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July 27, 2009

FROM ROGUES TO RAJAHS, THE LIFE OF SEAN

david ellis

TALKING to Sean Whalley makes you feel like you've somehow stepped into the pages of Boys Own Annual.

If he's not got you gripped with yarns of arresting rogue fishermen in gale-lashed waters off the Falkland Islands, or helping in rescues of distressed yachtsmen in equally foul Atlantic conditions, he's recounting rubbing shoulders with the likes of John Mills, Michael Caine or Rod Stewart in more salubrious surrounds aboard QE2 in the sunny Mediterranean or the balmy Azores.

Or his latest stint: taking the first cruise ship in a near seven-decades into the jungled heartland of Borneo where the few tourists who go there out of curiosity, find that they themselves are the curiosity – for the locals.

And he'll tell you about drinking home-made rice-wine with the chief of a traditional long-house from whose ceiling hangs a basket of human skulls... trophies of the chief's father's father, and his father before that, who chose poison-tipped darts from blowpipes as their weapons of choice.

And of the English Brooke family, the White Rajahs of Borneo for a hundred years from 1841 – and their still-standing riverside forts from which they put down tribal skirmishes and rounded-up headhunters and pirates as they ruled an area of 100,000 square kilometres, before finally handing-over the place to Britain in 1946.

It's a long way from the little English market-town of Crediton where this adventurer's dad was the local dentist, and whose love of yachting was inherited in formative years by the young Sean.

Determined to make his way to the top in a career at sea, Sean Whalley took- on any job from the rough-and-tumble of off-shore oil-rig support vessels, to officer rank aboard freighters, Chief Officer on the boutique cruiser Sea Goddess I (now the world's highest-rated SeaDream I,) and eventually Chief Officer aboard QE2.

And It was during fifty-odd crossings of the Atlantic aboard QE2 and countless voyages to fairy-tale destinations that Sean shared cocktails with John Mills, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Rod Steward, Barbara Windsor (the busty blonde bimbo in Britain's Carry On movies,) and Scottish footballer Kenny Dalgleish.

But itching for something more adventurous, a few years back he took on the challenging job of master of the Falkland Islands' 800 tonne Fisheries Patrol Boat that protects its 200-mile (322km) Fisheries Conservation Zone from poachers.

With a crew of fifteen and two Fisheries Inspectors, Captain Whalley spends days at sea intercepting foreign fishing boats – mostly Korean and Spanish –  fishing the Zone for hake (a popular large commercial white-fleshed fish) and squid for processing into calamari.

Despite gales that could spring up every few days, his crew take to the foaming seas in rigid inflatables from their patrol boat to board these foreign fishers to check their papers – arresting those ships whose owners have not paid their licence fees and escorting them back to Port Stanley where they're  impounded until hefty fines were paid.

And many a time he's been brought-in to help in rescues of yachtsmen from their floundering vessels, and on two occasions the crews of cargo ships that had caught fire at sea.

When his patrol boat was put in for a 5-months refit earlier this year, the itchy-footed Sean wasn't one to just sit around, and snapped-up an offer to skipper the first cruise vessel since 1942 to ply the Rajang River from Sibu in Sarawak into the heartland of Borneo.

Owned by Pandaw River Cruises, the 30-cabin Orient Pandaw is an exact replica – augmented with today's luxury mod-cons – of the historic riverboats of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that had 650 ships on the rivers of South East Asia from 1865 to 1942; it burned them all to the waterline to stop the Japanese using them to move troops and supplies after Japan invaded the region in 1942.

The Orient Pandaw travels 250km up the rainforest-clad Rajang River, in 9-days visiting small towns and frontier outposts yet to come out of the 20th century; there are jungle treks, views of the wildest rapids in the country, visits to a longhouse and local schools, a Brooke Raj fort, tropical fruit plantations and more.

