Monday, March 31, 2008

By Request: China and Tibet

A couple of readers of this blog expressed surprise that I hadn't mentioned anything about the current situation in Tibet, given that China was our first port of call. My opinions on the matter are probably not much more informed for having been to China, and so I didn't feel the need to write here on the matter. But for what they are worth, I offer my feelings and thoughts on the matter here for anyone who may be interested.

Chengdu is well known on the tourist trail as a convenient access point to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. It is where many flights leave from, and now there is a When deciding on an itinerary, we had to chose from a wide range of destinations, and Tibet didn't make the cut. I bitterly regret the missed opportunity to go and see for myself what life in Tibet's capital is like, and now I assume it will be quite some time before tourists are given any access to the place.

At the time we visited China, our visa was not sufficient to go to Tibet, but it was a relatively straightforward matter to get the permit to visit Lhasa. But even that permit would not have granted us open access to all of Tibet. Further more specialized permits would have been needed. See this helpful site to get an idea. This kind of restriction, and others like the Great Firewall of China, indicate by themselves that all is not well.

During our stay in Sim's Cozy Guesthouse in Chengdu, I met a very pleasant Frenchman who had just returned from Lhasa. He was very much taken by the spiritual nature of the place, but to my surprise he expressed the notion that 'democracy isn't for everyone', by way of justifying, or at least explaining, the current political system in China, and Tibet. I have encountered this kind of philosophy before, from Chinese and Westerners alike, that the Chinese mind is not suited to democracy (similar arguments are made for Arab countries).

I do accept that every nation must find its own way to wellbeing, and that a Western form of representative democracy cannot be superimposed on any country without due consideration to the history and culture of that country. But I also believe that this reasoning can be taken too far, that it smacks of Orientalism, and that it provides a fig-leaf for authoritarian governments which simply do not want to share decision-making power. The turmoil that has swept Tibet and parts of Sichuan since our time in China demonstrates that in China as everywhere else, there is a natural human impetus to determine one's own future, rather than have it dictated by distant and unrepresentative interests. Irish people can quite naturally relate to this.

The Chinese prime minister betrayed a crass clumsiness when he tried to make the world believe that the Dalai Lama was secretly agitating for complete Tibetan independence and was in fact orchestrating the violence in Tibet. I can only assume that it was a message for internal consumption, because few people who live on the free side of the Great Firewall, and who can read whatever books they like, will see it as anything but blatant propaganda. I hope that reports that Hu Jintao will sit down once more with the Dalai Lama prove to be true. It doesn't matter which side you take, both sides need to talk.

I repeat my opinion that Chinese people are as curious, open and friendly as any you will meet. The people should not be tarred with the same brush as such an unrepresentative government. That said, I am sure that my opinions here will not be shared by many Chinese readers, who are understandably proud of their heritage, and unhappy to hear criticism from outsiders that they will consider ill-informed. But this is the whole point: the ability to inform oneself. Arriving at something approximating truth rests on the ability to freely exchange information and ideas. This blog cannot be accessed from behind the Great Firewall. Books like Wild Swans by Jung Chang or Freedom in Exile by the Dalai Lama cannot be bought there. It is absurd but true to say that those of us who live or move outside of China and who really want to understand China (rather than swallow whole their own local propaganda) stand a better chance of acquiring the full picture than those who who live exclusively within her borders. The constant nagging presence of the Great Firewall while we were in China was a reminder to me that this was not like any other country I have ever visited before. I loved my time in China, and look forward to returning some time soon, but part of me felt lighter when I first surfed the net again from Sydney.

If official China wants to be believed or even understood, then it will have to come to terms with the fact that along with free market values come inextricably linked values of transparency, accountability and freedom of information, movement and expression. Not because it's nicer that way, but because that's the only way the system protects itself from excess, abuse or corruption in the long run. For as long as China tries to pull the blanket over what it is doing in Tibet, it succeeds only in equating itself with neighbouring Burma, in the eyes of anyone with free access to information.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

D - I - N - G - O (and dingo was his name-o)

To be sung to the tune of Bingo:

A wolf from Asia came to Oz, and dingo was its name-o.
D - I - N - G - O, D - I - N - G - O, D - I - N - G - O
And dingo was its name-o.

It came 5 thousand years ago, and traders were to blame-o,
D - I - N - G - O, D - I - N - G - O, D - I - N - G - O
And traders were to blame-o.

On Fraser Island we saw none, but did see a few cane-toads,
C - A - N - E (croak), C - A - N - E (croak), C - A - N - E (croak)
We did see a few cane-toads.

I could go on (believe me) but frankly, I'm boring myself here (as opposed to just boring you, which I can live with).

What I am getting at here is that after Australia Zoo, we continued North to Hervey Bay and stayed overnight, ready to catch a ferry the next morning to Kingfisher Bay Resort on Fraser Island. Fraser Island is known for many things, and one of them is the dingo - a wild dog, more like a wolf really. Anyone who knows Letizia and me will understand that we divide work between us based on interest and competence. Hence I am generally in charge of navigation, budget and boring the children with historical information, while Letizia is in charge of, well, everything else. And when it comes to being worried about Australian bities and beasties, Letizia takes the job very seriously indeed. Having recently survived a trip to the Great Barrier Reef without anyone succumbing to sharks, rays, stingers or marooning, and having passed through Australia Zoo without passing through Murray the Saltwater Crocodile's digestive tract, Letizia had plenty of time and energy to devote to anxiety over the Fraser Island dingos. I fulfilled my role of being insensitive and feckless (we really make a fine team).

