Sound of the Primeval

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The grey dawn was breaking around the huge ship. It’s not a boat, Captain Thassos had explained. A ship is much bigger than a boat… you can fit several boats into a ship. Later on in the cruise he would provide a wonderful illustration of this. For now we were about to have an experience of a lifetime, and it was ironic that the very landscape dawning around us was very similar to the one on the other side of the planet that we were supposed to have visited…

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Two years prior, we had booked our first ever cruise as an experimental holiday. We love landscapes – especially dramatic ones – and thought that a week’s trip to see the Norwegian fjords (from the inside) would be a wonderful holiday. We had never been cruising, and, frankly, I was doubtful that being kept prisoner on even a well-fed ship was going to be my cup of tea. With a week to go, our cruise was cancelled – due to overbooking. At first we were enraged; but the compensation package offered by Celebrity Cruises was so good that we accepted their sincere apology and, banking the voucher for a free cruise of the same value (plus our money back and all expenses), we looked at the forward calendar…. and wondered…

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My eldest son and our daughter-in-law; plus our two grandchildren, live in Australia. Once every two years, we try to get out to see them. So, we thought, why not combine the two and spend November – one of the dreariest English months – having a combined Australia/New Zealand trip, with the replacement cruise being the first part of the experience. We are retired from a long life in IT, and happily, we can do this sort of thing –  but not too often, as cruising of any form is expensive.

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We had left Sydney two days before. It was such a beautiful experience that I blogged about it at the time – from my iPhone. But Milford Sound, the most primeval landscape on the whole of New Zealand’s South Island, was now up ahead, and Captain Thassos was waking the whole ship, early, to allow us time to get ready for this very special experience. ‘Once in a lifetime experience’ is overused but in this case we had reason to believe it would be so. Much depends on the weather… You can travel to this, one of the most southerly places on the planet, and see nothing because of the mist. New Zealand is a beautifully misty place…

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But, as our luck with the Norwegian cruise had been bad, so this was was good – more than good, because, as my first sprint to the upper deck showed, we had the perfect combination of wispy mist and a clear morning – not always present in Milford Sound.

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It was still before seven in the morning, yet just about every able-bodied person was on one of the upper decks. The Solstice is one of the largest vessels on the seas. It dwarfed the other tourist boats going past us, as can be seen from the above photographs.

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Milford Sound is a misnomer. A sound is an outlet to the sea formed by a river system. Milford was created by a glacial system – the mountains all around give the clue. Because of this the ‘lip’ of Milford Sound is quite shallow; something that would have produced problems for large vessels until the latest generation of low-draught ships (such as the Solstice) came into service.

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The highlight of the experience came when we had penetrated Milford Sound to the end of its navigable depth. The Solstice is equipped with twin giant propellors that can be rotated through 360 degrees. This enables complete turns to be made within the length of the ship: the vessel simply rotates in the water on its horizontal axis. Captain Thassos made a point of stressing how much control it gave the crew in tight or difficult situations.

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The ‘doughnut’ turn complete, it was time to visit the last of the vast waterfalls that tumble from the highland peaks into Milford Sound. Then we made one last turn before heading back into the open waters of the ocean. There were two more locations to visit on the ‘Fjord Coast’ of New Zealand’s South Island, but none compared to Milford Sound. Visitors from inland face a difficult car journey or many days on foot to get there. We had arrived in the comfort of the huge Solstice, which also offered us her height from which to see the whole of glacial landscape.

The captain took care to explain that the apparent fumes given off by the Solstice-class boats are not polluting. The engines have catalytic processes that convert what would be diesel smoke to harmless vapour – that is what is seen emerging from the giant funnels.

The trip of a lifetime? It most certainly was. There were many other stopping points on our ten-day cruise around New Zealand. I will be writing about the best of them in posts to come.

©️Stephen Tanham


Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics.

 

 

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Whispers of Babylon

It is unlike anything you’ve seen before. If you were raised, like I was, on sci-fi, you’ll recognise the soaring structures that look like other-worldly trees; whose job is to be a framework for a vast array of green life embedded in the vertical lattices.

