Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

An Aussie Hello to the New Year

Well, it has been a merry week.

As I write it is raining outside and although I can't say it's been cold, Sydney has not been delivering on the weather front of late.

On Friday the girls had a party in the house. A trio of German women and a couple of Galway lasses added some colour. As things threatened to wind down, Ronan, Gary, the Galway girls and I headed into the Gaff on Oxford Street. It was there that Galway girl number one's boyfriend showed up. It didn't stop me dancing until 5.

The next day, Antonio, an Italian from my Australian Contiki tour last year texted me wondering if I would come out that night. He is in Sydney for the Yuletide season. He had a new group of Contiki friends along with him and the venue, Retro, was grotty but very good. I had only sat down to wait for him when two Aussie girls plopped down beside me in search of free drinks. To be fair, they stuck around most of the night even after the drinks went dry. A lot of landscape in that particular establishment, so I was home by 2.30 or so.

Last night, of course, was New Year's Eve. Linda, my cousin, wasn't keen on seeing the fireworks as she'd seen them last year. Tara and Grania had "seen fireworks in Roscommon" and so were of the same opinion. The rest of us, still excited by the prospect of the biggest pyrotechnic display this side of the Millenium, started with one or two drinks at home before heading to watch them from Dover Hieghts, near Bondi. On the way we stopped off for a few more drinks at a friend of the girls at Bondi Beach. Julie, after her burst appendix, is still a little fragile for too much walking, so we got a bus up.

The set up was very impressive. Although we couldn't bring our own, a bar sold some close to expiry date Heineken, and stalls sold hotdogs. There were families, gangs and dancers. We sat down beside a family from Roscommon and initially got booed for blocking their hard won view. There was plenty of space though.

The fireworks themselves, though somewhat distant, were spectacular. We got to see the main fireworks from the bridge as well as supplementary ones from Darling Harbour. I loved the way the lit up the waters, the bay being luminescent.

We bumped into the Galway girls again. Bride, who hails from London and Galway, is brother to an animator, who was also there. He didn't know much Eastern European stuff, but his taste in other stuff was good. Unfortunately the others moved on while I chatted (they got split up into two groups, each thinking I was with the other). The Galway crew offered to adopt me, but I sent off a few texts and made my way to the buses.

I was surrounded by Welsh people and a girl from the Roscommon family (doing her leaving cert). At the back of the bus things weren't so convivial. After a lot of Irish songs, including the National Anthem (which also got an airing at Dover Heights), someone smashed the back window. There was no further trouble though and I got off at Bondi Junction to find the Tea Gardens, a favourite of the girls, closed. No texts replies had come, so I called around but couldn't get an answer. Nothing for it, I headed home. Once there I got a crazy notion to watch the sunrise from Bronte beach, so grabbing a jacket, a towel (remember your Hitchiker's) and a bottle of orange juice, I walked down. It was a stupid idea. The beach was by no means deserted, but this wasn't Bondi. I lay on my towel staring at the stars and wondering whether gravity might give out. Stars formed pupils in cloud faces while an occasional helicopter made a bright wasp in the sky. It struck me staring into space that the unknown without fear or hope is the essence of adventure; you have to be prepared to fall, fall up, let your grip go on the soil. The laws of physics held good though, and I was roused from my reverie by a mosquito. Shaking the sand from my shoes, I walked home. As I trudged up the hill, a fruit bat flew out of a tree on leathery wings.

Linda texted me to say they were in the Gaff, but by three in the morning, I wasn't much gone on battling my way into town for an hour or two of battling my way through a club. I went to bed. As it happens a lot of Irish celebrate the Irish countdown as well (just 13 minutes away as I write) and Linda and Grania, after coming home for a bit have headed down to the Tea Gardens to welcome in the New Year - again. Not for me. An Australia hello is enough for me.

Friday, December 29, 2006

More Visions of Oz

From Alice SpringsFrom Alice Springs

Kata TjutaKata Tjuta


Coober Pedy - Spot the spaceshipCoober Pedy - Spot the spaceship

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Alice Springs

Anthony gave us a tour of Alice when we arrived. It has everything a city has - it has to cater to many of Central Australia's inhabitants - except size. Anzac Hill, a nearby war memorial, allows you to really see the town though, and that is when you see that there really isn't much to it. However, for something to which there isn't much, there is still a lot to do and most of that revolves around Bojangles.

We met for an all-you-can eat at Toddy's hostel before heading to this infamous saloon. Bojangles is a country themed, rough and ready spot with dancing until 2. The floor is strewn with monkey nut shells from the nuts one can grab from a barrel at the door. Seats can be hard to come by as the place is very popular. It also has a webcam going, so everyone should be on their best behaviour. No one is. Louis made a bit of a splash on the dancefloor A large Aboriginal woman came over to snag him for her group. He whispered "Save me" very piteously, but I had my thoughts elsewhere and left him to his fate. My thoughts moved rapidly elsewhere, and elsewhere again; there is a lot of scenery in Bojangles, not all of it backpacker. At one point the Cork girl from the other tour showed up and we chatted a little, but sometimes I like to see myself as the United Nations, rather than the Irish Embassy. Whatever diplomacy I adopted, however, it didn't work and Louis, Louise and I ended up walking home last. I left them at their hostel and went home.

I was to have three nights in Alice Springs and I was very happy with my Alice tourist apartment. Big, comfortable and with a small kitchen, it was a good base, though the twenty minute walk to the town centre was off-putting. The next day I slept in, or did until housecleaning knocked on the door. I took it easy, wandering around town, booking some tours for the next day, heading up Anzac Hill, and getting in some food.

Anthony, Martina and Louis were all still in town, the Swiss and American members of our tour having flown off that morning. We met up for a very nice barramundi meal, before meeting a friend of Anthony's in the Hound and Firkin. An English bar, it was a little too down at heel to be really comfortable and the live music was deafening, though their Megadeath t-shirts didn't go well with their middle of the round covers. On we went to Bojangles once more.

Once more Kofi Anan was my spokesman and when the others left I went chasing in Melanka's, a nearby nightclub that's part of a hostel. It was a half-decent place, but my rhetoric was wearing thin, so I headed back to the hotel.

Next morning I had a trip to the nearby Alice Springs Desert Park booked. They were prompt and at 10.30 I found myself at the entrance. The woman behind the counter asked where I was from, presumably for statistical purposes. I said Ireland, she said UK. I said no, she said it's all the one. Yes, like Switzerland is a part of France. I didn't press it. Being abroad tends to bring out unwelcome nationalistic feelings, and I'm not really that much of a nationalist. Instead I went to the famous Nocturnal House.

Most of the wildlife in the desert comes out at night. For this reason, the Nocturnal House is bathed in perpetual moonlight (well, I figure they turn the lights on at night). The animals - the snakes, the lizards, the Mala wallabies, the possums, the desert rats, the Tawny Frog Mouth - everything is out and about and scurrying around their glass enclosures. I spent an unhealthy two hours there. Excellent. The bulk of the park is made up of open air habitants - desert, river, woodland - with enclosed aviaries and paddocks for seeing specific creatures. The birds, particularly the wrens, were amazing. You walk into an open aviary and they flit about your head.

If you are fortunate enough to visit this park avoid the cinema feature, "Heart of Change". Proclaiming to give an insight into the development of the desert, it is actually a pretentious splurge of bombast and a waste of twenty minutes. Go down to the kangaroo paddock instead, or wait for the Bird of Prey exhibit, which I missed. Certainly leaving at 3 to avail of the bus back, I could have done with more time.

Going back to my hotel room, I eyed the small pool at the entrance hungrily, but I didn't have time for a swim as I had to prepare for...


Before the great railroad, the Ghan, connected Adelaide to Alice Springs (and on to Darwin), the only way to get supplies to central Australia was using camels. Afghan immigrants managed these huge camel trains to Alice Springs and indeed the 'Ghan' takes its name from these traders. Ironically, this same railroad put the traders out of business leading them to put their camels out to pasture. They let them loose. Now there is over half a million camels roaming wild in the Outback, often healthier in this new climate than their Middle Eastern forebears. They are considered something of a pest in that they eat much of the local greenery (precious little as their is) and their feet damage the fragile plants they trod. On the plus side, Australia now exports these camels back to the Middle East and indeed use them to fill out their menus.

While we drove to Alice Springs, on at least two occasions, we came across packs of camels. They stand for a moment, gaze at you and then move off, but they make a striking sight especially when they cross the road before you.

At Kings Canyon I had a chance to ride a camel, but it didn't fit in with either our driving or drinking plans (a 6am start). Alice Springs on the other hand provided me with reasonable time and opportunity. I went on a sunset ride.

I stood outside my hotel at 5.15 awaiting my pick-up. And waited. And waited. Half an hour later, after I had just gone in search of a phone number to call, the minibus turned up. They had been to another hotel by mistake. The only other person who had signed up for the trek was a trim 40-something German called Inga. Our guide, and driver, outside of explaining the mistake didn't say another word the whole drive to the camel farm, a silence he was to maintain for much of the whole evening.

