Zzz…

…and so to bed, a closure of sorts on this long-winded journey that started off so awesome and finishes in a cocoon of fluffy pillows and cosy doonas. Among all the wonderful things seen, the delights tasted, the rants aired, it is sleep that has allowed them to happen, recharging the body and mind just enough to ensure that things can keep on keeping on. Sleep is, well, awesome, and as friends and family surround themselves with young ones, the perplexing question on everyone’s lips is just why wouldn’t you want to go to bed and sleep solidly for eight hours, pesky child?!

Sleep deprivation is, alas, a feature of the lives of many people I know, from eternally exhausted parents to work-bothered stress heads. Occasionally it pops up in my life, but usually as a result of my own endeavours, like sitting cramped on a plane for 24 hours and moving forward in time 11 hours and then stupidly expecting to sleep like a baby that actually sleeps [1]

Z_wilsprom

Or deciding to stay in a hostel room in a tiny place somewhere in Victoria and finding that the other bunks are occupied by three rather large Germans who have had a hearty dose of ale and chunks of pork and like to sleep on their back. Still, it was a beautiful early dawn ride to Wilsons Prom that morning when no-one else was yet up.

Luckily I am apt to overcome sleep deprivation and early starts with the most blessed event that can befall anyone: the afternoon nap. I think I first fell in love with afternoon naps when it happened to me as a teenager, taking me unawares as I struggled to read a boring book on a grey day in a comfy armchair. Initially it was a bit of a shock to find that I had unintentionally nodded off and drooled a little. But the feeling of contentment and rejuvenation that ebbed into my body earmarked the afternoon nap as something to occasionally strive for.

In 2013 I had a fair few afternoon naps, along with a fair few restless nights and early starts. This was primarily my own doing, attributed to the fact that I ended up staying in 121 different locations across the globe [2]. Such restlessness can induce restlessness…that feeling of being slightly unsettled going to sleep in an unfamiliar spot. Given many of the sleeps were also conducted in a canvas coffin in the middle of nowhere, prone to every possum rustle and pounding wave of the ocean and occasional snoring fit from elsewhere, solid sleep was not always high on the agenda. But then I discovered the calming properties of earplugs and got over it and probably made a bit or noise myself, mouth agape catching flies.

Still, the early starts were common as there is only so much an earplug can do against the cacophonous cackling of a choir of Kookaburras. The compensation from the termination of sleep was the sparkle of being alive and watching the natural world wake up from its shadowy slumber. Like down amongst the spotted gums of Croajingalong National Park, fringing the silver glass of an inlet as it is kissed by the laser red sun of dawn and enlivened by the rousing chimes of bellbirds. Awake is the new sleep.

Z_croaj

A few more sleeps from this spot and I happened to be in Wilsons Prom again, this time without a hostel room of Germans, but struggling to sleep nonetheless. The day had been baking hot, an arid northerly wind blowing dust and flies and smoke and hairdryer vapours to the southern extremities of mainland Australia. Too hot to sleep until – finally in the small hours – the promised cool change, bringing a pitter-patter of rain which turns to a noisy deluge amplified on canvas. Fortunately the next sleep was Melbourne and a roof and a bed and appreciation of a roof and a bed which is so often taken for granted by us first world problem seekers.

There were a few other hot nights but many more cold ones, often surprising in their unpredictability. I expect somewhere called the Grampians to be a wee bit chilly, though in March I never expected it would be cold enough to cause me to hover over a few smouldering twigs, infiltrating smokiness into my hair and stubble and fleece and beanie, awaiting the first warmth from the sun to finally emerge from between the trees. Ironically, later that day it would swelter so much as to cause sweaty backs on a climb to one of the many spectacular overlooks, provoke comfort in a lukewarm home-made shower, and create extreme fondness for a double scooped ice cream back down in Halls Gap.

In this flim-flam wiff-waff Perryinthian volatility of hot and cold, it is perhaps not so much of a surprise that one of the best swag sleeps in the past year was conducted at a very agreeable and comfortable temperature. This in itself was not at all predictable given previous chilly nights despite (or maybe because of) being in the dry, arid South Australian outback. Perhaps it was the shelter of the Cypress pines and their earthy fragrance, or perhaps just the ease of getting to sleep after many miles of quite exemplary walking, but Aroona Valley in the Flinders Ranges provided a chance to not really sleep much like a baby. And with solid sleep, an early start is no problem to appreciate the grandeur of the emerging landscape as the day is welcomed.

Z_flinders

Beyond the swag there have been air mattresses and sofas and fold up beds to enjoy, plus the occasional real bed. I’ve had a close on-off relationship with a certain air mattress for some time now, though this year saw us part company. A little part of me was a bit forlorn when I was kindly provided with my own room and own bed, complete with funky pictures of digger trucks and awesome earthmoving machines. Yet I can still sleep soundly despite stealing the bedroom of a two year old, for I always sleep soundly here. It may come thanks to the wine and fulfilling Mexican food, the equal liveliness and weariness of family life, the penchant for odd movies and cruising around Liberty City late at night. Or the grim up north Lancashire exterior quelled by the warming welcome inside.

Z_devonAnd once more it comes back to that old chestnut roasting on an open fire of comfort and familiarity. Spending such sustained time on a fold up bed in Plymouth that my back no longer hurts. Reconnecting with my eternal homeland, nodding off to the sound of drunken crazies arguing over some munter down the street eating a kebab. Waking to the sound of seagulls and the incessant irritating loop of Bruno Mars and Olly Murs on Heart [3]. Hearing the distant trundle of the railway as it fights its way through millions of leaves and brambles; a trundle that gently lulls you to sleep again later following a majestic day walking the Cornish coast. This is quite possibly the most contented nap there is.

Finally, after all this sleeping around, I again find myself in my own bed, the one I bought at Harvey Norman in Fyshwick seven years ago, before I knew any better [4]. I remember having to catch a bus that dropped me off somewhere between a petrol station and porn shop, walking through some overgrown brown grass dotted with rubble and fast food trash. Making it to the store I then waited ages for any of the dubious sales staff to take any interest in me. I’m sure I purchased the fairly cheap mattress, thinking I was only going to be in Australia for a year. But it endures and it is mine and, as everyone always inevitably says after a bout of travel, ooh it’s always nice to be back in your own bed!

Back on that day, while waiting near the porn store for the hourly bus back to somewhere close to where I was staying, I killed some time by wandering into the p…p….petrol station. I p…p….purchased a map of New South Wales to kill some boredom. This was back in the dark old days of 2006, when maps were unfathomably large and fold out-y. But it was splendid to open it out and start looking at the roads and contours and the places by the sea that were still just names then. And it was daunting to see just how large the place was, where a two hour drive was a couple of fingers width on paper.

When the bed was delivered and assembled it not only became a place of sleep but one in which the mind would formulate plans and trips, making lists in my head and sometimes struggling to nod off with the breathless excitement of it all. I’d try to count sheep, read something dull, do a Sudoku. And then I decided, probably an unwise tactic, to list things off in my head in an A to Z fashion. Like places I have been in the USA, capital cities of the world, or legumes of the Central Asian plateau or some such. Sometimes I would drift off by Crystal River, other times I’d be wide-eyed in Zagreb. But it’s something that has endured for quite a while, until now.

