March 2013 archive

Pitcairn Island – population 48 or thereabouts

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Even the government of Pitcairn is a little unsure of the population, listing it on their website as about 50.  Pitcairn does have compulsory education between the ages of five and sixteen, and in the year 2000 all 7 children on the island were attending school.  You would think that one of them had learnt to count. (At the age of 16 they are required to perform Public work to ensure the ongoing maintenance of the island’s roads and paths.)

Pitcairn is the only permanently inhabited island of a group of five volcanic islands in the south Pacific.   Anyone who has ever heard of it knows that it was originally settled by Christian Fletcher and other mutineers from HMAV Bounty and their Tahitian “companions” – the men were no better than slaves, and the women concubines.

The island is approximately 3 square miles (think 12 Manhattan blocks)and is accessible only by sea through Bounty Bay and up the steep “Hill of Difficulty” to the capital, Adamstown. The population has risen and waned – at one point all 200 odd Pitcairn Islanders accepted the offer to be relocated to Norfolk Island, a veritable metropolis more than 13 square miles housing about 2000.  Incredibly, a few years later, some of them chose to return to Pitcairn.

A British Overseas Territory, Pitcairn is governed from New Zealand, and the Queen is Head of State.  Supply ships call in regularly, and tourism brings around ten cruise ships a year.  Although they only stay a few hours they contribute to the island’s economy by buying locally made souvenirs including stamps.  MV Claymore II, operated by the government, is the island’s only vessel. It brings tourists to Pitcairn for adventure tourism visits.

The climate is kind and the soil fertile.  The Islanders are able to grow enough produce to feed themselves and export dried fruit including papayas, pineapples, bananas, and mangoes. Their honey is sold in London.There is one licensed cafe and bar,and alcohol and cigarettes are available at the Government.

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“Big Things” in Australia

Driving around Australia can be quite boring – many miles of straight road, fairly boring landscapes on either side, many miles between destinations. So if one suddenly sees a 46 foot tall bull by the side of the road one might well think that one has fallen asleep.

However, if you happened to be somewhere near Wauchope, New South Wales, you were not dreaming.  There really was an enormous cement Holstein bull sculpture of a bull with a gift shop on the “ground floor”.  Unfortunately it was demolished in 2007.  (Bit of trivia here.  Wauchope is twinned with the tiny town of Canisteo, New York which itself has a “big thing” – the name of the village spelled out in Scots Pine trees which appeared in Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” and is on the National Register of Historic Places.)

Wauchope’s Big Bull may have gone, but Australia is still full of other Big Things – an estimated 150 of them including a 16 foot beer can, a 23 foot Murray River cod and a 43 foot banana.

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They probably began as advertising gimmicks, or tourist traps and these are located along major roads. Others have been constructed to commemorate some historical person or event, and some are just there as roadside art.  The artistic value may be dubious, but they certainly get you to look.

The “big things” of Australia are large structures or sculptures. The first was the Big Scotsman which was erected  in 1963.  Affectionately known as ‘Scotty’, the Big Scotsman was erected in 1963 at Scotty’s Motel in Medindie, Adelaide.  As big goes, Scotty is really trying being a mere 16 feet tall.  He was designed by Paul Kelly who later designed Kingston’s Big Lobster which stands 17 meters (56 feet) tall.

These big things have turned into something of a cult phenomenon. Their tourist value is obvious, and they account for many a detour and photo opportunity.  A good many of them are considered genuine works of folk art and some have a place on the National Heritage List.

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Antananarivo – the heart of Madagascar

Most Air France flights arrive in Tana close to midnight (and depart about an hour later) so that the visitor to Madagascar’s capital is likely to arrive and depart in darkness. The ten-mile drive into the city passes through not-quite slums and modest residential areas and arrives in a hilly colonial city of great charm.

Independence Avenue (or Arabe Fahaleovantena as it is known in Malagasy) runs from the railway station, along the valley formed by two ridges which converge, effectively trapping the lower town or Analakely.  Steep streets and alleys and many flights of stairs lead to the upper town made up of Antaninarenina and Isoraka.  The main staircase which leads for Avenue de l’Independence (French is Madagascar’s second official language) to Place de l’Independence is wide enough to have vendors on both sides selling rubber stamps, wood carvings, raffia goods and other local crafts.  The square at the top has a garden on one side and Le Buffet de Jardin on the other where one can recover from the climb with a fruit juice or an expensive (and inferior) glass of wine.  By far the best choice is a tall glass of Three Horses Beer.

