Monthly Archives: February 2019

Remote Places

In his final short story in Collected Short Fiction, Gerald Murnane mentions Tristan da Cunha, one of the remotest places on this planet.  I got to thinking about it and other distant and sometimes uninhabited areas and googled “remote places in the world” where I found several websites with names like “The 20 most isolated places on Earth”.  I  began researching and found it fascinating  The better websites, like the cleverly named, included Tristan.

Atlasandboots reported that Tristan da Cunha is 1,491 miles from the nearest continent, Africa.  The closest inhabited place to it is Saint Helena, the island that Napoleon Bonaparte was sent to after his 2nd attempt to conquer France and the world.  After his first try he was sent to the island of Elba, which gave him a vacation instead of island fever.  In the Mediterranean Sea, Elba is not too far from Napoleon’s birthplace on Corsica.  The population of Tristan, according to atlasandboots is 297.  Another website called Insider said that 258 humans live there.  Atlasandboots also placed Pitcairn Island, the island where the mutineers from the Bounty settled, on its list.  Pitcairn’s 56 residents are all descendants of the troubled Bligh supporters.  Also on a and b’s list are Barrow, Alaska, and Easter Island.  Both show up on a lot of remote compilations.

As I browsed, I began building my own list.  Both Pitcairn and Tristan de Cunha are on it along with such distant islands as Kerguelen, Macquerie, South Georgia, and Cocos.  Kerguelen, also known as Desolation Island, is in the Indian Ocean and close to Antarctica.  It rains, sleets, and snows 300 days a year on the researchers working there.  One website reported that there are 130 residents, but that was in 2012.   Cocos has 600 residents and is 1,700 miles from Perth, Australia.  Half way between Australia and Antarctica, Macquarie has no permanent residents other than penguins.  South Georgia Island, which Kate Siber calls “The Last Godforsaken Place”, does have a settlement called Grytviken.  This islands population is 32 in the summer and half that in winter for understandable reasons.

I have always thought that Murmansk, Russia, is the remotest big city in the world.  The remotest place I aspire to seeing is the Faroe Islands.  Probably the most isolated places I have been to are Coober Pedy in South Australia, Unalaska in The Aleutian Islands, and Argentina’s Valdés Peninsula.  One time Ruth and I took a boat from Punta Arenas, Chile, to see a penguin colony.  It took us 12 hours to get there and return and was strangely worth it.



Gauging Train Travel in Australia

Ruth & I have traveled to Melbourne every time we’ve gone to Australia.  It’s one of my favorite cities in the world.  We have often flown there from Sydney even though we prefer the train.  We have taken both the historic Ghan and Indian Pacific trains Down Under.  Over the years I have asked Australian friends about taking the train from Sydney to Melbourne, but they always indicate displeasure at the idea and tell us it’s much better to fly.  I assumed that there was no direct train between these 2 cities.  I was wrong.   There is a direct XPT train between Australia’s 2 largest cities that takes 11 hours, so why have I been discouraged from using it?

High speed trains have been proposed but do not yet exist in Australia because they are expensive to make happen.  Renting a car from Sydney to Melbourne or the reverse involves driving 545 miles and staying on the left side of the road.  The train between these cities covers 600 miles, but New South Wales trains are standard gauge and Victoria’s have historically been broad.  The other common gauge is narrow.  Some call the highway ride long and boring and recommend flying.  This can involve rapid transit to Sydney’s airport, staying at an airport hotel, taking the very short flight to Melbourne riding  a Skybus into the city, and finally  transferring to another bus or taxi to get to a hotel in city center.  This is expensive travel although most claim it’s the best way to go. Why not take the train?

There are usually 2 trains daily between these cities.  One leaves Sydney’s downtown Central Station at 7:40 am and arrives in Melbourne at 6:30 pm.   Presently it costs $130 for a non-first-class seat and $183 for an upgrade.  Passengers who just pay for a seat are allowed only one small carry on bag limited to 11 pounds.   The overnighter leaves Sydney at 8:42 pm and arrives the next morning at 7:30.   The typical passenger currently rents a sleeping compartment and pays $271 for this ride.  A one-way flight would probably cost around $200 and more on Friday, Sunday, or Monday.

