Tag Archives: holiday

Fun on Assumption Day

La Spezia, Portovenere and the Cinque Terre. The ferries pass between Portovenere and The island of Palmaria to go to the Cinque Terre

We decided to go to Portovenere for the Assumption Day holiday on 15th August (big deal in Italy). Apparently it’s the day the body of Mary, Mother of Jesus was raised to Heaven. You can see on the map Portovenere is at the entrance to the Bay of Poets and it’s a popular holiday destination – as well as a place to catch ferries to the Cinque Terre.

We bought return bus tickets from a shop and hopped onto a very crowded bus, wriggling our way through the passengers standing near the front to the middle area where there was a bit more space. In fact, Sandy and I snared seats when a couple of people alighted but the boys stood in the crowd. A few stops later three uniformed men (one carrying a sidearm) came on board through the centre doors. We gathered one was a ticket inspector, checking tickets of a couple of people in the immediate vicinity. Then all three zeroed in on us. Col and Pete produced tickets, they took a look and we got the shock-horror treatment. It took us a while to understand we’d done something wrong, because they spoke little English and we spoke even less Italian but we gathered we should have validated the tickets in one of the two machines located at the front and rear of the bus. We hadn’t seen a validation machine because of the crush of people. We apologised and tried to explain that we didn’t know, nobody had told us the tickets had to be validated, we were Australian tourists and we’d never been on a bus in Italy before, but they weren’t having any. Everybody else (they insisted) had validated – just not you four.

Things started to get ugly. The man with the gun became aggressive, leaning at us and jabbing his finger. “Papers.”

It took us a few moments to realise he wanted ID, but we weren’t quick enough for him.

“Public Officer,” he shouted, jabbing his finger at each of us. “Papers. Four. Now.”

Sandy and I had no ID on us. We had photocopies of our passports but they were in the hotel (lesson learned). Pete and Col produced their Australian driver’s licences. We all felt threatened over what was a trivial offence. I was starting to have visions of being dragged off the bus and being banged up in an Italian police station. At least there was an Australian embassy in Rome. Hopefully they weren’t on holiday.

About then an Australian on the bus intervened in fluent Italian, explaining we were tourists and didn’t know. They calmed down a little, but they weren’t shifting their position, telling her with this crowd of people watching, they would have to fine us or risk losing their jobs. That would be 35 Euros. Each. Now. That’s about $AU57 each. The tickets had cost 3 Euros each. This had suddenly become an expensive bus trip. Col didn’t have that much cash on him, but they accepted credit cards. Pete was reluctant to give them a card so he paid cash. 140 Euros. Not bad for a few minutes’ work. We were given receipts but I had to wonder if that money ended up in the public coffers. A bit like the bed tax at the hotel in Milan.

We found out later that we could have deferred the payment, which would attract a higher fine but given us more time, but that option was not offered. Discussing the matter later, we all wondered if the bus driver had alerted the inspectors about the elderly tourists who hadn’t used his validation machine. The men definitely targeted us, showing only the most cursory interest in the other passengers. We were certainly not the only ones to have been treated like this. Here’s another tourist’s story. And here’s another.

The whole episode left a decidedly sour taste in the mouth.

However.

It was a beautiful day and Portovenere is gorgeous. We also went on a fifty-minute boat ride around the three islands clustered nearby. Here are some pictures.

Portovenere from the quay

The church on the point. On the way up you pass by Byron’s grotto

Narrow shopping streets and steep slopes – just like Cinque Terre

The church from the sea. That’s Palmaria (popular beach destination) on the right with the Apennine Mountains in the distance

The town from the sea. Note the castle strggling up the hills. There were forts on all the islands, too.

Mary stands guard on a reef with Italy behind her.

The islands boast some amazing coastlines, some of which have been mined. There are also many fortifications dating back to WW2, of course – but doubtless a lot further back than that. In the above photo you can see a regular arch which was probably a gun enplacement, and further along, a pill box.

