Monthly Archives: January 2010

OSTERLEN, SWEDEN – a ship of stones

The serious photographers were here at dawn, capturing the silhouettes as the sun rose from the sea beyond. We’ve missed that moment, but there is still plenty of magic hovering around the Ales Stenar.

It’s the mystery surrounding these prehistoric stone circles that appeals to us. We can imagine they were erected with great difficulty, massive boulders being dragged across country and up a steep hill, then carefully aligned with the heavens and set on end. But the purpose of all that effort remains unknown, and even scholars can only make guesses.

Fifty-nine standing stones, the Ales Stenar, from one to three metres high, rise from a field on a coastal ridge in southern Sweden’s Osterlen district, above the arty-crafty town of Kaseberga. They’re arranged in the rough shape of a ship, sixty-seven metres long, with taller stones at the prow and stern. Creamy cows graze around them, sometimes pausing to use them as convenient neck scratchers.

The Ales Stenar are thought to date from the time of the Vikings, around 600-1000AD. They may not be the pyramids, or even Stonehenge, but they’re no less intriguing – the largest, most complete and possibly the most beautiful prehistoric monument in northern Europe. At summer solstice the sun sets precisely over the prow stone, and at winter solstice rises over the ship’s stern. Nobody knows why. Was this the tomb of an ancient chief, a religious meeting place or an astronomical calendar? Or a landing pad for alien spaceships?

Visitors want to touch the stones, rub them, even try to push them over, knowing that others down the centuries have done the same. An excited party of Swedish children on a school excursion plays hide and seek between them. Backpackers spread out a picnic on the grassy slope overlooking the sea, then lean back against the stones to eat it.

There is no charge to visit Ales Stenar and surprisingly, given their archaeological importance, no security, only a polite warning notice by the cattle grid asking us to respect and preserve the area for future generations. We’re happy to do that.

Maybe the Ales Stenar were put there because artistically inclined Vikings, taking a break from looting and pillaging, simply liked the look of them.

The writer was a guest of the Scandinavian Tourist Board in Australia and Scandinavian Airlines.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: Train from Copenhagen to Ystad in Osterlen takes one hour and costs DKK42 ($10) one way. See dsb.dk Bus services operate around Osterlen, but private transport is best for reaching the prehistoric sites. The Ales Stenar are a short walk from Kaseberga.

Staying there: Near the village of Hammenhog, Ravakra B&B has doubles for SEK800 see ravakra.se For other accommodation options, see skane.com

Further information: For more information on activities and sights in the Osterlen area, see visitscandinavia.com.au or ring (02) 9212 1332 to order a Scandinavian Essential Guide.

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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Filed under Travel, travel photography, Travel- Europe

LANDSBOROUGH RIVER – rafting in New Zealand wilderness


I’m glad there are no mirrors in the change-rooms at Queenstown Rafting HQ, where I’m being fitted with my wetsuit. ‘Fitted’ isn’t quite the right word; only people in James Bond films actually fit into wetsuits. I’m exhausted just from pulling it on, and once my body is shoehorned into the rubber, it bulges in all the wrong places.

Luckily not many people will see me, not where I’m going. The Landsborough River is remote and wild, cutting across New Zealand’s South Island on its way to the west coast. Few people have seen the Landsborough; just occasional hikers, deer hunters and rafters.

I prise my wetsuit off, and board a minibus for a 2½-hour drive north from Queenstown. On the way, I meet those who’ll be my companions for the next three days: Jim and Maurine from San Diego, Queenstown locals Rebecca and Matt, and Danish students Dorthe and Michael. Harold and Dave, teachers from Auckland, have just spent two weeks riding mountain bikes and hiking the demanding Rees-Dart Track. I’m impressed. Most Landsborough rafters are over 35, I’m told, though many are younger. No rafting experience is required, but it’s advisable to be active and confident in water.

Our guides Gabi, ‘KC’ and Roger give us a cheerful commentary on the landscape as we move into the lush forest of the west. It’s a lovely drive, along pristine lakes with mountains beckoning in the background.

At Clarke Bluff there’s a helicopter waiting to shuttle us to Top Camp, up the river. Hey, how cool does that sound? ‘They choppered us in and it took two days to raft out!’ The river snakes below us. It looks flat from above though, as we land, rain starts to fall steadily and the river looks grey and threatening. And beautiful.

Top Camp is already set up in a grassy clearing surrounded by beech forest. There are comfortable large tents with stretcher beds and air mats. While we make ourselves at home, our guides prepare an amazing dinner – spring rolls and perfect venison medallions, then butter chicken and vegetables on rice, all cooked on the campfire and gas stove. Beer and excellent New Zealand wine are all part of the service. To finish off there’s a superb chocolate pudding with lashings of whipped cream. ‘Wicked stuff, eh?’

