Copyright: Mike Dixon 2016
About the Author
I’m one of those people who finds it difficult to settle down. Getting a degree in astrophysics didn’t help. I worked for a while as a research astronomer then the bottom fell out of the jobs market for people with my qualifications. With a family to support, I searched around and found a job in Parliament House (Canberra). That was short-lived and I moved to North Queensland where I worked in public relations and journalism. The Great Barrier Reef was just offshore and it wasn’t long before I got involved in the diving industry. That led to other tourist operations. My final venture was to set up a backbacker hostel. I’m now retired and have lots of time for travel and writing.
Mike Dixon, January 2016
1.1 Speed Skydiving
1.2 Wingsuit Flying
1.3 Formation Skydiving
1.4 Storm Riding
1.5 Extreme Surfing
1.6 Scuba Diving
1.7 Breath-Hold Diving
1.8 Shark Feeding
1.9 Extreme Rock Climbing
1.10 Extreme Skiing
2.1 Mass Extinctions
2.8 Wild Fires
2.9 Freak Waves
2.10 El Nino
2.11 Climate Change
3.1 Spiked Drinks
3.2 Honey Trap (Aussie Style)
3.3 Honey Trap (Chinese Style)
3.4 Real Lesbian Vampire Killers
3.5 Money Laundering
3.8 Funny Money
4.1 Biological Warfare
4.2 Chemical Warfare
4.3 Nuclear War
4.4 Asymmetric Warfare
4.5 Cyber Warfare
5.2 Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria
5.3 Falling Sperm Count in Males
5.4 Preconscious Puberty in Girls
6.2 Crocodile Farming
6.3 Cougar Hunting
6.4 Love Hotels
6.6 Strangler Figs
6.7 Outback Travel (Australia)
6.8 Enemy Within
1.1 Speed Skydiving
Imagine falling off a cliff. You might get the nasty feeling that your speed will go on increasing and you will break through the sound barrier before being dashed to pieces on the rocks below. Be assured you are wrong. As your speed increases, wind resistance increases and a happy state is reached when it matches your weight. When that happens, you will have attained terminal velocity … if the cliff is high enough.
The terminal velocity of a skydiver, lying face down, is about 320 km/h (200 mph). About 50% of this is attained in the first 3 seconds. It takes a further 5 seconds to reach 90%.
Peregrine falcons (photo) streamline their bodies when swooping on prey and get close to terminal velocity much faster.
Competition speed skydivers adopt the same technique and have achieved speeds of over 500 km/h when jumping from aircraft. Far higher speeds have been reached in jumps from balloons.
The current speed record is held by Felix Baumgartner who gained the distinction of being the first person to break the sound barrier in freefall. Baumgartner jumped from a height of 39km in a specially designed suit and reached a speed of 1342 km/h (834 mph).
1.2 Wingsuit Flying
This sport is the exact opposite of the one described in the last chapter. The aim of speed skydivers is to descend as fast as possible. Wingsuit divers aim to descend as slowly as possible.
Wingsuits transform wearers into something that looks a bit like a flying possum. Maybe that’s how the early pioneers of the sport got the idea. At any rate, wingsuit diving has been around for a long time.
An early attempt was made, in 1912, by Franz Reichelt who jumped from the Eiffel Tower. Franz tricked the security guards into thinking he was going to test a model flying machine then climbed into it when they weren’t looking. His parachute failed to operate when he reached the end of his glide and he made a sizeable hole in the frozen ground. This first recorded wingsuit fatality was captured on film.
Franz’s failure did not deter others. Attempts were made to increase horizontal glide but with mixed success. Early wingsuits were constructed from materials such as canvas, silk, wood and whalebone. They were not as effective as those available today. Nevertheless, some early “birdmen” claimed to have glided for miles.
The modern wingsuit was developed in the 1990s. Prototypes were tested in “vertical wind tunnels” and big improvements were made. Descent speeds as low as 30km/h were achieved while gliding horizontally at speeds of over 300km/h.
More recently, jet-powered wingsuits have appeared. One of the earlier models was pioneered by Visa Parviainen, who jumped from a hot air balloon in Lahti, Finland, in October 2005. Visa had two small turbojet engines strapped to his feet and achieved horizontal flight with no loss of altitude. Big advances have been made since then, including powered flights over the English Channel and Swiss Alps.
1.3 Formation Skydiving
My favorite sport is scuba diving. When I worked in the scuba industry I found myself instructing people whose passion was for other things. One guy was hooked on formation skydiving. He was a comparative novice at scuba when I introduced him to the wonders of the deep.
He was thoughtful when we returned to the surface, comparing the preparations for a scuba dive with those for a parachute jump.
“It’s the same but different,” he said.
“In what way?” I asked.
“You go through the same safety checks. In scuba everything proceeds slowly after that. In skydiving everything speeds up.”
He went on to tell me that, in formation skydiving, you have to lie flat and spread yourself out to increase wind resistance and keep your vertical descent as slow as possible. Then he said something unexpected.
“After that it is a lot like scuba.”
“What do you mean?”
“The air feels like water.”
I took his meaning. Put your hand out of a car window and feel the air as it rushes past. The sensation is like swimming.
We discussed our two sports and I developed an immense respect for his. He told me how his skydiving club had put on spectacular performances. He came from Chicago and his club used planes that flew to 90,000ft. That means they went almost 3 kilometres up into the sky before discharging their skydivers.
The logistics of the operation were impressive.
More than a hundred skydivers were frequently involved and a fleet of planes was needed to take them up. No more than two minutes could elapse before the divers came together, in an awe-inspiring embrace, then scattered to make a safe parachute descent to earth.
I had previously thought of this sort of operation as inherently dangerous. When I studied the records, I discovered that is was far safer than I had thought.
1.4 Storm Riding
One of the dangers of paragliding is storm riding. Experts are always on the lookout for spots where air is rising. In competitions, those who are adept at finding them win. They detect an area of uplift and make for it. Sometimes they are too clever for their own good.
The rising body of air might develop into a formidable convective cell. That’s what happens when ferocious thunder storms get underway. The air rises to immense heights and the paraglider is carried up with it.
Eva Wisnierska suffered that fate when she was taking part in a training flight for a World Championship Meeting in Manila, NSW, Australia.
The German paraglider survived lightning, pounding hail, minus 40-degree temperatures and oxygen deprivation after she was carried to an altitude higher than Mount Everest.
She passed out from lack of oxygen and flew unconscious for about an hour, covered in ice, at an altitude of 10,000 metres … the cruising height of an airliner.
Eva says she thought she had no chance of survival. A doctor later told her that blacking out had saved her life. Her heart and other bodily functions slowed down and she went into a state of suspended animation.
Eva’s top speed of ascent was 20 metre/sec and top speed of descent was 33 metre/sec, as recorded by her personal monitoring computer.
Her injuries were severe. Eva suffered frostbite and bruising from huge hailstones. She landed 60 kilometres away from the launch site and was rushed to hospital.
A fellow paraglider was not so lucky. The body of He Zhongpin was found 75 kilometres away from the launch site. Investigators say he most likely suffocated and froze to death after being sucked into the storm.
1.5 Extreme Surfing
If you want to surf the really big ones then you’ll need a buddy with a jet ski or a friendly helicopter pilot. They’ll put you down before the approaching monster. After that it’s up to you to surf the wave and emerge safely. It’s guaranteed to be an adrenaline pumping ride … whatever happens.
Waves can get very big when a deep ocean swell reaches land. They are particularly big when the transition from deep to shallow is abrupt. Many Pacific islands meet this condition and are home to monster waves.
The Hawaiian Islands are famous for theirs. Waves higher that 50ft have been surfed on Oahu during competitions. If that doesn’t impress you, take a look at a six-story building and imagine riding a wave as big as that.
It’s a risky business. The big danger is “wipe out”. That happens when the breaking waves push surfers down under the water. Once they stop spinning around, they must regain equilibrium and decide which way is up.
There’s no time to waste. Less than 20 seconds may elapse before the next wave arrives. Surfers have been taken down to such great depths that their eardrums have ruptured. Others have received severe injuries when smashed against the sea floor.
The list of fatalities grows.
1.6 Scuba Diving
I once worked in the scuba industry. That was when I lived in North Queensland and was involved in tourism. The wonders of the Great Barrier Reef were offshore and I was keen to show them to our visitors.
That wasn’t easy.
Diving is hazardous. People die when mistakes are made. Here, I shall confine my remarks to the hazards of sports diving. Commercial diving is different and best left to the professionals.
The main hazard of scuba is breathing compressed air. That’s a basic fact that we, as beginners, must get firmly into our heads, right from the start.
The air comes from a tank strapped to our backs. It is compressed to about 200 atmospheres and delivered to our mouthpiece by a device known as a regulator. It ensures that the air we breathe is at the same pressure as the surrounding water.
As we go deeper the pressure increases. At 10 metres (33ft) it has gone up by 1 atmosphere. At 20 metres it has risen by 2 atmospheres.
Wow! That’s what we put in our car tires.
Our body can withstand the harsh treatment because the air pressure in our lungs is balanced by the water pressure on our rib case. Now imagine what would happen if we held our breath and shot up. You don’t need a physics degree to realise that our lungs would explode before we reached the surface.
Rule One: Never hold your breath.
Rule Two: Don’t stay down too long.
The second rule is important because nitrogen gets dissolved in our blood when we breath compressed air. If we aren’t careful we will be like that bottle of fizzy drink that bubbles when the top is unscrewed.
Bubbles form in our blood stream. The condition is known as “The Bends” and is particularly dangerous when the bubbles become trapped in the brain or spinal cord.
The rate at which nitrogen dissolves in blood increases with pressure and therefore depth. I advised divers to stay above 10 metres. The best corals can be seen there.
Not everyone took my advice. Some of my divers got the bends and I had to do my bit as an assistant in the recompression chamber. I stripped off and dressed in the regulation clinical smock. The bends victim joined me and the pressure in the chamber was pumped up to a level where bubbles in blood would dissolve. Then the pressure was slowly returned to normal.
Recompression usually returns bends victims to normal health but not always. Some live with the consequences for the rest of their lives … some die!
Okay. Enough of the scary stuff. I’ve warned you about burst lungs and the bends. They sound frightening but they are not the main killers.
Most scuba victims drown.
A common cause is fatigue. Divers get up early, drive long distances to their chosen dive site and enter the water from a beach or even over rocks. They are not in top condition when they begin the dive and are near exhaustion when they struggle through waves to get back on land. It’s a prescription for disaster.
Another killer is current. Divers are swept away. This is a problem in daylight. On night dives it’s far worse. Lost divers are very difficult to find in the dark once their lights have gone out. If you are a beginner avoid strong currents,
Finally, a few words about sharks.
Divemasters tell their charges that sharks eat fish and have not developed a taste for people. That is largely true. Very few scuba divers are attacked by sharks under water. Attacks are more likely when the diver has returned to the surface … but they are rare.
There is, however, one shark that takes divers and that is the famous White Pointer. I have vivid memories of a dive near a seal colony in the cold waters of southern Australia. The playful animals jumped down to join us in the water. It was a great experience. Humans and seals having a great time together. Then the seals made a dash for the rocks.
For a brief moment we were alone. Then a gigantic shark hurtled past. Its white markings are still engraved on my mind. We surfaced and clambered into our rubber boat, aware that the Big White could rip it to pieces in seconds.
Stay out of the creature’s territory.
1.7 Breathhold Diving
My photograph is of Herbert Nitsch who has the distinction of diving to a depth of 253 metres (831ft) on a single breath of air. I’ll return to him later. First, I’ll talk about the sort of things an average person might attempt if they decided to take up breathhold diving as a sport.
Imagine yourself buying a mask, snorkel and flippers. You have an underwater camera and you are keen to get some great underwater shots.
At first, you have difficulty holding your breath for more than half-a-minute. Then you get better. Soon you can manage a minute or more. That means you can go deeper. You reach twenty metres then thirty metres and feel very pleased with yourself. You think you are safe. When your chest starts to heave from lack of air, all you have to do is rocket back to the surface for a quick gasp.
You tell yourself that breathhold divers can do that. They are not like scuba divers who have compressed air in their lungs. If scuba divers rocket up their lungs will suffer terrible injuries when the air expands. You think you can go up as fast as you like whenever you like.
Then you learn about shallow-water blackout.
It can happen when you surface before you are desperate for a breath. Your lungs are taking in enough oxygen from the air for you to feel comfortable. But the air in your lungs is compressed and your lungs are having no difficulty extracting oxygen from it.
At 10 metres the air pressure has almost doubled. That’s because the water pressure on your rib case has doubled. At 20 metres it’s about three times as great.
That helps you hold your breath. As the pressure increases your lungs are increasingly able to absorb the small amount of oxygen that remains.
The reverse happens when you rocket up for that vital gasp. Your lungs are no longer able to absorb sufficient oxygen as the pressure goes down. Oxygen levels in your blood collapse …and you blackout!
Even if you are still conscious when you reach the surface you are still not safe. You take a big gasp but the oxygen takes time to enter your blood stream … and you blackout!
