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On the 17th February 2020 Wendy and I set sail on Queen Elizabeth on a two week cruise up to Papua New Guinea, returning to Sydney on 2nd March. 


The Trip



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After a stop in Brisbane on the way the ship headed north to Rabaul, returning by:
Kiriwina Island; Milne Bay (Alotau); the Conflict Islands; and Cairns in far north Queensland
Sydney to Rabaul is around four thousand kilometres





The cruise up to Brisbane (about eight hundred kilometres) gave us an opportunity to find our way around the ship and to sample its various pastimes. The ship made it's way along the Brisbane to the Brisbane Cruise Terminal. It was some time since either of us had been in Brisbane so we went into town to see what's changed and to do a little shopping. We needed more wine for our cabin and I needed something that would float for the boat building competition on board (maybe empty wine bottles?); as well as some tools like: box cutters; string; and duct tape. See our final design later on.


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above: Heading down the Brisbane River at a crawl - but no tugs
below: Brisbane CBD.


We found some previously unseen buildings in the CBD and new construction under way along the river.  The Art Gallery, now close to the river, was also new to me.


Queensland Art Gallery

The Queensland Gallery has a fine collection of works by iconic 19th and early 20th Century Australian artists (Lambert, Bunny etc) that complement those in the Melbourne Sydney and Adelaide collections. There are also a few well known British; French; other European; and American artists represented. Overall it's a very nice collection but no other Australian State can compete with the Victorian collection.


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The Queensland Gallery





On the way up, through the Coral Sea, we had an unexpected diversion back into Australian coastal waters for two medical evacuations. Someone had suffered a serious heart attack and another had slipped in the shower and broken his hip - or so his wife explained to us later.

She was unable to accompany him and was obliged to complete the cruise alone - with two pre-purchased liquor allowances: quel dommage.


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Two helicopter medical evacuations to Mackay - one heart attack and one fall in the bathroom - broken hip.


The helicopters don't land - the patient is sedated; strapped to a stretcher; and hoisted up - a bit like an Assumption (Protestants may need to Google this procedure).


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En route again - passing through the Lousuade Archipelago on the way.


Once the extractions were over we were well off course and several hours behind schedule - so we took off at 23 knots towards Rabaul - passing through the Lousuade Archipelago on the way.


Rabaul Papua New Guinea


Before reaching Rabaul everyone on board had to have their temperature taken to check for viruses - none was found. But then, perhaps some were asymptomatic.


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At the dockside in Rabaul


Those who had booked tours, like us, were told to go to the theatre and wait; and wait; and wait. After a while it was clear that this would run through lunch so I went up to the Lido (self-serve restaurant on deck 9) and hurriedly made sandwiches rushing back in case our group had been called. Back in the theatre we ate them then waited some more. Finally the announcement came.  We couldn't go ashore after all.

Two people had been medivaced from our ship - perhaps we have Covid-19.  We all scoffed at their excessive caution and felt sorry for the locals.


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A day in Rabaul.


All the locals in their vans and taxis and with goods for sale were sent away from this dangerous incubus (or is it incubator) in their midst. And a couple of people were meeting friends here - bad luck.

And we didn't get to see the Japanese tunnels.  Wendy's dad had fought the Japanese in New Britain during World War 2 (see here) so this had been one of the factors in deciding to take this cruise.

Nor did we get to walk across the volcanic ash (that half buried the town in 1994 and again in 2014). But then it wasn't long ago that we did this on the Big Island in Hawaii (see here). So perhaps we can just imagine we did that.

Like Santorini, the bay upon which the town sits is the flooded caldera of a large volcano and a number of the surrounding hills are volcanic vents that from time to time erupt.  But unlike Hawaii it's all quiet on the western front at the moment.


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Rabaul Caldera - top right is the site of the latest eruption


After most of a day was gone, with no alternative to disporting ourselves onboard, we left at a leisurely 16 knots.


Kiriwina Island

Fortunately by the time we reached Kiriwina we were cleared to land in PNG - the Kiriwina people no doubt benefiting from money not spent in Rabaul. Not a lot of us had Kina, as many passengers had expected to change currency in Rabaul. So lots of locals wanted to exchange currency.

