the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Category: Nature

A WALK ON THE WILDER SIDE

Sori, 10 December 2016

It’s a sad fact that the coast of the Riviera – as well as that of the Côte d’Azur, which takes over at the Franco-Italian border – has been much overbuilt. Ever since this part of the world – harsh, inhospitable land, from which generations of peasants had barely eked out a living – was discovered in the late 19th Century by the growing middle classes of Northern Europe, who were attracted to its mild winters and dramatic rocky landscapes, brick, concrete, and asphalt have been poured with wild abandon over a narrow strip of land following the shoreline. Sometimes, when I look out over this mass of houses, shops, supermarkets, banks, roads, railway lines, bridges, and all the other infrastructure of modern life, and when I hear the continuous background noise of traffic, I wish I could travel back in time to see these places when they were more pristine and unspoiled, or wave a magic wand and make it all disappear.

At such moments, it is time to pull on the hiking boots and head for the hills. For the overbuilding dies away quite quickly as one ventures up into the deep, narrow valleys giving onto the sea, valleys which are the defining geological feature of this part of the coast. Thus it was that a few days ago, all booted up, we boarded a small bus in front of the village school. At the appointed time it left, taking the road that initially follows the valley floor, jumping from bank to bank of the stream that runs down-valley, before it begins to climb, with the road at this point becoming horridly narrow and sinuous. We climbed through a couple of small villages before being dropped off at the head of the valley. Since this was still a hundred or so meters below the crest, a 3 km tramp up the road was required before we finally arrived at the top. The view of the sea, glittering far below, was magnificent.
image
We popped quickly into this restaurant
image
to say hello to the owners. In earlier days, when the children were young, we would come up here quite regularly to have a magnificent plate of lasagne al pesto and go for a short walk or let the children kick a ball around. This time, we could only manage hurried greetings. Normally, this is a place patronized by very local people – it was here that I was first exposed to the local dialect in its pure, undiluted form – and the number of diners is manageable. But this day was a public holiday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the restaurant was crowded with foreigners (the term “foreigners” covering even the citizens of nearby Genova) and everyone was in overdrive.

A short walk down the road brought us to the start of the trail we were taking today. The aim was to walk along the southern crest of our valley to Sant’Apollinare (the starting point of the first of this trio of walks) and so back down to the village. This panoramic photo taken a few days’ later from our balcony shows the crest we followed.
image
The walk was all I desired to get away from the madding crowd. Almost immediately, most signs of modern life disappeared. As we tramped along what was probably an ancient mule track, we met hardly anyone; it was just us and nature. The track took us through woods
image image
where small flowers unknown to me still grew in this late season on the trackside.
image
The track took us across high pastures, bereft of animals at this time of the year
image
and past numerous hides – hunting being a particularly popular pastime in the autumn, with the excuse that the ever-increasing populations of wild boar need culling.

At points, the vistas opened up, towards the sea on one side
image
towards the other side of the valley, whose side our bus had climbed, on the other
image
back towards head of the valley, start of our walk
image
and way over the range of valleys to our south and north.
image
image

As we neared our destination, we got a lovely view of Monte di Portofino, the location of the walk in my previous post.
image
We were tiring by now, hoping for a smooth final leg. But it was not to be. The ground got very much stonier, the path harder.
image
Civilization also came butting in. Two men on noisy, smelly motorbikes suddenly appeared on the path, wanting to get by, while the dull roar of the motorway, which was passing under our feet, wafted up.

We reached a monument to Christ the King, put up by enthusiastic parishioners decades ago. We thought we had finally more or less arrived, but 20 minutes of hard and confused slogging over rocks and through woods awaited us still.

image

But we finally made it to the small church of Sant’Apollinare, just as the sun was beginning to sink.

Bone tired, we headed down the last stretch in the gathering darkness, down
image
down
image
down
image
back into the coastline’s overbuilt environment.

image

___________

photos: all mine

A WALK IN THE SETTING SUN

Sori, 8 December 2016

We decided not to struggle up the path which leads from the railway station up along the spur of the hill to the small church of Sant’Apollinare at the top. We did it a few weeks ago and it’s brutally steep. Instead, we took the bus that starts from in front of the village fishmonger, timed to leave just after school breaks up. Together with one shy schoolgirl we zipped up the road which zigs and zags its way up the hillside. 10 minutes later, just shy of 4:30, we were deposited on the small parking area by the church. The sun was beginning to set over the Riviera on the other side of Genova, bathing the little church and the distant Monte di Portofino in its ruddy rays.

image
image
We were taking the path that led down to the little town of Recco, nestled at the foot of the Monte di Portofino. We needed to get down before it got too dark. We started walking, passing through olive groves where the hillside’s exposure to the sun was good
image
and through Mediterranean maquis where it was less good
image
and where earlier farmers had not bothered to terrace the hillside and plant olive trees.
image
We passed the Torre dei Saraceni, the Saracens’ Tower, which according to local legend was built as a lookout to warn local villages when raiding parties of Barbary pirates based in Northern Africa (or maybe closer in Corsica and Sardinia) were approaching, looking to carry away loot and people to be sold as slaves in the market places of Tunis and Algiers (a plague which Italy’s coastal communities suffered until the 1800s).
image
When we were young and foolish, my wife and I had fantasized about living here, brushing aside such practical questions as where the nearest shop was to buy food.

