June 23, 2014

Happy Sailing Port Vila

David Ellis

ONE of the more-popular outings on a visit to Vanuatu's Port Vila is a day on, and in, the briny with the historic 23m ketch Coongoola, revelling in sun, sand, coral reef snorkelling, fish feeding, a visit to a turtle hatchery and a cracker-jack barbecue on a beach in the historic harbour where the Americans readied themselves for 1942's Battle of the Coral Sea.

That day at Hapi Tok Beach (local pidgin from Happy Talk in the musical South Pacific,) long evokes grand memories for the thousands who've sailed, sunned and played there over the years.

And not the least of those memories is the food: morning tea with French buns and homemade cumquat marmalade on the way out from Coongoola's mooring 40-minutes by private mini-bus from Vila, fresh tropical-fruit platters for afternoon tea on the way back, and a mountainous beach barbecue in-between with prime tender steaks, kumala (sweet potato) curry, local garden-produce side dishes, and crunchy French-style mini-baguettes. Trés bien!

There's also an over-size ice-box with enough beer and soft-drinks to keep the most enthusiastically-thirsty well-slaked under a tropic sun, with an honesty box for payment.

We've indulged many a happy outing ourselves on Coongoola over the years, and were saddened to learn just recently of the death last September of one of the ketch's original crew, a legendary character who helped put she and Australia on the world sailing map some 66 years ago.

Coongoola had been built in 1948 for a Queensland businessman, G.H. (Bert) Griffiths who owned Toowoomba's Southern Cross Foundry, famous across rural Australia for its diesel engines and windmill-driven water-pumps; sensing potentially lucrative markets in Southern Africa, GH (as he was best known) had had Coongoola built to take examples of his products across there to test those markets.

On September 24 1949 Coongoola set sail from Brisbane with GH, his wife, their two teenage children, a professional skipper, and amongst the crew a young engineer from his foundry.

That engineer was Doug Owens, who stayed with GH's company for the remaining near-40 years of his working life, and passed away on September 24 last year – extraordinarily 64 years to the very day after setting out from Brisbane on that historic Coongoola maiden voyage.

Doug's dad was a Tasmanian and his mum came from the one of Australia's great pioneering grazing families, the Barden's who in the late 1800s owned vast tracts of now-suburbia, but then cattle-country stretching from Tempe near what was to become Sydney's Mascot Airport, to the-now suburb of (appropriately) Barden Ridge 30km south.

They later moved to Toowoomba where Doug was born in 1926, winning himself an engineering cadetship with GH Griffiths and going on to later spear-head new-design Southern Cross diesel motors and windmills.

Their 30,000km trip to Africa was by way of Darwin, Timor, Bali, Jakarta, Singapore, Penang, Colombo, the Maldives, Seychelles, Mombasa, Zanzibar and Durban, and back via Mauritius, Fremantle, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney to Brisbane. Later Doug also sailed a round-world voyage with the Griffiths, keeping Coongoola ticking over as engineer and radio officer. And on that 15-months trip (1952-1954) he re-united in London with a past girlfriend, Shirley, marrying her in Australia in 1954 and the two sharing their lives for the next 59 years, including having three sons, Richard, Stephen and Geoffrey.

Doug proved an indispensable right-hand man to GH, both on Coongoola which GH finally sold in the late 1950s, in his foundry, and later as General Manager of GH's other venture, ClayWare Bricks – overseeing production, he reckoned, of 130 million bricks before retiring in 1986.

And to the end in September last year, he recalled fondest memories of his almost Boys' Own adventures aboard Coongoola… including on the way to Southern Africa nearly being rolled over in a cyclone off Mozambique, and on their way home tossed from wave-top to wave-top by another.

Doug died in his sleep aged 87 – no doubt happy in his mind that his beloved Coongoola continues to sail on today in Vanuatu. He is survived by Shirley, their three sons and a granddaughter, Skie.

A day on Coongoola costs around $120 including hotel pick-up/return, activities, snorkelling equipment, lunch and morning and afternoon teas. Drinks extra; visit www.southpacdivecruise.com.vu

NEXT WEEK: Coongoola – colourful life of a sailing legend…



[] SIXTY-SIX years on, Coongoola still makes a spectacular sight today sailing to
   picturesque  Hapi Tok Beach outside Vanuatu's Port Vila. (South Pacific Cruise and Dive)
[] BEFORE that famous first big trip to Africa in 1949/50: young engineer and radio
   officer, Doug Owen (L,) owner GH (Bert) Griffiths, skipper Keith Radcliffe, Mrs Peggy
   Griffiths, crewman Tim Lees, daughter Elizabeth and son Barry Griffiths, crewman
   Frank McCarthy. (Owen family album)
[] COONGOOLA back home in Queensland after her Africa adventure. (Owen family
[] HAPI TOK BEACH where Coongoola cruises to today for revelling in sun, sand, reef
   snorkelling and fish feeding. (South Pacific Cruise and Dive)  
[] DOUG Owen in the latter part of his long career with GH Griffiths company. (Owen
   Family album)

Struth! Big Bangers Theory in Bowral


IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says they take their snags seriously in the Southern Highlands of NSW, with an expected 300-plus aficionados putting their home-creations to the judges in this year's third annual Bowral Tulip Time Battle of the Bangers competition.


