October 07, 2010
The sail to Cocos Keeling (aka Cocos Atoll, aka Keeling Island) was uneventful and dare I say mostly pleasant (although this might be in comparison to the horrible sail we have just had!), and expectations were high for our last atoll of the trip. Cocos is 2000nm from Darwin and hosts a relatively small number of Australians living on West Island, a much larger Muslim population living on Home Island and the yachties moored off the uninhabited Direction Island (DI). We were escorted into the anchorage by a convoy of black tipped reef sharks who were to become our faithful companions, multiplying daily in number, relieving me of any desire to swim off the boat and affectionately called ‘the dogs’. There were 5 other yachts at anchor, of which we had met s/vTraversay IIIin Darwin and waved a hello at s/vOppurtune (www.sy-oppurtune.com) as she left Christmas Island. No sooner had we anchored than Jay, spotting a chance for company other than Rijk and I (it probably didn’t hurt that there were 3 Norwegian lasses aboard), dived into the shark infested water and was last seen swimming over to Oppurtune for a visit. The wind soon got up to a howling 25-30 knots, which pretty much set the tone for the next 10 days, plus some spitty rain- lovely! Luckily the sandy white beach and swooping palm trees on DI offered some shelter from the trade winds and, as the industrious Aussies from West Island use DI as their paradise playground away from paradise home, picnic tables and chairs, a barbeque and permanent shelters all nestled cosily among the palm trees.
On the third day a general call went out on the radio for an evening beach braai, which became a very jolly event with shared salads, many rums, MaryAnne’s gingerbread and lots of sailing talk. By this time our numbers had been augmented by a few more boats and the anchorage looked very festive. Suddenly we were into a whole new world of sailing socialising, one that I had read all about in my pre-leaving research, but due to our slightly alternative route, had not encountered. This was the world of being invited over to other boats for drinks, dinner, lunch, and in Traversay’s case, MaryAnne’s sing-a-longs around her piano, the world of communal beach braaing and sharing food, spinning yarns around the fire and trading stories of repairs done and sights seen. Over the next 10 days, over many barbequed sausages, Rijk brought out his fire-stick, I practised with my poi, French Patrick played his accordion, Tamasha’s Brad strummed his banjo and we all had a wonderful time. The route from Australia to SA is quite straightforward, with not too many places that you can deviate to, so suddenly we are in a pack of boats, all heading to our hometown, aiming for the same time frame, which meant Cocos was a constant flow of boats arriving and leaving.
The bad weather made the tender ride from DI to Home Island pretty wild- lots of spray and big swell, but that was the only way to get to the ferry which travelled between Home Island and West Island, and West Island is where the surf is. Ah Ha! Yes indeed, Cocos is known as a surf and kite surfing destination, which pleased Rijk hugely. The Surf Shack on West Island is the epitomy of old-school, small town trust. The surfers on the island have got together and built a shelter to store their boards, rashies and towels. Someone has put together a first aid box for general use and there is a gas barbie (of course!). The hand painted sign says it all- please respect the shack and don’t use the boards without the owner’s permission. How wonderful that there are places in the world where a sign is enough!
While sitting watching Rijk getting some pretty good waves, I was kept company by a steady stream of surfers pulling in to check out the conditions, including an Aussie/South African couple on honeymoon. Lane surfed with Rijk and Durban- born Ash and I got down to some serious girl talk while sunning ourselves on the windless beach. What a treat! The following day saw them at DI where we snorkelled coral heads that looked like the rolling green hills of Ireland (Really- All they needed were some cows!) and snorkelled the Rip. This is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Cocos and is definitely one of my top dives. The Rip is a pass from the sea into the lagoon and has a thin, deep channel edged with much more shallow coral. We walked along the pass from the protected lee of the motu to the weather blasted sea side, where we entered the water. The walk to the pass is very sharp coral so we devised a method whereby we left our shoes on the beach and collected the first shoe that we came to. Let me first explain that the sea side of Cocos is littered with slip slops (thongs to the Aussies) and various other shoes. Now when I say littered, I want you to imagine thousands of random slops in piles, wrapped in bits of netting or hidden under pieces of driftwood- that type of littered. So the idea was to pull on the first shoe you could find (normally one belonging to a 2 yr old) and then hobble till the next one (possibly a hotel slipper). On finding a better one (Jay found a glamourous high heel shoe with beading), you could discard the 2 yr old’s and walk till you found a 15 yr old’s pink, sequin encrusted platform. And so on until the entry point. The whole genius of this plan was that we could walk into the pushing waves wearing shoes and then discard them with impunity when it came to pulling on our fins. And be sure that the same shoes would end up washed up in the same place the next day.
So, fins on, into the water we went and swim swim swim hard against the fast moving current into the middle of the channel. And then the current caught us and we were in the Rip, moving like Superman through the water. There are a few pieces of coral that are shallow enough to provide handholds, and hanging onto one of those provided a dazzling parade of fish, sharks and turtles, seemingly oblivious to their goggled spectators. The Rip is a protected area so the fish that live in its plankton enriched waters are HUGE! The cob seemed to be the size of small cars and the massive bumphead parrotfish patrolled the shallows with oafish slowness. And then, suddenly, we were out of the current and swimming back to the beach, and it was time to do it all again!
Gloriously, for our last weekend, the sun came out, the wind dropped, and we got to see Cocos Keeling in all of its multi-hued splendour. And boy, was it splendid! The spectrum of blues dazzled the eyes, and the yachts twinkled prettily against the deep indigo. And was that another South African flag? S/V Life’s A Dream, a luxuriously big cat, arrived in time for us to have a whisky sodden dinner with Mark, Stu and Robin, listen to some Johnny Clegg and admire their palatial abode. When I found Rijk ‘resting’ on the trampoline at the end of the evening, I thought it prudent to tender the troops back to our trusty uMoya! And then it was time to pack away the tender, stow everything and prepare for a trying 12 day sail to Rodriguez. Trying to pretend the last 2 weeks of 30 knot wind would not in any way influence the sail to come, I stuck on some sea-sick patches and braced myself.
Huh! More on this ridiculous attempt to follow!
October 02, 2010
If you believed all you read in the Aussie papers, Christmas Island is the last stop for refugees coming into Australia, a place of detention centres, detainees, wardens and a huge phosphate mine. It is hugely topical at the moment with Australia’s politicians using the refugees housed there as ballast for the upcoming election. I imagined a place of austere barreness, where hollow eyed men and women sat around looking blankly into space and wardens armed with truncheons ate boiled cabbage in canteens. So much was this our impression that for a while we scratched CI off our itinerary all together. No-one we met had been there and inquiries were generally met with a negative scrunch of the shoulders. After speaking to a customs guy at Ashmore reef, who had actually been there and gave it a good review, we decided to stop by, and if it was awful, leave.
Could someone PLEASE appoint a public relations officer!
