Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Nineteen: it's a dangerous age

This was the front-page story in the Herald yesterday, about a 19 year-old German tourist who climbed Mt Ruapehu on his own, in light clothing and street shoes, not having told anyone about his plans. You can see where this is going. He fell, broke a leg, and was lucky, having dragged himself a bit back down the mountain, that some other climbers heard his cries of "SOS" and called the helicopter to rescue him. [Digression: SOS? How bizarre. Who would think to shout that? What's wrong with 'Help'? Even 'Hilfe' would have done the trick. SOS - that's just so technical. How German!] Having climbed Ruapehu myself, though not to the summit, I know just how steep and treacherous it is, and how rapidly the weather can change up there. He's a lucky young man who I hope has learned a lesson, and isn't tempted to feel smug. Not like this idiot:
Here we have another 19 year-old tourist, this time a backpacker from Alaska who got left behind by the Ghan in Port Augusta, chased it along the tracks, caught it when it slowed, and perched in a stairwell outside a locked, empty carriage for over two hours as the train raced through the Outback on a chilly winter's night. He was heard, eventually, the train did an emergency stop (spilling my glass of Bailey's as I sprawled out in my Platinum class suite) and he was brought inside suffering from early hypothermia. He was lucky not to have lost his grip and fallen to who knows what fate - as it was, he got off at Alice Springs and a few days later was being feted in Darwin for his exploits. I bet his parents were proud. (But well done, Territorian, on that deathless headline!)

By the way, coincidentally, when I climbed Ruapehu there was a German up there too, also unsuitably dressed - a journeyman carpenter from Frankfurt. But not 19, and sensible.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What does adventure mean to you?

Adventure isn’t an event: it’s a state of mind. Finding a dead mermaid under Brooklyn Bridge was startling; so was desperately flailing to get out of the way of a seven-metre whale shark. Riding an eager horse who wanted to be in front, please, on a week-long back-country trek was exhausting; and so was battling with thin air for four days following the Inca Trail. I’ve slept in a swag on the banks of a crocodile-infested river in the Outback, been mugged on the streets of Santiago, had an up-close encounter with an irritated rhino in South Africa: they’ve all been adventures, and all have given me great stories to tell back home.
But adventurous travel doesn’t have to mean physical challenge and danger: it’s more about openness and acceptance. It’s sharing food with a stranger on a train, walking out of your hotel in a new city without a map, connecting with someone whose language you don’t speak, but whose face you can read like a book. It’s about stepping outside self-imposed boundaries, feeling awkward, risking rejection and doing it anyway.
Sometimes the scariest and most inspiring travel experiences have nothing to do with launching yourself backwards into the void, or walking alone through woods where bears live: sometimes, just accepting an invitation to join in with a group of elderly Indian ladies dancing at a picnic, and trying to be as loose-hipped and easy as they are, will give you memories that stay sharper than any crocodile's teeth.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Stinging riposte? No, stinger post.

I'm writing about Townsville today, in what they're proud to call Tropical North Queensland. That means it's hot (up to 40 degrees in the town - hotter further north, obviously - and 18 is considered distinctly chilly), and full of frangipani, palms, mango trees and huge fig trees with sinister multiple trunks/roots. It also means that from November to May, you can't swim in the sea because of stingers - that is, stinging jellyfish. Or, you can, if you stay inside the nets on a couple of the beaches, or you trust your 1920s-style ankle-to-wrist stinger suit to protect you.

On nearby Magnetic Island ("Maggie" to the locals, naturally) I saw a lifeguard trawling across a really quite lovely bay between glorious weathered granite boulder headlands (Maggie Rocks I think I'll call that story. What?) and snooped in for a look. He does it several times a day in late October, sieving the water to see if he's catching any stingers, after which the notices will go up on the beach. They weren't while I was there, but I still managed to resist the temptation to wade in, invitingly warm and turquoise though it was. I'm used to it - on my previous trip to northern Queensland, from the very tip of Cape York back down to Cairns, our guide was distinctly anxious on the couple of occasions we were allowed on a beach. "Don't go near the water!" he kept repeating - the danger there being salt-water crocs that lunge out of the water and snatch hapless tourists off the sand.

"No-one's ever reported crocs on Maggie," the lifeguard told me when I asked. Which doesn't entirely put your mind at rest, does it? He argued that salties are correctly called estuarine crocodiles, which means they hang out in estuaries and up rivers. But they do go roaming, I know, and have been seen way out at sea on numerous occasions. The crocs and the stingers are the Number One concerns for swimmers up north - people hardly ever bother mentioning the sharks that are also there. Gives this picture a whole new layer of meaning, doesn't it?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Earn yourself some feel-good points: right here!