On arrival to the resort, we made straight for the briefing room. We were given a talk on the island and some of its features, including the dingos. There we learned that dingos are a relatively recently introduced species. They came to the Australian continent in traders boats about 5000 years ago, and are more closely related to Asian wolves than to dogs. We were given advice on how to behave on seeing a dingo: stand your ground, stare it down, NEVER run. I knew straight away that Sara was not getting off the island alive. Three days previously I had watched her scream in hysterical circles on the black strand of Sandgate, an over-excited lapdog yelping along behind her.

Afterwards, we made our way to reception to check in. When all the usual business was out of the way, the young woman behind the desk made the mistake of asking "Anything else I can help you with?". Letizia grabbed the poor woman by the label, dragged her over the reception desk to within whispering distance and growled "What's the story with the dogs?" I thought I heard the poor woman squeak back something about them being wolves not dogs (they really are professional!) but she quickly moved on to tell us about the dingo-proof fence that surrounded the resort. This seemed to placate Letizia and we made our way to our accommodation.

We saw and learned so much over the two days of our stay (which included an 8 hour tour to some of the scenic spots) that I can't begin to do it justice. But let me point out some main points.

  • The island is listed as a World Heritage Site under 2 categories, one of which is geomorphology: the place contains a huge variety of different landscapes and is constantly changing in a number of interesting ways, due to the fact that it's entirely composed of sand (the largest such island in the world.)
  • There is an aquifer under the island that produces freshwater lakes and streams. It holds 30 times more water than Sydney Harbour, and can be safely consumed straight from the streams. The water you drink has been slowly filtered through the islands sand from rain that fell over a hundred years ago.
  • The streams run over sand (of course) which means that although they run quickly, they also run completely silently. You can walk from rainforest to new growth forest, alongside a creek, and not even know it's there.
  • We went to swim in Lake Mckenzie, a perfect, clear freshwater paradise. You might be asking yourself, how do you get a lake on a sandy island, sand being not much good for holding water. There are differently kinds of lakes on Fraser and McKenzie is called a perched lake. It sits on top of a layer of coffee rock, which isn't rock at all, but compressed organic material that becomes impervious to water. You can see this all over the beaches as well, and it really does look like rock. Till you pick it up and grind it with your hands. You end up with powder and coffee-coloured stains on your hands.
  • The dingos on the island are almost 100% genetically pure. Most dingos on mainland Australia are less than 50% pure having mixed with domestic dogs brought by Europeans. It's interesting to note that if the dingo had been introduced by the white man 200 years ago, ecologists would probably be trying to destroy it (as we saw them do to the Cane Toad) rather than protect it.
  • The sunsets from the pier at the resort were breathtaking, and Letizia has done a great job of capturing them on her Fraser Island blog post - with lots of other photos from different parts of the island.
  • The East (Pacific) Coast of the island is mostly taken up with one big beach called the Seventy Five Mile Beach. It's Sixty Five Miles (100km) long. Go figure. It's also the main highway of the island, where most rules of the road apply, though you can drive on either side of it as long as you indicate to oncoming traffic which side you intend to pass them on. Oh - and you have to yield to planes that take off and land.
  • The rest of the island road system consists of trails that are passed only with difficulty using 4wd vehicles.
  • The island was heavily logged for more than 100 years. Of particular interest were the Satinay trees that became highly valued when it was discovered that they were immune to the rot caused by salt water bugs. Fraser Island Satinay was used to rebuild London docks after WWII and to line the sides of the Suez. The reason logging was eventually stopped was that the Queensland government were persuaded that the island was worth more as an eco-tourism destination than as a source of timber. This is an interesting, though probably rare, example of how the tourism industry can actually work to increase conservationism rather than to reduce it. No tourists = loggers.
As well as learning all this (from our excellent guide Chris) we still had time during our stay to just splash about in the resort pool, or chill out with a glass of wine in front of the sunset over the mainland. For me, the sunsets have the effect of detaching me completely from my thoughts and circumstances. When I watch them, I don't care where I've come from, where I'm going, or what happens next. I stop trying to plan. I just know it'll all work out one way or the other. I've just reached the grand old age of 39 (spent on the road back to Brizzy), and I'm feeling good about Life, Part II as much as I'm feeling good about the second half of of the trip.

We stayed almost exactly 48 hours on the island without a single (independently substantiated) dingo sighting. And guess what - Letizia was disappointed!! :-)

We absolutely loved this place, and I could just as easily (for YOU, at least) have replaced the entire spiel above with one small word: Go!!!

Crikey! Australia Zoo!

Steve Irwin died on September 6 2006 when he and a camera man apparently boxed in a stingray which then sank its barb into Irwin's heart. The reaction was global, most of it in praise of the man, some saying that he had pretty much been asking for it.

The news reached our home in Cork of course, and Nina and Sara were put out, and not a little puzzled, by the fact that the Crocodile Hunter they enjoyed watching on TV was dead. 18 months later (on Sunday last) we headed North from Brisbane on the the Bruce Highway, turning off onto the recently renamed Steve Irwin Way to visit Australia Zoo, the home of the Irwin family, and the place where many scenes from the Croc Files were shot. You could hardly tell the poor guy was dead.

Posters and billboards of Steve were everywhere - outside, inside, on the huge 2-level Australia Zoo coaches in the car park. Big cardboard Crikeys all over the shop. The zoo literature made no mention of his death, and of course inside everything was business as usual. I didn't expect black armbands, but the experience was a little eerie none the less.

