Category Archives: Trains

My idea of Hell, and is schadenfreude a sin?

mih

The reason why I didn’t identify where this picture was taken in the title, as I usually do, was because I didn’t want anyone to think that the lovely little Norwegian town I took the photo in was terrible. What I found Hellish was the concept of travel that some people would have us believe, is desirable. I think that for most people who haven’t done it, a cruise would seem like an ideal holiday. A cruise of the Norwegian fjords sounds even better. The trouble is that reality doesn’t match the sales brochures.

The Norwegian fjords are beautiful but I don’t think taking a cruise is even close to the best way to enjoy them.

When I was in Dubrovnik a few years ago there were four cruise ships in port and the place was overflowing with people who had been ferried in for a few hours to look around, only to be hustled back onto the boat before nightfall for dinner and departure for the next destination. I asked one of the passengers where they had been the day before and I was told “Venice”. Venice one day, Dubrovnik the next and Athens the day after.

WHAM!
BAM!
Thank you MA’AM!

So back to the image above. My wife and I have been in Norway for 5 days now and it’s rained every day. the thing is that it usually hasn’t rained all day and there have been pockets of sunshine.  As I drove into Olden near the end of the beautiful Nordfjord I saw two cruise ships moored close to shore and the tiny town (population of about 500) was packed with hoards of tourist trudging through the rain with nothing to really look at other than a rather ordinary town with a supermarket and a few souvenier shops selling tat. There they were, hundreds of people who’d probably dreamed and fantasized for years as they scrimped and saved to go on a cruise to the fjords, wandering around in the rain with the view obscured by clouds and rain.

As if to mock the poor wet punters, an idle fake fantasy train (I really hate those things!) was parked by the cruise ship, devoid of passengers save its crew who lounged dry inside.

As I drove past I thought to myself, “you poor bastards!” …… Then I turned around and took the picture with a smug sense of schadenfreude…… as one does!

The trouble, as I see it, with cruise ships and just about any other kind of group travel is that they aren’t that flexible. You can’t just get off when you want, you have to leave when the tour operators want to leave and you have to suffer the further indignity of queueing up for things all the time, like buffets (bleeeegh!), checking into hotels, getting into coachs or ferries to shore etc. ad infinitum. 

When you are in such a large group you have a much smaller chance to interact with the locals other than to buy something from them. Although the Nowegians have a reputation for being taciturn, I’ve found them to be a friendly lot, who are ready to spend a little time with people, who have the leisure to show a modicum of interest in them.

My great shark hunt. Queensland, Australia. 1971

This is another episode in the “All the dumb things” series

When I was about 15 in 1971 I got interested in going to Queensland. At the time, I had a friend called Karl and I talked him into going up (we lived in Sydney) there with me during our school holidays in the summer. Back then airfares to Brisbane were very cheap so we caught a plane. From Brisbane we decided to take a train up to Cairns, stopping off at Proserpine on the way. I wanted to go Proserpine because from there we could go to Airlie Beach, which was near a few well-known resorts and the Great Barrier Reef.

The resorts had names like Daydream Island and South Molle Island. As a small child, growing up in the city, places with exotic names, evoked in me, visions of “Adventures in Paradise” a show that I used to love. Also as a kid I was fascinated with the idea of small islands and I used to fantasize about living a subsistent life on one.

It never occurred to me that the tropics were, about the last place on earth that a pasty, freckled, red haired, white boy should try and make a home. It was only years later when I lived in Vancouver, Canada did I understand what habitat my genes were suited to. Long periods of rain and overcast skies made me feel “right”. I suspect my gene sequence was evolved as a good survival strategy in the last ice age by one of my mammoth hunting ancestors. As a teen, such realities never intruded into my thoughts.

Another reason why I wanted to go to Airlie Beach, was that at the time I used to do a lot of skin diving. I even learnt how to scuba when I was 14. The scuba course cost me $11 and was taught at a Y.M.C.A. indoors pool over a couple of nights. FAUI? PADI? Decompression tables? Never heard of them! We were told; ” just don’t come up faster than your bubbles and you’ll be O.K”. Every one knows that the Great Barrier Reef is a Mecca for divers and I considered myself one, so I just had to go.

When I look back, I’m amazed that my parents let me go, at that age, with only another teenager as a companion. Come to think of it, what was Karl’s family thinking? Letting him anywhere near me, never mind traveling up the coast thousands of kilometers away, with me.

