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Unhappy Return

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

Flying Home

Australia has water restrictions because it’s a desert country and it’s suffering from a drought (away from Airlie Beach, that is—there are no restrictions in Airlie Beach). England has water restrictions because companies such as Thames water waste 198 million gallons of water through leaking pipes every day (that’s Thames water alone! —Evening Standard, 31/01/2007, p.12). They have failed to address this problem satisfactorily so far, and now one of their bright-spark corporate lawyers has devised an alternative solution to the problem: legally, TW is only obliged to supply water up to street level—so they have reduced pressure in the pipes. If you have an upstairs bathroom or don’t live on the ground floor, tough, you’ll have to install a booster pump at your own expense (ditto).

Ironically, Thames Water was recently acquired by an Australian bank.

Oh, it’s good to be back!

I’m not saying that Australia is without fault. The way they manage their water makes me cringe. The verdict about water treatment in NSW is that people ‘won’t drink sewage’ and Queenslanders are up in arms about it too. Meanwhile, drinking water appears to be used in heavy industry.

I would still move there in a heartbeat. But John wasn’t overly impressed. However, when we got home, half of the escalators in the airport weren’t working (try stumbling up and down those things in a zombified state after an 11 hour flight at 4 a.m. Japanese time…), we had to wait nearly 2 hours for the bus and it was freezing. To cheer ourselves up—and while the house was warming up—we went to the pub, bleary-eyed though we were. It was packed, but there wasn’t anybody there that we knew, apart from Hamish the landlord, who gave us a brief grunt, too busy to talk. When we were displaced from the table by a bunch of cribble players, we left.

Today, the skies are grey. The eucalypt tree in the garden has blown over.

Welcome home.

I’ll be updating the blog, but entries will be backdated, so have a look around later.

Bully Birds

Saturday, January 27th, 2007


For some time now, the lorikeets had been chattering loudly in the trees overhead.Lorikeet in the Branches Now, people began to gather expectantly and the birds’ chatter intensified as feeding time approached.

It seems that lorikeet feeding is a popular Australian past time. Usually, the birds are given soaked cereal or bread, but not enough to fill them up. The idea is that they continue to find most of the food they need in the wild, ensuring a proper, balanced diet. But this means that they are hungry.

As soon as the keeper showed up with his tray, the lorikeets descended onto the ground like a flutter of rainbow petals. Before long, not only the ground was covered, but so where we.Colour Explosion At first it seemed as if the birds simply climbed over each other in their eagerness to get to the food. But a pecking order was soon established. Just before the feed, I had observed various pairs preening each other. Their pair-bond reinforced, they now set out to peck on single birds in tandem.

A few of us picked up plates and shovelled a bit of the gruel into them in order to better distribute it (which traded us nasty looks from the dominant birds, although they appeared to assess our size and reluctantly gave way). As a result, we were soon covered in lorikeets right from the tip of our fingers to the top of our heads. The squabbling got heated as we reached out to offer some of the morsels to subordinate birds. Their sharp claws dug into our arms as they took hold to lunge out at each other or defend themselves. Bully Birds

Meanwhile, on the ground, the food tray was by now defended by what might have been the alpha bird itself. It didn’t feed, but strutted around the tray—many times its length— daring any other bird to approach. Once again, I moved a bit of the food to one side where the poor subordinates were gathered to look on with hungry eyes. The bully bird immediately fluffed itself up and strutted over to see off the competition. At least it meant that some of the timid losers managed to sneak behind it and hastily grab a few morsels before it turned its attention back onto the tray.

In the end, our arms and hands were pock-marked with red dots where the lorikeets had dug in and occasionally nipped at the skin in a mis-guided attempt to illicit more food. What if they’d been sparrows or crows—scrawny, menacing specimens straight out of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’, desperate for sustenance? Unaware of where the bread ends and the flesh begins?

