Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Arriving at the opal capital of the world: Lightning Ridge

Woke this morning to find the caravan covered with jacaranda petals . Last night, Major and Katie slept in the caravan with us, while Del and Stego stayed in the ute. Although Major is 50 kg and only 16 months old, he has a remarkable capacity to stay still and actively seeks out confined spaces with a hard floor. Consequently, life in a small caravan suits him well, whereas Del prefers more personal space and a softer bed. Katie is on Clomicalm medication as travel stresses her a little, especially at night. And us? Well, we need to remember where we put things and get used to limited space (both in the caravan and the ute) without resorting to irritation, which we manage -- most of the time! As the days slip by though, travelling south is changing from tolerable to more pleasurable. With a menagerie on board our days are punctuated by dog walks, the best being at Dirranbandi along the banks of the Balonne River which runs full and upside down. Coffee at Hebel rated 10 out of 10, then into New South Wales where we lost an hour. Onto Lightning Ridge -- the opal capital of the world where torrential rain has left the country oozing mud and water -- and croaking with countless frogs and trilling crickets.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

St George, Mitchell Road suggests a land of drought and flooding rains

The contrast between now and the last year of the drought (a few years ago) is incredible, especially on the Mitchell to St George Road. The drought saw the landscape almost completely devoid of grasses and herbage, with trees on their "last legs". Splattered with the bodies of 'roos, the road attracted feral pigs and wedge-tailed eagles to feast on the carcasses that littered the bitumen. It was not a pretty sight.

Now -- at the end of November 2010 -- knee-high, emerald-green grasses clothe the soil, and trees hang heavy with new foliage. The narrow black bitumen road snakes its way south, with roadside markers suggestive of floods, and the earth, in places, such a vivid orange-red colour, you 'd think someone had painted it. This is truly outback Australia; this is a landscape I'm reluctant to leave..

I feel sad to be leaving Mitchell and the Maranoa

Ever since arriving in Mitchell in the first week of May I've felt no desire to cross the bridge into the outside world. Mitchell has held everything I needed; everything I desired. Now, at the end of November we are leaving our outback home; migrating south for the summer. Like migratory birds there is a pull to 'fly' south to our island -- Phillip Island -- but there is also a sadness to be leaving our friends, the warmth of the land and the rhythms of the mighty river, the Maranoa.

On another subject, the mystery of the hairy black caterpillars is solved. They are white cedar caterpillars that spin a cocoon and emerge as a fairly nondescript pale fawn moth. They have evolved to eat (almost exclusively) the leaves of white cedar trees and are considered a pest because firstly, people like white cedars, and secondly, these caterpillars tend to congregate in large numbers and strip away all the leaves, leaving behind a skeletal trunk and branches.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Dancers, gymnasts and mice dance in Mitchell's Shire Hall

Three nights this past week have seen us seated at the Mitchell Shire Hall; the first two nights were school break-ups and last night, a dance concert. The 'Magic Toy Shop' was a fun concert with lively, colourful dances and gymnastic displays involving children aged five years to mature age, and all body shapes. The dancers and gymnasts were encouraged by an enthusiastic crowd with lots of clapping and cheering -- and good-natured laughter whenever there was an obvious slip-up.
This small outback community is rich in artistic and musical talent and, at present, has a mouse plague as well. One precocious mouse scampered right across the hall, running beneath chairs and between the feet of people seated in the audience. It actually ran between my sandals !

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Crocker's hilltop oasis at Muckadilla

A gnarled pepperina tree in Jennifer Crocker's hilltop garden at Muckadilla (east of Mitchell) invites children to peep inside crusty hollows and crevices. Miniature fairies, elves, mermaids and toadstools nestle in cavities, ready to take the viewer (young or old) into their own imaginary wonderland.
A bank of bottle trees (planted in 1927) form an impressive edge to the large garden surrounding the Crocker homestead. With expansive views across downs country in all directions, and a garden fluttering with butterflies, this is the sort of place I can imagine myself happily living in. Here is a place that feels truly centred. Thank you Jennifer and Malcolm for welcoming us to your lovely home.

