Saturday 28 February 2009

Noosa: The Prince, the Pauper and the Deep Blue Sea

Until I came to Noosa, in the Australian state of Queensland, I didn’t know what well-heeled meant.

But last night I was standing in front of a new apartment complex which overlooks the forest and the river beyond, while fire dancers performed for a crowd sipping cocktails around a pool garden decorated with elephant statues and metal structures belching flame.

It was the launch party for the elegantly designed Settler's Cove apartments, which start at about 1.5 million Australian dollars each.

I’m on a media trip to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast, and this was my first visit to Noosa. As you may gather, it’s made a name for itself as one of the most luxurious seaside destinations on Queensland’s coast; not only for owner-occupiers, but also for short-stay visitors residing in resorts. It’s particularly popular with the well-heeled from Melbourne, for some reason, a kind of Toorak-on-sea.

And Hastings Street, the Noosa Heads beachside strip that overlooks Laguna Bay, confirms that impression. I’ve never seen a holiday town’s main street that looked quite so ritzy, lined with famous brand name stores set back from shiny new paving. If it wasn’t for the tropical trees and the humid breeze, I could’ve been on Church Street in Melbourne’s bayside suburb of Brighton.

So Noosa is distinctly upmarket. However... there are things which keep it from being the sole preserve of the seriously cashed-up. For a start, there are the excellent beaches, which in the fine Australian tradition are free for all to use. Yesterday I hit the beach after lunch, sharing the section of waves between the lifesaving flags with people from all over the world, judging from the accents.

And the day before, I’d walked through the nearby headland reserve that’s a pocket of land belonging to the Noosa National Park. As I followed the track around toward Dolphin Point, I could see the town’s main beach way behind and below me, through gaps in the eucalypts lining the slopes that drop away to the ocean. Below, surfers were picking their way down over the rocks before taking the plunge into the surf.

Halfway along, I encountered Tea Tree Bay, a short stretch of beach wedged in between rocks and trees. It was fairly placid within the bay, contrasting with the bigger waves further out. It was also fairly placid on the beach, with people stretched out very still on the sand or beneath the shade of the tea trees behind. Up in the trees behind me, apparently, koalas can be seen. I say apparently, because I didn’t spot them.

The National Park is an undeniably beautiful place; and the fact it’s survived so close to Noosa seems like a miracle, considering Queensland’s history of rapid coastal development.

Well-heeled or not, we’re all equal when on the beach or peering into the foliage for koalas. How profound.

Monday 23 February 2009

Dateline Taveuni

This is a trimmed-down version of a piece I had published about my visit to Taveuni, part of Fiji, some years ago...

When I arrived on the Fijian island of Taveuni, I heard a lot about ‘Fiji time’. “Fine,” I thought. “I know about this. It’s the same as Bali time, or Egypt time: a flexible approach to deadlines.”

Well, yes and no. It’s more than being unbothered about arriving late. It’s a relaxed approach to everyday life, a way of pacing your day so there’s still time to smell the tropical flowers. Sounds familiar? It may be the elusive work/life balance everyone talks about in the West, flourishing in the Pacific.

But you have to draw the line somewhere. And in the 19th century, needing to establish an International Dateline to distinguish one day from another for navigators, the dominant powers drew that line right through the middle of Taveuni, Fiji’s third-largest island, bisected by the 180th meridian of longitude.

By geographical chance, the island was divided into two days: on the east it was today, and on the west tomorrow. Or the other way round, if you prefer.

An apocryphal story claims that the owners of Taveuni’s plantation managed to work their farms every day of the week, by moving workers to whichever field wasn’t encountering a Sunday. Even Fiji has limits to time flexibility, however, and in 1879 the line was relocated, to bring the whole island into the same day.

However, Taveuni stills offers a sensation of fluid time. It may not be covered with five-star hotel towers, but it’s strikingly green, even for the Fijian chain of islands. Never heavily farmed, Taveuni features lush rainforest, particularly on its eastern windward side. Within this foliage are dramatic waterfalls and striking flowers.

