Poems 1985-2021 – # 2

 

Image: elderly woman with head in hands (photographer: unknown)

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

© 2017 C.H

About this poem: Written in 2017 and posted on Facebook then, this now forms part of this series of poems, prose and photographs. It was written observing my Mum getting progressively frailer and less sure about life. More anxious and more uncertain.

It’s something we all endure and I’ve seen other people go through the same process of watching their parents age. It’s a process that is hard to endure for all but one which we must all bear with stoicism and with acceptance.


Image: Albatross (author; Pearson Scott Foresman)

THE OCEANS 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 now only 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

© C.H 2020

About this poem: This was written during my voyage aboard a freighter from Antwerp to Cape Town. I was surprised that sometimes we would go for days without seeing any life, not even a bird. Speaking to the Captain, Marius, he commented that 20 years previously they would see wildlife including whales, seals, dolphin, albatross and other seabirds on a daily basis but that they had progressively diminished with each passing year until, today, the ocean often appeared lifeless.


Sunbaker (photographer: Max Dupain)

SUN

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

© 2016 C.H

About this poem: There is something primal in the addiction of many of us to the sun and I’m not sure that it’s a need that the medical profession really understands. I think it’s ingrained deeply in our attachment to natural cycles and the joy at the coming of spring and summer that stems from our ancient dependence on the natural environment. I spent most of my childhood in the tropics and still cannot resist that sense of wellbeing that comes from the hot sun striking through the skin and warming me entire being, despite the exhortations of the naysayers. Still, these days, I restrict myself to ten or twenty minutes rather than hours and only in the mornings and evenings.


Sunset over Byron (Photographer: Chris Harris)

Unbroken Heart

I tear my heart from its flimsy perch
Give it to you to break asunder
Hearts unbroken are lives un-lived
A spirit that has never flown free
Like the purity of a blue sky
That never saw the gold of cloud

© 2016 C.Harris

About this poem: I take the view that a life without risk is one only partially lived, whether it by in work, recreation, relationships or anything else. While, like most people, I have become more risk averse as I have got older, it’s still my view that we need to push our boundaries even if they are little lower than they were in our twenties and thirties. It’s one reason why I detest the “nanny state” approach of Australian Governments and believe they are counterproductive to our welfare.


Australian flag with bloodstain (creator: unknown)

THE BLOOD FLAG

Blood spilt
For an idea
Lines on a map
Drawn in blood
Blood of Indigenes
Parading their hatred
Hatred of others
Wrapped in a cloth
The flag of Empire
Symbol of oppression
In the corner
Like a stain
Australia Day
Parading like goons
Patriotism, loyalty
Shouting their myths
Clinging to the tribe
Grasping at the past
Like a cult
The Nation
The Party
The Flag
A twisted love
Of a twisted idea
My country
Wrong or Right
My Party
Wrong or Right
Simplistic rhetoric
Thoughtless allegiance
Red, Blue or Green
I Detest you
You are the seeds of war

© CH 2017

About this poem: I detest nationalism in all its forms, be it the nation state, the flag, the national anthem or national days (eg Australian Day). Contrary to the views of many that is not the same as rejecting, or not loving ones land.

But loving the land you live in (which is a real physical entity) and the people that inhabit it is very different from liking the mythical and dangerous symbols of the nation state. In fact like religion I view these all as a form of devotion to a cult (in this case the cult of the nation state). I view all these things as part of a power system designed to maintain the rich and powerful (read the sociopaths) in power. Similarly, this is not the same as rejecting the need to belong to our “tribe” or “community” or rejecting “identity”.

We can have community and identify without these dangerous symbols to which people attach and which have a principle driver of conflict. In essence it’s a belief in “culturalism” in stead of “nationalism; noting that the latter is often a principal force in destroying cultures and languages.


Image of person shooting Aboriginal man (Photographer: unknown)

A NATION’S LAMENT

My heart lies heavy on this day
Crushed by ignorant, hate and fear
The blood of centuries past still celebrated
Its colour reflected in the foreigners’ flag

The poisoned waters now still and deserted
A land devoid of a thousand stilled tongues
The shouts of the raped and killed now silent
The survivors voices still mocked and scorned

I cry for the unconfessed nation’s shame
And for the leaders’ ignorant blindness
For the celebration of nation on such a day
When all should repent the darkened past

But more still the ignorance weighs heavy
Blind to theft, poison, death and pain
The spitting tongues and pens of hate
Against those who raise their voices in protest

Twisting like a knife in the soul of the nation

© 2017 C.H

About this poem: This is very simply a rejection of the inherent racism and nationalism of Australia day. One that leads to the incidents such as the Cronulla riots and to nazism. Certainly we should not be celebrating Australia Day on a day that led to wholesale murder and attempted genocide of the Aboriginal people of Australia and, in my opinion we should not be celebrating any day based on the nation state but instead should substitute it with a day that celebrates our multicultural diversity.


Cartoon of Morrison as Gollum carrying a lump of coal (author: Van 2019?)

2020 – THE EVILDOERS (ODE TO SCOTT MORRISON)

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 blows 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 peoples’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 scars our soul
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 tongue
Hypocrisy so thick God would choke

We await the day of final retribution
Where powerful will meet judgement
Where the deniers and climate criminals
Will burn for their sins in the fires of hell

About this poem: I wrote this after the fires at the end of 2019 when we say our country scorched by the some of the largest fires ever seen (25.5 million acres). In terms of damage to forest and wildlife they were arguably the worst. These were fires that, if not caused by the Morrison Government were, at least, exacerbated by their ideological refusal to lead on climate action and their stubborn refusal to listen to the experts about the need to upgrade our fire management and control abilities. In my view the current government is undeniably evil in the sense that its actions are deliberately and consciously, via its denial of climate action, contributing to the death of millions worldwide.


Belongil Creek, Byron Bay (photographer: C. Harris)

THE ABANDONED GOD

You worship your fictional Trinity
And ask that we respect your God
But each day you are killing mine
The real God beneath your feet

So close you cannot see it
The God of forests, of oceans
The God of abandoned places
That feeds your body and soul

I feel the anger come quicker
Seeing the destruction you wrought
Killing the places of my childhood
Leaving just my dusty memories

I crave the touch of the fallen trees
The swell of ocean on living reef
The ride of the dolphin in the waves
The free and clear flowing river

The sight of the albatross on the wind
The howl of the wolf at the luminous moon
The dance of the Brolga on the plain
The song of the frog in its swamp

Instead hot sand blows to the end of time
I hear the forlorn call of the boo book owl
Alone now out on its endless range
Looking for the last of its dying prey

Long across the ocean the blue whale calls
A haunting cry to the last of its kind
In it’s cry a message to humankind
Of the coming of the end of the world

Of the death of our common God
The abandoned God of abandoned places.

