Food. What in the world is wrong with the food supply?

Food is quite simple stuff. We grow it or we catch it or gather it, we might cook it, and then we eat it. For many of us, food is more about the choices available. What to eat? When to eat? How to eat less? How to eat humanely? How to eat ethically? Are food kilometres important? Paleo? Neo? Vego? Vegan? Ovo-Lacto? Or, perhaps most importantly, which of these questions are important for us and the planet, and which are irrelevant?

First, let me answer your question about the quantity of food. It’s a good question, and the answer isn’t obvious. Is there enough food in the world? The answer is ‘yes’. In fact, so much food is produced that there’s enough to give every person on earth more than twice as many calories as they need. (Each day there are 5,600 calories of food grown per person, whereas adults only need 2,600 calories). Few people are aware of the considerable excess in the food supply. Welcome to an exclusive club of people who know that the world is overloaded with food.

Today, the population is 100% more than it was in the mid 1960s, when the food excess was small. There are three and a half billion extra people now. But over the same period, food energy production has increased by more than 200% (from 24,000 PJ/year to 60,000 PJ/year).  Over the last 40 years,food production has increased at more than twice the rate of population increase. An amazing achievement, and has been achieved in most countries around the globe. Many poor countries have increased their food supply by more than the average.

Currently, there is no shortage of food on earth. In fact, the reverse is true; the food surplus is massive.

 

There’s heaps of food. So, why would I want to write this essay? I invite you to consider the following facts and figures concerning food production, and make up your own mind about the state of the global food supply.

Nobody should be starving, as explained above, but people are starving and people are undernourished – on every continent except Antarctica. In some regions, there are millions of people undernourished. Although we grow 100% more food than we need, about 15% of the population in poor countries don’t receive the food they need. Besides the diversion of food as part of warfare, there are some simple reasons why food does not reach the people who need it.

The map below shows the uneven distribution of food, based on the average daily calorie consumption by country (source: Wikipedia). Yellow is greater than 3000 calories per day (excess), while the dark grey colour is less than 2000 per day (insufficient for adults). Much of the world has either an excess or insufficient supply of calories. South America is the only continent without widespread excess or deficit. Of course, within many countries there are large regional and sociological differences.

Given that there are serious inequities, I want to know the reasons for such strong differences in the food supply. The obvious reason is the main reason – in poor countries food is too expensive to buy. The United Nations have a food price index that shows large increases in recent years (graph below). Conventional economic theory says that when a commodity is in excess supply, the price is very low. Especially if some of the commodity has low quality, in which case the price is expected to be very low. This hasn’t happened for food, because the economics of the food supply are subverted by wealthy consumers.

Food is now too expensive because food prices have been globalised. The prices have been maximised globally because food is sent to wealthy people if wealthy people will pay more for it. Whether they eat it or not. If the oil price goes up, corn can be cheaply converted to ethanol, and the corn will fuel a car instead of feeding hungry people. Undeniably, the “highest bidder eats” model has been the one that the world has increasingly adopted for several decades now. In recent years, the concept has expanded so that the highest bidder also gets the automotive fuel and oil, while the poor are undernourished. Unfortunately, governments around the world are opening up global markets rather than asking whether these open global markets cause harm to poor people.

Within countries there are also open markets working against a more equal distribution of food. With increasing urbanisation of traditionally agriculture-based populations in China, India and other countries, the connection between people and food growers has been getting weaker for several decades. More of the remaining farmers are growing and selling crops for cash rather than keeping crops for their own use. For some people, cash is more difficult to store for a bad season than food. The immediacy of cash puts farmers on a treadmill of producing bulk commodities instead of producing food for local consumption. The economics of food supplies are complex, and I don’t claim to be an expert, but long-distance transport of food, and the trend towards cash crops is having consequences for many people. 

While mentioning food kilometres, there is a lot of conflicting information out there, and it seems difficult to work out whether it is a big problem. Here’s your answer. Although all emissions are a problem, food kilometres are only about 4% of greenhouse emissions from the food industries. A high proportion of that 4% occurs from market to home, because only a small amount of food is moved in a typical car trip from the market to home. This is by far the least efficient part of the journey, emitting up to 100 times as much per food kilometer as long-distance transport by truck. Sea transport has exceptionally low emissions per kilometer and per kilo – so the food kilometres in sea-transported bulk commodities (such as grain, coffee, tinned veges) have very low emissions. And, of course, purchasing food from low-income countries, via a FairTrade system, may have preferred ethical connotations than purchasing from other sources.

Wasting food

Perhaps the most baffling and worrying aspect of food supply is food waste. The photo below shows good, but imperfect, oranges in California being dumped into landfill (photo from the USDA). Nothing unusual here – it happens to usable food by the thousands of tonnes every day, and in most countries.

One third of food is wasted before it gets to the consumer. This is not a simply a problem of rich countries, where food choices concerning unnecessary standards and the demands of continuous access lead to waste. In India, with its hungry millions, about one third of food is wasted before reaching the consumer, according to a recent statement by India’s Minister for Agriculture and Food Manufacturing Industries. 

Grains are some of the most nutritious foods available, and produced in vast amounts, so anything that affects grain production and use has a huge influence on food supply. Unfortunately, a great deal of waste occurs during grain harvest, preparation for storage, and storage. For example, if grains aren’t dry when stored, they are prone to moulds and mildews and quickly become inedible. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granary explains some of the details. Recently, in Vietnam, I saw many people using concrete and bitumen and gravel roads to dry rice. The warmth of the road and the wind from the traffic was helping, but it was lightly raining, and it seemed that the produce would go to waste. Simple driers such as dark-coloured tarpaulins (solar powered!) would help so much in these situations.

 

Photo of grain stores in West Java, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The misuse of human food

Another major issue is that one third of grain production is used to feed livestock. That’s one third of what isn’t wasted in harvest and storage. Basically, animals are fed grains that are energy dense, and therefore grows more meat per kg, and low in fibre, so animals can eat more kg of feed. This creates more fat, less sinew and more favourable flavours in the meat. This is unheathy for consumers, but it is what the food supply chain and many consumers are currently demanding. 

