.

March 30, 2011

Struth! Call for Airlines to Can Kids


STRUTH !    

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that a survey in England has found that a whopping majority of those who took part would like to see adults-only cabins on long-haul aircraft flights.

Accommodation website HolidayExtras.com asked 5000 of its customers just what they wanted in air travel, and flights sans enfants came out tops: 83 per cent of respondents said they'd like to see adult-only cabins, and a third of those went even further saying they'd like to enjoy select flights on which children were totally banned.  None. Nil. Zilch.

And as could be expected another gripe was leg room: more than 75% of those polled said they needed more space, with the discomfort of being jammed in cramped spaces their worst nightmare whilst flying.

HolidayExtras.com Product Innovation and Merchandising manager, Anthony Clarke-Cowell said he was surprised so many travellers expressed such a strong desire for adult-only flights.

"Long-haul flights always present a challenge for families, and this is reflected in the results. (We found) that there is clearly a need for more facilities to keep children happily engaged in quieter pastimes – and not only during a flight, but in preparation before their flight as well," he said.

WAT’S THIS? HOW ANGKOR WAS LOST AND FOUND


David Ellis

LOSING the keys to the house is one thing, but it's another thing altogether to lose the house as well – plus a whole community of hundreds of farms, trading markets and even palaces and temples that once spread over 400 square kilometres.

Yet that's exactly what happened when the old Cambodian capital of Angkor was sacked by the raiding Ayutthaya people of then-Siam (now Thailand) in 1431, and Angkor's entire population fled 315km to the safety of what is now Phnom Penh.

Behind them they left what had been the world's largest pre-industrial city whose kings influenced a vast area extending as far afield as Vietnam, China and the Bay of Bengal.

But surprisingly Angkor's raiders had little interest in occupying the city after their attack and retreated back to their homeland, leaving the now-abandoned community of timber buildings – that included Angkor's palace that was of wooden construction – to decay into the jungle in the damp of the tropical humidity and seasonal monsoons.

All that is, except for a vast temple complex that had somehow been built of stone, and which was surrounded by a moat which provided a ring of protection from the encroaching jungle.

For centuries Angkor lay forgotten in the jungle. A few wandering Buddhist monks stumbled upon the vast temples as they sought-out jungle communities for conversion from the Hindu to their own faith, and based on their tales it wasn't long before many myths and legends began to arise about "the lost temple in the jungle."

One of the first western monks to see the temples was the Portuguese Antonio da Magdalena in 1586, and he was so astonished at what he'd stumbled upon that he wrote: "It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen… it is like no other building in the world (and has) towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of."

But it was in 1860 that the French explorer Henri Mouhot came upon the temple, and it was his reports on his return to France that led to a whole new interest – particularly after he wrote romantically for a French newspaper that  "the lost temple rivals that of Solomon and (was) erected by some ancient Michelangelo…"

Coincidentally the French government adopted Cambodia as a protectorate in 1863 and following the extraordinary world-wide interest in Mouhot's reports about the Angkor temples, decided upon a restoration program for the jungle complex whose first buildings were created in AD802.

That restoration work still continues today on the more-than 100 temples that make-up the 81ha complex of Angkor Wat (Angkor means City and Wat means Temple,) and which draw more than one-million visitors a year.

There are few restrictions on where visitors may roam, but those in the know say it's impossible to fully understand the complex and its extraordinary architectural detail without the help of a well-versed local guide.

And it's also worth getting away from the actual stone temple complex and taking a bit of a jungle walk into where the original city of Angkor once surrounded the temples, as whilst all the buildings have long gone it's still possible to find outlines of some of the original streets.

As well, the neighbouring town of Siem Reap that's developed on the back of Angkor Wat is a bustling hive of activity and a fascinating second face of this part of Cambodia. It's got plentiful accommodation from simple guesthouses to five-star resorts, and good-value restaurants and lively nightlife activities are not hard to find – particularly along the aptly-named Pub Street.

And a must-do is a cold drink on a hot day in the classic art deco bar of the Foreign Correspondents' Club near the Royal Palace, a former governor's mansion overlooking the Siem Reap River and now part of the luxury FCC Angkor Hotel.

