Wednesday 30 November 2011

Day 240: Port Arthur

We woke up to a solid wall of water.  The rain was obscuring the island opposite and the high tide brought the sea to within a metre and a half of our house.  It's kind of spooky and fascinating at the same time.  Julia and I decided to go to Port Arthur in the expectation that it wouldn't matter too much if it rained.  Port Arthur, right at the southern tip of Tasmania, is where the most rebellious of the original Australian convicts got sent for bad behaviour.  It looks like an idyllic English country village surrounding a ruined church and abbey.  In reality, life here was a nightmare.  For one thing, if this is an example of how cold it can be in midsummer, what must winter be like!  If you misbehaved at Port Arthur, at first they used to flog you, but then they decided this was barbaric.  Instead, they put you in a maximum security sensory deprivation prison with a hood over your head and a number instead of a name.  You were under constant surveillance, but not allowed to make contact with any other human being, visually or verbally.  You couldn't see outside, or read anything except the Bible.  If that didn't work, you got the dark cell for 72 hours where you couldn't see anything.  To deal with the results of this process, they built a lunatic asylum next to the prison.  They also had a paupers workhouse and kitchen for prisoners who had been freed, but were too institutionalised to survive in the real world.  What a system! 

When we got back, the weather had improved a bit and Mike and Antonia were out in the channel just in front of our house, wearing borrowed wellington boots and collecting oysters.  It looks like oysters are going to be the one thing that's cheaper in Australia than elsewhere.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Day 239: Tasmania

Our system for getting to the other end of Tasmania involves renting two small cars to drive all of us and our luggage, then returning one of them in Hobart the same day.  It pretty much went like clockwork though it was a bit gruelling.  The nice part is that the sides of the road are littered with very nice places to stop and eat breakfast and lunch.  The landscape is beautiful, the trees have a reddish tinge and an echidna decided to take a little walk across the road in front of Mike's car.  We have now seen both surviving monotremes in real life.  Our house turns out to be more 'on the beach' than I could possibly have imagined and everyone loves it, but I am too tired to want to do much more than sleep in it today.  In the evening, we looked out across the Entrecasteaux channel and saw more dolphins.

Monday 28 November 2011

Days 237 & 238: Passing through Melbourne

We got up very early to catch the train to Melbourne.  The best thing in Australia (and the US) is the ability to check your luggage.  The most strikingly different thing is the ambiance.  It is a lot more fun here.  Our train trip started with someone on the intercom reminding us of all the things that would get us thrown off the train (e.g. smoking in the toilets).  By the time they had finished, I knew three or four things not to do that I had never thought of before, but just in case I was short of inspiration, the train staff were cheerfully full of entertaining anecdotes of things people had done on their various watches.  It was a long journey, and by the time we were two thirds of the way through, the denizens of Car F, in particular, were getting bored.  They had already set off the smoke alarm in their toilet, and had taken to pulling the carriage handbrake as we left the station to see what would happen.  They were probably putting their feet on the chairs too, for which there is a fine.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the train trip was soon to end. A freight train had derailed the night before somewhere ahead and we couldn't get past.  We all got off at some little station somewhere, collected our luggage and piled into coaches.  The coach driver told us a couple more amusing anecdotes about people doing stuff they shouldn't then decided to put the procedure on automatic so he could concentrate on driving.  He played us a video called the Birdsville Track which is an ancient documentary about a guy who did the mail run across the Australian outback. It is full to the brim of things one shouldn't do.  By the time it was done, Mike was looking at Julia's maps, to see if the Birdsville Track still exists and whether he can do it and get into some entertaining form of trouble on the way. 

By the time we got to Melbourne at 8pm, our main consideration was to find food, so we tried asking the locals until we found a couple who are practically my brother's next door neighbours (they live within 10 miles of him).  They knew where there was a whole street of restaurants with outdoor seating.  These restaurants compete with each other fiercely so we got four meals and four drinks for the price of three meals, and considered the place blissfully cheaper than Sydney.

