The World Cruise
Part 3: Adelaide, Australia to Shanghai, China
Miles Traveled this leg: 7, 221
Cumulative Miles Traveled: 24,655
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Dateline –Adelaide, Australia
Latitude at Adelaide 34.46 degrees South, Longitude 138.28 degrees East
Overnight we cleared the Bass Straits which separate Australia from the island of Tasmania and we docked this morning in Adelaide in St. Vincent’s Harbor, the capital of the State of South Australia. Australia is a Federation of States, similar to the US in structure. The country is roughly the size of the continental U.S., but geographically speaking, their states are much larger since they have 7 instead of 50, each with its own capital – e.g. Melbourne is the capital of Victoria, Sydney the capital of New South Wales and so forth.) They also still have a close association with Great Britain and Her Majesty and they have a Parliament similar to that of the UK. They also have a Federal District, the City of Canberra, comparable to Washington DC, except a lot of the power resides elsewhere, (e.g. the current prime minister chooses to live in Sydney). Most tourists to Australia visit the East Coast on the Coral Sea where Sydney, the Gold Coast of New South Wales, the beaches of the State of Queensland, and the Great Barrier Reef are located. The QE2, however is calling on ports on the south and west coasts on this trip so we’ll be on “roads less traveled” for the next several ports.
Adelaide is beautiful well manicured city with a very Napa Valley sort of feel, particularly with regard to the climate. This impression was reinforced by our tour to one of Australia’s premiere wine making region, the Barossa Valley, which, if the people didn’t talk so funny, you’d swear you were in California Wine Country. We took a wine tasting tour and visited two vineyards, the Yaldara and Jacob’s Creek. Yaldara had the best wines by far and the most picturesque vineyards. They are known for both their port and their quirky labels such as Lucky Lizard and Crusty Crab, each with their own story (e.g. a lizard
actually lives in one of the grape crushers, but has so far avoided obliteration, and thus has had a wine named in his honor. Of course next year we may see “The Squashed Lizard” or “The Super-thin Reptile” label appear if this guy’s luck runs out.) Their wine is not marketed under the same labels in the US, but we do have one from here that we have seen at home called Fat Bastard. (I didn’t realize it was Australian) I didn’t get the story on this one or the Crusty Crab. They also served some wonderful fruit, cheese and crusty bread. We are familiar with Jacob’s Creek and have had it from time to time at home, but we actually both really prefer a good Fat Bastard. It suits us somehow.
We noticed on our way back to the ship that in Adelaide, like Melbourne and several NZ ports, there is an abundance of really big Norfolk Island Pines (80 to 100 feet), obviously planted around the harbors. Our guide told us that yes indeed they were planted, but not by the local garden club. Seafarers planted them in every port throughout Australia and NZ because they grow tall and straight with just the right circumference to use for mast replacements on sailing vessels, since storms would often snap the old masts into two or more pieces.
Departure time is always interesting because invariably, there will be names called over the ships loudspeakers looking for certain AWOL passengers who have not come back on board. Our Adelaide departure was no different. We never hear what happens to them, but we envision a scramble to the airport to try to catch the ship at the next port of call (with no passport and no luggage). At our sailing time, there were literally hundreds (maybe even thousands) of people from Adelaide lining the docks and breakwaters waving goodbye with bagpipes playing all the old heartwarming Scottish ballads as we pulled away from the pier. I guess we were the biggest thing happening in Adelaide for some time (or else they were just glad to get these tacky people out of their town). In any event, they probably need to get out more.
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Dateline: Great Australian Bight
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 9, 35.5 degrees South, 130.5 degrees East
403 miles from Adelaide, 960 miles to Fremantle, Australia
We are at sea running due west (270 degrees) for several hundred miles across the Great Australian Bight with nothing between us and Antarctica but water to the south. We will stay on this course until late Thursday night when we round the southwest corner of Australia. Then we will enter the Indian Ocean and will have nothing but water between us and the coast of Africa to our west.
I have been squirreling away little factoids about the ship and have chosen some QE2 statistics to include in this travelogue concerning our conspicuous (and shameless) consumption of the earth’s resources.
Our cruising speed averages 28.5 knots or 33 mph which makes the QE2 one of the fastest (if not the fastest) cruise ships in the world. However, these are nautical miles which are equal to 1.15 statute miles. So the old girl can really go 34.5 statute mph, and even though she’s old and rather unwieldy in port, she is the fastest cruise ship afloat. Much of her speed is due to her hull design, which compared to more modern designs, is very sleek (versus boxy) and relatively small tonnage compared to the mega ships. Her top cruising speed can be maintained with only 7 of the 9 engines running, allowing for maintenance on any two engines at any time without affecting speed. She burns 83,160 gallons of diesel fuel per 24 hour day at cruising speed. One gallon will move the ship approximately 50 feet, and it takes 20 gallons to move the ship its own length, which gives it an MPG rating of 105 gallons per mile (which would give the EPA fits, but the petrochemical conglomerates all love it). The QE2 carries enough fuel for 12 days of continuous sailing at full speed, or if her speed is reduced to 20 knots, she could sail for 30 days before refueling.
In September of 2002, QE2 celebrated the milestone of 5 million miles sailed since first launched. By August of 2003, she had crossed the Atlantic 787 times since her initial launch. On a typical World Cruise, she will cover 50,000 miles. Next year, QE2 will embark upon her Silver Jubilee (25th) World Cruise. She is referred to as QE2, versus QEII, because the title with the Roman Numerals is reserved for the Queen of England.
Fresh water is made on board from seawater by 4 flash evaporators and a reverse osmosis unit. The ship produces approximately 1,000 gallons per day. It is then transferred to holding tanks and into the ship’s distribution system for use. Power is generated by the QE2’s diesel electric power plant and puts out 95 MW of power, enough to power 3,000 medium sized cars.
In addition to fuel and power, we are also prodigious consumers of food, as you can well imagine. It takes 170 waiters and 101 chefs just to feed us. Ships Stores (a.k.a. groceries) are typically restocked in every port. Here are a few highlights from the shopping list for a 6 day period:
43,000 fresh eggs
1,200 gallons milk
500 pound of coffee
1,200 pounds of bananas (the Brits pronounce this (Bah-Nah-Ahs)
2,400 pound of butter
5 tons of potatoes (a.k.a. Pah-Tah-Toes,)
500 pounds of strawberries
2,000 pound of rice
4,000 pounds of pork
2,400 pounds of beef
No wonder people gain weight on these cruises. However, Gary reports he is still buckling his belt in same hole and I have not yet had to resort to elastic waistbands, so we are bucking the trend. It must be that we’re not getting our fair share of that butter, potatoes, beef and pork. We’ll have to remedy this inequity at once.
Thursday, February, 23, 2006
Dateline: Great Australian Bight
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 35. 5 degrees South, 119.7 degrees East,
90 miles south of Albany, South Australia, 445 miles to Fremantle, Australia
Today is our second and last sea day before Fremantle. There is a lecturing professor/historian/writer on board who gave a lecture today on Australian History which we both found really interesting and I thought I’d pass along a few tidbits including a translator of a few key Aussie phrases such as:
“Good On You” is an Aussie “attaboy” (This must be pronounced as one word with the accent on “Good”, with the last two words run together and pronounced “onya”.
“No Worries” is said in response to “Thank You” instead of “You’re welcome (This is so ubiquitous I think we all must look worried to these people).
“How are you going?” Is not really a question of how you plan to arrive at destination, but it’s used to inquire as to one’s health or state of mind such as the more familiar, “How are you?”
“I reckon” seems to be a filler of sorts – perhaps in place of “well” or “you know” or “uh” in our lexicon.
“Grazing the long paddock” refers to the practice of grazing your cattle or sheep on public land in the ditches along the roadsides after they have eaten everything green on the “station”.
Our professor gave us a local definition of the Outback which is “Further out there than you are at present”. Most maps will show it as the whole of Australia except for a strip a few hundred miles wide down the east and across the south coasts. Once you leave Perth and head north or northeast, you have to give up hope of any greenery and moisture. Other names for the Outback are the Dead Center, Never Never Country (not to be confused with either the property of Michael Jackson or the land of Peter Pan), the Back of Beyond, and Beyond the Black Stump (this alludes to the fact that there are no trees to burn in the outback so when you pass the last blackened stump of one, you’ll know you’ve arrived). It is so dry in the Outback that evaporation exceeds rainfall so that even if they do get rain, it doesn’t serve to wet anything. Some recorded droughts have lasted 7 to 8 years. Daily temperatures in the Outback are in the 110F to 115F range daily.
