Friday, 21 December 2007

Perfect to Stay

I said I love time, but never ever this long
[...]
Sooner or later I'll be perfect to stay

ON Thursday, December 16, 1773, the Sons of Liberty - American patriots and/or antiestablishmentarianists - reacted to the Tea Act, newly introduced by the British government, by emptying casks of tea from the Dartmouth into Boston harbour. The event, the Boston Tea Party, is often seen as a spark of the American Revolution, in which America rid its hands of those pesky Brits. A small sample of that tea actually still remains. Rescued and preserved it is now displayed in the Old State House museum in the centre of Boston.

Boston then, the final stop of the grand old tour of the world. A trip which I hadn't truly appreciated until I stood inside the Mapparium, a 30ft diameter walk-in globe, a three-dimensional map of the world as it was in 1935 composed of 608 stained glass panels. Situated in the Mary Baker Eddy library, adjacent to the First Church of Christ, Scientist (a concept I simply do not have time to explain), it was illuminating for two reasons. First, it is surprising quite how the politics of the world have changed in just 72 years. Countries were marked that have not existed in my lifetime; the power of the Soviet Union suddenly made sense seeing quite how large it really was; colonies were still in abundance. Second, it highlighted just how far I have gone in just four months. No wonder my mother was worried!

When we arrived in Boston it was under a foot of snow. When we leave tomorrow evening, it will probably still be under a foot of snow. Rarely has the temperature been above freezing. Rarely in this trip have I needed to wear so many layers. And now apparently it is Christmas, another fact I am having difficulty coming to terms with. For me winter began last week when I flew into the northern hemisphere for the first time since Singapore.

Boston is my favourite of our stops in the USA. It is pretty and interesting, less busy but more cultural than our previous stops of Washington DC and New York. Granted it is not the cleanest of places, and seems to have more than its fair share of insane people (I jest not), but it is a pleasant, friendly and agreeable place. It is also the intellectual corner of New England - yesterday we visited M.I.T and Harvard, though we got lost around Harvard, proving that we would not necessarily be cut out for this respected educational establishment.

Now, finally, it is time to come home, and about time too. Everything I have seen along the way has been an amazing experience, for I have seen and learnt things I shall never forget and I am extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to do so. But four months is too long to be away. I miss my family, my friends, my bed, beans on toast, English houses, tea, proper milk, pubs, the way the grass grows (for it truly is unique in Britain), proper money, proper food and a good old familiar routine. Most of all I miss Rachel, who has been patiently waiting for me to come home and to get the travelling bug out of my system. I'm afraid I haven't, so I'll just have to take her with me next time.

Thank you for reading the stories I have been able to tell while I have been away. There are so many more that I have not had time to share, which you will all inevitably hear with time, but don't expect to hear from me until after the new year, because straight after Christmas I'll be leaving on a jet plane...

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 16 December 2007

A Is For Parrot, Which We Can Plainly See

Empire State Building (Honest)

IT started snowing as we walked through Times Square.

Then it started raining. The Statue of Liberty: shrouded in fog. The Empire State Building: shrouded in fog. Brooklyn Bridge: shrouded in fog. The Naked Cowboy: indoors keeping himself warm in these frozen times. December is not, it would seem, the best time of the year to go sightseeing in New York.

That doesn't mean you can't have a good look around. This morning we headed to South Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, but prevented from doing so by the weather we went inland, to Wall Street and the financial district, and then up to City Hall and Ground Zero. Seeking refuge from the cold briefly in a department store (don't ask me which one, I'm a boy) we then went back up to Times Square for lunch and some exciting shopping opportunities (yes, even for boys) and then to the Empire State Building ("Today's Visibility: 0 Miles - Tickets $19"), before catching the train to Central Park to watch squirrels and to squelch in the snow. All the while I dreamt of cheesecake and a nice warm fire.

When our bus pulled into New York yesterday I was worried. I like big, busy cities - I find them exciting - but seeing the skyline of New York approach slowly I couldn't help but think I was out of my depth. This place is so much bigger than anywhere I have been before. Times Square on our first night (a Saturday night no less) was absolutely heaving. The metro was packed. It was all very different to the islands of Fiji, one of which you could walk around in four and a half minutes (Jeannette timed it).

But I've warmed (in spirit at least) to the place. It's quite exciting really, since anything of any importance tends to happen here. The Big Apple is the quintessential home of the American spirit, which makes the fact that the highlight of my day was the presence of an Englishman all the stranger.

That man would be John Lennon. In Central Park, in the Strawberry Fields section, is an 'Imagine' memorial to the singer. In the Hard Rock Cafe a board with his handwritten 'story', a scattergram alphabet in which A is for Parrot and N is for Brazil, because it is close to Venezuela. Surreal and probably nonsense, but a valuable item to have on the wall. Whether you buy into his legend or not, the memorial is an affecting place, with no image or statue, but just the word 'Imagine' and a symbol for peace.

This is my story both humble and true,
tear it to pieces and mend it with glue.


Tomorrow morning my first visit to New York City comes to an end, as I shall be catching a bus to Boston. Boston, I am told, is even colder. I can't wait to return to British weather!

From A is for Parrot (again) (March 2008)

"A is for Parrot", originally uploaded by SBishop.

The subject of a previous post, I finally got around to publishing a photo of John Lennon's poetry in the Hard Rock Cafe, New York.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Fifty Nifty United States

I HAVE spent the last three days in the capital of the U S of A, Washington DC.

I mostly spent the first two days in bed.

You see the trouble is, Fiji is twelve hours ahead of the UK, and twenty ahead of Los Angeles. Our flight from Nadi, due to depart at 10.55pm Fiji time was delayed by four hours, thus we took off in what was, to me, the early hours of the following morning. I slept throughout takeoff, but after a small snack and a film I suddenly ceased to be tired, and so for most of the nine and a half hour flight I remained awake. Breakfast followed at Fijian breakfast time, which was now, to put the ensuing problems into perspective, three o'clock in the afternoon Los Angeles time, the previous day. So we took off on the 12th of December, only to land late afternoon on the 11th, the other side of the Pacific, having just had breakfast. Then, four hours later, we were in the air again, flying to Washington DC, three hours further ahead, landing three hours after taking off from Nadi, eighteen hours previously. By the time we regained consciousness in the city, having slept since arrival, it had been twenty four hours since we had eaten and it was still the 12th of December.

I'm not entirely sure my body has yet adjusted, but after two days of laziness it was time to see the city. Between the periods of narcolepsy all we had achieved so far was to see the White House, a shopping mall and a man singing to himself in Italian, so our third and final day needed to be action packed. So today we went on a whistlestop tour of one of the coolest museums on the planet (but I shan't say what it is just yet) and the National Mall, stopping off at the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building, before rapidly making our way back to our accommodation to escape the freezing cold.

Gone are the flip-flops of Fiji, in come the woolly hats and gloves for America. I may even keep the beard for added insulation.

Friday, 14 December 2007

If You Pick A Raw Paw

THERE I was, all ready to write something original and interesting about a side of Fiji you had probably never thought existed, something clever and important about poverty in paradise, with the added spice of political unrest. But then the hurricane came along and changed everything.

I had thought it was getting a bit windy. I'd been down on the beach, swinging in a hammock and reading my book when suddenly it started raining and getting a bit blowy. No matter, it was nearly lunchtime anyway.

But at lunch we received some quite startling news. Predictions came in that a cyclone, the worst for ten years, was on its way to Fiji. Not just Fiji but the Yasawa Islands where I happened to be. It would hit in about 12 hours.

Now in my head a true melodrama erupted. After all, a hurricane is not a concept familiar to the English. You see them on television, but you certainly don't get them in Lyme Bay. Where would I have to hide? Would the buildings be safe? What if the toilet cubicle flew away at the worst possible moment?

The villagers put us at ease. They did not seem to be concerned at all - but to reassure me they advised me that the hut where I was staying was the safest of the lot (concrete huts will fall to pieces, wooden huts like mine stay composed and tip rather than collapse). Indeed the villagers found it almost comical that we tourists were concerned at all, finding it incredulous that we had no concept of a cyclone.

So we sat and waited. In the evening we played cards, for if it was going to happen, we might as well be having fun.

And goodness, what a quiet hurricane. I slept straight through it all! In fact, the only thing that woke me up were my drunk room mates who returned to the hut at 2am and began re-enacting Big Brother scenes and singing songs.

Of course, you will realise that the cyclone did not hit that evening. In the calm of the following morning, in which the rain and wind ceased and the sun came out, we thought we had avoided it. So much so, we spent the morning walking through the jungle to coconut groves and doing handstands on the beach. However, it was still headed our way, getting stronger (now a category 4), and now due to hit Waya Lailai at approximately midnight that night. As the sun went down, the sky turned an apocalyptic red, bats flying high up above, all other wildlife silent. This was the calm before the storm.

Cyclone Daman hit Fiji that night. Cikobia island was the worst affected - homes were destroyed, freshwater supplies contaminated and widespread flooding problems continued for days. It was not a trivial storm.

Fortunately for us, the cyclone hit northern Fiji and unexpectedly turned East, petering out over the Pacific, and not the Yasawa group. We were very lucky indeed.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Where Poets Speak Their Hearts

I'll see you again
When the stars fall from the sky
And the moon has turned red
Over One Tree Hill


AND that was New Zealand. It happened in such a blur I have been able to tell you so little of what happened. In fact, I wrote more about Singapore, while in Singapore, than I ever did of here. There was just so much to see, and so little time.