Founder of the freediving organisation, Apnea International, Erez Beatus, advises freedivers to dive with a safety buddy.
“If something goes wrong, your buddy can be watching you … If you go deeper than 10 metres then the sole responsibility of your buddy is to take care of you all the time.”
Note of Caution: Safety buddies should use scuba gear for deep dives. However, they must be aware of the dangers of sharing their scuba mouthpiece with a breathhold diver. When the breathholder takes in the compressed air from the scuba supply, his lungs will expand. Fatalities have occurred when breathholders have returned to the surface not realising that they must breath out. Whenever air is shared the usual scuba safety procedures must be followed.
Finally, A few words about Herbert Nitsch. He is one of a small group of people who have seemingly defied the laws of nature by diving to immense depths on a single breath of air. Their amazing feats have given rise to an immense body of clinical research. I’ll not go into it here. If you are interested, search the internet using tags: freediving, record, Herbert Nitsch.
1.8 Shark Feeding
People say that something is dangerous and you don’t take them seriously. You’ve done it so often you’re blind to the dangers.
When I was in the diving industry we used to feed sharks. It was part of our service and very popular with customers who craved an adrenalin high and wanted some stunning photographs to show the folks back home.
The sharks liked it too. They enjoyed a free meal and soon caught on. When they heard the sound of our engines they would congregate around the feeding stations. We’d arrive and find them waiting for us. It was all very convenient and predictable … or so it seemed.
The regular diners were reef sharks, of the white-tipped variety, with fine physiques and good table manners. They didn’t crash in for a quick bite. The white tips took time to assess the situation and decide when it was safe to take the tempting morsels that we were handing to them. It wasn’t difficult to see why they had survived the Permian Extinction and gone on to see the demise of the dinosaurs.
Admittedly, they got a bit agitated on occasions. That was when bronze whalers and tiger sharks appeared. We got used to the whalers but the tigers continued to spook us.
In a sense, we got it half-right.
Reef sharks are safe but whalers and tigers should be treated with caution. We worried about the whalers and tigers. If we had thought more carefully, we would have worried about hammerheads. One day a mob of the weird-looking sharks appeared and went on the rampage.
Bags of fish were snatched from our hands and a leisurely dinner party degenerated into a feeding frenzy. Divers panicked and fled for the surface (dangerous). Others froze (wise). One guy received cuts to his hand. Blood streamed from the wound and that was scary.
We left the scene and got back to our boat, relieved that no one was seriously hurt. After that, shark feeding was dropped from our list of activities. Other operators continued to offer the service and it still goes on despite the occasional mishap.
My advice is to avoid shark feeding unless you are in an iron cage and well out of reach of the sharks. Shark viewing is quite different. Sharks are often around when you go for a dive. There’s no need to ignore them.
1.9 Extreme Rock Climbing
I was once a member of a mountain rescue team. We went to the aid of climbers who had run into difficulties. On two occasions we were asked to retrieve dead bodies. In both cases the climbers were unroped and climbing solo. They were not a pleasant sight.
I developed a considerable distaste for climbers who take extreme risks. But, I have great admiration for climbers who undertake extremely difficult climbs and do so safely.
Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell are two of my climbing heroes. They recently scaled the 3000ft Dawn Wall of the El Capitan rock formation in the Yosemite National Park, California (photo, above).
The pair did so as free climbers. That is to say, they didn’t use any aids to climbing. In particular, they didn’t support their weight on ropes when climbing.
But, they did use ropes for safety. The photograph shows what I mean. A rope is trailing behind the climber. Its sole purpose is to protect him should he lose his grip and fall.
The two men worked their way up the sheer rock face by jamming their hands in cracks and clasping onto minute holds with their fingertips.
The climb extended over 32 pitches ─ 32 climbing rope lengths. The pair followed a strict rule: If one of them fell then they must return to the start of the pitch and start all over again.
The climb took two-and-a-half weeks. At night they retreated to their tent and rested, ready to start climbing again the next day.
1.10 Extreme Skiing
There was a time when a 60-degree slope was regarded as the ultimate in skiing. Then, during the 1980s, those dull days passed. A new breed of skier came on the scene and realised that the sky was, quite literally, the limit.
The ultimate dream is to be taken to a remote spot by helicopter and lowered onto a high peak. Skiing on fresh powder snow, on a slope of 70-degrees or more, is full of new and exhilarating surprises.
Your presence can trigger avalanches. You must outrun them and avoid any crevasses that might appear. Hidden rocks are a menace. They are all part of the adrenaline-pumping fun that makes your downhill rush so unforgettable and rewarding.
The final triumph comes when you reach the cliff at the end of the slope. It provides a perfect platform for a base jump. You launch yourself and your parachute opens.
If all goes well, your buddies in the helicopter will have filmed your escapade and you will soon be watching it on U-tube.
If it doesn’t …
2.1 Mass Extinctions
The last mass extinction was bad news for the dinosaurs and good news for the mammals. It happened, about 65 million years ago, when a comet arrived from outer space and blasted a big hole beside what is now the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. We can be fairly certain of that because the hole is still there and distinctive debris, from the impact, accumulated as a thin layer in geological deposits.
The debris spread all around the world and can be seen almost everywhere. Below it, there are bones of dinosaurs. Above, the dinosaurs have gone. All that remains of their lineage are their distant cousins … the birds.
Mammals were around before the comet arrived and survived the deadly impact. Living with dinosaurs had been difficult. The big beasts could tear you apart with their fearsome teeth or knock you flat with a swish of their mighty tails. The best tactic was to remain small and insignificant.
All that changed with the coming of the comet. The dinosaurs vanished. The mammals could now grow as big as they liked, subject only to the laws of nature and an adequate food supply.
Sabre-toothed tigers evolved from tiny cats when conditions were favourable and shrank back down when conditions changed. That has happened many times during the 65 million years since the arrival of the comet.
The tiger was a danger to other creatures but not nearly as dangerous as the creature that emerged from the African jungle three million or so years ago. It left the rainforest and roamed the grasslands that were encroaching on its ancestral home.
An ape came down from the trees and began to walk on its hind legs. As one generation gave way to another it became more upright and, by about a million years ago, it looked very much like us.
In time, it became proficient in the use of fire and began to fashion tools. Cousins formed groups and went their separate ways. Some left Africa. The Neanderthals were one and their remains are found in Europe and the Middle East. The Denisovans are another. They lived further to the east.
We (Homo sapiens) came on the scene relatively recently and our arrival was bad news for the cousins. There was something about us that made us very difficult neighbours. We entered their territory and replaced them everywhere on planet Earth.
Forensic experts have construct detailed models of the Neanderthals. Enough skeletal remains survive for us to be confident that they provide a good likeness, right down to hair and skin colour.
The models show that our Neanderthal cousins were strongly built, with light skins, fair hair and prominent brow ridges. Their brains compared favourably in size with our own.
Dress one up in modern clothes and send him off down the street. Few would stop to take a second look. The Neanderthal would blend in. Enough of us have similar features.
Yet, we replaced (or almost replaced) the Neanderthals and the other cousins. There was something dangerous about us and it has not gone away. Our presence on this planet has been bad news for other creatures, great and small.
There are those who believe that the Earth is facing another mass extinction and we (Homo sapiens) are the cause. Each year, the list of species facing extinction grows bigger. Our exploitation of the Earth’s resources is taking a terrible toll and not just on cuddly animals.
The extinction of pandas would be tragic. Let’s not forget the things we cannot see. Tiny microbes, vital to basic life processes, are being poisoned by the ever expanding cocktail of toxic substances produced by our chemical and pharmaceutical industries.
I mentioned that we did not entirely replace the Neanderthals and Denisovans. They live on as part of us. Our ancestors interbred with the cousins.
If are of European ancestry, there is a chance that as much as six percent of the DNA, that makes you human, comes from Neanderthal forebears. If your ancestors lived in South-East-Asia, then there is a similar chance that you are related to the Denisovans. If you are of entirely African ancestry, then the chances are far less.
If you want to know more about your remote ancestry then you can join the half-million people who have participated in National Geographic’s ground-breaking Genographic Project.
They will supply a DNA Ancestry Kit. Amongst other things, you will discover if you have any Neanderthal or Denisovan ancestry. Go to:
Planet Earth is molten. It was born as a molten ball of rock and has stayed that way because radioactive elements in the planet’s core are decaying and keeping the rock hot. We are living on the surface of a huge nuclear power station.
Fortunately, it is well-behaved. The nuclear processes are jogging along peacefully. There’s no risk of a runaway reaction that would blow us up.
The same can’t be said for the thin layer of rocky crust on which we live. It’s moving around and the different bits are nudging one another in a way that is far from peaceful.
They are called tectonic plates and they push against one another like rafts on an ocean of molten rock. Usually, one plate slips under the other and pushes it up. It’s the sort of act that produces mountain ranges.
Countries, such as Japan, owe their existence to the collision of tectonic plates but it comes at a price. Land is formed but the process is not gradual. Huge pressures build up as the plates push against one another. For years nothing happens. Then something gives. Rock fractures and vast chunks of land snap to new positions. We call the event an earthquake.
Most fatalities occur when buildings collapse. Poorer countries, using old-fashioned construction methods, are badly hit. Technologically advanced countries minimise the danger by constructing buildings engineered to withstand earthquakes. They have achieved considerable success.
See Chapters 2.3 and 2.4.
They come in two varieties: Hotspot and Tectonic. Both are dangerous but the news is not all bad. Some island nations owe their existence to volcanoes and many farming communities depend on their nutrient-rich ash for their crops.
I’ll begin with the Hotspot variety. They are formed when a convective cell of hot magna (molten rock) makes its way up from the Earth’s core and burrows through the outer crust. Magna spews out and a volcano is born.
The convective cells are long-lived. They have been around for hundreds of millions of years and, during that time, the tectonic plates (Chapter 2.2) have migrated over them. Hotspots turn off and on and the result is a string of volcanoes. The Hawaiian chain is the most famous example.
The second type of volcano results from the collision of tectonic plates. One plate pushes its way under the other. Material that was formerly near the surface is transported down to regions of high temperature and pressure. It doesn’t belong there. It frequently vaporises and explosions occur. Again, the result is a volcano.
Eruptions are particularly violent when marine plates are involved. Superheated steam is produced and the resulting explosion can send millions of tonnes of material into the atmosphere.
A famous example is the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. A series of relatively mild eruptions opened fissures in the walls of the volcano allowing sea water to pour into the magma chamber. The resulting explosion destroyed most of the island and the sound could be heard in Australia, 3500 km away.
The best defence against volcanoes is evacuation. The problem is to predict when they will erupt. Authorities are loath to declare an emergency only to find that nothing happens. People get complacent when too many false warnings are issued.
I recently visited Mt Unzen in Japan. An impressive museum records its volcanic history. In 1792, 15,000 people died when Unzen erupted. It began to rumble again more recently and the entire area was evacuated.
Newsmen and volcanologists gathered to record the expected event. For days, nothing happened. Then Unzen blew its top. A plume of superheated gas and dust spurted high into the sky then came tumbling back down with the speed of an express train.
The newsmen got some superb shots before they were engulfed. They died but their cameras survived the ordeal. Video players, in the museum, enable visitors to see the oncoming dust cloud right up to the moment when the cameras stopped recording.
We used to call them tidal waves. That was misleading. Tsunamis have nothing to do with tides. Tsunamis are caused by underwater avalanches and earthquakes.
Tsu means harbour in Japanese and nami means wave.
When a tsunami is on its way water levels, in harbours, suddenly fall and that sends an unmistakable message to seamen. They heard stories about tsunamis when they were children and know what to expect.
Coastal communities in Japan are acutely aware of the risk from tsunamis. Children are brought up on tales of past events and drilled in what to do when the tsunami sirens sound. Sadly, these warnings are not always heeded.
I’ll come to that later. First a few words about what causes tsunamis. I’ll stick to Japan because I know it well and have friends who went through the horrors of the recent tsunami that wrecked their homes and released deadly material from the Fukushima nuclear plant.
Earthquakes are the main cause of tsunamis. Japan is located on the, aptly-named, Ring of Fire. It is where the Pacific tectonic plates (Chapter 2.2) push up against the Eurasian and other plates. Huge pressures build up and, sooner-or-later, something has to give.
The result is volcanoes and earthquakes. When the earthquakes occur at sea, huge volumes of water are pushed up and down. Mounds of water form and move outwards. At first they are not very impressive. Boats can ride can them without difficulty … but it doesn’t last.
The mounds contain vast amounts of energy. While they are far out at sea the energy is contained within a big volume of water. When they reach the shallows the energy is compressed into a small volume. A gigantic wave forms and draws in water as it races forward. The sea retreats from the land then returns with devastating fury.
All of us have seen pictures of the recent tsunami that hit Japan. It was caused by the most powerful earthquake ever recorded. Once caught in its raging waters victims had little chance of escape. It made no difference if they could swim or not. Everything was pulverised into small pieces.