Weekly cook-offs have already started among patrons of seven hotels across the Highlands, with the winners of these taking part on October 6 in the Grand Final Battle at the historic Surveyor General Inn at Berrima – where a smaller Battle of the Bangers had been an annual tradition for five years before publican, Ross Durney threw it open to "outsiders" in 2012.


And he found instant enthusiasm for his idea: Bowral's Tulip Time Festival listed it as an "official event," and local snag enthusiasts burnt the midnight oil creating meaty concoctions they had their butchers pack into sausage skins for the seventeen weekly heats at each of the seven competing hotels, and the ultimate Grand Final.


This year Queensland brewery, Lion Nathan are again donating $5500 worth of prizes – a 95L ice box and a case of their XXXX Gold worth $500 for each competing hotel's  winning finalist, and for the Final Battle winner a Trophy and  $2000 Travel Voucher.


Last year's ultimate winner was Sutton Forest Inn patron, Mick Hewson with his creative lamb, mint and rosemary snag.





[] SHARING a banger: 'Irish Mick' Ritchie and Paul 'Dexter' Redden take their

   tasting seriously at the Surveyor General Inn, Berrima.

[] VISITORS taste the spoils of a Battle of the Bangers heat at the Sutton Forest Inn.


(Photos: Destination Southern Highlands)

June 17, 2014

Kaiser's Kiel Canal


David Ellis

GERMANY'S Kaiser Wilhelm II reckoned his official opening in 1895 of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Kanal across the Jutland Peninsula and connecting the North Sea with the Baltic Sea, would be pretty good reason to celebrate.

After all, the dream of just such a canal that would save a journey of over 450km in often storm-tossed seas around Denmark, had been pondered-over since as early as the 16th century. With it now becoming a reality, here was every reason for celebrations that would long remember his involvement in such a grand scheme.

A canal of sorts had actually been created in 1784 when the area now known as Germany's Schleswig-Holstein was ruled jointly by Denmark and Norway, but it simply joined up sections of the Eider River via a series of cuttings over a rambling 175km between the two seas.

And with limited depth and width, this canal was of use only to small vessels under 300 tonnes, so when in 1864 Prussia (later the German Empire) won Schleswig-Holstein as a spoil of the Second Schleswig War, thought was finally directed towards a real canal linking the two seas.

Hamburg shipowner and businessman, Hermann Dahlstrom put forth the first concrete plans and possible route, designing it not only for commercial shipping traffic, but for the German Navy that had made it known it wanted quick access between its bases in the Baltic and North Seas, and without that lengthy and potentially dangerous 450km traipse around Denmark.

Finally in 1887 work began in the south on a route from Brunsbuttel on the North Sea, to Holtenau at Kiel on the Baltic in the north – an extraordinary task that would take 8,900 workers eight years to remove 100-million cubic metres of earth, and to then line the whole 98kms with concrete.

Finally on the morning of June 20 1895, 119 years ago this month, the German Imperial Yacht Hohenzollern with the Kaiser and an official party aboard entered the lock at Brunsbuttel. The Kaiser cut a ribbon to declare that end of the canal officially opened, then lead a 24-ship convoy of mostly naval vessels from Germany and fourteen other nations the 98km to Holtenau, with Champers and Schnapps a-plenty for their 8-hour journey.

And in the lock at Holtenau next day, the Kaiser laid the final stone commemorating the official opening of the canal, which he named the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Kanal, not after himself, but after Germany's Kaiser I. Grandstands of-near football stadium proportions were built for the thousands of official guests from Germany and neighbouring countries invited to the ceremony, with hundreds of them being further invited to two more days of partying to follow…

Between 1907 and 1914 Wilhelm had the canal widened to 102.5m to allow Germany's massive Dreadnought class battleships to pass quickly through from their base in the Baltic to the North Sea.

