All posts tagged magazine

  • Stellar story: ‘Part-Time Superheroes: Brisbane’s hospital window cleaners’, October 2016

    A feature story for Stellar, published in the October 30 2016 issue. Excerpt below.

    Part-Time Superheroes 

    Meet the window cleaners who drop by to brighten the days of patients at a children’s hospital

    Stellar story by Andrew McMillen: 'Part-Time Superheroes: Brisbane's hospital window cleaners', October 2016. Photo by Claudia Baxter

    A 10-year-old boy named Griffith Comrie is waiting by a window on the sixth floor of the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in inner-city Brisbane. He’s been doing a lot of waiting lately since having a stroke in his hometown of Gladstone nine weeks earlier, after which he was airlifted 520 kilometres south for treatment, rest and rehabilitation. He’s missed a lot of school and has had to learn how to walk and talk again. His short-term memory has suffered; he jokes to his grandmother, Dorn, that there’s not much point in watching movies lately, as by the time he gets to the end, he can’t remember what happened at the beginning. Sometimes, he thinks he’s on an extended holiday from his usual life back home.

    As he sits beside seven-year-old girls Thea Rendle and Millie Allen, an unexpected visitor drops into his line of sight. On the other side of the glass, Superman descends with a thick rope and harness around his waist, white sneakers on his feet and a yellow hard hat on his head. The bright blue outfit, complete with “S” chest insignia and red cape, are unmistakeable, even for a memory-affected boy like Griffith. The youngsters are mesmerised. Why, they wonder, is Superman visiting them?

    Suddenly, another rope drops down. “It’s Batman!” yells Thea, before Millie – who’s wearing her school uniform, having had a morning appointment with her therapist – corrects her: “No, it’s Spider-Man!” She’s right: hanging in front of them is the web-slinger himself, wearing black-and-orange sneakers and a dark hard hat, while his shoulders and pectorals bulge with well-sculpted muscles, presumably earned from swinging between tall buildings such as this one.

    Spider-Man delights his young audience by turning somersaults and showing off his aerial dexterity, yet his facial expression remains impassive behind the dark red mask. Superman, however, can’t stop grinning, and the pair of them ham it up together while dangling from the ropes that hold them in place, dozens of metres above the busy street below. For any pedestrians who happen to look up, the sight of the two superheroes together must be as disorienting as it is grin-inducing.

    What the kids don’t know is that underneath the superheroes’ outfits, they wear bright yellow high-visibility shirts bearing the name of their employer, Queensland Water Blasting. Nor are the youngsters aware that, rather than stopping criminals and saving the city from imminent destruction, their purpose here – when they’re not engaged in midair gymnastic trickery – is to wash the hospital’s hundreds of external windows. It’s a big job, requiring them to be on-site every weekday for about three weeks, doing their best to avoid sunburn by following the building’s shade as the earth turns.

    To read the full story, visit Stellar. Above photo credit: Claudia Baxter.

  • Good Weekend story: ‘Showcase: Tkay Maidza’, October 2016

    A short artist profile for Good Weekend‘s ‘showcase’ section. The full story appears below.

    Showcase – Tkay Maidza

    Artist Showcase – Tkay Maidza by Andrew McMillen in Good Weekend, 2016. Photo by Paul Harris

    Wearing an extra-large Boston Celtics basketball jersey and towering black platform boots, hip-hop artist Tkay Maidza is bound to attract every eye in the room. It’s close to midnight on a Wednesday night in Brisbane in September, seven weeks before her debut album is released, and Maidza is performing alongside her drummer and DJ to 300 fans as part of the Bigsound music festival. Even with the boots and the raised stage, Maidza is only a little taller than the faithful in the front row. But what she lacks in stature, she more than makes up with lyrical ability and vocal dexterity.

    In Fortitude Valley, a guerrilla marketing campaign is underway: Maidza, 20, appears on posters that bear only her face and her first name, or at least the abbreviated version of it. Born Takudzwa Victoria Rosa Maidza in Zimbabwe, she has lived in Australia since she was five: first Perth, then Kalgoorlie, on to Whyalla and then Adelaide, where her parents still live.

    The transient nature of her upbringing is reflected in her career as a touring musician. Maidza’s travel schedule sees her constantly playing festivals and shows across Europe, the UK and the US. “I don’t really live anywhere,” she tells Good Weekend in a Fortitude Valley cafe prior to her headline performance. “I think it’s cool, because I’m always seeing something new. I’ve been okay with moving to a new city and having to make new friends, because I never settled anywhere, so I learnt not to be attached.”

    Maidza graduated from high school at 16 and began studying architecture at university, before her YouTube covers and early demos – including the earworm track Brontosaurus – caught the attention of record labels here and overseas. Her debut album, Tkay, is an accomplished and balanced showcase of her songwriting in two styles: electronic pop and hip-hop.

    “I know you feel the heat because I’m nothing less than fire,” she raps on lead single Carry On, which features a guest verse by acclaimed American rapper Killer Mike. “I’ve always been a fan of rappers that rap really fast,” she says, beaming. “I’m a person who has a really short attention span, so I want something that twists, or something you don’t expect.”

    Just then, a young girl walks past the cafe and briefly makes eye contact with Maidza. Etched into the girl’s  T-shirt are four letters that Australia will soon be seeing plenty more of. “Oh my God,” Maidza whispers, equally thrilled and embarrassed. “She has a Tkay shirt on!”

    Above photograph by Paul Harris.

  • Qweekend story: ‘School Of Hard Knocks: Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School’, April 2016

    A feature story for Qweekend magazine, published in the April 9-10 issue. The full story appears below.

    School Of Hard Knocks

    Sick children need schooling too. At Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School, learning proves positively infectious.

    Qweekend story: 'School Of Hard Knocks: Lady Cilento Children's Hospital School' by Andrew McMillen, April 2016

    ++

    In a light-filled corner room of a high-rise building overlooking inner-city Brisbane, a visiting local artist leads a class of six rowdy students. Aged between five and seven years old, they are tasked with creating artworks that illustrate their lives. A handful of the best drawings from this schoolwide project will be sent to China, where a school has a reciprocal arrangement. But it’s unlikely the Chinese students will be able to relate to the experience of these children – they are enrolled in a school very few families in Queensland choose to attend. This is the state’s only dedicated hospital school.

    Sam Cranstoun presents a cheerful front to the kids’ steady stream of questions and comments. The 28-year-old artist asks the four boys and two girls to use crayons to draw what they like to do. Camping, swimming, board games and PlayStation 4 rank highly, before one boy offers another option with a quizzical look. “School?” he asks, unsure of himself. He is testing the waters: is it cool to admit, at age seven, that you like school? “I’m sure your teacher will love hearing that!” says Sam, flashing a smile to the adults across the room. Gemma Rose-Holt, six, draws a swimming pool at the bottom of an enormous piece of paper, then a sun shining high in the sky. In the last couple of years, she has seen her father’s health rapidly decline for reasons she can’t quite fathom.

    Sam continues with the exercise by asking them to consider their place in the world. “Is China bigger than Gladstone?” asks one boy. They talk about their families and school. “Do you guys think about home?” asks the artist. “Yes!” they reply as one, before throwing their talents into happy drawings of the back yards and bedrooms they have left behind.

    “There’s an amazing view out the window,” says Sam, pointing behind the students. “Do you guys ever look out there?” At this, the six kids scamper to the windows, pressing their faces against the glass and pointing out the landmarks they can see from the eighth floor of the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in South Brisbane, which the Prep to Year 2 pupils are visiting for their art class. They can see Mount Coot-tha, the murky river, the Story Bridge in the distance. “I can see the cat-boat!” announces one boy, spying a blue, white and yellow ferry as it powers against the tide. “I can see bull sharks!” suggests another, prompting a laugh from the teaching staff. Not many schools have a helicopter pad on the roof, nor a giant pink bunny rabbit sculpture standing sentry near the entrance. Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School (LCCHS) has both of these, and when its students are asked to sketch the school, these two features inevitably emerge on the page.

    For their final task, Sam turns these young minds toward imagining their future. “What do we want to be?” he asks them, prompting a flurry of ideas. Teacher? Doctor? Journalist? Soldier? McDonald’s worker? Power Ranger? “I don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up,” says Gemma. She draws a nurse standing beside a bed-bound patient wearing a big smile. That’s her father, Damien. He has no hair because the medicine took it away. “The medicine’s yuck, but he has to have it,” she tells Sam. Little Gemma lives with her mother near the RNA Showgrounds, away from her Sunshine Coast home in accommodation subsidised by the Leukaemia Foundation, while Damien receives treatment.

    The students who attend this school are bound by a common experience of illness: either their parents’, their siblings’, or their own. They are from Emerald, Cairns, Chinchilla, Bundaberg and Hervey Bay; from every corner of the state. For some of them, it is their first visit to Brisbane, and the circumstances are less than ideal. Entire families are uprooted from their normal lives and relocated to temporary housing reserved for people in crisis. Their parents have got so much on their plates when they come here that sometimes the last thing on their mind is phoning a school, notifying a teacher about what might become an extended absence from their normal classroom. These tasks fade from view when the spectre of death suddenly appears in sharp focus. Into the breach rush 24 hospital school teaching staff, a compassionate, capable bunch of professionals adept at crafting an individualised education that will define these stricken children.