All coastal communities have tsunami evacuation plans. People are drilled in what to do. Sadly, these precautions are not always followed. There are harrowing tales of people who failed to act. The most heart-rendering involve children.
At one school, the kids were lined up in the designated assembly area and told to wait until the emergency services arrived. That didn’t happen. The emergency people had other things on their hands. They couldn’t be everywhere at the same time.
Most of the children died when the waters rushed in. Some were saved by a young teacher who defied her superiors and lead them to higher ground.
At another school, a frantic mother arrived and bundled as many children as she could into her car. The teachers had cars and there was a school bus. None was used. Children and teachers died together.
There is a lesson here: Don’t wait for others to look after you in an emergency. They might never come. Know what has to be done and do it yourself.
My wife and I recently drove down the coastal strip devastated by the recent tsunami. A lot is designated as National Park and very beautiful. The signs of the tsunami are everywhere.
The authorities were widely criticised for being slow to react when the tsunami struck. Now, with typical Japanese efficiency, they are making the entire coastline Tsunami safe.
Gigantic walls are being built in some places. In others, the land is being raised by thirty or more metres. We were reminded of the opencast mines in Australia. Hills are being carted away and deposited in valleys. My photograph gives an idea of what is being done.
Finally, a few words for readers who don’t live in earthquake zones. You might think you are safe from tsunamis. Don’t be so sure. Tsunamis can be caused by underwater landslides. They are rare but they happen.
Tsunamis deposit marine debris on land. There is evidence of such deposits in Scotland and they have been linked with an underwater landslide, off the coast of Norway, towards the end of the last Ice Age.
Marine debris in the Sydney region is believed to result from a tsunami caused by and underwater landslide off the coast of New Zealand.
We call them tropical cyclones in Australia. Further to our north they are known as typhoons. They don’t develop close to the equator or at high latitudes. If you live in Britain or Singapore you won’t encounter one unless it has come in from somewhere else.
Hurricanes are formed when air starts to rise over a hotspot in the ocean. It spirals in from the sides and forces produced by the Earth’s rotation take control. If you have ever walked around on a merry-go-round you will have an idea of what’s involved.
The outcome is that hurricanes in the southern hemisphere rotate clockwise. Those in the northern hemisphere go in the other direction.
Hurricanes don’t form near the equator because the differential forces, caused by the Earth’s rotation, are too small to take effect. They don’t form at high latitudes because sea temperatures are too low.
As the air spirals in towards the eye of the hurricane it speeds up. It does so for the same reason that ice skaters spin faster when they move their limbs in towards their bodies. Angular momentum is conserved in both case.
Hurricanes can be regarded as gigantic heat engines working between a hot sea and a cold upper atmosphere. They draw their energy from the sea and weaken when they reach land.
Damage is caused by devastating winds and flooding. The ferocious winds, that circulate about the eye of the hurricane, mound up sea water and raise sea levels. If a cyclone reaches land at high tide the flooding can be severe.
Finally, there is a myth that water behaves like a hurricane when it goes down a plug hole. It doesn’t. The differential forces, caused by the Earth’s rotation, are far too small. Water goes down clockwise and anticlockwise no matter what hemisphere you are in. Try it yourself.
Hurricanes are big, slow-moving giants, dependant on the sea for their energy. Tornados develop on land. They form in minutes and travel at frightening speeds, demolishing everything in their path.
Tornados occur in many parts of the world but nowhere is as prone to them as the United States. The conditions are just right. An extensive stretch of hot, low-lying land is required. And it must be close to an extensive mountain range.
How about the Midwest and Rockies?
They sound about right. Much of the Midwest is low-lying and no one would question the grandeur of the Rockies. The high peaks remain snow-capped even in summer.
We have a heat engine!
And it’s one that we are unable to control. There’s no way we can stop hotspots developing on the plains. And, when cold air flows out from the Rockies, the heat engine will burst into life.
The hot air goes up fast. Air is sucked in from the sides. The slightest windshear causes the whole lot to rotate. Similar forces operate as with hurricanes. They are on a smaller scale but no less intense.
There is no defence against the power of a tornado. The devastating storms emerge swiftly and race along at the speed of an express train. Early records say the Plains Indians had underground shelters. Modern versions are used today.
Some enthusiasts chase tornados. Like the volcanologists and newsmen, who flock to active volcanoes, they take spectacular pictures. Some pay with their lives.
Lightning is what happens when electrical charge is picked up from the ground, by a rising current of air, and carried to immense heights. Huge voltage differences develop and the inevitable spark occurs.
You can create the same sort of spark by rubbing various materials together. The famous combination is amber and cat’s fur. But you don’t need amber and there’s no need to torment the cat. Lots of combinations work.
Lightning has caused many fatalities. The victims are usually out in the open. If you are on a mountain during a thunder storm, keep off ridges or you might become a lightning conductor.
And don’t fly kites into thunder clouds. The American statesman and scientist, Benjamin Franklin, did that during one of his famous electrical experiments. Lightning struck and the world lost one of its most brilliant minds.
Wildfires occur all around the world and are particularly dangerous in regions with wet winters and hot dry summers. California and Australia are particularly at risk but they are, by no means, alone.
Fires occur by accident, lit on purpose or caused by lightning. The outcome is always the same. Huge areas are affected and difficult to control.
I have lived in areas at risk and become acutely aware of the dangers. A common mistake is to think that wildfires move slowly. Often they do. But, a change in conditions can cause them to advance rapidly … sometimes at terrifying speeds.
A mist of volatile gases may develop over pine and gumtrees during exceptionally hot conditions. The smallest spark can cause them to ignite and spread destruction far and wide.
Even grass fires can move swiftly.
I recall a tragic case when motorists left their cars to watch a grassfire. The wind suddenly changed and they were engulfed. If they had stayed in their cars the fire would have swept past and they would have been safe.
It takes a while for vehicles to catch fire. That’s something to remember. But don’t think vehicles are totally fireproof. There is a limit to what they can stand.
And don’t think that buildings are safe because they are constructed from steel-and-concrete. Fire storms develop in wildfires. Air is drawn towards hotspots and swirling cells of superhot gas are produced. They hurtle around like superhot tornados.
I once worked at Mount Stromlo Observatory, Canberra. The famous astronomical research institute is situated on a mountain that was once covered in pine trees. The trees burned down some years ago and most of the observatory was destroyed.
Friends showed me around the ruins. I surveyed the blackened scene and shared their amazement. A steel-and-concrete building had been reduced to rubble. It hadn’t burned down … it had blown down.
A tornado-like cell of superheated gas had emerged from the forest, crossed a carpark and smashed into it. A nearby building was badly scorched but otherwise undamaged. The same sort of thing happened in suburbs at the bottom of the mountain. My old house was safe but the house next door had been blown apart and set alight.
Firefighting authorities advise people to have an evacuation plan and follow it. Get well clear of the blaze. Don’t go up onto your roof and watch it as some people do.
2.9 Freak Waves
My first scuba club bought a zodiac. The famous inflatable boat is excellent for diving but doesn’t come cheaply. We had to make it pay for itself and one way was to provide a rescue service for sports fishermen crossing the sandbars that develop at the mouths of most Australian rivers.
We moved in circles in front of the bar and waited for the fishing boats to approach. The trick was to cross the bar in the slack water between oncoming waves.
Most boats got it right. Some misjudged and we had to go to their rescue. Very occasionally, everything seemed to be going right … then a freak wave appeared.
It didn’t follow the normal pattern. The wave rose up, as if from nowhere, and caught the fishermen by surprise.
If you go up onto a cliff and watch waves milling around in a bay you will get an idea of how freak waves form. From that vantage point they don’t look quite as freakish as before. You will see that waves interact when they meet. Peaks and troughs cancel. Peaks reinforce one another when they come together.
Statistically, it’s only a matter of time before the peaks of a tremendous number of waves come together and a monster wave is produced. Down through the centuries, seamen have talked about them.
Earnest Shackleton’s epic tale of survival in the Antarctic, in 1916, was almost scuppered when he encountered a monster wave as he piloted his lifeboat from Elephant Island to South Georgia.
In 1995, the liner Queen Elizabeth II was hit by a 33 metre (100ft) wave which, in the words of the captain, “came out of the darkness and looked like the White Cliffs of Dover.”.
The lighthouse in the photograph is on Flannan Island off the west coast of Scotland. In 1900, a boat arrived to relieve the lighthouse keepers and found they were missing. Heavy equipment was strewn around the base of the lighthouse, an iron railing was buckled and a boulder, weighing at least a tonne, was found on the steps.
The evidence points to a gigantic wave striking the lighthouse. The keepers were presumably outside at the time and swept away.
2.10 El Nino
As I write, the world is gripped by a severe El Nino event. We hear the odd-sounding Spanish term every day. It rolls off the lips of news readers. We have grown used to it. But what the hell does El Nino mean?
In short it means: “Little Boy”.
That’s not very informative so I shall go back five hundred years to the time when the Spanish arrived on the Pacific coast of South America. They were great fishermen then just as they are now.
Most of the time a cold current ran up the coast from the frigid waters of the south. It was rich in nutrients and that produced the right conditions for lots of fish. But, from time-to-time, the current ceased and warm nutrient-poor water flowed in from the equatorial regions. Fish numbers dropped off and that was very disappointing.
The phenomenon tended to occur at Christmas and the fishermen associated it with the coming of El Nino, otherwise known as the Christ Child.
The image at the top comes from NOAA: The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It is based on space satellite observations and shows an unusual band of hot water, in red. That typifies a severe El Nino event.
The opposite phenomenon, which occurs when the equatorial waters are unusually cold, is called La Nina (Little Girl) and is less destructive.
The El Nino/La Nina effect produces severe weather conditions, including tornados, blizzards, hurricanes and torrential downpours. It also effects the monsoon belt.
The phenomenon was discovered by a British meteorologist in the nineteenth century. He was working in, what was then, British India and was assigned the task of discovering why the monsoons sometimes fail. His brilliant investigation led to the discovery that the cause was far away in the Pacific Ocean. Terms like Southern Oscillation Event were used to describe it.
2.10 Climate Change
In this Chapter I’ll try to put climate change in its historical perspective. Most of what I say will be about the passing of the last ice age and how it changed the course of human history. The map shows the extent of the ice in the northern hemisphere when the last ice age was at its peak.
Ice ages have come and gone in regular cycles during the last three million years. They have been carefully researched and their cause is well understood.
Planet Earth moves around the Sun on an elliptical orbit and its polar axis wobbles like a spinning top. I’ll not attempt to explain the complexity. The main point is that the amount of sunlight, falling on the landmasses of the northern hemisphere, fluctuates back and forth over periods of tens of thousands of years.
When the northern summers receive a reduced amount of radiation, ice gathers and conditions are ripe for another ice age. Geologists have studied the coming and going of the ice sheets and their observations fit the astronomical model.
An ice age has just passed. If the model continues to be a good predictor, the next one will arrive in about thirty thousand years.
That is a big IF.
A dangerous creature has emerged on Planet Earth and that creature is US. We are fouling our nest with the noxious products of our industries. The climate models that were good predictors in the past might not work any longer. The past is far better understood than the future and I’ll stick to that
Ice cores from the glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica indicate that the last Ice Age ended about fifteen thousand years ago. But it did not end abruptly. It ended in fits and bursts and its consequences are still with us.
The first was the melting of the ice sheets that covered much of what is now the United States, Europe and China. Human populations moved north and powerful nations emerged on land that was once the domain of polar bears.
It didn’t happen overnight.
The first setback came when a natural dam broke somewhere on what is now the border of Canada and the USA. Vast amounts of fresh (not salty) water, from melting ice, flowed into the North Atlantic and disrupted a current delivering warm water to northern parts of Europe.
We now know it as the Gulf Stream. Its loss was a disaster for the northern people. Its return has enabled prosperous nations to arise in Britain and other lands that would, otherwise, have a climate similar to Labrador.
That’s the story of our lives. Nothing stays the same.
The melting ice caused sea levels to rise. People roaming the tundra expanse of northern Europe found themselves cut off from their relatives by encroaching seas. Britain became an island and the trip to Scandinavia could no longer be made on foot.
The same happened elsewhere. Geologists have discovered that, in parts of northern Australia, the encroaching seas would have come in so fast that people would have seen their tribal lands inundated in a single lifetime.
I’ll stick to Europe and the recent past.
Historical records show that the Mediterranean lands were much wetter during the early years of the Roman Empire. Conditions were ideal for growing crops. Then, around the year 400, a cold period set in. Some scientists associate this with an Icelandic volcano. Some historians believe it was the driving force that caused Germanic and Slavic peoples to leave their lands and invade the Empire. At any rate, the Western Roman Empire ended soon after.
Global temperatures began to rise around the year 1000 and a period of immense change followed. Populations soared and, by the year 1200, large cities had sprung up. It was an age of great prosperity but it didn’t last.
Another cold period set in abound the year 1300 and lasted well into the nineteenth century. It is now known as the Little Ice Age. Napoleon invaded Russia during this period and was driven back by the cold winter. The German’s invaded Russia during a cold change that occurred in the early 1940s and suffered a similar fate.