Col and Pete both had some fun with Italian toilets. Pete set off into the underworld, following a maze of passages until he finally went up a few steps and found the right place. When Col tried the same place, there was a queue, so he asked the café proprietor if he could use their toilet. That was fine until he found he was locked in and had to bang on the door until somebody let him out.

We caught the bus back and carefully validated our tickets as we got on. We kept an eye on the passengers as they got on. About half of them didn’t validate their tickets. The bus back was nowhere near as crowded. We expected it to take the same basic route as the one we’d caught – but it didn’t. It came within shouting distance of the station, where we should probably have alighted, then headed off out of town and into the hills. In light of our previous experience we were getting a tad worried. We asked one young woman who spoke a modicum of English if the bus went back to town. She said yes, but explained it would stop at a terminus first.

Oh shit. Would our tickets cover us? What if another Public Officer came on board? Had the ticket’s time limit expired? Should we buy another ticket? We held our nerve until we got into areas in La Spezia that we recognised. From there, Col, Sandy, and I couldn’t stand it anymore and walked the rest of the way, passing through a deserted city. Assumption Day is BIG in Italy. The shops and restaurants were closed and wouldn’t open until after 7pm. But we did buy a gelato each. That was nice.

We had an early dinner and went off to bed. Tomorrow we would avoid buses at all costs and catch a train to Monterosso, where we would catch a ferry back to La Spezia so we could see the villages from the sea.

How humans changed Norfolk Island

Emily Bay used to be called Turtle Bay

Norfolk Island is a stunningly beautiful place but it doesn’t take long before you realise what an enormous impact humans have made on its ecology. It’s a lesson to us all, I suppose. These days, importation of any animal or vegetable material to Norfolk is strictly controlled. We watched the cute little beagle sniffing everyone’s bags at the airport. But that wasn’t always the case.

When Captain Cook saw Norfolk in 1774 the massive Norfolk Island pines would have covered the entire island. There were no meadows or grasslands. There were no land animals. There are still no snakes. But there were birds which were specially adapted to the heavily-wooded conditions.

Then humans arrived.

They cut down the trees and planted grass, cane sugar, fruit trees, corn, rice, and other food crops. They brought in horses, cows, goats, pigs, and rabbits. And less popular creatures, like rats and no doubt mice, as well as cats and dogs that went feral. Beautiful Emily Bay was originally called Turtle Bay because of all the turtles there. In the usual thoughtless human manner, the population was soon wiped out by the hungry settlers.

Phillip Island, at back, is 6km from Norfolk. The other island is Nepean, where the convicts cut stone for building material

Pigs, goats and rabbits had been released on Phillip Island, and continued to thrive when the people left. Pigs and goats were removed by the early 20th century but the rabbits remained. Our guides told us that until relatively recently Phillip Island looked like Uluru, devoid of any green. An eradication program has been successful with the last rabbits removed in 1988, and Phillip Island is recovering. [1]

One of Norfolk’s more successful imports was the kentia palm, which is native to Lord Howe Island. Kentias are the parlour palms you see in hotel lobbies and the like, and during the nineteen nineties they would all have been grown from seed collected on Norfolk. For a while the seeds were worth a lot of money. But humans weren’t the only ones who valued them. Rats found them good to eat, so farmers had to fit rat guards on their palms to stop predation. The value of kentia seed dropped as soon as the buyers had enough to grow their own in hot houses.

Norfolk Island has two bird species endemic to the island – the green parrot and the morepork, a form of boobook owl. Both had thrived in those thick, dark forests. But as the trees were felled, their habitat shrank. At last, one sole female morepork was the only owl calling in the darkness, the last of her kind. The bird’s closest relative was a species living in New Zealand and scientists on Norfolk obtained two males from there, hoping she would mate with one of them. She did, and now there is a small colony of moreporks in Norfolk’s national park. But it is not quite the same as the original species, and it is severely inbred, so even this hybrid is threatened. It’s a sad tale. Read more about it here.