Overnight the rain sets in and next morning the river is even higher. Out here, the river is the Boss, and the Boss says no rafting today. Water gushes past our camp at 150 tonnes a second. I’ll take KC’s word for that – no way am I getting in to test it.

The plan was to raft a few hours down to Bottom Camp, then paddle out the rest of the way tomorrow. But we’re stuck here for the night and if, as forecast, the rain stops and the river drops, we’ll raft the lot in one long day.

So for now we have time to kill, chatting, reading, enjoying nature, and explaining cricket to the Americans, as you do when you have them as a captive audience.

After lunch, the rain eases enough to hike through the drizzle for a few hours. We tramp through brilliant silver beech forest, tangled, mossy and dripping. We see hares, fantails and paradise ducks.

Now and then we come to streams tumbling out of the mountains, feeding the Landsborough. We rock-hop across the first couple, trying to keep our feet dry then, finding that impossible, we just slosh through regardless. As we turn for home the clouds lift, revealing the snow-capped mountains and rugged cliffs around us, promising magic for the morrow.

So it proves to be. Sunday dawns spectacularly. The clouds that rained on us have dumped fresh snow on the peaks above the dark forest, turning them a brilliant white against the clear blue sky.

After a massive breakfast we lever ourselves back into those wetsuits. ‘How’s it feel, Richard?’ asks Roger. ‘Fine,’ I squeak. I can see venison medallions and a bottle of Pinot Noir poking out of my navel, just below the mushrooms and scrambled eggs. Then yellow helmet and lifejacket are added, and I become a giant Playmobil man, my torso totally rigid. Good. Nobody will expect me to do any paddling work, and if I fall in I’ll just roll down the river bouncing off rocks.

Into the rubber rafts we tumble. KC gives us a quick safety lecture and our paddling instructions, ‘Forward! Back! Left! Right!’ Nothing too tricky. I quickly become expert at the ‘Hold on! Get down!’ manoeuvre we’re to use when hitting a rock. Nobody grips a safety rope tighter or crouches lower in a raft than me.

We push off and immediately snag on a submerged boulder. ‘Jump like kangaroos!’ yells KC. This is a new one. We bounce up and down as the raft spins in the current. ‘All left!’ We throw ourselves left and the raft lists. Swirling water tosses us off the rock and whips us downstream. We’re underway. ‘Whoo! Way to go, team!’

Gabi rides ahead in a little kayak. She was an Australian white water champion, so we trust her judgement. She signals the best way through the rapids and waits to scoop up any of us who topple overboard. ‘Gabi’s driving the Ferrari, we’re in the bus,’ says KC.

Most Landsborough River rapids are graded 3 or 4. ‘Grades go up to 6,’ KC tells us, ‘Niagara Falls is a 6.’ We rookies can manage a 4 without flipping, though we have some exhilarating close calls and we’re soon soaked through from the spray.

The nice thing about rafting is that the river does most of the work. We seldom need more than a few strokes to position ourselves to ride the current, and when the river slows down between the rapids we have plenty of time to admire the gorgeous passing scenery. Even a Playmobil man can do it.

Late in the afternoon we reach a little beach where the Landsborough meets the Haast River. It’s the end of our journey. We unload the gear, strip off our wetsuits and pull on dry clothes. We congratulate each other and thank our guides. They have been exceptionally good company, knowledgeable and considerate, not to mention talented five star chefs.

On the minibus back to Queenstown, Jim and Maurine arrange another quick rafting trip next morning before they fly out. ‘That’s sweet,’ says KC, ‘Bring your luggage and we’ll drive you straight from the river to the airport.’ If I could join them I would.

The writer was a guest of Queenstown Rafting.

TRIP NOTES

When to go: Trips to the Landsborough run Friday-Sunday in summer only (November-March)

Further information: Queenstown Rafting’s guided 3-day Landsborough Wilderness package costs $1495, including all equipment, transport, tent accommodation, meals and beverages. http://www.queenstownrafting.co.nz

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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RYE – England’s best preserved village?

Four hundred years ago, John Cheston decided to demolish his house, overlooking the cemetery of St Mary’s church in Rye. He’d just removed the first roof tiles when a cry came from the burghers below, ‘Desist, thou scurvy varlet! (or words to that effect) Thou despoileth our streetscape and wrecketh our potential tourism industry.’

The city fathers invoked a 1606 heritage law, thus sparing Mr Cheston’s house, and securing Rye’s future as a centre for artists, writers, musicians and miscellaneous bohemians. It has become a perfect location for filming British costume dramas and a very popular short trip out of London.

Rye claims to be England’s best preserved village, and who am I to argue, not having seen the other contenders. The Ryers (or ‘Mud Heads’ as they’re uncharitably known in the rest of Sussex) have been particularly sensitive about building conservation since 1377, when some rowdy Frenchmen cruised across the Channel, literally set the town alight and nicked the church bells as souvenirs. A heavily-armed delegation paid France a return visit and brought the bells back. Rye was restored to its former glory and now boasts more historic buildings than any town in Britain.

