Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Darwin...more culture in a yoghurt?

Darwin and I don't exactly hit it off. Maybe it’s the heat. It’s not just hot (35C at best) but also seriously humid.

The minute you step outside it’s as if an overly intimate and very clammy friend has grasped you in a damp and sweaty embrace and then, for good measure, climbed on your back for a piggy back ride. Every step you take you can feel him clinging hot and wetly to your back. Ten steps, 15 at most and you are dripping. Not perspiring gently, no girlish sheen, this is proper, unreconstructed dripping sweat.

I arrive on a Friday evening that marks the start of a bank holiday weekend and it seems as if the vast majority of locals have taken up binge drinking as a competitive sport. Over the whole weekend, pubs are bustling from 11am onwards. On Anzac Day (the Australian Remembrance Day) the whole city is awash with men in military uniforms or suits adorned with medals crowding into pubs and spilling onto the street. By 3pm there are people vomiting in the gutter, two men are scuffling and throwing punches as a police car draws up with a lazy flash of its lights and others are shouting and whistling at women as they pass by.

Those locals that aren’t constantly under the weather are plain eccentric. I’m sitting in a cafe, trying to cool off in the air conditioned interior, when a woman rides up on a penny farthing bicycle. She has a large stuffed penguin in a basket on the handlebars. She parks the bike, no mean feat in itself, picks up the penguin, finds a table for two and carefully seats the penguin opposite her. Then she orders breakfast and calmly eats it, before cycling off again, penguin in pride of place.

Monday morning dawns every bit as hot and sweaty as the last two days but I force myself to find the energy to visit the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. It’s beautifully cool and eclectically diverting. There’s a huge stuffed crocodile called Sweetheart who terrorised local fishermen before dying in a bungled capture attempt in the late 70s. He is immense: 5.1metres long, with a 2.4m snout and, according to the laconic expert who explains the story, the only crocodile he’s ever seen with chipped teeth. ‘I think it must be because he used to bite the propellers off the boats,’ he says. That would probably do it, I think to myself, but in case you don't believe him he has a picture of a metal dinghy with two very large crocodile bite marks right through it.

In the gallery next door to Sweetheart is ReCoil a great exhibition of indigenous weaving with some really inspiring work ranging from colourful baskets to totems and more contemporary art style pieces. Coil weaving has become widespread in Aboriginal communities in the last 30years or so and as women travel they share their skills with others. Check out artist Nalda Searles who writes a couple of blogs on the subject.

When I emerge back into the heat at the end of my visit I find I’ve also reached the turquoise waters of the Timor Sea. Unfortunately you can’t dive in and cool off (if the deadly Box jellyfish don’t get you then the crocodiles will) but it is very beautiful. I wander along the beach and discover the Darwin Ski Club.

First I think it’s an ironic joke but it is in fact the water ski club, which turns out to be primarily a very laid back and very charming beachside bar where you can have a drink in the palm fringed gardens and admire the sea from a safe distance.

I hesitate for a fraction of a second then sit myself down and order a cold beer. If you can’t beat them, I think to myself as I drain it in no time at all and order another. And it seems the locals might be on to something for, as I leave the bar 90 minutes and three beers later, I seem to be finally warming to Darwin.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Alice Springs to Darwin, 1420km, travelling time 24 hours

I'm writing this sitting in my Gold cabin on The Ghan (I was upgraded, hurrah!), sipping a cold beer, waiting for lunch to be called and wishing the journey would never end.

The cabin is amazing. There’s a double bed at one end, a fitted wardrobe and a table with two armchairs, one beside each window. At the other end, there’s a small fridge (filled with said beer and a bottle of champagne), hot water for tea or coffee, a TV and DVD player and a compact bathroom, complete with shower.

The decor is retro – oak panelled furniture, ornate engraved mirrors, brass fittings – but that just adds to the charm of it all. This is the kind of rail journey I always dreamed about taking but didn’t really think still existed: leisurely, sophisticated, romantic. All it needs now is someone to share it with and I think briefly of wandering down to the economy seats and inviting the young Italian boy with shiny dark curls and soft calf brown eyes that I chatted with while we were waiting to board to join me.

