The thousand mile voyage from New Zealand to Australia across the calm Tasman Sea was unremarkable apart from an albatross sighting, the master aviators of the Southern Oceans. I have mentioned before the elegance of seabirds on the wing ... Read More
The thousand mile voyage from New Zealand to Australia across the calm Tasman Sea was unremarkable apart from an albatross sighting, the master aviators of the Southern Oceans. I have mentioned before the elegance of seabirds on the wing but the albatross is in a class of its own. They look deceptively small against the huge backdrop of the ocean but in fact can have wingspans of three metres plus. I have described them as elegant, I could add effortless, majestic, even serene and still not do full justice, the pinnacle of evolutionary development.
Sydney is up there with Rio, Hong Kong and San Francisco, the iconic harbours of the cruise circuit but today she was below par. Last month we brought drought breaking rain to San Francisco and today repeated the favour in New South Wales. I wouldn’t say Sydney in the drizzle is reminiscent of Bolton on a wet Monday morning but she didn’t look her best. Queen Elizabeth attempted to inject some colour to the grey backdrop, decking herself out with a huge multi-coloured banner celebrating Mardi Gras, today's big event in town. Despite the weather many on board were on deck early as we berthed overlooking the famous Opera House newly scrubbed and looking splendid. The excitement and anticipation on passenger’s faces was testament to Sydney’s special status, what a mooring, the Opera House on one side, Sydney Harbour Bridge on the other. Our arrival did not go unobserved; several Oz TV channels had helicopters in the air covering our entry to the harbour, Cunard PR people are obviously doing a good job. Such attention does make you feel special although we doubt the BBC will be on hand to record our return to Bolton in April!
The cruise terminal in Sydney is wonderfully positioned allowing passengers direct access to the town centre, a real bonus. As today was Mardi Gras our first encounter on shore was naturally a spectacular drag queen, tall slim and disturbingly beautiful. I was quickly brought to heel however as Linda set course for the shops, Ugg boots and handbags were calling to her. The grey start to the day turned to rain but we manfully battled on, bagging a brace of Uggs before returning to the ship for lunch, sadly there were no further sightings of the androgynous one!
All large harbours provide a kaleidoscope of entertainment, various marine craft darting here and there on different missions. In Sydney the ferries are the main players, painted the green and gold of Australia, constantly shuttling commuters between dormitory communities around the bay and the commercial centre fanning out behind Central Quay. These ferries although not in the first flush of youth, employ a wonderfully pragmatic and perhaps unique design having a bow at each end of the vessel, obviating the need to turn around at each stopping point.
The Harbour Bridge famed for New Year firework spectaculars, is also popular with energetic tourists as something to climb “because it’s there” etc. We could see small groups of such lunatics, dwarfed by the huge structure, inching their way up one side of the steel arch and down the other. One of these tiny black dots could have been our charming Hungarian waitress, Szabena who told us she was doing the bridge climb. We were not surprised because only last week she flung herself off the TV tower in Auckland, bungee jumping, in case you wondered! She leaves us here in Sydney to take some leave and we will miss her bright smile in the restaurant but not the stress of her crazy exploits.
I awoke today with a grade A hang-over, to be expected the day after Mardi Gras although in truth we played no part in it. The real culprit was dinner on shore with friends; we had chosen a restaurant following an internet search, a method that does not always deliver what you expect!. Our preferred restaurant profile is quiet, traditional and conservative but arriving at our venue the reality was all plate glass, chrome, brash and noisy. Despite these inauspicious first impressions the service and food were excellent, even the noise eventually moderated: the wine flowed, it was a lovely evening shared with friends and no doubt my head will recover in due course.
Sunday morning’s harbour traffic took on a new look with the appearance of dozens of dragon boats, each manned by six kneeling paddlers. Clearly a race was in progress and it was serious stuff, the flotilla appeared from far across the bay, muscles flexing and straining, we marvelled at their stamina. But wait, unbelievably the leading group rounded a buoy underneath the Harbour Bridge and headed back from whence they came, these were serious athletes.
Unusually and unfortunately heavy drizzle fell for much of the two days in port but cleared for our late evening departure. Our final view of Sydney, the illuminated Opera House looked stunning as we slipped into the darkness and out to sea, one of the few 20th-century constructions that stand the test of time and still look cutting-edge.
Leaving a damp Sydney behind, the run up the east coast of New South Wales towards Brisbane was a delight. Travelling just twenty miles off shore, the coastal hills were clearly visible as the sun shone brightly again, the brief absence of good weather forgotten. Hundreds of dolphins joined in the fun, coming at us on the port bow, some disappearing under the keel others swimming and jumping parallel with the ship. No dolphin expert, I am unable to name the species but these wonderful creatures were two to three meters long, grey /green in colour, weighing at least 250 kgs.
Reading the small print is always important, whatever the field of endeavour, if I had done so today I could have avoided unnecessary stress. I dislike being herded, corralled or regimented, i.e. trapped with no means of escape. This morning’s mishap was on a Mississippi style paddle steamer, a river tour that took us through the centre of lovely downtown Brisbane. Instead of the expected comfortable seats on the open deck we were directed inside and without chance to protest, were seated at twelve-man trestle tables. Once in place the extreme proximity of the adjoining tables precluded escape. I considered overturning the table in an “Incredible Hulk” moment but felt this unwise, my reputation aboard the Elizabeth already suspect. Worse was to come, as we were fed mandatory scones, clotted cream and jam; after all it was 9.30am, breakfast but a distant memory!! Honouring the cruise passenger’s mantra “We shall never refuse food” the plates were cleared in short order, although the Japanese contingent looked distinctly confused having little idea what they were eating. Fortunately the communal need for the toilets soon opened an escape route and we found a pleasant seat on deck, apparently a food free zone. This vantage point gave us an unbeatable view of Brisbane as we chugged up and down the river. We were however startled when a venerable Japanese lady sitting next to us on deck, broke into vigorous song, mainly Strauss melodies; we wondered whether it was related to the clotted cream.
