Thursday, September 29, 2011

On Coal and Cane

Loading Coal
After Roma I flew further north and to the coast, to Mackay  for two more weeks , right by The Great Barrier Reef,  Hamilton Island and the Witsunday Islands and fabulous sailing  grounds. However, unlike Roma I did actually work every day and all day in Mackay which is a much bigger centre. I was on call on the weekend I was there as well so didnt get an opportunity outside work hours to do much more than read about the history of the area in the local Tourist Information Centre. The City is surrounded by vast fields of sugar-cane, and I was informed that originally the cane cutters were imported "South Sea Islanders" a description I found curious, as it effectively homogenised and de-identified these people who no doubt in times past were an exploited work force. No body I asked was very sure where exactly they had come from, but in any case those days are long gone, huge harvesters now replacing them. I heard on the radio that there is a group trying to maintain the traditional cane harveting skills with annual competitions, but each year there seem to be fewer and fewer entrants. To make matters worse the Committe members are arguing with each other about how the Comp shold be run so it doesnt look like traditional cane cutting will be seen for much longer.

The other mainstay of the Mackay economy is coal. Coming in to land we flew over a conveyor pehaps a kilometre long stretching out into the sea, filling two ships while a dozen more were anchored off the coast waiting their turn . The coal mines were 40 or more kilometres inland, and obviously employ lots of young men as it seemed every second antenatal patient I saw in Clinic had a husband employed out there.

One other excellent thing I did in Mackay was buy an Amazon Kindle e-reader. It downloads books from Cyberspace and many of them you can get for free. I can now take hundreds of books with me, including medical texts which are usually  too heavy to lug round.

From Mackay I went back to New South Wales and worked in Bathurst for three days, and now I am packing for Ethiopia.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Interesting Place, Roma

I rang the Locum Agency on my last morning in Swan Hill and was told I hadnt been forgotten but there was nothing on the books right then, so I had another coffee and started to read the paper, wondering where I should go to hang out waiting for work - being homeless can be a drag sometimes! - Melbourne or Sydney?A few minutes later I was still on the front page when the phone rang -  it was Amber from the Locum Agency saying they had just been called from Roma in Queensland and they needed someone for two weeks, starting Monday! I hadn't worked in Roma before, or in fact anywhere else in Queensland but found out that its 600 km inland from Brisbane. So I drove back to Melbourne, went out to dinnner that night and lunch the next day with Rankine,  the next day flew to Sydney and the day after that to Roma .

Sonny Bill Williams
I also found time to see a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed - Jane Eyre - and watched live the Tri Nations match between the All Blacks and Springbox - which I did not enjoy as the All Blacks somewhat unexpectedly lost. I took consolation from the fact that the All Blacks scored a try but the Springbox didnt - all their points were from Penalties and a drop goal.

On the small propellor driven plane that took me to Roma I found myself seated beside a genuine queensland outback sheep farmer. He had a weather beaten face and thick leathery fingers with traces of dirt under his fingernails, and a broad queensland drawl. He was really friendly and talkative and  he turned out to be anything but typical, being the owner of a huge merino stud farm with its own website - and a sophisticated system of tracking the lineage of every sheep. He explained that after many years of careful selection and cross breeding, he now had a flock of "mules free" sheep - that is to say merinos with quite fine wool (18 micron for anyone whose interested - and that is pretty fine) and more importantly a wool  and wrinkle free border of skin round the bum end of the sheep. Normally this part of the  merino sheep is wrinkly and often wet and contaminated, and therefore the usual site for "fly strike", wherein a stinking seething and growing mass of maggots and rotting flesh develops and causes a lingering death of the poor sheep. Mulesing was a  controversial but effective way of protecting sheep from fly strike by slicing this area of wrinkled skin off young lambs in cold blood. Animal rights groups have long objected to mulesing, for obvious reasons, but this guy seems to have solved the problem with his "mules free" breed.  He was such a nice guy and I wasnt surprised to discover that a few months ago he had been awarded an OAM (Order of Australia Medal) for his services to the wool industry.

Roma however isnt famous for sheep but for cattle - they have the countries biggest cattle saleyards and twice a week auction off several thousand. One morning when work was quiet I went down and watched the action - cattle in pens auctioned off rapid fire then moved through to be weighed, 20 or more at a time, the price paid per kilo flashed up on a big board. Men and women on horseback then hurried them through to other pens, from where they were loaded into cattle trucks and shipped out once money had changed hands.

Roma, I also learned is currently in the midst of a boom because vast reservoirs of coal seam Gas have been located there. As an energy soource Coal seam Gas is in big demand now that technologies have been developed to extract it, because it is a much "cleaner" source of energy than coal. I read that Australian CSG reserves are so large they could supply all the energy needs of Sydney (4.5million people) for 1000 years - though hopefully well before then Solar and other renewable sources of energy will be supplying all our energy needs. In the meantime however there is controversy about the extent to which the method used to extract CSG  - called "fracking" -  threaten the massive underground water reserves and aquifers, but out west only "lunatic greenies" and die hard supporters of the "mongrel" Labour government - as I heard it described - would be brave enough to mention it.

In rich  cropping  country elsewhere in Queensland landowners have the opposite view and are aggresively trying to ward off any advances from mining companies so it was a bit creepy to see a large compound full of heavy machinery and  huge trucks with "Haliburton" emblazoned on their sides. (Haliburton,  - whose CEO was Dick Cheney until he was asked by George Bush to be his vicepresident - is a massive multinational energy and construction company that made billions after Bush invaded Iraq, and they also built the prison at Guantanamo Bay. ) Not that I am casting aspersions! However  I did also find out that another giant energy company is replacing the Tin Shed and gravel car-park that is the current Roma Airport with a flash new modern building with all the Bells and Whistles. And this notice was stuck on the front door to my accomodation:

I guess I just had too much spare time at Roma!