For more information about Orient Pandaw's Borneo adventure cruises and Malaysia Airlines services from Australia to Borneo, see travel agents; also check-out www.pandaw.com

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PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] CAPTAIN Sean Whalley aboard Orient Pandaw in Borneo – cruising to adventure

[] CLOSE landing: first cruise ship into the heart of Borneo in seven decades: Orient Pandaw puts guests right into shore excursion action

[] HOME of one-time headhunters, a traditional longhouse deep in the jungles of Borneo now welcomes tourists from Orient Pandaw

  - Photos: David Ellis

July 21, 2009

My Island Home



Most privately owned islands around Australia, where yachties can call in or stay overnight, are found in Queensland. Others are scattered along our massive coastline. However, the sunshine state is not the only place to drop your anchor and OCEAN traced a selection of different islands with marinas, moorings or anchorage facilities that offer a remarkable maritime experience.

By Pamela Wright

It goes without saying that soaking up the incredible islands in the calm, aqua waters of Queensland’s Whitsundays is every yachtie's dream. Excellent marinas, endless shelter and snug overnight anchorages in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park help lure over 30,000 sailing holidaymakers each year and the numbers will increase as the infrastructure continues to improve. Even when Captain Cook coursed these waters in 1770, he noted it was a continuous safe harbour making it simply unforgettable for sailors. Most of the 74 islands in the Whitsundays are uninhabited but eight of them, all within close range of each other, have major resorts. As well as Hayman and Hamilton, there’s South Mole renowned for family holidays, Brampton with its romantic resort, the refurbished Daydream Island and Long Island with magnificent views from walking trails. Australia's only Club Med is at Lindeman and Hook Island has a beautiful deepwater anchorage at Nara Inlet. Understandably, some owners remain discreet about their private island and are reticent to divulge locations, but I discovered enough to whet the sailor’s whistle.

As an alternative to the resort-like nature of many islands, Tasmania provides havens for wildlife, fresh produce, spectacular scenery and landscapes that is such a diverse experience for seamen. Lying northwest in the path of the Roaring Forties, the ever-present westerlies that circle the world's southern latitudes, is King Island with empty beaches, clean air, rocky coasts and reefs, dairy farms, lighthouses and shipwrecks. It’s renowned for award-winning cheeses, succulent beef and fresh seafood with cray fishermen and abalone divers harvesting rich catches from beneath the surface. In 1845, one of Australia's worst maritime disasters occurred here when the Cataraqui grounded but today, Cape Wickham lighthouse, the tallest in the southern hemisphere, guides mariners safely into Bass Strait. King Island is a shell collectors’ paradise, with 144 species identified at Martha Lavinia beach alone and for bird lovers, more than 78 species range from petite penguins to pesky peacocks. At Naracoopa, Baudins Restaurant on the waterfront features local produce and for accommodation, The Flying Squirrel, 100 metres from the beach is quiet and secluded with harbour views, a boat ramp and a jetty complementing the public jetty in the main township of Currie.


Not another soul in sight: kayaking in the wilderness on Flinders Island.

Not another soul in sight: kayaking in the wilderness on Flinders Island. Photo: Melanie Ball

Flinders Island and its 51 surrounding islands are all that remain of the land bridge that once connected Tasmania to the mainland. Dramatic landscapes vary from the pink and grey granite cliffs of Killiecrankie to the gentle farmland that rolls through the northern part of the island. Yachts can shelter, if necessary, near Eddystone Point or Swan Island before tracking across Banks Strait to Cape Barren Island and then Flanders, all part of the Furneaux Group. The wreck of Sydney Cove (1797), miles of white sandy beaches and 7,000-year-old Aboriginal shell middens await the cruising yachtsman, not forgetting the abundance of fish life that can feed a hungry crew at any time. Across the road from Whitemark beach and within cooee to cafes, the golf course and the pub are the fully self-contained Elvstan Cottages that brag spectacular sunsets over outlying islands. Lady Barron Cottage is ideal for a group holiday and is close to the wharf, Vinegar Hill Lookout and Furneaux Tavern. Leafmoor by the Sea near Lady Barron fishing port, sleeps up to six people and the Palana Beach House, also sleeping six has an undercover balcony with amazing views of Blyth Bay and Sister Islands.