We left Alice Springs at 6pm last night. The sun was setting with typical outback drama, sky festooned with pink, orange and red. I dress for dinner (well put on some lipstick anyway) and wander down to the bar car. There’s a glass of champagne to welcome us aboard and the atmosphere is giddy and heady. Almost all of the other passengers are over 65 but that doesn’t stop the party jumping.

Then it’s time for dinner and I discover the glory that is the dining car: softly lit tables for four, linen table cloths, old fashioned silver and a delicious menu (king prawns and salmon starter, followed by rare steak and a cheeseboard for me). We’re seated by the stewards and I find myself next to Betty.

She’s nearly 80, travels widely and has been single for 22 years since her husband died. Is she, I ask delicately, perhaps particularly fussy in what she’s looking for in a man? Not at all, she says. ‘All I want is a man who can walk and talk.’ That does indeed seem very reasonable, I say, and surely not so hard to find. She snorts derisively. ‘You’d thinks so but the last bloke I was seeing could hardly walk and we’d go out for a meal and he wouldn’t say a word.’ Over a bottle of red we commiserate on the difficulty of finding a suitable man and the dark countryside outside clacks by mile after clickety mile.

After the champagne and red wine I’m all done in but no one will hear of bed. A nightcap, it seems, is the order of the day. We retire to the bar and I meet Val. She’s wearing a lime green three piece trouser suit and has tight chestnut curls. After a while, apropos of not very much at all, she stands up, declares her love for Shirley Bassey and treats us all to a very fine rendition of Hey Big Spender.

‘I don’t pop my cork for every man in town,’ she sings, moving up and down the carriage and shimmying in front of several startled male passengers who glance nervously at their wives. ‘Hey big spender, spend...a little time...with me.’ Right on the final note she ends up in her husband’s lap, to the cheers of the entire carriage. Her husband rolls his eyes at me. ‘Been doing it for 30 years,’ he says. ‘Party trick. Better with the music.’ And on that note I retire to my cabin, lie in my bed and watch the stars glide past my window as I drift off to sleep.

At 6am the steward, a gentle, welcoming and hospitable man called Anthony who is unfailingly pleasant, knocks on the door and brings me a cup of tea. I lie, sip and savour it as I watch the sun rise, then wander to the dining car for breakfast – fresh fruit followed by poached eggs, bacon, tomatoes and mushrooms, toast and jam and lots of coffee.

Outside the scenery has changed. Gone is the seeming emptiness of the red centre, in its place an almost tropical north. Trees, some with vivid orange bark, cluster densely side by side and an army of deep red termite mounds (many as tall as a man) stand sentry in long grass.

At 9am we break in Katherine, wander off to explore the gorge and then return to the train for a 1pm departure. And here I am now. It’s only 5 hours to Darwin but I’m seriously hoping there’s some kind of breakdown that means we need to spend a little bit longer on board.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

A town like Alice

Alice Springs hunkers low between the rust red hills of the MacDonnell Ranges and the sandy bottomed Todd River. At 8am the day is cool and clear, with pale blue skies and a gentle breeze but already the air carries a hint of the temperatures to come.

By late morning the heat is shimmering from the corrugated iron roofs and the bitumen streets feel molten beneath your feet. Shopkeepers retreat to dim air-conditioned interiors; shoppers emerge blinking and squinting and disappear rapidly into vehicles.

A small group of Aboriginals doze in the shade on the green grass beside the library. Aside from the slow caw caw caw of a lazy crow, the town is silent. When a squabble breaks out among the group in the park the noise clatters down the quiet streets. The disagreement escalates and eventually one man separates from the group and walks with a swinging gait down the empty mall, muttering and throwing the occasional insult back over his shoulders. Then silence descends again and the town dozes through its unofficial siesta.

This has been a great year for rain here. The city had 600mm of rain this wet season against an average of around 300mm. Last year it received just 75mm all year (England's north, by comparison, averages 1,500mm a year and can reach totals of 5000mm). The hills around the city are covered with grass but the river remains virtually dry. Occasional shallow waterholes, the water lukewarm around your ankles, are filled with darting fish.

