Monolith A wonder on life's journey

18Feb/12Off

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

 

Filed under: Adventure, World Comments Off
30Jan/12Off

A Royal Rendezvous with the King of Coron

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.

END

 

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.
www.orionexpeditions.com Toll Free Australia: 1300 361 012

For information on tourism in Coron, see www.corontourism.info

13Oct/11Off

Denmark: Quirky Copenhagen


There are some things you just have to do when you go to Copenhagen, but not all of them you’ll find on the tourist bureau brochure rack. Changing of the guard, canal cruises, palaces and art galleries are all there for the picking. But how about beneath surface? Every city has their little secrets and off-radar attractions. We go in search of the quirky, unusual and plain nutty.

Sensible tips: cOPENhagen CARD for free admission to 65 museums and attractions plus all-you-can-ride public transport. DKK 249/24hrs (A$47). Time your museum visits as many are only open from 12-4pm and closed Mondays.
www.visitcopenhagen.com

1 Aussie funk pumps the Plads

How do you extend your leading edge in a city renown for avant garde design and innovation? The Adina Apartment Hotel in Amerika Plads not only combines cool design and gala interiors, but does it with an Australian flair. SJB Interiors’, Andrew Parr oversaw the 2006 fit-out of this innovative property that turned heads in this hard-to-impress town. Australia’s isolation creates unique solutions reckons Parr, whose company is decking out Adinas in Berlin, Frankfurt and Budapest.
www.adina.eu

2 Big Drinks,  Big Ticket, Short Shrift

Okay, you can argue the political correctness all night long, but the Simons don’t care. Their nightclub pushes the boundaries in lots of ways. From their fanatical, social media driven guest list, raunchy DJs to the dwarf bartenders, Simons continues to attract and retain the Copenhagen elite. Transient visitors are unlikely to get past the door without an A-list FB profile, but it might be fun to walk past the old art gallery in Store Strandstræd after midnight to see who’s trying.
www.simonscopenhagen.com/

3 On Yer Bike or Ride it Like You Stole it

The inherent honesty in the Scandinavian society makes the Copenhagen City Bike Project a viable concern. In one of the world’s most bike-friendly cities, getting around the CBD is as easy as grabbing the nearest bike and pedalling your heart out. Launched in 1995 with 1000 fun, if somewhat dowdy bicycles, the project has nonetheless continued from strength to strength. Drop a 20 DKK in the lock, cycle to your heart’s content within the city limits and get your deposit back on return.
www.bycyklen.dk/english

4 Hello sailor – Naval gazing

Of all the great seafaring nations, Denmark barely rates a blip on most radar screens, but don’t tell that to the nautical Danes. Today’s Royal Danish Navy is just a dozen or so minor vessels, but at the 1677 Battle of Køge Bay, their mighty fleet routed the superior Swedes in a heroic action. All this and more is celebrated at the Orlogsmuseet (naval museum) with dioramas, ship models, weaponry and regalia displays. Double your bang with a visit to the Artillery Museum too.
www.orlogsmuseet.dk

5 Canal Vision – DIY Skipper

While the package tourists and coach herds pack into the canal barges, you can make your way through the scenic waterways of København at your own pace. Skipper a 6hp tinny with up three friends for DKK 300 (A$55) per hour with all the gear included, just be over 18 and careful. Located near the fish markets (Fisketorvet), just show photo ID and be back by 8pm. Bigger boats for up to eight are available too.
www.copenhagenboatrent.dk

6 Hash Tag- No churches in Christiana

Forty years ago in September, a bunch of disenchanted hippies kicked down the gates on a disused naval base and formed one of Europe’s most controversial alternative communities, calling it Christiana. Biblical references aside, 1000 people call it home today and there always seems to be some dispute looming over occupied land. Artists, drifters and thinkers make up this quasi-autonomous enclave but sympathetic visitors are welcome. Take a guided tour for DKK40 (A$8) but be careful taking photos.
www.christiania.org

7 Reuse and Recycle – From leading to lagging edge

So what happens to all the cool stuff when the Danish designerati are bored with it? Lots of it ends up in Copenhagen’s famous network of second-hand and vintage stores. Names like Time’s Up, Melange de Luxe and the Fisk Charity Café offer up lashings of pre-loved, lagging-edge fashion and dag-a-brac for those with a retro view. The latter sends proceeds to worthy causes and only offers recycled, fair trade and organic items.
www.danchurchaid.org/get-involved/volunteer/second-hand-shop-fisk

