Thursday, August 22, 2013

Trip to Southern Coast of WA

I recently did a 4 day driving trip with Diana and her parents, Tony and Olga, visiting various places along the southern coast of Western Australia. The intention was to see as many of the most interesting sights as possible in this area in the time available. There was definitely a lot more we could have seen and we would have liked more time at various places, but all in all, we were quite happy with our choices.

This blog is a run-through of where we went and what we did.

Trip Overview

Day 1 - Thursday 15th August


Busselton Jetty

We started out at around 7am, heading down the freeway towards Busselton. The forecast was intermittent rain for the whole trip, but we were hoping for it to be clear at Busselton so we could walk along the jetty. It's almost 2km long, so you want about 45 minutes or so to go to the end and back.

Rain started to set in around 10 minutes out of Busselton, but it had cleared when we got there. Unfortunately the little train on the jetty was out of action, meaning Tony and Olga would have to walk it. But it turned out that the underwater observatory at the end was also closed for renovation. So we went to the cafe near the jetty and had breakfast.

After having breakfast and going into the jetty gift store, ominous clouds moved in from the east and the store got crowded as other tourists piled in to escape the rain. We stayed in there for about 20 minutes as the heavy wind and rain mostly passed, then went back to the car in the light rain that followed, having given up on the jetty walk at this point. No big deal since Diana and I have done it before.

We stopped in at the Simmo's ice cream shop and bought some giant decaf coffees (in milkshake cups!) and got back on the road.

Margaret River

Mammoth Cave

We drove down towards Margaret River, stopping in at some local producers along the way. First was a nut and grain shop, run by a South African couple. The guy was friendly and a little quirky, and sounded like Sharlto Copley's character Wikus in District 9. I wanted to ask him to say "fookin prawns", but thought he might get offended.

Next we went to a local silk producer and got a lesson on how their silk is made. After learning that the silk is grown locally but then shipped to Cambodia to have some poor bastards manually unreel the silk cocoons, and that it takes thousands of these to make a silk garment,  I was unsure whether to feel that this represented a fair work opportunity for them, or horrible exploitation. Either way, I think I'd have trouble buying silk clothes knowing the sheer amount of cheap human labour that goes into them.

Finally we stopped in at a dairy place and bought some awesome cheeses. We drove into Margaret River and stopped on the main street, where it was raining yet again. Quick visit to a hemp garment shop and lunch at a kebab/seafood/gozleme place, and we were on the road again.

We stopped at Mammoth Cave, one of the many caves in this region. This one allows for a self-guided tour, so we did that, and there were a lot of really interesting rock formations in the cave, as well as the bones of long extinct megafauna. The cave has two entrances, so we were able to exit into the middle of some forest and then work our way back to the carpark.


At Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse

We drove down through Augusta and went to the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse which is a little bit further along and is the most southwestern point of Australia. Wind had picked up to a ridiculous level here along with some rain, so we just saw it from the car. Diana and I have been here before so that was okay. We then headed back to Augusta and checked in to our rather excellent apartment for the evening. Quick trip to IGA for supplies and we were done for the day.

Day 2 - Friday 16th August


The excellent Millhouse Cafe in Pemberton

Old Railway Station

We headed over to Pemberton, an old logging town with a lot of history. Two things we were most excited about here were the tram ride and climbing the Gloucester Tree, a 60 metre high tree originally used as a lookout point for fires, that you climb via metal bars that have been jammed into the tree to form climbing rungs.

When we got to the Pemberton information centre and museum, we were told that the tree was closed for climbing due to the rain. After looking around a bit it was now about 11am so we headed over to the one nice looking cafe in town to get some lunch and kill a bit of time before the tram ride at 2pm. The cafe was great, given the cold, rainy weather outside. We sat on sofas next to the fire place and enjoyed meals, cake and coffee.

After being warned that the tram ride would get quite cold, we rugged up and got on board. It went for almost two hours and was quite interesting, with the driver giving information along the way. But the most interesting part was when a branch got stuck in the wheels and the driver couldn't dislodge it, so he pulled out a chainsaw, opened a panel on the floor, and sawed it in half! It was pretty hardcore, and the woman sitting in the seat next to the floor panel looked a little concerned.

It turned out that the tram ride didn't go as far as it normally would have, due to some flooding damage on one of the bridges a couple of years ago. We got back and headed over to the Gloucester Tree. There were various signs up warning about climbing the tree during dangerous conditions, but nothing actually stopped you from climbing if you wanted to. We tested our shoes on the rungs to be sure that they had traction, and decided to go for it.

