September 21, 2009


david ellis

WE wonder if we're in some kind of a time-warp.

Snuggling up to our wharf in Borneo's jungle township of Sibu is an oddly-shaped little passenger ship with a circular bow and equally circular forward superstructure. She could, we think, be something straight out of a Kipling tale of Borneo's Raj, or Mark Twain's time on the Mississippi.

Behind us are chaotic old Chinese-style shop-houses. Rainbow-hued structures housing street-level caf├ęs whose plastic tables and chairs litter the pavement, stores that are out of yester-year with everything from food to hardware and clothing vomiting haphazardly across floors and pavements, a mechanical centre at which a half-dozen oil-stained men tinker with 2-stroke motor-cycle and chainsaw motors that erupt erratically into deafening convulsions of life.

And by contrast a snappy Ladies Beauty Salon proudly proclaiming "air-conditioned facilities," and Borneo's biggest produce market.

It is July 2009, but it could just as well be any July in the middle of the last century here in south-western Borneo or in old Malacca or Penang or Phuket.

So we're not surprised to learn than we're amongst colourful little Sibu's just-2000 overseas visitors annually.

We join some fifty other Australian, British and American adventurers and go aboard our quaint-looking craft. But any idea that we are stepping into the hardships of travel of a colonial past are quickly dispelled: this is a brand-new, purpose-built river-boat crafted as meticulously as possible in the style of the ships of the old Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that once chunked the rivers here and "from Rangoon to Mandalay..."

And while the exterior design is yester-year, today's Orient Pandaw – as our ship is named – offers a luxury that Britain's 19th century Raj could only dream of.

Our air-conditioned and ensuited stateroom has a picture window, and we've our own little deck space immediately outside our door to further embace kaleidoscopic views and river breezes.

And Orient Pandaw also has a vast upper-deck viewing area furnished with Raj wicker lounge chairs and tables amid myriad potted plants and palms and under shade cloths… and a bar that dispenses no-charge local beers, spirits and soft drinks (premium imported beers and spirits and wines are available at optional cost.)

And there's a dining room that offers both Asian and Western fare, fusion dishes of the two, fresh local tropical fruits and vegetables, and home-made cakes, cookies and other treats for Orient Pandaw's 56-guests.

Our ship is the newest in a fleet of a half-dozen such teak and brass river-boats opening-up the rivers of Vietnam, Cambodia, Burmah, India and Borneo to tourists.

Scottish entrepreneur and South-east Asian historian, Paul Strachan was fascinated with the story of the original Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that was founded in the 1860s – and which burned all 650 of its ships to the waterline so Japan could not use them to move troops and supplies when it invaded Burma in 1942.

He discovered the remains of one, researched original plans and started building look-alike vessels, but with today's mod-cons (although he eschews in-stateroom phones, mini-bars and TVs.) He's now got a half dozen, with Orient Pandaw the latest and plying Borneo's Rajang River that's the longest in Malaysia.

Our July cruise is the first such in 67 years, and with her shallow draft, where there are no wharves, Orient Pandaw simply nudges up to riverbanks, beaches or jungle clearings and guests gangplank it ashore.

Onboard experts and local guides lead us through villages in which we are as much the centre of interest as these rarely-visited gems are of interest to us. We explore remote "heart of Borneo" forts of the 19th century British Rajahs Brooke, fruit and vegetable farms, sago-making factories, village schools where the kids sing us songs and show us their favourite games, and go on jungle walks.

And visit a traditional Iban longhouse in which 700 people live under one roof – each family's "apartment" fronting a communal verandah that appears to stretch into the mountain mist's infinity.

And to remind us that this was once headhunter country, the longhouse chief proudly shows us a basket of human skulls, trophies of conquests past.

Travel agents have cruise packages that include Malaysia Airlines flights and pre- and post-cruise Borneo and Malaysia stays; or phone Pandaw Cruises on (02) 8080 5622 or log onto


[] WALK the plank: Orient Pandaw can nudge up to any shore for guests to gangplank it ashore.

[] AN Iban jungle longhouse: 700 people live under one roof and share a communal verandah that "stretches into the mountain mist's infinity."

[] HEAD count. A Pandaw guest checks out the longhouse's collection of skulls from battles past.

[] RAJAH Brooke's timber-built Fort Emma is 150 years old.

Photos: David Ellis

September 16, 2009

Santa Monica Pier Centennial

Recognisable through its cameo appearance in countless films and TV shows, in September 2009 the Santa Monica Pier celebrates its first century as one of California’s most iconic attractions.

Back in 1909, when the Pier was first built, no one could have imagined that the Pier would survive to greet its 100th birthday. It certainly has had more than ‘nine’ lives. The Pier has stubbornly remained a constant, weathering the ferocious power of storms unleashed by Mother Nature, ravages of change and progress and economic hardships - but it survived.

To the delight of national and international tourists, enthusiasm for the Pleasure Pier has never abated. A pivotal feature of everyday city life, every year the Santa Monica Pier attracts millions of annual visitors.

Ben Franz-Knight, executive director of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Company said, “The Pier today remains an icon – a single remnant of history on a coast that was once peppered with piers. It offers nostalgia for yesteryear, yet remains a commanding presence on the national landscape and a vibrant entertainment center that embraces the culture of today. It deserves the birthday celebration of a century.”

