31 December, 2007

Our Neighbourhood

Well our last week is starting, cannot believe how the time is flying by. We have done a lot of walking and have enjoyed seeing so much of Paris and the way of life here. The Parisians are great stollers, and spend a lot of their leisure time walking about their neighbourhoods. Our part of Paris, le Marais, is very busy Friday, Saturdays and Sundays, all the little shops and boutiques are open, and a popular thing to do is have a falafal from the many jewish shops selling them here. The photo shows the Sunday crowds in the Rue des Rosiers which is the street the Nazis marched down to grab 75,000 Jews and send them off to concentration camps. Our apartment is in the block on the front left of this photo. From our window, we look down directly on the Rue Vielle du Temple, one the most popular streets in le Marais.

Clare has her "local" coffee shop, which she uses most days. We are using a boulangerie for our daily baguette, and so far the lady behind the counter is aloof and not recognising us, although polite to us, as she is to all her customers. I think the man in the corner store, where we buy our milk is starting to know us now.

Everyone in this area is stylishly dressed, beautiful coats, boots and scarves. This includes the French men, they look so good! A lot of people buy take away ("a emporter"), and eat it while they are walking, I think because the cafes are always so crowded. Just like Surry Hills!

The metro is very good, although sometimes very crowded, we just squeeze on with every one else. So far have not had any trouble with pick-pockets, which are very bad here in the summer, when it is peak tourist time, but we protect our valuables very carefully. We do see some homeless people, the French always give them money and food. There are also the "gypsies", from eastern Europe, who beg at the tourist hot spots. They ask us "do you speak English?" to which we reply "non" in our best non English accent, and they quickly move on.

We are looking forward to the last week of our stay here, as the non-smoking rule will be here, it will be interesting to see how the French smokers deal with it! Only 2 more sleeps!
We have been back to the Louvre for a second visit, that is how we spent Boxing Day. It was very crowded, but we had a great visit, and its good that a ticket is good for the day, so you can have a break and then go back in.

The weather has warmed up a bit, we are up to 10 or 11 , during the day now, so it is perfect for walking. A few showers the last couple of days, but nothing serious.

Some gems discovered in recent days have been the Parc des Buttes Chaumont (a good sized park complete with steep hills and waterfall in the north east of the city), and the Canal St Martin between the Gare de l'Est and Belleville (Edith Piaf's home 'burb). This canal has locks and even goes underground for quite a way until it reaches the Seine (see photo of footbridge and lock). We now know that the Marche Bastille that we visited on our first Sunday here is actually over the top of this canal. Also, l'Hotel de Sens (photo), built in 1475 the oldest medieval mansion in le Marais, featuring a cannonball in the wall from the Revolution, and a port over the portal for pouring boiling oil on unwelcome guests, neither of which we could photograph because of the scaffolding and renovation going on!

28 December, 2007

Language and Smoke

Somewhere we read that the restaurant Les Philosophes is a cheap eat place good for "seeing people and being seen". Since it is only 50m from our apartment, we have been trying to have dinner here since we arrived, but it was always too crowded. At last we made it in! Don't know about seeing and being seen, there's just too much cigarette smoke in the room. The food was fine, nothing special but perfectly adequate, and the waiter we got spoke perfect English but was prepared to put up with our French.

Sadly, our French langauge skills are not great, despite a refresher course at Berlitz before we left Sydney, but they are more than good enough to order a meal at a restaurant, a drink in a cafe, a baguette at the boulangerie, a ticket in the Metro etc. Clare has discovered that some cappucinos come with "mousse" (froth, which she wants), others with "chantilly" (whipped cream, which she doesn't), so we know how to ask for it. Holding a conversation is another matter altogether, and we have 99 French language stations on our apartment TV and radio, but we can't really understand them.

Our attempts to speak French in shops are almost always well received, and the shop assistants really try to help you. In some places, we've found that no-one can speak English, but we still manage to get by with our fractured French, which visibly makes the locals cringe. We have seen very little of the famous snooty French attitude to non-speakers. Where someone does speak English, they seem to prefer to speak it rather than listen to us mangling their language. Maybe they like to practice English, maybe they just can't stand our accents! But, almost invariably, if they do speak English, they speak it a lot better than we speak French. Others are quite prepared to let us practice, and they offer help. We shopped in the markets on our first Sunday here. Not much English spoken there, but everyone was friendly, and we were able to buy what produce we wanted and pay the right price. One lady, who we bought holly off for Christmas, realising quickly that we weren't locals, proudly told us that she was from Romania. A lot of people are interested in where we are from - they often guess, England first, then America, never Australia.

Mike had spent a walk to the local post office practicing how to order stamps for postcards to Australia and the USA. It was unnecessary. The man at the counter had excellent English, and went to a lot of trouble to explain what the picture on the EUR0.85 stamp was commemorating (renovations at the Palace of Versailles).

One young couple approached us looking for directions, for the Tour Montparnasse as it turned out. We knew where it was. They had no English (which surprised us, given their age), and we struggled to point them in the right direction. Another oldish lady in our apartment block opened up a conversation with us one day. She had no English, and we didn't get far, but we were able to work out what she had been saying afterwards. In other words, we couldn't deal with her language quickly enough, but should have been able to.

It has been said, and we have confirmed, that it is easiest to read a language, much harder to speak it, and much much more difficult to listen to it and understand it. To our ears, French seems to have so many silent consonants, and so many common words which are similar, that it's a real battle. We have had particular troubles understanding a price when quoted by a shop assistant. Mostly, fortunately, you can read the cash register, but sometimes, you can't.

One time, we had a change of plan in a Metro station, so we were puzzling over the map on the platform ("quai"). A young French lady helped us - she spoke excellent English - and it transpired that she works for the chocolate company Nestle, and will be coming to Sydney in 2008.

As mentioned, our TV options are quite limited. The apartment gets cable TV (and broadband) but the only English channels are BBC World, CNN, Skynews, and some of the content on the German channel DW. But we can easily connect the radio 702BL in Sydney by streaming from the ABC's website, so we put ouselves to sleep with this at night. We believe foreign (i.e. English) movies are shown in their original language and with French subtitles, but so far, we haven't encountered anything we want to see, that we haven't already seen (e.g. Elizabeth). We don't seem to have time anyway.

Just listening to people speak makes you realise that Paris is full of foreigners, and they don't all seem to be tourists or visiting businessmen. No doubt, the open borders of the EU have allowed a lot of people from elsewhere in Europe to come here, work here and live here. We've noticed on TV that these EU borders have just been widened, and the news reports just how far you can drive now without having to show a passport. This seems strange to Australians, but it shows how much Europe has been changed by the EU. No doubt, these arrangements will be causing great ethnic tensions, but the economic power generated by the trade consolidation here is made manifestly obvious from how the Euro has appreciated over the US Dollar since it was created.

We are counting down the days to 1 January, when, apparently, smoking is banned in Paris cafes. We have observed that smoking is rampant in traditional French cafes, but is much less so in what you might call American influenced places (hamburger restaurants, fast food cafes.) Anyway, note the photo of a poster in a Marais bar advertising the "Last Smoky Party" for new year's eve. Other photos are of us in the Cour Puget inside the Louvre museum, and of Sacre Coeur from a vantage point down the hill from Montmartre.

