Cycling New Zealand’s Great Taste Trail

Horsing around: Happy horse poo for sale at the side of the road en route to Motueka. Photo: Rob McFarland Horsing around: Happy horse poo for sale at the side of the road en route to Motueka. Photo: Rob McFarland
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Horsing around: Happy horse poo for sale at the side of the road en route to Motueka. Photo: Rob McFarland

Horsing around: Happy horse poo for sale at the side of the road en route to Motueka. Photo: Rob McFarland

“That’s not a hill, it’s a wrinkle,” says John with trademark understatement as we survey the ominous incline ahead. The rest of the group have sensibly chosen to remain in the van and start today’s ride at the summit. I, fuelled by male bravado and three Weet-Bix, have decided to keep him company, blissfully unaware that next month he heads to France to cycle 2000 kilometres of the Tour de France route.

I quickly realise trying to keep up is futile so instead relax and enjoy the view. We’re cycling along a quiet country back road, through the sort of idyllic rural scene that dominates much of New Zealand’s South Island. Rolling pastures dotted with sheep, weather-beaten wooden sheds with rusted iron roofs and an impressive backdrop of undulating hills in shifting shades of green.

We collect the rest of the group and continue on tranquil country lanes to the village of Wakefield, where Evan has laid out an extravagant morning tea of fruit, shortbread, tea and plunger coffee. We all tuck in heartily even though it’s less than two hours since we ate breakfast and there’s still lunch at a winery, afternoon tea and a hearty dinner to come. I suppose there’s not much point in cycling the Great Taste Trail if you’re not going to taste.

New Zealand’s cycle network has grown rapidly over the last few years, fuelled by government investment and the success of the original cycling prodigy, the Otago Central Rail Trail. There are now 23 routes that are classified as Great Rides, predominantly off-road trails that showcase the best of the country’s landscape, environment, culture and heritage. The Great Taste Trail is one of the most recent, a 175-kilometre loop around the top of the South Island that passes through Nelson.

The route focuses on the abundance of fresh produce and wineries in the region so unless you have monk-like restraint you’ll be consuming more calories than you expend.

Our five-day trip started in Christchurch where we were kitted out at PureTrail’s depot with comfortable 27-speed hybrid bikes, helmets, panniers and sexy fluorescent high-vis vests. This departure is slightly unusual because there are only four of us, compared to the normal 10-14 guests, and we have two guides rather than one (Evan is in training).

Bikes safely loaded on the trailer, we leave Christchurch, heading north and then west over the scenic Lewis Pass to Saint Arnaud, an alpine village on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. After a spot of sightseeing and a gentle 16-kilometre orientation ride, it’s back to the more pressing issue of eating. Clinker Cafe may not sound like the most salubrious of dining spots but the braised pork belly in apple cider I have for dinner is not only excellent, it’s enormous. “Heartland portions,” explains John.

Fast forward a day and our convoy of four leaves Wakefield full of coffee and shortbread and heads towards lunch. It’s easy, delightful riding – a mixture of roadside paths, quiet back roads and gravel tracks that meander past vineyards and skirt orchards bursting with apples, berries and kiwifruit. On one section we cycle along a riverbank through fragrant bursts of fennel and flickering clouds of butterflies.

Lunch is at Waimea Estates, a family-run winery where our not-very-hard-work is rewarded with generous bowls of plump, creamy, Chardonnay-steamed green lipped mussels in a sun-drenched courtyard overlooking the vines.

We’re only eight kilometres from Nelson so this afternoon’s ride is a gentle 30-minute cruise along a dedicated bike path next to the Waimea Estuary. We arrive at our accommodation, the charming mews-style Grand Mercure Nelson Monaco at 1:30pm, leaving us plenty of time to explore.

In an effort to work up an appetite for what I know will be another heartland-sized dinner, I eschew Nelson’s museums and boutiques in favour of a walk along the Maitai River to the Botanical Reserve. After a mildly strenuous climb up Botanical Hill, I arrive at what is allegedly the geographic centre of New Zealand. I later discover that several places claim this accolade but either way the 360-degree views over the harbour and the rolling hills of the surrounding national parks are sensational. And I’m pretty sure I’ve burned off a mussel.

That evening we reconvene in the garden of the pub opposite our hotel and over a sunset glass of sav blanc our merry band of six gets to know each other. Husband and wife Gerry and Penny live in Newcastle and are cycling converts after doing the Otago Central Rail Trail with PureTrails last year. Margaret is from the Gold Coast and is clearly a PureTrails fan given this is her sixth trip with them. Guides John and Evan are both diehard, shorts-in-any-weather Cantabrians and expert exponents of the region’s trademark dry sarcasm. The South Island is the “mainland” and John confesses he’ll “barrack for anyone over Auckland”.

We retire inside for dinner where I feast on a tender Angus steak washed down with a glass of Roaring Meg pinot noir. Given PureTrails also covers the cost of a dessert, it seems rude not to sample the lemon cheesecake with cream and lemon sherbet. In the distance I hear my cycling shorts crying in protest.

While superlative food and wine are the trip’s main attraction, the scenery comes a close second. The next day we cycle back along the estuary, passing through a protected wetland before crossing onto Rabbit Island for morning tea by a deserted white sand beach. A winding pine tree-lined track leads us to a tiny cove where a ferry takes us and our bikes across an inlet to the buzzy township of Mapua for lunch.

Subsequent days deliver similarly beguiling landscapes – an early morning cycle along the Motueka River, the sun filtering through the haze of a freshly limed field; vast fields of hops, their carefully trained branches resembling dancers around a maypole; orchards full of berries swathed in dew-soaked nets.

We spend two nights at the comfortable Equestrian Lodge Motel in Motueka, cycling in the mornings and sightseeing in the afternoons. Excursions include a scenic cruise from Kaiteriteri that skirts the bays and furrows of the Abel Tasman National Park and a visit to the Riwaka Resurgence, a sacred Maori site where the Riwaka River emerges from a network of caves underneath Takaka Hill.

On our final day we head back inland to complete the loop. The trail here is still being completed so John and Evan improvise with a 13-kilometre ride along a quiet valley flanked by fields of curious cows. It’s knuckle-numbingly cold when we start at 8:30am and a brisk headwind (or a “gentle cooling breeze” according to John) drags tears from our eyes. After 40 minutes we’re all happy to jump back in the van and begin the long trek back to Christchurch.

The cycling portion of the trip may be over but the tasting part isn’t. Our last lunch is a fitting finale, a lazy feast of tapas-style shared plates washed down with crisp glasses of riesling at Forrest Estate Wines’ stylish cellar door in Marlborough.

FIVE MORE GREAT NZ RIDES

OTAGO CENTRAL RAIL TRAIL

The original “Great Ride”, this 150-kilometre route through Central Otago follows a disused railway line. The perfect introduction to a multi-day cycling trip.

TE ARA AHI

Starting at Rotorua, this 66-kilometre trail passes through a thermal wonderland of steaming vents, bubbling mud pools and spectacular geysers. Expect rare flora and fauna and a rich vein of Maori folklore.

QUEEN CHARLOTTE TRACK

This 70-kilometre off-road track through the heart of the Marlborough Sounds offers pristine wilderness, spectacular views and thigh-burning ascents.

ALPS 2 OCEAN

The longest continuous cycle trail in New Zealand, this 300-kilometre jaunt starts from the country’s highest mountain, Mount Cook, and finishes in the coastal town of Oamaru. The best bit? It’s all downhill.

MOUNTAINS TO SEA

Beginning in the otherworldly Tongariro National Park, this four to six day route uses bike trails, public roads and a jetboat to deliver riders to the coast at Wanganui.

For a complete list of NZ’s Great Rides, see nzcycletrail杭州龙凤419m.

TRIP NOTES

The writer travelled as a guest of PureTrails and Air New Zealand.

MORE INFORMATION

newzealand杭州龙凤419m.

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand flies direct from Sydney and Melbourne to Christchurch. Phone 13 24 76; see airnewzealand杭州龙凤419m.au.

SEE + DO

PureTrails offers regular departures of its guided five-day Great Taste Trail cycle trip between October and April, from $1400 including accommodation, meals and excursions. See puretrailsnewzealand杭州龙凤419.nz.

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RSL Clubs could be the next victim of Sydney property boom

South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media
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Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

The RSL Club used to be part of the social fabric, a place to go for a special occasion or a cheap meal when mum or dad couldn’t be bothered cooking or for a few quick drinks after work.

Many are now fighting for their financial futures due to a combination of falling patronage, outdated facilities, demographic changes and competition from modern alternative entertainment options.

But where many see an outdated and tired business model and board members heavy with age property developers see large, well-located freehold sites, ideal for residential redevelopment.

Take the current saga surrounding South Hurstville RSL and Hurstville RSL.

South Hurstville RSL is a financially strong club with an upward trajectory.

Hurstville RSL on the other hand been in the red for the past few years, with growing losses, declining revenues and dwindling net assets.

