Travel gives you not only new landscapes but new eyes. Immerse yourself in different cultures and you cannot help but see things differently. This is blog not only about the places we visit and the cultures we experience but also about the good, bad and ugly we find along the way………
I was ripped from the Land of My Mother’s (Wales) at age three and dragged halfway across the world at age 3 months. This formative experience and 16 subsequent years moving from Thailand to Egypt to Iran to South Africa marked me for life – creating a never ending itinerant who has spent much of his life endlessly roaming from country to country and job to job.
â€œThe real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,â€ according to Proust.
This blog is about those places, the travels and the people in those countries. It’s also about the anecdotes, the trials, the tribulations, the disasters. It’s also about the beauty of the places and people and the experiences of those places. The name of the blog comes from idiotic things that happen, the situations that people, both myself and others get themselves into.
In this blog you can find anecdotes, poetry, stories about trips, people and places, about culture, society, the environment including:
I wrote this sitting in the kitchen at my Mum’s house, in Wales. If we see our parents or grandparents, regularly, this is something we must all endure; seeing vigorous, energetic people gradually fading away, the sound of shuffling steps rather than strides, the laboured breathing, the struggle to get out of the chair, each day a little harder, each year the memory a little foggier.
I find this a hard thing to see, especially when I realise that there have been so many missed opportunities to get to know my Mum better, so many things I haven’t asked that she now can no longer remember and that there is nothing that can be done to undo any of these things.
We must all just slowly watch those we love fade away.
The Ebb of Life (Fading away)
I watch you there,
Over by the sink
Or climbing the stair
A little more bent,
A little less certain
About what is meant
Each year more frail
Your steps slower
Your recollections fail
Living slowly somehow
Your strength ebbing,
Everything hard now
In the grey zone
Between life and death,
A life now on loan
My heart breaks
To see you so,
My soul aches
As you fade more
Each passing year,
Your old bones sore
I know you so well
And at once so little
At the tolling bell
The missing years
The untold stories
The unknown fears
I want to hang on so
To what is left
But I must let go
We must all depart
Before anyone’s ready
Torn heart from heart
These are a few random scribblings from long ago. I wrote a few verses about life back in the 1980s when I was travelling a lot in Australia and Asia. Most I disliked so much that they were consigned to the funeral pyre. A few survived for various reasons and this is a small selection of those
A dream, two women, a blurred vision
My dream a moment of indecision
One woman, smaller, walks up the hill.
She turns, looks, her face and eyes still
Staring at the beach, the lulling ocean
She appears to me as a faint image
A memory of some pain of past damage
In a side room of my consciousness
The second woman calls “Rebecca!
In my mind images of the past flicker
She follows Rebecca up the hill
The entire scene frozen, still
I rise and follow them then
Despite the warning I cannot resist
A primal force pulls me, insists
I wake. The moment, the image is gone.
Leaving only a sharp pain of memories past
THIS WAS A RECOLLECTION OF A RECURRENT DREAM. NOT ALWAYS IDENTICAL BUT ALWAYS FEATURING THESE SAME TWO WOMEN (WHOM I NEVER RECOGNISED) AND ALWAYS IN AN UNKNOWN BEACH LOCATION. IT HAS NO SPECIFIC MEANING OR SIGNIFICANCE, SO FAR AS I CAN TELL
I lie awake under the vast silent sky
The stars stare down unsleeping
Like the bright eyes of yesterday’s Gods
Or the dreaming millions of tomorrow’s spirits
The false security of sleep creeps
Your ethereal body approaches
Moving close on mists of dreams
You half smile, gently, secretly
I reach out to caress your naked body
But as I touch your misty vision
You move away, knowing, smiling still
Always keeping just beyond reach
I touch only empty space
Once there was something solid
I wake again in the cold night
Under the bright eyes of the Gods
On the wall your picture hangs
As if cruelly taunting my soul
I try reading your mind across space
My mind whispers to you gently
“Do not abandon me”.
THIS IS ABOUT THE UNIVERSAL EXPERIENCE OF ABANDONMENT, OF UNREQUITED LOVE, OF GRIEF, EMPTINESS, DESIRE.
Grain of Sand
Like the Grain of Sand in the oyster
Where the pain produces a pearl
So it is with love, laughter, pain
We hold the pain of sorrow
Of bereavement, of abandonment
The hurt of failed love, fallen hope
Holding them like a kernel in our heart
The kernel of pain brings memory
Of what was and will be again
Shared passion, joy, laughter, love, life
With the pain comes the scarring
Cut deep in each soul
To help us remember the good
To keep us searching for the seed
For new hope, the dawn that never fades
Without pain we are diminished
The compassion, less strong
The hope, less enduring
The pleasure, love, diminished
REMEMBERING THAT PAIN AND PLEASURE, JOY AND HURT, LOVE AND ABANDONMENT, CRUELTY AND KINDNESS ARE ALL TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN. YOU CANNOT KNOW OR UNDERSTAND ONE WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING AND, POSSIBLY, KNOWING THE OTHER.
Everything in nature is built on ritual, regularity; something that is increasingly absent from our fragmented society and broken communities
Whether it be tides, waves, seasons, winds, everything moves with a beat, a regularity which is duplicated in our own bodies; the beating of our hearts, the murmur of blood in our veins, the rhythm of sleep.
We need to re-establish these rituals in some way, to get back in tune with the giant tick of the planet. The bigger and more important the event the more regular and patterned; the earth around the sun, the tides, the waves, Everything moves in a pattern, a beat.
Everything important has a beat, a rhythm. We need a return to ritual, a return to the seasons.
A SHORT OBSERVATION WRITTEN DURING AN EXTENDED STAY, LIVING ON THE BLOOMFIELD RIVER IN FAR NORTH QUEENSLAND DURING 1990 WHEN I HOUSESAT FOR MY FRIENDS DERMOT SMYTH AND CHRISTINA BAHRDT. ALMOST TOTALLY ALONE FOR FIVE MONTHS OUT THE SIX YOU START TO LIVE YOUR LIFE ACCORDING TO THE RYTHYM OF THE EARTH, THE RISE AND FALL OF THE RIVER, SUNRISE, SUNSET. YOUR.BODY, SLEEP AND LIFE TAKES ON A RYTHYM IN TIME TO THE EARTH – SOMETHING WHICH IS LARGELY ABSENT IN THE ARTIFICIAL WORLD OF OUR CITIES.
Traveling your cold waters
A journey much like life
With no turning back
Just one destination
Accepting all your moods
Like vagaries of life
Smooth placid reaches
Deep black gorges
All through the journey
No escaping contact
Swept along relentlessly
Hit, dumped, damaged
At your whim
And when nerve fails
Faced by brute force
Clinging to the side
Avoiding that slip
Waiting for better times
So to glide serenely
Enjoying the life force
Immersed in beauty
Watch the myriad turns
Water slides over rock
Swaying Huon fronds
Timeless dark pools
Fearing only fear
Like the life force itself
The pleasures, pains
Events beyond control
Waiting journey’s end
Later or sooner?
We have so little control
One immutable truth
The journey like life itself
WRITTEN IN 1983 SHORTLY AFTER A TRIP ON THE JANE RIVER IN SOUTH WEST TASMANIA, THIS IS SIMPLY A REFLECTION ON THE BEAUFY OF RIVER TRIPS IN REMOVE PLACES – AND THEIR SIMILARITY TO LIFE. YOU GET ON AT A FIXED PLACE, YOU TRAVEL ONWARDS BE IT ON A RIVER OR IN LIFE, WITH LIMITED MEANS TO CONTROL YOUR DESTINY AND YOU CAN ONLY GET OFF AT THE VERY END.
Moving through life like a zephyr
Stirring emotions like eddying leaves
Tantalising, impossible to catch
What driving force moves you on
Stepping close disturbs the calm
Altering the balance between us
And then you’ll disappear again
To rise again elsewhere, more distant
So I keep you at arms length
Measuring the safe distance
Feeling the gusts of your presence
The whirling leaves of emotions
I try catching them gently
Movement makes them fall
It’s dangerous to get too close
Winds, strongest in the centre
Like a cyclone, unpredictable
Is there calm in your storm?
Is it possible to know?
The path to safety not clear
All fates are unknown
But one thing we known
All like to walk in the wind
Feeling your cool breath
Not knowing where you go
Only that like the wind
You will change direction
And pass out of each life
You cannot be held
And so no one will not try
Not knowing the damage
You may leave behind
But when you smile
And you turn your gaze
Then the pain is worthwhile
For a brief moment of warmth
WRITTEN DURING A TEMPESTUOUS RELATIONSHIP WHERE THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION WAS ONE MINUTE KEEN AND THE NEXT VERY DISTANT – IT’S A NOT UNCOMMON EXPERIENCE, BUT A HIGHLY CONFUSING ONE – AT THE CORE OF WHICH ARE EMOTIONS THAT CHANGE LIKE THE WIND.
A land of wild rivers
Of icy blasts in summer
A drop of green and blue
In a continent of red
Like the colour of blood
From below the broken crust
We strive to save this land
To understand its meaning
Wordlessly calling ones soul
With scenes of harsh beauty
The strange calm
Of an empty land
Providing the meaning
The human world cannot
Binding emotional cracks
Filling our bleeding souls
WRITTEN IN 1985 DURING AN EXTENDED WALKING TRIP IN SOUTH WEST TASMANIA, SHORTLY AFTER THE END OF THE SUCCESSFUL CAMPAIGN TO SAVE THE FRANKLIN RIVER
2020 – “Scribblings from a Trip”. These are rather sombre reflections on the increasing disintegration of the natural environment that we see all around us, plus a few random thoughts on other issues. They were written in the space of a couple of months between January and March 2020
Each “scribble” has a note attached about the context or background.
JUDGEMENT DAY WILL COME
I see the fires’s dull dangerous glow
It flickers like the anger in my soul
A burning rage at the failed leaders
The tentacles of grief grasp our hearts
For the destruction of our olive land
Like the wreathes of smoke curling up
Each fire the death of a thousand animals
Murdered on the killing fields of climate
A bloody plain of lies, greed and deceit
Thirty years of our hopes denied
By the grasping men in grey suits
Their souls stained with blood coal
Their pockets lined by fossil bribes.
The rising water and drowning islands
Just small talk for men with no morals
Each meaningless marketing mantra
Every empty slogan, a death warrant
How good does it get for the dead?
