XINJIANG 1984: BOOTLEG FOKKERS AND KUBLAI KHAN by JOHN BORTHWICK

August 1984. Every morning for four days we boarded a plane, each one smaller and older than the last: Sydney to Hong Kong to Beijing to Urumqi and finally Kashgar. Thirteen thousand five hundred kilometres later we landed in China’s far and wild west, Xinjiang Province.

“It’s like Genghis Khan come to Chinatown,” says Patricia, a rugged skydiver and schoolteacher from Adelaide, summing-up Kashgar on first sight. The central market is a rip-roaring son et lumiere of braying donkeys, boisterous kids, honking trucks and a million watermelons for sale. Then add kebab sellers, camels, carpets, ancient hutong alleys, the looping scrawls of Arabic text, fading Cyrillic signs, high cheekbones, men in skull caps and women in purdah. The faces are Turkic, Tartar, Mongol and Han, but ironically it is us, a rare gaggle of Western tourists, who turn out to be the “exotics” here. Children press in, peering wide-eyed at our hairy arms, blue eyes and Disney-colored trekking gear.

Our final flight from Urumqi to Kashgar was aboard a vintage Russian Ilyushin operated by the Civil Aviation Authority of China, ominously known as CAAC. I looked down to watch the endless corrugated ridges and parched lakes of the Taklamakan Desert drift far below, with an occasional ruler-straight road bisecting it all from horizon to horizon. Where the Pamir Mountains rise in the south I see passes that were the old Silk Road trading routes to Afghanistan, Persia and beyond.

Our Ilyushin rattles and bounces to a halt at Kashgar, the legendary oasis where those Silk Road routes began. We — seven of us, mostly Australian — are here to do two weeks trekking under the auspices of the Chinese Mountaineering Authority. We meet the CMA team. Zhuang, the interpreter is a nervous, moon-faced young Han originally from the east coast. Asila, the cook has a Turkic face straight out of Istanbul or Erzurum. And then there’s a lantern-jawed “liaison officer” from Beijing, Mr Lee, a dour flatlander who soon demonstrates little interest in mountains, exertion or “minorities” (as the central government patronisingly calls their ethnic nations). Meanwhile, “we” are the usual mottle of trekker types: Pat the schoolteacher, Judy a Melbourne pharmacist, Michael a dapper Kenyan lawyer (and dead ringer for British actor Rex Harrison) and a family of three from suburban Sydney, plus me as escort and general dogsbody.

Xinjiang (“new frontier”) is a huge province of over 1.6 million square kilometres whose official tag, Uyghur Autonomous Region is an exercise in irony — “autonomy” for anyone not being Beijing’s strong suit.In Kashgar a grandiose statue of Mao Tse Tung poses rampant but ignored by the town’s passing ethnic Uyghur, Kirghiz and Kazakh residents. In the streets here’s a scattering of blue Mao suits and khaki PLA uniforms but as far as the locals seem concerned out here in East Turkestan, 4000 kilometres from the capital, the Great Helmsman can probably, well, go row a boat.

All day we bounce south in a bus, climbing onto the Pamir Plateau via the Karakoram Highway. It’s a military-capable road but in places is no more than on-loan from the crumbling banks of the Gez River. Blinding snow peaks and heart-stopping cliffs overshadow it. One tremor and they’d close on the road like a book slammed shut. We unload our gear at a yurt camp at 3500 metres beside the beautiful Lake Karakul. The snow-capped massifs of Mounts Kongur and Muztagata float, mirrored in its waters. Meanwhile, the CMA team sets about hiring seven pack camels — the shaggy, two-humped Bactrian kind — and a team of Kirghiz handlers.

After acclimatizing for a day we start our first trek, traversing a set of stony ridges that rise towards 7719-metre Mt Kongur. A few hours, however, we’re forced to halt at a river so swollen by mid-summer glacial melt-water that the camels cannot cross. The handlers tell us that only at dawn, before the daytime 40°C temperature melts the higher snows will there be a chance to cross. But if we do, we might not be able to return for a week. Over lunch we parley and decide to reroute tomorrow from Mt Kongur to nearby Mt Muztagata, “Ice Mountain Father”.

The following afternoon we linger with the villagers in a dusty settlement called Supas, only to discover that our camel team and Me Lee have advanced far out of sight. A weary, catch-up trudge along a desert valley follows as we try to locate the camp. Darkness falls and we are still wading through creeks, calling in the bloody wilderness for Lee to lead us from it. Tough. In camp he is already sacked-out, snoring in his tent. Only Asila’s excellent dinner of mutton, capsicum and noodles, plus soup (always served last) saves the sullen day. I fall asleep, drafting indignant exposés of the CMA to Chairman Deng Xiaoping.

Next day we wind our way out of Karakul Lake valley and onto Muztagata’s lower slopes until at 4200 metres we pitch our dome tents on a grassy high pasture. There’s a roaring torrent nearby and in the dusk we watch a dozen plump yellow marmots come out to gambol along the river bank. Come morning we set out for the Muztagata base camp at 4700 metres from where an Italian climbing expedition is wending its ant-like way up the slopes far above us, en route towards the 7546-metre summit.

We take a lower, less ambitious trail, scrambling across a scree of unstable boulders. Suddenly Mr Lee announces that he will go no further.”We’ve paid the CMA a small fortune for you to guide us,” I protest. Zhuang translates briefly but replies, “Mr Lee says his contract only requires him to go to 4700 metres and he has already exceeded this height.” Lee slopes off down the mountain, back to camp where for the rest of the day he diligently maintains the party line, horizontal on a stretcher.

We continue across the boulders and scree, and soon reach Jambluck Glacier, the largest in China, a spectacular ice-fall that tumbles out of a deep fissure in Muztagata’s flank. We make our way through it amid a sea of frozen waves, shark fins, mutant pyramids and scissor peaks that are endlessly sculpted by the sun and wind. We’re at one of the most distant points on earth from either a city or the sea. The high altitude light, unscreened by pollution or humidity is almost blinding but from here we can see west to Russia and south to the Karakoram Range, as well as downwards to a thousand feet of shale and vertigo. Colin, a realtor from Sydney squats on his haunches, scanning a panorama that’s like the goalmouth of heaven. Every good trek has its absolute “Just shut up” moments. Colin recognises his one. With his camera left deep in his pack, he murmurs, “No point. You can’t photograph an experience.”

Days later, back at Lake Karakul, we’re invited to the wildest horse game on earth, Buz Kashi, the savage first draft today’s well-bred polo. The name like the game itself comes from Afghanistan: buz means goat and kashidan, to pull. Kirghiz horsemen from around the valley have gathered on a natural arena, a long plain bordered by hills and a river. Spectators with faces straight from the days of Tamurlane are perched on a “grandstand”, a rocky outcrop right above the action. Like the players, almost to a man they are dressed in black corduroy breeches and coats, high leather boots and karakul-trimmed hats. “Almost to a man” is a fair term because the only two women spectators are Uyghurs. A blokey event like this, replete with strange men and sneak-a-peek youths is no place for a shelteredKirghiz girl.

The “ball” is the body of a kid goat slaughtered for the occasion. In the good old bad days, in Afghanistan where the game originated, it was sometimes played with a live human as the ball, along with whipping chains for use against the rival team. Without ceremony or a signal the tournament begins. Sixty wild horsemen thunder across the plain in pursuit of a bloke who’s got the goat. He whips his horse but they catch him and crush around in a furious scrum of tugged reins, flailing whips and jerking mounts.

A spirited youth on a superb black colt bursts from the pack, the goat tucked beneath his leg and his whip singing. The mob streams after him, hell-bent for leather but he gallops straight for the goal line at the base of the rocky outcrop where we sit. Spectators flee as the hooves shower them with sand. A pandemonium of roaring men, still grappling for the dusty carcass, erupts around the rider. He has scored. He drops the goat and someone tosses him a red and blue-checkered scarf that he winds around his waist as a panache trophy.

In a frenetic display of horsemanship riders swing down out of the saddle at full gallop to scoop the dropped goat from the ground. Not once does a rider fall. The pursuit is always at full-tilt, the rules if any are unclear. As suddenly and as unceremoniously as it began, the game ends. The horsemen amble off into the distance, to their herds and yurts, and echoes of Kublai Khan. I note that by the Islamic Hijri calendar we are in the year 1404.

A truck arrives to ferry us back to Kashgar and its famous Sunday market. Over ten thousand people throng the town’s colonnaded bazaars and its huge maidan of vendor stalls. If aromas could riot, this would be it, with gusts of garlic and saffron, musk, dung and horseflesh, samovar chai and pirated perfumes assailing every nostril. There are families on donkey carts, tribesmen in long chapan gowns and turbans, Uyghur women in brocaded frocks and bright kerchiefs, and Chinese office girls in high heels and Mickey Mouse T-shirts: they’re all here to mix and flirt, drink tea and gossip, and to sell, buy or trade everything from herbs, tractors, hats, goats, camels and air-conditioners to the services of al fresco barbers, tooth-pullers and knife-smiths. Here at the largest free market in China it’s always been old-style Silk Road capitalism. Socialism doesn’t even bother to get out of bed.

From the yellow tiles and minaret of the Id Kah Mosque in the main square to the border of Soviet Tajikistan, it’s clear that Xinjiang prays, eats and trades not as Communist China but as part of a deeper, far older abstraction, Greater Turkestan, Moslem Central Asia. Awash with weathered tribals in baggy pantaloons and flowing coats, it strikes me that Kashgar looks more like old Afghanistan than today’s Afghanistan — following the Russian invasion and mujahideen fight-back — ever will again.

Colin has a condition that causes his hand to tremble slightly. Attempting to cash travellers cheques he is almost accused of forgery when his counter-signature doesn’t match the original. A female bank teller with beady, abacus-hard eyes snaps at him, “No same sign, no money, tell police.” “But none of my signatures ever looks like another,” he pleads, showing his shaky hand. Interpreter Zhuang won’t get involved because, as he explains, the teller is a Party girl and if he aggravates her…? Don’t ask. Wanting to be rid of this troublesome gweilo, the teller tells Colin where to go — the black market moneychanger down the street.

“You know that CAAC stands for ‘Chinese Aircraft Always Crash’, don’t you?” says someone. Thanks. We’re on a shamelessly bootlegged version of a Fokker Friendship, heading north back to Urumqi. On a wing and a prayer we cross arid plains scrawled with calligraphic cloud shadows. The capital city, of around one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Tartars, Mongols, Hui and Hans, is a long way from lovely, having been slam-dunked with heavy industries. No stately pleasure-domes of Kublai Khan here. The early-‘60s, Soviet-inspired civic structures — pure Socialist Brutalism — might explain why China soon after started throwing things back across the border at the Russians, if not their architects.

Our second trekking region is in Tienshan, the Heavenly Mountains. Aboard a minibus we wind upwards into the fittingly celestial scenery around Tianche, Heaven Lake. Steep hills drop from the snowline in a rhythm of serrated ridges dense with un-logged spruce forests. Nine oxen, a horse and three Kazakh herdsmen meet us at a lakeside yurt. After loading the pack animals we’re soon off, hiking into classic postcard-style scenery whose lushness feels like an alpine oasis compared to Muztagata’s high desert-scapes. We’re invited for tea into the yurt of a Kazakh family who for a few summer months are back in their traditional high pastures and free from the lowlands government commune where they must spend most of the year.

We’ve collected new cook Wei who, besides being a dab hand at garlic eggplant and even desserts, is an actual mountaineer, speaks excellent English, seems smarter than our interpreter Zhuang and is certainly more fun than Chairman Lee.

A glorious two-day trek from Tianche gets us to 3000 metres and the base camp of Mt Bogda, the Mountain of God. An intensely blue sky vibrates against the snows of Bogda’s seven-peaked massif and its neighboring mountain. The latter is a poetically challenged giant known only by its surveyed height, Mount 4613. Near Bogda base campwe come upon the poignant shrine to a young Japanese woman who died on the mountain in 1981. She had reached Bogda’s summit and was returning to base ahead of her team in order to cook a cake for them — it was her 29th birthday. Crossing a glacier she slipped into a crevasse and died.