In the little town of Beaune, in France to the north of Lyon, there's a splendid building with marvellous patterned, glazed tiles on a roof punctuated by pointy towers. It's a hospice built by Nicolas Rolin in 1443 as his Get into Heaven Free card, to earn points with St Peter after a lifetime of less than saintly behaviour. Today I offer you something similar: not an All Areas Pass to Paradise, sadly, but a more immediate feel-good opportunity for the here and now. If you're reading this before 6 December, all you need to do to perform an act of heart-warming kindness is to send an email to competition@puretravel.com with 'Missing a Broad in Norfolk' in the subject line.

That will hopefully help me into the top three of ten contenders for a travel-writing prize, then to be ranked by a real judge. If he likes my story best, I'll win some money, get published and earn some kudos - but even if he doesn't, you will still have earned yourself points for a Random Act of Kindness; plus my gratitude. So why wouldn't you? Look, here's the story:

Even disasters can have a silver lining. For my husband, whose life-long mission is never to let an old joke die, this one presented him with a gift opportunity to revive the gag about the man who unwittingly left his wife behind at the petrol station.
Neither of us was laughing when we first saw the cruiser reserved for us to pootle around in on the Norfolk Broads. Even viewed stern-first, it looked huge; and when we stepped aboard and saw how far away the bow was, we were awed. “Are you sure this is ours?” we asked. “There are only the two of us.” The boatman waved away our concerns and demonstrated how the roof slid back so that we could enjoy the damp glories of an English spring.
He skilfully eased the boat out of the yard and took us for a spin along the river, demonstrating the controls until we took over ourselves, even practising mooring alongside the riverbank where, by manically pumping the gear lever back and forth, we stopped with a bump that made us hardly stagger at all. For two non-boaties, it was a triumph, and we tossed the Skipper’s Manual aside as soon as our instructor disembarked, leaving us in sole charge. Perched behind the wheel, we glided off along the River Bure, ahead of us 200 kilometres of reed-fringed waterways winding through Norfolk’s flat expanse.
Even in spring, there were other cruisers out on the water, processing from mooring to mooring, vying to claim prime spots outside the prettiest riverside pubs. We were happy to be followers, spotting herons, ducks and geese, cooing over thatched cottages, inspecting the varied boats moored beside each house, delighted by a traditional windmill, its sails slowly turning.
Having left town behind, we passed Wroxham Broad, and hammered along at a heady 10kmh, ducks playing chicken under the bow, reeds swaying in the wash. Confident now, we passed the boats in front, negotiating a sharp corner at Hoveton where a swarm of little sailing dinghies scooted in all directions. The afternoon was wearing on and, warned that moorings could be hard to find in this busier part of the Broads, when we came to Horning we started looking for a gap.
The dog-eat-dog drama of supermarket parking was a doddle compared with spotting a suitable empty space, watching out for other boats, turning to face upstream and the forward-reverse-forward pumping of the gear lever on top of actually steering. It was a tense and sweaty business of throbbing temple veins and bitten lips, and it ended with yet another fender-threatening bump against the side. But we had done it! The relief was enormous, and we skipped off to the Ferry Inn for our reward.
This is what cruising the Broads is all about, we congratulated ourselves with the first pint of cider. Maybe tomorrow we’ll go under a bridge, we said with the second. If we had a whole week, how many pubs could we visit, we wondered with the third. Probably it’s time for bed, we decided before the fourth.
Perhaps it was the cider, perhaps nervous exhaustion, perhaps the gentle rocking of the boat: we slept well and woke full of enthusiasm next morning. Even the horror of discovering that other boats had sneaked in tight fore and aft didn’t daunt us. We fired up the engine, cast off and began the fraught jiggle to ease out into the river. It didn’t go well: from my place at the back I could see a looming collision with the yacht moored in front and, without actually formulating a plan, leaped off the stern, an action expressly forbidden in the spurned Skipper’s Manual. Because what happens then is that you lose your footing, topple like a felled log onto the towpath, and dislocate your shoulder.
As I writhed in agony on the gravel, our cruiser hit the yacht, which erupted with startled people, and shoved it far enough forward to scrape past and out into the river. My husband, smugly turning downstream, caught sight of the men waving and shouting at him from the bank and, puzzled, eventually manoeuvred back close enough to hear: “Your wife’s fallen and hurt herself. She’s in the cafĂ© and we’ve called the ambulance.”
My husband’s face brightened as he recognised the familiar set-up. “Thank God for that!” he said. “I thought I’d gone deaf.”