ABOUT THIS POEM: I have always disliked conventional religions, of whatever type for two reasons. Firstly that they are one of the great causes of conflict, hatred and division and never mind the hypocrisy of institutions that preach poverty but hoard great wealth, and of their adherents whose behaviour is the absolute opposite of their claimed beliefs. But also that it seems to me that if there is anything Godlike in our existence it’s the very beauty, intricacy and diversity of the planet we walk on and that, some religions seem intend on destroying with the biblical messages of human dominion.


At Eternity’s Gate (Van Gogh)

FORGOTTEN SOUL

Was it really so long ago?
17 years now since you left
Not a soul seemed bereft
Your memory now a shadow

To resurface sometimes

But on your birthday
I did think of you
Existing like a shadow
In my unconscious mind

To resurface sometimes

I wonder at your life
A life so unknown
Was there loneliness?
Was there pain?

No one asked

Did you long for love?
The love you pushed away
Did you hope for touch?
Touch you could not give

No one asked

I feel for you now
Alone in your soul
Alone for 90 years
Alone with your fears

The fears no one knew

About this poem: My Dad died in 2004, 17 years ago, at the age of 90. He was a man that scarcely anyone knew in any real sense; like many of his generation he rarely spoke of his feelings, showed little emotion and was uncomfortable with any expression of emotions, either is own or others. No one asked him about his life or his feelings. He died a man unknown. No one in our family talks about him and, I suspect few think about him. He’s like a shadow that exists only in our sub conscious like, I suspect, many men (and some women) of that generation.


Baron Empain Palace, Heliopolis, near our home in Cairo, now renovated and open to the public

LAMENT FOR A LOST HOME

I crossed the dry dusty street
Following behind my feet
I touched down yesterday
I walked the old roadway

Landing then from overseas
Took the bus past old Ramses
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 the Pharaoh’s city of legend

Passing the old Baron’s Palace
Provides some small passing solace
For broken memories of home
For 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 cicadas 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 round
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

© Chris Harris 2020

About this poem: The five years I spent in Cairo with my family between ages five & ten (1960 to 1965) were some of the most formative for me. It was a time of indolence with endless days spent running in the streets.

Memories are of heat, sand, the life of the streets, the welcome of local people, mango juice, pastries (a legacy of the French) & history.

We lived on the ground level of a magnificent old three story, stone building, cool & characterful where we spent endless nights playing cards on the front verandahs.

We were part of an extended expatriate community that worked and socialised together but, to my great regret, not very integrated into the local community.

The imprint of Cairo was so great that, 20 years later, with no maps I could find my way around the streets to our old houses & haunts. Most those places are now gone, destroyed in the rush to development in a growing city. This is about my sense of loss in seeing those childhood places destroyed.

 


Leopard, Chobe National Park, Botswana (Photo: C. Harris)

LEOPARD LEOPARD

Leopard, Leopard moving light
Grassland shadow ever slight
Slipping away from hand and eye,
Your path marked by distant cries

Your faint shadow in the distance lies
We see only the fire of your eyes
What a vision of beauty you inspire
Even as the world around you dies

Leopard, oh Leopard a vision right
Of a world renewed with light
Where hopes of better times still fly
And animals, for humans, do not die

© C. Harris 2020

About this poem: In 2020, immediately before the COVID pandemic, I took a 21 day trip through the Western Cape of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Namibia. It’s rare to see a Leopard in the wild but we had a fortunate trip, seeing a both a wide variety of animals and, in most cases, many of them. Nevertheless it’s difficult not to be conscious of the disappearance of many species or, at least, their increasing rarity, with the risk that, for future generations that they may never see, at least in the wild, many of the magnificent animals we were privileged to see


Broken Heart (creator: unknown)

BROKEN HEART

You taught me so much my love
You came like an innocent in the night
I saw your beauty then as others didn’t
I gave you everything then I could
But you followed head not heart
The tears ran wet across empty miles
You held my heart in your hands
And crushed it with a single cruel blow

© C. Harris 2020

About this Poem: This is simply about the common experience many of us have, in life, of being rejected, for any number of possible reasons, by someone or something we love (in this case romantic love). Normally it is a rejection by a lover but, more broadly, the same sort of crushing emotional experience can come from being rejected by family, friends or even employers and can lead to depression and worse. We see this not just in personal relationships but in people being sacked by employers, in the end of careers (eg sports people). Generally we are very bad at recognising the damage done and providing support.


Grey haired woman (Photographer: unknown)

YOUR LOVE

Your auburn hair has turned grey
I see the pain in your soft brown eyes
The hurt in your damaged soul

I’m sorry, my love, for all the pain
I treated you so carelessly each day
Pushing you away every day

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 gentle embrace
Some help to soothe the lifelong pain
Where words are not enough

You gave me your skin, your soul
Getting in return a 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 pain

No apology can soothe the wounds
No penance can bind the damaged soul
Maybe time will heal the endless hurt

I wish I could undo the bitter words
If only I could unmake the careless acts
So many years, so many regrets

© C. Harris 2020

About this poem: It took me a long time in life to realise that there was a big difference between rejection and indifference (one being, usually, a short sharp pain and the other prolonged cruelty), . It may seem obvious but there came a point when, talking to others, that I realised that it was unethical to withhold from a relationship to which your partner is committed, simply because you are not confident of its longevity. It’s quite wrong and very hurtful.

It’s a behaviour that many of us, not least myself, justify on the basis of “well, my lover will be hurt less when I leave, if I hold them at arms length, if I withhold my affection”. I realised, on the contrary, that it was quite cruel because not only will they be hurt, anyway, if the relationship does end but, in the meantime, they have been deprived of their emotional needs for the entire period of the relationship. Mostly the indifference is worse than a rejection.