So it would seem, with this particular alphabet closed, I truly can rest easy. Catch a few awesome ZZZs as a chapter closes. That is until I start to toy with the next idea and several others fall open. For now though, read this and sleep.


[1] What a misguided phrase. To sleep like a baby must mean spells of doziness for an hour with six interruptions during the night to eat, and a couple of nappy changes because you have pooped all over the place.

[2] I should point out, not 121 different beds, for many of these sleeps were carried out in a swag that just happened to find itself in a different part of Australia each night.

[3] Seriously, just buy her some frigging flowers and shut the hell up

[4] I quickly decided to deliberately avoid Harvey Norman, mainly because of its very tacky, cheap and incredibly shouty adverts in which they proclaim to be the bedding specialist, or plasma screen specialist or coffee specialist, offering interest free credit until 2023

Links

Croajingalong National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/croajingolong-national-park

Wilsons Promontory National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/wilsons-promontory-national-park

Grampians National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/grampians-national-park

Flinders Ranges National Park:

http://www.environment.sa.gov.au/parks/Find_a_Park/Browse_by_region/Flinders_Ranges_and_Outback/Flinders_Ranges_National_Park

They haven’t got much better (or advanced): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3ky9cFQbbM

Back in the bed buying days: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2006/08/artistic-bedroom-furniture-ironing.html

Something else to send you to sleep: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/

A to Z Australia Great Britain Society & Culture

Yurt

It was like wakening in a miniature circus tent, though with just the one clown stirring from an overnight slumber. Through a plastic window daylight was seeping into the octagonal space, the hard wooden floor radiating sunshine upwards into the plastic dome, like flame rising into a hot air balloon. Through the plastic glare the gentle sheen of the sea glimmered out in the distance, a view broken by dark pine forest and rounded headlands. One or two female deer lazily munched on the green grass in the foreground, as I set to joining them for breakfast.

It is hard to say if this was exactly what I was expecting when I came across an entry for this place in a guidebook many months before. Certainly what transpired captured the atmospheric appeal that came to my imagination back then. It was moving towards winter in Australia and times were spent in windowless offices and pointless meetings as I trudged slowly towards the date when I finally left my job. The sound of a place tucked away on an island in the pristine Pacific Northwest of the US where you could sleep in a yurt had instant allure. It seemed I had become what I never wanted to become and seeking clichéd escapes from ‘executive stress’.

And so, several months later, after visiting Hong Kong and Europe and New York City on my big time out, I landed in Seattle. Initial experiences were far from chilled. By time I had picked up a hire car it was rush hour on the I-5 and there I was in an unfamiliar car in an unfamiliar place on an unfamiliar side of the road. Sweeping through the heart of downtown Seattle I was able to avert my gaze from the weaving cars and merging lanes for just the briefest of moments. To my left, the Space Needle pierced the low cloud, affirming that I was heading in the right direction, north through the fading suburbs and fading light to a place where you can breathe again.

I slept that night under solid roof in one of those steady, unspectacular motels that permeate the highways and byways of the United States. They have beige carpets and brick walls and sturdy wooden sideboards with built in radio alarm clocks and light switches [1]. They have an included breakfast with a choice of three types of cereal dispensed from what were pretty revolutionary cereal dispensers back in the 60s. A choice of crushed cornflake, soggy rice puffs or the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag. Alternatively, you can have some undercooked toast with impossible to spread butter.

They have a laundry with tokens and powder available from the front desk, so that you can put your world-weary clothes through an expensive and time-consuming process in which they become sodden as Bangladesh during the monsoon and then undergo ten minute stints in a huge dryer and eventually come out with only a very incremental change in cleanliness and a lingering damp dog smell. Still, you put one of the clean-ish jumpers on and head out into the fresh air with the hope that at least this one will dry out in the next few hours.

The huge consolation is that Bellingham seems to possess its fair share of fresh, laundry-drying air. Beside the steely waters of Puget Sound, a pleasing boardwalk leads to a pleasing place for coffee with a pleasing-on-the-eye person making it. Elsewhere in town, the occasional deer grazes on someone’s perfectly coloured Y_whatcomprecision cut front lawn. Other deer poke their heads out of the undergrowth in Whatcom Park – named after the dotcom boom which failed to materialise this far north. Maybe. Amazingly, this is like a national park in the middle of the town, with some pretty waterfalls disturbing the peace of the forest.

Close to the border, the vibe feels more Canadian than anywhere else in America, which is a good thing for any executive stress you may have. Actually, Bellingham reminds me more than anywhere of Cypress Creek, the fictional town in The Simpsons acting as the secret base for the fantastical megalomaniac Hank Scorpio. I admit to failing to spot Put-Your-Butt-There on third in the hammock complex in the hammock district. But other than that – mountains and pine forests, chipmunks, lakeside houses and picket fences, secret underground missiles armed and aimed at France – Bellingham ticked all the boxes [2].

Another night under a solid roof led to another included breakfast, though this time with the surprise bonus of slightly stale miniature croissants. They must have been leftover from the annual general meeting of the American-Franco Dwarf Association of Washington State that took place in the conference room the previous evening. Still, I pocketed a few for the journey on what was a sublimely sunny day, warm and clear heading down to Anacortes for a ferry ride.

I can imagine, in this weather-laden extremity of America, that the ferry ride across to Orcas Island is rarely as serene as it was on this particular day. Slicing through high definition crystal calm, the ferry’s wake rippled the reflections of the many pine topped isles scattered upon the sound. Secluded bays hosted the occasional rustic dwelling, where the kayak appeared to be vehicle of choice. Between island views the mainland drifted away, but all the while the snowy volcanic peak of Mount Baker gleamed, a blinding white cone penetrating the upper atmosphere.

Disembarkation was a low key affair on Orcas Island, which is the largest of the many San Juan Islands peppering Puget Sound. Given some land mass to play with, the island offers a patchwork of working farmland and wild forest, a contoured landscape of hills and lakes, punctuated by a handful of small but serviceable towns. There is one main road linking the ferry drop off and the towns, with a few side diversions of note. So, after tucking into a pulled pork sandwich at the biggest town, Eastsound, the car took me up and up on a detour to the island’s highest point.

Mount Constitution sounds like somewhere that belongs in the United States, like Capitol Hill and Liberty City and Freedom Fries and Gun-toting Redneck Hill. The name feels solid and a little serious, denoting something which is of grand importance albeit a little dour in the detail. I don’t think any major pieces of legislature would have been signed up here, but I did spot a few written etchings professing Randy’s love for Mary-Jane.

It turns out the peak was in fact named after the USS Constitution which I am assuming plied the waters far down below in the distant past. The waters today are becalmed, a smooth sapphire sheet dotted with emerald islands, lapping at the shores of the mainland, where mammoth mountains rise to form snowy domes suspended in the sky. I can see Canada. I can see the entire Cascade Range sweeping down Washington and even into Oregon. I can see the Olympic Peninsula and its equally lofty heights, perhaps hiding Japan over its lumpy bulk. Above, the sky is as blue as blue sky strategic thinking gets, and far more credible.

