Friday, 18 December 2009

Indian Pacific 3: Cook to Perth

The final chapter of my three-day journey from Sydney to Perth aboard the Indian Pacific, the train that traverses a continent...

Friday 4 December 2009

10am, Cook


We’re on the longest straight stretch of rail in the world - 478 kilometres without a single bend - when we arrive at Cook.

It’s another place named after an early Australian Prime Minister. Our previous stop, Watson, was presumably named after Chris Watson, the world’s first Labor PM in 1904, and Cook is named after Joseph Cook, PM from 1913-1914 (and surely there must be a Deakin stopping place somewhere about here as well).

It’s a tiny town of just four people, we’re told. One of them is the proprietor of the souvenir shop, the only place open. There are no kids here any more so the school is closed, and the neatly maintained houses set back beyond a broad white stony track are apparently mostly empty.

I wander around the clearing between the buildings, as does everyone else, then return to the shop to buy a card marking the world's longest rail straight to send to my Polish friend Magda, whose Warsaw address is the final destination of an intermittent trickle of postcards from the more exotic places I visit.

It’s hot, dry and desolate here, but you can tell it was once a viable if tiny township, servicing the trains that passed. I can’t help thinking about what a great writers’ retreat it would make - no distractions, not even the Internet. But a couple of my colleagues look aghast when I mention the idea. “Writers’ prison, more like,” one suggests. But I like the idea.

4pm, Rawlinna

Finally we’re across the border into Western Australia, though there’s a lot of the state to cover between here and the coast. At 4pm we pull into Rawlinna, a stop serving a vast sheep station of a million hectares, within which it can take hours to traverse a single paddock.

After the bleakness of Watson and Cook, it’s surprising to step off the train onto a small but healthy patch of lawn in front of the closed station building. A short distance away is the former post office, also closed and dilapidated, but with signs of having been abandoned not many years before.

There are hardly any children at this stop, rather an assortment of adults from the sheep station and other unknown locales; they're generally of the Akubra hat wearing, hard working stockman type. Shannon Noll and his guitarists perform within the shade at one end of the station verandah, the audience enjoys the music, then Santa hands out his gifts to the few young ones in attendance.

While that’s going on, I chat to a young French guy named Robert, who’s travelling in the sit-up Red Class. He caught my eye at a previous stop as he appears very young, maybe about 20, way below the age of the elderly travellers common on the train.

“I’m from Lyons,” he says.

Why did he choose the three day sit-up option?

“Because I wanted to see all the country,” he replies. “I’ve seen Sydney and Melbourne, and I wanted to see what was in the middle.”

“And it was cheaper, too,” he adds.

Then we’re off.

8.30pm, Kalgoorlie

After 24 hours we’re back in the realm of mobile phone reception and Internet connectivity. Just outside the big mining town it kicks back in, everyone’s phones start beeping, and I dash off a few postings via Facebook and Twitter.

Then, after the train pulls into the impressive stone station in the first big settlement we’ve seen since Adelaide, I walk into town with a bunch of my colleagues. We’ve decided to pass up the scheduled tour in favour of having a drink at one of Kal’s many elegant 19th century pubs.

Though the Exchange Hotel, where we end up, ain’t too elegant - in fact the ladies behind the bar keep taking off layers of clothing as the night wears on. Perhaps it’s the hot desert weather? Something seems to be raising the temperature in here.

At 10pm we return to the train via through the mining city's massively wide streets, past colonial-era buildings and the famous statue of Paddy Hannan, the discoverer of Kalgoorlie’s gold in 1893. There are party pies laid out in the lounge car - as if we haven’t had enough food -and people are cheerfully but a little sleepily relating their brief Kal encounters.

And now to bed. In the morning - Perth!

Saturday 5 December

7.30am, on board

We’re well into the flat, dry wheatfields region east of Perth now, passing fields dotted with giant wheels of hay, looking like clever pastoral art installations.

The call for breakfast has just been delivered via the PA system, but I’m determined to upload my first Indian Pacific blog posting while I’m actually on the train, so I curse softly as I wait in my cabin for my iPhone to maintain reception long enough to click on ‘upload’. Bang on 7.30am I’m able to do so, the blog is updated, and I troop the three car lengths back to the dining car.

It’s our last meal onboard and everyone is cheerful but tired, having enjoyed the journey and companionship but, I think, looking forward to arrival. It’s going to be odd to rejoin a world which contains dimensions heading off in all directions - not just length - and to not have the day’s rhythms dictated by a neat schedule of meals, tours and socialising that becomes surprisingly comfortable and satisfying once you settle into it.

Just after 9am we finish our measured slide through the eastern suburbs of Perth, and pull into the East Perth Terminal precisely on time. We’ve travelled 4,352 kilometres across a continent, eaten good food, enjoyed excellent company, visited the wildnerness, and heard Shannon Noll sing Santa Claus is Coming to Town eight times. It’s been an experience.

[read the first instalment (Sydney to Broken Hill) here]
[read the second instalment (Adelaide to Watson) here]

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.


[And as this is the 50th blog posting I’ve uploaded this year to Aerohaveno, it seems a neat point at which to rest. I’m taking a break from travel over Xmas and the New Year, and will post again around the end of the first week of January 2010. See you then... and happy travels!]

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Indian Pacific 2: Adelaide to Watson

In which I continue the chronicle of my three-day journey from Sydney to Perth, via the mighty Indian Pacific transcontinental train...

Thursday 3 December 2009


3.45pm, Adelaide


After 25 hours on the rails, we arrive at Adelaide Parklands, the euphemistically renamed interstate rail terminal at Keswick, an industrial zone next to the green belt that rings the city’s centre.

I’ve been here before at the end of the Overland train journey from Melbourne’s spectacular Southern Cross Station, and it’s as much of an anticlimax when compared with the grandeur of Sydney Central.

Several of us lob onto a coach for a whistlestop tour of the city. The tour tracks around the edge of the urban core which was set within parks by Adelaide’s founders, allegedly for defensive purposes.

I say “allegedly” because our guide issues explanations which sometimes sound unlikely, and which I suspect might be urban myths. We pass by elegant stone mansions, parks, major landmarks such as the GPO and Town Hall, and the high-class residences of North Adelaide.

It’s all very well for an hour or so, but the tour drags on, we never get out of the coach, and the driver’s commentary becomes ever more eccentric until he’s telling us that the traffic lights have been fixed so motorists have to use more fuel while idling so the government can pocket extra fuel excise! We hard-bitten journos (OK, soft travel writers) roll our eyes particularly emphatically at this gem.

The food on the train is good - I had curried braised chicken for lunch - but the portions are relatively modest, so I buy a baguette and coffee at the terminal’s cafe on our release from the tour. For sheer weirdness you can’t beat a ham, cheese and pineapple baguette, so I order that. Remember, this is the city that gave us the pie floater - a guilty pleasure at any time.

6.40pm, on board

Heading north once more out of Adelaide. It’s worth noting that the city has quietly become the hub of Australian train travel. From Adelaide you can catch a regular train to four state or territory capitals: Perth, Melbourne, Darwin and Sydney. Only Sydney can beat this, with services to Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra.

