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Drugs in Sport: No Dope About it

Drugs in cycling are a thing of the past, present and maybe even the future.

By Roderick Eime

Commissioned for Outer Edge 37

As the world reels from the Lance Armstrong doping revelations, there are those who say “I told you so”, others who shriek “I don’t believe it” while yet more who say, “seen it all before”.

No-one is going to tell you Lance Armstrong was the first athlete to attempt chemical or pharmaceutical advantage in the race to cycling’s first place, but the once venerated Tour de France has degenerated into a Tour de Farce with claims and counter claims from the many accused competitors. Now it seems pretty clear that anyone in the first half of the field has to be seen as suspect.

Turn the clock back and it soon becomes obvious that doping and push bikes go way back to the very beginning of the Tour in 1903 and beyond. In his book, Dope: A History of Performance Enhancement in Sports from the Nineteenth Century to Today, author Daniel M. Rosen asks the question: “Who was the first coach to dope his cyclists?”

Fingers point quite assuredly to a nefarious character who was himself once a champion athlete, albeit in middle and long distance running. James “Choppy” Warburton, born 13 November 1845, came from the rough end of Lancashire and was the eldest of twelve, and one of the six surviving children of Harriet Birtwistle.

When his own illustrious career was over and his trophy cabinet bursting with silverware, he turned to coaching cyclists, specifically those taking part in the growing sport of endurance cycling in France. Among his charges were Jimmy Michael and brothers Thomas and Arthur Linton. Both Michael and Linton died in their 20s, many believe as a direct or indirect result of dope supplied by Warburton to either enhance or diminish their performances depending on how the ruthless coach had laid his bets.

Some of the Gladiator riders in 1894: (l-r) Augier, Antony, Mercier, Linton (with Warburton), and Barden

“When Warburton’s riders were racing, ‘Choppy’ could be found racing from one side of the track to the other, offering the riders encouragement and a little more. Perhaps the reason Warburton was able to get such great performances out of his riders was because the magic potion he carried in a small black bottle contained a drug that revitalised his riders,” wrote Rosen. The formula remains a mystery, but the results were obvious. Whatever secret concoction was contained in that little black bottle, it worked wonders on his riders.

Authors Gerry Moore and Andrew Ritchie entitled their 2011 book “The Little Black Bottle: Choppy Warburton, His Mysterious Potion, and the Deaths of His Bicycle Racers”. It details Warburton’s sinister methods that ultimately saw the evil Lancastrian warned off every track in England despite the absence of any regulations against doping.

“By the 1920s,” wrote Mark Janas recently in the US Sport Digest, “drugs were already a commonplace on the Tour de France. Strychnine was used as a painkiller during the race. Cocaine was also used to ‘keep riders going.’

“By the 1940s a new drug was on the scene. Amphetamines had been developed for military use to combat fatigue and to help aircrews stay alert. The top Tour riders soon found amphetamines necessary to remain competitive. Even by the 1950s, there was no ban against performance enhancing drugs.”

Janas reminds us that alarm bells were ringing loudly about the dangers of stimulants and other drugs as early as the 1950s. The suspicious collapse of the entire Belgium team in 1956 was attributed to “bad fish” and it is widely believed that the Tours of the 1950s were all won by riders on amphetamines. These suspicions were confirmed by five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil, himself an unrepentant doper. Even so, doping rules did not come into place until 1965 and then only five years after the death of 23-year-old Danish rider, Knud Enemark Jensen, in the 100km event at the 1960 Olympic Games. His autopsy results were covered up and attributed to heatstroke, but later a coroner confessed that his body was riddled with amphetamines.

So 1965 marks the beginning of the illegal doping era in cycling and draws attention to perhaps the most famous case of recent times, that being the death in the 1967 Tour de France of the much loved 29-year-old Englishman, Tommy Simpson.

In 2002, author William Fotheringham penned the biography of Tom Simpson, Put Me Back on My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson, with a revised edition following up in 2007 as a result of the deluge of new material that poured in as a result of the first. Inspired by an amateur film of the same name, Fotheringham laments the passing of Simpson in the same way the film’s dedicated producer, Ray Pascoe, a life-long fan of Simpson’s did in the self-funded documentary.

Tom Simpson. Died in the saddle from a suspected overdose (Wikipedia)

For those, including this writer, who need reminding, Simpson died on the 13 July 1967, on the blisteringly hot 13th stage of the Tour de France, near the summit of Mont Ventoux. He was an Olympic medallist, a world champion and the first Briton to ever wear the coveted yellow jersey, which he did in 1962. Driven and ambitious, Simpson regularly pushed himself to the limit of endurance and, perhaps recalling a failure to perform at the 1956 Olympic Games at just 19, vowed never to let his team or himself down again – no matter what it took.