We pitch our tents among moraine rocks below the snowline while Wei cooks a giant omelet — quiche moraine, of course — for supper. Our plan is to make daily excursions from here. The first is to the eastern slope of Mt 4613 where a half-kilometre ramp of virgin snow falls invitingly from a craggy overhang. The skiers in our group groan for their absent skis or snowboards. It’s a good, hard scramble to reach the pass from there we look down on another absolute, “Just shut up” vision, the uninhabited Jian Jung Gou valley and its floating jade-green lake.

Next morning Lee casually announces, “We will return today to Lake Tianche.”

“What? We’ve gotthree more nights here. Why would we go back?” I ask. Lee replies with a smirk but Zhuang translates shamefaced: “Because there’s no food for the pack animals.”

“Lee’s in charge of that. Why didn’t he arrange to bring fodder?”

“Because you didn’t tell him to,” answers Zhuang, sheepishly.

“Me! His job is to arrange supplies — including for the animals.”

I soon understand why early political negotiations with the Chinese were dubbed “ping-pong” diplomacy. The discussion is a back-and-forth volley, with Zhuang rendering oddly brief translations to Lee of our much longer questions — the other trekkers have now joined in and are livid about Lee’s Great Leap Backwards. Questions, answers, half-answers and Lee’s stonewalling continue until I notice Wei rolling his eyes. Stir-frying noodles, he mutters over his wok, in English, “Oh boy, wish I was translating here.” Being “only” The Cook he is not permitted to intervene as The Translator.

“Zhuang,” I ask. “Are you translating everything to Lee?”

“Please understand, Mr John, there are many things I cannot say to him.”

“Why not?”

“Because Mr Lee is a Party member and I am not.”

Lee’s agenda has been to return us to the yurts by the lake where he can spend the final days snoozing and smoking. The group is having none of his sabotage. Stalemate. Eventually we move the pack beasts to higher pasture and change the trek route but not the duration. Patricia announces that “Lee couldn’t organise a root in a brothel.” Zhuang, anxious that this jibe lies both above his head and below the belt, sidesteps the translation.

We spend our last three days exploring pine-forested valleys and a necklace of frozen lakes. Finally, cautiously, we hike the base of Bogda’s fateful glacier where the seracs soar like giant ice-carvings and the Japanese climber’s silent cairn tells its story.

And then it is time to descend, down through chocolate-box scenery of grazing horses and snowy peaks, past summer yurts and log bridges, and back to Tianche’s heavenly lake, there to farewell the crew and Lee, our own Great Wall, and commence the long rewind back from Tamurlane time.

POSTSCRIPT. XINJIANG 2020

In 2020 The United Nations and Human Rights Watch continue to report that Xinjiang is home to an extensive gulag network of ideological-industrial holding camps. Their purpose is to “re-educate” Moslem Uyghurs and others into Han culture and over-write local ethnic identities. An estimated one million principally non-Han citizens are believed to be detained or working in these centres which often double as factories for export products. “1984” lives on in Xinjiang.

All images and words ©John Borthwick 2020

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CAPTAIN BLIGH’S PACIFIC PARADISES by John Borthwick

“Shoot the bugger!” screamed someone as Captain William Bligh was bundled overboard at musket-point and into a longboat. Dawn was breaking off the tiny Pacific island of Tofua when HMAV Bounty’s first mate Fletcher Christian ordered his captain and 18 loyalists into the six-metre boat. Shooting them might have been a kinder fate. Instead, they were set adrift in mid-ocean, some 6000 km from the nearest European outpost at Kupang, Timor.

April 28, 2019 marked the 230th anniversary of the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty. Overlooked amid the ensuing blue water opera of passion, heroics and revenge is that the Bounty might be seen, whimsically perhaps, as the pioneer of South Pacific cruising. If so, was the tempestuous, brilliant William Bligh — who is officially credited with discovering 13 Pacific islands — the South Pacific’s first European tourist, even if its most reluctant one? As visitors to the Pacific today, we sail in the wake of Bligh and the Bounty.

Bruny Island, Tasmania. In August 1788, His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty, on a mission from England to Tahiti, made its first Pacific stop in Tasmania. As well as ‘discovering’ Hobart’s Mt Wellington, William Bligh planted at Adventure Bay seven apple trees — the very first the for future ‘Apple Isle’. On the shores of the bay, today’s Bligh Museum of Pacific Exploration commemorates the Bounty visit as well as those of other great navigators such as Cook, Flinders and D’Entrecasteaux.

Bounty Islands. On a roundabout route to its place in history, Bounty passed a desolate cluster of 13 granite islands in the Subantarctic. Now New Zealand territory, this uninhabited group is home to the world’s largest breeding colony of New Zealand fur seals and vast populations of seabirds. Bligh named the islands in honour of his ship, no doubt having in mind more glorious landmarks to append his own name to than these guano-bombed outcrops. The islands are now World Heritage-protected. Landing is prohibited and they are seen these days only by occasional expedition cruises. Bounty then headed north to warmer Pacific latitudes, but life at sea on any 18th century ship was always harsh and often more so under Bligh’s rigid discipline.

Tahiti, French Polynesia. The Society Islands, aka The Isles of Love, are renowned today for their lagoon resorts, vivid reefs and postcard lushness. To Bligh and the British Admiralty they simply meant breadfruit. Bounty’s mission was to collect a thousand saplings for transportation to the West Indies, hopefully to be used there as cheap food for sugar plantation slaves.

You can stand today on the black volcanic sands of Point Venus, 10 km from Papeete, and look across Matavai Bay to where Bounty rode at anchor for over five months during 1788 and 1789. While gathering the breadfruit plants, its crew were seduced by ‘paradise’ in the form of ample food and generous, amorous Polynesian consorts.

When Bounty up-anchored on 4 April, 1789 and sailed from ‘Otaheite’, its lowly sailors knew their days of near-aristocratic indulgence were reverting to the norm of being little more that seagoing slaves. (As the writer Dr Johnson noted after visiting a British man-of-war of that era, ‘Serving in a ship is like being in a prison — with a chance of drowning.’)Many of the crew, Fletcher Christian among them, were lovesick for their Tahitian sweethearts, while the caustic manner of Bligh, their master, commander and tormentor was salt to their wounds.

Cook Islands. All Polynesia had been populated by 1000 AD but Bligh is credited with ‘discovering’ Aitutaki — ‘Wytootackee’ — in the Cook Islands. He recorded, ‘I saw no Smoke or any Sign of Inhabitants, it is scarcely to be imagined however, that So charming a little Spot is without them.’ Bligh wasn’t the only ‘first white man to see’ part of the Cook Islands. Following the mutiny, Fletcher Christian aboard the fleeing Bounty sighted Rarotonga, which today is the most populous of the Cook Islands and its capital. But Fletch, being a no-good, shipjacker, would never be credited by the Admiralty with anything but heinous mutiny and thus candidature for hanging from the highest yard-arm. His sighting goes pointedly un-commemorated.

Tofua Island, Tonga. The Tongan Islands are known today as the Friendly Isles, a magnet for yachts, game fishing and whale watching, but as the Bounty wended its way through the archipelago in late April 1789, there were few friendly notions brewing on its foredeck. The rot set in terminally at Nomuka Island when Christian led an armed party ashore to find water but retreated under threat from hostile locals. Bligh publicly damned him as a ‘cowardly rascal’ afraid of ‘a set of Naked Savages’.

“Vintage engraving showing mutineers seizing Captain Bligh on board the Bounty. The Mutiny on the Bounty was a mutiny aboard the British Royal Navy ship HMS Bounty on 28 April 1789. The mutiny was led by Fletcher Christian against commanding officer Lieutenant William Bligh. According to most accounts, the sailors were attracted to the idyllic life on the Pacific island of Tahiti and were further motivated by harsh treatment from their captain.”

Picture this: 28 April 1789, beneath the brooding volcanic crown of Tofua Island in the Ha’apai Group, William Bligh is roused from his bunk at bayonet-point and thrown into the longboat, along with his 18 loyalists. Scant food and water, plus a sextant and compass, but no charts, are flung after them.

In this frail craft it was as far to the moon as to a safe shore. No blue lagoons or happy hour sundowners for these doomed men. But, as the mutineers set Bounty’s sail for Tahiti and its promises of languid paradise, the iron-willed Bligh set his own mind to the near-impossible, to navigate the tiny boat to Timor and revenge.

Fiji. Thus began the survivors’ 41-day, open-boat voyage, regarded as one of the most outstanding feats of seamanship in maritime history. As the first Europeans to sail through Fiji, Bligh marked their route so well that his chart of the ‘Bligh Islands’ (as he modestly named them and as Fiji was first known) is still useable today. The strait between the main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu remains named after him.

Fiji’s beautiful Yasawa Islands today are famed for resorts like Turtle Island and the 1980 Brooks Shields’ movie The Blue Lagoon. Inevitably, there is a Bounty Island Resort. For the castaways, however, if there were to be any picnic in the Yasawas, they feared that they would be the main delicacy. Bligh recorded his men as having to frantically out-row a pursuing canoe of supposedly salivating cannibals.

Restoration Island, Cape York Peninsula. Constantly rowing, and aided by only two small sails, they inched their way towards ‘New Holland’ and through the Great Barrier Reef. Many of the men could barely walk when on 28 May they beached on a sandy islet that Bligh called Restoration Island, where they found water, oysters and berries aplenty. They ate ravenously. The island (“Resto” to today’s locals) sits a few hundred meters offshore from the Lockhart River mainland and 800 kilometers north of Cairns.

In 1932 the young Errol Flynn, sailing to New Guinea in his schooner Sirocco, visited the island and was fascinated by its Bounty connection. He soon went on to play Fletcher Christian in his first film, the 1933 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. Some 70 years later, Russell Crowe, star of another maritime epic, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, lingered at Resto in 2003 while on a seafaring honeymoon with wife Danielle.

Kupang, Timor. Reaching the northernmost point of the Australian continent, aka New Holland, the wretched survivors found a passage, now known as Bligh Entrance, through the Torres Strait and rowed on, ever westwards. More dead than alive following their six-week voyage of ‘extreme hardship, brilliant navigation and mutual hatred’, they sailed into Kupang harbour, Dutch Timor, on 14 June 1789. Bligh, always a stickler for protocol, insisted on doing so under a makeshift Union Jack.

Today’s travellers might head to Indonesia’s West Timor for surfing on Roti Island or next door to independent Timor-Leste for birding, diving and mountain biking but, for Bligh, Timor was just the beginning of his furious return to England in order to restore his reputation and to call down the Admiralty’s implacable wrath on Fletcher Christian and company.

Pitcairn Island. Meanwhile, back on the Bounty, the mutineers hightailed it to Tahiti and the longed-for good life but, understanding too well the grisly penalty for mutiny, most of them knew better than to linger where the Admiralty would surely track them. Collecting their female consorts and six Tahitian men, Christian and eight mutineers sailed the Bounty off the map.

After desperately searching the ocean for a haven they came across uninhabited, uncharted Pitcairn Island in January 1790. They burned the Bounty to avoid discovery and thus became the first permanent European settlers in the Pacific Islands. Within months, however, they were at each other’s throats. Within a decade all but one of the mutineers were dead.

The fate of the vanished Bounty remained a mystery for almost 20 years until an American whaling ship stumbled upon the island in 1808 and was greeted by a gaggle of polite, robust, English-speaking, mixed-race youngsters and a white-bearded, Bible-quoting elder, the last surviving mutineer, John Adams. Visitors today can reach this truly remote corner of the Pacific, with MV Bravo Supporter calling there several times a year. Some Bounty remains, mostly ballast stones, remain visible in the clear waters of Pitcairn’s Bounty Bay.

Norfolk Island. The mutineers’ English-Tahitian descendants thrived and multiplied on tiny Pitcairn to the point of overcrowding. When Queen Victoria granted them lush Norfolk Island in 1856 the entire Pitcairn community of 194 people was relocated there. Today, there are resorts, good dining, reef diving and convict ruins on Norfolk. And, of course, Bounty lore and proud ‘Mutiny’ descendants galore.