8 Going Mad for Danish

While some in the know would say Copenhagen’s noma is the world’s best restaurant, there seems to be as many votes for one of the most unusual. Madeleines Madteater (food theatre) is as much performance concept as it is gourmet cuisine where food is the centre of attention. Cavorting, choreographed waitstaff might appear to having a lend of you with hand-fed dishes and servings without cutlery, but the experience is seriously memorable however you chew it.
www.madeleines.dk

9 Dig deep – underground Copenhagen

The story of Christianborg Palace goes back 800 years covering virtually the entire history of Copenhagen. The royal Danes loved big flashy castles, but they were mighty careless and the first two palaces burned down. When they were building the third, the foundations of the very first, dating back to Archbishop Absalon in 1167 were unearthed. Today you can venture into the subterranean chamber under the palace and see the remains of this historic building.
www.ses.dk/ruins

Getting there:

THAI flies 40 times a week from Australia to Bangkok with daily non-stop connections to 13 major cities in Europe, including Copenhagen. Contact travel agents for the latest special offers and promotions or visit www.thaiairways.com.au.

The writer travelled with THAI Airways and stayed as a guest at Adina Apartments

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4Sep/11Off

NSW: Off Path Takes Some Beating

Originally published in Sunday Telegraph, 23 August 2009

Byron Bay Hinterland

Byron Bay Hinterland

Roderick Eime gets lost somewhere out the back of Byron and finds an oasis of good taste

Spindly branches and twigs whip my face and shoulders as I hurtle down the wet, rocky trail. I retain just enough control to dodge fallen logs, puddles of unknown depth and angry-looking rocks strewn across the steep forest track.

It’s been a long time since I rode a push-bike of any description, let alone a state-of-art mountain bike with shock absorbers, 30-odd gears and disc brakes. I’m hanging on for dear life knowing that the tiniest mistake will bring a world of pain but I manage to bring the entire unwieldy package to a skidding halt at the bottom of the trail. Flecks of mud, shreds of leaves and a few red welts are testament to my enthusiasm if not my two-wheeled, downhill ability.

“Not bad,” offers Braden as some consolation who’s almost had enough time to boil the billy and cut the sandwiches as he waits for the rest of us to catch up.

Braden Currie, a champion mountain biker in his native New Zealand, and yoga-therapist partner Sally Schott run Mountain Bike Tours out of Byron Bay, taking pedallers of all ages and ability on wild rides through the seldom-explored Nightcap National Park among others. Braden’s gnarly knees and whippet-like physique indicate he’s no stranger to a wet saddle – or coming off one occasionally.

“One lump or two?” enquires Braden as he pours the steaming tea into hot tin mugs. This is the bit I usually get right. The fat Anzac cookies look good too.

Touring the Byron Bay Hinterland and its UNESCO World Heritage-listed rainforests doesn’t have to be all white knuckles and splatter. You can hire one of Braden’s space age pushies for a leisurely family doddle around bike-friendly Byron Bay or you can get your corporate group together for a bit of blood, sweat and bonding.

It’s so easy to ignore the beautiful backwoods of NSW’s far north Pacific coast as we rush up and down the well-worn highway that links Sydney and Brisbane. A few clever detours can easily uncover darling little villages overlooked by the frantically holidaying throngs.

It takes a deliberate diversion to land in Yamba. Recently voted ‘top town’ in a Top 100 survey by Australian Traveller Magazine, Yamba is a dinky-di little fishing village that has everything but crowds. Unfortunately that notoriety may be changing things – and some are clearly ready for fame.

Sebastian Molloy and sous chef Karan turn out stunning cuisine from the kitchen of the deceptively unprepossessing Pippi’s Café attached to the Best Western Yamba Beach Motel. In a style they describe as “brash and experimental”, such delights as Muscovy duck breast and dukah-spiced lamb ($31) will add to your Epicurean vocabulary.

Yet they’re not alone. Decent tucker can also be found at the superbly located Pacific Hotel up the hill on Pilot Street where your Yamba prawns, rock oysters and seared Tasmanian salmon can be washed down with a Coopers Ale on tap.

Poke around down by the marina and you may just spot a familiar face in the upstairs gallery. Celebrated yachtswoman and now sculptor, Kay Cottee, and her partner Peter own the local marina complex and are well progressed with plans to make it much more than a parking lot for prawn trawlers.