As a result, both have voted in favour of an amalgamation . However those decisions are being challenged by a group called “The Friends of Hurstville”, who prefer a plan for a mixed use redevelopment being put forward by property developer Will McDonald of Skye Pacific Properties Pty Ltd.

Mr McDonald  leads a consortium that includes Parkview Constructions and Dickson Rothschild Architects.

The chairman of the pro-development Friends of Hurstville group, Ed Mason, said a meeting held at Hursville RSL on August 10 (to vote on the decision to amalgamate) was a “farce” and that some members of Chinese background were unhappy.

When asked specifically about the vote, Mr Mason couldn’t confirm any actual numbers as he is not a member of Hurstville RSL. He was issued a membership card when he applied but said he then had his application refused at the board level.

Mr Mason did confirm there were about 120 people, all of which he said wanted to vote at the meeting, at a lunch meeting of the Friends of Hurstville group which was paid for by the property group led by Mr McDonald.

Hurstville RSL general manager Rod Bell, and the CEO of South Hurstville RSL, Simon Mikkelsen, refute Mr Mason’s and Mr McDonald’s claims and say that all votes have been conducted correctly and have been validated by a separate NSW Office of Liquor Gaming and Racing (OLGR) investigation.

“Everything has been done by the book to allow both clubs’ members’ wishes to proceed,” Mr Mikkelsen said.

Mr Bell said Hurstville RSL has looked over and rejected a number of property development proposals submitted for their site because the board considered they did not have the members’ best interests at heart and risked rendering the RSL insolvent.

“Our only and best chance of surviving as a community club is by joining with South Hurstville RSL,” Mr Bell said. “Club members should realise that if the developer gets control of this club it will be closed for up to two years and may never reopen.”

The NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority has adjourned their decision on the amalgamation to assess the claims made by the warring factions. Mr Bell feels this gives the development proposal an unfair advantage.

“We now need the Minister Troy Grant to instruct ILGA to support the wishes of both clubs’ real members and not a bunch that are more than happy to see another RSL disappear in this Anzac centenary year,” he said.

The ILGA said it deferred its decision on December 17 “so it could receive further detailed submissions about claims it received questioning whether the correct steps had been followed in the merger process”.

A final decision is expected by March.

Two highly publicised  property development deals where financially stricken clubs have been “rescued”  by property developers are the proposed Balmain / Rozelle Village development deal and the Souths on Chalmers development deal.

Souths on Chalmers was put into administration and then closed, with significant debts, and Balmain Leagues have borrowed millions for lead time costs (to continue operating at a temporary venue) and still have no formal resolution.

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More to be caught in tax net on surging Sydney land values

More property investors will be caught in the property tax net with the resurgent Sydney property market pushing up residential land values at a double-digit pace in the wake of historically low interest rates and the revived NSW economy.
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Land values across the state rose 11.2 per cent in 2014, which was led by a strong 13.1 per cent rise in residential land values, according to data released on Friday by the NSW Valuer General.

Willoughby, Bankstown and Hornsby led the gains in residential land values across Sydney, with Mosman, Camden and Ryde witnessing the lowest rise in values among Sydney council areas.

The eastern suburbs regained the crown from the lower north shore as the area with the most expensive median land values in the state, with median residential land values in Woollahra, which takes in Double Bay, Point Piper and Vaucluse, reaching $1.4 million, eclipsing Mosman’s median of $1.39 million.

“The past 12 months has seen a significant increase in large parts of the market – particularly the middle ring,” said the NSW Valuer General,  Simon Gilkes.

“There were not the large increases at the high end of the market and in the outer areas, but rather the inner west and areas close to transport, such as Chatswood and the Hills district, partly due to the new rail link.”

Low interest rates has brought both owner occupiers and investors into the market, he said.

The values are based primarily on property sales data, with more than 43,000 sales assessed.

The year was market by a “ripple out effect” from gains in the inner ring of the city’s suburbs, he said.

Median land values in areas such as Leichhardt and Marrickville continued to rise strongly – up 17.4 per cent and 19.9 per cent respectively – but this was outpaced by gains a little further out such as Canterbury – up 21.4 per cent – and Bankstown (up 29.4 per cent).

The updated valuation data will have a direct effect in broadening the land tax net, where it is applicable, and is also used by councils when assessing rate variations, Mr Gilkes said. At the top end of the market, the rise in land values have been more restrained which is due in part to the already high level of prices in those areas.

“The increases were not as strong in the highly valued suburbs since fewer people may have been able to raise the money needed” to buy into these suburbs, Mr Gilkes said.

Slavko Romic, the principal of Elders Double Bay, said the new year has started where last year finished.

“It’s been strong since the start of the new year. Inquiries are running at peak levels, and we’re not alone with other agents reporting the same level of activity,” he said.

“There is not a lot of stock available, so over-demand and under-supply, along with low interest rates, is keeping interest high.”

A year ago, only Mosman and Woollahra had land values of more than $1 million. Now, they have been joined by Willoughby, Manly, Hunters Hill and Waverley, with North Sydney and Lane Cove just falling short of this figure.

The updated valuation data are used by about one third of councils each year when revising rates. This year, Blacktown, Liverpool, Ku-ring-gai, the Hills, Maitland and Leichhardt will use the updated data when setting rates.

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Charlie Hebdo shooting: Hostages held in massive police manhunt

Live coverage: Police close in on killers 
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Dammartin-en-Goele: A hostage was being held as a manhunt for the men believed responsible for the Paris massacre late on Friday night [Australian time] closed in on a town north-east of the French capital.

Police swooped on the town of Dammartin-en-Goele, 41 kilometres outside Paris after reports of gunshots and an attempted carjacking.

Two suspects – Said Kouachi, 34, and his 32-year-old brother Cherif – were holed up with a hostage at a small printing works in the town.

Special forces were deployed to confront the killers who have been at large since gunning down 12 people at the office of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday.

Three helicopters, including a large military craft, hovered over the town and negotiators were brought in. Media reported that the brothers had indicated they were prepared to die for their cause.

Armed and flack-jacketed police blocked all access to the area, waving vehicles away. “It is very dangerous here,” we were told. “Drive further away.”

School children were detained in their classrooms and the town’s residents were told to stay home, turn off all lights and lay low.

A string of emergency vehicles sped through the roadblock into the town, including an ambulance and convoys of police.

The small town of Dammartin-en-Geoele is set among picturesque green fields.  It is 13.5 kilometres from Charles De Gaulle international airport where several runways were closed.

Earlier on Friday, elite counter-terrorist police surrounded three hamlets 70 kilometers north-east of Paris in an effort to find the Kouachi brothers. The villages – Corcy, Fleury, and Longpont – border a dense forest larger than the city of Paris.

The French government has mobilised 80,000 police and soldiers across the country to protect public buildings and join the hunt, one of the biggest in the nation’s history, as the country mourned those who died in the attack.

The security forces also guarded the main roads into Paris, amid fears the still-armed terrorists might head back to the capital to commit more atrocities.

The national day of mourning was marred by some violence – with reports of attacks on mosques, and the deadly shooting of a policewoman in southern Paris, which authorities said was unconnected to the Hebdo massacre.

The Hebdo killers had initially evaded police on Wednesday by abandoning their car. However an ID card they left behind led police to name them as Cherif Kouachi, 32, and his 34-year-old brother, Said.

They held up a petrol station on Thursday morning, taking petrol and food, but the manager recognised them and called police, and anti-terrorist officers swooped on the area near Villers-Cotterets, north-east of Paris.

Officers conducted door-to-door searches of nearby towns and scoured farms and woodland using night-vision equipment and dogs after the gunmen’s new stolen car was found abandoned nearby.

According to one report they even scoured a large cave for the brothers.

After hours of unsuccessful search into Thursday night some units returned to Paris and five helicopters joined the hunt.

French officials said 11 people had been taken into custody in connection with the attack, including the Kouachi brothers’ 18-year-old brother in law, and more than 90 witnesses had been interviewed.

It has emerged that the brothers, Paris-born of Algerian descent, both had links to al-Qaeda.

Cherif Kouachi had spent 18 months in prison from 2008 for recruiting Islamist fighters for al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq.

And the other brother, Said, was believed to have trained with al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen in 2011.

Both were on US terrorist watch lists and French authorities came under pressure to explain how they had not been under closer surveillance.

French media reported that Cherif had been a member of the so-called Buttes Chaumont network, based in a northern Paris neighbourhood: petty criminals, usually Muslim,  radicalised by Islamic preachers to fight against US forces in Iraq.

He was arrested in 2005 trying to travel to Damascus, and sentenced for “preparing to commit acts of terrorism”.

Thursday was a national day of mourning in France for the 12 who died during the attack.

Bells tolled across Paris from the towers of Notre Dame after a minute’s silence at midday, and traumatised Parisians left improvised shrines made of candles, flowers, posters and pens at the police roadblocks surrounding the Hebdo offices.

