Wittenoom – Pilbara Region, Western Australia.

Wittenoom – Pilbara Region, Western Australia.

Long Weekend Visit from Perth

The Matriarch, from New Zealand was visiting the Bro and Gemma in Perth, and so I came over from Sydney to join the trip to Wittenoom.

Wittenoom is approximately 1,409km from Perth. Driving time, just over 15 hours. Who, in their right mind, would drive for around 30 hours for a long weekend.

Happy to report that not being in my right mind resulted in a magical journey.

First day was to be a relatively easy drive. We were spending the night in Kalbarri, about 573km north from Perth, which took around 6.5 hours to drive. Kalbarri National Park deserves more than an overnight stop. At the time we visited, there were over 700 varieties of Banksia in the park, and numerous varieties of birds. The beach gorges rose dramatically from beach level. The soaring coastal cliffs towered above us to the east. Behind us, looking west, the Indian ocean lived up to descriptions of wild, with large waves smashing onto the shore. A few hardy people were surfcasting from the beach, sometimes barely visible through the spray from the surf.

Second day was to be a rather longer drive – 762km from Kalbarri to the roadhouse at Nanutarra where we were staying the night, before the shorter drive to Wittenoom next day.

The landscape changed quite dramatically, the further north we headed. River gorges, scrublands, dry riverbeds, lined with eucalypts surviving on the water below the surface, to remote mostly arid flat landscapes.

Carnarvon, the only “town” between Kalbarri and Nanutarra provides a green oasis in the desert. The Gascoyne River flows through the town, providing water for crops such as banana. The river was not flowing – apparently it only flows above ground for about 120 days of the year. The irrigation pipes and pumps lining the dry riverbed go below the surface into the river flowing below.

The views of the Murchison River gorge along the road north from Kalbarri required frequent viewing stops to admire the river gorge cliffs, bushland, and the river below. Since our visit, two skywalks have been constructed, which jut out from the top of a cliff. The views from the skywalks would be even more spectacular than those experienced by us, though I find that hard to imagine.

Nature’s Window – Murchison River below.

We had planned to stay at the Nanutarra Roadhouse a little south of where the road inland to Mt Tom Price and Wittenoom turns off the North West Highway. Disaster. We were about 15 minutes late, and unable to let the owners know, so they had sold our rooms on. We had to choose whether to abandon the trip to Wittenoom, and head further north on a sealed road, or drive to Wittenoom in the dark on a mostly unsealed road, in a vehicle with no kangaroo bars.

Wittenoom not marked, but beyond Mt Tom Price turn off. (Photo credit, Nanutarra Roadhouse)

We chose to continue on to Wittenoom. The pub there had rooms available, and it was that area we wished to explore, and to return to Perth on the inland highway, rather than return on the North Western Highway. Driving time just over 5 hours.

So the nightmare began. I have never seen so many kangaroos. They came in from the left, from the right, in droves. I still have visions of kangaroos taking over the world. The Bro had the misfortune to be driving. Passengers were the lookouts – to a point. “Kangaroo left – no another right – coming in from all directions. Slithering and sliding our way very slowly towards Wittenoom, we came across a man near the Mt Tom Price turnoff, sitting forlornly beside a dead car. He had hit a cow (ye gods, there were cows as well as Kangaroos!).

The forlorn one sat between the Matriarch and me. He perked up when he produced a bottle of whisky from his bag and proceeded to swig from the bottle. He did offer the bottle to the Matriarch for a swig. Although she was pretty partial to whisky she declined, on the basis that he need not share!

As we were arriving so late, we had anticipated waking “mine host” on arrival. Not necessary. The pub was easy to locate and was seething. We arrived as a huge fight was taking place between Western Australian road gangs, and Commonwealth Government road gangs. The latter were there during a period of huge road improvements financed by the Federal Government, which apparently annoyed the WA road gangs. As our whisky swigging passenger melted into the affray, the Matriarch staggered out of the car, saying she was totally discombobulated, and needed a bed immediately.

Mine host materialised out of the chaos, and the Matriarch was happily ensconced in her bed in no time.

Wittenoom was established as a blue asbestos mining town in around 1947. The mine closed in the 1960’s. It has been reported that asbestos contamination killed more than 2000 workers and their families.

When we visited, there about 100 permanent residents. The workers houses had mostly been demolished, although a few skeletons still existed. There was no sign of the road gangs when we left the pub to explore Wittenoom and the gorges surrounding it. Possibly nursing epic hangovers.

There was little left in the old Wittenoom township, other than the house skeletons, although there was an artist in residence we were told – from recollection, in the old cinema, or a building beside it.

It is easy to see why the remaining residents did not wish to leave. The scenery around the old township is magical – pools, ponds, gorges, with waterfalls, and beautiful tall white trunked eucalypts.

The Bro and Gemma, Wittenoom

We were keen to explore the Weano Gorge. This required a scramble over boulders, a walk through narrow passageways, with high walls of rocks towering above, and a climb down a knotted rope to the handrail pool. The Matriarch decided that she was definitely not going to do that. She was very happy to stay in the car, reading and knitting.

We got back to the car to find the Matriarch not particularly chilled out. “Do you realise how quiet it is, its kind of creepy. The silence is deafening”. She was even more spooked later to discover that there had been a sniper in this part of the world around this time.

The termite mounds around Wittenoom are huge. Insect skyscrapers.

Red dust is all pervasive when driving in the Pilbara region. It’s not too bad if you are the only vehicle on the road, or your vehicle is ahead of all others. We were doing OK until a truck overtook us. “Eat my dust” took on a whole new meaning. We not only ate it, but that red dust seeped into the car, and even into the suitcases in the boot.

We were returning to Perth on the inland Road, the North Western Highway. Meekatharra was our destination on the first night. A mostly flat desert landscape. We arrived in Mt Newman, wondering where the mountain was. It was no more, it was a sad hole in the ground. We were driving up a road to view the hole in the ground when we were accosted by “security”. “What are you doing here? This is a restricted area.” We were escorted out of the restricted area.

Right to left: The Bro, the Matriarch and Gma at Mt Newman

There are some very long straight roads along the inland highway. Huge road trains traverse the area, but if you lie down in the middle of one of these long roads, you can hear a road train coming from a great distance away.

Left to right: Gemma, the Matriarch and the Bro beside a long straight part of the road.

At dusk, driving along long straight roads from north to south, through flat countryside, we experienced the sight of a wall of darkness moving towards us from the east. It was quite surreal – a dark wall moving inexorably towards us.

Star gazing in the outback provides a whole new experience, illustrating how insignificant we are in the scheme of things.

We arrived in Meekatharra, our overnight stop, in the late afternoon. Driving into the town, we were stunned at the size of the police station – it was huge, and bore no comparison with the size of the town. The accommodation at the pub we had booked consisted of demountables in the paddock at the rear. The pub did not provide meals. There appeared to be nowhere to eat other than a pub that advertised Chinese food.

OK, Chinese food is fine by us. There is a food and wine menu, which looks promising. “Would you like X wine”, no could be see the wine list. Wine list produced. Everything on the wine list other than X was unavailable. Felt like we were part of a Monty Python “cheese” sketch.

Moving on to food. “Sorry, the truck from Perth has not arrived” was the response for almost everything we ordered. We ended up with various dishes which were not reliant on the truck from Perth. They consisted mostly of cabbage, and all tasted the same. Dessert. Well what can go wrong with fried ice cream? As it happens, a lot.

Back to our cozy demountables behind the pub. The matriarch and I have a frog in the toilet. We dealt with that, by scooping the frog out and liberating it, and retired to bed.

We then discovered the reason for the size of the police station. Meekatharra was alive with the sounds of drunken revellers, doing what drunken revellers do best. Driving cars with less than optimal exhaust systems, executing wheelies and screaming, singing and generally making a lot of noise.

Snug in our demountables, we were awoken on numerous occasions by patrons from the pub weaving their way to the car park, and lurching into our little hut.

The distance between Meekatharra and Perth is around 760km, the landscape moving from desert to wheat fields and finally the urban area of Perth. It was an 8 hour drive, and a time to reflect on the diversity and interest that Australia has to offer.

Wittenoom no longer officially exists. The town has been wiped from the maps. No signposts show the way to Wittenoom. In 2006, there were eight permanent residents when the electricity was shut off. Wittenoom was degazetted in 2007, struck from the records and wiped from maps. In 2019 five of the residents were forced out. There was one remaining resident refusing to leave but presumably he will ultimately be moved on.

“Wittenoom”, the place, does exist. The last permanent (white) residents may have been moved on. The aboriginal people of the area who worked in the mines were decimated, but the first peoples are still there. Hopefully this magical area may one day be safe to visit.

Visiting Chillagoe – Queensland

Visiting Chillagoe – Queensland

It was a beautiful spring day in the Atherton Tablelands when I set out for a weekend in Chillagoe, with Bron and Keith.

