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This is Nimbin: inside the “refugee camp for the war on drugs”

Article by Mike McHardy

Photography by Paul Jeffers

The Hemp Embassy

In Australia, marijuana has been outlawed for the past 75 years.


  It remains just as illegal today as it was in March 1993, when residents in the village of Nimbin, New South Wales erupted into a spontaneous political protest.  The juvenile uprising that saw locals shelling the police station with eggs was a reaction to thousands of raids and arrests throughout the 1980’s and early 90’s. 

Only two months later, on May 1st, 1993, the people of Nimbin engaged in a more peaceful rally, which became the inaugural “Mardigrass Protestival”.  For the past 22 years the Hemp Embassy, Nimbin’s political stronghold, together with supporters from around the world have campaigned for cannabis law reform. 

“It’s not a festival, it’s not a protest, it’s a gathering” says Gary Big Bong, a local activist, while enjoying a puff of the devil’s lettuce.  The Hemp Party, a minor Australian political group based in Nimbin, will consider Mardigrass a festival only after marijuana prohibition ends.

Many strangers have come to visit Nimbin, and some have never left.  Those that stay, consider themselves to be marijuana refugees, seeking asylum from the stigmas of mainstream society.  While relaxing on the back porch of the Hemp Embassy, Michael Balderstone, the Hemp Party’s fearless leader explains, “I reckon, Nimbin is a refugee camp for the war on drugs.”

Make no mistake, for 365 days a year, supporters encourage cannabis use.  One only needs to walk down Cullen Street in Nimbin to witness an alternative lifestyle.  But despite Nimbin’s reputation, hard drugs, and to some degree alcohol, don’t fall under the community’s umbrella of acceptance.


According to marijuana activists the prohibition of cannabis is not only socially immoral, it’s also fiscally irresponsible.  Nimbin’s Hemp Party has taken note of evolving law reform in the United States, adopting the slogan “Colorado Dreaming”.  Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana sales on January 1st, 2014, marking the start of the best year in recent history for cannabis law reform.

“It’s not a festival, it’s not a protest, it’s a gathering.”

Speaking on the subject of legalisation and taxation of marijuana, Gary Big Bong so swiftly illustrates, “I’ve never been an activist for the rights of people to sell pot on the black market.  I’m an activist for the right people, to sell the right pot, to the right people.”

The advantages of marijuana legalisation, regulation and most importantly, taxation, have proven to be significant.  Colorado has generated valuable tax dollars from sales while keeping law enforcement, the judicial system and prison costs down.  They have also benefitted from a surging tourism industry and improved local economy.  During Colorado’s first month of sales, $3.5 million in taxes and fees were generated, over half of this income coming from recreational marijuana.

With an apparent momentum shift in the cannabis war, politicians everywhere are reconsidering the practicality of their region’s marijuana laws.  Jason Woodforth, Liberal National MP for Nudgee, Queensland, announces to the crowd during the concluding ceremonies of Mardigrass, “My drug of choice may be a glass of wine or a beer, so why should I deny you your drug of choice?”

Nimbin’s Hemp Party is undoubtedly driven in their goal to cannabis law reform, but at times, they seem more disorganized than two hamsters running the opposite direction on a wheel.  Strategically, this breakdown could hinder their ability to maintain a professional and credible image in the eyes of the political opposition.


The characters of Nimbin can be described as, in the most gracious and respectful way possible, chaotic. The ambiance surrounding the village, especially during Mardigrass, is surreal.   Ganja Faeries dance in the street, leashed goats and stray chickens wander amongst the crowd while Jungle Patrol event volunteers maintain the peace.  Four police officers make their way to hemp embassy to compete in the annual Tug of Peace with Nimbin’s cannabis activists, The Polite Force. 

Families with young children walk about dressed festively in green, shouting “Happy Mardigrass” like it’s Christmas time.  The Kombi Konvoy parades down the strip as the crowd light joints to celebrate the clock turning 4:20.  Ten minutes later the man in the donut stand scrambles to keep up with demand, while the lone hotel publican swats flies to pass time.

“I’ve never been an activist for the rights of people to sell pot on the black market.  I’m an activist for the right people, to sell the right pot, to the right people.”

When thousands gather in a protest for the legalisation of drugs, often, law enforcement expects to have their hands full.  Many alcohol-fuelled gatherings see violence erupt easily and senseless property crime numbers shoot through the roof.  Mardigrass is different.  These people are pot smokers, most devoting their day to seeking, grinding, rolling or smoking their weed.

Sebastian Schmidbaur, a backpacker from Germany, passes a joint with friends while sitting in a common area at the Rox Hostel.  In an enhanced state of euphoria, he describes the area, “That’s the culture thing in Nimbin, just relaxing and enjoying your time.”

