First engagement of hostilities? Very odd angry shots indeed!

Social History

Whilst spending a long weekend in the glorious Mornington Peninsula last year at a boozy wine festival (is there any other kind?!?), I stumbled upon a most unexpected discovery, a tiny curio piece of history that has never traveled far beyond the annals of the local historical society. Thumbing through the pages of a peninsular tourist publication, I came across an article reproduced from a local newspaper which focused on the little-known role of Fort Nepean, on the southern part of the peninsula near Portsea, during both World Wars.

The article detailed the claim for the Fort to be viewed as the site where the first shots in anger in both World War I and World War II were fired! This most improbable, double occurrence took place in the same stretch of water in Port Phillip Bay, a location as far removed from the major theatres of global war as could be imagined.

SS Pfalz 1914
The fortifications at Port Phillip Bay were strategically located to guard the narrow heads at the entrance to the harbour of Melbourne. Almost 100 years ago, on 5th August 1914, the outbreak of the Great War was imminent, Germany had declared war on Russia, and a reaction from Britain (as Russia’s ally) was anticipated. The command at Fort Nepean was receiving intelligence on the movements in Melbourne of a German ship, SS Pfalz, which was loading coal on board in Victoria Dock. The captain of the Pfalz was anxious to get his ship out of the harbour before hostilities were declared, and got underway before loading was completed.

Melbourne Herald headline
As the German coal steamer approached the heads, Britain declared war on Germany, automatically dragging Australia into the war. The commander at Fort Nepean was ordered to “stop or sink” what was now identified as an enemy vessel. Signal warnings to stop were flown from the fort but were ignored by the Pfalz, resulting in a single shot from a 6-inch MK VII gun being fired across the bow of the ship. The pilot on board the Pfalz apparently persuaded the captain to turn the steamer round and surrender, thus avoiding any fatalities. The crew were arrested at Portsea and interned for the duration of the war. The Pflaz was found to have 4-inch guns mounted on it, so had it made it’s escape to the open sea, it could well have posed a significant threat to Australian war-time shipping. Instead, it was renamed and used as a Allied troop carrier during the war.Fort Nepean

25 year later, Fort Nepean, remarkably, was the scene of a parallel incident at the onset of the Second World War. When Britain declared war on Germany by Britain on 3rd September 1939, Australian PM Menzies followed suit immediately, and Fort Nepean was ordered to monitor all maritime traffic entering the heads. The next day the fort command at Point Nepean challenged an incoming vessel to identify itself. The freighter, a Bass Strait trader called the SS Woniora did not comply with the gun battery’s orders, and a single warning shot from another 6-inch gun was fired across the bow of the Woniora. The shaken crew of the freighter quickly identified itself and was allowed to proceed on its course to Melbourne. Like 1914, this was the first Australian shot fired in anger in the world war, in this case though, this was the first shot fired in confusion as well!Fort nepean

Today, the long disbanded fort is now part of Point Nepean National Park, a nature conservancy where visitors can explore the remaining gun emplacements including the two gun barrels (A1 and B1) which fired the first shots of war (originally sold for scrap after WWII but later restored)

The shots from A1 and B1 on those two occasions were the only ones ever seriously launched from Fort Nepean in its history! Were these the first shots fired in anger by anyone in the two world wars? Probably this can’t be said in any absolute definitive sense, there is too much that can’t be certain about the exact start of hostilities in both conflicts. ‘Firsts’ are not always a straight forward phenomenon to try to pin down in historical fact. The established wisdom had accepted without serious disputation for 100 years that the Wright Brothers were the first persons to successfully make a manned, heavier-than-air flight, and then along came the counter-claims for Gustave Whitehead and Santos-Dumont et al, and the comfortable ‘certainty’ of this ‘first’ was suddenly up for serious reconsideration and hotly-contested debate. With much more confidence, we can say that the actions of the Fort Nepean gun battery on those two occasions represent the first Australian shots in anger in the two world wars, and almost certainly the first also by the Allied forces.

Close Encounters with Unaccredited Chilean Translators


Chile: La Parte Dos

Bellavista mural, Santiago showing Valparaiso hasnt monopoly on murals!
Bellavista mural, Santiago showing Valparaiso hasn’t monopoly on murals!

Day 3 in Chile, CTS has organised a city tour of the capital. Yesterday I had complained about the Valparaiso tour bus being late and having to wait round twiddling my thumbs for the best part of an hour, so overnight I receive a neat, typewriter-typed note under my door. It says, “Dear Sir, Tomorrow I happen to look at 9:00 for city tour. Regards, Monica”. I inquire at reception as to the whereabouts of this ‘Monica’ (the English was not perfect but it was a marked improvement on the others’ attempts, so I thought possibly she could help with the communication problem). “Is Monica here?” I ask, based on a not unreasonable assumption. The duty reception guy looks a bit puzzled, hesitates and then answers “No”. When I asked where she was, he says simply, “At home!” so I thought the absent Monica was off-duty. I am perplexed when he admits that she does not actually work at the hotel. In exasperation I ask him, “Who is Monica?” With a sheepish look on his face and a shrug of his shoulders, he tells me in his very halting English, “She my wife!”. So, this fellow’s wife, when told of my frustrations, volunteered to go lookout for the bus’ arrival in the morning. I thought that this was sweet that a hotel employee’s wife was trying to help me with my tour connection, but with all the confusion I was experiencing and creating, I was starting to think that my stay in this mishmash of a Santiago hotel was becoming something akin to a Fawlty Towers episode, a feeling given further currency with every new miscommunication experienced.

