Wandering around Amsterdam

The city centre

It’s always nice to be shown around a city by a native. Irene van der Rol and I are distant cousins, having a common ancestor several generations back, but we’d met and corresponded through Facebook. The app does have its uses. I’ve re-connected with a number of people through FB – but that’s another story.

Irene lives in an apartment in South Amsterdam, a neighbourhood known as ‘de Pijp’. We walked there from the hotel, passing through a park and over a bridge. It’s a typical neighbourhood, with three-storey apartment blocks lining the roads. They still have corner shops in these parts. Irene’s local supermarket, run by people of Turkish descent, occupied one corner and a baker (I think) on the other. We had lunch with Irene, sitting out in the lovely little terrace garden she’d created behind her apartment building. We also had dinner with her in a nearby Indian restaurant, one of the best Indian meals I’ve ever had. Amsterdam is a very cosmopolitan place.

Amsterdam school art deco style sculpture

She took us to places in the city that we hadn’t seen before. One such was the Amsterdam School, its buildings constructed in a style of architecture popular in the 1920’s and 30’s. I thought it had similarities to art deco.

The oude kerk

We saw the neighbourhood around the Oude Kerk, where canals had been filled in after the war. There had also been quite a lot of rebuilding, not, apparently, up to the standard of the old city. Before the war many Jews lived in this area of Amsterdam. I mentioned in an earlier post that 5th May is Liberation day, but 4th May is Remembrance Day, when the Dutch commemorate those lost in war. Among those were the one hundred and seven thousand (approx.) Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. That’s around seventy-eight percentage of the Jewish population before the war. The Dutch commemorate that tragedy in many ways. One is the poster on this house, which reads that this was one of the houses where Jews had lived and were taken away. They were all over the city. I don’t think the Dutch will ever forget what happened to the Jews in those years.

Amsterdam has lots of museums. The Rijksmuseum was closed for renovations at the time and we’d been to the Maritime Museum, so we went to the Amsterdam Museum, a gem which shouldn’t be missed. It’s close to the main shopping district, so quite central. Its theme is (wait for it…) Amsterdam. It showcases the history of the city but it includes some wonderful ship models and art. Amsterdam’s Golden Age in the seventeenth century was based on trade, after all. It also has an impressive art gallery, including works by such luminaries as Rembrandt. What I liked about the paintings, though, was they showed the city as it was in the past before everybody had a camera in their pocket.

Rembrandt’s painting of an autopsy

Buildings under construction

A busy harbour scene

Amsterdam’s old city is relatively small. It’s wonderful to wander through the streets, having a look at whatever was around the next corner. Everywhere there are little shops with their goods displayed on the pavement, and we spent an hour or so browsing through a market where you could buy clothes, books, art, food – all sorts. Amsterdam is well known for its laid-back attitude to sex and sex work. We didn’t go to the Red Light district on this visit but you don’t have to go far to see the casual acceptance of sex as part of life. You don’t have to go far to experience the acceptance of cannabis, either. Walk past a coffee shop and you’ll smell it. But both drug sales and the sex industry are strictly controlled to prevent any influx of organised crime, and to ensure safe, healthy conditions for workers.

Narrow streets

A fish shop

Offerings at a market

fresh fruit and veg


High fashion

The Dutch love their flowers

We visited the famous flower markets which operate from barges moored in the Singelgracht. Here you can buy plants and bulbs from everywhere, particularly tulips. I did ask about taking bulbs back to Australia, but the shopkeeper shook his head. Not a chance. The import restrictions for Australia are so stringent it’s not even worth talking about.

A cannabis starter kit to grow your own

Bulbs, corms, seedlings

It’s also a good place to buy souvenirs such as Tee shirts, fridge magnets, heap Delft pottery, off-colour postcards. And, of course, coffee.

All sorts of souvenirs – and a casual acceptance of sex. You wouldn’t see something like this in Australia.

On our last night in Amsterdam we dined with friends from KLM at a French restaurant in the south of the city. The Dutch like to be outdoors whenever possible to the advantage of the good weather when it happens. Many restaurants offer tables outside on the pavement. It was a great meal – good food, good company.

Tomorrow we would be off to Copenhagen.

A few days in Amsterdam

We arrived at Schiphol around eleven in the morning and caught a taxi to our hotel. Banks Mansion is a boutique hotel on the edge of the Herrengracht in central Amsterdam. The usual check in time for hotels is 2pm, which is always a pain when you’ve just been en route for well over a day. The reception staff were great – friendly and welcoming. Yes, the room was ready. If we’d like to come this way?

As you might have guessed, the building used to be a bank converted into a bed and breakfast hotel. The room was comfortable, furnished in a style to suit the building, with an added en suite bathroom. And then there were the extras. There were decanters of liquor in the room and a mini-bar, all included with the tariff.

The breakfast buffet

A la carte

Breakfast was also included, of course. But what a breakfast. Each morning we went down into the cellar which was set up as a dining room. The Dutch tend to eat bread, cold meat, and cheese for breakfast, and they were there in abundance, taking me straight back to my childhood, remembering small goods I hadn’t tasted for years. Cereals, porridge, fruit toast, juices and the like were all on offer, laid out like a country kitchen. And there was also a chef, Portugese or Chilean if I remember right. He would cook bacon and eggs how you like them, and omelettes to your taste.

Every evening the hotel had a ‘happy hour’ in the lounge room opposite the reception desk. Guests could imbibe wine, beer, or spirits and nibble on a selection of finger food, all part of the deal. But guests had to venture elsewhere for lunch and dinner. Pete and I didn’t venture far on our first evening. It happened to be Liberation Day, when the Dutch commemorate the arrival of Canadian troops into Amsterdam on 5th May, 1945. It’s a festive day with celebrations throughout the city. Although we heard sounds from outside, we were too tired and jet-lagged to even go and look. We found a nearby Italian restaurant, ate early and went back to the hotel to bed.