By 4pm the worst of the heat is retreating. The silver river gums that line the sandy river bed cast cool dappled shade; the vivid red of the surrounding hills and the indigo blue of the sky soften to paler shades. On the river bed, in the shade on the cool sand, a small group of Aboriginals drink cans of beer around a fire, their voices floating softly across to the banks.

A young woman wearing a floral skirt pushes her two sons on swings in the park. The youngest, a chubby toddler of about two with caramel coloured skin and baby curling blond hair, throws back his head and laughs in delight as the swing flings him high. In a neighbouring front garden, a young man, shirtless, holds a tiny baby to his bare chest with one arm and pushes a lawn cutter lazily with the other. ‘Alright,’ he calls languidly in greeting. On the verandah of the pub, condensation gathers on ice cold beer glasses as people sit, legs on the railing, washing away the taste of another day’s work.

Once the sun sinks a rapid and surprising coolness blows through the town, taking the edge of the heat and emotions. It’s possible to walk a little faster and laugh a little louder and then sleep, the water cooled air conditioned air blowing softly across your back. Stars take over the sky, a mass of gentle light that offer no competition to the growing moon.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Ghan, Adelaide to Alice Springs, 1,500km, travel time 25 hours

I’m about to board The Ghan and traverse Australia from south to north and I’m so excited that I ask another traveller to take a cheesy photo of me beside the train. It’s an impressive beast: 29 carriages, 710metres long in total and with 28 crew, including five chefs.

This is the first sleeper leg of my trip and I love my basic little cabin with its neat fold down beds and fold away sink. As soon as the bar opens I treat myself to a little bottle of bubbly and sit in my cabin with a huge smile on my face, toasting the journey (and all those friends who are with me in spirit).

I watch the scenery for a while – there’s been plenty of rain up here so the outback is much greener than usual – then wander down to the lounge car to see who else is on the train. They’re an eclectic bunch.

I chat with Gertie, an Aboriginal woman in her 50s who is making the journey to Darwin with her two aunts. She tells me of her homeland ‘out back of Burke’ and that the government has recently bought back a parcel of land for her people. ‘It was amazing, who would have thought 50 years ago that we would get this land back,’ she says. ‘We’ve got water on the land and everything. Usually they don’t give you anything with water on it but we’ve got plenty.’ She’s strong, resigned and optimistic all in one when she tells me of the community’s hope to build a business. ‘We need to get jobs out there for the young ones. They’re lost,’ she says. ‘Even the ones who don’t live a traditional life, they’re just lost.’

Her aunt agrees that jobs are needed but she highlights a growing problem on indigenous lands. The land is considered wilderness and ecologically important, meaning its Aboriginal title holders are expected to conserve it not use it. Their white neighbours farm and run cattle, but they aren’t allowed to. ‘What’s the point of having the land?’ asks Auntie. ‘What are we gonna do with it. We don’t have any money, how can we maintain it?’ They are eco-refugees; title owners only in name, she says. See this story by columnist Noel Pearson in The Australian for more.

I also meet Rodney, an American from Oklahoma City who’s going to Darwin and back again. He’s wearing a bandana and has a bushy moustache and wiry black hair that springs unruly from underneath it and reaches to his shoulders. His blue eyes have plenty of smile crinkles around them. He’s genial and chatty and politically astute. His views on the US Congress make me giggle. ‘We’d to a better job if we just pulled 535 people from this train,’ he says. ‘In Oklahoma we’ve got two of the craziest wing nuts representing us. They haven’t got half a brain. We thought if we elected two of them that would add up to one brain but in fact it was more a case of multiplication and now we’ve got a quarter of a brain sitting there,’ he says. Turns out he worked on the railways in the US so this trip is a bit of a busman’s holiday for him.

We sit and fall into silence to watch a stunning sunset play out on the western horizon. The sky changes from blue to pink to orange, fiery tentacles stretching for miles and bathing the land flame red.

Then night falls and it’s black and deep and velvety. There’s no light except that from the train. Later, the conductor comes along and slides the bed down, fully made up, from its hiding place in the wall. I turn the light off and the darkness reaches in and wraps itself tight around me. After a moment, stars begin to appear, first one then two then hundreds. It’s as if I am lying under a black velvet blanket and someone is pricking tiny holes in it with a pin. I go to sleep with the gentle light of the stars above me and the rumbling noise of the train below.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

‘Adelaide? Well I’ve heard it’s OK...’

