Rivers in the desert

By allrite on September 26, 2019


Posted in: Durians and Jewels, Flights

I don’t need an alarm clock to wake me up. It’s still dark outside and I wish I could sleep longer after yesterday’s very late night. My bags are all packed and I’m ready to go, but I wait until the golden orb of the sun peeps over the horizon, bathing the waiting aircraft in gold light, reflecting patterns off their so smooth surfaces.

It’s a decade since my first overseas flight alone. That, like my very first overseas flight at all, was also to Singapore. Today I will also be flying Qantas, though not their A380 and not onwards to London.

That first time I felt the trepidation of leaving B and my four month old son behind. Today I am also feeling anxious about the 50 km/h predicted wind gusts across Sydney and the possibility of a turbulent jetstream over the Australian interior. I entertain not leaving at all, going home and enjoying the peace and quiet of home without the myriad commitments that come from being a family.

But I cannot leave Alex and B alone in Singapore and Malaysia. And I console myself that the winds will be brief, we will probably not encounter the jetstream and the rest of the weather looks really good. Even the storms seem to be holding off over Indonesia and Singapore. If there’s any time to go it’s now.

So I farewell my room, check out and roll my bag across the road and one level up the escalator to the departure floor of the airport. Despite its many renovations, the check in area retains the dark, low ceiling look of that very first trip. I don’t mind that, as I desperately try to recast my frame of mind back to the excitement of more than twenty years ago.

On thing that has changed, and only in recent times, is that some of the Qantas check in desks have been replaced by automated kiosks and bag drops. I have no problems with either, but a couple of passengers ahead of me struggle and give up at the automated bag drops. In some ways I miss the little bit of interaction, the friendly smile of the desk agent, before heading off.

The immigration desks are still mostly manned at Sydney Airport. There is only a short queue for both them and through security, then I am out into the luxury goods shopping mall that is Sydney Airport.

I normally hurry through the welcoming maze of the duty free shop, but today I stop at the electronics section. I miss the old Sony shop, though they no longer make computers, tablets and other interesting things, now replaced by JB Hi-Fi. I buy a tiny, cheap, HP Sprocket photo sticker printer, thinking that I will encourage Alex to keep a physical diary of the trip.

Beyond the duty free store the airport opens up into a bright public space lined with more luxury brands and eateries, some upmarket and expensive, others more familiar fast food. There are corners of panoramic windows with views across the tarmac. In some ways I would like to be sitting there in the light, eating the overpriced meals, watching the crowds of passengers hurry away to all their different destinations. However, I’ve got a Qantas Club membership and should take advantage of the facilities and the “free” feed.

The Qantas Business Lounge is busy as always. The buffet has two styles of bacon, the crispy American and the edible kind, the usual hot accompaniments, a selection of pastries and fruits. I eat sparingly, unwilling to trust my stomach.

The Business Lounge has lost some of its lustre and is probably in line for a refresh. It’s a little dark, the views outside interrupted by the terminal roof below and the overhang of the first class lounge above.

There are so many things I should do, especially as I’m going to be stuck sitting down in a small tube for the rest of the day, but I have no great desire to do any of them. So I just plonk myself down in a comfy seat, listen to relaxing music through headphones and try unsuccessfully to sleep.

Eventually the call comes through for the boarding of QF81 to Singapore. This is it. I am going!

Following the path of gate number signs I’m disappointed to discover that we are headed to a bus gate in the basement. I’ve arrived but never departed from a remote stand at the International Terminal and this one is crowded with passengers for other flights, each in separate queues. Somehow it lacks the cachet of a jetbridge gate, staring out at your aircraft while you wait.

Instead we are winding our way around the aircraft, Boeing 787s and Airbus A330s, plus a lone Air New Zealand A320, parked on the tarmac between the passenger and freight terminals, where our remote stand is located. The wide body panes look so impressive from below, huge wings shading the tarmac, bodies ingesting food and freight.

The bus disgorges us on to the tarmac and we climb up the stairs of the Qantas Airbus A330-300 VH-QPG, also known as Mount Gambier. I wish that I could take a photo, but I don’t dare. The wind isn’t so bad out here and I feel hope as I step inside the aluminium tube that will be my home for the next eight hours.

