Monday, June 19, 2017

Singapore: 50 Shades of Green

Singapore was a surprise: clean, green, safe and friendly. Full of fabulous parks and green areas, an awesome public transport system and amazing zoos. Over a very short space of time this tiny country, barely bigger than most cities, has shown how you can take a high population density (3rd globally) and still have a very healthy, liveable, green and happy country/city. Called the greenest city in Asia, with a total green cover at 47%, a country barely the size of half of London accommodates over 5 million people. It does not feel that way, with the amount of greenery giving the impression of space and size. This has been by design with laws mandating that new developments replace greenery lost by installing roof gardens and cascading vertical gardens on the new buildings.

One of the highlights was the Gardens by the Bay. This is a large botanical complex with a wide variety of themed gardens and two huge specialty buildings, the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. On top of all that it has these huge artificial structures they call Supertrees. Apart from looking amazing and being part of a twice nightly sound and light show they are also solar collectors and vertical gardens. The sound and light show was a 12 minute extravaganza on a Star Wars theme. You might well ask, 'But what about the power use?' Well, the park has its own biofuels power plant powered by its own waste, the domes are water collectors and as mentioned the supertrees produce power from the sun.

At 7 Tons this sculpture called 'Planet'
looks like it is floating.

We also bought a 4 park pass for the zoos: Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo, Zoo's Night Safari and River Safari. All of them had a focus on education, conservation and species protection. Do not like to see animals behind bars but there was a large number of big unfenced bushland enclosures using other methods such as moats to ensure safety. So many beautiful animals in beautiful surroundings. With the help of the subway and bus system we trundled from park to park to park over a 3 day period. The 3 day tourist pass allowing unlimited use of public transport is very convenient and excellent value.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The final voyage of the Dawn Princess

Cruising is one of the most relaxing ways to travel. So when we decided to explore South East Asia and found out a ship from Fremantle can get us there, the decision was made. Then came the cat and mouse game of constantly checking prices to find the price sweet spot. When tickets got to nearly half their initial price (coming down to less than $100 each per day) we snapped them up. Never saw them go any lower.

A typical day for us started in the well stocked gym, trying every different machine and making muscles I did not know I had sore. Then a buffet breakfast with lots of gluten free choices, including amazing bread. The day was then filled with trivia games, Spanish lessons, dance lessons, gameshow challenges, amazing shows and solo performances, dancing and lots of food. Those not your cup of tea? Then there were pools, bars, casino, massages, outdoor games, bingo, cinemas or just go to the library and read a book or lie on deck and watch the ocean go by. It's up to you. It's like an alternate reality where the outside world does not exist.

One evening's dessert haul
As gluten free vegetarians we were incredibly well looked after. At dinner each night the waiters were always worried we were not eating enough and kept offering us extra salads and soups and would give us every gluten free dessert from creme brulee and apple crumble to flourless chocolate cake. We put on weight and had to cut back when we started feeling ill. They were killing us with kindness.

The ship stopped in five ports to allow day trip exploration. We left the ship twice, checking out Kuta beach in Bali and doing a tour in Penang. Bali was a pain getting out of the port as we were told to only use the blue bird taxis with meter on. But they are not allowed into the port area by non marked operators trying to push for fixed prices. If they come in they get chased out. This bit was not explained and we worked it out when we saw a taxi and tried to hail it but it drove off when a guy pressuring us for a deal made gestures at him. Eventually we realised we could get one by heading out of the port area and turning right (initially we turned left).

In Penang the highlight was the Entopia Butterfly Farm, where we got to release young butterflies that have never flown free before. One big fella hopped on Elizabeth and wouldn't get off. I used a piece of paper to gently prise him off her but he flew straight back on. I had to prise him off again and then shield Elizabeth so she could get out of the farm.

Batik Factory

During the other port days we stayed on board to enjoy the ship. These days were our best chances of winning at trivia as most of the passengers would go ashore (hopefully all of the smart ones). We also got to play table tennis and enjoy other normally busy activities. We did win once (a bottle of champagne) in a liar liar gameshow as it seems we are very good at picking the one person telling the truth.

There were a few special days. Elizabeth had her birthday on board. I had previously alerted the authorities to this occasion :-) so they were ready. It also happened to be the day of the Captain's address so everyone was treated to the sight of a huge champagne fountain on a tower of individually placed glasses. At dinner four waiters came over and sang happy birthday  and presented her with an individual birthday cake. They had a ceremony when we crossed the Equator; Neptune arrived and set upon some unsuspecting volunteers who've never crossed the Equator before and covered them in all manner of sticky and fluidy substances.

