Peru Trip #6 – Arrival at Lake Titicaca

Pool at Villa Jazmin at Nazca with Dune in background
Both an eventful and uneventful few days. After a morning reading Mercia
Eliade’s classic text, The Sacred and the Profane, soaking up the
sunshine at Nazca, I took the long bus journey back to Lima – the bus
arrived late and made a number of unscheduled stops (including for the
driver to buy some oranges from a roadside vendor) arriving in Lima
80minutes late. My restaurant of choice was fully booked by then, and
arriving by taxi at the alternative I found it too was fully booked,
despite the Hotel receptionist shrugging that I would not need to book
there. They took pity on me though and put me on a bar stool at the
bar, where I enjoyed a fabulous meal, generosity from the talkative
barman, and a thoroughly good Saturday night out. I can thoroughly
recommend the Brujas de Cachiche to any visitor to Lima.

Sunday was then all about flying up to the mountains – an airbus from
Lima airport at lunchtime stopping over briefly at Cusco, without
disembarking, and then heading on up to Juliaca, the small city on the
plain overlooking Lake Titicaca. From the moment I got off the plane I
could tell we were very high up, and that the air was thin! Walking
suddenly became a struggle, and the effort of any exertion seriously
taxing on one’s reserves of strength. This immediate fatigue receeded
in the car, replaced by consciousness of having to breathe really
quickly – a shortness of breath one would normally associate with the
moments after major exertion, but experienced whilst sitting in the back
seat of the guide’s car. On the way to my hotel in Puno, we stopped to
visit the Silustani Tombs.

The Silustani Tombs - link to Flickr

An Aymara Tomb
This proved to be a fascinating visit, despite the fact that I was only
capable of pigeon-toe progress with frequent rest-stops, and the fatigue
was gradually turning into a dizziness of absolute exhaustion. But the
history of this area, as my guide described it, was fascinating. The
Pucara people were the first known civilisation here, and I will see
more of them on the Inka Express bus journey to Puno later this week.
After this culture had faded, the Tihuanaco came, and populated the
area. At the height of their civilisation here, the Aymara, a warlike
people from the south and east, perhaps Argentina, conquered the area,
forcing the small remnant of surviving Tihuanaco to embark on a long
wandering in the mountains, until they settled north in the sacred
valley, and became the Inca. The Inca, of course, later reconquered
this area, along with the whole of the rest of the Andes, in the largest
empire of all pre-Columbian South America – of which more, of course,
in Cusco and Macchu Picchu. Up here in Juliaca and Puno, despite the
arrival of the Spanish conquerors, who looted the ancient sites and
brought Catholicism to the area, much of the original pre-Christian
religious practice and the two ‘nations’, Aymara and Quechua
(Inca/Tihuanaco people) survive to this day. My guide is Quechua, the
driver Aymara.

Inca Tomb with lizard
The Silustani tombs are mostly Aymara, with some later Inca tombs as
well. Alongside the tombs are three other sections of the site: the
ritual area, the workshop, storage and living area, and the quarry where
the rock was carved out of the mountainside. Like the Moche practice
in the far north, and Egyptian and other practices in other continents,
not only the Lord but his wives, boys, servants, priests – between 30
and 50 bodies – were buried in each of the tombs. All the precious
metal artefacts were looted by the Spanish, but archaeologists have
found ample evidence of human bones, ceramics and other remants to gain
understanding of these monuments.

The largest of them, an Inca one, with exquisite stone work, also had a
relief carving of a lizard on it, pointing in the direction of the
Temple of the Sun, the island on the Bolivian side of the lake where the
Inca absorbed the Tihuanaco origin myth and made it their own, with a
splendid temple.

Stone Circle at Silustani

In the ritual area, I was introduced to a very familiar stone circle.
My guide clearly had real respect for the place: he pointed out on the
horizon to south and east among the mountains where the villages of his
mother and father were located, and spoke with genuine appreciation of
the Quechua Mother Earth ‘Pacha Mama’ and Mother Waters ‘Cucha Mama’
whose spirits were in everything, in every stone. The archaic religious
mind, as described by Mercia Eliade, was here almost in its raw aspect,
for all that this son of tribal people now worked in the tourist
industry, using his excellent English. Having asked permission, I
entered the stone circle, and paid my respects to the Earth Mother of
the Mountain, here at the roof of the world, my body the tree through
which earth and sky communicate and become one, pillar of every house,
tower of every city, altar of every temple.

