Friday, 30 December 2016

My entry for the Dear Friends letter 2016

2016 was a good year for me. One of the many highlights for me this year was Geocaching. Geocaching is an international sport which consists mainly of finding hidden boxes in the woods with a GPS(Co-ordinates are posted online). I found out about the game in April this year, and since then I have found 51 geocaches with my phone. I got to most of them on my bike and some of them on family trips and vacations, including trips to the Netherlands and Singapore.

Sailing season is around Summer(October-March in Australia), so this year had parts of two sailing seasons. The first, when I went to the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron in Manly, QLD, started in late 2015. During that term I completed the Tackers course, which teaches basic knowledge of sailing for children. I needed the certificate from Tackers to get into Green Fleet(higher level teaching, including the rules of racing). I sailed in Green fleet through the beginning of 2016 and up until March. By then, the sailing season had ended, and I finished Green Fleet and was allowed to sail in a higher level group, Intermediate Fleet(also called Blue Squadron) during the next season. Unfortunately, sailing in Intermediate Fleet required owning a Laser at the sailing club, which are very expensive. Because of this, I had to start sailing at another club the next season.

Starting at October, I sailed at the Humpybong sailing club at Redcliffe. Since I had completed Tackers, I was able to get straight into Green Fleet. Because there are no higher-level courses at Humpybong, the next step was to become a Tackers assistant instructor. I enrolled in a two-day course back at Manly and got an AI certificate. The course I will be helping with will be in early January.

Meanwhile, I had been reading many books with Steve every evening. This year we finished The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, we read Much Ado About Nothing by Shakespeare, which we watched with my grandmother, and we read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

I have also been practicing clarinet regularly and have passed the grade 3 music examination for clarinet. I am now working on some pieces of music for two auditions which are both scheduled mid-January.

One of the biggest highlights for the year was the trip to the Netherlands. As it started, eight time zones of air travel made August literally the longest month of my life(and September the shortest). We switched to a connecting flight in Dubai on the way and saw some of the airport. A few days after we got to Leeuwarden, capital of Friesland, we took a ferry to Terschelling, our favourite island. It is a small island, only 30km long, and I had a lot of fun biking around the island and seeing the nature, the towns, the farmland, and the ruins of German WWII bunkers. After staying there for 3 weeks, we went south to the city of Nijmegen, stayed there for a few days and went around to an amusement park and the German border. Then we went back to Schiphol and flew to Singapore. We stayed there for 3 days and then returned to Australia. It was the best trip I had in 4 years.

Lost World

The Gold Coast is a weird place. Lots of beaches, lots of sunlight lots of high rises, no hills. It's kind of well known in Australia for being the Australian equivalent of Miami -- lots of high rises against the beach, inhabited by both rich and poor. People go there for vacations, or just to say they've been there. Like I said it's a weird place. On the Southern end of the Coast rises a series of low hills. These hills, which are low and fairly unpromising, rise quickly into a landscape which bears no resemblance to the strip malls and big houses below. Protected by the Lamington and Springbrook national parks, the landscape traces the border and is called the McPherson Range.

Many explorers have tried hard to map the area, but the McPherson Range is the size of Rhode Island and much, much more impenetrable. Even now, there are many valleys no European has ever set foot in within the range. Who knows; there might be undiscovered plants and animals in the area. The first road to lead into the area led to O'Reily's, a rainforest guesthouse that still stands today. Nowadays, many tracks and roads cross the range and we went on one of them to reach Green Mountains.

Green Mountains is the part of Lamington National Park that surrounds O'Reilly's. It contains some of the most mountainous, inaccessible rainforest in the entire park. The road to O'Reilly's, which has not changed route or width since it was built, is a one-lane road with many blind curves which looks like spaghetti on a road map. On the way there, the road even leads through a long, squiggly one-way cutout to get past a series of cliffs! We spent a very brief time in the Mountains -- two days. But during that time we saw a lot of the park, and really got a feel for what the mountains were like.

The morning after arriving, I and my dad and my brother set off for an extended hike: the Albert River Circuit, a seven hour hike that did most of the walking far away from the Green Mountains campground. We got up early to do the hike. There was no trail that led from the campground, so we walked along the road and past a parking lot to get to O'Reilly's. The O'Reilly's lodge has changed a lot since it was built, and it is now the centre of a large clump of hotel buildings, a cafe' and a souvenir shop. The O'Reillys still own it, though.

Across the road was the main trackhead, at a sign declaring that we had just arrived at the Border Track, a long trail connecting Green Mountains to a distant trailhead, Binna Burra. The Border Track is very well maintained for being the starting point of most day hikes in Green Mountains. We walked easily along the hard clay path before seeing a land mullet. Land mullets are a very large species of skink. This one was so big, I could have mistaken it for a baby crocodile if it had spikes on its back.

We continued to walk past intersection after intersection, always going straight ahead. The trees are gigantic in Lamington. Giant figs coated with vines and epiphytes loomed out of the green haze of the tree ferns. Vines were everywhere, and wherever there weren't vines there were cliffs. No small wonder explorers took so long to get this far. As the downhill slope on our left got steeper, I could sense a gigantic chasm to our left side, much deeper than it was wide. Both up and down, the slope went on and on without end. It was like we had shrunk to the size of insects, or like a small valley had grown to the scale of the Grand Canyon. Everything was much, much bigger than it should have been.