Atherton is situated in rolling green landscape, with rainforests, waterfalls, volcanoes and lakes nearby. Chillagoe is around 160km from Atherton and is described as being in “Australia’s outback”. I was looking forward to travelling from this lush food producing area to the outback in such a short time, with a minimum of effort. In my case, no effort at all. Keith drove, I enjoyed the drive through rapidly changing landscape.

Leaving Mareeba, we travelled along the Wheelbarrow Way, named for the miners, who in the late 1880’s travelled on foot, pushing a wheelbarrow containing their possessions, looking for work. There are statues along the way depicting the miners pushing their wheelbarrows.

One of the statues along Wheelbarrow Way.

Driving along Wheelbarrow Way, we passed through farmlands – mango, banana and sugar cane, cattle country, savannah and lots of red dirt and termite mounds.

Driving to Chillagoe along the Wheelbarrow Way.

The immensity of outback landscape with the seemingly endless horizon, huge sky and the silence invoke an almost spiritual experience for me – though not in the sense of there being a god who created heaven and earth. As we approached Chillagoe, the landscape changed quite dramatically – vegetation becoming sparse, generally smaller trees, more and more red soil and larger termite mounds. Limestone rock formations became more frequent.

The chimneys of the old smelter are the first signs that you have arrived in Chillagoe village. The smelters ceased operation in 1943, and other than the chimneys there is little left.

Chimneys on the edge of Chillagoe, part of the former or smelter.

First nation people lived in this area for thousands of years before European settlement in the 1880’s. They were forced from their traditional lands, some were massacred, others worked on the stations. Settlement of this area historically then, can be said to be thousands of years old rather than pretty recent.

There are a lot of birds around this area. Too many for me to list here, but the area is apparently a bird watchers paradise. Suffice it to say that the evidence of the number of birds manifested itself around dawn. The dawn chorus was more an ear shattering screeching. Having been woken by the birds welcoming a new day, I went outside to see what they were. I almost felt I was in the Hitchcock movie – every power line was packed with birds – cheek by jowl so to speak and they were challenging each other for space in the trees. I was so busy watching them that I forgot to photograph them. Bron and I recall that they were Apostle birds – aka happy families. The jousting for position at dawn exhibited behaviour not conducive to happy families.

Chillagoe is situated on a belt of limestone, created millions of years ago, when the sea covered the area. The dissolving coral reefs have formed majestic and extensive caves underground, and above the ground the limestone outcrops form many fascinating shapes

Limestone caves are endlessly fascinating. My early experiences visiting the Waitomo glowworm caves when I was growing up, laid the foundation for my interest in visiting caves. I tend to prefer the cathedral type spaces, where the stalactites and stalagmites look like the mighty pillars in huge cathedrals. Listening to an opera singer in one of these cavernous caves in Waitomo and in a huge cave complex in Vietnam was a sublime experience.

We had no opera singer with us when we visited the Chillagoe-Mungana cave system. We did however have an aboriginal guide, who was very knowledgeable and pointed out various different types of limestone formations, including one he called the “Limestone Cowboy”. Why a cowboy in this part of the world? It took me a while to realise it was a play on Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy. Didn’t look much like a cowboy to me.

We visited part of the Royal Arch Caves, one of around 600 caves in the area. There are 11 separate caverns, some being semi open, with numerous passageways and steps. The Royal Arch caves contain several varieties of bats who use echo location to navigate the caves. Spotted pythons eat the bats, locating them by sensing their body heat. I was willing my body to get rid of its heat, in case a python was looking for a change in diet. I must have been successful, as no pythons were sighted.

Having all the lights turned off could have the effect of bringing on a panic attack – remember those pythons. I didn’t want a bat, mistaking me for a stalactite and trying to roost on my head either. There were also the colonies of snails to consider, and beetles. It was a relief when the lights came back on.

An old bank vault is one of the remaining historical buildings in the village. Not sure what happened to the rest of the bank, but the vault still stands. It reminded me of of an occasion when someone tried to blow open a modern day ATM. The Bank building was partially demolished, but the ATM was not breached.

The remains of the Bank of Australasia.

Historical vehicles are not generally of much interest to me, but the Tom Prior Ford Museum was an unexpected delight. Keith knew Tom, and we were “right royally” welcomed. There are a large number of restored vehicles under cover, and dozens of rusting old vehicles outside. The 1925 Model T and the 1928 Model A were fantastic. I fell in love with the 1965 Shelby Mustang. There were old jeeps and trucks, my favourite being an old carriers truck, with the sign on the door “Tom Prior, General Carrier, Phone 8”.

As a person who used to say that Australia was around 24 hours flight from anything historically interesting to me, this adventure proved me wrong.

Hot Air Ballooning – Nile Valley

Gliding majestically above the landscape is a lot of fun. Doing so in Luxor added an extra dimension, and offered a great deal more than just fun. Being in the company of an Egyptologist elevated this ballon trip to euphoric heights.

Emerging from the hotel in Luxor at around 5am, we were greeted by the beautiful sound of the Islamic call to prayer from the nearby mosques. The stage was set for a very memorable experience.

The boat trip across the Nile to the balloon airfields on the West Bank felt a little surreal. Strings of lights along both shores, illuminated ancient monuments and modern hotels and the early morning activities of people going about their daily lives on and around the Nile was like something from a dream.

Arriving on the West Bank was less than dream like. It was still dark. There were huge numbers of people swarming around the wharf. A hand came out to assist me down the gangplank. I did not need assistance, but thought it was one of the boat crew being helpful and that it would be rude to dismiss “the hand”. Turned out to be the hand of a young man on the wharf, looking to earn a little money. He would not let go of my wrist, and demanded money to do so. When I refused, he clamped his other hand round my wrist. My powers of persuasion convinced him to relinquish his grip, and he melted into the darkness.

Arriving at the airfield, we were greeted with a sea of colour in the darkness. Several colourful balloons were in process of being inflated by gas burners glowing yellow blue, green and red in the darkness.

Weather conditions were apparently perfect for our flight, so we scrambled into the basket, accompanied by the hiss of the gas jets blasting into the balloon. Our balloon was then untethered, and we soared into the heavens above. `

The landscape unfolding below us gave us a glimpse of of villages and people coming out to start work in the fields, with their donkeys. A patchwork of fields of crops, initially mostly maize, sugar cane and then date palms stretched out beyond the villages, and the Nile could be seen in the distance. A large number of the buildings were roofless, but the occupiers of buildings with a roof utilised the area to dry food.

The most exciting aspect of this balloon flight was the opportunity to view some of the ancient Egyptian sites from above. Slowly drifting past the Colossi of Memnon was a memorable moment. These monumental statues are 18 metres high, and are carved from blocks of sandstone. They were constructed as guardians of Amenhotep III mortuary complex. Amenhotep III (1386-1353BCE) ruled during the 18th Dynasty of Egypt. I had been overawed standing at the feet of the Colossi the day before. Viewing the Collossi from above with the remains of the mortuary temple stretching out behind them gave the whole site a different perspective.

We had visited the Ramesseum, the mortuary temple of Ramesses II the day before the balloon trip. Viewing it from above added an extra dimension to the experience. Ramesses II ruled for 67 years between 1279-1213BC. The Ramesseum contains the remains of a 20metre high statue. An inscription states “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look upon my works, ye Mighty and Despair.” This inspired Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias, and as we silently slid past the Ramasseum, I was reciting (to myself) “I met a traveller from an ancient land”. Tacky, I agree.

After gliding over the Theban Necropolis, we drifted over the remains of what I had noted as “an outline of a palace”. I spent many hours trying to identify it, with no success. Thanks to the Egyptologist and one of her colleagues, the site was identified as the small temple of Kom es Samak, at Malkata South. Samak means “a mound of fish” – further reading identified that there was a lake full of fish on the site, and excavations identified a lot of fishbones. Further reading http://www.jstage.jst.go.jp (thank you Egyptologist). The archaeologists decided that construction of what is now a “relic” had occurred in the reign of Amenhotep III, because they had discovered inscriptions on some of the bricks “Net-Mat-Re” the name that Amenhotep III adopted on ascending the throne.

Flying at such a low altitude provides an opportunity to look down on this ancient area and view the landscape and monuments from a totally different perspective. The narrow green strip of cultivated land along the Nile Valley merging abruptly into desert illustrates the stark contrast far more dramatically than viewing from the Nile, or driving along the edges of the cultivated land.

Cultivated land merging into the desert.

We also drifted over the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III, who ruled for 31 years (1184-1153BCE). Ramesses III was assassinated, possibly by more than one attacker. Finally we viewed the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, who ruled in her own right from 1473-58BCE). Hatshepsut was one of the few female Pharaohs, and attained exceptional power for a woman. She came to power in questionable circumstances, but so too have many rulers. It is said that at her request, she was depicted as a male in many images of her. Did she think that looking like a male gave her more authority? As we sailed past her Mortuary Temple I thought about the issues modern female political leaders face – would they fare better if they looked like a man.