Well, they kind of were, but they sure are pretty. I guess, we can forgive anything for beauty…

John as Perch

Magnetic Attraction

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

Magnetic Island View

OK, so the title is corny, but it’s fitting all the same. Magnetic Island (so named when Capt’n Hook experienced a compass malfunction while passing by) exerts a notable pull. I wish I was back there now. I wouldn’t want to live there, but it would’ve been great to stay a bit longer.

For starters, it is sunny here—most of the time. And there’s plenty of wildlife. Black Red-tailed Cockatoo Only a few yards from our accommodation, we saw what I mistook for a flock of crows, until I saw the birds’ heads. They were red-tailed black cockatoos, gathered under a beach-almond tree which they visit so regularly that there was a sign about them: the clever parrots scar the almonds and drop them from the tree, then return a few days later to feed on the softened fruit.

As soon as we approached the tree, the birds sought refuge in the branches. But as I looked up, a white flash passed overhead. It turned out to be a spectacular sulphur-crested cockatoo. Once again, it felt as if we had stepped inside an aviary.Spur-winged plover Not to be outdone, a spur-winged plover stalked across a patch of lawn nearby. It had chicks, so we never got very close.

I was glad that we had opted against taking the bus, but by the time we got to Nelly Bay and sat down to recuperate at the ‘Fat Possum Café’, John’s flip-flops had rubbed the skin of his feet sore. We needed transport.

The traditional mode of transport on Magnetic Island is a form of buggy called a moke. Moke is what the things are called collectively, but they have individual names as well, and 68 dollars bought us the use of ‘Marvin the Martian’ for 24 hours.

Marvin the Martian

[read on]

No More Eatin’

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

Airlie Beach Seafood

While most people adopt a strict diet and exercise regime during January, to get rid of the Christmas flab, my policy is to travel during this time whenever possible. Hauling a backpack around the tropics and engaging in plenty of outdoor activities means the pounds veritably melt away.

So far in Australia, my travel-to-diet plan hasn’t worked out, partly because lavish breakfasts and ample meals were included in our stays or activities. Not so, however, when you find yourself stranded in some backwater. This is because Australia, like Britain in the mid-Eighties, still adheres to mealtimes. Woe betide you if you arrive late, or find yourself hungry outside the hours of 12-2 p.m. or 6-8 p.m.—especially during the evening when all the smaller cafés are closed. It had happened to us in Yeppoon, and now I dig why so many places sell nuts, dried fruit and beef jerky.

Among the backwaters, I count Magnetic Island, which after all only has 2000-odd inhabitants. And on Maggie Island, I have to include Xbase Backpackers. Nobody told us when we were checking in just before 8 o’clock that the kitchen would close—as barstaff repeatedly pointed out later—at “8 p.m. on the dot.” We didn’t find out about this until the shutters came down in our faces. And I was fresh out of jerky.
[read on]

Whitsunday Water Torture

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007

Sailing in the Rain

Well, our ship-mum was wrong.

I woke up when one of the drops, which occasionally seep through the latch during rain, landed squarely on my nose—a bit like Chinese Water Torture. It was about 6 a.m. I turned over, out of the drops’ way, and went back to sleep.

At eight, it was still raining. There was one piece of toast left and no more fruit juice. I made a cup of coffee and took it to the cabin, but John just grunted and turned over. We were still anchored in Raven’s Cove, where the instructors had spent yesterday afternoon moonlighting by offering try-dives to passengers from other boats. That had been the last of the reasonable weather. Now we were marooned off Hook island by rough seas.

Today was going to be a shitty day.
[read on]

Never a Shitty day in the Whitsundays

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007

Not a Shitty Day in the Whitsundays

Note: this entry is now complete (29/01)

We are not going to the outer reef.

Apparently, it is too rough and there are some people who ‘haven’t found their sea legs yet’.

