Cape Tribulation, Mount Sorrow

Captain Cook must have been having a bad time when he landed on this part of the coast. It is not clear whether the names refer to the land or his predicament, he apparently landed here to make good damage to his ships.

The coast is punctuated with beautiful white sandy beaches partitioned by tropical forest tumbling to the water’s edge. The coast road, striking up again after the Daintree chain ferry, switches over forested bluffs before sweeping down to these isolated waterfront treats and then up again into the trees. Continuing like this the road transfers from a metalled surface to dirt just beyond Cape Tribulation. This is where the fun really begins. The river crossings were definitely the highlight with the steep, rutted inclines beaten into a close second. The raised dust in places was so thick that the only way you could make out fellow on-coming travellers was if they had turned on their headlights.

We continued in this enjoyable vein until we shot past a down at heel sign advertising affordable camping with “croc free” swimming! “That’s it shouted Anna” and we were indeed rewarded with the most surprising gem of a campsite!

After 3km down a dirt track with strangler vines hanging across the road we arrived at a farmstead that looked as if it belonged on the film set of Deliverance! The door was open but no-one in the seemingly deserted house came to the door when we knocked so we ventured in! Rather than backwoods’ bogers (thank you Ant for the local lingo) we were met by South African hospitality and shown to what proved to be the most delightful campsite. We were invited to camp wherever we liked and to help ourselves to firewood from the bush for an open fire – Puckle, this was heaven!

I am sure to sate their curiosity about the Britz mobilers Bruce and Carmel wondered over and introduced themselves.

Always conscious that this is the place were the world’s most deadly spiders and snakes live we tip-toed around the woods picking up twigs and logs to burn. Bear Gillean’s patience with his sticks and washing line ran out before our fire burst into life and so we resorted to using matches. I fear we have some way to go before we can qualify for a walkabout! This was the closest we have come (dared to come?) to wild camping and it was a truly memorable night sitting by the campfire and gazing up at the most amazing display of totally unfamiliar constellations – we really are half a world away!

As the fire died down we turned in, I think we managed 10 o’clock; the PA’s were improving. The scuffle and rustle of nocturnal quadruped living arrested sleep’s embrace momentarily. However nature’s call that is usually heeded sleepily turns to a shouted command in a tent and I had the chance to enjoy the fantastic Southern Hemisphere star show, twice, fully awake.

Our final awakening of the night was to hear the most beautiful and unusual dawn chorus, what makes the song ‘Robert who’ we want to know?

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Agincourt Reef – The Great Barrier Reef

Can you beat having your first dive on The Great Barrier Reef? I don’t know, ask Gillean! Despite being really nervous he was brilliant, calm attentive and with excellent buoyancy control. On our diving day we had signed up with Crystal Tours (?) a small local Port Douglas based company we thought. The five coaches that dropped off at the port and the brushed aluminium monsters that brooded on the quay told a different story. The family photo on the gangway could have been the final straw as we boarded but despite our fears the trip was very professionally and the staff helpful and friendly.

The dive sites were beautiful. Located 70 km north of Port Douglas the coral was diverse and in excellent condition. There was an abundance of fish of different species and it was particularly rewarding seeing Nemo, the anenomy clown fish and cousins in their natural habitat. Other notable creatures: giant clams, cleaner prawns in an anenomy and brilliant blue fish which we later learned were cleaner fish.

Anna very maturely accepted that she was just to young at 11 and enjoyed the snorkelling with Debbie at the various locations. We returned to our van site for an early start and journey north the next day.

Perth

It was fabulous to see our friends Ant and Wendy and their children, Robert and Rebecca again. Gillean found a sole mate in Robert and he genuinely seemed upset when we parted company, most unusual!

Perth and her environs are very pleasant. Ant and Wendy’s house is beautifully situated nestling just below a national park on an escarpment. Designed, and completed, by Ant and Wendy, after a number of tribulations with a rogue builder, their home is a wonderful balance of communal space and private living. The laundry chute, and the to be installed dumb waiter from the garage for the shopping, add the finishing touches.

