Archive for May, 2001

went to Bahrain to go pearl diving. You know, go diving, grab oysters, open oysters, find pearls. Simple huh, and with the promise of riches beyond dreams (or was I reading too much into the advertising there?), it has to be a winner.

So I fly in to Bahrain on a lovely summers day. Hot and calm. Crap weather to be wandering around a city with a pile of luggage looking for cheap digs, but great weather for diving. So I get myself said digs, and cruise off to the dive shop, where I say “I am here, take me diving”. And they say “no worries mate (Robin – the dive shop chick was an Aussie, so she did actually say that), we will do the course, and the forecast for tomorrow is looking a bit marginal, but if not, then the next day”.

This process repeated. The whole week I was there, there were 2 good days. The day I arrived, and the day I left. Someone, somewhere is laughing at me. Actually, considering that at least one person has read this, I reckon more than one person is laughing at me.

Despite having a holiday which primarily consisted of waiting to go diving tomorrow, Bahrain is a pretty interesting place to do it in. So I had fun, because the ones in charge of the weather (do they do the traffic lights too?) don’t have a monopoly on having a few laughs. And of course I try my best to spread joy and merriment in peoples lives. This was helped by the crew at the dive shop who reckoned that they should do their best to make sure I had a good time, which was pretty cool, thanks.

So instead of diving, I lapped up some of the culture to be had in Bahrain. If you have never been to a Moslem girlie bar (yes there is such a thing), it is something you must do at least once, at least it is if you are masochistic. The show is even less spectacular than you would imagine, but I learnt that Fosters makes a no alcohol beer (but can it taste any worse?). Those Saudis watching the show wouldn’t be drinking alcohol would they? The fact that shows as bad as that one do not only survive, but flourish, is one of the best arguments that I have seen that extreme rules about what one may and may not wear are a bad idea.

Though not all of the woman in Bahrain seemed to follow the Islamic clothing rules. The ones who hung around my hotel speaking Russian especially. They made an interesting contrast to the people who decided that the modesty required of Islamic women extended to having to wear gloves. Interestingly for a country where the women are covered from head to toe, there are a lot of jewellery shops.

Alas, even the airlines were not cooperating, because the flights to Cairo were all full, so I couldn’t extend my time there and had to leave for Egypt as planned. Bugger.

I thought that you might like to get the thoughts of someone with talent & skills on Aussie, rather than just mine, so I attached this.

The Confusing Country

by Douglas Adams

Australia is a very confusing place, taking up a large amount of the bottom half of the planet. It is recognisable from orbit because of many unusual features, including what at first looks like an enormous bite taken out of its southern edge; a wall of sheer cliffs which plunge deep into the girting sea. Geologists assure us that this is simply an accident of geomorphology and plate tectonics, but they still call it the “Great Australian Bight” proving that not only are they covering up a more frightening theory, but they can’t spell either.

The first of the confusing things about Australia is the status of the place. Where other land masses and sovereign lands are classified as either continent, island, or country, Australia is considered all three. Typically, it is unique in this.

The second confusing thing about Australia are the animals. They can be divided into three categories: Poisonous, Odd, and Sheep. It is true that of the 10 most poisonous arachnids on the planet, Australia has 9 of them.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that of the 9 most poisonous arachnids, Australia has all of them. However, there are curiously few snakes, possibly because the spiders have killed them all. But even the spiders won’t go near the sea. Any visitors should be careful to check inside boots (before putting them on) under toilet seats (before sitting down) and generally everywhere else. A stick is very useful for this task.

Strangely, it tends to be the second class of animals (the Odd) that are more dangerous. The creature that kills the most people each year is the common Wombat. It is nearly as ridiculous as its name, and spends its life digging holes in the ground in which it hides. During the night it comes out to eat worms and grubs. The wombat kills people in two ways: First, the animal is indestructible. Digging holes in the hard Australian clay builds muscles that outclass Olympic weightlifters. At night, they often wander the roads. Semi-trailers (Road Trains) have hit them at high speed, with all 9 wheels on one side, and this merely makes them very annoyed. They express this by snorting, glaring, and walking away. Alas, to smaller cars, the wombat becomes an asymmetrical launching pad, with results that can be imagined, but not adequately described.