Even though Melbourne has paid tourist information people hanging out in the streets, we ran into the same couple as last night, who told us that the tourist hop-on-hop-off bus would take us all over the town centre for nothing, and so will the circular tram.  We got to see over the whole city in the morning and got off at the Royal Botanical Gardens for the afternoon.  Melbourne is lovely, very much like a European city (continental Europe).

We made it to the docks by about 5.30 to catch our ferry to Tasmania and found it very civilized.  They checked our luggage, made sure we weren't trying to import fruit or fish across the Tasmanian sea and let us into our very nice cabins - not quite as fancy as on the Zaandam, but still pleasant.  I was surprised that we weren't given a list of things not to do again, but the safety video was pretty hilarious.  We had a nice meal, in which Mike tried to fit all he could eat for 16 AUD on to a fairly small plate and went to bed.  As we exited the bottleneck of the bay that contains Melbourne into the real sea, lightning began flashing all around us so we fell asleep to a nice familiar pitching and rolling and thought of Julia who has a tendency to think she might get seasick.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Days 235 & 236: Sydney

I didn't even want to hear about leaving the ship, but the Australian immigration are aboard inspecting us all.  We respond by exchanging wild rumours about what they do to people who accidentally forget to declare any organic material they may have about their persons.  I went to have my hair cut and now look like a human being who hasn't been dragged through the backwoods for six months. It's one of the best and least expensive haircuts I've ever had, by a girl who is South African but has been living in London in the same area I lived as a student.  The next day the ship's boat-building contest was held in fairly rough seas (i.e. the ship's swimming pool which was showing a tendency to slosh over), and we ate a large Thanksgiving dinner.

Day 1 in Sydney
In Sydney, it is raining hard in Sydney but we somehow managed to see a lot of the major sights on the first day.  We are staying in the earliest settlement area called the Rocks, in a nice old house above the harbour.  It's about 15 minutes walk to the Opera House and the Botanic Gardens.  When we went to wander around, the first thing we found was a tea shop offering the most outrageously huge lemon meringue pies I've ever seen, and the second thing was a couple of interesting books.  So, Sydney made an excellent first impression despite costing too much and having bad weather.  How much too much it costs and which currency it costs least in is still a matter of debate.  In the evening, we met up with Julia who is over from Grenoble to hang out with us and visit family, though we won't really see her much for a day because she's off on a dolphin tour tomorrow.

Day 2 in Sydney
It's still raining so we bought ourselves tickets for the aquarium and went there.  The aquarium and a lot of museums and tourist attractions are around Darling Harbour which is loverly.  The first thing we saw was the duck-billed platypus tank which was very exciting.  The platypus was very active when we were there and very cute, but smaller than I expected.  The next exciting thing was the dugongs, of which there are two.  They eat lettuce constantly and are served by an all-day salad bar.  I'm glad I'm not a dugong, but I suppose they like it.  They are both quite young animals and they keep them separate quite a bit, because when they put them together they play so rough they hurt each other.  The best thing in the aquarium is the giant reef tank with classical music accompaniment..

When we emerged it was unexpectedly sunny so we went for dessert in a harbourside cafe.  Mike and I have different approaches to dealing with Sydney's outrageous expense.  Mine is to lunch on dessert and a glass of wine.  Mike's is to refuse to order anything at all, then help himself off our plates!  After 'lunch' we went back to the hotel to change into warm dry weather clothes and walked over Harbour Bridge which is just up the stairs from our hotel, then down through the Rocks weekend market.  The harbour is astonishingly busy and I couldn't help wondering how all the boats avoid bumping into each other.

The highlight of our visit was eating calamari and softshell crab on the harbourside in the evening.  Antonia (obviously it was Antonia) suddenly realised that the birds flying overhead were actually an exodus of large bats from the botanic gardens next door.  So that is Sydney: if you are stinking rich, you can sit by the water every night, sipping wine and eating nice food, watching everyone stroll along to the opera house in their pretty dresses, and the hoards of bats flying overhead.  It's a pretty nice life if you can get it.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Days 231 to 232 - New Caledonia

It took us a day to sail between Fiji and New Caleonia, which I spent in bed with a cold I caught while coming back from Dravuni on the tender.  I wasn't seriously ill, but I was quite glad to have an excuse to stay in bed and do nothing.  By the evening I was quite a bit better and, Mike and I went to see The Help since everyone has been talking about it.  It's the first movie I've seen since Avatar that wasn't an out-and-out kid's film.

