Summer Silence

There is in NSW Australia a 3,000 km² area of semi-arid woodland in temperate north-central New South Wales, Australia. It is the largest such continuous remnant in the state. Unfortunately in recent times this forest, named the Pilliga Scrub or just “The Pilliga”, has been opened up to fracking operations. You can see the fracking operations in the upper right, between the A39 and B51 roads. They are the small bare areas on the map below. They should never have been allowed.

Map picture

When I was growing up I spent a fair bit of time in The Pilliga. In summer it is very hot and very quiet.  The heat is quite oppressive and shade not all that abundant. However, if you sit still and listen you don’t hear much, just the occasional rustling of a goanna in the undergrowth. Occasionally I would hear an Australian Raven, sometimes called the undertaker of the bush, it was a remarkably miserable sound as the last note of the call was extended and fell in tone. They are quite big birds and often weight more than half a kilogram. They were always rather intelligent too, using tools to get at ants and grubs. If you point a stick at them they would often fly away, just in case you were about to shoot at them with a rifle.

Except for a few species the trees of the scrub seemed to all stop growing at about 6 metres (20’). Exceptions were the big iron bark trees (Eucalyptus sideroxylon) which legally belonged to the state railway before concrete sleepers began to be used. The timber getter could come onto anyone’s property to cut the iron barks into sleepers and deliver them to the state railway. Red Ironbark is a very strong, tough, eucalypt specie with very rough bark. the wood was often used in wharves and bridges because of its strength and very long lasting properties. It is very hard to work but does produce a beautiful finish. These trees could grow up to 10.3 metres tall (about 34’).

That part of Australia gets most of its water from thunderstorms so actual falls in any particular part were very variable but they tended to average out at about 560 mm (22’) per year. My father reckoned however that the actual rainfall was gradually reducing; I think he must have been aware of global warming very early on. He first mentioned it to me in the 1960’s.

Eric Rolls (now deceased) wrote a book about The Pilliga and named it “A Million Wild Acres” and subtitled “200 years of Man and an Australian Forest”. It is not brilliantly written but it is very interestingly written and if you can find a copy I would recommend it to you. Of course the Australian aborigines had occupied the area long before white men did and evidence of their occupation can be seen at sites within The Pilliga.

The Outback

The Outback is the majority of the Australian landscape away, mostly, from the coast but some coastal areas can also be genuinely regarded as being ‘outback’. Very few people live in the outback because the climate is harsh and communications, particularly in the internet age, are fairly poor.

Americans like to talk about how everything is big in Texas but in Australia we have a few cattle properties (I guess and American would call them ranches) which are actually bigger than the entire state of Texas.  This is why Australian cattlemen use helicopters to round up and drive cattle when they need attention or are to be sold.

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Helicopters used for cattle (and camel) round up are flown very low and the job can be quite dangerous. To watch a helicopter round up is to experience a rollercoaster of excitement.

Many years ago, in the 1800’s, Australia imported a small number of camels and Afghani cameleers to manage them. They provided transport into the outback before there were roads or any other form of communication. When road trains, railways and aircraft began to be developed the need for the camels ceased and they were allowed to run wild. And they bred! Now the Australian outback is being overrun with camels, very big and very healthy camels, so it came about that some Australians began to round up camels and export them to the Middle East. I know the bloke who started this and he has described to me what it was like when it all began. Of course the business was quite speculative then and has had periods of no activity.

The camels have been exported for use in racing and for slaughtering for their meat. But Australia still has far too many camels in country that was never meant for them.  They muddy water holes and make them unavailable for the animals that would normally use them, so efforts are being made to bring the camel population down to a manageable number.

The Afghani cameleers brought Islam to Australia and as a result we have hundreds of mosques here, many of them much older than most Australians would believe.

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Australian Mosque, built sometime between 1861 and 1882. It has been abandoned for a long time now.

Here is a much more modern and still used mosque in a Sydney suburb:

The interior of this mosque is quite beautiful, spectacular.

Australia is, and has long been, a very culturally diverse country, a fact that I revel in and greatly enjoy. There are quite a few descendants of the original cameleers living in Australia now.

The Sun and Australia

When European artists first came to Australia they noticed that the Australian sun provided a different, brighter light.  This light was captured in many paintings completed by these artists.  Sunlight in Australia remains uncommonly bright and is often noticed by visitors from the northern hemisphere.  Australian sunlight affects life here in many ways, similarly to everywhere else but with more strength and magnified effects.

As poet Dorothea MacKellar wrote in her best known work My Country Australia is a wide brown country.  Your can hear the poem here read by the author herself:

I have lived in Australia all my fairly long life and I perfectly understand the poem because I have lived every part of it.  Australia is often an absolute delight to the senses but can also be terrifying, capricious in ways that are not known in other countries.

Australia’s forests are made up mostly of many varieties of eucalyptus trees and these burn hotter than other tree species and are therefore harder to fight and they spread rapidly.  Rain sometimes falls in sufficient quantity to reinvigorate the inland sea which is now represented by the mostly dry Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre).  after heavy rains in the NT and Queensland the Diamantina and other rivers begin to flow and after some weeks the water may reach Kati Thanda.  At Kati Thanda the dry salt is covered with water and millions of water birds converge to begin a breeding frenzy.  When the lake eventually dries again tens of thousands of chicks will die as their parents disperse over Australia.

Australia has migratory birds that fly from the northern hemisphere to feed and return north to breed but there are also bird species that migrate within Australia.  Unlike similar birds in other regions these migratory birds do not follow established routes.  Because Australia’s rains are so variable they follow the water, wherever it goes.  Sometimes a few of these birds make it as far as New Zealand.

Sometimes Australia’s sun is a great burden, driving fires and flooding rains.  We have the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, not a thing to be proud of!  But we have mostly learned to live in our country and while Australia has many animals and insects that can kill we actually enjoy a better rate of personal safety than many other countries.