Tag Archives: travel

The secret life of trees

When visitors arrive on Norfolk Island they’re picked up by a tour bus and taken for a half-day orientation tour, with the guide pointing out the main attractions. After a quick trip through the main township at Burnt Pine, featuring one roundabout and absolutely no traffic lights, we stop briefly at the lookout above Kingston, where the guide points out the wonderful Georgian buildings of Government House and Quality Row (that’s the name of the street). Over there across the golf course is Emily Bay, down there is the cemetery, that’s the old gaol and associated buildings. He drives around the foreshore from the pier, past the old gaol and out to the point where the lone pine stands sentinel. It’s an old tree. It appeared in drawings made for Captain Cook when he ‘discovered’ the island in 1774. We’re taken for a brief look into St Barnabas’s Chapel, the only remaining building from the Melanesian Mission. We admire the 360° view from Mt Pitt and we’re taken to “Orn Da Cliff” where Pine Tree tours holds its weekly island fish-fry with associated sunset scenes. We make a brief stop at Cascade Bay, where the old whaling station used to be. And all the time we’re seeing the beautiful green hills and valleys of Norfolk, where cows amble across the road or lie on the banks chewing their cud as the bus trundles by. For a quick overview of Norfolk, I’d recommend this account. It’s very well written with nice pictures :).

We took the tour. It’s always interesting to listen to different guides. This one wasn’t a local. He’d lived on Norfolk for forty years or so, but he was a Sydney boy who married a lady from the island. He knew his stuff, but on our previous visit we’d been driven around by guys born and bred here, proud sixth or seventh generation descendants of the Pitcairn mutineers with names like Christian or Quintal or Buffet, or the descendants of convicts. Those guys told us stories of growing up here. One told us as a teenager he climbed the kentia palm trees to pick nuts. On one such occasion the young fellow reached the top of the tree and came face to face with a rat, which also wanted kentia nuts. Well, when you’re up there in the canopy of a palm tree down is the only way to go. And that’s what the rat did – scrambling over the human on the way. Not long after that they put guards around the tree trunks to stop the rats from going up.

Any eggs from these ladies are definitely free range

Our Sydney tour guide had a different view of the feral chooks (domestic chickens), too. Like the cattle, chooks are everywhere on Norfolk – and they can fly. They’re being culled and he said we shouldn’t feel sorry for them. The eggs were stale and the chooks inedible and the cull was absolutely necessary. Hmmm. Last year we were told the cull was happening without consulting the locals. Our driver, who was not impressed, pointed out the chooks ate insects and did no harm, and when we visited locals in the progressive dinner, we saw feral chooks in people’s yards, and yes, the people collected the eggs. I’ll bet we ate a few, too. Chicken is a major item on Norfolk menus. The other thing the chooks do is scratch through the cow droppings looking for tasty treats, all the while spreading all that lovely goodness so the grass can use it.

All the mammals on Norfolk are feral, by the way. Including the people. The more polite expression is ‘introduced’. Like New Zealand, Norfolk’s natives are birds and plants. Sugar cane, bananas, arrowroot, kumara, stone fruit, corn, tomatoes – all are introduced. So was the Moreton Bay fig tree.

During the orientation tour the bus is driven down New Farm Road between the one hundred acre reserve and a magnificent row of Moreton Bay figs. The buses don’t stop there so it was our first ‘go to’ attraction when we ventured forth on our own.

There’s something a little bit spooky as you head up the road under the trees. I couldn’t help but think of Tolkien’s old forest, where Pippin and Merry are swallowed up by Old Man Willow, or the ents in Fangorn. I know this won’t mean much to you unless you’re a Lord of the Rings die-hard like me. But old and spooky are easy enough to understand. These trees are two hundred or more years old, probably planted by the first white settlers on the island some time between 1788 and 1815.

Pete’s head is just visible behind the root. He’s standing

And they look it. The roots writhe across the ground. Human fences are no obstacle. Buttress roots supporting the trunks tower up to over a tall man’s head. They’re studded with algae and ferns hide in corners. It’s easy to imagine these grand old gentlefolk talking to each other in the slow speech of trees. To them animal life must be a blur of movement. Or maybe not. Perhaps they’re well aware of us.

The fence has not impeded the tree in the least

Certainly they’re not ‘nice’.

They tolerate no competition. Look closely and you’ll find trees surrounded by roots. A brave Norfolk Island pine that took root next to the figs is slowly being strangled, joining others which have already met that fate.

This is one of the creepiest sights you’ll see here. The great tree has reached out to take a grip on an intruder. It doesn’t stand a chance.

From under the trees you catch glimpses of the sun-drenched cultivated valley. It’s a whole different world out there. I wondered why the trees had been planted. They’re not much good for timber and you can’t eat the fruit. That’s a question to which I expect I’ll never get an answer.

Follow the twisting road down toward the coast and you’ll cross the Bloody Bridge. It’s another place where the tours don’t stop – at least not for long enough to get off the bus for pictures. Our current guide did tell us an abbreviated version of the story of the name. It seems the convicts working on the building didn’t like their overseer at all, so they killed him. The more interesting version is that to hide evidence of the deed, the men popped the body into the bridge and kept working. The overseer had disappeared and they didn’t know what happened. The next day the replacement overseer noticed bloody weeping from the mortar between the stones.

The bloody bridge

There’s plenty of room to hide a body. Maybe one of those dark patches is blood???

 

A Milan stopover

 

Hervey Bay from the air, showing Fraser Island across the great Sandy Strait, Moon Point, Platypus Bay etc

Pete and I, with our friends Sandy and Col, had been planning our great European adventure for some time. We’d booked a one-week wine and food cruise with Uniworld in France’s Aquitaine region, and a small group tour of Tuscany, also one week, with Collette. The two sets of dates weren’t contiguous, though, so we decided to base ourselves in La Spezia and visit the Cinque Terre, picturesque villages along the coast of Italy. Unlike our previous travels, this time we were going in August – Europe’s Summer, and the high season. It would be hot, but hey ho – we’re all Queenslanders. It would be fine. And we were all looking forward to it.

