Category Archives: Travel

The aftermath

ex-tropical cyclone Debbie wreaks havoc down the east coast

Cyclone Debbie has certainly cut a swathe through the holiday islands of the Whitsundays and their gateway, Airlie Beach. Bowen and Ayr bore the brunt of the storm and that takes nothing away from all the smaller places in the way. Cane fields, vegetable crops, and banana fields were flattened, destroying farmers’ incomes for at least one season – to say nothing about destruction of infrastructure and homes, loss of power, stock losses and the like. And then there’s the native wildlife who have to hunker down just like we humans. She was a massive storm. Here she is from the ISS.

Cyclones travel in a clockwise direction, and this was a huge storm, so after Debbie crossed the coast anything within eight hundred kilometres or so to the south was going to get wet. Mackay and Rockhampton were well in the zone and suffered substantial wind and water damage. With rainfall of hundreds of millimetres the rivers rose and roads were flooded. Even Hervey Bay copped the end of an outlying cloud band, although 80mm of rain without gale-force winds was actually welcome. As a side note, while Pete and I would have been quite safe at Cairns, we wouldn’t have been able to drive home. And that is why we hurried home when we did.

After they cross the coast cyclones rapidly downgrade to a tropical low, and the clean-up starts in their wake. It doesn’t mean the danger is over, though. The models suggested three tracks after Debbie crossed the coast, all tracking south. We expected her to come down through the interior, but the lady had other plans. I’ve never seen anything like it. Gale-force winds and very heavy rain all the way down the east coast of Australia from Mackay. Inland from Mackay, over a metre of rain fell in two days. The cyclone made landfall on Tuesday lunchtime. On Thursday the State Government closed all schools from just north of Bundaberg to the Queensland border for two days. Businesses followed suit. Our local bank closed its doors at 10am to give staff the chance to get home and off potentially flooding roads. Falls of five hundred millimetres were expected around the Southeast corner of the state, along with gale force winds. It was unprecedented. Australia is used to cyclones – but not one that does a left-hand turn, taking it down into heavily populated areas.

As usual, Hervey Bay fared well enough. Although rainfall this March (396mm or roughly 16″) is the third highest monthly rainfall we have experience in our time here, the previous two months were so dry that the rainfall is still well below the average for this time of year. I’m sure residents further south won’t be saying the same thing.

I thought I’d finish this clean-up post with a few things from our trip I hadn’t mentioned.

The view over Townsville from Castle Hill

Driving up to Cairns, we stayed overnight in Townsville, where Pete had his very first Mexican meal in a busy restaurant in Palmer Street. I love Mexican food, but Pete has never been interested. However, it was his suggestion – and he enjoyed it. Next morning before we moved on we drove up to Castle Hill, overlooking the town and with views to Magnetic Island just across the water, and to the hills surrounding the town.

Castle Hill from the city

From Palm Cove we drove up to Port Douglas. It’s only about forty km following the Captain Cook Highway along the coast. The road seems to have been built on a ledge between the sea and the mountains, twisting and turning with every cove and inlet. Port Douglas is mainly a resort town, with golf courses and hotels. One hotel (the Mirage) was famously built by Christopher Skase before he fled his debtors and went to live on Majorca. For us, the place didn’t have much to offer. It seems to be a jumping-off point for the Daintree and the reef. But I took some pictures.

Looking south from Port Douglas. The longest of those sandbars is where we stopped to take a picture (see below)

There’s no doubt the coastline is picturesque. I’d asked Pete to stop (on the way back) at a stopping place where I’d noticed a great photo opportunity, which he did, safely. I’d hardly got out of the car when a car horn honked. Some idiot had seen the view and decided to stop, with a car right behind him. The driver of the offending car pulled to one side to let the other driver pass. This is all happening just near a curve, too. The offending car moves back out into the road. For a minute I think it’s going to turn around, doing a three-point-turn, but another car comes along and our mate drives off, with the person in the passenger seat holding their phone out the window. It was a great picture, but really, people, I wouldn’t have thought it was to die for her. Or even sustain an injury.

A storm is gathering over Port Douglas – not Debbie, just a normal tropical storm

On our way back from Hartley’s croc park we stopped to take pictures of these weird rock sculptures. I have no idea what they are for, but I’d guess they’re a bit like the padlock fad, where lovers attach a padlock to the wires on a bridge. However, just as the authorities have been forced to cut away the padlocks, which in those quantities can weigh a great deal, sometime a storm will hit these piled up stones and scatter them back on the beach.

No idea what these ‘sculptures’ are meant to signify

That’s it for this journey. Be sure to join us next time we venture away from home. If you want to go back to the start of this trip, here’s the link. Say hello to Cyclone Debbie

Australia’s cuddliest critter (not)

Would you believe not all of Australia’s animals are cute and cuddly? You would, wouldn’t you? The place is crawling with lethal snakes, deadly spiders, murderous little octopuses, excruciatingly painful jellyfish… It’s all true, of course, but it’s pretty much a case of if you leave them alone, they leave you alone.

But not salt water crocodiles.

They’re ancient, clever, sneaky, and as far as they’re concerned, you’re just another sort of meat. Crocodile hunting was banned in the 1970’s because their numbers were so low. They were an easy target and their skins were worth a fortune – so much of a fortune that they were nearly wiped out. Since then, they’ve re-established themselves and become a tourist drawcard. So we went to look at crocs, as you do. This link will give you detailed information about the species.