After an hour and a half of walking, we passed a gigantic Antarctic Beech -- so named for the place it was first identified, as a fossil -- and reached the beginning of the Albert River Circuit. We left the main trail on the right and followed an overgrown track, dodging fallen trees as the track narrowed. The Albert River flows on the next valley over from the Border Track, so I had expected to top out onto the ridge top between the two valleys. We never did. Instead, we contoured across the slope as it got steeper and and the path got surrounded by cliffs. For the whole time the track was doing this, I never suspected that we were slowly turning to the right, slowly winding around a mountain peak. Until the track switchbacked and it was obvious we were in a different valley than we started in.

The walking book we had (which was fairly outdated and may not have taken into account a track closure) told us we would reach the first waterfall of the track, Jimboomba Falls, about half an hour after turning off the Border Track. It was full hour and we had not even seen a creek yet. Then suddenly, we turned a corner and crossed a dry creek bed. Stupidly thinking this was Jimboomba Falls, we kept walking and then saw something totally weird. It was a lobster. Except it was crawling along dry ground far from a flowing creek. And it was blue and white. I don't know why -- I mean, it was just a lobster -- but it weirded me out. I learned later that this was a Lamington Spiny Crayfish, a freshwater yabby endemic to the Mcpherson Range between Tamborine and the Main Range.

Excited about the find of the crayfish, we walked easily to what was actually Jimboomba Falls to have a snack. The falls were just a small cascade, but they were interesting to see partly because thick moss growing on the sides made them look otherworldly. After checking for leeches we continued on a steep zigzag downward, sometimes clinging onto cliffs to avoid slipping and falling. Often we would have glimpses of the creek, which was always pouring over a high waterfall. At the end of the zigzag, we crossed the creek with glimpses of Lightning Falls -- a very high, free falling waterfall.

Earlier we had not been following the Albert River, but an offshoot called Lightning Creek. Just after Lightning Falls, we descended to the river itself. It was big, about five times as big as Lightning Creek. The first waterfall we discovered on the river was Mirror Falls. Mirror Falls was the most beautiful, mainly because of the mossy walls on either side of it. We passed four other, not very impressive falls in quick succession, before arriving at Echo Point Lookout which altered my view of the place completely.

Descending down to the creek was steep, but climbing back up was along more or less flat ground. Then we headed along a sidetrack to the lookout. Before I even arrived I could sense a void ahead of us, like we were standing at the edge of the Earth. In another minute we practically were. The Escarpment, which traces the New South Wales-QLD border, is a massive crescent shaped cliff that drops steeply and almost vertically about a kilometre into the plains below. We were standing on its edge, from which we could see the hulking ramparts of Mount Warning, the Border and Nightcap Ranges and even Byron Bay and the entire Gold Coast. It was the best view I have ever seen in SEQ, hands down.

We zombie walked for two hours back out along the Border Track, collapsing at what I hoped was a cafe'. It was the start of a treetop walk. Normally I don't like treetop walks -- I mean, they seem to be everywhere and I'm sick of them -- but this walk was pleasantly rickety and seemed like it would fall apart at any moment. I really liked it. We spent some time there, then walked back to the tents and collapsed.

If you are interested in walking the Albert River Circuit, or just want to know more, someone made an interesting video about it. A link is provided here.

The walks of the following day were done with another family who were friends of us. Since we had little time and energy left, we chose short walks around the area. The first one, to Python Rock, gave us a spectacular view over the mountains and really revealed how deep the gorges went. I would say they were about as big as Grose Gorge in the Blue Mountains, possibly bigger. Then we went on another walk, to the top of Morans Falls. But as we were arriving at the top of the waterfall, the sky broke apart and a torrential downpour began. Using any convenient track to get us back to safety, we ran up a muddy track labelled "O'Reilly's".

Suddenly, we emerged on an old gravel road. Not knowing where to go we just went right and found an old wooden shack. We raced to get under the eaves. Suddenly, Dad called to tell us the door was unlocked and we scrambled in. An information board revealed it to be an old slaughterhouse. My dad, I and my little brother were here, but no one else was, so we just sat inside and waited.

After twenty minutes the rain stopped. Noting that nobody had arrived yet, we just got out and walked along the track ourselves. Leaving the road to follow a promising looking track, we walked through a picturesque rainforest on a windy path that went through several large gum trees. Finally, we emerged at O'Reilly's where we met the others, sitting at a cafe'. They told us they had taken a different track, and had been waiting for us for half an hour.

Lamington is not the most amazing place in the world, or even Australia. But it is a great place and a must visit for anyone living in or visiting South East Queensland.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Switzerland -- Into The Sky

In the late evening of Sunday 26 June, two hundred Australian Scouts quietly filed into Singapore's Changi Airport. They had all paid in excess of four thousand dollars to go where they were going now. And they would soon get paid back.

