Saturday, 27 June 2009

Hostels


There's a certain rhythm to hostel life - you meet people in your room, and have the following conversation:
- Where are you going?
- Where have you been?
- Where are you from (usually Germany, which the Germans say very apologetically - I think they came here to get away from each other)?
- What do you do (I hate this one, in my case it takes too long to answer and leads to lots of follow-up questions)?
I'd have gone stir crazy if I'd spent all my time on this trip in hostels, but I've had enough variety (friends, friends of friends, couchsurfers, camping) that I'm not yet sick of them. Sick of some aspects, mind - overcrowded kitchens (the word 'sorry' is constantly employed by the 20 different cooks reaching across each other), ancient literature, and casual theft of my beers from the communal fridges. Some have hardly any character (usually city centre ones like Sydney where I'm staying now), and some have rather too much. The proprietor in Deloraine, Tasmania who hadn't bothered to take down the xmas tree by late March fell the wrong side of the eccentric/scary weirdo line.

But the good ones make it all worthwhile. They're usually small, Murchison and Te Aroha in New Zealand, or St Helens in Tasmania. Another of my favourites is Katoomba in the Blue Mountains near Sydney. I was there for a night between rugby games 6 years ago, and went for a proper stay last week. Lovely rambling 1930s art deco building with the most comfy hostel beds of the trip, though with a 1930s attitude to draught exclusion. The town looks tired though, funny how some parts of these new countries can feel rather old fashioned. But the blue mountains scenery is different from any I've seen, and parts are surprisingly inaccessible and unexplored given proximity to Sydney. About 15 years ago, botanists discovered Wollemi pines in one of the gorges, apparently this is the botanical equivalent of finding small dinosaurs running around.

Today's photo was the scariest of the trip to acquire; in a howling gale on Hanging Rock, one of the blue mountains' more inaccessible viewpoints. It has 300 metre vertical drops and no railings. I crawled on and crawled off, hope my readership thinks it was worthwhile.

NZ hostels are much better than their Aussie equivalents for recycling. They tend to have about 6 different rubbish bins for different classes of recyclable items, which have me crying out for a 'normal' bin for rubbish that's definitely not recyclable. The whole recycling concept has much less priority in Australian hostels, a difference which mirrors the countries as a whole, one of the reasons I prefer NZ.

Talking of hostels, I'm making a point of not seeing the horror film 'Hostel' which would apparently discourage me from staying in any of them. In the same vein, a recent aussie horror-flick called Wolf Creek is constantly referenced by travellers considering a farm-stay anywhere in the outback.

In Sydney now, hooking up again with Sandra and Eric. A major Scotland v Switzerland duel was scheduled for tonight, but Andy Murray lost his Wimbledon semi-final, so guess Scottish honour depends on my performance with the Canasta cards instead. We're going to my first rugby league match this afternoon - not planning to be tempted to the dark side permanently, but you never know.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Step out of the vehicle please, Sir






You could spend an entire life visiting Aussie National Parks, but Kakadu has the advantage of being near a city, so gets more visitors than most. Like much of Oz, it has long stretches of extreme tedium (straight roads through scrub) linking sites of jaw-dropping beauty and grandeur. I joined a camping tour for this one - many of the roads are not for the faint-hearted, tempting as it is to give 4w driving a go. Weather was kind, perfect for swimming in plunge pools (well, the croc-free ones) at the foot of waterfalls, and the wetlands are gorgeous, especially at sunset. I'm not sure about the common sense of teaching crocs to jump though. They've done fine without evolving for the last 200m years - if they really get the notion for self-improvement we're all in trouble.

And my tentmates were the first Scots I've met on the trip! And they're recent graduates (DMEM Department) of Strathclyde Uni! We're pictured trying to describe current University strategy - only joking, if any Senior Officers are reading this.


Not all plain sailing. Darwin has a reputation for hard drinking and unfortunately this extended to our guide who made the most of the last night at the campsite (your correspondent doesn't recall all the details, and is VERY glad he wasn't doing the driving), and was breathalysed the following morning. He would have passed a conventional test but tour guides are judged by a higher standard and he had to pass the steering wheel to one of the passengers for the rest of the morning. Not sure if this will have implications for his career, we were all too embarrassed for him to enquire at the time, but the tour-group is reconvening this evening at a Darwin hostelry and he plans to attend so we'll perhaps find out then.