The camel tour, a 13 camel affair, is owned and run by Marcus and his wife from their slightly ramshackle farm. As we arrived a stark naked two year-old ran out to meet his father. Kitt is the youngest member of the outfit and both he and his mother joined us for the trip. Holding on to his t-shirt from the back, his mother set him down at the front of her camel where he sat like a lord. Given that he has been riding since he was 8 weeks old, he showed no concern whatsoever.

I was the first to mount up and as the camel brusquely stood up, I confess to a moment's wonder at what I was doing as I shot up into the air. Only a moment though, because once I stared around from the height, I felt really comfortable. Marcus adjusted the stirrups as I'm not the tallest, but there was really nothing for me to do but hold on to a bar and remain upright. Each camel is clipped to the one in front using a plastic pin through its nose. Once one moves the next follows automatically, though this doesn't always stop one (my camel, for instance) from wandering to the side to strip a tree of leaves.

There were five camels on our jaunt; Trillian, the second I cannot remember, Greyhound, Anna (my steed), and a spare, Odin (blind in one eye and apparently quite stupid). Odin, being stupid, took a shine to me and had a habit a nuzzling up to my leg. I'd pet him and he'd yawn at my hand. The inside of a camel's mouth is very strange with peculiar, pointed protuberances coated the inside of its cheeks. It must provide some sort of protection against the twigs and thorns it regularly strips from trees, along with any leaves, as it wanders by.

It wasn't sunset and wasn't going to be sunset while we rode, but the bare, red desert was still beautiful. Tammy, the black and white sheepdog, kept jogging around our legs and pointing out the local kangaroos. Every once in a while she'd run into one of the puddles still dotted around the sand from the afternoon's downpour. Her activity was the only strenuous work being done though. Riding a camel is kind of like those miracle exercise machines that do the work for you. Rolling from side to side you can feel your sides being stretched and compressed and the muscles building up a healthy ache. Whether I could do this for a day I am not sure, but an hour was fine and that was all we were travelling for.

Occasionally Marcus's wife would mumble something to Inga, but for the most part I heard nothing. Even when Marcus suddenly dismounted and took our cameras for a picture, he scarcely spoke. To be honest, this was fine by me. Sometimes some quiet time is what you need. After a half an hour we turned and headed for home, the married couple exchanging Kitt every now and again.

Reaching the farm, the other camels all lined up to welcome us as we came back in, well us or just their compatriots. It should also be borne in mind that it was dinner time. Cutting the twine on some bales of dry hay, Marcus's wife encouraged us to throw armfuls to the waiting camels. Kitt to got in on the act, though he got a little scolding when he kicked Roger, a former racing camel, in the head. Throwing the grass was probably the messiest part of the whole evening. I had heard camels were "dirty, smelly things" (the hotel proprietor), but getting hay in the hair was the only justification for the shower I had when I got back to the hotel.

Martina from the Groovy Grape tour was still in town and we had agreed to meet for dinner. She was determined to have a kangeroo steak. Given my evening, I just had to have some camel and a nice big camel sirloin is what I had. Beautiful! Apparently this meat is very good for you, but it also tastes wonderful, as well as being very tender. No fat, just juicy red meat. With all apologies to Odin, I'll be having it again if given the chance.

Dinky, the Singing and Piano-playing Dingo

We left Kings Canyon heading to Alice Springs. We needed our daily dip in a pool, however, and stopped off at Jim's Place. Jim Cotterill, the son of the entrepreneur who started the Kings Canyon tourist industry, owns a roadhouse at Stuarts Well. He also owns a dingo called Dinky. Dinky has achieved notoriety on several fronts. He sings, ie. howls, in accompaniment to the piano. When sufficiently enthused, he will also 'play' the piano, ie. move his paw while standing on the keys. All this behaviour has gotten him his very own question in Trivial Pursuit. To justify his fame, he performed for us. The legend is true. Dinky is a star.

A little trivia about dingos. Dingos are not actually native to Australia. One pair of dogs were taken to Australia by Asian fisherman thousands of years ago and all dingos have descended from this pair. They cannot bark, but growl and howl. The introduction of European dogs has polluted the pure blood of these canines and soon, outside of isolated packs on Frazer Island etc., the pure blood dingo will be gone from ther Australian mainland. The huge dingo fence that crosses Australia in an attempt to keep dingos from cattle will still be needed though.

Performing dingos only get you so far. We needed our pool and Jim had one. A little lazing and we were on our way once more

Kings Canyon

We got into Kings Canyon, or Watarrka, by lunchtime. There was probably some attempt at karaoke on the bus (something we have been doing), but I think I dozed or read. Once at Kings Canyon campsite I investigated some of the local activities. There were quad tours, helicopter rides, camel rides, etc., but only the camel ride, which was pretty early the next day caught my eye. The camel on the cafe menu also caught my eye and I left the rest of the tour to their sandwiches to try one out. Unfortunately at that moment a huge coach arrived and the queue for the cafe suddenly went out the door. I went back to the sandwiches.

Every chance we get we try out the local pool. Even on the way to Coober Pedy, twelve of us squeezed into a 7 foot by 6 foot spa for a dip. Today we lounged at the pool once more. Small brightly coloured birds would skim the pool's surface for a beakful of water before resting on nearby telephone wires and trees. It was simple, but idyllic, and, with all due deference to the girls, they looked great in their bikinis.

It was as well that we rested because that afternoon we were to hike Kings Canyon. It was 38 degrees and getting up the initial cliff face, stairs though there were, was tough. This place is far more like the American desert of Utah etc.. The rock is shelved with cracks lining each outcrop. The wind too has whittled away much of the softer rock to create wonderful formations and shaded ravines. In some of these gaps, tropical ferns grow, protected by the rocky shadow and fed by the occasional rainfall. Colleen wanted to catch a lizard and I tried to take one by the tail. It's nervous squirming made me ashamed though and in the end I settled for petting one under the chin. It seemed very content.

Hidden in the network of vallies and ravines is the Garden of Eden, a green gully lined with wooden stairs and hiding a pool of cool, dark water. Given the heat and dust, it is relatively speaking a garden of Eden. We had been alerted that we would be coming across this, so we all had our swimming gear. A stunning view of nearby vallies can be reached by swimming across this pond. I am not a strong swimmer, however, and the pool does get fairly deep, so I resisted crossing this to the last. Colleen, who is a swimming instructor, eventually threatened me into being ferried across.

Nearly four hours after setting out, we got back to the bus. No curfew disturbs the Kings Canyon campsite, but everyone was tired, so partying was at a minimum. In the kitchen area a small scorpion posed. These are relatively harmless, but the thought of sleeping on the floor inside was not appealing, especially as I had seen a ragged web in the roof beams that looked very funnel-web-ish. As it was we were sleeping outside on the ground in swags. Swags are like heavy duty, rainproof sleeping bags with a matress and a flap to cover the head in case it did rain. Of course, outside on the ground was worse than in, but the mind deals with what it knows and I had seen a scorpion inside, not outside. We settled down to sleep.

Then it rained. First it was a trickle. I snuggled down into my swag. The it got heavier. I zipped up the swag. Heavier again. I put the flap over my head. I was snug and dry and the pitter-patter on the canvas was nice. However, I felt a real need to go to the toilet and didn't fancy walking through the downpour. I unzipped enough to peek out. Everyone else had dragged their sway inside. Not necessarily being a sheep, I kind of wondered if they knew something I didn't, and I did have to go to the toilet. Somewhat unwillingly I dragged my swag into the kitchen to the last place left under the funnel-web. Having gone that far I was ready to brave the storm to the bathroom and did so. Back in bed though, my spot also proved to be under a thin patch in the thatch. I was getting wetter inside than I had been out. I put the flap up and went to sleep.


At sunset we traipsed merrily up the a hillside to a local lookout point to watch the Rock. We had our beer and Dennis sang a little "Follow the Yellowbrick Road". The clouds obscured any display we might have had, so after finishing our bottles we traipsed back down again.

Getting up at 4 in the morning is standard practice at Uluru; the sunrise must be seen! Unfortunately this puts a 10 pm curfew on the campsite, so drinking games only went on until 10.15.

I am a night owl and no amount of darkness disguises a 4 am start from being a very early start. Unwillingly I got up and into the minibus at the required hour. Perhaps the most surreal thing so far, we listened to Judy Garland singing "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" as we drove into Uluru National Park. Anthony had planned things well and we were the first to reach the viewing platform near Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). Unfortunately he couldn't do anything about the weather. Again the clouds prevented the sun's rays from hitting the rock at that magical moment. We left the other assembled tourists first and headed off to Kata Tjuta

Kata Tjuta (meaning Many Heads), or the Olgas, is a stunning rock formation not too far from Uluru. It holds the Valley of the Winds and laden with water, covered with sunscreen, and in my case wearing a funny hat, we set out to explore it. It is a stunning location. The ubiquitous sandstone is streaked with the black lines of water (caused by algae) from rainier days. There is a lot of vegetation too and occasionally flocks of green parrots (or budgerigars) light up the sky. We had a cool start (again well planned by Anthony), but soon the weather got hotter. Rather than do the full 7 km trek, we headed back after 2.

On we went to the Uluru Cultural Centre, dozing on the way. It was a little bit of a shock to open my eyes and suddenly see Ayre's Rock right in front of me.

