Wednesday, 26 October 2011

TAXIS

Time to kill..........!


TAXIS

Taxis can be the bane of a traveller’s life. The sad fact is they are are an unwelcome necessity in most parts of the world and, especially in less developed countries, they pose both financial and even physical risks. Don’t get me wrong, some taxi drivers are decent, charming and helpful, and provide a totally honest and cost-effective service. I met one once. 
In essence there are two types of taxi; metered and unmetered, as well as two types of driver; honest and dishonest. The main problem is that once you are inside a taxi you are virtually a prisoner of the driver and utterly at his ( or her ) mercy. This problem is magnified in a location with which you are unfamiliar and not able to speak the local lingo.
I have experienced taxi drivers who, in a metered taxi, wilfully drive around in circles or take an excessively long route to bump up the fare and if you are new to the area probably have no idea that they are doing it. Similarly I have been ‘robbed’ in unmetered taxis that charge, on arrival, exhorbitant rates.
There are also those completely ‘bandit’ taxis that abduct their unsuspecting victims who are then taken to an out of the way location where they are met by a gang and robbed of all their possessions and/or even escorted to an ATM and forced, on pain of death, to empty their entire bank accounts.
Even safe, officially licensed and metered black cabs in London, for example, operating entirely legitimately, piss me off when, on a short journey made necessary by by the fact that you have heavy luggage, they take 45 minutes to travel 1 mile of which 30 minutes is spent static in traffic jams, road works or traffic lights watching the meter clicking up the fare like a geiger-counter at Chernobyl and the smile on the driver’s face.
I think I have been ripped off by enough taxi drivers by now to compile a list of  guide lines. So, at the risk of teaching grannies to suck eggs:
  1. Avoid using taxis if at all possible.
  2. In strange countries only take taxis from official sites at stations and airports or order them from hotels or restaurants. If in doubt consult an information desk at said establishments.
  3. In any potentially ‘dodgy’ city never flag down a taxi in the street. ( potential abduction danger here esp. in places like Mexico City ).
  4. Before using any taxi in an unfamiliar area, check your map to get a rough idea of the route and distance.
  5. In unmetered taxis ensure that you agree a price, and write it down if possible, before getting in, or putting your bags in for that matter. Make sure you establish which currency is being quoted. ( I was quoted a price of ‘100’ when in Peru. I assumed 100 soles ( about $20 ), but the driver was expecting $100! ).
  6. In metered taxis get a street map out and, even if you don’t know where you are, make the driver aware that you are taking an interest in his route.
  7. On arrival at airports, when feasible, go to ’departures’ to get a taxi. They will have dropped someone off and will normally offer a much cheaper price to go back to town than the ‘rip-off’ boys at ‘arrivals’. 
  8. If you do have to use airport ‘arrivals’ taxis beware the pesky hustlers who pester you with with an ‘official’ taxi price list. They are probably also wearing an ‘official’ badge or something. These props are pure bullshit and they will swindle you. Check at an official information desk to get a rough guide as to a realistic price and where the official airport taxis are located.
  9. Do not ‘share’ a taxi with seemingly obliging locals. You could become their victim.
  10. Taxi drivers never carry change for large denomination bank notes. Make sure you have plenty of small money to pay ( plus a tip if you are well served or as a matter of course in the USA ).
  11. When you ask an Asian taxi driver “do you know the way to...?”, their answer is invariably “yes”. This does not necessarily mean he knows the way at all. He probably can’t even speak English. He says “yes” because he heard you speaking to him and he has learnt that replying “yes” to any comment  by a ‘farang’ satisfies the customer more effectively than saying “no”. 
  12. Lastly, use your ‘antennae’ to judge the appearance of the taxi and the demeanour of it’s driver. Don’t forget that the aim of the driver is to get you inside the cab and then remove as much money from your wallet as possible. If you have any doubts, don’t use it. Once inside it is too late.

BEWARE TAXIS
PS. In many parts of the world, especially in Australasia and Birmingham, taxi companies are staffed almost entirely by Indians. Nothing wrong with that and some of them ( I met a decent one in Adelaide ) give an excellent service. I merely note that while Americans, Islamists and maybe the Chinese struggle for control of the world and it’s resources, the Indians will be happy just to control all the world’s taxis.

BRISBANE TO SINGAPORE 1

15th - 27th Oct

Just steaming up the Cap York Peninsular, near to the coast and have picked up, temporarily, a bit if WiFi coverage. Probably won't last long....so transmitting the Ship's Log, so far.