Our group wasn't a great representation of Australia or even Scouts. To start with, very few Scouts there came from the city. Furthermore, 130 of the Scouts there were from Victoria. Only twelve Scouts there came from Brisbane. However it didn't matter because we were the first ever Australian Scouts to visit, in a contingent, Kandersteg -- the spiritual home of Scouting worldwide.

After spending about three hours in the gigantic Changi Airport, we left on a long-haul flight to Zurich. I drifted off once on the plane, only waking up when we were flying over Turkey. When I woke up, clouds were obscuring the view, but I did see a pretty impressive mountain range to the South. An hour later we were flying over Romania, and in another hour we had arrived in Switzerland.
Romania

Zurich Airport is great. Most airports look exactly the same as each other, but the Zurich airport is a very cultural place, with pictures and Swiss flags and local shops everywhere. There were two things I saw being sold everywhere: Insanely expensive Swiss watches and chocolate truffles, also ludicrously overpriced. I would find these things being sold all over the country in the coming weeks.

From the airport we took a train to Bern, the Swiss capital. The countryside was indistinguishable from, say, Belgium, unless you look at the large paddocks and strangely shaped houses. From Bern we took another train to Kandersteg, and the countryside slowly changed. In ten minutes, mountains appeared in the distance. These mountains got higher and higher, and by the time we passed the provincial capital, Thun, we could see snow on the top of most of them. Soon after passing through the town of Adelboden, the train zigzagged up a glacial slope and suddenly, we were in the slotlike gorge of the river Kander. An entire valley, complete with waterfalls and houses perched on cliffs, unfolded in front of us.

Our grand arrival
It was noon as we lined up outside the train station and began a sleepwalk toward the Scout centre. I forgot the details of the walk, but I know I took some interesting pictures before setting up the tent and promptly collapsing inside. After I regained consciousness the morning afterward, I remembered it was a free day and I started sleeping again.


First Day

At long last, I finally woke up and had some breakfast. Meanwhile, I had a walk around the campsite to see who else was around. It turned out to be mostly Europeans: a German patrol camping next to us, a couple of Danish troops on summer camp, a group of Norwegians who turned out to be great at soccer, and some Swedish I barely saw. Other than the Australians the campsite was almost empty. After breakfast I met another group: Two or three patrols of American Boy Scouts and some Venturers, all from Houston, Texas. Not knowing what to expect, I walked over to talk to them. They turned out to be quite friendly.

After locating some friends from Woy Woy, we went to the pool. The pool at Kandersteg was great with a really high diving board (I only went on it once because my ears were bleeding afterward). We then looked around the shops. There was a souvenir shop which sold some really cool Swiss army knives, a couple of cheese shops, a shoe shop (Why?) and about a dozen hotels. I learned later that the hotels got most of their revenue from Scouts coming to and from the Centre.
Every town in the Alps has a church like this.

We walked to the tents to get some rest, and I set off for the main chalet. The main chalet of the Scout centre was a nice old building, originally built to house workers who built the Lotchenberg tunnel in the 1890s. Now it is a large bunkhouse built just for Scouts. Each room in the bunkhouse was paid for and maintained by a different Scout movement; we quickly found the Australian room. The centre also has more rooms, including the recreation rooms and even a computer room.

We ate dinner outside that night. The Pinkies -- the Scout centre staff, so named because of their pink uniforms -- set up a speaker outside the chalet so we could listen to music.

High Ropes and Thun

Central Thun
The first day was a lot of fun, but we would get no rest on the second day, because we were going to Thun. Thun is the provincial capital of the area around Kandersteg, and it was located on both sides of the fast-flowing Aare river. Before going there, we went to Interlaken for high ropes. The high ropes courses, of which there were nine, were fun and exciting. I even completed the hardest course the park had on offer. Interestingly, many of the adventure park staff were Australian.

Then we arrived at Thun. Thun has the same kind of neatness and age that I like about European cities. It even had a thousand year old castle and an equally old bridge. There were public drinking fountains around the old city.

Italy

If the second day went by in a blur, the third certainly didn't. The third day was, like the second day, one of our 'core' days -- in which we travelled as a troop to different locations. We were going to do a service project for the Centre, like chopping firewood, but during an assembly on the first day we received news that we were going to Italy! The Italy trip, which was already an optional free day activity, was a great trip and the cultural highlight of my time in Kandersteg.

I slept in that day because my alarm wasn't working. Luckily one of the Scout leaders rushed to my tent, woke me up, and we made the bus in time for the bus to enter a train, and go through the Lotchenberg tunnel to the village of Goppenstein. From here, the bus winded down into the Valias valley, home of the highest peaks in Europe.

We stopped for a rest break on a high mountain pass called Simplonpass, which was guarded by a pair of massive stone lions (erected in the the name of some general or other). In the Australian fashion, we raced to the top, but got strangely tired halfway and had to walk the rest of the way. I do not know how high the pass was -- possibly around 2100 metres -- but this was the first time the altitude struck me as existing.

We continued through an excitingly narrow chasm with sheer walls. The road had to veer left and right to avoid sharing the space with the river. Suddenly, the valley opened up and we found ourselves in Italy. Northern Italy is hard to describe. It is a very beautiful, hilly place with lots of vineyards. Our destination was the town of Stresa, a tourist hotspot. Over the two hours we spent there, I had by far the best ice cream and the best pizza I have ever tasted.