In the evening the lights on the Eiffel Tower were symbolically extinguished to honour the dead.

On Thursday morning, in the south Paris suburb of Montrouge a man wearing a flakjacket and armed with an assault weapon shot a policewoman. The attack also left a streetsweeper injured. The policewoman later died of her injuries.

However Bernard Cazeneuve, the interior minister, said that there was no known link to the Hebdo attack.

“The succession of these two extremely violent dramas aimed at press freedom and the police must be met with dignity and general condemnation,” he said.

Fears of reprisals grew among France’s large Muslim community after reports of attacks on mosques in the 24 hours after the Hebdo attack.

“Everybody is looking at us as if we did it,” one Muslim told the BBC in the Paris suburb where one of the attackers lived.

Thursday saw a series of top-level government meetings in response to the attack on Hebdo, including one between President Francois Hollande and his predecessor and opposition leader Nicholas Sarkozy.

Mr Sarkozy said the attack on Hebdo had been “an attack by fanatics committed against civilisation”.

Staff of Charlie Hebdo vowed  their magazine would come out again next week – with a million copies to t on sale.

France has been in the midst of one of the largest manhunts in its history after masked men brandishing Kalashnikov assault weapons shot at people at the magazine’s offices. Famous for its biting commentary and cheeky — often offensive — cartoons, Charlie Hebdo had earlier in the day tweeted a cartoon of an Islamic State emir.

Tensions mounted yesterday after a policewoman was shot and killed just outside Paris, although there’s no indication the incident is connected to the earlier attack.

With agencies

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Charlie Hebdo shootings: Liberty, equality and an act of barbarity

As the bells toll from the towers of Notre Dame after a minute of silence for the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Sofia offers half her umbrella in the slanted rain, huddling against the cold in her grey coat and black gloves.
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She seems grief-stricken, angry and maudlin. Others around her are holding up pens in a middle-finger-like salute against terrorism. A few sob, more than a few have tears disguised by the weather.

The bells ring on for 10 minutes, giving plenty of time for reflection.

The calculated and merciless murders by two brothers born and raised in the city but enthralled by a barbaric ideology. The assault on freedom of speech, one of the cherished symbols of the French republic and identity. And the night of bullets fired and missiles thrown at mosques that followed across the country.

Asked what she was thinking, Sofia looks up as if the famous cathedral could tell her the answer.

“I am thinking, ‘what next’?”

When Sofia spoke, the killers remained on the run, eluding a massive manhunt. Paris was on edge, its terrorism alert on the highest possible level. The prospect of another attack in the next days and hours was chilling and real.

But her question resonates far wider and deeper, for France and the world.

The new threat posed by Islamic State that has seized the world and sparked the deployment of troops to Iraq and Syria has sparked a small but persistent flurry of attacks in the West by small-time, lone operators, inspired, but not directed, by the militant group.

Cars rammed into passing soldiers; a lone gunman on the rampage at Canada’s Parliament and Brussel’s Jewish Museum; the poorly planned siege at Sydney’s Lindt cafe.

What unfolded in the offices of France’s revered satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was altogether different, more like the sophisticated and deadly attacks that devastated New York, Washington, Bali, Madrid and London, a time when jihadists were inspired by Osama bin Laden, not the self-proclaimed caliphate of IS.

Perhaps most chillingly, were the words the gunmen uttered to Hebdo illustrator Corinne Rey that suggests the battle against terrorism is entering a more menacing new phase.

“They spoke perfect French and claimed to be from al-Qaeda,” she told  L’Humanite.

Parisians believed responsible

It was Rey, better known as “Coco”,  who ushered in the killers into Charlie Hebdo office, held at gunpoint after she was intercepted outside the highly secure building after picking up her child from play group.

The men who monstered her and her terrified daughter were believed to be Cherif Kouachi, along with his and his brother Said, two Paris-born men of Algerian descent.

They were armed with automatic weapons, masked with black balaclavas and protected by bulletproof vests.

It was a well-planned operation. The brothers apparently knew Hebdo was holding its usual Wednesday morning editorial meeting.

A dozen journalists, including editor Stephane Charbonnier and the paper’s top cartoonists, were spitballing ideas on the topic of racism.

The attackers opened fire almost as soon as they were inside. They ran upstairs shouting “Where is Charb?”, the editor who quickly became their first victim, followed by almost everyone else in the meeting room.

They left behind what one eyewitness called “absolute carnage”, a newsroom painted in blood.

The pair then made their way up the street, firing ahead of them.

At one point they encountered a group of police and opened fire, wounding one, then almost casually shooting him in the head at close range as he lay helpless on the pavement.

Clearly comfortable with their weapons, they had switched to single-shot mode, and appeared to be good marksmen as they coolly eliminated the threat from the police.

As they fled in the car, one was captured on video saying: “Hey, we have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.”

By the end of the assault, 12 people were dead, and four people were seriously injured, requiring surgery. Seven more were hospitalised with minor injuries and 65 people hadshown signs of trauma. and were receiving psychiatric treatment.

Hebdo, a French institution, lost its editor, three of its most cherished cartoonists and other staff members. The policeman who guarded their office was also slain.

The magazine was founded by cartoonists and editors who established their wildly iconoclastic reputation by lampooning the hero of France’s Fifth Republic Charles de Gaulle during a period of national mourning.

Ever since, it has pilloried politicians of all persuasions, and mocked the pretensions of the world’s religions.

It’s decision to re-publish cartoons from Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad in 2006 earned the ire of extremists.

The initial publication of the images – it is considered a grave offence in Islam to portray its prophet in physical form – sparked protests by Muslims across the world. But for Cabu there was an important principle to defend – free speech.

No random attack, this was a carefully chosen target for the Kouachi brothers, aimed to draw sympathy from other Muslims.

And this was an assassination, not a suicide bombing. The men had plotted their escape through the traffic-clogged streets of Paris.

They abandoned their car after another trigger-happy encounter with police (leaving behind an ID card that gave away their identity, as well as, according to some reports, a dozen Molotov cocktails and two jihadists flags).

At the time of writing, they remained at large.

Cherif Kouachi was well known to police. A former hip-hop loving dope-smoker, he and his brother grew up in Paris’ 19th arrondissement, a hardscrabble precinct densely populated with immigrants and their children.

He was sentenced to prison in 2006 for helping recruit fighters to go to Iraq for the predecessor of IS, al-Qaeda in Iraq. That was before IS was renamed after splitting from al-Qaeda and took its own path, and the leadership of the global jihadi movement.

Notwithstanding the witness accounts of the men claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda and the group’s rapid endorsement of the act on social media, the precise links between the killers and the plot against Hebdo to al-Qaeda, Islamic State or, indeed, any other jihadist group remain uncertain.

But, according to the New York Times, US officials believe Cherif trained in Yemen for several months in 2011, joining up with an  al-Qaeda affiliate on the Arabian Peninsula.

The possibility of al-Qaeda’s re-emergence is vexing counter-terrorism authorities. If Al Qaeda is back in the business of sponsoring terrorism in the West, it represents a sharply more potent threat.

“The last time al-Qaeda or one its affiliates tried to launch an attack on the West was 2009,” says Tobias Feakin, the senior security analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

That was when a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit with an explosive device secreted in his underwear.

He carried enough explosives to bring down the jet, but botched the detonation.

Al-Qaeda has been overshadowed by the stunning march of IS across Syria and Iraq but, say Feakin, it has always remained a potent force.

“In terms of numbers, al-Qaeda could well be in a stronger position than IS,” says Feakin.

It certainly has a greater global reach, with affiliates across the middle east and north Africa.

Its split from IS was based on personal animosity at a leadership level, concern at the medieval brutality of IS foot soldiers against other Muslims and the rejection of its claims to a caliphate.

There’s also an important strategic difference between the two groups. IS has always focused on creating its own state, defeating governments in the Middle East and punishing Muslims who do not adhere to its nihilistic and twisted vision of Islam.

IS only called for attacks on the West after the US and its allies (including France and Australia) weighed in to deploy military assets to counter it in Iraq and Syria.

Al-Qaeda’s number one enemy has always been the West, the “overseer” of the apostate Muslim states they believe are oppressing Muslims.

Letters captured from Osama bin Laden after the raid on his compound in Abbottabad show the al-Qaeda figurehead spent much of his time bemoaning other Islamic jihadis who were not strictly adhering to his vision.

Al-Qaeda also has a deeper understanding of terrorist tactics and methods after more than two decades of activity.

The implication of its re-emergence are obvious, and alarming, for security services.

Pen a mighty symbol

Across Paris, reaction to the attacks ranged from personal to political.

Little tributes and memorials to the fallen sprung up at Place de la Republique and on the fringes of the police cordon around the Hebdo offices.

Visitors left flowers, candles, little cartoons, posters and poems – and pens. Piles of pens.

