Sunday, 25 June 2006

Malaysia—Kuala Lumpur & Melaka

a. KL from the KL tower, one of those big and famous communication towers.
b. Condos which are everywhere in KL.
c. The Batu caves and steps.
d. Me with a new friend (it was strong, heavy, and did not like me)
e. China Town

I left Singapore and arrived in Malaysia on a train. This journey began with a comical pass through customs at the Sing train station. My passport was scanned by a Malay woman hidden behind a glass screen, who said something through a speaker grill which I could not understand, and then waved me on. Next three uniformed customs inspectors, without moving from a reclining position, declined to inspect my luggage. My personal feeling is that border control is a joke and merely gives lots of people make work.

The train trip was uneventful, as was the arrival at the hi-tech KL Sentral Train Station (with a wireless, broadband Starbucks—class). All this was soon to change: In Singapore I had stayed in a 5 star, but had I decided to go down market in KL, get closer to the ‘real’ city! I had consulted that repository of knowledge ‘The Lonely Planet (if I had $1 for every LP book I have seen so far...) cheapo guide to SE Asia’ and found the New China Inn in KLs China Town: it is cheap, clean and has the basic amenities (and at a mere RM80 (Ringgit) ~A$30 hard to beat for price). So I booked a room from Sing.

After a 10 minute drive the taxi pulled up in front of a seething mass of humanity. There were stalls and shops filling the streets, people were shouting, bustling, buying, selling, running, walking, but not standing still. A constant melange of sight and sound, with zero free space (or at least that is how it looked). Then the driver informed me that he could go no further as the hotel was located inside China Town, which was not accessible by car. Yikes! This innocent young boy from Perth was immediately seized with the thought that his body would be found (if he was lucky) in a few days, stripped of any valuables and thrown onto a rubbish heap. However, nothing ventured nothing gained. I strode from the taxi into China Town with only a minimal sense of where I was going.

I did not get get very far: I was lugging a heavy backpack and a big bag, there was no walking space, and I was too stunned and busy looking at everything around me. However, after a few minutes of emulating a guppy out of water I realised that most people were ignoring me, most of those few who were not were (politely) waiting for me to move out of the way, the few people who were actually interested in me were screaming: ‘sir, sir, watch, a watch, a rolex?’, ‘T-shirt sir, T-shirt?’, ‘DVD, DVD sir?’, etc. I slowly began to move, and in the fullness of time found my hotel, and the manager of my hotel, James, who proved to be a font of useful information about KL and Malaysia.

I spent a week in KL, it is a fascinating place: noisy and vibrant, varied and traditional, exciting but never quiet. In some ways it is not a single city, different areas are so dissimilar that it is more a series of small towns clustered close to each other. I spent the first two days in KL simply looking around. This meant for me wandering the streets, riding back and forth on the monorail and the elevated train (KL has an excellent public transport system), and browsing through shops. What was surprising was the contrast between people, some were dressed in semi-traditional garb, others in suits, some women wore Muslim dress, others western. This meant that sometimes a daughter would dress like Britney Spears while her mother walking next to her would resemble the Ayatollah Kohmeni.

A word on personal safety. There was no danger, I wandered everywhere and never felt the slightest risk. My worst concern was being able to answer the innumerable soccer related questions I was often asked. However, I was warned by several locals against financial scams. Several people did stop me in the street, ask where I was from, and then ask if I could talk to their uncle who wished to work or immigrate to Australia.

This does lead into my one KL adventure. On my second day a woman (Amy) stopped me and started chatting. It then came out that she had an uncle who wanted to immigrate to Australia and could I fund time to come to her house and talk to him about the Big Island? Needless to say I was a little doubtful. I asked the manager of my hotel what he thought, his conclusion was that it was some sort of investment scam—get the isolated tourists to sign something. Amy had given me her mobile number, and after a few more days, after I had concluded that I was an experienced KL adventurer, I decided to give her a call and arrange a meeting. What made me a little doubtful was her refusal to meet in a public place, and her increasingly implausible reasons for refusing to do so. James, my hotel manager and confidant, advised me not to go, however, nothing ventured... At worst, any nefarious plan would merely involve an attempt to extort money from me, so I only took a RM 100 with me, and no credit cards or ID, and I left Amy’s number with James with a request to call the cavalry if I was not back within three hours.