Footnote: The author sailed in April 1989 on the 200th anniversary re-enactment of the mutiny aboard the replica vessel built for the 1984 movie, The Bounty.

© John Borthwick 2019

SLOVENIA – ADRIATIC, ALPINE, ASTOUNDING by Glenn A. Baker

01

Before World War II, you could present yourself at Bled railway station – with a suitable stack of valises for the journey – and buy yourself a ticket to Luxor as easily as you could to Paris. The rich and privileged of Europe did just that, using the lake resort on the sunny side of the Alps as a pleasant halfway house on the way to and from the mystical east as well as being a destination in its own right.

Even then, a half a century before the 1991 opening of the eight-kilometre-long tunnel through the Karavanken mountains which finally linked Slovenia with the Central European freeway system, or the introduction of the two-hour catamaran service across the Adriatic from Venice, the trek to the pure, warm, emerald green waters and thermal springs by the high peaks of the Julian Alps was deemed well worth the effort.

It is from a balcony of the famed Vila Bled that the allure is most apparent. Take, as I did, any eye line out across the water, past the tear-shaped island with its baroque church of the Assumption, up the sheer cliff on the other side to the striking 11th century castle clinging to the peak, and then out to the Karavankens in the dramatically arrayed distant background (with its imposing Mount Triglav), and you readily understand why this once royal realm has been eulogised and celebrated by poets, painters and photographers.

02

The balcony in question – now part of a suite in the first hotel of a former Eastern Bloc country to be welcomed into the prestigious Relais & Chateaux chain – was once attached to the office of Yugoslavian communist strongman Marshall Tito (whose mother was a Slovene). First constructed by an Austrian noble in 1885 as a smart two-storey villa resembling an English cottage, the Vila Bled was serving as the summer residence of the old royal family until they were driven into exile by advancing Nazis.

Sturdily rebuilt in 1947 to serve as a guest house for Tito’s official visitors, it played host to the likes of Khrushchev, Ceaucescu (whom Tito loathed) Nehru, Nasser, Bokassa, Indira Ghandi, Hussein, Akihito and, well recalled for the inventory which departed with him, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung.

While German Chancellor Willy Brandt is said to have put the finishing touches to his ‘Ostpolitik’ while in residence, affairs of state did not occupy all the occupants all the time. For a hint of how these illustrious visitors passed their hours within the sturdy Dalmatian marble walls, one needs to ask for a private tour – the pearl of which is Tito’s private cinema.

06

What first appears to be a dowdy room of aging furnishings is transformed into a compelling cultural time warp as large drapes are drawn back to reveal vast continuous murals of strident socialist realism which are even thin on the ground in Russia these days. The colours are assaulting, the imagery even more so – sheaths of wheat, valiantly wielded sickles, ragged peasant tunics, feet bound in tied rags, bright-eyed children – all surging forward into a glorious tomorrow which never arrived.

Easily the most-visited part of Slovenia – a ’boutique’ country traversed by the sun in all of twelve minutes – Bled comes alive in summer, with a plentiful international tourist flow descending upon the food, the displayed art, the evening concerts and a small casino. However, if you arrive out of season it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that mayor Janez Faifar, until recently the manager of the Vila Bled, will load you into his own car and take you with him as he strides about his domain, not just exposing you to the rustic delights of thousand year-old villages but proving resoundingly that what you’ve never been told about nails and bees can actually be essential information.

The giant nails which still hold together the pylons that support Venice were made (along with 129 other varieties) in Kropa, a tiny village wedged into a slim valley under the Jelovica Plateau. By the boiling base of the steep and fast-flowing Kroparica stream which slices through the famous little steel town is an Iron Forging Museum which recreates the world of the dedicated artisans who, for centuries, turned out fine wrought-iron decorations along with their shafts and spikes (some of which found their way to the New World with Columbus and were prised from planking by sailors who swapped them ashore for necklaces and other considerations).

07

It is another rare craft that forms the core of the attraction of nearby medieval Radovljica, a craft that grew out of Slovenia’s beekeeping mastery. So advanced in all things apiarian is this little land that more than a thousand trucks are put at the disposal of bees in peak season to better facilitate the honey flow. Not content to just write treatises and export queen bees to the world, the keepers of the hives, from the early 1800s, began painting and decorating them with topical and often quite beautiful folk art.

In some, the devil is depicted sharpening an old woman’s tongue or swapping old wives for nubile young women; in another, two peasants quarrel about the ownership of a cow while a lawyer milks it; and, in another, a funeral procession through a forest sees a hunter borne to his grave by gun-toting animals. It is within the ornate Thurn Manor on the historical public square, near the 1822 Lectar Inn restaurant and former gingerbread bakery, that the Beekeeping Museum displays these amazing original panels and cleverly celebrates an industry that has shaped Slovenian life.

Paths are beaten to and beyond the doors of these museums between mid-April and mid-October, when the 2,500 beds in beloved Bled have been claimed. Part of the seduction secret is a certain serenity. There are no motored vessels allowed on the 500-metre-high lake. Twenty families have inherited rights to operate the gondola boats called pletnas that softly snake across the water to what is the only true island in Slovenia. Blekski Otok has borne a Christian church since the 9th century though there is evidence that it was a site of pagan worship for the early Slavs well before that.

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Now, the dimensions of landmarks are normally the fine print in guidebooks but it is worth knowing that, when the recession of the Ice Age Bohinj Glacier gouged out Lake Bled, it left a cavity just a whisker over two kilometres long. The length would not have been of any great significance to the primitive Slavs of the 7th century but it certainly was to aspiring Olympians of the 20th century who became aware that the official length of a rowing course was, yes, two kilometres. With a fortuitous, slightly off-centre placement of the island allowing the sleek craft to glide just past it, the rowers of Bled were able to practice, day in and day out; their disciplined labour culminating, at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, in the first gold medal for a new nation.

Heroes they are, in Bled and beyond, their praises sung and their visages displayed in the snug and stylish capital of Ljubljana, where a true cafe society is carried on under a castle backdrop amid a network of decorative bridges and buildings, waterways, narrow streets and busy markets.

It is the level of sophistication that comes as the first great surprise, though it really shouldn’t. Tucked into a curve in the Adriatic alongside Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, with Trieste literally just down the road, Vienna and Rome thirty minutes away by air, and Venice, Salzburg and Munich a few hours away by road, Ljubljana is thoroughly European.

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Indeed, with its castles, crafts, alps, lakes, ports, culture, fertile farms, annual jazz festival and layers of linguistics, Slovenia is very much Europe in microcosm. It was French novelist Charles Nodier who, greatly impressed by the national flair for languages, once compared it to “an Academy of Arts and Sciences”.

What irks the fine citizens most in this lush land (after Scandinavia, it is the greenest in all Europe – more than two-thirds wooded) is being, as the popular phrase puts it, tarred with the Balkan brush. It is here in the art-laden coffee bars and restaurants of a safe and civilised city of just 300,000, where young policeman in goatee beards stroll with a smile past art-house cinema clubs frequented by chattering students in jagged fashions, that you keep hearing the exasperated refrain. It comes somewhere between the seasoned pork with field mushroom soup and the fragrant apple or violet ice cream: we were a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire for a thousand years and of Yugoslavia for seventy years but all anybody remembers is the last part.

“Even during the communist years, we were always somewhere in between – not socialist, not capitalist” offered a young man called Tomaz in the grounds of his old university. “We could travel internationally. If you wanted something that wasn’t available, you went to Trieste and bought it. We never felt that we couldn’t talk about anything we wished; we even had great rock’n’roll here.” Slovenia’s exit from the disintegrating Balkan state in 1991 was relatively painless, all over and done with in ten days of half-hearted sabre rattling by Belgrade. And, over the next decade, the entrepreneurial citizens prospered nicely in their bread basket land, untouched by the horrors in Bosnia or Kosovo. It was even overlooked by the criminal gangs that preyed on those disrupted and disputed republics.

4.1.1

The impact of world perception was harsh when it came to tourism. In 1991, a million visitors a year came to the extraordinary Postojna Caves, west of Ljubljana toward the coast. A decade on, the admissions were less than half a million (though they’ve climbed upward since). Far and away the greatest loss was on the part of those who chose not to come to it or to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Skocjan caves, for only around the Spanish/French Basque region are there comparable subterranean complexes.

Long known as “a cheese land” the Slovenia depths are patterned by some 7,000 caves, with only 20 open to the public. Described by English sculptor Henry Moore as “Nature’s most wonderful gallery”, the two-million-year-old Postojna is comprised of more than 25 kilometres of gloriously sculptured chambers, galleries, halls and river beds. Guides have been taking paying customers along the trails for almost two hundred years; with the aid of railway carriages since 1872 and electric illumination since 1884. Over 30 million people have passed through, in constant temperatures of 8-9 degrees centigrade.

The tentacles of these caves extend to the startling Predjamski Castle – a Robber Baron’s retreat castle where boiling oil really was poured from parapets. The dramatic setting of this four-storey structure, in the open mouth of a cavern halfway up a mountainside, made it a hotly contested property some five hundred years ago. The best legends are attached to Slovenia’s Robin Hood, one Erazem Lueger, who used the secret passages and caves to pillage the countryside and return to the impregnable, drawbridged castle. He met his inevitable end while performing his ablutions in a vulnerable water closet, having been betrayed by a servant to an Austrian cannon post.

4.1.1

Legends also abound along Slovenia’s scant 47 kilometres of coastline, much of which was only incorporated into Yugoslavia in the mid-1950s. In summer months, it takes on a decided Cote d’Azur tone, with the coastal towns of Portoroz, Piran, Izola, Koper and Ankaran boasting 120 hotels between them, and around a million and a quarter visitors staying overnight in Portoroz alone – drawn by its beaches and popular health resorts.

At the heart of the appeal, apart from the strong international atmosphere, is the coast’s very Mediterranean climate, noticeably warmer that the rest of the country. In wintry January, temperatures rarely go below 4-5 degrees centigrade and, in July, sit around 21-2. Izola lays claim to the furthermost north olive trees in the world capable of yielding good quality oil; though that is but part of its bounty – citrus fruits, pines, palms, oleander, rosemary, laurel, tomatoes and paprika adding to an agricultural mix more Sicily than Slovenia.

The centrepiece of the coast, occupying the tip of a slender dogleg peninsula, is Piran (Pirano to the ubiquitous Italians). A rich merchant port, a ‘free town’ with its own statute in the 13th century, it is famed for a Venetian Gothic Old Town, layers of high ancient town walls, a flourishing arts community, and a small harbour marina for which the term picturesque is more than apt.

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With a name derived from either the Celtic word bior-dun (town on a hill) or the Greek word pyr (fire), this atmospheric old trading chest seaport has been handed from one conqueror to another over the centuries, with each occupant – be they Celts, Romans, barbarians, Byzantines, Obers, Slavs, Franks, the Patriarchs of Aquileai, Venetians, Italians, Germans, Austrians or Yugoslavs – leaving something tangible behind.

Within a 17th century palace along this small harbour, in front of Tartini Square (named after violinist/composer Giuseppe Tartini who found world fame with his infamous Devil’s Trill sonata) is a place of exhibition every bit as engaging as Bled’s nail and bees houses of wonder. Take the marble staircase up to the Sergej Masera Maritime Museum and you enter a time when navies ruled the world and commanded all trade, when fires were lit each night in the Punta district on the tip of the peninsula at Cape Madonna to guide ships heavy with precious cargo into port. A time also when the masts of Venetian ships, the frames of galleons and the walls of Venetian houses were made from high, straight oak trees plundered from Slovenia’s Karst region, where the caves reside (and where some hills are forever denuded).

Slovenia’s icons, as one learns within these walls, didn’t all play their way into chamber music fame or row into Olympic record books. The man who discovered that Baja California, in Mexico, was a peninsula and not an island 350 years ago was Slovenian. One Baron Marko Anton Kapus, a Jesuit Abbot. They’ve put him on a postage stamp.  A new nation takes its heroes where it can.

