Monthly Archives: August 2014

Democracy in action in Brisbane

Like a kangaroo I hopped around Australia taking planes left and right, and from Perth I flew to Adelaide. Adelaide is a wonderful if a bit sleepy city, the capital of South Australia province. It’s a nice place to spend a couple of days but there isn’t an awful lot to report about it. However the visit to Adelaide means I’ve been to each and every Australian state – woo-hoo!!! Next hop: Adelaide – Sydney. From Sydney it was on to New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu, and then back to Australia – this time to Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, the last big city in Australia that I hadn’t visited.

On the map Brisbane appears to be located on the ocean shore. In reality – very much like Perth and Melbourne – it is located on the river which flows into the sea several kilometres downstream. The river creates a fantastic visual spectacle. I crossed it many times a day because its Southern shore – the opposite to the central business district – houses the cultural area. Museum of Queensland, State Library of Queensland, Gallery of Contemporary Art and a major concert hall are all compactly located in that area.

I spent a lot of time there, first studying the contents of all these institutions, then simply sitting in a museum café, spending time in the state library profiting from their unlimited wifi wifi with a speed of light. Somehow the atmosphere in that place is especially favourable for productive work. I think this kind of investment is a stroke of genius – to create in the centre of the city a place where anyone can quench their thirst for information at no cost whatsoever.

The Brisbane river. The business centre in on the left, the cultural centre is on the right.

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Perth, the most isolated megapolis in the world

Perth is the most isolated large city in the world. The closest cities worth the name of are located in South Australia – these are Adelaide and Melbourne. In recent times we’ve heard of Perth due to the (first) Malaysian plane – the one that disappeared without a trace potentially somewhere in the Indian ocean 2000 km West of Perth. Not exactly next door, but it was from here that the submarines and planes were sent to hunt it down. As we know, without success. There is a ongoing and fairly recent boom of natural resource extraction in Western Australia. As a result Perth, the capital, has become the most expensive city in Australia – no mean feat I must tell you! I’d already heard of mind boggling prices in Perth from random acquaintances in Bali and elsewhere. Intrigued, I decided to include it in my trajectory at all costs (literally). And so from Alice Springs I boarded a plane to Perth. Qantas, naturally.

A terrible heat reigned over Perth during my stay – 40 degrees Celsius. Like a snail I crawled its streets with a single minded desire to get to the next air conditioned premises. Similarly to most Australian cities, Perth cannot boast an impressive list of tourist attractions. It is mostly manmade attractions in Perth – and very recent ones at that. And yet as most Australian cities Perth is a very pleasant place to spend some days. Notwithstanding the heat. I started my visit from the Botanical Gardens, particularly luscious in Perth. Situated on top of a hill, it offers a fantastic view of Perth. The city is built on the shores of the Swan River, which further connects it to the ocean. The peculiarity of Perth is that it’s built entirely on sands – and so all new construction is very difficult.

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The King’s Canyon

The King’s Canyon is about 150 kilometres drive from Uluru. I don’t know after which king it got its moniker, but it does frankly look like a king’s folly. The canyon is a part of Watarrka National Park, different from Uluru. Its walls are 100 metres high. A quick stream runs down below. A round walk of the Canyon is about 6 km of walking next to the abyss. In our group some people considered it too physically demanding – and so they opted for a shorter and easier walk on the bottom of the Canyon. Our walk started from ascending the Heart Attack Hill, called this way thanks to a sudden steep climb that immediately awaits a visitor. Our driver-guide – responsible for the three days in Uluru and King’s Canyon – stands right in front the Heart Attack Hill:

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The fantasmagoric Uluru

Uluru is a gigantic rock that suddenly and inexplicably appears from the depths in the very centre of the Australian continent. They say that this strange object, this red rock, goes down into the ground as deep as 5 kilometres. Ancient geological cataclysms are responsible for its formation. As you would expect, this major fantastic element of the landscape simply had to evoke most fantastic images in the minds of the aborigines who lived around it for millennia. Indeed for them every crack and ridge of the Rock is full of meaning as described in stories of their dreaming.

On the map Uluru looks close to Alice Springs, but in fact it is 450 kilometres away. I decided to go on a three day tour of Uluru and Kata Tjutas which also included King’s Canyon on the last day. This post is about the first two days of this tour.

After driving for hours and hours through the desert from Alice Springs, finally we can take our first look at Uluru:

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Alice Springs, the capital of the Red Centre

Australia is huge. More than huge – gigantic. We are so used to seeing its contours on the map that usually we don’t consciously think of how many kilometres separates say Sydney from Darwin. And yet even though its population is only 20 million, it is comparable in size with Europe. If you wanted to drive around Australia in a car or a bus, you would need about six months to see all the coastal attractions. I met qutie a few people on my way who did or were going to do exactly that. As I wasn’t ready to spend six months in Australia – it is pretty expensive too – my only solution was to fly.

The connection between small towns in sparsely populated parts – such as the Northern Territory – is not driven by the laws of commerce though. A girl in a tourist office of Darwin told me that to fly to Alice Springs, I could “choose from Qantas, Qantas and Qantas”. Qantas is of course the Australian national airline and I suspect some of its flights are subsidised. Anyhow one early morning I took a plane from Darwin to the town of Alice Springs, which is located right in the centre of Australia as you look at the map and is separated from each and every coast by huge expanses of desert. This area is called the Red Centre – and you quickly understand why, seeing as you do the endless spaces covered by red dirt.