We also learned the difference between “stations” and farms. Farms are personally owned by individuals who can do as they please with the land including planting crops. Stations are comprised of land that belongs to government and is leased. When someone is said to “own” a cattle or sheep station, what they actually own is a lease on the land. They are not allowed to plant or alter the land. Conditions are so harsh that the average acre to sheep ratio is 28 acres per sheep, and even more acres are required for cattle. What water is there is brackish and in sheep affects the taste of the meat and thus sheep there are bred for shearing or their skins, not for lamb and mutton. For some reason, this water issue does not affect the taste of beef.
Early expeditions exploring Australia had expectations of finding rivers and lakes in the interior, just as their forbears had done in the Americas and in Africa and many of them even carried boats overland with them to paddle about on these inland waterways. However, as our professor wryly pointed out with his understated sense of humor, “they had little cause to use them“. In 1861 the Burke and Wills Expedition left the southern coast with the goal to cross Australia. They had already figured out there was no water so they took camels. They had limited success in that they didn’t see the ocean, but they tasted saltwater in the streams they found and declared victory. Unfortunately everyone but one man died of heat, thirst, or starvation, on return trip so it wasn’t exactly the victory they had in mind.
We also learned about the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger. It was about the size of a cougar, with stripes, and unlike cougars and tigers who swish their tails, it reportedly carried its tail straight out behind it as if it were splinted. Common belief was that the tail itself was actually stiff with no joint, and that if you grabbed it and held on, the tiger could not turn and bite you. And unfortunately, since news traveled so slowly in those days, it reportedly took several tail-grabbings to disabuse people of this particular notion.
Australia today has a fair number of wild camels which are not indigenous, but were brought here from Afghanistan and Pakistan in late 1800’s to use for transportation. They were more or less turned loose once trucks came along. They are now flourishing in Western Australia which covers 1/3 of the continent and has less than 10% of the population, so they have plenty of room to roam. They started out using them for pack animals, but then figured out that if they used them in teams of up to 8 to 10 camels with wagons they worked much like horses only were a lot funnier looking. (I keep trying to get the visual when they had to circle the wagons at night.) There are no descendants of the Burke Wills Expedition’s camels around since they appeared regularly on the menu at lunches and dinners on the ill-fated trip across the continent.
Along with trucks, came airplanes. Quantas Airlines started as Queensland and Northern Territories Aerial Service and provided basic transportation. Later the Flying Doctor Service and an Outback “School of The Air” came about to provide children living there access classroom teachers via radio with occasional in- person visits by a “circuit teacher” – sort of like a circuit judge. The first wireless radios were Pedal Radios and the radio operator pedaled (like a bicycle) to power it. They did have telegraph prior to the wireless, and doctors gave instructions for surgery to be performed remotely by whomever happened to be around using Morse Code (I am not making this up). Several malpractice suits later, (I am probably making this up), they decided to fund the wireless Medical Service and the Flying Doctor Service in 1927. The flying medical and education services are still working today.
Two years ago the North-south Railway Line from Adelaide on the south coast to Darwin on the north coast was completed. It’s very popular with Aussie retirees who take the trip once they retire. (The Aussies have dubbed these retirees the Gray Nomads) It is ironic that the Outback has in recent years become a great source of wealth, but not in the way early explorers envisioned. Today all sorts of mineral ore (zinc, copper, iron, silver, etc.) is mined, as well as opals and industrial grade diamonds. There are huge ports in Western Australia that handle nothing but ore being shipped out around the clock on a daily basis.
Friday, February, 24, 2006
Dateline: Fremantle-Perth, Australia
Latitude at Freemantle 32.3 degrees South, Longitude 115.43 degrees East
We docked at Fremantle, Australia, at the Victoria Quay which is the port city for Perth, the capital of the State of Western Australia. Fremantle’s claim to fame is that this is the site of the America’s Cup victory for the Aussies in 1987. Perth is one of the last cities on the south coast traveling east before the really dry hot, desolate climate of the Outback takes over. If you look at a map of Australia, it’s roughly shaped like a rectangle with Sydney on the lower right side bounded by the Tasman Sea. If you go around the southeast corner, you will find Melbourne tucked into the Bass Straits across from the island of Tasmania. The Bass Straits lead into the Great Australian Bight and what is called the Southern Ocean which stretches across the whole southern coast of Australia. Heading east from Melbourne, you will come across Adelaide about midway across the continent. We rounded Cape Leeuwin at approximately 9:00 p.m. last night and entered the Indian Ocean. If you still have the visual of the rectangle in mind, we turned the southwest corner and were going up the west coast of Australia, headed north.
Just around the southwest corner, are Fremantle and Perth, Australia’s Twin Cities, situated on the Swan River and the last outpost for moisture for many, many miles. The Swan River is famous for its native black swans which still paddle around there today. Speaking of wild things, here we found wild parrots (bright green) and cockatoos (black versus the more common white sulphur-crested) in fairly large numbers, although the latter is becoming endangered. We also had the opportunity to see the colorful honey-eater, indigenous to Australia.
We were now at the “gateway” to the Outback where the wild things are and I need to write a few words on “Roo Bars”. These have nothing to do with liquor (unless of course you are driving under the influence and you may need them for other reasons). All vehicles around here (except motorcycles I suppose) have “Roo Bars”. These are metal bars attached to the front of cars, buses and trucks intendd to prevent (in local parlance) “the bloody roos from knocking your car to bits”, the idea being that you can just replace the roo bar, rather than your lights, radiator, windshield, front teeth, etc. after you have had a collision with a kangaroo. They are nocturnal and, like deer, are quite dangerous from dusk to dawn. Of course like deer, it is usually more dangerous for animal than human in the event of a collision. When you have a “smash-up” (what the locals call a car wreck) you can take your vehicle to a “panel beater”, (the Aussie counterpart to the American body shop) who will repair the damage to your bumper, fenders, etc. We assume the name comes from the action beating the dents out of panels of the car or truck with a little rubber hammer.
Our plan for Perth was to take a 4-wheel-drive tour of the Yanchep National Park. This included the obligatory koala stop (they are still cute, even 3 ports later), limestone cavern exploration and a lobster lunch at a seaside pub called the Endeavor Tavern. (They call them crayfish instead of lobster, and crayfish they actually call bugs and the real bugs are so big here, I think they just call them “sir”). This was the first place where we were able to see both kangaroos and emus in the wild. Wild koalas are no longer in this region and experts can only conjecture the reasons why which include frequent draughts
which kill off eucalyptus, over-hunting by aborigines (much easier than even a sitting duck if you don’t mind killing really cute things), wild fire destroying habitat and so forth. The big thrill of this trip was 4-wheeling in the giant coastal sand dunes, some as high as 100 feet tall with 50+ degree slopes. We all screeched like pre-teens on a roller-coaster and kept asking to go back around for one more pass. It made me feel just like I was back in West Texas, especially when the afternoon wind picked up, as long as I ignored the adjacent ocean that is. By the way, the locals call the afternoon wind the “Fremantle Doctor”, since it blows inland off the ocean every afternoon and makes people feel better (i.e. cooler). Perth is supposedly the 3rd windiest city in the world after Chicago and Wellington, NZ, but neither of these cities have the added fun of blowing sand which can blast away your skin like a Jamaican pedicurist.
After the 4-wheeling, I really felt like I was in a time warp, when our tour guides pulled out sand surfboards and those who wanted to participate could scoot down the dunes on them. I surfed a dune for old-time’s sake and was rewarded with very fine sand in very uncomfortable places, reminding me of my misspent youth at the Monahans State Park in West Texas. Gary said he “didn’t know nuthin about no sand surfin” and planned to keep it that way, but it was so windy, he got as much sand in his private places as us surfer dudes and dudettes. Then as a special treat, probably because our bus was so much fun, our driver took us to an off the beaten track place where we could be assured of seeing wild kangaroos in large numbers, which proved to be, much to our surprise, the local cemetery. We were all a little skeptical, but it appears the local wild ’roos like to hop over the fence and munch on floral tributes to the dearly departed that family and friends leave on graves, not to mention the feast offered up by the thick carpet of grass. Here they employ a different type of “Roo Bar”
– they put barred boxes over the flowers to keep the kangaroos out – at least the big ones with bigger snouts. We were indeed rewarded with seeing a troop (also called a mob) of around 50 kangaroos of all sizes grazing on fresh green grass, assorted shrubs and those floral tributes without roo bars. The kangaroos we have seen are the smaller Western Grays which are about 5 feet standing up. Further out in the bush are the Reds which can be as tall a 7 feet, but we haven’t see any of those.