The cabin looks the most recently refurbished of the series of Qantas A330’s that have carried me aloft over the past couple of years. The slimline seats are covered in red fabric with adjustable red leather headrests and black plastic backs. At the rear of each is an 11 inch Panasonic EX2 screen whose early Android operating system origins are easily visible after a quick play.

The interface appears to have changed since my last Qantas flight less than a year ago and it takes me a little while to find the simple flight map. The soundtrack selection has not been updated however, apart from a superhero theme music collection performed by the frequently less than wonderful Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. I decide to listen to music from my phone instead.

When I try to check out the food menu the screen just says “Oops”.

The pitch feels poor on the seats. Fortunately I have short legs, but it does almost make me wish I had a bulkhead seat like last time. I do, however, like to have my screen accessible at all times and a bag beneath the seat.

After an introduction by the cabin manager, the captain pipes up with his own welcome. He apologises for the delay, caused by the remote stand, and informs us that we can expect a few bumps during our ascent over Sydney, but that the rest of the flight should be “pretty smooth”. So, as I expect, which is comforting.

I watch the wind tug at the tarpaulins covering pallets being loaded on to a neighbouring aircraft, study other aircraft ascend towards the northern end of airfield, keeping a close eye out of signs of turbulence. I remember other flights in gusty winds, recall how quickly it all passed.

Finally the last of the passengers are loaded and the cabin doors are closed. A safety demonstration is performed by the crew as we begin our slow thirty minute taxi out to the southern end of the main runway. I let myself doze, the lack of sleep greater than any anticipation. Outside my window the waters of Botany Bay are blue under clear skies, few white caps dancing atop them. Maybe the wind isn’t so bad after all.

We turn on to the piano keys and the pilot quickly applies higher thrust to send us racing down the runway, the acceleration pushing me back into the seat. Even before the crossing of the East-West runway we are leaping up into the air.

The Domestic Terminals pass beneath us, the Alexandria Canal and the road works of the new Westconnex tollway. The skyscrapers of the Sydney CBD, where I was last night, pass by in the distance, almost lost in the glare of the shimmering inner harbour waters.

Yes there are bumps due to the wind, but truth be told they are not bad, and we are still over Sydney’s northwestern suburbs when the seatbelt light is extinguished.

A great weight is lifted from my shoulders and now I can relax and try to enjoy the flight.

The Hawkesbury River winds through the semi-rural landscape below like a silver snake, joining the dams and irrigation channels reflecting the morning sun as we pass Windsor. Below us is the single runway of Richmond RAAF base. Then we reach the boundary of Greater Sydney, flying over the crenellated dark green landscape of the Blue Mountains.

The crew pass through the cabin handing out flimsy menu cards with the swirls of a lavender field printed in front. I know which meal I will choose when the time comes.

The sky outside our windows is bright and clear and so is the cabin. The Airbus A330 is the unglamorous widebody workhorse of the Qantas fleet, lacking the classic lines and history of the soon to be retired Boeing 747, the modern hype of the 787 and the sheer size of the A380. I find their exterior design attractive, but inside undistinguished. It exists to take you to your destination with the minimum of fuss.

I am largely tuned out from the goings on within the cabin. I have my big noise cancelling earphones on playing a selection of relaxing, then random music from the very extensive collection on my phone. Music means a lot to me. I listen primarily to soundtracks and music is the soundtrack to my life, the trigger for so many memories and feelings.

Sometimes music gets associated with a trip even if I never actually listened to it during the travels. The eclectic score to the movie Heat is like that, somehow always feeling like it should describe a flight across the Australian continent to Asia. I switch to that score for that purpose.

The young girl in front of me has reclined her seat to the maximum, pushing my video screen uncomfortably towards my face. The person in the exit row ahead of her has done the same, so I cannot blame her, but it makes the lack of seat pitch apparent.