See that lump of wood just under that overhanging foliage? That’s Ted’s snout

In Australia we call the salt water, or estuarine, crocodiles salties. The name is misleading because ‘salt water’ crocodiles can live very happily in fresh water, as well as in the ocean. In the wild they can become very large, and a danger to people and livestock. A big croc will take a cow, let alone a dog, a kangaroo, or a man. Farmers can’t shoot them anymore, but rangers will trap them and relocate them to a croc farm, where the big boys will live out their years making baby crocs. Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, where we went to see crocodiles, has one male (Ted) who is over five metres long – the second largest croc in captivity. They reckon he’s around one hundred years old, he’s lost all but one of his teeth and one eye, and the eye he does have is blind. It seems he still enjoys the mating season, though. We were told that one of the park’s most recent additions, a four and half metre male called Snappy Tom, was caught on the golf links at Port Douglas, where it had taken to lunging at golfers. The ranger also told us about one big male who had been placed into solitary confinement. He’d taken to attacking the females, and ended up killing one. Bottom line: crocs are not nice. For Americans, alligators are similar in appearance to salties, but they don’t get as big. A four-metre alligator is big, a saltie has a way to go. According to the rangers, they’re also not as nasty. Every big saltie has bits missing – tail, claws, teeth. They fight for females and territory, the females fight to protect their nests. They grow up ornery.

In the short time we were in Cairns it became obvious that crocodiles are becoming a growing problem. I read a heart-wrenching story about a man whose elderly dog was taken from the shallows. He’d thrown a stick for her, just a couple of feet. As she was coming back he saw a bow wave behind her – and that was that. A spearfisherman was taken by a 4.8 metre croc. And an imbecile escaped with his life after trying to impress a girl. Seems this 18yo idiot told a backpacker that crocs only took tourists and jumped into the Johnstone River to prove it. He no sooner hit the water when a big croc latched on to his arm. He managed to escape with a badly lacerated arm, but apparently his brain cells are as bad as ever – he said he’d do it again. Keep an eye out for him in the Darwin Awards. Here’s the story from the news.

These guys are destined to be handbags.

At Hartleys we were taken to see the croc farm where male salties are raised for mainly leather used for handbags, belts, and the like. There’s a demand in Asia for top quality hides to be made into handbags that sell for as much as $38,000. (Pass) The meat is used, too, and any leftovers are ground down for fertiliser, so there’s no wastage. Our guide told us it’s the same as running a beef property, or a chicken farm. The animals are raised as a commodity.

Boat on the lagoon at Hartley’s. There are crocs in that water

We were taken for a boat ride on the lagoon. It’s shady and dirty, perfect for the twenty-one crocodiles who live in there. They behave as they would in the wild, and any eggs the females lay are collected for the farm, where they are incubated at just the right temperature so the hatchlings are all male. Our guide brought along food (chicken heads and wings) so the reptiles would actually show up. They are usually stealth hunters, sneaking up and lunging. But they can move very fast, and jump quite high. And of course, they knew to expect a meal. They’re smart. Up in Northern Australia the bushmen will tell you never to go fishing at the same spot three nights in a row. If you go back that third time, there’ll be a croc waiting for you.

After the boat trip the rangers showed us salties in a different setting where we could get a better feel for their size and speed. That’s a female croc, and she’s not specially big.

The jaws are very powerful. They kill by grabbing hold of the prey and drowning it, rolling over in the water.

And then on to the freshies.

Don’t try this with a saltie

Australia has two croc species. So far, I’ve talked about the salt water crocodile. Fresh water, or Johnson River, crocodiles are a very different beast. They’re smaller, are much more docile, and their skins are worthless for the leather trade. This croc is like most Australian critters – leave it alone and it will leave you alone. Poke it with your foot (as one tourist apparently did) and it might get upset. After all, it’s still a crocodile. The ranger is in there amongst the freshies – he would not do this with a saltie. That would win him a Darwin award.

The resident buck – an Eastern Grey

A couple of wallabies – like Alan (see below)

Hartley’s park has quite a few other animals, too. This is another place where you can get your picture taken with a koala, or if you prefer, a python or a baby crocodile (no doubt with its jaws taped shut – they’re born nasty). We decided to look at the kangaroos and wallabies instead. Like most zoos, these marsupials are housed in a walk-in compound. Many are tame enough for tourists to approach. On our way out through the double gates we noticed someone hand feeding a wallaby. The man walked away but the wallaby hung around and we noticed a sign with a photo of a wallaby. “My name is Alan. Don’t let me sneak through the gates” or words to that effect. We figured Alan must have escaped from the roo enclosure, so we let him back in and went on our way to photograph birds of prey. While Pete, Sandy and I thought we’d done the right thing with Alan, Col wasn’t so sure. Maybe we shouldn’t have let him into the compound. We all poo-pooed that. After all, shouldn’t a wallaby be with the other wallabies?

On our way back from the aviary we came upon a ranger and Col asked him about Alan. “We keep Alan out of there,” the ranger explained. “He’s antisocial and chases everybody.” Admitting nothing, we went back through the roo enclosure – and there was Alan, chasing a female kangaroo that must have been three times his size. Oops.

Oh well. As we pointed out to the ranger, the sign wasn’t clear.

Let’s finish with a couple of the lovely raptors in the bird enclosure – another walk-through environment.

Dozing. Of course. An Australian sooty owl

A brown goshawk

Riding the sky rail

Swingin’ up over the rain forest

One of the fun things to do in Cairns is to take a ride up into the tablelands on a cable car, and come back down again on a vintage train after you’ve pottered around at the quaint little town of Kuranda. (or vice versa – here’s all the info) Kuranda is one of those very touristy places, with cafes and restaurants, and markets filled with didgeridoos, T shirts, postcards, artwork, tea towels, stuffed kangaroos… you get the picture. But it also has some other attractions, such as a bird sanctuary, a butterfly house, and a wildlife exhibition where you can get your picture taken holding a koala (for a price, of course). Here’s the Kuranda website.

Tropical Cyclone Debbie wasn’t even a twinkle in a meteorologist’s eye at this stage – but there’s a reason they call it rain forest. There’s always a risk of a shower. So far so good, though. We caught the cable car up to Kuranda, gliding up the mountain over the rain forest, admiring the view over Cairns to the Coral Sea. Helicopters were used to put all the pylons that support the cables into place, causing minimum disruption to the landscape.