On we hurried, with the Monte di Portofino looming larger.
image
Out to sea, ships were hurrying also, to reach the safety of the port of Genova.
image
We watched as the sun finally set across the Bay of Genova, silhouetting the Torre dei Saraceni.
image
We went on in the sunset’s afterglow, down dimly-lit steps

image
arriving finally in the small village of Polanesi on the outskirts of Recco. Our path skirted the parish church

image
into whose dim interior we quickly dipped. Its floor hinted at some tragedy 200 years ago
image
while its outer walls proclaimed a more recent tragedy, the retreat from Russia in 1942-3, in which many Italians died.
image
The moon alone was now shining in the sky.

image
By its dim light, and in places by the light of my phone, we stumbled down the last steps to finally reach the Via Aurelia.
image
When I was young and foolish, I thought this really was the trace of the old Roman road, but I discovered later that the Romans never bothered to build a road through this wild and mountainous region; they just went by boat along the coast.

A short walk brought us to Recco, now enveloped in darkness.
image
We lowered ourselves into the chairs of the nearest bar and had ourselves a well-merited Aperol Spritz.

image

_______

all photos: mine, except for

Aperol Spritz: http://www.aperolspritzsocials.com

KYOTO IN NOVEMBER

Kyoto, 13 November 2016

We read glumly about the results of the American presidential elections and their aftermath. The future looks bleak. Yet, even in this dark hour, it is impossible not to be struck by the beauty that surrounds us in Kyoto.

The paintings on the sliding doors of the temples, branches spreading over a wash of gold.
sliding-doors
The sweep of moss, brilliant green, under the trees, in the temple gardens.
img_6563
The leaves turning on the Japanese maples, early November scarlet bleeding into old summer green.
img_6413
I am moved, like the Japanese poets of old, to compose a haiku.
japanese-poet
Velvet moss greening gnarled roots,
Maples blooming red:
I weep for America.

____________________
Sliding doors: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/44858
Japanese poet: https://www.pinterest.com/reaconnell/haiku-japanese-poetry/
Other photos: ours

TAKING THE D TRAM TO NUSSDORF

Vienna, 24 July 2016

We’re in Vienna briefly, on our way back to Bangkok from the annual training course I give in Budapest and using the occasion to visit the warehouse where our stuff has been stored away these last seven years to agree on when to start moving it and to where when I retire in a month’s time. We’ve used the occasion to spend the weekend here.

On Saturday morning, we visited an exhibition of Ai Wei Wei’s work, my wife’s favourite modern artist, which is spread between the 21er Haus and the Upper Belvedere. While we were at it, we also had a quick zip around the Upper Belvedere’s permanent collection – there is a lovely set of Schieles and Klimts. Then, footsore and thirsty, we took a D tram back into the city centre and headed for a café to have a drink and a rest.

Once revivified, we pondered where to go next. I suggested the Leopold Museum, which is holding an exhibition of a rather minor Austrian painter of the 19th Century, and so we dragged ourselves rather slowly in that direction. But on the way, we saw another D tram clank past, and since it was a glorious day we decided on the spur of the moment to hop on and ride to the end of the line, to Nussdorf, which lies at the foot of the hills that overlook the city. As the name suggests, Nussdorf, Nut Village, was indeed once an independent village but is now a suburb of Vienna. Presumably it once was known for its walnuts or hazelnuts, but several hundred years ago it planted vineyards on the slopes above it and thereby made its fortune selling thirsty Viennese Grüner Veltliner wines.

Now, as we got off the tram at the final stop, we trailed after our fellow passengers, all ramblers, who were making their way determinedly towards those vineyards and the woods beyond them, the Wienerwald. We found a path which followed a stream
image
and started ambling slowly upwards – the walk was in no way strenuous.

The path first coasted houses buried at this time of year in luxuriant vegetation
image
image
but then it became more solitary.
image
At one point, we passed a little park dedicated to Beethoven.
image
It is said that he used to come over from nearby Heiligenstadt, where he spent many summers in his later years, to walk along this same path, which of course the marketing-savvy locals have named Beethovengasse, Beethoven Lane.

Further on, we passed the dead of Nussdorf, sleeping their eternal sleep at the foot of the vineyards
image
and now finally we were among the vineyards.
image
A few yards further on, we arrived at our destination, a heuriger
image
(a buschenschank in Styria; the owner of this heuriger must be a Styrian immigrant)

Heurigers, or wine taverns, dot the countryside around Vienna, selling the local wine, as well as simple food so that their patrons do not drink on an empty stomach. We had chosen this one from a map thoughtfully provided along the path by the local authorities, anxious to ensure that a good time was had by all
image
We settled down in the tavern’s garden
image
and pleasantly whiled a way an hour or so, sipping on our wine mixes (it was a bit early for straight wine), nibbling at our dried sausages, cheese plate, and Greek salad, gazing out over the neighbouring vineyards
image
and generally enjoying that sense of gemütlichkeit – warmth, friendliness, and good cheer – which is the trademark of heurigers.

