Thursday 26 April 2012

River red gum time

“I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues…” The Lorax was too late to save the truffula trees in Dr Seuss's famous story (well, except for - spoiler alert! - that one lonely seed the Onceler gives the boy at the end, with the words, "Plant a new truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.") 

Beautiful, aren't they?
The river red gum forests of southern NSW looked like going the same way, having been logged since the 1820s - until July 2010, when the state government protected them in a 107,000-hectare swathe of national parks, nature reserves and regional parks. It was a good month for trees.

Last weekend I camped in one of these newly protected forests, Murrumbidgee Valley National Park

It was like going back to a freer, simpler time. My friends and I had to get a mud-map from the local tourist office to find our bush campsite, at the end of a muddy maze of dirt roads and on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River. There was no park entry fee, no camping fee. And when we got there, there was no one but us. 

Kayak on the Murrumbidgee
We spent two whole days in, on and next to the river, and always surrounded by red gums. On Saturday we kayaked for half a day, with a new tour operator called Riverina Experience, past fallen trees, high eroded banks and tangles of exposed roots, evidence of the floods a couple of weeks ago when two metres of rain fell in one drenching, 24-hour period. 

My, what big claws you have
From our kayaks, we saw FIVE koalas, in the high branches of the river red gums overhead. It's only the third time in my entire life (so far) I've seen koalas in the wild. Some of them were even active, climbing branches, looking down on us, listening to us with their teddy-like ears (does that count as anthropomorphising?). 

Bikes in the bush
On Sunday we rode mountain bikes, also with Riverina Experience, along the river and through Narrandera Common (officially called Narrandera Flora and Fauna Reserve), through open woodland. 

As our guide Ian Hardie explained, this is what the original, pre-logged red gum forests looked like: big, gnarled trees with spreading branches and lots of open space between them. (Our campsite, by contrast, had lots of skinny red gums close together, due to decades of management by forestry). 

Our river red gum campsite
We swam in the river. We camped by the river, listening to its gentle gurgle as we fell asleep in our tents (spacious Lansan Plus tents with massive vestibules, kindly supplied by – sponsor alert! – Kathmandu). We even met a Wiradjuri man, Michael Lyons, who showed us how he makes didgeridoos and boomerangs from local woods, offered us witchety grubs and took us to see an "Aboriginal hotel" - a hollowed-out red gum big enough for a family to sleep in. 

One of the most back-in-time aspects of the trip was our campfire. It was a real fire, made from gathered logs and sticks (not pre-chopped wood). Which (naturally) made me look into the environmental impacts of campfires. On the minus side: there's all that carbon dioxide going into the air, and faster than if the dead trees were left to decompose. 

On the plus side: it was one campfire used for three days, by seven people, for cooking, warmth and light (the days being cooler and shorter now) and we didn't have to throw away any butane canisters (from a fuel stove) after the trip. 

Wood is also more renewable than gas. Trees can be replanted; once gas (or any fossil fuel) is out of the ground, there's no giving the carbon back. Also, apparently fires that burn with intense heat and minimal smoke aren't so bad. I wouldn't want to have a campfire every night, but there was something wholesome about having one for this trip. (Read more about the environmental effects of burning wood here.)

Want to see river red gums? You can drive to Narrandera in under five hours from Sydney or Melbourne. Fly with Rex and you'll be there in an hour (we did the latter, and I offset my flights with Climate Friendly, as always). 

Thursday 12 April 2012

Christmas (Island) in April

Think of Christmas Island, a remarkably terrier-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, and chances are four words will spring to mind: "migrating crabs" and "detention centre", not necessarily in that order.

One in 50 million, a red crab
David Attenborough put the island on the nature tourism map back in the 1980s, by declaring the annual migration of more than 50 million red crabs from the jungled centre of the island to its pristine beaches to be one of the most spectacular sights on Earth.