The island also has a fine array of tropical bird life. A large variety of species long-vanished from other islands still thrive here. You’ll see and hear the green-blue Taveuni Parrot all over the island, or hear its distinctive squawk.

Nature’s attractions extend into the sea, where Taveuni’s reefs create plenty of interest for divers. In the millennium hype of 1999, dive companies were selling tours which (incorrectly) promised dives across the International Dateline as the calendar switched to 2000. But Taveuni’s diving sites are world class, whether invisible lines are your thing or not.

But if they are... on a road near Waiyevo village is a nondescript sign, which marks the location of the 180th meridian of longitude. Another marker, more precisely placed, can be found beyond the end of the Waiyevo village football field, overlooking the sea.

It’s possible to take a look at the traditional life of local villages, but it’s important to follow etiquette and ask permission from one of the village chiefs before entering. He will usually assign a local to show you around and explain things. Visitors should dress modestly, and make a donation toward the village school or church fund.

There’s a range of accommodation options across Taveuni, though few in the budget price range. But no matter how much you pay, you’re not going to find jumping nightlife in a place like Taveuni. Instead, the island offers an abundance of natural beauty, a measured pace, and a chance to catch your breath and relax. If you’re trapped in the 9 to 5 grind, that can sound like a gift from heaven.

Fiji time? Whatever. Who cares what time it is, if you can throw the watch in a drawer, lie on a tropical beach and let the day flow by? Whichever side of the dateline you’re on.

Note: As this article is based on personal experience from some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within.

Monday 16 February 2009

The Unpublished 4: Taxis of Cairo

This month's travel article that I've never been able to place takes us to the Egyptian capital, Cairo, where I lived from 1992 to 1994. The following piece is based on my impressions from those years.

When I lived in Cairo, I caught plenty of taxis.

There were no companies to phone, just thousands of black-and-white vehicles plying the streets. Some were bright and new, some the worse for wear, some held together by wire and prayer.

They all had meters but the drivers didn't use them, as they were set to unrealistically low rates from years before. Payment was instead determined by the generally accepted fare to the chosen destination, though its flexibility caused the odd disagreement.

But the Cairo taxi experience was worth any small quibbles over the appropriate fare.

I had some memorable taxi rides in the two years I lived in Al Qahirah. The most notable coincided with an earthquake which rocked the city in October 1992. Travelling along a flyover, the driver pulled over, got out and kicked the tyres. A young student later got in, and explained in English about the quake. I’d had no clue. Which went to show that a jostling Cairo taxi ride could mask tremors.

Another time, an unexpectedly magnificent taxi pulled up. Rather than the usual battered Fiat, it was a venerable Mercedes-Benz. The wood panelling gleamed, the seats were comfortable leather. The grey-haired driver explained that he’d owned this gem since World War II.

The most interesting ride was in the company of some fellow teachers. We piled in, to be surprised by a female taxi driver. Wearing a higab (headscarf), she explained in Arabic that she was divorced and this was her means of support. She was a little nonplussed by our questions, but she was the only female taxi driver I ever saw in the city.

And one day I got into a cab for a short trip, to discover an Australian behind the wheel. He’d brought his newborn child back to see his Egyptian family, and was killing time by driving a taxi. We had a chat about Sydney, an unexpectedly mundane conversation considering our setting.

One driver, in the fine traditions of Arab hospitality, even handed over the cassette of the music he was playing in the car, after a passing comment from me that it was good. That's the kind of service I call helwa (sweet).

Note: As this article is based on personal experience from some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current security situation before travelling to Egypt.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Borneo: Visions and Reality

When I was a kid, I collected stamps for a while. I'd inherited a collection from my mother, and there were stamps in there that went back to the 1930s.

Among them were stamps from a place called Sarawak. I had no idea where in the world it was, but by crikey it sounded exotic.