The second way the wombat kills people relates to its burrowing behaviour. If a person happens to put their hand down a Wombat hole, the Wombat will feel the disturbance and think “Ho! My hole is collapsing!” at which it will brace its muscled legs and push up against the roof of its burrow with incredible force, to prevent its collapse. Any unfortunate hand will be crushed, and attempts to withdraw will cause the Wombat to simply bear down harder. The unfortunate will then bleed to death through their crushed hand as the wombat prevents him from seeking assistance. This is considered the third most embarrassing known way to die, and Australians don’t talk about it much.

At this point, we would like to mention the Platypus,estranged relative of the mammal, which has a duck-bill, otter’s tail, webbed feet, lays eggs, detects its aquatic prey in the same way as the electric eel, and has venomous barbs attached to its hind legs, thus combining all ‘typical’ Australian attributes into a single improbable creature.

The last confusing thing about Australia is the inhabitants. First, a short history: Some time around 40,000 years ago,some people arrived in boats from the north. They ate all the available food, and lot of them died. The ones that survived learned respect for the balance of nature, man’s proper place in the scheme of things, and spiders. They settled in, and spent a lot of the intervening time making up strange stories.

Then, around 200 years ago, Europeans arrived in boats from the north. More accurately, European convicts were sent, with a few deranged and stupid people in charge. They tried to plant their crops in Autumn(failing to take account of the reversal of the seasons when moving from the top half of
the planet to the bottom), ate all their food, and a lot of them died.

About then the sheep arrived, and have been treasured ever since.

It is interesting to note here that the Europeans always consider themselves vastly superior to any other race they encounter, since they can lie, cheat, steal, and litigate (marks of a civilised culture they say),whereas all the Aboriginals can do is happily survive being left in the middle of a vast red-hot desert, equipped with a stick.

Eventually, the new lot of people stopped being Europeans on Extended Holiday and became Australians. The changes are subtle, but deep, caused by the mind-stretching expanses of nothingness and eerie quiet, where a person can sit perfectly still and look deep inside themselves to the core of their essence, their reasons for being, and the necessity of checking inside your boots every morning for fatal surprises. They also picked up the most finely tuned sense of irony in the world, and the Aboriginal gift for making up stories. Be warned.

There is also the matter of the beaches.

Australian beaches are simply the nicest and best in the entire world. Although anyone actually venturing into the sea will have to contend with sharks, stinging jellyfish, stonefish (a fish which sits on the bottom of the sea, pretends to be a rock, and has venomous barbs sticking out of its back that will kill just from the pain) and surfboarders. However, watching a beach sunset is worth the risk.

As a result of all this hardship, dirt, thirst, and wombats, you would expect Australians to be a dour lot. Instead, they are genial, jolly, cheerful, and always willing to share a kind word with a stranger, unless they are an American. Faced with insurmountable odds and impossible problems, they smile disarmingly and look for a stick. Major engineering feats have been performed with sheets of corrugated iron, string, and mud.

Alone of all the races on earth, they seem to be free from the ‘Grass is Greener on the other side of the fence’ syndrome, and roundly proclaim that Australia is, in fact, the other side of that fence. They call the land “Oz”, “Godzone” (a verbal contraction of “God’s Own Country”) and “Best bloody place on earth, bar none, strewth.” The irritating thing about this is they may be right.

There are some traps for the unsuspecting traveller, though.

Do not under any circumstances suggest that the beer is imperfect, unless you are comparing it to another kind of Australian beer.

Do not wear a Hawaiian shirt. Religion and Politics are safe topics of conversation (Australians don’t care too much about either) but Sport is a minefield.

The only correct answer to “So, howdya’ like our country, eh?” is “Best{insert your own regional swear word here} country in the world!”.

