Marshall Islands: Death of a Prince

The namesake of one of Europe’s most famous military commanders lies upside down in a lagoon at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Roderick Eime recalls the extraordinary life and death of this famous warship.


Escape from PNG: The Bulldog Track

Longer, higher, steeper, wetter, colder and rougher than Kokoda

The Bulldog Track

How a bunch of fugitive old miners and tradesmen discovered a vital supply route and survived one of WWII great escapes.
Roderick Eime learns about The Bulldog Track from the book by actor, Peter Phelps.

The legend of the Kokoda Track has long since entered the annals of Australian folklore. The decisive and protracted battle marked a turning point in the war against the invading Japanese but, despite its unarguable importance, the Kokoda Campaign runs the danger of overshadowing many other significant battles and exploits.


Keeping Secrets – Beyond the Ramparts of the Unknown

In one of the most remote corners of the planet, home to the purest water and cleanest air, live ancient plants and animals most of us will never see. But that shouldn’t stop us trying. Roderick Eime, ventures to northwest Tasmania in search of prehistoric mysteries.

‘As George arrives within ten paces, the animal turns quickly round, and with flaming eyes and head covered with blood, charges straight at us. The axe…flies past the animal harmlessly. George retires gracefully at the rate of knots. The tiger is gaining on him as we spring up and rush forward, yelling at the top of our voices. The beast…turns and faces us for a moment, but evidently thinking “discretion is the better part of valour” makes a bolt over the sand hills…leaving George wiping the perspiration from his face, caused by — well — by his violent exertion! How provoking that we had no gun.’

This comical encounter is described, not by some over imaginative bushwalker, but by a group of picnickers out for a Sunday stroll in the northwest of Tasmania. The year? 1893. As it turned out, it was a close call for the Thylacine, not so much for poor George.

After a tumultuous and brutal beginning just after the turn of 18th century, Tasmania was finally proclaimed an independent colony in 1825. Soon after, the ambitious Van Diemen's Land Company began their pastoral and agricultural projects on a tract of 250,000 acres granted by King George IV “beyond the ramparts of the unknown.”

This remote and inhospitable northwest corner of the island now called Tasmania, has lost none of its wilderness appeal and is home to the some of the last and largest temperate rainforests on the planet. But the destructive practices of the last two centuries are not completely behind us. While logging has been suppressed in the old growth regions for now, mineral extraction still presents a threat and the contentious Riley Creek Mine is the focus of conservationists’ efforts.

(c) CNN

Tarkine Rainforest: A wonderland of wild rivers, secret waterfalls, giant tree ferns, rare birds and the near-extinct Tasmanian devil. (c) CNN

“It’s a critical time for the Tarkine,” former senator Bob Brown warned, “as it is for so much of the world’s environment. But if we, in the wealthiest country on Earth (according to the UN, per capita) can’t protect something like the Tarkine, we certainly can’t ask people in Borneo or West Papua or the Congo or the Amazon to protect their forests.”

Controversial author and global warming activist, Professor Tim Flannery, is another staunch defender of this embattled forest region.

“For as far as the eye could see, stretched a sea of virginal forest, heath and button grass plains that spreads over nearly half a million hectares; all the way from the inland ranges to the wild west coast.”

CNN Travel recently ranked it number one on their list of “the world’s last great wilderness areas”, describing it prosaically as “a rarely visited, ancient and pristine forest wilderness, calling to mind myth and legend.”

Today, that corner of Tasmania northwest of Cradle Mountain is one still a vast wilderness with the Savage River National Park its centrepiece. The rest is a mixture of state reserve and conservation areas and was once abuzz with miners and loggers hell-bent on nothing but profit. The Savage, Whyte and Pieman Rivers north of Zeehan is where their riches lay. The largest nugget of gold discovered in Tasmania was 243 ounces (7.5kg) and came from Rocky River, a small tributary of the Whyte in 1883.

In the midst of this frenzy, the village of Corinna sprang up and quickly earned a reputation as one of the toughest towns anywhere in the region – and that was a pretty big call back then. At its peak in 1893 there were 30 buildings of one sort or another including two pubs, a post office, numerous stores and shops, slaughter yards and several residences, all supporting a boisterous population of some 2500 people.

By the time Federation was proclaimed, Corinna was out of easily recoverable gold and in decline. For most of the entire 20th century, Corinna was the home to just one family at a time, operating a small store and the ferry across the Pieman River. The last family in residence, the Polsons, sold their leasehold to a consortium of environmentally proactive businessmen in 2005. Since then, Tarkine Wilderness Pty Limited has dedicated its efforts toward creating a world standard eco-retreat for visitors to escape the pressures of city life and rediscover a place almost overlooked by the rest of the world.

In 1937, after the death of the last known Tasmanian Tiger in Hobart Zoo, the region north of Corinna for some 80-odd kilometres was proposed as a Thylacine sanctuary and many locals are steadfast in their belief that a population, however small and fragile, still exists in these impenetrable forests.

Guests at The Corinna Wilderness Experience can indulge themselves in any number of nature-based relaxation activities. There are plenty of walks in amongst the forests where the botanically-minded will spot such species as leatherwood, celery top pine, sassafras, king billy pine, huon pine, myrtle beech, pencil pine, native laurel, soft tree fern, slender tree fern, blackwood, cutting grass, native plum, whitey wood and the commonly named, “horizontal”. Among the And then there’s the most amazing fungi you will ever see – great vivid and spongy plates forming bulbous lips from fallen trees – some 60 species in all.

There’s a walk for every day of the week, each beginning and ending at the comfortable and convivial, but Internet-free Tarkine Hotel with its superb Tannin Restaurant, operated by chefs of considerable standing. Understandably nomadic, the kitchen is currently staffed by Euan Wiseman and his partner Jacqueline who nevertheless excels in his use of locally sourced produce like Red Cow milk, Cape Grim beef, Black Ridge Farm bacon and sausages and Mathom yoghurt, all matched to a great selection of Tasmanian and mainland wines.

