January 29, 2012

Australians' Day

Our last two Australia Days were blazing hot and sunny, which is what is supposed to happen for this celebration of the proclamation, in 1788, of British sovereignty over the eastern coast of New Holland. It is a day on which many citizenship ceremonies take place across the land. 

The first time, we headed down the Cunningham Highway to Lake Moogerah: it was so hot and I was so new to it, I was wary of walking too far in the sun. Last year, even following so much Big Rain and Great Brisbane Flooding, the weather was glorious, although what made the biggest impression that day was the Leech of Mt Mee (see Australia Day trippers, January 2011).

This Australia Day follows days of incessant rain and localised flooding. My plans for tripping have been thwarted: Springbrook National Park (in order to see Purlingbrook Falls in full spate) has been closed by the Department of the Environment and Resource Management.

My first look out this morning revealed a weak sun struggling to make an impact, encouraging Brisbanites to get out and enjoy it while it lasted.

This is merely a small calm before more storm, however. Queensland is currently under the influence of a 'monsoonal trough' (or 'surface low', as in low pressure), which is crossing most of the state except the Channel Country (southwestern outback). The rainy days we've just had made up the first phase. Now there's a lull until tomorrow or Saturday. Then phase 2 will bring more heavy, near-constant rain. By the middle of next week we'll be in phase 3: the system will move out over the Coral Sea and may morph into a cyclone, but a weak one. 

Yesterday SEQ Water started 'gate releases' from the Wivenhoe Dam 'at a rate of no more than 350 cubic metres per second', the implication being that these are not voluminous releases. They are merely to get the reservoir back to 'full supply level (75%)'. I don't know whether the people of Southeast Queensland are as concerned about such releases as they were a few weeks ago (see Troubled waters, November 2011). I have been watching the Australian Open for two weeks rather than listening to local talkback radio. 

Although the rain kept off until mid-evening, it seemed a fairly low-key Australia Day to me. We were aware of only one boisterous festivity – across the river from us – but for the most part there were few people abroad and not a lot of audible partying. We probably made the most noise in our block, by inviting a couple of new friends who live on the floor above to join us for an Australia Day barbie. We certainly created the most smoke. And smoke is not without fire. We were soon informed of our near neighbours' 'concerns' about the smoke; although they surely must have been able to hear happy noises emanating from the same area rather than cries of alarm. And why didn't they ring our bell to make sure, rather than dobbing us in to management? Perhaps because some Aussies aren't as laid back as they'd like to think or as their reputation would have us believe. 

There wasn't a lot of laidbackness in Canberra either. Prime Minister Julia Gillard was celebrating Australia Day by awarding medals to emergency workers. Opposition leader Tony Abbott was also present. He had earlier upset protesters at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy* in the capital by expressing his view that, although he understood why the Embassy had been set up originally (in 1972), 'a lot has changed since then, and I think it probably is time to move on from that'.  Some Aborigines consider Australia Day to be tantamount to invasion day – and this year is the Embassy's 40th anniversary – so perhaps Abbott's timing wasn't brilliant. About 200 activists surrounded the restaurant where the two leaders were, banging on its glass sides, and the PM had to be bundled into a getaway car by overzealous police. Abbott was accused of inciting racial riots by some activists. 

One thing I did hear on the radio this week was an ABC report about recent research by the University of Western Australia who interviewed Australia Day revellers in Perth last year. Those who attached Australian flags to their cars in a flurry of nationalistic fervour were more likely to express racist views and feel that Australian culture is under threat, researchers found. (We are talking cheap and tacky plastic flags here, of course.) Researchers add that we should by no means conclude that all 'flaggers' are racist. And there has been a reduction in the number of cars flying flags since 2006, which could simply be because fewer businesses are giving them away rather than there being a cultural shift. 

I would hate to think my friend's attempt to get into the spirit of Australia Day might be misconstrued.

January 22, 2012

Summer in the city 3: Deception Bay

Deception Bay is one of my favourite Aussie place names. It's up there with Cape Tribulation, Dead Horse Gap and Anxious Bay. I'd assumed it was one of Captain Cook's, reflecting his sometimes-perilous voyage up Australia's east coast. But no; it was English explorer and surveyor John Oxley who, mistaking the wide Pine River to the south for the Brisbane, named it the Deception River on realising his error. It is assumed that the Bay was named after the River.

Just over 30 kilometres north of Brisbane – turn off the Bruce Highway on to Boundary Road – Deception Bay township is a northern 'suburb' in the Moreton Bay Region. It lies south of Bribie Island and north of the Redcliffe peninsula. Ignore Deception Bay Road's same-old brash ribbon development and turn off left on to Bailey Road (it's easy to miss the 'Deception Bay' sign which is not big enough and on the far side of the junction – rather apposite, I thought). Wend your way up and turn right for the water. You'll hit the Heritage Trail which runs right around the Bay.