It may surprise you that open alcohol on Cullen Street will attract more police attention than smoking a joint.  Sgt Dave Longfield is a Public Order Tactical Advisor for the Richmond Local Area Command.  When speaking about maintaining a peaceful protest over the weekend, he clarifies their agenda.

“Over the past 3-4 years, our focus has shifted from illegal drug use, and although we are still concerned about that, of course, our focus has changed somewhat to alcohol related crime, alcohol related violence, and antisocial behaviour as a result of alcohol consumption.”  

“In our experience, people who over-indulge in alcohol tend to cause more drama than people who over-indulge in illegal drugs.”

Hidden from CCTV camera view, in the alley beside the Hemp Museum and Café on Cullen Street, almost any form of cannabis can be purchased.  You could buy potent cookies from a polite old lady, who genuinely concerned for your well being, may advise not to eat them all at once.  When purchasing the raw product one would be forced, at least initially, to deal with more intimidating characters.  Remarkably, these dealers are not as shady as you would expect.  In fact, they operate just as any other business, customers lining up in queue, offering various products at market competitive prices.

“I reckon, Nimbin is a refugee camp for the war on drugs.”

Not only do brazen dealers offer two types; bush weed at $280/ounce or hydro at $350/ounce, they use a digital scale to show the customer they get what they pay for.  Keep in mind this exchange takes place many times daily and right in the open.  Of course, dealers wouldn’t want unhappy customers disrupting future business.  

Michael Balderstone explains the struggle towards regulation, “A few tourists get ripped off, you know, we’ve tried really hard to stop that happening, and you’ll see they’re using scales mostly out the back of the museum.  It took ages to get that happening.”

The Bong Yell and Throw is perhaps the most coveted event of the Hemp Olympix.  The event is simple.  Competitors must launch a bong as far as possible while shouting pro-marijuana slogans to the crowd.  Steve Sorrensen, the sombre, yet comical bong throw commentator announces, “These are no ordinary bongs, they are International Hemp Olympix Sporting Bongs.”

An event so critical as Bong Toss requires the services of an official bong master, a live commentator, and a lethargic bong retriever, known as the bong boy or girl.  Unfortunately, during Saturday’s opening round, the sudden resignation of the bong girl caused unexpected delays, forcing bong tossers to the sidelines.  She was visibly exhausted, forced to run up and down a hill retrieving bongs for nearly 10 minutes.  The hemp embassy’s leaders quickly scrambled to recruit a replacement bong retriever, and the competition resumed. 

As the loudspeaker alerts patrons of upcoming Hemp Olympix events in Sativa Stadium, a joint rolling competition gets underway in the town hall. This competition features adverse conditions set out by judges, including blindfolded, speed, and creative rolling.  The current titleholder, Bob the Joint Builder, impressed the crowd by engineering an origami shaped joint.  Each crowd member looked more confused than the last, mystified about how you would even attempt to smoke this majestic masterpiece.  

At 4:20pm on Mardigrass Eve, civil celebrant Debbie Guest began reading passages for Nimbin’s first legally sanctioned Ganja Wedding.  Johnny Ganja and his bride, Aiti arrived out back of the Oasis Café to find a setting they have only imagined in their dreams.  Surrounded by freshly growing marijuana in the garden, Debbie announced before the crowd, “Relationships are forever changing, and Johnny Ganja and Aiti’s union grows and blossoms like a marijuana plant, forever changing.” 

“In our experience, people who over-indulge in alcohol tend to cause more drama than people who over-indulge in illegal drugs.”

Hundreds of colourful guests laughed, some who just happen to be passing by, suddenly found themselves part of a special celebration.  They were simply in the right place at the right time, contributing to the smoky shrine and witnessing matrimonial history in Nimbin.

After the ceremony, Aiti playfully hits Johnny with her marijuana bouquet while he fixes the dozen or so rolled joints placed in her hair.  Johnny shouts “Viva Marijuana!” and “Free the Weed!” as if to express his excitement to spend the rest of his life not only with his bride, but also with his plant.  As Johnny and Aiti shared moments of reflection through smoke, this unique and moving ceremony brought tears to witnessing eyes.


Medicinal cannabis

Whether or not you agree with recreational marijuana use, it’s becoming more difficult for critics to argue with its medicinal benefits.  At this point, 21 US States and the District of Columbia now have legalized the use of medicinal marijuana. 

Here in Australia, Tony “Mullaway” Bower has created and grown, be it illegally, a strain of marijuana known as “Cleverman”.  This strain helps young children who suffer from epileptic seizures, among other disorders. Doctors, patients, and their families believe Mullaway’s cannabis tincture, taken orally, is nothing short of a miracle cure for epilepsy.

