Wednesday, January 16, 2008

“Antarctica: The Ultimate Adventure” Part 3 The Animals

As spring liberates the sunshine, throwing off the last icicles of winter the team come out of their bracing slumber, full of mischief, zest and zeal. Fun loving characters dressed in tuxedos waltzed around, giants tiptoed through their favourite swimming holes, winged acrobats ducked and weaved along side capacious roly-poly rogues crammed with attitude. All squawked and twanged embracing the advent of the summer solstice. Intrinsically linked to their local landmark, the continent of Antarctica.

Welcome back. For those who have just joined us, this is the 3rd instalment of the “The Ultimate Adventure”, a 29 day semi circumnavigation of the Antarctic aboard the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov. Part 1 was the Journey, Part 2 the Landscape and now Part 3 the Animals that inhabit this scintillating macrocosm. Seeing them is like visiting pen pals who you feel you know but have never met.

Traversing the Drake Passage sea birds swirling in the skies above the white caps, they farewelled the KK as she set off south. Antarctic Petrels toyed with the waves gliding over the peaks of the wind lashed depths, playing with the frothy edges.

Gentoo Penguins lodged in Neko Harbour, a refuge also inhabited by a gaggle of migratory Skuas, Snowy Sheathbills and Kelp Gulls who all come for the penguin eggs. Skuas are known as the “Buccaneers of the South”, villains. Beach gives way to gentle slopes ramped up to the surrounding mountains. On the upside one can discern organic red streaks, penguin guano montaged as “Penguin Highways” leading to the rookeries. The harbour covers a large area and yet the penguins prefer to tread the historical corridors to and from the sea. Traffic is non-stop, waddling, slipping, sliding and tobogganing along. Comings and goings are comical; the only things missing are the traffic lights and walk beeps to regulate the ebbs and flows across the snowy textile.

Intrepid travellers are instructed to keep a minimum distance from the animals, but if you sit quietly, curiosity triumphs and soon you are immersed in penguins. Our presence did not alarm or distress the penguins; they stopped, looked and listened; some fascinated, others impartial.

Gentoos have a brood pouch (bare small patch of skin on their lower abdomen) with which they warm and protect their egg. Nests are built of small rectangular shaped stones with the nursing parent sitting on top. There are gulls and other birds, predators patrolling the plains opportunistically waiting for a minute of forgetfulness to steal the eggs. Parents must be diligent.

Rocks; the building cornerstone are at a premium. It is a battlefield out there with much skulduggery and competition for the highly prized objects; robbery is the motive and rocks are the treasure. When a conquering knight returns victorious with a rock there is a shrill “Well done!” While the victor celebrates and his back is turned, guess what? Another interloper takes advantage and steals a foundation from the victor’s stash. The tussle is ceaseless and goes on all day resulting in lots of vocalizing, squabbling and shifting of rocks. Someone suggested painting the rocks, then watching the pageant; amusing!

A resident Weddell Seal asleep just up from the landing beach at Peterman Island caused quite a stir. Snoring, he looked to be dreaming. Charming, with a grey soft brown mottled coat and long whiskers, flippers across his chest like a child in slumber. Clickety click from dozens of cameras stirred him ..….. a big open-mouthed exclamation and an expression “Oh, it is only you”, and he returned to his dreams of endless fish and beautiful females. Gentoo and Adelie penguins rested, mated, socialized, thieved and incubated along side him indifferent to the landlubbers and the seal. These creatures have never been hunted; consequently they do not fear man.

A colony of Imperial shags nests alongside an Adelie rookery at Jungla Point their blue markings identify the breeding season is here. Unlike the Adelie’s rock courtship, shags board close together, attentively grooming each other, more stay at home folk. They also were not disturbed by the penguins’ activities and squabbles.

While garaged in the fast ice at Marguerite Bay a sole Emperor Penguin appeared out of the icy wild blue yonder. What a handsome fellow, at one metre tall Emperors are the tallest and heaviest of the penguins living up to 40 years. Emperors winter over to breed in the Antarctic and are actually sea birds that have lost the ability to fly. They have a coat of jet-black fur; a chest of pure white with a collar of incandescent yellow markings, flippers, a short tufted tail and 2 large webbed feet. Perfect!! Upright and plainly curious this is a sociable visit reminiscent of the movie “Happy Feet”. Waddling close to inspect the KK, he paused to speculate our origins. Quick as a flash the gangplank was down and photographers captured the performance. A new slant on Antarctic tourism; rather than a few people watching a lot of penguins…a twist… one penguin watching a lot of people.

30 minutes later as quickly as he had come, the Emperor is gone. Best of all though, he returned later in the afternoon to everyone’s delight. He personalized this visit acquainting himself and strolled right up to my roommate. Po Lin said “he looked straight at me” preening and strutting his stuff; she is smitten. Generally wildlife watching is a patient pastime, with long solitary hours rewarded by brief glimpses of animals. These interludes become memories that stay with you long after the moment.

Garaged near the Dry Valleys we encountered the enchantment of the Antarctic. Just the spot for a wonderland; gaping ocean interfaced on two sides by mountains and icebergs with a stage of sweeping ice flats and a basin routed to the Dry Valleys. First a placid watercourse then a splash, a small disturbance in the aqua and a Minke Whale emerged, a member of the Baleen Family. He is titanic, grey black with a heavyset bulk and a small dorsel fin. Cruising the channel, his blow signalled the unhurried rhythm of his movements, softly and smoothly over and under the water, echoing an ancient and primal ritual.

A multi layered vista fringed by blue and white, first the Minke cruised the gaping ocean then Emperors amused themselves with catch and tag from the shore to the inner limits of the bay. All afternoon they were in and out of the water. Are you familiar with the sound and exuberance of a champagne cork popping? There is the rush as the bubbles effervesce and fizz out of the bottle; that is exactly how Emperor Penguins squirt out of the water. Travelling at up to 20 kilometres per hour in short bursts they belly flop onto the hard ice then apply the brakes. Next second they are upright, making room for other arrivals. Only once did I see a mishap when an Emperor overshot its arrival point, back pedalled trying to stop the forward locomotion, succeeded, then out of sync finished up with an ungainly vertical mount to a walking position, oops! Typically they are elegant giving the impression of gliding rather than waddling.

Lining up like models behind the curtain of a catwalk “you first, no you” all jostling for position, until everyone is wet. Looking down, the Emperors could be seen propelling through the water, a telltale bubble trail lingering in their aftermath.

While Emperors occupy the inner blue fringing the shoreline, Adelies occupy the ice flats; they are small in stature and monochrome in colour. One is reminded of the Cat from “Alice in Wonderland” who is late for a very important date, after chatting he headed off in completely the opposite direction from whence he came. Whereas Emperors are tall and graceful, Adelie’s are short and nervous, watching the interactions between the species a monologue for a screenplay may go like this:
∑ Setting: water’s edge Antarctica Solitary Emperor Penguin standing regally on the ice ledge quietly enjoying the peace and sunshine
∑ Approached by a Nervous fidgety Adelie who splutters a dialogue HelloOOOO, helloOOOO prattling “can I be your friend”, vocalized in a desperate sounding hurried high pitched whine
∑ Emperor condescendingly looks down his nose at the bothersome Adelie and simply but firmly enunciates “NO”
∑ Disappointed the Adelie meekly mooches off
∑ Adelie sees another solitary Emperor and starts the same jumpy discourse hoping for better luck this time

Apsley Cherry-Garrard said about penguins “They are extraordinarily like children, these little people of the Antarctic world; either like children, or like old men, full of their own importance and late for dinner, in their black tail coats and white shirt fronts and rather portly withal”, what a amusing way to represent these engaging creatures.

Perfect postcard picture; a tableau of penguins and Minke Whales, the pattern of life is different for each of the inhabitants:
∑ Minkes cruising slowly and luxuriously
∑ Emperors elegantly aqua-playing for the sheer pleasure of it
∑ Adele’s all hurrying somewhere, it didn’t seem to matter where; infact it is decidedly random, here there and everywhere, waving their flippers up down, left to right always at a frantic beat. Like a younger brother, a pest, but you love him

The bay pulsed, brimful with pastiche energy, a glorious convergence leaving one energised about life and living. Antarctic animals are fantastic and like no others. One felt intoxicated being privy to the antics and behaviours. This is not just a show for the tourist but a daily event that moulds the cycles of life. There is a biodiversity that is staggering in its richness in the Antarctic.

Passing the Ice shelf of the Ross Sea we head towards the Bay of Whales. Hoping to recapture the excitement of previous encounters, scanning the horizon from dawn to dusk. Rewarded with a pod of 12 Killer Whales or Orcas. Known as “Wolves of the Sea” due to their hunting in packs, Orcas are from the oceanic dolphin family they are gregarious; foraging, travelling, resting and socializing as a group.

On board polar experienced staff share their amazing stories and folklore about the wildlife. Tony the marine biologist spoke of his time on Macquarie Island. To illustrate a yarn Tony showed a photograph of a huge bull seal, head first in the entrance to his tent completely blocking exit or entry. It looked hilarious; can you imagine telling your boss why you where late for work? “It was like this etc etc”, imagine the response deprecating in disbelief “SURE”.

Campbell Island one of the sub-Antarctic groups, is home to a Hooker Seal colony. At the zodiac landing place a huge male sunned himself; feigning sleep he was watchful through half closed eyes. His features included nasty looking big dentures. Weighing in at 500 kilograms and having the reputation of being rather ill tempered with the ability to move with great haste and purpose, we had been cautioned to give him a wide birth.

On route to the Albatross nests in the hills, one of the party lagged behind and was nearly ambushed by another cranky Hooker bull seal. It was practically guns at high noon. Jonathan wanted the vegetation to swallow him up; the seal had large yellow fangs and a troublesome mind-set. In the end, each went their separate ways, one buoyed by supremacy, the other unharmed but shaken.

Albatross have a wingspan of three meters; shoulders the same height as an adult Labrador but with a shorter round body on large legs. Biologist Robert Cushman Murphy said, “ I now belong to a higher cult of mortals for I have seen the Albatross”. Early sailors believed to shoot an albatross would bring bad luck. Today Albatross have more to fear from long line fishing boats, but this is being addressed by mindful work practices. To see these birds in flight is akin to “touching the wild”; being able to feel the pulse of the wind. Yet on land they are awkward and generally nest on the wind side to assist takeoff. Albatross generally mate for life, reinforcing the bond with tender preening and elaborate ritualised courtships.

On Enderby Island the first influx of seals were gathering harems on the sandy shore. Bulls were marking their territory and securing the most females. Arriving three weeks too early to see the masses and the associate bedlam that insures. We did however witness teenagers honing their fighting skills and a mature bull jealously guarding his ladies. Interactions loaded with recital, pontificating and vocalizing, signalled dominance or attempted dominance; all acted out with the intent to scare the novice. Great lumbering beasts heaved their blubbered forequarters at the opposition connecting with a thud, accompanied by grunts and groans supplemented by open tusked mouths, vivid displays of aggression. The ladies looked on amused. A combination of power, unpredictable and unknown animal logic reinforced the wisdom of distance and the prudence of a long 300 m lens. Bones at the landing point being picked over by Skuas were the result of a scuffle between 2 males fighting over a female. The bones were those of the female crushed by the bullyboys.