We spent about 5 hours in the zoo itself, 2 hours of which was taken up by a spectacle in the Crocoseum - a 3000 seater stadium-like structure in the heart of the zoo - where we saw a bird show, snakes, elephants and of course crocodiles. Well, a crocodile. A bloody great saltwater beast that would make you shiver:

The show had a very strong conservationist message in it, as well as pointing out just
how easily the threat of crocodiles is dealt with compared to many other predators. I think this is what Irwin was interested in getting across: they might look like monsters, but they've been around for a very long time, they've earned their place in the ecosystem, and we should give them the respect and protection they're due. And finally we heard phrases like "Steve's memory" and saw a wall of khaki shirts with messages of condolence and support. And in fairness to the Australia Zoo, it was all done in a positive, upbeat way - like applause at an actors funeral.

Other notable sights in the zoo were wombats that actually moved around. We've been to three other places where wombats were potentially available to be seen. In each and every place the said wombat was comatose and arse to the window. In Australia Zoo, the wombats were frolicking with the staff, practically playing catch. I asked a keeper how this was so, and she explained that their wombats were effectively trained to stay awake during the day, and would sleep all night, which struck me as a strange thing for a zoo to do to a nocturnal animal.

Another creature that was more lively here than elsewhere was the koala. These fellas get so little energy from they gum leaves they eat that they can barely stay awake for more than 6 hours a day. They make Giant Pandas look like gym nazis by comparison. But here, our jaws dropped to see koalas moving around trees (despite the fact that there were plenty of perfectly fine leaves to be had where they were) and on one occasion, get down onto the ground and move to a different tree. I suspect genetically modified eucalyptus trees, with caffeine added.

We also had another close look at a kookaburra, and I got a picture to show readers of this blog why having three of them perched at your shoulder and eyeing up your beef lasagne can be a disconcerting experience. Take a look at the bill on this guy:

The girls had a good day out, and learned lots. They dwelt a while on the unfairness of Irwin's sudden death, feeling very sorry for Bindi, his daughter who would be about Nina's age. Life can be desperately unfair, and it's good to learn that early on. It either prepares you for what can be thrown at you, or makes you damn glad of what you have.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Another Story

Brizzy, Brisvegas or plain old Brisbane. Whatever you want to call it, that's what we're calling home right now. We're being hosted in a Queenslander style house owned by Simon and Leah. This kind of house, as you may have guessed from the name, is typical of the area and it's main feature in the past was its raised nature. Back before air-conditioning was invented, the folks around here built their houses off the ground, to allow air to get underneath, and keep the temperature down indoors. Nowadays, modern versions of the style keep the idea of the 'raised' house, but use the space downstair too for extra rooms. Lucky us, because it's thanks to this space and Simon and Leah's bravery/foolhardiness, that we are able to stay here for the last weeks of our time in Australia.

Simon and Leah's reckless generosity and meticulous hospitality have made our time here a delight. Leah in particular combines a Monica-like effortless efficiency with a Phoebe-like devil-may-care coolness. And while Simon exudes Chandler-like wit, as readers of this blog will already have noted, he comes from the Joey Tribbiani school of acting (though he does a better German accent than Joey).

We're spending the time here in a leisurely enough way. We've been to the city a few times - we're based in Sandgate which is a 30 min train ride to Brisbane's central station - and have just spent 5 days on the road between Brisbane and Fraser Island, but that's another story.

The city of Brisbane is experiencing something of a boom at the moment. Simon told me that there were adverts circulating London calling on emigrant Queenslanders to return: 'the shops are open longer and men can drink wine outdoors'. Sounds like Ireland about 10 years ago (though I've just been told that it's all going tits over arse at the moment).

Brisbane, and Queensland in general, has a reputation among other Australians, as being a backwater. And I get the feeling that Queensland People are doing their best to dispel the idea. Queensland went through what looks like a grim time back in the 70s and 80s under a premier called Johannes Bjelke-Petersen who aside from being uber-conservative and racist was also lucky not to be jailed for corruption. And as I'm on the subject of no-subject-at-all-just-meandering-trivia, it's worth pointing out that the current premier of Queensland is called Anna Bligh, and is the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Captain William Bligh, the unfairly maligned and mutineered commander of the Bounty who was also Sydney's fourth governor (where the poor sod once more found himself at the pointy end of a mutiny, this time leading to a two year 'rebel republic' in New South Wales). I've just finished a book called Captain Bligh's Other Mutiny, so I could go on, but that's another story.

On our first trip to the city, we got off at central, grabbed a bite to eat in a food court, before wandering down Elisabeth Street (the shopping area and Central Business District is in a little peninsular grid of its own, with female streets running east-west and male ones - George Street for example - running north-south.) This route took us through The Mall, which isn't a mall at all, but has wall-to-wall malls all around. (I'm beginning to read like Dr. Seuss - perhaps I ought to go to bed.) The CBD in Brisbane sports a few more adventurous architectural experiments some of which are pulled off nicely, but down near the Riverside ferry stop, the highrises are less imaginative and a little grim despite being evidently brand spanking new. Eventually we crossed the River Brisbane by the Victoria bridge, which leads to the Cultural Center: a riverside quarter that houses an art gallery, a science museum, library, and centre for the performing arts. The Australian skill of creating great museums, like in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, is also well in evidence here in Brisbane.

Story Bridge with Brisbane CBD and Botanic Gardens in background.