The village is almost too cute to be true. An elegant white windmill neatly balances the cluster of black wooden huts where fisherman used to hang their nets. Steep, narrow streets wind between houses with the Tudor timber frames and slate roofs we tourists love. The battlements of Ypres Tower and Landgate Arch, and the aforementioned St Mary’s church are striking remnants of the town’s medieval past.

Rye was once a major harbour for warships, an important member of the Cinq Ports, and given the title ‘Rye Royale’ by Elizabeth I. But eventually the sea gave up the battle against the silt and beat a retreat. Now at low tide small fishing boats lie on their sides in a muddy channel while sheep graze on the Romney Marsh between Rye and the nearest beach, several kilometres away.

Nobody seems to miss the sea too much. Tourists still flock to hobble over Rye’s cobbles, browsing the galleries and pottery shops and drinking traditional English coffee (a tasteless, milky liquid that pre-dates the modern macchiato) in charming traditional tea-rooms.

It’s all very genteel these days, but Ryers also take pride in their grimy past, the smuggling era in particular. Rye was the haunt of the owlers, as smugglers were known in the eighteenth century. In dark back rooms, deals were done on smuggled liquor, tea and luxury goods, and also on wool and banned English language bibles. ‘Pssst – wanna buy a cheap bale of Romney Marsh and a couple of gospels?’

The Mermaid Inn, now an upmarket hotel, was the hub of these nefarious activities, and night ghost tours are run through the secret passages of the town. Inspired by a visit to Rye, Rudyard Kipling wrote A Smuggler’s Song, ending, ‘Them that asks no questions, isn’t told a lie, So watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by!’

I also heard the macabre story of a girl called Amanda and a young monk named Cantador, who were bricked into a wall as punishment for their illicit love affair. Apparently Cantador’s ghost often sings in Turkey Cock Lane, now a carpark behind Rye Lodge Hotel, though he was taking a break when I visited.

I loved the permanent exhibition of penny arcade machines in the Rye Heritage Centre. I’m such a sucker for these things. I bought seven old copper pennies to feed into the slots of my choice. The fortune telling machine issued a card that assured me: ‘You will discover easy methods of making money,’ which was encouraging news for someone who’d just swapped a perfectly good pound for a measly 7 pence.

My remaining six coins I invested in storytelling dioramas, where little models move around when the penny drops. The fun comes not because these things are so ingenious; it’s because they’re so unbelievably tacky that we’re delighted when they do anything at all.

For instance, I watched a miniature miser refuse a donation to a tiny Red Cross nurse rattling a tin. The devil popped up and a bag of money disappeared from the miser’s safe. Then there was the totally non-PC ‘George and Mabel in the Park’. George raised his hat to the attractive girl on the bench beside him, while surreptitiously lifting her skirt with the end of his walking cane. All good, naughty fun.

Back in the town, I shared a stroll with my fellow tourists, English, French, German and Dutch, noting the plaques on houses testifying to former residents. For a place with a population of less than 5,000, Rye has had an extraordinary number of celebrity Mud Heads. Jacobean playwright John Fletcher, Joseph Conrad, G.K.Chesterton and H.G.Wells all lived here. American novelist Henry James spent his final years in the impressive Lamb House.

More recently, Sir Paul McCartney sent his kids to local Rye schools and Spike Milligan was vice president of the Rye Rugby club. He’s buried in nearby Winchelsea, below the world’s wittiest (self-written) epitaph. Church authorities would only let the family inscribe it on his headstone in Irish, but translated into English it reads, ‘I told you I was ill.’

Mine was a fleeting visit, but I can see why they all came to Rye, and I can guess why they stayed.

The writer was a guest of 1066 Country Tourism.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: Trains leave at least hourly from London Charing Cross to Rye, take just over 2 hours and cost from GBP24 off peak, one way. See nationalrail.co.uk

Staying there: For numerous accommodation options, see visitrye.co.uk

Further information: Entry to the Rye Heritage Centre is GBP3, town audio guide costs GBP3.50. For other activities in Rye, See visitrye.co.uk and 1066country.com

First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney

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Filed under England, Literary history, Travel, Travel- Europe

MY BETTER TRAVEL SHOTS

I’m still a beginner with the camera, but sometimes things work out all right. For those who know and care, I have a Panasonic Lumix FZ18.

We had to get up at 5.30am to go to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, but we weren’t the first people out and about. Shot from our apartment’s balcony.

This little boy was at Singapore’s Juriong Bird Park, feeding the squabbling lorikeets. I like the texture of his mother’s dress behind him.

It was a bad day for taking photos at Fatima, in Portugal, with only one faithful pilgrim in view.

No clever photography here, but look at the location – rafting on Landsborough River, New Zealand

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Filed under Singapore, Travel, travel photography, Travel- Europe