A walk through the treetops

We hopped off the cable car at Red Peak, the journey’s highest point, and took a walk along a board walk through the top of the rain forest. Tour guides take groups along and explain the ecology, and you can admire the view for as long as you like before you jump back into a car to continue the journey to the viewing platform for Barron Falls. I was really, really looking forward to that. I’d seen some pictures online from just a few weeks before, showing the falls thundering down into its gorge.

Barron gorge with a bit of waterfall. That’s the train on the opposite side to give some context.

So yeah, I was very, very, very disappointed. Oh well. Ma Nature runs according to her own rhythms. And the dam at the top of the falls did the rest. On to Kuranda.

After we’d pottered around the markets for a while, we headed for the bird sanctuary, a large, free-fly aviary with an assortment of native and exotic birds, many of them very friendly, especially if you brought in food (sold by the sanctuary). We were warned before we went in that the birds would be attracted to jewellery, buttons on caps and the like. It’s true… it’s true. One parrot immediately landed on Col’s baseball cap and pulled off the button at the top. One bird landed on Pete’s shoulder, and several other people had birds sitting on their arms or shoulders.

At one stage as we walked around most of the birds suddenly stared upwards. Sure enough, a wedge-tailed eagle soared high above the sanctuary. They were safe, of course, but old habits remain.

Here’s a selection of pictures.

This Alexandrine made a beeline for Col’s hat

Male red tailed cockatoo

Female red tailed cockatoo

Deep in conversation with a Columbian sun conure

A cattle egret showing off

A male eclectus parrot (native Australian)

Female eclectus parrot. This is one of those rare occasions where the female is brighter than the male

A koala doing what koalas do best

I expect somebody is going to ask to see the picture of me holding a koala. There isn’t one. Few places today allow tourists to handle koalas since it’s believed it stresses the animal. Think about it. You’re a sedentary, mainly solitary creature. You spend between 18 and 22 hours per day sleeping, and quite a lot of the rest eating. You’re carried out by someone you know, and you’re handed over to a complete stranger who probably has no idea what to do with you and maybe giggles excitedly while somebody else pokes a camera at you. Phew. That’s over. You seek refuge with your usual handler. And then a new stranger comes along and you have to do it all over again. So no. Not me.

Mind you, there are a number of koalas at the few places that allow strangers to handle the animals. I expect there’s a rotation so one koala only features in a few shots at a time, and they would be carefully supervised by handlers. I also appreciate that offering the opportunity might make money to help with conservation, but I can’t help but feel it’s a bit like sacrificing some koalas for the many. Koalas are now endangered because humans have encroached on their habitat. We need to give them room to live safely away from dogs and cars. Here’s a bit of info about koalas.

We had lunch with rain squall accompaniment (we were inside, watching from a veranda), and after we’d bought a few T shirts, we caught the train back down to the valley. It’s an old train with antique carriages where the air conditioning is you opening the windows. It was like being in a sauna as the train crept down the steep gradients. We stopped for ten minutes at Barron Falls, which was just as disappointing from this side as it had been from the other. All the way, we learned about how this railway line had been built in the 1880’s, opening in 1891. Here’s a little of the history. OH&S hadn’t been invented then. All the tunnels (there are fifteen) were dug by hand after initial blasting, and the workers were expected to bring their own tools. Same with bridges and track. There are spectacular views across Cairns of course, and the train stopped for a few moments so we could take photos of Stoney Creek Falls – which almost made up for Barron Falls. (Did I mention how disappointed I was?)

Stoney creek Falls – right next to the railway line. Photo taken from the train.

One of several tight curves on the track. This one’s on a bridge.

The sun was setting when we got back to Palm Cove. It had been a Big Day Out.

In search of waterfalls

Peppers from the Esplanade

Palm Cove is the northern-most of Cairns’s northern beaches, most of it strung along a picturesque esplanade hugging the beach.  The first thing we noticed is the way the massive paperbark trees are incorporated into the landscape – and the buildings.  There’s no doubt the land our building was built on was reclaimed from a swamp. The frogs started up at sundown, just on the other side of the path to our room. The biggest trees are estimated at three to five hundred years old.

A massive paperbark next to Peppers

The Peppers resort comprised six buildings, most of them set around a very large swimming pool, complete with white sand and a swim-up bar. You can swim in the ocean – but there are signs warning about marine stingers and crocs. We were told quite a large croc was known to sun itself on the sandbar at the end of the beach. More about crocs in another post. For those desperate to try the sea, a stinger enclosure (a floating tube defining a rectangle with suspended fine netting to stop the stingers from getting in) had been set up opposite the hotel. All that lovely beach – but you’re safer in the hotel swimming pool. That’s how it is in (F)ar (N)orth (Q)ueensland. Read more about stingers here. We saw a couple of staff members trawling a net outside the enclosure to check for stingers. They both wore lycra stinger suits, covering their bodies from head to foot. Stingers deliver excruciating pain and are not to be messed with.

We were in an apartment on the third floor – and there were no lifts. I expect it did us good trudging up and down the stairs several times a day. The apartment had a nice tropical feel, and a spa bath on the balcony, if that was your fancy. Although the room was air conditioned, the restaurant wasn’t, relying on what breeze there was from the beach just across the road. But that was just for breakfast and one special dinner. The esplanade itself has a multitude of eateries catering for every taste and wallet. Friends of ours were also staying at Palm Cove and we tried a number of restaurants with them.

Peppers seems to be a great place to chill out, get a massage, do not much. But we wanted to see some of the sites, number one on the list for me and for Sandy, was the Atherton Tablelands and the waterfall circuit. Along that part of the coast the mountains come close to the beach, and although they’re not high by international standards, they’re steep and covered in rainforest. Rainforest means rain means watercourses means waterfalls. We didn’t see them all, but I’ve included a few.

