Monday, 30 December 2013

18-20th Dec - The Ghan

The Ghan, stretching 2979km between Darwin and Adelaide is one of the world's great rail journeys. Having done the Trans-Siberian (Mongolian) and a few long rides in China and Vietnam, it was time for another epic train trip. The Northerly Alice Springs to Darwin section was only completed in 2004, I remember reading about it in the Sunday travel supplements, and made my mind up then to do it someday. 

I'd booked my ticket in Bali a little over a week before. Normally the train runs twice a week, but over the Christmas period, there was only one service, this meant I had to wait in Darwin for a little longer any travel advisor would recommend, and also that I would be denied a three day stop at Alice Springs to see more of the outback. Nevertheless, I booked and made my way to the train station on Wednesday morning. It should be noted that although they announced that the line terminates at Darwin, it doesn't. In fact it stops some 28km south of the city, so it's necessary to get a coach transfer from the city centre to the terminus, which itself costs $15. Mind you the train is so very long, that it would be impossible to station it within the downtown area.

Most of the twenty carriages of the train are given over to Platinum and Gold class cabins. At the front of the train are two cars for Red class, these are filled with reclining seats and are the most economical way of travelling on the train. I paid $431 Aus for a non-transferable ticket. There used to be a red class sleeper car, but this was discontinued. As it happens, all the Platinum and Gold cabins were sold anyway, they tend to be booked well in advance by retired couples on an adventure. I was told by a conductor that the cheaper red tickets are the most difficult to sell. Perhaps some people are dissuaded by the idea of 50hrs on a seat, but not me.

This is one of the red cars. There's plenty of legroom, and the wide seats recline a lot further back than on an aeroplane; they can also rotate 180° if you want to face your neighbour.
A typical view from the train at the top-end of the Northern Territory. Bush, boulders and termite mounds.
Over the journey southwards, the train makes two longer scheduled stops. The first just a few hours out of Darwin is at Katherine. Gold and Plantinum customers have a variety of tours available included in their ticket price or for additional supplements. If there are any places still available on these tours, they are then offered to those of us in the cheap seats at full price. With nothing better to do, I signed up to the afternoon boat tour on the Katherine River which cost me $117 extra dollars. There's nothing like a captive audience for pushing up revenues.

It was the start of the rainy season, but the river level was still not high enough to allow a single boat trip up the river. Instead, when the river became too shallow for our first boat, we moored and walked upstream along the banks to the next awaiting boat to take us a stage further.
Even this far in-land we saw esturine crocodiles lurking at the edge of the river, waiting for their next meal to wander blindly into their unmarked territory.

Here's an aboriginal rock painting above the high water mark. It's also somewhat higher than anyone can reach, quite how the artist painted up there remains the source of speculation. Eucalyptus scaffolding was what I posited.

Back on the train, this is the Matilda restaurant car where we Red service passengers were allowed to sample the delights of the Ghan's meal service, or just enjoy a beer or wine as the passing land changed slowly from verdant green to rust red.
Sunrises and sunsets out in the desert are pretty spectacular, there's very little in the way of trees to break the unending horizon. 
Altogether now...  Sun-a-rise early in the morning!
Moonrise at dawn over the outback.

One is really impressed with a sense of isolation, despite being surrounded by other punters. The train for just a few minutes twice a week, is almost the only human presence in this enormous extraordinary expanse of red desert. Though many of us were barely there at all, mostly dozing, glimpsing the unfolding landscape through a drowsy dreamtime.

Why is it called The Ghan? In the early years of colonial pioneering, various brave men set out from the southern cities to find a path to the northern coast. After many failed and sometimes fatal attempts, a transcontinental route was found and a telegraph line was built, cutting communication time between England and Australia from a few weeks, to a few minutes. All of these exploratory missions across the burning heart of the country were supported by camels imported to Australia from Afghanistan, hence, Ghan. Many of their Afghan handlers stayed and married with european colonials and indigenous peoples, and their presence is still very discernible.
On the second day, after leaving Alice Springs, things started to heat up. We noticed a rather flustered looking engineer marching up and down between the carriages. Summer is always hot in the red centre of Australia, but apparently things were getting freakily scorching outside, and the air conditioning was at breaking point - she cannae take it anymore Captn. A whisper went round that the thermometer on the outside had reached 55°C !  The right side of the train, facing the sun, was actually too hot to touch, and everyone moved across to the seats in the left. The head conductor came through, apologising and confirming the astonishing out door temperatures. It was quite a contrast from the Trans-Siberian permafrost.