Well positioned at the mouth of the Clarence River, Peter wants to develop an ultra-low impact resort and upgrade his marina to attract the growing superyacht fraternity.

“People forget that the Clarence River is one of our largest waterways,” Peter reminds me, “there are over 300 navigable kilometres along the river that are just waiting to be explored. Kerry Stokes (Superyacht ‘Antipodean’, 36m) called in for fuel on the way to Brisbane and ended up visiting every pub along the river between here and Grafton. He loved it.”

Even if you’re not rubbing fenders with the likes of Stokes, you can still enjoy the Clarence in a modest tinny or centre-console runabout loaded with a few rods and soft drinks. The unprepared can hire from Peter at the marina or enjoy a simple cruise on the 60-year-old former Sydney ferry “Clarence Head” across to Iluka. There’s even a jazz band on board every Sunday.

For those not ducking low branches or hopping logs on a mountain bike, there’s an almost endless foodie trail that takes you into the Eltham Valley, located halfway between Byron Bay and Lismore. You’ll need help from a navigator, virtual or human, to find the secluded Eltham Valley Pantry tucked away on Boatharbour Road out of Eltham. Proprietor, Julie Rhodes, wasn’t fussed that I turned up almost an hour late for breakfast at the little cottage amid the orchard trees and rolling hills adjacent the windy Wilsons River.

“Just in time for morning tea,” Julie announced with skilful creative deflection, “let me get you a coffee.” And this isn’t any ordinary coffee. Grown and roasted on the property, Julie’s local Arabica beans make a to-die-for latte and I immediately put my hand up for a takeaway bag. Her face falls. “We don’t have enough to sell anymore,” she tells me sadly. Such is the popularity, “but please have some of our pecan nuts, they’re fabulous!” and I’m suitably consoled.

Where does it end? Not at the Eltham Friendly Inn that’s for sure, where I’m quickly ensconced with a frothy ale and conversation before being led next door to the Eltham Siding Restaurant and a surf’n’turf replete with local on- and offshore produce.

The balance of your journey can easily be consumed with an alternative culture exploration of Nimbin or a retreat to the beachside holy grail of Byron Bay where the benchmark eco-resort of The Byron at Byron beckons with spa therapies and five-star cuisine for those not constrained by budget.

Whether you choose to explore by bike, Tarago, Range Rover or superyacht, the growing, if restrained, sophistication of the region now known locally as The Rainforest Way, will remind you that tacky tourist traps can be easily avoided.

Fast Facts

Stay

• $$$ The Byron at Bryon 1300 554 362 www.thebyronatbyron.com.au
• $$ Club Yamba 02 6646 3737 www.clubyamba.com
• $ Suzanne’ Hideaway (Clunes) 02 6629 1228 www.suzanneshideaway.com.au

Eat

* Pippi’s Café and Restaurant - www.yambabeachmotel.com.au 6646 1425
* Eltham Siding Restaurant 02 6629 1294
* Pacific Hotel Yamba 02 6646 2491

Activities

• Mountain Bike Tours, Bangalow, 1800 122 504 www.mountainbiketours.com.au
• Eltham Valley Pantry – Farm tours 02 6629 1418 – www.elthamvalley.com.au
• Eltham Village Gallery www.elthamvillagegallery.com.au
• Kay Cottee Fine Art Gallery Tour www.kaycottee.com

Getting there

From Sydney, exit the Pacific Highway at Woodburn and head to either Lismore or Casino. From here you have a number of options or stop at the Visitor Information Centre at Woodburn for more information.

Further Information: www.rainforestway.com.au www.clarencetourism.com

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24Jul/11Off

Niue: Stalking the Giant Uga

Niue for AAP
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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!”

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE,

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

STAYING THERE

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

PLAYING THERE

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 www.niueisland.com

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29Jun/11Off

Mount Kinabalu: Attitude over Altitude


As published in Escape as "High and Mighty in Borneo". Trimmed to 750 words.

With too much time spent at the bistro instead of the gym, ambitious mountaineer Roderick Eime, sets his sights on Mount Kinabalu for a triumph of age and Body Mass Index over metres-above-sea-level.

I strain against the rope, trying to haul my overweight bulk up the sheer granite face. At 3am in the morning, thankfully, I can't see how far it is to the bottom should I lose my grip. But I can now just see my objective, Low's Peak, marked by a trail of tiny LED-powered fireflys slowly shuffling ahead of me in the thinning air. I pause frequently to let the faster climbers by and give my heart a chance to slow down. A soft grunt of acknowledgment is exchanged.

