Monthly Archives: July 2010

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – The Great North Walk through urban jungle

Sydney bushwalkers are blessed. Not only do we have the Royal National Park at the bottom of the garden and the Blue Mountains just up the hill, but we also have a respectable bush trek right at our front door. The Great North Walk (GNW to its friends) officially starts at Circular Quay.

It is beautiful and challenging enough to satisfy most of us. There are creeks to ford and rocky sandstone outcrops to scale. There’s the chance of glimpsing a rare bird or being bitten by a dangerous reptile, and if you want a serious adventure you can keep walking the track till you reach Newcastle, 250km away. A couple of days will be enough for me this time, maybe 40km worth.

On one of those perfect, bright, clear winter mornings I board the ferry Supply heading to Woolwich. I snap off the compulsory shots of the Opera House and the underside of the Harbour Bridge and just off Balmain I meet the first surprise of the day, four penguins bobbing in the water.

At Valencia St wharf I disembark and start walking. Okay, I’m quite not in the wild yet, I’m in Hunters Hill, but they could put a sign by the roadside, ‘Last latte before Hornsby’. At regular intervals I find tasteful little Great North Walk signposts, in heritage colours of course. The walking man symbol and arrows point me in the right direction, through leafy streets with Federation houses and water glimpses the owners pay big bucks for. I get to glimpse for free.

After an hour I’ve had enough of suburbia, but behind Boronia Park the route dives into the bushland along the Lane Cove River. Then things get very pleasant indeed. To my left are towering Sydney red gums and yellow wattles in full bloom; to my right I can see through the casuarinas to the mangroves lining the river.

Currawongs carol, wattlebirds bark and kookaburras clear their throats. Honeyeaters and silvereyes flit about feeding on the old man banksias. The sun sparkles on the water, a gentle breeze ripples the reflections of the smooth tree trunks on the far bank, and fluffy cumulous clouds float across the azure sky above. It’s enough to make a man wax lyrical.

The track undulates gently, occasionally testing my legs with a big heave up and over a clump of rocks. Sure, if I listen for it I can hear a distant hum of traffic on Pittwater Rd, but otherwise there’s little to dispel the impression that I’m in the wild.

I briefly emerge from the bush to cross Epping Rd, where four lanes of snarling traffic race down the hill and disappear up into Ryde. It’s no place of pedestrians, and indeed I’m the only one around when I duck under the bridge and onto the Fairyland Trail through Lane Cove National Park.

So far I haven’t met anyone else, so it’s jolt when a wiry old codger comes striding towards me. I step aside to let him pass. ‘Sorry, mate,’ he says, ‘there are 32 others behind me.’ And so there are. They’re a group of GNW regulars. ‘This is our playground,’ a wizened walker stops to tell me proudly, ‘No-one else ever uses it.’ That isn’t quite true. The Department of Lands estimates that 40,000 people a year walk at least a section of the track between Sydney and Newcastle. However, if you average this out over 365 days and 250km, clump them together in groups of say, three or four, it means you’ll only meet another group only once every hour or so.

I pass through Lane Cove National Park, surely one of Sydney’s treasures. Here local volunteers are doing battle with the noxious weeds. Wandering jew and privet are threatening to clog the riverbanks.

A Canadian couple is sitting by the track, taping their blisters. They started on the GNW a few days ago, heading south from the Brooklyn Bridge. Is it impressive enough for people who’ve hiked the mighty Rockies? I ask. ‘It’s just amazing!’ they gush. ‘This forest is so beautiful! We never expected so many wildflowers in winter. And what’s that bird we hear, sounding like a whip?’
‘Ah, that would be a whipbird,’ I reply knowledgeably.

A group of American scouts passes, with Australian scouts as their guides. An earnest young fellow pulls out a notebook. ‘Sir, I need to interview someone to earn a scout badge.’
‘Fire away,’ I say.
‘How old is the Great North Walk?’
‘Signposting the route was a bicentennial project in 1988.’
‘1988. Thanks. Can you tell me a little about the history of Pennant Hills?’
He writes this down. ‘Thanks for your time, Sir.’
‘No worries. Hope you get that interviewer’s badge.’
Hiking’s not just about scenery – it’s the people you meet.