We had a great send-off around 6:00 p.m., complete with a brass band (fortunately they weren’t playing “Nearer My God to Thee” like the Titanic orchestra), and it seemed the combined population of Fremantle and Perth came down to the harbor to see us off.
Saturday, February 25, 2006
Dateline: Indian Ocean
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 26.9 degrees South, 112.9 degrees East
44 miles southeast of Point Inscription, Western Australia, furthermost west point of Australia
336 miles from Fremantle, 353 miles to Exmouth
Today was sunny sea day and we had both a following wind and a following sea which, with a topside temperature of 82 degrees, which resulted in a beautiful day for reading and snoozing in deck chairs. The wind was moving the same speed we were so it was very calm topside. Following seas create a surf-riding like motion (or at least they would on a small ship. If there were a wave big enough for the QE2 to surf on you’d hear about on the news). Instead for us they create quite a bit of side to side motion and we see the crew has strategically placed “motion sickness” bags up and down the corridors. The weather is definitely warmer and dryer in West Australia.
We attended another one of the lectures by the historian, who is also an Aborigine expert, today and learned more interesting stuff about their culture. We learned that anthropologists have found data and artifacts to indicate that the aborigines have lived in Australia for 50,000 years and have indeed thrived there without ever domesticating animals or growing anything. Today, aborigines account for only 1.6 percent of the Australian population.
The aborigines employ what is jokingly referred to as “Fire Stick Farming” which means they set fire to the bush to drive out the animals which they kill and eat. A side benefit of these bush fires is that they restore nutrients to the soil and since many plants hold their seeds until the heat releases them, it serves as a catalyst for plants to renew themselves. The plants also provide a source of food as well as medicine for the aborigines. Brush fires also serve to clear undergrowth for wildflowers to flourish and in fact there are 10 times more wildflower species in Australia than in the United States. On the downside, with no rain, these fires can burn out of control for months or even years. Most fires however are started by lightning storms that bear no rain, just the lightning. The plants themselves are not green as we know it, but more of an olive drab color.
We also learned that the aborigines were one of the few major cultures who did not invent a wheel of some sort. It’s not that they didn’t have the mental capacity (after all they figured out that lift over drag business to design the boomerang), but they simply didn’t need wheels. They have always done quite well as hunters and gatherers and are not caught up in acquisition of “things”. And logically speaking, if you don’t have “things” then you don’t need anything to haul them around in. Aborigines used boomerangs for wounding birds in flight so they could catch them, and research has also shown they used them to fight with each other (Anthropology CSI’s probably found blood and hair evidence) and stir the fire (CSI’s also probably found boomerangs charred on one end, I suppose).
No discussion of the Australian Outback is complete without a word or two on the National Irritant, the bush fly. These are small black flies that for some reason are attracted white clothing and are so thick that white can quickly become black before your very eyes. These flies are also attracted to white hair so the gray nomads in our ranks are particularly susceptible to attack. The locals try several different schemes to cope with the problem. One is that they wear broad brimmed hats with a line of corks dangling from strings circling the brim. The idea is that the motion of the bobbing corks will scare the flies away from your face. I would think the corks would drive you a little batty in the process, but since the locals supposedly get a little wacky from all that time out in the bush, maybe no one notices. We have also heard the motion of rapidly waving one’s hand in front of one’s face is referred to as the “Aussie wave” and it doubles as a greeting and a fly chaser. The Aussies have also brought technology to bear on this problem. It has been determined that bush flies breed in animal dung – a resource in great abundance in these parts. However, unlike Africa and other similar climates, there are no dung beetles here to, uh, how shall I say this, deal with said dung. It is no wonder the Egyptians held scarabs in such high regard – after all they kept the flies in check and took care of any loose droppings around the pyramids. There were a lot of experiments in this regard since environmentalists are loath to introduce exotic species into any area, but finally colonies of dung beetles were imported to remove the bush fly birthing centers (a.k.a. dung) and hopefully decrease their numbers. The locals say it is working, however the dung beetles die off with the cold evenings in the winter and have to be re-introduced each year. Now there’s a business opportunity: Dung Beetle Breeder and Importer. Just send your business plans and resumes to Western Australia and save your wine corks for your hats.
Sunday, February 26, 2006
Dateline: Exmouth, Australia
Latitude at Exmouth 22.57 degrees South, Longitude 114.08 degrees East
You may be looking at the atlas and wondering where in the hell is Exmouth and what in the world are we doing here? After a few hours ashore, we were wondering the same thing. The brochures for this place look delightful, but in truth, most of the wonders that abound here are under water. They have an exceptional “fringing” reef (as opposed to the “barrier” reef on the eastern side of Australia). Fringing reefs encircle a lagoon, often the sunken cone of an extinct volcano. A barrier reef runs parallel to the shore line and creates a barrier between land and deep water. Exmouth’s Ningaloo Reef is a haven for whale sharks and other large pelagics, but unfortunately we did not have time to arrange a dive. Topside, I have to say it’s pretty bleak, but nevertheless it has sort of a rugged beauty, and after all the flies seem to like it so who are we to turn up our noses? We set out to explore (it was a short trip), but in no way uneventful.
The first challenge came with boarding the tenders since there is no cruise ship pier here. The seas were in the 4 to 8 ft range so the captain advised only the agile should consider going ashore. He suggested an agility test which involves balancing on one foot for 5 seconds (while not under the influence of course). Apparently this suggestion fell on deaf ears since there were a number of passengers who took their canes and walkers, and yes even some oxygen tanks, and sauntered down to the platform on the side of the ship to make the leap into the tenders, which were rising and falling about 4 to 8 feet with each wave. I have to give them credit for tenacity, but do have to add, I don’t think the scenery was worth the risk for them. Nevertheless, the deck crew got everyone loaded on and we set off. We did get a chuckle from one couple at the outset. They had on matching safari hats, safari jackets and safari boots, ready for the Outback. Of course once we got on the air-conditioned bus, they must have realized they were over-dressed since the only wildlife we saw were swarms of flies and the occasional seagull.
Out tour included the town, but many reportedly blinked and missed it. Apparently 2,600 people call Exmouth home for whatever reason they might have to live here. The town was established in 1967 to support a US Navy Base to carry out Cold War missions, mainly listening to and tracking communications of the Soviet Union. Americans will be glad to know that forty years later, their tax dollars have helped launch another tourist mecca. Well, actually “mecca” is something of a stretch. But it would be a mecca if more people would come here and build resorts. After all, it’s got the same stuff going for it as Las Vegas has, plus an ocean and good beaches already in place. They do need to deal with those flies though – maybe get those dung beetles some warmer housing and get them working 24 x 7.
The tour of the town was quite brief, but with a few cups of coffee, a long wait to get on the tender and the bouncing bus, Gary was starting to make gurgling noises and was looking desperately for a pit stop. There was probably a john or two in the town, but we were through it before anyone could get the bus driver’s attention. Anyway, our first stop outside of town was a really picturesque hill, topped by the Vlaming Head Lighthouse, the headland being dubbed “Vlaming” by the Dutch who were the first Europeans to land here. ( I think “Vlaming” in Dutch may translate into “godforsaken rock pile” but I don’t know that for
sure). Unlike a zillion other places they landed, Dutch sea captains did not claim this land for Holland, (and we now know why). There is also an old gunnery platform left over from WWII, intended for coastal defense against Japan, but the structure itself had blown away in a cyclone in 1945. Anyway, while the rest of us were snapping away with our cameras, Gary slipped off toward some scrub brush (not much concealment here so you really had to look hard for a bush). Unfortunately, a woman on our bus, who I thought very much favored Granny Clampett on the Beverly Hillbillies with a video camera, saw him go and thought he was off to see some little known beautiful vista and followed him wanting to know what he was looking at. Fortunately, he saw her before she saw him (literally). He mumbled something to her and came back to the bus, still a desperate man.
