Railway writer

Have just returned from a heady week of ideas and words at the Watermark Literary Muster in the village of Kendall, NSW. Being broke as usual, I was most grateful for an offer of free accommodation from Peta Simmons, a woman whose generosity is as large as her laugh. She’d never met me, just wanted to help writers.

Her guest ‘humpy’ turned out to be to be a cute cottage behind her house, all on one large deck. Hidden behind trees, it was right beside the railway line, the railway crossing and the railway bridge over the lazy brown river.

railway bridgeThis gave me a novel experience – being awoken by the dinging of the level crossing bells before being shaken by the rising roar of the train as it belted past and over the metal bridge. The house is built of steel, on big recycled steel posts, deeply embedded in the ground on rubber-topped pads. The train tremor reverberates through the whole house and the bodies of its inhabitants. Yet this was a thrill rather a worry: the place felt extremely secure and I went back to sleep each time.

Its other plus is that it is right on the river, which, in between long slow drifts of leaves, blinked with the coloured reflections of a passenger express or a goods train as it flew over the criss-crossed steel suspension bridge.

tree stumpOn the last day of the Muster, we were taken by the Kendall Historical Society up into the mountains behind the village, for a walk along the old Longworth Logging Tramway.

Here logging trains were inched over wooden rails, past giant trees, and across log bridges in gullies, to take the timber down to the very river next to which I’d been sleeping. This was how delicate selective logging used to be before giant companies and giant machines invented clearfelling.

Our guide had owned a timber company: we agreed that unsustainable logging practices were unnecessary and had caused many of the industry problems and the closures.

We both shook sorrowful heads at the waste of good timber in the whole wood pulp disaster. Good greenies and good loggers are in agreement here.

In control

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Driving up the New England Highway to Muswellbrook, in the heart of coalmine country, I noticed that, as always, the air was clear and fresh. The mines are obviously doing what they’re supposed to, which is keep any effects within the site area.

Thus when I look towards that hidden distant mine void, the airborne dust I see is either an illusion, or it will turn around when it realises the wind is blowing it off site.

So reassuring that they are in control of their dust.

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The other comforting evidence that our masters keep their word and know what they’re talking about regards canola.

This is especially important because I understand they are considering removing the ban on GM canola crops in NSW. We are assured no GM crops would escape and infect other crops.

Funny though, how one good burst of rain has sent canola into frantic growth all up and down the roadsides and railway lines, over the paddocks and up the hillsides, if you can peer through the murk to see the hills.

Yellow, yellow everywhere, and none of it intentionally sown in this non-canola-growing area. I had to ask a local to check my disbelief, so dense and vast was the spread of canola in paddocks.

The fine seed was apparently in stockfeed mix used extensively here during the drought. Canola is the new feral here; it beats fireweed and capeweed as the Yellow Peril this season for sure. How much wider will it have spread next year?

But of course GM canola will be under control.

Talking book woman

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The Woman survived her 10 days bookstorming the NSW North Coast and New England — but only just. Hadn’t expected to find talking so exhausting, since I’m in constant training.

But I guess a set talk, with passion and humour and drama, is a performance. It was followed by perhaps half an hour of lively questions, many on the environmental issues, where the lack of action is clearly worrying people.

I learned not to judge by appearances, as the most conservative looking elderly lady might ask me very well-informed questions on the Anvil Hill mine.

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I never stopped talking for the two hours most sessions took, as when people queued up for me to sign their books, I would ask a little about them so I could write something relevant. That might release a potted life history, and I would have enjoyed long conversations with most.

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I love libraries anyway, but was astonished at how the newer libraries are involving their communities. At the brand new Taree Library I was their first author event. Seventy people turned up for the evening, which had a lot to do with the very prominent display. And with the enthusiastic Margie and her staff, who turned out cheese platters and served wine as if they did it daily. Librarians have jettisoned their old twinset and beads image, and Taree Library rocks!

Where the libraries had active Friends of the Library groups, such as at Forster, the hospitality created a very welcoming atmosphere, with pikelets and cakes and cuppas, but which I rarely had time to consume.

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The newish Port Macquarie and Tamworth Libraries were very keen and had good spaces for such events — AND they presented me with gifts of local goodies, like wine! That’s Kay, at Tamworth, (left) my last stop. The letdown was at Lismore, one of the biggest towns/cities, where I felt like I shouldn’t have bothered, since they hadn’t.

I not only met librarians like Kerry (centre left) but local booksellers like Jodi (centre right) from the ABC Shop at Ballina, who’d gone to much trouble to set up eye-catching displays in their shops.

Another notable one was the Coffs Harbour Dymocks, where the vibrant Natalie (right) is a real events person and supports local authors especially.

I admit I enjoyed all the dressing up, but I’m extremely glad to be back on the mountain in my stained trackies and flannelette shirt, raking up horse poo and getting down and dirty in the vegetable garden.