Presidental Palace: Allende's last stand
Presidential Palace: Allende’s last stand

The ciudad tour takes me to several of the outer barrios of Santiago. These suburbs tend to be cleaner areas with smarter-looking houses than around where I’m lodged (Historico Centro). Definitely seeing the more affluent, middle class areas of the capital now, with names like Independicia, Providencia, El Golf (sounding very aspirationally bourgeois – love it!), Bellavista and Barrio Brasil. Lots of new construction, commercial and residential, happening. We visit another former home of the famous Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, this one in Bellavista. There is more parkland, larger green areas here too. We come back later to the city centre, see the presidential palace where Salvador Allende fought his last stand against the Pinochet-led military coup forces in 1973. Like many older Chileans, our tour driver/guide is clearly no fan of the Pinochet regime, giving us his opinion of the Pinochet era in very scathing terms. We ventured on to Plaza de Armas (most South American cities have a Plaza de Armas or Armes, Santiago’s one was founded in 1540), and typically, there is another political demonstration going on. With this one, the large boldly-coloured banners waved by the protestors contain the words ‘sindicato’ and ‘bancerios’ – so I’m speculating that its a protest by Chilean trade unions against the rapacious policies of big banks, a familiar theme for the left in Chile.

Peaceful demonstration in Plaza de Armas - still Santiago policia ever vigilant.
Peaceful demonstration in Plaza de Armas – still Santiago’s la policia are out in force.

When I returned to my hotel after the tour, there was another note from the staff waiting for me. I was due to leave Chile the next day for the next leg of my South American trip, Argentina, but the time for departing had apparently been changed, and the non-English speaking staff had been tasked with the duty of conveying this to me. Having been palpably unsuccessful in their attempts to date to verbally communicate with me, they were now resorting to written communications.

The note that had been slipped under my door, which I suspect hadn’t been written by the aforementioned Monica, reinforced the notion that the formidable barrier of English still loomed as large as ever. The letter addressed me as ‘sr.’by which I guessed they meant ‘Sir’, and not I hope ‘Sister’! (only later did I twig that the ‘sr.’ signified of course Senor!). The note’s meticulously-typed message was divided into two versions, the first in Spanish (perhaps hoping that I had become fluent in the Latin tongue overnight!), followed by an English one which mentioned 5:15am as the new transfer time, but also (unhelpfully) with the imprecise Spanish word ‘retirarn’(?) incongruously inserted into the middle of the message otherwise entirely written in English. Thus, it somewhat clouded it’s meaning, but the message did end however on a self-improvement theme – “(we) apologize for the problem of communication, (and) try to improve our shortcomings in the future” – an admirable sentiment, albeit coming way too late to help me!

Later that night I get yet another note under the door. This one reads: “Dear Guest, your Taxi removed on Sunday at 5:15am to Airport.“ By now I had got the gist of what was meant to happen, but upon receiving this latest message I was tempted to ask reception, “OK, my taxi is removed at 5:15, si, but what about me???” but didn’t have the energy to embroil myself in another agonising, circular conversation with the English-deficient staff!

The staff at this hotel, I must say, have been always polite and attentive, if largely incapable of helping me due to the language barrier. Invariably, our conversations (perhaps more quasi-conversations) would usually end with the staff member with a sheepish expression on his or her face apologising profusely for inglés inadequacies. It was manifestly clear to me that I had been assigned to a hotel which catered exclusively for Spanish or Portuguese speaking guests. I was left to muse on the obvious point of what an invaluable advantage it would be to come to South America equipped with a decent smattering of Spanish (or even a reasonable bit of working Spanglish!).

My sojourn at the nondescriptly-named AH Hotel, which perhaps would have been better named AA Hotel (as in Absolutely Anonymous Hotel!), had been underwhelming from the get-go. Aside from the diabolical communications situation, the hotel and room added up to just about the worst accommodation experience I have ever had in all of the five continents I have visited (although a guest lodge in Johannesburg also registers high in my International Hotel ‘Hall of Infamy’). The room of itself was basic and serviceable (just), though the floor was a bit dirty. Worse of all, it’s location was terrible, directly across the way from reception and a few steps away from the hotel entrance. This was catastrophic for anyone trying for a peaceful sleep as people (guests) were coming in at all times of the night, pressing the buzzer to be let in (nothing as modern as swipe access here!). At one point, the person at reception, which was supposed to be manned 24/7, went walkabout around 3.30-4 in the morning, so there was a returning guest at this time continuously pressing the buzzer and banging on the glass for a good ten minutes before the AWOL staff person finally stumbled into consciousness and answered the door call.

The buffet breakfast, in keeping with the hotel’s other shortcomings, is very basic, spartan really, even for a continental, and the quality is cod ordinary by any standards. Being in this one star joint for only a couple of days, I decide to stick it out for the duration and vent my displeasure at the tour company in Sydney. Also, the stoic in me reconciled it as being all part of the vicissitudes of the global travel experience, the luck of the draw that you will always get your share of when you go to Third World regions.

In the afternoon I went for my own city tour by foot. Next to my hotel I found and old inn with the intriguing title “Expedio de Bebida Alcoholicas Hotel” (the plaque on the wall said it was a ‘B’ hotel, so what does that make the one I was lumbered with, I wondered). It’s clientele seemed to be backbackers and other transients. Someone told me it was a kind of jokey name, that it was’nt intended to cater specifically for practising alcoholics. In any case there are enough of these establishments in Santiago to go round. I explored the area on the other side of the water-deficient Rio Yaque del Norte, visited the markets at Bellavista, the Funicular and the City Zoo park where I witnessed an anti-abortion rally in full flight. A young, enthusiastic pamphlet distributor tries to foist her anti-abortion literature on to me. I demur to her attempts to make me take her rigid Catholic ‘pro-life’ message, managing to utter a terse “Si a aborto!”, which left her sour-faced as I scuttled off.

