Casual traveller

There are qualidays and there are qualidays. One can involve a dull drive to Wagga to hang out in a beige-infested meeting room, the other can take you to Far North Queensland in June. In June. When frostiness infiltrates the Australian Capital Territory with much the same frequency as declarations of mostly sunny skies and twenty-seven degrees in Cairns. Okay, maybe around eighteen degrees at dawn, but pleasant enough to embrace the Esplanade and marvel. I could have turned around there and then and been content with this trip.

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However, when in Far North Queensland in June it would be rude not to tack on a few extra days in which shorts and sandals can make a comeback. And so suitably attired, I slowly drove north from Cairns towards Port Douglas, stopping along the way for bouts of note-writing and email attending; coffee and lunch, on beachside benches and surrounded by sand and palm trees. Trinity Beach proved a quiet little delight among Cairns’ Northern Beaches, while Palm Cove turned out to be a popular spot where people come to jaunt in chilled-back decadence. As long as they can find a place to park.

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From here the road becomes a scenic gem, hugging the shoreline between the tropical seas and steep-sided rainforest. Sandy coves and mangrove mudflats compete for attention with the jagged green tops marking the northern outpost of the Great Dividing Range, as omnipresent as the prospect of a saltwater crocodile possibly being in that creek you just passed. Let’s not linger long for snapshots.

Nearing Port Douglas, fields of sugar cane squeeze their way into the flatlands between sea and slope. More than human high, much awaits harvest and eventual transformation into cakes which will probably end up in my mouth. Occasionally, narrow gauge cane trains can be sighted fulfilling this prophecy, carriages packed with shredded green stalks, trundling at snail’s pace on the first stages of this complex journey.

Coming here from Canberra is more than about a change in the weather, but a transformation in the very essence of my surroundings. In some ways, driving through this scene feels more of a shock to the system than making the switch from Australia to Europe. A more alien land in the very same country. Not that I’m complaining as this totally tropical vibe sustains through a Port Douglas dusk.

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Some interesting facts about Port Douglas that I learned: the original settlement – already dwindling thanks to a railway connection between Cairns and the prosperous tablelands – got practically wiped out in a cyclone in 1911 and was essentially a ghost town until the late 1970s. Then someone saw an opportunity, silver boats quickly whisked people to the Great Barrier Reef and became the omnipresent Quicksilver operation, a resort popped up with the largest pool in the southern hemisphere and became a Sheraton and – from there – the rest was history. Today, the town retains its resort-heavy heritage but seems to have diversified to the extent that it attracts everyone from the scuzziest backpacker to the most ostentatious billionaire boatperson.

Somewhere along the lower end of that continuum I found myself strolling along the main street early on a Saturday heading to Four Mile Beach. You see, while Cairns may have a railway and a fabulous sunrise, it doesn’t have a beach in the centre of town, let alone a stretch of whiteish sand littered with coconuts reaching towards pristine rainforest ranges. Often on a Saturday morning I find myself ticking off a little exercise around the bushland suburbia of Woden; this weekend things were a little different striding along a beach and a climbing up to Flagstaff Hill. Either way, I was suitably self-satisfied.

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Self-satisfaction continued with the excitement of finishing off some more work with a coffee and World Cup highlights by lunchtime. I celebrated this fact by booking myself on a late afternoon cruise, in which I was hoping to see a nice sunset but really hoping much, much more to see a croc. Three crocs later, the sunset was pleasant enough but – as was to be the fate for the rest of this trip – no Cairns. But the crocs were beauties, at more than arm’s length.

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One final enjoyable aspect of this sunset croc cruise down Dickson Inlet was the complimentary cold beer provided upon departure. A warm breeze, a fading sun, sardonic commentary, three mother fucking crocodiles that would eat your arms off and a Great Northern. Can there be anything more quintessentially Australian? At this rate, I was getting pumped for the Socceroos. Crocs v Frogs, surely no contest.

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Pre-game, the one beer lured me to another back at the marina and this was actually far, far better. The rise in small, local breweries is truly one of the blessings of our age, a price worth paying for excessive beardiness and an inevitably jingly jangly smug git with a guitar singing a pared back rendition of something by Bruno Mars. So if you find yourself in Port Douglas, I can recommend the Doug’s Courage at Hemingway’s Brewery, at a safe distance from croc-infested waters and beard-ridden singers.

Sunday came after the frogs somehow defeated the crocs and things were a little subdued in the streets of Port Douglas that morning…I suspect less to do with soccerballing disappointment and more to do with the efforts of Hemingway’s and others. It was eerily quiet as I checked out the weekly Port Douglas markets which were everything I expected, unfortunately. Seriously lacking in terms of food temptation and offering more than enough tie-dyed hippy shit and rainforest possum poo face balm or whatever. I’m full of incredulity, get me out of here.