At the time of our visit there was an Andy Warhol exhibition. I'm an ignoramus of the visual arts, (but to my credit, I'm not proud of it) and the part of the gallery that I liked the most was the children's Warhol exhibition, and not just because it was free. It was set up to make learning about the artist as effortless and interesting as possible. Both Nina and Sara are into their art, so this was a big hit with them, but bloody hell I learned a lot about the man myself. One of the cooler things to do there was create your own Warhol-esque silk-screen portraits. I've included a few at the end of this post.

An interesting moment during the main Warhol exhibition: One wall was taken up with a series of portraits of a famous former statesman. Nina and Sara recognised him at once as being Mao Zedong. I doubt very much that they would have known that face before our trip to China, and even if they had, they wouldn't really be able to place him geographically or historically. It was a little bit of clumsy but concrete evidence to support the idea that they really are learning something about the world they live in during this trip. (On matters Chinese, two readers have asked me if I have anything to say about what's going on in China and Tibet at the moment. I do. But that's another story).


"Silly Daddy"

I was trying to looked terrified but in the end I just look like I'm trying to impersonate a moose. A terrified moose perhaps. A moose, for example, who has just heard how much it would cost him to go to Uluru from Brisbane. But that, like much of this post, is another story.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cairns Part III: Cape Tribulation

The Cairns story so far: We had spent a day just hanging around the city, lounging around the fantastic Lagoon in the city centre, which is an public outdoor pool set up on the shoreline. The second day we checked out Kuranda, the third day we were (happily) rained into the hostel and sat out the day with books, nintendo and talking shite to the neighbours on 'our' bench, and the fourth day we went to the reef.

What I didn't mention is that in Cairns, as in Sydney and Melbourne, we had contacts. My brother-in-law Ivor's uncle (tenuous, I know) is living there with his wife and daughter, and when we made contact, Joe and Pauline very kindly invited us round for a barbie, picking us up from the hostel. The best thing, bar none, about traveling is meeting people, and Joe, Pauline, Finola and Jason were fantastic company and great hosts. I know Pauline is reading this blog - so thanks a million once more Pauline. You guys really helped to make our experience of Cairns more interesting, more fun, and very tasty (we had a roast beef dinner the second night! We thought we wouldn't see another one of those before Cork).

Our last big adventure in Far North Queensland was a trip - or an attempted trip - to Cape Tribulation. It got its name, as have many landmarks on the East coast of Australia, from Captain Cook, when the Endeavour came a cropper on the reef, and looked like it would go down. The dots were really joining up for me now - in Sydney's Maritime Museum a few weeks earlier, Nina and I were able to touch a big chunk of metal ballast that was recovered from the waters of Cape Tribulation. It, along with many other heavy items, were thrown overboard the Endeavour in an attempt to raise her in the water and get her off the reef. Captain Cook's tribulations ended well enough: using a technique called fothering, the damaged hull was effectively bandaged with a sail - enough for the ship to be brought to shore and repaired more thoroughly. It turns out that some of the coral that holed the hull had broken off and partially plugged the gap it had made. The crew had been very lucky indeed.

Our tribulations that day were less dramatic. The rain was coming down in sporadic but heavy cloudbursts, making driving conditions difficult (by now we had hired a small car with Cruising car rentals across the road from the hostel, and I can really recommend these guys). This was the second day of rain, and so we were concerned about getting trapped up on the Cape due to road closures. In the end, we made it into the Daintree rainforest, by crossing the Daintree river by ferry, but we only got as far as Cooper Creek:

From Daintree

In our little Daihatzu Getz (again, I have to wonder who thinks up the names here, or what the world's greatest saxophonist has to do with 2-door hatchbacks) we weren't going anywhere. Better to get blocked on the hostel side of the road, than to be stranded (like the folks in the picture) on the far side. We turned back and headed to the Daintree Discovery Centre a few kilometers back. This a great place to stop off in and check out the flora (and if you're lucky some fauna - this is Cassowary country) of this particular rainforest.

Gary, when we were back in Sydney, had told us about something called the Stinging Tree. It would appear that even the plant life on this continent can be really mean. Well in the Discovery Centre - which was a treetops-and-trail tour of the forest - we got to see this plant up close. It's an innocuous looking thing, with fruit that look like raspberries, but each leaf is covered with tiny slivers of silicon (yes, glass) each with a chemical irritant. If you even lightly brush off these leaves, countless poison needles will embed themselves under your skin and hurt like hell. For months! There is no antidote. The information in the Discovery Centre talks of folks throwing themselves to their deaths from clifftops rather than deal with the pain anymore. There is even a story, (perhaps urban legend, if that term can be applied to the wild) of a soldier on manoevers who uses a leaf to wipe his backside. Now that's tribulation.

The rain continued to come down for the rest of our stay in Cairns, keeping us from venturing to any of the other sights like the crater lake, or the crystal cascades. Letizia and I promised each other that we'd come back. In the dry season. But for now, we found ourselves once more on a plane, this time flying South along the East coast of Australia, towards Brisbane.

After a few hours, the left-hand portholes where Letizia and Sara sat were in almost complete darkness. On the right, I could see the clearest, longest and most perfect sunset I have ever experienced. For thirty minutes, I watched the fires burning in rainbow colours along an endless and featureless horizon, the emotion heightened by the knowledge of how far into the distance the continent extended and knowing too that the sun's light which for me was just an afterglow, was now heating the African Cape. The shadow from the left spread under the plane and over the land below until it oozed to the horizon itself where, just as we reached Brisbane, it extinguished the distant fires.