We proceeded to our next scenic spot, the Navy Pier, but we were not allowed to go close since it’s still a restricted area, so we were somewhat underwhelmed by this particular highlight and ditto for the Harold Holt Communication Station and the Solar Observatory (where we were allowed entry at neither). By this time, other passengers were becoming desperadoes themselves and started asking for a bathroom stop. There was a 2 person outhouse sort of building at a beach parking lot and so the driver pulled over. This would have been good for
Gary, except about 20 women piled off the bus ahead of him. Casting almost all modesty aside, he hopped off the bus and more or less sprinted toward the dunes. I and several other passengers were watching from the bus as Granny Clampett spied him and damn if she didn’t think he was going out to look at the beach and she was sure she would want it on video. He reports he was about halfway through his business when he saw her headed for his pit stop. Everyone on the bus was cracking up as he zipped up and dashed for the cover of a few scrubby bushes where other gentlemen feeling the call of nature had gone. Unfortunately, these bushes were so low, they didn’t conceal much, but the gentlemen just faced away from the bus and blithely carried on. Fortunately, Granny hadn’t figured out that Gary had left the area and was still out on the dunes stalking him, still trying to see what had caught his interest out there. She was finally rounded up and herded back on the bus, and so we headed off to our next stop.
We took a short drive up into what is call the Rough Range which was scenic in an Arizona desert sort of way (not the Painted Desert, more like the road to Tucson kind of desert.) We learned that mining is quite big in these parts and a company originally called Broken Hill Properties, named after the Australian city (using the term loosely) by the same name and later renamed BHP is now the largest mining company in the world. Of course mining does not usually translate into exciting tourist destinations, but it was a sunny day and with the beaches a really pristine creamy white, the water a deep sapphire blue and the red rocky terrain, it was really very scenic, but I must stop short of calling it thoroughly entrancing.
And we had even more entertainment on the bus. At every stop, we were joined by what we came to call the Horde of the Flies. In self defense a “fly-thumping” competition developed among some of the passengers vying for the most “kills”. The winner had to be the portly gentleman in front of us, who unlike most of us who used improvised swatters fashioned from our chamber of commerce brochures, he caught them with his bare hands. I watched to see if he was going to pull the wings off and torture them, but thankfully he must have decided to forgo the pleasure which was greatly appreciated by all onlookers. I lost count of the number of his reported “kills” once he passed 30.
Once back on the ship, we were told the true reason the QE2 calls on Exmouth is that it was felt the passengers would need a break from days at sea between Perth and Taipei. In days gone by, this stop or stops would have been made in Indonesia, but with local politics in such an uproar, the QE2 is bypassed the whole country. The only other option in between is the Philippines and that’s become a hotbed of intrigue (including tourist abductions) in recent years as well. Exmouth, too is a hotbed, but mostly of rocks and sand. I personally think the reason they stop in Exmouth is to make everyone really appreciate the ship for the 5 days at sea. Most passengers agreed they were happy to see Exmouth disappearing over the horizon, but we did manage to take a few stowaways since the flies managed to wing their way out to the ship and penetrate every available portal so those who stayed aboard could share in the ambiance of Exmouth.
Monday, February 27, 2006
Dateline: Eastern Indian Ocean, North Australia Basin
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 16.8 degrees South, 116.06 degrees East
240 miles north of Port Hedland, Western Australia
We are at sea today for the first of five sea days to reach Keelung, which is the port city for Taipei, Taiwan. We are on a northeasterly course of 7 degrees and will remain on this heading to pass between the islands of Bali and Lompok, Indonesia. Since QE2 is not calling in Bali this year due to political unrest with fringe lunatics detonating the occasional backpack or car bomb at the beach resorts which tends to really alarm the tourist trade. And not only were we dodging said lunatics, we are also dodging a tropical storm trying to work up enough enthusiasm to become a cyclone (which would be called hurricane in the Atlantic) so it’s pretty exciting on the high seas this week (but not so exciting as to cause us miss a meal or nap). It was rainy and very overcast today since we were brushing by the tropical storm to the west about 110 miles away. There are also differences in the movement of storms in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. In the north, they move in a counter-clockwise rotation and travel from the equator to the northwest, and as they lose strength over land, they are pushed back east by the jet stream or high pressure systems and into the Atlantic. In the Southern Hemisphere, they move clockwise and move to the southwest from the equator. There isn’t much land mass here north of Australia so they tend to linger longer. Even 100+ miles away, we still have a very rainy day on our hands and a good excuse to curl up with a good book (as if we need an excuse).
We decided our idle minds needed some exercise so we attended a lecture from an on board history professor this afternoon on WWII in Indonesia, formerly known as the Dutch East Indies, and the South Pacific. Historians currently are of the opinion that because Japan knew that those countries who had explored and colonized this area were otherwise occupied (in the case of France and Holland literally so) with the Germans, they would have little interest and few resources to defend their far-flung empires in the Pacific. And with England fighting off the Luftwaffe every night and struggling just to survive, the Japanese saw Hong Kong and Singapore ripe for the picking as well. Japan was also under a number of economic sanctions for some of their hostile takeovers of territory that belonged to other countries (e.g. Manchuria) and was concerned about its own economic health and well-being.
It is believed (at least by our professor) that the crucial error the Japanese made was to bomb Pearl Harbor which brought the United States into the war immediately. Japan had engaged in a very successful leap frog strategy (i.e. don’t take every island in succession, but jump ahead several islands and cut the others off) that took them all the way from Japan to New Guinea. The Allies used the same leap frog strategy taking it back, but they had a much harder time with it since, unlike the colonial defenders, Japan was not at all inclined to let go of it. Japan also took much of mainland China, the Malay Peninsula and Singapore in early 1942. The Japanese bombed Darwin, Australia a number times in February of 1942 using the same aircraft carrier based planes they had used at Pearl Harbor, but with much less success. Despite the fact that they dropped several times more ordnance on Darwin than they did at Pearl Harbor, there were only 245 killed in action. They also destroyed 188 Aussie planes which just about every single one on the ground at the time. Japanese subs also did a lot of spying on Australian ports to try to inventory supplies and assess troop strengths. Australia had very few defenses at home since the war in Europe had been sucking up resources since 1939, and so they knew the subs were there, but couldn’t do much about it. It is believed that Japan’s goal was not to take Australia, but to isolate it. (Which makes sense because, like the dog chasing the car, what could they do with it after they got it?) My personal belief was that the spies reported that the flies in Australia are more fearless their own kamikazes and they should have left well enough alone.
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Dateline: Flores Sea, due east of Java, Indonesia
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 7.9 degrees South, 116.1 degrees East
26 miles north of Lombok Island, Indonesia
Today is our second of five sea days. We passed through the Flores Straits at around 9:00 a.m. this morning, and thus passed from the Indian Ocean into the Flores Gulf and the South Pacific. Off our port side we saw the island of Bali and the cone of its 9,000 ft volcanic peak poking through the clouds. To our starboard was the island of Lombok, both of which belong to Indonesia. We will be traveling for the next 1,000 miles through the Eastern Archipelago which includes both the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines. Our route will take us from the Java Sea through Makassar Strait which separates the islands of Borneo and Sulawesi (a.k.a. Celebes) and into the Celebes Sea. From there we will go east into the South China Sea.
At this precise latitude the declination (the captain’s word, not mine – I’d just call it angle”) of the sun is directly overhead (that is if the sun were indeed out). We are currently passing through a series of tropical storms with a lot of rain, but not much wind. The stormy weather continues to hamper our deck activities and also wreaked havoc with satellite communications and internet access. I took advantage of the rainy day and calm water to have another pedicure, and I am pleased to report, it was completed without pain or melodrama. Apparently the sadistic pedicurist who maimed me the last time around, has, as I predicted, ended her time at Cunard (or had it ended for her) and has left the ship and gone back to Jamaica, where I think there may be a career in voodoo in her future since she already has the “torture with sharp objects” part down pat.
Although the pedicure melodrama has concluded, there is still more in store. Our captain advised that we will be exercising extreme caution for these next 1,000 miles. In the captain’s words “we are taking certain measures to ensure our safe passage, and we are taking all due precautions, just as you would lock your car doors whilst driving through a “dodgey” neighborhood”. “Dodgey” is a word the Brits seem especially fond of which can refer to any number of things from a high-crime neighborhood to a dishonest bloke. The “dodgey” neighborhood includes both Indonesia and the Philippines. In Indonesia there are a few Muslim extremists who are always looking for something Western to blow up. In the Philippines, there seems to be fewer religious wackos, but more political nutcases (Communist Rebels) and gangster-type thieves. I was thinking things might settle down in the Philippines once Imelda Marcos took all of her shoes and moved away, but now it seems they’re rioting and kidnapping over something else. It’s always something.