Wild seascapes, towering dolerite cliffs, sweeping surf beaches, extensive coastal walks and an historic lighthouse are all features of Bruny Island off the southeast corner of Tasmania. The best walks are along the track to Penguin Island and Fluted Cape, beach walks on Cloudy Bay, where there’s a fine anchorage or the full-day circuit of the Labillardiere Peninsula where you’ll see Bennetts Wallabies, pademelons, echidna and wombats. At dusk, fairy penguins come ashore at The Neck where the Truganini steps lead to the lookout and memorial to the Nuenonne people who inhabited the island before European settlement. Bruny offers a number of places to eat including the local pub, Hothouse, Lunawanna and Penguin Cafes and fresh oyster door sales at Get Shucked. There’s a reasonable selection of onshore accommodation options at Morella Island Retreats, Mickeys Bay Eco Retreat, Wayaree Estate and Wainui Bed & Breakfast. At Adventure Bay, where Captain William Bligh came ashore for water and provisions before heading off for his ill-fated mutiny in the South Pacific, is a public jetty. For exercise, especially suitable for families, try the two hour walk along the flat Grass Point track with its whaling history information trail.

The mild, warmer climate of Maria Island coupled with alluring beaches and clear waters, is highly attractive to sailors and cruisers with safe overnight anchorages in either Chinamans Bay or Riedle Bay near Whalers Cove. However, because the whole island is a national park, only offshore moorings are permitted but you can anchor temporarily at Darlington and explore the historical ruins of a former penal settlement and the limestone fossil cliffs near Cape Boullanger. By 1825 Maria Island was a convict prison and today there’s basic but fascinating accommodation in the old Penitentiary at Darlington with nine rooms, each with six bunk beds, a picnic-style table and chairs and a wood-fired heater. The Township Walk shows buildings and ruins from the early convict periods then ventures through open woodlands into tall eucalyptus forest returning via the old cement works. Along the northern shores of the island, The Fossil Cliffs, where there are extensive views of the famous Freycinet Peninsula, plunge sheer to the sea. As one of the best places to observe Forester kangaroos and Cape Barren geese, Maria Island has no cars, no shops and a $10.00 per day national park entry fee. A few hours sailing north is The Schouten Passage which provides secure overnight anchorages at Bryans Corner or Crocketts Bay and at Hen and Chicken Bay on the southern end of Schouten Island is a beautiful, small and intimate haven sheltering boats from the northerly winds. Provisions of water, distillate, food supplies and marine engineering facilities are all available at Triabunna Bay. Anchorages are typically used for casual, overnight mooring by vessels cruising coastal waters but sailing around Tasmania is made all the easier by the fact that mooring is allowed almost anywhere with the exception of marine reserves with all facilities and locations available through www.mast.tas.gov.au.



As well as a paradise for fishermen, Spilsby Island (pic above) in South Australia has safe and secluded beaches along the north coast which contrast dramatically with the spectacular rocky coast to the west. The waters teem with highly sought after marine cuisine with boating and sailing made more enjoyable by the number of other islands, including the Sir Joseph Banks Group, offering safe anchorages. You can be sure of catching whiting, flathead and garfish when line fishing from the beach or salmon, sweep and snapper if rock fishing. Dive for scallops and abalone or drop a few pots to entrap succulent, local crayfish. An unusual phenomenon occurs just after the first winter rains when enormous rings of large mushrooms spring up over most of the island. So imagine the menu! Mushrooms on toast for breakfast, crayfish salad for lunch and baked snapper for dinner.

Port Lincoln at the southern end of Eyre Peninsula is 250 kilometres from Adelaide as the crow flies and is considered South Australia’s finest harbour. After two and a half hours sailing, you’ll reach Thistle Island, the second largest in South Australia after Kangaroo Island with numerous safe anchorages including Whaler’s Bay, recognised as being one of the best natural anchorages in the state. Covering an area of 4000 hectares with about the same number of sheep, it’s a paradise for fishermen with safe and secluded beaches along the east coast and dramatic cliffs and rocks to the west. Excellent opportunities for swimming, surfing or rock-climbing and the natural, unspoiled bushland, historical ruins and dry limestone caves provide a constant source of irresistible delight and on Thistle, there’s even room to enjoy a sense of personal privacy not usually possible on smaller island properties.

