We sailed out of Amsterdam in the early evening, heading for the Amsterdam Rhine canal, and from there to Antwerp on the River Scheldt. It’s a boring run for the most part, passing green fields, man-made rock walls and hundreds and hundreds of wind turbines. But pretty soon the green fields were replaced with industrial establishments. One had a catalytic cracker, burning off some chemical as it hit the atmosphere, and the penny dropped. These were chemical plants – which makes sense. Bayer and what have you. And the container ships docked at wharves testified to a deep water port.
As usual, there were a few tour options. We decided not to take the trip to Bruges since we’d been there before. A guided tour of Antwerp seemed a bit unnecessary, so we did our own thing, with the help of the electronic “this is where you are, this is what it is” device provided by Scenic. The device has a GPS locator, so it knows where you are. When you’re close to a particular location (eg a cathedral recorded in its database) it pings at you and plays a short explanation of what you’re looking at.
The weather was awesome. Blue skies chequer-boarded by con trails making their own clouds. The heart of Antwerp turned out to be much more interesting than we expected. The church of Our Lady dominated the sky line, with a number of squares around her base, all lined with tourist shops and restaurants.
There’s a public area called the ‘green place’ filled with stalls and pavilions selling nothing but fabric. As usual in European cities, at the first hint of sunshine all the restaurants pulled out their outdoor furniture and lined up the tables and chairs on the pavement.
I spied a GSD puppy and couldn’t resist taking a picture.
On they way back to the ship we came across a large church without queues and decided to take a look inside. It’s St James church. The altar was in typical flamboyant baroque style without being completely over the top, and the stained glass was lovely, as was a wooden carving of Jesus and a couple of fishermen. Sometimes it pays to break away on your own rather than stick to the script. Entry to the church was free – a nice find in these mercenary times. But we enjoyed the experience so much, we left a sizable donation.
Seems we missed out by not going to Bruges. There was a religious festival on, with procession, an event thoroughly enjoyed by those who attended. Oh well. Can’t win ’em all.
Join us next time, in Veere.
We joined Scenic’s Scenic Jade at Amsterdam along with one hundred and nineteen other passengers for a fifteen day cruise on the Rhine and the Moselle, back to the Rhine and up to Basel in Switzerland. It’s seven hundred and forty-two kilometres as the crow flies, but the rivers wind around a bit. Most of the passengers were Australian, but there were a few Americans, Canadians, Brits, and a couple from New Zealand. The crew was mainly Eastern European. I don’t think anybody lives in Romania anymore. The captain, the cruise director, and half the hotel staff were Romanian.
You might recall we did a European river trip last year, on APT‘s Amavenita. You’ll find the blog posts here. Given that, it’s pretty obvious we’ll be comparing ships ‘n trips. So let’s look at the ships. Here’s Scenic’s explanation of their ships and here’s APT’s. As I explained last trip, the size of the river boats is dictated by the locks, so Scenic Jade is the same size as Amavenita, and the two ships are set up in a similar way – three decks, most passengers on deck two and three, sundeck above with collapsible fittings for getting under low bridges, restaurants and bar up the front. We’d made a last minute change to our booking, moving from the second deck up to the third, because we’d get a better laundry service. I can see you rolling your eyes. Laundry is just about the only extra you have to pay for on the ships. And it costs. Washing a t-shirt will set you back €4.20. That’s around AU$6.30. You can hand wash your smalls of course, but drying them is not always easy. We had a special deal last year, where we could have two items each washed and pressed each day for free, which was great. We expected to get a similar deal from Scenic, but we misread the T&Cs. There are some advantages to being on deck three, but not all cabins get free laundry.
Anyhow, we ended up in the last cabin before the really posh suites on deck three, above the engines. We figured that if the really posh suites were directly above the engines it couldn’t be too much of an issue.
However, we did have a little less room than in the normal balcony suite. If I sat at the desk posting pictures to FB on my laptop, it was a very tight squeeze to get between the chair back and the bed.
Apart from that, the room was perfectly adequate, with a great shower where you could wash under coloured lights, using a variety of nozzles. I suspect we might have appreciated it more when we were younger. 🙂 Certainly the location forced a bit of exercise. It wasn’t too much short of a hundred metres from our room to the public lounges, a trip done around six times a day.