Climate governs the fate of nations and effects all of us. If you want to know more, search the internet using tags: ice age, little ice age, woods hole oceanographic, noaa, scientific american.
3.1 Spiked Drinks
I set up a backpacker hostel, at one point in my messy career, and ran it for a number of years. During that time, several of my female guests fell victim to spiked drinks. I can think of five cases. There could have been more. The so-called rape drug was used on each occasion.
When I say “rape drug”, I’m not talking about an aphrodisiac. The girls weren’t plied with drinks to break down their inhibitions and make them feel sexy. They were given a drug that rendered them senseless. Worse still, they were so confused that it was impossible for them to work out exactly what had happened. All they knew was that they had been violated and could only guess who had done it. To avoid such a traumatic experience, remember the three golden rules
- Don’t accept drinks from people you can’t trust
- Don’t leave your glass unattended
- Avoid getting drunk
And remember that you can be handed a spiked drink anywhere … not just in bars. I know one young lady who fell victim to spiking at the office party of a leading international company. The incident occurred in Sydney but could have happened anywhere. Her drink was spiked by colleagues. They were out to humiliate her and succeeded. The problem was to discover exactly what had happened and gather proof. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence but nothing that couldn’t be denied.
This brings me back to the point I made earlier. Victims are always befuddled. So, if you suspect someone is the victim of a spiked drink, take care of them and make sure the police are called. Bar staff are often reluctant to do this so you may have to do it yourself. Insist on a full medical examination and do your best to see that blood and urine samples are taken before any drugs are discharged from the body.
Girls are particularly vulnerable but guys are not immune. Shortly before we sold our hostel there was a strange incident that took several days to unravel. I was woken in the early hours of the morning by yelling and screaming from one of the private rooms. I pulled on a pair of shorts and went to see what was happening.
As I left my house, three figures emerged from the main hostel building and ran into the street. I figured they were part of the disturbance but had no time to investigate. The yelling was still going on and something had to be done about it.
I entered the hostel and was pleased to see my friend Sean in the corridor. He worked as a geologist’s assistant and stayed with us when on leave. Sean was outside one of the rooms and a torrent of foul language was coming from inside. We banged on the door and told them to “Open Up”. When nothing happened, I unlocked the door and threw it open.
We were confronted by a woman I recognised as a local prostitute. She pushed past us and fled, leaving a fully-dressed young man on the bed. He was making a heap of noise and appeared to be hopelessly drunk. We did our best to calm him but without success. In the end, I called the police and the guy was taken away.
I thought that was the end of the matter but it wasn’t. The next day the young man reappeared claiming I had robbed him of hundreds of dollars. He was in a hysterical state and I had no doubt he believed what he was saying. Inevitably, the police were called again.
Days passed and the young man’s mother became involved. With her help, we were able to piece together what had happened. It seems her son was a shy lad who had just finished work on a farming property. He arrived in town with his pockets bulging with money and went into a bar where he met some new chums. They spiked his drink and amused themselves at his expense. Their final act was to accompany him back to his hostel room, finding a prostitute on the way. When Sean disturbed them, they fled with the young man’s money.
3.2 Honey Trap (Aussie Style)
Some friends once invited me to become a partner in their nightclub. I had a good look at the proposal and decided it was not for me. In the process, I learned a lot about the nightclub scene.
In Chapter 3.1, I talk about the hazards faced by female patrons of nightclubs. The girls are not alone. Nasty things can happen guys.
As a customer, you meet your first hazard at the door. The posh term is security personnel. Most people know them as bouncers. Some are well-qualified. Others are not. I’m amazed the industry hasn’t smartened up its act. We are still hearing stories of undue force and frightening injuries to patrons who refuse to take orders from overweight oafs who think they have a licence to punch and kick. Don’t argue with the sods and don’t think the problem is confined to any one country.
Incidentally, if you get a job as a bouncer and work in a garrison city, avoid fights with guys with short hair. There’s a chance they’re in the army and trained to kill. While I was researching my friends’ nightclub, a fight broke out and spilt onto the street. The bouncers fought the army and came off second best. The military police were called in to prevent serious injury and the club was declared off-limits to the troops. That was a disaster. The boys spent freely and without them the club went bust.
I return to my main topic: hazards faced by patrons.
Guys on holiday often get it into their heads to go out for a night on the town. They yearn for excitement and go in search of female company. Some strike it lucky and find some lonely ladies who share their desire for a harmless one-night-stand. Most don’t. They return to their beds disappointed but unscathed. The unlucky ones fall victim to a sting … and that’s something to be avoided.
Three basic rules apply:
- Don’t let your hormones rule your head
- Beware of fascinating women
- Avoid group sex.
Imagine that you and your mates go off to explore the fleshpots of a new town. You fancy a bit of excitement and are drawn to the bright lights of a nightclub. You make your way past the bouncers and reach the reception desk. There’s an entrance fee for men but women are let in free. That’s encouraging. The club clearly wants to attract unaccompanied girls and you see a group at a table. You join them and soon get talking. Everything goes swimmingly. They’re just the sort of chicks you’ve dreamt of … no inhibitions and out for a bit of fun.
After a while, they invite you back to their place to watch porno videos and get to know one another better. It’s too good a chance to miss and, half-sloshed, you and your mates pile into the girls’ cars. After a drive into the depths of suburbia you arrive at a small house. Videos go on and bras come off. The girls start to undress you. One of your mates is preparing for action when headlights appear in the driveway. Vehicles screech to a halt. The front door bursts open and a mob of men bursts in. They accuse you of raping their wives. Fists fly. The girls flee and you’re beaten up.
I came across three incidents of this sort. The guys were usually in their mid-twenties. They were always robbed and their injuries were sometimes severe. I spoke to contacts in the local police and was told they knew what was going on but could do nothing until someone was prepared to lay complaints. As far as I know that never happened. The victims were too embarrassed to speak about what had happened.
3.3 Honey Trap (Chinese style)
In the last chapter I warned about the hazards faced by guys who go out for a night on the town in Australia. Visitors to China are not immune either … as I learned on a trip to Xian.
The ancient city is famous for its Terracotta Warriors. What is not so widely known is that Xian is a major industrial centre with some very rough districts.
As usual, my wife insisted that we stay in a hotel. Had I been by myself, I would have made for a backpacker hostel. I owned one at the time and liked to frequent the scene.
China has a lot of backpacker hostels and many are run by Westerners. I visited one for a chat with the owner. He came from Texas and most of his guests were American. We exchanged stories and he told me about a recent incident.
A group of young guys was staying with him. They had just finished college and were on a round-the-world trip to sample life beyond the confines of polite, middle-class America.
“Lambs to the slaughter.”
That was how he described it.
There were five of them. Two had never been in a bar before. That was a new experience. What followed went far beyond anything they had imagined.
They bought beers and were sipping away when a young man approached their table. He was dressed in the latest fashionable gear and spoke English with an American accent. They got chatting and, after a few drinks, the young fellow produced some photographs of girls.
“What did they think of them?”
The boys said they looked pretty good. The young man said they could get to know them. The girls were keen to earn a bit of money. They charged for sex but at a very low price when expressed in American dollars.
“Only sixteen … very clean.”
Two of the boys had the good sense to leave at once and head back to the hostel. The others went off with their new friend. He found a taxi and they were taken to a small house in a run-down part of the city. A woman answered the door and they were shown into a poorly-lit room.
Five minutes passed and some girls arrived. They were not as good looking as those in the photographs but they were young and their price was even lower than the boys expected. They paid up. Their new friend vanished and the girls began to undress.
They knew no English but that didn’t matter. The young ladies knew about sex and were far more experienced than any of the boys. They formed pairs and were preparing for action when the police arrived.
Uniformed officers stormed into the room and issued dire warnings in English. Having sex with underage girls was a serious crime in China. They could go to jail for years.
The boys were shattered. Their parents would be told. Worse still, their folks would be obliged to pay a fortune in legal fees to get them off the charges. Not surprisingly, they were relieved to discover that there was a way out.
All they had to do was hand over every item of value in their possession, including credit cards. They agreed and were taken to cash machines. Their available funds were withdrawn, their shoes were taken from them and they were left beside the road, penniless and in bare feet.
There is a misconception about China. Some people think the country is ruled with an iron hand and there is no crime. Don’t believe it. China has a law-and-order problem like everywhere else.
The men in police uniforms were perhaps police … perhaps not. The incident was never properly investigated. The boys were advised not to take it up with the Chinese authorities. They were too humiliated and embarrassed to report it to the American consulate.
3.4 Real Lesbian Vampire Killers
Okay. There’s a movie with a similar name and you don’t believe anything like it could happen in real life. So did a friend of mine and she has regretted it ever since.
She was working for a regional TV station and received a telephone call from a colleague. He had a bizarre story about a pack of lesbians who beheaded a man and drank his blood. Some women had been taken into police custody and were being questioned about a headless corpse in a riverside park. He couldn’t vouch for anything but she would have a fantastic scoop if the story turned out to be true.
This was back in 1989. My friend knew I had contacts in the police. Could I make some enquiries and see what I could come up with?
I phoned around and failed to discover anything. My friend wasn’t surprised. The story was too good to be true. It was the sort of false lead that media people give to others as a prank.
Two days later the story broke. It was true and very nasty. Five young women, embroiled in a lesbian relationship, had lured a forty-seven-year-old man to a park on the banks of the Brisbane River with promises of sex. Having got him there, they stabbed him 27 times. The attack was so brutal that he was almost decapitated. Uncorroborated testimony alleged that the ringleader of the group, Tracey Wiggington, drank the victim’s blood.
3.5 Money Laundering
Money laundering is what the bad guys do when they have dirty money from an illegal operation and want to wash it clean. This usually involves passing it off as the proceeds of a legitimate business.
Suppose you are a good guy, trying to make an honest living, and find yourself in competition with people who don’t care if they make a profit. If it suits their purpose, they will undercut you at every opportunity.
Some friends of mine found themselves in that position. Like me they had set up a backpacker hostel. I got into the industry through the diving industry. They were in banking in Melbourne and wanted to leave the cut-and-thrust life of the big city for a tranquil life in the tropical wonderland of North Queensland.
They bought their hostel with their savings and a bank loan. It was one of many in the tourist Mecca of the Whitsundays. Competition was fierce and they soon discovered that they had to take their hostel bus to the main bus station to pick up backpackers.
That was a revelation.
Hostels were competing to offer the lowest price. One was a huge resort and it was prepared to put people up for free. My friends didn’t lower their price and found there were people who associated dirt-cheap prices with dirt-cheap quality. They returned with a few customers but not as many as they had expected.
With their background, they were well-qualified to make enquiries. They soon discovered that the big resort’s previous owners had gone bust. They’d spent a fortune setting up the place and had failed because there weren’t enough up-market tourists to support their lavish project.
The new owners were running the establishment as a backpacker resort. They had taken out a huge bank loan. The interest payments were colossal. My friends decided there was no way they could service the debt from the resort’s takings. The logical conclusion was that they would soon go bust like the previous owners … but they didn’t.
Even with a ridiculously low bed price they stayed afloat. What about bar takings? Could they be sufficient? That seemed unlikely. If you want to make money from booze and food it doesn’t make sense to put up your customers at a give-away price.
My friends went to have a look and discovered a lot of activity but not enough cash flow to satisfy the bank. Then their presence was noticed. While sipping drinks at the bar they were approached by one of the resort’s owners, told to stop snooping and clear off.
Months went by and the situation got worse. Fights were breaking out at the bus station and one driver had his leg broken when he was hit by a backpacker bus. The region’s reputation, as a tourist destination, was under threat and the local authorities took steps to calm things down. They called a meeting of the warring parties and picked a hotel as a suitable venue.
The day of the meeting duly arrived and the participants turned up at the appointed hour. It wasn’t difficult to tell them apart. The shire council people wore suits and the hostel owners were dressed in the smart casual attire that was fashionable in the tourist industry at the time.
They contrasted with the partners in the big resort who wore silk shirts, gold medallions and expensive watches that dangled ostentatiously from their ample wrists. The meeting got off to a bad start and ended abruptly when one of the hostel owners had a beer glass smashed in his face.
The attacker was a senior partner in the resort. A charge of assault was duly brought and he was summoned to appear in court. Before that could happen, the man fled the country to avoid arrest on drug-related charges. Interpol entered the act and he was extradited back to Australia.
As far as I can make out, he and his partners were working a scam that went something like this. The resort was purchased at a time of high inflation with money loaned from the bank. Black money from the sale of drugs was passed off as hostel takings and used to service the debt. Interest payments are tax deductible so nothing was lost to the tax office. If everything had gone according to plan, the black money would have reappeared as legitimate capital gain when the property was sold.
Our lives are becoming more complicated and this makes us vulnerable to predators and other dangers. Knowledge is the best defence. In short, we have to be streetwise. In this chapter, I highlight a few of the dangers facing us today.