The Silustani Guardian Rock
On the descent from the hill of the tombs, though the thin air was
really starting to get to me by now, (hence the not very good photo) my
guide showed me the guardian stone at the foot of the ancient stairway.
He asked me if I had a compass. A spiral carved on one side of the rock
zeroed in on a particular patch of the stone where the compass on my
iPhone suddenly switched to point west, instead of north, directly at
the centre of the spiral. Yes, indeed they believe there is some
lodestone or other in this rock, and yes, indeed, the Aymara clearly
knew about this. The other side of the rock sported the carved face of a
Puma, facing up to the stones.

But my reaction to the thin air was rapidly turning into full-on Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS),
or altitude sickness, and we headed on to Puno as the sun went down and
the cold wind of the mountain winter began to bring the temperature
down sharply. At the hotel I practically collapsed for an hour or two’s
nap, and then managed to pigeon-toe down to the nearest restaurant, a
couple of doors down from the hotel, for a light supper, and pigeon-toe
it back up to my room, completely exhausted, to sleep again. It was
9pm. I awoke almost hourly, drinking water, feeling exhausted, my pulse
rapid and persistent, breathing short, dizzy and suffering awful
fatigue. Finally, at about 4am, the pulse and shortness of breath had
begun to recede, to be replaced by a headache. I took some ibuprofen at
5am, and finally decided to cancel my tour to the Lake Titicaca
Islands, to stay put and get a day of complete rest. By 9am, worried
for me, the travel agency had called in CondorAssist, the medical
insurance with my fortnight’s tour, and a very nice young Quechua doctor
arrived, with a translator. It was agreed by all that it was altitude
sickness, that the worst was over, that I had done the right thing
cancelling today’s tour, and he sat me with an oxygen mask plugged into
an oxygen bottle that they keep at the hotel, for 20 minutes, which
cleared my headache!

An Andean woman in Puno using her mobile
By lunchtime I was able to take a little walk, buy some alpaca socks and
a straw sun hat, and get a bowl of Inca Soup – guinea pig and alpaca
meat and soft cheese cubes in a nourishing soup, which I ate most of
with a large glass of freshly juiced papaya. It is interesting how, up
here in the mountains, many of the local people still maintain the
traditional dress, at the same time as embracing the all-encompassing
information revolution. This excursion, however, was very tiring, and I
returned, again very slowly to the hotel, to sleep for a couple of
hours in the afternoon.

So – not only do I get air-sick on little Cessna’s doing wild
manouevres, I am among those who suffer from altitude sickness, too.

Peru Trip #5 – Underwhelmed by the Nazca Lines

One of the shapes of the Nazca linesWell here’s a turn-up for the books. For the first time in my life, I have
suffered from air-sickness. I got up at 5.30am, grabbed some breakfast, got picked up at 6.15am and taken to the bus station for a 4hr 30m bus journey – again in one of the comfy airline style coaches – arriving in Ica at 11.30am, to find my Nazca trip delayed til 3pm. I could have got a later bus. Not particularly pleased, but acquiescent, I wandered about the gardens of the Las Dunas hotel, a sort of oasis in the desert here, where a big conference was taking place, and then ate a very light salad lunch in the restaurant. Finally taken to the airfield, I and four other passengers and the two pilots took off in the little Cessna at 3pm, for a 30min journey across the desert to the plain where the lines are carved into the ground, 30mins flying over them, and then the 30min return journey. The updrafts from the mountainous surroundings made conditions quite choppy on the journey out there, but nothing worse than my similar Cessna journey from Milford Sound to Queenstown in 2007. But once we got to the lines, the pilot very enthusiastically ensured both sides of the plane got a very good view of each and every one of the twelve big patterns amongst the lines, by turning steeply and sharply in both directions. By the fourth shape I was feeling very hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable, and spent the next 10mins vomiting my lunch into the plastic bag provided. Only by the last little group of shapes had I recovered sufficiently to doggedly point my camera at the ground. I closed my eyes and left my body for the trip home, feeling, as I told anyone who asked, “awful.”

So now I know: I can – and will – get air-sick, in a little Cessna doing wild manouvres. And now I am stuck in a small villa hotel in the middle of nowhere for the evening, where after a long nap recovering I am at last going to have a small dinner, and then a long sleep and lie-in, to get the bus back to Lima tomorrow lunchtime. All in all, I have to say, considering the huge discomfort incurred on the overflight itself, and the 9hrs of bus travel to get here and back, I am distinctly underwhelmed by my trip to the Nazca lines. What photos I did manage to take are not as good as the ones you see in books. One wouldn’t expect
them to be. So why be here to take them for oneself? For the experience? You can keep it.

