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Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Great North Head Calamity



A view of the fall from an area now off-limits.
Philosophers who argue about trees falling in a forest where nobody hears them fall, now have a new conundrum, this one involving a rock falling and nobody hearing it.

At some point, one Wednesday in August 2016, some rock came down off the cliff, between the Hole in the Wall track and Fairfax Lookout. Perhaps somebody heard a bang, or two bangs, but that was it. Nobody seems to be sure about anything, and I don't report rumours, even if I react to them.


I picked up a rumour on the web, and hurried off to gather photographs. I was just in time, because the panic-merchants were already reacting wildly, fearing that Armageddon was upon us, we were all doomed, all of those things that flailing mismanagers love to shout to make sure that everybody else starts to panic. (This is a cunning ploy to hide the fact that they started to panic first.)

Quite a few weeks later, the best access points were still blocked off. The shots above came from those two points, because I beat the authorities to it, assessed the safety, and went in to record an unusual event.

The panic was based on the squeal that “the whole cliff might come down”. It will, one day, but not right now, and they blocked off unrelated bits of coast in any case.

I gave up a promising career as a management consultant in 1990 to avoid dealing with flailing knee-jerk managers like these. To manage risks, you need to understand the facts and the principles.

Rocks are peculiar solids, filled with flaws, planes of weakness called joints, and geologists have a bit of trouble accounting for them. The best explanation is that when the sediment becoming rock is buried deep enough to become rock, it is under pressure, and later, as it rises to the surface when erosion uncovers it, the rock expands and planes of weakness develop.
All rocks have joints in them, so there is something missing in that explanation. Anyhow, joints are there, and rock falls off when a joint is sufficiently undermined. The joints shape our cliffs, keeping them vertical.

Hawkesbury sandstone usually has two sets of joints, more or less at right angles to each other. You could write a book about them, and I'm doing two right now, one for young people, the other for adults).

Some of the sandstone beds are less resistant to weathering, the way that rocks “rot”, some of the beds in the sandstone are more like shale, and erode out, undercutting the beds above. 

Inner North Head has two clear undercuts, as you can see more clearly in the composite shot below. When the undercutting goes right under a joint, the situation is right for a block to fall, and that is what happened.







It wasn’t the whole cliff, just a block weighing perhaps 600 tons (my first, and wildly inaccurate  guesstimate): not nice to have land on you, but not Armageddon, either.

My neighbour Geoff Lambert suspected that it was bigger, and he did the research, using aerial photos, and came up with this:

"It was much bigger than I imagined. The surface area of the rock that fell was about 950m2 and the height (if no overhang), was an average of 33m. Thus a volume of 31000m3 and, at an assumed specific gravity of 2.5, a mass of about 75,000 tonnes."
That's a bit more impressive, but still not a record. The last time we saw a fall like that was in January 1931, and it was called a landslide. The process was slower and better observed, beginning with a fissure or cleft near Dog Face Rock.

This opening went from 2 metres to 4.5 metres over a couple of days, and already, “hundreds of tons” had fallen by 27 January — comparable to the whole fall at North Head. Within 24 hours, an alleged 100,000 tonnes had fallen. That puts our fall in perspective, just a bit.

Sir Edgeworth David knew what was what: this process had shaped the valleys of the Blue Mountains, and it had been going on for millions of years, he told the Sydney Morning Herald in May 1931. (See http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/16774630, if you want the full story.)

These events are rare, but inevitable, and for the past few years, I have been photographing likely future fall areas, in the hope of getting a before and after. In geological time scales, they are frequent, but on our scale, such falls are rare. The sky is not falling, Chicken Little!

Almost a year later, the area is still off-limits. I note that yesterday, July 6, was International Fried Chicken Day...

The Corso in winter

There was a river running through Manly once, back when the land was younger, when the sea level had been sucked down as water was drawn into the northern hemisphere glaciers.  The ancient river rumbled its way along from south to north in a deep valley, running more or less parallel to the coast we know today.
From Griffith Taylor, Sydneyside Scenery, p. 86.
In places, the old river approached the sea that lay just to the east, but still it followed the line of least resistance, pushing north through the jointed sandstone until it poured into the ocean via Broken Bay, some thirty kilometres up the coast.  The river was in a rut, a deep rut it had carved for itself, and there was no escape from that rut.

The river would only be set free from its course when the northern ice melted, letting the sea flood in over the low range of hills along the shore, making islands of the higher peaks, and filling the old valley with sand, dividing the river into many smaller streams.

All along the coast, streams that once added to the old river now flowed directly into the sea, washing the salt from the sea sand as it piled up, making a home for the first tough and adventurous plants that were poised, waiting to invade.  The roots of these early plants tied the sand down, more sand blew in, and slowly, beaches and sand spits grew into low sand hills.