The western shore, near the main town, Losuia, is too shallow for a cruise ship to safely navigate so this landing, near a small village at the northern tip, is the setting for staged tourist entertainment and sales.  I was reminded that even in Sydney tourists are introduced to Aboriginal Australia with professional entertainers providing didgeridoo performances.  This would not be the last time we would see 'traditional' dancing on this trip.


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Dancing for the tourists


Interestingly, to me at least, Queen Elizabeth does not drop anchor. She holds station precisely using global positioning and her electric motors. The two stern Azipods can be turned in any direction and combined with the bow thrusters she sits perfectly still, without turning or drifting to the tide; currents; or the wind. The only concession to a high wind is a slight heel (tilt) to port or starboard.


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The ship didn't swing to the tide and had no moorings or anchors

In the afternoon Wendy and I had a practice snorkel and enjoyed it. The coral was dead and white crumble off the beach but there were some colourful fish.




Alotau on the mainland, less than 400 kilometres from the capital, Port Moresby, it's quite a civilised place, with conventional supermarkets (where we bought Australian wine); some nice houses and a good deal of traffic.


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The local adults seem a little put out by all the rather large, by comparison, white people flooding off a bigger than usual cruise ship but the children were treating it as a holiday and some wanted to chat. Their English is excellent - they learn it at school in place of or in addition to Tok Pisin (pidgin) the official lingua franca. Papua New Guinea has some 830 living languages plus English and Tok Pisin.

Two boys attached themselves to me. They each had a different home/family (One Tok) language but couldn't tell me what either is called in English.

This more traditional market, on the walk into town, was almost exclusively for betel nut.


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Betel nut sellers


Many people here, as in PNG in general, use betel nut. Betel nut is an addictive stimulant drug that is said to increase stamina and alertness and induce a sense of well-being and euphoria. It also increases salivation, resulting in regular spitting of the red juice that stains the users' mouths and rots their teeth. Users take it with lime (calcium hydroxide) that is sold in bags by the vendors; mustard sticks (daka); and sometimes chewing tobacco.

Alotau is on Milne Bay, made famous by World War 2.


The battle of Milne Bay


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The Milne Bay War Memorial


The battle of Milne Bay is remembered as the first defeat of the Japanese on land during the Pacific War.


In May 1942 a Japanese force was landed up the coast to take the strategic allied air base near here. The highly skilled and battle hardened Japanese, who had recently taken Singapore against insufficiently trained and inexperienced British and Australian troops, were initially successful. It was a fine demonstration that if you have an army it needs to have battle experience - a sword grows rusty in the scabbard.  The 'Peter Principle' (people are promoted until they are found to be incompetent and then there they sit) gets to work, particularly amongst the officers.

But this time, the now more experienced Australian defenders, with some US participation, retained air superiority and were better prepared. Although reinforced, the Japanese lost almost a third of their troops and were forced to withdraw. It was the beginning of the end for them.


The school

We had booked a ship sponsored bus tour that, later in the day, showed us around the town and to a school.

As I previously mentioned, the children meeting the boat were multilingual and apparently literate. So education at least to primary level appears to be good.



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Kwoto Mission School
The dancers were there because we were
There was also a performance by the school choir - introduced by senior students
not unlike a Primary School in Australia


At the Mission School there was the ubiquitous dance group. In addition there were speeches and singing by the school children - at least the ones not playing truant.

I was struck by how self effacing (perhaps timid around Europeans) these kids were compared to Australian kids the same age.


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The bus took us up to this lookout where guides gave a commentary
and some local people dressed up for us tourists - working for tips
I felt sorry for this guy - his heart wasn't in it but the kid was charming


Back down the hill we were dropped off at a larger food (growers) market - more food that the previous one - but again lots of betel nut and bags of lime to go with it


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The growers market
as mentioned earlier there are also several conventional (unremarkable) supermarkets in town



Off to sea again


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All at sea again



The Conflict Islands

The Conflict Islands are small archipelago, privately owned by Ian Gowrie-Smith who, according to a 'puff piece' online: 'made his multibillion-dollar fortune developing pharmaceutical and mining companies'.