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Thanks to Italian nationals, who account for 90 per cent of the custom, the ‘Slovenia Riviera’ has a strong casino culture. During the communist years, locals were not allowed entry to those gaming centres set up to fleece foreign currency from the region and so developed no taste for gambling. However, with only four legal casinos in Italy there is an unquenchable appetite from that part of the world for the spin of the roulette wheel and the slap of the blackjack table which Slovenia, with its swish and highly professional emporiums of chance, is pleased to help satisfy.

Somehow the gamblers fit easily into a visitor flow that includes young British and European internet surfers who lob into Trieste from London on bargain charter tickets and treat the border as if it were not there (in many ways, it isn’t). What they all find is often more than they came seeking, for surprises are plentiful.  Take, for but one example, the Casa Del Papa in Ljubljana, a restaurant/bar cum nightclub devoted to Ernest Hemingway displaying a simply astounding array of ‘Papa’ and Cuban visuals over its three floors.

There is something decidedly comfortable about this country, with its often staggering diversity and inexpensive pricing, and something undeniably appealing about a people who are said to have a Mediterranean temperament with a touch of Nordic reserve combined with earthy Slav charm and sincerity. There is a sense of wry and dry humour that seems to be ingrained in those people who survive terms as Soviet Satellites. Ask Janez Faifar about the origins of the name Bled and he may respond: “In German, it means crazy, in Russian, it refers to a whore and, in French, it comes out as ‘a lost village in the mountains’. Maybe two out of three isn’t bad.”

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For the moment, these good folk are waiting for the world to catch up. It may insist, at least for the moment, on seeing Slovenia as Balkan rather than Adriatic or Alpine but they will keep politely correcting the record. As they know better than most, everything changes in time.

P.S. For a time, after my departure, Janez Faifar became the Mayor of Bled. An eminently wise elevation.

©2002   Words and photography by Glenn A. Baker 

THE CIRCUMFERENCE OF MY KNOWABLE WORLD by John Borthwick

John Borthwick

Way back then, the late 1960s, I believed with all the earnestness that only age 20 can summon that my life in Sydney was dead, karked. I was already too old to succeed, but too young to officially fail. I borrowed ten pounds to flee the academic, economic and romantic corpses strewn (I imagined) behind me. I would take to the roads, disappear forever. Or at least hitchhike right around Australia, the circumference of my knowable world.

The tourniquets that stifle a city — mortgage belt, industrial belt, car yard wastelands — soon fell away. A “rabbito” named Ernie piloting an old Vanguard stops and we head west over the Blue Mountains and out past Bathurst to where I join him on a three-day rabbit-trapping safari, using nets and Mitzi, his cute, blood-lusting ferret. Out there on the western plains of the Great Divide, the wheat fields ripple like ground-swell and sulphur-crested cockatoos cartwheel down the sky, screeching away through the stringy barks. Mobs of galahs. Wallabies. I nearly overdose on bunny stew. And when I start hitching again, not too many cars.

Somewhere near Cowra, my ride passes a semi-trailer that’s overturned, spilling a cargo of cowboy boots and licorice candies. I ditch the lift and grab a pair of boots and a face-full of Choo-Choo Bars just before the insurance agents torch the lot. I figure that now, in my boots, no one’s going to spot me as a city boy.

Across the Murrumbidgee plains, dawn and dusk suns flicker like strobes through the windbreak poplars. At Hay, I help a trucker change eight of the 18 tires on his bone-rattling rig. “I’ve been at the wheel for 20 hours,” he says, “And since I was starting to talk to myself, I figured I oughter pick up someone to listen to me.” He lives like a gypsy, criss-crossing the country for weeks on end, at odds with log books, cops and savage schedules. He complains, “The bloody mermaids are after us truckies.”

“Mermaids?” I query.

“My oath. Mermaids everywhere. Weighbridge inspectors. Cunts with scales.”

New South Wales becomes Victoria, becomes South Australia, each one vanishing in the infinite regress of the side mirror. The big one, the Nullarbor Plain soon lies ahead of me. By now, there isn’t much left of my ten quid and so when a driver says that he’s an abalone diver working out of Ceduna and, do I want a job as a “shucker”, you bet I do. God knows what a shucker does.

Next morning I’m racing out to sea in an “ab boat”, heading for the Nuyts Archipelago about 40 miles off Ceduna. The head diver, Rodney Fox had achieved fame a few years back when a huge white pointer clamped him in its apocalyptic jaws. He struggled so fiercely that the Noah let him go but left the perfect imprint of its dental chart puncturing his torso fore and aft. Hundreds of stitches later — a zipper would have been quicker — plus a brief convalescence, Rodney got straight back on the seahorse and resumed diving for lucrative abalone.

Shucking means that you’re up on deck tending the air-compressor, making sure the diver’s air-line doesn’t kink and shelling — “shucking” — the abalone that you’ve winched to the surface. Oh, yes, and watching for sharks. The pay, about eight pounds a day. The one, big shucking drawback — seasickness.

Beyond Ceduna, the Nullarbor Plain stretches to infinity across the Great Australian Bight. During my gig as a shucker I notice a glum-looking kid camped near the last roadhouse. Teddy, an Aucklander, is having no luck in hitching to Perth. For a week he’s stood beside the agricultural inspection gate from nine to five, waggling his thumb in vain. A thousand miles of desert ahead and he can’t get out of town.

My problem is that he’s at the head of the hitching queue — yes, there is etiquette among bums — and I’m ready to hit the road, too. Come the morning of my departure, there’s Teddy already out by the tick gate. At the roadhouse café, I fall into conversation with a dog-collared gentleman who is breakfasting beside me. Who announces he is heading to Perth.

“Now? I mean, today?” I ask.

“That’s right.”

“Could I, um … get a ride with you?”

Suddenly, I’ve scored a ride across the Nullarbor without even raising my thumb! In jubilation and in shame, I sail through that gate. And cannot look at Teddy.

The Nullarbor, the No Tree Plain, is a ribbon of unreal, unsealed images. So wide and empty you can almost see the curve of the earth. Like the wake of a ghostly boat, the highway rises and falls, straight as death across the spinifex ocean. Heat miasmas shred the vanishing point and leave it flapping between heaven and the horizon. A sign says “Last Petrol”. Another warns, “Last Water” and then, ominously, “Last Beer”. After that, the husks of blown-out tires, shattered beer bottles and dead kangaroos are the only pointers to life before death.

Nonchalant Aborigines walk from seemingly nowhere to specifically somewhere else. A mission. A cattle station. Miles from anywhere, two wild-eyed hitchers gesticulating like crazed windmills beside their midnight bonfire. The West Australia border is marked by a bullet-peppered sign: “First Beer”. The old telegraph station at Eucla appears then disappears, engulfed in shifting coastal dunes. It’s almost 1200 miles to Perth, or more correctly, 2000 kilometres. Australia’s been “metric” for a few years but we’ll still talk in miles for decades.

Whatever the figure, after thirty-six hours of pot-holed, bull-dusted highway, I bid farewell to the terrifically decent Rev. Trev Brown, London Missionary Society, late of Mount Hagen. I teeter, sleepless, speechless, stuffed, onto King George’s Terrace, Perth. Wrecked, but there.

“In the midst of life, we are in Perth”, said Sydney bohemian writer Harry Hooton. I think I get what he meant. One night in the Salvo’s flophouse and quick look around — and it’s clear that I won’t be making my fortune here. I sign up as a mine labourer at Mount Tom Price, far, far north in the Pilbara’s Hamersley Range. Which means another thousand-mile hitch, up the Indian Ocean coast to the job on time.

The whole mountain — more like a range — of almost solid iron ore is being shipped chunk by chunk to Japan. My seven-days-a-week job is to run an Air-Track, a compressor-driven drill mounted on crawler tracks, boring holes in giant boulders so they can be blown to smithereens. Work all day, save every cent, sleep in a cell and eat in the mess. Get up and do it again, amen.

The town has 500 single men and six single women. Extraordinarily, one of the girls kissed me, once. Even more extraordinary — I can’t recall why. Hamersley Mining had sunk $300 million into this open-cut abyss but for all the state-of-the-art crushers and conveyors, things still kept jamming. After six hours of shovelling overflowed ore that had flooded the train loading-bays, Duggy the Drunk bellowed: “Three hundred million bucks worth of alternating oscillators and oscillating fuckn’ alternators, and it still takes a dozen blokes on pick n’ shovel to make the bastard work.” That we were doing it all on emergency, triple-time rates eased the pain.

I moved up to offsider on a big mobile drill rig that trundled over the mine site day and night sinking sixty-foot holes with its rotating tungsten bit. The powder crew followed, filling the drill pattern with nitropril explosive and then blasting the hillside to Mitsubishi. On night shifts, while Irish Frank the driller eased the bit down into the earth with the skill of a surgeon — and sutured himself against the desert cold with belts of vodka — I had time aplenty to watch the giant sky and the spokes of its star-wheels turning, and to wonder where, for me, real life lay?

Marooned — OK, voluntarily — in this burning, freezing, boring, mateless doldrum of saltbush and red dirt, was this the horse latitudes of my life? After ten weeks with the outside world leaking-in only through two day-old newspapers (over breakfast I learn that Bobby Kennedy has been assassinated), I’ve saved a thousand bucks and grown a beard. A bulldozer driver yells, “What are ya, mate? An armpit with eyes or an ear‘ole with teeth?” and I jump an ore train to the coast.

Port Hedland is a culture cut-up — old horse hitching-rails outside new supermarkets, giant ore carriers offshore from feral camels. The next port, Broome is quieter, with its pearling luggers careened on the tidal flats like elephants drunk in the sun. There’s an exemplary swirl of Japanese-Malay-Chinese-Aboriginal-European genes.

The roads are rough and the rides are few but they’re long. Up here a hundred miles is not much more than “next door.” Derby. Fitzroy Crossing. Hall’s Creek. The road leaves the ocean, curves east then north. The sky turns turquoise at the edges. Whistling, whip-cracking Aboriginal stockmen dressed like fantastic gauchos in bandanas, cowboy boots and Akubras just let the traffic sit and wait, and wait, while their huge mobs of cattle amble by.

One morning I wake beneath a fat old boab tree outside Kununurra and wish myself “Happy Birthday.” I’m twenty-one. Ignoring homelessness and joblessness as portents of a fucked future, but still pissed-off at being stuck here for three days, I celebrate with a beer, a can of smoked oysters and a decision. Stuff Kununurra’s parched mercies. Next morning I’m on a TAA plane to Darwin. Having blown $25 on my escape, I compensate by wolfing down three breakfasts before we land. Chokka on the Fokker.

Darwin. The Top-End. The Territory. Everything steeped in sweat and alcohol, and it’s only ten a.m. I luck out when two flash, high-spirited girls of imprecise occupation — “Don’t ask, darling” — in a big, black, bat-winged Chevy whisk me down the track to Rum Jungle.

“The Track”, the Stuart Highway, bisects the continent from north to south. Harry, an old-timer who had spent 30 years working on the Overland Telegraph took me all the way from Mataranka to Three Ways, five hundred miles. “I seen you hitch-hiking like I used to back in the Depression. I’ve been reading we might be having another one, a Depression, so I thought I better give yer a lift.”

This is about his longest speech during our two-day drive. Come dark, he pulls his old Holden ute off the road, we build a fire and he heats-up dinner — in the middle of a million square miles of Australian beef country, it’s a can of Paraguayan beef. We eat. Harry rolls out his swag and beds down. After 15 minutes he belches: “Struth. That stuff tasted more like the Paraguayan hisself, eh?”

Just north of Tennant Creek is a sand-whipped crossroads known as Three Ways, a dark fork on life’s path where a traveler must choose between deserts to the south, mulga and Queensland to the east, or to flee back north, to soused, troppo Darwin. The Three Ways signpost is twisted so it points perversely west to Alice, east to Darwin, south to Mt Isa. A corrugated iron hut calls itself “Cafeteria.” The gimlet-eyed customers, too wise to their own violence don’t risk much speech with a stranger. Very expensive Mars Bars. “If ya don’t like the price, try the fuckin’ shop next door,” drawls the old hard-case harridan behind the counter.