For Pete and me international flights usually mean an early morning start. We buy packages flying out of Brisbane and it’s rare that a flight from Hervey Bay to Brisbane makes a convenient connection, so we make the four-hour drive to the city and leave the car in the airport car park. After one of those nights when you doze, checking the time every hour or so, we gave up at about 3am and hit the road. Our Cathay flight to Hong Kong was scheduled to stop at Cairns for a couple of hours to pick up passengers so we flew straight up the coast. That’s always fun, picking out landmarks form the air. We spotted Fraser Island and the Mary River and waved to the neighbours as we crossed Hervey Bay. Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, the Reef, Townsville… and then we were descending into Cairns.

Part of the Great Barrier Reef

I expected most of the people boarding the aircraft would be Asian or Indian but that wasn’t the case. This hop from Hong Kong to Cairns must be very lucrative for Cathay, ferrying folks from everywhere to visit the Great Barrier Reef and the rain forest.

From Hong Kong we boarded a Finnair Airbus A350 for the flight to Helsinki. I watched Ready Player One, got a bit of sleep, then woke with sore legs. I couldn’t get back to sleep so I watched another movie (Hugo). Going through Immigration was pretty straightforward. We were on holiday in the EU and we would be leaving on 24th August. This is one advantage of the EU – you only have to go through immigration twice; once when you enter, again when you leave. And there’s only one currency, which is also convenient for us. I’m not too sure the Euro is fair on countries like Italy, but I’m on holiday so I’ll leave that thought.

The flight from Helsinki to Milan was almost on time, not that we cared much. There was a short delay while airport staff checked the runway for a bird the previous take off had apparently hit, and then we were off for the trip to Milan. Helsinki is about a spit away from the rest of Europe, across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, but we flew over water for quite some time, so I think the plane followed the Baltic for a fair way before turning left towards Italy. Visibility was poor. At the time I thought it was just a heat inversion, but that haze never cleared for the whole three weeks. Europe’s air pollution isn’t quite as bad as Asia’s but it’s getting there.

After flying across neat fields, little towns and mighty rivers we reached the Alps. Steep, rocky mountains, most completely bare of snow, are interspersed with narrow green valleys, winding rivers, and deep lakes.

The Alps from the air

Then we landed at Malpensa airport. We’d already been through immigration at Helsinki, so it was straight to the baggage hall and then, suitcases in tow, off to find the railway. (Whoever thought up the idea of putting wheels on suitcases deserves a medal) We soon discovered that signs are not a huge priority in Italy. After some faffing about we found the right platform to catch the Malpensa  Express. After a short detour to the wrong platform we towed our bags up the non-functional up escalator and joined the other bag-towing travellers at the platform marked as “Malpensa Express”. Then the lighted signs on all the four platforms malfunctioned, displaying gibberish, and a few minutes later a train arrived – at the platform behind us. Somebody must have twigged that this was, indeed, the train we were looking for, and we all scuttled over to clamber on board. BTW, that non-functioning escalator was still non-functioning when we left the country three weeks later.

When I think of ‘express’ I think of a fast commute into the central point. This was an ‘express’ from a certain point of view. The train got up to 126kph for a couple of kms, then stopped at a station. From there, it stopped every three minutes or so. And that is why the bus from the airport takes only a few minutes longer than the train. We arrived at Milano Centrale without any problems. Now we had to find the Milan Visitor Centre to obtain our Milan cards which gives 48 hrs of access to the Metro (the underground rail system) and discounts at museums and such.

Inside the station we stopped for a few moments to admire the architecture, a truly magnificent, airy building, then we began our search. In any other city the visitor centre is prominently marked. But this is Milan. We wandered around, dragging our suitcases, checking signs, looking for the universal i for information. There were ticket vending places, but unmanned. We asked at places where we thought people could speak English, looked up maps of the station. All the instructions were contradictory. Some said one floor up, some said outside, some said one floor down…

Eventually we found a tourist place (the address was on the doco Pete had received when we bought the Milano card). I went in with the app on my smart phone, the guy behind the counter glanced at it and pointed outside. “Out there.” I went outside and saw nothing. I told Pete who went back into the place with the doco in hand. While the clerk was telling him they hadn’t handled the Milano Card for six months I’d gone back outside and noticed a small glass house affair in a corner of the station’s veranda, about the size of four phone booths, marked Milano Visitor Centre. Yippee! We claimed our railway cards and mentioned that ‘this place is very hard to find’. The clerk nodded ruefully. Col and Sandy had done the same thing, wandering around the station like lost souls. After he’d picked his card up Col received a detailed video of how to find the visitor’s centre. Eye-roll.

The Milan Visitor’s Centre tucked away in a corner

We’d been wandering around the station for 45 minutes and were both in need of several scotches. But don’t worry. Things could only get worse.

Italians have something of a reputation for laid-back which is sometimes nice, sometimes not. We needed to catch a Metro train, which run underground. Even here at Milano Centrale there were many stairs, and only a few escalators. Several lifts didn’t work. So we were reduced to carrying our suitcases and cabin baggage up and down flights of stairs. I’d always enjoyed line-hopping in London, transferring from one line to another, but in Milan it’s much more confusing. It’s harder when you don’t speak the language and aren’t familiar with the stations, working out which way the lines went etc. But the signs are like something in Alice in Wonderland. You follow one sign pointing to M1 and blow me down, there’s another sign pointing at the place you just came from. We worked it out eventually and lugged our bags up the stairs at a suburban stop right next to our hotel. It was 1:30pm and of course the room wasn’t ready. Gosh, what a surprise. The hotel didn’t have a bar, but the clerk pointed us to a bar over the road, so we rang Col and Sandy, who had already arrived, and went off to inhale a well-earned drink, communicating our requirements to the wait staff by pointing and nodding. Unlike most of Europe, not many Italians speak English.

We’d stopped off in Milan to try to settle the body clock before our cruise, so we avoided an afternoon nap and despite the heat (38/100) went into the city. Milan is known for its fashion, not so much its art but the magnificent cathedral in the central square is well worth a look.

The cathedral, built over 500 years

Detail of some carvings

So is the Galleria, a shopping mall filled with expensive brand names – but also some lovely architecture.

At the end of the Galleria is a small park dominated by a statue of Leonardo and other lesser scientists.

By the time we returned to the hotel it was around 6pm and we were ready to eat and sleep, in that order. But in Italy restaurants open at 7:30 at the earliest and don’t close till late. We reconvened at Traffic Lights, the bar over the road (yes, the name is in English), then went looking for an open restaurant. We were turned away at a couple for being too early, but then one owner, standing outside having a smoke with his mate, had the nouse to realise he had four customers in front of his establishment. “Yes, we’re open,” he said.