It was an ominous sign, and as we now know, the Kaiser went on to become possibly the most instrumental individual leading to the outbreak of WWI, while the Canal – today known simply as the Kiel Canal – is the busiest man-made waterway in the world, with an average 35,000 cargo, passenger, naval and pleasure vessels passing along it annually.

And every year the 13km-long Canal Cup rowing race, considered the world's toughest rowing event, is held on the canal at Rendsburg, the only town of any size along its route – tough not just because of its 13km length, but because race competitors have to avoid shipping traffic and cross-canal ferries, neither of which give ground for the event, and to plough through their dangerous wash.

Over 100,000 spectators line the canal for the race, which has included teams from Australia at least twice; this year's 14th annual race will be held as part of a 3-day regatta at Rendsburg from September 12 to 14.

Although eleven bridges that span the canal limit the height of vessels, a number of cruise lines still have medium-size ships use the waterway regularly – and this year, SeaDream Yacht Club will join them as part of the company's first-ever sailing from the UK, when its boutique 112-passenger SeaDream I journeys from Dover to Denmark, Sweden, Estonia and 2-nights in St Petersburg, and including transiting the Kiel Canal twice. Details www.seadream.com



[] PARADE of ships on Germany's Kiel Canal – 35,000 vessels transit this busiest  man-made waterway in the world annually. (WikiTravel)

[] OFFICIAL opening of the Canal in June 1895, grandstands were built for the thousands of official visitors. (Wikimedia)

[] A CRUISE ship on the canal gives the appearance of gliding through the countryside. (Wikimedia)

[] ONE ship enters as another leaves the lock at Kiel. (HMS Providores)

[] PICTURESQUE community on the banks of the canal under snow in Winter. (Robert Cutts)

June 10, 2014

Found: The Holy Grail - or is it?



David Ellis


BIZARRE is possibly the kindest way of describing many of the claims to the resting place of the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus supposedly drank from at the Last Supper, and the hunt for which has confounded man virtually ever since.


For far more mind-occupying than all the imaginings of Hollywood, Monty Python and Indiana Jones, have been the diversity of locations of these claims.


Europe alone has some two hundred claimed "Holy Grails" in numerous shapes and sizes, and other claimants of its whereabouts will assure you that it's displayed or hidden in places as far distant as Canada's Nova Scotia, parts of England, the little town of Accokeek in Maryland USA, Scotland, and in the Middle East.


And for good measure, buried for safe keeping in the sewers of Jerusalem – even, according to one group, locked-up in Fort Knox.


But of all of these claims, long has a church in Valencia in Spain been the strongest tip for having the genuine thing, the Basilica of the Assumption of our Lady of Valencia (also known simply as Valencia Cathedral) drawing tens of thousands of the faithful, as well as simply-inquisitive tourists, each year to lay eyes on the sacred chalice in its Holy Grail Chapel.


And now two Spanish historians claim that while Spain is home to the 2000-year old cup, it is not in the Basilica in Valencia – but in a cathedral in the smaller city of Leon in the country's north-west.


And they say scientific dating of Leon's supposed Holy Grail puts it at having been made between 200BC and 100 AD, and that they have other "positive" evidence to its authenticity.


Valencians, however, won't buy it, and say they have equally scientific proof that their Holy Grail dates from the 1st century, and point out that St Peter had taken the revered cup to Rome after the Last Supper, and that it had been kept there by successive Popes over several hundred years.


And then in 713AD it had been taken to the Pyrenees, and after that been given to the King of Aragon in Spain's north-east in 1399.


Upon the king's death in 1410, it was then given to the Royal Family in Barcelona, and fourteen years later, the Valencians say, to the Valencia Palace, which in turn had donated it to their Cathedral in 1437.


For the next several centuries it was kept and venerated at the Cathedral, but during Spain's Independence War from 1809 to 1813 was regularly moved around the countryside to save it falling into the hands of Napoleonic invaders.


And finally in 1916 it was permanently displayed in Valencia Cathedral's Chapter House that was re-named the Holy Chalice Chapel for the occasion.


In November 1982 Pope John Paul II celebrated the Eucharist with the Holy Chalice in the Valencia Cathedral, and Pope Benedict XVI did likewise in July 2006.


And while many who see Valencia's claimed Holy Grail for the first time are initially surprised at its bejewelled ornateness, Cathedral staff are quick to point out that "the relic" as they refer to it, is purely the upper part only – a simple bowl-shaped cup of finely polished, dark brown agate.


The exquisitely engraved golden handles and stem, and the jewel-encrusted alabaster base were added later, cathedral staff say, probably in the Medieval period.


