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. 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.

Motorcycle Diaries. Australia. Down and up in the Brisbane Valley.

Hi again. I had an urge to day to ride up around Yarraman and Blackbutt, a bit over 100 km north of Toowoomba and far enough from Brisbane to not have too much traffic, even on a Sunday. I have cycled a track that goes between Blackbutt and Linville, and figured that the road that runs nearby would be good. This was a great day out.

The Brisbane and Stanley River Valleys are east and north-east of Toowoomba, down below the Great Dividing Range. Hence the title of today’s blog, because from Toowoomba I have to ride down off the range to get there, and back up again to get home. Those rides are terrific, with lots of rise and fall, and some fairly winding sections. All up, the ride is a little over 300 km and with a lunch break in Blackbutt, 2 fuel stops and a toilet stop, I was out for almost 4 hours.

Yarraman to Moore is down off the range, and Esk to Hampton is the ride back up.

The altitude (green line) and speed (purple bars) show the drop into the valley and rise out. Cooyar Range is at 100km and Blackbutt at 130 km before an absolutely outstanding series of bends down to Moore. The ride from Esk up the hill is sweet, too. It goes for about 40 km, right up to Hampton. You can see from the speed graph, and the average moving speed of 80 km per hour, that it’s a quick ride. I took an opportunity to toddle along the Stanley River for a few km at about 60 km/hour.


These photos are of the main street through Blackbutt. Lunch at the bakery was excellent. They had a ridiculously wide range of pastries and deserts. Amazing for a small country town. On other occasions I’ve eaten in the cafe and pub, and they are good, too.

The ride from Moore through Linville is sweet and easy. This is the southern approach to town. 


The road north of Linville is narrow, but good quality. It was a pity to see that the river is badly affected from agricultural runoff. It was just a green slimy mess. Further downstream, towards Esk, after many creeks and rivers have joined together, there were many good swimming holes. And Somerset dam, which is many square kilometres in area, and has plenty of camping and swimming spots.

 

This ride was one of the best I’ve had since I bought the bike. I have put about 2,500 km on the bike so far. 

That’s about it for now.

Cheers.

Motorcycle diaries. Australia. Pilton Man. 

Hi again. North and South of Toowoomba there are some roads with great scenery that head east or northeast and fall from the top of the Great Dividing Range to the coastal lowlands. Flagstone Creek is one, Pilton is another. As you can see from the map of the route, most of this ride is on secondary roads that are south, east and north of Toowoomba. Generally, there won’t be much traffic, especially on a week day. ,,

The altitude (green line) and speed (purple bars) show that there are plenty of ups and downs and slow and fast segments to the ride. (Note that there is an identical ride after 70km to the fall from about 50 km. I lost something off the back of the bike, and had the joy of replicating this really good part of the ride).

I headed out of Toowoomba south along Drayton road, which merges with the New England Highway. Near Cambooya I turned right at the Greenmount turn-off, and followed the signs south to Clifton. This is a sweet ride through rolling farmland and country towns. On the weekend, Greenmount hotel does great food at lunch and dinner. When the weather is good, it’s great to grab a drink and some food and head outside. A few km down the road is Clifton, which is a prime farming area. You’ll see all sorts of crops around here, including wheat and barley and oats in winter,  and sorghum, maize, corn and sunflowers in summer. Maybe some soybeans too. In town there is an historical park, with bits of old farm machinery and cars and trucks – just across from the cafe, too. I haven’t really checked out the historical park, but there will be plenty of opportunities, because the ride from Cambooya to Clifton is a favourite of mine. From Clifton, it’s a matter of crossing the New England Hwy heading east. It’s a dog-leg left and right, with a few hundred metres on the highway.

Pilton is few km down the road. The ride starts open and quick, but slows down into winding corners at the edge of the range. Here’s a couple of photos of the ride down off the range just east of Pilton. There are many kilometres of great riding through the valley. There are lots of swimming holes and a camping and picnic area.

