Three of Australia's best-known travel writers unfurl their world
David Latta is an award-winning editor, journalist and photographer. His work has appeared in scores of Australian and international newspapers and magazines including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Australian Financial Review, The Courier-Mail and Travel & Leisure.
During the last two decades, he has largely concentrated on travel and tourism, editing more than a dozen B2B titles and major conference and incentive travel publications.
He is the author of critically-acclaimed books on such subjects as architecture and design, Australian history, literary criticism and music. These titles include Lost Glories: A Memorial To Forgotten Australian Buildings, Sand On The Gumshoe: A Century Of Australian Crime Writing, and Australian Country Music.
He is currently working on a book about the nightclub scene in 1970s Sydney as well as a sprawling thriller set in Sydney during World War II.
As an arts commentator, humourist and trend-spotter, his opinions are sought across the gamat of traditional and social media.
‘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.’
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.’
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.
‘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.’
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.
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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.’
Peter Pinney bibliography (travel, fiction and biography)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’!”
For such a long time, I had a glass heart. I have no idea how I acquired it or when. Most likely, I was suckered, as is my way occasionally when travelling, into donating to some worthy cause. The glass heart would have been my reward.
It was slipped absent-mindedly into an outside pocket of my camera bag, where I’d rediscover it from time to time while rummaging for keys or spare change. Small, about two centimetres across by a centimetre thick, its iridescent surface reflecting light through a thousand rainbow shades. It made me smile.
It came to mind only once, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, in the tiny sun-seared town of Joshua Tree, California. In the courtyard of the relatively nondescript Joshua Tree Inn, an establishment with a name as utilitarian as its unadorned appearance, the one notable feature of which is an outsize statue of a guitar that stands in the dusty courtyard like one of Kubrick’s monoliths.
Around the concrete base is a scattering of tributes: candles, dice, cigarette lighters, violin bows, marbles, a white angel with wings spread wide, a CD, a tiny Day of the Dead figure, empty liquor bottles, coins, badges, a candlestick shaped like a palm tree, dead flowers, a plaque showing a skeleton under the word Grievous. The flotsam and jetsam of everyday life refashioned as pop cultural fetishes.
Etched into the guitar is the legend: Gram Parsons. Safe At Home. 11/5/46 – 9/19/73.
Turn around and there’s Room 8. It’s where Gram Parsons, widely credited as the father of country rock, died. Young, vital, brimming with promise, though underappreciated in his time. A few months short of his 27th birthday.
I want to see inside Room 8. The Inn is booked out; I’ve checked. But, on this weekday early afternoon, under a fading blue canopy of lung-searing heat, it’s deathly still. There’s nobody around the swimming pool or in the shade of the verandahs. The housekeepers have packed up and disappeared, the reception desk unattended.
The tortured artist, dead before his time, is an overly-familiar trope. It gets all the publicity, the gritty biopics, the ironic hipster t-shirts. If all the people who now profess their eternal admiration had been around back then to buy his albums, Gram Parsons may still be alive. Making his music, older than the heroes he worshipped when he was too young to be taken seriously by them.
Gram Parsons’ story is anchored firmly in the southern Gothic tradition that has become as much a cliché as that of the haunted artist too pure for this world. Except that his story was agonisingly real. It didn’t need the embellishment or romantic exaggeration of modern popular culture.
Gram Parsons was born Ingram Cecil Connor III in Winter Haven, Florida, on 5 November 1946. His mother, Avis, was the daughter of John A. Snively, a pioneer of the Florida citrus industry; his father, Cecil Connor, known in those parts as Coon Dog, cut a dashing figure as an ex-Army pilot. Coon Dog had been stationed in Hawaii when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Later, he flew combat missions in New Guinea and was hospitalised in Australia after contracting malaria.
The Snively family was Florida royalty, immensely wealthy from catering to a nation’s desire for breakfast refreshment. Winter Haven was their fiefdom. The head of the family may have been cool to his daughter’s choice in men but he brought Coon Dog into the family business, putting him in charge of a packaging operation in Waycross, Georgia, where Gram was born and raised.
Both parents liked their cocktails a little too much; Avis was what was considered “highly strung” and had a dependence on prescription medicine. Due to his war service, Coon Dog exhibited symptoms that would later be known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Family life wasn’t comfortable for a boy as finely tuned as Gram and he took to music as an escape. He loved playing records and holding parties. He picked out tunes he only just heard on the family piano and was soon writing his own songs. His interest turned to something far deeper, like it did for many of his generation, when he saw Elvis perform at the Waycross City Auditorium. in February 1956,
Two years later, when Gram was 12, the careful balance of his world began to falter. Coon Dog committed suicide. Avis, Gram and his sister, known as Little Avis, returned to the safe haven of the Snively family’s Magnolia Mansion on the shores of Lake Eloise.
Gram felt the loss of his father keenly. To dull the pain, he retreated further into music and his mother’s limitless supply of prescription drugs.
Avis eventually married a charismatic salesman, Robert Ellis Parsons, who adopted Gram and supported his musical endeavours, to the extent of opening a local music venue. Derry Down, as it was called, became part of a network of Florida youth club venues that nurtured such emerging musical talent as the Allman Brothers, Tom Petty, Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Joni Mitchell.
And a young musician with a burgeoning reputation by the name of Gram Parsons. The bands he became involved with reflected the musical styles of the time, first rock’n’roll, then folk. His musicianship and stage presence developed well with time although it was his plaintive presence, the inner sadness that dwelt behind his steady, intelligent gaze, that resonated most deeply in audiences, especially amongst young women.
The death of his mother in 1964, after a long agonising decline hastened by alcohol, shattered Gram anew. But if it did one thing, it propelled him out of Florida towards his musical future. In 1965, he enrolled at Harvard but lasted less than a semester. Studying wasn’t really high on the Gram Parsons curriculum. Girls and drugs, not necessarily in that order, consumed his time.
He put together the first incarnation of the International Submarine Band. After Harvard, they moved to New York City but west was where everybody with any musical ambition was heading, to the sunshine and agreeably hedonistic lifestyle of Los Angeles.
The International Submarine Band set up in Laurel Canyon and, by 1967, had a deal with LHI Records, fronted by singer/songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood. One of the stranger characters of the 1960s West Coast music scene (admittedly, a pretty crowded field), Hazlewood is generally best known as partner, musical and otherwise, to Nancy Sinatra. The International Submarine Band joined LHI in a roster that, in many ways, defied description, artistic endeavour and sound business sense.
Meanwhile, Gram and Los Angeles in the late 1960s became a potent combination. Lanky and boyish, he was quietly spoken with an endearing Southern drawl and impeccable manners, an agreeable combination of attributes that turned heads. Pamela des Barres, whose experience of such things was as vast and all-encompassing as the desert sky, famously described Gram as “totally countrified in a slinky bedroom-eyed way”.
That he had an affinity for girls, drugs, booze and music just made him one of many in the landscape. That he enjoyed a certain level of wealth (by the late 60s, the proceeds from a trust fund established by his grandfather was paying off to the tune of about $US100,000 a year), set him a little further apart and ensured he could indulge his interests in high style; it was a fact of life in southern California, however, that wealthy young gods were still ruling the landscape then as now.
His distinctions were in an increasing dedication to the more traditional elements of country music (unusual amongst his contemporaries who were all seeking, in their own ways, the alchemic formula to successfully fuse folk, pop and rock into chart gold) and his song writing.
The latter was on display during his ISB days; the first International Submarine Band single cut for LHI was pure Gram – “Luxury Liner” and “Blue Eyes”, with the resulting album including two more Gram compositions, “Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome” and “Strong Boy”.
By the time ISB’s album was released, in March 1968 after a considerable delay, the band had split and Gram had moved on to another project.
The Byrds had gained attention with a line-up of Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby and Chris Hillman, cruisng through a folk repertoire with dreamily tight harmonies that, as the 1960s progressed, merged into psychedelic rock.
Members came and went; by late 1967, Crosby and Clark had gone and The Byrds were looking for new blood. Early the following year, by the time their fifth album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was released, Gram had been accepted into the fold. With the support of Hillman (and opposition from McGuinn), Gram steered The Byrds towards a more country sound.