The plan was that when we got to Airlie beach we’d hire a boat and live in it for a week and when we got there, that’s exactly what we did. We hired an open fourteen-foot aluminium dinghy equipped with a small outboard motor for eight dollars a day. After 5 minutes of instruction we were in the water and heading out to sea for the nearest island. Lifejackets? Never heard of them!

Enough of all this intermediate stuff and onto “all the dumb things”!

One day, while out in the boat, Karl and I saw some bad weather closing in so we headed for shelter in a fairly protected bay about 10kms north of Airlie Beach. We anchored in about 2 metres of water and swam ashore. We did this because the tides in that area are quite high and when the tide goes out you can be stranded on a tidal flat until the next tide comes in. The looming weather wasn’t as bad as we expected and we spent the next couple of hours ashore exploring the nearby bush.

Yep! You guessed it, when we came back to the boat the tide had started to go out and the dinghy was sitting in about 30cm (about 1′) of water which was too shallow to use the motor or row, so we started pushing the boat as fast as we could, towards the receding water. The problem was, was that the seafloor in that area has an incredibly level surface with not much of a slope for kilometers. This all meant that no matter how fast we pushed the boat, the water quickly went down to a level where we couldn’t push it any more. So there we were, stuck out in the middle of nowhere on a tidal flat for the next 8 hours which meant that we wouldn’t be able to leave until after dark. Food? Water? Didn’t have much of that. Contingency? Never heard of it!

The good thing was, that after the squall had blown over there were millions of butterflies migrating out to sea. It was sublimely beautiful and calm. Karl thought it would be a interesting thing to see how far out to sea we could walk. We walked for what seemed like an age, following the butterflies straight out to sea. When the water was only half way up to my knees the dinghy was nothing more that a speck the size of a piece of dust. On we walked following the butterflies straight out to sea until the water was up to our knees, further and further we went.

Not looking at where I was treading, staring at the horizon and the butterflies, I stepped on what I think was a Giant Reef Ray (Taeniura meyeni). The ray was huge, about 1.8 metres (about 6ft) across and about 3 metres long (about 9ft). As I stepped on the stingray, I barely had time to feel the ground move from away from under my feet, all I saw was an enormous mottled disc shape fly up out of the water with a tremendous splash, landing back in the water about 3 or 4 metres away with another big splash and then off it flew away under water. It frightened me so much that I just about rin over the top of the water all the way back to the boat without stopping or gasping for breath. It was a real son of mammoth hunter meets monster of the deep, adrenaline moment.

Back safely in boat we waited for night to fall and the tide to come in. As soon as the water got deep enough to put the propeller in the water we tried to start the motor.

Yep! You guessed it. The motor wouldn’t start and in our continued efforts to get the engine going we succeeded in flooding it. By this time we were both hungry and thirsty so we decided to take turns rowing back to Airlie Beach, which was quite a way off. On we rowed into the night, occasionally trying out the motor. This went on for what seemed to be hours and hours. During my turn at rowing we hit a large soft floating object, which jumped up out of the water creating a gigantic splash, drenching us and almost tipping over the boat. Needless to say it scared the heck out of both of us. We didn’t know what is was but we assumed it was either a dolphin or a dugong.

By this time I was a shattered nervous wreck and Karl wasn’t a happy camper either, but probability snapped back like an overworked waitress and we finally had some good luck, the motor started. Within about an hour we were back in Airlie beach dining on fast food.

Since the night was warm and the water was calm we decided, for a change to sleep in the boat while it was in the water. We usually dragged the boat up onto the beach (which is made up of finger sized pieces of coral in that part of the world). It was a beautiful balmy night, I felt safe, fed and comfortable. As I was lying in the boat enjoying the night, it came to me that a spot of night fishing would go down well. We rowed out a little further into deeper water and baited up our hand lines.

Both of us weren’t having any luck until I felt a weight on my line. Usually when you get a bite you feel the fish through the line take the bait. This felt like I’d snagged on old boot or something like it, so I reeled it in. As I got it close to the surface I could dimly see that it was a fish, a decent sized one at that, but it wasn’t fighting the way that fish usually fought and we didn’t have light so I couldn’t see what it was clearly. The only option was to lift it into the boat. As soon I lifted the fish out of the water I could see it was a small shark (cool!) about 50cm (about 20″) long, but it wasn’t moving around much like hooked fish usually do. So I lifted the shark with the line into the boat and as soon as I did, it bit through the line and all pandemonium broke loose.