We anchored in Flying Fish Cove, tying up to one of the mooring bouys conveniently placed there for yachts. OK, there was a bulk carrier at anchor under a huge pipe which spilt a deluge of fine phosphate powder into the wind, but as we were not in its direct path, it didn’t seem to matter much, and was interesting looking in a mad-max kind of way. What did catch our attention was the pretty little beach in front of a grassy verge, obligatory gas barbies under gazebos, soft matted showers (so that diddums doesn’t hurt his feet) and clean public toilets (this sort of thing is important now days!). Then our gaze shifted to what was below us. Holy moley! uMoya was suspended above the most beautiful coral gardens, hanging pretty in amongst a swarm of black triggerfish curiously fluttering around us. A knotted cliff rose at our stern, ent-like trees using their bleached white roots as legs, clambering up the rocks to the forest above. And the birds! Frigate birds wheeled in clouds of black, chasing fragile white Golden Bosun birds, their long tails feathering in the wind and their high keening a contrast to the raucous shouts of their pursuers.
We later found out that we were anchored over a reserve, and that CI is known as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean due to its high number of endemic wildlife- the Golden Bosun being one, as well as the Christmas Island frigate. CI is also known for its red crab migration, which happens every November, when the millions of red crabs obey a primal calling and migrate to the sea from all over the island to spawn. When this happens, every road, every rock, every bush and every verge is scuttling with red crabs trying desperately to get their rocks off, so to speak.
We rented scooters for 2 days and explored the island, which was spectacular. There are a few good tarred roads that run around the island, maintained by the mine, but the good stuff was to be seen a few kms off the roads and so we took our trusty steeds off road, down road, through road and once, into road. The tracks ran down hill through dense rain forests, where light trickled unevenly over the fallen trees which housed a wonderful array of land crabs- blue ones, red ones, white ones, small ones and the huge robber crabs (aka the coconut crab) which were to be seen everywhere! We picnicked at Dolly Beach, a good 5kms of scrabbling up hills and down hills (Rijk riding and me, being a scaredy cat, walking) and then a further 2km hike through the forest, which in true Aussie style, even here in this far flung corner of their empire, was a wooden walkway with belisha beacons to mark the places that had rotted through! Having had very limited contact with the shy, nocturnal coconut crab of the pacific, we were amazed at the prolific, forward coconut crab that littered the palm fringe of the beach in huge numbers. We all sat down and I laid out our picnic when I noticed one or two of the puppy-sized crabs showing considerable interest in us. We made vaguely threatening motions and they backed off, clipping their monster claws at us. Delicious picnic eaten, Rijk and Jay stood up and headed for the rock pools while I reclined for a snooze. I was just thinking to myself that, like my friends the sharks, the crabs can probably sense the weak one in the pack, when I heard a shuffling noise behind me. I turned around, and with a shriek of terror saw about 15 of the monsters heading determinedly for me, 2 of them already on my kikoi! The coconut husks behind the leaders shivered with the weight of the vanguard as I hurled myself towards the safety of sibling and betrothed, who, not surprisingly, greeted me with roars of laughter. Dangerous stuff, this sailing round the world!
The phosphate mine at CI was closed down in the 70’s and bought a few years later by a consortium of former employees, all CI families. We went on a mine tour with the environmental officer of the company, which entailed driving round and being shown all the cool spots, like the Chinese temples that dot the island with their flags snapping in the wind and incense smoke curling amongst the fierce looking statues . The large Chinese population was brought to the island in the early days of the mine as indentured labour, and they, as well as the Muslim population originally there for the same reason, form the backbone of the CI population. There are a small-ish group of permanent Australian residents as well as the contract workers brought in to work on the detention centre. Our guide was originally from Indonesia and showed us where to collect wild pumpkin, bird’s eye chillis and papayas from the bush, as well as a loofah tree. Did you know that the shower time, scratchy loofah is a seed pod? For some reason seeing all these loofahs on a tree just blew my mind. Small things, small minds and all that stuff, I guess! The great thing about CI is that about 70% percent of it is a nature reserve. The mine can only use previously cleared areas and stockpiles, and is not allowed to clear any virgin forest. Even in the bits that they are allowed to use, there are strict rules about not damaging endemic ferns and plants and there has to be a designated swathe of land left around each one.
Such was the brilliance of the coral under us, and the impressive sunset displays of huge tuna flying in the air, backlit by the setting sun, that we decided to go scuba diving. The highlight of the dive was definitely the out of season baby whale shark that cruised above us, a dark silhouette suspended in a jelly of royal blue. The world below the surface teemed with life, just jumping off the boat was a daily spectacular of sharks, moray eels, huge Titan triggerfish, camouflaged trumpet fish, the amazing Blue Tang (I have to name a dog after him.. what a cool name!) and another assorted wonders of the deep blue. It was wonderful to see was how big the fishes were, and in what big schools they traveled- healthy happy reef! (Side note here… fish or fishes? Apparently if you are talking of many of the same species, it’s fish, plural of different types of fish, fishes. Oh, the things you learn out of the schoolroom!) And that was Christmas Island- unexpected beauty and wonder in one of the gems of the Indian Ocean. Next stop Cocos Keeling!
August 23, 2010
S 11.05.02 E 107.53.60 En route to Ashmore Reef: We have had glorious weather so far- lovely light winds from the stern and calm seas.. long may it last! Rijk hauled in a huge shark this afternoon, which gave us a bit of entertainment, other than that, lots of reading, sleeping, snacking and general lolling around the place. We are trying to stop off at a reserve called Ashmore reef, which has the highest amount of sea snakes recorded.. 17 types! I saw a big one squirming past the boat this morning, and yesterday we saw a flotilla of HUGE rays swimming past. Rijk caught a shark, which was good entertainment for us as he struggled to get it in order to let it go. Ashmore Reef was magical- the sound of island silence was beautiful to get back to – nothing except the wind and the faint sounds of waves breaking on reef in the distance. We moored next to a small island that has been used for generations as an Indonesian grave site and when we went across at low tide we saw the evidence of lots of wrecks on the beach, as well as a few graves under one of the only two palm trees on the island. Ashmore Reef is an Australian reserve and its waters are very tigtly monitored. There is a permanently stationed Customs/ scientific boat inside the lagoon as well as one outside, a battle ship and a plane that does daily loops. The sea life was absolutely incredible. Huge schools of huge reef fish, more turtles than you could shake a stick at, flocks of eagle rays, stingrays of various different sorts lurking in the sand and a few shark rays, which we have never seen before. There was even a small fishing boat wreck that looked like the wreck in a fish tank. All in all, pristine wilderness! And now on to Christmas Island! Leaving we had a bit of a stronger breeze, but coming from the right direction, and only a little bit of swell. We caught a big wahoo on our way out of Ashmore and Jay and I saw a HUGE fin behind it- the fish was pulled down quite hard and then when Rijk pulled it in it had a big bite taken out of its tail… so no-one has been doing any swimming off the back! The wind has freshened now, and we are being smacked with a cross swell which is making it all very rolly polly. Still, the weather is holding and we should be at Chritmas Island tomorrow evening!There are lots of little Indo fishing boats around the place which makes watch quite interesting – Jay had the whole horizon filled with them and was playing dodgems yesterday night. I was reading yesterday afternoon on watch and looked up to see 8 of them right on top of us in their long speed boats.. quite frightening. BUT no reports of anything nasty so I know they are just curious fishermen! We have had dolphins on every watch- the moon is full so no stars but it catches the dophins as they jump through the air in the moon trail which is pretty spectacular. Also millions of flying fish! They litter the decks and Jay was whacked on the back by one during his watch- he had luckily just stood up otherwise it would have thrown it’s stinky body onto his HEAD! On watch last night I suddenly smelt this stink and thought that it was the dolphin’s breath until Rijk came up very annoyed to tell me that a flying fish had flown through his hatch and landed on his cabin floor! STINKY!