    The school’s impact is wide-ranging, and it sees a diverse population. In 2015, Lady Cilento hospital had 3159 registered students, more than two-thirds of whom normally attended state schools. Of that number, the largest cohort of 21 per cent (663 students) presented with medical conditions; 17 per cent (538) were there for oncology; 13 per cent (410) attended the school because a member of their family was ill, and nine per cent (284) were patients with the Child and Youth Mental Health Service –  which is also located on level eight at the hospital – while the remainder found their way there for reasons related to the likes of surgery, diabetes, rehabilitation and heart disease.

    More often than not, the hospital teachers’ efforts work wonders for the children and their families. During a midweek excursion to the Gallery of Modern Art at nearby South Bank, Mitchell Cawthray, 12, cautiously approaches a teacher watching over the group of about two dozen students as they eat lunch. He wears a black T-shirt that reads “The Force is Strong In This One”, reflecting an indelible truth of this blue-eyed boy’s tough character. His light brown hair is shaved close to his scalp, and when he turns his head, you can see the scar on the back of his neck where the life-threatening medulloblastoma tumour was removed from the top of his spine almost a year ago. “Are you having a good day so far?” asks the teacher cheerfully. “Great day,” Mitchell replies, nodding. He pauses, weighing his words carefully, then looks around to make sure none of his peers overhear his next words. With a shy smile, he says, “I’ve never really said this before, but I think I like school now!”

    ++

    Most children go through childhood without great complications, and without seeing the insides of healthcare waiting rooms for longer than it takes to receive an immunisation jab, to set an accidental bone fracture in plaster, or to go through the motions of a doctor’s check-up. Mitchell, Gemma and their peers are the unlucky few, and the LCCH treats Queensland’s sickest of the sick. All of the “first-world problems”, as Mitchell’s mum, Janine Cawthray, puts it, fade into irrelevance when your child is diagnosed with brain cancer.

    In Mitchell’s case, he and Janine relocated to Brisbane at Easter time last year for his treatment, while his father stayed home in Hervey Bay, managing their small business and caring for Mitchell’s sister as she completed Year 12. “I take my hat off to the teachers,” says Janine. “They not only have to deal with normal academic requirements as per the curriculum; they have to deal with a multitude of personalities – from parents, medical staff – as well as medical requirements and children’s individual needs. They also have to report back to the children’s mainstream school. They’re juggling all of that, and that’s a hard call, but they manage it very, very well.”

    In the middle of the building, on level eight, is a place where a familiar timetable reigns between the hours of 9am and 3pm each weekday. It is a place of whiteboards and colouring-in; of assigned readings and class discussions. It is a place of boring adult words such as literacy, numeracy, curriculum, assessment and “personal learning plans”. For some families, the hospital school quickly becomes the only constant in a life now marked by endless blood tests, chemotherapy and invasive surgery, and – sometimes – dramatically shortened horizons.

    None of these horrible things happen on level eight, however, where the LCCHS middle and senior classrooms serve an ever-changing cohort of students from Years 5 to 12. Nor do horrible things happen on the ground-floor junior school next door, on Stanley Street inside the old Mater Hospital building, where Prep to Year 4 students are taught. In young lives that have suddenly been dropped into seas of anxiety, pain and uncertainty, these two campuses emerge as towering islands of normality.

    There are no school bells here. No uniform, and no rules, per se, only three expectations: be safe, be respectful, and be responsible. Teachers are not known by stuffy honorifics; the students are on a first-name basis with their educators and support staff from the first day. Though visits to these islands of normality are usually short-term matters, these two school campuses can easily act as a home base for months on end, depending on circumstances.

    This unique style of teaching has its roots in doctor-soldiers and military nurses returning from World War I in 1918 and concerning themselves with the rehabilitation, retraining and education of limbless soldiers. From that point, it took only a short leap of logic to twig that children ensconced in hospitals required special schooling, too. The Sick Children’s Provisional School opened at the Hospital for Sick Children in the bayside suburb of Shorncliffe on August 11, 1919; it was the nation’s first such educational institution. Since then, it has been relocated several times. A purpose-built school at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Herston opened in 1978; in 2009, it celebrated 90 years of service to more than 60,000 pupils.

    Vicki Sykes was the longest-serving principal of Mater Hospital Special School in South Brisbane, which opened in 1983.  Appointed in 1986, she served 23 years before retiring in 2009; today, the junior school playground is dedicated in her name with a handsome plaque. In 1986, Sykes described her workplace. “Students come to school from the wards in pyjamas and wheelchairs,” she wrote in an unpublished memoir. “Some are on crutches or have their arms or legs bandaged. During the day some students may need to go off for operations or medical treatment. Teachers don’t know from day to day how many students will be coming to school.”

    In that sense, little has changed since the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School opened on December 1, 2014.  Its purpose is defined by Professor John Pearn in his 2009 history of Queensland’s hospital schools, To Teach The Sick. “Unrealised long-term educational potential has, in the past, been an under-acknowledged legacy of childhood illness,” wrote Pearn in the book’s introduction. “In the context of life’s fulfilment, such may be more serious than any medical after-effects.”

    ++

    The school’s average weekly enrolment is about 150 students, and the student-to-teacher ratio is about seven-to-one.  About half of the students are too ill to make it to either of the two campuses at Lady Cilento, so the teachers come to them, providing bedside tuition. They set daily assignments, and return regularly to check their progress. Depending on scheduling, these ward visits might only last 15 minutes if a teacher has a long list of inpatient appointments. But for the bed-bound students, they might also be the only minutes in a day where they are given a task and purpose that’s divorced from their unfortunate medical reality.

    When visiting a couple of beautiful sisters from Springfield Lakes who have been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a palpable sense of cabin fever permeates their immediate environment. Their world has shrunken to a cruel size. Little girls aged six and eight don’t belong in a small room separated by white curtains, behind a door that must remain closed at all times, and where visitors must wear gloves and gowns before entering to minimise the risk of transmitting infections.

    “Homework” is an imperfect word to describe the learning tasks set by these teachers, since the sisters’ entire lives are confined to this room. The hospital, for now, is both their home and classroom. Mid-lesson, a nurse enters to prick their fingers for a blood test. As the precious red liquid is squeezed from a tiny finger, the blonde girl calmly continues reading along to a picture book named Mr Gumpy’s Motor Car with her impromptu teacher, who leaves several worksheets for her to complete. She has long since been conditioned to something that would prompt tears from most other six year-olds.

    For these teachers, visiting inpatients on the wards requires a sense of persistence, positivity and optimism. Every day, these teachers see amazing and terrible things, such as degenerative neurological conditions that strip language and meaning from a young boy’s life with each passing week.

    From his bedside, it’s a short walk to visit a young girl in a wheelchair whose body hosts a flesh-eating viral infection that has left her face disfigured and her forearms resembling those of a burns victim, wrapped in plastic for her protection. Tourism is her passion, and so the ward teachers resolve to bring her homework that suits this interest.

    These teachers are not medical professionals. They cannot fix these problems or treat pain. They can, however, provide stimulation for young minds, if only for 15 minutes each day.

    ++

    After lunch on Thursday, the junior school students file into the flexi-room on level eight for school assembly.  Only Prep to Year 4 are in attendance, as the middle and senior grades are still on an all-day excursion to GoMA. Brianna Iszlaub, 11, with patchy tufts of blonde hair, couldn’t attend the latter as her blood count was down today. She stands beside a girl in a wheelchair as the two of them co-host the weekly event, beginning with an Acknowledgment of Country and an energetic, indigenous-flavoured rendition of the national anthem. “Thank you, please be seated,” says Brianna at its conclusion. School staff and a few parents are scattered around the edges of the dozens-strong group, while the students sit in chairs or on cushions.

    Once Brianna finishes reading from the prepared script, hospital school principal Michelle Bond says to her, “Good girl.” A short and energetic woman who radiates positivity, Michelle, 49, welcomes the younger students to stand up and present their handmade graphs based on a recent visit to a petting zoo downstairs. The principal – who led Royal Children’s Hospital School since April 24, 2006, and LCCHS since it opened – then presents a handful of awards: to an outstanding student who has shown consideration to his peers; to one who has overcome challenges; to one who has made a positive start after joining the school this week. The group sings happy birthday to a shy blonde girl. “Some of these kids would never be chosen to lead an assembly at their own school; they usually choose the school captains and the sporty kids,” Michelle tells Qweekend quietly. “I’ve had parents come and tell me that their child has never received an award before coming here. It’s lovely that we can do that for them.”

    The class’s guest for the day, University of Queensland PhD candidate Maddie Castles, cues a PowerPoint presentation loaded with photos from her recent visit to Namibia. The title slide shows a selfie of her grinning wildly into the camera while a giraffe munches on some leaves behind her. She tells the group about her job studying giraffe social interactions, or “who they’re friends with,” as she puts it. A teacher aide quietly brings a boy in a wheelchair into the room. He is barely conscious, his head held in place by brackets. As time passes, he shuts his eyes and dozes while his classmates leap up for a group photo with Maddie, who might be the first scientist they’ve ever met.

    Posted on the door inside Brianna’s Year 7/8 composite classroom is a photo of her before treatment. Her glorious, long locks are framed by a beaming face. The photo was taken when she first arrived at the school from Townsville in January, after being diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma in late November. Her chemotherapy has stolen her hair and some of her energy. Sometimes she prefers to hide her changing scalp beneath a black beanie with devil horns. But none of this is discussed during school hours.

