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Apr 3, 2017

Walking Through Timeless Landscapes

As I hiked, an indigenous man asked me if I felt something in the landscape. It was a loaded question in that we were both aware his forebears would have walked through the valley for generations. As an interloper to the Northern Territory, mine had clearly not. Nevertheless, I knew enough of Luke to call him a friend and understood his curiosity was devoid of prejudice.

Our differing ethnicities was not our only point of difference relevant to the conversation. As a Christian, Luke holds a strong belief the landscape was created by a higher being. The elegant walls of Palm Valley in the Finke Gorge National Park certainly rival any structures made by sentient beings and it is easy to see the magnificence of God’s creation in its red rock canyon.

Mpaara Hike at Palm Valley, Finke Gorge National Park

My distinct lack of faith provided me with a different perspective. I could also see the magnificence of the landscape, but could not see the handprint of the many gods believed to exist. Instead, in my mind I could see the epic scale of erosion that had taken place over many thousands of years. The work of water and wind was evident throughout the National Park. As we walked the path, I was acutely aware of the tiny fragment of geological time I was spending in the gorge. The walls had stood thousands of years before me, and would continue to stand long after I am forgotten.

We were taking a group of indigenous students on a hike. Their excitement about going camping was palpable as they hurriedly investigated anything and everything they could find. One of the beauties of hiking is that it stills the mind. The regular cadence of steps smoothes the peaks and troughs of emotion and even teenagers find a level of calm and introspection. Conversations become slightly deeper and more thoughtful. Barriers and facades are deconstructed.

Hiking through Palm Valley, Finke Gorge National Park

Two of the young men we drove from Alice Springs to Palm Valley had family that still lived in small communities near to Finke Gorge National Park. It was gratifying to watch them walking beside the oldest river in the world and see them as the latest in a very long line of family with a connection to this land. I hope they felt this too.

Rangers had spoken to us about the Red Cabbage Palms growing through the valley. A remnant of an earlier time, the nearest relatives to this species are over 850km away where rains fall more regularly than the arid Red Centre. I pointed this out to the fellas, but was met with a level of apathy anyone who is accustomed to teenage males will be familiar with. I, nevertheless, remained impressed by this stroke of natural fortune.

Overlooking the Finke River as it flows through Palm Valley

Our ambulatory efforts were rewarded when we reached the top of the escarpment overlooking the Finke River. The ranges on the opposite side were rich with the intrigue of caves, colour, flora, and the evidence of historic waterfalls. I tried my best to explain how the river flowed through underground aquifers and only peered above the surface occasionally on its long journey. Eyes glazed at my descriptions of the density of underground soils with the water taking the path of least resistance. My knowledge of hydrogeology is significantly limited, but I was still amazed at the ability of water to flow into this waterhole on display far below us.

I was perhaps more responsive when the educational experience flowed in the other direction. One of the guys pointed toward some dark clouds threatening beyond a ridge and said “kapi pulka” – big water in his native Luritja. Finke Gorge National Park straddles country shared by Luritja and Arrernte people. Other indigenous groups also hail from nearby. A discussion ensued about water – “kapi” for Luritja and Pitjantjatjara but “kwatye” for the Arrernte more common near Mparntwe/Alice Springs. Sources of “merne” (food) were pointed out, both floral and faunal.

We spoke about school, family, football, people, home, music. People told stories, asked questions. We compared native spinifex and invasive buffel grass. As the only non-indigenous person around, the metaphor was not lost on me. Some of the fellas walked faster, as though in a hurry to see if something better was up ahead. Others needed encouragement and goading as though right where they stood was good enough.

Standing atop the escarpment of Palm Valley, Finke Gorge National Park

There are a few places I have been in the world where despite seeing countless pictures, I was still enthralled and amazed when I finally laid eyes on them. Uluru is definitely one. I have been three times in my lucky life and each time I have been enraptured. There is just something about being there.