GETTING THERE: Specialist Indochina tour operator Wendy Wu Tours has three- and four-day land only packages which take in the Angkor Wat temples and Siem Reap. They include accommodation and some meals, airport transfers, private touring with local English-speaking guides and entrance fees, and cost from $290 to $475 per person twin share.

For more detail contact Wendy Wu Tours 1300-727-998, visit www.wendywutours.com.au or see travel agents.

…………………..

PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] ANGKOR Wat from the air: lost and found.

[] EXTRAORDINARY jungle discovery that greeted first European monks and explorers.

[] FINE detail of many of the thousands of individual items comprising the remarkable Angkor Wat temple complex.

[] YOU've got to be fit to explore some parts of the temples.

[] CONTRASTING architecture: the Foreign Correspondents Club in nearby Siem Reap is a former governor's mansion and a good spot for a cold drink on a hot day.

Photos: Wendy Wu Tours and David Baker

March 29, 2011

122 Passengers and Crew Vanish Without Trace

SS Yongala, luxurious and modern, yet doomed to a watery grave.

by Roderick Eime in Townsville

Ceremonial flowers were cast onto the water while dignitaries and relatives made speeches last week during the centenary service for one of Australia's most famous maritime tragedies, the SS Yongala

On the evening of 23 March 1911, one of the most capable and experienced captains to work the busy Australian coastal route aboard a stout and well-maintained vessel sailed past the lighthouse on Dent Island in the Whitsunday Passage and was never seen again.

On board the SS Yongala as she steamed leisurely out of Mackay were 49 passengers, 73 crew, a racehorse named “Moonshine” and a prize bull. What 14-year veteran Captain William Knight didn't know was that a cyclone warning had just been received and with her brand new Marconi radio still on its way from England, the frustrated keeper could only watch her sail away. He was the last person to ever see the Yongala.

Three days later, concern escalated and Yongala was posted as missing. Every possible vessel was thrown into the search but apart from some debris washed up on the beaches, no trace was ever found and the subsequent inquiry was inconclusive. It stated in conclusion:

"with no desire to indulge in idle speculation, (we) simply find that after becoming lost to view by the light keeper at Dent Island, the fate of the Yongala passes beyond human ken into the realms of conjecture, to add one more to the mysteries of the sea".

The only body ever to be recovered was Moonshine's that washed up in a creek near Townsville. Sightings of a ghost ship kept public interest going for a few years, but the outbreak of WWI all but erased her from memory.

During WWII, a minesweeper fouled on something eleven miles east of Cape Bowling Green and a subsequent search by an RAN survey vessel all but confirmed the Yongala's location in around 25m of water. But the Navy did nothing.

It wasn't until 1958 when local skin-divers, Don Macmillan and Noel Cook, brought back a steel safe from a wreck that the world was forced to remember the Yongala. The anticlimactic opening revealed only mud, but the safe's serial number was traced back to Chubb in the UK who confirmed it was installed in the pursers cabin aboard SS Yongala in 1903.

The wreck is now a world famous wreck dive attracting some 10,000 divers annually. It is protected by legislation, so divers can only visit the wreck with a licensed operator. It is at a perfect depth for OW Advanced divers, but OW divers can still enjoy the experience at their 18m limit as no penetration of the wreck is permitted.

Ironically, Cyclone Yasi blasted off much of the century's marine growth, revealing detail and artefacts never seen before. SS Yongala, and her ghostly complement, now await thousands more submarine visitors.

March 15, 2011

Tsunami: Wave of Terror?

Why cruise ships are safe from tsunamis

One could be forgiven for thinking that the doomsday prophets are going to have their day with the recent roll of disasters sweeping our planet. Japan, a country used to and quite probably the best prepared in the world for such an event, was brought to its knees. And the story is far from over.

But what for cruising? What if you are caught at sea during a tsunami warning? Will you become an unwilling extra in the next Poseidon Adventure?

For film and cruise buffs, the Poseidon Adventure (1972) was developed from a 1969 novel and spawned three sequels; 1979, 2005 and 2006. But the basic premise of the ship (any ship) being capsized by a mid-ocean tsunami is seriously flawed. In the original movie, it was indeed an earthquake that supposedly sent a 50 metre wave rolling across the ocean casually overturning ocean liners in its way. Tsunamis don’t do that.