AS CARELIA. SHIP’S LOG.
15th Oct
Arrived at the security gate at Patrick’s Terminal in Brisbane Port at 1630hrs after a 30 minute unsolicited unguided tour of the whole port area by my Indian taxi driver who had said before setting out ‘of course’ he knew where to go. Stupidly I believed him. It was apparent fairly early on that he hadn’t a bleedin’ clue where he was going. He even refused to stop to ask for directions; below his dignity to do so, I suppose. He, and his meter, confronted me with a bill for $48. I told him it should be less than half that because most of the journey was spent doing U turns or in reverse. He just vobbled his head at me. I told him he was a bandit and paid up with bad grace to avoid even more delay and possible violence. The fat security guard and his mate on the gate did not improve matters by being rather rude and telling me to hurry up! I think I’ve had it up to hear with Aussie petty officialdom, frankly.
Onto the AS Carelia ( I think the AS bit is to do with the owners, Christian F Ahrenkiel ). It is another container ship along the same lines as the others I have travelled on. I was introduced briefly to the skipper, a small dumpy little Bulgarian, Captain Alexey Popov. He seemed cheerful and pleasant enough and wished me well and hoped I had everything I needed. I think I will call him Cap’n Popeye.
Shown up to my cabin, on D deck ( that’s two down from the bridge deck, five up from the main deck  ), which was pleasant enough with a day-room, bedroom, bathroom and two forward facing windows( not even blocked by containers ), so no complaints there. The only thing missing, which all the other ships had, was an ‘entertainments’ system - DVD player etc. I can live happily without that.
I discovered at supper that I am the only passenger and the ship’s officers are all ex-Eastern Bloc, i.e. Russian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Montenegran etc. I am prepared for another fairly ‘spartan’ and monosyllabic journey. At least the nosh at supper was quite good, so hopefully they have a trained cook this time.
What I wasn’t prepared for is that this shipping company runs ‘DRY SHIPS’! I read their ‘alcohol and drugs policy’ on the ship’s notice board which stated that none of the crew will take, or consume, alcohol on board. I see a ‘loophole’ here, because I am not crew; however, the Captain’s ‘slopchest’, that merciful provider of alcoholic beverages on the other vessels, will not be well stocked, if at all. I have a feeling that I face a dry journey at least as far as Auckland ( 4 days ). Barely survivable. We are due to arrive there for a day’s stop-over on the night of the 19th.
They have a TV in the mess and it managed to pick up the Aussie sports channel which showed the RWC semi-final between Wales and France ( probably the last game I will see ). I don’t suppose I am the only person that reckons the poor Welsh was robbed! I doubt if that Irish ref will be holidaying in Wales anytime soon.
So to bed.
16th Oct
The ship sailed late at 0600hrs ( I thought I hadn’t felt much movement last night ). Calm seas. So far.
Onwards to Auckland. I put in an ‘experimental’ order from the slopchest. I noted that the list of goodies on sale included wine and beer. I was informed by the 3rd Mate ( Ivan, Russian ) that it is out of date and there is indeed no alcohol in stock. He was most apologetic. My fears have been realised. At least there will be the opportunity to replen in Auckland. 
The ship and it’s routine is the same as all previous. I am now conditioned to ‘soviet’ crews. They are perfectly polite but very monosyllabic, even amongst themselves. They treat a meal purely as a refuelling function. No talk, down food quick and go. When I say they eat quickly, I mean very quickly. With nothing much else to do I started to time them. The record so far was at  lunch ( soup followed by chicken with rice ); 3mins 45 secs held by the 1st Mate. The officer compliment is the Cap’n ( Popeye ), plus 1st ( Chief Officer ), 2nd and 3rd Mates, Chief Engineer plus 2nd and 3rd Engineers and an Electrician. There are also two Peruvian ‘officer cadets’ on board ( slave labour I suspect ). One an engineer, the other a ‘deck officer’ trainee, doing their sea experience bit. They are rather more talkative.
I wandered the ship, did some laundry, read books and fiddled about doing such things as writing this. One is not exactly overwhelmed with arduous duties.
17th Oct
I realised that I had not set eyes on Cap’n Popeye since first boarding. He doesn’t appear to turn up for meals in the ‘mess’ and he wasn’t on the bridge on the occasions I went up there. Curious. Have they left him behind?
The electrician ( Alexander, Russian ) said ‘hello’ to me at supper. He is obviously the loquacious one. 
By evening the sea was beginning to get a little rough.
18th Oct
The sea state is now what might be described as a ‘moderate swell’. Enough to make you sway a little bit when walking and roll from side to side in bed. Nothing too uncomfortable and I think ( touching wood ) that I am not too susceptible to sea sickness......at least I haven’t felt any bad effects so far.
The Peruvian cadets are proving reasonably chatty company at mealtimes. One of them was quite interested in my Peru trip, but not very.
The 1st Mate ( Dani from Croatia ) still holds the meal eating time record. The average time, not including me, for consumption ( sitting down to getting up ) is, so far, 7 mins 35 secs.
Established my challenging routine: 0730hrs breakfast. 0900hrs visit bridge. 1200hrs lunch. 1300hrs visit bridge. 1400hrs stroll around deck. 1500hrs kip.1730hrs supper. Whenever..bed. Luckily I now have a new ( cheap ) computer, but no internet on board, and plenty of books to read. 
19th Oct
The sea was quite rough overnight. Not easy to sleep when you are rolling back and forth and being nearly tipped onto the floor. Presumably that is why hammocks were so popular. Passing Cape Reinga at dawn ( the Maori extra-spiritual place and area for sandboarding I remember so well ). We slowed down and generally drifted towards Auckland. Finally went into port at about 2230hrs that night. Still no sign of Cap’n Popeye. 
20th Oct
Walked from port to town. It is about the only port that I have so far been to that is within walking distance of the city hence not at the mercy of bandido taxi drivers. Plenty of walking around, had a good lunch and doing odd jobs. Most importantly raided, at vast cost, a ‘bottle shop’ ( wine shop ) as the Aussies and Kiwis call them. Staggered back to the ship doing my impression of a decrepit water-carrier and clanked my way up the gangway. Phew! We sail for the port of Tauranga ( not far south of Auckland on the Bay of Plenty ) later tonight.
21st Oct
At anchor off Tauranga for most of the day. I didn’t realise that these ships have to pay to anchor, like a parking fee. I also hadn’t realised until I bought a newspaper ( weekly Telegraph ) in Auckland that a fellow container ship, the Rena, had run aground on a reef near here last week and was leaking oil ( it is about 5 miles SE of us and just visible ) or that Bruce Forsyth had been knighted. At last, bumped into Cap’n Popeye. We met on the bridge. He is a remarkably jolly and pleasant little Bulgarian. I learnt that he takes all his meals in his cabin and occasionally ventures out on to the bridge. I was invited by him later that evening to come up to the bridge to watch the harbour ‘pilot’ guide the ship into dock. Passengers are not normally allowed onto the bridge during this delicate operation. Tauranga has a very narrow entrance between a large hill and the opposite shore. We squeezed through smoothly into the port, did a 180 degree turn and docked, assisted by tugs and the ‘bow thruster’ prop, with not even a bump. A good landing and impressive to watch. These boys know what they are doing ( with the possible exception of the crew of the Rena! ). Beer and bed.
22nd Oct
No time to go ashore. We set sail at 1100hrs. Next stop Singapore. I realised that I had forgotten that the second RWC semi-final was on last night! I mistakenly thought it was tonight. Bugger! I could have watched it on ship’s TV. Now definitely no more TV until Singapore 16 days away. I hope my drink supply lasts! Left the Tauranga area without running aground. Waved to the Rena. Onwards onwards.
23rd Oct
Posn (1000hrs): 32º46’S 170º50’E. Tk 301º. Sp 17.8kts.
Sea State: Calm. No chance of TV reception for the RWC final; we will be well out in the Tasman sea. Cap’n Popeye into hiding again. 
24th Oct
Posn (1000hrs): 28º46’S 163º20’E. Tk 303º. Sp 17.6kts.
Sea State: Calm.
Met Popeye on the bridge. We had a good chat about Bulgaria. I had to get my atlas out to find out where it was. He said he had ordered some beer and wine, especially for me, while we were in Auckland. I felt duty bound to buy it, and there was quite a lot. I now have far more than even I can consume between here and Singapore. I will have to arrange a ‘drinks party’ in my cabin at some stage, but as none of the crew are allowed to drink it will have to be a ‘virtual’ one. I will have to play the part of host and all the ‘guests’. 
25th Oct
Posn (1000hrs): 25º03’S 156º35’E. Tk 301º. Sp 19.0kts
Sea State: Calm. Learnt from ship’s news service that the score was NZ 8 FR 7 and that it was a good game. Also learnt that we will be calling in at Port Kelang and then Tanjung Pelepas in Malaya before Singapore. No, I don’t know where they are either.
26th Oct
Posn (0930hrs): 21º15’S 150º12’E. Tk 322º. Sp 18.0kts
Sea State: Flat Calm. Waterskiing conditions. We are now entering the Coral Sea up towards NE coast of Oz. Overtook an other ship this morning; a bulk fuel carrier caller River Embley, and yet another ship passed us in opposite direction. So much action and excitement I can hardly contain myself. 

