Sunday, 20 November 2011

Brunei Stopover

Today, a very long stopover has allowed me to explore a small piece of Asia for the first time. Brunei is a small country which shares the island of Borneo with Malaysia and Indonesia. In fact it previously owned the whole island, but gave away part of the land to its neighbours.

Today Brunei, or Negara Brunei Darassalam to give it its full name, is the last Malay Sultanate, and one of three monarchies ruled by dynasties claiming descent from Prophet Mohammad. Unsurprisingly, the country is 80% Muslim, though claims tolerance of other faiths. English is the second language and widely spoken. Its proud history is evident in some of the most beautiful mosques in South-East Asia. The country has rich sources of oil and natural gas, the residents pay no income tax, the crime rate is very low, and money collected for the poor went undistributed for years because they simply couldn’t find any poor to give it to.

Having it's own oil supply and no taxes, means that fuel prices in Brunei are low (1$ is worth less than 1€!)

The literal translation of the country’s name means Abode of Peace, and the residents definitely seem happy and proud of their country. The government is stable, residence have one of the world’s highest per capita incomes, and a life expectancy of 75 years. Despite its location, Brunei is free from tropical diseases, lies outside the typhoon belt, is not prone to earthquakes and does not have volcanoes, but best of all it is not at all crowded. The 5,765-square kilometre kingdom, three-quarters of which is virgin rainforest, is home to less than a half a million people, and many of them live in the largest water village in the world in the country’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.

It is the capital and its surrounds, rather than the rainforest, which I had the opportunity to explore today, and here are some of the photos from my tour.

His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah is the 29th ruler of the world’s oldest continuously reigning dynasty. His official residence is the largest residential palace in the world. At 2000,000 square metres (compared with the 77,000 square metres of Buckingham Palace), it has 1,788 rooms, a 110-car garage, and a lot of gold!

Despite its size, however, it’s difficult to get a good view of the palace. This is the best shot that I managed.

The Royal Regalia Building is basically a museum to the Sultan and his Kingdom. There were numerous royal relics on display, presents he has received from foreign leaders, and chariots used in royal processions, including this one from the Coronation in 1968.

The Jame ‘Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque is the largest in Brunei, and has 29 golden domes, one to represent each of the kingdom’s sultans. It is just one of a number of fine mosques in the small city.

It is obvious from the mosques and that palaces that this is a very wealthy country, and that they are not afraid to spend a few bob on a bit of gold here and there. The best demonstration of the country’s wealth, however, I feel is the fact that Queen Elizabeth II has her own house here. The large villa was built especially for her visit here in 1972, and today is unoccupied apart from the maid, chef, cleaner and gardener who maintain the property in wait for when she may decide to make a return visit.

Despite no longer being a fishing people, many of the city’s population still choose to live in the water village. On the city side of the river there is a large parking area full of cars. This is where the water village people park the cars which they use to travel to and from work. They live in the stilted houses out of choice rather than necessity. From the outside the water village looks something of a shanty town, but that is far from the case. The tour gave me the opportunity to see inside one of the houses, and inside it is very comfortable indeed. All houses have running water and electricity, and many have satellite dishes too. This is far from a shanty town.

From what I’ve seen Brunei is a beautiful country; probably one of Asia’s best kept secrets. Next time I’ll hopefully get to do some monkey spotting. I hear they’ve got some orangutans around here!

Melbourne and more

Knowing that I had a day in Melbourne before I set out on my journey back to London, I had hoped to be able to bring you a photo-tour of Australia’s second city. Alas, it rained all day, and apart from a few grey photos, I have little photographic evidence of the city.  In fact, apart from fuzzy hair, a great Mexican meal, and some cheap and tacky souviners, I have little to show at all.

At least I made it this far though. When I got to the train station in Albury yesterday neither of my debit cards would work. I didn’t have enough cash to pay for the ticket, but when I phoned the bank they had no explanation other than that they though there was a link problem between the UK and Australia, something that only time would fix. Luckily I had got to the station early, and I had time to wait, but when, after 3 hours it still didn’t work, I wasn’t sure what to do. Luckily, when I explained the problem, the lovely people at the ticket office sold me a child’s fair. I didn’t mind pretending I was 14 for the day.