As we headed north to New Zealand, seabirds welcomed us back to the more temperate weather; two Wandering Albatrosses remained aloft and separate from us mere mortals, enjoying the swells and air currents of the huge seas. Groups of Petrels showed off to their peers. Like friends farewelling friends we said adieu to the animals of the Antarctic, silently expressing gratitude for the unique opportunity to visit and comprehend their world, if only briefly.

Living up to dreams and expectations “The Ultimate Adventure” reinforces the wonder and pleasure of travel. The expedition with its profound experiences remains etched on one’s mind:
∑ KK’s uniqueness and experienced crew, a highlight
∑ Helicopter jaunts, breathtakingly ostentatious
∑ Zodiacs, adventure on rubber so to speak… what a thrill
∑ The assorted landscapes….. braggart, unforgettable and awe-inspiring……fabulous, frigid and fragile..…. completely overwhelming and defying portrayal
∑ Last but by no means least the animals; delightful, cute, aggressive, and endearing; they bewitched you. Their curiosity, their interactions, their individuality… all wooed the adventurer, we each had a favourite

Amid thunderous ovations the final curtain call brings to a close the opening night of a new Broadway production. A hit, the audience are on their feet shouting more, more, more, more; this mantra imitates the feeling when leaving the phenomenon known as the Antarctic.

I realise this extraordinary adventure is not for everyone, but I trust you have enjoyed being involved even by osmosis. It has been my joy to share and to include you, albeit in a small way.

Author: Jan Thompson
Web Site:


“Antarctica: The Ultimate Adventure” Part 2 The Landscape

Rather than watch the Discovery channel, a semi-circumnavigation of the Antarctic is a journey of discovery. Part 2 of the Ultimate Adventure presents a festival of landscapes and experiences from a real life adventure.

This voyage of discovery set sail from the port of Ushuaia then journeyed across the Drake Passage to the sub-Antarctic, southwest to the Ross Sea and McMurdo Sound into the heart of the Antarctic then north to the sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand.

Broadcasting adventure, we sailed by icebreaker. Originally designed to clear the seaways around the coast of Siberia and capable of operating in temperatures down to minus 50 degrees, Kapitan Khlebnikov is engineered to crush ice 3 meters thick. Her blueprint allows freedom of manoeuvre venturing into seldom seen and visited areas; she is the only ship operating in the Antarctic with this flexibility. For 29 days she is home.

Ushuaia is the most southern city in the world, departure point for the Polar Regions. Rainbow dappled houses patchwork the shoreline, snow dusted foothills heave from the sea, mountains spire towards the clouds; air chilled, clean and fresh drizzles from the heavens.

The geological and meteorology features of the Antarctic are not unique; ice, snow, water, sea, mountains, rocks, air, wind, sky. What defines the Antarctic is the amalgamation of these elements, the compass points they saturate and the limitless horizons they occupy. There are no familiar constraints, no town plans, no fences to restrict or define space, no states or territorities, it is a shock to see so much emptiness; the landscapes classify the areas and divisions of the Antarctic.

Neko Harbour is the first polar landing on the continent of Antarctica; the minute is supercharged, eagerness and exhilaration abound. Zodiacs motor through the watery serpentine. Nimbly gazing around snow is everywhere; sprinkled onto entire mountainsides, bedrock exposed only where the load is too much and the lion's share has fallen into the deep navy water. Glaciers, crevasses and faults are ubiquitous, ice blue they twinkle in the sunshine. Ice shifting “Antarctic thunder” avalanches break the silences, the reverberation resonates, surges ripple across the water. Countless shades of blue water, ice and sky overtake your psyche; one feels’ pint size in this magnificent picturesque opulence.

Port Lockroy initially a British Station known, as Base A is now a museum administered by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. Bransfield House has been restored and houses the museum, shop and post office. Three BAS staff live at Port Lockroy in the summer to maintain the historic site and play postman. Across the way at Jungla Point, the beach is littered with bleached whalebones revealing a tale of woe and slaughter. It is hard to imagine anything gruesome happening here. Perfect weather, no clouds, no breeze; we wander without parkas or gloves, like a summer’s day. Almost transparent visibility through the water is 20 metres. Just before the algal bloom you can see into the centre of the earth. The bloom is a month away; then the water becomes a murky pale brown.

On Peterman’s Island 3 scientists are doing field research. Due to the gorgeous weather they had gone to visit a neighbour for what is probably a much-appreciated shower. Their tenancy is 3 small yellow tents and a mess cum laboratory tent. Nearby a large cross on a small raised mound is a memorial to 3 compatriots who lost their lives on a field trip, a reminder never to take this environment for granted. You must be self-reliant as help is not around the corner.

To park overnight at Marguerite Bay in Crystal Sound the KK is garaged in the fast ice (ice attached to land). The ship is driven into the ice and wedged perpendicular to the sea; the ocean floor is far too deep for the anchor chain.

In the midst of exclamations and awe our zippy helicopter flew across the fast ice, past tabular icebergs to Stonington Island where a glacier ran along one entire wall of the valley. Jagged edges, icy facade and fastidious detail ascend from the whiteout base of the valley. Juxtaposition, colossal and haunting, the diffused light show charmed your senses; pastel blue frescoes with watercolour pink brushstrokes like cotton candy feathered the upper vestiges of the glacier. Sitting awestruck on a frozen ledge probing left to right, every glance awarded new details, new shapes and colour deviations.

The glacier is mesmerising, elysian; virtual reality inside a glossy travel photograph. A superb souvenir; nature is bewitching. John Muir said “to dine with a glacier on a sunny day is a glorious thing and makes feasts of meat and wine ridiculous. Glaciers eat hills and drink sunbeams”.

Leaving the glacier with the sun shimmering and the ice sparkling, rich golden tinted light captured the last rays until midnight. This landscape is a perpetual installation.

You begin to understand the logistics of this expedition, the icebreaker, helicopters and zodiacs; the Antarctic is a wilderness. The scene from the bridge is a spectacle of geography stretching to the end of the world - we are at the end of the world. Several seals and penguins inhabit the shifting ice in the middle of nowhere; the Ross Sea is 450 kilometres to the SW and the nearest land is 250 kilometres to the west. What are these animals doing out here?

Ross Ice Shelf looms ahead, at 800 kilometres long, 30 meters above water and 200 below, reaching 500 kilometres into the Ross Sea, covering an area larger than France it is HUGE. Travelling along its length will be a two day journey if the ice is kind. For an intimate encounter we sailed to within 100 meters of the immense vertical cliffs; white walls straight up channelled by the elements, like plant roots, hundreds of fractured veins allow light to enter the dense spaces. Ice edges reflect the ocean and sky pigmentations while the uplift is reminiscent of a 50’s crew cut hairstyle.

Helicopters fire up for a flight to the Ross Shelf, group two board now. Near the landing site the advance team arranged champagne in the ice, perfect!!!! glasses poured. Instructions suggested if you follow the red marker flags to the edge of the shelf there is a treat. While Tony was reconnoitring a crevasse opened. “Line up, line up” like the age old circus chant, word passed quickly around “for your viewing, an ice crevasse encounter, hurry…. hurry…. closing soon ”. The gap is half a meter wide exuding adventure. Viewed from a prone position roped to a safety line, inching over the edge it went down forever, a labyrinth of shades pale icy blue graduating to rich deep icy sapphire blue. From the minute I got off the helicopter to the edge of the shelf, stumbling knee high in the fresh snow, I giggled to myself. “Travel Utopia”, what delicious fun. It also underscored how insignificant we “Mortals” are. We look like dust particles in this vast icescape.

Wake up at 0630 is not good news. 23 kilometres from McMurdo Sound but the wind is 34 knots and the helicopters are rated at 17 knots. Plan B, we helicopter into the desolate arid Dry Valleys.

One of the most extreme ecosystems in the world, the Dry Valleys are virtually free from ice and snow all year around. The inhospitable bronzed terrain has been stripped raw by the devilish katabatic winds that race across the basins. Life forms are limited to lichens and algae as evaporation exceeds precipitation. Curiously there are 3 petrified seals in the valley, lost, 50 miles from the ocean. An unearthly karma dominates the area. NASA utilised the region as a simulator for the surface of Mars.

Mount Erebus is in the near distance, an active volcano currently at rest. Small wisps of vapour rise and nestle on top, melting into the breeze, which leisurely stirs them. In the clear sky the wreckage of the DC10 tourist flight NZ flight 901, which crashed in 1979 is visible.

Transfer to Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royds is by helicopter. Built in 1907 for his Nimrod Expedition that included an attempt to reach the South Pole. It is a short distance to Scott’s hut at Cape Evans established in 1911. Though the legendary explorers have passed on both huts are linked not only through inspirational feats of exploration and scientific achievement but endurance and tragedy. Restoration work is saving these priceless monuments.

At Cape Royds one of the hut restorers a young muscular smiling New Zealander enjoyed the summer temperatures in a T-shirt, chitchatting about the work being undertaken. On parting he said “Thank You for dropping by”. Not quite the reply I was expecting. Only 2,000 tourists a year visit this region and not all are able to visit the hut.

The NZ authorities insist that a member of the Antarctic Historical Trust travels with each group to ensure the huts integrity is maintained and strictly controlled, Great Job!! At Shackleton’s hut, only 40 people are allowed on the site and 7 people are permitted to be in the hut at any one time.

Shackleton’s hut is a blanched prefabricated dwelling, 15 men originally slept in it. The interior is dim with a rustic ambience; they say, “there are friendly ghosts there”. You cannot smell the smoke nor feel the fires’ warmth; but you can envisage an era filled with dreams; explorations part planned, part executed. Human touches, tins of food, clothing still hung and arranged for the next wear, bunks ready for sleeping; all enshrined. Hopes and goals imbedded in the walls, linger in the air. It would have been perfect to have a quiet minute alone, but not to be, the queue is waiting.

Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans is also being restored with 85 tons of ice being dug out to gain access. In the hut and nearby stables sadness lingers; the table is set, waiting for the explorers to return. From the hilltop you can see the valley Scott travelled up on his ill-fated expedition to be the first to reach the South Pole, 800 kilometres away.

Beyond the huts there is genuine isolation; a one kilometre wide gaping featureless diorama bordered by mountains and glaciers, the vastness is confronting. Random blotches of russet gravel splattered near the huts are the only tonal variation in the endless white on white panorama.

Early summer and the sea is only 5 kilometres away. In high summer the ice melts and the whole valley is liquid; in winter it is 500 kilometres across fast ice to open water. Entertain the feelings of seclusion, waving your supply ship goodbye conscious a frigid nocturnal season is ahead of you.

Overwhelming silence is deafening, so quiet to be audible. Antarctica is its own timekeeper; things are done at its tempo not yours. The assemblage of restored huts, the stillness, the scale is jaw-dropping. I gaze to the horizon, seeking nothing but to be part of this place. Tranquillity is broken by the thump of the helicopter; my icebreaker awaits.

Fridtjof Nansen philosophised: “Most people might be oppressed by such surroundings with its silence and inhuman expanses. But he who seeks peace and quiet in nature, undisturbed by human activity.... will find here what he seeks…even though, beset by ice, one is a plaything of the forces of nature”.

Evening and dinner comes, the sun is continually present, there is no night it merely brushes the horizon and rises again. After dinner, there was gluhwein on the forward deck, everyone rugged up, a farewell to the Antarctic. Cheers, laughter and faraway looks to a world that has delighted, amazed and absorbed us for weeks. We have 2 more stops to make but they are in the sub-Antarctic and are not the same. The sea birds soaring and diving around us herald our return to the northern latitudes.