Victims of Morrison’s moral vacuum
Everywhere the skeletons of houses
Like some warning of apocalypse
Scar the blackened smoking hills
Each one a mark on someone’s soul
Seared by an uncaring Government
In the graveyards the families gather
To farewell the needlessly dead
Murdered by the Captains of industry
Condemned by Murdoch’s mendacity
Abandoned by a cabinet of criminals
In the minds of the bitter people
A vision of the judgement day
When the guilt of the climate criminals
Burdened by the souls of a million dead
Drags them down to a hell of torment
As the flames of a thousand fires
Sears their empty blackened souls
And the screams of burning victims
Asking, for them, the never ending eternity
Promised by their vacuous religions
WRITTEN DURING THE BUSHFIRES OF SUMMER 2019/20 IT REFLECTS MY VIEWS ON THE CRIMINAL CULPABILITY OF OUR POLITICAL LEADERS
You have poisoned our land with lies Taking their money and selling our soil Our beaches swept before your rising seas The forests laid waste by your mines
The farmlands poisoned by gas wells Our rivers become ditches of brown Lifeless channels devoid of great fish The water sold to friends for a fee
You talk of freedom and of values But you give us a brave new world Places of razor wire, damaged souls Whose hearts blow away on the wind
Hope crushed like refugees on our shore Smashed in the face of lust for power Far from the guns from which they fled Dreams lie broken, scattered on the wire
Your corruption seeps like acid on skin Burning up the people we wished to be Eating the very soul of this sacred place So that the red heart has but a faint beat
Art is pillaged and culture condemned We are blackened by your casual evil The fair go lies broken on the ground Your fires char our people’s birthright
The ghost of the 1940s walks this land First peoples abandoned, ignored, cheated Everything you touch sickens like the plague Greed like gangrene eats our country’s flesh
You speak of the bush but steal its life A billion dead creatures your legacy Their dying screams scar our souls Innocence destroyed by your half truths
You talk of God but worship Mammon Know the cost of all but value of nothing You talk of family with serpent tongues Hypocrisy so thick God would choke
We await the day of final retribution Where the powerful will meet judgement Where the deniers and climate criminals Will burn for their sins in the fires of hell
A REFLECTION ON THE CULPABILITY OF POLITICAL LEADERS AND THE CONSEQUENCES OF THEIR ACTIONS AND/OR INACTION
THE OCEAN’S DEATH
The azure line marks our path Human lines on the lifeless ocean Empty horizons in the lifeless sky Liquid deserts to the eye’s limit
Above in the blue bowl clouds scurry Witness to the innocents slaughtered In my minds eye the teeming ocean A vision of our planet’s recent past
The last albatross has flown to its grave Just a memory of the ancient mariner The frenzy of tuna only now a picture The frigate bird sails the sky no longer
Now we count just the floating plastic Below the limitless marching waves The bleached skeleton of a dying reef The whale turns its accusing eye to us
The agony of the acid polluted seas Eats the very foundation of all life When the great seas are lifeless now And all its living creatures dead
We will look upon the great blue grave And we will know the cost of our greed As we walk our lifeless empty planet And our souls weep for all we have lost
THIS WAS WRITTEN DURING A TRIP BY CARGO TRIP FROM ANTWERP TO CAPE TOWN IN FEBRUARY 2020. I WROTE IT AFTER DISCUSSIONS WITH SOME OF THE CREW WHO REFLECTED ON THE COMPLETE ABSENCE OF ALBATROSS AND FRIGATE BIRDS BOTH OF WHICH WERE ONCE COMMON ON THAT TRIP – AS WELL AS THE REDUCTION IN OTHER SPECIES.
The stone drops
The circle spreads
The heart is broken
I WATCHED MULTIPLES RIPPLES ON WATER SPREADING FROM A STONE FALLING INTO IT – MULTIPLE CONSEQUENCES OF A SMALL EVENT – MUCH LIKE A HEART CAN BE BROKEN BY ONE SMALL ACTION.
Lament for a lost home
I crossed the dry dusty street Following behind my feet. I touched down yesterday I walked the dry roadway
Landing then from overseas Took the bus past old Ramses Now living by a six lane highway Must be his last indignity
It’s been fifteen years this year Since we last lived and played When we all were then just children In this, Pharoah’s city of legend.
Passing the old Baron’s Palace Provides some small passing solace For broken memories of home. Of the broken stones of Fayoum
Only the corner flat still stands Of our precious childish heartlands Where our games we fought and played The street where our family stayed.
I hear the cidadas frenzy The wailing of the muezzins plea The bougainvilleas colour Smell the rich Cairean odour
I walk down the street where we ran Crossing the road past the old tram Standing by the first mango stand With juice running all down my hand
Past my favourite pastry shop In the shade where we’d always stop For a millefeuille each all around With the teeming street’s raucous sound
Every bit has all gone now Sent to oblivion somehow They’ve taken all my memories Buried the place of my stories
The distant pyramids still stand In this ancient mystical land But the place I now can recall Is just a faded print on a wall
THE RAMPANT DEVELOPMENT AROUND THE WORLD INVOLVES NOT JUST THE DESTRUCTION OF THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT BUT ALSO OF MUCH OF THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT MANY OF US GREW UP WITH. CAIRO AND, MORE SPECIFICALLY, HELIOPOLIS, WAS MY CHILDHOOD HOME BETWEEN 1960 AND 1965. I VISITED IT AGAIN IN 1980 AND 2013 AND THIS POEM LAMENTS THE DESTRUCTION OF MUCH OF WHAT I LOVED ABOUT THIS GREAT CITY
Your long auburn hair has turned grey
I see the pain in your soft brown eyes
Your soul burns gently behind them
I’m sorry, my love, for all the pain
I treated you so carelessly each day
Pushing you away each painful hour
I did not understand my cruelty
I did not see your bleeding wounds
Arms at length are not arms at all
All you asked was a gently embrace
Some help to soothe the lifelong pain
Something words cannot contain
You gave me your skin, your soul
In return nothing but my hard heart
Cutting you with only lust and logic
Two years of longing cruelly denied
Two years of loving harshly replied
Nothing but rejection and more pain
No apology can soothe the wounds
No penance can bind the damaged soul
Maybe time will heal burning hurt
I wish I could undo the hurtful words
If only I could unmake the hurtful acts
So many years, so many regrets
THERE ARE TIMES IN LIFE WHERE WE CARELESSLY HURT PEOPLE WITHOUT EVEN MEANING TO DO SO. UNTHINKINGLY, UNCARINGLY AND SOMETIMES CRUELLY. IT TOOK ME A LONG TIME TO UNDERSTAND THAT KEEPING LOVERS AT ARMS LENGTH OSTENSIBLY TO PROTECT THEM FROM SOME FUTURE HURT WAS DOUBLY HURTFUL. THEY ARE NOT ONLY HURT BY THE END OF THE RELATIONSHIP, WHEN IT HAPPENS, BUT ALSO DENIED YEARS OF AFFECTION AND INTIMACY.
I call these “Scribblings from a Trip”. They are, essentially, thoughts and observations that occurred while travelling around Europe in 2016, by train.
They reflect my thoughts about our the planet, the past or about life, generally, or they reflect on something that I saw or that happened in a specific moment during those hours or days of travel. As such they are written “immediately” unedited and unrevised.
Each “scribble” has a note attached about the context or background.
The Steel Line
I travel the steel line
Rythym beneath like time lost
The wastelands of the mind
Littered with lost hope of youth
The steel whispers to me
Of all the melancholy days
Of the great dying to come
The bitter taste of hate
Survival a matter of mere fate
This was written on the train across Serbia. The endless empty factories, the abandoned houses and buildings made me reflect on the wastelands into which we threaten to turn our earth and the “dying” which will arrive in those times. A dying brought on by hate and greed.
Like the detritus of the soul
In grey Croatian mountains
Empty windows, lost hopes
Building shells slip past
Written on the train in Croatia; it reflected the feeling of emptiness created by the wastelands of the ex-Jugoslavia
From a distant hill, turtles swim
Landing on the bleeding beach
Life still beats its wounded heart
These greats beasts of hope
Older than the damaged soul
Harbingers of future worlds
On a journey from fear to hope
The battered cross is bent and rusty
But the turtles pay no heed
Their vision of a former world
Devoid of doom and strife and fire
When holy dragons bestrode the sky
And the striped tiger still rode the hills
This is an interpretation of a dream which I had repeatedly for about 20 years, up until about 5 years ago. In that dream which I had several dozen times a year, these giant turtles would swim below. In the dream the turtles themselves imagine a world long ago before mass extinctions bought on by climate change.
Hopes and dreams
The fading picture
A single drop of hope
Your words pierce my soul
Your hands pierce my skin
Written after a partially unrequited relationship where promises, made at one time, offered me hope only to be later dashed but where, in my memories the thoughts of her hands and words pierced my heart.
When the great fish no longer swim
The steely oceans now empty
The Forests dead, dying grey
Speak of life long ago gone
This reflects my experience of diving on the world’s reefs over a period of 34 years and walking in some of the world’s great forest lands; in which places I viewed the destruction wrought by our species.
I tear my heart from its flimsy perch
I offer it to you to break asunder
A heart unbroken
Is like a life un-lived
A futile purity
A spirit that has known no night
Like a blue sky
That never saw the gold of cloud
Reflecting on the need to keep loving no matter how many times our hearts are broken
Every second soul carries its secret
Hidden behind the mask
The smile hides the grimace
Lips forming “I’m fine”
As the soul’s jagged edges rips;
We walk among the half-living.
This is about our propensity to be in pain, to be sad, to be angry or bitter but to hide those emotions beneath a false smile and to reject the offers of comfort – so that we consign ourselves to be “half-living”
I think of you gone
Her bed empty and cold
I see her face in the window
The missing smile
I think of me
I see the turtles below
And I fly
About those who have gone – either through death or through the end of a relationship or change of circumstances, such as when work or life separates two people. In reflecting on the lost of our lives, I also reflected on myself and my dreams (harking back to my repeated dreams of turtles and also another repeated dream – of flying)
Blue blue, blue water
Beneath the yellow sun
Fingers of heat sear in
My skin takes it deep
Earth beneath burns me
Body opens and breathes
About the love of sun, of ocean and of the “forbidden” pleasure of lying in the hot sun as it burns into us
A continent’s history
Written on your streets
On your buildings
Like scars across the wrists
The knives of dictators
The swords of emperors
Your arteries of concrete
Your rivers of blood
With a flag of blue and gold
Staunched with an idea
An idea of shared humanity
And washed by a million refugees
Written while walking through Berlin – during the day I had visited the remains of the Berlin Wall, the holocaust museum and the Bundestag – all buildings and places which flew the EU flag – so witnessing the transition from a fascist past to the idea of the EU where diverse people share a common future.
The putrified remains of your ambition.
Run blood red upon our soils
Your grasping hands reach for power
Tearing the living fibres from our being
Your giant ambition written in the camps
Where the persecuted lie dying, abandoned
Hands bloodied from grasping your barbed wire
Blood on your arrogant, ego-ed heads
From where the stink of your lies erupts
Your storied ambition written in a million Arab dead
Your cursed soul will be spat upon by history
This was a reflection after spending time in the Balkans, visiting the genocide museum in Sarajevo and snipers alley, as well as the fortress above Dubrovnik, as well as a myriad other reminders of the wars and genocides that flowed back and forth across these beautiful lands – and across the Middle East – all largely driven by the ambitions of politicians and the deliberate hatreds they strove to arose in the diverse people.
A Pine Wind
Beneath the casuarina’s whispered breath
Where the wind speaks of aeons past
On the ancient rocks toppling edge
Above the flooded river plains
Ten thousand cicadas calling out
Cascading their flowing sounds of life
And each random flower is a world itself
Here where distance silences a city’s chatter
Every trouble is small besides the whisper breeze
Thoughts of home aroused by the sight of an ancient beachside casuarina tree. For me the casuarina is one of the most evocative of Australian species arousing memories of years spent in the Northern Territory.
We are a ship of Poles. 22 to be precise plus one Ukrainian, 2 Germans and one Australian.
We slip slowly down the river, in the Belgian winter fog, out of Antwerp bound for Cape Town via Porto, Vigo and Wallis Bay. Our ship, the six year old, 200 metre, 30,000 tonne, Blue Master 2.
Loading and leaving Antwerp + Antwerp port wind farm
I board the ship after two days in Antwerp, a fleeting visit to Amsterdam and a two hour pursuit of the immigration office around the port of Antwerp. In keeping with the tradition of something always needing to go wrong on every trip, the agents â€œSlow Travelâ€ despite having to do little other than provide basic information in emails have clearly been unable to check that the immigration office is still at the address they have previously given.
Twas a foggy (and cold morning), leaving port, the pilot etc on the bridge
This, and the fact that they have failed to notify the security office of my passage aboard the ship, thus involving a long delay at the gate, adds $40 to my taxi fare, for which I shall seek my pound of flesh.
I cross the docks playing chicken with 100 tonne cranes, forklifts, trucks and a myriad of utes and other vehicles and board the ship. I am well prepared for my 27 day trip with 10 books loaded on my iPad, miscellaneous ideas for writing and a guitar to be learned (an exercise in wishful thinking judging by past experience). I also have Spanish, French and Italian grammar in case I find myself unable to sleep.