10pm, Port Augusta

We stop briefly in Port Augusta for servicing, and everyone’s allowed off for a bit of air on the platform while the train is rolled forward a short distance. It’s always refreshing to be out of the train, to realise there is a world out there that isn’t contained within a long steel tube, and it’s cool and quiet on the platform. Above us is a brilliant star field, with the intensity you only see far away from big city lights.

Friday 4 December

8am, Watson

This is totally different, our first truly desert experience. We’re standing in a stark, open space at the stopping place known as Watson. There’s nothing here to denote civilisation: no town, no platform, no man-made structures at all.

But there are galahs - two of them fly over the train just after we disembark - and people, plenty of them, gathered here to hear Shannon Noll sing and to meet Santa Claus. There are many Aboriginal kids who’ve been driven here from two schools hours away, and they smile at the swarming media as they wait for the stars in their school uniforms.

When Noll emerges, he takes his place on a low gravel mound alongside his two guitarists, completely unplugged, and belts out What About Me. Behind us is a lone tree that’s been festooned with streamers by people who’ve camped overnight, a rough and ready Bush Christmas tree. After he finishes, neatly placing his hat on one of the schoolkids’ heads, Santa climbs down from the train and is mobbed.

I can’t help smiling at the unlikeliness of it all - the long silver train, the wilderness we’re standing in, and its inhabitants and passengers mixing in the company of a pop idol and Father Christmas. It’s yet another impossibility summoned into existence by the Indian Pacific.

What lies further west? Is Cook the place I want to settle down? Who keeps the lawn at Rawlinna looking so nice? And is the desert heat really the reason that Kalgoorlie’s barmaids dress so minimalistically? All is revealed in the final Indian Pacific episode next week...


[read the first instalment (Sydney to Broken Hill) here]
[read the third instalment (Cook to Perth) here]

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Indian Pacific 1: Sydney to Broken Hill

As a wise Australian philosopher once wrote, it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll. It’s also a long way from Sydney to Perth, especially if you catch the train.

From Sydney’s Central Station to the East Perth Terminal, the Indian Pacific train crosses almost 4400 kilometres of cityscape, mountains, bush, outback and the featureless Nullarbor Plain.

It’s one of the world’s great train journeys, and I’m writing about it right now in the sumptuous Outback Explorer Lounge car, as the extraordinarily flat, scrubby desert landscape flicks past the windows, utterly treeless and fascinating.

This is the (edited) story of how I travelled from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean in the company of a media pack, the singer Shannon Noll, and Santa Claus, on a mission to spread festive cheer...

Wednesday 2 December 2009

11am, Sydney

It’s fitting that I should start my journey in the quintessential part of Sydney, in fact my favourite spot in Sydney - sitting on the restaurant deck outside the Museum of Contemporary Art and gazing across the ambling tourist crowds and Circular Quay ferries to the Opera House. I sit here for an hour admiring the view and marvelling at how well the barista has made this coffee, considering the beans come from a big roaster I’ve never been impressed with before.

Then it’s off to Central Station, and the big long silver carriages stretching down both platforms 1 and 2. There are 26 cars in total, including two locomotives. The train’s so long that it has to be split in two for boarding, then connected on departure.

My Gold Class twin cabin is a very compact space about two square metres in area, lined with pine panelling in a vaguely retro style than could fit anywhere between the 1920s and he 1960s. It’s small but well organised, with a mirror, two small cupboards, and a sofa that turns into bed, with another bunk bed above. The bathroom is a clever bit of engineering, with a fold-down metal sink above a fold-down metal toilet bowl, and a shower head above (a wrap-around shower curtain stops the toilet paper getting wet).

Two carriages along is the Outback Explorer Lounge. It’s a plush, comfy carriage, with curving lounges set cleverly against opposing walls to allow conversation while maintaining a walkway down the middle. It’s safe to say that the only exploration happening here will involve an examination of the beneficial effects of combining gin and tonic.

Beyond the lounge car is the Queen Adelaide Restaurant dining car, with neat booths at white tablecloth-covered tables. Menu is surprisingly diverse and modern, a big jump up from the sort of cruise buffet set-up I was half expecting.

At 2.55pm, we pull out and Sydney starts sliding away...

7.40pm, Bathurst

After almost five hours of travel, we step out onto the platform of Bathurst Station to find crowds of schoolkids standing in a temporary stage area, screaming out and waiting for Shannon Noll to step off the train. I should explain - the train we’re on is the annual Christmas Special, via which Great Southern Rail thanks the communities it passes through by presenting them with short concerts and a Santa visitation along the way.

The kids sigh impatiently through a couple of announcements, then temporarily give up, turn to face the audience, and belt out some Xmas numbers including the inevitable Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

They’ve done enough for their reward - Shannon Noll bounds on stage and sings a few numbers, bantering with the audience and getting the kids to sing along. I find myself smiling; it’s good to be out of the train for a while, standing on the platform of an 1876 station in a cool breeze, watching the sun fade and a bunch of locals with their kids having the best time because a famous singer has been brought to their town by the Indian Pacific.

I momentarily feel a bit like Santa; then Santa Claus himself appears from the train (we've brought our own) and hands sweets to the enthusiastic kids, who are happy to refocus their attention on an even bigger celebrity.

Thursday 3 December

6.15am, on board

You think (hope) you’re on a trip like this to relax and lie around the cabin reading a book. However, there are points when the train stops long enough for passengers to go on a short tour, and due to timetable dictates it may necessarily be at an inconvenient time. I’m struck again by how much the train is an “event” to these isolated towns, an unstoppable visitation from the outside world, as predictable and unavoidable as the changing of seasons.

In this case we’re due to blow in to Broken Hill at 7am. So at 6.15am we’re consuming pastries and coffee, and glancing out the window at the new scenery. It’s changed significantly overnight - last time it was light we were in the green hilliness of the Blue Mountains, now it’s a much drier, somewhat redder environment with a lot of low scrub and fewer trees. It’s a hint of the wilderness that awaits us further ahead. On cue, we spot a few kangaroos hopping lazily across the dusty earth.

7am, Broken Hill

At Broken Hill, the train is so long that we have to be led through several carriages ahead of us to reach the platform. It’s an interesting jaunt - one carriage has economy class passengers in sit-up, one has curvy walls to its sleepers which make you feel as if someone slipped something dodgy into your drink the previous night, one is a kind of maintenance car which resembles a slum of this long travelling town. It’s surreal to thread our way ever forward, forward through the narrow corridors, until finally we arrive on the stark unembellished platform to a board a coach for a local tour.

The problem with a whistlestop tour like this is that, well, it’s a whistlestop - it has to be brief. We’re driven through the streets by a classically laconic Aussie guide who doesn’t mind speaking plainly about his home town. Broken Hill is slowly dying, he says, because mining work is subsiding and there’s nothing else to do, so young people have to move away to work.

Underlining the point, he indicates two retirement home complexes in the centre of town as we drive past, describing their comparative advantages. Call me Mr Negative, but as a Texan friend once said when we were living in Egypt, “I don’t mind living here, but I don’t want to die here.”