“Welcome to Three Days,” says Bobby, an Aboriginal bloke.

“Three Days?”

“Yeah, that’s about the average wait for a ride here.”

“Fark.”

An hour later another hitcher arrives. An old hand, heading for Sydney, he’s done time here before. After a warm Coke, a piss and a stink-eye glare in my direction he growls that two hitchers is one too many, and heads off the other way, south across the desert to Alice and Coober Pedy. And so it is that when a battered Land Rover pulls up after only three hours I leap in the back with near-jubilation. There are two jackaroos up front.

“We’re just going for a Sund’y drive.”

“Great, where?”

“Camooweal.”

Some Sunday drive. Camooweal is almost 300 miles east, in Queensland. Elated as I am to be heading there, I have no desire to actually be in Camooweal. The town has a reputation born of stories about stir-crazy ringers and boundary riders hitting town to blow their cheques after months of isolation on over-the-horizon cattle stations. Their best joke is supposed to go, “Hey, mate, ‘Blue’s’ lookin’ for you.”

”Huh? ‘Blue’ who?” answers the newly arrived, unwitting, longhaired, bearded stranger.

“Blue Gillette! Let’s shear him, fellers!”

The boys drop me right outside the Camooweal pub. Shit. Thanks. I turn up my collar and hoof it straight out of town, way past the “Welcome” sign that’s shot-gunned to resemble a colander. I lurk in the mulga, praying that some sane ride, please Jesus, arrives soon. Half an hour later it does — a perfectly sober shearer.

More rear-view highway hypnosis from the back of trucks and utes. The endless Black Soil Plains slip behind on a rhythm of ruts and posts, clouds and curves. Days later, something blue tilts up to fill half the sky. The sea, at last! Townsville, dense with palms, reeking of blossom and salt tang. Colonial pubs with lace iron balconies face the Coral Sea, waiting for whoever gets there first, discovery by Nostalgia or demolition by Progress.

Stuck south of Mackay, I shelter for a night in a road-gang’s camp. Most of the crew are in town for the weekend rodeo. As I leave in the morning one guy asks, “Jack. I see you’re wearin’ cowboy boots. You a dark horse headin’ for the rodeo?” Feeling almost credible, I hit the track for one last haul south.

The highway picks up speed. The gravity rings of Brisbane and Sydney suck everything down the map towards them. The cane fields flare against the night sky as farmers fire their crops before the harvest — the world smells like a giant vat of molasses. At Surfers Paradise, I flop onto the beach and then bodysurf my first waves since forever.

If the dust on my boots and stains on my pack are badges of the road, I’ll claim them. It’s taken 10,000 miles and three months.New South Wales again. Almost back, Jack. Shelter from a cyclone near Mullumbimby. Screw the thumb to the track one last time. All the rites and wrongs of passage now done, complete. I’m on the home run to the Big Smoke. Hey, Ma! Hey, Sydney! I’ve actually done something.

Words and photos John Borthwick ©2018

ALWAYS ON MY MIND: ELVIS PRESLEY, MEMPHIS AND THE MUSIC THAT CHANGED THE WORLD by David Latta

In-room artwork at The Guest House At Graceland

 

You can’t go very far in Memphis without encountering some reminder of Elvis Presley. The Tennessee city was his in so many ways. He went to school there, recorded his world-changing Sun recordings there, lived there throughout his adult life and continues to exert a powerful influence over it more than 40 years after his death. While he spent a lot of time away – in Germany for his late 1950s Army service, in California for much of the 1960s making a string of largely forgettable but hugely popular and profitable films, and touring throughout the United States (but nowhere else) – Elvis, the King of Rock’n’Roll, was Memphis. His home, Graceland, remains the city’s most popular tourist attraction, attracting more than 600,000 visitors a year.

 

The man who many claim invented rock’n’roll (and certainly presided over the social revolution that rock’n’roll ushered in) may have been Memphis but Memphis, paradoxically, was also far more than Elvis.

 

The list of singers and musicians who were born in or near or eventually called Memphis home, even if they were later more widely associated with other cities, is astoundingly long. W.C. Handy, regarded as the Father of the Blues, was born in nearby Florence, Alabama (close to what is erroneously known to music fans as the Muscle Shoals area), and played the bars and clubs of Beale Street in the early years of the 20th century; later, such local exponents of the blues, rhythm and blues and soul included William Bell, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, B.B. King, Little Jimmy King,  Memphis Slim, Little Milton, Charlie Musselwhite, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Junior Wells, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Arthur Lee, and Maurice White. And just to ensure that Memphis isn’t entirely mired in nostalgia, there’s Justin Timberlake.

 

Boo Mitchell at Royal Studios

 

Is there something in the water (aside from the Mississippi that laps its muddy shores) that brought so much talent to gather in one place? Nobody knows although there are certainly numerous theories. One thing is certain: over several decades, Memphis was the place where a perfect creative storm played out in recording studios and live music venues, the reverberations of which encircled the world.

 

There aren’t too many people with greater insight into Memphis’ musical legacy than Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell. He grew up in Royal Studios, which his father, Willie Mitchell, operated as well as serving as Vice President of Hi Records; at the height of its R&B fame in late 1960s and 70s, Hi was best known as the home of Al Green (who had sales in excess of 20 million copies).

 

He was his father’s son; he combined his inherited talents with a fascination for testing boundaries. Long years of watching and listening, instructed by Willie and everybody who passed through the studio, paid off spectacularly. His first paid session was at the age of 16 as a keyboard player on Al Green’s recording of “As Long As We’re Together”; providentially, it won a Grammy.

 

 

Boo started managing Royal Studios in 2000 and became Chief Engineer in 2004. Now considered one of the oldest continually operating music studios in the world, Royal recorded the likes of Green, Anne Peebles, Ike and Tina Turner and Bobby Blue Bland during its R&B and soul heyday, then attracted artists such as Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Tom Jones, Robert Cray, John Mayer, Snoop Dog and Keb Mo.

 

Much of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special album was recorded at Royal (earning Boo a Grammy for his engineering duties), especially the Bruno Mars’ single, Uptown Funk. It was the first #1 out of Royal since Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and the first #1 out of Memphis since Disco Duck. And the first ever Record Of The Year Grammy out of Memphis.

 

Boo carefully considers the factors that brought Memphis to its creative convergence.

 

 

“Memphis has a very interesting history,” he says carefully. “It’s always been different, non-conformist. What makes us unique is that we don’t really care what other people think or what the trends are. Historically, we’ve always danced to the beat of our own drum. There’s something about the city, an energy here that inspires creativity and individuality. It comes out in the music.

 

“Memphis is one of those places you have to visit to understand. You can read about it, you can talk about it, but you won’t really get it until you come here. We still have a realness and a grittiness. I think that’s what draws people here to make records.”

 

What Boo Mitchell (and his brother, Archie, who is also involved with Royal) experienced growing up and how it influenced their eventual career path, is something of a microcosm of what Memphis is all about. There is a tradition of creativity and musical appreciation, and a reverence for that tradition, that passes down through the generations.

 

Recreated recording studio at Stax Museum

 

Royal was one of the success stories of Memphis and that goes just as much for Stax. Founded in 1957 under the name of Satellite Records, the company took over an old movie theatre in South Memphis in 1960; one of its early recordings, “Cause I Love You”, by Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla, became a hit. Soon afterwards, Satellite became Stax.

 

With distribution through Atlantic Records, Stax (along with sister label, Volt, and subsidiaries Enterprise, Hip, Chalice and Gospel Truth) showcased Memphis soul and R&B to the world. Although Stax’s prime barely lasted two decades, it recorded and released a massive amount of product with such lasting names as Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Issac Hayes, Sam & Dave, and William Bell.

 

Although the movie theatre that became Stax recording studio and corporate headquarters was demolished in 1989, following the collapse of the company, within a decade it was recreated as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which opened in 2003. It profiles Stax artists as well as other giants of soul, R&B and blues.

 

Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac at the Stax Museum

 

The Stax Museum isn’t the only celebration of the city’s musical heritage; the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and the Blues Hall of Fame are all worthy of visits. But there’s really only own ground zero when it comes to discussing the music that changed the world and the role that Memphis played in this.

 

And that’s Sun Studios, just east of the downtown area. It’s small and usually crowded and often chaotic but its importance to modern music is in inverse proportion to its size. And the story of Sun Studios, and its most famous recording artist, reveals a lot of about Memphis as a society and why rock’n’roll became such a seismic revolution.

 

This story goes back to 1950 when a radio station recording engineer by the name of Sam Phillips established the Memphis Recording Service. Phillips, like W.C. Handy, was born in Florence, Alabama, and was a sound engineer for a Memphis radio station when he decided his future lay in uncovering and recording new talent.

 

 

In the midst of the segregated South, long before the civil rights movement began to change the lives of the black community, early gains were made via the music industry. Sam Phillips started recording African-American artists such as Howling Wolf, Little Milton and Rufus Thomas, but his agenda was as simple as it was initially elusive – to find a white artist who could reinterpret black music for a whole new audience.

 

In August 1953, a quietly spoken and painfully shy 18-year-old high school student by the name of Elvis Presley came to the studio to record a two-sided acetate as a tribute to his mother (paying $US3.98 plus tax for the privilege). With a high keening voice, faltering with nervousness, and hindered by a taste for simpering ballads, Phillips was nonetheless intrigued by the boy’s potential and made a mental note to get him back at a later date to further explore his potential.

 

That took quite some time; Phillips called him back in June 1954 to try him out on a song he thought had a chance in the charts. The recording session didn’t yield the results he wanted; over the next few hours, he had Elvis sing just about anything he could recall but nothing special evolved.

 

Still, there was something there. Phillips just didn’t know what. On 4 July, he called in a second opinion from musician Scotty Moore, who was less than impressed but Phillips forged ahead anyway. On the evening of 5 July 1954, Phillips gathered Elvis, Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on stand-up bass and had them run through an almost endless series of songs in the Sun studios.

 

Hour after hour, little transpired except frustration. Late that night (or in the early hours following midnight, depending on who later told the story), Elvis dropped the ballads he’d been addicted to and started fooling around with a song that had been a hit for an African-American blues artist, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup almost a decade before.

 

With Crudup, “That’s All Night (Mama)” was straight-up Delta blues; Elvis, not likely almost hallucinating with fatigue, mixed in rockabilly and his own interpretation of black rhythm and blues. Phillips froze at the console; he alone realised that the genie had wrestled its way out of the bottle.

 

 

Rock’n’roll was born. Elvis’ world was changed forever, just as music (and the world in which it existed) forever changed. Until that time, black music was as segregated from white music (and its respective audiences) as society was in general. The barriers came crashing down; and while the changes weren’t as rapid as is generally believed in hindsight, the changes did occur.

 

Elvis led the revolution for just a few short years. He set the world on fire with his performing style (honed through a stage fright that manifested in his trademark leg shaking although it was mis-interpreted as sexualised gyrations by critics of the older generation) but his influence lasted just five Sun Records singles over the next 15 months before RCA takes over Elvis’ recording contract and four years of live performances. A new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, took over his career in March 1956. Elvis was conscripted into the Army in March 1958. He returned from service in Germany two years later and effectively spent the next 13 years making 31 largely forgettable movies.

 

That he rebuilt his career as a performer in the late 1960s says much of his innate talent and the dedication of his fans. And even after his death, at the of 42, in 1977, those fans – and new generations to come – kept his celebrity alive.

 

The TV Room at Graceland

 

Graceland is one of the best-known tourist attractions in the United States. In early 2017, a $US45 million state-of-the-art entertainment and museum complex, Elvis Presley’s Memphis, opened. It showcases a staggering range of archival Elvis material, from cars and motorcycles to stage costumes, and includes restaurants, numerous merchandise stores and a theatre continuously screening Elvis movies and concert footage.

 

To tour Graceland is to appreciate just how global the Elvis phenomenon is. Visitors from every country in the world came to Memphis to get their Elvis fix. And they find it in just about every corner of the city.

