January 28, 2016

Struth! Worlds biggest pumpkin pie feeds 4000

Pumpkin Pie Big Enough To Feed 4,000

IN his continuing search for the more weird and wondrous in this world, David Ellis says that when the good folks of New Bremen in Ohio were looking for something special as a centrepiece for their annual PumpkinFest back in 2010, they thought what better than an oversize pumpkin pie that would really get tongues wagging.

And wag they did, for that pumpkin pie is still recognised five years later by the Guinness Book of Records as being the Biggest Pumpkin Pie Ever Made, and a fitting tribute in this little farming town that's a major supplier of pumpkins for the American market, and has developed novelty Giant Pumpkins that can weigh as much as 900kg (nearly 2000 pounds.)

For their 2010 record-breaking pumpkin pie, New Bremen's Giant Pumpkin Growers covered an enormous, "pie tray" that was custom-built for the occasion with 440 sheets of pie-crust dough, and for the actual filling had nine volunteer chefs whip together 550kg of mashed pumpkin, 2,796 eggs, 413 litres of evaporated milk, 238kg of sugar, 3.2kg of salt, and 6.5kg of cinnamon.

Then at midnight on the eve of their 2-day PumpkinFest they popped their now-1,678kg pie (that's 3,699 pounds, or 1.7 tonnes) into a specially made oven, cooked it for five hours, let it stand and cool for a further two – and finally after cutting a massive wedge out to display during their Festival, divided the remainder into over 4000 slices for an appreciative crowd of 'Fest-goers.


[] NINE volunteer chefs put together this 1,678kg (1.7 tonnes) Pumpkin Pie at the annual PumpkinFest in the little Ohio township of New Bremen.

(Photo: Greg Reynolds, New Bremen Giant Pumpkin Growers Assoc.)

Kava ceremonies in Fiji - a Melanesian tradition


David Ellis
David Potts

THE remote islands of Fiji's Lau group seemingly lie at the edge of the world, huddled crescent-shaped to the east of the main islands of that country and about halfway between there and Tonga.

So remote are they that these are places with no postcards, and just a third of their 100 volcanic dots are even inhabited.

Its this isolation that's prompted Captain Cook Cruises to add an 11-day Lau islands itinerary aboard it's Reef Endeavour to three-, four-, and seven-day cruises around Fiji's other captivating islands.

And interestingly around 70 per cent of Reef Endeavour's maximum 130 passengers on a recent early sailing to the Lau group were loyal former guests.

An ocean of coral reefs makes navigating the islands a challenge, but captain and crew bring the vessel within reach, by tender, of sandy, palm-fringed beaches lapped by warm tropical waters a spectacular 50 shades of blue.

Abundant coral and the great variety of fish make for ideal diving and snorkelling, and a Tongan influence is evident in the unique language, food, architecture and religion of these islands – and their most popular sport, cricket.

Life here is simple and all about family and community, smiles and laughter, with villagers living mostly on what they can grow or can harvest from the sea. Any meagre income comes from copra from small coconut plantations and fishing.

And for these happy souls, a bowl of kava, a wooden log – or a cardboard box – and a couple of drumming sticks make for an instant party.

Passengers from Reef Endeavour are greeted warmly, although the children keep their distance, watching-on shyly. Finally a traditional welcome follows at which gifts are given by passengers of yagona plants from which is made the social and ceremonial drink, kava, widely enjoyed in the Pacific islands.

There are speeches too, and a meke, or song and dance performance, and perhaps a lovo, a meal cooked underground, Fijian-Tongan style will follow.

Wailagilala Island that Reef Endeavour visits is Fiji's only true coral cay. Everybody's idea of a tropical island, this tiny atoll rises no more than three metres above the sea. Palm trees lean over the sand to hang above the green and blue water. On golden sand, visitors enjoy a solitude broken only by the cries of the seabirds that nest here.

Horseshoe-shaped Vanuabalavu, or Bay of Islands, offers 15 amazing limestone islets with caves to snorkel and explore.
Then it's on to Oneata Island at the eastern edge of the Lau group. It is Sunday and the village church is packed for the morning service, the villagers in their Sunday best of white for the women and black sulus and clean business shirts for the men. They 'raise the roof' with booming, unaccompanied hymn-singing, many visitors from the ship saying attendance at a church service always a highlight of their visit to Fiji.