We both preferred Scenic Jade’s dining room, set up with tables and chairs, whereas Amavenita had cubicles with couches around tables. It looks nice, but it’s not so practical for older folks and buffet meals. All food and drinks are included in the price of the cruise, the only exceptions being a few special beverages like Johnny Walker blue label. We had to settle for JW black, or Chivas, or a single malt. Breakfast and dinner are served as a buffet spread, supplemented with specials if required. Dinner was ala carte. Not that anyone went hungry on either trip, but for us APT offered more variety, and the food was better quality. APT’s chefs matched menus and wines to the region in which we were travelling, and the ‘light lunch’ options (soup and sandwiches sort of thing) were more to our taste.
So – on to the journey. Next time.
We’re back in Amsterdam recovering from jet lag before we catch a riverboat later todayfor a cruise up the Rhine to Switzerland. It’s amazing, really. We’ve flown 16,200km to take a journey that’s less than 750km by car. But the river meanders, we take side trips and we stop a lot.
Long distance travel isn’t a picnic, ever. In this case it’s an eight hour plus flight to Singapore, a three hour wait, then twelve and a half hours from Singapore to Amsterdam. We got some sleep on the second leg, but even so, the body clock was a mess by the time we arrived. To try and get the body into some sort of sync we resisted sleeping and took a train trip to Leiden. The nearby Keukenhof gardens would have been nice, but we decided it was all going to be too much for us, so we restricted our flower viewing to the rows of tulips in the fields along the track. We did do a little canal tour of Leiden, though. That was fun. Some of the bridges there are very, very low.
Unfortunately, much as I hate cities sometimes they can’t be avoided. They are concentrations of many things apart from people. Or maybe because of people. Restaurants, hospitals, cinemas, live shows, shops. Pollution, traffic snarls, noise. Sigh. But yeah. Medical specialists tend to work best in the city setting. All the equipment and required facilities are more readily available. So we drove down to Brisbane for a procedure to take place over two days, while I kicked my heels in a hotel.
However – did I mention the shops? Much as I love where I live, and I’m not a great shopper, sometimes the lack of variety in Hervey Bay can be frustrating. So this would be a chance to go into town and find myself a coat, preferably leather, that I could dress up if needed. Usually it would be worn with jeans. I’d booked into a small hotel near the city centre, and walked into the Queen Street mall with high hopes. I’d get this done, drop off the jacket back at the pub and take my camera for a walk in the park. Yes. That was the plan. Then I’d go back to the room and work on the next book.
Well, let me tell you a couple of things, folks. The current fashion has gone back to skinny. Skin tight pants, leggings, form fitting jackets. Leather jackets are biker style, fitted to the waist, with lots of non functional pockets closed with zips. A year or forty – or even twenty – ago I could have gone down that route. But not anymore, for two reasons. 1) I don’t like that style, having gravitated (as you do) to comfortable sack style. Gone are the days of lying on your back on the bed to do up the zip. 2) I’m no longer size 10 – or even 14. It seems that if you’re in the size 8 to size 14 range, the world of fashion is your oyster. You might find an occasional 16. Anything larger than that – nuh-uh. There might be a few sections in the big department stores specialising in larger sizes, or the occasional large size dress shop. But while I know I need to lose some weight, I’m not obese. Nor am I unusual. I’d venture to suggest that with obesity levels in this country soaring, the buyers ought to be looking at their stock.
I should add that I could have bought a genuine leather coat in a style I found acceptable. But the designer label $800-$1,000 weren’t even in the venue let alone the playing field, and I balked at paying $600 for a coat, and then another $75 to have the sleeves taken up. I just won’t wear it often enough.
Anyway, after five unproductive hours of wandering around every sodding dress shop in the CBD (including some mens stores) it started to rain. So I bought myself a cheap umbrella and winced my painful way back to my hotel room, coatless. I suppose the rain was a good thing. I was too sore to spend the afternoon walking around in the gardens (not as fit as I used to be) and the rain provided a perfect excuse to play on my laptop instead. Mind you, I played solitaire instead of doing some writing on my WIP. But I’ll attribute that to frustration.
On the bright side, I went to the Brisbane botanical gardens at Mt Coot-Tha the previous afternoon. There is nothing quite so wonderful as walking along a narrow path in cool shade provided by towering trees, palms and ferns, with the sound of tinkling water filling the air.
Imagine a massive volcano. No, bigger. Even bigger. Yep, more like that, with ash boiling into the atmosphere, and red hot lava oozing down the slope like icing on a cake. But that was twenty million years ago. The hot spot that created it moved on and the two kilometre high peaks surrounding the caldera began to erode. Here’s the story. These days the remains of the volcano rise above the plain of the Gold Coast, south of Brisbane, where they provide a cool, refreshing contrast to the brash and vibrant coastal strip.