The magical experience was coming to an end. The gas jets were silent and we were slowly descending down to land. There was quite an audience viewing our landing. Not only were the recovery teams standing by ready to fully deflate the balloons, and stow them in their vehicles, there were dozens of spectators.

Getting out of the basket was a challenge for me. I was only a head higher than the top of the basket, and there was no little stepladder to assist. Hauling myself up to the top of the basket, I more or less fell down the other side. Not the most elegant way to alight.

I will never forget the experience of hot air ballooning in the Nile Valley. It was fun. It was exciting. With an accompanying Egyptologist, it was also an opportunity to learn more of the history of this ancient land.

Plague – 2020

I did not contract the plague. None of my family caught it. I did not lose my job. I did not lose my home. No one I knew died.

I did lose my lifestyle and I did have mental health issues, and although my loss is trivial in the scheme of things, I can mourn my own personal losses.

My year commenced in the usual way. Travel. January sees a trip to Echuca in Victoria. A flight to Melbourne, picking up a car to drive to Echuca to visit old friends – the matriarch who lives in New Zealand and is my oldest friend, a fellow child bride from the 1960’s, and her family. Catching up with the matriarch’s family from Echuca and London was very special.

So far so good.

National Council of Women Australia day lunch in the strangers (strangers!!) dining room at NSW Parliament in January – not celebrating the invasion. Instead, an aboriginal welcome, and very impressive aboriginal speakers.

My life is looking good. I fly to Cairns on 24 January to attend Tash and Luke’s engagement party in Atherton on 25th January. Spending time with the family was such a pleasure, and the engagement party was a most joyous occasion.

Bronwyn and I went off to Port Douglas for a few days at the Sheraton Mirage resort. Floating about in the lagoon around the resort, with a vino in a mug, made for a most relaxing “float”.

A day out on the Barrier Reef on a Quicksilver Barrier Reef Cruise was a highlight of the Port Douglas visit. Bronwyn signed up for a snorkelling trip outside the barriers. Not to be outdone, I signed up as well. Thank you Bronwyn, I would never have been brave enough to do that on my own. Sheer magic.

Moving on to early March, attending a discussion on the Status of Women and International Progress on Women’s rights, and a discussion on Surveillance and Privacy little knowing these would be the last social engagements for a long time.

I was travelling to Tasmania on 24 March, for a week of travelling around the State. By then things were going a bit pear shaped. Valiantly I fought to the end, but the Tasmanian Government slammed its borders shut. This certainly solved the argument about whether to wear a mask at the airport and on the plane.

My usual trip to Europe in April May started to look a bit dicey. Not to worry. August will do. In March the Australian Government introduced a ban on all overseas travel as an emergency requirement under the Biosecurity Act, by way of a determination by the Minister for Health. There was no review by Parliament. Preventing citizens leaving their country is extreme. Australia was one of the few democracies in the world which banned its citizens from leaving the country indefinitely, and still is. The initial determination was made when little was known about the threat the virus posed. Tests to detect the virus were still being developed. When the initial determination was made, perhaps the consequent breach of human rights was no more restrictive or intrusive than was necessary in March.

The determination continues to be renewed. By now, almost 10 months later, the determination is far more restrictive and intrusive than is necessary if citizens are happy to be tested prior to leaving and prior to returning, and are happy to pay the quarantine costs.

An exemption to the travel ban was available on various grounds, the most relevant of which for most people was on humanitarian grounds. Citizens soon discovered that even the imminent marriage or even death of a family member did not constitute humanitarian grounds.

The Australian Government applied a cap on the number of people who could arrive in Australia per day – due to the lack of quarantine places. There were a very large number of Australian citizens stranded overseas, unable to get flights back because of that cap. Hence the travel ban has continued. The plight of many of the stranded people is dire. Jobs lost, visa’s expiring, homeless due to vacating rented accommodation, only to find their flights cancelled when they get to the airport. Arrivals from overseas cannot self quarantine (well unless they are celebrities or certain privileged persons). Hotel quarantine has had some spectacular failures. Surely citizens should be able to return and quarantine at home. Electronic monitoring and random checks should be at least as effective as hotel quarantine.

My diary from March onwards is best ignored. Everything was cancelled. Nothing happened for several months.

From initially assuming that this plague would go the way of the bird flu, and others, I moved on to obsessively following the news, and watching with horror at the speed at which it moved and the lack of resources of most governments around the world. The images of people being “sealed” into their homes in Wuhan were very disturbing. The stories of the dead being left in their homes in Italy were equally disturbing, as were images of the consequences of the policies of various governments, including the US and the UK.

The number of deaths in aged care homes were appalling. Even worse were comments along the lines that they were old and were going to die soon anyway, and the like.

From obsessively following the numbers to avoiding all news of the plague, I decided to stop following the plague news items. That was difficult. Nothing other than numbers of infected, numbers of dead, speed of transmission and political point scoring seemed to be newsworthy.

Only time will tell which approach to dealing with the plague was the most effective. Elimination (will it wreck the economy and leave following generations with a huge debt – and is it possible without locking everyone up), control, with occasional lockdowns (more deaths, but was this economically more effective) or lets go for herd immunity, (with a huge death toll and unknown consequences for the economy).

During the first lock down period, the images appearing of deserted cities made me think of Neville Shute’s book “On the Beach” where everyone died of radiation exposure, country by country person by person Walking around the neighbourhood was a surreal experience. People scurried across the road if they saw someone coming in the other direction. Mostly the streets were deserted. There were jokes about dogs being sick to death of being taken for so many walks every day. Scoutie though is up for a walk any time anyone needs exercise. Hunting lizards several times a day is Scoutie heaven.

I became preoccupied with planning what I needed to do to stay sane – well as sane as I was at the beginning of the plague. Ramp up the reading. Order boxes of books on line. Decided to spend a few hours each day reviewing various reference books, and learn more on the topics covered.

Whilst this kept me occupied for a while it soon felt quite pointless – just doing something to fill in time. A few days staring at the ceiling in despair followed this realisation.

Conducting several games of scrabble at a time on line was fun for a while. One by one, people got tired of it until no one wanted to play.

Next, a massive jigsaw puzzle. I was given this puzzle in 2012 It was in six parts, and until 2020 I had managed to complete two of the parts. I am now nearing completion of the fifth part. If I get to complete the final part any time soon, I will almost be ready to start howling to the moon.

The giant jigsaw puzzle

Bentley came to stay in March. Bentley’s arrival provided a distraction. There were now two dogs to take for walks around the block. Lizard hunting by 2 doggos meant much longer walks, and so more time away from home.

As the months of 2020 went by, one grey day after another, staying in bed seemed to be a rather attractive proposition. One can run one’s life from bed – so long as someone brings you a coffee early. Reading the news (oh joy – more updates on the plague), attending to one’s banking and shopping, sending and reading emails and reading books. Researching for travel blogs. Why bother to get out of bed.

I increased family history research to learn about the places the ancestors had lived, the lives they may have led, and the historical events which occurred during their lifetimes, for the purpose of writing blogs. Travel blogs were written more frequently, and the research for these was interesting.

Gardening usually occupies a considerable amount of time. It did seem however that whenever I finally motivated myself to get out in the garden it was raining, hailing or blowing a gale or all of those things.

Wine consumption increases. So does cheese consumption. Thank goodness for Cheese Therapy – Blessed are the Cheesemakers.

Feasts abounded. Let’s face it, what better consolation to alleviate the sheer greyness of life in the days of the plague than to eat, drink and be merry. So we ate, drank and were very very merry at times.

It was fascinating to observe the manner in which people were dealing with life’s new realities. The stoics gritted their teeth and “got on with it”. Some people became totally obsessed and fearful, to the point that the plague was all they could talk about.

People started stockpiling food, and rather weirdly, toilet paper. Some of the stockpilers of toilet paper, when challenged, said they were buying for their friends and family as well. Reminded me of the “just asking for a friend” scenario.

The virtue signallers came into their own. They did not stockpile toilet paper. They only purchased what they required for the week. They told us how many times they washed their hands every day, and how they managed social distancing and wearing masks, mentioning how many people they saw who were not as diligent as them. It was bad enough seeing the government’s childish exhortations to wash hands. It was excruciating to hear the virtue signallers day by day, blow by blow sternly lecturing the less diligent.

The judgmental ones were out in force – they were closely related to the virtue signallers in a lot of scenarios. They were not bothered by facts and/or reason. Politicians were up there with the judgmental ones. They appeared to be a great deal more judgmental of those who were not of their political persuasion. The Prime Minister (Liberal) and his groupies castigated the Victorian Premier (Labour) for closing the border, but praised the NSW Premier (Liberal) for doing the same. The sheer hypocrisy of such behaviour does not appear to be apparent to the PM.