I’ve walked over 20km, so that will do me for today. At Brown’s Waterhole I leave the GNW proper and cut along the Terrys Creek track, following signs towards Eastwood. Half an hour later I’m on the bus, heading home for dinner. Then I’ll sleep in five-star luxury…in my own bed.

Tomorrow, should I feel up to it, I can take the train back to Thornleigh and walk another 23km of the GNW. I know it gets wilder still up past Galston Gorge and along Berowra Creek, but I’ll still be able to catch a train home from Berowra station. What an asset to have on the doorstep!


Getting there: The sign-posted route begins at Valencia St Wharf, Woolwich, reached by ferry from Circular Quay ($5.20 one way).
The Sydney section of the route has numerous other points accessible by public transport, including Bus 290 along Epping Rd and trains to Eastwood, Pennant Hills, Thornleigh, Hornsby and Berowra stations.

Further information: NSW Department of Lands provides Great North Walk maps and information booklets for $11 plus postage and handling.
Phone 02 9236 7720 or order on-line:

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Filed under Hiking, Travel-Australia

TALLINN, ESTONIA – the Olde Town is Newe agayne

Sprinkled around Tallinn’s Old Town are wooden carts, from which pairs of young Estonians sell packets of sugared almonds. The merchants are dressed in medieval robes and gothic lettering on the awning above them reads ‘Gourmet Monk’. But below the hems of their garments I can see jeans, designer sneakers and Crocs, and they take calls on their mobile phones. Tallinn may flog its medieval credentials for tourism purposes, but this is a 21st century city.

Our group arrives in Tallinn late in the afternoon, leaving time for a pre-dinner stroll into the Old Town. The sun sparkles on church spires and the turrets of the city walls, bounces off ornate weather vanes above terracotta roofs and backlights the cobblestones on the steep narrow streets.

I haven’t seen a place this pretty since I last visited Bruges, but Tallinn is far less crowded, and locals have time to chat.

Silvi is a business management student, and though selling almonds to tourists brings in useful kroons, she mostly does it to practice her languages. French was her best subject at high school. It was mine too, but I keep quiet about that. If Silvi hears my French the reputation of Australian education will be in tatters. Her English is excellent and I bet her German and Russian are also passable.

On a temporary stage in the lovely square in front of the 14th century town hall, a band is doing a sound check for their performance in the ‘Old Town Days Festival’, while colourful street performers draw a crowd with a display of drumming and energetic flag waving. There’s no reason to think Estonia has ever been anything but settled, prosperous, open and fun-loving.

It is only when I learn more of the region’s turbulent and tragic history that I understand what an extraordinary change has come over Estonia since the break-up of the Soviet Union. In an introductory lecture organized for my Odyssey tour group, local historian Kristi tells how little Estonia (population 1.3million) was subjugated for centuries by Danes, Swedes, Teutonic knights and Tsars, before enjoying brief independence between the World Wars.

Then in came the Russians, the Nazis and the Russians again. ‘Who was worse?’ Kristi gives a wry smile. ’ You can’t choose between bubonic plague and smallpox.’ Between them they exterminated or deported a huge proportion of the population, including nearly all Jews and most educated, landed and business people.

Today relations between resident Russians and ethnic Estonians are sometimes strained, we’re told, with Russian reluctance to learn the Estonian language and the recent removal of a hated Soviet monument being bones of contention. Our Estonian guide Rita is quick to advise us against buying the babushka dolls we see in the window of every souvenir shop. ‘They are Russian, not Estonian, Russian! ‘ That yellow jewellery is not genuine Estonian produce either; it is Latvian or Lithuanian amber. So I buy a pretty scarf made from local linen. ‘We have our own factory here in Estonia,’ I’m proudly told.

We tourists also benefit from Tallinn’s new-found freedom. It seems that all young Estonians speak English as confidently as Scandinavians do. The coffee and focaccias are first rate. Prices are quoted in Estonian kroons, but also in euros, due to be introduced in 2011. IT is a boom industry here and travellers should be eternally grateful to the Estonian computer programmers who invented Skype.