The Centre has a lot of information on the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara, the local Aboriginal peoples, collectively the Anangu, and their legends. The Rock was handed back to the Aboriginal people fairly recently on condition it be leased back to the government for 99 years. Now 6 out of the 10 board members who manage the park are Anangu. While we were there Millie, an Anangu woman, described some of the local bushtucker. Although she could speak English, she chose not to, speaking instead through an interpreter. It was probably as well given that she was very softly spoken.

Back to the campsite for lunch and a couple of hours by the pool. Again we were first there, but a rowdy crowd took over for 30 minutes before leaving us once more to monopolise it. Going easy on the sunscreen, I was repaid with a burning on my upper back.

Next stop Uluru for a walk around the base. It is possible to climb Uluru, but it is slightly frowned upon. Taking pictures too is something of a minefield. Some sights around the rock are for men or women only, and should not be even seen by the other sex. For tourists this translates as no photographs. Any non-sacred parts can be photographed. Taking a picture is deceptive anyhow as you can only ever take shots of sections when walking so close. And there is a lot to walk. Colleen, Martina and I set the pace, Michael and Petra next, with Louis and Manuela consistently falling behind.

Uluru is big and erosion has decorated it with a multitude of caves and crannies. Some ribbed wounds in the rockface put one in mind of Giger, having that organic/calcified appearance you get in the planet scenes in 'Alien'. The Aboriginal people explain each formation with a legend. One of the more famous tells of a snake-woman who avenges the murder of her nephew by another tribe. Her attacks on the killer are documented in swirls and markings in the rock, while the shield of the vanquished takes the form of a large piece of rock.

Anthony met us halfway around, spraying us with water. We got talking about bunyips and yowies, the latter being a kind of Australian Bigfoot. Who knows what lurks in this country. It is big enough, and sparsely populated enough to hold anything.

We went on to the Mala trail and saw some more strange caves and waterholes. Again Uluru is full of surprises. One of which was a table laid out with champagne glasses and two uniformed tour guides lounging around. An expensive tour methinks.

We had one more evening and one more chance to see sunset. Setting up our chairs, and beer, at another viewing spot, the 'Circus' as Anthony called it, we awaited sunset with several hundred others. Coaches from as far afield as Alice Springs had driven in especially for this. Once again though, after a day of blue skies, our plans were scuppered by cloud. Back for dinner and precious little partying, despite the fact the Wayward Bus group beside us seemed a good bunch. One girl among their group was from Cork. She was not short on talk and I got to cringe a little everytime I heard the Irishisms.

The Huntsman

I took a shower in the good facilities provided at Uluru. Everywhere crickets and lizards crawl, but when such wildlife is so common, you tend to blank it out after a while. I am a fan of lizards anyway. This time though the cubicle seemed bare, except for a web above where I put my runners. It looked familiar, but I couldn't see any spider, so I went about my business. As it happened I suddenly noticed a cut or bite on my heel, but as things transpired I believe this was unrelated. I turned off the water, towelled and once more wondered at that curious web. Until I looked at the wall opposite and saw the huge green Huntsman spider eyeing me. Spiders don't scare me too much, but I got out of there quick. Their bite isn't fatal, but it could make you very ill. And something as big as your palm resting by your elbow is not exactly conducive to easy ablutions.

Another early rise the next morning and another missed sunrise. We were never destined to a clear sky in the morning or evening, so we headed off towards Kings Canyon.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Little Ireland

Whoa! I have let things slide. Sorry, folks!

Christmas was spent on Coogee beach and you haven't done Christmas until you're battered by waves while drunk. Great stuff. It's bizarre to hear 'The Fields of Athenry' sung by many voices on an Australian beach at Christmas.

Yesterday I was at the races in Randwick where I won two out of two races and 161 dollars! Not bad for my first visit. International passport holders got in free, which meant everyone. Again you couldn't turn around without an Irish accent in your ear. Even the horses probably kissed the Blarney Stone. Needless to say drink was once again involved and stuck with me all night.

'All night' was spent in another Little Ireland outpost, the Tea Gardens. This place - and I mean this general part of Sydney - is just far too Irish, and in the Tea gardens there was just no question of meeting an Aussie (though I think I remember meeting one, now that my poor oppressed head begins to recover). Limerick, Clare, Dublin, Kerry, even the inhabitant of Leitrim was there.

Anyhow I need to recover some more, so I'll write later.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Rocking at the Rock

We have arrived at Uluru, or Ayer's Rock, and sunset is in around 80 minutes. We're at the campsite and will be looking from here, but it's a 4.45 start tomorrow to catch sunrise.

As we drove here the landscape noticeably changed, the vegetation becoming denser and greener. There were even a few speckles of rain on the windscreen at one point, though it always remained very hot.

Last night we had high hopes for the pub. Anthony the driver even had his playlist planned for the video jukebox. Unfortunately the jukebox was broken and the barman called last orders at 10.20. Just as the bar shut, some people from another tour came in with speakers and an ipod. Too late, we just had an early night.

MP3 player have really revolutionised driving, by the way. It's been fun.

With the English guys and the Dutch girl gone, there's a lot more room on the bus, though I'm happy wherever I sit. Driving is very relaxing and we've done quite a lot of it today, 770 kilometers to be precise. When we're not karaoking, badly, I'm reading Hammett's 'The Big Knockover' and am thoroughly enjoying it.

This campsite is like a who's who of adventure tours, each with their own cooking area. Our tour, the Groovy Grape, is a small outfit, the main player being Adventure Tours. We passed a few Contiki people on the way here too. (I just see the Wayward Bus have landed beside us). Were it not for the early start we might have had a big party tonight. We certainly stocked up on the beer. Tomorrow shall be the time for drinking. Who cares about dehydration.


Right now I am writing in a pub in Erldunda, the centre of Australia. Oz looks set to win the Ashes behind me. I guess there'll be fun tonight, though we have a 4 am start tomorrow morning. Only 350km or so to go.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

For those for whom words are not enough

The ochre pits
Colleen gets personal with a camel
Yourambulla Caves
Human sculpture
Huntsman spiderHuntsman spider
Niall O'Leary at Federation Square Melbourne
Niall O'Leary at Federation Square, Melbourne

Feeding time for the Sydney crocFeeding time for the Sydney croc

Niall O'Leary at the Opera
Appreciating the Opera

Quick Post from a Farflung Outpost

Having been to one of the coldest places on Earth, I now find myself in one of the hottest. Right now I am writing in Coober Pedy, the Opal Capital of the World and it is hot, though Ayers Rock and Alice Springs, both in the 40's lie ahead.

I'll try to write more on this whole trip once I get to Alice. Internet access was available so I took the opportunity to give an update.

Friday I was up at 6.00 anf picked up at 7. I was the last person to be picked up and all in all there are 12 of us, including Anthony the driver, driving in the minibus towards Alice Springs. There are three English lads from Cumbria, a girl from America, a guy and three girls from Switzerland, one guy from France, and a Dutch girl. The English guys and the Dutch girl leave us today; they couldn't get a flight back to Sydney any later than Wednesday.

We are travelling into the Red Centre of Australia and it gets hotter everyday. I thank God for air conditioning though I kind of wonder what He was thinking when He came up with flies. Insect repellent doesn't work on them. Yesterday I tried 97% deet and still they kept landing on me.

The landscape is incredible; desolate, dry, deadly, but incredible. Wildlife-wise we have seen kangeroos, emus, pink cockatoos and white, lizards, a mouse spider, a small snake that could have been a brown snake, and wedge-tailed eagles.

The first day we went to some Aborigine caves to see some paintings, stopped off in some tiny towns for lunch etc. and ended up in a hostel-type resort which we had to ourselves. Buying far too little alcohol, we ended up playing drinking games until near 12. The next morning we were up at 6.30 for some bike riding. We had been told it was mostly downhill. Someone lied. I didn't really get to grips with the gears either and ended the trail pretty close to that big tunnel with the white light at the end. I didn't go into the light, needless to say, and recovered soon on the bus.

Just outside Lyndhurst, we visited the local eccentric, Talc Alf, who tried to explain the origin of all languages from some truly daft ideas on word construction. Basically everything comes from A = Man, B= Woman, Ra = Sun and bits of French, Chinese and German as and when he needed them. Entertaining though and his heart is in the right place. His artwork is fairly impressive too.

That afternoon we had a swim, or rather we stood in a crowded 6 foot by 6 foot spa. Given the weather, this was delightful. Lizards crawled our clothes while we soaked and nearby a flock of white cockatoos sreamed their disapproval. Cockatoos, for the uninitiated, sound like a strangled child back from the dead for revenge. Horrible sound.

We had been looking forward all day to the pub we had been promised at William's Creek. Unfortunately we got there on the big social night of the year for the area's eight locals, their Christmas party. The pub would be closed. Learning from our mistake the previous night, we bought probably far too much drink this night, though we made a fair stab at it. Close to four I crawled into my swag, that is a large, rainproof sleeping bag affair that allows you to sleep beneath the stars. The stars needless to say are stunning in these unclouded skies.