 

At the Peabody Hotel, the grand dame of Memphis hotels, Hal Lansky is another who enjoys taking the time to enthuse to visitors his own special music stories. Hal’s father, Bernard, and his uncle, Guy, founded the Lansky Bros. menswear store on Beale Street in 1946. At that time Beale Street was the centre of black culture with cafes, restaurants, juke joints, pawn stores, clubs, pool halls and theatres. Gospel, blues and jazz music played continuously.

 

 

Lansky Bros. specialised in stylish men’s clothing, attracting a core clientele who appreciated the high-quality fabrics and rainbow-hued colours. In the early 1950s, Bernard noticed a young man gazing longingly at the front window displays and drew him inside.

 

He introduced himself as Elvis Presley and stated his intention of being a singer. He wanted to dress as well as other Lansky clients but didn’t have the money. Bernard, sensing someone who could well change the world, staked him for his first outfits. In return, Elvis, wherever he performed and whenever he was asked (or even if he wasn’t) credited Lanskys with his wardrobe. Elvis never forgot the generosity of Lansky Bros. He’d often buy the shop out, dropping in for midnight shopping sessions, or influencing other performers to try them. Over time, Lanskys also outfitted B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Rufus Thomas and James Brown.

 

When Hal was a child, Elvis would come into the store. On Saturday mornings, he’d go horse riding at Graceland. He’s often accompanying his father when dropping in outfits to Graceland; Elvis would even open the front door and spend time chatting at Hal.

 

 

“I’m proud that we’re helping to keep Elvis’ legacy alive,” Hal says. “He was our goodwill ambassador. He never forgot what my father did for him.”

 

In one of the four Lansky Bros. stores at the Peabody hangs a pink leather fur-trimmed coat that Elvis dropped in for repairs (he’d ripped the back vent as he was getting out of a car) just before his death and never picked up. And Elvis was buried in a white suit, light blue shirt and white tie – all from Lansky Bros.

 

In 2014, Lansky Bros. returned to the original building founded by Bernard and Guy; it shares space with the Hard Rock Café. It’s from outside this building that I climb into a 1955 Plymouth Belvedere being driven by local singer/songwriter Eva Brewer of the Rockabilly Rides tour company for a 90 minute Red Hot & Blue tour, taking in Elvis sites throughout Memphis.

 

Eva Brewer of Rockabilly Rides

 

Included is Humes High School, which Elvis attended, the Overton Park Shell, the outdoor performance space where Elvis gave his first public performance on 30 July 1954, the Lauderdale Courts, the public housing development where Elvis lived with his parents at the time he recorded with Sun Records, and even the dealership where Elvis purchased his Cadillacs (for himself occasionally but more often for family, friends and even complete strangers; its estimated, for example, that Elvis gave away more than 275 luxury cars, worth well over $US3 million).

 

(In a typical Memphisian stroke of serendipity, one of the principals of Rockabilly Rides, Brad Birkedahl, played Scotty Moore in the Oscar-winning Johnny Cash biopic, Walk The Line.)

 

However long a visitor spends in Memphis, eventually it all gets back to Elvis.

 

Humes High School, Memphis

 

Many thanks to Memphis Tourism for their assistance in experiencing Memphis and compiling this article.

 

Further suggested reading:

 

Connolly, Ray: Being Elvis: A Lonely Life (Weidenfeld &  Nicolson, 2016)

 

Cantor, Louis: Dewey And Elvis: The Life And Times Of A Rock’n’Roll Deejay (University Of Illinois Press, 2005)

 

Dundy, Elaine: Elvis & Gladys (University of Mississippi Press, 2004)

 

Guralnick, Peter: Last Train To Memphis” The Rise Of Elvis Presley (Little Brown & Company, 1994)

 

Guralnick, Peter: Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown & Company, 1999)

 

Guralnick, Peter: Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll (Little, Brown & Company, 2015)

 

Williamson, Joel: Elvis Presley: A Southern Life (Oxford University Press, 2015).

 

Lansky Brothers: Clothier To The King (Beckon Books, 2010)

 

THE IMMATERIAL GIRL OF TANGO TOWN by John Borthwick

 

A traveller looks back on Buenos Aires, 1996

In Recoleta, they often die as they have lived — much like Oscar Wilde said of himself — beyond their means. Buenos Aires’ most prestigious suburb, Recoleta, has its own exclusive necropolis where row upon bankrupting row of marble vaults accommodates the dusty repose of the city’s elite. Lowering the tone by octaves (according to some) is the tomb of Eva Peron, the infamous “Evita” who, although lauded in life by Argentina’s poor, is surrounded in death by the rich who loathed her then and reputedly still do.

 

Buenos Aires is a bright city of melancholia set to a dance-step. A tango town of delicious decrepitude, of wealth now blown but for the nostalgia and crumbling mansions. This was the home of Jorge Luis Borges, jackbooted generals, Nazis on the lam, the Mothers of the Disappeared and footballer Diego Maradona. And now, for seven weeks, it is hosting Madonna who’s here to channel Evita in the bio-musical of her life.

 

 

Eva Duarte Peron, the second wife of Argentine President General Juan Peron, died at age 33 in 1952. She divides Argentineans in death as she did in life: some think of her as a near-saintly friend to the poor while others consider her little more than a social-climbing tart. Heroine or whore? Who could be better cast in this deified-demonised contradiction than the artist formerly known as Ms Ciccone, who’d made a career of tweaking the horns of a similar dilemma — starlet as faux harlot?

 

And there I was with a hotel room overlooking hers. The brush with fame was wasted on me. As a photographer, I make a lousy paparazzo. Stalking soi-disant celebrities through a 500 mm lens would bore me witless. I was there to find a city of coffee and glory, debt and plazas — not for celeb sniffing. Had I wanted the latter, the rather more talented Robert Duvall was also in town, shooting the movie Eichmann. His Hollywood production crew was delighted that Madonna was drawing all the rubberneckers.

 

Benign fate delivered me a sixth-floor room in the Park Hyatt hotel. My windows looked straight down onto the hotel’s exclusive annex known as La Mansion. This restored, turn-of-the-century millionaire’s pile is a Louis XIII-like confection of marble, oak and chandeliers. The likes of Keith Richards and media magnate, the late Kerry Packer, used to stay there, and now it was Madonna’s turn. She occupied the entire top floor of the opulent three-storey Mansion in a suite costing $6,000 a night.

 

 

From my considerably cheaper room, I could look down on her bodyguards — blokes built like brick outhouses with bow ties — patrolling the gardens of La Mansion. Their main task was to repel sorties of gleeful, chanting, Argentinean teenyboppers. On Madonna’s top floor, the louvered French windows that opened onto a patio were sometimes left alluringly ajar, their gauzy curtains flicking in the evening breeze. Soft lighting glowed within the suite. Yes, I confess, I peeked. No — in three days I didn’t once glimpse the Immaterial Girl. However, late one night I saw someone stepping onto the balcony to drink in the night air. I strained for a better look. Was it her? Nah. Whoever it was looked closer to Kerry or Keef than Madonna.

 

There’s more to Buenos Aires than starlets, juntas and a steamy dance-step. This city of Belle Époque elegance and vast boulevards (its Avenue Ninth of July, 16 lanes wide, is the world’s widest city street) is like no other Latin capital, from the candy-coloured houses at Caminita to the centre’s grandiose edifices. The coffee is excellent, as are the coffee shops such as the famous Cafe Tortoni, founded in 1858 and once patronised by writers like Borges, Lorca and Pirandello. The 19th and early 20th century wealth — generated by the export of pampas beef, mutton and wheat — that created this New World melding of Paris, Rome and New York must have been astounding.

 

 

The steaks are as large as your place mat. The taxis are metered and the public buses are good, but the walking is even better. Which is what I did, letting the city’s vast, flat blocks crowd me with their memories. But, a sunlit city with the grumps, I thought at times. Porteños, the inhabitants of Buenos Aires, are said to be famously unhappy and to have two addictions, coffee and psychoanalysis. What’s the problem, I muse. A century ago, this was the eighth-richest country in the world. Its patrimony was then squandered by a string of venal generals and feckless politicians — sometimes one and the same person. Many of the capital’s sumptuous old buildings are now in pleading need of maintenance but, for a dilettante blow-in who is walking its streets, the flaking patina of their history rubs off, almost literally, on one’s elbows.

 

The first Spanish settlement here was established in 1536 on the banks of the Rio de La Plata — a name so much lovelier in Spanish than its lumpenprole English rendition, River Plate. The British attempted a takeover in 1807 and were booted straight back out, while the Spanish colonial masters received their own marching orders a few years later. By the turn of the 20th century, this was the largest city in Latin America, with massive immigration adding German, Welsh, Basque, Irish, Italian and English blood to that of the earlier Amerindians and Spaniards.

 

In the harbour suburb of Boca (where Maradona started his football career at Boca Juniors club) one old street has been reborn as a walk-through art galley. Closer to an alley than an avenue, Caminita is more notable for its buildings — multi-storeyed structures made of corrugated iron and painted like Rubik’s Cubes — than for its art. These days the latter is mostly kitsch imagery of zoot-suited dandies with pomaded hair and bedroom — if not bathroom — eyes, intensely entangoed, loin to loin, with slinky dames in slit skirts.

 

 

Nearby, in San Telmo district, the plazas, cobbled streets and outdoor cafes seems so European that this could be Italy in the 1950s or Franco’s Spain. One writer noted that ‘BA doesn’t look like Europe, it looks like a postcard of Europe.’ Downtown, the grand 1908 opera house, Theatre Colon, seems like it just drifted down a canal from Venice and ran aground in central BA. There’s no such whimsy attached to La Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace, from whose balcony Generalissimo Peron and his Eva once stirred the crowds with jingoist speeches. European echoes aside, BA remains unmistakably itself, with radio tangos trotting softly in the background and the walls splashed with a reprise of the perennial mantra, ‘Yankee Go Home.’ Today they shout, ‘Viva Evita! Fuera Madonna!’ — ‘Long live Evita! Get out Madonna!’

 

And then there are the Porteños. Almost 40 percent of Argentina’s 44 million people live in greater Buenos Aires. Beyond the grand edifices and touristic tango clubs, it is the Porteños who make the place real, give it its edge. ‘Personality’ here means the triumph of both substance and style: everywhere I see people with (for want of a more precise term) a defiant individualism, plus a glint in the eye. Blame (or thank) the coffee or the neuroses? Who cares? In all, a people greater than the sum of their clothing labels.

 

At an outdoor cafe in Recoleta on a crowded, sunny Sunday afternoon I catch a glimpse of who-gives-a-damn pleasure that is at once intensely private and public — the kind of thing you’d never see in other, more self-conscious capitals. A well-groomed, sixtyish woman wearing shorts sits with her bicycle propped nearby. A bottle of mineral water and a coffee half-consumed are on her table. Her tanned midriff is bare and her sneakered feet are up on a chair. A partly smoked cigarette lingers in one hand, and her eyes are closed in semi-ecstasy as the Buenos Aires sun pours down like benediction.

 

 

©2018 JOHN BORTHWICK

BEARING UP TO BERN by Glenn A. Baker

Bern bridge

The most memorable words spoken about Swiss timekeeping came from the great Orson Welles, high on a ferris wheel over Vienna, in the film, The Third Man: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Switzeland's ubiquitous cukoo clocks

He may not have been quite so dismissive of Swiss clocks had he been given, as I was, an escorted tour through the entrails of the Zytglogge (Clock Tower) in Bern, the Swiss capital – on the site of the 1191 City Gate. It has long been said that a good magician does not reveal his tricks but all is on display here.

More than 500 years old, it is the world’s oldest mechanical clock and needs to be wound daily. Crowds gather in the square beneath it to witness the cast of a gilded crowing rooster, a bell striker and ten dancing bears.

Bern's premier tourist draw

My travelling companion was reminded of the Martin Scorsese film, Hugo; about an orphan boy living in a Paris railway station, who was taught to fix clocks and other gadgetry by his father and uncle and uses those skills to keep to station’s clocks running on time.