August 18, 2010
Rijk and I dropped Tiny off at his Sydney home, unpacked 3 weeks worth of living into Rob’s station wagon and set off on an unintentional tour of Sydney’s Industria in an attempt to hunt down some kangaroo fillets, which, when eaten a few days later at Rob & Nad’s apartment, were well worth the effort! Rob & Nadine had graciously invited all 3 of us to stay in their beautiful apartment in Bondi, perfectly situated in one of Australia’s most famous suburbs and only a few minutes walk from the beach and the absolutely magnificent cliff paths that run along the jagged coves. First things first though! After months of trying to make plans for my dad to join us on the boat, with our dates changing every week, we finally managed to pinpoint 1 weekend when we would all be in Sydney for a reunion. Dad arrived with James, who had been staying with friends in Melbourne for 5 weeks, and when we went for dinner with my dad and Liz on Friday night, we were all talking nineteen to the dozen, catching up on a long time apart apart and being generally thrilled to see each other.
We decided to, of all things, go to the Zoo the next day, which, with it’s spectacular views over the harbour, was a great way to get to grips with the city, as well as see some seriously impressive animals. The snow leopard, the tree kangaroos and the red pandas were magnificent and while zoos are not normally my thing, the Sydney Zoo seemed like more of a sanctuary than captivity for these endangered creatures. To top it all off, the water ferry from the Zoo into the city was the perfect viewing platform for the soaring bridge and extraordinarily photogenic Opera House. I had forgotten what an exciting thing is a city.
The change of energy thrilled through me as we wandered into the city. We passed joggers running in the Botanical Gardens, ipods pumping different tunes, making the easy Sydney transition from concrete jungle to lush green spaces. From the Botanical Gardens to the train station, people in bars and houses spilled laughingly into the street, grooving to the late Saturday afternoon beat. The evening saw us watching the pretty disastrous rugby with Rob, Nadine and friends of theirs, and then going out to Kings Cross. Wow! Talk about culture shock. The road was a crazy throng of people, the girls mostly decked out in the tiniest skirts I’ve ever seen, the guys in everything from super smart to seriously scaffy. Police wandered up and down in huddles, keeping an eye on everything while food shops selling pizzas, pies and hot chips did a roaring trade. All in all, it felt like a massive carnival. And this, according to the taxi driver, was a quiet night on the Kings Cross! I think it was the ceaseless barrage of people walking back and forward, bumping past us, talking on mobiles, calling across the street, laughing and stumbling drunkenly into taxis that amazed me. It was, after all, the first big city in 16 months and probably the most people that I had seen in one place in all that time!
We had a decidedly chilled Sunday drive with Liz, who as an ex-Sydneysider, was an awesome taxi driver, patiently driving us through every nook and cranny of that glorious city. I can absolutely see why so many South Africans choose to make Sydney their home- its glorious proximity to the sea and harbour is one thing, but what I loved most is that the crenellations of the waterline, as well as all the hills, give so many houses amazing sea views and so many areas water access. We whiled away a few hours in Nielsen’s Park, watching a regatta coming round the headland, wind catching the spinnakers and sun reflecting off the sea. It was a beautiful sight, and wonderful to be appreciating it from land! Later, eating a late lunch at the yacht club, I watched the yachts coming in and felt lucky to experience a sense of belonging with these wind swept, sun burnt people, their faces filled with the exhilaration of being on the water on a beautiful day, of harnessing the wind, and of being back on dry land having a strong drink.
There are a few things about Sydney that I really took note of- the delis for example- the delicious foods, chocolaterias, heavenly pastries and always, always, the coffee. Columbian, organic, mocha, flat white, soya frappe and skinny French roast are amongst the dizzying selection that make buying a coffee in Sydney a very complicated business! And always outside the delis were the dogs. This other strata of society kept me highly entertained. Maybe it is because I am missing my furry friends so much, and would gleefully jump into a warm basket for a cuddle that I was so aware of the hilarious interactions of dogs with their owners, the film-worthy conversations between owner and dog, the lectures of walker to dog, the ensuing criss-crossing leads of naughty charges and of course, the always amusing humiliated owner and the public poo clean up. Most delis had dog bowls filled with fresh water outside and I saw as many boutique dog clothing stores with clever names and expensive lighting as luxurious looking dog pampering parlours. It’s a dog’s life indeed!
As a South African, coming from a land where someone’s trash is always another’s treasure, it was strange to see the piles of unwanted couches, carpets, luggage, lamps and bar stools, all in excellent condition, lying on the side of the road. Associated with this, and as noteworthy to me, were the regular Saturday garage sales that take place in gardens and on front lawns all over Australia. What an excellent idea! How sensible to be able to browse the streets of your neighbourhood on a Saturday morning, meeting new neighbours, chatting to old ones and buying great stuff at good prices. Waste not, want not! And if you can’t spare the time to man your garden stall, you can do what we saw along our road trip- have an honesty box. This, also as a South African, totally blew my mind. We saw signs advertising fresh veggies and fruit along the road and pulled over when we saw the wooden stall laden with goodies. There was a car there already and a woman handing fruit through the window. We walked over and stood waiting for her to be done with the other car. After waiting for a while, I said, “You don’t mind if I help myself”, to her totally uncomprehending glance. I piled up our bags, opened my wallet and looked at her expectantly. Imagine my surprise when at that point she got into the car and drove away! Looking around, bewildered, we saw the price list, a money box, and a sign saying “DON’T STEAL, locals talk, this is an honesty box. Unbelievable.” You choose your produce, tally it up, put your money in a box and drive away. How many countries in the world could this be a way to buy fresh produce?
Rijk and I took ourselves off on a walking tour of the business district and the Rocks en route to meeting Gary and Lindsey for after-work dinner and drinks. By the time we were looking for a bar it was pouring with rain, the slick wet streets reflecting the neon lights that bathed everything in pink and blues. A frisson of excitement swept through me as we thread our way through the somberly dressed, high-heeled, tie & suit brigade, clutching expensive handbags and weighty briefcases. These people had things to do, places to go, people to see. Restaurants beckoned, bars called and shops glimmered, huge bunches of fragrant flowers displayed themselves gaudily outside grocers and trays of perfect luxury chocolates threatened to convert the disbelievers. There were a thousand unnecessary ways to spend money in the pursuit of pleasure. It was awesome to be in a city again. Ah, the choice of food and drink in Sydney! We poked our heads into a baroque wine bar, peered into an Italian joint, lingered outside a Thai place, wandered past the oldest pub in Sydney, stopped briefly at an Irish pub, and finally found ourselves being served huge pitchers of German beers by frauleins in frilly tops. Cue much revelry, many refills of the delicious beer, catching up with old friends, Spatzle, crispy pork knuckle and a drunken taxi home.