Suitably refreshed, and full of good cheer, we ambled slowly down the hill again, where I for one took advantage of the old-fashioned toilets, or pissoirs as the Austrians so picturesquely call them, helpfully provided at the tram stop by the local authorities
image
before climbing back into the D tram

image

and clanking slowly back into the city centre.

__________________
The stream Schreiberbach: https://www.tripadvisor.co.za/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g190454-d260626-i134059629-Vienna_Woods-Vienna.html
All other photos: ours

THUNDER

Bangkok, 4 July 2016

It’s the rainy season in Bangkok. The normal schedule sees the day start dry with perhaps some cloud cover, which then builds up into impressively nasty-looking, black, whorly cloud piles by late afternoon.

image
image
At that point, lightning rips the sky from cloud to ground
image
followed moments later by thunder. And what thunder it is! The air itself seems to crack and splinter, the clouds angrily boom and hammer, over and over again as lightning keeps bursting out of the clouds. Instinctively, my wife and I step back, retreating into the safety of the apartment, and murmur comments to each other about the elemental son et lumière playing outside our windows. And then the rain starts, so dense that the other side of Chaophraya River, normally perfectly visible from our terrace, is blotted out.

At moments like these, I feel pity for our early ancestors cowering in their rock caves or flimsy huts watching the same grand spectacle. With the benefit of science, I can rationalize what I am seeing: why, thunder is just the noise of the sonic shock wave created by the very sudden expansion of air caused by the almost instant increase in pressure and temperature brought about by the passage of a lightning bolt! That’s all … But they did not have this intellectual crutch to lean on. They must have found such dramatic displays by nature very frightening. So I suppose it’s not very surprising that all the early religions had a god of thunder, who no doubt had to be ritually appeased.

What I do find surprising, though, after a quick zip around the Internet, is how decorously many of these gods of thunder have been portrayed in art. If I were cowering in my cave 50,000 years ago, or even in my flimsy hut 5,000 years ago, listening to all that tearing, splintering, and booming mayhem going on outside, I think it would come naturally to me to depict the god of thunder as a mean, nasty, angry son of a bitch. Some portrayals do seem to go in this direction. For instance, those of Tawhirimatea, the Maori’s god of thunder

make him look satisfyingly nasty. So do portrayals of Raijin, Japan’s god of thunder
image
who to my eyes looks apoplectic. Chaac, the Mayan god of thunder also looks suitably nasty
image
although as in so much Mesoamerican art he looks gruesomely nasty – they really seemed to have a need for downright disgusting-looking gods, the Mesoamericans did. I think Thailand’s own god of thunder, Ramasura, could perhaps be added to the list. I suspect he has a nasty monster’s face, but the nastiness of it is offset by the graceful balletic poses he is depicted in, a pose common to any flying spirit in Thai art.
image
After that, it gets difficult to find angry-looking gods of thunder. Take Zeus, for instance, the Greek god of thunder and lightning. The angriest depiction I could find was this one, on a vase, where frankly he just looks a little snippy rather than rip-roaring mad.
image
His usual mode of representation seems to be that typically Greek one of Olympian calm and good muscle tone, like this magnificent statue of him in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (the lightning bolt which he is, calmly, throwing has gone missing).
image
A rapid whizz through the pantheon of thunder gods in the Middle East gave me nothing better than this representation of Teshub, the Assyrian and Babylonian god of thunder
image
who, let’s face it, is looking petulant rather than angry as he wields his axe and lightning bolt.

I was hoping that the Norsemen, who after all seemed to spend most of their time stoving in their enemies’ skulls and drinking mead from those they hadn’t stoved in, would come up with a suitably horrible portrayal of Thor, their god of thunder. Not a bit of it! The best I could find was this
image
which, let’s face it, is a really pathetic representation of this god, who, if I’m to believe the Icelandic sagas, was testosterone-fueled and badly in need of anger management classes. Marvel Comics have done a much better job at depicting him
image
(and, by the way, have done a much better job of depicting Zeus too)
image
What to make of all this? Perhaps that the trick of our ancestors was to personalize these frightening phenomena. By personalizing them, they could clothe them with known and understandable personality traits, thus rendering the unfamiliar familiar. And/or maybe the ruling classes who arose out of the early agrarian societies and needed the acquiescence of the masses to their rule, if necessary through force, rather liked the idea of the masses equating their power to that of natural forces like thunder and lightning – but also wanted that power to look regal rather than just plain nasty; the fist of iron in the velvet glove, as it were.

Well, that’s my two-cent’s worth of pop-anthropological musings. My wife and I can now go back to watching the spectacle through our apartment windows – but from two steps back; you never know.