The architecture is also very interesting. Rather than the crumbly pillars many people imagine being there, Stresa is a town that looks like it was put together in a big hurry, by people who had no idea how to work with bricks. It probably was. We also found a shop that was selling authentic swords and machine guns! Off-the-beaten-road Italy struck me as a very strange place.

Of course, Italy also has a dark side. Burglary and theft is common, and over the fourteen days a lot of stories came out about near escapes from thieves. There was at least one confirmed thief roaming around while our troop was there. Luckily we didn't have any encounters with them. After a great trip, we began the drive back out.

Jacobs Ladder

In the morning, we walked back to the shops. I bought some cheese that turned out to be really good, and we visited a cafe for lunch. I also took some more pictures.

More Scouts were streaming into the Centre now. As we were playing soccer with the Norwegians, an entire new troop of Danish Scouts arrived. Scouts from Scotland had arrived the day before. There was talk of three hundred American Boy Scouts coming on Sunday. The Germans, meanwhile, had quietly left.

Since the Kandersteg Scout centre operates as a 'permanent mini jamboree', there were lots of activities that involved learning about different cultures. One was International Night. International Night, which happens every Tuesday, is a gathering of Scouts in which each Troop or contingent sets up their own table, so that other Scouts can learn about the other countries. We had two tables, which we filled with boomerangs, lamingtons, flags, postcards, and other Australian kind of stuff. A group of Scouts was trying to trick the Europeans into eating Vegemite. None of them liked it, and it was funny seeing their expressions. Surprisingly, the Americans did like it.

I choose this moment to mention that night because it was on this day that I taught some Danish Scouts how to throw a boomerang. I was practicing my throwing skills when they walked down the road and saw me.

That afternoon, we climbed Jacobs Ladder under threat of rain. Jacobs Ladder, located just behind the campsite, is a gigantic ladder with wooden rungs that get farther and farther apart. With another person, using teamwork, we had to climb the ladder. I and a Rover made it to the top, where we briefly stood on the top rung. While waiting for other teams to finish up, a Pinkie told us that this area used to be part of the campground, but was vacated due to a landslide that had buried two campsites.

Free Day

Very little happened on Free Day. I mainly rested, but in the afternoon we walked to the village and bought some souvenirs. I could have gone swimming, but my swimming gear wasn't with me. So I walked around until I found some friends, and then we went to a cafe. It was very cheap, and extremely good. I bought some bars of chocolate, which turned out to be some of the best chocolate I had ever tasted. Afterward we returned to the Chalet, and received the news that tonight would be campfire night.

We Australians arrived in a stony amphitheater to be greeted by all the Scouts from the other campsites. I scanned the steps: There were three troops of Danish, one troop of Norwegians, some Swedish, a group of Finnish, a Patrol of Spanish Scouts, the Americans, the Pinkies (which came from everywhere) and of course the Australians. The Australians,  comprising of over half the population of the camp, dominated the campfire. We heard songs, saw some funny skits, and then crawled into our tents for another night of sleep.

Lotchenpass

Gastern Valley from the top of Gallihorn
Lotchenpass was absolutely spectacular. I have never been to Nepal, but Lotchenpass reminded me of pictures of the Annapurna Circut. We got up early (except for me, I slept in again), and made a windy bus drive into the Gastern valley. All but hidden behind a waterfall, the Gastern valley took the appearance of a gorge. Once again, world-class peaks towered around us.

Our guide, whom I have forgotten the name of, was a woman -- a Pinkie, of course -- from Denmark. She led us slowly up the steep slope, passing waterfalls. It began to rain. We took refuge from the rain under the eaves of a hut, but eventually we had to move again.

The terminal moraine
The trail quickly flattened out and led along a U-shaped valley, blocked at the top end by a massive black wall. Above this, our guide told us, was a glacier. The path steeply zigzagged up goat pastures to the right before arriving at a fin of rock. Beyond this was a path of slippery ice that would only be navigable if an ice axe were to be used. She gave us a brief demonstration of how to use it, and  then we set off to cross the glacial moraine.

Glacier travel was slow and horrible. Rain started falling again, and it felt like liquid ice. Cold and shivering, we slowly pulled ourselves toward the lateral moraine of the glacier. Visibility was reduced to little more than nothing. Then suddenly, the clouds parted. There was a sudden drop. I felt like we had reached the end of the world. But nestled in this horrible place was a hut. We raced toward it.

Lotchenpass
The hut turned out to be a restaurant and lodge, crowded with hikers who had the nerve to get this far. After a brief rest we walked outside where it had cleared up. We could see the mountains on both sides of the pass, including a forbidding-looking one called Hockenhorn. I could even see -- or maybe I imagined it -- the tip of the Matterhorn, all but hidden by lesser peaks. What was more amazing though, was the perfection of the mountains. The vegetated areas ended on an exact line and so did the trees.

Our guide led us to a snow slope. It was too steep to walk down, so we slid down to the track. The track led us on a zigzag down the snowfields, and often there was a scarily steep stretch of ice to cross. On one of these places, a Rover Scout slipped and barely managed to arrest herself with her ice axe. She could easily have broken her leg.