26 December, 2007

Christmas Day in Paris

Our Parisian Christmas Day began at midnight when we attended midnight mass at Notre Dame. We arrived at about 10:30pm (the Lonely Planet had said get there by 11), but the gigantic cathedral was already packed to the rafters and it was the quick and the dead in getting seats. Hundreds if not thousands stood. Prior to the midnight mass, there was a program of organ music, the choir and a "sound and light" show telling the story of Christ's birth. We are pretty secular people, but the whole event was very impressive and moving, especially the entry of the "archeveche" and his party on the stroke of midnight. The cathedral uses modern technology, and numerous flat screen TV's relay the "action" to people not near the front.

Overnight and in the early morning, we used Skype to talk to friends and rels all over Australia. Skype is wonderful (cheap and convenient), but its sound and picture quality is quite variable, maybe dependent on bandwidth and traffic, and still has a way to go. Our clapped-out laptop probably doesn't help, especially since we later noticed it had been pottering away doing a scheduled anti-virus scan during all this.

Not knowing what to expect (and noticing that businesses conspicuously do not show notices in advance saying what they will be doing over Christmas) we prepared in advance for Christmas day, by having all 3 meals organised in our apartment. It was totally unnecessary! Christmas Day is just another day in Paris, and expecially in our area, the Marais. By about midday, not all but most of the stores and cafes and bars and boulangeries were open and trading normally. The big department stores, post offices, museums are certainly closed, and the motor traffic was noticeably less than usual, but other than that, everything was going. The streets were crowded with pedestrian families. How different to Australia, but as Clare points out, we don't really know what's open in Sydney around Bondi Beach and Circular Quay on Christmas Day - probably quite a lot, to cope with (or exploit) the tourists.

So we joined everyone else and had a big walk in the afternoon and evening, spending about 6 hours on our feet, before we caught the Metro home. We rejected our first choice for a coffee break (about 4pm) because the maitre-d' tried to sit us next to a group clouded in cigarette smoke. He told us nowhere else was available. He said "next year there will be no smoking". We said "next week!" He agreed, and invited us back then.

It's no news that there are many beautiful churches in Paris, and we touched on some of them today, in particular, St Merri in Rue St Martin (where we saw a feast being enjoyed by people we assumed to be the local underprivileged, see photo); St Eustache at Les Halles (a most glorious building, see photo of stained glass); St Honore, and la Madeleine (where we enjoyed an awesome organ recital). Parisian churches are inspiring on Christmas Day!

We took our photo in the most beautiful Place Vendome (featuring yet another memorial to Napoleon - this time he's in disguise as a Roman emperor, but we left it out of the photo), and enjoyed looking at the swish hotels and the specialist food stores in the La Madeleine part of town. Most of the latter were closed, so we weren't tempted to buy.

25 December, 2007

Christmas Eve in Paris

Christmas Eve dawns in Paris, another fine sunny day, although we don't think it got much above 5 degrees today. There was quite a thick frost on the northern banks of the Seine, which stayed all day. Most shops are open, and going strong, people are still carrying Christmas trees home, and there are still a lot for sale in the streets.

We discovered an interesting little cafe, just over the river from our apartment and out of the way of the crowds, but when we went in at 4.30pm (late lunch!), the proprietor told us she was closing early today. Clare thinks she is going home to cook for her family! We will try it again when things return to normal. We managed to get a glass of hot mulled wine, "vin chaud", which is delicious and just what you need after a cold day in the streets, and a snack ("potage de poisson") in another tiny cafe, shortly after.

On our walks this week we have been interested in the tiny shops which stock just one thing, but a lot of it. For instance the accordian repair shop, see the pic, which was next to the accordian shop, which was next to the accordian sheet music shop, in Rue Daguerre. Another street was full of little shops selling, watches, and watch bands. If you know where to go, you would have an enormous choice of the item you were looking for. Tiny shops just selling cheese, or meat or pastries, or tiny delicacies, dot the streets.

Notre Dame was not too busy today, we popped in as the sunlight was coming in through the rose window, and saw that they are getting ready for services tonight, with extra chairs.

In one very popular and smoke filled bar in le Marais, the Pick Clops, we were told that smoking in cafes is going to be banned from New Years Day, 2008. We cannot imagine how that will work, as everywhere is full of patrons puffing away. We can just about last the distance of a drink or a meal before bursting out into the cold fresh air, and gasping it in lungfulls. It will be very interesting, as this no smoking rule will completely change the cafe culture of Parisians. If, like in Australia, they stand on the footpath outside, then it will be very crowded passing by on the narrow foothpaths. Of course in the summer, they can sit outside, but the last couple of weeks have been way too cold to do that, and you see very few people sitting in those famed outdoor seats. We did manage coffee today at a brazier heated outdoor seat, in the sun, on the Ile de la Cite today.

We haven't been eating at the Ritz or at other fine dining establishments, rather we call into whatever cafe we find attractive wherever we are when we get hungry. (It's pointless looking for smoke-free cafes, although there are a few.) All the cafes we've called into are very compact and crowded: it's rare to find one where you have room to take off your coat and sit comfortably. They always feel cramped, but people are universally very polite when they are forced to get past you to get in or out. There is much saying of "pardonne" and "excusez-moi". One place we had a kir in the other day near Montparnasse was quieter, being very much out of the way of tourists. The customers calling in there were almost all regulars, who didn't have to place their order, it was just put on the bar for them as soon as they walked in. They all had a double take at us, being strangers. Mostly, they finished their drink, just one, and left quickly.

There is little difference between bars and restaurants - the former focus on alcohol but serve meals, the latter focus on meals but seem happy to serve coffee or a drink, especially outside of meal times.

Merry Christmas to all!!!!

23 December, 2007

Champs Elysees

A walk down the Avenue des Champs Elysees is scorned by many tourist publications because the ultra-wide boulevarde has been hijacked by Virgin Megastore, Gap, McDonalds and other non-Parisian brand names, but it is irresistable anyway.

We started at the Metro station Argentine, so we could see the arch of La Defence in one direction, and Napoleon's grand Arc de Triomphe in the other. Mike had visited La Defence some years ago on business, and our family has also been to the Arc in 1980. The Arc is bigger and more dramatic than we remembered, such a stupendous construction!

The traffic around the Arc is legendary, and its amazing how the vehicles manage to avoid each other when negotiating which of the twelve exits they want to take. We notice that the rule seems to be that vehicles entering the roundabout have right of way over vehicles in it. Maybe it's a simple give way to the right rule? Regardless, it's the opposite to the rules we are used to.

The walk towards the Louvre was devoid of excitement, but was pleasant enough. The only places we stopped at were the car museums for Peugeot and Citroen. We missed the Renault museum, which we remember from 1980. The concept cars in these places look magnificent but I doubt if we'll be seeing any of them in the streets of Sydney.

The most interest in this walk arises from sidetrips to the Palais de la Decouverte (a magnificent structure now devoted to a hands-on science museum, and accordingly, full of school groups), the Grand Palais (complete with huge glass roof, getting ready for a railway exhibition which we will go to later on so we can see inside this wonderful building), the Petit Palace (just renovated, truly stunning, great cafe, now containing modern art and displays of period Paris), and the Pont Alexandre III (supposedly the most decorative bridge across the Seine, and certainly no disappointment).

At the end of the Champs is the famous Obelisque de Luxor in the Place de la Concorde. Here, there is a large ferris wheel, fantastically lit in the night, perpendicular to and exactly in the line between the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre, so (no doubt) giving a great view to both. The stunning photo of the Eiffel Tower and searchlight is taken from the Place de la Concorde.

This particular spot is very popular with tourists, and hence with gypsies who ask "do you speak english?" Saying "non" makes them go away, but if you say yes, you then cop a written plea for money.