We had the next day to recover from our hangovers before we hit the town again with Rob & Nadine- this time to a wonderful theatre/restaurant bar where they had a pizza special and karaoke! This, worryingly, seems to be becoming a habit- last time we had seen Rob and Nad was in Pohnpei, where we had given" Fading like a Flower" a run for it’s money! However, the standard in Sydney seems to be somewhat higher! Granted, I think that one of the tables was filled with drama students (they are SO easy to spot!) which would have accounted for most of the album quality crooning, but even the randoms were unbelievable, hitting every note, every line, every word, perfectly. The highlight of the evening was definitely not when Nad & I got up, red wine fuelled, to take the mic, but rather when someone mooned the crowd, mid-song, and to huge applause and whistling, got man-handled out by the bouncers. Got to love the Aussie bouncers! It really is amazing- I was talking to someone in a bar, and although he really didn’t seem that drunk, the bouncer came up to him and politely asked him to leave as he was “too inebriated”. Which he did! Later that evening buying a drink, the guy next to me was served a glass of water instead of the beer he asked for and told to “drink that and come back in 20 minutes, mate”. Two thirds of our group (no names mentioned) have even been refused entry to a club on the grounds that they are “too drunk”. Which they weren’t. Another thing that I can’t imagine happening in SA.
City time moves faster than boat time and in just a blink it was our last weekend in Sydney and time for the boys to find some uncrowded surf. We drove up to Manyana, which is 3 hrs south of Sydney and stayed in a big rented house close to the beach with a group of Rob’s mates. It was great to be part of a group rough and tumble, with jokes flying around, food being cooked and shared, the 10 second rule on chairs creating havoc around the fire, animated faces being lit up by firelight and finally, waking up smelling of wood smoke the next morning. The girls also managed to fit in a totally decadent lunch at a winery, where we drank delicious wine and had good girly chats, which I have so missed! It made me miss my group of friends more, and I can’t wait to be back, part of our group dynamic. Nothing beats old friends! And so back to Darwin!
Well, it was certainly not as simple as that! Bad weather in Sydney delayed our 7pm departure, which in turn made us miss our connecting flight in Brisbane. So from Brisbane we were put on the next flight to Melbourne. Which landed in Darwin exactly 6 hours later than should have landed. Got to love flying! But I sure was glad to be back in Darwin. As much as I loved places on our travels, I think that I have to admit to loving Darwin the best. Darwin feels somehow raw and untamed, an older version of an Australia that hasn’t yet been polished. It does not twinkle with the homogeneous luster of the rest of Australia’s cities, it gleams with its own rough, outpost magic. The sunsets are magnificent over the flat sea, a feast of magenta, pink, oranges and purples. The Darwin hippies that live out of their vans in the parking lots, bare footed and dreaded, make the night come alive with their fire sticks, magic shows and circus acts at Mindil Market. Wonderful fireworks bursting over the little city are an almost nightly celebration of the Dry season and the early morning light threading through the mangroves bring daily promise of another perfectly lovely, hot day.
On our last night in Darwin, we decided to go to the East Point Reserve for a sundowner picnic dinner. When we got there, we heard the very distinctive sound of EmDee’s high energy didge and drums, tunes familiar to us from watching the band play live at the market. The sound carried on the breeze from somewhere in the mangroves and acted as the foot stomping soundtrack for our scrumptious fillet and garlic mushroom braai. The reverberating beat finally pulled the blazing sun down through the purple streaked sky and into the smooth waters of the bay. As night fell, we saw the flickering lights of an aboriginal fisherman moving over the water towards the shore. Two enchanting little children waited for his return, keeping themselves occupied with showing us their best jumps and tricks. The fisherman waded onto the shore laden with his catch- 4 rays for dinner, which he proudly showed to an admiring Brisbane couple by torchlight, the women talking about cooking and babies, the men about fishing. We heard the Brisbane man exclaiming how good the fisherman must be and that if he wanted to, he bet he could just wander in and catch a mud crab. No sooner said than done, the fisherman waded in and reappeared 10 minutes later with a gift for the couple- a huge mud crab. It was a beautiful interaction to watch, and for me, sums up my feelings about Darwin- that if you look for it, magic is just around the corner, waiting to be found.
June 18, 2010
Getting to the coast brought a very different energy to our trip- better weather for the most part, sandy feet and surf!. As we drove along the very pretty gum-encased road into the little town of Rainbow beach, the sun came out from behind the rain splattering clouds, illuminating the white barked Ghost gums and there in front of us, framing the town was a rainbow.. no, a double rainbow! Whoa! A double rainbow! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQSNhk5ICTI) I knew it was a good sign and sure enough, not only was our campsite located right next to the toilet, but the sun came out in force the next day for our fun trip down Rainbow Beach to surf some very small waves. Perfect for me to practise on! Rainbow beach was so named by the Aboriginals for the amazing rainbow coloured cliffs that swoop down to the water. Legend has it that the cliffs were coloured when Yiningie (the spirit of the Gods representing Rainbow) was killed in a fight, spreading his ‘colourful’ spirits across the cliffs. There was also a really great restaurant with a fire place and a huge comfy sofa in front of it. Bliss! From Rainbow Beach we went to Noosa, where we walked on the beach, watched the hundreds of surfers on a very small point break, had an ice-cream and window shopped our way back to the car, deciding that it was a little too busy for us. We made our way down the coast with the plan of bypassing Brisbane and had almost past it, when I found out that we had cross Brisbane town centre to get to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. Cue turning around, getting lost, Rijk questioning the apparently OUTRAGEOUS demand to see koalas, me digging in my heels and through tears saying that I wasn’t going any further till I had a picture taken with a koala, turning around again, asking directions and finally getting there. By that time Rijk had calmed down and I had calmed down, however my eyes were too puffy to make the $16 photo worthwhile. Sigh. Can’t have it all I guess. But, on the up side, we did get to see a pair of Tasmanian devils having a fight and the cutest duck-billed platypus playing in his tank. Also many, many koalas!
The next highlight was the drive inland to Murwillumbah. This area is absolutely magical, with huge ferns falling over sparkling, gurgling creeks, moss covering every rock and bird chatter filling the cool air. Mount Warning, which is the highest mountain in the area and looms over the valley, is the remains of a 20 million yr old volcano. We went for a hike up its majestic slopes, marvelling at the towering eucalyptus trees, the massive cycads and the awesome views that appeared around every corner. Laser birds (our name) called out their Paul van Dyk backing tracks and whirled across our path chasing each other into the dank undergrowth. If there are any fairies left on this earth, they live here, hiding in the rich bark of the ancient trees or under the green mossiness of the centuries- worn rocks, using the floating dust motes as steps into the sunlight and riding side saddle on the flamboyantly coloured birds.