Mitchell State School's Celebration Night

An enthusiastic crowd of parents, grandparents and guests gathered together at the Mitchell Shire Hall to support the teachers and children of Mitchell State School for their end-of-year Celebration Evening. Children from Prep to Year 10 (colourfully dressed in uniforms of navy, gold, white and maroon) entertained the gathering with poetry, singing, plays, marimbas, the band and Kaitlyn Brindley's moving euphonium solo performance.
The Year 10 students looked stunning in evening dress. Hannah Beitz in particular played a leading role throughout the evening and was awarded the highest certificates for academic excellence, commitment and effort. These fine young people are leaving their home town of Mitchell for boarding schools in Toowoomba, and secondary colleges in Roma. They leave the strong community of Mitchell, knowing they have a huge bank of support should they ever need it. As they venture over the bridge and into the big wide world beyond the Maranoa, we wish them all the very best for the future.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

St Patrick's School in Mitchell: Year 7 Graduation

Last night, St Patrick's School in Mitchell held their Year 7 Graduation Night with the theme "I am the Vine -- You are the Branches". Four Year 7 students (Charlie Brumpton, Sarah Cicero, Ryleigh Currie and Emily Henry" stood up the front of Mitchell's large Shire Hall to receive their certificates.

These fine young people -- on the eve of their transition from this small local school to large boarding schools in Toowoomba, and St John's in Roma -- received an enthusiastic applause from the crowd of teachers, parents, grandparents and other interested people who'd gathered together to celebrate the completion of the school year and to wish these 4 special students success, good health and happiness in the years ahead.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Our last week in Mitchell is a busy one

With cockroaches, clothes moths, mice, dust and mould in mind, this last week of our timeslot in Mitchell, Queensland, seems to be one of almost continual clothes washing, packing and cleaning. I've emptied the linen cupboard and packed the contents into two large suitcases because the cupboard cannot be sealed against pests. Likewise some of our clothes. Bedding cannot be left on beds, it has to be bundled up, wrapped in sheets and placed on top of tables -- along with pillows and cushions.
The contents of the pantry need to be either transferred to the caravan or the foods sealed in tin, stainless steel or glass containers. Computers we take with us as well as several boxes of books and research notes. Outside, Doug is busy cutting grass, mulching garden beds and putting a dripper system on 60 or so young trees he's planted. Add to that a full social calendar and its a busy week!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Caterpillars stripping white cedar trees

Does anyone know what type of butterfly lays the eggs that hatch into caterpillars that strip the leaves off white cedar trees? The caterpillars are dark in colour and furry. They swarm towards white cedars, and in the process become trapped in verandas and around doorways.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Google doesn't know about oolines

If you type in the word oolines, Google fails to recognize it as the rare Gondwanan tree Cadellia pentastylis, but Heather Bowen knows all about oolines and loves birds, plants -- and children. Her large garden reflects her values and interests. There is nothing fussy; it's relaxed and rambling -- rich in birdlife and butterflies.

I first heard about Heather in relation to her grove of 20 or so ooline trees, grown by her from seed she gathered from trees growing in the hills on the cattle property she owns in partnership with her husband, Bob. These rare Gondwanan trees grow in isolated pockets in southwest Queensland and north-west New South Wales. Oolines are difficult to grow from seed -- we know because Doug has tried with only limited success. Five of the smallest of Doug's ooline trees I've put in a tiny pot and plan to bonsai them -- providing they survive, of course.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mitchell gives blokes another chance

The community of Mitchell welcomes a Work Program run by Queensland Corrective Services that gives low-risk prisoners work on various community projects around Mitchell, such as cutting the grass along the river, in the Showgrounds and at the cemetery; developing the historical museum; and building raised garden beds at the Retirement Village.