The Jardin des Tuilieries which separates the Place de la Concord from the Louvre may be wonderful in summer, but now, in winter, it is a desolate and stark landscape. Children play in the mid afternoon half light in these gardens, but they look so sad rugged up against the cold. Even the ponies, there for children's rides seem to be muttering to each other, wishing, no doubt, that they were in Sydney!

Even at midday, in December, the sun in Paris is well to the south, and Mike's estimate is that it never gets over about 20 degrees above the horizon. With its tall buildings and narrow streets, this means great swathes of Paris must never see the sun in winter. Our apartment, with lots of big windows on two sides, faces north, and so we don't catch the sun either, although some reflects off adjacent windows.

That said, the weather has changed here somewhat in the last two days - it's got warmer! OUr interpretation of the weather forecasts on TV didn't predict this for us, but we've now seen temperatures as high as 10C, compared with the 2-3C max previously. Surprisingly, this warming up has not been accompanied by any instability - the sun has been out (but low) and the sky nearly cloudless.

22 December, 2007

Covered Passages and Glitzy Retail

In our random wanderings, we have discovered numerous shopping strips contained in "covered passageways", most of which must have originally been open laneways, but which have at some stage been covered over to form arcades protected from the weather. Some of these were off Rue St Denis, which we had chosen to walk up (such as Rue Caire) because of its interesting variety of cheap shops, sex shops and generally dodgy characters. We were fascinated by the hairdressing shops focusing on particular ethnic varieties ("black girls", "white girls"), but its true that people fitting into these demographics often seem to wear distinctive hairdo's. One passage was full of Indian restaurants. Another covered laneway off Rue St Denis seemed to be have a "rag trade" speciality, rather like the slopes of Surry Hills.

We encountered another group of covered arcades, rather more upmarket this time, on either side of Bvd Montmartre on the border of the 2nd and 9th arrondissements. These were passages Verdeau, Jouffroy and Panorama. These featured very cute shops, tea rooms (much quieter and more comfortable than Angelina's) and speciality stores individually trading in tiny ceramic-ware, old stamps, postcards or movie posters.

The covered passages are fascinating, and are pretty well unheralded in most of the touristy stuff we had read.

Then, being in the area, we walked to Bvd Haussmann where the glitzy department stores of Galleries La Fayette and du Printemps compete for the Christmas Euro with fantastic sound and light effects in the streets, artificial snow blowing, and window displays which are clever and cute but notably short of any Christmas stories or messages. The streets and inside the stores are crowded, oh so crowded. As an exercise in shopping, Paris takes Christmas very seriously, and we notice that all the stores are open extra hours. Galleries La Fayette probably takes the crown in our view, but an incredible atrium inside their main store gives them a great opportunity to decorate. The more modest C&A store across the road does its best, but is left behind by the bright lights of La Fayette and Printemps. The photo of us and the Eiffel Tower is taken from the rooftop of Galleries La Fayette - you can see the Grand Palais too. We picked just the right time to go onto the roof - the dusk lights of Paris are stunning.

To bring back old memories, we called into the railway stations Gare de l'Est and Gare du Nord, separating these two visits with coffee at a very smoky tabac. A lot has been done to modernise these main line stations since last time we were here, but we confirmed (what we feared) that Gare du Nord (a possible way for us to get back to the airport) is no place for anyone with luggage. The few lifts seem not to work. We looked at the Eurostar, TGV (very fast train) to London leaving from this station (as we had looked at St Pancras in London). Gare du Nord was very crowded with nervous looking travellers - it appeared that there were major delays somewhere.

We are big walkers, and our routine in Paris seems to have evolved to the following. We don't get up until 9am (it's dark until 8:30), and Mike has a half hour run. The best route is to and then around the Ile St Louis and the Ile de la Cite, mostly because there is no traffic there, and it amounts to about 5km. He comes home with a fresh baguette, and breakfast then occupies us until we leave for a long walk at about 11:30-12. Sometimes we catch the Metro to begin the walk. We have made good use of Tracy's great walk cards, but sometimes we wander without such direction, like today's trip. Coffee breaks are important - Clare has found it better to order cafe au lait rather than cappucino, because the latter often comes with a heap of whipped cream rather than milk foam. We walk until 8-9pm, then find our way home, by more walking or by Metro. To control consumption, we have tended to eat one meal out a day, be it a lunch or a dinner, and with the other meal being snacks (olives, cheese, bread) at or from our apartment. We are enjoying drinking Kir at the cocktail hour at some bar or other. It's easy to order too!

20 December, 2007

Le Musee Louvre

Today we ventured to the Louvre. We had been waiting for a rainy day, but so far the weather has been fine and sunny every day, but very cold. The water in the fountains is staying frozen all day now (see photo), as it is in some gutters.

We arrived at 12.30 and were very impressed by the new foyer facilities, including the glass pyramids. The pyramid entry was very controversial when it was built in the later 1980's, but we think that it treads so lightly on the "place" that it does not detract from it at all, and the amenity that it adds is extraordinary compared to what was there previously. Only the French would have the daring to attempt this modernisation, and they have done it with spectacular success.

We walked in direct from the Metro station. Thank you Neryl for the ticket you gave me allowing Clare's free entry, so we only had to pay for Mike's entry. No queues, buy your ticket with credit card at a machine etc. Moreover, 9EUR for all day multi-entry such a huge and fantastic museum is very reasonable.

One real bonus of the 1980's redevelopment was the excavation of the "medieval Louvre", now a fanstastic exhibit under the courtyard of the Palais du Louvre. It was via this exhibit that we actually entered the museum proper.

This museum is so large, and of such grandeur in its buildings, and contains so much fantastic art, that it is literally overwhelming. One just cannot believe how beautiful it is, inside, outside, all over.

We stayed inside until 3.30, when serious fatigue set in. After a walk in the fresh air, and afternoon tea at Angelinas, one of the lovely tea rooms of Paris (claimed to have the best hot chocolates in Paris), we ventured back to the Louvre as it is late opening on some nights, and stayed till 8pm. We think we covered about one third of what we want to see, it is such a luxury knowing we can go back several times, at our leisure, given the length of our stay in Paris.

Last time we were staying in Paris was 1981, and the Louvre was on strike for the entire week we were there, and we (and Ben) had to make an overnight trip on the Orient Express from Munich to spend a day there, so did not see all that we will this time. We covered most of Pavillon Sully and some of Denon, including the Mona Lisa (now housed in a much larger and no doubt more secure space), Egyptology, and galleries of the very large french format paintings, mostly about the revolution. This includes the fascinating Delacroix barricade painting which featured on one of the old Franc notes.

From the Louvre, we choose to walk home along Rue de Rivoli which goes all the way into the Marais, shopping for dinner on the way, in the crisp night air. The ladies of Paris are tres chic, and Clare is looking in the shop windows with interest. The boots and coats of the Parisians are to die for, Clare is very envious, but it is never cold enough at home to wear them, although you certainly need them here in a Paris winter.

At night, the Tour Eiffel twinkles in the dark, and the beautiful lights in the trees lining the Champs Elysees flash like shooting stars. All the buildings are lit to highlight them, and they are gorgeous.

18 December, 2007

Life in le Marais

Our Le Marais apartment is in la Rue du Marche des Blancs Manteaux, which (for the non Frensh speakers) means the street of the market of the white coats. This area is steeped in Parisian history, which we won't go into here, and we have found it to be a most interesting neighbourhood to live in. Le Marais means "the swamp" which no doubt describes this area before it was developed.