To cut a long story short, Amy did have an uncle, an electrician by trade, who wanted to visit Australia and look for work with a view to immigrating. The reason that Amy wanted me to visit her house was that she was proud of it and wanted me to see it for myself. Overall, a pleasant two hours of chit chat. As her uncle wanted to live in Brisbane I could give only general advice, however, I assured him that Australia was safe and was looking for experienced workers.

At this point I will divert from my autobiographical ranting and address some advice to ‘the Ladies’—when in KL wear sensible shoes. The reason that I mention this is that the streets of KL are not the best. The footpaths are smooth and dirty, when wet they become muddy and slippery. I saw several backpacker chicks wearing thongs or sandals slip and slide. The footpaths are also often damaged, uneven, and sometimes have the odd big hole. So, no heels or open shoes—sensible shoes.

This leads me to another digression. Most Malays speak several languages with varying degrees of proficiency. My hotel manager can speak five languages. In contrast the average native English speaker can speak precisely one language. This means of course that each and every Malay is embarrassed by their low proficiency in English and apologised for their inability to speak English as well as an idiotic American reality TV show participant. As a native speaker of English I can only say one thing about this self-imposed inferiority complex—fan-tas-tic!

One of the highlights of KL tourism is a visit to the Batu Caves. These are located a mere 13kms from KL and consist of a main cave set into a rock face, plus a few smaller caves close by. In days past these caves have been turned into a Hindu temple area. To reach the caves one must ascend 150 metres, via 272 steps. Needless to say, while there are a number of true devotees in the caves, the overwhelming number are tourists busily photographing everything in sight. As one of these camera happy tourists I climbed the steps, wandered through the cave system, looked at the statues of the gods, gazed at the cave structure, had my photo taken holding a snake, and looked at the art gallery. Lots of fun. I travelled there and back on a public bus for the princely sum of RM2.40 (about Aus 80c).

It was after my return from the Batu Caves, my fifth day in KL, that I saw a most comical sight. In the early evening I was sitting outside the China Town Swiss Inn, enjoying a refreshing Pineapple juice as had become my custom, when I saw two lanky lads stumble down the street overburdened with possessions in search, one presumes, of their hotel. They looked totally lost and confused. Honestly! Have these people never been out of their home village?

There was one other minor annoyance I came across—financially stringent backpackers. On more than a few occasions I walked past backpackers arguing with street vendors over the price of a meal, a matter of a few cents either way. The same thing in cheap hotels. Come on guys, no matter how poor you are by western standards a few cents (or even a few dollars a night) is going to make a big difference to your travel plans, but it is a big deal to the locals you are bargaining with.

Melaka is a city and region reeking with history. In days past empires battled and pirates raided over its shores. It lies about 150 km south of KL, and is easily reached by two hours on a bus. I decided to take a day our of my busy KL schedule and check it all out. The bus ride was uneventful, but the city was fascinating. There is a surprisingly large and well designed museum in the town square, along with other buildings left over from the old days of empire. I spent a day wandering around Melaka, looking at its large range of touristy things, and buying a few souvenirs. Well worth a visit. It is the quietest place I had visited so far.

A few more insights into life as a traveller. I have found my ipod an invaluable companion, travel involves a lot of hurry and wait. To pass the time the pleasant voice of podcaster describing some esoteric feat of science, technology or culture is an excellent anodyne to the ennui of life on the road. One minor annoyance was airconditioning, many places, even those which catered to the locals had their aircon set to frosty. I would walk out of a hotel or bus and my glasses would fog over. Such are the problems of the traveller.

I left KL with a certain amount of regret, something I did not experience when departing Singapore. KL is city everyone should see at least once. Onwards to Penang!

Monday, 19 June 2006

First Stop—Singapore


I write this in a seedy (but not sleazy) hotel in Kuala Lumpur’s bustling China Town, however, that is another story for another day. Here is my account of my few, but interesting days, in Singapore—

To describe my experiences I will first have to make what many readers will believe to be a digression, however, as you will soon see there is a point to this excursus, one, which, I am sure you will agree, is both necessary and educational. Picture, if you will, in your mind’s eye, yourself, walking the streets of Perth, going about your everyday, lawful affairs. As you progress through your activities you will from time to time glance around, and occasionally view a peculiar individual. This stranger has a hagged and worn mien, is clearly deficient in sleep, and has a look of permanent bewilderment upon his befuddled face. With closer inspection you will also see a backpack slung uncomfortably over one shoulder and a camera clipped to his belt (I am visualising a man, feel free to do as you will). To complete your identification of this person one needs to merely glance at his hands, if they hold, tightly clutched, a handful of bedraggled maps, which are continually and hurriedly folded and unfolded, opened and closed, read and then put aside, you have all you need to clarify the identity of the person espied—that most pitiful of individuals—a Tourist.