____________________
Thunder clouds over Bangkok: https://paulandsarahinthailand.wordpress.com/author/artyfooty/page/5/
Thunder clouds over Bangkok-2: http://2bangkok.com/2bangkok-weather-index.html
Lightning over Bangkok: http://www.digitalphotographytipsonline.com/my-image-gallery.html
Tawhirimatea, NZ: http://auckland-west.co.nz/2011/08/09/twhirimatea/
Raijin, Japan: http://www.esamskriti.com/print.aspx?topicid=969&chapter=1
Chaac, Mayan God of rain: http://archaeology.about.com/od/mayaarchaeology/a/Mayan-Rain-God-Chaac.htm
Ramasura: http://www.thaifolk.com/doc/mekkala_e.htm
Zeus on pottery: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K1.1.html
Artemisium Zeus statue: http://www.crystalinks.com/zeus.html
Teshub, Assyrian-Babylonian: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/12525705192076524/
Thor: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eyrarland_Statue
Thor comic book: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thor_(Marvel_Comics)
Thor and Zeus comic book: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeus_(Marvel_Comics)

THE AUSTRALIAN BOAB TREE

Bangkok, 11 June 2016

One of the first things which struck me as my wife and I started our tour of the Kimberley in Australia was the presence of this tree, which we frequently saw, both in leaf
image
and bare
image
and many of them with fruit.

image
I kept saying, “Aren’t those baobab trees?” For they looked amazingly like African baobabs.
image
Well, the fact is, they are baobabs (although Australians insist on calling them boabs). These trees are to be found in sub-Saharan Africa (two species) as well as in Madagascar (six species, of which these, subjects of a previous post of mine, are magnificent specimens)
image
and there is this one species in Australia – actually, the tree is found only in the Kimberley and nowhere else in Australia.

How did the baobab tree end up in the Kimberley? I mean, it’s quite some distance, some 8,000 km to be precise, between the east coast of Africa and the west coast of Australia.

A first hypothesis was that this was a left-over from the break-up hundreds of millions of years ago of the supercontinent Gondwana into its constituent pieces of South America, Africa and Madagascar, Antarctica, India, and Australia
image
which then proceeded, through continental drift, to arrive where they are now. The ancestors of the baobab had existed on Gondwana, so the thinking went, and were carried along for the ride on the drifting continents.

Apart from the fact that this hypothesis doesn’t explain why there aren’t baobabs in India or South America, modern DNA analysis has nixed it. Comparison of DNAs has shown that the African and Australian varieties of the baobab separated a “mere” 100,000 years or so ago, when (by my calculation) Africa and Australia were 7 km closer (continental plates drift slowly).

So how did the baobab make it to Australia?

Well, the next most obvious hypothesis is that an African baobab nut or two (of which the smiling ladies in the photo above are holding a basketful) was carried out to sea and then carried along by surface currents to its new home in Northwestern Australia. But the experts are hesitant, and I understand why. A study of this map of surface currents
image
shows that to make it to the Kimberley region, a nut would have had to fall into the Somali current and been carried northward, then it would have had to get taken eastward by the northern branch of the Indian Ocean’s Equatorial current, all the way to the island of Sumatra. At that point, our bobbing baobab nut would have had to hug the southern coastlines of Sumatra and Java, to then, somewhere around Bali or Timor, change course, coming southward and westward, finally making a landing in the Kimberley. As the sad fate of the Malaysian flight MH370 has shown, anything floating further south in the Indian Ocean would tend to be carried westward rather than eastward. The map below is a computer-generated estimate of where debris of the plane could have drifted from the original hypothesized crash point (the square point on the border of the blue area); the red area is where debris might have been 18 to 24 months after the crash.
image
If this ocean voyage of the baobab nut occurred at all, it would have taken place during the last ice age. This started 110,000 years ago, which is pretty much when the two baobab lines separated, and finished 12,000 years ago. Among other things, the ice age caused sea levels to drop, which modified coastlines in certain parts of the world. In turn, these modifications could have affected the direction of surface currents. So to be really correct, one should look at a map of someone’s best guess of surface ocean currents during the ice age. Unfortunately, I didn’t come across any such map. This map, however, shows where the coastlines were at the time.

image
It seems there were no big changes in the area we’re interested in except around the islands of Indonesia and New Guinea, where the lower sea levels connected up a lot of the islands (and, en passant, made that last hop of human beings into Australia 50,000 or so years ago a good deal easier). I’m no ocean currentologist, but I rather think that the blocking up of the straits between these islands might actually have made the last leg of the baobab nut’s journey, that right turn from Bali to Australia, somewhat easier.

How long would such a trip have taken? Well, it took debris from MH370 about two years to wash up on the coast of Mozambique, so I would imagine that it would take just as long, if not longer, for a baobab nut to travel in the opposite direction. Could a baobab nut soak that long in the ocean and still be able to germinate upon arrival? We can look to the coconut for an answer; a coconut, at least the original version before human beings started messing around with it, was designed to be dispersed by sea.
image
There happens to be a lot of argument on this point, but no-one has ever claimed that a coconut can last two years in seawater. A maximum seems about three months, and even that has been challenged. So I seriously doubt that a baobab nut, even if it had managed to make it to the Kimberley by sea, would have been in a fit state to germinate.

