Sunday, 29 May 2011


We live only two kilometers from the last remnants of the Cold War, the Demilitarized military zone (DMZ) that runs across the width of the Korean peninsula, dividing north from south, separating brother from brother. Close by lies an observatory where you can go to look in on North Korea and buy products made in the north. At night, the divide is highlighted by lights; lights that illuminate the south side, including the independence highway that would link Seoul with Pyongyang, highlight the prosperity of the south. The lack of lights across the river shows more than the darkness hides, a lack of lights highlighting the electricity and infrastructure problems that the North suffers from.

View through the barbed wire to North Korea.
The north-south divide puts the capitalist South up against the Stalinist North. The division of the country at the 38th parallel was performed arbitrarily in 1945 by a member of the U.N force stationed in the peninsula. Legend has it that he only had a Korean map obtained from a National Geographic magazine to undertake this duty. While roughly dividing the country into two equal parts, the North was left with precious little arable land while the south missed out on the mineral wealth and the industry of the North. It is now a 4-kilometer by 250-kilometre scar that divides the country roughly in half along its entire length. Military from both sides are (supposedly) excluded from the area, which ironically now consists of the best-preserved temperate zone in Asia. Birdlife including rare cranes and waterfowl breed prolifically in the DMZ, a situation environmentalists hope would continue after reunification. Some people swear that tigers may still prowl the area, but no convincing proof has been released publicly. As the two Koreas are still technically at war, there is still a large military buildup on both sides of the border with North Korea boosting one of the world’s largest standing military while the South still has compulsory military conscription for all men that lasts two years.
The split was supposed to be a temporary one, with reunification under one government through elections in 1947. These elections were opposed by the Soviet Union and hence the Soviet North and elections were held only in the South the following year. Later that year, the north was formally declared a communist state. For two years, the two sides shared an uneasy peace with both claiming sovereignty over the whole country. The peace was shattered in June 1950 when the North launched a surprise attack, sanctioned by both the Soviet Union and China. The communist forces quickly took a large chunk of South Korea, including Seoul, and would have taken the whole country if it wasn’t for the intervention of UN forces led by America. By August, the allied forces clung to only a small portion of the peninsula called the Busan perimeter, centred on the South’s second city in the southeast corner of the country. The communists mounted several attacks but could not cut through the allied defenses, which included soldiers from sixteen different countries, the majority (480,000) from the United States. In September, the war had a major change in direction with the Incheon landing, a surprise move led by General McArthur that landed behind enemy lines near the port of Incheon in an amphibious attack. The move was initially criticized but the doubting Thomases soon had to rescind their criticism as the tactic cut the communists off from their supply lines. The invasion swiftly gained momentum and by the 1st of October, not only had North Korean soldiers been ejected from the South but the 38th parallel was crossed and several North Korean cities taken. The allied forces pushed on, trying to achieve a complete surrender before the harsh winter set in. Before they could achieve this end, Chinese forces swarmed over the North Korean border, eventually repelling the allied forces and pushing them back to set up a stalemate around the artificial border created around the 38th parallel. Seoul changed hands a couple more times before the opposing forces dug in along a line just north of the 38th. Two years of often bitter and violent fighting continued with little material gain for either side. 

General McArthur is both respected and reviled in the Republic for his war-time deeds.
During this time, McArthur pushed for total war, advocating dropping bombs on Manchuria and northern Korea, a push that put him in direct conflict with US president Truman, who eventually terminated McArthur’s command. McArthur’s willingness to use nuclear warfare in China and North Korea has caused a revision in the revered status he holds in the South, particularly in the older generation. The war meandered on with little gains for either side until an armistice was signed by representatives from North Korea, China and the UN Command in July 1953. South Korea played no active part in signing the armistice, with South Korean President Rhee attacking the peace process. However, the uneasy peace has survived since 1953, not withstanding multiple infractions on both sides, but mainly from the North. At the conclusion of the war, a million South Korean civilians, half a million allied forces and one and a half million communists troops had been either killed, wounded or MIA. Atrocities had been committed by both side; the north killing prominent South Koreans and committing a couple of large scale mass killings of captured American forces on their excursions south while the South massacred communists and their sympathizers, real or alleged, in both North and South Korea. Some of these indiscriminate killings predated the war, like the mass killing of alleged communists on the southern island of Jeju in 1948 in an event now known as the Jeju massacre. Some of these atrocities have only come to light, with questions asked on the compliancy of the United States in these proceedings. Recent documents may suggest that American commanders failed to protect civilians properly and at times may have ordered the strafing of refugees fleeing the North for fear that included amongst them would be communist sympathizers.