The security officer at the top of the gangplank summons someone to take me to wherever they plan to take me which turns out to be the shipâ€s office. There I am greeted by one of the engineers, who advises the crewman to summon the Captain and the Steward.
Most of the action, for those who are not working, takes place on the so-called â€œPoopâ€ deck.
Aside from providing a degree of childish entertainment to passengers (aside from its English meaning, poop means to fart in German) this deck, one level up from the main deck is where the mess rooms, kitchens, and ships office are located. From here going up itâ€s up past â€œAâ€ and â€œBâ€ decks (crew quarters) and then on up to â€œCâ€ where my cabin in located and â€œDâ€ decks which are both accomodation for officers and elite passengers (Eduard and Renate – my German fellow passengers). Above this is just the bridge.
Further down are the four levels of the engine room and the two levels of holds and at the front the upper deck and the foâ€c’sle.
Two many stairs, fixing the crane, the engine room and the engine
The foâ€c’sle (otherwise known as the forecastle in normal English & formerly crew quarters) is the topmost deck right at the front. There is nothing here except for the structure for the forward radar (there are three radars of which the ship uses just one at sea, normally) and forward lighting structure, plus a few rolls of razor wire which, in certain ports are wrapped around the hawsers to prevent stowaways climbing the ropes.
From my perspective the foâ€c’sle is the most important deck on the ship. Here at the front itâ€s entirely quiet save for the sound of the sea and wind. Itâ€s also the best place for watching for dolphins, whales and flying fish among other things. In good weather one can make like Kate Winslet and stand meditating on the rushing water, wind and waves.
Chris trying to be karmic and the dolphin I summoned
Crossing the equator, there are thousands of flying fish and I also expend a myriad digital images trying to photograph them as they emerge from the water just in front of the bow and flit away across the ocean, effortlessly traversing 200 metres of water in a single flight.
These days, though, the ocean is a sadly empty place. We see just a handful of pilot or other small whales, two pods of dolphin and almost no birds aside from a handful of migratory swallows and a dozen or so terms and other seabirds which I donâ€t recognise.
Of the once mighty great albatross and the frigate birds which once used to haunt the path of all the large ships, there is not a single one. The ocean is a desert.
The ship is like a living, breathing thing. No matter where you are, except right at the bow, you cannot escape the sound or vibration of the engine, seven giant, Japanese made, cylinders powering the single prop. In addition to the engine the ship creaks and groans continually as it labours over the incoming swell.
From stern to bow the ship is 199 metres and to get to the bow one walks along the main deck five metres above water level. For me, at least, this is quite mesmeric; the rushing sound and motion of the passing water and the endless changing patterns and colours, light, dark and foam. Looking down into the water one has the sense as the dark patches swirl past of looking down to the centre of the ocean.
When not in ones cabin, the mess or foâ€csle, the passengers spend most of the time on the bridge or passenger deck (deck D) soaking up the sun or sitting, on the bridge, with the watch officers watching the world go by.
Barbie on the passenger deck, the control panel on bridge, boat training
Our ship of Poles are a friendly bunch although almost all our interaction with the crew is with the Captain, Mariusz and the first (Bogdan), second (Sambor) and third mate (Kamil), the steward (Severin). Suffice to say their last names are unpronounceable, except perhaps to other East Europeans, as are almost all Polish last names. I get the sense that the passengers are tolerated, if relatively normal and not too demanding, as a sort of inconvenient added burden.
My two German fellow passengers, are Eduard and Renate. They are in their late fifties and make very good and humorous company. Eduard is a failed public servant â€“ in the sense that he worked for the German Government for most of his working life as a senior overseas aid person in various places around the world administering and supervising German aid programs â€“ but now sees all aid programs as largely a racist and paternalistic failure which, far from aiding developing countries actually hinders them.
Renate is a pharmacist and researcher and they are on their way to Namibia (Formerly German SW Africa) to do some research on the German history in Namibia.
The rudder control room, Renate and Eduard relaxing?, engine room
Unlike the entire rest of the world they view Angela Merkel as a German disaster story who is more interested in staying in power than anything else (they quote, for example, her decision to close the German nuclear industry which they say was not driven by good policy but to simply keep the Greens onside and thus keep her position). They think the German energy policy â€œEnergiewende.â€ is a disaster and are climate sceptics.
Inevitably this produces some interesting breakfast and dinner time conversations, as we traverse the fields of politics, climate change, world wars, overseas aid, energy, human development, identity.
Eduard is quite talkative which is fortunate for him because he is able to compete with me while Renate is much quieter. They have an interesting dynamic no doubt developed over 40 or so years. As an example, Eduard, has a habit of saying to Renate at least a couple of times each meal â€œCorrect me if Iâ€m wrongâ€¦.â€ which, of course she does, frequently and with alacrity. This seems to imply that Renate often thinks Eduard to be wrong.
The lifeboat with the 20 metre plunge, fixing the crane, boat drill (if we all stare at the life raft long enough it will leap over the side
Eduard and Renate have three children, Eduard II, Elsa and Marie. Eduard II lives in Luxembourg and is a currency trader or some other such activity designed to produce wealth but with no other discernible benefit to humankind. Apparently like the Americans there is something of an unfortunate tradition, in Germany, to name your first born son after his father.
Iâ€ve always seen this as a very egotistical and patriarchal tradition that, I assumed was restricted to the US, like the vast majority of stupid practices. Leaving aside the questionable ego involved in naming your child after yourself (and the inevitable confusion involved), why does this seem restricted just to men? Why not Renate II?
I guess, once again, women are not so foolish.
Like all the best parents, Eduard and Renate are slum landlords, with an apartment in Berlin for which they extort large sums of money from their two daughters and, presumably, provide no maintenance in return.
The quid pro quo, however, for Eduard in particular, is that his eldest daughter, Elsa, is attempting to re-educate him in an attempt to make him into a good human being instead of a scion of capitalist, conservative, society. As a part of this she buys him books for his birthday which she thinks may improve his understanding of society. Currently he is reading â€œThe Lies that Bindâ€ – rethinking Identity (Creed, Country, Colour, Class, Culture). But it is not clear to me which of Eduardâ€s many failings Elsa is trying to address with this book.
Fortunately both Eduard and Renate appear to understand my sense of humour and Eduard takes the frequent jokes at his expense in good humour. The Polish crew members, on the other hand, seem someone bemused and, when some look a little put out, I have to assure them that I am only joking, it is just Australian humour which, frequently, relies on taking the piss. This seems not to translate well into Polish humour, however, or simply is lost in translation.
Others, less kindly, might simply argue that my humour it is not Australian humour, at all, but simply Chris Harris humour which is understandable to only one person on earth or is, perhaps, just not funny.
Aside from meal time entertainment the trip is largely taken up by sleeping, lying in the sun, reading, taking photos and writing. I started the trip with pretensions to writing for two to four hours daily and to producing, at the end, my best-selling Man Booker prize winning novel. Sadly the first week produces nothing but five or six desultory, five to ten page long first chapters, all of which end in the bin.
Porto street art
On day seven I decide that, given my inordinate success at novel writing, I will gracefully retire to writing my periodic blog based on a series of sequential events over several years. By day ten I suddenly realise this looks more like a memoir than several unconnected blogs and by the end of the second week I have written 50 pages.
Porto street art
From this their emerges, unasked a section which I, realise, would have the good makings of a novel. I then proceed to write an outline including the characters, their stories and the plot lines. Suddenly from nothing I have an accidental memoir and an accidental novel, or, at least, the first twenty pages â€“ which is ten pages longer than I have every succeeded in getting previously. But, I caution myself, completing ten laps of a 100 lap race is no guarantee of finishing.
Aside from this the other events of note are a Saturday barbeque, a tour of the engine room and visits to Porto, in Portugal and Vigo in Spain. We get six hours in Porto which turns out to be sufficient to have a good walk around the old city and find a fine coffee shop and spot for lunch. Porto is a fine city with lots of gracious old buildings, wide streets and interesting old quarters which are decorated with good street art. But despite everyoneâ€s ravings about it I donâ€t find it more or less interesting than a myriad other beautiful old European cities.
Vigo, the northeast most city of Spain, in Galicia, is the reverse. Despite being told itâ€s not very interesting I find it an interesting city of friendly people, wide gracious streets and people friendly boulevards. Importantly I also find a supply of organic crunchy peanut butter and six good avocados to substitute for the sausage breakfast.
Our interesting tour of the engine room simply serves to demonstrate to me my ignorance of all things ship. This starts with the revelation that this ship, along with most large vessels, has a single engine and prop where I had always imagined they would all have twin engines and screws.
The ship, built in China, has a Swiss designed, Japanese made engine and whereas I still had images of a dirty oily edifice, the engine and its surroundings are an immaculately clean and entirely computerised operation comprising its seven cylinder 11620 kw engine which consumes 28000 litres of fuel oil daily, a desalinating plant capable of producing 20,000 litres of drinking water daily, its own air conditioning plant, a workshop than can do pretty much anything other than repair a broken prop or drive shaft and several massive compressors for starting the engines and generators as well as other bits and pieces such as plant for separating oil from water.
The big beast (engine), Renate in engine control room, the air conditioning and the compressors
My cabin is a gracious and comfortable seven metres by six metres with ensuite, desk, table, wardrobe, TV, radio, drinks cabinet, dining table and chairs. This used to be the fourth officerâ€s cabin but like the rest of the transport industry crews have been downsized and have lost fourth officers and radio officers.
There is also a satellite modem connected to a piece of metal whirling around somewhere in the sky. With this I can communicate, via data, with the rest of the world for a cool 150 times what I pay for my internet ashore. So itâ€s limited to WhatsApp and email. A large attachment or photo, if one is so ill advised to download one, can set you back $1 a pop.
The bridge, water patterns, at sea, the crane (again)
One of the downsides of a life at sea, at least for those who are not engaged in the manual labour of constantly maintaining the ship, is that life is almost entirely sedentary with the sole exercise being that involved in climbing the endless flights of stairs between the main deck and the bridge, six floors up.
This lack of exercise is compounded by efforts to feed the entire crew into a stupor with three cooked meals a day. The food is what I would describe as canteen food. As such it is a mixture of the very good (soups for example) and stupendously awful (every third breakfast is a single Polish sausage which both looks and tastes disgusting). If you were a vegan you would surely starve. But given a single person has to cook for 25 people in a single sitting at the same time then it is a noble effort by Robert, the cook.
Walvis Bay – entry, the lagoon and some bush regeneration
In the event that 3 meals a day is insufficient, the pantry is always stocked with bread and meat which you can slip down and consume in case the late night hunger pangs suddenly hit your well engorged stomach.
One might imagine that one could do oneâ€s daily 10,000 steps around the main deck but in reality the main deck is an obstacle course of pillars, protrusions and slippery decks that pretty much guarantee that anyone foolish enough to contemplate using it as an exercise area will quickly find themselves exchanging pleasantries with ones insurance company.
Not to be deterred we have noted that the shipâ€s owner has obligingly provided us with a gym and â€œswimmingâ€ pool.
It would be fair to say, however, that maintenance of the gym is not the highest budgetary priority for the vesselâ€s owners. The equipment consists firstly of six aerobic trainers that appear to have been purchased in a garage sale circa 1990. Assuming they were ever completely serviceable their physical decline appears remarkably similar to mine.
The rowing machine works not at all, much like my memory on a bad day. The two bikes are operational providing you have no desire to know things such as heart rate, distance, time etc. The weight resistance machines look as if Henry Ford used them to keep fit and the static weights appear to have been used for training by Dean Lukin (who won gold for Australia in weightlifting around 1980) when he was a child.
Unloading in Walvis Bay (taken from Cabin window)
Undeterred, you finish your session and look forward to a few cooling laps in the pool. Suffice to say that itâ€s possible that the average tadpole or small goldfish might manage to keep fit in the pool but for anyone over about a foot long swimming laps might prove to be awkward. In addition, unless, however, either of those animals had miraculously obtained lungs their ability to breathe would be somewhat constrained.