It is very likely that, on arriving, some cheerful Australians will ‘adopt’ you, and on your first night, and take you to a pub where Australian Beer is served. Despite the obvious danger, do not refuse. It is a form of initiation rite. You will wake up late the next day with an astonishing hangover, a foul-taste in your mouth, and wearing strange clothes. Your hosts will usually make sure you get home, and waive off any legal difficulties with “It’s his first time in Australia, so we took him to the pub.”, to which the policeman will sagely nod and close his notebook. Be sure to tell the story of these events to every other Australian you encounter, adding new embellishments at every stage, and noting how strong the beer was. Thus you will be accepted into this unique culture.

Most Australians are now urban dwellers, having discovered the primary use of electricity, which is air-conditioning and refrigerators.

Typical Australian sayings

“G’Day!”

“It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”

“She’ll be right.”

“And down from Kosiusko, where the pine clad ridges raise their torn and rugged battlements on high, where the air is clear is crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze at midnight in the cold and frosty sky. And where, around the overflow, the reed beds sweep and sway to the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide. The Man from Snowy River is a household word today, and the stockmen tell the story of his ride.”

Tips to Surviving Australia

Don’t ever put your hand down a hole for any reason whatsoever.

We mean it.

The beer is stronger than you think, regardless of how strong you think it is.

Always carry a stick.

Air-conditioning.

Do not attempt to use Australian slang, unless you are a trained linguist and good in a fistfight.

Thick socks.

Take good maps. Stopping to ask directions only works when there are people nearby.

If you leave the urban areas, carry several litres of water with you at all times, or you will die.

Even in the most embellished stories told by Australians, there is always a core of truth that it is unwise to ignore.

See Also: “Deserts: How to die in them”, “The Stick: Second most useful thing ever” and “Poisonous and Venomous arachnids, insects, animals, trees, shrubs, fish and sheep of Australia, volumes 1-42″

For those of you who have never been to West Australia, it is big. Very big. Even before the plane had reached the airport, it gave off this feeling of a city with all of the space in the world, and no real need to go to any extreme measures to squeeze things in. The reason for this was to become immediately apparent.

After the obligatory tour of the sights of Perth, with a few wineries & such thrown in for good measure, it was time to pop up the coast to Exmouth (1300km up the coast), where we had a date with some sharks. The trip up made the reason why Perth has the spread out feeling very clear. WA is big enough to fit all of Texas, NZ, the UK, Ireland and Japan inside. Unfortunately it doesn’t have the topography of these countries. Not so much none, but what is there is very spread out. It is not awe inspiringly flat like Alberta, but had things that when they grow up, could be called hills. That and just enough curves in the road to keep that steering wheel from becoming decorative only and hide the occasional traffic cop (bugger).

The impression it gave was that when they were designing the planet, Australia got left till last and Slartibartfast had to stretch an islands worth of topography to a whole continent. And with plains being so expensive to get right, it was easier just to use what was left in the bucket.

On the widelife stakes, there were a lot of kangaroos (it is Australia after all). Almost all of these were very tired and were sleeping on the side of the road. We were to discover why this was the case. Australian wildlife has a thing for headlights. They just love to stand and watch them come closer. While this behaviour is not a problem with possums, and is probably an advantage, the trait becomes a little more of a concern when exhibited by slightly larger animals.

We resolved that we should avoid the attentions of said wildlife by not driving at night. Unfortunately this measure was not sufficient. We headed off for an early start one morning, and quickly decided that we would have been better off staying in bed. Half of the kangaroos in Australia had taken up station along the side of the road during the night and were waiting for us. As we drove past they would launch themselves the car. A number of theories were advanced for this behaviour. The bright lights one was out, as our headlights were off. Perhaps they were all very depressed. More subversive was the rumours that the military had trained them all during WW2 to recognise Japanese vehicles and throw themselves into them, just slowing the advance of any Japanese invasion. However this was dismissed as unlikely as the ability to distinguish cars based on the name on it seems to be beyond 50% of the human population, let alone kangaroos. It was also possible that by coincidence they all had to get to the road just as we arrived (why did the roo cross the street?…). Or maybe they are just dumber than sheep.

Other than that, there was a huge variation in plant life. The further north we got, the small trees made way for smaller shrubs. Mind you the rivers changed from wide things with water in them to wide things with no shrubs. Then we came to Lake Cameron.