I felt lucky again on that day in Finke Gorge National Park. Not many people from Burramine South get the chance to walk through Palm Valley. Fewer still get to share the experience with people who have a deep and historic connection to the land. It was a beautiful and poignant question from Luke. Did I feel something in the landscape as we hiked through it? Yes. It made my soul feel good and my spirit soar.

Mar 11, 2017

An Ocean-less Barbarian

It seems an odd place to contemplate surfing, but oddly enough the last few weeks in Alice Springs I’ve spent yearning for the ocean. The dry heat makes one think wistfully of powerful waves crashing hard on rocky shores underneath grey skies heavy with the threat of rain. The monotony of endless sun and blue skies makes one think longingly of being curled up in front of a warm fire as the ocean sings its powerful and endless song. On another day with no cloud and temperatures soaring, I finished a book I won’t forget for some time – Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan.

Surfing a beach break at Cape Le Grand, Western Australia

For those more erudite than I, it would have been no surprise that Barbarian Days was such an incredible read. Finnegan has won an number of awards throughout his successful career as a journalist. For 30 years he has been writing for The New Yorker on topics such as apartheid South Africa, immigration and drug trafficking in Mexico, wars in Mozambique and the Sudan, economic affluence and poverty in modern USA, and, of course, surfing.

For Finnegan, writing about surfing seemed to be inconsequential compared to his more socially valid journalistic topics. Nevertheless, he produced an autobiography that managed to be at once entirely about surfing but also not. For although surfing is ever-present in Barbarian Days, it is but a canvas on which Finnegan paints his life story.

For me, the most poignant chapter of the book was when Finnegan wrote about his time in San Francisco. He wrote of his ambivalence about his desire to continue surfing. But ultimately he couldn’t resist the call of the waves despite the cold, murky water and the gnarly waves of Ocean Beach. As throughout the book, the spectacular descriptions of surfing served as but a metaphor for the phases of life. His time in San Francisco marked the end of his peripatetic days of his 20s when he searched for waves the world over. Instead, he studied the ocean and tried to understand his place in the world as he forged his career and stabilised his personal life.

A crowded lineup in Noosa, Queensland

The cold water of northern California was in stark contrast to Finnegan’s previous phase. With a friend, Bryan di Salvatore, Finnegan travelled the Earth searching for perfect waves. He wrote romantically of an unspoiled South Pacific. The warm waters of Hawaii, Tonga, Fiji, and Tahiti were devoid of surfers and resorts. He wrote of an egalitarian Australia and a laid-back Gold Coast, something we once were but are certainly no longer. They travelled to south-east Asia and found authentic experiences in Bali, Thailand and the Philippines. His search for waves spoke of his own rapture and euphoria of being young and unshackled.

My own experiences with surfing have been laced with frustration. Unlike Finnegan, my youth in Burramine South was far from the ocean. Nevertheless, it was easy to relate to his boyish joy at catching his first wave in southern California. I could inherently understand the way in which he used surfing to integrate himself into his high school community after his family moved to Hawaii. Finnegan speaks a universal language as he describes his life transitioning from childhood, to adolescence, through adulthood and beyond. His writing of surfing serves as a prism through which his life is laid bare.

Clean but small waves at Pirates Bay, Tasmania

Part of my being I’ve never understood is a desire to test myself against fear and my own limitations. As Barbarian Days progressed, it became clear that this was also true of Finnegan. He found bigger and heavier waves. He wrote of collisions with rocks and coral reefs, of being held under by breaking waves, of the fearful sound of water collapsing on itself with a thunderous crack. Even with the birth of his daughter, the desire to surf continued unabated. The psychological reconciliation of Finnegan’s risks and responsibilities was traversed without being entirely resolved.