Most of the Sydney to Melbourne or Melbourne to Sydney trip is in New South Wales.  The train crosses into Victoria at Albury, a town of 51,000.  It continues from there to Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station.  In 1962 a standard gauge track was completed from Albury to Melbourne, making it possible to stay on the same train for the entire trip.

Here’s the glitch.  In the 19th century each of the Australian colonies adopted their own train gauge.  There were, as mentioned above, 3.  This situation occurred until Confederation in 1901.  When World War II happened, there were still 13 break of gauge places in Australia requiring the transfer of 1.8 million tons of freight at state border crossings.  People apparently had to transfer to a different gauge train too.  Since changing to a Victorian broad gauge train at Albury is not necessary, why is train travel between these cities discouraged?  I guess there’s only one way to find out.



The House of James Norman Hall

There are few viable museums in French Polynesia.  Famous artist Paul Gauguin lived in Tahiti and did his most famous paintings there, but a museum devoted to his work could not survive on the southern coast of Tahiti Nui and closed.  Perhaps the fact that they did not have a single painting or sculpture of his on display contributed to its demise.   Another famous temporary Tahitian who was born in Iowa, James Norman Hall, still has a museum devoted to him in Arue, a suburb of Pape’ete, thanks to his daughter Nancy.

James Norman Hall was a Renaissance Man.  In his lifetime he was a soldier who earned a Croix de Guerre with 5 palms and other citations, a pilot, a poet, a family man, but mostly he was a successful writer.  He collaborated on 3 books with Charles Nordhoff.  One of them became a blockbuster called Mutiny on the Bounty.  This story has been made into 3 major movies.  His other book that got filmed was The Hurricane.   Published for the first time in 1932, the first Mutiny on the Bounty film starred Clark Gable and won the Best Picture Academy Award in 1936.  It had 7 other nominations.  James Norman Hall moved into this house in Arue after his marriage and lived there until his death in 1951.  His grave overlooks Matavai Bay where William Bligh, the subject of the mutiny, first dropped anchor in Tahiti.  Mutiny on the Bounty was written in the house that is now a museum.

Hall’s daughter Nancy and her husband Nick were responsible for turning his house into this museum.  Nancy lived in it for 13 years and has devoted a lot of time over many years to greeting visitors and keeping the memory of her beloved father alive.  His other child became the noted cinematographer Conrad Hall.  Conrad Lafcadio Hearn Hall, whose impressive middle names derive from writers, also won an Academy Award for his cinematography.  Ruth & I are lucky enough to consider Nancy, who would like to live full time in Tahiti again, a friend.  She now divides her time between Denver and her beautiful mountaintop home in Arue.  If you want to learn more about James Norman Hall, there is a complete and reliable timeline about his life on the museum’s website and an introduction by Nancy.

I, of course, cannot be neutral and find this museum and all the memorabilia displayed within it fascinating.  All that’s out–family photos, many family treasures, lots of books–was once James Norman Hall’s property.  The garden, where I took the photo below, contains his original outdoor furniture.  Part of the home has been turned into Mama Lala’s Tearoom, which serves a full lunch.  We dined there.  If you get this opportunity, call the day before to make a reservation.  The government of French Polynesia has an agreement with Nancy to keep the museum opened indefinitely.  It’s worth seeing and there’s a parking lot across the street from it.


5 Compass “Amazing Places”

To no one’s surprise, I received a travel book for Christmas.  The World’s Most Amazing Places, a 2018 publication by Centennial Media, was mostly what I expected.  Its “Iconic Cities” included Venice, Sydney, and London, which are 1, 2 and 3.  But there are a few surprises along the way too.  Are you familiar with “Salar de Uyuni”?  I wasn’t.