They immediately launched into a new album, recording in Nashville and Los Angeles a mix of country standards, Bob Dylan compositions and three of Gram’s own songs, including the now-classic “Hickory Wind”.
It was in Nashville in March 1968 that The Byrds played the Grand Ole Opry, the spiritual stronghold of the highly-conservative country music establishment. Gram’s youthful exuberance for country music (and his fellow band members’ self-regard as contemporary music royalty) left them in little doubt of a warm, even rapturous, welcome.
It didn’t quite work out that way. The audience seemed stunned by the long-haired hippies in their midst (though long-hair was always going to be a relative term when set against conservative Nashville; photographs of the group on stage at the Opry reveal what we would now call “preppy” attire and their hair, barely over the ears, looks no more menacing than the Beatles’ mop tops).
The Opry’s executive elite couldn’t have been less hospitable if The Byrds had harmonised the Communist Manifesto. It wasn’t helped by Gram’s last-minute decision to substitute Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” (some reports state it was to be Haggard’s “Life In Prison”) as the announced final song in their set for his own “Hickory Wind”, even if he did dedicate it to his elderly grandmother.
Gram suffered a double disappointment on the release of The Byrds’ latest album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, in August 1968. Lee Hazlewood and LHI considered they still had Gram under contract and most of his vocals were redubbed, much to McGuinn’s delight. And, despite his unswerving dedication to country music, Sweetheart was the worst performing Byrds album to date, nudging only as high as #77 on the Billboard charts (in comparison, the previous album reached #47, still a disaster for a band of their stature but at least, though barely, in the top half of the charts).
All the public needed, as Gram so consistently expounded, was country music played by a new generation of long-haired rock musicians. Regrettably, the public never received that memo. Fusing folk, pop and rock and any number of barely-like-minded influences was becoming quite the musical fashion but too many young people saw straight-out country music as something their parents, small-town cousins and six-fingered distant relations looked to for life lessons. It just wasn’t cool.
Gram pressed on regardless, devising new ways to describe his music, desperately trying to intellectualise it and sneak it in through the back door of hipsterdom. Cosmic American Music was his favoured term; he even started calling it roots music, decades before the term gained widespread acceptance.
He was bummed by Sweetheart’s frosty reception but he’d moved on from The Byrds by then anyway; leaving by summer 1968, ostensibly because he objected to a proposed tour of apartheid-era South Africa, although it was more likely that continued friction with McGuinn played a more central role.
In record time (excuse the pun), he founded another band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, to do his philosophical bidding. Joining him was Chris Hillman, who’d also fled The Byrds around this time. They signed to A&M Records and launched into their first album.
Musically as well as philosophically, The Burritos were closer to Gram’s concept of long-hairs playing country music; Gram also took control of their stage image by steering them to a Ukranian-born tailor working out of North Hollywood. Nuta Kotlyarenko, better known as Nudie Cohan, created fantasias of elaborate Western styling that became popular amongst such country performers as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Hank Williams, and then spread to others in the music industry including Elvis and John Lennon.
The Burritos pretty much blew their A&M advance on the outfits but they sure looked sharp in the publicity photos. Nudie was renowned for personally styling the suits to its clients’ tastes and Gram’s own choices were those that defined his life: marijuana leaves, poppies, pills, naked women and a cross.
The Burritos and their Nudie suits were emblazoned across their first album. The Gilded Palace Of Sin, released in February 1969; musically, it typified Gram’s dedication towards fusing traditional country with folk, rock, pop, even soul (in the latter instance, “Dark End Of The Street”, best known as a 1966 hit for James Carr). As satisfying as the album was, and it did garner considerable critical attention, the public remained underwhelmed and ignored it.
Sin stalled at #164 on the Billboard Top 200. The band’s follow-up, Burrito Deluxe, released in May 1970, didn’t even make the Top 200. Shortly after that, Gram was fired from his own band, the victim of his own overindulgence in drugs and alcohol although the rest of the band were no less guilty of such transgressions.
While renowned for their studio work, in concert they were hit-and-miss, preferring to get shit-faced and play poker instead of taking the stage. The situation wasn’t helped by such unfortunate decisions as turning down Woodstock but playing Altamont.
Gram’s drug and alcohol dependence showed no signs of mellowing; it seemed the more the record-buying public rejected his heart-felt musical intentions, the more he sought escape by chemical means. The situation wasn’t helped by an important friendship forged in the late 1960s, one of two that would define as much as emphasis his musical journey.
On 7 July 1968, The Byrds played the Royal Albert Hall in London; amongst the glitterati trawling backstage was Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. The two immediately hit it off; while autobiographies and memoirs are the most infuriatingly inexact of sources, Richards’ own Life (2010) pays considerable tribute to Gram Parsons’ influence, musical as well as personal, both on Richards and the Rolling Stones.
“When I fell in with Gram Parsons in the summer of 1968, I struck a seam of music that I’m still developing, which widened the range of everything I was playing and writing. It also began an instant friendship that already seemed ancient the first time we sat down and talked. It was like a reunion with a long-lost brother for me,” writes Richards. “Gram was very, very special and I still miss him.”
The first question Gram asked Richards was whether he had any drugs. It was shared interests – drugs as much as music – that underpinned their friendship. Following the English concerts, The Byrds were scheduled to play South Africa but Richards and the other Stones enlightened Gram on the issue of apartheid; the result was that Gram left the tour, and the Byrds, there and then. The next few months, he spent in England with Richards.
Just as the Stones, like many English musicians in the early 1960s, had adopted the blues, so Keith Richards, by the decade’s end, immersed himself in country music, tutored all the while by an enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable Gram. They spent long periods jamming, writing songs, experimenting with styles, building influences one atop the other like building blocks, continuing to refine the things that worked, tossing aside those that didn’t.
The late 1960s, into the early to mid-70s, was a period of musical transition for the Stones. Mick Taylor was brought in to replace Brian Jones and the band’s direction changed remarkably. Jagger was in favour of emphasising a harder sound, one that would eventually emerge as stadium rock; Richards, fired up by Gram’s intensive tutoring, was determined towards Americana, roots music and country.
Gram was never too far away from Richards for the next few Rolling Stones albums, from Let It Bleed (1969) through to Exile On Main Street (1972), and his influence as much as his direct involvement is the subject of considerable speculation by music historians. Listen to “Country Honk”, the hillbilly-ish version of “Honky Tonk Women” that appears on Let It Bleed and try if you can to ignore the spirit of Gram Parsons that haunts it; doubly haunted, perhaps, as it’s this track that was the last Stones session Brian Jones played on before his death.
On Sticky Fingers (1971), Gram’s influence is apparent on “Dead Flowers” although it’s “Wild Horses” that gets all the attention. Despite the Jagger/Richards song writing credit, there’s long been a conspiracy theory that Gram co-wrote it (most likely untrue; the song is far too straight-forward, lacking his Southern Gothic complexities). That’s not to say, however, that Gram didn’t contribute much to how the song sounded.
“Wild Horses” was recorded at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, over a two-day period in early December 1969. It was one of three tracks (also including “Brown Sugar”) recorded at the session and the first tracks that would form Sticky Fingers. Gram was not in the studio for it.
The Stones were at the end of a US tour that had started on 7 November; they’d been developing new material and were eager to record it while it was still fresh. After a concert in West Palm Beach, Florida, they had a few days before the final date. As a strange quirk of their visas, they could play concerts but couldn’t record so a quiet, out-of-the-way location in northern Alabama was hastily arranged. That Muscle Shoals was already legendary for recording such R&B giants as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett worked on one level; on another, a bunch of white English boys went noted but barely recognised.
A few days later, the Stones travelled to California for the final date on the tour, meeting up with Gram and the Burritos who were also appearing at the free concert, along with Santana, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
The date was 6 December 1969. The location was the Altamont Speedway. And the rest, as they say in the music industry, generally in a most ominous tone, is history.
Something that did come out of this is that Keith Richards gave Gram a demo tape of “Wild Horses” along with permission to release his own version before the Stones. It appeared on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Burrito Deluxe, released in April 1970, a full year before the Stones version appeared on Sticky Fingers.