And while all this is seen by many as reason enough to believe Valencia Cathedral truly is home to the Holy Grail, Spanish historians Margarita Torres and Jose Manuel Ortega del Rio have now published a book saying they're convinced that the Holy Grail is in fact in Leon's San Isidoro Basilica, where for centuries it'd been mistakenly thought to have been the christening goblet of the Infanta Dona Urraca – daughter of Fernando I who ruled from 1037 to 1065.


Made of agate, gold and onyx studded with precious stones, the researchers say they identified it from Egyptian parchments they found at a Cairo university during three years of investigations, and which described the cup Jesus had drunk from at the Last Supper as missing a specific small fragment – exactly as does the Leon Cathedral cup.


As the arguments begin, where are Monty Python and Indiana Jones when you need them most?





[] VALENCIA Cathedral, supposed home of the Holy Grail. (Kent Martens)

[] IS this the "real" Holy Grail in Valencia Cathedral? (Valencia Tourism)

[] LEON's San Isidoro Cathedral. (Wikimedia)

[] AND  it's now-claimed Holy Grail. (Catholic News Spain)

[] THE rugged Pyrenees Mountains in which the Holy Grail was supposedly hidden for safe-keeping over the centuries. (Wikimedia)

[] AND Fort Knox in the USA where some say the "real" Holy Grail is really in the safest of hands. (FlickRiver)


Struth! Faking it in First Class

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says a Chinese man who recently made international headlines by dining free in an airline's First Class Lounge for almost a year, may not be the trail-blazer he's been made out to be – it seems he was beaten to the ruse by some devious young Aussie travel agents years ago.

The un-named Chinese man bought a fully-refundable First Class ticket with China Eastern Airlines in the city of Xi'an early last year, and immediately used it enjoy a slap-up meal pre-flight in the airline's Domestic VIP Lounge – after which he phoned the airline, re-scheduled his flight to the next day and went home.

That next day he returned to the airport, ate, drank, changed his flight to yet the next day again, and once more went home… doing the same thing for an amazing 300 consecutive days until the airline realised just recently what he was up to.

And when confronted, he 'fessed up, pointed out that as his ticket was fully-refundable, and said he wanted his money back – and got it.

But writing in Australasian travel industry newsletter, eGlobalTravelMedia, Australian travel journalist Peter Needham says that many years ago when paper tickets were still in use here, some enterprising young travel agents in a Sydney Eastern Suburbs agency would regularly write themselves a First Class ticket, then duck out to Sydney's Mascot Airport where they'd simply show their paper ticket and be allowed into the airline's First Class Domestic Lounge.

There they'd tell staff "they were early and would check-in later," and enjoy the First Class hospitality for as long as they wished.  As no bookings had actually been made, at the end of their sessions they'd tear up their "tickets" and go home… and as one (now somewhat highly revered in the travel industry) boasted to Needham this week, "you certainly got the best grog in that First Class Lounge."

June 09, 2014

Blow in to world's windiest pub



David Ellis


THERE'S probably little unusual about an English country publican, or one anywhere else for that matter, recounting tales of customers crawling through his doorway on hands and knees.


What does make it unusual is those customers being on their hands and knees crawling into his pub – and at opening, not closing time.


But such is what's been known to occur at the Tan Hill Inn at Swaledale on the Yorkshire Dales, a bleak, desolate place where the nearest neighbours are 7km away, the closest town twice that, it rains almost daily, temperatures can drop to -20C in winter – and the ferocious winds have been known to tear doors off hapless visitor's cars when not opened with due caution.


And those customers who've crawled through the pub door have done so for fear of themselves being blown away between car and bar. (Just four years ago, 60 revellers celebrating New Year's Eve at the pub were trapped there for three days by the foulest of weather. How tough is that…?)


Little wonder Tan Hill has been described as the nation's most remote, bleak and isolated pub.


Now Neil Hanson has written amusingly about the pub in a book titled Inn at the Top – doing so on good authority after he and his wife managed this highest inn in England for several years, following Neil's retirement from a more-enviable post as editor of the UK's Good Beer Guide.


The Tan Hill Inn was built in the 17th century and a hundred years later used as a hostel for miners coal was found in the area, the pub/hostel wisely still retaining its Public Bar. When the coal ran out in the 1920s the miners left and their dozens of cottages around the Inn were demolished and removed, leaving Tan Hill isolated and remote once more to serve the small, scattered local community and occasional traveller.


In his book Neil Hanson recalls one regular named Faith, always his first customer of the day, who would get a lift to the pub in the back of the local postman's van. "There were no seats in the van, so Faith would lay on a pile of mail sacks as the van bounced along the rutted farm tracks… on reaching the Inn she would emerge, James Bond-style – shaken but not stirred – and order up 'a large whisky for the love of God.'


