Life on the Sun

The Viking Sun that is. Before leaving on this trip, Susan downloaded 35 books to her Kindle and I downloaded about a dozen to keep us entertained on a 141 day trip with over 60 sea days. To date, Susan has read four books and I have read exactly none – though I have read one National Geographic magazine. Why so little reading? We are too busy doing other things.There is a Mah Jongg game for two hours in the morning of every sea day. Susan is one of the heroes of the Mah Jongg players on the ship. Viking promised to provide fifteen sets to use on the ship, but they only bought five sets and they were the Chinese version that is incompatible with the American game. Fortunately, Susan and one other woman brought their sets from home. That meant up to ten people could play and Susan was assured of being one of them since she could always take her set and go back to her room. Eventually, they figured out how to modify five Chinese sets to make three American sets. The Viking ship carpenter then created racks for them since the Chinese do not use them. I am sure our cruise director rues the day she ever heard the words “Mah Jongg”.

There are also bridge lessons and sanctioned duplicate games on all sea days. Each day there is a beginners lesson and an intermediate player’s lesson. The teacher is Australian, so there is the occasional difference in customs, but for the most part everything is the same as at home. The game is usually fourteen boards, so it only takes two hours. We play approximately every other sea day.

Viking also has a team of six enrichment lecturers on board that changes approximately every three weeks. Generally one of the team will be a historian, one will be a naturalist, one will be some sort of scientist, and the others will cover diverse areas such as art, film, government relations, music, or writing. There are typically three lectures on sea days and one or two on port days. The lectures often cover topics related to the countries we are visiting. I probably attend about a third of the lectures and Susan attends less. One of my favorite lecturers was a geologist from Britain. He was quite a character and managed to make the dull topic of geology interesting and entertaining.The lectures are held in the main auditorium. This lecture was about the economies of New Zealand and Australia.

On every sea day at 12:15 we play team trivia. This is the first time we have ever played trivia; and while we aren’t very good, we have a good time and learn a few interesting things.Our team from left to right is Steve, Marty, Julie, John, Karen, Mary Ann, Susan, and me. The game consists of 15 questions covering diverse topics such as nautical flags, names of animal groups, country capitals, country flags, identifying celebrity pictures, and any other topic you can imagine. One day we won outright, and we have been in ties for second and third place a few times. But usually we get a “thank you for playing”. There are no prizes for winning, but everyone who plays gets a one dollar voucher to use on Viking logo items at the gift shop.

On nice days, we spend a lot of time at the pools. On less nice days we like to go to the spa, but to date we have only been there once. I think that speaks to the weather being pretty good and there being a lot of other things to do. There is also a gym where Susan spends a lot of time working off the yummy desserts. She also likes to walk laps on the outside decks when it isn’t too hot or too windy. I also do laps occasionally.

The entertainment has been mostly good to excellent. There is a 45 minute show every evening. The entertainers are predominantly singers or instrumentalists with the occasional magician or comedian. There is a different group of entertainers boarding the ship approximately every week. I think I have been to every show but three or four. Susan usually passes on the comedians and magicians. Throughout the late afternoon and evening there is a guitarist, a piano player, a classical trio, and the Viking Duo (he plays piano and sings and she sings) who play at various bar and eating venues around the ship. There is also a four piece Viking Band that back up the singers and play late into the evening in the lounge for the dancers. It is impressive how they can play with singers from opera to country with minimal rehearsal.Occasionally they have afternoon shows in the atrium featuring the Viking staff or one of the entertainers. The above show was country music classics. The woman in the top picture is Heather, our cruise director. She is primarily a mezzo soprano opera singer, but here she is doing a great Patsy Kline.

In summary, there is a lot to do on sea days, and we find we are unable to do everything we would like to do.

Sunday on Thursday

No, they don’t have some weird calendar transformation in Australia. We simply spent Sunday, the day of the week, visiting Thursday Island or TI as it is known locally. It is located in the Torres Strait north of Australia and has an area of about 1.4 square miles. It was originally occupied by the Torres Strait Islanders which together with the Aboriginals comprise the two indigenous peoples of Australia. They are still a large part of the population of about 3500 people on TI.