There were the people in denial – like me – who kept thinking that it would all be over in a couple of months, every couple of months. We then moved onto longer time frames for it being over. If I couldn’t get to Europe in April, then August would be fine. It will certainly be possible for Christmas. If not, I would go to New Zealand. Then I couldn’t even leave the State, so have to finally face reality. It won’t be over any time soon. Vaccinations won’t be available for a while and there is no point in planning anything because the Government won’t let you out of the country, the States slam their borders shut without warning, and hot spots are declared even in your own suburb, State/City.

At the end of July, I escape from Pymble. A few days at Coledale Beach, just south of Sydney. It felt like a “get out of jail” card, with great thanks to KT and JTH.

Towards the end of August it was possible to attend a lunch, at which a guest speaker gave a presentation on Millicent Preston, an Australian feminist and politician who was the first female member of the NSW Legislative Assembly. Attending this lunch, even with the plague restrictions, was a joy.

By October, with plans to be in London for the arrival of my first great grandchild, I am sure that I shall get an exit visa on humanitarian grounds. When both grandmothers are rejected, I am reminded of my unimportance in the scheme of things. The maternal grandmother finally receives an exit visa on humanitarian grounds. She is unable to travel (despite business class bookings) because even though she had a confirmed return flight, there was no guarantee that the flight would not be cancelled.

My great granddaughter was born in London just before Christmas. Not being there did not diminish the joy of her arrival. After all, this was not about me. It was all about the creation of a new family unit.

Who would have thought that a visit to Coffs Harbour would have been so exciting. At the end of October I was fortunate to be able to share a week with family in Coffs Harbour. This visit was special on lots of levels, but particularly being able to visit Briggsvale near Dorrigo, where my father worked in the late 1930’s. It was all the more poignant because my father had contracted polio as a child, and spent some time in an iron lung. As a young child in Auckland in the late 1940’s, I remember being in isolation due to a polio epidemic. I can still recall standing at the front gate and calling across the road to the children opposite. I can also still see the water sparkling at Takapuna Beach, which was only a couple of minutes away, and not being able to go to the beach.

The house benefitted from the inability to travel. It acquired a new bathroom. It got itself a new coat of paint, outside and inside. Lots of little repairs, and lots of maintenance. The roof, not to be outdone, has signalled a need for repairs. The garden is looking splendid.

The body politic did not cover itself in glory throughout this year. Sadly we have become accustomed to politicians lying, so very little of what they said was believed by me. “We are following the science” they say. The “science” is never disclosed. The science must be different in different places. Wearing a mask seems to have a different science depending on the State. The science seems to discriminate between big sporting events and the small number of people I can entertain at home.

Keeping the black dog at bay requires a lot of effort. Travel planning for 2021 has a wedding in Atherton to attend in May. I saved the date months ago. Hoping for a NZ bubble before that. July August, Europe.

Shorter term on keeping the brain alive is Egypt. Some years ago I had one of the more memorable adventures of my life visiting Egypt. I acquired numerous books, and planned to learn a lot more. My fickle self took over. I moved on to the Caucasus, but before I had really got into the history, it was time for Iran and the Persians. The Hittites took up a lot of my attention, followed closely by Russia and the Mughal empires. Eastern Turkey and Mesopotamia required my attention. Back to Egypt – all I have to do is narrow down “Egypt”. Well not all I have to do. I have to deal with motivation and procrastination. I have turned procrastination into an art form. No need to do this today – tomorrow is another day. Who would have thought “tomorrow” would be another several hundred days.

A sample of the books I acquired about Egypt.

Staving off the black dog has been a battle. Lots of exercise helps. Lack of motivation does not. Fitness levels have dropped alarmingly. The gift of a fitbit, and a competitive streak are now taking care of the lack of motivation. Begone black dog – the sword of Damocles is hanging over your head.

Losing my lifestyle is trivial in the scheme of things. Mental health issues can be dealt with. Not being able to travel is not life threatening.

Documenting my year has made me realise how fortunate I am, and has helped put my losses into perspective.

That does not mean that I cannot still mourn.

Skippers Road, Skippers Canyon, New Zealand.

Skippers Road, Skippers Canyon, New Zealand.

A Road less travelled

Skippers Road has been described as New Zealand’s most dangerous road. It is a one way gravel road, carved out of the side of a canyon, with extreme hairpin bends and with the canyon wall on one side and a vertical drop down to the Shotover River on the other side. A more accurate description might well be the scariest road you will ever drive on, and if you are scared of heights, its not the road trip for you.

I was very fortunate to be meeting up with some old friends, A and J in Queenstown, who suggested a day trip into Skippers Canyon some 20km north of Queenstown.

I experienced a most exciting and interesting day, which included some of the most exceptional scenery around, a scary road and adventure and history. A is an experienced driver, who had navigated Skippers Road on previous occasions.

The road signs at the entrance to Skippers Road make it quite clear that this road is not for the faint hearted.

Since I am not one of the faint hearted (well not when the driver is an experienced 4WD driver who had navigated this road previously) these signs were of interest only and not off putting.

And so we descended into Skippers Canyon. The road was completed in 1891, and is approximately 22km in length. The road was carved by hand by early gold miners. Gold was discovered in 1862, and prior to completion of the road, access was by horses on pack track trails. Looking down the road to the first hairpin bend, I realised that if we were to encounter an oncoming vehicle, one driver would be required to reverse to the nearest spot where 2 vehicles could pass. Driving this road is not for a beginner.

The Shotover River is popular for white water rafting and jet boating. The rafters are transported into the canyon in small buses, which each tow a trailer full of rafts. Luckily we did not meet one of these. The launch site for the rafts is at Deep Creek, about 45 minutes drive from the start of Skippers Road. While we were watching rafts being launched, a helicopter arrived, carrying passengers for the jet boat.

The Shotover River was known as one of the richest gold bearing rivers in the world, although as there is no official data recording the amount of gold found, it is not possible to substantiate this claim.

Skippers Road may well seem to be a very narrow road, but we came upon an even narrower road near the Aurum Recreation Reserve. It even had a signpost with the name of the “road”, branching off Skippers Road, near a small waterfall.

During the gold rush, the settlement had a population of around 1000. A school opened in 1879, and at the settlement’s peak, there were 27 pupils attending the school. There were four main hotels in Skippers Canyon, and numerous “sly grogs” during the gold rush but by 1901, miners were leaving Skippers for the West Coast goldfields. The school closed in 1927 and by the 1940’s the settlement had been abandoned.

To visit the remains of the settlement, we crossed over Skippers Bridge, a suspension bridge 91 metres above the river. The bridge is only 2.2 metres wide. It was opened in 1901, ironically just as the miners were departing to the west coast.

Skippers Bridge

The remains of the settlement are within the Mt Aurum Recreation reserve. There is little left to see other than the schoolhouse and the Mt Aurum homestead, which have been preserved. We were the only people there, and it was almost impossible to visualize a settlement of 1000 people – and totally impossible to imagine the lives the people there led. They would not have experienced the tranquility and beauty of the place. When we visited, there were two old lilac trees in bloom – lilac is not native to the region, so someone, sometime, perhaps wished to create a little bit of home in the wilderness.

There has been some debate around whether Skippers Road is dangerous, or merely scary. The NZ Herald reported (12 March 2014) that a British driving firm “Driving Experience” labelled Skippers Road “as unbelievably scary as it is beautiful”. Their report gives Skippers Road an overall fear factor of 7 out of 10.

The image accompanying the NZ Herald Report.

I would have to weigh in on the side of scary, not dangerous. The tourist operator’s drivers are very skilled. My friend was very skilled. It could be dangerous, I suspect, if there was an influx of less experienced drivers on the road.

A, the skilful driver, and J, in Skippers Canyon.

I am very lucky to have had the experience of being driven over the road less travelled.

Living in Timber Mill Communities: 1934-1948

Living in Timber Mill Communities: 1934-1948

Max’s Story.

The milling of New Zealand native forests started with arrival of the first British Colonists in 1840 who cleared vast areas of native forest. The “immense woods, lofty trees and the finest timber” described by early explorers were reduced very rapidly.

The resulting environmental degradation left mountainous areas susceptible to erosion. Flying over the heavily milled areas between Taupo and Napier, the scars of erosion are still visible.

Max completed his education at Mt Albert Boys Grammar school during the depression. As he was unable to find employment in Auckland, he cycled to Taumaranui to seek work in the timber mills in the rugged King Country, a distance of around 240km today. It took him more than a week to cycle over largely unsealed roads, with steep, narrow, and winding mountainous roads on the final part of the journey. It is estimated that today it would take a cyclist 16 hours to complete the journey.

Max was to work in the timber milling industry for around 15 years.

Taringamotu Totara Sawmill Company, Oruaiwi NZ.

