Thursday, 30 December 2010

of droughts and flooding rains

On the morning of Friday I played golf with Dad. It was a pleasant morning, and the weather, which over the previous month had been inclement by Toowoomba standards, held off, making for an enjoyable walk. In the afternoon, it began to rain.

All through Christmas day the rain continued, never thundering down in the way to which I had become accustomed growing up in the tropics, but unrelenting nonetheless. Boxing day was, if anything, more inclement, with the rain at times increasing in intensity. I love the rain, but come the 27th, I was becoming itchy with being trapped inside. I have the tendency while visiting my parents towards the sendentary lifestyle, reading books, watching cricket (a function of the times of year at which I tend to visit), and tapping away on my computer (the latter a vice not specific to Toowoomba, it has to be said).

By the afternoon of the 27th, though, the rain had eased, and we ventured out to inspect the consequences. Gowrie Creek was brown and angry and running at speed, but did not seem to have broken its banks, or at least not with consequence for drivers. Further out towards Meringandan, the waters encroached further and further onto the roads, until we turned around as the rain began to fall.

Later in the day, we headed west, out towards Biddeston, along roads flanked by natural gutters awash with rushing brown water, bursting out to flow across the road every few hundred meters in its rush to find lower ground. After a while we stopped at a what had once been a small creek, that had exploded into a great sea of water, more than a hundred metres across. The bridge, guarded by a police car, had a great roaring brown race of water rushing under it, emerging out the other side in great waves that wrapped viciously around a hapless telephone pole. There was an old four-wheel drive in the middle of the torrent, washed half of the road and pinned against a railing, clearly abandoned.

Two days later, and under the bright sun and brisk wind that I have always associated with Toowoomba, we headed out for another drive, starting along the same route. The water was gone, the impromptu creeks that had appeared were gone. The evidence of the flood was there, though, in the crevasses carved by the water, in the crops laid down by the rush and covered in with silt and debris. The wide and raging creek had receded to its more habitual 4m width, although water still rushed through. For hundreds of meters beyond, one could see the debris and distressed crops where the water had spread, but it was still hard to believe that less than 48 hours earlier it had been a rushing lake.

We drove on, down to Brookstead. We had hoped to see the mighty Condamine in full force, but we were stopped several kilometres short, behind a Victorian family towing a car, and a barrier blocking further access. After a few minutes a police car pulled up, and told us that the bridge was out, and that they were stopping traffic at Brookstead to prevent further damage to the road. I have to say I was disappointed. I have always heard of these great Queensland rivers - Condamine, Bulloo, Paroo, Coopers Creek - that terrorise the west as they alternate between trickling or even buried rivers during droughts, and great rushing, sprawling inland seas that isolate and inundate towns during floods, but I haven't seen them, or if I have it has been at their most unspectacular. It would have been nice to see one of the giants at its most angry, even just to say I've seen it.

So, thwarted, we turned and drove back. Like wandering tourists we picked small backroads to wend our way back north-east, driving through fields of cotton and grain sorghum showing the recent layers of silt and debris, the silt at times stacked in strata like slate. Out in the fields the water still rushed along beside the road, giving a lie to the impression of the land being flat. Every now and then we would slow, as the sunlit mirages floating on the road refused to give way to approach, and revealed themselves as swathes of water moving across the road. Once we sent Mum out as a scout to test the depth of a 50m stretch of water, but she walked across it Jesus-like, and never got more than ankle-deep. So we pressed on, past a field of sunflowers, not staring up gleefully at the sun, but gazing mournfully down at the gathered silt at their feet, and their dying lower leaves.

They say that the floods were the worst for some time. It is with a little guilt that I say that I enjoyed them - I feel reinvigorated in my Australianness having seen in flood lands that 2 years ago I saw in drought. I know, though, full well, that the reason for my enjoyment was that I saw them only as a spectator. Others were not so lucky, including in some ways, people I know. I can only hope that when the time comes for me to confront one of Australia's great natural disasters, I can show the fortitude and resourcefulness that they have.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

thinking about soccer

My friend and erstwhile colleague Ricky called me out today on twitter, making reference to my past needling of him on the merits of soccer and its position in the Australian landscape. Its a timely nudge. This week in Switzerland, FIFA are (as I understand it) voting on the venues for the 2018 and 2022 soccer world cups, with Australia having thrown its hat in the ring for the latter.

I'm conflicted on this.

On one hand, I'm a nationalist, and for pure parochial reasons it might be nice to see Australia "win". From an objective point of view, the events we've held in recent times - the Sydney Olympics, the 2003 rugby world cup, the Melbourne Commonwealth Games - have gone well, in terms of getting very good attendance and generating a good atmosphere amongst fans. I have no doubt the same would be true for a soccer world cup. Also, I know that there are soccer fans in Australia, and I don't begrudge them the opportunity to see the best soccer nations in the world competing here.

Of course, I should make it clear that I'd be unlikely to attend any games. I've dabbled in following soccer - I've seen the Serie A at the San Siro, I saw France play Bosnia in an international friendly, I've seen the French Ligue 1, I've seen the Socceroos play, and during the 2006 world cup I followed a lot of games on television, in bars, at friends' houses, and in public squares. There were enjoyable moments, although for me they sprang from the company rather than the game. In terms of the game itself, I tend to come away frustrated. The tendency of the players to play the umpire rather than the ball feels dishonest, especially when I compare it with the way I like to see my preferred code, Australian Football, played. And I get bored by the comparative lack of adventure and aggression in most games, even by sides like Brazil and Holland, reputed for their attacking football. I should stress that these criticisms are of the game at its so-called highest level. I've found that the further you move away from professional soccer, the more honestly and earnestly the players play, and the more entertaining the game becomes.

My biggest concern, though, is about the impact that the event might have on the Australian sporting landscape. My biggest criticism of soccer as a culture is that in a lot of countries where it takes root, it comes to monopolise the sporting landscape. In France, I lived in such a country, where year-round (with the exception of a short summer break during which sport seemed to be ignored altogether), soccer is the only sport with any real currency in the street. I feel like the battle over the word "football", which we are told by some people can only be used for soccer, is illustrative of this "there can be only one" inclination. By comparison, in Australia, we have this beautiful phenomenon of the changing seasons of sport, from the football season (by which I mean the big three football codes in this country - Australian Football, Rugby League and Rugby Union, with netball and growing and commendable addition, even if I have little taste for the game myself), to the "cricket season", during which we also get a healthy helping of golf and tennis. There's even that strange month of October when some parts of the country obsess about horseracing (whose appeal I find much more inexplicable than soccer). For much of Australia, the changing of the sporting season is a much more significant and distinct transition than any climatic cycle.

All told, we have a wonderful diversity of sports, that cycles through seasons and offer choice to the fan as to which code they can follow. If the impact of the world cup is to raise the profile of soccer closer to the other football codes, then I'm fine with that. But I know the power of soccer and its international links. Even if I don't understand what it is that they like in the game itself, I understand the appeal of having a huge array of leagues and nations playing the game around the world. And I fear that these links, fuelled by the Australian sporting fan's parochialism, might eventually lead to a reduction in the diversity of our sporting landscape, which would be a tremendous shame.