was going to be impacted and I pointed out to him that it was all happening on existing farmland, hardly pristine wilderness, and that the water quality downstream is expected to improve on completion of the dam. He then said to me ‘but everybody – that’s over 1000 people in the area – is against the dam’. I pointed out that 65% had already taken up the government’s offer, to which he said there are many people who do not want to leave, and some are suffering great mental stress due to the strain of having to consider moving from a place that they have lived in all their lives. He then went on to say that there had only been 18 consultations with the community and that even though the community had poured out their hearts to the consultation panel, the panel had advised that the dam should proceed. To add insult to injury, the head of the panel was put in charge of the land acquisitions.

The protester then told me that there had not been a study done to assess the risks associated with a dam collapse, so I asked him how he thought the dam would collapse? Earthquakes? He gave me a blank look and I could see he hadn’t really thought about this. So I told I him I had attended the recent dam conference with my wife, who is the engineer – not me, and one of the interesting facts presented was that earthquakes only cause 1.5% of dam failures and most dam failures are caused by overtopping of the dam during floods. Another presentation I saw a few years ago at another conference presented new research that had been done on Probable Maximum Flood estimates (based on archaeological evidence going back thousands of years). With this more current and accurate information new dams are far less likely to be overtopped than those that make up the statistics. As I spoke with the protester, I became aware of what an emotional issue it was for him, and that scientific facts and statistics weren’t really of any interest or use to him. The main fact that affected him was that he did not want to move from an area that he loved.

I later read the pamphlet that I was given and many of the points raised seemed quite valid. I found it interesting that the protesters were calling for more studies to be made about environmental impacts, potential disaster mitigation and possible upstream flooding. What really struck me was as I said goodbye to the protester, he said to me ‘this dam is never going to go ahead. We WILL stop it’. With those words I realised: no amount of studies are going to satisfy him, all his demands for further research seem to be merely delaying tactics.

No matter the social benefits of large public works, there is always going to be a section of the population who will feel aggrieved. It’s very easy for me as an outsider to say that I feel as Spock had said, that the needs of the many outweigh those of the few, because it’s not me that’s having my home taken from me.

The fact that there is always going to be a disaffected section of the population fills me with despair when I think about large infrastructure projects that are necessary and those hard decisions that must be made to bring them to fruition. It makes me wonder how anything ever gets built.

Seeking consensus amongst any group of people, be they hard-nosed engineers or emotionally driven protesters is like trying to wrangle cats and for this reason I sometimes think that anybody who gets involved in politics must be either insane or a borderline sociopathic egotist.

What kind of personality would it take to get up in front of thousands of people and try to convince the audience to become of one mind in agreement with them? In reality, there is no such thing as unanimity and the whole concept of a win-win situation is just airy-fairy wishful thinking. There’s always going to be winners and losers and nobody likes to lose.

Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Today Engogirl and I went to the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane (GOMA) to see their excellent current “Optimism” exhibition. Apparently I wasn’t supposed to take any photos because of copyright issues but because I didn’t realise that was the case, I did take a few of works that caught my eye, until a security guard had a few words to me.

Patricia Piccinini’s work based on Vespa motor scooters was hilariously playful.

Patricia Piccinini work based on Vespa motor scooters

Kathy Temin’s, “Bringing it all back home”, was like walking through a fake fur covered Dr Seuss landscape.

Kathy Temin - Bringing it all back home

We also checked out the rest of the gallery and we came across Ron Mueck’s “In bed”.

Ron Mueck - In bed

It was absolutely mind blowing how realistic his sculpture was and I included Engogirl in the shot so you can see how big it is. There was a security guard sitting right next to it and I asked her if many people tried to touch the sculpture; to which she replied, “all the time”.  I wasn’t surprised, as it seemed to be almost begging to be touched. It just looked so soft and lifelike.