29 April 2007
Stuart Highway from Alice Springs to Katherine is through mostly flat,
mostly mostly desert. (Meaning it is mostly what is most of the time,
except after a wet "wet season", desert.) Alice Springs is just below
the Tropic of Capricorn, so this road is in the tropics, and the wet
season in the Australian tropics is September to March.
In contradiction to what the NT dept of Agriculture thinks, I saw
what looked very much like serrated tussock on the roadside between AS
and Tennant Creek. Much of the country that I passed through did not
look like desert. April is the beginning of the "dry season", and I was
told at various points by locals and truckies between AS & TC that
the rather extensive and juicy looking (well, if I were a sheep or cow)
grass I saw growing was normally red dirt. Regardless, there was an
awful lot of good feed going to waste. Down around Bathurst/Orange,
prices for hay (if you can find it) are treble what it would fetch in
normal times. I guess the cost of cutting and transport must exceed the
cost of hay in Bathurst.
As before stated, the road speed on the Stuart
Highway is set at 130 KPH. At first I was driving at around 100 KPH,
trying for fuel efficiency. (at 90 KPH my 92 Camry gives just under 7
litres/100 Km). However the distance from AS is 1600 KM and I soon
found that on those roads, 130-140 KPH was a comfortable speed. At that
speed I noticed that I was passing just about everything. After a while
I worked it out. Most NT vehicles are 4WD SUV's and at any speed over
about 100 KPH those unstreamlined vehicles suffer considerable wind
Road transport in the NT must be quite economical. They have road
trains of three trailers behind a prime mover, the whole lot is
required by law not to exceed 53.5 meters. Trucks seem to travel at 100
KPH. To pass one of those you really need that speed limit of 130 KPH.
At 130 KPH (i.e. 30 KPH faster than the road train) it takes more than
10 seconds to pass a road train. Fortunately the roads are not heavily
populated, and are mostly fairly straight.
The emptiness of the NT has to be experienced to be believed. When
travelling the Stuart highway (Between Port Augusta & Darwin) a
driver is frequently tens of kilometers from the nearest permanent
human habitation. Forget about mobile telephones. There are quite long
stretches where my car radio would only play static. Katherine is the
largest town in the 1600 KM between AS and Darwin, and Tennant Creek
(pop 3,600) is the next largest. Next largest is Elliot, population
600. Alice Springs (pop 26,000) is slightly smaller than Bathurst or
Orange, Blayney would probably be larger than Katherine, and Neville
(pop 100) would be the fourth largest town if it were on that highway.
Darwin was a new world. I had never been at such a low (12.5 degrees
from the equator) latitude before. The humidity and heat are
unrelenting. It seems never to get below about 85F. (30C) It is always
humid. When the sun sets, it gets dark very quickly - there is
virtually no twilight. When you wake in the morning, it is still hot
Darwin has around 130,000 inhabitants, and agriculture (looked like
sugarcane) is practiced. The rainfall is around 60 inches (1,500mm),
concentrated in the monsoonal "wet" season between September and March.
Downtown Darwin is mostly new buildings concentrated along the main
drag, Mitchell St. There is a thriving tourist industry reliant on
Kakadu and other aboriginal themes. Mitchell Street contains Parliament
House and a very solid collection of quite opulent places suitable for
drinking, dancing & other social type interactions. There are also
many hotels and hostels, supermarkets and nearly as many aboriginal
artefact galleries as Alice Springs. It seems to my untrained eye that
certain oil painting on canvas designs are chosen as "saleable" and
various (possibly aboriginal) hacks then copy the original, which
copies are then sold as originals for up to several hundred dollars.
Some of the copies are so close to each other that it takes a few
minutes study to detect the differences. I discussed with one gallery
owner the art I had purchased direct from the artist in Alice Springs.
She defended her merchandise, claiming that she paid "a fair price"
which gave the artists "a reasonable living". I explained that I found
it ethically more correct to help the destitute artists of Alice
Springs, whose work (in any case) I preferred.