On Campbell Island, views down the valley to the sea offered splashes of blue among the flinty coloured tufted swaying meadows, sprinkled with sunbeam yellow flashes hedged by green textures. You must be watchful of the path as there are soft boggy patches to ensnare the careless. The only misadventure I suffered was a minor fall into the bog; a loss of dignity, a brush down of my trousers and I was on my way.

Back in the southern seas, the ocean’s rock and roll has returned with a vengeance. Everyone moves with one hand on the rail trying to find the ships rhythm. Getting about has the appearance of an inebriated swagger with the body listing from side to side; an awkward jig.

How quickly we have left the Antarctic. White and blue iceberg blocks that sparkled in the sunlight are replaced with hills hosting grass and foliage. The sea’s blackness is replaced by soft royal blue fringed with white caps; this transition occurred within 2 days of travelling north. Daylight has given back the night, light now rules the cycles of life.

Enderby Island is a wildlife paradise, 5 kilometres long by 3 kilometres wide landing is at a small research station, backed by a tangled rata forest. Overcast and 11°C does not feel warm; wind gusting and waves frothing, its important to dress warmly.

The Rata Forest is tranquil and sheltered with a maze of snow gum coloured tree trunks through which you must pick a path, all the while the wind is howling through the upper branches. Walking through the forest and the protected lower reaches, we were serenaded by a sweet melody; their movements secretive, the birds were small and fast.

Out of the forest and up the hill into gale force winds roaring in from the ocean, unchecked by hindrances. The weather is miserable, the sky is overcast and rain is visible in the distance and still the wind gusts.

Leaving the Sub-Antarctic Islands we head towards home and family, the adventure over but the memories will last forever.

I trust you have enjoyed Part 2 of the Ultimate Adventure and found the landscapes marvellous. Part 3 will introduce the wildlife of the Antarctic to thrill and delight You.

Author: Jan Thompson
Web Site:

“Antarctica: The Ultimate Adventure” Part 1 The Journey

“Stchastlyvogo plavaanya” is Russian for “Let the adventure begin”, but I am getting ahead of myself.

“Will you humour me.......gently lift your right foot off the ground …….now your left …….continue to raise and lower your feet one at a time ….…add a small sideway sway …….lastly close your eyes …….give yourself over to the movement and relax!!

I would like you to join me on a semi circumnavigation cruise to the Antarctic from Ushiaia Argentina to Christchurch New Zealand via the Ross Sea.

Open your eyes now …….imagine you are on the high seas experiencing the pitch and roll of an icebreaker.”

Having left the Beagle Channel in Ushuaia, in the province of Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia and sailing in the Drake Passage, you are experiencing what is known as the “Drake Shake”. This passage has a reputation of the roughest seas on the planet. Gargantuan seas; ships can roll up to 48 degrees although today it is only around 30 degrees. Our mission is to travel 900 kilometres across the Drake Passage to the Sub-Antarctic. Sailors whisper when travelling in this part of the world “expect the worst and hope for the best”.

You are travelling in a Kapitan Sorokin class Russian icebreaker operated by Quark Expeditions. The Kapitan Khlebnikov or KK as she is affectionately known has a length of 120 meters with a cruising speed of 16 knots powered by 6 engines, a smooth hull with double-thickness armour-plated skin of 45 mm at the ice line, no stabilizers and an operating range of 10,500 nautical miles (20,000 km) for the mechanical minded. Her rhythm pitches sideways versus forward and back like conventional ships. The higher you are the more pronounced the roll. She rocks and bucks in wild seas but crunches her way through the pack-ice below the Antarctic Circle like a knife through butter.

KK is not a pretty vessel, but is unique; the ice is her element. KK is the only passenger vessel of her class in the Antarctic capable of making the ice-hindered journey. Her power, grunt and design allow her to explore and access places no other ship can in the Antarctic continent. In 14 years the KK has only made this semi circumnavigation 5 times. A superstructure 5 stories high looks like a boxed set of drawers that contains hospital, dining rooms, bar, shop, library, lecture room, lift and comfortable ensuited cabins complete with port holes that open. She is equipped with 2 helicopters and 8 zodiacs.

As well as the sailors onboard the Expedition team is led by Shane Evoy who looks like a buccaneering pirate minus the talking parrot and wooden leg; he is a veteran of 70 expeditions. A team of lecturers includes a Geologist, a Historian Geographer, a Marine Biologist, an Ornithologist, a Naturalist, an Artist in Residence, a Photographer and a Doctor. Their achievements are to be envied, their knowledge formidable; a biography complete with a Polar Medal and membership to the Arctic and Antarctic Clubs. We are privileged; we shall see more of the Antarctic than most scientists and explorers can ever hope to.

You are probably wondering what is going on! Do you celebrate birthdays? I do; generally with lots of festivities over a number of days and particularly if it is a significant one. I deemed turning X0 cause for celebration. With that settled, what form would these celebrations take? A cruise to the Antarctic was my choice but not a short hop to the sub-Antarctic. Rather than buy a stamp I wanted the whole postcard experience and decided a 29-day cruise was the way to go.

Antarctica has long held a fascination for me. One of the last wilderness frontiers; isolated, a desert, space beyond imagination, a location that defies limits, teeming with wildlife and heroic legends of history and hardships. Books, photographs or any publication catches my imagination, like an open door inviting and enticing you in. It seemed so easy to phone: “do you have any vacancies, you do, excellent!!”

There were feelings of anxiety, quiet fear, wonder, trepidation and yippee yahoo as I placed my hand on the gangplank rail and stepped up and forward onto the KK. My grin got bigger and broader; this was my long held dream come true.

How to share such an adventure? With so many characteristics and highlights it is difficult; I decided on 3 instalments. Part 1 the journey, part 2 the landscape and part 3 the animals, so please be patient if your favourite is last.

Cape Horn has been left behind and there she blows; my first iceberg.

In Wild Ice, Mark Jones writes, “Antarctica is a separate world. One can feel its presence in the approaches, sailing south from more temperate climes. Standing on deck, one may follow the reeling albatross; feel the drop in temperature, the bite of the wind, and the motion of the waves. Yet it is the presence of ice, from the first occasional fragments, escalating in shape, form and frequency, and finally dominating all else, that brings assurances of arrival in Antarctica”. It is the coldest, windiest place on Earth.

Snow and ice becomes an everyday scene. As KK moves forward the bow wave announces our progress. The choice to view the passing parade is yours, forward or aft decks or the bridge. Surrounded by cold polar ambiance of minus temperatures or warm and snug surrounded by large glass windows and ships instruments. Do you want to be where the action is? To see the comical surprised expressions of a crabeater seal woken with a start from slumber by the deep rumble of the motor or shock as its ice bed is being crushed as the KK ploughs forward. Or do you want to see the big wide 270-degree view of a white shaded endless snowscape sprinkled with spectral icebergs and pressure ridges?

Killer Whales surfaced porpoising like dolphins or is it cruising with intent, their dark fins leaving barely a ripple; gorgeous, streamlined and dangerous looking. They formed an escort as we glided into the Lemaire Channel nicknamed “Kodak Gap” due to its photographic beauty. It is hard to reconcile how wild the weather can be when you voyage under a boundless blue sky across a mirrored liquorice channel peppered with small pieces of ice confetti edged by Persil white cliffs; breathtaking may be an understatement. It was all cameras on deck.

Latitude 66∞ 33’ 39”S, we have just crossed the Antarctic Circle to the pop of champagne corks, cheers, toasts and tears. Captain James Cook crossed it in 1773. Outside blue tinted icebergs as big as cities silently pass, penguins vanish into the crystal waters, sea birds soar overhead on the shifting horizon.

The pack-ice is now encroaching. Ice sheets coloured with a range of shaded cool tones like a colour chart. KK breaks through the ice, not by ploughing into it, but by riding up onto the surface and crushing it with its massive weight. From the bridge you can see and feel the shudder then the surge; we only had to retreat a couple of times and the next assault is confident and decisive. The ice is meters thick verified from the jagged edges that end in the water. We head forward into an unbroken sheet of ice that stretches as far as the eye can see. As the ship powers on a small crack appears, 4 of the 6 engines are rumbling, the power is audible. The rupture becomes a hairline crack, a trickle, a creek then a river in volume. Football field sized sheets double over each other, no longer smooth and unbroken. In the wake the ice’s appearance is altered to an uneven corrugation, pulverised into submission.

Zodiacs, inflatable boats are being launched. 8 to a boat, down a seriously steep ladder with two big burly Russian sailors assisting with a hand to upper hand grip, one step onto the side of the pitching zodiac then one step onto the floor, choose a side and hold onto the rope. It is mandatory to wash your boots in disinfectant before and after leaving the ship to reduce the risk of contaminating this continent with non-native species, emphasizing the vulnerability of Antarctica. Ropes cast off, the motor is gunned and course selected. The rubber boats seem as eager as the occupants to get there. Shimming across the liquid plain, thump thump thump; no one looks behind.

Safety is paramount and reinforced often. There are life raft, zodiac and helicopter drills. Protocols like coloured disks, which must be turned when leaving and returning to the KK, a visual reminder of who is out adventuring. The scout team carry emergency equipment to provide shelter and food for several days if needed. Life jackets are checked on leaving the ship. On landing the jacket is taken and given back when returning, another check that everyone is accounted for.

Would you like to be the 801st person ever to land on the remote Peter the 1st Island? Named for Piotr I a Czar of Russia, what a stark cheerless environment. Cocoa dark rock with patches of gulag toned snow and huge glaciers reaching into the sea challenged the zodiacs. Thick deposits of ice delineate the ridges, stopping abruptly at the vertical edge where the downside has plunged into the sea. There is an unearthly quiet with ghostly mist hovering on the lower edges graduating to thick pea soup on the ridges; truly a creepy place with a sinister feel.

The basalt cliffs are alive with Adele and Chinstrap penguins standing guard over their young, ever watchful of the sea and the weather. Timed to the wave sequence, beaching on the ice littered pebbled shore was awkward. The weather is turning nasty, limiting our time onshore. The last 3 zodiacs to return could not find a lead, a path through the pack ice. The ice had been clustering all afternoon assisted by currents and swells, the island’s mischief at work. Over and over again each zodiac tried to manoeuvre around the bergy bits (pieces of floating glacier ice up to 20 metres across, commonly derived from the disintegration of an iceberg). Tension swelled, drama unfolded, even the KK had to pull up anchor to steer clear of an iceberg. Concerned tones and anxious communications between the Captain and the zodiac drivers; instructions were issued and acted on. Finally everyone was safely on board. Weather conditions in the Antarctic can be savage, unpredictably changeable and can deteriorate rapidly.

At dinner I sat next to Betty who was in one of the zodiacs. Betty was excited and animated exclaiming they had a fantastic time stuck in the ice, declaring it was great fun viewing an iceberg up close and personal. Adding there was a lone penguin minding his own business when they cruised past; he was most bemused. The tourists were delighted and I expect this will be a highlight of their trip.

There were 89 passengers on board, full at 108; 18 Aussies the rest from USA, South Africa, Holland, Switzerland, Canada, Iceland, Spain, Brazil and Britain. Wild life photographers, nature lovers, people who want to mark another destination off the list and the enquiring. Computer makers, designers, film director, nuclear physicist, funeral director, retired folk, politician, Canadian Mounted Police, CEO’s, surgeons, environmentalist and activists. Some friendly; others reserved.