As for the crew and passengers, plunging into the plunge pool would tend to leave them winded or worse if they failed to notice that it was permanently empty. This is leaving aside the slight illogicality, in a ship traversing the tropics, of an indoor swimming pool in a windowless room below decks. Not to be deterred, however, one may pass a pleasant fifteen minutes in the sauna in the event that, the tropical heat, on deck, is insufficient. Or, that would be possible if the sauna was anything more than a lined timber box permanently at a temperature of 20Âºc.
Having enjoyed the pleasures of the pool and sauna, I make a mental note to research the address of the German office of Fair Trading, or its equivalent, and write them a friendly note regarding the accuracy of the shipâ€s advertising.
Water patterns, on the dock at Vigo, Walvis Bay cricket pitch (all the best places have one) and my cabin
Given the situation of the gym and the main deck the Captain, Mariujs, has wisely decided that he will take his exercise on the bridge. He thus appears three or four times daily for a spin around the outer reaches of the bridge trudging his domain once every forty seconds or so in a clockwise direction.
Fortunately the remainder of our vessel appears to be in better shape than the gym, pool and sauna although, in the event of an emergency, it seems likely that, unless the emergency were catastrophic, the entire contingent of crew and passengers are more likely to be seriously injured by a prospective evacuation in the lifeboat than by the emergency.
Such an evacuation involves boarding what looks like a large orange slug perched some twenty metres or more above the ocean. On being released it hurtles uncontrolled at high speed off the ship, like some malfunctioning fairground ride, until it plunges at high speed into the sea. At which point every occupant presumably suffers severe whiplash at best, other than those with a fear of heights who will have both whiplash and PTSD as a result of being dropped, effectively, off a cliff.
Randomly: Sunet, the bow (the only quiet place), Porto and lunch in Walvis Bay
Our only obligatory task, as passengers, is to attend the weekly boat drill. The general assumption seems to be that the average passenger is a moron since, regardless of how many times one has done the drill, one is required to wait in ones cabin until the steward arrives to guide you to the muster station, 30 metres away. Here the three of us stand, among the crew, where we are instructed to â€œobey the Masterâ€s ordersâ€.
For most this might appear straightforward but, for me, it is a somewhat traumatic idea since I have spent my entire life disobeying my Masterâ€s orders, no matter from whence they come.
In the event of a critical emergency, where obliged to evacuate, this occurs via rocket ship. One removes shoes, dons ones survival suit. Then you squat a somewhat amusing exercise if the entire crew were to do it collectively since it would look like some sort of communal bowel evacuation. All together now.
Cape Town – ocean pools and the beach
Then donning ones lifejacket you board the orange rocket ship. This particular rocket ship is not designed to launch one into space but, along with a maximum of 39 other people, so launch you semi-vertically downwards, twenty+ metres to the waters surface. Here, if it does not break apart, as the third office and safety officer, believes it is likely to do, you will hit the water surface with the impact of a speeding bullet and enable the medical world to study 40 simultaneous cases of whiplash and worse.
Alone, on the worldâ€s oceans, far from land, in your orange rocket ship, you watch your ship go down and wonder if you will ever be able to turn your neck again which is currently lolling at at angle of 45Âº to port.
The likelihood of such an eventuality seems remote given the ship is just six years old and well maintained. The life of the average seaman (the ordinary seamen and the able seamen) is a never ending life of maintenance similar to the mythical maintenance of the Sydney harbour bridge where you start painting at one end and when you finish you go back to the beginning again. Everything has to be regularly sanded and painted or oiled and greased to keep rust at bay.
Itâ€s a life of routine and, presumably, unless you have a mass of videos or a reader (I managed to read more books in a 27 day trip than in the previous few years) of some boredom. It is to some degree subject to unknown schedules determined by wind, tides and the exigencies of available berths and pilots â€“ such that the ship can end up anchored or drifting off shore for days at a time as it once did for four days off Durban.
On day 18 we reach Walvis Bay the principal Namibian Port. This is very much a port city and pretty much everything is focused around serving the cargo ships and occasional cruise ships that call here to give their passengers access to the Namib Desert and adjacent nature reserves. From the point of view of entertainment it doesnâ€t have much to recommend it and pretty much comprises a single long main street and an esplanade with a bunch of good restaurants that service the tourists passing through on their way to elsewhere. Fortunately, for me, it also has a great coffee roasters and coffee shop. â€œxxxxxxâ€ where I spend a pleasant couple of hours each day.
A twenty minute walk due west and one hits the Namib Desert but surprisingly, even in February, Walvis Bay is cool due to the mixture of fog and cloud created by the cold Benguala current and the cool winds blowing north from the Antarctic across the southern Atlantic ocean.
Having been both a German and, later, South African colony, when it was known as South-west Africa, until liberated in 1990 by SWAPO (the South West African Peopleâ€s Organisation) it retains influences of both and there is still a significant non-Black population evident. Like Zimbabwe and South Africa it confronts similar issues with large areas of the country still owned or managed by the remnants of the former colonial powers.
We depart Walvis Bay late on Sunday night to a glorious sunset and the sight of two of the worldâ€s largest drill rigs lit up like Las Vegas as they seek to find additional fossil fuels with which to put an early end to humankindâ€s current stay on planet earth or at least the existing technological society. It seems no number of calamities or warnings will stop the climate criminals.
From here it is two and a half days to Cape Town. For most of those two days we see little of anything due to the fog created by the Benguala current and the fact that it is flat calm and almost windless. Even the summer sun fails to completely burn off the fog at any time of day.
Greeted by whales, and Table Mountain
Arrival into Cape Town is a different story, however, with glorious sunshine, views of Table Mountain and a pod of whales to greet us.
Always lead from the rear, they say. Heeding this good advice, Kaptan Kaylee took the rear seat in our double kayak when it was offered. We were off on a short four-day kayaking trip in Sweden.
This has several advantages on such a trip: (1) the marineÂ serf in the front can’t see you when you are not paddling (or lily dipping which has a similar effect to not paddling but is less easy to spot) (2) You control the steering which is an advantage when your crew cannot read a map (3) When conversation is needed (eg instructions) the serf in front can hear you but you can’t hear him (complaining).
Having organised ourselves appropriately (according to pecking order) with pecker at rear and peckee at front, we set off into the wilds of Sweden. Based on history it should be a dangerous place since it is populated by Swedes who claim to be descended from theÂ VikingsÂ who pillaged half the western world. In reality this is Swedish myth since they really aren’t Vikings at all – that’s more the Danes and the Norwegians.
But, as always, in the era of Trump neither undersell yourself not let the facts get in the way of a good story. This is the reason the Swedes have to make Scandinavian noir thrillers since, if you are not the real thing, you can at least make films that pretend.
The reality was that the greatest risk to our safety came not from the Swedes but from ourselves and our “great” kayaking skills and experience which was limited, largely, to playing with plastic toys in the bath at age 3. Not counting, of course, the fact that both of us were about as fit as the average mid-western American would be after a year of bingeing at McDonalds.
In order to increase our risk factor we chose, according to the owner of Scandinavian Kayaking Adventures, Darren, the only August since 1367 (possibly when the Vikings were out raiding) which had bad weather…or at least not great weather.
The inception of our kayaking trip to BohuslÃ¤n occurred during a day, earlier in the year, when, in my overwhelming enthusiasm for shopping, I decided the best way to reward Kaylee for reaching 56 years and putting up with me, was to put as little intellectual effort as possible into buying a present.
Searching around on the internet I found The Adventure People who advertise adventure holidays for 64 year old men who still think they are 21. Or, at least, a variety of adventure holidays for people of different skill sets and fitness all around the world. And, in order to increase my commission, I can advise that both Scandinavian Kayaking and the Adventure people were excellent and efficient. Really.
After much deliberation, Kaylee picked the kayaking holiday because (a) she doesn’t dive or like sailing holidays much and (b) I don’t do long distance walking since the inside of my knees look like a something out of a Heath Robinson contraption. This pretty much made sea kayaking or jumping off high cliffs the only remaining options.
Hence, via this circuitous logic and present buying process, we arrived in Gothenburg ready for our four day kayaking trip in a double kayak. After a pleasant two hour trip up the coast to the BohuslÃ¤n region (specifically the small town of Hamburgsund) and half an hour getting ready it was time to put in, as we kayakers say. Everything was provided and packed: Boat, paddles, water, food, maps, safety equipment, compass. The only thing lacking was my sense of direction which I didn’t bring.
There are about 3,000Â islandsÂ and 5,000 islets (skerries) in the Bohuslan archipelago. Now this is both good and bad. Good because it provides lots of shelter, and places to camp which are not far apart. Bad because every island looks like every other island (well sort of) and there are a lot of them. Which means if you have my map reading skills it is easy to mistake one island for another and you normally end up in Norway when you should be in Finland.
Undeterred we set off. The first day was fine and perfect for navigation (initially). We had to paddle up a narrow channel for an hour or two. No chance of getting lost. This was no doubt Darren’s intention: Thinks…”Where can I send these idiots where they won’t get lost for at least the first half day…?”
The sun was warm, the weather was calm and the paddling was easy. I noted that the Kaptan was paddling too hard and would get tired quickly, so I suggested slowing down. This was of course part of a plan to make sure I didn’t have to paddle too hard – if Kaylee didn’t work hard I wouldn’t have to either.
We stopped for lunch at a beautiful small beach/cove. This is typical of some of the islands which are mixture of a small number with nice beaches and inlets and a lot which involve a rocky landing if you want to go ashore. But importantly there is plenty of shelter if the wind gets up. Here we encountered some Dutch people who seemed to think the water was warm and who went swimming. But then compared with the North Sea, Tasmania is warm.
Most days were a pleasant and not too stressful paddle of around four hours. All but one of our campsites had no other kayakers or boats (the plus side of going later in the season) and only the last was shared with two others.
Regrettably the Kaptan had assigned the navigation to the crew and this led to a few incorrect detours. Day one started easily, sliding up the passage between the mainland and Hamburgo Island following a large sailing boat for most of the way. No chance of getting lost. From here you head north and around the island south of Kalvo. With my keen navigation antenna on I managed to take us much further north and around the north of Kalvo, thus requiring a much longer paddle south against the prevailing wind and waves in order to get to our first campsite.
We arrive at the campsite at about the time when the Kaptan is thinking of throwing the crew overboard for incompetence. Just adjacent to Gaso Island, this is the perfect camp spot, a sheltered, sandy beach with level rocks for cooking and basking on. From the top of the island you can see far across the archipelago and we are treated not only to a magnificent sunset but to a mini wonderland of tarns and soaks with wildflowers abundant – and it’s full moon. First though, an hours sunbaking in the remains of the sun with wine and snacks is order of business. The long (well, perhaps not long but not so short) paddle is forgotten.
The morning brings more fine weather and we paddle to Porsholmen Island, just off Fjallbacka. We could go much further west but a strong wind deters us and, initially, we have a gentle two hour paddle past a myriad small islands and islets, fishing villages, lighthouses and inlets. As the the day wears on the weather changes and it becomes greyer and colder.
Luckily today’s paddle involves no major navigational errors but still we resort to mobile phone and GPS a few times in the early stages until finally we are easily guided by the sight of Fjallbacka in the distance. We approach Porsholmen but the location of the campsite is not obvious so we pull into beach which is facing the prevailing wind with the intention of having a recce for a better landing and camp spot.
I get out and, at this point, with the elegance of a rhinoceros in high heels I catch my sandals in the cockpit and plunge side first into the water, soaking myself. On top of everything it is now raining lightly.
The Kaptan is highly concerned that I may have hurt one of my many joints that no longer work properly; wonky knee, sore ankle, bad back…but all that is hurt is my pride and my body temperature which is now, in the cold wind, close to hypothermic. Falling in the ocean is standard practice since I’m required to have at least one misadventure every holiday or trip. This is a requirement to be a member of the Idiot Traveller club.