MC3_5588 Tana - view from the Haute Ville - Anosy Lakewith its W

There are endless beggars, although to be fair, they usually offer you something in return for your money.  The number one favorite product is vanilla.  This is the seedpod of a vining orchid and is a much appreciated gift back home.  But you can only buy and carry so much so you will have to learn to discourage the enthusiastic sellers with a polite “Non, merci” or if that doesn’t work, “tseemeesh.” In desperation you cantry shouting “Mandehana!” (Go Away!). Another useful word is (phonetically) Pun-gul-ah-tra meaning thief.  Be on the lookout for pickpockets and keep a low profile – little jewelery, cameras hidden and large bank notes changed at the hotel.

It is a colorful, charming city most of which can be explored on foot.  Taxis and buses are a completely different experience!

Antananarivo

France’s fastest train – the TGV

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There are several ways to get from Paris to the Mediterranean.  One can fly to Marseilles; one can drive – a good seven hours on the Autoroute, or a day and a half by the back roads; or one can take the train.  Not just any train – the TGV.

Pronounced Tay-jhay-vay, this is France’s answer to the Japanese Bullet Train, and it (they) hurtle around Europe at up to 200 miles per hour. (A test train reached 357.2 mph). Not that you would know it as a passenger.  At the advertised time of departure, passengers looking out the window will see the station start to move.  The train pulls out so smoothly that you are not aware it is moving.  Once clear of the city, it picks up speed, but the ride is so smooth that a shallow bowl of water on the table will not lose a drop.  If your wine glass wobbles, that is your fault, not the trains.

Aboard France’s high-speed train, the journey from Paris to Marseille takes 3 hours and twenty minutes.  This is three hours in which you can sleep, read or enjoy the gorgeous French countryside. It does not, as one might expect, pass in a blur, although there is little time to take in minor details.

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Travelling north instead ofsouth, you would leave from the Gare du Nord and head for Calais where there is a slight dip in the track and darkness falls.  Twenty minutes later, sunshine (if you’re lucky) returns and you are in England.  The TGV network is spreading throughout France and linking up with the high-speed systems of other countries, so that it is now possible to move round Europe more quickly than flying.  A contest between two journalists sent one to Charles de Gaulle airport and one to the Gare du Nord.  They arrived in London’s Trafalgar Square at the same time.

Why fly when you can travel in comfort on the TGV?

Scapa Flow, naval graveyard – Orkney

Back 1000 years ago, Viking ships found refuge in the 120 square-mile bay embraced about the islands of Orkney, Graemsay, Burray, South Ronaldsay and Hoy.  This shallow-bottomed bay is one of the greatest natural anchorages in the world.  Why then should it be known as a naval graveyard?  That is what two world wars will do.

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The natural advantages of this huge, safe harbor and its location a long way from the action caused the Government of the United Kingdom to choose Scapa Flow as their main naval base during both World Wars. At the end of World War I, 74 ships of the German Fleet were kept at Scapa Flow until the Treaty of Versailles could decide their fate.  After nine months of waiting – and planning – the German commander gave the order to scuttle the ships so that they would not remain in British hands.

The British tried desperately to save the fleet, but the Kaiser’s men had prepared so carefully that 52 ships were lost, along with nine German sailors who died trying to prevent the British saving their ships.  What irony!

In World War II, Scapa Flow was once again pressed into service. However, the Navy had not prepared adequately for the danger posed by u-boats.  On 14 October 1939,   a U-boat torpedoed the battleship HMS Royal Oak and 833 men were lost. Days later came one of the first Luftwaffe attacks on Britain.

As a result, Italian prisoners, captured in North Africa were sent to Orkney to construct a series of causeways linking the small islands around the bay. The so-called Churchill barriers effectively kept u-boats out, and by chance, gave access to the outer islands.  The Italians left a remarkable legacy in the form of a chapel, constructed out of two Nissen huts and whatever other materials they could lay their hands on, and decorated mainly by Domenico Chiocchetti, who stayed to finish the job after the others were released.

The chapel is a favorite stopping place for tourists on their way from the airport to the main town of Kirkwall, while Scapa Flow hides its hidden hulks under a blanket of blue.

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