Y_const

And so, from such gargantuan immensity I end up in a little yurt on the shores of Doe Bay, on the eastern side of the island. I may well be staying in some place that has the word ‘retreat’ in its name. One or two of the staff have longish hair, and I think they are serving vegetarian food in the cafe. There may be a spiritual yoga class tomorrow morning. But there is no pressure to non-conform. Simply do as you will. Meander the land and come across other yurts or cabins or swags set amongst the trees and cosy glades. Take a book and sit on a rundown bench under a fragrant pine branch, the sound of gently lapping water occasionally pierced by seals or other marine life or a guitar being strummed on some other bench over the bay. Potter about in such a complete carefree daze that you lock yourself out of your yurt and have to call out someone to help you after hours who looks very pregnant and was probably in the middle of eating their dinner but is still absolutely delighted to be of assistance.

Y_doe

Wake up on your birthday in the middle of a structure resembling a giant birthday cake, scattering opened envelopes on the radiant wood floor. Say good morning to the deer munching away on the green grass, shading your eyes from the morning sea glare. Hear the sound of soothing humming coming from the yoga shack. And revel in an absolutely delicious vegetarian breakfast burrito served with approachable charm and humour. The milestone of another year reached and, strangely, I feel ten years younger.


[1] There is always a switch which never seems to operate anything. (Meanwhile, across town, the lights at the ballpark flicker on and off as an unassuming tourist twiddles with knobs in a beige motel).

[2] Unfamiliar to your far too cultured brain? See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Only_Move_Twice

Links

Scorpio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QEsjd1WZuY

Cypress Creek…I mean…Bellingham, WA: http://www.bellingham.org/

The San Juans: http://www.visitsanjuans.com/

Doe Bay Resort and, yes, Retreat: http://doebay.com/

Specifically, pacifically, northwest: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/specific-pacific-northwest-blogfest.html

A to Z Driving Food & Drink Photography USA & Canada Walking

Xenophobe

If X is a difficult letter then why not take on a difficult subject to make it even more difficult? Perhaps it’s because I am some culturally deficient rosbif, a soap-dodging pom who has come to take your job and steal your social security and write about it with an air of superiority and pomposity befitting of someone who can eat stodgy food and believe it is better than anything ever created anywhere else in the world and then have the cheek to enforce this food upon you by taking over the corner shops up and down the land that were once yours and using them as a cover for illicit activities. Oh yes, I am your ultimate nightmare, your superlative Daily Mail concoction of hatred.

In truth this all sounds rather silly don’t you think, but time and again, in conversations, in discussion groups, in one-liners, I come across sentiments such as these. Not directed at me of course, apart from the gentle ‘banter’ of pommie-bashing which can become quite vitriolic with alcohol fuelled cricket frenzy; or that time I was in France on a school trip and a few skulking local youths decided to call a group of us ‘Bloody English’ in a growly spittle-filled accent that was too much of a parody to be overly intimidating. Bloody French cheese-eating surrender monkeys anyway!! No, these comments frequently involve stranger foreign types, queue-jumping, tax-dodging, funny-smelling immigrants from poorer places, who, it would seem, are always up to no good.

I assume many more learned and bothered-to-do-their-research people have written theories about why this might happen in civilised society, citing one or more of protectionism, fear, resistance to change, cultural imperialism, elitism, distrust, nationalism, competition for space or resources or infrastructure, pervading social norms and stereotypes. There is, to be fair, some foundation to the concerns people have about ‘others’. For instance, we can realistically assume that an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist is more likely to be darker skinned and have connections with the Middle East, and less likely to take the form of an old granny who lives next door and bakes apple pie. However, the problem is the giant leap of an assumption that, by very irrational logic, all darker skinned people from the Middle East are potential or actual terrorists. It is as ludicrous as, say, gay people being responsible for a spell of wet weather in Britain. [1]

X_gay rainSpeaking of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), it has been interesting to observe their rise in prominence at a distance. For here, as in several other countries, is a political party premised on xenophobia, and doing so rather successfully despite an obvious number of crackpots and – well, to put it nicely – policy gaps in far more important areas of concern to us all. Clearly there remain enough antiquated barons who still distrust the Germans in Britain, but where UKIP have profited most is in tapping into the fears and concerns of those disgruntled and disenfranchised and downtrodden, whose own struggle and lack of fulfilment can feel better when apportioned to something outside of their control.  And pesky foreigners have always made an easy scapegoat for our own failings.

Observing these developments from a sunny, warm, multicultural and coffee-blessed Australia, where people don’t think twice about paying ten quid for a sandwich, you would be quite right to assume there is an air of Antipodean smugness [2]. Because of geopolitical remoteness, there can be no Australian Independence Party in the same way, though I’m sure Western Australia has something of that ilk, campaigning on a ridiculous non-daylight saving platform and the right to dig up literally every single last rock in the state and keep the money all to themselves. However, despite its undoubted multiculturalism, xenophobia is alive and kicking down under, given a fresh lease of life by some of its most prominent politicians.

The big peril in Australia comes from the north, via Indonesia, which is treated like some Hicksville backwater despite being one of the most populous countries in the world [3]. Indonesians themselves are not so much in the firing line, just the innocent casualties caught in the middle of a war (yes, you read that right, war) on people smugglers [4]. You see, people smugglers are responsible for bringing foreigners across from Indonesia on boats. Foreigners who are mostly fleeing proper war or famine or persecution, or just seeking to be reunited with their children [5]. They are desperate and willing to risk their lives on a perilous sea journey and I challenge you to say you would not do the same if the alternative was inevitable destitution and destruction.

Of course, we don’t want them to drown at sea, so the latest solution is to do everything we can to stop them from coming [6]. The fact that this addresses some of the dubious concerns that our cities and towns are being ‘swamped’ by outsiders, who are taking our jobs and our houses and making the traffic to Kmart a nightmare because they are going to the nearby mosque has nothing to do with it. It would be cynical of me to think this is a neat political outcome that again taps into fears and struggles of people who are ‘doing it tough’, leveraging just an essence of xenophobia that definitely exists – and should be acknowledged to exist –  in Australia [7].

I wonder if there is something about island nations such as the UK and Australia that provoke a touch more insularity, a tad more protectionism. A churning sea provides that clear sense of separation from others and the sense of a wholly identifiable land mass to be protected. I guess I can only draw on my experiences living in these countries and would not really know if xenophobia is more or less rife in, say, mainland Europe or southeast Asia . I suspect it differs little. Perhaps it is natural for humans to be wary, to distrust, and to compete against the unknown and the alien. A genetically embedded manifestation of the survival of the fittest, which cannot be disentangled from a yearning for one-upmanship and conflict.