What better jungle to escape to than that around Mossman Gorge, within the World Heritage Daintree Rainforest. This is special land, iconic even. Southerners shivering in the cold will have a spark ignited in their eyes upon mention of the Daintree. There are more dramatic gorges, there are more scenic forests, there are more powerful rivers. But there probably isn’t a spirit, an essence, an unfathomable sanctity that can make even tie-dyed hippy-shit haters like me get a little carried away. In the Australian soul, the Daintree is up there with Uluru.

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I find rainforests a contradiction of exquisite beauty and foreboding dread. They are amazing, living things, jam-packed with anything and everything that can claim a foothold in a spare millimetre of earth or air. Ferns eclipse ferns, trees envelop trees, fungus flourishes among decaying hollows, leaves expand to gargantuan heights. Older than the dinosaurs, unchanged in mass but everchanging in make-up. It’s this density, this proliferation of life that can begin to overwhelm; the moody subdued light, the lack of a sky, the oppressive air, the constant soundtrack of insects waiting to bite you. The competing sound of the Mossman River is a salvation, an opening, a way out. As are its creeks and pools which proffer sublime sanctuary among the jungle.

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Leaving the rainforest content, I spent the rest of my time ambling and chilling around Port Douglas and – to be honest – was ready to leave as Monday morning came around. Not because I was desperate to wear four layers of clothing and scrape ice from my car, but I feel I had ‘done’ Port Douglas to death, several times over. It’s not the largest place and time and again I found myself ambling along Four Mile Beach, or heading to the wharf, or seeking out ice cream. Such a challenge to endure!

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FNQ11I took one final coffee and stroll on the beach before embarking on the drive back south, which had a fair share of roadworks interspersed with spectacular scenery. Pausing around Ellis Beach, in this snatch of tropical palm-fringed cliché, it was again hard to fathom that I would be in a different world, in the same country, in a few hours. My poor shorts would be tucked away out of sight again.

This contrast was highlighted by a final, bonus-because-something-else-got-cancelled detour to Cairns Botanic Gardens. Again, so much green, so much life and proliferation of alien, oversized plants, saturated with texture and patterns and colours and shine. It surprised me that I had never been to the excellent botanic gardens here, for such places are a frequent haunt of mine during both holidays and qualidays. Places where you can quickly capture the essence of a region through its unique flora. Places within the middle of a nondescript town or city that can mark it as different, as exotic. And nowhere seems quite as different, as exotic as the warming airs and flourishing lands of Far North Queensland in June.

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Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography

Advance to 2016

The best way I can describe a thirteen hour flight from Europe to Asia is that it feels like one elongated sigh. Tentatively sidestepping countries that may be a tad hostile to flying objects creates a convoluted route, and ample time to mull over life’s little niggles. Like why won’t my seat fully recline? And what possesses airlines to have one hundred movies, all of which are at best mediocre or at worst starring Tom Cruise? Worse than that, the selection of ‘comedy’ contains no trace of wit whatsoever, churned out direct from Hollywood with copious amounts of canned laughter. Six hours in, zigzagging the Middle East, I can understand why the Scotsman in front of me downed wine after wine. And never shut the f**k up.

So I was undeniably a bit delicate and frazzled arriving at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, but pleased to be on solid ground. It was now – somehow – eight in the morning on New Year’s Eve. Usually I would march through various sterile checkpoints and stride ten miles by travelator to board a plane for a further nine hours of frustration at 36,000 feet. This time, though, I was embarking on the luxury of a stopover, and a new spot to see in a new year.

You know you are no longer in England when you are whisked at high speed in spacious and air-conditioned futurism to the middle of a city somewhere over the horizon. All sleek glass and swish whooshing noises as stunted palm trees and suspiciously golfy-looking estates flash past in a blur. You also know you are no longer in England when you turn into a gasping pile of sweat traipsing through an inner city jungle. Despairingly unable to check in to hoped-for luxury so early, KL had me bright, hot, and early.

So, I clambered up steps and dawdled down hills and crossed roads that were of questionable safety, unexpected u-turns being a favourite of hundreds of mopeds per minute. Eventual refuge emerged in one of many shopping malls, wonderfully air-conditioned and extravagantly Christmassy. And to think I had the naivety to assume Christmas was done and dusted; here it was bigger and more opulent than ever, and with a mosque or two just down the road. Still, grand extravagance seems to have been all the rage in KL over the last decade or so, encapsulated in the shiny Petronas Towers stretching into the sky above Santa’s grotto.