At dinner time we’re returned to the Middle Ages, as Rita leads us to the ‘Olde Hansa’ Restaurant. The name refers to Tallinn’s past as a trade centre for prosperous Hanseatic League merchants. ‘Olde’ in my experience generally means ‘Newe’ and ‘Kitsche’, but to my surprise this is well done and very good fun. We’re served by waitpersons in medieval costume and entertained by minstrels playing viol, tambour and recorders. And gazooks, they’re good! So too is my juniper cheese, almond chicken, ginger turnip and dark herb beer.

The Olde Hansa is doing a roaring trade with crowds of young locals making merry at long tables. Estonians are proud of their past and optimistic about their future. A return to the true Dark Ages seems mercifully out of the question for them.

The writer was a guest of Odyssey Travel.


Staying there: Meriton Conference Hotel and Spa has two night packages from 2450 Estonian kroons (about US$210) per person. See

Eating there: Olde Hansa Restaurant offers feasts from EEK480 per person. See

Further information: Odyssey Travel runs guided tours to the Baltic States including three nights in Tallinn. See:

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney


Filed under Art, Baltic, travel photography, Travel- Europe

DRIVING CREEK RAILWAY – potty training

Barry Brickell had had a gutful of the city. He resigned from teaching and went bush, meaning to live a solitary life, quietly working as a potter. It didn’t quite go to plan, because these days visitors flock from around the world to his “Driving Creek Railway and Potteries” on New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula, to play with the ride-on train set that Barry built himself.

When I say he built it himself, I mean, he really did build a railway with his own hands. In 1973 he bought 60 acres of scrubby hillside and constructed a pottery kiln at the bottom. The pinewood he needed to bake his pots was higher up the mountain and getting it down was a chore. No problem; Barry liked engineering and trains in particular, so he started laying 100metres of track with a 15inch gauge.

Next he built a train to run on it, and now the Driving Creek Railway is 3km long, with spirals, switchbacks and zigzags, points, tunnels and bridges. Its construction has taken Barry thirty-three years, so far. It’s open to the public, and they love it.

Central Station, Driving Creek

We join about fifty others to ride the 10.15 to Eyefull Tower. ‘Mind your heads and arms, folks,’ says our driver Peter, ‘some of our tunnels are pretty narrow and we don’t want anyone losing limbs.’ The guard blows his whistle, Peter blows the train’s horn and clatter, clatter, clank, clank, off we go!

The little red trains that shuttle around Barry’s tracks are the smallest we’ve seen this side of Disneyland. They’re open at the sides so passengers can get a close up view of the workshops and kilns where potters potter around. Then as we climb the hill we watch the bushland pass at close quarters.

It’s exceptionally lovely bushland. That’s another of Barry’s little obsessions, bush regeneration. He’s planted 20,000 native trees on the property, including 9000 kauri trees, the slow-growing, long-lived forest giants that used to crowd the Coromandel until people discovered how useful their wood was. Few are left now, but there are plenty on Barry’s hillside.

Specimens of flora beside the track are labelled to help us identify them and driver Peter gives us a running commentary. His enthusiasm for the project is as infectious as Barry’s must have been.

Every feature of the railway is a minor work of art, both practically and aesthetically. Retaining walls are made from thousands of recycled bottles stuck together with clay. ‘We’re always looking for empty bottles if you want to donate them,’ says Peter, ‘and we’ll even help you drink the contents first.’ Terracotta sculptures made by Barry and his friends decorate the entrances to tunnels or are dotted along vantage points on the track.

What a mad, charming, ridiculous, enormous DIY project this is! From time to time Peter stops the train to jump down and do a points change, or even to walk to the other end of the train to drive it off in the reverse direction up the zigzag. ‘The only one in New Zealand’ he tells us proudly. Nobody minds the delays; we’re not in a rush, and there’s always more art or a spectacular view to admire as we wait.

We reach ‘Hoki Mai Station’, the point where Barry, after sixteen years of work, finally said enough was enough. But it wasn’t. Building continued for many more years and the railway doubled in length, leading us up to the Eyefull Tower, a viewing platform 173metres above sea level, finished in 2003, from which we get brilliant views out over the Hauraki Gulf. We can see as far as Auckland on a clear day.