Feral crimson rosells. It’s not quite the same as the ones we saw in Victoria

The green parrot has been rescued from the brink. Scientists in the national park set up nesting boxes for them. Apart from the reduction in habitat, the birds have also had to endure competition for the remaining nesting hollows from introduced crimson rosellas, no doubt brought in from Australia by some bird collector, who allowed them to escape, or let them go. They’re no longer exactly the same as their Australian cousins. The green parrot population is still relatively small and endangered. Read the whole story here.

We didn’t see, or hear, either the green parrot or the morepork, but then, we didn’t spend any time in their habitat.

A Tern chick in a Norfolk Island pine

We did see young terns, though. These birds don’t build nests. They lay their eggs directly on the branch of a Norfolk pine, selecting the same site every year. Someone told us the birds use an adhesive of some sort to keep the eggs in place, but the general consensus with the guides was that’s just one of those stories tour guides tell when they don’t know the answer [2]. Humans (of course) collected the eggs, with a subsequent impact on the population , but at least the birds used trees in some pretty inaccessible locations. These days the islanders are allowed to collect tern eggs on Phillip Island for just a few weeks every year. Tern parents will lay a second egg if the first one falls or disappears, so the loss of eggs doesn’t have a major impact. After the chick hatches it is a small ball of grey fluff hanging on to its branch. The parents keep an eye on it and come in with sprats caught in the sea to feed it until it can fly.

Norfolk is a haven for sea birds, with populations of several tern species, gannets, and mutton birds. There are also small wrens and kingfishers.

This is my last Norfolk Island post. I can’t help feeling there’s so much more – a telephone directory listing people by nickname, more about the food, and the language. So here are some websites for you to look at.

Norfolk Island Travel Centre Covers accommodation, tours and the like

Ten things you might not know about Norfolk Island This one is particularly interesting

Discover Norfolk Island This site covers the island’s history as well as other aspects

Since July 2016 Norfolk Island has reverted to Australian control. There are reasons, as explained in this article, and there is no denying the island’s council asked for Australian help. But as usual, the Powers That Be in Canberra and Sydney (NI comes under NSW state control) have no idea how people live their lives outside the big cities. Poor little Norfolk Island has been swamped with rules and regulations, and decisions made for them without consultation. For example, since July 2016 all milk has to be pasteurised. Never mind the fact that the locals have managed to survive for 150 years on raw milk. So no more milking cows along the verges – it would cost far to much to set up a pasteurising plant. Milk is imported from New Zealand. If you want to buy the fresh stuff it was $9.20 per litre in the local supermarket. The long-life stuff is $2.30 a litre. So now the cows you see grazing by the roadside are all beef cattle.

Remember the feral chooks? Somebody in Australia decided they needed to be culled, so someone came over to NI to shoot them. Nobody discussed the issue with the locals. Some of them told us the chooks help keep down the insect population. Others collect eggs, and I suspect there’s a bit of local culling for the table. But never mind. A Decision had been made somewhere. Orders were dispatched. I wonder what they’ll do about the feral rosellas?

These are just two examples of how the New Order has impacted the lives of Norfolk Islanders. There are others. The locals have created their own political group to fight for their rights. As far as they’re concerned, Queen Victoria gave them Norfolk Island for their own. I don’t believe that’s entirely true, but I assure you, if I lived on Norfolk I’d join that group in a heartbeat.

The sign says ‘Hands up for democracy’. NI’s flag is at half mast.

If you get a chance to visit Norfolk Island, do. It was honestly one of the best, most jam-packed holidays I’ve ever had.

And as a last hurrah, another sunset.

Peter’s sunset shot. Used with permission.