The Germanic-leaning capital of Switzerland, which once played host to Albert Einstein (with a museum honouring his presence), Bern gives the impression of having been designed by an ancient predecessor of a Tourist Office. Compact and clean, with pure air, striking architecture, covered outdoor arcades, traditional shopping precincts and markets, and a swiftly flowing river which winds through the city, complete with bridges and high views.

Bern busker

In the cool evenings, the city square is filled with spacious open street restaurants and buskers (one of which is a puppeteer’s doll, seemingly skilled on the violin).

There is a chocolate-box quality to the place and, not surprisingly, there are chocolate emporiums aplently. Our favourite was Laderach, which offers a particularly delectable dark blend with strawberries and pink peppercorns.  There are cake bears at the other sweet shops – a local delicacy.

Bern's Einstein museum

Add that to the Bern motif, an enclosure of brown bears residing in a cage down by the river, and a large moulded beast straddling a wire across a nearby bridge by the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town, and you readily reach the conclusion that Bern is bear crazy.

In March, Bern’s version of “Carnival” takes place when a mythical bear imprisoned in the Prison Tower is woken from his winter sleep by the ychüblete (drumming) and released. Masked revellers brave the winter temperatures and swarm through the streets and restaurants (including the 350-year-old Klotzlikeler) of the Old Town. Guggenmusik-Cliques (bands of carnival musicians) make the six-kilometres route along Bern’s arcaded promenade vibrate with their wild rhythms and noisy percussive music.

Bern's intricate cathedral art

Though there is a Schnit International Short Film Festival with Bern as one of eight participating cities, a Bern “Grand Prix” where thousands run along “the ten most beautiful miles in the world”, a Buskers Festival, a world-famous jazz club (Marian’s Jazzroom), Christmas Markets on Bear’s Square and at Kambly, and a September Sichhlete Festival which combines a harvest, livestock and folk festivals, and the four-day Gurten Music Festival – reached only on a funicular called the Gurtenbahn – showcasing some 60 live acts of all contemporary genres – it needs be said that there is little of the French joie de vivre that one finds in, say, Geneva.

Though the citizenry is faultlessly helpful – particularly when it comes to negotiating the network of trams and buses which can take you beyond the immediate city limits – the smiles and banter one encounters are more likely to be from other visitors.  There is a certain general abandon, though, down by the river under Parliament House. The normal gleeful splashing in a pool is to be heard but the real attraction is the use of the Aare River as a means of rapid transport cum recreation.

Bern's tourists

The crisp and deep waters that sweep down from the Bernese Alps can take you a few hundreds metres or from one side of the city and out the other. There is no need for a canoe or kayak, just hurl yourself (perhaps with your possessions in a watertight pouch) into the torrent from one of the platforms and, when you wish to alight, strike out toward the shore, grab one of the steel bars protruding from a platform and drag yourself onto land.

A first attempt can be a little, let’s say, challenging and even a tad terrifying, but once you get the hang of it, it’s an almost addictive experience. On a busy day, there are quite literally hundreds of bobbing heads being swept past your eyeline. All looking rather joyful for the experience.

Bern river

PETER PINNEY: THE MAN WHOSE HEART LAY ON THE FAR HORIZON by John Borthwick

Dust On My Shoes front cover

 

‘In a cobbled lane with a pompous name there was a well appointed tavern …’ So wrote Peter Pinney in one of his luminous tales of travel adventure. From Mozambique to Martinique and almost everywhere in between, Australian traveller and writer Peter Patrick Pinney (1922-1992) often found the tavern door to adventure standing ajar. He made a career of nudging it open and then stepping across the threshold.

 

‘Nobody ever lived their life all the way up except bullfighters,’ opined one of Ernest Hemingway’s alpha male characters. As far as I know, Peter Pinney didn’t ever fight a bull (most likely the foppish machismo of matadors would have struck him as vapid) although he did do battle with a spectrum of foes, from World War II Japanese invaders in New Guinea to sour French bureaucrats in a dozen colonies. Probably more than anyone else I have read – and certainly anyone I ever met – Pinney lived his life “all the way up”, and yet he was not an aggressive or self-aggrandising man. He was, by his own description, ‘just an ordinary, unremarkable sort of bloke – which often was very helpful in certain tight situations.’

 

This “ordinary, unremarkable sort of bloke” made a true profession of travelling – not as a tourist or explorer, but as an in-it-up-to-the-neck vagabond adventurer. His 1948 to 1950 overland journey (which became his first book, Dust On My Shoes) from Greece to India and then Burma pioneered the route which later generations of hippy trippers turned into the “Overland Route”or “Dope Trail” pilgrimage. Whereas many of them became trapped in the eye of a chillum in Goa or Pokhara, Pinney and his tearaway Dutch pal Marchand trekked on, illegally, across Assam and into headhunter country in upper Burma. There they were told, ‘No white man has come through those mountains since the British forces in ‘forty-five … and they took an easier route than you.’

 

Chindwin-Irrawaddy Map

 

His books are replete with frontiers: some physical, some political, and many bureaucratic. (He regarded “bickering with the Law” as the “natural corollary of travelling”.) But journeying for Pinney was not just the storming of backwater colonial borders or the accumulation of anecdotes as “next book” fodder. Instead, it was his work, both physical and intellectual, and his pages carry self-reflective passages where, often in conversation with some more sedentary local soul, he ponders the traveller’s philosophical conundrum: the slings, arrows and joys of the peripatetic life, versus the surgical drip certainties of hearth and taxes. A fat but unhappy baker somewhere on the Niger River warns him ‘… no man can be happy if his heart lies in another place, apart from him.’To which Pinney considers the possibility that: ‘Unhappy, then, is the man whose heart lies on the far horizon, and always moves ahead.’

 

Original early 20th-century Burmese 'steamer' passenger boat.
Original early 20th-century Burmese ‘steamer’ passenger boat.

 

Peter Pinney’s continuous “moving ahead” commenced while he was at a Sydney boarding school. He learned to “ride the rattlers” during his holidays and saw much of east coast Australia from freight trains. By the time he had matriculated (having hung by the knees from the arch of Sydney Harbour Bridge), his senses of both adventure and irreverence were sufficiently well honed that all he wanted (or was suited) to do was travel. But that was 1941, and “travel” then meant becoming a “dollar-a-day tourist” in the Australian Army.

 

WWII Commando Peter Pinney by IvorHele

 

‘I was firstly a traveller, then a writer,’said Pinney. ‘If I hadn’t travelled, I wouldn’t have been moved to write.’ With Army “travel” he started a life-long discipline of diary keeping, which in the Australian wartime Army was illegal. When the military censors captured his tiny, secret book, written in miniscule script, they “filigreed” it with a razor. Undeterred, Pinney continued recording; when posted to a jungle commando unit in New Guinea and later in Bougainville, the cat n’ mouse game of preserving his diary from preying officers continued.

 

As a writer, Pinney was an untutored natural. Riding freight trains, crawling through Japanese lines and living on your wits from civil war Salonika to Burma’s fateful Chindwin River may merit a double PhD from the university of life, but it is no particular apprenticeship in the art and crafting of prose. Yet, from the beginning his writing style was spare, observant and witty, with a novelist’s feel for dialogue and plot. Of writing his first book Dust On My Shoes (at age 28) he said:

 

‘… there seemed to be a great deal of work involved; and it nearly didn’t get written at all. I was in Calcutta, and I was broke, my last few rupees having been stolen as I was standing in a tram. But having dealt me several unkind blows, Fate allowed me to make the acquaintance of half a dozen airline pilots – American, English, Australian – who proved anxious to have someone look after their house. In my spare time I could write. I had no idea how to write a book. My only feedback was when one of the pilots picked up a typed page and read a few paras, laughed with friendly derision and handed it back.

 

But I stuck at it. I wrote 180,000 words and sent the manuscript to [publishers] Angus & Robertson. They said they would accept it – ‘but cut out 60,000 words’. If someone takes you to the top of a high mountain and says, ‘All these lands I will give you, if you cut your wife in half’, what do you do? So I cut out 60,000 words, whole sheaves of pages, adding a line here and there for continuity. And it became a best-seller, despite that derisive laughter.’

 

Smokin' Chindwin monk

 

For some 20 years (while encountering six civil wars, among numerous other crises), Peter Pinney lived to travel. He didn’t just travel in order to live by his subsequent writings. His peregrinations through Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, the Pacific, New Guinea and Australia became the grist of six travel books and one novel. After decades aboard, he returned to Australia. During the 1970s, he skippered a lobster boat in the Torres Strait Islands and in the 1980s finally came ashore to settle in Brisbane where he wrote television scripts and a trilogy based on his Pacific jungle war experiences – and those tiny, secret diaries which had preserved. Twelve books, six civil wars and at least ten passports is not a bad innings for any writer. Not to mention hanging out in Tahiti in the early 1960s and playing Marlon Brando’s double in Mutiny On The Bounty.

 

When I discovered his Dust On My Shoes, I devoured it (as only a restless, stuck-in-Sydney teenager could do) and then went on to read everything else of his that I could find. Credit, blame or thanks are due to him for having presented vagabondage to me as a perfectly worthwhile career option. Thus I travelled, and later became a travel writer.

 

Fishing canoes at morning on Ayerawaddy (Irrawaddy) River

 

The year before he died, his publishers asked me to edit an anthology of Peter Pinney’s best travel tales, which became The Road to Anywhere (University of Queensland Press, 1993). The question soon became (and remains): How can I leave out that bit — and that one? And so on. It was soon evident that the quartet of books that covered his extended absence from Australia, from 1947 to 1962, formed an extended narrative, a unique tale of out-there adventures “on the road” before travel (and then tourism) became not just a rare privilege but, as today, virtually an obligation.

 

I had the privilege of meeting Peter and his wife, Estelle, at their home in suburban Brisbane. Having the chance to meet a “hero” in the flesh is to run the risk of encountering perhaps a shadow of the person one has imagined. Peter, on the contrary, turned out to be all the humorous, compassionate and fair dinkum things that his pen had suggested – and much more. Like me, many people I know who’ve read his travel books remain secretly envious of how Peter Pinney lived his life, fully –  indeed “all the way up”.

 Shwe Moat Htaw pagoda beside Chindwin River

 

Burma’s Chindwin, Pinney’s river of no return

 

Most books don’t change your life. When I first came across Pinney’s Dust On My Shoes, I all but peeled the print from its pages, such was my enthusiasm for his epic tale of travelling in the late-1940s, overland from civil war-torn Greece, via the Middle East, Afghanistan and India, to Burma’s Chindwin River.

 

Whether among minstrels in the Sahara or smuggling booze in Central America, Pinney made an art of outwitting border guards and baiting colonial desk-wallahs, while befriending locals and staying one step – rarely more – ahead of broke, if not busted. Every few years, he would pull up a deserted beach somewhere – Zanzibar was one such place – and write a rattling good book about travelling on a freedom road that now is pretty much (as the Beatles said) “gone forever, not for better”.

 

Shwe Moat Htaw pagoda beside Chindwin River

The little town of Kalewa overlooks the Chindwin River in remote, northwest Myanmar – or Burma as it was in Pinney’s day. An old Buddhist pagoda, Moat Htaw, crowns its hill on the western bank. Raintrees shade the shore below the temple where people come to wash and chat each evening. Other than a growing population and a few satellite dishes, Kalewa’s riverfront probably doesn’t look dramatically different from how the twenty-seven year-old Pinney and his resourceful Dutch companion, Robert Marchand, 31, found it in 1949. They had worked their way overland from Europe, living off their outrageous if not larcenous wits while heading ever eastwards. Upon reaching Assam in northeast India, border officials detained them and absolutely forbade the pair to attempt to enter Burma.

 

Naturally, they did just that, escaping from arrest and hiking east from Nagaland through hazardous jungle terrain and mountain passes, at times in the company of tribal Kula head-hunters. Upon reaching Burma, they found their path again blocked, this time by the Chindwin River in monsoon flood, as well as by a communist insurgency on the other side of the river. To top it off, the British district officer arrested them (again), pending deportation overland back to India.

 

Older Burmese woman smoking cheroot

 

Determined to cross the Chindwin and press on to Mandalay, they climbed the hill to Kalewa’s monastery and asked the abbot for a letter of safe conduct once they had somehow crossed the swollen river. The monk first insisted on reading their palms but, foreseeing great misfortune in Marchand’s hand, he refused to assist in their plan.