Last night I e-mailed Double Life to my editor who lives in Hobart, Tasmania and who will do the final work on the manuscript. The book is 120,000 words in length, and divided into 14 chapters. So another phase in the process has begun. Late this afternoon our young neighbours Richard and Debbie called in for a cup of tea. They are like a breath of fresh air and we always enjoy a good conversation with plenty of laughter. Who could ask for more?

Friday, November 19, 2010

What is your passion?

It doesn't matter what your passion is, as long as you have one. Dogs, horses, writing, photography, art, old cars or motorcycles, antique furniture -- -- -- the possibilities are endless. Today, at the Mitchell Showgrounds, I met a 46 year old racehorse trainer, Mark, along with his jockey and his two thoroughbreds that will race tomorrow at Roma. Mark was exercising his horses after transporting them from Longreach. Never before have I seen horses with such magnificent muscle and gloss.

"My passion is horses," Mark told me, "I spray paint to support my wife and two boys, but my heart is with my horses -- -- -- and my wife is allergic to horses, would you believe?"

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mitchell's flying foxes and creamy blossoms

The cadaghi (Corymbia torelliana) growing beside our house is so laden with blossoms that its branches are sagging under the weight. At this very minute, 20 or so flying foxes are fluttering about in the branches, squabbling and swinging from branch to branch like monkeys. They are feasting on the cream blossoms which are bursting out of their tight little caps, releasing a rich mix of nectar, pollen and scent.

Fortunately the flying foxes arrive while there is still sufficient light to bring them closer using binoculars. You can see their translucent wing membranes and the claws on their first two fingers that they use to swing from branch to branch. What amazing creatures!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bulbous bottle trees

With eyes focused on the structure of a particularly quaint bottle tree but minds meandering across a wide range of topics, my friend Jo and I spent the morning sketching a bottle tree growing beside the road in Mitchell. Although we both drew the same bulbous tree, each of us a created different interpretation. But that's what art is all about, isn't it; that and conversation.

My two bonsai bottle trees are growing well and seem to like their position on a sunny windowsill in our kitchen. I'll take them back to Phillip Island for the summer months and hope it won't be too cold for them. It will be interesting to see how they grow, and whether or not they develop bulbous trunks as miniatures.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

There's a mouse plague in Mitchell

Mice are out and about in Mitchell, causing people a lot of stress and cats to wear a perpetual smile. Huge consignments of mouse traps at the hardware disappear within a day. In 12 hours, a neighbour caught 76 mice in 12 traps. Last year, Del was taught how to catch mice by our neighbour's Jack Russell terrier; and this year Del has passed on the tricks of the trade to our younger shepherd, Major. Del and Major hunt mice with Major flushing out and Del grabbing, crunching -- and then spitting out. Our neighbour had an electrician investigate her stove, only to discover 8 dead mice in amongst the electrics. In this part of outback Queensland a mouse plague usually follows a year of above-average rainfall, so people are slow to complain. Yet the smell they leave in their droppings is hard to ignore, especially when they venture into food, linen and clothes cupboards. Squeezing through impossibly tiny holes they gain entry and the only solution seems to be an indoor cat, which we have. By her very presence, Katie Siamese is a deterrent, but I think mice have more to fear from our shepherds.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Celebrating my 100th blog

For 100 days in a row I have written this blog! Some days I've had to push myself to keep the daily blog habit, but most of the time it's been a pleasure to share my love of the outback. Over the years, we've lived and worked in 10 different places located throughout country Victoria and Tasmania, but never before have we experienced such a warm welcoming community as that of Mitchell and surrounds.