Spring is sprung

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My deciduous trees and the roses are risking sudden death by budding while the possum’s still about, but it’s in the forest that Spring has really made a grand entrance. Its greens and browns and greys are being splashed and draped with mauves and purples, whites and creams, as shrubs and vines flower.

The delicate Indigofera is prettier than any garden shrub, with its pinkish/mauve spires and ferny foliage.

Above it was Clematis aristata, which climbs saplings and crowns them with its drifts of white stars and new green leaves, bending them in graceful arches.

Nobody planted them, nobody tends or prunes them. They’re just part of the annual Spring show here.

But this is the Garden of Eden, so the snakes come with the flowers.

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Today I saw my first red-bellied black snake, a few metres away from my low bedroom window.

It was very fat and alert, head erect, bright of eye, but not moving quickly;  it’s still a bit chilly here. I needed to watch where it went in case it was a new co-tenant.

But no, having come through the fence to let me know to watch where I’m walking even more carefully from now, it wound its way back up the slope and out under the gate.

Nevertheless, I put my gumboots on to go over to the vegie garden, and each slinky curve of hoses half-hidden in grass was suspect!

Home is where the dirt is

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Flying back we passed over the Hunter. I knew the scars of the giant opencut mines were visible from space, and I’d seen aerial pics, but nothing prepared me for their scale and quantity in such close proximity, compared to any other manmade marks on the landscape over the whole trip from Cairns.

Chains of gaping holes and dust mountains. No wonder the air over Singleton and Muswellbrook is one of the worst concentrations of fine dust particulates in Australia, with 50,000 tonnes a year, compared to Scone, where, with no mines, it’s less than 1 tonne a year.

Mr Sartor’s approval of the 2000-hectare Anvil Hill opencut will ensure it is the absolute worst.

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The Hunter is choking on coal. That’s why the air there is brownish grey and that’s why this pollution layer marks our entry into Hunter skies.

And now he wants the Mudgee area to go the way of the Hunter. To add to the sufferings of the people near Ulan and Wollar with their existing mines, he’s approved Moolarben, insanely close to the Goulburn River: two open cuts and a long-wall, using over 6 million litres of water a day to wash the coal.

But hey, who needs water — or rivers? Or fresh air?

Going troppo

I’d imagined Port Douglas would be like Byron Bay, only hotter. In fact it is more like Double Bay gone troppo.

Built for well-heeled tourists, the town is composed of man-made tropical gardens, tourist accommodation, shopping and eating places — and day spas. There is one petrol station, hidden in a back street. The petrol is cheap; the accommodation is not. The range of designer and exotic clothes was vast, and surprisingly inexpensive for their quality.

At half the price of the Peppers Day Spa, we had a fantastic long massage each at the friendly Port Douglas Day Spa in the main street, near Paddy’s Irish Pub. I highly recommend this Spa: instant results.

When I returned to the waiting room, all pink and relaxed and oily, a man seated there said, ‘I hope I come out looking as beautiful as this young woman’. He wouldn’t believe I was nearly 60, and I wouldn’t believe the owners hadn’t paid him to sit there and say such things.

Painted my toenails hot pink for the first time in 30 years after that!

The many restaurants seemed dear to me, and were astonishingly lacking in even token vegetarian options. Seafood is big, of course, and Emily made the most of that.  Daytime — the coffee, the whimsy and the background music at the buzzy Re-hab in the main street is great.

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On the third night we discovered ‘Gone Bananas’, and fell in love with its unique indoor rainforest atmosphere, its cheery and efficient staff — and its fabulous food. Great value for its very reasonable prices — we’d have thought so at higher ones.

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Tropical mountains

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Up there beyond Cairns they have spectacular mountains looming close to the coast. Like my own mountains, they too are often shrouded in mist – and mystery.

There is a sharp contrast between the well-used flatlands of sugarcane, cow pastures, and, increasingly, housing estates.

Head up into those hills, dodging the little sugarcane trains whose tracks meander over the paddocks and across the roads, and there is sudden primeval rainforest, too steep to have been cleared.

We peeked in at the edges of the World Heritage Mossman Gorge, the Daintree Rainforest, and the Daintree River, where signs warned us of crocodiles and tourist buses and adventure tour 4WDS flowed as abundantly as the water.

My friend Emily last came here 40 years ago, when Cairns was but a tiny village and there were nought but a few dirt tracks to threaten the Daintree. I guess this is Progress.

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The Woman wallows in Luxury

 My friend Emily won this trip for two to Port Douglas as a result of purchasing pyjamas for her husband, my old mate Ken, when he was in hospital. Sadly, he didn’t get to wear them for very long.

At his wake, Emily had invited me to join her on this trip, and many months later, here we were — two aging but sparky battlers, swanning about as if they were born to it, at the very expensive Pepper’s Beach Club.