When we got back to our campsite, we decided to take a spin to Nimbin, the famous hippie town of NSW. One of our audiobooks, “High Noon in Nimbin” had dealt very comprehensibly with the town and its main tourist attraction, marijuana, and we felt that since we had spent many hours listening to the book (highly recommended!) we should check out the town. The drive to Nimbin took us through Uki (love the name!) and past Nobby’s Creek. Also past an increasing amount of Organic fruit stalls, bio-dynamic cafes, home-grown produce for sale on the side of the road, handmade wrought-iron decorations on the arty gates and all things hippie. The town itself is amazing. Most of the shops are dedicated in some way to ganga, whether it be smoking paraphernalia, the Happy High Herb Company offering alternative mixes for your joint as well as the most bewildering array of herbs I have ever seen, books on growing weed, a marijuana museum and cafes offering deliciously tempting munchies. Even the supermarket had specials on cake mixes in case you wanted to make dope cookies. Weed wasn’t sold openly, but as I walked down the street I was quietly offered weed by numerous tied-dyed dealers. Tibetan blankets, Nepalese prayer flags and Indian jewels took up the rest of the shops, watched kindly by Buddha and Ganesh, all floating in a mist of incense and weed smoke. I loved it! The campsite however, wasn’t as awesome as the town, so on we pushed to Byron Bay.
Byron Bay was the meeting place for all the surrounding Aboriginal tribes in times of old, and revered as a very special place. Now it’s a meeting place for backpackers and surfers, but I think that Byron Bay still feels like a place of magic. There is something in the air there, a feeling of harmony, that comes through in the open faces and ready conversation of the inhabitants. The beaches are long, white and uncrowded, dolphins surf the waves alongside the surfers and we saw whales just beyond the breakers almost every day. We stayed a few days there, soaking up the holiday atmosphere. Angourie was next on our itinerary, recommended to us by the owner of a hippie shop where Rijk bought a fire staff and I bought glow in the dark poi (the hippie versions of Rijk & Jen!). Angourie is supposed to be one of the best surf spots in Australia, and Rijk had one of his ‘best ever” surfs there. We slept in a parking lot on the beach, next to a beautiful park full of banksia trees and the brightly coloured lorikeets. The café up the road served amazing chai and carrot cake, played wicked funky jazz and offered an amazing selection of off beat magazines to read. All too, too good.
After sleeping in the parking lot for 3 nights, when we got to Crescent Head in the cold rain, we decided that the time had come for a night or two in a bungalow. Ahhhhhhh…. a private bathroom with hot water and a toilet! And a TV, a bar heater , a veranda looking onto the beach , a kitchen, a huge bed and a bakery selling amazing pies within walking distance. Life’s luxuries! After such luxury we were planning on spending the last night in a campsite, but when we got to Terrigal late in the afternoon, we found that there were no campsites. HHmmm…tough one- so we booked into a very nice guest house that came with an outdoor spa bath. All this equals a very happy Jen arriving in Sydney the next day!
June 17, 2010
I am sitting in the relative warmth of the camper van, the grey flat sea and unappealing brown beach just moments away, hidden in the gloom. My tropic-thinned blood is being warmed with 2 jerseys, a beanie, socks, gloves and a scarf, and a bottle of warming red wine keeps me company while Rijk battles the elements cooking on the barbie in the 10 degree heat. Ah, Yeppoon! We reached the coast this afternoon, driving into the rain-soaked little town of Yeppoon, hungry and tired after a long days driving, although perhaos better to start at the beginning, for otherwise a jumbled account this will turn into!
Rijk and I collected our camper in Darwin on Monday, and after a frantic day trying to provision Tiny (now also referred to as Thirsty), our high top van, we admitted defeat and left early on Tuesday. We got as far as Litchfield National Park, where we set up camp under the stars and wandered the delicious waterfalls and rock pools, mossy walks and Australian scrubland, along with a couple of hundred like minded Australian families, kids on holiday (great timing on our behalf!) and a bewildering array of camper vans, roof top tents, caravans and tents. So many people, in fact, that just as we had lit our fire and settled in for our first night of camping what did we get but 2 girls asking to share our campsite as they couldn’t find their own. After a brief frosty reception from me (was so looking forward to the prickly silence of the Outback, my HEAT magazine and a celeb-gossip catch up!), we invited them to share our fire (Oh, yeah.. thanks mate, says the one, we were planning on throwing our chops down anyway… BRISTLE!) . They turned out to be all right and when we saw they only had a couple of sleeping bags and some ground mats, not even a swag to call their own, well, we left them to the fire and retired to the comfort of our curtained, kitchened and double-bedded palace! The next day saw us fleeing the growing stink of the one and only composting long drop toilet and heading to Edith falls, where a huge rock pool at the end of a series of gorges provided a good place to stretch out the legs after the few hundred kms drive.
The national parks are really well set up and there are so many of them in Australia. Most of them seem to have free entrance for non-campers, and even the camping fees, in comparison to the rest of this VERY expensive country, seem reasonable. We had our first lesson in barbeque etiquette at Edith falls, when we decided on an early dinner and started cooking one of the many gas barbies in the campsite. Rijk stood next to the bbq, bare-chested and Stetson-ed, cooking our steaks to perfection. All the passers-by stopped for a good natured chat and an Aussie chin wag, commenting on the early braai-ing and how good the seasoned food looked. We realized we were getting death stares from the dad in the next camper, who we had apparently unintentionally beaten to the bbq by a matter of seconds. He was wearing shorts that probably fit him 5 years ago but were now held together by the lowest button, his gut threatening even that poor unfortunate. He too was bare chested, and also wearing a Stetson. Unfortunately, when he jumped onto the bbq as we took off our meat, the passers by neglected to stop and chat to him, and there were no good natured chin wags. He scoured the bbq looking at us in annoyance and irritation, and then tried to impress the rest of the campers with a dazzling display of soccer with his kids. This ended with a yelp of pain, a gut wobble, and him hobbling painfully into the camper, not to be sighted for the rest of the evening. How unfortunate then to bump into him at the BBQ’s for the next 2 nights!
The Northern Territorians are known by their moniker, Territory Tough (as opposed, apparently, to South Soft) and this mad max attitude was proven by their celebrations of Territory Day, the day that celebrates the Northern Territiory becoming a self governing territory as late as 1978. On this one day, every shop in the NT sells fireworks, to anyone, for whatever personal use they feel necessary. Fireworks are totally illegal in the rest of Australia, so this laissez-faire attitude is marveled at. We drove into the very small town of Katherine, and saw huge banners advertising fireworks lining the entire street. We abandoned our plans of going into another national park and bought some fireworks. Rijk was torn but eventually decided that the too-big-to-carry, $200 family packs that were being carted away by every man and his dog were overkill, and settled for a smaller bumper pack. The evening started with the official Katherine fireworks display in the Showgrounds, opened by 3 very nervous, podgy and uncoordinated police reservists, a local Country singer and a 7-member children’s choir singing local songs. The bugs looked like snow fall around the big lights and everyone munched on huge hunks of BBQ sauce dripping steak squashed between pieces of white bread while cheering on their sister/brother/auntie. While we waited for the show to start, the rest of Katherine got busy, letting off their fireworks all around us. Our show was fantastic, with huge flowers of light spinning and spiraling into the sky above us. Bangbangbang they exploded to the delighted shrieks of children and applause from all the adults. As we left we saw that every garden and sidewalk was hosting its own fireworks show, and so found a suitable parking lot for our quite impressive display of wonderfully named Chinese concoctions.