Eventually, we got to the base of the snowfields and began walking down in a switchback. The trail led us past cow pastures and into a forest of pine trees. Finally, we reached the base of the mountain at a remote outpost called Lotchen. The houses here were mostly converted grain storages. We got on the bus and took the train back to Kandersteg.

The Kandersteg Experience

The shoulder of Doldenhorn
On Sunday, we were staying in the village to properly see Kandersteg itself. Our first stop was the Rhodelbahn -- the metal toboggan, which we had five turns on each. Then we walked up to the Oechinensee, a very beautiful mountain lake surrounded by waterfalls. Around us were the Swiss Alps: Doldenhorn, Bluemlisalphorn, Dundenhorn, Wildi Frau. We stayed at the lake for some time, walking to waterfalls and swimming in the lake, and resumed down a steep trail back down the valley. When we arrived, we walked to a restaurant -- Des Alpes -- to have dinner.

I only found out later that my family was going to a restaurant in Brisbane, also called Des Alpes, which reportedly served authentic Swiss food. Ironically, the Des Alpes in Switzerland only served pizza and hamburgers. But they were pretty good and the gelato was great.

After dinner, I and a few other Scouts crossed a farming field to get to a waterfall on the side of the valley. After this we climbed steeply up scree slopes and reached the base of the falls. They were much better than anything in Australia. We watched the sun set over the Doldenhorn, and walked back to the campsite.


The Two-Day Hike: Gallihorn and Bunderspitz

Bunderspitz is a large, fairly flat mountain to the West of Kandersteg. Due to the shape of the valley we were in, I never saw its summit. However, after catching a cable car to the top of the gorge, I did.

Our guide this time was Emil, another Danish pinkie. Emil was fairly quiet but he was a great guide. Zigzagging up the cow pastures high on the mountain, the track, a farm road, was marked by red and white lines. Emil told us that military service was mandatory in Switzerland, and that a division of the military blazed trails and painted these lines.

Those bells were taller than me.
Soon we passed a farm called Obere Allme, which had great views of the Kandersteg valley.  A lot of really big bells were lined up under the eaves. Apparently the biggest bell was given to the cow with the most milk. With the size and weight of those bells, they must be more like torture than reward.

The steep side of the cauldron
After we passed the farm, we left the farming road and followed a trail that zigzagged into the heights. The small valley we were in was shaped like a cauldron, with the sides getting steeper and steeper. Eventually we got to the top, only a hundred metres from the summit of the Bunderspitz.

Aand the view from the top!
The view from the top was great. As with all Swiss mountains, there was a cross at the summit. We ate lunch and walked back to the pass we were at earlier to descend a scree slope. Suddenly, a massive spire of rock -- Clyne Lohner -- blocked our path forcing us to hug the wall while climbing straight down the scree slope. Triggering small landslides, we slipped down the slope.
Clyne Lohner

The mountain pass.
After an hour we reached the base. From here, a small trail traversed the slope to a pass. From here, Emil helpfully told us, we would be descending to the Oechinenhutte, a Scout Centre owned hut we would be spending the night at. Immediately, the track made a long traverse of the scree slope. Some people had trouble getting across, so Emil had to help them while we were waiting at the base. The valley floor seemed forever below. The remaining hours went by in a blur: we slowly zigzagged down the almost sheer cliff. Eventually, we reached a road. We finally got to the hut as the sun was setting.
Tschingellochtighorn on the Three Valleys circut

The bunks of the hut were more comfortable than our beds down in camp. I laid my head down and almost instantly fell in sleep.

The second day was shorter than the first. This time there were two other groups from the Australian contingent joining us for the hike to Gallihorn, but we were the fittest and most well prepared of the groups. From the hut, we climbed forever up toward the top of the mountain, resting occasionally and watching the other groups below us. We made good time, and reached the top at noon.

The view from the top was even better than the Bunderspitz. Separated from us by a slot canyon was a much larger mountain -- Atels -- with a completely flat west face. Emil told us that the mountain was flat due to a gigantic avalanche a few decades ago. We could also see our campsite and I could just barely make out my tent.

The alpine lake
From the summit, we walked easily to a cable car station. Here, Emil told us we had made such good time, we would delay going down into the valley to see some alpine lakes. We spent a while skipping stones by the lakes and ran to the cable car station. We were just in time to catch a large cable car back into the valley. Only half an hour later, I was having dinner at the chalet.

Free Day Two

On the second free day, I was contemplating spending the time at Kandersteg but made a last minute decision to go to Blausee. The trip was worth it. Accompanied by a Leader, we walked to Adelboden where there was this interesting lake resort. We bought ice cream, walked around the lake, and took a boat ride onto the lake. There were thousands of fish in there. We eventually took a bus back to Kandersteg, which one of the Leaders paid for.

Blausee, German for 'blue lake'.
On this day I began to realize how dependent Kandersteg was on its Scout centre. The economy of the town completely relied on it -- the hotels, cafe's, rhodelbahn, and definitely the souvenir shop. At this free day I also met Hari. Hari basically owns all the local shops and cheeseries. He also supplies the Scout centre with yogurt, and that's where I saw him. Hari, like all the local business owners, wholly relies on the Scout centre.