 

The road flattens out and the forest is replaced by farmland around the township of Ma Ma creek. When Australian indigenous words are repeated, it means “many”. So Ma Ma creek is the place with many ma. It seems that Ma is a mispronunciation of Mia, meaning house or bark hut. In Eastern Australia, houses were called gunyahs, and it was only in Western Australia they were called mias, so there is a bit of mystery surrounding the use of Ma Ma in this area to describe a collection of native houses. In any case, there are still only a few houses in Ma Ma creek. This is the store, petrol station, post office and pizza shop.

The remaining half of the ride is just as good as the first half. Ma Ma creek is the lowest elevation of the trip, and there is some fine riding up the range through Postman’s Ridge, Murphy’s creek and Ballard. The riding is excellent through Ballard. The road is scenic and diverse. A short section where the road crosses the railway line to Brisbane is about 22 percent slope, and is followed by a very tight corner. Definitely the place to kick down a couple of gears, lean it over and apply just the right amount of throttle. The top of the range is just a kilometre away, where you can turn left to Toowoomba or right to Highfields and Cabarlah. I went to Highfields to the Chocolate Cottage for some fine coffee and chocolate, before riding the 15 km back down the highway into Toowoomba.

That’s about it for now.

Cheers

* I couldn’t help use the title “Pilton man” for my trip through Pilton. It’s a reference to “Piltdown man”, an exciting archeological find in 1912. Pity it was a hoax. But for some strange reason, every time I see a sign saying “Pilton” I automatically think “Pilton Man must live here” and have a chuckle.

Motorcycle diaries. Australia. The Bunya Mountains.

Hi. The Bunya Mountains are a small areas of mountains that rise about 1000 metres above the plains of the Darling Downs and the South Burnett. They are About 250 km northwest of Brisbane and 140 km northwest of Toowoomba, so are a full day of cycling or a few hours of motorcycling away.

Why go to the Bunya Mountains? They have a large National Park, with extensive rainforest and open forest, several great walks, they are cool because they are so high, and there is excellent accommodation, food and coffee. It also has some excellent winding roads on the way up the southern side and a very steep and winding road down the Northern side. The day I was there I was mainly interested in the coolness and food.

Here’s a map of the clockwise loop I chose. It was a bit less than a full day of riding. Mt Mowbullan is the highest part of the Bunya Mountains.

The distance by elevation profile reveals that the ride is 350 km long and there are plenty of ups and downs. The mountains are at 1100m high and the plains are around 150 to 300 metres. The mountains are about 10 degrees C cooler than the plains and 5 degrees cooler than Toowoomba. On a summer’s day like the one when I rode this loop, the temperatures were about 32 in Toowoomba, 37 in Jondaryan, and 26 on the mountains.

This is me parked at the main picnic and food area. The Bunya Mountains are names after the huge bunya pine trees that are common in the rainforest here. Growing to well over 100 metre stall, they have large pine cones (40 kg!) that contain edible seeds. Aborigines would have feasts timed for the maturing of the nuts. The local wallabies and possums made fine food too. But here’s where I ate…

That’s a bunya pine on the right, and you can see their geometric, ‘pointy’ tops sticking out of the rainforest behind the cafe. The one on the right is just a baby – maybe 20 years old. They live for 200 years or more.

This is a view from the restaurant out onto the picnic area, some artwork and the car park

The ride down from the mountains into an area known as the South Burnett is quite steep (25 percent in places?) and winding. Then it opens out onto a ridge and finally the farmland around Kingaroy. The road across to Nanango and Yarraman is quite good, if a little dull. For those riding from Brisbane, Yarraman is a nice place to stop either for a meal or for the night. Blackbutt, just 10 minutes ride to the east of Yarraman is also a great country town, with good food and cheap accommodation at the pub.

Heading south now, Yarraman to Cooyar is a very short ride, but it’s a great ride. Initially, the road follows open fields with scattered patches of rainforest. Then, near the top of the Cooyar Range, their are hoop pine plantations. These massive trees are very impressive. At the very top of the range is the junction on the right hand side with the Kingaroy road (a shortcut for those who don’t want to go though Nanango and Yarraman). As you can see in the photo below, it is open Eucalyptus forest here, and is similar for most of the way back to Toowoomba.

The ride down the Cooyar range is really, really good. This day I had a motorbike, but I’ve also ridden it on a bicycle. The corners and the slope are really, really good. (I know I already said that, but it’s just what they are). 