We visited friends who live in the Mt Tamborine area, and they took us on a whirlwind tour of some of the sites. We drove a meandering, ear-popping road up the mountainside from the plain. From the top the high rises of the coastal strip lined up along the Gold Coast beaches are clearly visible.
Mt Tamborine boasts gorgeous gardens, rainforest and waterfalls. But it has been dry of late, so unfortunately the creeks and rivers have contracted. Still, you can imagine the volume of water which could crash down through this valley.
On the other side of the caldera, looking inland, intrepid souls launch hang gliders or paragliders off steep, grassy slopes. It was a great day for it, not too windy, not dead calm.
We visited the Skywalk, which gives a different view of the rainforest from a gantry raised high in the canopy. Then you walk back amongst the tree trunks to your starting point. Once again, more water would have made the experience even more special. Not recommended for those afraid of heights.
We stopped at St Bernard’s pub for a drink. The garden is absolutely gorgeous and I would have taken a walk to St Bernard’s Falls if I’d had any faith there might be water there. At my time of life, without a guaranteed reward at the bottom, a long steep slope isn’t particularly inviting.
All in all, Mt Tamborine is a beautiful place. Walk under the canopy of the rainforest and the temperature drops ten degrees. It’s obvious why it’s a mecca for ‘new age’ types. The village we visited had rows of shops devoted to the usual eclectic collection of clothing, coffee, cuckoo clocks and cafes. You can have your future told, and/or visit wineries, breweries and cheese-making facilities, as well as pubs and restaurants. You’ll need patience, though. The roads were crowded with day trippers – but it was a Saturday. Weekdays (non-school holidays) would probably be better. All the information can be found online at sites like this one.
We’re in Wilpena Pound resort. It is situated a short distance from the gap into the pound itself and offers a number of walks of different distances and fitness levels. But before we did that our intrepid guide took us on a drive through several gorges. The Flinders Ranges are ancient. A visit to Brachina gorge presses home the point with a series of information boards indicating the age of the rocks you’re seeing at various locations. It’s like a time tunnel. This website has some fabulous photos and information for visitors. Well worth a look.
This rugged landscape is simply stunning. Unfortunately, the weather in the morning was overcast, so conditions weren’t ideal for photography, but the day did eventually clear. Meanwhile, the clouds put on their own show, which they so often did on this journey.
The other thing you’ll find is the elusive yellow-footed rock wallaby. They skip around on the reddish rock faces, blending in so well with their surroundings they’re very hard to spot. The picture of Brachina gorge up there is the kind of place you find them, up on those hillsides.
The Flinders Ranges are simply wonderful. The national parks people are working hard to reduce the number of feral goats and cats to help preserve this amazing place. It’s great to see that conservation efforts have saved the lovely little rock wallaby from extinction. May they thrive and prosper.
This was more or less the end of the trip. From here, we headed back to Adelaide, stopping for lunch at a Clare Valley winery. We enjoyed a magnificent dinner at Adelaide’s Playford hotel, and left for home the next day. It had been a full-on, very busy trip. We covered a lot of territory, and I ticked off three items on the bucket list – Kati Thana-Lake Eyre in flood, Birdsville, and Wilpena Pound.
Oh – I should add this was a small group (20 people max) tour conducted by APT. We rode in an air conditioned Mercedes 4WD truck (DON’T call it a bus) while our guide, Sam, told us all about what we were seeing. I’d recommend the trip to anyone.
We landed back at Marree after our final flight over Lake Eyre and boarded the truck for the next part of our journey. But first we saw a couple of Marree landmarks. One of them is the MCG. It’s a little bit different to the one in Melbourne, but it has the same initials. (I mentioned the outback sense of humour, didn’t I?) Another is the start of the Birdsville track, but I showed you the other end last time.
We were off to Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheater in the Flinders Ranges and another of my bucket list items. Most of the ‘mountain’ ranges we saw on our travels were part of the Flinders Ranges, although some have local names. The formation of the ranges is fascinating. Unlike many other ranges like the Himalayas, the Flinders wasn’t formed by tectonic plates bumping into each other. Rather, a geosyncline was formed when two parts of a continent split apart. The resulting chasm was filled with debris, which was later thrust up, twisted and buckled. This article does a pretty good job of explaining the geology. It’s one of the planet’s oldest mountain ranges, and home to some of the oldest animal fossils ever discovered. Although the ranges aren’t very high, when they were formed 540 million years ago the mountains were the height of the Himalayas. Erosion is a powerful force.