The UK Guardian described Simpson’s collapse thus:

“The collapse came two miles before the summit of Mont Ventoux on the thirteenth stage of the race from Marseilles to Carpentras. Simpson had been riding well through the day; all that struck one of his team mates was that he was taking drinks more often than usual. At the bottom of the Col he had been dropped by one of the leading groups, but towards the top of the climb he was still well up in the broken field and trying to regain contact with Aimar’s small pursuing group 200 yards ahead.

“Then, as the few eye witnesses described it, he faltered in his riding and fell over to the side of the road. The British team car was right behind him. Harry Hall, the team’s chief mechanic, helped Simpson remount his cycle, but Simpson fell once more.”

Simpson, delirious and clinging to his handlebars with a deathly grip was given emergency resuscitation by officials and the Tour doctor and rushed to hospital at Avignon by helicopter. He was officially declared dead soon after arrival with the cause listed as “heart attack” but the examining physician refused to sign a death certificate and a toxicology report was called for. The finding of two full vials of amphetamine in his jersey, plus a further empty one, was more than sufficient evidence to suspect an unnatural death.

No inquest was held, or certainly no results were made public and it took a journalist, James L. Manning, a sports columnist for the Daily Mail, to break the news with the telling line: ‘Tommy Simpson rode to his death in the Tour de France so doped that he did not know he had reached the limit of his endurance. He died in the saddle, slowly asphyxiated by intense effort in a heatwave after taking methylamphetamine drugs and alcoholic stimulants.’

Simpson could be likened to the Armstrong of the day, drawing the spotlight to the dangers and inherent risks of drug taking in cycling and sport in general. Instead of diminishing the prevalence of drugs and doping, Simpson’s death drove the practice to even more sinister and underhand depths involving masking and inhibitors to cloak the practice.

Janas concludes with some exasperation “It could easily be argued that because doping has been part of the sport since its inception, it has become in fact part of the culture of cycling. Thus, ethical questions regarding doping in cycling may perhaps have different answers than in other sports.

“Either way, it is likely that the advent of new technologies such as genetic engineering will pose a new set of challenges, issues, and ethical questions for cycling and other sports.”

Reading list:

Put Me Back On My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson by William Fotheringham

The Little Black Bottle: Choppy Warburton, His Mysterious Potion, and the Deaths of His Bicycle Racers by Gerry Moore and Andrew Ritchie

Dope: A History of Performance Enhancement in Sports from the Nineteenth Century to Today By Daniel M. Rosen

Macau Skyjump: Adrenaline overload

I couldn’t look down. Instead I gazed out across the harbour toward the old city, a beautiful view and a fitting send-off. If this was my last earthly vista, so be it. “Three! Two! One!” Then I stepped into thin air at 233 metres.

Macau Skyjump

A freefall from 233m. Thankfully a soft landing (supplied)

The Macau Skyjump is the highest of its kind anywhere in the world and, according to Guinness World Records, is the World’s Highest Commercial Decelerator Descent. By comparison, the highest bungee, Bloukrans in South Africa is 216m.

Some will call this the coward’s bungee because there isn’t the dramatic elastic recoil of the long rubber variety. Instead, you’re trussed up in a harness not unlike a parachutist and hooked to a perplexing array of cables and guy wires that guide you to the bottom at nearly 80kmh.

Years ago I did three static line parachute jumps, paratrooper style, from 1500 feet. Each one scared the crap out of me, but the worst part was always the stepping out. Every nerve fibre in your body is screaming “no!” and the mental task of overcoming your self-preservation instinct is the hardest thing. Once you’re in the air and heading down, the rest is easy.

The palpable anticipation doesn’t help either and the hyped-up staff clearly delight in your terror, milking every moment as they install you in the lurid jump suit knowing that your insides are back-flipping like a circus dwarf. Fully tethered you are led to the platform like the condemned and cripes, it’s a long way up (or is that down?). The spike in your adrenalin production is the instant you step out. My heart was pounding as I free fell the first twenty metres. Then … yank! .. you come to a complete stop at 200 metres.

“Hey, look up and smile!” Yeah, it’s the photo. Try and look cool while you’re dangling in mid-air. Snap. Then the cable is “cut” and you drop like a stone toward the concrete below. This is where the decelerator bit comes in. The main cable hooked to your butt is spooling out from a giant spindle, checking your descent and maintaining your vertical velocity just below ‘fatal.’ Ten metres from pancaking on the plaza, the brakes are applied and you’re deposited neatly on the AJ Hackett target painted on the brickwork.