At one such shrine, a young woman carrying a bouquet suddenly burst into tears, embracing her friends as she sobbed uncontrollably.

In Republique, where a big statue of Liberty sports a new black armband, the phrase of solidarity “Je suis Charlie” was scrawled on paving stones, and plastered across statues and lamp-posts.

Philippe Brinsolaro, brother of one of the police officers killed in the Charlie Hebdo assault, said “the whole of France is mobilising against this”.

“We cannot accept the infringement of freedom of speech and liberty of expression,” he said.

Veteran French journalist Christine Ockrent told the BBC that the attack on Hebdo had created a moment that initially bound people together.

“This is a moment when people feel they belong to the nation – in emotional terms and in political terms,” she said.

But she was less optimistic about what could follow this short-term solidarity. The attack would also feed into the country’s “great unease about immigrants”, she said – even second or third-generation immigrants which the attackers appeared to be – and mistrust of the country’s six million Muslims.

“This is precisely where the far right has been building its followers,” she said, referring to the recent success of political parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National.

The far right was quick to link the attack to its continuing theme that Islam’s expansion in France was causing an irreparable division in society.

The leader of France’s anti-immigration Front National delegation in the European Parliament, Aymeric Chauprade, told the BBC that France should “stop Islamisation” and groups who were “promoting sharia law on French territory. We should consider that it’s not possible now to accept radical mosques, to accept radical imams and this expansion”.

Marine Le Pen blamed the attack on “Islamic fundamentalism … which causes thousands of deaths every day around the world”.

She said that she would speak to the President about “the level of infiltration of radical Islam in our country and the means which must be implemented to protect our countrymen” – which should include a return of the death penalty for such attacks, she said.

The angst about growing social division goes well beyond France to the rest of Europe, where right-wing parties have gained support ever since the global financial crisis and the recession that has lingered across much of the continent.

The attacks on French mosques, Islamic prayer halls and restaurants in the aftermath of the attack suggest that the extraordinary and brave show of solidarity on the streets of Paris just after the attack and the quick and unequivocal condemnation from Muslim groups may not be enough to sweep away the rising Islamophobia.

As Feakin points out, such divisions please the terrorists. It makes it easier for them to harvest new recruits.

Addressing the nation, French president Francois Hollande declared that “unity is our greatest weapon” against extremism.

As that call struggles to be heeded, French citizens have started another twitter campaign, this time using the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed.

It honours Ahmed Merabet, the policeman shot in the street outside the Charlie Hebdo office, a murder so shockingly captured on video by bystanders.

Merabet was Muslim. His death defending an outlet that made fun of his religion was evidence that freedom of speech does cross religious and ethnic divides.

It is also an important reminder that it is Muslims – far more than other religous adherents – who have suffered the most casualties at the hands of militants purporting to be advocates for their faith.

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Transport demands growing at Green Square, the densest site in Australia

Residents of Zetland, standing near Mary O’Brian Park, are unhappy about the increased traffic in their streets due to the Green Square development. Photo: Wolter Peeters The Green Square development seen from Portman Lane. Photo: Wolter Peeters
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Residents of Zetland, standing near Mary O’Brian Park, are unhappy about the increased traffic in their streets due to the Green Square development. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Linda King (left) and Eileen and Mark Woodbridge walk through the area. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The Green Square development seen from Portman Lane. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Residents of Zetland, standing near Mary O’Brian Park, are unhappy about the increased traffic in their streets due to the Green Square development. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The Green Square development seen from Portman Lane. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Residents of Zetland, standing near Mary O’Brian Park, are unhappy about the increased traffic in their streets due to the Green Square development. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The Green Square development seen from Portman Lane. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The NSW government is struggling to keep pace with the transport needs of the largest urban renewal project in Australia – the construction of almost 30,000 apartments at Green Square – multiple secret reports into the area show.

When a rash of development is completed over the next 15 years, the suburbs around Green Square to the south of Sydney’s central business district will form the densest precinct in the country.

But two major reports commissioned by the state government include numerous recommendations about the transport capacity of the area that have not been acted on by authorities.

The Updated Transport Management and Accessibility Plan for Green Square was finished in September 2012, and a separate Botany Road Corridor Action was finished in November 2011.

Neither document has been released by the government, but were obtained by a community group using freedom of information laws.

The transport management plan says bus numbers through the area will need to double in the next 15 years. “This is likely to place additional pressure on already congested city streets and CBD bus termini,” the report says.

The report also proposes increased bus priority measures on Botany Road and Bourke Road. And it recommends providing a “high capacity public transport corridor” along a route the City of Sydney has mostly reserved for a light rail line.

In response, a spokeswoman for Transport for NSW said 187 new bus services a week had been added on two routes through the area – the 301 and the 348 – and a bus corridor on Botany Road would be “subject to future targeted investment for bus infrastructure.”

But the department was unable to provide examples of better priority for buses through the congested area – a key issue for local residents.

In addition, the report highlights the need to significantly increase the frequency of rail services. “The rail network must deliver a minimum of 20 trains an hour during peak periods, in both directions, or it will not fulfil its critical targets,” the report says.

Sydney Trains currently runs about eight trains an hour through Green Square Station. Transport for NSW would not say when an upgrade to 20 might occur.

The reports were obtained by the president of the Friends of Erskineville group, Darren Jenkins. Mr Jenkins said: “Erskineville and Green Square are twin victims of the NSW government’s metropolitan myopia.

“The cold hard truth is that we need swift action now to defuse a ticking time-bomb in the inner city.”

When completed, the Green Square area will have an average density of around 20,000 residents per square kilometre. The entire city of Melbourne includes only one square kilometre, housing more than 8000 people, according to a report released last month by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The City of Sydney Council, meanwhile, is demanding the government improve Green Square and surrounding areas.

“Fifty new apartments will be completed every week for the next four years,” a spokeswoman for the Council said.

“Residents tell us the trains and buses in Green Square are already overcrowded.”

The spokesman said the government’s study showed the frequency of both trains and buses must be at least doubled; new bus routes were needed; bus priority be installed at intersections; and safer road crossings be provided for locals.

Linda King purchased a property on Elizabeth Street, Zetland, in 2005, one of the few streets in the area retaining terrace housing.

Ms King said she purchased the property knowing that the area would develop, but was convinced by council plans that her street would be converted into a local road.

That has not happened, and in the meantime, “the traffic has just become gridlocked”.

“If you try and catch a bus in peak time, they’re often late – the bus could be stuck at a roundabout for three light changes sometimes,” Ms King said.

Labor councillor on the City of Sydney, Linda Scott, said: “I have met with endless streams of residents who are rightly very concerned about the lack of transport infrastructure in the area, given the density of development,” she said.

“The state government has provided no solution to what is clearly a huge problem – and to be clear, the council hasn’t done enough either.”

The council has invested more than $40 million in land for a proposed Eastern Transit Corridor, a four-kilometre bus and light rail route from Green Square to Central.

The most recent report commissioned by the government is supportive of this plan, but the government will not commit to it.

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Changes to GST to come? Labor thinks so

Mathias Cormann: ‘Absolutely no plans’ to raise GST this term. Mathias Cormann: ‘Absolutely no plans’ to raise GST this term.
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Mathias Cormann: ‘Absolutely no plans’ to raise GST this term.

Mathias Cormann: ‘Absolutely no plans’ to raise GST this term.

Acting Treasurer Mathias Cormann has tried to squash any suggestion that the Abbott government is considering raising  GST, saying there are “absolutely no plans” to do so this term, despite Trade Minister Andrew Robb outing himself as a supporter of expanding  GST.

Mr Robb said this week that the goods and services tax should be extended to products such as fresh food and education, in what could be the first clear sign of a coordinated campaign underway within the Abbott government to tackle the thorny issue.

He told Fairfax Media that the government did not have plans to change the tax before the next federal election, which is due in 2016, but his comments echoed three Liberal backbenchers who this week called for the big shift in taxation policy.

It was enough for Labor to claim  the government was now mounting a guerrilla campaign to build support for changing the tax.

“Australians now know the Liberal Party’s campaign to increase the GST goes right to the cabinet table,” shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh said on Friday.

But Mr Cormann, also Minister for Finance, told Fairfax Media the government had no plans to change the rate or the base of the GST – this term.

“The government’s position on the GST has not changed since before the last election, when we made the clear and unambiguous commitment that there would be no change to the GST in this term of government,” Mr Cormann said.

“We have, however, also always said that we would go through a comprehensive tax review process during this term.

“The only circumstance in which proposals in relation to the GST will be entertained, is if there is broad community consensus in support, including a broad consensus in favour of such proposals across the Parliament and if there is unanimous support from all state and territory governments, including Labor governments,” he said.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has previously promised there will be no changes to the 10 per cent GST, and on Friday he said it would not be going up in the government’s current term.

He added that no changes could be made to the GST without the support of all the states and territories.