The captain declined to provide any more information, just in case the passengers might blab to Islam Extremists or Mindanao kidnappers on nearby islands. Ship scuttlebutt has it that there were over 700 documented piracy attempts in the world in the previous year. We did get some inside scoop on security that seems pretty accurate. According to sources (deck crew), all the watertight doors on the ship were closed and locked (e.g. in case a torpedo or boatload of suicide bombers hit one section of the hull and pierced it, the other sections would not flood), Also each evening in these waters, the ship security crew mans special sound “dishes” to deter would-be hijackers with first a broadcast verbal warning and then high pitched, highly focused sound waves that would inflict pain and break ear drums, (like a laser beam, only it’s sound). We also heard that some of the deck crew members were assigned to man fire hoses to repel boarders. Happily, none of these things had to be used.
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
Dateline: Makassar Strait, Celebes Sea
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 0.45 degrees north, 119.26 degrees East
24 miles west of Sulawesi, Indonesia. 1,455 miles from Exmouth, Australia, 1,505 miles to Taipei
Today was our third straight day at sea. We awoke so late that we almost missed breakfast – as I have mentioned before life is hard on the high seas. It is another rainy day but this precipitation was due to a weather belt called the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone, which produces a lot of moisture, much like we encountered on our last equatorial crossing back on January 30th. We crossed the equator at 9:30 this morning and were back in the northern hemisphere with our drains draining and our toilets swirling counterclockwise again. The ship’s crew had planned another Crossing ceremony, complete with King Neptune and his court, but this was cancelled due to rain.
It became sunny during the afternoon so we went out on deck to play paddle tennis for a few hours. We were fortunate enough to see Pilot Whales about half an hour before sunset playing in the ship’s wake, or so we fancied. Sunsets here are some of the most beautiful we’ve seen. There is frequently pollution in the upper atmosphere due to volcanic dust and ash and the constant burning of fields that the Indonesians undertake in order to clear land for the next crop. It makes for poor visibility, but great sunsets.
Now you might think that since we have been at sea for so long, things are settling into the humdrum and routine. Au contraire. Just as the QE2 passengers thought things would get dull and predictable, there was once more Scandal in the Launderette. I guess we should have seen it coming. I mean there are always some passengers who will not enjoy days at sea filled with napping, reading, lectures, concerts, and so forth. I mean the pirates were a “no show” and we’d merely brushed by the cyclone, so what else should a couple looking for a little excitement do but engage in sex in the launderette? Or maybe I should say attempted sex since (a) they were interrupted and (b) the gentleman was quite advanced in years and was reported to be quite frail in appearance.
Gary and I have made friends with a couple from Liverpool, England and I got the full story from her over cocktails. She made the sordid discovery this morning at 6:10 a.m. She had arisen early to do a load of laundry and iron a shirt or two, thinking she’d surely avoid the most serious belligerence and aggressive behavior at that hour. However, upon arrival at the launderette, she found the door locked. Since the launderette is supposed to open at 6:00 a.m., she flagged down a passing cabin steward and asked him to unlock the door, which he did. Since she had laundry in both arms, she gave the door a shove with her hip and the door swung wide to reveal the horrifying tableau. The steward took one look and fled immediately, leaving her to deal with the lustful couple, a man, appearing to be in his mid to upper 70’s, and a woman in her late 40’s. Our friend reported that both parties were still mostly dressed, she astride his lap as he sat in a plastic chair, and he with both hands up the front of her tee shirt. The man at least has the decency to blush, but per our friend ,the woman was “as bold as brass” and gave her a nasty look for intruding. She was trying to decide whether to retreat as the Filipino cabin boy had or stand her ground. But it was the launderette after all, and the site of many fierce battles, and she, like many before her defending their wet clothes, decided to stand her ground. She put her clothes in the washer and started it and began ironing (albeit with shaking hands), but when she turned around, she saw the door was locked again and she was locked inside with the would be “Launderette Lovers” who were now sitting side by side, but the woman had one leg slung over the man’s legs, as if she intended to resume intimacy the minute our friend turned her back. She reports that she unlocked the door and told them it must remain unlocked for the other passengers that will be appearing at any moment (and none too soon for her liking). She was relieved to find they were gone when she went back to put her clothes in the dryer. So now there is a mystery. Who are these people and why would they choose the launderette for such a dalliance? Are they actually married to each other and just looking for a cheap thrill since the pirate thing didn’t pan out? Are they married to other people who happen to be snug in their bunks with no idea their mates are mating elsewhere? Is she a gold-digger of the Anna Nicole Smith variety and he’s taken in by her? Who would have guessed that the QE2 launderette is filled such melodrama? With sex and violence, can drugs and other mayhem be far behind?)
Thursday, March 2, 2006
Dateline: Sula Sea, Philippines
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 10.0 degrees North, 120.3 degrees East
47 miles Southeast of Palawan Island, Philippines. 2,030 miles from Exmouth, Australia, 984 miles to Taipei
Today was our fourth of five days at sea to reach Taipei, Taiwan and we had a beautiful sunny day with a light breeze. Our route today takes us across the Sula Sea and then overnight we would pass through the Mindoro Strait between Mindoro Island and the Calania Island group (all belong to the Philippines) and into the South China Sea, at which point we should exit the “dodgey” territory.
Today’s main event was a Crew Tug of War to raise money for an organization called World Cruise Charities which includes a Seafarer’s Mission and housing for the poor in the Philippines. There were 3 categories – Men, Women and Mixed – with eight people on each team. Teams were comprised of various ship functional groups and were expected to wear costumes and have a theme, usually related to their jobs on board. For example, a group of kitchen workers called their team the Galley Slaves. While this is a game of strength and skill, some of the lightweights didn’t stand a chance. I.E. the Hairdryers and Hangovers team from the Salon and Spa, or the Queens of Passion, petite little waitresses from the Grill dining rooms lost without much of a struggle to the beefier Working Girls team and the Weapons of Mass Destruction team. Both teams are restaurant waitresses with considerably more ballast than their opponents. The Working Girls beat WMD in the final.
In the men’s competition, in a surprise upset, the Bridge Boys (guys who work on the bridge) won over the Technical Crew ( guys from the engine room), who advanced to the final round after a surprisingly heroic, but losing effort, by a group calling themselves Officers and One Gentleman (Bartenders).
In the Mixed Division, the housekeeping team, What a Load of Rubbish, won first place, with the team being anchored with one tough cookie of a woman who dug in here heels and couldn’t be budged. They won the final over the Maury Twisters, who were waiters and waitresses for the Mauretania Dining Room.
Best Costume went to What a Load of Rubbish, although my personal favorite was the Convicts from the Purser’s Office, spoofing a recent bank heist in England that was quickly solved. The pursers however proved to be more brains that brawn, which is usually a good thing in an accounting group.
The Captain had a small cocktail parties (50 or so people) at a time to which he invites different guests and so we attended tonight. We happened to meet an assistant cruise director who lived on St. Maarten for a time and who was very familiar with the Get Wet Bar, noted for accommodating husbands whose wives have gone on a shopping spree.
Friday, March 3, 2006
Dateline: Luzon Strait, South China Sea
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 19.3 degrees North, 120.3 degrees East
48 miles northeast of Luzon, Philippines, 2,621 miles from Exmouth, 400 miles to Keelung, Taiwan
Today was our last day at sea before we reached Taiwan and it is a rough one. It was sunny, but windy, and seas are heavy and in fact a few times waves broke against Deck 3 portholes this afternoon. Deck 3, where we live, is at least 25 feet above the waterline so you can imagine the size of the waves. As for the conditions on deck, our speed plus the wind speed creates a wind equivalent of 45 mph across the open decks. It’s another good day to stay inside.
Gary took advantage of an opportunity to hear an interview with Chief Engineer and shared some knowledge with me. The ship can burn diesel, but it usually burns a fuel called Bunker C oil which is substantially more cost effective. In and around ports we burn high grade diesel to meet environmental standards, but once out to sea, we switch to the cheaper stuff. Bunker C undergoes very little refining (not much different from crude oil right out of the ground) and thus it has to be filtered and heated (it’s too thick and gunky for consumption by the engines in its normal state). It also leaves a sludge residue which the QE2 has to offload for disposal when in port. Some of the newer ships can burn their sludge and thus dispose of it themselves. And speaking of gunky things, the ship only has the capacity to hold sewage for a 32 hour period. When we are in a port for longer than that we have to hire “honey wagons” to haul it off. When we are at sea, it is treated and pumped out, but not within 12 miles of shore. Apparently this does not create problems for sea life, or so they contend. The ship itself however is a threat to whales since there are collisions from time to time. Scientist are certain that the whales sonar lets them know a ship is coming, but for some reason they apparently get curious, come up for a closer look and misjudge the speed. This does not turn out well for the whale.