Champagne Fountain
Neptune in action

This was the last voyage of the ship as the Dawn Princess as it has been sold and will be re-named. So there was a special nostalgic feel about the trip and that came through from the crew. The ship had 2000 passengers and 1000 crew so it was like a mini city and chatting to so many new people brought out many stories: Eddie our cruise staffer (dancing and language instructor) from Venezuela who only a short while ago was skipping food queues to avoid starvation; the Philipino singer who put on a benefit concert last year to raise money for her mother's cancer operation; a trivia partner who met her cruise buddy on a Princess cruise one year ago; and a surprising number of staff from Peru who would query me about my Peru Hop T-shirt. How many stories has this ship seen? It was an interesting and very relaxing cruise.

Bon Voyage Dawn Princess

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Exploring the Kimberley

We spent an amazing week in the Kimberley on a tour organised by the Wilderness Society. It was the last week of July in 2016 and a welcome escape from the Perth winter cold. Our first indication of the awesomely different landscape we were in for was the view from the plane as we came into Broome. The colours and textures of the desert rocks were so vivid they looked as if they had been painted on to the land and the blue of the ocean was so rich that it also looked like someone had let loose with a paintpot.

We camped the first night in Broome's relaxed Cable Beach Caravan Park after a sunset trip to Cable Beach to gape at its hugely wide white strip of sand and watch the camel trains pass. We knew it would be a good deal warmer than Perth but the heat was still a bit of a shock and took some acclimatising. We had dinner at Broome Convention Centre where we lined up for pub style meals while colourful art works depicting the local landscape were auctioned at the Environs Kimberley annual art exhibition. I was excited by the thought that the colours I'd seen from the plane were just the beginning of the adventure.

Next day our large group of enthusiastic environmentalists de-camped and set off in a convoy of sturdy four-wheel drive vehicles. First stop was Roebuck Bay where guide Bart Pigram from Narlijia Cultural Tours Broome showed off the stately rock formations sculpted by erosion and the coastal rock pools teeming with tiny sea life. We made it to Dr Anne Poelina's Majala Centre on the Fitzroy River in Nyikina Mangala Country by late afternoon. Anne and her family told us fireside stories of their lives looking after country. Next day we experienced a smoke ceremony on the banks of the river, a pilgrimage to a sacred boab tree and a tour of their education centre. We had a wonderful learning experience there. It was hard to say goodbye after the warm welcome we'd been given by these loving guardians of this serene part of the Kimberley.

Next stop was Windjana Gorge National Park near Derby, after an adventurous hiking detour through a nearby cave system. The gorge was stunningly beautiful and our first encounter with crocodiles in the wild. It was amazing to watch them lazily sunning themselves on the banks of the river just a few metres away from us. We also saw dozens of bats flying out of the trees at sunset further inside the gorge. We visited again early next morning observing the just waking up serenity of silent gorge walls clad in soft sunlight.

From Windjana Gorge we headed south along the Roebuck Plains to Micklo's shack in the part of the Kimberley he tries to protect from fracking. Staying with Micklo and Margadee was both an uplifting and sobering experience: inspiring to see how hard he was working to keep the gas companies away but sad to see how much damage the exploratory fracking site already there had caused to the land and wildlife. Micklo is a fantastic example of how much one dedicated passionate person can achieve in the fight to protect country.

Final stop was the coastal area at James Price Point on the Dampier Peninsula in Goolarabooloo Country. This is the spot that then Premier Colin Barnett described in 2012 as 'an unremarkable piece of coastline', even though it has dinosaur footprints on the rocks at the water's edge (national heritage listed in 2011) and magnificent towering rust red cliffs. Here we had more fireside chats with custodian Phil Roe and his friends who fought for many years to keep this unique part of the world free of gas company invasion. The planned offshore gas pipeline would have meant covering the whole area with a huge concrete platform totally obliterating the dinosaur footprints and the multitude of endemic plant species in the vine thickets throughout the area. As we lay in our swag on the dunes gazing at the star-filled sky and listening to the gently breaking waves we shuddered at the thought that all this beauty might have been destroyed.

Michael and I have rarely camped before. We took a one-person swag borrowed from my brother that really tested our togetherness as once inside it neither of us could turn over. Luckily most nights were cold so we got the benefit of our cosy combined body heat. And no need to pitch and strike a tent so we were always the first ones ready (normally we're the last). Personal hygiene had to take a back seat as halfway through the week running water ran out. We were the dirtiest we've ever been. By the time we all got back to Broome we raced each other to the shower block at Cable Beach for the sake of our fellow plane travellers as well as ourselves.

Over a year later we still remember vividly our first full-on camping experience on our first trip to the Kimberley: the stunning country, the wonderful kindred spirits we met, the delicious vegetarian food, the fireside games and chats, the learning and inspiration.