Traffic lights juggler, Bellavista
Traffic lights juggler, Bellavista

Travelling round the different barrios, I note the presence of what might be generously labelled “performance traffic artists”, young guys who juggle balls, ten-pins and various other round or curved objects in the air at traffic lights for the entertainment of drivers waiting for the lights to change. They obviously know exactly how long the lights stay red because they always cease their performance with enough time left to sweep past the drivers’ windows in the hope of receiving some small change from an appreciative ‘audience’. I compare this street activity to the windscreen cleaners you see in operation at traffic lights in Australian cities, but these guys are obviously much more original and inventive in the way they etch out the shell of a living on the streets.

Walking through Parque Forestal a young guy accompanying his girlfriend passes me, and then suddenly backtracks to caution me, first in Spanish and then in English, of the danger of carrying my expensive camera in too loose a manner. I thank him for his concern, which served to reinforce the earlier tourist warnings I had received of the risk of “grab-and-run” thefts in the more isolated parts of Santiago.

Santa Lucia Hill: Best views from Santiago
Santa Lucia Hill: Best views from Santiago

Later on I head south to follow the long Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins (for short, the Alameda, which is a much more manageable handle!) a principal Centro road which sweeps past Paris-Londres. As dusk falls I pass the National Library and the high hill of Cerro Santa Lucia with its fine, sandstone rotunda building, fountains and ornate columns. Santa Lucia offers the best views of the capital but is also a danger spot for tourists after dark, due the incidences of thefts there as well.

That night, I have that South American staple, empanadas, for dinner, just as I did for lunch yesterday. In truth, I’ve probably had my fill of empanadas by this point! But they are tasty and filling, and come in sufficient variety (carne, jamon, pino, pollo, neapolitan, etc), an easy, convenient meal. And, if it came down to a choice in South America only between eating them or the unappetising ceviche, it would be empanadas for me every time!

The Accidental Survivor: Part I


Those of us with sedentary white collar office jobs are always being told by our GPs that we should get more exercise, its good for our health, they say! Regular exercise is good for our cardio-vascular systems, good for our mental health too, good for our general well-being. This is without a doubt self-evidently true, and personally I find one of the best ways of exercising is to bushwalk. What I find especially appealing about this activity is that it combines prolonged strenuous physical exercise with something of great aesthetic value, the beauty and tranquility of the bush itself (providing an ideal escape valve for all us stressed and cramped urban dwellers from the big smoke). So, while bushwalking is undeniably healthy to body and soul, the other side of the coin is that it can be fraught with danger if you are go in unprepared, if you overreach yourself, intentionally or otherwise, in the environment of the bush – as the following cautionary tale seeks to show.

Day 1

It started as little more than a modest stroll in the (national) park, a bit of exercise walking along an unfamiliar track that gave no portend of any dark forebodings. I had explored the western stretch of the Florabella Pass track from Warrimo the week before, and on this trip I wanted to familiarise myself with the eastern part of the track winding back to the Blaxland shopping centre. On the western section of the track, along the Florabella Creek, I observed a number of wild flowers, but had read on the NSW Bushwalking site that the Blaxland part of the track had a greater variety of flora, including angophoras, lilly pillys and flannel flowers. A nascent botanical interest however wasn’t my motive for this day’s bush excursion. Rather, it was an exploratory trip in preparation for a walk I was to lead for SBG the following Sunday from Warrimo to Blaxland stations. It was a mere 3 kilometres in distance to the midway point. I walked down from the heights of Ross Crescent which marks the start of the track, passing a family with young children taking a New Year’s Day’s look-see at the view offered by the high bush track. They were perched at the junction between the right-hand trail and the main track and seemed undecided about which way to go. I stopped briefly and talked to them, even proffering advice on where each track led – in hindsight my giving counsel to someone else was to prove a rich irony given my experience that week in the bush! But more of that later…further down the track I passed a single walker in the opposite direction, I did not know it at the time (about 10:30-11am) but this was to be the last human I would see or hear for almost three-and-a-half days!

On-track and seemingly on course.
On-track and seemingly on course.

I checked out a couple of the offshoot trails, one going along Pippas Pass for a bit and another to Plateau Point, to see where they led (back to suburbia). I backtracked and proceeded west up the narrow, tree-lined mountainous track. When I reached the Glenbrook Creek side trail sign, I turned back, satisfied that I had now covered (over two trips) the full 6.5 kilometre distance of the upcoming walk, and that I was prepared and ready for any contingencies (the folly of such confidence would be completely exposed by what was to come). I was well advanced on my journey back to my starting point when I happened upon a little siding to the main track. Consulting my copy of the ‘Blue Mountains Best Bushwalks’ guide, I noted that it indicated a diversion here. I became curious about this sidetrack. The guidebook suggested it was an alternative route to get to the swimming holes further down the creek, which had been one of the stops I had scheduled for the walk on Sunday. The guidebook did offer the warning that this was a hazardous route, but given the intense heat of the day I found the promise of a shortcut to the waterholes too enticing to resist. Hindsight tells me that I should have taken the safe and sure ‘official’ route, but as Oscar Wilde once observed, temptation is the hardest thing to say no to!

The way down to the lower, creek level was via a rusty old white ladder, I hovered at the top examining the ladder for several minutes before tentatively climbing onto the top of it. There were large, gaping holes where it had corroded away and the bottom three rungs had gone all together. I got down to the last remaining rung and sparred out my left leg into thin air, trying to gauge whether I could safely drop down the distance – a good two metres – to the ground. In the end, I decided it was too risky and retreated back up to the top. Giving the ladder idea up as a bad bet, I scouted round for other, less risky options and eventually found another vertical path down that was testing but manageable. I scrambled down the muddy, slippery slope to an intermediate hill, and from there was able to half-slide and half-run down the remaining slopes to a cleared area of the creek level ground.