Continuing the downbeat theme, he takes us up to a hill above the town, that lies along the ore seam that separates Broken Hill into north and south. There’s a memorial here to all the men who died in the mines over a century or more; their names inscribed on glass plates within a suitably industrial-looking rust-coloured monument. Next to each name is a slot for flowers, and there are many roses placed within them, brightening up the sombre monument. There are even roses for men killed back in the 19th century, which is touching.

8.20am, on board

Back onto the train for breakfast. The squeezy nature of the seating is actually an asset, as it forces people to be sociable. I’m sitting next to a French woman who lives in Oz and writes for Francophone publications internationally, a radio journalist from Sydney, and the Adelaide man who’s been commissioned to play Santa on our trip. The conversation is interesting.

Now we have about six hours to Adelaide. Return to my cabin to read or sleep, or hang about the lounge and socialise? I go for the solo option, and make a start on Paul Theroux’s recent Ghost Train to the Eastern Star while watching the landscape slip by.

What lies ahead in the desert? Will gin and tonic prevail, or should I try some of that nice sangiovese? Who is rigging the traffic lights of Adelaide? And is Theroux still such a grumpy traveller? Find out the answers in next week’s episode as I continue my progress west...

[read the second instalment (Adelaide to Watson) here]
[read the third instalment (Cook to Perth) here]

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Look Upon This Picture, And On This...

When is a famous historic building not a famous historic building? When it's a scale model, of course.

In last week's Canberra post I talked about our visit to Cockington Green Gardens, a tourist attraction filled with miniature replicas of English village settings. However, it also has an international section.

Rather than being filled with humble village miniatures, it's mostly home to replicas of grand historic buildings from around the globe, funded by the relevant national embassy or cultural body.

As I walked around, I realised I'd been to several of the models' originals. There's nothing more fun than playing the "Been there!" game, usually while watching the TV. You know how it goes - an image comes on the screen of the Pyramids, for example, or Edinburgh Castle, and you shout out "Been there!".

You don't know that game? Oh well, we play it here, anyway.

Here are my "Been there!" moments from Cockington Green:

1. Borobudur, Indonesia. On my first trip overseas in 1981, I visited this beautiful 9th century Buddhist monument, containing over 500 Buddha statues within bell-shaped stone structures. Here's my pic from 1981:


... and here's Cockington Green's model:


2. Karlštejn Castle, Czech Republic. This Gothic castle outside Prague was constructed in the 14th century for the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, Charles IV. We snapped this shot on a Central European trip in 1993...

And here's the replica at Cockington Green:


3. Palmyra, Syria. Palmyra was a Roman-era city, now a set of ruins in the Syrian desert. We visited it in 1994, on a holiday from our teaching jobs in Egypt. Here's a pic we took then...


... and here's the model at Cockington Green:


4. Petra, Jordan. The beautiful "rose-red city half as old as time", carved from the rock by the Nabatean civilisation around 100 BCE. Here's our 1994 photo...


... and Cockington Green's version:



5. Trakai, Lithuania. Finally, I visited Trakai in 2008 while taking a side-trip from a Lonely Planet assignment. This place really does look like it's been plucked from Disneyland, as it's a perfect fairy tale castle in the middle of a lake. Here's my shot...


... and here's Cockington Green's model. Hard to pick the fake, huh?


Sunday, 22 November 2009

Canberra: Worth Going to See?

"Worth seeing? Yes; but not worth going to see."

The words of 18th century wordsmith Samuel Johnson passed through my mind yesterday as I visited Gold Creek Village in the northern suburbs of Canberra. Johnson was talking about the Giant's Causeway in Ireland, a geological feature; while Gold Creek Village is about as artificial as you can get.

It's basically a tourist precinct containing several attractions and some fairly daggy shops. There are a couple of historic buildings, but otherwise the complex looks like it dropped in from about 1987.

You can tell I'm not a fan of attractions that seem to exist largely to give people something to do on a quiet Sunday - it doesn't speak well of the vibrancy of the city as a whole.

However... if you've already ticked off the big attractions in the national capital - the National Gallery, the National Museum, the National Bonsai Collection (not kidding) - then you could do worse than spend half a day visiting Gold Creek. Take a postmodern sense of irony with you, and you'll enjoy it even more.

A prehistoric display

Our first stop was the National Dinosaur Museum, a big barn of a building with a single floor of exhibits and a little shop below. The first thing you notice about the place is that it's not your modern hands-on hyper-interactive kind of facility. In fact it's a classic old-fashioned museum with lots of displays in glass cabinets, loads of text, and a number of big dinosaur replicas.

Having said that, once you knuckle down and start reading the text, it's a pretty interesting place. Rather than starting from the age of the dinosaurs, the chronological displays start from the dawn of time and proceed past the dinosaur extinction to the present day. There's a quirky little section on cryptozoology and claimed sightings of modern-day sabre tooth tigers near the end that makes a neat follow-up to all the big picture stuff.

The museum does have a small amount of hands-on options, eg fossils you can touch. The text is well written and accessible, and there's a wealth of info about the Australian aspect of each prehistoric age. Though you have to chuckle a little at quotes such as "By the end of the Carboniferous [era], Canberra... has become covered by the southern ice cap." And I thought the city was only founded in 1927.

The bottom line re the National Dinosaur Museum? Minimal bells and whistles but good content... will work best for those already interested in dinosaurs.

Little Englanders

A short walk took us to Cockington Green. It's hard to know what to make of this place on first glance... replica English village buildings in a garden setting in Australia's national capital screams "cultural cringe" when you first hear of it.

Interestingly though, the Green does display some departure from the traditional "Isn't it lovely" approach. The miniature buildings, mostly at 1/12 scale, are based on structures from different places in Old Blighty. Though the buildings are generally olde worlde types, the model people and vehicles around them are modern, with late-model cars parked next to Tudor cottages.

The modern elements added a touch of extra interest to our stroll through the grounds, including an electric train snaking through the countryside, and a streaker at a soccer match. It was about that this point that our senses of humour kicked in, and we started to speculate where the secret druids were, dragging sacrifices into the woods by night.

And then we rounded the corner to see a group of model policeman bending over a model body lying in greenery just near a clump of bushes. And further on we found the model Stonehenge, with a bunch of suspicious robed figures standing in the middle. Narrelle thought they looked like monks, but I thought they were druids. Up to no good.

And so it went, with us walking through the beautifully tended gardens past canal boats and castles, noticing little jokes (like the pervy golfer) or possibly imagining them (like the pervy golfer).

And then to the international section, full of replicas full of spectacular foreign buildings, sponsored by various embassies in Canberra (planning for a full-blown Australian section is also underway). Not as much scope there for humour, but plenty for the "Been There" game.

But that's a story for another day...

Next Week: The "Been There" Game!

Friday, 13 November 2009

South Australia: Ready for its Close-up, Mr DeMille

A few weeks ago when I was at the cinema waiting for arthouse flick An Education to start, I caught the trailer for the new Scott Hicks/Clive Owen drama The Boys are Back.