Max obtained employment as an Orderman at Taringamotu Totara Sawmill Company in the township of Oruaiwi, in 1934.

An Orderman is responsible for the fulfilling of orders by the selection of material for cutting to required sizes and lengths, and checking and measuring completed orders and compiling for despatch. The role of an Orderman suited Max very well. He only had one arm, so the jobs involving sawing and chopping were probably not open to him, although he was pretty competent with a saw and an axe.

Oruaiwi, also known as Waituhi, was a small settlement in the valley of the Taringamotu River. The houses were wooden, with corrugated iron chimneys, and a bush railway track ran through the settlement.

Leaving his home in Auckland Max must surely have found Oruaiwi somewhat of a challenge, although he seems to have found the life in remote milling towns enjoyable. The single men’s accommodation was pretty basic, but it was a pretty blokey atmosphere, which Max enjoyed all of his life.

Oruaiwi Township
Max at Oruaiwi

Smyth Bros & Boryer Limited, Arohena, NZ.

Max moved to Arohena in 1936, to work for Smyth Bros & Boryer, Sawmillers & Timber Merchants. Apart from a working holiday in Australia in 1940, he worked for that company until March 1945 as a timber orderman, and then from 1943, he also worked in the office on timber invoice work for half of each working day. The timbers milled were rimu, white pine, totara and matai.

“Arohena had a school, tennis court and a hall, a shop, a row of family homes and a line of single men’s huts and the cookhouse. There was a mill office and the mill owner’s house.

The mill building was behind a big timber yard. It incorporated the log skid, locomotive terminal, and repair and truck sheds. …. The large area of sawn, stacked and labeled timber was criss crossed by hand truck lines. Truck roads transversed the area to allow for loading of customer orders. Circular turntables re-aligned the tram tracks for direction changes, and Max Bridges, holding his clip board under the stump of his missing arm, kept law and order, and recorded the incomings and outgoings of the timber. He later married our primer teacher, Cecelia O’Neill, and they had a garage at Arapuni when the mill closed.” (To Arohena from Chunuk Bair – Untitled media.ap.aucklandmuseum.com).

Arohena is in the Waikato area, which was less isolated than the King Country and the social life was, by all accounts, much livelier than was possible in Oruaiwi. Socials and dances were held in the local hall, and in the neighbouring villages of Pukeatua, Kihikihi and Arapuni. Max and his co-workers also went to the pictures, in Arapuni. The picture theatre was an old corrugated iron shed with numerous holes in the roof and walls. Max used to tell children that the theatre had twinkling stars on the roof, which made it sound rather splendid. He had to confess to the disappointed children that the stars could only be seen through the holes in the roof.

Max also enjoyed fishing on the nearby Waikato River and Arapuni Lake. He was a dedicated fisherman all of his life.

A re-enactment of the Battle of Orekau -“Rewi’s Last Stand” was filmed near Arohena, in 1940 and Max had a “bit” role as a British Soldier. Originally a silent film made in 1925 it was a historical drama based on the last stand of Rewi Maniapoto at Orekau, between 31 March and 2 April, 1864.

Site of the Battle of Orakau

Max married Cecelia O’Neill in Te Awamutu on 10 April 1941. Cecelia was a teacher at the Arohena school, by then a two roomed school. Max moved from the single men’s huts and he and Cecelia lived in one of the unpainted wooden houses provided by the mill owners to married staff. Their daughter was born while they were living in Arohena.

Max, second from right – Arohena

Arohena today is a farming community, with little sign of its former timber milling history.

G.L. Briggs & Sons, Briggsvale, NSW

Max left New Zealand on 10 May, 1940 on the Monterey bound for Sydney, via Melbourne. His occupation was listed as an Orderman.

His ultimate destination was Briggsvale on the Dorrigo Plateau in Northern New South Wales, where he was to work at the sawmill there. The journey from Sydney to Briggsvale by train would have taken more than a day. The train from Sydney to Glenreagh was an overnight trip, and he would then have had to get the train from Glenreagh to Briggsvale.

Ulong Railway Station – on the line from Glenreagh to Briggsvale, which Max would have passed through. (Picture credit Margaret Anne Block)

G.L. Briggs & Sons established a sawmill at Briggsvale in 1923, an isolated spot in the middle of virgin forest. Max worked on the planer, tallying and sorting timber. When Max worked at Briggsvale, there were around 150 residents. The village, comprising staff cottages and barracks was situated next to the mill.

Max and his workmates would catch the train to Dorrigo for social events – sport and the local pub.

Class A Climax geared locomotive, Briggsvale.

Max revisited Briggsvale in 1975 with Cecelia and his daughter. He identified the remains of the single men’s quarters and the cookhouse. The mill building, though in a state of disrepair, was still standing.

Max’s daughter and granddaughter recently visited Briggsvale. No one appears to live there now. It was necessary to bush bash and trespass to access the site. The site had not changed a lot since 1975, but it was not possible to re-identify the cookhouse site, or the single men’s quarters.

Above Left: Briggsvale in the 1970’s. Right: Briggsvale 2020

Max came back to New Zealand from Sydney on the Awatea, arriving in Auckland on 3 November 1940. He returned to his employment in Arohena.

Tarawera Timber Co Ltd., Te Haroto.

Moving to Te Haroto in 1945, Max was employed as an Assistant Yardman. His duties “besides classing, tallying and loading lorries, included the making out of specifications for each load”. (Reference from Tarawera Timber Co. Ltd, dated March 14, 1947.) His wage was six pounds per week.

Napier Taupo Road winding down to Te Haroto. (Credit – Whites Aviation)

Te Haroto is situated on the Napier-Taupo Road, in Hawkes Bay. In 1945 the road was narrow, unsealed and steep in parts. The hairpin bends were the stuff of legend. The big timber trucks frequently had to reverse a couple of times to get around the worst of the bends. Driving that road was not for the faint hearted. Cars would have to follow timber trucks for many miles before there was any opportunity to overtake. Radiators were apt to boil – there were numerous spots along the road, signposted, where they could be topped up from a stream. Bridges were narrow one way affairs, the downhill traffic being required to give way to those vehicles labouring uphill. Max had an old de Soto car, which managed the road pretty well.

Max and Cecelia initially lived in one of three little wooden cottages, built right beside the Napier Taupo Road. It must have been less than pleasant, with timber lorries constantly rumbling past on the unsealed road.

Conditions were primitive. Cooking was done on a fuel stove, with no temperature gauge. Cecelia used to wave her hand in the oven to guess what the temperature was. Great skill was required to keep the stove at a constant temperature.

The laundry consisted of a copper and a pair of concrete tubs, and was in an outbuilding with only cold water available. There was no time to cook on washing day, so Monday was washing day as there was always left over roast from Sunday, which was either eaten cold or minced and turned into something else.

A fire had to be lit under the copper, and when the water was boiling, in would go the items being washed. A wooden stick was used to stir the items around, and to lift them out into the tubs. A wooden scrubbing board was utilised to totally clean the boiled items. They were then rinsed and the white items were lifted into the second tub, which had a blue bag dissolved in it, to keep them white. There was no wringer, so all the laundry had to be wrung out by hand.

Old house at Te Haroto, which is much like Max and Cecelia’s house.

Ultimately, Cecelia ran the single men’s cookhouse, and they moved into the accommodation right at the mill. Cecelia had attended university, and held a BA. She was also a trained schoolteacher. Cooking for all the single men on a fuel stove in a remote timber mill community would surely not have been how she had envisaged her future.

Cecelia’s home town was Hastings, in Hawkes Bay. At least in Te Haroto she was closer to her family, and could often get a lift on a timber lorry to visit them.

Social activities included various sport, socials, and occasional concerts. The concert performers were generally people from the community who could play a musical instrument or sing. One performer played two instruments at the same time, a guitar and a mouth organ (held to his mouth by a strap).

Agricultural shows were held annually, which attracted people from the whole area. The shows always had woodchopping competitions, sporting activities, food stalls and a beer tent. Occasionally they featured Scottish dancing competitions. The highland fling and the sword dance from old Scotland would surely have been somewhat strange in a remote New Zealand timber milling community.

At the Te Haroto Show, 1946 – note the motor vehicles which navigated the local roads.

Max could see that the future of milling native timber was limited. Fire and logging had rapidly depleted native forests. Deforestation was becoming more environmentally contentious, particularly in areas where erosion had become a problem in the early 1940’s. The work was physically hard, with long hours and not well paid. He left Te Haroto after 15 years work in the timber milling industry in 1947. He made lifelong friends while living in the remote timber milling communities, and he always spoke fondly of his time in these communities.

A great tree comes down on hills already stripped of bush (Page 59 “The Way we Were Pictorial Memories of early NZ – Hawkes Bay/East Coast)

In New Zealand, native forests now have some legal protection. Native forest logging ended on public land in 2002. Logging of native trees is governed by a permit system. Exotic forests were planted, mainly pinus radiata to satisfy timber needs, one of the earliest being Kiangaroa, in the North Island.