    Brianna’s teacher is Anna Bauer, 35, a bespectacled brunette with sparkling brown eyes who has worked in hospital schools for three years and now can’t imagine teaching anywhere else. “No one here will ask you a medical question,” she says of her classroom. “The kids are so tolerant … You can walk in with a nasal gastric tube and a drip tree, and that’s it. We might give the drip tree a name, like ‘Molly’, and then everybody gets on with what we’re doing. It’s what I wish the real world was like.” Working here sometimes demands that the adults develop coping strategies for their own emotional protection, too. “I have to believe that, when they walk out the door, they live happily ever after,” she says.

    In Anna’s current class, Brianna has cancer; the mother of a bubbly Bundaberg girl is being treated for leukaemia; and the fiercely intelligent girl who co-hosted assembly is temporarily in a wheelchair after two recent strokes. But the students she sees aren’t confined to physical illness. “I have so many kids with mental health issues who don’t look sick,” Anna says. “They walk around without baldness, or a nasal gastric tube, or a limp, or a drip tree. There’s no physical evidence, so there’s a real lack of recognition that there’s something wrong with your child. I’m not a parent yet, but oh my God – how awful must that be?”

    During Anna’s second week of teaching at the hospital, a student from the previous day didn’t arrive. When she asked a colleague about their sudden absence, she learnt they were being treated in the emergency department after attempting to end their life. “I took that quite badly,” says Anna quietly. That was when her happily-ever-after belief began to cement itself, as a self-protective measure.

    Some days are worse than others. “You’re on and lifting, all of the time,” says Anna. “But I find it quite humbling, and incredibly powerful, that it’s my job to make their lives feel normal. It can be sad sometimes, but most of the time, it is not; it is joyous, happy, friendly, loving and supportive. The children are sick, but I’m not a health worker. When I’m in here, and they’re so excited to see me, because I’m not a doctor or a nurse, there’s no time to be sad. You’ve got spelling and times tables to do, and we’re going to have fun while we do it.”

    Posted on the door inside Anna’s classroom, beneath the class photos of smiling children at eye level, is a laminated A4 page consisting of a paragraph of white text against a black background, framed by a pink border. I want a life that sizzles and pops, it begins. That first line popped into Anna’s head a little while ago, on a particularly bad day, when her class of six teenage girls were all in a low mood. “And I don’t want to get to the end, or tomorrow even, and realise that my life is a collection of Post-its and unwashed clothes, bad television and reports that no-one’s ever read,” it continues.

    The teacher was getting nothing out of them, that day, so she put the spelling lesson aside and assigned the girls a task: to write about what makes them feel better. Anna kicked them off with that first sentence, and encouraged them to fill the page. She did, too. “I want to see what I see through the lens of a camera and drink wine like it’s real grapes and wrap myself in warm towels that smell like my mum’s washing and dance to songs I don’t even like,” she wrote.

    The girls pasted the text into an online image editing program, fiddled with the design, printed the results and took them home to stick on their walls. These pages were intended to act as a reminder of all that is good in this world, especially on the blackest days. Anna stuck hers to the wall of a classroom where nobody will ask medical questions, in a building that none of the children particularly want to be in. Her paragraph concludes, “I want to wrap my hands around warm cups of tea with friends that will make me laugh so hard I wee a little bit, and I want every day to belly laugh with my people, glad and grateful, that I love the life I have.”

     

  • Qweekend story: ‘The Player: John Collins and The Triffid’, November 2014

    A story for the November 1-2 issue of Qweekend magazine. The full story appears below.

    The Player

    Making it as a muso is a hard act to follow, but ex-Powderfinger bassist John Collins is rolling the dice with his new gig in venue management.

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David Kelly

    by Andrew McMillen / Photography by David Kelly

    ++

    For now, the only music heard in this room comes from a dust-coated radio audible in intermittent bursts between a dissonant symphony of hammering, grinding and sawing. Shortly, though, this formerly vacant hangar in Newstead, in Brisbane’s inner-north, will come alive with the sounds of live music. On this midweek morning in early October, John “JC” Collins wears a blue hard hat and bright yellow high-visibility vest atop a black dress shirt and blue jeans. Transforming this building from a forgotten shell into what Collins hopes will become a shining light in Brisbane’s sparkling live music scene has occupied much of the past two years of his life.

    Thick, black electrical cables snake down from the curved ceiling. At the far end of the hangar, a hip-high raised stage sits at the foot of a brick wall painted bright green. Its sizeable main hall and mezzanine will accommodate up to 800 guests. It will be the first significant venue to open in the inner city since West End’s 1200 capacity Hi-Fi debuted in 2009.

    Outside, in the beer garden, a temporary worksite office is stacked atop shipping containers that will function as bars and a kitchen. In the adjacent “band garden”, green astroturf leads through to a stage door being painted grey. As Collins tours the construction site while consulting with a squad of architects, acoustic engineers and insulation specialists, The Triffid’s distinctive look and feel is slowly taking shape all around him. What began as an aspiration is very nearly a live, loud reality.

    From the mezzanine vantage point, the team of hard-hats inspects the original rainwater-tank roof. It’s been kept intact, but perforated with thousands of finger-sized holes and stacked with several layers of insulation in order to absorb the venue’s maximum volume of 110 decibels – and, hopefully, to stop future nearby residents from complaining about the noise. The former industrial hub of Newstead is on the cusp of a property boom set to rival neighbouring Teneriffe and New Farm; across from the venue, five residential towers comprising 900 apartments will soon sprout.

    Tapping the 60-year-old ribbed roof, lead architect Mick Hellen says with a smile: “This was JC’s bright idea, but it’s the worst possible shape for a music venue.” Collins laughs, and shoots back: “It’s still better than a square box, though. Hey, it worked for The Beatles at the Cavern Club,” he says, referring to the Liverpool venue where Beatlemania was born. Who knows what The Triffid will mean in time to emerging Brisbane acts?

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David Kelly

    ++

    When The Triffid opens its steel doors next Saturday, it will be almost four years to the day since the former Powderfinger bassist joined his bandmates for their final public performance at Brisbane Riverstage. The intervening years have not been particularly relaxing for Collins, 44, a restless soul who searched high and low for a project in which to invest his energy. After a two-decade career in which his identity was synonymous with four fellow musicians united under what became a household name, Collins initially struggled to find his own way.

    In the two years following the band’s November 2010 finale, Collins hired a desk at a friend’s business in inner-north Bowen Hills with the intention of giving his days structure and purpose, and separating his work aspirations from his home life at Morningside, in the city’s east. There were protracted investigations into business ventures in race cars and printing companies, as well as extended travels with his wife of 14 years, Tara, and their children, 10-year-old twins Grace and Rosie and Scarlett, 7.

    Eventually, he threw his weight behind the idea of a live music venue and after months of location scouting in the surrounding suburbs, he found the empty hangar on Stratton Street. Collins met with its owner in February 2013 and spent almost a year working through proposals, budgets and designs. “It was a tough year, because I felt like we had a good idea between us,” he says now. “I felt really strongly about it; I hadn’t felt this strongly since the ‘Fingers started. It was a gut feeling.”

    Born in Murgon, 250km north-west of Brisbane, on April 27, 1970, Collins grew up in the town of Kerry near Beaudesert, 85km south of the capital. While attending boarding school at Brisbane Grammar in inner-city Spring Hill, he met fellow boarder Steven Bishop, with whom he shared a love for music. The pair began playing with another student, Ian Haug, after the budding guitarist noticed Collins wearing a handmade shirt that advertised Sydney band Sunnyboys. The trio formed the first iteration of Powderfinger in late 1988, and while Bishop vacated the drum kit in 1991, the three men occasionally play together in a band called the Predators, whose debut EP, Pick Up The Pace, was released in 2006.

    “Powderfinger was an awesome thing. I loved it,” says Collins. “I don’t expect it to ever happen again with music, but I’ve always wanted to do something else. That was part of the decision to stop [in 2010], because if we’d stopped in our fifties, things would have been tougher; we worked through half our working lives.” In the intervening four years, singer Bernard Fanning and guitarist Darren Middleton have proceeded with solo careers, drummer Jon Coghill has pursued a career in journalism, and Haug has been recording at his home studio and joined Australian rock institution The Church. “It’s taken me three years to get that next act going,” says Collins.

    ++

    Its name is rooted in both literary and musical references; not just John Wyndham’s 1951 science fiction novel The Day of the Triffids, but more appropriately, the Triffids were a seminal Australian band based in Perth during the 1980s. “A few people have said to me, ‘Why didn’t you call it The Hangar?’” says Collins, who is one of several partners in the venture. “But that sounds more like a beer barn to me. I wanted to make sure people understood it’s a creative space, not just a place to come and skol piss. If you’re in a band, and you ask ‘Where are we playing?’ and the manager says ‘There’s this new venue in Brisbane called ‘The Triffid’, automatically you’re more inclined to think, well, okay, they must be at least a bit creative…”

    Beside the bar on the mezzanine level is an office that overlooks the lobby through glass salvaged from Powderfinger’s rehearsal space in Albion, in the city’s inner north, which was flooded a few years ago. To complete the fit-out, Collins is in the process of sourcing historic gig posters that will illustrate Brisbane’s rich musical heritage. The venue will fill a gap between The Zoo (capacity 500) and The Tivoli (1500) in Fortitude Valley, as well as The Hi-Fi on the other side of the river. “We definitely didn’t want to come in and tread on anyone’s toes,” says Collins. “Places like The Zoo, The Hi-Fi and The Tivoli are really important. We want to make the pie bigger, not take somebody’s slice.”