The Aare River Float and Bern

The Aare River begins at Thun and winds through Switzerland's capital, Bern. We got on big inflatable rafts and paddled down the river from Thun, passing under bridges and past islands. We played games on the raft and bumped into bridge pillars on purpose. It was fun.

We unloaded at the leafy northern suburbs of Bern, where I dried off. We then walked to the train station past houses that reminded me of the Netherlands. Next to the Bern train station I saw something amazing: Row after row of completely unlocked bikes. It was amazing that this existed, just next door to Italy.

We walked around a mall for a while, buying souvenirs. We also bought ice cream; the ice cream man showed us the way to the ATM. I was very conscious that this would be my second last day in Switzerland, so I savored it.

Packup Day

Since we spent all day packing up, we had little time for shopping. I still did it, though, and bought about three or four chocolate bars. Then we packed up completely and went to the Campfire night one last time. The skits and songs were the same but the atmosphere was different.

The rumored three hundred American Scouts had come. They had celebrated their arrival and the Fourth of July by setting off fireworks late in the night, breaking just about every village rule and waking me up as I was trying to rest for Lotchenpass. That kind of set the tone for the following week. The Americans, I found out, were not from America but from army bases around Europe. They isolated themselves from everyone else as much as possible and barely attended the campfire. Their leaders were nice, though, and I talked to them a lot.

The other Americans had departed. So had the three Danish troops, but that didn't matter because they were replaced by hundreds of other Danish Scouts. More Scottish arrived at camp. Last campfire, there were only three hundred and fifty Scouts. Now that number had doubled. There would only be more Scouts at camp in the coming months, as Europe went on summer break.

After two weeks, I knew the campsite and the chalet like the back of my hand. We had found a world war two bunker in the outskirts of the campsites, big enough to accommodate several cars if the entrance didn't collapse. We also found a window in the cliff face which could have been part of the nearby military barracks.

Singapore, on the way back
We had an uncomfortable night's sleep on the floor of an assembly hall. At four in the morning, we left the campsite to make a two-day journey back home. As I was riding in the train I knew, for certain, I would be back.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Girraween

In this article I am going to relate to my experiences in the Girraween area -- both on the most recent trip and on one I did, a year back, with Scouts.

The Girraween is by any measure an amazing place. While its largest granite outcrop -- Bald Rock -- is a fraction of the size of Uluru, the Girraween area gives you a sense of beauty that Uluru and the nearby Kata Tjuta lacks. Furthermore it is much closer to Australia's cities, being a mere three hours drive from Brisbane in Queensland's Granite Belt.

What does the place look like? The Girraween is located on top of a high plateau. A visitor to the valley below would never suspect it was there, if the signs were taken away. The top of the plateau is a large, undulating landscape, unremarkable except in one way: the rocks. They puncture through vast ribbons of eucalypt forest like needles, standing high above everything else but each other.

My first summit of such an outcrop was the climbing of South Bald Rock, a dome of granite that looks vaguely like a bald man's head. It happened on a Scout hike a year back. South Bald Rock is no moderate peak, approaching a height of 150 metres relative to surrounding plains. From the top we could see all the other peaks from a 360 degree view. To the immediate West lay the West and Centre bald rocks, then the rocky rise of Mount Norman that all but obscured Turtle and Castle Rocks, the Sphinx, and the Pyramids. To the East the view was more breathtaking: we could see Bald Rock, but behind it was a continuous ribbon of undisturbed forest that culminated in the gray spire of Mount Barney -- which was 90 kilometres away and should have been out of sight. Due to the curvature of the Earth, Mount Barney looked lower than us.

After that initial trip to the Girraween I vowed to return, and I finally did in October of this year. Not with Scouts this time, but in a family trip with friends. In Scouts, we completed the Eastern Peaks Circut: a lengthy hike involving climbs on the eastern (New South Wales border) side of Girraween National park. This time, we would visit the more built-up, western side of Plateau. Here was a visitor's centre and even a campground.

We were fairly ambitious on the first day, making a visit to the First Pyramid. The name of the Pyramid was inspired by its shape: a three or four cornered dome, tapering slightly at the top. To get to the summit we ascended a granite surface sloped at fifty degrees and smooth as glass. When we got to the top of this slope, we turned the corner and found the trail following a natural catwalk. Although the surface of rock was only tilted at thirty degrees or so, it tilted sharply toward a void I did not want to end up slipping into. My hands became shaky as I began the traverse, and I collapsed when I got to the other side.

The base is smaller than it seems.
We continued to the summit. The true summit was inaccessible as it was on top of a boulder, so we continued to a natural rock platform, from which we could see the climb route. Rather than sweeping 360 views we were promised by faraway views of the mountain, the view was dull and obscured by boulders. Still a good view, though. Then we scrambled to a viewpoint on the other side of the summit, which looked down upon another mountain: the Second Pyramid. It was weird, like a gigantic pudding dropped in the middle of the forest, and was completely devoid of trees or even subsidiary boulders. On the way back, we passed a boulder three times the size of a house yet balanced on a base the size of a dinner plate.

It was getting dark so we returned to the campsite.