Arcadia II and the Pieman River in the early morning light

An oft cited highlight is a half-day cruise along the Pieman River almost to the ocean aboard the magnificent Arcadia II, a 17m huon pine craft built in 1939. In more than 75 years, she has had a colourful career, including war service in PNG and time scallop trawling out of Coles Bay.

In the late evening, after a suitably satisfying repast, just sit out on the balcony, watch the tiny wallabies fossick and listen to the minute sounds of the forest while a riot of stars and galaxies scream from the heavens. Oh, and that piercing, throaty howl from deep within the ancient timbers? It’s probably nothing.


Corinna offers twelve authentically styled one-bedroom cottages ($200/night) with queen beds and six two-bedroom cottages ($250/night). Limited camping sites are also available

A half-day roundtrip cruise aboard Arcadia II is $90/head inc. lunch.

Kayaks can be hired for $10/hr.

Barge crossing is $20 for regular vehicles.


Phone: (03) 6446 1170

Flight access points are via Launceston, Devonport and Burnie airports. Corinna is accessible by normal 2WD motor vehicles, with the town reached from the south by crossing the Pieman River by car barge.


Sources/Further Reading:



[photo available]

Saving Corinna

It was July 2005 when sharp-eyed Sydney-based businessman and nature lover, Max Ullrich, learned that his favourite Tasmania retreat was for sale.

Driving across the Pieman River punt, Max got talking to then owner Phil Polson and learned Corinna was up for sale. The Polsons had been there for many years and were finding the isolation a bit hard going. There is no power, telecommunications are patchy and bringing supplies can be troublesome and expensive.

None of this fazed Ullrich and he was soon talking to mates Ken Boundy (then CEO for Tourism Australia) and Tony Hargreaves, a builder, as well as another who was an accountant. By September of that year, Corinna was theirs.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for the west coast of Tasmania ever since I was there with my father in the early 1960s,” Ullrich told ABC Hobart presenter Chris Ball, “and I’d been going there with my wife since the early ‘90s. It’s that feeling of total remoteness and isolation – the clean air and bright skies. You don’t get that in Sydney.”

Yet it’s been anything but a walk in the park for the four partners. Corinna’s isolation creates at least as many challenges as attractions for the management.

“It’s been a huge job,” says Boundy, “Getting good staff to stay for any length of time is always a challenge. Attracting the right guests and managing their expectations is always on our minds.

“But now we have the chance to take Corinna to the next level and introduce some really exciting developments like two- and three-day walks into the Tarkine. This will fit perfectly with Tasmania’s profile as one of the world’s great walking destinations.”

Talking to the visionary men behind Corinna, it seems their only real regret is not being able to spend more time there.

“Hopefully that will change soon,” says Max with a twinkle in his eye.


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Petra: Jordan’s Holy Grail

words and pictures by Roderick Eime

Described by a famous poet as “a rose-red city half as old as time”, Jordan’s Petra continues to beguile all who visit. But for how much longer?

Massive sheer rock faces, weathered by time and formed into a smooth, labyrinthine passage (siq), lead us a full mile along this ancient trading route. Two thousand years ago, traders bringing luxury goods such as incense, silk, spices and perfumes would pass through here, paying a toll to the resident Nabataeans who controlled the area.

Our caravan consists of backpack and camera-toting voyeurs, some on camels and others transported by precarious carts pulled by runaway horses. The delirious cries of over-excited tourists echo from the far reaches of the ravine, while above, some uninhibited teenager tries to perform a one-footed yoga tree on an overhanging ledge fifty metres above us. He wobbles alarmingly and the horrified crowd gasps and points in disbelief as he gathers himself up, just.

Twenty years ago, it was movie goers on the edge of their seats as Indiana Jones and his posse clip-clopped, mouths agape, into the ravine that opens up at the end of the siq. In a surrealistic reveal, the famous Al Khazneh (aka The Treasury) comes into view as we amble agog into the sunlight again.

This superb edifice is the trademark structure of Petra, impossibly ornate and painstakingly carved out of the sheer sandstone rock face. Amid a throng of leering, selfie-shooting backpackers, indolent camels and jostling tour bus hordes, we stand and gaze up at this magnificent sight. In spite of the rabble, Al Khazneh looms more than 40m above us, apparently unfazed by the milling crowd. We sit for a moment with a cup of tea bought from a ramshackle kiosk and imbibe the scene, distracted by a fragrant steaming aroma.

Amazingly, this stone metropolis sat for centuries almost undisturbed until rediscovered by Swiss adventurer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, in 1812. Burckhardt disguised himself as a Bedouin to infiltrate the off-limits region and stealthily made notes and sketches.

Apart from Harrison Ford in 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, T E Lawrence (of Arabia) (1914), President Barack Obama (2013), Queen Elizabeth II (1984) and King Baldwin (12thC) are among the notables to gaze on the spectacle of Petra. Pope Francis may also visit in May this year (2014).

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, Petra is in fact a sprawling outdoor archaeological museum of almost 70,000 hectares, of which only 20 per cent has been excavated. At its tourism peak, Petra would host as many as 8000 visitors every day, but with the combined effects of the GFC and the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, anecdotal reports put the drop-off as much as 75 per cent.

But this lull in trampling tourists could be just what the beleaguered site needs. For several years, there have been concerns about whether the already eroded and crumbling facades can withstand much more attention. It could be a chance to install reinforced pathways and fencing to protect the delicate masonry from further damage. As 60 Minutes reporter, Tara Brown, declared “Petra is being loved to death.” *

After Petra’s appearance in the Hollywood blockbuster, visitor numbers soared. Some say by as much as ten times and the tide will surely return when the current Middle East strife abates. And if human interference wasn’t enough, the entire region is hotspot for earthquakes and many monuments have suffered under the wrath of nature as well as man.

“There’s a balance between economic and cultural value that needs to be struck,” Jordanian royal and custodian of Petra, Her Royal Highness, Princess Dana Firas, tells Brown, “Jordan needs to preserve this priceless heritage as much as we need the tourism dollars.”

