Thursday, November 30, 2017

November 29th – Reaching The End of The Road at Cooktown

On the face of it, the tiny settlement of Cooktown in the far north of Queensland doesn't have much going for it:

1. The population is only about 2,300 people, so it's not exactly the most cosmopolitan place in the world.

2. The climate is oppressively hot and humid.

3. And, it's quite literally the end of the road in Queensland (OK, the road does continue on to the top of Cape York, but it's not sealed and is frequently washed away in the Wet).

However, there's a number of reasons why this is actually a very pleasant cruise stop:

1. The People here are incredibly friendly – they don't tend to see many tourists, so they go out of their way to be welcoming.

2. There's a history here that's out of all proportion for such a small place. As the name suggests, this is the first place that Captain Cook spent any significant time ashore in Australia, after he damaged his ship, the Endeavour, on the reef.

3. There a surprising amount of things to see here – mainly the James Cook Museum, and the Botanic Gardens.

So, we had a very hot afternoon walking around the mean streets of Cooktown – it's basically just one main street with a couple of pubs and a few shops (and hardly any traffic). The population here seem to be a mixture of retirees (the bowling green was very popular), people propping the bar, a few rough-and-ready types with long hill-billy beards and bare feet, and plenty of aboriginal people (who seem very well adjusted – we saw none of the hopelessness amongst them that you can see in the larger cities).

In a place that likes to major on its Cook connections, of course we had to visit the excellent James Cook Museum, and then we trooped over to the Botanic Gardens, passing a shy kangaroo on the way, who hopped off when we got too close. In these lush gardens, we couldn't see much of the birdlife, but we could certainly hear them – the trees were alive with the calls of unseen tropical birds.

Later, we joined a couple of the ship's tours – so, while Tracy went crocodile-spotting on the Endeavour River, I travelled about 25 kms south of town to visit the mysterious Black Mountains. Here, a combination of ancient volcanic activity, and millions of years of erosion have revealed a weird landscape of piles of granite rocks (turned black with lichen) heaped together to form one of the oddest looking mountains I've ever seen. It was like a gigantic game of jenga had been left behind by the gods, or a super-size pile of charcoal bricks were waiting to be lit for the world's largest barbeque.

With the heat mounting, there was only one thing to do – have an ice-cold pint of lager to cool down. And, where better to go than the atmospheric Lion's Den pub, a typical rough-and-ready upcountry boozer where you'd expect Crocodile Dundee to walk in at any point. The pub has been going since the 1880s, and it doesn't look like it's been decorated since, with graffiti written all over its walls. Considering that we were in the middle of nowhere, it seemed a little strange to find that the bar lady was a German; but, this area has been attracting people from all over the world for over a century now. Back in the 1880s, two-thirds of Cooktown's population were Chinese, attracted by a short-lived Gold Rush.

Cooktown's an interesting little place that's surprisingly charming for somewhere that's literally at the end of the road. This could have been a one-horse town, but there's a lot more to Cooktown than meets the eye.

Monday, November 27, 2017

November 25th – Exploring Darwin’s Secret Wartime History

When we think of cities that suffered during World War Two, Darwin tends not to get mentioned in the same breath as London, Dresden, St Petersburg or Pearl Harbor. But, today's tour brought us firmly in touch with the terrible hammering that this remote Australian city at the top of the Northern Territory suffered in February 1942.

Because, Darwin has the distinction of being the only major city in Australia to be bombed (other smaller settlements in the north suffered too), when it was unexpectedly attacked by the same Japanese naval group that hit Pearl Harbor. In fact, more bombs were dropped on Darwin in that first attack, than were dropped on Pearl Harbor (although PH suffered more from torpedo attacks too).

The worst thing about the attacks were that the Australians were so unprepared for them. An early warning was ignored, their anti-aircraft guns took an age to get firing, and their few fighter planes didn't get off the ground. 8 ships were sunk in the harbour and 293 people were killed in that devastating first attack – while, only four Japanese planes were shot down, out of an attack force of 173 planes.

The psychological impact was just as bad. Australia had always felt removed from the Worldwide conflicts, but now it had hit home. While, the possibility of an invasion from the hitherto unstoppable Japanese army seemed imminent (although, it appears that the Japanese army didn't want to invade, just to knock out the Australian base at Darwin from hampering their invasion of Java).

This meant that while the attack on Darwin wasn't totally hushed up, but it was certainly played down. In fact, this became an almost forgotten about episode in the context of the war. So, today was all about remembering and recognising what Darwin went through in that devastating first attack, and in the 40 or so air raids that followed. We went to the excellent Defence of Darwin exhibition, which gave us the background to the conflict, but really focused on the impact of that first attack – physically, psychologically, politically and militarily. With a large display of military equipment left over from the war, and its massive anti-aircraft guns outside, it made me think about the huge cost of the war just in money terms, never mind the human cost.

