Saturday, August 22, 2009

Exploring Perth Suspended in time

For visitors from tropical Indonesia, setting foot in Perth Airport to be welcomed by a freezing winter wind at 4:30 a.m. is a chilly but thrilling experience indeed, especially on realizing your jumper is still securely locked in the suitcase you would only find in the baggage claim area an hour later.

“We are in the middle of winter,” says the coach driver taking us to the hotel. Streets were dead quiet, and only at 7:30 did the sun begin to rise lazily, dispersing mist and warming up the air a little.

As the Mantra on Murray hotel allowed us to check in only at 10, meaning we had three hours of free time, we ventured out and took a stroll to warm up. A local acquaintence said Perth had more hours of sun than any other major city Down Under, giving it a Mediteranian climate that’s favorable most of the year.

As the city gradually awoke, the ubiquitous vibrant outdoor cafes, crowds of people from different racial backgrounds, polite people in the streets and open-air activities eminated an aura of friendliness.

The Mantra on Murray hotel is situated within the city’s CBD (Commercial and business district) and Perth’s compact size makes it less daunting for visitors to explore. And this is even easier for Jakartans, who consider fresh air and cool weather a luxury.

A plethora of upscale shopping archades, souvenir, jewelry and electronics shops, hotels, restaurants as well as budget roadside cafes line the traffic-free streets that visitors can access easily on foot.

Perth, as I learned from my friends and advertisements, has been stereotyped as an “isolated” city, rich in historical legacies and exotic places to go, but lacking worldly sophistication. My brief visit showed me Perth is just as modern as other big cities in Australia I know, like Sydney and Melbourne.

Nestled between the vast expanses of bush and arid plains to the east, and the indian Ocean to the west, and only three-and-half hours flight from Bali, Perth is a world-class tourist destination.

t is also a paradise for nature lovers. You will see people jogging or cycling along its clean streets and in numerous quiet parks, at any time of day. Beaches and rivers pulse with the flap of sails and birds of all kinds. With its vast area and low population — only 2 million people in the entire gargantuan state of Western Australia — the capital city boasts many parklands where people enjoy clean air and greenery.

We began exploring the best of Perth at the famed 400-hectare King’s Park, just a few minutes from the hotel. This public park on the city’s western fringe overlooking the famed Swan river is an excellent vantage point to see and photograph the Perth skyline with the great river in the background.

The park is home to the state war memorial and more than 12,000 species of wildflowers that grow within the Botanic Gardens, many of which bloom in Spring. Unfortunately we missed the main event because we came in the wrong season. During warmer months King’s Park is a popular destination for family picnics, outdoor movies, concerts and theater.

A few exotic Australian animals can be seen in the park, but the best place to go and cuddle a cute koala or strike a pose with a kangaroo is Caversham Wildlife Park in Swan Valley, about 40 minutes’ drive east of Perth.

Swan Valley is one of Western Australia’s oldest wine-making regions. During winter, the straight highway is lined with wilting vineyards. The area is also well known for its fine restaurants and winery cafes.

So we dropped by for lunch and wine tasting at the award-winning Sandalford Wines in Swan Valley.

Established in 1840, this is one of Western Australia’s oldest wineries and was one of the first in the state. From its vast vineyards, the winery offers a range of products including Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Semillon Blanc and Verdelho wines.

In the same general area, food lovers can spoil their tastebuds at Margaret River Chocolate. Here you not only can shop for a wide array of products, but can also watch the chef at work in the kitchen, blending fine European style chocolates. As you know, the art of blending and tempering is what distinguishes fine chocolate produced by chocolatiers around the world.

An hour-long cruise from Perth to the port of Fremantle, 20 kilometers to the southwest, was fabulous.

The main attraction was the landscape and historical places along the riverbanks.

Unlike places like Bali or Jakarta, where most land is privately owned, the wonderful thing about Perth is that the entire Swan river and the endless beaches are virtually all public spaces that anyone can enjoy — bicycling, walking, swimming or dining — and there are no satpams (private security guards) to growl at you.

There is a lot to see and do in Fremantle. We dropped in for lunch at Cicerello at the Fishing boat Harbour, a beachfront restaurant that claims to be the “best-known and best-loved” fish and chip shop in Australia.

While waiting for meals, patrons can have a closer look at various marine fish in the restaurant’s aquariums. While we were imagining how these fish would taste, a waiter came and served us a huge lunch wrapped in paper. The package, comprising freshly caught seafood, was excellent but the portions were simply too big for an average Indonesian stomach like mine.

When in Perth, don’t miss the chance to thrill yourself and venture into the infamous maximum-security Fremantle prison, one of the most historical buildings in Australia. The facility was built with locally quarried limestone in 1850, by inmates shipped from Britain, and remained in use until it was decommisioned in 1991. At that time, prisoners were transferred to a more modern facility and the old jail was turned into a unique museum.