The climb was fairly straightforward and a lot of fun, though you can easily get disoriented if you look through the rungs and focus on distant objects while climbing. Coming down was a bit trickier for me because it had started to rain and the rungs were slippery, and my shoes weren't very grippy. So I really held on hard with my hands while descending so I wouldn't slip off and kill myself, so my forearms were actually quite tired by the end. Diana has these Reebok zig-zag soled shoes that nicely locked on to the rungs so she was quite comfortable descending.

We finally left Pemberton at around 5pm and drove on some fun, windy roads in the rain to get to Denmark. I think I scared the others a little bit with my driving, but our Mazda 3 SP25 sticks to the road really nicely so it was a great couple of hours of driving for me.

Day 3 - Saturday 17th August

Treetop Walk

40 metres above the ground!

We had to head back west about 50km to return to the treetop walk, which we had passed the previous day on our trip from Pemberton to Denmark. The previous two days had been a lot of fun driving because it was during the week and with all the rain, not many people were out being tourists. Now, being Saturday, the roads were a little busier, but still with plenty of bad weather it wasn't too bad.

The treetop walk is quite impressive. Big steel walkways suspended 40 metres in the air at the tallest point, but with gradual slope from the ground so that even someone in a wheelchair could traverse it. It feels a little odd that this structure has been built in the middle of nowhere, but it's well made and maintained, so I'm sure it attracts plenty of tourists. We got stuck in some rain back on the ground and ended up having to wait inside the base of a giant tree for it to pass. Tony and Olga were smart and brought rain jackets, so they were able to laugh at me and Diana and keep on walking :)


Elephant Rocks

We headed back towards Denmark and wanted to check out a winery that also made and sold cheese and fudge. Only some of the roads are sealed around this area, and we ended up driving quite a distance on a badly chosen dirt road, which took some time because we didn't want to hit any of the large potholes in the Mazda 3. It was worth the effort though, as the winery was quite nice, and we stopped there for coffee and cake.

Getting back in to town, we went down Ocean Beach Road to take a look at where the Wilson Inlet meets the ocean. There is a big beach/sandbar here that blocks the two from actually connecting, and looks really cool. We would have liked to have gone walking along it if we had more time, but there were too many other things to see.

By this point we were all getting hungry so we went in to town to look for somewhere nice to eat. Unfortunately, some of the cafes had already closed for the day at this point, and nothing was really jumping out at us. We were all feeling like some seafood, and were disappointed to not find a single fish and chip shop in the town. The local service station sold fish and chips, but we weren't that desperate.

After almost giving up, we found a nice little bistro next to the river that we had completely missed earlier on, which had great food, including some really nice seafood platters. So that was lunch sorted out. We dropped Tony and Olga off at the chalets we were staying in, and Diana and I headed off to check out some of the cool beaches in the area.

The most interesting beachy thing to see in Denmark is Elephant Rocks. This is a group of huge, smoothed rocks sitting on the water's edge, and they're quite impressive to see. We walked around these and then decided to continue walking along the rocks and beaches. Then we noticed that some heavy rain was moving in from the west, and it seemed unlikely that we'd get back to the car before it reached us.

This area was quite exposed with no natural caves or overhangs nearby that we could shelter in. Luckily I had some disposable rain ponchos stashed in my backpack, so we found a comfortable rock we could crouch down against and covered ourselves with the ponchos. Because of the high wind pushing the rain against the back of the rock we were behind, the rain mostly blew over the top of us rather than coming straight down, so we were actually fairly well sheltered.

Once the rain eased up a bit we headed back to the car and then back to the chalet for the evening.

Day 4 - Sunday 18th August


Natural Bridge

Heading out to Albany, we first stopped in for breakfast at a place called Cosy Corner, because how could you not stop in at a place called Cosy Corner? It was a pretty nice place and the food was good. We then continued on to Albany and our first stop, Whale World.

Whale World is an old whale processing facility that is now a museum. It looked quite interesting but we didn't really have the time to do a tour of it, so we continued on to check out some of the natural formations nearby. The most interesting was The Gap and Natural Bridge. This is two side-by-side formations, one being a big gap in the rocks about 20 metres high that has some powerful waves crashing into it, looking very impressive. The natural bridge is a large natural arch with water coming in underneath it. It all looks very cool and you can walk around on it as much as you want.

After this we went to the Princess Royal Fortress, an old military installation on a hill in Albany. There isn't much to see there, certainly nothing 'fortressy', just some old gun emplacements and barracks and a few other buildings. It was interesting, but less impressive than I had hoped.

We drove through Albany and got some lunch, then began the trip home, via Porongurup.

Castle Rock

View from the top of Castle Rock

We drove to the Porongurup Range and stopped at a place called Castle Rock. This is a big and impressive rock formation that has had a skywalk built on top of it which provides stunning views. It requires a 2km walk uphill to get to it, but is well worth the effort. We had set aside 2 hours for the return trip as per recommendations, but found that it only took about 1 hour 15 minutes. There were hardly any people there, so we could enjoy the view in peace.