Adelaide Hills Fires 2019/20

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

ABOUT THIS POEM: Written in early 2020 just after the bushfires of that black summer. it’s simply a memorial to that summer and its millions of dead animals, people and trees, as well as call for a reckoning in which the climate criminals such as Morrison, Taylor, Canavan and multiple other politicians, along with the purveyors of shock jock and media lies (Murdoch et al), the propagandists of the IPA and the captains of industry finally face judgement for those they have killed.

Fear and Loathing (and a whole lot of love) on the Rainbow Bus (part 2)

With Apologies to Hunter S Thompson

PART 2 – CAPE TOWN TO SWAKOPMUND

All of my images from this trip can be found here

The group which will travel across southern Africa, together, has met up in the hostel the previous night and we now decamp, immediately after breakfast , stopping along the way on the northern beaches, just out of Cape Town, where we pose on the beach for our departure photos and for a final view of Table Mountain across the bay. From here we head north across the Western Cape to Cederberg.

Cederberg is a gentle introduction to the trip. A pleasant green lawn to camp on, bar and pool. It is here that Jeff discovers his fate which is to share a tent with me for the rest of the trip. No amount of cool will save him from this fate.

We receive instruction on tent erection, which Jeff and I manage not to hear properly thus taking twice as long as anyone else to erect our tent. There are no particular disasters on this day but instead I receive a bonus of free and cheese tasting for some unknown reason related to my bookings having been changed to a different date than those I originally booked.

The main events are swimming and wine tasting events which, when taken together, can often have a mixture of hilarious and disastrous results. In our case, aside from being regaled with tales of naked swimming by previous visitors, which seems to have provided a degree of voyeuristic pleasure to the owners and seems to be aimed at persuading us, without success, to do the same, the evening passes uneventfully, if pleasantly, in a haze of sunshine, wine and food.

Evening on the Orange River

Day two brings us to the Orange River. named after the Dutch royal family (the House of Orange). It’s the longest river in South Africa and a key provider of electricity via its hydro station. On the other side is Namibia. The main activity here is swimming the river and illegally entering Namibia though, for anyone other than committed drug smugglers or poachers, it might be a long walk to the nearest town.

The river and associated campsite is quite a beautiful spot especially in the soft morning and evening light and we collectively add to the several million photos that must have been take of the river since the advent of digital cameras. We are treated to an ongoing display of swimming and fishing virtuosity by a resident darter bird.

In the morning a committed few take a kayaking trip on the flat water. There are seven of us who go, myself, Hannah, Mike and Kerry, Ceci and Nico and Sonya.

This is a good opportunity for anyone to argue over ownership of the Malvinas or how long it will take the UK to become a fifth rate country, once it leaves the EU and has to survive on its own, and confront Iceland over fishing in Icelandic waters.

Fortunately, Mike and Kerry have approximately the same levels of kayaking skills as Eddie the Eagle had ski jumping skills and were so far behind the rest of us that the second Malvinas war was avoided.

Rumour has it that they were still on the river the following morning and had to be rescued by Gift in order to ensure that we left on time. Indeed such was the stress of their paddling feats that they strained their only paddling muscle and were unable to wash up for a week.

The rest of us had a pleasant paddle, though Sonja, my paddling partner, was more interested in adding to her portrait portfolio than paddling. Hannah, according to our river guide, did not paddle at all and was fortunate to be saved, according to the guide, by his innate grace.

So far as we can tell, however, it was that guide who fortunate to survive the trip such was his level of sexist bravado. Beyond that the main complaint was from the local narcissists (Hannah, Ceci and Nico) who having posed for photos then complained that they weren’t shown at their best.

Day 3 and we were headed for the Fish River Canyon which is claimed to to be the world’s second largest canyon after the Grand Canyon, although like all these things it depends how you measure it. For example the The Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, along the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet, is regarded by some as the deepest canyon in the world at 5,500 m (18,000 ft). It is slightly longer than the Grand Canyon in the United States.

First though, we have to cross the border into Namibia which, like all border crossings, is an exercise of mixed bureaucracy and futility in which we are all required to disembark for the bus to be searched and to pass through a border post in which a few border inspectors seem to inspect our passports with an overwhelming sense of disinterest.

The roads through the Western Cape and Eastern Namibia are long and dusty but the scenery is spectacular, a cross between the Dakota Badlands and the central Australian deserts around Tennant Creek.

En route we pass Aussenkehr the main Namibian table grape growing area – which thrives for three reasons, the water of the Orange River, the climate which allows grapes to reach the European market more than six weeks earlier than those from anywhere else, and the cheap labour.

The day is hot, dusty, windy and long and the tedium encourages various tour members (mainly Rie) to spend half the day leaning out of the window in an attempt to entertain passing elephants or anything else she thinks she might encounter. Being Rie, it is entirely unclear what is on her mind. Perhaps the company has driven her to suicidal thoughts or, possibly, she is merely trying to have random protein intake by catching a local fly?

Rie contemplates the end, of what we do not know

The 16000 migrant labourers who care for the vines earn a pittance and live under deplorable conditions. They live in a settlement of rudimentary reed and zinc structures two kilometres from the grape farms, and have endured decades without potable water and other basic services like electricity and sanitation facilities. Yet another example of Western nations benefiting from the virtual slavery of others.

As we approach the Fish River Canyon we encounter the aftermath of the rains that preceded us and have turned the Victoria Falls, as we later discovered, from a trickle into a seething torrent. As a result the camp at which we were supposed to be staying was closed and the staff appear to have moved almost the entire contents of the accommodation out into the sun to dry.

All is not lost however, as the owners have assembled a classic collection of vintage cars which allows those of us that are 65 going on 16 to spend a few minutes reliving our driving experiences as 14 year olds. Nico is especially at home as he gears up for his starring role in Blues Brothers II.

64 Going on 16…?

The alternative accomodation turns out to be a more upmarket resort where, to our great pleasure, we are allocated very comfortable resort style rooms instead of the campground and have pretty much sole use of a good swimming pool. We don’t even have to carry our own luggage which is delivered to our rooms, all of 100 metres away, by donkey cart. Everyone is happy.

Room Service in Namibia

Before dinner we take a drive to see the Fish River Canyon which is, indeed, very impressive and much more so illuminated by the setting sun. The shadows of the evening sun provides 3D relief to the Canyon which at the height of the day is “flattened” when the sun is overhead.

We are warned by an adjacent sign not to hike down into the Canyon, something that precisely no one seems inclined to want to do, even if the time permitted.