Driving Creek Railway receives no public funding – the operation is all self-supporting – but there’s plenty of government control now. Barry was meticulous about his building, but with going public came lots of red tape and safety inspections. ‘Fair enough too,’ says our guide, ‘but he’d never have taken it on if he’d really known what he was in for.’

Barry’s 73 now, so he’s decided to let the National Trust take over the care of the place, with an agreement that it can never be sold off.

Back we ride to the bottom of the hill, to admire the quirky rough sculpture garden and go on a short bushwalk down to the creek. Much of the pottery on display in the shop, Barry Bickell’s included, is genuinely good and there’s no shortage of customers. There’s a video running showing how and why Barry built the railway, and about his hopes for his latest grand project, a nature reserve.

A dam on the creek has created a wetland habitat for frogs and waders, and an elaborate vermin fence erected around the perimeter last year protects native birds from stoats, cats and possums. Over forty bird species have now been spotted on the property and plans are in train to introduce the threatened kiwis.

At the end of the video, Barry appears. ‘I’m glad I built all this when I was in my forties, fifties and sixties. I’m getting too old to do it now. I’m retiring from it all and just going back to just being a potter.’

But as the crowds clear away I notice a lean figure using a pruning saw to hack away a tangled bush overhanging one of the pottery studios. It’s the man himself, wiry arms sticking out from a grimy green singlet. ‘I just watched your video, Mr Brickell,’ I tell him, ‘You said from now on you were just going to be a potter. You shouldn’t still be doing heavy jobs like this.’

‘Yeah, I can’t stop myself working hard.’ He grins and holds out his right hand, which I see is wrapped in a dirty bandage. ‘Can’t wait to get this thing off. Curling finger syndrome – had to have an operation. Oh no, look what I just cut down – this is native fuchsia. I’ll be in trouble with DOC (the Department of Conservation).’

A passing worker comments, ‘No worries there, Barry, they know you’ve done your bit for the environment.’

We agree wholeheartedly, and we get the feeling that he’s not finished yet.


Getting there: Coromandel Town can be reached by a 360 Discovery ferry from Auckland. It’s a two-hour trip, operates five times weekly, and returns cost NZ$89. Day tour packages including Driving Creek Railway can be arranged.
By road, Coromandel Town is a three-four hour drive from Auckland, and Driving Creek Railway is 3km north of the village.

One hour round trips on the Driving Creek Railway cost NZ$20 . Trains run at 10.15 and 2.00 daily, and by arrangement (depending on numbers) at other times.

First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney


Filed under Art, Budget travel, New Zealand, Travel

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA – burkas in the bird park

It was the cheapest flight I could find between Amsterdam and Sydney, but it left me a sixteen-hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur. Awkward. Not long enough to justify a night in a hotel, and although KL International Airport was voted ‘best airport in the world 2005-06’, sixteen hours is a long time to spend drinking Delifrance cappuccinos and shopping duty free. Even the World’s Best Airport 2005-06 was unlikely to keep me conscious till a 10pm flight.

So I caught the fast train into downtown Kuala Lumpur. It took 28 minutes, cost 35 ringgits (about US$12) and dropped me off at Sentral Stesen near the Lake Gardens. There’s shade there. And a free mouse deer enclosure. Mouse deer (or is it mice deer?) are only interesting for about ten minutes, but when you have hours to kill, every little helps. Most mice deer in the cages were curling themselves up inside logs, ignoring their plates of chopped carrots and cabbage. They’re bigger than mice incidentally – more like rabbit deer, but with spindly legs and short ears.

Still fourteen hours left to fill. I saw there was a bird park next to Lake Gardens. I loved Singapore’s Jurong Bird Park, so this was worth a try. Entrance 45 ringgits (about US$15). Singapore is wealthy enough to put a lot of resources into its zoos. Malaysia’s bird park is less spectacular than Jurong, but nonetheless I was pleased I went.

