Monthly Archives: April 2020

Here Be Dragons: Komodo National Park

The old phrase “Here be dragons” historically indicated dangerous or uncharted territory and Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands with giant Komodo dragons roaming freely are dangerous indeed. Before our stop at Komodo National Park on our Norwegian cruise, we were warned of the dangers posed by the largest species of lizard. Stay with your group; don’t wear red; don’t visit during your menstrual period as they will attack the scent of blood. Although attacks on humans are rare, if provoked, the dragon can run up to 12mph and the venom from a bite can be deadly. By nature somewhat of a scaredy-cat, I approached this excursion with some trepidation.

In 1910, having heard sailors’ tales of large fire-breathing dragons, Lieutenant Steyn van Hensbroek, stationed on the island of Flores in the Dutch East Indies, visited the island, killed a specimen, and took it back to his headquarters for further research. In 1912, the newly discovered species was identified and named and by 1915 the endangered Komodo Dragon was protected by the Dutch government.

Although the Dutch colony declared its independence in 1945, it wasn’t until 1980 that the Republic of Indonesia established Komodo National Park consisting of Komodo, Rinca, and Padar Islands along with a number of smaller islands. The park was originally established to protect the Komodo dragon but its mission has expanded over the years to protect the entire biosphere. In 1986, the park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today the national park is home to the remaining 5700 dragons living in the wild along with around 4000 human inhabitants who make their living mostly by fishing and tourism.

Our tour took us to Komodo Island but I understand national park tours are also available on Rinca Island. As we approached Komodo Island, the first of three ports we would visit in Indonesia, we were struck by the serene beauty confronting us.

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Indonesia

As we walked ashore, we were further stunned by the crystal clear water and colorful coral visible from the pier which explains why this area is also popular for diving.

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Coral visible from the pier at Komodo Island

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Sea Turtle visible from the pier

Tourists arriving on cruise ships can book excursions through their cruise line or independently from purveyors onshore but they must be booked in advance. No one is allowed to leave the ship without proof of a pre-booked tour of the national park. Taking no chances, we booked through the cruise line and met with others in group 4 as instructed.

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Entrance to the park

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UNESCO World Heritage Site

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Sculpture of Komodo Dragon at Komodo National Park

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One of our guides trying to round up group 4

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Rofinus, our lead tour guide, and our third guide

We had 3 guides for our group; the lead guide provided commentary about the vegetation and other animals on the island in addition to the dragons; the other 2 guides carried large forked sticks which I assumed were for our protection if necessary. (I admit sticks didn’t provide me a great deal of comfort.)

It wasn’t long before we saw dragons. Fortunately, they seemed pretty lethargic in the hot sultry morning and I was grateful to have my fear somewhat assuaged.

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Komodo Dragon

When one of the dragons started to move, albeit slowly, guides went into action to make sure they stayed between the animals and tourists.

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Komodo dragon

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Dragon left of Jim

The Komodo dragon eats both live animals and carrion along with the occasional unfortunate hatchling dragon. Years ago, inhabitants of the island left the remains of their hunted deer for the dragons as a kind of offering. The adverse effect of this custom, however, was to draw the dragons closer to human-occupied areas. Today, hunting deer is prohibited (although poaching persists) and deer, as well as dragons, roam freely.

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Komodo Dragon

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Dragon on the left

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Dragon behind Rick and Lori

 

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Timor Deer

Following our guided walk, one of our guides directed us to the stalls of local vendors selling souvenirs, recommending one especially. Our friend, Rick, bought a souvenir but we stuck with tipping our guides as we’d brought limited cash from the ship.

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Souvenir stalls

Adorable children also flocked to us selling trinkets or asking for tips for photos. Who could resist them? Confronted with obvious need, we wished we had taken more cash ashore.

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Children posing for photos

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View of Komodo Island as we depart

Our visit to Komodo Island was one of many highlights on this cruise. I survived the experience but came away with my respect for these powerful beasts intact. By summer 2019 we were even happier we had chosen this excursion when I read the park would close to visitors by 2020 because of poaching and so many tourists were affecting the behavior of the dragons. Then by October 2019 the closure was revoked but limits would be placed on the number of visitors allowed in the park and the cost of admission would increase dramatically (some reports said $1000 but I haven’t confirmed this).

In yet another twist, as of this writing on 23 April 2020, the park remains closed for cruise ships until at least 29 May 2020, due to COVID-19.