Mention yachting and probably 95 per cent of seafarers head to Queensland. Understandable considering two of the best resort islands in Australia are Hamilton and Hayman, both situated amid the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef. The yacht club and marina on Hamilton suits all forms of boating from runabouts to superyachts and is a popular spot to overnight or extend a holiday. Currently, the facility has 205 berths catering for vessels up to 45 metres and the boatyard offers a 65 tonne travel lift with mechanical, electrical, refrigeration, shipwright, anti-fouling and breakdown services making it a great destination for those who appreciate international boating excellence. Already sporting plenty of accommodation, the addition of the five star qualia resort located on the secluded northern point has revitalised the island. As a huge commitment by owners Bob and Sandy Oatley, it has 60 private one bedroom pavilions, plunge pools, outstanding facilities and uncompromising service.

Hayman Island, owned by Mulpha Australia Limited allows guests to holiday in style amongst priceless artwork, silver service dining and gardens landscaped to perfection. Acknowledged as one of the best private island resorts in the world, it has a tropical haven of beaches and coves fringed by the incredible coral of the reef. Hayman offers marina and accommodation packages with accessibility to the safety of the marina via a deep water channel. For an overnight visit with all guests staying at the resort, a vessel up to 50 feet costs $145, over 50 feet is $185 and additional days are $95. The fee includes marina or mooring access, water tank refill, garbage disposal, use of non-motorised watercraft, fitness and sporting facilities, a beachside golf putting green and driving range, island walking tracks and various guided resort tours.

Few wildlife experiences are as breathtaking as watching whales and, as Australia is a sanctuary for cetaceans (whales and dolphins) they often show a friendly interest in passing vessels. And if you’re sailing on the east coast from as early as July through to November, it’s a whale highway with hundreds of humpbacks and their calves on their major migratory route north. And between May and October, Eyre Peninsula in South Australia and Storm Bay in Tasmania are brilliant places to see southern right whales beyond the surf breaks. You should be so lucky!

July 20, 2009

IS THIS HOW CAPTAIN COOK REALLY DIED?


david ellis with malcolm andrews

THE way that the death of Captain James Cook in the Hawaiian Islands has been taught to not only our children, but to others in schools around the world, is now being claimed as an extraordinary and deliberate distortion of the truth.

And the man fighting hardest to set the record straight is a native Hawaiian who has been conducting a war of words over the issue for a decade or more.

Herb Kawainui Kane is a respected artist-historian who has been honoured as a Living Treasure of Hawaii for his artistic interpretation of the islands' history.

And he says that the popular version of Cook having been sacrificed by heathen Hawaiian priests is garbage… and he is always ready to talk about the real events to the many Australians who make the trek to Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii to see the very spot where the heroic Cook died.

Unfortunately many don't make it to the monument that marks this spot: it is a tough three-hour trek via an overgrown jungle path. And while you can get there more easily by boat, to do so you also have to pay for a day's scuba diving as well, like it or not.

So many Australian visitors heading for Kealakekua Bay get only as far as the nearby town of Captain Cook and its Captain Cook Coffee Company, buy coffee and Cook-inspired T-shirts, and go off sightseeing elsewhere.

Or if they're lucky, bump into Herb Kane who lives just outside town.

"Many of his crew were weak from tuberculosis and venereal disease," Kane tells Aussie visitors. "And Cook was no longer the humane and diplomatic leader of his earlier voyages. Often his temper erupted in foot-stamping tantrums that his men called 'heivas' – because they resembled the energetic Tahitian dance."

(In recent years British experts have explained this as symptomatic of a vitamin B deficiency, probably caused by intestinal worms.)

Cook had first visited Hawaii, then known as the Sandwich Islands, in 1778 on his way to Alaska in search of the fabled North West Passage. On his way back south he arrived at Kealakekua Bay at the time of Makahiki, an annual festival honouring the Land God, Lono.

Because Cook's ship with its masts, spas and sails resembled the tall pole, cross-piece and white banner of Lono carried during the festival, historians for years have argued that the islanders believed Cook – when he stepped ashore – was Lono reincarnated, and revered him as a living god.

But when they realised their mistake, to save face and prove that Cook was only mortal, the island's chiefs ritualistically sacrificed him.

But Herb Kane says: "Rubbish. Cook was never regarded as a god, and on this visit was greeted with all the respect due to a visiting chief."

