Monday, September 15, 2008

Wilderness, the key to Australia's future

I have just received a highly interesting email concerning yesterday's article about the Australian Outback. The author, John Thompson, has kindly authorized me to include this email in my blog. The photos, too, are included by courtesy of the Queensland-based tourism business operated by John and his wife: Nature-Bound Australia. They have two excellent websites:

Hi William,

I have just read your blog response to the media article portraying Australia as a failed state. I guess all media releases are drafted around drama and extreme "hooks" but behind this release there is considerable truth.

I have spent more than 30 years taking small groups of people into the Australian bush as a specialist tour operator. We are a boutique business, husband and wife, providing a highly personalised holiday experience and we focus on national parks and wilderness areas. On the side we are constantly in touch with people of the outback, tiny settlements, legend and history. It is true that there is a move by families and individuals away from the bush toward opportunities in the metropolitan areas along the coast. It is called a rural crisis. Banks and essential services and enterprises have vacated leaving small villages and towns in disarray, there are serious health service issues and the list goes on.

There are trends toward large scale property amalgamations being taken up and placed under corporate rather than family control. The plight of Aboriginals is an embarrassment and there are now serious issues revolving around global climate change, major rivers drying up, food production areas under threat and so on.

We have nearly two generations that are turned off from the wilderness on the strength that it is dangerous, uncomfortable, boring, nothing to see, a self perpetuating disease passed down by parents bent on wrapping their city children in care and comfort.

There has been a huge influx of Asian residents in our cities and they have no inherent connection with the outback, its spirit, legends or history and therefore no apparent interest. Tourism Australia has literally "flogged" the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Sydney, leading to massed mainstream visitations around tourist hubs to the detriment of wonderful regional and outback features and destinations, communities, family businesses, infrastructure and so on.

One of the major issues is politically we have no real visionaries who have the strength to see beyond their political careers, short term and to make some major milestone decisions. But there are a few positives to all this. The conservation movement is starting to gain teeth on issues like wholesale destruction of our limited old growth forests. Some 45% of Australia, the arid regions, has recently been highlighted as one of the world's greatest remaining wilderness areas and millions of American dollars by private foundations are going into enhancing this cause. Private not-for-profit nature conservancies are buying up large wilderness properties and positioning young scientists and managers on these in an effort to return the land to a pristine state and to assist endangered wildlife. There is no time to wait for national park departments and bureaucracies to initiate essential acquisitions.

There are of course incredible resources in Australia from coal, uranium, bauxite, sun, monsoonal rains, space and many controversial issues surrounding these. We are a country that simply extracts these resources and sells them to overseas companies which in turn are influencing control of our major companies, whereas some political strength might consider incentives which encourage Australian companies to value add to their resources and to develop their leading technologies before selling to the world. At present so many of our smart people and ideas have to go overseas for venture support.

I'm aware of one gentleman, a visionary, who has lobbied some 290 politicians in support of a major railway to run through the inland of Australia from Melbourne to Darwin to open up regional areas to new opportunities and development, bringing Australian goods readily to the Asian markets and taking huge numbers of large road transport off the major highways where drivers are under stress and tragic accidents are occurring regularly. Another gentleman who has made his wealth through technology has now applied his skills, contacts and wealth to buying up large traces of wilderness.

While the population is gathering in the south around cities and coast and these areas are under stress and threat from water issues we have a third of our nation largely unpopulated in the tropical zone where abundant water is available to be harnessed, for a whole new wave of food production if a visionary government could emerge.

It is real that other countries and funding could see and seize this opportunity through investment stealth (invasion) and have the Asian markets a short sea voyage or flight away.

My feeling is the governance of the country is not going to change and there is a case that we are too over-governed with three controlling stratas: national, state and local. We really need fearless visionaries with an ethical agenda, to take our great country by the throat and give it a good shake.

Our overseas guests on tour are absolutely wrapped in Australia and point to the natural history assets we have, the space and the people as wonderful. As we don't take tours into the city and theme parks etc they can only be referring to the Australian bush, so somehow it is a jewel worth saving.

We don't know how lucky we are but perhaps, as a nation, we are taking it all for granted.

Best wishes,

John Thompson
Managing Director
Nature-Bound Australia
PO Box 1209
New Farm Queensland 4005

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