Sunday, June 21, 2020

Hashemoto at Smiths Alternative

Sunday was cold and rainy, but also 'International Make Music Day'. I'd spotted Hashemoto were planning to play outside of Smith's Alternative in the city and with not much else planned for the day the three of us headed out to watch them.

Smith's is a great live music venue. It describes itself as having a 'boho vibe' which I guess means that it probably needs a bit of a lick of paint and the assorted bookshelves it has around the venue support a cluttered and eclectic range of tchotchke - from goldfish to manekin heads. I've seen numerous bands and comedy shows there. The owners are always welcoming and I like it's slightly grungy, yet welcoming feel.

The rain fell hard as we crossed the light-rail tracks of Northbourne Avenue to reach the place, and although it's got a covered walkway, I wasn't really sure how an outside gig was really viable. Fortunately the band had reached a similar conclusion and so the inside venue was quickly cleared - the seats that were stacked due to the covid lockdown were quickly re-distributed and a dustcover removed from the piano in the corner.

The venue however was restricted to 20 guests (I guess on a good/non-covid night it could probably hold four or five times that number).

Hashemoto are a three piece - Damo, Bec and Potsy who play the guitar, piano and double bass respectively. I've probably seen them at least half a dozen times I guess in and around Canberra. They make great harmonies and they're all clearly very accomplished musicians.

People who didn't make the 20 limit sat outside and the owner did his best to open up curtains and windows so they could enviously watch us and Hashemoto inside.

The kids surprisingly endured it. Eli enjoyed it more than Audrey (who is more accustomed to k-pop) but it's hard not to like their music to be honest.

After a couple of hilarious encores (one where Bec stood to sing with the others and then realised a few bars in that she was supposed to be playing the piano and ran back to take her place) we said our farewells and headed out.

On the way back, Audrey sated her k-pop desires with some BTS lemonade she bought from the excellently appointed emart Asian Supermarket which is only a short stroll away from Smith's and Eli bought himself a t-shirt from Target. All three of us therefore headed home after a successful Sunday afternoon out.

Hashemoto brightening up a rainy Sunday afternoon

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Pig Hill

During isolation we've been collecting 'trig points' in and around Canberra.

I've been careful not to drag us too far outside of the confines of the ACT as the Namadgi National Park is currently closed due to the bushfires and I'm conscious too that if one of us comes a cropper on our walks and twists an ankle/falls down a ravine etc that we could end up being an unnecessary burden on the health system at a time when they need it least.

Trig points are a common site at the top of hills and Canberra has an exceptionally large number of them. From what I can gather as the city expanded trigs were positioned at the top of hills/mounts so that surveyors could get an accurate measure from one point to another. From every trig point you (should) be able to see two more - hence establish a triangulation and thereby build roads/buildings accurately and plot the landscape on maps.

There is some debate as to exactly how many are in the ACT. There's somewhere around 80-100. The complication is that it's not clear whether some are truly 'trig' points or just rocks at the top of big hills and many others have been lost due to the fires (in 2003 and 2019/20). Sadly not all of the trigs are accessible and are now on private land so are tricky or impossible to reach. A few of our walks have curtailed either by huge barbed wire fences or warning signs.

Somewhere along the line Canberra started using 'quadripod' trigs. They are four legged structures with a large black circle on a pole at the top. Presumably the circle is used to sight the trig and I can only imagine that surveyors used some kind of tool/binocular type of equipment to 'spot' them.

Most of these Trig Stations are part of the ACT Precision Zone, a national geodetic survey and adjustment carried out in the early 1970s. The ACT Precision Zone and its associated marks have been the primary control for all new development in the ACT since the early 1970s. The accuracy of ACT Precision Zone marks is 1 in 250,000.

Autumn days are definitely here in Canberra. We've only had a couple of frosts to mention so far, but the nights are closing in and the mornings are chilly. Nevertheless Sunday's weather was beautiful - with a high of 16 degrees predicted the three of us headed out to Uriarra to find the somewhat un-exotically named 'Pig Hill'.

In researching the walk I saw that until fairly recently the hill had been used as a hang-gliding and paragliding jump-off. There's not many clues as to why it had stopped, presumably the landowner had objected.

I'd planned to go via the Uriarra Road then Mountain Creek and Doctor's Flat Road. On the map it looked a fairly straightforward option to commence our walk. Sadly when we reached the gate I'd intended to enter there were really big 'Private Property' warning signs.

It's always hard to know what to do with such signs as Australia doesn't seem to have 'rights of way' in the same way that the UK does. Unlike the network of paths which give walkers access it's often far less clear in Australia where you can or can't go. It's ironic that given the expanse of the country many beautiful walks are effectively restricted or closed to the public.