Max enjoyed working and living in remote saw milling communities. He made lifelong friends, and he always spoke fondly of his time working at the timber mills.

Solomon Islands

Living in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s felt somewhat like being an observer in one of Somerset Maugham’s short stories.

Many of the British Colonial officers from Maugham’s stories were recognisable 50 years after he wrote these stories. There appeared to be a pre-occupation with class, tradition and position among the long term serving officers and perhaps even more so among their wives, whose status varied according to their husband’s position. Most of them had been in the Colonial Service all their working lives, and appeared to be trying to create a life which they could never have aspired to in the UK.

I grew up in New Zealand. Going to the Solomon Islands was the first time I had left New Zealand, and I was totally unprepared for life in a British Protectorate.

The journey from Auckland to Honiara, in those days was an adventure in itself, especially for a first overseas trip. An overnight stay in Fiji was necessary. Descending from the plane in Nadi and experiencing for the first time breathing in warm humid air is still a vivid memory, as is the scent of frangipani.

The flight from Nadi to Honiara was long, with two stops. The first in Vila and the second in Santo in the (then) New Hebrides.

Stopover in Santo, Vanuatu

The view, on descent into Honiara, was spectacular. The sea was several shades of blue, startlingly white coral sand beaches, fringed with coconut palms. The palm trees merged with jungle and mountains beyond.

The requirement for flexibility was illustrated immediately on arrival. There was no house available in Honiara, and one would not be available for another three months. Luckily a house was available in Gizo, in the Western District. Oh, and also your temporary accommodation at the Mendana Hotel is not available. Lucky me – I get to stay in a motel (and that is a generous description). Hovel would have been a more accurate description. Mouldy bathroom (though I was to learn that mouldy bathrooms went with the territory), all manner of insects and no airconditioning.

Gizo is a small island, 11km long and 5km wide, about 380km north west of Honiara. It was the site of the second government station in the Protectorate, and was established in 1899. The main purpose for establishing the station was to control head hunting, which was rife in the area. On their way home from raids on nearby islands, the headhunters stopped at Gizo to wash and clean the skulls. Headhunting had mostly been suppressed by 1904.

The flight to Gizo was about 1.30 hours, in a small baron beechcraft plane – so small that passengers were weighed with their luggage to ensure weight limits were adhered to. Flying at a relatively low altitude made that 90 minutes among the more magical of my life, even now after many years of world travel. Islands with palm fringed beaches, lagoons of immense beauty and reefs turning the dark blue of the deeper parts of the sea to a myriad of shades of blue to almost white. Along the way a small underwater volcano was erupting, which would ultimately result in the creation of a new island. The pilot made a couple of circuits to enable passengers to get a good view of the steam and bubbles created by the eruption. The outline of the top of the volcano was visible under the water.

One of many small islands

Gizo did not have its own airstrip at that time. It was necessary to land at the old war time airstrip at Barakoma on the island of Vella Lavella, north west of Gizo. The journey to Gizo was completed by a 90 minute boat trip. Alighting from the aircraft with nothing in sight other than the airstrip surrounded by palm trees, with the sea to the north, was a surreal experience. The silence when the aircraft engines stopped was deafening. There was absolutely nothing there. Finally a mini moke appeared out of the jungle. The transport to the wharf.

Gizo was a bit of a shock, to say the least. The waterfront area was dismal. There was little sign of life. The main street was dusty and forlorn looking, lined with a few Chinese merchants shops all closed. It was hot – very hot.

Outside Chinese Merchant’s shop, Gizo main street – 1969

First impressions are often not best impressions. I had arrived at the hottest time of day, when people are not out and about. Although it wasn’t called a siesta, in fact that is what it was.

Later that day I was taken to the recently opened Commonwealth Bank of Australia to meet the manager, and change some money. The manager gave me a tour of the bank, including a small wharf beside the bank building. The wharf was lined with cages containing crocodiles. I shall never forgive that manager. He told me that the crocodiles were the bank’s security – they were released into the bank at night. I believed him.

My house was on a ridge behind the Gizo township. The views south, across a lagoon to a reef, and beyond was spectacular.

Gizo ended up being a lot of fun, and a gentle introduction to the absurdities of British Colonial life. There were very few Europeans – the bank manager from Australia, a school teacher and surveyor from New Zealand, missionaries and a few lands department ex Africa British Colonial people. There was, of course, the British District Commissioner. A very pompous chap, and his wife, who considered Australians and New Zealander’s did not know how to dress or behave appropriately. What a trial for her to have to be among people whom one would not naturally mix with “at home”. Her racist attitude to Solomon Islanders was pompous and paternalistic.

She might have been correct in some respects about Australian and New Zealander’s ignorance of the social mores of a dying Empire. We were a somewhat irreverent bunch. The pomp and ceremony of the dying days of the Empire were an occasion for great mirth. ANZAC day was not acknowledged in a Protectorate. This needed to be remedied. Every morning a Solomon Island police officer, folded British flag under his arm, would march from the police station to the flagpole, and with some ceremony raise the flag. Each evening, the reverse occurred.

On 24th April, after the British flag had been lowered and marched back to headquarters, the irreverent ones raised an Australian flag on the flagpole. Early next morning we are all out to observe the ceremony. Policeman marches up to flagpole. Rope not in correct position. He was most confused. It took a while to remedy this rank insubordination, but ultimately the Australian flag was lowered and the British flag reigned triumphant.

Hell hath no fury than a Colonial power feeling insulted. The bank manager and the school teacher were recalled to Honiara, for a dressing down from their superiors.

Flexibility was also required when it came to food shopping. I arrived “between boats” – every four or five weeks a boat bearing food from Australia arrived in Gizo. Thank goodness for the local markets, with an abundance of local fruit and vegetables and fish. The Chinese Trader’s stores stocked staples, such as flour and sugar. There was also a huge variety of canned food. The only thing I found difficult to deal with was canned butter and milk.

There was no school for ex pat children. My children were hastily enrolled with the New Zealand correspondence school. Their inept mother was the supervisor. The materials arrived. For mathematics, there were cuisenaire rods – mathematical learning aids. Interactive, and a hands on way to explore mathematics and learn mathematical concepts. I had not the slightest idea of what do do, even though I am sure the instructions were perfectly adequate. Three months building houses with cuisenaire rods should surely not matter.

So, what did one do when not working. For socialising, there was, as described in Somerset Maugham’s stories, a jolly little club. The Gizo hotel had just opened.

There were wonderful boating and snorkelling experiences to be had, although I found snorkelling somewhat stressful. There were coral snakes (if you get bitten you will die), and stone fish (wear sandshoes in case you stand on one. If you do you may die, but you will almost certainly suffer excruciating pain). Don’t stand on a sea slug, (you will not die, but the sea slug will empty its insides out all over your foot.)

A day trip to Kasola Island – called Kennedy Island due to John F Kennedy’s boat being sunk nearby during World War II – with a picnic lunch on a beach, and snorkelling was always a great day out. I did see a coral snake just off Kennedy Island. It was directly below me. I willed myself not to panic, glided over it and made straight for the beach. No more snorkelling for me that day.

On Kennedy Island

The local priest, Father Meese was an interesting man. He was quite a businessman. He acted as agent for various commercial companies, such as Solomon Islands Airways, and had a sheaf of business cards for each of the organisations he represented. He was frequently seen driving his mini moke overloaded with local children around Gizo.

I decided to attend Mass one Sunday. Solomon Islanders were sitting on one side of the Church and Gilbertese people on the other. Where should I sit? I decided to sit at the back, and change sides during the service.

The sermon was delivered in pidgin english. The topic was from Leviticus on revenge – “fracture for fracture eye for eye and tooth for tooth”. Listening to the familiar words in pidgin english was a delight. I wish I could remember the pidgin words. I reflected that this phrase must have been spoken in so many languages, starting from ancient Mesopotamia where it was part of Hammurabi’s Code, before the bible was written.

The time came for my return to Honiara. Back to civilization, in a manner of speaking. Woodford School relieved me of my pathetic attempt at educating my children. Mendana Avenue, the main street was then lined with beautiful ponciana trees. There were shops, including a bookshop. Joy. Chinatown was large, and the local markets very extensive.

The Solomon Islands are believed to have been settled around 2000BC. The first contact with Europeans came in 1568 when Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana visited the area, naming them Isle de Solomon. He was hoping for a King Solomon mineral riches experience, and there were rumours that he discovered the place where King Solomon obtained the gold for his temple in Jerusalem.

It was around 200 years before the area was visited again when in 1866 Britain and Germany divided the islands between them – British in the South, Germans in the north. The Germans ceded their rule to Britain in 1889. Tulagi was the administrative capital of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. The capital moved to Honiara after World War II.