From the unbeatable beauty of the south island to the people and culture of the north, New Zealand did not disappoint. Alas I saw perhaps less of the north than I could have, due to devoting my attention to a rather large job application (and thus I can at least vouch for the standard of Kiwi internet cafes), but I have seen enough of it all to know that I am coming back. And I'm bringing you with me.

Yesterday I climbed One Tree Hill with Cat Holley, a friend from Birmingham, who is studying here for a year. One Tree Hill is an extinct volcano, now the home of lots of sheep, overlooking the city of Auckland. A former Maori pa, or fort, it currently carries the nickname of None Tree Hill, for in 2000 Maori activists damaged the tree in protest and it had to be removed on safety grounds.

So in a few hours I am flying off to Fiji, where I shall be island-hopping around the Yasawa islands. I therefore do not expect to have internet access until the USA straight after, so hang tight, and expect accounts of tropical paradises soon.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Waewae takahia kia kino*

Haka


YOU might notice that in the few posts I have written from New Zealand, I have not indulged nor learnt much of Maori culture, certainly in comparison to my interest in Australian Aboriginal culture. Partly this is because - contrary to the advice of our travel agent - you really cannot do New Zealand in three weeks, and therefore we have been racing around, rarely stopping for breath or chance to learn something of the local people. It is also because we have spent more time in the south island, a visual spectacle of a landmass and the true treasure of the land of the long white cloud, but also home to only a quarter of New Zealand's population and far fewer Maori settlements.

We have just spent the last few days in Rotorua, a city in the Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand's north island. It is fascinating on several levels, from the geothermal fields that surround it, sending up plumes of steam from random draincovers and some notable geysers, to the sulphur-rich lake and atmosphere which, frankly, pongs a little. It is also, at least for KiwiExperience passengers, the place to be to experience Maori culture. So on Monday night, Tamaki tours took us to a Maori Marae (meeting ground) to view a concert and share a hangi feast. It was a truly memorable evening.

Here's Looking At You, Kid


Each bus was to represent a visiting tribe who would accept a peace offering and be welcomed into the village. For a chief, our group chose Kent from Oregon, who was in New Zealand to celebrate his tenth wedding anniversary (and to have his vows renewed, Maori style). Along with the three other visiting chiefs, Kent had to stand alone and face the Tamaki tribe's challenge, in which several toa (warriors) made threatening and violent gestures, supported by war cries, fire poi and sword demonstrations. This Powhiri (formal welcome) is designed to ascertain if the visiting tribe come in peace - if so the visitor will stand and not retaliate, waiting for a peace offering (a Teka) to be presented. Though the near dance-like movements and sticking out of the tongue might sound by description a little amusing, in a serious setting they are truly quite intimidating.

Once granted permission to enter by a Karanga (call of welcome), we all walked around the village, in which Maori crafts such as woodcrafts, weaponry and cooking were displayed. From here we entered the Wharenui (meeting house) for the concert, a display of chants, hand games, poi, stories, song and dance, including the haka (minus the rugby strips). The standard of it all was fantastic, the tone far lighter than the threatening entrance display by the toa. Indeed, applause may not be a Maori invention, but it was fully welcomed!

Maori Totem


Lastly we moved on to the hangi feast, a buffet of food cooked in the traditional manner, underground with hot rocks. For a backpacker it truly was a banquet, with roast chicken and lamb, more vegetables than you could imagine (including kumara), and for pudding the most divine pavlova I have ever tasted. I had a few too many helpings, I just couldn't help myself.

It was a fantastic evening in which I learnt a lot about Maori tradition and folklore. It was in essence a tourist attraction, but it was delivered with such pride and respect, and also immense gratitude. The Maori are far greater appreciated in their home country than the Aboriginals are in Australia, and they are truly thankful.



*a line from the Haka, meaning "Stamp the feet as hard as you can"
Photos: (top) A demonstration of the Haka; (middle) a Maori carving at the entrance to the Rotorua botanical gardens; (bottom) a carving in the Tamaki village

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Paikea

edited 28/11/07

THERE is a town just north of Christchurch of which I am very fond. It is called Kaikoura, Maori for 'meal of crayfish', and it is a most remarkable place.

A former whaling village on the eastern coast of the south island of New Zealand, the town is laid out on both sides of a lone headland in miles of rugged shoreline. It has a pebble and shingle beach leading into a cyan sea, and is nestled at the feet of snowcapped mountains. At dusk the town shimmers with blue.

The first time I came here, at the beginning of KiwiExperience, I caught a catamaran called Wheketere out into the Pacific Ocean in search of whales. This area of coastline is fortunate to have a short fragment of continental shelf dropping suddenly into the abyss, bringing plentiful wildlife close to the mainland. Indeed, in the space of two hours at sea I saw sperm whales resting on the surface and then diving below, a fifty-strong pod of dusky dolphins and seals sunbathing by the beach. Throughout the year whale-spotters might find pilot, blue, humpback or southern right whales, and maybe even orca off of these shores.

The town is also renowned for its seafood, hence the Maori name, and is home to a shack selling "the best seafood in New Zealand". This it may be, for it was mightily tasty, but in my case it wasn't cooked properly and, well, I shall say no more...

In 2002 an excellent film called Whale Rider was released. Set in Whangara, a small coastal Maori village, the local people believe that their great ancestor Paikea arrived on the back of a whale. Every leader of the tribe since has been named Paikea, and every one has been the first born son. That is, until Pai was born, for Pai is female. Though Pai believes she can be the leader of the tribe, the story follows her attempts to prove herself to the patriarchal village elders.

If Whangara did not actually exist, Kaikoura could easily be that village. It now has its fair share of tourism, but the spirit of the place lies with the gorgeous expanse of water it lies beside.

Since leaving Kaikoura I have been travelling rather intensively. I have come from the blue of that place, over the Cook Strait and through the browns of the volcanic plateau of Tongariro, past Mount Doom and on to Rotorua, a city that if anything is very yellow - the surrounding region is rich in sulphur, making the lakes and soils yellow in coloration. It also smells pretty foul as a result.

Apologies for the slow rate of posts - for reasons that will no doubt be explained at a later date I am very busy. And on holiday, mind.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

And In The Darkness...

JUST because I am a tourist in New Zealand does not mean I want to throw myself out of a plane, alright?

Welcome to Queenstown, the adventure capital of "the world". The birthplace of bungee and home to many thrilling activities such as jet boating, skiiing, river boarding, white water rafting, skydiving, luging, parasailing, paragliding and hang gliding, it certainly is a happening place, nestled in a corner of the beautiful Lake Wakatipu. Faced with all of these exciting options, and little time to experience them, what would I choose?

Yes, that's right, today I went horse riding.

Those of you who know me will already be aware that the last time I went horse riding things did not go smoothly. Thus it would seem an unusual choice for me to have made, but I was genuinely enthusiastic about it. Not only did I want to prove that I can ride a horse and can enjoy it, but I wanted to get out into the countryside, away from the roads, so that I could soak up the unfairly gorgeous landscapes from a unique perspective, rather than through a bus window. As an added bonus, this happens to be where a lot of Lord of the Rings was filmed so my inner geek was to be appeased also.

I was picked up from my hostel at 8am by a lady whose primary characteristic was the ability to seamlessly change the subject, in effect having a conversation with herself for the 40-minute journey to Glenorchy. "My eldest entered a skateboarding competition last week," she would begin, "but unfortunately they ran out of gas so the balloon had to descend, which was a terrible waste of $20, and they make such an horrendous profit on the carrot cake. Oh look, the Misty Mountains!"

In amongst the numerous threads of conversation I could understand - her boyfriend has a speedboat; she worked in America without a Green Card; she broke a weed-killing pump spray yesterday (all of these were mentioned in the same sentence) - I gathered an understanding of where I was: ahead of me were Middle Earth's Misty Mountains, and a swamp down below was the inspiration for the Dead Marshes. However the Department of Conservation withheld permission to film there as rare species of birds were nesting at the time, so Peter Jackson's team had to superimpose images of the swamp onto the actual filming location - a car park in Wellington.

We arrived at High Country Horses, where I met the staff and the horses, was kitted out and seated atop Winston, an ex-(failed)-racehorse, described from the outset as 'a bit stubborn'. They told me that he is the smartest horse they have, and in observation I could draw many parallels in him with myself: he is a thinker, so much so that he thinks many things may be dangerous and thus refuses to give them a try. Such as walking through water. At one stage we had to cross the fast flowing Rees River, which required enormous effort on everybody's part - Winston to gather the confidence to keep walking, and everyone else to cheer him along.

Elsewhere he was a temperamental fellow, always stopping to eat and on occasion bolting for no particular reason. He was certainly a handful. Plus, just to cement my reputation as 'useless with horses', he headbutted me as I lent forward to trot, nearly breaking my nose, and then unexpectedly accelerated into a canter, nearly throwing me off (the owner of the company came by to congratulate me after for somehow saving my fall).

Yet for the majority of the three hour ride everything was fine, or possibly even perfect. The sun never stopped shining, and New Zealand never stopped delivering beautiful scenery. Here we were following an alluvial river bed, charted by a sinuous cyan river, bordered by snowcapped mountains and pristine forests with not a cloud in the sky. I wish I could do it more justice in my description, for nature doesn't get better than this.

We skirted around the setting for Lothlórien in Paradise Valley, and were just the other side of a mountain from the filming location for the final battle in Return of the King. Nearby was the location for the death scene of Boromir. Along the way our guide told us stories from the set, such as the beards and mustaches used on riders having to be imported from Germany at a cost of $2,000 each!

It was a very enjoyable morning. However I now ache tremendously and smell of horse, and shall hereby vow that if I ever feel the urge to go into the middle of nowhere once more, I shall do it on my own two feet.