Update 3/10/10 : “Britons killed in Peru aircrash”
So – for anyone in any doubt that this pilot was displaying typical macho bravado and not only making people feel sick but playing fast and loose with common-sense safety – here is the tragic truth. I count myself very lucky, indeed, and hope that Health & Safety crawl all over that little operation. I feel very sorry indeed for the families of those bereaved – I think it was an accident waiting to happen.

Peru Trip #4 – El Brujo, Huaca de La Luna, Chan Chan

Huaca Prieta - 2500BCE Pyramid
Another long day with another punishing schedule, but SO worth it. Picked up from the hotel at 7am for a 90min journey to El Brujo, to visit the very celebrated Senora de Cao – the only Moche Queen discovered so far, clearly as powerful as the Lords of Sipan in her day (c250CE) with her own pyramid with all the usual Moche accompaniments.
But El Brujo is more than just her pyramid – here, too, is Huaca Prieta, the as yet unexcavated 2500BCE pyramid of the pre-ceramic originators of the El Brujo complex, followed later by the Cupisnique, and later still by the Moche, and the Chimu, and even a Dominican Church built by the Spanish. To this day, the local ‘brujo’s, (shamen) still practice their folk magic at the Moche Huaca El Brujo (named after them) facing the Huaca de Cao, the only part of the site so far excavated, opened to the public with an impressive museum, in April 2010.

There’s been 5000 years continuous sacred occupation of this same site,
overlooking the crashing waves of the pacific. A truly stunning site,
with my first sight of how the Moche ceramic style appears in
high-relief on the walls of their temples! In this warrior culture,
where soldiers paired off for ritual battle, the loser was stripped
naked, chained, and led to the top of the pyramid to be beheaded, where
his blood would sanctify the martial rite, and be presented in the
ceremonial cup to the Lord (or in this case Lady) to be drunk in
celebration of the life-death cycle epitomised in their primary deity,
Ai-Apaec: the beheading lord of death and creation.

Senora de Cao prisoners

Wall paintings at Huaca de Cao

But I was yet in for a real treat. For our next stop was Huaca de La
Luna. Two huge pyramids with a small town in between them, one slightly
larger than the other, named by the Spanish as the Temple of the Sun,
and then looted and destroyed, the other, smaller, named Temple of the
Moon, left alone for the archaeologists to discover, as late as 1990,
that there are five temples here, one built literally on top of the
other, like the top halves of Russian dolls. It seems after about a
century a particular ruling elite would simply completely renew, burying
the previous set wholesale by building directly on top of their temple –
a new temple for the new ruling elite, but all in essentially the same
cultural style – five times over, here at Huaca de La Luna. What has
been revealed is just simply stunning! Here is taster – check out Flickr for the MANY photos I took of this site.


The wall of the fifth temple with the sacred corner sanctuary

Glimpse of the fourth temple behind the walls of the 5th

This entire complex was just truly stunning and left me quite
gob-smacked. My guide told me, as we stood a little away from three
suited gentlemen in heated discussion, that they were the principal
archaeologists who had discovered and were managing the excavation of
the site, debating the need for and likelihood of getting substantial
new funding to continue the work. This is already a World Memorial Fund
site, but needs more help from the EU, the US, etc etc.

Last of the day, then, after a delightful seafood lunch overlooking the
waves crashing onto the pacific shore at Huanchaco Beach, nearby, was
the rather disappointing mud walls of the Chan Chan archaeological site.
This vast Chimu city, 14km square, was simply abandoned and looted
when the Spanish arrived, and not covered up like the Moche pyramids
that preceded it. No paint survives, therefore, and the reliefs are
barely distinguishable. What is on show is reconstructed, and
unremittingly brown. Alone, on a day without the glories of the Moche,
it might have been impressive, if only for its size and extent.

A view at Chan Chan

And then the flight from Trujillo back to Lima, a late dinner at the
Haiti Cafe near my hotel, and a very very welcome bed, after writing

Peru Trip #3 – Trujillo and the Cassinelli Museum

Trujillo outskirtsCon-Air : Cameron Poe the honour-bound dominant dysfunctional male, somehow apposite here in Peru with its macho culture and all the crime and violence I have been warned about, where armed security men check bus passengers for weapons and video everyone’s face once all aboard, seated in our airline seats in this double-decker coach, watching the dubbed movie. I am grateful for the comfy seat on this 3hr drive, but listen to Anthony and the Johnsons, Rufus Wainwright, and Aqualung on shuffle on my iPhone – a much softer, more varied, more interesting selection of masculinities than those on Con-Air.