27th Oct
Just woken up. We seem to be passing close to the shore up the Cape York Peninsula north of Cairns. Discovered a WiFi signal from onshore which probably won't last....so dashing this off to keep you bored. Maybe more to follow if the signal holds.......

Saturday, 15 October 2011

ONWARDS TO BRISBANE - AUSTRALIA

10th - 15th Oct 2011

Brisbane

The Countrylink Overland train from Adelaide to Melbourne is, I think, the one I like the best. The staff seem more laid back, it has a good buffet with a decent 'lounge' seating area and with power points for electrics. It refers to us as passengers ( good ) and does not labour the 'safety' announcements. It is for some reason, a bit of a rocky ride and as I previously waxed lyrical about on the trip up, there is a strange licensing law which does not permit it to sell alcohol in the state of Victoria. I was caught out by this. The train left at  0800hrs. They announced that we would be entering Victoria at about 1200hrs. I decided to wait for lunch to order some beer at about 1145hrs. At 1130 it was suddenly announced that we had entered Victoria and changed to Victoria time; advance clocks 1 hour. That made it 1230hrs. I had missed the beer window. Bollocks!



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By train to the town of Hemmant where I spent a long time hunting down a taxi. It was driven by an Indian gentleman who said he knew exactly ( oh yes ) where the Port was and, more specifically, Patrick's Terminal where the AS Carelia was berthed. Against all previous experience I believed him. Of course he got completely lost and, what should have been a 15 minute ride turned into a 45 minute series of U turns and a $48 bill! The useless cheating..............!!!!!!!!!!
I am now sitting in my cabin waiting for the loading to be completed. I am probably about to lose internet connection so sending this as it is. I might fill in the blanks when next 'on line'. Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum........Stand-by to cast off number 1.

BACK TO ADELAIDE - AUSTRALIA

6th - 10th Oct 2011


Things got off to an irritating start on the final Ghan sector from Alice to Adelaide, and then got progressively worse. Having off-loaded some items from my bigger bag ( well over 20kg ) into a smaller bag, and handed the smaller one in, I thought as before, sorted. I reckoned without an officious lady 'baggage handler'. "No way", she said "could I take that bigger bag onto the train; there is absolutely no room". I protested that I hadn't had a problem before, but these bossy rail staff brook no argument or discussion and if you query their logic they just get stroppy and threaten you with being off-loaded yourself. They are the most unhelpful un-can-do jobsworths I have ever met on any public transport system ( and they insist on calling their passengers 'guests', I ask you ). I had then to hand in my big bag which was, of course, still overweight and they gave me a third bag into which I had to transfer more stuff, and that I was allowed to take onto the train. Of course, when I found my seat in the Red seating class carriage there was masses of space...half the carriage was unoccupied. It left me feeling cross and grumpy. That woman had been lying to me.
I say it got worse because next up we had to listen to the Red seater carriage 'manager' giving us the normal  threats and warnings. This dreadful man, whose name I have wiped off my memory banks, was a little martinet, but also, even more annoyingly, thought he was being witty and amusing and interspersed his dire warnings with 'amusing' comments which made some of the Aussie pax giggle, probably out of nervousness. It made me smoulder with a barely controlled desire to wring his neck. This ultimate jobsworth then proceeded to disallow anyone sharing a seat to move to other empty parts of the carriage, because he might have to move people around later on. He never had to. He also forbade the use of any electrical equipment in the buffet car ( never the case on the other sectors ), which was the only place with tables ( our seats had no tables ) or power points other than the Red lounge, because "they might contaminate the food; I don't know where you might have put them before". "I might allow the use of computers in here after 9pm, if no one is eating" he generously conceded. I suggested that maybe my clothes might also contaminate the place so perhaps I should remove those too. He then got stroppy and started threatening me in a rather facetious manner. He then announced that nobody could use the Red lounge either because it was full. I checked; it wasn't. He really was the complete arsehole. There were many other examples of his hideous officiousness during the journey. He never stopped, or shut up, but I've bored you enough with just the 'beginning' bits. My faith was restored a little when two ladies came up to me and said they wished they had had the nerve to stand up to him, and thanked me for expressing their views. Of course nobody ever does give these poisonous egotistical self appointed demi-gods the good mouthful ( or punch on the nose ) that they richly deserve, because they might get thrown off the train. There are obviously no 'officers' in the Oz rail service to control such appalling staff behaviour. I was so hoping he would meet with a terrible accident.