“The GST will not change in this term of Parliament and it cannot change in any term of Parliament without first of all the support of all the states and territories including the Labor states and territories and without effectively a parliamentary consensus,” Mr Abbott said.

But a 2013 legal opinion by barristers Bret Walker and Anthony Lang suggests that the intergovernmental agreement which contains this requirement for consensus was not legally binding, and therefore the GST legislation could be changed simply by a vote in both houses of federal parliament.

“As far as I am concerned what we should be on about is lower taxes not higher taxes. Lower, simpler, fairer taxes is the absolute objective that we are taking into this tax white paper process this year,” Mr Abbott told Sydney radio 2GB on Friday.

Mr Abbott wished “good luck” to those advocating a better tax system, which includes several government backbenchers led by Country Liberal Victorian Dan Tehan who have called for a debate about extending the GST in the event the Coalition wins the next election.

But Victorian Labor Premier, Daniel Andrews, says there are no circumstances where he would support an increase in the tax or applying it to fresh food.

“If Victoria refuses to support it, and we won’t, going on food or the rate increasing, then it can’t go up,” Mr Andrews said.

“The Goods and Services Tax is not a fair tax because it has no regard for a person’s capacity to pay,” he said.

South Australian Labor Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis said the GST was a “regressive” tax and his state did not support changes to broaden its base or lift its rate.

A spokesman for the Liberal Tasmanian government said: “We don’t support any changes to the GST.”

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ASIC’s Medcraft faces carpeting from senators over fraud case

Greg Medcraft will be questioned over ASIC’s handling of a case involving an alleged $110 million loan fraud.Senators have vowed to grill the corporate watchdog over its failure to stop a key figure in an alleged $110 million loan fraud from fleeing the country despite notifying the suspect he was under investigation.
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The chairman of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Greg Medcraft, is due to front up to a Senate estimates hearing in February.

Labor Senator Sam Dastyari said he would question Mr Medcraft over ASIC’s handling of the case, which saw one suspect flee and another continue to work in the finance industry for three years after coming under suspicion.

It will be the latest in a string of Senate appearances where Mr Medcraft has been called upon to explain his agency’s performance, including its handling of the Commonwealth Bank financial planning scandal.

A Victoria Police affidavit relating to the case, obtained by Fairfax Media, reveals alleged suspect Mohamed Hamood fled to Bahrain two days after a search warrant of his house was executed in December 2012. It is unclear whether he has returned to Australia. 

Three other suspects – Manija Zayee, Najam Shah and Aizaz Hassan – were charged last week, four years after ASIC launched an investigation following a complaint in January 2011.

On Friday Senator Dastyari called ASIC’s handling of the case “deplorable” and urged it to explain why it took so long to act.

“It’s time ASIC came clean about what exactly has gone on here, what’s happened,” he said.

“That’s the least the victims deserve to know – why it took them so long to act and why a situation was allowed to happen where some of the alleged perpetrators have been able to flee overseas.”

ASIC was forced to respond to criticism on Friday, with a media release defending its “commitment to tackling loan fraud in Australia”.

The statement said there were some parts of the investigation that it was not able to divulge due to “legal restrictions”, and said the decision to stop an individual from travelling could only be made by a judge after an application in court.

“ASIC has followed common and carefully developed principles in its investigation and legal actions in the Myra case,” it said.

Spokesman for ASIC Andre Khoury failed to respond to questions from Fairfax Media on Friday.

Nationals Senator John Williams said ASIC’s handling of the case appeared to be a repeat of its handling of the Commonwealth Bank financial planning scandal.

“What is the problem here. Are they under-resourced? Are they afraid to act?” he said.

“ASIC obviously knew about [the case], they investigated it, why didn’t they act sooner?

“It is now 2015, getting on to four years after [the investigation started]. In the meantime people are getting their fingers burnt.”

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New York police throw a ‘temper tantrum’ against City Hall

Cold shoulder: Police officers turn their backs on a live video monitor showing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as he speaks at the funeral of slain New York Police Department officer Rafael Ramos.Over Christmas a cold, crackly tension beset parts of New York City.
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A grand jury had failed to indict a police officer who choked an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, to death. They had stopped him on the street for selling “loosies”, single cigarettes. Protests against police killings that had been boiling away across the country – particularly in Ferguson, Missouri – spread into the five boroughs.

Then a black man claiming vengeance for police violence shot two cops dead in their squad car, execution style.  Struck with grief and fury many officers turned on the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, who they believed backed the protesters, who were now, more than ever, the enemy.

Men who should have known better, former mayor Rudi Giuliani among others, took to the air to add fuel to the fire, pointing fingers at de Blasio.

Then suddenly in the midst of all this, petty crime across New York appeared to simply stop.

In the week leading up to January 6, in a city of eight million people, police officers arrested or ticketed just 22 people for jumping the turnstile. In the same period a year ago, nearly 1400 fare-beaters were caught. Across the city only 347 criminal summonses were written during those seven days, compared with 4077 a year before. Clearly the scofflaws had not left town.

Rather police in America’s largest city have quietly gone on strike.

Tension between police and minority groups is neither new nor unique to New York, but the current febrile state is worse than it has been for years.

It did not begin with Eric Garner’s death either. In part it is bound up with the tough crime-fighting strategy known as Broken Windows policing.

In the 1980s and early 1990s New York was struck with violent crime as a crack epidemic swept across the nation. At the height of the violence in 1990 there were 2245 murders in the city.

That year a Bostonian called William Bratton was hired to head the New York City Transit Police. Bratton had served in the Military Police in Vietnam and climbed the ranks fast on his return. By the time he landed the job in NYC he had embraced the social scientist George Kelling as an intellectual mentor. Kelling was one of the co-authors of a paper that became the basis for Broken Windows policing.

The theory holds that crime spreads when social order is allowed to fray. In response authorities tackle petty crime. On the New York subway system Bratton cracked down on the fare evaders, graffiti artists, drinkers and the panhandlers that made the system a misery for other users.

His hard line attracted favourable attention and in 1994 Mayor Rudi Giuliani made him NYPD Commissioner. Together they prosecuted a “zero-tolerance” policy.

Skip forward a generation and crime in NY has plummeted. Last year there were just 332 murders.

In the intervening years Bratton had been poached to lead other police forces but his Broken Windows strategy remained in place, supported doggedly throughout Giuliani’s term as mayor and then that of his successor, Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio has poached him back from Los Angeles.

While many in Manhattan celebrated the new life in the city, others, the targets of the policy, grew frustrated and hostile.

Broken Windows demands that crime managers track infractions and flood targeted areas with police, who in turn are encouraged to make their presence felt.

To that end the NYPD had adopted a tactic to match the strategy – Stop, Question and Frisk.

Under this tactic patrol officers stopped tens or even hundreds of people during a shift, whom they had “reasonable suspicion” might be about to commit a crime.

What constitutes “reasonable suspicion” is not clear.

By 2011 the policy was at its peak and 700,000 people were stopped and subjected to sometimes humiliating street searches. Between 2004 and 2012, police had stopped 4.4 million people, 87 per cent of them black or Hispanic.

Despite that “reasonable suspicion” the vast majority were innocent of any crime, and just 6 per cent of the searches led to arrests.

By then a protest movement against the Stop and Frisk policy had begun and concern about the NYPD’s tactics had grown to the extent that a federal government monitor had been appointed to watch over the force.

Social scientists were beginning to question Broken Windows impact on crime. Some noted that the fall correlated with a 35 per cent drop in the city’s unemployment rate. Others wondered if demographic changes were the cause, noting similar falls had been seen in other cities that did not practise Broken Windows.

In August 2013, a federal judge found Stop and Frisk to be unconstitutional. “No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life,” Judge Shira A. Scheindlin wrote in her decision, noting that when minorities were stopped, they “were more likely to be subjected to the use of force than whites, despite the fact that whites are more likely to be found with weapons or contraband.”

By then police tactics had become a political issue. After a generation of Republican rule in which police were used to the unquestioning support of law-and-order government, the Democratic Party’s Bill de Blasio won office having campaigned on ending Stop and Frisk and repairing the relationship between minorities and police.

Worse, from the point of view of many on the force, and in particular from that of the police union, de Blasio backed laws against racial profiling and the creation of an inspector general to oversee the NYPD.

Police, and in particular Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, were furious.

Cops, he said, need the unwavering support of the City Hall. Lynch encouraged his members to sign waivers that said,

“I, as a New York City police officer, request that Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito refrain from attending my funeral services in the event that I am killed in the line of duty,” they said.

“Due to Mayor de Blasio … consistent refusal to show police officers the support and respect they deserve, I believe that their attendance at the funeral of a fallen New York City police officer is an insult to that officer’s memory and sacrifice.”

When in December a grand jury decided not to indict the cop who choked Eric Garner to death, protests spread in New York. On December 4 the NYPD arrested more than 200 people, mostly on charges of disorderly conduct.