It is appallingly easy to have your identity stolen and that can cause serious problems. A friend of mine discovered this the hard way. She acquired a criminal record when the criminal who stole her identity went before the courts to answer charges of fraud committed in her name. The incident was traumatic and took months to resolve.
- Don’t put documents that can be used to establish identity in the recycle bin. Shred or otherwise destroy rate notices, bank statements, electricity bills etc.
- Be exceedingly cautious when divulging sensitive information over the internet or telephone.
She is amazed that so much personal information is available through the social media. Amongst other things, people give birth dates and places of birth. These are the first things an identity thief will look for.
The world is full of John Does and Richard Roes. Some are very ordinary people. Others have special skills.
I recently learned of a medical centre who employed a doctor who lacked the necessary qualifications. He had the same name as a person whose name appeared on the graduation lists of an overseas university. Months went by before his deception was uncovered. His trick was to prescribe placebos to people with (seemingly) trivial complaints and refer the rest to specialists. Eventually, he sent too many people to the wrong specialist and was found out.
I worked as a journalist for several years, specialising in science and engineering. During that time, a leading newspaper decided to add a higher education supplement to its pages. They advertised for an editor and employed a fellow with a PhD in something or other. I met him. He was an entertaining guy and we got on well. But his newspaper job didn’t last. Someone took a look at his credentials and discovered that he was a graduate of a hitherto unknown American college. Further enquiries showed that he had set up the college and awarded himself its only degree. I found the incident amusing but hid my mirth. It was highly embarrassing to some very influential people and I didn’t want to ruffle their feathers.
- By good luck, my wife was at hand to save me from disaster. Our email connection was giving trouble and she had been talking to Telstra (Australia’s telecom) about the issue. So, when the phone rang and a man said he was from Telstra, I wasn’t suspicious. He said he needed to connect to my computer and run some tests. I called my wife and she knew the routine. You must ask for the man’s identification number then phone your telecom and check him out. The guy didn’t check out. If he had got into to my computer, he could have gained access to banking and other sensitive information.
- You pick up your phone and a man says your line is about to be disconnected because a bill has not been paid. You say you paid by internet transfer and are told that the funds were not received; if you don’t pay immediately, the phone will be cut off and you will have to pay a hefty reconnection fee. However, this can be avoided by providing credit card details. You demand identification. The man says he can prove he is from telecom. “Please put down your phone and try to make a call. I will disconnect the line. When you find your phone is dead you will know I am genuine.”. You do as you are told and find the line is dead. A minute later, he calls back. If you are taken in by the scam, you will believe that only a telecom employee can disconnect the line. This is not true. All your caller had to do was press his mute button and leave his phone turned on.
- You are working with your computer and a message appears: Your Computer is Running Slow. Don’t be taken in by this sort of scam. The people posting the message want to sell you software. They don’t know if your computer is going slow or not What they do know is that all computers go slow if they get clogged with data. Computer operating systems have ways of dealing with the issue. Just go to your dashboard and follow the prompts. It won’t cost you anything.
- Spiked drinks: Don’t accept drinks from people you can’t trust and don’t leave your glass unattended in bars and at office parties, etc. Don’t assume that the so-called “rape drug” is used exclusively for sex or that it is used exclusively against women. (Chapter 3.1)
- Mugging: If a thief demands something, give it to him. Don’t fight unless you are highly proficient in the martial arts. Even then, use caution. People have gone to jail for inflicting injuries on muggers. I’m personally aware of one case in which the legal fees far exceeded anything the mugger could have got from his victim. There are people who are paid to deal with muggers. They are called police and their advice is to throw the item (wallet etc.) in one direction and run in the other.
- Fights: My karate instructor gave this advice: if attacked, fight your way out, run and make lots of noise … elbows, knees and feet can deliver powerful blows … biting and gouging are effective counter measures.
- Vehicles (A): Don’t leave your car unlocked. Women have returned to their cars and driven off only to find a man hiding on the back seat. Gangs are reported to have initiation ceremonies in which the initiate kidnaps a woman and takes her back to the clubhouse.
- Vehicles (B): Don’t leave children alone in cars. This is illegal in Australia where there is a serious risk of heat exhaustion. There is also a risk of kidnap. This poses problems for mothers with small children at filling stations. In a recent case (in the UK) a kidnap was averted when an observant staff member raised the alarm.
- Vehicles (C): If you get in your car and see a piece of paper stuck to your rear window, be immediately suspicious. This technique is being used in the UK for carjacking. The aim is to get the driver out of the car with the keys still in the ignition. You can guess what happens next.
- Vehicles (D): If you are driving along a remote country road and see a car pulled up with a forlorn looking woman and baby beside it, don’t stop to offer assistance unless you are the sort of person who can handle a group of men with iron bars. I first learnt of this frightening scam from friends who had been holidaying in Spain. It has since spread to other countries. If you have the slightest doubts about the woman’s predicament, drive on and use your phone to call the emergency services.
Rush of testosterone
In almost all societies, young males are far more likely to die violently than young females. Let’s face it guys, we want a bit of excitement in our lives and sometimes get more than is good for us.
- A night-on-the-town can be an attractive proposition, particularly when you are away from home and unlikely to encounter anyone you might know. The bright lights beckon and you meet an uninhibited bunch of girls who share your desire to know one another better. Beware, things aren’t always what they seem (Chapter 3.2).
- You want an enjoyable evening with friends. A nightclub beckons and all goes well until fights break out and one of your party falls victim to an unprovoked attack. An alarming number of young men have been seriously injured, even killed, in mindless violence. In many countries, the danger period is when the clubs close in the early hours of the morning. If such things don’t happen where you live then you have nothing to worry about. Otherwise, heed the advice of the local authorities.
- My karate instructor taught a way of dealing with attacks by a group intent on causing grievous bodily harm. He would pick one of us as the potential victim and get the rest of the class to mount an attack. If the victim got it right, he would identify a ringleader, grab him and use him as a human shield. His next trick was to tell the rest of the class that he would break the guy’s arm if we didn’t clear off. I’m prepared to believe that such tactics work but prefer to stay out of situations where they might be needed.
Learn how to deal with bullying. It has become a serious problem on social media sites. If necessary, seek expert advice. Never forget that bullies are SICK, SICK, SICK individuals who crave power. Your best defence is to ignore them. Privacy settings often enable you to shut bullies out. If they don’t work, click logoff and don’t log back in. Find nicer people to mix with.
Note: If you have advice of your own, send it to me and I’ll post it on my blog. I can be contacted at: email@example.com
The notorious criminal organisation arose in Sicily and spread throughout Italy. Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini put it down but it resurfaced after his death, in 1945, and steadily extended its reach. A sceptical Italian electorate was suspicious of Mafia involvement in the running of their country but hard evidence was difficult and dangerous to obtain.
That changed, in the early 1990s, when the Red Brigade came on the scene. The communist-inspired terrorist group kidnapped and murdered prominent politicians and others it regarded as “enemies of the people”. Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti established an elite force to hunt it down and its members went about their work with coolness and precision. They eliminated the Red Brigade then turned their attention to the Mafia.
That was a disaster for Andreotti. The Mafia bosses squealed when they were taken into custody and all sorts of information came out. Andreotti was implicated. Some even called him the “boss of bosses” … the greatest Mafia Godfather ever.
His ruling Christian Democratic Party disintegrated. And it didn’t end there. The opposition socialists were found to be similarly tainted. They fell apart and the resulting upheaval brought Silvio Berlusconi to power.
My Italian friends remind me that powerful criminal organisations are not confined to their country. Labels count for a lot. Give something a brand name and it takes off. If you fail to label an organisation, or give it a respectable label, its criminal activities can pass unnoticed.
Mafia is a powerful brand name.
A recent government enquiry in my country, Australia, has exposed collusion between militant unions and construction firms. State governments have come under pressure to let contracts without going to tender. That’s the sort of thing that was very damaging to Andreotti.
I don’t doubt that similar malpractices occur elsewhere. Readers can exercise their minds and think about what might be happening in their countries.
My Japanese friends have no doubt that their government is influenced by the Yakuza. That’s the name given to their Mafia. Similar organisations in China are referred to as the Tongs.
For more about the Yakuza: Chapter 6.5.
Photo: disgraced Prime Minister Andreotti.
3.8 Funny Money
Money is one of the greatest inventions we humans have ever made. It is also one of the least understood and that can lead to a lot of problems. Nations and individuals have seen their hard-earned savings vanish when money suddenly lost its value.
Our stone age ancestors used unworked flints as money. Then metal came on the scene and flint lost its value. For a while, bronze reigned supreme. Hordes of bronze axes have been found. They were used as money but their value would have melted away with the coming of iron.
The wonder metal replaced bronze. Pieces were hammered into standard shapes and used as money. They served that purpose until advances in technology enabled iron to be manufactured in large quantities.
Scarcity is vital with money.
For a while, that basic principal was enshrined in the Gold Standard. Banknotes were tied to bars of gold in bank vaults. A holder of a banknote could, in principal, demand gold in exchange.
That didn’t happen very often and banks found they could issue far more notes than were backed by gold. Responsible governments laid down rules. Banks might, for example, be restricted to ten banknotes for every equivalent amount of gold in their vaults. Irresponsible governments let the printing presses role in an attempt to spend their way out of debt.
In the 1930s, Germans saw their savings become worthless when their government adopted that tactic. Adolf Hitler came to power in the mayhem that followed.
The world has gone off the Gold Standard. There wasn’t enough gold to go round and the system became unworkable. Today, banks are required to be adequately “capitalized”. That means they must hold enough “real” assets.
Unfortunately, these “real” assets are often “real estate”. That can lead to a Global Financial Crisis if the banks lend to the wrong people, mortgage payments lapse and property prices collapse.
For a while, money took the form of banking entries on sheets of paper. The advent of computing meant that paper was no longer needed and the entries could be stored on computers.
The advent of the internet meant that money could hurtle around the world from one computer to another. Money is now little more than binary bits in cyberspace.
See Chapter 4.5: Cyber Warfare.
4.1 Biological Warfare
It’s not a new idea. Biological warfare has been around for a long time. Some of the earliest records in human history talk about it. Our ancestors knew how to spread infection and put their knowledge to diabolical use when fighting their enemies.
Scythian archers infected their arrows with mucous from decomposing bodies as far back as 400 BC. Persian, Greek and Roman sources give examples of dead animals being used to contaminate wells. In 190 BC Hannibal won a naval victory by catapulting vessels filled with venomous snakes into enemy ships.
The catapults got bigger and, by the year 1200, dead horses were being hurled over city walls to spread disease amongst the unfortunate citizens. The favorite delivery weapon was the trebuchet, pictured here. Its other use was to knock down walls
The arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the Americas was disastrous for the local people. The Spanish didn’t need to wage germ warfare. Their presence was all that was needed.
The ancestors of the native Americans crossed the Bering Straits towards the end of the last ice age and failed to bring a full quota of germs with them. As a consequence, their descendant’s immunity to disease was limited.
Diseases, to which Europeans were immune, swept through the two continents. In many parts, population numbers fell by as much as 90 percent. Great and powerful nations were conquered by a handful of men. The Incas lost their land and their gold.
Smallpox was one of the main killers. Many Europeans caught it during their lives and carried the disfiguring scars. They were resistant to the disease. The American natives were not.
There are tales of them being given clothes and blankets smeared with puss from smallpox victims. The tales sound true. It would be surprising if the conquistadors did not include germ warfare in their arsenal of weapons.
Similar tales are told of the early British settlers in North America and the British colonisers of Australia. These were frequently denied by government bodies set up to investigate them. The modern tendency is to believe that they are, at least, partly true. It would be surprising if some land-hungry colonists did not resort to nasty measures to rid the land of its original owners.
Of one thing we can be sure: The native populations of North America and Australia were decimated by introduced diseases.
Advances in medical science have opened up some horrifying possibilities. German and Japanese scientists are notorious for the experiments they carried out on captive people during the Second World War. I don’t doubt that the accusations are true but feel bound to remember that history is always harsh towards the losing side and keen to place the winners in a favourable light.
Most scientifically advanced nations have produced biological weapons. So far, international agreements have been successful in preventing their use. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Finally, take a look at the suburb physical condition of the Aboriginal Australians in the photograph (above). You can see the same fine physiques in photographs of “primitive” people in the jungles of the Amazon. Few people in our modern “advanced” societies come anywhere near them.
So much for our modern lifestyle!
4.2 Chemical Warfare
Ancient manuscripts, dating back thousands of years, record the use of chemical weapons in China and the West. Poisonous darts, boiling tar, arsenic smoke and other chemical killers were part of the arsenals of past civilisations.
The horrendous weapons that we know today made their debut on the battlefields of World War I. Chlorine and other gases were released from canisters and dispersed by the wind. They resulted in 90,000 deaths and over one million casualties. The injured continued to suffer from the effects long after the war had ended.
After witnessing the horror of chemical weapons during World War I, most countries were reluctant to be the first to introduce them onto the battlefields of World War ll. But, many made preparations to retaliate, in kind, should such weapons be used against them.