Mick Jagger has been quite open about the influence Gram had on the country feel of such Sticky Fingers tracks as “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers”, as well as a few from Exile On Main Street. The version of “Wild Horses” released on Sticky Fingers (there were two takes recorded at Muscle Shoals; the second could well be the acoustic version available on the 2015 Deluxe edition re-release of Sticky Fingers) is quite a restrained country ballad, displaying little in the way of Cosmic American Music, but somewhere, forgotten, in an archives may be a version of even more interest to Gram Parson aficionados.
There is mention, amongst the multitude of GP biographies and associated material, that Gram was asked to suggest a pedal steel player to add to “Wild Horses”. His choice was Peter Kleinow, otherwise known as Sneaky Pete, who he held in high regard and worked closely with in both the Byrds and the Burritos.
As an aside, Sneaky Pete has another of the quirkier stories in American music. An accomplished pedal steel player and champion of the Fender 400, Pete had a secondary career as a Hollywood visual effects and stop motion animator, working on such film and television shows as Gumby, Land Of The Lost, The Empire Strikes Back, and Terminators I and II.
Meanwhile, Gram’s departure from the Burritos in mid-1970 left him rudderless and his periodic episodes of depression deepened, a situation not helped by drugs and alcohol. His relationship with Keith Richards tided him over and he was on hand during the latter stages of recording Sticky Fingers, much of which was put down at Jagger’s UK estate, Stargrove, in rural Hampshire.
It was, however, during the recording of the next Stones album, Exile On Main Street, that things came to a head. Gram and Keith Richards were drinkin’ and druggin’ and jammin’ for what seemed like weeks on end, often to the exclusion of everything else. That the druggin’ included heroin and often left Richards disinclined, if not even physically unable, to contribute to the new album strained relations with Jagger and other members of the band and surrounding entourage.
While some of the leftover tracks from Sticky Fingers made their way onto the next album, new tracks were recorded at Nellcôte, an estate Richards rented in Villefranche-sur-Mer near Nice on the French Riviera (the Stones had fled the UK as tax exiles). Gram arrived at Nellcôte in June 1971, one of a flood of visitors that included such figures as William S. Burroughs. Both Gram and Richards were into heroin heavily during this time. The album languished. Eventually, the chaos had to be managed and Gram was kicked out in July 1971.
It was inevitable that Gram’s next move, if his attention could be wrested from other matters, would be a solo album. And, despite the lack of financial success accorded his work with both The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, record companies continued to display interest.
The first was A&M, where he was teamed with yet another of the more interesting characters populating the LA music scene. The son of actress Doris Day, Terry Melcher had already produced such acts as The Byrds and The Beach Boys but is most infamously remembered for an act he didn’t produce – Charles Manson.
Beach Boy Dennis Wilson had befriended Manson who, amongst other interests, was an aspiring songwriter and introduced him to Melcher to further his musical career. Although Manson was under the impression that Melcher would be producing an album for him, the project never eventuated.
At this time, Melcher and his then-girlfriend, actress Candice Bergen, were living in the hills above Los Angeles, at 10050 Cielo Drive in the midst of Benedict Canyon. Manson had visited Melcher at this address several times but the producer moved out early in 1969. In August, Manson sent his followers to the house, which had since been rented to film director Roman Polanski, telegraphing a not-so-subtle message. While Polanski wasn’t at home, his wife, actress Sharon Tate, and several friends were. The rest, as the ominous saying once again goes, is history.
The A&M solo album didn’t get off the ground with Melcher having a hard time swaying Gram’s interest. But another attempt was already in the pipeline, and it would lead to the second friendship and musical partnership that defined Gram’s career.
In 1971, Chris Hillman of the Burritos suggested he catch the performance of a young folk singer at a Washington club. Emmylou Harris had already recorded her first album, Gliding Bird, but the record company disintegrated soon after and it had attracted little attention.
It would seem that Gram and Emmylou, at least musically, had little in common but each could see opportunities in the other. Emmylou was anchored firmly in folk but her career to date had been going nowhere fast and she needed the work that Gram offered; Gram saw the need for a female singer and trusted Chris Hillman’s initial judgement. When he heard Emmylou and conjured the possibilities of what could be, he realised that this was something, at least musically, he never knew he needed.
Together, their voices melded into the most divine harmonies. But it didn’t happen instantly. It was the result of dedication and hard work. The mechanics of generating those harmonies is visible in a studio out-take on the 1995 release, Cosmic American Music, rehearsing “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning” (a track on Gram’s first solo album, GP), repeatedly exploring the same line, addressing it in different ways before reaching an arrangement they were both comfortable with.
Gram and Emmylou gradually built up their harmonies, honed in their live performances, and if his initial intention was for just a female voice, he soon found he’d ended up with something more vitally important.
Thus, when Gram relaunched his attempt on a solo album, this time under the aegis of Reprise Records, this emotionally powerful duet partnership was put down for posterity.
Recording for what would become the first of only two Gram Parsons solo albums, simply titled GP, began in September 1972. His backing musicians, including James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, previously recorded with Elvis Presley in the TCB Band. One of Gram’s heroes, Merle Haggard, was to have produced the album but dropped out at the last moment.
Gram did not weather the recording sessions well. He was close to breaking point, binging on alcohol and drugs, including cocaine. His fast lifestyle was evident to his increasingly concerned friends; photographs of the period show him bloated and unwell. Yet the resulting album was nothing short of magical. This was especially so on the tracks he shared with Emmylou; she added something emotionally invaluable to the mix, shades he’d never been able to achieve in his previous recordings.
Yet, once again, despite raves from such publications as Rolling Stone, GP (released January 1973) didn’t get close to entering the Billboard Top 200.
Gram and Emmylou toured through the spring of 1973 but he was spending increasing time out of LA, in the high country of the Mojave Desert. He first come to this area in the late 1960s, returning more frequently to the small town of Joshua Tree. His preferred accommodation was the Joshua Tree Inn, where he could walk, stumble or sometimes even crawl to such bars as the Hi Lo Lounge.
If he wasn’t bar-hopping, he’d retire to his favourite Room 8 with a range of friends including Keith Richards, girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, and Gram’s road manager/protector/confidante, Phil Kaufman.
The desert was Gram’s own haven. It didn’t temper his dependence on drugs or alcohol but it was a spiritual safe zone from the disappointments of work and personal concerns. Occasionally, he attained moments of clarity when he’d recognised the self-destructive nature of his existence and his own mortality.
During one such moment, Gram instructed Phil Kaufman that, upon his death, he wanted to be cremated in the Joshua Tree National Park and his ashes scattered on a local landmark, Cap Rock. It would prove to be a prophetic request.
However disheartened he was by his continued failures to break his music to the wider world, Gram pushed ahead with a second solo album. He gathered the band, including James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, along with Emmylou Harris, and entered the studios in summer 1973 with a batch of songs. Included were several of his own, including “Brass Buttons”, a scarring song about his mother that he’d written while at Harvard, and “Hickory Wind”, already recorded during his time with The Byrds. Other songs, such as “Love Hurts”, showcased Gram and Emmylou’s extraordinary gift of harmony.
The album would be called Grievous Angel. During recording, Linda Ronstadt would visit the studio and add harmonies to the track “In My Hour Of Darkness”. While Gram and Ronstadt (who had also become close to Emmylou) were friends, her involvement, however limited, carried a certain bitter synchronicity.
After three albums in the late 1960s as part of the Stone Poneys, Linda Ronstadt embarked on a series of solo albums. The musicians involved in her third, self-titled, album, released in 1972, included Bernie Leedon, who had been a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers during the Burritos Deluxe days, and Randy Meisner, both of whom toured with Ronstadt to support her previous Silk Purse (1970) album.
Also joining Leedon and Meisner were Don Henley and Glenn Frey; in the small-town world of the Los Angeles music scene of the period, Gram knew everybody and everybody knew Gram but he knew Frey particularly well as the musician was often to be seen at Burritos’ gigs, avidly studying Gram’s stagecraft.
