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Andrew Gray's travel tales

Andrew Gray's home page · Previous travels in the South Pacific · Photos from Vanuatu

 

17th January

After spending Christmas in Scotland, I am now on my way back to Pentecost
Island for another year.

With my teaching commitments, together with a time-consuming project to
document the island's languages (see www.pentecostisland.net/languages),
it's unlikely that I'll have much time for blogging this year. However, I
may write an occasional entry.

You can find tidied and illustrated versions of older blog entries and other
articles at www.andrewgray.com/pacific.

Best wishes to everyone for 2008.

14th December

I wonder if Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, ever built model cities out of Lego when he was a child.

Lego is a great medium for acting out fantasies. Given a wide enough bedroom floor and a large enough supply of bricks - and I bet Sheikh Mohammed's family could have afforded millions - you can design pretend cities with whatever utopian architecture you can dream of. Bestriding your city like a god, you can concentrate on the grandest building projects without worrying about tedious details like infrastructure or the environment. It doesn't matter if your Lego city has no agriculture and no water supply, other than inedible plastic flowers and undrinkable blue tiles, because the little people are made of plastic and will never go hungry and thirsty. It doesn't matter if your Lego city lacks adequate housing for its population, or adequate roads and railways to move them around (other than the stretch of track you built because it looked cool), because the little people will stand wherever you put them and will never complain. They are certainly not in a position to vote you out of your bedroom if you prove to be a lousy designer.

But why would the young Sheikh Mohammed have bothered with Lego, when he knew that one day he would have a real city to play with?

It would have taken an army of hyperactive children to build a Legoland on the scale of twenty-first century Dubai. (Fortunately, since Dubai is made of concrete rather than Lego, its designers have been able to do the job by exploiting imported Asian labourers instead.) A city of over a million people, which has increased its population by fifty times in as many years, the little emirate has come a long way from its beginnings two centuries ago as tiny village beside a small inlet of the Persian Gulf. Back then, the place was so insignificant that when the Al Maktoum family turned up in 1833 and declared themselves its rulers nobody bothered to try and stop them. The only resources Dubai had, apart from pearl-producing oysters and few date palms, were a modest amount of yet-to-be-discovered oil and a well-located harbour.

Oil money lubricated the city's growth, but it was the latter resource that really powered Dubai's transformation into a major city. Ever since the late nineteenth century, Dubai's rulers have encouraged foreign merchants to do business in the emirate, luring traders away from neighbouring ports with offers of lower taxes and greater commercial freedom. Today the city boasts vast industrial Free Trade Zones, an international airport that serves a regional hub and the base for one of the world's best airlines (which was why I ended up there), a thriving financial sector, and a growing status as a tourist destination. Not to mention a construction industry that has seen cranes rise like lampposts and nearly every street corner dug up by roadworks, while dusty cement factories spread for miles across the outskirts of the city. On Pentecost, I know of villagers who have struggled for years to find the money for a few bags of cement in order to build themselves a small chapel. In Dubai, concrete is poured like water. The emirate's rulers have no intention of going back to their tents in the desert after the oil runs out.

For wealthy sheikhs, and their foreign business partners, Dubai is a spectacular playground. It includes the world's grandest hotel, luxury waterfront developments, glitzy conference centres, glamorous shopping malls, a vast acreage of polished marble, and (in an impressive feat of air-conditioning) the Arabian desert's only ski centre. Its buildings stand taller and shinier than in almost any other city on earth.

But there is something distinctly uncomfortable about being one of the little people in somebody else's Lego fantasy.

"What did you do during your stopover in Dubai?" people asked me when I got home.

Well, I wandered around shopping malls admiring things I couldn't afford to buy, and wandered around the city admiring hotels I couldn't afford to stay in and developments I could never afford to invest in. I sat on the armchairs in Starbucks (not a place I'm fond of back in Britain, but a great refuge in stressful foreign cities) and flicked through guidebooks trying to find attractions that were affordable and could be reached by public transport. I can recommend the Dubai Museum, and the city's historic areas are worth a look in spite of their faked-up appearance, but there wasn't much else.

In between, spent a large proportion of the time sitting on overcrowded and infrequent buses trying to get from one part of the city to another. Sometimes I would get out at a bus stop that seemed like a short walk from where I wanted to be, only to find that it was in fact a two mile trek through grey industrial suburbs where gangs of Indian workers laboured in the desert heat and lorries thundered past. I picked my way on foot between lanes of murderous traffic, and negotiated junctions circumsected by barriers and roadworks. On one occasion I was actually forced to take a taxi in order to cross a highway.

