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We have settled into a dull routine here, I’m afraid. Even though the tax work is done, my good wife has conscripted me to help with the book she is under deadline to complete by the end of the month. I have been looking for something new to blog about and it occurred to me that I have accumulated a lifetime (seven years) of material, so it may be time to start plagiarising myself. All the best writers do. Spring has sprung here in Melbourne and I have written about that before. At this time of year we see almost every kind of weather, from sun to rain, clouds and clear skies, all in the same day. Today is quite spectacular.

From 2007, “The birds go berserk at this time of year. The squawkers get up at first light, but they also make sure you know when the sun is going down. Magpies dive-bomb cyclists under the mistaken impression that their nests are under attack. Lorikeets and parrots fly in colourful formations, but the bell birds are my favourites. Riding through trees full of bell birds is like being delivered into a temple in Bangkok. The tones are resonant and beautiful and stay with you long after the birds have gone.”

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In September of 2007, we made our first big trip in Australia– up to the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree. Our daughter was with us then and she is back with us now, so it seems appropriate to start this re-blogging exercise with that holiday. It was a pricey trip, but we saw some spectacular countryside. We flew up to Cairns, then rented a small car to travel North to the chic, quiet little town of Port Douglas. The rainy season was still a month or two off and the lethal, stinging jellyfish were waiting for their cue to come toward shore and scare the living daylights out of swimmers. As if huge, saltwater crocodiles can’t do the job.

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We chose a relatively small, snorkelers-only boat to visit the reef. A limit of thirty passengers meant we were unlikely to get left behind and we were virtually guaranteed individual attention. The trip out on the Coral Sea was an all day event. Port Douglas is the closest town to the reef, but it takes two hours to reach the reef from the small, busy harbour. There are 2900 separate fringing reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef, all under fairly constant threat from mining companies bent on trashing a World Heritage Site in order to increase revenues and dividends for their shareholders and supply more coal to China.

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Fortunately, the weather was fine. Unfortunately, the brand new underwater housing I had purchased for the trip did not allow me to actually see what I was shooting. I aimed, shot and hoped for the best. Pixels are cheap. It didn’t occur to me that I might actually snap the shutter 150 times and then spend hours on the computer trying to turn fairly drab results into sparkling, colourful photos. With digital photography, all that requires is patience.

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The reef stretches for about 2300 kilometres, supporting the most diverse ecosystem in the world. All thanks to a tiny critter called the polyp. Its proclivity for warm, clear water and the sturdy support of Australia’s large continental shelf make these ideal waters

After our trip to the reef, we headed North again, up into the Daintree area of the rainforest. We settled in at our lovely Bed and Breakfast within walking distance of Cow Bay beach. There are no hydroelectric lines north of Daintree river. Every home and business has to have a generator or solar power. Needless to say, we turned in early, grateful for the sunlight that fed the batteries that powered our reading lamps.

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Despite its poor soil base, the rainforest covers about 1200 square kilometres. Its plant diversity is unrivalled in Australia. Some species date back 110 million years when the continent was much more humid than it is now. There are trees that may be unchanged from the time of Gondwana. While the trees, ferns, vines and other greenery is stunning, the animal life inhabiting this world is difficult to spot. A private zoo in Port Douglas makes all but the shyest creatures accessible. We arrived in time to see a stork making lunch out of another bird’s chick, so the visit was not entirely without distress, but it was fascinating.

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Cassowaries are among the few diurnal creatures in the rainforest. They are huge, scary-looking birds. The males raise the young. Since they have the talons, size and sometimes the inclination to rip unwary humans wide open, visitors are encouraged to keep their distance. They are a key species to the rainforest, the only animals capable of eating large fruit, such as cassowary plums, and dispersing the seeds with a nice pile of fertiliser. Someone with a clever hand doctored a speed bump sign at a Cassowary crossing point to encourage motorists to slow down for the big birds. The end message gets the point across bluntly, but some motorists need that.