The four approached Ronstadt after the album’s completion. They recognised a chemistry they wanted to explore and, as a courtesy, declared their intention of forming a band. Not yet settled on a name, they signed to Asylum Records in September 1971 and started playing live gigs.
Eventually, and different people have varying perceptions of the reasons, they settled on the name Eagles. Marked by tight harmonies and a soft country-rock styling that would typify that originating on the West Coast, their self-titled debut album was released in June 1972.
It yielded three singles; “Witchy Woman”, reached #9 on the Billboard charts, the lowest, “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, scrapped into #22. The album itself just missed out on the Top 20. This was far from a failure; the market was proving receptive to the Eagles’ brand of countrified rock. By their fourth album, One Of These Nights (1975), they reached the top of the Billboard album charts, and the next, 1976’s Hotel California, went to #1 around the world.
Gram’s vision of country music being played by a new breed of young musicians was gaining popularity. It just wasn’t popular if he recorded it. Technically, the West Coast aesthetic was hardly country rock, barely country and much more pop than rock. Easy listening as we’d know it now. However, it was a close second to Gram’s ideals and the distinction was not lost on him
Meanwhile, Gram completed his second solo album and, in mid-September 1973, set out for the sanctuary of the high desert country and the Joshua Tree Inn. So much has been written about the circumstances of Gram’s death by overdose (including the ignominious role that the third-party posterior positioning of ice cubes played in temporarily reviving him) and the subsequent hijacking of his body by Phil Kaufman and friends to carry out his last wishes at Cap Rock, that to go over them here would be redundant.
Sufficient to say, Gram Parsons died in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn on 19 September 1973. Drug toxicity, as the coroner later declared. He was two months shy of his 27th birthday.
Even in death, however, Gram couldn’t get the recognition he deserved. The following day, singer-songwriter Jim Croce (whose biggest hit – indeed only hit outside the US – was a novelty song, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”) was killed in a plane crash. Any publicity attending Gram’s demise was quickly swamped.
Even worse, there was barely enough curiosity generated by Gram’s death to suck Grievous Angel to #195 on the Billboard Top 100 album chart when it was released in January 1974.
Life, and the music industry, went on without him, much as it had done when he was alive. Emmylou Harris, who had become extremely close to Gram during their professional partnership, was – due largely to Linda Ronstadt’s influence – signed to Reprise. The Pieces Of The Sky album was released in 1975 and eventually reached #7 on the Billboard album chart.
Although she would record a number of Gram’s songs, and become a continuing, enthusiastic champion of his music, in the early years, and well into the 1980s, Emmylou avoided talking about him. It was just too painful a loss.
Gradually, though, the accolades rightfully due Gram Parsons and his pioneering work began to attract increasing attention. In time, rightly or wrongly, he’s been elevated to a “founding father” position, publicly revered by successive generations of musicians, with all the attendant grovelling. His Nudie suit can be found in Nashville’s Country Music Hall Of Fame (established by the same CMA establishment that gave him and the other Burritos such a hard time at the Grand Ole Opry). There’s any number of Gram-inspired festivals and tribute albums and, not surprisingly, hipster t-shirts. And Cap Rock in the Joshua Tree National Park, where Phil Kaufman farewelled Gram in a suitably incendiary manner, continues to draw devotees from around the world.
The graffiti they leave behind draws largely upon his music. One particularly popular couplet paraphrases “Brass Buttons”, Gram’s song about his mother and which applies equally well to his own life and death.
“The sun comes up without you, it doesn’t know you’re gone”, it says.
Gram’s legacy is embodied in the unswerving, inextinguishable courage of his convictions. Not so much that he could revive country music, because it was doing very well without him, but that he could make it relevant for his own and future generations. And although he didn’t do that in his own short lifetime (and just eight albums), he did ultimately achieve that aim.
If Gram had lived, if he’d been able to subdue his demons, lock them away where they could do the least amount of harm, he’d most likely have side-stepped country rock, for his chosen interpretation was too pure. In truth, he was an early adopter, a strong influence on many who followed, but he didn’t invent country rock any more than he did orange juice or tortured southern Gothic sensibilities.
Gram, if he had lived, would have taken his rightful place as the grand old man of alt country or Americana.
Those who flock to the courtyard of the Joshua Tree Inn know his music, and some may even appreciate the legend behind the man. The trinkets they leave behind hold a totemic significance for each of them.
I thought about that as I stood in the blast furnace afternoon. I’d played Gram on the car stereo in the days before and on the drive up from Palm Springs. Everything I had, which was pretty much everything, and I was on the second run through Grievous Angel as I pulled into the motel’s parking lot.
It was eerie out there, with not a living being in sight, no noise, no breeze, nothing but the insistent heat. I spent a while photographing the shrine then slung my camera across my shoulder and headed back to the car. As I packed my camera bag away, I stopped.
There was something I had to do. I unzippered the tiny front pocket and dug out the glass heart.
It had travelled the world a few times over, most of the continents, and rarely gained a second thought. But it felt right, this glass heart of a thousand rainbow hues, to leave it here. Under the bright desert sun that had doubtless hammered so many of Gram’s hangovers. Another tribute, from a disciple to the master, a spiritual offering, a thanks-for-the-music from one side of the Vale to the other.
And as I pulled away towards Yucca Valley and the turn-off that would take me to Barstow and, eventually, Las Vegas, I turned “Brass Buttons” up high.
It helps to understand the sheer scale of the conquest. No Roman Emperor, no British monarch ever controlled more of the planet than the Mongols. The grand sweep of the Khans took them west into Europe, east into China and south to Java – the largest contiguous land empire in world history. As the text books tell us, Tenggeri, the sky god of the Mongols, gave Genghis Khan the mission of bringing the rest of the world under one sword. He near enough succeeded.
Mongolia no longer has aspirations to bring the world’s citizenry under its control, though it is determined to entice as many of them as possible to its sumptuous realm, where the Central Asian steppe, taiga forests, blue lakes, the Altai mountains and the Gobi Desert meet in a high landlocked plateau between Russian Siberia and northern China’s plains.
Of the mighty array of attractions, there is none more potent than Naadam, one of the most dramatic and exhilarating events of its kind in the world. A summer festival believed to have existed in some fashion for centuries, it is a Grand Final of sorts, a summit playoff of horseracing, archery and wrestling events (the ‘Three Manly Sports’, with some earnest knucklebone throwing tossed in as well) staged during the year throughout a country the size of Alaska peopled by only two and a half million.
But, more importantly, it is an affirmation of the Mongolian spirit. To witness ranks of riders surging into the central stadium of Ulaanbaatar on the same compact, sprightly horses that the great Genghis rode into battle – surrounded by athletes, monks, dancers, soldiers, musicians and nomad herders – is to glimpse the grandeur of a civilisation that shaped the world as we now know it. Then to see horses race, at ferocious pace, in their hundreds through vast valleys, while tens of thousands cheer them on; and to observe rotund but almost balletic wrestlers trounce an opponent and then prance across an arena in a traditional victor’s Eagle Dance, is to be enveloped in a culture of extraordinary strength.
Though fiercely proud of their rich heritage, modern Mongolians are neither hostile nor warlike; a hospitable warmth is at the heart of their collective character. And while some visitors venture into seemingly untouched terrain where a GPS co-ordinate is more useful than an address, they first pass through a city of shopping malls, supermarkets, boutiques, restaurants, yellow cabs and mini-skirts. Unexpected contrasts pile one atop the other. A Lenin statue a block from a swish fashion catwalk, a 4WD sharing a road with a yak cart, a plush western hotel a short drive from a ger (traditional round felt dwellings) camp. Some stately buildings are topped with massive signage from the days when Moscow called the shots, patriotic exhortations ranging from Let’s Improve Mongolia to May Mongolians’ Faith Always Improve And Develop Like Their Fire.
Nowhere are these contrasts more intriguing and more rewarding than in Mongolia’s startling wealth of music and performance arts. There is a spectrum of sound that can scarce be believed. At one end, the grand and sweeping classical orchestras, sustained in showpiece style by the Soviets over decades but thoroughly Mongolian in their use of local compositions, and traditional performers playing the Horse Head fiddle and other Mongol-designed lute, wind and percussion instruments.