Saturday, November 16, 2013

RIP E-410

I've bought a new camera, the latest Olympus, which I scarcely know how to turn on right now, but for which I have great hopes. Today though, I got around to downloading the photos from the Queensland trip taken on my old camera, and there are some I'm pretty pleased with. They're the last hurrah of the E-410, poor spurned thing. I do feel somewhat disloyal: it's served me well over the last seven years, when I returned to my Olympus roots after a short flirtation with Canon that ended with the EOS 20D's cliff-top suicide on the Isle of Skye.
The great joy of Olympus cameras for me is that they're so compact and light to carry; and though compact cameras as a breed have come on enormously in the last few years, I'm enough of a snob an aspirational photographer to want all the extra features and capabilities of a DSLR, even if they're a bit daunting to begin with. Being smaller, they're also less ostentatious in dodgier areas, and less inhibiting to shyer subjects. Not that the animals I came across in Queensland were at all bothered by having their photos taken. Especially these ones. All the bother was on my side.
I don't think I posted about these guys while I was away, thanks to internet problems, by which I mean no free wifi (Australia is as bad as NZ in this respect, though it is getting better). I went for a pleasant wander around Roma Street Parklands in Brisbane, which were just across the railway lines from our hotel, Traders (a fine hotel, apart from, ahem, the wifi issue), and thoroughly enjoyed the gardens of all different sorts. There were lots of birds, and lizards too - that goanna above was basking on a rock there till I disturbed him - but no other sorts of wildlife, since it is right in the middle of the city, after all. Until I wandered down another pathway, that is, and suddenly noticed this huge colony of ENORMOUS orb spiders (I think). Not poisonous, but so big, and so many of them, and their webs covering such a huge area strung between some trees and bushes and a lamp-post. I was horribly fascinated, and then went on my way shuddering. Out of kindness, I'll leave you with a more calming image. Unless you're an ornithophobe, that is.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Virgin Australia - review

"If you could just change your way of thinking, everything'd be different, you know?" Random comment from a fellow passenger seated behind me on my flight from Brisbane to Sydney this morning, standing out in its profundity from the rest of her chatter about the celebrities and boots in the inflight magazine. She and her girlfriend were anxious fliers, poor things, and both takeoff and landing were accompanied by a low chorus of profanities, perhaps encouraged by the Jim Beams they were necking in the departure lounge beforehand.

This trip has been my first experience of Virgin Australia, and it's been pleasant, though there were a couple of surprises: there's no plug-in entertainment at all, not even the dreaded Easy Listening. You can use your wifi-enabled devices to get music and movies, but only if you've previously installed the app, I discovered once we were in the air. And then there was the unexpected comment in the safety briefing about passengers possibly being asked to help with the life rafts.

Life RAFTS? Is this a new thing, or have I missed it entirely in all these years of flying over the world's oceans? Life jackets, sure, whistle, blow-up tube, inflate after exiting, yes. But actual rafts? Clearly desirable, especially in the vicinity of sharks - though I wouldn't be keen to be shoulder-tapped to help the flight crew heave the rafts out of the overhead lockers, drag them along the aisle and push them out of the emergency exits. Especially if there wasn't a flat calm out there, and broad daylight. Hmmm. There was no danger of their deployment today though, with our route 95% over land, much of it obscured by bushfire smoke. Perhaps asbestos suits might be generally more useful?

But otherwise, no complaints: cheerful crew, punctual, comfortable enough and efficient - with the added bonus of deep thoughts from the seat behind.
Yes, well spotted: that is an Air New Zealand winglet - the Virgin flights were domestic. When it comes to crossing the Tasman, I prefer our national airline. Er, the one without the life rafts...

Chartered decline

This is Geoff. He's a volunteer at the Zara Clark Museum in Charters Towers, which is a rather grand-sounding name for a little Outback town - but nowhere as pretentious as its original nickname: The World. That's still painted in the big water tank on the hill beside the town, but really it's a shadow now of its glorious gold rush self, when it was the second biggest city in Queensland. Back then, there were 92 pubs, and three calls a day at its very own Stock Exchange.

Now there are only 9 pubs, old men in hats with full beards busy themselves with tourism activities and one of the most splendid buildings (of many), an imposing brick edifice with lovely Art Deco leaded glass borders to the shop windows - Stan Pollard & Co, Drapers and Mercers - has had an abomination of a boxy painted wooden frontage attached to it by Target. Tch.

But down in the museum, the past is still treasured and the old Co-op is crammed with pianolas, saddles, a 1924 Chevvy (half wooden), a birthing table complete with stirrups, an SS uniform, a 'flying fox' change system from Pollards', school slates, fire engine, cloche hats and very much more. Including the toaster Geoff is demonstrating here, a nifty American invention that uses a spring and a swivel to prevent burnt fingers while turning the bread. He was still delighted by it - as were we, with the whole museum. Pretty well worth the 150km drive from Townsville.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Nature's bounty

It was a day of satisfying connections, although the first one was a failure: nobody was there to meet us at Mungalla Station, where we were to introduce an Aboriginal element to this trip. Shame. It was also a worry about the two small brown frogs in the loo there that I didn't see till I flushed it, when they suddenly leaped up from the whirling water, but were swept away.