The Colonial Office appointed Charles Woodford as the first District Commissioner in 1897. He justified policies favouring foreigners ahead of Solomon Islanders because “my opinion is that nothing…can prevent the eventual extinction of the Melanesian race” (RNZ.co.nz./collectionsSolomon Islands – a brief history part 3-5). The British, on their invasion of Australia, appeared to do their best to ensure the original people suffered the same fate.

With this small amount of knowledge of the history, I commenced life in Honiara.

Honiara – Point Cruz in background.

I discovered that the Gizo District Commissioner’s wife was a pussy cat in the scheme of things. She and Mr Pompous were amateurs in the superiority game

There seemed to be a presumption of superiority over Solomon Island people, which manifested itself in racist attitudes, paternalism and the infantilising attitude towards Solomon Islanders – grown men and women being referred to as “boys” and “girls”.

I receive a formal invitation, in the mail, from my next door neighbour to a dinner party. I was to RSVP by mail. The invitation informed me that HE was arriving at 7.30pm. So – who might HE be, and why did it matter what time HE was arriving. Well, HE was the His Excellency, the High Commissioner, and one was expected to arrive before him. No wonder these minor functionaries became so self important.

Luckily a friend briefed me about the so called protocol at these dinners. After dinner the men would go to Africa, and the ladies would withdraw to the hostesses bedroom. Going to Africa meant the men were all going out to pee on the lawn. The women sat and stood around in the bedroom, waiting their turn to use the lavatory. There was a queue system. The head of the queue was the wife of the most senior man, and so on down the ranks. Nothing to do with need, or their own rank. As a feminist, it grated that women were happy to accept their status, according to their husband’s position.

Single women, no matter what their occupation was, were at the end of the queue.

Some slight satisfaction was to be gained from jumping the queue, thus proving that antipodeans really did not know how to behave in the appropriate manner.

There were a couple of “jolly little clubs” in Honiara. The Yacht Club and the Guadalcanal Club. There was also a golf club, with a nine hole course. The Guadalcanal Club had a swimming pool, tennis courts and a bowling green. Solomon Islanders, at that time, were not admitted to membership of these clubs. They were however employed by these establishments, to wait upon the members. Infantilising these men, certain members would click their fingers and call “boy, another G & T (or whatever).” The Solomon Islanders were not “boys”. They were mature men. Looking back, I am impressed at the self restraint the Solomon Island people exhibited.

An invitation to a dinner at Government House arrived in the mail. By this time, the Solomon Islands were heading towards independence and prominent local people were included on the guest list. I was seated next to a Solomon Island man who would go on to become the first Chief Minister and Prime Minister.

He had attended Te Aute College in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand (where incidentally my grandfather, Bill O’Neill had lectured students on the finer points of rugby union – (George Nepia, a former All Black in his autobiography “I George Nepia” – ‘but after a famous character of Hawkes Bay Rugby, Bill O’Neill, a leading referee had come out to the college and lectured us with blackboard illustrations, I began to get the drift.'”).

It was customary at the conclusion of these dinners for port to be served. The port bottle would start with the High Commissioner, who would pour his and the woman’s beside him. The bottle would then be handed to the next man. Women did not get to touch the bottle. I was so impressed when my Solomon Island companion poured his port, and handed the bottle to me to pour my own. YES.

Toward the end of my time in the Solomon Islands, it was announced that the Queen of England, her husband Phillip, Lord Louis Mountbatten, her daughter Anne and her then husband would be arriving on the Britannia to grace us with their presence.

I am a Republican, and I can only excuse my acceptance of the invitation to attend a reception on the Britannia as a lapse of my moral compass, and curiosity. I comfort myself with the fact that I refused to curtsey to the British Queen. The invitation stipulated the dress code as “casual island”. We were ferried out to the Britannia by boat. There is a receiving line. The British Queen, her husband, Mountbatten, Anne and her husband, all in formal frocks and tiaras for the ladies, and dinner jackets and medals for the men. Well, let us try to demoralise the guests in casual island dress shall we.

A loyal ADC is circulating. “Are you having a good time he enquires of me”. Whoever has a “good time” at a cocktail party, which this was, minus the cocktails. A warm gin and tonic with no ice is hardly inviting. I ducked the question, and said that it was an interesting experience. I asked him why the royal persons were in formal dress when the invitation stated casual island dress. “Oh, the natives expect them to be formal” was his response. The natives!

There was, of course, a lot more depth to living in Honiara than the social scene. The pompous ones were a minority overall, and most people were not characters from Somerset Maugham’s short stories.

Sporting activities included tennis, golf, lawn bowls, boating and fishing. There was a Honiara branch of the Hash House Harriers (a walking and running organisation), which my son, aged 10, enjoyed.

After a Hash House Harriers run in Honiara.
On a coral beach, north east from Honiara

Another popular activity was searching for World War 2 relics. The Japanese Imperial Army invaded the islands in World War 2 in 1942, and some of the bloodiest battles, including the Battle of Guadacanal, August 1942-February 1943, occurred in the Solomon Islands. The battles were conducted on the land, and from the sea and air.

Fossicking would almost always turn up something of interest. Shell cases of all sizes were a common find. There were wrecks of ships on the beach, and crashed planes in the bush, as well as old military vehicles. Iron bottom sound, north of Honiara, was as its name suggests, a graveyard of US and Japanese ships and downed fighter planes. Paradise for scuba divers.

The British Solomon Islands Protectorate was one of the final countries remaining of the British Empire. During the period leading up to self government, there appeared to be little effort put into training Solomon Island people. Maybe this was because there were very few alternate employment opportunities for the British Colonial Service officers – Hong Kong could hardly accommodate all of them.

The UK granted the Solomon Islands independence on 11 July 1978, at which time the Solomon Islands joined the United Nations as its 150th sovereign State. The newly independent Solomon Islands joined the Commonwealth, with the British Queen as head of State, represented by a Governor General.

Happily Charles Woodford’s prophesy that there would be an extinction of the Melanesian race was false.

I left the Solomon Islands, enriched by the experience of learning about the Melanesian culture and the history of the Islands. Although not enriching, it was also a learning experience to observe the behaviours of the long serving British Colonial officers in one of the last fragments of the British Empire.

Gardens of Stresa, Northern Italy.

Arriving in Stresa as evening approached was magical. The mountains surrounding Lake Maggiori were starting to merge into the dusk, their snowy white peaks starkly contrasting with the bluish purple of the mountains.

The winding road down into Stresa provided beautiful views of the lake, the Borromean Islands, and boats heading in to the wharf.

Lake Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy, and crosses the border into Switzerland. Messing about in boats is clearly a popular activity. Fishermen’s boats abound on Isola dei Pescatori, pleasure boats of all kinds jostle for space with the ferries around Stresa. Stunning lakeside residences have beautiful yachts moored nearby.

Serious hikers and cyclists were thick on the ground early in the morning, heading out to conquer all obstacles. No doubt skiers joined the early morning exodus during the season. Being among the more slothful types, I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on the terrace of my hotel, overlooking the lake, contemplating the leisurely activities I had planned – visiting the gardens of Stresa and surrounds.


Isola Bella

Isola Bella, one of the Borromean Islands, is wholly occupied by the Palazzo Borromeo, and its extravagant garden. Work started on the Palazzo and garden in 1632, and was not finally completed during 1948-59.

The garden is constructed on ten terraces, and is Baroque Italian style. It is the most grandiose, flamboyant and fanciful garden I have ever visited. Magnificent trees, ponds and fountains, statues, obelisks and pinnacles, orderly flowerbeds and lawns, shrubs, flowers, roses, hydrangea, camellia, azalea and citrus together with expansive views over Lake Maggiore to the mountains provide a visual overload of massive proportions.

Approaching Isola Bella.

The garden is entered through the Palazzo. A colossal camphor tree greets you as you emerge in to the garden. It arrived as a sapling in 1819. There are numerous notable old trees around the garden, which help to balance the grandiose architecture and ornamentation and “carved” trees with nature.

The Teatro Massimo (the rear of which is visible in the image above) has to be the most extreme baroque architectural garden structure ever. It is topped by a unicorn being ridden by a winged figure representing either love or honour. There are 4 huge statues representing four elements – fire, earth air and water. There are statues of the four seasons, each holding a plant applicable to their season. Add some huge scallop shell decorations and many more statues, and you should get the vision.

Terracotta pots of pansies or pots of round clipped buxus lined the various steps between terraces, carpets of multi coloured poppies filled some of the formal flower beds, and everywhere statues were thick on the ground. Here a Neptune, there a Diana presiding over a pool and huge concrete vases, some filled with fruit.

Diana presiding over a pool.

White peacocks strut about on the manicured lawns in front of the Teatro Massimo, occasionally showing off their magnificent tails.