Tsunamis travel at high speed, up to 800kmh with a very low wave height, from the undersea quake’s epicentre. Like the ripples created from a stone tossed into a pond, the nasty breaking waves only occur when the energy meets a solid object, like a coastline or shallow water. Because the ‘wavelength’ is long, the energy just keeps on coming and drives water way inland as we saw on Japanese TV.

So, as evidenced by the complete lack of damage to cruise ships at sea during the massive 8.9 earthquake, you can safely ride out a tsunami at sea and probably not even notice it.

A ‘rogue wave’, however, is a different kettle of fish altogether and still has scientists discussing the origin and cause. Yes, ships need to worry about rogue waves.

Several cruise ships have encountered them. In 2001, Bremen and Caledonian Star were both surprised by a so-called freak wave of 30m in the Drake Passage, perhaps similar to the one that damaged Clelia II last December. QE2 hit one mid-Atlantic in 1995 during a hurricane and the original Queen Mary was whacked broadside by one while carrying thousands of troops in 1942. She listed to 52 degrees, damn near capsized and gave novelist, Paul Gallico, a highly profitable idea.

In 1966, a rogue wave struck the
giant Italian liner Michelangelo.
Some waves can be predicted by currents, sea floor and weather, such as near South Africa’s Agulhas Current, but the so-called ‘perfect storm’ conditions can produce what wave mathematician, Al Osborne, calls ‘unstable non-linear monsters’. These are the real whoppers that feed off adjacent waves and rise up to absurd proportions.

The only passenger ship thought lost due to a rogue wave was the 1909 disappearance of SS Waratah off South Africa. Her wreck was never found.

So unless, you are sailing headfirst into a cyclone, there is little worry you will encounter one of these waves and as for tsunamis, you have more to fear from lightning strike or crossing the road. Cruising remains one of the safest forms of transport, true.



March 14, 2011

STRUTH - Electric Chair a Shocking Exhibit

STRUTH !   

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says one of the more bizarre exhibitions to go on show at the Ohio Historical Centre in Columbus, Ohio next month includes a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, an aluminium mitt used in the early 20th century to stop children sucking their thumbs — and a 150 year-old condom that was made from sheepskin and found in the diary of a steamboat captain.

But the most controversial of the exhibits is the electric chair that was used to execute 312 men and three women from 1897 until Ohio introduced lethal injection executions in 1963.

Curator, Sharon Dean said 'Controversy: Pieces You Don't Normally See' was designed to spotlight some of the more provocative of Ohio's history.

"History isn't always pretty," she said. "But the more we can stare some of those things that aren't so pretty in the face, I think the more we can have honest, open discussions and start really working through some issues that, to date, have been fairly difficult."

Ms Dean said the electric chair was actually a highlight of public tours of the old Ohio Penitentiary that were held for many years until the government put a stop them in the 1930s. "If you look closely, it does show signs that a lot of people have sat in it," she said.

The exhibit will run from April 1 to November 20 this year and children under 18 will be barred from visiting unless accompanied by an adult.

LAST PINT FOR ENGLAND’S HANGING JUDGE


David Ellis

THE kind-natured folk of Wapping in the once less-salubrious area of London's Docklands, are quick to give a warning to tourists who venture at night into their now sought-after area in search of a truly traditional London pub.

"Beware the Hanging Judge," they caution. "He wanders around here after dark."

George Jeffreys, the Hanging Judge died back in 1689, but the locals swear his ghost is a common sight along the banks of the Thames near what was once Execution Dock…. allegedly watching with a frightening smile always playing across his lips, the spot where the gallows once stood.

Judge Jeffreys was one of Britain's more bizarre judges and had a macabre pastime: he enjoyed watching criminals hang, especially those whom he himself had sentenced to the rope.

His most famous effort followed the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, an attempt to overthrow King James II, the last Catholic monarch of England. Judge Jeffreys sent no less than 200 men to their death on the gallows after their failed uprising, earning himself his sobriequet.

And when he found another 800 had had some part in the Rebellion, but not sufficient to hang them, he sent them off to the West Indies as convicts, their papers marked as never to return to England.