I'm on the final leg of my climb to the 4095m summit of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. I'm anything but the stereotypical mountaineer, but if Tim Macartney-Snape were to stand in front of a circus mirror, you'd get some idea.

Beginning at the Timpohon Gate at 1800m, it's a trifling 9 kilometre hike to the peak. Factor in some drizzle, wind and fog, naked granite rock faces, thinning air and a 2.2 kilometre vertical climb (think seven Centrepoint Towers stacked one atop another) on what is mostly a soggy rock-strewn staircase of tree roots and the level of difficulty becomes appreciable. But if you ever wanted to climb a proper mountain without a team of sherpas, thermal suit, cramp-ons and bottled oxygen, then Kinabalu is for you.

Sure, Mount Kinabalu is no Everest, but it's no pushover either. The substantial igneous Granodiorite (just grannite from now on) peak is considered in mountaineering circles to be one of the most climber-friendly around. That explains why up to one hundred valiant souls make the ascent every day. We started out yesterday morning after a hearty early breakfast with a plan to summit and be back soaking in a hot bath by dinner time the next day. That sounds like a sensible timeline, but there are those who are never satisfied with sensible. For example, the ultra-elite band of so-called 'sky runners' will set out from here clad in high-tech sneakers, hydration backpack and fluro shorts and be back checking their standing heart rate in well under three hours.

The trek starts out innocently enough like a leisurely stroll in the woods, but quickly becomes a 'stairway to perdition'. One flight of damp rocky steps is followed by another, then another. Calves and thighs groan in protest as I jab my walking pole into the mud for another vault upwards, all the while the lean and fit stroll past effortlessly. Like branded antelopes, smug six-foot euro-trekkers bound over rocks and logs with broad, spring-loaded strides while I wheeze and shuffle like Yoda with an arthritic hip. It crosses my mind; I could claim a BMI record for the summit. But there is no question, save an avalanche or hungry predator, I will make the peak.

Dotted along the route is a series of pondoks (picnic shelters) with rudimentary washrooms and seats. Brazen little squirrels scamper about cleaning up any food scraps while you ponder the next bruising leg. Consumed with self-pity, it's easy to forget all around you is a 750 square km UNESCO World Heritage-listed biodiversity that boasts one of the richest concentrations of flora covering four distinct climate zones. From thick conifer forests, oak and colourful rhododendron to stubby little alpine bushes and medicinal flowers known only to the local Dusun community, the park is much more than just a masochistic ordeal. Around 80 per cent of visitors don't bother with the climb, instead contenting themselves with a visit to the 5-acre botanical garden which concentrates most of the park's flora into one easy location.

Enough banter, it’s time for the summit. Low’s Peak itself juts upward like a giant meringue tart plopped atop a huge granite cake and excited climbers are making their final scramble to the tip in the warming rays of early morning light. The final effort is almost an anti-climax as jubilant conquerors jostle for photo space on a spot the size of a Volkswagen roof. I oblige a handsome Asian couple in matching blue mountain kit, “Smile!” and they reciprocate. Deep breath, now it’s all downhill.

Some regular climbers figured Kinabalu was not tough enough and devised a series of permanent ropes, pegs and steps based on the European 'via ferrata', Italian for ‘iron way’. This installation was devised by the Italians during the First World War to move troops and even small artillery pieces in the Alps to get one up on their enemy, the Austrians. The military success of that can be argued, but here on the weathered granite surfaces near Lows Peak, the experience adds a whole new dimension.

Suiting up for the descent means climbing into a fetish-inspired harness with lots of metal hooks called carabiners. Add a helmet, gloves and a scrunchy-like safety strap called a ‘scorpio’ designed to catch your plummeting body if it all turns to crap. There are two via ferrata options for the junior Hillarys and Tensings; one a nightmarish odyssey through jungle and across dizzying ravines called the ‘Lows Peak Circuit’ that begins at 3776m and another at 3520m dubbed ‘Walk the Torq’ which simply shortcuts the rocky staircase and is suitable for kids over 10 years. Both terminate at 3411m and yes, I'm on the latter.

Like, the summit itself, it’s not to be scoffed at. Operated by adventure sports company, Mountain Torq, their series of rungs, ropes, cables and bridges is the highest via ferrata in the world and certified by the Guinness Book of Records. There’s a dinky little stamped and verified certificate waiting for me too as I unbuckle my Houdini suit in the hut. But the excitement is over for now and time for the knee-splitting trudge to the bottom.