No day strolls into the Canyon (photo Jeff Davis)

Apart from the statutory requirement to take 20 photos of the canyon each, a further 20 selfies, and group photos, we are mainly entertained by the resident and extremely photogenic local lizard.

Here, we are treated to the first exhibition of drone flying by Rie, which involves repeatedly obeying Rie’s instructions to look at and wave at her drone, as we collectively pose for drone photos, and fervently hoping that the drone doesn’t crash into and kill any of us since it is, apparently, not functioning as it should.

We are travelling in the famed Rainbow bus, which is actually a truck with a bus body on a flatbed. It rattles its way across the landscape and we rattle with it. Whoever built and maintained it clearly has a sense of humour, since they fixed some seats far enough apart that you could be a giraffe and still have plenty of legroom whereas a couple of the seats are clearly designed for midgets or for Hannah/Rie who are the closest thing to midgets that we have.

To compound it someone thought it would be funny to have one seat which was screwed to the floor at an angle of about 75° so that one person has twice the legroom than the person next to them.

Please, please don’t leave me. I know I was mean but….

We’re fortunate in that a bus designed for 22 (11 bench seats), has only 12 people on board, including Gift, meaning eight of us have a seat each, the two couples each share one and there is a seat spare for extra luggage.

The extra space makes it much more tolerable, with the main issue being that, for reasons known only to the safari company, they have decided to have a bus equipped with curtain hangers but no curtains. So if you are on the sunny side of the bus you can use the wires to hang your favourite sarong and give you shade but, if you leave the windows open, you risk having it sucked out never to be seen again.

While we may have “A” class guides we are definitely in the “B” class transport, as we note whenever we are passed by the air conditioned G Spot buses. On the other hand the cost on G-Spot – an 18 day trip is AUD3739 compared to our 21 day trip for AUD2000 however –  is twice the cost. Beggars can, indeed, not be choosers.

We arrive in Sesriem in the early afternoon. Here we are surrounded by endless skies, endless mountains and mountainous dune systems. The light is translucent, much like Australian and South African light. There is something about the light of the southern hemisphere at around 35° south that has a different quality to almost anywhere else on earth, in my experience.

Aside from the views the principal points of interest are the swimming pool and its attendant wildebeest mother and calf. Given what we will see later in the trip, the presence of a mere two wild wildebeest generates an amazing degree of excitement, somewhat akin to someone from the desert seeing the ocean for the first time.

Consequently we have a “who can pose best with the wildebeest” competition, like a sort of wildebeest beauty competition, one won by Hannah and Rie who, if it were possible to be orgasmic over a couple of wildebeest, certainly approached that state of excitement. The ageing cynics and grinches on the other hand were largely unmoved.

Now it is almost impossible for most normal people to injure themselves severely on an entirely flat piece of sandy ground, absent any rocks or obstructions but I am pleased to report that yours truly, aka “The Idiot Traveller” succeeded in doing exactly that.

Proceeding in a leisurely fashion towards the washing line, in the near dark, I succeeded in tripping over the wires, cunningly placed by the campground management, and designed to trap the clumsy and unobservant, namely your humble servant.

It later turned out that numerous people, including Munya, had succeeded, historically, in tripping over those wires (revenge on the white man??) but none had succeeded in ripping off half their shin, and then nearly amputating their following foot. Yes, another first for the Idiot Traveller.

The image you all wanted to see: “Still Scarred After All These Years” (apologies to Paul Simon – Still Crazy after all these years (esp. for Rie)

This relatively minor accident had consequences, for most people on the trip, extending over most of the next week or more. Initially it was the litre or so of blood that I lost through tearing off about 15 cms of skin on my left leg that concerned me but by the morning my right foot was so swollen that it was painful to walk. Worse to come.

Dawn sees us assembled and ready to roll in the dark. We take the Rainbow Bus through the mountainous dunes. For Australians they are reminiscent of the Simpson Desert, though with less vegetation and more irregular in shape and size. As the sun rises the dunes turn from deep red to orange, in parts, and to pinks and whites and a sort of shimmery silver in others and, in shape, like giant sails of sand.

We and then transfer onto smaller four wheel drive transport for another 20 minutes deeper into the sand country to get to the Sossusvlei, which is a salt and clay pan surrounded by high red dunes, located in the southern part of the Namib Desert, within the Namib-Naukluft National Park of Namibia.

Changing light, changing colours

The name “Sossusvlei” is often used in an extended meaning to refer to the surrounding area, which is one of the major visitor attractions of Namibia. Specifically though,  “Sossusvlei” roughly means “dead-end marsh”. Vlei is the Afrikaans word for “marsh”, while “sossus” is Nama for “no return” or “dead end”. Sossusvlei owes this name to the fact that it is an endorheic drainage basin (i.e., a drainage basin without outflows) for the ephemeral Tsauchab River

Sossusvlei – Photo (Jeff Davis)

The Sossusvlei area belongs to a wider region of southern Namib extending over about 32.000 km²) between the rivers Koichab and Kuiseb. It’s characterized by high sand dunes of vivid pink-to-orange color, an indication of a high concentration of iron in the sand and consequent oxidation processes. The oldest dunes are those of a more intense reddish color. The dunes, in the Sossusvlei area, are among the highest in the world; many of them are above 200 metres, the highest being the one nicknamed Big Daddy, about 325 metres high. The highest dune, elsewhere in the Namib Desert, Dune 7, is about 388 metres high (source: Wikipedia).

The walk into the Sossusvlei is the first tests of my injured leg (foot in particular) and it’s not pleasant so, rather than walking around the salt pan I sit and watch which, in some ways is better since you get a birds eye view of the scale of the area in contrast with all the little figures walking around below.

Image Jeff Davis

The bigger challenge, however, is on the return where we stop to climb Dune 45 where even the idea of the view from the top is not sufficient to overcome the idea of a dragging painful foot up 145 metres of sand dune. I am joined in my idleness by Hannah.

Rie, initially, decides to stay also but suddenly changes her mind and then proceeds to run up a dune, that most can scarcely walk up, in order to catch up with the rest of our party. This simply reinforces her image as some sort of Viking. Fortunately, it seems there is no one she wishes to drag away by the hair, as was the mythological technique allegedly used by Viking raiding parties.