Later, however, when Cook was readying to sail on, his sailors went ashore for firewood, and according to Kane's research, pulled down a wooden fence enclosing part of a temple's altar and sacred images – a desecration that gave great offence to the islanders.

"Thus when Cook returned to Kealakekua Bay again on February 14 1779 and went ashore a violent confrontation erupted," Kane explains.

"Cook is known to have been seen gesturing from shore toward his ship's longboats, and a legend has grown that Cook, the humanitarian, was signalling to his men to stop firing their muskets.

"But would a commander order a cease-fire in the midst of a desperate fight for his life and that of his men? More likely he was waving for urgent rescue, for like most sailors of his time, he could not swim.

"Before that rescue came, he was clubbed from behind and stabbed to death."

In total seventeen Hawaiians, Captain James Cook and four British marines died in the skirmish.

Kane says the British created their version of Cook's ritualistic death to make him a hero in public eyes. "There was no mention of the desecration of the temple," he says.

Herb Kane has recorded Cook's visits to Hawaii in ten paintings in his book, Voyages which details the myths, legends and historical events of his nation.

"I have a great admiration for Cook," he says. "It's important for our children that his real story be known."

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PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] HERB Kane – setting the record straight

[] EARLY painting of the skirmish that resulted in the death of Captain Cook

[] CAPTAIN Cook Memorial in Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii's Big Island

July 15, 2009

NOTHING FAWLTY HERE NOW BASIL’S GONE – QUE?

david ellis

THERE are no out of date kippers to kill you, and no conversations over breakfast with senile retired Army Majors or dear old things who are as deaf as posts.

And the owner will neither abuse you when you ask a simple question nor, despite the fact you're watching, take physically to an English-impaired waiter from Barcelona….

Yet while you'll never have been inside this place in your life, step through the door and you'll feel you're time-warping back into history.

Because this is the Hotel Gleneagles at Torquay in England's  Devon, a delightful holiday bolt-hole, but forty years ago a questionable inspiration for BBC-TV's smash-hit Fawlty Towers – even though physically the hotel itself never featured in the series.

But according to John Cleese who co-scripted Fawlty Towers and played its irascible and bumbling owner Basil Fawlty, he based the show on the bizarre behaviour of the owner of the Hotel Gleneagles when Cleese and the Monty Python television team stayed there while filming locally in 1971.

This included him tossing the briefcase of one of the stars over the hotel fence because "it might have a bomb in it," and berating another in the dining room for not placing his knife and fork correctly after he'd finished eating.

And after he threw a timetable at a guest who dared ask about a bus into town, Cleese described him as "the most wonderfully rude man I have ever met."

A few years later the BBC asked Cleese about creating a new comedy show after the Monty Python series had completed filming. Recalling his stay at the Hotel Gleneagles, Cleese agreed to do so with his wife at the time, actress and writer, Connie Booth (who ended up playing the maid Polly in Fawlty Towers.)

They wrote just six episodes that aired in 1975 and after countless repeats in Britain and world-wide, in response to viewers clamouring for more, wrote a second series of six in 1979.

Amongst the most popular tracked by viewer-ratings were The Hotel Inspectors, The Germans, The Kipper and the Corpse, and the final episode, Basil and the Rat.

And one of the most famous lines was devised by Cleese after recalling the owner during his 1971 visit demanding of a guest who asked if there were rooms with views: "What do you expect out of a Torquay hotel window?"

Cleese and Booth re-worked it as Basil berating a guest who asked the same question: "What do you expect to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? The Sydney Opera House perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically over the plains…?"

The original owner sold out in 1973 and when a reporter tracked him down after  Fawlty Towers first went to air, he vehemently denied being the inspiration for Cleese's Basil Fawlty. Even after his death his wife steadfastly maintained that her husband had been "seriously misrepresented."

The Hotel Gleneagles opened with fifteen holiday apartments in 1963 although the core of the building dates back to the mid-1930s. It has been  added-to numerous times over the years and now has forty-one guest rooms and suites, all with private balconies and some with views (although not of Basil Fawlty's vivid imaginings…)

When the current owners bought it in 2006 they raised it to 4-star standard with a new pool, al fresco dining area, and luxury touches to public areas and bedrooms.