We were greeted by kangaroos in the back garden one morning and the daily walk with Arwin, a bouncing five month ball of muscled Rhodesian Ridgeback, amongst the grass trees and forest directly out of the back of the house highlighted how close to nature we were.

Aside from a few higher end houses, Ant and Wendy’s included, Australian architecture is functional. The predominantly single story houses are designed for living in and clearly not for looking at! We were also amazed by the density of housing in Perth. In a county with so much space why do people need to live on top of each other?

Fremantle market was the closest we came to feeling at ‘home’. It was strange to develop little empathy with a place that Ant and Wendy have clearly embraced and love. That said our lunchtime at the local winery was fabulous, a mix of simple but delicious food washed down with a lovely Shiraz.

We were sad to part but life in a working household is always busy and Wendy had clearly made a huge effort with menus and entertainment for our four days and so before the ‘table was turned’ we had caught our ‘red eye’ flight to Cairns.

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Cairns and further north

Ok it was cheap, the flight that is! Here’s how it goes – get on the plane at 10 pm, fly for 4 hours then add 2 hours to your time for the new time zone and have no where to go until the car rental shop opens at 8 am. So as not to loose all of your crew to a mutiny look for a solution to kill some time, and this is the genius of social media, find some friends, who you haven’t seen for 6 years and who also happen to be on holiday in Australia and ask wether they will be in Cairns for breakfast on the 30th of July. Hey presto you have a 6:30 breakfast date, get to catch up and fill in an hour and a half. Our date was lovely and surreal and we were bone tired.

Car hire companies; when am I going to hire a car and not feel that I am being fleeced? We will sell you this insurance with a prohibitive excess or you can buy this insurance with a much smaller excess which, obviously, sir, will cost you a lot more. Aside from these irritations the Toyota Landcruiser was fab! A throaty V8 that will comfortably pull away in third, a fold out kitchen and on board fridge.

With tiredness biting at our heels we pointed the petite monster north and made for Port Douglas. We were looking for a van site in the middle of town which we located on our second pass. The provision of communal kitchens would appear to have reduced the fire risk at Aussie camp grounds to such an extent that there are no, and I do mean no, exclusion zones between plots. Our tents were 20cm from our neighbours – great for all those bodily sounds that canvas does such a good job of shielding out.

We spent the afternoon and evening sleeping, exploring our new camp kitchen and wandering the pretty streets and waterfronts of Port Douglas, a very pleasant place.

Ho Chi Min City

Sitting at the airport I wonder how much the Vietnamese wrestle with their turbulent past to balance this with, what from a brief glimpse, looks like an invigorating and prosperous future. The prices in the airport are all in dollars and the cost for four drinks is the same as our meal last night. Is this the ultimate destination or will the Vietnamese people be able to forge a “middle” way?

Fuelled by images of a sweaty Charlie Sheen (from the 1979 Coppola film, Apocalypse Now) lying under a ceiling fan in a Saigon hotel and later on a parol boat up the Saigon River, I was interested in venturing onto a war tourist trail. Having spent ten days in Vietnam with a people apparently imbued with patience, good will and a tenderness towards each other and foreigners I was interested to see the portrait of the ‘VC’ from the home side. We booked a half day experience with Saigon River Tours to the Chu Chi tunnels some 40 ‘klicks’ up the river from HCMC. Our speed boat, pushed on by a 200 hp engine, cut through the water hyacinth and sediment laden waters with ease, and despite the noise proved a very relaxing mode of transport away from the bustle of the local roads.

Our tour guide, Tam, was the consummate professional. Knowledgeable, attentive and sensitive about the subject, she led us from one neat exhibition of tunnel life to the next. The physical architecture is interesting but what I found much more impressive was the self discipline needed to continue life in such an oppressive environment. If the local people had not ‘chosen’ to live like this I am sure the conditions would have been described as inhuman; cramped, dark and with physical and mental assaults by the ‘other side’. The little modifications to the physical environment and systems of living (e.g. Cooking fires were only lit at 3 am and the smoke was passed through a series of ‘settlement’ rooms to capture the smoke particulates before being allowed out 500m or so from the from living quarters. The early morning cooking also meant what smoke escaped mingled with the dawn mists.) struck me as ingenious but no reference was made to the cost in lives that each iteration followed. Do we need to put ourselves under pressure to achieve this level of analysis and action?