The United States and Soviet Union produced enormous amounts. It is estimated that the stockpiles held by these two countries were enough to destroy much of the human and animal life on Earth.
Saddam Hussain used mustard gas and nerve agents against Kurdish villages in northern Iraq in 1988. The horrific pictures of his victims (photo, above) shocked the world and influenced ongoing negotiations in Geneva for a Chemical Weapons Ban.
More recent examples of the use of chemical weapons include the sarin attack in the Tokyo Metro, in 1995, by the Aum Shinrikyu doomsday cult. The attack highlighted the potential use of chemicals by terrorist groups. It is one of the principal concerns of security forces combating the threat posed by Daesh (Islamic State).
4.3 Nuclear War
The photograph shows the Japanese city of Hiroshima shortly after it was struck by a nuclear bomb on August 6 1945. Three days later a second American bomb fell on Nagasaki. Together, they caused the deaths of 129,000 civilians and military personnel. Thousands died later from radiation sickness. Children born to parents, exposed to radiation, suffered an abnormally high incidence of birth defects.
In 1945 only one country, the United States, possessed nuclear weapons. It was later joined by the Soviet Union (1949), United Kingdom (1952), France (1960), China (1964), India (1974) and Pakistan (1998). Israel is widely believed to have developed nuclear weapons (with help from France) but has never admitted to having them. South Africa developed nuclear weapons (with help from Israel) and was the first country to destroy them. North Korea has successfully tested nuclear devices underground but the nature of these devices is unclear.
Nuclear weapons have been detonated on over 2000 occasions for testing and demonstration purposes. Testing was initially conducted above ground and led to the dispersal of dangerous radioactive substances in the atmosphere. After a huge public outcry testing was eventually done underground.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, new states emerged and some (notably Ukraine) had nuclear weapons facilities based on their soil. These were subsequently disbanded.
Concern was expressed that nuclear material from these facilities could fall into the hands of rogue nations and terrorist groups. If this occurred then the material has not, so far, been put to hostile use.
Advanced delivery systems are not needed. A bomb arriving in a shipping container could do as much damage as one delivered by an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Nor is it necessary for nuclear material to be converted into a nuclear bomb. A traditional explosive device could disperse radioactive material over a wide area if detonated under favourable atmospheric conditions.
Major powers are constrained by the knowledge that use of nuclear weapons is likely to lead to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The same does not apply to groups such as Daesh (Islamic State) and the Taliban.
See Chapter 4.4: Asymmetric Warfare.
4.4 Asymmetric Warfare
We all like the story of David and Goliath. The little guy beat the big guy and is our hero. The giant came at him with a sword and little David overcame him with a primitive weapon. David felled Goliath with a stone, took his sword and lopped off his head.
Now take a look at the picture of French security forces at work in Paris following the recent terror attacks. Suppose the little guy spins round and takes out the five policemen with a series of karate blows. Few of us would jump to our feet and cheer.
This time, Goliath is on our side
The Paris terror attacks were mounted by a handful of men. We call them terrorists. Others regard them as heroes. They killed over a hundred people and put security forces on the alert all over Europe. From Madrid to Moscow, public venues were shut down and functions cancelled.
That’s asymmetrical warfare.
It’s not new. Large armies have been worn down by guerrilla activity in the past. In recent years it has been a determining factor in many conflicts.
The Vietcong employed asymmetrical warfare against the might of the American armed forces. The Mujahedin used it against the Russians in Afghanistan. The Taliban and other Islamic groups are using it over an expanded conflict zone.
The aim in asymmetric warfare is to wear the bigger opponent down. This requires tenacity of purpose and a strong backing amongst the local population.
Outside support also helps.
This was evident in Vietnam where the Russians supported the Vietcong against the Americans and in Afghanistan where the Americans supported the Mujahedin against the Russians.
Similar proxy wars are now being fought in the struggle between the Shiite and Sunni branches of the Islamic faith. There is a growing feeling in the West that the best tactic is not to get involved.
4.5 Cyber Warfare
It is easy to forget how much the internet has changed our lives. We are accustomed to meet our friends on Facebook. We use our computers for banking. We send letters by email and we rely on the internet for our work. The internet has changed our lives and we are dependent on it.
Modern societies would cease to function if the internet shut down. Power grids would fail. Transport systems would be seriously disrupted. Global banking would be plunged into crisis. The list goes on …
The internet is vulnerable to physical attack. Space satellites and communication dishes would become prime targets in the event of a major war. That’s only part of the story. The internet is vulnerable from cyberspace.
Relatively poor nations … even individuals … can do serious damage. No great expenditure is required. Government investigators have sometimes been unable to determine whether a cyber incursion was mounted by a foreign country or teenagers in a student lodging.
A couple of examples give an idea of the sort of damage that can be done by a determined attack.
In 2008, an oil pipeline in Turkey was cyber attacked. Valves were closed and the resulting high pressures caused an explosion. The attackers also immobilised security cameras. As a consequence, the blast was not registered in the control room and safety crews did not respond promptly. The attack was (allegedly) mounted from inside Russia.
In 2009 a complex piece of malware severely disrupted the operation of an Iranian nuclear facility. Valves were turned off and damage done to centrifuges and other equipment. As a consequence, the Iranian uranium enrichment program was slowed down. The attack was (allegedly) a joint US/Israel operation.
Defence analysts believe that major powers are unlikely to launch any concerted cyber-attacks at one another. All have the ability to respond in kind and the outcome would be mutually destructive.
The same considerations do not apply to terrorist groups intent on causing maximum harm at minimum cost.
See Chapter 4.4: Asymmetric Warfare.
From time to time, major outbreaks of disease have swept around the world and caused massive loss of life. Some are caused by viruses. Others by bacteria. The most famous of them all is plague.
Three major outbreaks of plague have occurred in the past two thousand years. One, in the 6th century, is thought to have contributed to the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The second, in the 14th century, changed the course of European history and is known as the Black Death.
The pandemic began in China and reached Europe via the Silk Road. It was transmitted by rat fleas and was particularly virulent in the crowded cities which sprang up during the prosperous years of the previous century. Squalor, malnutrition and ill-health were major contributing factors … as in recent outbreaks.
Country dwellers were less at risk if they could achieve isolation from the outside world. One major city, Milan, escaped by establishing a vast cordon sanitaire around its borders. Anyone trying to enter from outside was shot.
Plague doctors wore distinctive clothing. The gown was made from heavy fabric or leather and was usually waxed. The beak contained pungent substances thought to purify the air and helpful in relieving the stench. The rod was to keep patients at a distance. The disease was called the Black Death because of the hideous discolouration of the skin that occurred soon after the victim became infected.
The Black Death took young and old but killed a disproportionate number of young people. They were not around to produce the next generation and populations continued to decline long after the pandemic had passed. In many counties, population levels shrank by two-thirds.
That changed the social and political map of Europe. Labour became more valuable than land because land has little value without labour to work it. That hit the landed aristocracy. The church suffered because many believed that it had failed to protect them from calamity.
The third pandemic, the Modern Plague, began in China in the 1860s and appeared in Hong Kong in 1894. Over the next 20 years, it was spread to port cities around the world by rats on steamships. It caused about 10 million deaths.
Other diseases have caused widespread deaths. In1918, an influenza pandemic struck populations whose health had been weakened by the deprivations of the First World War. It is estimated that the resulting deaths exceeded those killed by direct military action during the entire conflict.
In recent years, major pandemics have been averted by prompt action from national governments and international health agencies. A notable example is the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus which was successfully confined to a few regions and brought under control.
5.2 Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria
The world thought it had found a magic bullet when Alexander Fleming discovered that a rare strain of the mould Penicillium notatum excreted a substance which inhibited the growth of Staphylococcus and other killer bacteria.
Fleming made the discovery in 1938 and penicillin went into production in time to be used during the Second World War. It is credited with saving tens-of-thousands of lives.
The war ended and the use of penicillin increased. But it’s reputation as a wonder drug began to fade. Penicillin wasn’t working as well as before and the reason soon became apparent.
Penicillin-resistant strains of bacteria were developing and the problem was particularly severe in hospitals with sloppy medical procedures. Ideally, when a patient is treated, all of the bacteria are eliminated. That’s important because any that remain are likely to be more penicillin-resistant than the others.
The survivors multiply and pass on their resistance to the next generation. It’s yet another case of survival of the fittest. If the process is allowed to continue, the bacteria lurking around the hospital will be super-resistant.
A favorite solution has been to hit the resistant strains with other antibiotic drugs. That works for a while but can have the highly undesirable effect of producing strains that are resistant to a wide variety of drugs.
Health authorities around the world have warned that a critical situation is developing. More magic bullets will not solve the problem. Stricter regulation of drugs is needed.
Caption: The image was created by Stephan Jeffrey and illustrates the present dilemma brilliantly. A doctor is trying to fight bacteria with a syringe and the bacteria are blunting his effort.
5.3 Falling Sperm Count in Males
Extensive studies, around the world, have shown that the average sperm count in human males has declined sharply over the past thirty years and is continuing on a downward trend.
The fall has been accompanied by a rise in testicular cancer and other disorders including undescended testes and malformed genitalia.
Reasons ranging from tight underwear to toxins in the environment have been advanced. A growing body of expert opinion points an accusing finger at toxins.
Pharmaceutical and other industries are producing vast quantities of substances that effect processes taking part in the human body and that of other animals.
The world has reached a situation where a twenty-year-old man has a much lower sperm-count than his fifty-year-old father. Something went wrong in his development.
Our body chemistry is similar to that of other vertebrates. We are not the only ones who are exhibiting disorders. That is seriously worrying![i]
See Chapter 5.4: Precocious Puberty in Girls
5.4 Precocious Puberty in Girls
One of the features that characterises our species is our slow development relative to other creatures. We spend many years growing up physically and, during that time, our minds have time to take in a lot of ideas and gain skills. Now, that is changing … especially in girls.
At the beginning of the last century, the onset of menstruation in developed countries was typically 16-17 years. Since then it has fallen to less than thirteen and there is an alarmingly high incidence of girls entering puberty while still in kindergarten.
Toxins in the environment have been identified as the main cause. The big offenders are plastic compounds, especially phthalates. These man-made chemicals are present in plastic food and beverage containers, carpeting, shampoos, insect repellents, shower curtains, plastic toys and car interiors … to name a few places where they can be found.
Phthalates inhibit the correct functioning of our glands and hormones by interfering with the body’s endocrine system. We are raising our children in a sea of toxins and they are paying the price.
See Chapter 5.3: Falling Sperm Count in Males.
We all belong to the same species but we are not the same. Our ancestors’ lifestyles have influenced what we are. Those of us whose ancestors stayed in Africa have dark skins. Those whose ancestors hunted mammoths in the tundra of northern Eurasia have light skins.
The mammoth hunters wore warm clothes that covered their entire bodies. Very little of their skin was exposed to sunlight. That put the darker members of their family at a disadvantage. The body needs sunlight to make vitamin D. Without it, bones do not form properly.
Over many generations, the lighter-skinned mammoth hunters won out and their descendants became steadily lighter until their skins were almost transparent. People in northern Europe and northern Asia often have rosy complexions. That’s because you can see through their skins to the blood vessels below.
Sufferers from skin cancer are well-aware that having a light skin in a tropical climate is a distinct disadvantage. A dark skin is needed to cut out the harmful effects of ultra-violet light.
Light-skinned people in sunny countries need to know that it is dangerous to expose themselves to the sun. Dark-skinned people in cold climates need to know that their children may need vitamin D and calcium supplements to avoid rickets.
People with Irish ancestry need to know of the dangers of gluten intolerance. They might not suffer from it themselves but there is a higher than average risk that their children will be affected.
People with a natural resistance to malaria need to know that they carry a gene which could make their children vulnerable to sickle-cell anaemia. The anti-malaria gene is found in populations that have been exposed to malaria over many generations. It is beneficial when inherited from one parent but increases the risk of anaemia when inherited from both.
People on Pacific Islands need to be aware that their ancestors’ diet did not contain many of the foods found in modern supermarkets. They must watch what they eat or they will run a high risk of diabetes.
People whose ancestors did not consume alcohol need to be aware that they are far more susceptible to alcoholism than people from beer guzzling backgrounds.
Alcohol has created serious problems for Aboriginal Australians. One can only imagine that it caused similar havoc when introduced into the early farming and hunter-gatherer communities of Europe. In all probability, the people with a natural tolerance for booze won out against those who were sloshed and incapable most of the time.
Some people have a run of bad luck that defies rational explanation. When I was working in the diving industry I was asked to pay special attention to one of the divers on our boat.
She was a woman in her mid-twenties who had suffered a particularly traumatic experience at sea. A few years earlier, she and her husband had taken part in a yacht race round the Palm Islands, which are located at the inner edge of the Great Barrier Reef to the north of Townsville.
They were negotiating a passage beside a whirlpool when the yacht hit a submerged rock and broke up. Her husband was thrown into the water and swam to safety. As he clambered out, he saw debris from the yacht going round in circles.