3-year-old Cooper Batten, from Mernda, Victoria, suffers from several conditions, including severe epilepsy.  Two comparative EEG’s (Electroencephalogram, which is medical test used to measure electrical activity of the brain) were conducted.  His mother, Cassie Batton shared the staggering results of Cooper’s test.  “He had an EEG before we started the medical cannabis and it showed he was seizing for 57 minutes of the 60 minutes that we tested.  And his EEG after the cannabis showed seizure activity in the background, but no actual seizures.”

Despite Mullaway’s goodwill in providing free treatment to sufferers, the law has shown no mercy.  In 2012, Mullaway was charged with supply after police seized 200 plants from his property, he later received a one-year sentence.  Following a successful appeal, he was released after serving 6 weeks in the Mid North Coast Correctional Centre, near Kempsey, New South Wales. 

“These are self medicating people using an uncontrolled substance derived from their own anecdotal evidence.  Is this something we want to unleash on the population?”

Sitting outside his caravan on the final day of Mardigrass, Mullaway hints to the widespread consequences of his incarceration.  “I have over 100 children now, and if I go to jail these kids go back to having seizures, and then they die, it’s a simple fact.”

Shane Varcoe is the director of Dalgarno Institute, a drug and alcohol education coalition.  He shares his opinion regarding use of medicinal or therapeutic cannabis.  “These are self medicating people using an uncontrolled substance derived from their own anecdotal evidence.  Is this something we want to unleash on the population?”

8-year-old Tara O’Connell, from Mia Mia, Victoria suffers from chronic epilepsy.  In December 2012, after exhaustively trying 17 different unsuccessful pharmaceutical medications, the O’Connell’s were informed that Tara had 12 to 24 months left to live.

In January 2013, attempting to save their daughters life, the O’Connell’s, although sceptical, obtained and began administering Mullaway’s cannabis oil.  Tara adjusted to the medicine quickly, suffering only 1 seizure between February 10th and April 3rd, 2013.  Even more remarkably, Tara hasn’t suffered a single seizure since.  Her IQ has risen by 30 points, she’s off all pharmaceutical drugs, and she has been eating and sleeping normally.     

Dr Paul Carter of the Lancefield Country Practice in Victoria has been Tara’s GP for the past 5 years.  “I would regard it as a tragedy if we had to go back to conventional treatment for Tara” he said.  

“I’m very much hoping there will be an ongoing supply, and quite frankly, I think everybody would be vastly more comfortable if it was above board or legal.”

Cheri O’Connell, Tara’s mother, highlights significant improvements in her daughter’s condition, “It’s been a huge change, her seizures have stopped, so she’s 13 months seizure free, which is down from 23,000 a year.” 

In a short statement issued from the office of Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash, a spokesperson illustrated their position on medicinal cannabis.  “Decriminalisation of personal use of cannabis where there are clear compassionate circumstances is an option which State and Territory Governments can pursue under their respective drugs and poisons control legislation should they choose to do so.” 

The battle to legalise cannabis may be fought in Nimbin, yet the war stretches all over Australia.  As the cannabis supporter’s argument continues to gain momentum, the pressure mounts for the Australian government and health authorities to take action.  Nimbin’s Hemp Embassy will continue to lead the movement, and the smoke may never clear, but law reform in Australia can give new meaning to Mardigrass.  A taboo Protestival today could become a legitimate festival tomorrow.  Only time will tell.

Naitanui back, young Eagles blooded in AFL

West Coast AFL coach Adam Simpson has Nic Naitanui returning and will blood fresh faces on Saturday night in Brisbane.


West Coast’s finals chances are over following their loss to Sydney and, with Josh Kennedy, Matt Rosa, Scott Selwood and Elliot Yeo sidelined, Simpson wants to find out more about his playing list against the Lions.

Naitanui was a late withdrawal from the Sydney loss with a sore body – and coming off a kickless, markless game the previous week against Fremantle.

However, Simpson was happy with his form before that and will back him unless his body continues to struggle, meaning he might need to shut down for the rest of 2014.

“He had a month there of dominance when he was the best ruckman in the competition through performance and his numbers. He was a bit off against St Kilda and he looked like he needed a break against Freo, so we gave him one.

“We think him having a rest is going to make him perform better. We don’t want to get him to the end of the year and him needing another operation so we need to assess that. But it’s not at that level.”

There are plenty of change at West Coast, with Rosa, Kennedy, Sharrod Wellingham, Brad Sheppard and Jamie Cripps confirmed outs.