Our airborne hops seem to have the same effect each time. As we leave one place, it is only with reluctance, but as we near our next destination, the anticipation is impossible to stifle. I suppose it is because in our journey so far, we have never gone 'home', we are always traveling to somewhere we have never been before, gradually moving eastwards, into the darkness.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cairns Part II: The Reef

We didn't know it at the time, but the Tuesday that we picked to go out on the reef was the last bit of suitable weather that we'd see for the rest of our stay in Cairns. Lucky indeed, because the trip, with Passions of Paradise, was an unforgettable experience. It was a journey to a different planet, that even if it happened over a week ago, still replays vividly in my mind as I write this.

The weather wasn't perfect though. By the time we got to Michaelmas Cay (a cay is formed over thousands of years by the deposits of sediment on top of coral, as opposed to an island which is basically an underwater mountain), two hours out of Cairns, I was a little green around the gills. Odd really - I normally don't get sea-sick. I never got as bad as another Irishman on board, one of four lads from Wexford, who blew nautical chunks off the back of our 25m catamaran for the whole trip out (apparently he didn't know that day 3 of his tour involved boats). But despite the slight nausea, I was still up for the first dive of the day, the first dive of my life in fact (I did ask one of the crew what happened if you threw up into a regulator).

Our briefing from Simon was entertaining and informative. There were a few things to learn before getting under:

  1. Remember to keep breathing. Sounds obvious, but it's not such a smart idea to maintain two lungfulls of air and then move from a high to low pressure environment.
  2. Equalize. This does not involve helping innocent folks fight battles again powerful baddies or anything else that requires you to pretend to be Edward Woodward. It simply means holding your nose and blowing, just like on the plane, to balance the pressure on the eardrum.
  3. Clear your regulator. Once under water, but before the dive proper, we would have to demonstrate that we could take out the regulator (mouthpiece), put it back in, and clear the water from it by saying 'two', loudly into it.
  4. Clear your mask. Another underwater test. This time we would have to deal with water in our masks by holding on to the top of it, tilting our heads back, and exhaling though our noses. Again, the dive would only begin when we could demonstrate our ability to do this.
  5. Hand-signals: The side-to-side motion of an outstretched, down-facing palm - something you would use on dry land to mean 'so-so' - means 'Huston, we have a problem'. You can augment this with a subsequent indication as to where the problem is. You could point to your ear for example, to say that you are having problems impersonating Edward Woodward. Or to your ring-finger, to indicate that you were having relationship problems. Endless possibilities there, for idle sea-bed chit-chat.

So let's recap. I was about to embark on an activity for which I am biologically ill-adapted - it has been many millions of years since our ancestors emerged from the water (apologies to any creationists out there: I'm sorry you believe that crap). It could kill me faster than a shoe full of funnelwebs. But all I had to demonstrate was an ability to breathe, pinch my nose, say 'two', blow bubbles out my nose, and wiggle my hand. In short, I needed no skill whatsoever other than a complete inability to evaluate risk. THIS WAS FOR ME!!!!

The moment came. The instructors were models of poise and good humour. It was just a matter of walking off the end of the boat. Wearing a load in excess of the combined weight of our two samsonites. So that's what I did.

What I experienced is hard to describe: a combination of the excitement of the new, the weightless and speed of being underwater with fins, fireworks of coral and other aquatic life (fish, rays, giant clams, turtles, sea cucumbers) and yet a perfect ease that I felt down there. The overall impression I was left with was a craving for more. Despite spending 2 hours on the way back to Cairns with my eyes closed and my stomach in my mouth, wondering if I was going to join the Wexford man on the back of the boat.

But before I finish, let me just add that what I saw under the water may be all gone in 50-100 years time thanks to the combined effect of trawling, and you guessed it, global warming. I can't tell you how much more that sucks close up in real life than on paper.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Cairns, Part I

The decision to go to Cairns was a last-minute brainchild of Letizia. We were able to fit it into the air miles of the round-the-world tickets, without too much extra expense. Having spent 8 days there, I can say that it would have been a travesty if we had not gone there. It's so different to anything we had seen in NSW or Victoria, and shouldn't be passed over. We're already wondering when we're going to get back.

Our Quantas flight swooped in over rainforested hills and came to a stop next to a very small airport. It could have been Africa (well, I've never been, but the couple next to me, who had been, agreed with my suggestion). When we got off the plane, the humidity hit us immediately, but it wasn't anything too severe, comparable to Sardinia.

The bus from Castaways Backpackers, driven by Amanda (from England) came to pick us up, and 10 minutes later we were moving in to room number 17. We don't look very backpacker (especially not with 2 samsonites along with the 2 rucksacks, various knapsacks and of course two daughters) but the place felt like home very quickly. And when I found out the price, we were to pay I was even happier with the arrangement. It was the cheapest room since Sim's Cozy Guesthouse in Chengdu, China. AU$55 dollars for a family room, with its own ensuite. Mind you, we did have to kill the previous occupant of room 17 - a secretive individual by the name of Periplaneta Australiasiae.

We had only one mission in Cairns - get out on the reef. Like getting a tattoo, you can either do this well, or do it cheaply. Not both. So while we took some time picking a day and a tour operator, we headed on a day trip to Kuranda, a tourist town on the Atherton tablelands West of Cairns. The idea was to amuse ourselves around the town's markets, visit the butterfly sanctuary, and take a scenic tour down. I wasn't expecting too much from the day - it was just a filler after all. But it turned out to be a fantastic time, mostly because of this:

We had come close to koalas in Sydney, but touching was out of the question, let alone cuddling. It took a very long time for Nina and Sara's smiles to fade after this experience.