Listening to a lecture on “Shackleton and the Antarctic” illustrated what hardships the early explorers experienced, imagine sailing 800 kilometres in a boat 6 meters long in the Drake Passage for a month. Sure made our expedition a walk in the park with sandwiches provided.

Every day brought rapture and awe. Travelling south the night disappeared quickly, promising extra hours for animal spotting. You have to pinch yourself, but when you look out the porthole it is right there; audible, visible just an arms length away.

Along the Phantom Coast travelling was difficult, we travelled only 70 kilometres in one day; progress was hampered by pack-ice and pancake ice surrounded by grease ice like a loose fitting outer jumper with holes. Weaving and winding among the ice sculptures was like meandering through a garden filled with art, except we are in the gallery space called Antarctica. What an exhibition. With pack-ice all goes calm.

A helicopter ride to break the onboard routine was exhilarating, soaring above the KK witnessing it crushing and relentlessly breaking through the ice. We buzzed the ship from every direction. The ice was thicker with immense breakaways; the ship’s heaving motion fracturing the ice was far more dramatic from our mobile crows nest.

Not only is the scenery fabulous, the food on board the KK is gourmet complete with pastry chef. A printed 3 course dinner menu was published daily. My personal favourite was High Tea which consisted of 3 choices of cakes, slices and homemade biscuits. One day there was a choice of 4 different ice-creams with all the associated add-ons: nuts, sprinkles, coconut, wafers, wafers with chocolate centres and a choice of toppings; talk about children in a lolly shop!! Adults debating the merits of sprinkles versus nuts, accompanied by the sounds of metal on metal as the last spoons are greedily moved around the dish.

Without the icebreaker’s design and power, progress would be impossible; we are living in the Antarctic. Have climbed the stairs all day from the 3rd deck for a swim and sauna, 4 for meals, 5 for library and art classes, 7 for lectures and movies, living on the 8th deck, the radio man is on the 9th and the bridge is on the 10th. Then you think I might go to the forward deck and lookout for penguins and seals, so it begins again, down to the 3rd floor and forward, oops!! I should have the other lens. Get rugged up, go on zodiac and helicopter excursions; get changed and comfortable, so it goes. No complaints this is great fun.

Life on board is casual and informal, you can do a little or lots; lectures, classes, reading, nature spotting. One day when garaged in the ice a few brave or foolish souls joined the Antarctic swimming club. Membership is free; all you need is a swimming costume, and you jump into the freezing frigid brine. All are now full members. The gangplank was lowered; we provided the crowd, the Russian sailors the safety lines and Quark the anti-freeze (Vodka).

Another festivity was our arrival to the Ross Ice Shelf, hot chocolate with rum on the forward deck, what merriment!! We milled around like a garden party with our cups and idle chatter. In lieu of hats there was an interesting assortment of woolly beanies, fur Russian style bonnets, penguin patterned Ushuaia knitted pull ons, even a very English bird watching hat; all nodding greetings to fellow adventures.

Like all good holidays, regrettably they end. Leaving the Ross Sea, our last destination in the Antarctic is Cape Adare with its rookery of 250,000 nesting Adelie penguin. A penguin colony is like a fun fair carpark; hectic with lots of waddling noisy tuxedo jaywalkers whiffing of fishy wet bird.

Gazing towards the sea the location is magnificent, a perfect summer’s day. I scanned the horizon trying to memorise the scenery in my mind’s eye to take home and revisit regularly. We exited through an arbour of icebergs, each parting as if tell us it was now time to leave this ethereal phenomenon.

Heading north on the homeward journey, 1,200 kilometres to Campbell Island, with 500 kilometres through ice. Growlers and brash ice vie for space on the gentle undulations of the ocean swells. Rice white colour they bulge and glide on top of a dark olive black fathomless liquid called the ocean like a slow waltz, intimate and connected.

Fridtjof Nansen – “Strange there is always sadness on departure. It is as if I cannot after all bear to leave this bleak waste of ice, glaciers, cold and toil”.

I too felt sad leaving the Antarctic, what an odyssey. The imagery will remain with me forever; isolated beauty, vast starkness, the profound silence and its animals, entertaining, proud and majestic.

Out of the pack ice and into open water, the night is coming back. The Southern Ocean encircles Antarctica and contains the point on Earth that is farthest from any land (2,575 km). It is one of the most tempestuous waters in the world with dramatic winds, waves and ocean currents. Below the Roaring 40’s come the Filthy 50’s, the Screaming 60’s then the Serene 70’s.

Antarctica defies adjectives. I trust you too have enjoyed the journey and will look forward to the next instalment.

Author: Jan Thompson

Friday, October 26, 2007

“Warm croissants and cold bubbles”

Palpable senses like smell, touch, taste and sight resemble song and verse; all clues to a locality.

The sunrise brings the sweet buttery fragrance of warm freshly baked croissants, early bird risers meandering through cobble stoned labyrinths and the rush of the first caffeine in one of the numerous sidewalk cafes. The tease of gossamer morning mist rising from the serpentine river and the unmistakeable sight of an elegant haute couture woman walking her poodle, each hummed location.

Country France and it’s the weekend. Paris and the Champagne region of Eperney are the selected destinations. Paris is fabled for Lovers; romance fills the air with cologne. The streets are paved with golden leafed mystical warlords. Museums whose sole purpose is to honour and worship art abound. Fine food and fine wines are staples. Partaking of all the sensory delights in equal measure was a hedonist experience.

An espresso on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, reflecting on the Arc de Triomphe, watching a Gendarme orchestrating the traffic with all the skill of a maestro. Speculating on travellers and nationals drifting and converging in transit was a voyeuristic paradise, comfortable in the ordered seats of the Parisian cafes.

Entrance to the Louvre Museum is through a wide-open paved expanse of courtyard, with a glass triangle floating on the hard blocks. Looking down, the perspective and scale mirror life in a fish tank. The Louvre’s countless galleries were hushed after the honking of street life. Mona Lisa’s eyes and expression follow you around the room demanding your attention, “look at Me”, she seems to be booming. For having such a big reputation she is surprisingly small in size. Room after room of priceless masterpieces are accessible but not touchable; what a visual extravagance.

The theatrical leering gargoyles of Notre Dame were ever watchful; inside vaulted ceiling and dominating altars cautioned worshippers to silence. The Cathedral is a gothic tour de force constructed between 1163 and 1345 and renovated in the 19th century.

The evocative Eiffel Tower commands the horizon. Familiar from TV, magazines and films, it is Paris. It also offers food and wine. As a birthday celebration, it was decided to lunch there. The Michelin star rating of the “Jules Verne” restaurant confirmed the culinary excellence. Would you enjoy the chosen menu?
∑ Heavenly pastry filled with crab and prawns surrounded by a frothy sauce of delicate spices, accompanied by a silky mix of salmon and caviar, cool and smooth. Tastes and textures meet our expectations; luxurious comes to mind
∑ The signature dish was sea scallops with pork, an unexpected union. I aspire to cook like this
∑ A hushed movement signalled the arrival of the cheese cart. With expert advice the choices were made: creamy, strong and gentle, cow and goat. Where to start, the French are very good at this.

It was cheese on toast for dinner that night. I didn’t try to emulate our lunch, but it was French cheese. Oh and did I forget a little bottle of French bubbles, with chocolates for desert.

Next door to the hotel was the oldest chocolate shop in Paris, “Debauve and Gallais” founded in 1800, merchant to the King of France. As you walked into the shop, tastebuds quivered; all the eye and nose could detect was chocolate; luxurious velvety shapes and colours flaunted to perfection. Price is on weight at EUR 100, 000 per tonne (approx USD 150, 000).

The works of Monet, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh to name a few of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were represented at the Musee D’Orsay. Beautiful, iconic in colour and style, superlatives cannot describe such fantastic works. The Musee is housed in a restored railway station; it was a work of art in itself. The combination of art and history was irresistible.

Following Louis X1V’s example we journey by train rather than coach to Versailles for an afternoon stroll through the celebrated gardens crammed with imperial marble statues, lakes festooned with rowboats and boulevards back-dropped by the stunning summer residence. The serenity of the gardens provided a welcome relaxation.

Parts of Paris offer a living history. Tour D’Argent, which began life in 1582, is the oldest restaurant in Paris. Duels were fought there to obtain a table. Dinner is still impossible unless you book months in advance; fortunately we did not have to duel for a lunch reservation. During the Third Republic (before 1914), the ritual of the “Canard au Sang” was created, it was decreed that each duck would bear a number, which continues to this day. Duck number 1,035,438 had our name on it. The owner Claude Terrail is quoted: “Nothing is more serious than pleasure”. I think we are devotees, or at least foodies. We were in heaven with more bubbles to celebrate our participation in this living history.

Being of the firm belief that French Champagne is one of Life’s pleasure; we sought more pleasure and headed to Eperney for our last night in France to offer our services for quality control in the Champagne region.

Maintaining the weekend’s theme of leisure and pleasure, overnight was in a former coach house “Le Royal Champagne” part of the Relais and Chateaux group. The vales and lees ended in valley floors of green grape vines and rusty brown village dwellings, the light played among the vines, giving them sparkle and fizz.

In the village of Epernay the various Champagne houses have carved their cellars from the limestone where they turn nature into liquid gold. The 17 miles of caves at Moet and Chandon are 250 years old. Mysterious dark mazes filled with bubbles at various stages of effervescences and aromas. Would Madam care to taste the final product? With a suitable pause, then “Yes Please!!” Not sure, we may need a second; oh but “that is your third”, oh dear!!

Streets bustle, the language lilts, the urban scape stuns, the art is like sunshine and rain, the food heavenly and the wine sings. Confidence and proud, France dazzles the senses.

Cambodia: Ancient and Mystical

Books!!!! In particular books on Ancient History are an ideal way to explore the world. Just focus on the words, liberate your imagination and the pages can take you to exotic foreign shores.

The antediluvian pages echoed of ancient parchment, like old bones they creaked. Opening the classification “Angkor period” (9th to 15th centuries), the settled dust formed a small cloud as it mushroomed into the present. The history lesson commences with a turn of the pages.

Cambodia has been found and is eager to share its temples, gentle religion, charming people and enchantments. This land has an old history, a brutal recent past and a bright future. Jumbos laden with tourist are disembarking to discover the appeal and astonishment of Angkor Wat and its many temples.

Volume 4 Page 4: Angkor Wat. It is hard not to be awe struck when there it is before you, the shrine in all its splendour, believed to be the world’s largest religious building. The main temple of Angkor Wat is big and imposing but it is more - one is left with a sense of another dimension. Built during a time when religious beliefs and tomb building tributes to the Gods and King required ostentatious statements.

Angkor Wat is a jaw-dropping sight as your eye travels across the bridge over a watery moat to an extended stone walled perimeter, which surrounds the whole temple, 1.5km by 1.3km. Looking up behind the outer limits there is a central square platform with the tallest of a series of pinnacles visible; corner and side layered towers complete the symmetry. Crossing the Cruciform Terrace into the central structure and past the Gallery of a Thousand Buddha’s, you are into the soul of the temple.