The Kaptan goes off to recce while I nurse my wounded pride. She reports that we must re-launch and paddle around to the other side.
This is another beautiful camp spot which we have all to ourselves – the two Norwegians who are there paddle off as we arrive; the lateness of the year means everyone else has disappeared. Just as we pull in the sun reappears. There is a nice warm cabin and toilet nearby but they are locked and surrounded by a fence. Clearly whoever owns it does not believe in socialism. We put up the tent and find a spot out of the wind in the evening sun. Normal service is resumed.
Day three sees us paddle to Fjallbacka. There are two main objects in sight. A warm shower at the youth hostel and a good coffee. But when we arrive the youth hostel is still closed. It’s 10 am and the Swedes clearly have adopted Turkish work hours. So we wander off into town.
Fjallbacka is an elegant little town famous for, among other things, the fact that Ingrid Bergman visited every summer bringing a bunch of other famous film actors and directors – and where she has a square named after her. Its mountain is known for its views and the passage that passes between two parts of it.
We wander the streets firstly looking for good coffee – eventually ending up at the bakeryÂ where we get a grade 6 coffee. Then we have to do the Kaptan’s shopping (clothes etc) and food shopping. This is an obligatory routine on every holiday. The Kaptan goes shopping for gifts for every living human being she knows on the planet and the crew sits meditating on the nature of consumer society. Once this routine is finished, the visit is rounded off by hot showers and phone recharges.
At 1 pm we are back in the kayak and heading for Lilla Brattholmen Island. The wind is now pretty strong and Kaptan is unhappy. Her unhappiness is compounded by the failure of the navigator to navigate correctly and instructions are given to check the GPS. Tolerance levels are now at about 2 out of 10. I check and, sure enough, the Kaptan is right. Due to a following sea and winds we have been moving at approximately the speed of The World’s Fastest Indian,Â Â (note this has nothing to do with kayaking but I just like the film) meaning we are about halfway to Norway by the time we change course.
We alter course, meaning that what could have been an even longer & unnecessary detour is avoided. The bad news is that there is but one tiny beach to land on and it is exposed to cyclonic force winds from the south-west. There is one other kayak beached there. The only solution is to find the camping location they have and join them.
This involves carrying every last item needed for the night, about 100 metres across the beach up a 20 metre sheer cliff, across a moorland that would have given Heathcliff pause and down the other side. All this while being threatened with an early death through being caught in a sudden updraught of wind and carried off into the ocean. Intrepid adventurers, as we are, we succeeded, however. The two other erstwhile campers are safely ensconced in their tent and don’t emerge for a while.
For us it is tea and siesta time…leading into diner. Afternoon tea/slash dinner time can sort of merge into one on these trips with good planning. We meet our neighbours who are a German/UK (Boris eat your heart out) couple, Eiko and Pascale, pretty much the first people we’ve met on our little trip.
The spot in which we are camped is quite beautiful with a mass of heath plants, lichen, and great views on all sides (once you get out of the camp area). The other three spot a seal. I am convinced it is a bird but am firmly in a minority of one and don’t have my binoculars. So a seal it is.
We pass a pleasant and convivial dinner together and turn in for the night wishing for fine weather to allow us to pack up in the dry in the morning.
Day Four arrives cold, wet and windy. We decide to paddle ensemble directly to the take out point which is TanumStrand – the alternative being the recommended sightseeing tour around a few islands. It turns out this is only a short paddle of about an hour and we arrive to find that there are hot showers and toilets on the beach. The locals have apparently failed to realise that it is not a hot summer’s day and are taking their money dip and complaining about the prevalence of stinging jellyfish. I refrain from telling them it’s because they eat too many predator fish.
Having showered we wander off in search of somewhere dry, warm and with coffee to await Darren’s pick up. Fortunately the TanumStrand is kind enough to provide all of these for free whether intentionally or otherwise. Two hours later we are on the road back to Gothenburg.
1980: The year of Rubik’s cube, of the eruption of Mt St Helens, of the establishment of CNN, the start of the Iran/Iraq war, the murder of John Lennon…and Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine.
All important events, of course, but…more importantly 1980 was the year we sailed the Nile. I say we meaning myself and a random group of French travellers I met in Aswan. As one does. We had all arrived (I think) – or at least I had, the previous day from Abu Simbel.
For those in the know Abu Simbel is both aÂ monument to the ingenuity of the ancient Egyptians and the rank stupidity of modern industrial society. Abu Simbel is not the temple’s original name – it’s named after a young Egyptian boy who led explorer Giovanni Belzoni to the site – the main temple was called “the “Temple of Ramesses, beloved byÂ Amun“. Construction of the temple complex started in approximately 1264 BC and lasted for about 20 years, until 1244 BC.
Inside Ramses temple, Abu Simbel
Flying into Abu Simbel, Lake Nasser in the distance
The four great statues of Ramses II
The temple is entirely a monument to Ramses II’s ego – nothing changes with Kings and politicians -Â and twice a year, (October 22 and February 22), allegedly his coronation and birth,Â the sun strikes directly through the temple door and illuminates the statues of Ramses and two of the three Gods with whom he is seated. The fourth is the God of the underworld – so stays in darkness.
Legend has it that for all of modern science and engineering it proved impossible to site the temples to recreate, precisely, what the ancient Egyptians had done – so the sun now enters on different days that it would originally have done (this may be an urban/desert myth, I’m not certain – in other words fake news).
Lake Nasser, behind the dam, is huge. It stores nearly six trillion cubic feet (157 km3) of water! This is about four times the amount of water stored behind Hoover Dam (USA, Lake Mead) and Three Gorges Dam (China) (Chao et al., 2008).
But more importantly, in terms of important globally understood yardsticks this is 340,000 Sydharbs approximately (1 Sydharb = 500 gigalitres) – more Sydharbs than you can poke the proverbial stick at (but perhaps my maths is wrong – it seems a lot). For the uneducated, Sydharbs are the global volume measuring standard – based on the amount of water in Sydney harbour)
On the Nile: women and girls gather water; Nile fishermen
The construction of the dam meant that millions of tonnes of silt normally carried to the Nile delta were now stopped by the dam – meaning that farmers now had to fertilise their crops with superphosphates. Aside from that there were the 90,000 displaced Egyptians and Sudanese, the erosion of the Nile delta and associated increase in salinity and the increase in prevalence of schistosomiasis/bilharziaÂ among other things.
That is not to say there were no benefits from the Aswan High Dam. It produces a significant amount of electrical power (enough originally for about 50% of Egypt’s needs, now less than 15%) that allowed electrification of “rural” Egypt. It controlled floods, it allowed permanent irrigation of many areas and it led to a fishing industry on Lake Nasser.
Having arrived in Aswan, I wandered down to the Nile from my Aswan Hotel – I don’t remember a lot about it after 39 years except it was on the 2nd floor, it had a bed (nothing else, nada), tiled floor and it’s walls were white – strange what sticks in the memory. My mission was to try and get a ride on a felucca (a traditional Egyptian Nile sailing boat). But being on my own made it almost impossibly expensive, especially on my budget, never mind much less interesting than travelling on a boat in a group. So I wasn’t hopeful.
The beauty of the Nile
Unlike today, where if you turn around you will trip over a tourist or possibly 40, 1980s Aswan was largely devoid of tourists. So a group of five white people haggling with Saiid, a Nubian, stood out like the proverbial dogs balls. I wandered over – it was my big break. They were leaving next day for Luxor, five daysÂ and 216 kms downstream (or, as the Felucca sails, nearer to 300-350 kms since you cross and recross the river with the wind). They agreed to take me as an extra passenger (and financial offset) and I was off with four non-English speaking Frenchies.
My six companions were, Saiid, our esteemed Captain, Francoise, Alain, Bernard,Â Miriame and Caroline. We spent some three weeks travelling together, down the Nile, visiting Karnak (in Luxor), the valley of the Kings, Alexandria and Cairo. I even flew back to Paris with Caroline. But unlike today where, if we like the people we travelled with, we are forever linked by social media, I never heard from or saw any of them again and I occasionally wonder where they are, what they did with their lives and if they are all alive or not.
Clockwise from top left: Bernard and Caroline on the way to Valley of the Kings (VOK); Alain at Giza, Alain and Bernard on the oars, The crew (l to r Francoise, Caroline, Bernard, Alain, Saiid, Miriame), Alain at Philae, Bernard and Francoise on the road to VOK
Feluccas are the traditional Nile boat, single sail and they travel by tacking backwards and forwards across the Nile using the winds out of the desert. In 1980 few people were taking the felucca trip down the Nile, so we wereÂ source of constant interest to everyone we met – in this case no one other than locals. While we saw a couple of large cruise boats heading upriver, from a tourism perspective we felt a bit like Robinson Crusoe.
Before leaving Aswan we had to visit the Philae temples, which sit on an island in the middle of the Nile below the original Aswan (low) dam. Like Abu Simbel these temples would have been flooded by the original dam and to save them an entirely new island was build and the temples were reconstructed there.
Philae temples below the Aswan low dam
Ancient cities such as Edfu were entirely deserted. After a brief taxi donkey ride from the river we spend several hours exploring the complex entirely undisturbed by anyone else.
On day three we ran out of wind. This required a us to bring our best rowing experience to the fore, taking it turns on the oars. By midday, however, the initial burst of olympic like enthusiasm for the task at hand and confronted by the prospect of another few hours of rowing in the heat the crew succumbed to the lure of a tow and we hitched the felucca to a cargo boat heading downriver.
Nile taxi (left); tea break on the Nile; Nile sunset (bottom right)
Nights are spend camped on the boat, where we eat, drink and smoke into the middle hours of the night; days are a gourmet feast of Egyptian sights and sounds, ancient cities, small villages, groups by the Nile, water taxis. And each day is embraced at both ends by golden sunsets and warm breezes. It is the blue riband of travel, scarcely to be found these days. And each day and night the Nile flows by carrying its myriad sights and stories. It’s the backbone of Egypt, its lifeline, its water supply, its power supply, its sewer, its drinking water, its bathing and washing water, its highway.
Five days after leaving Aswan we arrived in Luxor. Like all good tourists we visited Karnak and the Valley of the Kings. It was a rather different experience to today, I imagine. I remember wandering Karnak, both in the mornings and the evening and during the son et lumiÃ¨re with no more than 20 others spread around the temple complexes. We had no worries about security, terrorists, crowds. Nothing needed to be booked or arranged in advance.
Our trip to the Valley of the Kings involved simply jumping on six bikes and heading off for the day. Along the way there were numerous side trips to fallen monuments and opportunities for visits to small traders. From high on the hills you can see the sliver of green, in the desert, that is the Nile. Never was any country so dependent on a single river. In so many ways it is truly astounding that this country built such a rich heritage and history from such a poor land and the Valley of the Kings simply serves to emphasise this. Astounding wealth and beauty in an empty, hostile and largely barren (and least for human purposes) landscape.
Clockwise from top right: The tomb of Seti, tomb of Ramses VI, Hassan Araby’s daughter, fallen statue of Ramses II, The Nile valley in the distance
From Karnak and the Valley of the Kings we travelled south by train to Cairo and Alexandria.
Saiid Hassan Araby and Family on the road to the Valley of Kings; Deir El Bahari and Temple of Hapsetshut
Cairo, for me, is my childhood home and the place where I grew to love (most) aspects of Middle Eastern culture and hospitality (see: The hospitality of Strangers in a Strange Land). I spent five years here between five and ten (1960-65) and this was my third trip back to the city. When we lived in Cairo it had a population of 3.5 million. Today that is closer to 20 million and it remains one of the world’s fastest growing city.
City of the dead (centre); Mohammed Aly Mosque (right)
CairoÂ has its roots in the ancient settlement of Memphis, now 24 km southwest of theÂ city. It was founded in 2,000 BC and ruled by King Menes who united Upper and Lower Egypt. It remains one of the world’s most fascinating cities and, if you suspend your tourist “danger” monitor, one of the most friendly and interesting.