Kuranda is definitely a tourist town (I hesitate to say trap) but a pleasant one. The atmosphere is still very calm, and there are plenty of things to do, including a 45 minute cable car ride up (we didn't do this), an easy rainforest walk, and a scenic train ride back down to Cairns that leads past the Barron Falls.

The falls were beautiful, but I would have been happy for the train to have taken half the time it did. We were well cooked by the time we reached the city and headed back by foot to Castaways. As we did, the rainclouds gathered. We were rained in for the entire next day but that was just fine with us. After a dash up the Victoria and NSW coasts, then the flight to Cairns, we were more than ready for some down time. We sat on 'our' bench outside room 17 and got to know our neighbours - 2 Canadian girls from Edmonton, Alberta. They very patiently listened to a whole load of crap from me - must have made venturing out into the heavy rain start to seem appealing.

The next day - our third - the weather was due to be better. So we finally settled on a reef tour operator. We were going to Michaelmas Cay with Passions of Paradise, to get our heads underwater. More of that in Part II.

A little audience participation, please...

We have a hard decision to make. We've left visiting Uluru (Ayer's Rock) until the last moment, and it wasn't such a smart move. It costs a lot to get there from Brisbane. So we are on the horns of a dilemma: Do we go there, and blow the Australian budget by about 2000 euros, or do we let it go and leave Australia without having seen one of its most iconic sights?

There's a survey gadget on the right of this blog, so feel free to vote. In the end, we'll make up our own minds, but we'll take on board your advice. If you have detailed comments to make, rather than just a vote, feel free to attach them to this post.

Please be aware that if you vote 'yes', and we become destitute as a result, you may have to give us food and shelter on our return.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Southern Hemisphere Physics Experiment

Silly season is back.

I really meant to run this experiment as soon as we got into our apartment in Sydney, but I guess I needed somebody as, well, daft as myself to give me that extra push. We're staying with Simon and Leah Pett in Brisbane right now (some of you in DSI may remember him), and guess what? Simon fits the bill perfectly!

The more detailed, and let's face it, boring details that confirm our findings can be found here.

Soon to come: If I am standing on the Southern Hemisphere, do I fall off? (Hint: no)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Melbourne to Sydney via the coast

Our first stop was Bega. They make cheese there, but it doesn't smell. Neither the cheese nor the town. It was just somewhere to stay to break up the journey to Depot Beach further North. There's not much else I can tell you about the place other than it was an 8 hour drive from Melbourne. Despite the name of the route, you don't see a whole lot of coast for most of the time. Actually it's really called Princes Highway, but you don't see any of them either.

It's a great drive though, much more interesting than the more direct Hume Highway. The landscape changed from red earth to dairy pasture as we moved though towns along the way, stopping every 150km or so for coffee or a meal: Yarragon, Lake's Entrance, and Cann River, before finally pulling up outside the Grand Hotel in Bega. Now the word 'hotel' in Australia usually means 'pub, with some rooms upstairs'. And we knew that and had no inflated expectations. But in this case the word 'grand' was not intended to mean 'Large and impressive in size, scope, or extent; magnificent'. It carried the more Irish meaning, as in 'ah feck it, it'll do grand'. I don't think I even took the car out of gear (let alone the gear out of the car) - we headed back to the motel we saw as we entered the town, the Southtown Motor Inn, a family-run operation, where we were very well looked after. The hundred dollar family room included the ability to watch videos, so the girls settled in to watch George of the Jungle, a truly abysmal movie which the girls duly gave the thumbs up.(I spent most of it trying to remember where else I had seen the actor who played the vain and stupid bad guy Kyle - before remembering that he played the vain and stupid trying-to-be-good guy Jack in the truly excellent Sideways).

The morning we checked out, I was sharing a joke with the lady of the house. She told me that she was from the New South Wales outback, near the dish in Parkes. They packed in everything to start up the hotel in Bega. She was clearly getting itchy feet again, but wasn't sure that she could convince her husband and son to make another move. "Have you seen any snakes?" she asked. Before I could answer, she presented me with a jam-jar containing a baby snake - dead and floating in meths - to show Nina and Sara. The cat had killed it recently. It was a Brown Snake, which despite the innocuous name is a highly venomous killer. When Letizia heard the story she was well impressed with the cat.

From Bega, we had a very short drive of about 120km to Bateman's Bay, and than beyond to Depot Beach, where Jamie had organized two nights in a beachside cabin. The drive was entertaining. I'm used to winding roads from back home in Cork, but here there were two extra elements: the up and down of the hills, and road cambers angled like the Indianapolis racetrack. It had everything that air travel can offer: pitch, roll and yaw.

Depot Beach has a great far-away feel to it, without actually needing to go the the GAFA (see glossary). It's run by the National Park which means that during the week, and outside of school holidays, the two-bedroom chalet only cost 100 dollars (70 euro) per night. We arrived to discover that our front garden was where all the roos like to sun themselves during the day. There were 10 or so of them, in various stages of languid indifference to the surroundings. The sight of a carload of pouchless, tiny-footed omnivores (ahem, that's us) didn't change anything.

During our stay in Depot Beach we played a game of Monopoly (a 'discovery' made by Nina and Sara in the Threadbo Youth Hostel) which lasted for 2 nights and finished with Letizia and I going bankrupt. I hope this doesn't presage our financial position when this trip is over (I don't think so - we are still on budget). Even if we do go bust, based on Nina and Sara's property speculation skills, and ruthless business practices, we should at least get a reasonably comfortable senior citizens' home.