Our visit began with a welcome by one of the leaders of the Torres Strait Islander community. He spent some time discussing an indigenous people’s protection act in Australia which he said dictated where they could live and what aspects of their culture they could continue to observe. In his view this act was doing nothing to protect them. He then went on to say they did not want to assign blame for past problems, but wanted to live together in harmony and as equals to all other Australians. It sounded like a speech that could have been given by the leader of any Native American tribe in the US. The device he is holding is their traditional weapon and a symbol of their culture.The hat on this statue is traditional to the Torres Island Strait people and is part of their flag.The women are performing a traditional dance in traditional dress accompanied by guitar and drum.We were told not to go in the water because of crocodiles there. These children didn’t seem to get the notice.We got to the Anglican Church right before the start of the service. Other than a few people from our ship in the rear, the attendees all seemed to be Torres Strait Islanders. By contrast, everyone outside in the parks seemed to be of European descent. People headed to the church where very friendly toward us. Despite the fact that it appeared the economy could use a cash infusion from the cruise ship, most stores and cultural centers observed the Sunday holiday.There was also a Catholic Church and some Protestant churches in town. Did I mention that the ocean was a beautiful blue for as far as the eye could see? No?I should have!

We have two sea days before reaching Darwin.

Epiphytes

While most the ship went snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, we went to the town of Kuranda in the rain forest above Cairns. We took the Skyrail, or gondola, stretching for 4.7 miles in three sections from near sea level up to a maximum height of 1800 feet and on to the small town of Kuranda at about 1100 feet. The Skyrail was built by lifting the finished towers into place with helicopters so as to minimize the impact on the rain forest which is mostly protected land. There were two stations where we had to change gondola lines and both of these stations had boardwalks and scenic overlooks.The rainforest canopy is very dense so only a small percentage of the light reaches the forest floor. Thus, plants have to develop strategies to get enough light to live.One strategy is to grow really tall so your leaves are at the top of the canopy. Another strategy is that of vines which can grow upward with the support of a tall tree. Other plants have seeds that stay fertile indefinitely waiting for one of the tall trees to die so they can sprout in the opening created by the dead tree. Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants without harming the host plant. A good example at home would be Spanish moss.I thought the cleverest strategy was that of the basket fern. The fern surrounds the trunk of the host tree and simply rides up into the canopy as the host tree grows. The brown bottom leaves catch leaves and other nutrients to feed the plants and the green top leaves provide photosynthesis. A pretty clever plant!The second gondola station was at Barron Falls. If you look closely at the upper left of the middle picture, you can see the train stopped on the other side of the falls so passengers can see it from that side. The bottom picture is from the train side. The water flow used to be much heavier, but most of the water is now diverted to a hydroelectric facility.

Despite being in the mountains, the temperature and humidity were very high in Kuranda. We stopped at the visitor center to ask if there was an air conditioned restaurant for lunch. Unfortunately, there was none; but they recommended a restaurant with lots of fans in a nearby open market.The joke in Australia is that, other than the people, everything else is out to kill you. This is because of the large number of poisonous spiders, snakes, and other creatures here. Fortunately, this lizard in the restaurant was harmless and only begging for a handout. As soon as she discovered it, Susan got her purse and feet up off the floor for the remainder of the meal. After lunch, we browsed the numerous craft and gift shops in town. It was a most unusual sight to see me encouraging Susan to go into an air conditioned dress shop!We took a two hour ride on the railway from Kuranda back to Cairns. The railway was built between 1882 and 1991. It has fifteen tunnels built with picks, shovels, and dynamite. To add insult to injury, the workers had to provide their own tools for the privilege of digging the tunnels.The train cars were historic with only open windows to cool you.The views from the train included forest, vistas, and waterfalls. This was a trip we did on our own rather than taking an excursion from the ship.

After another relaxing day at sea, we next visit Thursday Island in the Torres Strait.

The Green Flash

When the conditions are just right, you can see a green flash at sunset just as the last part of the sun disappears below the horizon. While it is possible to see the flash anywhere, conditions are best over the ocean on a pretty clear day. While I have often heard people talk about the phenomenon, I had never seen it myself until last night. Susan saw it from our veranda earlier in the trip, but my mother taught me never to look directly at the sun so it was too late by the time I looked. A photographer friend on the ship caught the earlier flash by taking multiple pictures automatically. The pictures are 0.2 seconds apart and the spot is yellow 0.2 seconds earlier and gone 0.2 seconds later. It truly is a flash! But I have crossed one more thing off my bucket list.