I’m standing up, but my knees are shaking and the adrenaline is still pumping hard – and continues to for the next couple of hours yet!

Originally published in get lost! magazine

Tasmania: Beyond the Ramparts of the Unknown

Commissioned for Luxury Travel Magazine

Words and pics Roderick Eime. Additional photography by Tourism Tasmania.

Once known euphemistically as “The Apple Isle”, Tasmania has shrugged off its persistent “fruit and vegetable” tag and moved up market into premium wine, particularly pinot noir, Riesling and sparkling varieties. The potential was discovered early with a medal at the 1848 Paris Exhibition but it wasn’t until the 1970s that Tasmania’s wine production was in full swing. Now the annual Hobart Wine Show is one of the most important in the country with vintages from over 140 producers.

Luxury Travel Magazine

Issue 44 – Spring 2010

Travelling from cellar door to cellar door can occupy an entire week-long journey and once you’ve tasted a few wines, you’ll want to stop by them all. Some wineries are architectural attractions in themselves like Moorilla, Meadowbank and Jansz, while other more humble establishments display their produce in converted stables like Springvale, or just a shed.

“Before I came down here I used to run a panel shop in Melbourne,” confesses Michael Vishacki of Panorama Vineyard near Hobart, “and I learned everything on the job.” Michael, unpretentious and plain speaking, certainly was paying attention. His prize pinots now sell for hundreds of dollars in Asia’s top hotels.

Despite the rapidly rising profile of the bottled product, most visitors will yield to the allure of the UNESCO World Heritage Cradle Mountain Lake St Clair National Park where the signature accommodation is the swank Voyages Cradle Mountain Lodge.

Cradle Mountain Lodge

The raw appeal of the Tasmanian mountainscape has captured the imagination of visitors for decades and none more so than pioneering outdoorsman, Austrian-born Gustav Weindorfer, who built a rough chalet next to the iconic Dove Lake in 1912.

Weindorfer is revered as the “founder” of Cradle Mountain wilderness recreation and is fondly remembered as an eccentric, idealistic yet jovial man who would host guests with generous lashings of his garlic and badger (wombat) stew.

“A mixture that would kill me in five minutes,” recalled local Bill Perkins in a eulogy to the colourful Austrian in 1982.

The more serious walkers can take specially organised and guided packages utilising a series of private eco-friendly huts over a six-day itinerary that incorporates the very best of the park. Each day’s walking is about four hours and includes food, accommodation and a loan jacket, but if you do nothing else, be sure to complete the Dove Lake circuit, a relaxed two hour dawdle around this imposing feature that is one of Australia’s most instantly recognisable vistas next to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) and the Sydney’s Harbour Bridge.

If walking is your passion, and Tasmania is one of the world’s great walking destinations, scoot over to the east coast for the other signature Tasmanian track, the Bay of Fires Walk. The four day coastal trek passes through the Mount William National Park and culminates in a sublime kayak along Ansons River frequented by sea eagles and platypuses. With one night en route at the Forester Beach Camp and two at the Bay of Fires Lodge, groups are limited to just ten walkers.

The lodge itself is situated 40 metres above a secluded white sand beach ideal for a quick, invigorating dip or snorkel. A model of ecologically sensitive construction, the award-winning pavilion is solar powered and features composting latrines and its own massive rainwater tanks.

“This is where we get a few ‘ohs and ahs’, says Daisy, a Californian science graduate now a full-time guide at Bay of Fires, as we consume the sweeping vista across a perfectly white beach on the Abbotsbury Peninsula directly beneath us. Behind us is the historic Eddystone Point Lighthouse which marks the island’s easternmost point. The view goes on forever. “On a day like today, you can just make out Cape Barren Island” (nearly 50kms to the north).

In the centre of Tasmania are the alpine lakes and craggy mountains that make such great postcards. Plum in the middle of the island and on the eastern border of the vast UNESCO World Heritage-listed Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, Tarraleah, a former hydro-electric working town is now a delightful hamlet pared down from its original sprawl to just the core buildings. The schoolhouse, church, hotel, supermarket, hall and chalet have all been reborn to serve the new single-minded community dedicated to natural pursuits such as bushwalking, trout fishing, canoeing, mountain-biking and bird-watching.

“Ten to two … pause …. flick,” implores fishing master Robbie as I struggle with the expensive rod and reel. Robbie’s meticulously tied fly obediently skits back and forth over the training pond as mine circles erratically then dives pathetically a few feet from shore. Trout fishing is a relaxing, almost transcendental pursuit, I’m told. Catching the fish is surely secondary to training emu feather dry flies to lure finicky trout. Still, I persist.