Friday, 16 November 2007

In Treebeard's Domain

TOMORROW I shall be hiking up Franz Josef glacier, so I must go and prepare, but I feel in the meanwhile I should fill you in on a few of the activities I have been up to upon arrival in the land of the long white cloud.

We flew in to Christchurch where we were involved (involuntarily) in a street performance, of which the finale involved the entertainer standing upon my shoulders juggling knives; we visited the International Antarctic Centre, where there were blue penguins, Hagglünd rides and a walk-in antarctic storm in which we were taken to minus eighteen degrees centigrade, which is, needless to say, a bit nippy.

Onwards to Kaikoura where we boarded Wheketere, an eighteen metre catamaran, and sailed seven miles out to sea to see sperm whales and dusky dolphins; to the vineyards of Blenheim to taste some wines; to Nelson where I climbed to the centre of New Zealand; and Westport, where we were filmed for a kiwi television show (in a brewery at 9.30am). Along the way I went powerjet boating, but foolishly did not take a change of clothes. This morning I fed a possum (which refreshingly did not bite me), before arriving in Franz Josef itself. I have just returned from kayaking on a mountain lake which leads into rainforest streams - so still and pure they reflect the sky - looking through gaps in the clouds at a snowcapped mountain as the sun set.

Which, I am sure you will agree, is a busy six days. One to give Australia a run for it's money in fact.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Sunrise to Sunset

WOULDN'T it have made an interesting read if I hadn't liked Australia? Nearly every backpacker and every traveler goes to Australia and comes back raving about it. It would certainly have sparked controversy if I didn't.

But from the very moment I arrived in Cairns airport I was in love with that country. All through preparing for this trip I cannot honestly say that it ever sank in quite where I was going. Lots of people go to Australia, so it didn't seem quite as special as it really is. But then we flew over far north Queensland, the sun having risen with us over the Gulf of Carpentaria, the landscape pure rainforest. Suddenly we banked, and out of my window the forest descended rapidly from the hills to a beautiful tropical beach with turquoise waters lapping against it. With this sight I suddenly weighed it all up in my head. That, down there, was Australia. I was on the other side of the world. Blimey.

It didn't matter to me that I then got questioned and searched three times before being allowed out of the airport, because the immigration officers were so nice about it. They even offered to repack my bag. It didn't matter that we were subject to two separate sniffer dog tests, because one of them was training and shy, cute and a little bit fuzzy. And it didn't matter that, architecturally speaking, Cairns is a little bit dull, because it is fun, relaxed and everybody there is happy, which is exactly what you want to see on holiday.

Then for the next two months I loved it all: CVA was a fantastic experience, and though I complained about the hard work of the final week, I genuinely would recommend it; the Great Barrier Reef is, well, as good as you imagine; the rainforests, the beaches, learning to rodeo (albeit with goats) on a cattle station; the beautiful Whitsunday Islands and its resident turtles; everything about Sydney; learning to surf; even the Neighbours tour.

I vow to come back and walk the overland track between Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair in Tasmania, and visit all of the gorgeous scenery there I never got a chance to see. Plus I want to see more of Australia - the western coastline and the bush proper.

I shall miss the trivial details too, like the "good morning passengers!" announcements in Flinders Street train station in Melbourne, the cheeky public signs and all of the random people we have met, like the comedy double/drunkard act Karl and Karl. There are things I shan't miss also, like the bus drivers of Cairns and the state of the public facilities in Flinders Street; like being bitten by both a possum and Fuji, the fattest cat in the world; like being chased by a cassowary (even if it was in a zoo). But the positives far outweigh the negatives.

So as we flew over the Bass Strait to New Zealand, the clouds darkening, not through gain of thunder but loss of light, beset against a red and yellow sky blending into the blues and black above, I couldn't help but think fondly of my time in Australia. New Zealand has a lot to live up to.

Not With A Bang But A Whimper

I KNOW that you probably don't care. After all, Tasmania is a very long way away. What goes on there doesn't affect you, right?

So I'm about to mention the plight of the Tasmanian devil. Ultimately, it's not a species we usually come across, and it is not one of those media-endorsed cuties either. If the lions were dying out there would be uproar. You don't get YouTube videos of Tasmanian devils sneezing*, either.

But the Tasmanian devil is dying out. In the early 1990s scientists began to notice individuals with grotesque facial tumours, and since then animal numbers have dropped severely, from an estimated 140,000 in 1990 to 80,000 in 2006. The cancer has been found in populations in three of the four poles of the island. In the most recent edition of New Scientist magazine, an article reports that the disease has now been found in the devil population of Narawntapu National Park, previously thought immune. But of course, nobody cares about Tasmanian devils, so the article is extremely short and difficult to find.

Yet this is important. Tasmanian devils are the largest carnivorous marsupials in the world, and are destined to become the second symbol of Tasmania to become extinct within the past century. The first, the thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger), was officially declared extinct by the IUCN in 1986. However the last recorded living Tassie tiger died in Hobart Zoo in 1936, just 59 days after official protection by the government was introduced. It had enjoyed thousands of years of existence on both mainland Australia and Tasmania, but died with a whimper on public display. There have been unconfirmed sightings since, including one last year, but ultimately, by and large and almost definitely, it is gone.

Lets hope the devil doesn't go the same way.






* Click here if confused

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Another Multicoloured Blog

Hello again Simon Says fans, time for another Multicoloured Blog to update you on the travels of Simon, as he hasn't found a computer good enough to blog on(/through??) yet.

Currently, he is on a bus somewhere in Tasmania between Hobart and Port Arthur. He thinks Tasmania is "beautiful and stunning", and has vowed to return and climb Cradle Mountain- I'll hold him to that! Unfortunately he hasn't managed to see a tasmanian devil yet, but he has seen a wild wombat and echidna! He has also had some grief from the bank (jealousy, probably) which has led to some telephone difficulties, and the discovery that to call a UK mobile costs $4 for 30 seconds!

All in all, he would like you to know he's having a Very Nice Time apart from some food related issues, namely finding the time and inclination to eat properly. However, enough people have objected to this that he is now making a good effort to avoid pot noodles.

That's all from Tasmania for now, lets hope Simon finds a decent computer soon so you all don't have to put up with my ramblings again!

Monday, 29 October 2007

Go! Go! Go!

Pit Lane


BETWEEN my current accommodation and Melbourne proper is a large open area called Albert Park. You may recognise this as the site of the Australian Grand Prix.

Yesterday I walked there and around the circuit. It was one of the most surreal experiences I have had so far.

To start with, this is not a purpose-built racing circuit. The roads are public roads around the central lake. There are give way signs, bollards and chains lining the track and parking restriction signs along the route. The pit straight has a speed restriction of 20km/h.

I joined the track towards the end of the circuit. Here was a corner with red and white rumble strips and families zooming around in people carriers. The brightly coloured run-off area seen on race weekends was replaced by regular-coloured dead grass. Shortly I reached the pitlane entry. Barricaded by a 'No Entry' sign, there is a parking meter in the small strip of grass to the main track, and parking spaces all along the pit straight. All racing markings, including the start line, had been removed.

The pit buildings were intact and present, but a quick peer through a window showed them to have another role when Formula 1 cars aren't zooming around the track: they are a sports hall complex, behind which is the paddock (a field).

At corners one and two there is a high pressure gas pipeline, and at corner three a golf course and practice driving range. Corner four is perhaps the most bizarre, for it is not a road at all but a car park. A yellow line shows the route taken, but being a car park and not official road markings, family saloons and delivery lorries were parked in the centre of the circuit. From here I made a brief foray to the lake itself, a pleasant body of water with islands, wildlife refuges and a diverse selection of bird life. I watched black swans, coots, moorhens, sea gulls and pelicans all enjoying themselves in the water. Eventually a swan and her cygnets came to me for food, but since all I had on me was chocolate, they were grossly disappointed.

Back on the track I followed the back section, which can be no more than five metres from the edge of the lake. On race weekend there are of course barriers, and I began to appreciate what a monumental effort it must be to run this race. Every single bollard around the 555 acre site must be lifted and every hole filled in. Traffic islands must be removed and the track surface smoothed. Armco barriers must be erected and gravel traps and run off areas prepared. Then of course there need to be bridges and grandstands built, all along the pit straight and start line. Every March this place must be transformed. I can hardly imagine how different it must be.

I had an enjoyable day at Albert Park. I jumped across the start/finish line and climbed the podium steps (albeit without a podium, for that too is temporary). I also walked a very long way, so today shall be a lazy day.

Corner 2
Corner 2

Corner 4 (if you can find it)
The Car Park Complex

The Pit Straight
Pit Straight (20km/h)

The Pitlane Entrance
Pit lane entrance, with parking meter

The Great Divide

I WAS quite prepared to not like Melbourne.

I couldn't see how, in any way, Melbourne could live up to Sydney, for I had enjoyed my time there greatly. Since anyone only ever sides with Melbourne or Sydney, but never both, it appeared I had chosen my favourite.

I loved everything about Sydney: strolling through the CBD between Darling Harbour and the Botanical Gardens, with its bats and possums; Manly, its beaches and scenic walkways; the penguins; meeting Julia; the Bondi to Coogee walk and the whales seen off of the coast; the Blue Mountains; the Harbour Bridge and Opera House; the museums and Aboriginal shows, street entertainers and buskers in shopping centres; the double-decker trains; the random Thai restaurant Matthew and I went to, everything. It is full of iconic landmarks, and has the greatest natural port that I have ever seen. It may be a busy city, but it was exciting. I never stopped thinking how lucky I was to have come all of this way.