He stood and watched in horror as it moved to the middle of the whirlpool and was sucked under. There was no sign of his wife or the skipper.
Distress calls went out from other boats in the race and some of my diving mates were called upon to mount a rescue operation. Everyone knew that “rescue” was a term used when no one wanted to talk about retrieving dead bodies.
They reached the site and recognised it from previous visits. One of my friends had explored the whirlpool area and knew it well. He figured the missing people could have been washed into a cleft in the rock platform that ran beside the pool. He dived down and found bits or wreckage jammed in the base of the cleft but there was no sign of any bodies.
That night he couldn’t sleep. The thought of failing to do a proper search weighed on his mind. There was an outside chance the missing people were alive and waiting to be found.
He returned to the scene at first light and made a determined effort to penetrate the debris. This time he broke through and found the two people trapped at the top of the cleft, just clear of the water. The skipper was dead but his female companion was still alive. He thrust his air supply into her mouth and took her to safety.
Not surprisingly, the young woman was deeply shocked by the ordeal. Her husband continued to dive and it was a long time before he managed to convince her that it was safe for her to go to sea again. When she went out with me it was her first diving trip since that fateful day.
The weather was fine and the sea was calm but murky when we reached the Great Barrier Reef. The skipper anchored well away from the reef for safety reasons. He took two buddy pairs across in a small rubber boat then returned and handed the boat over to me. I went out with the husband and wife and a novice diver, for whom I was responsible as divemaster.
We checked that the boat was properly anchored and began our dive. After a couple of minutes my buddy began to show signs of anxiety. I wasn’t surprised. There were sharks everywhere.
In all my years of diving I’d never seen so many in the same place at the same time. And they weren’t harmless reef sharks. They were bronze whalers and some were very big. Diving in murky water is not advised when sharks are around. There’s a risk they might mistake you for a seal and take a bite. I decided to abort the dive and we returned to the rubber boat.
The others joined us, evidently spooked by the sharks. The young woman was particularly unnerved. The water was no more than waste deep and she stood beside the boat, struggling to undo a strap.
Without warning, a baby shark appeared and attacked her. The small creature was so slim it was almost snakelike. I grabbed its tail, whirled it over my head and hurled it away. Moments later the little shark was back, gnawing at the woman’s leg. This time I wasn’t taking any chances. I sliced off its head with my dive knife and dumped the pieces in the boat.
By now we were in a state of considerable apprehension. There were sharks all around and they were agitated. As divemaster, I had to remain calm and collected … I did my best.
There was room in the boat for six people and there were eight of us. I called for a volunteer and we hung onto a rope at the rear while the woman’s husband skippered the boat back. In my brightly coloured wetsuit, I felt like a lure on a fishing line.
If I’d had time to think I would have done things differently. Scuba tanks float. They could have been trailed behind the boat. There would then have been room for all of us on board.
I’ve often wondered about the young woman. Fate had some terrible ordeals in store for her. I’m told she never went to sea again … perhaps with good reason.
6.2 Crocodile Farming
When I was a boy the thought of farming crocs never occurred to me. I lived on a farm in Lincolnshire (UK). Cows and chickens were the only livestock. There wasn’t a single crocodile to be seen.
I might have remained blissfully ignorant of the big reptile if I’d not got hooked on astronomy at school. My fascination with the heavens led to a degree in astrophysics and a precarious career as a stargazer. The demand for astronomers isn’t high and I was soon racking my brain for an alternative way to support my family.
A job as a Canberra bureaucrat provided stable employment but was boring. I resigned and made my way north to the Australian tropics where I joined the staff of James Cook University in Townsville as its press officer. I was soon writing articles on subjects as varied as oral history, wind engineering and croc farming.
Now, it’s one thing to write about exciting subjects. Getting involved is entirely different. So, when my wife heard me talking about the soaring demand for crocodile hides, she became alarmed. We were staying with my friend Paul on his property in Queensland’s northern gulf country.
I should explain that the term property is used to describe a stretch of land that would be called a ranch in America. Paul’s property was a quarter the size of Belgium but don’t think of him as fabulously rich. The huge area was worth no more than a few moderately priced housing blocks in suburban Sydney.
The land was in Australia’s savannah belt. In the monsoon season it floods. During the remaining nine months of the year it goes from green to brown to black. The last being when wild fires go through.
Paul was a grazier. He kept cattle and that was becoming increasingly difficult. There was a time when he mustered on horseback and drove his animals to the nearest railhead. Those days were gone. The government had embarked on a campaign to eradicate the twin scourges of brucellosis and tuberculosis from the northern herds. Droving spread diseases and cattle had to be trucked. That meant catching them.
One day Paul invited me to go out with his workforce and watch them round up some bullocks. In my naivety I expected a bunch of leathery-skinned men with wide-brimmed hats and elastic-sided boots. In the event, the only leathery-skinned man was Paul. His entire party consisted of himself, his ten-year-old son, Angus, and a nineteen-year-old Maori lad on a work-experience program. I later learnt that the young man’s father was a vet and wanted his son to gain experience of real animal husbandry before going to uni and learning about it there.
Paul directed me to a jeep that had seen service during the Second World War. I got in on the driver’s side and was looking for the ignition key when a voice brought me to order.
“Shove over, mate!”
Angus appeared by my side. The kid had been raised in adult company and didn’t know how to behave like a child. I moved over and he took my place at the steering wheel. There were blocks on the pedals to accommodate his short legs and a cushion to get the rest of him high enough to see over the dashboard. I sat in the passenger seat and the nineteen-year-old crouched on the bonnet. Paul followed in an old cattle truck.
We were going after the bullocks that had been expelled from the herd by their dads and uncles. The young animals were hanging around in creek beds where the grass was still green and there was water for them to drink. They watched with puzzled expressions as we approached. We could have come from another planet. They’d never seen anything like us before. Big, doleful eyes registered bewilderment then alarm.
One turned and the others followed. Angus hit the accelerator and the jeep shot forward. The front was padded with old tires. The aim was to exhaust a fleeing animal and knock it over.
The outcome was never in doubt. One of the bullocks tired. Angus delivered a glancing blow with the tyres. The exhausted animal rolled over and the Maori lad grabbed it by the testicles. Moments later, Paul appeared and placed a halter round the animal’s neck.
That night, as we were having dinner, Paul admitted he was practising a very primitive form of animal husbandry but had no other options. In a year things would change. He’d shoot his entire heard and the government would compensate him. When the area had been declared disease free, he would restock with certified animals. That got me to thinking about crocodile farming.
A few weeks earlier, I’d interviewed a group of scientists who were working on research programs aimed at introducing new industries to the Pacific region. Crocodile farming was one of them.
In those days, a top hide from a three-year-old crocodile was fetching about $200 on the international market. That compared favourably with what Paul was getting for his cattle. Processing was straightforward. There was no need to truck the crocs to an abattoir. You were allowed to shoot them. Hides stacked flat so transport wasn’t a problem. Paul would have to shoot his herd as part of the disease eradication program. Instead of leaving them for crows and eagles, he could feed them to crocs.
The sums worked out a treat. Crocodiles are cold blooded. That means they don’t expend energy keeping warm. In fact, they don’t expend much energy at all. Most of the time they lounge around in muddy pools waiting for their next meal to come along. As a consequence, much of what they eat goes into bodybuilding. Shoot a bullock, put it in a freezer and feed it, bit by bit, to a crocodile hatchling. Within three years, the last of the bullock will be eaten and you’ll have a crocodile with a hide big enough to sell to the French fashion industry.
Paul asked if the hatchlings were prone to disease. I said they were extremely hardy. Baby crocs are accustomed to swimming around in one another’s excrement. You could keep hundreds in a small pool and they’d remain in good health. And there would be no trouble finding dainty morsels for their tiny palates. All you had to do was hang up lights above their pools at night and moths would crash in under their own wing power.
On the other side of the table, our wives watched apprehensively as we sketched out plans for a joint business venture. Paul’s wife was the first to speak.
“Won’t it be dangerous?”
That was rich. Didn’t the woman have any idea of the perils her family faced as bull wrestlers? I opened my mouth to speak and got a warning glance from Paul.
“Where are you going to get the eggs from?”
I said the government issued permits that allowed you to collect eggs from crocodile nests.
“What about the big bulls that guard the nests?”‘
She had a point there. Daddy crocs can be very attentive when it comes to guarding the next generation. I said we’d wait until dad had gone off for a bite to eat then I’d sneak in with a collecting basket and grab some eggs. Paul would stand by with a gun in case dad got back earlier than expected.
That did it. My wife announced, in no uncertain terms, that I was not going to get involved in crocodile farming. It was far too dangerous and she wasn’t going to take the kids away from Townsville to live in the bush. I’m a very obedient husband and bowed to her superior authority.
In the weeks that followed, Paul did a careful investigation of the croc project and decided to stick with the industry he knew. That was probably wise. Years later, a symposium on crocodile farming was held in Townsville and I got speaking to some of the participants.
They told me that most successful operations are run as subsidiaries of chicken farms. The reptile disposes of heads and other parts that supermarkets won’t take. Easy access to waste from trawlers is also an advantage because crocs cannot live on chooks alone … an occasional bite of fish is needed.
6.3 Cougar Hunting
Being a toy boy is not a job that would appeal to everyone and not all young guys are cut out for it. Sufficient to say that a demand exists for the sort of company a younger male can provide for an older female.
Strictly speaking, it’s not a job but it does have similarities. There is no formal contract and remuneration comes in the form of financial support. Your companion pays for your meals and accommodation and may even finance the odd plane trip.
I mentioned elsewhere that my wife and I established a backpacker hostel and ran it for a number of years.
From time to time, we had toy boys staying with us. They were usually well-spoken young men in their late teens. Most came from English speaking countries but that’s not a necessary requirement.
Don’t worry if you hardly speak the language. No one is going to ask you to give English lessons. Other requirements are far more important.
Getting employed is largely a matter of chance. There are recruitment agencies specialising in male escorts but the job description is different and the title is “gigolo”. Gigolos are experienced professionals who provide a service. Toy boys are inexperienced amateurs who receive one.
Most of our toy boys were Australian but a spattering came from the UK and Canada. The typical candidate was bronzed, athletic and unworldly. They gave the impression of having lived a life of total innocence until picked up by a thirty-plus lady from the other side of the world.
The term to describe her male equivalent is sugar daddy. I like sugar mamma but will stick to modern terminology and refer to the ladies as cougars … after the big cat of the same name.
The most memorable of our cougars was Renata. I became aware of her presence when a worried mum from Melbourne phoned to inquire about her eighteen-year-old son, Robin. Mum was unhappy about the company he was keeping and it was a while before she disclosed that Robin had gone off with an older woman whom he’d met at a schoolies party.
At this point, I should explain that schoolies parties are held for school leavers. They are an annual event and of great concern to parents and teachers who worry about older males that gate crash the parties and prey on young girls. I wondered if anyone was keeping a lookout for older females.
Renata and Robin were on a scuba diving trip when mum phoned. I assured her that they had gone out with a good dive company and were in competent hands but that did little to calm her fears. In the end, I agreed to speak to Robin on his return.
I cornered the young man in the hostel garden, sipping a coke and sarsaparilla and looking totally at peace with the world. There was no sign of Renata.
“How was the diving?”
I asked to get the conversation going.
“How did your friend like it?”
It wasn’t much of a reply and I decided that Robin was a man of few words. But I needn’t have worried. He was soon waxing lyrically on Renata’s charms. At thirty-five she was almost twice his age. That didn’t worry Robin. He was clearly flattered by her attention.
He told me that his friend was a company accountant from Hamburg and she was in Australia for her Christmas break. Renata lived in a fabulous apartment and knew lots of famous people. They’d had a fantastic time together and he’d learnt a lot from her. The last remark came with a touch of shyness and I didn’t ask for details.
It seemed that his dream encounter was coming to an end. Renata would soon be returning to Germany. Her company was negotiating a big contact and her financial skills were needed. She boarded a plane a few days later and Robin returned to Melbourne in good health and apparently no worse for wear.
I thought I had seen the last of Renata but I was wrong. She had enjoyed her stay with us and turned up at Christmas two years running. The hostel was a fruitful hunting ground and she managed to find a young companion on both occasions. Her preference was for fresh-faced young men from sheltered backgrounds.
Note: Not all cougars share Renata’s tastes: Some like their young men tough and brawny. Others go for a more delicate model. There are opportunities for most young guys so long as they remember the two golden rules of cougar hunting.
1) Don’ brag about your conquests (real or imaginary).
2) Don’t pretend to be older than you are.
Remember that the last thing a cougar wants is age and experience.
A friend from Japan tells me that a different sort of cougar stalks her country. The Japanese version goes after adolescent boys but otherwise displays the same features as its Western cousins
6.4 Love Hotels
Many countries have rooms for rent by the hour. Japan does it to extremes. Lovers don’t have to worry about hidden cameras. The cameras in love hotels are clearly visible and operated by handsets. You can record your memorable moments for posterity.