Glass blowing (left) – in Cairo
Wandering the ancient souk (markets) near the city of the dead and Â Al-Azhar UniversityÂ and having walked across Cairo from my hotel, I was approached by a friendly Cairean. Like a myriad other names and places his name is long forgotten but I shall call him Ahmet, after our Egyptian cook (yes, colonialism at its best).
As usual he wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing. At this point he told me he was the “guardian” of several closed mosques and would show me up the minarets if I was interested. At this point all the stories about idiot travellers robbed and left for dead in the backstreets of strange cities came to mind.
“Ah, well, I thought “nothing ventured nothing gained. So commenced a day of experiences only open to idiots who cast aside the normal warnings. After trips to the top of three locked minarets, he (whose name is long forgotten) invited me back to his flat.
Now I saw the headlines about tourist kidnapped, drugged, operated on for their kidneys and left for dead. But I accepted regardless. Five minutes later he opened the door to his tiny flat. Inside were approximately ten other men all in a lather of excitement. It turned out the occasion was a soccer game: Egypt versus some other African nation.
A childhood in Cairo
I spend an hour in a room with a dozen frenzied Arabs screaming and throwing things at the television, calling down Allah’s curses on the opposition. If the second coming was happening in my guide’s front room they couldn’t have been more excited. About 4 pm the match ended (yes those were the days when football happened during the day). I prepared to leave. Mustafa grabbed my arm. He requested five dollars (about $20 in today’s money). When I asked what for, he replied “You wait”. Fifteen minutes later he returned, grabbed me and two others remaining and we went off to the tea house. Except it wasn’t. In my naivety I had assumed all of these little cafes with people smoking were tea houses.
Temple of Edfu; getting a tow on the Nile; gathering water.
It turns out a significant proportion were hash cafes and Mustafa has just used my $5 to buy a big nail of hashish. We sit in the cafe for about two hours progressively smoking the entire amount via a water pipe as the proprietor brings us charcoal to heat the hash. Now anyone smart, knowing that these guys probably smoke hash for breakfast, lunch and dinner and I have only consume drugs once every blue moon, would probably have made off after half an hour in a reasonable ambulatory state. But no. Yours truly waits until it is late, dark and he is totally shitfaced.
At this point, several kilometres from my hotel, in one of the seedier parts of Cairo, with no taxis or other transport visible, I lurch off into the night trying to head in what I think is the correct direction. I have no idea where I am going. The streets are dark and unpaved.
This is normally the point in the story in which the Idiot Traveller ends up in the gutter, robbed and mugged, at best, or dead at worst. Fortunately, I am still alive to tell the tale; an hour and four kilometres later I turn the corner and see my hotel. It is the closest thing to a Damascene miracle since Christ was a boy. Except in this case, in Cairo.
The pyramids at Giza
Hash and football nights aside, Cairo and the nearby sites of Giza, Memphis and Sakkara are so rich in history and glorious buildings and sites that one could spend a lifetime exploring. Our time, on this occasion was limited to a week, just enough time to visit Giza, Sakkara and Alexandria. Then it was time to part never to meet again.
The Valley of the Kings (left top and centre); Sakkara stepped pyramid; above the valley of the Kings, 1980
They say that Einstein said that the sign of an idiot was doing the same thing twice (actually I think the word was repeatedly) and expecting a different outcome. This is the thesis of the Idiot Traveller. I am a world expert, while travelling, in repeating mistakes.
I am also happy to go on accrediting the saying (in reality it was “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results“) to Einstein, although there is no evidence he ever said it.
So having done little travelling in the last year it was important to follow the the creed of the Idiot Traveller. You start with booking your car, for pick up on arrival in Tirana, on the wrong day. Cost: an extra â‚¬30. You compound this by booking it for return two days after you leave, cost â‚¬60 (wasted). How does one do this? Buggered if I know.
Then based on these mistakes you book your car in Podgorica a day late and at the airport. Which isn’t useful when you are arriving by bus. Cost â‚¬20 (taxi fare) and â‚¬30 (extra days rental).
Then of course there is the small issue of leaving bits of my DNA everywhere. No, not in that sense. Two pairs of sunglasses, adaptor, hat, keys (requiring me to be rescued via a new set of keys sent by taxi). The list goes on. You’d think that after 55 years of travelling (yes I was first stuck unaccompanied on a plane at 8) that you’d learn to check twice before moving.
So, our first job was to persuade the rental company to find a car a day early. This might have been easier if I hadn’t decided to try and entertain the rental car person with my witty repartee about drivers in Turkey and Georgia; asking him if Albanian drivers drove like Turks or Georgians (the thesis being that Turks are good drivers and Georgians are simply people in cars with a death wish).
That’s right. Jokes don’t work well in second languages. He looks at me strangely and replies “No they drive like Albanians. Here we are Albanians”
Panda 2 (right): cheaper to run and prettier
On finding we have a Fiat Panda and him asking if a Panda is ok for us. I tell him it’s fine. Cheap to run. Just find a patch of bamboo. That joke doesn’t work either. At which point Kaylee tells me I’m an idiot (traveller) and the car guy thinks so too.
Solitary confinement creates trauma..
Albania, was until 1991 Europe’s equivalent of North Korea. An entirely closed and paranoid society. Its long time leader, Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodgeha) believed Albania was the only true communist society on earth and refused to even associate with Russia or China after they fell out.
No one was allowed to leave Albania and few people, if any, entered. The society was a police state with everyone subject to strict controls and surveillance. Any breach of the rules and everyone in your family paid the price.
If Albania were a person (Al Bania) he would be a very disturbed individual and this, perhaps, explains Albania’s many idiosyncrasies.
The House of Leaves
Albania’s trauma is well documented in a great little museum called the “House of Leaves” located in central Tirana just across from the orthodox cathedral.
Albania was, for fifty years, the archetypal police state. Every aspect of public and private life was controlled via the state security apparatus.
Tens of thousands of Albanians were recruited as state spies to eavesdrop and spy on their fellow citizens. Virtually no one was allowed to enter or leave the country. The society was completely closed. Everything was rationed. In 1991 there were a mere 3000 cars in the entire country (heaven!!)
The House of Leaves Museum tells the story of the ubiquitous state security apparatus. The walls list the thousands executed, imprisoned or persecuted by the state under the leadership of Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodgeha).
Mercedes for everyone
One of the first things one notices about Albania are the German cars, especially the Mercedes. For a poorish European country it has a remarkable number of expensive cars. That, in itself would not be an issue except that there is a German car gene that emerges in Albanians driving German cars…it’s a sort of arsehole gene which convinces them that they can drive as they want regardless of road rules, safety or manners.
If you drive a Mercedes you may overtake where you want, when you want. You may drive at whatever speed you feel like but, most importantly, it is compulsory to treat every other car driver as a second class citizen, cutting them off , cutting in, abusing them and generally. No level of psychopathy is too extreme for Mercedes owners.
This specific problem (call it the Mercedes syndrome) is compounded by an odd Albanian trait which essentially persuades all Albanians that it permissible to simply stop wherever they want, for whatever reason. Need to grab a coffee. No worries! Simply stop in the middle of the road, blocking all traffic, and nick in for take away. Feel like a park? Don’t worry about finding a parking place. Just stop. Need to pick your nose? Look at your phone? Think about the meaning of life? Just stop where you are. No worries.
Mercedes, yes, religion and communism, No!!
One of the side effects of 50 years of totalitarian communism (a sort of oxymoron) apart from a love of symbols of outrageous consumerism (eg Mercedes, BMWs and Audis) is that all the most obvious remaining signs of the era have been systematically erased, except perhaps in Albanians commitment to secularism (it is the least religious society on earth some say).
The giant statues of Stalin, Lenin and Enver Hoxha now hang out discreetly behind the museum, hidden from the everyday of Albanians, waiting, one day perhaps, to be restored as a part of history rather than as the open wound of the recent past, as they might currently be seen. We visited Stalin, Lenin and Hoxha, where they were hanging out, as part of the city walking tour (highly recommended) which also included Enver Hoxha’s house – also closed for now as part of the same concept of keeping the recent past hidden.
Ironically, directly across from Hoxha’s erstwhile house is a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet (apparently Albania’s first fast food outlet – as yet Albania has no McDonalds) the sign of which reflects nicely in Hoxha’s living room window – a symbol, so our guide tells us of the victory of capitalism.
The remnants of the recent past are everywhere. In the park on the corner are one of the 270 bunkers built all over Tirana/Albania from which the valiant Albanians would repel the perfidious Americans, Russians, Chinese etc. And in the middle of the park a piece of the Berlin wall sent to commemorate the fall of communism. It sits next to a replica of the entrance to the chrome mines where political prisoners were sent to mine and die.
The abandonment of the past is not restricted to images but to buildings also. On our tour we pass the Pyramid, constructed after Hoxha’s death and intended to be a massive memorial to his memory. Today, after several uses over the years, including as a Telecom building it lies empty.
Despite the irreligious attitudes of Albanians, the wasteful symbols of formal religion abound. A new and, as yet, unfinished mosque donated by Turkey (a miniature version of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul) – costing billions because the Turks need to waste their spare billions on something – and a cathedral incorporated in 2014 and incorporating an impressive ceiling with the largest mosaic in the Balkans.
Speed limits and speed humps (aka sleeping policemen to the Poms)
In theory there are speed limits in Albania but everyone ignores them. There is a good reason for this as Albanian speed limits are totally idiosyncratic. You can be speeding down a freeway at 80-100 kph and next minute there is a 30k speed limit. The reason? An intersection. Never mind that only one tractor and a passing camel have emerged from that intersection since Christ was a boy. And it’s like that at every intersection. So everyone just ignores them.
Similarly most stretches of superhighway have 30, 40 or 50 k limits for no apparent reason other than either (a) a peculiar Albanian sense of perverse humour (let’s really give drivers the shits) or (b) let’s collect lots of traffic fines by imposing weird and ridiculous speed limits.
If this were not enough, Albanians have an obsessive love for speed humps. Everywhere. And often. And in the weirdest places.
That is bad enough in itself but for whatever reason the accepted speed to traverse a speed hump is apparently 0.1 kph. So everyone slows to a virtual stop even though most of the humps could be comfortably crossed at 50 kph. The reason for this excessive caution is not clear but maybe goes back to when there were only 3000 cars in the country and a car cost you the equivalent of 10 years wages.
Having said this, most of the speed humps are entirely unnecessary since traffic in Tirana makes traffic in Istanbul or Sydney look like a paragon of fast flowing traffic. The city is one large traffic jam – but nevertheless it has many redeeming features from a plethora of tree lined pedestrian streets, good markets, to great night life, good food (especially the boreks) and lots of friendly, helpful people.
Meeting the Deputy Minister for Justice
You know how it is? You rock up in your AirBnB in Divjake after going out for dinner and go to tell your host (who speaks no English) that you will be leaving very early in the morning so will not need breakfast. Not to worry. she indicates that her daughter, Fjoralda, speaks good English. So we sit on the lounge chatting about life, death, Albania etc…Eventually I ask Fjoralda about her work and life and it turns out that Fjoralda Caka is the Albania Deputy Minister for Justice. You never know who you will meet on the lounge in Divjake.
A day at the beach and in the mountains
This was the archetypal Australian at the beach experience. Arriving in Divjake – which unlike many of the ugly beachside towns find throughout the Mediterranean (see eg most of Spain, most of the Albanian and Montenegrin coastal architecture) – has made a real effort with its buildings and streetscapes.
It’s a hot day and we head for the beach – which turns out to be a wasteland of eroded dune systems – systematically vandalised by thousands of cars – dirty looking water in a lagoon etc. We dutifully pay our beach entry fee anyway and head out on the long ricketty boardwalk which had been built over the lagoon out to the ocean proper…
The boardwalk ends at a bar on the beach which, at least serves good gin and tonic and plays some good blues…while we contemplate the miles of cars and umbrellas on the beach and long for a proper Australian beach.