Melbourne, conversely, I knew little about. The only two things I could associate with it prior to arrival were the Australian Grand Prix and Neighbours, neither providing a memorable image of the city itself. What was I going to find there?

On my first morning here I caught a tram from my hostel in St Kilda and rode into town. I alighted at Federation Square, and immediately realised my error in assuming that I wouldn't like the place. Here was an open courtyard with modern architecture juxtaposed with colonial buildings and churches, with rickety old trams driving by, overtaking horses and carts. Every possible contrast hit me at once.

I caught the free circle tram, an old style wooden tram complete with tourist narrative, and alighted at the docklands, for I had heard that it was here that I would find a cow up a tree. When you know a city has a sculpture of a cow up a tree, you naturally must start a tour there. Indeed, up a tree, overlooking the docks, was a square bovine, a sculpture inspired by a photograph of a cow which had become stranded in a tree after floods in Queensland many years previously. I wanted to picnic there, start a tradition of hanging out under the 'Cow In A Tree', but alas I had much to see, and I had already eaten too much chocolate.

From here I walked around the Telstra Dome, through a less glamorous side of town and on to Flagstaff Gardens, a pleasant spot of greenery with monuments to the independence of Victoria from New South Wales. Behind this is the world-famous Queen Victoria Market, for if Melbourne is famous for anything, it is shopping. Indeed this covered market had a superb selection of clothes, memorabilia, fruit and vegetables and an adjoining room of cured meats, condiments, morsels of delicious looking foods from all around the world, dips and toasted delights. It smelt divine.

I bought some socks and a salmon bagel (not from the same stall) and headed to the centre of Melbourne. By chance I found a shopping mall with a remarkable centrepiece. From a distance I had seen what appeared to be an enormous glass spire, and I found myself underneath it now. At the time of building it was the largest glass structure in the world, and it encloses the focal point of the mall: a factory, previously employed to manufacture shots, and now a cowboy shop.

Outside was the Victoria State Library, a grand building set in parkland, the previous library jutting out of the pavement at an angle as if to say 'I'm not dead yet!' I spent another hour or so wandering in and out of shops and past the many pubs and coffee shops and eventually out to the parks south of the river Yarra, where I stopped to catch my breath before returning on the tram to the hostel.

Melbourne was pleasant. It is spacious, clean and vibrant, with a European feel. It has many places to eat and drink with friends; live music and culture everywhere.

So have I changed my mind? Is Melbourne the number one city in Australia?

No, no. My vote still goes to Sydney. There is just something inescapably awesome about that place.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Australian Capital Territory

JOHN Batman was a very strange man. In 1835 he sailed from Tasmania to the Port Phillip district of mainland Australia and found beautiful and valuable lands. He decided he wanted them, so he gave the local peoples twenty pairs of blankets, thirty tomahawks, one hundred knives, fifty pairs of scissors, thirty looking glasses, two hundred handkerchiefs, one hundred pounds of flour and six shirts. In return he claimed possession of 500,000 acres of land from the port to the mountains behind. He drew up a 'contract', so-called sealed by the local tribes inscribing a symbol relating to the group on a tree. They probably just thought he was being curious.

Batman named the river Batman Creek and the town which he planned to build there Batmania. Today we know it as Melbourne.

Sydney and Melbourne are traditional rivals. Sydney was the first colonial settlement, after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, and the state of Victoria - in which Melbourne is located - did not receive independence from New South Wales until Queen Victoria got bored with residents campaigning in 1850. Melbourne had greater wealth and a larger population for many years, with Victoria the location of the first Australian gold rush. Melbourne also held the first ever Olympic Games in the southern hemisphere. Comparatively recently however, Sydney has become the number one city once more. It has the internationally recognised monuments, it held the succesful year 2000 Olympics. I cannot hide the fact that it was Sydney I was looking forward to seeing, not Melbourne.

Such a rivalry posed a problem when choosing a location for the nation's capital. In 1913 a new city was built, approximately equidistant between the two. Named Canberra after a local Aboriginal word, it is one of only two state and territory capitals not named after a person (the other is Perth in Western Australia). Canberra is the butt of many jokes, and is not internationally renowned as a holiday location. Which, I suppose, is why I was taken there on Wednesday.

Australia

My first impressions weren't good. It was not that there was anything particularly wrong with it, but there wasn't anything particularly interesting about it either. It had everything you could need, and within an accessible distance. It was set in parkland, so it was clean and airy and spacious. The shopping centre in which we had lunch was very clean, and also a lady playing a grand piano (which I almost walked into). It was just very sterile, perhaps androgynous.

But then we were taken to the excellent National Museum of Australia, which stuck out as an architectural anarchist - it was red, black and yellow; curved with spirals; it was showy and bold. It was everything that Canberra is not. After an hour and a half there we were off to Parliament House, which was once again everything Canberra did not appear to be. It was set into a hill, an enormous 4,700-room complex with Aboriginal and Greek stylings in the foyer, leading on to halls and debating rooms with tapestries of bush scenes. Just like Westminster, the House of Representatives and the Senate had green and red seating - but these are gum-green and red ochre, the colour of the outback. We were led around by a guide who told us of Australian policies, and the scandals and mysteries of Prime Ministers (Harold Holt, for example, went swimming in the sea one day and never came back). A portrait gallery of important figures refused to present politicians as stuffy, by-the-book characters but as genuine people - many had their arms open in embrace, were sat in unconventional poses or sat at desks covered in clutter.

So I realised, sterile and characterless as Canberra may appear, at all levels it is trying to be something different. It doesn't have the harbour that Sydney has; it wasn't built on a gold rush like much of Melbourne. It was designed to be a new capital. It is based around a triangular grid for goodness sake!

For these reasons, I like Canberra. I just won't be going back in a hurry.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree


AND so to the sport of tying a kangaroo down. Step One: find a kangaroo.

This is surprisingly tricky. It is estimated that there are more kangaroos in Australia today than there were when Europeans first settled there, since the animals prefer grassland habitats and settlers have removed forest lands to create ranches. Thus you would think that if you went to a grassland area you might stand half a chance of seeing one.

On Thursday we went on a trip to the Blue Mountains, so called because of the blue haze that shrouds them, generated by the refraction of light through eucalyptus oil droplets in the air. Our first stop was a camp site near Gordonvale at the foot of the mountains, for it is a renowned hotspot for finding wild kangaroos. Not so this day.

No matter, in the past six or seven weeks (I have truly lost all sense of time) I have seen a number of wild kangaroos: a family of them were watching the sun set on our way to Kroombit, and an obsequious individual saluted me on the way to Cape Tribulation. Yet the truth remains: the moment you start looking for something, it is never there.

The Blue Mountains, however, were very special. We drove up to Wentworth Falls, our OzExperience driver full of enthusiasm and especially merry, no doubt because we had no idea we were about to walk for miles. The path weaved through forests and under limestone rock overhangs and suddenly opened out onto the edge of an enormous escarpment, eucalyptus forest masking the ground hundreds of metres directly below.

Following the colonisation of Australia in 1788, settlement remained confined to the Sydney Harbour region for many years, for nobody could pass the Blue Mountains to the rich pastures beyond. Many attempts were made to cross them, but all followed the rivers and all failed. In 1813, Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth succeeded, by following a ridge at the advice of Aboriginal dwellers. I have read some of Blaxland's diaries, and since he wrote about his adventures in the third person, I feel obliged to do the same.

Thus:

Mr Simon Bishop, in the company of Miss Jeannette Shipman, Mr Jimmy-the-Driver, Miss Lisa Unknown-Surname, Miss Fellow-Amateur-Photographer and a horde of other tourists, pursued a sinuous path through the offending terrain, marveling at the achievements of Mr Blaxland and company. The rock faces, decorated with rainbow-strewn waterfalls and echoing to the sound of chirping cicadas, were tricky terrain, even with National Park-maintained pathways. Nonetheless, the lookouts over the enormous valley below provided beautiful views.

Our adventurers then proceeded onwards to Katoomba, a large settlement built after a trans-mountain railway provided access, initially inhabited by wealthy individuals escaping the busy Sydney settlement. Parking nearby, the group walked down the thousand Furber Steps, receiving face paints with white ochre by their guide as they passed. They collectively created an effeminate echo from a rock overhang and peered into an abandoned coal mine shaft. The leader of the group pointed out something on a log, at which the entire group peered upon passing. Mr Simon Bishop, being at the back, had not heard the explanation of the interesting item, but endeavoured to appear fascinated and knowledgeable nonetheless.

From the Furber Steps could be seen the Three Sisters, three rocky peaks said to have been three sisters turned to stone by a witch doctor to protect them from a menacing beast. Sadly the witch doctor turned himself into a lyre bird for protection, but in doing so dropped his magic bone, and is to this day unable to turn the sisters back into flesh. They make a fascinating view, one seen on every brochure for the Blue Mountains, and from Echo Point (where our adventurers next ventured) the nearest could be touched.

To get there, a train was caught. This scenic train was built for the mining industry and now scares tourists and bushwalkers alike. At a maximum gradient of 52 degrees, it is the steepest train in the world. Mr Simon Bishop held on for his dear little life.

All in all the Blue Mountains were wonderful and I had a very enjoyable day. Sadly once again it could only be a single day trip and thus I may have missed out on the full experience. I am beginning to wonder if, had I stayed at Cape Tribulation or the Blue Mountains for longer, I would have enjoyed them much more. No matter, they were both beautiful and I should be thankful I was there at all.

Next stop, the Opera House.