As the protests continued Lynch told his members to do their jobs “with extreme” discretion, claiming that police might not have the full support of the City Hall. Many interpreted this as an instruction to engage in work slowdowns.

Two days later, Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley, a 28-year-old black man, shot and killed two on-duty NY police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, as they sat in their car on a Brooklyn before fleeing into the subway and committing suicide. He had declared his intent earlier, writing on an Instagram account, “I’m putting wings on pigs today. They take 1 of ours, let’s take 2 of theirs.”

Hours earlier he had shot his ex-girlfriend.

In the end de Blasio attended the funerals, but as he spoke thousands of police officers turned their backs as they stood in ranks outside the funerals. They turned their backs too as he addressed a press conference in a hospital where the officers lay dead.

Lynch held his own press conference outside.”There’s blood on many hands tonight,” he said. “That blood on the hands starts at City Hall in the Office of the Mayor.”

It was around this time that the crime figures evaporated and a police force ostensibly wedded to proactive Broken Windows policing abandoned its city.

While sympathy for the murdered officers and their families is universal, many are now losing their patience with Lynch and the Benevolent Association.

“The implied threat to the city’s elected leadership and electorate is clear: Cede leverage to the police in the course of negotiating labor agreements or risk an armed, organized army rebelling against civilian control,” wrote The Atlantic in December. “Such tactics would infuriate the right if deployed by any bureaucracy save law enforcement opposing a left-of-centre mayor.”

Many commentators have referred to a police “temper tantrum”.

The New York Times railed in an editorial, “The problem is not that a two-week suspension of “broken windows” policing is going to unleash chaos in the city. The problem is that cops who refuse to do their jobs and revel in showing contempt to their civilian leaders are damaging the social order all by themselves.”

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Walking the Pyrenees – the summer I summoned the courage to do the best thing ever

Young and fit: Stephanie Bunbury resigned from her job to hike the Pyrenees with friends. Photo: Pam Wood Young and fit: Stephanie Bunbury resigned from her job to hike the Pyrenees with friends. Photo: Pam Wood
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Young and fit: Stephanie Bunbury resigned from her job to hike the Pyrenees with friends. Photo: Pam Wood

Young and fit: Stephanie Bunbury resigned from her job to hike the Pyrenees with friends. Photo: Pam Wood

The first day of our Pyrenean crossing, Bear confessed later, he thought he just wasn’t going to be able to do it. We only walked for a few hours and, as I remember, stopped for rather an extended lunch in one of those local restaurants the French do so well, but it was hot, very humid and very much uphill. It was also true that we hadn’t had the best night’s sleep, given that were under a bridge in Hendaye on the French coast – four of us in a row in our sleeping bags, with rain washing in and centuries’ stench of urine around us – after arriving too late to find the campground. Most of all, however, he knew we had an entire mountain range before us.

We laughed when he admitted that initial fear, because Bear was by far the youngest of us – only 22, if I am doing my sums correctly. It was 1989. Pam and I were both 10 years older, Matthew a bit younger than us. We had all fetched up in the same South London squat and spent most weekends hiking somewhere or other in Britain, hitching to the start of a long-distance path with our tents and our little gas burners, packets of pasta and an emergency Twix, walking through rain and shine and hitching back with the Sunday night trucks.  None of this could hold a candle to six weeks in the Pyrenees, however.

I don’t know why we chose the Pyrenees. Perhaps it was the comprehensive sweep of a mountain range that ran from one sea to another: the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. There were some unmarked paths on the high route that were 2000 metres above sea level. Only Pam – a New Zealander whose parents were both mountaineers – had walked at such altitudes. There was the sense that we had to do this now, while we had the strength and endurance to carry tents rather than rely on mountain refuges. I resigned from my job to do it.

At my insistence, we weren’t going to do anything involving crampons and ice-axes; this meant there were only six weeks in summer we could do the walk with a near-certainty we wouldn’t have to cross frozen ground.  We bought maps and new gear. I love gear: show me a lightweight torch or some new kind of sleeping mat and I’m there. Other than that, we didn’t plan very much.  That’s the great thing about walking: whether you plan or not, it’s basically just one foot in front of the other until you stop.

Two paths follow the range on the French side of the border – the Haute Route Pyreneenne and the GR10; a third path, the GR11, runs the length of the Spanish side. The GR10 is waymarked and a little lower although, as we discovered, they coincide much of the time.   The guide to the HRP was written by Georges Veron, clearly a titan among men who had actually designed the route himself in the ’70s and was known to us as Hercules; over the whole trip there was only one day we managed to walk the day’s stage in the time he said it would take.

Walking in high places shifts your mind somehow. Many memories of specific places have since faded, but I remember the eagles flying below us as we followed a long ridge, the mountain falling away steeply on either side; I remember how the plants would change abruptly every couple of hours as we descended a mountainside, exactly the way one belt of vegetation gives way to another in the illustrations in geography textbooks; I remember the fierce cold the night we camped in the snow next to the Vignemale glacier.

Above the treeline, you could see across mountain crags and the shadows to the point where the sky and snow blurred into each other. Occasionally you would see a group of chamois goats picking their way over scree that would have crumbled under a human foot. It was as if you had left the world.

Of course it was hard, too. On the second day, when we were still really only in the Basque foothills, I recall curling up in the only bit of shade on the sun-beaten slope: the small shadow cast by a single rock.

A passing middle-aged French woman wishing me “Bon courage!”: to this day, I tell myself those words whenever I feel myself flagging.

I was glad to spend the next day in a soft mist of rain; less glad when it poured relentlessly the day after that. We were all drenched by the time we reached Col de Roncevaux, where Roland’s defeat by the Saracens is marked by an outdoor chapel used by Santiago di Compostela pilgrims.

The chapel was open to the elements, but it had a roof. The altar made a good cooking table; surely any decent God wouldn’t begrudge us that. Matthew, the lapsed Catholic, did draw the line when Pam hung her wet underwear from the crucifix on the wall.

Five weeks later, more or less, we were descending through the extraordinary horseshoe of rock that is the Cirque de Gavarnie towards Lourdes, where we would wander the trashy religious souvenir shops and marvel at the knots of nuns and priests whooping it up outside the cheap hotels.

But all the villages were somehow extraordinary; on the days we didn’t walk – one in three or four, depending where the path led – we could spend hours in outdoor cafes doing no more than savouring the fact we weren’t wearing hiking boots.

In a town called Cauteret, I was so dazed by modernity that i walked straight into a car – fortunately, it was moving at about five kilometres an hour – because three straight days in the wild had made me forget how to cross a French road.

Some slightly larger towns had beautiful swimming pools constructed so that you couldn’t see any other buildings from the water, only the forested mountainsides from where we had recently descended like wolves; we would float about, trying to pick out the next part of the path. At each of these stops, we knew we were stronger. It was in Cauteret that Bear proposed we double back by a different route – the mountains are threaded with paths, not just the two main ones – to a restaurant we had all fancied a few days ago on Lac d’Estaing, a notable beauty spot accessible by car. And so we did: up and down thousands of metres to get a meal of duck with cepes. After that dinner, what did we do? Went for a walk, of course, around the lake. The flat tourists’ path felt so easy after the mountains, that we might have been floating.

It’s curious now to look at the blogs and walking holiday guides online that cover the paths we walked 25 years ago. Anyone of normal fitness could walk the GR10, says one holiday company encouragingly. The GR10 is supposed to take something like 54 days of walking, while the Haute Route is divided into 46 day stages. A keen blogger writes about doing it in 23 days: that means 35 kilometres with vast ascents and descents every day without a break. Hardly anyone could manage that or, indeed, would want to. Even “normal fitness” is too vague to mean much. Fit for what? Climbing mountains day after day is not part of many people’s normal life.

We were all better than normally fit when we left Hendaye, thanks to long hikes with packs every weekend. Pam ran most days; I did aerobics. Even so, what with our rest days and our variants on the prescribed route, we only made it about half way along the range in roughly five weeks.

We were profoundly tired by the time we stopped in Lourdes; we must have been, because we had begun to make bad decisions: we walked when we should have stopped, just because changing direction was too hard.

Even so, we knew we had done something stupendous. And just a few years ago, when Bear and I were remembering the day I was stung by a wasp while I was making dinner and thought I’d been bitten by a snake – a dramatic highlight, in retrospect – he suddenly said: “That trip was the best thing I’ve ever done.”

And it was. The best thing I’ve ever done.

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MH17 air disaster: demand high for sunflower seeds

Sunflower seeds face an uncertain path to grieving crash victims. Sunflower seeds face an uncertain path to grieving crash victims.
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Sunflower seeds face an uncertain path to grieving crash victims.

Sunflower seeds face an uncertain path to grieving crash victims.

These emails are heartbreaking – sons and daughters; uncles and aunts; nieces and nephews; friends and colleagues, all reaching out for a little something by which to remember those who perished in the MH17 air disaster in July.