When I built Lego towns I never thought to include road crossings either.

In none of the hundred or so cities I've visited have I spent so much time on buses, walked so many miles, breathed so much dust and carbon monoxide - and seen so little of interest - as I did in Dubai.

Above all, the emirate is a tragic waste of an opportunity. If all of its grand constructions had been clustered together in one place, and connected by a transport system as futuristic as the buildings it served, Dubai would be a wonder of the world: far and away the most impressive city on Earth. Instead, the buildings have been scattered like loose boulders over a hundred square miles of desert. The effect of this obscene sprawl has been to reduce a potential Futurama to something closer to an oversized Milton Keynes, except that Milton Keynes is pleasant and green.

Even the tallest of all Dubai's buildings is unimpressive when viewed over such sprawling distances. This is the Burj Dubai, a tapering tower which will eventually stand around half a mile high, a symbol of the emirate's prowess and the most obvious Freudian expression yet of what Sheikh Mohammed is trying to achieve with his city. The building is still under construction, and its exact projected height is a secret (Dubai is not the only up-and-coming city playing the "mine is bigger than yours" game), but it has already outstripped Toronto's CN Tower as the world's tallest structure - the first time since the days of the Pyramids that a Middle Eastern construction has held the record.

The Burj Dubai bears a resemblance to certain artists' renderings of the Tower of Babel, the Biblical construction built by humans in an arrogant attempt to climb to heaven.

The people of Babel got off lightly: God put a stop to their work by the simple measure of confounding their language. That wouldn't work in Dubai. With immigrants from over 90 countries whose lingua franca seems to be broken English of the most awkward kind, the emirate's language is already thoroughly confounded, yet still the buildings rise. Whatever God, or fate, eventually does to put a stop to Dubai will to have to be a lot nastier.

In fact, the inhabitants of this oil-fuelled little emirate may already have sealed their fate. Those who find Dubai a hideous excess can take grim comfort in one fact: few parts of it are an appreciable height above sea level. And when the water begins to lap around the base of the skyscrapers, no city will more richly deserve its fate.

5th December

Oban certainly had the feel of a Scottish village. Elderly couples strolled
along the seafront, wrapped up against the wind, while younger visitors with
heavy boots and backpacks tramped out a route between the hiking trail and
the inn. Local people stopped to have conversations with passers-by in the
street. Small boats took fishermen out to sea, or took tourists out to watch
the birds and seals on nearby islands. The narrow roads and spacious houses
of the village were strung out along a rocky shoreline, splashed with chilly
waves and smacked with kelp and bladder wrack. The rocks were interspersed
with sandy coves and promontories of scrubby trees and yellow grasses,
backed by a forested wilderness. On one side was the spill and wash of the
ocean; on the other the skyline was underlain by a distant range of
mountains. In such a setting it would have been easy to believe that I was
already back in the Highlands.

In fact, I had never been so far from home.

I had come to this chilly corner of the Antipodes partly to make the most of
a stopover in New Zealand on my way home for the Christmas holidays, and
partly because after a year on Pentecost I wanted to ease myself gradually
back into big Western civilisation. But there was another reason too.

My original trip to Vanuatu, on a gap year in 2001, was motivated at least
partly by a desire to escape Gairloch, the bleak and sodden Highland village
that my parents now called home. After two years of cold and rain, I had
told myself, I was getting as far away from Gairloch as I possibly could.

Except that I wasn't - not quite. Vanuatu is a long way from Scotland, to be
sure - over nine thousand miles - but that is only three-quarters as far
around the globe as it is possible to get.

The furthest place in the world from Scotland is an empty square of the
Southern Ocean, half way between New Zealand and Antarctica. The closest
feature on a map is Campbell Island, a tiny fleck of land forming part of
the scattered and storm-tossed Sub-Antarctic Islands. A century ago the
Sub-Antarctic Islands were home to a few lonely and weather-hardened
individuals who made their living by skinning seals, and boiling penguins
down in giant vats to extract the oil. (This grisly source of biofuel has of
course been superseded nowadays by fossil fuels, a welcome development for
the penguins of the Sub-Antarctic Islands, but less welcome for their
Antarctic cousins whose habitat will soon be melted by the resulting global
warming.) Later on the islands were declared a nature reserve, and are now
uninhabited.