The main street of Alice:

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The lost world of Kakadu

The tour of the two National Parks in Australian Northern Territory lasted three days. The first day was spent in Litchfield NP, and days two and three were devoted to the National Park of Kakadu. The tour was quite unusual in a number of ways. As it took place in the rain season, most of the usually visited places in the two parks were unreachable even for our 4WD minibus. Our driver-guide though insisted that on the contrary the Wet was the absolute best time to visit the two parks. The reason according to him was that we would see the parts of the parks that the tourists would never normally see. An additional reason is that in the dry seasons these parks are full of tourists; during the Wet there was practically no one – so we felt in a true lost world.

Indeed a number of times we cross the rivers that had flooded their valleys. Our driver would systematically call the rangers to find out whether we can actually get to a certain destination and how to best do it. The route therefore was updated on the go. This was exciting.

Another way how this tour was different was its formula – it was a so-called participation tour, which meant that the group was expected to participate in the organisation. In practice this meant that we were to take part in cooking the food, washing the dishes, cleaning the camp etc. The whole process reminded me of a scout camp (pioneer camp for those of us who come from the East) and was mildly ridiculous. The main problem was that you don’t want to look like a free rider, and yet there is never enough work for all 12 group participants.

We were 3 Americans, 4 Danes, an Englishman, a German and myself. The Danes were all around 20 years old, two Americans and the Brit in the range of 50, myself, the German and the other American around 30. So we were a pretty heterogenous bunch and it was a study in human interaction to see how the work division would pan out each time. Funnily all this led to some tension in the group. The older members of the group would tend to occupy the key posts, and then pointedly comment how they did all the work. The younger ones would virtually never do anything. I was somewhere in the middle on both counts, and even so the tour guide hinted a couple of times that I didn’t do enough. I felt something between amusement and exasperation.

Our second day started from a trek in the jungle with the stated objective of swimming in another waterfall. What is written on this board that my English and American fellow travellers are reading with such attention?

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Litchfield National Park

My time in Australia was so intense that at the time there was no way to process all the photos and to publish all the posts about it. And so it happened that I never came to publish the posts about Australia on this blog. Finally now some months later I have the time to do it. Although out of sequence, I will now publish the overview of this trip, which by all means was one of the highlights of my journey around the world.

As a matter of fact, I visited Australia twice on this trip. The first time I came to Australia after Indonesia, taking a plane from Bali to Darwin, the capital of Northern Territory. I had been considering a stopover in East Timor between Bali and Darwin, however at a certain moment very suddenly the Bali-East Timor ticket price increased tenfold. I imagined that a big party of UN workers was suddenly called. But for me that meant a direct flight to Darwin was my only option.

Darwin is only several hours by plane away from Bali, but it feels like a completely different world. Indeed your first emotion is akin to a cultural shock. Your status abruptly drops, from a wanted business partner (the way Indonesians see you) you turn into an insignificant young man. Suddenly everything costs ten times more than in Indonesia. Wifi which is omnipresent in Bali is suddenly unavailable. And yet Darwin is not the worst place to adapt culturally. It is a small but extremely friendly town. Almost immediately though I departed to a three day tour of two National Parks that cover most of the North of Northern Territory. And the first day was spent in the Litchfield National Park.

I was there out of season, which meant that there were only very few organised trips available. I was lucky to arrive in Darwin right before one of such trips was departing. It was quite an adventure to book it and on the day of departure I waited with some trepidation for the car that was supposed to pick me up. It was late for about 20 minutes – prompting me to start calling their office as I was certain they’d forgotten about me – and then the van (and it was a van!) appeared. The driver was also the guide. I was the first to be picked up and little by little our group constituted itself. It is always a curious process and every group has an internal dynamic unlike any other.

Anyways the visit of Litchfield starts from the giant termite mounds. Termites play a key role in the biosphere of Northern Territory as there are no native large mammals. Their estimated total biomass dwarfs that of all other beings and they are responsible for clearing up the forest of all the dead plants and animals. The first type we saw was the so-called cathedral termite mounds. These huge earthen structures with partitions indeed look like Gothic spires. Entire constellations of such cathedrals line up along the road.

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July in Tallinn

I spent the period from 6 to 30 July in Tallinn. It was a time of quiet, rest and reflection. I also had a chance to meet a whole lot of different people. Some of them may even read this post.

As I’ve spent all in all about 21 years of my life in Tallinn, obviously I did not revisit all the tourist attractions this time. In this post I will publish some photos which somehow landed on the lens of my camera almost as if by themselves. For tourists the most interesting areas in Tallinn are surely the Old Town and Kadriorg. But the cultural life, the happening of the city has recently moved to the areas of Kalamaja and Põhja-Tallinn, and that’s where I spent a lot of my time on this visit – mostly just sitting around in cafés.

I’ll start with this photo – I made it from a bus window as I was heading back to the centre from Pirita. Pirita is an area of Tallinn which plays host to a whole range of interesting sites. They are: the main beach (packed at this time of the year, when the weather was unusually hot – though I didn’t make it to the beach at all), the incredibly atmospheric ruins of St Brigitta monastery, the yacht harbour, a curious Soviet-era monumental complex, and finally the Pirita river – very pleasant place to spend an hour or two rowing in a boat. This is a monument to the perished seamen designed by my father many years ago.

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