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David KellyAs we walk downstairs, I ask Collins what’s at stake here. “My reputation,” he replies. “And a bit of money. I’ve willingly put my name and my hand up to back this project. If it doesn’t work, my partners can walk and do another one, whereas I’ll go down with the ship. Obviously I’ve put a lot of time, energy and passion in, and I’d like it to work financially, too.”

    Haug is confident his friend and bandmate has bet on the right horse, as it were. “We’ve played so many venues around the world; he knows how to do it, so the musicians will be happy with how it’s all set out,” says Haug of Collins. “He’s surrounded himself with the best people to do sound and lighting. He didn’t think it was going to be easy, but he probably didn’t realise it would be this hard to build it from the ground up.”

    With a laugh, Haug adds: “He’ll be glad when it’s open, that’s for sure.”

    The Triffid opens on Saturday, 8 November with a line-up that includes Saskwatch, The Creases and MT Warning. thetriffid.com.au

  • Qweekend story: ‘Think Inside The Box: Float therapy’, October 2014

    A story for the October 19-20 issue of Qweekend magazine. The full story appears below.

    Think Inside The Box

    Solo enclosure in a dark tank of salty water isn’t everyone’s cup of calm, but converts to this niche form of stress management say there’s peace – and space for deep thought – to be found in the 60-year-old practice.

    Qweekend story: 'Think Inside The Box: Float therapy' by Andrew McMillen, October 2014

    by Andrew McMillen / Photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    ++

    I’m floating naked with my hands behind my back in a warm, shallow pool. Calming music plays quietly. My ears are plugged and submerged. It’s so dark that I can’t see my feet; the only light comes from a lamp outside, which filters through tiny slivers in the sliding door on the ceiling. I close my eyes, and from time to time, feel the currents of this private ocean causing my relaxed body to gently bump the sides. With the merest flex of a toe, elbow or finger, I push myself back toward the centre. Outside of my mother’s womb and my eventual coffin, I’m unlikely to encounter such a closed, sense-deprived environment – which, plainly, is a claustrophobe’s nightmare.

    After ten minutes, the music fades out, and I’m left alone with the sound of my breathing and my thoughts. I’m in a flotation tank: a vehicle for introspection slightly bigger than a dodgem car, containing 350kg of Epsom salts – hence the ability to float, as this water has the same density as the Dead Sea. It sits inside a storefront called Brisbane Float & Massage in the south-western suburb of Sherwood, yet for the duration of my disconnected hour inside, I could be anywhere in the world.

    I’m here because of Joe Rogan. Sometimes alternative therapies need celebrity advocates to shift public opinion from a fruity-sounding way to spend one’s time to an attractive prospect. For many float converts, Rogan – popular American stand-up comedian, podcast host and television presenter – has been the canary in this particular coal mine. “The sensory deprivation chamber has been the most important tool I’ve ever used for developing my mind – for thinking, for evolving,” he says in a YouTube clip that’s had more than 750,000 views. “Everybody should do the tank. You will learn more about yourself than any other way.”

    My first session reveals the truly abstract notion of time, as in the silence, I quickly lose all sense of the clock. For someone who has zero experience with meditation and a similarly low desire to spend time alone without some sort of stimulus – music, book, notepad, video game, smartphone – I wasn’t sure how I’d handle this dark, quiet vacation from reality. After I got comfortable in the water – whose warmth mimics my body temperature – time seemed to stand still.

    Before long, though, I was so deep in thought that I was surprised to hear the music return, signalling that five minutes remained in the hour. In the tank, a wide range of topics crossed my mind – partner, family, health, work, music, self – and I was able to carefully grasp each of these and examine it with newfound clarity.

    British-born John Battersby, 56, is the owner of Brisbane Float & Massage, one of only a handful of tank operators in Queensland. He shows me around his simple premises. “I built this myself,” he says, gesturing at the surrounding walls. “It’s not high-quality, but it’s functional.” A qualified sports therapist and local soccer coach, he leads me into one of his two float rooms, which both contain showers to be used before and after each session. Battersby explains that he found this therapy after a car accident in Sydney in 1989 left him with whiplash, a neck brace and limited mobility. He was sceptical of this alternative therapy at first: “A Pom, lying in a big bath of water?” he jokes with a smile. During his first 90 minute float, he experienced extraordinary pain relief. After that, he floated every day for six months.

    The sensory deprivation tank was first explored in 1954 by American physician John C. Lilly, who sought to isolate the human mind from external stimulation. Flotation therapy has since become a niche form of stress management. After its initial popularisation in the 1980s, public interest in floating dried up following health concerns about AIDS and the transfer of bodily fluids. “Now we know that’s not possible,” says Battersby, “as the water is so sterile that you can’t grow bacteria in it.”

    Battersby, who lives with his wife Kerry in the Lockyer Valley town of Laidley, 85km west of Brisbane, has used the tank at least once a week over the past 25 years. “It’s such a simple process that anyone can do it,” he says. Anyone, that is, except most children, whose short attention spans tend to limit the appeal of sliding the lid closed on a small space for an hour or more.

    When I mention Joe Rogan, Battersby describes him as “a breath of fresh air”. “I don’t believe in his use of drugs, though,” he clarifies. “We don’t allow people to use drugs here. But he’s an experienced floater, and he does good things. We need more of him.” For Battersby, the tank represents “one of the most creative spaces I’ve ever found. There are no distractions – only what’s going on between your ears.”

    For some, that same space between the ears can be the source of seemingly endless darkness and despair. Michael Harding knows a bit about this. A former army infantryman, Harding was medically discharged from service in 2011 after developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) born out of an intense, prolonged firefight in Afghanistan during which he witnessed a fellow soldier shot and killed. He developed full-body twitches, was diagnosed with conversion disorder and sent home early. The two years that followed were a mess of prescription medications and alcohol abuse. He’d drink a bottle of spirits every day, while his partner was at work, and his junk-food diet saw his weight top out at 110kg.

    Qweekend story: 'Think Inside The Box: Float therapy' by Andrew McMillen, October 2014. Michael Harding and Rebecca Houghton photographed by Russell ShakespeareHarding discovered floating in March and in his first week completed three sessions. “The changes I’ve seen in him after floating are incredible,” says his partner, Rebecca Houghton, who left her office job to care for Harding full-time. Having since lost dozens of kilos, Harding now wears his brown hair in thick, curly locks that belie his military history. He’s sitting in shorts, thongs and a black cap in an armchair outside the two float rooms in Sherwood, with Houghton at his side. The pair [pictured right] met at primary school in Bracken Ridge, in Brisbane’s north-east, and reconnected just before Harding joined the army.

    As the Department of Veterans’ Affairs does not view flotation therapy as a valid form of rehabilitation for Harding’s PTSD, their visits to Battersby’s Sherwood premises were paid for out of their own pocket. Both 27, they live in Lawnton, on Brisbane’s northside, and found that the 100-minute round trip was adding to Harding’s stress, eroding some of the benefits gained by floating. The solution? Battersby recently installed a reconditioned tank in their home basement. “I was in the tank by 3.20am this morning, for a four-hour session,” Harding beams. “It’s been great for my positivity, and my motivation. It allows me to de-stress, and get out of my head. A lot of my mates prefer to drink, take meds and try to forget about it all.”

    It’s a little early in my own floating career to expect to see the remarkable improvement in mental health and clarity that Harding reports. “When you first start doing the isolation tank, it’s hard to completely let go who you are,” Joe Rogan cautions in that popular YouTube clip. “But as you get more and more comfortable with the experience, you get better at actually letting go.”

    Once the music stops in the tank, I slide back the door on its ceiling, stand up and allow the salty water to run off. I shower, dress, hand over my $50 and bid Battersby a fond, grateful farewell. I look forward to my next session, and the one after that, as I float in the quiet dark and allow my mind to venture deeper and deeper inward.

  • Good Weekend story: ‘The Whistleblowers: Australian football referees’, July 2014

    A feature for Good Weekend, the colour magazine published with the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age each Saturday. This is my first story for the magazine. Excerpt below.

    The Whistleblowers

    Good Weekend story: 'The Whistleblowers: Australian football referees', by Andrew McMillen, July 2014

    Who’d want to be a referee – the man everybody loves to hate? Andrew McMillen talks to those prepared to make the tough calls.

    ++

    North Queensland Cowboys co-captain Johnathan Thurston has had enough. It’s an hour into a rugby league game at Sydney’s Parramatta Stadium one Friday evening in June and Thurston’s team is menacing Parramatta’s defensive line when they make a mistake, which prompts tall, muscular referee Ben Cummins to blow his whistle in favour of the home side. Thurston explodes. His team is down six points to 18 before a stridently partisan crowd of 10,142 seething Eels supporters. Beneath his trademark white headgear, the Cowboys captain is viciously mouthing off at the official. He, too, has had enough, and raises both hands skyward as a signal to stop the clock.

    “Okay, Johnathan,” begins Cummins, in a measured tone not dissimilar to a headmaster disciplining an unruly pupil. He states his reason for the stoppage: “It’s the way you’re talking.” Thurston is furious. He’s not listening. His ears are shut but his mouth continues firing. The crowd responds to this conflict between match official and enemy captain by jeering enthusiastically; their team is winning and Thurston is losing his head. The ref has heard enough.

    “Johnathan, I’m talking here,” Cummins says. “It’s the way you’re talking to me. Talk like that again and I’ll penalise you.” Having poured cold water on Thurston’s fire, Cummins blows his whistle and the game continues.