'Conflict' comes from the name of the ship that first mapped them in 1886 - not from a war. There are 17 islands in the group - most very small. Thus they were uninhabited when Ian acquired them.  But they were regularly visited by native peoples hunting turtles some of whom may have camped there. The ship called at Panasesa Island the third largest in the group, that has the advantage of being flat and low, enabling the construction of an airstrip.

Ian Gowrie-Smith and his partner were onboard with us and he gave several talks about his efforts to save the green turtles, that are threatened by excessive human predation due to population increase in the region.

There is an Adopt a Turtle programme to raise money and young people can volunteer to provide local labour. Ian has set up Panasesa as an 'eco-resort' with about 30 full time staff and volunteers living here. He says although he bought the islands on a whim he visits for several months a year. Yet notably he and his partner stayed on board the Queen Elizabeth and sailed with us, at least to Cairns, where they were trapped on the Skyrail with us.

Ian later explained that the dancers and singers who greeted us are not local - they are hired entertainers shipped in to amuse cruise ship passengers. "Did we like them?" he asked as if checking to see if they were value for money.  I was the wrong person to ask.  By now I was 'over' apparently extemporaneous performances to amuse us tourists.


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Panasesa Island


The small village boasts all mod cons. Running water, thanks to desalination and rain, electricity thanks to solar panels and two large diesels plus a smaller one, servicing the bar at the southern tip. The electricity enables air conditioning; a very big cold room/ refrigerator; and Internet.

The Internet enables the resort to be largely cashless, except to local coupons, and this discourages pirates.

There is also a sewerage system but I didn't discover the details - presumably a large septic tank. The only vehicle I saw was a good sized tractor/front-end-loader but they do have tree felling and sawing equipment considerably larger than a chainsaw.

Ian told us that the tall trees are being grown with the intent of extending the sea-wall, as the highest point on the island is only 18 metres above sea level and cyclones are not uncommon.


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Off-grid living


Also to amuse tourists there is a glass-bottom-boat to look at the coral. It seemed to be packed to the gunnels and some who went on it later expressed disappointment.

Instead Wendy and I went snorkelling, off a pontoon on the outer reef, where the coral is alive and vibrant, with reds and blues, and the fish, some quite large, others colourful, are abundant. No doubt these help to feed the permanent inhabitants.

It's close to what an imagined island paradise might resemble.

Yet considering their isolated situation it brought to mind the late 1960's TV series: 'The Prisoner' in which Patrick McGoohan plays a secret agent, John Drake - Number Six, who is abducted and taken to what seems to be an idyllic village, filmed at Portmeirion in Wales. In the series the town is actually a prison, from which Number Six continuously but unsuccessfully attempts to escape - presaging 'The Truman Show'. 

I decided the permanent residents probably need the turtle work and the visiting ships to remain sane and conflict free - and maybe to escape?

After a pleasant day we returned to the ship.



After a brief reconnoitre of the city it seemed to be quite familiar - perhaps after travelling.  There's something somehow familiar to Australian towns and cities - probably the people.


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Cairns - it feels very Australian

After a coffee and a drink we decided to visit Kuranda by the Skyrail. Wendy had been to Kuranda before but not by Skyrail. An adventure.


Kuranda Skyrail

At 7.5-kilometre (4.7 mi) the Kuranda Skyrail was the longest gondola cableway in the world when it was completed in 1995. It's like a very long ski lift except the towers are extremely high, like television towers so that the gondolas are well over the forest canopy. The ground, when it can be seen at all, is about ten storeys below. I imagine it's not a good choice for someone uncomfortable with heights.


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Kuranda Skyrail


The tropical rainforest below is among the oldest in the world, significantly older than the Amazonian forest - well that's Australia for you.

Once reached, Kuranda is a pretty village almost entirely given over to tourism. I bought a kangaroo leather bush hat - identical to the one that's been several times around the world and is now getting a bit shabby (see elsewhere on this website).


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Wendy previously visited by train. These days one can take the Skyrail one way and the conventional train the other but we didn't think we had the time - or did we?

Back on the Skyrail we got off at the last stop to have a closer look at the falls. Big mistake - or was it?


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Kuranda Falls - not Niagara but apparently better than during the drought - more than a trickle.


The last leg on the cable car is the highest and a thunderstorm was on its way. Just as we approached an empty car everything was shut down.