There is a short climb up to the skywalk where they've added some big steel handholds to make it easier, but I was surprised that they didn't add a few extra ones in some key positions. It was no trouble for us, but they came so close to making it accessible for older and weaker people, so it was a bit odd that they didn't go to the extra effort.

After getting back to the car we began the 400km drive back along the Albany Highway to Perth. This was fairly uneventful, and we got back in to Perth at around 7:30pm.

All in all it was a great trip, and I think the cooler weather and rain actually added to the enjoyment. It made it a pleasure every time you went into a place that had a fireplace, and it was great to do lots of walking around without getting sweaty and uncomfortable, which tends to be the norm for me.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Manning, Snowden and Chilling Effects

There has been plenty of discussion in the media, amongst politicians and people in general over the actions of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, and whether, in each case, they deserve to be called 'whistleblower' or 'traitor'. People seem to be mostly willing to consider Snowden to be a whistleblower, and support his right to be protected with this status. Manning seems to have less support, and I think this is interesting.

The main negative arguments people can make against Snowden are:
  • He broke his contract to the NSA by revealing classified information.
  • He ran off to another country to escape 'justice', which makes him look like a traitor.
  • We already knew everything that he revealed.
I don't think any of these arguments holds up. The first point is true for any whistleblower (i.e. they will typically be under some sort of contract forbidding them to release confidential information), which is precisely why the government needs to provide protection to whistleblowers. The second point is entiredly justified behaviour on his part, given the US government treatment of Manning, not to mention use of things such as extraordinary rendition for people who have been deemed 'enemies'. And the last point is certainly false, given each new document that the Guardian continues to publish. Plus, the reaction from politicians, the general public, and foreign countries (such as Germany) would make no sense if all of this information was already known.

All in all, it seems pretty clear that Snowden released important information about unconstitutional activities being performed by the US government, and that he deserves protection as a whistleblower for doing this service. Given the amount of key internet infrastructure that is based in the US, and the number of large US internet corporations that the whole world has become dependent on, and which have been compromised by the NSA, it is hard to overstate the importance of getting this information out to the world.

In the case of Manning, it gets complicated by two key factors:
  • He is part of the military, which is subject to its own code of justice.
  • He released a large, unfocused mass of information, rather than just documents that specifically showed illegal activity.
Many people have argued that Manning doesn't deserve to be considered a whistleblower because much of the content he released (such as diplomatic cables) had nothing to do with illegal activities and simply caused embarrassment to the US government and made it harder for it to perform its functions. While there is certainly truth to this, the important part that seems to be so often ignored is that he released evidence of illegal activities. He released, amongst other things, video of the US military killing innocent civilians in Iraq. While Manning has been charged with releasing these videos, no charges have been filed against the soldiers responsible for this.

So the response to all of this has been that Manning was held in solitary confinement for months, in conditions that have been called "cruel and inhuman" by the UN, and has subsequently been found guilty of a number of charges, which could lead to a sentence of over 100 years.

The big question is this: Imagine Bradley Manning had released only evidence of illegal activities, and no other documents. Would he have been treated differently by the US goverment? Would he not have been held in cruel and inhuman conditions, and would he have been acquitted of all charges, such as espionage? If the answer is no, which I think is almost certainly the case, then we have a fundamental problem, since in this case Manning would undoubtedly be a whistleblower, making the public aware of illegal activity covered up by the government. And we would have the government horribly punishing a whistleblower, which would have a massive chilling effect on anyone else thinking of doing the same thing.

In a time where the US public is forced to put a huge amount of trust in their government to not abuse all of the secrecy that they take advantage of, it's very important that there are massive penalties to the government for betraying this trust. We need an environment where the costs of performing and covering up illegal activities are so high that the government will never consider it to be a better option than coming clean.

My proposal is that whenever someone releases evidence of illegal activity covered up by the government, then they should be given a free pass on any other information that they also disclose. Yes, this could mean disclosure of all manner of secret and damaging information. And yes, this information might be a huge benefit to the country's enemies. And that's exactly why it would actually have a chance at having a deterrent effect.

The government will always have the option to protect itself from such a damaging disclosure, of course: don't perform illegal activities, and if you do, don't cover it up! In the same way that Wall Street investment banks continue to break the law because the fines that they receive are smaller than the benefits they get from it, the government will continue to cover up illegal activity if this seems to be less risky than coming clean. But if they knew that a whistleblower would be protected no matter what they revealed as long as they revealed the illegal activity, well, that might actually change something.