Today we visited Hamilton Island in the Whitsunday Islands. The Islands were discovered by Captain Cook and he named them thinking he discovered them on Whitsunday or Pentecost. However, he had not dealt with the International Date Line properly (possibly because it didn’t exist then); so it was really Whitmonday. Hamilton Island is a large luxury resort and we had free reign on the island for about four hours. Anyone who knows Susan knows that we spent that time at the beach and the pool. The air temperature was quite warm, but the ocean was delightfully refreshing. We also checked out the pool and it was even warmer than the pool on the ship. The beach outing was a nice change from touring big cities. The sail away was also beautiful with the sky and the ocean competing with each other to be the bluest. Since this is the first time Viking has been to a lot of these ports, they are getting a lot of beauty shots to use in their advertising. The helicopter circled our ship taking pictures as we sailed out of the harbor.The Whitsundays are along the Great Barrier Reef. Tomorrow we will be in Cairns, the primary entry point to the Reef. Since we have snorkeled there previously, we are going up into the mountains and rainforest.

Brisbane

Viking includes one “free of additional cost” tour in each port. That tour is usually a panoramic drive around the city with one or two stops for photo opportunities or a walking tour of some part of the city. If the ship is docked far from the city center, they usually provide a “free of additional cost” shuttle to the city center. They also provide a city map with the main sites of the city indicated. This enables you to create your own walking tour. In Brisbane we elected to skip the panoramic drive and take the shuttle to walk around the downtown on our own. This enables us to see just what we want to see and spend the time we want at a site rather than the time dictated by the guide which is invariably either too long or too short.

The temperature today in Brisbane was predicted to be 93 F and the humidity felt like it was 93%. Brisbane has a river snaking through the city and provides a free ferry service, which we took advantage of to reduce our walking and get some scenic views from the river.Brisbane had several pretty churches in varying shades of sandstone.We rode an elevator installed in the 1930’s to the top of the clock tower in the city hall. The car was original, but we were assured the cables and brakes had been replaced many times. The building also housed a museum on the history of Brisbane.This church looked like a toy model from the top of the clock tower.The Old Treasury Building.We are getting to the point that cities don’t look right to us unless we see them from the water.These magnificent banyan trees fill a small plaza in the center of town.

We arrive in Cairns next after a day at sea.

Blue Mountains, Prisons, Rocks, and Icons

Our first day in Sydney we took an excursion to the Blue Mountain National Park.The bottom rock formation is known as the Three Sisters. The legend is that a father was unhappy when his three daughters began attracting the attentions of young men, so he froze them in stone.There were two ways to get from the top of the cliffs down into the valley. One was this cable car which was billed as the world’s steepest. Fortunately, the present cars were much more modern than the original car.We rode a gondola from the valley floor back up to the rim. There was also a peak to beak gondola we rode to get back to our bus. The problem was that the park was very busy so there was a thirty to forty five minute wait for each two minute ride. I am unsure whether it was so crowded because it was Saturday or because it was only a few days before the Chinese New Year.In the valley there was a boardwalk through the forest connecting the two means of transportation. Somehow, I managed to get this shot with only Susan in it as the boardwalk was quite crowded also. Interestingly, all native trees in Australia are evergreen.

The second day our excursion was to Cockatoo Island, the largest island in Sydney Harbor. As you know, the British got rid of their criminals by sending them off to Australia. Those who committed another crime after reaching Australia often ended up on Cockatoo Island where the living conditions were very harsh. The sharks that inhabited the harbor discouraged any attempted escapes by swimming. The prisoners were kept busy quarrying the limestone on the island to build their barracks and for construction projects in Sydney. When it was abandoned as a prison, it briefly became a reform school for girls, where the conditions were only marginally better than the prison. From 1859 to 1991 it housed one of Australia’s largest shipbuilding yards. The workers in this shipyard were instrumental in the development of labor unions in the country. Because of the size of the yard and association with the government, labor agreements developed here tended to be adopted throughout the country.This is the main prison yard with cells along the sides. The building in the center was the mess hall. The prisoners built all the buildings.There were several attractive houses at the top of the island that were occupied by shipyard managers. The island today is a world heritage site with camping grounds and lodging in some of the nicer houses. It is primarily a historic site accessible by ferry from Sydney.Of course, There are great views of the city from the ferry.The Rocks, located just off the harbor, is a great place to eat, shop, and people watch. We had lunch at the Fortune of War pub that claimed to be the oldest in Sydney. Following that we walked around the Sunday street market before taking a shuttle boat back to our ship. Anytime you are on a boat in Sydney harbor, the views are awesome.

Of course there are two icons of Sydney: the Harbor Bridge and the Opera House. I probably have over a dozen pictures of each, but I will just include my favorites here – both taken at twilight.After much debate, we elected not to climb the bridge. Several friends on the ship did climb it and said it was a great experience and not especially difficult. It was opening night of Carmen at the opera house, but we elected not to go since we had attended an opera there several years ago.

We have a sea day today before arriving at Brisbane on Tuesday (Monday for most of you).