Back in Townsville we had a good poke around the excellent museum, with its dinosaurs (very big here in Queensland, as we learnt last time) and display of the Pandora, sent to bring the Bounty mutineers home for punishment, and getting wrecked on the Reef nearby. (That's a moment of the drama in the photo: anatomically-correct mutineers escaping from their prison on deck.) We saw the Bounty's chronometer in Nantucket a while ago; and drank spruce beer recently in Alaska - there were spruce pots on display brought up from the wreck. Anti-scurvy. (There were other pots too, chamber pots, including one "for use during long dinners in the wardroom".)

Then we went to the ReefHQ next door and watched all sorts of strange creatures flitting about, some of them just cartoon-creepy glowing eyes in the dark. And we met a handful of turtles being rehabilitated after various misadventures including one poor old lady both sliced by a propellor and chomped on by a croc.

Finally we had a delicious dinner at C-Bar on the beach, waves breaking in the dark, lights winking, frogs and bats creaking and squeaking, and a warm breeze blowing. Lovely.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sublime to...

Having complained earlier this trip that there was too much free time, now I'm back to whingeing about the more usual too little time. Our scant single night on Magnetic Island in our very flash apartment at Peppers left us wanting more, as did the drives to Horseshoe Bay in one direction and Picnic Bay in the other: brown sandy beaches of turquoise water in between sculptural headlands of granite boulders. Even the lifeguard doing his routine sweep for stingers didn't put is off.

But it was on, on, back to Townsville and away north through the cane fields, up to the little but self-important town of Ingham and the super-tall Wallerman Falls, a single drop of 268m down a granite cliff-face. It was a long drive, but worth it, and on the way back there were cute agile wallabies (that's their species, not a description - they weren't actually doing much at all, though the one hurtling across the road in front of the car was pretty nimble) and lots of these Droughtmaster cattle, which we'll learn more about tomorrow.

And tonight? In the Lee's Hotel, where it's more about character than comfort, proudly claiming to be the original Pub With No Beer in the Slim Dusty song; and also keen to show me "out the back - we've got an acre of bitumen car park. We've got semi trailers out there!"

There were fruit bats, too

It's been a military day today. We started off with Toby's Military Tour of Townsville, which is a very thorough 4-hour look at the town's Air Force and army history. Does that sound dull? It wasn't, even though my knowledge of things like the Kokoda Track and the Coral Sea battles was pretty sketchy.

There were code breakers, a Black Hawk crash, a couple of museums, some video and a whole heap of movie-worthy stories about individual airmen and soldiers. We saw relics of the Burmese railway, German machine guns that cut down enemy (our) soldiers by the thousand, medals, models, plans and photos. There was due weight given to the NZ in Anzac, and Toby's enthusiasm and opinions made him just the sort of guide I like to have. We also made a short visit to the Gardens, where a huge colony of flying foxes - fruitbats - were making a suprising amount of noise for nocturnal creatures.

Then we took the ferry to Maggie Island - Magnetic Is to us outsiders - where we drove a (manual!) toy car around the bays. We climbed up the ancient and artfully weathered boulders to the gun emplacements and lookout points at the top of the island, and we saw blue sea, green bush and orange rocks, but no koalas or rock wallabies, sadly. But the huge and lovely pool at Peppers Blue on Blue Resort cheered us up, and the really delicious dinner afterwards sent us to bed happy.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Hits and myth

This is as close as I care to come to a saltwater crocodile, as a general rule. It's not that I mind handling reptiles - on the contrary, I'm fascinated by their cool smooth slipperiness and their otherness from my overwhelmingly mammal experience. I was pleased to get my hands on an olive python too today at the Billabong Sanctuary just outside Townsville, here in Tropical North Queensland, even if it did at one point completely encircle my neck.

This was one of those classic smaller wildlife parks that I've been to so often all around Australia and enjoy every time. There are always wandering kangaroos, friendly and gentle, and loose rowdy birds (here, pretty plumed whistling ducks). In the enclosures there are the usual suspects: dingos, wombats, echidna, cassowaries and crocs.

And there's always a programme of encounters and photo ops, where a personable young bloke with a winning line of patter dishes out some education-lite about the various creatures and has some fun with misinformation. Today Jack was perpetuating the Drop Bear myth. It's completely real, you know. That it's a myth, that is. Get googling, why don't you?

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