This outback community is rich in art, culture and a love of gardens, which may come as a surprise to many people from "away". Frogs, butterflies and flying foxes are here in abundance, due mainly to lack of pollution. At night, the large dome of outback sky is a blaze of stars -- no light pollution out here. Living in Mitchell has connected me to a strand of grassroots culture and mateship that I imagined to be a thing of the past. It is, however, alive and well in Mitchell.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Angel Flight Art Auction in Mitchell

Over 100 pieces of art were auctioned at the Maranoa Gallery last night, to raise money for Angel Flight. Throughout the auction -- and at regular intervals -- a green tree frog added his bids, in deep booms.
Although the event competed with a large local wedding, a dinner and a marimba festival in Maleny, an enthusiastic and friendly crowd of around 80 people gathered together to support Nichole Harper and Sharlene Keating in making this event a success.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Finishing a book, a bit of a letdown

After spending three years writing a book about our double life -- and pouring my heart and soul into it -- you'd think I'd be feeling happy. But I'm not! It's as if I've lost something precious, and I have in a way. So, today I've been sorting through piles of drafts and files of information, and doing a lot of throwing out. This is always a risky process, because what if I need what I've thrown out? But you can't keep everything.

Meanwhile, the flower buds of a eucalypt growing close to our house have begun to open and last night the flying foxes were there to drink of the nectar.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hearing where flowers bloom

Usually it's our eyesight that alerts us to where blossoms are at their most abundant around Mitchell and along the meandering course of the Maranoa River. At this time of the year, however, it's our ears that alert us to the blossoms eaten by noisy friar birds and flying foxes.

And what a lot of noisy excitement there is in the treetops and how fortunate we are to have these blossom nomads visit during November in particular.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Teaching traditional skills to children at Mitchell State School

Respected Aboriginal elder Irene Ryder sat in dappled shade, her fingers busy with a few handfuls of glossy bimble box leaves and twigs that she was weaving together to create a hat.

Bimble box leaves (Eucalyptus populnea, also known as a poplar box) are shiny and rounded, therefore the finished hat looked distinctive and would definitely serve to protect the head from rain and also from the heat of the summer sun. Children at Mitchell State School are privileged to have Aunty Irene come to their school to teach them Gunggari language and traditional skills.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bimble box, bluebells and bush medicine in Mitchell

Bimble box and bluebells border the soft sandy track leading from the Warrego Highway to Mitchell's Yumba, the former home of the Aboriginal population living in and around Mitchell. Today this special place came alive as a group of women created soaps, each containing a bush medicine picked the previous day.

Sandalwood with thick, leathery, dull green leaves; emu bush with long thin leaves; wild orange with stiff, oval, dull green leaves; wait-a-while with narrow green leaves arranged along zigzag stems; and gumbi gumbi with shiny dark green leaves with pale undersides -- all these were finely chopped as we sat around a long table chatting easily. Each bush medicine was added to a hot soap base and beeswax mixture then poured into plastic moulds where they were left to set. When cool, the individual soaps dropped out easily and were wrapped in clear cellophane and tied with a ribbon; a different colour for each bush medicine. The oils from these indigenous plants are known to cure a wide variety of skin complaints.

Mixing the generations at Mitchell State School

Grandparents and interested older people were invited to Mitchell State School to see the children at work and at play. Times have changed. Education today is vastly improved to that dished up to us in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The children at Mitchell State School are well behaved and have a team of excellent teachers committed to giving each and every child a well-rounded education and a firm base of literacy skills.

A new moon stamps the western sky. Against the golden glow of sunset thousands of flying foxes flap and swoop as they make their way towards the flowering eucalypts and silky oaks around Mitchell. They are a welcome presence and remind me of the mutton birds that flock to the Bass Strait islands at sundown.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Mitchell's new swimming complex

Although the Maranoa River loops around the township of Mitchell, its water is muddy and studded with floating logs. It is not suitable for children to swim in, although some do, of course. Therefore, the construction of a new six lane 25 m swimming pool with renovated buildings and landscaping is of huge importance to people living on properties as well as those living in the township of Mitchell.