    In the tunnel between team dressing rooms prior to kick-off, it was a different story. Cummins met Thurston and Eels captain Jarryd Hayne for the ritual coin toss. The trio traded easy smiles and handshakes. After the referee introduced me to Thurston, I asked the Cowboys captain whether he’s a Ben Cummins fan. His reply came with a laugh: “I’m a referee fan, mate!”

    Prior to the Parramatta game, I meet former NRL official Tim Mander at his office in Everton Park, in Brisbane’s inner-north. Mander, 52, called time on his on-field role in 2005, then worked part-time as a video referee for another six years. He is now the Member for Everton and Queensland’s Minister for Housing and Public Works. A framed photograph of a referee sin-binning Queensland league legend Wally Lewis is mounted on his wall.

    “I was involved with first-grade football for more than 20 years,” says Mander. “Every year, the same story would break, that the referees were ‘in crisis’. [The National Rugby League] has done everything you could possibly do to improve refereeing standards.” He counts them off on his fingers: they became full-time professionals, they adopted two referees per match, and they introduced the video replay system, among other changes. “What else can they possibly do?” he asks. “They can’t do anything else. The issue is that, unfortunately, the selection of referees is contained to people of the human race.”

    Few of us hold jobs in which our momentary lapses in concentration take place before televised audiences numbering into the millions. A mistake made by a referee can shift a sporting world on its axis; a decision to award a penalty or not in the final moments of a tight contest can end careers – of players, coaches and staff. It takes a certain kind of mind to embrace this role with confidence.

    As kick-off approaches at Parramatta Stadium, Cummins – a primary school physical education teacher who enjoys any chance to return to the classroom should his schedule permit – changes into his pink uniform and weighs himself. He’s 89 kilograms, but will drop two kilos in the ensuing 80 minutes. Every top-level sports official is a picture of health; NRL referees run nine kilometres each match, on average, while their AFL counterparts run 12.

    At the age of 40, Cummins looks strong and fit enough to be running with either team tonight, as does his slightly shorter assistant, Gavin Reynolds. The referees’ dressing room is a cosy four-by-five-metre box that contains an adjoining room with showers and a massage table. The jocular mood in the room belies the seriousness of the role; after all, there is security posted outside the door, and they’ll be accompanied to their cars at night’s end.

    “It’s a requirement that we’re escorted back to our cars,” says Cummins. “Generally, nothing happens. There are some games where the crowd gets quite heated, and you make sure you have security. If you give the game 30 to 60 minutes, most people have headed off by then. Most people take out their frustrations on forums or social media these days.”

    To read the full story, visit the Sydney Morning Herald.

  • Qweekend story: ‘The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco’, July 2014

    A story for the July 19 issue of Qweekend magazine; a profile of Australian music entrepreneur Paul Piticco. The full story appears below.

    The Grass Is Greener

    Paul Piticco struck success while managing Powderfinger and now oversees an empire that stretches beyond music into events and hospitality

    Qweekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco', July 2014. Photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    by Andrew McMillen / Portrait photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    ++

    Five of the men who walk out onto Brisbane Riverstage on this warm Saturday night are well-known to the 10,000 fans in attendance, as together they have written some of Australia’s most popular songs. Between encores, though, another bloke in a grey suit with short black hair makes an appearance. Drummer Jon Coghill playfully wipes a towel across the stranger’s forehead. The band’s frontman approaches the microphone. “Ladies and gents, we have to introduce the virtual sixth member of Powderfinger: this is our manager,” says Bernard Fanning, gesturing to the man who is now copping a good-natured head-rub from guitarist Ian Haug. “He’s been our manager for the whole time. His name’s Paul Piticco. Put your hands together.”

    The crowd obliges. After he gives a few quick bows to the hill and to each of the bandmembers, Piticco waves and jogs back to the side of stage, seemingly embarrassed at such public attention.

    It’s 13 November, 2010, the night of Powderfinger’s final performance, a hometown send-off for the Brisbane quintet crowning a 34-date national tour that sold more than 300,000 tickets and grossed $30 million. After a final encore performance of ‘These Days’ and a group bow, Powderfinger ends its career on a high.

    The band’s achievements are remarkable. Among them, more than 2.5 million albums sold in Australia alone, 18 ARIA awards, five consecutive ARIA No 1 album debuts, and twice topping Triple J’s annual Hottest 100 music poll. Behind their artistry was the business brain of Paul “Teaks” Piticco, a self-taught entrepreneur whose beginning as the wet-behind-the-ears manager of a little-known Brisbane rock band expanded into successful stakes in music festivals, touring and publicity, two independent record labels and a recent foray into the restaurant business.

    As he tells it, Piticco’s achievements can be attributed to persistence, enthusiasm and a willingness to have a go. “That philosophy that you’re only as good as the last thing you do is something that I’ve always subscribed to,” he says. “That’s how you do great work: by being really interested, and by giving a shit about the outcome. I certainly don’t want to die wondering.”

    It wasn’t always thus, according to Coghill, the last member to join Powderfinger, completing the quintet’s line-up in late 1991. In the 2011 band biography, Footprints, the drummer recalled his first impressions of the men with whom he’d spend the next two decades: “They were just these potheads who used to sit around the lounge smoking,” he said. “And Teaks was the ringleader … I remember that night [we met] he showed me this massive marijuana plant he had in the back yard. It was four metres high and two metres wide. I think before Teaks was the manager of the band, he was the manager of the lounge room and the bong.”

    ++

    An only child born to Sernando and Carmel at the Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital on March 7, 1969, Paul Anthony Piticco grew up in the inner-west Brisbane suburb of Paddington and attended Petrie Terrace State School. He loved school because it was his first chance to measure himself against others. “Maybe that was the germination of my competitive streak,” he says with a smile.

    His father had emigrated to Australia from Italy at age 19, carrying only a suitcase and $10. He cut cane in North Queensland, bought a house in Brisbane and started a construction business. Piticco says Sernando advised his son to “figure your own shit out” and learn from his mistakes. Carmel – who worked part-time jobs in nursing and education – encouraged Paul to spring out of bed in the morning, follow his dreams and do what makes him smile.

    His parents’ record collection was “diabolical”, so it wasn’t until he started at Kelvin Grove State High in Brisbane’s inner north-west that Piticco’s musical horizons expanded. When KISS played at Lang Park (now Suncorp Stadium) in 1980, he snuck down Ranley Grove onto Given Terrace and watched them through the fence. It was the first time Piticco made a connection between hearing a song on the radio and tens of thousands of fans going to see a band play live in a stadium. He was enthralled, and started buying cassettes and vinyl – David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits – while learning guitar and saxophone, both of which he failed to practise. At 15, he’d take a square of cardboard to Queen Street Mall and attempt to breakdance while dressed in baggy pants. This phase soon passed – as Piticco puts it, “The world moved on, and I moved with it.”

    It was during his first job, as a paperboy selling the Telegraph, that Piticco established his work ethic. He determined how to achieve the maximum return with the smallest effort by catching customers at the former Arnott’s biscuit factory on Coronation Drive when shifts were crossing over. A regular clientele earned the ten-year-old hefty tips for his value-adding personal touches, such as handing over the paper with the sports page or the horoscopes facing up, ready to read.

    In his mid-teens, Piticco worked weekend nights at the 24-hour Windmill Cafe on Petrie Terrace, where he learned how to be patient with intoxicated people, which he notes has “come in handy working in bars, venues and festivals in the years to come”. He completed Year 10 at Kelvin Grove High but dropped out part way into the following year. “My passion for study declined rapidly,” he says, after he discovered smoking and drinking.

    In his late teens, Piticco tried working part-time for his father and uncle’s construction business. It didn’t take. “I didn’t want to work a manual job, grinding it out in the sun like my dad. I knew that I wanted something different; I just didn’t know what it was yet.” It was around this time that he discovered cannabis. “There was a fair degree of overlap between my pot-smoking days and my lost years,” he says. “It just heightened all my senses in terms of listening to music and having a good time. In a stereotypical way, it was a countercultural way to rebel as a late teen.”

    At the time, Piticco worked as a steel sales representative for Boral and lived in a share house in the western suburb of Indooroopilly. One night, he and housemate Ian Haug went for a drive, and the guitarist asked his friend whether he’d be interested in managing Powderfinger as Haug had grown tired of juggling his band’s business interests and writing music.

    “He knew nothing about the music industry; we gave him an opportunity because we could see something in him,” says Haug. “We needed a ‘bad cop’, and he was a good bad cop. We didn’t want to be the ones ringing up bikers saying ‘pay us our money’. He had to be the tough guy. And Piticco’s a pretty tough name.”

    Qweekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco', July 2014. Photograph of Powderfinger in 1991; Piticco is third from left.Bassist John Collins saw it another way: “We thought, if he could sell steel, he could sell rock.” With the assistance of a lawyer, the band drew up a management contract which determined that everything outside of the actual music-making would be split six ways. “After that contract lapsed, we worked with him without a contract for most of our career,” says Haug. “Probably in retrospect it wasn’t a wise business decision for the band, but he did a good job for us.”

    It took years before the band started seeing any real money for their efforts. “As a manager, you’re only ever as good as your band,” Piticco says. “Your fates are hitched in a fiscal sense.” As Powderfinger’s star ascended, the six men named on the contract came into good money following years of low-income toil. “Money was always much more important to Paul than the rest of us,” says singer Bernard Fanning. “We were always surprised by the fact that we actually earned a living and made money out of being musicians. Paul has always liked the idea of money, and the potential of it, rather than the actual act of splashing out and buying a fancy bottle of champagne.”

