A Walk on the WILD SIDE
Oldie Issue 296 pp.64-5
Biodiversity tourist GILES WOOD explores the magnificent Rainbow Coast on Australia’s southwest tip
In the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, hangs Frederick McCubbin’s faintly claustrophobic 1886 painting, Lost. A young girl in a cotton print dress weeps because, like a tiny creature held captive inside a spider’s web, she is overwhelmed by unruly vegetation.
Based on a true story which ended happily – a twelve-year-old girl found alive after three weeks lost in the Bush – Lost was emblematic of the early colonialists’ perception of themselves as exiles in a wilderness into which people did disappear. The theme was still being explored a century later in films like Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Today the taming and managing of our landscape makes the wilderness we once feared seem attractive: we miss the intricacy and complexity of the natural world. Hence the emergence of a niche market catering for the biodiversity tourist.
I flew to Perth, the most isolated city in the world and the gateway to Australia’s only internationally recognized ‘bio-diversity hotspot’ – the heathland of southwest Australia, home to a multitude of smaller national parks and nature reserves, strung like a necklace along the southern coastline (the ‘Rainbow Coast’) and the richest reservoir of the most threatened flora and fauna on earth.
Australia is enjoying a minerals and resources boom and, finding my hotel overflowing with Rio Tinto personnel, I headed to the thousand-acre King’s Park and Botanic Garden on nearby Mount Eliza. Distance lends enchantment to the city when viewed from the futuristic steel- and glass-framed Federation Walkway, soaring over a eucalypt canopy. My parrot’s eye view took in the Swan River, dotted with sailing dinghies. All this to the banjo-like twanging of the pobblebonk frogs.
The next day I flew by Fokker turboprop to the coastal ‘city’ of Albany (population 30,000), where I checked into The Rocks, a luxury Victorian-heritage guest-house with a white grand piano. Hearing of my dismay at missing the whale-watching season, its chatelaine, Noeline Evans, directed me to Whale World, an unpromisingly named local museum. A transformation of Australia’s last whaling station – which only closed in 1978 – it is a stunning success. One warehouse contained the skeleton of a pygmy blue whale, to which I was not expecting so visceral an emotional reaction. This lesson in man’s inhumanity to whales took place on a blustery day to the soundtrack of a whalechaser’s halyards screaming like banshees.
Left: the perfect guide - Dr Dave and his trusty cafetière on my Wilderness Getaway in Denmark Right: dendrophile's delight - a treetop walk in the Valley of the Giants
Further along the coast I was shown the walk of my dreams. The Flinders Peninsula (see main photograph), which itself resembles a whale, offers a four- to six-hour walk along its sloping granite ‘spine’, following a receding white path to Bald Head. On one side is the calm of King George Sound, on the other the rollers of the wild Southern Ocean: I was transported by the contrast between the yellow bull banksia and the Prussian blue, flecked with white horses, of the ocean.
But there was a fugitive vision of a deeper connection: millions of years ago this area of wild coastline in the Torndirrup National Park was part of Antarctica, both continents forming part of the supercontinent Gondwana.
Forty-five minutes west of Albany is the town of Denmark, where I surrendered myself to Wilderness Getaways, an eco-tourism outfit whose patron, the wiry and affable Doctor Dave, leads individuals and small groups safely through a snake-infested wildflower wilderness.
Clad in wrap-around sunglasses and carrying an improbably large rucksack, Doctor Dave resembled a giant ant as he led me along a section of the 1000-kilometre Bibbulmun Track. We passed through groves of peppermint trees and along sandy pathways edged with green kangaroo paw. His rucksack contained cafetière coffee equipment and organic ham baps which we chomped in the shade of a granite tor shaped like a witch’s hat. We cooled off at the natural lagoon of Greens Pool in the William Bay National Park with only sooty oyster catchers for company, and marvelled at the aptly named Elephant Rocks.
Dendrophile heaven awaited in the Valley of the Giants. A remnant of old forest unique to this area, it consists of champion eucalypts. Some of their twisted white limbs resembled up-ended giant squids; others sported fire-hollowed trunks, often massively buttressed and gnarled.
I was not exactly roughing it at the Karma self-catering chalets which work symbiotically with Wilderness Getaways: you return from your exertions to a spacious cedar chalet complete with spa bath, fully stocked fridge with cold beer, and barbecue facilities on the balcony. As I barbecued my well-marbled steak I watched kangaroos boxing in the evening sunlight on the newly mown hay meadows.
Suddenly an azure kingfisher appeared on a telegraph pole, swooping down to pick from the long grass a giant millipede – a critter I have always loathed: he swallowed it whole before repeating the act. There is no shortage of invertebrates here, for which we have to thank a visionary and audacious conservation project called Gondwana Link. Degraded agricultural land is being ecologically restored to native bushland. As Dave’s wife Lenore told me en route to the airport, they are putting back what they spent so long knocking down.
Voyages to Antiquity
John Julius Norwich was summoned to lunch for an offer he could not refuse. Time, then, to swot up on the Middle Sea...
One’s eightieth year normally sees the closing down of horizons; during mine, to my utter astonishment, a new one opened up. One day the telephone rang. ‘Hello,’ said a voice, ‘you don’t know me, but my friend Gerry Herrod knows all about you and wants to invite you to lunch. He has a proposal to put to you which he thinks may be of interest. How about Bibendum, Tuesday, one o’clock?’