Away from the imposing mountain, the wider Kota Kinabalu region of Sabah offers plenty of more conventional distractions: golf, sailing, diving, white-water rafting and just relaxing. The sprawling Sutera Harbour Resort complex is a veritable corporate theme park with a bowling alley, cinema and watersports centre for attention- challenged delegates on break-out. Otherwise, head over to the immaculate Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort and its award-winning spa at Dalit Bay where my petit, smiling therapist pays no attention to my torment as she kneads every agonised pressure point and tortured muscle tissue.

For days after, I look at even the smallest stairway with trepidation, searching for a lift or escalator to spare my middle-aged knees any further ordeal. That hackneyed mantra “no pain, no gain”, reverberates with every step, but I know the satisfaction of my modest achievement will linger much longer than the last whiffs of Dencorub.

Doing It

Mountain Torq provide guide, tuition and all equipment for your via ferrata experience. From US$135 per person, activity only. Mountain lodging extra. www.mountaintorq.com

A mandatory park guide must accompany you or your group. Reasonable fitness level is required without undue fear of heights. Guide fee A$20 for up to six climbers. Permit: A$35/person. For full climbing details, visit www.sabahtourism.com

For more information on travelling in Malaysia, visit www.tourism.gov.my

Stay:

Suteru Harbour Resort www.suteraharbour.com provide accommodation at both Kota Kinabalu and Kinabalu Park.
Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort www.shangri-la.com

Fly:

Malaysia Airlines www.malaysiaairlines.com fly to Kota Kinabalu via Kuala Lumpur
For further information or to make a booking phone Flight Centre on 1300 939 414 or see www.flightcentre.com.au/world-travel/malaysia

The writer was a guest of Malaysia Airlines, Tourism Malaysia, Sutera Harbour Resort and Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort

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20Jun/11Off

Doing the Ho Chi Minh Trail of Saigon


Saigon images

Spurred on by an old scrapbook clipping, Roderick Eime finds himself staring history in the face.

I turn fifty this year and I‘m betting the retiring baby-boomers who were my school teachers, bullying big brothers and pop idols wouldn’t score too well on a Ho Chi Minh quick quiz.

Even at 14, I was following the conflict in Vietnam very closely and when the newspapers trumpeted the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, I cut out the page and stuck it in my scrap book. If you do remember the front page images, one of two will invariably come to mind. One, the losers’, shows a Bell Huey helicopter loading frantic refugees while precariously perched on a rooftop. The other, the winners’, shows heroic tank 390 smashing down the gate of the Independence Palace, signalling the official capitulation of the city.

Except for our now geriatric fathers and long-gone grandfathers who may have witnessed similar events in the World Wars of the 20th century, such a sight is unimaginable for most of us today. Remember too that North Vietnam had been plugging away against fierce opposition for over 30 years to reach that point. No wonder it was a big day.

"And Ho Chi Minh?" I hear you ask, was the well-educated and worldly leader of the Vietnamese people, taking them from the days of cruel Japanese occupation during WWII, right through (almost) to the final victory. ‘Uncle Hồ’ died in 1969 from heart failure in Hanoi, but you can still visit him there in his mausoleum.

It wasn’t until 1995 that the US normalised relations with the one-party rule Socialist Republic of Vietnam and now the locals even feel compelled to gently remind visitors that their two countries were once at war. Vietnam, ever forward-looking and pragmatic, now welcomes French, US and Australian tourists like long lost cousins.

If you have a yearning for history there are a few key sites to check out in Saigon.

The Reunification Hall, formerly the Independence Palace, is now preserved in a permanent 1975 time warp, displaying trinkets, trophies and paraphernalia of the Big Day. Replica tanks sit on the lawn while inside, the map rooms, radio rooms and diplomatic chambers are all (more or less) the way they were on that day.

The Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum is housed inside the former palace of the Cochinchina Governor on Ly Tu Trong Street. You won’t miss it because the yard is full of military vehicles and a whopping SAM missile. Pay your 50c and go inside to see dioramas, documents, maps flags and relics of those final days. Signs say ‘No Photos’ but I regularly ignore these. Just don’t make a spectacle of yourself.