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We took advantage of our carefree days of relaxation and exploration to go swimming, walking, bicycling, hiking, snorkeling, horseback riding, and kayaking. It seemed like each beach was more inviting than the next; each boardwalk through the rainforest beckoned with an air of mystery. It was our first major expedition out of Melbourne, an enchanting visit to the land at the top of the continent down under.

Here is a simple breakdown of the seasons in the Southern hemisphere. Summer: December to February; Autumn: March to May; Winter: June to August; Spring: September to November. This is a rough comparison. Australia is almost the same size as the continental United States and has a number of different climate zones. Up in Queensland and in the Kimberley, it is simply “dry” or “wet.” It gets very, very wet up there even though this is the driest continent on the planet. Summers are hot.

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My wife and I are well into our third winter in a row, (not counting our brief flirtation with summer in Nova Scotia) and it is starting to get to me.  I may be plagued with a mild form of seasonal affective disorder.  After too many months of short days, the lack of light trips something in me and a general sense of malaise sets in.  This particular string of winters was entirely voluntary, of course, triggered by our decision to spend November through February in Turin, Italy, where we had a brief fall, then full-on winter.  It would have been summer here in Melbourne.

There are signs of spring now.  The birds are getting up very early and the sun is going down later.  One street in our neighborhood is lined with cherry trees and the blossoms are out.  It reminds me of  Washington, DC, where we lived for three springs.  Japanese cherry blossoms are so fragile and lovely that they seem inappropriate in the American capital, my nation’s nest of political intrigue and greed.

Unfortunately, spring is tax time here in Australia as well as in North America.  If you are from the Northern hemisphere and this fails to make any sense to you, here is a simple breakdown of the seasons in the Southern hemisphere.

  • Summer: December to February
  • Autumn: March to May
  • Winter: June to August
  • Spring: September to November

This is just a rough comparison.  This country is almost the same size as the continental United States and has a number of different climate zones.  Up North, it is simply “dry” or “wet.”  It gets very, very wet up there even though this is the driest continent on the planet and all the cities in the South are clamoring for water.  Summers are very hot.

I have mentioned before that tax prep is my least favorite activity, so I have to get an early run at it and put an enormous effort into procrastination in order to get anything done.  We don’t have sufficient income to make it worth hiring an accountant, but the language of tax baffles me.  My brain seizes up as if I had early onset Alzheimer’s.  It puts me into a real funk for weeks.

The only antidote is humor.  Fortunately, there is some first rate stuff in this land.  My favorite is a TV show called “The Hollowmen.”  Is is about a unit set up within the Prime Minister’s office to help with his most important tasks– defeating the opposition and getting himself reelected.

Their job is to develop the “long term vision,” to ignore tomorrow’s headlines and focus on next week’s catastrophe.  The cast and the writing are wonderful.  Each episode begins with a crisis (such as childhood obesity) which calls for immediate action by the prime minister and results in a great deal of rushing about before it dawns on the staff that every action has unintended consequences, such as alienating major campaign contributors.

In the end, like a dryer at the end of its cycle, there is nothing but spin.  It is absolutely fabulous, up there with “Fawlty Towers.”  In one of my favorite episodes, the team tries to reduce its carbon footprint as part of the PM’s “Carbon Challenge.”  They turn down the heat, install new lights and get on bicycles.  Their intentions are inevitably sabotaged by their own ignorance and the necessities of finding the very best “photo op” for the prime minister, which seems to be in the Antarctic.

Last week’s Sunday supplement had a feature on Peter Garrett, former lead singer for the rock group “Midnight Oil,” now besieged politician.  To say that his segue from adored pop star to Minister for the Environment, Arts and Heritage has not been smooth is something of an understatement.  Even as rock star, Garrett resisted interviews.  This time they didn’t give him any choice.  The article would be written with or without him.