"After three or four of these in half-an-hour she would depart with a couple of bottles of Guinness and enough whisky to see her through to the next day."


During the 18th and 19th century the Tan Hill Inn was a venue for bare-knuckle boxing events, with bets taken on how long combatants would last until one of them was knocked down – which could take ten continuous minutes or more. And even earlier, in 1737, highwayman Dick Turpin holed-up there between other bouts – bailing up coaches.


Hanson also noted how at times the Inn often never actually closed: with the nearest police station 32km away, publicans soon got wind (no pun intended) when police were on their way to raid for breaches of the licencing hours. "It was a waste of time," he noted. "So to be seen to be doing their job, the police would let us know when they were coming – we were the only pub in England to be regularly 'raided by appointment."


Today the Inn enjoys a strong new customer base, despite the isolation and weather, from walkers along the famous Pennine Way, cyclists, motorists, even wedding parties, and those still few, scattered locals. And it also draws the inquisitive after The Observer newspaper in 2012 wrote of it as "eccentrically run, with something of a reputation for being the Fawlty Towers of north Yorkshire… the landlady, the kind-hearted but sharp-tongued Tracy Daly, has been called 'the rudest in Britain.'"


Tracy herself admits to being "perhaps a little Fawlty Towers at times," but says when she's behind the bar "I'm on stage… my staff and I would be mortified if we ever seriously offended someone."


Tan Hill Inn has seven guest rooms, a family-size flat and camping facilities. For details visit www.tanhillinn.co.uk  (And don't be surprised at some of the "regulars," including Muldoon the orphaned lamb who lives by the fireplace.)






[] TAN HILL INN – you won't get it much more remote than this. (Runrover.co.uk)

[] WINDS can rip the doors off cars: note this walker's wind-blown hair on a mild day. (Wikipedia)

[] LONG way from anywhere – these signs, in miles, show how isolated the Inn is.  (DriveTheDales.com)

[] WELCOMING bar on a wet and windy day. (Tan Hill Inn)

[] COLLAGE of accommodation at the Tan Hill Inn. (Tan Hill Inn)

[] A HARDY postman delivers the mail to the Inn back in 1936. (British Post Office magazine)


Struth! Dubai's getaway cars worth millions

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that in Dubai they've got a problem with abandoned cars – not clapped-out old heaps left abandoned in the streets, but sparkling luxury, big price-tag saloons, 4WDs and sports cars being dumped to clutter-up airport car parks.


Last year alone over 3000 luxury cars were driven to international airports in Dubai and other parts of the United Arab Emirates for the seemingly strangest of reasons: their expatriate owners were fleeing the country to avoid going to prison for being in debt.


And it was because under the UAE's Sharia law, being in debt is a criminal offence, so expatriates whose companies have perhaps gone belly-up, they've maybe missed a major regular payment without even realising it, had a cheque bounce (deliberately or unwittingly,) or they've defaulted on their car's monthly instalment, have simply fled the country to avoid doing time in the slammer.


Their luxury cars from a once-glitzy Middle East lifestyle, and now dumped at airports, are impounded, held for a reasonable time to see if their owners will maybe come back, and then auctioned – with pounds currently overflowing with orphaned Mercedes, Aston Martins, Porsches, BMWs, Range Rovers, Corvettes, Audis and the odd Maserati, Lamborghini and, would you believe, Rolls Royce.


There's even a Ferrari Enzo, one of the world's ten fastest road cars and of which only 399 were ever produced, and reportedly worth a cool $1.5m. 

June 08, 2014

Struth! New twist to public float

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says tourists marvel at a number of Indian "levitators" who spend their days seemingly suspended in mid-air with an arms resting languidly on top of a wooden stick on Rome's Via degli Annibaldi – while gullible passers-by happily toss Euros into a bowl in appreciation of such magic.

But Aussie travel writer, Malcolm Andrews who was amongst those pondering the mystery of one levitator recently, says he was deflated when his tour guide started happily chattering away as to how such mystery was achieved.

"They arrive before dawn with an associate," the guide bubbled on. "The levitator is covered with a large blanket which also covers a mat that in turn covers a solid steel plate. The wooden stick is, in fact, an incredibly strong steel shaft attached to the plate, with a cantilever hidden up the performer's arm – and with the levitator's robes concealing a lightweight seat also off the steel pole, and on which he sits under those robes.

"After they think they've collected enough Euros and American dollars for the day, the associate, who has been sitting in the background, comes forward, covers the levitator with the blanket again, they pull the whole thing apart and go home to count the day's takings."