One would hope that the old adage of travel broadening the mind plays true. It can certainly help to dispel some of the myths and stereotypes that underpin elements of xenophobia. For instance, I have met friendly and funny Germans who totally get my sense of humour. I have been welcomed and embraced by French people, though the cheese-eating stereotype is clearly evidence-based [8]. I have been surprised that Australians can be the antithesis of their laid back Fosters advert image – hard-working, anxious, equally whingey and obsessed about the weather as some other nationality out there. I have met and talked to clever and articulate immigrants from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka who would be an asset to any country who lets them in. And I have discovered that Asian food is far from anything to be feared.

The risk is that travel can also potentially reinforce some of the distorted views of others that we may hold. A smelly toilet in France can make us question the hygiene of the entire nation. Gloating cricket winners can annoy us so much as to make us think that Australians are a cocky, self-satisfied bunch. Hong Kong citizens adorned with face masks can lead to the assumption that everyone has bird flu. Canadians being genuinely pleasant and good-humoured can make us think that all Canadians are indeed the finest people on the planet. This may be mostly true, but I am sure there are at least a few bad eggs somewhere in the depths of Manitoba [9].

I suppose the essence of all of this is that we should at least try to be a bit more open-minded about people and the places they come from. A good start would be to consider the positives, revel in the differences and what this can bring to our lives and those of seven billion others. For instance, what about all the good things that EU membership brings to the UK, what about all the hard work that has been done by Polish immigrants and the economic contribution made? [10] What about the unknown potential of thousands of well-educated people arriving from Sri Lanka, regardless of whether they do this by sea? What about the wonderful world of cheese, of coffee, of coconut cream curry that have emanated from elsewhere and enriched our lives?

 ———————————————

I wanted to finish this meandering, slightly ranting and hopelessly idealistic piece with an anecdote from Spain. This is something of a travel blog after all, so I can tell you that I have had a few visits to Spain, mostly in the Costa Blanca region, and I will shove in a photo just to have a photo in this blog which often contains a photo or two.

X_spain

I haven’t made up my mind if I truly like this area or not, given the confused conglomeration of coastal developments, warm seas and dusty mountains. There are pockets of untainted rural beauty and then there are sprawling anglicised new towns, offering roast beef and paella at the same turn.

Perhaps it was around the early part of the century that represented the boom time for the migration of older people from Britain to these far warmer shores. Recessions and downturns, housing busts and credit crises have since impacted the influx, and it is easy in hindsight to see that the country overreached itself on a false bubble of property development. Still, amongst the unfinished lots and closed down Chinese takeaways, many ex-pats linger on, some enthusiastically embracing something of the Spanish way of life, others steadfastly ignoring it and hoping it will go away.

I remember speaking to one such new immigrant a few years back, who was quick to express disdain for Britain; perhaps a natural reaction to justify in one’s own head the move overseas. I had heard it before but the crux of the argument was that Britain had been overrun by foreigners, who were taking over and were jumping the queue for handouts. Britain, it was claimed, had gone to pot. Spain was now the place to be.

Of course, there is delicious irony in these words, uttered in the midst of a series of new developments in Spain that had been colonised by, well, immigrants. Where shops sold proper English Cheddar and the Fish ‘n’ Chips were better than at home. Where tobacco was cheaper and prescriptions too, so you could happily smoke away and get some government-subsidised anti-coagulants to keep things moving. A place where there were also other enclaves for Germans and Dutch and – recently with their smartly invested oil wealth – Norwegians.  A spot where you could concur with the thoughts of the Daily Mail as you labour over a fried breakfast: surely a top notch recipe for sustaining the inevitable cycle that is xenophobia.


[1] Yes, indeed, in Britain where rain is not uncommon. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-25793358 and then enjoy the numerous piss-takes such as https://twitter.com/UkipWeather

[2] A smugness massively inflated by cricket results of late.

[3] And thus, you would think, a country to form positive relations with…to make the most of economic opportunities as Indonesia develops and for future security of the underpopulated resource-rich island to its south.

[4] I doubt if this one will make the A-Level history syllabus.

[5] Processing shows that 90% are genuine refugees. Some of the wars they are fleeing (unlike the war on people smugglers) are genuine serious things that Australian troops are involved in (e.g. Afghanistan).

[6] Preventing drowning at sea is of course a genuinely valid objective and mired in policy nightmares. For my part, I say build a bridge and deal with it like other countries have to! Hell, you could even employ immigrants in the construction.

[7] Ironically, some of which comes from second or third generation migrants!

[8] And instead of resisting this trait when in France, just embrace it and gorge on Camembert, Munster, Roquefort, Reblochon, Comte, Brie, Pont l’Eveque, Beaufort, Tomme de Savoie, Morbier, Chevre, Raclette, Boursin, Port Salut and Cantal after dinner.

A to Z Australia Europe Great Britain Society & Culture

Waterfalls

It was always going to be hard for me to steer clear of a road named The Waterfall Way. Linking the tablelands of Australia’s New England to the mid north coast of New South Wales,the twist and turns down to the ocean are regularly punctuated with a chocolate box selection of falls. The stops from west to east are a story in climate and geography. Commencing in a parched landscape of wild gorges and dry bushland, thin strips of silver white water spill off cliff edges and into unseen creeks. High plateaus offer wild flowers and cool forests through which rivers gather speed and depth to forge their way down steps into deep gullies. Moisture picks up closer to the coast, where rainforests form to offer crystal cascades and lush fern pools, and the water speeds into the coastal plain before mellowing broadly to the sea.

With such excess there is a danger of waterfall fatigue: parking up, strolling to a lookout, taking a picture and hopping back in the car for a short journey to the next stop. In fact, the waterfalls continue north in pockets of rainforest tucked amongst ancient volcanic plateaus all the way up into Queensland. In the wonderful natural surroundings of Springbrook National Park it is as if there is one final grand culmination before water sweeps over the Great Dividing Range and into the horror of a Gold Coast horizon. Plunging pristine water toppling over the edge before being becalmed in a complex of gaudy cashed up retirement waterways.

Tucked away before the Gold Coast looms, in the quieter western side of the park, another waterfall tantalises the traveller who crosses the border by the back way. Nestled within a beautiful green valley is the once more imaginatively named Natural Arch, replete with shady pool and shimmering cascade plunging through a tunnel of rock. It’s midway round a processional loop walk through the rainforest, where sun rays filter hazily through the tree ferns and parrots chirp away in the canopy. On a humid summer morning, the cool shade of the forest and continuous thrash of crystal water is the perfect gin ‘n tonic.

—————————–

What is it about waterfalls that are of such appeal that we seek to recreate them in garden features the world over? On balance they are usually very pretty, from elegant slivers to bubbling tiers and tormented torrents of foaming fury. They are, as much as anything, a break from the ordinary…where a placid river or lake suddenly comes to an abrupt halt and decides to throw itself over a cliff. There is an unparalleled feeling of freshness and purity and, often, invigoration from getting close to gallons and gallons of tumbling water. It can make you feel alive. It can make you want to pee.

The power of waterfalls is compelling and is why they are often best viewed after rain, or sustained snowmelt. Yosemite in May is very different to Yosemite in October. Postcards of massive gushing falls in northern Australia can tell a lie for the trickle that often dwindles in the dry season. In the UK, the weather is usually more reliably conducive to year round falls, with new ones springing up across high streets during supposedly exceptional but all too regular winter storms.

