Tuesday 23 May 2023

Counting sheep


We’re still ahead - and always will be, if you ask any Aussie, for whom the Kiwi/sheep thing is essential unsavoury-relationship joke material - but our ratio is dropping shockingly low. Not that long ago it was 22-1, but now we’re closing in on Iceland’s level. They are very proud of their 2-1 there, and never miss a chance to boast about it. (Australia, by contrast, considers their 3-1 ratio perfectly standard.)

To be honest, and going purely by the attitude of my guide Páll, Icelanders will boast about any feature of their country that’s the least bit distinctive. Good for them, I say. They certainly have plenty to be proud of - volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, doughty horses, ancient language, historical resilience, human rights, Björk and co, standard of living, even hotdogs - and I can’t imagine any visitor coming away unimpressed. But the sheep? They’re woolly and cute, and live free-range, with an annual round-up that’d be something to see; but there aren’t that many of them.

Our formerly vast sheep population is dwindling because dairy is more lucrative (though polluting ☹️) and, shockingly, the price of wool has dropped so low that just getting them shorn leaves farmers in the red. Crazy, when it’s such an eco-friendly product, with so many uses - which are expanding all the time, as producers are driven to be more and more creative. All power to them.

In the meantime, it’s a bit melancholy to think that classic NZ scenes like this - irresistible Insta-material for tourists - are becoming less common. 

Actually top of the world-wide list, by the way, though much lower-profile, are the Falkland Islands, with a whopping sheep population of 200-1. The mere fact that I scarcely noticed the sheep while I was there, instead being blown away by all the penguins and albatrosses (and literally by the wind), tells you all you need to know about the dominance there of the wildlife - including over the small population of humans, who cling gamely on, politics and rugged environment notwithstanding. Good thing counting their sexual partners helps them get to sleep at night.

Monday 15 May 2023

Naturally superior

Jerked rudely awake at 3am last night this morning by an almighty double thunderclap, which was disappointingly not followed by the consolation of a lightning show, I lay for several wakeful hours afterwards reflecting on nature's unexpected gifts. These have been the unplanned and unplannable, totally chance weather and/or wildlife events that have happily elevated what was already a fun travel experience into something properly special.

This morning's no-show lightning, for example, reminded me of the best display I've ever seen, or will ever see, that happened late one afternoon on a cruise along Western Australia's Kimberley coast. It was epic: six hours of non-stop forks, squiggles and flashes, as we gazed up from the deck first with our pre-dinner drinks, then eating dinner at sunset, then wallowing in the jacuzzi in the dark. No rain, no thunder, no sense of danger - just awe and amazement, and some personal frustration at not being able to capture the perfect shot. But we had Jarrad Seng on board, so that was ok.

It was in northern Australia too that I saw an immense cloud of fruit bats flying overhead at sunset, as I sat beside the artificial esplanade lagoon in Cairns, enjoying the sight of big silver fish sculptures against the coloured sky. They came in their thousands, from their roosts somewhere inland, streaming out over the town centre towards a headland across the bay where the mangoes were ripe. Apparently it's a nightly occurrence, but for me it was an unexpected and very memorable gift. Which I wish I had a photo of.

Again, in Australia (I have been there a lot for
work), I was on a cattle drive through the Outback when, in the middle of the night, a dust storm swept through the camp. The walls of my tent billowed and shook, my ears popped, but I stayed hunkered down in my swag, tired enough from a day's riding after the cattle to get straight back to sleep. It was only when I emerged in the morning that I saw how lucky I'd been - several tents had been blown over, everything was covered in a film of fine red dust, and our cluster of tents was now cupped in the protective curve of the drive's big trucks, gallantly moved by staff during the storm to block the wind.

For travel writers, it's a gift when things go
wrong on a famil, though they usually don't because we're being hosted by professionals. But nature doesn't respect that - so when I did the iconic 3-day Milford Track down in Fiordland, and it rained and rained on day 1, the guide was very apologetic. I didn't mind, even though at one point the track was flooded thigh-high with freezing water that we had to wade through. It was great material - and besides, the downpour stopped just before we had to be helicoptered onwards, and thereafter the weather was brilliantly sunny.

Running aground on an uncharted rock in a bay
on a Rakiura Stewart Island cruise was a diversion, too. Yes, the scenery was gorgeous, our hike up to a viewpoint went ahead anyway, and the detour afterwards back to Oban for hull checks just gave us a different, and equally enjoyable, itinerary - but feeling the sudden shudder and stop, having to wait for the tide to float the ship off, and seeing scuba divers arrive to inspect underwater? Priceless.