It's A Small World (After All)

FOR a first 24 hours in an unknown city, my arrival in Sydney has got to have been the most varied and unpredictable that I have ever experienced.

Arriving at about 5pm on Oz Experience, our brilliant driver Sconzey gave us a little tale about the city's origins, and then drove us straight over the Harbour Bridge straight into the heart of the city. Now I had heard much about the structure, with many saying that it is smaller than they expected, or not as impressive as the photographs they had seen of it, but for me there was no greater visceral thrill than arriving over it. From the bridge the metal 'coat hanger' is an enormous structure and simply staggering in proportion, and it provided a fantastic gateway to the city. We turned immediately after it, curving around to capture the bridge and the wonderful Opera House. We had arrived.

Dropped off at Base Backpackers, we checked in and for the first time decided to sleep in separate dorms. By 'decided' I really mean Jeannette checked herself into the female-only, all-inclusive, bolt-on, frilly and fantastic Sanctuary, where you pay $5 per night extra to have longer mirrors, pink walls and a free towel. Us gentleman have to make do with gray coloration and the nasty company of smelly boys. Entering my room, there were clothes and dirty plates everywhere. Unable to locate a free bed, I dropped my bag in a corner and assembled my affairs. There was a knock on the door.

It was the police.

They asked me if I was called Aaron. My negative response did not seem to please them. They had a look around the room, asking me who slept there, whether it was shared or single sex and whether I knew the whereabouts of said Aaron and a girl called Ursula. Having entered this empty room only 1 minute previously I was not much use to them, and they left leaving me delightlessly paranoid about my possessions.

Presently I met Jeannette and went for a walk up to Hyde Park, walking around the noodle markets and having a quick look around before returning to the hostel and to the room, whereupon I met two Kiwi working-visa tourists by the name of Aaron and Ursula. I suddenly became very polite and very, very English.

Shortly afterwards, while I was checking my email, I received another shock, but this time a pleasant one. Sat next to me was somebody very familiar. Since our departure from Cairns we have met many people, and at various places and stages we have bumped into them again, since most people have similar plans and stopovers along the coast. For example we left one girl behind on Magnetic Island, only for her to get back on the bus in Brisbane. In two weeks she had overtaken us, hitchhiking to Rockhampton and flying on to Brisbane before boarding OzExperience to Surfers Paradise.

However the girl sat next me now was not somebody I had met in Australia. I met her in England ten years ago. Her name is Pippa Bills, and I spent the first five years of secondary school in the same tutor group as her. We caught up on gossip and shared travel itineraries, and then agreed to attend the night's quiz together.

Back in the room I met my two other dorm mates. Both came from Exeter, a 40-minute drive from my home. These coincidences were beginning to become familiar: in Singapore I had met a girl from the tiny village of Seaton Junction, which nobody has ever heard of unless you live where I do, for it is five minutes or so from my door.

The quiz was a spectacular affair. Our team, which mainly consisted of Pippa's OzExperience friends, ascended through the ranks and astoundingly won. A fifty dollar bar tab was presented to the name of Crouching Woman, Hidden Cucumber, the team name they had chosen for us. However a greater prize was to offer: for the chance of winning $250 cash, one nominated member of the team would have to answer a question unaided, and you can probably guess that I was volunteered.

"What is the real name of Elton John?" I was asked.
My spirits lifted. I knew the answer.
"Reg Dwight" I replied, a cocksure smile on my face.
"What is his full name?".
I frowned.
"Reginald Dwight?"

There was a lot of cheering.

Next morning I arose late and wandered down into the beautiful Darling Harbour, watching the boats, seagulls, pigeons and ibis' and enjoying the waterfront views. I followed some gardens and water features in search of the Powerhouse Museum, which had been recommended to me in my guide to Australia. A science and innovation museum, it was advertised as having a unique emphasis on Australian achievement. I paid the $10 entry fee and wandered in, excited as to what I would find.

What I found was an exhibition on Princess Diana, some Japanese dresses and the James Watt/Matthew Boulton steam engine, designed where I have spent the last three years: Birmingham, England. There were, however, uniquely Australian features, such as some model Utopia carved animals from the Ngkawenterre camp, including an echidna, a ngintaka (a goanna lizard) and a 'Devil Dog', said to assist ritual law enforcers. An exhibition on William Stanley Jevons, the father of modern economics, was very interesting, for he used the freedom offered by Sydney to explore his theories and unravel the world in mechanical terms. Beginning at the Royal Mint, he loathed the reluctance of Melbourne to accept the currency of New South Wales, and became a renowned economist, meteorologist, photographer and teacher of symbolic logic.

I was slightly disappointed that the museum did not contain more about Australian communities. The only section on such a topic focused on the 70,000 Estonians who emigrated to Australia between 1940 and 1944 after prime minister Ben Chifley offered employment and refuge to Europe's 'Displaced People'. I left after about an hour, having enjoyed the museum's random collections - which cover modern car design to Vegemite and firework manufacture - but also disappointed that I hadn't found anything on Aboriginal culture. I spotted a didgeridoo show advertised just outside and made a mental note to return, for now walking the streets towards the Opera House.

Blimey Sydney is a pretty city. Clean and tidy and full of modern, stylish buildings and ornate classic structures, it was laid out like an American city using British idiosyncrasies. I fell in love with it instantly. I went up George Street, past lots of expensive shops and arcades, I got lost in a bookshop (I often do) and wandered up Martin Place to the hospital and state library, with its statue of Matthew Flinders. I patted a statue of a pig. I crossed into the beautiful Botanic Gardens listening to Len, lost in a world of my own: I clicked my fingers, swung my hips and pretended to play the drums and then, because the signs told me to, I walked on the grass, smelt the roses, hugged a tree and spoke to the birds. I meandered around and into the Conservatoire, then on around the harbour and out to Mrs Macquerie's Point, the place to be to capture that classic photograph with the Opera House to the left and the Harbour Bridge behind it. I slalomed past a group of Japanese tourists, looked for marine life in Woolloomooloo Bay (I also chuckled at the name) and took another route through the gardens, only now noticing the inscribed pavement tiles with Aboriginal names.

Briefly I entered the Opera House, suprised to discover the present set of evening performances are being performed by the choir of Westminster, and from here I hurried on to Circular Quay, suddenly conscious of the time. By prior arrangement I was to catch the 5pm ferry from the wharf to Manly, a district of Sydney out on the coast, and home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the region. The ferry departed on time, thus ending my epic 24 hours, but not so my day. Half an hour later (for Sydney to Manly is seven miles; the entire harbour has a shoreline of 194 miles) I disembarked, and there waiting for me outside the legendary Max Brenner Chocolate Bar was Julia, sister of my girlfriend Rachel.

And Julia is, for the record, lovely.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

What A Beauty!

A LITTLE over a year ago, Steve Irwin died. It was the most surreal piece of news, since I heard it having just landed in Brazil after an epic cross-Atlantic journey. Located in a non-English, non-Spanish speaking town, the last thing I expected to hear was that the legend that is Steve Irwin had been killed by a stingray barb. Many people that I know thought that the man was an idiot, but I respected and revered him, and the news came as quite some shock.

On Saturday we went to Australia Zoo, the zoo he owned with his wife Terri. While on our free transit bus from Noosa, a DVD of his life was played, but eerily it was narrated by the man himself. Evidently it had been made before his death, and as such was full of comments about what he would remember for the rest of his life, and plans to retire when he became too slow to cope. It told the story of the origins of the zoo and his conservation work, and was full of the typical over-the-top phrases and actions we have come to expect from him, from receiving a python for his sixth birthday to his first crocodile capture on film.

His presence in the zoo is also quite eery. His face is on every poster, and his family are smiling at you from every available piece of wallspace. You can buy mugs and shirts with him on, as well as talking dolls and memorial badges. Alas, I shouldn't complain, since if it raises money for their conservation work, then there is nothing wrong with it.

The zoo itself was very impressive. Not so much on it's information and signage, for I have seen better, but on it's conservation message. Instead of having signs bursting with tiny writings on "conservation is important because..." it impressed upon people the simple but unbeatable ethos that these animals are cool, so let's look after them. In essence, the spirit of Steve Irwin, as corny as this sounds, was everywhere.

We went to the animal show in the Crocoseum, full of bird displays, snakes and crocodiles. Unlike the crocodile farms I have visited so far, where they tease and taunt their animals, the level of respect shown was superior at the zoo. For sure they made crocodiles jump for their food, but simply for exercise and to show their full power to the crowd - not to make them out as lumbering idiots and a circus act. However, despite the zoo's emaphasis on snakes and crocodiles, I concede that the greatest exhibits on show that day were two native Australian creatures - the wombat and the echidna. The echidna especially waddled around ceaselessly, a tiny spiky ball of energy, unaware that he is a star of the biological world ('Is it a mammal? Is it a reptile? No! It's a monotreme!').

Australia Zoo is a great zoo and it's work is very important. Stevo is sorely missed by all there, but may his Wildlife Warriors continue to work with his passion and enthusiasm for years to come.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

A Fringe Of Leaves

edited 16/10/07

LIEUTENANT James Cook made three mistakes on his voyage up the east coast of Australia. The first, though last chronologically, was the trial of Cape Tribulation, when his vessel the HMB Endeavour collided with the Great Barrier Reef. Second, though perhaps the most staggering, was his complete and utter failure to discover Sydney. That honour is bestowed upon Governor Arthur Phillip, who realized that Cook’s original landing site, Botany Bay, was entirely unsuitable for establishing a colony. His third mistake was failing to realize that Fraser Island is in fact an island. Naming it the Great Sandy Peninsula, he sailed by unaware of it being the largest sand island in the world.