Our room was actually a suite, very posh — and tasteful — which don’t always go together. Only nine months old, it felt like it had been designed for better things, as there were a surprising amount of glitches in maintenance. And a most disappointing meanness: all goodies were extra, like real coffee with your breakfast.

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Five star suite – half a star breakfast

In the delightfully situated open dining area by the fake lagoon, each morning we faced a truly boring packet cereal, tinned watery juice, greasy spoon option breakfast. I’d imagined tables groaning with tropical fruits, but here we groaned and the baked beans were the safest bet.

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Our suite had a full kitchen – stainless steel, of course – and a full laundry, in which I faced the most annoying washing machine ever invented. I put the clothes in and searched long and hard for a hollow for the washing powder. I eventually found it, but only by reefing out a whole section of the machine.  I poured soap powder into the hole and replaced the part. How stupid! Obviously designed by a man! ETC.
Then the dumb machine kept going straight to ‘dry’ – wouldn’t let me select anything else but times!

Yes, you know why: it was a dryer. The washing machine was beneath it.
Sometimes I think I should just stay on the mountain. I can’t keep up with these new-fangled androgenous machines.

From the far side

For once I am looking down on cloudland instead of up or across. Only it’s not my cloudland, for I’ve flown to far north Queensland for a four-day holiday, to keep my friend Emily company. The things you do for friends!

Once my nervous system settled down from the take-off, I could kid myself it was all just a passing panoramic picture and I wasn’t really up here in a man-made, man-maintained, flimsy, fallible metal thing, pretending to be a bird.

Then I could marvel at the extraordinary topsy-turvy cloud world below.

There were flat cloud lakes, fields of clouds raked like Japanese pebble gardens, with now and then a tall cloud ridge rising above them. Rarely did the world below intrude, like this dark mountain ridge like a man waving – ‘Hey mountain woman, what you doin’ up there?’

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Once we were nearing the Whitsundays, the sea blues changed to aquas and greens as the coral reefs appeared.

It seemed as if every island of any size had developments on it, and the tiny white darts of boat wakes were plentiful.

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I was spared the Qantas idea of vegetarian food because we forgot to tell them about my inability to eat the beef or chicken options. I could at least have the coffee, but since I didn’t put my glasses on to open the sugar sachet, I flavoured it with black pepper and had to ask for another. Darn nuisances, these vegos!

Landing at Cairns was as scary as landing anywhere else: I hate the feeling of uncontrolled speed after the bump of re-connection.

Cairns felt warm and looked overdeveloped, but we only saw it through the windows of our airconditioned limo as the driver whisked us off along the narrow coast road to Port Douglas. Life can be very hard at times.

Ratbag review

There have been many articles written about The Woman on the Mountain, but none so quirky or comprehensive as the one by Fred Baker, editor, journalist, reviewer, publisher and upholder of standards grammatical.

Deliciously entitled ‘Didactic Pastoral and the Authentic Australian Ratbag’, you’ll find it at his Knocklofty Press website.

Talking books

The Woman on the Mountain is coming down to the coast to go on tour in early September.

The north coast of NSW is familiar territory as I have had sun- and surf-loving family and friends scattered along its length for many decades.

The Pacific Highway used to be a winding single-lane road where you became intimate with the back windows of caravans and the idiosyncratic signs of the businesses in small coastal towns.

Now it increasingly ignores the towns and roars flat chat over 4 lanes or more wherever it can. But I’ll be slowing down and turning off, into the bigger towns at least, to talk at their libraries. Perhaps you live near one of these and can come along and hear me have a rave and do bird calls and try to sum up in 20 minutes what it took me nine months to write?

You get to quiz me afterwards and if you tell me how much you loved the talk or the book I’ll write nice things in your copy of it.

Monday 3 September
Forster 1.30pm
Taree 5.30pm

Tuesday 4 September
Port Macquarie 10 am
Kempsey  2 pm
Wednesday 5 September
Coffs Harbour 2 pm

Thursday 6 September
Grafton 2 pm
Friday 7 September
Lismore 10 am
Monday 10 September
Ballina 10.30 am

Then I’m leaving the coast and heading back to mountain country and down the New England Highway to home.
Tuesday 11 September
Armidale 5.30 pm
Wednesday 12 September
Tamworth  11 am

The perversity of nature

This piece was recently broadcast on ABC Radio National’s Bush Telegraph program:

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Being hopeless with machinery, and living a long way from town, I treat any mechanically-minded visitor as a precious opportunity. There’s always some collection of moving metal parts that’s refusing to function. This time it was my pump.

I’d excused it slowing down a bit, given that the old Ajax and its partner, the Lister diesel engine, were getting on.

For nearly 30 years they’ve squatted over by my dam, ready to be cranked into action at three monthly intervals, and pump steadily up to my cement tanks on the ridge — 200 feet of head. The faithful pair would work continuously for 24 hours without complaint.

The Lister had been overhauled once, and the Ajax had its leather seals replaced once — but not by me.

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