The Blue Mountains were a barrier to the early westwards expansion of the Sydney colony, but once ways were found it opened up the lands beyond to agriculture. The lands below are a patchwork of green, brown and black depending on the state of the fields. Here and there the sparkle of morning sun reflecting off a dam or creek, like diamonds and mercury scattered through the landscape. There is the odd tiny cloud, but most of the scene is clear.

As we move further westwards, past Dubbo, the land becomes harsher with ochre soils visible through low woodlands and scrub.

Most of my previous flights to Singapore and Malaysia have followed a more southerly route, passing over the great salt lakes of South Australia before swinging up to cross the Western Australian coast near Derby. At this time of year the eastern flowing jet stream driven winds over Australia tends to migrate southwards towards the pole and so we take a more northerly path up towards western Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Surprisingly the story told by the inland scenery below is less about the harsh deserts of the Australian interior and more about water. The hydrology of Australia is a fascinating and very contentious topic as farmers, miners and the environment fight for water, pitting those upstream against those further down, state against state, with tales of corruption and mismanagement leading up to the very highest levels of government. Meanwhile crops and livestock are dying, fish float lifeless across evaporating puddles, starved of oxygen and townsfolk must ship in water from afar.

None of that is apparent from up high, but the mark of the inland waterways across the interior is the defining feature of the landscape below.

We begin with Australia’s longest river system, the Murray-Darling. Far to the south of us, the Murray River marks the boundary between the states of New South Wales and Victoria, eventually meeting the sea in South Australia. It is joined by the Darling River and fed by other rivers and creeks from across northwestern New South Wales and southern Queensland draining westwards from the Great Dividing Range that splits the eastern coastal regions of Australia from the interior.

The Macquarie Marshes, part of the Macquarie River, form a khaki and sandy coloured interruption in the drying landscape.

The Macquarie River feeds into the Darling system. Further west of it is the Bogan River, named prior to the pejorative for the uncultured. If you look on a satellite map you can see the Bogan, which also flows into the Darling, separates the green countryside from the red lands beyond. We fly over the confluence of the rivers, the Barwon and the Darling, where they turn back to begin their southwards flow, across the Paroo and the twin lakes of Numalla and Wyara. One fresh water, the other salt.

A hundred million years ago all this land was beneath the Eromanga Sea and today the salt remains, exposed as the continent drifted northwards, the inland lakes dried and the forests disappeared to be replaced by desert.

The Bulloo River is the first to never reach today’s oceans, petering out into a few small lakes. Beyond it the waterways reach down to Kati Thanda Lake Eyre, Australia’s lowest point at 16 metres below the current average sea level.

There has been enough rain in Western Queensland that the Diamantina and Georgina Rivers and Cooper Creek have water in them. They are not singular waterways but fractal filigrees of mercury and black, splitting and reforming as they course their way down towards Kati Thanda across the dusty ochre and tan lands between.

They may never make it. Most of the water will evaporate or be soak away by the ground and the vegetation that clings to the waterways’ edges. Occasionally, just a few times a century, enough water flows to turn Kati Thanda into an inland sea once more, bring with it an explosion in aquatic and avian life. What a sight that would be!

As I admire the changing landscape below the crew hand out our lunches. I love a good satay. Small chunks of chicken, mutton or beef marinated in spices, grilled over charcoal and served with a peanut sauce. It was my first meal overseas. I ate thirteen sticks of satay delivered by motorcycle to B’s Aunty’s house in Singapore, gorging until the heat of the spice overwhelmed my mouth.

I’m even partial to that pseudo-satay dish they serve in Australian Chinese restaurants and take-away shops at food courts where they pour the satay sauce over a stir-fry and frequently served up with fried rice.

Unfortunately, the chicken cashew satay with Indonesian fried rice I select is not a good satay. In fact, it’s not a good dish full stop. It doesn’t even look nice. I’ve had better meals from the freezer section of a supermarket.

The green beans and spinach are soggy and the combination of spices in the satay chicken are more harsh than flavoursome. Much as I love cashews, they don’t have the flavour to compensate for peanuts. The rice lacked flavour.

At least I know that I will get better at my destination, but it’s disappointing because Qantas usually serve up quite reasonable food in my opinion.