Those paintings were by Christopher Fosse, whose futuristic artwork graced the covers of many of the sci-fi novels of the 1970s and 80s. Yet, here, they are made real and carry a message far more important than most found in that genre: they speak of botanical science made hope…

We’re at Gardens by the Bay, on Singapore’s southern tip. It’s a vast set of interlinked gardens and walkways with the combination of these ‘trees’ and two vast domes dominating the skyline. If you’ve been lucky enough to visit Singapore, you will know how ‘green’ the city is – in every way. The founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, is said to have transformed this tiny island city state from a third to a first-world country in a single generation. He did it with a brutal determination to take Singapore into a new future, and not have it left behind from the growth of his country’s near-neighbours to the north-east: Malaysia and China.

Even Changi airport is a garden…

One of the core components of Lee’s vision was that it would become a garden city, festooned with green wherever you looked. That vision was rigorously applied, though many would say that there are as many shops as trees… Everywhere you look there is greenery; but the vision comes to life in the most vivid way in the concentrated force of cultured nature that is Gardens by the Bay.

Gardens by the Bay is a nature park that takes up over one hundred hectares of reclaimed land in the central region of Singapore, next to the Marina Reservoir. The park consists of three waterfront gardens: Bay South, Bay East and and Bay Central.

Singapore has a team of professionals who are responsible for the ‘greening’ of the city. This team became the core of a vast project to create this futuristic landscape which, on completion, would offer educational as well as botanical aspects. Singapore was already served with its traditional Botanical garden of world-renown, including the famous orchid house (see later blog). It was important to create a different ‘feel’ to the new gardens; one that would attract younger people to whom the story could interweave with the ideas of global responsibility in culturing and protecting ecosystems.

The team responsible were drawn from the disciplines of: landscape gardening, designers, horticulturists, arborists, engineers and plant specialists. Their goal was to create an environment for which all the people of Singapore – and their international visitors – would feel a sense of ownership. In this way the larger ideal of a ‘Garden Earth’ could be combined with the local objectives.

Botany and horticulture can seem boring to children, though their experience of green spaces is always one of delight. Gardens by the Bay sets out to change the level of involvement by presenting the plant kingdom in a new way, entertaining all visitors with sections devoted to habitats from all over the world, not just the tropical gardens of native Singapore – which is close to the equator. These habitats range from species in cool, temperate climates to tropical rain forests.

Having entered through the vertical space of the giant inverted cone structures – the Supertree Grove – the first of the giant domes, Flower Dome, lies before you, displaying the varied habitats, including deserts. The visitor ranges through gardens set at different heights, the design exploiting the vertical as well as the horizontal space.

The personal journey is supplemented by the use of local cultural images – particularly animals that feature in stories across this part of Asia. Giants crocodiles and dragons lurk and fly through the walkways…

I found one particular feature of the Flower Dome very moving. It is called ‘La Famille Voyageurs’ (the travelling family) and was donated by Changi Airport. It consists of a family of international tourists who are visiting Gardens by the Bay as the last part of their holiday, prior to flying out. They are each carrying their wheeled suitcases, but parts of their bodies are missing… you can see through the spaces made. The symbolism is that Gardens by the Bay moves you so much that you end up leaving a bit of you behind… Such a lovely theme for an art piece.

You could spend a day in the Flower Dome, alone. But a dramatic experience awaits the visitor to its sister space: the Cloud Forest.

The Cloud Forest dome has a peculiar shape. It’s only when you get inside that you realise why…

Look at the tiny figures on the left platform to get the scale of it! The whole dome is taken up by a rain-forest mountain. The concept is breathtaking…

To visit the Cloud Forest, you take a lift to the peak (The Lost World) and follow the walkways down, curving around the mountain’s flanks as you descend. It’s an idea pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright with the Guggenheim in New York, but the latter abandoned the vertical downward approach as it could not cope with visitor volume. Here, it works beautifully.

The rainforest is said to be the ‘lungs of the planet’. Within Cloud Forest, you see every aspects of them and their habitats, weaving in and out of the living forest at every level. It’s so very moving that, by the time you get to the lower levels, people are simply silent in contemplation of what they are experiencing…

A short blog is not sufficient space to describe the Gardens by the Bay. I have barely scratched the surface in this piece, but I hope to have conveyed something of its vision and splendour.