It was one of those annoying trailers that feel like the five minute "marketer's cut", showing you a linear summary of the entire movie, but it did look good from a cinematographic point of view.

Turns out that despite its British star, the The Boys are Back was filmed in South Australia. Locations are mostly along the attractive Fleurieu Peninsula south of Adelaide, with scenes shot at places such as Aldinga Beach and Myponga Beach.

There are also scenes at Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills, and at Dog Ridge Wines in the McLaren Vale wine region. City scenes take place in Adelaide, shot in the offices of The Advertiser newspaper, the Majestic Roof Garden Hotel, and at Gouger Street bar Sangria.

Interestingly, the South Australian Tourism Commission is one of the partners backing the film, and is using it as the basis of an international tourism promotion. It's not that long since Tourism Australia bankrolled a similar campaign in conjunction with Baz Luhrmann's Australia, producing mixed results, so it'll be interesting to see how well this one does in drawing visitors to SA.

Although I've been to South Australia a few times, I've never visited or written about any movie locations there. However, there have been stacks of films shot in South Australia over the years, sometimes standing in for other places.

Here are five of the more prominent:

Picnic at Hanging Rock
(1975): Though most of the movie was filmed at the actual rock, the girls' school, Appleyard Hall, is in fact Martindale Hall in South Australia.

Storm Boy (1976): A popular family film when I was a kid, this movie featured a boy and his pelican in the coastal Coorong region.

Breaker Morant (1980): An array of South Australian locations stood in convincingly for South Africa in this courtroom drama taking place during the Boer War.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002): A movie with a Western Australian location which was mostly shot in SA, in diverse places from Lake Torrens to the Gibson Desert.

Wolf Creek (2005): Successful horror flick almost entirely filmed in the South Australian outback, though it includes some aerial shots of the actual Wolfe Creek crater in WA.

It's a bit too early to predict how The Boys are Back will fare in cinemas, as it's only just opened in Australia, but so far the reaction at IMDb seems good. And if it turns out to not be your cup of tea, you can at least soothe yourself by watching the pretty locations. Or if you're from South Australia, by playing the "Now where is that?" game.

COMPETITION: Courtesy of film distributor Hopscotch Films, I have ten double passes to give away to the Australian season of The Boys are Back. To score a double pass, send an email to tim@iwriter.com.au with the following info:

- Your full name and town/suburb;
- Your postal address for me to mail the pass to;
- A short paragraph about a movie location you've visited anywhere in the world and what it was like; or a movie location you'd like to visit and why.

The first ten complete entries will gain a double pass. Only entries with the above info will be eligible, and by entering you grant me the right to use the material for free, perpetually and non-exclusively, in a future blog post about travel to movie locations (but you will be credited!).

Unfortunately entry is only open to Australian residents - sorry about that. But if you'd like to send in a paragraph about your movie location experiences to be used in a future post anyway, please do.

That's it! The competition ends at midnight on Sunday 22 November, so enter now!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Sovereign Hill: New Gold Mountain Remixed

Lola Montez and I have a history. In 1855 she scandalised Victoria’s polite society by performing her saucy spider dance across the colony.

Then in 2005, I wrote an article for The Age (which was dismissive of Montez the first time round) to commemorate the 150th anniversary of her all-conquering tour.

And finally, we met in passing today on the streets of Sovereign Hill, though the former mistress of the King of Bavaria was more concerned with trading blows with newspaper editor Henry Seekamp, who’d dared to imply that the dancer possessed uncertain morals.

It was, of course, a historical reenactment with a slight edit - Montez and Seekamp did test out horsewhips on each other in real life, but in the confines of the United States Hotel. I, coincidentally, am writing this at the long timber bar of the rebuilt United States Hotel, on the main street of this replica town, which recreates the lively and chaotic gold rush era of 1850s Ballarat.

Gold rush town

Got all that? Good. So while the folk band in the corner strikes up another tune and the barmaid pours another ale, let me give you my thoughts on the place.

The first time I came here, I’d expected a cheesy antipodean Disneyland, a kind of “Gold Rush World” complete with corporate branding and actors dressed in giant fibreglass heads resembling those of bearded, gap-toothed Victorian-era gold miners.

The reality was, to my surprise, quite different. There’s something about Sovereign Hill that’s both charming and very relaxing. It’s partly because it really does resemble a small country town - the inhabitants may be in fancy dress, but there are enough streets lined with dusty timber buildings and ragged miners’ tents that it has the right “feel”.

On top of that, it’s full of businesses selling items typical of the era - clothing, toiletries, candles, sweets - many of which are made here. As you wander away from the busy main street, there are more items of interest scattered through the side streets - market gardens, animals, a wheelwright’s factory - which you can often wander through on your lonesome.

Panning for gold


There are also activities to undertake, such as panning for gold at the diggings area below the main street. Here, crouching visitors agitate wide metal pans vigorously in the hope of retrieving a few flecks of gold. There is certainly gold present, by the way, as the management has thoughtfully salted the stream with a modest amount beforehand.

Watching the gold panners is theatre in itself; I sat and observed a tour group from China getting down and dirty at the stream, having a thoroughly good time sloshing the pans in the hope of scoring a speck of the fabled metal.

There were several Chinese tour groups here today, living proof of the reported big increase in Chinese arrivals at Melbourne Airport. And I noticed something I’d never seen before at Sovereign Hill - their Mandarin-speaking guides were themselves dressed in Chinese garb of the 19th century, featuring silk shirts and broad straw hats.

Chinese connection

And then the penny dropped - Sovereign Hill isn’t just another Australian peculiarity on the itineraries of Chinese tourists, like kangaroos and penguin watching. There’s a strong Chinese story here on the goldfields, via the thousands of Chinese miners who came to “New Gold Mountain”, as they named the Victorian goldfields, to try their luck on the diggings.

With that in mind, I had a look through Sovereign Hill's Chinese Camp, a recreation of the Chinese miners’ homes and lives in 1850s Victoria. To my surprise, the small temple contains an impressive audiovisual presentation, via suspended widescreen TVs placed strategically within (haven’t flatscreen TVs been a godsend to museum curators everywhere?).

The story of the Chinese miners is an intriguing element of the multi-ethnic Victoria of those days. It’s not a story, frankly, that reflects well on the European population, who did much to make the Chinese feel unwelcome; but seeing the crowds of newly prosperous Chinese tourists now visiting Sovereign Hill and panning for gold, there’s a sense that amends have been made.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of V/Line's daily Goldrush Special train and Sovereign Hill. But I paid for all the sippin’ whisky myself (and soon hope to have my sight back). For accommodation, see my 2007 review of Sovereign Hill Lodge.

Also check out the Sovereign Hill post and Eureka Centre post of my friend and blogger Walter Lim, who accompanied us on this trip.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Barbecue at Hanging Rock

Partaking in a barbecue at Hanging Rock, was I in any danger of vanishing into the ether like those poor schoolgirls in Peter Weir's classic film? Or would I be safe as long as I avoided pan pipe music, and didn't wear Victorian petticoats?

With all the exotic overseas travel I do, it's easy to overlook the attractions of domestic travel.