I stayed at the YWCA which charged $20/night for a shared 4 bed
dormitory, with Kitchen, pool, free internet and air conditioning. A
word of caution; the manageress is touchy. She evicted me with one
hour's notice (& did not return my prepaid tariff) after I admitted
answering an emergency call of nature on a remote portion of the
One of the unanticipated effects of feminist liberation is that I am
beginning to notice that rather dowdy looking females with more than a
couple of neurons to interact have itemized with hotter & younger
(than I would have calculated that they would have warranted) looking
men. On talking to those men I noticed that they were somewhat naive.
It seems to be an interesting variation of the "sugar daddy" setup of
28 April 2007
Just what is the world economy doing?
We have had a straight run (except for the
SE Asian bubble) since about 1992.
The really top financial wizards (Buffet,
Greenspan, Grantham) are
sounding warnings, but the premier investment houses are between a rock
and a hard place. They need to invest their client's money, and telling
their clients that it is better placed in government bonds is not an
The price of real estate around the world has reached what appears to
be unsustainable heights. The world seems to be awash with money
looking for a quick profit. Even the highest risk homebuyers in the USA
or Australia are reported as able to obtain finance, Barbarians like
KKR are able to obtain $billions for leveraged buy outs of companies
that are making a good return, but not high enough for the cutting edge
financial analysts. World business has been on a boom cycle ever since
financial and trade markets were liberalized.
The optimist's case is that there is a
stock (they aren't making any more) real estate. So real estate is a
safe bet, even for highest risk homebuyers, because the market will
keep rising. Companies like KKR consider themselves to be the new
arbitrageurs. (If they see fundamentals that are not meeting market
dividends, then they pounce. Buy the company, remove assets that may be
strategic but are not performing at market rate, and sell the shell.)
Freeing up world trade (in finance, goods, even labour) has greatly
profited the people of Australia and the USA.
The pessimist's case is that real estate
is an artificial market,
where extremely high prices result because the rent (land tax + rates)
charged by governments for the land are too low. Anticipation of future
price rises for real estate puts upward pressure on rents to end users
to the point where the percentage of a worker's income required for
shelter is rising to unsustainable levels. The LBO's (KKR etc) are
operating with social assets. Basically they are not arbitrageurs,
(Arbitrageurs are generally good, because they even out financial
distortions) because the time taken to obtain their payoff makes them
gamblers. Even though they have taken out risk insurance to cover their
losses, this merely transfers the risk elsewhere (e.g. to the pension
funds) in society.
The excess liquidity has resulted in part
(in Australia) from
compulsory superannuation payments, which to date amounts to around one
trillion dollars, which is the approximate Australian GDP. In the USA
excess liquidity has been caused (at least in part) by the unfavourable
trade balance with China. The excess liquidity ends up in the hands of
big fund managers. We like to think that the people operating those
funds are some sort of financial supergeniuses. Considering the
training and selection process, I am not optimistic.
Already there have been warning signs. The
second largest high risk
mortgage lender in the USA has gone belly up. I hope that will not
recur, but am not confident.
23 April 2007
into the Northern Territory (NT), the first thing noticed is the speed
limit. It is 130 KPH on major highways, 110 KPH elsewhere, and as
directed in built up areas. The roads are straight, and 130 KPH is an
easy speed to maintain.
Alice Springs is nearly 300 KM north of
the border. The turnoff to
the Rock (Ayer's Rock) is about 200 km south of AS. A warning. Named
spots (eg Eridanu Roadhouse) on a map of the NT are sometimes a single
Alice Springs has a population of about 20,000, and so (just) qualifies
as a city. It has a new city feel, landscaped and open. The airport is
14 km south of the city, so most visitors to the city come through the
pass in the McDonnell Range of hills. (they look to be less than 1000
feet above the near desert, so I cannot really think of them as
I formed the opinion that Alice Springs
exists for the tourist
trade. There are at least four backpacker hostels, and one of them
holds at least 200 patrons, another probably around 500. I stayed one
night in the 200 patrons hostel, ($18/night) then moved to a smaller
would hold about 40 people, $22/night) which was less impersonal than
the first. In talking to other travelers I did not find any who had not
either visited or planned a tour to the rock. Most of them stayed at a
hostel for no more than one or two days, although there were a
sprinkling that had found local employment (invariably in the tourist
industry) for periods ranging up to a few months. There are also quite
decent resorts which would also contribute to the tours.