June 06, 2014

Wreck and relic hunting in the Solomons

Trash and Treasure Pacific Style

by Roderick Eime

The vast South Pacific is an explorer's dream. Just ask Cook, Baudin, Bligh or Mendaña, the first European to sight the Solomon Islands in 1568.

My own Pacific initiation began in 1971 aboard P&O's SS Himalaya on a cruise to Noumea, Fiji and New Zealand. After an interlude of nearly 20 years, my Pacific explorations resumed and one of the consistent threads on these subsequent journeys has been to investigate the many WWII sites scattered throughout the region.

Lurid images like this plastic model kit box top,
spawned many a boy's fascination with military history. (Airfix)
Of course, the most rewarding and poignant locations are those where the fiercest battles took place. PNG, the Solomons, Borneo and Micronesia come quickly to mind. Sure, it's a bit of boy thing, most often germinated in childhood with dozens of Airfix plastic model kits of planes, ships and tanks. It's still a thrill to see these vehicles, albeit mostly rusty and derelict, in a jungle, junk yard or museum somewhere.

My most recent visit to the Solomons was the third in eight years and each time there have been new and exciting finds. This time it was an overlooked P-39 Airacobra and a Stuart tank on remote Arundel Island in New Georgia.

Munda aircraft wrecks

Hoping to solve the mystery of this P-39 found in the
jungle on Arundel (Kohinggo) Island - Photo: R Eime

The P-39, not yet positively identified, crashed very close to the tiny village of Nazareti on the southern coast. Locals, machetes flying, took me on trail through rough jungle and casava fields to the site. Items like machine guns and ammunition are long gone and some untidy salvaging has made a bit of a mess of what remains.

The villagers are all relatives of the chief they claim was the one who rescued the pilot after he bailed out. This I can't confirm yet as the only likely match from US records indicate the pilot is still MIA. Stay tuned. I hope to post updates here shortly.

The tank is easier to explain. It was knocked out during a US attack on Japanese positions on the northern coast in September 1943. Apparently, the crew escaped, but the tank has been abandoned here ever since still with all guns in place.

My guide, Tusker, from nearby Munda (where the Japanese built the current airfield, but quickly lost it to US forces) also shows me five 140mm naval guns installed at Enagai by the Japanese to defend the passage from seaborne attack.

Another local, Barney Paulsen, shows me his own collection neatly arrayed in his front yard. Shell casings, medicine bottles, an aircraft engine and helmets are mixed in with piles of sundry debris including hand grenades.

Barnet Paulsen can take visitors on tours of the
WWII sites around Munda. Seen here
with his own collection. (R Eime)
Barney pulls out his special box from which he produces the corroded remains of a Thompson sub-machine gun, magazine still in place.

"The police tell me I can keep it as long as I don't try and fix it up," says Barney cradling the inert weapon like a Chicago mobster.

The town is alive with all sorts of stories about who dumped what where and who made off with the leftovers. An American dump site is the source of most loot, but battlefield relics also turn up. Personal items like watches, badges and even dog tags - the well-known 'necklaces' worn by all US service personnel that identifies them ... in case.

The well-known and sad truth is that shortly after the war, scrap metal salvagers combed the entire Pacific theatre picking up pretty much everything of value including entire aircraft, trucks, tanks, guns and anything metal.

Scenes like this throughout the Pacific spawned waves of scrap metal collectors.
Most ended up in the furnaces and smelters. Today just one of these aircraft
would be worth a million dollars or more.

Famous tales like the massive dumping exercise at Vanuatu's so-called 'Million Dollar Point' morphed into legend. Much the same happened at sites in the Solomons, including Munda. Consequently, the items left to explore are those ignored, missed or overlooked by the salvagers.

Modern relic hunters like Dive Munda's Graeme Sanson, continue to find missing aircraft in the water.

"We've found a Japanese 'Nell' bomber and an Airacobra under the water," Graeme tells me, "We also located a  F4F Wildcat and are working with US authorities to identify the remains that were found inside the wreck. Currently we're looking for a US Avenger dive bomber. There are dozens more aircraft still missing just waiting to be found. Mysteries to be solved.”

Map of New Georgia (click to enlarge)

The search and research continues and is made considerably easier in recent times by the wealth of information now available on the web. Sites like Justin Taylan's Pacific Wrecks is a valuable resource for both researchers and browsers and through work by dedicated volunteers and professionals, has been responsible for the recovery and repatriation of the recovered remains of numerous MIA servicemen.

Lest we forget.

Fact File

  • For information about tours around Munda, contact Agnes Lodge
  • For information on travel to and around Solomon Islands, visit SIVB
  • Enormous resource of WWII history can be found at Pacific Wrecks
Staying at Munda and New Georgia:

Agnes Lodge, right on the waterfront at Munda and walking distance from the airport. Tours can be arranged from here.