Architecturally, our apartment is in a fairly typical and pretty unexceptional building in the district (photo). We enter a security code which unlocks the door to a lobby. A key then gives us access to a lift and the stairs. We are two flights of stairs up. Incredibly, the lift (which is large enough for one person and a small bag) lets you out halfway up a flight of stairs. Our apartment is directly over a shop, and overlooks a community hall which has just hosted a "Marche Noel". We can see straight into a nice room in which various activity classes are run, yoga, pilates and tango lessons for example. It's great entertainment, which is helpful, because the only English on TV is BBC and CNN news (photo).

The streets of our immediate neighbourhood are narrow, cobbled, and filled with jewish delis, felafel takeaways, tabacs, cafes and restaurants. It'd be hard to go hungry. Within 100m walk, there are two general stores that we have found and are patronising, and a great "chocolat" shop, nearly but not quite as good as Max Brenners in Paddo. The area was extremely busy on Sunday, and the police shut off the streets to traffic to improve the amenity for the myriads of pedestrians. We think the popularity on Sunday is at least partly because of the jewish influence year, which much of the rest of Paris effectively closing down on Sunday, but not here. (Saturday is quiet here though.)

Le Marais is home to the Musee Carnavalet, a free entry museum specialising in the history of Paris. What it really seems to be is two old mansions whose various rooms and sections are decorated with art from and in the style of different periods of Parisian history. The Place des Vosges is in the Marais, which is one of the most beautiful examples of classical bourgeois residential architecture (as distinct from religious or royal constructions). No doubt there's good reason that this Place is in the Rue des Francs Bourgeois.

Le Marais contains the George Pompidou Centre, and is very close to Notre Dame cathedral, and the very popular shopping area of Chatelet / Les Halles, many of the streets of which have been made pedestrian malls. In incorporates the Place de la Bastille, which is where one of Paris's premier markets takes place on Sundays. We filled our refigerator up with fresh produce from this market, severely straining our French language skills, but everyone tries to be very helpful. The BHV department store is in the Marais: how crowded its toilets are on Level 5 is testimony to the deplorable shortage of public loos in this city.

Our neighbourhood is also adjacent to the Ile St Louis and Ile de la Cite (islands in the River Seine) which are where Mike has found it best to have his morning run, in a temperature of about 2C. There are plenty of other runners about to say "bonjour" to, and it's important to watch for traffic, dog droppings and the perils of cobbled surfaces. On the way back, he brings home a delicious fresh (and warm) baguette which is 1E10 at our nearby boulangerie.

16 December, 2007


Today, a bitingly cold but brilliantly sunny day, we decided to walk around Montmartre. We used the Metro to get to Blanche, and followed two of the walks in the pack that friend Tracy gave us. It was interesting to see the various places that famous artists hung out, not to mention Amelie's tabac and merry-go-round!

Much of the route was awash with tourists. The Montmartre area is just too popular. The area near Sacre Coeur cathedral is infested with overpriced and crummy cafes and souvenir shops. We had a coffee and hot chocolate at one of these - the price was high but the quality was OK (trying to order the cappucino as "strong" in French was a failure), and as a bonus, we managed to get one of the few seats they had in the feeble sunshine. The artists market in the square at St. Pierre de Montmartre is quite interesting, but not too many Renoirs or Picassos were apparent there. Plenty of sketch artists were there willing to capture your likenesses though. Based on cameras and maps, almost everyone up here seems to be a tourist, although most of them were French tourists. It was Saturday, after all.

Sacre Coeur cathedral dominates its location of course, and was exceeedingly crowded inside. Can it be like this every day here? Guards posted inside were making sure we did not take photographs or fail to remove our hats. Outside this cathedral is, of course, the place to see the view of the classic "rooftops of Paris" (photo).

We went off the tourist track to find a place for lunch (well, whatever the meal would be called at 3pm). Many places were closed, but we finally picked a good place in the Rue Ravignan, and had a very enjoyable meal. The cafe was quiet when we arrived, but by the time we left it was packed, which means either that we dragged the customers in, or that it was time for the afternoon apperitif.

To work off the meal, we decided to walk back to the Marais. This was a great choice, and we found places like the Rues des Martyrs, de Fauberg Montmartre and de Montmartre were fascinating. We stumbled on a street fair in Cadet, where they had live music and gave away heated, spiced wine which we and many others greatly appreciated (photo). The large pedestrian mall area at Les Halles/Chatelet must be one of Paris' attempts to control traffic, and it was really vibrant. This is nice and close to the Marais and we'll go back there.

15 December, 2007

London to Paris

After four days in freezing London it was time for us to fly to freezing Paris. Our original plan was to use the London Underground to get back to Heathrow. The route necessary would require 3 changes of train, but we had researched it, and there were no steps to navigate, and so we decided to give it a go. We changed our plans after experiencing the incredible crowds on the Underground and how often various lines and stations were closed. So we saved up our pennies and took a taxi back to Paddington Station for the Heathrow Express. En route in the luxurious Mercedes taxi, we negotiated a price to go all the way to Heathrow for less than we would have paid on the Express train. It still totalled 60GBP! But we enjoyed the drive in heavy traffic. One thing staying at Docklands is that you get a full city tour on the way to Heathrow!

Heathrow Terminal 4 departures is showing its age and the effects of one too many security scares. Despite that, our British Air hop to Paris got away just a bit late, and we arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport 40 minutes later, and, after a scare, our bags arrived too! We rang our apartment manager to let him know we had landed. Our research had warned us that catching a train to Gare du Nord may involve a lot of steps, which scared us, so we thought an Air France bus or a taxi would be a better bet. We couldn't find the way to either, but while looking, a hotel shuttle bus driver whose passengers had not all showed up approached us and took us to our appartment door for 45Euro. This took hours, Paris traffic being atrocious, made worse apparently by some demonstrations going on. After experiencing Dubai, London and Paris, it seems that it's not only Sydney which is choking itself on traffic.

Our apartment is a delight, and we'll say more about it in another blog. We were exhausted on arrival, so we had a walk around our neighbourhood. Boy, was it cold! The photo shows us on the Ile St Louis - if we look cold, it's because we are!

13 December, 2007

Cold but Sunny in London

Our 4 days in London included a social whirl, meeting up with several friends and relatives.

It's always an honour to be invited to someone's home, and we enjoyed splendid hospitality at the Woodside Park home of Kevin and Christel. Theirs is a terrace home not so different to ours in Surry Hills, but maybe a little bit newer, being Edwardian, whereas ours is described as Victorian. Kevin met us at the station, near the northern end of the Northern Line, and he generously drove us back to our Docklands hotel later in the evening.

We had coffee with friends Steve and Allan near Piccadilly Circus. Steve and Allan are like us, on a round the world trip, but our itineraries fortunately intersected in London. It was good to catch up with them. And then we had a delightful italian meal at Carluccios in Covent Garden with Imogen and Stu, just before they fly back to Australia for Christmas. Meeting them was a bonus, because we will miss them on Christmas Day in Wollongong.

In between these encounters, we had enough time to see some of the classic sights of London. We did a lot of walking, and enjoyed seeing the theatre district, the shopping strip of Oxford Street, the markets of Covent Garden, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge (photo) the food halls of Harrods and the Christmas fair at Hyde Park. The Christmas lights in London are stunning, and since it is dark from about 3pm, these are particularly effective. We looked inside stunning St Pancras Station, just renovated as the departure point for the Very Fast Train (Eurostar), and had a meal at Canary Wharf, the ultramodern new city in the docklands area.