Defender Blayne Wilson gets his first chance since round 23 last year, while Ashley Smith plays his first game of 2014 taking over as half-forward from Cripps. Dom Sheed and Simon Tunbridge also receive another opportunity.

“We are going with a pretty young side and see what a couple of young guys can do who have been playing at East Perth. We are excited with what we might see this week … albeit we haven’t got a heap of depth in our midfield at the moment with the injuries we’ve got.”

Hawthorn premiership player Xavier Ellis will reach his 100th AFL game in his first season with the Eagles after a horror run with injuries since starring in the Hawks’ 2008 premiership win.

“It’s a credit to him to get back from what he’s gone through with his preparation and I don’t think we have seen the best of Ellis yet – so I look forward to the next 100,” Simpson said.

“For a guy who has played four games in three years – to come over here and manage his body, fit into the club the way he has and play consistent football for the most part of the year – it is a credit to him.”

Schools turf out textbooks for technology

No more pencils, no more books.


Technology is invading classrooms around Australia and teachers and students in at least one school have heeded rocker Alice Cooper’s call to throw away the textbooks.

The Buddhist Pal School in Sydney’s southwest is set up to be completely paperless.

Students and teachers alike use tablets and computers for all schoolwork.

Principal Panha Pal says the aim wasn’t to be paperless but rather to make schooling more relevant to his students.

“Students are actually getting bored in the classroom because classrooms are just way too behind what their daily lives are all about, which is technology,” he told AAP.

“They’re probably learning more out of school because of their iPad, their computers.”

When the school took its first enrolments in 2013, teachers and parents had some doubts about the pervasion of technology.

But now, Mr Pal says, the students wouldn’t go back to the “old ways” of learning.

Plus they don’t have to carry heavy backpacks filled with books.

The school didn’t have a whole lot of money so it has primarily used free software and systems.

Students film science experiments and annotate the videos to refer back to later. They read interactive textbooks, listen to recordings and can even take control of their teacher’s computer to give answers.

“Because of the engagement … how much they’re stimulated by the content has probably increased three or four-fold at the minimum,” Mr Pal says.

Across the city at elite girls’ school Abbotsleigh, students are looking far beyond the pages of their textbooks.

The school uses video conferencing to let students quiz Holocaust survivors in New York, scientists in Antarctica and JFK experts at the book depository in Dallas.

Even four-year-olds in the early learning centre have video conferences, learning how to make slime from scientists in the US.

Staff use the video link-ups to complement existing curriculum not just for technology’s sake, technology director Warwick Noble says.

“It’s an extremely enriching addition to what they would normally do in the classroom,” he told AAP.

But it’s not all about connecting with people on the other side of the world: the school recently held a career session with female academics from nearby Macquarie University.

“To try and get seven scientists to visit the school and talk about their life experiences is a big impost,” Mr Noble said.

But asking them to pop into a room at the uni and take questions via video was much easier.

Technology also lets the school effectively expand its staff.

Cleveland Institute of Music’s Dr Keith Fitch is the school’s virtual composer in residence, working with HSC music students on composition and giving them real-time feedback via video links.

That’s the kind of experience that can’t be found in a textbook.

Budget now a debt and deficit disaster: PM

First it was an emergency, then it was a crisis, now the federal budget is a debt and deficit disaster.


Which means everyone from the top down has to do his or her bit to return some order to the nation’s finances, Prime Minister Tony Abbott insists.

But he won’t say whether that means a temporary income tax levy or an increase in the marginal tax rate for higher-income earners.

What’s more certain is that Mr Abbott’s signature paid parental leave scheme is being pared back amid internal coalition and business opposition.

The prime minister on Wednesday confirmed the government’s expenditure review committee – also known as the razor gang – had reduced the scheme’s salary cap to $100,000 from $150,000.

“I don’t want any section of the community to feel they are getting special privileges here,” Mr Abbott told reporters in Geelong.

And that means working women earning more than $100,000, even though they still will be eligible for a six-month payment capped at $50,000.

Mr Abbott was less forthcoming about reports the government is looking at increasing the 37 per cent marginal income tax rate to 38 per cent instead of imposing a temporary deficit tax.

“I just want to assure people this is a debt and deficit disaster that this government is grappling with,” he said.

“We will fix the problem and do it in ways that are fair.”

Mr Abbott said he did not want low-income earners or those who relied on government services to think high income-earners would get off “scot-free” in the budget.

“Everyone has to do his or her bit.”

The government is backing away from reports it plans to impose a deficit tax on those earning more than $80,000, after criticism by some of its own MPs.

Instead it appears to be leaning towards increasing marginal tax rates which would have a smaller impact.