Amsterdam is one the world’s most picturesque cities. The water in the arch of canals provide light and reflections on even the dullest day. The seventeenth century buildings, the water, and trees create a play of light and reflections that is a photographer’s dream.

Reflections in still water

Architecture, people, bikes, bridges

The Oude Kerk tower, boats, cars, bikes

Those boats are houseboats, permenently moored

Boats and people everywhere

The Dutch love their water. You’ll see them everywhere, taking advantage of any glimpse of sun to go out boating on the canals. The rest ride their bikes, finger ready on the bell to warn off errant tourists. Bikes have right of way and you’d better not forget it.

Abandoned some time ago

Years ago, the first time Pete had been to Amsterdam, we were met at sparrowfart at the airport by a colleague from KLM. He took us for a walk around the canals. Pete gazed around, wide-eyed, as Gerton explained it was all fresh water, and the canals were ‘flushed’ every day into the Amstel River, which flows to the sea. There used to be hundreds of breweries in Amsterdam, all drawing water from the canals.

Pete asked, “How deep are the canals?”

“Three metres,” Gerton answered. “One metre of mud, one metre of bikes, and the rest water.”

Note that solid lock on the first bike

And it’s true that bikes end up in the canals. And the occasional car. And in the past, horses. In Australia, the powers-that-be would have insisted on fencing, but the best you’ll see is nudge bars to stop your car rolling into the water. As well as ending up in the canals, bikes are often abandoned, and also stolen. People grab a bike from the many bike parks, such as the one at Central Station, ride it somewhere and leave it. Nobody wears a helmet, but they do carry bike locks.

There’s nothing better than taking a tour on one of the many tourist boats that take visitors around the waterways, but we’d done that a couple of times before, so we strolled along beside the Herrengracht and had a look around. The Rembrandtsplein was not far away. It’s a garden square with a statue of Rembrandt and a group of bronze statues crafted from the figures in the famous painting, The Night Watch. We’d taken photos there before. This time, though, the rhododendrons were gone, as were the Night Watch statues. The square looked like a wasteland. So disappointing. It has been renovated since then, I’m glad to say, but back then, it wasn’t a pretty sight.

In the afternoon we met a distant relative of mine. I’ll cover that next time.


Around the world in a bit less than a month

Around the world in a bit less than a month


Last week I re-created a blog post that I inadvertently deleted, one part of our 2013 Australian walkabout when we drove around the continent in about a month. That meant checking the website to see if I’d mislaid the item and one thing led to another, as these things do, and I found I’d deleted quite a lot of posts. I’ve moved my website a few times over the years, so I’ve ‘tidied up’. But really, sometimes that’s not a great idea. I’ve blogged about my travels for a long time now, going back to 2010. But since nobody had opened any of those posts for a number of years, I deleted them.

The reasoning is sound except for one rather large detail – essentially, I’d written them for us – Pete and me. They were memories of a journey for which the photos are illustrations. More than once I’ve read back through my travel posts, reliving the trips we’d done. Pete noticed the missing segment in the 2013 walkabout story because he was reading them, looking for a detail which should have been on that missing page. I’d started my ‘Travel’ page in 2013, a place where I’ve grouped posts into collections about individual trips. But anything earlier than 2013 was gone.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Now in July 2019, I’m going to re-create some of those journeys as best I can, starting with Around the World in a bit less than a month, which we did in May, 2011. We planned to fly to Amsterdam, where we would spend four nights. Then we’d fly to Copenhagen and join the Norwegian Sun for a nine-day Baltic cruise, returning to Copenhagen. After two nights in Copenhagen we’d fly to New York for three nights. We’d catch a train to Washington and spend four nights there before flying across the country to San Francisco for three nights. From there, we were headed home via Los Angeles. Trains ‘n boats ‘n planes.

The journey begins

We flew Singapore Airlines to Singapore, relaxed in the lounge at Changi airport, then flew Lufthansa to Frankfurt, where we’d catch a flight to Amsterdam. Long distance travel has its ups and downs, and this one was no exception. Singapore Airlines is one of the world’s best, with great beds (we flew business class), good food, and good entertainment. Lufthansa’s business class wasn’t in the same class but it was better than being down the back.

Frankfurt airport has been upgraded since that flight and it sure needed it. The young man at immigration welcomed us to Europe and we passed through to find some coffee and kill several hours before our flight to Amsterdam. Where was the airport lounge? We eventually found somebody to ask and discovered that the lounges were in the International section, and we were now in Domestic. “But… but we’re going to Amsterdam. In the Netherlands. International.”

The woman refrained from rolling her eyes and explained, “Yes, but that’s part of the European Union, so you fly domestic.” She pointed at a closed-off area. “The cafeteria will be open soon. You can get coffee there.”

I would have thought a huge international airport like Frankfurt would have eating facilities open 24-7. But no. We kicked our heels until the place finally opened so we could grab a coffee.

From there it was off to the gates, via the security checks. The buzzer went off as I went through the scanner so I was called to once side. I know they’re just doing a job but I knew the only metal on my person were the underwires in my bra, a point I made to the security lady. At least she was pleasant. She asked me where I’d come from and when I said Australia, she sympathised. “That’s a long flight,” she said as she patted me down. Meanwhile, I noticed somebody apparently taking Pete off somewhere. I collected my carry-on bags and looked around for him. One of the security guards glared at me as if I was standing around in a suspicious way and I (probably foolishly) glared right back. No Pete. I gazed around, wondering wht to do next. I didn’t have a plan B. I was starting to get a bit panicky when he appeared from somewhere muttering about officious krauts, and we went on through to join everybody else in a crowded holding area. At Frankfurt many domestic flights use hard stands, parking bays away from the terminal where passengers access the aircraft via stairs. Buses take people to and from the plane. Eventually, a bus arrived for us and we all packed on for the short trip. Manners weren’t in the mix. Barge on, first in, best dressed. I didn’t get a seat. I was going to be really, really glad when we finally arrived in Amsterdam.