However the Hanging Judge also enjoyed some pleasures more homely than watching his victims hang: he never passed up the opportunity of a cool ale on a warm day – nor any other day for that matter, regularly visiting a pub on the Thames called the Prospect of Whitby.

It was from here, and between pints at the bar – a simple piece of pewter stretched across a series of barrels – he would wander the 100 metres upstream to Execution Dock to witness the agonising death of sailors convicted of capital offences while at sea.

These poor souls were hanged at low tide, often with a short rope so death wasn't instantaneous. This caused their bodies to twitch uncontrollably. They would then be left dangling until three high tides had washed over their bodies.

After each hanging Judge Jeffreys would return to the Prospect of Whitby for a final cleansing ale, before going home.

But what goes around, as they say, comes around: in 1688, King James was finally overthrown by the supporters of William of Orange, who installed their man as King William III of England. King James fled to France but Judge Jeffreys was a bit slow off the mark in realising the fate that would befall him for his support of the ill-fated James.

All too late he tried to sneak out of the country dressed as a sailor but was recognised by one of those who'd appeared before him in the past, and had lived to tell the tale.

Judge Jeffreys fled to another pub nearby, the Town of Ramsgate, but only had time to gulp down one pint before an angry mob arrived. He was saved by the army, who took him to the Tower of London 'for his protection'.

That protection proved value-less: the Hanging Judge died less than four months later of a kidney disease.

These days the two historic pubs attract a steady stream of tourists...as well as a host of local regulars ready to chat with visitors about their infamous one-time judge, and in some cases, supposed connections their families had with his victims.

The Town of Ramsgate is the older of the two taverns, dating back to the 1460s when it was called the Wars of the Roses.

It was renamed the Red Cow in 1533 after what these days would most certainly be seen as politically-incorrect: coincidentally at the time, the barmaid was an ill-tempered shrew who sported a shock of red hair.

It's current name Town of Ramsgate refers to the fishermen from Ramsgate in eastern Kent who used to offload their catch at Wapping rather than pay the hefty taxes for landing their catch nearer London's Billingsgate market.

Today at the Town of Ramsgate pub, and the nearby Prospect of Whitby, you can get a traditional pub lunch of fish and chips... or equally-traditional bangers and mash.

Or just settle for a cold pint... as the Hanging Judge would do, enjoying one in each of them.

……………                

 

[] HANGING Judge Jeffreys sentences another poor soul to the gallows – a contemporary painting.


[] ALTHOUGH Execution Dock has long gone, this historic gibbet with its cruelly shortened rope has been preserved as part of Wapping's dark history.

[] THE Prospect of Whitby pub today – a favourite watering hole of the Hanging Judge.


[] THE Town of Ramsgate pub today: another of Judge Jeffreys' favourites, it dates back to the 1460s.

 

March 07, 2011

MORE THAN MYSTERY IN THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE


David Ellis 

IT would be a far braver soul than this writer to challenge anything written about Thailand by fellow scribbler Glyn May: after forty-five years of going there he gave up counting how many times after his 160th visit…

So when he started telling us a new yarn of intrigue involving the mysterious Golden Triangle, we invited him put it in writing. Here's what he wrote for us:
 
When summer arrives in Thailand's Golden Triangle, the sun turns an eerie blood red as rice farmers burn the residue from their recently-harvested crops, leaving a surreal haze drifting across this ever-mysterious pocket of Southeast Asia where illicit opium poppy crops once-flourished at the convergence of Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos.  
 
Chiang Saen, the sleepy little three-border village near Chiang Rai's international airport, is dubbed Gateway to the Golden Triangle, and recently  became the focus of new and decidedly odd circumstances.
 
In a strange flurry of unrelated activity, there gathered together a diverse cast of characters and props right out of a James Bond movie – playboys, glamorous women, multi-millionaires, cocktail parties, private jets, mysterious Chinese high-rollers... and elephants.
 
Scene One opens a few minutes from Chiang Saen at the grand five-star Anantara Golden Triangle Resort and Spa sprawling across 65ha of forest lands and manicured gardens.
 