The Atherton tablelands. Rainforest and rich farmland.

Driving up the mountain was an adventure in itself. I reckon the last time I was on anything like such a winding, snaking, narrow, challenging road was in Switzerland. Even Sandy and Col, who regularly drive in similar conditions where they live, remarked on how steep and winding it was.

Sandy and I had a wonderful time with the cameras, despite the occasional rain squall. And we could have done without the local Mr Plod who stopped us for speeding when we passed a clown behaving erratically. Still and all, he must have taken pity on a bunch of old farts and a driver with a spotless record. He stopped us again (flashing lights and all) and reduced the severity of the penalty. Col reckons he made a mistake and was covering up. Could be.

Anyway, here are the waterfalls.

Malanda falls. There was a wonderful information centre here, a great place to find out about the environment, and the plants and animals.

Millaa Millaa fals, complete with bikini-clad tourists

The top of Zillie Falls. The descent was a bit too steep and challenging for us.

Walking through the rain forest

This is the river that feeds Elinjaa falls, hurrying along for its date with destiny

A tortoise takes a sun bathe. This was a chance to try out the new Big Lens

 

Say hello to TC Debbie

The Coral Sea from Palm Cove

We’ve just come back from FNQ (Far North Queensland), after spending a week at Peppers Palm Cove resort, just north of Cairns. Normally I’d write about the trip and what we saw and experienced, but this time, I’ll start at the end, because the trip was cut short. You see, Debbie decided to visit.

When we arrived at Palm Cove, which is right on the beach, the view was gorgeous, as shown above. It’s a tropical climate, so cumulus stacks gather above the warm ocean, maybe moving inland for an afternoon rain squall. Standing out there gazing at the sea the sweat trickles down your skin. A swim would be nice, but the air is still and the ocean bath-tub warm – perfect for marine stingers. The crocs don’t mind, either, so you either swim in the stinger enclosure at the beach or use the pool at the hotel, which has a swim-up bar. It might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s such a waste of a beautiful beach.

It has been a strange summer all over Queensland from a weather point of view. Rain has fallen inland, the monsoon arrived late in the North, and around the sub-tropical Fraser Coast where we live, we’ve not seen such a savage drought. While we were up in the tropics we heard that Cyclone Caleb had been declared – only the third of the season! I don’t know why we thought it was in the Coral Sea, where we were, but it was actually far out to sea off the coast of Western Australia.

Maybe that mistake turned out to be prophetic.

On our second-last day at Palm Cove that idyllic beach scene looked like this.

A rain storm out sea

A massive rainstorm hung over the ocean on the horizon. And then we heard the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) was keeping a whether eye on a deepening low off the Queensland coast. We weren’t surprised. The sea’s always warm up here, but I’d heard thirty degrees. Maybe the coral reefs were praying for rain to cool them down. Standing on the beach it was easy to imagine some massive beast out there beyond the horizon, hovering over the ocean, sucking up moisture, swelling and strengthening. The clouds scudded by driven by a brisk south-easter, drawn into the dance around the as-yet-nameless storm. By evening her name was Debbie and our proposed visit to Cooktown, north of Cairns, was scratched. Cyclones are unpredictable beasts. Models showed Debbie heading for landfall in an area about 750 kilometres wide, but if she decided to veer north, Cooktown might be in the way. Even if she didn’t, we might reach Cooktown, but extensive flooding further south would make it a long, slow road home. And with predictions of Debbie becoming a high category four, or even a cat five before she crossed the coast, there would be flooding. This is a good explanation of cyclones.

Experiencing a full-blown tropical cyclone isn’t an item on my bucket list, but we figured we didn’t have to run for it straight away. We had one more day at Palm Cove – a Friday. The BOM wasn’t expecting the storm to hit the coast until Tuesday, and gales were not forecast until Sunday afternoon. If we left early on Saturday morning, we should be able to clear the danger area and make it home by Sunday night. On our way home we had intended to stay for a couple of days with a friend living high on the hill above Airlie Beach, roughly halfway to Hervey Bay from here. We’d have to cut the visit short, but he would understand. It seemed like a plan.

Ominous sky on Saturday

It rained heavily at Palm Cove on Friday night, but the next morning was dry, if ominous. The further we went, the clearer the sky became, at least as far as Townsville. From there on small patches of cloud appeared, all heading north like a flock of sheep being herded by an invisible sheep dog riding the wind.

Airlie Beach from our friend’s balcony

Airlie Beach in a good time

Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, a cluster of island holiday destinations dotted around the Coral Sea with the Great Barrier Reef at their doorstep. The anchorage is usually full of boats, but not this time. Maybe a dozen moorings were occupied when we arrived at our friend’s place. The next morning there were about six – probably owned by people down south. The evening was warm and relatively calm enough to eat outside but as the hours passed, the wind picked up. When we went to bed we left the window open to get some breeze – at least for a little while. Maybe because of the way the building was constructed, the breeze growled like an animal looking for a way in, probing any crevice with fingers of air. With each gust the growl became a howl and every now and then, with a shriek of triumph, the wind burst through, sending the drapes flapping like a torn spinnaker. We were forced to close the window and turn on the fan, but even so, the wind entity prowled around the building, testing its defences, its howl underscored by the steady rhythm of the ceiling fan.

It wasn’t the best nights’ sleep either of us had experienced. We hit the road early, anxious to avoid any chance of striking floodwater. We had expected the highway would be busy with other people heading south, especially caravans, but the road was surprisingly quiet. We saw quite a few emergency crews heading north, mobilised by the State Government for the expected damage. We also heard that people in low lying areas in Debbie’s path had been ordered to evacuate – including homes in the lower parts of Airlie Beach.