The waitress mopping the floor looked up at us in surprise. “We’re not open yet.”

We pointed at the door. “He said you were.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “If the boss says we’re open, we’re open.”

She was lovely, one of the few servers who spoke pretty good English. We ordered pizza, because – Italy – and a litre of the house white. The white wine has a tiny bit of fizz in it, not a sparkling wine but not completely still. We found it eminently quaffable. And the pizzas were delicious, thin, crispy pastry and not too much stuff on top. They were also huge, uncut, and hanging over the edges of the plate. We could easily have shared one per couple and that would have been too much. We took the uneaten portions back to the hotel. Col and Sandy had their leftovers for dinner the next night, but Pete and I went back to the same restaurant and shared one with a bowl of salad on the side.

The following day we went to a visiting exhibition of Leonard da Vinci’s machines. The Leonardo3 group has pored over Leonardo’s writings and designs and actually constructed the machines he designed, including man powered flying machines, a submarine, and a mechanical lion. It was absolutely fascinating. Check it out here.

Later we caught a hop-on-hop-off vintage tram and visited a park/garden, apparently built around an old ruin. I suspect it was a pretend ruin, because I can’t find anything about it online. It was a nice diversion, though, on what was once again a hot day. They had several off-leash dog areas and even some enclosed parts fitted with dog agility obstacles. Quite a few doggies were socialising, which was nice to see.

A pretend ruin

In the afternoon we used the Metro to seek out a canal area we’d noticed on the tourist brochures. It’s clearly a popular restaurant area but at mid-afternoon on a very hot and humid day the only people there were a few die-hard tourists and hopeful vendors at markets set up along the banks of the canal. The water is fast-flowing and very clean. It would have been a lovely spot in the evening but the biorhythms weren’t up for that just yet.

Milan canal area

Tomorrow we would be flying out to Bordeaux.

Our Wonderful Trip Home

Sunset at Hong Kong airport – from the Qantas lounge

Hi there. Have you missed me? We’ve been Up Over with good friends Sandy and Col for a few weeks, sampling food and wine and seeing a few sights in France and Italy. Our trip started with a couple of nights in Milan to settle the jet lag before we flew (on easyJet) to Bordeaux, where we joined a river boat for a seven-day wine and food cruise around the Aquitaine region. Then we flew back to Milan and used Italian rail to head over to La Spezia, the gateway to the Cinque Terre, where we spent five nights. From there, we took trains to Montecatini Terme, where we joined a tour group for a week of looking around Tuscany. When that finished, we trained it back to Milan to catch our flight home.

I’ll tell you all about it – but first I want to share our Wonderful Trip home. The journey started in Montecatini Terme, the interim destination being Terminal One at Milan’s Malpensa airport.

We bought most of our train tickets in advance, from Australia. Despite Pete’s valiant efforts, we’d been unable to book seats on the high-speed train from Florence to Milan. (Let’s just say the Italian railway system’s website is not the most user-friendly.) Instead, we caught a local train to Viareggio, then transferred to an intercity train to Genoa, where we changed trains for Milan. The train to Viareggio was just the local service, which was fine. From Viareggio we’d booked first class (ha ha) tickets on the intercity trains. On the platform there was the usual undisciplined crush to get on board and to our allocated seats. If you don’t do a bit of pushing and shoving you never get anywhere in Italy. I carried my backpack and camera bag and pushed my suitcase in front of me through the train’s narrow aisle, of course impeded by the people in front of me and suitcases blocking the way. I almost jumped when Peter yelled, “Get your hand out of her back pack!” I whirled and caught a glimpse of him grabbing a girl’s shoulder and dragging her away. She was clearly frightened and said, “Sorry, sorry” as she scuttled away – and off the train, probably nursing finger-shaped bruises. She’d been right behind me in the crush, against my back, with Pete behind her. Pete wondered why she seemed to be so close to me, then realised she was trying to get her hands into my back pack. Crowded places and distracted people are plum hunting grounds for these low-lifes. She hadn’t had time to steal anything, but she’d managed to get the zip on one side of my back pack’s pocket half undone when she was caught. She’d picked me out as a suitable victim, climbing into the train right behind me. Just as well she hadn’t picked that Pete and I were together.

After that encounter we weren’t in the best mood when we found an Italian woman in one of our four allocated seats, two pairs of seats facing each other with a table in between. Despite us showing her our tickets, she obfuscated until tempers became a little frayed. Although she didn’t speak English and we don’t speak Italian, I think she knew exactly what she was doing, taking advantage of more room and a table where we were supposed to be sitting. An Italian in another seat explained to her that she should be in the seat behind us – and we discovered that a few other people were also ‘misplaced’. These things have a domino effect. Her husband eventually turned up and although we don’t know what she told him, he shouted at us in Italian with a few words of English thrown in. This was NOT America. You Americans are all the same!!! In Italy we are kind!!! He flung a few newspapers up into the overhead racks for good measure, to make sure we knew he was angry.

In retrospect, I suspect Italians aren’t too interested in ‘allocated’ seats, working on first in, best dressed. But that’s not how we work. We all stared out of the windows trying to settle down before we got to Genoa.

The plan was that we’d have lunch during our 90-minute wait at Genoa before going on to Milan central station, where we should arrive in plenty of time to catch the Malpensa Express to the airport to catch our flight. But this time we weren’t quite so lucky. Although the train left only a few minutes behind schedule, it arrived in Milan 25 minutes late, which meant we missed the smooth connection to the airport we had expected. That was okay. The airport trains run every half hour, so we’d be fine. We’d left a sufficient window for a few glitches. But the airport train was 15 minutes late. The inevitable chaos ensued, with people and baggage coming off the train onto a platform barely wide enough for three people clashing with the stream of travellers trying to board. I have to tell you, it’s not good for stress – but we found seats and somewhere to stow our bags. SCORE!

Sandy and Col were overnighting at a hotel near the airport, so we said our goodbyes and parted ways. Since we had business class tickets, Pete and I weren’t too worried about the time. The big advantage of business class is you get through all the checkpoints faster – even at an Italian airport. We checked in at Finnair and we were given express access to security, which was fine except that the system couldn’t scan the barcodes printed on the boarding passes at Finnair’s desk. Never mind, we managed to attract the attention of one of the three officials chatting together at the desk next to the priority aisle. One of them established we had genuine tickets and escorted us through the back way. It was all good – we got through in plenty of time, and headed for the business class lounge, situated a cut lunch and a compass away. We’d become accustomed to non-existent and/or confusing signage in Italy, so we eventually found the place. In typical Italian fashion not everything worked as it should. The toilets were fitted with a ‘hands free’ flush, but they must have had motion sensors, because they flushed whenever you came near them. I suppose it could have been worse, eg no flush at all.