We return to camp where, we find, our camp ground has been invaded by a group of G-Spotters. Talk turns to what degrees of sabotage we should inflict on their tents, bus in response to them spurning Yvonne, etc but we refrain from taking revenge.

Gift watches the punters and reflects on”The black man’s burden”

The following day is the “longest” day. A hot bone jarring drive across the deserts to Swakopmund via Walvis Bay. The passengers are pummelled into a stupor by heat, a burning wind, the sound of the engine and the jolting of the bus. The discomfort is not assisted by the fact that I can no longer sit for long periods with my foot at ground level without intense pain and so everyone has to put up with my right foot poking over the top of their seat or resting on the arm of their chair.

We stop several times en route to take in the Mad Max type scenery and, in true tourist style, to take a picture of the sign announcing that we are crossing the Tropic of Capricorn. Hence I am able to capture the archetypal cliched shot of a group of 20 and 30 year olds, of the Instagram generation, staring longingly at a rusty battered sign in the middle of nowhere (with apologies to Ceci who is not really of the Instagram generation and who, I know, was just supervising the children).

The Insta generation proving they were in Namibia

En route to Swakopmund we also pass through Walvis Bay which had been planned as a 30 minute stop to take in the pink flamingos in the Walvis Bay lagoon and to pick up lunch. But I have been to Walvis Bay before en route to Cape Town by ship and I know that the Slowtown Coffee Roasters is the only decent cup of coffee within 1000 kilometres, leaving aside the fact that it sells a mean cheesecake.

Flamingo central

As anyone knows one should never stand between the Idiot Traveller and a good coffee/cheesecake, so I suggest a diversion to stop for good coffee and cake. Gift is reluctant. Apparently on previous trips he has made changes to the itinerary, to meet the requests of punters, only for some other whining bastard to complain about those changes. Hence he requires an unanimous agreement to divert.

There is no hesitation from the crew and especially not from Rie who sees her opportunity to consume sufficient calories to maintain her normal muscle mass.

Walvis Bay is a slightly bipolar town that doesn’t really know if it wants to be an industrial/port centre or a tourist town. It’s stuck in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the South Atlantic on one side and by deserts on all other sides with the nearest town of any size being the Namibian capital Windhoek, 400 kilometres away across the Namib desert.

The curse of the cruise ship industry

It’s the major port for a large part of southern Africa including Botswana, Congo and Zambia but is also a tourist destination with the port having a cruise ship terminal. So it’s a mixture of very ugly practical buildings but with an entire marina, and surrounds, with seafood restaurants dedicated to the tourist trade, most of which is focused on visiting the surrounding deserts.

After our brief tourist stop to see pink flamingos, coffee and cake, we press on to Swakopmund, Namibia’s principal resort town. Like most of Namibia it has a strong German influence, so Marlou and Sonja feel right at home. Except of course we are not really sure if Marlou is German since her home town never existed.

We have our second non-camping stop and are housed in the cabins of the “Adventure Village ” and adjacent adventure travel centre through which we will book our activities of which there are many options including balloon rides, skydiving, quad biking, marine cruises, skydiving and sandboarding or, if you are Hannah, you can commune with parrots.

Five of us, Rie, Ceci, Nico, Jeff and I choose to go sandboarding. This is a great choice for me since I haven’t done anything remotely similar, apart from a bit of surfing, since 1980 when I ripped my ACL in two skiing, and, as well, I have a swollen foot to squeeze into a boarding boot.

In addition one has to climb some of the world’s highest dunes in the heat of the day and no one over the age of 40-odd seems to think it’s a good idea – it’s just me and mostly 20 year olds. But I am never one to be deterred by common sense.

By the time we have climbed the dunes about 4 times I am pretty much rooted and labouring with an increasingly sore foot. I hand over my board to the Danish Amazon to carry for me.

Rie is undeterred by carrying two boards and, it seems, doesn’t realise that it involves physical effort to climb up the dunes. I whine and moan about being too old and unfit but Rie, nicely, points out that half of the big group of Swedes, who are all about 40 years younger than me, gave up long before me. Which makes me feel better even if it doesn’t improve my sand boarding skills.

The Sandboarding video

We return to base. By the time we are due to go out for dinner I am hobbling like a 90 year old. Swakopmund marks, pretty much, the end of the desert section of our trip. Tomorrow we will have one more stop in the desert, at Brandburg, where we will visit the cave paintings and then it’s on to the game parks.

Part 1 of this trip blog can be found here:  Fear and Loathing (and a whole lot of love) on the Rainbow Bus – the Crew

Or visit the home page to see other posts

The Ship of Poles

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.

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, Slow Travel, 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.

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,

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 ship’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 Poop 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 it’s up past A and B decks (crew quarters) and then on up to C where my cabin in located and D decks which are both accomodation for officers and elite passengers (Eduard and Renate – my German fellow passengers). Above this is just the bridge.

Further below are the four levels of the engine room and the two levels of holds. At the bow you also have the front the upper deck and the foc’sle.

The foc’sle (otherwise known as the forecastle in normal English) is the topmost deck right at the front. There is nothing here except for the structure for the forward radar  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. There are three radars of which the ship uses just one at sea, under most circumstances.

From my perspective the foc’sle is the most important deck on the ship. Here at the front it’s entirely quiet save for the sound of the sea and wind. It’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.

 

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 terns and other seabirds which I don’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 foc’sle, 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.

Our ship of Poles are a friendly bunch although almost all our interaction with the crew is with the Captain, Mariusz and the first mate, Bogdan, second mate, Sambor, third mate, Kamil, and 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, so long as they are relatively normal and not too demanding. They are a sort of inconvenient added burden.

My two German fellow passengers, are Eduard and Renate. They are in their late fifties and are good and humorous company. Eduard is a failed public servant, 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.

He administered and supervised German aid programs but now sees all aid programs as largely racist and paternalistic and, thus, a 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.

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 Energiewende is a disaster and are they 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 “Correct me if I’m wrong.” Which, of course she does, frequently and with alacrity. This seems to imply that Renate often thinks Eduard to be wrong.

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.

I’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 ‘The Lies that Bind’ – rethinking Identity (Creed, Country, Colour, Class, Culture). But it is not clear to me which of Eduard’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 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 is simply 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.

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.

From this there 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, which is ten pages longer than I have every succeeded in producing 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 beautiful city with lots of gracious old buildings, wide streets and interesting old quarters which are decorated with good street art. But despite everyone’s ravings about it I don’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 it’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.