Fortunately, the warm garlic and herb focaccia is soft and tasty and there are cheese and crackers as well.

Despite the printed menu it is not a Weis ice cream that we are served later, but a dairy free frozen boysenberry, acai and coconut Weis bar. I really like it and was tempted to ask for another. Though the cabin temperature is reasonably cool and I have my air vent open, staring out at the bright clear sky and harsh landscape outside, combined with a lack of sleep, makes me feel hot and I am developing a headache. Fortunately, I remembered to buy some Panadol in the city last night.

Further into the Northern Territory the red and brown of desert is replaced by the khaki of the tropics in dry season. Smoke plumes from burn-offs dirty the outback air and there are a few bumps, though nothing too major. In fact, the air has rarely been still over the interior on this voyage.

The girl in the row ahead of me, who seems to be doing some studies, drops her protractor and we both struggle to reach it, having to use feet due to the narrow pitch. Success eventually comes.

Four hours in and we have already completed a little more than half our flight at the point that we finally cross the coast to the west of Darwin and Bynoe Harbour. The soothing blue of the ocean is a relief for my eyes.

The flight is starting to feel long. I doze off for a short time, but sleep is difficult for me in flight. While there is nothing but ocean below I decide to distract myself with a video. There are plenty to chose from, not counting those I brought myself on my phone. It would need more than an around the world flight to watch a complete set of Game of Thrones episodes. All the Harry Potter movies might take a bit longer than the longest flight, though I’m keeping those for the live concerts or have recently seen them at one.

Then there are all the Marvel superhero movies, not including the latest Endgame.

The type of movie that I want to watch while flying has the following attributes: It is preferably science fiction, it should be visually stunning and it should have a great score, either dreamy electronica or orchestral. Those are also the kind of movies I’d like to watch on a big screen, which is often a downside of watching them in an aircraft.

The movie doesn’t need to be fast paced or have a good story. At 38,000 feet above sea level my brain is not particularly switched on.

I have lots of movies in my collection that I consider great flight movies, though I’ve only seen some in an aircraft. Sunshine, Tron, Oblivion, Interstellar, Monsters, the list goes on. Some of them even have more than one word in their title.

There are plenty of other movies I’ve enjoyed in the skies. A fun adventure or comedy flick is good watching no matter where you see it. An engrossing story or great acting is the same. A John Williams score is another.

In the end, what wins out is the opportunity to watch a movie that I might not be able to find otherwise, buried in the foreign movie section of the inflight entertainment menu.

Mirai is an animated movie in Japanese with English subtitles about the fantastic adventures of a young boy who is jealous of the attention given to his new baby sister.

I enjoy the chance to practice my Japanese listening skills and the many train references. I want to share it with the others in the family, especially Alex who has his own Plarail toys and will undoubtedly go wild when he see Mirai stuck in an automated train ticket gate.

What I don’t do is focus on the movie continuously. There are constant bumps along the way. Niggling more than dramatic, but enough to make me need to look out the window.

We also cross over a number of islands.First is Timor, much of the interior under a thin layer of cloud.

I pay closer attention to the East Indonesian islands of East Nusa Tenggara. The islands host a number of active volcanoes, their origins on display.

The yellow sulphur and pale blue lake of Mount Sirung on Pantai Island. White deposits, maybe also sulphur, within the crater of Lewotolo volcano on Lembata.

Iliboleng, Flores. According to a translation of an Indonesian website you shouldn’t wear a red shirt up this volcano, which hints that it was visited by a Star Trek away team.

Coming from a continent without any active volcanoes, these sights are both fascinating and beautiful.

Having crossed the main arc of the Indonesian archipelago the number of sights decreases, with only the odd coral atoll or small island for company until we reach the southern tip of Borneo. I watch some more of Mirai, occasionally accepting a cup of water from the crew as they walk through the cabin.

The interior of South Kalimantan at the bottom of Borneo is covered with cloud, some forming the cumulonimbus anvils of small storms. Fortunately the skies are mostly clear on our route with very little high cloud from the tails of storms, unlike our normal flights to Asia. The air is still bumpy so there must be high level winds, demonstrating that you still can’t fully trust the turbulence maps.