We got around mostly using the London Underground, using Octopus Cards we had prepurchased and loaded up in Sydney. London public transport is not cheap, and you have to top up your cards when they run out of money, as they quickly do. Sadly these cards do not work on the Heathrow Express, and not on regular rail lines, as we discovered when we tried to catch an "above ground" train from London Bridge to Cannon Street. Octopus Cards are just an easy repositary for cash, and it is annoying that not all public transport providers will accept them, as they seem to in Hong Kong. The Underground is an extremely comprehensive system of trains in London: in our days here, there were a lot of interruptions and delays due to causes such as failed trains, suspicious packages, overcrowding. We know this because of excellent communications, where announcements on such matters are made frequently on both platforms and trains. The overcrowding we experienced first hand - even at 10pm, we had to cram into incredibly crowded carraiges. It's amazing how many people the London Underground moves around.

After the really miserable conditions on our arrival in London, we have enjoyed spectacularly good weather here. The days have been sunny, windless, but freezing cold. In the morning it is below zero, with daily maximums of 5-7C. Brrr!

Mike found a pleasant run in the mornings around the Royal Victoria Dock, judging by the time it took, it's just under a 5km loop. Around the dock is about 3/4 redeveloped, with nice paving, several hotels, including our Ramada, a floating hotel called Sunborn, and, on the southside, lots of new apartments. There are a few cafes, but not as many as we would expect - maybe the weather doesn't encourage that type of development. The run also passes the end of the London City Airport runway - in fact the Ramada is almost in the flightpath of this airport, but our room is triple-glazed and is perfectly silent.

10 December, 2007

Dubai and London

With the possible exception of Shanghai, we have never seen a city with so much construction going on. There are huge cranes everywhere, and many of the new projects are the biggest, the tallest etc. in the world. The photo shows what is apparently the world's tallest building, but it's status is only temporary, as a bigger one is going up somewhere else soon. There is a new metro system being built (desperately needed), but even apart from that, it seems that every street is being dig up for something or other. There is a new airport (the world's biggest) under construction, but (according to a taxi driver) won't be ready for quite a few years.

All of this is really quite amazing for a relatively small city of 1.4m people, 80% of whom are expat workers from elsewhere. The oil, discovered relatively recently in Dubai, has made the 20% very rich indeed.

The old airport, which we had to use for our flight to London, is pretty big and impressive in its own right. Getting there, a full 5km from our Holiday Inn, was another matter. Our taxi went via a most obscure route and we thought he may be ripping us off, but he pointed to the traffic jam on the main road and said the delays there were up to an hour! It looked as ifthough he may be right, but he got us there in 10 minutes. Outbound immigration was much more efficient than coming in, and we were searched / scanned 5 times before boarding our British Airways flight. The terminal itself was at least as crowded as Dubai itself, with dozens of people looking as though they had slept the night on the floor there.

The flight was uneventful, although an hour late departing due to some paperwork hassle at Dubai. Heathrow proved to be not as awful as some reports in the Australian press would have it. The queue at immigration was maybe 15 minutes, with another 15 minutes waiting for our bags to appear.

Weather on arrival was cold, dreary and rainy, and even at 3pm, it was just plain dark outside. Ah! London in winter.

We caught the Heathrow Express to Paddington. This train was positively grubby compared with the Airport Express in Hong Kong, and cost a mere $76 for the two of us. This was modest compared to the $100 we then spent on a taxi to get from Paddo to the Ramada Docklands, but at least the driver was entertaining (and you can't even pay by credit card). We had hoped a new out-of-town hotel would be a better proposition than the preposterous London hotels, but the room is small, the in room facilities are poor, and it's probably lucky that we have forgotten what our prepaid booking cost for here.

08 December, 2007

Lunch at the Birj Al Arab

Well what an experience! We sped along a modern 8 lane highway, with huge new buildings of amazing architecture both sides of the road and many more under construction, for about 20km, until the famous building came into sight. An automated warning in the taxi kept saying "you are driving too fast - please slow down" but the driver ignored it.

This very new area of Dubai is called "The Beach". Many luxury hotels are out here, and The Burj is supposed to be the world's only 7 star hotel. It rises majestically into the sky, built on a tiny island and joined to the land by a short bridge. All entry is via a security gate. Only guests and people dining there with written confirmed reservations may pass, so we arrived with our document to have lunch at one of the restaurants, with a friend Bob who lives down the road in Abu Dhabi.

Inside is like an Aladdin's Cave, very colourful and with wonderful fountains which shoot into the air. Exotic live music fills the air. You are greeted by the door staff, and offered tea and dates. We met up with Bob, and proceeded to have a spectacular (and expensive) buffet lunch, with lots of exotic Arabian food. The water which accompanied our meal came from a loch in Scotland! It was an experience we will long remember, and made our trip to Dubai very special.

Old Dubai

Luckily it's winter in Dubai, because it's sure hot here. Sometimes when you get close to the water, a sea breeze blows in to cool you down, but mostly, it's uncomfortably warm and dry, and you look for places to hide from the sun. It explains why most activity seems to occur in the morning, late afternoon and the evening.

Our mode of travelling is to generally avoid organised tours, but instead we do our research in advance, decide where we want to go, and then do whatever is necessary to get there. In Dubai, this is a challenge. The fantastic public transport system of Hong Kong is almost entirely absent here. There does seem to be a bus system, but the routes are not apparent to strangers, and tourists are obviously not expected to use buses. Instead, there is an excellent and cheap taxi system. The reputable taxis are sandy coloured, and clearly metered. The trouble is getting one! The best method seems to be to just find a spot where you think a taxi is likely to be able to pull up and drop off a customer, and just wait there. Such spots are not easy to find - the traffic in Dubai is unbelievably heavy, there are few places for any vehicles to pull over, and the whole city seems to be a contruction zone.

Even our hotel, the Holiday Inn Downtown Dubai, has trouble getting taxis. We waited maybe 15 minutes for one to arrive after it had been called by the concierge. And we waited 55 minutes in a huge queue at the extremely modern and ultra-popular Deira City Centre shopping complex for a taxi back to the hotel at 9:00 at night. The experience in this queue of hundreds of patient shoppers will probably prove to be one of the most memorable of our Dubai stay. Firstly, the taxi rank at the Centre was designed in the expectation of long waits. There is a fixed queue layout about 100m long, just like at airports, but it's not long enough. The queue extended another 100m into the shopping mall itself. The queue is startlingly well mannered and patient, although two people pushed through it while we were there, without a murmur of complaint from anyone. Of all the locals, it fell to Clare (trained in queues at Perisher Valley) to accost the second person, a young lady, who then said that she was ill, and indeed she seemed to be.

Trouble is, you need taxis to get anywhere. Everywhere we wanted to go seems to be 5-10km from the hotel. We would walk some of these trips except it's hot and we don't know the way, and the maps are poor, and those footpaths which are not dug up are covered in parked cars. It's easier, but dangerous, to walk on the road!

This all sounds like a lot of grumbling, but the truth is, we have enjoyed the experience, but the stress of waiting for a taxi, then getting stuck in taxi, is a big worry if you have to be at a particular place at a particular time. We also discovered (by looking at signs on construction sites) that an underground railway ("metro") is being built in Dubai. This will revolutionise the city, we're sure, and will go a long way to overcoming the problems we encountered.

That Deira Central shopping complex is an experience too. We ate at the Cafe Havana. We had read that in the evening the Havana would be crowded with Arab men in their "dish dashas" whiling the time away with their friends, and indeed that proved to be the case. Men wearing this traditional dress are very common here. The dish dashas are almost always a pure white, although there are some in pale pastel colours, beige etc. These guys look very proud of their appearance, and their clothing is always impeccably clean. In contrast the ladies are dressed mostly in black, so called "abayas". The veils are called "shaylas". The extent to which the ladies cover their faces seems quite variable, ranging from not at all, to a shawl covering the hair, to the lower half of the face, to everything but a narrow eye slit, to not even an eye slit.