The War Remnants Museum is the big daddy with all the hardcore material including weapons, aircraft, vehicles and photography of the entire conflict from all perspectives. In case you were left with any doubt after your visit, the Vietnamese won the war and, in that time-honoured tradition, they get to write their history. It’s confronting and at times disturbing, but enlightening all the same.

For me as a cowardly voyeur of human conflict, it was nevertheless a significant moment to stand at the gates where the tanks had once crashed through and share a little belated victory.

Want to know more? See Lonely Planet’s Saigon Guide || Helen Wong has Ho Chi Minh City tours

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25Apr/11Off

My Uncle Arthur – Remembering a digger


Arthur Noack SX9399

Seeking to solve some lingering family mysteries, Roderick Eime went looking for a quiet, shy bloke and found a hero.

My childhood is full of fond memories of my funny old grandma. The tales Nanna told of her early childhood and the tough times the huge rural Lutheran family had eking out a living on various farms always enthralled me. What she lacked in fiscal skills, she more than made up for in sheer hard work. Of her fourteen siblings, only three were boys, so the girls had more than their fair share of farm duties under the strict governance of their father, Heinrich Benjamin Noack.

One story she often told was that of her little brother Arthur, who bravely, or perhaps naïvely, volunteered for service soon after the outbreak of World War II. As she got older, the “facts” of many of these stories varied and it had always been my intention to set the record straight on the matter of Arthur. My innate interest in military history, some skills in journalism and an undying curiosity made me determined to record what I could of his last years of life. Clearly the longer I delayed this task the harder it would be to gather any remaining first-hand accounts.

Hand-written note on reverse: "We beat the carrier platoon by two points. Julius Camp 1942. We had just been relieved in Tobruk. Five were to get killed in Alemein (sic) 6 months later. Arthur Noack standing, first left."

Arthur enlisted with the 2/48th Battalion of the 9th Division AIF on 20th July 1940, and embarked on HMT Stratheden on 7th November 1940. He disembarked Port Said on 17th December, just prior to his 30th birthday. He was graded a Group II Signaller in April 1941.and joined his D Company comrades in Tripoli, Syria. (yes, Syria)

[trying to find out whether he was in Tobruk. Not clear]

Despite his above average height and strong build, Arthur was variously described as a quiet, unassuming sort of bloke who was not a big mixer with the other chaps.

2/48 Colour Patch

“He was always the first at morning parade,” recalls fellow signalman, Sam Starling, “bright, pleasant enough and a thoroughly conscientious soldier.” Traits which, I’m certain hark back to his strict upbringing back on the farm and are totally in line with his sisters’ fastidious ways.

Many colourful accounts already exist of the heroic actions of the 2/48th during the Battle of El Alamein and I won’t try to recall them all here, but the day Arthur died is of particular significance. It was the 31st October 1942.

His unit, D (Don) Company, was amongst numerous others moving around the northern flank of a topographic feature known as Ring Contour 25 in Phase Two of Brigadier Leslie Morshead’s bold three-phase plan to isolate the main German force and thereby expedite Rommel’s collapse.

The desert landscape is ostensibly hard, flat and barren, interspersed with valuable and hotly-contested elevated features often not much higher than a big mound. Protective cover was scarce and was usually little more than a hastily dug, or scraped, depression in which to shelter or secure weapons.


A ten minute extract from the 1943 Academy Award winning documentary "Desert Victory" covering the part of the campaign where Arthur was killed.

After an intense artillery barrage had largely failed to dislodge the deeply dug-in and well-prepared Germans, the already depleted Australians advanced under cover of darkness on their positions. In the months Rommel’s men had to prepare these formidable defences, tanks, artillery and machine guns were strategically placed to thwart any advance.

“I was switched to Don Company at the last minute,” remembers Sgt Murray Jones, “and I was asked to deliver a message up the front where Arthur’s unit was advancing on the German positions. I’d just arrived when all hell broke loose. The Germans were only fifty yards away and they let go with everything they had. They tore us to shreds. Everyone around me was killed. How I got out I’ll never know, but it took me another two days to get back to my unit. Only forty of us got out that night”

Sgt Jones’s vivid account held me in awe. Two hundred men had gone in that night and were all but annihilated by overwhelming enemy fire. In spite of this horror, one of D Company’s heroes emerged. Sgt Bill Kibby was not one of the surviving six members of D Company, but was awarded a VC all the same for single-handedly destroying several enemy positions. (Arthur's name appears immediately below Kibby's on the same casualty list) According to Sam Starling, Arthur was badly wounded and evacuated to the famous Blockhouse field hospital where he subsequently died. The so-called Blockhouse was another contested focal point in the numerous actions around the immediate area. So hectic and intertwined were the events that both German and Allied medics treated wounded soldiers side-by-side while each other’s bullets and shells flew around them.