The old art-deco chalet has undergone the greatest transformation and is now a multi-award-winning lodge offering superior dining with a nightly degustation menu and spa treatments in the newly-constructed bathhouse adjacent.

Tasmania is a member of that elite geographic group of the world’s most southern inhabited lands, the executive of which includes just New Zealand’s South Island and Patagonia. In a world apparently shrinking through globalization and mass transit, venturing to the ends of the Earth may just be the escape clause we need.

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Doing It: Tarraleah Estate is situated on 300 acres surrounded by national park and World Heritage temperate rainforest. The self-contained adventure town offers a range of activities including world-class trout fishing, bushwalking and canoeing and is supported by a range of accommodation options from restored cottages to luxury lodge and motel-style. Lodge rates from AUD$395pp inc meals and use of amenities.. www.tarraleah.com +61 3 6289 3222

Anthology – The Travellers Collection operates both the Cradle Mountain Huts and the Bay of Fires walk. Both are best experienced during the southern summer (Nov-Feb) and walkers need only be of moderate fitness. Bring boots and day clothes, the rest is supplied including meals, GORE-TEX® coats, bedding and guides. 3-night BoF walk starts at AUD$1900 while the 5-night CMHs start at AUD$2500. www.anthology.travel +61 3 6392 2211

Henry Jones Art Hotel is located in central Hobart and is one of the most talked-about establishments in the country. Designed to form a continuously evolving exhibition, the 250 pieces are hung and displayed around the carefully restored buildings. No two rooms are alike. The signature H Jones Suite is AUD$850 per night while standard rooms are from AUD$290. www.thehenryjones.com +61 3 6225 7016

Getting there: You can fly from mainland capitals to Hobart, Launceston and Devonport. Tasmania is a little over an hour’s flight from Melbourne, the nearest mainland capital city. Virgin Blue, Jetstar, Qantas, Rex and Tiger all operate daily services to Tasmania.

Tasmania, with excellent roads and light traffic, is a perfect choice for self-drive. All major car rental companies are represented as well as motorcycle and campervan options

When to go: Tasmania’s mild climate makes the island state a perfect year-round destination. While winters can be quite chilly, spring and autumn are always popular. The west coast is one of the rainiest parts of Australia, while ironically, Hobart is one of the driest cities.

For comprehensive travel information: www.discovertasmania.com

* King George IV’s 1825 Royal Charter referred to Van Diemen’s Land as “a huge tract of unsettled land, beyond the ramparts of the unknown.”

South Africa Tourism Instagram #SABucketList

New Zealand: Bays at Leisure

(originally published in Marine News)

Whether it’s sailing, fishing, cruising or just relaxing, New Zealand’s Bay of Islands takes some beating. Roderick Eime explores from the deck of Oceanic Discoverer.

The renaissance in small ship cruising has created renewed interest previously overlooked destinations in our region. Cruise itineraries were fast falling into the “same old” category with port visits to Fiji, Noumea and Vanuatu reappearing with monotonous regularity. Smaller, more versatile ships have allowed cruise lovers to explore and experience remote and shallow waterways previously the domain of private pleasure craft. New Zealand’s glorious Bay of Islands is one boaties’ paradise now open to this new wave of pocket cruise ships.

Cairns-based Coral Princess Cruises, who have operated small ship cruises for nearly twenty five years, expanded their sphere of influence substantially with the 2005 introduction of Oceanic Discoverer. Originally launched to bolster their small fleet in the busy Kimberley region, she has since ventured as far afield as Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Tasmania. As part of her South Pacific ramblings, she will spend December through February amid the picturesque aquatic landscape of the Bay of Islands and the wider Northland region.

Of all her journeys and destinations, it is this one that perhaps holds the most appeal for fellow boat owners and enthusiasts. Although labelled, “Bay of Islands” the title only reveals one end of this much more comprehensive exploration of the waterways between Paihia and Auckland in the region known to locals as Northland. This whole stretch of coast is steeped in nautical history, is one of the most popular marine playgrounds in New Zealand, perhaps Australasia and is populated with the most diverse assortment of pleasure boats imaginable.

During the five nights spent aboard Oceanic Discoverer, we noted luxurious superyachts and cruisers in the multi-million dollar stratosphere right down to modest runabouts, sailing dinghies and yachts. Of particular note was Reg Grundy’s magnificent $90 million, 70 metre Boadicea; NZ’s fastest commercial sailing catamaran, On The Edge; the 18 metre, 45 knot Excitor fast tourist launch and the sublime tall ship, the 44 metre Soren Larsen.