So, how else could the baobab have arrived in the Kimberley?

The next most obvious hypothesis is that human beings brought the baobab with them, because they too originated in Africa. Could the ancestors of the Aboriginal people, who are currently thought to have arrived in Australia 50,000 years ago (plus or minus 10,000 years), have carried the baobab nut with them? Well, since they left Africa about 120,000 years ago and took 70,000 years to reach Australia, that would have meant planting the baobab as they went along. This is not actually as crazy as it sounds. Both in Africa and in the Kimberley there is strong evidence that the local hunter-gathering groups deliberately carried the baobab with them and planted it in new areas – the tree is a great source of many things other than the nut. But if this really did happen, then shouldn’t we find baobabs along their most probable migration route?
image
Yet, apart from southern Arabia, none of the places between Africa and Australia have baobabs, or even baobab remains. Of course, it could be that climate changes in these places after the end of the ice age killed off the baobabs, or it could be that they were killed off by the after-effects of the absolutely gigantic volcanic eruption of Mount Toba in the island of Sumatra about 70,000 years ago
image
the ash from which fell over a huge area, much of it on the migration route to Australia, which could have choked plant life.
image
It has also been argued that many years of permanent darkness set in after this event, a sort of “nuclear winter”, which of course would have affected the ability of plants to photosynthesize.

But still, all in all, the chances of the baobab having gotten to Australia via this long, long migration route seem very slim.

So how, then, could the baobab have gotten to the Kimberley?

And here, gentle readers, we step into a wasps’ nest. One Australian scientist has made the radical suggestion that tribes sailed from the east coast of Africa to the Kimberley, carrying baobab nuts as food. He claims that the rock art of the Kimberley (which I will cover in a future post) is (a) far older than is generally thought, maybe 50,000 years old, and (b) shows that 50,000 years ago the painters knew the use of boats.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
He suggests that the nuclear winter caused by Mount Toba led them to sail east, to the source of the sun, to find it again, which coincidentally would have brought them to the Kimberley (and he argues that there are strong connections between Kimberley’s rock art and the rock art of East Africa).

Well, as readers can imagine, such views have the Australian archaeological community in a tizzy. It certainly is a pretty far fetched theory. But somehow we have to explain how the baobabs got to the Kimberley, right? Anyone of my readers have any ideas?

_____________________
Boab tree in leaf: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adansonia_gregorii
Boab tree bare: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/boab-tree-kimberly.html
Boab tree in fruit: http://www.visualphotos.com/image/1×10636003/australia-western-australia-broome-roebuck-bay-a-faint-banded-sea-snake-caught-on-the-mud-flats-at-low-tide
African baobab tree: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/11328252/Baobab-the-superfood-of-2015.html
Grove of baobab trees, Madagascar: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/1618549836269760/
Gondwana: http://www.earthsciences.hku.hk/shmuseum/earth_evo_07_01.php
Ocean surface currents: http://www.cruiserswiki.org/wiki/Indian_Ocean
Debris path of MH 370: http://www.deepseanews.com/2015/07/how-currents-pushed-debris-from-the-missing-malaysian-air-flight-across-the-indian-ocean-to-reunion/
Coastlines last ice age: http://maxworldhistory.weebly.com/map-exercise.html
Coconut in the sea: http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Coconut-Floating-on-Water-Indo-Pacific-Split-Level-Dispersal-of-Seed-Posters_i2634256_.htm
Migration out of Africa: http://cogweb.ucla.edu/ep/Paleoanthropology.html
Mount Toba eruption: http://www.thedailysheeple.com/yellowstone-super-volcano-is-far-bigger-than-previously-thought_122013
Mount Toba ash coverage: http://news.berkeley.edu/2015/03/31/200th-anniversary-of-tambora-eruption-a-reminder-of-volcanic-perils/
Bradshaw art boat: http://forum.woodenboat.com/showthread.php?169983-Primitive-Depictions-of-Medieval-Ships-Seen-from-Above

I’VE EATEN THE GREEN BUMS OF ANTS

Bangkok, 7 June 2016

Yes, I did that. On our recent tour of the Kimberley in Australia. The ant in question was the Green Tree ant or Weaver ant.
image
As readers can see, the ant has a bright green bum. The driver-cum-guide of our tour was a passionate advocate of the country’s Aboriginal population, of which there are still many in this little corner of Australia (it was the last part of the continent to be penetrated by white settlers, back in the 1870s). Among other things, on our walks through the bush he would point out various bush tucker (for non-Australians, that’s wild food which can be harvested in the bush), which he always claimed were bursting with proteins, Vitamin C, and other goodies, and which he would then invite us to try. So apart from Green Tree ants, I dutifully ate the petals of Australia’s kapok tree

the “petals” of the rosella “flower”
image
and the inside of the “nut” of the Australian boab tree (on which hangs a fascinating tale, which hopefully I will write up in a later post).
image
His partner, who was our cook, also fed us camel burghers (camels can now be found in the wild in Australia by their millions)

image

and kangaroo stew (also to be found in their millions throughout Australia, but of which we saw surprisingly few on this trip).
image
My conclusion: I really hope I don’t need to be a vegetarian in the Australian bush.