The second day was much better. After some decision, we decided to walk to Turtle Rock.

Turtle Rock is a low dome of granite we saw from the Pyramid. It looks just like a sleeping turtle. Next to it is the Sphinx, a needle-like finger of rock poking out of a boulder field. The walk was supposed to take four hours, but we took five because we were exploring so much.

The walk began by climbing up through open eucalypt forest and scattered boulders. At long last, we got to the top of a ridge and followed it to the Sphinx. The Sphinx itself was not very impressive, but we spent an hour exploring the massive boulder field on all sides of it. A short walk brought us to the base of Turtle Rock. To get to the top, we scrambled up through a narrow gully. Then, just above a ledge with good views of The Sphinx, we were blocked from going further by a 5m cliff.
The turtle

The Sphinx and Turtle Rock from Castle Rock
I thought it was impossible to go further, but after some searching I found a slot crammed with boulders. If I scrambled along the boulders and chimney climbed through the slot, I could just make it. I did so. The going was hard though, and I almost got stuck twice. But I got to the top of Turtle Rock and was rewarded by 360 degree views.

On the return trip we climbed Castle Rock. It was much less exposed than The Pyramid and had much better views. After having climbed the mountain, we called it a day and retreated back into our tents.

Note: None of these pictures are ours.
Our final objective was Underground Creek. A short walk from the car park, Underground Creek was a creek that carved an overhang, which promptly buried the creek when it collapsed. Brave souls still venture into the cave below the overhang, to find the creek and more.

After thoroughly exploring Underground Creek, we set off for an offtrack adventure to find the fabled Aztec Temple (it's actually a jumble of boulders). We tried, and got as far as the ridge it sits on before turning back due to casualties.

The failed Aztec Temple expedition reminded us of how much we had not seen in the park. We will need to go back here sometime. As we drove home through the Main Range, I was reminded of how much there is to see in the world, and how we can only hope to see a fraction of it in our lifetimes.

The fabled Aztec Temple.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Neutron

There is a recipe in the back of Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense which begins like this:

"Procure some strips of beef,  and having cut them into the smallest possible slices, proceed to cut them still smaller, eight or perhaps nine times."

The recipe raises some interesting questions such as: What would these tiny pieces of beef look like? Is it even possible to slice anything past the molecular level? There is another question I am more interested in. If you slice things into small pieces, they take up less space. Could you eventually make things disappear entirely, just by slicing them?

As a matter of fact, it is fairly easy to break apart molecules; your body is doing it now. Atoms are more tricky, but scientists have split the atom more than seventy years ago. You rely on atoms fusing together in the Sun, after all. To answer our first question, the beef wouldn't look like beef past the molecular level. In fact, if you managed to split apart every single molecule in a slice of beef at once, it would trigger an explosion as the oxygen fuses to form the kind of air you breathe. (if you did the same thing to atoms, you would make a large nuclear explosion.)

Of course, it takes some pretty tremendous forces to split atoms. The only place where it is done on a big scale is in the core of a large star, when it dies. If a star is much bigger than our sun, it struggles constantly to stop collapsing in on itself.  The star relies on fusing atoms to survive. The moment a star runs out of fuel, its inner layers collapse. The outer layers of the star crash into the inner layers, and rebound into space in what is known as a supernova. What is left is the core. In a Sun-sized star, the core left is a white dwarf, which glows for a while before winking out. However, in a large supernova, the atoms are so strained by gravity they split apart and form an extremely dense and often quickly spinning object known as a neutron star.

Neutron stars are really strange things. They can be the size of cities but the mass of the Sun. They are mostly made of neutrons. Many have a fragile 'crust', which can fracture and create terrifying power surges. Some orbit a star, which they suck power from. Sometimes neutron stars merge and create massive bursts of light. Some neutron stars, known as pulsars, spin several times a second and emit energy from their magnetic poles.

Most weird aspects of neutron stars come from their incredibly small size and their amazingly large amount of mass. There is a type of object which has even more mass and a smaller size than a neutron star: a black hole. Black holes are made by splitting the components of atoms apart into individual quarks. Black holes are really weird. They are objects with a gravitational field so extreme, they can bend light. You cannot even see a black hole; you just see, well, a black hole. Around a black hole, time slows down and everything is redshifted. We barely know anything about black holes at all. All we know for sure is that they are unimaginably small and dense.

I wish there was a way to split quarks - the components of neutrons and protons - apart, but there isn't, as far as we know. And finally we arrive to the answer of our third question: It is not possible to cut a slice of beef into nothing, but you can make a black hole.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Cultures

I noticed a lot of things in Switzerland that were not in Australia, America, or even northern Europe. One of them was the mountains. Australia's highest mountain is a mere hill compared to even the lowest mountain in Switzerland. Even the Rockies are no comparison to the mighty Swiss Alps.

However, the mountains were not what struck me most about the country. What struck me most was its culture.

The culture of an area is its identity. If someplace has a very old, established culture, it becomes instantly recognizable if you happen to be there. Australia was never properly populated before the Industrial Revolution, so its culture was mostly stolen from other continents; in Europe, however, country and even regional borders are obvious.