It was dark, and we had this small shark that had suddenly sprung into action snapping at us from the bilge. Both Karl and I fell over our benches backwards; Karl into the bow and me into the stern and the shark had the middle. The shark was going berserk, jumping and snapping all over the place. It took me awhile, but I finally located my diving knife and stabbed the shark. That only annoyed it and the jumping and snapping were getting much more frantic. The situation quickly degenerated into a jumping, snapping, stabbing frenzy. The shark just didn’t seem to want to die (strangely enough), so I eventually ended up pinning the shark down with the knife and we waited for what felt like an eternity for it to stop moving.

The middle of the boat was now covered in shark blood and guts so we ended up dragging the boat onto shore and having an unpleasant sleep on the beach. In the morning when it was light we got a good look at the shark that was still in the boat. There, in the bloody bilge, lay a poor little shark that had been rendered inedible by my panicky ministrations. One side of the fish looked fine, the other side was a mixture of bilge, fish mince and guts.

I didn’t go into the water again for the rest of the trip.

pasty, freckled, red haired descendent of mammoth hunters with monster of the deep

 

This post was first posted on the 19th of April 2007

An Epic lunch for my 500th post. Paris, France. 2009

Yesterday was the last full day we were in Paris and it was the day that fellow blogger, Epicurienne caught the Eurostar over from London for the day to meet up with us before we left.

As a happy coincidence, I’ve been able to make sure that my landmark 500th post could be about my wife and I meeting up with Epicurienne, who like us comes from the southern hemisphere, likes to travel, eat good food (who doesn’t!) and of course is also a blogger.

The plan was that Epicurienne was going to show us around Paris a bit, but it was a little cool and drizzling rain.

The great indoors looked far more appealing so I piped up with, “why don’t we find a really nice little restaurant and have a fabulous meal with some lovely wine and blow heaps of money doing it!”

Epic ruminated upon the question with great deliberation for about a nanosecond and replied, “sounds like a plan!”

So off the three of us went to wander around Ile St Louis on our quest, where we stumbled across an absolute gem of a restaurant called “Sorza”.

The Sorza provided the perfect setting for a day with Epic who often writes about restaurants and the cusine she has had around the world. The food was excellent and the wine that Epic picked was perfect (I know nothing about French wines).

I’ll leave a more detailed description of our meal to Epic, as she is much better than me at writing about food.

Just like before when I met up with fellow bloggers Cashmere Cafe, Grasswire and Robert in Slovenia, it was remarkable how easy and pleasant it was to talk to Epic. We came to the conclusion that we felt we’d know each other for ages through our blogs which made the conversation so comfortable and fluid.

Also, just like in Slovenia I felt I had met another person that I wish I lived closer to. I would love to cook for Epic some time. I can’t even really begin to describe what a nice day Engogirl and I have had.

To be in Paris on our last day and to spend it with such a delightful and lovely person such as Epic would have been more than good enough, but the icing on the cake was our meal together.

Meeting up with fellow bloggers has been so pleasant that it is something that I’m going to have to do more often. It’s just a pity that Australia is so far away from where the bloggers I read, come from.

The Pommy drug smuggler. Madrid, Spain. 1982

When I left Morocco in 1982 I went by ferry from Tangiers to Algerceris in Spain.  Whilst on the ferry, I met an Englishman who I hit it off with immediately, and is often the case when one is traveling; we decided to travel onwards together.
 
The Englishman wasn’t the only other fellow traveller I met, and soon there was a group of us guys who spent the evening exchanging horror stories about Morocco.  After talking with those guys it was obvious that most of them had gone to Morocco to smoke hash. I could just tell by their talk and bloodshot eyes, that some of them were carrying drugs and it wouldn’t have surprised me if some of them were thinking about smuggling dope into Spain.  I may have done a lot of dumb things in my life, but smuggling drugs is not one of them and I wanted to keep it that way. So I made sure that I checked my luggage before I got off the boat just in case somebody had decided to use me as a courier.
 
After disembarking the ferry at Algerceris, my newfound English friend and I caught the train to Madrid. When we first got on the train, there were plenty of seats and we could stretch out and get a little bit of sleep, but of course that sort of situation never lasts.  During the middle of the night, hundreds of soldiers on leave got onto the train and of course we all had to sit up and nobody was getting any comfortable sleep. To make sure that nobody fell asleep sitting up, the soldiers drank and partied all night.  It was during this uncomfortable time that my traveling companion told me that he had smuggled a condom full of hash oil into Spain by swallowing it.
 