The Fulaga Islands are next, a string of 100 islands and limestone rocks that enclose a lagoon, the islands themselves appearing to grow out of the lagoon into incredible mushroom shapes.

On Vuaqava island local stalls have been set up selling coconut crabs the size of footballs, some of which will finish up tonight in the ship's galley.

Then its onto Kabara Island with its four villages and a total population of around 500. The Tongan influence is reflected here in language and dance, villagers performing song and dance for their visitors who present them with traditional gifts of cloth – and there's more kava, of course.

Cricket is popular here and passengers have brought gifts including a cricket set and footballs.

Then finally it's the island of Kadavu. This is almost civilisation – it has an airstrip. A ritual turtle-calling ceremony is promised, but the turtles, the visitors are told, are sleeping and there are none today.

Perhaps they're simply as laidback as the Lau islanders themselves.

(Writer David Potts was a guest of Captain Cook Cruises.)

GETTING THERE: Captain Cook Cruises operates a three-night Yasawa Islands cruise from Port Denarau, Fiji, from AUD$996 ppts; four-night cruise of the Yasawa Islands from AUD$1,356 ppts; seven-night Northern Fiji Discovery and Culture cruises from AUD$2,132 ppts; and the next 11-night Lau group and Kadavu cruise departs on March 1from AUD$4,635 ppts. More details www.captaincookcruisesfiji.com



[] CAPTAIN COOK CRUISES' Reef Endeavour now sails even further afield in Fiji with new voyages to the remote Lau Islands in the nation's far east.

[] SNORKELLING and exploring the caves on Vanuabalavu Island in the Lau group.

[] VILLAGERS welcome Reef Endeavour passengers with song and dance to their Kabara Island.

[] THE strange mushroom-shaped limestone islets in the lagoon on Fulaga Island.

[] A CREW member of Captain Cook Cruises' Reef Endeavour is given a traditional "Welcome Home" when the cruise ship visits Kabara Island in Fiji's Lau group where he was born.

(All images: David Potts)

January 26, 2016

WWII tanks in the Aussie bush

The rusting regiment of Murrayville

Roderick Eime

Tanks & Tanks
click above to see more images by Darren Schiller

Driving along the Mallee Highway through rural Victoria back in 1982, I first discovered the Murrayville tank graveyard by accident when pulling over for a comfort stop.

Murrayville is a sleepy, century-old wheat farming village built on a railway line between Pinnaroo (SA) and Ouyen (Vic).

Imagine my surprise when laid out in front of me were the rusting remains of what seemed like an entire armoured regiment. Among the piles of scrap metal, discarded farm machinery, old cars and trucks were several easily discernable WWII-era tanks.

January 2016. With much of the lighter scraps cleared, this old M3 stands alone. The turret has been replaced recently.

I counted at least six tanks; a couple of Matildas, another couple of Grants and another I like to believe was a Sherman. Most were in a sorry state with great chunks cut out of their hulls, turrets cast aside, engines and mechanicals stripped and tracks piled up under the trees.

Just what the heck were these forlorn armoured vehicles doing out here in the bush, thousands of miles from the nearest battlefield or even army base?

Blitz truck and WW2 tank
Much of this scattered debris has been removed (Daniel Prowse)

The earliest forms of the Internet were still a decade away, so I wrote to the Australian War Memorial who, to my surprise and pleasure, wrote back.

They informed me an enterprising local engineer had bought the surplus vehicles after the war in order to convert them for earthmoving and agricultural duties. A kind of ‘swords to ploughshares’ effort. At the time, none of the vehicles presented restoration prospects or even a source of spare parts. Complete units, the AWM informed me, were still available on the market for those who wanted one.

How it looked before the site was "cleaned up"

I have made the drive through Murrayville countless times since and always made a point of popping by the old scrapyard to see what was happening to the tanks. Several years ago, most of the lighter metal scraps were removed and some of the hulls were bulldozed to make room for new buildings. At some point, someone had managed to roughly replace a turret on a sort-of complete Lee/Grant hull, shoving a length of drainpipe into the hole where the main gun once protruded.

In this rapidly changing world, it's no surprise to learn that some of these remote townships struggle to stay viable. Passenger services on the railway have long since stopped and retail businesses struggle to keep their doors open.