It was still only mid-morning local time when the flight took off for the short hop to Schiphol. I chucked my stuff in the overhead locker and tucked in to morning tea delivered by a pleasant middle-aged German gentleman, then stared out the window.

I wrote this back in 2010, one of the few pieces I kept, describing the flight from Frankfurt to Amsterdam.

The 737 thrusts up from the runway into an unmistakable atmospheric inversion. I look out the window onto a slightly blurred landscape, as if some entity had cast a gauzy grey veil across an alien landscape of low, green-forested hills interspersed with towns and villages, collections of little boxes set amongst the flowing lines and curves of nature. My camera is up there, in the overhead locker inside my carry-on bag. Should I take pictures? Nah. I’m tired, still grumpy about the crummy airport and facilities at Frankfurt. But I can’t stop looking. Steam rises into the turgid atmosphere, spewing from the flowerpot-shaped stacks of four, five, six… good grief, how many power stations all across this verdant land. Interspersed between them, in discreet groups on the tops of the hills, tall white wind towers stand, their massive sails barely moving.

I realise we’ve crossed into Holland when my brain finally registers the countryside has changed. Down there beneath the woolly clouds the land has taken on the appearance of a patchwork quilt in brown and green and gold. So different from the channel country in the heart of Australia, where rows of petrified sand hills march across the land like so many frozen waves. Do I need the camera? … Nah.

The plane turns and begins to descend into Schiphol. The patchwork quilt of fields changes again, each piece becoming long and narrow, edged with glittering channels of water. Water, more water everywhere. Barges drift along a lazy river threading through the landscape. And what’s that? I peer down at a shifting shape leaping along below, hazy, elusive, blending with the shadows, hiding under the clouds. The plane loses height and speed. So does the shape. The haziness resolves and hardens. It is the shadow of the 737 in which I sit, thousands of metres above. I notice the pools and lakes that seem to erupt into crinkled silver paper glitter as the sunlight hits them. And still the shape paces with us, sailing over water, leaping over roads, galloping dark and gleeful over the white roofs of massed greenhouses, only to disappear briefly into the shadow of a drifting cloud.

Camera? No. It won’t last. The plane will turn and it will be all over.

Down, further down. Our shadow matches every move. Damn and blast, it’s perfect; there’s the tail, the foreshortened wings. The shadow disappears into the detail for a moment and reappears. By now the plane is dropping down to the runway. The cultivated fields are replaced by a wide expanse of grass edging the asphalt and the shadow paces with us, perfect, sharp edged and dark until it merges with our wheels

I sigh. The camera’s up there, in the overhead locker.

We’re finally in Amsterdam, city of my birth. Next time, I’ll tell you all about it.


One-arm Point to Broome – the rough way home

Our transport back to Broome

NOTE: No, this isn’t recent. We did this trip in 2013, but the original post for this part of the journey has disappeared. Probably the scatty old bag that writes this stuff deleted it. It’s so hard to get reliable help these days. So the post will be slotted into the journey from the Travel Page. To see the whole trip, look at 2013 Australian walkabout. This post comes in after the one on Horizontal Falls.

Having flown over the Dampier Archipelago from Talbot Bay, our seaplane landed at the airstrip at the aboriginal community at One-Arm Point. There, we would board a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the trip back to Broome. It’s a long day – we wouldn’t be back until well after dark, driving over corrugated sand tracks most of the way.

Before we set off, we visited the Adyaloon Hatchery where the local Bardi people raise trochus shells and tropical fish species. The shells, prized for making buttons and jewellery, are threatened from over-fishing in the wild. Our local guide explained how the fish were raised and pointed out stone fish, angel fish, clown fish, and others.

Clown fish at the fish farm

From there we were taken to a beach at Cape Leveque to admire the scenery. White sand, deep red cliffs, and turquoise water, a riot of colour. No Photoshop needed. The ground’s full of iron oxide.

The colours are real, folks

We stopped for lunch at the Bardi people’s Kooljaman eco resort. As an aside, it’s great to see the local indigenous people taking control of their own assets and their own destiny. Lunch was simply unforgettable. We were served the best, most succulent, most delicious barramundi I have ever tasted.

Interior of the shell church

Then it was back on the bumpy track again. It’s not a comfortable journey but you get to see the REAL Kimberley up close and personal instead of from the air. Our next brief stop was at Beagle Bay’s beautiful shell church. I was busy taking pictures of corellas sky-larking in a gum tree, so I didn’t take many photos of the church. It’s a beautiful building (pictures here) and you can see from the interior that mother-of-pearl was lovingly used for decoration.

Corellas sky-larking

We got back to our hotel tired but happy. It had been a truly awesome day.

Camels on Cable Beach

Before we headed south again, we spent a final day in Broome and, of course, checked out the sunset (drink in hand) at Cable Beach. The camel ride along the beach is a famous attraction but my allergies make such an experience a bit iffy. No camel wants a rider sneezing her face off every few seconds. But here’s a photo of the tourists on the camels with the line-up of cars on the beach. I’m sure all the vehicles would have dampened the experience a little, nothing like the tourist brochures of empty beaches and long shadows against the sunset sky.

To be honest we found Broome to be a bit disappointing. I had memories of the town from the mid-seventies when it was a pearling village with a very mixed population. What’s left of Chinatown is now swallowed up in the usual plethora of supermarkets and fast food shops. We won’t be in a hurry to go back there. But I did buy a nice, good-quality Tee shirt made in Australia.

The solstice is here.