When in doubt, my mother always taught me, say yes; so I said it and duly turned up. My host proved to be well into his eighties but pulsating with energy. He told me he spent much of his life in the ocean cruise business, and had been extremely successful. Retirement, however, bored him stiff and he had decided to do something more in the part of the world he loved most, the Mediterranean.
He was horrified, like all of us, by the vast cruise ships – floating apartment blocks – that already disfigured so many of its major ports. His idea was something quite different and a good deal more select: one smallish but unashamedly luxurious vessel intended for those who had no desire to lie in the sun all day but who wished to learn as much as they could about the peoples and cultures who had created Western civilisation.
Now it chanced that, a few years before, I had written a history of the Mediterranean called The Middle Sea. Gerry had read it and liked it; it seemed, he said, to have been written to help him on his way, and he therefore now formally invited me to come on board as a member of his team.
The offer was certainly tempting. The basic concept, I well realised, was not entirely original. Other cruise lines had the same idea and I had done more than my fair share of cruise lecturing over the years. But here, nonetheless, was a wonderful opportunity: a small firm, a single ship, itineraries that I could help to plan. Moreover, I was given to understand that there would be no difficulties over finance. Gerry made no secret of being a rich man; he was not in this for the money, he stressed, but for the sheer interest and fun of the thing. If he could break even over the first five years or so, that would be enough for him.
And what of the ship itself? It was by no means new. Gerry had found it in pretty poor condition but, seeing its potential, had brought it to Piraeus where he rebuilt it from top to bottom. It was originally intended to carry some 570 passengers; he had reduced this number by a good 200. Its relatively small size would enable it to slip into small ports that could not accommodate the leviathans, to sail far closer to the coastline than they could, and to pass through the Corinth Canal. It would have a small swimming pool and first-rate restaurants, an excellent library and a string trio, but absolutely no disco or casino.
This was all I needed to know; and so, gratefully, I accepted. We agreed that I would accompany two cruises this first year and one annually thereafter. And so, in mid-June, off we go, beginning and ending our journey in my two favourite cities: boarding the Aegean Odyssey in Venice, then sailing by easy stages – Pula, Zadar, Split, Trogir, Korcula, Hvar, Dubrovnik – down the Dalmatian coast to Corfu. No Corinth Canal this time, but round the Peloponnese to Monemvasia and then across to Crete, where we land at Chania and re-embark at Heraklion. Then it’s out into the Aegean, stopping at Santorini, Naxos and Lemnos before threading our way through the Dardanelles and the Marmara and so, finally, to Istanbul. Our October junket begins in Athens, stops in Nauplia for Mycenae, then calls at all the principal ports of Sicily – including, thank God, Cefalù, where the immense twelfth-century apse mosaic in the Cathedral is, for me, the greatest representation of Christ in all Christian art – and so, via Paestum, Amalfi and Pompeii, to Rome.
Not a bad prospect for the coming summer. Meanwhile, I shall have plenty of homework. Some of our ports of call I have not seen for twenty or even thirty years; indeed, on two of the islands to be visited on our first cruise, Naxos and Lemnos, I have never in my life set foot. And in any case my memory is not what it used to be. There is consequently any amount of research to be done, any number of guidebooks to be swotted up. If I have time, I might even try to do something about my deplorable Greek; never up to much at its best, it is now largely forgotten.
But the homework is all part of the fun. At any rate I have promised Gerry to do my best. If a seasoned octogenarian can get a splendid project like this off the ground, how can a young stripling like myself possibly let him down?
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From the Archives
With three young boys in tow,
Richard Ingrams experiences the luxury of Club Med
The queues at the check-in, the humiliating security searches, having to put your aftershave in a little plastic bag, the cramped conditions on the plane, the disgusting food, I could go on. My point is that if you have to endure this ordeal (in both directions, there and back, for several hours), what you get in between has to be worth the aggro, the discomfort, the panic attacks.
It all came right for me in April when I went with my fiancée and three boys (aged thirteen, eleven and seven) to spend a week at the Club Med at La Plantation d’Albion in Mauritius. The Club Med idea is an admirable one – to provide virtually non-stop activities for children, leaving the grown-ups to lie on the beach drinking coffee and reading books. And judging by Port Albion (said by aficionados to be one of the best), those ‘activities’ are not the usual ones of playing computer games and texting friends. Helped by highly professional young guides, the boys did kayaking, sailing, snorkelling, archery and even trapeze. After a day or two they didn’t particularly want to have anything to do with us.
Because of the word club I had been expecting something a bit rough and ready, and was taken aback by the luxury – it’s a very large site with beautiful gardens, two swimming pools (one in the so-called Zen area for those seeking peace and quiet), and you don’t even have to walk all that far as there are electric buggies roaming about waiting to be flagged down.
As for accommodation, it was more like being in a flat than in a hotel, though it was possible to have breakfast brought to you and eat it on the balcony, sharing the croissants with a motley-coloured gathering of exotic birds. Other meals were available in a huge help-yourself buffet with every conceivable type of diet catered for – sushi, pizza, roast meats, salads, a mouth-watering selection of puddings – and you can eat as much as you like as everything is included in the all-in price.
In case readers think that I was enjoying what is known in the trade as a ‘freebie’, I should explain that I paid for it all out of my own pocket – and it was very good value.