Brisbane is clean and stylish, recently voted the “hippest” city in Australia although I wonder how many Cunard passengers have an understanding of that concept! Brisbane today is a far cry from its origins as a settlement for hard core trouble makers deported to Sydney’s convict colonies. There was much mention by the tour guide of recent floods which did considerable damage to riverside infrastructure and property and plenty of repair work was in progress shoring up river banks and replacing lost board walks. If I could afford one of the splendid apartments along the river, this is a place that we could happily live in, providing of course it was not a ground floor property!
Evening entertainment aboard ship is a highlight for some people, easily identified as those wolfing down their after dinner desserts in order to get a good seat in the theatre. Linda and I have a slightly different strategy preferring seats near the exit enabling unobtrusive escape if the performance is dire. We have left shows on two occasions and it’s been a close run thing at other times. Perhaps it’s just our taste but the evening performers have been one of the rare disappointments on this cruise. With a couple of exceptions the talent booked has been weak, as an example I quote from today’s entertainment schedule “ Tonight Jon Udry gives us world class comedy juggling at its finest………Jon will include his famous teacup and tea bag routine” I rest my case!!
The Great Barrier Reef is on multiple lists, lists of natural wonders, bucket lists, even lists of things visible from outer space so it must be a pretty special place? Linda and I were not being perverse, just pragmatic when we decided against a trip to the reef, staying on board instead. Being transported in a crowded catamaran to a floating platform tethered at the reef and there coexisting with several hundred others in the baking sun for three hours just didn’t appeal. Feedback from friends who did take the tour confirmed we had made a wise decision. The five hour round trip on the catamaran in heavy seas was horrendous, worse the reef itself was an extreme disappointment. In fairness the reef was not at fault but the facilities, totally inadequate for the number of visitors who were quite unable to appreciate nature’s treasures. Under any circumstances a real disappointment made more so by the high prices charged.
As we did not go ashore I cannot comment on the Whitsunday Islands, our last stop in Australia and can only record what we saw from the ship. A view probably little changed since the inevitable Captain Cook sailed here 250 years ago i.e. dozens of islands scattered in a tranquil sea, a beautiful playground so far relatively unspoiled; reports of multi-million resort developments however make you wonder for how long that will remain the case.
Today’s guest speaker was Lord Michael Howard of whom Ann Widdicombe famously said “there is something of the night about him”. He is an outstanding speaker, fluent with beautifully crafted sentences. Clearly a keen and accomplished historian he spoke with authority on Churchill’s War Cabinet in 1940, he held his audience wrapt and I expect a large turnout for his next talk. Ex-model Lady Howard was in the audience just in front of me and obviously wanting to get a better view deftly vaulted from one row of seats to another; most passengers aboard attempting such a manoeuvre would be in traction for weeks.
Papua New Guinea is a collection of islands, big and small strewn for hundreds of miles across the western extremities of the Pacific, north of Australia. We came unexpectedly close to shore as we negotiated the Chinese Straights a navigation channel in the eastern part of the archipelago. We still have 450 miles to go before reaching Rabaul our destination tomorrow indicating how far flung are these islands. Passing close to land we saw a group of men fishing from outrigger- canoes, the natives waved apparently friendly, fortunate as head hunting and even cannibalism has not entirely died out in these parts! Thin columns of smoke rose from different parts of the jungle canopy; perhaps the fishermen’s wives anticipating a good catch were getting the pots on the boil.
Rabaul as a venue was an unknown quantity, destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1994, a high-risk malaria area according to the WHO and struggling with a GDP per capita definitely in the lower quartile, it didn’t look too promising. Additionally our tour operator had warned us to expect all manner of hardships from the volcanic ash, rain, unprofessional tour guides and archaic transport. In fact this was the most enjoyable tour since the beginning of the cruise. A favourable wind direction saved us from the volcanic ash and the heavy rain of previous days gave way to sunshine. Its true that our betel nut chewing tour guide was shy and ill trained but absolutely charming as she tried so hard to get things right, carefully reading her hand written notes from a stained old exercise book. Even our little minibus was as comfortable as the pot-holed roads would allow. I tried to pinpoint what made this such a good trip , we visited three sites, the seismic observatory overlooking the harbour, the tunnels built by the Japanese to hide submarines during the Second World War and finally the hot springs at the base of the volcano, currently dormant but smoking ominously. None of these places individually or collectively were anything extraordinary; so without doubt our enjoyment was the result of the delightful and friendly people of this island. Wherever we went there were smiles and shouted greetings as we passed, where souvenirs were on sale there was no hustling. How rare and how lovely to see a community untainted by modern commercial pressure. We will carry back warm memories of PnG when some more famous venues are long forgotten. Despite its natural beauty Rabaul is no utopia, life here must be very tough and while presenting a romantic simplicity to the outside observer, rebuilding a community under the shadow of the ever threatening volcano and keeping a welcoming smile on their faces requires a strong character.
Leaving Rabaul our unexpected jewel, we felt sad as though leaving an old friend, silly really as we only met this morning. The thick groves of coconut palms looked intensely green in the soft afternoon light making a stark contrast with the barren fractured cone of the volcano belching thick white smoke and ash. How do the islanders learn to live next to such an unpredictable neighbour, I suspect the answer is they have little choice.