The other psychological aspect to which I could relate was the mediative aspect of sport, particularly when physical danger is involved. The ability to live in the moment seems directly proportional to the gravity of your personal well-being. When trying to execute an intricate skill with the pressure of an enormous and angry wall of water or an equally enormous and angry opponent, clarity of thought is extraordinary. Suddenly the worries of the world beyond those immediate have disappeared. I can imagine that chasing stories through war-torn Sudan would require hours in the ocean to dissolve the recurring memories.

It was the beauty of the book that struck me throughout. It seems as though Finnegan has lived a magnificent life because of the richness that surfing gave it. The countless hours he spent conversing with other surfers about aspects of weather, swell, board shape, and all manner of intricate details of his chosen sport only added to the fullness of his autobiography. Frankly, it was inspirational and self-affirming to read of the minutiae of Finnegan’s surfing. It wasn’t the money he made, the awards he won or the clothes he wore that counted in his life story, it was the colours of the ocean, the shared experiences with friends, and the shape and motion of the waves that created beauty in his life.

Scratchy surf in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka

There was no over-arching plot line flowing through Barbarian Days. No inexorable march to a foregone conclusion. Merely a disparate search for another wave. A complex tumult of emotions and experiences throughout a common theme. Although not a surfer and over a thousand kilometres from any sea, Barbarian Days left me enthusiastic about where my personal search for the perfect wave will take me.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life – Amazon

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life – The Guardian review

Oct 30, 2016

Remember Rio? You know, the Olympics?

It has been two months since the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics and it is difficult to recall a Games having so little impact on this sporting nation. Prior to the Games there were the usual concerns with building progress and social problems in a foreign nation. People were scared of the Zika virus, pollution in Guanabara Bay and Russian dopers. During the Games the sports proceeded as usual – there were medal winners, there were losers, there were dopers and there were world records. But did the Games resonate with the Australian public? And has there been any lasting impact in Australia from the Games of the XXXI Olympiad?

Disclaimer: the author of this article is not without bias. The tyranny of distance from the mainstream of Australia, and an ever-increasing scepticism of the Olympic has continued to grow and blossom. What follows must bear this in mind.


Nearly 30 years have passed since the men’s 100m final at the Seoul Olympics. Australians have become far less naïve in the intervening period. Almost any medal awarded at an Olympics comes with a burdensome proviso. The Russian scandal prior to the Games did little to restore faith in the purity of the sport. In fact, the scandal was met with an indifference and an apathy that spoke of a deep-seated distrust of the cleanliness of Olympic athletes.

When speaking of the men’s 100m, it is worth recalling that the entire board of Jamaica’s Anti-Doping Commission was forced to resign at the end of 2013. This was due to the “public perception” of the existence of conflicts of interest and a lack of drug-testing due to insufficient staff to complete a rigorous regime. It took until mid-2015, only a year prior to the Rio Olympics, for JADCO to begin performing blood-testing. The World Anti-Doping Agency have been impressed by the improvements to JADCO since the start of 2014, but it is an interesting story in lieu of Jamaica’s dominance of the shorter track events.

Criticism of anti-doping efforts should not be limited to nations with limited resources. At the Rio Olympics, 500 fewer tests than intended were carried out by the World Anti-Doping Agency. In some sports, including weightlifting, no blood-testing was carried out at all. The IOC’s report describes an under-resourced and under-funded anti-doping regime perhaps more indicative of a poor island nation. Not an organisation that turns over $6billion each Olympiad.


Australia’s long-held obsession with swimming can be easily explained – we have traditionally won medals in the pool. We love winners. But swimming hands out far too many gold medals – a total of 32. In athletics, there is gold medal for the 100m sprint but not the 100m hopping or the 100m running backwards. And the rest of the world is catching on – all you need is a couple of great swimmers (Michael Phelps?) and you can take home a veritable mountain of metal. In Rio, Australian athletes disappointed in the pool.

