All posts tagged island

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Tall Poppies: Tasmanian opiates’, March 2015

    A story for the March 7 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine. Excerpt below.

    Tall Poppies

    It supplies up to half the world’s legal opiates, but Tasmania’s poppy industry sees danger ahead.

     The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Tall Poppies: Tasmanian opiates' by Andrew McMillen, March 2015

    Perched in a corner of Keith Rice’s office, atop a cupboard and behind a bright yellow hard-hat, sits an old white sign that warns of grave peril.DANGER. Prohibited area. KEEP OUT. Trespassers ­prosecuted.

    In front of it, an updated version includes a skull-and-crossbones captioned POISON. In bold red text, the bottom of the new sign reads: ILLEGAL use of crop has caused DEATH. This recent shift in tense — “may cause” to “has caused” — came after three deaths from poppy misuse in the last three years here in Tasmania. Clearly, something had to change, beginning with the signage that borders roadside poppy crops.

    Rice, chief executive of Poppy Growers ­Tasmania, keeps glancing at the sign as we chat over coffee on a cool Launceston morning. A tall 66-year-old with tanned features and thinning white hair, he’s talking me through the complex web of politics, painkillers and, more recently, protectionism in which he has been involved for nearly 30 years.

    Above Rice’s desk hangs a wall calendar ­bearing a colour photograph of green countryside flanked by snowy mountaintops, as well as the name of Tasmanian Alkaloids, one of two pharmaceutical companies to have invested heavily in the poppy industry. It has been a big earner for the state, which grows up to 50 per cent of the planet’s legal ­opiates — from which morphine, codeine and thebaine can be extracted — that relieve the pain of humans throughout the world in the form of medicines such as OxyContin and Nurofen Plus. The warning signs are required by law to be displayed on all ­roadside paddocks to deter would-be drug experimenters from picking poppy heads and brewing the ill-gotten plants into a tea. “It’s a dangerous crop because you don’t know the alkaloid content,” says Rice. “Thebaine is like strychnine in your system.”

    Tasmania produces around 90 per cent of the world’s thebaine, which causes convulsions in humans at high doses. In the past two decades thebaine production has eclipsed the old fav­ourite, morphine. A more effective painkiller, ­thebaine is also much more dangerous, as two Danish backpackers found last February after stealing 40 poppy heads from a farm near ­Oatlands, in the centre of the state. The pair brewed the plant into a tea; one of the drinkers, a 26-year-old male, fell asleep and never awoke. In November 2012, morphine toxicity also killed a 17-year-old who stole five kilograms of poppy capsules from a farm at Lewisham, near Hobart, and consumed a poppy tea. In February 2011, a 50-year old man died in similar circumstances in the Launceston suburb of Ravenswood.

    Tasmania’s $100 million dollar poppy ­industry is hidden in plain sight: drive north from Hobart towards Launceston in the ­summer and rolling fields of white, pink and purple flowers dot the landscape. At its peak a few years ago, 30,000ha of poppies were planted in a season; that number is now closer to 20,000ha per year due to a dip in world demand following changes in US prescription policies arising from drug abuse.

    The pharmaceutical companies who pay farmers to grow their products have a long ­history on the island, but mainland state ­governments have been paying attention to the economic consistency of Tasmania’s poppy crop, too. Last September, then federal health minister Peter Dutton wrote to his state and ­territory counterparts asking them to revise a 43-year-old agreement that has restricted poppy production to the island. Soon after, legislation was passed in Victoria and the Northern ­Territory that allowed the narcotics to be grown under strict licensing conditions following small-scale commercial trials during the 2013-14 season.

    It’s a worrying development for Tasmanian farmers who for more than four decades had cornered a secure and lucrative market. The path of Tasmania’s poppy industry so far has been one of prosperity and productivity, with the occasional pothole when misuse of the crop has caused death, or when heavy rains have ruined crops or a mildew outbreak occurs, as it did last November. The great unknown is how big a pothole the mainland expansion will be in the state’s proud history of painkiller production.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

  • The Vine travel story: ‘A look inside Tavarua Island Resort, Fiji’, July 2012

    A travel story for The Vine. Excerpt below; click the photo for a link to the full article.

    A look inside Tavarua Island Resort, Fiji

    Is it possible to inhale too much fresh air? Visitors to the heart-shaped island of Tavarua are better placed than most to address that question. Located six nautical miles off the western side of Fiji mainland Viti Levu, the island is surrounded by stunning ocean vistas; like fire-gazing, there’s something primal about staring out at waves breaking upon a coral reef. It’s the sort of endlessly appealing visual stimulus that washes away the daily minutiae of anxieties and responsibilities. One’s mindset shifts readily into ignorant bliss. Once you’re here, there seem very few good reasons to leave.

    Tavarua Island Resort is exclusive: the presence of 38 adult guests mean that its 16 beach huts – in Fijian, known as ‘bures’ – are full, though there’s usually a handful of children bumping up the numbers. All of the huts are within 20 steps of the sand, and feature two double beds (and one single), air conditioning, a front balcony, and hot showers. They’re comfortable and cosy, yet outside of sleeping hours, you probably won’t be spending much time here.

    The island’s main attraction is its waves: more specifically, ‘Cloudbreak’, which is said to be one of the finest left-hand breaks in the world. My partner and I view it from a safe distance one afternoon, while a few brave souls tear into the muscular waterwall. At low tide, it breaks right onto a razor-sharp coral reef. To non-surfers like ourselves, it seems the very definition of madness to attempt to master such an awesome force. Yet this is the central appeal of wave riding, of course: to attempt the improbable, in the hope of emerging with glory and life intact.

    For the surf-averse among us, the island presents a wealth of attractions. The snorkelling on offer is truly extraordinary; a sight which must be seen to be believed. The sheer variety of colour, movement and species that can be witnessed within a couple of metres of Tavarua’s surrounding reef had us returning on a daily basis. Kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding and fishing are popular, too. The latter involves heading out past Cloudbreak in a boat skippered by an island staffer and trolling back and forth in the deep water, through flocks of diving sea birds, while lures trail a hundred metres behind the boat. It’s certainly the least interactive form of fishing I’ve ever partaken in – ‘set it and forget it’, indeed – yet this method landed us two impressive tuna in our hour on the water: one skipjack, and one 16-pound yellow-fin.

    All meals are served buffet-style from a central restaurant which overlooks a gorgeous swimming pool and, out on the edge of the reef, a surf break aptly named ‘Restaurants’. This is the island’s common area, and with no other culinary options on offer, you’d be foolish to miss the thrice-daily meals. Herein lies our one and only gripe: this monopoly on our stomachs breeds laziness in the catering staff, as we must eat what they produce. All of the meals we ate were serviceable, but none were remarkable. The finest thing I ate on Tavarua was fresh yellow-fin sashimi: a dish which requires no further kitchen preparation than skilled slicing. It’s obvious that the restaurant holds no five-star ambitions, yet we occasionally found ourselves eating only because the alternative was to starve. And in such an idyllic locale, that’d be a true tragedy.

    For the full story, visit The Vine. Above photo credit: Andrew McMillen.