Today, 22nd June 2019, is this year’s winter solstice here in the Southern Hemisphere. Our part of the Earth started moving North, back toward the Sun at 1:54am. In the UK, Europe, and the USA and Canada, it’s midsummer. The druids are arriving at Salisbury to watch the sun rise over the heel stone at Stonehenge and parties are gearing up everywhere. All these things are such a big deal in the North. The winter solstice is an even bigger deal, since it coincides with the blessed return of the sun. And Christmas, but that’s a later addition.

It’s not like that here in Australia. We celebrate the summer solstice because we have inherited the European traditions of Christmas but I’d bet that many Australians aren’t aware of the solstice, which is a few days before the 25th December. They just know it’s Summer holidays. Yay! The beach, presents, cricket!

Winter at Hervey Bay

Pelicans and people enjoying Winter at Hervey Bay

The winter solstice is even less of an event. But then, here in Hervey Bay sunrise was at 6:33, and sunset will be 17:07, giving us around ten and a half hours of daylight. That’s only three hours and nine minutes less than midsummer, so it’s not such a big deal. In comparison, London in midsummer gets sixteen hours and thirty-eight minutes of daylight. In winter, sunrise is at just after 8am, and sunset just before 4pm, around eight hours of daylight. And it’s usually cold and miserable all day. During June in Hervey Bay the maximum temperatures are usually in the low twenties – not a bad summer’s day in England.

Whatever the temperatures, going back not even one hundred years people needed to be interested in the change of the seasons. They needed to know when to plant crops, when particular food sources appeared, the patterns of animal behaviour and so on. All of them were astronomers, keeping an eye on the progression of the stars. And Australia has its own ‘Stonehenge’. Scientists have been investigating Wurdi Youang, large basalt rocks arranged in an egg shape, which can be used to observe the Summer and Winter solstices. The site could be as much as ten thousand years old, pre-dating Stonehenge. Here’s the story.

I remember the first time I went to Europe, to London and Amsterdam. It was November and especially coming from the bright, warm weatherof an Australian late Spring, arriving in the last throes of autumn was taxing. For a start it was cold, or, to put it another way, fucking freezing. Four degrees max? You’ve gotta be kidding me. For another, the sunlight was insipid when it was there, and it wasn’t there for long. The shadows were already lengthening at around 3pm and the sun was gone well before 5pm. After that was a long-drawn-out twilight. All that played havoc with my body clock. Twilight lasts for about five minutes in Australia. The sun goes down and that’s it, folks. Darkness is waiting in the wings to take the sun’s place.

So, although everywhere in the world gets a (roughly) twenty-four-hour day, and experiences two solstices and two equinoxes per annum, the experience isn’t the same everywhere. For those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, have a wonderful midsummer celebration. We in the South will shrug our shoulders and carry on.



The evolution of a swinging voter

1969 – student activist days Yes, that’s me. And for what it’s worth, the man behind me was a draft resistor.

I found an interesting article in the news the other day, talking about what appears to determine which party we vote for. The first words in the article are: ‘Many have tried guessing who first uttered this saying: “If you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 35, you have no brain”.’ That’s an age-based suggestion, that we change our voting patterns to become more conservative as we grow older. Maybe it’s a generational thing. The article is worth a read. Here’s the link.

I thought about how the way I vote has changed – because it has. In fact, I’ve thought about it a few times lately. I think there are a number of factors. Let’s start with social background.

I grew up in a working-class family. Of course my parents voted Labor, and so did I.

The Labor party was on our side, interested in the welfare of people like us, all about jobs and decent social services, health and education. Back when I was old enough to know anything about politics Robert Menzies, stalwart of the conservative establishment, finally retired in 1966 as the longest serving PM in Australia’s history. After him, in rapid succession, we had Harold Holt, who disappeared in the surf, then John McEwen who was deputy PM and had the top job for a few weeks until the Libs chose a new leader. That was John Gorton, who was eventually replaced by Billy McMahon, who faced the 1972 general election against a revitalised Labor party led by Gough Whitlam. In that tumultuous six years Harold Holt and John Gorton both won elections but the Prime Minister’s office had the same sort of revolving door we’ve seen in the years since 2007.

I went to university in the late sixties in the middle of the period of student activism all over the world. In Perth we protested against the French nuclear testing ground at Moruroa in the South Pacific. I attended marches against the war in Vietnam and against the conscription introduced in Australia at that time to provide troops for that conflict. Not everyone was called up. They called it a ‘birthday ballot‘, an event like a lottery draw that was shown on TV. Dates of birth were drawn and if your 20th birthday fell on one of those dates – you’re in the army, kid. If I’d been male, I would have been conscripted. It’s not a nice feeling.

So, it would be fair to say that, like many of my university mates, my political predilections were definitely socialist. When tall, eloquent, and charismatic Gough Whitlam finally replaced Arthur (Cocky) Callwell, bringing the Labor party into the post-war world, we were all delighted. Who could forget Gough’s famous ‘It’s Time’ election campaign? Up against a Liberal party in complete disarray with weak leadership and unpopular policies, Gough was a shoe-in. Labour won in a landslide. And he did some great things. Conscription was suspended, he introduced a new, free public health scheme known as Medicare, and he abolished university fees, among other things. Looking back, it’s remarkable how quickly the wheels fell off. Soon, the country was in debt to pay for the Government’s largesse. Gough forced an election to maintain his mandate – and was only just returned to power. It all ended in November 1975 when the Governor General dismissed the Government and forced a new general election. Gough’s brave new world had lasted about three years.

That unprecedented election was the first time I voted non-Labor and I found it difficult, hesitating with the pencil in my hand, reminding myself that Australia couldn’t go on like this.

Malcolm Fraser swept to power and immediately introduced austerity measures to pay for the debt. This was a difficult time for the country. There were many strikes, jobs were hard to find. It was almost like a class war, the workers versus the big end of town. It couldn’t go on.