I've decided to head back to Sydney in a couple of days. Alice Springs and the attractions thereabouts (well, 500km away which qualifies as local down there) appealed but not enough to justify the time and cost of getting to them and then getting to Sydney in time for my flight to Hawaii. Last time I was in Sydney I thought it was my all-time favourite city, but that was during a World Cup so not exactly normal circumstances. Plus I read a colour supplement article the other day in which a local writer deplored the way the city has gone to the dogs in recent years. Hope not, but we'll see.

Bust by the dust




The washing machines in Darwin YHA are being replaced today. I think it's coincidence, but they spent yesterday evening wrestling with the dust I collected at Cape Tribulation, The Laura Aborigine Dance Festival, and the Kakadu National Park, and perhaps they just gave up the struggle. Dancing Aborigines in particular can kick up an incredible duststorm.

The trip to Cape Trib and the Dance Festival also covered the Daintree National Park, Cooktown, some beautiful beaches and some of the many wild crocodiles I've seen over the last week. My chauffeurs were Eric and Sandra (better known as 'The Doll' by truckers on the Cape Tribulation road...) from Switzerland, who I met on my dive course. Just enough space in their 4WD for me and my luggage, though as it contains 8 months worth of travel debris, it was cosy - if you missed seeing something on the road, there was no way to look backwards or even sideways at it! It's the first time I've camped on the trip, and their 8 months of experience made it a much smoother process than if I'd gone it alone. They're on their 3rd tent and I doubt the first two would have repelled the rain at Cape Trib or the ant colony that took up residence under the tent at Archer Point beach. Many thanks to them both for excellent campsite cooking (pancakes an especial highlight), good-humoured and entertaining company whatever the rigours of the trip, and teaching me canasta, though Eric may be regretting this now - the cards were very kind in my first couple of games!

The dance festival (http://www.lauradancefestival.com/) was the highlight. It seemed a properly aboriginal event, with spectators as well as performers, but at the same time one where non-aboriginals were welcome and had no need to feel self-conscious. No alcohol, which makes the whole thing almost too well mannered, but having seen a little of the more unfortunate side of aborigine society in Cairns, I can see why this is banned. Most of the dancing tells simple stories of hunting or tribal conflict; a lot of impersonations of kangaroos, emus, crocodiles etc. though the most exciting dances are 'shake-a-leg' efforts which encourage the real showmen and women to strut their stuff. The groups all represent tribes or regions from throughout Queensland, and with many it's about participation rather than excellence; some groups (such as the Yarrabah in the first picture) had child performers as young as 3, who were among the most popular participants. Dancers aren't averse to modern technology either - see the lady on the right in the 2nd picture.


It's now nearly 4 months since I set off - a month longer than I've been out of Scotland since 1980. Still not really missing it, though a bit of Scottish weather would be welcome right now. I couldn't handle Darwin temperatures (or mosquitos) for long. Unbelievably this is considered to be the cold season here - not on my planet, it isn't.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Finding Nemo


...and all his friends, they don't make it difficult on the Great Barrier Reef, the fish (and turtles, and rays, and nudibranches, and lots of things I can't identify at all) seem totally unconcerned by divers. The variety is astounding, though sadly I didn't encounter any sharks underwater. They usually make an appearance during night dives, but the one time I did this it was on a reef they don't frequent for some reason.
Anyway, after 2 days in the pool, 3 at sea including 9 dives, I now have the PADI Open Water certificate, so can dive anywhere, provided I do it soon enough that I don't forget everything I've learnt the past few days. Hardest thing I found in the sea was 'equalising', i.e. squeezing the air out of my ears (as you do when a plane is ascending/descending) to stop my head exploding. This is necessary to adjust to different depths, but eventually got the hang of it. Equalising is incidentally a problem with skydiving as well, though not one they tell you about before pushing you out of the plane, my ears were popping like crazy all the way down, though I didn't give it much thought till I hit the ground; skydiving gives you other things to think about.
Being Scottish spared me one problem, I didn't feel cold in the water at all, no matter how deep we went (18 metres maximum). The Taiwanese lad in our group was shivering uncontrollably every time he came out of the water. He did better than his mate, who was disqualified from the course for not being able to swim!!! Seems amazing that you'd sign up to a scuba course without this particular skill, but apparently it's quite common with Asians, who seem able to convince themselves that this isn't necessary.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Fun, fun, fun, in the sun, sun, sun