Katherine Gorge was the next stop (where again, for 2 nights, we competed with our friend Hobble for BBQ space) and Rijk’s first excited sighting of the wallaby. The tiny kangaroo and its baby spent a productive night foraging around our camper, dragging their tails through any dry branches, twigs and leaves that they could find, upturning nearby camper’s washing up, rooting through another neighbour’s rubbish and generally making a huge amount of noise. Next morning, when we had to wake up early to go kayaking up the gorge, we were a lot less excited to see the little blighters hopping their merry way to bed. The gorge kayak was spectacular, and as an added bonus, on the return trip some Frenchies beckoned us to the bank to see a Freshwater croc sunning itself. The 5 m wire trap a little further on, baited with the bloody and raw head of a pig did nothing for any thoughts of swimming!
Sadly, leaving Katherine meant leaving the heat of the Top End, and heading into the chilly South. I had big expectations for the Outback, and as we traveled further and further into the desert, all my expectations were met. The scenery is spectacular in the endless, flat- plained way of the Karoo, punctuated with evocatively named creeks and brought into perspective by huge moody skies. Bull Creek, Mistake Creek, Deadfellow Creek and my favourite, Hellhole Creek flew past in various degrees of mudiness thanks to the little rain that had fallen. The little towns that we passed through were wonderful, most of them having populations of under 200, a dusty and windswept main street comprising a road café catering to the 56 metre, very impressive road trains that ply this one lane highway, a few abandoned buildings, which added to the feeling of time having stopped, and a museum of some sort. I am, I have realized, a consummate tourist. Show me a museum, the more random, ramshackle and unexpected, the better. I want to poke around in the back of the general store, looking at the cracked and faded pictures of the bustling town, circa 1900. I want to marvel at old newspaper clippings shrouded in cobwebs and I definitely want to sit in ancient armchairs in draughty bars, listening in bewilderment to the old-timers talking stock and drought in accents so broad that I don’t understand a word. However. We had a schedule, and there isn’t any surf in the Outback and Sydney waits for no man. Or some such thing. So I can unfortunately give you only a glimpse of the wonders that await the curious deep in the Outback. We traveled through Mt Isa, which a blind Lonely Planet writer called Striking. He was almost certainly a family member of the Tourism official, and possibly recently out of a jail cell. As we only have the 7 yr old Lonely Planet, and I am sure the mistake has been rectified, we will forgive his dubious taste. Hurrying through the belching smoke stacks of Mt Isa, we reached the teeny town of Kynuna. We walked into the Blue Heeler bar and found amongst all previously stated newspaper clippings and photos a huge, roaring fire. Have I mentioned that it was a furious cold snap and that the days were probably around 15, the nights under 10degrees? I can tell you one thing, night time emergences from layers and layers of sleeping bags into the ice chest of the van, warding off the condensation droplets that fall from the fibre-glass top, and then making one’s way across 50m of bushveld in order to have a wee in the draughty bathroom block is no fun at all! Anyway, back to the huge, crackling, mighty fire, big glasses of red wine and chatting to the Grey Nomads (the older generation living their retirement dreams from a caravan). What a treat! The Nynuna Station has an amazing history of Flying Doctors, devastating floods, parching droughts and a surf competition. Yes, you read right! Every year there is a surf competition and all of the stockmen, ringers and jambucks arrive with whatever boats/vessels/surf boards that they can find and race around the desert like lunatics pretending that they are at the seaside. The hotel is also the only building still standing that has any association with the first days of the song, “Waltzing Matilda”, which was written by Banjo Paterson, who drank at the Blue Heeler. (I was hurried past the Waltzing Matilda museum, otherwise could tell you more!)
Winton positively oozed charm, character and history. Waltzing Matilda was written about the Great Shearer’s Strike in 1891, which had Winton as its centre of unrest. The first board meeting for Quantas airline happened in Winton, and then, to top it off as an A-1 kind of place, Australia’s biggest Dinosaur find was made just outside Winton. Here there is evidence of the world’s only recorded dinosaur stampede which happened around 95 million years ago. They have one of the few operating Open Air Theatre and Museums and can boast of having the world’s largest deck chairs. (Even though I wasn’t allowed near most of these places, I LOVED this town). Jericho was another great stop. For every paid campsite, there are free sites at the side of the roads which have toilets, water and BBQ’s. We stayed at one of these in Jericho, next to the river Jordan and behind Lake Galilee. Seriously! Unfortunately, parking under a tree for the second night in a row, and obviously not learning the lesson from the first of fat rain drops and tree droplets hammering like Chinese torture on the roof, we were up at 4:45 am, packed and ready to go. A healthy pie, a raisin scone and a cupcake made up breakfast and then I was whizzed at top speed past the mining towns of Opalton, Emerald and Sapphire, grumbling all the while! We did manage a stop off at the incredible Stockman’s museum before arriving at the none too sunny little town of Yeppoon, a bottle of red next to me and Rijk arriving back with delicious bbq’ed steak!
June 16, 2010
Australia has long been a prize in our trip, a civilized jewel of malls and restaurants, museums and lots of other people to talk to. As usual, the hard trip over has made it even more special! The weather was really nasty leaving Alotau (seems to be a normal story for us!), with huge swell and high winds. The boat was yawing all over the place, huge corkscrewing motions which did nothing for anyone’s sleep or my sea- sickness! Cue 2 days nestled in my happy place, BED! It was pretty grotty for the next 5 days, making log book entries such as Rijk’s “Huge swell running out of the south making life very uncomfortable” seem an understatement, while my more succinct entry of “UG” with an illustration of someone projectile vomiting definitely tell my story! We went through the Torres Strait at night, at top speed, (at one point we were going 16 knots!!! Log Book entry- “Hectic Shit!”). After the mutiny on The Bounty, Captain Bligh went through the Torres Strait on the Bounty’s launch, mapping the entire Strait. The hardy crew survived by eating birds and drinking their blood, enduring blistering heat during the day and submerging themselves in the shark infested water for warmth when it rained. How grateful we were for our GPS, cosy boat and food- filled pantry.
The Torres Strait has long been a mariner’s nightmare, a technical piece of sailing which is strewn with reefs, shoals, islands, islets, cays and whatever other boat mangling devices nature has to offer. The strait is very narrow and has a huge current that can slow a boat down to almost zero so everything has to be timed very carefully. Going through at night was pretty terrifying, with huge container ships passing us in the shipping channel. Rijk was up the entire night, while Jay and I took turns with the navigation, radar and GPS. We also got buzzed by the Aussie customs helicopter, asking us for all our details and arrival plans. Whew…talk about suddenly getting to the 1st world where everyone knows your name and history before you even get there! Dawn broke beautifully on the first morning in the Strait, bringing with it gentler seas and, as the day progressed, an almost complete cessation of the bad weather. The sunsets got more electric, the sea got flatter, the swell ceased to exist and life got very pleasant indeed! There were books up on deck and leisurely dinners while we tried hard to finish all our frozen meat. The world was a good place, summed up by my log book entry, “A reward for the last few days!”