I'm not a big fan of trespassing, mostly because I imagine farmers with dogs or guns so we drove a bit further along Mountain Creek Road and found another fence without signs. I parked and we began our walk.

It was a fairly decent trek - I suspected early on that we joined up with the path we had been warned to avoid, but we were on a decent gravel path and not causing anyone any harm. I still had a few reservations about it and after walking for about 30 minutes a guy caught up with us on a quad bike.

He didn't seem bothered about us being there. In fact he was more puzzled as to why we'd be trying to walk up the hill. I explained we were trying to reach the trig, but understandably that didn't make too much sense to him either. 

Anyway he zoomed off on his bike and we continued to trudge upwards. A couple of the stretches of the road were pretty steep. I'd forgotten our drink bottles (an absolute sin in Australia) but I figured it wasn't that hot (had it been I'd have turned round) and we carried on.

Eventually the path took us through some beautiful woodlands and after a couple more very steep inclines we came out in a clearing at the top of Pig Hill. In all it had taken us a about two and a half hours to get there and we sat and enjoyed soup and a roll.

The view from the top was spectacular. The beauty with all of the trigs is that they afford lovely views, but Pig Hill is particularly wonderful as you have a 360 degree view across the whole of Canberra. There's a lookout tower up there as well (presumably from hand-glider days) and a pole which looked like it had formerly held a windsock.

Coming down was a lot quicker. We jogged a few sections simply because the terrain was so steep. At one point the road was blocked by some black bullocks, we gave them a wide-berth which meant trudging through a fairly squidgy swamp, but in hindsight I think they'd have been ok. 

We reached our car and headed home. We'd walked just under 12km and apart from wet feet from the swamp/marsh and the carelessness of forgetting water bottles it had been a really enjoyable day.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Australia's Catastrophic Fires

Marlo is a small sleepy town in East Gippsland Victoria. It’s approximately four or five hours east of Melbourne and lies nestled in farmland to the north and bush on its surrounds. The snowy river concludes its 350km (200 miles) journey there, emptying into the sea through a wide estuary. There’s a huge sand bank and pelicans and other sea birds abound.

We’d visited the town a couple of times before. From land-locked Canberra it’s not the most obvious place to reach the sea – many Canberrans preferring the coast on the South East of Australia due to its proximity, but I’d grown to believe that the additional hour’s drive it takes to get there was worth it in return for the area’s laid-back feel. There’s a great pub overlooking the estuary and it’s a wonderful spot for watching the sun disappear over the horizon while sipping the local ‘Sailor’s Grave’ beer.

I’m an only parent and as such my life is busy and sometimes pretty stressful, so my two kids (Elijah aged 10 and Audrey 12) and I had decided to head there for New Year and relax in the solace. We took our new Christmas bikes and borrowed kayaks, I chucked fishing rods and lures in the boot. It was going to be the perfect adventure to see in the new decade.

Our first couple of days there were just that. We rode our bikes through the pristine Marlo State forest and also paddled out to the sandbank. It was great to be out of Canberra enjoying nature.

On Sunday I received a text message saying that everyone in East Gippsland should leave.

It seems ridiculous now that I ignored the warning. To give it some context though the area of East Gippsland is around 500km wide and the fires were at least 300km to the west. I don’t think anyone in the Marlo campsite where we were staying left. Even those closer to the fires didn’t all react. Bushfires are sadly a regular occurrence in Australia and the two fires that were showing on the map had actually been burning since November. It felt like leaving and heading home, would be akin to evacuating the house when the toaster sets off the smoke alarm in the kitchen. An over-reaction.

We’d travelled into nearby Lakes Entrance on Sunday afternoon and there were some fire volunteers there, I chatted to them and they pointed out the fires to the west on a map. The message they were giving was important but didn’t seem urgent. They certainly didn’t impress on me that evacuating was the best option.

So we stayed.

Monday was hot, we paddled our kayaks on the lagoon and watched fisherman on the jetty, then smoke started to arrive. By four o’clock the sky had turned a deep red. By five the sky was almost black.

There was a new state of panic and confusion, nobody really knew what was happening but we were sure it would still be ok. Then ash started falling out of the sky. People told me afterwards they had seen embers falling too on the roofs of houses. The inherent animal instinct that is in all of us could sense danger and hear the fire growing closer.

When smoke gets too thick it actually starts forming its own weather patterns (something else I didn't know) so there was the frequent rumble of thunder (without rain) which all added to the eery un-comfortableness.