When he passed the northern edge of the island, a group of the local Butchulla Aboriginal peoples climbed a rocky headland to watch his bemusing ship sail by. As a result, Cook named the point Indian Head. Today there are no Aboriginal people on Fraser Island, for they were rounded up and relocated by Aboriginal Missions, although some groups do continue to visit certain campsites. Indian Head, from being a place of gathering - at least for one day in 1770 - has now become a headland that is out of bounds for aboriginal tribes. This is because after white people began to inhabit the island, they rounded up 100 natives, marched them up the hill at gunpoint and forced them to jump to their deaths. If they refused they would be shot. Understandably it is now a place of bad memories and innate fear.

This tale exemplifies the complete contrast in aboriginal relations since the arrival of Europeans on Australia. For some explorers they were friends and people of immense intrigue, and for some they were enemies from the start. Sadly this did often reflect the colour of their skin.

The Dutch mariner Jan Carstensz arrived at Cape York in 1623. His diaries retell the kidnap and murder of two native individuals, for no other reason than desire to do so. William Dampier too called the inhabitants of Western Australia as the “miserablest people in the world… and, setting aside their human shape, they differ little from brutes.” In a later account he reformed his opinion, feeling remorse for a skirmish his crew had had with a local tribe – but he never attempted to stop the attack, himself shooting one the the local men. William de Vlamingh kidnapped two “black swans” aboard the Geelvinck, and even Sir Joseph Banks (he of the Royal Society) feared the natives upon first arrival, preferring to drown rather than to sail ashore and being unable to defend himself without arms from the ‘Indians’.

However Banks was won over, recounting in his diaries days when curious Aborigines sailed to their stricken vessel, sharing foods and displaying for their entertainment. Captain Watkin Tench also, a member of the First Fleet, mounted an expedition inland and befriended a group of aboriginal doctors. Upon leaving they “bade us adieu, in unabated friendship and good humour.” John Wilson, an Irish convict-turned explorer, left European society to join the Aborigines after serving his time. Governer Phillip was so impressed with the attitudes of a local group of Aborigines he named the region Manly, a name that stands today.

Aboriginal relations have always been fraught with tension, perhaps influenced by myth and suspicion. They were not helped therefore, by the tales and stories of one Eliza Fraser, for whom Fraser Island is named. Shipwrecked off the coast, the Aborigines claim to have cared and nurtured for her before she made her own way back to the mainland; she claims she was kidnapped, taken into slavery and that her husband was speared in the back and murdered by a violent tribe. Her story earned her fame and fortune, but she never told the same story twice, the details becoming more melodramatic with every telling. It is largely believed therefore that she was lying. The story led to a fierce dislike of Aboriginal peoples, and sadly bloodshed has frequently followed as a result.

Monday, 8 October 2007

A Pinker Shade of Tanned

FIRST of all I owe an apology. I haven't posted here in a week and I know how passionately you have been following my adventures. However I have an excuse. I have been at sea, you see.

On Thursday, after an action packed few days beginning and ending on a beach, we set sail from Abel Point Marina at Airlie Beach aboard the beautiful sailing ketch Enid. Built in 1961 she has competed in four Sydney to Hobart races and recently stunned the competition in both the 2003 and 2004 Whitsunday Traditional Boat Regattas. It was to the Whitsunday Islands we sailed.

By Thursday afternoon we arrived at Hayman Island, a small island with a resort on the far side. As the engines were switched off (for the winds had been minimal en route) a school of batfish came to the boat, yellow-finned, black-and-white vertical fish of quite surprising stature, which zipped through the water with breathtaking speed. They were scavenger fish, eating scraps thrown overboard, including beetroot. We donned our Super Sexy Stinger Suits (figure-hugging, full-body, lycra-style swimsuits designed to protect from jellyfish) and jumped in among them, snorkelling up to the shore. Almost instantly we were in another world - a forested sea bed, not with conventional trees but branched corals of blues and oranges. Purple and green parrotfish swam around happily among the spongy coral brains and a host of unknown but beautiful fish swam within arm's reach. This was not the Great Barrier Reef, but it was just as exciting.

At night we anchored near Whitsunday Island itself and ate under the stars. The sea was perfectly still and the sky free from clouds, and we spent a long while making up new constellation names and finding exciting star shapes. Jupiter and Mars were clear to see, as was half of the Southern Cross. In such clear skies the Milky Way and our next nearest galaxy were also visible.

In the morning, the sea was still motionless. A few clouds had infiltrated the sky but sun beams were desperately trying to push through into a steep, forested valley on Whitsunday Island. Hauling up the anchor we set off, sailing gracefully to the sounds of Xavier Rudd, past the luxury resort on Hamilton Island (a delightful little island blighted by high-rise hotels) to Whitehaven Beach, frequently voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Pure white sands stretched onwards, our eyes struggling with the brightness. In the sea we found stingrays resting on the surface. Next we snorkelled off of Border Island, in search (in vain) for giant wrasse. Overnight we stayed in a bay notorious for hammerhead sharks, relaxing to Johnny Cash while looking out over gently rippling waters. I looked over the back of the boat to find microscopic algae luminescing with a blue glow. It was tremendously peaceful, and I was quite sad to go to bed knowing that the following evening I would be back on land.

Yet the third and final day turned out to be the best. Mooring off of Black Island, we dived in to snorkel the fringing reefs and relax on the baking beach. After curing some technical snorkel issues, I followed the crowd and was slightly disappointed by the corals, which were blander and smaller than those we had already seen. I walked onto the beach and wandered around the tiny island, and discovered along with the rest of the group something quite spectacular. In the distance was the hilly and forested Hook Island, providing a scenic backdrop to a scene which contained dark, deep waters on the far side and a 100-metre or so shallow lagoon stretching off of the beach we stood on. Perhaps only a metre deep, everything in it was clear to see, and for a brief moment we assumed there was nothing to see, just sand, rocks and the occasional plant.

In fact the water contained a group of giant turtles. So tame were these beautiful animals that we could follow them and swim with them. At one stage I was but a foot above a metre-long guy, who was paddling along gracefully and looking quite content. Another sat eating on the sea bed, when eight of us formed an audience around him. We even touched its shell. I have to be honest, swimming with turtles is one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had.

If there is one thing you have to do before you die, sailing the Whitsundays is it.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Johnstone River Crocodile Farm

ON our first day at CVA, we were taken to Hartley's Creek Crocodile Farm, and then spent two weeks in the rainforest such that by the end we were a little rainforested-out. Today we boarded OzExperience for the first time, whereupon they took us to a rainforest, and then a crocodile farm.

Hartley's had been enjoyable - we rode a boat and the feeding of the crocs was exciting, if a little unfair, with animals teased in the name of entertainment. It was here that Kirsty and I were chased by a cassowary, and where we met Davo the galah. From the very second we arrived at Johnstone River Crocodile Farm in Innisfail this morning, however, I knew that I was going to despise it.

While waiting in the car park, the owner Mick boarded to smuggle us in on an OzExperience hush-hush 'cheap rate'. Immediately he began boasting about the size of the crocodiles they had, how you could have the opportunity to be bitten by a snake (a free drink would be offered if you were) and made lots of predictable jokes about which nationality would be fed to the crocodiles first (Canadians for the record). He was brash and imposing and from his tone it was evident that crocodiles and other animals would be taunted in the name of an exciting show.

But then he did something horrendous. He announced that crocodiles could be lurking anywhere, and proceeded to pull a live baby croc from inside his shirt and threw it at Rose, an English girl sat two seats ahead. He then ordered us off, took our money and passed us on to Alexander, our German guide.

Alexander first showed us a cassowary - kicking the fence and mocking the bird, claiming it didn't like Germans. This of course was not the case. The cassowary simply did not like being threatened and teased. Alexander poked it with a rake too.

Next up were the american alligators, who hissed when he kicked their fence.

He then ordered us down a narrow pathway, armed with bread, to feed some kangaroos. The pathway narrowed and considering the previous few moments since arrival, we began to feel caged in and paranoid, as if we were being led into a trap. Maybe some hungry taipan were lined up for the kill or a giant man-eating, flat-faced kangaroo had been found alive and was waiting for its dinner! In fact no, some tame and docile normal kangaroos were sat waiting for us, and I was quite content sat on the floor with an audience of megapods munching happily on their rolls.

This contentment did not last long. Next up was the crocodile feeding, and it was worse than I had predicted. Mick poked and taunted crocodiles - even sat on one - and treated them like a circus act. This, of course, is what they were. This is a farm. They grow crocodiles in cramped conditions with hundreds of others (and crocodiles are not naturally social creatures), deprive them of direct daylight (they showed us the pens, I know this to be true) and then kill them to make handbags. Those that are too dangerous, or for whatever reason do not pass the test, are turned into circus acts to bolster revenue.

Mick is a cruel man, an imbecile, and stronger things besides.

The other reason why I don't like him is thus: at the end of the tour, there was an opportunity to hold a baby croc. By my positioning, I was unable to say no. Yet while I was holding the poor creature, Mick snuck up behind me and threw a snake on my back.

Snakes are my only phobia. I froze, paralyzed by terror. I knew that health and safety would never allow it to be a posionous snake, but this was a madman, who treats animals like dirt. I had no idea what was slithering over me, and I became extremely paranoid when the snake decided to explore the back of my neck. All the while, Mick had wandered off and started shoving another snake down one man's trousers, thus taking his attention away from the evil thing making me shake. I shouldn't complain of course, the other man had a snake being shoved down his trousers, but each man has a separate fear threshold. I was beyond mine. Eventually Alexander came by and politely asked whether I might like to give the snake to someone else to give them a go. I didn't need to be asked twice.