We had booked it ourselves to be back on board to sail at 3.30 - surely they wouldn't go without us? Yes they will we were told: "They take your bags off and leave them on the dock". Thankfully there were people on ship-sponsored tours trapped along with us. Phew!

In the end it would have been OK - the ship was experiencing never identified problems leaving Cairns - was it the tide or motor bearings - or software? No one would say.


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Technical difficulties?


Tugs hovered around us for three hours - then suddenly we were off - and soon up to top speed, 22.4 knots, to catch up.



Whitsunday Islands


There are 74 Whitsunday Islands between coast of Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef most are uninhabited. After a while I stopped counting.

Unlike our trip north the trip south from Cairns was well within Australian Territorial Waters - no Casino. No worries!


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Racing down the coast - through the Whitsundays



The Queen Elizabeth

MS Queen Elizabeth is the newest in the Cunard fleet, she was built in Italy between 2007 and 2010 and sailed to Southampton where she was named by Queen Elizabeth II on 11th October 2010. She replaces the now retired RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 in the Cunard Fleet.  The fleet now comprises just three ships: Queen Elizabeth; MS Queen Victoria; and the older and larger RMS Queen Mary 2.  Like P&O and eight other cruise lines internationally, Cunard is a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation & plc, a public company dual-listed on both the New York and London stock exchanges.


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MS Queen Elizabeth from the Mosman Ferry


Some vital statistics:

MS Queen Elizabeth is a cruise ship of the Vista class.
Launched‎: ‎5 January 2010
Capacity‎: ‎2,068 passengers and 996 crew
Tonnage‎: ‎90,901 GT
Length: 294 m (964 ft 7 in)
Beam: 32.3 m (106 ft 0 in)
Draught: 8 m (26 ft 3 in)
16 total 12 accessible to passengers
Two ABB Azipods (2 × 17.6 MW)
Three ABB bow thrusters (3 × 2,200 kW)
Installed power:
4 × MaK 12VM43C plus 2 × MaK 8M43C
64,000 kW (86,000 hp) (combined)
Speed: 23.7 knots (43.9 km/h; 27.3 mph)



The opportunity came up for this short cruising experience on-line and as a number of our friends seem to like cruising we decided to give it a go.  The basic fare provided a sea-view cabin, without a balcony, on deck 1.  So as Wendy's Christmas present from me, a bit self-serving, I  upgraded us to a 'stateroom' on deck 4 with a balcony.  It turned out to be a good investment as we used the balcony quite a lot and it added to the perception of space in the cabin, that although not the largest on the ship was amply large; enough for an oversized bed a sitting area and a desk and chair.  The cupboards and draws and under bed spaces were more than adequate for our luggage and its contents: three large bags and one small. There are larger suites on board but people we met who had paid the premium at some stage had gone back to one similar to ours saying that they 'rattled about' in the larger space. 

On this cruise almost everyone was over sixty and some into their eighties. There is a children's play room, and there are activities to keep the little darlings amused but hardly a child in sight. An older crowd has the advantage that, although the nominal passenger capacity is 2,068, many single older people prefer not to share a cabin. This brings the passenger numbers down so it's seldom crowded anywhere, although it can be hard to get two seats together for the first show of the evening if you turn up at 8:00 pm as the show begins.   

Cunard made it quite clear that on several occasions we would be required to dress for dinner if we wanted to use the Dining Room on some nights - which of course we did. For those who don't like this formality there are several other places to eat less formally, including in the English style Pub; on deck; or even in your cabin; but the main and largest alternative place is the 'Lido', that's a large serve-yourself cafeteria-style hall on deck nine of the ship, at which passengers compete for one of the prized seats near a window, then eat as much as they like as quickly as they like. The facilities at the top of the ship also provided a much needed opportunity for exercise up and down the stairs. There are also three banks of lifts for those who are stair-adverse.


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These was but a couple of Wendy's outfits
We enjoyed dressing up for dinner but it did add to our luggage -
in my case a dinner jacket, shirt, various accoutrements and another pair of heavy shoes.