He has made a couple of missteps and several decisions which have been considered betrayals by his former friends among the Greens.  The denunciations have been pretty savage.  Prime Minister Rudd took away half his portfolio (climate change and water) and gave it to another minister, Penny Wong.

The giant,bald headed Garrett was once Time Magazine’s “icon of outrage.”   Now some environmentalists consider him the ultimate sell-out.

He approved the construction of the Gunns pulp mill in Tasmania’s Tamar valley (which seems to consider old growth forest simply future wood chips for Japanese paper);  he said yes to the resumption of zinc mining operations in the Northern Territory; he supported plans to dredge Port Phillip Bay here in Melbourne and he’s given the nod to a couple of big uranium mines.

On the plus side, he’s been instrumental in implementing a national waste strategy plan and the most significant household energy efficiency measures in the country’s history.

He has his moments of glory, even now.  After the devastating bushfires in Victoria, Garrett got his old band back together again for a “spellbinding” concert to raise funds for the victims of the disaster.  Garrett clearly cares about the environment, but he has made his pact with the political devils that drive the country these days, the PM, party and the “stakeholders.”

To me, that is a real shame. I liked him better when he was a powerful voice singing for the wilderness. If you’re going to sell out, you might as well do taxes.

France Peter Garrett


It is hard to reconcile the beautiful weather in Melbourne with the economic hurricane devastating the world economy.  The skies here are pigeon-egg blue dotted with puffy, cotton ball clouds.  The temperature is perfect.  The flies and fires haven’t hit yet.  If it were possible to ignore the media, (which seems to have more than its share of bad news at the moment), it would be an excellent time to be in absolute bliss.

I headed up into gold country a couple of weeks ago to help a cycling friend celebrate his 60th birthday.  He lives on a farm in the country now and there were two lambs, just a few days old, gamboling in the paddock.  The sun was out and it cast a spell of enchantment.  Everyone seemed to be in a good mood.

The birds go berserk at this time of year.  The squawkers get up at first light, but they also make sure you know when the sun is going down.  Magpies dive-bomb cyclists under the mistaken impression that their nests are under attack. Lorikeets and parrots fly in colorful formations, but the bell birds are my favorites.  Riding through trees full of bell birds is like being delivered into a temple in Bangkok.  The tones are resonant and beautiful and stay with you long after the birds have gone.

The Arts Festival and the racing season have just started.  I mentioned in a previous post that this city is simply inundated with events.  I managed to catch two films in the Italian Film Festival but I missed at least two other festivals and the State Fair.  I stumbled across the furniture exhibition of the city’s Fringe Festival (perhaps its least interesting feature), One look at the catalog of offerings put me into a catatonic state.  I was simply overwhelmed.

We did make it out of the house to see some dance/theater last night and we have tickets for an evening with Philip Glass doing the poetry of Leonard Cohen.  We have to give our favorite Montreal poet a hearing. It is a city that has given us many good memories and Cohen is its most unlikely songbird.

I just got a lovely email from a friend there who is soaking up some balmy fall weather, thanks to a warm surge from down south.  He’s a Scot, a golfer naturally enough. Some foxes have been frequenting the golf course of late and a few have become quite tame. Not a good thing for the long-term health of the animals, but it allowed him to get a fine photograph.

by David Robertson

by David Robertson

It is difficult to ignore the local news, though.  It lands on the doorstep every morning and itches like a patch of poison ivy.

The bitter debate on Victoria’s controversial abortion bill continued this week.  The tragic fate of a lovely, 21 year-old Australian girl who disappeared in Dubrovnik on September 18 was just revealed.  Another Qantas flight turned into roller coaster ride when it plunged 1000 feet over Western Australia and had to make an emergency landing.  A quarter of the planet’s mammals are under threat of extinction; Australian mammals are the most at risk in the developed world.  The Australian dollar got hammered.

If you want to come see the wildlife or the race horses, now would be a good time. It’s Spring and the weather is perfect.

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