We stopped twice at shopping centres, busy with people stocking up on canned food, water, and supplies like batteries. It was all very business-like, but then, cyclones are part of life in North Queensland, and while they are destructive, they also have an important role to play in the ebbs and flows of the environment up there. Floods feed the wetlands and the aquifers that get the farmers through the dry times, and the rain cools down the sea temperatures on the Great Barrier Reef. I wondered how farm animals would fare in the storm, and a farmer interviewed on the radio said he’d moved his poddy calves in close to the homestead, but that the cows seemed to know how to cope. I’m certain the birds and animals do, too. During our day out on Friday we noticed the birds were scarce. On the other hand, farmers growing cane, bananas, or vegetables would be keeping their fingers crossed. A cat 4 cyclone packs winds up to 279kph, and a cat 5 is (of course) even worse.

We turned into our driveway at home just in time to watch the sunset on Sunday. We’re safe and comfortable. Our very best wishes to everyone in Debbie’s path. Stay safe. Like they say on the radio, cyclones rarely kill people. Downed power lines and floodwaters certainly do.

 

 

 

 

A day tour of Macao

Extravagant, flamboyant, over the top. Casino

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could run a day tour of 28 sq km of Macao, but it was done. Our guide, Mario, picked us up from the Grand Emperor at 10am. He’s Portuguese, originally from a diplomatic family and he has lived in Macao (the Portuguese spell it Macau) for 33 years, so he knows his stuff. Macao is the tip of a peninsula, and was leased to the Portuguese in 1557. It was returned to China in 1999, but, like Hong Kong, it will retain its semi-autonomous status for fifty years. What will happen after that, nobody knows. Especially what will happen to the casinos. They are illegal in China, but the Chinese are known to love their gambling. It’s also a lucrative business. Somebody shall see what happens. It won’t be me.

We joined another 28 people who had come over to Macao for a day trip from Hong Kong. Pete and I waited on the bus while Mario collected them from the ferry terminal and herded them on board. Not only were there a few Caucasians amongst them – there were a couple of Australians!

First stop was the reason for the existence of Macao these days. It may have been the gateway to Guangzhou in the past, but now it’s a place to build casinos. It’s how Stanley Ho made his fortune. He still has a large investment. James Pcker is currently pulling out of Macao after some of his staff were arrested in China for trying to entice high-rollers to his casino, and a few of the Las Vegas establishments also have buildings here. There are currently 36 casinos on Macao, and six more will be completed this year. Each new building has to be bigger and better than its predecessor. There’s not room in Macao proper for more buildings, so the powers-that-be have filled in the sea between what had been two islands. That’s where all the new construction is happening.

Venice in a building

The casinos are huge, flamboyant, and ostentatious, designed to attract the Chinese high-rollers. Mario took us to the Venetian, one of the more recent casinos. Like its namesake in Vegas, it has a replica of St Marks square in Venice inside, complete with canals.

Pete managed to snap a shot of the gaming floor as we went up to St Marks on an escalator. As you can see, they’re big enough for people to get lost, which is precisely what happened to a couple of our Americans. Mario managed to find them and they were most apologetic. I cast no aspersions. Been there, done that, have the T-shirt hidden away.

After that we went back to Macao’s beginnings, a temple at the waterside dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea from whom the city gained its name. It is on multiple levels, built against the massive boulders. Worship requires incense.

 

 

From the past we went to the future, Macao’s Skytower, home of the world’s highest bungy jump. I got a few pictures of someone taking the plunge, and four of us (not Peter) paid extra to go up the tower to admire the view. This is where I took the photo at the top of my previous post. Mario told us this was simply normal Macao weather. He pointed out the point on the Pearl river where people swam across to escape Mao’s cultural revolution. Not all of them made it – which meant death. Those that did were shipped off quickly to Hong Kong, where they could escape to the West.

That tower with its head in the clouds is in CHINA!

Next we visited the old town with its European style buildings and the inevitable town square complete with fountain. The old parts of town were paved in tiny blue and white Portuguese tiles, fresco style. As well as casinos this part of Macao has churches and temples. We visited one Dominican church, and admired the remains of St Paul’s at the top of the city steps which resemble the Spanish Steps in Rome. The church burnt down in 1835, leaving just the façade. It’s a popular tourist attraction and a place to take photos.

We asked Mario to recommend a Portuguese restaurant for our last evening overseas. It was, as they always are, down an narrow street off the square, opposite the fountain with the Madonna. (Well… maybe not that bit) The waiter – and I suspect owner – might not have been born Australian, but he had an Aussie accent. He mentioned he’d grown up in St Albans in Melbourne. It’s a small world. We picked the set menu – carrot soup, shared the two mains of steak and chips with salad, and fish patties with salad and rice, followed by sweets and thick, strong coffee. Our new mate threw in a glass of port each. It was a lovely way to end the day and we meandered off to the hotel for a good nights’ sleep.

The next day we were off home, catching the ferry to the airport at Lantau. You check in your baggage and get your boarding pass when you leave the ferry. By far the longest queue in the large hall was for Qantas, which shared a desk with an Asian airline. Time was pushing on. When we were about three people from the front of the line, somebody grabbed a brain and picked out the people flying to Brisbane. We were first, but unfortunately for the people behind us, the girl had trouble finding my name It’s the spaces/no spaces thing. My name is van der Rol, but on an airline ticket it’s vanderrol. Anyway, we got there eventually. When we left to go to the terminal, the queue at QF’s counter was almost back to the exit from the ferry. Not a good look.

We got to Brisbane at around eight, collected our car from the long term car park as close to 9am as we could manage, and headed home to the clean air and spacious living at Hervey Bay. Neither of us are anxious to go back to Hong Kong.

Off to Macao

Taken from a tower through glass this picture shows most of Macao. Our hotel is next to the golden tulip-shaped building at mid-right. And yes, that’s smog.