Lake Cameron

But what about all of the interesting little towns up the coast, I hear you say. Well there aren’t any. There are bugger all uninteresting ones too. As proof, I have exhibit A:

Aussie Road Sign

Wooramel and the Overlander are roadhouses. They sell petrol and food and stuff. And as you would expect, being the only thing for 150 kilometres, they are vast. Well, you would be wrong:

Overlander

But I would not like to say that there are no interesting features in WA. Sarah said we had to go and see some stones at Hamelin Pools, so we went there. These stones have a big name I cannot remember, but are the type responsible for changing the earths atmosphere to one that is oxygen based, so I guess they are kindof cool. They are also responsible for the vast iron deposits in Aussie, so all in all, the Aussies at least should be nice to them.

But the best thing about the trip up was this:

After we crossed it, things were much better, cause everyone knows that the tropics are much cooler places to hang around than the rest of the world.

For those of you who were wondering by now what exactly prompted us to drive to Exmouth, it was whale sharks. These are big sharks of the non big teeth variety, which means that you can swim with them without things getting too exciting.

We went out on the Ningaloo Blue, which was a pretty good operation. We went out, had a dive, then were snorkelling with some mantas, before being called back because they had seen a whale shark. So off we went, got to where the shark was, got in the water, and got a glimpse of a whale shark buggering off, and so got back on the boat. It seemed that today all of the whale sharks didn’t want to play. A day on a boat in the sun is a better day than one on land, but it was far from the best shark watching day.

But the Ningaloo Blue didn’t want us to go home disappointed, so they said we could come back tomorrow for free, which was pretty cool. The next day was good. The whale sharks decided to hang around. So we could swim along side them for basically as long as we wanted. This was pretty cool, but led to the observation that they were just bus sized fish, they swam in a straight line and you followed, thinking “that is a pretty big fish, but it would be more exciting if it had teeth, or could swim around corners”

After we got tired of swimming after whale sharks, it was time for lunch. This was just winding down when a few mantas arrived. Torn between the choice of lunch and mantas, I briefly considered taking my sandwich with me, before rejecting it as impractical because I would have my snorkel in my mouth. So I ate quickly and went looking for the mantas.

We had been told that the mantas were pretty shy, and that splashing, bubbles or other such things would scare them away. It soon became apparent though, that that may apply to a lot of mantas, but we had come across a school of mantas, who wanted to show off. They would fly straight towards you and veer away at the last minute, laughing at how hopeless you are in the water. There were a lot of them, and they stayed a long time. It rocked. If you get the chance, flag the whale sharks & go swim with the mantas.

Other than that, and the usual stuff of swimming on pretty much deserted tropical beaches, camping beside said beaches until we had to go. Sarah had to go to work, and I had to leave what is probably the second best country (despite the lack of topography) in the world because I had to make my fortune in Bahrain

Well, some of you, those from foreign parts most likely, will be expecting amazing tales of scenery like something out of a movie and adrenaline pumping activities. Well, I am afraid I must disappoint you.

I arrived, caught up with some mates in Auckland, my sister flew up to pick me up, together with my new brother in law, and we flew down to Tauranga. Yeah, the scenery on the flight was pretty good, but nothing better than you would expect.

So then there was the wedding thing. I have to say that my sister looked fabulous, or my mother will get upset, and I must say that both of the bridesmaids, especially Megan looked fabulous as well, or else I will get in trouble again. But even without duress they did look pretty good.

Other than that, it was a wedding. A whole pile of effort for a very short time. Sorry Mum, but you know how sentimental I am. Mind you, I cashed in big time on the brownie points for flying all the way round the world to go my sisters wedding.

Then I cruised off catching up with people. Those of you I caught up with, it was real cool. Those I didn’t, bummer dude (or dudette) , you will have to come and visit me or leave it till next time.

So that was pretty much NZ. Some of the same people. Some different. Compared to the UK, very very quiet. Bordering on dead. Is this a positive or a negative? Of that I am unsure, but it was time to move on, so off I went to Perth.

Truk, Hawaii, and lots of time on planes.

3-5 May

It is good to see you all back here ready to read another exciting instalment of my travels. The trip got off to a good start, even the tube drivers called off their strike.