Between Darwin and Alice, there were many spare seats which allowed us to stretch out in comfort. even after Alice Springs, where we picked up several more passengers, I managed to have a pair of seats to myself. I could have stayed on the train for much longer, but arriving in Adelaide at lunch time on the third day, I was keen to get into town and find somewhere to stay. 

Here's a little collage made up from views through the vestibule window across the 50 hour trip.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

16th Dec - Wallace & Darwin

What better place to remember the centenary of Alfred R. Wallace's death than here in the city of Darwin, Australia. At the Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory they're doing just that.

Here's a bit of surprising chronology: The city here wasn't founded until 1869. The tiny settlement was originally called Palmerston, after the then British PM. Thirty years earlier when the HMS Beagle sailed up the uncharted channel, John Clements Wickham the surveyor onboard, named the whole area Port Darwin, after the 24 year-old naturalist who had accompanied them on the same ship three years earlier. The young man had clearly made quite an impression. The Origin of the Species was finally published in 1859 to an initially mixed reception, but it's ideas took root and grew, until in 1911 the city of Palmerston was renamed Darwin in his honour.

Alfred Wallace was fourteen years younger than Darwin, but they were well acquainted with each others' work and exchanged correspondence for many years. They worked in slightly different areas of naturalism but their theories on evolution converged in 1858 when Wallace sent his famous letter to Darwin, and the latter realised the young man was hot on his heels. Darwin published his long-gestating work soon after receiving that correspondence. The exact timing of this episode is the subject of some speculation, some of it less than flattering for Darwin who was obviously defensive in protecting the exclusivity of his life's study.

Avid readers may recall me recently going on about crossing the Wallace Line by plane and boat. Here in the exhibition were displays that elucidated his theory, and how it was expanded upon and named as such by later scientists as the details of the movement of tectonic plates was learnt. Basically, he looked at the limits of distribution of species type across the islands, working out how some species on different islands shared appearances and traits, and others did not, and from that deduced a line of historic separation in fauna that ran north-south between Bali and Lombok. He concentrated on butterflies and moths as well as making extensive collections of beautiful birds of paradise. In fact, he mostly funded his expeditions by shipping home exotic species to collectors.

In addition to this he wrote on ethnography, anthropology, and primatology, and his book The Malay Archipelago (which has never been out of print) as well as setting out his theories on zoological distribution, was also a well received proto-travel guide to the islands that are now Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua. This is all after spending several years on previous expeditions up the Amazon.
Here's a photo taken in Singapore, the base for his eight-year series of expeditions to the islands, when Wallace (on the right) was my age. Nice hat, good suit.
This astonishingly beautiful archipelago is the Wajag Islands off the north-west coast of PNG. Not such a bad place to do fieldwork I guess. 

Lots of butterflies - look at no.9, it's the same Swamp Tiger that we saw mating in their droves in Gili Meno - here it is in Australia. Wallace was certainly onto something. 

The MAGNT also features several permanent exhibitions, including one on the native fauna and flora of Australia. I now know the difference between Bilbies and Bandicoots, Quolls and Echidnas. 

Also on display was a fascinating exhibition on Aboriginal art, particularly rock painting. Included is a facsimile of what the museum claims is the oldest painting in the world, apparently depicting a Palorchestes (see rendering below) which went extinct 46,000 years ago (by human hand?). This claim would be disputed by the archaeologists who proffer 75,000-100,000 year old paintings at the Apollo 11 site in Africa. It's all pretty difficult to determine though because the ochre pigment used by the early Australians is non-organic and therefore can't be carbon dated.

In terms of the diaspora from Africa of Homo Sapiens Sapiens, the earliest people left the rift valley around 130,000 and their distant descendents finally arrived in Australia around 60,000 years ago. Earlier ancestors of man, for instance Homo Erectus reached the nearby islands of Java and Flores  much earlier though, 1m and 0.8m years respectively. 

Wallace believed that Oran Utangs were the closest of the apes to humans (chimpanzees are), but this was at a time when the origins of humanity were being traced to the Malay Archipelago, rather than central east Africa. 

As an interesting footnote, it's worth considering where Homo Floresiensis fits into the whole anthropological picture, these little fellas discovered in 2003, were apparently coexisting with modern humans on that isolated island next to Komodo, until 12,000 years ago, perhaps even later; maybe, one or two have speculated, they still exist... ://

And here we are thinking we're the be all and end all of human civilisation... 

15th Dec - Lichfield National Park, Northern Territories - Crocs!