Vigo

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.

Vigo

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.

There is also a desalinating plant capable of producing 20,000 litres of drinking water daily, several massive compressors for starting the engines and generators as well as other bits and pieces such as plant for separating oil from water and an air conditioning plant. The workshop than can do pretty much anything other than repair a broken prop or drive shaft.

 

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 officer’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 it’s limited to transmitting WhatsApp and email. A large attachment or photo, if one is so ill advised to download one, can set you back $1 a pop.

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.

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 one’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 the insurance company.

Not to be deterred we have noted that the ship’s owner has obligingly provided us with a gym and a swimming pool.

It would be fair to say, however, that maintenance of the gym is not the highest budgetary priority for the vessel’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.

Undeterred, you finish your session and look forward to a few cooling laps in the pool. Suffice to say that it’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 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 20ºc.

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 ship’s advertising.

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. However, 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 rocket ship-like at high speed, off the ship, like some malfunctioning fairground ride, until it plunges into the sea. At which point every occupant presumably suffers severe whiplash at best. Those with a fear of heights who will have both whiplash and PTSD as a result of being dropped, effectively, off a cliff.

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 obey the Master’s orders..

For most this might appear straightforward but, for me, it is a somewhat traumatic idea since I have spent my entire life disobeying my Master’s orders, no matter from whence they come.

In the event of a critical emergency, where obliged to evacuate, this occurs via the previously mentioned rocket ship. One removes shoes and 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.

 

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, to 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 world’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.

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. In this way it is similar to the 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.

It’s a life of routine and, presumably, unless you have a mass of videos or a an avid 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, 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 just 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 doesn’t have much to recommend it and pretty much just 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 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 People’s Organisation) it retains influences of both. 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 world’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 humankind’s 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. Arrival into Cape Town is a different story, however, with glorious sunshine, views of Table Mountain and a pod of whales to greet us.

Kaptan Kaylee’s Swedish Kayaking Adventure

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 marine 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 the Vikings 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 Bohuslan 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.

Hence I went online to order a gift card, as required by the Bone Idle Birthday Present Shoppers Guide to “no effort birthday gifts”.

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.

Heath Robinson
Heath Robinson aka my right knee

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 Bohuslan 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 3,000 islands 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 bakery 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, (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.

 

Sailing Like An Egyptian (slowly down the Nile)

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. And the year of my Nile trip by felucca with five French and one Nubian companion.

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 a 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 by Amun“. Construction of the temple complex started in approximately 1264 BC and lasted for about 20 years, until 1244 BC.

 

The temple is entirely a monument to Ramses II’s ego – nothing changes with Kings and politicians – and twice a year, (October 22 and February 22), allegedly his coronation and birth,  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 it 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).

In the 1960’s when Nasser, in his wisdom, decided Egypt needed to tame the floods of the Nile and generate some hydro power, it also meant the flooding (and consequent relocation) of Abu Simbel, one of the great monuments of the ancient world.This was a massive US$300 million project (in today’s money) that took 20 years.

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/bilharzia, 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 days 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 five non-English speaking Frenchies.

My six companions were, Saiid, our esteemed Captain, Francoise, Alain, Bernard, 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 the Valley of the Kings

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 were 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 lumière 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.

Karnak

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.

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 Generosity 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)

Cairo has its roots in the ancient settlement of Memphis, now 24 km southwest of the 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.

Wandering the ancient souk (markets) near the city of the dead and Al-Azhar University 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, again, 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 generally had only consumed 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

Albania – Europe’s former recluse

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 command that you stop misquoting me

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 $30. You compound this by booking it for return two days after you leave, cost $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 $20 (taxi fare) and $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 years old) that you’d learn to check twice before moving on.

Arrival

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”

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.

Enver Hoxha – no longer able to poke his nose into other people’s business

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.

On our walking tour 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.

Hoxha’s house
KFC. Across from Hoxha’s house
A bit of Berlin wall in Tirana
One of Hoxha’s paranoia bunkers

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.

The pyramid now 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 pleasant evening with the Deputy Minister for Justice, Fjoralda Caka and her Mother

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 Kruja

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):

Ethnographic museum

The Marrakesh Express – Two Weeks in Morocco Pt 1. Maudlin’ Musicians and Metal Miners

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 (Morrison) was still alive (he died in 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 Genesis £200 and a year later they were playing in Brighton for £2000.

There are some music pundits that say that Marrakesh Express is among the worst pop songs ever written. But we didn’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. Having been 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. 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.


Marrakesh Express

Whoopa, hey mesa, hooba huffa, hey meshy goosh goosh

Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes
Traveling the train through 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 complete shit. 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.

 

RyanAir. Almost impossible to find anything uglier or less comfortable

The decor is what you imagine they’d put in Guantanamo to torture the inmates. And all this before you even get to the booking process and charges which, if you have any self-respect, you’d never put yourself through twice.

People say “Oh but it’s a budget airline”. Aldi is a budget supermarket but no one would go there if they behaved like RyanAir. Can you imagine? Want to walk down the aisles? That’ll be $5. Basket? $5. Customer assistance? $20. Pay for your goods? $5. Use the toilet $10. Still, at least we got there alive, albeit with a stiff neck and sciatica.

My second mistake in Morocco was breaking rule 2 (the first being don’t travel RyanAir) 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. Morocco turned out to be like the proverbial curate’s egg, i.e good in parts, meaning, of course, that a revisit is required to make amends for the absurdly short stay.

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 relatively modern in a ‘western’ sense . Good public transport, good drinking water, great food, good accommodation and remarkably accomodating to tourists. So it’s really the best of both worlds.

Politically is is quite 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.

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. One would take a couple of days going out. Then three or four in the desert and a couple of days back. And even that is scratching the surface.

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 food 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 available in the Medina.

I shared 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.

 

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. That’s the theory but often the first day turns into a sort of desultory blob of a day. This means 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, hopefully, 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.

Volubolis

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 a bloody great Roman ruin, estimably well preserved.

This was an Idiot Traveller instant decision – the sort you make when you haven’t been forced to make decisions of any importance for so long that you can no longer remember how to make them. This starts with prevarication: shall I go, shan’t I go, shall I go, shan’t I go 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 to Meknes, the nearest train station, omitting to note that one should get off at the second stop in Meknes, not the first. As a result you descend at the first station in town. You thus find yourself marooned several kilometres from the grand taxis which you are supposed to share to go to Moulay Idriss, the nearest town to Volubilis.