Set within the Anantara's grounds is its Elephant Camp, home to 31 of these beasts rescued from a grim existence forcefully-performing half-starved on the streets of Thai cities.
 
As we approach the Camp on this grey morning, an unmistakably educated English voice booms from loudspeakers, shattering the quiet and scattering the jungle birds for kilometres around….             

"…the pace is truly frantic …..there's a mid-field skirmish, the ball is moving fast towards the goal… a mighty swing…Oh, my goodness, they've missed again!!".
 
We emerge into a clearing where a game of elephant polo is in progress and Peter Prentice, the frenzied commentator and one of the world's best players, is in full flight.
 
But while the game can at times be as speedy as watching grass grow, the associated social scene involving Champagne, gala dinners, dancing and romance, are other matters altogether.
 
For the aficionados of this sport of the very rich and moderately famous – and the 40 players and their entourages from 15 countries here for the Annual King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament – there is a true adrenalin rush.
 
The King's Cup is a spin-off of the Nepal-based World Elephant Polo Association, and has raised more than US$300,000 for the protection and support of Thailand's embattled elephants, of which only about 5000 survive from a population of 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century.

This year's Tenth Anniversary Thailand King's Cup will be held in the seaside town of Hua Hin south of Bangkok from September 5th to 11th, with teams comprising three elephants a-side carrying a mahout and a player swinging a huge mallet, and lumbering after a tiny polo ball on a field 100m by 60m. We're assured it's worth putting in the diary…
 
Scene Two: Meanwhile, in the midst of this comparatively frivolous activity, local Thais in Chiang Saen are trying to come to grips with a huge new, garish casino that has descended upon their doorstep just a few hundred metres across the Mekong River in tiny Bokeo, one of the most remote rural provinces in the bordering socialist republic of communist Laos.
 
The Chinese company Dok Ngeokham has a lease of the prime Lao-Mekong riverfront land on which the casino and an associated five-star hotel complex sit, and has an extraordinary cash hoard of US86 million to spend on a golf course and trade centre – which reflects a quaint communistic attitude towards capitalism.
 
As each night falls and this bizarre gambling den bursts into a million-watts of light, Thailand's bewildered Chiang Saen locals indulge in their favourite new sport: whispering about men in black, of beautiful women on their arms, of private jets landing in the middle of the night at Chiang Rai Airport, and of ominous new happenings in the crop-fields of Laos…
 
For now, as the tight-lipped casino operators are publicity-shy, this is a story that for us will have to wait for a Laotian visa, a pocket-full of gambling chips, and a suitable disguise.

And hopefully a beautiful woman….
 
………………………                                                                                    
 
PHOTO CAPTIONS:

 

[] ELEPHANT polo in the Golden Triangle can be as speedy as watching grass grow.

[] ELEPHANT polo commentator extraordinaire, Peter Prentice

[] CENTRE of the Golden Triangle: sign in Myanmar pointing to Thailand one  way, Laos the other.

[] MYSTERY awaits on the other side of this peaceful river scene at Chiang Saen


(Photos Glyn May)

 

Struth! Fully Loaded Iraqi Bike Adventure


STRUTH !   

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says a former UK soldier has put together a holiday that takes "adventure tourism" to new heights: its by motorbike through the rugged north of Iraq.

Steve Askin has the backing of a major British adventure-travel company, and has arranged for Iraqi police officers to accompany the riders. He's also put together his own staff of "local fixers" who'll be armed with AK47s, M4s and Glock pistols to ride ahead of the motorbike convoy to secure the route to be travelled through, and to keep guard over camp-tents at night.

The police and guards will also take care of such annoyances as not only bandits, but deadly snakes and scorpions that thrive in the region – although Askin admits there's nothing much they can do about the weather: daytime temperatures reach 40-degrees under cloudless skies.

Steve Askin has been working as a security consultant in Iraq since leaving the British Army six years ago and says his holidaying bikers will cover some 1500km in six days.

"People will say I'm crazy, but I've lived in this country for years and can't wait to show other foreigners just how beautiful it is", he says. "Biking through the mountains and villages is truly breathtaking. I can't think of anywhere else in the world that can top it".