Enter Bob Hawke, president of the ACTU and respected across the country. He’d been in parliament for about three years when he was elected leader of the Labor party. At the next election, he won handsomely and of course I voted for Labor. The first thing he did was negotiate an accord with the union movement – something he was uniquely positioned to do. Bob and his treasurer, Paul Keating, understood that workers won’t have jobs if business is not encouraged. The strikes stopped. The one exception was the airline pilots’ strike. Bob refused to cave to their demands and found other ways of keeping planes flying. He also de-registered the Builder’s Labourers Federation (BLF), one of the most militant unions. Everybody knew he meant business.

But he was always a pragmatist. While Medicare was retained, the Government introduced a special levy to pay for health services, and eventually university course fees returned. The pie-in-the-sky notion that abolishing fees would increase the number of able students who could attend university proved untenable. When I went to uni (on a scholarship) a very small percentage of working-class kids attended, let alone passed a course. Numbers passing a course didn’t change much when fees were abolished. There’s much more to success at university than paying course fees. But free courses were not sustainable.  Hawke and Keating introduced the Higher Education Contributions Scheme (HECS) which was effectively a student loan.

Meanwhile, we went through the ‘recession Australia had to have’ as Paul Keating famously explained. He took over as PM and while he won one election, lost the second to John Howard, who had been in and out of the Liberal party’s leadership job several times. I never liked Howard much but there’s no doubt he presided over a period of peace and stability, all the while clawing back the national debt so that for the first time in an age, Australia’s books were balanced and we had a surplus.

John Howard became the second-longest serving PM, eclipsing Bob Hawke’s run. During that time Kevin Rudd had become leader of the opposition and Australia had started to think it was time for new blood in the Lodge.

I thought Rudd would be okay. That was silly, wasn’t it?

Kevin 07 (he was elected in 2007) had obviously been watching what Hawke had done. He tried his own grandiose vision of an accord, inviting people from all walks of life to an elaborate talk fest that cost a heap of money and achieved nothing. He and one of his ministers ‘designed’ a national broadband network (NBN) on the back of a coaster in an aeroplane and decreed that the NBN would be built, so subsequent Governments were stuck with it. It was hardly a surprise that the estimated costs rose exponentially while at the same time the original approach – fibre optics to every household – was quickly eroded to a solution we could actually afford.

Then the global financial crisis happened. Australia was actually in a very strong position in comparison to other countries and we came through the GFC relatively unscathed. But the Labor party panicked and put in its own hare-brained ideas, like the $900 paid to most people to stimulate the economy. But you only got the money if you put in a tax return that year, so pensioners missed out. I’ll admit to being a cynic. I reckon the money would have been spent on the mortgage, or maybe on a big telly, which would benefit China.

Labor introduced other initiatives, like the ‘pink batts scheme’. Pink batts are glass wool material put into roof spaces to help insulate houses. It was supposed to help reduce power bills. The proposal was rushed through without proper controls and four young men died while installing the stuff. And there was a school buildings fund, where the Government paid grossly inflated prices for a school hall or a library. (Somehow, if buildings are publicly funded the cost seems to go up. Rather a lot.) Apart from that, though, while some schools received welcome additions, halls were built for schools about to be closed and libraries were built with no provision for books – just to name a couple of examples.

In short, they were all knee-jerk, reactionary activities designed to look like the Government was doing something. There was no proper planning, no cost/benefit analysis and certainly in the case of the pink batts scheme, cautionary advice from experts was completely ignored. The surplus nest egg that Howard and Costello had left behind when the Government changed hands was frittered away and the country was up to its eyeballs in debt.

Mister Rudd was very soon on the nose with the electorate. Seeing this, the men who ran the Labor party factions decided it was time for Rudd to go, replaced by Australia’s first female PM, Julia Gillard. No, I wasn’t impressed, even when she won a closely-fought election. She had been responsible for the school buildings fiasco and her famous quote was, “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.” Hamstrung with a minority government, Gillard soon became almost as unpopular as Rudd had been. But things were looking bad for Labor with an election looming. The boys running the factions decided that maybe they should have kept Rudd. It seemed the voters were not impressed with ‘faceless men’ getting rid of a sitting PM. Gillard would have to go. The same men who ‘executed’ Rudd now engineered Gillard’s downfall and the return of Rudd.

That episode might be seen to have set the tone of Australian politics but that’s not actually true. Go back to the late sixties when Menzies stepped down and note the turnstile in the PM’s office. Be that as it may, the Australian public had had enough and Labor lost the election. In fact, the Austrlian public had had about enough of both major parties. Quite a few turned to the smaller parties and independents, a trend which would prove costly.

In retrospect, the Liberals weren’t yet ready to return to government. The party was still in disarray after the departure of Howard, Costello, and a few of the stalwarts. Tony Abbott had been great in opposition but turned out to be not the greatest PM. For me, his most cringe-worthy moment was when he made a “captain’s call” to reinstate knighthoods in Australia and handed one of the first to Prince Phillip! Yes, that one, who’s married to Queen Elizabeth.  Abbott was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, a move I heartily endorsed.

I had high hopes for Turnbull but he ended up being a disappointment.

After poncing about at the helm for some time, Turnbull called a double dissolution, where all the seats in the Senate and the House of Reps are declared vacant [1]. The issue causing the spill was the refusal of the Senate to pass legislation to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission to oversee construction contracts in Australia. This move was the result of a Royal Commission into the thuggish behaviour of trade unions, particularly in the building sector. The BLF hadn’t really gone away, its members had just become part of the enormous Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). There had also been a number of instances highlighting corruption within the union hierarchies, with union officials rorting their members. But during the whole election campaign Turnbull never referenced the findings of the royal commission, never asked Labor the hard questions about union behaviour in the workplace. He won the election – just. But once again, the PM had lost the respect of the people. As Turnbull’s popularity slumped and the next election loomed, it was inevitable that there would be yet another internal coup.