W_wales2013 was one of the better British summers and I felt slightly aggrieved to catch only the tail end of it. Nonetheless it was a balmy 20 degrees or so when I found myself in South Wales towards the end of August, on a different kind of waterfall way. Situated in the Brecon Beacons National Park, this literal tour de force was completed on foot along the Four Waterfalls Walk. For pronunciation lovers out there I can make your day by telling you that this commenced near Ystradfellte and took in a wonderful meander to view (brace yourselves) Sgwd Clwn-gwyn, Sgwd Isaf Clwn-gwyn, Sgwd y Pannwr [1] and Sgwd yr Eira [2].

It sounds like a trite cliché (hey, who doesn’t love a trite cliché), but each fall (or, I assume, sgwd) had its own style and character. Each one builds to the next and the final stop on the itinerary offers the ultimate white water thrill for not especially adrenaline seeking junkies. For, at the curtain falls of Sgwd y Eira, it is quite possible to walk behind the voluminous mass of water plummeting down, and – for some – to take your dog reluctantly along for the ride too. Inevitably there is plenty of spray and you will get wet, but – well – you are in Wales and you will get wet in Wales sooner rather than later. Why not make it here and take the chance to really appreciate the forcefulness of nature. Why not take your ear drums to the brink, pleading for mercy from the explosive, monumental thrash of the gigalitres of water that descend before your eyes? Amazing.

—————————–

Like Wales, Oregon is pretty familiar with rain, confronted as it is with a moist pacific airstream and climatic battle between deserts and mountains. One early October day in Portland is restricted to bookstore meanderings and coffee shop escapes, ducking out between downpours to make it to the next warming hipster refuge. Traversing wet sidewalks through a tangle of black umbrellas and beige raincoats, the city seems enveloped in the cinematic monochrome of a film noir. There is oppressiveness to the rain, something which is accepted and wholeheartedly embraced by its citizens but causes frustration to time-limited visitors like me. There are only so many lattes to sup and bookshelves to roam.

The next day shows marginal improvement – overcast but dry – and seems as good as it will get for an escape into the wilds. Passing the quite possibly interesting town of Boring, there are no views of Mount Hood to be had, rising Fuji-like out of the farmland and forests of the horizon as depicted so tantalisingly in the Lonely Planet picture. Brief glimpses are snatched beside Mirror Lake, with little reflection other than that internalised in relation to being potential early morning bear fodder. Further sneak peeks appear in the rain shadow of the mountain to the east and, here, the sun returns for a while to transform the colours of the fading autumnal forests.

With Mount Hood now somewhere behind, the road ends at the huge barrier of the Columbia River, carving a broad swathe through the Cascade Mountains and splitting Oregon and Washington States. The river has created a mammoth gorge lined with cliffs north and south. And so, with a large river system, significant rainfall, and high cliffs, there is a certainty of a quite spectacular run of waterfalls.

This particular waterfall way is undoubtedly a more developed road than that back in New South Wales, as dual lane sweeping curves follow the river in what is a dream to drive. Of the frequent cascades, it is Multnomah Falls that offers the most iconic sight. For once it seems a human element, an unnatural structure, has enhanced a natural spectacle. Splitting the precipitous double-decker descents of white water is a pedestrian arch bridge, where humans can run from bears and so effectively offer a sense of scale and perspective. Indeed, even the bears would look small opposed to the streaks of water tumbling from somewhere unfathomably high up in the sky.

W_Columbia

—————————–

Finishing a convenient circumnavigation of the globe here I am now back in Canberra. There are few falls here, other than watery concrete features around the angular constructs of the parliamentary triangle. But in a couple of days I will be going up to Sydney and, with time on my hands, I will make it scenic, detouring to Fitzroy Falls in the Southern Highlands. An old reliable favourite, fed by a reservoir and plunging off sandstone into a gum tree valley. A lyrebird may well be imitating the sounds of crashing water and a strong minty eucalyptus scent will pervade the senses. Again, it will be splendid. Because waterfalls are always splendid. But for now, I must come to a halt and stop this gushing about gurgling water and thrashing torrents, soaked in a spray of swirling liquid currents and dramatic downpours. Because now I really, really need to pee.


[1] For anyone with a customised 2014 calendar Christmas present…this one is the front cover!

A to Z Activities Australia Driving Great Britain Photography Places USA & Canada Walking

Viewpoints

We all have viewpoints. Mine tend to be moulded in a woolly leftish laissez-faire egalitarianism which is open to paying extra tax for everyone to be educated, receive healthcare and live in an environment less likely to be heading towards a fiery doom. But I would say that because I am comfortably suckling at the teats of first world capitalist privilege and not really confronted with all the hazards of war, poverty,  illness or being able to cope with a few extra immigrants contributing to our collective prosperity or the alarmist perils of gay people being able to marry. It’s not very 007, but live and let live I say.

Thankfully the world has millions of apolitical viewpoints that are generally unchanging and far more impressive. A physical vista; a snapshot of what lies in front of your eyes every time you look up, back or around the corner. And amongst these scenes are many structured and grandly formalised viewpoints: the tourist lookouts set up for our collective exploration and viewing pleasure. The mountain tops and observation decks, the roadside turn outs and waterfall balconies, the plateau points and tunnel views, the Mecca to the coach tour pilgrims.

Yes, humans seem to adore lookouts and, yes, I am entirely culpable of some kind of sycophantic, unconditional love towards them. On a map my eyes will be drawn to the star or sunny symbol denoting a high point with a view; on the road, a directional sign indicating an overlook will be dutifully, religiously followed; on a trail, the aim will often be the top. Sometimes they will disappoint, other times they will marvel, always they will provide a purposeful sense of exploration and appreciation of the landscape.

A gauge on my viewpoint love-in can be deduced from this blog. It started at the top of the Empire State Building, sporadically flailing around the globe to sublime points and hurricane ridges, taking in fairytale views and homely vistas, reaching snowy high peaks, glacier points, and key summits, pausing for elegant city views before marvelling at wild canyon overlooks. It seems a written piece dedicated to viewpoints is merely an extension of everything that has come before. Surely there can be no lookouts left to look at, no vistas left to visit?

It is perhaps no coincidence that the city in which I (kind of) live is no stranger to viewpoints. On one particular hill, people gather with all sorts of different perspectives and childishly bicker about their views in an effort to cement these into legislation [1]. Still, the good thing is you can escape this nonsense and climb onto the roof of Parliament House for a much better view, noting many other viewpoints rising up within the 360 degree panorama of Canberra.

Phil Liggett, the renowned and rambling voice of cycling, would best describe Canberra’s terrain as ‘lumpy’, akin to those long tortuous days through the Breton countryside. Sure, less verdant and lacking real quality cheese, but rarely a piece of sustained flat on which to take a breather. The geography offers a number of hills, ridges and ‘mountains’, with suburban streets clustered into undulating bowls and smaller hummocks. It’s a landscape of amphitheatres within one bigger colosseum, where numerous viewpoints are the upper circles looking down on a sedate and civilised performance.