It's also been called called the "Galapagos of the Indian Ocean" for all its nesting seabirds and other wild things. Then along came the Australian Government, building a detention centre in 2005 to "process" asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters.

It'd be easy to not like the island on principle - until you go there. Here are
10 good reasons to like, even love, Christmas Island (which was named on Christmas Day, 1643, by British explorers - in case you were wondering) based on my trip there last week:

1. Its natural beauty. The first thing you notice, after flying for almost four hours over the Indian Ocean (CI is only 360km south of Java but 2600km from Perth) is the royal-blue sea ringing the island, then the narrow coral reef, the rugged limestone coastal cliffs, and the green, green forest - 64% of the island is national park.
Greta Beach sunset
2. It's not an “island paradise” (which, let's face it, are a dime a dozen these days). That means two things: the locals don't have that "I live in paradise and I know it" attitude, and there are real beaches, not just limpid lagoons. Sparkling water, a few waves to play in, squeaky white sand, marine creatures galore - what more could you want? 

3. The snorkelling/diving. Lots of places claim to have great snorkelling. Christmas Island's marine environment is the real deal: on one snorkelling excursion, the visibility was 30 metres and we swam beside a drop-off like an undersea cliff that disappeared kilometres into the blue. It's not uncommon to see dolphins, turtles, even whale sharks - our dive boat skipper saw 250! two summers ago - just 20 metres from shore.

Pic by Shawn Brenneman
4. It's untouristy, for now. The only other tourists my friends and I saw were two detention centre workers having a day off to dive and do a bird tour. The main street is, if I may be blunt, ugly - but that's part of its charm. It's a working port, not a tourist trap. And anyway, the island has so many natural attractions, it doesn't need man-made ones.

5. It's safe as a country town. You get used to not locking your car or hotel room, and leaving your camera on a cafe table while you go inside to order (and yes, you can get real coffee here).

6. You can go to the movies for $5 ($2 for kids) - at the weekly outdoor cinema, with a different film shown every Saturday night. I LOVE outdoor movies and that's gotta be the cheapest movie ticket in Australia.

7. It's tropically warm day and night. The water is 28C, all year round. Sure, the humidity can get a bit much in the jungle, but you don't have to go far to throw yourself (safely) into the sea to cool off.

Brown booby sea-watching
8. The great outdoors. I spent five days there and the only time I went indoors was to sleep (at The Sunset, a quiet seaside lodge with a wide verandah). We snorkelled and swam in Flying Fish Cove, explored a cave by the light of our head-torches, bird-watched for nesting frigate birds, brown boobies and rare Abbott's boobies. One afternoon we walked in the Dales, where freshwater wends its way through an enchanted forest reminiscent of Rivendel in The Lord of the Rings (minus the elves); then we had a sunset picnic at Martin Point, on the west-facing side of the island. 

Pic by the lovely Carla Grossetti
Best of all, I got to celebrate Earth Hour on this remote rock in the Indian Ocean (it's actually the top of an ancient volcano). My friends and I took beeswax candles to The Grotto - a seaside cave where we swam, by candlelight, in a sparkling, partly spring-fed pool, then sipped champagne to honour the occasion. It's my favourite Earth Hour yet.

9. You can go trawling for goshawks. What the? Biologist Mark Holdsworth invented the method, to tag endangered Christmas Island goshawks (here's one he tagged earlier, at left). He uses the arm of a toy gorilla as a lure at the end of a fishing line, and we took turns riding with him in the back of his ute as we drove along a bush track. Strange but true. 

10. The crabs. It always comes back to the crabs on Christmas Island. We weren't there at migration-time (that's at the start of the wet season, usually October or November) but we saw plenty: giant robber crabs (called coconut crabs on Pacific islands) eating mangoes, blue crabs hiding amidst tree roots; sometimes we'd have to walk in front of our rented 4WD to shoo crabs away from the tyres. CI sure is an interesting and amazing place. Fifty million red crabs can't be wrong...

PS What did you do for Earth Hour this year?