Re-crossing the Finke River ( left ), the home of that much unappreciated and unique little fish, the Finke Guppy. The rest of the scenery was, as you might guess, rather the same as on the way up. No surprises there. No kangaroos either.

I was, as you can imagine, in not a particularly jolly frame of mind on this sector. 'Lights-out' was at 2200hrs and I tried to get to sleep. Now, I'm not making this up, promise, but my arm started to itch. Come the morning it was still itching badly and there were some red spots on the underside. Sadly, I did not realise at the time what the cause was ( my hand and wrist spots on the way up to Darwin I had put down to some infection or other ).  We got into Adelaide at about 1300hrs and I shared a taxi with a charming couple of Cloggies to the YHA ( the best YHA in Australia, bar none so far ). By now my right arm had started to swell up alarmingly. That afternoon I went to find a medical centre, and without too much of a wait in a very smart and tidy public clinic, was seen by a really nice English doc, originally from Oxford. He looked at my arm, and the remains of the spots on my wrist and immediately said that I had been bitten by bed-bugs, or maybe fleas, and that my arm had reacted badly. He gave me some cream and sent me on my way. This consultation had cost me just $34 and I was told to go round to the 'Medicare' office to claim the money back; which I did and it took little time or effort. I was also signed up, free of charge, for medicare cover for the rest of my stay in Australia. I was mighty impressed by the 'Health Care' facilities I experienced. The same could not be said for Great Southern Railways, the Ghan and their ghastly staff ( well only one or two staff perhaps, but that is enough ). I have written them a letter. So, if any of you are contemplating a trip on the much hyped Ghan, forewarned is forearmed.....in the Red seater class at least. Maybe Gold and Platinum classes don't take bed-bugs and have polite and 'wilco' carriage managers.
It was at about this point that I discovered a ship appearing over the horizon, or at least some helpful agents in London did. I was advised that the good ship AS Carelia would be leaving Brisbane on October 15th  bound for Singapore via New Zealand. I booked onto it. I had originally planned to continue my rail journey on the 'Indian Pacific' train ( another service operated by Great Southern Railways ) from Adelaide across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth, Western Australia. This is another 3 day 2 night train ride. I realised I would now not have time to do this, and anyway I was feeling a bit less than enthusiastic about travelling on another GSR bug-ridden jobsworth infested iron horse. I chose to relax at the Adelaide YHA over the weekend and watch the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals. It was fun..and I put up with great good humour the jibes of the French contingent after the ( inevitable? ) demise of the English. I expect they went off with the Irish boys to celebrate with a good punch-up in Hindley Street. The swelling in my arm and my antipathy towards GSR gradually subsided.
The other sector of the Indian Pacific, from Adelaide to Sydney, a 2 day, 1 night trip, was fully booked due to school holidays and maybe a last minute influx of bed-bugs, so I committed to a return on the Overland ( Countrylink ) train to Melbourne on Monday. This fitted in quite well because it gave me the chance to meet up with an old army friend who happened to be passing through Melbourne on Tuesday.
So, not much time left to explore Oz, and I am a little disappointed in not being able to get to visit Perth and it's environs. As you are no doubt aware, Perth is the home city of the great and glorious Rolf Harris ( when he is not in Henley-on-Thames ).
By the way, a friend told me to look up 'Ghan Bed Bugs' on the internet. It transpires that I am not the only victim!

Friday, 14 October 2011

THE RED CENTRE - AUSTRALIA

1st - 6th Oct 2011

Ayers Rock (as if you hadn't guessed)

Back on the Ghan at 1245hrs and off to The Alice. No major hassle and I survived the irritating baggage routine without getting cross. Same routine as before in reverse with rather strident announcements concerning the rules and regulations delivered by a lady called Shereee ( at least that is how it was pronounced ). I find it tiresome to be continually referred to as a 'guest' on this train. The Great Southern Railways authorities must think that it sounds more friendly for their passengers to be called 'guests'. The authorities at Colditz may have done the same.



We arrived in Alice at about 1245hrs the next day. I was booked into the Alice YHA and it was not a bad place at all. Spent the afternoon wandering around the town doing a bit of shopping because I had booked onto a trip into the 'outback' the next day for a 3 day 2 night expedition. I thought it wise to stock up with extra rations, just as we did before going on some military 'exercise' in the army. It brought back memories.
I passed this innocuous looking building ( left ), but was interested to read the sign......




....which, of course, you can read for yourselves ( right; click on photo to enlarge ). I thought it amusing that the only thing Prince Charles was noted for here was catching food poisoning. Poor chap. I sense a distinct bias towards Diana, Princess of Wales.
Again, as per Darwin, lots of Aborigines sitting around in groups, but none ( that I saw ) working in any of the shops, bars, garages etc. Some of the older and infirm were driving very upmarket invalid carriages.