The Aussies may not be good at road signs but they do trails well. The railings, information board 'sculptures', pavement art, wooden marker bollards and landscaping are high-quality and pleasing on the eye. We intend to take our bikes back and do the Bay. On this occasion, we just idled about at the northern end, spotting waders such as Pied Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits and puzzling over rocks.

An interesting phenomenon on the beach here are patterns in the sandstone rock that is uncovered at low tide. One suggestion is that the ebb and flow of the tide wear away this soft rock into such shapes, but that doesn't seem a very plausible explanation to me. Some form long thin ridges; some are circular depressions; yet other rocks are pitted with much smaller holes.

The information panel on the 'pictures in the rocks' hints at mysterious unnatural artworks and stories. Whatever their origins, they are rather curious and made great photographic subjects.

The rectangle in the top left of the shot above was cut out of the rock to create a bathing pool at a time when health benefits were believed to derive from bathing in salt water. 'Mrs Bancroft's bath' was made for her by husband Joseph, a prominent citizen of first Brisbane and then Deception Bay in the second half of the 19th century. Dr Bancroft, whose occupations included ship's surgeon, inventor, GP and canned meat manufacturer, suggested the link between mosquitoes and parasitic disease prevalent in the new colonies and did much to alleviate the suffering of early settlers.

Deception Bay's intertidal sand flats provided just as much inspiration as Nudgee Beach had done.

We drove round the Bay, edging the waterfront whenever the road allowed, heading for Scarborough at the top of the Redcliffe peninsula.

Our old friends the Glass House Mountains popped up again.

To the south, and halfway down the peninsula, Redcliffe is quite smart had some interesting 'things' beside the seaside.

Thence to Woody Point. One of our first forays up the Queensland coast in January 2010 brought us here, and its initial charms are still in evidence. The wind almost blew us off the pier (Brisbane CBD in the background, below), and a storm passing to the west was nurturing dramatic sunset potential.

Unfortunately, the chilled glass of white above wasn't mine, since I was driving, which meant I also missed most of a spectacular sunset. My friend stepped into the breech as photographer.

The new southbound bridge across Bramble Bay is impressive, but I was perturbed to find that the road lights have been pelican proofed. Delightful on our first visit were several of these huge birds perched like sentinels above the old bridge, now just for northbound drivers. Infrastructure providers can be such killjoys: they stop you looking over the sides of bridges, too, these days. (Elves and safety.) My friend did, however, spot one rogue pelican who had managed to take up position. Good on him!

This mini-trip was spur-of-the-moment. We didn't leave till 2.30 and were back in time for supper. How pleasant pootling about on Moreton Bay can be. And so close to home.

January 15, 2012

Jetstar. No stars. Nuls points

A litany of incompetence.

On 7 July 2011 I received confirmation of my booking and my itinerary for two Jetstar flights to Christchurch on 23 December, returning on the 29th. These flights cost me $1,227.86. This broke down as follows: Fare $860.16; TravelCharge $161.70; Bag Fees $112; Departure Tax $94. (TravelCharge?)

Jetstar's logo includes the words 'All day, every day, low fares'. $1,227.86, low? No, it didn't feel like it, compared with what we'd have to pay in Europe to travel from London to, say, the Canary Islands*.

On 20 October I received an email (twice within 12 minutes) with the subject 'Action Required: Changes to your Jetstar Itinerary'. It said:

Jetstar is sorry to inform you that since you made your booking, your flight schedule has been changed. We understand it can be frustrating when plans change, and we apologise for any inconvenience caused. While we try to avoid any changes to our timetable, in this instance it was unavoidable. The change to the schedule has been made so we can maximise our aircraft utilisation and continue to offer you everyday low fares.
Below the details of my new flights was an orange button. 'View and accept', it said. But the proposed changes to my itinerary were wholly unacceptable. Whereas previously I'd been arriving in Christchurch at 2.15 pm, giving me ample time to pick up a hire car and drive for approximately two and a half hours to where were staying, in Kaikoura, in time for dinner, the new flight had me arriving at five minutes past midnight. Not only would I incur an out-of-hours charge to pick up the car, I would arrive at our hotel at something like 3.30 am, assuming we would be able to get in at that hour, having safely negotiated unfamiliar wiggly mountain roads in the dark.

On the return, instead of leaving Christchurch at 3 in the afternoon and getting back to Brisbane at tea time, I would have to leave Kaikoura at 2.30 am for a 6.35 am flight. Oh, and travel via Sydney, where I would have almost three hours to kill before my flight to Brisbane.

I was, in effect, losing two days of my holiday, travelling at antisocial hours, incurring extra costs, and the rerouting via Sydney was increasing the return journey by four and a half hours. Acceptable? Hardly.