Yes, I've been watching old Red Dwarf episodes at Sam (pictured, with Brisbane in the background) and Rods's but anyway, Cairns is what Australia is meant to be like. No culture or rain or any of that other non-Aussie nonsense , just sunshine and bars, and impossibly good looking girls (and some pasty-faced British ones, but never mind) wondering round in bikinis - I saw 2 in the supermarket yesterday. And here comes the weekend! So of course with typical bad timing my 5-day dive course takes me offshore tomorrow, to the Great Barrier Reef for 3 days of Finding Nemo and shark dodging ("Remember, Fish are friends" - "so what are you planning to eat, then?") Which doesn't sound so bad, though the rate of attrition on my course is worrying - 7 people and we'd lost 3 for various reasons before we completed the swimming pool and paperwork stage.

Monday, 8 June 2009

In my considered opinion...

More blether about the books that have been keeping me company. Don't worry, blogfans, I'll get to back to the usual nonsense shortly.

The Whole Story and Other Stories - Ali Smith: Bought on the strength of her brilliant novel The Accidental. But these short stories are much less brilliant, or at least much less memorable, far too slight and thinly plotted for me to get my teeth into.


When They Lay Bare - Andrew Greig: Eagerly anticipated on the strength of In Another Light, which I read previously on the trip. Especially because it's set in the Borders, albeit in the dodgy bit south of Hawick which doesn't really have much in common with Melrose. It was written before In another Light, and they have things in common - the intercut of past and present, a magnetic but brittle lead female character, a strained relationship between father and son. But it isn't quite as good, it's too portentous and could do with a few laughs. But great to read a gripping adult novel about the Borders.


Surveillance - Jonathan Raban: Set in contemporary Seattle, and a good intro to another city I'm planning to visit. It's about the growth of surveillance and associated paranoia in the US in the aftermath of 9/11, though not sure I'd have identified this theme if the blurb hadn't told me. But it's got good characters and very well written. Some intriguing plot points that are all swept away at the end by the biggest Dea ex Machina (I always wanted to write that! Just hope I've used it in the correct context) I've encountered in literature.

The War Within - Bob Woodward: The 3rd of 4 books I've read by the Watergate Investigative journalist about the politics of George Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This covers 2006-8, during which the carnage in Iraq peaked and started to decline, perhaps partly due to changes in US policy. Unequivocal evidence of just how intellectually under-resourced Bush was to be President.

The White Divers of Broome - John Bailey: A history of the attempts by the Oz government to replace the Asian divers who dominated the pre-WW1 pearl diving industry with whites, as part of the 'white Australia' policy; as well as being a fascinating account of what was then a lucrative business, it reveals how racist Australia was in those days, as bad as South Africa at the time. According to some Aussies I've spoken to, attitudes in some areas haven't changed much either, even if goverment policy has.


Emma - Jane Austen: A long overdue 'classic' - I read about one a decade. I knew the story, but the pleasure is in the prose and dialogue, though over 500 pages is a bit much of it, especially when characters like Emma's pathetic father are wittering on. But I can totally see why some people go back to Austen again and again, it's as pleasurably escapist as any fantasy.

The Power and the Glory - Graham Greene: Another classic, provided the reader has patience for the knots that catholics tie themselves in - mine was being tested by the end. But it's a gripping story, and reveals some fascinating history about anti-clerical campaigns in Latin America. It's full of ghastly moral dilemnas, strong characters (I wish the fate of more of them was explained), and simply very well written, like Our Man in Havana, the other Greene book I've read. I can see why he got considered for the Nobel prize, though I've read he believed he was denied it by an anti-catholic member of the relevant committee.


