26th November 1999
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Funny Business

Big noise and little monsters

By Royston Ellis
I have seen many gibbering idiots in my time but the prize of top banana goes to the man I saw last month in the business class lounge at Singapore Airport, talking loudly to himself. He was sitting with an attractive blonde, who was probably not his wife. She hardly seemed to be with him at all, as he ignored her completely while he prattled away merrily to himself. 

He had an unfocused look, as though gazing at some distant horizon in his own head. I thought it prudent, since he was swivelling around to face me, to move out of earshot of the man's incessant chattering. Incessant? No, sometimes he lapsed into contemplative silence, nodding his head and occasionally gulping 'Yes' or 'No' to himself. 

From a safe distance, I studied this lunatic (while praying that he would not be going to Colombo on my flight). It was then that I noticed a small plug in his left ear, and a dangling wire under his jacket. The fool was not speaking to himself as I thought, but was taking part in a cellular telephone call. He was using one of those tiny earplugs and miniature microphones developed for car drivers to have hands-free conversations while driving. 

Ever since the telephone was invented, it has taken precedence over face-to-face conversation. Those absent people who call up in the middle of a meeting, or in the middle of the night, are pandered to with dulcet words, while people in the meeting with the called party, or the bed, are totally ignored. The cellular revolution has brought the telephone menace out of the closet or the hallway (where phones were traditionally kept) into the airport lounge, the theatre auditorium, and at tables in discreet restaurants. Some lout who hasn't been invited to a cocktail party can gatecrash it verbally by calling up a guest at the party on his mobile phone. There seems no avoiding the pocket monsters. 

I look back fondly to the days when cellular phones were so bulky it was embarrassing to be seen with one. They would be hidden in brief cases, brought out only for emergencies, not for the piffle shouted into those miniature phones people now carry in their shirt pockets or dangle from key rings. 

Small may be beautiful but people gabbling into small cell phones are not a pretty sight. They are as disturbing as the phones themselves, which warble at inappropriate moments and destroy whatever peace or creative activity the called party, and those near him/her, are enjoying. 

Somewhere there must be a book on "Phone Manners." It would tell how to behave when entwined in close embrace with a hand- phone in a public place. Rules of good conduct should include: (1) When the phone rings, answer it instantly and don't show off to everyone that you have the latest model; (2) listen without talking and then whisper that you will call back when you are in a private place; (3) best of all: keep the little monster switched off. 

Luckily, it seems help is at hand for those who, like me, have become allergic to the shrill call of a hand-held slave master. A posh club in Abu Dhabi has installed one in its members-only restaurant. It jams all incoming calls to cellular phones within earshot of the restaurant's guests. 

I am thinking of buying one of those jammers so that I can take it with me when I go to the beach, the theatre, a meeting or a restaurant; to any place where I don't want my tranquillity shattered by someone's squawking cell phone and inane conversation. So I don't inflict the same annoyance on others by being called on my own mobile phone when I am in a public place, I have decided to give it up. I don't want to be contacted wherever I am at any time of day or night. Let people write a letter if there is something important they want me to know. 

I intend to give my cell phone to the one person I need to contact and who can never be found when I want him. I shall give it to my house boy so, instead of shouting for him to serve drinks on the verandah, I can call him on his phone instead. However, to do that, I'll need another cell phone myself!

Birds, butterflies and a cruise along the river

D.C. Ranatunga takes a trip to a rainforest in north Australia

We board the train at the Fairweather Connection station bound for Kuranda, 'the village in the rainforest'. Known as the Kuranda Scenic Train (officially opened in 1891), the journey has been described as 'one of the most scenic and spectacular in the world'. It certainly is. The running commentary heard over the speakers in every carriage describes how the track was made and alerts you to watch for the scenic spots. 

The train stops at the Barron Falls Station for a while, to enable passengers to get down and have a look round. You get a wonderful view of the Barron river, the gorge and the falls from several lookouts at the station.

After a little over an hour's ride, we reach Kuranda, 'the green station'. The old world style railway station is one mass of green, a preview of what awaits us. There is plenty to see - the butterfly sanctuary, colourful bird aviaries, markets and a diverse range of shops, cafes and restaurants. A cruise on the Barron river is also possible.

We are now in the Wet Tropics of Queensland designated by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. (The World Heritage Convention was adopted in 1972 by UNICEF and came into force in 1975. Its objective is to conserve natural and cultural sites and monuments considered so outstanding that protecting them is of interest to the entire world).

Introducing the tropical far north of Australia, the UN says that these rainforests have evolved uninterrupted over 130 million years and are some of the most ancient in the world. In this area, the rainforest virtually meets the Great Barrier Reef, which the UN describes as 'an association which is rare'. 

"Nowhere is there a more amazing collection of plant and animal species, many of which date back to a time when Australia was still part of the ancient Gondawana super-continent. Many of the plant species found here are classified as rare or very restricted or threatened. At least 25 species of the animals found in the area are regarded as rare", a UN note titled 'World Heritage and the Dreamtime' says.

Having strolled along the river bank, it's time to get back. We decide to return by Skyrail, the rainforest cableway. Each gondola cabin carries four passengers on the 7.5 km (4.7 miles) journey. We fly just a few metres above the forest canopy - the natural rooftop of the rainforest. It protects the forest floor from rain, wind and sun and acts as a blanket, trapping humidity, and as a solar panel harnessing the sun's energy for growth. It's one massive stretch of green - not a single green but a whole variety of greens. 

The Skyrail, in operation from 1995, took one year to construct. All the towers had been lifted by helicopter to avoid disturbance to the rainforest. The tallest tower is 40.5 metres (133 feet).

There are two stops en route, each one providing a different scenic view of the rainforest. The first is Barron Falls Station where we see the view from the opposite direction to what we saw on our way up. We enjoyed the Rainforest Interpretive Centre, a high-tech computer-based information centre which takes you through the marvels of the rainforest. It's a multi-media presentation - as good as your going deep into the forest. You hear the genuine sounds of the birds and insects, the calls of the frogs, the rustling of the leaves. Developed in conjunction with CISRO, Australia's national science organization, it provides an informative and fun learning experience to enhance your enjoyment of the rainforest. Having seen how they make use of situations one wonders whether why we can't do the same with our own Sinharaja.

At the second stop - Red Peak Station, the highest point on the cableway (545 metres) located in the middle of the rain forest - we experience the forest floor from the safety and comfort of a 175-metre boardwalk. A qualified ranger is on-hand to take us on a guided tour explaining the numerous varieties of trees (they reckon there are 160 identified rainforest plants) and sharing his knowledge of this fascinating eco-system. We see the majestic Kauri Pine and the graceful Maple Silkwood tower above us. We view the fern-covered forest floor and get a close-up view of the climbing palms.

At each stop we get into a new cable car. The cars constantly keep moving with one reaching the station every two minutes. Altogether 114 cabins keep moving the whole time. After a one-and-a-half hour trip we reach Caravonica Terminal. A luxury coach is waiting to take us back to Cairns city. The message we read everywhere 'Respect the environment' stays with us. "Barron Gorge National Park is a special place. Please make sure that you leave it as you find it for others to enjoy. Do not touch or remove any plants and do not feed, touch or disturb any animals".

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