Let's take Italy and Switzerland - the two countries I visited this July. These two places, although neighbors, are shockingly different. One has been neutral for the past hundred and fifty years; the other has been heavily involved in both world wars. One has had a long history of organized crime; the other is one of the safest countries in the world. One makes great cheese; the other makes even better pizza. When I visited Italy on a day trip, the border between the two countries was obvious. It was marked on a pass by two massive stone eagles (a memorial of some battle victory in the Napoleonic Wars). To the north, there was a valley and beyond that, icy snowcapped mountains. In the valley there was a town with a visible church. The town seemed to have no center; it was stretched out across the valley floor. To the south, in Italy, the mountains tapered off abruptly and gave way to rolling hills, all sparsely covered with houses and lakes.

Cultures are interesting in the way that they carry on even when the geography that shapes them does not. For example, in Switzerland, there are two geographic regions: the Swiss Alps and the Rhineland. In the Swiss Alps, where Switzerland was first created, there is almost no flat land at all, except for that thin ribbon of farmland at the floor of each valley. As a result, all towns have only one road of any importance and the shops are spread out over hundreds of metres, sometimes kilometres. Curiously enough, when Switzerland grew to encompass the Rhineland, the system carried on. Look at a map of any city established under Swiss rule and you will see a distinct linear pattern.

My favorite thing about Swiss culture is the architecture. Architecture varies greatly all over the world. Even if a region has none of its own food, town layout or traditions, it will have its own architecture. Swiss houses and hotels have strange roofs for a place with a lot of snow; they have almost vertical outer sides and very flat tops, like boxes. Not all of them do of course; it's different in every single valley, just like the food and many other things are. And that's what I like most about Swiss culture: its variation.


Saturday, 30 July 2016

The Naming of Places

In 1870, when much of Australia was yet to be explored and Europeans had only just crossed the continent, the Australian Overland Telegraph Line was built. It spanned the ancient continent from north to south and is still regarded as one of the greatest engineering triumphs of Australia's history. The consequences of the construction included, among others, the birth of towns built around telegraph repeater stations. The towns on the northern end of the line had names like Tennant Creek, Daly Waters, Katherine, and Alice Springs. However, stations on the southern end were assigned names like Glendambo, Woomera, and Marla -- perhaps the first Aboriginal names ever given to Australian towns.

The purpose of this article is to discuss how people named towns, using Australian towns and cities as an example.

Naming Towns after People

A lot of explorers, officials and businessmen in late 18th Century England had a town of their own, somewhere in Australia. The ten oldest existing Australian towns -- Sydney, Hobart, Georgetown, Newcastle, Launceston, Ross, Bathurst, Penrith, Maitland, and Port Macquarie -- were all named after people. Furthermore, all of Australia's capitals are named after people. And to prove my point, below is a list of Australian towns with over 100,000 people:

Sydney p.4,920,000
Melbourne p.4.527,000
Brisbane p.2,308,000
Perth p.2,039,000
Adelaide p.1,316,000
Gold Coast p.624,918
Newcastle p.434,454
Canberra p.424,666
Sunshine Coast p.302,122
Wollongong p.292,388
Hobart p.220,593
Geelong p.187,417
Townsville p.180,333
Cairns p.147,993
Darwin p. 142,258
Toowoomba p.114,622

Naming Towns after Places

This is just about the least popular thing for villages to be named after -- landmarks. There is simply no dignity in naming your town after an existing nearby ridge. However, over the time, quite a lot of big towns have been named after landmarks. A key example is Broken Hill. Many years ago, some brave explorer stumbled upon a few 'broken-looking' hills that he speculated contained minerals. Luckily for the explorer and unluckily for the hills, he turned out to be right. Now there is a large town at the base of the hills, which are mostly gone thanks to mining operations.

A lot of towns like this exist in Australia, and most of them are either very old or don't exist anymore.

Using Names from the Indigenous People

This has been a very common technique all around the world. It has become increasingly popular in Australia, and multiple towns have been renamed due to pressure from local groups, decisions by the local government or just because people don't like to live in towns with ugly names. A good example is Ocean Beach. Ocean Beach was a seaside town in New South Wales, bordered by a beach of the same name. When awareness of the Aborigines increased in the 1960s, local businesses and estates began to give the town a new name: Umina, or 'place of rest'. There was a brief period of confusion, and then the new name took over. The beach was still called Ocean Beach in 1990 before it was named Umina Beach later on. Now the entire town is officially named Umina Beach, although the old name, Ocean Beach, still lingers.

More and more towns are being renamed to reflect on their original inhabitants, although the transition is gradual. Now most Australian towns and suburbs have Aboriginal names.

Mistakes

A lot of towns have very embarrasing, weird names and most of those names are mistakes. For example, the name of the coastal village of Coffs Harbour (pronounced 'coughs') is actually a mistranslation of 'Korf's Harbour'. Coffs Harbour was lucky. Other towns in the world have names like Bird-in-hand, Embarass, Hell, Accident, Dildo, Intercourse, Middlefart and even Boring. No doubt there will be more mistakes like this in the future.

The name means a lot to a town or city. That's why it's best to choose it wisely. And if a town name becomes obsolete or stupid, why not change it?