We also cannot make large quantities of fresh water in port since the engines are not running, so when we are in a port for longer than approximately 12 hours, we have to purchase water as well. This probably explains why we are moving more than we are docked – it’s cheaper to burn the fuel than pay for the water and services. Although the QE2 has 9 engines housed in two engine rooms, she often runs on fewer, depending on speed desired. Today she is only running on 5, with one being rebuilt. (I suppose the other 3 are resting up.) Each engine is the size of a double-decker bus and drives electric generators which provide power for the 250 foot long propeller shafts. Ballast adjustments are made in the hull by pumping liquids (fuel, water, sludge, etc. from one side to the other to offset the effect of wind against the hull to keep the ship level.
QE2 was converted from a steamship (with the title RMS for Royal Mail Steamship) to combustion engine power in a 1987 retrofit. She will be going into dry dock for 12 days at the end of this cruise for a retrofit on a much smaller scale (more like a tune up) and for cosmetic repairs. So the old girl is going to get a facelift (although it will probably more like a facial than a facelift) when this trip is done and I’ll have so many miles on me, I can probably use one myself.
Saturday, March 4, 2006
Dateline: Keelung, Taiwan
Latitude at Keelung 25.08 degrees North, Longitude 121.44 degrees East
We arrived in Taiwan (formerly known as Formosa) this morning after five fun-filled days at sea and were ready to go ashore and spend like drunken sailors (or at least we would if we could get any local money). The ship’s purser only has major currencies and the banks were closed since it was Saturday and the local ATM’s do not speak Cirrus, Plus or any other ATM networking language that would allow us to access our US bank account.
We had docked at Keelung, the port for the capital city of Taipei, and whose name means “chicken cage” in Chinese, purportedly because the surrounding mountains look like Chinese chicken cages. Taiwan, also called Formosa, is very mountainous with over 1000 peaks over 9,000 feet. The island is quite large as islands go, roughly 300 miles long, and 33 million people (and probably 33 million scooters) live here, mostly concentrated in the Keelung-Taipei area. Surprisingly, Taiwan has many rural and wilderness areas which have significant numbers of bears and monkeys in the wild. The forests are dense, dominated by cypress, acacia, and camphor trees. It is a temperate climate with fertile soil and they get buckets of rainfall (about a half a pail-full while we were there) – very much the other end of spectrum from the Outback.) They have the full range of tropical flowers, plus a dazzling array of azaleas which were in bloom while we were there. One of the main crops here is oolong tea, which is grown in terraced plantations on the mountain sides.
Our morning destination was Chiufen (pronounced Cho-Fen. Accent on Cho, which rhymes with Joe), which is an old ore and gold mining town built in mountains in the mid-19th Century. The name Chiufen translates as “9 families”, since 9 families ran the mining operation. The old part of the town is comprised of streets of steps lined with shops, tea houses and restaurants, which were both quaint and picturesque.
Taoism is the dominant religion of Taiwan and on our morning outing up to Chiufen and surrounding mountains, we saw the elaborate temple-like dwellings for the dearly departed. Relatives of a deceased person (when they can afford it) build individual tombs that look like little houses on hillsides buried according to feng shui (i.e. proper alignment with wind and water, etc) and birth date (your site has to be in alignment with your date of birth or else there may be hell to pay, which in the Taoist sense means you’ll be out of balance in the afterlife). Descendants of the dead person are tasked with the frequent upkeep and
restoration of these houses. If your family can’t afford a temple (or is too stingy to spring for one), you will be cremated and your remains stored in “ash towers” (some 7-10 stories high) with all the other unfortunates, but towers are still considered consecrated places. The more affluent dearly departed often had their burial sites constructed from of a type of Taiwan concrete made from a mixture of rice, sugar and shells ground to powder. I don’t know how these fared in terms of withstanding the test of time. You’d think the rodents would have a field day, but then maybe those ground up shells kill the taste.
Politically Taiwan is independent and has been since 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek retreated there to escape Mao Tse Tung’s Communist army. China considers Taiwan a renegade province since it has belonged to China since the 1600’s and they are now looking for reunification. Taiwan, however, is looking to maintain sovereignty. The Taiwanese enjoy substantial prosperity (compared to China) and many freedoms they don’t want to give up. The language here is a Fukien dialect (I’m not even going to attempt a pronunciation guide to that one) from an area in mainland China of the same name. Primary industries are ship-building, fish processing and mining.
This early morning tour of Taiwan that ended just before lunch and we were really hungry. Since we had no local money, Gary tried to buy a few burgers at a McDonalds first with US dollars and then with a credit card, but both efforts only produced giggles from the counter cashiers and no burgers. We ending up running into a crew member we knew and mooched 600 Taiwan dollars which is about $20.00 US dollars, enough for a small feast at Micky D’s. Although we love the QE2 food, we believe the occasional junk-food fix is required to properly appreciate it.
We had a fascinating afternoon walking around Keelung including a stroll down several blocks of open air restaurants where an astonishing array of food was being prepared. (grilled octopus, giant prawns the size of a middle aged lobster, all sorts of glazed delicacies, including stuff I don’t want to think about before mealtime, but still fascinating). Scooters are ubiquitous here for both transportation of whole families, as well as goods and services, e.g. we saw them towing trailers, hauling bricks, and even pulling hot dog stands (we have a don’t ask, don’t eat policy about the local food). Gary is usually pretty adventurous
with new culinary adventures, but has become a bit more leery since Taiwan. In Chiufen a street vendor offered him a sample which Gary assumed to be licorice, but which turned out to be seaweed. I had to give him some of my personal stash of M&M’s to get the taste out of his mouth. People we have met are generally so willing to please, the answer to any question is “yes”, whether they understand the question or not. We noticed lots of people wear surgical type masks, but are unclear whether they have something or are afraid they will get something (or given the things we saw at the market, they may be afraid they’ll throw up something).
We did find an internet at place with really high speed access, but were unable to use either an external “travel” drive or a CD to send pictures. This place was huge, about 300 computers, and on 299 of them we found teenagers smoking cigarettes and playing video games. We learned that this was only one of several floors in the building that had computers and only one of many buildings in the city. The good news is for those of us who worry about the trade deficit, we should be comforted that Taiwan is a big importer of tobacco and Microsoft software, (although in reality, they probably have their own knockoffs for both).
Sunday, March 5, 2006
Dateline: North Pacific Ocean
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 9, 29.0 degrees North, 129.1 degrees East
Tokiri Strait, Ryukyu Islands, Japan
Today was a sea day and we started out with a beautiful day, but it became rainy as we crossed from the South China Sea into the Pacific and into Japanese waters. We spent much of the morning on deck and have spotted several red cinder volcanic cones, as well greener mountain peaks on bigger islands in the Ryuku Chain which stretches from Taiwan to one the main islands of Japan called Kyushu. This chain is grouped (in what are called “shotos”) and include, from south to north, Sakashima, Okinawa, Amami and Nansei Osumi. For those who remember WWII history, some of these names may be familiar since the Allies fought the Japanese on many of these islands.
Once the rain set in it was a good afternoon for movies and reading, but we did have to interrupt our schedule for our temperature check. At each port we have visited, the immigration and customs authorities have different requirements and it has been interesting to us to see how they vary. We are visiting a total of 40 ports in 27 countries. We only had to get visas ahead of time to visit India, China and Australia (although the latter could be done on line).The purser’s office collected our passports at the beginning of our voyage and typically clears the whole ship at one time, so all we have to do is walk off and go about our touring. However in LA, US Immigration, made each of us present our own passport, which created 3 to 4 hour delays in disembarkation. There seem to be 3 distinct areas of concern in the various formalities. In Australia and New Zealand, we were questioned and screened to make sure we were not bringing any fruits, vegetables or animal products ashore that might in any way introduce exotic species or diseases (you may recall the description of the killer beagles who thoroughly sniffed everyone upon entry). In Japan, China and Taiwan they screen passengers for elevated temperature because they are concerned about flu and SARS. Japan requires an actual temperature check on two consecutive days. In the US, of course, we screen for terrorists, drugs, weapons and explosives. There is probably something profound to be said about these differences, but I can’t quite come up with it.
We do believe there is copy editing work here in the Far East for those for whom English is the native tongue in the event times get hard in the USA. We got a chuckle out of several translations. In the questionnaire for entry into China they asked if we had symptoms of fever, breath difficulty (only when I forget my Listerine) or a snivel (only when I’m served seaweed for lunch.) And then there was a sign we saw at an internet café where we used their computers asking that we return the “mouth” to the attendant when we finished with our email.