Johnstone River Crocodile Farm is a bad place, and I encourage you never to go there.

Blimey! I realise the last few blogs have been rants. I promise the next one will be happy!

Friday, 28 September 2007

In Memory of Kirsty

OUR second and final week of volunteering for CVA has not been anywhere near as fun. On the plus side we never actually went to a swamp, and thus nobody got anything so much as a nip from a crocodile. In addition we got to play with machetes and pick axes and I got to entertain my action hero persona by swinging at a tree from a high branch in order to demolish it, which was all good fun. However it has mostly been a hot, dry and hard week.

Yesterday we had to say goodbye to Kirsty. For reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture she had to leave us after work on Thursday, catch a coach back to Cairns and fly the epic 43-hour journey back to Belfast today. She is a fun, energetic and entertaining person and we all missed her horrendously the second the bus disappeared in the distance. This blog entry is dedicated to her, so that when she eventually reads it she will not feel so bad about leaving us behind.

Today has in fact been the worst day of the week. On Monday we planted around 200 trees along an irrigation channel. The land had been ploughed and the weather was cool. This and the early morning rain also made digging fairly easy. Upon arrival at our site at Mission Beach this morning we were tasked with planting 250 trees in half a day with one fewer member. A tall order in fine conditions, today was impossibly hot and the ground riddled with thick tree roots. Even with pick axes and a petrol-powered auger, work was approaching impossible. In addition, our dithering leader had forgotten to fill up the water supply back at the backpackers hostel so we had no source of hydration, and the council worker assigned to look after us, henceforth named Stoner Jim, disappeared for a cigarette and occasionally took a few tree saplings out of his trailer.

About an hour in our leader, who often errs on sexist and has singled me out as the weakest male, commented that there were a few roots about. At this stage the auger was on the brink of breaking, as were our tempers. Meanwhile Stoner Jim, who had the admiration of our leader despite having fewer muscles than even me, went and had a sit down at the creek. The management switched to more "girly" tasks the second the going got tough while we surrendered and had many morning breaks without permission, taking shelter from the tenacious and misanthropic insects. Using a pick axe can be fun, but perhaps never in Queensland.

Then, just as we had finally finished, Jeannette slipped on a rock and gashed her knee. Coupled with my blistered and badly cut fingers from Wednesday's "bush bashing", the week has not been gentle.

Despite all this we did at least get to have lunch on the beach and we were on the road to Cairns just after 1pm. At the headquarters we were presented with certificates of thanks and we reflected on our time. I have genuinely enjoyed working with CVA - last week was undoubtedly more enjoyable, but even this week has had its perks. It is a good feeling to know that you've done some important and substantial work for the environment. Perhaps, or indeed probably, the majority of the trees we planted will succumb to weed competition, or be eaten, or perhaps the soil we planted them in was too harsh or dry for the species chosen, but some will survive and every little step towards preserving and restoring the tropical Queensland rainforest is a worthy one.

None more so can this be summarised by a local man who came to chat with us during a break on Wednesday. Addressing us as 'brothers', this is what he said:

"G'day! You're not Australian? Irish? Me, I'm Australian, born and bred: a bit hot, but I like it. I like prawns too, but only with lemon. Anyway, must be off. Respect to the Australian bush y'all."

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Senoritas y Margaritas

YOU may not know this, but the first people to ever set foot on Australia, except of course the native aborigines, were the Portuguese. They landed on the western coast, found the desert landscape troublesome and not worth colonizing and tootled back off to other shores. Had they been sailing along the Eastern coast, past Sydney and up to Cape York, history may have been somewhat different - instead of a giant penal colony Australia might have been a hub of salsa dancing, speaking Portuguese and the Bruces would be sipping Margaritas with the Sheilas.

Captain Cook, after whom so much is named in these parts, did not discover Australian shores until later, but his achievements were so great history tends to remember him. On Sunday, I took a tour up the Captain Cook highway in the direction of Cooktown (in doing so passing a giant statue of Captain Cook - my first Big Thing!) to Cape Tribulation. Cape Tribulation was named by Cook "because here began all our Troubles" - it is here where the Great Barrier Reef comes to the shore, meeting the Daintree National Park, trapping any ships attempting to sail north. Cook's ship, the HMB Endeavour, ran aground here, and only survived the sail to Cooktown for repairs because a wedge of coral had sealed the vessel's hole.

Cape Tribulation is the only place in the world where two UNESCO World Heritage Sites meet. To get there, you follow a scenic drive along the coast of the Coral Sea, with white sands, turquoise waters and forested islands, beyond the sugar cane town of Mossman, the seaside resort town Port Douglas and the film set for Steven Spielberg's forthcoming film The Pacific, and into Daintree National Park itself, home to archaic and unique species of animals and plants, a hub of evolutionary biology and home to giant ferns. It was beautiful, and perhaps my favourite rainforest yet, for though I have now mentioned many rainforests, all are very different, each with different flora, structure and topography.

Cape Tribulation beach was also very beautiful, a wide expanse of sand set in a rainforested cove with very warm waters. Unfortunately, the sun refused to penetrate the dark clouds overhead, and in a combination of fatigue and frustration at hearing the same standard tourist facts once more, I did not enjoy the tour as much as I perhaps could have done.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Steve

ONE of the great things about CVA is the characters you get to meet. None more varied and fascinating are the CVA staff, a passionate bunch who have such wonderful idiosyncracies I could write many blog entries on them alone. Alas, I shall tell you all about screamy lady when I return, but for now I would like to tell you about Steve.

Steve is the man who met us upon arrival at the CVA house. It was he who gave us our safety talk, all about heat stroke, dehydration, hypothermia and all of the wildlife that likes to eat you. He told us about box jellyfish, about how the best remedies for these are (in order): vinegar, Coca-Cola or urine; he instructed us to stomp as we walk to scare off snakes, for they are just as scared of us as we are of them and will slither away if we make many vibrations on the ground; he told us how to deal with ticks and leeches; told us that the worst spiders don't live in this part of Australia; ordered us to never turn our backs on a cassowary and instructed us to never ever zigzag when chased by a crocodile. He began all of this with "We haven't had any snake bites. For a while."

The great thing about Steve is that he's a really interesting bloke who has quite a remarkable curriculum vitae, but he delivers his achievements in such a straight way that everything he says seems hilariously unreal. This is a man who spent years working with indigenous Aboriginal tribes in Arnhem land near Darwin; who had rivalling tribes arguing about who would get to host him; who is fluent in an Aboriginal language spoken by only 30 people in the world. He has studied ethno-botany (the traditional use of plants in medecine) and is an enthusiastic paleontologist. Indeed, he has discovered his very own dinosaur, a mosoasaur - an icthyosaur often labelled the 'Tyrannosaurus rex of the sea". He found this skeleton at Darwin, which has a tide that rises and falls by 8 metres, exposing the sea bed at the lowest tide. It is here the skeleton was found, giving his team only a four hour window to excavate every low tide.

It was he who also told us of the extinct megafauna of Australia, of which some I had already heard. He told of giant flat-faced kangaroos (jokily labelled maneaters), hooved crocodiles, giant wombats and carnivorous giant geese, 9-metre long snakes and marsupial lions. Dave at Cloudland Refuge also mentioned the marsupial lion, referring to a complete skeleton found along the Nullabor Plain.

Steve's advice regarding crocodiles was particularly interesting. Having himself found a saltwater crocodile (the one that has a taste for human) 14km from water and having seen them while on holiday on a house boat at Darwin, surrounded by millions of geese and fishing for barramundi over the side, he has seen his fair share. Obviously we should steer clear of the water's edge in infested areas, but if chased we should run in a straight line fast for over 100 metres, whereupon the beast will run out of energy or willpower. However, these 6 metre, one tonne creatures are not be underestimated.

On Monday we begin working in a swamp in crocodile-infested territory.

Fun.

Friday, 21 September 2007

In The Jungle, The Mighty Jungle

THIS week the CVA group (our leader Caitie, Jeannette and I, a Northern Irish lass called Kirsty, Cantabrigian Hollie and the Korean contingent: Jimmy, Sophie and Byong-Jun) stayed in the quaint village of Malanda in the Atherton Tablelands. To get there, you have to drive up 'the Gillies', a mountain range covered by eucalypt forest at a lower level and complex mesophyll rainforest up higher. The one and only road through it contains (according to some reports) over 300 corners. It is stomach-churning stuff.

Malanda itself was a delightful little place, with American Midwest-style saloon fronts to the shops and a proper country feel - that is, everything closes at 5pm and all the shops seem only to play Dire Straits on the stereo.

Our work site was the Cloudland Refuge, a site of rainforest and pasture land owned by David Upton and Robyn Land. Rachel has already explained to you why the project on the land is important and some of the things we have been up to, but because I can I am going to say it all again. The site lies on two steep slopes ranging between 800 and 960m above sea level, with overgrown abandoned grazing pasture on one side of the valley and (bear with me as I type this correctly) Simple to complex notophyll vine forest of cloudy wet highlands on basalt on the other. It has a biodiversity status of endangered and is poorly represented by National Parks. Indeed, Dave explained to me that the government cannot afford to purchase all of the endangered lands in Queensland (at least with its current agenda), so it is actively encouraging Nature Refuges like Cloudland.

Only twenty years ago Cloudland was clearfelled for cattle grazing and logging. In doing so, the then owner split the natural rainforest precisely in half, blocking animal movement between two clusters of vegetation. The CVA project at the site aims to regrow the corridor between the two halves and restore the forest, home of the cassowary, the Lumholtz tree kangaroo and lots of nasties.