Zipolo Habu Resort (above) is on Lola Island and a short speedboat ride from Munda. Quiet and relaxing. And great fishing too.

Dash-8 aircraft on the apron at Munda (MUA)

Solomon Airlines flies daily to Munda using a modern Dash-8 aircraft.

London's Secret Underground: The 'Mail Rail'



David Ellis


IT may be six years away, but train buffs are already beside themselves as they await the just-announced opportunity to ride part of a "secret section" of London's vast subterranean rail system, one that operated for 22 hours a day, seven days a week… yet in its 76 years' lifetime never carried a single passenger.


And while originally comprising some 10.5km of tracks in tunnels that in places ran almost parallel with those of London's famed Tube, it's going to take all those six years to re-open just 1km of track and to totally refurbish an original station and control room.


Literally a ghost-train, this line employed hundreds of people between 1927 and when it closed in 2003, and was built by the British Post Office to carry mail a deep 21m under London's CBD on driver-less trains that ran on narrow tracks just 610mm (2ft) wide, and inside tunnels a mere 2.7m in diameter.


Dubbed the "Secret Tube" and "Mail Rail," at its peak it had eight subterranean stations that included two huge mail sorting centres, and a fleet of remote-controlled mini electric locos that could reach an amazing 64kmh as they hauled 4-billion letters, packages and parcels a year in little wagons to those stations for delivery across London's CBD, and to other centres for distribution UK- and world-wide.


Conceived to run mail faster than land transport from Paddington in London's west to Whitechapel in its east, plus a half dozen points in-between, work started in 1915 with the line being laid in pre-formed iron "rings" that were lowered down vast vertical shafts and riveted together in tunnels dug through the clay those 21m underground.


But with WWI labour and materials shortages, work was soon suspended – and with the fear of German Zeppelin air-raids, the already-built tunnels were used as safe-keeping for the treasures of the British Museum.


Construction resumed on the line in 1924 and the London Post Office Railway finally opened in time for the delivery of Christmas parcels in December 1927, and letters a few weeks later; thirty-one years on, in 1958, an additional line diverted out to Rathbone Place.


But in 2003 the Post Office deemed Mail Rail to be uneconomic, closing and mothballing it on May 31 of that year. It's virtually lain vacant since, although several "urban exploration" and rail enthusiast groups have managed to smuggle themselves inside to explore the tunnels and abandoned stations – finding and photographing workers' uniforms still hanging on pegs in old staff rooms, kettles on rusted stoves, bulky walkie-talkie radios, original train-control rooms… and despite eleven years dust and rust, 70 of the tiny electric locomotives and their mail wagons in surprisingly good condition.


And in 1991 one station and an original loco and a wagon were revamped as "a private railway below The Vatican" in the Bruce Willis movie flop, Hudson Hawk.


Now London's Islington Council has approved a short section of the Mail Rail being restored and opened to tourists at what was known as Mount Pleasant Station, and which during its heyday was one of the biggest mail sorting centres in the world.


And interestingly, like all other stations Mount Pleasant was closer to the surface than the 21m deep main Mail Rail line… so that the driver-less mail trains would be assisted in slowing-down with the 1-in-20 incline into the station, and enjoy a speedy get-away with the 1-in-20 decline.


The British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) that's behind the tourist train venture, is having original mail wagons refurbished and fitted with seats, and also with plastic domes for passengers to take-in the tunnel and station "views." As well, a brief recorded history of the Mail Rail will also be played during the 1km return-loop ride from Mount Pleasant.


And while it will be 2020 before all this comes about, the BPMA has already started building a new museum that will open four years earlier, in 2016 in what will be a totally refurbished Mount Pleasant Station and control room.


Hundreds of artefacts already put aside for the new Museum include flintlock pistols used by guards on19th century Royal Mail coaches, telegrams to and from the Titanic, and items of evidence produced during the trials of Britain's 1963 Great Train Robbers.






[] LOADING mailbags onto London's 'Secret Tube Mail Rail' in mid last-century.

[] PART of the maze of narrow gauge Mail Rail tracks which once ran under the streets of London.

[] AND how the refurbished Mount Pleasant Station in London's CBD could shape up as on opening to train buffs in 2020.

[] AN initial prototype of what the new 'tourist carriages' could look like based on an historic wagon.

[] DURING WWI the 'Secret Tube' was also used for safe-keeping of the treasures of the British Museum during German Zeppelin air-raids.

[] SITE plan for the 1km loop from the original Mount Pleasant Station and including the vast new British Postal Museum.


