Monsters of the forest

Our port speaker’s next talk was about Komodo island, our next port of call in Indonesia. The huge Komodo dragons that live there are famously deadly, so you can imagine how our merchant of gloom-and-doom enjoyed telling us that, if you get bitten by one, the bacteria in their mouths will infect your wounds and you will probably die a horrible death. These monsters can smell blood from a five-mile radius, so you shouldn’t attempt to go on the island with any cuts, he also warned, to the point where I wondered if the drops from my scratched mosquito bite would start a stampede of these giant monitor lizard things as soon as I set foot on the island.

Of course, the reality was a lot less dramatic. Having pulled into the bay at the island, which is pretty spectacular to look at, with high, forested mountain, the creatures that besieged us most were the Indonesian children, clamouring for us to buy their wooden dragons or ropes of pearls. In groups of about 20 (you are not allowed to visit the island independently) we were shepherded by three locals with forked wooden sticks – which didn’t look that menacing considering that these were supposed to be deadly reptiles  who could outrun and eat a deer. They led us through the Tamarind forest where the lizards mostly live, which was a lovely walk in itself, with orchids growing wild in the trees,  lemon basil at the side of the path and huge orange butterflies flitting about the bushes. We had actually seen our first lizard lazing close to the jetty, but suddenly, after a walk of about half an hour, we came to a clearing with a pool where about five of the beasts were clustered (this apparently is where their prey come to drink).

Twenty cameras started clicking madly as the dragons looked lazily at us before going back to sleep. Suddenly a couple of them jumped up, started stomping about and hissing and everyone scattered while the guards advanced with the wooden prodders. But the spat was soon over and, with cameras full of them, rather than them with us, we resumed our march back to the beach where a small hamlet of souvenir shacks was waiting to accost us with their wares. On the way we spotted a baby dragon scurrying down a tree (if you hadn’t known it was a baby Komodo dragon it could just have been any other small lizard). Apparently the young make for the trees, where they live until they are quite big, as soon as they hatch otherwise their mothers or fathers will eat them. There were no cuddly toys of dragons for sale in the shacks.

What I was seriously beginning to suspect was confirmed on the next port talk, this time on Bali, tourist capital of the Far East where there are no  lethal spiders, snakes, crocodiles, jellyfish or even dragons that the port speaker can  frighten us with. No, but there is traffic. Lethal traffic. And just in case we don’t get the point, we are shown a slide of a dead motorcyclist. Oh, and also one of the many Balinese soldiers who died fighting for freedom against the Dutch at the end of the Second World War. And, of course, a slide of the aftermath of the nightclub bombings earlier this century. So, as we all troop miserably out of the lecture  theatre wondering how we could ever have dreamt of going to see such a dreadful place, I realise it’s true: this man really is a Jonah, who can’t bear to see people enjoying themselves and that’s why he wangled himself a job as a port speaker.

So we decide at dinner that night that we have had enough and are going to make him walk the plank. Bet he didn’t see that one coming – the perils of being a port speaker.

Goodbye Darwin and Australia

Today we arrived in Darwin, which has a harbour three times the size of Sydney’s,  but we weren’t planning to go anywhere near the sea – stinger suit or no. Because, as  I’ve already mentioned, of the sharks and box jellyfish (apparently they breed off the  beach in Darwin) not to mention the tiny blue octopuses that also lurk in the depths. “You will die if you step on one”, our port speaker said cheerily. Nice. Then there are the stonefish hiding on the sea floor. The excruciating pain from their bite alone will kill you, said the port speaker and, should you escape all this, there’s always the mild irritant of the green algae that forms on top of the sea, which can give you skin rashes and chest infections. OK,no swimming then.

Could we maybe just relax on the beach, then? Better idea, but don’t fall asleep or one of the ‘salties’ or saltwater crocodiles  may creep out of the shallows and nab you for lunch. All right, we’ll go for a walk in the rainforest. Good, but wear loose clothing, closed-in shoes and beware the killer spiders and two of the world’s deadliest snakes. All this we were told by our Jonah of a port speaker before we arrived in Darwin which made us begin to wonder why we were even going there.  To be fair, thought,  salties were reported to have been spotted by some of our shipmates from the boat.