Razor wire is a feature along the DMZ
People can visit the DMZ on organized tours and a visit to the DMZ may be the most surreal experience I have had, definitely in my time in Korea. Visitors to the DMZ are asked to dress respectfully with no shorts or T-shirts with slogans or logos (in case the North used images of shabby foreigners in its internal propaganda). South Koreans are only allowed to go under exceptional circumstances. Security was strict with multiple passport checks, both at the USO office where we left and before our arrival at Camp Boniface, the US army base at the DMZ. First stop on the tour is Panmunjeom, a village that lies on the South Korean side of the DMZ, which is where the Armistice Agreement was signed. Here, discussions between north and south take place in UN blue buildings that straddle the DMZ. On arriving in Panmunjeom, you can see what is billed as the world’s most dangerous golf course, a par 3 that runs alongside a live mine field. Etiquette and protocol is taken seriously and you are educated on what is considered to be correct behaviour in a briefing that is part warning, part safety and part propaganda. You sign waivers that state in part ”that the visit will detail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” After signing your life away, you get lead down to the border, to the blue meeting houses where the demarcation line is marked by concrete blocks. 
Looking towards the North Korean side.
In between the buildings, armed soldiers from both sides stand and face the enemy. The South Korean soldiers stand in bizarre, protective Tae kwon do poses with unflinching facial expressions, clenched fists and sunglasses. They are supposed to be at least 177cms tall and will have a black belt in either Taekwondo Do or Judo. The North Koreans have two soldiers facing each other in rigid military posture. They face each other so neither can defect while a third stands with his back to them to try and deter others from defecting. South Korea and North Korea both have buildings here whose heights have been added to so each side could claim the bigger, more impressive building. You can then walk down from the South Korean building to a UN building where meetings between the UN forces and North Korea are still conducted. There are two doors into these small rooms, one leading into North Korea and one coming from the south. A table where meetings are held holds the laminated flags of the participating countries (legend has it the flags were changed from cloth to plastic when some North Korean soldiers used the flags of the allies as toilet paper). A South Korean soldier stands between you and the door to North Korea, lest you get kidnapped and drawn down the rabbit hole, into the wonderland that is the North.

In one of the UN buildings. Here, I'm standing in North Korea but I'm protected by a ROK soldier.
From there, things maybe get weirder. You go to the area where North Koreans hacked to death three American soldiers with tomahawks, who were trimming a tree that blocked the view from a lookout point. You go past the bridge of No Return where captured soldiers could cross after the war either to the North and South, probably aware that their choice would mean that they would never see their family again. Then, you see the world’s largest flag near a phantom village; a village where it is claimed villagers are shipped in and out of daily. All around is the conspicuous birdlife, conspicuous because of the lack of birds seen in Seoul. Majestic Manchurian cranes, rarely seen now, were commonplace in the air and in the wetlands. They were spectacular, a reminder what interrupted human interference can have on nature. From Panmunjeon, we went to the Odusan lookout observatory for views over North Korea to the industrial city of Kaesong. Using the telescopes, on a clear day like we had, you can pick out a giant statue of Kim Sung Il, gold or copper plated, a monument to megalomania, standing proud in a park. There wasn’t the same tension here as at the DMZ, apart from the tall ROK soldier who told Mary that if she took photos over the banned yellow line one more time, he would confiscate her camera. It didn’t matter that she was taking pictures of the South, he said. It was still a matter of national security. The day’s final step was a trip to the three tunnels, discovered by the South, dug down from the North. The tunnels would have allowed North Korea to infiltrate deep into the south, bypassing the fortified DMZ. An estimated 10,000 soldiers could apparently march through these tunnels (these 10,0000 must have been small, small people because I had to duck my head all the way along and I wasn’t carrying a rifle or pack). The North initially denied the tunnels were their doing, until the South pointed out that the drilling marks definitely pointed south. Game, Set and Match, South. Further tunnels have subsequently been found popping up into the south, some disarmingly close to Seoul.

The tunnels are small and claustrophobic but could have allowed North Koreans to swarm across the border.
In what I call the war trifecta, (a DMZ tour and a visit to the national War museum in Seoul that has in-depth displays on the Korean War), the third leg is a visit to the U.N cemetery in Busan. As you may recall, Busan had been the last stronghold for the South Koreans and allied forces in the early part of the Korean War and was the only major city not to fall to the communists. In 1951, the South Korean government gifted the land to the U.N, for use as a cemetery to bury foreign soldiers. 2,300 men lie here from Canada, Australia, France, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, South Africa, Turkey, the UK and the US. Many others were originally interned here but were subsequently repatriated to their respective home countries. The cemetery remains the only one in the world maintained by the UN and they do a great job in maintaining it. The lawns are immaculately groomed and trees well pruned. The cemetery lies on a hill above the port, peaceful but unbelievably poignant. It was especially moving when we found New Zealand’s section. 
New Zealand's war memorial at the Busan War Cemetery.
Of the 6,000 New Zealand soldiers who served here, forty-five soldiers died; 34 have found permanent residence in this cemetery with two others whose bodies were never found also commemorated here. A granite memorial had been raised, with messages in Maori, English and Korean. It features a design based on a moko, a Maori woman’s chin tattoo. This design was chosen as a moko was traditionally conferred as a sign of obtaining adulthood, an indication that the woman could take pain and also take on responsibilities. Here, it is used as a symbol of the loss felt by women in war, both literally and in the sense of New Zealand as the mother country losing some of her sons. There are 45 cuts on the stone, each one marking the life of one of the dead countrymen. Each country had similar memorials, although we, of course, focused on New Zealand’s part of the cemetery. Times like this always leave me grateful that I’ve never had to endure the horrors of war and always makes me wonder what I would be like under fire. Hopefully, I’ll never know.

Saturday, 21 May 2011


Near the middle of Han China 30 kilometres from Xi’an, lies the 20th Century most startling archaeological find. A find so amazing that some have questioned its very authenticity. Here, in 1974, some farmers digging a water-well stumbled upon an intact head of one of what we now know as a Terracotta Warrior, funerary statues made for the mausoleum of unified China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. As well unifying China, building roads and canals throughout his empire, introducing a standard written language, a common currency and starting construction on the Great Wall,  being a megalomaniac responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, Qin Shi Huang also built a huge mausoleum to himself  that 700,000 people laboured on for over 30 years. He had this grand scheme when aged only 14, having ascended to the throne aged 13. A man of vision well beyond his years. As well as this huge tomb, he created a vast army of life-like and life-sized statues; infantry, archers and generals, chariots and horses, officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians, all slightly different in appearance. Construction started in 246 BC, with the terracotta army made to either guard his tomb or to serve him in ruling another empire in the afterlife. They were manufactured in workshops; heads, legs, arms, torsos all made separately and then assembled on site like doll parts. They varied in height, uniform and hairstyle, all proscribed in accordance to their rank. They were originally brightly coloured in lacquer, a sheen mostly faded, even in their subterranean existence, only apparent in a select few. 
One of the pits showing some of the thousands of terracotta soldiers
It’s believed eight or so facial moulds were used; the features of each statue changed through the use of clay to give each one unique facial features and different expressions. In return for their diligence, his tradesmen were probably given the gift of death, their deaths helping to preserve the secrets and wonders of the site that lay largely forgotten for two and a half thousand years. Findings of fragments of terracotta figures were reported in the area for a long time but the 1974 discovery was the most telling one, one that eventually lead to the uncovering of the now treasured Terracotta Warriors. What is on display is a small percentage of the estimated 8000 strong army, which is complemented by 130 chariots and 500 odd horses, most of them still buried beneath 2,000 years of history. What has been excavated so far fills several hanger-sized buildings, with rows upon rows of these soldiers and sculptures. You wish you could do what one cheeky Dutch tourist did, who camouflaged himself as a warrior, climbed down into the pit and stood undetected among the soldiers for about an hour before being found.  The only way to see them close up is to be a VIP, both the Queen and Bill Clinton were granted access to wander alongside the soldiers. Thankfully, the site was found after the peak of the Cultural Revolution that saw the demise of so much of China’s heritage had passed and luckily, the farmers had the foresight to notify the local authorities.  Their reward since has been to meet and greet foreign tourists who visit the site and to be available to pose for photos with them (one guy was there the day we were and I suppose it is better than the fate of the executed craftsmen).  Ironically, the farmers who finally uncovered the army may have been descendants of people ordered to guard the tomb over 2,000 years ago.

A closer view
 As wonderful as the warriors are, an even greater treasure is believed to be found in Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum, an as yet largely untouched treasure chest that lies under a huge earthen pyramid 76 metres tall about two kilometers from the site of the Terracotta Warriors. Contemporary writers wrote that the First Emperor’s tomb was full of “palaces, towers, valuable utensils and other objects of awe, with 100 rivers fashioned in mercury.”  As well as burying the workers, it’s said that there are 48 tombs, one for each of his childless concubines who were also buried alive upon his death. Amazingly, the tomb is believed to be almost intact and high levels of mercury have been detected in the area, seemingly in support of those early reports. Chinese officials are taking a wait and see approach, hoping that technology developed over the next few years will allow them to preserve all or almost all of the treasures found inside the tomb.

Looking through the haze from the wall down to the city.

Aside from the Terracotta Warriors, we only saw two of Xi’an’s other attractions. Starting at the Drum Tower, which towers above the city centre, with a large drum that used to be struck at sunset to indicate the end of the day, we hired tandem bikes to bike around the Xi’an city walls that are among the oldest and best preserved city walls of any Chinese city. These walls, built in 1370 during the Ming Dynasty, are 14 kilometres in length, (it was partly closed for renovations so we couldn’t do a full circuit), are 12 metres high and are 15-18 metres in thickness. You could drive a bus down it if you could get a bus up there. We had an hour-long jaunt along the top of the wall, looking down into the city, observing people through the haze of pollution, watching from an unseen vantage point as people got along with their every-day business. Every 100 metres or so, there was a rampart that extended out from the wall, allowing archers to have a good position over any attackers. It served not only as a wall but also as a very effective military implement.

Sons of Anarchy
The other place of interest that we visited was the Huaqing Hot Springs. A palace was first built here long before China was united, dating back to 1100 BC, with subsequent additions made by several emperors including Qin Shi Huang. Recently, it was most famous for being the location of the kidnapping of General Chiang Kai-Shek, in what is now known as the Xi’an incident. Here in 1936, Kai-Shek was kidnapped by Marshall Zhang, who wanted Kai-Shek to agree to a general cease-fire with the Communists in order to put up a united front against the invading Japanese. Bullet holes still remain in buildings around the compound from the gunfire that took place during the kidnapping. Kai-Shek was staying in a place known as the Five Room Hall when he heard gunfire. He jumped out of a window and was later found by a soldier in a cave, unarmed, shoeless and clad in pyjamas. The incident set in motion the consolidation of the Communists, the defeat of the Japanese and ultimately the success of the Communists over Kai Shek.

Xi’an is a worthwhile stop over and not just for the Terracotta Warriors. Do your research before you go and make the most of the other sights this ancient capital has to offer. The last word must go to a friend of ours. When we told him that we had seen the famed Terracotta Warriors, his only question was to ask what the statues were made from. “Can I buy a d for dumb for 20, Greg”.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011


We had spent a week with friends enjoying the sights of Melbourne; the Old Melbourne Gaol, the last home and execution site of the infamous Ned Kelly, the superb Melbourne Zoo where one of the highlights was the wombat keeper’s uncanny resemblance to a wombat, the MCG, home of many famous Australia-New Zealand cricket matches, including the underarm incident and Lance Cairns’s six sixes, the vineyards up the Yarra Valley, the delightful Mornington peninsula. Unfortunately, our friends had to return to work so instead of just hanging around their apartment, we decided to hit up the Great Ocean Road, one of Victoria’s greatest attractions. The Great Ocean Road follows a scenic path around the south-western part of Victoria, offering spectacular views over cliffs and beaches, winding through small picturesque towns and rainforests. It provides access to the Shipwreck coast where over 1000 ships met their ends in the late part of the 19th Century and early part of the 20th. It was built by soldiers returning from the First World War; as well as providing them with work, it also serves as the world’s largest war memorial; all 243 kilometres of it are dedicated to casualties of the conflict

One of the world's great drives.
Before hitting up the Great Ocean Road though, the tour group we arranged to go with took us to the Grampians National Park, a 3 hour drive from Melbourne, famous for being one of the richest Aboriginal art sites in south-eastern Australia (we didn’t see any). We did enjoy the views from lookouts of the picturesque sandstone mountain ranges that fold in spectacular arrays of stone, helped by the erosion that has augmented nature so graciously. One such sculpture was the formation formerly known as the Jaws of Death, which are rocks shaped like jaws that you can climb out onto, narrow ledges forming the mandibles that lead to a sheer drop off. They were renamed the Balconies out of fear that foreign tourists, apparently superstitious in nature, would be scared off visiting the site. After poking around the mountains and hills, we made off our way to our campsite, sleeping in gender-segregated cabins like we were back at intermediate school again.

The rock formation formerly known as the Jaws of Death (TRFFKATJOD). A symbol would be easier.
 If you haven’t spent the night in the Australian bush before, the sounds are quite startling. Kookaburras, the large kingfishers, make quite the cacophony, laughing in their unusual way so that it sounds like a troop of monkeys or hyenas were around the camp site. Other songbirds unknown to me joined in the chorus, until it really did sound like we were in the deepest jungle, instead of only a few kilometers into the Grampians. As I walked to my cabin after supper, a large grey Kangaroo jumped out of a bush. I’m not ashamed to say that I was momentarily frightened by this beast explosively bounding out from behind a bush. No matter how well you know that there are no large, dangerous carnivores in the area, you still can’t help but to jump when something as large as a kangaroo jumps out at you. The next morning, I rose early, sneaking out of the cabin before first light. I watched small parrots and cockatoos in the gum trees while keeping an apprehensive eye downwards to try and avoid snakes before I trod on them. I walked for a while until I was able to spy upon a large group of kangaroos. I got within 50 metres of them but then my stealth failed me and they took off, covering huge distances over the browned off grass with each bounce. It remains one of my fondest memories.

I managed to get close to a mob of kangaroos like this until they spied me and took off with gusto.
After returning to the cabin and helping myself to a hearty breakfast, the group set off to do a 90 minute walk through the Grampians, with the driver mindful to start early to avoid the hot afternoon sun. He dropped us off with instructions which were to follow the trail. He would be waiting at the other end of it to pick us up. After he left, a 40 something year old Pommie guy took over. Somehow surmising from the driver’s exit that he was now the de-facto head of the group, he called us into a huddle to give us a pep talk. From his appearance, one would assume that he hadn’t left the house he shared with his mother in a non-descript Midlands town for the past 15 years, spending his time playing war games in a dark room. He was fat, pasty in the way that only cave dwellers should be, with long, greasy looking hair. His clothing that I’m guessing his mother had procured for him was all-over khaki. Later, he reminded me of the character Locke from Lost, who somehow intended on doing an intensive trek through the outback in a wheelchair. For this short walk, this weekend warrior had brought what can only be described as a utility belt, survival paraphernalia of all descriptions dangling from it, water bottles, sprays, pocket knifes, ropes, crampons, bandages, head lamp. In hushed tones, he started addressing us on subjects such as the perils of the Australian sun (it was at about 8 in the morning and while the temperature was pleasant, it was far from extreme) and what to do in case of snakebite. The most memorable moment went something like this, “Can you all keep hold of your water bottles”, he said, sweat already dripping from his brow, lank ponytail swinging behind him. “Because if we get lost, we could collect our pee for use if we get desperate”. This is where he lost the attention of most of us, many of us trying unsuccessfully to hold back a snigger, broke away from the circle and started out on the easy hike, leaving him in the back to mutter about lack of preparation and survival know-how. It was like he had skimmed read Bill Bryson’s “In A sunburned Country” and saw mentions of outback adventurers drinking urine but glossed over the bit where Bryson explained that urine actually facilitates dehydration. 

The main attraction here was a section of rock known as the Elephants Hide. It’s so named because people felt its rippled effect over a slope echoed the appearance of an elephant’s hide. We passed through gullies and scaled one large hill, looking out for kangaroos and wallabies while being mindful of snakes (Australia is home to many of the world’s  most poisonous snakes although fatalities are more rare than you would think, mainly due to the low population density and the fact that many of these snakes make their home in the deep outback).

Elephant Hide rock. It looked more hideish in reality than it does in photos. 
The next day, we hit the Great Ocean Road, taking in beaches and cliffs, each with a story to tell. At one, our guide told us a story about how a steamboat ran adrift and had to ditch 500 barrels of beer and 120 cases of spirits. The returned servicemen working on the road obtained it somehow which then led to an unplanned two week booze break. At another cliff, the story went that early settlers drove local Aboriginals off it, plunging them to their deaths on the rocks below. While I have been unable to verify this independently, several massacres of Aboriginal people did occur in Victoria. While the idea of a group of men driving another group of men of a cliff for no good reason except as sport is horrifying, it would not surprise me. While all native people around the world suffered the after-effects of colonization, aborigines were hit particularly hard, with massacres, disease and loss of land major consequences in the decline of many communities. Aboriginal people have been heavily discriminated against, both by citizens and by legislation. It wasn’t until the 1960s that they were given the right to vote in national elections. Queensland didn’t grant them the right to vote until 1965. Even now, key statistics for Aborigines (life expectancy, alcoholism etc) remain Australia’s dirty secret. At least, there are some attempts being made now to address these issues at both central and state levels.

At another stop, we were inundated by flies. Australian flies are a persistent annoyance and count as Australia’s biggest pest, behind rabbits and maybe Australians themselves (spoken like a true New Zealander). Their copious number and excellence at annoyance has led to many innovations like the Aussie wave (constant waving of hands across your face to discourage fly attack), also known as the bush salute as well as the famous cork hats that are the hands free version of the aussie wave. One small boy, aged about four, was at wits end when it came to what to do with combating the fly menace. In the end, he gave up the battle. With his face covered, he proceeded to simultaneously scream, cry and shout “get them off me”, in a manner that recalled a Mongolian throat singer. All this while flies were presumably in his mouth, nostrils and nose. I can understand his angst. I don’t think I have ever felt so much pity for that one small boy as I have for another human, even to this day.

The next stop was London Arch, formerly known as London Bridge. In its previous form, it formed a complete double-span natural bridge until one day in 1990 when the bridge suddenly collapsed, leaving two tourists stranded on the outer part and televised throughout Australia. They had to get rescued by a helicopter; we regaled ourselves with stories that centred around the two strandees adultery being caught out on national television or that they were ex-lovers on a romantic tryst. Apparently though, much to our disappointment, the two people were actually strangers whose first contact arose from being stuck together on a newly formed island. Our guide couldn’t shed any light on whether there had been a subsequent love-match.

Another formerly known as: London arch was formerly London Bridge until the bridge collapsed.
Shortly after London Arch, we come to the most famed point along the Great Ocean Road, the 12 Apostles, a collection of limestone rock stacks, that rise spectacularly out of the water (no word on which one was Judas). They are here as the result of erosion (erosion is both a life giving and a grim reaper here as we will see later). Although the name suggested that there should be 12, there are, in fact, only eight left standing (the name was changed in the 1920s from the rather less romantic Sow and Piglets to the more tourist enticing Apostles). Even then, there were only 9, with one falling to the sea in 2005. The Apostles started off like the London Arch, water and wind wearing away at the soft rock until caves were formed in the cliffs, which then became arches, which in turn collapsed leaving just the central stack left. We were lucky enough to pick up a cheap helicopter ride over the Apostles. It really is a great way to see them, view unencumbered in a giant, mechanized bubble floating in, over and around them while also taking in views of the rugged Shipwreck coast. From up here, you can appreciate how so many ships met their end, taking countless sailors with them.

12 Apostles: only 8 stand with further casualties expected.
It’s pretty hard to beat the helicopter ride, so the rest of the day was of a more sedate nature. There was the excursion into the Otways, dense temperate rainforest reminiscent of New Zealand and giving further indications that Gondwanaland was once a massive entity, encompassing many southern lands including, of course, both Australia and New Zealand. Here, you could imagine that a population of thylacines (Tasmanian Tiger), a large, canine-like marsupial lingers on (there are sporadic but unlikely sightings of this animal in Victoria, long extinct on the mainland and probably in Tasmania since the 1930s). It also gives lie to my childhood fallacy that ferns were an exclusively New Zealand plant. Here, beech and mountain ash overshadowed the multitude types of ferns which play home to a variety of native marsupials, none of which we saw during our time here. Still, it was nice to take a walk around and ponder a time when these forests would have been teeming with the types of unusual and unique animals that Australia is famous for. These, of course, include koalas. It wasn’t until somewhere further along the road, when the driver pulled over into a sub-divided suburb that we, strangely enough, were able to see a small community of koalas. If it wasn’t for their appearance, which is very cute, koalas would have little going for them. Their reliance on eucalyptus sees them filling a niche that no other creature could fill as the leaves are high in phenols, oils and other toxins that would kill many other animals. The leaves are also low in energy and protein, which has had severe consequences on the koalas’ physiology and behaviour. Because their diet provides so little energy, koalas have a low metabolic rate and sleep for most of the day (16-18 hours a day). They are the sloths of the Australian fauna. The brain has been considerably reduced in size, weighing no more than 0.2% of its body weight, (a cat's brain in comparison weighs about 1% of its body weight) with the animal’s two cerebral hemispheres looking like “a pair of shriveled walnut halves on top of the brain stem”. It is the only animal in the world that has such a brain present in such a reduced and shriveled state. As if this wasn’t enough, the koala’s habitat has become fractured, resulting in in breeding among communities isolated from each other by roads and developments. Several colonies have been afflicted by disease, especially Chlamydia (sexually depraved koalas), resulting in a reduction in fertility and a decrease in numbers. To top it all of, they smell funny and are bad-tempered. We saw three, two females and a big male, who grunted at us in mild abuse, like a drunk too lazy to form actual insults. 
Ill tempered, smelly, stupid and potentially chlamydia ridden. Wouldn't make for a  good personal ad.
From here, it was back to Melbourne, passing past Bell’s Beach, where Point Break may or may not have been filmed, passing through outer suburbs of Melbourne until the towns  fused together signifying that we had hit Melbourne itself. A journey down the Great Ocean road gives a variety of experiences, particulary if it includes some time in the Grampians. Just remember if an Englishmen tells you to collect urine in your water bottle, just smile and nod and walk slowly away.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011


The first time we came to Korea, we managed to wrangle a 2-night stopover in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. We really had no idea what to do in KL so we hired a driver to take us around the city and its environs. First stop after the compulsory visit to a jade factory was the Batu Caves, huge, natural limestone caves that are situated about 15 or so kilometers from downtown. These caves have an ancient history, used by people for thousands of years. Now though, their major function is as a Hindu temple, numbering as one of the more important temples outside of India. The site is comprised of several caves, the largest one known as the temple or Cathedral Cave, which houses several separate temples under its large 100 metre ceiling. This ceiling serves as a vaulted arch, impressive as the man-made ones in Christian churches or in Islamic mosques, a fusion of natural and man-made ways for people to communicate with and celebrate the Hindu deities. The use of the caves as a shrine dates back to the 1890s, when an Indian trader was inspired by the shape of the main cave and decided to erect a temple to Lord Murugan (a prominent Hindi deity, particularly worshipped in Tamil areas).

Steps leading up to the top, 272 of them.
Mary was complaining of feeling sick but I thought that all she needed was some encouragement, as 300 steps (272 to be exact, all conveniently numbered to help you on your way) weren’t appealing to someone as exercise-phobic as Mary was (now she runs 10K for fun). The climb was difficult, but more so because of the heat and humidity than the steps, especially as we were coming out of a New Zealand winter. Watching the antics of some fun loving monkeys made the climb easier though. Not that we needed them to be performing for us. When New Zealanders see animals like monkeys or squirrels, we have a tendency to go a bit nutty, taking a thousand photos for that one perfect shot while the rest of the world walks by, wondering why we are taking endless photos of a nondescript, bedraggled squirrel or a passive aggressive monkey. I believe this trait has to do with the fact that we are almost entirely lacking in any native mammalian species; therefore any sighting of a wild mammal interests us. The monkeys were in a playful mood and didn’t seem to be the aggressive beasts that signs at the bottom warned us about. Subsequent encounters have taught me three things about monkeys; that warning signs are not to be ignored; second that they are moody and unpredictable creatures and thirdly that an umbrella is a useful weapon to deter a monkey charge. We did watch two of them working in tandem to steal some fruit from a young European boy, which was quickly devoured much to the surprise and shock of the poor victim.

Monkey at the caves
Torn between watching the mammalian escapades and reaching the summit, we slowly laboured our way to the top where upon arrival, Mary promptly runs past the ornately decorated entrance arch, retreating quickly to find a corner to vomit in. A tidal wave of spew poured out over a sacred Hindu area. Years of history coated in 24 hours of partially digested curry and rice, a clash of culture and civilizations in a most crude form. Fortunately, she missed defacing any of the ancient Hindu artifacts. Otherwise, there may have been a lynching that day, two pasty white bodies swinging in the Malaysian wind. From the abyss, a goblinesque shriek echoed around the cavern. We heard the noise before we saw the source. An ancient Indian lady was running, screaming at us like a dervish, brandishing a bucket of water and a broom. Her language was unrecognizable to us but her intention was clear, “clean this up, you heathen, imperialist dog”. Poor Mary had to mop up her vomit, all the while trying to hold down the next lot that she could feel coming up her food pipe like a giant python. She did well, cleaning up her first discharge and managing to control her body long enough to get to a bathroom so she could release the rest.

Inside Cathedral Cave.
The caves themselves were magnificent, a juxtaposition between nature and human design, natural creation and human inspiration, delightful brightly coloured temples superimposed against a large cave opening where one could imagine bats returning every morning to nestle in the temple eaves. Some of the caves are dedicated to other deities. For example, in one of the smaller caves known as the Ramayana Cave, murals have been painted alongside the walls of the cave depicting the story of Rama. Nearby was a temple and statue dedicated to his monkey aide, Hanuman. Elsewhere, there are statues in niches, murals and wall paintings depicting Hindi scenes and images. Some of the monkeys would try and get inside but were shooed away by the temple attendants. There were cats, pigeons and chickens. A dog came over to help clean up the remnants of Mary’s offerings. It has to be said that when we went there, some of the grotto's were pretty grotty. Obviously, there was a sort of inherent trash level allowed in the temple and Mary didn’t just cross the line, she smashed it.

An unfortunate side effect of Mary’s situation was that we wouldn’t make it to nighttime let alone lunchtime to see if the bats would leave for the night. So we made our way slowly down the stairs back to the car and regretfully cancelled the rest of the trip. The driver was kind enough to supply Mary with a plastic bag for the drive back to our hotel, which she proceeded to have her head in for the whole journey whilst I enjoyed the views of KL, regretful that I missed out on more Malaysian sightseeing. We were unsure as to why she was sick as we had shared a meal the night before and I was fine, at least physically although a little castigated from the sermon we had received on the mount. On returning to the hotel, we read the travel sickness medication Mary had been on had the unfortunate side effect of nausea. An anti-nausea pill that might cause nausea. Oh the irony.

Because of Mary’s sickness, I didn’t have time to check out the world’s largest Muruga statue, all 42.7 metres of glittering gold of it. It was having the finishing touches applied to it when we visited the caves. At a glance, it could be mistaken for a statue of Buddha. But the caves and statue are distinctively Hindu and are the focus of the annual Thaipusam festival, a pilgrimage site for Hindus all over the world. The festival’s most famous feature are the devotees who pierce their backs and faces using long skewers to carry kavadi, vessels filled with milk to be offered to Lord Muruga. The festival is one of the biggest events in South East Asia, with it attracting over 1.5 million pilgrims in 2007. The caves, the festival and the statue are examples of how Malaysia, an Islamic country, has guaranteed religious freedom to its citizens. While the majority of people are Muslim (60%), there are also large Buddhist (20%), Christian (10%) and Hindu (7%) communities. This mix reflects the fact that several ethnic groups call Malaysia home. About 50% of the population is Malay (defined as people who practice Islam and follow Malay customs and culture). Another 11% of people including Thais, Khmers, Chams and the indigenous people of both peninsular Malaysia and Borneo are grouped together with the Malays in a population known as bumiputra. Bumiputras dominate the country politically but not financially. Two other large groups are the Chinese Malaysians (23% of the population) and people of Indian descent (mostly Tamil and comprising about 7% of the population). The Chinese Malaysians have been particularly successful in commerce and business, outperforming Malay people in these areas.

Large statue outside the caves.

The relationship between the groups has been largely peaceful of late, although there is some resentment that the interests of Malays have been promoted ahead of other ethnic groups. The preferential treatment of Malays over the other ethnic groups has been around since the country gained its independence from Britain in the 1950s. Policies have been put in place that provide for preferential treatment of Malays in employment, education, scholarships, and business and provides access to cheaper housing and assisted savings. The reasons given are quite open; that Malays aren’t business savvy as the Chinese and need a hand-up to be able to compete with their Chinese compatriots. Like most positive affirmation policies, it was well intended. Bumiputras only held about 2.4% of the economy in 1970, with the rest either in Chinese or foreign hands. The policy has worked to a degree; now Bumiputras have about 20% of Malaysia’s wealth although many professions are still dominated by either Chinese Malaysians or Indian Malaysians.

Things haven't always been this cozy between the major ethnic groups in Malaysia.
That’s not to say that the different communities have always seen eye to eye. The positive affirmation policies were one of the reasons why Singapore decided to separate from the Malaysian Federation in 1965. Race riots against the Chinese occurred in 1969, with Malays protesting against the influence and success of the Chinese population. Chinese-Malaysians have not protested too vigorously at the initiative, given that a disproportionate amount of the wealth is still in their hands. They are also mindful that pushing the subject could lead to a backlash, perhaps similar to the deaths and expulsions of Chinese from Indonesia in the 50s and 60s. Now Malaysia stands as one of South East Asia’s more dynamic communities, although the harmony between groups that an outsider sees may not be entirely representative of the dynamic in the country. Several state governments have tried to pass sharia law, a policy that the federal government has been able to stall for the time being. It will be interesting to watch and see how Malaysia develops over the next 20 years and how it will deal with the different ethnic groups in its midst.