 

 

 

Norfolk Island’s convict past

The cemetery from the lookout

Norfolk Island’s early European history is entwined with the British penal system and the colonisation of Australia, so part of any visit to the island has to include the convict ruins, and the graveyard. There’s not much to show for the island’s first settlement in 1788. Here’s a short piece about those first colonists. When the colony finally closed down in 1814 all the buildings and livestock were destroyed before the settlers were returned to the Australian mainland. Although convicts were included amongst the first colonists, it was never a penal colony. That came later.

The original settlers who landed in 1788

In 1824 the government in NSW decided to send the worst of its prisoners to Norfolk Island, never to return. The prisoners were put to work quarrying stone and constructing the beautiful Georgian buildings gracing the area around Kingston. The stone was cut on nearby Nepean Island, and more than one man died in the treacherous channel there. The worst job the convicts could have was cutting the finer stone from below the high tide line. It meant they had to work waist-deep in water. The difference in quality is obvious, and the better stone was used for verandas to this day.

On our first introductory tour of Norfolk our driver took us across the bloody bridge. While the true reason for the name isn’t altogether settled, the story’s a good one. Seems the convicts working on the bridge didn’t much like the brutal overseer, so they killed him. To hide the crime, they put the body into the bridgework.  Next day the replacement overseer noticed blood seeping out in the mortar between the stones. The name (of course) has stuck.

John Christian with a headstone

John Christian took us on a tour of the convict ruins. The man is a mine of information, rattling off names, dates, and facts like a machine gun. There’s not much left of the interior of the jail – the stones were used by the new arrivals to construct new buildings. But the outlines are still there. John described the living conditions, with several men crammed into tiny cells. Prisoners worked in chains and flogging was a common punishment. John told us about one fellow who was flogged to death. When he fainted after 100 blows he was placed in a cell for three days then wheeled out for a second round, which killed him.

There are plenty of sources of information about the conditions in the prison. I’ve had a look and I do wonder about some of the stories we heard. Read a more balanced account of the penal system here. But the whole tour is about stories and family history. I’m sure the ghost tour would be well worth attending – maybe next time.

You can see the size of the cells from the ruins

There is no doubt that Norfolk Island prison was a hell on earth, but the prisoners sometimes put up a fight. In 1846 William Westwood, known as Jacky-Jacky, led a revolt, killing four prison officials. This was a man who couldn’t be contained. He escaped in Sydney, was sent to van Diemen’s land (Tasmania) where he escaped more than once, then finally ended up on Norfolk. His story is worth reading. He and several others were hanged for their part in the revolt, and their remains placed in unconsecrated ground. The commandant at the time, a man named Childs, was replaced by John Price, who had a fearsome reputation. Our guide told us about a particularly awful punishment, being confined in the dark cell. The prisoner was lowered into a tiny cell without doors and windows. Then the cell was sealed at the top (although it must have been opened to provide food and water). One man was kept in these conditions for a year and when he was removed, he was insane. All these stories reminded me very much of Auschwitz and even more of the prison on Rottnest Island. We haven’t learnt too much over the centuries.

Of course, some of the stories had happy endings. John told us about a seamstress sentenced to transportation, accused of stealing a scrap of fabric. This woman had a very useful skill and soon started making clothes for the officers’ wives. John said she started dress shops in Sydney and Paramatta, and went back to Blighty a wealthy woman who bought the shop where she had been employed. I couldn’t find the story on the web, but I hope it’s true.

Women in those days were treated like breeding stock. When it was recognised that there were not enough women in Australia, all the women who had incurred the death penalty in England had their sentences commuted to transportation. The Lady Juliana sailed for Port Jackson and arrived in 1790 with more than two hundred women aboard. She carried only women – an interesting point in its own right, and well worth a look at this article. One hundred and twenty of the women were sent to Norfolk. One was just 11 years old, sentenced to death for highway robbery (stealing another child’s clothes). Mary Wade ended up being the mother of twenty-one children. Read her story here.

