The Sunlander …

We were going on holiday, with plan to head north out of Canberra’s winter cold to the far north of Queensland, to FNQ, and then work our way south, stopping at places of interest, finding places to chill and relax, to swim in the ocean and feel human again.

We could have driven both ways, but on the way north we decided to save ourselves two or three days of driving by driving to Brisbane, and putting our car on the train for the long haul up to Cairns.

As NSW’s railways are standard gauge (1485mm) and Queensland’s are all Cape Gauge – 1090mm or 3’6” in old money, the break of gauge meant we first had to spend a couple of days driving north through interminable roadworks on what will eventually be the Pacific freeway to Brisbane.

The deal was that you drove to Roma street station, they put your car on the train, and you had a sleeper compartment for the thirty hour journey to Cairns. You could book a luxy compartment, but being cheapskates at heart we opted for a standard three berth compartment and paid the supplement to have it for our exclusive use.

The last time we had been on a sleeper was in Thailand when we caught the night train frpm Bangkok to Nong Khai on the Thai/Lao border when travelling to Vientiane. Previously our experience had consisted of a second class sleeper in India, plus some trips on pre-privatisation British Rail in the early eighties before the discount airlines turned the London to Edinburgh service into something for nostalgia buffs.

The Sunlander is also about to be replaced by a newer, faster train, and some time soon the motorail service will stop along with the sleeper service, but for the moment the Sunlander is Queensland’s answer to the Trans Siberian, rattling north at an average speed of not much more than 60 km/h, past small coastal towns and through increasingly exuberant tropical vegetation and sugar cane fields, stopping at small towns, and in a couple of places appearing to run down the main street of the town.

The train was very much in the mode of British Rail, except no one offered us complimentary tea and biscuits, and the blankets were an unimaginative brown/beige rather than BR’s cheerful acrylic check.

And unlike Thai railways there was no cheerful man selling Singha beer and taking your order for food to be cooked at some restaurant up ahead and delivered when the train rattled through. Instead it was instant coffee, fatty chicken roasts and Thai fishcakes that were more your classic English potato based fishcake with a dash of Thai spice than anything produced by your neighbourhood asian takeway. In truth the catering was terrible, beating even American Airlines for producing food that looked and tasted like it had been made from roadkill.

But the journey was fun, like all train journeys letting you see into people’s lives by way of their back yards, and pretty restful. The train was pretty lo-tech, no wifi or cell phone coverage so for entertainment we read, wrote, or just looked out the window, and like the old British Rail sleeper trains, the rocking motion ensured a good nights sleep. Definitely a journey back to travel as it used to be, and all the more fun for that.


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Injune …

We had been as far north as Cooktown, and were driving back south along the edge of the outback, listening to an eclectic mixture of North African pop, Mexican baroque,  Bob Dylan and blues music.

On the way we passed through towns and settlements which seemed to consist of a few houses, a petrol pump and a general store selling mainly canned goods, dropping out of cellphone coverage for a couple of hundred kilometres at a time. While we did go through a couple of places with white lines and traffic lights, in the main it was just us and the emptiness of the west.

And the we came to Injune.

On paper it should just be a place like the rest, and certainly the service station consisted of a single pump offering a choice of diesel or economy 91 unleaded, but the town sported a new well stocked supermarket, a newsagent with big city newspapers, a pharmacy, a bank, and a cafe with staff like you see in a city, wearing fashionable tee shirts and making decent coffee.

This seemed a puzzle, as to why a little bit of the urban fringe had been dropped into the stark emptiness of the central west of Queensland, until half a dozen fourwheel drives leased by Santos arrived, and groups of gas survey and drilling workers piled out to order full cooked breakfasts and long blacks.

Gas money. Injune had by luck become a centre for coal seam gas work, and as we drove south there were turns off the sealed road, orange dirt tracks to places without names, only known as rig 27 or drillsite 33.

In a sense this is not surprising. While Cooktown is famous as the place on the Endevour river where James Cook beached his boat for repairs after rather too close an encounter with the Barrier Reef, before the 1870’s it was nothing, a place with a few shanties for trepang fishermen.

And then gold was discovered on the Palmer River and Cooktown became a boomtown going from nothing to a town with hotels, bars, brothels, two newspapers, and direct steamship services to Brisbane and Guangzhou to transport would be miners and migrants. There was even a convent school, now the Cooktown museum, staffed by nuns specially imported from the west of Ireland.