Despite incredible casualties, the remaining Australians were able to gather themselves up and achieve their original objectives, then go on to make history in one of the most decisive battles of the entire war. Unfortunately Arthur was not among those left to enjoy the subsequent victory and he now rests, along with over twelve hundred mates, in the El Alamein war cemetery.

The efforts of the Australians that night are recalled by the acclaimed author and military historian, Dr Mark Johnston.

Service Medals

“I think that the efforts of the 2/24th and 2/48th Battalions on 30/31 October 1942 show Australian soldiers at their finest: fighting for a noble purpose, persisting beyond what one could expect, working efficiently and cooperatively. Arthur Noack was a member of the company that nearly achieved the impossible goal it was set that night. Heroism is a concept debased through overuse, but even the strictest definition of the term would have to apply to the efforts of Noack's company that night.”

Ironically, after two years in the desert and several months of intense fighting, the surviving men of 9th Division were  withdrawn from battle just a week after that fateful night. They set off for Australia in January 1943 to prepare for their next campaign in New Guinea.

At rest with his mates at El Alamein

My quest for some simple answers had revealed much, much more. Not only was Arthur a member of “That Magnificent 9th”, as his Division (about 18,000 men) was subsequently known, he belonged to a Battalion (about 800 men) that became the most highly decorated (4 VCs) in all Australian military history. His company (about 150 men) was virtually wiped out in the twelve day battle, but emerged, if only as a result of their sacrifice, as one the most tenacious and fearless groups of men in the entire British Eighth Army.

Perhaps I’m swayed by a personal bias, but based on the evidence uncovered, I believe Uncle Arthur and his mates rank as heroes in the true sense of the word - and that’s the way I’ll remember him – always!

===========

Arthur on the Roll of Honour

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29Jun/10Off

PNG: First Contact

alternate title: The Golden Wahgi

When gold was discovered in the highlands, it brought a million people into contact with the rest of the world. Roderick Eime traces the history of that first contact.

“The whiteman came from there,” said the old village elder gesturing toward the end of the valley, ‘we’d never seen such a thing. We were scared, confused.”

This scene played out time and time again as the Leahy brothers and their caravan of trackers and porters made their way to the unexplored inland in search of gold.

There were hints of gold lying in and around Papua New Guinea as far back as the mid-19th century and each new find was accompanied by a flurry of activity, but it wasn’t until 1926 that large commercial quantities began to be excavated by modern machinery. Even then, it wasn’t enough and exhausted diggers soon returned to Australia to join the growing lines of jobless as the Great Depression took hold.

Michael James “Mick” Leahy, born at Toowoomba in 1901, was no ordinary man, even among the hardy Australian bushmen of the time. Always rough and ready, “Masta Mick” as he would later be known, began a dynasty that persists to this day.

Mick Leahy in PNG

Mick Leahy in PNG

In 1930, Mick, along with fellow prospector, Michael Dwyer, began a series of prospecting trips into the interior beginning with the Ramu tributaries and culminating in the now famous discovery of the Wahgi Valley around today’s Mount Hagen. By this time Mick’s brothers, James and Daniel were well entrenched in the business, following him everywhere.

“They say Mick had the gold fever,” recalled Dan during the making of the 1983 Academy Award-nominated documentary ‘First Contact’, “well, we all had it.”

Sure, they found gold and lots of it, but Mick was also interested in documenting the discovery of the million or so previously unknown inhabitants of these vast, fertile valleys. His explorations grew more audacious and, after a few violent encounters, learned to travel well-armed and provisioned. He also took cameras.

“When the white man thought our leader was going to attack, he shot him,” recalls the same villager as he recounts that event to the filmmakers.

“The only reason we killed was to defend ourselves and all our carriers,” says Dan in defence of their actions,” if we hadn’t they’d have killed the lot of us.”

The documentary, made by Sydney filmmakers, Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson is a fascinating recounting of the heady days of prospecting and discovery in the wild highlands of Papua New Guinea. Hours of Leahy’s 16mm film were recovered and restored and then the crew returned to the Wahgi Valley and found surviving members of his expeditions and villagers who remember their first confrontations with these strange white ghosts.