It’s easy to understand why this is such a haven for boat lovers – especially once you’re here. Kilometre after kilometre of intricate coastline, little nooks, coves and crannies, thickly wooded islands and headlands all interwoven to create a convivial natural latticework perfect for smaller vessels. At 63m, Oceanic Discoverer is a behemoth amongst all but the most lavish superyachts and we cruise somewhat pompously into the little ports and islands and anchor in the bays surrounded by adoring sports cruisers and sailboats.

But it’s not all sea chanteys and ‘yo ho ho’, we make numerous landfalls at some of the delightful islands and parks throughout the region and there’s plenty of time for energetic strolls and even some shopping at the little towns like Russell, Paihia and tiny Port Fitzroy way out on Great Barrier Island.

We set off from the local capital of water sports and recreation, Paihia and fittingly the launch collects us from the jetty at nearby Waitangi, site of the signing of the treaty of the same name and the birthplace of modern New Zealand.

Across the harbour, you’d be forgiven for thinking little Russell town was an island, but it’s actually attached to the mainland by a sliver of land that culminates in Tapeka Point, which in turn forms an imposing promontory in the centre of the Bay of Islands. It’s hard to imagine this picture-postcard village with dainty shops and ornate architecture as the “Hell Hole of the Pacific” as it was described in the very early 19th Century. Then, instead of the cappuccino set and floral hatted tourists, it was host to deserters, ex-cons, drunken whalers, marauding Maori and bawdy ship girls all in a swill of wanton lawlessness and licentiousness – or so the missionaries would have us believe. Russell, as it was officially known from 1840, was actually the capital of New Zealand for nine months until it was decided to move the seat of government to Auckland.

Within view of Tapeka Point, about three kilometres WNW, is Motuarohia (or Roberton) Island. It is here that a plaque remembers Lieut. James Cook RN who set foot on the island in 1769 during his epic first voyage. The entire area was well populated by the Maori who had arrived from the east over six hundred years prior and set up many villages through the region.

Maori and Pakeha (white Europeans) co-existed in the bay with some degree of co-operation. The Maori were enthusiastic traders and were soon resupplying the whaling and cargo ships, but at the same time falling victim to the attendant evils like alcohol and disease.

Motuarohia gained its European name after one notable collapse of interracial relations in November 1841. Maketu Wharetotara, the 17-year-old son of the Nga Puhi chief Ruhe of Waimate went on a vicious killing spree, slaughtering five people, including a woman and three children with an axe. In a celebrated and precarious case, Maketu was the first legal hanging in New Zealand and the island adopted the name of the widow and mother he killed, Mrs Roberton.

The most northerly extent of our modest exploration was to Whangaroa, a journey of some 70 kilometres from our starting point of Paihia. Another idyllic harbour and anchorage guarded by Taupo Bay to the north and Tauranga Bay to the south, it was deemed strategic enough to place a naval gun in side a concrete bunker overlooking the bay during the Second World War. The gun is long since gone, instead the surrounds are now home to Kingfish Lodge, a very smart fishing lodge where you can even purchase your own luxury, waterfront villa for a cool NZ$1 million.

To continue with the blood-thirsty tales, Whangaroa is also the scene of the so-called “Boyd Massacre”. In this regrettable chapter of European history, the son of a Whangaroa chief, Te Ara, was aboard the ship Boyd as a working seaman. But, as legend goes, the young chief, being of noble blood, ignored his orders and was flogged for insubordination. When the Boyd returned to Whangaroa, Te Ara documented his mistreatment in vivid detail and pointed out Captain John Thompson for punishment. In a rush of blood lust, Te Ara’s tribe massacred most of the crew and passengers in retribution. A party of British seamen later returned to exact their own revenge and so the spiral went, with a great many lives lost on both sides.
Our journey ended with an exploration of the Hauraki Gulf, the scene of the ignominious defeat of Team New Zealand in the 2003 Americas Cup. Our southerly thrust was interrupted by a detour to Great Barrier Island and the miniscule Port Fitzroy. Like so many of the islands along the coast, Great Barrier Island was a rich source of valuable kauri timber. The hardy wood is ideal for boatbuilding and, predictably, the slow-growing native kauri was all but eliminated throughout New Zealand. Small stands are reappearing on the protected islands and one such stand exists on Great Barrier.

En route to our final destination of Auckland, a stop is made on both Tiritiri Matangi and Kawau Islands, both as unusual as they are different. Tiritiri is the site of an intensive volunteer wildlife conservation programme. Rid of its feral vermin, the island was painstakingly restocked with numerous rare and endangered bird species including the vibrant saddleback, the delicate North Island Robin, the ungainly Takahe and boisterous Kokako. Poised with my camera hoping to capture a shot of one of these allusive creatures, I’m suddenly confronted with a determined Kokako on the hunt. I think he’s looking at me and I snap him, but he’s spied a little green morsel on a twig and a bug is deftly plucked of a branch barely a metre away – and he’s off!