But, of course, this being the Australia we have grown to love, we needn’t have worried. There was a lovely big man-made wave pool on the Wharf which looked like a lot of fun, and a huge enclosed saltwater pool which could accommodate serious swimmers and families, both without fear of being eaten alive. As we  watched the Darwinians cavorting in the water while sipping a couple of  long, cool Cuba libres, in a bar overlooking the pool after a hard day’s sightseeing, it seemed like almost the only other thing to do on this very hot and humid evening.

First, though, while Claudio went shopping, I visited the Darwin museum which is full of aboriginal art (there are more aborigines in Darwin than in any other Australian city), examples of the snakes and the seagoing nasties mentioned above in the natural history section, and another section on the devastation Cyclone Tracy caused in 1974 when 60 per cent of the city was wiped out. So now, only the porch of the old cathedral is left while  a beautiful new edifice has grown up behind it.

In fact, almost everything of old Darwin has disappeared because the city was also attacked in 1942 by the Japanese after Pearl Harbour (a little known fact) which means that all is  uber modern – like the  scenic lift that takes you up to an aerial walkway leading to the main shopping mall, which is set amid wide, treelined thoroughfares and a scattering of skyscrapers and high rise flats.

The only graffiti we saw referred to genocide, which I assume to be with regard to the aborigines, who have suffered greatly  at the hands of the settlers. However,  there does seem to be some awareness now of the danger of losing their ancient aboriginal culture, and tour guides and institutions such as the museum do acknowledge that this land was inhabited for anything from 40,000 to 100,000 years by these people before the white man came to claim it just a couple of hundred years ago. The Maoris in New Zealand have always enjoyed a much happier co-existence with the white settlers, who seem to take much greater care and a pride in preserving the ancient customs and traditions.

Darwin is small with just 120,000 inhabitants (only twice as many as in Abingdon) even though it does give the impression of being an important city.  There are only a further 160,000-odd in the hinterland of the Northern Territories, a region much bigger in area than Britain (which, by comparison, is teeming with some 70 million – the Aussies must wonder why we’re not falling off into the sea). With so much space here,  I spotted some glorious sprawling houses overlooking Vesteys Beach (the same Vesteys as the butchers in Britain, by the way). One local, when asked where the outback begins, replied: ” At the bottom of me bick garden!” The downside of all this land and so few people is that the Top Enders, as they are called, say they suffer culturally, with the main Australian opera and ballet companies (let alone those from abroad) rarely visiting them, and there was a lot of excitement when we were there as Elton John was due to pay them a very rare visit.

It  was with sadness as we watched the lights of Darwin and, indeed, Australia disappear over the horizon as we set sail for Indonesia. Still, Darwin put on a great farewell show for us with one of the magnificent sunsets for which it is renowned and, during the following day’s voyage in the sea of Timor, which was as calm as a mill pond, Orcas, spinner dolphins and flying fish showed us a few of their tricks to cheer us on our way.

Cairns by cable car

Cairns was another city we loved. This time we went up by scenic railway high above the rainforest canopy  into Kuranda, the “village in the rainforest” and came down by cable car, stopping halfway  for a guided  tour on a boardwalk among the soaring trees and climbing ferns. On the way back there were there were spectacular views over the forest and out to the glittering sea beyond. The only hairy moment came when the cable car stopped and we were left dangling over the trees for what seemed like ages. The four of us in the car had just got to discussing how (and if) we could be rescued by helicopter when thankfully it started again and we all laughed off the idea that we had really seriously worried.

 

 

Allure of Magnetic Island

I’d never heard of Townsville until I discovered that we were going there and thought  the name must be a jokey Australian construct until I learned that there was actually a man called Mr Towns who founded the place, although by all accounts he never spent much time there. There’s lots of things  to do here, though, from viewing  coral reef in an  aquarium (much more confortable than snorkelling to see it) to visiting Billabong Sanctuary (it makes you want to go from the name alone) where, as you might expect, there of lots of marsupials and crocodiles and lizards.