Seeing a bit more of northern Peru, from the bus, I take a few random
photos to try to capture the state of (un)development here. One thing I
will say, however, despite all the warnings, all the security, etc etc –
everyone I have met here in northern Peru has been very friendly, very
helpful, very warm. I know I’m in a bubble, chaperoned everywhere I go,
but I haven’t sensed any threat at all.

And so Trujillo! It’s a Spanish imperial town, in the centre at least,
and I am taken quickly around some of the grand houses they left behind,
and the ones built shortly after the start of the republic in the early
19th century. It is strange to see so much European architecture and
furnishings here. But what I am really looking forward to today, and
which we quickly move on to, is the Cassinelli Museum. Signor
Cassinelli, about 85yrs old now, is in the reception room, with his
young wife, when I get there, and personally greets me. He has been
buying ceramics from the haqueros (the grave robbers) for decades, and
is well known and liked for saving these ceramics for Peru, rather than
letting them go abroad where they could never be seen. The basement
where a third of the collection is on view, is under a petrol station,
and it is dearly hoped that this private collection will one day get a
better building! His son is downstairs, guarding their treasure, as my
guide and I look around. I took a LOT of photographs – all on Flickr
– but here are one or two to get a flavour. This is without doubt a
bigger and better collection than that at Larco Herrera, for all that it
is in such a tiny room in comparison.

A gay couple ceramic in the Erotic Moche ceramics cupboard

A shaven Moche priest?

One of many Moche portrait ceramics

At the end of my visit, I am honoured to have further (interpreted)
conversation with Signor Cassinelli, and even a picture with him. My
guide has made it clear to him how very much I was looking forward to
seeing his collection, and how with how much delight I have enjoyed it.
He, in return, is honoured to have me visit him, all the way from

Me with Signor Cassinelli

Peru Trip #2 – The Lambayeque and the Moche Lords of Sipan

Map of Peru showing Moche civilisationWhat an epic day. Lying in bed late yesterday evening, reading myself to sleep, I noticed the bed suddenly wobbling strangely, I thought maybe it was a tremor – nothing as alarming as an earthquake – then maybe just a couple in the room next door having a rather good time. Then it was over before I could really work it out, and I forgot about it. Today, however, it was the small talk of the day amongst the Chiclayo guides and drivers who took me around to the tourist sites in my itinerary
today. It was a mini-earthquake; the first in quite some time, especially noticeable for someone, like me, on the sixth floor of my hotel. The joys of being so close to a continental plate subduction zone!

Anyway – up early to get breakfast in before meeting my guide for the
day at 8.45am, we headed straight off to the Tucume complex, a
Lambayeque (also known as Sican) site to the north of Chiclayo.
Following the Cupisnique culture 800-200BCE on the far north coast, the
Piera-based Vicus culture 1000BCE-300CE and the Moche civilisation
1-800CE over the whole of northern Peru, the Lambayeque/Sican culture
750-1375CE, contemporary with the Chimu in the southern half of northern
Peru, covered the northern half of what had been the Moche
civilisation. Facial reconstruction from royal skulls, along with
distinctive ceramic and architectural styles, set them apart from both
their Moche forebears, and their Chimu 900-1470CE neighbours, whose
culture represented more of a development from the earlier Moche. Both
were later taken over by the pan-Andean Inca’s, shortly before the
arrival of the Spanish. The only surviving written records of any
pre-Columbian cultures are of course, like Roman accounts of the Celts,
written by the Spanish conquerors, but include a monk’s retelling of the
Lambayeque origin myth, which claims that their first God-King arrived
from the sea, with a fleet. Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition proved
the practical possibility of the Lambayeque having originated from a
Polynesian invasion. Contemporary with the third stage of the
Lambayeque culture another group of Polynesians of course arrived in New
Zealand, establishing the Maori, and populating the islands for the
first time. Even if, after the manner of Francis Pryor’s anti-invasion
historical stance, this Polynesian invasion of northern Peru was little
more than a Norman-style invasion by a new ruling elite, it is still a
compelling theory. Mochica, the language of the Moche, was spoken all
over the north right up until the last Mochica speaker died 25 years
ago, and there is no record of any specific Lambayeque language.