Cows, goats, sheep and other herbivores used to be fed grass and clover and brush. Pigs and chickens were fed food scraps and some spoilt grain. Animal growth rates were slower. The meat might have been tougher, and the taste might have been stronger. The meat was from older animals that used their muscles for walking around to get food and water. Was it so bad? I don’t believe it was. Was it more efficient? In terms of the area used and time needed to produce meat, it IS inefficient. But in just about every other way that you can measure it, the grass and scrap-fed animal production systems are wonderfully efficient. Pastures grow from good soil, sun and rain. Food waste wasn’t wasted – and cmost of it is still valuable stock feed. That photo of Californian oranges? Mixed with a few other things, they could feed some very happy cows, chooks and pigs. Except for the chicken because they don’t have teeth. But they DO like an orange.

One of the main concerns over feeding food scaps to livestock is that diseases might be transferred around the food chain in a cycle, building to an epidemic in either the animals or in humans. However, some countries have legislated to allow food waste as a feed for livestock, choosing instead to treat feed or quarantine certain high risk feeds. Treatment of scraps, for example by pasteurization, may be sufficient to kill a wide range of pathogenic organisms. It works for humans who like milk.

The options needed for reducing the consumption of human food by animals are already available

 

A feedlot in Texas for fattening beef cattle. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Waste by consumers like you and I is a large problem, not a little one. Many consumers purchase their food at irregular intervals, and rely on storage in refrigerators and cupboards. A trend in some countries towards fresh food over canned and frozen food has increased the difficulties for many people in maintaining food quality in the time between purchase and consumption. Commercial food manufacturers and sellers are famous for their wastage – especially those who rely on high quality ingredients and a very high standard of food aesthetics. Restaurants in particular. Every restaurant is a food waste nightmare. It has been estimated that food wastage from western restaurants ranges from one quarter to one half of the food purchased.

Food loss and waste per person and year Total Production and retail  By consumers 
Europe 280 kg 190 kg    90 kg
North America and Oceania 295 kg 185 kg 110 kg
Industrialized Asia 240 kg 160 kg   80 kg
sub-Saharan Africa 160 kg 155 kg     5 kg
North Africa, West and Central Asia 215 kg 180 kg   35 kg
South and Southeast Asia 125 kg 110 kg   15 kg
Latin America 225 kg 200 kg   25 kg

Table courtesy of Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_waste#Retail). 

So that’s the story of producing, but then wasting food. 

The environmental and ecological costs of food

The environmental cost of food production, distribution and consumption goes largely unnoticed. Why? I don’t know. Farming and grazing have been the main causes of plant and animal extinctions for a long time. Just in case you skimmed over it, and to make it clearer – Farming and grazing for the last few hundred years have been the largest causes of plant and animal extinctions in the last 64 million years on the Earth.

In this discussion of environment and ecology, I’m not focussing on genetic modification, or animal cruelty, or extreme examples of land contamination, or acute or chronic effects of pesticides on people. In my opinion, virtually 100% of the harm has been caused by the ‘normal’, uncomplicated farming of the land that has been going on for decades, using familiar technology, such as a tractor (or horses or a water buffalo), a plough (plow in the US), and something to harvest the crop. If you are wondering how growing a crop by ploughing the land and planting some seeds could destroy land and water and drive species to extinction, I have a whole lot of news for you.

Conventional tillage in preparation for planting (source: Wikipedia). Note the lack of forest cover in general, and minimal plant and animal biodiversity in the cultivated field. The purpose of ploughing is to kill all plant life.

I’ll start the next bit with a story. A BIG story. From space, astronauts can only see really big things. The Sahara desert. The Great Barrier Reef. The River Nile. But astronauts can see the rabbit proof fence. Not the fence itself, but the difference between the land on each side of the fence. If you’re not from Australia, you probably haven’t heard of the fence, despite the fact it’s easily the biggest fence in the world. It was built in the middle of Australia to stop rabbits spreading from the east to the west. Rabbits were grazing out land and reaching plague proportions in the south-east. To protect the southwest, a fence was built and maintained, and it kept out the rabbits. Free from the destruction of rabbits, farmers brought in more grazing animals, and in some places cultivated right up to the western side of the fence. The sheep and cattle grew fat, and many bags were filled with wheat.

Photo of the rabbit-proof fence. It is the longest fence in the world.

From space, astronauts report big differences between the eastern (rabbit ridden) side of the fence and the western side (grazed). The western side is brown and bare. In some places there are saline seeps where there were none before. Fencing the pastoralists and agriculturists out of the east side of the fence has protected the environment on the eastern side of the fence. 

In Eastern Australia, in New South Wales, the Soil Conservation Service estimate that 25% of previously farmed land is now unusable. That’s a few million hectares of damage. How much land has gone from productive cropping land to uncropable in Australia? More land than is is presently cropped in England. We’ve lost more than England has. Worldwide, this is a huge problem. Farming is by far the greatest cause of land degradation and future losses of food production. 

Global, regional and local environments are affected by agriculture and food production. Many of the problems arise from the simple fact that increased plant and animal production comes mainly from land clearing, the conversion of pasture land to cropping land, and increased intensity of operations on farms. These three things share something besides producing extra food. They produce serious amounts of pollution. In the discussion below, I’ll concentrate only on the few problems that are in my area of expertise (as a scientist).

1. When pasture and forests are cleared for farming, much of their stored carbon is converted to carbondioxide, and contributes to greenhouse warming and ocean acidification. Farming usually begins on fertile soils, covered in forest or woodland (trees and grass), which is cleared and cropped. In some cases the organic matter in the vegetation is burnt, with a dramatic release of thousands of tonnes of carbondioxide per square kilometre. However, the end result is generally the same as for burning when the soil is cultivated and cropped. The carbon is still converted to carbondioxide, but the process involved is microbial respiration instead of fire, and takes months or a few years instead of hours or days in the case of a fire. 