Many is the time I gazed at these folk, wondering why they came so far to photograph so much of so little worth—I mean how many photos of kangaroos does the world need? As the kind and generous person I am, I have even, from time to time, offered a measure of assistance to these people, helping them hurry through their ever repeated journey from landmark to landmark. But it is now time to end this digression and return to the topic of this journal, me. Into every man’s life there comes a time when he must confess his sins, acknowledge his faults, and pay his dues. Humble reader, at this moment the fundamental dynamic of the voyeur/tourist relationship has changed, the scales have been turned, the chicken has come home to roost, and the trap sprung. Return to your mental image of the befuddled tourist, remove him from the streets of Perth and place him onto the busy thoroughfares of Singapore. Then (mentally) remove the face of this generic stranger, and, and, and, replace his face with that of mine, for the tourist we are now discussing is me!

Yes, for a week I wandered the streets and crossroads of Singapore as a tourist! What can I say? It was me. I ambled about, I stood on footpaths, I gazed, I even stopped and stood in the middle of roads when something caught my eye, I even got lost! The daily environment of Sing was fascinating to me! So now listen, gentle reader, to my thoughts, deeds and actions on that fair jewel of the far east, Singapore (to the north of Perth, closer than Sydney).

As you already know I arrived in a freighter. As I suggested in my previous post, leaving the ship was a bit of a break. Strong bonds are made between people in the closed confines of ship board travel, fortunately these bonds are both quickly made and then quickly broken. As soon as my feet hit the gangplank I was ready to go (of course I had not slept in the previous 24 hours, I remained awake all night to view the fascinating experience of a big ship approaching, entering and docking in Sing harbour). Here begins my first humorous experience on land. The agent from the freighter company drove Christine and myself from the ship to my hotel. Before this a couple of customs flunkies came on board, asked if we had any cigarettes or alcohol, and then stamped our passports with our visas (only 14 days if coming by sea). We were then to be more rigourously inspected on land, however, when we were driven to the customs point there was no flunky on duty, the agent sounded the car horn, looked around, then shrugged and drove us through check-point charlie into Singapore! So, at last I am a fugitive from justice.

I spent a week in Singapore, and enjoyed it all. I will not bore you with a detailed account of every activity nor explain each and every tour I went on, suffice it to say I had and did a lot of each and found them all fun. I even simply wandered the streets to see where I would end up. Singapore works hard to make sure that its tourist visitors have lots of things to do, and opportunities to spend their cash. So I will do no more than make a series of observations of my experiences and let you be the judge of their worth:

English tourists
For some reason the tour people at my hotel stuck me with a bunch of retired, but not retiring, English folk. Now, I do not mind the English, but I have to tell you that I found the entire day a drag. These guys complained about the weather (yes, Sing is hotter than the UK, really, and that will not change), the food (!), the price of beer, and probably other things I have managed to successfully suppress, however, at our evening meal one of my co-tourists said something beyond belief. We were eating at an outdoor restaurant on the waterfront where the meat (steak or fish) was served raw on a ‘hot rock’ and the consumer of such things cooked his or her meat to his or her own individual taste. This chappie looked at his (to my inexperienced eyes) fine piece of meat and said (in essence) ‘this is not cooked, I did not come all this way to cook for myself, my wife cooks for me at home’. Upon my return to my hotel I told my tour guy that I would prefer a new group of people for the following day, any group of people. Yet, I am sure there are lots of really nice English people in the world.

Singapore and Tourism
I first came to Sing three decades ago. A lot has changed since then, I am better looking, slightly taller, and more wittier. Sing has changed also, back then one came for the cheap clothes and shoes, but, to state the obvious, this is no longer the case. Even one of my tour guides confessed that Sing was no longer a haven for cheap shopping, except, he hastened to add, for electronic gadgets. If you are looking for bargains look further north, however, more on this in my next blog entry.