To his surprise, I suspect, Scott Morrison got the mantle as PM. The next election was months away, and most people in Australia, including me, thought Labor would win easily. No, that notion did not please me. The Labor leader, Bill Shorten, had been one of the faction bosses who deposed Rudd, then deposed Gillard. There were a few other factors relating to his union activities that led me to distrust the man. I also had little faith in the party’s sitting members. It seemed hardly any of them had ever had a real job. They went from university to working for the unions and then into parliament. The union movement had been bleeding membership for years. In quite a few cases union organisers had proved to be corrupt, fleecing members for their own benefit.In contrast to the Hawke Accord days, the president of the ACTU, Sally McManus, declared it was okay to break ‘unjust’ industrial laws. [2] I felt the unions had far too much power in the political party.

I didn’t much like the idea of Shifty Shorten and his Union thugs running the country.

As the election approached, Labor, cock-sure of itself, made some stupid, arrogant errors. In response to concerns from shareholders (many of them pensioners) about the removal of franking credits [3], Chris Bowen, the opposition treasury spokesman, declared, ‘if you don’t like it, don’t vote for us’. Shorten was asked about the economic impact of his proposed climate change initiatives, such as ensuring half the cars sold in Australia by 2030 would be electric. He couldn’t answer. Shades of Labor past, yet another Great Idea with no analysis of the impact.

It seems to me that Labor has lost the plot. The party used to be about low-income workers, jobs, and security. I understand their concerns about climate change. It’s a huge concern in the community. The party’s current policy of shutting down coal-fired power stations (while still selling the stuff to China and India) has already driven up power prices, deterring business investment and sending businesses overseas. The state of South Australia is an object lesson in how well those policies work. Those that suffer are always the poor. Pensioners, single income families, people earning minimum wages, small businesses trying to make a go of it, farmers. And for what? Uncosted fairyland schemes which will do nothing to change the climate. Sure, encourage renewable energy. Start with maybe changing the building code so that all new buildings MUST have solar panels and solar hot water systems. What about legislation to phase out plastic made from oil, replacing it with biodegradables? Put electric car recharging stations in the big cities by all means. Set up targets that can be achieved over time. But just right now, when the Government has once again clawed back some of Labor’s national debt, we can’t afford to splash out on hypotheticals. One of the biggest mistakes Shorten made, to my mind, was summoning the ghost of Gough Whitlam in his appeal to the Australian people. He was channelling “it’s time” – but people like me were channelling Gough’s disastrous three years in office. No thanks, been there, done that.

So you see, I’ve changed the way I vote because of history. I remember Gough’s excesses, Hawke’s pragmatic brilliance, Howard’s stewardship, Rudd’s spendthrift egomania. Morrison strikes me as a decent, ordinary family man who genuinely wants to make a difference. I can’t say the same about Malcolm Turnbull, or Kevin Rudd – or Bill Shorten. They just wanted the crown.

I voted for Scott Morrison to give him a chance to steady the ship of state and do something to help the battlers who are already doing it tough. If a Labor leader comes along who can actually create something like Hawke’s Accord, I might shift my position. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

If you’re still here, thanks for reading. These are my thoughts, my opinions and I know not everybody will agree with me. That’s okay. I believe in freedom of speech.

Here, have a picture of a kitten.


A New Zealand gallery

Here we are back at a Saturday post, still coughing a little. A few thoughts have crossed my mind since we came back from holidays but I don’t think anybody wants to talk about Australian politics, so I won’t.

I’m delighted to hear that Ash Barty has made it to the French Open women’s final. I’m not much of a tennis fan but it’s so great to see an Australian player with poise and style – unlike those idiots Kyrgios and Tomich. They’re an embarrassment.

In other news I’ve watched the excellent screen adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s wonderful book, Good Omens. I wrote a review over at Spacefreighter’s. But in brief, don’t miss it.

And as a last hurrah for our recent New Zealand trip, I’ve selected a few of my favourite pictures and put them into a gallery so you can get a better look at them. Just click on a photo and scroll through the images.



One last day

Today would be our last in New Zealand. We opened the curtains for our final look at Mt Cook before we went down to breakfast. It wasn’t there. The weather in the mountains can be fickle, indeed.

Yesterday afternoon

This morning

On our way to the dining room we passed those members of our group who’d been hoping to fly over the mountains, waiting in a lounge with Dave. They knew it wasn’t going to happen – but hope springs eternal, mist does burn off, and Dave hadn’t been told the flight had been cancelled. But it wasn’t just mist and the cancellation was duly called. Weather was rolling in from the Tasman Sea. We could see it from the coach as Dave drove along the edge of Lake Pukaki.

A fringe of dawn under the cloud

Sun’s up

We were on our way to Lake Tepako, a beautiful turquoise lake with gorgeous views of the mountains. We weren’t the only ones there. Several coaches were also stopped, so I didn’t even try to get into the little stone church built on the edges of the lake. If you’d like to see the Church of the Good Shepherd, a tribute to the Scottish shepherds who opened up the area, here’s the link. There’s also a bronze statue, erected to recognize the sheepdogs who worked here with their people. As we’d seen at Walter Peak station (and plenty of places in Australia), working dogs are indispensable in these areas. Again, I found it nigh on impossible to get a decent photo of the statue without including posing tourists, so here’s a link.

But I did get some nice landscapes.

George admiring the view

Lake Tepako has a couple of other interesting features. For a start, it has an electric car refuelling station. They’re not rare in Europe and there must be some in Australian cities, but we don’t have one where we live.

And the other high-tech attraction was the toilet. I didn’t really need to go but I had to try it. It talks to you. You go in, it tells you to press the button to lock the door. Music starts to play. You have ten minutes to leave, at which time it flushes water over the floor. (Self-cleaning, see.) Everything else is done with touch sensors. You put your hands into a slot to get soap, then elsewhere for water (which is when the toilet flushes) then another slot to dry your hands. Then you press the button to open the door.