For instance, a taxpayer earning $100,000 would pay an additional $200 in tax if the 37 per cent rate was lifted to 38 per cent.

Magpies face AFL defensive dilemma

Three games ago, Carlton’s forward line was an AFL laughing stock but now it’s giving Nathan Buckley headaches.


The Blues slumped to just seven goals in their loss to Melbourne – their worst dry-weather return in two seasons – but have returned to form in the past fortnight.

Success inside the forward 50 has been a key reason why – with forwards Jarrad Waite, Lachie Henderson and Levi Casboult combining for 28 marks against West Coast.

With Alex Fasolo likely to miss Friday night’s clash between the two rivals, Carlton’s potency has left Collingwood coach Buckley with a dilemma.

But his likely replacement, Marley Williams, doesn’t come without concerns.

Last week, Williams was given a 12-month suspended sentence on causing grievous bodily harm charge for breaking a man’s jaw while out at a nightclub.

While he earned strong reviews for his return to the VFL last weekend, Buckley had previously spoken of the need to manage Williams into the AFL side.

“He was impressive on the weekend and has put his hand up,” Buckley said.

“He was targeted by the Essendon VFL side and handled it really well.”

Buckley said the 20-year-old defender had to expect that on his return.

“That’s the game; he’s more than capable to stand up for himself … he’s a strong kid,” he said.

Williams’ return to AFL could be stayed by a returning premiership backman.

“Nathan Brown has missed a couple of games but has come back through the VFL … we’ll weigh up whether we need him as well,” Buckley said.

“There’s two or three options available to us for that back-six role.”

Buckley said Fasolo didn’t take to the track on Wednesday, but wing Clinton Young “got through what he needed to get through today” and would challenge for selection.

Mourinho defends his ‘defensive’ tactics

However much Liverpool and Atletico Madrid were frustrated by Mourinho’s well-disciplined methods to stifle them in the last week, they kept Chelsea on track to trophies in the Champions League and English Premier League.


“You can play perfect football, have lots of one-touch stuff, and you lose,” Chelsea winger Andre Schuerrle said. “But that’s not what you want – you want to win. There’s no point in playing well and losing.”

Chelsea will contest a third consecutive European final, the first under Mourinho, if the team can build on a hard-fought 0-0 draw with Atletico Madrid from the first leg.

The second leg might not be the most entertaining again to watch for neutrals, unless they want to catch Mourinho’s touchline flamboyance and flashpoints.

Atletico has conceded just five goals in 11 Champions League games this season to remain the only unbeaten side and, like Chelsea, has the stingiest defense domestically.

Atletico striker Diego Costa is hoping the Stamford Bridge game is more open than the first leg. “They will have to come out a little bit more,” he said.

While Chelsea, the 2012 Champions League winner, is making its seventh semifinal appearance in the last decade, Atletico is in the last four in the European Cup for the first time in 40 years.

Atletico did win the Europa League in 2012 before relinquishing the trophy to Chelsea last May.

By also breaking up the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly in Spain this season, Atletico has shown itself not to be burdened by past shortcomings.

Unlike Chelsea, which is second in the Premier League title race, Atletico leads the way in Spain after winning nine consecutive matches to close in on the trophy for the first time since 1996.

“It’s clear our team is prepared for the biggest contests and is very confident,” captain Gabi Fernandez said.

“This team’s conviction is so resolute, it’s something you rarely see. We’re players that haven’t won much. We’re all pretty much rookies when it comes to winning trophies. The hunger is what characterizes us.”

Dozens killed in Syria attacks

Around 60 people have been killed in Syria’s Damascus and Homs, as an international watchdog said it would probe alleged chlorine attacks in the country.


Meanwhile, the parliament speaker said four new candidates had registered for next month’s presidential election, expected to return Bashar al-Assad to office despite the civil war, which has left vast swathes of the country out of his control.

A barrage of mortar shells fired by rebels hit a central neighbourhood in the capital early Tuesday, killing at least 14 people, state media reported.

The attack hit a school of Islamic jurisprudence where some students are as young as 14, though it was unclear if children were among the dead.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, put the toll at 17, adding that the figure could rise because several of the injured were in critical condition.

Hours later, a car bomb ripped through a crowded area of the country’s third city Homs, followed shortly afterwards by a rocket attack on the same neighbourhood, the provincial governor Talal Barazitold AFP.

He said 45 people were killed in the double attack on the Zahra neighbourhood.

The attack was one of the deadliest to hit the central city, where rebels control just a few remaining districts, most of them under a tight government siege.

Meanwhile the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant announced it had executed seven prisoners in its bastion in northeastern Syria, two of them by crucifixion.