The Pier’s history is storied. First came the Hippodrome in 1916, a mixture of Byzantine, Moorish and California architecture, fascinating onlookers with its inside carousel of a circling menagerie of wooden animals. Among the last of its kind, the Hippodrome was adopted into the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

And eight years later, in 1924, the La Monica Ballroom opened – a vast and ornate palatial-like structure, floating magically above the sea on the Santa Monica Pier built with a footprint of more than 40 thousand square feet – the largest ballroom in the world – in an era when ballroom dancing had reached a fevered pitch. The ballroom was also the site of the famous Dance Marathons in the 1930s that offered cash prizes during the brutal early 1930s, a ray of hope for out of work people.

The Pier was, and is today, a magnet for Hollywood. A staple in a number of popular Hollywood pictures including Funny Girl (1968), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), The Sting (1973), Forrest Gump (1994) and The Majestic (2001). Celebrity sightings run the gamut from Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus to US Congressman Kucinich and Hall of Fame basketball player Wilt Chamberlain.

About the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation
The Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation (SMPRC), established in 1983, is a non-profit, public benefit corporation made up of business and community leaders who represent the full range of community interests. It was created by the Santa Monica City Council to preserve and enhance the pleasure pier experience for people of all ages and for future generations and is funded by the City of Santa Monica. For more information, visit,

For more information visit

September 12, 2009


david ellis

PASSENGERS were never led to believe that there was much in common between the official railway timetable and the actual time that the new-fangled mixed passenger/goods train from Adelaide would arrive in Stuart, a couple of days away in the Northern Territory.

So much so that on one occasion in the 1930s when it finally chugged into Stuart a fortnight behind schedule, rather than the driver, fireman, cook and guard being condemned as bungling public servants, they were actually lauded as heroes of the pioneering Outback.

Because when their train had become trapped by floods in the middle of nowhere, to feed their 90-odd hungry passengers, they'd hunted down, shot and butchered wild goats.

The narrow-gauge rail line from Adelaide to Stuart – that was later re-named Alice Springs – was begun in 1878, and somewhat like those timetables, was not finally completed until 1929, some fifty-one years later.

Prior to the arrival of that first service, the train for many years terminated at Port Augusta, and from there passengers continued on by road to Stuart.

And because the freight was transferred to camel trains operated by Afghan cameliers, on seeing dust in the distance, Outback property owners would telegraph word to others further north that "the 'Ghans are coming."

So there was little option but to dub the new train, The Ghan.

The first Ghan puffed into Stuart on May 1 1929 two days after leaving Adelaide – officially on schedule because it had arrived the day it had been expected, although somewhat after the scheduled hour.

And it wasn't long before The Ghan struck regular hiccups.

The steel rail lines often buckled so badly in daytime 40-degree-plus heat that trains would be held up for hours until the lines cooled at night, and settled back so that journeys could continue.

And drivers would report seeing rails simply parting before their eyes: voracious termites could chew through a hardwood sleeper in just days, so passengers would pitch-in with the crew to carry out emergency track repairs to get The Ghan to either Adelaide or The Alice.

And kangaroos and emus – for some inexplicable reason – would gather on the line at night to be mown-down in the darkness in their scores, causing more delays.

One jokester even quipped that The Ghan would often arrive at Alice Springs with more kangaroo fur and emu feathers plastered over the front of the engine than the Australian coat-of-arms.

Then there was that day in the 1930s when the usually dry Finke River erupted in flood, trapping The Ghan between the raging river before it, and the countryside going underwater behind it.

After more than a week, the stranded train ran out of fresh food so the driver shot wild goats: for the next five days the 90 passengers and crew sat in the train in a desert that had become a lake, dining on goat and tea for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

When the Ghan finally got into Alice Springs two weeks behind schedule, a journalist of the day noted: "Timetables are a matter more of hope than fact… not only is the hour of arrival indefinite, but also the day.

The government-operated Ghan was sold after nearly 70 years to a private company, Great Southern Railways and in February 2004 a train made the first complete journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs and on to Darwin – over 125 years after being first mooted, and at an estimated cost over the years of $1.3-billion.

The 2,979km journey takes 48 hours and is considered one of the world's great train trips, linking Australia's southern coast with its north; and today's "new" line from Adelaide to Alice Springs runs about 160km west of the original, that was closed in 1980 due to regular flooding.

Interestingly that original line followed the route of the Overland Telegraph, that in turn had followed the footsteps of explorer John McDouall Stuart during his historic crossing of Australia from south to north in 1862.

Fares Adelaide to Darwin (or v-v) start from $730 for a Daynighter Seat (online bookings only,) $1340pp twin-share Red Sleeper Cabin and from $1973pp for Gold Sleeper Cabin, with substantial CSHC/pensioners discounts available. For full details including meal inclusions see travel agents or phone 1300 657 045.


[] THE kilometre long Ghan weaves its way through the great Australian Outback

[] FIRST Class sleeper aboard The Ghan

[] NO kidding – there's no wild goat on today's menus on The Ghan

[] RUINS from the train window of the ill-fated settlement of Farina in South Australia's far north   


Support Traveloscopy - Support Responsible Travel.

Traveloscopy is a freelance journalism enterprise supporting the tourism and travel industries. We aim to encourage people to travel thoughtfully and responsibly and also support sustainable initiatives within the travel sector. You can help us cover our operating costs, even if in just a small way.

Last 30 Days' Most Popular Posts