How to Make a Didgeridoo

Tonight in Sydney we enjoyed an aboriginal show where we learned how to make a traditional didgeridoo. They are traditionally made from hardwood trees such as eucalyptus found in northern Australia. They look for hollow trees in areas of obvious termite activity. The termites eat only the dead core of the tree as they are repulsed by oils in the live outer rings of the tree. The aboriginals test the tree for hollowness based on experience and a knocking technique. The whole trunk or a substantial branch of the tree is used. Once a suitable tree is found, they sing a song of praise to it for what they are about to do to it.

The cut branch or trunk of the tree is then cleaned of termites using hot coals and smoking leaves. Water is poured into the hollow center to keep the trunk from burning and to insure their are no holes in it. Any holes are plugged with bees wax. The outside of the instrument is then painted and decorated with sacred drawings such as kangaroo feet. The didgeridoo is considered as sacred by the aboriginal people.

It is played by blowing continuously through the instrument using a circular breathing technique where you breathe in through the nose simultaneously with blowing out through the mouth. This makes a steady droning sound. A skilled player can make this sound continuously for over thirty minutes. Other sounds can be added by moving the tongue from side to side, or moving the tongue up and down, or using the voice box. Saturday night we watched a show of aboriginal music and dance.The music was provided entirely by the didgeridoo and clicking sticks.

There is one unfinished item from Melbourne: Chloe’s Pub where we had lunch. We were walking with our friends, Pam and Dick, at lunch time; and Dick asked a local for a lunch recommendation which turned out to be Chloe’s Pub. We chose the room which featured a painting of Chloe when she was nineteen.Pam and Susan were pleased to give their best Chloe impersonations but didn’t seem to want to match her attire.

More on Sydney next time.

Ozzy, Ozzy, Ozzy. Oy, Oy, Oy

This seems to be the Australian cheer to show pride in your country. It is often yelled at sporting events and in pubs. Today the security guard checking our ID on the bus said “Ozzy, Ozzy, Ozzy” as he was leaving the bus, and half the passengers shouted back “Oy, Oy, Oy”. The fact that I know this shows that both Susan and I safely survived our transit of the Tasman Sea, which apparently has the same reputation for rough waters as the Southern Ocean. It is indeed on the 40th parallel which is called “the roaring forties”. The first of our three days crossing the Tasman Sea was by far the worst. We woke up in the morning and the ship was rolling from side to side with occasional huge bumps that seemed to shake the entire ship. Susan immediately took a Dramamine and stayed in bed for a while for it to take effect. When we went to breakfast it was far less crowded than usual and the report was that many of the staff were sea sick. Both of us felt fine all day and didn’t miss a meal. Walking was challenging. It was virtually impossible to walk in a straight line and you needed all the support you could find to keep your balance.

Ironically, there was supposed to be a mandatory safety drill that morning. That was cancelled early on. All day there would be an occasional big shake that would make you gasp. On several of them I was thinking we really needed that life boat drill. By the middle of the afternoon, they had cancelled the evening entertainment because they couldn’t keep the piano from sliding around, the gym was closed as unsafe, all salon appointments were cancelled, and the outside decks were closed. I noticed the legs of the other two pianos on the ship are in pipes attached to the floor so they aren’t going anywhere. The one on the stage has to be moveable because it isn’t used in all the acts. It was pretty much a lost day except for watching the Super Bowl. They served hot dogs and pop corn in the theater for the occasion. Unfortunately, the only commercials we saw were for ESPN International. The second day was much better and the third day was smooth. At least one person had a collision with a wall and needed stitches and many people skipped meals on the first day.

Melbourne is the second largest city in Australia and is in a race with Sydney to become the largest. They are gaining on Sydney and expect to pass them in a few years. There is a friendly rivalry between the two cities. While Melbourne doesn’t have an iconic structure like The Sydney Opera House, it is an attractive mix of parks, modern new buildings, and charming old buildings. This dead tree trunk is known as “the fairy tree” because of the images carved on it.This old exhibition hall is located in a park. It is the largest building in the city and is still used, but it isn’t air conditioned so it isn’t very popular in the summer.It seems every city in Australia and New Zealand has a Shrine of Remembrance to honor the soldiers killed in war. This is the one in Melbourne. It is surrounded by a large garden with shrines dedicated to individual platoons.There is a face of a man on the side of this building. The face, created solely by the shape of the balconies is that of the leader of an Australian indigenous leader. The face is clearer the smaller you make the picture.These are two of the three performing arts theaters we saw in the downtown area.This very contemporary building was directly across the street from the top theater above. The city was a real contrast of architectural styles.The train station.A shower type fountain you could walk under in one of the downtown parks.Collins Street was the home of all the high end retailers. Susan had a hard time convincing me that I wouldn’t be the hit of Pawleys Island in these shoes.