Cruising from Hong Kong to Macao via Turbojet is just like getting a seat in an aircraft. You go through customs, get a little printed piece of paper for your passport, and off you go. The journey takes less than an hour, and cabin crew offer duty free goods if you want them. Nobody bothered to fasten their seat belts, so we didn’t either. By the way, Stanley Ho (he with the wife and three very good friends) owns Turbojet.

We’d caught an early boat, so we kicked our heels at the arrival terminal for a while before our lift to the hotel arrived. Macao obviously gets large Asian tour groups. Once again, we round-eyes were in the distinct minority.

I was surprised that Macao’s atmosphere was as smoggy as Hong Kong’s. It’s a much smaller place, with a population of around 650,000. Compare Singapore’s 697 sq km to Macao’s 28 sq km. (source) But I suppose some of that smog had drifted over from China, which here is just across the Pearl River.

Our driver took us to the Grand Emperor, close to the old town, and we checked in. Jacky Chan owns the place. It has a kind of British vibe, with two coaches standing outside on the pavement, and two pretend Grenadier guards standing at the entrance with guns Pete assured me were plastic. A not very good portrait of Queenie hangs in the lobby, along with a portrait of George III. Why he’s there I have no idea. The hotel has a Windsor Lounge and a Royal Kitchen restaurant. It also has five floors of casino, and eighty-eight gold bars with auspicious serial numbers set into glass niches in the floor of the lobby, each surrounded by cut jewels. Each 1kg ingot is real, but the jewels are not diamonds.

One of the two royal coaches

Queenie on the left, George III on the right, and gold bars in the floor around the fountain

Gold bar. This is in a display case and not surrounded by jewels.

We had a deluxe room (ie standard), well-appointed with a number of unusual free features. The room had a mobile phone for guest use, which could be used to call overseas free of charge. It also had access to maps and tourist information. The phone won’t work if it’s stolen, and there are charges if it’s broken. We could get free drinks at the Windsor Lounge on the 21st floor – we did go up for one drink after dinner, but it’s a disco that didn’t open until 8pm. Maybe forty years ago…

Although the room was generally fine, the bathroom was simply badly designed. The shower was over the bath and there was no way you could shower without water going everywhere it wasn’t supposed to. Dinner in the Royal Kitchen was excellent, if not cheap. We partook of a seafood buffet – prawns hot or cold, crab, fish, pippies, mussels, soup, lobster (which I would have called yabbies) cooked in one of three ways, and the usual accompaniments of veg, salad and the like. And sweets. Mustn’t forget sweets.

We wandered around the casino just to look. It’s a mug’s game, although we’ve been known to put a few dollars in the slot machines at home. There were some machines on one level, but most of the people were playing black jack, roulette – and dominoes. I don’t think I saw a single Caucasian player. And the Asians were playing for keeps. One fellow was feeding HK$1,000 notes into a machine at a black jack table. Note after note after note. The tables advertised minimum stakes – HK$300 per chip, or HK$500 per chip. That’s ONE chip. Wow. No photos I’m afraid. You weren’t allowed to take knives, guns, or cameras into the casino. Needless to say, there were security staff everywhere.

Tomorrow we were going out on our day tour of Macao. I’ll tell you all about it, promise.

A lazy Sunday in Hong Kong

Sunday was our last full day in Hong Kong. We hadn’t quite given up on the shopping yet, but this time we headed towards the city centre on the island, with Causeway Bay on the way. The hotel’s shuttle bus dropped us off at Hong Kong’s World Trade Centre, which is an enormous shopping building. Hong Kong cranks up late (as far as we’re concerned). Arrive before 12 and you won’t find too many shops open – even the big ones. So it took a while for the crowds to build. We were surprised at the number of women around wearing Muslim dress – there may have been lots of men, too, but they don’t stand out so much. Some women wore really lovely, flowing dresses and hijabs in pastel colours, and a number wore bright red. A few wore face coverings, but I saw only one wearing the full, black burqa. We decided there must have been some cultural event happening, because we hadn’t seen such a concentration of Muslim women anywhere else.

As always in Hong Kong, the modern rubs up against the old. Here’s the bamboo scaffolding on one of the buildings. OH&S inspectors would have a coronary. The picture below is what those poles on the left are supporting.

The main streets were crowded, as was every one of the Macdonalds restaurants we passed. The franchise is clearly doing a roaring trade in Honk Kong. If you ducked down the side streets, though, they weren’t so packed. We walked along a street where market stalls were being opened up for the afternoon and evening trade. Just around the corner the street signs indicated a row of guest houses.

Guest houses and down-market accommodation. One signs offers rooms by the hour, with a discount rate after midnight.

We went into a computer shop looking for a cover for my new tablet. It’s too new – they are not out there yet. But the young man behind the counter mapped a route for us on our Maps.Me to a computer centre further up the road. It was fun pottering around in this building full of tiny, independent computer and camera shops, but we had no joy with the camera lens, or with the tablet cover.

It seemed to us the easiest way to get back to the hotel was on the tram, but they were all packed. Even the Chinese couldn’t push their way on. Eventually, we gave up and went down to the nearest metro station. The trains are fast, cheap and clean – after you’ve worked out the ticketing system. It’s fairly simple, but we had the added complication of being entitled to a concession fare on account of being old. We got there in the end.

High tea set with dessert. It’s a stock photo, not as nice as what we were served.

Today seemed to be an excellent time to enjoy that quintessentially English meal, our complimentary High Tea in the hotel’s lobby bar. It was delicious. We had a pot of tea of our choice each, and the staff delivered one of those three-tier serving towers filled with goodies. I’m sorry I didn’t take pictures. The stock photo at left doesn’t do our spread justice. We had a couple of savoury items, cake, scones, moulds, and a wonderful peach custard. That was lunch sorted. We ordered a club sandwich in our room for dinner.