The heart of Angkor Wat houses many carvings of heavenly nymphs (Apsaras). There are hundreds of these beguiling delineations; the details are exquisite, illustrated by fascinating decorative flourishes. You climb the layered towers via steep stairs. As you near the top the angle of ascent is so sharp climbers find they are crawling vertically; it is only near the top they realise the descent may be tricky. This part of the Wat is busy with Monks and many visitors all-marvelling at the astonishing structure.

Elder women dressed in white with close-cropped hair attended the shrouded Buddha’s. An exotic assortment of objects, candles, flowers and food surrounds the statues. The calm and gentle action of lighting incense and making offerings to Buddha are performed with great courtesy and reverence.

The Wat is busy. It may not always be possible to find a quiet spot to sit and appreciate it. The temple of Angkor Wat is a vision that captures Cambodia’s spirit in a single illustration.

Volume 5 Page 5: Unlike Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom resembles a glorified pile of rubble from a distance but once inside magical things materialize. To enter Angkor Thom some 10 km2 in extent, entry is via the south gate past 54 gods and 54 demons on either side of the causeway. The fortified city has at its centre the Bayon temple, three levels containing 1.2 km of extraordinary bas-reliefs incorporating more than 11,000 figures. 54 gothic like towers are decorated with 216 coldly smiling enigmatic faces of the God Avalokiteshvara. Climbing the steep stair ladders into the nooks and crannies the faces follow you, the ancient stones confront you. The temple is masked in mystery; as you clamour to the top of the towers the jungle breezes whisper the enigma. This is an ideal place to sit, contemplate and marvel at the mind-blowing structure.

Among the quiet of the monument the air is still, then movement stirs the space; a blaze of unanticipated colour amplifies the relic epoch blocks. Monks in saffron hue fabric dally; the fabric rustles unlike the tourist’s garb, adding displays of energy. Whiffs of incense catch your nostrils; the wisps take form, draughts of smoke rise towards the temple roof with ancient rituals being enacted in quiet corners.

Volume 6 Page 6: The temple of Ta Prohm, outside the east gate of Angkor Thom. Unlike other temples in this vast wonderland which have been restored, Ta Prohm is still a vestige left largely to the elements. The jungle appears to be consuming the shrine but in fact the tangle is pegged back and only the largest trees have been left in place making it manicured rather then left to natures plan. Knarled and nobbled, thick buttresses strangle the closed courtyards; fallen stone blocks are witness to nature’s relentlessness. Lichen and moss carpet some of the bas-reliefs; narrow corridors dislodged by the onslaught of tree roots. Ta Prohm had its 15 seconds of fame when it was featured in the film “Tomb Raider” staring Angelina Jolie, an atmospheric ruin.

Volume 7 Page 7: Preah Khan is a wonderful place to wander without the masses. Vaulted corridors and maze like spaces, lichen covered stonework proliferates; uncluttered altars appear milky with candle wax. Thick square doorframes and corridors repeated endlessly entice you into their spaces. Deserted and razed by time, heavy humid heat sits weighty in the still air; audible silence broken only by the intermittent rustle of the leaves, the roots of their hosts steadily enveloping the building blocks eventually crushing them back into pebbles, the stones returning to the earth where they rested eons before.

Volume 8 Page 8: Banteay Srei is considered to be the jewel in the crown of Angkorian art. Unlike its contemporaries, is pinkish in hue and awash with the finest stone carvings seen anywhere on the planet. The elaborate carvings are too fine to be crafted by the hand of a man and legend has it the temple was built by women; Banteay Srei means “Citadel of the Women”. Almost every inch of the interior buildings are decorated with ancient customs chiselled into the stones.

The ancient Buddha beckoned, the ritual began; the saffron robed monk filled the bowl from the water barrel, the two women sat on the stairs of the temple, hands joined in prayer, peaceful expressions softened their facial features. The water symbolizing purification was poured over their heads and bodies, soon they were drenched but this did not seem to dampen their serenity. One of the ladies saw us watching and smiled a gentle acknowledgement sharing her tranquil state of being.

Closing the encrusted history manuscript leaving behind legends and treasures one is returned to the present. Daily thoughts have been washed away by a saga, richly portrayed and represented by the temples of Angkor Wat.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

HELIOPOLIS The Dream of a Baron

The audible rumble of the tram’s wheels herald its arrival to the station of Heliopolis, just as the date clock clicked over to 1910.

In the same era a Belgium Engineer, Baron Empain bought a plot of Egyptian desert, found a French architect to build an Indian Palace for a residence and a scale model of Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in Istanbul for a church.

Now time travel to present day Heliopolis and the characters are still as cosmopolitan. I am being given a history lesson by a Latin Catholic Priest about New Cairo or Masr El Gedida, now known as Heliopolis which means City of the Sun.

In the early 1900’s Cairo was a fashionable place for Europeans to have a second residence, particularly on the banks of the Nile. Enter the Baron; his vision was to create Utopia in the middle of the Desert. His business was electricity and trams, thus providing the means for residents to travel to their workplaces in downtown, a 12 kilometre journey through empty desert with sand as far as the eye could see. His original reason for being in Cairo was to create a railway from Cairo to Ismalia. Being a Man of foresight, his other business interests included banking, so he set up a bank to finance this dream.

Heliopolis was quickly considered “the jewel in the sand”, and became an envied location. The government required that 5/6 of the 25 square kilometre land site be allocated for the people to use. This impacted on his town plan with a wide promenade leading from his palace past the church to a racetrack. The resulting affect is a lavish feeling of wide-open spaces.

The Baron’s Palace (Qasr al-Barun) is a replica of one of the Indian temples of Madora; Hindu inspired reliefs of snakes, elephants, Shivas and temple dancers adorn the ornamentally rich facades.

The Basilica is in the historical heart of Heliopolis. Modeled on Istanbul’s Aya Sofya and its Byzantine style, it is affectionately known as the “Jelly Mould”. The interior has its own riches, stained glass windows, a large organ from Belgium towers over the congregation while granite pillars floated from Aswan provide the foundations for the light filled unadorned dome.

Father Mattie, my historian offered another hidden gem, the Baron’s mausoleum which is housed in the floor of the church. With a wonderful sense of theatre the carpet is rolled back and a portal is opened by a 3 ft turnkey placed in the altar floor. As the key is turned the floor at the base of the altar moves and steps appear; Oh! a hidden room. He beckons, down the marble steps and into the crypt of Baron Empain and his son. It’s sombre with a large dark sarcophagus, 2 photographs of father and son and the family crest, which signifies the Sun of Heliopolis, the River Nile, 2 lotus flowers and the Belgium crown. On the walls marble plaques tell of the 2 men’s achievements, which are filled with remarkable deeds and accolades. The senior Baron was also responsible for the Paris Metro and other rail projects from the Congo to China.

Around the Basilica are towers built to resemble Istanbul and its neo-Moorish skylines. During the earthquake of 1992, the top portion of these towers fell off. Looking north in front of the church is Al-Ahram Sharia in the past it was also known as “the street of the Pyramids” as it ran in a line to the pyramids of Giza.

The next stop on the town plan is the racecourse built on the present Merrylands gardens. Father Mattie tells a delightful story: the racetrack had a secondary purpose apart from entertainment. All the fastest horses in town would race there so the Officials and the Wealthy bought the fastest winners in case there was a rebellion. Whether it was to enable them to catch the bad guys or to run away, we shall never know.

Heliopolis celebrated its 100th birthday last year and I am sure the Baron would be delighted to know that 75% of the buildings erected before 1937 are still standing. His dream has become history and the trams still rumble past echoing life.


Sydney Cove

Returning to Australia and not residing in my home state, I felt like a tourist
in my own country. Being Australian does not mean I know all about Australia; take for example the area known as Sydney Cove in New South Wales.

What did Captain Cook see? A green forested backwater. Imagine his shock if he was able to see today’s images of the Australian shoreline with its 21st century skyline. The First Fleet chose Sydney Cove for the colony’s birthplace, thus began an exciting saga in a foreign land.

The convicts were sent ashore onto the rocks to build crude structures for shelter; this area “the Rocks” is now described as “Sydney’s outdoor museum” with the biggest concentration of historic buildings in Sydney.

Sandstone buildings echo history with the oldest dwelling , Cadman’s Cottage is dated at 1816. Today, restaurants, art galleries, museums, terrace houses and pubs dot “the Rocks”. Legends, ghost stories even an archaeological dig add to the mystique. The Hero of Waterloo Hotel has a tunnel where drunken sailors were kidnapped to nearby wharves, giving a new meaning to “last drinks”.

During storms water gushed down the uneven narrow cobble stone lane known as “Suez Canal”. Gang controlled Villains with murderous intentions waited in dark hidey-holes for the drunken or unsuspecting passer by; even water rats are part of “the Rocks” history due to an outbreak of bubonic plague.

Next-door to the “the Rocks” is the Harbour Bridge colloquially referred to as the Coat Hanger because of its striking arch-based design. Design of the day called for an all steel structure fabricated in England, shipped to Sydney then riveted together like a Meccano set. The bridge has its own chequered history: when the Premier of NSW was about to open the bridge in 1932, a man in military uniform rode forward on horseback and slashed the ribbon with a sword, declaring the bridge to be open "in the name of His Majesty the King and the decent and respectable citizens of New South Wales". He was promptly arrested. The ribbon was hurriedly retied and Lang performed the official opening ceremony. For its 75th anniversary, 250,000 people walked over the bridge. For the adventurous you can climb the arches and enjoy views far and wide; not for the faint hearted!!

Sydney Cove was chosen for settlement because it had ‘the finest spring of water’. When the supply was threatened convicts were ordered to dig holding tanks in the hope of maintaining a water supply. This proved to be unsustainable and the Tank Stream was progressively covered and is now a storm water channel lost among a maze of tall buildings. A remarkable thought when you walk up Tank Stream Lane and think about a trickle lost to progress, out of sight and out of mind.

“Concrete frame and precast concrete ribbed roof” is not quite the description you expect for the Opera House. One of the world’s most recognizable buildings and an Australian icon, it has been nominated in the election to determine the New Seven Wonders of the World. Performances grand and intimate in theatres and concert halls ricochet in the sails. Light, like musical melodies resonates throughout the startling wondrous shapes. Morning, noon and dusk’s hues are like the arc of a rainbow falling on the tiles, their dappled palette shimmering in the aqua of Sydney Harbour.

No longer quiet, Sydney harbour bustles with container ships, oil tankers, cruise liners, ferry boats and pleasure crafts of many designs and nationalities, all jostling for position and timetables, embarkation and destination for their treasures and passengers. Architectures new and old are neighbours, residential and government sharing the same splendid foreshore. History is etched by brass discs in the footpath showing the original shoreline from 1788 and mirrored in glass filled skyscrapers reflecting the Governor’s residence and motifs from the past. Australia’s original inhabitants, Aboriginals share their “Dreamtime” stories with tourists at the Quay, all part of the rich tapestry of life in Sydney Cove.

I joined a group of foreign tourists for a harbour cruise and like them marvelled at the wonders of this location which shares the title of “Most Beautiful Harbours of the World” with Rio de Janeiro, Capetown, San Francisco and Vancouver. Delighting in the Bridge, Opera House and “the Rocks”, contemplating on all the history and adventures past and present in the small space called Sydney Cove, I felt privileged to be an Australian.


Tiger, Tiger, purrrrrr

Adventure comes in many forms; we thought India and Tigers, were an irresistible combination for variety and the unusual.