At the other end, a range of powerful rock bands of long standing – Jargalsaikhan, Chinggis Khan, The Hurd and Haranga – whose CDs are stacked in Tokyo-type record shops alongside the offerings of hip hop, rap, dance and new age entities such as Saraa, Funksta, Gennie, Urna, Hulan and, famed for the anthemic Born In UB, Masta Flow. And straddling them both – acclaimed and ethereal Mongolian throat singers such as Booyoo, who somehow simultaneously bring forth from their voicebox both high and low notes in spell-binding manner.
There is so much pouring out of this long locked-away country that it is hard to keep up with it all. Those who come expecting to be confronted by the past in a nation that has just celebrated its 800th birthday are soon caught up in the present, with promise of the future. Jasper Becker may have titled his essential book on Mongolia The Lost Country, writing of “wandering tribes, prophets, shamans and mystic kings – where the wolf still stalks the wild horse across the treeless plain and where the eagle hangs in the blue sky searching the bare mountains” but what strikes visitors now is a real sense of making up for years lost. Not only those who make their way there – an easier exercise than may be imagined, with relatively brief air links from Seoul and Beijing – but those who seek out at home groundbreaking and award-winning Mongolian films like The Story of the Weeping Camel and The Cave of the Yellow Dog.
All carried on under, it would seem, the watchful eye of Genghis Khan, the relentless thirteenth century warrior who fathered over a thousand children and struck fear into more hearts than any leader before or since. The very mention of his name was forbidden by Russian overlords but today it and the accompanying image is absolutely everywhere in Mongolia – from towering statues to vodka bottles, hillsides to t-shirts, banknotes to postage stamps, airports to cultural spectaculars. Leaving you in absolutely no doubt as to where you are and who was there before you.
His was an incomparable genetic footprint. Because Genghis (or Chinggis as he is known at home) had a particular version of the Y chromosome and was no slouch when it came to spreading his seed, it has been possible for an international team of geneticists to determine that one in twelve men in Asia, or about 16 million men in total across the planet, today have him as their forebear. A few years ago, a London restaurant, Shish, offered daily DNA tests at its two branches, with free meals to those found to be descendants of the legendary warlord. That promotion was just a tiny part of a global fascination with a late bloomer hailed as a murdering savage on one hand and a wise father of international diplomacy on the other.
Modern Mongolians are as fascinated by themselves and their heritage as everybody else. In this land without fences, the last “wild west”, where near toxic fermented mares’ milk is swigged like cola, all ride high in the saddle; that is when they bother with saddles. The horse to human ratio is 13 to 1 and there seems to be permanent blur in your line of sight as sturdy steeds fly by. There are popular eight-day horseback expeditions through the mountains outside Ulaanbaatar, undertaken alone or in a group. With the horses as certain of the terrain as the camels are of the Gobi desert, there is a rare sense of absolute unfettered explorative adventure.
As agreeable a city as Ulaanbaatar may be, the primary attraction of this country and the principal business of its slew of tour operators, is road trips across its vast surrounds and to its far corners made both possible and comfortable by an uncountable number of Ger (or yurt) camps which have opened up the county to pretty much all-comers with the portable communal tents that have housed nomadic herders for centuries.
Now there are refinements – restaurant, modern shower block, gift shop – but the essence is pure. Across steppe, mountain and desert, by blue lakes and under mountain outcrops, this is where you stay and the experience is both agreeable and unforgettable. There’s sheep stewed in a pot, yoghurt delivered by passing nomads (half the population qualifies for the term in some way), a brace of swift horses on call, and visiting serenading throat singers and Mongolian movies on a small screen to pack you off to a serene sleep.
The ger girl comes by at about 6 AM to stoke your fire. By prior arrangement, of course. Apart from the odd crackle from the steel stove that is the centrepiece of your circular felt world, you hear nothing; she’s done this before.
Increasingly popular are two- and three-week expeditions, out to Western Mongolia or in “The Big Loop” that sweeps down south to the Gobi and north to the alpine lake of Khovsgol Nuur. They take in massive dunes, mountains, glaciers, canyons, raging rivers, dinosaur quarries and desert monasteries, with hiking, fishing, riding, swimming, climbing, kayaking, dune sliding and camel trekking integral to the experience.
Most of the visitors arrive around July and not just to catch Naadam. Just as Antarctic visitors take advantage of a two month “window” that starts around the middle of December, Mongolian venturers are generally keen to avoid winter temperatures that descend to minus 30 centigrade. As your Lonely Planet guide will warn you, “Ulaanbaatar is possibly the coldest capital city in the world”. But in July and September the dust storms have settled, the days are warm, you’re still taking photographs at 10.30pm without need of a flash, the skies are clear, the air is pristine, and the atmosphere enormously amenable.
Ulaanbaatar is not just a gateway to Mongolia. Take the two-and-a-half hour Korean Air flight from Seoul and you can join the daily sleeper train that will take you, with a connection, past Lake Baikal and on to Vladivostock, or link you to the Trans Siberian Express. Next door is the equally vast Kazakhstan, with its own array of compelling societies and terrains. (its cloaked eagle handlers cross the border to entertain tourists).
Freed of the Russians, indifferent to the Chinese, the Mongolians have eagerly aligned themselves with the globalised world, claiming the right to pick’n’choose, with feet in myriad camps, whatever comes their way. With one foot in the thirteenth century and another in the twenty-first, they are a people to contend with.
Capital-dwellers eagerly frequent a branch of the Californian-based Mongolian Barbeque chain, even though, as one young patron admitted, the expensive fare on offer bears little relationship to anything ever served at her family table. It’s all about the thrill of the new and there’s no shortage of that.
Yet it is the thrill or at least the promise of the very ancient, the uncovering of things once hidden, that is bringing the world to Mongolia. If there’s a red carpet at Ulaanbaatar Airport, it would be rarely rolled up. In recent years, a path has been beaten to the exotic and intriguing land by an illustrious array of planetary citizens. Not just George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin but the Dalai Lama, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, a Chinese premier, a Japanese prime minister and prince, a Thai princess, Turkish, Vietnamese, Hungarian and South Korean presidents, a Canadian secretary of state, a UNESCO director-general and Julia Roberts, who went to live with nomadic horseman and learned to milk yaks. But then, given a chance, who wouldn’t? It’s a mental checklist sort of place, a destination that even the vaguely adventurous factor in for some stage of their travelling life.
So cogent is Mongolia’s representation of freedom and possibility that it has become a starting or staging point for investigation of what may well be the world’s last great frontier. Some fly in from Seoul or Beijing to join the daily sleeper train that connects with the Trans Siberian and will take you past Lake Baikal to Vladivostock, Russia’s easternmost port. Others venture off toward neighbouring Kazakhstan, Manchuria, or the bordering Russian republics of Tuva, Buryatia and Altai, each with its own array of compelling terrain and societies. A Hamburg To Shanghai car rally snakes through the country during the summer (few would dare it during the winter harshness).
Horses remain a constant as you shake the dust off your boots in Ulaanbaatar and prepare to depart. You can see them prancing near acrobatically indoors in the city, bringing to life tales of Genghis and his Mongolian hordes through handlers of far calmer demeanor. You are never allowed to forget just where and in whose company you are.
“Lovely scenery, quiet, pure air, clear sea water, and heavenly sunsets,” reckoned Robert Louis Stevenson when he holidayed at the Diamond Head end of Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach in 1893. You can still sense the beauty that he celebrated, albeit in clichés, even if a large hotel now squats where the Scottish author once mused. The waves still roll out of an ocean that’s as blue as a postcard’s promise but now there is a Legoland of some 35,000 hotel rooms looming before it.
Take a walk with history for a couple of kilometres along the Waikiki shore and its smaller beaches and coves reveal a deeper self. I start with the folksy-corny and much photographed Hula Show at the Waikiki Shell. Since 1937, this free performance has packed ’em in with hula dancers swaying demurely (no lusty Tahitian-style groin-grinding here, please) to the strains of the matronly Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club. A century ago, manic repressive Christian missionaries almost succeeded in stamping out Hawaii’s supposedly obscene “hoola”. Today, the show’s finale, in which the lumbering Moms and Pops of Middle America – dressed in flowered mu-mus, socks and sandals – attempt the hula, suggests that the missionaries had at least an aesthetic point.