I explored the immediate region of the creek on both sides. After hunting around the far side bush for a while, I gained a sense that the creek valley was deserted. The water in the creek didn’t look all that flash, but as it was pretty hot, I took a quick dip in it and it’s cool water at least refreshed me. In going down into the remote creek area in the first place, I was relying on the accuracy of the bushwalking guide, but the further I went, the more I began to question it’s reliability.

At the outset I had anticipated a short hike on a reasonably navigable path leading to the swimming holes, but this was fast turning into an illusion. My attempts to travel along the side of the creek met with fierce resistance from the dense, out-of-control bush on both sides of the creek. There was no defined track of any sort, the way ahead was indistinct. In front of me, each way I turned there was thick undergrowth and dense vegetation. Stretching from the creek bank right up to the hilltop, everywhere you looked, there was a pervasive, feral overgrowth. I observed a hodgepodge of prickly bushes, stinging plants, hooking vines, ferns and palms, all growing randomly. My task from here, which I unwisely chose to accept, was to try to find (or manufacture) the optimal way through this tangle of nature, whilst trying to minimise the damage inflicted on my person.

Despite walking for hours in the sun I had not sighted the purported swimming holes at all. Frustrated at the non-materialisation of a way out, I eventually opted to head back in to where I began. As I moved in the direction of the Florabella Creek junction, I made an effort to scan the horizon on the north-east side of the creek to try to get a sighter of the upper track, from which I had unwisely strayed several hours before. If I could at least see the track, I thought that I might be able to figure out a way up to the top. The problem with this was that the canopy on the hillside was both very cluttered and very high, making it nigh on impossible to see the track from ground or creek level.

It’s an intriguing omission on my part but all the time I was immersed in the impenetrable bushland, I can honestly say I was not concerned at the danger, potential or actual, that the park’s wild fauna might pose. Of course, I was aware that there would be snakes, spiders, leeches, ticks and other bush nasties around the place, but as my journey became more and more protracted, I became so fixated on getting out of the mess I had entangled myself in, that I didn’t really give any consideration to the presence of these other natural threats.

It was about this point in time that I should have been acknowledging the folly of what I had done, going off-plan and hopelessly off-track. Instead, I kept telling myself that everything was OK (I was probably still deceiving myself that I was in control of my destiny). The unpalatable truth being that, as I have always done in unfamiliar surrounds, I was trying to mask a significant shortcoming for a bushwalker – that I am not great with directions, not so woefully deficient that I could not get a job as a Sydney taxi driver, but distinctly ordinary nonetheless. Here, in the homogeneous and concentrated landscape of overgrown bushes and tall trees, my internal compass was certainly not functioning in anything remotely resembling a stellar fashion.

About 6pm I reluctantly admitted to myself that I was lost, or at least not found, and decided to phone emergency. I spent an hour, maybe as much as an hour-and-a-half ringing 000, occasionally getting through but more often the phone would cut out. A pattern developed where the call would go through, Triple 0 would ask who I wanted, I would indicate Police, they would patch me through and I could hear the voice on the other end, but they apparently couldn’t hear me, then the line would go dead. I estimated I made, lost count, maybe 25 unsuccessful attempts at contacting them. A couple of times the phone rang back straight after I had dialled and then lost the call, but the line went dead as soon as I answered. At least from this, I drew some comfort from the thought that the authorities were apparently aware of my existence, and perhaps had traced my location. The brief appearance of a helicopter circling around overhead just before nightfall encouraged me to be positive about my situation.

At this juncture I still fully expected to find the bush track before dark. But doubts were starting to gnaw away at my confidence. What if I didn’t find a way out by nightfall, I asked myself? No one would know to look for me, let alone where to look. I thought about the people whose house I parked in front of, right at the entrance to the bush track in Ross Crescent, if I didn’t return that night, surely they would raise the alarm, after all they must see Florabella Track walkers parking outside their house all the time? A voice in my head came back to me bluntly saying “probably not”, It told me that I couldn’t assume this, the people in the bush-backed house may be used to hikers parking their cars there and going off camping for a few nights, so a vehicle camped there overnight wouldn’t necessarily send a warning signal to vigilant locals.

By 7pm I had consumed the last remaining drop of the paltry 950ml of water I had brought. I trudged on towards the, by this time, seemingly mythical pools. My legs were being constantly assaulted by myriad of briar, bramble and other assortment of prickly, thorny shrubbery, most aggravating were the vines (bush vines, lawyer vines, the common garden-variety vine, all sorts) at just above ground level, these were super-efficient at constantly managing to twirl themselves around one or the other of my lower legs just as I was trying to climb though a gap in the bushes or climb over a horizontal tree trunk. The vines continually slowed my progress and it was incredibly energy-sapping to try to free myself from their wrestler-like hold time and again.

Finding the thick terrain and bush almost impenetrable on one side of the creek, I crossed over to the far side and continued, but still with enormous difficulty. After a hour of struggling through, under, over and around the overgrown bushes and plants, I came upon a sign in the midst of an entanglement of bushes and undergrowth. The sign, almost obscured by the thick undergrowth, proclaimed a ‘Track’, which considering its position, which was adjacent to nowhere, seemed like it was the product of someone’s bizarre vein of humour!