It only took us three hours this morning to get to Coober Pedy. The people here live in burrows (Coober Pedy is Aboriginal for White People's Burrows), or rather underground, though a seven bedroom house will set you back a very affordable 130000 Australian dollars. Some places, such as the tourist centre, have been adapted from old opal mines (mining is forbidden in the town since the 70's). It's all a matter of whether you'd live here though. As a community, it's bigger than most of what we've seen so far, but that's not saying much. Usually we are talking about towns such as Marra which has two stores, a hotel, a tennis court and a lot of rusting train engines left behind when the Ghan, the train that goes from Adelaide to Darwin, moved its tracks. Here they have a swimming pool and a grass playing field! These are two things that were particularly pointed out on a tour we made of the town with a local guide. Although mining is forbidden, extending your home is not, and that is what many people here do, some homes having up to 21 rooms! In that last case the owner found nearly a quarter of a million dollars worth of opals in the process.

A little bit of trivia: Coober Pedy has been used as a location for many sci-fi movies including 'Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome' and 'Pitch Black'. The spaceship that crashes in 'Pitch Black' is still there. Just like in the movie, the monsters in Coober Pedy only come out of their burrows at night. In a town of three thousand, there are ten policemen and two detectives. Violence apparently is commonplace, though we have seen none.

Tonight it's pizza and pints, then tomorrow onwards to Uluru.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Alice Springs back!

I'll try to keep this short as I am up at 6 in the morning.

Please, please, please do not take anything negative about Melbourne from my last post. It's purely a matter of taste. My big regret is that I hadn't more time to give to Melbourne. Lit up at night it is a real jewel, particularly along the river, and I am sure if I had of gotten out more, it would have shown a wild side. As it was everywhere people were drinking wine, laughing and having a great time.

I went to the Casino last night and the walk along the Yarra River was very pleasant. The Casino seemed to have thousands of slot machines of the same make (unlike cherries, oranges, etc., I didn't quite understand these). I broke even. The steak I had too was very pleasant (the waitress's father's name was Niall too; what you learn, huh?).

This morning I had a flight to Adelaide. Self-check-in or not, dropping off the bag nearly prevented me getting to my gate in time.

My general impressions of Adelaide are of a very nice town. It has the wide, long streets to nowhere, but it also has a very comfortable athmosphere. I suppose the statistic of one restaurant for every thirty people helps. I could wax lyrical about Gouger Street, and Chinatown, but I'll just mention Ying Chow, an exceptional restaurant where I had steamed fish with Chinese ham.

Yesterday, believing I could get a flight back to Sydney from Alice Springs in time for Christmas, I booked a trip into the Red Centre and Ayres Rock. Some of the flights though were charging $770. Given that I cancelled my Fiji stopover, I thought maybe I could get a ticket as part of my round the world fare. A call to Qantas last night seemed to suggest I could, but I would have to go to a retail office to get the ticket issued. Today I got to the retail office, but things were not so easy.

Effectively there were no seats except business class and I was not allowed to upgrade. Everyone wants to get out of Alice Springs for Christmas. Hats off to Mike French, a rather large gentleman (whose family hail from Roscommon), the consultant who took on my case. He did a sterling job. In the end I managed to get a flight, but leaving on Sunday 24th. I guess I am going to get familiar with Alice Springs.

I finished, 'The Day of the Locust'. Although it is very episodic, it generates its power from the accumulation of dark events, erupting in a Bosch-like finale. Nevertheless I was expecting an event - a murder - that I think was added to the movie, but that didn't seem to happen in the book (I could be wrong). It's absence surprised me. Nevertheless this is tough stuff, and there is a bleak amorality to this particular Great American Novel that 'The Great Gatsby', for instance, cannot touch. The book though is much more than just a simple (a)morality tale. Its critque of the ordinary people of Hollywood is extraordinary and as applicable now as then. It is almost Marxist in its analysis of disillusionment in the face of the American Dream. An unsettling work.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Shock of the Old

Leaving my hotel this morning, I noticed a grey haze over everything and the smell of smoke in the air; the bushfires are getting closer. They're the worst they've had in years and today could be a make or break day in terms of containing them. There are concerns about the state's water resources, but tomorrow hotter weather forecast could really scupper efforts to fight the blaze. They believe it was all caused by lightning strikes last Friday. Certainly on the coach down on Sunday, I saw a number of lightning strikes. Weather is the crucial factor in all of this.

One thing I have noticed about Melbourne is the wind. Despite glorious sunshine all yesterday, the strong gusts flowing down the streets brought the temperature right down. I was almost freezing at times (today I have brought a jacket). Needless to say it is wind like this that is fanning the flames.

My first day here, I visited the Museum of the Moving Image for an exhibition on 'Eyes, Lies and Illusions', detailing optical illusions and devices before the birth of cinema. Mixed in with the antique exhibits were some modern works by contemporary artists, largely unimpressive. One new work involved a swarm of make-believe bees and throughout the space one heard their drone repetitively rising up and down. It grew to be extremely annoying. The showpieces themselves were quaint without being mind-blowing, mostly peepshows and magic lanterns. Even the Ames Room required you to be on the outside with someone inside to fully appreciate the effect. What could have been awe-inspiring then was ultimately pedestrian.

I went to St Kilda, by the sea, for dinner. I tried a Rough Guide recommendation, The Stokeroom. Having been seated, I was then asked to get up and wait as there was a queue. 15 minutes later they put me down at the same table I had originally been at. Another 15 minutes later someone took my order. What arrived, spaghetti with seafood, was good but a very small portion. I almost took it for what it was until, as I was about to leave, I noticed someone at a nearby table eating the same dish, though a good deal larger. I was not amused.

I have noticed that left to its own devices, my body will eat seafood (and shellfish usually) ad nauseum. I need to make a conscious effort to choose anything other than fish.

Needless to say entering the Great Victorian Market was a mouth drooling experience. The fish on sale was incredible. A dozen oysters for less than 10 bucks, all varieties of prawn, tavelly, barramundi, octopus, squid, scallops, flatheads, snapper; you name it it was there. On a parallel aisle was the meat. Then there was a deli area where I picked up a lamb borek. Next door the fruit and vegetable market offered everything. Not since Barcelona have a seen a food market so delightful. Of course, the food is only part of it. At least tripling the size of the market are the shoe, leather, knickknack, sock, toy, pet, bag, soap, opal and t-shirt stalls. It is very easy to spend a morning there.

In the deli area, I had seen some chilli mussels on sale. Asking for a small tub, I underestimated the amount and the price and ended up having an early lunch. I suspected I would pay for such a diet later on the toilet bowl and I was quite correct. Nevertheless right then I was fine and followed up with a chocolate eclair and a Roma coffee (caramel and vanilla supposedly).

Next stop the Melbourne Museum. Getting there close to 3, I stupidly supposed the two hours I had until closing time would be enough. Silly me. With Blue Whale bones, a stuffed Tasmanian Wolf (Thylacine) and a multitude of other exhibits I barely scratched the surface. The extinct specimens (sadly not just Thylacines) were contained in their own glass boxes. How we let them go is beyond me.

Quite apart from stuffed and dead creatures, there is an excellent collection of live insects and arachnids, including a White-tail spider, a few Huntsman spiders, tarantulas, etc.. I think I may have identified the mystery drilling beetle from Sydney. According to the museum, the world's loudest insect, found in Australia, is the Double Drummer Beetle, and it looks pretty much like the things I saw in the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Next I had to see the world's largest cinema screen, the Melbourne Imax. I had a few worries that the 'Deep Sea 3-D' show was the same as the (bad) one I had seen in Genoa (thankfully it wasn't). I have already been at some pretty large screens (including the Dublin Imax when it existed), so I was not overly awed by the size of this one. Nevertheless the 3-D effect of the movie was the best I have yet encountered. It worked, even if the three Russians sitting nearby never stopped talking once (I suspect one may have been translating for the other two).

Overall Melbourne is a beautiful, if not stunning, city. Some of the tenets of conventional wisdom on Melbourne include:

1. It is the most European Australian city.
2. It is the most liveable Australian city.
3. It is a more cultural city than Sydney.

With qualifications, these view are generally true. It is somewhat European - principally English and French (New Orleans-style balconies) - but then you look down along one of the wide avenues stretching to nothing and you think Australia. It is probably more cultural than Sydney, but it's more subdued about its accomplishments. More liveable? Melbourne has the feel of a city winding down. It has reached its peak and now, rather than take more risks, it has settled down to raise the children. It is safe, laid-back, slightly (very slightly) melancholic and never going to break a sweat. Sydney still feels like it's in its twenties, ready to party, still growing. Melbourne, with its four million people, no doubt has everything Sydney has, or indeed any major city, but with this background of ease is more liveable. Having said that, I tend to live, vampire-wise, off the blood of a fast-pulsed town, and I'm not sure that I could settle here.

In all fairness, I think I should point out that the population of Melbourne seems on the whole very young, and I have not been out partying (unlike Sydney). These are the factors that colour the mind of a traveller. These views probably reflect my mindset more than the city's.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Causes for Celebration

Lynda, my cousin currently living in Sydney, is living in Bronte, a suburb near the (in)famous Bondi Beach. Having been to Bondi Beach last year, I have to confess to preferring Bronte beach, a quieter, more pleasant shoreline, with a tree-shaded park area for picnics and barbeques. One of the first things I did when I got to the house was go to the beach, though, except for one brief visit on Friday, I didn't get there again. During Christmas I will rectify that.