(Images: British Postal Museum and Archive)











Fine Dining on SeaDream: It's a Czech mate.




David Ellis


Malcolm Andrews


CZECH-born Ondrej Havlicek gives whole new meaning to "being good on the tooth".


Because like so many youngsters finishing high school, he wasn't quite sure just what direction he wanted his life to take him, and while tossing-up on a choice of careers was told on good advice that his country had a shortage of dentists – and more importantly that the job paid very well indeed.


So he put himself through university, qualified as a dentist and for four years plugged away, so to speak, at his new-found career.


But deep down he wasn't enjoying himself and one day in 1996 walked out of the surgery, went down to the wharves of his country's capital, Prague and signed up as a junior officer on a Polish cargo ship.


To this day he's not quite sure why he decided to go to sea, but says that from Day 1 he found the ocean was in his blood. "Yet while I loved the sea and travelling to far-flung destinations, there was still something that was missing," he says.


And it turned out to be food.


"I had done some part-time work along the way in hotels and enjoyed preparing and presenting food," Ondrej adds. "Although I don't know where this came from, as there have never been any professional chefs in my family."


And so as to fulfil his desire, he changed direction once more, this time heading inland to the Swiss capital of Zurich for culinary training before, in 2001, graduating and heading back to sea… this time in the galleys of cruise ships sailing the Caribbean and Alaska.


"But it was a bit like a production line in a factory, chefs rarely got the chance to create something personal and unique," he says.


He did, however, make himself stand out on one particular cruise, catching the attention of a rich American who was so impressed he offered him a job as personal chef on his private yacht. 


Then another mega-millionaire lured him even further afield, this time to a palatial vessel in the Persian Gulf.


"I was well paid and the job came with an unwritten understanding that there would be ultimate discretion," he says. "It was a case of cooking for my boss and his family, and their crew, and for occasional guest dinner parties at which I was able to let-loose my creativity."


Enjoyable as it was, Ondrej missed the rapport he had shared with cruise vessel passengers.


So in April 2011 he joined SeaDream Yacht Club that has two identical 5-star mega motor-cruiser yachts, SeaDream I and SeaDream II. With a maximum just-112 guests and 95 crew each, they're rated world's best for dining, service and value thanks to the likes of 36-year-old Ondrej and his galley staff.


"SeaDream are so different to the mega-liners with those liner's thousands of passengers," he says the-now 5-star chef. "Aboard those big one's everything is prepared in bulk, and portioned out onto the plates. It is the same repetitive task for those in the galley each and every night.


"On SeaDream there is no pre-cooking, everything is prepared a la minute and everything is fresh: I can go off at any port we visit and buy what fruit and vegetables are available, planning that night's menu accordingly. What I buy at the markets in the morning, is on the passengers' plates that evening.


"Of course, menus are planned in advance depending on the mix of passengers for each sailing, and we bring on board some 3000 kilos of the finest produce at the start of each voyage. Alaskan crab-claws. New Zealand lamb. Lobsters from Maine. There is such a variety that if a passenger wants something special we are able to prepare a gourmet dish for him or her personally."


And often Ondrej, who is Executive Chef on SeaDream I, will take passengers on a tour of one of the markets, his favourite being St Tropez on the Mediterranean coast of France.


"The passengers see why I buy certain vegetables, and get to taste – complimentary – several local Rosés, cheeses, breads and a traditional local onion tart. It is one of the most popular of our shore excursions."


See why we reckon he gives new meaning to being good on the tooth?






[] EXECUTIVE Chef on SeaDream I, Ondrej Havlicek. (Pic Malcolm Andrews)

[] SEADREAM I off Copenhagen's famed Little Mermaid. (Pic SeaDream Yacht Club)

[] MOUTHWATERING – corner of lunchtime entrée buffet pre  main course. (Pic SeaDream Yacht Club)

[] POOLSIDE snacks one evening at sea. (Pic SeaDream Yacht Club)

[] WHEN a guest couldn't decide between two varieties of fish on the menu one evening, Chef Ondrej obliged with this offering of "Surf and Surf." (Pic David Ellis)




June 01, 2014

Tempting Fate: Meeting the Hong Kong Fortune Teller

Ever wondered about what lies ahead or who you were in a past life? After all, we couldn’t all have been Alexander the Great or Jack the Ripper. In Hong Kong and most of Asia,
fortune-telling is serious business.

While sceptics think fortune telling is a gimmick or scam, its roots in Asian culture run deep. From
love life to business, otherwise sensible adults regularly seek advice on everything from choosing
baby names to the timing of corporate mergers.

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