Relatives and friends of nearly all of 38 victims from Australia have written, asking for some of the sunflower seeds harvested by hand at the Ukrainian crash site by myself and photographer Kate Geraghty – hopefully to be grown as self-regenerating mementos of their lost loved ones.

Dozens more requests are coming from abroad, in response to a diplomatic ripple which began when the Dutch embassy in Canberra included Fairfax media reports in which we offered the seeds in dispatches to their head office. The embassy requested that the stories be circulated to the next of kin of 197 Dutch citizens who died when the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was shot down, and also to embassies in The Hague of other nationals lost in the crash.

New requests come in each day. The running tally is for 130 packets of seed, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, but dozens are from The Netherlands, Britain, Italy, Malaysia and Indonesia. At that level of demand, we have sufficient seed for each packet to contain about a quarter of a cup of sunflower seed.

I don’t think it breaches the privacy we offered to all who might ask for some of the seeds to allude here to oft-repeated references in the emails to the solace to be had from sunflowers, fields of which carpeted the sprawling crash site in the disputed eastern region of Ukraine.

“The sunflower has become somewhat a symbol of their memory,” one writer said of parents lost in the crash. Another writes of a grieving relative: “Believe me when I say how wonderful it would be for my dear cousin to have something tactile to see and touch relevant to her loss.”

By far, the victim names we see over and over in the emails are those of the Catholic nun Sister Philomene Tiernan, from Sydney, and the Melbourne writer Liam Davison and his wife Frankie.

Some of this family-and-friend correspondence is tightly written and emotionally taut  – little more than a name for the victim and an address to which seeds can be mailed. Many become a homage to the author’s lost friend or relative, with a good number of them steeped in love and a few in regret for not having spent more time with the victim.

“We are bewildered and shattered by what has happened,” a parent writes of the loss of a son in the crash. “I dreamt of both his life and death last night.” Another writes baldly: “Our son was blown to pieces by the missile.”

A couple of them came in as blank emails – fired off even before a message could be included. But when I went back to the senders, they indeed wanted some seeds. Most endearing was a writer who was so overcome that it took four emails to convey just the basics – a name, that of a deceased relative and an address.

A good number are from extended family members and relatives, asking for seeds on behalf of immediate relatives of victims, which they intend to offer to them at a later stage – in the case of adults, if and when the pain of grief becomes more bearable; and in the case of small children or grandchildren, when they are older and can better appreciate the seeds.

This week some of the seeds are back in the air. But the quarantine issue made me pause before dropping the seeds at the Australian embassy in Washington, for dispatch to quarantine officials in Canberra – with so many requests coming from outside Australia, I figured I should hold some of the seed to send to families and relatives in countries with less rigorous quarantine regimes.

As a result, two Ziploc bags, containing almost 1 kilograms of seed, are on their way to the office of Nicole Hinder, the Canberra-based quarantine official who first drew my attention to quarantine rules and regulations. I still have one bag, containing less that half a kilogram, to send to victim families and friends outside Australia.

Confirming she had been advised by embassy staff that the seeds were in transit, Ms Hinder said by email: “I am planning to send the seeds to one of my plant pathologists who will do a viability test on them, and also confirm the ‘type’ of sunflower.

“Once we have this established (this initial test is pretty quick) I will come back to you with some advice about timings and what is happening with the seeds – as they transfer to one of our Post Entry Quarantine Stations or we discuss other options if they show evidence of non-viability.”

Subsequent emails from some Australia-based relatives and friends have revealed a range of emotions on the implications of the intervention by quarantine officials in our memorial seed venture – acceptance, suspicion or a hint of anxiety.

A woman in ACT writes: “Hang in there. It is awful but predictable, how ‘authorities’ are thwarting your wonderful effort, seemingly making light of it; as if there is any biosecurity hazard.”

And in the case of a couple in rural NSW, there is a touch of defiance. Underscoring their support in the face of the quarantine threat, they invoke a quote, which they say is from the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel –  “It’ll be all right in the end – and if it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.”

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Lunch with TV writer and actor Dario Russo

Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne.
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Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Dish: Traditional Margherita at Chiara at Docklands. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Dish: Special: Hibiscus Cured Kingfish with yellow carrot and loco rice crumb at Chiara. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne.

Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Dish: Traditional Margherita at Chiara at Docklands. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Dish: Special: Hibiscus Cured Kingfish with yellow carrot and loco rice crumb at Chiara. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne.

Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne. Photo: Chris Hopkins

The bill: Receipt for lunch with Dario Russo at Chiara.

Dish: Traditional Margherita at Chiara at Docklands. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Dish: Special: Hibiscus Cured Kingfish with yellow carrot and loco rice crumb at Chiara. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Chiara 705a Collins Street, cityMon-Fri 10am-10pm; 9252 7909

“Mad” is one way of describing the TV work of Dario Russo and his creative partner David Ashby. The words crazy, silly and hyper-imaginative fit equally well, especially when it comes to explaining the small-screen worlds of their retro series Italian Spiderman and Danger 5.

Think dinosaurs firing cannons from the back of monster trucks, Adolf Hitler running amok in a 1980s-era disco, hitmen disguised in chicken suits, libidinous bears and exploding body parts, and you’ll still have only half the picture.

Reality is not exactly on the duo’s radar, which is why it seemed odd when the launch of a return series of Danger 5 on SBS in late 2014 was delayed on account of events unravelling in the Middle East.

The potential problem was the beheading of a central character, which happens in a moment on cartoonish violence and turns into a running gag. It had the potential to drag the show and its broadcaster into a media maelstrom, all the more so when the depiction is removed from its absurd, comic-book context.

“The show is not a political satire and we were never directly referencing anything in the real world. Danger 5 is probably the most removed from real-world programs you could find,” says Russo, adding that the episodes in question were written in 2012.

“Every bit of violence, of which there is a lot, is well and truly embedded in the world of ’80s splatter.”

The idea of re-editing the show was never canvassed or considered, and Russo and Ashby accepted SBS’s decision to hold back the premiere.

At 27, Russo has managed to channel a typical child’s interest in movies, TV, fantasy animation and puppetry into arguably the most distinctive and off-the-wall TV comedy of recent times – all the more notable given the tendency of local comedy to mine self-deprecation and suburban colloquialism rather than fantasy and adventure.

He lives in Adelaide and describes himself a “World War II mongrel”. His father was born in Italy and emigrated when he was several months old. He returned to his native Naples when he was 11, but the reminder of life on the land saw the family return two years later. His mother is of Estonian-Latvian descent.

Chiara is a new addition to the otherwise bereft Docklands end of Collins Street. Located on the ground floor of Collins Square and overlooking the former Spencer Street Station’s Goods Shed, it’s spacious and roomy and a welcome change from the noisy, elbow-jammed set-ups of most CBD eateries.

Russo has arrived early and studied the menu, his taste buds set on a traditional Margherita pizza, which we share. We also choose an antipasto platter, a wooden board with three mounds of fleshy and sweet eggplant, earthy artichoke and sweet peppers, cured kingfish accompanied by a yellow carrot puree and licorice, and a roquette salad, washed down with a glass of refreshing Peroni.

A member of the YouTube generation, Russo started making films in his teens, Jaws-style creature features “shot by teenagers in a creek in the Adelaide Hills passing off as somewhere in America”.

He and Ashby met via mutual friends at high school during what he says was the golden age of house parties. They were 15. “David was making ridiculously ribald Flash animations and I was making short films because my dad bought a Powerbook, as it was back then, and a Handicam and supported my bizarre desire to make weird shit.”

Their collaboration started in earnest at Flinders University.

Italian Spiderman, says Russo, grew out of a “harebrained” uni project, a fake trailer for a preposterous 1960s superhero series that drew on his love of “giallo” and B-grade serials.

It was 2007, Facebook was on the rise and Twitter had not yet hit our shores, but the meticulously crafted – and tear-inducing hilarious three-minute trailer – took off.

With $9500 of funding, they made 10 mini-episodes of Italian Spiderman, most of which he says was spent on kebabs for the crew and moustache glue.

But people kept watching and it became a phenomenon, generating a viral internet mime, an unlikely offer from a condom company wanting to use the flabby hero (who was played by Ashby) as a mascot (it didn’t eventuate) and eventually notching up an estimated 5.5 million YouTube views; small fry by today’s standards, but notable at the time.

A bitter dispute over the chain of title saw Russo and Ashby shut the door on any further adventures of their masked superhero and ladykiller, so SBS invited them to submit three concepts for a development deal, one of which was Danger 5.

It took three years of scripting and execution to make the first series, which found a vast and appreciative audience both here and abroad, among them fellow Adelaide-ian Shaun Micallef, who contacted the pair when the first episode aired. “I still say it was the funniest thing I’d seen in 10 years on TV,” Micallef has said.

His appreciation was repaid, when Russo and Ashby offered the polymath author, screenwriter and performer two roles in the new Danger 5.

