Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


Freedom’s just another word…

Anyone who has visited the bizarre post of Panmanjon on the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea will have an insight into the bleak world of the People’s Democratic Republic. The four-kilometre strip of land is said to be the most heavily armed in the world with soldiers from each side engaging in a daily glaring competition. When I visited many years ago the surreal charade of North Korean life was highlighted by an imposing structure that had the appearance of a command post but was in reality just a façade. Soldiers would step in and out of the front “entrance”.

I’ve just finished reading the compelling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, by Stanford University creative writing professor Adam Johnson.  It tells the story of Pak Jun Do – read John Doe – whose mother has disappeared and who spends his childhood in an orphanage overseen by his father, the orphan master. It traces his bewildering and haphazard life journey from semi-orphan to DMZ tunnel fighter, to a kidnapper of Japanese civilians, a spy and ultimately an impersonator of a brutal military hero.


While recognising its status as a novel I was struck by a piece of dialogue in which Jun Do described his country as “the most straightforward place on earth”. This accords with a surprising revelation in a documentary I saw recently about a young North Korean man, actually born in a labour camp, who manages to escape. The German documentary Camp 14: Total Control Zone recounts Shin Dong-Hyuk’s harrowing life in the camp and of his heart-stopping flight into first China. Shin recently gave testimony before a UN commission. At the end of the documentary he expresses a longing to return to North Korea because he finds the “freedom” of life in the west so stressful, especially the constant struggle to earn money to survive. Perhaps the “plus side” of living under a totalitarian regime is that a life of no choices is  “straightforward”.

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A fine kettle of fish – and chips

There’s something about a good plate of fish ‘n chips that’s hard to beat. But fish ‘n chips by the seaside is impossible to beat.  My ship came in recently at Manly, one of Brisbane’s wonderful Moreton Bay suburbs where I caught up with old friends for lunch. It’s a few years since I was last at Manly – in fact, the last time was when I enjoyed a previous lunch with the same friends.

While it retains a quintessential Queensland feel with old, character-laden colonial houses, a foreshore lined with majestic, spreading Moreton Bay figs, and the familiar harbour a dense jungle of yacht masts, Manly has joined the lifestyle crowd with current-day architectural touches and wide open restaurant facades.  The day of my visit was a cloudless blue-sky day with a light sea breeze taking the bite out of the 30deg-plus temperature. Looking out across Moreton Bay, with Straddie sitting on the horizon, I tucked into my crisply battered snapper and fat, crunchy fries accompanied by a crisp pinot gris. Hard to beat indeed!


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Lizards (and snakes) of Oz

There must be something about handling reptiles that awakens an inner-Steve Irwin. While not quite up there yet with the late, great, impossible-to-ignore Crocodile Hunter, the Alice Springs Reptile Centre’s Rex Neindorf is not far behind. I must admit I was a bit ho-hum when I noticed a visit to the centre on my tour itinerary. But that indifference was quickly quashed once Rex started on his animated gecko spiel. How can you differentiate a boy and girl gecko? What’s the white bit on gecko poo? How can you tell if a gecko has previously thrown its tail? All questions I had never asked – but was interested to hear answers to.  (Answers: the boy gecko’s reproductive bits can be seen just above the back legs on the underside; the white part of gecko poo is urine, a moisture-saving measure for their desert environment; and changes in skin patterns denote new growth).

And then the surprising snake safety lecture.  In a land reputed to harbour some of the world’s most scary serpents apparently it’s almost impossible to die from snake bite. Pardon? According to Rex, who also acts as an official local snake collector, as long as you venture out into snake territory with shoes and long pants, your safety is virtually guaranteed. The reason? Australia’s “joe blakes” are a small-fanged lot, around .5 to 1cm in length, not long enough to penetrate shoes or clothes. They also have poor eyesight, so a startled human should just stay still to avoid an attack – or quietly back away making sure not to fall over anything in the process.

Another factor working in favour of the Aussie viper victims? The venom doesn’t get into the blood stream, it affects the lymph system. So as long as a bite is appropriately treated, including being wrapped in a bandage, the venom is slow acting. You have longer to live than you think, probably more than enough time to reach medical help. Reassuring, but I fear I will still bolt if confronted by a death adder and hot tail it to medical help if bitten.

IMG_2998This thorny devil only looks scary.

IMG_0753This is a nocturnal species commonly found in city nightspots in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday. (Only joking!)

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When dinosaurs roamed

No pain, no gain they say.  Well after the “pain” of daily 6am gym starts the “gain” bit came when I was able to make it up the 500 steps to the rim of Kings Canyon in the George Gill Range in Watarrka National Park to experience the riches of Australia’s amazing prehistory.  