Lynda lives with four girls - Julie, Rachel, Niamh, and Niamh - though one of the Niamh's brother, Ronan, is staying a few days too. I met up with Linda on Tuesday and that night poor Julie was rushed into hospital with stomach pains. They sent her home again only for her to be rushed in again with a burst appendix. She is still suffering in hospital, though on the mend. Get well soon, Julie.

With the exception of Rachel, everyone seems to have a part-time job, leaving them lots of time to recover from the marathon nights out they enjoy. Last Friday, for instance, we headed out to O'Malley's in Kings Cross, then The Empire and then The Gaff on Oxford Street. That night was a respectable 4 o'clock home coming. Saturday was the 21st birthday of a friend of theirs', Pip (Simon), who looks a lot younger than 21. After meeting in The Palace in Coogee beach, we headed to the Irish bar, P.J. O'Brien's, off George Street, and then The Gaff again. That was a healthy 6 o'clock home time. There is much joy to be had in watching the sun come up while eating a burger in Hungry Jack's. The girls have a large group of friends, so no one is ever left alone. Sadly I have no scandal to report. I will be returning to them for Christmas week when no doubt such a state of affairs will change.

I organised a coach to Melbourne for Sunday, a 12 hour stint, starting at 7 in the evening and arriving 6.45 the next morning. Initially I had two seats to myself and was as happy as a pig in whatever makes a pig happy. A late pickup, however, sat a Japanese gentleman beside me, one all elbows and knees. Then the little bald-headed hippy in the seat in front of me pushed back his chair, only he had a 'super-chair', capable of puching back at least twice as far as any other. He was in my lap, Mr Japanese was in my side. Not much sleep then. Through a strategic use of my knees I got the hippy to move forward to a more respectable distance, while my cd player formed a barrier to my left (well, I had to put it somewhere). I dozed then, but it's been a groggy morning. Naturally 6.45 is a little early for checking in to my hotel (a budget place of St Kilda), so I've had some time to eat breakfast and write this.

While on the coach, I read some of Nathaniel West's 'The Day of the Locust'. I still have memories of having seen John Schlesinger's film adaptation when I was a child, especially Burgess Meredith's antic vaudeville routine and Donald Sutherland, all plastered down hair and googly eyes, standing stupified after doing something horrible. In a way I am sort of sorry I did see the movie, because I cannot but see Harry Greener or Homer Simpson as any people but Meredith and Sutherland. And yes, I did write Homer Simpson; Sutherland plays the original Homer Simpson who is definitely not Homer Simpson, if you know what I mean! Of course, Karen Black is not Faye Greener (I see Tuesday Weld), and Atherton, known principally as the obnoxious reporter in the Die Hard movies, is nondescript enough for Tod Hackett, but not the first face to spring to mind. The bleakness of the book recalls '1984', particularly as an uneasy tribute to humanity's capacity for self-degradation. Adopting the impersonal third person, West presents vulgarity, pretension and cruelty without apparent judgment, almost with celebration, making irony never less than a word away. I suppose in this he most clearly recalls the cold, masterful horror of Shirley Jackson (the Queen of Cruelty). So yes, Hollywood, horror and depravity, I guess you could say I am enjoying it.

On a happier note, I see that General Pinochet has died. The world is a brighter place.

Hey, I have just seen that I have an entry on the IMDB! Now I have hit the big time. Actually it's from a little work I did on a short film years ago called "Scarecrow", but I'm chuffed all the same.


Friday, December 08, 2006

Fish and Ships

I visited the Sydney Aquarium yesterday (it seems like the same sort of sights keep cropping up on my trip). More impressive and more space than the Genoa one. They had a huge manta ray (I think), nearly 12 feet long and 10 across, and a strange creature called a shark ray which looked like a shark and like a ray, strangely enough. Very cartoonish eyes though and strange crests decorating its back, like Dame Edna Everage rhinestone glasses. I say it like I see it.

Exiting on to Darling Harbour, I couldn't resist a cool beer in the hot sun. It's all kind of like Templebar, only beautiful, with warm weather, a gorgeous bay, sailing vessels and motorboats, lots of fountains, and...well, it's not really like Templebar at all. I read relaxingly, then had a t-bone steak and more beer.

Finished the Salinger book. The final story 'Teddy' sees a resurgence of his obsession with religion, while yet again a child prodigy features. One can imagine a thesis on Salinger just writing itself.

Met up with Lynda, my cousin, at lunch. I'll be staying in her house for a couple of days before heading off to Melbourne.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Sunburn and Flying Foxes

I visited the Opera House yesterday, or rather I walked into it. It's fairly expensive to get a backstage tour of the place ($140), while an hour long tour is around $30. A better bet might be to go to a concert and I was tempted by a piano recital on Monday, though I'm not sure if I'll be here.

The Royal Botanic Gardens are right next door, and as I hadn't been to these at all (except to see Mrs McQuarie's Chair last year), I took a stroll now. Every so often a sound like a drill would go off, very loud and mysteriously coming from the trees. Feeling the blistering heat, particularly on my still tender back, I took shelter under a wide-spreading fig tree. Abruptly up roared the drill above my head. I could just make out what looked like two huge bluebottles in the branches and I guessed these were the cause of the sound. Certainly some insect was to blame. It was incredible just how loud it got, though it wasn't something to disturb a reader such as me, particularly when I knew Nature was the cause.

I am reading Salinger's collection of stories, "For Esme - with Love and Squalor". There is something distinctive about the New York/England writers and this collection is very much of their school. Midway through "Down at the Dinghey", I realised I was reading about another member of the Glass family, of "Franny and Zooey" fame. And noting that, I recalled Seymour Glass of the first story, "A Good Day for Bananafish"; another brother, and a fairly central (missing) figure from "Franny and Zooey". Salinger is almost as bad as Faulkner for his inter-related fiction. Interesting from that side of things, but very good stories in their own right, Salinger really strikes a chord with his readers. I recall at least one friend of mine who likened themselves to Franny. In this instance, a college friend of mine, Fiona, felt she wasn't too far removed from Esme. Strange that, given that Esme is a thirteen year-old girl. I suppose it is the excellent dialogue, born of exceptional characterisation, that strikes so true for people.

I spent the afternoon in the gardens, then decided to go for some food. Wandering near the rare plants though, I got carried away. One pine, the Wollemia Pine, was thought extinct for millions of years before being found in an isolated valley. Now it's being sold in garden shops. One was planted here.

As the sun went down, I happened to look up as a large bird flew over. I thought there was something funny about its wings. Another flew by. You could see the light through those wings and the skin curved inward from pointed joints. They weren't birds at all, but huge bats, grey-headed flying foxes to be exact. As I stared upwards I noticed more of them, and more, all hanging beneath branches like so much heavy fruit. With the twilight progressing, they were becoming more active, chattering and squealing and every so often gliding from one branch to another. Seeing guano all around me, I feared a little for my upturned face, but I was entranced. They were everywhere, hundreds, thousands. Louder and louder they were getting and more brash in their flying (flapping now). It was incredible, really exhilarating. Some of these bats have a wingspan of 1.5 metres. As they were taking to the skies like so many overfed starlings, I reluctantly took my leave, their cacophony rising, but fading, as I walked out.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Movies, Books, Beaches and Movies

I am a little bit of a bookshop addict, so after checking out a listing of the locals I did my rounds. Some decent bargains to be had, though I shouldn't really be buying stuff I can't cart around. And I hate to leave behind a good book even if I have finished it.

I finished Peter Biskind's "Down and Dirty Pictures" last Sunday. Very entertaining and insightful, but I couldn't help feeling that for all that the Weinsteins (the co-chairman brothers of Miramax) are monsters (and are they monsters!), Biskind was a little too unrelenting in his expose of the pair, especially when one feels there is a lot about Independent movies he is leaving out. Given that he had promised to devote as much attention to Robert Redford and Sundance, it is notable that he doesn't (October Films get as much page space). Granted Redford comes across as a colourless, if charming, waste of space, and the Sundance sections are the least entertaining, but one gets the impression that Buskind is leaving out a lot of relevant material simply to fit in more on Miramax. For instance who are the IFC and what are the Independent Spirit Awards? He touches on all these shadowy (apparently) peripheral players when he can't avoid doing so, but you get the impression there's more going on than meets the eye. All in all though, I doubt he'll be eating lunch in Hollywood any time soon.

Yesterday I got a call from my cousin, Lynda, staying and working in Bronte, a suburb near Bondi Beach. I had called her whe I arrived, but unfortunately was ringing her Irish phone number. As soon as she got my email, she got in touch and I ended up on the beach at Bronte. Wonderful beach it was too. bad swimmer though I am, I had to play among the waves. They are tall and intimidating here, and a lot of surfing was going on, but big kid that I am, I had a great time. Naturally for all my suntan lotion, I didn't quite cover my back and got a little burnt, though not badly. Lynda's housemate, Rachel, on the other hand, seemed to burn her face uncomfortably.

You never notice the time going when you're enjoying this kind of sunlit beach, and before we knew it it was 7. We went back to the girls' house, which is really lovely, lots of space and light, and lounged around for a little, eating Thai and chatting. Then near 9 we went to the cinema.