Unlike her bountiful neighbours, Jordan has no oil and apart from tourism, relies on meagre export dollars from agricultural produce and minerals.

{subs: need to cut words? Cut the next two pars – 184 words}

Apart from Petra, Jordan hosts numerous other ancient natural and manmade formations like Wadi Rum, the otherworldly landscape that was the setting for the 1962 epic “Lawrence of Arabia” and described by the Welsh-born army officer as “vast, echoing and god-like”. Today, visitors can camp in the desolate valleys, embark on Bedouin camel treks and even take a dawn flight in a hot air balloon.

Then there’s the Dead Sea, less than 50 kilometres from the capital Amman and the lowest point on the surface of the Earth at -400m. The fabled inland body of water is also facing its own threats as its source, the Jordan River, has been diverted by Israel. Millions of tonnes of minerals like potash and bromine are extracted from the water annually by both Israel and Jordan and the water level is falling rapidly. While the going remains good, thousands of visitors staying at such plush resorts as the 5-star Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea enjoy the therapeutic and healing qualities of the water and mud known for its remarkable properties as far back as Aristotle (c.350 BC).

But the ornate, parched and abandoned realm of the ancient Nabataeans remains the struggling kingdom’s major drawcard and while most ‘tick box’ visitors spend less than a day within the confines of The Petra Archaeological Park, a comprehensive exploration would take several. Climb 1000 stairs to reach the fabulous ‘monastery’, at least double the size of the ‘treasury’ and something of discovery in itself. Then there’s the amphitheatre, the museum, the royal tombs, the great temple and the staggering Byzantine Church with its intricate mosaics.

That same poet, John William Burgon, a 19th century clergyman, concluded his verse with the lines:

It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!

Silent and beautiful certainly, but while these hand-hewn rocks of ages still stand, it’s the modern swashbuckler, Indiana Jones, who has set the tone for Jordan’s Holy Grail.


Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways provide convenient connections to Amman (AMM) from Australia. Cruise passengers can also visit Petra via shore excursions from Aqaba.

Petra is located 262 km south of Jordan’s capital, Amman. Park entrance fee is 90JD (AU$140) for visitors not overnighting in the town.

Best time to visit is spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November).

Stay: Mövenpick Resort Petra is located opposite the entrance to the park.

Eat: Classes in Jordanian cuisine at Petra Kitchen

For more information on travel to Jordan, see

The writer was a guest of Jordan Tourism Board

Breakout Factoids:

The name ‘Treasury’ was coined from the misguided belief that the structure contained a pharaoh’s treasure. Bullet-ridden sculptures bear testament to locals’ attempts to break open the mythical cache.

In 2007, Petra was voted into in the controversial New Seven Wonders of the World along with the Taj Mahal and Colosseum. Petra received a reported 14 million internet votes, twice the population of Jordan.

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Ice Would be Nice

A changing climate has turned the treacherous Northwest Passage into a pushover, discovers Roderick Eime

We’re crowded on the bridge, at least 20 of us, peering out to the horizon with powerful binoculars and telephoto lenses. Surely we’ll see something soon.

Polar bears, whales, countless seabirds and even a rare species of Caribou are all checked off, but something is still missing up here in the high Arctic of Nunavut, Canada. It’s ice.

Up until the last decade, the Northwest Passage was only achievable, if at all, during a small window of opportunity in the northern summer when favourable winds and currents allowed a narrow corridor through the pack ice. The first person to successfully navigate a vessel through the labyrinth was Roald Amundsen in 1906 – a feat that took him the best part of three years.

Beginning almost 200 years ago, scores of brave (some say foolish) explorers set off in waves in an attempt to claim the 20,000 pounds reward offered by the British Admiralty for the discovery of a North-West (sic) Passage. Early attempts were conducted in unusually low ice conditions and bore promising results, but by the mid-19th century, the ice had rebounded and efforts culminated in the famously disastrous expedition by former Tasmanian Governor, Sir John Franklin, who vanished along with his 128 men and their two ships.

Now here we are aboard the Akademik Ioffe, a well-travelled and sturdy former Soviet polar research (some say ‘spy’) vessel steaming confidently through the narrows of the Bellot Strait, a notorious little sliver of water that thwarted almost every navigator before us. The chap who named it in 1852 actually had to the sled the whole way on ice and it wasn’t traversed by a ship until 1937. Some of our complement is actually aboard a little Zodiac runabout for the 25 kilometre run, stopping to set foot on the northernmost point of the American continent, Zenith Point at 72 deg N.

Prior to this, we’d been way up at 74 degrees on Beechey Island, the site of Franklin’s winter camp and burial site for three of his early casualties. This rocky appendage to the much larger Devon Island serves as northern gatekeeper to the east-west Parry Channel. These graves are the only contemporary memorial to Sir John Franklin’s famous folly. From forensic examination of the well-preserved bodies in the 1980s, it was found they succumbed to a mysterious combination of lung disease and lead poisoning thought to be from poorly soldered cans of food. Numerous other memorials and a now ruined winter refuge were added in later years.

“Ice at two o’clock, and what’s that? A bear?” comes the call from Boris, our patient and vigilant expedition leader. At the exit of the strait we finally encounter the ice he’d been studying the night before on the daily satellite chart and there, through the strongest binoculars, we see a lonesome but very large male polar bear, nostrils aloft, already sniffing us out. Given we are something like a day ahead of schedule because of the effortless, ice-free journey so far, Boris decides we’ll keep the bear company for a bit.

The following day is a similar doddle south down through Larsen Sound and after a hearty lunch of steaming broth and roast lamb, we go ashore at the triumphant-sounding Victory Point. In truth, there's nothing victorious about Victory Point. Named, not after some long-forgotten battle, but after the ship commanded by Capt. John Ross during his arduous 1830 voyage.