Getting to Campbell Island would require a long and expensive boat journey,
across one of world's the most notoriously rough stretches of ocean. It
would also require a permit, which would only be granted if the New Zealand
conservation authorities were satisfied that I wasn't going to annoy the
fifteen thousand giant albatrosses that breed there. And frankly, once I
arrived on the island there would be little to do except to wander around
annoying the albatrosses. The Sub-Antarctic Islands, I conceded, were not a
realistic travel destination.

The furthest inhabited island from Scotland is Stewart Island, which nestles
at the foot of New Zealand's main South Island. Like the Sub-Antarctic
Islands, Stewart Island is mainly a wilderness and a wildlife haven, but
being larger and closer to the mainland it is easier to reach and boasts a
thriving tourist industry. On the island's east coast, in the picturesquely
convoluted Halfmoon Bay, there is also a small settlement, named
(ironically) after a Scottish town. At 11,630 miles away (following the
shortest possible curve around the Earth), Oban is probably further from
Gairloch than any other village on Earth.

And yet it is a remarkably similar place. It is as if somebody had sliced
the Earth in two with a mirror, so that one who tried to look at the far end
would see only the reflection of the place where he was standing.

It is not merely the wild landscape that recalls the Scottish Highlands. In
the village of Oban itself, reflections of Gairloch manifest themselves like
mirages. There is the pier with its fishing boats and the nearby
fish-processing factory. There is the mini supermarket in the centre of the
village, a little concrete building whose three short aisles provide the
villagers with their daily needs. There are the prominent and well-kept
churches. There is the temporary-looking little hut selling fish and chip
takeaways. There is the old-fashioned hotel that caters to genteel elderly
tourists in the summer, and probably does a good business keeping the locals
fuelled with alcohol on long winter nights. There are the boat owners
offering wildlife cruises and fishing trips. There is the shop selling
mountaineering gear to trekkers, and another selling odd local crafts. There
is the tiny village museum, open two hours a day. There is the community
library, and an empty-looking recreational ground. And there were the trendy
little cafes and tea rooms (closed in winter) where lively young owners who
don't sound local and lively young customers who don't look local coo
together about what a beautiful spot they have found.

Above all, Oban has the feel of a genuine community - a phenomenon I took
for granted back on Pentecost but is rare in modern Western countries. You
don't have to watch and listen to the locals for long to realise that most
people on the island seem to know each other. The friendly spirit extends to
visitors, too, and it is hard to go into a shop or a café without being
drawn into conversation.

Stewart Island, it seemed, was Gairloch Version 2: a new and improved
edition, which retained the best features of the old one whilst correcting
many of its defects. The bugs have been fixed: in place of Scottish midges,
which are excruciating even when they don't bite and impossible to keep away
unless you mummify yourself in clothes and netting, Stewart Island had
sandflies, which are larger and easier to swat off. (The fact that I still
had a bottle of tropical-strength insect repellent in my rucksack helped.)
Instead of a lonely youth hostel on a peninsula two miles from the centre of
the village (in a region with no local buses), Oban has a bright-looking
backpacker holiday camp right in the centre of the village. And Stewart
Island is better connected to the rest of the country by public transport
than Gairloch, in spite of the fact that Gairloch is not an island.

Those who come to experience the beauty of Stewart Island are provided for
by well-kept walking trails, which are so well signposted I didn't even need
the maps sold for a dollar in the smart local information centre. Off the
coast marine life thrives in large no-take zones, in contrast to Gairloch,
where trawlers trying to scrape a living out of overfished waters are still
intent on doing to the seabed what their ancestors did to the once-forested
hillsides centuries ago. None of the inlets on Stewart Island appeared to be
polluted by the effluent from salmon farms, none of its valleys seemed to
have been drowned by hydroelectric dams, and I was pretty sure that none of
its offshore islets had ever been used to test biological weapons. The cod
fillets sold by the fish and chip outlet were not only less endangered than
the north Atlantic variety but tasted better too. Even the seagulls that
descended, Hitchcock-style, when I sat down on the bench by the seaside and
unwrapped the newspaper (real newspaper) from my fish and chips, were
prettier than their Caledonian cousins.

Both the inhabitants of Gairloch and Oban are in a large part the
descendants of Scots, a people justifiably proud of their traditions and
achievements. Yet whilst the natives of Gairloch are those whom waves of
emigration left behind, the people of southern New Zealand are derived from
Scots who had the spirit and ambition to leave their grey homeland and
continue their traditions and achievements in a new country. Both groups are
warm and decent people, which is why I hope nobody will be offended when I
say that I find the latter more interesting company.