The weather was nice when we left Albury, but the skies were becoming greyer and greyer as we approached Melbourne. As we were steadily making our way towards the outskirts of the city, the heavens opened, and we could see quite a sever electrical storm in the distance. Unfortunately, soon after the lightening caused the signals ahead to fail and the train was stopped in the middle of nowhere. The train manager announced that there was a problem, and that they had no idea when it would be fixed; nothing to do but wait. All-in-all we were about two hours late arriving in Melbourne, and nobody died, but why did I get the crazy woman to sit beside?

Speaking of crazy, what is it with Australians walking around in public with no shoes on? On my first evening here, I noticed a girl in a shop in her bare-feet, and though I thought it was a bit odd, thought that there was a sensible reason behind it. The next week while I was staying at the AIS, I saw some teenagers walking from the pool with no shoes on; I guess after swimming and with not far to walk, there was little point in putting shoes on. But yesterday, in the heavy rainfall, I walked about a half a mile behind a guy, probably in his early twenties, with no shoes on his feet. Later I saw another man walking down the street with nothing on his feet. I guess when the alternative is a pair of flip-flops, what’s the point?

And, so like all other good things, the Australian leg of my travels has come to an end. I fell while running, had the obligatory airport hiccup, had money issues and spotted a native animal, none of which a trip would be complete without. There was excitement, relaxation, solitude, joy and a lot of training, and finally the itchy feet to be integrated back into society. And best of all there were no snakes. A good trip all round!

There never were any more kangaroo sightings for me to get a photo of. The moral of the story may be to ALWAYS have your camera with you, but I’d rather think that it is that it is greater to have appreciated for just one second the wonder of nature, than to have missed it just to get a photo to remind you for a lifetime that you didn’t fully acknowledge the moment. Of course, if you can have both it’s even better!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Some things you may not have known about Australia

Australia is a strange country. In many ways it is very American, so much so that it’s difficult sometimes to remember its distinctly British past, and continued (yet complicated) connection with the Monarchy and Commonwealth. Indeed, British and American ‘cultures’ collide in a seemingly bazaar way. The money has the queen’s head on it, and looks very British, but yet is called dollars. Everyone drives an SUV or four-wheel drive, the trucks look American, and the streets and avenues are distinctly American. The traffic lights and street signs are just like what you’d expect to find in America, but they drive on the left. The TV channels show infomercials to outrival the Americans themselves, but they also seems to have a distinct affinity with British programmes. The country is a mishmash of cultures all rolled into one, but their pronunciation of vowel sounds is distinctly their own. Nobody can take blame for that.

Being here has made me realise how little I know about this country/island/continent. Here I put forward some interesting facts about Australia that you probably didn’t know, or at least that I didn’t know, or at least fully comprehend, before I arrived here.

1. It is very, very, very big! I have often heard people say that Australia is a very big place and that the cities are very far apart. It’s only since I came here that I realise just how big it is. On the map Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney look very close together, just like Liverpool, Chester and Manchester. The reality is a whole lot different. If you had an afternoon to spare, cycling between these three English cities wouldn’t be completely out of the question. It would take more like a week just to cycle from Melbourne to Canberra. At over seven and a half million square kilometres, Australia is the 6th biggest country in the world (behind Russia, Canada, China, United States and Brazil). It is the largest borderless country in the world, and the largest country wholly in the Southern Hemisphere.

2. There are very few people here! Well, 22.8 million may not sound like very few, but that’s only about 3 people per square kilometre, and given the disproportionate number of people who live in the main cities in the south and east, there are large parts of the country with nobody at all…and beautiful towns like Falls Creek, which in November is practically isolated from civilisation.