It keeps me on edge, never lets me fully relax in the way that I really need to.

With an hour to go we are handed our evening snack. It is dinner time at home. The choice is a pumpkin and feta tart or a box of steamed dumplings. I chose the latter, a miniature pork bun, two chicken siu mai and a “Shanghai” dumpling. I don’t bother opening the accompanying sauce and request an orange juice as a drink.

They may not be up to proper yum cha restaurant standards, but I find the dumplings quite nice.

It is then time to clear the cabin and prepare for our descent. The captain pipes up, hoping that we have been enjoying our flight and describing the skies above Singapore as partly cloudy.

I am both excited that this flight is almost over and nervous at the anticipation of flying through cloud. My mind goes back to that Scoot flight a few years ago when we suddenly dropped after hitting a small cloud right on our path to the airport.

The engines sounds and the aircraft’s angle to the ground both change in pitch and I feel us beginning our journey down to the ground. The crew come through collecting rubbish and eventually to ensure that the cabin is ready. Seat backs upright, window shades open.

We do the normal circuit over the Indonesian islands of Bintang and Batam, the false Singapores as I like to think of them. I guess this is a standard measure. As we turn I get more nervous surveying the cloud below and ahead.

We skim past the puffy clouds as we continue our descent. Our path follows that of Alex and B’s Jetstar flight yesterday, flying north past Singapore up along the Desaru coast of eastern Johor state in Malaysia. The skies are clear along the edge and I am excited to spot the water park and hotel that we have booked for later in the trip.

Then we curve back towards the south to align ourselves with Changi’s runways. A band of cloud lies in our path, hazy light from the sun shining right into my window. Will we have to pass through them? A last barrier waiting to spoil the trip?

No, we descend beneath the clouds! The air is smooth, our progress determined.

We cross the Johor River, past the suspension bridge and ships. I am confused, thinking it the narrow gap of water between Singapore and Malaysia, then encountering new port loading facilities that are still definitely Malaysian, as we keep heading down.

I am so used to the approach from the south with its parade of ships in the Singapore Strait!

Finally, in the last few moments of flight, we are over Singapore itself, then touching down at an airport that holds so many memories for me. I am jerked forward as the breaks and reverse thrust is applied. Welcome to Singapore Changi Airport!

It’s over. Hopefully I can relax now.

As we taxi around the terminals, past the many other airlines that service Singapore from across the globe, I spot the glass dome of the new Jewel building hiding behind the other buildings. I am eager to take a look at it with the others in the family.

I pack away my headphones, switch my mobile off flight mode and get the bags under the seat ready.

We come to a rest at Terminal 1 and the jet bridge is attached. Waiting in the queue to exit the aircraft I overhear another passenger complaining about the lack of coffee served on the flight. I realise that I can’t remember the crew doing any hot beverage runs. Or perhaps it is because I was too engrossed in the scenery outside and the movie on the screen to notice the crew. I feel that I have barely looked inside and wonder if that is a good or bad thing.

I should say that it was a great flight. I want to say it. In the end I was okay with the constant niggling turbulence and there were no big bumps. The scenery was fantastic, the service was sufficient for me. I was comfortable enough, though I’ve experienced better. It was the mood that was lacking. At no point did I feel like I belonged in the air, sailing in smooth skies. That is not the airline’s fault. It’s me.

It’s over now, and I am in a hurry to get out. Terminal 1’s brown carpet and internal layout feel so familiar to me that I walk on autopilot. Even immigration is surprisingly fast for me today without the usual confused hold up ahead.

Baggage collection appears to have been spruced up with orchids and other greenery. It just feels brighter.

The real shock comes when I exit. The front wall of the terminal (was it glass? A road?) is gone and it now opens up into the Jewel, a glass torus with the world’s tallest artificial waterfall as its centrepiece, edges a forest of plants and trees.

It is a welcome and relaxing sight after eight hours stuck inside a sterile tube.

I want to explore it further, but my phone pings me. There is a message for me on Google Hangouts. Go to the hotel quickly. We are hungry!