Even easier, perhaps, to overlook what I think of as ultra-domestic travel, ie a short trip only an hour or two away from one's home. The weekend break in a cottage somewhere near wineries is glamorous enough, but in a low-key, relaxed sort of way.

Narrelle and I have needed a holiday for a while - she's been flitting between contract jobs that don't allow for leave days, and I've been busy taking notes, photos and interviews while on the road.

The answer last weekend was to rent a place called Bella Loft in Woodend, an hour or so's train ride northwest of Melbourne. Comfortably lodged in this lace-free, non-cottagey apartment just behind the High Street shops, we set about the weekend.

Did I explore magnificent art galleries, pore over museum collections, wield exotic languages or hike to mountaintops? No. But here's what I modestly achieved:

Read a book. Though not all of it (yet). I've just switched to an iPhone but there's an e-book I paid for on the old Palm which can't be switched to the new device. So I slaved away dutifully on Revelation Space by British science fiction author Alastair Reynolds, and found it was rather good. Hard to describe; absorbing to read.

Read some comic books. The monthly DC title Justice Society of America, about a team which comprises both the surviving 1940s superheroes and present-day heroes inspired by their legends, is the one I always read first after collecting a pile of comics from Minotaur in Melbourne. Devoured issues 29-31 in which Obsidian is transformed, Mr Terrific is stabbed, and we're introduced to a new Doctor Fate. All good stuff.

Ate a sticky date pudding. I had thought this dessert to be lost back in the 1990s, but here it was on the menu of Zarby's, where we had dinner on Saturday night. Narrelle had a crème brûlée, another retro touch. Both were excellent. Zarby's had that distinctive vibe of country restaurants in popular treechange commuter towns - a broad enough menu for family groups and locals, and classy decor and high-end choices for foodie city types. Oh, and early arrivals and departures: the place was near-full when we arrived at 7.30pm, and almost empty by 9pm.

Drank a boutique beer. Specifically The Hopinator, a product of the Holgate Brewhouse in the old Keatings Hotel in the middle of town. As the name suggests, it's insanely full of hops and very bitter - I suggested Narrelle take a sip just so I could see the look on her face (she's not a "bitter" sort of person). She had a Temptress, a porter beer brewed with a dash of cocoa.

Saw a kangaroo. We were sitting at a barbecue table beneath Hanging Rock, sampling various meat products we'd just charred, when I looked up to see a kangaroo casually hopping past toward the lawn below the cafe. I suspect it's a tame roo that hangs around cadging scraps from visitors, but it seemed a positive omen - there would be no malign mystic powers wreaking havoc here today (though admittedly I couldn't get any reception on my mobile phone).

Drank bubbly. On a hilltop just south of Woodend, along a gravel road on the slopes of Mount Macedon, is the the Mt Macedon Winery. The cellar door's verandah is a very ambient place to sit on a warm Sunday afternoon, looking out over the spreading view of the Black Forest below, and sipping a little of the winery's Brut Cuvée. And so we did.

I can't say our achievements over the weekend set new benchmarks for daredevil travellers everywhere; but it was just the break we needed. Sometimes there's no place like somewhere other than home.

Disclosure time... on this trip I received complimentary accommodation at Bella Loft, Woodend.

Friday, 23 October 2009

What the XXXX?

When I was in Brisbane in early 2008, I felt a XXXX Brewery Tour coming on. No, it’s not filthy - XXXX, or Fourex, is Queensland’s most famous beer.

After the tour, I spoke with bar manager and tour guide Matt Meng about the attraction of beer, big machinery, tours, and why people like them mixed up together...

TR: Why do you think people come on these tours?

MM: XXXX is such a Queensland institution... and you can see the big red Xs on top of the building pretty much all the time. You think Queensland, you think XXXX, so people just want to come and see where it comes from.

TR: What part of the tour do you think people find most interesting?

MM: When the bottling line’s going, the river of beer as we like to call it, that’s usually where we get the oohs and ahs. But people really do enjoy the History Room, to see the history behind the Castlemaine and Perkins brewery and how the two came together.

TR: It is quite impressive, the whole river of beer.

MM: From what I’ve heard of other brewery tours, especially overseas, you don’t always get into the working side. At some breweries you just go to the old part of the brewery and see pictures. Here you can go into the site itself and see it being made first hand, all the way from the empty bottles being brought up, to being filled and put into the cartons and onto the back of a truck. The whole broad spectrum of beer.

TR: You might drink a beer or two at home, but you can’t quite visualise how much beer is made per hour here.

MM: Exactly. They’re filling 2400 bottles a minute; over an eight hour shift, that’s over a million bottles.

TR: How did you get into this line of work?

MM: I was actually poached, I guess, in a way. I finished university a couple of years ago and I’ve just been travelling, and I was working on a boat for Tangalooma. The people who run the brewery were on it at the time, I was working the bar there, and they said “Are you looking for some work?” And I said “Yes.” They said “Come on in,” so I did.

TR: So you’ve gone from being a barman to bar manager?

MM: I’ve been doing hospitality for a while, got me through university. So I had experience. I’d just finished up doing some labouring work, which got me overseas again, and I was looking for something else and sort fell into it, in the right place at the right time.

TR: It goes to show that you should never say working in a bar is dead end work, because it helped you get into this.

MM: Exactly. It’s great for now. I’m saving up some money to go overseas again. It’s a lot of fun.

TR: Do you drink much beer yourself?

MM: I do. I do love my beer, that’s why it’s a dream job. I tell all my friends back down in Victoria that I work for XXXX Brewery, and they’re all “Well, that’s the dream job for you, and you’re the envy of all the blokes down here.”

TR: Do you get any funny stories or odd comments on the tours?

MM: There’s a myth that there’s a direct tap from here to the Suncorp Stadium. So a couple of people have asked “Where’s the line that goes to the stadium?” and I’m like, “I wish I knew because I live around here.”

TR: Why are people so interested in beer?

MM: I don’t know. I guess it’s a global language. It’s … I’m not really sure.

TR: Beer is something you do find everywhere.

MM: Exactly, and there’s always a good story to be told over a beer, and it’s good to sit down and have a chat. It’s fantastic especially when you’re travelling, as most people are who come through here. They just want to sit down and have a bit of a yarn, and there’s a XXXX to go with it.

TR: The whole social lubricant?

MM: Exactly.

Classic XXXX Brewery Tours operate from Monday to Saturday, from the XXXX Ale House Visitor Centre, corner Black & Paten Streets, Milton, Brisbane. Adult $22 adult, concession $20. Bookings: (07) 3361 7597.

Matt Meng has now moved on from his job at the XXXX Brewery, but presumably still loves beer. Tim Richards received complimentary admission to the Classic XXXX Brewery Tour, and he’ll have a XXXX Gold.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Signs and Portents: Poland 3

Gone to Hel and back? Or just dying for a pie in the most unlikely of places? This week I continue my survey of curious signs encountered on a Lonely Planet assignment through Poland in the depths of winter in 2006...

1. There’s nothing like that nice Mr Shakespeare to encourage confidence in an English language school... though you might wonder whether Poles are really motivated to speak just like the Bard.