"We've often wanted to do something to make a feature in the town," Murrayville Museum & Heritage Society president, John Heintze told me over the phone, "but it's a constant struggle with bureaucracy to get anything done. After years of wrangling, we finally managed to get access to the old courthouse to expand the museum and we want to do something with the scout hall which is falling down, but we can't get permission for that. Red tape is our enemy here."

I’ve also learned, thanks to the Internet, that the chap responsible for this was a much respected local called Peter Peers who passed away in 2010 at the ripe old age of 99. It was believed that the vehicles were sourced from Darwin and driven (somehow) on a six-week journey to Murrayville* but it seems more likely that they were sourced from a stockpile in Albury, possibly that of Alf Baker, who would go on to open a car dealership. One wonders if these tanks served with our troops in either PNG or Borneo as they were already long-in-the-tooth models at war’s end. What tales could they tell?

The original museum building in Murrayville (denisbin)
Editor's note: I hope to expand on this story as new material comes to light, so please check back occasionally. If you have information to add, please leave a comment.

* please see comment below for correction. (thank you)

More Information:

Murrayville Community Website www.murrayville.com.au (site down)

ABC Central West: WWII tanks still used on farms

If you ever stop by the little town, pop into the museum and say 'hi' to curator, John Heintze.

January 25, 2016

Struth! Like watching grass trees grow

IN the wild, Australian grass trees in their natural state
at Sydney’s North Head Sanctuary. (GardenDrum.com)

If you’ve admired them growing majestically in the wild and are among increasing numbers of home-gardeners adopting the uniquely Australian grass tree (Xanthorrhoea) David Ellis says you’ll need plenty of patience if you want to track their growth.,

Because they add a mere 1-to-2.5 centimetres (that’s just under an inch) a year to their trunk height – meaning as one of the slowest growing plants in the world, they can take between 200 and 600 years to reach full size of five metres or so.

And in fact many fully-grown specimens that plant nurseries are now selling have come off land being cleared for farming, and are so old they could quite possibly have taken root hundreds of years before white man ever set foot in this country.

Aboriginal people long made clever use of different parts of the plant for food, drink, fibre, for making weapons, and even a super-glue, and yet without ever killing it.

AND cleverly used in a suburban front garden. (Cambridge Council, WA)

Now also being propogated by specialist nurseries from seed that can take up to a year to germinate, grass trees can cost from $50 for the tiniest fit-in-your-palm specimens, to $1000-plus for those more fully-grown.

And they can take up to three years to decide whether they’ll live or die in the garden spot you’ve chosen for them – if they live, eventually throwing 1- to 3-metre long cylindrical spikes smothered annually with little white to yellow florets loved by insects and birds.

January 11, 2016

Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria - Neapolitan Riviera tresure


David Ellis

FROM its clifftop eyrie its front views are million-dollar of the Bay of Naples stretching to the horizon, parts of spectacular Sorrento below and of the Neapolitan Riviera's coastline sparkling away to right and left.

From around the back they're out over its own 2ha (5 acres) of parklands, and from one side of archaeological ruins from 50BC or possibly earlier, and from the other a few remains of a one-time Roman bathing pool.

Beneath it lay parts of a villa Emperor Augustus once called home, an ancient Roman spa, and a fascinating centuries-old crypt inquisitive visitors can still explore today.

And inside it blends the most contemporary of facilities amid the ambience of an era long past, of modernity and classical elegance, 18th and 19th century works by great masters and contrasting Art Nouveau, furniture from the periods of Louis the XVI and Beidermeier, and painstakingly restored frescoes…

Is all this some grand museum, some coveted Italian government treasure house, a regal palace or priceless residence from Victorian times?

No. It is a hotel, conceived by forward-thinking Raffaele Fiorentino in 1834 and managed by the Fiorentino family ever since, the current fifth generation rattling off names of guests like a Who's Who of royalty, business, the arts, music, literature and film… even an Australian politician who would later go on to become his country's Prime Minister (our lips are sealed.)

Names like Otto von Bismarck, King Louis of Bavaria, England's Prince of Wales in 1874 who would later return as King of his country, Catherine Grand Duchess of Russia, King Rama VII of Siam (now Thailand,) England's Princess Margaret …

And Richard Strauss, Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, Lionel Ritchie, Barbara Streisand, Marilyn Monroe… and Enrico Caruso who in 1921 spent his last days here in Suite 448 that's now named after him.

Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills played their parts in the Billy Wilder film 'Avanti' here, and Sophia Loren, Edoardo Ponti and Philippe Noiret in 'Qualcosa di Biondo'…

From the very beginning the Fiorentinos wanted their Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria to stand out from the rest for those undertaking the Grand Tour – not just for its clifftop location in the very heart of Sorrento, but for its décor, services and dining.

So rather than one over-powering monolithic structure they created three smaller interconnecting buildings… and as pioneering firsts back in 1834, installed unique private bathrooms in each of their 92 rooms and suites, new-fangled electric lighting, even a remarkable funicular railway inside a one-time Roman-era tunnel linking the hotel directly with Sorrento's waterfront below.

Today, guests enjoy a choice of boutique venues and terraces rather than vast restaurants and bars, indoor and seasonal outdoor dining areas offering a choice of Michelin Star regional Campania, Mediterranean and international cuisines… and for those who must have their American-style buffet fix for breakfast, the Vittoria Breakfast Room has that together with a healthy organic corner and a pianist at play.

Other rooms include the Winter Garden with its overflowing flower baskets, the quiet Reading Room with photographs and newspaper cuttings chronicling those who have indulged here, the Music Room adorned with lush green plants and furnishings handcrafted by local artisans…

Large, grand and in many cases over-sized guest rooms and suites reflect the Victorian era with classic antiques contrasted by the latest in contemporary 21st century facilities, almost all having private terraces overlooking the azure Bay of Naples with its flanking hills of olive and citrus groves.

Guests can frolic in the large hydro-jet pool, be pampered in the only Spa on the Amalfi Coast to offer Australian-invented Intraceuticals Oxygen Facials (a hit with the likes of Madonna, Naomi Campbell, Kim Kardashian and Justin Timberlake,) work out in the hi-tech Gym, walk or jog the 2ha-plus private park with its 100 year old ornamental trees, citrus, olive, vegetable and flower gardens, and children's playground.

Or take the lift directly from the hotel down to Sorrento's waterfront for outings by car, coach, train, ferry or private launch to nearby Capri, Naples, Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii and Herculaneum, Amalfi, Ravello or Positano…

Prices start from Euro220 per room per night including buffet breakfast for two, complimentary Wi-Fi and taxes, and the hotel has its own carpark for self-drive holidaymakers. Book through your favourite travel agent.


[] SORRENTO'S Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria overlooks the town's marina and
   captures million dollar views to left and right.
[] SEASONAL outdoor dining venues like this offer a choice of regional
   Campania, Mediterranean and international cuisines.
[] THE Blue Salon for taking gracious afternoon teas in an ambience of an era past.
[] PREMIUM Deluxe guest room fit for a Who's Who of royalty, business, the arts,
   music, literature and film… and a future Australian Prime Minister.
[] CHILDREN'S playground in a corner of the hotel's 2ha-plus private park with 100
   year old ornamental trees, citrus, olive, vegetable and flower gardens.

(Images: Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria)

London's Underground Ghost Station - coming back to life?


David Ellis

YOU'VE got to admire the folk who run the London Underground, they're on an enthusiastic search for someone to lease a part of a station that, while deep under one of the city's poshest districts, has not seen a paying passenger in 83 years.

And for the just 400m2 they're offering, they're asking 100,000 British Pounds a year in rent (that's AU$207,000) – plus they successful renter will have to pay whatever it takes to turn their little subterranean haven into a commercial proposition.

But Transport for London (TfL) believes that because of its rich history, together with its prestigious location, they'll find someone with sufficient imagination and enterprise to capitalise on the site's potential.

The Down Street Station lays under swank Mayfair and is one of a remarkable 40 on the Underground that have become "ghost stations" after being closed for reasons ranging from lack of viable passengers numbers, to simply old age and disrepair. And, says TfL, if they could all be leased out they could earn it something like 3.4b British Pounds a year – a whopping AU$7.04b.

Down Street Station was almost doomed from the moment it was built by the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (GNPBR) in1907: the mostly upper-class residents of Mayfair with their fine horses and buggies and scattering of new-fangled motor-cars, exhibiting nothing but disdain for grotty public transport, and worse still, fearing it would bring into their midst "those with disreputable intent."

As well, because of the high cost of land, the entrance to Down Street Station had to be tucked into a small side-street and was thus not generally well-known, and ironically its patrons were mainly the servants of those bemoaning its very presence. Within two years trains skipped the empty station on Sundays, and with increasingly declining patronage on weekdays, it was closed for good in May 1932.