A prompt start the next day at 0550hrs. There were 13 of us in our bus ( left ) driven and guided by Mark who originally came from Kent. He had spent his life doing adventurous things in Scotland, South Africa and many other places and had been doing these Aussie tours for a few years. He was extremely knowledgeable about this area in all respects and most infectiously enthusiastic about the place, it's flora, fauna and culture. He was also carrying a broken wrist which was heavily strapped up! A hardy man.




We were to cover over 1500kms of road travel in the next three days; quite a marathon. The initial stop was at Kings Canyon, about 300kms west of Alice. This visit started with a hike up a vertiginous cliff called Heart Attack Hill, and was bloody knackering! We were told that this was to be the most energetic part of the walking bits. I was overtaken by a couple of rather overweight girl students from, respectively, Wrexham and Kettering.
Once at the highest spot, the worst was over; sort of. It was the start of a 4 mile hike.
Right: this is a gap between two pinnacles called 'Priscilla's Crack', which featured, we were told, in the film 'Priscilla of the Desert'. Who am I to argue.



Left: Another bit of Kings Canyon; the 'something or other' pool ( forgotten ). Quite dramatic drops from these ledges. A bunch of schoolchildren were swimming in this, and it hadn't rained for ages and the water was probably stagnant.
You may know already, but the reason all the soil and rock in this part of the world is a bright terracotta/red ocre colour is because it is full of iron ore dust, blown across the country over the millenia from the iron rich western deserts. On exposure to air the iron ore dust oxidises and becomes, effectively, rust. This country is covered in rust.


Right: Our indefatigable guide/driver, Mark, who not only displayed excellent geological knowledge, and I won't bore you with all the details about sedimentary sandstone rock formations, but had an enyclopaedic knowledge of the local flora and fauna, a good understanding of and sympathetic interest in the Aboriginal culture, great confidence and patience in leading a bunch of students/old gits up dodgy mountain terrain, a terrific sense of humour and, obviously, a good head for heights. He is standing with his back to a big drop.


Left: A bus we passed, long ago abandoned by some previous 'Red Centre Rock' tour. Either that or a London bus driver took the wrong at Lewisham. There was lots of long distance driving through some monotonous countryside. To keep us 'amused' ( awful ) we were invited to play games as we rattled along, but first we were handed the microphone and asked to describe ourselves to the others with some leading questions supplied. I decided to elaborate a bit and I'm sure, unless they were entirely gullible, that they did not believe a word I said.




I was expecting some of the desert countryside to resemble this ( left ), but it didn't. We were continually reminded to take lots of water with us. As it happened, the first day and night were cloudy with some drizzle ( and worse ). After Kings Canyon we had a stop at a place called Curtain Springs, the main aim here was to purchase enough beer to last us for the two nights' camping. A lot was bought. We also had to stop somewhere to rip fire charred trees to bits to get wood for the camp fire. This was extremely strenuous work and involved splinters, and getting very black from the charcoal covered wood. Thirsty work; lucky we had the beer.



Right: Also at Curtain Springs ( or it may have been elsewhere ) this brings back memories "... Ah, don't go acting the fool, Curl, just keep me cockatoo cool!" ( for the Rolf Harris fans ).
We drove on, in the dark, to a campsite seemingly in the middle of nowhere and with no facilities other than a cleared sandy patch, a rustic corrugated iron shelter and with some rocks around a space for the fire, but presumably convenient for tomorrow's escapades. Just like a place for the Squadron 'Jurgah'.
I didn't worry too  much about snakes and scorpions etc.



Left: A jolly evening around the campfire and some excellent 'tucker' was prepared by Mark and his sidekick, a learner guide, Troy. Chilli Con Carni from what I remember. After much carousing and beer we all went to our 'swags'. A 'swag' is a 'slightly' waterproof canvas roll-up covering with a built in foam mattress into which you insert your sleeping bag. In the British army we knew these things as 'officers' valises'. I very gallantly offered to spread mine outside by the fire to allow the others a peaceful night away from my possible porcine snoring , and they went off to the rustic iron overhead shelter about 50 yds away. It was sometime during the night that the storm broke. All I remember was receiving a severe drenching plus crashing thunder and vivid lightening. I staggered around generally towards the shelter through mud and rain and stygian darkness dragging my sodden swag behind me. I could only see anything when there was a bolt of lightening! I aimed, by dead reckoning, for the shelter and realised I was there by the noise one makes when stepping on sleeping student's faces and feet. My arrival did not go unnoticed, and it was difficult to find a free space under cover. I collapsed somewhere and managed to get some sleep, albeit soaking wet. This episode did not go unremarked upon after 'reveille' at 0530hrs the next morning. I had indeed been warned that it might rain. Sorreeee!



The next morning it was to Kata Tjuta. May I take this opportunity to explain that this neck of the desert was 'given back' to the 'Aboriginal Nation' in a gesture of conciliation by the Oz government in 1985. Thus, overnight, Ayers Rock became known, officially, as Uluru; the Olgas became known as Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon became known as Kings Canyon. This ( right ) is part of Kata Tjuta, the Valley of the Winds. For us 'swaggers' it was another 4 mile hike. In the summer months this place gets unbearably hot ( up to 46 degrees c ).




Left: The other three 'less' youthful group of us 'swaggers' ( and the guy on the right was not with us, he just joined in for the photo ) standing in the Valley of the Winds between two Olgas. There are about 35 of these tall red sandstone lumps in the area. It was explained exactly how they came about. Look it up if you are interested.














That evening we went to get view of 'Uluru' at sunset, at the official 'sunset viewing point'. Us plus about 500 other tourists. The very smart and expensive ( 1 day, comfortable bus, no swags ) tours were being treated to champagne and canapés. We were still working our way through the beer supply.
Lots of photos were taken...so I should show them.