    Haug suggests Piticco didn’t change much throughout the band’s two-decade career. “He’s just loaded now, whereas he used to be flat broke,” he laughs. The entrepreneur reinvested his earnings into the industry, forming an artist management company, Secret Service. His independent record label, Dew Process, was established in 2002 and has released popular albums by international acts such as Mumford & Sons, The Hives and London Grammar as well as Australian artists The Living End, Sarah Blasko and, of course, Bernard Fanning. Album sales still account for the majority of the label’s income. In 2012, Piticco established another record label, Create/Control, which in effect turns the old business model on its head by partnering with acts to distribute and market music they’ve funded and recorded themselves.

    In conjunction with Powderfinger’s longtime booking agent, Jessica Ducrou, he established Splendour In The Grass, an annual multi-day music festival – being staged at North Byron Parklands next weekend – sidestepping the competitive summer circuit. All 27,500 tickets to this year’s event, headlined by Outkast, Lily Allen and Two Door Cinema Club, were sold within hours of going on sale. “Paul and I have done all sorts of glamorous jobs – directing traffic, picking up garbage,” says Ducrou, 44. “He’s really positive, he mucks in. He has no airs and graces. He’ll do whatever is required.” The pair’s Secret Sounds touring company has also invested in The Falls Festival, traditionally a southern (Tasmania and Victoria) camping event which debuted in Byron Bay in late 2013.

    Critics point out that a handful of Piticco’s acts inevitably appear on Splendour’s bill each year, a tradition that stretches back to the first event in 2001, headlined by Powderfinger. “Why wouldn’t you book yourself?” asks Patience Hodgson, singer of Piticco-managed Brisbane pop band The Grates. “Paul doesn’t take any commission when we play Splendour, and that’s to lower his invested interest.”

    If such criticisms are laid at Piticco’s feet, so be it. He’s happy to wear the tar and feathers if it means his artists stay squeaky clean. “If people hate him, but love the band, he totally understands that’s fine,” says Hodgson. “He’s not trying to protect himself; the band always comes first. If he’s offered a gig and thinks we should be paid more money, he asks. I really appreciate that, because I could never do that for myself; I wouldn’t want to seem like a dick or be rude. Paul is happy to ask, and if people say no, he doesn’t feel shame.”

    ++

    Piticco has one favourite album – DeadSexy by little-known Rhode Island (US) alternative rock band Scarce – and two favourite songs: ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie and ‘The Funeral’ by Seattle rock act Band of Horses, who he has booked to play Splendour twice. His favourite Powderfinger album is 1998’s Internationalist. When asked to name a favourite song, he deliberates for two minutes. “The one that makes me feel and think most positively about the band is ‘Sunsets’,” he replies, referring to a single from 2003’s Vulture Street album. “Amongst all those anthems that they wrote, that one, to me, sounds and feels like Australian music at that time. It definitely pulls at my heartstrings.”

    Qweekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco', July 2014. Photograph by Russell ShakespeareAt 45, Piticco is showing no signs of slowing down. In 2014, he seems to have his fingers in more pies than ever before. “There’s a good balance between Paul being a serious, effective entrepreneur and knowing how to switch off and have fun, and not take things too seriously,” says Ducrou. For his 40th birthday, Piticco booked an AC/DC tribute band to play at the property near Mount Warning in northern NSW where he lives with his partner of 15 years, Lisa Wickbold, and their children Phoebe, 7, Ivy, 5, and Darby, 3.

    It takes considerable drive and intensity to create record labels, music festivals, national tours and artistic careers out of thin air, especially when based outside of the traditional Australian music business seats of power in Sydney and Melbourne. For Piticco and Powderfinger, moving south never appealed. “We were regularly encouraged to leave by labels, agents, promoters and other bands; ‘Come down here, it’ll be better, there are more opportunities!’” he says. “Brisbane had value to us. It wasn’t just more affordable, it provided a framework and an emotional base. Our social networks were here. It’s something we’ve always been proud of, this city. There was never any doubt. I’m glad we stayed.”

    The sun sets over the Brisbane skyline on a recent cool evening as we sit at a table in South Bank restaurant Popolo, which Piticco co-founded in late 2011 with restaurateur Andrew Baturo and Denis Sheahan, Powderfinger’s former tour manager. Its name is Italian for people, in reference to the menu’s inclination towards shared dishes. While we talk, plates are laid out in quick succession. It’s far too much food for two men; Piticco jokes that his children will have some interesting leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.

    In addition to Popolo, Piticco co-owns a stake in CBD venue The Gresham Bar, which opened late last year. This left turn into the hospitality industry has been on the cards for years. “The chef is the artist, the restaurateur is the producer,” Piticco says. “The chef serves up his works; the producer critiques them, works out which ones are going to be the hits, which ones will pad out the menu. Instead of listening, you taste. The ambience is the marketing and packaging – the visual representation – but the real thing that makes a successful restaurant is the food. It’s just as it is in the music industry: a lot of bad bands have an image, but the songs are really the meat of the proposition.”

    Observing the detritus of a fine meal, Piticco sums up his life so far in simple terms. “I’ve always had this theory that stems from my mum,” he says. “Whether you’re a chimney sweep, a brain surgeon or a band manager, if you’re good at what you do, the rest takes care of itself. I just like having the opportunity to make a living out of music, for myself and others, and along the way make a whole bunch of people happy by enriching their lives in some way. And to get paid for it? That’s fucking awesome!

    Splendour In The Grass, July 25-27, North Byron Parklands, Byron Bay. splendourinthegrass.com 

  • The Monthly story: ‘Queen’s Man: Jarrod Bleijie’, March 2014

    A story for the March 2014 issue of The Monthly, and my first essay for the magazine: a profile of Queensland’s attorney-general, Jarrod Bleijie. Excerpt below.

    Queen’s Man

    The crazy brave populism of Jarrod Bleijie

    The Monthly story: 'Queen's Man: The crazy brave populism of Jarrod Bleijie', March 2014, by Australian freelance journalist Andrew McMillen

    One Friday evening last September, some 60 members of the Bandidos motorcycle gang descended on a busy restaurant in the Gold Coast suburb of Broadbeach to confront a man associated with the Finks, a rival gang. In the ensuing melee, four police officers were injured. Later, a smaller group of Bandidos assembled outside the nearby Southport police watch house in an apparent show of support for their 18 arrested peers.

    For Queensland’s attorney-general, Jarrod Bleijie, that evening was a “line in the sand”. Three weeks later, just before 3 am on 16 October, the Liberal National Party–dominated state parliament passed three pieces of bikie-related legislation, including the bill that would become the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment (VLAD) Act. “Recent events have proved that certain groups have no regard for the Queensland public,” Bleijie said. “Enough is enough. By restricting their movements and operations, the community is protected and it prevents these groups from running their criminal enterprises.”

    Under the VLAD Act, a “vicious lawless associate” found guilty of any criminal offence listed in the legislation, from the smallest drug possession charge up, would serve a mandatory prison term of up to 25 years on top of their sentence. The Tattoo Parlours Act bans members of criminal associations and their associates from operating, working in or owning tattoo parlours. The Criminal Law (Criminal Organisations Disruption) Amendment Act amends various pieces of legislation to label 26 motorcycle clubs as criminal organisations and ban their members from congregating in groups of more than three or meeting at their clubhouses. The Queensland government would go on to establish a “bikies only” prison, where inmates may be dressed in fluoro pink overalls.

    Police have arrested dozens of people under the new laws, including a group of five men drinking beer at the Yandina Hotel on the Sunshine Coast and a group of five Victorian men buying ice-creams on the Gold Coast. Clubhouses were closed; interstate bikies called off their trips north. The United Motorcycle Council Queensland hired a PR firm. Tearful family members hit the airwaves. A High Court challenge was touted (and is in train). Meanwhile, protesters took to the streets, on motorcycles and on foot. The tabloid press, normally so keen to demand a crackdown, any crackdown, on crime, no longer knew which way to turn. Even the Queensland premier, Campbell Newman, appeared to waver for a moment, hinting that the laws might be a temporary measure.

    But Bleijie remained steadfast. As he put it in a radio interview at the time: “These laws are targeting these particular types of grub and thug to make people in Queensland safe in their homes at night. They don’t have to worry about these types of thugs on our streets any more … We’re dealing with a different type of criminal: the toughest of the toughest and the worst of the worst.”

    The VLAD Act, with its broad definition of “vicious lawless associate”, would target not only criminal motorcycle gangs but also organised crime gangs that are not “patched” – “akin to the Mafia in the States”, Bleijie said in the same interview – and paedophile rings “that are grooming and doing all sorts of terrible things to our young kids”.

    In Bleijie (whose Dutch surname rhymes with “play”), Queenslanders suddenly had a tireless warrior for law and order: a former lawyer who could debate the finer points of complicated legislation through the dead of night, then front up to a morning media conference looking no worse for wear. The Courier-Mail dubbed him “boy wonder”, Robin to Newman’s Batman.

    The night after the passing of the anti-bikie legislation, another populist bill was sped through parliament. This one was a response to the case of Robert John Fardon, a 65-year-old who had served time for a number of violent sexual offences against girls and women, including acts committed while on parole. In 2003, Fardon became the first prisoner to be detained indefinitely under Queensland’s Dangerous Prisoners (Sexual Offenders) Act, legislation introduced by Peter Beattie’s Labor government. Last year, a review by the Supreme Court of Queensland ordered that Fardon be released on strict conditions. In response, Bleijie introduced an amendment to the legislation that would allow him to ask the governor to make a “public interest declaration” to keep offenders like Fardon behind bars.