Waikiki means “spouting water.” In pre-colonial times, when lush with fishponds and food gardens, it was a haven for both royalty and commoners. With the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 by US business interests, the area degenerated until it was, according to one citizen, “most unsanitary and unsightly.” The mess of mosquito-riddled swamps was drained by the construction of Ala Wai Canal in 1922 and the rest, as they say, is real estate history.
Sugar-plumed swells roll shoreward all day. Long before haoles (Caucasians) came, Waikiki was a surfing mecca. Today, the break is a mosh-pit of kayaks, canoes, tandem malibus and a bulbous yellow catamaran. It’s hard to believe that surfing — he’enalu — nearly died out here by 1900 (thanks to the censorious missionaries) before it was revived by Honolulu locals, including Duke Paoa Kahanamoku (1890-1968), who spread surfboard riding around the world, including to Australia.
At a stretch of Waikiki known as Kuhio Park Beach, I watch the Duke’s descendants, Hawaiians of all ages and races, flinging themselves shoreward on body boards. Not far away stands a large bronze statue of the great waterman. When it was erected there were dark murmurings about why he had been stood — wrongly, in local opinion — with his back to the sea? The answer was simple, symbolic — photo-opportunism. The Duke was made to face inland so that Gidgets from Ginza and sand-challenged flatlanders from everywhere might frame themselves before him in an instant of surreal authenticity, with his once-regal beach as their backdrop. The Japanese love of Waikiki contributes greatly to its prosperity and the proliferation of surfers from Nippon, many with bleached blond hair, means that Honolulu Lulu, Queen of the Surfer Girls, today looks more like office lady, Yokohama Yoko.
With the presence of millions of domestic and international visitors each year Waikiki today is like a Surfers Paradise squared, a Cancun cubed. Its tsunami wall of accommodation glares back at the Pacific, an empire of balconies where everyone is Sun King, or Queen, for a day. New arrivals, fluorescent with first-day sunburn, weave amid a group of women struggling across the circus sands in high heels. A bikini-clad girl gets swamped in the shorebreak while nattering on her phone. Massive Hawaiian beach boys on equally massive boards dance like ninjas across lines of bluebird surf. Inescapable are the voluble, exclamatory haoles, often from inland mainland USA. “Are we on the island of Waikiki?” yells a conference escapee from Utah. A teenage Beavis emerges from his first dip in an ocean, hollering to his friends, “I got sand in my pockets! Hey, I got sand in muh butt-crack!”
I stroll north towards lunchtime, which presents me with the choice of the four essential local food groups — chilli dog, shave ice, burger or spam sushi. I settle for a sandwich. (And why not? The early British colonial name for Hawaii was the Sandwich Isles.) Munching, I fall into step with a surfer, Rocky who’s striding towards the reef break at Ala Moana. He’s a local, one of Waikiki’s 30,000 permanent residents. Like many people on Oahu Island, Rocky is a bitsa, “hapa” (half) this and that. As he says, “Hapa-Hawaiian, hapa-haole Portuguese, hapa-Chinese – you know, da kine, all-Hawaiian.”
There’s no mistaking the cochineal-pink confection I’m soon standing before, Waikiki’s most famous pile, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, a Moorish-Deco seraglio of colonnades and archways. A royal coconut grove of nearly 10,000 trees once stood here, along with the summer home of Queen Kaahumanu, a powerful, 19th century Hawaiian regent. The 384-room Royal Hawaiian that sprouted in their place in 1927 was touted as the “finest resort hostelry in America”. Nearby, in the courtyard of the nearby Sheraton Moana Surfrider – known as the “First Lady” of Waikiki’s hotels – I relax under a huge banyan tree that is some 130 years old, with its branches spreading 50 metres.
In some places, Waikiki’s shore at high tide is no more than a few metres wide. With the sands regularly washing away, urban myths flourish about the source of their replenishment – everywhere from Florida to Port Kembla. The actual source is the nearby island of Molokai.
For early Hawaiians, the next section of Waikiki that I reach, now called Gray’s Beach, was a place of healing, of strong mana where the sick and injured came to be treated by kahuna physicians. Their beach is now much diminished in sand and probably mana, too, but soon it widens again at Fort DeRussy Beach, which is home to, of all things, a US Army Museum. This huge, anomalous structure was once a gun battery that the army tried to demolish in 1969 but the task proved almost impossible and so the building was turned into a museum.
Toe rings, tattoos, $29.99 aloha shirts, hula dolls and newbies surfing in sandshoes. Tourist culture reaches both its apogee and nadir in Waikiki. Alongside the tour groups is another set, the involuntarily transient, aka the homeless. Beached here in alleged “paradise”, they sleep beneath the trees of Fort DeRussy Park. Just behind them is a hotel, the aptly named Hale Koa (“the house of the warrior”) for US services personnel. Beefy military police attempt to blend in by patrolling the shore while jammed into a golf cart.
By Paoa Park at the northeastern end of Waikiki, I’ve walked sufficient history. The Hilton Hawaiian Village now sprawls where Duke Kahanamoku’s family once lived and the legendary waterman learned to swim in the old-fashioned way, by being thrown in to sink or conquer the world. Out on the reef, his heirs, Rocky and his pals are pulling into the snappy, left-hand barrels of Ala Moana reef.
Sunset is coming. Soon the balconies of those 30-storey hotels will erupt in a flashbulb fire fight of cameras straining to catch infinity in a 35mm frame. I find a bar-with-a-view, the Duke’s Canoe Club, and ponder why — amid the relentless spam of tourist culture — do rubbernecks like myself still make the trek to Waikiki? Then again, to sit below this lavish, cocktail syrup sunset in a place where the Duke once rode giant, bluebird waves and kahunas strode the earth, and still be asking “Why?” seems like missing the obvious.
All photos and text are world copyright John Borthwick and may not be reproduced, copied or retransmitted by any means.
Over the span of more than 35 years as a journalist, mostly writing about the tourism industry, I’ve experienced some truly remarkable hotels and resorts. Those forever lodged in my memory have a consistent thread. They’re not the usual, cookie-cutter mass-market properties of bed, bathroom and balcony, marble vanities, 1000-thread counts, pillow menus and duck down duvets.
The truly special have a blatant disregard for the ordinary. They’re flights of fancy, balancing whimsy and imagination with an occasional nod towards function.
The wow factor (to use that hollow phrase so beloved of marketers) is, to me, something that tilts expectations off the axis and spins them far out into the Twilight Zone. They’re usually the pet projects of truly inspired individuals, people who can only function in what the rest of us call the real world by taking their own dreams and ideals and fashioning them in bricks and mortar, stone and glass.
Some work, many don’t, for the simple reason that, all too often, that which the mind can envisage can never be satisfactorily realised in the real world. The visionary mind is an abstract; trying to fit it together like Lego compromises its very essence. Luckily, that doesn’t stop people from trying; we mere mortals can do little more than pick our jaws up from the floor upon experiencing the truly transcending.
As I did at the Michi Retreat in Ubud, Bali. I’m not sure I’d ever want to stay there but I’m sure I’ll go back, time after time, just to marvel at the audaciousness of the place, wonder at what could have been and hope it never goes away.
The Balinese town of Ubud is said to have magical properties, a place of healing and spiritualism, and it has long attracted those seeking a different path than the rest of humanity. It’s no surprise, then, that in a place where alternative therapies, past lives regression, crystal healing, kinesiology, transformational breathing, reiki, aura cleansing, chakra realignment and dozens of different kinds of yoga are considered normal avenues for the attainment of enlightenment, that there are places to stay that complements such beliefs.
Ubud accommodation veers across the spectrum. There’s the Four Seasons Resort Bali At Sayan, which is a monstrosity or a stroke of genius, depending on your point of view. The Four Seasons spills down a deeply rainforested ravine with the Ayung River at the base, anchored by an ultra-modern tower that looks either like a spaceship or an airport terminal, again depending on your mood, inclination and generosity of spirit.