As it turned out we needn’t have rushed. Our flight to Helsinki was delayed. It was meant to take off at 1900 and arrive at Helsinki with a 50-minute transfer time to our flight to Hong Kong. But boarding was scheduled for 19:15. Things were starting to look grim, especially when the board displayed a message that gate allocation would not be given until after 20:15. It was looking like there was no way we’d make our flight to Hong Kong. We abandoned the (pretty ordinary) lounge and went down to the gate. Pete asked the (Italian) girl at the counter about the connection but she didn’t know and didn’t care – it wasn’t part of her job.

This was starting to sound ominously like the debacle we’d experienced three years ago, when we last flew to Europe via Finnair. We’d had to stay overnight in Hong Kong, and then overnight in Helsinki (at Finnair’s expense) before finally getting to Budapest at least a day late. You can read the gory details here. But three years on, we figured we couldn’t be so unlucky twice. Or then again, maybe we could.

When we finally got on the flight it seemed that just about everyone on the not-full plane was trying to make a connection, and four long haul flights (Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and one other) were delayed, waiting for passengers to arrive from Milan. So were smaller flights headed for Russian or Baltic ports. Shades of 2015 again, where we were told a plane was waiting for us at Helsinki for the flight to Budapest – only it wasn’t.

As we waited on Milan’s tarmac for final departure, the captain explained the flight had been delayed because the plane had to sit on the ground at Helsinki for an hour because of congested airspace over Europe, it being a Friday and all. And then they had to wait to be allocated a gate at Malpensa. Yeah, right. Was this particular Friday any different? And why couldn’t they have used one of the many empty hard stands (when they park the aircraft on the tarmac and you walk down the stairs and into the terminal), which was what the plane used when we first arrived in Milan?

After the plane landed at Helsinki we had to go through immigration. Being in business class, we had a head start off the plane, but a bunch of nervous people ran past the two old farts to get into the line at the checkpoint first. Despite the pile-up of delayed flights, all scheduled to leave shortly after midnight twenty minutes away, passport control had only two of the row of desks open, one for EU, one for everybody else (eg most of us). Several flights to smaller destinations had already left without the delayed passengers, so a number of angry people were directed elsewhere to be put up in a hotel. They were not happy and I don’t blame them. I don’t know why they weren’t told before they made it to passport control and I felt sorry for them. Once again, shades of our experience in 2015.

About then the Finnair official supervising the line of non-EU passport holders directed us over to the other desk, where all the EU passport holders had been processed. It seemed like a sensible idea to us, so we popped over. The young fellow at the desk, however, was more interested in protocol and his own five minutes of fame than getting us through to a waiting Finnair plane. He asked me if I thought Australia was part of the EU. No, of course not, I responded. He nodded, scowling at me as if I was a simpleton. “You should be over there”, he said, indicating the line we’d left. When I said the official had sent me over here, he replied that she wasn’t part of his organisation. Muttering ‘fuck you’, I vowed never to go through this fucking airport ever again. In fact, I’ll never fly Finnair, ever again. And I shall also write that very rude young man into my next book, where he will die in  a particularly nasty way.

With half a dozen people still to go through Immigration they finally opened a second non-EU desk. The kid who finally processed me took his sweet ever-loving time to scan my passport and put in his very own stamp. Bully for him, a Hero of the Finnish Border Force, protecting his country from a special agent cunningly disguised as an elderly tourist trying to go home. Pete, who’d stayed in the other line, was already through, waiting for me. Then we were off on the long trek through the deserted building to find our departure gate. No travelators at this airport, and Pete’s legs were feeling the strain of a long day. At least there were plenty of signs. I was still more than a little convinced we’d arrive and see an empty gate, so I hurried (a bit)  in case they got sick of waiting, leaving Pete to catch up. We were the last passengers on the plane, disgruntled and angry. It was ten past midnight local time.

We’d eaten on the plane to Helsinki, we were totally buggered after a long and trying day and all we wanted was to go to sleep. But even that was stymied. All the passenger comfort systems in the business class cabin of this pretty new aircraft (that is, media, seat controls and the like) didn’t work for over an hour. We couldn’t watch a movie, we couldn’t recline our seats and we didn’t get a drink. I’d ordered a Glenfiddich with ice, but after an hour or so, I was told they didn’t have any Glenfiddich left. Would I like something else? By then I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open, so I declined. Pete asked his attendant for two bottles of water, but it seemed they’d run low on that, too. Not a good look.

The plane was an Airbus 350, fitted out with each business class passenger having a small, semi-enclosed compartment. We’d flown up to Hong Kong from Brisbane on a Cathay A350, which was laid out rather better than the Finnish one. The difference was details – places to put your belongings without having to chuck everything into the overhead compartments. Finnair offered menus and the like in a folder – which looked good but didn’t fit into the magazine rack which was filled with online shopping magazines and nothing else. There was no place to put laptops, phones or shoes while taking off and landing. Cabin crew were overly officious about stupid things like putting said folder away (it didn’t fit and there wasn’t anywhere else) and putting used blankets (FFS) into the overhead locker for landing. The bed wasn’t comfortable, either. I woke half way through the flight with pain in my legs where I lay on the section of the bed where the seat and the backrest came together. From then on it was listless napping and waking until we had to sit up for landing.

We finally landed at Hong Kong mid-afternoon local time. Even then the travel gods were having a laff. We had to go through the transit security checkpoint before we could go on to the Qantas lounge to wait for our next flight. The security gate beeped when I went through. The only metal on my person was the underwires in my bra. I endured the feel-up by the security officer and went to collect my belongings. Peter had been checked through the gate, as well – and then they’d found a suspicious object in his carry-on luggage. His car keys. At least they said sorry.

We’ve been in the Qantas lounge at Honkers several times for long periods. It’s clean, with good facilities, a great bar and hot food. But this time was even better. Attendants came to offer food and drinks, which they brought to your seat. We ordered a pot of tea, plugged into the power, connected to WiFi and whiled away the time. Pete took the chance to have a shower and a shave and changed into clean clothes. Around about 5pm we were offered little Chinese nibbles rather like Dim Sum, and a glass of wine. It was all very civilized. So was reaching the plane parked some distance away in this enormous airport. All the travelators worked and the gates were clearly marked.