However many days this is in real life was spent either on aeroplanes or in airports. I am sure that there is a place which would take longer to fly to than Truk, but I am not sure just where it would be. If you happen to figure it out, please let me know. Still it is almost on the way to that wedding.

For those of you who are not divers, or just generally do not have an excessively good knowledge of the geography of obscure parts of the Pacific, Truk is here:

Map of micronesia

If you must know, the map was kindly supplied by the CIA, but I hope they don’t mind.

The flights were as flights are. Flew over the Arctic on the way to Vancouver, saw lots of icebergs out the window, but disappointingly no polar bears. Mind you I suppose that that just goes to show how good their camouflage is. I didn’t see any penguins either, but if they had any sense they would be hiding from the polar bears, so that would explain that one.

The stop in Vancouver was just long enough to bring back fond memories from the last trip, and make me think I should have spent a bit longer there this time. Oh well. Canada, as with the European countries, is attempting to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease to its shores by the dual techniques of a slightly damp supposedly disinfected carpet and crossing their fingers really hard. Mind you it has to be better than telling everyone from blighty to bugger off & stay there until they get their shit together. That would have been annoying.

Hawaii was interesting. The airport terminal is US meets Pacific. US complexity & islands lack of signs. But luckily they skipped the US fondness for the rules & decided that the Island attitude is better. Unfortunately I had about 7 hours to kill before my flight left in the morning, so decided to crash out in the airport lounge. I forgot about the little detail that airports in the US have the metal detectors, bomb detectors etc to get there as well, and I had all my luggage. Other than the usual mild curiosity about exactly what is in my carryon bag (only a few essentials I don’t trust the airlines with), I was faced with people who cared what I had in my luggage.

This examination of my bags, and in particular my dive bag prompted a couple of interesting questions. Why is it a concern to security guards if you are carrying a stethoscope? How can a fist sized block of metal with four hoses about a metre long extending from it (also known as a regulator) be mistaken for a stethoscope? (forget the “this might be a little cold”, this is going to be bloody freezing). And would it not have been a little bit more useful to have noticed the knife that was also in the bag. Must have been that plastic sheath shielding it from the x-rays. But the security guy thought to ask if I had a dive knife, so I said yes, it is in there, so he had a fish through looking for it. At one point he was holding the knife in one hand while looking suspiciously at my torch, asking if it was the knife. Maybe he was trying to lull me into a false sense of security.

Anyway, once that they had ascertained that I was carrying a knife, and which one was the knife, they decided that I couldn’t really take it in with me. In a very mellow and low stress way of course. They could teach the guys at Chicago a couple of things. Mind you I think a quick refresher in “identifying offensive weapons 101″ might be a good idea. So I had to wander off in search of the luggage lockers, aided by some vague directions and no signs. But when I achieved this I had a moment of inspiration. On my way back, as I only have about 24 hours, starting at about 2am, I could ditch my gear and explore Hawaii unhindered for 24 hours & save money on a hostel I would hardly sleep in. Genius.

After ditching the more obvious offensive weapons in my possession, I made it back into the terminal & hung around for a while. Here I discovered that the low budget approach to Hawaii might be a necessity. The limited food shops open in the airport at 2am make London look cheap. USD5 for an icecream? I think not!

Time to get on that plane to Truk, via Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae & Ponape. All of these places were nice enough to let us get off and have a little wander for a little while without any of those annoying immigration hassles. Except for Kwajalein, because that is a US military base, and a pile less welcoming than the others.

Diving in Truk.

First I will bore you with a little history lesson, without which, the question “why Truk?” keeps popping up. Truk is a big Atoll, meaning there is a big, nice, calm harbour in the middle of the Pacific. Deep enough to get big boats in, but shallow enough that when they fail to float (more about that later), divers can still dive on them. At the end of the first world war, they were divvying up Germany’s possessions, Japan stuck up its hand and said, “what about all of those little islands out there in the middle of nowhere? Does anyone else want those?”. And so the Japanese got Truk and a number of other islands. They decided that it would make a great safe port for their ships.