Next we went to the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre, which had a massive B52 bomber as its centerpiece. The sheer size of this aircraft was astounding. Basically, this phenomenally large bomber took up the entire hangar, with smaller planes fitted underneath its huge wingspan, looking like toy planes in comparison. I'm not a plane spotter, but it was an impressive collection of planes.

When you see modern Darwin today, it seems odd that this laid-back city was the scene of such devastation. That the war could come to such a remote and out of the way place was a sign of how widespread and comprehensive the conflict was.

A thought provoking day.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

November 23rd – Into The Dragon’s Den in Komodo

If you had to put together a composite of the world's most frightening creature, you'd want it to be a flesh-eating, armour-clad, dead-eyed monster. It would have enormous dagger-like claws that can eviscerate its victims in seconds. Its razor sharp teeth would deliver a deadly poisonous bite that incapacitates, then kills its prey. Oh, and it would be so evil that it regularly eats its young whenever it fancies a quick snack.

The creature that I'm describing might sound like it comes from Tolkien or Arthurian Legend, but it's most definitely real - the utterly unique Komodo Dragon. And, today we were going face-to-face with one of the most fearsome creatures on the planet, as we entered into the Dragon's Lair on remote Komodo Island.

Having got off the tender, our first glimpse of a dragon came surprisingly quickly. There were three of these scary beasts hanging around the National Park office, attracted by the smell of the ranger's food. Admittedly, the setting for our first encounter could have been more idyllic and back to nature, rather than a scrappy bit of soil under a concrete building, surrounded by a couple of discarded beer bottles and plastic bags.

However, there was a real quickening of the pulse at our first sighting, as a huge male (about 10 feet long) advanced towards us with the lumbering walk of a muscle-bound weightlifter, his long forked tongue flicking the air, seeing if there was the chance of some blood to feast on. The rangers were careful to keep us at a safe distance, but we were only a few metres away from these dangerous living dinosaurs.

What contributes to the thrill, is that the rangers are equipped with that most low-tech of dragon-fighting weapons – a long forked wooden stick that scarcely seemed up to the job of seeing off a flesh-eating monster! Plus, in contradiction to every piece of advice that I'd read that we shouldn't wear red clothing (supposedly it gets the dragon's blood lust going), our guides were decked out in bright red T-shirts. Maybe, they would use them to try to attract the dragons away from us if we came under attack?

We then went on a trek through the bush to hunt out some more dragons. Initially, you're constantly scanning the trees and bushes for any marauding dragons, but it became apparent that these beasts are far too lazy to make a charge on us. Instead, they lie around a watering hole, waiting for a thirsty dear or a wild pig to get too close. Seeing as they can eat 80% of their bodyweight in one go, they only have to eat once a week – I was crossing my fingers that they'd just had a hearty meal.

As we sweated our way along the rough paths, we were cooled down by a little tropical drizzle, and we caught a few glimpses of the island's other wildlife – dear, pigs and plenty of birds, but thankfully none of the spitting cobras who like to add to the danger of exploring Komodo. To add to the feeling that we were visiting "The Land That Time Forgot" as we explored the scrappy savanah, we passed by primitive ferns (cycads) that also date from prehistoric times.

Anticipation mounted as we approached the watering hole and we got our first thrilling sight of three dragons lying in wait for us. We were allowed to get within about 10 feet of them, which seemed a little too close for comfort to me, but they were looking pretty somnolent as they lazed there, warming their wrinkly skin in the afternoon heat.

It's fascinating just to observe these natural born killers close up – every part of their body is made for killing. When you see one yawn, just the size of his mouth is scary – he can dislocate his jaws to swallow a whole goat in one go (so, I might make up a couple of mouthfuls).

I got our guide to take a picture of me in front of a dragon (I was a horrible sweaty mess, so that picture has been consigned to the dustbin), but it felt so wrong to turn your back on a dragon. It is probably not a wise move to let a sleeping dragon lie. Just as we were relaxing in their company ("relaxing" like you might when meeting Hannibal Lector in his prison cell), a huge dragon came running up out of the undergrowth. The rangers moved pretty quickly to get the stragglers from our group back together – seeing the seriousness of the rangers kick into gear when things weren't so controllable, reinforced the constant danger of being around dragons.

Finally it was time to leave the dragons, before having to run the gauntlet of the rather desperate vendors selling us cheaply-made, but over-priced dragon-themed souvenirs. I guess it was fitting that their goods should be costing an arm and a leg, seeing as we'd managed to survive our dragon encounter with all limbs intact!

A visit to Komodo island is thrilling, fascinating, unique, enjoyable and exhausting in equal measure. Days like this are why I cruise.