 

Burmese Buddhist monk

 

Myanmar is a land of courteous people (if not generals), a place of both beauty and decrepitude where the 1950s are leap-frogging into the 21st century. When offered the chance to join the river ship Katha Pandaw on a cruise to the upper Chindwin, and in monsoon season, I grab it. Departing Yangon, we head up the Ayeyarwady River to Bagan’s treasury of 3000 temples. (“Are you stupa-fied yet?”quips our guide at the end of our day among them.) We soon join the Ayeyarwady’s main tributary, the Chindwin and witness Burmese time in rewind during our daily rambles ashore through market towns where streets are still called The Strand and where old European forts, warehouses and abandoned mansions recall the country’s colonial past.

 

British colonial-era buildings.

 

We wander through pagodas dense with intricate art, meet cheroot-smoking folk who smear their faces with white thanaka paste – local sunscreen – and sometimes we just take the pulse of day by sitting in a riverside chai shop. Rafts of precious teak logs head downstream while skinny canoes edge crab-wise across the current. Near Monywa, we visit Thanbodi Temple and its forest of half a million Buddha statues, plus an absurdly tall 125-metre Standing Buddha with a 100-metre long Reclining Buddha at his feet. Understandably, even devout locals sometimes call the place Buddhist Disneyland.

 

On board a Chindwin River cruise boat.

 

Our good ship Pandaw Katha is a teak-and-brass descendant of last century’s Irrawaddy steamers. Just add 16 ensuite cabins, good food, a wizened skipper, a for’ard viewing deck and ample gin and tonic. I wince to think what hard-travelling Pinney would make of it all.

 

We reach Kalewa towards the end of our 1000-kilometre, two-week journey. I hike up the hill that six decades earlier Pinney and Marchand had climbed in order to consult the abbot of Moat Htaw monastery. From here the broad river seems deceptively benign even in monsoon tide. Fishing pirogues drift on it. Women whack laundry on slapstones at its edge and labourers climb the bank unloading beer kegs from cargo boats.

 

Chindwin River

 

The two adventurers scanned the same landscape but a different river. The blue Naga Hills that they had just crossed lay behind them to the west and, beckoning somewhere ahead, was the proverbial road to Mandalay. Unlike my vista today, their Chindwin River was in full flood with whirlpools and eddies churning its surface. As Pinney wrote:

 

‘I looked at that swollen river racing past – we timed it at 12 knots – and listened to the boiling of the current as it turned the waters over and over and played with logs like matchsticks. I wondered whether there would be any chance at all even without the whirlpools.’

 

Regardless of the current and the abbot’s warning, early one morning the pair “borrowed”a local canoe and set out to take their chances. The canoe bucked in the torrent and soon capsized mid-stream. Pinney saw the seemingly indestructible Marchand swept away to never be seen again, while he, on the point of drowning, was rescued by villagers. Stunned, he later wrote, ‘The debonair, the cynical, the light-hearted, proud and resolute Marchand … the Chindwin had claimed him and rendered no return.’

 

Chindwin River

 

With our good ship’s safe, cushy journey over, like Pinney, we too leave the Chindwin River at Kalewa. For us, it’s only a bone-rattling bus trip to an airfield a few hours away and then an easy flight to Yangon. For Peter Pinney, expelled from Burma, it was a sombre turning-back westwards. He wrote, ‘Along the road to India I walked, away from the dawn, away from the river and out of the town, alone; and looking down I marvelled that there was so little dust on my shoes.’

 

Dust in my Shoes covers

 

Peter Pinney bibliography (travel, fiction and biography)

Dust on My Shoes. 1952, 1967

Road in the Wilderness. 1952

Who Wanders Alone. 1954

Anywhere But Here. 1956

Ride the Volcano. 1960

The Lawless and the Lotus. 1963

Restless Men. 1966

To Catch a Crocodile. 1976

Too Many Spears. 1978

The Barbarians. 1988

The Glass Cannon. 1990

The Devil’s Garden. 1992

The Road to Anywhere (anthology). 1993

 

Burmese mother and infant child.

A JOURNEY THROUGH AN OLD WORLD MADE NEW by Glenn A. Baker

Glendevon 6

The years have not been entirely kind to Sri Lanka. The uprising of the Tamil Tigers, the closing of rail lines, the withdrawal of the national carrier from our part of the world, the devastation of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami . Tourists could fairly have concluded that there were more welcoming places on the planet.

 

If there has been a determined fight against this perception, it has been waged by the genial and determined Chandra Wickramasinghe, a Colombo travel agent who formed Connaisance de Ceylan in the 1980s, and has, over the past decade, established a chain of seven largely boutique hotels spanning the island of his birth, with a keen eye on the most evocative and appealing corners of the teardrop-shaped land.

 

You need to climb high in the lush tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya in the central west for the most recent and possibly most desirable acquisition. With just five rooms, the estate now known as The Scottish Planter Glendevon Bungalow has long been a fixture in this realm of planters and pickers. Built as a stone cottage along the lines of the traditional architecture of Scotland, its first owner was one Geo Armitage who passed it into the hands of the Anglo-Ceylon Tea Company.

 

Tea 1

 

There are more than thirty thousand years of recorded history in Sri Lanka, with remnants of the “Balangoda Man” and of hardy hunters and gatherers. There have been 181 kings and queens and an astonishing array of legend and fable; there have been settlements of the ancient Sinhalese, forts of the Dutch and Portuguese.  But, it was the arrival of the British during the Napoleonic Wars and their conclusion that the uplands of the island – which they named Ceylon – would be suitable for rubber, coffee and particularly tea cultivation, that the indelible image of the place was stamped on international consciousness.

 

By the middle of the 19th century, Ceylon tea – as much the resonance of the name as the actual substance – was pivotal to the British Empire. A small cadre of white planters, overlords of indentured Tamil labourers from Southern India, shaped the island in their own likeness and, though they have long decamped, their mark is inescapable – from cultivated fields, factories and extended families intertwined with the land who have known nothing else but tea and all its connections, for generations.

 

Inside Glendevon Bunglalow, in the spacious and elegant rooms which have been sympathetically restored and reconfigured to meet contemporary elite hotel standards within a framework of colonial charm, are remnants of the tea culture from original planters’ artefacts to promotional posters of the day. Guests who come seeking a near incomparable historical ambience – and a serenity which allows there to be Honeymoon Suite – stroll, cycle and hike the gentle hills, occasionally interacting with villagers who have encountered few foreigners in their lives. The Liddesdale tea factory, with processes largely unchanged for a hundred years, welcomes visitors; for those who feel the need for a connection with the bustle of a degree of civilisation, the substantial town of Ragala is a short drive away. In the evening, it really is a case of it being a misty mountain hop, as a chill largely unknown in Sri Lanka descends.

 

Glendevon 4

 

Temperature played a large role the establishment of the Nuwara Eliya area, overlooked as it is by Pidurutalagala, the highest mountain in the country. Like the British Raj in India’s Simla and the French colonialists in Vietnam’s Dalat, British civil servants sought it out as cool retreat for their tender sensibilities. That it happened to be the most important location for tea production in Ceylon was rather fortuitous. The main city, some twenty kilometres away, was known as Little England, when the Brits could still call the shots on such things, and is today visited by busloads who seek out a series of quaint buildings, including a well-preserved post office that could well be in Sussex or Lancashire. There is even a Windsor Hotel.

 

With original floors, massive four-poster beds, white linen breakfasts with tea pickers in ready sight, open fireplaces, Sri Lankan cooking classes for those addicted to the taste of it all, and a spa under construction, Glendevon Bungalow has in mind an environment which will encourage any families who stay to feel “like they’re at home”, just as the original inhabitants did well over a century ago.

 

Although Kenya has now risen to the top of the international tea production rankings, the industry in Sri Lanka employs over a million people and accounts for about a quarter of the global output. Its origins were in the city of Kandy, the second largest metropolis in the country and the location of Glendevon’s “sister lodge”, Mountbatten Bungalow, so named for having functioned as a war office during WWII and being one of the residences of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Originally owned by The Mount Pleasant Tea Company this six-room establishment (with another six garden chalets) – with similarly spacious traditional leanings to Glendevon – sits atop the city, exuding elements of Victorian grace and beauty intertwined with an up-market boutique hotel approach.

 

Glendevon 2

 

A Scotsman of some foresight by the name of James Taylor grew tea commercially in Kandy in 1867, on a 19-acre coffee estate called Looleconder, after a baleful fungus came close to wiping out the coffee crops. A switch to tea saved the planters’ day and, within a decade, Taylor’s green bushes were flourishing on 5,000 acres in the hills of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. It was a move hailed by Scottish novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, with the words: “Not often is it that men have the heart, when their one great industry is withered, to rear up in a few years another as rich to take its place, and the tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the Lion of Waterloo.”

 

If Chandra Wickramasinghe, who also operates larger five-star resort hotels such as Maalu Maalu on Pasikuda Bay, the Aliya in the cultural triangle near Sigiriya Rock (maintaining a strong social conscience of training residents and employing local staff at both) and the tented lodge Wild Trails in the Yala National Park, has recognised a desire on the part of visitors to Sri Lanka to be transported to another place and time, to touch a past that incorporates all the comforts of the present, then his logical next step has been to help save a heritage home in the very heart of Colombo that has been a home to five generations of a family.

 

Adrian Mahes Basnayake, who could have yielded to offers from developers to have an apartment building or office complex rise on the site of his magnificent home at 129 Kynsey Road in the capitol but, taking the admirable view that “the world does not need another skyscraper”, he spent five years painstakingly restoring and expanding the house where he had raised his two children, channeling proceeds from his successful career in pharmaceutical supplies. With eight rooms named after strong women in his family line, who had once called his ‘heritage home’ their home, Maniumpathy took shape. His daughter, three years into a medical degree in Melbourne, Australia, chose to come home and take over the running of a grand dwelling that, had it remained as a family residence, would have required five or six servants, a burden that Adrian was not prepared to pass on to his family in an era now removed from the tranquil days of privilege.

 

Maniumpathy heritage house

 

Chandra and Adrian are banking on the fact that not only afficionados of boutique heritage properties but businessmen more generally given to chain hotels on their visits to Columbo will be won over to a place where Sri Lanka’s past has been artfully preserved, with grand dining tables, polished wood staircases, free-standing bath tubs, well-stacked bookshelves, classic furnishings and family portraits taking pride of place.  Adrian feels that keeping this landmark property open acknowledges those who appreciate “not only beauty but architecture, hospitality, graciousness and an old way of living”.

 

These are early days, as they are with Glendevon Bungalow, but the signs are good. Maniumpathy in taking on the big name hotels, with a pool and spa, an instantly popular restaurant, wi-fi, a 24-hour front desk, private parking, a strolling garden and special touches such as bakelite telephones and vintage lamps. In the heart on Colombo, it is within reach of art galleries, shopping centres, chic emporiums and national monuments. It is five minutes away from the Royal Colombo Golf Club.  A more vigorous stroll will have you at the R. Premadasa Stadium, the various embassies, and the Asiri Surgical Hospital. The airport is a drive of less than 30 kilometres.

 

These three heritage properties will not be the last for Chandra’s Theme Resorts and Spas group, which pursues a distinct identity influenced by the cultural traditions and symbolism unique to each area. His antennae waves constantly. “I want to expand the Sri Lankan experience for those who are just coming to know us after thirty years of war and I try to do something different each time. I establish hotels in a primarily Buddhist country, with people who work hard and bring a gentle quality to everything they do, and I think that sets us apart. There is much good that I can do, in places where people have hardly seen a tourist. My philosophy of preserving through sensitive development, seems to have appeal across Europe and even in Russia but also in Australia and New Zealand – fierce rivals on the cricket pitch but close friends in every other way. I believe we will be seeing visitors from all those countries in Sri Lanka before very long.  After all these years of our civilisation, we are being ‘discovered’!”

 

Mountbatten Bungalow

 

©2017 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.