    In legal circles, the amendment was branded a publicity stunt, and Bleijie was ridiculed for not understanding the separation of powers – the courts, not politicians, send people to prison. Tony Fitzgerald, the man who’d led the inquiry that had exposed corruption and political interference at the highest level in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s government 25 years earlier, was prompted to write in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail: “It is incomprehensible that any rational Queenslander who is even remotely aware of the state’s recent history could for a moment consider reintroducing political interference into the administration of criminal justice, even to the point of making decisions about incarceration.”

    Weeks later, Queensland’s Court of Appeal struck down the new laws, agreeing that they would have required the Supreme Court to “exercise powers repugnant to or incompatible with [its] institutional integrity”.

    “To have any politician alone decide who’s going to be in jail or not is scary,” says Dan O’Gorman, a prominent Brisbane barrister. “I’ve acted for Fardon for seven years. He’s had a terrible life himself, which doesn’t justify his behaviour, of course. But Fardon is not the issue; the issue is the process. [Bleijie] just doesn’t seem to understand the role of an A-G. Unfortunately, not only has this fellow not defended the institutional integrity of the judicial process, he’s the leader of the cheer squad that’s attacking the courts. It’s an unbelievable situation.”

    To read the full 3,000 word story, visit The Monthly’s website.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘The Cottonwool Kid: Dean Clifford’, November 2013

    A story for The Weekend Australian Magazine – my first for that publication. This story originally appeared in the November 30 2013 issue of the magazine; the full text appears underneath.

    The Cottonwool Kid

    He’s an inspiration to his beloved Broncos; a motivational speaker; a weightlifter who keeps raising the bar. But it’s a miracle Dean Clifford is even alive.

    by Andrew McMillen / Photos by Eddie Safarik

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'The Cottonwool Kid: Dean Clifford' by Andrew McMillen, November 2013. Photo by Eddie Safarik

    Within metres of the halfway line, a Brisbane Broncos fan cheers from a plastic chair in the first row of Suncorp Stadium’s western grandstand. He isn’t a big man, but he might be stronger than any of the 31,199 people here this Sunday afternoon, including the 26 players on the paddock.

    Underneath his Broncos jersey, shoulders and biceps strain against too-tight skin. He shows his appreciation by nodding and clapping his bandaged right hand against his left shoulder, where the flesh is strong.

    This is the fan who motivated the Brisbane Broncos to win the 1992 grand final. He has watched more rugby league games in his 33 years than most people will witness in a lifetime but he hasn’t kicked a full-size football since he was a child. He last felt grass under his bare feet at the age of three.

    After the final siren, happy that his team has prevailed, he unlatches a gate and heads towards the team dressing rooms, shiny gold walking stick in hand. Nobody stops his slow, steady progress. A black-and-red cap hides a blotchy scalp where hair grows in random patches. His brown eyes, framed by fleshy circles frequently dampened by overactive tear ducts, appear sunken in the absence of eyelids. He can’t blink, so he seems to stare at the Broncos’ captain, Sam Thaiday, who gives him a quick wave and a thumbs-up while leading his team off the field.

    Taking up his usual spot against a wall in a warm-up room swarming with fans, reporters and television cameraman, he chats with security staff before he’s welcomed into the home team’s dressing room. A trio of giant younger Broncos stops in the doorway, glancing down to admire his improbably strong frame. One player asks him about his weightlifting training. “I’m aiming for next weekend – another record attempt,” he says. “Make sure you video it, mate,” replies another, impressed. Thaiday stops to greet him with a warm handshake and they share a joke about the game before the fan takes his leave.

    Ten minutes later, he arrives at Christ Church on nearby Chippendall Street, where the Sunday evening service is in session. Clad in a maroon polo shirt, Bill Hunter – a thin, handsome former policeman who is the Broncos’ team chaplain – is standing before 40 people of all ages who line the first few rows of pews. “I want to introduce a good friend of mine, Dean Clifford.” Applause echoes from the high ceiling as Dean makes his way down the aisle for an impromptu interview.

    “Dean, you were born with a very rare skin disease,” Hunter says. “Basically, your parents were told, ‘Take him home, let him die’, because you weren’t going to live past two.”

    “They were told, ‘Hope for the best’,” Dean replies, in a high, slightly nasal voice brought about by his lack of nostrils.

    “And how old are you now?” Hunter asks.

    “I’m 33 now,” he says, leaning against his gold walking stick, microphone in hand. “I’m in the best health of my life. I’m planning to be around for a long period to come.”

    It’s an unassuming, low-key sort of speech that the audience takes in while nodding and murmuring in admiration. He doesn’t mention the fact that, each morning, the blistered and ulcerated skin that covers his feet, knees, elbows, shoulders and hands requires four hours of scrupulous care and attention; that he has to get up at 4.30am just to make a 9am meeting. To Dean, this morning ritual of bathing and bandaging is an accepted fact of life.

    “He’s also a guy who can bench-press 142-and-a-half kilograms,” says Hunter, to a few gasps and exclamations from the audience. “And how heavy are you, Dean?”

    “I’ve just turned 70 kilos,” he replies.

    “So what percentage of your body weight is that?”

    “You’re looking at about 203 per cent of my body weight,” he smiles, waiting a beat for the crowd murmur to die down. “Next week, I’ll be aiming for a new record of 145 kilos.”

    ++

    “He was born perfect,” says Jenny Clifford, 58. “Then, 12 hours later, he started getting a little blister on his bottom.” This blemish spread to the size of an egg yolk; another appeared on the opposite cheek. After three days he was put in isolation; the medical staff were mystified at what was happening to his skin. The doctor who’d delivered Dean visited two days later and gave Jenny some bad news: he suspected epidermolysis bullosa (EB), a condition he’d only seen once before, when training in England. That child had lived for 10 days.

    Children with EB are colloquially known as “cotton wool babies” because of the need to wrap their bodies in bandages lest the slightest pressure or contact tear off layers of skin. Dr Dedee Murrell, professor of dermatology at the University of NSW’s Faculty of Medicine, describes EB as “a genetic condition where some of the glue holding your skin together is missing”. There are at least 18 variations of the condition. Dean’s type, junctional EB, is severe and rare – only an estimated 1000 Australians live with the condition today – and life expectancies are short. With junctional EB, most patients die of infection before they’re a year old, says Murrell. How, then, did this boy survive? “He got very good care,” she replies.

    Inside the front door of Peter and Jenny Clifford’s home in Albany Creek, northwest of Brisbane, is a sign listing 14 house rules. Among them: Love each other; Be happy every day; Be positive; Be grateful; Never give up. Their first child, Jodie, was unaffected by EB. Only when Dean was born did Peter and Jenny learn that they both carry the gene; their chance of producing a child with EB is one in four.

    The pain that dominated Dean’s childhood has lessened, but it is not forgotten. “When I was younger I had no skin at all on my face; it affected my entire face, including my nose and eyes,” he says. “When it all started to heal back, the flesh closed over my nostrils when I was two or so. I don’t remember ever having nostrils or breathing through my nose.”

    It was a terrifying time for the whole family. “We wanted to go home and hide, and live our life as best we could with the situation that we had,” says Jenny. “When you’ve got a long-term, chronic illness, you get to a point where it’s about quality of life, not quantity.”

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'The Cottonwool Kid: Dean Clifford' by Andrew McMillen, November 2013. Dean is pictured with parents Peter and Jenny in this photo by Eddie SafarikThe Cliffords, who spent those early years in the Queensland rural town Kingaroy, made a big deal out of each birthday because they never knew whether it would be his last. They never expected their son to get to school, but were astounded by the support he received when he did. “Who’d like to be Dean’s friend?” asked the preschool teacher; all of his classmates raised their hands.

    A constant refrain on Dean’s school report cards was that he could have done a lot better. It wasn’t merely the time he missed; a kind of fatalism set in. “In high school, in particular, I was struggling for the motivation to put in the effort,” he recalls. His friends in Year Nine would worry about impending deadlines. “I’d say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got an operation next month, and if I don’t recover, you’ll get the day off school!’?” His friends would look at him in horror while he laughed at his own dark joke.

    Thin, frail and wheelchair-bound, during his adolescence Dean was only ever a slight breeze away from death. His open wounds, blood loss and moisture loss left him malnourished and by 14 he was being fed through a tube. Illness began to distance him from his peers. “I’d go to school and hear about people sneaking out to parties at night, or having sleepovers, and I’d still have to be at home to be connected to the tube feeding into my stomach while I slept because I was so malnourished. Mentally, that side of it irritated me more than the disease, the fact that everybody was going out, starting to have girlfriends, getting their learner’s licences. I was still stuck at home, still incredibly sick, and still basically continuing to hang on to life rather than experience all the things that everyone was talking about … I was on the outside, looking in.”

    Yet that awareness of mortality was also strangely liberating. “I finished school at grade 10 because I didn’t expect to be alive for my 18th,” he says. By the age of 15, he jokes, he was already 10 years past his use-by date.

    In 1995, he began work experience at a local radio station, 1071 AM, and initially only had the stamina to work one morning per week. The station owner, Marc Peters, says he’s “absolutely glad” he took the chance on employing Dean, who eventually became a popular breakfast radio announcer. “I think it turned his life around,” Peters says. “It gave him confidence; it made him part of the community.”