About 8:15 I stumbled on to a sandbank next to the creek and crashed from exhaustion. After resting a while I walked on for fifteen metres to an adjoining, larger sandbank which appeared in the dark to rest on a large pool of water. I assumed this was the elusive swimming holes I had been searching for. At the end of the strip of sand was more a patch of thick, dense bush, by now clouded in blackness. Despite the comparative comfort of the sandbar, I was keen to get in front of the pools to be in a good position first thing in the morning to make a quick exit from the heavily forested labyrinth. Buoyed by my ‘discovery’, I ventured into the adjacent bush in total darkness. With no torchlight, I didn’t get very far before stubbing my toes, getting numerous scratches on my legs to add to the ones I had acquired earlier, and then capped it off by crashing over a large unseen and unseeable boulder, coming thundering to the ground with a thud, my ribcage in screaming agony having landed flush on the sharp point of a very large, round rock. I lay flat on the ground for a couple of minutes regathering my breath, all the time wincing in pain. I dragged myself slowly to my feet, and backtracked my steps, hastily in my mind but very cautiously in practice. Finding the relative safety of the sandbank once again, I flopped down, this time for the night.


I was so enervated by the tribulations of the day that, in a short time, I did drift off to sleep for maybe two hours, tops. When I woke, in pitch dark, cold, my ribs in pain, the noises of the night took over my consciousness. Above all, the constant, deafening roar of the cicadas’ tymballic chorus, accompanied by the periodical buzz of the mosquito and the occasional sound of short, sharp ripples from the creek. Despite the softness of the sand, it was a long uncomfortable and boring night. I couldn’t get back to sleep, it was too cold and miserable on the open sand. All I could do was wait, count the minutes and then the hours … waiting, waiting for the first light of day, the dark sky seemed like it would never lighten. Wearing only a thin Egyptian cotton T-shirt and shorts, during the night I was shivering at times uncontrollably from the cold of the open air. I tried to bury my feet in the sand to keep them warm but this provided only at best minor respite. I have never been as relieved to see the dawn break as on this morning.

Santiago, Route 68 and all that!


Chile: la Parte Uno

My initial impression of Santiago, as I enter the central region by taxi, is not especially favourable – grimy, dirty, old faded buildings, a place where compulsive graffiti escribitors seem to be in their element. Packs of mangy-looking stray dogs roam the streets, I was informed later that there are upwards of 350,000 scattered throughout Santiago (mucho perros!). As we drive down Gral MacKenna, we pass Mercado Central, this area is in an olfactory sense, very much on the nose 24/7, which is not surprising as it is the location of the city’s central fish markets!

I find my driver somewhat disconcerting. The white-haired old guy looks unnervingly like Pinochet and is possessed of the barest modicum of English. I ask him tourist-type questions, he stares blankly, uncomprehending. Occasionally he latches on to a recognisable word or two in English, but this only prompts him to launch into a further flurry of rapidly spoken Spanish. At this we both sigh quizzically. I wave an imprecise finger in the air and say inquiringly “hotel, si?”, he echoes my si and he drives on in silence. When we arrive at my hotel in Ismael Valdez Vergara, the linguistically challenged driver (Miguel is his name) gives me his mobile number (I thought, what good is this?!? … better if he gave me his interpreter’s phone number).

Once inside the hotel, the language problems exacerbate rather than diminish. No one who works here speaks anything like remotely passable English. In time I come to rely on other guests, Brazilians and Uruguayans in particular, with a reasonable amount of English to translate for me to the staff. Asking simple questions soon becomes burdensome, eg, “where do I buy bottled water”? (having been sensibly warned to give the local tap water a wide berth). Eventually I managed to get out the word ‘aqua’ which is close to the Spanish ‘agua’ but I think the receptionist was too confused by my early burst of too-fast English to comprehend. At this point in the trip, my neophyte Spanish was way too rudimentary to grasp the generic term, let alone the distinction between agua con gas and agua sin gas. My question confuses the apprehensive woman at reception, after some hesitant, uncomfortable moments, she responds by phoning a friend. Her phone friend, with a little better English, soon latches on to what I’m after and asks me to hand the phone back to the reception person, to whom she explains precisely what I want. Newly enlightened, the hotel woman quickly gives me directions to the nearby supermercado, one problem solved. While I have this at least partially Anglophone woman on the phone I venture a second question: “Where can I find casa de cambio“. She struggles initially with this one too, my undoubtedly unorthodox pronunciation not helping, but eventually she comprehends and asks me to hand the phone back to the receptionist again. After they talk, the receptionist hands the phone back to me and the caller advises me that the woman I am with now can exchange money. Phew! Its been hard work just to get to find out that the person who can’t understand me is the person who can help me get what I want! Fortunately and a little surprisingly, the reception woman is happy to exchange $40 Australian for 20,000 Chilean pesos which is very fair – to me! (on my later attempts to exchange Australian dollars for nuevo sols in Peru, I find myself decidedly on the wrong end of the deal!).

Worker protest against  the authorities a SA way of life
Worker protest against the authorities an SA way of life!

After settling my belongings in the room I wander out for a bit of a reconnoitre of Santiago. I get about 25 metres from my hotel in Ismael Valdez Vergara and I run into my first South American protest event in Parque Forestal (the first of many such observed people demos on my trip). All the protestors are decked out in blue or orange T-shirts, all blowing unrestrainedly on shrill whistles with the accompaniment of the usual cacophonous musical instruments. As far as I could work out from the banners, they were protesting against the low salaries of trabajadores (roughly translated, hard-working employees), a common complain as worker salaries are generally quite low in the country in the light of 30%-plus inflation affecting the economy. I could see that this was a serious protest by the workers, but one trait I noted each time I happened upon such displays of ‘people power’ in South America is that the participants seem to be having a good time all the same!