Interestingly, the great playwright used to be styled as 'Szekspir' in Poland, though the original spelling of his name is usually used now. Szkoła języków obcych means 'school of foreign language', by the way, and this example was in the beautiful Main Town of Gdańsk.

The Bard was pleased that his passing mention of Poland in Hamlet had been noticed by the right people.

2. Don’t ever say something will only happen on 'a cold day in hell' if you’re heading to northern Poland. For on the end of a long sandy peninsula north of Gdańsk lies the attractive village of Hel. And when I was there in March 2006, it was very cold indeed. Still, how many people can say they’ve been to Hel and back - and saw a Baltic grey seal in an aquarium on the way?

The tourism bureau wondered why its “Go to Hel” campaign was failing to bring in the visitors.

3. No, this scary metallic fish seen in Hel wasn’t an aquatic offshoot of the robots in the Terminator movie series. It was actually a warning about maritime pollution - the sign reads 'Don't litter the sea'. It was also a tribute, I felt, to the surrealism endemic in Polish poster art.

Newly-released papers revealed that Poland’s former communist rulers had attempted to construct an artificial dolphin for their Socialist World amusement park.

4. This bumper sticker belonged to Gdynia businesswoman Beata Zielińska, a former Adelaide resident who had taken the secret of Australian meat pies back to her homeland and manufactured them to be sold to Polish schoolkids. The sticker reads 'The pie is good and cheap'. Quite right.

The EU was willing to approve manufacture of the Aussie meat pie, but drew the line at Vegemite.

5. This starkly evocative sign was one of many stencilled onto the giant concrete ruins of the bunkers at Wilczy Szaniec, better known in German as Wolfsschanze or in English as Wolf’s Lair. This hidden complex in the East Prussia region of Germany (now the Masuria region of northeast Poland) was Hitler’s wartime HQ from which he directed Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

It’s supremely ironic, I think, that the Führer's nerve centre, where he spent almost all the remaining years of WWII, is now deep within Polish territory. If you’re going to visit the ruins by the way, I couldn’t think of a more atmospheric time to do so than the midst of winter, when the broken concrete blocks and surrounding vegetation are thickly covered by snow.

Von Stauffenberg intended to show the Führer exactly how he felt about him with a surprise novelty gift.

More intriguing signs and portents to come...

Friday, 9 October 2009

The Business End 1: LAX-SYD on V Australia

I’ve only been upgraded to international Business Class on two occasions. The first was on a flight from Perth to Bandar Seri Begawan in 1992; and as Royal Brunei Airlines didn’t serve alcohol on its flights, there wasn’t much popping of champagne corks.

The second time was two weeks ago from Los Angeles to Sydney, when Virgin's new airline V Australia bumped our media group up to Business.

Now, given that my trips in international Business apparently only happen every 17 years, and I could never afford to pay for it myself, this seems a good opportunity to share the secrets of the pointy end with my fellow travellers, via a review of Biz Class.

Is it really worth all that extra cash? This is what I thought...

Pre-boarding

It’s funny the tiny bits of excitement that being in Business Class can bring, even before finding your seat: having a single-digit row number on your boarding card, for example, or being asked to turn left inside the aircraft door instead of right.

That is, once you’ve made it through check-in. V Australia (I'll call them V from now on) takes off from Terminal 3 at LAX. It’s hard to sing the praises of Terminal 3 - it’s a long, dingy concrete box (like all the LAX terminals I saw), and particularly poorly signposted.

V’s check-in, through no fault of their own, is squeezed into a fairly cramped area at the front of the terminal, and it’s a bit messy and straggling even if you’re in the Biz Class queue.

However, boarding pass secured, I had access to the Alaska Airlines lounge. One of the attendants there said that Alaska would be moving out in due course, presumably giving V free rein to redesign the place. The lounge was comfortable but not lavish; no hot food, but a selection of salad, cheese and crackers, and a full bar.

Chatting about the merits of Montana and North Dakota, we got into conversation with some of our fellow passengers, who were just the type of Australian travellers those states want to attract - people who’ve done the USA’s big cities and want to try something new.

Layout

The first thing that strikes you in the Business Class cabin is the space. And I mean spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace. Seats are arranged in a widely spaced 2-3-2 configuration, with two metres clearance between you and the seatback in front. It’s a long way to reach for your inflight mag, but who cares? After years of Economy travel, it’s exhilarating just to be able to move around freely.

Behind a bulkhead at the rear of the cabin is a full-sized bar (see the image above, supplied by V). It’s a curved counter with four fixed barstools which swivel beneath it for safety when not being used. There’s a long shallow depression in the bar surface to rest glasses in, and a shelf of spirits and mixers against the bulkhead.

Staff will pour you a drink on request through the flight - though I did notice the bottles had disappeared by breakfast time the next morning, probably a sensible precaution against people overdoing it.

Seating

The seat is what you’re largely paying the big bucks for in Biz Class. It was distinctly roomier than the Premium Economy Class one I'd flown from Sydney in, but not phenomenally so - it was still fairly snug for my (admittedly broad) shoulders. The surface of the seat was firm but not uncomfortable, something I’ve noticed on all the 777s I’ve flown on recently.

Boeing makes a big deal of how much lighter these aircraft are, and therefore more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly, so I suspect the designers have thinned out the padding in the seats as well. It’s probably better for your back to have firm support, in any case.

The only flaw concerned tall people. The seat contains a broad, thick headrest which can be pushed up a little higher; but not high enough for everyone. For anyone over about 180cm (6 feet) tall, the headrest pushes into the back of your shoulders, an uncomfortable situation that could be remedied by the airline making the extension longer or removable. I stuffed the area with pillows to try to make it easier to deal with, or reclined the seat in order to slump down and avoid it.

When it’s time for sleep, the seat is folded down by a flight attendant into a flat bed with a sheet and blanket, and a privacy divider between you and your neighbour. When the lights are dimmed, a starfield appears as pinpricks of light on the ceiling. It’s a firm bed, but it’s definitely possible to get a few hours’ sleep on it, a huge advantage over Economy Class squeeziness.

Entertainment

V had the advantage of fitting these aircraft out from scratch, so the entertainment system is fantastic, definitely the highlight of the flight. It’s the first aircraft entertainment system I’ve encountered with wide screens, which makes a big difference to the movie viewing experience.

What’s even more exciting is the gaming experience. I’ve never bothered much with onboard games before, as the systems running them are usually painfully slow and it’s just not worth the hassle. V’s system, however, is fast and responsive, and there’s a broad selection of games beyond the usual Tetris and solitaire.

I spent hours playing Texas draw poker with a bunch of virtual opponents, which was great fun. It was just the sort of compulsive, absorbing distraction I want on a long flight.

You can even play some games with other passengers on the flight, which is a great idea and adds to the “fun” V marketing image. There’s also a chat room in which passengers can talk, though I didn’t encounter anyone else there the few times I logged in. I can’t see that feature lasting, frankly - all it’ll take is one embarrassing discussion hitting the media and it’ll be withdrawn. But what the hell, there are always the games.