The following day we kicked tyres for an hour or two in the morning before boarding the ferry for Macao. Instead of going in the direction of Causeway Bay we caught the shuttle bus to ‘Central Plaza’, a shopping and residential area further north. Central plaza turned out to be four huge buildings with acres of glittering shopping below and apartments for the well-heeled above. This certainly wasn’t a cheap area, but we scored breakfast at a fraction of the hotel’s prices.

A glittering shopping centre full of dress shops

This is an ice skating rink in Central Plaza. A teacher is working with a few kids

So there are plenty of people in Hong Kong earning more than a subsistence wage. And good luck to them. We wished them well as we made our way to catch the ferry to Macao.

 

Hong Kong shopping

City crowds. This was taken at Causeway Bay. We didn’t take pictures in Kowloon

Years ago what attracted Australians to stay a day or two or three in Hong Kong was the shopping. Sure, it was an accessible way to get a look at the Orient, but mixed with that was the great exchange rate, and the quality goods for sale at substantially less than the prices in Australia. Even when the sales taxes were altered back in the Keating years, you could still snap up a bargain in Hongkers. With that in mind, Pete and I set out after our lunch escapade in search of bargains.

I’ll interrupt that story with a small side arc. The cost of ‘roaming’ on mobile phone plans in Australia is outrageous, but it’s possible to buy ‘roaming’ plans that charge just the cost of a local phone call. Using Travelsim, we put $5 on such a sim and inserted it into a cheap phone, then told a few close friends the number so they could contact us in case of emergency at home. I also downloaded an app called Maps.Me. It’s free and lets you download a functioning map for overseas travel. Yes, Google does this, too, but Google has upset the powers that be in China, and you can’t download Google’s China maps. We put the app on Pete’s tablet, which he always has with him to take photos. Pete fell in love with Maps.Me. You don’t need access to Wifi, and of course the GPS function will locate you on the map. It certainly helps with navigating in foreign parts.

Back on the streets of Hong Kong, we made our way towards the electronics street. We had already discovered that our mate Andy (tour guide) had given us a bum steer as far as directions went. But Pete is quite happy to ask for help, and managed to find an Aussie working in a shop to tell us where to go. So we worked our way across Nathan Road, which runs up the middle of Kowloon, and into the back roads where the shops line the streets.

Hong Kong was always a busy place, and this was the weekend, but the throng of humanity was extraordinary. The streets were sardine packed everywhere. For Aussies, think sideshow alley at the Royal Show on steroids. The demographics had changed, too. Not so many years ago, the crowd would have been mostly Asian, but there would have been a good number of European people. Now, people like us were a rarity. I hate crowds at the best of times. I don’t get anxious or claustrophobic, but I hate the press of people invading my space, brushing their bodies against me as they pass. When I find myself in a crowd I start to move faster, ducking and weaving my way between the people. Where there’s rudeness, pushing, shoving and the like, the nostrils flare, the elbows come out, and although I won’t push first, I’ll shove second. We were both struck by the rudeness and total lack of consideration for anyone else on the street. And we discovered we weren’t the only ones with that perception.

We were looking for a camera lens. We had done our homework at home and knew what we wanted, and what it should cost. I leave all negotiations about price to Peter, who enjoys the cut and thrust, and is very good at it. But while he would have had a lovely time haggling in years gone by, it doesn’t happen anymore. For a start, far fewer Hong Kongers speak English. We would go into a shop, they would wheel out their English speaker, we would tell them what we wanted, and they would give us a price. That was it. No negotiation. Take it or leave it. You can get it for that in Australia? Shrug. In days gone by, they wouldn’t have let you out of the shop, at least trying to sell you something else. That’s how it still is in Singapore. But not here.

What was happening? What had changed? The answers came from our tour guide in Macao, a Portuguese gentleman who had lived in Macao for 33 years. The vast majority of tourists in Hong Kong (and Macao) now are mainland Chinese. They require less personal space and have a different perception about how to behave in a crowd. And they pay whatever the vendors ask. They have money, and they know they will get a quality product in Hong Kong. I have never seen so many stores selling up-market merchandise like Gucci, Armani, Yves St Laurent, and all the other big-name designer brands. Every fifth car (that wasn’t a taxi) was a Mercedes. I must have seen half a dozen Maseratis (I’ve never seen one on the street before) one red one being driven by a kid with P plates, doing his best to hoon around a packed Hong Kong block.  The best-selling item for the Chinese? Tins of powdered baby milk. There is a ration of two tins per person. They also love to gamble. But I’ll leave that to my Macao post.

After a fruitless few hours fighting our way through Kowloon, we gave up and caught a taxi to the star ferry which plies the waters between Kowloon and the Island. It’s a short ride, and not very crowded on this Saturday afternoon. The ride in a lift made up for it, though. The last fellow to insinuate himself in could only just lean out of the way of the closing doors. Now that WAS claustrophobic. I keep on wondering how it would be if the lift failed…

That evening we decided to go out for dinner. I’m not a great lover of Chinese food – I hasten to add that there are very many excellent Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong, I just wasn’t in the mood. I love Indian, though, and on the concierge’s recommendation we went to a restaurant tucked away in an arcade in an alley less than 10 minutes from the hotel. We spent a lovely evening there. The menu listed a vast array of dishes, but since the owners were Hindu, not beef. Peter asked the Indian waiter where he came from, which was greeted with a big grin. “I was born here, sir.” Turned out his ancestors had been in the British army stationed in Hong Kong, and had decided to stay. The barman was from Indian, though. He didn’t speak much English, but that was okay. We tried a shot of Indian whisky (better than Johnny Walker IMO) and Pete had Indian beer. I had a glass of house white, which arrived in a bucket (not really – just a very generous serve). The menu included standard combinations, so we picked the ‘Happy Meal’ – tandoori chicken for starters, then lamb tikka marsala served with naan and condiments, sweets and coffee.