The next morning on the street, given my overwhelming lack of Spanish and zero local know-how, I am bemused that several people ask me directions (I think, I hardly look like a local, surely not?). “Recoleta Mercado this way?” an elderly Chilean man inquires. I give reassuring credence to his half-question, half-statement, beckoning in the direction he is heading, ‘si’! Now, obviously I’m not sure where it is, but I’m trying to be helpful and I’m at least not giving him an altogether false lead (although later in Buenos Aires I almost certainly did!), as I know that the Recoleta, a main cross-road, is down that way somewhere, so hopefully and logically the markets with its name is also somewhere near the road called Recoleta (although this does not always follow in Chile as I come to discover).

I was told to be ready at 8:30 to be picked up by the CTS Tourismo bus for a day tour to Valparaiso, some 115-120km west of Santiago on the Pacific coast. It is much nearer to 9:30 when the bus finally arrives (my first lesson in South America that punctuality applies to me rather than to my transporters!). Adrian, the tour guide is refreshingly bilingual and very proficient in English. When we get out of the municipalidad onto Route 68 I meet some chatty, senior American tourists at a servicio in the Curacavi Valley, and it is a relief to have a fluent conversation in English after the frustrating experience of trying to communicate in Spanglish on the previous day. The rest of our Valparaíso group are Brazilian tourists with minimal if any English (one is OK), but they seem a nice bunch of women.

In the bus the guide Adrian reveals that Chile is numerically divided into administrative regions, number 1, number 2, and so on. The problem with this neat categorisation is that number 3 was skipped over and never assigned to any region. Adrian’s explanation for this illogical anomaly is that Chileans aren’t good at maths (I decide this is one of those self-deprecating national jokes, kind of like the equivalent of an Irish joke told by the Irish against themselves).

As we head down Route 68 for the Pacific Coast, massive advertising billboards announcing the upcoming Chilean elections blot the landscape. These unsubtle messages are of course positive reinforcement to the voters of the merits of candidates and their parties. One element of this political advertising that you wouldn’t see in Australia is that the prominent female candidates running for presidential office are identified on the mega-billboards solely by their nombres (first names). Michelle (the former president) and Evelyn (the right-wing challenger), are presumably well enough known politicians to make a connection with the electorate on the basis of a single name. Their parties’ respective spin doctors and marketeers would be only too aware of the advantages of establishing familiarity and therefore trust. Using the first name of the candidate projects a more intimate, friendly connection, they appear more accessible to (and for) the masses (in the Americas context, Evita’s mononomenic identity comes immediately to mind). While we are traversing the countryside, Adrian informs the group of Chile’s peculiar “obsessive-compulsive disorder” with the tuber – Chile produces some 3,800 species of potatoes (who’d have thought there was that many or that much point of difference!). Apparently, Chile and Peru vie with each other as potato producers, each asserts that IT produces the most varieties in the world of the humble spud!

amphitheatre 'roof'
Ampitheatre ‘roof’

Upon approaching Valparaíso, we by-pass it and head for Vina Del Mar, a coastal resort town about 9km up the road. VDM as the locals call it, is equipped with a big casino, as you’d expect of a tourist town keen to encourage well-heeled visitors to part with their disposable holiday income. We visited the unusual Quinta Vergara Amphitheater and the recently earthquake-damaged Palacios Vergara (both in Parque Quinta Vergara). The idiosyncratically-designed Amphitheatre annually hosts the largest International Song Festival in South America, which draws the like of international performers such as Elton John, Morrissey, Julio Iglesias and Sting. It is a differently-interesting construction, very airy (decidedly open air in fact!), based on the Ancient Greek model, with its most distinctive feature, the multiple vertical poles “suspended from the air”. I think if I was sitting directly under the seemingly-insecure hanging steel poles, I would find my attention somewhat distracted from the concert! Afterwards, we have an excellent seafood lunch at Delicias del Mar lashed down with liberal servings of Cristal (the local cerveza). This restaurant has more than the odd quirky touch. The foyer entrance resembles a bricabrac and curios shop, being packed with various stuffed animals, display cabinets of old coins, knickknacks and wooden mastheads carved in the shape of topless maidens. Inside the restaurant, the contents of the walls divulge the owner’s serious Marilyn Monroe obsession with a myriad of photos, prints, clocks and other decorative features representing the iconic Marilyn.

In Vina del Mar we also see its famous clock made out of flowers (Reloj de Flores). This much-photographed, unusual, organic timepiece was a gift to Chile from Switzerland to celebrate the 1962 Football World Cup in Chile. Also in this resort town, at Museo Fonck, we see the Chilean mainland’s only moai, a gigantic stone statue from Easter Island (Easter Island is so far from the American continent I’m not sure a lot of people automatically get its connection to Chile).

Valparaiso: murals & colour
Valparaiso: murals & colour

The port city of Valparaíso alone makes the visit to the west coast worthwhile. It’s a very interesting place, especially its own distinctive domestic architectural style, a hotchpotch of different-coloured and sized houses, many with brightly painted murals on their walls (the guide, Adrian describes this as “good graffiti” as opposed to the ‘malo’ type of graffiti consisting of erratic and indecipherable doodling which infests many parts of Valparaiso). Intriguingly, you will find very ordinary and humble dwellings (even ones which are little better than rundown shacks) right next to structures which are diametrically the opposite, very grand and ornate buildings. On the hill of Cerro Alegre we view various examples of unusual Valparaiso buildings, such as Palacio Baburizza, a large, imposing art nouveau building incorporating a distinctive “witches’ hat” style of vaulted roofing (now a fine arts museum). Also on Cerro Alegre in the Croatian sector, is the 1861-built Casa Antoncich which survived major earthquakes in 1906, 1985 and 2010.