Egrets and storks have free range in ‘the largest free flight aviary in the world’, because a net covers the top of most of the park, keeping the birds in place. This means that even a klutz like me can get close enough to a feathered friend to get a sharp picture (see sample above.)

More interesting still was the people watching.

In a muslim country, when I’m confronted by the sight of men walking around in t-shirts, shorts and baseball caps in the heat and humidity, while their womenfolk tag along in black headscarves or burkas, my first thought is ‘It must be awfully hot in there’. I was sweating profusely in spite of my loose, light-coloured clothing and planning a shower back at the airport. Maybe burkas are more comfortable than they look, and I am sure many women wear them of their own free will, but it seemed incongruous that these women were expected to wear modest traditional dress, while it was apparently fine for men to wear whatever they liked.

Having no religious belief myself, the idea that an all-powerful creator of the vast Universe would be so petty as to be offended if a woman bares her shoulders on a hot day seems ridiculous to me. Such cultural norms are surely man-made, and only other human beings take offence.

Yet I was pleased to see people in burkas apparently having just as much fun as the rest of us. If these women were fanatically plotting jihad against the west, they were disguising it very well, by smiling, licking icecreams, and having their photos taken with parrots on their shoulders. I liked them and was glad to spend a day in their company.

STOP PRESS: I did stay awake till 10, caught the plane, watched Clash of the Titans till it bored me to sleep, and arrived jet-lagged anyway.


Filed under Birds, Malaysia, Travel, travel photography

ANTARCTICA FOR BEGINNERS – in Christchurch, New Zealand

Next blizzard, 5 minutes

There’s an intriguing line of footprints leading away from the arrivals hall at Christchurch Airport. A giant in work boots has apparently walked through a puddle of blue paint before heading off across the car park. I have four hours to kill before my onward flight, so I follow his tracks over to the International Antarctic Centre.

This is a serious scientific base, home to the New Zealand and Italian research programs, and to US Antarctic Operation Deep Freeze, but it also has a section open to the public, billed as ‘The World’s Best Antarctic Attraction’. That may sound like a big call but how many Antarctic attractions does the world have? Most of us have little chance of ever getting to real life Antarctica so this may be the next best thing.

‘If you hurry you’ll catch the next blizzard,’ says the friendly ticket lady, ‘it starts in five minutes.’ I never like to miss a blizzard, so I dash through to the Snow and Ice Experience room. Attendants issue me with a padded jacket and rubber overshoes. They warn me I’ll be walking on real snow and that snow is slippery; then let me through an airlock between two heavy doors.

I join a dozen fellow chill-seekers in an Antarctic diorama. There are mounds of snow (I check, yes, it’s really slippery), an ice cave and rows of black and red flags. An Indian family looks cutely incongruous as they photograph each other standing by a snowmobile, with a backdrop of Antarctic mountains on the wall behind them.

The thermometer above the door shows the room temperature to be minus 8degrees,
which is not so good for those of us wearing shorts under our padded jackets. ‘Warning! Storm approaching!’ announces the PA system. Sound effects wind howls, hidden fans start up, and it starts to get seriously cold. Other people, warm people, watch us through the large glass windows in front.

The wind machine cranks up to 40kph, and the gauge shows that, with the wind chill factor, we’re now at minus 26.3, so this is the coldest cold I’ve ever experienced. After a couple of minutes I’m looking anxiously towards the marked shelter points where people are escaping from the icy blast and getting back to that toasty minus 8 we were basking in a few minutes ago.

But before anyone gets really uncomfortable, the wind dies down and we can take off the jackets and move on to the next attraction, penguin feeding.

Penguin encounter

The Little Blue penguins on display at the centre are the species commonly found on the coast of Australia and New Zealand. They don’t live in Antarctica. Nevertheless, they’re very popular with the visitors as their keepers feed them fish. The ones here have all been rescued because of various injuries and would not survive in the wild. The most popular is the one wearing little blue booties over his flippers.

Apart from these entertaining exhibits, the centre also provides rooms full of serious, interesting information about the wildlife and daily life in Antarctic, focussing on Scott Base, the New Zealand facility. We can try on the clothing residents wear there, leaf through their safety manuals and photo albums, and crawl into replicas of their tents. There’s a stuffed leopard seal (slightly the worse for wear, though I suppose he doesn’t mind now) and a small aquarium with strange ugly fish collected from below the ice at McMurdo Sound.