Melpa men of the Tokua village near Mt Hagen, Papua New Guinea perform a moka where they exchange gifts and confer on village matters.

Melpa men of the Tokua village near Mt Hagen, Papua New Guinea perform a moka where they exchange gifts and confer on village matters.

Today visitors to Mount Hagen and the surrounding valleys will meet people who, just two generations ago, were completely unknown to the outside world. While comparisons to the Leahy brothers’ empire might be regarded as overly flattering, Newcastle entrepreneur, Bob Bates, has created his own minor dynasty with Trans Niugini Tours.

For over 45 years, the Bates family have lived and worked in Papua New Guinea with their head office on the original site in Mount Hagen. Their network now extends beyond the initial modest 4WD safaris, to aircraft charters, wilderness lodges and river cruises. Son, Andrew, handles the company’s marketing and travels back and forth from the family property near Newcastle.

“Dad’s a bit shy really,” he notes with a wry grin and nods toward Bob who ducks out the back door, “but he’s got lots of stories to tell.” I’m sure! Bob is a regular around town and still drives an original Range Rover he bought new in the ‘70s.

Although I spend one night at the centrally located Highlander Hotel in downtown Mt Hagen, the remainder of my stay is at the superbly located Rondon Ridge, a new Bates family lodge overlooking the entire Wahgi Valley, or so it seems. Spacious and intriguingly decorated with Highland and Sepik art, it is powered by its own hydroelectricity plant and the kitchen serves organic salads and vegetables gathered from the many local market gardens. The avocadoes are to die for.

The Wahgi Valley is the domain of the Melpa people and their unique language is heard in the villages, markets and busy bus stops around town. PNG has over 800 unique languages, a legacy of its millennia of isolation and territorial nature of the many tribes. Even Leahy’s Papuan men had no way of communicating with the Melpa during their historic first encounters and everything was negotiated with sign and body language.

“If we wanted a pig for dinner, we’d grunt ‘oink, oink’ like that,” said Toa, one of Mick’s ‘boys’ to the camera, “and we’d buy the pig with shells.” The Melpa had never seen shells and they instantly became currency and were negotiable for all manner of goods ... and services.

Joseph, my driver and guide, takes me on a series of jaunts throughout the region visiting villages, gardens, markets and points of interest like the Gatak River, where the Leahy brothers found much of their gold.

“My father found a big nugget for Masta Mick,” recalls Joseph, pointing over to the river. Joseph’s dad was just a boy then, working for the Leahys.

Villagers in traditional attire demonstrate their ancient methods of agriculture, planting and harvesting. We’re invited to try roasted sweet potato and it’s delightful. The Wahgi Valley is now recognized as one of the first areas of human farming, dating back 9000 years and the Kuk Swamp site is UNESCO World Heritage listed.

The lodge also has a series of walking trails into the surrounding forest. Its secondary growth apparently, regenerated after Australian loggers came through and cleared out all the oak and beech in the ‘50s. Joseph shows me through the lodge’s orchid garden, protected by a moat from marauding pigs. It is their goal to collect every orchid that occurs in the valley, about 400, and they’re half way there now.

Mount Hagen is world away from the even the rest of Papua New Guinea, with obvious genetic differences between the coastal inhabitants. A visit there will help you understand the exhilaration experienced by Mick Leahy and his team who discovered both alluvial and cultural gold in the mist-enshrouded peaks of the Wahgi.

If you go:

Trans Niugini Tours [www.pngtours.com] offer an extensive range of tours and excursions throughout Papua New Guinea. +675 542 1438 service@pngtours.com

[as supplied] Getting there: Pacific Blue offer flights from Sydney to Port Moresby (connecting via Brisbane) with fares starting from $319 per person, one way on the net. Direct flights are also available from Brisbane on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays from $239 per person, one way on the net. If you're looking to keep entertained, simply hire the digEplayer. Your own personal in-flight system features movies, TV shows and a board array of music for an additional $20. If you fancy extra leg room, book the Blue Zone seating option for an extra $45. Check out www.flypacificblue.com for current specials, bookings and all your travel needs.

Both Air Niugini and Airlines of PNG fly daily to Mount Hagen.

Best time to visit: Mount Hagen Show is a cultural feast staged every August.

Further reading: “First Contact” available on DVD by Arundel Films

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16May/10Off

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 (www.jetairways.com)

Contact: Active Travel +612 9264 1231

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