Then, back in Australia again, I was thrilled on a lovely stroll through the bush on Lindeman Island, in the Whitsunday group, to find the path covered in hundreds of cute little brown froglets. Honestly, they were everywhere, and so sweet that I couldn’t bear to risk treading on one, so I minced and tiptoed along like a giant heron, taking great care not to cause any harm. It was years later that I learned they were in fact baby cane toads, a poisonous introduced pest that is as huge a problem right across Australia now as possums are here, and that I should in fact have trampled on as many as I could.
Then there was the stowaway Cook Islands lizard that I discovered with horror, back home, had sneaked into my suitcase; the rhino that charged the van where I was sitting fully exposed alongside the open door in the back; the bear in Yosemite that suddenly appeared on the track eyeing me up speculatively. 

And finally, there was the glorious gift of Drake Lake - our two days of smooth glossy seas as we crossed the most rambunctious bit of ocean on the planet, on our return from Antarctica to Ushaia. That was nature at her most generous and beneficent, and I will always be deeply grateful for the best trip I've ever been on not being ruined on the last bit.

UPDATE: As a bonus double connection today, when I went to browse Insta, what do I find but the latest post from super-photographer Daniel Kordan -

And that sailing ship, the barque Europa, that he was clinging on to, as it took
five days to make the crossing? I saw it while I was in Antarctica -

Tuesday 9 May 2023

Vivat Rex! Good boy

(Coronation photos stolen from The Times)

Since Rex was the name of our family dog, that chanted phrase meant something a bit different to me, during the Coronation. But he was a spaniel, so there was a connection to King Charles. Sucked in to watching the whole event (on TV, natch, but live) my main impression, as with I'm sure most people, was - What a load of old codswallop. 

I mean, all those fancy costumes, every stitch of them loaded with tradition and meaning. All that silly ceremony - did you see the ring presented fitted onto a pink velvet dildo? - and juggling with unwieldy crowns that were so impractical, despite/because of all their huge jewels, that both king and queen shook them off as soon as possible. All the parading, the hours of practice it all took, the swords, the medals, the patently ridiculous and vision-blocking bearskin hats. It was daft, the whole thing, truly. And yet - of course there's an 'and yet' - it was a pretty gobsmacking spectacle.

What made it more appealing was that so much of it looked so familiar. Though it almost feels like another life - it was certainly in the Before Times - I was last in London in 2019 and spent a wonderful day visiting most of those sites, from Buckingham Palace to Westminster, and many points in between (and beyond). It was a big, big day, and I wrote a long, long post about it. It is a great city, and despite the very typical rain, it was the perfect setting for all that pomp.

Though everyone else looked like they were having a good time, Charles did appear somewhat sombre throughout. The weight of royal responsibility, I guess, even more than the actual weight of all those robes and crowns, heavy though they must have been. I reckon, despite a lifetime's preparation and waiting, he would much rather not have been the centre of all that attention. And who could blame him? I too prefer to be just one of the crowd, as was he the first time I (failed to) notice him, at Badminton Horse Trials, many years ago.

Going to the tip - or rather, coming down from it


Still thinking (see the last post) about my Cape York trip in 2006, it was really most notable for its ruggedness. Though other operators offer something similar, the company I did it with, Wilderness Challenge, doesn't seem to be in business any more, and I hope it's just because of the difficult times, and isn't a victim of TripAdvisor sniping.

Because, though the experience with WC was definitely rough and rugged in parts, it felt appropriate for the environment. I mean, we had several breakdowns in their beaten-up old OKA 4WD - two fan-belt failures, another with the aircon, then the steering and finally a suspension problem. That meant some sweaty, oily repairs by driver/guide Ossi while we paddled in cooling rivers. Said suspension was so primitive that he promised us at the beginning that anyone with back problems would be cured by the end, after a week of jolting along corrugated dirt roads - and so it was.

But everything else was great. Ossi, despite being a Finn, was a great interpreter of everything we saw; we stayed in a variety of comfortable and unique accommodation; the food was excellent; and the experience overall was terrific.