In the audio-visual room we watch a short, spectacular film about the Antarctic continent. I’ve seen so many documentaries about it, but until now I didn’t realise it was quite so dry (dryer than the Sahara), so big (twice the area of Australia) or so high (average elevation 2300m), or that there are spectacular rocky areas that are not covered in snow.

Finally I step outside for a Hagglund Ride. I don’t know what a Hagglund is, but the centre’s legal advisors seem keen to have me not ride in one. A sign warns that I shouldn’t do it if I’m pregnant, prone to motion sickness, have a back problems or a nervous disposition. Signs like that make my disposition nervous. Nevertheless, in interests of Antarctic research I ignore my dodgy back and board the thing anyway.

Your Hagglund is here, Sir.

The Hagglund, invented for the Swedish army, is the Antarctic workhorse. It’s a boxy little tractor with caterpillar treads, towing a trailer. Inside there are industrial strength seatbelts and handgrips everywhere. Driver Alastair speaks with the gentle, reassuring voice of a dentist about to extract a wisdom tooth. ‘This trip might cause some slight discomfort, but I think we’ll be fine.’

Behind the Antarctic Centre is an assault course where Alastair can put the Hagglund through its paces. We crawl up hills at a seemingly impossible 45degree gradient. One hill is split down the middle by a crevasse, one and a half metres wide and three metres deep. Black flags on either side warn of its danger and there’s a roadside cross near the summit.

Needless to say, we make it over safely. The cross, Alastair informs us later, was for a daredevil rabbit that tried to run under a Hagglund and only made it halfway. We try tilting the vehicle up to 31degrees, and then drive into a lake. As the water laps up towards the windows, the caterpillar treads become paddles and the amphibious Hagglund swims across at a stately 3 knots.

Shaken but not stirred, I uncoil my white knuckles from the handgrips, stumble out onto solid ground and retrace the giant’s footprints back to the airport. I’m more enthused than ever about getting to real Antarctica some day. Four hours very well spent. It’s certainly been a lot more exciting than sitting in the Christchurch departure lounge.


Getting there: The International Antarctic Centre is right next to Christchurch Airport. The Penguin Express bus runs hourly from Cathedral Square Christchurch. Cost $NZ10 return.

Further information: Entry to the International Antarctic Centre costs $NZ48 for adults, $NZ36 for children. Family passes are also available.

First published Sun-Herald Sydney


Filed under New Zealand, Travel

TALLINN, ESTONIA – the extraordinary singing revolution

There’s a hint of what is to come at breakfast in the hotel dining room. An older woman is greeted by her companions singing for her. We presume it’s her birthday. What makes the event so electrifying for us is that the Estonians sing beautifully; lilting, accurate three part harmony, conducted by one of the birthday girl’s party, with the whole room joining in. Choral singing is Estonia’s favourite pastime, and it played an important part in their drive for independence.

Just out of Tallinn’s city centre, facing a grassy slope, stands a performance shell which can accommodate 30,000 singers on the podium, according to our guide Rita. Michael Jackson once performed here, and more recently Madonna set the place rocking. But I wish I’d been here for the Estonian Folk Song Festival in 1988 when, with cracks starting to appear in the Soviet Union, a choir sang Mu isamaa on minu arm, a poem by Lydia Kodula set to music by festival conductor Gustav Ernesaks.

Singing this unofficial Estonian national anthem had meant a one way ticket to Siberia since it was banned by the Soviet authorities. However, when an audience of over 100,000 rose to its feet and joined the choir, KGB agents looked on helplessly, and the independence movement became unstoppable. Ernesaks’ statue now sits above the park, his chin in his hand. When the sculptor was asked why his subject was watching thoughtfully, rather than conducting, the answer was, ‘His work is done. Now he’s on holidays.’

For more on the singing revolution, including film footage

The writer was a guest of Odyssey Travel.

Extract from first publication by Sun-Herald, Sydney


Filed under Art, Baltic, Travel, Travel- Europe