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Welcome to this blog, the story of a great big Australian adventure. It documents my travels, life in Australia, and a subject close to my heart – environmental conservation. 

Queensland – Sunshine State?

On my first visit to Australia, in the Nineties, I remember flying from Cairns to Sydney in December. There were increasing amounts of cloud as we headed south and there were large puddles alongside the runway as we landed. Isn't this the Australian summer, I thought, but kept it to myself. In February 2006, my friend and I flew to Perth. A couple of days later in Bunbury, as we struggled into wetsuits in 33 degrees to go play with dolphins out in the bay, the locals looked relieved. 'First day of summer we've had,' they explained. (By February?) 'Been lots of rain.' After a fleeting appearance, the dolphins scarpered. 'Too choppy in the bay', our guide apologised. 'Will have disturbed their food.' As if to emphasise the point, lightning forked along the horizon.

Of all the iconic images and preconceived ideas about Australia, and Queensland in particular, predictable hot sunny days are probably the most enduring. Planning to invite a bunch of friends round for a barbecue in a couple of months on a special occasion? Go right ahead. Want to book a trip to the outer reef (and, of necessity, hang about in a damp stinger suit between snorkelling forays)? No dramas. Fancy a day at the beach this weekend? Beaut.

It is winter now. As I write this, I am sitting in a vest, three-quarter-sleeved top, long cashmere cardigan with fingerless-glove-bits at the end of the armies, scarf, jeans, socks and boots. No one believes me at home. When I Skype, they comment on how many clothes I am wearing or ask what the whirring is in the background. It's a fan heater. It's a lovely sunny day outside. About 20 degrees. Scarcely a cloud. But sitting at my computer in my otherwise lovely dining room, it's damned parky. The sun is lower in the sky these days and only makes it through my predominantly east-facing windows first thing. Houses here are built for hot weather, not cold, so the windows are not double glazed. Fortunately, our air conditioning system is also a heating system, and we have used it. But I only brought summer-weight duvets with me. Mistake. I packed boots and sweaters thinking I would never get them out of the their boxes. Wrong.

It isn't serious cold, of course, close to the coast in southeast Queensland. But in the interior on our recent roadtrip, we felt a cold and almost frosty 3 degrees one morning in Clermont on the Gregory Highway. That was a serious shock. There was quite thick fog, too, which further increased the risk of hitting roos as we got back on the road at 7am, a long driving day ahead of us. As the sun burned through the mist, strange remnants hung above the fields. But I digress...

As we drove from Brisbane airport into the city on January 2nd, everywhere looked wonderfully lush. We were told that there had been a lot of rain, much to everyone's relief, as it followed years of drought and water restrictions. So, this very green city looked very green. Its streets and parks are full of trees. The person Brisbanites have to thank for this is Harry Oakman, the city's first Director of Parks and Gardens (from 1946 until 1963). He believed there should be colour around every corner throughout the year. I can't wait for the spring flowers. When we arrived, the ornamental poincianas were at their best, resembling scarlet umbrellas throughout the city. Well, it was the Wet. Everyone will tell you there are two seasons here, the Wet (summer) and the Dry (winter). I couldn't possibly draw any conclusions about that yet, but I log weather conditions in my diary, and from January 1st 2011 onwards I'll compare notes with this year's entries. (And if that sounds anoraky, I make no apology. I am English, and I was born to weather-watch. I am my father's daughter.)

On our second day, as we viewed Brisbane from aboard a CityCat, dark clouds amassed and rain fell out of the sky. Suddenly we couldn't even see the riverbank and large drops bounced off the river as they would off a pavement. Water poured through windows and doors into the cabin, and there was thunder and lightning like I imagine there'd be at world's end. Nobody flinched. I concentrated with all my being and wherewithal on not squealing involuntarily. That remains the only serious storm we've had. In six months. There's been rain. For 36 hours without stopping in March. I peered grimly out of our bedroom window (below), while my friend had to find a different route to his office from where he usually parks (below but one).

But what had become of the frequent storms late in the afternoons that I'd heard so much about before I came, and from a reliable source - someone born and bred in Brisbane. The beautiful pre-sunset colours in the west, between the storm clouds and the horizon? A blind man who came to my house a few months ago (to mend one of the blinds) confirmed that this was a feature of the weather when he was young, too. I have no idea whether what we have experienced so far in Brisbane is normal or not. Does anywhere have 'normal' weather in fact or any more? My friend believes that people have terribly distorted memories when it comes to weather reporting. They remember it being hotter or wetter or sunnier when they were little, when in fact only a couple of years ago it was the hottest or the wettest or the sunniest year on record. (Incidentally, 2009 was Australian's second hottest on record.)

The greatest weather surprise for us so far, however,
is just how many cloudy days there are (Sunday afternoon at the Boondall Wetlands Reserve, right). Yes, there's lots of sunshine, but there's also lots of cloud. On some days, it looks suspiciously like Tupperware, and hangs around for hours, formless and dull, just like back home. A day can dawn full of gloriously sunny promise that suddenly disappears in a few blinks of an eye as thick cloud bubbles up out of nowhere or builds, black and ominous, from the horizon. Good job the barbie wasn't planned for those days, then? Sometimes the clouds are stunning. We witnessed the most spectacular mackerel sky a couple of weeks ago. It lasted for most of the day, covered most of the sky, and resulted in a stunningly coloured rippled sunset. And at other times clouds take unfamiliar shapes - they might have strange bumps on their undersides, rather like underdeveloped mammatus.

Clouds are often visibly layered, I think because the weather can change very quickly here. Rarely should you despair that rain has set in for the day: you could be on the beach by this arvo. You might see whimsical wispy high strands of cirrus behind neat little cotton-wool balls of cumulus bobbing along below them, but then nearby there'll be some bully-boy rain clouds trying to muscle in. Larger cumulonimbus may look grey and lightless in their threatening but, if you look carefully, you'll see that they are, in fact, the most beautiful deep violet colour.

Barely visible in this photograph (looking from Cleveland Point to North Stradbroke Island), was an almost vertical rainbow's end diving into the sea just left of centre on the horizon. It was fleeting, as storm clouds piled in the east producing rain already over the island and the sun set back over the city in the west. The spectacle had almost faded by the time I'd got my camera out of the car. I have learned slowly to carry my camera with me at all times, even when just popping to the shops. I do that most days in the late afternoon and have missed many a literally golden opportunity to snap a beautiful pre-sunset sky. Sunsets at this latitude are relatively short-lived. And early: 5.30pm in the winter and only an hour later in the summer.

There is no daylight saving in Queensland. DST is one of three topics of conversation I was told on my second day here never to engage in with a native of this state, unless I have half a day to spare. (The other two subjects are the Murray-Darling Basin and indigenous Australians.) Since I've been here I have formed my own opinions about DST. Living in the southeast, I tend to have more in common with those people who have pretensions, so the argument goes, to sharing the same time zone as the other eastern state capitals, Sydney and Melbourne, rather than the narrow-minded (is the implication) farming and mining communities of the far north and west. This is, however, a much more complicated issue than at first appears, and the temperate vs tropics aspect of the argument, coupled with the vast size of this state, make it a fascinating subject than I cannot elaborate upon in this post. But I will return to it.

Half the cars registered in this state say 'Queensland - Sunshine State' below the number on the registration plate. The other half say 'Queensland - The Smart State' (cerebrally, not sartorially). Victorian number plates we saw recently on our travels in northern Queensland said 'Victoria - The Place To Be'. Is there a Trade Descriptions Act here?


Roadtrip 1: Heading up north

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