I was therefore supposed to get in touch with Jetstar's Contact Centre to arrange 'other available alternatives'.

My friend rang 131 538 from Brisbane and hung on for 35 minutes: no response. I was in the UK so I Skyped them, one of the contact methods suggested: no one picked up before it timed out. I tried three more times an hour later but the Skype link wouldn't even connect.

What were my chances now, at the end of October, of finding Christmas flights with another airline? Pretty slim, I reckoned. I did try, and it was possible, but at vastly more expense, via Sydney and Wellington.

On 22 October, now the weekend, my friend Skyped Jetstar but it timed him out before the call was answered. He hung on a phone call for 30 minutes but to no avail. So he went to Brisbane Airport. First to the International Terminal, since this was about a flight to New Zealand, but there was no Jetstar service desk; thence to the Domestic Terminal.

He suggested they change our unacceptable return flight to a direct afternoon return flight the following day, the 30th. This was possible but Jetstar wanted several hundred dollars. My friend succeeded in convincing them that this charge was unwise, under the circumstances. We had to bite the bullet about the outgoing midnight arrival time, however. Later that day I received a revised itinerary, rather confusingly with the original booking date on it (6 July). My friend managed to extend our accommodation booking until the 30th.

Three and a half hours later I received the original 'Action Required' email again. And three more hours later, the revised itinerary again.

On 29 October I received the 'Action Required' email again, this time asking me to click to accept the change to the return flight that my friend had requested, resisted paying for, and that had already been confirmed in a revised itinerary.

On 8 November I received the revised itinerary again. (Are you keeping up?)

On 11 November I received the dreaded 'Action Required' email once again. I held my breath as I read...

Since you made your booking, we have changed our flight schedule. Please be advised that your flight details have changed. We understand it can be frustrating when plans change, and we apologise for any inconvenience caused. While we try to avoid any changes to our timetable, in this instance it was unavoidable. Please review your flight details below.
The wording was different but the (revised) flight details remained the same.

On 18 November yet another itinerary arrived.

On 7, 8 and 22 December I received the same email, providing last-minute instructions about baggage limits and arrival times at the airport. My friend checked us in online on the 22nd but couldn't get seats together and the only ones still available – merely a couple of hours after online check-in opened – were middle-of-row. Great: a three-and-a-half-hour flight, not sitting together and squashed in the middle of unknowns.

23 December. I had just returned from Merthyr Village, having bought sandwiches for the journey and Aussie dollars, when I turned on the radio, at about 12.30, to learn that Christchurch had experienced two serious aftershocks** during the morning. There was still very little information available, but soon we were able to track developments on Christchurch Airport's website. It was closed while terminals and runways were being checked by engineers. No casualties or serious damage had been reported in the city.

I immediately called the only telephone number that exists for Jetstar and got through to a call centre somewhere well west of Australia. They were unaware of earthquakes in Christchurch, but assured me that if there were any changes to our flight I would be informed by text, phone or email. Brisbane Airport still had our flight listed as departing.

My friend got home from work at 1.30. Our taxi to the airport was booked for 3.30. Christchurch Airport website was soon predicting a reopening at about 2.30 EDT (Eastern Daylight Time, ie Queensland time). This gave us hope.

An hour before taxi time, there had still been no text, call or email from Jetstar. I rang again. I got a call centre in Manila. In the early stages of the call, my friend noticed that Jetstar's website had our flight cancelled but that one from Sydney to Christchurch was still running. Christchurch Airport was open by now. They didn't know about the cancellation yet in Manila. My blood pressure was rising.

When Manila saw the cancellation status, they tried to explain it was for safety reasons. If so, why was the Sydney flight still going? My friend had checked reservations and there were seats available on that flight (the logistics were just about possible). I asked to book two. They said yes, but we would have to pay, and they couldn't get us from Brisbane to Sydney. Oh, we'll hop in the car, then: just the 1,126 km (14 hours).

What can you realistically offer me, I asked. Flights to Christchurch on Boxing Day. So, arriving in the early hours of the 27th and leaving on the 30th? I don't think so. And will you reimburse me for my lost accommodation costs. The man in Manila couldn't say. I'd have to talk to customer services. (I thought I was doing that.)

My longed-for trip to New Zealand was in serious jeopardy.

Towards the end of this increasingly stressful and seemingly fruitless dialogue, the man in Manila noticed on his system that an additional Christchurch flight had been scheduled for the 24th. He put us on it and checked us in – wey hey, sitting together – and gave us a reference number and promised to send me a revised itinerary. I asked him, finally, if he would move our Christchurch-Brisbane flights to the 31st, thus giving us back our lost day. He could only do that if he charged us an additional $700+. He implied that a decision about compensating messed-about passengers in such a way was still pending and that I should call back later.