But actually, further research on my part since we returned from Australia suggests that the range of bush tucker we tried on our tour was rather limited. One article in Wikipedia has quite a long list of bush tucker to be found in the top end of Australia where we found ourselves, only one of which – the boab nut – we tried. So I really shouldn’t give up on bush tucker just yet.

_____________________
Green tree ant: http://www.alexanderwild.com/Ants/Making-a-Living/Arboreal-Ants/i-wpGjWZ8
Kapok tree flower: http://www.crystalchannelers.com/blog/plantology—aboriginal-healing-recipes—reduce-a-fever
Rosella: https://cnesgreen.wordpress.com/2010/04/19/roselle-flower-tea-hibiscus/
Open boab nut: https://outbackjoe.com/macho-divertissement/bush-tucker-plants-and-animals/boab-tree/
Wild camels in Australia: https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/management/pests-diseases/202-camels-in-western-australia?showall=1
Kangaroos: http://notallowedto.com/the-feral-child-a-boy-raised-by-kangaroos-discovered-in-australia/

AUSTRALIA – KIMBERLEY TOUR HIGHLIGHTS

Bangkok, 5 June 2016

My wife and I both agree that without a doubt the Bungle Bungle National Park was the highlight of our recent tour of the Kimberley (I suppose I should use its proper name, Purnululu National Park, but Bungle Bungle is such a delightfully silly name that I shall stick to that). It has been chosen as a World Heritage Site and for once I agree with this. What we have here is a deeply eroded range, and I think the best way to appreciate the unique geology of the Bungle Bungle is through an aerial photo
image
or two
image
or three.
image
Readers will immediately notice the smooth rounded shapes into which the rocks have weathered – beehives is a commonly used descriptor and seems very apt. The guidebook with which we were thoughtfully supplied on our coach stated that this type of formation is very rare – only a few other places on Earth have it, and not nearly as extensively as in the Bungle Bungle Range. UNESCO, in its World Heritage Site write-up, notes approvingly that “the Bungle Bungles are, by far, the most outstanding example of cone karst in sandstones anywhere in the world.” Without going too much into the geological whys and wherefores, the fact that the rock has eroded into these smooth rounded shapes seems to have to do with the bands in the rock, seen quite well in the third photo above and even better in this photo taken by my wife from ground level.
image
The key to the bands’ existence is the clay content of the rock. The darker bands have more clay, which means they hold moisture better, which in turn allows a very thin film of cyanobacteria to grow on the rock. It is this film which gives the rock its darker colour. The red bands, on the other hand, having less or no clay, dry out quicker and so cannot support a colony of bacteria. Instead, they have been stained orange-red by iron and manganese deposits. The bacterial film protects the rock from too rapid an erosion, which allows the rounded shapes to form.

Geological considerations aside, it’s a delight to walk through these humped and rounded rocks, which are split by numerous gorges and chasms, a number of them having trails laid along them. We walked just two, the Cathedral Gorge and the Echidna Chasm. The Cathedral Gorge narrows slowly
image
image
image

image

to finally finish in a pool partially covered by deep overhangs.

DCF 1.0

image
The Echidna Chasm, on the other hand, is a deep, narrow gash in the rock, at times so narrow that it is hard to get through. After the surprise of coming across Livistona fan palm trees at its mouth (palms are not the first trees that come to mind in this hot and arid landscape)
image
one edges into the chasm itself. There is a certain fun in threading one’s way through, at some points having to climb and clamber over huge boulders, sections of the walls which have come crashing down; one keeps looking nervously up to see if others might not be about to give way and squash one like a beetle. But there is also an ethereal beauty in this chasm. At certain times of the day, the sun catches the rocks and makes them literally glow. Our iPad cameras were too feeble to catch this wonderful light, but this photographer has managed beautifully.
image
We would gladly have stayed longer in this Park and done more of the trails. But that is the downside of organized tours: the tyranny of The Schedule.

After discussing it with my wife, we have agreed on two more modest scheduled highlights, both, interestingly enough, having to do with water. One was the boat ride on a section of the Ord River near Kununurra, which has been dammed for irrigation purposes. From such utilitarian objectives has come a very pleasant body of water, in the form of several kilometers of the river which are filled year-round with water (a rarity in Australia).

image

image
“Water is life” our driver-cum-guide would constantly intone, and this stretch of river was the living proof of this. Apart from several well-fed freshwater crocodiles which we spied along the banks with a twittering of excitement, we saw a large number of birds, the most majestic of which was undoubtedly the white-breasted sea eagle
image
and the sweetest of which was the Jesus bird (aptly named since it seems to walk on water).
image
The mother hatches the chicks, the father is then solely responsible for their upbringing (many of the ladies on board noted this division of labour with approval; the men said nothing). But perhaps the most interesting wildlife we came across was a colony of fruit bats hanging out (literally) in a couple of trees along the bank, making quite a noise as they yelped and barked – when do they sleep, I wonder?