But while it may have appeared abandoned, for six years it was anything but, and in fact played two highly important but very secretive roles during WWII. And it is these that TfL is also hoping to cash-in on, even though it admits that what it's offering for lease is made up of "difficult and complex spaces" – and with the only current access by way of a 122 step spiral staircase.

In 1938 and sensing war on the horizon in Europe, Britain formed an emergency Railway Executive Committee (REC) to take control of all of the country's railways and to keep them running in the event that war did occur. Deciding that it needed a secure, bomb-proof headquarters, the Committee chose the deep, abandoned Down Street Station.

Working only at night when Tube trains were not running, builders constructed a wall along the Down Street platform edge, leaving just two small openings where VIP staff could alight from the driver's or guard's compartments of trains direct into the secret facility. And within weeks the bricked-up platform and passenger tunnels that connected it to then-lifts to the street and the spiral staircase, became a maze of tiny individual offices, rail control rooms, a telephone exchange, typing rooms, and conference areas.

And with twelve senior REC officials and twenty-two regular staff manning the place 24-hours a day to keep Britain's vast rail network running in spite of regular Luftwaffe bombings, sleeping quarters were also built, and a kitchen and bathrooms squeezed in, all with furnishings tailor-made to each miniscule space.

Then for six weeks in 1940 even more top-secret tenants arrived – during bombing raids on London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his entire Cabinet retreated to the centre until a separate and secure Cabinet War Rooms bunker was built elsewhere. Churchill, his wife and Cabinet Ministers often slept overnight in the confined little space – Churchill once commenting to colleagues that "it gives me the opportunity to work during bombing raids, rather than appear to hide."

Churchill even had a separate Cabinet member's lift installed, and his own bath.

At war's end Down Street was closed, stripped, even the lifts removed, and abandoned. Now TfL wants to see the lifts re-installed and those passenger tunnels, platform vestibules and other areas put to innovative new use… maybe as galleries, an exhibition space, art cinema, bar – or a classy, atmospheric restaurant for those with a taste for history.



[] ORIGINAL ticket officer foyer at Down Street Underground station that's not
   seen a passenger  in 83 years. (London Transport Museum)
[] TODAY a mini-mart grocery store occupies much of the entrance to the long-
    closed Down Street Station. (Wikimedia)
[] LIFTS were removed years ago leaving their shafts empty, the only way of getting
   to the station now being by a spiral staircase with 122 steps. (Transport for London)
[] ONE of the original 1940s wartime telephone switchboards. (Transport for London)
[] BATH installed for Prime Minister Winston Churchill who would meet with his
   wartime Cabinet in the safety of the deep underground station, often sleeping
   there overnight. (London Transport Museum)
[] WWII Railway Executive Committee that kept Britain's trains running throughout
   the war, met daily in their Down Street Underground hideaway. (London Transport

Struth! 300 metres straight down

Bridging Bungy Jump Records

IN his continuing search for the more weird and wondrous in this world, David Ellis says that a pedestrian bridge to open in early 2016 in China's Hunan Province will have a totally glass deck so that those brave enough to walk on it can peer beyond their feet down the stomach-churning 300m (984ft) of emptiness to the valley floor below.

Spanning the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon, the new 380m long bridge (1,247ft) was designed by Israeli architect Haim Dotan and will be the longest and highest glass-deck bridge in the world. But so as not to impose too severely on the surrounding landscape, architect Dotan designed it with a thin, super-reinforced steel framework that's painted white to be "as invisible as possible, a white bridge disappearing into the clouds."

Yet minimal as it may look, the new bridge will be able to carry 800 people at any one time on its glass deck, and withstand everything from earthquakes to high winds.

And for those not content to simply look bravely through the glass below their feet to the ground a terrifying 300m below (nearly 1000ft) as if they were standing in space, there are plans to give the bridge a Bungy Jump that will be nearly a third higher than the world's current record holder, the Macau Tower Jump at 233 metres (765ft.)



[] ARTIST'S impression of the world's longest and highest glass-bottom pedestrian bridge that will open early next year in China's Hunan Province. (Haim Dotan Architects)

[] DESIGNED to "be as invisible as possible, a white bridge disappearing into the clouds." (Haim Dotan Architects)

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