Wednesday 15th March 2017

Sea Day in Australia's Far North

We went to a couple of lectures today, but possibly the more interesting information came from the Australian 'Reef Pilot' who broadcasted over the ship's address system twice in the middle of the day, explaining where exactly we were and telling us a bit about the Torres Strait. We subsequently learned that it's compulsory to carry such a pilot in these waters, that he'd joined the ship in Alotau and would be leaving in Darwin.

At around midday we passed the most northerly part of Australia's mainland – Cape York - passing through the Torres Strait and heading towards the Arafura Sea. Having passed over some incredibly deep waters on our north-bound passage up the east coast – as much as 4,000 metres at times! - we're now in very shallow waters as we cross what was a land bridge between Australia and Papua New Guinea until the end of the last Ice Age only 8,000 years ago. Today there's been as little as 20 metres clearance between Sirena's keel and the sea bed.

We passed quite close to Wednesday Island, which was discovered by James Cook who named it, and next door is Thursday Island, discovered by William Bligh, followed by Friday Island. In the second half of the 18th century so many territories were being discovered by Cook and others like him that it must have been increasingly difficult to come up with original names! At least the country itself had been named long before

anyone set sail – it was known as Terra Australis Incognita (the unknown southern land) as long ago as Roman times, but how on earth the Romans could have inferred the existence of a southern continent baffles us.

The first lecture was about Dragons, inspired by our forthcoming visit to Komodo. We've been warned that only guests booked on excursions will be allowed ashore and there have been dire warnings about Komodo Dragons, i.e. no one must wear anything red and people with any cuts or wounds must stay on board. Yes, Komodo Dragons are vicious things that have been known to take humans. Their saliva is venomous and contains many toxins. The wounds caused by their bite rapidly become infected, disabling their prey. Also, they move incredibly quickly when hunting, reaching speeds of 11mph, so it's hard to outrun them. They deal with their prey by cutting it with their razor-sharp teeth then crushing and swallowing it with their powerful throat muscles.

To fill out the 45 minutes the lecture also traced the legend of dragons through time. The role of dragons in Chinese mythology was highlighted and the lecturer said that both he and his wife were born under the sign of the dragon. So was Gill :o)

Another interesting point is that dragons only seem to have become capable of breathing fire with the spread of religion and the concept of the fires of hell. Previously, dragons had been seen as messengers and as benign creatures.

The second lecture concerned a visit to the primitive Dani people in Papua New Guinea made by the husband and wife team who joined the cruise immediately afterwards and who have been doing half of the lectures so far. She warned apologetically at the beginning that sensitive souls who had problems with nudity might feel that this talk, and the accompanying images, was not for them, but then went on to describe in graphic detail, with photos, the killing and cooking of a young pig, which for us was infinitely more offensive.

She also showed us a close-up photo of an old woman with mutilated hands, who'd chopped off a finger joint with a sharp stone as each of her loved ones had died, as a kind of memorial. She described how the old woman had used sign language to indicate that it sometimes took more than one blow. And then you bear in mind that there are believed to be many non-contacted tribes living perfectly happily in the interior of the island, shut off from the modern world, and you find yourself thinking that maybe they're best left alone.

Wishing to have practical gifts to offer the people she'd taken along pencils and paper, but it quickly became apparent that this wasn't a good idea – the atmosphere was so humid that the paper became sodden and unusable. One thing that they picked up on was that it's diplomatic to offer the gifts to the chief, who will then distribute them to his people.

Tonight we put our clock back half an hour, so we're now only nine and a half hours ahead of the UK, and by the time we're in Fremantle it'll be only eight hours.

Thursday 16th March 2017

Sea Day, heading for Darwin

The sea became bumpy again overnight, and we drew the curtains this morning to a strong breeze and grey seas and skies. Although the air temperature is in the 80s we didn't much fancy reading on deck, so we went to the morning lecture on Darwin and Komodo.

Darwin was indeed named after the naturalist when the Beagle expedition discovered the area in the 1830s. The town had a rough time in the 20th century, being heavily bombed in 1942 by the Japanese and then having 75% of its buildings destroyed by a cyclone in the 1970s, with many people having to be evacuated.

We were given dire warnings about not swimming there, because of box jellyfish and crocodiles. Some jellyfish here are lethal, and we were told that there was a recent case of someone stepping on a dead one on the beach and suffering severely.

Then we were off to Komodo, and the warnings about not wearing red clothing and not going ashore with recent cuts were repeated. This sounded a little over the top until it dawned on us that we'll actually be walking amongst Komodo Dragons rather than seeing them through fences! But it'll be OK because we'll have armed Park Rangers with us. They carry no firearms, so what are they armed with? … a long forked pole ;o)

The Dragons eat only every few days unless they've killed and eaten a deer, or even a water buffalo, in which case they might go without eating for ten days or more. Just think about that – they can consume a whole water buffalo! Nevertheless, we're looking forward greatly to seeing a creature that we've heard about all our lives and never thought we'd encounter for real.

After the lecture there was another cooking demonstration by the Executive Chef and his Italian deputy, who had recently been promoted from his role of Italian Chef, and was there to demonstrate pasta-making. In the 45 minutes available they made Tortellini filled with Ricotta, Risotto with Porcini and Carpaccio of Salt-Roasted Beets.

The latter was interesting in these days of mad panics about dietary salt. The whole beet were covered all over with sea salt and baked for an hour and a half and left to cool - the chef brought along one that he'd prepared earlier. Then it was just a case of slicing it finely with a mandolin and adding a truffle vinaigrette and a decoration of baby greens, julienned carrot and onion and rounding it off with parsley. It looked wonderful, and we got to try it too!