Considering that the land around Alice
Springs is poor farming land,
it is unlikely that agricultural industries support that 20,000
population. The big mining supply corporations are not in evidence.
What pays the wages in Alice Springs is tourism.
By my estimate from hostel numbers, there
might be 500/day visitors
to the rock. I am advised that the entrance charge for visiting the
rock is $25, and an additional $25 fee is charged for camping. King's
Canyon is a less famous (than the Rock) landmark which many tourists
visit. (Personal note: When I read that the custodians did not permit
visitors to climb the rock, I declined to visit.) So fees alone account
for around $20,000 per day, or around $7 million pa. Tours cost from
$200 up, which indicates an annualized input to AS economy of around
$100 million pa.
Perhaps not insensitive to this river of
gold, the NT government has sealed the road from AS to the rock.
About 25% of the AS population is
estimated to be Aboriginal. From
my observation they seem to live in the dry Todd riverbed, and during
the day they can be seen sitting in groups on grassy knolls in Todd
Mall. I have been accosted on several occasions with requests for
money. One fairly overweight middle aged aboriginal woman demanded
money because she was hungry. The local papers are filled with letters
to the editor about Aboriginal violence and drug taking. The management
at Alice's Secret believe that the violence problem has been overstated.
Some of the more enterprising (usually
women) Aboriginals sell
paintings ($30 - $70) from the grassy patches in the Todd Mall. Similar
art (at least to my untrained eye) and artifacts can be purchased for
about ten times that price in the numerous and expensive looking
galleries that dot the city like spinifex in the desert. In fact,
similar Didgeridus can be purchased at Paddy's market in Sydney for
half the price of those on display in Todd Mall.
And for Coffee aficionados, the only
decent cup I found was at the
Alice Springs Resort. Regrettably they do not offer soymilk, but I have
discovered that fresh coffee beans are more important than the taste of
21 April 2007
Spencer Gulf is the larger, westernmost gulf of the twin gulfs in the
SE corner of the state of South Australia. Towns in the northern
Spencer gulf primarily depend on mining & industry to survive. Most
of the land around the upper gulf is either poor grazing country or
desert. Tides in Spencer Gulf are about 2 meters, and the gulf is quite
shallow in parts. On a map I saw at Point Lowly near Whyalla, a sand
spit at low tide off Port Germein appeared to reach about 5 kilometers
further into the gulf than at high tide. There are numerous warnings at
gulf beaches that ocean currents are strong.
The Flinders Ranges are an approximately 300 KM long series of low
hills (probably less than 500 meters) that stretch northwards from the
upper eastern side of the Spencer Gulf. The rainfall in the ranges
sometimes produces sufficient grass for sparse sheep and cattle grazing.
In South Australia the government has
provided free internet access
at most council libraries. Wifi access is also available at most
libraries, and can be accessed out-of-hours. Most (99%?) of South
Australia's population is south (inclusive) of Port Augusta, which has
the northernmost library.
Port Pire on the upper NE corner of the
Spencer Gulf is a prosperous
town that refines and exports the lead mined at Broken Hill. There is
currently a scandal in Port Pire because lead concentrations in some
children is over double the recommended value. On the Friday night that
I was there, seemingly several hundred hotted cars & SUVs were on
the town's roads burning up and down the main (and all the other)
streets under the admiring glances of the juvenile female population. I
got into discussion with a local old timer. He warned me that the
government was using Safe-T-Cam to spy on us. I egged him on by
commenting that when they installed facial recognition software, they
would know who was where all the time. We happily discussed various
conspiracy theories for the next 30 minutes.