SONY DSC

From the mutterings of disapproval among our Australian companions and the spirited defense of the bats put up by our guide, we surmise that they are considered a nuisance in more urban settings, no doubt because they sink their fangs into the fruit of your garden which you had been looking forward to eating.

The second modest scheduled highlight was Windjana gorge, in the King Leopold Ranges (why the British explorer who first came across these ranges named them after the King of the Belgians is a bit of a mystery to me; my guess is he was hoping the guy would fork out for his next expedition). Apart from the frisson we got from seeing twenty or more freshwater crocodiles all in one place waiting in complete stillness on the banks or in the water for their next meal to go by
image
the gorge itself was very pretty
image
and once again the rocks glowed orange-red in the setting sun.
image

There was one other highlight, which wasn’t marked in The Schedule, and that was the night sky. In many places, we camped far, far away from any polluting light sources. This, combined with the normally clear skies, meant that when the moon didn’t get in the way we had glorious views of the night sky. It was a sky without the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere with which my wife and I are familiar, but nevertheless a magnificent site to behold, especially on the nightly walks to the toilet to which I alluded in the previous post.
image
Our last night out, we dragged our camp beds out of our tent, and as we dozed we watched the Milky Way wheel across the sky. Wonderful. But as they say, there is no gain without pain. I am still spreading anti-histamine cream on the dozen or so bites I got from the accursed Australian mosquitoes that night, may they rot in Hell.

____________

Bungle Bungle aerial view-1: http://www.kimberleywilderness.com.ccd. dau/the-apt-experience/photos-and-videos/photo-gallery
Bungle Bungle aerial view-2: http://www.ryanphotographic.com/Essay.htm
Bungle Bungle aerial view-3: http://kimberleymedia.photoshelter.com/gallery/Bungle-Bungles-Purnululu/G0000GcT6t3sRLPw/C0000uv7H8rn8We0
Cathedral Gorge trail: my wife’s photos
Cathedral Gorge pool-1: http://studyperth.com.au/about/news-feeds/2015/10/top-10-walking-tracks-and-bike-trails
Cathedral Gorge-2: my wife’s photo
Livistona palm trees: my wife’s photo
Echidna chasm: http://www.wildroad.com.au/galleries/australia-photos/echidna-chasm-purnululu-national-park-australia/
Ord River: my wife’s photos
White breasted sea eagle: http://thelife-animal.blogspot.com/2012/07/white-bellied-sea-eagle.html
Jesus bird: https://well.smugmug.com/keyword/WadingBirds;birds
Fruit bats: https://drivedownunder.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/its-a-bungle-out-there/sony-dsc-138/
Crocodiles, Windjana Gorge: https://flamingoing.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/the-devonian-reef-national-parks/
Windjana Gorge: http://www.broomeandthekimberley.com.au/gibb-river-road-and-gorges/
Night sky: http://www.3rf.com.au/gallery.asp

OUR TOUR OF THE KIMBERLEY, AUSTRALIA

Bangkok, 5 June 2016

I must excuse myself to my readers for the long gap in my posts, but my wife and I have just come back from a two-week holiday. We were visiting the Kimberley region in Australia, which for those not familiar with Australian geography is the region tucked away into the continent’s northwest corner.
image
It’s Australian outback country par excellence: a poor, red, stony earth with rocky outcrops, lightly covered by a varying mix of grasses and eucalypts

image

and dotted, sometimes thickly, with termite mounds
image
sparsely populated, with huge cattle stations whose cattle is almost wild
Young Brahman cattle enjoy the lush grasslands in the Kimberley wet season.
and small, nondescript towns
image
with significant Aboriginal populations.

image
We chose to go with an organized tour, and so we found ourselves, the rather exotic foreigners, traveling with 22 Australians and a New Zealander (I don’t think New Zealanders really count as foreigners in Australia). It was a fascinating mix of people. Nearly all of them were from Australia’s east coast, escaping their “cold” winter. Most of them were retirees; at 62, we were among the youngest (there were two outliers, girls in their early twenties – we all stared at them in surprise when they first got on the coach; what on earth were they doing with us old fogies?). Two couples had been dairy farmers, a number had been teachers, a number had been social workers of one form or another, one had worked in the prison system, one had been an architect and another a house builder, one had been a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance, one of the young girls drove coal trucks out of a coal mine while studying part-time to be a nurse, the other was a receptionist. As behoves an immigrant country, several of our group were first-generation immigrants: there was a woman who hailed originally from Malaysia, another from France, a couple from the Netherlands, and another couple from what had once been Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. All this diversity made for interesting discussions as we opened up to each other at meals and around camp fires in the evening.
image
And of course, we touched upon the more intimate things of life: children, deaths of or separations from spouses, and, as we settled into the trip and admitted several trips a night to the toilet, the state of our prostates. It was somewhat akin to that film of long ago “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium”
image
although in our case we only toured one small part of one country (but still managed to clock up 2,600 km; just to put things in perspective, the Kimberley is twice as big as the UK), the coach we rode in was technologically very sophisticated, custom-built on a Mercedes chassis to take anything the rugged unpaved roads of the outback could throw at it
image