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The holy city of Moulay Idriss

Here I encounter Chloe Mayoux who has made the same mistake as I but hasn’t yet realised that she has made that mistake. Chloe is a half French, half British being. She can’t decide if she is French or British and thus was a sort of Brexit before Brexit ever existed.

Cat Brexit

 

Chloe 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 Chloe 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 Chloe, clearly against her better judgement, to share a petit taxi to where we can get a shared grand taxi.

Chloe’s protective alarm systems appear to be at Code Red although, when I later tell her this, she denies it. 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 Chloe follows the female strategy of don’t think I’m going to encourage your interest in me by speaking to you. I feel a bit like the invisible man and understand womens’ complaints about feeling invisible after 50.

strangers

This sense of invisibility applies to older men. 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 Chloe 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. 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 Chloe is no longer at code red.

Volubilis itself is a delight. It’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 and inhabited since the 3rd century BC, Volubilis had seen its share of residents. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans 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. 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 extended Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of Rome’s provinces.

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The Triumphal Arch of Caracalla

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 grand taxi is an old Mercedes which is already completely full save the front passenger seat. This means that Chloe 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 Chloe 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.

Lake Victoria
Lake Victoria, Nile source

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.

Prior to leaving I knew only Mohamed and Salah among the group and they were the known unknowns. 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.

She appeared to accept this, and appeared to even like it, 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.

It’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 Mohamed’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.

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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.

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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.

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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 there 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. It’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 peoples’ 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 it’s the way we get there that is somewhat hilarious.

We are to go by camel about which I don’t have a particular issue until I discover that while Alex and I are to ride and the three others, our camel guide, Mohamed and Saleh are to walk alongside.

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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 more so for those walking. It’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 music. Unlike at 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.

Alex and Salah desert camp
Dinner in the desert

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Music in the desert camp. The locals do the jam session

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There’s a slow train a’coming driving me around the bend.

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 (see Sailing Like an Egyptian – slowly down the Nile).

Felucca
Felucca, Nile River

Faster by Felucca

These train services are so bad they make Australian trains look like the bullet train.

The “Avala”, the Vienna express, and the concrete something at Sofia station

This is serious regret country. Where you think “was this really a good idea to travel from Istanbul all the way to Malaga by train”. Even my fellow passengers look like refugees from some gulag in the east. Either exhausted, rough or disillusioned.

 

To get a sense of the rapidity of travel we leave at 7 am on a cold Sofia morning and we don’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.

The Laughter Express

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 (which was actually, I assume, hash or some other drug) of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame, but absent hippies, drugs and things of interest.

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.

The Avala Mk2, looks good but is just as slow and broken down

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. There could have been various alternative reasons but my Serbian was not really up to interpreting the announcement other than it was a track problem. The stop 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. It’s the power of association. Even though most nuclear reactor are themselves outdated 60’s technology.

There is 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). This is a traumatic experience for which the railways would be sued were we in the US.

 

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.

The “fast” train from Nis

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 Dimitrovgrad was exactly that. Here light grey concrete, blends nicely with dark grey concrete in an artistic panorama reminiscent of Peter Dutton’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 Gradite. 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 to our pleasant scenic route through the countryside – especially along the train lines. Here, as in every country in the world, the rail line runs through parts of the cities that are impoverished and decrepit.

The archetypal station master

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, they 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 rubbish tips 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 station 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, 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”

Recent posts published on this blog:

The Iron Rule: thou shall not (easily) pass (at least not in Turkey or Bulgaria)

Making In-Rhodes: more than just a colossus

Images from this blog and others from this trip may be found here on Flickr

The Iron Rule – thou shall not (easily) pass (at least not in Turkey or Bulgaria)

TEN THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT BULGARIA

Sofia coffee rating (note, based on limited sample) – 6/10 at 2 locations (for ranking system see here):

  1. Baker Brothers, ulitsa Georgi S. Rakovskiâ 44, 1202 Sofia Center, Sofia – 6/10
  2. The Rainbow Factory ul.Veslets 10, Sofia 1000 Bulgaria 1000 Sofia, Bulgaria – 6/10

The train which we boarded in Istanbul stops at the Turkey/Bulgaria border – and, refusing to be outdone by the Australian rail system, this train is old and slow and leaves from some part of Istanbul far from civilisation – a 45 minute bus ride from central Istanbul – what Australians would call woop woop.

The station which is not a station (Sirkeki)

The train, itself, is some form of exercise in Turkish logic. My carriage is numbered 483 even though the train contains just four carriages. One assumes this is designed to confuse foolish yabangee (foreigners) since, no doubt, Turks understand this logic.

The border is where modern nationalistic, autocratic Turkey meets the remnants of the centralised monolithic communist state and its obsession with bureaucracy and control. Never let it be said that the era of easy globalised travel has reached the Turkish, east European and Balkan borders.

Here, the obsessive nationalism, paranoia and xenophobia of some or all of these countries conspires with an antiquated infrastructure, and a disregard for the modern desire for speed, to ensure that no traveller shall go unpunished for daring to cross the border.

Pulling into Kapikule on the Turkish border we are first disembarked at 2.30 am. All of the 30 odd people on the train to Sofia are woken and de-trained in the dead of night. There is no purpose to this that could not be achieved by a single immigration officer boarding the train and politely requesting passports and ID cards so that they can be checked against the database to ensure that we haven’t just fled from Daesh controlled Syria.

Having evicted the passengers from the depth of their sleep and the warmth of their beds, those passengers arrive on the platform only to find that there is nothing that resembles officialdom, anywhere within rifle shot, and no sign of a passport office.

Eventually we discover that they have hidden the passport office on the other platform cunningly hidden by the train. On discovering this we all head, sheep-like, for the crossing over the rail lines where, we have noted, various railway staff and security personnel are crossing.

They shall not pass. Turkish and Bulgarian customs posts

But, no, this is not acceptable since there may be a train passing this way sometime between now and Christmas. A phalanx (well 3, at least) of Turkish security/police shouting “you shall not pass” and waving their AK47s, ALRs or Uzis blocks our way.