Just before dawn, as I was starting to nod off, my new friend disappeared to the toilet to pass his contraband.  It doesn’t bear thinking about how he sorted it all out in a train lavatory (I can remember thinking at the time that his fingernails were rather dirty), but he came back to his seat with a big smile on his face.  His joy was short lived and his mood quickly turned to irritation, as there was now a sleeping soldier lying across his seat.  So he walked up to the soldiers face, turned around, and let loose a ripper fart into the guy’s sleeping face. 
 
I just couldn’t believe the sheer crazy audacity of the Pom’s action, and in a shot, the Spaniard was up and had his hands around the Englishman’s throat whilst screaming invective at him in Spanish. 

There was going to be blood!

The hullabaloo of course attracted other soldiers, and I was sure we were both about to be beaten to a pulp by a mob.  While the Spanish soldier was throttling my stupid friend, I was frantically trying to calm the situation down.  As the choking English lad’s face was turning a bright red, he struggled vainly to get free and in the meantime the soldier’s comrades, advanced shaking their fists and baying for blood. 

Amazingly, with my broken Spanish, I was able to eventually get everyone to calm down by convincing the soldiers that my friend was a complete idiot and that he was very sorry. The soldier let go of the Englishman, shoving down him into one of the seats and with a threatening gesture, left with his friends.

Whew! That was soooo close.
 
When we got to Madrid, the English guy offered to let me share his tent at a campground.  The tent was a tiny little mountaineering tent called a “Force 10”, but at least it enabled us to stay in Madrid cheaply. 

pom.jpg

One of the first things we did after we got the tent setup was to go off to the nearest bodega and buy the cheapest wine we could get our hands on. We took some empty wine bottles and got them filled up for $.50 each. Strangely enough, I can say this without a doubt, it was absolutely the worst wine that I have ever drunk in my whole life.  It was like drinking hydrochloric acid, and in the morning I had a very bad case of gastric reflux and a killer hangover.

Also, smoking something that had come out of a guy’s backside is a very weird thing to do.

Did I hear someone say…. Good shit?
 
Ahhhh… those were the days!

The Sunlander. Queensland, Australia

The Sunlander train travels between Brisbane and Cairns; a distance of 1680kms (about 1045 miles) and is described on their website as “one of Australia’s great journeys”. I wouldn’t go that far but it was interesting on several levels.

The Sunlander at Roma Street Station

There’s something about state run enterprises that always leaves me wishing that someone who really cared or had a vested interest ran the business. If you’ve been lured to long distance train travel by movies like “Murder on the Orient Express” or “North by Northwest” (one of my all time favourite movies) you’d be a bit disappointed by the “ordinariness” of the Sunlander. Having said that, a long train trip on an ordinary train is a thousand times better that a long bus journey or driving oneself.

Both my wife and I like long train journeys, so on the 18th of this month both of us went first class on the Sunlander to Cairns.

Engogirl in our first class sleeper

First class doesn’t really mean classy, it just means that you get two bunks in your sleeper. Economy class has three bunks in the sleepers.

Economy class sleeper

There are also tiny little “roomettes” for people travelling on their own and of course there is also plain old Spartan seating.

If you really want an up-market train experience on the Sunlander, closer to what is shown in the old movies, there is another class called “Queenslander class”. Twice a week, two extra cars are added to the Sunlander and for double the cost of a first class ticket you can purchase a berth in Queensland Class which caters for the well heeled looking for that old time luxury train trip complete with better quality meals. The hoi poli with cheaper tickets are barred from the extra cars.

On a side note the whole concept of “Queensland class” seems to be an oxymoron, as there is very little that can be considered classy in Queensland. Queensland is to Australia what the deep south is to the US. Queensland has the most decentralised and most evenly dispersed population in Australia, which means more people live in the rural areas there, than do people in other Australian states. Queenslanders tend to be down to earth laconic types with not all that much time for fripperies like comfortable travel, good food and civilised company like us effete Mexicans (that’s what Queenslanders call all us people from “south of the border”).

Besides sleepers the Sunlander has a rather nice club car which serves alcoholic drinks

The club car

and a restaurant car serving better than expected food in surroundings that evoked thoughts in my mind of industrial workers canteens.

Engogirl having breakfast in the dining car

Whilst waiting in line to be served (Table service? Don’t be silly! That’s only in “Queensland class”) I met an older Scottish couple and ended up discussing live theatre.