Yet in spite of all this, I had to admit that the main reason I lived
Stewart Island was not because it was different to Gairloch, but because it
was so much the same.

I recalled a speech that a former Head Boy had made to the students at
Gairloch High School, several years ago.

"After leaving the Highlands, you can travel all over the world," he said.
"You can visit beautiful places and you do wonderful things. And then you
come home and realise that, actually, this is one of the most beautiful
places of them all."

I remembered these words, but for a long time I dismissed them. Scots who
thought that their country was one of the nicest in the world had not
travelled far enough, I insisted. Yet several years and nearly a quarter of
a million miles of travelling later, standing on the beach in Halfmoon Bay
watching the sunset at the far end of the earth, I conceded for the first
time that he may just have been right.

- - -

Of course, Stewart Island was not a completely identical copy of the West
Highlands. The birdsong was different, for a start. There were sound effects
in the bushes I had never heard before, such as the flapping of the enormous
New Zealand pigeon, which takes off with as much grace and silence as a
military helicopter, and the bellbird, whose ping-pong call resembles a
novelty doorbell. The smell of the forest was different, too. On top of the
smell of earth and damp wood that pervades northern woods, there was a
sweeter scent, a honeyish blend of resin, eucalypt, and unknown flowers. I
remembered this smell from parts of Australia, but have never encountered it
in a European forest, or even a European garden. It is the perfume of the
southern hemisphere.

There was something strange and exotic about the appearance of trees and
flowers too. In fact, the local forest looked like a cross between an
overgrown Scottish garden and a BBC reconstruction of the Jurassic era.
There are good reasons for both resemblances. Many Scottish gardeners plant
New Zealand shrubs, knowing that they will be at home in the local climate.
(One of the highlights of Inverewe Gardens, near Gairloch, is a 'New Zealand
Christmas tree', which responds to the inverted northern seasons by
producing its red flowers in June.) It was the profusion of plants that
would be exotic back in Scotland - and the rarity of classic Scottish
plants, though some local houses were surrounded by familiar specimens -
that gave Stewart Island the feel of a gigantic botanic garden.

As for the Jurassic connection, that was the last time New Zealand's plants
and animals were in contact with those of the northern hemisphere. It was
around that era the world's continents rifted apart into two great clusters:
the continents of the northern hemisphere, and those of the south. The
northern continents have remained intermittently connected ever since (as
recently as a few thousand years ago, a cave man living at times of lowered
sea levels could have walked from Scotland to Nova Scotia without getting
wet) and developed the standard set of trees and animals which are now found
throughout the cooler parts of North America, Europe and Asia. This flora
and fauna is so homogenous that a biologist abducted by aliens and dumped,
ET-style, in the middle of a northern forest, would find it hard to tell
whether he had been left in Canada, Scandinavia or Siberia.

Down under, meanwhile, a completely different set of trees and animals was
evolving. These once formed great, cool forests to rival those of the north
- a prehistoric wildwood resounding to the cries of exotic creatures - but
as the southern continents broke apart, their ancient forests dwindled.
Africa and South America drifted back into the tropics and reconnected with
their northern neighbours, losing much of their uniqueness. Australia
settled in dry sub-tropical latitudes, where much of its forest became
scrubland and desert (a process that wasn't helped by the arrival of humans
with a penchant for lighting fires), although present-day Tasmania provides
a glimpse of what the continent might once have been like. Antarctica clung
to its forests for a long time, even as the continent drifted further and
further over the South Pole, but a cold snap around 35 million years ago
finally turned the continent into an ice cube. Which left New Zealand.

Had the Romans ever sailed to New Zealand, they would have found a
prehistoric lost world. A landscape tossed and riven by volcanoes (one of
which exploded so loudly that the Romans reportedly noticed the blast), and
blanketed with primeval forests ruled by strange and exotic creatures. The
dinosaurs had gone, of course, but in the absence of mammals their feathered
descendants had thrived, and some of the monstrous birds that had evolved in
New Zealand were dinosaurs in all but name. The ancient forests were home to
flightless moas, the largest of which stood three metres and laid eggs the
size of water jugs (something not lost on the first human arrivals, who
badly needed water jugs). These were hunted by the fearsome-looking Haast's
eagle, one of the largest, hookiest and clawiest birds ever to take to the
skies.

The fate that befell New Zealand between the time of the Romans and the
present day was a kind of reverse Jurassic Park. Instead of being trapped on
an island with a bunch of monsters from a hundred million years in the past,
the native plants and animals of New Zealand suffered an even worse fate:
they were trapped on an island with a bunch of monsters from a hundred
million years in the evolutionary future.