We were going home on a Qantas flight, an Airbus A330. The configuration is, in our opinion, better than that of the A350. You’re in your own little space with plenty of places to put small items like your phone and your tablet, and the bed slides down under the seat in front of you. We were late taking off, but the captain kept us informed, explaining that storms over the Philippines and Indonesia had caused congestion as pilots tried to go round them. We pushed off about half an hour late. But while we waited the cabin crew offered drinks, and also offered to fit up the seats with a light mattress, designed to smooth out that bump between seat and back which had caused me grief on the A350. (It worked, too). We were also given a blanket, a good-sized pillow – and a pair of grey, unisex PJs.

Qantas menu

Dinner was great, served like in a restaurant, with your choice of entree arriving first, then cleared before the main was served. I had roast duck salad, followed by spaghetti with prawns and a tub of ice cream which was immediately edible, not the usual solid block impervious to anything but an ice pick. I ate and went to sleep, only waking once for a wee.

Entree – roast duck salad

Main course – spaghetti with prawns

This is business class done right.

We landed at Brisbane a few minutes late, picked up our duty free booze, and found our luggage. We’d been worried that after the debacle at Helsinki our bags might not have made it, so that was a relief. We’d both slept pretty well and headed home up the Bruce Highway in drizzly weather – a welcome relief after months of drought. After a quick stop at the supermarket for eggs, milk, and veg and some chicken thighs for a home cooked meal, we pulled into our driveway and pressed the button to activate the garage door. No response. We thought maybe the remote had failed, so I unlocked the front door and walked inside.

There was an odd smell coming from the kitchen. Pools of nasty, reddish liquid had congealed on the tiles in front of the fridge. I opened the fridge door and was almost knocked over by the stench of rotting meat. The power had failed while we were away. All our frozen food – in fact everything in the fridge – was ruined. Any plans of a gentle chill-out as we re-acclimatised to home were put on hold. We put the defrosted food in bags, then cleaned the fridge and the floor. We’ll refreeze the food to stifle the smell until we can put it in the garbage collection on Wednesday.

We finally worked out that the power was failing because of a fault in the septic system which uses power to recycle the effluent. We’ve had to turn off the power to the septic, so that is now an urgent fix which will have to happen before I can tackle the mountain of washing.

It wasn’t quite the home-coming I’d looked forward to, especially being forced to eat dead ordinary take away chicken for dinner. The stink in the kitchen was too gag-worthy to want to prepare anything. In fact, we couldn’t get the smell out even though we washed everything with disinfectant, then again with bleach. Anything plastic seemed to have absorbed the odour. Fortunately, insurance will cover the fridge.

I’ll stop here. Next time I’ll start at the beginning of this roller-coaster ride of a holiday. One thing’s for sure; it was rarely boring.

A Day of Rest

Swimming pool with the dining area on the right

After our Big Day Out yesterday Wednesday was a day of R&R. Our package included a one-hour massage each. Sandy and I opted for a facial, which was very nice, while the boys had an all-over rub (no hanky panky). Apart from that we didn’t do much at all.

Power lines and wires

One of the most enduring sights in many Asian countries is the power lines. One thinks of spiders with a cocaine habit. But apparently there is a reason for it. In most Western countries cables go to the house and are then used to feed the various devices. As far as we could understand lines here go to a given device. So if you buy an air conditioner, one of these lines is strung up to feed it. We were told it would be MUCH more expensive to do it our way. Whatever. It seems to work. We had internet speeds of 140MBS using the hotel’s free WIFI. We’d kill for that here in Australia.

Late in the afternoon, since Sandy and I are both keen photographers, we decided to go down to the beach to take pictures of the sunset. Looking at the map it appeared that several nearby streets would take us there so we set off. We were disabused when we got to the security guard. Asked where we were going, we said the beach. He shook his head. This road led to a hotel and there was no public access.

Bugger.

We went back to the main road. As it happens, a hotel shuttle had arrived, dropping guests there so they didn’t have to make the 300-metre walk. Pete went over to talk to the driver and came back grinning. “She said to take the next road and when we get to security, tell them we’re going to the W.” The W is a five-star resort.

We set off along a roadway of arched bamboo until we reached the security point. This was SERIOUS security. One fellow carried a semi-automatic firearm. Not only were vehicles searched, we had to walk through a scanner like they have at airports. No questions asked, they waved us on. A few minutes later one of the resort’s shuttles ranged up beside us and insisted on giving us a ride the rest of the way to the hotel. The W turned out to be pretty flash, with several swimming pools and paved seating areas all overlooking the beach, which was thronged with people.

Fancy living at the W resort

Unfortunately, while clouds often give character to a sunset, in this case they were too thick. The sun made a brief appearance under a heavy curtain, but the show lasted for a couple of minutes max.

Busy one way

Sunset

We wandered over to the rank of shuttles waiting to take people to the main road and caught a lift back. Tomorrow we would be visiting Bali’s new safari park.

A few shots of Bali streets

The lane next to our hotel. There’ll be people living down there

Seminyak market

He didn’t buy it

A roadside shrine

A hotel facade. Don’t know what the mannequins are about

Kerobokan jail – the admin block

Beautifully carved tree root. There are two Chinese dragons depcited here. This is the retaining wall for the footpath – but I do think it’s old tree roots.

 

Still using those travel sites?

I guess most of us have used one or other of the travel aggregators to find a tour, or a hotel when planning a trip. I certainly have – Expedia, Booking.com, Trip Advisor. And I thought they were pretty good – until I learned about the problems associated with them.

As you all know, I went to New Zealand for a one-week trip not so long ago. My friend and I started planning some time ago – as in before Christmas. She’s a very, very busy lady, so she was happy enough to leave the details to me, being as how I’m not a very busy lady. So I looked up a few things and booked an apartment in Christchurch via Booking.com. We didn’t have to pay a deposit and if things changed, we could cancel for free up to a few days before the trip. We could make changes, too.