3. It is the flattest continent. Only six percent of the Australian land mass rises above 600m. The highest point is Mt Kosciuszko in New South Wales at 2,228m. By contrast the average altitude of the whole of the North West of Kenya is more than 2,000m. Makes me wonder why I’ve bothered coming here for altitude training – oh yes, the beautiful, quite isolated town of Falls Creek perhaps!

4. Australians are very good at sport. Relative to their population, Australians are among the most successful sportspeople in sport. At the 1996 Olympics, for example, Australians won 3.78 medals per million of population, two and a half times better than Germany, the next best performer, and despite being only the 52nd largest country by population, finished 5th on the medals table. What makes this even more impressive is the fact that their top sports are listed as Footy (Australian Rules), Cricket, Rugby league, Horse Racing and Surfing, none of which are Olympic sports. They excel in almost every sport. There are even three dozen Australians playing baseball in the United States.

5. It’s a dangerous place. Three Quarters of the world’s most venomous snakes can be found in Australia. However, only a small number of people live in prime snake habitats, and India experience thousands more snake-related fatalities each year (remind me to scratch India off my list of places to visit). Australia is also home to many more of the world’s deadliest creatures, including crocodiles, at least two types of spider with potentially fatal bites, and the highly venomous box jellyfish which can paralyse heart muscle in an instant. On the upside (I think), however, you are apparently more likely to be killed by a bee sting, or drown while surfing, than be killed by shark attack in Australia. Still, take care out there boys and girls.

Barefoot Runner

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a bit of a bookaholic. Unfortunately, however, I seem to buy far more books than I ever get a chance to read. Travelling allows me the time to catch up. And so, after completing Bill Bryson’s Down Under, I tackled Barefoot Runner, the life of double Olympic Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila as told by Paul Rambali.

I like my book choice to reflect my travels, and when they’re not about travelling itself, they are usually about runners from some of the countries I’ve been to. In truth I had meant to read this book when I was in Ethiopia twelve months ago, but get round to it - better late than never.

Bikila was the first of the great African runners, and his efforts in winning the Rome marathon while running barefoot heralded the start of the golden age of African distance runners. The book is an interesting insight, not only to the life and times of Bikila and his coach, but also gives the reader some idea of the history and life of Ethiopia at that time. How Bikila came to be competing at an Olympic Games in the first place involves more than a couple of cases of good luck and being in the right place at the right time. Getting to a second Olympics was even more fortunate.

Bikila had more than a small part to play in changing the face of African distance running, and putting Ethiopia on the map. The story is highly recommended to anyone interested in the success of East Africa athletes. I just wish I’d read it before I visited Addis 12 months ago.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

I'm in Heaven

I’m not sure if it’s the clear blue sky, knowing that winter is setting in back home, the peace and the tranquillity of this hillside town, the fact that I’ve spent the last week on a career counselling course mostly contemplating my future, the novelty of my own company and the sheer and utter freedom that comes with being on the road again, but right now as I sit on a rock in the warm sunshine and light breeze on the edge of Rocky Valley Lake, I could be a thousand miles from the hustle and bustle of London. In fact I’m many thousand miles away, but I’m sure you know what I mean. I feel like I’m on a different planet. I know it’s only my first day in Falls Creek, and that two more weeks of my own company could well change my mood, but for now all that could break the euphoria is if a snake crawled from under this rock that I’m sitting on.

It would have been easy for me to skip Falls Creek and to justify omitting it from my travels because Australia is so far from anywhere else in the world and that the likely readers of my book either live a few too many time zones away, or already know of the magic of the place. As recently as Thursday, when sorting out a transfer from Albury was proving difficult, I almost gave up on getting here. In fact when I arrived in Albury yesterday and thought that I’d missed my connection, I was pondering what other ways I could fill two weeks in Australia. As we drove to the town yesterday evening, I was very much thinking that I was doing this to tick a box and ensure that Australia at least featured in the book. Arriving after 6pm I failed to find an open supermarket and struggled to find a restaurant open at this time of year. I sensed that this could be a very long two weeks.