Let’s suppose you are a student living with mum and dad in a posh part of Nara West. It’s most unlikely that your socially conscious parents will approve of you taking a girl back to your room. The neighbours might get to hear about it and that could lead to all sorts of malicious gossip.
The fleshpots of wicked Osaka are just down the road. They’re half-an-hour away on the train. You and your beloved can nip down for a harmless get together and be back before anyone knows you’ve gone.
You arrive in Osaka and head for the hotel district. There are business hotels, tourist hotels and the sort of hotel you are looking for. You fancy a place that is themed with Dungeons and Dragons but your companion turns it down, saying a friend of hers had some very bad experiences there. Pirates of the Caribbean is your next choice but she doesn’t fancy making love in the rigging of a fake galleon. Her preference is for a place across the road.
You enter through a side door and are relieved to discover that the lighting is dimmed and there is no reception desk. A mechanical voice greets you and a flashing machine asks for your credit card. The prices are a bit steep and you wonder if you can get a loan from your father. You could say you need it to buy books. At any rate, you are not going to bail out now. You are with the hottest chick in town and there’s no turning back.
Your companion points to a picture of a 1950s car. The price is mid-range and you hastily prod the picture before her fancy turns to something more expensive. The picture fades and a message appears saying you have successfully completed the transaction. Your credit card is returned. Lights flash on the floor and illuminated arrows guide you to your room.
A shining automobile stands on a thick shag carpet. You take a step forward and the air is filled with the sound of Elvis. You take another and the vehicle opens up. The roof lifts back and the seats unfold to form a double bed.
Condoms hang in packets from the windscreen. Your companion reaches towards them. They come in different sizes and she wants to know which to pick. You are tempted to say Jumbo but have been warned about the perils of a loose fit. Slim is the manufacturer’s way of saying Small. There’s no way you are going to say Slim. That leaves Standard. Then she asks about flavour. That’s something you hadn’t thought of and you are struggling for a reply when she chooses Peppermint.
Buttons on the dashboard have to be set before you begin. There’s a selection of 1950s records. You choose Rock Around the Clock and go on to the next step. It’s worse than downloading a file from the internet. There’s always something else to be done. You set the humidity control, adjust lighting and choose a suitable gear. The overhead camera has to be positioned and you’re fiddling with it when you feel a cheek on your thigh and smell peppermint.
Note of Warning: One of my friends uses love hotels as a place to stay because they are cheaper. He reckons the down-market, no-frills joints have a better bed price than normal hotels. That’s because they don’t make money from beds but from the “massage” services they provide. As he says, there’s no obligation to use these services. If there was, the hotels would be classed as brothels and the licensing fees would be far higher. He does admit that, on occasions, he has been turfed out of bed in the middle of the night by some heavily tattooed guys who say his time is up and he has to go.
Caption: The happy looking couple are tanukis. The small animals live in the woods in Japan and are famed for their sexual exploits. Some of the more traditional love hotels use them for advertising. But don’t imagine that everywhere that displays a tanuki is in that sort of business. This pair were on the steps of a country inn where my wife and I were staying.
The Japanese refer to their crime syndicates as yakuza. Most people know they exist but think their chance of meeting a member is minimal … especially on an overseas trip.
I live on the Gold Coast in Australia and have Japanese friends. We recently organised a barbecue for a visiting party of ladies from Nara. We picked a local park as a suitable place to entertain them. I arrived early, with some of my surfing mates and laid claim to one of the barbecue stands and surrounding tables.
Nara is an ancient city just up the road from vulgar Osaka and smelly Kobe. It is a very refined place, overflowing with temples and cultural centres. The ladies made a point of saying that, while their husbands worked in Osaka, they resided in far more gentile surroundings.
My surfing mates were a mixed bunch of young Japanese and Australians. The ladies seemed to get along with the Australians but a couple of the Japanese guys caused a bit of an upset. They came from Kobe where people speak with accents that are upsetting to refined ears.
The barbecue got under way and everything was going smoothly when a group of Japanese men began to congregate nearby. One was elderly and dressed in a smart business suit. The lads from Kobe took an immediate interest in him.
They told me the yakuza had arrived and the old guy was an oyabun, or godfather in mafia parlance. One of the Nara ladies joined us and was informed that the yakuza were holidaying on the Gold Coast and had brought their most senior member along with them.
The lady was dismissive of the claim. She insisted that the thuggish looking men were factory employees on a works outing and the elderly man was almost certainly the works manager. The Kobe boys said she would soon see what they were talking about.
Now, I’ve heard of the secret signs that Free Masons use and I’ve been subjected to some strange handshakes in my time but when it comes to funny greetings, the yakuza leave the Masons for cold.
As each newcomer approached the elderly man, he bowed respectfully, lent forward and tapped the old chap’s testicles. The lady from Nara didn’t know where to look. I guess she knew factory workers were uncouth but had no idea their behaviour sank so low. She hurried to the other ladies then returned insisting we relocate to a more agreeable place.
I must admit that I was taken by surprise. Not so much by what happened but by the way the Kobe boys predicted it. I shouldn’t have been. I can identify members of Australian criminal gangs from their appearance … and I’m not just talking about bike gangs.
The criminal classes have a sense of identity. They dress the part and behave the part. Public servants, academics and a heap of others are no different. You can pick them out and predict how they will behave. I have been an academic and I’ve worked for the government. Individual departments feud with one another and so do the crims. Needless to say, it gets very messy when the yakuza fight.
Dress sets the Yakuza apart but it doesn’t stop there. They have a fascination for tattoos. Intricate designs cover every inch of their bodies, except the parts that protrude beyond the cuffs and collars of their business suits.
One of the Kobe lads recalled how he once tried to gate crash a hot-spring party in a posh resort. Hearing male and female voices on the other side of a bamboo fence, he left his all-male pool and, suitably unattired, slipped through a narrow gate. Beautiful young women frolicked with older men. He strolled towards them and was about to jump into their pool when tattooed figures grabbed him from behind, spun him round, and hurled him back the way he had come. His mates said he was lucky to return with everything intact.
Rumour has it that, in former times, the tattooed skin of dead yakuza was peeled from their bodies and made into lampshades. The Kobe boys reckon it still goes on. They say it is a great honour to be turned into a lampshade. They point out that politicians have statues erected in their memory. Past presidents of Rotary have plaques inscribed. Yakuza are commemorated with lampshades.
I asked about sliced fingers. I’d read about it. The practice is a variant on IRA kneecapping, which was a punishment inflicted upon individuals who failed to do as they were told. The Kobe boys said that finger slicing is self-inflicted and shows remorse for getting things wrong.
The yakuza are sticklers for law enforcement. So, if the oyabun tells you to go out and shoot someone, it is important to get it right. If you shoot the wrong person, you have to admit your mistake. You do this by cutting off the end of a finger and placing it in a small box with a note explaining what happened. You say you are humbly sorry and will be more careful in future. The Kobe boys say they know people with bits of fingers missing
6.6 Strangler Fig
It is tempting to think that life in a tropical jungle is idyllic. You imagine that there are none of the stresses of modern city life. You think the plants and animals live in harmony. There surely can’t be any nasty back stabbings or grabs for power.
It’s not like that.
When it comes to a fight, the leafy jungle is just as competitive as the concrete jungle. No holds are barred in the race to the top. In the concrete jungle the ultimate prize is money and power. In the rainforest it is sunlight and power.
Plants need sunlight to prosper and some need a lot. That poses problems if you start life on the forest floor. As a lowly seed you won’t make it to the top unless a gale blows down mummy and daddy … a bit like waiting for the boss to die.
This gloomy scenario applies to most rainforest trees but not the strangler fig. In corporate terms, its strategy is takeover followed by asset stripping. It issues an attractive share offer (figs). The birds (punters) act as intermediaries. They take the figs, digest the bits they want and discharge the rest … otherwise known as toxic assets.
The toxic assets (seeds) are deposited in the upper branches of a potential victim (tree) and sprout. The seedlings have a place in the sun and prosper at their host’s expense. They plant roots in their host’s bark and sap its strength.
Their next trick is to send down aerial roots. These reach the forest floor and dig themselves in. The fig’s life as a strangler has begun. Shoots spring up and envelop the host. Sometimes they invade the ruins of old buildings.
The outcome is always the same. The host dies and the fig takes its place.
6.7 Outback Travel (Australia)
he Outback is Australia’s “Never Never Land”: If you never never go you’ll never ever know what it’s like. But where the hell is it?
That’s a frequently asked question and you’ll get a heap of different answers from a heap of different people. City folk talk about their outback cousins but the cousins don’t necessarily see themselves that way.
Eighty percent of Australians live within a few hours’ drive of the sea. When you leave the settled areas on the coast and travel inland you enter a different world. The trees get smaller, woodland gives way to scrub and scrub to semi-desert.
The huge, sparsely inhabited interior of Australia stretches all the way from the eastern coastal mountains to the Indian Ocean. It is about the size of the USA (minus Alaska). On the map of Europe, it would reach from the Atlantic to the Black Sea.
When I use the term outback I’m talking about Australia’s vast dry interior. There are few bitumen (tarmac) roads and few settlements. Names on the map may be no more than that. Sometimes, when you reach them, all you find is a post with a name on it. Bear this in mind when you go travelling. If you have an accident, help may be further away than you think.
Most outback towns have populations numbered in hundreds rather than thousands. The exceptions are mining centres such as Mt Isa and Broken Hill. Apart from mining, the only major industry is cattle and sheep grazing. Homesteads are frequently fifty or more kilometres apart and reached by dirt roads.
Homestead kids receive their early education, via the internet, through the School of the Air. Older children attend boarding schools in the cities.
Over much of the interior, the majority of people are of Aboriginal descent. They live in small communities and own large tracts of land. You require their permission to enter these lands.
Some people think the outback is boring. Others find it fascinating and I’m one of them. It is so totally different from the crowded world in which most of us live. Life is different and so are the people. Some have roots that go back generations. Others were born overseas or have parents who were born overseas. They come from all over Europe and Asia but have a lot in common. When you live in a remote area you have to be resourceful and that shapes the person you become.
Driving in the outback has a lot in common with driving anywhere else … until something goes wrong. It is easy to forget how vulnerable you are as you drive along, cocooned in air-conditioned luxury. It’s as well to remember that people die in the outback when their cars break down.
Aboriginals whose ancestors roamed the lands have died of thirst on their way home from a trip into town. Workers on cattle ranches have got lost and died of exposure. If they are vulnerable, think of what could happen to you as a tourist in a strange land.
For the average traveller in an average vehicle:
- Keep to the bitumen (tarmac sealed roads) whenever possible. There aren’t many and they carry a fair amount of traffic so you shouldn’t have to wait too long in the event of a breakdown or accident.
- Carry lots of spare water. I use 2-litre plastic milk bottles, which are easy to pack amongst luggage.
- Take a mobile phone but don’t count on reception everywhere. Better still: take a satellite phone.
- Take spare fanbelts, spare radiator hoses and jump leads.
- Make sure you have enough petrol to get between filling stations. Don’t assume you will come to one before your tank is empty.
- Never drive off the highway.
- If you do breakdown, stay with the vehicle unless you are one hundred percent certain that help is nearby and you can safely walk to it.
- Don’t attempt to walk anywhere in the heat of a hot summer’s day.
- Bear in mind that accommodation is not as easy to find in the outback as in the more densely populated parts of the country and in some places you have to provide your own in the form of tent, caravan etc. Plan your outback travel accordingly. Make sure you secure your night’s accommodation at least a day in advance.
6.7 Enemy Within
Planet Earth has experienced a series of mass extinctions. Up until now, they have been attributed to external causes such as comets from outer space and internal causes such as super volcanoes.
Now, it appears that we are witnessing another extinction. It is taking a while to swing into action. There is nothing new in that. The earlier extinctions didn’t occur overnight. They took a few thousand years to work their deadly course.
Every year, the list of extinct species grows. Some are plants. Others are animals. We get upset when a cuddly creature is no more. We fail to notice the millions of microbes that accompany it to extinction.
Yet these microbes keep the wheels of life turning. They are everywhere and they are vital for the most basic of life’s processes.
There’s no political clout in microbes. No one is going to change their voting habits because a primitive lifeform, with an unpronounceable scientific name, has gone into oblivion.
And there is surprisingly little concern for collapsing sperm counts in young males (Chapter 5.3). Perhaps that’s because there is no political mileage in telling young men that their testicles are smaller than their dads.
The same problem is occurring in other species but they don’t have a vote and their purchasing power is zero.
We need to get real.
There is far more at stake than too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It is just one of the many contaminates that we are inflicting on our planet.
GOOD ANIMALS DON’T FOUL THEIR NESTS!
Caption. The image is of those magnificent clowns: Skwert, Siren at al. The words are mine and they are not new. They have been around for a long time.
If you are worried about what might happen to you, think about the seals. They can’t drop out for a bite to eat without running the risk of meeting a big, while-bellied, ravenous brute who is also looking for a bite to eat. Same goes for the fish.