Though I'd seen it, I had no problem going to "The Prestige" again. There are questionable aspects to the movie, but I have to admit to really liking it. A curious thing though; it struck me that this was a slightly different cut to the one I saw. I could have sworn you see the complete Tranported Man trick the first time Bale performs it, though here they cut before the second door opens. There were other slight differences (or so I thought) that seemed a little sloppy, but to be honest it is a very well edited film. Consider the number of different threads you are watching (Bale in prison, Jackman with Tesla, their early history, the last scenes) mixed in with the two diaries, and it is admirable how unconfused the audience always is. Enjoyable and intelligent, it's another triumph for Christopher Nolan.

Quick train back into town, and I was home.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Coup, the Thief, some Strife and the Music Lover

Getting into the cablecar, I wondered a little when I saw the door remained open and there was no handle. As the car neared the jumping off point, however, it closed automatically, though the hole in the floor stayed open allowing me to really see the tops of the trees as I soared over them. It's funny how cablecars, closer though they are to the ground, are more threatening than airplanes. I got off immediately the car stopped and walked around the very pretty park I found myself in. A huge public pool with hardly anyone using it shone in the hot sun and I regretted not having my trunks (the receptionist had mentioned there was such a pool).

Unfortunately this was the wrong stop. For safety purposes, passengers had to pause at this station before going on, so once I realised my mistake I got back into a car and headed higher. The view got better and better, but every time my car crossed a upholding pylon, there was a jaw jittering screech which kept me wary. My breath came easier when I skimmed the tops of trees; at least if all went wrong my body wouldn't be too mangled. This reprieve was short lived though, the valley opening wide and deep and promising a much more splatterful end. The kids screaming in the car going down woke me out of this mournful reverie and, suspecting every inch of the last few feet of cable, I made the top platform without any mishap.

A church lay at the top, presumably hoping to benefit from the near death experiences of vistors. Beside it was an empty amphitheatre with hymns blaring over the loudspeaker. To top this off, in every way, a huge statue of the Virgin Mary stood open-handed on the summit. Even more so than the cablecar, the view from this outcrop was breathtaking with the whole of Santiago lying beneath me. Vaguely visible, the Andes poked through the smog in the far distance. Then I looked up. nearly midday, the sun shone right behind the head of the statue creating a glorious halo. I'm sure this sight has been photographed a million times, but I took a few more pictures to add to its tally.

At Cerro Santa Lucio, I had noticed some locals buy a strange drink from a vendor, something with solids in the bottom of the glass that they ate with a spoon; Rico Mote con Huesillo. A number of stalls were selling this concoction here, so I took a go. Apparently it is iced, sweetened water with some peaches and wheat thrown in to give cause for using your spoon. It was a little too sweet for me, but I drank what I could.

Getting down the hill involved the funicular, or a series of inclined carriages on a track. It was a lot less challenging, and a lot less interesting, than the cablecar, but it did the job. I found myself around Constitution which was handy given that it was lunchtime.

After an average seafood salad, I set myself the task of finding the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art. Walking the full way rather than getting a train, I got a better appreciation of the layout of the city, falling into the streets I had walked the previous Sunday. It's kind of strange to see a huge, decorated Christmas tree standing among palm trees, but that's what you see in the main square. I passed by and on to where the map said the museum was, but walk up and down though I might, I just couldn't find it. I gave up and instead went in search of tobacco for an uncle of mine. This too I could not find, anything they sold being either cigarettes or cigars, but in wandering what did I find only the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art.

The temporary exhibition was on hats of the Aztecs, Olmecs, etc., and to be honest once you see one tassled, four-cornered hat you've seen them all. I must confess a certain bias here. I am no fan of the early South American civilisations. They had no golden ages as far as I am concerned, just strictly hierarchical societies based on death, war and sacrifice. The ideology of death the espoused was purely in the service of the ruling elite (kind of reminds you of a lot of civilisations today). I am not saying European or Asian civilisations were any different, but I just object to the romanticising that seems to go on. I remember at an exhibition in New York on the Aztecs, I read that not only would the poor not have any jewellry, if by some miracle they did, they couldn't wear it; they couldn't be seen to be anythig but poor. Then the poor were monogamous, the rich were polygamous. And then there were the blood sacrifices (boosting the importance of the priests), the battles and decapitations (one 'ball' game ended when one team had decapitated the other), and art was regulated by the rulers so that it conformed to the ideology of death. No wonder they turned to cocaine. Again I don't say any other civilisation is better, just don't ask me to celebrate this one.

What I did find interesting was a legend one group had regarding their principal god, who they identified with the sun. Apparently every night this god would descend into the underworld to battle the forces of darkness before rising again to give light to the world. This strikes me as very similar to the Eqyptian myth of Osiris. Given the pyramids, the obsession with death, and the linking of the rulers with gods (not to mention the part-animal, part-human imagery), it seems remarkable if there is no link between South America and Egypt. I don't generally have much time for Graham Hancock (I think that's his name) and all his ancient, unified civilisation stuff, but there are so many similarities that it does give one pause for reflection.

That night I prepared my parcels and took it easy. When I checked out next morning, I left my luggage with the reception. I asked about a shuttle and was offered a taxi, and without thinking I let them arrange things. This was a mistake. When I got back that evening, my 'taxi' was awaiting me. The driver was a guy I had seen around the hotel. His cab was an ordinary car with no meter. Having got me into the front seat he asked for 15000 pesos up front. I was flabbergasted. Even the taxis at the airport had offered 10000 to 13000, while a shuttle would have been 4900 (a bus would have been 1400). I should have kicked up or refused to go, but again my lack of the language put me at a disadvantage. I knew I was being taken for a ride, but at least it got me to the airport.

Getting food in the airport was another swizz, but I'll ease up on the moaning. Suffice to say the hotel spoiled their perfect record somewhat with the taximan and I didn't leave as happy as I'd have liked.

My destination was Fiji, but to get there I had to fly to Auckland, New Zealand, and wait for ten hours before flying on. The whole trip would take the best part of 24 hours.

Auckland Airport was very pleasant, and arriving at 4.15 in the morning, I was just in time to have the shops open in duty free. The only real place to eat was a Burger King, so I got something and sat down in front of a tv. BBC World News was on. I nearly choked on my hash browns as the headline story recounted the threat of a coup in Fiji. Despite last minute negotiations, martial law would be imposed from midday that day. I was heading into civil war! Well, a nasty political situation, at any rate. I am adventurous as the next world traveller, but without a good reason, flying into military strife just struck me as foolhardy. It struck the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs the same way. Their website advised travellers to stay away. I tried to ring their embassy, the nearest being in Canberra, but Australia was two hours behind and no one was answering. In the end I asked to change my flight. The Air New Zealand staff were wonderful and with little trouble and with a flight almost at the same time as my Fiji one, they got me a ticket for Sydney. I would be reaching Australia a week earlier than planned.

Sydney Airport has an accommodation desk. Unfortunately Elton John was playing this weekend, and there was a music festival in the Botanic Garden, and...well, the upshot was there was one room available unless I paid $200 or more. I took it.

Seeing the advantage of a shuttle, I booked myself in on one. While I waited a pretty, young blonde sat down beside me, also waiting for the shuttle. She seemed to have a broad Australian accent, which was funny because it transpired she was actually Brazilian. She had just spent 7 months in Melbourne perfecting her English. Once I knew, I could detect the slight latin endings she rolled on her words. Still it was funny to hear her. Unfortunately she was just finishing high school, so chatting only went so far.

Another person in the shuttle was a guy from Cork. He insisted on telling the driver how he can't take the heat ('28's enough for me!') and how Dublin's too much for him. We really are everywhere.

I was the last to get to my hotel. My room had all the charm of a prison cell. Semi-dried soup blotches stained the desk. There were no towels, no soap. The floor being a smoking floor, the smell of nicotine was everywhere. All in all the only reason anyone would stay there was if they were desperate, and I was. I was also exhausted, and I went to bed by 9.00, after trying to do some laundry (there was no powder). It was just as well I went so early, because at 6.00 the next morning, next door turned on the music and began karaoke. The walls, did I mention they were just wallpaper? At one point a vocal girl stuck her head into the corridor and shouted at them to 'Shut the f**k up!' They didn't. I was not sorry to leave.

Besides no hotels, there didn't seem to be any hostels. After a few attempts I managed to get a single room in a hostel, that was a good deal more inviting, and a lot less quiet than the so-called hotel. I spent two nights there and now, the weekend over, I got a last minute deal with a city centre hotel. Besides a air-conditioning factory outside my window, and electric shocks from the elevator (I won't be using it again, fourth floor or no fourth floor), it is a very nice room. I have just seen a very impressive adaptation of Philip K. Dick's "A Scanner Darkly" (far more successful animation from Linklater than his last effort, "Waking Life"), and am now heading back to bed.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Eels and Escalators

Right behind the hotel is the large park, the Cerro San Cristobel (the site of the hill with the statue of Jesus on it, Brian, although it turned out to be the Virgin Mary). Going to the top of a very large hill is a cablecar and I hoped to ride it that morning. Unfortunately on Mondays the cablecar didn't open until the afternoon. Having walked there, I walked back, determined to visit the next day.