Easo, Lifou, New Caledonia
Lifou is part of France of course, and our first impression is that we need not be too ashamed (being French!).  It is clean AND pretty AND has reasonable infrastructures for such a tiny place.  We walked around for a bit, through masses of butterflies, then went snorkelling on the far side and saw what Mike says is the best coral he's ever seen in his life.  There were also fish, sea cucumbers, multi-colored giant clams, and molluscs so it was generally beautiful.

Ile des Pins, New Caledonia
The part of Ile des Pins where we landed had even more infrastructure than Lifou and it's extremely strange to see cars, gendarmerie, post boxes, rubbish bins and all those other things in the French style, especially after being away for so long.  Speaking French to the people here is just like being in France, there is a whole lot less difference that in speaking French to, say, Canadians.  Ile des Pins is even more beautiful than Lifou.  I thought the trees here were extraordinary.  I could have spent ages looking at them but everyone else went to the beach (as usual).

Noumea, New Caledonia
I got called up by the New Caledonian immigration authorities first thing in the morning, which was fun, then went to visit Noumea.  Noumea is New Caledonia's main city and it isn't much to look at.  We decided we had a similar experience in Reunion, which we loved, but when we eventually got around to visiting the city, we wondered why we had.  On the other hand, the people there are very friendly and helpful.  We found ourselves shepherding a group of non-French speakers from our ship to the right bus, which is pretty much the blind leading the blind, except we know how to ask the locals for help.  We spent the morning at the Tjibao cultural centre, which is both beautiful and interesting, first of all for its architecture and secondly for its exhibitions of contemporary and modern art.  It has resources we couldn't benefit from because of our schedule: cultural shows and films and a library in which it must be amazing to do research.  Antonia settled into the library to read children's books about Oceanian mythology in French, and had to be removed with a crowbar.  I was quite glad to see her reading and speaking French after so long.

Friday 18 November 2011

Days 227 & 228: Fiji

Dravuni Island, Fiji
Dravuni is a paradisaical tropical island in Fiji with about 125 residents.  You can walk all round it in about an hour.  We arrived with our own 'little' community of over 2000 people (including crew).  This is not what I would consider a 100% ideal situation.  We tendered to the island and were greeted by a man with the aura of 'leader of the Parish Council' to put it in English terms, and he is clearly quite pleased to see us.  Behind him, everyone is lined up under the palm trees with little stands selling coconuts and sarongs. I am so not together on the 'visiting' part of this cruise that I was astonished to discover everyone looking very African, but we have now left Polynesia behind and entered Melanesia and I am just being useless.  I suppose this village makes lots of money from what Holland America pays them just to rent the use of their island for a day.  Obviously, there are pros and cons for everyone and I'm not sure what they all are.  I know I spent about an hour of the afternoon picking up trash which various members of our group had left strewn around their beach.  The weather got stormy and by 2.30pm, most of us had retreated to the ship, cold and wet, so the cultural performance team came on board.  They want to raise money to travel internationally, and I think this actually worked out well for them.  Without the competition of the beach, they had a full house in the ship's theatre and a basketful of donations at the end.

Lautoka, Fiji
Lautoka is a medium sized town with a real port, and I decided to spend the day on a photography project around the ship and port area.  It's a good choice of place because there's a sugar cane factory and a paper mill right outside the port, plus they're tearing up the road.  When I got back, I ruined one of the ship's flannels by trying to wash my face with it, but that's OK.  We all systematically ruin the pool towels which they give us to take to the beach.  I feel sorry for whoever does the laundry on this ship.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Days 220 to 226 - At Sea

We spent five more days at sea, during which we crossed the equator and various people went and kissed a dead fish and turned the front deck swimming pool into something that looked like the drainage ditch from a fishmonger's slab.  Most days I teach Antonia in the morning, send her to kid's club and do my own work in the afternoon, go to the gym twice, the hot tub once, eat three square meals a day and take in any events that seem particularly appealing.  It's very relaxing and I love being at sea.