I rather cherish these tops, particularly as they usually involve a varied and energetic walk through grasslands and Eucalypt woods, a smattering of kangaroos and darting blurs of birdlife accompanying the trip up. Each hill acts as a beacon calling, a bastion of nature and wildlife with an inevitable, reliably scenic viewpoint at its summit.

V_CBR views

—————————–

There are varying degrees of effort required for the ascent of Canberra’s hills and peaks. This brings us to a consideration of the effort-reward ratio sometimes involved in attaining a view. That is, will the view be worth the effort required to reach it? Sometimes this is blatantly in the positive, such as pulling over on the roadside and easily waddling to a nicely paved lookout over an expanse of wild forest and mountainous outcrops. On other occasions, the effort-reward ratio veers towards the negative that is a plodding, endless haul up a Scottish Munro in the cloying rain to a view of two whole metres of blanket misty white.

The effort input is – I would say – very high to extreme on the Tongariro Crossing on the north island of New Zealand. To start, there is an alarm call of 4:30am and pre-dawn gloom to navigate the initial gravelly meander along a long, narrowing valley. As the valley nears its end there is an inevitable sense of foreboding about the onward route; it is clear that there can be only one way to continue and, as Yazz & the Plastic Population screams in your head to make things even better, the only way is up. Up along the invitingly named Devil’s Staircase.

Steps and zigzags mark the way from here, but at least the emerging landscape offers the chance to use that little trick of taking a photo every ten paces, more for an intake of oxygen rather than genuine quest for photographic perfection. However, with heart pounding, head dizzying and legs in a brittle strain of tension, even that becomes a bit much to persevere with [2]. The top does come and there is an adrenaline boost of reward, quickly flattened like the astounding lifeless volcanic plateau of the South Crater on which you stand. For this is but a halfway point and over this one ridge another higher one rises.

While the first climb was hard going, at least it was well-graded and decently constructed with switchbacks and steps. On the second, the loose scree and large boulders of an ever narrowing and ever steepening arête have you wishing for a fat hobbit to carry you on his back. But as energetic youth bound their way up and past you without any offers of assistance, there is motivation to continue at your own pace. Effort inputs are maximised for reward outputs that are logarithmic in scale.

The viewpoint from the top of Red Crater is staggering in many ways. Staggering in directions and distance you can see; staggering in the otherworldly landscape of smooth craters and conical peaks and blasted red mountainsides and steaming green pools; staggering in the knowledge that the earth from underneath you could blow up as you bite into a deliciously fulfilling ham sandwich; and staggering because you made it. Here, the big effort makes for exponentially greater rewards.

V_tongariro

—————————–

Effort to reach a viewpoint comes in many forms and a final case in point can be illustrated via an afternoon in the Arkaroola Wilderness of South Australia. Indeed, this particular afternoon on a gloriously sunny late autumn day involved sitting down for two hours to reach a pinnacle called Sillers Lookout. Sitting down is surely the easiest thing in the world, but becomes infinitely more difficult when seated sideways in the semi-open back of a 4×4 that is traversing a corrugated rock-scape at precipitous gradients.

Sitting at the back, there is a different physical effort here which fluctuates with an uphill or downhill stretch of ‘road’. Uphill and it is a case of bracing the body from being squashed by the collective ample weight of other passengers and preventing it from falling out of the back; downhill and the effort is on not squashing your fellow passengers too much and falling forward to the front. Beyond these physical endeavours there is the effort to – at various points – make conversation with grey nomads, avoid swallowing flies, concentrate on not being sick, and pretending to be excited that the afternoon tea involves that underwhelming favourite: Lamingtons.

V_arkAll I can say is that it is a good job afternoon tea occurs at the ultimate viewpoint of this ridge top tour. In the afternoon, with the sun lowering it is a quite incredible vista of absolute primitive and earthen wilderness. No doubt shaped by that perennial favourite of ancient inland seabed activity, the scene is a very Australian red, with a very Australian sense of harshness and ferocity, which is somehow very, very beautiful. And despite the different perspectives and world views of the people here to see it this afternoon, it is a viewpoint we can all agree is special…a reward that comes with all good viewpoints.


[1] Meanwhile, journalists lazily refer to ‘Canberra’ as imposing these views on the rest of the country: ‘Canberra slugs unfair tax on mining billionaires’, ‘Canberra scraps science funding’, ‘Canberra hits the hip pocket of working families’. Bloody Canberra, is it any wonder there are so many negative connotations from people who have never been here?

[2] Meanwhile, lithe and energetic teens annoyingly bound their way past and, to add to the enjoyment, you are rudely reminded of ageing.

Links

Bumps in the ACT: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mountains_in_the_Australian_Capital_Territory

Canberra Nature Park: http://www.tams.act.gov.au/parks-recreation/parks_and_reserves/canberra_nature_park

Tongariro Alpine Crossing: http://www.tongarirocrossing.org.nz/

Tongariro National Park: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/national-parks/tongariro/

Carry me Sam: http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Mount_Doom

Hold on to your hats: http://www.arkaroola.com.au/ridgetop.php

Some more top views: http://travel.nationalgeographic.com.au/travel/top-10/vistas/#page=1

A to Z Activities Australia Photography Places Walking

Umbrella

We need to talk about the weather. It’s part of my DNA: within one of my chromosomes that have also determined a reticence to introduce myself to strangers and a fondness for orderly queues linger a few cells dedicated to obsessing about the weather. I think they may be GB cells. They surfaced when I was relatively young and manifested themselves in an early career goal to be a weatherman. A rough outline of the southwest of England was etched on a sheet of A4 and stuck on the inside of my cupboard door. Other bits of paper were cut up and made into various symbols for sun, cloud, thunder, snow and rain, to be stuck on the map with blu-tac. The rain symbols tended to get worn out the quickest.

The association with rain makes it natural for me to see the umbrella as a very British thing, whether jauntily swinging along with pinstripes and bowler hats, colourfully huddled together overlooking a covered up centre court, or propelling erstwhile nannies across the streets of London to shove spoonfuls of sugar down children’s throats. However a quick bit of research (i.e. scanning Wikipedia and not really reading much of it) suggests the brolly goes back to ancient empires but – get this – it was used to shade Egyptian cats or something from the fiery orb of the angry celestial sun god (like I say, I didn’t really read much of it). Shade from the sun? In the UK? Even Mary Poppins made more purposeful use of an umbrella than that!

I have also vaguely potentially read somewhere that the Eskimos have fifty different words for snow; in the UK a similar linguistic phenomenon exists for wet stuff from the sky. So on any one day across the British Isles it could be raining, drizzling, mizzling, spitting, chucking it down, pouring, precipitating, suffering deluges, downpours, cloudbursts and sheets of rain, and, fantastically, raining cats and dogs. Which is all a bit Shih Tzu. Meanwhile in France it just pleuts and pleuts.