The cemetery is divided into two halves with the older remains from convict times closer to the sea, marked off by a line of pillars. The rest of the area is still used, and we noticed locals tending family graves. One famous writer is buried here – Colleen McCollough called this island home and her memory is much-loved. Her husband still lives here, and her house is open to the public.

There are quite a few stones marking the graves in the old cemetery, but there are a lot more graves than the stones suggest. Convict graves were usually marked with wooden crosses, which have disappeared over the years. Female convicts, and some who had been executed, were given a headstone. Of course, soldiers and freemen automatically qualified.

When the British finally realised the folly of transporting ‘criminals’ to the colonies, they closed the prison at Norfolk in 1855. When the British left I get the idea the place wasn’t completely abandoned, though, because the people from Pitcairn arrived in 1856, and were confronted with huge four-legged beasts they’d never seen before – cows and horses. [1]

The Commandant

Anyway, enough of this morbid stuff. The enterprising Norfolk Islanders also use their convict past to entertain. Our group attended a “night as a convict”, all of us dressed in glamorous convict clothes. It wasn’t just our group of twenty – there must have been around one hundred seated at bench tables. Our overseers were the (smartly dressed) Commandant, and the red-robed Private Arty Parts. Both men possessed large dongers. The Commandant’s can be seen on the table beside him. It was an absolutely hilarious evening, with some off-colour humour, games and dances, and so forth. We convicts provided the entertainment. One example was a version of pass the parcel. The women were asked to form a circle, and three hats were passed around clockwise. When the music stopped, if you had a hat, you were out. Simple enough. But the Commandant and Private Parts introduced a complication – they added a Very Large rolling pin which was to go counter-clockwise, and which was to be passed with the knees, not the hands. Remember, the hats are also being passed. Nobody was obliged to take part, and naturally some people didn’t. Yes, of course I did. I haven’t laughed so much in a long while, and I’d recommend the evening. Dinner was involved, a simple meal served buffet-style with staff putting the food on the plate for you, just as would have happened in the convict mess halls. I can assure you we ate far better than the real convicts did.

The costumes are provided, but you have to give them back – although you can purchase them for $30. I couldn’t quite imagine where I’d be wearing it again, so I passed. One more point – the Commandant and Private Parts are not professional actors, they’re just members of the community doing their part. Sometimes things don’t work out. The week before, several of the guys scheduled for the roles were sick, so the convicts didn’t get a show. I know they were disappointed, and I would have been, too. But that’s life, I guess.

Next time we’ll get on to the people from Pitcairn.

Quality row – beautifully restored Georgian cottages, some of which are lived in.

Cobbold Gorge – a hidden treasure

 

The huts at Cobbold

The accommodation at Cobbold Gorge resort is basic, but quite acceptable. We stayed in a hut built of corrugated iron, with air conditioning and an en suite bathroom. As I said yesterday, the resort has a restaurant and bar. What more could you want? I woke early and hearing the sounds of pink and grey galahs, went out for a look. They were perched in a dead tree, catching the first rays of the rising sun, so they were in silhouette. But I noticed a second tree in a place where I could get the sun behind me.

After breakfast we went off to see the famous Cobbold gorge. The owner of the property, Simon Terry, found the gorge in the early nineties. You might find that hard to imagine, but if you look at the aerial photo, taken from the station’s helicopter, you’ll see it’s very narrow, therefore easily missable. Simon apparently showed the gorge to family and friends, and got the idea he could make the place into a tourist attraction. Tourists, after all, are not as susceptible to the rigours of climate and market conditions as cattle. So he and his family sold half their herd and developed the resort. It’s a credit to them all. A great little oasis in the scrub.