Located just five minutes walk from Fremantle Markets, the prison gives visitors a glimpse of a grim life behind bars. Once inside, you can’t help but imagine how lives were wasted in dim cells. Standard facilities include wooden beds or hammocks, cans for prisoner to relieve themselves in, and a Bible.

The prison tour leads visitors from the reception room — the wardrobe where inmates had their plain clothes replaced with prison uniforms — to the solitary cells, gallows, a chapel and the exit door where prisoners was seen off after serving their time.

The most interesting aspect of the prison is its artworks created by inmates and execution chamber where a total of 44 hardcore criminals were hanged up until the 1960s. It’s rather chilling to realize that this spooky old-fashioned facility was still in use less than 20 years ago.

The museum also offers a 90-minute candle-light tour on Wednesday and Friday evenings and the humorous tour guide will lead you through tunnels built by prisoners 20 meters underground.

So, go for the Great Escape tour if you think you are brave enough. If you are faint-hearted and feel like seeing some hot stuff, go to Perth Mint on Hay Street where demonstrations of molten gold being poured are conducted at the original Melting House which first operated in 1899.

The Perth Mint is a curious place for locals and visitors for its unique function as a high-security gold and silver trading center, an upscale souvenir shop as well as a tourist destination.

Aside from its glittering gold exhibition showcasing the history of gold prospecting in the continent, and of course a vast product line, where else could you experience what it feels like to lift a 400-ounce gold bar the size of an adult’s palms pressed together, worth A$200,000. The real thing (!) sits securely in a glass box with an opening just big enough for your hands.

The highlight of the day was watching the eloquent Danny Martin demonstrating how to make a gold ingot. The man stood in fireproof gear next to a burning furnace with $200,000 worth of molten gold in it, which he says has never lost purity or weight since it was first used many, many years ago.

At the end of his story about the nature of gold, Danny lifted out the bowl containing the gold pudding, heated to 1,300 degrees Celcius, to be poured into a mould. “Would anyone like to lick the bowl?” he quipped. And within a matter of seconds, voila, he had produced a brick-sized gold bar.

Since July 17, getting to Perth from Indonesia has become easier with the budget carrier AirAsia providing Denpasar-Perth flights on a daily basis. A group of Indonesian journalists was among the travellers on board one such flight.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Indonesia, home to one of the healthiest marine environments on earth

Indonesia is home to one of the least fished, least populated, healthiest marine environments on the planet.

With my GreenWatch Column all too often highlighting the many serious conservation challenges facing this nation, the islands of Raja Ampat provide the location for a truly good news story.

Situated off the northwest tip of Bird’s Head Peninsula on the island of Papua, Raja Ampat is an archipelago comprising more than 1,500 small atolls surrounding the four main islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo.

Part of the newly named province of West Papua, formerly Irian Jaya, the marine life diversity in the Raja Ampat area is the highest recorded anywhere on Earth, according to leading ocean biologists.

This remote place encompasses more than 40,000 square kilometers of land and sea, which contains Indonesia’s largest marine national park, Cenderawasih Bay. Biodiversity is considerably greater than any other area sampled in the legendary Coral Triangle, composed of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

It is a diver’s paradise, where pristine reefs consist of vast swathes of vivid red, pink, yellow and purple coral.
And it’s also a place where worlds almost literally collide. These remarkable waters are just east of
the famed Wallace Line – named

by the famous 19th-century natu-ralist Alfred Russel Wallace – which fascinatingly separates the fauna
of southern Asia from that of Australasia.

The Raja Ampat archipelago is part of the 340,000 square-kilometer transition zone known to modern oceanographers as Wallacea.

Scientists describe it as “the epicenter of marine biodiversity”, where the discovery of new species is extraordinarily commonplace.

According to The Nature Conservancy, which conducted a study together with partner organizations, these waters contain 1,070 fish species, 537 types of coral and 699 mollusk species as well as regular sightings of the wobbegong, a curious flat shark that spends most of its time on the seabed.

Wobbegongs are well camouflaged thanks to a symmetrical pattern of bold markings resembling an elaborate fabric pattern, which is why they are often referred to as carpet sharks.

These creatures make use of their relative invisibility to hide among rocks and catch smaller fish that swim too close, typical of ambush predators, but they present little danger to humans

Properly protected, this biodiversity goldmine could serve as an evolutionary laboratory and maritime seed bank to kick-start recovery for the entire area.

The so-called Four Kings at least for now remain an unspoiled example of the richness of the coral ecosystem. But the relative isolation that protects this maritime marvel is under threat.

Sorong is the westernmost coastal city on Papua and is the gateway to these incredibly species-rich coral reef islands, widely considered as the heart of the world’s coral reef biodiversity. But it is also the logistics hub for Indonesia’s thriving eastern oil and gas frontier.

Like so many isolated parts of Indonesia, Sorong has experienced exponential growth in the past five years, and further growth is anticipated as the city becomes better linked by road to other frontier towns in Papua’s Bird’s Head Peninsula.

And like in so many other places, as this nation develops economically, there are increasing and often daunting challenges in preserving the country’s incredible nature.