My kids understandably lost it and started crying. My little boy, who is usually self-assured and confident probably most of all. I put on an air of being calm and un-worried, but my children knew it was a thin veneer. Then with a loud thud the lights went out and all electricity was cut.

Fortunately, we had our bike lights as makeshift torches. The campsite owners told us that we may be told to evacuate. Evacuation meant going to the jetty by the sea – it wasn’t much of an ‘escape’ really.

The night went on, then the signal on our phones went too. We were told later that the transmitter that serves the area has a generator, but one that only works for a short time after power is cut. No power, no phones, no roads out.

Reluctantly we went to bed (there wasn’t much else to do) but we knew we were all hyped up on a combination of fear and adrenaline. None of us slept. Just as I was nodding off to sleep the siren rang out. We jumped out of bed (we had all slept in our clothes) and ran out preparing to evacuate. Outside most of the campsite had done the same. The owner ran over and explained it was a false alarm. We went back to bed even more tired and scared than before.

The next 24 hours were strange. We were cut off from the outside world. Not in immediate danger, but then not really ‘safe’ either. We would take regular trips to sit in the car and listen to ABC news bulletins. Some people discovered that if you drove to a nearby hill you could get one-bar on your phone from the transmitter in nearby Orbost. We became acquainted with the emergency room at the fire station which served the kids pasta and had a working TV (from a generator).

The radio was full of warnings, callers told about horrific incidents. One lady reported how her isolated township had all fled to the sea and she had stood knee deep in the sea watching her house burn. It was terrifying. Livestock was perishing and the news of the first deaths started coming through. Most news reports talked about Malacoota an area to the east of where we were (and somewhere I’d looked at visiting) where the town had become completely cut off by fire and 4,000 people (3,000 holiday makers, 1,000 locals) were stranded.

The fires spread quickly, joining in places to become super-fires, jumping both roads and rivers. You always think you understand the speed which fire travels but without witnessing it, I think you always underestimate it. The East Gippsland area is heavily wooded and people showed me photos of the fires ‘crowning’ – burning above the canopies. To give that some sense of scale, some gum trees can grow over 300 feet tall.

I also learnt that in a bushfire trees by roads (unsurprisingly) fall onto the road. Often to then pass through the roads emergency services literally have to cut themselves in and then often when they are leaving have to cut themselves out from fresh trees that have fallen behind them. It's a dangerous time for them, and firefighters have died from falling trees.

All roads both in and out of Marlo and Orbost were closed.

The area around Marlo is heavily wooded and we knew we were at risk. Fortunately, we could also reach Orbost which had a supermarket. I drove there with the kids but of course there was no power. The supermarket was open and people were busily buying rations. I bought about 30 cans of beans, spaghetti, soup and long-life milk. We really had no idea how long we’d be cut off from the outside world for. The supermarket had a generator so there were some lights, but it was still akin to a disaster movie. The kids and I joked about how long in was it acceptable before turning to cannibalism.

On Tuesday night we tuned into the radio and the head of the incident centre said that the Princess Highway would be opened on Wednesday for a limited (10am-12pm) window to allow people to leave. The opening was only westbound which served the vast number of holiday makers who travel there from Melbourne. Where we had come from (the north) was now engulfed in fire and the east (where we could also have ‘escaped’ to the NSW coast was also heavily affected and the road closed in that direction as well).

I agonised over leaving. The drive to Marlo had taken four hours, the drive home if we took it, would take 14 as we’d have to go via Melbourne. I’m a dreadful procrastinator. We sat in smoke and without power or phone reception and pondered our next move. Would the road to the east open up the next day, or maybe not for weeks, there was no way of knowing. My daughter told me she just wanted to go. It was the most sensible and pragmatic choice - made by a twelve year old.

Just before the Highway opened, I visited the fire station again. I chatted to a police woman and her colleague. They didn’t have much more information than we did (they said they relied on the ABC as well). I told her my issue. The police woman looked me in the eye and said, ‘get out while you can still get out’. We immediately ran back to the car and threw everything into it.

Our drive back home was an adventure to say the least. Our neighbours in the campsite offered to put us up in Melbourne - it was so so kind given that we didn’t really know them and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. So we over-nighted in Melbourne and then spent the following day driving back to Canberra. Albury and Gundagai along our route were also massively smoke affected as there were also huge fires affecting that area and there were other refugees like us escaping the area.

We didn’t reach Canberra until around 9.30pm. We reached a city which, while we haven’t had fires is engulfed in smoke that has reached the city from fires burning to the south and east. The city has sold out of smoke masks.