Further along that same ravine and river is the Royal Pita Maha, encompassing a selection of private pool villas. Owned by the royal family of Ubud, it is much more a traditional villa resort except for the long entrance driveway with some startlingly explicit statues of animals – elephants, pigs, frogs – with generously proportioned human genitalia.
Traditional guesthouses, modern resorts, private villas surrounded by Ubud’s impossibly green rice paddies, there’s something for every budget and level of consciousness.
And then there’s the Michi Retreat.
The official website tells the story of a retired Japanese-American professor of history and sociology who built his dream some fifteen years ago. On the edge of yet another steep ravine, this time tumbling into the Wos River, the sacred river of Ubud, at the village of Jukut Paku, and opposite a rural vista of palm trees and rice terraces, he drew on a lifetime of influences to craft a rambling hotel complex where no one part is the same as any other and surprises await at every turn.
Standing in the midst of Michi, as we did on a hot cloudless spring day, was a very different experience. There was an eerie, deserted atmosphere. The doors were open to the rooms and we wandered from one to the other, checking out the studios that evoke an ancient hillside Berber village as envisioned by Hundertwasser and the upstairs suites including one with subcontinental Indian and elephant motifs.
And the bathrooms! In every room, it was hard to tear our attention away from the bathrooms, each wildly different and supremely exotic confections.
Mosaics, stone, pebbles, mismatched ceramics, mirror fragments of all sizes; on the pool terrace, undulating concrete benches studded with jig-sawed tile pieces evoked the Parc Guell. The adjoining restaurant area postulated a fantastic pop-cultural meeting of the minds, its shabby post-apocalyptic opulence like a Eurotrash 70s disco designed by Gaudi.
Aside from the restaurant, there were few signs of life. There were areas, dusty with neglect, that must have been, not that long ago, shops, a beauty parlour, a spa. The jacuzzi is dry, the swimming pool not quite sparkling. The villas, nestled into the wild jungle ravine at the other end of the property from the hotel, displays a spooky desolation, terraces crack, a private swimming pool drained save for a thigh-high wash of rancid water. It’s evocative enough during the day. Sweet dreams wouldn’t come easily within these walls.
There’s no reception at Reception except for leaflets announcing houses and apartments for rent within the complex on a daily and monthly basis. Amongst the facilities are listed “Kafe – Restorant”.
Where is everybody? A clue may be on a website now unavailable. It had the bizarrely honest admission that Michi’s “management is journeying through a paradigm shift”. When I last found the website, sometime in 2015, it hadn’t been updated since 2011.
Michi is a hotel you’d expect to find on the edge of the American desert, perhaps envisioned by Sam Shepard and directed jointly by Antonioni, Jodorowsky and Ralph Bakshi with Tarantino relegated to second unit, run by a guy who looks disturbingly like Harry Dean Stanton.
It’s a familiar theme. You don’t want to stay there, it doesn’t feel right but your car has broken down, there’s a suitcase full of cash in the trunk and the cute little blonde at your side, the one with the elongated vowels and even more elongated limbs whose humid gaze can melt metal, is the mistress of a Texas cattle rancher with no sense of humour whatsoever.
You know the movie. You’ve seen it dozens of times under a variety of titles. And Michi seems like the perfect setting, even with the rice terraces and palm trees and the slim sleek cat who guides us around like a new best friend.
As the fantasy fades, so the realisation dawns that, quite possibly, despite the air of neglect, Michi may be as magical as Ubud is meant to be.
I’ll come back to Michi. I’ll eat in the Kafe, swim in the pool, maybe even stay a night or two. Hopefully, I’ll meet the Professor. In a 2009 magazine article republished on the website, it mentions he’s 79 years old, which would now put him in his mid-80s. He’s had an amazing life, wandered the world, made fantastic friends, appreciated the arts and turned his dreams into a potent reality. I’d really like to hear his story.
There aren’t many opportunities to understand the genesis of a place as special as the Michi. If the Universe allows, I’ll get that chance. If not, then the mystery will have to do. I just hope the Michi endures.
They were the daredevils of their day, the Top Guns of the sea. Often barely in their early twenties, the near-fearless clipper captains of the mid-1800s drove their bonus-hungry crews savagely to please international trade barons engaged in fiercely-competitive ocean commerce.
Built “to move at a faster clip” and to “clip the waves”, in the days before the opening of the Suez and Panama canals, the young captains’ lean, sleek and heart-stoppingly swift vessels, jammed with cargo, rode the trade winds down one side of the African and South American continents and up the other; dancing around the globe at speeds never seen at sea.
British clippers, such as the famed Cutty Sark, carried passengers from London to the Far East and Australia via treacherous Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, then hurtled home with holds bulging with grain, wool, tea and crates of fragile china.
Historian Carl B. Cutler, in dubbing them the “greyhounds of the sea”, described a classic clipper ship’s dimensions as: “lines clean, long and smooth as a smelt. Sharp arching head. Thin, hollow bow, convex sides, light round and graceful stern.” For another chronicler of the past, Samuel Eliot Morison, they were: “The noblest of all sailing vessels … our Gothic cathedrals.” Common crafts they were not.
The clipper era was brief but frenzied – introducing the now-familiar cult of the speed demon into an otherwise stately world. With gold discovered in California and Australia, the whole world seemed to be on the move. Prospectors had to be ferried about and new communities sustained. The British and American thirst for tea and fascination with porcelains saw the Sea Witch set a record of 74 days for the New York-China run.
Clippers were turned out of shipyards in England and Scotland, the American east coast (notably Baltimore), Scandinavia and other ports as fast as the craftsmen could fashion them (160 between 1850 and 1854 alone), with many now-legendary names, such as the Flying Cloud, Storm King, America and Ariel spoken of in awe. The clippers’ heavy rigging enabled a vast amount of sail to be spread and they commanded attention wherever they sailed, inexorably growing in size from the Sea Witch‘s modest 195 feet length to the Great Republic ‘s 335 feet.
But, almost in a blink, the era was over. The Suez Canal opened, a railroad was built across America and steamships made redundant a reliance on the wind. In 1870, when Buffalo Bill and Billy The Kid were astride their mounts and Lenin was being born, the Black Ball Line, the last hold-out, ceased its trans-Atlantic passenger services under sail. A decade later, it stopped its clipper cargo services, conceding that steam was cheaper and faster overall. Notwithstanding the Titanic‘s fate, steamships ruled until air travel became generally affordable.
The great clippers were gone but they were certainly not forgotten. At least not by Swedish schoolboy Mikael Krafft, who grew up in the shadow of the Plyms Shipyard at the port of Saltsjobaden in the Stockholm archipelago a century after the clipper boom’s peak and marvelled at tales of the Pommern, a four-masted steel barquentine still anchored off the Swedish-Finnish island of Aland. At the age of six, he was carrying varnish and wood stain for old-timers at the yard; not that many years later, he was dodging watchmen to climb the Pommern’s rigging. With a degree in Maritime Law, he embarked upon a business career that allowed him to indulge his passion as yacht-builder, ship owner and internationally-recognised yachtsman.
Krafft’s irrepressible dream of returning “thoroughbred” clippers to the world’s seas – which required an investment of US$80 million – was realised in July 1991 when the Star Flyer entered service in Caribbean waters and again in May 1992 when her sister ship, the Star Clipper, entered service in Mediterranean waters; both becoming the first clipper sailing ships since 1911 to be granted the certificate of highest quality by Lloyd’s Register of Shipping. These Belgium-built clippers also became the first sail vessels in 122 years to maintain scheduled passenger sailings between Europe and the New World.
The tallest of the tall ships were on the waters, to be marvelled at all over again. Though this time, with crates of cargo no longer stuffing the holds, comfort and luxury became the new imperative. Built to cater to the needs of somewhat spoiled late 20th and early 21st century wayfarers in search of the much-eulogised “romance of the sea” and what the travel industry terms “soft adventure”, Krafft’s crafts of polished teak and mahogany trimmed with gleaming brass are tastefully appointed (with an eye to clipper history) and artfully constructed.
