Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Drive to Kakadu -Obligatory Background Check

Before we relocate to Chile, we are taking a week's  holiday driving a great big equilateral triangle (For a given definition of triangle, and an even looser definition of equilateral) through Australia's Top End.   

Our first night in Darwin was rather disturbed. Our room turned out to contain a rather large population of cockroaches (all sizes), which seemed intent on bringing the party outside our window inside onto our bedside ledges - and bathroom - and into the mini-fridge, where, in desperation, we'd stashed our toothbrushes. 
            Next door to our hotel was a band with a live singer who was in a worse state, alcoholically speaking, than his parishioners and didn't seem to remember what he was singing past the first bridge. Mr Tabubil and I lay awake till halfway until morning, giggling helplessly.  With pillows over our ears.
            In the morning - we drove south to Kakadu. We had an enormous van; someone sensible (may heaven bless them forever and ever and ever) at the car rental agency had looked at the manifest - five adults and a baby - and made the appropriate deductions and given us a very large upgrade.  It's extraordinary - the amount of stuff that comes along with a baby seems to be inversely and exponentially proportion to the baby's mass.  The sproglet being 14 months old at present, her accouterments weighted approximately four metric tons. And it all fitted into the car boot (the car trunk, for Americans). Don't ask us about our gas mileage.
            Fully laden and riding rather low on the axles, we sailed out of Darwin.  Our car was, in theory, good for 130 on the highways, and fortunately the highways were mostly on the flat.
            Near the city there were mango plantations out to the horizon that make us all fratchety with temptation (it wasn't the season for ripe mangos, and the trackless rows of trees and their heavy mango smell were a source of terrible torment in our mango-less state).Further south, the land is mostly flat - baked red earth, pandanus palms, and termite mounds like cathedrals in Barcelona, with towers and buttresses all tall and accretive like the drip-castles you make with wet sand on a beach , if you made drip-castles six meters tall and baked them in an oven the size of a continent.  It was almost eerie - this flat land: trackless, towered, and the earth vacant between the trees  - no grass, no bushes, no scars.  Earlier in the dry, when the grass had still been faintly green, the bush was fired in small, localized burns - patch burning - to reduce the chance of serious bushfires later in the dry season.  After 40000 years of human management, many plant species now require the heat of fire to propagate, but right now, those plants were still charred seeds, and the ground was empty.

A history lesson:
             One of the first things the white Australian settlers had done during the great Northern Land Grab of the late 19th century was to put a stop to the burns. 
            The consequences were impressive - and eventually, the white powers were forced to concede that the aboriginal people of the great northern Terra Nullius might have had a point.
            They stopped the burns, but before the land had had a change to even begin regenerating, the same clever clogs brought in herds of Asian buffalo. The buffalo immediately went feral, stomping their way through the natural levees in the wetlands that separated the salt water from the freshwater and doing their level best to destroy any balance in the wetlands. At long last, during the 1990s, buffalo numbers were reduced significantly during a Tuberculosis eradication program, and artificial levees were erected to control the salt water flooding into the freshwater areas.  So on that front, at least, the Top End is doing faintly better.
            That's the modern history of Australia for you- a Terra Nullius that turns out to be not so nul - and managed by colonial types who paired wishful thinking and cognitive blindness with silly executive decisions. The latest scourge  in the north is the toxic Cane Toad. After it had wreaked ecological havoc in the Hawaiian Islands, and well into the sensible modern era of preliminary research studies, in 1935, some bright government sparks brought it over here to control pests in the Queensland sugarcane fields. Natural predators were abundant, Australia was told. We won't have the problems that Hawaii had.  Unfortunately, the study failed to connect a few important dots and didn't take into account that while the cane toads are day-creatures, their putative 'native predators' are all nocturnal.  On the Venn diagram of predator-prey relationships, the two groups never meet.
            Today cane toads multiply like rabbits and poison every day-time creature that does try and eat them and the government declares state-wide states of emergency as the toads work their way across the continent. All hail 20th century agricultural management!

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