After just a few years, regardless of the farming system adopted, a large proportion of the carbon stored in the natural environment will be released into the atmosphere as carbondioxide and act as a greenhouse warming gas. Per square kilometre, typically they will be 1,000 tonnes of carbon converted to 3,700 tonnes of carbon dioxide (based on 1% soil carbon). A typical Australian car emits just 14 tonnes of carbondioxide per year, so this small area emits as much as 260 cars. It a forest was cleared before cultivation, there would be an extra 100 to 500 car-equivalents of carbondioxide released per square kilometre (depending on whether it was a woodland or rainforest that was destroyed).

In Australia, we sometimes hear about the potential for soils to store carbon, and paying farmers for the carbon storage they can achieve. This has been true, to some extent, in southern Australia, and in the past. This is because many of the sandy soils were very low in organic matter, and with fertiliser and farming, the organic matter content increased. However, in many cases there was a large carbon store in the vegetation before it was cleared, so the net storage isn’t much, if anything at all. Many years of research show that only pastures can return significant amounts of carbon to farmed soils. And only forests can return carbon to pastures. Messing about with different crop, pasture and tree species is inconsequential. 

It’s a fact that cropping releases very large amounts of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.

2. Conversion of forests and pastures to crops destroys biodiversity. Forests are valuable as habitat to a vast array of animals. But pastures, too have some diversity, and are important for many plants and animals. It’s not often that I’ve gone into a permanent pasture and not seen dozens of different plant species. Often, there will be fifty, and sometimes a hundred species in one field. In a crop, it is common to find just the crop and a fhalf dozen weed species. These don’t provide very much habitat for the animal community, other than some ants and moths and the like. There just isn’t the complexity of plant height, shape, food type or other attributes that would support a range of birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals like forests.

This graph shows how even a simple pasture is a mix of many species.

Graph courtesy of http://www.evergraze.com.au

It’s a fact that cropping reduces biodiversity.

3. Conversion of land to cropping causes soil erosion. Sometimes the extra erosion is just 10 or 20% more than before, especially if the land was overgrazed pasture. But often there is 100% or 200% or 500% more erosion when land is cropped. Erosion depletes the land of productive soil, it is an expensive problem if the soil is deposited on roads or in drains or in houses, and it eventually winds up in rivers and oceans, where it causes severe environmental problems.

On steep land or in tropical areas, farming may increase the rate of soil erosion from 100 tonnes a year per square kilometre, to TEN THOUSAND tonnes of soil per year for every square kilometre. In some farming systems the rates of soil erosion are much higher than this. Is that affordable or sustainable? No. In many areas of the world, soils are running down faster than the world is running of of fossil fuels. You might want to read that again. We are losing soils fast. How fast?

Where I live, a hectare of farm can produce 5,000 loaves of bread. The soil erosion per crop is 10,000 kg, which is considered a good, low level by almost everyone (not me). That’s 2 kg of soil erosion for every loaf of bread, and 1000 times faster than the rate of soil development.

It’s a fact that cropping causes severe and damaging soil erosion.

4. Plant nutrients are good when they are in the soil feeding crops, but the same nutrients cause environmental damage in waterways, estuaries and the ocean. Coral reefs only occur in clear, low-nutrient water. It is no surprise then, that the Great Barrier Reef is affected by farming on the nearby mainland of Australia. The pre-European rate or soil erosion flowing to the reef was 3 million tonnes per year, but farming has increased that to 17 million tonnes per year.

One type of nutrient, phosphorus, is usually attached to soil particles, and travels with them to the ocean. The saltiness of the ocean then releases some of that phosphorus, and it fertilises algae in the water. Unfortunately, these algae are the enemy of sea grasses and corals. In many parts of the world, the marine ecosystems have become slimy and green due to excess growth of algae. A visit to an inland lake often shows the same effect.

It’s a fact that cropping pollutes the land, waterways and oceans with nutrients.

5. Converting forest and pasture to cropping land introduces a diverse and problematic range of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.

Forests and pastures receive much fewer types, and much less quantity, and less environmentally damaging pesticides than cropping land. Tebuthiruron is an example of a chemical that has severe environmental consequences when it is used. It kills the forests to which it is applied. Because that destroys the habitat of a wide range of animals, it effectively kills them, too. The chemical is used in Northern Australia specifically to kill forest trees so that grazing and farming can go on. The simple fact is that dead forests and destroyed ecosystem are being exchanged for food. 

There are many more cases of chemicals that last for long periods in the soil and waterways being used around the world. Atrazine is the most commonly used herbicide in the USA, and is very widely used in Australia (but banned in the EU). It persists in the environment and is readily transported. It is the subject of on-going debate about the levels that are harmful in the environment and harmful to human health (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atrazine). Atrazine is being used in close proximity to the Great Barrier Reef. In order to grow sugarcane. A completely unnecessary food. A food that is harmful to most of the people who consume it. Does this make sense? Harm the reef to make sugary drinks?

It’s a fact that large amounts of environmentally hazardous chemicals are used in cropping. The fate and environmental effects of many chemicals are not well known. 

How to solve these things?

Food wastage must be treated seriously.

Food storage must be a higher priority for engineers, particularly in low income countries.

Converting pasture and forests to farms for grain production must stop.

Converting forests to pasture for animal production must stop.

Soil erosion must be reduced. The current rates are unsustainable in many of the cropping lands of the world. Soil erosion is a silent killer of future undernourished generations.

The source and fate of nutrients and pesticides must be better monitored and regulated.

Wealthy people must not be allowed to buy and waste food that is needed by undernourished people. 

Poor people must not be encouraged to sell their household food supplies to rich people.

High income countries must help regulate the global food supply. An unregulated food supply isn’t working for people in low-income countries.

It’s food for thought.

All comments are welcome.

Motorcycle diaries: Australia. Where did the rainforests go?

This motorcycle diary hasn’t got a lot about motorcycling. It is mostly about forests, conservation and some true facts that are a bit weird. And it’s all quite close to home.

My home town of Toowoomba is west of Brisane and north of Sydney, on the top of the Great Dividing Range (which isn’t very great around here at only 700 metres high, but does divide the wet coastal areas from the arid interior). The climate is subtropical and often dry, and cold in winter. All of which makes it surprising that there is rainforest on the dry western side of the Great Dividing Range.

The green forests on this map (courtesy of GoogleMaps) are mainly east of Toowoomba and the Great Dividing Range. 

To the west there is one particularly large area of rainforest at the Bunya Mountains National Park, and many very small patches of forest scattered west of Toowoomba (particularly between Toowoomba and the Bunya Mountains).

So where am I going with this diary? Well, some of my favourite bicycle and motorcycle rides are west of Toowoomba, through the rolling hills. 

This photo was taken northwest of Toowoomba, and shows some of the open landscape that is easy to find on the western side of the Great Dividing Range.

Now for the main weird but true fact in this story. Just before humans settled Australia – about 100,000 years ago – the climate was different and the vegetation in Eastern Australia was very different to what we see today.

The climate was wet, there were fewer fires and there were hardly any eucalyptus forests.

Much of Eastern Australia was covered by rainforest. It was covered by rainforest for a long time. I’m talking about tens to hundreds of thousands of years. Possibly millions of years. Then, for some important reason that is unknown, eucalypts and wattles and she-oaks and grevilleas spread madly across the landscape replacing most of the rainforests. Perhaps it was because indigenous Australians burnt dense forests to create more open woodlands that were better for hunting. Perhaps it was due to warming as the ice ages became less frequent or less severe. I don’t know, and I doubt that anyone does. Maybe it was a combination of things? 

OK, now check this photo out. It doesn’t look too exciting, but there are 2 exciting things about it. The average person probably drives past this and thinks that a farmer has left some eucalypt forest.

But the real story is much more exciting. Despite growing in low rainfall (600mm per year) this is a rainforest. A short, dry, shrubby tiny rainforest. There aren’t any wattles or eucalypts in the forest. These forests are the remnants and refugees of forests that were here 100,000 years ago. These remnants are now tiny and rare.

Most of these trees and shrubs in this patch are closely related to species growing in tall wet rainforests in East and North Queensland. So cool.

Another special thing about this dry rainforest (locally known as ‘scrub’) is that the trees all have thin bark and shallow roots and are killed by fire. They have no adaptations that help them survive fire, but grow In the regions with a lot of fires. So how do trees that die if burnt grow to 100 years years old in area that catches fire every 2 to 5 years? That’s not really known, but here’s what I reckon. First, it is common to find scrub in gullies and near springs, which don’t dry out as much as ridges and flat land. Second, the scrub is very good at suppressing fire. A lot of the plants have fleshy leaves that just don’t catch fire. The leaves might die, but they extinguish the fire. The combination of these two factors mean that the edge of scrub is often very clearly defined, and I’m fairly sure that the edge is defined by how close a fire can get to the forest. How cool is that? These little ecosystems are self-supporting. Unfortunately, these features also mean that it is fairly much impossible to grow scrub where there isn’t scrub already. It’s a Catch 22. Until the forest is there, it can’t protect itself from fire and grow. Also, the forest creates it’s own humid little patch in the landscape, shading the ground and protecting itself.

So these forests are ancient, virtually impossible to grow, are susceptible to disturbance, and rare.

Last, but not least, the soil in these forests has been protected for thousands of years. It developed from volcanic rocks that weathered over unimaginably long time. They are fertile and can store a lot of rainfall. Scrub can only grow on the very best soils because the climate is so stressful that the plants can’t cope with anything else that isn’t perfect.

One of the consequences of the high quality soil under these forests is that they have been widely cleared for farming and grazing. 

So the photo above, of scrub preserved on a farm, tells a story of conservation and protection by the farmer that could have developed the area and made money from it, but has obviously recognised the value of the forest. It is a great thing to find scrub preserved on farmland.

That’s the story of scrub and scrub soil and ancient landscapes. And the farmers who have kept little bits  that I catch on my rides. 

Blink and they’re gone. 

Getting around Bangkok

Bangkok is one of the great cities of the world. Bold, bedazzling, big and baffling. There’s something for everyone in Bangkok. For every major tourist attraction, there are at least a dozen things to see and do in the city. Which means that you can do a lot of travelling within the city.

I’m not an expert on either Bangkok or transportation, but I’ve stumbled around a bit. I found it all quite tricky and difficult at first, so I thought I’d write a page for someone who is coming to town for the first time. The pronunciations below aren’t anything special – they are just the way I hear them*.

Walking. …. On the right. On elevators, stay left. Some of the parks are excellent for peaceful walks.

Cycling. (Djuck-aye-yarn). Beside the opportunity to say the word, and feeling like a pirate when you say the “aye” in the middle, there’s not much to recommend cycling. It’s just too intense, but…perfect in parks, where you can rent a little bike with a basket and a number. Why the number? To catch you mid getaway? 

Motorcycle taxi. (Mo-door-psych tack-see). A convenient form of transport, these drivers are located on every second corner in Bankok. They are cheap, know every attraction, will get you there quickly, and will usually drop you at the front door. HOWEVER, taking a motorcycle taxi is a risky business if ever there was one. But it is also a brilliant experience. The moto taxi drivers are skilled. Very skilled. They weave through dense traffic and negotiate their way through red lights. I suspect that most accidents are at low speed (such as clipping my arm against a truck mirror). To help balance the risks with the thrill and practicality of this form of transport, I strongly suggest wearing a helmet. A pair of jeans and a long-sleeve shirt would also help in case of falling off. Last, but not least, I have learned to ask for an older driver. You don’t want the 16 year old kid that talks on his mobile while smoking and riding along a busy footpath. I’m sure I hired him once. Not again.