During World War 2, the Yanks somehow got the idea that a massed carrier based attack on a major port was likely to be fairly effective. And so operation Hailstone was born. Unfortunately the Japanese moved all of their major battleships & carriers out a few days before the attack, but left behind a huge number of supply ships, as well as a few destroyers and such. But when the Yanks came to Smash Truk (their words), they found plenty there & sunk it.

So, we have a whole pile of WW2 wrecks in one location, in relatively easily diveable conditions, like nowhere else on the planet. That is why Truk.

The next week blurred. The daily routine you have heard before, eat, sleep, dive. The diving was fantastic, going through engine rooms with the tools & spare pistons still in place, holds with all of the supplies needed to run an army. Bicycles, planes, trucks, John Deere bulldozers, torpedoes, periscopes, bottles of sake, mines, as well as shells from about 303 size through to the big battleship size, as well as the odd ex inhabitant, as well as all the usual fish stuff – a few sharks, nice corals etc. Still, it was not a place to go if you have any of those irrational fears about the dark, confined spaces or unexploded munitions. Still, unless you start bringing the stuff to the surface, they tell us it is not too likely to go off. That and I got my 100th dive in on a nice old Emily flying boat. Nice dive that.

We also had some below water entertainment, courtesy of one of the other liveaboard operators. Usually we avoided wrecks that any of the other operators were on, cause there are plenty of them out there, and we could. But the morning we went out to the San Francisco Maru, the Truk Aggressor was anchored to her, and cause the San Fran is a deep one, it was then or not, so we had to deal with the hassle of other divers on the wreck.

Anyway, we dropped down to the San Francisco, had a look at the tanks, the bow holds full of mines, the usual stuff. The observant of you may have remembered that I said that the Agressor was anchored to the wreck. They had sent down a diver to tie their 132ft long ship to the bow of the nearly 60 year old war wreck that is their livelihood. Me, I reckon that it cannot be good for the wreck, and once the wrecks break up, the divers will go. That and the little detail that the bow is filled with munitions which are also nearly 60 years old, unexploded and definitely still live, though a little unstable, would make me find somewhere else to anchor, but maybe I am just being a little silly.

One of the best things about the trip was our boat, the Thorfinn. The Thorfinn is an ex Norwegian whaler with a steam engine, none of this diesel stuff, except for the generator. This meant that after diving through the engine rooms of the wrecks, we were able to go down & see how they looked when they were working. Lance (captain & owner) seems to like his baby & didn’t seem to mind all of our questions about how it worked. All of the boys on board had a great time, and that was even before storytime started.

Alas the week came to an end, and we had to leave.

Hawaii

I had a day to kill in Hawaii. I figured that I shouldn’t blow my budget in the first week, and quickly realised that Hawaii looked to be very capable of doing that. So I wandered to Pearl Harbour, and had a bit of a look at the Arizona Memorial, found out that all the Japanese had really achieved was sinking a few obsolete old clunkers, most of which were salvaged & back in action shortly anyway, and really pissing off the States. Lots of the important targets were missed entirely. Doop.

Other than that, Hawaii seemed interesting. Waikiki is ok, but there is not a lot of point in making a mediocre beach.

After not a whole pile of time I was back on that plane again outta there.

A little while ago I was informed that my sister was getting married & that my presence was required. So I set about determining the optimum route to get there and back. It goes something like this:

Truk

NZ

Aussie

Bahrain

Egypt

Barcelona

Home(bugger)

Hell of a way to get to Tauranga, but it seems you just can’t get direct flights these days. Bummer eh?

I will spare you most of the hassles I had with travel agents I faced in actually booking the trip, but some were just too good. There was the agent who informed me that I could not fly to Truk from London. Or Auckland to Bahrain, or anywhere but London to Auckland. There was the woman from Flightcentre (whose motto is “Lowest airfares guaranteed -provided you tell us what they are first”), who when I complained that one of her workmates had not called me back as promised, looked at my itinerary & said “I can see why”. Me, all I could see was a fair swag of commission going their way. And there was Trailfinders, who after taking a week and 3 phone calls to mail me an itinerary, suggested that it would be best if they mailed the tickets to me 7 days before departure.