We have another sea day before we reach Sydney on Saturday – that would be Friday for most of you.

Dunedin

Dunedin has a Māori and Scottish heritage. It is the second largest city on the South Island of New Zealand. We took a bus tour of the adjacent Otago Peninsula and then walked around the city.There were a lot of nice views from the highlands of the peninsula. In New Zealand the bus drivers also serve as the guide. They wear a headset and provide a near continuous narrative as they drive these narrow, mountainous roads. This never seemed very safe to me.The center of the town is known as the octagon because of the shape of the plaza. Naturally there is a large Anglican Church on one of the eight sides. The front part of the interior was very modern but the rear was very traditional. That is the organ on the right side of the picture.They still had telephone booths reminiscent of what you would find in Great Britain.We visited the Otago Museum primarily to see the Māori collection. This is one of their wooden ocean going canoes.The poupou is a wall panel that is part of a Māori meeting house. The carvings tell the story of the spiritual connection between the wood carvers family and their ancestors. It may also incorporate images of the tribes history and migration legends. While meeting houses are considered sacred, they are not places of worship; but religious rituals may take place there. Notice there is a face with a prominent tongue at the top of each poupou. Oyster shells are used for eyes. The lower picture shows the level of detail in the carving.The railroad station is the architectural highlight of the city. The design earned its architect, George Troup, the nickname of Gingerbread George. The station opened in 1906 and was the busiest station in New Zealand at the time. Today it is owned by the city of Dunedin and is used only for tourist trains, a restaurant, and other functions unrelated to transportation.

Today, Monday, is the first of three sea days to cross the Tasman Sea to Australia. The sea is known by Australians and New Zealanders as “The Ditch” much as we call the Atlantic “The Pond”. It lies at 40 degrees south which is nicknamed “the roaring forties” for its rough seas. The ocean is living up to its reputation today with high waves which shake the ship. The weather is severe enough, that they cancelled the life boat drill this morning. I am doing OK so far and Susan is doing OK on Dramamine – only the second time she has had to take any. Despite the fact that it is Monday here, the Super Bowl begins at half past noon at both the theater and pool deck. I plan to be there!

February 22, 2011

We have a different entertainer every evening. Last nights entertainer was Will Martin, a young New Zealander with a wonderful voice singing everything from classical to Billy Joel. He recalled February 22, 2011 as the date of his live interview at the Christchurch radio station. He arrived in the late morning and was greeted by the station manager who introduced him to the station staff and the lady who would interview him live on the air. Despite his fear of live interviews, it went very well and he was on the air for forty five minutes. He then left the building and went to lunch nearby. About fifteen minutes after leaving the building, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch collapsing the six story building where the radio station was located and killing 115 people including everyone he had just met at the radio station.

That is just one of the heart wrenching stories you hear from the people of Christchurch.This is the cathedral of the city. The tower collapsed during the quake and they are still trying to find a way to restore it.Less than two and a half years after the quake, this “transitional” cathedral was opened nearby. It is popularly known as the cardboard cathedral.All those rafters that look like wood are cardboard tubes with wood reinforcing inside.The cardboard tubes are made in Christchurch and members of the congregation hand varnished them and then signed their names on the inside. The roof is made of plastic sheets.The walls of the church are shipping containers that also serve as small rooms at the sides of the church.The cross, the alter, the furniture, and the choir stall are all made from cardboard tubes. What started out to be a temporary structure is now considered to be permanent.This is part of the container mall where shipping containers were converted into stores. As more buildings are being rebuilt in the downtown area, these stores are closing and moving to permanent locations.Seven years after the earthquake, there are signs of it everywhere. Empty lots, reinforced buildings, barricaded buildings, derelict buildings with broken windows, and new buildings with “For Lease” signs all speak of the earthquake. But there are also new modern buildings and new stores which speak to the determination to recover.

Christchurch is a beautiful city with some charming old buildings, a river snaking through the heart of the town, and a pretty botanical gardens.Punting (riding in a wooden boat propelled by a driver using a pole to push the boat) is a popular activity. Susan felt it was too cold (low 60’s) to really enjoy a punt.Thanks to Susan for providing scale in two of the pictures. I was intrigued by the rings around the trunk of the tall tree.This modern building housing the city art museum survived the quake. We liked the architecture of the building more than we liked the art inside.

Our next stop is the Victorian city of Dunedin, New Zealand.

The Travel Blog of Susan and Bruce