Sarawak was still around when I was growing up in the 1970s, but by then it had stopped issuing its own stamps. In the 1960s, Sarawak became part of Malaysia. And Sarawak, I later found out, is in the north of Borneo.

And Borneo is where I'm writing this. Even better, I'm in Sarawak; so that stamp collection has come full circle.

There's something alluring about the word 'Borneo' - a suggestion of dense jungles, headhunters, curious animals and hidden mysteries (Kong! Kong!). It's made me ponder how some locations (Easter Island is another) pick up this allure. And about what happens when you finally set foot on the exotic land you've dreamed of.

Common sense would suggest disappointment would follow. After all, what place, no matter how wonderful, can compete with your imagination? No matter how exotic, even the most far-flung locale will have reality TV shows and Coca-Cola, won't it?

Well, yes it will. And in my experience, the reality of a place is often very different from what you idly imagined it to be. However, it's not a case of smashed illusions; more that the illusions fade into nothing and are replaced by a new, vibrant picture of what the place is really like.

With Borneo, I only had an imprecise impression of jungles within a mysterious interior (and yes, some vague thoughts of King Kong - wasn't it set there?).

But yesterday, I saw orangutans swinging through the forest above my head; saw peppercorns drying in the sun at a local village; went kayaking for the first time in my life down the Sarawak Kiri River through mountainous green landscape; and met an amusingly over-the top cat statue dressed up for Chinese New Year in the state capital Kuching (which means 'cat' in Malay).

There was even a traffic jam on the way out of the city - you don't find those in visions of the exotic. But I didn't care. Borneo the hypothetical had been replaced by Borneo the real, and it was infinitely more interesting.

In letting go of your preconceived vision of a place through travelling there, you lose its perfection - but you gain a complex, vibrant reality in its place. I call that a bargain.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Train of Thought

Two years ago I took the overnight train from Melbourne to Sydney for the first time. It was the longest train trip I’d ever taken within Australia, and it was an eye-opener - I really enjoyed it, despite the 11 hour journey. Below are some notes I scribbled down while aboard.

It's a rather curious and unexpected way to depart from the great Victorian-era city, slipping away under cover of darkness through heavily industrial railyards.

I’d imagined passing through residential suburbs, eyeing off neatly tended backyards and waving to passers-by.

I'd also imagined we'd head directly north; instead, we head west and are almost instantly lost within a dimly lit, uninhabited landscape of shipping containers and distant cranes. It's quite intriguing and a little mysterious really... I feel like we’re on a secret mission into the unknown.

Fact: 150 passengers on board tonight, according to the onboard cafe attendant.

I had thought they’d all be oldies or country types, but they're a surprising mix, including backpackers and families. One lady has her own inflight entertainment, watching a movie on a DVD player with headphones.

The cabin is more modern than I'd expected, a comfy blue twinette which contains three 1st class seats during the day, but two sleeping berths at night... meaning, of course, that you have a lot more room to spread out overnight.

There are some curious but useful fittings such as detachable table tops, and narrow little wardrobes suitable for hanging suits. The top bed folds down and the bottom folds forward.

Note: when train gets going, it sways like ship at sea (could be smoother).

We seem on our own in the darkness, but occasionally islands of light loom alongside. The brightly-lit brick station at Benalla, with its white corners, looks like it’s holding the line against the forces of darkness. The train stops, so short it's almost a pause, someone gets on or off, then we pull away into the night.

We awake to an almost stereotypical scene of pastoral beauty: green rolling hills, astonishing to a Melburnian now used to bone-dry landscapes. There’s also a tangerine sunrise with little mauve clouds on the opposite horizon. Hollywood couldn't have done it better. And lordy, a decent coffee, brewed who knows where.

When we finally pull into Sydney Central, it's like a revelation. Previously these two cities had seemed far removed, separated by several stages of journey - now I'd seen they were merely two places connected by a continuous ribbon of steel.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Countrylink. For more info on the Sydney-Melbourne train, visit Countrylink's website.