Tuk Tuk. (Dtook Dtook)  If you aren’t been in one, nothing is going to stop you getting into one. They have entertainment value. The drivers are cheery. But for regular transport I think that they are rubbish. They are about the same price as taxis. Maybe 10 to 20% less. You’ll be right in among things. This is perhaps what attracts so many people to Tuk Tuks. But after a while it seems that you are spending too much time in the rain, diesel fumes, the sun, the mosquitoes, and the wind. And in the particular shops that offer the driver Baht if they deliver tourists to their door.

Taxi (tack-see). Cheap as chips. Expect to pay about 150 baht for a short trip (2 km, $5), 300 baht ($10) for a long ride (5 to 10 km). 600 baht will get you right across town.

BTS. This is the overhead rail system. You can’t miss it if you are anywhere near it. It’s huge and sits on big concrete pylons (see the photo below).  There are 2 main lines and a short ‘stub’ that runs to the National stadium. One line runs from Mo Chit in the north along an ” L ” shape to Bearing. At the corner of the L is Siam station. The Siam area is ground zero for shopping, movies, and all things consumerist in Bangkok. Also, there is a tourist information centre near Siam station. The workers there are very helpful, with great knowledge and excellent English. To the east, the BTS runs out to Nana and Asok (and far beyond) on Sukhamvit, where there’s great dining and accommodation and nightlife. The BTS is AWESOMELY CHEAP. US$1 gets you across several stations (eg Siam to Asok) – many kilometers – and faster than any other system in town. The ticketing system is easy. Put coins in the machines. If you don’t have coins, go to the booth, and ask the person for change – that’s their job and they want to help you.

MRT. This is another rail system. It’s more or less an ” I ” shape. The north end is at the airport. The MRT is really good for getting from the airport to town. And it crosses the BTS at Asok, so change from one to the other and you can go east-west as well as north-south. Yay ! The two systems make a shape like a number 4 ( but they don’t join at the top.

Minivan. Great for longer trips (more than 20 km). For example, the floating markets at Amphawa, or to the Thai-Cambodia border. Very cheap. You’ll get a 100 km trip for about $5, possibly less. Not too long ago I took one from Samut Songhram to Bangkok (70km) for 70 baht ($2.20). Sweet !

Riverboat. This is a must-do. A popular place to catch a riverboat is at the back of the market next to the big Palace and the big Temple. There are short and long trips available. Generally, you’ll want 2 to 4 people on your boat to spread the cost. I took a luxurious solo trip, which cost about 500 Baht for an hour. I suspect that was a quiet day and I got a good price.

I hope that this basic guide helps demystify some of the options for getting around.

Enjoy Bangkok!!

Bicycle Diaries. Australia: Preparing for the Cairns to Karumba bike ride. Disaster just days before the ride.

Hi. As I’ve said before, the Cairns to Karumba bike ride is the best multi-day road bike ride in Australia, and one of the best that I’ve done anywhere (http://www.ridefnq.com). I’ve been on the ride twice before, in 2011 on a touring bike (flat bar and an alloy frame by Hasa) and in 2012 on a classic road bike (drop bars and carbon frame – Scott CR-1). There a couple of serious hills, especially on the Herberton Range, but it’s mostly about riding 780+ km in 7 days, from the east coast to the west coast of far North Queensland, and raising around $80,000 for the education of kids in remote areas.

With just a week to do some final training before the ride, I was out on the Scott for a ride up the local hill. It’s not too steep, but good for me. Before the main hill there’s a bit of a bump that’s just enough to get the heart running. So I change down to first gear and push hard. All he’ll breaks loose at the back of the bike

I hear a clunk, some grinding, a loud snap, and see some parts from my bike drifting into the adjacent traffic. About the same time that I stop the bike against the kerb that I’m becoming aware of what is happening, and look out into the traffic to see my rear derailleur (gear changer) get run over

Here’s what I think  happened.  The chain deformed but didn’t break. It made it through the front derailleur and around the chainring, but got caught in the rear derailleur. It seems that I pedalled the rear derailleur back and up around the rear gears. The derailleur must have got caught in the back wheel, because some spokes are bent and the rear wheel is buckled.  Eventually the gear cable broke and it was all too much for the bit of alloy that holds the derailleur in place (the ‘hanger’), and the derailleur made a break for freedom through the traffic, but copped a hit from a tyre before it got too far.

Lucky for me – not – some genius at the Scott factory decided that the derailleur hanger should be built into the bike frame (instead of being a separate, small, cheap part). As you can see in the photo below, the hanger is buckled and busted, and it now has to be cut out of the frame to be replaced. Then a carbon fibre repair to put a new one in. Aaarrrgggghhh! You can also see in the photo that the gears took a bit of a hit and have gone to meet their maker.

It’s quite a shame about the back wheel, because I quite like these wheels – Mavic Aksium Race. Moderately quick, but flexible enough to bue comfortable on long rides. Just right for the Cairns to Karumba ride.

But the biggest issue is getting the rear derailleur fixed. It will be hard to find one, and will probably take a week or more to fit it.

So Ive wrecked the Scott on Sunday, and have to leave on Thursday for Cairns. It doesn’t add up that the Scott will be my bike for the ride.

Crap.

With a minimum amount of time available, I start looking for a Giant Defy. Beautiful bike. Like my Scott CR-1, it is less ‘racey’ than other bikes, with a longer wheelbase and less ‘twitchy’ steering. 

So my local bike shop heroes Diane Bennett and Brian Page (https://www.facebook.com/BennettPageCycles) help me out on Monday morning. Nothing in the shop’ and nothing at the Australian distributor. The 2014 stock have sold out and the 2015 stock aren’t in yet. Crap. Diane asks if I’d like a TCR instead of a defy. I say that an old fat guy like me would look silly on a racy TCR. After considering my options, twice, I leave the store an hour later with a sweet new Giant TCR Advanced 2. Diane and Brian gave me an amazi price (RRP = $2699, I got it for $2000). I’m very happy.

This is it……

Looks good.

Rides well on a quick test.

But how will it go on the 800km Cairns to Karumba ride?

That’s my next post !