These sand hills had to struggle.  As the vegetation built up on the slopes, wild fires would be started by lightning, destroying the plants and giving the howling winds a grip.  At other times, wild storms would drive the sea into the low hills.  The crashing waves would hiss and viper through, drowning the animals, poisoning the plants, pushing the sand before them and flattening the dunes.

In places, the waves would drive all the way through, reopening the old river bed to admit the high tide storm waves which would foam into the harbour on the other side of the dunes, turning the land-locked headlands back into islands again.  Then the storms would ease, and the whole slow process would start over again, building the sand dune communities up again.

All that has changed now.  Civilisation has come to the river bed, human occupation with its massive infrastructure of roads, drains, utilities and buildings that do not grow back again after a storm.  Dour and determined engineers have thrown up walls and barriers to hold back the sea, to thwart it when it attacks.  No sea, they have sworn, will ever again dare poke its nose into the thriving tourist centre of Manly, seven miles from the centre of Sydney.

Manly Cove was a small bay that got its name four or five days before Sydney itself, based on the white invaders summing-up of the local residents when they came looking for a place to settle in 1788.  Then the searchers sailed away to find a better anchorage for ships at Sydney Cove, and they made their town there.  You could sail to Manly in an hour or two, but it was a two-day journey by road, so Manly was left alone until the 1850s.  Until then, the sea was still able to break through into the harbour from time to time.

Then came steam ferries that crossed the harbour in forty minutes, a ferry wharf, settlers, developers, buildings, tourists and holiday-makers, and the beginnings of a seaside dormitory suburb.  ‘The Village’ of Manly was carefully marketed as ‘Seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care’.  People who did not live there dreamed of it, and came to swim at safe harbour beaches.  In this century, they came to surf at the three ocean beach sites that lie along the wide ocean bay, once it was legal to do so, and the final nail in the civikisation coffin came with two new bridges around 1930, linking Manly to the city by road.

The Corso began in the 19th century as a simple street over the flat low sands that linked the roaring ocean and the placid harbour, but soon the sandy path was lined with shops.  Later again, it became a road carrying heavy traffic and trams.  Now it is mostly pedestrian plaza, with people, shops, a few illegal bicycles, skateboards and roller bladers, chairs and tables, trees and shrubs.  Everything that remains is geared to the tourist trade.

The tourists have been here ever since the 1850s, thronging the area in the summer, but when winter bites, the temperature falls to 15° Celsius, and the cold southerly blows in off the harbour, commerce slows, and the locals can outnumber the tourists again.  We come back into our own.

There will still be grandmothers with offspring to mind and days to kill, there will still be budget-conscious Japanese tourists who surf the winter seas in wet-suits.  And when the waves get too rough, they flit around with cameras, excitedly snapping the quaint natives.  All three of my children rode through their first two years in a ‘papoose’ on my back, and all three have been preserved in innumerable Japanese photo albums as samples of curious customs and local colour.

Like any tourist trap in the off-season, the Corso has a certain lonely raffishness in winter, but it also has a certain charm.  My writing cycle leaves me with a large free gap in the morning, every second Friday.  As soon as I can, I get down to the shops to pay bills, post letters,  and generally attend to some minor domestic chores.

A part of my fortnightly ritual now is the outdoor cup of coffee at 9.30.  I relish this time away from everybody, just me and my notebook as I plan the next two weeks.  All along the pedestrian area, there are tables and chairs: sit in one of the chairs, and somebody will come bustling out to take your order.

The coffee is good: it has to be, with so many outlets, and the service is fast, if only to move on the profitless non-customers, thoughtlessly wearing out their seats and tables.  They recognise no ‘regulars’ here, for the staff turnover is too high, but I see many of the same people each time I sit and watch.

The toddler with his grandmother, who always stands in front of the busking flautist, listening intently; the old man in a conservative suit and tie, almost hidden behind a wild white two-year beard; the young girl with pencil-thin legs, dressed all in black who surreptitiously sketches people, probably hoping somebody will notice her working and want to buy the sketches, but they never do; and the quadriplegic newspaper seller in his electric wheelchair; they are always there.

So is the fat skinhead in the torn shirt who nods his head to some distant drummer living in his iPod, nodding so hard that his ear rings sometimes tinkle, and half a dozen other walking wounded and unemployed.  They are the fixed scenery of the winter street.

Then there are the interchangeable Japanese, trotting efficiently to and from the surf beach with their short boards with the wicked samurai-sword-sharp fins.  There will usually be a scattering of Scandinavians wandering through but never stopping, for they are budget tourists, often a five-year-old will confidently sail by on roller blades, too young to be molested by the Council rangers, and sometimes there used to be Manly's famous skateboard riding dog, if the rangers were out of view. I think he's gone, now...