IA day in the great outdoor reptile house known as The Northern Territory, begins with a stop at the Adelaide River for a bit of crocodile spotting.

My new friend here is a Centralian Carpet Python, non-venomous, nor particularly friendly, but would you be?
If you look closely here you too can spot the first crocodile sighting of the day, a small freshie in a little billabong by the side of the road, looking for a bit of breakfast.

So what's the difference between a freshwater and a saltwater crocodile, given that they can both be found in each? The freshies are much smaller and will swim away from you, the salties (more accurately known as Esturine Crocodiles), are bigger, meaner and will swim towards you when you fall in. If you're a fast runner, and good climber, you may get away from them on land, but in the water you haven't got a hope.  
Here's a largish salty about 4-5m long going after a bit of steak for the benefit of us snapping tourists. I know which I'd rather be snapped by. It's using a thrust of it's tail just against the water to propel itself out. The crocs jump like this in the wild, surprising unsuspecting birds on low-hanging branches and the odd unfortunate human. The guides are not shy in relating croc horror stories, people are killed most years by salties. A 26 year-old local guy was taken in August this year, he should have known better, but was partying with friends and made a drunken decision to go for a quick dip. It would be his last.

Ladies and gentlemen look at the size of this monster! It's an enormous, but alledgedly life-size model of the largest croc ever found here, 8.5m long, shot by a local lady in 1957. It could swallow me without even stopping to chew. The largest confirmed salties in the world now are about 7m long.
Here are the very beautiful Florence Falls at Lichfield National Park, a relatively small park a couple of hours south-east of Darwin. No crocs here, probably, but did see some cute rock wallabies jumping about.

Lots of fun was had jumping off increasingly high rocks into the plunge pools here. I got to about 25' before my nerve gave in and time ran out.
Lots more fun swimming in the beautiful plunge pools of Buley Rockhole.
Then, on the way back, a chance to have a closer look at the Cathedral Termite mounds that are extremely common in the country here. The above ground mounds actually represent only a small fraction of the colony size, most of it is subterranean and the towers are used only in the rainy season when the ground gets water-logged. The tallest are constructed up to 7m tall and are as hard as concrete. This mound was actually being used by large ants when we looked.
Many varieties of termites serve the same job as grazing herds - They harvest the grass and store it in the mounds for future use. They're a hugely important part of the eco-system's cycles. Below are the mounds made by magnetic termites, so-called because they arrange their thin tombstone like mounds on a north-south axis to reduce the surface area exposed to the hot sun. Why other types of termite don't adopt this strategy I do not know.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

14th Dec - Darwin, Australia

The airlines Wings Air and Lion Air collaborate to offer budget flights around Indonesian islands. You may buy a Lion Air ticket and find yourself on a Wings Air flight. Nothing particularly unusual about that, except the two airlines have different baggage weight restrictions, not only that but Wings Air had just reduced their included baggage limit from 15kg to a measly 10kg. That change was so recent that it was reflected in my return ticket, but not in my outward. Although the tickets were a total bargain at £11 each way, the girl at the check-in desk at Bali did require a little insistent prompting before her manager agreed that my old paperwork should be honoured. 

However, I didn't feel like testing the system again on the return, so I found myself crossing back over the Wallace Line for the fourth time in two weeks with more than half my luggage stuffed into pockets about my person, while a slimmed down lightweight rucksack travelled in the hold below me. Thankfully I didn't have to enter negotiations since the check-in lady at Lombok, kindly found me a seat on an earlier delayed flight, when she realised that my scheduled one would probably be late for my onward transfer to Darwin. Fortunately I made the onward flight from Denpaser to Darwin without any issues.
Heavy afternoon rains were delaying all flights.

Arriving at any airport at 3 in the morning is not conducive to an expeditious first day. When the $15 shuttle bus into town failed to show up, I joined several others in settling down for a snooze on the carpet at one end of the arrivals hall, head propped on bag, hat over face. At 5.30am the next shuttle didn't show, so I shared a $30 taxi into town with a fearful young German called Lucas. Arriving at Melaleuca, the first hostel I tried, I was thrilled to learn I could check-in immediately so proceeded straight to bed for a much needed kip. I needed the quiet and it was a comfort to be back in an anglophone country, but all this came at a cost. At $65 for a private room, all these prices were far higher than I'd been used to paying across Asia, clearly I was back in the first world.

Before noon, I ventured out into the heat of the Australian sun. Darwin is smaller than I'd imagined, but even so it's population of 122,000 were nowhere to be seen on a Saturday. The centre of the city was all but deserted. It was so very quiet, a car passing by every couple of minutes, or the sight of a lone pedestrian on a parallel street was all I had to convince me that I wasn't in some post-apocalyptic movie. After the relentless noise and hubbub of Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia this was very disconcerting.