Over the years, the tiny population of ethnic Melanesian Papuans, mainly subsistence fishermen, has shown respect for conservation. But when they see big commercial boats from Sulawesi and other populous Indonesian islands, whose own local waters have been depleted, anchor offshore and wipe out fish stocks with dynamite bombs, it’s difficult for them to avoid the temptation to blow up the reefs themselves in a bid to keep at least some of the profit from leaving their islands.

That’s why leading international environmental groups, including Seacology, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy are striving to provide a better deal for the villages by offering rewards in the form of schools, community centers and solar power in exchange for long-term protection of their ecologically priceless waters.

World-renowned diver and oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who counts Raja Ampat as one of the most spectacular places on Earth, says that the next 10 years will be the most important in the next 10,000.

Known as a global ambassador for the seas, this extraordinary marine explorer, who is now in her seventies and still diving, says, “We’ve got a limited time to make a difference.”

The Indonesian government has established Raja Ampat as a separate administrative unit, which gives communities a greater say in managing the natural resources upon which their livelihoods depend.

This structure also offers an important opportunity to include conservation in the spatial planning of the newly formed local government.

But the pressure to extract the islands’ and oceans’ wealth is relentless, and it is likely to need stronger measures from both national and local governments to ensure the long-term preservation of this jewel in Indonesia’s crown.
photo :

Saturday, August 1, 2009

American space tourist buys return ticket to orbit

Recession or no, billionaire Charles Simonyi couldn't pass up another shot at space, even if it meant shelling out $35 million more.

Besides, it may one of the last times the Russian government allows tourists to hitch a ride to the international space station.

"It's now or never," said Simonyi, who has now spent $60 million for a couple of space vacations. The first was $25 million.

A computer genius who helped build Microsoft, Simonyi (sih-MOHN'-ee) will become the world's first two-time space tourist when he leaves Earth behind Thursday. He'll be accompanied by two professional astronauts — a Russian and American — who will be going up for a six-month stint at the space station.

His own trip will last under two weeks, and it will be his last.

"I'm not getting any younger," the 60-year-old told The Associated Press in a recent telephone interview. He'll be one of the older men to fly in space, though nowhere near John Glenn's record at age 77.

Besides, he's promised his new wife, Lisa Persdotter, a 28-year-old Swedish socialite, that this will be his final spaceflight. He told her about his plans when they got engaged and "she was very supportive, but, BUT to a limit, mainly. Just once," Simonyi said with a chuckle. He's quick to point out this is his first marriage, and he's taking one of their engagement rings with him into orbit.

The Hungarian-born Simonyi, who lives in suburban Seattle, is among six rich people who have bought tickets to space through Virginia-based Space Adventures.

NASA, the major stakeholder in the space station, may not love the idea of hosting tourists — "spaceflight participants" as it calls them. But the initial concerns back in 2001 have eased over the years with the addition of guidelines.

Space station program manager Mike Suffredini has spoken to Simonyi, just as he has with everyone going up, to make sure the visitor understands his limitations at the orbiting complex.

"It really has to do with their safety," as well as the safety of the others and the space station itself, Suffredini said. "They're extremely restricted" in what they can do on the American side.

All this may soon be moot: Russian space officials have indicated that after this year, there will be no more seats available to tourists. That's because the space station crew is about to double in size to six — hopefully by the end of May — and professional fliers will fill all the slots.

After he returned from his two-week space station trip in April 2007, Simonyi said Russian cosmonauts told him how different and rewarding it was to go back up a second time. With doors closing on future tourist flights, Simonyi did not want to miss out.

Because the training for his first flight was so recent, Simonyi got the abridged version, three months at cosmonaut headquarters in Star City, Russia, versus six to eight months before. He will return to Earth on April 7 in a Soyuz capsule.

"I look at it as a continuation of the first flight," Simonyi said. "The reasons are the same. It's to support space research, it's to popularize civilian space flight and communicate the excitement of sciences and engineering to our kids."

Simonyi's own interest in space was kindled in childhood. He represented Hungary as a junior cosmonaut, when he was 13, and won a trip to Moscow to meet one of the first Soviet spacemen. His interest in computer programming eventually led him to the United States; he's been a U.S. citizen for 27 years.

Simonyi — who has a doctorate in computer science and is a licensed pilot — led the development of Microsoft Word and Excel. He left Microsoft in 2002 and founded Intentional Software Corp. as well as the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences.

He's offered to do medical and radiation experiments while he's up there, and will use Windows on Earth software to photograph Earth. The view and the feeling of weightlessness are drawing him back as well.

"It's a super-wide screen, and the Earth is fantastic blue," he said.

His wife of four months will be at the launching site in Kazakhstan, along with about a dozen other family and friends. Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, who was an usher at Simonyi's wedding, can't make it.

It's ironic, Simonyi said, that he left Hungary in 1966 as a teenager, frustrated by Soviet secrecy, and now Russia is allowing him to fulfill his dream — again.

"Who would have thought? The irony of this is amazing," he said.


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