I suspect that tourism is not as important to Sing as it once was. Even though the entire city is still organised to pleasantly extract money from its visitors there is not the same emphasis or importance attached. Sing makes a huge amount of money from its position as one of the world’s big freighter ports, and also from its role as a financial hub, plus general wheeling and dealing. I have no idea of the stats, but I am sure tourism is no longer the big ticket item on the economic agenda. Having said this the Sing government is not abandoning the tourism biz, the opposite in fact, it is making plans to expand the range of touristy things available. Principally, there is a big, big, casino, hotel and shopping (surprise) complex under construction, plus upgrades and expansion of existing facilities. Clearly Sing is sticking with a winner.

After a day or two at looking at an ever increasing number of exhibits, all of which exit into exhibit shops, I gained the impression that the Sing tourism experience is just a little contrived. Evidence for this conclusion came came from one of my guides who told us that every old building was either to be demolished or converted into a museum (or other touristy thing). Everything that can be used for tourism is or will be used. Santosa island, for example, which one reaches via cable car (exciting) consists of a museum displaying Sing’s history (in a rather superficial fashion), plus other diversions (including another ride which carries people up into the air—fun, but just how many of these things are there in the world?). There was nothing intrinsically significant about the island, but for the price of S$60 you can spend four hours there via yet another tour.

I also gained the impression that Sing is trying to corner the market on Asian tourism, or at least stay a step ahead. Signs of this are the increasing number of tours which include aspects of other Asian countries. One can visualise the future slogans, ‘Don’t bother going to China/Malaysia/Cambodia etc., just come to Singapore and see the best of each’! Perhaps in a decade there will be a replica Great Wall of China in Singapore?

One amusing insight into the tourist mindset was provided to me by the Night Zoo Safari—this is a tour through Singapore’s zoo, on a ‘safari’ bus, where one views various Asian animals, at night. There is also a display of Asian cultural activities (dancing, fire eating, dart blowing, and spears). In summary it was great: smoothly managed, and entertaining. I would recommend, but the amusement came from a Perth couple who I later bumped into who had been on this tour and who told me how much they had enjoyed. I immediately asked them ‘Have you been on the Perth zoo night safari?’, to which they replied ‘No’! People will travel 1,000s of kilometres to do things they do not do at home!

In my peregrinations I did visit the backpacker area of Sing. In days past the Sing authorities frowned upon the humble, mendicant, backpacker, but now, possibly because the world tourism biz has belatedly realised that BPs do spend the cash (but over a longer stretch of time) these folk are now welcome. I saw a half dozen or so Backpacker hostels ranging around S$20 (my shipboard pal Christine emailed me to say she found a place at $10 with breakfast!). They all looked neat, clean and tidy (as one would expect in Sing). I did not see a huge number of backpackers, possibly I was there too early in the morning? If you fancy yourself a BP do not cross Sing of your list of countries to visit.

A few more thoughts. You cannot really get lost in Sing, the taxi’s are cheap (S$5–$10 for most trips)—just raise your arm, wait a minute or two, and one will appear (in fact I cannot see how the taxi drivers make a living?), there are also several cheap (S$6–$25 per day) tourist buses continually making their way around the tourist circuit, ready to whisk you where you will. Sing is also a safe city, you can walk anywhere without trouble. One amusing aspect of my travel itinerary was my status as a sole traveller. Personally, I did not find this a problem, there were always people to talk to, both locals (‘where you from’, etc.) and other tourists. However, when going or doing something I was often asked ‘Are you alone?’ with an accompanying look of surprise. Some ticketing people even automatically charged me the price of two tickets. In my time in Sing I found only one other person who I was sure was also enjoying the freedom to travel as you will. Even the intrepid backpackers invariably moved in pairs or groups. Another item of note, the weather, yes it is the tropics, so humidity reins supreme, but it did not seem that bad to me. Also rain, June is the ‘off season’, due apparently to heavy rains. During my stay in Sing there was no rain. The good thing about the off season is the lower prices and the opportunity to get discounted accommodation. I found the hotels reasonably priced. My hotel, the Miramar, was the hotel the freighter crew (officers) stayed at while in port, it was S$100 per day, with a full range of services (4 or 5 star, never checked—enough for my simple needs). Other hotels range both up (towering edifices of stone and steel) and down to worn and small (at around S$50).