Left: These were some of the champagne quaffing crowd. I may have mentioned; this rock, Uluru, was 'discovered' for the Brits by the explorer William Gosse in 1873. He named it after the financier/politician Sir Henry Ayers who had sponsored him on his expedition to the centre of the country.







Right: Yet another view. Uluru, as well as every other site of geological significance is, apparently, viewed by the Abos as sacred and spiritual. It was carefully explained to us that the Aborigines, having no written language, pass on all their laws, skills and customs by a form of story-telling from legend known as 'tjukurpa'. If you ask them a question of why, or what, the answer is often just 'tjukurpa'. They keep most explanations of this secret ( from the whitefella anyway ). Most aboriginal words and names seem to start with the letters 'tju' for some reason.


So many pics were taken of 'Uluru', because that is really what everybody wanted to see. This ( left ) is a pic of our team of intrepid explorers. OK, that's enough of the big view of the Rock.
We had supper there, and then went to another campsite. Due to all the rain the previous night the Park Authorities had put a ban on all campfires. ( don't ask why ). We went to a semi built-up site with electricity, running water, showers, loos etc, but still slept in the swags. No more rain thankfully. Indeed the weather had turned hot and dry.


The next day we started before dawn with a drive to the official 'Uluru at sunrise viewing point'. I won't dare show you another view of the whole rock with the sun coming up behind and changing it's colour. Most dramatic though it was. We then visited the Uluru Cultural Centre and shop. It was interesting to note ( to me anyway ) that for the whole time we were there, passing through the National Park check-points ( $25 please ), the museum, the Culture Centre, the cafe and the rock itself, there was no sign of any Aborigines. I asked Mark why this was. He said it is because they are not that interested. I found that strange considering we were continually reminded that this is one of their most 'sacred' sites.



We set off on another close-in walk around the rock. It's 5 miles all the way round. There are many holes and caves ( all very sacred ) in the rock and lots of strange Aboriginal 'legends' and stories concerning them involving monsters, mythical snakes and fearful nightmarish stories. These holes were created over hundreds of thousands of years by the hard outer core of the rock eroding away and exposing the softer inner sandstone to the elements.





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Left: Another curious bit of erosion on the rock.  This had a name, but I've forgotten it.










There is a wire rope strung up the eastern end of the rock to assist climbers in getting to the top. If you fall on this ( not difficult ) ascent there is otherwise nothing to grasp hold of and you would slide all the way down a steep incline, and the rock, acting like course sand-paper, would rip you to shreds before you got to the bottom. I had absolutely no desire to climb up it. On the other hand, Aboriginal 'sensitivities' strongly discourage people from climbing up their sacred rock. I asked why they just don't ban it altogether, even on the perfectly justifiable grounds of track erosion and other damage. I suspect tourists and money come into the equation somewhere along the line here.




On the long hot drive home to Alice we stopped at a few places like this ( left ), Lake Amadeus. This is a dry salt lake ( excuse bad pic ). Just hundreds of miles of dry salt, with the occasional rain to make it a bit soggy.











In the distance ( right ) Mount Connor. This has some strange and 'evil' Aboriginal connotation. Something to do with graves of ancestors, and as such tours, in general, are forbidden. Unless of course they are prepared to pay $350 for a single 4x4 vehicle excursion.






.......and a camel farm. No ordinary camel farm however; this is a racing camel farm. There are several prestigious camel races around the Alice area and the owner/trainer of this establishment has had more than his fair share of wins. His trophy cabinet was bulging.
Technically speaking these animals are dromedaries ( one hump not two, vicar ).
Mark told us that he got the ride on one of these animals once in a 1000 metre race, and won!







Right: Being led in after a short piece of 'work'. I said I might make myself available for the Spring Meeting next year.








So back to The Alice, and all in one piece. I don't envy these tour operators. The scope for disaster amongst some pretty ignorant tourists out in the middle of nowhere in often quite harsh conditions is quite significant. I think I fall well and truly into that category.
We finished off our 'tour' with supper at a restaurant in Alice. Kangaroo steaks all round. And I have still not seen a pesky kangaroo.
Off back on the Ghan to Adelaide tomorrow. Looking forward to the RWC quarter finals to be watched at the multi-national YHA over the weekend.


Monday, 10 October 2011

DARWIN - AUSTRALIA

27th Sep - 1st Oct 2011

My HQ and oasis on Mitchell St, Darwin.

Darwin, the Top End, is the capital of the Northern Territories, just 'The Territory' to local Territorians. It has a tropical climate. The daytime temperature averaged about 34 degrees (c) while I was there. It is a famous harbour city not least for having been heavily bombed by the Japanese in 1942. It took more hits on the initial raid than the US Pearl Harbor. I stayed at the YHA which was rather a scruffy ill-equipped joint compared to the excellent YHA in Adelaide. The city has a compact centre ( CBD ) and things tend to happen around Mitchell and Smith Streets, with a new Wharf Precinct development near the harbour at the southern end.


I visited the establishment called Crocosaurus Cove which is in the middle of the main Mitchell Street. Extraordinary place, a bit like the Tardis because it is much bigger on the inside than the entrance suggests. It holds several large old 'salties' in ponds-cum-compounds with underground viewing areas ( left ).  The average age of the crocs is about 80 years old. There are seven big ( about 20ft long ) residents called Burt, Choppa ( who is missing his two front feet; lost in combat ), Denzel, Harry, Wendel plus the loving pair Houdini and Bess re-named Will and Kate in honour of the newly weds. On the left, Burt.



The staff do a daily feeding routine. Being reptiles, crocs, despite their reputation, do not eat much and then only in small sized portions. Big mouth and teeth but small throat. They do, however, have a terrifyingly powerful bite; the equivalent in pressure to the weight of a large truck. In comparison the human bite pressure is about 20lbs. They can go for a long time without eating. They are very territorial and will, normally, viciously attack any living thing which encroaches their space, including unsolicited lady crocodiles.