At the top of the island’s only hill is the famous lighthouse where a family of flightless Takahe stroll unmolested in the garden of the keeper’s cottage. A visitor centre is also housed nearby.

Kawau Island, just fifteen minutes by ferry from Auckland, is a delightful location with the most magnificent home built in 1845 for the manager of the copper mine established nearby. It later became the abode of Sir George Grey; soldier, colonial administrator, Governor-General, political prophet and perhaps New Zealand’s most significant 19th Century figure. He bought the island in 1862, renovated the house and created lush gardens stocked with exotic plants and animals including wallabies and kookaburras, many of which survive to this day! A perfect layover and picnic spot popular with locals and visitors alike.

The stops we made aboard Oceanic Discoverer could just as easily be made with your own or a chartered vessel and we saw many folks doing just that. Couples, families, parties and even one or two soloists were cruising or paddling aboard an array of vessels and taking full advantage of secluded bays and the easy legs in between.

Perhaps this magnificent gulf will come alive again to the towering masts and billowing spinnakers of the America’s Cup if Team New Zealand’s revenge is complete. Either way, boats and boat lovers of all sizes will continue to frolic in these perfect waters.

Fact File

For comprehensive information about the Northland region, see: www.newzealand.com or www.northlandnz.com

The Oceanic Discoverer’s five night itinerary between Auckland and Paihia, the Bay of Islands explores the north coast of New Zealand and operates between 21 December 2007 and 8 March 2008. Priced from A$2990 per person twin share, the fare includes all meals and excursions. For further information, see: www.coralprincess.com.au

© Roderick Eime 2007 [1600 words] [pics available]

By cowcatcher and candlebox to the sea

One of the world’s most famous railway journeys was launched by a female daredevil in spectacular fashion, writes Roderick Eime.

Susan turned to her husband John and said plainly, “I wish to ride the rest of the journey on the cowcatcher.

A brazen and forthright proposal for any woman let alone the wife of the prime minister. But Lady (Susan) Agnes Macdonald was no ordinary woman and this was no mundane occasion. Her husband, Sir John Alexander Macdonald GCB, KCMG, PC, PC (Can), QC, was the first prime minister of Canada and the couple were undertaking a momentous journey across the country aboard the brand new and incredibly expensive Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR).

At first her request was dismissed out of hand by railway officials and Sir John also thought the stunt ‘ridiculous’.

“When I announced my desire to travel on the cowcatcher Mr. E. [the superintendent] seemed to think that a very bad job indeed. To a sensible, level-headed man as he is, such an innovation on all general rules of travelling decorum was no doubt very startling.”

But Lady Agnes prevailed and by force of will installed herself on the cowcatcher seated only on a discarded candle box. The sensible Mr E was obliged to travel with her on the front of the engine and the two completed the 1000 kilometres from Banff to Vancouver that glorious summer of 1886. “This is lovely,” announced Lady Agnes with great satisfaction.

The stunt was a public relations masterstroke and the CPR was catapulted onto the front pages of newspapers all across Canada, doing her husband’s re-election prospects no harm at all. So much so that the most prominent ladies of the new Confederation insisted on emulating their idol and often rode in mock fashion perched on the front of the engine.

The railway line that took ten gruelling years to build and united a nation is still in place today and passengers enjoy the identical scenery that so enthralled Lady Agnes all those years ago. While it may no longer be possible to sit on the front, today’s famous Rocky Mountaineer has an open air viewing platform on the rear of the train that affords similarly staggering views of the unfolding mountainscape that passes through such ominously named locations as Hell’s Gate, Kicking Horse and Yellowhead Passes and the Rocky Mountain Trench.

 

With such scenic treasures, the railway quickly became a tourist attraction thanks to Lady Agnes’s colourful descriptions published in the popular Murray’s Magazine.

“Sunlight flashes on glaciers, into gorges, and athwart huge, towering masses of rock crowned with magnificent tree crests that rise all round us of every size and shape. Breathless – almost awe-stricken – but with a wild triumph in my heart, I look from farthest mountain peak, lifted high before me, to the shining pebbles at my feet.”

One hundred years after that momentous last spike was hammered, a new incarnation in rail transportation arrived in the form of the Rocky Mountaineer, a railway service designed specifically with the tourist in mind and following the historic line as ridden by Lady Agnes on her candlebox.