The Scottish theatre goers 

I was told that they like to see live theatre in the various places they travel and they had enjoyed a show in Melbourne so I suggested that they might want to see “Pig Iron People” at the opera house on the way back home via Sydney. They were a vibrant couple who were very engaged by culture, full of life and good humour. As we were chatting an older Queenslander with deeply suntanned leathery weather beaten skin, dressed in thongs (flip-flops), stubbies (shorts), short sleeved shirt and a broad brimmed felt hat (it was night) was being served at the counter when we heard the following exchange, “how do you want your steak cooked?”

Blank stare, “what do you mean?”

“How do you want your steak cooked? Rare, medium rare, medium or well done?”

Further look of non-comprehension, with “I don’t care, whatever”, grunted out in response.

“What sauce would you like with it?”

Blank stare again.

Not waiting for a question seeking clarity, the woman at the counter continued with, “Diane, mushroom or pepper?”

“I’ll have it with gravy” was grunted back.

The woman at the counter, realising that the guy had no idea said, “mushroom is the closest to gravy that we’ve got” to which our cocky (as in cow cocky which is Aussie slang for country person, usually a farmer or grazier) replied, “yeh that’ll be right”.

So there was this guy, possibly in his sixties who’d probably never had a steak cooked properly in his whole life. I found it hard to understand such a mind set. He seemed almost malevolently ignorant. He was a guy that  seemed to be so uninterested in what was outside of his little world. Back in the early 1970’s I went on a long train ride in western Queensland and I met people there in the outback who’ve never even been to their state capital, and the old bloke ordering the steak reminded me of those people and that time.

Like they say about Queensland, it’s more of a state of mind than a place.

My little sunburnt angel. Cairns, Queensland, Australia

This is a photo of my wife (Engogirl) having the first decent sleep she has had for the last week or so. We went to bed at 9:30 last night and this photo was taken at 9am this morning.

Engogirl is a real trooper and not a party pooper

Sometimes, travelling can be so exhausting and daunting. We came up to Queensland for a conference in Surfers Paradise, on big dams here in Australia. We thought we may as well go all the way up to Cairns to do a couple of days diving on the Great Barrier Reef (before global warming kills it off) . We also thought it would be a good thing to travel up the coast by train in a sleeper.

What with all the conference schedules and dam tours (or should I say, “tours to dams”?), early train departures and poor sleeping conditions on train and boat, complete with recent strenuous physical activity, we are totally worn out and ache all over. Today we were supposed to be going on a trip up to Kuranda on an old steam train but we both decided that we’d rather sleep in and have a relaxing day resting before we fly back home tomorrow.

Engogirl has been a real trooper over the last couple of days. Unlike me, all this full on travel and outdoor experience thing is still quite new to her.

I grew up near the ocean and learnt how to scuba dive when I was 14 years old back in the days when all you were really told was, “don’t come up faster than your air bubbles”. I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve snorkelled and spear fished, because I’ve done so much of it over the years. I also backpacked around various foreign countries for 11 years roughing it, before going home.

Engogirl grew up, a little back from the coast, and going to the beach was not a part of her upbringing. The ocean is still “terra incognita” to her, and uncomfortable travelling hasn’t been on Engogirl’s agenda either. The first time Engogirl had ever snorkelled was on our honeymoon in Bali, four years ago.

Two days ago, my wife tried scuba diving for the first time out in the open ocean about 30km  (about 20 miles) off the coast. Scuba diving isn’t all that difficult but it is a bit disconcerting breathing underwater. “It just ain’t right, I tell ya!” Never mind that the ocean is full of things that can view us a food and there was no land in sight.

I’ve never thought that scuba diving was that interesting and I just went along with Engogirl to keep her company and to reassure her. We did our dive together and Engogirl said to me afterwards that she thought that snorkelling was much better. I so totally agree. So we spent the rest of our time on the reef snorkelling.

I can’t really describe how glorious it is to share amazing experiences with people you care about, but I can tell you that I love it. After two days of diving, it was difficult to get Engogirl out of the water she was loving it so much. There was no more fear or hesitation, just joy and I was glad to be a part of it.

Unfortunately the sun was so hot and Engogirl didn’t put enough sunscreen on the back of her legs and she got a bit sunburnt. To make matters worse she slipped on the deck and barked her shin.

So as I looked at Engogirl sleeping so peacefully this morning I was taken by how strong she had been over the last couple days breaking through various fears, dealing with discomfort and pain. It’s times like this morning when I realise that I married the right woman and I know how lucky I am.