But even tourists can be affected by weather events. I mentioned last time the travellers in the Savannahlander who had to take a coach when the train could not return to Cairns due to flooding. Here at Cobbold the resort had to contend with a flooded river, which we had to cross to see the gorge. Normally at this time of year the river is a succession of water holes, and the crossing is simple. What to do? Like most property owners out here, the Terrys have a helicopter. The cattle station (its name is Robin Hood) covers 500 square miles, which isn’t big by local standards. Mt Surprise station is 660 square miles, and further west the properties are much larger. But you can spend a lot of time mustering on horseback on 500 square miles. Then there’s tank and fence maintenance and so on. A helicopter makes sense, and it earned its keep in preventing a whole lot of disappointment to a bunch of tourists. We were ferried 600 metres across the river in the chopper, in groups of three. Once twelve of us were on the other side our local guide took us to the creek running through the gorge and we boarded a narrow, shallow draft boat.

The gorge from the air. The boats are visible at the head of the creek, bottom left

Crossing the flooded Robertson River

The head of the gorge

It’s very, very narrow.

A couple of things stood out for me. We visited Geikie Gorge a while back, and noted the mud nests of tiny birds clinging to the overhanging rocks there. We also saw a lot of other bird life. But while Cobbold contains fish and fresh water crocodiles, we didn’t see any birds. The mud nests I noticed belonged to hornets. I would have expected, too, to have seen some evidence of the indigenous people here – rock art or similar. But there was nothing. Talking to Simon’s wife, Gaye, I learned that the local mob (tribe) were no longer around to answer any questions. They, and their language and culture, no longer existed. And that’s the sort of story nobody ever told me at school. Gaye did say, though, that in the past aboriginal stockmen working on the property wouldn’t go within 3 miles of Cobbold Gorge. Which says a lot in itself. This website will give you more information about the gorge.

It’s believed the gorge was formed after an earthquake cracked the rocks. The water in the creek found a new path to the river via the resulting split, and the rocks wore down over the millenia.

In the afternoon a couple of new-found friends and I went on a half hour helicopter ride to see Robin Hood from the air. The sandstone scarp where the gorge runs its course is very different to the rest, where the cattle feed. We also flew over an enormous dam. It’s an area rather like Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre with only one exit. In this arid country where water is a finite resource, Simon dammed the exit. Now they have a large, reliable water source to fill the tanks for their stock.

The river and the scarp of sandstone country

The dam from the air

After lunch we came across a couple taking their pets on tour with them. That’s not unusual in itself – except these pets were a pair of Eclectus parrots. The man explained the female was called Modo because of the hump on her back (as in Quasimodo). He’d bought her from a breeder who cautioned him before he entered the aviary, warning him she would attack. Instead, she settled right on his shoulder. It was a done deal. The love and trust between the man and the parrot was just stunning to see. The male was wearing a little coat because he had a skin infection. It was quite obvious he adored his Mum. They are even house-trained, telling their human when they needed to poo. The couple has a special harness in their vehicle with perches for the two birds. And the leashes are more for the bird’s protection, in case they’re spooked and fly away. (There are a lot of raptors out here.) The leash is elastic so they won’t be jerked to a halt.

A pair of visiting Eclectus parrots

Later in the day, Simon took us out for a look around the property in a 4X4 bus, explaining some of the facets of running a cattle station along the way. The beasts look great, knee deep in quality feed. There’s no doubt the folks out here care about their cattle. After all, that’s how they make a living. The silly knee-jerk cessation of the live cattle trade to Indonesia on the basis of a sensationalist TV report a few years ago, affected the bush severely. Many graziers were brought to their knees, some never recovered. As we drove, we noticed a cow carrying an injury, and passed that on to Simon. He said that cow had broken a leg early on in life, but out here it’s not uncommon for beasts not to be included in a muster, and she hadn’t been noticed for a year or so. By then the leg had healed, although she walked with a limp. But she was in good condition, showing no sign of pain, so they let her go. She’s had three calves since then.

We ended up at the dam we’d spotted from the air, had a belated afternoon cuppa, then headed back to the resort. We would be moving on early the next day.