The soundscape is varied, with loud rock music from a sports and surf clothing store, and buskers — the flautist, a banjo player near the pub, a classical guitarist, and further along, there used to be a puppeteer whose puppets dance to the Irish tunes that come from his cassette player (he seems to have died).

The weekends are quite different, even in winter.  With greater crowds, the busking numbers will swell to include bagpipers, a dijeridu player, or a group of Morris dancers,  but on a weekday, the birds and the small children have the area to themselves.

Just after ten, a wave of people rolls up the Corso as another ferry load of trippers washes through from the wharf on the harbour.  I look sourly at the gulls and pigeons, picking over the food scraps, the wrappers and papers that drift along in the winter breeze, and I begin to long for the cleansing ocean waves to roll through once more, from ocean to harbour, sweeping all before them.

Then I know it is time to go.  But I also know that when I return in a fortnight, the old magic will have spread across the surface again, so I can sit in the sun, muse, and drink another flat white in peaceful reverie.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Australian winters are different

Actinotus minor, the small flannel flower
This is an old piece, slightly freshened. Some of the pictures were taken in the past week, while the others are all species I saw during that time. As I say, our autumns are different, and so are our winters (which begin, officially, on 1 June).

At times, I can be a bit of a stick-in-the-mud.  Once I get to a certain point with a book, I set myself artificial and demanding goals and deadlines.  If I am working on an article or a book, I can be even worse.

Actinotus helianthi, the large flannel flower
So winkling me away from the keyboard can be a bit of an exercise, but after a couple of wet days, I was only too willing to get out in the late afternoon sun, and walk a couple of tracks, a couple of months back.

We stepped out, and walked past the park behind our house where perhaps a dozen kites were flying.  I looked carefully at the kite people, but recognising none, we moved off onto the bush track that runs down to a nearby beach.

Eriostemon, probably.
I may have mentioned that my wife is a botanist, and it has probably become apparent to the reader that I have leanings in that direction myself.  So it should not surprise my readers to learn that we started counting the species of plant that were in flower.

Things did not begin well, for the first hundred metres revealed only five species of proper plant and two weeds.  I like to boast that our native bush can always produce a dozen species in flower, even in the lowest autumnal slough of despond.
 
Grevillea buxifolia, the grey spider flower
Later, we found several pockets of summer carry-overs, taking our total past thirty, but that was later.

We walked on, acknowledging those we passed.  This is an urban trail, a footpath rather than a track, and you can expect to pass maybe a hundred people along the way.  Normally uptight city people would not acknowledge each other, but on a bush track, a different etiquette applies, based on the myth of bush mateship.  Even if it is more of a footpath, it goes through bush , and that changes the normal rules.

Another Grevillea.
At least one member of a party greets at least one member of the other party, and the others at least nod or smile.  It is also acceptable to stop and ask for information about the track ahead from somebody going the other way, or even to draw attention to some feature that might otherwise be missed.  At least this is a step up from the British preoccupation with discussing the weather.

This is fine with us, because autumn weather is usually fine.  Sydney Harbour at this time of year is crammed with boats.  Yachts of all sizes, launches, floating gin palaces and sleek hoon boats all cruise the harbour looking for a peaceful anchorage, out of the wind but in the sun, and the headland tracks reveal glimpses of usually empty bays, crowded with boats.  A kilometre away at Store Beach, five identical floating gin palaces are tied together, and we speculate on their purpose briefly.
Acacia sp., one of thew wattles. We have lots.

Just then we pass an American man in his sixties.  He overhears us discussing a suspicious plant, an aberrant species that we do not recognise, and he asks us whether he can expect to see many more flowers up ahead.  The etiquette of the track is something that people pick up rather quickly, and as he has grasped it, so sensing a fellow human, we take him back 50 metres to see an unexpected orchid, and a sundew.


 A sundew, Drosera spatulata, an insect-catching plant. There was another species there, D. auriculata, which
flowers in spring and summer, but it was in bud already. Sadly, it's impossible to photograph in the field.




Thursday, 6 July 2017

Australian accents

Have you noticed the silence? I have been away in Sri Lanka, travelling with a bunch of Australians in pursuit of snakes. crocodiles, monitors, birds of many kinds, water buffalos, wild pigs, squirrels, mongooses ... and, as you can see from the photograph, making close contact with wild elephants.