Then, proving the tolerance of this society, there are women, not always tourists, dressed in modern western gear, sometimes very short and skimpy, despite cautions to the contrary in guidebooks and elsewhere. By all accounts, this tolerance does not extend to other parts of the middle east. Male tourists seem to be able to get away with cargo pants, but no locals wear such stuff. We have been very careful to fully cover arms and legs, despite the warm weather.

We have explored the souqs in older parts of the city: they are generally narrow lanes of shops jammed between old buildings and usually focusing on a particular type of merchandise. For example, there are souqs called spice, gold, perfume, electronics (hardly traditional!), money changing etc. Amongst these were myriads of tiny shops selling textiles for traditional Arab dress. The souqs are crowded, and the shopkeepers, almost all males, enthusiastically invite you in to view their wares. Structurally, the souqs don't look original, but their alleyways have been widened, straightened and beautified a lot. The spice souq was the most charming, crammed in an extremely narrow alley, and filled with the most delicious of smells.

Another highlight, if not the highlight of the old city, was the Dubai Museum. This is in an old fort, but in an excavated area underneath the fort is a particularly modern presentation capturing in full size models much of the ancient ant recent history of Dubai. This museum is not very big, but it is really one of the best we have seen anywhere in the world. A must for any visit here! And it has the only toilet we were able to find in the city outside of hotels and restaurants. The cost to visit this superb museum is 3 dirhams, less than a dollar.

To cover the old part of Dubai, you need to cross the river in vessels they call abras. These are the most basic of boats, nowadays diesel powered, with a wooden plank for a seat. The cost is 1 dirham, and each one holds about 20 people. It leaves only when all seats are full, a wait of less than a minute, and the next abra pulls into the dock as soon as the previous one leaves. A fantastic public transport system!

07 December, 2007

From Hong Kong to Dubai

Apart from our firt day misunderstanding of what prepaid Octopus cards actually cover, public transport in Hong Kong is fantastically well organised. We used a lot of it while there, and all you have to do is swipe the card in front of reader when getting on buses, trains and ferries. But perhaps the most impressive was the ride back to the airport for our departure.

Our Octopus cards included the Airport Express fares, and with such a ticket, the train company (the MTR) shuttles you for free from your hotel to Kowloon Station. At Kowloon Station, as our friend Debbie had told us, you can check your bags in for the flight. One's confidence in this process is enhanced by the check in area looking just like any airport, and boarding passes as well as baggage claim tickets are issued there. Thereafter, the train takes you at high speed to the airport, with no luggage to lug around.

Hong Kong airport is one of the world's best - that's well known, but it fell down in one area for both our arrival and departure, and that was in the Immigration check, where long queues and surly staff greeted us both times. Everything else works so well in Hong Kong - why can't they get this important process right?

Our flight to Dubai was pleasant enough on Cathay Pacific. The 9 hour flight with a 4 hour time change and late night arrival makes for some very tired passengers. The horror stories about arrival in Dubai that we have read in the Sydney Morning Herald were confirmed but not fully borne out. Correspondents to the SMH have complained about immigration queues of 2-3 hours, but we only endured about 30 minutes, and it was torturously slow enough. Huge crowds of incoming passengers, even at that time of night, were being processed by large numbers of staff working very slowly, and in fact, most of them seemed to be doing nothing at all. There are no forms to fill in on arrival in Dubai, so everything the immigration people want to know, they have to ask you. It just seems so slow and inefficient.

But the rest of the airport works well. Our bags were dizzy from having been on the conveyor for so long before we got there, and the process of getting a taxi to our hotel was efficient and worked well, much better than it does at Sydney airport.

Dosed up with sleeping pills, we both managed a good night's sleep, and look forward to our stay in Dubai.

04 December, 2007

Hong Kong Update

The civic fathers of Hong Kong must be very pleased with the way that they have trained the population to keep the city clean, and to give up smoking. The fines for breaking these rules are substantial, which is no doubt why the campaign has been successful. Rigorous enforcement must take place, or at least used to, but it was not apparent to us.

The Temple Street night market is promoted as quirky, but it really just seemed to be a regular market, selling mostly cheap goods (we bought some socks), not much different at all to, say, Paddy's Markets in Sydney, either in the goods available or their price. The fortune tellers and Chinese opera singers, which are supposed to make this market unique, were mostly not apparent. What was interesting was the multitude of very popular eating establishments in adjacent streets. We noticed these mostly in Woosung Street. Tourists enjoyed mingling with the locals here, and enjoyed very low cost Cantonese cuisine.

At the other end of the spectrum was a visit to the Felix bar at the top of the Peninsular Hotel. This had been recommended to us by our travel agent - thanks Bob! You travel up to the 28th floor in a dedicated and suitably decorated lift. Lights are dimmed as you step out into the bar's lobby. Interior design at Felix's is fascinating, there are no straight lines, and no surfaces are horizontal, not even the ones you put your drinks down on. Of course, the view back to Hong Kong Island is stupendous, although venetian type blinds are an unnecessary distraction. The bar is very small, and we couldn't get a stool with a view, so we stood and soaked it all in. In such a location, you might expect the drinks to be way overpriced, but they were not, in fact barely more expensive than you would pay in the trendy hotels of Surry Hills.

Another touch of luxury we enjoyed was a very relaxed afternoon tea at the Intercontinental Hotel. The same view, stunning of course, but filtered heavily by thick pollution hanging over the city in relatively windless conditions.

Causeway Bay is a great place to visit, bustling in the city area, but calm and peaceful on Victoria Park. We were lucky enough the see the ceremonial noon day gun go off (see photo), and it's good to see that Hong Kong is preserving its traditional history from the colonial past.

For a change of pace from hectic Hong Kong and Tsim Sha Tsui, we took the fast ferry to Cheung Chau, an island about half an hour away to the south west, in the same general direction as Lamma Island which Mike visited on a previous trip. Cheung Chau proved to be a good choice for this excursion. It centres on a delightful and quite large fishing village. Hundreds of craft are protected within the artificial breakwaters. The township occupies a very narrow spit on the island, and it's only a short walk between the protected harbour side to a beach area on the other side. The beach was quiet, it being winter, but it looks as though it's very busy on weekends and in summer. The long waterfront features a neverending strip of popular seafood restaurants, and the back lanes of the town were a delight to walk through. There are no motor vehicles on Cheung Chau! There are some little gas powered buggies used by tradesman, but for the most part, people walk or bicycle around. We saw hundreds of parked bikes. The only regular vehicle we did see was a fire brigade van as it passed us, siren and all, on the narrow waterfront thoroughfare. Signage implied that no vehicles, including bikes, can be used on weekends. It's very worthwhile to make the trip to Cheung Chau!

02 December, 2007

Hong Kong Arrival

Our grand trip has started, with a flight from Sydney to Hong Kong. That was uneventful, mercifully shorter than the 14 hours flights across the Pacific that we have become used to. The MTR train trip into Kowloon from the airport is a lesson on how Sydney should run its train network. Clean, fast, efficient, frequent service, precision arrival at each station platform - everything that CityRail is not. Ticketing was confusing however - the much lauded Hong Kong Octopus Card is not all it's cracked up to be, but only because information available on what ticket is most appropriate is incomplete and doesn't answer obvious questions. For example, we found that the special tourist pass which covers trips to and from the airport and (we thought) unlimited 3 day travel actually does not cover bus travel at all, and you have to top it up for that. The unlimited travel is only on the subway system.