Before I left Melbourne I was chatting with a young guy in one of the city’s outdoor shops about this trip. My travel plans were met with unanimous enthusiasm until I mentioned that my first stop was Adelaide. His face fell and he said, ‘wellllll...I’ve heard it’s OK,’ his voice suggesting the exact opposite. And it was with this less than ringing endorsement sounding in my ears that I set off to explore the capital of South Australia.

And I was pleasantly surprised. It may not be the centre of bohemian debauchery but it is a charming and laid back city. Founded in 1836 by free settlers (as opposed to convicts, something Adelaide citizens remain proud of to this day), the centre of the city is planned on neat grids and is ringed on two sides by the river Torrens and on all four sides by large parks. I spent a happy couple of hours wandering through these parks – across green grass, past verdant old trees and ponds filled with lilies, resting in areas of dappled shade and sometimes dozing in the sunshine.

The Botanical Gardens were constantly distracting me with informative plaques, not the least of which was the one pinned to the specimen pictured on right. Called the Wollemi Pine, this innocuous looking little tree was found in 1994 some 200km north west of Sydney. Australia is an ancient and undiscovered continent and this particular tree surprised a whole discipline of scientists simply by existing. Before its discovery, samples of this species had only been found in prehistoric fossils and it was widely thought to have been extinct for about 90million years. When it was found, growing happily, less than 125miles from one of Australia’s largest cities, it caused a bit of a stir. In a gesture of surprising goodwill, Sydneysiders sent a specimen to Adelaide’s Botanical Gardens so that visitors like me could raise a quizzical eyebrow and take the obligatory tourist photo. There’s a website if you want to find out more.

I paid a visit to the Aboriginal Cultures Gallery at the South Australia Museum, too. It’s the largest gallery focused on Aboriginal culture in the world and a great exhibition that highlights everything from the trade and legal systems that existed, to art and religious beliefs.

It illustrates, too, the huge depth of knowledge that exists in Aboriginal culture. Boomerangs, for example, are amazingly ingenious. In genuine boomerangs, designs that mark the wood are not purely aesthetic: long before Ping came up with the dimples in the golf ball, Aboriginal hunters had worked out that burning or carving designs in the wood helped boomerangs to fly better. They also used boomerangs in creative ways – some were designed to hover and resemble a bird of prey, making it easier for hunters to catch water fowl.

The exhibition also shows how white settlement virtually decimated an entire people (these days it would probably be called genocide). I’d always thought that Aboriginal tribes lived primarily in Australia’s deserts and far outback, which doesn’t make a lot of sense when you consider what harsh environments these are. The exhibition pointed out that most Aboriginal people lived in the south east of Australia, a region with plentiful water and food supplies. Take a look at the Tindale Map to see how comprehensively the country was peopled when Britain decided to use it as an offshore prison in the late 18th century.

White settlers used Aboriginal guides when exploring the country and the guides, naturally, walked tracks that led between waterholes. These tracks became roads, the waterholes became settlements and the traditional Aboriginal way of life became unacceptable. ‘Imagine walking down the road with a spear, or ripping bark off a tree to build a canoe. You just couldn’t do it. You’d be arrested,’ explains one Aboriginal elder in the exhibition.

The exhibition is fantastic and worth a visit in every sense. But it is also sad and very frustrating. To lose so much knowledge, to ignore everything that a whole culture had learned during 50,000 years in the country, is a tragedy. It is a particular and devastating tragedy for indigenous people but it is also a tragedy for all Australians. Just think how much more we would know of this country, of how much more effectively, more sustainably we could live here, if we had incorporated rather than ignored their knowledge.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Melbourne to Adelaide, 828km, travel time 10.5 hours

I’m underway! And it’s been a lovely first day of travelling on the Overlander through Melbourne’s western suburbs to the city of Geelong and then up into pastoral Victoria. This is wool and sheep country, the kind of country where once a jolly swagman might have camped by a billabong. Flat and open farmland is punctuated by weaving creeks lined with eucalyptus trees. Pink and grey winged galahs swoop among the silvery branches. The earth is copper brown and topped by a seemingly endless deep blue sky.