Plans were changing and, as you do in a strange city, I decided to go to the mall, a huge one a few stops away on the underground. This was not entirely as brainlessly chosen as it might sound. I had several things to get for my further travels and I had some parcelling to do, so supplies were needed.

If Sunday had been busy, today Avenue Providencia was transformed into a maelstrom of activity. The underground too was refreshingly busy. Getting off at the end of the line, Scuola Militaire, I think, I walked to the mall, passing the very imposing military school on the way. I almost took a picture until I remembered in time that they're not keen on tourists snapping their military.

Up at Avenue Kennedy (the Irish are everywhere down here) I entered the huge mall. Priorities first, I had thin strips of roast beef on a bun, kind of a Chilean alternative to a burger. Then I browsed and bought. Getting brown paper for parcels is very difficult, indeed impossible, and I had to settle for baby birthday paper. On the other hand, the shoebox containing my new, cheap Brazilian slip-ons would work well for one parcel.

In the evening, I tried another Lonely Planet recommendation, this time on Constitution, a place called Galinda's, I think. Studying the menu, one item glared out; conger eel! Served in white wine and cream with potatoes and carrots, it was a splendid opportunity to tick off another item on the gastronomic wishlist (but it did taste familiar, so maybe I have had some before). In a huge bowl, still bubbling furiously, the waitress set it down before me. What i hadn't counted on though was the amount of cream used. I don't mind cream at all, but I don't drink milk straight and this was mainly boiled milk. Nevertheless I wasn't going to let this go, so I dug in. Despite a few bones, the eel though slightly more sticky than your standard fish, was lovely. I struggled through the soup and made as good a job as I could, helped by bread and beer.

A little thirsty, I was going to pop into one of the many bars, but chickened out in view of the many crowded tables on the pavement. I really feel the need for Spanish here.

Santiago - A Hidden Face

I had hesitated to criticise Santiago on my first visit (of a day) bearing in mind the Oslo Error (basing one's opinion of a new city on one's first impressions when one is tired and disoriented). Also I think Lonely Planet says of Santiago that where you stay is important as it will very easily colour your perception of the city, and my first stay had been just off Bernardo O'Higgins and was fairly rough and tumble. My caution was now validated. Despite many a pushy taxi driver, I managed to get a shuttle to my hotel in the wealthy area of Providencia. Even as we drove to the city (a different route to the bus of before), I could see things hidden last time, big parks, gleaming buildings, statues, etc.. Of course, this is only one side of Santiago, the rich side, more than balanced by a huge area of poverty, but sad to say, it was a comforting sight. The hotel too provided a very cosy welcome. The reception was all quiet woodwork and suited staff. When I was brought to my room, it turned out to be huge, air-conditioned and cosy. I ordered a sandwich (again I hadn't eaten much that day) and went to bed watching 'Twelve Monkeys'.

The next morning, Sunday, there was 'Sabrina' for breakfast, a Harrison Ford movie playing on the dining room tv, which might have caused an upset. I ignored it and concentrated on the food which was basic, but edible.

My impressions from the night before were more than validated when I left the hotel. Providencia was a bustling place of shops and workers, with sushi bars and parks. Anything I had heard about the Santiago underground had been complimentary, and sure enough it is as good a system as I have come across. Granted there are only three lines, each of which links to another, but it is spacious, efficient and very impressive. While I looked at a map, I heard the couple beside me talking in English. They seemed to be having a problem, so I asked if I could help. It turned out they were from Liverpool, though the woman was originally from Ireland. In their 60's, they nevertheless seemed to be boyfriend girlfriend, each with another family behind them. They had already travelled a little in South America, and he had lost his camera and credit cards on a train in Argentina. I fear the woman may have had Alzheimer's as she was very unsteady on her feet and had something of a penguin fixation. In fact, it was this penguin fixation that was bringing them to the very trip I had just left; they were joining the Explorer the next week for a trip to the South Pole (he kept the whole conceit going by constantly referring to her as his "little penguin"). I think he worked in the railway and she had been a teacher, and as you can probably guess they were very talkative. I am ashamed to say that though he suggested we meet for a drink later, I let the invitation pass by. They were on their way to do some trainspotting in the main train station. I know they will have a great time, but I worry about how she will be able to get in and out of those zodiacs; she was very unsteady.

Wandering through the city it struck me how unlucky I had been on the Sunday I had last been here. Everywhere I had walked then I had just stopped short of the streets were the real life was. Also I had arrived relatively late then and many streets seemed deserted, while now it was like Grafton Street on a summer's day, though a little more lively. Street performers, stalls, families eating ice cream, it was a heartening sight.

Finally getting my bearings, I took a trip to Cerro Santa Lucia, a high rock of a sculptured park in the middle of the city. It was once a convent and then a barracks, I believe, but with its fountains and towers and gorgeous view of the city, it's made for Sunday afternoons. I lazed around, had an ice pop, snapped pictures and eavesdropped on some English tourists, one of whom had a degenerative genetic eye condition, or something.

On my way back to the hotel, I bumped into the Liverpudlians again; they missed their stop and were backtracking. We made our farewells.

The Lonely Planet had recommended a restaurant on Avenue Providencia, so I headed off in search of it. Unfortunately the place didn't exist, or at least the address given was wrong. Instead I came across some sort of festival at a cathedral. Several yellow buses were parked outside and all along the pavement drummers were pounding away while children in wild costumes danced. I think I arrived near the end as some were getting back on to the buses, and some parents were leading their sparkling kids away from the whole event.

Wandering back, I settled for the Chef's selection in a nearby sushi restaurant. Large though the meal was, it was comprised entirely of salmon; so much for the chef's selection. He mustn't have been choosy that night. I was tired though and grateful to toddle across the road to my hotel and an early night

Back in Ushuaia

It was a 6 o'clock start this morning. Not in the mood for sausage and beans, I stuck to grapefruit and grapes for breakfast and plenty of apple juice. I wasn't ill, just tired and after breakfast I headed back for an hour's rest before we disembarked at 8. Time passed quickly and I fairly jumped out when the call came over the intercom. Haste is not always wise and as I got down from my bunk I slipped and wrenched my arms in some way trying to catch myself (my right shoulder is pretty sore now). The shock to the system was enough to have me retching for a few moments and I was pale enough when I emerged to prompt Marie to offer me medicine. I got by though.

One coach had already left with those going to the airport. Another one was to take those staying on in Ushuaia to their hotels and hostels. It was a bit of a disaster. Often passengers could see their hotel a minute's walk away, but had to wait while the coach went a different direction. Then at every stop the woman coordinating the operation insisted on seeing the people into their hotels, and eventually the delay caused many on the coach to rebel. Many just up and left. My guesthouse was sufficiently far out to keep me in my place, but it was the best part of two hours before I got to Casa Alba. Alba met me at the door and I slept a couple of hours before heading into town to do some laundry.

I had agreed to meet Marc and Brian at 8 for dinner and drinks. For one reason or another I didn't get to eat all day, so by 8 I was starving. However, Brian had ended up going on a car trip with some of the gang from his hostel and so needed to get back shower etc.. We all went back and had a few drinks. In the end there was a bit of a pizza party and by the time orders got sorted it was 10 or later. Nice hostel, I have to admit, very cosy.

The next day I found myself sharing breakfast with a Texan family of three. The father was a former military man now teaching some sort of propaganda class in the local highschool. This was applepie America and I had to watch my p's and q's, though "penguin pooh" slipped out and caused silence.

After breakfast, I decided to walk to the Martial Glacier, situated behind the city of Ushuaia. Alba claimed it would be an hour and a half. Not quite. It took me nearly an hour to find the entrance of the track.

Initially the way was easy. I had my walkman on with everything from Brian Eno to Aphex Twin and at times I powered along. Other times I didn't. It began to get marshy. A couple had entered the forest a few minutes before me, but I could see no sign of them, but then I was stopping for pictures.

The first track ended at the base of the chair lift, but there was an alternative "stipper" track for those who wanted to continue walking. Such as me. Very soon I realised that "stipper" meant "steeper" and what was marshy ground was now swamp. Inevitably my runner went right down into the wet soil and I had to put on my wellies, fortunately in my backpack. Just as well because only a step or two later my leg went in up to the rim of the welly. It was tough going from then on, if it hadn't been before.

Eventually I scrambled out at the top of the chair lift. There was a little cafe there and the couple who were ahead of me had just started their soup. They did not have their wellies and the woman was ready to abandon any further walking. It turned out they were Canadian, French Canadian. When they asked about Antarctica I began to show them some of my snaps. A quiet "Mon Dieu!" was uttered by the woman every so often.

The soup and wine I had were very welcome, as was the stove: it was getting colder. However, there was a little bit of tomfoolery with the cheque and they ended up taking three pesos. I had intended giving them three as a tip anyhow, so I went on without hassle.

The hour to the top was of course a little longer than that. Once you got to the snow of the glacier, the stone turned to shale and climbing was a little difficult. I paused a lot to get my footing. Intermittently it would snow and things were very chilly. Eventually though I got as far as I could without climbing equipment and the view, as promised, was spectacular. As regards a glacier, there is very little there, just big snow drifts. Over the tops of the surrounding mountains, clouds swirled, while below neer the bay the recent snow had moved to the town. I did my photo shoot (alas they are on a disk headed home) and then began to head back down.