We land on a desolate and rocky shoreline in our well-rehearsed procedure where shotgun-toting scouts disembark ahead of the main group to set up a polar bear perimeter. After the abundance of hungry carnivores sighted at Coningham Bay, there's plenty of reason to be cautious.

Dotted along the ridge above the high water mark are several stone cairns erected to attest the arrival and departure of various vessels and their shore parties. None, however, are likely to be the original cairn built to mark the initial progress and later demise of Franklin's last surviving men who suffered, as searcher John Rae wrote in his 1853 report to the Admiralty, "a fate as terrible as the imagination can conceive."

None of the monuments we examine contain any clue to their origin. Some weathered mahogany once fastened with modern stainless screws and some soggy, illegible scraps of parchment are all that remain of previous visits. But it was here that the famous official Admiralty document was found in 1859 bearing definitive news of the fate of Franklin.

The document's first entry was on 24 May 1847 signifying 'all well', but further messages scribbled in the margins told a much gloomier tale, including the death of Franklin himself just two weeks later.

It read in part:

April 25th, 1848. Ships Erebus and Terror abandoned ... Total loss by death to date, 9 officers and 15 men ... Start tomorrow for Back's Fish River.

Despite a forensic examination of the puzzling remains by the search party, the mystery of the Franklin Expedition's demise remains unsolved. But as far as the Admiralty was concerned, the costly expedition was lost and the 'case closed'.

Our journey ends as Franklin’s should have at the unlikely outpost of Kugluktuk, an Inuit settlement almost to the Beaufort Sea where a vintage 737 is sent to collect us and bring new adventurers for the return journey. As the old jet taxis through a cloud of dust to the ramshackle terminal, I try to imagine those wretched souls man-hauling heavy lifeboats and scavenging anything to survive in the harsh, featureless landscape of the Arctic. If only they’d waited 150 years, they could have done it in a canoe.

GETTING THERE: Air Canada ( flies daily from Sydney to Vancouver and directly onto 59 Canadian cities. One Ocean Expeditions provide connecting charters from Ottawa and Edmonton.
STAYING THERE: The historic Fairmont Chateau Laurier, Ottawa. ( has rooms from around A$250/night. TripAdvisor 4/5.
CRUISING THERE: One Ocean Expeditions ( offer two annual 14-night Northwest Passage expeditions aboard the 100-berth Akademik Ioffe in August between Kangerlussuaq (Greenland) and Cambridge Bay (Canada). Enquiries: Active Travel ( 1300 783 188


Wales: Welsh Revhead

Phil Price Rally School

Hiding among the idyllic Welsh countryside is a notorious school for boys and girls.

Phil was a lousy tour guide. Here we were in the gorgeous green dales of Wales and what was I going to see at around 200 km/h? Mighty trees, a mere metre or so from my door handle were an unseen blur and I never even saw the hundred metre drop barely an arm’s length away. The little Ford Escort coupe had rock-hard suspension, very poor noise insulation and was caked in thick dirt. But I asked for it.

Phil Price is one of the UK’s top rally instructors. Located in the lush, picture-postcard hills of Wales, about 50 miles west of Birmingham, Rally HQ is a modest demountable under a giant oak tree and full of photographs, trophies and model cars. Phil caught me staring at a shot of a 1980s-era Mk.II Escort at full noise. I thought I recognised the vivid yellow helmet behind the wheel. “Yep, that’s Ayrton Senna. He loved it here.” Many of the world’s top rally teams use his vast forest facility for pre-event and off-season testing, but I’m here for day of “hands on” tuition in this knife-edge sport.

Wales has proud rally heritage and is the current host to the oldest regular international rally event, Rally GB. Now branded Wales Rally GB, the Welsh Government is underpinning its support of the event with an impressive economic promotion. Despite the unforeseeable and premature termination of the 2005 event, Wales have committed to support the event until 2011, reinforcing the broad public and governmental backing.

Meanwhile, back at Phil’s, ten of us gather around in the “briefing room” for a run-down of the day’s activities. Scanning the motley assemblage, his quiet, laconic demeanor belies the intensity behind sharp, steel-blue eyes. A dignified, albeit minimal coiff of grey hair frames his lean, chiseled features. There are the inevitable “hey-day” anecdotes, near death experiences and “there I was” tales related in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner.

Phil is refreshingly light-on for whiteboard coaching and bureaucracy and we’re soon revving up for our first laps of his artificially muddied, kidney shaped circuit with all the traction of an ice rink. It’s pretty evident from the get-go that none from this batch of freshmen are of the calibre they imagined with numerous tail-slides, understeers and plain ol’ balls-ups.

Despite our impressive and comprehensive array of driving violations, our instructors (one of whom is female) are sympathetic and delightfully non-judgmental, thereby preserving our fragile male egos in the face of abject devastation. No “sergeant major” debasement required – we were doing just fine on our own.

Just when we thought we were getting the hang of it, out would come the water truck to deal us another hand of wildcards. In spite of all earlier predictions, our cumulative skill pool appeared to rise. Wild ‘tailies’ were tamed, throttle feet were unleaded and white knuckles turned to pearl.

Then, after some lunch, Phil calmly announced we were all going to have a steer of his AWD Turbo Cosworth Escort on the forest stage with him calling the notes. Talk about in the deep end.

Despite my own attempts at psychological desensitisation, the process of strapping into a full-blown (pun intended) rally car is highly intimidating. Helmet and microphone are installed and Phil’s voice, complete with signature Welsh accent, came across the invisible headphones in a barely intelligible stream of crackles and Cymraeg.

I don’t notice the speed as I attempt to hammer up the rocky hill toward the hairpin, engine struggling to stay on the power. What I do notice is the wholly incredible traction in this little car and I sense a glow of confidence as we slip noisily between the trees, Phil’s excited chatter still hissing in my ears. Fortunately, the route is fairly self-explanatory; this way road, this way trees and pain.

“Go right! Go right!” Phil yells when the car clearly wants to go left. I gather it up inelegantly and continue to the finish, my upper arms and shoulders protesting at the unusual exertion. Phil looks me plainly in the face, “not bad”. So ends my assessment.