If you can criticise Albanian beaches (or at least the ones we saw because we heard Himare and other places are much better) – you can’t criticise the mountains which are spectacular and a welcome escape from the heat and crowds of the coast. if you are a walker or mountain lover – Albania’s alps are beautiful and rugged.
Skanderbeg and KrujÃ«
Then there is the famous Skanderbeg. Now you may never have heard of Skanderbeg but every Albanian has. There is a statue on every second street corner in Albania. There are Skanderbeg streets, Skanderbeg parks and a giant Skanderbeg museum to be found in KrujÃ« just outside Tirana.
But there is more. Not content with populating the country with more Skanderbeg statues than there are Albanian citizens, they are busy erecting Skanderbeg statues in every other country in the world. No Skanderbeg in your country? Don’t worry one is coming soon.
Skanderbeg mania and idolatry not withstanding, KrujÃ« is well worth a visit. The old citadel incorporates not just the aforementioned museum, but the ethnographic museum, a great old church now converted to a mosque and incorporating some nice frescoes, among other things such as great views, the Skanderbeg olive tree….
See the full set of images on Flickr below click links):
I must have been in my teens when “Marrakesh Express” came out (1969). Those were heady days. Before Hendrix (1970) and Joplin died (1970). The Lizard King was still alive (died 1971). We were still trapped in Hotel California. Barclay James Harvest would play at our school a year or two later, followed by Genesis. We paid them ï¿¡200 and a year later they were playing in Brighton forï¿¡2000. There are some music pundits that say that Marrakesh Express is among the worst pop songs ever written. But we didnâ€t care because to us it represented something totally different from the school environment in which we were trapped.
I can remember, to this day, singing the lyrics of the CSN song and fantasising with my teenage mates about heading off to Morocco – before we even really know what drugs and sex were. Instead I made it to the Costa del Sol, with two other school friends, where we got drunk on cheap champagne and risked imprisonment by hiring a car on a provisional licence and then driving around the Pyrenees with no insurance. That was the limit of our budget, nerve and time.
Had we met any women in Spain, I know that I, for one, would have had no idea what to say, let alone anything else. Being brought up with two brothers and attending an all male school for all but two of your school years will do that. It took me another 15 odd years (odd being the operative term) before I got over that handicap in life and, I’m sure, some of my female friends will argue I never got over it.
So, I guess, Morocco had been on the proverbial bucket list for somewhere around 50 years before I finally landed in Fes, earlier this year. A trip taken somewhat wiser about things like drugs and sex (or at least I like to believe so) but just as profoundly ignorant about Morocco and most of Africa.
Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes Traveling the trainÂ throughÂ clear Moroccan skies Ducks and pigs and chickens call, animal carpet wall to wall American ladies five-foot tall in blue
Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind Had to get away to see what we could find Hope the days that lie ahead bring us back to where they’ve led Listen not to what’s been said to you
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express? Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express? They’re taking me to Marrakesh All aboard the train, all aboard the train
I’ve been saving all my money just to take you there I smell the garden in your hair Take the train from Casablanca going South Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth
Colored cottons hang in the air Charming cobras in the square Striped djellabas we can wear at home Well, let me hear ya now
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
They’re taking me to Marrakesh
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
They’re taking me to Marrakesh
All aboard the train, all aboard the train, all aboard
And so I boarded my RyanAir flight. As any wise traveller knows this, in itself, was my first mistake. Non Gaelic speakers may not know it but Ryan is the Gaelic word for â€œcomplete shiteâ€. And if it’s not it should be. If you don’t have a bad back when you board you will when you are carried off. The seats are made from some form of indestructible rigid plastic and, far from reclining, are actually set in a bolt upright position.
My second mistake in Morocco was breaking rule 2 (the first being don’t travel RyanAir) â€“ which is don’t try and cram a four week itinerary into a two week period. One would imagine any Idiot Traveller would know this after 60 odd years of travelling. But no. So Morocco turned out to be like the proverbial curate’s egg, I.e good in parts â€“ meaning of course that a revisit is required to make amends.
This is a country which is fundamentally Muslim and traditional in it’s Berber culture. It’s population is about 75% Berber and about 25% Arabic.
Morocco hasn’t been overly corrupted by tourism, and is also a relatively modern in ways that many African countries are not yet. Good public transport, good drinking water, great food, good accommodation and remarkable accomodating to tourists. So it’s really the best of both worlds. Politically is is relatively liberal and socially and religiously it falls somewhere between a historically liberal and secular muslim society, such as Turkey (perhaps was), and the more conservative societies of Iran and Saudi.
On the road to Merzouga, Morocco
My two week trip took me on a circuit via Fes, to Volubilis the ancient Roman city, to Merzouga, in the desert, and then on through the Atlas mountains to Marrakech before finishing my trip in Casablanca and then flying back out from Fes.
It’s a day long trip into the desert but it’s a trip that should really take at least two days and once you are there it’s a full day trip back to Fes or onto Marrakech. In the ideal world this should be a week’s circuit at minimum. A couple of days out. Three or four in the desert and a couple of days back. And even that is scratching the surface.
On the road to Merzouga
My first AirBnB was in the heart of the Medina, which is reputedly the largest and oldest in Africa. Morocco greeted me with freezing weather and the tail end of a few days of rain. And it turned out that the AirBnb, I’d selected, while having many redeeming features, not least it’s location, could well have doubled as the site for the winter Olympics.
Absent any heating the only solution, after about 4 pm, was either to go out or to bury oneself in bed wearing every possible scrap of clothing. Still the foodÂ cooked by our friendly hosts was good and his brother, usefully, also owned a cafe about 50 metres up the road which allowed for evening entertainment and supplies not normally availableÂ in the Medina.
I shared the paid bit of the accommodation with two other guests, an Australian woman, Tiffany and a French woman, Alex, with whom I would visit the desert out near Merzouga.
Mohamed and the monkeys at the ski resort
The Idiot Traveller rule for all new places is to have at least a half day, if not a full day. for organisational purposes. Work out where you are going to go. Find the teller machines, the railway and bus station, the best cafes, the interesting bars, the live music. Work out the timetables, plan your route, make your bookings if necessary.
Then a minimum of two days to put that plan into effect. Thatâ€s the theory but often the first day turns into a sort of desultory blob of a day where you get up late, have a brunch, get some money out, study your map over a coffee, stroll around a bit and climb up the nearest hill (if there is one) where you can buy a wine and look at the city below. That then becomes your spare day so you need four days minimum instead of three. So that was day one in Fes. Meaning the first part of day two is taken up doing what you should have done on day one.
My second day in Fes involved a side trip to Volubilis, the ancient and former capital or Roman Mauretania. Not that I was aware that the Romans even came this far south-west but clearly they did since just an hour from Fes is bloody great Roman ruin, estimably well preserved.
This was an Idiot Traveller instant decision – the sort you make when you havenâ€t been forced to make decisions of any importance for so long that you can no longer remember how to make them. Shall I go, shanâ€t I go, shall I go, shanâ€t I goâ€¦for about four hours. With the result that by the time I actually headed for the station it was already about 11 am.
So you jump the train omitting to note that one should get off at the second stop in Meknes. As a result you descend at the first station in town thus finding yourself marooned several kilometres from the â€œgrand taxisâ€ which you are supposed to share to go to Moulay Idriss, the nearest town, and then on to Volubilis.
The holy city of Moulay Idriss
Here I encounter ChloÃ« Mayoux who has made the same mistake as I but hasnâ€t yet realised that she has made that mistake. ChloÃ« is a half French, half British being. She canâ€t decide if she is French or British and thus was a sort of Brexit before Brexit ever existed.
ChloÃ« says she feels more British than French even though she exhibits every sign of being psychologically about 90% French and prefers to speak French. She is being cajoled by an elderly Moroccan who is trying, illegally, to sell her an unofficial tour of Volubilis.
On seeing me he determines that I shall (a) be his second victim and (b) by persuading me he will also be able to persuade ChloÃ« as the cost to each of us will be halved. Unfortunately for him I perform the Scots gambit, a tourism form of a chess move which prevents one being checkmated by a clever tourism operator and saves a lot of money.
So I persuade ChloÃ«, clearly against her better judgement, to share a petit taxi to where we can get a shared grand taxi.Â
ChloÃ«’s protective alarm systems are at Code Red. I can sense the hackles rising on the back of her neck as she tries to decide if I am (a) an axe murderer (b) a sex slave trader (c) merely a dirty old man who is likely to annoy and harass her. Having made the judgement that the latter is the most likely and reasonably benign outcome, but clearly still being very doubtful, we set off.
Communication is sparse as ChloÃ« follows the female strategy of â€œdonâ€t think Iâ€m going to encourage your interest in me by speaking to youâ€.Â This is a sort of partial inverse of the female complaint about being sexually invisible after about age 50.
In fact the same sense of invisibility applies to older men but, not only that, one is burdened with the perils of being perceived as a potential serial molester of young women if one is the least bit friendly to any female stranger under the age of 30. It is perhaps poetic justice for several thousand years of patriarchy.
Arriving eventually at Volubilis I can tell that the last thing ChloÃ« wants is to be forced to do the tour of the ruins with me. Which is fine because I feel the same way. For me being forced to undertake tours as part of a group, however small, is about as satisfying is it is for my partner to be forced to take me shopping. It ruins the entire experience.Â Still we bump into each other a few times as we tour the ruins and by the time we come to return it appears that ChloÃ« is no longer at code red.
Volubilis itself is a delight. Itâ€s large and well preserved as Roman ruins go. It sits high on a mini-plateau with spectacular views all around – especially good for sunset viewing – and it has a plethora of well preserved buildings, mosaics and bath houses.
This was the ancient capital of the Roman-Berber kingdom of Mauretania and, as such, was full of grand buildings. Historically this was also the capital of numerous empires. Built in and occupied since the 3rd century BC, Volubilis had seen its share of residents â€“ Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans â€“ before being taken back by the locals by 285 AD.
The city remained occupied by Latin Christians, then Muslims, then the Idrisid dynasty, the founders of modern Morocco. In the 11th century, it was abandoned when the seat of power moved to Fes.Â The ruins remained substantially intact until they were devastated by an earthquake in the mid-18th century and subsequently looted by Moroccan rulers seeking stone for building Meknes.
The buildings include a massive arch to the Emperor Caracalla. It was built in 217 by the city’s governor, Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus, to honour the Emperor and his mother. Caracalla was himself a North African and had recently extendedÂ Roman citizenshipÂ to the inhabitants of Rome’s provinces.
By the time the arch was finished both Caracalla and his mother, Julia had been murdered by a usurper – perhaps a warning against misplaced vanity. Other major buildings include the Capitol dedicated to Juno, Jupiter and Minerva and the Basilica . The Capitol was built under the obscure (at least to me) Emperor Macrin (the ancestor of the current French President, perhaps).
The Arch, Basilica and Capitol, Volubilis
Volubilis is sufficiently intact that, wandering around the ruins, in and out among the baths, houses and mosaics one can almost imagine the footsteps of a thousand years ago, echoing down the stone streets. In winter this is exploration of the past at its best. There are few places in the world to see better examples of Roman mosaics, in situ.
Volubilis. Every step a joy
Our return trip to Fes is more relaxed and somewhat hilarious, or at least the first part. Our â€œgrand taxiâ€ is an old Mercedes which is already completely full save the front passenger seat. This means that ChloÃ« and I have to share that seat and I make the mistake of not insisting on being in middle.
Being a manual car this means that every time the driver changes gear ChloÃ« has to perform a feat of yoga practice combining a new move, known as upward dog, combined with a right hand twist in order to avoid getting groped by the taxi driver each time he changes gear. This is repeated about 40 times on the trip becoming increasingly hilarious as time passes. Maybe it was the Roman air. Our return to the station is made easy by a Moroccan woman who goes out of her way to accompany us the 500 metres to the station out of the goodness of her heart and we finally arrive back in Fes around 8 pm.