As we sailed closer to land, Darwin’s colourful buildings beckoned ashore. The whole of Darwin was rebuilt after Cyclone Tracey wielded her destructive power in 1976, and Darwin is a small, modern, colourful city, well laid out with cycle paths, promenades, esplanades, gardens and public pools. After we had been cleared by customs and quarantine (goodbye lovely PNG baskets!), and had the boat dived by environmental divers looking for nasty creatures smuggling themselves attached to the hull of the boat, we were into Australia! We celebrated by going out to the Mindil Night Market where we ate as much delicious Asian food as we could and then found the loudest, busiest Sunday night party (Sunday is a big night here), drank too much, danced up a storm and generally had a great time until the early hours- the traditional way for sailors to celebrate landfall!
Rijk has gone back to SA for 3 weeks and James and I have been on a madly busy do-everything-that-Darwin-has-to-offer mission on our bicycles. We have met a few people and have been enjoying getting into our social groove back with some dinners and drinks. There is an awesome outdoor cinema called the Deck Chair Cinema, where we watched “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”- what a great, magical place to watch it! The screen is perched on the edge of a cliff that overlooks the bay of Arafura and huge bats swoop past the flickering screen. We were hailed from the Korean people behind us by a “Excuse me, people in front of us. People in front! Do you know there is a possum eating your dinner?” And sure enough, there it was, a cute little bear-like possum devouring the remains of our dinner from under our feet. Thursdays and Sundays have been spent at the Mindil market, gorging on delicious food, watching the fire performers, musicians, didge players and of course, the crocodile whip crackers! Crocodiles are big business around these parts, with an average of 200 crocs pulled out the Darwin Bay a year, and frightening pictures of unsuspecting tourists swimming metres away from crocs in the paper daily. It is possible to hold a baby croc at Crocodylus Park and to watch the crocs being fed at Crocosaurus Cove, while The Northern Territory Museum houses the taxidermied Sweetheart, a 5.6 metre, 800kg croc who was accidentally drowned whilst being transferred from the boat rich river where he lived to a nearby crocodile park. Certainly makes swimming in the chlorinated public pool an attractive option!
It’s the Dry Season in Darwin, which is their much anticipated dry and slightly cooler busy season. The Wet Season boasts continuous luke-warm showers, 90% humidity and 35 degree plus heat. All good reasons not to visit in the Wet! Right now is an amazing time to be visiting Darwin, as it seems to host non-stop happenings. We watched local music videos in the park at a local film festival, ate Yiros, decadent pastries and threw the tombola at the Greek Festival and disappeared into the Outback for the Arts festival. There is free live music every weekend and an outdoor production of Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as a Blues Festival to look forward to. Monday night saw us celebrating the launch of a new XXXX beer on the beach with a kick ass dance session led by the XXXX angels and the awesome all female team of DJ Fem and her saxophonist and rapper. Earlier in the week we donned our SA flag and shouted for Bafana Bafana till we were hoarse in the SA vs Mexico match. Our mum has just flown in for a 10 day visit, so the horizon looks busier still!
2 weekends ago James and I rented a car, borrowed a tent and headed into the Outback for the Merrepen Arts Festival. The festival was held on the Nauiya Aboriginal Reserve, 3 hours drive from Darwin. We drove most of the way on a blissfully quiet scenic side road that wound its way past huge paper-bark trees, through gloriously pretty bush and over deeply shaded billabongs and creeks. And naturally, shot out road signs. What is it about random road signs that bring out the gunslinger in the rural man? We settled into our camp site under weeping rosewood trees and set up our flysheet-less mozzie dome. Perfect for star-gazing!
On the first afternoon of the festival we watched the local teams playing Aussie-rules football (totally incomprehensible to me although Jay did try to explain) which led, at dark, to a local Battle of the Bands. I wasn’t sure what to expect from an Aboriginal reserve, having read different and not totally complimentary reports, and was glad to find the total normality of the children running around the huge rugby field playing, the adults sitting in groups on blankets watching the music and dogs nosing around for scraps. The issue of the Aboriginal being a functioning member of the greater Australian nation does not seem to be completely resolved, and as far as I can make out from my very limited exposure, the Aboriginal seems to survive on the fringe of national tolerance. The people on the reserve where hugely welcoming and I was sorry that some of the Aussie people that we had met who expressed their “fear” of the Aboriginals weren’t there to experience the normality.
Aboriginal art and artifacts are huge here, with hundreds of galleries specializing in Aboriginal work. Jay and I are both proud owners of an original piece of art bought at the Merrepen Festival, James’ depicting the rainbow serpent swallowing and regurgitating women collecting yams, and mine a fiesta of emus, palm trees and squiggles (mine didn’t come with a story!). The Festival also boasted the Chooky Dancers, who shot to fame on YouTube with a Yolgnu version of the Zorba the Greek dance, choreographed originally as a thank you to a Greek woman who looked after one of the boy’s sister in Darwin. Here is the link to the YouTube clip. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdOeS_bJzE0&feature=related
Going to sleep under the stars was an experience, with the area around the tent alive with possums and dingoes and the trees above us shivering with the restless birds, their shattering baby cry sending chills down my spine. There were wallabies in the fields around us (so THAT’S what a wallaby is- a small kangaroo!) and just a few metres away in the Daly River, huge Barramundi and not a few crocodiles! On the way back, we found the Robin Waterfall, which borders the Litchfield Park. We walked up the falls and found the most beautiful clearing at the top, crystal clear water cascading over the lip and all around us a vision of the rocky cliffed, gently treed Outback.
May 13, 2010
May 12, 2010
It was raining and grey when we sailed in to Kokopo, the main town of East Britain, huge clouds of steam and sulphur emerging from Mnt Turvurvur, an active volcano that blew as recently as 2008. The whole place didn’t look that appealing until the next day, which dawned bright and green and we set off to shore with renewed expectations and exploration in mind. Our first amazing find was the Kokopo Beach Bungalows. They have a beach to launch from, security for iDada as well as a cool, luxurious and beautifully decorated bar and restaurant. Unimagined luxury! We asked at reception for a tour to the volcano and were told that we could be picked up by a driver and transported in comfort for the mere sum of $90 each (including a picnic lunch and a snorkel). Thank goodness for Alice, an expat teacher at the bar who told us that if we organised it ourselves from the Rabaul Hotel, we would only have to pay $15. That settled that!