ISIL, which has been disavowed even by Al-Qaeda, said it held the seven responsible for a grenade attack on one of its fighters earlier this month in the Euphrates Valley city of Raqa, which it rules with an iron fist.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights posted a photograph of the two prisoners being crucified at the roundabout with passer-by walking past apparently unfazed.

In the Hague, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said it would examine allegations that chlorine had been used in attacks in Syria.

The regime and rebels have blamed each other for using chlorine in at least one attack, in the rebel-held town of Kafr Zita in Hama province, with the opposition alleging the government has carried out several more.

Britain’s Daily Telegraph said a team of unnamed experts had found “sizeable and unambiguous traces of chlorine and ammonia” in soil samples taken from the sites of three regime helicopter attacks.

It said the findings proved the government was still using chemical agents against civilians.

The OPCW is already in Syria overseeing a deal under which Damascus is to turn over its chemical weapons arsenal by June 30.

On Sunday, the joint UN-OPCW mission in Damascus said 92.5 per cent of the country’s chemical weapons material had been removed or destroyed.

Syria agreed to dismantle its chemical weapons program last year, after Washington threatened military action in response to a sarin gas attack outside Damascus that killed up to 1,400 people.

The regime denied carrying out the attack.

Authorities dismiss MH370 discovery claim

Authorities searching for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 have rejected claims from an Adelaide technology company that it has found a wreckage in the Bay of Bengal that may be the missing aircraft.


GeoResonance claims its sensor technology has found a plane in the Bay of Bengal, south of Bangladesh and in an area at the northern part of the original search for the commercial airliner.

Although the marine exploration company – which specialises in geophysical surveys to find oil, gas, groundwater and uranium – has not declared the discovery is MH370, it says the possibility should be investigated.

But Australia’s Joint Agency Co-ordination Centre, which is leading the search, said the location of MH370 suggested by the GeoResonance report was not in the Australian search and rescue zone.

“The Australian-led search is relying on information from satellite and other data to determine the missing aircraft’s location,” JACC said in a statement.

“The location specified by the GeoResonance report is not within the search arc derived from this data.”

JACC said it was satisfied that the Boeing 777 was in the southern part of the search arc.

Authorities have called off the aerial search, but are continuing with their transition to an intensified undersea search in the southern Indian Ocean.

Bluefin-21, which has completed its search of the 314 square kilometre area around the detections made by the towed pinger locator, will continue to search adjacent areas in the hopes of finding the wreckage.

Mission 17 will begin when weather conditions improve to allow Bluefin-21 to be safely launched from the Australian vessel Ocean Shield, JACC said.

The ill-fated flight was carrying 239 people from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it vanished on March 8.

Havana’s Capri hotel evokes colourful past

In its heyday, Havana’s Capri hotel and casino was the playground of men known as The Blade and The Fat Butcher.


It was also a pleasure garden for headline stars who portrayed Mafiosi on the silver screen: George Raft, known for hoodlum roles such as Guino Rinaldo in 1932’s Scarface, was the casino’s celebrity “greeter” and made his home in the 19th-floor penthouse.

Havana’s hedonistic mob-and-movie-star days came to an end with Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, and the hotel drifted into a long, slow decline. But now the Capri is back in business after being closed more than a decade ago. Its rebirth is part of Cuba’s latest bid to trade on its colourful pre-communist past and attract tourist dollars to fund its socialist present.

“It’s a feeling of that era (at the Capri). I think in Cuba you feel that in general,” said Roberto Escalante, a 62-year-old Mexican university professor who was staying in the hotel this month during an academic conference.

“It’s very comfortable. It’s missing some services still, but yes, you feel like you’re back in those times – which were good!”

Indeed, details such as the Capri’s polished, art-deco granite floors with their flowery bronze inlays fit right into a city that still teems with finned Chevrolet and Cadillac classics. So do the graceful copper-coloured lobby chandeliers, which like the floors are restored originals.

The newly refurbished Capri reopened around New Year’s as a partnership between state-run tourism company Grupo Caribe, which owns the hotel, and Spanish hotel chain NH Hoteles SA, which is responsible for administration.

Built in late 1957, the Capri enjoyed a brief but madcap run as one of the flashiest mob joints of the time. Charles Tourine (The Blade) managed the nightclub, while Nicholas di Costanzo (The Fat Butcher) ran the casino. The two were lesser-known henchmen associated with more notorious bosses like Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante.

Gangsters rubbed elbows with some of Hollywood’s leading lights here. Swashbuckling actor and renowned playboy Errol Flynn frequented the Salon Rojo club where scantily clad cabaret dancers shimmied for tourists.

The handsome public face of it all was Raft, who grew up around gangsters and maintained personal ties to a number of capos.