There was one small flaw with the entertainment system, one shared by most airlines - the movie offering was too narrow for my tastes, with a big emphasis on Hollywood flicks. There were only three films I fancied watching - Milk, The Boat That Rocked and The Young Victoria (oh look, Jim Broadbent in period costume again) - and even they were arthouse-lite.

Given the system's presumably large capacity, I’d like to see a wider range of material, including more arthouse movies - if you’re paying for the premium class, it’d be nice to have some premium quality movies to watch. And I don’t know why airlines don’t serve up more TV series. On a 14 hour flight, it’d be great to have a six-part British comedy series - Beautiful People, The Robinsons or No Heroics, for example - to watch over the course of the journey.

Food

I wasn’t blown away by the food - it was good without being spectacular, and presented attractively. To be honest, when you get on board a flight at midnight after snacking in the lounge, and having come from a domestic destination two timezones further on, all you want to do is sleep!

Service

This was flawless. I don’t know if V pay their staff more than other airlines do, but they have a knack of employing people who are efficient, flexible, good-natured and clearly enjoy their jobs. As you’d expect, there’s a surplus of flight attendants in Biz Class; but on the trip over in Premium Economy I found the same helpful staff. Frankly, it was a relief to discover the flight attendants weren’t actually the slightly scary hyper-coiffed fembots depicted in V's TV ad featuring Sir Richard Branson...

Conclusion

You’d expect V’s Business Class to be good - and it was very good. Flaws like the short headrest will, I assume, be dealt with in due course; one of the attendants mentioned that adjustments were made to elements of the cabin from time to time, as the aircraft were still so new (and it's to V's credit that its staff were so open to constructive feedback). But of course the plentiful space and the opportunity to sleep on a flat bed were impressive.

I also found the flight attendants’ level of service to be excellent in both Business and Premium Economy.

But the real game-changer is V’s entertainment system, a huge asset on such a long flight in any class. I’d actually choose this airline over another if that was the main point of difference.

Verdict

To give you a sense of proportion: when I wrote this piece, return Economy Class on V from Sydney to Los Angeles started from about A$1100; Premium Economy from A$2000; and Business Class from A$5000.

These are excellent when compared to the fares from a few years ago; even Premium Economy now is cheaper than Economy was then.

But is Business Class worth a few extra thousand dollars for a flat bed, quality headphones, fine service and the various other goodies? Only you can decide that.

I’d travel Business Class on V like a shot if I was made of money; but back in the real world, I’d definitely pay the extra bucks to go Premium Economy. With its own separate cabin and compact bar, and significant extra legroom over Economy, it might be the best compromise between price and comfort for most.

But Business Class was very very nice.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of zuji.com.au and V Australia.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Tweeting in the USA

Glancing over the output of my Twitter feed for the past few weeks, I realised that, if I reversed the order of tweets, I’d have a neat microblog of my entire September trip to the USA.

So for those of you who aren’t on Twitter, because you haven’t got the time, are blocked by your workplace, or are still at point 2 in the 46 Stages of Twitter, here’s my American experience in bursts of 140 characters or fewer...

- In LA now - had a drink last night at one of the original Tiki bars, in El Segundo. Cool. http://www.myspace.com/purpleorchidtiki. 12:15 PM Sep 16th from web

- Had a leisurely walk from Hermosa Beach to Redondo Beach this morning in LA (also a hot dog). Hoping the sunlight will pre-empt jetlag. 12:16 PM Sep 16th from web

- First time in the USA, & many 'TV recognitions' in hotel: eg light switch flips up & toilet holds pool of water big enough to bathe a puppy! 12:23 PM Sep 16th from web

- Not that one would. Bathe a puppy there, I mean. 12:23 PM Sep 16th from web

- Stuck in Denver overnight after a flight was delayed and a connection was missed. Off to Montana (finally) today. 6:09 AM Sep 17th from web

- Just returned from riding a horse through a hilly forest in Montana. Brilliant experience: http://www.gaynorsresorts.com/TrailRides.html. 9:59 PM Sep 17th from web

- We humans & horses loved it, but the ranch dogs enjoyed the ride most. They darted around through the forest keeping us safe from squirrels. 10:06 PM Sep 17th from web

- 3 things about US food/drink which I've found to be true: a) coffee is awful; b) portions are enormous; c) Montanan steaks are big & tasty. 10:22 PM Sep 18th from web

- And Americans are phenomenally easy to chat to, I get caught up in random conversations everywhere ("Oh, what's that accent?!"). 10:23 PM Sep 18th from web

- Oh, by the way, I think you should know I've been drinking Moose Drool: http://bit.ly/5hnFR. 10:23 PM Sep 18th from web

- How do Americans get to eat pie at all? Meal portions are so HUGE that dessert is impossible (currently full of Tex-Mex in Glendive, MT). 10:11 PM Sep 19th from web

- Explored fossil country @ Great Plains Dinosaur Museum. There's also a museum elsewhere run by creationists, rewriting dino history. Nutty! 10:27 PM Sep 19th from web

- Here's the link to the real dinosaur museum: http://tinyurl.com/lqgg5b. Another good museum w great dino displays: http://tinyurl.com/lj4v7d. 10:32 PM Sep 19th from web

- BTW it was 35 degrees Celcius today in Montana. 35! On 19 September! Climate change, anyone? 10:37 PM Sep 19th from web

- Clam chowder, dead skunks, lofty mountains, open roads & waffle mixture: is this Montana, USA... or Australia? http://tinyurl.com/n9aln9. 11:38 PM Sep 19th from web

- Now in Medora, N Dakota. Was privileged to see Sitting Bull's headdress taken from its museum case for transport to new home on reservation. 12:24 PM Sep 21st from web

- At dawn we headed into T Roosevelt National Park 4 animal spotting: saw elk, mule deer, wild horses... and buffalo! http://www.nps.gov/thro/. 12:28 PM Sep 21st from web

- Now in Bismarck, capital of North Dakota, named after you-know-who. Lots of German and Scandinavians settled here (anyone seen 'Fargo'?). 9:39 PM Sep 21st from web

- Came within a toucher of buying a pair of cowboy boots today before I remembered that high-arch boots hurt my feet, and sanity prevailed. 9:40 PM Sep 21st from web

- Medical ads on US TV are plain odd: "Take our new wonder drug! Disclaimer: May cause palpitations, ulcers, tics, shingles, stigmata & gas". 11:55 PM Sep 21st from web

- In hotel bar, and bar staff has put out hot food for people to nibble on for free while drinking. MORE FOOD! No-one could ever starve here. 6:09 PM Sep 22nd from web

- Had pumpkin pie for the 1st time yesterday. Was dubious as, well, it's a vegetable; but it was good. Also had apple pie like Mom makes. 3:48 PM Sep 23rd from web

- At LAX; just got bumped up to Business Class to Sydney on V Australia. Sweeeeet. In Alaska Airlines lounge now, chillin' out. 9:59 PM Sep 23rd from web

- What happened when I rode into the cowboy town of Medora, ND, as Sitting Bull's headdress prepared to depart? http://tinyurl.com/yec5szz. 11:09 AM Sep 25th from web

- Back home from the USA after four flights, a bus ride and a tram ride. And it was 12°C and drizzly to welcome me home. Nice one, Melbourne. 4:40 PM Sep 25th from web

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Montana Office of Tourism, North Dakota Tourism, zuji.com.au and V Australia.