Soon we were walking back through the gardens towards the excellent, air-conditioned MRT Metro system to return to our hotel. As we left the park, I thought back to the sculpture donated by Changi Airport: La Famille de Voyageurs, by Bruno Catalano.

I love Singapore. I need little excuse to want to visit it, again. But the Gardens by the Bay are special and should be on every visitor’s itinerary. Part of me would, indeed, be left behind in this place, and I hope to be able to return, soon, to share again in the vision of this most inspired creation.

©Copyright Stephen Tanham.

Photos by the author.

Antipodean Fragments: Harry’s Cafe de Wheels

In the old black and white photo, the colonel is eating… a pie. He’s more associated with Kentucky’s fried chicken, but here it’s a pie. It was taken a long time ago (1972) and the iconic fried chicken man is clearly enjoying himself doing something different.

The Colonel’s faded picture is mounted on the silver walls of an amazing creation in front of us called Harry’s Cafe de Wheels… There’s a story to the name which we’ll get to in a moment. First, though, I have to convey something about the place in which this pie-selling time machine lives…

Imagine you’re eating your Harry’s pie on one of the bar-stools – the only furniture around Harry’s Cafe de Wheels. We’re located on one of Sydney’s secondary harbour fronts in the Woollomoolloo district. It’s a half hour walk from the bustling centre of the city and is famous for the historic dock that, in its heyday, shipped most of Sydney’s cargo and passengers.

After much rancorous tussling by the local population, the huge Woolloomooloo dock was saved from demolition and restored into a trendy hotel, gallery and private apartments plus marina. We’re staying in the hotel part – the Ovolo – which is lovely, innovative and surprisingly inexpensive. But then you have to put up with the struggle to say that you’re “staying at the Ovolo at Woolloomooloo…”

Russell Crowe lives here. At the end of the old cargo pier is a most expensive part of the waterfront, where the actor’s penthouse (below) is reported to have cost AUS$25M… Beyond his dwelling is a glimpse of the CBD – Central Business District; every Australian city seems to have one. Through the trees in the right foreground is a really good view of the Sydney Opera House, which will feature in other posts.

Harry’s Cafe de Wheels lies at the pivot between the restored cargo dock and the modern naval base. You can walk right past the base and round to the King’s Cross section of town, but photographs of that part of the base are prohibited.

It’s a miracle that the Woolloomoloo dock survived at all, but it’s an even bigger one that Harry’s Cafe de Wheels is still there. It’s not palatial, now, but, in the beginning, it was just a small mobile pie van, as the black and white photo, below – dated 1939 – shows.

The longer it survived, the more famous it became. The new building was established in 1945, and has been feeding Sydney-folk and their visitors ever since. It’s not on the main tourist trail, and we only found it because it was next to our hotel – which we had deliberately chosen because of its off-centre location. In 2015, Harry’s celebrated its 70th anniversary.

The old dock building, next door, also has space for regular exhibitions of art and photography. The piece below is by Ludwig Mlcek, and is titled ‘Ring of Passion’. It was one of about twenty such works within the expanse of the old wharf – shared with the Ovolo hotel and Russell Crowe.

For me, Harry’s Cafe de Wheels was the star of the show. Apparently, it still commands queues around the block on a busy Saturday night – often very late into night. In this hi-tech age, there’s something wonderful about that…

And the name? When the original street licence was granted, it was for a mobile cafe. So, when Harry upgraded his pie palace, it had to retain its wheels – even though it never moves. Harry added ‘de Wheels’ as an amusing qualification. No-one would think of threatening it now…

Of all the sights we saw in our visit to Australia and New Zealand, none stuck in my memory with such fondness as Harry’s Cafe de Wheels… and his pie was delicious.

Other posts in our antipodean adventure:

The Art of Dark Departure

The People’s Wharf

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness.

The Silent Eye is a not-for-profit organisation that provides distance learning courses for the deepening of self understanding.