T.J. English’s Havana Nocturne, a history of the mob in Havana, recounts Raft’s memories of the night when Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista fled the country ahead of the inexorable advance of Castro’s bearded rebels. New Year’s Eve merrymaking was coming to an end and Raft had just retired to the penthouse, where a young woman recently crowned Miss Cuba was waiting.

“There she was, asleep in my bed, but I noticed how she opened one eye when I came in the room. Now she’s half awake and amorous. ‘Feliz ano nuevo,’ I said as I got between my silk sheets, alongside this fantastic girl,” Raft later said, according to Havana Nocturne. “In the middle of this beautiful scene – suddenly – machine-gun fire!”

Hurrying downstairs, Raft pleaded for calm with revolutionary-minded Cubans who were ransacking the hotel, English writes. Finally a young woman recognised the movie star and persuaded the others to listen. They ended up doing a little “lightweight looting,” then left.

“So while the shooting and all that continued in the streets, the Capri was saved, at least for the moment,” said Raft, who died in 1980.

It wasn’t long before the mob’s hotels all passed into the hands of the revolutionary government. Most of the mafia bosses fled Cuba – out millions of dollars in lost revenue and investments.

The Capri operated as a state-run hotel for decades. It survived, but like many buildings it became run-down from lack of maintenance, and closed in the early 2000s.

After apparently sitting idle for years, restoration began about four years ago according to hotel officials. Workers are still refurbishing some rooms and laying carpeting on some floors. During a recent visit, finishing touches were being put on the rooftop pool, which boasts stunning views of the Florida Straits.

Nods to modernity include building-wide Wi-Fi. What once was Raft’s penthouse is now a high-end restaurant with white tablecloths and plush, lavender-paisley chairs. The Salon Rojo is a popular disco with a $US10 ($A10.82) cover – no gambling allowed.

Ciro Bianchi Ross, a Cuban journalist who has researched and written about the Capri, disagreed with the notion the hotel represents a lost, glamorous past. He noted that the cabaret parties and casino riches were for the elite, while many Cubans struggled with poverty, disease and illiteracy – a social equation that the 1959 revolution was specifically intended to upend.

Still, he called the Capri one of the three most architecturally important hotels of its era in Havana and said there’s nothing wrong with using Cuba’s mafia past to create income and jobs for the country.

Warnings over Korean ferry ‘ignored’

A probe into South Korea’s ferry disaster has heard that warnings over the ship’s seaworthiness were ignored, as rescuers work to recover more than 90 people still missing two weeks after it sank.


The confirmed death toll from the accident stands at 210, with 92 unaccounted for, the coastguard say, with divers pushing deeper into the submerged vessel’s interior in their search for bodies.

The recovery operation has stalled in recent days because of strong currents and debris blocking access to some of the cabin decks.

Prosecutors investigating the disaster on Tuesday questioned the regular captain of the 6,825-tonne Sewol, who was on leave when it capsized April 16 with 476 people on board — most of them high school students.

Senior Prosecutor Yang Jong-Jin said the captain, identified only as Shin, told investigators that he had warned the shipping company of serious stability problems with the Sewol.

The Chonghaejin Marine Co. purchased the then-18 year old ferry from Japan in 2012 and refurbished it, building extra passenger cabins on the third, fourth and fifth decks.

Shin said the renovations altered the balance of the ship and undermined its anti-rolling ability.

When he advised the company about the problems, his warnings were brushed aside, he told investigators.

The precise cause of the accident is still under investigation, but experts have suggested a sharp turn may have caused its cargo to shift, and the ferry to list irretrievably to one side before capsizing.

Kim Han-Sik, the CEO of Chonghaejin Marine, was summoned to the prosecutors’ office Tuesday in the port city of Incheon, from where the ill-fated ferry departed bound for Jeju island.

Kim, 71, issued a tearful apology for the “horrible tragedy” the day after the accident, saying he and other company officials were responsible for a “grave sin” in letting it happen.

In Shin’s absence, the Sewol was skippered by captain Lee Joon-Seok, who is now under arrest along with 14 crew members.

The coastguard released a video earlier this week showing Lee scrambling to safety as hundreds of his passengers remained trapped inside the ferry.

Public disgust at the behaviour of the crew has been matched by the anger of the victims’ relatives with the official response to the disaster.

President Park Geun-Hye apologised on Tuesday for her government’s failure to combat systemic and regulatory “evils” that may have contributed to the accident and for the “insufficient first response.”

But many of the victims’ families rejected her apology, which was made during a meeting with her cabinet ministers.

“An apology made before several cabinet members behind closed doors cannot be considered an apology,” said Yoo Gyeong-Geun, the spokesman for a group of around 100 families.