Located alongside the Great Artesian Spa, the new pool and surrounds are almost complete, along with a children's zero depth aquatic playground with water spouts and sprays. An enormous orange ball that fills with water then tips up and spills out huge quantities of water look incredibly good fun for kids.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dancers perform to an enthusiastic crowd at Mitchell

The close bond between Jodie Noon and her students was clear to see at the annual Dance West Concert held at the Mitchell Shire Hall last night. Jodie is the sort of teacher who coaxes perfection from her eager bright-eyed girls -- and her students rewarded her passion and efforts with a performance to be proud of.
Twenty short dances -- with a supper interval -- entertained the responsive crowd of around 300 plus people.. For a small country town this is an amazing turn-out! Two of the girls are off to boarding school next year, so a tearful farewell at the conclusion of the concert brought home, yet again, the close bond between these lovely dancers and their teacher. Congratulations for an amazing night that combined stunning costumes with music and dance.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Bottle trees are the solar heaters of the outback

Kangaroos know that to huddle close to bottle trees on a cold winter's night provides welcome warmth. Early pioneers also knew this simple truth; especially seeking those trees hollowed out by termites.
The sun shines brightly throughout winter in outback Queensland, the warmth of which penetrates the large bulbous trunks of bottle trees, there to be stored in the fibrous material
that contains pockets of air and water. This massive store of solar heat radiates back out of the bottle tree trunk during nights when the temperature frequently drops below zero.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mutton birds dying on Phillip Island

Our friend Jeanette from Phillip Island told me on the phone last night that lots of dead mutton birds are being washed up on beaches, all around the island. Apparently the birds arrived back from the Bering Sea in September, in light condition, and haven't found sufficient food (krill) in the waters around Phillip Island to put on weight.

Add to that, a series of very severe storms and the mutton birds are dying. This is the time of year when they would normally be mating, with their large single egg laid around November 25. There will be fewer chicks this year and serious concerns about the long-term future of the birds. Will climate change mean less krill for the mutton birds to eat both in the Bering Sea and Bass Strait? If so, the future of mutton birds (and all the other creatures dependent on krill) is bleak.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

If flying foxes were called flying possums

If flying foxes were called flying possums I believe their image would be greatly improved, and this would please me. Every evening I watch as thousands fly overhead, heading for eucalypts in full blossom.

Hundreds land in the trees around our house in Mitchell, swinging in the branches and chattering loudly. With their cute little faces, pricked ears and furred bodies it's amazing that they can fly as well as birds, but they can. Because flying foxes cover such vast distances, they play a vital role in the pollination of our forests. So long live flying foxes!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Angel Flight Gala Auction in Mitchell

An Out of the Blue Art Exhibition and Gala Charity Auction is creating a lot of interest and activity. Mitchell artists Sharlene Keating and Nicole Harper thought of the idea and organised the event to be held at the Maranoa Gallery on November 13. All proceeds will be donated to Angel Flight, a charity funded by private donations that coordinates free non-emergency flights for financially and medically needy people travelling to or from medical facilities anywhere in Australia -- this is not an alternative to the Flying Doctor Service, rather a support service.
Anyone can submit something, you don't have to be a professional artist. Consequently, people are busy creating artworks, photography, crafts, sculptures, sewing, jewellery and many other items using any medium. How much money can we raise? That's the main aim of this fantastic event with its monster auction, live music, guest speaker, dinner and bar. Congratulations Nicole and Sharlene on a great idea that the people of Mitchell and surrounds are throwing all their energies and creativity into making a huge success!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Melbourne Cup in Mitchell, Outback Queensland

Way out in "the back of beyond" the Melbourne Cup is still an important event . In fact, in Outback Queensland dressing up for the Melbourne Cup is a sport itself. Poppy's Boutique in the main street of Mitchell offers a wide range of glamorous hats, outfits, shoes and other accessories. Even though our population is only around 900 people, we have it all in Mitchell.

There is no need for anyone to go shopping anywhere else because if you can't get it at Poppy's Boutique all you need do is cross over the road and have a look in Samios, where Therese will help you choose an outfit that looks top-of-the-line but more rural in style.