And as well as the rugged terrain, extreme temperatures, bandits, snakes and scorpions, participants will end each day with a test section in which Steve Askin says "we'll leave the hard behind and take on the extra hard."

The trip is limited to ten bikers and will begin and end in Erbil. It will cost £3000 (about $4800) and can be booked through www.trailridinguk.com

March 01, 2011

Kingdom of the Polar Bear



Adventure cruiser, Roderick Eime, heads north in search of the mighty polar bear – and almost loses count.

We cautiously exit the Zodiac on the pebbly beach. Ten at a time, we land on the beach, our guides already well ahead of us, scouting for sightings of the worlds largest terrestrial carnivore.

Two hundred miles north of the tip of Norway is the island of Spitsbergen, one of just a handful of the remaining polar bear hotspots in the world. With a world population of this majestic mammal possibly as low as 20,000, there is a real urgency among adventure travellers to see this creature in its native habitat. With climate change and poaching, some biologists suggest children being born today will not have this special privilege.

Clutching loaded rifles, our guides are 100 metres ahead of us making sure we don't surprise any unseen or sleeping beasts.

Regulations require guides to carry loaded rifles and flare guns, but in over a decade of operation, Aurora's expedition staff have only ever fired two warning shots; a testament to good planning, careful observation and prompt action.

"If we sight a bear while we're on land, our first call is to get everyone back on the Zodiacs while the guides monitor the animal," says Sue Werner, deputy expedition leader (EL) and daughter of Aurora co-founder, Margaret Werner, "if a curious animal approaches within 200 metres or so we fire a flare with a loud bang, but of course we never land if a bear is sighted beforehand."

At 78 degrees N, we are firmly in the realm of the mighty polar bear, and our expedition, Aurora's Circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, is an outstanding success with almost twenty sightings including three mother bears and cubs feeding on the last morsels of a whale carcass.

The wildlife catalogue extends to Arctic fox, walrus, reindeer, seals and a myriad seabirds wheeling and squealing overhead. On one occasion, we entertain several thousand tiny guillemots gathered around us with whistles. It's hilarious when the entire throng whistles back on cue. Humpback, minke, fin and even blue whales are regularly sighted in these frigid waters.

Spitsbergen (translated from Dutch for 'sharp peaks') is the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, 1800 kilometres north across the Barents Sea from Norway. At the dizzying latitude of 80 degrees Svalbard, by rights, should be encased in ice but the warm Gulf Stream currents create an unusually temperate climate and summer air temperatures as high as 10 degrees are possible. The landscape is bleak and rocky and characterised by vast glaciers, but embellished here and there with patches of rich green thanks to bird droppings beneath the towering cliffs. Foxes scamper about feeding on the many chicks that topple from the crowded ledges. Bears also occasionally wander in when slippery bearded or ringed seals are scarce on the ice.

Our vessel, the 1750 ton, 71m Polar Pioneer, may be at the smaller end of the world's growing expedition fleet, but she's a tough little customer. Although not an icebreaker in the strictest sense, she's sliced through light sheet ice beyond 81 degrees and bumped small bergs aside with ease. Built in Finland for Russia in 1982, she's comfortable, capable and an ideal vessel for the task.

There are numerous ship operators venturing into this far north wildlife wonderland, but few as well equipped and capable as Aurora's Polar Pioneer. Unlike some Antarctic oceans, the icy seas are not usually rough, so a vessel like this can capitalise on its small footprint and access every nook and cranny around the coast, slicing through thin ice when required. Larger ships impose higher demands on the patience of passengers, the environment and seldom offer such enriching enhancements as sea kayaking, extended hikes, camping or even scuba diving under the ice!

Yet Spitsbergen is by no means the end or the beginning of Arctic adventure possibilities. Iceland and Greenland also offer greater scope to extend your northern experience with exciting volcanic action and Inuit encounters.

By the time we return to Longyearbyen for the busy turnaround day, we have ticked off all but a couple of species of rare whale including almost 20 polar bear sightings alone, some at less than 100m.

The terms 'life changing' and 'experiential' are all too often tossed about to describe mediocre vacations. The entrancing polar regions are where these voyages began and Spitsbergen is at the heart of it. I'd do it all again in a heartbeat.

See: Aurora Expeditions