On our way south we came across some amazing cloud formations. We could have been forgiven for mistaking them for space ships. Cue X Files music.
I loved the Flinders Range. Apart from the spectacular scenery, it’s full of river red gums and cypress pines, and home to lots of wildlife. Here you’ll find eastern grey kangaroos, the big red kangaroos, euros, and the lovely little yellow footed rock wallaby which has been rescued from near-extinction. If you’re not familiar with the many different species of ‘roos, this article will help. The big roos are in no danger of extinction. They have benefited from humans through pasture lands and water supplies such as dams. The smaller marsupials are in very great danger from loss of habitat, and predators such as feral cats. I like cats – but not in the bush.
We would spend two nights at Wilpena. But on this, our first evening, we drove to a lookout to see the walls of Wilpena Pound. The name ‘pound’ in this context means an area where animals are kept, as in ‘dog pound’. There’s only one way into the formation, so it’s a natural stock barrier. In fact, there was a station in there. But although it’s pretty, it’s harsh country, subject to the cycle of drought and flood so common in Australia, and after one flood too many, the property owners gave up. Read more here. There are grazing properties still in the Flinders Ranges, but they work in with the national parks people to try to preserve this natural wonderland.
We landed in Birdsville and I get to cross another entry off my bucket list. Birdsville is probably THE hottest place in Australia. The official highest recorded temperature is apparently 49.5 – but that’s in the shade.
It was Good Friday, one of the few days of the year when everybody shuts up shop. The pub’s front bar was closed, but since we were guests we got to use the Lizard Bar. This is another tiny outback town which has made a name for itself. People come here from everywhere on the 1st September for the Birdsville Cup, a gazetted thoroughbred race. The population swells from about 160 to eight to ten thousand. Then they all go home and it’s over for another year.
I was a little bit bemused at learning we were going to be taken for a half-hour bus tour of the town. But it actually turned out to be a heap of fun. We were shown the race course, and the permanent lagoon (part of the Diamantina river), and the nearby camping ground. Our guide explained that the influx of visitors for the Cup puts a strain on the town resources, especially the rubbish tip. The burning of rubbish is forbidden (OH&S) but as it happens the Birdsville tip seems to be struck by lightning every Wednesday at 2pm. Act of God, know what I mean? We saw the standpipe where the town’s water supply comes up steaming from the artesian basin. The water goes through a cooling tower and filters before it’s pumped to houses, but it’s never really cold. We were taken to admire the new street lights in a housing area at the edge of town. No houses, but nice lights. Our guide explained that there are about 4 rateable properties in Birdsville, so most of the town’s money comes from grants from drought or flood. The lights were from one grant, the streets were added later from another grant. They’d like a flood, please. They’ve had enough drought for now. Then we popped into the Birdsville Bakery for a chance to buy a curried camel pie and other tasty goodies.
Our guide epitomised the kind of people you get in the outback – tough, resilient, with a wicked sense of humour. They have a cultivated disdain for bureaucracy, which is understandable. Rules and regulations dreamed up by clerks sitting at desks in air conditioned comfort in Canberra or Brisbane just don’t make sense out here. Practicality is the name of the game.
And then it was back into the planes for another look at Lake Eyre before we met out trusty guide at Marree. This time we also flew over the part of the lake where Sir Donald Campbell broke the land speed record in Bluebird in 1964. This flight I was even more impressed with the scenery as aboriginal art.
It’s day three of our journey to see Lake Eyre in flood. If you missed day 1 you’ll find it here, and day 2 is here. Today we leave Marree and travel along the Oodnadatta track to William Creek, where we’ll catch a plane.
We’re really in the outback now, surrounded by barren plains with maybe a range of low hills on the horizon. It’s dry out here. Marree’s average annual rainfall is 160mm (6.3″). The vegetation is tough. There’s a lot of salt bush, and plants with leathery, greyish leaves. But there’s water, if you know where to look. Australia is host to the largest artesian basin in the world, and the road we’re following is there because it follows the water. Many towns up here have ‘wet’ words like creek or well in their names, places where water can be found. We stop in a particularly desolate area to look at the mound springs – places where the mineral-filled water bubbles up to the surface. Over thousands of years the minerals were deposited and the mounds built up. You can see from the pictures that around such springs the ground is lush with plant life. These springs have had to be protected from cattle, which trample the edges and muddy the flow.
Maybe they need to be protected from people, too. The settlers didn’t understand this country. Read the story on the information board and you’ll see what I mean. The aboriginal people called these places home, and they looked after them. Water, after all, is life.