The itinerary was in my inbox by the time I checked. But my trust in Jetstar was in tatters by now.

What about all those people off my original flight who didn't have the stamina to research the alternatives, chip away at call-centre fob-offs and fight for their rights?

It was not even 5 pm and I was drained. That evening, with everything packed and nothing in the fridge, we ate our sandwiches. And drank.

You must be hoping this tale of woe is over, but...

24 December. My first thought on waking was, had there been any more earth tremors in Christchurch. There were no reports. I rang Jetstar as soon as I had checked Brisbane Airport Departures and seen there were two flights leaving for Christchurch with ten minutes of each other in the late afternoon. That didn't seem right to me.

This time, a lady in Manila assured me that the flight details were correct and I was on one of them. But no, she couldn't put me on a return flight on the 31st as compensation. I would have to call back. And no, she couldn't register a complaint about my experiences; I could only do that online.

So I did it online; after which the morning dragged unimaginably. I tried not to think about what I might have been doing in Kaikoura.

The taxi was ten minutes late. It had obviously been in a drive-through hamburger stand: the driver was large and stuffing his face and the cab smelled of fast-food grease. He told us he was a psychic. He didn't foresee the next problem, however.

Our itinerary said departure was from the Domestic Terminal. I know, I know. New Zealand isn't part of Australia. We thought this was odd but we did as we were bade. A Jetstar person looked at us as if we were stupid and told us the obvious. At this point I was close to losing it, but I saved that moment until we were at the service desk and the woman, who had heard our exclamation of frustration on learning we'd been directed to the wrong terminal and who already had her officious hackles up, proceeded to talk over me as I asked if there was any limit to Jetstar's incompetence. Two men stepped up to stand at her shoulders. Did they think I was going to hit her? She quickly dished out a voucher for a free drink each during the flight and a claim form for the cost of our bus trip between terminals. (We still haven't been reimbursed.)

Then I asked for our return flights to be rescheduled. I added that I knew there was seats available (one of my friends in Manila had checked for me) and warned her not to ask me for any additional monies, either for the flights or making the change. She said nothing in reply but made a call to someone on high and spoke in code. It was a short conversation: then she tapped at her keyboard and produced yet another piece of paper, this time detailing flights on the 31st, direct to Brisbane, and in the afternoon. Just like that. No battle. No screaming. No tearing of hair. She couldn't have taken the wind out of my sails more if she'd handed me a large stash of Aussie dollars.

I trusted her even less than the man in Manila, however. I wouldn't be happy until we were in the air, winging our way o'er the Tasman Sea. And the story is still not finished.

There was a Kiwi sitting next to us who had a tattoo on his forearm commemorating the 29 who died in the 2010 Pike River mining disaster. He was unsmiling. He asked to hire an iPad for $10 – which the crew were taking an age to offer passengers before any form of sustenance. They refused him on account of his lack of ID. He had a passport, of course, and offered that. He wouldn't have been on the plane unless he'd had that most valuable and authentic form of ID. But it was the wrong ID for Jetstar. They wanted a driving license. Goodness knows what they would have said had we offered our UK driving licenses (we are not required to have Queensland licenses to drive here). We didn't go there.

We thought we might as well use our drinks voucher when the 'Kiosk' (aka the drinks trolley) finally appeared. My friend handed over our voucher.
'Two glasses of white wine, please,' he said, politely.
'The voucher doesn't include alcoholic drinks, I'm afraid', said the flight attendant.
'It doesn't say that on the voucher. Is this the Kiosk?
'It says "two complimentary drinks from the Kiosk". It doesn't say "non-alcoholic drinks". Two glasses of white wine, please,' my friend persisted, firmly but calmly.
'Rules are rules,' joined in the other flight attendant on the Kiosk.
'The voucher doesn't specify non-alcoholic drinks. Two glasses of white wine, please.'
'A beer, sir?' said the second attendant.
'Two glasses of white wine, please', my friend repeated.

We were on our way to Christchurch. One huge amount of stress and inconvenience: three small victories for the consumer. It was the most satisfying glass of wine I'd had in a while.

Postscript 3 January 2012 I received a $50 Jetstar voucher by email. I assume it was in response to my initial online complaint of 24 December, but there was no note of explanation or apology. It's of no use to me since I do not intend to fly with Jetstar again. And I have barely scratched the surface of my programme of complaint and publicization.

* I have compared the cost of two Jetstar fares from Brisbane to Christchurch 18-25 February 2012, AUD 707.76 (£467.30), with same-date fares with Air New Zealand, AUD 782.24 (£516.67), and with EasyJet fares from London to Gran Canaria (same flight duration), AUD 574.35 (£376.13)

** For recent earthquake history of Christchurch, see Happy New Zealand, January 2012

This post was last updated on 22 January 2012