We slept well that night. Join me tomorrow for our last day in Hong Kong, pottering around in a different part of the city.

Hong Kong – the cheap seats

The Yuen Yuen Institute with cauldron for burning incense

After our tour of the gallery parts of Hong Kong it was time to take a look at the cheap seats. We signed up for a tour called ‘the land between’ – meaning the parts of the territory between the teeming streets of Kowloon and the border with China. It’s more generally known as the New Territories. We spent the day with three other people, all elderly folk from UK, who had just completed a holiday in Australia. I was the youngest passenger on the bus, and Pete was a pretty distant second-last. The tour guide, Andy, came across as having a chip on his shoulder the size of a tree. Before we reached our first visit stop, we’d learned he worked three jobs – tour guide, pizza delivery guy, and bartender – 6 days a week, 18 hours a day. Even so, he earned around HK$19k a month – which I thought wasn’t too bad, but he seemed to think was a bit off. The Government collects 15% tax, and then he explained he lived in one room, around 140 sq ft, which had a bunk bed, a place to cook noodles, and a recess for washing. For that he paid a fifth of his net income. I forbore to tell him that although apartments in Australia are generally larger, people pay a much greater percentage of their net earnings in rent, as well as a MUCH larger slice of tax. Hong Kong actually has pretty good social security for those in real need, but the Chinese way is always for people to support themselves. At the moment Hong Kong is kind of independent – although, as we know, the Chinese Government keeps a close eye on who is in charge. The territory will maintain its status as a separate entity for fifty years from 1997 – that is, until 2047. After that? Who knows.

First stop on the fringes of the city proper was the Yuen Yuen Institute, a religious complex incorporating the Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist faiths. The place was packed with people practising their faiths, lighting incense and praying.

Offerings for a funeral plane, house, furniture…

Funerals take place here. Mourners buy or bring paper offerings to burn for the dead to use. Items include whole paper houses – complete with servants, cars, and (especially) money. Our guide told us his grandmother, who was obsessed with mah jong, had recently died, and he and his sister had created a paper mah jong set for her as their offering. The temple complex doesn’t have a crematorium – the bodies are taken elsewhere. But people can buy wall niches here where they place the ashes, with a black and white photo of the deceased to mark their place. We were asked not to take pictures of the niches, or of people participating in a funeral. Fair enough. Andy also explained the Chinese zodiac that plays a large part in the temple.

I particularly admired the beautiful koi pond at the temple.

Back in the bus we drove on to Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s tallest mountain, with views back to the city. I was shocked at the murk down there, much more apparent from this distance. Tai Mo Shan is in a park with hiking and cycling trails, and is very popular on weekends and holidays.

Our next stop was the fortified village of Fanling, owned by the Pangs, one of the five clans in the area. The houses are only three stories high, and packed close together. Each house is owned by a Mister Pang, and there are only 99 houses in the village. There is a spill-over zone away from the village – and I think I’d prefer to live there.

The walled village of Fanling. The pool contains fish and tortoises, and you can glimpse a couple of cannon.

The entrance to the village. All the sreets inside are as narrow as this.

Just inside the entrance is a shrine to the ancestors, and a pair of protective warriors

The spill-over area outside Fanling

The rest of the tour was kind of a country drive. We saw the fish farming villages as we drove past, and the smog-enshrouded towers of the nearest Chinese city just over the border, we stopped briefly at Bridal Falls, a permanent waterfall that’s in need of rain.

Bridal Falls. The story goes that a bride was being carried across the top of the falls in a sedan chair. One of her porters slipped, and the porters and bride all fell to their deaths

On the way back to the city we spied a runway in the valley that looked in excellent condition. It was part of a British military base vacated in 1997. These days it belongs to the People’s Liberation Army. Despite Hong Kong’s need for housing, the accommodation buildings are empty. Andy clearly had a poor opinion of the PLA, muttering comments about 1989.

Fish farms on the Hong Kong side, Chinese Shenzhen on the other

We finished our tour in Mong Kok, heart of Kowloon’s shopping district, where we left our fellow tourists and went off shopping. But first, we needed lunch. We found a row of eateries in a narrow, crowded, street – tiny shops with a few tables and chairs. They say eat where the locals eat, and there were plenty of them everywhere. Menus consisted of pictures of the food with a name in Chinese and if you were lucky, in English – very few people here spoke English. We grabbed a table and perused the menu, looking for something familiar like a stir fry, or fried rice. I don’t remember much on the card, but one offering was beef tendons. Well, they do say Chinese food is famine food. Nothing goes to waste. Eventually we picked out the most expensive dish – a three-beef curry. One of the people at another table recognised our inability to make the lady serving us understand we didn’t want any of the colourful beverages on her chart, just Chinese tea, and translated for us. We expected a nice pot with jasmine tea and little china cups like we get in Australia. We got large mugs of very black tea, but it was drinkable.

The food arrived – a large mound of rice on a plate, and the curry in a side dish, all substantial helpings. The curry had potatoes, so that was okay. The beef… some of it look like well-stewed gravy beef. But some was obviously tripe, and the third component I couldn’t even guess. I ate the potato, and the gravy beef, then settled for rice with gravy. Pete did the same. I’m sure the locals thought we were very odd, and I have no doubt added our leavings back to the pot.

Peter was brave enough to use the toilet at this place. He told me the floor was covered with water, which he didn’t understand until he’d finished. The flush was broken, but there was a bucket of water in the ‘courtyard’ to do the job. Hence the wet floor. Fortunately, I wasn’t in need. Even if I was, I think I would have crossed my legs a bit tighter.

That was lunch done. Now to go shopping. But that deserves a post all its own. Join me next time, won’t you? Oh – and if you like my writing style, why not take a look at my books? None of them will set you back for more than the cost of a decent cup of coffee.