I will finish with one last piece of wisdom—Ian’s quick guide to tourist spotting:
English tourists: they ‘come from the nOrth’, complain about the weather, and are 60+ in age.
Americans (USofA) have the best cameras, but don’t talk to anyone else (or at least not to me).
Japanese girls travel in groups of 3–4, photograph everything possible, but one of them must be in each frame.
Australians seem to quietly hang at the periphery of each group and not say much.

On my last day in Sing, I gathered all my possessions, thought of the other things I could do in Sing if I was so inclined, and then headed to the train station for the trip to Kuala Lumpur. My stay in KL will form the subject of my next blog entry.

ps my friend Grant, who is looking after my house, has told me that my cat, the cat I rescued from a life of penury and poverty, cared for, fed, and whose medical bills I have paid, is not pining away during my absence, rather he is happy and frisky, and clearly misses me to the sum of zero.

Here are a two snaps. I did not take many pics in Sing, perhaps I did not find it as interesting as my journey on a freighter?

The first is the ride in the Sing hot air balloon! The second the ride on the cable car to Santosa island. Both were fun.

Tuesday, 13 June 2006

The journey from Fremantle to Singapore on the ANL Esprit

To start with some images (a picture tells a thousand words—but not if you are a philologist). This blog site does not allow individual notation of images, so I am adding a few notes right at the start:

a. loading of the ship in Fremantle.
b. At sea looking forward
c. At sea looking back.
d. The Bridge
e. Bridge GPS map display
f. Plan of the ship
g. The engine room (the chief engineer and Christine)
h. Our luxurious facilities
i. Pirate attack precautions
j. Deck plan
k. Stairwell from the top
l. Me at the bow!
m. Me at the controls !!

short version:
Great fun, an interesting and dirty ship, which rolled a lot but no sea sickness, crew friendly, learnt much, would do again.

long version:
Arrived! Safe and sound in Singapore after 7 days at sea!

The journey began in the port of Fremantle on the afternoon of Tuesday the 6th of June. I arrived at the shipping terminal eager and ready to depart on my bold adventure—and also carrying far too much luggage. A few moments later the Capt. also arrived at the terminal, climbed out of his taxi, along with my fellow passenger Christine from the UK (who has spent 2 years travelling! young people these days! no responsibility!), and introduced himself. We briefly chatted and then boarded the ship via the gangplank. I immediately hit my head on a low slung metal thing. A point I will mention again is that the ANL Esprit is a working ship, you will bump into things (and for those who do not know: a vessel under 12m in length is a ‘boat’, while anything larger is a ‘ship’, i.e. a lifeboat resides on a ship, also right is starboard, left is port, the sharp part of the ship is the bow, the blunt bit is the stern). After clambering on board I was then conveyed up a long stairwell, nearly to the top of the ship, to my cabin, and proceeded to settle myself into place.

To jump ahead I will tell you that the trip was fun and enjoyable. Travel by freighter is something everyone should do at least once in their life, however, it is a more challenging and markedly different mode of travel than that found on a luxurious cruise ship. A freighter is a rough environment. The engine is powerful and there is little attempt to make its operation pleasant to experience, it fills the peopled area of the ship with noise and vibration. Also a freighter is not concerned with a smooth voyage. Even in calm waters the ship yaws (side to side) and pitches (back to front) noticeably. Add all these factors together and the journey itself is not always the most pleasant part of the experience. If someone is prone to motion sickness I would not urge you undertake the long voyage across the Pacific.

For myself, I found the ship’s environment tolerable, and even a little bit of fun. During the first day we were shielded a little from the full force of the sea by the west coast of Australia, however, by the morning of the second day (8th June) we were sufficiently far from shore that the ship experienced some serious sea-induced movement. At first I found this motion ok, in fact, being rolled around my cabin, having to grab handholds and step lively, was fun, but by the second day the cumulative effect was beginning to take its toil. On the second and third day I was tired and sleepy most of the time. One of the crew told me that this was the first stage of seasickness, however, by day four I had returned to my customary good humour. Overall, it was not motion sickness which concerned me but a feeling of clumsiness—I felt compelled at times to grip both handrails while using the stairs, while crew members would zip (politely) past me at flank speed. I also had to think a little before moving around or picking things up—it was a little like being a teenager again (as a side note, for 2–3 days after landfall I kept unconsciously swaying in time to the non-existent ship. Even seasoned sailors need time to get their landlegs back).