Corbett National Park, is India’s first national park, located in the foothills of the Himalayas and inspired the India wide Project Tiger programme which started in 1973 and saw the creations of 22 other reserves, the Lonely Planets guide advises. Elephants in national parks are becoming rather special, we believe there are only 3 parks in India that offer the opportunity to tiger spot from elephant back. This is one of the reasons we chose Corbett.

A predawn start, with a cast of many: Guide, Cook and Driver, Peter and I journey by Jeep with trailer to the jungle. Forty minutes later we met up with our elephant (Laxmi) and his two handlers (Mahawats) who washed his back clean of any small stones before placing and tying on the seating platform. Standing four metres high we had no intention of following the handlers who ran up the elephant’s trunk to take our positions. An embankment was found and we gingerly mounted the seat. After swaying around for a while we both noticed our knuckles were white. It is a very odd sensation travelling on elephant back; you are seated sideways and yet travelling forwards.

In our quest to spot a tiger, we journeyed through dense jungle, vegetation that was lush and green, past raging rivers, surrounded by cloud shrouded hills and mountains. Jungle noises a plenty, monkey cries, shrill and alarming, birds, called and sang, a few deer but alas no sign of a tiger. However we kept our eyes wide open and after seeing some footprints in the sand by the river we were a little less casual, about how we hung on to our seat. Imagine a dinner plate, that is roughly the diameter of the tiger’s paw print large and scary, exciting , also the fact that the indentation they were only 12hours old, heightened the excitement .

After a couple of river crossings we pressed on towards the Forest Rest House. Set high above the river, this 100 year old structure was built by the British with 18 foot ceilings and a fireplace in each room. It was rather romantic, dinner by candlelight, warmth by fire and a bird bath from a bucket of hot water, great fun. Being winter we appreciated the log fire with some of the logs being broken by Laxmi, he is a strong boy. Heavy rain on a tin roof and feeling snug seemed a long way from the reality and frantic pace of city life.

We bid Laxmi goodbye, he had a two day trek back to the resort and we pressed on by jeep due to the inclement weather. Fording the swollen rivers was an adventure, to be surpassed only by the narrow tracks around the mountain a couple of hundred metres above the river. To the north lay the foothills of the Himalayas covered by a dusting of overnight snow. India is full of contrasts. Wrapped in blankets to combat the wind chill factor of our open jeep, we took in some wonderful sights of fertile valleys with their terraced fields of wheat and mustard seed, layer apon layer of vivid green and earth coloured soils. Our guide Hem, told stories of local lore, of leopards and the men who went off to the military in order to feed their families. Life is hard here.

Leaving the valley a narrow track took us high onto the hills above the tiger reserve. Fresh Tiger scratch marks on the base of a tree, the liquid sap, caught, the attention of our guide we were given a lesson in animal behaviour. The scratches were from the tiger cleaning his paws after a kill. The marks were long and deep, menacing, you could almost feel the animals power, it is easy for your imagination to run away unchecked, is he up or down the hill, watching us, you expect to hear a low growl.

Safely in the grasslands and a couple of river crossings later we pulled up at another rest house which housed an elephant. We were quick to accept the opportunity of a ride while the cook prepared breakfast.

This time we had a platform to mount the elephant; we were old hands at this. Fifty metres from the clearing the handler pointed to fresh tiger tracks in the creek bed, hearing the monkeys calls signalling danger to the other prey of the tiger, we were off up the creek. We needed little encouragement to hang on and be silent. When the Mahawat, pulled up the bottom of his hat to uncover his ears so he could hear better, we straightened up and hung on. This adventure was removed from our daily lives, our heart raced, this was intense and exhilarating!!!

The elephant made his way around and through the thick undergrowth but alas the tiger was not to be seen. The Mahawat decided the other side of the valley might yield a better result. Not until we got to the river did we realise we had to cross this fast flowing stream. Had we known there were crocodiles around we would have hung on even tighter!! More thick undergrowth, more tiger paw marks in the sand; more sharp shrill alarm calls from the monkeys. The handler listened intently. Our elephant navigated the narrow animal paths and pushed through the straw coloured undergrowth. No doubt the elusive tiger watched us from an obscure vantage point. Meantime there were plenty of deer, monkeys and birds. Even a tortoise swam around in a small pool. Being on elephant back, the other animals did not see us as a threat. We could have reached out and touched the deer. We were really glad we had chosen to ride elephants; this was so much closer to nature than in a motor vehicle and was really a lot of fun. The elephants were delightful, they looked at you with a twinkle in their eyes, I think they shared the fun.



What would attract you to an adventure in Turkey? Would it be?

∑ Turkish Architecture, Imperial mosques, Ottoman mansions and palaces
∑ Ancient Cities, strolling among Greek and Roman archaeological sites
∑ Museums housing Byzantine icons, Ottoman calligraphy, Turkish folklore
∑ Hiking along the Black sea, the surreal valleys of Cappadocia
∑ Cave churches around Goreme
∑ Skiing in the mountains of eastern Turkey

∑ Marine cruising, travelling in a gullet – a traditional Turkish motor-sailer
∑ Keyf the Turkish art of quiet relaxation.
∑ Hamams, the Turkish bathhouses direct successors of the roman steam baths of two millennia ago
∑ Enjoying the 7000km of coastline, bays and inlets the Aegean and Mediterranean waters
∑ Browsing through the 4000 shops in Istanbul’s Kapali Carsi

Architecture, History, Exploring and lots of Keyf; let the adventure begin.

Today Istanbul’s skyline is a fusion of present and past fringing the Bosphorus with Old Istanbul containing a treasure cache of Palaces, mosques and museums, all world renowned, enticing international tourists.

Sultanahmet with its Ottoman houses, mansions and historic buildings was where we established ourselves to explore the riches of the city. It is around the corner from the Golden Horn, a historic harbour which houses the freshest seafood markets and restaurants, just hours from sea to plate. Here we met the first of many interesting characters; George from Georgia who organised the best table in the closest restaurant to the Sea of Marmara, so close we could taste the salty spray from the trawlers on their way to work. The owner introduced himself as Ali Baba, true story. George also tried to extend some local cheers to us at 10 in the morning by offering a glass of Raki, he suggested it had great medicinal properties, but George didn’t look much like a doctor.

A local ferry ride up the Bosphorus, towards the Golden Gate look a like bridge that joins European to Asian shores was our exploring choice. Crossing over to Asia at Uskudar we wandered through local markets. Sampling Turkish delight was a delight. There were dozens of variations, we preferred the traditional. The fruit and veg were garden-fresh, crisp and enticing. Turk’s seldom eat frozen food, with so much fresh produce around why buy second-hand! There was little evidence of genetic engineering in the fruit. Except for a new watermelon where the seeds have been crossed with ants; when you cut it open the seeds run away. Bingo: seedless watermelon!!! (George from Georgia told us this one.)

Our time in Istanbul was limited, so we caught taxis everywhere. Turkish Taxi Drivers are a capricious group of people; we decided to group them into “the 40 thieves”. Guess we looked new to town! They certainly did not reflect the everyday Turk. We found the Turkish people warm, friendly and generous; always a smile and a delightful sense of humour.

The Kariye Museum found off the tourist path and little known, was a notable find. Originally the Church of the Holy Savoir, it was erected in the 5th century and now houses stunning 14th century mosaics and frescoes depicting biblical scenes from Adam to the life of Christ. Domed Byzantine paintings that glow adorn the interiors, intricate details, radiant pigments, they dazzle the eye; and enrich the heart and soul.

This tourism business is hard work, nothing like a nice cup of apple tea. The Pera Palais offered a historic and nostalgic spot for a cuppa. The hotel was built to accommodate guests arriving on the Orient Express, carried to the hotel by sedan chairs no less. The guest list is a repertoire of who’s who; room 411 was where Agatha Christie wrote, “Murder on the Orient Express”. Mata Hari strutted her stuff and Mustapha Kemal Ataturk’s room 101 has been converted into a Museum. Ataturk became Turkey’s first president when he overthrew the Ottoman Empire in 1924. Capturing the faded opulence of a rich past today the art deco interiors and original elevator exude a tangible aura of escapism.

With Independence came a 25 year ban on the practice of “The Whirling Dervishes”. The mystical sect of Islam, Sufism has been practiced for nearly 700 years. Mevlana the master- believed whirling and circling created a union with God that could induce a trancelike state of universal love. We saw the Sema, the whirling dance, communing with their faith; the believers dressed in white flowing robes and fess hats.

Breakfast from the balcony of our hotel previewed the Sultan Ahmet Camii – the Blue Mosque. The mosque’s vantage position dominates over the city. The blue of the mosque’s name comes from the Iznil tiles, which contour the domes. Access of choice is via the Hippodrome which contains an Obelisk brought from Aswan 3000 year ago, an unexpected sight; Egypt in the heart of Istanbul. Climbing the stairs, the mosque’s many domes and minarets come into view, a path to spiritual heaven harmonious lines in true Ottoman style.

Superb examples of Ottoman houses lovingly restored: ornately carved ceilings, tiered levels, segregated sections adorned with fabrics, textiles and tiles, we left behind as we journeyed to Kutahya in the north Aegean region of Turkey. It was around the 1500’s that Kutahya’s tile making industry fired up. There are 3 general grades of work; the lowest is Turist isi or tourist work, then Fabrika isi (apprentices’ work) and Ozel isi (the Master’s work). We enjoyed Keyf in a hot springs resort in the foothills; great in summer but frozen in winter.

Still in the north Aegean, Eskisehir is a modern city with trams; waterways and an energized buzz. Many travellers come to Eskisehir to purchase meerschaum, a soft material – German for sea foam, Iuletasi in Turkish. Meerschaum is used for carving, with pipes being the most popular design. Devotees even wear gloves when smoking their pipes to prevent them from being tarnished by skin oils.

One of our choices led us to Konya in South Central Anatolia, regarded as the breadbasket of Turkey. The home of the Whirling Dervish is the Mevlana Museum, a holy site. Omar Khayyam the noted Poet came from this region. South east of Konya lies Catgal Hoyuk discovered by the British archaeologist James Mellaart in the 1960’s and proclaimed to be the world’s oldest known human community. The evidence of a civilisation 9,000 years ago makes the Pharaohs of Egypt youngsters.

Trekking in the outskirts of Konya through pine forests, glimpsing distant snow peaks, up hill and down dale. Sharing the location with sheep farmers and their fierce guard dogs armed with barbwire collars and ferocious barks. Their role is to protect the sheep against wolves. We passed gypsy camps made of fabric, toured through old villages where only the men were to be seen, drinking Turkish tea or selling wild mushrooms.

My choices took me to the region of Cappadocia in Central Anatolia, an area of about 50 square miles, transiting along wind swept topography and undulating grasslands with snow capped mountain ranges on the distant earth line then into a terrestrial universe of shapes, shades and surfaces. I experienced sensory overload. Centuries of nature’s erosion have sculpted the soft volcanic tufa cones into minarets, rocky pinnacles, spires and fairy chimneys; shades of creams, pinks and milk coffee browns, the tufa soar as high as 5 stories. In the Valley of the Fairy Chimneys, tufa cones are topped with flattish darker stones that resemble hats angled with attitude as if to say “look at me”. The wind playing around the cones felt like fairy dust; there was magic in nature’s genius.