ImageOnce upon a time, 400 million years ago….


The climb was so worth it despite having to lug up the obligatory two litres of water. To see actual rock-hard evidence that hundreds of millions of years ago central Australia was once a seabed was truly mind-blowing.  That evidence of ancient beginnings is not only trapped in the rocks: the prehistoric guise of the cycad plant, sprouting randomly in crevices and profusely in the lush Garden of Eden gorge hidden deep in the canyon, reveals its true “living fossil” status.  A defining feature of the canyon, ochre beehive-like domes giving rise to the name The Lost City,  were formed over millions of years by erosion in vertical cracks in the sandstone.


Truly mind-blowing…ancient sea beds.


Image“Living fossils”…the prehistoric cycad.


Another “living fossil”…dinosaur descendant.

All this stunning photographic potential hasn’t been lost on the creative industries with Kings Canyon featuring in the film Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Carmichaels Crag, on the outer rim of the George Gill Range, providing the dramatic backdrop for the Qantas children’s choir in their rendition of I Still Call Australia Home.

ImageHow the ochre beehive-like domes of The Lost City were formed.

The added bonus for the home stretch after the six-kilometre, three-hour trek? Our packs were no longer laden with two litres of water. 

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Raining on the rock

It wasn’t actually raining on the rock during my visit but good falls a month earlier, on top of bushfires late last year, combined to encourage an abundance of native vegetation to do its regeneration thing.  Charred trunks sprouted new greenery and colourful surprises awaited over every dune: carpets of tiny yellow daisies; bushes of golden honey grevillea; the rich deep pink of Gibson’s Desert Fuschia; olive-grey spinifex tufts and black-trunked desert oaks against rust red dunes like an Indigenous naïve painting springing to life.

ImageHoney grevillea, spinifex and desert oak.


The twisted beauty of a red river gum atop Kings Canyon.


Gibson’s Desert Fuschia.


Not sure what the yellow and blue flowers are, but they were pretty.


..and, of course, good old wattle.

Desert oaks, members of the casuarina family with their thin needle-like leaves, dominate the treescape.  A naturalist has suggested the desert oak is the most photographed tree in Australia, but mainly because of the accidental “celebrity” of one specimen which stands between Uluru and the hundreds of photographers who daily capture sensational sunrises and sunsets with a series of frames, just as I did. I can see why Albert Namatjira was drawn to the red river and ghost gums. With their white trunks and branches twisted in intricate shapes they are aesthetically hard to beat.

Classified as semi-desert, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and adjoining Watarrka, home to Kings Canyon, support hundreds of plant and tree species – the former 400 and the latter 600. Many, including the ghost gums, are central to the food and pharmacopeia of the traditional owners. For example, the powder which creates the ghostlike appearance of C.aparrerinj, as it is known botanically, is a powerful disinfectant used in the treatment of cuts, sores, cramps and pains. An infusion of the bark was drunk for colds and used as a wash for sore eyes. Bloodwood trees have been described as a supermarket, pharmacy and hardware store for desert Aboriginal people.  You can eat the green grubs from the gall, or “bush coconut”, and those that live under the bark; collect honey from the hives of stingless native bees; make a sweet drink from the nectar, carrying bowls from the bumps on the bark, medicine from the red sap and collect drinking water from hollows and the roots. And the flowers of the honey grevillea produce sweet nectar which Aboriginal people mix with a little water to make a sweet drink.

Who said the Outback was barren?


Before sunrise…

No self-respecting tourist can visit Uluru without snapping the obligatory sunrise and sunset photographic series.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist either…but I promise it won’t take long to look. First, sunrise.

IMG_3083IMG_3085IMG_3087IMG_3089And with Kata Tjuta on the horizon..

IMG_3092And sunset.

IMG_3065 IMG_3066 IMG_3067IMG_3069IMG_3072IMG_3076Thank you for your patience!



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An awesome thing

The 450-km road trip from Alice Springs is a perfect warm-up to the main act of Uluru – Kata Tjuta. Barrelling along the strip of bitumen through spinifex, mulga, mallee and desert oaks, with the occasional wedge tail eagle and kite floating overhead on the currents, you come to appreciate the toughness of this landscape and its isolation. You absolutely get the meaning of “a sunburned country, a land of sweeping plains”. Then on the horizon across a salt-lake scattered vista looms a vast ochre rock. Uluru? No, just the curtain raiser, Mt Conner, the area’s third, but rather unsung, monolith. Formed around 700 million years ago – about 100-150 million years earlier than Uluru – the flat-topped mesa is on private land on Curtain Station and closed to the public. Maybe this accounts for its lack of profile. At 300m it’s just short of Uluru in height, but over three times in circumference.