Darwin is a city that has been regularly pruned. It was flattened a couple of times during WWII by the Japanese, and more recently late on Christmas Eve 1974, it was completely obliterated by Cyclone Tracey. While not causing anything like the number of fatalities of recent Typhoon Haiyan, it did similarly destroy 90% of the buildings and blow with gusts that were off the scale - the wind speed was just too much for the anenometers to record, (but were certainly over 135mph).
This is what's left of the old town hall, kept as a memorial to the big storm.
Darwin is a tropical town, so typhoons are not uncommon. Though we tend to identify the tropics with just two seasons, wet and dry; the Larrakia (the indigenous people who lived here before the white folk moved in), interestingly identifiy six seasons in their year, as listed in the photo below. 
The Larrakia aboriginals are a people that have lived around this coast for thousands of years, maintaining a diet high in shellfish, trading (and possibly marrying) with tribes from Sulawesi and Mallacas to the north and eventually welcoming the western explorers like Stuart, after whom the north-south Highway is named. Today aboriginals make up about a third of the population of the Northern Territories, a figure much higher than across Australia as a whole.

It's most unfortunate that a visitor's first impression of aboriginals when visiting this city is one of marginalised, unemployed, alcohol abusers. Though quite easy to understand how for a people so intimately interdependent on the land, to live within a city of commerce and concrete with tarmac under foot, must be alienating. Especially for those so comprehensively disenfranchised by the early colonial governments. Obviously a lot has changed in attitudes since then, considerable work has been done to restore Native Title (freeholds over tribal lands - a concept nonsensical to aboriginals but crucial for their protection from cultures of propriety). Tours run by and for the benefit of indigenous peoples are now popular, and representation at governing levels is becoming more common, but the damage has long been done and achieving an acceptable balance will take generations of better integration.

In a land of thirsty, sport-loving, coastal dwellers; water management is a popular topic. If someone isn't telling you about the difference between freshies and salties (crocodiles); they might be telling you about the need for a new desalination plant, while refilling their water bottles from one of these free public stations - great idea.

Here's the new Darwin Waterfront, a collection of apartments, hotels and retail premises arranged around a beautifully manicured lawn and a big wave pool by the harbour. The whole thing looks like an architects's visualisation, complete with just a smattering of happy, young picnicking families and an alcohol ban to keep the natives and english tourists out. At $8 for the whole day, the Wave Lagoon is very good value and seemed popular with the locals.

The building half hidden on the right is the NT Parliament House, known colloquially as The Wedding Cake on account of it being full of fruits and nuts and soaked in booze, (and looking a bit like a wedding cake).
Jutting out into the harbour is Stokes Hill Wharf with several good sea-food restaurants apparently.
In the far distance on the peninsular is the new LPG terminal, known by locals as the Esky. This is the source of a lot of Darwin's new found wealth. Petroleum gas from the rigs in the Timor Sea is piped down here to be cooled and compressed into liquid, it's then transferred onto new ocean going tankers to be ferried to markets around the world - most is sold to China.

This is the roof terrace at Melaleucas, one of several hostels on Mitchell Street, but the only one with a big pool and a bar on the roof. I misspent three evenings here with a raggle-taggle bunch of long termers, misfits and accidental tourists. Not all were backpackers, some were looking for cheap digs while casual labouring in construction, or off-shore rigs. The male-female ratio in Darwin is definitely favourable for the single lady searching for unreconstructed piper-alpha males.

A huge dark front rolls in over Darwin at dusk. Moments after this, squalls of rain came down, forked lightening x-rayed the sky, the streets turned to torrents and the storm drains overflowed.

Friday, 20 December 2013

11th-13th Dec - Gili Gede

Gili Gede (pronounced as an Australian might greet you), is the largest of the twelve islets that lay off the south-west coast of Lombok. Unlike the famous trio of Gilis in the north west, these are mostly uninhabited, and the two where people do live are still quite undeveloped.

I'd decided to visit this island a couple of days earlier. Having been charmed by Gili Meno's complete lack of pretence and desert island attitude, but attuned to it's very recent acquisition of such modern trappings as mains electricity and water, I'd come in search of it's antecedent. 