Named “First Passage to the West”, the 1112km, 4-day journey to Calgary is Rocky Mountaineer’s signature route and most faithful to the history of the region. Three other routes complete the steel rail catalogue, taking in newer lines laid in subsequent years and visiting Whistler, Quesnel and Jasper.

The superbly comfortable ‘GoldLeaf’ carriages are almost cabriolets with massive domed panoramic windows through which to digest the sprawling landscape. Speaking of digestion, this top-tier category (of three) serves sumptuous à la carte meals in a private dining room beneath the passenger compartment with complimentary beverages throughout. We get regular, but unobtrusive commentary with our champagne top-ups.

Without sleeper cars, the entire train overnights en route, ensuring not a minute of the spectacular scenery is missed and bringing valuable tourists dollars to the little towns along the way. At the authentic frontier town of Kamloops, we disembark for a night at the Thompson Hotel, named I assume like the adjacent river for David Thompson, the prolific surveyor and explorer who mapped almost the entire Pacific Northwest in the early 19th century.

Ambling lazily down the main street, rock music comes from one of the lively café pubs, but we grab the last table at ‘Felix on fourth’ and tuck into some tapas, tuna and steak. Local red wine from the nearby Okanagan Valley is surprisingly good.

The cattle, milling and mining town of 90,000 has grown beyond austere beginnings in this semi-arid region of BC to a tourist hub of its own and one could easily spend an entire holiday here ticking everything off their list of 101 things-to-do. It reminds me of Bathurst or Orange back home and comes complete with its own bushranger folk legends.

On May 8, 1906, the infamous ‘Gentleman Bandit’ William ‘Billy’ Miner held up his second CPR train just south of Kamloops and was captured three days later by Mounties as he and his two accomplices calmly ate lunch. The trio were brought back to Kamloops for trial amid a media circus. The CPR’s railroad monopoly had made the company unpopular in some circles and Miner was elevated to folk hero status for taking them on and a mural on the main street depicts his daring, but polite exploits.

These days, thanks to the Rocky Mountaineer, the railway enjoys a different kind of notoriety, garnering awards and accolades in abundance. While some may tout the experience as the ‘world’s best train journey’, it is certainly deserves a place on anyone’s very short list. Many, it is clear, share Lady Agnes’s giddy excitement.

“There is glory of brightness and beauty everywhere, and I laugh aloud on the cowcatcher, just because it is all so delightful!”

Doing It

Rocky Mountaineer offer five distinct rail journeys throughout the Pacific Northwest in three categories; Red, Silver and Gold. Running from April-October, fares for the 2-day Classic First Passage to the West start at CAD1249 (Red Leaf, double occupancy). Over 45 packages are offered including road, cruise (with Holland America) and a Coast-to-Coast rail extension with VIA Rail. Hotel partner, Fairmont, offer packages for Gold Leaf guests.

For full details, see www.rockymountaineer.com

Stay: Fairmont Waterfront Vancouver www.fairmont.com

Virgin Australia fly to Los Angeles with connection to Vancouver through Alaska Airlines www.virginaustralia.com

Small ship, expedition and adventure cruising

Rod continues his specialisation in small ship, adventure and expedition cruising with recent voyages along the Columbia River in the US Pacific NW, Fiji, Rajang River in the wilds of Borneo and across the top of Australia from Cairns to Darwin via Cape York and Arnhem Land.

Read Rod’s Expedition and Adventure Cruising Blog and his regular column at Yahoo!7 Travel

Levuka, Fiji: Guns, God and Gin

commissioned for Air Pacific Islands Magazine

The main street, Beach St, Levuka

The main street, Beach St, Levuka

Guns, God and Gin:
Ingredients for the first capital of Fiji

Walking down the main street of Levuka wasn’t always such a blissfully quiet and peaceful affair. The first capital of Fiji was born into anarchy and the sort of wild life only created by stir-crazy seamen and hustlers. Roderick Eime walked the verandas and lush pathways of the little town, soaking up the history.

The tranquil and verdant lanes of Levuka hide a turbulent past. The flame trees lining the canal and the immaculate cream woodwork of the heritage buildings suggest, but do not fully reveal, the turbulent birth of Fiji as a nation.

Almost 200 years ago, Levuka became the first permanent European settlement, a status that made it the de facto choice as capital when Tui Cakobau and the chiefs ceded the islands to Queen Victoria on10 October 1874. The monument to this occasion is located at Nasova village, the site of the signing, about a kilometre south of the wharf.