So, we are forced to march 100 metres east, through a tunnel with harsh, flashing, white lights which would, undoubtedly, have sent survivors of the Gulag Archipelago into a frenzy and then 100 metres back to the passport office which is, as the crow flies, a mere ten metres across the lines and platform from the train.

Here we queue as the indolent passport officer scrutinises us at his leisure, while his colleague, standing next to him, is, presumably, taking his annual leave. Very slowly, arguably to avoid RSI, he checks each person off against a list of passengers after which we are allowed to return to the train.

Should any of the passengers marked as being on board the train not appear at the passport control the train shall not leave. In their wisdom, however, this turns out not to be a problem, since our train sits at the station for a further 90 minutes while the Turkish locomotive which, clearly, does not have a visa for Bulgaria is changed for a Bulgarian locomotive.

This gives Turkish immigration plenty of time to search the train for errant passengers. In the process they wake us twice, for light entertainment, presumably to check that no passenger has transmogrified into a refugee or alien from space or smuggled a refugee on board while the train was standing at the station.

In addition, to ensure that no one actually has the presumption to try and sleep, the locomotive changing exercise takes the full 90 minutes and involves, apparently, smashing the new engine into the carriages repeatedly. The purpose of that ritual is unknown unless it is some form of crash test using live passengers as dummies. As it is the entire trainload of passengers suffers a form of horizontal whiplash with their heads being violently catapulted side to side.

The end result is that what could have been a pleasant nights sleep is turned into the sleep equivalent of coitus interruptus. What is, theoretically, pleasurable is interrupted to ensure that Turkey does not lose anyone which it wishes to protect in its internment centres and that Bulgaria is not impregnated by the arrival of unwelcome guests.

The detritus of the Communist era. Decaying building and half finished buildings everywhere

Arrival into Sofia is at 8.30, an hour later than scheduled. Mussolini clearly never visited Bulgaria. Here we are disgorged into a railway station that appears to be a practice run for building Bangkok which, as any person who has visited Thailand knows, is the world leader in ugly concrete structures.

To ensure that every passenger knows that they are in an ex-Soviet satellite state the front entrance to the station is adorned with a large-ugly-concrete-something that apparently served to use up the left over truck load of concrete when they had finished the station.

Sofia – welcomed by a very concrete station and an large ugly concrete something

Bulgaria can’t quite decide whether it is Sovexit or Eurentry. The result being a sort of schizophrenic society which retains large slabs of the former Soviet society, culture and architecture, like a brutalised lover that can’t quite bear to throw out the photo of their tormentor.

The Soviet Union is a bit like someone s/he didn’t really love or even, really, like but to whom s/he has a type of sentimental love/hate relationship. On the other hand s/he doubts the bona-fides of the EU, the new flash lover who promised much but has so far delivered far less than the marriage vows described.

This is reflected in the visual and economic aspects of Bulgaria and, even Sofia. Rural Bulgaria is old agricultural Europe. Depopulated with abandoned houses everywhere as people have fled to “better” lives in the cities. Then as you approach Sofia you move into the old Soviet Union. Abandoned factories and warehouses and, everywhere, piles of litter, building waste, industrial poisons, the detritus of a society that cared/cares little or nothing for the environment.

Then, finally, there is central Sofia a pleasant, small modern city strewn with the monumentalism of the Soviet Union and the religious fervour of a part Catholic and part orthodox Christianity.

In this context symbolism is everything and the bigger the better. From the massive Orthodox Cathedrals, the latter with more gold on the roof than that hoarded by every Indian on the planet. For the environmental and social destruction wrought by its obsession with gold and gold leaf, the churches should be doing penance until the second coming.

Sveta Nedelya Orthodox Church

When it’s not the churches hoarding the wealth of society in its land and buildings it’s the grandiose neo-fascist symbolism of the ex-Soviet Union and its satellites celebrating the theft of millions of lives in their monuments to their so-called communism. That communist society was more akin to modern day neo-liberal capitalism, in other words more a controlled klepocracy than anything resembling socialism.

The Russian Orthodox (Alexander Nevksy) Cathedral. More bling than Sarkozy

If, however, you ignore the religious and political follies that created these various buildings they are undoubtedly fine specimens of their type. The Russian Church, the St George Rotunda, and the Cathedrals of Sofia are all worth a visit if you are passing through, as is the Russian memorial, the Presidents Building and the ex-Communist Party headquarters. At the President’s Building if you arrive just before the hour you can enjoy a remnant of the Soviet era in the spectacle of the goose-step driven changing of the guard.

Always hard to leave your authoritarian past behind. The changing of the guard at the President building

The nadir of this obsession with big and grand can be found at the Eagle Bridge which though by no means the largest symbol of stalinist excess is a suitable folly. This fine bridge adorned by four magnificent eagles spans a concrete drain containing a rivulet. This rivulet contains about as much water as the Darling River, in Australia.

For those unaware the magnificent Darling River, below Cubbie Station has been largely drained to within an inch of its life.

Monumentalism everywhere both ancient and modern, including the famous Eagle bridge and the river (ditch) it runs over)

Cubbie is a cotton farm in Queensland which has been allowed by Government to pretty much destroy the Darling River by extracting so much water, along with some other culprits, that the second longest river in Australia is now an empty ditch. Cubbie, extracts billions of litres of water to be wasted on a cotton crop. It’s a typical Australian plan. Take one of the world’s iconic rivers on the world’s driest continent and suck it dry for a crop that would be better grown almost anywhere else in the world.

Nevertheless, despite being burdened with a large quantity of cynicism, I found Sofia, a pleasant city to visit. Most of the major attractions within the city centre boundary can be walked around in a day and the city is clean, open, populated with numerous gardens, has a good public transport system if you don’t feel like walking and is stacked with interesting buildings, if that’s your thing. It does have its idiosyncrasies among which are the paving of streets and public areas with large quantities of yellow pavers.

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The famous yellow pavers. More slippery than an Australian politician. Old communist party headquarters at rear.

These pavers not only are a distinct vomit yellow but are specially designed to ensure that, should it be wet, no visitor to Sofia shall walk the city without sliding and falling on them at least a couple of times. This presumably is an economy building exercise since injured tourists, unable to walk, stay longer and spend more money. While I didn’t witness the large number of rear end collisions that presumably occur when cars try and brake in the wet, these accidents, one assumes, these also add to the GDP in much the same way as wars and earthquakes.

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En route to Bulgaria

Bulgaria

Sofia