How flat is Australia?

We recently drove down the coast to Mackay, then inland and South to Carnarvon Gorge before returning home via Clermont and Charters Towers. I will write about Cape Hillsborough and the Gorge in due course but first I will share my overwhelming impression from the 1800 km, twenty hour, trip: it’s flat!

Really, really, flat!

We have known for a long time that Australia is flat – old, worn down, eroded, etc – but there’s a difference between book-knowledge and body-knowledge.

Body-knowledge now tells me very clearly that you can drive for a couple of hours along the Bruce Highway from Townsville to Bowen without going higher than 20 or 30 metres above sea level except for a couple of bumps. When you get there, Bowen’s topography is like Townsville’s: flat and low-lying with a few big bumps in the distance. Most of the run from Bowen to the Cape Hillsborough turn-off is the same again: swamps, lagoons, floodways, and an average altitude of perhaps 20 metres.

Heading inland from Mackay towards Emerald there’s more flat coastal land, rather like the Burdekin irrigation area, before (wow!) hills. Up and up and … flat again. Not quite as flat, admittedly, but far from hilly. And the trip from Springsure to Charters Towers is flatter again: hundreds of kilometres with wide, level, horizons and altitudes varying not-at-all-wildly between 250 and 300 metres according to the car’s onboard map.

Porcupine Gorge region
Looking over the savannah from a low hill on the road from Hughenden to The Lynd – much like the landscape between Clermont and Charters Towers

Relief maps

All of which took me back to my childhood, sitting (somewhat bored) in a Victorian primary school classroom and contemplating the globe on the teacher’s desk. It might have been a 12 or 15 inch globe, and its surface was ridged with mountain ranges. Surely the Himalayas should be higher than that? Mount Everest was 29,000 ft high, I knew, and that was very high, wasn’t it?

So I did the sums: diameter of the earth = about 8000 miles, so the scale of the globe was 1 inch to so many miles, Everest was … five and a half miles high (oh! that’s not much compared to the size of the earth) so Everest at the scale of the globe should be … only about one thirtieth of an inch high! Barely detectable, in fact, and such a surprise that I’ve remembered it ever since.

To bring it up to date, one thirtieth of an inch is a little less than a millimetre and, since all the rest of the earth’s surface is much lower than the Himalayas, a relief globe which was truly to scale would be smooth to the touch.

A relief map of Australia

Which brings us back to Australia. Let’s make a relief map of this flat old land, in imagination at least.

It’s about 4000 km from East to West and 3200 from North to South. Let’s reduce that to one metre by 750 mm to be manageable but leave us plenty of room to work with, and let’s base it on this map from Geoscience Australia because it’s so clear and simple:

topographic map of Australia
Australia’s elevations

Here we go:

  • One table-top, blue for choice, for the sea we’re girt by.
  • One sheet of paper (a nice dusty peach colour) for all the land that’s less than 300 m above sea level. How thick? If 4000 km = 1000 mm, 300 m = 0.075 mm which turns out to be the thickness of the lightest copy paper (60 gsm rather than the standard 80 gsm) from our local supplier. Cut out the continent and Tasmania and spread them carefully on the table.
  • Two big cut-outs (a slightly darker brown) and a few smaller ones  for the land between 300 and 600 metres. How thick? 60 gsm again.
  • Eleven little cut-outs (a nice red-brown) for the land above 600 metres How thick? Let’s use 60 gsm again.
  • What about the mountains? Well, Kosciuszko is 2200 metres high and that reduces to 0.55 mm at the scale we’re using. Our three sheets of paper add up to 0.23 mm, so we only need another one-third of a millimetre. A sparse sprinkle of fine sand over the darkest of our three layers of paper would be about right for the highest mountains.

And we’re done.

That Great Dividing Range doesn’t look very high any more. You could drive clear across the continent from Brisbane to Shark Bay without going over 600 m, and come back from Port Hedland via Mt Isa to Rocky just as easily.

Even more impressively, you could go almost directly North-South, from the tip of Cape York to the point where the Vic-SA border touches the coast, without going over 300 metres. The high point of the trip would be the watershed which divides Gulf rivers from the Lake Eyre basin, somewhere near Hughenden.

Yes, it’s flat!

Kotler: Last Tango in Cyberspace

cover of Last Tango in CyberspaceLast Tango in Cyberspace

Steven Kotler, 2019

Last Tango In Cyberspace is near-future hard SF. Its protagonist, Lion Zorn, freelances as a trend-spotter, looking for ‘the next big thing’ for industry. His contract with a pharmaceutical company seems to be about designer drugs but a deeper agenda gradually emerges, and it is one which aligns the novel with Green Path’s concerns about wildlife conservation and animal rights.

That could easily make it over-serious but in fact it’s very smart, fast-moving and often funny. It’s hard to say much more without giving away spoilers, so I’m merely going to recommend the book, especially to those who enjoy William Gibson’s work.

Kotler was new to me but has a decent record as a journalist and nonfiction author, and this is his second novel. His first seems to have owed too much to The Da Vinci Code to be worth tracking down, but his third should be worth looking out for.


Leeches arouse, almost universally, a “Yuck!” response out of all proportion to the pain and suffering they cause.

Our attitudes to small wildlife reflect our upbringing and experience and I’m constantly intrigued (and sometimes very quietly amused) by them. Most people I know “love wildlife” but only up to a point. They might love all mammals and birds but not reptiles, for instance, or like small lizards but not the big ones. Most of them love butterflies but many are not at all keen on spiders (I agree they are not usually so pretty but I like them just as much) – and then we reach the problematic types: flies, fleas, ticks, mozzies and of course leeches.

What is a leech?

We also tend to know very little about leeches. What kind of animal are they? They are obviously not vertebrates but they can’t be insects because they haven’t got six legs, so what what are they most closely related to?

Continue reading “Leeches”

Forgotten Falls

Townsville Bushwalking Club has been active – and has been keeping its members active – since 1960 but I only came across it recently. My first walk with them was a couple of days ago, on the inland side of Paluma Range.

Fourteen of us met at Paluma village at 8.00, set up the car shuttle, and began the walk about 9.00 from a spot on the Paluma Dam road. It is rough country, cut by the deep narrow valleys of seasonal creeks (all flowing well at this time of year). The beginning of the walk was through rainforest but that transitioned to dry forest (“dry sclerophyll forest” is the technical term) as we progressed. Much of it has been logged, but not recently; the logging tracks still provide access for walkers but that’s all.

Taking a break after the creek crossing

Continue reading “Forgotten Falls”

How can I decarbonise my life?

The question

What can we, as a family, do to reduce our carbon footprint and have a more ecologically sound lifestyle in general?

I know there are a lot of resources out there but I don’t have any particular expertise or the time to research everything, so I need a step-by-step or a handbook.

A related question – a lot of the difficulty is inertia. Any advice on how to get momentum turning away from the consumerist vortex of middle class American life (give me convenience or give me death) towards a more sustainable lifestyle?

This excellent question was posted to an online forum recently. It received some very good answers so I thought that I would treat it like a similar question on ethical investing a year ago and turn the discussion into a blog post.

Continue reading “How can I decarbonise my life?”