Wow. I’ve seen fancy auto-toilets before, notably one in some outback town in WA, which had been (of course) wrecked by bored locals. But it wasn’t as flash as this one. Only problem is, it wasn’t multi-lingual and it didn’t have a sign showing you how to sit on the toilet.

From Lake Tepako we headed off through the lovely countryside on our way to Christchurch. I love that layered look on the hills. And the sheep, cattle, and deer.

We stopped for lunch at a little town called Geraldine where they make berry liqueurs and fine cheese. We took a look at the Saturday markets, then it was off for the last run into Christchurch, where once again we would be staying at The George. Dave took everyone but us for a city tour in the bus. I’d done a city tour last year, with friends who have lived in the city for years, as well as walking around, getting a feel for the place. I wrote about that here, the remains of a ruined city.

A fond farewell from George – and a photobomb from Dave

We had out last group dinner, which was once again excellent. Pete and I retired early. We were getting our wake-up call at 4:15 for our flight back to Brisbane. A nice young lady picked us up and drove us the airport in plenty of time for our 6:45 flight.

In summary, it was a great trip. This coach tour is a bit like a degustation dinner, small bites of what’s available on the South Island. I felt it was aimed at the older demographic who might have done the campervan thing years ago but wanted a bit more comfort now. Indeed, of our group I’d say three-quarters were in the 65-75 age group. Dave, our driver and tour director, was friendly and efficient. We always knew what was happening next, and where we were expected to be. The accommodation was excellent, with of course a slightly different standard outside the cities. But each place was comfortable and clean. The food was awesome, except for the one evening in Queenstown – and that was not a group dinner. The weather vagaries were sometimes disappointing but weather doesn’t care and Grand Pacific Tours did give us a discount because this was the last tour for the season. I would recommend this tour to anybody.

I’d like to finish with a fascinating article I found in my research about the Southern Alps and the Alpine fault. It’s a description of a possible (probable) disaster that would impact all the places we visited on our trip, and then the author explains the background, the geology, why a town like Franz Josef was built on a fault line. New Zealand is a geologically busy little place where Gaia will most certainly mess with the hubris of humanity. Magnitude 8.2 The disaster scenario on New Zealand’s most dangerous fault. Well worth a read.

Bear in mind that’s just one interaction of a couple of tectonic plates. Then we can consider the San Andreas Fault, or the super volcano simmering gently underneath Yosemite. Or vesuvius, sitting over Naples, or any of the ring of volcanoes on the Pacific Ring of Fire.

I think we humans get so obsessed with ourselves and our role on Earth that we forget that the planet is a living, breathing entity, built with moving, shifting pieces. For us, 100 years is a lifteime; for Gaia, it’s a nanosecond. Sure, we can kill off animals, drop garbage all over the world from the highest points of the planet to the deepest depths of the ocean, but Gaia will survive. I found this cartoon on Facebook. It says it all, really.

In which we join a select group

After a very pleasant high tea at Castle Larnach we set off back towards the mountains for our penultimate stop – Mt Cook Aoraki. The weather continued to remain bright and beautiful and I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one with my fingers crossed.

We drove along the coast, looking over the cold waters of the Pacific. I think we Aussies tend to forget that New Zealand is quite a bit farther south than Australia. For example, Hobart is at latitude 43°, while Dunedin is at 46°. So yeah. Cold. We stopped for lunch at Oamaru, which has reinvented itself as New Zealand’s steampunk capital. Steampunk is a niche of science fiction set in an alternative world where all your scifi gadgets have a Victorian cast and run on steam. The movie League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the book/movie The Golden Compass both fit under that definition. Oamaru holds a steampunk festival every year.

Oamaru’s steampunk museum, Note dirigible and train with drill fitting

Toe toe

Those plants that look a lot like pampas grass are actually NZ natives known as toe toe. It’s a giant tussock grass and has the sharp leaves of pampas.

Once again, we were driving through the verdant Canterbury Plains with the mountains like a beacon in the distance. We stopped at Omarama and had a wander around while Dave went to pick up ‘anti-push juice’ for the coach. I noticed a couple of birds using a puddle for a bath and couldn’t not take a picture.

The town of Omarama

As we drove steadily closer to Mt Cook, Dave became positively optimistic about our chances of actually seeing the mountain.  He told us more than once that of those people who venture to Mt Cook, only 22% get to actually see it. We may well be in that number. To make absolutely certain, he detoured to the shores of Lake Pukaki. From that vantage point Mt Cook was clearly visible, the highest peak at the head of the lake. Although it’s the highest mountain in Australasia, it’s only about half the height of Mt Everest. More facts about Mt Cook. The world famous mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary (a Kiwi) trained for his ascent of Everest here and there’s a museum. What this mountain doesn’t have, since it’s less that 8,000 metres, is the ‘death zone’ that is killing climbers on Everest. These things interest me. Here’s the story.

Mt Cook’s the highest mountain in the middle

I have seen Mt Cook in all its glory.

We’d joined the 22% who actually got to see the mountain!!! Woohoo!!!

From there, we drove the remaining distance to our last hotel. Dave rang ahead to see if those of our number who were intent on flying would be able to get their flight in this afternoon. The news wasn’t good. Despite the continuing fine weather, the forecast was for deteriorating conditions and there would be no flying this afternoon. Still, he booked everyone in for the following morning, just in case.

As we drove on, I tried to catch some of the views of the mountain peaks in the fading light.

The Hermitage Hotel slots into its national park environment rather than standing out like a sore thumb. Every one of our rooms had a view of Mt Cook so of course, realising the view might disappear soon, I took a picture.

But not before our little drama.