Pago Pago, American Samoa
On the other hand, I am not so enchanted with port days, so I didn't go to see American Samoa, but stayed on the ship instead.  I decided that, given the time available, what I really like is ports.  I love the shapes of the containers, warehouses, cranes and ships, and the contrast between land and water.  The port at Pago Pago is especially beautiful.  It seems like everybody else is spending their whole time on beach days.

More sea days followed.  We have crossed through numerous time zones and the International Date Line.  Despite the fact that the ship's staff put rugs marked with the name of the day in the lifts, and remind us twice when we change time, we became confused and our various computers and watches all told different times and days.  To make matters worse, the ship time was not always the same as the gps time for reasons of convenience, I suppose.  It seems like a joke to say we have lost a day, but I am not really sure if we reached Fiji on the 227th or 228th day of our trip.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Days 215 to 219 - Hawaii

To reach Hawaii, we spent four days at sea, during which we got to know the ship and slipped into a routine so quickly it's seemed incredible to be going ashore.  There are about eleven kids aboard the Zaandam and a whole gang of them are about Antonia's age.  The only other girl is quite a bit younger than her, so she had a bit of a shaky start, but after a few days it went brilliantly.  I am sorry to say she abused of her bey blades and nintendo ds to gain social capital, and also dresses herself carefully in her least pretty and feminine attire before any kid's club session.  We soon learned we need not expect her to join us for dinner as she had prior engagements or was resting every single night.  I am not used to all this adult life and am wondering what the withdrawal symptoms will be like.

Antonia collecting water from aerial roots of a tree

Hilo, Hawaii
Mike went off with his friend Geoff, so Antonia and I took a taxi to a Japanese garden on the coast.  Really, we could have walked but the taxi driver did direct us to the best fish restaurant in the neighborhood.  It's really a warehouse where the fishermen deliver fish, but they have a shop for the public and a small kitchen with a few benches outside.  We spent the day looking at flowers, crabs, washed up coconuts and banyan trees and it is all very new and interesting.

Kauna, Hawaii
Mike went off with Geoff again, and we found Kauna less interesting than Hawaii.  Today we had to tender to shore which is a lot less convenient than having a gangway.  When we got to Kauna we realised the only things to do are shop or go to the beach.  We had forgotten our beach things and didn't really want to shop, but had very little choice.  In the end we rented a sea kayak and paddled out into the harbour to see what this strange structure is.  We had fun but also got soaked and sunburned.

Honolulu, Hawaii
I walked to the Bishop museum on foot, which meant I passed through the whole port area, chinatown and some residential areas.  It was kind of interesting.  There are a lot of people sleeping rough in the park in Hawaii, but on the other hand, there may be worse places in the world to have to sleep rough.  The museum is really beautiful.  The main room has the old fashioned museum architecture of panelled wood galleries around a tall central area (for hanging canoes and lifesize models of whales).  The exhibits on traditional Hawaiian life and on the history and politics of Hawaii were very well put together and organised.  In the evening, we discovered that the ship can take care of all the emigration procedures for me so that was handy.

On our second day, Mike hauled us out to Haunama Bay, a state park set aside to protect a beautiful bay with coral reef.  Getting there by public transport is frankly a nuisance, but it is very pretty.  You have to pay to go into the park, and watch a compulsory video begging you not to step on the coral.  We all went snorkelling, and Antonia (of course it was Antonia) swam with a sea turtle for several minutes and saw an unidentified stripey sea snake or eel as well as the usual fish and coral.

Nawiliwili, Hawaii
We rented a car - hurrah! - so I actually got to see what some of the interior of Hawaii looks like.  Really, we just drove up the center of the island taking photographs. At the end of the road on the wet side of the island, we had a beautiful rainbow at the end of the journey.  Then we returned to the dry side and ate shrimp.  This is pretty much all you have time to do on port days, when we're off the ship between 8.00am and 4.30pm - if you're very organised.  I have already decided I don't think much of cruising as a way of seeing places, though I love being at sea.