Goreme is some 250 kilometres east from Konya. Walking is a feature of the region. The awe-inspiring valleys around Goreme and Zelve settings not easily forgotten as they bewitch you, open-air museums and national parks all come under the UNESCO heritage umbrella. It is not hard to understand why this is a special place

Ancient inhabitants hollowed out the cones and cliffs and created troglodyte style caves that resemble honeycomb; they are still lived in today. Further south are the primordial underground cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymakli, 8 levels deep and as you go down it is like entering a huge and complex earth toned Swiss cheese.

Cappodocia was on a major trade route and was home to a dozen civilizations. Early Christians arrived in the 4th century and sculpted rock domed churches with vaulted ceilings and pews; it is said there was once more than 400 churches, some with a rich bonanza of Byzantine frescoes. When invaders struck the Christians simply rolled stones across the entrances and moved underground.

Returning to above ground we ran out of time but not choices. Turkey is tourism must see with even more choices than the introduction suggests.


Sufi Dancing

The rhythm of life in Cairo begins around dawn with the first call to prayers. This tempo continues throughout the day. Islam and the faithful are seldom out of sync.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Sufi dancing, the nature of which is a spiritual religious ceremony transcending into performing art. For over 700 years the Sufi, a mystical branch of Islam has honored the tradition.

Twice weekly in Cairo there are Sufi (Whirling Dervish) performances, although performances do not accurately describe the pleasure the dancers and musicians derive and generate. The Persian word “darwish” (literally the sill of the door) is accepted in Arabic as “dervish” to describe the Sufi who is the one at the door to enlightenment. Originally the dance, more accurately a movement, was performed in “tekkes” or dervish schools which were also prayer lodges.

The smiles, the passion, the mischief; the astonishing ability to spin and whirl without pause for extended periods draws delighted sighs and amazement from the audience.

Held at an arts centre in old Cairo, seating is in a star filled open-air walled section. The setting is simple, allowing music, song and dance to take centre stage.

Musicians gather, dressed in pure white flowing galabayas with woven turbans, fess hats and tassels. Drums, flutes, string instruments, tambourines and an Egyptian version of castanets all tinker. The viewers sit forward anticipating a treat.

The first notes begin; a soft breeze catches the tune and delivers it to the audience; it’s exotic; it’s strong. It is beautiful and takes the listener on a journey through a sacred faith. Musicians play for themselves, for each other and for you, the audience.

The harmonies are rich, the melodies are a tapestry and infectious. Select performers move forward to serenade with their own instruments, the castanet’s player clicked and jingled, his arms and expressions rose and fell in tune with the troupe. The audience was his, to do with as he wished. His eyes twinkled. His long white robes floated as he pranced and strutted across the stage sharing his humour and delight; his rhythms become your rhythms.

A solitary figure clothed in robes of many colours and layers magically next appeared on centre stage. He acknowledged the audience then began to move clockwise to circle time and time again. One of my companions timed the dancer’s seamless circles, which were without pause for 30 minutes. The dancer had 5 coloured patterned tambourines, which he balanced, arranged and reordered many times. The circling was mesmerising; the rhythm a journey. The tambourines were retired; their part in the ritual completed. The dancer next removed his jacket; all the while his step was unbroken. The fabric of his skirts extended an arms length from his waist, there were 3 layers of skirts, which moved with their own energy and pulse. Fluid, full, a visual circle that seemed to extend the space occupied by the dancer.

Traditional Sufi Dervish chant a “dhikr”, the repetition of "la illaha illa'llah" (there is no god but God). However, some Dervish may only repeat "Allah" because they know man can die at any moment, and they want only the name of God on their lips and in their hearts. The left foot of the whirler should never be raised, but sometimes it is, in a moment of ecstasy.

The top skirt was loosened and raised in a slow transit. Imagine water, liquid in nature but in a contained space. The removal of the top skirt was flowing and uninterrupted; the colours vivid and alive, all the while the dancer’s circular journey seemed to defy the laws of motion. Rhythm and grace in an unbroken worship. His face took on a tranquil trance-like veneer, his arms gently travelled from across his chest, as if in prayer, to above his head; a celebration of his faith, a thanksgiving. His feet, covered in soft pale shoes continued an unhurried clockwise dance; turn, turn, turn.

The music complimented the orchestral beat; the next layer of skirt was removed in a gentle flourish of swirl and colour. The last layer was lighter; the oscillations providing the momentum, the flow of the fabric rose and fell in tune with the synchronized gestures.

To an unknown note the celebration stopped. The dancer ceased his movements. He focused on the audience, re-establishing contact, his sight clear, his smile full and his state of being blissful. The dancer’s rhythmic prayer had peaked and ended.

The rhythm of daily life in Cairo was drawn to a close with the evening call to prayers.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Wild Shores and Gentle Folk

As we pulled our chairs to the table, the fine linen napkins were placed across our laps; candlelight reflected in the glasses and on the tableware; glamour and elegance were the standard. Our nostrils quivered as essences of promise filled the air. Welcome to Ireland!!

As we relaxed in Kilkenny and recounted the day’s sights, revisiting the most enjoyed, our dinner arrived: entrée being Dunmore East Crab topped with Iranian sevruga caviar resting on an avocado puree; a showstopper. Conversation did resume but after a lot of wow’s!! Grass so green it looked painted with undiluted oil paints, hues of every imagined shade. The main courses echoed local produce reared with love and fresh air: milk fed lamb, green pea and mint soufflé, shallot lyonnaise confit of lamb shoulder and potato with red wine jus or hand caught wild salmon, the last of the season, cooked to a soft pale pink at its centre. We went back to the grass; it really is lush and vivid, thick and luxurious. Desert a chocolate trio, boldly stated a country of comfort and wellbeing with a traditional yet contemporary culture and warm people. We surrendered to the food and gave up on the grass.

Another sun set, this time in County Cork and dinner at a pub in Kinsale by the sea, actually it was an inlet. The noise and merriment of Irish music lifts you with its rhythm and brings on a state of cheerfulness. Before you are aware your foot is tapping and your hands are clapping; your voice says more!! More!! A traditional dinner of Irish stew with potatoes completed the scene, welcoming you into the club of Ireland. Being a chatty folk, interest overcame shyness. Where are your from? Where are you going? Where have you been? My cousin Patrick lives in Australia, do you know him? The Ring of Kerry rated many a mention. No, we did not kiss the Blarney stone and Tipperary will have to be another time. References to the weather were a constant topic; any wonder the grass is so green. On the Atlantic coast we visited the Beara Peninsula, a peaceful place, a different beauty. Gone were the patchwork fields replaced by craggy outcrops, raw and rocky, grey and ash in colour. Jagged they jutted into the sea, like bony fingers seeking a hold. Mountains with their tops shrouded in a cottonwool veneer. Lonely houses at their base, tufted grasses fenced with stones to suggest ownership. Ivory colour lichen on the rocky foreshore toned with the arctic blue of the sea. We followed the foreshore where they met, along roads narrow, hedged and single laned, sharing the passage with grazing sheep, not the least bit curious of the traveller. Every next corner uncovered another mystery of this ageless land. Prehistoric gravesites, a wedge tomb dated back 4000 years, aligned to the natural contours of the landscape. Irish history is old with many layers and chapters.

As the sun set against the grey rain misted skies of Kenmare in the County Kerry, dinner was served: oysters, just hours old collected from their beds in the bays seen during our day’s journey. Mussels, we lost count at 60, poached lightly, their juices enjoyed with warm soda bread, a local staple made using a recipe unchanged since time began. We spoke of castles, rock top strongholds, battlements, monastic sites, fairytale abbeys by bubbling brooks and moats furnished with original heirlooms and complete with resident ghosts, a spooky reminder for visitors of a time long passed. Some castles are in town centres, constant beacons of medieval folklore right in their backyard. Not only are there ancient destinations, there are over 400 golf courses in Ireland, but with the weather it may take a few years to play them all. Unexpected was the number of magnificent white sand beaches which lay in wait to entice you. You can even surf, BYO wetsuit though.

The ring of the bell heralded dinner in the shadow of a ruined castle, a stately home built in 1840, in County Clare near the village of Doolin. We chatted of the day’s adventure, of waves crashing, the sun sinking beyond the windswept Cliffs of Moher, the silvery limestone karst ledges and pavements of the treeless Burren coming alive with wild flowers springing from the fractured crevices, watching the sun set against the Aran Islands offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. These experiences set the mood for dinner: seafood fresh from the ocean, delivered by crusty old fishermen and local cheeses like Tipperary’s Cashel blue, Ardrahan, Durrus and Gubbeen from Cork, all of which feature in Europe’s top restaurants. Food as varied as the countryside canvas. Breakfasts were also a treat. Imagine hot and warming porridge with whisky cream; the smell and taste were heavenly, not so the black pudding.

Twilight and the soft pink of sunset heralded drinks and dinner in County Galway in the village of Cashel. Another stately home complete with secret garden and an aromatic herb plot foretold of delights. Add a glass atrium, soft lights and 4 courses, garnished with herbs and spices from their own garden; it was a joy. One of the pleasures of travelling is to revisit the day’s memories; as we dined we reminisced. It was the season of growth as we journeyed north, the hedges which mark the way forward had become a carpet of colour, yellow daisies, orange bells, purple feather duster shaped buds and blackberries, ripe, sweet, plump and vivid black all shone as the clouds brought either sunshine or rain drops. We stopped and picked wild Blackberries, a simple pleasure, laughing as we wiped the juice from our lips.

There are many methods of travel in Ireland: car, campervan, motorbike, bicycle, barge, walking or horse drawn gypsy caravan for those with a free spirit and no timetable. There are many miles of walking tracks, some times called Green roads they are the old highways. Many unpaved roads were built during the Great Famine of 1840s as part of relief work; others date back thousands of years; lots of choices. Across Connemara there is a track the residents fear to travel after dark, The Bog Road. Local lore says it is haunted. We travelled part and didn’t see a soul.

The village of Leenane was our dinner destination; eerily desolate landscapes, rusty bogs, lonely black lakes and pale grey mountains, far from the madding crowds. A fishing lodge, where dinner was served in the style of the late 1800’s; a table set for 22 looked like it came from the pages of a guide for a boisterous medieval feast. It was a cheerful occasion with all the laughter and fun of sharing food and wine with new friends, complete with 5 dogs. Conversation turned to the unspoilt location of the vine covered lodge, actually a restored stately home which began life in the late 1800’s. Like a Shangri-La, it is sheltered at the base of a large hill in a little known valley, complete with salmon stream and hatchery and a “lough” at the front door. The still of night was so peaceful with hundreds of stars twinkling like lanterns overhead.

Our last dinner was in Dublin, a vibrant town, exciting and busy, offering all manner of interests: arts, culture, food, song and dance; and its all there!!

As we placed our napkins on the table and pushed our chairs back with a big sigh, we can honestly say whether its dinner, bed or breakfast or the getting to any or all of the above, Ireland is a delightful place.

Now where do I pay the bill???

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Dam temples and tombs

It depends on who tells the story about Upper Egypt as to what version you get. With not a golf course in sight, whose version would you like to hear?

Like the little white ball, the pursuit of temples and tombs can be an obsession or a passion. From Abu Simbel to Luxor there are eighteen significant archaeological sites, each lined with a number of hazards. However for Jan, taking photos was par for the course.