Monday, March 6, 2006
Dateline: Kobe, Japan
Latitude at Kobe 34.4 degrees North, Longitude 135.12 degrees East
When Gary took a GPS reading this morning, we were surprised to learn that Kobe is the same approximate latitude as Gainesville (we are at 34.17 vs. Kobe’s 34.4), but longitude, of course, is quite a different story since we are 14 time zones ahead of Georgia. Kobe is located on Honshu Island, which is the largest of 4 major islands that comprise most of the real estate of Japan. Japan also has 6 to 7 thousand minor islands, some so tiny as to not even have a name. However, the Pacific side of Honshu Island (which includes Tokyo) is home to the vast majority of Japanese. In total the Japanese islands stretch from just beyond Taiwan in the south to Siberia and Alaska in the north. Kobe is pronounced just like the name of the famous/notorious (take your pick) basketball player, Kobe Bryant. Kobe is famous for steel manufacturing, shipbuilding, sake brewing (pronounced sock-ey with the emphasis on the “sock”) which is Japanese wine made from rice and served hot, and Kobe beef. Kobe beef cattle are fed special diets and get daily massages in the weeks before they are slaughtered, which supposedly tenderizes the meat. Now there’s an occupation that would create interest on your resume – “Cow Masseuse”.
We docked this morning in the early hours in a chilly misting rain. Despite the weather, we had a warm welcome from a fire boat spouting water and a marching band playing Sousa, interspersed with assorted American college fight songs. Kobe is the port city for Osaka and the historic city of Kyoto, which until 1781 was the capital of Japan. The capital was then moved to Edo, which is today called Tokyo. This is the date that Japan transitioned from a feudal state with war lords and a shogun (a grand poohbah sort of person – roughly equivalent to an emperor). The samurai were the nobility and comprised approximately 10% of the population. Both men and women could be samurai and lived by the code, but the men had all the fun with the big swords. Women’s roles were mostly for making little samurai. Samurai who rebelled against their warlords and/or the shogun were called ronin (renegades) and they were often mercenary hit men, enforcers, and so forth. In 1781, Japan adopted (not without a lot of bloodshed) a centralized form of government under a single emperor (of the Meiji family line) which evolved into a virtual dictatorship of the WWII era and then into the democracy that exists today. Japan has also transitioned over the centuries from self-imposed isolation from the outside world under the shoguns to the wheeler-dealer society of today.
Kobe has literally risen from the ashes twice in the Twentieth Century. It was more or less leveled by air raids in 1945 in the closing months of WWII. Then on January 17, 1995 a devastating earthquake struck the area killing 5,000 people and leveling 10% of the structures in central Kobe. Since then, the Japanese have rebuilt with a great deal of flare and have achieved a very vibrant look with a striking skyline and waterfront. They have also created several artificial islands with landfill from the earthquake which are still being developed. In Japan, they drive on the left, (some say it’s the British influence), but the more popular belief is that in olden days, samurais would walk on the left, leaving their sword arm (the right) in the right position to draw their sword (called a katana) and behead the approaching traveler as he passes by in the event the situation calls for it. Road Rage had a wholly different complexion in those days – it was up close and personal. Also no samurai (or anyone else if feudal Japan) could be left handed. It was interpreted as a sign of weirdness and was ruthlessly schooled (and beaten) out of the youngsters before they started school. Also samurais do not walk like the rest of us (i.e. left foot and right hand extended and right foot and left hand extended – they walk left and left and right and right to ensure they are always in fighting position – it makes for an awkward walk, but apparently nobody ever made fun of them and got away with it.
We left for an all day tour in the morning in a misting rain and traveled by motor coach to the ancient city of Kyoto. Allied bombers were under strict orders from their commanders to avoid any damage to Kyoto, given its historic importance, and consequently, many old structures are still in place. Kyoto is also renowned for its hot springs. In olden times only the nobility could bathe in the hot springs. Today, anyone with the price of admittance can enjoy them, but it is a group activity– segregated by men and women and you are expected to shower before entering. Bathing suits are not an option. We visited the site of
an 8th Century palace occupied by the Shogun of Japan. It is called the Heian Jingu Shrine and is a re-creation since most Japanese structures were built of wood and between the fires and the termites, not much of the original structure remains today for tourists to look at. However, if you read the book, Memoirs of a Geisha, (pronounced gay-sha with the accent on “gay”), you would have a very good feel for this place (in fact some scenes from the movie were filmed here, as well as scenes from The Last Samurai). The gardens were hauntingly beautiful, with the deciduous trees, now bare of foliage, with their intricately shaped trunks and branches silhouetted in the mist. There were a lot of evergreens, particularly pine trees that resemble the umbrella pines around the Coliseum in Rome (with pompom type branches and twisty trunks) These seemed almost artistically contrived and of course, carefully pruned to appeal to the aesthete in all of us. All of Japan is very mountainous, but those around Kyoto are especially beautiful with the mist lying in the valleys and the peaks softened with a blanket of fog.
One of the most interesting things that caught our eyes were the tiny pieces of paper tied to trees and what looked like an abacus without the wooden beads. Our guide explained to us that the Japanese often come to the temples to get their fortune told, and instead of getting it in a cookie, they buy it for a small sum, with fortunes ranging from good fortune to misfortune. The way it is supposed to work is that if they get a bad fortune, they can get rid of it by tying the paper to the “abacus” which is what I’ll call it since I don’t know its name. However in recent times, a lot of fortunes are now left behind there since people don’t know they are supposed to take the good ones with them.plus overflow goes to the trees. Our guide attributed this cultural faux pas to the fact that since WWII, very few people follow any religion at all in Japan, so the old Buddhist traditions are falling by the wayside. We also noticed thin strips of wood with writing on them which are tacked up to various walls. These are prayers and wishes of one sort or the other – everything from hopes for a good crop to single white female looking for husband who likes to cook . It is interesting to note that they have to put their name, address and date so Buddha will know who to grant the wish to. Imagine if you just wanted a good rice crop and a man showed up at your door with his own wok and utensils looking for a single white female. You’d think that Buddha would be able to keep all this straight, but that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.
From there we spent a few minutes at a local crafts center and made a few purchases and then proceeded to the old geisha quarter called the Gion for an authentic geisha experience. Our stop was a restaurant for a Japanese style lunch which involved taking off our shoes and sitting on tatami mats. Lunch was a boxed lunch, but the box was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It is called a bento and the box it came in was made of finely crafted wood with a lid and individual compartments and dishes inside. Unfortunately, the lunch was like nothing I’d ever seen before either. Included in the box were various delicacies which
involved sea weed, sea urchins, tofu and some unidentified fish which I think may have been guppies or minnows. There were lots of other things, some crunchy, some mushy, all either totally tasteless or totally disgusting. Except for the rice and the shrimp tempura, I passed on most of the treats and stealthily foraged around in the bottom my purse for any loose M&M’s leftover from our Taiwan adventure. This stuff was so bad, even Gary wouldn’t eat it. However, we really didn’t come for the food – the real treat was the 4 geishas who came out to entertain us.
Geishas don’t have exactly the same job description today that they had before WWII, i.e., they are no longer “working girls”, that is to say they are not expected to have sex with the patrons. They also no longer bind their feet (for some reason Japanese men liked tiny little feet on their women-folk), but they are still tiny compared to us robust Western women. What they do still do is sing, dance, recite poetry, play musical instruments, arrange flowers and serve tea – all dressed in traditional kimono and sash (called an obi), complete with elaborate make-up and hair-do. There are only 200 to 250 geishas in the Kyoto area today
(and this area has the largest geisha population in Japan). They are trained from the age of 7 until they are 15 and are called mikos. Once they turn 15, they can become sort of apprentice geishas called “gaiko”. Then once they turn 20, they can be geishas. Only as a geisha do they ever get any spending money of their own, and even then, it’s not much. Some have compared it to a stable of exceptionally fine race horses. (i.e. they are well fed, well cared for and highly prized, but they are still treated as possessions, but at least it’s voluntary on their part). As they get more experience, they are allowed more make up (e.g. a first year gaiko only paints a little rosebud mouth on her lower lip – a second year gaiko gets to paint both lips) and she is permitted to perform more rituals. They cover their faces with white makeup (a Charlie Chaplin look), and use lots of black eyeliner tinged with red and red lip paint. They have only used the white makeup for the last few hundred years. It is believed that lighting was so poor in the old days they started using the makeup to stand out of the shadows. They leave their necks bare of makeup (necks are supposed to be very sensual for the male patrons so they say). They also seem to tint their teeth red for some unknown reason (at least unknown to me). They have 12 kimonos, one for each month and the designs reflect the seasons and they are quite costly, reportedly in the range of $45k to $90k. The hair is swept up in a very elaborate set of “beehives” (my term not theirs) and decorated with small jeweled combs and clips and these vary with the seasons as well.