I mean, we stood at the tip of the continent. We travelled along empty red-dirt roads, we splashed through fords and crossed a river on a car-ferry. We walked along a boardwalk out into the gloriously peaceful Red Lily Lake, full of lotus flowers. We learned some fascinatingly colourful history, especially about the Jardine brothers' epic 10-month cattle drive south from Rockhampton (42 horses reduced to 12, 250 cattle down to 50 by the end). We saw fabulous clusters of tall termite mounds, a 1.75m deadly taipan, the rusty and dramatic wreck of a DC3, crashed in 1945, and followed the famous Overhead Telegraph road.

We saw beautiful beaches, passed through lush forest and over grassy plains, and had a satisfying swim at the picturesque Fruit Bat Falls ("where there's rocks, there's no crocs"). There in November, the end of the Dry, start of the Wet, we were still startled to see, above a river 5m lower than usual, a sign in a tree reading "14.5m we were here in a boat". There was a frog in my shower that night, and silent lightning outside.

We saw a Santa Gertruda cattle ranch, a Comalco bauxite mine and a photo at the camp ground of a croc eating a caught shark on the beach. We got fussy about spotting roadkill, sneering at one day's tally of just two snakes and a feral pig - though the eagle eating it was a pretty special sight. Most alarming was seeing a massive road train tanking along a dirt road towards us.

We noted that, despite converting to metric last century, Aussies still measure their crocs and sharks in feet, because the number's bigger. "We moved a 12 footer away yesterday," we were told at Lotus Bird Lodge, where we stayed in cabins reassuringly perched on stilts (because of flooding). We walked around the billabong there spotting, despite Dibdib, our Great Dane escort, many species of birds, as well as half a snake on the path (always better than a whole one). There was another frog in my shower that night.

Approaching Cooktown on the coast, we enjoyed the novelty of tar seal on the road, though we all regretted the loss of remoteness. I made the private discovery, after fossicking for windfalls along the town's footpaths, that you can eat too many mangoes. At the museum, we learned about the hideous history of blackbirding, and the very special nature of the Daintree rainforest.

And finally, after passing tea plantations and sugar cane fields, we arrived back in Cairns, where huge swarms of fruit bats flew that evening over the big man-made lagoon on the esplanade, towards a distant peninsula. The lagoon has been provided for public use, the sea being out of bounds because of crocs. Which we never actually saw. Not one.

Thursday 4 May 2023

So anyway, it's Thursday


The only remarkable thing about this report is that the photo of the unfortunate - and prophetically nicknamed - Stumpy shows him proudly holding a fish that is not, for once, a barramundi. Honestly, you'd think barramundi are the only fish they have in Australia - in the sea, in rivers, on the menu. But that's by the by. What this story really reminded me of was my Cape York trip way back in 2006, before this blog began.

It was exciting to be invited because, like most people, including Australians, I'd never been to this bit of Oz before. It turned out to be a proper expedition. It started in Cairns with a flight to Horn Island, one of the Torres Strait islands, from where we chugged on a ferry to Thursday Island, naturally - this is Australia - known as TI, the smallest in the group. It was unimaginatively named by Capt. Bligh for the day he sailed past it, but some have called it Thirsty Island because it had no reliable water source. During WW2, the soldiers garrisoned there were allowed only a pint of water each a day. Ten degrees from the equator!
It's a quiet place, mostly because everyone is driven indoors for the air con. It's had a lively past, though. There's a fort built in 1892 on top of a hill, with big guns installed to repel a Russian invasion (which never came). A test shot landed in the schoolyard of a neighbouring island - at lunchtime. In the cemetery are 700 graves of Japanese pearl-divers, who actually dived for the shell rather than the 1:1000 chance of a pearl. It was the main industry in northern Australia for about 60 years until the invention of plastic for buttons. TI also claims the world's smallest cathedral, a cute wooden building with excellent stained-glass windows memorialising even more tragic events. Most notable was the sinking in 1890 of the RMS Quetta, which hit an uncharted rock and sank in five minutes, drowning almost half of the 292 people on board, mostly British migrants.
The crocs probably couldn't believe their luck. Estuarine, or salt-water crocodiles - aka salties - rule the waters here, and there are graphic warning notices right across northern Australia wherever people are likely to be tempted for a dip. Wandering around TI's little town, I ended up on the beach and watched with interest as a couple of burly workmen stripped to their grunds and took a tentative splash in the shallows. Later, when we started our week-long tour down from the tip of Cape York back to Cairns, our laid-back guide got very insistent on beach strolls - "Please, please, please stay away from the water!"

But people, even old hands like Stumpy, get careless all the time, and the crocs are always there, waiting.


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