Port Augusta is at the northern tip of
Spencer Gulf. It has a rather
large power station that uses coal from the coalmines of Leigh Creek,
about 250 KM NNW. in the Flinders Ranges. Port Augusta has notices
declaring that it is the crossroads of Australia. Major transport
between the West and East and between the "outback" which is just North
and civilization which is a hundred kilometers southeast, and shipping
converge at Port Augusta. Most of the fresh water in Port Augusta, Port
Pire and Whyalla is piped from the Murray river. Curiously, the water
in Port Augusta tastes much better than the water in Adelaide.
MacDonalds and other US fast food icons are present, as are Coles,
Woolworths and IGA. A scattering of coffee lounges inhabit an
attractive commercial district centred on "Commerce Street". Port
Augusta is very much a city on the edge of the outback. The caravan
park at which I camped for three nights ($13/night) was loaded 4WD
vehicles that seem only to stay overnight. There was a fair sprinkling
of overseas tourists. I met three Danes (MMF) travelling in a sedan to
Perth, a young couple in a 4WD Toyota utility with trailer, who were
planning on a nine months tour in the outback. A covered van driven by
a middle aged lady had the logo "Adventure before Dementia". a couple
of largish families were inhabiting rather seriously professional
From Port Augusta along the road to the
steel town of Whyalla (74KM
SW) the absence of tall Eucalypts is painfully obvious. Whyalla
processes the ore mined at Iron Knob. Along the Port Augusta-Whyalla
road a few eucalypts averaging three meters (probably apple variety)
are seen among woody shrubs, the bare ground sports an occasional
spinifex. A very rare Box (of some variety) can sometimes be seen,
struggling to reach five meters. I saw two mobs of (50-100) sheep on a
10km stretch that must recently have had rain. A few minutes North of
Whyalla is Point Lowly. The nearby Port Bonython is a petrochemical
plant. The country between Port Augusta & Whyalla is only
marginally inferior to the country on the other side of the gulf,
between ports Pirre & Augusta.
The town of Hawker in the Flinders rangers
is a rather attractive
place about 110 KM NNW of Port Augusta. There is a coffee shop where
the proprietor has mastered to are of putting foam onto a flat white,
but regrettably (as seems common in the region) does not provide fresh,
nice tasting coffee.
From Port Arthur power station there is a
sealed highway up to the
Leigh Creek coalfields, which then continues for about 20 Km to Ochre
Pits. Leigh Creek (pop 600) is an extremely attractive town, with
modern houses distributed among landscaped mounds and trees to give
privacy. Riff Raff need not apply to purchase land in Leigh Creek, the
entire town is owned by the Leigh Creek mining company, and was built
to keep employees happy. An earlier incarnation of Leigh Creek was
found to have been built on the coal seam. Advances in mining
technology have recently reduced the number of employees required to
operate the mine. This has resulted in the halving of the town
population, and the closing of one of the two groceries (IGA remains).
The very extensive open cut coal mines are visible a few kilometers
north of the town. Leigh Creek is a stark architectual contrast to the
older, non-mining town of Copley a few km north.
Ochre Pits is the beginning of the unsealed
I bought petrol at Marree 110 km north of Leigh reek, where the
Birdsville and Oodnatta tracks meet The petrol attendant advised that
the best (cleanest & quietest) camping ground was at the southern
approach to town. I started talking to Eric, the manager of the camping
ground. He was a retired drover after 30 years on the Birdsville track.
At Marree the annual rainfall is 3.5″ = 90mm. Stock is brought in for
condition after rain. I told Eric that the petrol station attendant had
recommended his caravan park. With a smile, he admitted she was his
I followed the Oodnatta track for about
200KM of mostly abominable quality dirt roads to William Creek. There
warning travellers in quite dire terms. Some way along the track I
found a notice pointing to an artesian
Those bores made it possible for drovers to move cattle about in the
days before wheeled transport was available. That particular bore
into an oasis like tank.
At places the corrugations in the road were so bad that I felt
compelled to drive my '92 Camry at less than 35 KPH. At one point a few
KM out of Marree I decided to drive off the road onto what looked like
a firm plain. An anxious hour later I had laboriously dug myself out.
Most of that plain was desert, composed of soft sand. I suspect that
even a 4WD would become bogged in places.
I stopped for lunch at a lookout &
took pictures of what I thought was a water filled Lake
but am advised that I had photographed a salt pan. The saltpan is
visible between horizon and sky. Further along the road I drove into a
spring. It had filled a dam about 100 meters across, and overflowed to
produce a few kilometers of grassy bog.
From William Creek there is 170 KM of
mostly quite reasonable (90KPH) unsealed road to Coober Pedy.
The name "Coober Pedy" is reckoned by some
to be a corruption of the
local Aboriginal pidgin English name for the place, which roughly
translated is "place where stupid white man cooped in a hole in the
ground". Regardless, in my travels, Coober Pedy (pop 6000) reminds me
most of Las Vegas. It is filled with gamblers, is in the middle of a
harsh desert, and it's main street has a frontier feel with lots of
garish neon advertising. I noticed that the town had a drive in
theatre, but the speaker boxes were missing. I suppose they issue
bluetooth or wifi speakers. The inhabitants frequently use old mine
shafts as houses, giving a feeling somewhat like Hobbit houses. The
mines stretch for 40 km north of the town.
13 April 2007
Over Easter I was at a "Confest"
near Deniliquin. Deniliquin is a largish town (20,000?) on the
side of the NSW-Victorian border, a few hundred miles East of the
state of "South Australia".
For "Confest" think "Woodstock". It
is a sorta a hippy
conference-festival. Lots of people camping in tents, living
fashion. Mostly unorganized and a lot of goodwill. All ages
inclinations are represented, (Gay, families, exhibitionists).
people giving talks on a variety of subjects (I attended a good talk on
Henry George & a lousy talk on the I Ching.)
The land around Deniliquin is flatter than
(scaled) pancake, about 80 meters (250 feet) above sea level, and
parched. The festival site was on a creek (Edwards River) &
billabong. A billabong is a meander of a watercourse that has
abandoned by the main water flow. Billabongs frequently contain
overflowed river water, but the river/creek is elsewhere.
The Confest was run by an organization
called "Down To Earth" which
is a Victorian (i.e. located in the Australian state of Victoria)
group. Confest attendance fee was AU$70, which mostly goes
purchasing the farm, which is to be used as some form of wildlife
sanctuary. Confest provided water, toilets, gas stoves and
They apparently held the Confest in NSW because NSW environmental laws
are less strict than those in Victoria.
The company was excellent. Comparing
Melbournians (capital of
Victoria) to Sydneysiders is a bit like comparing Bostonians to
Yorkers. They seem to be more into politics (liberal) than their
Sydney Cousins, who are very firmly in the chase for the almighty
dollar, (albeit in a much more congenial climate.)
On Tuesday Confest finished & I
crossed in to Victoria. I
tried to buy a copy of "The Australian" (the national daily by Murdoch)
in two largish towns. Not available anywhere. I tried to
buy a soy
flat white coffee in MacDonalds, but they had run out of Soymilk.
Already I was feeling that the state of Victoria was less than couth,
in fact it could almost be described as uncouth.
I noticed that the roadside approaching
Bendigo was under some sort
of wilderness preservation order. OK, I can relate to that,
only thing growing on that particular roadside was biddy bush.
that wasn't a native bush it would have been declared a noxious weed
more than a decade ago. I have acres of Biddy bush on
is inedible, it punctures tyres, it is rubbish. If the State of
Victoria wants to protect roadsides, couldn't they protect a stretch
that didn't contain (almost) noxious weeds?
Finally arrived in Ballarat, which is
where a mob of gold miners
revolted (circa 1850) against British government taxes (like Boston
with Tea) and raised the flag of revolt at a place called Eureka.
incident went into history as the "Eureka Stockade". So I
went to see
the stockade, but it had gone the way of the Bastille (i.e. demolished)
and the Ballarat council was charging $8 to view the spot where it had
been, (and presumably some public servant's collection of trivia about
the incident). While in the USA I visited a recreation of "The
in Texas, (which was, to my memory) free. (I was told that the
original Alamo was still in existence, but remote.)