The public can feed the juvenile crocs using fishing rods with a bit of meat on the line. I don't think you are allowed to take your own tackle with a barbed hook, which would be a lot more fun.
There is also a 'pool' where people ( mainly children ) can swim 'with' these baby crocs. There is a glass wall separating crocs from children, unfortunately.






They also feature what is dramatically called 'The Cage of Death' ( right ). This is a reinforced transparent capsule which a couple of punters can enter and then be lowered into one of the big boy's ponds. The capsule submerges and the punters can dive down to flick V-signs at the 20ft saltie and remain unscathed when the croc retaliates. Friends and relations can view and take photos of the action at the viewing windows below. I watched a couple of young bikini clad girls being dunked in Choppa's pool. Choppa lay on the side at the bottom completely uninterested by all the wild gesticulating by both girls and their parents desperate to get some sensational photos. I think he had gone to sleep ( he is, after all, 80 years old ) and had probably realised the futility of breaking his teeth on the thick perspex long ago.


There is a croc 'museum' which has lots of info and models of most of the different types of crocodiles, alligators and caimans in the world. Crocs in this part of the world were nearly hunted to extinction, but are now protected and the population in the wild has largely recovered. There are also crocodile farms where they are bred for their skins, and most profitably too. Salties tend to live in fresh or brackish water, but can deal with salt water if necessary, hence their name.
I learnt how to tell a crocodile from an alligator ( apart from alligators living mainly in the USA ). There are four give-away signs. The most noticeable being that the fourth front lower tooth of a croc over-laps the upper jaw, whereas it doesn't in a 'gator.
Remember that as you are being dragged below the water.







There is also a comprehensive reptile section. Most of the indigenous snakes, lizards and iguanas etc. are featured including the lethal ( 3rd most poisonous snake in the world ) taipan ( right ), 3 metres long.
I found the freshwater aquarium interesting. It featured, amongst much else, enormous saw-fish which were being fed and caught their prey by battering it or stabbing it with their viciously serrated saw. Also archer fish which, if you held a small morsel of food in tweezers about 4ft over the water, shot an incredibly accurate jet of water to shoot it down and eat it. I could have kept on doing that for ages.



Next day a tour to Litchfield National Park. The big much hyped National Park in the area is the Kakadu, but it is a 5 hour drive away and would, realistically, take two days to 'do it' and with just more of the same as Litchfield which is only a 2 hour drive south east of Darwin.








Our driver/guide was Joey ( left ) who was both extremely knowledgeable about local flora and fauna and had a wicked sense of humour....which became more apparent as the day progressed. Their were 15 of us on the small coach, mainly of the student/backpacker variety and of several different nationalities ( no Germans for once! No other Brits either for that matter ).







We first stopped by the bank of the Adelaide River for a trip in a boat to watch the 'leaping crocs'. This croc ( right ) is a model of the largest beast caught in these parts.











Before boarding the boat we had breakfast and someone ( Joey ) dragged out a couple of pythons to string around the girls' necks. They didn't seem to object too much......and the girls put up a brave show too. I cannot understand the fascination of having close contact with snakes. I was more interested in eating my breakfast, frankly.







Then onto the boat. Those on the lower deck were firmly advised to keep their body parts inboard and under no circumstances to hang their arms over the side........










.....The reason for this became perfectly clear when we got a little way up the river. Crocs appeared gliding out from the banks like semi-submerged u-boats, and they were big buggers who probably knew it was.........











.......FEEDING TIME!













... their jaws made a hell of a 'whoomph' when they bit off the bit of dangling meat. They were bloody close to us, and I was on the upper deck..wisely!










Then into the park proper. There were many 'cathedral' termite mounds of which this ( right ) was one of the bigger ones. This one would have been about 25 years old. Joey encouraged us to pick off a termite and eat it because they have a nice peppery taste, and which several of the more adventurous guys and gals did with relish. One of the boys, an Austrian I think, said he was suffering from a dose of the shits. This was music to the ears of Joey who knew an infallible and rapid Aboriginal remedy. He crushed up two or three fistfuls of termite mound, stirred it up in water and told the poor chap to down it in one go, quickly. He did and wasn't sick, just. I don't know if this remedy was effective but we didn't hear any more from the Austrian lad for the rest of the day.







Left: These are 'magnetic' termite mounds; so called because they are flat sided and point north-south. This is caused by the termites shielding themselves from the morning and evening sun...or something along those lines. They are built on flood plains by a different type of termite to the 'cathedral' mound ones.
We were also introduced to several varieties of tree and ground ant which were 'good' to eat. Some tasted of lemon, some of red wine and some of honey, apparently, because I resisted the temptation to try them. I was worried I might end up having to drink crushed up termite mound.




Then we went to the Wongi rock pool for a swim. OK, it was a bit crowded like Blackpool beach on a sunny bank holiday afternoon, but pleasant to splash around in nevertheless. I thought what fun it would have been to launch an inflatable croc, and it was as much as I could do to restrain myself from yelling "CROCODILE!" and watch people manage to run on water like Tom and Gerry characters.








A delicious picnic lunch seemed to appear like magic  after this, courtesy of the Tour. Most welcome, and none of the food was Joey inspired aboriginal insects or other disgusting 'natural' produce. Proper salad, veg and cold meats, thank you.
I carelessly mentioned witchety grubs to him. He said that they are delicious but, sadly, there are no witchety bushes in this park. Thank goodness.








Right: A pleasant view over the Florence Falls somewhere on route.











On to some more water at the Buley rock pools for another refreshing dip and jumping off the rocks. This time the redoubtable Joey excelled himself. There were two very charming and pretty Danish girls with us. Somehow they got stranded with Joey in a particular pond and he did indeed manage to produce a large plastic crocodile head in the water just as one of them leapt in. Apparently the results were spectacular to behold and just as well, for hygiene reasons, that the poor girl was in the water and downstream of the rest of us. I wish I had been there to see it.