Palacio Buburizza, Cerro Alegre
Palacio Buburizza, Cerro Alegre

Topographically, Valparaíso is marked by very steep hills surrounding the docks and shoreline. As a consequence, funiculars or ascensores (cable cars on sloping rail tracks) are the principal mode of transport for residents in the hills to descend to Plaza Sotomayor and the city centro. There are some 26 ascensores servicing Valparaiso. It was novel and fun to drop down to sea-level on one of these funicular contraptions, the journey takes only a few seconds and costs a nominal sum, about 10 Chilean pesos (virtually nothing given the value of the Chilean peso!). The city centre, Plaza Sotomayor, includes the Chilean naval headquarters (Armada de Chile building), the large monument to naval hero Arturo Prat in the middle, and Cafe Melbourne on the other side, it’s sign promising “Melbourne café-style food and coffee” (is this in some sense distinctive from food and coffee in other Australian cities, I ask?) but its name will probably entice some curiosity from tourists from Victoria). Beyond the plaza is the docks (Prat Wharf), always coursing with shipping activity. The docklands house a handicrafts markets where I buy my Valparaiso souvenir.

Ascensores: the quick way to the bottom
Ascensores: the quick way to the bottom

I observe that Adrian, our helpful guide, has this methodology when conducting his tour talks where he’ll try to tailor the information to suit the interests of the particular national group of tourists he is leading. He mentions to me in passing that he regularly has Australians on his tours, so I was able to enhance his repertoire of anecdotes by telling him about a little-known Australia/Valparaiso connection, Australia’s third prime minister, Chris Watson (first Labor Party PM, youngest-ever PM) was born right here in Valparaíso. Adrian is wrapped on hearing this, immediately googles it to confirm the information, and is not even disappointed to find that Watson, is only partly ancestrally Chilean … Watson perpetuated a lifelong myth that his parents were migrants from Scotland who had stopped over in the Chilean port on route to Australia (his mother was in fact Irish). With genuine relish Adrian enthused that he would store this snippet up to use when he takes his next group of Aussies … I replied “Don’t be surprised if none of them know this about Watson, it (or he) are not well-known even in Australia!”

That night back in the capital, I have dinner at a Peruvian-style restaurant, of which there are quite a few in Santiago. I order lomo de pollo and taste the popular South American bebidas, Inca Cola, a sickly, gold coloured and vapid tasting concoction. I’ve no understanding as to the reason for this drink’s mass popularity in Latin America. I am amused to observe one of the diners in the restaurant, a Chilean guy, with his family. As they’re about to start tucking into their evening meal, he pulls out his transistor and starts happily playing its noisy music. Interestingly, no one (including the staff) objects to his providing his own musical entertainment, even though its staticky sounds are competing with the restaurant’s background mood music. But I remind myself, this is South America, people take a more relaxed, laissezfaire attitude to such matters.

A Few Observations on Nepotism, Corruption and Financial Mismanagement in Australian Universities¤

Tertiary Ed


It is instructive to reflect on the fact that there has been no tradition of ‘whistle-blowing’ in the Australian public universities sector. And yet, as we see from time to time, scandals and serious irregularities within the corridors of these venerable institutions have come to light.  A couple of years ago, the Vice Chancellor of Queensland University was forced to resign his post when it was revealed that his daughter was given an undergraduate place in UQ’s medicine degree ahead of 343 better qualified applicants, and despite her having failed the MBBS admissions test! Strings do get pulled in the loftiest climes of Academe, and in this particular matter, the misdemeanour went before the Crimes and Misconduct Commission. I know of other instances, not quite as blatant, where senior academics have sought to exert influence on the process, making special pleading cases to their university’s admissions office on behalf of their unqualified relatives.

Australian universities are able to give offers to applicants in this way without the need for the applicant to demonstrate that he or she meets the required academic standard. These are called ‘forced offers’ and although intended to be used only for exceptional circumstances, are quite discretionary in their application. Twenty years ago, a leading university in Sydney gained the opprobrium of its competitor institutions when it made a large number of forced offers for nursing to current Year 12 students prior to their HSC results being known. This was a very irregular occurrence indeed, because the concept of forced offers, intrinsically, was designed with non-current Year 12 applicants exclusively in mind. But it does happen, even at the biggest universities.

In addition to the issue of admission irregularities, its interesting that a lot of what goes on in Australian universities behind the doors, in their allocations of monies and their practices, manages largely to avoid in-depth public scrutiny. Media outlets in this age of intense demand for university entry are known to assign specialist reporters to cover higher education (Abel Contractor was one such reporter employed by the Sydney Morning Herald in this specialist role several years ago). Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, a lot of what goes on within Australian universities flies under the radar. The media usually gets no further than to scratch at the surface.

Many of the dubious practices that occur, and I’m talking about mismanagement and misallocation of revenues as much as out-and-out corruption and nepotism, remain in-house and thus out of the gaze of the media. Occasionally, the news outlets will run stories about the ultra-generous perks of office enjoyed by VCs, things like the UNSW Vice Chancellor having the use of a mansion as part of his package, similarly, Sydney University’s lavish entitlements that come with the job of VC, a Macquarie University VC’s special deal to secure an associate professor’s salary for life of part of the termination package, but the story doesn’t usually probe deeper than this. Sometimes, like the Queensland vice chancellor’s appallingly bad judgement in seeking to influence his daughter’s application, the high office-holder goes beyond the Pale and everyone finds out. The registrar of UTS in Sydney in the 1980s was gaoled for embezzling funds from the University, and the key office of university registrar was abolished and not restored for approximately 12 years!