I have another day in Fes. The Fes Medina has allegedly over 8000 streets and lanes and venturing out into that maze of alleys to find a particular location is a bit like looking for ethics and values in a modern day democracy. They are out there somewhere but finding them is somewhat tortuous with no guarantee of success.
In my view better by far just to set off blindly and hope that, by chance, good things will happen. This was my plan if you can call a plan with only unknown unknowns a plan. But the advantage is that you stumble across all sorts of interesting little side alleys and cafes populated only by locals where you can either have good conversations or get mugged and robbed.
Either are, of course, interesting experiences but one is less stressful than the other. In addition you escape the majority of the other tourists who tend to stick to tried and true routes. Still since I was close to the famous blue Gate and the tannery these were included in my itinerary.
The trip to the desert was like Gordon and Speke’s search for the source of the Nile. We knew, ostensibly where we were going, but beyond that we had little information about the how, when, why or who with.
This was a variation on my Fes Medina exploration, this time with some known unknowns as well as unknown unknowns. I was to travel with Alex, a young Frenchwoman just about to return to France having finished her studies, who was desperate to visit the desert before she left.
Then there was Mohamed the owner of the AirBnB, his cousin Salah and there was the driver who was apparently anonymous and who tried hard not to smile or communicate during the entire trip.Â
Prior to leaving I knew only Mohamed and Salah among the group and they were the known unknowns.Â Alex, Mohamed and Salah had known each other for a while, so I felt a bit like the third wheel.
Alex and me, Mohamed and me, the two boys and Alex and the road trip crew
Alex and Salah, in particular, and Mohamed to a lesser degree apparently had a form of love hate relationship going on where which felt like some form of asexual codependency where Salah spent the entire trip trying to touch and fondle Alex, which she accepted and appeared to even like until such time as it went beyond some unwritten and unspoken boundary at which point a shouting match would start and Salah would sulk off in a passive aggressive way until the entire sequence started again.
The trip to the desert passes through the nearest ski resorts and through many kilometres of semi-desert with the shining Atlas mountains in the distance.
Itâ€s a fascinating trip broken by a few stops to visit villages and desert oases en route.
Each of the stops and where we go next is a bit of a magic mystery tour because Mohamedâ€s idea of being a tour guide is to just to go and not really tell anyone where the tour group is going, or when or why. The exemplar of this was arriving in Merzouga where Mohamed and Salah just mysteriously disappeared leaving Alex and I abandoned with no information and, more importantly, no alcohol.
In the morning we pile into the van and are driven out to Khamlia to see a performance by a group of musicians from the Gnaoua – about whom you can read more below.
The music and performance are worth going for but for the sense that The Gnaoua musicians feel like a cross between circus performers and sweatshops labourers in Bangladesh.
The Gnaoua – maudlin musicians
There is a distinct sense of ennui which makes watching the performers a tad uncomfortable for the onlookers – in fact some look so sad at being thereÂ that you feel that they are about to start weeping – . You know you will be shuffled out the door and in another half an hour the performers will perform the same songs for another group of tourists. Itâ€s the sort of thing that makes one want to avoid anything organised of this type.
From here we drive further into the desert to look at a semi-traditional Berber settlement – where the inhabitants are still on the margin of our technological society but are no longer nomadic and then onto a desert mine where a couple of miners scrape a living extracting a variety of stones for jewellery via a semi mechanised small scale mine.
Metal miners in the desert cold
Being winter the conditions are harsh, cold, with a biting dust laden wind. My sense of discomfort at being a spectator of other peoplesâ€ lives is repeated. No matter how hospitable the people are or how interesting the places are the sense of intrusion is overwhelming.
Berber desert dwellings. How to feel intrusive
The sense of exploitation soon becomes a sense of the ridiculous. We are to go into the desert to camp overnight at a desert camp. These are specially constructed for tourists to give them a better sense of being in the desert. Which, in itself, is fine but itâ€s the way we get there that is somewhat hilarious. We are to go by camel about which I donâ€t have a particular issue until I discover that while Alex and I are to ride the three others, our camel guide, Mohamed and Saleh are to walk alongside.
And the poor shall walk. While Alex and I perched precariously on our ships of the desert, like Lord and Lady Muck, the poor people walked
So, there we are perched precariously on our lurching ships of the desert to go to somewhere which is close enough to walk to, while alongside us the serfs are required to walk. Not only that but they are doing so in a wind which constantly lifts sand into all our faces and much so for those walking. Itâ€s a neat encapsulation of modern day capitalism where the rich ride, metaphorically, on the backs of the poor (who cannot afford a camel ride).
Nevertheless the night is entertaining with good food, wine and musicâ€¦.unlike the previous stops the workers at the camp appear to be enjoying their work and the evening jam session is a delight. That combined with the beauty of the desert night and dawn make a Moroccan Desert experience of sorts a must do – just not the way this Idiot Traveller did it.
Music in the desert camp. The locals do the jam session
It is 392 kilometres from Sofia to Belgrade and another 600 kilometres from Belgrade to Vienna. From Vienna you are on the fast rail networks of western Europe but these first two legs of my journey are about 200 years in the past in terms of train technology years.
The trip from Sofia to Belgrade in particular, is the railway equivalent of slow boat up the Nile. The Nile slow boats are a sailing boat called a Felucca, a boat, incidentally, that I know well (more of that in another post).
Faster by Felucca
These train services are so bad they make Australian trains look like the bullet train.
The Avala – the Vienna Express from Belgrade
The concrete thing, Sofia Station
The “Avala”, the Vienna express, and the concrete something at Sofia station
This is serious regret country. Where you think â€œwas this really a good idea to travel from Istanbul all the way to Malaga by trainâ€. Even my fellow passengers look like refugees from some gulag in the east. Either exhausted, rough or disillusioned.
Not much joy from the fellow passengers either
To get a sense of the rapidity of travel we leave at 7 am on a cold Sofia morning and we donâ€t arrive in Belgrade until about 8 pm. The average speed is 30.15 kilometres per hour. Consider this – the average male marathon runner covers the 42 kilometres of the marathon in about 2 hours or around 21 kilometres per hour.
In other words this inter-city express would win a Boston Marathon but only by around half an hour. Or alternatively the marathoner could theoretically reach Belgrade only a few hours after the train if s/he could keep going – and the trip would probably be more comfortable than the train trip, since it seems that these trains were probably once used to torture their occupants via sleep deprivation. If you do accidentally fall asleep the lurching, bumping and grinding will have you on the deck in a matter of minutes.
There are, by my count 46 stops between the two cities which, if you work it out is one stop every 8.52 kilometres. Most of these stops, apparently, require that the driver or guard, possibly both, get off the train have a short winter holiday and then re-board before leaving the station. On average 0.75% of a person boards or descends at each stop.
From Belgrade to Vienna things decline further, other than the speed which is a little faster. We board the Vienna Express at Belgrade Station. The Vienna Express is likely the East European version of the Marrakesh Express of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame, but absent hippies, drugs and things of interest.
The Avala – the Vienna Express from Belgrade
The Avala Mk2, looks good but just as slow and broke down
It consists of a single locomotive and carriage and an assortment of co-passengers that look as if they stepped off the set of Midnight Express. The Avala only travels as far as Nis, where we change trains to a the more modern version of our Felucca. To ensure that we are not, however fooled by this impression of modernity, our express journey includes an unscheduled one hour stop in the Serbian countryside just after we have changed trains.
Here we wait in a small town with several other trains while they repair the railway tracks. Apparently they started work on the track the night before and forgot that trains were supposed to run on it the following day (or something like that given that my Serbian was not really up to interpreting the announcement other than it was a track problem). It does have the advantage that we are all able to take a short tour of the village, have a smoke, get extra supplies, or whatever takes our fancy, etc.
The average passenger is also psychologically traumatised since the train, from Belgrade is called the Avala which sounds like it should be some slick modern train. In my brain it sounds a bit like Areva which is, of course, the French company which builds nuclear reactors. Itâ€s the power of association. Even though nuclear reactor are themselves outdated 60s technology.
The psychological dissonance suffered by the passengers who believe they will be boarding something the name of which sounds like the TGV but which operates like the train in the accompanying photo (below, at Nis station) is a traumatic experience for which the railways would be sued were we in the US.
Nis station (right) another model of modernity and (left) the fast train from Nis
For the first world, western European/Australian, traveller the journey through the Serbian countryside is, in itself, also a blast from the past in various senses.
Even the names of the towns such as Dimitrovgrad, where we stop on the Bulgarian/Serbian border, are reminiscent, to my ears, of the greyness of the planned cities of the Soviet Union. And, as it turns out DimitrovgradÂ was exactly that. Here light grey concrete, blends nicely with dark grey concrete in an artistic panorama reminiscent of Peter Duttonâ€s mind. Devoid of anything pleasant.
Here, we have a Bulgarian/Serbian repetition of my experience of crossing the border from Turkey into Bulgaria which you can read about here. Multiple border guards mount the train and make off with our passports to perform some secret police ritual in the offices of the adjacent buildings. Satisfied that any potential Syrian refugees are not, in fact, on board the train but are back in Ghouta enjoying being murdered by the Assad regime, we are allowed to proceed.
Later we will have a similar border experience at Subotica on Hungarian border, a border which is replete with a 2.5 metre, razor wire topped anti refugee fence. This stop involves not just the standard passport control but also involves the border police getting on their hands and knees and searching under each seat bench for errant refugees.
Despite its shortcomings the trip is scenically quite spectacular as we pass along the Danube River valley gorges near GradiÅ¡te. The Danube swollen by full floodwaters from the recent storms surges through the gorges past the cliffside forming a spectacular backdrop to the rail trip.
We also pass a plethora of small towns each with its own unique railway building and railway staff who perform the railway rituals that seem to come with the territory in most of the Balkans and eastern Europe. These involve a variety of uniforms, strange hand signals, flag performances and assaults on the train using strange looking hammers.
Railway guards each with their own ritual and the railway stations – about 46 of them
Many of the cities are a different story, especially along the train lines. Here, in every country in the world, seem to be the areas that are full of the most impoverished looking, dingy parts of each city.
This is particularly so in many of the major cities of Eastern Europe where every passing kilometre is littered with dead trains, carriages and buildings but, worse, sometimes for tens of kilometres, are ground zero for seemingly uncontrolled rubbish dumping as far as the eye can see.
Abandoned buildings, trains and things. And abandoned hope.
Piles and piles of household, industrial and building waste, much of it plastic. Whether it is the absence of recycling facilities, an historical or current disdain for the environment, the absence of tipping facilities or the cost of disposing of waste it leaves an unpleasant vision of a form of industrialised hell.
Rubbish central. For miles. As far as the eye can see. Here near Belgrade.
As we near Belgrade our train comes to another halt. After half an hour we are informed that the train has broken down. Soon after another train pulls alongside us. The doors are opened and we all climb off, onto the tracks, with our luggage and board the relief train which takes us to Belgrade Center Station.
Now, one might imagine that Belgrade Center might be in the centre of Belgrade but no such luck. It turns out that this is merely a suburban station some 5 kilometres from Belgrade, where some tricky apparatchik has decided to fool all the capitalist visitors by naming it Belgrade Center. Apparently, there is track work between Belgrade Center and Belgrade Central Station, so you can’t get between the two.
Moreover Belgrade Center station is devoid of any immediate public transport connections or even taxis and there is zero signage or information. So I and several fellow passengers mill around wondering how we get from here to Belgrade proper. Eventually we find an office and the staff there order a taxi for us. This signals the end of our journey and where I and another lost passenger share a taxi to downtown Belgrade.
As my AirBnB host says to me, sarcastically when I explain my delay “Welcome to Serbia”