Small towns with wide empty streets pass by infrequently. One, Ararat, was founded by Chinese gold miners in the 19th century and comes complete with an ornate temple sitting incongruously between the low bungalows. Late in the afternoon we cross into South Australia and over Australia's biggest river, The Murray. The sun is setting over vineyards and oak trees as we wind our way down the Adelaide Hills and into the city.

Train travel, like summer, beer and football is a very different beast Down Under. The cheapest seats (in which I’m sitting) are wide, padded and comfortable and recline if you fancy a nap. Staff crack jokes over the tannoy and smile at passengers. In the snack car, farmers, tourists and retirees sit and chat sociably. One man, in his 60s, tiny and neat, sits staring out the window, not talking and drinks one beer after another. Another, younger, well over six foot tall with a Hells Angels leather jacket stretched over a vast beer belly and a pony tail that hangs to his waist, sips a tea. Two farmers lean languidly against the corridor and talk about wool and weather as if they were lifelong acquaintances standing in a local pub.

It’s not fast; the train’s average speed is a meagre 85km (50miles) per hour. But it’s both peaceful and relaxing and, after a month of frantic planning and organising, it feels great to be finally on the way.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Why didn't I buy a little red sports car

or find myself a toy boy lover? That's what I'm thinking 12 hours before the first leg of my trip. I have butterflies the size of elephants and an almost constant urge to use the loo. And I'm wondering why, for my own personal mid-life crisis, I decided to travel half way round the world by train.

I like trains but right now all I can think of are all the sweaty and overcrowded commuter trains I've caught. Or standing on a cold, dark platform waiting for a delayed train followed by the inevitable bus replacement service that takes you on a trip of Britain's lesser known A roads. I imagine spending the next four months negotiating the local equivalent of British Rail across half the world and then I have to use the loo again.

The meagre few bits and pieces that fit in my backpack are lying on my bed: a dress, a pair of 3/4 trousers, comfy yoga pants, 3 vests, 3 t-shirts, 2 jumpers, flip flops, walking boots, a pair of sandals, underwear, a towel, bikini and woolie hat (the last two look especially fetching when worn together) and an enormous toiletries bag (some things can't be rationed). It doesn't seem like much for 4 months.

And suddenly all the dull, routine things that made me want to pack my bag in the first place - getting up for work in the morning, running in the park, going to the supermarket, cooking dinner, lying on the sofa watching tv - ordinary, everyday life in other words, feels like the comfiest pair of shoes I've ever owned and I wish I could slip it back on right now.

To cheer myself up I have a bit of a trawl around the internet for distraction and inspiration and I find this quote by Jonathan Swift: 'He was a bold man that first ate an oyster'. It makes me laugh and feel a bit better. And then I find this one from Homer (who knew a thing or two about journeys): 'A decent boldness ever meets with friends'. And thinking about it I feel excited again. Which makes me need the loo again. I think it's going to be a long night...

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The lucky country

I’ve spent the last two months in Australia preparing for this trip and arriving here after the gloom and austerity that currently pervades Britain and Europe has been a bit of a shock to the system.

Australians often call their home ‘the lucky country’ and the sobriquet feels particularly apt at the moment. Australia is one of the few economies in the world that has managed to avoid the global financial crisis and prosper.

According to the IMF, it is the only advanced economy to record positive economic growth last year. The Aussie dollar is thriving. Once worth 35pence it’s hitting 63p today, a 25 year high, and almost running on par with the US dollar. Unemployment isn’t really an issue; in fact politicians and the media seem more concerned with a shortage of skilled labour. Consequently, there’s been little let up in consumer spending, property values continue to rise (by over 13% in the last 12 months) and first time buyers are struggling to make it onto the ladder. A recent survey showed that housing affordability in relation to income is now worse in Sydney than in London.

The reason for the country’s success lies in an economy tied to raw materials – in particular iron ore and other minerals that feed China’s burgeoning industries. Confident Australians are now predicting another 20 years of economic boom times.

But the lucky country is only lucky for some. The Australian handling of refugees and illegal immigrants – in particular those desperate enough to attempt the journey by boat – is disgraceful. Arrivals are detained in prison style camps on Christmas Island, a tiny island 1600 miles north of Perth, for processing.

