Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Amazing Race 18, Episode 2

Manly, N.S.W. (Australia) - Sydney, N.S.W. (Australia) - Broken Hill, N.S.W. (Australia)

Murray River
Murray River north of Murray Bridge

The Amazing Race 18 headed off into the Outback this week to the mining town of Broken Hill near the New South Wales-South Australia provincial border.

We passed south and west of Broken Hill on our road trip across Australia, first through somewhat wetter country to the south (through Bendigo and along the Murray River, shown above) to Adelaide, then up the length of the Stuart Highway through the dryer “Red Center” through Woomera (headquarters of the rocket and missile testing range) and Alice Springs (base town for the NSA and allied forces listening post at Pine Gap), with detours to other mining towns including Coober Pedy (see photos below) and Roxby Downs (where we weren’t allowed to take photos on our tour of the Olympic Dam mine).

Dressed in kangaroo costumes and spring-loaded shoes, the racers bounce around a section of Broken Hill that looked remarkably like an American residential neighborhood in someplace like, say, Laramie, Wyoming (although without any mountains, of course). Before I went there, I had naively thought of Australia as culturally closer to England than to the USA. It seemed logical: Australia is a Commonwealth country that pledges allegiance to the Queen; they use British rather than American English spelling and vocabulary; they drive on the left; and to U.S. ears their accent, although distinct, sounds more English than American.

One could, perhaps, sustain that false impression in Sydney. But in the countryside or the outback, it’s immediately obvious that in its attitudes and ways of life, including the relationship of the people to the land, Australia is far more American than English. That point was made with particular clarity at the excellent National Museum of Australia in Canberra, one of several museums that make Canberra worth a stopover between Sydney and Melbourne.

“The Amazing Race” tries to make Broken Hill look cute, or at least innocuous, with the kangaroo suits, the peaceful streets of “suburban”-looking tract houses, and the finish line at the abandoned Junction Mine on the hill at the edge of town.

Local tourism boosters may want you to think of silver mining as a quaint piece of history, but the reality is that mining (including the mixed-metals mines that produce most of the silver but that also produce a range of metals from copper to uranium) continue to dominate the economy not just of the Outback but of Australia as a whole. While the domestic economy is more mixed, Australia’s international trade centers on exports of minerals, mainly to China — to the extent that whether Australia will sell just the extracted minerals, the mining companies as well, or even the land itself to China has become a key political issue.

Modern mining in Australia is a mixed bag, but it contains little of the labor-intensive but largely hidden underground mining represented by the Junction Mine headstock. Whether small or large scale, it’s almost all open-pit mining.

The opal fields, for example, are the province of solo prospectors and small freelance partnerships working individual claims.

The result is an expanse of extraordinary despoliation, as though the land had been ravaged by an army of man-sized ants armed with backhoes and dynamite:

opal mining scars near Coober Pedy
Opal mining scars near Coober Pedy

The truck and earth-moving equipment below give some sense of the scale:

opal mining equipment near Coober Pedy

We weren’t allowed to take photos of the big corporate open-pit mines, but they are among the largest in the world, comparable in size to the pit at Chuquicamata (near Calama, Chile) visited by “The Amazing Race 11”. One of these giant mines is at Olympic Dam (beyond Roxby Downs on the spur road off the Stuart Highway at Woomera), two others are at Ranger and Jabiluku in the middle of the Kakadu National Park (the park roads carry a steady stream of road-trains of uranium ore!), and yet another has been proposed less than 25 km from the center of Alice Springs, the largest population center for 1000 km in any direction, and near the aquifer that provides Alice’s extremely limited water supply.

I don’t mean to suggest that mining is any more ugly in Australia than in the USA or anywhere else. But if you go, realize that the Outback is a harsh region that has often been treated by its settlers as a natural sacrifice area to the glittering gods of gemstones, precious metals, and other minerals. Like many other sparsely-populated deserts whose indigenous peoples have had little say in what was done on and to the land, it’s far enough out of sight (and out of mind) of city folks that those who exploit it have felt little need to mitigate or hide the effects of their activities.

And have I mentioned that kangaroos hopping into the road are a serious hazard — much more common and much more likely to kill the driver of a car than, say, deer — so much so that most people won’t drive at night in the Outback or rural Australia unless they have to, and then only slowly?

The Outback is interesting indeed, and worth a visit. But don’t expect to find it what I’d think of as beautiful. Nor, despite its low population density, is it untouched by human hands and tools.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 27 February 2011, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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