But it’s not just humans who need water. We crossed a creek full with recent rain. It teemed with little fingerlings all fighting for a chance to get to lake Eyre. And surrounding this crossing were hundreds of silver gulls. The nearest coast is at Port Augusta, around 450km away. How the gulls knew the water and the fish were here is a mystery.
We arrived at William Creek (population 12) just before lunch, served (of course) in the pub. The owner, Trevor Wright, basically owns the town but he doesn’t like to be called king. He reckons he’s more of a benevolent dictator. He’s a big man with a shock of white hair and he operates the planes we’ll use over Lake Eyre. He likes to talk, too. One of his pilots came in to give him a hurry up call. The planes and the pilots were waiting.
Six of us (including the pilot) crammed into a Cessna 210. I was in the last of 3 rows of seats and I won’t pretend it was comfy. The outside temperature was in the late 30’s and the cabin wasn’t air conditioned. We took along bottled water and frozen wet towels to keep us cool. I found the best way to avoid dwelling on discomfort was to watch what was going on below. It’s 450km as the crow flies from William Creek to Birdsville – and a bit more when you’re sight seeing. The journey took about two and a half hours and I don’t mind admitting I was pleased to stagger out of the plane at the other end.
The following day we did it all again, flying from Birdsville back to Marree, where our driver picked us up. There’s a lot to say about Birdsville, but I’ll do that in another post. For now, let’s take a look at Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.
We’re on our way to see Lake Eyre in flood. Last time, we left Adelaide and travelled to Port Augusta at the head of Spencer Gulf. From Port Augusta we travelled north, crossing the Flinders Ranges via the Pichi Richi pass. We’re following the old railway line built for the Ghan in 1879. You’ll find the history here. These days, the line and its steam train offer a tourist service. Press ‘home’ on that website to find out more.
We’re headed for Quorn, which used to be an important railway town. In 1917 it was the junction between trains travelling east-west or north-south, but eventually it was bypassed. Now the railway station houses a rail museum, and it’s where tourists can board the Pichi Richi steam train for an authentic look at the Flinders Ranges.
Lunch was at Parachilna’s Prairie Hotel. It’s the only substantial building in “town” (population 15), but this little place is typical of the resilience of the outback people. They’re reinventing themselves by offering an experience you can’t get anywhere else – Australian bush food. They call it ‘feral’ (see website under ‘restaurant’) because some of it is – camels and goats are introduced species. We were served a tasting platter of kangaroo mettwurst, emu pate, camel salami, goat cheese, quandong chutney, bush tomato chilli jam, (and some chicken) with what looked like home baked sourdough bread and a salad. It was seriously yummy and I’d go back in a moment. You can find out a little more about Parachilna itself here.
From there we went to what our guide described as a semi-ghost town called Farina. It seems a semi-ghost town is one where not all the houses are abandoned. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered why anybody would want to live in a place like that, surrounded by crumbling remnants of past lives, but some people evidently do. Farina is close to Farina station (what the Americans call a ranch, not a railway station). Having said that, like most of the towns we visited, it started off being all about the railway. But we were just passing through.
And then our guide did something wonderful.
She didn’t go back to the highway the same way she’d come. She knew there was another way, so she took us bush-bashing through the scrub at the back of the Flinders Range. I lost count of the dry creek crossings we negotiated, all of them studded with magnificent river red gums. All the while, we drove in the shadow of the Flinders, following the remains of the railway back to the blacktop. Even in an air-conditioned 4WD, I got a better idea of what it was like for the poor innocents who tried to conquer this country. You don’t. You just don’t.
And then on to Maree, (population 60), deep in the desert and not far from Lake Eyre. This is another town which has had to reinvent itself. Phil and Maz Turner turned their backs on the bright lights of Canberra and bought the pub in 2011. Phil’s a big man with a big beard and he’s happy to talk to travellers. He told us he wanted a change from being a business consultant, so he bought the worst pub in the best town and hasn’t looked back. He has developed motel style accommodation and small but functional cabins for tourists like us. Phil has enormous admiration for pioneering outback legends like Tom Kruse (pronounced the same way as the plonker in Hollywood – and that’s where the resemblance ends) and has set up an exhibition in the pub. It was a great evening. We bought drinks at the bar from a black Canadian guy, got to meet the pub dogs, and ate a simple but tasty meal in the pub restaurant.
Marree is home to the Lake Eyre Yacht Club. Yes, it’s real – even if they can’t go boating all that often.
Next blog we’ll be going to William Creek to catch a plane for a flight over Lake Eyre and on to Birdsville.