Unfortunately at this time of the year trees cannot be planted, so all we can do is weed. However yesterday Kirsty, Hollie, Dave and I stripped over two kilometres of barbed wire fence which provided a needless hazard to local wildlife. With the cows and bulls gone, there is no need to keep anything in or out. Unlucky for us half of these fences went steeply uphill (we estimate with no exaggeration a gradient of 45º), the ground covered in overgrown grass concealing holes and ridges that we frequently stumbled over. Coupled with the lack of shade and 36ºc heat while wearing protective gloves, long sleeves and trousers (to keep out the creepy crawlies) it was tricky work indeed, but at the end of the day we were genuinely ecstatic about our achievements, even if a leech did go for my neck. Today also we wrestled enormous logs blocking an essential track, and though hard we were proud of the work we had done.

Back in Malanda it has been enjoyable too, not least because we spent the week teaching the Koreans really pointless English words. So if you ever come across a Korean tourist who can say the words 'codswallop', 'nincompoop' or 'onomatopoeia', it is entirely our fault.

Interlude

MANY thanks to Rachel for filling in for me while I was in an Internet-lacking rainforest. I am now back in Cairns for the weekend, refuelling and doing some clothes washing before next week's all new CVA adventure.

Just a quick correction, lest I be told off by the good folk of Australia: Stinging Tree is not a weed, but in fact native. It is still a swine of a plant though: its 'sting' administered via small tubules can last up to a year.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Imposter!

The observant ones among you may have realised that I am not your dear blogger Simon Bishop. I have momentarily seized control of his turf to update you on his travels- and because I'm a girl, I'm going to do it in pretty colours.

It seems, all in all, that he is having a brilliant time, and is happy to have not been eaten by anything with more teeth than brains. What makes him the most happy, however, is his foresight in packing a good supply of tea. Thus he also seems to be doing well to cement stereotypes of the English abroad!

I’ll leave you with a brief summary of his recent work in Deepest Darkest Australia:

Conservation project is going really well. We got there about 12 yesterday, met the owner Dave who took us onto the land for a spot of weeding. The area used to be a farm so it's grazing land that splits the rainforest in two, and now that Dave owns it he's trying to repair the damage and bring back the rainforest so animal communities in both forests can now get between habitats. It'll take him years but CVA are helping out - we can't plant as it's too dry at the moment but we can weed things like lantana and ragweed and remove barbed wire fences in the rainforest originally for cattle. It's great we can just wander through the rainforest and frankly I'm jealous Dave owns it all. Top bloke too, been chatting to him about last year's cyclone and echidnas and all sorts.”

P.S. I'm very sorry this hasn't been delivered in the stylish prose to which you are accustomed!

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Flickr Photos

In The Jungle, The Mighty Jungle

I HAVE just uploaded a few photos to my Flickr page here. I'll try and add more there as we go along.

Never Smile At A Crocodile

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Never Smile At A Crocodile (ya flamin' galah!)

ON Monday morning Jeannette and I and three others from Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA) are heading into the Cloudlands, a part of the rainforest in the Atherton Tablelands west of Cairns. The area was largely destroyed to make way for agriculture, for ranching and dairy farming, and only about 5% of the original forest remains. It is the natural habitat for the cassowary, an endangered flightless bird heavier but slightly smaller than an emu. There are only 1500 still alive in the wild and their habitat is becoming more and more fractured. They can only be found in Far North Queensland.

Our work will be to assist the replenishment of the rainforest, planting trees and removing weeds (and trust me, when you are talking about Stinging Trees, these are pretty serious weeds) in order to restore cassowary habitat. All of this effort makes the cassowary sound like the most beautiful bird in the world.

Let me verify at this stage that they are not. They are ugly and menacing creatures. If you annoy one it will charge at you, pointing either its huge talons or the bony crest on its head (which allows it to bump off of trees) at your chest. They can and have killed by doing this. Only this morning at a crocodile farm the group visited I was chased around the outside of an enclosure by one of these creatures. I made the mistake of turning my back on it, and instantly it was charging.

In Gerald Durrell's 1962 book Two In The Bush, he talked of an animal centre with kangaroos, wallabies and a cassowary called Claude, who charged and pounded any animal that got between him and his food. He recalled that in one pen, the kangaroos had learnt to get out of the way of the pouncing bird at the last second, such that Claude fell rather comically flat on his face. I do hope I get to see this happen: this morning I was genuinely scared of the thing, even though there was a fence between us.

Yet it doesn't matter that it's not a particularly nice animal. It is endangered, through every fault of our own, so it's our turn to do something about that. This is why we shall be spending at least a week in a forest full of plenty of things that fancy us for lunch, trying to build a new home for these awesome animals.

We've had our safety talks, we've bought the gear, so it's off into the wild we go.

I am really, really excited.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

I'm a Natural Blue

JUST off the Queensland coast is a little marine wonder called the Great Barrier Reef. You may have heard of it. On Monday I went there.

Setting off from Cairns Marina at 8am, our sailing boat, called Ocean Free, took two hours to motor to Green Island (it wasn't a particularly speedy boat, but the view and sea breeze made the time pass rapidly). Mooring to a buoy just offshore, we were given a quick rundown about snorkelling, and then allowed to jump in.

I have never snorkelled before, nor used flippers. Thus upon entering the sea (which was surprisingly cold) I was faced with two quite taxing challenges. Legs flailing about everywhere, I hyperventilated my way to a floating platform, taking quite panicky breaths, not quite sure how to breathe. The difficulty lies in having to restrict all breathing to the mouth, since the nose is blocked off. While floating this is surprisingly hard work.

Eventually however, I calmed down and breathed steadily, still kicking my legs in quite comical directions. Suddenly I could see what I was surrounded by. Colour abounded everywhere, from the fish and the corals; weird and wonderful shapes created a remarkable landscape. I was swimming over corals shaped like trees, worms and giant brains. There were clams and the most exciting fish. I regret I am unable to tell you the names of the fish I saw, on account of not knowing, but as accurately as I can describe there were Big Ones, Small Ones, Long Ones and Rotund Ones. One fish had a beautiful purple body with bright green fins. It was so stunning I actually said "wow!" out loud, which I regretted instantly, as salt water filled my snorkel and eye mask. What was remarkable was when I bobbed up to find the boat, I would return to have fish, rainbow coloured or jet blue, swimming happily within grabbing distance.

Lunch followed, a smorgasboard of meats, salads and breads, before boarding Green Island itself, a rainforested site conserved as a National Park, with a $500 per night resort (which hosted the world premiere of Finding Nemo. The island used to be the home of the Gungandji people, but is now home to the largest crocodile in captivity. Warmed and eager to snorkel once more we returned to the boat and jumped straight in, far more confident and spurred on by the news some divers had seen sharks and turtles. I saw neither, but I was not disappointed, because the Reef is perhaps the most beautiful habitat I have ever seen.

We sailed with the wind behind us part way home, wined and dined with platters of fruit, cake and cheeses, and landed in Cairns at 5pm. It had been a fantastic day.

I may not have Internet access for two weeks from Friday, so there may be no more updates until then, which is a shame, because I want to tell you all about the rainforest, the mudskippers of the esplanade and our hunt for platypus (possibly). We're off to do a conservation project near here until then, so we may and probably will be in the middle of nowhere.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

A Day In International Territory

CHANGI airport prides itself as the finest airport in the world. On our final day in Singapore we were, to be honest, a little bored of the city and didn't fancy carrying our enormous bags through the never-ending layrinth of shopping malls in the city centre. So we headed early to the airport to test its reputation. The following is a selection of highlights of our ten hour stay.

12.30pm We have arrived! The signs say there are cinemas and a swimming pool and public gardens, so we should have lots to do. It's a very modern, spacious and clean building with lots of light and informative signs. We should be fine.

12.35pm After a quick look around, it would appear that all of the interesting airport amenities are inside the departure lounge, which we cannot enter until we have checked in. For now, we have a Burger King for company.

12.40pm Ooh, nice fountains!

3.00pm I've been sat reading and listening to my mp3 player (henceforth called Len) for ages and we still cannot check in. My most interesting observation is that the hand driers in the toilets are quite exciting. I fancy cake.

4.05pm Bought a sandwich. I daren't guess what was in it.

4.30pm 'Cairns via Darwin' appears on the screen. We head to check in but the kiosk still says Bangkok. We ask both at Jetstar airways and Qantas, and both say the same - we cannot check in until 7.15pm. We relocate to the 'viewing mall' for a change of scenery.

4.45pm Oh look, a plane.

5.00pm To pass the time, I have begun listening to my entire U2 collection on Len in alphabetical order. I get to the oddly named Alex Descends into Hell for a Bottle of Milk when a little plane appears out of the back of the Qantas 747 in front of me through the window, as if the Jumbo has just given birth to a baby Boeing through its exhaust.

5.30pm Jeannette goes in search of food.

5.35pm I need the toilet. I push my trolley into the men's room in the hope that a disabled cubicle will have room for my trolley and me, but the room is narrow and everyone stares at me. I wash my hands as if that was my plan all along and get out quickly, wishing airports catered more for security-conscious lone travellers.

6.30pm Jeannette and I have a lovely conversation about what would happen if the Queen turned 100 herself.

7.15pm Woohoo! Check in finally opens. Budget airline to Australia here we come!

7.45pm We are through immigration and into the departure lounge!

7.46pm Jeannette has already found a copy of Heat.

Anyway, we got here in the end. Crikey! I'm in Australia!