Time passed (as it does) and circumstances changed just a little. A couple of weeks before the trip we needed to change the dates for our accommodation. Instead of Saturday to the following Sunday, we would do the same Saturday, but check out on Thursday. I went into the website and chose the option to modify my booking. I left the ‘from’ date unchanged, and modified the ‘to’ date. The hamsters ran around for a second, and then I got a message telling me the property had no rooms on those dates. But (hang on a sec) they had these others which might suit. One of them was the room I’d already booked. But what the hey, I’ll play your silly game. I picked the room, and the hamsters started running… and running… and running…

I aborted and tried again, several times. Having been a programmer, I know that very often the cause of errors is sitting at the keyboard. But I couldn’t get the change of dates to happen. So I contacted the proprietory, explaining the change I needed to make. I received a prompt reply, stating that I HAD to make the change through Booking.com.

So I cancelled the booking. The hotel lost a 5 night stay.

Peter booked the new apartment for us via Expedia. To start, he booked two separate rooms at the same hotel, not realising the property offered two-room apartments. The apartment was cheaper than two rooms, and more convenient, so he changed the booking. Once again, the website was a crock. So Peter rang the help line, once again a call centre in the Phillipines. The person taking the call had little knowledge and no authority. He was told he would have to cancel the first booking and book the other room. The payment he’d already made would be credited to his credit card in 7-10 days. Pete was not happy. It had taken a nanosecond for Expedia to accept the payment, and yet it would take over a week to process a refund? Especially since he’d explained he was effectively just changing the booking to a different room. A clerk at the property would have said, sure, we can change that. It was a simple request.

When pushed, Expedia refunded the original payment promptly. But why should we have to push?

Next, I booked a tour to Arthur’s Pass via Viator, which is a part of Trip Advisor. There was an option to include a ride on a jetboat, but, knowing my friend’s not all that keen on boats, I went with the trip without the jetboat option. When I told my friend about it, she asked me to add the jetboat. No problem. I found my booking on the website and tried to include the option. My experience was much the same as I’d had with Booking.com. After a couple of tries, I rang the ‘help’ line.

I waited on the line for at least forty minutes before a pleasant (but not very bright) young man from the Phillipines picked up the call. After several goes at getting him to understand I just wanted to add the jetboat option, and yes, I would pay by credit card etc etc the booking was finally changed. I tried to tell him about my issues with the website but he couldn’t get me off the phone fast enough.

I contacted the tour company when we arrived in New Zealand to confirm the booking, and confirm the change to pcickup location. Even that wasn’t as straight forward as it should have been, but never mind. All good.

We were duly picked up at the right time and place, and enjoyed our trip up to Arthur’s pass. But the jetboat ride didn’t happen. It was nobody’s fault, the river was too high to take the boat out. I received an email from Viator before we left New Zealand, acknowledging the jetboat had to be cancelled. A partial refund had been sent to my account.

Partial?

They’d refunded $55. What the hell? I’d paid rather more than that. So I sent an email stating that it wasn’t good enough. Why was this a partial refund?

A few days later, I received an update. They’d refunded another $15, making the refund $70. By this time I was livid. I’d paid $96 for the trip and I told them so, reiterating that we hadn’t cancelled, we’d showed up, and they had no right to retain any of the money. I have now received the full refund.

So… all these aggregators are great at taking your money, not so great at giving it back. I’m sure they use the excess funds on the short term money market (just like the banks). In the case of Viator, if I hadn’t complained, I’m sure they would have left the refund at $55. Quite a few people wouldn’t have noticed.

We have found that the aggregators are good at giving lists of properties. From there, take your pick and contact them direct. Hotels pay to be listed on these sites – you might find as Pete did recently that Booking.com offers a room at (say) $120 – but the hotel will ask for $110.

One thing’s for sure – I’ll never book anything through Booking.com, Expedia, or Viator ever again.

And on a positive vibe, here’s a couple more photos of lovely New Zealand.

 

B and G’s excellent adventure – getting there

I was off on my own (ie without Pete) for a short adventure with my oldest friend, B. She and I go back fifty years, when we first met at high school. We became firm friends at university and shared many a scrape and mistake and wonderful times back in Perth, where I grew up. These days, she still lives there with her large family and plenty of responsibilities, whereas I’m a retired layabout on the other side of the country. So we planned a short escape to give her time to refuel the engines, and give me a chance to see a small part of New Zealand’s South Island. And gossip and reminisce over a glass or two of good New Zealand wine. Of course.

Needless to say, we didn’t travel on the same plane. B booked a flight from Perth which would have her arriving in Christchurch well before me. I flew on a morning flight from Brisbane, which meant a 3-4 hour drive from Hervey Bay to the airport. Rather than get up at midnight to drive to Brisbane, Pete and I drove down the day before and stayed in a hotel overnight. It was pretty ordinary, but it was a bed for the night. Breakfast was pretty ordinary, too – we had a sort of Eggs Benedict, overcooked eggs on a slice of ham on a slice of bread, covered in rocket leaves, drowned in far too much (bought) sauce.

Hey ho. Pete dropped me off and headed for home while I worked out how to do the self-service check-in. Much as I poo-pooed the whole procedure when I first encountered it, I have to say it has speeded up the airport experience considerably. No more conga line of people and bags snaking around in front of the airline desks. I’m not sure what they can do about the security screening, though.

It has been many years since my only previous flight with Virgin, so it was going to be interesting. Although it’s no longer as cutprice as it was when it started in Australia, Virgin is still a bit spartan. I paid the extra to pick my own seat, and get a meal. But you use your own device to watch movies etc, having downloaded the Virgin app. There were no usb ports. The food was ordinary – penne in olive oil and breadcrumbs on top with gluggy potato salad. The chocolate mousse wasn’t bad.

We got off to a bad start when the flight was delayed for an hour. These things happen, of course, but when the pilot did the routine apology, he explained that the delay resulted from two factors; first, the crew had arrived from New Zealand that morning on another flight, which was late getting in. When they arrived, they had to go through transit security. NZ flights seem to leave from the gates furthest away from the main airport, so they had to go all the way in, then all the way out again. It must have taken 20 minutes. Bureaucracy gone mad, in my opinion.

It’s a boring flight most of the way. The plane crosses the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, known to us as ‘The Ditch’. I played Solitaire or dabbled in a book until we crossed the NZ coast. The alps were spectacular, with snow dusting the mountain peaks and turquoise rivers swirling through the valleys. Yes, the camera was up there in the overhead locker. I had more leg room in the row behind business class – but there was no seat in front of me to put my camera bag. But I did my best with the notebook.