The Tucume complex is from the third stage of the Lambayeque/Sican
culture, with its own distinctive style of ceramics. The first and
second stages, 750-900CE, and 900-1100CE, were characterised by a dark
grey ceramic style (the colour came from the smoke of the firing
process) that, at least in the second stage, was mainly focussed on
representations of their God-Kings. The second stage ended during a La
Nina – the 20-30year dry period that appears erratically in opposition
to the more common El Nino
wet periods that bring floods every half-decade or so to the Peruvian
coast. The 2nd stage Sican culture – and their 30 or more pyramids –
ended in flames, and they moved to Tucume, where a third stage Sican
culture 1100-1375CE, built another 26 new pyramids, but were no longer
led by God-Kings.

Tucume pyramids

Tucume is a vast site – a complex of 26 mud-brick pyramids –
clustered around an isolated pyramidal hill. The pre-columbian peruvian
pyramid is not like the Egyptian pyramid; in the north here,
especially. Here in the north they were made of mud-brick, and with wide
flat tops that act as platforms for royalty and priesthood to live on,
with all their various entourages. The largest of the pyramids here at
Tucume is the largest pyramid in the Americas. They have all suffered
somewhat from the last 1000 years of rain, but for mud-brick it is
remarkable how much has actually survived!

Me at the Tucume pyramids

Further south the last museum of the day showcases the remains of two of
the Lords of the Sican/Lambayeque culture – from the second stage
900-1100CE, prior to Tucume.

Sican Lord from Huaca Loro Lambayeque II

But by far the most amazing visit of the day has been to the Lords of
Sipan museum in the town of Lambayeque. Sipan, a pyramid site up to the
north east of the coastal area and unsupported by electricity and other
amenities, was one of the main burial tombs of the Moche kings, and the
museum here in Lambayeque houses two of them – everything from the gold
and silver clothing to their very skeletons, in a magnificent new
building built just like a pyramid. This is probably one of the finest
museums I have ever been to, and although everything was in spanish my
guide interpreted it all in excellent English for me and it was the
highlight of the day. Cameras and mobile phones are not allowed inside,
so I took no pictures. I did however buy the book, and have taken a
couple of snaps for you to get the idea…

Lords of Sipan museum


Reconstruction scene at Lords of Sipan museum


Belt bangle at Lords of Sipan museum

All in all an exhausting day – and time for the local specialty dish: duck and rice; washed down with a Chilean red methinks!

Peru Trip #1 – Arrival and Larco Museum

Chimu gold funerary ornaments Impressions of Peru so far? So many! As the KLM flight came in to land at Lima International Airport, the first impression was of a brown, low-rise, half-built town, with a glittering glass crown in the centre. My week in that centre, at an international conference, served to underline this. The ‘middle classes’ of Lima, if I can use such a term, are the wealthy, with, it seems, far, far below them, the very poor, and little if anything in between. The gap is evident in the gated business sector I have spent the last week in, like a Baghdad Green Zone, characterised by the profusion of security guards, high steel fences, the railings, broken-glass-topped walls, spikes and grilled up doors and windows that are ubiquitous here.

As a colleague of mine said to me yesterday, as we took a hotel taxi to the best private museum, we have earned the privilege of being among Lima’s wealthy, chaperoned, protected, looked after. There are poor in our countries, too, and we have worked hard to get where we are. Yet, in the UK at least, the welfare net is set so very much higher than the average level of the poor here, and prevents the worst excesses of poverty so visible in the faces of those desperate to sell us “anything” at the windows of the taxis when they stop at the lights. The driver presses the central locking switch, in a quiet, protective move, and then we are gone. The garish colours and busy-ness of the advertising hoardings and shop fronts are such a contrast to the dull brown, low-rise town seen from the air as you approach – the outskirts surely where the poor gather like (equally brown) moths to the city-centre flame, their (equally brown) faces pressed to the security gates, admiring the spectacle of transnational wealth.

And never before have I been given so many warnings about how dangerous a country is – what not to do, where not to go, what to be careful about. In Egypt the tour guides marshalled the hawkers, fair enough, but they were pleasant enough, just a little overwhelming. Here, apparently, it just isn’t safe to go out at night in many places, where ones tourist face is so clear to pick out. I don’t know if the tales are an exaggeration, but am I really that inclined to find out? What with this having been the worst year for my back in over a decade, and the orthotic strap holding me together the only reason I didn’t bring my stick, I don’t fancy my chances at running away from anything. But everyone I have met has been really pleasant, welcoming – albeit also protective. I am glad I have booked this entire trip through a travel agent, and that every step of my journey around Peru will be guided. My Spanish is non-existent, at any rate, and outside of the city-centre, so is the English of most people other than my guides.