Being lazy, I started to follow some tracks left in the snow. Rather than tackle shifting shale again, the snow I felt would be easier going. It might have been were I not sinking in up to my thighs. Eventually I decided the shale was the easier option after all and headed back to the rock. I had gone off the beaten track though and getting back gave me some scary moments.

Eventually at the chair lift still in good time, I made still better practically running down the dirt road beside the lift. All in all it looked like I'd be home early, by 6 at any rate. I begin to walk the road to town believing that what it took up in its winding nature, it would give in terms of the firm footing it would afford me. I was wrong. On and on I walked, the road taking huge loops into the countryside. eventually i was lucky enough to hail a passing cab and got home near 7.

I was meeting Brian for dinner, Marc having left early that morning. This time we went straight to the restaurant and at Brian's recommendation I tried the excellent steak (in the guesthouse the Texan had conceded that the Argentinians could teach them a thing or two about steak). A table away sat the Canadians and then down beside us sat two old women from the Antarctic trip. It all made for a pleasant meal. Then it was on to the Dublin for drinks until 2.

The next day I flew to Santiago. An Australian from the trip, Emmy, was also on the flight. For once I got a window seat and at one point I believe we flew over Torres del Paine. It was stupendous landscape with high snowy spires, rusty rock and many, many real glaciers. Besides staring at this, I read. The only unusual thing about the flight was that for once I was a little nervous. I think this was mainly due to my concern about Santiago. My view of the city before had not been entirely complimentary and I was now to arrive at 10 at night. I wasn't sure of the location of my hotel and all in all what lay ahead was a little uncertain.

The Voyage of M.S. Explorer to Antarctica 22/11/06

Our route to the Antarctic
Ushuaia ahoy!
Boats in Ushuaia bay
The Little Red Ship

Keith and Jen

See what happens when you let your guard down! The one night I go crazy, we get a call at 3.30 to say we are nearing Cape Horn. There had been talk that we would be visiting the Cape, but I thought this wouldn't be until the next day. Good weather had allowed us yet again to make good time and we got to the Cape far earlier than expected. Needless to say I briefly woke and then went right back to sleep. I was fairly cheesed off at breakfast, even though the general consensus was without the bad weather it was just some cliffs.

We got back to Ushuaia again earlier than expected and, though we ate aboard ship, we all took off at 9 to visit Ushuaia. Leaving the ship we were struck by the homeliness of our M.S. Explorer in contrast to a huge cruise liner and an expensive sailing yacht also moored.

Brian, Marc, Brian and Louise, Keith and Jen, Robert and one or two others stuck together and headed for the Dublin Irish Bar to suffer the local Beagle beer. It was a small wood paneled place with an incongruous R2D2 standing just inside the door. The beer had the slight tang of badly cleaned pipes, so we switched to Austral, only marginally better on draught. Others from the boat drifted by, but some of the others had taken up residence in the Galway. When our drink tab receipt didn't ring true we headed there to join them.

At 1 a.m. there weren't too many left. Bob the hotel manager from the ship, the chef and one or two others were the principal characters. Beside us a group of local girls were drinking champagne and acting very friskily. It turned out they weren't just local girls, but working girls. To the best of my knowledge we all resisted their very in your face charms. It was after two by the time we got back to the ship, although a Russian with no English did offer the invitation to a vodka or two on the Russian vessel immediately in front of our ship. Again temptation was resisted.

The Voyage of M.S. Explorer to Antarctica 21/11/06

This is our second last day. We rock back and forth as we cross Drake's Passage. Lectures now have no practical use and so I just fill in time. At one point, we got a call that there was a king penguin off our stern. Everybody bnurst on to the deck dressed in t-shirts and sandals - we're all so casual about the cold these days - and craned over the rail. With no icebergs, however, it could only have been in the water and was long gone. You have to be quicker than quick these days.

Given that we are on our way home, I have relaxed my embargo on drink. In the afternoon, Brian, Louise and I started drinking a lager or two (actually Louise wisely kept to the water). Dinner and then a quiz continued this reaquaintance with alcohol. By 2.45 in the morning I had degenerated into debates on aesthetics and was scaring the only other table also up. I went rolling physically and mentally to bed.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Voyage of M.S. Explorer to Antarctica 20/11/06

Deception Island

(For snaps of the poolside orgy see "Two Nomads" or "Our Epic Journey" in Links; I didn't have my camera with me at the time!)

Another early start this morning with a tantalising prospect ahead; we were to swim in the Antarctic.

On Deception Island (62 degrees 59' south), in the South Shetlands, is a small inlet called Whalers Bay. The whole island is a caldera, that is created by a volcano. In the early days it was a whaling centre and the huge vats used to contain the whale oil are still on the beach, rusted red and graffitied. However, abandoned when oil prices dropped, it was reinhabited by the British in the 40's and maintained as a military base in the 60's. In 1967, eruptions caused damage and when the eruptions continued in 1969 and 1970, the base was abandoned. There were minor eruptions in the 90's and it is still active volcanically. What this meant for us was thermal heating. The sea itself is cold, but pools dug in the shoreline are heated by the water bubbling up from beneath. The trip staff got to work on digging two pools while we, the passengers, wandered around the abandoned buildings (including an aircraft hangar) or climbed to Neptune's Window, a picturesque gap in the surrounding cliffs. (In order to get into port Foster, the larger harbour of which Whalers Bay is a part, we had to sail through Neptune's Bellows).

Apparently Scott described this as a hellish place. It is certainly desolate and not just due to the wrecked buildings. Three graves are all that are left of a cemetery destroyed by the eruptions. Behind them stretches a rock strewn plain of snow , the stones showing black or red depending on the vagaries of the Earth which threw them up. Some are large, some are pebbles, but they are relatively newly minted compared with the ancient geology we have so far encountered. If we came here on the wrong day, I doubt the heat would allow swimming.

There were not meant to be any penguins here, but no one had told the penguins and five gatecrashed the party. Other wildlife included gulls, skuas (I saw one with research tags around its legs) and the occasional washed up starfish (more definitely tentacled than we're used to). I kind of wish we had a little more information on the life that lies beneath the waves, especially given that these can be rich waters.

Eventually the pools were dug. Clustering around a beached dry dock, we stripped off in the minus one air and ran to the crowded pools. I don't think the diggers had anticipated the popularity and things were crowded, resembling more an orgy than a beach party. Naturally I got a spot that was just a little too hot (which is why no one had been sitting there). The water welling up at my back could have boiled an egg here, if you had an egg. And you could sink a pint of Harp, if you had a pint of Harp. Well, probably a better lager; there were calls for a nice cold beer from some of those merrily boiling away. the heat though was preferable to the icy sea that some brave sould unwisely dived into. With the cold air on my chest balanced by the warm water around my legs, I was relatively content. The Irish contingent wore our national pallor with pride. It had to end though. Then it was a hasty dry down with a damp towel and a rush to get dressed.

Lunch, lectures, reading.

Aitcho Island

A Chinstrap Penguin colony
Chinstraps and a gentoo

Our next and final destination was Aitcho Island (after HO or Hydrological Office). The first penguins we had encountered at Elephant Island were chinstraps, but they are more properly sub-Antarctic maritime penguins and we had seen no more. Until now. Aitcho Island was full of them. We landed at Whalebone Beach which sure enough was peppered with whalebone. The penguins often used it for their nests. Also on the beach were gentoos and two or three seals (I only saw two). One was a Weddell seal, many of which we'd already seen, but the other was the very distinctive Leopard Seal, a penguin eater. It was huge and a little bit sinister in appearance, with its sleek, yet bulging head and wide, smiling mouth. It plopped down to the waterline in fits and starts before gracefully swimming off.

In walking from one end of the short beach to the other, I somehow managed to lose my camera. I wasn't too dismayed, at least initially, as the beach was short and I hadn't walked far. Nevertheless it could have been a very nasty loss. Sure enough, Adam from Hong Kong found it on the sand and I recovered it.

The main thing about Aitcho Island is that further north than any of our other destinations, it nevertheless felt the coldest. This was probably due to the brisk wind and dampness of the place. The penguins took on a silver sheen as they huddled against the flying snow, the ice on their backs showing against the black. We generally agreed that this was the closest we came to Antarctic weather the whole trip and it still wasn't much below minus one. We were meant to have three hours on the beach, but it says a lot that we were all back on board after two. This allowed us to depart on our homeward journey earlier than expected.

Very soon after leaving those relatively sheltered waters, the weather got foggy and the waters rougher. We were heading once more into the rough and tumble of Drake's Passage.

I determined to risk not taking seasickness tablets this time, and instead gave them to Marie from Dublin. So far I've been fine.

At dinner I learnt that 'North by Northwest' had come from the small but impressive collection of dvds Englishman, Matt, had with him. He chose 'Thunderbolt and Lightfoot', with Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, as that night's screening. I sat through it not having seen it for years, but it wouldn't be my cup of tea. In contrast to Lehman's, Cimino's script is lazy and often offensive. Strange though how many buddy movies with sad endings appeared in the 70's (remember 'Midnight Cowboy' and 'Scarecrow').