Straight down the fairway to Aswan where the green keeper cum tour guide offered two seats with a caddy on the next flight to Abu Simbel; “For you, special price!!” Ten minutes later we had boarding cards for seats on an ancient DC9 salvaged from an Arizona pension yard and faithfully restored (we hoped) to service the daily tourist shuttles. A successful landing after the twenty minute flight was like a hole-in-one!! The short bus ride through the village of Abu Simbel was quick compared to negotiating our way through the fifty coaches in the parking area and the numerous relentless vendors next to the visitors centre.

With an English-speaking guide to assist us we hit off, or is that headed off beside Lake Nasser. A dogleg to the left and there it was; WOW! The 20-meter high statues of Ramses II at Abu Simbel; just like every National Geographic you have read, large and commanding. Carved in rock, at the entrance of the Great Temple, the quarteted sentinel watches for friend or foe sailing into the Pharaoh’s lands. Inside the sacred innermost chamber Ramses sits with three Gods waiting for dawn, aligned to capture the early morning sun’s rays just two days each year. Being the first temple of our Christmas adventure into the cradle of civilisation, we were more than fascinated by every detail. The smaller temple of Hathor was dedicated by Ramses II to Queen Nefertari, his favourite of 34 wives. Carved out of the mountain over three thousand years ago, the temples of Abu Simbel were lost to the desert sands until 1813 then made even more famous by the relocation to avoid their flooding by Lake Nasser in 1970. The majestical grandeur, history, design and construction, the carved images, beautiful reliefs and hieroglyphics that adorn each and every wall and column, are all breathtaking and cause you to stop and absorb them.

Approaching the green at Aswan we stayed on the fairway rather than let our caddy tempt us into his brother’s pro shop; in fact a perfume salon. We chipped onto our Nile cruise ship to watch rays of sunlight and clouds play on the high cliffs honeycombed with Tombs of Noblemen.

Off to take in the town, a four iron was enough to clear the horse drawn carriages and their vocal drivers, all touting to assist us; or was it to help themselves to our cash. That was minor compared to the traps of the market street. Jan was most impressed with the photo opportunities afforded by the colourful spice stores and galabaya shops. The major hazard on this hole was the deception of the pound. At ten Egyptian pounds to one English pound, the merchants were keen to exploit the tourists. With direct flights from the UK and Europe into Aswan and Luxor, the ability of the merchants to relieve tourists of the burden in their wallets was exceeded only by their deceptions and lies.

On completion of the first round, a late afternoon “G and T” on the terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel, one of Egypt’s most famous and historic hotels, was a welcome treat. What a marvellous location on the east bank of the river opposite the Nubian village on Elephantine Island. Moorish in style, the interior was used in the movie “Death on the Nile”. This is also in our book “One thousand things to do before you die!” Only 999 to go! To keep like-minded tourists at bay, the management set a flag fall for this hole almost like losing four balls to the water. A splendid sunset over the desert with felucca captains entertaining their tourists in the narrows of the river was a sight to behold.

An early morning tee off at one of the pink granite quarries was worth the effort. Famous for the unfinished obelisk which was abandoned 2,500 years due to cracks, this quarry produced several obelisks which were transported down the Nile to temples at Luxor. One has even found its way to the Place de Concorde in Paris. Equally as fascinating was a one meter diameter partially finished wheel lying near the “quay” where granite blocks were floated down the Nile during floods.

Next tee was the Aswan High Dam. Constructed with assistance from Russia in the 1960’s to form Lake Nasser it is hailed as one of the greatest works of hydraulic engineering of the twentieth century. Averaging 10 kilometres in width and one of the world’s largest artificial lakes it stretches 510 kilometres to Sudan. This gianormous water hazard is surrounded by an even bigger sand trap.

Below the High Dam the Temple of Philae, which dates back to 246BC, was swamped for six months every year after the construction of the “low” dam in 1901. In the 1960’s a rescue by Unesco relocated this “Pearl of Egypt” brick by brick to the Island of Agilkia. Isis, the goddess of magic and symbolic mother of the pharaohs who had become the greatest of all Egyptian gods and worshipped across the Roman Empire was honoured in the Inner Sanctuary of this temple. Hathor, goddess of love and pleasure and patron of music and dancing (sex and drugs and rock-n-roll!!) is honoured with her own temple. Returning across the river, the hazard was the discussion about “who pays the ferryman”.

Back on deck we 3 wooded downstream with many of the 280 tourist ships that ply the river. The Nile travels 6,680 km to make it the world’s longest river. It begins life from two sources, 1500 km apart; a bit more than a par 5!! The White Nile starts at Lake Victoria in Uganda and meets the Blue Nile, which rises in the Ethiopian Highlands, at Khartoum in Sudan.

Over the millenniums, river travel has changed from papyrus bundles to elaborate wooden boats with multiple sets of oars to present day floating hotels. The ritual of life on the shore however has hardly changed. Since biblical time, donkey’s nay, children play, soil is tilled and harvested; rhythms like the flow are ceaseless. Sitting in a comfortable chair on the large top deck makes for an easy journey with a constant travelogue unfolding.

On the east bank travelling down stream from Upper Egypt while heading north, is Kom Ombo, a temple dedicated to two gods: the crocodile god Sobek representing the might of the pharaohs and the falcon god of the sky Horus, the son of Isis. In ancient time sacred crocodiles basked in the sun on the riverbanks; there are mummified remains of these revered creatures in the temple. Animal mummies were used as offerings, or as gifts to the god associated with them. A bit creepy, but they were quite intact; a testament to the standard of preservation. The temple is in great condition and the art-work carved into the layer of gypsum over the stone is as clear as the day it was made over 3,000 years ago. Most of the carved figures at the various temples are all dressed in some form of clothing, some more ornate than others. However, a pharaonic cousin of Hugh Hefner inspired some of the artists at Kom Ombo!!

The water hazard at the temples is the Nilometer, an underground canal flowing from the river to a well with a graduated column. During flood time the High Priest would assess the height of water in the well to forecast the size of the harvest and thus set the tax rate for the coming year.

Down the next fairway a glorious sunset cast dreamlike shades on the narrow strip of green and the vast barren plains of the western desert. Mooring at Edfu, 60 km towards Luxor, we celebrated the festive season with a European flavour and had a formal Christmas Eve dinner. While we dined St Nic was busy, what an unforgettable sight waking up to presents as a felucca sailed past. I could not help myself and said to Peter: “Do you know we are in Egypt, sailing down the Nile” Ha Ha!!!

The soft light of dawn illuminated the temple of Horus and arriving by horse drawn carriage was surreal. Constructed in 237BC; “ancient” does not illustrate the wonderment. These structures make a Greg Norman golf course seem an easy task. The coloured hieroglyphic texts on the walls of this temple were resplendent. This extraordinary library was almost lost in time, being completely buried by sand until 1860. It took 40 years for Egyptologists to publish an epigraphic survey of all the information.

The departure by carriage was like hitting out of the rough. About two hundred carriages were inside the gate in utter chaos. Our carriage was facing the wrong way and the fracas associated with turning a four wheel horse drawn carriage around in a space only big enough to cope with a Golf Cart was too much. We finished up getting another carriage. On return to the boat another fracas developed about how much should be paid to the new caddy. Fortunately the Captain intervened as he cast off and set sail.

We were Number 1 boat off the white blocks at Edfu, down the fairway to the dam at Esna and in the queue for the lock. With nearly 280 boats on the river doing 4 days up and 3 days back there can be a long queue each day. The drop through the lock is 8 meters. The process was interesting with the boats designed to only just fit in the lock. The rest of the afternoon was pleasant as we meandered downstream to Luxor between feluccas and passing riverside villages to putt in at sunset.

A walk along the Corniche before dinner took us past many cruise ships, hotels and tourist shops. As Jan came into their sight, the eyes of the shopkeepers lit up with delight!! Tempt as they may with special bargains, sadly for them, Jan returned empty handed.

Morning was bright, we brought out the big driver and to the sweet sound of a long high ball we were off to the famous Valley of the Kings on the west bank. Travelling past Howard Carter’s house, the artist turned archaeologist who found Tutankhamen’s tomb, we played through a group of young tourists riding donkeys. From the bunker in this isolated valley, a short iron took us to the first of 60 tombs of Pharaohs and Princes from the middle dynasty of 2200BC. We chipped into three.

Carved out of the limestone valley, each tomb was an engineering exercise. The steep sloping passages, barely wide enough for the granite sarcophagus (or coffin) opened out to a funerary chamber with a number of smaller side chambers each of which symbolised a stage on the journey to the after life. All the walls and ceilings are decorated with sculptured paintings in a layer of gypsum; colours for the paintings were derived from minerals. The clarity, colour and crispness of the art are breathtaking. With no torches or candles, how the craftsmen introduced adequate light to develop the intricate paintings and hieroglyphics is difficult to comprehend. We were told later the use of mirrors provided the illumination; but where did the mirrors come from? The sarcophagus containing the pharaoh’s mummy was placed in the inner chamber, which was filled with treasures to send the deceased Pharaoh on his journey to immortality as illustrated on the walls. Tombs were sealed with a keystone to make it difficult for robbers. Many of the tombs in this valley remained sealed until recent times, with Tutankhamen’s found only in 1922. Archaeologists are still digging, getting many of their leads from the odd donkey falling into the site. Ours was only to admire the work of four thousand years ancient.

It was also fascinating to observe the tourists, some who came in family groups with their own mummy.

The fifteenth ran up to the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, reputed to be the Pharaonic equivalent of Evita who showed the boys how to run the place. Built beneath the cliff line at the head of a valley facing east to overlook Luxor on the Nile, this temple has a long fairway and a wide approach. The sculptures and artwork have survived three thousand years in this harsh desert. The surrounding cliffs house the tombs of many high priests and noblemen. To the west is the Valley of the Queens where the wives and children of the Pharaohs were entombed. Although these tombs are smaller, the artwork is as ornate as the tombs of the Pharaohs.

Crossing the Nile on a ferry, we arrived at Luxor Temple with its magnificent columns and granite statues of Ramses II. Modern politicians who think they know about photo opportunities pale into insignificance alongside Ramses II. During his seventy-year rule Ramses commissioned tens of huge statues of himself to be carved from Aswan granite and transported to strategic locations around the empire. At the time Luxor was the capital city of the region, which extended from the Ethiopian border east across and somewhere past the Sinai and north to the Mediterranean Sea. Little evidence remains of the mud brick houses, mansions and palaces, but the temples were built for immortality and most have stood the test of time. The three-kilometre Avenue of Sphinxes, sentinels that link the temples of Luxor and Karnak are an ancient roadmap.

Karnak Temple, set in seventy acres of riverside land is the “piece de resistance”. Thebans called Karnak the most perfect of all places. Built and added to by a number of Pharaohs over 1,500 years this temple has many features from granite obelisks to a Hypostyle Hall of 134 columns each two metres in diameter and 15 meters high, in a space of three tennis courts. Imagine being surrounded and mesmerized by history and better, being able to touch it. Silhouetted glimpses of light play among the columns; the Hypostyle Hall was so immense you felt dwarfed and awed.

Farewelling new friends at the end of this extraordinary lesson in ancient history and culture, we disembark and make our way to the nineteenth. Refreshed by a drink and dinner at the Old Winter Palace, overlooking the Nile beyond the temples and tombs to the Western Desert, we thank our caddy and return to our golf club in Cairo.