Travelling in a foreign clime can be a bit off-putting, but travelling with a bunch of fellow-Australians gave us a solid grip on normality, because we speak much the same language. Perhaps the reader will allow me to offer a short quote from, and hence plug for, my new e-book, Not Your Usual Australian Tales, available now on Kindle.
Sit in a coffee shop in Riga, a wine bar near Rome’s Spanish Steps, a restaurant in Bergen, a Greek cafĂ© in Banff, a chippie in Glasgow, a tapas bar in Cuzco or a bangers and mash restaurant in Reykjavik, and when you hear Australian tones in the room — and trust me, you will — say in a carrying voice with vowels as flat as a roadkill goanna, one word: “G’day!”.
Then, from the corner of your eye, watch as the Australian heads turn this way and that, seeking their unseen compatriot who may have news from back home. That’s the news we want now, not news from Home, and a single “G’day!” reminds us of where home really is.

Slang, the vernacular, the peculiarly Australian form of English can be difficult to understand.  Slang aside, there are the words that all Australians use in a special way, like ‘bush’.  Even those Australians who speak ‘educated’ or ‘cultivated’ English will talk about ‘the bush’.

There are no forests or woods in Australia, just bush.  When people disappear into the wilds, they ‘go bush’ (or bushwalking), if they stray from the made path, they are bush-bashing.  Thieves who roamed the bush were called bushrangers, and if somebody has come up to the ‘smoke’ (Sydney) from the bush, then he or she probably lives on a farm or in a country town.  So you have to listen to the context.

There are three distinct forms of English that we detect in our own speech.  The ‘general Australian’ is broader, and less ‘English’, and it is more likely to contain references to manufactured products and cultural allusions and clever similes (‘Vegemite’, or ‘as mean as Hungry Tyson’ or ‘as flash as a rat with a gold tooth’).  ‘General Australian’ usually involves less lip movement.

The broad Australian accent involves no lip movement at all (to keep flies out of the mouth, some say), more reliance on tones (carries over longer distances), and many impenetrable slang terms, including rhyming slang, often similar to (but differing from) Cockney rhyming slang.  It is a gross error to see the Australian accent as deriving from Cockney, just because of fancied similarities in one or two vowels.

The ‘cultivated’ style of English is fancied by most Australians to be indistinguishable from English, and it is indeed fairly close, closer than Bostonian English, for example.  After just a few months in Australia, most English people lose the ability to tell whether or not a ‘cultivated’ or ‘educated English’ speaker is English or Australian.

As a user of that style, I have never been mistaken for English in England (though I have been in both Wales and Scotland), and I can also vouch for the problems that north Americans have in distinguishing the ‘educated’ accent from the English accent.  This style seems to be getting less common, if only because most ‘cultivated’ speakers can and do use at least one other form of local accent.

This sort of variation is by no means new.  Henry Cruciform, for example, is the source of most of my information about Crooked Mick, and the stories I tell are actually Henry's reminiscences of his own youth.  The old man usually spoke with me in the ‘educated Australian’ style, but when he was passing on to me a story of his experiences early this century, he would drop naturally into the broad form of speech, imitating the characters he knew and worked with, like Crooked Mick.  Incidentally, I am fairly sure that Cruciform was, in fact, the character called ‘The Professor’ in several of his stories.

The New Zealand accent is common in Australia, and hard to pick, even for an outsider who has been here for some time.  Australians say it is easy: ask the suspected New Zealander to count to seven.  For Kiwis, especially those from the South Island, the number between five and seven is sux, and lists are lusts.  It's a subtle difference, and not really important, except when a Kiwi clerical worker tells you with some urgency that we badly need some lists . . .

Some of the slang terms can be traced to regional English usages, others are of unknown origin.  The correct and safest procedure for any foreigner is to smile engagingly and look agreeable without actually agreeing to anything when slang is used in their presence.

So far as swearing is concerned, Australians use the same terms as other English-speakers, although with different frequencies.  You should have no problem in recognising when you are being sworn at, but context and tone of voice are more important than content.  A poor old bastard is an altogether different beast from a miserable bastard or a rotten bastard.

Then there are the aboriginal words, names for places, animals or things that are used quite unconsciously, like billabong, an oxbow lake in other places, or maybe tucker, which is food, and which may or may not be an aboriginal word, depending on who you ask.

Last of all, there are words that are used in Australia in some way that the scholars of Oxford know not, that you will never find in the Oxford English Dictionary.  Just as the Americans needed their Webster's, so we now have our own Macquarie Dictionary that tells us (and others) what we mean.  Try looking up ‘jam’ in all three!

As a writer, I have an enduring need to know when terms came into the Australian idiom, and I have recorded many of them at a site you can access either through http://tinyurl.com/ozlingo, or as http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/writing/early-language.htm.

The first resolves into the second, and one day, when I stop writing books and travelling, I will add to the list.

Right now, I am back on home ground, awaiting the edits of Australian Backyard Earth Scientist, and developing the draft of Australian Survivor (working title).