We stopped for beer and a wash and change on the way home at a caff in the middle of nowhere. It had an interesting garden.......( right ).












By this stage Joey was getting a little bit above himself......!
We all got back safely at about 1900hrs. An amusing day out.
The next day I spent wandering around the town.







There are a lot of Aboriginal people ( not allowed to call them Abos, apparently ) in Darwin. They seem just to 'sit around' in small groups either talking, or just sitting. I have not yet seen any of them actually doing a job, not even selling aboriginal knick-knacks to tourists unlike other indigenous peoples. With, no doubt, some notable exceptions they appear to lead a parallel existence with little or no wish to integrate with the 'whitefella'. I was aware that they tend to lead a life of indolence and alcoholism which is encouraged by the dole ( known as 'sit-down' money by some ) and many other government hand-outs. I may learn more about them later.


Left: These are the remains of the original Palmerston Town Hall, near the Parliament building. The town was originally called Palmerston in 1869, and the name was changed to Darwin in 1911. Most of the place was destroyed by cyclone Tracy in 1974 including this building. The ruins have been preserved for old times sake, and as a memorial to all those killed and property destroyed during the cyclone.







Just around the corner is the Northern Territories Parliament Building. It was built fairly recently I believe and is, in my opinion, a hideous monstrosity on the Ceaucescu Romanian lines of architectural merit.
I can just imagine the Territorian MPs sitting at their desks in shorts and flip-flops. They probably wear shirts on formal occasions.
There were signs pointing the way for visitors, but all the doors were locked when I was there ( mid-day ).



I paid a visit to the Aviation Heritage Museum on the outskirts of the town. The centrepiece of the collection, indeed about the only complete major aircraft, is a giant B52 G bomber. This was donated to Darwin by the grateful Yanks in 1991. They play a video in the vast bomb-bay, and there are, incongruously, some Ansett Airlines ( deceased ) steps up to the outside of the flight-deck with a limited view inside. Most of the instruments and fittings have been removed. The only impressive thing about this display is the size of the eight engined monster.



Under one of the wings of the B52 is an original 1980 Australian built Wasp Autogyro ( right ). This was modelled on the successful US made Benson Gyrocopter, but it never flew. I'm not really surprised. I think I spotted the design flaw straight away;  the rotor blades are way too short! They must have misread the blueprint.






Lots of exhibits were just bits of wreckage. This ( left ) is what is left of a 1939 Wirraway CA GP aircraft. Firstly, I've never heard of one before and secondly, I didn't really give much of a damn. Are we impressed?  We were warned not to touch the exhibits; we might damage them!








Likewise this awe inspiring chunk of metal ( right ) which was, once upon a time, part of a Meteor F8 Jet Trainer. Might take a bit of time and imagination to get it airborne again....like dropping it into the sea from 10,000ft.








...and this ( left ) is what remains of a Japanese Zero? ( not sure ) piloted by Chief Petty Officer Ono Wattapiti of the Japanese Imperial Navy, shot down in 1942. He survived the crash and was captured by two aboriginals armed with pointed sticks in Arnhemland, 200kms east of Darwin.
There were other exhibits of such things as a partially restored B25 Mitchell bomber and a few old civilian aircraft. It is an exhibition perhaps lacking in financial backing, but certainly not enthusiasm by it's volunteer group of curators and restorers. It amused me anyway.


I found a few decent places to eat, other than the Oirish Shenannigans who showed the Rugby World Cup games. One eatery, at which I waited 45 minutes for an expensive watery micro-waved steak, was called The Hog's Breath Cafe. It advertised on it's menu 'Boss Hog Mushies- fresh mushrooms dipped in our hand-crafted salt and pepper crumbs cooked to a golden brown and served with tartare sauce'. I wondered who on earth spent all that time 'hand-crafting' salt and pepper crumbs? I didn't have the balls to ask one of the overworked waitresses; they may not have understood. There is also a curious confusion when it comes to eating and smoking areas. Several bars and restaurants are sort of half in and half outdoors. The smoking areas ( at least they have them which is highly commendable ) and eating areas are just divided by a white line. I got bollocked, twice, for eating in a smoking area! I said I hope my eating will not damage their health. They replied that it was just the law.



I took a walk south down the Esplanade, a pleasant garden lined street on the shoreline to Government House ( circa 1870 ) which is a most attractive looking colonial style building. 'Entrance by invitation only', it said, not surprisingly. I was not invited even though I hung around the gate for at least 5 minutes waving and going "Cooeee! Anyone at home?"










Right: Part of the new and very smart Wharf Precinct development, near the harbour, consisting of this ( saltie free ) artificial beach, luxury hotels, restaurants, apartments and other leisure facilities.










All very nice, but like so much of this country fairly covered with rules about what you cannot do. ( No Jumping? I didn't dare do even a little hop for fear of bringing the whole might of the law down on my head ).








I suppose the upside is that, as far as I could see, they do not have a big problem with drunken louts and yobs rampaging about the place. There is certainly a pleasantly noticeable lack of litter and graffiti. It might, however, save time, space and sign-writers' paint to make notices describing what you can do rather than what you can't.











I am having a bit of a problem finding a means of escaping Oz by sea. There appears not to be any passenger carrying vessels bound for southern Asia as I had hoped. On the off chance, I went into a travel agency and asked Raylene ( that's a new one on me, even by Aussie standards ) if she could do some research. I even offered her a reward if she was successful. No luck so far.
Off back southbound on the Ghan again ( Red economy class ) for a break at Alice Springs to explore the Red Centre. At least the bed-bug bites on my hand and wrist have now cleared up. Might even see a kangaroo or two.