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Extravagance of a kind was waiting for me back at my hotel once I could – with the utmost relief – check in. There was a pool and gym and chandeliered lobby with lots of people in red uniforms and gold buttons feverishly milling around seeking tips. There was a water feature and sweeping driveway for parades of taxis and eight elevators to propel you to the 27th floor. A floor with city views but the most famous of the towers obscured. A floor with room and king bed and satin sheets and probably the most deserved afternoon nap ever…

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…the city was still there and still in daylight when waking and I calculated that any New Year’s Eve fireworks would largely be obscured from this spot. Thus the option to see in 2016 in my pants with a bag of peanuts lost some of its appeal, and meant I had to put in the effort to go outside again.

kl02In the end I’m rather glad I did, because I saw a few different parts of the city and discovered a more chaotic and odorous KL, more befitting of one’s expectations of being in Asia. Luminous signs and satay sticks on smoke, bars with Bintang and bang bang, street sellers trading in ancient arts and iphone cases. I was offered a massage on at least fifteen occasions in the space of twenty metres and a tacky umbrella at every alternate shop. It was raining now, and threatening to dampen the wait until midnight.

When in KL, do what it looks like many of the Lumpens do. Head to a mall, never more than half a kilometre away. Revel in the cool, dry air and twinkling diamonds of Christmas. Take five escalators down to a gargantuan food court and then another hour to decide which sublime looking bargain concoction to eat. In the end I chose Japanese, content to fulfil my Malaysian quota over the course of the stopover.

By ten the rain had stopped and I ventured back out into the night air to establish exactly where to watch fireworks. Logic dictated somewhere around the Petronas Towers, and I practically circumnavigated the perimeter of its adjoining park to suss out the opportunities. Eventually I came to a halt, joining an amiable throng of people lining the banks of a feature lake. Music was playing and coloured fountains were bubbling and projections were being beamed onto buildings, one of which handily had a giant digital clock. There was enough space and a clear view and even a little cooling breeze and I immediately thought this would just not be possible in Sydney at 11pm on 31st December.

kl03Only with ten minutes to spare did locals and visitors rise to their feet, counting down the final minute of the year. Phones and tablets floated above heads, forever capturing the last ten seconds of 2015 and the first few of 2016. Almost everyone pointed shiny screens at the towers, waiting for the bangs and sparkles. The clock struck twelve, the bangs rang out and the sparkles were, oh, behind you.

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Now very happily in 2016, the first hour of the year was spent trying to avoid inadvertently photobombing selfies while taking a very gradual, processional walk back to my hotel. What was an easy entry became a more congested exit, but there was a jovial aura, strangers were friends, the crowd was cosy and the blaring of cheap plastic horns was incredibly annoying. My mind said SHUT. THE. HELL. UP. But good manners and New Year cheer ought to persist for at least an hour, I feel.

I enjoyed the final day of the year immensely and was glad to have made the effort to see in 2016 in a different place. The first day of the New Year commenced uneventfully – subdued even – and I was in no rush to check out early and embrace the mugginess. Farewell five star comfort and hello hours of walking and pausing and dodging traffic and cooling off in every mall stop available. First mall for iced coffee, second mall for lunch (a highlight-worthy Nasi Lemak), third mall just for the hell of it. Across from this, the monorail took me laboriously to a further mall, acting as a glorified transit tunnel towards the Botanic Gardens.

kl05Any city worth its weight in Ringgits can only be judged by the quality of its Botanic Gardens. Here they were – for the most part – divinely lovely. In spots shadily cooling, tropically exotic, elegantly coiffured. A few quiet roads intersected with meandering paths and crossed ornamental streams. Most welcome though was the relative peace and calm, a sanctuary in what can be a busy, noisy, pungent place. And surely that is all you can ask of a city’s Botanic Gardens.

kl06Heading back down into humid chaos and occasional grime of the city I unexpectedly stumbled onto Kuala Lumpur’s Central Mosque. I like it when random stuff like this happens in places you have never been before. I may not have chosen to go there, but here I was now, and appreciative I was of the geometric architecture and alignment and symbolism crossed with a concrete styling worthy of Plymouth city centre post-war brutalism. You were welcome – as a non-Muslim – to visit inside and be guided around the place. The only stumbling block was the thought of taking of my shoes, and subjecting an entire religion to the smell of my by now equatorial flavoursome feet.

So I pushed onto the frequently touted in guidebooks but underwhelming Merdeka Square, crossed a very brown stretch of water, explored the Central Markets disappointing lack of food stalls, struggled to cross complex road intersections and eventually ended up back in Bintang. Daytime was quieter and generally devoid of satay sticks. Massages appeared to be a thing of the night. Only ambling tourists and opportunistic traders lingered, while everyone else must have been at the mall.