    A change in station ownership in 2000 meant that all staff were made redundant. The Cliffords, high on the confidence-boosting radio gig and the thrill of Dean carrying the Olympic torch through Kingaroy, decided to chance a move to Brisbane in 2001. It didn’t work out; no employer would take on a young bloke who looked like a burns victim, regardless of his skills and experience. The trio returned to Kingaroy at the end of 2001. Dean, dejected, resigned himself to a life of limited means and experiences. “It was a devastating year for me,” he says. “I was just blown away by how obvious it was I’d achieved so much, yet in Brisbane I was still the little kid who everyone was scared to be around.”

    “He was quite crushed when I first met him,” says Corinne Young, who became Dean’s disability employment worker after his return. When he was knocked back without reason for a public service job in Kingaroy, Young became determined to find him work. “I didn’t sleep that night,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘Who in Kingaroy deserves Dean?’?” The next morning she drove to the local Toyota dealership, owned by Ken Mills. It wasn’t a hard sell: aware of Dean’s warm persona on radio, Mills created a part-time marketing role for him that endures today, 11 years later. In 2005, he became a brand ambassador for Toyota Australia and that same year he became an ambassador for his favourite sports team, too.

    Marc Peters set those wheels in motion back in 1989, when Dean was nine. “I was told that he’d give anything to be able to go to a Broncos match,” Peters says. “I knew someone who had a connection; he went down to a training session and they virtually adopted him from that day on.” Former Broncos coach Wayne Bennett remembers Dean as “the guy we won the 1992 grand final for”; the then 12-year-old was thought to be close to death. Second-rower Andrew Gee – Dean’s favourite player of all time, still with the Broncos as general manager of football operations – recalls the young boy sitting next to the trophy on the plane home.

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'The Cottonwool Kid: Dean Clifford' by Andrew McMillen, November 2013. Dean is pictured with Brad Thorn in this photo by Bruce LongIt was then-Bronco Brad Thorn who saw the potential for Dean to build his upper body strength and devised an exercise program for him that began with three sets of 10 bench-presses at 30kg. That was in 2006. Thorn has been blown away by the progress Dean has made since then: in the mid 1990s only the strongest Broncos players could bench-press 140kg. “It’s given him so many things,” Thorn says. “You imagine the frustration with his condition as a young man. When he works in the gym he can let out that emotion. He’s got the condition, but there’s still a man in there.”

    Despite his achievements so far, Dean isn’t satisfied. When we meet he’s following a strict training regimen with his sights set on bench-pressing 145kg. As his parents speak fondly of their only son from their couch, Dean is downstairs in his personal gym where his training partner, Greg Weller, 32, stands behind the bench-press. “When you’re ready, Deano,” Weller says calmly. “Let’s do this, man.”

    Two video cameras capture him sitting on the edge of the bench, breathing heavily as he psyches himself up. He lifts 145kg up and out of its resting position. He guides the weight down to his chest and begins to thrust it skyward. “Drive it, drive it, drive it! C’mon man, push it!” urges Weller, but the pressure is too great. After a stifled “Nup!” Weller helps to return the bar to its starting position. Clifford lets out a roar of defeat. Sweat pours from his body. He rips off a glove and tosses it across the room. “So close, hey,” says Weller.

    Dean reviews the video footage frame-by-frame until he pinpoints the moment of failure. That word hasn’t existed in his vocabulary for quite some time; it’s been two years since he has failed to meet a weightlifting goal. Talk between Dean and Weller quickly turns to rebuilding his confidence at around the 140kg mark before rescheduling his next record attempt.

    From chronically ill cotton-wool baby to seasoned strongman, it’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely weightlifter.

    ++

    “What does raising the bar mean to you?” asks Dean, standing before an audience of staff from a Sydney pharmaceutical company. His left hand grasps his walking stick; his right hand holds a wireless device as he clicks through confronting photos from his childhood. “To me, ‘raising the bar’ would have to be my three favourite words,” he says. “I get chills just thinking about it: how I can take on the next challenge, how I can overcome the next obstacle.”

    Since he first stood before a small crowd at the Kingaroy Rotary Club in 2003 and began telling his story, with the encouragement of Ken Mills and Corinne Young, Dean has built a healthy career from motivational speaking. His portfolio is filled with letters of praise from clients as diverse as Harley-Davidson, Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School, Qantas and the Australian Federal Police. Today at Link Healthcare he presents the challenges of his early life in characteristic matter-of-fact style. A couple of women click their tongues simultaneously in surprise at the sight of a close-up photograph showing Dean at his worst: a red, raw, skinless face fills the screen.

    Watching him, an earlier conversation comes to mind. His motivational speaking came about after those bruising setbacks in Brisbane in 2001. “I hated the thought of someone else feeling as defeated and as trapped as me,” he says. “No one was prepared to give me a chance. One person said I couldn’t work at the front counter because people would be scared of me; they told me I’d have to work in the back rooms, out of sight. I’ve proved that’s not the case. I’ve stood before 5000 people, speaking; I haven’t hid behind curtains or out of sight. I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve survived.”

    “There’s a bit of shock and awe when people first see Dean,” says former Broncos front-rower Shane Webcke, who befriended him in the early 1990s. “I think people automatically think he’s a burns victim.” Dean’s father, Peter, was always troubled by strangers staring at his son in public. “A few years ago we stopped at a McDonald’s in Rockhampton,” he says. “Dean was walking in and this little kid came running out, yelling to his mother, ‘Mum, there’s a scary man!’?”

    Dean tends to laugh off these interactions. “It’s normal for me,” he says. “It’s so second-nature that I don’t pick up on it a lot of the time, unless it’s over-the-top aggressive. When we’re out at a pub or a nightclub, my friends and I will turn it into a joke: ‘It takes a lot to look this good – these are designer clothes!’?”

    But he does get lonely on occasion. “I don’t have a lot of friends, but those that I do are almost like family to me. They’re very close and important people in my life.” He hasn’t had a girlfriend, though there were a couple of female friendships that came close. “Dating is incredibly hard,” he says, slightly pained. “It’s more about building strong friendships, and if anything develops out of that – great! I do hope that one day, it will.”

    Near the end of his talk to the pharmaceutical company, Dean plays the two-minute video of his 142.5kg lift. The staff crane forward as the man in the video breathes heavily, beats his chest four times with his right fist and then lies down on the bench, bandaged hands grasping the steel. Thirty pairs of eyes watch the seconds tick down to the moment when he raises the bar from the rack, guides the weight steadily down to his chest, and then thrusts it skyward. While the staff applaud his effort, Dean can’t help thinking how much more impressive it’d be if he could lift those extra 2.5kg.

    ++

    Postscript: Dean achieved his bench-press goal of 145kg on November 17. He’s already talking about 150kg.

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'The Cottonwool Kid: Dean Clifford' by Andrew McMillen, November 2013

    For more on Dean Clifford, visit his website.

  • The Ascender story: ‘Digital Delta’, November 2013

    A story for the debut issue of online magazine The Ascender. Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story.

    Digital Delta

    Two men from different fields are teaming up to create the future of mapping in one of most biologically diverse wildernesses on Earth.

    The Ascender story: 'Digital Delta: Into The Okavango', by Australian freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, November 2013

    Deep in the heart of the remote African wilderness, ten men laboriously drag canoes across the high grass of a dry floodplain. Living representations of the idiom ‘fish out of water’, their companions include wild hippopotamuses, crocodiles, birds and elephants unused to seeing humans in their midst this time of year. To make the scene seem even more out place, inside one of the makoros – a traditional Bayei dug-out canoe – sits a gigantic blue-and-white solar panel, its heft manifested on the strained, sweat-strewn faces of the men as they slowly traverse the rugged terrain.

    For three days, the explorers have been confined to land, pushing through the harsh conditions under a scorching sun, burdened by the weight of their equipment that besides the panel includes batteries, computers, cameras and other gear for surviving the trying, 18-day expedition.

    If viewed from space, the humans’ circuitous path would look rather random as though this band of travelers had absolutely no idea where they were going. The men climb trees and scramble to the top of termite mounds in an effort to spy a more efficient route and get to the place they’d much rather be: on the water.

    What, then, are these men doing here?

    This is the annual flood time in the Okavango Delta, one of Africa’s last remaining wetland wildernesses in northern Botswana, and Dr. Steve Boyes and his team of wildlife researchers and local Bayei river bushmen are attempting a world-first: to record wetland bird and wildlife sightings in September, a month for which no data previously exists.

    It is ironic then, that this expedition, set against the backdrop of this remote wilderness, is on the cutting edge of location-based innovation and real-time mapping. Boyes and his team are instruments of data transmission, the hefty, solar panel offering the efficient, silent power necessary to conduct their all-important research. Every twenty minutes, the team uses a global positioning system (GPS) to sync their location onto a live map hosted at a dedicated website, IntoTheOkavango.org with evenings spent packaging the days’ captured data using watches and tablet computers – bird and wildlife sightings, photographs, text messages, body temperatures, and their heart rates – and transmitting the precious digital cargo by satellite to a team located on the U.S. east coast.

    “The whole point of the Into The Okavango campaign is to inspire,” says Boyes. “Our research is obviously the primary task out there; first we backed up and uploaded to our server all of the research data, but right after that came the campaign stuff: all of the sharing, tweeting and blogging. We were on a research expedition, but we’ll stay up later and push ourselves harder to be able to share that experience. There are certain sacrifices in this world if you really want to inspire people to be different.”

    To read the full story, visit The Ascender. The above image is titled ‘Sunset on the Hippo Pool‘, by Lawrence Murray.