Friday, 25 September 2009

North Dakota: History Rides Again

As intensely as I might have tried to peer through the mists of time, I would never have dreamed that one day I’d be having an up close and personal encounter with the original headdress of Sitting Bull.

But here I was a few days ago, in Medora, North Dakota, inside the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, eyeballing the handsome historical artefact in its tall display case. A display case it was about to part company with.

Medora is a cowboy town in the infamous Badlands. It was once a thriving ranching settlement, founded in 1883 by French aristocrat the Marquis de Mores, and today it’s an entertaining jumble of restored shopfronts, tourist attractions, and bars and restaurants done out in Wild West decor.

With much of the place owned by a foundation, Medora is part tourist attraction and part real town, with a vibrant, compact centre.

The Cowboy Hall of Fame is about more than ranching and rodeo; it also celebrates the Native American culture of the region. As a sparsely settled place, North Dakota has a higher Native American proportion of its population than most other US states, and it was this connection which drew our attention today.

Coincidentally, the day our group of travel writers hit town was the day that the headdress of the victor of the Battle of Little Bighorn was to be returned to his descendants, via a college of the Sioux people within the Standing Rock Reservation to the south.

Since we were there, we were invited to attend a short ceremony conducted by Phil Baird, board president of the Hall of Fame and a Native American himself, to send the headdress on its way. The display case was opened and, as we stood looking on, Baird undertook a ‘smudging ceremony’, wafting the smoke from a smouldering feather along the length of the headdress.

As part of the ceremony, Baird spoke both English and Native American words, addressed the four points of the compass, and asked us to add our own silent thoughts to the occasion. Then, the event completed, the headdress was taken from the case, lain carefully on an indigenous star quilt, and transferred to a van for an escort from an officer of the local sheriff’s department.

It was a moving ceremony, undertaken with great conviction and emotion by Baird. As there were only ten people present, including we four Australian journalists, we felt greatly honoured at being included at such a significant event at the last moment. Especially, I suppose, as we were cultural outsiders; although, as I mentioned in last week's post about Montana, there are often similarities between Australia and the USA. The smudging ceremony, for example, reminded me of Aboriginal smoking ceremonies that I've witnessed.

The Cowboy Hall of Fame has, of course, now lost an important exhibit, along with a gun that once belonged to ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, who had a working relationship with Sitting Bull in the post-Little Bighorn days (both items had been held in trust on behalf of the rightful owners). But it seemed fitting that the headdress should be back with the chief’s people, and hopefully visitors will eventually be able to view it in its new home.

But the institution still has plenty of excellent exhibits tracing the cultures of Native Americans, ranching and rodeos - the horse being the common factor of all three. And Medora itself is a lot of fun, with cowboy bars serving huge steaks; shops and hotels that look like they’ve dropped in from the 1800s; and the neighbouring Theodore Roosevelt National Park, packed with distinctive Badlands scenery and roaming wildlife from prairie dogs to bison.

The Wild West is long gone, of course; but its echoes linger in North Dakota.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of North Dakota Tourism, zuji.com.au and V Australia.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Same Same But Montana

I’m in the USA for the first time, travelling with a media group through the lesser-known states of Montana and North Dakota... lesser-known to Australian tourists, in any case.

What’s fascinating about finally visiting the States after all these years is my uncanny feeling of familiarity with everything around me; I suppose all those American movies and TV shows have preconditioned me to US environs.

But in Montana there’s another kind of familiarity. In this low-population state with cattle farming, wide open spaces and small country towns, there’s a lot of congruence with country Australia.

A few minutes ago we passed through Chester, a small town in a flat dry landscape with big wheat silos by a railyard; it could pass for any wheatbelt town east of Perth in rural Western Australia, where I grew up.

But there are also, of course, differences. After a few days in the Big Sky state, here are some Australian impressions of Montana’s similarities and differences with Oz...

Open Roads. We’re currently heading along the Highline, Montanans’ nickname for Highway 2 as it passes through the northern part of their state, parallelling the Canadian border. It’s a straight, long, two-lane highway framed on one side by power poles, that could be a highway in any Australian state.

Different: On our first day, driving from Missoula to Whitefish along Highway 93, we passed through the reservation of the Flathead Native American people. Aside from catching a glimpse of a couple of bison in a wildlife reserve, the roadside signs tantalisingly bore two languages - English and the original local tongue.

Hearty Meals. Last night we ate at the Dixie Inn in the farming town of Shelby. Its dining room reminded me of every Australian country pub dining room I’ve ever eaten in - slightly gloomy lighting, plain old furniture, rustic architecture and enormous portions. The steak was huge and particularly good, obviously the product of a cattle state.

Different: Though the dishes on the menu were mostly familiar, the various ordering complexities were not. Mains came with a dizzying choice of carbs: baked potato, rice pilaf, mashed garlic, French fries and hash browns. And a pass at the salad bar, and a bowl of thick soup (clam chowder or chicken). Conveniently, those intimidated by the huge portions could split a single main over two plates, and both still get soup and salad, for a mere $10 for the second person.

Roadkill. Just like in Australia, the highways of Montana are dotted with dead animals.

Different: A couple of days ago we passed a dead skunk on the side of the highway. It must have released its scent before it expired, for our van was briefly filled with a pungent and unpleasant odour, even though the windows were up and the AC on.

National Parks. As does Australia, Montana has vast and magnificent national parks with imposing features. Yesterday we spent the day at Glacier National Park, named for its (currently fast-melting) glaciers. It’s also full of stunning mountain scenery.

Different: We toured the park in the iconic Red Bus, an open-topped red car which has taken visitors on tours through Glacier in place of the usual bland coaches for 75 years. Tons more style. The park’s features are often connected to intriguing Native American legends and, as a bonus, Glacier is also part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a US-Canadian joint initiative with an international border running right through the middle.

Hotel Breakfasts. I went down to the breakfast room of Shelby’s Comfort Inn this morning, and the spread was pretty familiar. Cereal, juice, and bread items to toast.

Different: But... was that a waffle machine? Yep, a big pair of heavy circular plates with handles which opened to reveal a teflon grid, with plastic cups of waffle mix nearby. All you had to do was fill the grid with the mixture, close it and rotate the plates so a timer would start counting down while the waffle cooked. Could I achieve the rotation? Not to save my life. Happily I was rescued by American breakfasters, one of whom said “Don’t you have waffle machines in Australia?”, then told me he’d travelled from Sydney to Cairns a few years ago.

Which is a step up in nationality recognition compared to most of his countrymen, who usually start with “What accent is that?!”, then follow it with a friendly chat. That’s another distinctive thing about Montana - it’s very easy to talk to the locals, especially when you have an Australian accent.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Montana Office of Tourism, zuji.com.au and V Australia.