Early view of Levuka (fijiphotos.net)

Early view of Levuka (fijiphotos.net)

For most of the 19th Century, the streets of Levuka were awash with all the human flotsam of the Pacific; deserters, shipwrecked whalers, escaped convicts, prostitutes and plain rogues. Missionaries, planters, merchants and fishermen tried to instil a sense of civilization, but clearly their task was a Herculean one. Some scallywag remarked that an approaching ship could find passage through the reef by following the floating gin bottles. However, despite the lawlessness, Fiji’s first bank, post office, school, private members club, hospital, town hall, and municipal government sprang from this unlikely outpost.

“WANTED, at the Star Chamber, Levuka
- informers, spys and scandalmongers.
Apply early, as the situations are
likely to be eagerly filled up.”
– Fiji Times, Oct 8, 1870

Fiji’s pre-eminent newspaper, the Fiji Times, was first printed in Levuka in 1869. Unsurprisingly, the first hotel was also built there and, perhaps more surprisingly, the Royal Hotel still serves a chilled Fiji Bitter today amid quaint decor and wicker chairs. The oldest Masonic lodge in the South Pacific still stands in Levuka, but only just. It was gutted by fire in 2000 by nearby Lovoni villagers determined to exorcise its supposed evil spirits.

Levuka occupies almost all of the rare, flat section of land in the shadow of towering, jungle-shrouded cliffs, cradling the settlement and its ornate buildings in a protective nook. This geographic shelter cut short Levuka’s life as a capital, but preserved its architectural integrity. By 1882, Governor Sir Arthur Gordon and the workings of government were fully transplanted to Suva.

A walking tour, either self-guided or escorted, is the first thing you should organize when you arrive in Levuka, but a local interpretation will give you an insight into the life of real Fijians, both indigenous and ‘imported’. Be sure to say ‘bula’ wherever you go, it’s the polite thing to do.

Allan Roxburgh grew up in Levuka

Allan Roxburgh grew up in Levuka

“Mum used to stand out there on the balcony and call us in for dinner,” says Allan Roxburgh, recalling happy times as a child growing up in the little town, “we’d play all day on the field here if she let us.”

Roxburgh, nearing 70, has spent his entire life in Fiji. Born to European parents, his Scottish father was a copra trader, and young Allan would jig school to go with him on trading journeys throughout the islands in the ‘40s and ‘50s while Levuka remained the copra capital of Fiji.

“Levuka’s only a little town, but there was always something going on.”

Testament to the town’s colourful past is laid out on the walls of the Ovalau Club, the South Pacific’s oldest private members’ club and still serving today. Flags, photographs, autographs and caricatures from bygone days adorn the bar. Visiting warships, aircraft and dignitaries have all left their kindest regards in some personalised form.

One of the most noteworthy characters to have paid his respects was Felix Graf von Luckner. This famous German sea captain from the Great War was remarkable for several reasons. Not only did he conduct a fearsome commerce raiding campaign throughout the South Pacific and Atlantic, he did so with just one accidental casualty. He arrived in Levuka after his legendary open boat sailing from Tahiti where his ship, the three-masted windjammer ‘Seeadler’ (Sea Eagle), was wrecked on a reef. He was captured on nearby Wakaya Island, about 10kms east of Levuka, after the local police bluffed him with a coconut trunk rigged to look like a deck gun.

Did you know?

  • Fiji’s first Indian immigrants arrived at Levuka aboard the Leonidas in 1879.
  • Fiji is seeking UNESCO World Heritage status for Levuka to help preserve the remaining historic buildings

Levuka may have reverted to a sleepy backwater, but any visitor can still find plenty to do.

  • Walking Tour – allow two hours
  • Visit the museum in the original Morris Hedstroem building.
  • Go Scuba diving with Ovalau Watersports
  • Take an inexpensive taxi tour around the island
  • Hike to the top of Nadelaiovalaui for a breathtaking view (626m)
  • Stay at one of the quaint lodges, guesthouses or homestays

Getting there:

Pacific Sun, Air Pacific’s Fiji regional airline, flies daily from both Nadi and Suva to Bureta (Ovalau).

Alternatively, both Blue Lagoon and Captain Cook Cruises include Levuka as part of their extended cruising programs.

Stop Press: As of June 2010 Blue Lagoon Cruises have dropped Levuka from their itineraries.

Further reading:

Moon handbooks: Fiji, by David Stanley

Activities, accommodation and information:

www.levukafiji.com

www.fijime.com >> Discover the Islands >> Lomaiviti Group

The author travelled to Levuka as a guest aboard Blue Lagoon Cruises’ MV Fiji Princess.

© Roderick Eime 2010. All rights reserved

Brahmaputra River, India: Of Tea and Toffs

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