Subtitled “112 Destinations to See in Your Lifetime”, The World’s Most Amazing Places (WMAP) is divided into categories like Ancient Marvels, Sacred Sites, and Extreme Adventures.  They can be predictable–the Acropolis and Angkor Wat are among the sacred sites–or unusual–Watery Wonders and Dream Resorts are interesting categories.  I was rather surprised to find Newgrange, a truly wonderful Neolithic burial mound in Ireland that predates Stonehenge, among “Timeless Tombs”.  This category also included Westminster Abbey.

I had forgotten that Westminster Abbey has become the resting place for so many famous people.  According to WMAP, approximately 3,300 historical superstars like Charles Dickens are either buried or memorialized in Westminster.  I had heard about China’s Zhangye Danxia but didn’t know that these rainbow mountains “only shine from June to September”.  I will reschedule that trip.  I know about Abu Dhabi but had never heard about the Sheikh Zayad Grand Mosque.  WMAP informed me that visitors are invited into it daily to gasp at its 82 white domes and gold-plated chandeliers.  Most importantly, I learned that one of the world’s most famous unfinished projects and an amazing destination is to be completed by 2026.  Yes, Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, which began construction in 1883, will hopefully be finished in 7 years.  I have seen many commercials for Sandals Royal Caribbean Resort but learned from WMAP that a personal butler is included with each suite.  I have been to Zion but never have felt totally comfortable there.  Several people have died by drowning or falling in this National Park.  “Be prepared to get dirty, hungry, cold, and wet,” WMAP’S writers conclude.  I laughed when I read this because it’s so true!

But I found The World’s Most Amazing Places most invaluable when it told me about destinations I had never heard of.    Rajasthan is in India.  It’s where Ranthambore National Park contains about half of the world’s remaining wild tigers.  I love cold places.  I long to visit Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Lapland but will probably never see Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia’s high-altitude salt flat that fun website calls both weird and the world’s largest.


Welcome to Moorea

Shaped like a raised baseball glove, Mo’orea is the Society Island’s pineapple growing center.  It’s the major industry here with tourism #2.  In some ways Mo’orea is French Polynesia’s most beautiful island and, some say, the inspiration for the song “Bali Hai” is here.   Mount Roa, 2,499 feet tall, is often called Bali Hai.  Mel Gibson spent 6 months here when he starred as Fletcher Christian in The Bounty.   Mo’orea looks more prosperous than the other islands, and I mentioned in a previous blog that the only real factory I saw was on it.  It also has lots of protected land and the only agricultural school in French Polynesia, the Lycée Agricole.  This school has 300 agricultural students and interns.

Different in many ways, Mo’orea has shrimp farms, stands of bamboo, and many tattoo artists.  It’s the only island we visited that has a drivable interior road, the Opunohu Valley paved two-lane highway that takes many visitors to a sensational viewpoint near its end called the Belvedere Lookout.  Travelers on this road get to see the agriculture school and an ancient marae with resident chickens on their way to the top.  A marae is an old native gathering spot often used for religious festivities.  Many are now archaeological sites.  There’s a popular walking trail through the estate at the school.  A childless couple donated their land to the University of California’s Berkeley campus, so there are marine biology students around too.   Mo’orea’s sights include a ring road, waterfalls, tropical gardens, lots of fine resorts and guest houses, and numerous, breathtaking beaches.


Often called Tahiti’s little sister, Mo’orea can be seen from several vantage points on Tahiti Nui’s ring road.  Those who drive its northwest section, get to enjoy this view.  Lots of tourists take the daily catamaran from Pape’ete’s harbor over to visit. It sails 3 to 5 times each day and takes about 45 minutes.  Mo’orea’s circle road is 39 miles long and a big biker lure.  Some hotels provide bikes for guests.  This island’s drier stretch of time is May to October.

Mo’orea is an ancient term meaning “yellow lizard”.  I saw many colorful chickens here, but not a single yellow lizard.