Phil Price Rally SchoolAs the racks of the initiated continue to grow, smug satisfaction spreads amongst us like teenage debutantes. And as a grand finale and effective quench for our conceit, Phil unveils his secret weapon, another Cosworth Escort, only this time rear-wheel-drive and, according to Phil, “much more fun!” One-by-one, we’re installed as mute navigators and hurled around the same forest stage at roughly twice the speed. As we’re extricated, breathless and quivering, our day is complete. Trophies, for what I don’t know, are distributed and we depart knowing that, while we’re never going to steer like a real rally driver, we’ll never lose out on another parking spot at Coles!

Doing It:

Phil Price Rally School


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A Royal Rendezvous with the King of Coron


A Royal Rendezvous with the King of Coron

The mini monarch of a tiny Filipino enclave could have some lessons for the world. Words and images Roderick Eime.

“Yes your majesty, everything is arranged. No, thank you your majesty, we have everything we need.” And with that, Orion expedition leader, Justin Friend, flipped his Nokia shut and breathed a sigh of relief. We are about to meet His Royal Highness HM Tribal Chieftain Rodolfo Aguilar I in his ancestral kingdom, the island of Coron.

Orion II has just dropped anchor in the narrow straight between Busuanga Island and its lesser satellite, Coron, in the Sulu Sea about 300km SSW from Manila. It’s a wild part of the Philippines for sure, inhabited by the northern (or Calawian) Tagbanua people who are quite possibly the oldest ethnic group in the entire Philippines.

Despite his miniscule dominion, HRH Rodolfo is not a monarch to be trifled with. Together with his Council of Elders, he obtained a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title for his people in 1998, a Native Land Title by any other name. In the hotbed of Filipino politics, that’s no mean feat and it means he has all-but-absolute rule over this ethnic enclave that includes not only the rugged limestone islands, but also the much prized fishing grounds.

Perched on the gunnels of our Zodiac tenders, the floppy-hatted delegation motors toward a secluded beach on Coron Island, just out of sight of the main township across the strait on Busuanga. Our landing site is a sheltered cove overseen by towering basalt cliffs splattered with gnarly outcrops of awkward-looking shrubs clinging to the sheer walls.

The stern of the sunken Japanese WWII freighter, Olympia Maru near Coron, Philippines. (c) Capt Peter Heimstaedt

During the Second World War, these craggy alcoves hid warships and transports of the Imperial Japanese Navy as they made the treacherous voyage between Japan and the battlefronts of Borneo and Papua New Guinea. With the Allies on the front foot in the closing months of 1944, twelve ships laden with urgent supplies for the beleaguered Japanese forces were located by Allied aircraft and promptly sunk at anchor. This ‘ghost fleet’ of Coron is now one of the world’s best locations for wreck divers and little dive shops dot the main street in town catering to the constant trickle of aquanauts arriving from all over the world.

Mostly stripped of their valuable contents by post-war salvagers, the bare hulks are easily explored by divers of modest ability in depths of around 25 to 30 metres. Colourful marine organisms have attached themselves to the rusting relics while batfish, stone fish, barracuda, lion fish - and scores of others whose names I've never learned - patrol the decks and open holds where doomed Japanese seamen once fought to defend their vessels from dozens of dive bombers.

As our tiny flotilla approaches the delicate little beach, we can see all is in readiness for the royal occasion. Makeshift picnic shelters and benches festooned with local flora await our bottoms while local villagers bustle about with last-minute preparations. Unloaded and ashore, we gather in anticipation as HRH prepares to greet us. Meanwhile, Justin, who spent weeks in the region organising this regal occasion addresses the gathering.

“This is really quite a special occasion,” he begins with uncharacteristic restraint, “we are the first cruise ship to visit the kingdom of Coron and it is with the blessing of His Royal Highness that we are here enjoying this magnificent location.”

Justin proceeds to make a theatrical sweep of his arm, symbolically embracing the gorgeous bay, its aggressive basaltic grandeur and all who camp within. I get the feeling he’s been rehearsing this moment. And with this none-too-subtle cue, an unassuming gentleman breaks from the ranks of the locals and steps forward to address us. No mink or ermine nor pearled crown, King Rodolfo’s regal accoutrements extend to a clean, collared polo shirt adorned with a delicate yellow scarf and crisp denim shorts. A pair of well-worn blue Crocs completes the ensemble.

His Royal Highness HM Tribal Chieftain Rodolfo Aguilar I

His Royal Highness HM Tribal Chieftain Rodolfo Aguilar I

Through an interpreter, his majesty greets us and we join him in a short prayer. The Tagbanua people are nominally Christian although adherence to traditional rituals and beliefs is strong. They have their own distinct language and even a unique script, but those with the knowledge of the ancient tongue are dying out.

With the solemn ceremony over, the gathering is treated to a display of traditional Tagbanua dance. It’s raw and rudimentary without lavish props or production, but the significance is not lost. The courting dance, or segutset, in particular, is unmistakable and Justin looks like he may be spirited away into the jungle at any moment by a particularly enthusiastic female member of the tribe. While his subjects quickly dispense with formality and embrace us in the festivities, King Rodolfi maintains an aloof air as he taps rhythmically on a skin drum. He is king after all.

The imposing basalt cliffs that protect us from the blazing sun also provide a valuable resource for the Tagbanua: swift nests. These tiny birds nest high in the cliffs in little nooks and on ledges 100 metres and more above us. One athletic young man, eager and proud, climbs the sheer walls as we look on holding our breath. Barefoot and clad only in a flimsy pair of shorts, he clambers vertically to an overhang from where he throws us a cheery wave.

A young Tagbanuan man scales basalt cliffs on Coron Island to retrieve swift nests for birds nest soup

Swift nests have been used in Chinese cuisine for hundreds of years and a kilo of saliva that forms the little birds' nests can be worth up to $10,000. The king, therefore, is mindful of potential disturbance to his fragile resource and tourism like ours is cautiously welcomed as long as it doesn’t impact on his hard-won cultural and economic independence.