I don’t know about them, but if I was prone to seasickness, I would probably not book a three day sailing trip. Then again, some people really don’t know. I remember a mate of ours (plus the captain’s girlfriend) suffering through an entire week’s sailing in the Channel Islands.

Still, not going to the outer reef sucks—even more than the grey skies and regular 2-3 hour long ‘showers’. Everything is wet, which reminds me of past diving holidays in Scotland. Even the sea has lost its pretty blue colour. But in Scotland nobody expects to see the Great Barrier Reef.
[read on]

Sharks and Stingrays

Monday, January 22nd, 2007


I have snorkelled with sharks and stingrays on Whitsunday Island! How cool is that?

John, not wearing a stinger suit, had to stay onshore, but we both could see the ghostly diamond shapes of the rays and yellow streaks of tiny lemon sharks as they shot past us underneath the mottled surface, only metres from where we stood on the beach.

I donned my mask and snorkel and gently lowered my face into the knee-deep water. Alas, although the animals were clearly visible from above—almost in touching distance—I could see nothing but fleeting shadows and silt. The rain, which had been lashing the beach all morning had stirred up the flour-fine sand and turned the sea into soup.


There’s a shark in there—honest! Look at the background and you might just make it out…

As soon as we had booked the sailing trip and a flight from nearby Proserpine on Sunday—having made the decision to stay in the area for the short time remaining on our trip—it had started to rain, and it has yet to stop.

Setting Sail in the Whitsundays

Sunday, January 21st, 2007

A Cloudy Day at Sea

Midnight, and the stars shone dim and without conviction, foggy through the blanket of clouds. There were none of the diamond shards which usually litter the tropical sky, and the Southern Cross was nowhere to be seen. But sparks blinked in the dark water below the hull: phosphorescent plankton reflecting the night sky, as if the stars had been dropped into the ocean. Flashes of lightning played around the anchor chain as the boat rolled gently in the waves.

We were anchored off Dunbell island, and it was the start of our sailing adventure.

In the sky high above our heads, the clouds thickened.

Parrots in a Palm Tree

Saturday, January 20th, 2007

Parrots in a Palm Tree

Walking down the street, I sometimes feel as if I’m in a giant aviary. A cockatoo may shoot past overhead or a flash of colour reveal itself as one of the ubiquitous rainbow lorikeets. Every evening, their noisy chatter sounds from the trees just before they’re settling down to sleep. I never tire of watching them, even if the locals give me funny looks as I stand in the middle of the road, head craned back in the hope of catching a glimpse of the lively birds. This little flock of about five birds practically posed for us at ‘Backpackers in the Bay’ in Airlie Beach.

There will be no more blogging until at least Tuesday, as we’re off sailing and diving on the Pacific Star.

Rainbow Lorikeets in Palm Tree

Wild West, Aussie Style

Saturday, January 20th, 2007

If we won’t go to the outback, the outback will come to us.

Great Western Hotel, Rockhampton, Australia

Rockhampton is the cattle capital of Australia. The town’s charming colonial centre is in stark contrast to the sprawling American-style suburbs and malls that surround it. For about twenty minutes, we drove past endless arrays of warehouses, megastores and motels before we crossed the Fitzroy river and into the historic city centre.
The Criterion Hotel Rockhampton GPO at Night
But one thing they have in common, whether modern or old, estate agents or tool shops, are the fibreglass bulls that adorn many buildings. And not just bulls, horses too:


Not to be outdone by the Americans, not only does country music sound from every bar (interspersed with cheesy Seventies and Eighties rock, just to let us know that we are still in Australia), but to my knowledge, Rockhampton also has the only pub with a bull riding arena on the premises. There wasn’t any bullriding on a Thursday night, but it does serve the best steaks in town.

This provided a propper contrast to our visit to the Aboriginal Dreamtime Cultural Centre earlier that day, where John got infected with the didgeridoo bug. But that’s another story.

After a night in the flea-bitten but stylish Criterion Hotel, we headed north to Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands.