25 February 2017

Esperance and the Islands - pink lakes, white beaches, turquoise water, amazing animals

British navigator Matthew Flinders was exploring and sur­veying Australia’s southern coast on board the Investigator. He knew from other explorers that it would be dangerous to navigate through the island archipelago, but he took the risk in Jan 1802. Middle Island's pink lake was well discussed in Flinders' 1802 journals - he climbed Middle Island's highest peak, now called Flinders Peak, to survey the surrounding waters when he came across the lake.

The ship’s botanist and artists collected and documented the landscape, flora and fauna, ate Cape Barren geese, and collected water for the ship. Flinders sailed around the Bay of Isles, discov­ering and naming places such as Lucky Bay and Thistle Cove. After 3 days Investigator left and completed its circum­navig­ation of Australia. I bet Flinders had no idea that when he ditched two anchors on Middle Island waters in 1802, they would be found and recovered in 1973.

Whalers and sealers foll­owed on the mainland, as did pastoralists and miners, keen to exploit the free land, and cash in on the booming gold fields to the north.

An Esperance beachside hotel
lounge room and front deck

Esperance, c720 ks south-east of Perth on Western Australia's southern coastline, is an eight hour drive from the state’s capital city. This small town (pop 10,000), first settled in the 1870s, has become a dream holiday resort for the outdoorsy, sporty types. The local tourist office recommends horse riding, bike riding, fishing from the town jetty, scuba diving, whale-watching in season (the southern winter), wind surfing and 4WD drive tours. For the less sporty types, The Esperance Museum  displays material about the local history, including relics from pioneering families, shipwreck items, pieces of the US Sky Lab which fell to earth here in 1980, Aboriginal artefacts and antiques.

The most interesting Esperance holiday accommodation overlooks Esp­erance Bay and the Recherché Archipelago. The most interesting local industry is a specialist fish and shark leather tannery – the studio shows how hand bags, wallets and jewellery boxes are made from sea creatures.

 Lake Hellier, Middle Island

The ferry lands at Woody Island

The official Australian tourism website says that life becomes even more interesting if the tourist drives from Esperance west along Twilight Beach Road past West Beach, Chapman's Point, Blue Haven Beach, Salmon Beach, Fourth Beach and Twilight Beach. It is quite impressive to walk along the soft, white sands - the sand dunes, pushed to great heights by the Esperance Doctor Wind, rise 50+ metres high. Note also the granite cliffs and watch the ocean change colour from aquamarine near the shore to a deep blue out near the 105 islands of the Recherche Archipelago.

This is also the direction of Cape Le Grand National Park; Stokes National Park and Cape Arid National Park. Rotary Lookout is the best spot for panoramic views of Esperance, Esperance Bay, Pink Lake and the islands off the coast.

Since Middle Island and its hot-pink Lake Hellier are located in a pristine wilderness, the best way to view this lake was from the air. But visitors also liked to explore the islands and abundant wildlife of the Recherche Archipelago on a cruise from Esperance.

Now this beauti­ful but sleepy West Australian tourist area is riding high on a wave of publicity leading to new interest, including for me. Tourism Australia's huge new global marketing campaign, launched on Australia Day 2016, focused on the country's aquatic and coastal experiences. They were correct - research showed that 70% of international visitors targeted such experiences on their trips. The global news wire Agence France Presse included Lake Hillier on a list of five great Australian destinat­ions off the well-trodden tourist track!!

Middle Island, 125 ks from Esp­erance, sits in beautifully clear turquoise waters and is the longest (7 ks) of the islands that make up the Recherche Archipelago. Lake Hillier is a solidly strong pink-coloured lake on Middle Island! The lake is c600 ms long, and is surrounded by a rim of sand and dense woodland of paperbark and eucalyptus trees.

But Western Australia is home to a number of pink lakes. So the question remains: why is Lake Hillier SO pink? Scientists be­lieved the colour intensity was because a high salt content allowed the colour-causing micro-organism to flourish. The dye created by bacteria apparently lives in the salt crusts. Why the lake had such high salt content compared to paler-pink lakes remained uncertain.

Visitors to Middle Island should also inspect the early settler’s ruins and the camp ground belonging to Australia’s only recorded whaler-turned-pirate, Black Jack Anderson.  Alas he was murdered by his own crew!

Cape Grand National Park

Pink Lake is another pink lake set against a backdrop of some of Australia's most stunning coastal scenery, only 7ks from Esperance. The lake turns only a pale shade of pink due to the high concentrat­ion of algae in the water. But Pink Lake has something else to recommend it – it has been registered by Bird Life International because it supports significant numbers of native and migratory birds. The Department of Parks and Wildlife works hard to preserve the area’s history.

For those flying over Lake Hillier, the scenic flight follows the stunning coast out to Cape Le Grand National Park, Duke of Orleans and Cape Arid National Park. For those travelling on the ferry, tours start on the beautiful Esperance beaches, and spend a day sailing to Middle Island, then onto Woody Island and around the other islands. 

Photographers like to focus on the Cape Barron Geese, fur seals, island goats, dolphins, sea lions, cormorants, penguins and sea eagles; they will see kangaroos welcoming the ferries on the very white beach at Lucky Bay. Snorkellers enjoy following the underwater trail of plaques and small boat wrecks.

Map of WA
Note Esperance and the Recherche Archipelago on the south coast
Photo Credit: welt atlas.de 

Cape Arid National Park is on the mainland at the eastern end of the Recherche Archipelago; it is another highly regarded bird sanctuary, noted for its 160 species. And spot brush-tailed wallabies and honey possums are readily visible. Vegetation found within the park is mostly on young dune systems that have large areas of coastal heath with smaller systems of banksia, paperbark and mallee. Species of orchid and ferns exist near Mount Ragged.

21 February 2017

Cultural cruises - music, art, churches, castles and wine!

From the time my late parents retired at 60, until their 85th birthday, they went on a different cruise each year that was filled with music, literature, art, architecture or history. Thank you to Jeremy Seal for beautifully writing up one of the trips my parents loved.

In Wurzburg, guests on the Renaissance Tours river voyage were being treated to a private concert by the University of Music Wurzburg’s Baroque Orchestra. In a programme that included Handel and Vivaldi, Carlo Tessarini and Giuseppe Alberti, the orchestra’s period instruments and the intimate pavilion-style surroundings brought the audience close to the authentic spirit of mid-C18th chamber music.

And most of the orchestra accompanied us back to our luxury cruiser, MS Amadeus Elegant, to spend a few days on board. The programme secured us our own classical music troupe as we journeyed down Germany’s Main and Rhine rivers towards The Netherlands. It is no surprise these adjoining rivers, historic trade arteries on the great transcontinental waterway between the North and Black seas, should draw cultured types; the Main and Rhine valleys are positively crammed with the art and music of Central Europe.

Those who voyaged down these famously scenic waterways were spoiled for choice when it came to renowned Philharmonic orchestras (Munich, Cologne), national opera and ballet houses (Amsterdam) and world class art collections (Nuremberg’s Germanic National Museum, Amster­dam’s Rijksmuseum). Plus architectural highlights such as Cologne’s soaring Gothic cathedral!

Also important was the expertise and approachability of the accomp­any­ing lecturers, a distinguished Australian trio comprising two leading art critics and a music broadcaster.

Then there was the engaging and erudite company of the 80 or so guests, including architects and academics, a retired ballet dancer and an antiquarian bookseller. Plus excellent dinners and local wines.

After Wurzburg, the 110m Amadeus Elegant wound smoothly through the Franconia region. Beyond the expansive windows we admired the neat riverbank vineyards of the white Silvaner grape and a skyline studded with fairytale castles. One such castle tottered above Wertheim, where we put ashore to explore this delightful town of half-timbered houses at the confluence of the Main and the Tauber rivers. The town, with its maze of medieval alleys and rose gardens, was regularly devastated by floods, so there are old high-water marks etched in meticulous Gothic script.

MS Amadeus Elegant 
1. cruising down the Rhine
2. enjoying a guided tour in a Rhenish city
Photo credit: The Australian newspaper, 27th Aug 2016

The ship squeezes its capacious beam into the 40 locks that punctuate the descent from Nuremberg to Mainz.

After breakfast we left the Main for the wider expanses of the Middle Rhine, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed region where romantic valley landscapes inspired Wagner’s operas, Heine’s poetry and Turner’s paintings. Most passengers gathered on the upper deck to admire the churches and monasteries. Note the spectacular castles, among them the ship-shaped and bay-windowed Pfalzgrafenstein, which was constructed midstream, the better to extract the tolls from passing vessels.

At the picturesque Lorelei, where the pinched current boils beneath the legendary siren's home, wonderful Wurzburg musicians capped the moment with their own arrangement of the famous eponymous folk song. Passing barges, carrying coal and scrap iron, brought us back to reality.

Next stop was Bonn where our mooring was mere metres from Beethoven’s birthplace. The city is also home to architect Axel Schultes’s cel­ebrated Kunstmuseum. This idiosyncratic building has a comprehensive collection of the city’s own artist, the acclaimed Rhenish Express­ionist August Macke, and a focus on contemporary German art. That evening, the acclaimed Beethoven Bonn Trio set up in the ship’s lounge to perform a series of magnificent piano pieces (Beethoven, Shostakovich, Brahms).

In the night we docked at Cologne; I disembarked at dawn to visit the Dom/great Gothic cathedral where German artist Gerhard Richter’s magnificent 2007 stained-glass window dominates the soaring south transept. There was more of the compelling Richter at Cologne’s Museum Ludwig.

We saw the art at the city’s Wallraf-Richartz Museum, with its wonder­fully vivid collection of medieval devotional paintings. And noted the altarpiece treatments of popular martyr narrat­ives such as St Ursula, who was hacked to pieces along with her virgin retinue at the gates of Cologne while on pilgrimage to Rome. The Australian’s art critic Christopher Allen was on hand to mediate the visit with a stream of welcome insights.

In the evening, speakers previewed the next day’s packed programme. ABC Classic FM’s Christopher Lawrence extolled Tchaik­ovsky’s The Queen of Spades at Amsterdam’s Dutch National Opera; Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald spoke about Franz Hals, whom we’d encounter on a visit to Haarlem. When we reached the town, just a short drive from our berth in Central Amsterdam, Haarlem appeared to have dissolved beneath a quintessentially Dutch sky. We took shelter in the Great Church, where Mozart and Handel once played the celebrated organ, and where artist Frans Hals was one of about 1500 local notables to have been buried beneath the numbered grave slabs that cover every last centimetre of the floor.

McDonald discussed Still Life, the Dutch Golden Age's memento mori, particularly Pieter Claesz, C17th Haarlem artist who liked to include a skull and other emblems of mortality in his tableaus. A visit to the nearby Frans Hals Museum soon cheered us up. The gloom of Claesz could not compete with the sheer energy of Hals’s famously vivid group portraits, notably of Haarlem’s Civic Guard. Hals’s works, brimming with unguarded life, confirmed him as a genius to rank with Vermeer and Rembrandt.

The range of cultural cruises is wide. Late last year Renaissance Tours did a 17-night art and music-themed tour called A Panorama of Eastern Europe: From Poland to the Black Sea. The October 2016 itinerary included Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania and covered a chartered seven-night Danube cruise aboard MS Amadeus Royal. Plus there was a series of presentations and talks by leaders Christopher Lawrence of ABC Classic FM.

Concert in the Imperial Hall of the Würzburg Residence.
Photo credit: Ombiasy Tours

In April 2017, Mediterranean Opera and Music Cruise will offer a luxury cruise filled with opera, music and art. The ship will set sail from Lisbon and will stop at the Spanish ports of Cadiz, Malaga, Valencia and Mallorca, before arrival in Nice (9 nights). On board, guests will enjoy a special programme of opera and music. Ashore they will indulge themselves in art, history and culture around the Iberian Peninsula and across the Mediterranean.

18 February 2017

We’re happy little Vegemites ... as bright as bright can be!

The company Fred Walker & Co. was best known for creating Vegemite, a breakfast product that went on to become an “Australian cultural icon”. I am normally a bit wary of that expression. But I know that as soon as the men came home from WW2 and rationing ended, my own break­fast every day was a soft boiled egg in an eggcup, a slice of bread with Vegemite and yellow cheese, and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.

So how did it all start? Justus Freiherr von Liebig (1803–1873) was a German chemist who rev­olutionised agricultural chemistry in Hesse. He also founded the Liebig Extract of Meat Co. that produced the world's first beef bouillon cube. von Liebig had discovered that brewer's yeast could be concentrated, bottled and eaten, a technique that led to the product that was later to become Marmite.