Our hotel is in the Nathan Rd area of Tsim Sha Tsui, and arriving at 7:30pm on a Saturday night was a great way to thrust us into the excitement of modern Asia. The first thing we noticed (apart from the endless touts trying to sell us shirts, suits, bags etc), compared with previous visits to Hong Kong, was how clean the city is - obviously great attention has been paid to enforcing anti-littering, and there is little or no graffiti. There are few cigarette butts around and not many people are smoking - how delightful! Smoking is totally banned in many outdoor areas.

We visited Stanley and its famous Sunday markets today, using buses to get there and back (which is when we discovered that our Octopus cards were devoid of bus money!). The thrill of rides on the top deck of Hong Kong buses are always a highlight of a Hong Kong visit. One has to admire the skill of the drivers negotiating the narrow, hilly, windy & crowded streets, and the views of the island are superb, although it's all but impossible to take good photos. At Stanley, I recognised a restaurant I had been taken to by friends on a previous visit. The photo is taken at the Stanley seafront, in a no-smoking outdoor zone. Not everyone could read the signs, though!

We also bused up to the Peak on Hong Kong Island. What a fantastic structure they have built up there since we were both here last. The view back to Kowloon was amazing, as it has always been, but it was quite hazy, maybe too much air pollution. And it was monumentally crowded. Sunday is possibly not a good day to visit the Peak. We decided to walk down rather than catch another bus or queue up for the tram. The walk was a great experience and we're glad we did it. There were very few other walkers.

Today was also the Philippino maids' day off. So the city, and every recreation area that we looked at, from the Peak, to Stanley, Repulse Bay, Deep Water Bay, and Central, is packed with them relaxing with their friends, and incredible sight.

10 July, 2007

Final Statistics

Back home, some final statistics may be of some interest.

In the 28 day holiday, we travelled a total of 4690km in our 4WD Campervan, the biggest day being 528km on 27 June, the drive from Lake Argyle back to Katherine. We spent $A894 of diesel for the guzzler.

The costs of renting the data satellite service were $572, and transmission costs were $497, making this a quite expensive blog, no?

We travelled on frequent flyer points to Darwin (so only had to pay the extortionate taxes), and the total cost per day of the holiday to us was $375, including the RBGAN and the campervan.

We will resume updating this blog when we do our round the world trip starting in December 2007. Au revoir!

02 July, 2007

Fireworks and Return to Darwin

Sunday night we had a great time at the Batchelor Oval, watching the Territory Day fireworks. Seems like the whole town turned out, and there was the usual "sausage sizzle" run by the Batchelor School. The crackers were very good, funded by the state government, and the mayor gave a short address. The kids in our campground also let a few crackers off, but we settled down to our usual silence and had a peaceful night.

Monday, here we are all checked in to our hotel, in downtown Darwin. The truck has been returned to the Apollo depot, and our camping gear disposed of. The day is very hot, as usual here, and we look forward to some good meals, and a bit of relaxation before we start the long trip home, via The Alice.

01 July, 2007

Beautiful Litchfield

Sunday, Territory Day! After a peaceful night, quite cool, we drove a few k's down the road into Litchfield National Park, to Wangi Falls. Well, what a delightful place! Being early, we managed to be the only ones in the beautiful pool, at the bottom of two waterfalls. It's hard work, swimming upstream to get under a waterfall. We really enjoyed the cool, crystal water this morning. (Photo of us in the pool here.) As we were leaving, crowds started to arrive, so we think we were lucky to have the pool to ourselves for a while. The sun gets onto the waterfall and the pool more in the afternoon, so that is probably the most popular time for Wangi Falls (it's "wan-guy", not "wan-jee" as Wangi in NSW is pronounced.)

We then headed down the 4WD track to Tjaynera Falls hoping to find some seclusion at these difficult to get at falls, but the river crossing we encountered was too deep and too murky and too wide to be braved on the day before we are to hand our truck back in, so we decided against it. We visited Tolmer Falls lookout, which overlooks the falls into a beautiful rockpool and gorge, but no swimming allowed here because of the rare bat species which live in the gorge.

Then we drove to Buley Waterholes, near Florence Falls where we swam yesterday. Again, we were delighted to see several small cascading falls with connecting pools. Some were very deep, and they were stunning, so in we went again. The waterholes were crowded - indeed the signs in the little car park say "if the car park is full, the waterholes are crowded, so come back another time". We got the last parking spot.

Litchfield is a great park, and so close to Darwin. No wonder it is so popular, but we were here on a Sunday. We have found the park very well managed, with excellent walking tracks to the sights. The park does not charge you to enter.

Now we have pulled up in the town of Batchelor, which is quite near to the old Rum Jungle mining site. A quiet, very green and tidy town, very small, does not seem to have the problems of some towns we have stopped at. Batchelor has a TAFE type college for aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander students. Tonight, there is a fireworks display, on the Batchelor oval, to celebrate Territory Day. We will walk there from here. A fantastic last day for us, tomorrow it is back to Darwin, for a couple of days before we fly home.

30 June, 2007

Florence Falls

Saturday, this is our 2nd last night in the "truck", the time has flown. We are however exhausted, it has been a very active holiday.

Last night was not as quiet as we would have hoped. The boys and girls from the 2007 Wantirna High School Central Australia Tour ran like crazed animals around the Katherine Gorge campground, and it wasn't until after 10:00pm that their teachers, not really in control, tried to exercise some discipline and get their charges into their tents, where fights ensued and giggling lasted for a long time. These students, the boys in particular, showed no consideration for the other campers, and no respect for the aboriginal owners, and terrorised the noctural wildlife in a National Park. The administrators of Nitmiluk National Park are doing themselves no good service in accepting bookings from school groups, if this is how they behave.

We set off in the direction of Darwin today, and have now pulled into Litchfield National Park, 50km off the Stuart Highway, and about 80km short of Darwin. It is a great place, very well maintained, and with pristine water holes for swimming, and beautiful flowing creeks. First thing we did after a lunch by the gurgling Shady Creek was dive into a very large water hole, fed by a beautiful year round waterfall, in Florence Creek. How refreshing it was on this hot day. Many others had the same idea. No secluded water holes here!

This park must be very popular with "Darwinians", as it is so close to Darwin, and a real gem. Also, it's a weekend and it's Territory Day tomorrow (fireworks!), and we found we could not get into the National Park camping area at Wangi Falls that we wanted to. However, we have found a delightful spot nearby, Litchfield Safari Park, grassy, lots of trees and very quiet, and a powered site is a bonus. Not much chance of large school groups here!

29 June, 2007

Cruising the Gorges

Friday, well it wasn't a cold night at all, even tho' we are just down the road from Katherine, where we had an extremely cold night. About 6am we felt the chill and it was a very cool morning until about 10am. After that, it became a very hot day.

Last night about 9pm, two coaches roared in and a crowd of Year 11 teens from Warandite, Vic., piled out and set up camp. They sounded like the invading hoardes, and were very noisy until they went to bed, not late, and again when they awoke at 6am. They had apparently been on the road since 5am - we figure their departure must have been Alice Spings or Uluru. No sooner had they moved on, that sometime this afternoon, two coaches arrived from Wantirna, Vic., also full of teens, who are not too noisy (they haven't been cooped up in a bus all day), but are stretching the resources of the shower block a bit. This is our first encounter with school bus trips of this type, you do not get them in regular caravan parks of course. Needless to say the expected "dawn chorus" of birds did not eventuate, I think they had flown off to a quieter place. Both these groups of schoolies were well drilled at putting their tents up quickly and in neat rows (the first group in the dark) - we figure they've had plenty of practice since they left Melbourne.