Killshot - Elmore Leonard: A very spare direct crime novel by the doyenne (another word I always wanted to use!) of such things in the US. Gripping story, though it didn't much make me look forward to arriving in the US. The 'baddies' are utterly amoral (they quite separately and unnecessarily murder 18 year old girls) and while the 'goodies' (a couple who witness and prevent a crime) are attractive characters, even the things they like about their lifestyles sound awful to me. And the various law enforcement agencies portrayed are useless at best - sometimes much worse. But at least it's all set in the Midwest, another reason not to go there!

Note: I didn't post this entry until June 16 (by which time I'd read all these books), but started it much earlier. The blog system inserts newly published items on the date I started them.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Brakes? What brakes?


Here's another of my "Don't think, just do it" moments - sand-tobogganing in 'the desert' on Moreton Island off Brisbane. Not very sophisticated, they give you a piece of flexible chipboard, wax one side of it, tell you to lie down and face downhill, and give you a push. No chance of backing out, there was a 73 year old lining up behind me. It's easy to get a mouthful of sand if you don't hold up the front of the board, and when you go over a bump it feels like you've been punched in the stomach. But could be worse, one stag party (or bucks party as they're called in Aussie) lined up on the hill and used their boards on the naked rear end of the groom as he came down; apparently he was unable to sit for the entire wedding! It's an ideal island for swimming too, in lakes and the sea, at least from the Scottish perspective; the Aussies thought it was much too cold. Wussies.

Everyone I know in Oz seems to live in Brisbane; it's not just for cast members who leave Neighbours. I met Liam on his own travels in Glencoe Youth Hostel a few years back and introduced him to Glasgow rugby. He repaid the favour here by taking me to an Aussie Rules game, Brisbane v Carlton (from Melbourne, very much the home of the game). About 30,000 fans at the Gabba (better known in the UK as a test cricket ground) and I have to say a much better atmosphere than the Super 14 rugby games I attended in NZ. I think the sport is a bit of a shambles at times, but impressive at its best. Brisbane are going well in this year's championship, but despite a late rally Carlton were too good on Saturday. Thought I was going to get a bonus in the pub later when the British Lions game came on TV, but after 20 minutes the Aussies 20:20 cricket game in England began and rugby was shunted off the agenda. Though watching the Aussies lose was still entertaining. Not as funny as watching England lose to the Netherlands was for the Aussies though!

Otherwise it's been a very civilised week; art galleries, vineyards, botanic gardens and lots of shower dodging in cafes. Heading for the national parks south of the city with Sam and Rod tomorrow. It's a Monday holiday for them, as it's Queen's Birthday weekend - much to my surprise this rates as a holiday in both Australia and New Zealand. Which should discourage thoughts of a republic anytime soon!

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

CHARGE!!!!


I did promise I'd do stuff I don't normally do. Fighting for a Scottish medieval army .v. English redcoats in pith helmets for control of a park in Hamilton seems to fit the bill. Paper swords, names like Major Blunder and Private Parts, cannons that fire flour; All very pythonesque. The whirling dervish charge, the can-can charge and the human battering ram are unlikely to find their way into military textbooks. I did my best for the Scottish cause, but made a strategic error by not drinking any beer beforehand, so was too self-conscious to get fully into the spirit, plus could hardly stop laughing long enough to take photos. Many thanks to my Auckland couchsurfing host Anna for press-ganging me into the army, and her daughter Eloise for reviving me with ginger wine every time I was 'killed'.

Now in Brisbane, and feeling a complete fraud as a traveller, my friends Sam and Rod served roast dinners the first 2 nights I was here! Sam's an ex-colleague from Glasgow, and one claim to fame I treasure is that I was her only wedding guest who knew she was getting married prior to the day of the wedding - they kept the secret very well.

Brisbane hasn't changed much since last visit (for rugby world cup in 2003). I seem to have brought NZ weather with me, lots of showers, but it's warm enough to lie in the hammock Sam and Rod have strung up on their balcony, which is acting as a major disincentive to actually doing anything here! Moreton Island tomorrow, AFL game on Saturday, and back on my travels next week.