A “textbook only child”, Russo credits his “highly artistic and theatrical” parents for supporting his passion.

“They never encouraged me to get a real job and as far as I know I don’t have one. I was never encouraged to get the fall-back career and for that I have to be eternally grateful.

“Mum was an art teacher, dad a guitar teacher, both into creativity. They’re incredible, model parents. I feel guilty.”

By the sounds of it, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. “Dad used to be an art teacher where he would give high school art lessons on Dadaism that would basically be an entire performance where he would hang from the top of a ladder and throw chopped-up bits of news script on the ground and everyone would assemble poems out of them.”

When it came to the teen rite-of-passage of rebelling against his parents, “I had to make stuff up”.

So the idea of casting his father Carmine – first as an absent-minded scientist in Italian Spiderman, then as Johnny Hitler replete with atrocious moustache in Danger 5 – is not a form of catharsis for childhood issues.

The new Danger 5 updates the setting from the 1960s to the ’80s. Inexplicably, though perfectly in keeping with the show’s peculiar mindset, the debonair Pierre has transformed into a black man, played by Pacharo Mzembe.

“David and I felt we’d run out of ’60s jokes and were sick of watching Sean Connery, Bond movies, The Avengers and Thunderbirds. We wanted to preserve the characters and refresh the entire show.”

That meant more dynamic camera work and lighting, as well as having to reproduce period props.

Presenting Danger 5 at a film festival recently, Russo was asked about the prevalence of characters wearing animal masks. The questioner was sounding out Russo’s interest in “furries”, a worldwide, fetishistic community of people who derive sexual excitement out of dressing up as animals.

Furries turn out to have little to do with it, even if Russo seems happy with the association. He says that creatures who have no justifiable reason to be anything else have always been part of his work. It goes back to Power Rangers, where most of the villains have animal heads and watching Jim Henson, “where children grow up with huge affection for talking animals”.

Whether or not the show provokes controversy remains to be seen, though Russo insists that has never been his mission.

“But the nature of comedy is controversial. It challenges ideas and often pushes people well and truly out of their comfort zones and that usually provokes a level of laughter in some people … and can also affect people with more fragile sensibilities.

“Not once in Danger 5 are we shooting to target any ethnic groups or real events. We just want to make comedy that includes memorable jokes and scenes that David and I haven’t seen before.

“Some of my favourite comedies ever are regarded as some of the most offensive ever. Look at how inflammatory Monty Python’s Holy Grail was when it came out. Or Borat, who uses cultural groups to make jokes. I don’t want to live in a world where comedy isn’t allowed to offend people because it should be our canvas to examine things”.

That said, however, Russo says there will be no more Danger 5 after the current series. “I’m keen to move onto my next project”.

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Triple J’s 40th birthday: High times with the department of youth

Double Jay in 1975In October 1974, more or less by fluke, I got the best job going in Australian radio. With Ron Moss, I was appointed to set up the ABC’s fledgling “young people’s” radio station. This, of course, was Double Jay, which would evolve into Triple J and an Australia-wide network of stations.
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The release of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in 1967 signalled a change in the music industry and everything else to do with electronic technology. é

Suddenly things were different. The music changed, radio changed, everything changed. But not in Australia, still sleepwalking along on the coat-tails of Bob Menzies.

Australian kids only had high-rotation commercial radio stations to listen to for their pop music. Then ABC TV brought in Countdown and the gap widened a little.

With 2 Double Jay in 1975 the floodgates opened and the whole gamut of the world-wide music industry suddenly became available, ushering in a cultural change of massive proportions.

Gough Whitlam’s gung-ho government was leading Australia on a merry dance and one thing they were determined on was media reform.  There had been loud calls for change in the media and the media minister, Senator Doug McClelland, wasn’t handling it very well. Suddenly he announced that the ABC was to be given a couple of new licences, one of which was to be for “young people”.

The next day,  I was sitting in a meeting with a couple of ABC executives and Ron Moss, whom I’d only just met. Ron was the producer of Room to Move, an ABC program which had achieved cult status.  Presenter Chris Winter’s huge afro and “cool”  style ensured maximum identification as ABC radio’s  music guru for the new venture.

I was a presenter and producer of various talk shows on Radio 2 (now Radio National), an unpromising qualification to run a rock station. But I had a reputation as a supporter of new directions for radio. Within the week Ron and I had begun work on ideas for the new station.

Fortunately for us, the ABC music library had a huge back catalogue of records, many of which had never been played, but like any library they had a policy of collecting everything. All we had to do was take them out on permanent loan and put them on our shelves.

We had to take a lot of shortcuts. We simply abandoned public service practice and began to beg, borrow and steal.

Ron immediately signed up his friend from the ABC’s music library, Margot Edwards, to start choosing records and my secretary suggested a friend of hers who knew a lot about music and had just returned from the UK. The next day Ron and I interviewed Arnold Frolows for the first time. He was able to come in on a break from his job delivering flowers. We were impressed and asked,  “When can you start?” and he went on to shape  the musical sound of the station, perhaps more than anyone, as music director until 2003.

Within a week or so we were busy siphoning records from the ABC’s collection and re-cataloguing them for our own.

Next thing the hunt was on for announcers. We already had Chris Winter. Iven Walker was doing a short pop music program and reading the ABC News, and was ready to drop some of the more proper ABC mannerisms. We advertised for staff and, in a break from convention, said we were looking for people who had  a “sense of the ridiculous”. This short phrase reaped rich rewards.

Our next recruit was more or less self-selected. Ron told me we were having lunch with a mystery announcer from a rival station and the whole thing had to be handled with the utmost secrecy. It turned out to be the well-known “Bill Drake” from 2SM – only his real name was actually Holger Brockmann and he’d been given the name Bill Drake by the program director who thought a German-sounding name would put off a predominantly Anglo audience. We thought the Bill Drake thing was ridiculous and told Holger that if he worked for us he could use his real name. An hour after lunch, we had a call to say that when Holger got back to work he’d been challenged about where he’d been, fessed up and was sacked on the spot. And so we acquired our third announcer, who spoke the first words on the new station.

Another of our recruits, Mike Parker, decided to be shrouded in mystery, chose to broadcast under the alias of “The Magus” and was only ever pictured behind a mask.

We  desperately needed a good breakfast announcer. We did not have huge amounts of cash, but we could offer one of the most interesting gigs going, with virtually unlimited creative freedom. One of the airchecks we had was from a loose cannon in Newcastle   and we knew he was our man.  We found Alan McGirvan, who was nothing like anyone on Sydney radio, and who would set the scene for years to come. McGirvan would be joined on air by Captain Goodvibes, the Pig of Steel and a cast of characters too ugly to spit at.

By November we had begun to gather a small group around us. We had some office space, no furniture to speak of, but some nice empty offices where we could begin stacking records. Once the phones were on we were really away.

We were given a frequency almost off the radio dial – 1540 Khz – and then told by the sad old men in grey cardigans at the Broadcasting Control Board that we could only broadcast for 12 hours a day. They’d discovered a transmitter at Blenheim in New Zealand broadcasting on the same frequency. We might interfere with their broadcast and cause an international dispute.

By this stage our excitement levels were high and our growing team was not impressed. After we discovered that the NZ station only broadcast a few hours a week, we  threatened to go on strike and not open the station – even though we had no secure jobs. More headlines and the edict was rescinded.

We had a hell of a time trying to decide on the call sign. As the deadline of January 19  approached, we had a number of committee meetings to consider it. We tried 2 RK (sounded a bit like rock) but nothing  seemed to jell.   I thought the double letters would be original if nothing else. And so we tried “AA” and then “BB” and so on. I think that by the time we got to “JJ” we were all so bored with the process we thought that would have to do and we went to lunch.

Naturally 2JJ, or 2 Double Jay as it was known, immediately became the stuff of legend. People thought it was meant to represent everything imaginable about the drug culture prevalent at the time, because a  “jay”, of course, was a “joint”.

The rush to the final countdown was marred by the fact that the ABC suddenly decided it would have to censor the rocket ship design we had on advertising billboards.  It was meant to symbolise the out-of-this-world experience to be provided by the station but was deemed to be a bit too phallic.  But at a a press conference with ABC management  to announce the station opening the following week, we quietly arranged to have the artwork in the background for journalists to see. Nobody even mentioned it and the ABC bosses quietly dropped the whole thing.

The studios were still being worked on when we began broadcasting from the old wartime bunkers below the ABC’s building in Forbes Street. Ron said the secret first track was going to be a “ripper”.  A crowd of hangers-on and executives cheered as the final countdown reached a crescendo.

The atmosphere was electric as the clock struck 11am, Holger welcomed us to the world of 2JJ and we thrilled to the opening chords of The Skyhooks’  You Just Like Me ‘Cos I’m Good in Bed.

Triple J celebrates 40 years  with the Beat the Drum concert in the Domain on Friday.

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