After a visually interesting, but uneventful (save the collapse of the precarious green umbrella windshield in the rain showers), blast back down the river we were left with an afternoon on our hands. I love the interconnectedness of people and a query about a half day city tour to Tam resulted in Steven, plus five rickshaw riders ready for departure from our hotel within 30 minutes!

Does an ‘official’ tour take in what the guide, or City, would like you to see, or what the majority of tourists think constitutes the quintessential components of that place? It was hard to tell.

We visited the Refunification Palace, an imposing but ‘just like any embassy’ building. We could hear the children groan audibly as Steven pointed pout there were 98 rooms. I’m not sure what the projectionist’s room added to the tour except, as we begun to appreciate, this was a ‘rub your nose in it’ history lesson for the South, and maybe the sheer folly of having your own cinema as a leader signified the vacuousness of his rule along with the full size model escape Huey helicopter on the roof and the bomb bunker in the basement.

The 90 or so million Vietnamese, being largely under 24, have, at least vocally, managed to put the American War behind them. However rather than a Viet cultural museum we were next taken to the War Remnants museum. It struck me as an odd name and suggests that the war represents a stain that remains, and even in the young, lies not far below the surface. After all, 5 million Vietnamese perished for the loss of 1/2 a million on the other side, a fact that means many of those we spoke to must have been touched, through family, or family friends, who were effected.

Some of the exhibits are revolting. Scenes of severe brutality and cruelty are all over the walls in pictures and in your face with mock up detention rooms and prison cells. Clearly a mixture of south Vietnamese and American work but what seems equally frightening is the apparent indoctrinated hate of the Americans against the ‘communist’. With the benefit of looking at the world through today’s eyes as McDonalds competes with Pepsi and Coke for places on the advertising billboards it is easy to forget that communist regimes had a different future mapped out for us.

One poignant letter from a third generation sufferer of Agent Orange to President Obama asking for reparation was left apparently unanswered. Do the Americans still fell that what they tried todo was justified?

After this rather sobering stop we were then shepherded through the Roman Catholic cathedral and the Post Office building, the latter was bizarrely built to look like a railway station by the French, before being whisked onto the Opera House steps for a family photo prior to our return to our hotel. A rather undignified hunt through wallets for a tip for the rickshaw drivers, (how much do you tip people where incomes are very difficult to judge?) concluded the rather strange tour and didn’t really leave us knowing any more about the Vietnamese people.

The day ended with a more culturally enlightening visit to a busy local restaurant where you could cook your own meat at the table, (our choice) eat scorpion and pig’s penis and watch the locals getting wasted on drinking games as their sober wives became more and more frustrated and angry!

Hoi an full moon festival

With great good luck we managed to find ourselves in Hoi An for the festival of the full moon – a monthly extravaganza which fills the riverside with throngs of people and sets the water alight with a sea of brightly coloured lanterns each bearing a small candle. The riverside in Hoi An is normally a bustling and vibrant place with tourists and street hawkers jostling for room on the crowded streets between market stalls and the ubiquitous mopeds but the full moon takes it to another level still! And the price to join in and set your lantern afloat down the river? The princely sum of 5,000 VD – about 15 pence!

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Green Cross Code Hanoi style!

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imageSo how do you begin to cross a street like this with family in tow? The local advice is surprisingly simple. The first step is to look right and left – so far, so good! One is then advised to venture forth into the oncoming traffic in a purposeful manner and proceed to the other side without deviation or hesitation – above all don’t stop or change direction! Surprisingly, it’s a lot easier than it sounds and once you’ve dipped into your cup of courage and taken the first step it’s actually quite fun! One word of warning though – buses don’t play by these rules …..