Some stay there for more than a year. Many never make it to mainland Australia other than, when their applications are refused, for the return flight to their own country. And while they are imprisoned there, for call it by whatever name you will that is the truth of it, they are the subject of media ire and political barnstorming.

Politicians in particular compete to take the hardest line. The conservative opposition leader Tony Abbot has promised to do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop further arrivals, with some pundits suggesting that this could include towing boats back out of Australian territorial waters. And last week, the Labor Prime Minister announced the country would refuse any Afghan and Sri Lankan applications for six and three months respectively, saying that the situation in both countries had ‘improved’. Though not enough, it should be noted, to remove Australian troops from Afghanistan.

To get a perspective on the impact that so called boat people make, newspapers quote figures of just over 4000 arrivals in the last three years. And this is in a country that anticipates a necessary population growth of 15 million in the next 30 years in order to meet its labour market demands and fuel the growth that contributes to ongoing affluence.

Australia is not alone in the world in taking a hysterical approach to refugees. But it, in particular, is a country that has been built on the back of continued immigration and that was able, even in the relatively recent past of the 70s and 80s, to welcome Vietnamese refugees (arriving in similar boats) with sympathy and consideration.

It’s a shame that despite the intervening years of continued prosperity, the lucky country no longer feels able to share its good fortune with those who need it most.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The route

Travelling overland to the UK you have a choice of routes but if you're travelling by train there’s only really one clear cut option.

Here’s how it breaks down:
- Melbourne to Adelaide: 8 hours/828km

- Adelaide to Alice Springs: 24 hours/1559km

- Alice Springs to Darwin: 24 hours/1420km

- Darwin to Singapore (fly): 5 hours/3313km

- Singapore to Bangkok: 3 days/1946km

- Bankok to Phnom Penh: 1 day/550m

- Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City: 1 day/265km

- Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi: 3 days/1726km

- Hanoi to Beijing: 3 days/2996km

- Beijing to Moscow via Mongolia 7 days/7622km

- Moscow to St Petersburgh: overnight/800km

- St Petersburgh to Berlin: 2 days/1450km

- Berlin to London: 1 day/995km

Total travel time: 27 days/25575km

In numbers thats 3 continents, 12 countries and around 15,900 miles. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

15,000 miles by train

For the last 20 years I’ve been flying back and forth between London, where I live and Australia, where my parents and my brother’s family are, at least once every other year.

It’s a tedious 24 hour flight that feels endless and saps your will to live, particularly if you make the mistake of following your journey on the in-flight map channel, where a small plane charts your progress across the globe.

You start optimistic and enthusiastic. You watch a film, eat the meal, make a little small talk with your neighbour and then make the mistake of checking where you are. Horrifyingly, the plane has yet to leave European airspace and the enormity of the distance you still have to cover sinks in.

Many sleepless flights I’ve stared out the window and watched the lights of Europe recede, dawn break over the empty white Russian steppes, day spread over the lush green of central Asia and the deep blue of the Andaman sea and the sun finally set over the red earth of Australia.

Each time I’ve wondered about the people who live among the changing landscape below me: their day to day lives, their celebrations, crisis and concerns and their mutual oblivion to those of us flying 30,000 feet above them.

So this time round I resolved that I wouldn’t fly home from Australia. I would take the overland route, see it first hand and fully comprehend the distance from one side of the planet to the other. And what better way to travel than by train.

Trains have personality. Trains have style. A train in motion – the soothing cradle-like rock and roll, the constant clack and hum of the rails – is poetry to the senses. Trains travel at a pace that’s manageable: slow enough to see into people’s back gardens and voyeuristically engage with their lives for a moment but fast enough to make steady progress as they trundle on night and day eating up the miles.

Trains are sociable too; they encourage interaction in a way that planes and buses somehow defy. There’s no danger in moving around so you can wander through and find someone interesting to talk with. You sit with strangers, you eat your meals with them, on sleepers you even share a bedroom with them. And as you go along you learn about their lives, you chat about family, you debate the state of the nation. By the end of the trip you know something more about them and the places they’ve come from and why they are on the move.

And before too long, the journey itself becomes something more than a trip from A to B; it becomes an adventure.