The ride back to Toowoomba is very pleasant. Some hills, some bends, lots of trees, safe roads, not much traffic. There are plenty of petrol, food and drink stops between Yarraman and Toowoomba, and it’s hard to go ride through to Toowoomba without stopping, even if I don’t need to.

A top ride and a great day out. 

Cheers.

Motorcycle diaries – Australia. Welcome to south-east Queenland.

Hi again. I’ve bought a bike and I’m doing some short rides near where I live (I’m the blue dot in Eastern Australia). As you can see from the green lumpy bits around the blue dot, I live on top of a mountain range, and it’s called the Great Dividing Range. Great because it’s long, not because it’s high. The highest bit is 1200 km to the south and is only 2200 metres high, and where I live is only 700 metres above sea level.

Those 700 metres, the hills of the range, and the subtropical climate make for some great motorcycling. The weather is hot in summer (35 C max today), and cool in winter (typically 5 minimum and 20 C maximum). The land to the east is lower and hotter and wetter. The land to the west is lower and hotter and drier.

The major roads are very good and have moderate amounts of well-behaved traffic. The lowest grades of the paved roads are usually narrow and have some bumps and potholes, but they are almost empty – you can often drive or ride for kilometres without seeing another vehicle. The options in between are almost endless.

The map below shows the area around Brisbane (capital of the Australian state of Queensland) and Toowoomba in greater detail. The green areas are forest and the light green areas are mostly grassland with scattered trees. The major highways are shown.

The photo below was taken about 100 km west of Toowoomba, on the Darling Downs, which is an area of flat, fertile soils where grain and cotton are grown. This land would have been grassland with scattered trees before Europeans cleared the vegetation to grow crops. As you can see, the fields are large and the houses are many kilometres apart.

This photo was taken about 60 km north of Toowoomba, at the top of the Cooyar range. The forest is mostly Eucalyptus and wattle (Acacia) trees. As you can see, we drive on the left side of the road. This is is a minor highway, of good quality and without much traffic. The road is quite crooked and windy, making for a great motorbike ride.

So that’s where many of my rides are going to be. Sometimes I’ll head off across the continent, but more often I’ll be riding through these landscapes. 

I’ll be back soon, writing about a real and wonderful ride to the Bunya Mountains, northwest of Toowoomba.

See you later.

Motorcycle diaries. Australia. New bike for Christmas.

Well, it’s been a while since I wrote a motorcycle diary page. I was in Vietnam and I was riding a cute little Husky 150 cruiser. It was a great bike. So tough. So reliable.

A couple of weeks in Australia and I was itching to get some of that excitement happening again. So I shopped around and decided that I needed more than a ‘baby’ bike (such as a 250cc cruiser) and I wasn’t into ‘sports’ bikes with powerful engines and brakes and indescribably crunched up riding positions. I was thinking about a Hyosun 650 semi-cruiser (nice bike but maybe a bit too lightweight and plastic?). The local Honda dealer had a 750 cruiser, and the salesman assured me that it wasn’t too big or powerful for me. As soon as I rode it I loved it. 

Anyway, I looked around for one of these VT750s. In the end, the one in my home town of Toowoomba was the second best (an as new 2004 model with 20,000 km on the clock), but I went over to Gympie and rode the bike I chose. It is a 2007 model with only 6,000 km on the clock. Amazingly cheap at $6,500 on the road. But….

But this is riding the elephant, isn’t it? Yes? No? Maybe? Do I care? Only a little tiny bit. Ha!

Here it is…

For a motorbike, it’s heavy at 250 kg, and underpowered at 35kw*. And that monstrous great exhaust means it’s as quiet as a library. BUT it rides like an absolute dream. Literally. The suspension is soft and splooshy. It swoops. Up ahead – a corner. Swoop. Need to change lanes. Swoop. Look out for that pothole. Swoop out. Swoop in.

I’ve bought some clothes/safety gear and done a few trips already. These trips will be featured in this new series of Motorcycle Diaries (Australia).

Have fun and don’t stop smiling. It’s contagious. And everyone thinks you’ve done something naughty, which makes them happy for you!

* it’s not that slow - it has a 0-100 km/hr time that’s faster than a GT308 Ferrari, a GT351 Falcon, a Porsche Carrera and a Lamboughini 5000GT. It’s just slow for a motorbike.

How to clean stuff: chrome

I’ve been in Australia a bit too long and have started to clean my bicycles and other stuff. A couple of my bikes are vintage (1980s) with heavy chrome. How to clean it? Over the years I’ve worked this out fairly well. But I thought I’d look on the internet. Oh my. So many mistakes there. Also, some very good ideas, but crazy ideas about how and why they work. Here are the facts. 100% factual, 100% guaranteed.

Ever thought- Why does my shit get rusty? No? Yes? Here’s the definitive answer. Rust is iron combined with oxygen. For iron to react with oxygen, it helps if surface is wet. If the iron is touching a different type of metal, there will be electrolysis. Electrolysis means ‘battery death’, so it’s really quite bad. If the moisture is salty and if the temperature is high, rust forms faster. 

One last thing is needed for problem corrosion. The oxygen in the air has to be able to get deep into the metal. For metals like zinc and aluminium, a surface coating of rust forms, then the reaction stops. But for iron, the rust gets crusty and forms pits and falls off, exposing fresh iron to be converted to rust. Even worse, the rust forms crusty pits that retain moisture and further encourage rust. That’s why rust spreads across a surface like a disease. Rust creates rust. Bummer. Ok, that’s enough of the science lesson. Now some of the ideas in the methods section won’t seem so weird.

1. Steel wool. Fine grade.

Unless you only need the chrome to look good for a month, DON’T DO IT.  Steel wool takes away the surface rust, and works great as a cleaner. But it doesn’t do anything to treat the rust or prevent more rusting. In fact, it will leave lots of steel particles in the cracks and pits and they will rust really fast and easily. You don’t want to be feeding the rust pits with soft and reactive iron particles. But IF you insist on using steel wool, you must seal the chrome with a clear coat or regularly polish it with a good quality wax, so that the air and oxygen can’t get to the iron.

2. AutoSol, Brasso and other rust-converting pastes. 

These contain mild abrasives to remove the dirty rust particles, but also contain ‘sacrificial’ metal compounds that ‘suck’ the oxygen out of the rust. Brilliant idea (pun intended). With less oxygen, the rust is converted from an ugly red compound to a grey/black compound. When combined with a good quality clear coat or waxing, this method works really well, and slows down the re-emergence of rust for longer than other methods.

This rear hub off a bicycle is good quality chrome and has come up really well with some AutoSol and a rub with Turtle Wax.

3. Paste cleaners.

There are lots and they are mostly ok in my experience. Definitely not as good as a rust-converting paste. But if you follow up with a clear coat or wax, this is quite good. Some take a bit of elbow effort. There are many others. Some people even use toothpaste. I might have used it, and it is definitely not going to scratch the chrome or paintwork, but it doesn’t ‘cut’ the rust away very quickly or easily.

4. Wet and dry sandpaper.

400 grit wet and dry is an aggressive cleaner. Personally, I think 800 grit is safer and less likely to leave rub marks. 1200 or 1600 grit gives a final clean. Sandpaper has the huge advantage over steel wool that any residues aren’t going to rust. But a clear coat or wax to keep out the air and oxygen will be helpful to keep the surface shiny.

These wing nuts were very corroded and rusty (right), but came up ok after rubbing with some 800 grit wet and dry, then some AutoSol, and a finish with Turtle Wax (left). I spent about 5 or 10 minutes working on each of these. They are quick-release nuts for the front axle of a bicycle (1980-era).

5. Cutting compounds and waxes. 

These are ok for light rust. I like Meguire’s Medium Cut and Polish. It contains siliceous earth compounds (that’s just fine sand to normal people). 

Waxes are totally important as a finish because they repel water, and exclude air. They are what will stop the rust coming back.

Which wax? Well, I’ve tried a few, but after hearing that the Harley Davidson riders use Turtle Wax, I’ve been using it and I’m very happy with how it works. There’s a bit of solvent type cleaner and some very very fine cutting compound in it that makes a surface really shine. Those Harley riders are obsessed about their bikes and I totally agree with their choice of wax.