London Tube users face more disruption

Travellers in London face a second day of disruption because of a continuing strike by Tube workers in a long-running row over ticket office closures.


Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union will end a 48-hour walkout at 9pm on Wednesday, with a further, three-day stoppage planned for next week.

Half of train services ran yesterday and two-thirds of Tube stations were open, much more than during a previous strike in February.

But there was still huge disruption to travel, long delays for Tubes and big queues for buses.

The RMT said the strike was “solidly” supported, and the union expects similar backing today.

Picket lines will again be mounted outside Tube stations.

Mike Brown, managing director of London Underground, said 15 per cent more staff worked yesterday than during the previous strike.

He appealed for fresh talks, adding: “Under our plans to modernise the Tube, we are committed to a safe railway with visible staff personally serving our passengers.

“Fairness to our staff is guaranteed – there will be no compulsory redundancies, there is a job for all staff wanting to remain with us and no one will lose pay.

“We have made significant changes to our original proposals after listening to our people and the unions in over 40 meetings.

“The RMT leadership know the real motivations behind their action, but it is infuriating that London’s commuters and businesses are the ones who are being forced to pay the price with this unnecessary disruption.”

RMT acting general secretary Mick Cash said: “London Underground have dug themselves into an entrenched position and have refused to move one inch from their stance of closing every ticket office, in breach of the agreement reached previously.”

CBA to roll out phone ATM withdrawals

Commonwealth Bank customers will be the first in Australia able to withdraw cash from ATMs without a card.


From May, they’ll be able to use the Commonwealth Bank app on their Apple iOS or Android smartphone to withdraw up to $200 per day.

Using the apps, customers can request the amount they wish to withdraw, and then input two number codes – one from the app and one received in a text message – to withdraw money.

Withdrawals are limited to a single daily transaction from compatible CommBank ATMs, more than 3000 of which are undergoing software upgrades.

The functionality will also allow customers to designate another person to withdraw the cash by having the bank send the codes to the second person’s phone.

The announcement comes amid warnings from NSW Police about an increase in ATM “card-skimming” in Sydney, with criminals using gadgets to steal users’ card and PIN details at terminals.

By eliminating the need for a card, the new functionality would help combat such crimes, Angus Sullivan, the bank’s head of cards and payments, told reporters in Sydney.

The bank also announced a new mobile banking feature that will enable credit card users to set limits on how their card is used.

Customers will be able to deactivate in-store and online international transactions, block ATM transactions, and set transaction limits with the swipe of a button.

The bank said its smartphone app had reached more than two million registered users since launching in late 2013.

Sullivan said there were no immediate plans to introduce contactless card withdrawals at Commonwealth Bank ATMs.

Malaysia to open new budget airport

Malaysia this week will open what it calls the world’s largest airport built specifically for low-cost airlines, a project driven by budget travel’s phenomenal growth but which debuts under the shadow of missing flight MH370.


The $US1.2 billion ($A1.3 billion) facility near the main Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) was originally targeted to open three years ago but has been hit by repeated delays, amid concerns over safety and subpar construction, even as costs have doubled.

The new KLIA2 budget terminal will begin operations Friday with an initial 56 flights, increasing the load as airlines move full operations over from a nearby existing facility in coming days.

Analysts and the travelling public agree the opening of a new budget terminal is long overdue.

The current low-cost terminal is a cramped and bare-bones facility that resembles a bus station. Capacity is 15 million passengers, but about 22 million squeezed through last year.

The gleaming KLIA2 meanwhile covers an area equal to 24 football fields, authorities said, about four times the size of the facility it is replacing.

Its modern design features soaring ceilings, natural lighting, people-mover belts and improved connectivity with access to an existing express airport train to Kuala Lumpur 50 kilometres away.

Malaysia-based Malindo Air, the Philippines’ Cebu Pacific Air, Singapore’s Tiger Airways, and Indonesia’s Lion Air and Mandala Airlines will begin initial operations there Friday.

Regional low-cost leader AirAsia plans to join them by May 9, when the old terminal is due to close.

About 24 million passengers are expected to pass through KLIA2 in the first 12 months, and annual capacity is 45 million. Current capacity at the main KLIA terminal is roughly 40 million, but expansion plans are in the works.

But the still-unexplained March 8 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which took off from the main KLIA, has raised worldwide concern over Malaysian aviation and focused attention on KLIA2’s problems.

MH370 has cast a cloud over hopes of increasing fast-growing arrivals from China, Malaysia’s third-largest source of tourists.

Two-thirds of the 239 people on MH370 were from China and tens of thousands of Chinese have cancelled plans to visit.

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