(Hint: it was fantastic)

Ciao amigos.

Bicycle diaries: Australia, Cairns to Karumba. Chit chat and bicycle preparation, part 2.

I’d like to start with an explanation of the ride. Cairns is in the tropical north of Queensland, and is famous for crocodiles, the Great Barrier Reef, mountains, rain forests that developed when Australia was part of Gondwana (200 million years ago), and much more. It fronts onto the Coral Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It’s a great place.

Karumba is a on the other side of Cape York. It is very different to Cairns, but is also a great place. With flat land and flat, fertile seas, it is a fisherman’s heaven. Karumba faces the Gulf of Carpentaria, a relatively undeveloped and unpopulated stretch of water the size of Germany.

(photos courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Cairns to Karumba bike ride is across Cape York and over the Great Divide. Although it’s only 780 km, quite a few are rough. About 300 km west of Cairns is the Goldfields country. An ancient quartz and ironstone landscape that is so tough that even the crocodiles don’t venture very far in.  The photo below of the Etheridge/Gilbert River at Georgetown shows one of the larger hills in the western half of the trip. It really is flat.

But back to the story of bike prep…. I’m riding the same 2007 Scott CR-1 Team that I rode in 2012. It has been a reliable beast for me. About 5 or 6 thousand km on the clock since I bought it off e-bay at a bargain basement price.

The first thing I did when prepping the bike was to put new handlebar tape on. I use gel patches under the tape to give extra shock-absorption. The, I replaced the jockey wheels on the rear derailleur (see my last post).

The other day, in a rush of blood to the head, I bought some road shoes (Shimano R107) and road bile pedals.

Well, this is embarrassing. Because I’ve long told friends that I will never get serious about cycling. In particular, I’ve always had mountain bike shoes because they are ‘normal’. The cleats are recessed into the bottom on the shoes, whereas road bike shoes have this ruddy great chunks of plastic under them that makes road riders walk like lame ducks.

That’s why I have always said that if anyone ever sees me in road bike shoes to tell me I look like an idiot. And then they should shoot me. Seriously, I’ve said that hundreds of times. Now I have bright blue road bike shoes.

But they are good for riding (shit for walking, good for riding). They seem to look after the bottom of my foot, which sometimes would get sore after long rides on mountain bike pedals. Road bike pedals are larger, so the pressure is spread across more of my foot.

These are the road pedals that go with the shoes.

They are a fairly new option on an old pedal (Shimano something or other 540). As you might be able to see in the photo, they have a “light action”, that is a new option. I figure will be an advantage on the long riding days (150 km and up to 6 hours) because it is surprisingly easy to be mentally or physically incapacitated, and stop without unclipping. Falling off like this hurts and it’s embarrassing.

Moving on past the somewhat embarrassing story of the shoes and pedals, there are a couple of very basic items that will make a big difference to the ride.

The first thing I have on the bike that isn’t on every bike is a rear-view mirror.

It’s one of these Zefal ‘spy mirrors’. As you can see in the photo on the right, it sits on the right hand side of the handlebar (this is for Australia where we we drive on the left hand side of the road).

Another important safety item is a rear light. I always use one. So bike prep consists of charging the batteries (of course I use NiMH batteries because I an environmental activist). This seems like an obvious thing, but all of us have had lights run flat halfway through a ride. In this case, it might be a day or two before I could get replacement batteries.

This is my tail light. Just a $5 Smart light, but it’s very bright and has a couple of different flashing modes.

The last thing that I’ve done recently is to replace my 3/4 worn tyre and tube. On a ride like this an extra mm or two of rubber can mean the difference between sitting in the car repairing a puncture and being on the road. I really don’t like punctures.

Well, that’s all that I planned to say in this blog. Now that it’s done, it all seems a bit dull. But never mind, because in 7 days I’ll be in Cairns and in 9 days I’ll have ridden from Cairns to Atherton. A wonderful ride of about 80km through a lot of rainforest and over some great mountains.

Woohoo. I can hardly wait.

Bicycle diaries: Cairns to Karumba (1 – bike prep)

Hi everyone.

In 2 weeks I’m riding in the amazing Cairns to Karumba multi-day bike ride (C2K Home Page – check out the video!).

The ride is almost 800 km long (over 7 days). The road conditions can be tough in places, because sometimes whole sections are dug up for  repair (up to 10km). It also get broken up by heavy haulage trucks. To do this ride, the bike needs a thorough service and check. For example, I’ll need to replace my tyres, so that I’m starting on brand new ones.

This story, however, is about one of those bike parts that I take for granted. In fact, I have NEVER heard ANYONE talk about jockey wheels.

Jockey wheels? What’s a jockey wheel? How big are jockey wheels? A bike only has 2 wheels, right?  Well, no, actually. The rear gear shifter (derailleur) has a couple of wheels that guide the chain. When these wheels get pulled left or right, they move the chain between different gears. You can see these little plastic wheels doing their job very well in the photo below.

So…..shifting gears is a really, really important thing. Right? So why does everyone (including me until a week ago) take jockey wheels for granted?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s because they do their job so well, and almost never complain?

Photo courtesy of BikeRumour.com

What do the experts say?  In their technical information about rear derailleurs, Shimano, in very small note among a lot of information,  say that if a pulley becomes so loose as to cause excessive  noise, it should be replaced (Shimano Technical Document (105 rear derailleur)). Apparently, it is normal for your jockey wheels to be moderately loose and noisy.  What the hell? Who wrote that?

The other day I was looking at my rear derailleur, making sure that the faithful old thing was ready to go another 800km. What I found were wobbly old jockey wheels. Check the photo…

Old jockey wheels plus busted bearing

Yup, they were dirty, gouged, and middle of the bearing fell out of one as I removed it!  Despite being so bitten, bruised and battered, the gears seemed to have been shifting ok with these jockey wheels.  Amazing. They weren’t making any noise (at all), so I guess Shimano reckons these beauties are good to go, but I really had to go for new wheels. The photo below shows the old and the new. A shiny alloy jockey wheel.