We had the most fantastic day, doing a 4 hr boat cruise touring 3 of the 13 gorges here at Katherine. Each gorge is separated by a rapids at this time of the dry season, so you get out of one boat, walk over the rocks around the rapids, and get into another boat, for the next gorge. This works quite well. These gorges, which are so accessable to the general public, not needing a 4 wheel drive to get to, are spectacular, and the amount of water here is astonishing. To go past the 3rd gorge, you have to canoe or walk, or fly.

The second gorge was the most interesting of the three we saw, and given more time, we would try a full day canoeing, where you can do multiple gorges. The third gorge included a stop from which you could walk to a beautiful swimming hole, Lily Pond, fed by a very high "maiden's hair" type waterfall, which normally dries up in the dry season, but was working today, given the recent rains. Not too many people swam - they hadn't warmed up enough yet.

Coming back through the second gorge, the cruise guides Di and Jai tried something they hadn't tried before - it was a stop at Butterfly Gorge (normally only accessible by a 4 hour walk), named after the butterflies which inhabit it. It was a trial and error exercise, with nowhere obvious to pull up, and very steep banks to clamber up and down. Today's photo is taken from Butterfly Gorge. The people who had tackled the tough walk to Butterfly Gorge (for peace and solitude, one of them said), were none too pleased to see half a boatload of cruisers trampling their quiet turf, but we only stayed 15 minutes!

As everywhere in the Top End, the bird life is very interesting, but here the crocs were not evident at all. There is a particularly well decorated bower bird's nest in the campground here. Its owner seems quite unperturbed by the many passers-by.

The Nitmiluk National Park, jointly operated by NT National Parks and the traditional owners, the Jawoyn, is very well set up for tourism - they operate a commercial enterprise right out of the park's visitors' centre, although there are a few glitches in the operation. By our observations, the school groups are doing 2hr gorge cruises, which cover the first two gorges.

28 June, 2007

Katherine Gorge

Thursday, a freezing cold dawn at the Shadylane Van Park in Katherine. First thing, we upped stakes, drove 25km, and got one the the first powered sites (one of the dusty, non-allocated variety) available for the morning in the Nitmiluk National Park. We reckon we got the best one. These are apparently all gone by about lunchtime. Immediately, we noticed the prolific birdlife here - it's so noisy, it's going to be bedlam in the morning.

We rented a double canoe for a four hour afternoon session, to paddle Katherine Gorge up to the 1st rapids. They strictly limit the number of canoes on the river, and we were just early enough to get the booking. The paddle of the 1st gorge is 3.6km upstream, and then back again. It was hard work! Not because of the flow, which was very slight, but because of the light wind and our poor canoeing style. The canoes had no keel and no rudder, and it was impossible to maintain course, either upstream or downstream. But the gorge was, well, gorgeous, with a mixture of cliff faces and sandy banks running into the water. The sandy banks were almost all marked "no entry, crocodile breeding area". We didn't see any crocs today. We had a swim at the rapids.

There were lots of other people canoeing on the river, some were doing more adventurous trips where they ported their canoes up the rapids and did the next gorge. There appear to be many gorges accessible this way, 13 in total. Some people had backpacks, and were doing overnight canoeing trips. The canoeists competete with the cruises for the river. Paddlers are cautioned to avoid the cruise boats, "they are big and have no brakes".

We are unused to canoeing (Tracy please note!) and are exhausted after the effort, Mike's arms are sore and so are Clare's wrists and hands. We hoped to save energy by eating at the very nice cafe here, but it's menu wasn't up to our exacting standards, so we are back at the truck, eating our own tucker.

It will possibly be another cold night tonight although now, at 8pm, it seems much milder than last night, but it is still clear skied with a full moon. Yes Ben, we are sleeping in the thermals again. Tomorrow we will be up early, to go on a 3 gorges cruise at 9am, should be great, and someone else will be paddling! Kathryn Gorge is a beautiful place, quite crowded, but the natural beauty is stunning, and it is only 3 and a half hours from Darwin.

27 June, 2007

The Long Drive

Wednesday, we've just completed the third big driving day on this trip, and the last. We covered 528km from Lake Argyle WA to Katherine NT, nd in our truck, that's about as much as you'd want to do. Our Toyota Hilux, which must be the oldest in Apollo's fleet (140,000km), is happy to do between 100 and 110km/h on a good bitumen road, which means we overtake all caravans (which seem to cruise at 80km/hr), and, despite its age, its been very reliable and performs very well. The speed limit in NT is 130km/hr, but very few vehicles are doing it.

Today's drive was quite dreary, with the only scenically beautiful section being in Gregory National Park and the Victoria River Gorge. Remember, we stayed at Vic River on our first night out of Darwin.

By doing the trip out of Darwin, we will have the opportunity to visit Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge), and Litchfield National Park on our return to Darwin, but, in retrospect, we could have avoided the dreary Kununurra to Katherine section of the road (both ways) by doing the trip out of Broome. When we planned the trip (a year ago), we chose Darwin probably without thinking it through properly, but we knew that flights to Darwin were much easier to get than flights to Broome. We've since heard that renting motorhomes out of Broome incurs a $500 remote site fee, which is startling, and nice to have avoided.

We are here (in the North End) in winter, peak season, but we are still surprised at how crowded the main caravan parks are. When we first arrived in Kununurra some weeks ago, the parks were full, and we were lucky to get a space in the lakesise park (which we then abandoned when we felt it was too crowded). Everyone says you won't get a space in Broome, but we did, right at Cable Beach, by just fronting up, pretty early in the day. That van park was indeed chockers, but we were lucky. Today, arriving at Katherine, the first two parks we tried were full, and the third, "Shady Lane" only had 3 spaces left when we arrived, and it's now got the "full" sign out.

This park is on the road up to the Gorge, and its in a delightful location, with spacious, shady sites, yet well grassed. Despite this, we prefer the sites in National Parks, where you can sometimes get "private spaces". (Today's photo is of our campfire at our private site at El Questro.) That privacy and seclusion is worth the price of no power and limited facilities. We're going to try our luck at Nitmiluk tomorrow. Having said that, the parks are still quieter than our neighbours in Surry Hills, although you are very close to vans and tents. People are very considerate, even the dogs are quieter!

26 June, 2007

Argyle Cruise in Sunshine

Tuesday, sunshine at last. Mike was happy getting a dawn run from the campground, across the Ord River dam wall, and down the gorge a bit, and back.

In the afternoon we did a cruise on Lake Argyle with Drew, a young fellow who has spent all his life here and certainly knows his lake. It's incredible to contemplate how big this body of fresh water is (30 - 50 Sydney Harbours, depending on the water level), how relatively small the dam is that holds it back, how it only took 3 wet seasons to fill, how it is massively underutilised as both an irrigation resource and as a tourism resource.

The cruise was in a very speedy catamaran - it had to be, we covered 100km on the water, and still only looked at a fraction of his huge lake. It was quite windy and hence choppy, which made high speeds in open water very uncomfortable for both the passengers and for the cat, so we couldn't go to the far side of the lake to see where the Ord River comes in. Instead we explored a long way up a river running into Ulysses Bay and saw a whole heap of wildlife.

The wildlife included more crocodiles (freshies, no confirmed reports of salties in Lake Argyle), ospreys (see photo), sea eagles, azure kingfishers, cormorants. We also saw wallabies and even big herds of feral cattle whose ancestors were lost when the valley was flooded 20 odd years ago.

It's quite amazing to see Kimberleys geology butting up against this huge man made sea!