 

Based on events from February 2019.

Categories: cruise, Indonesia, Travel, Uncategorized, UNESCO | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Hooroo Down Under at Darwin

It would be an understatement to say Darwin is off the beaten path. Driving time from Sydney or Perth is over 40 hours and from our last stop in Cairns, it takes 25 hours to drive the nearly 1500 miles. By ship, it was supposed to take 2 days but because we turned back to Cairns due to a medical emergency, we ended up arriving late on the third day. Fortunately, we still had the evening and the next day to explore this tropical capital city of the Northern Territory.

The area was inhabited by the Larrakia Aboriginal people for more than 65,000 years before Europeans arrived on the scene in 1839. John Stokes, a surveyor aboard the HMS Beagle, named the harbor Darwin Bay after Charles Darwin but the town, founded in 1869, was called Palmerston until it was renamed Darwin in 1911. The discovery of gold in 1871 ensured rapid growth in the area.

A relatively young city of 140,000, Darwin has been rebuilt several times due to man-made and natural calamity. If you saw the epic movie Australia starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, you may recall the movie depiction of the bombing destruction of Darwin by the Japanese in 1942. Following WWII, the city was rebuilt only to be almost completely destroyed by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. As a result, today Darwin is one of the most modern cities in Australia.

When we arrived late in the day on February 23, 2019, we knew it would soon be dark, thus preventing us from seeing much of the city. We contented ourselves with a quick look around the Darwin Waterfront area followed by a cocktail at an Irish pub, Fiddler’s Green, so we could connect with their WiFi.

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Artificial beach keeps swimmers safe from crocodiles

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Darwin Waterfront District

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Norwegian Jewel at sunset from the Darwin Waterfront District

The following morning, we decided a Big Bus tour would be “The perfect way to discover and explore the tropical city.” (Big Bus brochure) Conveniently, the hop-on-hop-off bus stopped close to the cruise terminal at Fort Hill Wharf, so we boarded there. We climbed to the open-air upper level of the double-decker bus which felt exceedingly hot and sticky but it included a roof to protect us from the scorching hot sun.

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Big Bus Darwin

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The upper level of the Big Bus

After a drive through the CBD (Central Business District), we passed through the inner suburb of Larrakeyah, then near Mindil Beach before a stop at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT). Admission was free at this cultural masterpiece but we elected to continue our ride to make sure we saw the entire route.

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Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory

Darwin was full of parks, green spaces, and coastlines with incredible views everywhere we looked.

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The Gardens, Darwin

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East Point Road on Fannie Bay

East Point Reserve is a popular area for both locals and tourists to enjoy the outdoors with coastlines, trails, playgrounds, picnic areas, a lake, exercise equipment, and over 200 wallabies roaming freely.

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East Point Reserve

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East Point Reserve

The Reserve is also home to the Darwin Military Museum where the Defence of Darwin Experience, an interactive multimedia exhibit of the bombing of Darwin, is shown once daily.

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Darwin Military Museum

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Restored anti-aircraft gun emplacements at East Point Reserve

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Can you spot the wallabies?

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Lake Alexander in East Point Recreation Reserve

The largest single attack against Australia occurred on February 19, 1942, and to this day the bombing of Darwin is central to Darwin’s history. After 7 of 11 oil storage tanks were destroyed in the bombing, the construction of underground tunnels to store oil was initiated. Although the tunnels weren’t completed before the end of the war, today the tunnels are a popular tourist attraction.

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Darwin Oil Storage Tunnels

A fine example of tropical architecture, the Parliament House which opened in 1994 offers free guided public tours.

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Parliament House

We explored the CBD a bit where the canopy over the pedestrian walkway provided a welcome respite.

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Darwin Smith Street

The Palmerston Town Hall opened in 1883 and was destroyed by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. The ruins have been preserved as a memorial.

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Old Town Hall, Darwin

The Yolngu people believe we all have spirits which they call mokuy. When someone dies   “the spirit must be sung through to the reservoir of souls from which it came, so it can return once more.” (Plaque near sculpture) Mokuy or spirits are depicted in the sculpture below. It is said if you’re nearby, they can be heard conducting their rituals at night.

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Mokuy sculpture by Nawurapu Wunungmurra

After enjoying the entire Big Bus route and some exploration on foot, we were ready to return to the Darwin Waterfront by way of the Sky Bridge.