Jockey wheels old and new

While I was at it, I replaced the other wheel. Not only does the whole thing work a little more smoothly, I think it looks cool, too. Cost: about $15.

Glamour finish

My next couple of blogs will be about other bike prep and training for the ride.

Happy cycling !!

A better set of English to Vietnamese translations

Hi everyone. Some time ago I posted a list of common Vietnamese phrases – with the added benefit of being phonetic (fon-et-ik). This one has quite a few extra phrases and has a new layout.

I hope you find it useful!

ps I’m planning another trip to Vietnam in Sept/Oct 2014. Last time I was on a motorcycle, so this time I think I will have to go on a bicycle. In fact, the heavy duty tyres arrived today. Smile

Vietnamese phrases <click here for a high quality pdf version.

image

Bicycle diaries: the Cook Islands. Rarotonga, day 6.

Fruits of Rartonga. Sweet. 

Today I had a long snorkel at the beach opposite Fruits of Rarotonga. The buses stop right to the shop. The lagoon is wide, and it contains many chunks of coral with swarms of colourful fish.

It is best to snorkel on the start of the incoming tide. This combines the best of shallow water and slow currents heading into the beach. If you are snorkelling in winter, there’s a good chance that the water coming into the lagoon will be warm, and floating over the top of the colder water in the lagoon.

Humbug fish in a branching coral. So cute.

The best snorkelling is away from the beach. Yesterday, the water became clearer about 20 to 40 metres out. The visibility went from about 5 metres to 15 metres. The water was 1 to 2 metres deep. 

From anywhere on the beach or in the water, you’ll see the large mooring buoy and perhaps a couple of others. As you can imaging, there are plenty of fish and nice corals in these areas. In particular, the area between the buoys and the back of the reef are spectacular. Visibility was about 20 metres, and the water was about 2 to 3 metres deep. Perfect!

But CAUTION. The back of the reef is at least 100 metres away from the beach (maybe 200 metres?). At times, there will be strong currents. This definitely isn’t a place for a beginner.

A colourful wrasse. Maybe a sunset wrasse? In any case, there were many sorts of wrasse and other medium-sized fish at Fruits.

Some highlights of the fish life included a large morey eel (below), lemon-peel angelfish, cleaner wrasse at many cleaning stations, large blue-fin jack (trevally), needlefish, trumpetfish, and thousands of coulful damselfish and humbugs and little fellas.

For the marine biologist there were lots of hydroids and algae and urchins and things.

 

A big Javanese morey eel. They are the biggest morey eel in the world, and this one was about 1.5 metres long.

If you swam out past the buoys, you can turn right at the back of the reef and follow the coral outcrops to the north. They form a more-or-less continuous line back to the beach. The exit is either over the beach rock at the edge of the water or swimming about 100 metres in the shallows back to the main beach and car park.

So, if you are in Rarotonga, like a snorkel and have some fine weather, check out the lagoon at Fruits of Rarotonga. Oh, yeah, for a few bucks you get a terrific fruit smoothie, too.

Cheers

Bicycle Diaries: the Cook Islands. Day 4.

Kia Orana. Welcome to the Cook Islands. 

This trip is a quick one. Just 8 days in Rarotonga, the main island and capital of the Cook Islands. A small group of Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (just to the left of centre, actually). Rarotonga is in the south tropics, about the same latitude as Townsville in Australia. It is about 10 km across and is almost round. There is a good sealed road running around it (32km round trip). I was told that the population is about 16,000 people, so it’s not crowded at all. With 16,000 people it seems to me that people might be outnumbered by the 16,001 dogs on Rarotonga. They all seem old and friendly. None of them barked or chased me on my bike. 

There are dozens of little shops and cafés on the island that mean you don’t need to take anything other than a hat and towel on trips around the island.

 

The island looks a bit like this:

The main features are too many to count. But here are just a few things that I have found so far..

The lagoon – as a keen snorkeller, this is a highlight for me. Although it’s not the Great Barrier Reef, it’s certainly worth a look. In my case, I feel that it’s worth a look every day. 

The Harbour and Town. This is the busiest part of Rarotonga. It has lots of takeaway food shops, souvenirs, a pharmacy – most of what you’d expect in a town of about 5,000+ people. 

Just to the south of the big harbour is the smaller harbour, Avarua, where dive boats often go out. I had 2 dives at the mouth of the harbour, barely 300 metres from shore. The water quickly gets quite deep (20 to 40 metres). The visibility was outstanding at 20 to 30 metres. See the photos below.

The coffee van near Muri town.. Run by Paradise Divers, you can get a good strong coffee there most days. It is conveniently located halfway around the island (a 16 km bike ride) from where I’m staying, which is…

The Edgewater Resort. One of the larger resorts on the island, It has more than a hundred rooms, a swimming pool and theme nights. My room was a bit close to the action. To the credit of the staff at reception, they didn’t hesitate to move me to a quieter room when I asked. Now I have a wonderfully serene room down the back of the resort where I can hear the surf at night.

The Islands are a great place for snorkelling and the obligatory glass-bottom boat trips. To the north of the Islands is the best part of the lagoon, and some great little places to stay. Along this stretch there are places to hire snorkelling gear, kayaks, paddle boards and other toys.

Fruits is one of the best places to snorkel. It gets its name from the fruit shop on the main road: Fruits of Rarotonga. You can sort of see from the aerial photo why fruits is such a good place. It has a couple of minor channels, to give some depth, and the lagoon is wide and a bit deeper here. I’m also told that there is less rise and fall with the tides, so the currents aren’t so strong and it’s good to snorkel at almost any time of the day.

Some scenes from the dive boat at Avarua harbour…

 

Because this is my cycle diary, I had better mention my bike. It’s a cruiser, on hire from Polynesian car and bike Hire. As always, bicycle hire is ridiculously expensive – $11 per day – in relation to things like motor scooters ($15 per day). Anyway, the cruiser is sensational. The fat tyres and heavy steel frame make it as manoeuvrable as an oil tanker, which also means that there is almost no steering required. Just point and pedal!