A loud voice rang out over the lawn “Oh I say Mabel, look at them peacocks – we don’t have any in England”. It made me think of a visit to Leeds Castle in Kent a few weeks earlier, where several white peacocks were strutting their stuff. If I had been able to identify the voice, I may have suggested she and Mabel should visit Leeds Castle.

Sipping a cocktail in the Piano Bar at my hotel that evening, looking out over the Lake and listening to Chopin was a perfect end to an enchanting day.

Villa Taranto

“A beautiful garden does not need to be big, but it should be the realisation of one’s dreams” said Neil Boyd McEacharn, the creator of the Botanical Gardens at Villa Taranto, Pallanza.

One of the ponds at Villa Taranto

All very well for him – the beautiful botanical gardens at Villa Taranto cover around 20 hectares. Still, that gives those of us with city gardens some hope of creating a place of beauty.

McEacharn established the gardens in 1931-40. He travelled the world in search of rare species. There are around 20,000 plant varieties in the gardens, which include a terraced garden, a bog garden, a water garden, a dahlia garden and a herbarium.

The Villa Taranto contains one of of Europes largest collections of exotic species. McEacharn’s dream to create one of the world’s most beautiful botanic gardens was fulfilled. The fountains, ponds and architectural features add to the beauty of the garden.

McEacharn died in 1964, and is buried in a mausoleum in the garden.

Isola Madre

Gustave Flaubert, in 1845, said that “Isola Madre is the most sensual place I have ever seen in the world”, and described it as an “earthly paradise”.

Isola Madre is the largest of the Borromean Islands. The botanic garden on the island covers an area of eight hectares, and is described as an English style garden, and was landscaped in the early 19th century. It is one of Italy’s oldest botanical gardens, and contains a 200 year old Kashmir Cypress and a 125 year old Jubaeae Spectabilis Palm. There is no trace of the earlier orchards, and olive and citrus groves.

The garden seemed more tropical to me than an English style garden, with its eucalypts, banana and hibiscus, although it does have wonderful azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. The ponds and landscaping were a little reminiscent of an English garden.

The modern sculpture in the garden included Velasco Vitale’s Foresta rossa (red forest) and Branco, a pack of dogs. Foresta rossa is the name of a pinewood near Chernobyl, so named because immediately after the disaster in 1986, the trees all turned red, and then died. Foresta rossa was created from concrete tar and sheet metal.

Foresta rossa

These dogs are fun. They are created from different materials, and all look different. Each dog is named after a vanished city.

Champagne cocktails in the Piano Bar that evening provided a perfect end to another day in paradise.

Giardino Botanica Alpinia

The Alpine Garden is 800m above Stresa, and provides panoramic views of the Borromeo Islands, Lake Maggiore and its surrounding peaks. The Swiss Alps can be seen in the distance.

The garden was created in 1934, and is the second largest alpine garden in Italy. It covers an area of 40,000 sq. metres, and contains more than 1000 species of alpine and sub alpine plants, and includes many rare trees.

The garden contains botanic species from the Alps and Alpine foothills and from the Caucasus, China and Japan. A wetland area has been created for aquatic plants. An Alpine garden is a pretty wondrous place – seeing the variety of plants which grow and thrive in an alpine climate never fails to impress me.

Wetland area.

I combined my visit to the Alpine Garden with a long walk which took me through Alpinio and through beautiful trees of many varieties.


I then utilised the Mottarone cable car to reach the top of Mottarone. I felt as though I was on top of the world, looking down on creation, when I walked up from the cable car terminus. A 360 degree uninterrupted view of mountains, from the Ligurian Apennines, the Maritime Alps to the Monte Rosa Massif, and the high peaks of Switzerland, seven visible lakes and the Po Valley – this view has to be up there with the best.

Having dinner on the terrace, looking out over the lake, accompanied by a cold crisp white wine, I felt as if all was well in my world.

Parco della Villa Pallavicino

The Pallavicino family acquired this property in 1862. The park was a work in progress for many years, and in 1952 a zoo was added.

The park is approached along a line of Cypresses, tortured to form a row of arches, reminiscent of a cloister, with magnificent views over the lake.

The garden is said to be reminiscent of an English garden, which in parts it was. The rose garden is mid 20th century, and did remind me of English rose gardens, especially the rose archways in the Regents Park in London. The rose garden was established in mid 20th century.

The current flower garden layout is from the 1950’s, and is also reminiscent of an English garden. The flower garden was the former kitchen garden.

The trees are magnificent and include centuries old chestnuts, beeches, maples redwoods and magnolias. There are numerous water features from ponds and fountains to waterfalls.

There are grassy slopes, leading up to more forested areas, with rather odd, though pretty, flower beds here and there. Peacocks roam about, adding to the colour and contrasting beautifully with the green, green grass – or should I say lawns. What I have in my garden is grass full of weeds, what this garden has is beautifully manicured carpets of green.

Grassy slope, with magnificent trees in the background.

I thought that the request from the grass was a great deal more persuasive than the usual command to keep off the grass.

Grand Hotel Des Isles Borromees

I stayed in this historic hotel in Stresa, and had the bonus of its park to wander around. The hotel opened in 1863, and the park/garden has evolved since then.

Grand Hotel des Isles Borromees

The park contains hundreds of varieties of azaleas and camellias, and is in the style of a classic Italian garden. There are pathways winding through trees. Marble statues, mostly representations from Greek and Roman mythology, are liberally sprinkled around, including Neptune with his trident, Apollo and Fortuna, Paris and Helen, Dionysus cupids, and many more.

My room overlooked a fountain and garden. Fountain doesn’t seem an adequate description. The fountain is a reproduction of a marble fountain by Italian sculptor Vicenzo de Rossi. It is much more than a mere fountain. Two levels, granite stairs, multi coloured arabesques, mosaic walls, and a superb mosaic carpet. Statues representing 5 continents (sad to say us Antipodeans are not represented as Oceana had not been discovered).

The most startling thing about this fountain is that on the hour a music box in the fountain plays Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from the ninth symphony. Luckily it ceases late at night. I love Beethovens 9th, but a music box version of Ode to Joy every hour stretches the friendship.

There were no gardens on the Isola dei Pescatori, the third of the Borromean islands, but I hopped off the ferry there one day to have lunch. It is a very pretty spot, with the fishermen’s boats lining the shores, swans sailing around majestically and lots of lovely spots to sit and enjoy the views. However I shall never again ask for a “doggy box” at a restaurant.

Having arrived in Stresa at dusk, leaving early in the morning provided a different perspective. As my car wound its way up from Stresa, the lake was sparkling in the sun and the snow on the mountain top was starkly white in the morning sun. There were a lot more boats on the lake. The ferries were making their way to the islands and settlements around the lake and the pleasure craft were heading out the places unknown. I was sad to leave. There are many more gardens to explore in the area, so I will return.

Baltic States -Wind Vanes and other photographic themes from other places.

I love photographic themes. When I travel, as secondary photographic travel narrative, I choose a theme. On my visit to the Baltic States, I chose wind vanes as a theme. Other themes have included Pub signs in London, detail on Art Nouveau buildings in Riga, Door knockers in Rome and Paris, and Georgian doors in Dublin – the least original theme ever.

Images from previous travel themes.

London Pub Signs

Art Nouveau Detail on Riga Buildings

Door knockers in Paris and Rome

Wind Vanes

Wind/weather/weathercock vanes have been around for a long time. Apparently they were independently invented in Greece and China around 2BC (though the dates vary considerably).

The Huainanzi, a guide to the theory of practice of government in early Han China (2CBE), describes a wind observing fan.

The Greek astronomer Andronicus is said to have created the first recorded weather vane. It was on top of the Tower of the Winds, in the ancient Agora, and was a tribute to Neptune. The octagonal Tower of the Winds was named for the eight Greek gods of the wind. It still stands, minus the original weather vane.


In the 9AD a pope decreed that every church should be topped with a cock shaped wind vane, as a reminder of the prophecy that the cock would not crow the morning after the last supper, referencing Peter’s betrayal of Jesus.

Weather vanes were often found on the front of viking ships – bronze weather viking vanes have been discovered from the 9th century.

In the middle ages, public buildings in Europe were adorned with weather/wind vanes which took the shape of an arrow or pennant.

The Baltic States have a huge variety of wind vanes.

The wind vanes on the Curonian Spit in Lithuania were quite different. They were introduced in 1844 by fishing authorities and were affixed to all sailing boats permitted to fish in the Curonian Lagoon. It made for easy identification of every boat, and where it came from.

In Nida today, there can been seen numerous examples of these wind vanes. They are made of wood, and people now use them as decoration to their homes, and in public places as a display.

In choosing wind vanes for my theme in the Baltic States, I inadvertently discovered the fascinating history of them.

In choosing future themes, I shall look for objects which also have an interesting history. Clock faces come to mind especially astronomical clocks, such as the Prague Orloj.

Earlier posts: