29 April 2007


The 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 vibration.

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 & humid.

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 property.

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 times past.


  1. >>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 property.

    Couldn't stop laughing!
    How'd she know you did it - did she catch you in the act? (seems a bit perverted to me!)

    Comment by Ally — 4 May 2007

  2. update! update! update!

    Comment by Ally — 7 May 2007

  3. She saw me returning via the side door & challenged me. I evaded. I knew the game was up when her son raced through, & I saw she & partner & 10yo son had gone out the long way & were staring at the wet patch 5 minutes later.  She threatened a strongarm eviction, but thought better of it. She also accused me of stealing stuff from the kitchen, to which I responded "would you like to search my car?".
    Comment by bar — 10 May 2007

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 option.
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 limited 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


Driving 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 building.

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 "Mountains".)

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 place (Alice's Secret, 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 soy.

21 April 2007


The 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 looking buses.

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 roads. 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 wife.

I followed the Oodnatta track for about 200KM of mostly abominable quality dirt roads to William Creek. There are notices warning travellers in quite dire terms. Some way along the track I found a notice pointing to an artesian bore. Those bores made it possible for drovers to move cattle about in the days before wheeled transport was available.  That particular bore fed 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 Eire South, 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 NSW 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 tribal fashion.  Mostly unorganized and a lot of goodwill.  All ages & inclinations are represented, (Gay, families, exhibitionists).  Various 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 a (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 been 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 towards purchasing the farm, which is to be used as some form of wildlife sanctuary.  Confest provided water, toilets, gas stoves and ambience.  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 New 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, except the only thing growing on that particular roadside was biddy bush.  JFC, if 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 Barvennon.  It 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.  The 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 Alamo" 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 cursed…

Next stop was Mount Gambier, viewed the famous "Blue Lake" which (a sign maintained) is bluest in November.  Saw "Sinkholes" which result 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 (like Canberra) was developed to a plan.  It is quite a nice city, marred 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 national average (5.5%)  mainly because successive state governments had subsidized industrial startups which are now going bad.  The water here tastes awful.

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 "questioned".

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.

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