With seemingly little left to see and do and weariness now set in, the mall became my refuge as well. I still had five hours until my flight departed, but time for some dinner and a sit on a bench and a potter around a bookshop. Endless arrays of escalators from an M.C. Escher fantasy took some strain off the feet. Christmas was still out in force, perhaps for just a few more days, but I was quietly accepting of this by now.  For all that I was starting to tire of malls, it still beats being cooped up on an aluminium tube, fighting a losing battle with headphone sockets and movies featuring Tom Cruise. I was ready to leave but also wasn’t. The tedium of the tube awaits, but at least it would deliver me – at last – back to Australia 2016.

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Green Bogey

Totally (un)tropical taste

Turns out Sean Bean was right before he had his head chopped off all that time ago (very old spoiler alert!). Winter was definitely coming. Genius prediction, much like Mystic Meg predicting someone with the letter A in their name will win some unspecified amount of money on the lottery. Of the same level of insight as the Australian Prime Minister telling us that conflict is not just about goodies v baddies but sometimes baddies v baddies, bang bang you’re dead nah nah nah nah nah.

Yes, winter has come, though still a temperate south of the wall kind of winter. Chill morning fog and darkness before five. A fortnight long cold which cycles between varying levels of mucus and ear blockage and throat irritation and is happy to never quite go away. Slow cooked beef and tom yum soups and the occasional hot chocolate to soothe things down. A time when images beamed at crazy hours of the night from northern – or indeed equatorial – climes are a somehow compelling, comforting companion.

tv01As Brazil shakes its booty, the tropics are never sexier. So it was with a tinge of disappointment that I rocked up in Townsville, north of the Tropic of Capricorn, to find a fine imitation of a wet weekend in Morecambe. Even the locals were aghast and – predictably given a ‘chill’ 19 degrees or so – wrapped up in cardigans and these strange and rare things known as trousers. Crazy weather they said. Climate change they uttered. Wahhhh you’re from Canberra you’re mad I could never cope with that I like the warmth and being near the sea and lolling around too much they exclaimed incredulously.

tv03So what to do on a wet weekend in Townsville? Trudge along the ever fine esplanade in your waterproof and realise that maybe you should buy some new shoes that don’t absorb quite so much water. Marvel at the views of Magnetic Island which emerge in between cloudbursts and drizzle fronts. Attempt to have an alfresco coffee as wind sweeps in sideways rain. Soak up the Great Barrier Reef, presented in aquarium form, and battle with thousands of kids to look at a faaaaaaahkin shaaaaaaak.

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By Tuesday (when I had work to do) the rain had stopped, and then Wednesday (the day I left) it was back to sunny skies. This meant that – while an excursion across to Maggie was now off the cards – I could at least get out a little, and savour just a smidgeon of that tropical taste. I climbed Castle Hill, invariably described as a pink granite monolith and plonked right in the middle of the city. Just like Rio, I thought, as I clambered up the many, many steep and arduous steps to the top. No giant Jesus at the summit, but some fat guy in shorts was there. He had driven up on the road, to marvel at the views still submerged under a mackerel sky.

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tv05I was pleased to exercise, just so I could eat guilt free on the waterfront; indeed, I think the eating side of things was the most satisfactory part of this tropical foray. The sun managed to accompany a delicious lunchtime salt & pepper calamari salad on Tuesday and a sweet corn pancake and bacon brunch was the perfect gap filler until my flight home on Wednesday. I squeezed in a coffee or too, some soggy fish n chips, and, right near the end, a beachside gelato. The tropics had returned, the sexiness was back.

tv06And with just an hour or two to spare I could take those idyllic palm tree beach shots, and capture the fragrant green tinge of a city lumped around hills. I could walk in shorts (yes shorts!) along the very excellent Strand – a perfect seaside promenade punctuated with eating and drinking stops in between sandy bays. I could pretend, should I wish, to have had a sublime tropical getaway and delete all the pictures of rain on my iphone. I could happily linger until September.

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tv08But then, returning towards my hotel and a taxi to the airport, a snake came up to me and said something like, “Neil, you don’t want to stay here. The air force planes are too noisy. The coffee could be better. There are sharks. And mosquitoes just waiting to eat your succulent English blood. Backpackers will overwhelm us, plus there are people obsessed about some stupid annual rugby league match. Oh, there are some snakes too. They might not be as nice as me.” Sage advice, insightful predictions. And so I scampered off to the airport and wee wee wee wee all the way home, all the way home to winter.

Australia Green Bogey