I’d organised a super shuttle for the trip into the city. It’s a shared mini-bus service, costing $25 – much, much cheaper than a taxi. The driver was a refugee from North Carolina, a big, bluff woman who said she used to manage backpacker hostels in the city centre – until the earthquake (there will be more on that). Her job vanished with the buildings, so she bought into this franchise. She was the first and by no means the last person to tell me how frustrated she was with the lack of action in addressing the devastation caused in the earthquakes in 2010-11.

I arrived at the hotel (complete with 2 bottles of sav blanc from duty free) around 5pm, expecting my friend would have arrived well before me, around 10am.

She wasn’t there.

All sorts of things went through my head. Illness? Problems with the grand children? A sick dog? I sent her a text message. “You’re not here. What happened?”

The last thing I expected was aircraft dramas. The direct Perth – Christchurch flight she was supposed to take was cancelled due to maintenance problems. So she caught a Qantas flight to Sydney, which would connect with an Emirates flight to NZ. Except that after about two hours the cabin lost pressure. You know all that stuff they tell you in those safety briefings? Masks come down from above, put them on and breathe normally? Yep, all that.  She said there was a noise and all the lights went out, then a repeated announcement was made – ‘this is an emergency’. But the lights came back on, the pilots said a fault in the air conditioning caused the cabin to lose pressure. The plane descended rapidly to 10,000 ft, where oxygen is not required. B thought there was also a medical emergency in the cockpit, with a woman passenger she thought must have been a doctor running down to the cockpit. The cabin crew kept stressing that they were trained in dealing with the situation and to keep calm.  Since B flew business class, she would have been shielded a little from events in the rest of the cabin. It must have been heart-stoppingly scary, but B said after she accepted that there was nothing she could do, she watched the cabin crew, who wore masks attached to oxygen bottles they carried, doing their jobs calmly and efficiently. There were 297 people on the flight. It must have been a helluva job keeping all those people from panicking. Although I expect there would have been a few who panicked, anyway. Here’s the news report about it.

The plan had been to land at Adelaide, but Adelaide couldn’t accommodate the aircraft, so they flew on to Melbourne. There was no gate available there, either, so they stopped at a hard stand away from the terminal and waited until ground staff brought over a ladder for all the passengers to disembark. Then Qantas staff had to arrange new flights for everybody. My friend was put on an Emirates flight. But her luggage (and about 10 other people’s) hadn’t made it off the plane. Staff did their best, giving stranded passengers Qantas pyjamas and rudimentary toiletries. B spent 5 hours in the Qantas lounge and arrived in Christchurch around 6:30pm, suffering from lack of sleep – but with a great story to share. Just as well I bought that wine in duty-free.

B told me it was almost as if she had a premonition something might go wrong. Although she’s a great traveller, she doesn’t like flying. Apart from the usual hugs and kisses for the dogs (in case she doesn’t see them again) this time she packed an extra dose of her medication and a pair of knickers in her carry-on luggage – something she doesn’t normally do. At least I didn’t have to lend her a pair of knickers.

Dinner was a bottle of lovely NZ sav blanc, and a (delivered) gourmet pizza. Even that was a tale in itself, involving issues like how do you call an 0800 number from your roaming mobile, why won’t the online apps recognise the hotel address, and ringing pizza joints that no longer deliver. But with a bit of advice from the hotel staff, all was well. After that, both of us passed out for a much-needed sleep.

A few more Norfolk Island bits

I’ve been persuaded to write one more Norfolk article, on account of having forgotten a few things I’m told I should have mentioned <sigh>.

I mentioned the little trip in the horse-drawn cart, but said no more since I didn’t go. I love horses, but they have a very nasty effect on me which has become worse over the years. So I have to avoid being in their proximity. Pete went, though, and had a thoroughly nice time meandering slowly though the Norfolk Island countryside. Culla (that’s his nickname – you’ll find his number in the telephone directory nickname section) picked up his passengers from the hotel in a bus and took them to the stables where everybody watched him harness Sammy 2 and Buddy, ready for the Big Trip.

Culla bringing the boys out

They’re Clydesdales, imported at great expense from Australia. I read a wonderful article about Norfolk and horses in the local (free) colour magazine. It described how horses used to wander around in much the same way as the cows. If you couldn’t find your own horse you just used one of the others. Naturally, they bred, and created their own Norfolk variant – if I remember rightly, a pretty plain horse, great at negotiating Norfolk’s steep valleys, tough and resourceful. They’ve been replaced by motor vehicles these days, so Culla’s tour is a lovely reminder of how things used to be.

Culla clearly loves his horses. Although they thrive on work, he gives them a helping hand going up hill, with his brother in a ute taking the strain for the two horses.

After a picnic on a cliff overlooking the sea (what else is new – this is Norfolk Island) the horses went off home.

Picnic on the cliff

Before he drove his guests back to the hotel, Culla looked after his horses first. As it should be.

I also mentioned in passing that we’d gone to the St Barnabas Chapel, where John Christian told us about the building. Christianity came to Norfolk with the Pitcairn Islanders, who became a Christian flock under the guidance of Bounty mutineer, John Adams. The light was… confronting for photography, with parts too bright and parts too dark. But we could certainly admire the exquisite workmanship.

The ceiling is shaped like a ship’s keel, all built by the young people from the Melanesian mission set up not long after the Pitcairners settled on Norfolk. There’s not a nail in the building, all done with joinery. The decoration is a mix of Christian and Melanesian, done with mother of pearl. The stained-glass windows above the altar are priceless, arguably the only ones in the world where Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are shown beardless. John Christian told us the bishop hated them, but it was too late to change them. The outside of the windows have been covered with plain glass to protect them from the crimson rosellas, who have apparently taken to picking at the material holding the panels in place. This website will provide you with good pictures.

I also mentioned that we attended a progressive dinner. All of the hosts had interesting stories to tell. When the Pitcairners arrived on Norfolk they received fifty acres of land which was divided up over the generations. One of our hosts was given, by his mother, one acre of her thirteen acres, and three Norfolk Island pines. One of the local saw mills cut up the trees for him, retaining one as payment. The other two he used to build his house. Barter system, see?

Another host told us she came from Queensland and had no idea she had a relationship to anyone on Norfolk until she traced her family history. She made the point that if you’ve got convicts in the family, it’s all there in the trial records. Name, place of birth, crime, punishment, where they were sent, when… Whereas law abiding citizens just faded away into the mists of time. She came to Norfolk to follow her roots and met (and married) somebody else from Victoria doing the same thing. Norfolk seems to gather up its own.