The first and worst of these monsters was a species named Homo sapiens. The
earliest inhabitants of New Zealand were Polynesians, the ancestors of
today's Maoris, who canoed down from tropical islands to the north-east.
Back in their homelands they had grown yams and bananas, and tended chickens
and pigs. However, the cold island on which they now found themselves was a
hard place to grow tropical vegetables, and none of their chickens or pigs
had survived the long canoe journey from Polynesia. The new arrivals got
over the loss of their crops and livestock fairly quickly after discovering
that their new home was home to meaty chickens taller than a person, which
behaved as if they had never encountered guys with spears before. The moa's
extinction became inevitable as soon as the first hungry Polynesian laid
eyes on its metre-long drumsticks.

There was also plenty of food to be had from the sea, where plankton
thriving on long hours of summer sunshine and nutrients stirred up by winter
storms supported a rich marine food chain. At the top of this food chain
were millions of large sea birds, and a sort of large, flippered pig that
snoozed on rocks by the waterside just waiting to be clubbed to death. To
Pacific islanders who were used to plucking measly crabs from the reef or
trying to wrestle ocean fish into tossing canoes, it was an astonishing
bounty.

When the giant chickens were gone and the flippered pigs became scarce, the
Polynesians turned to smaller prey. They hooked for fish (the first white
sailors to trade with the Maoris did a good business in metal fishhooks),
and harvested the chicks of the unappetising-sounding muttonbird from its
reeking hillside burrows. In desperate times they turned to the one edible
animal that had survived the canoe journey from Polynesia: a tenacious
critter known to the Maoris as the kiore, and to the rest of the world as
Rattus exulans. However, the Polynesian rat is an even scrawnier creature
than its European cousin and cannot have provided more than a light snack.
The rats in turn snacked on native birds and their eggs, snacking some of
them to the brink of extinction.

Just when it seemed as if things couldn't get any worse for New Zealand's
native creatures, a new wave of human settlers arrived, bringing with them a
fresh bunch of monsters. One of these monsters was the Pussy Cat, whose
impact on native birds needs no explanation. This monster remains the bane
of New Zealand's park rangers today, and many a cat owner living near a
nature reserve has received a distressing phone call informing them that
Tibbles wandered too close to a nesting site and had an unfortunate accident
involving a fast-moving piece of lead.

Another introduced monster was the Rabbit, a creature described by one of my
ecology lecturers as one of the most voracious predators that has ever
lived. The Rabbit's prey were plants, and the local animals must have
regarded this as a harmless sort of monster, until the day they woke up and
found their favourite shrubs and grasses nibbled bare. Realising that no
native predator could control the Rabbit, humans responded by introducing
two further monsters, the Stoat and the Ferret. Nobody at the time seems to
have questioned why a stoat would bother chasing rabbits when there were so
many slower and dumber native creatures around.

Even the forests themselves succumbed to the influence of the monsters.
Trees were cleared, first by the Maoris and later at a faster rate by
European settlers, to make way for open land.

In modern New Zealand, land use seems to follow a very simple principle.
Give a New Zealander a patch of good flat land, and he will put sheep on it.
Give him a patch of poor flat land, and he will water and tend it, then put
sheep on it. Give him a patch of land that cannot be made suitable for
sheep, and he will put pine trees on it instead. Give him a patch of land
too craggy or remote to be worth putting either sheep or pine trees on, and
he will declare it a national park.

Stewart Island was one of the lucky areas. Being offshore, it was spared
from the worst of the monsters, and sheep farmers never took to the place.
Today, 85% of the island is a national park.

Even the Maoris never settled in large numbers on Stewart Island - the local
environment didn't suit them - although they did visit the island to hunt
moas and gather muttonbirds, whose oily carcasses were stored in special
bags made from local kelp. It is remarkable that a group of people whose
ancestors were tropical islanders managed to eke out a living at all in a
chilly spot so far from the equator.

The Maoris named the island Rakiura, the Land of the Shining Skies. Some
believe this is a reference to the southern auroras that occasionally ripple
the night sky. But there may also have been another reason for the name.
After spending a year in the tropics, with their scarcely-varying routine of
twelve hour days and twelve hour nights, I can appreciate how strange and
wonderful those early Polynesians must have found the long days of the
Stewart Island summer. Walking around at a time that should rightly have
been long after dusk, enjoying the soft daylight of a sub-Antarctic evening,
I remembered another thing I had missed about Scotland.

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