In the evening we were seated in the dining room at a regular table, except when we went to the later sitting.  All meals here are restaurant quality, delivered by trained wait staff. These are typically three courses. Those at lunch and dinner boast top chefs and fine-dining standards. Breakfast is breakfast - hard to do fine-dining. Meals in the dining room extend over at least an hour. In the evening the sittings are two hours apart so even at the early sitting one can linger over coffee or tea and cheeses, with wine charged to your account. There is a very extensive wine list, catering for different tastes and budgets and Wendy and I invariably shared a bottle of wine over dinner.  Others at our table generally did the same, the sommelier will hold unfinished wine for the following meal so couples can choose different wines.

We noticed that some passengers elect to be seated alone but we preferred a larger table as our fellow passengers were invariably interesting, sometimes strangely so. We soon discovered that almost everyone we met had extensive cruising experience.  Cruises don't come cheap so most of these frequent travellers were comfortably well off yet, aside from some signature clothes and jewellery, nobody was flaunting their wealth. As this was largely in Australian waters the majority were Australian although there were also British, Americans and other nationalities. Surprisingly, to me, we met several from regional towns in Australia who owned or had owned rural properties or related businesses. 

Conversations usually started around their cruising experiences because Wendy and I are new to cruising, unless you count river cruises on the Nile and the Volga and as ship-jet passages to England in the early 1970's, that were quite different experiences. Most liked the Cunard ships the best, some preferring Queen Victoria (smaller) or QM2 (larger) although Viking was also mentioned.

After nearly two decades we're now quite well travelled, PNG will be the 62nd county we've travelled to together not counting countries like Canada and Iran that we've been to separately, yet several of these travellers had been on as many cruises, encompassing hundreds of ports.  Although some had flown from England to go on this cruise and others from Australia to Europe to cruise the Baltic, several explained that they don't like flying; or all that dragging bags around and constantly packing and unpacking in different hotels.

On the other hand, at the destinations we'd visited in common, like St Petersburg and Copenhagen, they'd had virtually no local experience, beyond a tightly managed shore excursion or two, whereas we'd had several days at each location and numerous local experiences and interactions. As we noticed on the big island in Hawaii, the cruise passengers arriving at the terminal across the bay from our hotel, were there and gone the same day and could hardly have been said to have been there at all.

We soon discovered why many passengers have a preference for sea-days and may not go ashore at all when in port.  On sea-days the ship settles into a pleasant relaxing routine. Three good meals, usually with interesting company, are interspersed with a choice of relaxation or exercise. There is live music to suit all tastes all day and often opportunities for dancing. In the theatre each day there are talks about an approaching destination; or other topics, like astronomy or bushcraft; a movie; and a fresh live theatrical/musical event, that's repeated in a late performance at 10pm. One can go for a swim or Jacuzzi, go to the Gym, or read or chat on the balcony; in the library or in one of several lounges and bars. There is also a small Casino for those that need a gambling hit. Meanwhile your cabin has been tidied the bed made and the bathroom refurbished with fresh, fluffy towels. Even your PJ's have been hidden until the bed is turned down at night and they magically reappear neatly folded, with chocolates on the pillows.  Soon to be rocked very gently to sleep. 


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Lotus land afloat - the ship as it was when we arrived - we soon made our cabin more homely
She is never very crowded and always polite, quiet and well mannered
a point of difference we understand, form some other cruise ships



Throughout the ship there is live music, ranging from piano players to a string trio, playing mostly classical, like Bach's 'Air on the G String' (otherwise known as the strippers' lament), through jazz to popular and dance music in the Queen's Room (dance floor) below. In the bar above there is a jazz singer and/or small jazz group each night.

In the section above on Rabaul you can see the theatre where there was a different theatrical performance (repeated as a late show) each night and a movie during the day; interspersed with lectures and talks on things like bushcraft and astronomy.

Afternoon tea - each day at sea - scones; jam and clotted cream - in addition to cucumber and other sandwiches. Shades of: 'The Importance of Being Earnest'.

We also took up trivia and Wendy and I generally did quite well on our own - only losing by the tiebreaker on one occasion (how long is the ship? - it's not 400m Richard!)

On the very last occasion we paired up with a couple of knowledgeable women and actually won (a Cunard glasses case each).


The Boat Competition

Earlier in the trip I had joined a team in the 'build your own boat' competition.  Now it was time for the float-off.