We collected shells on Depot and Pebbly Beaches, when the rock pools are stunning. On either side of these sandy beaches lie flat tables of sedimentary rock (see Letizia's post for pictures). At least I think that's what you'd call this fruit-cake rock with currents of gravel and large stones, embedded into a dark substrate. The tide has been steadily undoing the stone so that now, the table is run through with fissures and pocked with holes, some perfectly circular, that hold on to the seawater when the tide is out. Each rockpool is decked out in its own way - some seem like carefully arranged compositions - and they all contain their own miniature landscapes. While the girls mostly searched for shells, I allowed myself to become transfixed by one rockpool after another, taking my time on each one. We weren't going anywhere in any hurry and I could spend as much time as I liked, almost in a trance. It had the advantage of being cheaper and less risky than using controlled substances.

We met or spoke to nobody during out time in Depot Beach, but at mealtimes on the veranda we did have company: the kangaroos came even closer, and the parrots joined us for dinner. They landed on my shoulders and wandered down my arm in search of food. Nina and Sara eventually hand-fed them crackers. The party was broken up by the local ruffians: three kookaburras buzzed us, flying across our table, wingtips in our faces, taking up positions on the railings of the veranda, centimeters away. The parrots legged it (well, winged it really). Kookaburras are big buggers, and carnivores too. They couldn't give a damn about the crackers and were more interested in the beef lasagne. There was a very uneasy standoff for a while - just picture big hairy bikers turning up at the vicar's village fete. I finally took the situation in hand by wielding my trusty foil - actually a roll of tinfoil - in the beaks of the gatecrashing birds. It was pathetic. Despite timourous nudging, the beasts remained unfazed, perhaps even a bit emboldened. I tried a different approach. According to Billy Connelly, the one thing in the jungle that lions fear is the chair. That's why lion tamers are seldom seen in the cage without them. I applied the same pristine logic to the kookaburras with moderate success. I was able to give the girls enough cover ("back, back I tell you") to clear the dishes indoors. We closed the sliding doors to the veranda and continued our meal inside. The birds watched us in our glass cage for a while, unlaughing, before getting bored, and presumably hungry, and flying off. I, in my role as indignant vicar, began to smoothen my ruffled feathers.

Princes Highway rolls through the highways, mercifully bypassing Wollongong (current home to a sordid financial and sexual political scandal), and traffic-lighting its way though Sydney's Southern suburbs, before finishing up in Newtown and leading onto King's Road, where Duncan had previously given us a tour. We had a coffee at Duncan's local there (texting him a thumbed nose as he was working in Melbourne that day) and continued to Rozelle where we were staying with Ludi and Gary (later to be joined by the previously insulted Duncan, fresh from the airport) for our Sydney last supper. Our last evening in Sydney was passed in the best possible way - in the warm glow of friendships that have survived time and distance. And not a kookaburra to be seen.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


After 5 weeks in Sydney, and a palate-cleansing four days on the road, it was time to taste the delights of Melbourne. Comparisons are odious, but so is this blog, so I'm not going to avoid comparing the two cities. But before I do, let me point out how wildly inaccurate any of my conclusions are bound to be. (You probably knew that though.) We were to spend a paltry 5 days in Melbourne, we were mostly interested in catching up with our friends Jamie and Francesca (who also kindly hosted us for the duration of our stay, and for whom those 5 days must have been anything but paltry - thanks again guys) rather than 'doing' Melbourne. I also had the pleasure of catching up with my first cousin Carol, her husband Andy and daughter Jasmine. And on top of that, we also had the undiluted pleasure of Darragh Ballesty's company, and his friend Caroline. What I'm trying to say is that our stay was all about meeting friends, and Melbourne in a sense was merely the backdrop.

The city feels entirely different to Sydney and simply doesn't make that kind of instant emotional impact we experienced in Circular Quay. How could it? There may be no other city on the planet capable of that effect. I am told by those who should know (and whom I unquestioningly believe) that you need to live in Melbourne to appreciate it. It offers a different pace of life to Sydney, but at the same time a higher percentage of cultural and artistic activities. To me, it seemed much more like a town with a British identity. The St. Kilda sorts the kind of pier you'd expect to find in Blackpool or Brighton (and not the Brighton located a few km south in Melbourne itself).

Walking around the city centre, near Federation Square and Collins Street, the difference with Sydney is clear. The people are whiter, the pretty buildings are prettier, (the ugly buildings are uglier), the streets are narrower and more intimate. Cafes are tucked into the even narrower alleyways, so you never quite know what you are going to see next: A jazz band, a street performer, another ethnic eatery (Melbourne's cuisine is reputed to be the best in the Southern Hemisphere). Trams move up and down the streets - as opposed to Sydney's trannys - some of them old and beautiful, others modern and menacing (the trams, not the trannys).

I had heard about Melbournes megalomaniac trams, that brook no resistence and take no prisoners from cars or pedestrians. Their absolute priority at some junctions has led to strange right-hand turn rules for cars. In Oz, you drive on the left, but instead of waiting on the innermost lane to turn right, you pull all the way over to the left, leaving space for the dreaded trams, until the traffic lights allow you to complete your manoevre. The detail that I was missing was that the signal to complete the righthand turn is the amber light. This means that if you are going straight on through a Melbourne traffic light, you better not do it on amber. I got a brake-screeching, heart-flopping lesson in Melbourne's rules of the road on our first day. Our rental car had Queensland plates - I think I haven't done the reputation of that state any favours.