After a day of lazing in the opal hued waters around Coron and a visit to Kayangan Lake just next door, reputedly the cleanest inland body of water in the Philippines, the party moves back onto Orion II. Our Coron cultural liaison and local eco-hero, young Al Linsangan, musters his minstrels on the rear deck and enthrals the dinner guests with a hauntingly soulful repertoire of local rhythms set to modern electronic instruments.

As the well-relaxed diners tap their feet to Al and his troupe’s cheery ballads, I can’t help feeling he’s singing a song of optimism and hope. Will the tiny Tagbanua community thrive or shrivel in the gaze of global tourism. I put that thought aside for a moment and sing along.



Orion II returns to Coron in 2012 as part of their Yangtze, Ryukyu and Philippines itinerary departing Shanghai 11 July. The 15-day expedition includes stops in Japan, Taiwan and Borneo. Fares start from $10350 per person. Refer to your travel agent or Orion Expedition Cruises for any discounts applicable. Toll Free Australia: 1300 361 012

For information on tourism in Coron, see


Niue: Stalking the Giant Uga

Niue for AAP
On a tiny Pacific Island, man still hunts to survive. Roderick Eime, goes in search of a real prehistoric monster that still haunts the Polynesian rainforest.

The uga (pronounced OONG-a) is not to be trifled with. It is a truly hideous beast that lives deep in the damp Niuean tropical forest and is the source of legend, rumour and folklore. Its claws, like deft mechanical pincers, can easily dismember a human in a blink and its demeanour is nothing short of monstrous. It is the world’s largest terrestrial arthropod.

It’s close to 9pm as we huddle with our guide Tony Aholima in a picnic shelter at Mutalau as a rain squall passes across the top of the tiny island nation of Niue (pronounced NOO-ay). Four of us are preparing to venture into the dense undergrowth in pursuit of this creature and Tony carries a large empty rice sack into which the captured beasts are to be flung. “We’ll get a big one tonight, I’m sure,” says Tony with a gleeful look that belies the impending danger.

Two days prior, we set traps along an overgrown rocky path designed to lure the uga from its lair in the jagged coral rock that is the substrate of the entire island. The traps, thankfully not maidens pegged to tree trunks, but simply ripe juicy coconuts split open and wedged into the crevasses - irresistible to the ravenous nocturnal hunter.

Niue, known in South Pacific circles as the "Rock of Polynesia", is just 259 sq km and perhaps the smallest nation in the world with just 1500 residents, although another 15,000 ‘nationals’ live throughout the Pacific, mainly New Zealand. Despite its size and population, Niue punches above its weight in both sporting and cultural circles. The men, lean and fit, are renowned rugby players, while the women dominate the region’s beauty pageants such as the coveted “Miss South Pacific” where they have captured the title twice in the last five years.

Located 600 kilometres northeast from Tonga, Niue enjoys a relaxed and unhurried pace that is laid back even by Pacific standards. The impeccably groomed and spotless communities are a far cry from some of their islands neighbours and the rich diet of fish gives Niueans a long healthy life. There are no mobile phones and I’m told the first ATM is on the monthly supply ship due next week. There’s free Wi-Fi though.

Sustainable tourism is not a token cliché on Niue, it is a necessity. With limited natural resources and hotel beds, tourism forms a delicate but important thread in the fabric of Niuean life. Air New Zealand flies in and out just once each week with a 152-seat A320, upped recently from a 737, but more capacity is being sought and a second flight, possibly via Tonga, is being negotiated. Visitors come to enjoy the superb scuba diving and snorkelling, where whales and dolphin encounters are more often than not, deep sea fishing (just a few hundred metres off shore), nature walks and the famed uga hunting.

Enough team talk, it’s time to set off on the hunt. We don LED head-torches and creep into the dark forest as fat rain drops catch our beams and create a dazzling curtain through which we walk. Barney the wonder dog, trots noisily by our side while the percussion of the heavy drops on the big leaves creates a sinister soundtrack. Suddenly there’s a loud crash behind me and an unprintable curse. I spin around expecting to see fellow hunter, Nick, in the jaws of an uga. There’s blood, but he’s just slipped on the slimy path and grazed himself. The casualties begin, but we press on.

“Wait here,” whispers Tony loudly, and he ventures ahead as we all crane for a look. “Come!” He signals to me with a vigorous hand gesture and shines the torch towards the coconut we laid out before. Sure enough, one of the creatures has succumbed to temptation and is perched menacingly on a pile of husks. Tony draws breath between clenched teeth, “I told you we’d see a big one!”

Tony moves in and the bright purple animal, alerted and on the defensive, rears up with its fearsome claws ready to remove any accessible appendage. But Tony is too quick; he lunges and snatches the beast behind the neck hoisting it up triumphantly. Young sisters, Tess and Elsbeth, squeal as much in delight as fear, but before the angry crustacean is secured in the sack, the victorious hunters pose for photos.

The uga, Birgus latro, is also known commonly as the coconut or robber crab and still lives in sufficient numbers on Niue to allow careful harvesting. Looking ominously like the dreaded face-hugger from Ridley Scott’s Alien movies, it is also common but protected on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, their populations are delicate elsewhere. While our prize is about the size of a football, specimens up to one metre across and over ten kilograms have been recorded.

Soaked to the skin, but satisfied in our haul of the grotesque delicacy, we pile back into Tony’s ute. “C’mon Barney, curry time!”



Air New Zealand flies weekly from Auckland each Friday morning. (Flight NZ784)


The premier accommodation offering is the Matavei Resort but there are several more modest lodgings available too. See for details.


Niue offers excellent scuba diving, fishing, nature walks and caving. Try a vaka (outrigger canoe) paddle or snorkel. A range of café-style restaurants are in the main town at Alofi and a 9-hole golf course is adjacent to the airport.

