Wednesday 19 January 2011


Now see, if I were one of those super-well-prepared travellers, like the one who lives not a million miles from this house, who swots up all the travel books before a trip and assembles a labelled loose-leaf folder with dividers with notes and addresses and opening times all printed out in colour and punched and filed, I wouldn't have had the fun of today's surprise to enliven my work.

No deadlines at the moment, so I'm flitting on sheer whim from country to country writing stories, and today it was Queensland again, specifically Charleville. That's a little town 760km inland from Brisbane in the south-west (that I hope escaped the floods this time) where there's a surprising amount to see and do. One of the major attractions is the Cosmos Centre where we went to see the stars in the inky Outback sky, natch, but also, astonishingly, the surface of the sun next day through the telescope. Heavily filtered, of course, but scarily orange and shimmering in the solar wind. Amazing. And they had ancient meteorites there from China and more recent local ones, prettily known as 'sky stones' by the Aboriginals. And I found out my age on Venus (83!) and on Jupiter (4!); and my weight on the moon (10kg!); and I ate star-shaped biscuits.

But that's not the surprise. We went to a park and looked at tall funnel-shaped things that we were told were Vortex Guns: invented in Italy to disperse hailstorms over vineyards. A self-taught meteorologist called Clement L. Wragge thought they would be the answer to the long and disastrous 1902 drought, and got backing to have some made and fire them into a likely-looking cloud. It didn't really work, and the second time they tried, two of them blew up and nearly took out a couple of spectators, so Wragge slunk away in disgrace (the drought broke a couple of weeks later all by itself).

But Wragge (who, incidentally invented long-range weather forecasts and first thought of naming cyclones after people - actually politicians, ha ha - so he wasn't really a failure) left Australia and ended up in Auckland some years later, supplying the NZ Herald (for which I was writing that particular story) with forecasts. And, even more surprising, he lived in a suburb not far at all from where I live in this very spread-out city, and is buried there.

So that was all fun to find out about today, instead of just churning out a dutiful story of known facts. Moral: leave yourself stuff to discover later.

PS One of the few things I remember from my mid-seventies trendy but useless sociology paper at Canterbury University was that coincidence is much more common than people think, and the prof demonstrated it by finding several sets of birthday twins in the lecture hall before he'd even got halfway up the side section. That lecture hall? Shown on the TV news last night as an example of earthquake damage in the city, its turret dangling from a crane. That turret? This one. Explain that away, Prof Catton!

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