And rather than bury its past Fawlty Towers' connection, actively promoted it – but with certainly no deadly kippers on the menu, instead today's chefs turn out such delights as Filo Pastry Wrapped King Prawns with a Sweet Chilli Sauce, wonderfully British home-made soups, and mains ranging from Traditional Roast Sirloin with Red Wine Gravy and Garden Vegies to Tortellini with a Tomato and Cheddar Sauce...

And to finish, Belgian Waffles with Forest Fruit Jam and Crème Chantilly, Pear Crumble with Custard, Chocolate Torte with Crème Anglaise and Chocolate Shavings….

We just wonder what Basil would make of it all?

(The Hotel Gleneagles is managed by the Best Western group; prices start from 65-Great Britain Pounds per person per night including breakfast, and 55-GBP per night for two nights or more.  Book through travel agents or www.hotel-gleneagles.com)


PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] BASIL Fawlty engages in industrial relations with Manuel

[] LOUNGE and Bar at the Hotel Gleneagles: no complaints here from The Hotel Inspectors

[] PICTURESQUE Torquay Harbour

July 07, 2009

NEW YORK IS LIKE A MAGNET TO AUSTRALIAN TRAVELLERS


Australians continue their love affair with New York City despite the economy. Aussie visitation to the Big Apple reached nearly 200,000 last year and continues to increase in the face of the slowing global tourism according to Manhattan's Beacon Hotel General Manager, Tom Travers

A 19 year veteran of the 260 room hotel hosts more than 2,000 from down under each year and its rising

Situated on the upper west side one of Manhattans most sought after areas the Beacon Hotel is affordable and the only property in the vicinity with kitchenettes in each room and full kitchen facilities in all the one bedroom suites. Adjoining the hotel on Broadway is the famous Beacon Theatre that like the hotel has just been completely renovated. The theatre has been pulling massive crowds to its shows since the "roaring 20's" and to mark the re-opening in April more top talent with Paul Simon followed by Leonard Cohen and some upcoming acts include the Dalai Lama, Kiss FM, Bob the Builder live, Elvis Costello and Tom Jones.

Just a well judged nine iron shot over Broadway from the Beacon and right into the middle of the ‘Fairway’. It's not a golf course but a sensational delicatessen with take out and eat in and stocked with every food line imaginable. Yes "Deli heaven" for sure!!!. (Also sells booze). Very traditional fare upstairs at the Deli restaurant try the Rueben's sandwich (hot corn beef stacked high) . Take note;- share next time ‘cause they are bigger than the Empire State Building. Trivia buffs need to know that the Fairway Deli sells more than 60 tons of Parmesan cheese annually. How are their arteries going now? The big plus about the area around the Beacon is that one is treated as a New Yorker, not a tourist...that is until you open your mouth!

Central Park continues to be one of the most tourist frequented place in NYC and a highlight is Strawberry Fields across from the Dakota building where Beatle John Lennon was shot in 1980. More than 40 million tourists visit NYC each year and high on their attraction list are the Broadway shows, the Rockerfellow Centre for great views from the top of the Rock, Statue of Liberty, high class shopping on Fifth and Madison Avenue and great bargains at the cheaper end at Ross's and First National next to the currently being re structured twin towers. Be sure to include Radio City Music Hall. This iconic retro building has been restored to its glory days and is a sight to behold. Our visiting group had the chance to go on stage which only happens when there is a lull in showtime. Most shows on Broadway at the moment, have been boilin' for a while, Billy Elliott, Guys and Dolls, Heda Gabbler, Lion King, Mamma Mia, Mary Poppins. We saw Chicago as it was on the half price list. Wanted to see Jersey Boys depicting Frankie Valley and the Four Seasons but that was full price. When in a Jewish neighbourhood act accordingly. Its 25 years since first meeting the big Apple and things have certainly changed for the better, people are much more amiable, talkative and helpful and you can walk or run in Central Park and not get mugged these days. Can't wait to return. As Ol blue eyes says in song "if you can make it there you make it anywhere its up to you New York New York.

With a marked recent increase in carriers and availability from Australia to NYC and such seductive airfares, the lowest in more than 22 years, the floodgates from Oz to NYC will remain open to the max.