In 1902 the Marmite Food Extract Company was formed in Staffordshire with Marmite as its main product. The by-product yeast needed for the paste was supplied by a local brewery. By 1907 the product had become successful enough to build a second factory in London.

Marmite vs Vegemite

And why did Australians, possibly the most loyal ex-colonials in the entire British Empire, not eat Marmite for breakfast? It appears that Marmite HAD been the yeast spread of choice across Australia from Edwardian days. But supplies imported from Britain were imperilled in WW1 shipping accidents. Even once shipping became safe again from 1919 on, Marmite was hard hit by the changes in world trade. 

So it was not until 1923 that Fred Walker (1884-1935) hired the chemist Dr Cyril P. Callister to develop a yeast extract product specifically for Australian fam­il­ies. After months of laboratory tests in Melbourne, the yeast could be concent­rated, processed and refined, thus becoming a very rich source of Vitamin B. Vegemite was manufactured in a two ounce amber glass jar shaped like a lighthouse, capped with a seal to keep the contents fresh. Labelled “Pure Vegetable Extract”, Vegem­ite was first sold in 1924 and quickly competed well with the very similar Marmite from Britain.

Walker began a partnership with American businessman James Kraft  to manufacture processed cheese in 1925. By 1928 Marmite was outselling its Australian rival and Walker decided to change the name of his product to Parwill. The name had been invented so that a new advertising campaign could be mounted based upon the slogan 'If Marmite, Parwill!' The name Vegemite was quickly brought back!!

By 1930 Walker was chairman of Kraft Walker Cheese Co, a slightly separate company from Fred Walker & Co. He was good at keeping the best staff by providing workers with a social club, morning tea breaks, first aid & canteen facilities.

Being a by-product of beer manufacture, Vegemite might not have been the basis for a great advertising campaign. But that did not matter - it was the taste that made Vegemite so appealing! This yeast vegetable extract was recognised as one of the world's highest food sources of vitamin B.

When Fred Walker sadly died in 1935, the American Kraft Co. absorbed its Australian co-partner. That could have been the end of catering to Australian tastes, but Kraft Foods understood the significance of Vegemite to Australians.

My breakfast throughout the 1950s - soft boiled egg and Vegemite soldiers

Luckily for Kraft, Vegemite was officially endorsed by the British Medical Association as a rich source of B vitamins in 1939. It must have been – the company began advertising in the British Medical Journal!

Just as WW2 erupted in 1939, Vegemite was included in Australia’s army rations! Its marketing strategy put Vegemite in 90% of Australian homes in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, emphasising the value of the spread to children's health. Leftover brewer’s yeast with vitamins became Our Favourite Food Product.

We’re happy little Vegemites
As bright as bright can be.
We all enjoy our Vegemite
For breakfast, lunch and tea.
Our Mummies say we’re growing stronger
Every single week
Because we love our Vegemite.
We all adore our Vegemite.
We’re growing stronger every week!

This Vegemite ad  first appeared in 1954 on radio and is remembered by every Baby Boomer in the entire nation. Note that TV did not arrive in Australia until November 1956!

In the sophisticated C21st, Vegemite is still produced at Kraft Foods’ plant in Port Melbourne, creating and selling 22 million jars per year. Largely unchanged from Callister’s original recipe, Vegemite still far outsells Marmite. And I assume a small bottle of Vegemite is still carried in the suitcases of Australian travellers, whenever they go abroad.

New Zealanders also love Vegemite. Vegemite was made in New Zealand for 50 years (until 2006), and although New Zealanders eat less of it than Austr­al­ians, the spread is very popular. However many New Zeal­an­ders still prefer Marmite, made at the Sanitarium factory in Christchurch.

A fortnight ago, before I wrote this post, most of my grandchildren were together, behaving well and watching tv. I was delighted and said to them “you all look like Happy Little Vegemites”. How nostalgic is that?


Here is that iconic Australian song Land Down Under, sung by Men At Work (1981).

Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can't you hear, can't you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover

Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six-foot-four and full of muscles
I said, "Do you speak-a my language?"
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich

The song went to #1 in Australia in December 1981, topped the New Zealand and Canadian charts in 1982 and reached #1 in the USA, UK and Ireland in 1983.