It would be interesting to experience the full force of a wild sea. Just how much movement is there? Several crew members surprised me by revealing that they became seasick in very rough seas. I was also told that the trip between Fremantle and Singapore was relatively smooth, but across the Great Australian Bight (Adelaide to Perth) look out for storms and wild seas.

The most exciting part of the trip for me was the departure from Fremantle. While still in harbour I moved aorund the ship watching the loading of the cargo: big cranes, big trucks, big containers, lots of noise and action, all under bright lights—Great Stuff. At about 02.00 on the 7th June the ship was slowly turned by tug boat and pointed towards the harbour entrance. As we sailed away from Fremantle I could see the lights of Perth to starboard, and briefly see the island of Rottnest pass us by. All my life I have seen ships leave Fremantle and sail to ports unknown, now I was on one of those ships (though, I knew where I was going).

The ship itself, as I have already said, is a working ship—the doors are heavy, there are no lifts in the crew area, the exterior of the ship is covered with diesel soot, there is rust, the fittings are serviceable and also a little worn, the outside air is filled with the faint aroma of diesel fumes, there are areas where an unlucky slip and slide could carry someone off the boat into the deep, dark sea. There is also little in the way of onboard diversions: some old deckchairs, an indoor salt water pool, and a poorly equipped gym. The crew tend to work long hours and are diverted by their duties, passengers must make their own entertainment. I did try the pool, it is approximately 4m x 4m, filled with ocean water (which is very salty) and, as it is close to the engine, very noisy (in fact, if you put your head under water it is very, very noisy, with thumbs, bumps, and rattles). Not the best pool I have ever been in, but for the crew, after a hard days work, a good place to relax.

The ship is designed to carry cargo, the crew and passengers seem to be almost an afterthought. The front 4/5 of the ship is the container storage area, from hull to sky there are containers stacked on top of containers (each container has its own unique number). At the back of the ship is the people storage area, eight decks also stacked on top of each other. There is a hierarchy of placement, the bridge is at the top, the deck below has accommodation for the Capt, chief engineer, and the owner (in this case me!). Below this the cabins become smaller. There are also storage and workrooms. At the bottom is the engine room. My cabin consists of two main rooms: a lounge area with a couch, desk, table and chairs, TV, CD and DVD, plus a bedroom with an adjoining shower and toilet. All very comfy. To go between decks one must enter a stairwell and make one’s way up or down a often sometimes rolling set of stairs (14 steps per deck x 8 decks).

This ship can carry approximately 2,000+ containers, while the largest freighters can carry 8,000+ containers. A short lesson in ship economics: the Capt. told me that the daily rental (lease) charge for the Esprit was US$25–30k. This works out at less than $15 per day per container, thus to move a container from Perth to Singapore is less than $100. Freighter transport is economical (and with the bigger ships even more so).

Us passengers were given a tour of the engine room on the 9th of June. The ship’s engine is your basic diesel design, but big. It has 6 cylinders (the biggest ships have 14) which drive the propeller shaft. There is also a host of ancillary equipment, water purification, aircon, steering gear and so forth. One distinctive feature of the engine room is its temperature, it is hot, one temperature gauge read 50 degrees! Great if you are cruising the arctic circle, not so good in the tropics. One compensation is that the engine room, being at the bottom of the ship, experiences the least movement (while my cabin, being near the top, experiences far more). Some stats on the engine: it consumes 70 tonnes of fuel a day, the 28 day journey Singapore–Singapore requires ~1500 tonnes of fuel; the engine cylinder is 74cm x 2.5m (the biggest ship cylinders are 94cm across).

The other important area of the ship is of course the Bridge. It is here that the Capt. and the watch officers control the ship. From here you can see the ship’s surrounds and catch the latest info on the ship’s course and position. I went to the bridge several times a day to find out what was happening. The bridge consists of a control area, a navigation/chart room, a communications room, plus a look out area. The instrumentation on the bridge is not as hi-tech as I suspected it might be. There is a radar screen, a GPS based map display and lots of buttons and dials which control and indicate the myriad details of the ship’s operation. There are always two officers on duty on the bridge, though often one is below and ‘on call’ in case of need.