When we entered our room we heard a buzzing noise, coming from… somewhere. We both looked everywhere but couldn’t work it out. I wondered if I’d activated a hidden alarm or something. Our bags had just been delivered so I went out to ask the staff. “Oh the buzzing noise?” said the nice young man. “We noticed that, too. It’s coming from your suitcase.” He didn’t seem at all perturbed.

It was Peter’s electric toothbrush. It had been switched on some time since the last stop. Even so, it could have been a bomb. Couldn’t it?

Hotels like this are about the scenery and the adventure activities – hiking, kayaking, skiing, helicopter and plane flights. As a consequence, I wasn’t expecting much for dinner and I was pleasantly surprised. It was a self-serve buffet in a large dining room. While it wasn’t as good as the Walter Peak station spread in Queenstown, there was plenty of variety to suit all tastes. My only complaint was the bar area, where as usual, we assembled for pre-dinner drinks. The seating was chosen for a much younger demographic than us with benches that look good but offer no support, and poufs that don’t even pretend to offer support. As Joe pointed out, if he was running the place, he’d make sure the seating was comfortable to encourage people to stay and spend their money. Here’s to you, Joe.

Tomorrow we’d be making our way back to Christchurch via (this is for you, Jeff) Lake Tepako.


Dunedin, Edinburgh of the South

Bit of excitement of the day was that the Platinum coach, having served us well, was sent off back to Auckland so we got to sit in our shiny new Ultimate coach.

George getting comfy

The trip from Te Anau to Dunedin took us over the Canterbury plains and New Zealand’s rich pastoral country. As with so much of this trip, the weather was cold and drizzly and I didn’t bother with photos. It’s not a long drive, with a brief stop for coffee somewhere, and we arrived in Dunedin around lunch time.

Dunedin is a pretty little town where you’re either going up or you’re coming down. Dave took us on a short city orientation tour, slowing down to pass the Guinness Book of Records steepest street in the world (Baldwin St). He wasn’t able to stop because the locals had become a bit tired of entitled tourists wandering around their gardens, including using them for toilet breaks.

From Wikipedia

Apparently when the Scottish immigrants decided to set up shop here, the street layout was designed in London with no consideration for the topography. Otherwise they might have considered an arrangement like Lombard Street in San Francisco, which has a series of switch backs.

Dave also took us for a brief stop at the railway station. As is so often the case, the main building was quite ornate with lovely tiled walls and floors.

The afternoon was to be spent at leisure, or we could go on one of three optional extras – a tour of the Speight brewery, a visit to Olveston historic home, or a nature tour on the peninsula where we might see fur seals, albatross, penguins and the like. I put my hand up for the nature tour (of course). But once again the weather showed us a middle finger and that tour was cancelled. Dave spoke to the operator the next day and was told the rain on the peninsula had been horizontal, so it was a good call, if disappointing.

Pete and I weren’t much interested in historic houses or visiting a brewery so we mooched around town, including a stop in a coffee shop for a toasted sandwich and a flat white, then a look around the only Scottish shop in town.

The hotel we stayed in was very interesting. It had been the central post office and since Pete and I had both worked for Australia Post, we were intrigued to see what they’d done to the building. In Australia the big post offices in Melbourne, Perth, Sydney etc have been turned into retail precincts/hotels.  Here’s a newspaper article about the project. The room was great. I was particularly impressed with the shower. Instead of the usual mucking about as you wait for the water to come up to temperature, you just press a button. The water is instantly at temperature, no messing around. What a great idea.

In contrast to the miserable afternoon of our arrival, the following day was picture perfect. This morning we would be visiting Larnach Castle on the peninsula, where we’d be taken on a guided tour of the house before a high tea in the ballroom.

We stopped for a photo opportunity at a lookout. Such a shame the weather gods hadn’t played ball yesterday. But that’s life. We drove up to the house, where we were greeted by Christine, one of the local guides. It’s not really a castle – that was a nickname it acquired when it was being built. It seems William Larnach was persuaded to leave Geelong in Australia for Dunedin to help the bank he worked for process the gold proceeds from the 1860’s rush. He brought along his wife, Eliza, who he had married when she was 17 and he was 27. In keeping with the architecture prevalent in Australia, the house was built with wide verandas, but after one winter in Dunedin, glass was installed around the verandas. William spent a lot of money on his home, bringing in Italian craftsmen to decorate some ceilings and wood carvers to decorate others. He also had some pieces of furniture made for specific locations.

Christine took us to many of the rooms, telling us family history all the while. William and Eliza had six children, but she died suddenly aged 38. William was devastated – but Eliza’s sister, Mary, had joined them in Dunedin after a family scandal in Australia. He married her, much to the chagrin of his children. Before the wedding they set up a pre-nuptial agreement to guarantee the childrens’ claim.

But things weren’t meant to be happy for this family. Mary also died at 38. William, now an important man in politics, needed a wife. His new bride was considerably younger than him, beautiful, and rich. When William and his wife went off on a business trip to Britain, he took one of his sons, Douglas, with him. That turned out to be a mistake. Douglas and his father’s new wife had an affair and despondent, William shot himself.

The children had no wish to stay on the peninsula. Many of the furniture and fittings were sold and eventually the castle was left to moulder.

Then a young couple, Margaret and Barry Barker, happened by and fell in love with the place. They started the immense chore of renovation. More than that, they set out to acquire items which had belonged to the house but had been sold off. Christine pointed out a beautiful dinner set which had been sold off and now returned, and a dresser made for a bay window which had also been found.

A beautiful restored staircase

A hallway

The laburnum walk, a lovely setting for a wedding

The garden has gorgeous views over the sea

Today the house and the beautiful gardens host weddings and parties, and offer accommodation. When our tour ended, we admired the gardens, then went and had high tea in the ballroom. George enjoyed that bit.

Next time, we’ll head off to the fabled Mt Cook, Australasia’s tallest mountain.