 

However, we opted to go to Magnetic Island (so-called because of the points on a discoverer’s compass rather than its allure), which is a five-mile ferry ride away. Known by Aussies as Maggie, it’s much more attractive than our erstwhile British version. With tall hoop pines, patches of rain and eucalyptus forest, it’s home to the largest colony of wild koalas in norther Australia,  and has lots of sandy beaches where the rocky headlands meet the sea. Because of those pesky jellyfish and saltwater crocodiles, though, the actual area where you can swim, enclosed by a net, is comparatively small. So we just found ourselves a cool café, ordered large lagers and a huge platter of fried squid, Moreton’s Bay bugs (huge crayfish), plump prawns, scallops, and chips (as if we needed feeding!) and watched the world go by.

 

 

Monsters of the deep

It was raining on and off on our sea days to the Whitsunday Islands in northern Queensland, and the weather was still changeable when we anchored off Hamilton Island. But it was clear enough for us to see that this was another  paradise island with a lush verdant hillscape and wide sandy beach. The only trouble with this part of Australia are the sea creatures – and I’m not just talking about sharks, although there are those. One of the worst menaces are the stingers, or jellyfish, the box version of which can kill you, or so our port speaker told us (although I’m coming to the conclusion that he’s a bit of a Jonah and takes delight in frightening us poor cruisers out of leaving the ship at all). However, I had previously been warned by my niece that, because of the very hot summer they had had there this year, there were more of these lethal wobblers than ever.  He (the port speaker, more of whom in another post)  illustrated the point with a slide of the deep black marks burnt into the arm by a box jellyfish of a deceased swimmer. So, it was with great concern that I was ferried with other potential victims on the ship’s Great Barrier Reef tour, where we were to land on a pontoon close to the outer reef for a spot of snorkelling and scuba diving.

 

Before being stung by the jellyfish, though, we had the lashing of the rain to contend with as the heavens opened and whipped around our bare arms and legs. So, drenched before we had even put tremulous toe into the dangerous depths,  we all herded into the inside of the catamaran in which we were travelling. Then the sea got quite choppy and sick bags were handed out (yes, this is how we funsters get our kicks!) before finally arriving at the pontoon and learning, thankfully, that we were all to be issued with stinger suits to save us from the killer creatures. These are large blue  lycra onesies that, already wet and coming complete with a hood and mittens, take about three hours to squeeze, push and wriggle your way into.  Still,  once you’ve put on your mask and flippers, there’s not a single part of your body exposed. It’s most reassuring as far as protecting you from the monsters of the deep goes, but trussed up like a big (even bigger than usual owing to ship food)  blue frogman and swimming in grey, choppy waters in the pouring rain was not quite how I had imagined snorkelling  the Great Barrier Reef.  Cyan seas with a hot sun dappling the pink corals, fronds dancing daintily in the water  was more what I had in mind.

 

Despite all the constraints, though, I did see some wonderful sights under the water – like a huge clam, lots of spectacular underwater coral cliffs, myriad colourful fish and a giant Maori Wrasse, so tame that it would let you stroke it.

 

It was still raining as we set off for the return journey, but it cleared up as we neared the ship where we found out that those who had opted to visit Hamilton Island for the day instead, had been able to bask on its paradise beaches in tropical heat and sunshine.  My husband was among them. But he didn’t gloat a bit. No, he gloated a lot.

Bonus that is Brisbane

After another day at sea we arrived in Brisbane at about 7.30am and peeked out of the window on what seemed yet another dull day and saw all the containers and cranes that typify a port. After the triumph that was Sydney, we felt very underwhelmed about arriving in the capital of Queensland. So we had a leisurely breakfast before leaving for our day of sightseeing.

 

However, once on deck  it proved to be  the warmest since leaving Bora Bora and, slightly cheered,  we took a ‘City cat’ into downtown Brisbane. This turned out to be a very fast and exhilarating ride upstream on the Brisbane River to where the city finds its heart. It was a big like a water tube train as it zigzagged over the river to the  many stations where commuters piled on and off along the journey. As we looked up to see  banks of smart, balconied flats and gleaming skyscraping offices rising into the sky, our spirits rose with them.

 

Brisbane turned out to be another beautiful city, indeed a rival to Sydney. Many people said later that they preferred it for its more compact size and sheer ‘livability’ – there’s a man-made beach with outdoor swimming pools and  myriad restaurants and cafes right in the heart of the city where everyone can hang out after work in the balmy evenings, for instance, or tropical botanical gardens in which to picnic and cycle and pedestrian routes across the river.