So there you are. If you want anymore, better go and visit. Planes travel to Norfolk from Sydney, Brisbane, and Auckland.

 

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.

A tiny speck of an island

We just spent a week on Norfolk Island, a tiny speck of an island (~35 square kilometres) in the South Pacific a little over 1,600km North East of Sydney. What a fascinating place. The island is one of Australia’s territories, but even so, it had a high level of autonomy until July 2016, when it was brought much more tightly under Australian administration. You might say that Norfolk’s relationship with Australia is… complicated.

Let’s start at the beginning. In 1774 personnel from Captain Cook’s HMS Resolution were the first Europeans to land on Norfolk. Cook charted the island and made special note of both the towering Norfolk Island pines which grow in profusion there, and a plant that resembled the flax used in Britain to make sailcloth. The precipitous cliffs were daunting, but Cook sent out a party in a long boat which was able to make land and establish the island was uninhabited. Location and description duly noted, Cook sailed away. After that there were three waves of ‘immigrants’, each of which left their mark on the island and its present population.

In 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip, commanding a fleet of eleven ships carrying around 1300 marines, sailors, settlers, and convicts, established a colony on the shores of Port Jackson which was to become Sydney. [1] He also received Admiralty orders to send a party to Norfolk Island to claim the territory for the Crown. The group of twenty-three hand-picked convicts and soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Gidley King arrived in March 1788, just 6 weeks after the colony was established in New South Wales, and started up a settlement at what is now Kingston. There were two reasons why the island was important – those magnificent trees that Cook had believed could be used for ship’s masts, and associated with that, the need to keep them out of the hands of the French, who had an expedition in the Pacific at the time. As it happens, La Perouse encountered Norfolk Island on 13 January 1788, but high seas prevented a landing, and he moved on [2].

A log of the Norfolk Island pine. The way the branches fit into the trunk is clearly visible

One of the new Norfolk Islanders was a carpenter who soon established that Norfolk Island pine was not suitable for masts. Despite its appearance – and name, the tree is a hardwood. Those lateral branches go deep into the tree’s core, which means there is a point of weakness with every branch. That said, it’s magnificent timber and the islanders still use it extensively as a building material. Norfolk was a rich and fertile land, and many people were transferred there during the early days of the New South Wales colony, when the settlers on the Big Island faced starvation.

But Norfolk is remote and does not have a real harbour. Having decided it was too expensive to maintain the colony, the Governor of NSW ended the first settlement in 1815, when the last of the settlers were moved back to Australia (many reluctantly). All their buildings and livestock were destroyed so that they would not fall into the hands of any other foreign power (aka France, although the French were busy in Europe at the time). The Island returned to nature for the next nine years until, in 1824, the Governor of NSW decided to open a new penal colony for the worst of the convicts. It was at this time that the beautiful stone buildings were constructed around the harbour at Kingston, using, of course, convict labour.

Military barracks, beautifully restored. Note the barracks wall.

This was the second wave of settlers. The penal colony had a reputation for being exceptionally harsh. We were told some stories when we visited the ruins, but I’ll refer to some of those later.  The prison was finally closed in 1855 when the last of the convicts were transferred to van Diemen’s land (Tasmania). Once again, Norfolk was uninhabited by humans.

On an even tinier speck of land in the South Pacific, 5 square kilometre Pitcairn Island, the descendants of Fletcher Christian and the mutineers who set Captain Bligh adrift in HMAV Bounty’s long boat were running out of room. They wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, asking for a place of refuge and she granted them the now-abandoned Norfolk Island. [3] The third wave of settlers – the descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives – arrived at Kingston in 1856.

Today’s Islanders are proud of their heritage. All of them can tell you their ancestry, citing ‘seventh generation Pitcairn’, or an association through a convict from the first settlement, or the much harsher second settlement. The surname Christian is common, along with Quintal and Young. There are many Baileys, descendants of a blacksmith who joined the community from outside. The Pitcairn descendants tend to be tall and obviously of mixed race, with darker skin than Europeans and high Polynesian cheekbones. Other new blood came to the island. Whales migrate nearby and American whaling ships used Norfolk as a base. Some of the sailors didn’t leave. Some people returned to Norfolk from Australia.

These days tourism is Norfolk’s main industry and everybody takes part. John Christian, who seems to be something of an oral historian, told us the history of St Barnabas’s chapel. He also took us through the remains of the prison at Kingston, telling us tales of convicts, and over the graveyard where he showed us the graves of some of the convicts he’d talked about – and the less disreputable people, too.

Sunset at the fish fry

One of the Buffets showed us George Bailey’s farm and his workshop. A descendant of a whaling sailor named Evans proudly displayed her forebear’s telescope before showing us what the islanders could do with bananas (they call them ‘plun’). Several Christians drove the buses we travelled on. Norfolk has its own language, a fusion between eighteenth century English and Polynesian, and we were taught some of it. They showed us how they used the local palms to weave hats, shared their food, and generally made us feel at home. One evening we attended a progressive dinner, where each course was served at an island home and the hosts talked about their lives on Norfolk. Another evening we attended a fish fry on a cliff facing west so we could admire the sunset while we ate morsels of trumpeter coated in a batter made with coconut milk and deep fried. Another day, Culla took our group on a cart drawn by a couple of Clydesdales.

Buddy and Sammy

Jane Evans described herself as growing up poor – but she didn’t know it. It’s a rich life, but it doesn’t involve money. Importing anything is wildly expensive, so there’s a philosophy of making do, of working with your neighbour, of barter. They don’t grow wheat, so they use arrowroot and maize, and other Polynesian foodstuffs. Chooks are feral on the island and domestic cattle roam around the roads (they have right of way). Each person on Norfolk can have up to ten cows roaming freely, at a cost of $145 pa. They all wear eartags so the owner can be identified.

There’s so much more to tell you, but this is getting long, so I’ll just share a few pictures of the gosh-wow, ooh-ahh scenery.

Next time we’ll get into a bit more history, and that complicated relationship with Australia.

Nepean Isl on the left, Phillip Isl on the right

Emily Bay where he locals swim

A view of Kingston and Emily Bay from up on the hill

Rugged coastline

Going down is easier than coming up

View across the golf course to Nepean Island and Phillip Island

The Pacific keeps on rolling in