I haven’t even had a chance to use the bathroom since departing Sydney, but I make my way out to find transport. As the hotel is in Katong train is not an option. There is a free shuttle bus but that means waiting. I decide to splurge a little and catch a taxi directly to the hotel, though at S$13 it isn’t so much.

I am tired, really tired. My headache is starting to return with a vengeance and I want nothing more than to relax.

That will be difficult to do. My phone keeps pinging as Alex messages me telling me how starving he is. They have spent the day at Sentosa Island riding the luge.

Outside, it is my favourite time in Asia. The golden light filtered by the green canopy of trees along the motorway from the airport gives a sense of being in a dream where time has stopped and the future and past have converged with the present. I want to treasure this moment, but, ding, another message has come and needs a reply.

The Grand Mercure Roxy Square features in ideal trip fantasy. A decade ago, on my first solo trip overseas, I spent that first night at the Hotel 81 Tristar on the opposite end of Joo Chiat Road. The hotel itself was not very nice, but Joo Chiat Road is lined with colourful old Chinese shop houses and retains the feeling of old Singapore, though that is rapidly disappearing with increasing gentrification.

The road continues on to Katong, where it is intersected by East Coast Road and Marine Parade. Roxy Square, named for the now demolished old theatre that stood there, sits between those two cross roads. Wonderful food abounds, reflecting the Peranakan heritage of the area, that mixture of Chinese and Malay cultures. There are still old fashioned kopitiams, open sided food courts where the “coffee shop” owner serves drinks and other tiny stalls food. Across the other side of Marine Parade is a local hawker centre with some pretty good food and none of the tourists.

Diagonally opposite the hotel is Parkway Parade, a reasonably large shopping centre, but one setup for locals.

You used to be able to cross to Marine Parade on a pedestrian bridge covered with flowering bougainvillea, stepping out of the airconditioned comfort of the hotel into the sticky tropical air and a sense of entering somewhere exotic. The bridge has been demolished now, along with the sense of tranquillity, by the huge MRT subway construction work alongside the road. When it is finished in a few years the MRT will make accessing the rest of Singapore a lot easier than the current bus service, but I do wonder if it will be the final death knell for the character of the area, making it just another part of sterile Singapore with its remanufactured history.

For the moment, the Grand Mercure still features in my fantasy travel imaginings. A few years back, after a very late night flight from Osaka and Taiwan, we collapsed into bed there, falling asleep to the sound of the storms that had dogged our flight.

I would love to do the same now, though the skies remain clear of rain. That wonderful feeling of washing away the grime and perspiration somehow acquired by flying and drifting off to music is one of my favourite moments of travel, despite being so mundane.

It’s not an option. The other two are alert and hungry. I barely have enough time to go to the bathroom before we head out again. B has found a chicken rice restaurant she wants to try.

Katong Shopping Centre is only a little way up the East Coast Road. It’s old and run down with the majority of shops seemingly devoted to the hire of maids from the Philippines and the subcontinent, the dingy corridors near empty at this time of the evening. Chicken rice is a good choice though, bland enough for a troubled stomach without being tasteless. There is acar too, sweet pickled vegetables which I adore.

On the way back we pass the world’s first Norwegian salmon ATM, a vending machine for frozen salmon fillets. Another beside it serves ice cream in baby bottles.

We are not going back to the hotel yet. First we cross Marine Parade to the food centre. Outside are a series of night stalls, one of which is Parkway Durians. Neither Alex nor I have any interest in the fruit, but I promised B. So we sit down at a table and are brought a durian split open in half. There are disposable plastic gloves to allow B to pull out the flesh without getting the difficult to remove juice from her hands.

Somehow we tolerate the awful smell of the durian until a couple of girls sit down at another table behind us and to eat what seems to be a more acrid scented durian than B’s.

A whole durian is too much for one person and she offers the other half to the girls. Fortunately the fruit is banned from hotels.

To wash away any remaining memory of durian from my system I have a drink of blueberry flavoured, toilet water coloured, “juice” and eat a couple of the very nice popiah wraps from a hawker stall I remember from last time. Then finally we can return to the hotel to rest. Or in my case write my blog then sleep.


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