Rabaul used to be the main city of New Britain, and was a showcase town for the whole of the South Pacific, with beautiful shady avenues and a very sheltered bay. Rabaul has had an interesting history, being colonised by the Germans during WW1, the Japanese during WW2 and finally the Australians. It was a hot spot during WW2 with many air battles fought over the bay, sea battles fought in the bay and atrocities committed just about everywhere. The remains of many wrecked airplanes and boats lie undisturbed in Simpson Bay whilst ashore hundreds of kilometres of Japanese tunnels criss- cross the hills. And then, in 1994, Mt Turvurvur and Mnt Vulcan blew their tops. The whole of Rabaul was covered in several metres of ash, which caused pretty much all of the roofs to collapse, and then the looters moved in. Rabaul was left a desert landscape of mangled framework in a few days. Mt Turvurvur erupted again in 1998 and again as recently as 2008, and in fact only stopped major ash emissions last December. Rabaul commerce, as well as most of its inhabitants, were moved to Kokopo, which is now a very well ordered, well thought out town. We set off from Kokopo in a local PMV, a taxi minibus squashed with people. We had got half way along the very scenic coastal road when the driver stopped and ordered us all out- something buggerup with his engine. We clambered out and went to sit under a tree. No sooner had I sat down on the grass than a woman from a nearby house brought a woven sleeping mat for me to sit on. That’s the type of incredibly generous, thoughtful people the Papua New Guineans are. We decided that sitting with a squashed taxi load of people all waiting for a ride wasn’t going to get us far, and capitalising on our foreigner status (apparently whiteys are so well treated in PNG ‘cos it was Australian whiteys that got rid of the Japanese during WW2!), we started walking and hitching. No sooner had Merryck stuck out his thumb than a bakkie slid to a halt. We were on our way to Rabaul!
The Rabaul Hotel is one of the few standing, operating buildings in Rabaul. During the eruption, the owner of the hotel had apparently stood outside his property with a shotgun to discourage looters and dug the ash off the roof as it fell. There we were introduced to 2 local guys who were going to take us to Mnt Turvurvur, and into the next form of local transport we clambered. The covered flat bed trucks that carry people all over the wastelands of Rabaul look very post apocalyptic as they navigate the ash and follow the flagged stakes in the grey that indicate where roads once were. We drove to the village of Matupit, which managed to survive the 1994 eruption due to the wind direction, but took the brunt of the 2004 fallout. The local people talked us through the route we were taking (through mouths full of betel, naturally), describing that were we were driving now used to be the golf course, the airport, a small business, someone’s house. It was eerie, and very moving. We got to the shores of Simpson Bay and got into outrigger canoes, which were our final transport to the foot of the volcano.
The destruction that a volcano causes, the heat that it produces and the ash that belches from it, is quite indescribable. The barren lack of vegetation on the slopes of Mnt Turvurvur, the sizzling water on the shore and the glittering black spines that point upwards all speak of the awesome power of the fiery earth’s core. As we climbed up towards the top of the peak, the destruction of the town and surrounds became more and more apparent, eloquently describing the insignificance of man and our construction when faced with the might of nature.
That night we went out to the Kokopo country club, overlooking the sea and the golf course. There was a band from Port Moresby playing, as well as a local band from Kokopo, and surprisingly, a group of Polynesian dancers. Everyone was there, expats, teachers, the Chinese community and locals, all chatting to us, inviting us to dance and generally acting as genial hosts. We were warned that we should probably aim to leave at about 11 before it got too raucous. As I looked around to see 2 guys holding another one up, moving him to the music, and every now and then letting him go, whereupon he would collapse to the ground in a heap of astonishment at his non-working legs, I reflected that it was probably too late for that! When the Polynesian dancers moved onto the dance floor to start their routine, a few drunken men moved onto the floor with them, copying their movements and trying to dance with them. This was quickly put to an end by the MC, who stopped the music and told the interlopers in no uncertain terms to get off the dance floor, stop harassing the girls and to that if they wanted to be fools for the rest of their lives that was fine, but the bouncers wouldn’t accept it here. Cue huge applause! One man was more insistent, and wouldn’t leave the dance floor until his wife swooped onto him like an avenging angel, grabbed him by the collar and unceremoniously dragged him into the darkness. I think we left shortly afterwards.
Rijk and Merryck managed to defy their hangovers the next day and play a game of barefoot golf on the local golf course, the green nicely framed by the blue sea and uMoya lying at anchor. Nice when you can get it! We left Kokopo early the following morning for a 5 day sail, picking up a bit of weather and heeling over in the process. And what with the heel, we noticed water running into the boat from a filled-in stern hatch. Hmmm. This is an old injury, but one that Rijk wanted to fix before we went any further. And happily, we were just in time to re-route to Irish Cove. There was just enough room for us to anchor in the little cove, jungle rising on both sides of us and, next to us, a small river winding into the sea. The thick sounds of frogs, birds, whoops and chatters washed over us like a wall of primal silence, the full moon rising yellow behind the hills completing the sense of unworldly paradise. Everything about it was magical- the reefs were stocked with massive reef fish, Merryck caught an unsuspecting crayfish, we had a coconut crab delivered to the boat by an obliging local and many encounters with the local villagers during the process of trading for veggies. We are now in crocodile territory, so first thing that we do is ask the villagers whether there are any crocs around. No, no is the answer mostly, as it was there. Imagine Jay and my surprise when we came back to uMoya after a long dive not too far away from the boat to see Rijk and Merryck in a state of high excitement shooting a catty at a CROC! That was the last of the leisurely swimming for me (although Jay still goes for his regular morning swim!)!
The next part of our journey started very inauspiciously as we hurried away from Irish Cove with huge bolts of lightning at our back. We should have guessed that we were in for an uncomfortable time. We were heading for Misima, from where Merryck was catching a very expensive flight to Australia, but alas, we never made it there. The wind was on the nose, strong and uncompromising, with rain making the inside of the boat a stinky sauna of wet towels, sweaty clothes and unwashed bodies, and the very uncomfortable boat angle making even the easiest of tasks impossible. I sensibly retired to bed for the first 2 days while Merryck got the blues, sea-sick, flu and a gyppo tummy. What an unfortunate introduction into the world of wind! He had been complaining about the lack of wind and sailing in PNG (for which I for one was heartily grateful) but you know what they say, be careful for what you wish for, because you just might get it! When we got to the point of making 1 knot against a strong current and wind, we admitted defeat and re-routed again, bearing off for Alotau on the mainland. We stopped briefly in Normanby Islands, which were quite beautiful. We could trace the outline of the ancient caldera that we were anchored in and see the little islands that poked out of the water everywhere as ancient mountain tops. Coming into Alotau Merryck hauled in a much desired 10-15kg tuna, which signalled our change in fortune. In Alotau, fortune beamed on us in the form of Driftwoods Resort.
Yes, you guessed it! If you have been following this blog, you will know that nothing makes me happier than the occasional hot shower, a land bed, laundry and some good food! Driftwoods had all of this and much, much more! It has style, it has panache and it has a dock to tie up to. There was a driver to ferry us to town and back, to pick up diesel and to transport our provisions. The bungalows were white clapboard Cape Cod style, with patios onto the private beach. There was fillet on the menu and home-made ice-cream. Sheer bliss. (http://www.driftwoodpng.com) We played poker on the patio, enjoying for once the rain as it fell harmlessly past the overhang, ate hot, freshly baked rolls lathered in butter and enjoyed good wine out of a GLASS! All the good things in life! Merryck changed his flight to leave from Alotau and we were mighty sad to see him go.
Again a crew of 3, we set off for Darwin, the boat smelling sweetly of freshly laundered clothes and sun-dried mattresses.