Saturday, June 18, 2011

On the road again back to Papua New Guinea for another visit

By Geoffrey Heard

Evening, Saturday, 18 June 2011

It’s not long after eight on a chilly winter's Saturday night in Melbourne as I start writing, but I am as snug as a bug in a rug in Car D of the XPT train as it glides through the suburbs heading north. To farewell me on my trip, my daughter and I have just indulged (and that is the only word) in a delicious three course dinner at The Vault Café, Batman's Hill* on Collins hotel (
u/), strolled (fairly) leisurely across Spencer Street to the pretentiously named Southern Cross Station, and boarded the XPT.

Three minutes later, with a single blip of its horn and a short announcement, the XPT was quietly accelerating out of the station and beginning the 1000 kilometer journey to Sydney where it’s due to deposit me into the heart of the city at 6.30am.

I say three minutes later, and it was literally that. Actually, I almost missed the train -- that would have been a hoot! What with the mixed dips being just plain beautiful, the Malaysian style curry exceptional, the rich vanilla ice cream with a shot each of Frangelico liqueur and black, black coffee sublime, and the wine excellent, we were both feeling pretty relaxed and happy with life until we were jolted into action by the big clock on The Age building opposite reminded us urgently of the time! Thanks Age!

And if the bill for the two of us was within a couple of bucks of my (Seniors card discounted) train fare to Brisbane, that’s neither here nor there -- it was better than reasonable for the quality of the food, wine and surroundings, I am replete, I’m on the road to Papua New Guinea again, and I’m happy, happy, happy.

Let me explain. I'm in the throes of selling my house in Melbourne in pursuit of a more relaxed lifestyle. I had expected the sale to be done and dusted in March so I could escape tropics-ward before the first chill of winter, but the market is trending down and the demand for old places on a biggish block like mine is falling off.

I've been working away, as one does, making the place more presentable and, as one also does when thwarted, moping a bit. Then three weeks ago I awoke on a frozen Melbourne morning to the realization that my continuing presence was doing little or nothing for the house sale and that if I booked immediately I would be in time -- just -- to get Air Niugini's economical Wantok fares to Rabaul for the annual Warwagira and National Mask Festivals.

I bounced out of bed and onto the Air Niugini site ( so fast I nearly spilled my first cup of tea of the day which I made in passing from the kettle boiling on the gas heater (yes, really).

I saw the very first Warwagira Festival way back in the 1970s but have not seen another since so was eager to see it again. I had not seen the National Mask Festival but it had attracted favorable reviews from everyone I know and from strangers who’ve paid full price to get there, so I was right into getting among that too.

Having set the parameters with the Air Niugini bookings, it was a question of "what next"? Air Niugini takes off from Brisbane and I was about 2000 kilometers south of that in Melbourne. Fly or …? Ah, forget it! I would train it, I decided, the XPT overnight from Melbourne to Sydney (, one night in Sydney at Glenferrie Lodge, Kirribilli (, then XPT again overnight from Sydney to Brisbane.

That timetable would give me the chance to see and photograph a few things in both cities before I moved onto the next leg of my journey. And it would save me from one of those unnecessarily stress-inducing embarkations which make air travel today such an unpleasant experience.

Call me old fashioned, reactionary, even Luddite, but having spent most of my adult life traveling by road or air, I am returning to the favored transport of my youth. I train it all over the place around Melbourne; it's faster and more economical than driving a car a lot of the time. For long distance, it's actually pretty stunning to realize the great value you get out of trains. For the cost of the fare, you get travel and accommodation if you overnight; travel and sightseeing if you do daylight trips!

And as I wrote at the beginning of this piece, departure is relaxed and happy. With my ticket printed out from the internet in my pocket, including seat allocation, I walked on to the platform (no ticket check), and onto the train (no ticket check apart from directions to my carriage) literally three minutes before departure (they do ask you to be there 10 minutes prior but I was greeted with a smile), stowed my suitcase in the main luggage rack at the end of the carriage, then found my seat and sat down. A couple of minutes later, the train started.

As I was writing this, half an hour or so into the journey and 50 kms up the track, a lady came around and checked our tickets.

So easy. No ridiculous security checks, beeping screens, tough looking characters investigating your underwear. No two hour queues and grossly overpriced coffee and cakes once you’re a captive in the departure lounge. And no gouging airport parking fees either -- you depart and arrive in the middle of the city, the hub of the public transport system.

And all in a relaxed manner and in generally congenial company! I'll admit my preference for the economy car and its aircraft type seats is not going to be everyone's favorite (I work alone most of the time so it's a treat for me to be among people) but if you wish, there are upmarket alternatives at very reasonable rates.

If you haven't tried it recently, give it a go!

But back to the point of it all, Papua New Guinea. I can't wait to get there again. Reading my earlier posts, you might think I’m more than slightly besotted with the place, and you might be right. I am. I love it. Not uncritically, I think I've made that plain, but I love to be there. It feels like something is happening. It feels alive -- and so do I when I’m in it.

For readers not familiar with Australian history; no, not named after the comic book character, but after an English chap who famously said of the then swamp: "This is the place for a village", did the usual dirty deal with the indigenous inhabitants, and founded Melbourne, naming it after an English Viscount whose wife had an affair with the poet, Byron.

What a delightful connection!


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2011.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

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