Accommodation options for visitors to the island are very limited. I'd been told the Secret Island Resort wasn't up to scratch, and Via Vacare was a little beyond my budget, Kokomo was still being built, which left Madak Belo, which I was fairly certain was booked up. Arriving by boat directly on their beach front and speaking to Henri, the French owner, confirmed exactly that - I was out of luck; until Henri pointed out that my boatman's son-in-law had a bungalow to rent. Fortunately for me, Henri had learnt the local dialect, so words were exchanged and I was delivered back down to Warung Pelangi, exactly adjacent to where the boat was to be moored anyway - result! For 100k rupiahs a night (about £5) I got this little room, 
Electricity was supplied by a generator in the front yard for a few evening hours, that allowed me to cool the room with a floor-standing fan. The island has no mains water supply yet, so washing and flushing was from a couple of large butts in the corner of the bathroom.  In all, very similar to that room I was generously loaned back in Pubotang in China, except this I time I was here of my own volition. Apparently I was the third guest since they opened the room three months ago; running water is promised for next year.
The indonesian owner, Anton, also owns the village shop next to my room, and imports most of the drinking water, as well as owning two boats that he charters for fishing and snorkelling trips, (when not being used to ferry the village kids to school on the mainland). He's quite the entrepreneur.

The island is the biggest of the group, I walked around it's winding perimeter in about five hours.
Starting at the southerly tip, and facing the mainland is the Secret Island Resort, a big American owned private house with bungalows in it's lovely garden. I'd been told it was a bit run down, but it looked absolutely fine to me. Bungalows were a reasonable 150k R per night.
Further round the west coast on a very quiet stretch of beach lies Via Vacare, this is a Dutch owned retreat with welcoming staff, rooms upstairs, lovely private cabins and a backpackers' balé in the back garden.
Here be monsters:
This is the main path that runs around the island, mostly it's just a sand track. Every villager and child I passed was, without exception, friendly.
On the tip of the next peninsula, I found a bunch of local guys working on a big new house, apparently this was Dutch owned too.
The largest villages on the island back onto each other at it's thin waist. This village has perhaps thirty fishing boats all of similar design. The largest building by far is the mosque, which is not quite finished.Of the next two beaches, the first was covered in light-weight rubbish, crisp packets and sweet wrappers, washed ashore by the prevailing wind, the second was clean and covered in a variety of large heavier sea shells. Why can't we invest more in biodegradable packaging?
The northerly quarter of Gili Gede is uninhibited and nearly pristine...
...But that Mylie Cyrus has a lot to answer for.
Another monitor lizard patrolling the beach in search of an unpackaged meal.
The island has four hills, this is the view from one, looking south to the mainland.
These are the foundations of the new Kokomo hotel going in, with a dozen people working on it, it was the only time I saw anyone doing something unrelated to fishing or food preparation.
A little further around the east coast and nearly back to my starting point is the Madak Belo guesthouse, built by Henri and his wife Capocine who emigrated here from France three years ago. It's the only building on this beach and is separated from the village by a  deep tidal inlet. Their rooms were booked up, but I joined them for beers on two occasions, then stripped off to wade back over the inlet in chest deep water, bag and clothes held aloft.
The following day Anton took me out for a few hours snorkelling from his new boat. We visited the uninhibited Gili Ringit and a couple of the other islets in the bay. The snorkelling was exceptional, great visibility and plenty of healthy coral heads.
After two wonderful days and nights on Gili Gede, I said my thanks and goodbyes to Anton and his wife Zur at Warung Pelangi (rainbow house) and got back on the boat to the mainland. There's rumours of mains electricity reaching the island next year. I wonder how it will have changed when I return in a few years....?
I was met off the boat by Bukran from Bola Bola Paradis who unbeknownst to me had been telephoning various places on the island, keeping check of my progress and making sure I'd found a place to stay. I doubt you'd find such interest in many other places.

Driving back to Praya airport, Bukran gave me the low down on local surf spots. Further down the coast, past Bola Bola and down a particularly bumpy dirt track at the tip of Lombok, lies Desert Point. This has been named the best surf spot in the world, featuring a left hand break with enormous 25m waves, but it's notoriously fickle and more often than not completely calm. As such those big waves have entered surfing folklore and intrepid surf explorers have been known to camp on the wild coast for weeks waiting for the elusive ride of legend.

He also told me more about the illegal gold mining that's been happening on the south-west peninsula in recent years. It's been a proper gold rush, hundreds of hopeful prospectors relocating here from all over Indonesia, and many getting lucky. But also how many of the small unlicensed mines that are dug by hand, have collapsed, burying those inside, and how the industrial by-products of mining, such as mercury are contaminating the water-table ruinously.