 My fat wheel cruiser near the Islands

Well. That’s my personal experience so far in Rarotonga. I’ve been here 4 days and have 4 more to go.

More photos and stories to come (like the one about Hilary Clinton).

Motorcycle diaries. Australia. 110 km of bliss, just north of Toowoomba.

Hi again. After a long time with no internet, I’m back with more motorcycle diaries and stories. 

This is a very sweet ride, mostly on back roads. I rode it anti-clockwise, starting by riding up the New England highway to Crows nest. The speed and altitude graph below show that my speed was mostly 75 to 95km per hour, with plenty of hills.

   

The section from Crows Nest to Haden is particularly good. Here are some images…

 

  

As you can see, there’s a lot of Eucalyptus forest. There is some dry rainforest, too, with big hoop pines and vines and stuff. Some of the road is single lane between Crows Nest and Haden, and some of the road surface is rough, but the corners have good visibility and the surface has excellent grip when it’s dry.

This is one of the best short rides in the Toowoomba area. Although I haven’t cycled very much of the course, I am sure that it would be an excellent half-day road bike or touring bike ride, too.

I should mention that both Meringandan and Goombungee have pubs with good service and cold beer. Meringandan has really good food at good prices. Unfortunately, I didn’t check out the food and drinks available in Haden. That’s a pity, because it’s a really nice little town. Very picturesque. I have a feeling that it won’t be long before I’m back there.

Enjoy your travels. 

Brett

Happiness. It’s a funny thing. 

Lots of people are interested in happiness. There are religions, hobbies, lifestyles and stuff dedicated to finding it. Bliss, Nirvana, Heaven. Woodstock. 

Before I explain why they are a waste of time in relation to happiness, I’ll mention a particular thing that some people do. The people I’m thinking about like to read self-help books. People seem to like reading self-help books. I guess it makes them happy. That’s why there are so many in the bookshops and that’s why people sometimes get ‘hooked’ on reading them. But the fact that people read dozens, sometimes hundreds of them, tells me that they aren’t very effective. Otherwise, just one would do the trick.

Check this out. I’m smiling and feeling slightly freaky just looking at it. Photo courtesy of http://www.psynews.org/forums/index.php/topic/61048-b-l-i-s-s-f-u-l-f-e-s-t-i-v-a-l-2-0-1-1-29-june-3-july-new-venue-dancefloor-by-water-portugal-10000-people-maximum/

If you’re want the story about happiness, I’m sorry to say that you’ll have to wait. I’m going to think about self-help books for a bit longer. There are two common sorts. Maybe more.

1. The business-modern style, where the author says they have a special understanding of a business and with (training/tricks/a system/stuff) you can be successful, too. Successful people are happy, inside and out. They love themselves and people love them.

and

2. The new-age style, where the author has some deep understanding of the universe that makes them happy. With (training/tricks/a system/stuff) you can be happier. Happy people attract happy people, feel good within themselves and other people like them.

Although the business training and new age people probably feel that they don’t have much in common, I think they are selling the same message. The message is:

You want happiness. You need happiness. You don’t have ‘true’ happiness, but follow me and I’ll lead you to happiness.

This is all too attractive to lots of people. I can’t stand it. 

Next I’m be saying 2 things about this approach with a huge amount of confidence. One is that these books won’t make you happy (except as a nice read for a couple of hours). They can’t make you happy. How many people do you know that have ever been made happy by a book? The other thing is that they have the most ridiculous name for this genre of books – ‘self-help’. These books do everything to say to the reader that they aren’t good enough. That they don’t know the ‘special system’ or can’t ‘see’ the truth or need to be ‘in tune’ etc, etc, etc. Apparently, the author knows and does all of this, and is willing to help. Yes, the author is willing to help (for $30 unless you’re at the library).

These books are really the ‘self-abuse’ and ‘endless promises’ genres.

They are the genre of empty promises, too. How do I know that? Because the research into happiness indicates that self-help does NOT make people happy. Success, money, stuff, knowledge? No, no, no, no. Exercise, white goods, cars, holidays? No, no, no, no. Faith, children, solitude, nature? No, no, no, no.

The research has, for about 100 years, has hinted at the same thing again and again. The ingredients are simply: to be grateful. Ok, you got me there – there’s only ONE ingredient. TO BE GRATEFUL.

Maybe I should write a self-help book. But it’s only going to have 2 pages. One that says “To be happy, be grateful”. The other page explains how to put the theory into practice. How to BE happy. It’s embarrassing how easy it is. If you are fairly happy, just make sure you have a few grateful thoughts during the day. Like “I’m grateful that the sun is out, because I forgot my umbrella”. About 3 times a day is enough. If you don’t believe me, just try it for a laugh. Soon, you’ll be laughing.

I can hear people thinking – that’s too easy. You’re right, of course. If someone really isn’t the grateful ‘type’, or is suffering depression, then they will probably have to be serious about being grateful. For them, I’d suggest writing down 3 things that they are grateful for, and doing it in the morning. Unhappy people feel least happy in the morning, so it’s a good idea to be grateful in the morning, and get rid of those shitty feelings as you get out of bed. There’s no use in being unhappy for a couple of hours before doing the gratefulness exercise.

I’ve never explained this to anyone before, so I don’t know what you’re thinking. Maybe it seems too easy? But why should it be difficult? How fast will you get happy? A bit of happiness will show up immediately. But deep, lasting happiness will take a while. Like most people, when I’m happy I get lazy and forget to be as grateful as I should be. Sometimes I sort of ‘wake up’ and realise I haven’t been grateful for a while, so I make sure I think some grateful thoughts to get me back on top. For me, a small donation to a charity is a good way of focussing my grateful thoughts. How lucky am I to be the giver, and not the receiver! There must be a hundred different things that you can do to reinforce in your mind how lucky you are.

For one thing, you’ve a got a computer. Now go away and think some grateful thoughts.

Have a GREAT day.