Designed to carry up to 180 passengers apiece in 90 spacious air-conditioned cabins, they offer marble baths, queen-sized beds, a carpeted Edwardian-style salon dining room ringed by portholes, two swimming pools, cabin phones and televisions (with films and world news bulletins), an antique Belle Epoque fireplace, a cool library of Dickensian ambience, a Tropical Bar, a grand piano, regally furnished lounges, silken service, fine food and wines, and a remarkable amount of open, uncluttered deck space (some 11,400 square feet). Krafft had certainly tapped into a new age desire and fascination with his grand steel-hulled barquentines. The New York Times thought the Star Clipper “struck a pleasant balance between private comfort and conviviality, laid-back relaxation and island-hopping adventure”.
At 360 feet overall, the opulent Star Flyer and Star Clipper are longer than even the largest of the old clipper ships. The tallest of their four gleaming steel masts tops 226 feet, and the sixteen white, light dacron sails (far easier to raise and lower on the run than the old canvas variety) spread out to a massive expanse of 36,000 square feet. Most of us are dazed and confused by numbers but to set off in a small tender boat or zodiac and circle around these things of beauty from a distance which allows full perspective is to feel a puff of pride that one of those cabins, if only for a week, is actually yours.
One was mine, on a cruise in the Andaman Sea along the Malay Peninsula in the company of about 130 passengers of diverse origin; a deeply-etched travel experience to be sure. Where once I had difficulty differentiating port from starboard, I was, within days of clambering along the gangplank, casually dropping into such jargon as jigger, mizzen staysail, halyards, hawser, luffing and furling – with not a “hey hey me hearties!!” to be heard (though there is a ship’s parrot).
In 1996, the Star Flyer began an annual sojourn in South East Asian waters after its Mediterranean program, effectively chasing summer. On its debut run, it recreated history, becoming the first passenger-carrying clipper ship to enter the Straits of Malacca in more than a century. Now it bases itself out of Phuket for a season, taking every advantage of Thailand’s famed white-sand beaches and islands, such as Surin, Rok Nok, Similian, Phi Phi, Dam Hok, Khai Nok and “James Bond Island” (as featured in The Man With The Golden Gun ). There is a certain amount of languid sailing-in-circles but it is a voyage of discovery.
On my journey, Captain Jürgen Müeller-Cyran, a German who went to sea at 18 as part of a family and regional tradition, was admirably well versed in sea lore, history, and even a spot of philosophy and creative conjecture. At his morning and evening “Captain’s story time” sessions by the bridge, the sailing neophytes in his care began to care passionately about reading the weather, recognising the stars and using the prevailing winds. All aspects of exploration and navigation seemed to hold him in thrall and, with only a little prodding, he would regale you gently with some of his seafaring theories, such as the origin of Christopher Columbus (would you have ventured Norwegian?). “Land is a ship’s enemy,” he has been heard to declare.
This is not a cruise experience for those who want glittering floorshows, pulsating dance floors, lavish casinos and an inexhaustible selection of cocktails. “We can’t copy what the large cruise liners offer,” says owner Krafft. “These are sailing ships …… what you will experience is the equivalent of a very large private yacht.” A yacht which, with the assistance of powerful diesel motors, is able to steal into shallow bays and remote ports and tie-up at docks which cruise liners would never dare approach. It is, as one writer has put it, the exotic “sensation of sailing on a classic tall ship to islands and ports of call where mariners have been blown by the winds of fate for centuries” which proves so irresistible to those who forsake the packed ‘party boats’ or ‘booze cruises’.
Clipper passengers – half of whom return – seem more inclined to climb out along the 46 foot long bowsprit and prostrate themselves on the ‘widownet’ (a vast hammock of rope and steel suspended high over the prow), feeling the breeze and the sea spray and watching the flying fish and the stars. Or to consult on plotting the course in the open-to-all charthouse, or to help the eight or nine top deck crew members hoist the sails, or to elicit tales from the First Mate about his hair-raising Whitbread around-the-world yacht race experiences.
There are invariably lifelong sailors on board as paying customers, living out their own dreams of childhood. For it is under sail that the ship comes alive and fulfils the measure of its creation. Where possible this is not “sail-assisted” cruising, as shamelessly practiced by most of the other tame ‘tall ships’ plying the leisure routes (and often charging considerably higher tariffs). Every propulsion advantage is taken of nature’s forces and on a standard week-long voyage a clipper is powered by sail 40 per cent of the time, sail and engine 50 per cent, and engine the remainder.
It is the former that most on board find themselves wishing, hoping and quite possibly praying for. When the sails fill and the ship bends to the wind to slice almost noiselessly through the water, even the most jaded travelling spirits soar. Little wonder that many of the passengers first saw the clippers from the decks of other cruising craft – while waving wildly, exposing a considerable amount of film and making a mental note to ring their travel agent as soon as they got home.
It is when the motors are silent that, Canadian scribe George Bryant has written, “She ghosts along, a thing of spectral beauty, gliding over the swells and through the waves like a trim, white apparition from another century, as graceful as a ballet dancer, as powerful as the winds which drive her.”
Yet, for all the ornate extravagance, there is no sense that this is a precious artefact that can’t be touched. An absolutely relaxed, informal mood pervades; nobody will tell you that you can’t drape yourself languidly over a polished railing if that is what takes your fancy. Meals are taken when and with whom you choose. There is basically no dress code. The casual mood of the 73-strong multicultural crew – drawn from 23 countries on my sailing – engenders an easy camaraderie among the passengers. Infectious West Indian laughter rises constantly.
There is also no strict schedule. As a rule, evenings and nights are for sailing and days are for landings and water sports (kneeboarders, sailboaters, windsurfers, snorkelers and scuba divers are indulged to the point of exhaustion by a set of indefatigable Scandinavian instructors and supervisors). As the sun sets and the sails are unfurled, the bars come alive, bets are often placed on a crab race, tales as tall as the masts are unleashed by crew and customers alike, ad-hoc talent show routines are cobbled together for a laugh, and books are read from scattered deckchairs. The backdrop to it all is the sense of inescapable history; pages torn from the journals of swashbucklers, discoverers and hardy mariners.
Yet, in some regards, appearances can be deceiving. The clippers, while intended to evoke the past, very much belong to the future when it comes to technology. Old salts and tars would no doubt roll over in their graves at the very thought of it but power winches with computer aid can have the sails aloft in a flash and a state-of-the-art ballast tank system can stem the ship’s roll sufficiently to keep the wine in your glass at dinner. An even keel, a smooth ride and quease-free passengers are a high priority at this end of the market. Adventure is one thing but few paying passengers are prepared to go green in the pursuit of it. On the Star Flyer in the Andaman, on the rare occasions that the sun was not shining and the waters not sparkling, it was case of monsoons, schmonsoons! These crews are hard to faze.
A writer for Diversion magazine on board the ship during a rare Force 10 gale in the Mediterranean in 1994 reported how “Resolutely, the Flyer sliced through the angry, purple sea with just one sail unfurled against the 60 mile-per-hour wind. Were we panicked? Hardly! This was sailing in its truest form and, for most of us, the ultimate in high adventure.” A communal bravado no doubt reinforced by the knowledge that the ship carries the highest safety rating of any commercial vessel in its class and meets rigid U.S. Coast Guard safety specifications that are often beyond many passenger ships outside American waters.
Krafft’s clippers usually slip along at a controlled 8-12 knots per hour with the ‘understanding’ that when conditions permit both ships are prepared to cut loose and exhilarate passengers. The Star Clipper, sailing erect with strong winds astern, was clocked at over 17 knots off Corsica just after it entered service. The Star Flyer, on one of its trans-Atlantic ‘relocation’ cruises regularly topped 14 knots. On its westbound ‘shakedown’ voyage in 1991, it averaged 11.5 knots for 2,600 miles, much of it under reduced sail after passing the Azores.
I doubt if we set any new records in the Andaman and I’m not sure if I wanted to. A few days in, my seven day journey seemed far too short to be hastening toward its finish.