The challenge was to build a boat not longer than 3 feet or higher than 2 that would survive a tsunami in the larger pool (a crew member 'bombing' nearby); carry six cans of drink for more than a minute without sinking; and sail the length of the pool, being 'whooshed' along if necessary by a team member, but not touched.

Bob Mason was elected captain and immediately began designing a part raft, part outrigger, rigged with sails resembling those on the local boats. Doug Truscott joined the team. We wanted bamboo but a local guy on Kiriwina suggested 'raintree'. Bob got him to cut around 15 linear metres, mostly of 3cm diameter sticks, with his bush knife (machete).

Two rafts would sit atop the two swimming pool 'noodles' I'd purchased in Brisbane that I estimated had sufficient displacement to carry six cans, together with Bob's superstructure. I'd already cut these in half and bound the four bits in pairs with duct tape - later removed - as twine was more aesthetic.

On Kiriwina we also purchased a couple of locally carved figures as crew for our vessel. My locally purchased figure would be the helmsman.


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The helmsman - incompetent as it turned out
when not steering he was praying - it seldom works


Bob, our major enthusiast, also purchased a lifeboat. Doug had acquired some smaller crew in Brisbane.


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Our entry in the boat building competition


The sails were involuntarily provided by Cunard.

Ours, when finally tested, as it had never been in water, was by far the most seaworthy - and the fastest. It actually sailed away with no encouragement.

Our wives were roped in as a cheer squad (a bit sexist but boys will be boys). Wendy was cameraperson.


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My she was yar!



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The other three teams also built boats that passed all the tests.  Apparently that's unusual - some usually sink after being loaded or bombed - much to the delight of the audience.


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Two of our competitors - the one on the left about to be 'bombed' by the guy in the air


Unfortunately on the final race, our boat, well ahead to that point, crashed into the pool ladder near the finish line and the rules precluded Bob pulling it free. He was in the water ready to 'woosh' but our boat sailed off so quickly that he couldn't get there to woosh it away in time.

So we lost by a single point. The final race was worth seven and a half points. We never found out what happened to the half.

But most agreed that we had won 'hands down' so we had to have a couple of drinks to celebrate.



Returning Home


When our cruise returned to Sydney on the 2nd March there was no Covid-19 check. The alarm had not yet sounded.

Thanks to our chats with the old hands over various meals we were becoming more cruise savvy. So to avoid another tiresome queue we carried our bags off ourselves and went straight to the Mosman ferry - which was conveniently waiting, as if for us to arrive.

My car had been parked, at my usual place nearby, for a fortnight. Unfortunately it was under a tree and the birds had been unkind. Quite a lot of cleaning was required! Yet it was good exercise - and I had the time - as the washing machine indoors and the sunshine without - refreshed our big pile of well travelled clothes.

Now where was that waiter with my afternoon tea?


Yet little did we know that just six days after we returned another cruise ship, the Ruby Princess, would set sail from the same terminal in Sydney for New Zealand. on an 11-day cruise to New Zealand.

As could just as easily have happened to us, someone infected with Covid-19 had boarded the ship in Sydney, either on the 8th March or on the previous cruise that left in February. The Ruby Princess evidently provided a more crowded and boisterous cruising environment than the Queen Elizabeth.

By the time she returned to Sydney on the 19th of March at least 100 passengers had become infected.  Due to a miscommunication between authorities passengers were allowed to disembark, some to interstate and international destinations, with nothing more than a vague recommendation to self-isolate.

In the weeks that followed, the Ruby Princess would become infamous as the sauce of Australia's first large coronavirus outbreak. Around 666 people (the devil's number) would test positive and 28 people would die.

This death toll was soon put into the shade by Melbourne's hotel quarantine debacle, that would kill 768 people. A hard lock-down in Melbourne, lasting almost four months, would be necessary to refine the Victorian strategy and eliminate further community transmission.

By year end, over two million people worldwide had been killed by the virus; and despite the development of several vaccines and their emergency approval, the death toll remained substantially unabated as we began 2021.

So it turned out that the local administration in Rabaul had been well advised. Papua New Guinea remained largely unaffected throughout 2020. Unfortunately this quarantine did not succeed indefinitely. Papua New Guinea fell victim to the pandemic in 2021, initiating an emergency response in March 2021, assisted by Australia, as cases escalated.






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