In Ballarat I found a pub with free
internet, excepting it was broken. Maybe it's just me that is
Next stop was Mount Gambier, viewed the
famous "Blue Lake" which (a
sign maintained) is bluest in November. Saw "Sinkholes" which
when the roof of a shallow limestone cave falls in.
Arrived in Adelaide, capital of South
Australia. Found a bed for
the night (first real bed in ten days) in a backpackers hostel ($22)
near centre of Adelaide. Adelaide aka "city of Churches" and
Canberra) was developed to a plan. It is quite a nice city,
mainly by the disproportionate number of weird murder cases that seem
to happen here. The city is totally surrounded by an Australia
bush park about 200 meters wide. Unemployment is above the
average (5.5%) mainly because successive state governments had
subsidized industrial startups which are now going bad. The water
1 April 2007
Since 2003 the regions of Iran that border
Iraq have suffered from terrorist attacks. The Iranians blame the USA
and the UK.
Back in January 2007 the US captured some
of the elite "Iranian
guard" in Iraq. Allegedly those guardsmen had in their possession
supplies and technology for terror. Iran objected strongly that those
captives were diplomats. (despite the fact that Diplomats should not be
armed beyond the need to protect themselves). The US is adamant that
they were spies supplying weapons to terrorists. They are not recently
mentioned in the media. There must be a presumption that they are being
In the last few days a second US carrier
group has arrived in the
Gulf. It takes several weeks for such a major asset to be moved.
Fifteen UK sailors & marines were
captured a week ago (23 March)
by members of the Iranian guard. The UK government states that GPS
information shows that the capture occurred in Iraqui waters, and
demands return of the captives. The Iranians claim that the capture was
in Iranian waters. In both cases, the distances are between one and two
kilometers. GPS is a US navigation system, and it is believed that the
US has the capability of so modifying the signals that positions
determined are in error. There have been media reports of offers from
Iran to swap those UK captives for the Iranian guardsmen captured in
January 2007 by the US.
It certainly appears that the Iranian
Guard is eager to get their
men back from the USA. It hardly seems credible that the Iranian Guard
should be threatening to try those captives on a capital charge for
merely trespassing on Iranian waters (according to the Iranian version
of events) by about a mile.
From the above information it is really
hard to determine who is
setting up whom. It is plausible that the Kurds in Iran have become
restive since their brothers in Iraq gained limited self rule, and that
Iraqi Kurds are the source of terror in Iran. Then, when the US had
evidence of large scale terror (from the captured Iranian Guardsmen)
they considered that, together with suspected nuclear research to be
the last straw. So Bush ordered a battle group to the area and set up
an "incident". On the other hand, the Iranian Guard were provocative in
capturing UK forces.
Consequently I can not at this moment
reliably determine which party
(out of US or UK or the Iranian Guard) is provoking this conflict. If
war eventuates and Iran loses it's nuclear research facilities, then my
suspicions would crystallize & I would strongly suspect that it was
the USA & UK provoking Iran.
1) The highest probability is that the USA
& the UK will declare
war with Iran. Suspected Nuclear sites will be bunker busted
(eliminated), and quite likely, an attempt made to rescue the hostages.
Possibly an attempt will be made to capture high profile Iranian
hostages, possibly following an airborne assault on Quom.
Then, after hopefully destabilizing the
regime, the US would
discontinue operations, having rescued the UK hostages and taken a few
of their own.
If the Iranians want peace, they will get
it, but the condition would be no more supplies to terrorists.
2) Second highest probability is that the
Iranians will publicly say
"sorry" or else just arrest & replace the leadership of the Iranian
Guard, and return the hostages.
3) Low probability is for a stalemate
(nothing conclusive will happen).
UPDATE 5th April 2007
Ahmadinejad has stated today that he will
free the 15 British
prisoners. (No "sorry" so I expect that the Iranian guards will be in
disgrace at the very least).
Of course the US might still bunker
blast Iranian nuclear
facilities, however after this conciliatory gesture such attack would
be harder to justify as a "provoked" action on the international stage.