But each dawn brings a new day, and after an incredibly enjoyable morning run, I had a relaxing breakfast and green tea in a restaurant around the corner, read some more of Bill Bryson’s excellent ‘Down Under’ and bought some groceries in one of the local supermarkets. Now I’m out on an afternoon walk to get some photographs and I find myself sitting and smiling at the beauty of this place. The true wonder of the world lies in the beauty of the unexpected.

Today, life is very good.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Skippy and Friends

I’ve been in Canberra a few days now, staying at the Australian Institute of Sport, and carrying out most of my training in the eucalyptus forests that adjoin the institute. So far all the wildlife that I’ve spotted was two common rabbits (yes they have them here too*), and a few colourful birds. At least that was until this morning.

I was about 25 minutes into my run around the mountain bike trails through the forest. Given the unevenness of the trail, my reputation for falling over, and the possible risk of stepping on a snake, I was paying close attention to the trail ahead, when suddenly something leapt up beside me, in much the same way a sheep would do if she noticed you only when you were right up close to her… and then bounced away. Yes, it was a kangaroo!

I’ve never seen a kangaroo outside of the zoo before, so it was pretty exciting to be this close to one. I paused a moment as it bounce off out of sight, and then continued with my run. I saw another one about two minutes later, standing about 20 metres away, observing its surroundings. I went back to the accommodation with a huge smile on my face, excited to tell everyone else what I’d seen. It transpired that this wasn’t such a rare sighting, and Marie, the only other non-Aussie in the group had spotted four of them when she was doing her session on the edge of the forest.

Later today when I was out for my afternoon run, I spotted a whole field of kangaroos and their joeys in a field basking in the sun. There must have been 20 or 30 of them. I quickly ran back to my room and picked up the camera. Alas when I returned they had all disappeared without a track. Oh well, if they’re that common, no doubt I’ll see plenty more of them!

Getting here wasn’t without its minor difficulty. After finally reaching Melbourne and making my way to the hotel in which I would hopefully set about overcoming jetlag, I learned that Qantas had grounded all flights for the foreseeable future. Great! I had a the last minute chosen Qantas over Virgin for the internal leg of my journey to Canberra. Luckily, rivalry between the two companies meant that Virgin had put on extra flights to cover the strikes and I would only be delayed by about an hour. I didn’t know that at the time, however, and there was a small bit of panic before I finally got to sleep. But then it would be a real adventure without a little bit of a hiccup here and there.

Canberra itself is a strange city. Specifically designed and built as the new seat of the federal parliament to end rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney shortly after the union of the six colonies, the majority of the central area is taken up by government buildings, museums, and a huge artificial lake named after the city designer Walter Burley Griffin. Griffin won an international competition to design the city, and with the help of his wife Marion, an architectural artist, designed a city for 75,000 in the early 1900s.

Approximately 900 square miles of land which surrounded the former farming community was ceded by New South Wales to form the Australian Capital Territory, a federal area similar to the USA’s District of Columbia. Today the city is home to just 400,000 people, definitely on of the least crowded cities I ever been to. Its airport is small, its only railway connection runs to Sydney, and it lies more than 40 miles from the main Sydney to Melbourne highway. Travel writer Bill Bryson (I’m reading his humorous and informative Down Under at the moment) describes Canberra as ‘not really a city at all, but rather an extremely large park with a city hidden in it.’

The simple and beautiful design for the city was formulated by Griffiths and his wife purely from topographical maps of the area (the Griffiths had never been to Australia), and when they travelled there in 1913 to put the plan into action, they were met with difficulties surrounding the First World War, and a lack of enthusiasm and funds. Griffiths died in 1937, and never saw the completion of his greatest plans, though the remainder of Canberra was built on his ‘floor plan’ of avenues, roundabouts and imposing lake.

Today, staying at the Institute of Sport just ten minutes drive from Canberra’s centre, it’s difficult to believe that I’m on the edge of the capital city of one of the largest countries in the world. It’s a very long way from the overcrowded, sprawling mass that is London.