So, I’m left with a mass of emotions. I feel stupid as I didn’t leave when we were first warned. I feel guilty that I put the kids through such an emotionally terrifying episode. I feel grateful that we got away and feel so sad for the people still stuck in Malacoota who are now being rescued by the navy and the army, by sea and air. The road is impassable. I think if we had stayed we would have been stuck for a long time and who knows what this weekend (which is forecast to be a 'peak' danger period will bring). Power has still not returned to the area.

People have lost their lives and others have lost their livelihoods.

Canberra, the city I've called home for ten years is also a fairly unpleasant place at the moment. I’ve always taken fresh-air for granted(!), and the city is famed for its beautiful blue skies, but it’s been blanketed in smoke for weeks now. My clothes all smell of smoke and if I wash them, I dry them outside in the smoke filled air.

Also are the bushfires Australia’s new ‘norm’? I guess we won’t know the answer to that for some time, but with climate change the main contributor it’s an easy conclusion to jump to.

Being employed by the government I have to remain impartial in my views, but it’s disappointing that in April last year our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison refused to meet with no less than 23 former fire chiefs who had encouraged him to bring in more plane water-bombers. Instead the government chose to spend 250 million on a Prime Ministerial jet which the PM named after his favourite rugby league side.

Also, while being impartial it’s difficult to judge positively the fact that Morrison went on holiday to Hawaii just as the bush-fire emergency was just starting to take hold. Not a good look.

When Morrison finally did appear (at fire-hit Cobago where two residents have died) he was heckled on arrival. One resident refused to shake his hand and another, who Morrison suggested was ‘tired’ was actually angry about the fact that their house had burnt down. Like his Hawaiian holiday the Cobago trip was an unmitigated PR disaster.

Australia’s economy relies on both digging up and burning fossil fuel. We are a country rich in resources but with a government who is fixated on old methods of power generation rather than exploring other alternatives (with a giant inland area that is getting increasingly hotter we surely should have far more investment in solar for example?).

News of communities and their personal experiences are also gradually emerging. 100 people sheltered in a school in Caan river, lives lost as well as houses, livestock and the huge natural disaster affecting wildlife. It will probably take years before the area recovers and only then if fires don’t become a regular occurrence.

Morrison has stated that the fires are not political, but leading a government so opposed to the science of climate change and so convinced that the way forward is to continue to dig up and sell and burn coal it’s hard to make sense of what he’s saying. As a practising evangelical Christian, he’s also previously sent thoughts and prayers to those affected by bush fires. The government are committed to returning the country's budget to a positive figure, opening the cheque book to help fire-hit communities doesn't fit that narrative.

Meanwhile East Gippsland and much of the NSW coast continues to burn. There’s rain forecast in the area for next week which I really hope transpires. In some isolated communities the only tactic to fight the fires is to allow them to burn themselves out, but that sometimes takes weeks and devastates huge areas of the country.

I hope one day the three of us can return to Marlo and enjoy the holiday we were so looking forward to and I hope that the huge scars that are left by these fires, and they will be huge, lead to a change of direction in terms of economic policy. Unfortunately it will take more than thoughts and prayers for that to happen.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Dreamworks Exhibition - National Museum of Australia

There's a Dreamworks exhibition at the NMA at the moment - it focuses on the incredible cartoons from the company - they're responsible for everything from Shrek through to Kungfu Panda and How to Train your Dragon.

It was really interesting learning about the art and incredible skill and patience that goes into making an animated cartoon. Throughout the exhibition you had the opportunity to look at scenes and 'tweak' it by changing the lighting or sound and there was a good array of models that are sometimes fashioned so that artists working on a computer can accurately measure elements (arms, legs etc) of a character.

At the end of the exhibition was a really good animators room where you could put together simple drawings of your own - such as this one which I drew! I think I'm a long way from being called in by DreamWorks though unfortunately.

Garlic progressing well

I planted garlic over winter. Canberra's a good climate for garlic as the temperatures sometimes drop below freezing. It's been a dry winter though and a bit more rain may have helped. It was also the first year I've tried elephant/Russian garlic (the photo is of just standard garlic) and that's grown really well too.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Acidification of the Oceans

There's a lot of press about climate change and global warming but as Audrey looked into acidification of the oceans I think this is actually one of the major issues that nobody is really discussing in the media. It is significant and can also be evidenced. Audrey explains more in this video she shot for school...

Monday, October 7, 2019

Japanese mini-food

We brought several packs of 'mini food' back with us from our trip to Japan. It's essentially mini food you can fashion out of confectionery using tiny moulds, There's hundreds of videos on YouTube and some people have gone to extreme lengths - even making miniature kitchens to make the miniature food in!

Two of our kits made noodle soup, sushi and dumplings. It was actually loads of fun and of course the kids loved eating the resulting food!