The David Crawford-led Independent Sport Panel Report estimated that each gold medal was costing in the order of $15million and each medal $4million. The report noted that the Australian Sports Commission overwhelmingly directs monies toward elite Olympic sports. It makes sense that we would spend money on sports, like swimming, where we think we have the best chance of winning medals. But where does the distribution of funds become corrupt? As an example, water polo received as much money as golf, lawn bowls and tennis combined. More government money was given to the archers of Australia than the cricketers, despite there being over 100 times as many cricketers. It is easy to imagine swathes of golfers, lawn bowlers, tennis players and cricketers jealously ignoring the Olympics.

Participation rates and funding is a controversial area. Smaller sports can quite rightly claim that basing funding on participation will result in a narrowing of possibilities. But when the funding is for the “elite” of that sport rather than the rank-and-file participants, this argument hangs by a thread.

Let’s talk fencing. In Australia, excepting those fine, upstanding persons who erect partitions, there cannot be too many fencers. In comparison to golf, it must be a relatively short road to the top. Fencing, not the one with barbed wire, gets an amount of funding from the Australian Sports Commission as it is an Olympic sport. Now the Australian Fencing Federation (check out their website, there are fewer gates than expected) spend that money disproportionately on the “elite” fencers at the expense of your average, garden-variety fencer. Our “elite” fencers didn’t make the Rio Olympics. To turn an argument on its head, no new fencers were inspired. Perhaps a few lost interest. So why exactly are we funding our “elite” fencers? Send them to the Northern Territory, there is a heap of land up here that could use a fence.


My fellow university alumnus Kim Brennan wrote an impassioned article for Fairfax wondering why Australia wasn’t proud of our athletes. Although she raised some excellent points about national pride and a better Australia, Brennan misses the mark. For a start, Australia is proud of our athletes especially on an individual level. Our Olympic athletes are already supported. But valid concerns are being raised about the level of that support. To be blunt, if somebody wanted to subsidise me so I could be a professional exerciser I hope that I would be absurdly grateful and wouldn’t be comparing myself to a rural doctor, single parent or research scientist. I hope that I would recognise the limits of my inspiration. And I would be thanking my lucky stars my hobby wasn’t in the arts.

Prior to the Games, Chef de Mission Kitty Chiller said the 410 Australians at the Olympics were aiming to win 15 gold and 45 medals overall. Australia’s best golfers didn’t bother with the Olympics and, due to Chiller’s hardline and almost martial stance on team rules, neither did our best tennis players. Subsequent to the Games, Chiller was proud of the “culture” established within the Olympic team. This is not a comment on the rights or wrongs of Nick Kyrgios’ or Bernard Tomic’s behaviour, but Chiller’s “culture” was unfortunately not one that won medals in spite of her stated aim. So what is it that the Australian Olympic team is trying to do? Are we aiming to win medals? Or are we aiming to have a team of people who toe the line and do as they’re told by rigid team management? Or are we aiming to have the perfectly legitimate and reasonable goal of a team that doesn’t necessarily win, but our nation is proud of the way they competed and represented us nonetheless? Note – this last goal probably doesn’t require an Australian Institute of Sport, in fact it would possibly be more achievable without it.


The embodiment of Chiller’s culture was, somewhat paradoxically, gold medallist Chloe Esposito. I don’t pretend to know a great deal about Esposito, but coincidentally our most recent modern pentathlon champion also embodies the Rio Olympic Games for me.

In Esposito we have, from all reports, a lovely and humble person who almost nobody had heard of prior to the games. She participates in one of the Olympic’s most obscure sports, made up of five mostly-obscure events. This sport has a shockingly low participation rate in Australia. With much self-sacrifice, including financially, Esposito invested an extraordinary amount in the Olympics, aided and abetted by the largesse of the Australian Sports Commission. She wins gold and there is a momentary kerfuffle. Less than two months later if you mentioned her name, the response would most likely be “Chloe who?”. Further, despite being a stellar person and a gold medallist, Esposito will have made almost zero lasting impact on the participation rates of young Australians in modern pentathlon. Wow. I can’t wait for Tokyo in 2020.