 

From Mount Coot-Tha, the city’s highest point, you can see the whole of Brisbane and its river stretching away into the distance and, if you take the public bus there and back you can get a good look at all the lovely Queensland-style houses of the suburbs, which are largely made of plasterboard with large verandahs on the second story overlooking their lush gardens bursting with colourfu tropical plants. Yes, I can definitely see why someone would want to live here.

So long Sydney

We got up early so we could watch the ship sailing into Sydney Harbour… and were we ever rewarded. It was the first drizzle-free morning we’d had since we arrived in New Zealand and the beautiful lemon dawn was reflected by the cliffs standing guard at the mouth of the bay. As the sun rose higher, the city’s skyscrapers loomed into sight and then… ta daa… as we rounded the headland, we got our first glimpse of the iconic opera house and Sydney Harbour Bridge, to gasps of delight from the cruisers. No wonder  it has been described as the most beautiful harbour in the world. It certainly beats anything we’ve seen so far on this trip. Claudio has taken enough pictures to fill several books and he wasn’t alone as the decks were full of snappers (red and otherwise. By the way, our port talker warned us again eating Red Snapper as it preys on reef fish that eat plankton that can be toxic to us and has been known to make people really ill, to the point of death. On the lunch menu that day on the ship there was? Yes, you’ve guessed it. Snapper fillets. They must have wondered why the pork pie was suddenly so popular).

 

 

But I digress from what is, so far, the highlight of the trip.  Sydney immediately showed its sophistication in that this was  the first port we’ve been to where they provided a smart airport-style gangway, rather than the wobbly platform that is lowered from the side of the ship, and a large arrivals hall. We were met outside this by my niece Lucy, husband Steve and son Zak, and it was almost surreal to see them looking so normal, but it being so far  from home… and not a foot set on an aeroplane. After a few emotional (on my part, at least) hugs, we were whisked off to explore the city. We were entranced. It was a much more beautiful, sunshiny, young, laid-back, welcoming place than I had ever imagined and I can now understand why people come here as backpackers and never return.

 

First we visited all the usual tourist haunts:  The Rocks, the older part of the city where there is a market reminiscent of Camden’s; the Opera House, where we recognised almost everyone there as they were nearly all  from the ship; Watson’s Bay, which could be a pretty little sandy cove in Cornwall, with lots of young families out for a Sunday lunch of fish and chips, were it not for the sparkling sunshine and the sight of Sydney’s towering skyscrapers gleaming across the Bay; the wide sandy stretch that is Bondi Beach, which is the most popular with backpackers; Coogee Beach, which is more popular with locals; and finally Maroubra Beach, which is Lucy’s neighbourhood beach and rivals both of them. The houses on the cliffs  in the Eastern suburbs are also worth a mention as so many of them are the uber modern constructs of ambitious architects, with swirling panoramic windows giving them a maximum view of the seascape below. They are packed closely together and have little land around them, but it wasn’t hard to see why they sell for millions.

 

Eventually ensconced in Lucy’s home, which is traditional Australian in that it is all on one level with a large kitchen and living room giving out onto a back garden (yard), which is another room in itself with huge, squashy outdoor sofa, swing seat, barbecue etc and is, indeed, Lucy confirmed, where the family and their friends, a couple of whom dropped by to say hello, spend a good deal of their time. Then we sampled the New South Wales wine…

 

…drawing a veil over subsequent events that evening, except to say that the Massiman curry was excellent, the next morning, another sparkler with a refreshing cool breeze, we went for a walk along the clifftops to clear our heads and breakfast on smashed avocado, sourdough, scallops and bacon (where else but Australia?) We weren’t able to see Zak,  our seven-year-old family Sydneysider perform in his all-important ‘tag’ match that afternoon, as we had to get back to the ship, but, as we said goodbye with a lot more hugging, we promised to return as not only would we like to be able to spend more time with these  Aussie members of the family, but this is somewhere that definitely demands a lot  more attention than a fleeting visit from a cruise ship. If the upside of cruising is that you get to see many more places, albeit briefly, that you otherwise would, the downside is that you can’t stay in many of them long enough. At least we prolonged our goodbye and stayed on deck until, sadly, the last speck of the city had disappeared and only the deepening pink clouds of dusk lay on the horizon.S