The crazy thing with all of this watery bombardment is that the umbrella is frequently useless, turned inside out by the howling gales kindly delivered by Atlantic storms. There is no more iconic sight than a mangled umbrella dumped despairingly into a bin on a railway station platform. Because you have been there yourself, you can easily picture the struggle that befell its former owner and the sodden mess in which he or she arrived at work, uncomfortably damp for the rest of the day. Hence the alternative or additional and very fashionable cagoule…the tasteful pack-a-mac, which I am pleased to discover is of British origin [1].

Something else distinctly British is a summer trip to the seaside for a picnic in the car. Outside the sea and sky are leaden and the mid teens temperature is quelled by a cooling hurricane and squalls of rain. Inside, cheese and cucumber sandwiches are squashed and soggy while the windows are steaming up. Clothes are sticking to bodies and bodies are sticking to other bodies wedged in like slightly more animated sardines. All the time pack-a-macs are at the ready for when the rain becomes slightly less heavy and a scramble along the promenade to the dilapidated pier can be braved.

The good thing from familiarity is that Britain is generally prepared for rain and carries on carrying on regardless. There are always things to do for ‘rainy days’ such as popping out for tea and cake, or sheltering in the dark protective womb of a U_monkeysmedieval tavern, warmed by warm ale. There are amusements and fudge making demonstrations and bric-a-brac sales in the village hall, with more tea and cake thrown in. There are theme parks and zoos, where even the monkeys have the good sense to seek shelter while humans negotiate driving rain and wade through puddles to come and look at them [2].

By contrast of course Australia has this sunny image of Lara Bingle on a Whitsunday Beach sounding dumb and asking you where the bloody hell you are [3]. It would surprise some people that it does actually rain in Australia, a fact not usually depicted in adverts for that local beer that everyone drinks…what is it…Fosters or something. Neither, unfortunately, does a test match get washed out. Instead, sun-baked pitches form chasms that swallow English batsmen whole, and the only rain is that of plaudits lauded by the partisan commentary towards Mitchell bloody Johnson.

Still, there is a tendency to assume that when it comes to the weather, she’ll be right. Plans can be made for weeks in advance with the assumption that all is going to be dry and sunny. Wet weather contingency plans rarely feature and, then, if it does rain or even just a few grey clouds appear, whole events are cancelled and people shelter in their suburban homes drinking Fosters and watching Lara Bingle be Lara Bingle. I just think, when it comes to a little bit of rain, Australians are…well how to put this delicately…a bit soft, like Mitchell bloody Johnson before he had that fearsome moustache and bowled a few lucky long hops that got wickets.

I can of course include myself in this catch all generalisation of Australians. I too have become accustomed to assuming that days will be dry, which makes it even more frustrating when rain appears. Summer weekends down the coast can be grey and cool and interspersed with rain, which at least makes for a nice car picnic. Sydney can live for weeks with easterlies blowing of the ocean and dumping moisture in endless waves. And in Darwin, well, in Darwin they have a whole season dedicated to rain: the wet…

My one and only visit to Darwin came in February. February: the peak of a hot Aussie summer, when even locals are getting bored of barbecue prawns and one day cricket. But while most of the country basks in a self-satisfied glow, up in the north it is the time when most people in Darwin, if they weren’t already, go mad. The ‘wet’ is a typically Australian to-the-point description of the summer weather in the tropics, a few months shrouded in monsoonal lows and the occasional cyclone. It delivers warm, humid rain, a climate for steamed up glasses and camera lenses and consistent dampness that never goes away. It seems to me, quite horrid.

Holed up in a hotel room it appears as though the rain never eases, never stops for the briefest of interludes. There is no waiting for it to pass and so you have to embrace the wet, taking a tokenistic umbrella which will make very little difference to how damp you actually become. Leaving the sanctum of air-conditioning the humidity is instantly sapping, the pavements and roads and gutters a sheen of water, a danger zone for human aquaplaning and thong blow outs and hidden crocs. But you still push on for an ice cream regardless.

Out of Darwin the landscape is transformed by the season and it seems ninety nine percent of the haphazard interior road network is under water. In Litchfield National Park a bitumen road somehow survives above fields of sodden brown, transporting you to waterfalls that roar like a space shuttle during lift off. Hiking requires some wading – the water is warm and only mildly tumultuous where winter paths usually meander. Goodness only knows what sort of things are in there with you, but there is enough ground above water to stop and observe and inch your way closer to pools that would be idyllic for swimming if there wasn’t ten billion gigalitres of water plummeting off a cliff and directly into them.

Elsewhere, Kakadu National Park is one of the most well-known and iconic preserves in Australia, encapsulating a blend of tropical jungle, vast wetlands and rugged rocky outcrops daubed with ancient art. Here again much is under water and many roads are closed off until at least June. A few lesser sights and vistas remain accessible and it even seems to stay dry for a bit too. Walking among the landscape feels a little less soggy and it is easier to appreciate the wonderful composition of vivid green long grasses, contorted trees, and rocky outcrops. Even the waterholes are calmer and more inviting, save for the signs that say something along the lines of ‘whilst we have done our best to clear this area of crocodiles there can be no guarantee that a six metre monster called George has not moved into the area and is looking forward to tasting foolish tourist flesh.’

U_NT

Despite what turns out here to be a drier interlude it remains handy to keep an umbrella at hand. The rain is sure to return [4]. Not only will the umbrella help with this imminent rainfall but, in conjunction with a fetching cagoule, it can maintain a clear British connection and sense of identity in an alien, slightly hostile environment. Plus should George the six metre croc appear, the cagoule can be thrown over his thrashing jaws and his eyes can be poked with the umbrella’s pointy end. And then of course, even if that fails (which I doubt), there is chance of a Mary Poppins style escape over the floods and far away to a world of diabetic, tooth-decayed children. Back, of course, to the umbrella’s natural home: Great Britain.


[1] Again, according to Wikipedia…and who am I to argue with an important ministerial source of information. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cagoule

[2] This could be where the theory of evolution goes awry.

[3] Perhaps more evidence of evolution gone awry.

[4] Unless it happens to be one random day in the middle of the year when the big tap is turned off and the ‘dry’ commences…which is all a bit weird

Links

Another great day to be beside the seaside: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3X4chzObTFY

Way to get around: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BHoDW9f7vY

NT tourism: http://www.travelnt.com/

Mad as cut snakes: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/national/croctastic-nt-news-devotes-front-page-to-five-crocodile-stories-on-one-day/story-fndo48ca-1226509077565

A to Z Australia Great Britain Walking

Trek

It is pleasing to know that there is a minibus to transport you around on a Trek America tour. I guess this means Trek America is a bit of a misnomer, given that technically it does not involve complete self propulsion across the continental United States. Despite this, there is still plenty of opportunity for much walking, in between long country drives and Twinkie rest stops.  For me I shall always be thankful, because Trek America trips opened up the vast spectacle of the Western US, and fed early cravings of reasonably civilised first world exploration.

The trips were like all the best parts of an 18-35 holiday – a naive adventure meeting youthful peers from across the globe – without the inflatable doll tequila sessions of a lobster fleshed Magaluf pool. Entertainment was the great outdoors and sharing this with a group of like minds. Yeah you could have beers, yeah there could be frolics, and yeah you could hit the bright lights of, say, downtown Jackson, Wyoming. But the next day, it would be onwards and out there, in the van playing cards, falling asleep, listening to music and reaching another momentous national park for another great trek.