They even started building a railway line to the gold diggings at Maytown – a very nineteenth century solution.

In the event the railway line only ever got halfway to Maytown, to Laura before the gold ran out. Maytown no longer exists and Laura is an empty place with a pub, a petrol station and a general store acting mainly as a truck stop on the road to the mines at Weipa and further north.

Cooktown is itself a sparse place, seemingly too small for its size with old buildings, including a grand old pub, and empty blocks where one there was something. It also sports a cannon from the Napoleonic wars, sent north to help defend it from possible Russian attack in the 1880’s – just one – and probably completely useless as a deterrent.

And looking at Cooktown and Laura, you can see that one day Injune will shrink back on itself, the bank and the pharmacy will close and the supermarket will go back to being a basic general store, but for the moment the good times are rolling, and there’s a cafe with decent coffee and people to sit and read newspapers in it


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Mergers and acquistions

Geeky idea time – I was reading Hugh Thomson’s The White Rock about his travels in what were the Inca lands in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, and in it he makes the comment that the Inca Empire wasn’t really an empire, it was more akin to a series of mergers and acquisitions by a large corporation in which other polities were absorbed by one means or another and their efforts redirected to those of the Inca polity.

This is actually quite a powerful idea. To be ruled implies a degree of consent. If we look at the Roman Empire it grew in part by military power, but also by incorporating the local rulers into the Roman political elite, or to loosely misquote Tacitus, seduce them with dinner parties and porticoes.

So rather than as a set of conquests we can look on it as a set of acquisitions, not necessarily peaceful, but ones that bought consent, because they brought benefits to the acquirees, and hence their tacit consent.

Remember that during the first couple of centuries of the Empire the army was in the main stationed on the frontiers to keep interlopers at bay, rather than to impose order on the conquered populace.

Yes, of course there were insurrections and rebellions, but on the whole the ruled stayed more or less ruled.

The same analysis can be extended to other empires – such as British rule in India, where again the local political elite bought into the fantasy of Imperial rule and the poor got a possibly better, possibly more consistent, administration, meaning that the non Indian forces in India were comparitively few in number.

As I say it’s an interesting idea – not one that justifies empire, but one that perhaps explains why some regimes seem to work, and others turn to nasty repressive failures ….

Written with StackEdit.

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Happy midwinter’s day

Yesterday, Saturday, was midwinter’s day here in Canberra.

In times past I used to wish everyone a happy Inca new year on this day, really because I felt we ought to make more of mid winter here in the southern hemisphere.

The last few years tho’ we haven’t been in Canberra for midwinter so this kind of fell into abeyance. However this year we were, and we had a distinctly chilly barbecue in the backyard to celebrate.

2014-06-07 12.20.49

However, while it might have been chilly, it’s been a warm winter so far – hardly any frost or fog, with the result that the nasturtiums are still blooming away – normally they’re over and done by the middle of May – and our winter greens are growing away madly.

So, while it’s midwinter, it doesn’t yet feel like solstice time. However, it’s still good to feel the warmth of the sun and know that every day will be a little longer …

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Henry V

Last night J and I went to the Canberra Theatre to see Bell Shakespeare’s production of Henry V, and damn good it was too.

Henry V is a huge sprawling play, with changes of scene, comedic interludes and the rest, and near impossible to stage if one wants to do an orthodox production with scenery, costumes and the like.

Not that this would have bothered the Tudors. Plays were staged with no scenery and a minimum of props and costumes – more or less ‘theatre in the round’ without the round, and allowing the power and drama of the language to create the suspension of disbelief.

In this production Bell Shakespeare return to the original minimalist presentation. They use the conceit of a group of secondary school students trapped in a classroom during the London Blitz.

To pass the time the English master takes them through Henry V – reading and acting out the parts – just like you probably did in English Lit in school – with minimal props – crowns of folded paper, cricket pad to symbolise armour, end so on.

This device allows the schoolmaster to take the part of Chorus the narrator of the original play who explained the changes of scene to audience, and to help move the play along.

And it works brilliantly. The explosions and sirens of the blitz provide the noises off and the background to Agincourt, and the context helps reinforce the message of the futility of war, and even the comic interludes turn tragic.

It’s worth seeing – if you can, do. Details of performances can be found online at Bell Shakespeare’s website.