The crew is composed of Germans and Filipinos, in the main the officers are German and the enlisted personnel are Filipinos. I was told that to become an officer one must undertake an apprenticeship and then a four year University course. If one is a German citizen then the German government pays the bill, if not, then not. So Filipinos tend to take a 6 month course which allows then to carry out various support duties. The crew is not as ‘swasbuckling’ as the uninitiated might think. Most of the crew are married or have girlfriends, and are saving for something (remaining on a ship for 6 months is a great way not to spend money). One crewmember has been married only a few months and has so far spent very little time with his wife. Even though he does not talk about it, it is easy to see that this is difficult for him. The crew also change over with some frequency, at each port a few crew leave the ship and are replaced. One thing going for the crew is the demand for ship’s crew. There is a boom in shipping. The Capt. told me that his shipping line is adding 20 new ships to its existing fleet of 80. Most of these are destined for the far east.

I was surprised to learn that passengers on a freighter were not as rare as I had thought. The trip from Europe to Asia is the most common journey, with most freighters carrying a few passengers. I imagine that we provide some amusing diversion for the crew. The Capt. told me of one option for retired folk. Upon the payment of 25,000 Euros you become an ‘owner’ of the ship, this entitles you to rent the owner’s cabin for a mere 25 Euros a day. Many older European couples do just this and spend several months of the year sailing the world.

One pleasant surprise was the quality of the food on board, while not 5 star, it is good, varied, and plentiful. There is also a planned regularity to some of the ship’s diet. Certain days see certain foods served. For example, Thursday is icecream day, while Saturday has a tasty vegetarian soup. Part of this is to help keep the crew aware of the day of the week. Life at sea can easily become an unchanging routine, with each day the same as the previous and the next. On Sunday the passengers and officer’s gather for drinks. The Capt. told us that in days gone past the Capt. read from the good book, but now Sunday exists for a recreational drink.

Life on ship is not as exciting as romantic tradition would suggest. Most of the work is repetitive, and the ship sails a fixed route for extended periods of time. The big change over the last generation is the speed with which ships handle freight, it is now much faster than before. The downside (at least from the crew’s perspective) is the resultant short stay in port. For example, the Esprit was in Fremantle for only 12 hours or thereabouts. If a crew member has an 8 hour shift while in port there is little time to go onshore. It is possible to go for months without spending any lengthy time off the ship. As compensation for this the crew do have a sense of camaraderie and a rather jovial approach to their life at sea. It was in fact this camaraderie that made the trip worthwhile.

What made the single largest impression was the informality of the crew. The Capt. and officers wore shorts and T-shirts, and frequently got their hands dirty. The Filipinos were equally friendly, and asked me about vegetarianism, Australia, and Australian working visas (the obtaining of).

The main diversion on each trip is a BBQ! On this voyage it was the evening of Friday the 9th. The principal component was a pig on a spit, along with squid, prawns and other nautical niceties. For Christine and myself the cook kindly prepared skewers of veggies (which looked rather lonely surrounded as they were by stacks of dead and eviscerated animal). The BBQ lasted until 23.00, fairly late for the hard working ship’s crew.

Pirates: something out of Hollywood and history, but still present in some parts of the world. As we journed through the straights between Java and Sumatra, there was a possibility that some enterprising free-market entrepreneurs might decide to redistribute the wealth by boarding our ship. On the bridge there are lists of pirate activities, and warnings of potential problems, there is usually one or two a day, however, while there is a possibility of an attack it is slight. To protect against this threat we will be locking all exterior doors and unused cabin doors, ‘projectors’ (hoses with holes) will be strung along the side of the ship to deter pirates, and deck lights will shine down onto the water.

The last day on board was spent twisting and turning around the islands big and small which lead to Singapore. In these confined and shallow waters there are small fishing boats and huge supertankers. At this stage of our journey the officers on watch are just a little busier than on the open sea. Our approach to Singapore harbour began at around 04.00 on the 12th June. A pilot came on board and in conjunction with the Capt. docked the boat. On land again! After one last breakfast on the Esprit I left the ship, with some regret, for the last time and began my time in Singapore!