IMG_3012Uluru? No, the unsung Mt Conner.

IMG_3010Not for swimming in…

A further 100kms down the road and there it is! Uluru rises up from the ochre expanse.  In the words of Bill Bryson “Uluru is, no matter how you approach it, totally arresting….It’s an awesome thing”. Scanning further around the horizon to the west, about 30km from the Rock, the 36 mystical domes of Kata Tjuta, meaning many heads, materialise. Once known as The Olgas this area is sacred under the local traditional owners, the Anangu, men’s law and as such, detailed knowledge of it is restricted. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was inscribed on the World Heritage List in two stages, initially for its outstanding universal natural values in 1987 and then for its outstanding universal cultural values in 1994.

IMG_3042There it is!

IMG_3041Kata Tjuta – many heads.

IMG_3058Walpa Gorge, Kata Tjuta.

Luckily, as it’s the only place to stay, Yulara Resort is an excellent base from which to explore the area. No matter your desired level of comfort, from camping to five-star hotels and apartments, this leafy resort set in abundant native gardens will satisfy. It’s tended by a veritable United Nations of workers – Indigenous, Asian, Indian Sub-Continental, Kiwis and European. As befits its remote location the resort shopping centre offers virtually everything you need: bank, post office, supermarket, restaurants, hairdresser, quality gift shops, art galleries and a coffee shop which acts as a training restaurant for young Indigenous people.  The award-winning Cultural Centre introduces visitors to Tjukurpa, the traditional law that guides the daily life of the Anangu, through dynamic and imaginative displays and lectures. This basic introduction to Tjukurpa, which explains the creation period when ancestral beings created the world, is the perfect mood-setter to explore Kata Tjuta’s mysterious nooks and crannies and the many facets of Uluru, its sunrises and sunsets, its canyons, waterholes and crevices.  As Bryson says: “Somehow you feel certain that this large, brooding, hypnotic presence has an importance to you at the species level.”


IMG_3098Mutitjulu waterhole, UluruIMG_3099IMG_3118IMG_3116Charcoal paintings in family cave.

IMG_3117IMG_3125Leafy Yulara Resort with Uluru in background (just above the sails).

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A Town Like Alice

With the little Aussie dollar slipping inexorably below the 90 US cents barrier the pressure is easing to make overseas-travel hay while our currency rate shines.  So I’m catching up with great Oz destinations that have long been on my “must visit” list, such as the Red Centre.

I chose Alice Springs as my gateway into Central Australia instead of flying direct into the Yulara resort, a fortuitous choice.  While Uluru and Kata Tjuta are genuine natural wonders  – up there with awe inspiring monuments of nature like the Grand Canyon, Mt Fuji and the Victoria Falls – I found The Alice surprisingly appealing and the 450-odd kilometre journey to The Rock across a seemingly barren landscape revealing for its surprisingly diverse terrain and plant life.

IMG_2999The Alice from Anzac Hill.

My mental image of Alice Springs, formed mostly through media reports, was of a dry, desolate and isolated frontier town with a major drinking problem.  While it is physically in the middle of nowhere, its busy airport and thriving tourist industry make it far from isolated, or a frontier town.  Instead the visitor finds a well ordered, bustling borough of 27,000 residents shaded by copious river red and ghost gums nestling neatly under the jagged red fringe of the MacDonnell Ranges. Yes, it looks just is like an Albert Namatjira painting!

IMG_2993The history of The Alice captured in the famous mural.

The Alice is surprising rich in well-presented tourist attractions. In one packed afternoon I visited the School of the Air, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the Reptile Centre, the Overland Telegraph Station and Anzac Hill. The Overland Telegraph, which opened in 1892 and reduced Australia’s isolation from the rest of the world, is a monument to the ingenuity and hard work of the pioneers. It was built across 3000km of tough, arid terrain from Adelaide to Darwin in an amazing two years.With a few more hours I could also have visited the Old Ghan Railway Museum, the Alice Springs Desert Park, the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame and the Memorial Cemetery, the final resting place of noted Australians including Albert Namatjira, ill-fated prospector Harold Lasseter and anthropologist Olive Pink. With a few more days I could have added in “Kangaroo Dundee” Chris Barnes’ kangaroo sanctuary, the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, and the Araluen Cultural Precinct and the Finke George National Park.

Maybe a second trip is on the cards?

IMG_2983The Alice Springs Telegraph Station midway along Adelaide to Darwin Overland Line. IMG_2988 IMG_2989Red River Gum territory.

IMG_2981School of the Air Bicentennial Quilt demonstrates the students’ craft skills.