We were based in Albert Park, a city suburb named for its principal feature: the public park that once a year plays host to the F1 Grand Prix (this weekend in fact). I never did get to drive the course in my rented Hyundai Elantra (where do they come UP with these car names!!?) but I did walk across it on the way to the playground with the kids. If you had asked me ten years ago, I would have given you very long odds indeed on such a reversal of priorities.

Jamie and Francesca's house is located on a street that has everything they need: park, school, shops, cafes. In this regard, life in Melbourne is very much like that in Sydney - people tend to stick to their own village. J&F can't go beyond the front door without meeting people they know. Walking from their front door to the bottleshop (off-license) and back with Jamie, I felt I had been caught up in a scene from West Wing. Characters came in from the left, words were exchanged on the hoof, then exit, stage right. All we were missing was a steadi-cam operator in front of us - and probably, let's face it Jamie, a sharper dialogue ;-)

Like Sydney - and Canberra - Melbourne has a lot of excellent museums. Regular readers of this blog might think that we - especially the children - have had our fill of museums, but nothing could be further from the truth. The quality and variety of museums here is very high, but the cost is low, in some cases zero. In a county like Ireland, with a wealth of social and natural history behind it, and hopefully a future tied to high technology in front of it, there really should be a lot of public money put into creating environments like these. Especially for kids.

In Cork, there is one small science museum, and a new observatory museum in Blackrock. But there are a dozen or more indoor playgrounds which dwarf these museums. On a rainy day, wouldn't it be wonderful to check out an undiscovered corner of a museum as a viable alternative to a playground? The entry price of Aussie - and especially Melbournian - museums makes this possible. Kids get in for free in many places, and adults pay just 6 australian dollars (4 euros). A museum, which despite the name can be an exciting place for kids if built and run properly, can inspire researchers of the future.

We left Melbourne on a Monday morning, the first Monday of March (have we really been on the road since December!?) and headed back to Sydney, this time via the coastal route of Princes Highway. It would take 3 nights to get to Sydney where we would get to spend one last evening before heading to Queensland.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Out of Sequence: Inner Space

We're in Cairns, and I haven't even blogged on Melbourne and what came after yet. But I couldn't resist: We've just come off the Great Barrier Reef, and I've experienced scuba-diving for the first time. For a change, I'll just let some pictures do the talking.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Sydney, looking back.

(This blog entry is dedicated to my good friend Darragh Ballesty, who met up with us in Melbourne, and took the opportunity to point out how pretentious my blog was getting. As it happens, pretentious is precisely the tone I am aiming for, but it was great to get confirmation in person from a devoted reader. Darragh, this note's for you... ;)

Travelling at the stern of a boat, you get a blinkered view of what's about you. New scenery arrives fully formed and out of nowhere, rather than slowly evolving from a distant speck. You are granted time to sit and consider what you see as it moves gently away from you. There is a certain thrill of course, of standing at the bow instead, with the wind in your face and 180 degrees of possible directions, but it leads to the irisistably tempting belief that you have some control over your destination.

We sat on the back of the ferry a couple of Mondays ago on our way to Manly, on Sydney's North Shore. Manly was famously named by Arthur Phillip himself, on seeing some particularly virile looking Aboriginal standing there. Looking to the other bank, this position is helping me confirm my feel for Sydney's Southside geography. The city is a gently rolling low-rise disc with the Central Business District acting as the centre and skyscraping axis that holds it all together. This is the great unsettling confusion I feel in Sydney. I don't know whether I'm in a city or a small town, or a beach resort, or a great port. The skyscrapers live easily alongside the spectacular harbour, and the gardens and parks. The small villages of Newtown and Rozelle still have an urban atmosphere - that unmistakeable mix of self-confidence, and relaxed openness. Bronte and Coogee beaches are teeming with surfers, swimmers and posers, generating an ambiance of their own. Enormous cruiseliners pull into the very heart of the city, towering above the quayside buildings, but dwarfed by the harbour itself. All of these Sydneys are linked by buses and trains that bind this spinning disk together, and allow it to remain as one.

Once you head too far south, west or north, I imagine the city life loses much of its appeal. The energy and expense required to sample the delights I've mentioned above become prohibitive, and you make do with your own local amenities. The cost of property with even a glimpse of water is enormous and so those who live in the real Sydney still have to make great sacrifices for that pleasure. But I can't think of a city in the world to match it. "Ah - but it's so far away from everywhere else!" people say. No. Everywhere else is so far away from it.

In Manly, we strolled down the pedestrian street that links the harbour beach to the ocean beach, and settled down for lunch next to a Scotish couple who had made Sydney their home a long time ago. Like almost all Sydneysiders we met, they were very happy with the place, other than the high rent. They used to live in Manly itself, but moved up North to get a bigger living space. How did they deal with the presence of creepy-crawlies, I wondered, given that they were not born into it. "It's the lizards I can't stand" said the lady, much to my surprise. I told her how even in Europe we had lizards (thinking of the gekkos in Sardinia) and then went on to boast about how they didn't bother me at all. Surely I was prime Aussie material. "Well these lizards ate my pet rabbit" she mentioned (get back in your box, Paddy).

At the end of our day in Manly, we took the ferry South and West towards Circular Quay, still at the back of the boat (actually, the boat had bows on either end, a water-going pushme-pullyou). Looking back, North Head and Watson's Point at the mouth of the harbour seemed to converge from opposite shores, and eventually join. Nostalgia, that unrequitable love for a time and place gone by, is the other great Irish disease. I couldn't help but interpret the effect as a last embrace from the city we were about to leave.

How's that for being up myself, Darragh ;-)