For details of all activities, tours and travel, see

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India: Tea and Toffs on the Brahmaputra

The Brahmaputra River in Assam sees few westerners yet delivers an unusual adventure as Roderick Eime discovers.

“The ambassador is missing!”

The urgent call came from somewhere within our little group, just disembarked from the tiny 4WDs used to carry us through RG Orang National Park. Deep in the backwaters of Assam, the thick undergrowth makes it difficult to see the vehicle behind and in front, let alone any wildlife that might be hiding just metres away.

“I didn’t see which way they went, anybody?”

Dicky (Sir Richard Stagg, British High Commissioner to India, on his business card), Lady Arabella (that’s ARAbella, thank you, not ‘Bella’) and their dashing, twenty-something lad, Charles, along with their armed escort have, for the moment at least, vanished into the dense foliage.

Minutes tick by and the possie of motley military men assigned to guard us gather for a discussion cradling their collection of antique small arms. Not all seem to share our concern as one squad stands obligingly for my camera while I snap a photo.

RG Orang National Park is one of several reserves put aside for endangered and vulnerable species like Indian rhinoceros, Asiatic elephant, Bengal tiger and pygmy hog. Orang, at just 79 square kilometres, is but a breast pocket in the overall scheme, with the neighbouring 430 square kilometre Kaziranga, the better known of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed collection.

The armed escort I thought was a bit of theatrical overkill, but Jimmy (Colonel Jimmy Evans,10th Ghurkha Rifles, retd.) reminds me there are still rebels active in Assam.

“These blighters still make a nuisance of themselves,” says Jimmy earnestly in a hushed tone. The last time Jimmy was here, he was throwing grenades at invading Japanese forces. He still has a scar from a sniper’s bullet and Military Cross as souvenirs.

Not half an hour prior, we’d all been sipping the local equivalent of billy tea; choice freshly-picked Assamese black, while a pair of rhino explored timidly in the tall elephant grass a few hundreds metres in front of us. These days the rifles protect them, but the rhino remain unsurprisingly gun shy.

“Still a bit flighty, eh?” remarked Dicky, to the assembled tea drinkers, relaxed on wicker chairs. Charles, a bit fidgety, was ready to trade the chai for a pint to go with his fag.

MV Charaidew under way

MV Charaidew under way

We’d all arrived that morning aboard the delightful MV Charaidew from Guwahati along the Brahmaputra River which feeds into the mighty Ganges just north of Calcutta. The Brahmaputra flows nearly 3000 kilometres from Tibet and China and is an important transport route for local farmers and traders. The 24-berth Charaidew is one half of Assam Bengal Navigation’s (ABN) fleet of classic river steamers plying both the Brahmaputra and Ganges on cultural and nature-based itineraries throughout the region.

In 2003 the Charaidew was rescued from despair on the mudflats after thirty years of toil. After a lengthy restoration, it reappeared as a classic river steamer for the Indo-British joint-venture company and has served a much nobler purpose ever since.

Not luxurious, but comfortable and perfectly at home in its new quasi-colonial role carrying loads of Anglos in this delightful throwback to the days of the Raj. Passengers are served authentic, mildly spiced local cuisine by charming young hosts and hostesses plucked from remote Assamese villages adjoining the Burmese border. Occasionally they are overheard chattering in their Dimapur village dialects, tongues totally foreign to Hindi and even Assamese-speaking Indians. Yet their English is cheery, clear and calm, more in keeping with their eastern cousins.

Children play on the banks of the Brahmaputra

Children play on the banks of the Brahmaputra

To add to the adventure, the Charaidew had run aground on a sand bank within sight of the wharf at Guwahati just prior to our arrival. Harmlessly, but embarrassingly stuck, we became a headline news item in The Telegraph (of Calcutta): “Ship stuck in sand, foreigners taste the Orient”, the paper blurted. “Two Australians & seven Britons spend night in the middle of Brahmaputra after snag in vessel,” it continued, politely omitting our identities.

Two stout river tugs worked noisily all that night to free us and our ever-cheerful host remarked in the morning with some relief, “With the river level falling, we would have been stuck until the next monsoon.”

During our snail-paced passage upstream, we stopped at tiny villages and temples for an insight into rural life far from the major cities. Hordes of bemused villages line the shore as we’re tied up to the crumbling bank. Once ashore, our excursions took us to tea plantations, craft workshops, rowdy markets and quaint cafes. My favourite local pub, the unassumingly-dubbed, Drongo Wine Bar, served whiskey shots and local brew to a most discerning clientele.

The ABN also owns the Bansbari and Diphlu river lodges, strategically positioned to enable easy access to the nearby wildlife reserves and, interwoven with nights aboard Charaidew, form an enriching and highly unusual exploration of this seldom-visited region of India.

Tasteful, even trendy, the lodges are stilted bungalows with expansive views of the river and floodplain. Rhino often crash about nearby and one woke me in the middle of the night as he trampled saplings in his frolic. I assume it was a ‘he’.

Exploration of Kaziranga was, fittingly, by elephant back safari and the mighty pachyderms cause less agitation among the rhino population, allowing much closer access. Taking a photo however from the swaying back of meandering elephant is a challenge in itself. Tigers, if they still populated this park, remained unseen.

Back at Orang the consternation among our British colleagues is rising. Then, just as suddenly, the guards’ huddle breaks as two little Suzuki 4WDs roar toward us down the dusty track. Expecting to see panicked and ashen faces behind bullet-riddled windscreens, Dicky steps down from his mount apologetically and announces is his best Oxbridge; “Dreadfully sorry, seems we took a wrong turn, nothing to worry about. Hope you weren’t waiting long.”

Charles, looking the most relieved of us all, turns to me and quietly remarks “Had to make an urgent stop you know, call of nature.” He opens his wallet and reveals a single 1000 Rupee note, “and I was down to my last one! Expensive that.”