image

and we slept in tents – I was strongly reminded of my Boy Scout days.
image
The tour started in Broome, a small town on the Indian Ocean and once a pearling station, went east along the paved Great Northern Highway for a thousand kilometers or so, to the even smaller town of Kununurra, and then looped back to Broome along the unpaved Gibb River Road, with a detour north at some point along the Kalumburu Road to visit the Mitchell Falls situated very nearly on the northern coast. I do not intend to bore my readers with a detailed travel diary. I will just touch upon some highlights in the next posts. So cheerio, mates!

_________________
map: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimberley_(Western_Australia)
Kimberley vista: my wife’s photo
Termite mounds: https://www.birdwatch.co.uk/categories/articleitem.asp?item=643
Cattle: http://kimberleymedia.photoshelter.com/gallery/Cattle-Kimberley-Images/G0000RM6HcfEh3fE/
Kununurra: http://www.avalook.com/newsite/?page_id=13
Old Aborigine: my wife’s photo
Around the campfire: http://sacreddestinations.org/sacred-destinations-spiritual-tours-meditation-retreats.html
“If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” film poster: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_It%27s_Tuesday,_This_Must_Be_Belgium
Coach: http://www.outbackspirittours.com.au/tours/cape-york-wilderness-adventure
Tents: my wife’s photo

WATER

Bangkok, 7 May 2016

It’s hot here in Bangkok at the moment, very hot.

And it’s humid, very humid.

We drag ourselves through the day, stumbling from one air-conditioned space to another.

We scout the horizon for clouds. Will the cooling rains ever come?

We sweat, we’re thirsty. We go to the fridge to get that bottle of cold, cold water. We pour ourselves a glass. A film of water immediately forms on it.
image
We drink. Aaaah, sooooo good …

In her garden, my French grandmother had a water pump which looked like this.
image
When we were children, half a century ago, my cousins and I would amuse ourselves by pumping the handle vigorously till the water poured out. Watching us one day, my mother told us that when she had been a child our age, so some time in the late 1920s, early 1930s, before refrigerators were common, on hot summer days she was sent out by various uncles and aunts who were visiting to get a glass of water from that pump. But she was not to take the first water to gush out, no, she was to pump and pump until the water was “bien frappé”, well chilled, enough to form a film on the glass …

That pump stopped pumping 30 years ago. As ever more water was sucked from the aquifer the level dropped, until one day it dropped so far that the pump ran dry. It never pumped a drop of water again.

At my old primary school in Somerset, whose halls I graced half a century ago, there was a bubbling little stream that ran along the edge of the playing fields. We played for hours on it, floating sticks and leaves, building dams, and generally mucking about. It looked like this, minus the horses.
image
30 years ago, when I visited one summer, it was gone, dried up. The aquifer had dropped too far.

A larger stream ran along the valley floor not too far from my French grandmother’s house. It was a quick bike ride away, and my cousins and I would often go there to catch freshwater crayfish in its clean, clear waters and bathe in a deep, blue pool that had formed in the middle reaches. 20 years later, when I visited, it was turgid and scummy, with froth floating on it.

Bangkok is a water city. It sits on a river and is laced with canals. It should be lovely to travel on its waterways. Instead, it’s like cruising along stinking, fetid sewers. We take a water bus from time to time, when the traffic is really bad, from the Golden Mount Temple to the modern downtown.
image
Instead of enjoying the passing scenery, I live in dread of spray from the canal landing on my face; God knows what viruses and bacteria populate the water. I always scrub my face vigorously when I get off. As for the river, from our apartment terrace we look down on the rubbish of the city which floats by every day.
image
Recently, we visited Halong Bay, in Viet Nam, a World Heritage Site. We gazed on the unutterable beauty of the surroundings. But we also gazed at the rubbish floating around us and at the locals’ pathetic attempts to get rid of it.
image
Are we mad? We guzzle water like there was no tomorrow and treat it like a rubbish dump. Yet we need water, it’s vital to our lives. How can we treat so badly something we absolutely cannot do without?

________________
Glass of water: http://www.healthydietbase.com/does-drinking-ice-cold-water-help-you-lose-weight/
Old water pump: http://fr.123rf.com/photo_20440985_fonte-ancienne-pompe-a-eau-de-fer-humide-dans-le-jardin.html
Small stream: http://www.gettyimages.com/image/photo-2-tarpan-horses-crossing-a-small-brook/508354517

Bangkok canal: http://aspiringwriter.ca/tag=bangkok

Rubbish in Chao Praya River: https://bangkok2birmingham.org/2013/05/30/deteriorated-water-so-what/

collecting rubbish in Halong bay: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/