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Entrance to the Sky Bridge

We decided to stop at Fiddler’s Green once more to spend the last of our Aussie dollars before saying hooroo (goodbye) to the land down under. While there, I noticed a superb dish of prawns delivered to the couple sitting across from us and I couldn’t help asking whether I could take a photo. They kindly agreed because Aussies are a congenial lot and we struck up a conversation. We especially enjoyed hearing about their daughter who plays semi-pro women’s Australian football. Coincidentally, Jim had enjoyed watching the women play just the night before on television.

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Prawns at Fiddler’s Green

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Laura, Lori, Toni, Bradley, and Jim

Toni and Bradley were in Darwin to see their daughter play football but they also mentioned that Darwin is a frequent departure point for Australians to visit Bali. When we said Bali was a port of call on our cruise, Toni gave us the contact information for Wayan, a self-employed tour guide. Look for more about our tour with Wayan in Bali in a future post.

Inevitably during the wet season, storms began to roll in as we chatted. By the time we returned to the ship we were soaked to the skin despite our ponchos.

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We chose this cruise mainly because it had more ports of call in Australia than other cruises. We arrived in Sydney on February 9 and departed from Darwin on February 24. While two weeks were not nearly enough time to explore all of this entrancing country,  we enjoyed a good sampling of the delights offered by the land down under.

We headed next to Komodo Island to see the dragons so don’t miss it!

 

Based on events from February 2019.

 

 

 

Categories: Australia, cruise, History, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cairns: Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef

After a tender boat trip from our cruise ship to the port at Yorkey’s Knob, we boarded a bus for a 25-minute ride to the city of Cairns. When Jim noticed the sugar cane fields along the road, he asked the bus driver about them. We learned most of Australia’s sugar cane crop is grown in the state of Queensland and my later research revealed the majority of the raw sugar is exported making Australia the third largest sugar exporter in the world.

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Sugar cane fields

Cairns, (pronounced Kenz) considered the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, impressed us as a laidback tropical paradise with a small-town vibe despite its population in excess of 150,000. Since we had visited the Great Barrier Reef the day before, our plan for the day was simply to wander a bit in this tropical city and find a place with a view and wifi to sit for a while. The bus dropped us along the esplanade near the swimming lagoon where we began our exploration.

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Swimming lagoon

Opened in 1995, this 4800 sqm free salt-water swimming lagoon protects swimmers from nasty stingers which invade the area from November to May as well as the occasional crocodile.

Speaking of crocs, this baby saltwater crocodile held by an adventure park employee was intended to attract attention on the street and it did.  The area around Cairns is home to aggressive “salties” which can grow to 20 ft.

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Baby saltwater crocodile

We strolled over to the nearby Pier Shopping Centre and settled into a restaurant with wifi and views of both the marina and the mountains beyond.

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Wifi with a view

Once we’d caught up on our email and social media, it was time to move on and see more of the central business district of Cairns. Although the vast majority of storefronts housed operators offering Great Barrier Reef tours, Jim was intrigued by the shop offering didgeridoos.

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Didgeridoo shop

An ancient wind instrument traditionally used by Aboriginal peoples of northern Australia, the didgeridoo was originally made by termites hollowing out the trunk of a young living eucalyptus tree. Interestingly, termites are very sensitive to light which is why they eat the inside of the trunk rather than the exterior. Today didgeridoos are fashioned from a variety of materials including fiberglass, PVC, and various kinds of timber but eucalyptus remains the preferred material due to its hardness which produces the best sound.  The instruments sold in this shop were created by Aboriginals and sold for $200 to $2500 but they would ship them home for you. If you’d like to hear an authentic sample of traditional didgeridoo music, check out this YouTube video.

Soon after our visit to the didgeridoo shop, the rain began and quickly became torrential.

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Rain in Cairns

Since our exploration of Cairns was unexpectedly cut short, we dashed to the bus stop between downpours and rode back to Yorkey’s Knob where we hunkered down until it was safe to get on a tender boat for the return trip to our cruise ship.

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Boarding the tender boat

As we returned to our ship we could see the storm breaking in the distance.

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View from Tender boat at Yorkeys Knob

While Cairns didn’t get as much of our time as we would have liked, we were there long enough to learn it’s very tropical with lots of heat, humidity, and rain. That prepared us for our next port of Darwin which we expected would have a similar climate. Come back and check it out.

 

Based on events from February 2019.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Australia, cruise, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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