Fact File

Assam Bengal Navigation conduct 4-, 7- and 10-night cruises along the Brahmaputra combined with lodge stays and wildlife safaris. Prices are calculated at US$350 per person per day plus taxes. Single supplement applies. Discounts are sometimes offered.

The RV Charaidew accommodates 24 passengers in 12 air-conditioned, twin cabins, each with private facilities. Included buffet meals are served in the dining room and there is a separate lounge/bar/library in the bow plus a large rooftop sundeck.

Singapore Airlines flies from Australia to Calcutta (Kolkata) via Singapore. Domestic link to Guwahati such as Jet Airways (

Contact: Active Travel +612 9264 1231

The writer was a guest of Assam Bengal Navigation and India Tourism


Sail in for a Solomon Island Surprise


The Solomon Islands are a mystery to most Pacific Island vacationers. Adventure cruiser, Roderick Eime, reckons all it takes is a little bit of curiosity and a sense of history to be bewitched by this emerging destination.

The ghostly group approached us timidly, looking curiously in all directions. Mainly young men and a couple of boys, all smeared head-to-toe in lurid orange mud, they scanned the bushes, the tree tops and the tall grass. Clearly in fear of being observed, they moved cautiously as if any or every movement would betray them.

While these orange interlopers patrolled the gathering, women and men in traditional village attire danced and chanted energetically. The women, in particular, cavorted in a way that would have the missionaries covering their eyes and rushing for their bibles. Their hands firmly on their hips, they gyrated unambiguously, throwing their heads back in mirth.

But it wasn’t long before the orange mudmen’s imagined bogeymen materialised. Slim, lithesome and painted as black as the proverbial, their mouths were bright crimson as if full of fresh blood. They stalked the citrus-coloured troupe, snarling and mocking the orange men with menacing, wide-mouthed laughs and jabbing long, sharp spears. Forced into a terrified huddle, they ducked and dodged the increasingly nasty thrusts.

The scenario played out for a just a few minutes and our alarm grew as the younger ones clung nervously to the quivering legs of the elders, but the finale was approaching and the assembled local villagers cat-calling and laughter grew more enthusiastic as the bewildered mudmen scurried off into the bush at the point of a lance.

The final act played out, the entire cast reassembled for a curtain call and our cameras clicked furiously. Those without cameras applauded appreciatively.

Here on Santa Ana Island in the eastern province of Makira Ulawa, the ancient traditions are preserved and gleefully recreated for the occasional tourist group. The significance of this performance is explained as a representation of the arrival of foreign people and their disruption of local custom. There is some dispute however whether the new arrivals are Europeans or Polynesians. I imagine they’re interchangeable.

Santa Ana is one of several outlying islands that maintain strong cultural traditions, as much for themselves as a marketable commodity for visitors. Either way, all parties are winners and our visiting group display great interest in the multitude of artefacts and handicrafts set out for perusal.

The islands in the immediate vicinity are theorised to have been first settled by the ubiquitous Lapita people around the time the Romans were getting underway in Europe. Scattering their trademark pottery throughout the Pacific, anthropologists still debate the actual migration route, but it is generally believed to have been from the west and dependant on the sea levels current at the time.

At the Busu Cultural Village on Alite Island in Malatia Province, the centuries-old tradition of shell jewellery and currency has its home - a kind of shell mint Again we are met by energetic dancers, although instead of mud, coral and animal teeth, these handsome performers are draped in intricate shell ornaments.

Certainly the most prominent example of shell currency is in the payment of bride price and to illustrate this ritual, a nervous young girl clings to her booty clad in a veil of tiny shells painstakingly woven together to form calciferous garments. She doesn’t appear too pleased at the drawn out ceremony and I must assume she’ll be more enthusiastic when the real day arrives.

The men of Busu Village adopt a decidedly threatening pose. Their job is to protect the women during any exchange or barter that involves transactions of the shell currency which they produce laboriously in the huts behind. Weapons and the skills required to use them are displayed, just in case we get any ideas.

The most significant confrontations and combat synonymous with the Solomon Islands are the furious and bloody battles fought between the Allied and invading Japanese forces during the Second World War. Some of the most ferocious fighting took place around the capital, Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal throughout 1943.

The war history of the Solomon Islands would easily occupy several articles and the history of the campaign and the many relics, wrecks and material left behind continues to attract amateur historians and sightseers. Overgrown and abandoned tanks, crashed aircraft, sunken vessels of all types and forlorn fortifications draw curious visitors all year around.

Many of the most interesting artefacts are below the waterline, particularly around the island of Gizo (also sometimes spelled Ghizo) in the Western Province. Local dive operator, Danny Kennedy, regales us with wartime tales, particularly his favourite one, that of his namesake President, which took place not far from his little shop in the township.

While patrolling nearby Blackett Strait in August 1943, the President-to-be was in command of PT-109 when it was cut in two by a speeding Japanese destroyer in the middle of the night. The surviving crew swam to what was then Plum Pudding Island before finally being rescued thanks to heroic efforts by two local village boys. The island is now named Kennedy Island.

Danny regularly takes divers to visit his catalogue of dive sites that includes both natural and manmade attractions. Fighter aircraft and various shipwrecks make up most of the program, but the Toa Maru, lying virtually intact in just a few metres of water is the piece de resistance. At 7000 tons, the Toa Maru is possibly the largest, best preserved and divable wreck in the Pacific.

The best way to travel the many islands that make up the Solomons is by small ship expedition. The experience of arriving by ship is hard to surpass as each arrival is usually accompanied by a flotilla of local canoes decorated with flowers and costumed “warriors”. Coral Princess Cruises’s flagship, Oceanic Discoverer, is now a familiar sight in Melanesian waters as she completes her itineraries between Papua New Guinea and Auckland.

Like its neighbours Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands share the natural hospitality and friendliness of its Melanesian population while offering greater depth and richness to the entire region thanks to its many natural and human attractions.

Getting There:

Fly Solomons


For information about small ship expeditions throughout the Solomon Islands and Melanesia, contact Coral Princess Cruises []