In the afternoon the Reef Pilot had a Q&A session in the lounge. Whilst it would have been better for him to first give a brief talk about his role the event went well, giving him a good opportunity to explain to landlubbers like me a few things about the sea.

He'd been a captain in the Australian merchant navy, and service as a ship's master used to be seen as a prerequisite for appointment as an off-shore pilot. Nowadays, with the merchant navy having shrunk so much, there's a shortage of people with this qualification, so appointments are now being made from other groups such as the Navy. To general amazement he said that in China pilots with no sea-going experience are now being trained ashore on simulators.

In response to a question about the risk that ships and whales pose to one another he said that, since the cessation of whaling around Australia, there had been a huge increase in the numbers of whales migrating on the east coast, sometimes travelling in very large 'pods'. Nowadays, they are far more tame and often approach shipping quite closely, which has given a significant boost to whale-watching for tourists. He said that they rarely collide with ships but dive underneath them, which makes you wonder whether they're just being playful – you'd like to hope so.

Sirena arrives in Darwin at about 8am tomorrow – 10.30pm tonight UK time. We're taking a shuttle into town and spending about four hours there, with no tour booked. We've been told to expect overcast conditions and maybe some rain.

Friday 17th March 2017

Darwin

This morning, having briefly left Australia with our visits to Papua New Guinea, we had to be re-admitted by Immigration officials. It was fairly painless, with guests being called to the lounge a deck at a time, no queues and seven or eight uniformed officers scanning our passports. So, now we're back in Oz, but we leave again tonight!

We docked a long way away from town, involving a 20 minute shuttle bus trip all around the bay to the city. Luckily, the drop off point was right by the tourist information office and by the start of the hop on, hop off bus service, so we hopped on!

Darwin is a very new-looking, clean city, and this isn't surprising given its history. It's been destroyed three times, once in 1942 by the Japanese and three times by cyclones, most recently in 1974, i.e. twice in living memory. The Cullen Bay development around the marina looked very swish indeed. This area has been made as cyclone-proof and as safe for ships and boats as possible. It has a system of locks to keep out the worst of the sea surges and has been designated a safe haven to which smaller vessels can retreat if necessary. Even cruise ships have been know to shelter in the bay in poor weather.

The Japanese attack on 19th February 1942 came two months after Pearl Harbour, and in Darwin they talk proudly of the fact that, in direct comparison, far more bombs fell on the city and for far longer. It was left in ruins, and a large proportion of the population was evacuated south. Our first stop on the bus tour was at the 'Military Museum – Defence of Darwin Experience', where a few artifacts and pieces of military equipment are preserved, but the best bit was the 20 minute audio-visual representation of the attack. There were so many aircraft in the sky, each dropping an enormous bomb, and it seemed scarcely credible that anyone survived. It was an interesting visit, but we stayed only 45 minutes or so because there were relatively few exhibits.

We sat in blazing sunshine waiting for the next bus to arrive and, luckily, it was right on time. The pre-recorded commentary was excellent, and as we drove along the shores of Fannie Bay we were told in no uncertain terms that no matter how beautiful the beaches looked no one should swim there, because of box jellyfish and crocodiles – we'd already heard this on board!

Our next stop was at the Stokes Hill Wharf, which is where there had been great destruction, destruction of shipping and loss of life in February 1942. It now looks so peaceful and attractive that it's hard to imagine this. Here we visited the 'Royal Flying Doctor Service Tourist Facility', and saw another excellent audio-visual presentation, this time about the founding of the service and its development up until the present day.

One example of the reach of the service was a young lad who needed a liver transplant and whose dad got a call one night telling him to wake up his son and get to the local RFDS base as soon as possible because a donor liver had been found for him in Melbourne. RFDS then immediately flew him there for the operation. The service now has 91 modern turbo-prop aircraft that are effectively flying ambulances and cover the whole country from regional bases. There was even a recently-retired plane in the exhibition that looked pretty modern to us but that had done twenty years' service, so the latest planes must be truly impressive!

Also in this building was a virtual reality representation of the Japanese attack.

We put on bulky headsets with mask and headphones and could sit in the middle of events, looking all around us, up and down, with our seats vibrating along with the explosions. It was all a bit graphic, and Gill started to feel queasy by the end!

We sheltered in the air-conditioned lobby as we waited for the bus to arrive, which it did right on time. A few minutes later we were back at the shuttle bus pick up point with twenty minutes in hand before our departure to the ship, so we took a look al the local shops. On board and heading back to the ship the blazing sunshine of the afternoon started to recede and the skies became darker. The local coach driver said that he wouldn't be surprised if it rained soon, and ten minutes after we were back on board the heavens opened, with torrential rain and dramatic thunder and lightning all around us. Well, it is the rainy season here ;o)

We've now got into the habit of going to afternoon tea, primarily to see the 'Smile String Quartet', who perform from 4-5pm in the lovely Horizons Lounge high up at the front of the ship. Today it was particularly nice to listen to them whilst recovering from the heat of the day with English Breakfast Tea and a couple of sandwiches. We've also made a point of catching one of their early evening performance before going to dinner.

The four girls are all from The Ukraine, and only the leader speaks, very quietly but with great confidence and charm, telling those listening what the next piece will be. In the three evening performances there tend to be only a dozen or so people listening, but they are mostly regulars (like us) and all seem to really enjoy the beautiful music. In a way, I suppose this is why chamber music was written, for small numbers of listeners in a small, quiet space.

Tonight we set off for Komodo, where we arrive on Sunday after another sea day.





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