We have found Japan to be full of incongruities. Take the ladies room at the geisha restaurant. You have to leave you shoes at the front door, but you can climb onto some wooden clogs to clomp into the bathroom, where you will see three stalls. Inside two are porcelain covered holes in the ground (they do flush) where you are expected to squat to do your business. The third toilet is a conventional Western style toilet designed for sitting, complete with a heated toilet seat. Here’s another oddity: today religion plays a very minor role in Japanese life. Most are born into either Shinto or Buddhist families, and then they more or less drop the religion due to lack of interest, but increasingly, families are having Christian weddings with all the attendant hoopla. They don’t convert to Christianity – they just like the big wedding. Japan also has very little crime, very little public intoxication, and not much promiscuity; however, beer, condoms and cigarettes are sold on the streets in vending machines, no doubt taking all the thrill out of misbehaving.
Only 10% of the cars in Japan are imports and most of those are German luxury cars. Japan has 123 million people and 70 million cars. Given that the 4 major islands of Japan are roughly the size of California, this results in some pretty big traffic jams. To beat the traffic, we left Kyoto to go back to Kobe on the Bullet Train which took about 30 minutes. As we exited the train, station personnel bowed to us as we passed, a civility we observed throughout Japan. We then took a quick drive around modern Kobe. There was still one more incongruity waiting for us. We saw 5 young men in sumo wrestling regalia and requisite haircuts stroll down the sidewalk, turn into a store that sells dinner cruises and cruise memorabilia and commence browsing. We couldn’t even begin to figure out this one.
Tuesday, March 7, 2006
Dateline: Northern Pacific
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 9. 31.6 degrees North, 134.25 degrees East
100 miles south of Shikoku Island, Japan, 214 miles from Kobe, 231 miles to Kagoshima, Japan
Today is a sea day as we head into the Kuro Shio (Japan) Current, which sweeps up the coast of Japan from the equatorial waters. Morning skies were sunny and temperatures were mild, but rain developed later in the day. We are traveling relatively slowly since the distance to our next port, Kagoshima, Japan is too far to reach over night and too close to sail at normal speed. This morning the ship was dedicated to drills and exercises required by an international maritime organization. This includes a man overboard exercise in which the ship doubles back in a figure 8 pattern to simulate going back for a man overboard. They did stop short of actually throwing someone in. It took 15 minutes to turn the ship and return to the point where the person would have “landed” in the water. Of course this exercise only works if someone on the ship knows the exact location where the overboard episode actually happened. We have heard that there has been only one person lost overboard on the QE2 – a deck crew member who was never found and no one saw him go into the water. They did find his work boots at the rail, so speculation was that he was a voluntary man overboard. Since they had no chance of recovery, the ship continued onward.
And speaking of carrying on, we have heard reports of a feisty 92 year old aboard who is repeating the cruise since she missed part of it 2 years ago when her husband died and she got off the ship in Australia with his body. She reportedly had him cremated and flew to Taipei where she rejoined the ship with his ashes and she doled him out to sea in little spoonfuls at various ports of call. Now she’s back on the QE2 (hopefully spending the insurance money) and is reportedly closing the bars down at night and waiting in line for the Pavilion to open to get her coffee at 6:00 a.m. in the morning. We’d like to meet her, but can’t seem to stay up late enough or get up early enough.
Our Captain, Captain Rynd, will be leaving the ship in Kagoshima and will turn over the helm to Captain Bates. We understand that Captain Rynd will take a brief vacation at his home in New Zealand and then assume command the Queen Mary 2. We couldn’t help but wonder if the recent grounding of the QM2 at Fort Lauderdale had anything to do with the QM2 getting a new captain. Cunard management could not have been pleased with that debacle since it cost them several million dollars and a lot of negative publicity. We would be coming back to New York on the QM2, leaving Southampton, England on April 23, but after this crossing, the QM2 will go into dry dock for more extensive repairs.
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
Dateline: Kagoshima, Japan
Latitude at Kagoshima 31.3 degrees North, Longitude 130.31 degrees East
We arrived at Kagoshima, located on Kyushu Island, this morning in a dense fog which lifted to some extent around mid morning. Kinko Harbor, where we are docked, was once the caldera for a massive volcano that erupted 6,500 years ago. We had a tour set up to go to see the volcano at Sakurajima (which, strangely enough translates into “Cherry Blossom Island”) which is across the bay from the city. It is now a peninsula, but prior to a 1914 eruption, it was an island. Still the best way to get there is via ferry, which we boarded, bus and all. The volcano is listed as active –its last eruption was in 1946, but it puffs quite regularly,
and did indeed perform for us. It is comprised of 3 separate peaks, the tallest being 1,040 meters, which is over 3,200 feet. Rising from sea level as it does, it is quite impressive. They have built people shelters which are scattered about in case the volcano erupts while tourists are touring. Our personal observation was that they don’t look too sturdy or too roomy for many tourists to take shelter.
Over the years, the volcano has provided extremely fertile soil and this area is known for its super-size vegetables, particularly radishes. Camellias, azaleas and yew flourish here and grow to hedge size quite quickly. We also noticed large groves of trees with little white envelope looking things covering the ends of the branches. These are loquat trees (tasting like a cross between a peach and a mango so we were told) and the paper envelopes are to protect the trees from frost, birds and insects. There are beautiful beaches and sheltered coves along the route, but the fog and angle of the sun made good photos hard to capture. The landscape is very dramatic with lava formations and newly emerging pine forests.
Japan has 114 active volcanoes, which comprise 10% of those in the entire world, and it has only .02% of the world’s land mass, so you would think they would pose a great danger to the citizenry. However “active is defined as anything that has erupted within the last 10,000 years. Japan also has 30,000 kilometers of coastline, and is thus very susceptible to tsunamis. It also sits on the most active earthquake zone in the world. Kagoshima gets dusted with ash from the volcano on a regular basis and it’s very hard to remove. If you add water, it hardens and if you wipe it away, it’s very abrasive and scratches. You’d think that all of these drawbacks would make tourists anxious to leave, but it is so beautiful, it’s easy to overlook the hazards, especially while the volcano is sleeping.
We also learned how to distinguish written Chinese alphabet characters from Japanese. The Japanese have blunt ends (more geometric) to their characters, whereas the Chinese have curved ends. The Japanese language has 48 syllables with which they make words. Each character represents one syllable.
We spent a few more hours touring the city, in particular the ancestral home of the Satsuma family, who were the warlords of the area and quite famous in their time –that time being up until 1781 when General Saigo (a.k.a. The Last Samurai – portrayed in the movie of the same name) helped end the feudal system and set up the Prefecture System which is still in effect today. Instead of feudal kingdoms, Japan has 47 prefectures (similar to our states) which are ruled by elected governors. The grounds were really beautiful, landscaped to perfection and set against the backdrop of Sakurajima.
We had the best sendoff ever from Kagoshima. Thousands of people turned out to see us off and there were the giant drums (called kodo drums), dancing geisha impersonators, and a brass band of teenagers playing some of the best 1940’s music you ever heard. They played Old Lang Syne as we pulled away from the dock and the crowd on board had collective goosebumps. On a philosophical note, we reflected that we were in a Japanese port standing at the rail of a British ship flying the Union Jack, drinking French champagne chatting with some German friends from Munich about how wonderful the American WWII era music
played by Japanese School Children is. Sixty years ago, when this music was popular, this scene would have been unimaginable to our respective parents and grandparents. It sort of gives you hope for the state of the world sixty years from now.
Thursday, March 9, 2006
Dateline: East China Sea
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 9, 31.4 degrees North, 125.54 degrees East
220 miles west of Kagoshima, Japan
Today was another sea day as we slowly (at 15 knots) approached the Chinese coast and the mouth of the Yangtze River. We are scheduled to pick up a harbor pilot at midnight and dock at 3:00 a.m. when tide is most favorable. Shanghai does not have a cruise ship pier so we’re going to be at a container facility an hour out of Shanghai.