6. The secret method

The only secret about the secret method is how it works. There is so much garbage on the internet about this method that it probably works out to about 350 kg of garbage for every person who reads the internet. (The same number of kg per person as the bombs that the US dropped on Cambodia during the Vietnam war. A coincidence? I don’t think so!)

The method is to rub the chrome with aluminium foil, wetting it with cola. Seriously, that’s it. It works, and works VERY well.

Why? As noted above, some metals react with oxygen in the air and form an inert layer. Aluminium foil isn’t a really shiny metal (like new coins for example) because it reacts instantly with oxygen to form a very thin white cover. But when rubbing the chrome with it, the oxide is removed, and it magically sucks the oxygen out of the iron oxide. Same deal as the rust-converting pastes mentioned above. But what about the cola? Well, believe it or not, one of the ingredients of coal is phosphoric acid. In stronger forms, phosphoric acid is rust converter, because it can suck the oxygen out of rust. Cola is weak rust-converter. Because it is a liquid, and it absorbs oxygen, it helps stop the aluminium foil from oxidising through contact with the air, saving it’s oxygen-sucking power for the wet rust.

People wonder whether it’s the gas or the carbonic acid in cola that does the job. Probably not, I’d say. Is it the magic black stuff? No. Is water as good as cola? Maybe, but cola contains rust converter and is very cheap, so why not use it? Is diet cola better than sugary cola? Many people say regular cola is better, and have chemical theories about sugar. I say that diet cola is better because it’s not sticky and won’t attract dirt and stuff. Sugar also attracts moisture, which isn’t a good thing.

At around 3:00 minutes into this video, the MythBusters use the cola and aluminium foil method. Check out the results when compared with a premium chrome cleaner.

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=QL9u0GJ4Tuc

Of course, use a good quality wax after using the magic method, or any method. Have I said that enough by now? 

May your cleaning be quick and good and your life be long and happy.

Photos from my recent trip to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and then Thailand again

 Kata Beach, Phuket

 Phuket

Underneath Robinson’s, Asok, Bangkok. Fresh food by the bucket in the hart of Bangkok.

 Great shoes. $5 in Phuket. Still have them.

 Perfect? Really?

Sukhamvit traffic. Near Asok, Bangkok.

 The Bangkok BTS. Best Transport System (in the world).

 Oh dear. Siam Reap, Cambodia. 

 Angkor / SiamReap, Cambodia.

 Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

 Motorbike for Vietnam tour, HoChiMinh city.

 Highway 1 and Footpath 1.

Friendly cafe people. yum.

 Big parking places. HoChiMinh hwy. Wow.

 Funky DaLat. Fruit capital of the world.

Don’t fix the road or the highway traffic will go too fast! 20 km/hour on Highway 17 in Southern Vietnam.

 North-central highlands. Paddies.

Super-typhoon Haiyan was nearby.

 Vyeng Viet teachers.

 Heading north from Phang Nga.

HaNoi traffic. Dense. Intense.

 More vyeng Viet teachers, HaNoi.

 Information? Sometimes yes, sometimes no

 Head protection. Crazy fashion. Crazy ineffective.

 Even more vyeng Viet teachers.

 Gogo. Natalie, Da and I. Phuket.

 

35,000 feet above the channel country, Australia. Only 1,500 km from home.

Revenge. Pure. Imaginative. Grotesque.

A friend of mine tells this wonderful story.

After a longish relationship, my friend and her boyfriend are getting along very well. He’s a good guy. He has a good family and everything is sweet. He’s a sentimental guy, which seems good, because she’s a bit like that, too. One of his prize possessions is a T-shirt. It’s a sad thing when the T-shirt gets torn.

But his mother carefully and expertly sews the hole closed. You can hardly tell that it’s been mended. He tells people the story of his loving Mum who did this great thing for him.

Well, somehow this guy manages to be the biggest idiot on the planet, and cheats on his beautiful girlfriend. She is SO beautiful, I can hardly describe her in words.

So, she’s at home and so is his T-shirt. What next, do you reckon?

She carefully and delicately cuts holes in every part of the shirt except the bit that his mother sewed up.

That is so sweet. Wow. Amazing.

Genius. Pure. Evil. Genius.