Friday, June 17, 2011

The wild west

Early Thursday morning, Jason, Steve, and I (the de facto community engagement team, it seems) loaded into a Queensland government 4WD with heavy-duty 'roo bars (big front grate to block the kangaroos from totaling your car) and headed off into the "wild west". We came down from the dividing range where T'woomba (local pronunciation) is perched and entered red dirt country known as the Brigalow Belt and the Mulga lands. Our destination was the town of St. George, where we were holding the second of two stakeholder meetings this week.

The first meeting was on Wednesday; we hosted irrigators and people representing farming interests from the Upper and Mid Condamine-Balonne River catchment at our office here at the Tor Street complex (office that I'm based out of). I was intimidated at first after walking into a room full of tough-looking men, but I just sucked it up and struck up some one-on-one conversations, which made me realize that the guys were really nice, interesting, and engaging. I had nothing to be afraid of. By the end of the meeting I had two invitations to come to Brisbane to meet with the Queensland Farmer's Federation and Cotton Australia. Sweet! I will definitely be taking them up on that.

The second meeting in St. George was for irrigators from the Lower Condamine valley and what is known as the St. George Water Supply Scheme, a series of dams, weirs, and gravity-fed channels that provide irrigation to cotton growers in the area. Cotton had just been harvested this week, so there were huge bales waiting in fields around the shire and in a staging area outside the gin. The roadsides were snowy with fluffy bolls that had blown free from transport trucks. The white of the cotton was very pretty against the deep red soil. Apparently, one woman made $20,000 over two years just from picking up this wasted material along roads in Queensland. I'm not sure if $10K a year is really worth that much effort, but it's a kooky thing worth noting!

In case you were wondering, we did not hit any kangaroos. They are a very real road hazard, though. The 'roos we saw traveled in bands of 15 to 20, and they bound across the road in a line-- we could see them jumping through the mirages ahead of us on the road, and you never know if another one from the pack is going to come leaping out of the bush and into your car. It doesn't help that they blend in with the vegetation-- everything is grey and brown out there. Emus are another problem. On our way back from visiting one of the dams, we saw two half-dead, downed emus on the side of the road and stopped to put them out of their misery. It was the only noble option. Steve and Jason pointed out wildlife as we passed: "feral goat, emus, kangaroos... oh, look there! Wild horse... with wild blanket."

We also saw a tree full of dead dingoes hanging from their hind legs, much like this photo. Unfortunately, my camera battery was dead so these pictures are all from the internet. We did get a couple on Steve's phone, for example:

The night after the stakeholder meeting, we met up with another Jason who works at the St. George DERM office for drinks and steaks at the St. George Pub. The giant steak you see before me was their regular-sized rump steak. I didn't actually eat that thing... this whole photo was staged because the guys thought it was hilarious. I got the mini-rump, still a ridiculously large steak, with Dianne sauce. That night being Thursday, we got to participate in the weekly lottery for a flat-screen TV. You are given a ticket when you buy a drink or some food, so we had racked up quite a collection of tickets. If your ticket number is drawn, you pick a card from a deck and hope it's the Joker. If so, you win the TV or sometimes a cash jackpot. Our number was drawn, but I unfortunately didn't draw the right card. We still came out of it with a free case of XXXX beer, though! We couldn't just leave it, so we lugged it back to Jason #2's place and sat in front of his fireplace talking about life and drinking our winnings.

For breakfast this morning I had the traditional outback fare of baked beans on toast. There was also the option of spaghetti on toast, but I thought that was a little too weird for breakfast.

Here I am with Jason at the infamous Nindigully Pub on the Moonie River. They have a well-known B & S Ball (Bachelors and Spinsters Ball), which from what I can tell is a rural Aussie tradition that consists of locals dressing up in tuxedos and ball gowns, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, running around in the mud, squirting food dye on each other, and bonnet surfing to sometimes disastrous results.

We spent a good chunk of Thursday and Friday traveling, which was cool because 1) I got to see some of the outback, and 2) Steve and Jason were captives and I could ask them as many questions as I wanted. I kept Steve talking solid for the four hour ride up, only stopping to buy a "Moonie milkshake" at the Moonie roadhouse. A Moonie milkshake is milk... shaken! Once you pass the roadhouse, the road quality diminishes dramatically for the next hour on the way to St. George and you are left bumping around in your truck, hoping for the best. Moonie milkshakes are nearly impossible to drink. Jason explained that the road is so poor because the soil in the Brigalow Belt has a tendency to shift an awful lot and so is very difficult to build on. Brigalow is a native type of acacia that once covered vast portions of Queensland, but is now difficult to find in large enough stands to constitute a real ecosystem. Most of the land where it grows has been cleared for agriculture, though some conservation groups in the area have schemes to protect the remaining stands.

On the ride back today I was so tired and spared Steve my endless questions. I did make him tell me about his work with Indigenous groups, then promptly fell asleep. It's hard to pay such close attention all the time... the Australian accent takes more effort to understand than I expected. Usually when Steve and Jason start talking to each other I have to tune out. It's bloody this and bloody that, but every once and a while they stop talking, look over with a sudden realization that I might not understand, and throw a bunch of slang definitions my way. Steep learning curve!

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