The vice chancellor’s post, as well as being highly lucrative, commands a tremendous amount of power within the university, and considerable influence in the wider tertiary education sector. Sure, theoretically there are checks on that power, not from the chancellor which is by and large a ceremonial leadership role, but from Senate and Council. But a determined VC can bring pressure on these committees or alter their membership to bring about his or her desired outcomes. The inordinate and exceptional power of the vice chancellor is evident in all spheres of university life. Vice chancellors in Australia normally have a discretionary fund, a seemingly bottomless pit of disposable money in a university climate of ever-tightening financial strictures. The VC can choose to use these funds however he or she deems fit.

Years ago, the vice chancellor at a university I used to work for, decided to spend the bulk of that year’s discretionary allowance on the purchase of a rather grand and extremely expensive pipe organ. The organ was imported from England, along with the owner of the organ company who was put up in a 5 star hotel whilst he carefully oversaw its delivery, tuning and setting*. When this was completed, in the middle of first semester enrolments, the VC in a characteristic display of self-indulgence, called a halt to enrolments, took over the enrolment venue for a night, cleared out the enrolment booths and rolled out the red carpet (literally) for 36 selectively invited VIPs…the beneficiares of a very exclusive organ performance. The whole enrolment process put on hold for a elite soirée of privileged mates at taxpayers’ expense – democracy in action university style!

The organ in question was purchased supposedly to be played at graduation ceremonies in the main hall. The problem with this idea soon became clear. To be able to play it in the graduation hall meant knocking out about three rows of seats in a hall that was already too small for the demand placed on it by the demands for graduation seating. As a result, it couldn’t be played during graduations. Eventually, it was carted over to the University Theatre, an interior with unsuitable acoustics. In transit the organ was knocked out of alignment and had to be retuned to get the pitch perfect again. After precious few performances in the theatre, some time later this expensive ‘white elephant’ was returned permanently to its original, dust-gathering location in the hall. Now, I ask you, does that sound like a good investment in and allocation of public funds?

To nepotism, mismanagement and misallocation of funds and resources, can be added corruption. I mentioned the registrar at UTS before who embezzled university finances. At the same university as the hardly used, exorbitantly-priced pipe organ, there was also fertile ground for fraudulent activities. The vice chancellor had her favourites among the various business units and departments of the University. In the aftermath of the fallout experienced by universities due to the ‘Razor Gang’ cuts on tertiary education expenditure, and the resultant need of universities to self-fund, first among the favourites was the International Office. Because international students were a burgeoning area in universities in those days when the A$ was undervalued, and because international students are full-fee payers, it is no surprise that the International Office was so popular with a VC desperately looking for alternate sources of funding. All public universities do this, get the internationals in at all costs, get them through at all costs (this is a whole other story), then replace them with more of the same. On-going income generation.

A grateful VC rewarded the International Office with increased staffing and resources (more than their student workload required), and gave its director tacit acquiescence if not carte blanche  (certainly no scrutiny) for his idiosyncratic approach to managing his unit. Freed of any financial controls or apparent accountability, the director felt no compunction about gifting the juicy contract for the International Office’s extensive array of glossy publications, uncompetitively tendered, to his daughter-in-law’s printing company in Melbourne. In a work environment with deep-seated abuse of office like this, it does not surprise that waste and extravagance was also endemic. One such instance involved professors, dignitaries and directors of exchange programs from overseas tertiary institutions. When they visited the International Office, staff thought nothing about hiring taxis on a routine basis to ferry round the visitors on sight-seeing trips to Newcastle, Wollongong and the Blue Mountains.

Other areas of this university were equally prone to misuse and mismanagement of public funds. In the 1990s the University moved to introduce a new student system, it committed to a particular vendor and followed through to the extent of sinking $6-7 million into the project. Then, the University project team discovered at that advanced stage that what the provider was offering wasn’t compatible with the University’s student administration requirements, and so the University pulled the plug on the project. $6-7 million! And nobody was sacked, nobody was asked to account for this gross business systems blunder. Of course not, because the University Executive had given the project the green light, they were implicated! So, the whole thing was quietly swept under the carpet, and never mentioned again. It beggars belief! But I marvel over what appropriate use this wasted $6-7 million could have gone toward, such as legitimate core university objectives like improving learning outcomes.

That public funds allocated to universities in Australia are misused in the ways outlined above, and that many of those financial misappropriations are not acted on by the university itself or by the higher ed authorities, taints the higher education system. The lack of accountability makes universities appear as if they are ‘sacred cows’ that cannot be reined in. This, and abuses of office by the powerful elements in universities, make the sector cry out for much needed reform.

¤ I have not been concerned about sheer incompetence in this blog piece. Instances of the incompetence of tertiary Ed institutions have become the stuff of legend over the years…such as the time the University of Sydney mailed out the mid-year results to all of its 44,000 students, listing the subjects completed in Semester 1 perfectly…just the one little hitch – the administration had omitted to include any grades on every one of the mailed notices!!! I wonder at how many pairs of eyes this blundering mistake had to pass before USYD unbelievably green-lighted this monumental, embarrassing oversight?


* He was a cheery English chappie by the name of Clive who was so intent on getting the organ just right to please his generous benefactor that he kind of, unknowingly, suggested to me the desirability of putting an end to “all that noise in the hall!” (ie, enrolment preparation), so that he could concentrate on the crucial task at hand, his organ-tuning task! I politely mentioned to him, in the way you placate an aberrant, irrational child, that I understood his concerns…No, more than that, it was a good idea! Clive’s face brightened! (mischievously I couldn’t help baiting him!), but there was just one little catch I explained – once the students found out (that it was Clive who was responsible) it would bring the wrath of approximately 10,000 new and re-enrolling students anxious to sign up for their uni subjects down on to his singular head! The cheerfulness quickly drained out of his countenance.