The tours were usually called something like Western Wondrousness Walkabout or Awesome Toursome Adventure, commencing in some B grade airport motel and only getting better from there. The first day would be the time to break ice, to suss out the driver, to acclimatise to a diet of ham salad lunches, to catch up on jetlagged sleep. And then, at some point, the first walk out into the wilds would take place and, outside of the confines of the van, conversation would sparkle and you would all be best mates by the end. Just in time for the campfire cook up, which could be a chilled or fraught occasion depending on your duty. There was always a vegetarian and a fussy eater who couldn’t stand any flavour whatsoever. Toast was always a good backup.

But all was forgotten the next day when out on the road and amongst the mountains and the forests, the canyons and the falls. There would be more rest stops and scenic lookouts, ham salad sandwiches and mix tapes [1]. There would be geysers and moose and mega slick coaches housing mega large Americans touring their super-sized country. Just occasionally, like ships that pass in the night, another Trek America van would criss-cross yours, containing an identical but just slightly different set of characters: a cliquey English couple, a couple of rosy-faced Germans, a leggy tanned female who was the token hottie in the group, one solo Japanese traveller with a big camera, and perhaps one or two people like me, whatever that means. They were the same, but clearly not having as much fun as us. Because nobody could be having as much fun as us.

T_platptThat’s because we were out there, in the great outdoors, walking away, trekking at least for a little while, doing what it says on the tin. We were plunging down into the Grand Canyon, zigzagging alongside rocky red cliffs, passing mules and fools in flip flops and vests. We were stretching out along the trail, in small clumps of two or three. Some were looking to set world records; others were looking like they might get lost. We were incrementally arriving at Plateau Point, to eat our premade ham salad sandwich and overlook the mighty Colorado River. We were in awe of the sound, from still a couple of thousand metres below, raging up the slots and chasms, making you feel as though you were riding the water yourself, with a ham salad sandwich in place of a paddle.

We were looking back up at the rim of the canyon and suddenly not having as much fun. Thousands of metres of switchbacks and torment, up and up to the baking hot sky. We would need more than a ham salad sandwich to have the energy for that, but most people brought Twinkies or wiggly jelly worms or peanut butter cookies or perhaps even an apple, but that was less likely. And we all made it, in dribs and drabs, for a sense of achievement that exacerbates contentment over a sunset and beer.

And all would not be forgotten the next day, because you would remember such experiences for a long, long time. Even when you had walked other walks and trekked other treks and dragged out the farewells with extra nights and extra food and extraordinary ludicrousness in Las Vegas. The landscape would linger, the moments would magnify, the experience would play over and over again on the plane home, and you could hear that rushing river rising up in rage once more…

…You hear it again a few years later and you are back in the US. It’s cool and grey and winter is very much just around the corner. Soon, Yellowstone will enter hibernation and be encased in a deep freeze. Steam from geysers sprout up along the valley, a natural sauna in contrast to this chill, windswept ridge. The sound of water is somewhere through the dark pine forests below, carving some other chasm in this country of monumental valleys.

This time you are with another bunch of buddies getting to know one another in tandem with the landscape. The walk down and through the forest passes quickly with chatter, a level of hubbub which will safely keep the bears at bay. For once there are no ham salad sandwiches for the bears to intercept. The day is nearing its end and the sound of water disappears for a little in the stillness of the woods. Suddenly it emerges again as quickly as the forest parts, and the sight of Yellowstone Falls plunging into a gorge of yellowish rocks [2] caps off another memorable and pleasingly circular trek.

T_yellowstone

Campfire nights pass with fussy eating and cold beers. Days blend into a haze of hours on the road, ham salad sandwiches, stops in random towns, turn outs for vistas and walks on rocky trails to stretch the legs. Random memories pertaining to potatoes are retained about the state of Idaho, and there is a stop for Dairy Queen. Finally, the weather is warming up and winter is still a long way from touching the barren, desert lands of Nevada. The sound of icy water would be welcome again, to splash over your face and arms and legs, to wash out the dirt from another sublime walk.

Water sounds and sublime walks are a dominant feature of Yosemite National Park, now in California and nearing the San Francisco end of this particular journey of Western Wondrousness. However, it is October and the gushing falls of June are mostly reduced to a trickle, as if a shower where the tap has not been turned off tightly enough. Nonetheless, we are all again experiencing the most fun ever, having enjoyed a couple of weeks together that now seem the natural way of life. Wake up, make breakfast, pack up, hit the road, stop for a sandwich, make camp, go for a walk. Prepare dinner, eat dinner, have a beer, sleep in a tent and pray that no bears get a whiff of the toothpaste in your mouth.

T_yosemite_smallIn Yosemite there is a break to the routine of sorts, and a day to go off and do whatever the hell we like. Such is the bond instead of going our separate ways many stick together and embark on a trip to Glacier Point and back down to the valley. The going up part is the easiest, transported by shuttle bus and delivered to a spot for the most colossal views of the Sierra Nevada. Looking toy-like thousands of metres below is Yosemite Valley. With binoculars you may be able to spot the bear entering your tent to steal a picnic basket. But you would need very strong binoculars. I just have an old camera with little to no zoom and a lack of technical capability that can do the scene justice.

It is, then, a long way down and every single metre of it is covered on foot. At first things are easy going, following the ridge with breathtaking views out to the east. Half Dome is clear and most suitably named. The landscape is of such grand magnificence that you feel as though it is almost too close, assaulting your senses and about to topple over onto your body. As you descend, the surroundings become more intimate, and trickles of leftover waterfalls scatter into shallow pools and chasms. Such shady, cool spots are more benign and perfect for a ham salad sandwich.

Steps, steps and more steps. Some well maintained like a gentle stairway to the Gallery of Soft Fluffy Cushions, others a rocky rubble leading to the School of Armageddon. Bone-jarring, shin-splitting, ankle-crunching steps. There are thousands of them and towards the end they are incredibly annoying. You can sense this in the stringing out of the group and the reduction in general chatter. Now the focus is on the job at hand: getting this over with and being able to put your feet up with a cold beer in camp.

Finally, when you do get back to camp and put your feet up, you notice legs caked in dust, in stark contrast to the glowing white clean flesh below the sock line. Like a spray on tan that has gone horribly wrong. These brown and white legs ache but the beer is sweet. And you are very happy and perhaps this is because you know this moment on this day will stick with you for a long time. As for all those steps, as for that lengthy walk…well, you can’t complain. It isn’t called Trek America for nothing.


[1] In fact, this was the brief era of the minidisc, which seemed to be enduringly popular in the vans of western US tour groups

[2] From whence came the name Yellowstone

Links

Drive round and walk a bit: http://www.trekamerica.com/

Grand Canyon National Park: http://www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm

Yellowstone National Park: http://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm

Beware bears: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDg7PaSEq2E

Yosemite National Park: http://www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm

Some of the best from the west: http://www.anseladams.com/

A to Z Activities Driving USA & Canada Walking