[An alternative view of the production can be found here]

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Cooma cottage and Yass

Last Sunday was cold, windy and brilliantly clear, so we took ourselves off to look at Cooma cottage, the onetime home of the explorer Hamilton Hume, who, along with Hovell found the route south to Victoria, broadly taking the route followed today by the Hume freeway and the Sydney Melbourne train line.

To confuse everyone, Cooma cottage is no where near Cooma, but is in fact a few k’s outside of the old wool town of Yass.

Cooma cottage is an early farm cottage, with the original core of the building built in a style not that different from late eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings in England, but of course here, all the handmade bricks were made locally, the woodwork and the fitments all locally made, even down to the hooks in the tack room being locally made out of six inch iron nails.

After Hume, the house had a varied history, being used at one time as a sanitorium for consumption patients, and somehow has survived sort of more or less intact, or at least instact enough for the National Trust to return it to something like how it looked in Hume’s time, with a little formal garden, some mid nineteenth century wallpaper and the like.

It must have been a cold sparse life, with supplies and manufactures from Yass if you were lucky, or perhaps Sydney, and the luxuries of life, books, writing paper and the like, and even basic manufactured goods having to be imported from half a world away.

When we’d finished looking at the house we had an alfresco lunch, soup from a thermos, cheese, oatcakes, fruit, in the picnic area, and a cold and windy affair it was – no wonder the house had had a life as a sanitorium. Bracing was certainly the word for it.

After his exploring days were done Hume made is money farming sheep for wool – shades of Magwitch in Great Expectations.

As did the town of Yass. After lunch we took ourselves into Yass for a decent cup of coffee. Strange to say we had never really stopped in Yass except to go to the loo on the way to Cowra, Forbes or Parkes.

And we’d been missing something – Yass dates fro the 1830’s and still has some good old colonial buildings in terms of banks, a Victorian post office, and some good shop fronts, including a hardware store with a pressed tin front, pressed to look like brickwork.

We did find ourselves a decent cafe in one of the old store fronts, one that still retained the old patterned pressed tin ceilings and nicely painted in a heritage green colour – and it served a pretty decent cup of coffee as well.

Then to avoid the Sunday afternoon winery traffic around Murrambateman we took the long way back, round by Gunning, which still has an old slab pioneer house, not to mention a pub called the ‘Telegraph’ a very nineteenth century name,  and definitely somewhere that would repay a fuller visit, and then back through Gunderoo and back.

All in all a pretty interesting day, and one to be replayed sometime in the future as a photo trip …

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An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan …

Well, that’s certainly a title.

Long term readers of this blog will know that I’ve been doing a lot reading about the British colonial experience in Asia, including the literature of the time. Inevitably this segues into reading about the Great Game, which was essentially a nineteenth century cold war between the British Empire and Imperial Russia in Central Asia.

One of the centres of intrigue was Kashgar in (neutral) Chinese Turkestan – now Xianjiang. Impossibly remote, only visited by the hardiest of travellers, Kashgar hosted both a Russian and a British consulate, plus a small community of other western missionaries.

George Macartney, the first British consul, had arrived with Younghusband’s expedition in 1890 as an interpreter and stayed on as consul, marrying his wife, Catherine, the English lady of the title of this blog post, which is also the title of her memoirs of her time in Kashgar.

George Macartney wrote no autobiography, so we have no real idea of what went on in Kashgar at the time other than what is contained in his reports to the India office.

So, for background to the period, I tracked down a copy of his wife’s memoirs. They’re out of print and not available online through Gutenberg, but there was a paperback edition published by the Asian arm of the OUP in the 1980’s, but through Abebooks I managed to track down a copy at a reasonable price and condition to a second hand bookstore in Seattle.

The book is a charmer – well written and witty in a style reminiscent of Beth Ellis’s An English Girl’s First Impressions of Burmah, but ever so slightly anodyne, as if Catherine Macartney had taken steps to ensure that nothing too political sneaked into her book, even when discussing the events of the 1911 Chinese Revolution in Kashgar, she concentrates on the here and now narrative, rather than attempting to describe the politics and politicking that must have gone on, especially after a substantial detachment of Russian soldiers was deployed, ostensibly to protect the European population.

That said, its an enjoyable read if you like late Victorian memoirs, and describes the daily life of the consulate, not to mention the joys and perils of travel to and from Kashgar before there were any roads to speak of ….

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