Welcome to the Hotel Beacon, a haven of comfort amid the bustling excitement of New York City. Located on the historic Upper West Side, amid tree-lined streets and landmark buildings, the hotel is a beacon for relaxation. Friendly and accommodating, we offer handsomely decorated, oversized guestrooms and suites. With wonderful views of Central Park, the Hudson River and Midtown Manhattan, the Beacon is the perfect vantage point from which to venture anywhere in New York. And when your busy day is done, you'll have a perfect place to come home to.

July 06, 2009

GRIM START TO A SOUTH PACIFIC PARADISE



david Ellis

IF it was any consolation to those French deportees foolhardy enough to misbehave so badly in the one-time penal colony of New Caledonia as to warrant execution, it was that they went to their deaths on one of the most famous guillotines in French history.

Because when it became obvious to the commandant of the prison just outside Noumea that a few of his confinees were more fractious than he had been led to believe, he sent word to Paris asking permission to implement capital punishment upon the worst offenders.

And Paris obliged by delving into its prison armoury and despatching by the next convict sailing ship, the guillotine that had been used in 1793 to execute both Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution... just four years, incidentally, after the contraption was refined by the French doctor, Joseph Guillotin.

Many people believe that it was Dr Guillotin who invented the guillotine, but in fact it had been around in various guises since the 14th century, and in England from the 15th century was known as the "Scottish Maiden."

Dr Guillotin was both a medical doctor and lawmaker, and believing that the guillotine was the "most humane" method of execution, was able to convince the government in 1791 to introduce "humane mechanical execution" using the device.

A fellow named Antoine Louis was engaged to build the prototype of Dr Guillotin's refined contraption, and in turn hired German-born Tobias Schmidt to actually build it – believing that Schimdt was ideally suited to this as he was a renowned harpsichord maker.

And some 90-odd years on it must have been a very sobering six-month's journey for those on board that convict ship to New Caledonia as they pondered every day the guillotine lashed to the aft deck...

Just how many convicts fell victim to that guillotine is in somewhat of dispute: official records say a total 27 convicts were executed by guillotine, but just before his death one executioner claimed that he alone had beheaded 74 miscreants.

Whatever the true figure, it was a minuscule proportion of the 18,000 hardened criminals, petty thieves, minor other crooks and political deportees who were transported on thirty-three convoys between 1864 and 1897.

And in their typically meticulous way, the French didn't send just any old rabble on their earliest convoys to New Caledonia: the very first were made up of tradesmen convicts who could build their own stone and timber prison, and the next were those able to read and write and who could work in the prison's and other government offices.

Then came those with agricultural skills who could run farms to feed the growing penal settlement, and after them, anyone France simply wanted to be rid of.

And when sentenced to a future on the other side of the world (and hardly considered a South Pacific holiday playground in those days,) convicts did not only their "time" but had to remain in the colony for an equal number of years as "free men and women."

It was a system that worked very well for France, as most prisoners on their release quickly found work, married and had little reason to bother about returning home. And they quickly established a solid community of largely law-abiding settlers in the sun and freedom outside the prison walls.

The last convicts arrived in New Caledonia from France in 1897, and although the gaol was officially closed in 1914, one long-term deportee with papers marked by the court "Never To Be Released" was shipped to another of France's penal colonies in Guyana in Africa.

The guillotine was moved to a new prison and last used in the 1940s. It is now dislayed in a museum at Bourail 150km north of Noumea. The museum has an interesting collection of photos, documents, work tools, and household and personal items of one-time convicts and prison staff.

[The Hotel Le Lagon Noumea has a current special of stay 4-nights/pay 3-nights including full buffet breakfast on three mornings and a free half-hour massage per person; see travel agents for fly/stay packages available until December 20 if booked by July 31. The hotel has a heated pool, shallow kids pool, two spas and gym with sauna and fitness instructor.]

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PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] THE guillotine used to deal out justice in New Caledonia up until the 1940s is on display at the Bourail Museum.

[] HISTORIC photo of a prisoner being led to his end on Noumea's guillotine

[] OLD wares at the Bourail Museum just north of Noumea

[] PICTURESQUE New Caledonia: little wonder few deportees went home to France after their release