Arriving in Chiclayo, today, after the short flight north from Lima, the impression is immediately one of being in a third world country. I am strongly reminded of southern Egypt. Although it is winter here now, and I arrive in the early evening, the warm air as I step off the plane is dry, slightly dusty, and faintly sweet. The view of the town during the descent was similar to the outskirts of Lima – half-built, (at best), and here the metalled roads are in the minority – the main thoroughfares, interspersed with broken concrete lanes near the centre, and simple flattened dirt in the outskirts. The taxi ride to the hotel reinforces this impression. I must say something about the driving here. It is terrifying. I am so glad I didn’t even consider hiring a car. Although the drivers (well, the one who spoke some English) tell me there are few accidents because of the driving style, just the usual accidents due to drink and speed, this is clearly because, as he says, all Peruvian drivers “have eight eyes and radar inside their heads”. The roads are a complete free-for-all with no rules at all. Terrifying for a well-behaved British road user.
Moche Phallic Pot
Anyway. I am here principally, now that my conference is over, to see pre-Columbian Peru, and extremely fortunate to be able to do so. Like most tourists from the ‘rich’ world, I will simply have to deal with the poverty around me by getting into private cars, taking private tours, and, basically, not dealing with it, not looking at it. All I can hope is that by visiting some of the less well known sites, as I am doing this week, in the north of the country, I am bringing some desperately needed tourist dollars to the local economy, and that this is at least something, and all I can possibly be expected to do, in the face of so much need.

The Larco Herrera Museum, in Lima, is reputedly the best collection of pre-Columbian artefacts in the capital, if not the largest (The National Anthropological Museum) or the richest (the Central Bank’s Gold Museum). I have taken over 100 photos there, and confess to being completely enchanted by pre-Columbian history. The Moche, in particular, I am finding really fascinating – a culture that rose and fell through five stages from 1-800CE, and which has left some very striking artefacts, along with its own mark on the civilisations which followed it. Of particular note, (predictably) for me, is that the Moche left a great deal of erotic art and ceramics behind, of which there was a whole separate gallery at the Larco, and of which I am told there will be more at the Cassinelli Museum I am to visit during my stay up here in the north.
See for all the photos.

California trip #6 – Redwood country

Native American exhibit

The visitor centre at Humboldts National Park includes an exhibit on the Lolangkok Sinkyone tribe who lived here before the coming of the white man. There is no history. This is pre-history, with utensils, tools, beads etc. The difference from any other exhibit of Neolithic life is that this exhibit includes photographs – 19th century ones, but photographs nonetheless – of the people themselves. As someone used to seeing such exhibits all over Europe, where there is, it must be said, much more information, much more detail, much more understanding of peoples several thousand years dead, this exhibit was quite eerie, quite odd – more like a tour of Auschwitz with all the shoes and spectacles and human hair. “Here lie the remains of a people decimated by genocide,” was the information plaque I would like to have put on this exhibit. It is sad, but there really does seem to be two Americas. The one I met in San Francisco was warm, open, friendly, liberal. The other – all too often the tourist kind we in Europe have learnt to hate – is simply ignorant, arrogant, and loud. There were several of the latter in the Visitors’ Centre, and I was glad to leave sooner rather than later.

Albino outgrowth at foot of Redwood The hostess at the Myers Inn, however, told me a wonderful story of how the logging company wanted to take out a whole part of the forest, and all the womens’ clubs and institutes in the region got together to protest, and raise the cash to buy this part of the forest, and grant it to the National Park. This area is now called the Womens’ Grove, and includes the mysterious Albino Tree, which, according to my hostess, was known by the ‘Indians’ as the ‘Spirit of the Forest’. I love this other America. I can’t say I got much spiritual communication from this genetic deformity, however – it was simply a very unusual brilliant white fir tree – an natural oddity.

The Giant Tree in Humboldts National Park Further up the Avenue of the Giants there are indeed some really big trees – the Tall Tree, at 360ft apparently something like the ninth tallest living thing on Earth (the others are in Redwood National Forest, to the north, and in China, where the other remaining Redwoods live.) Walking alone in this part of the forest one really gets a sense of the ancient woods of the world – something almost pre-mammalian, let alone pre-human, ancient, almost other-worldly.

Humboldts National Forest – Bull Creek Flats trail

beach driftwood
At last, on the very border with Oregon, I came to my last stop – the oceanfront guest house, Casa Rubio, where I had a delightful room, with my own door out onto the beautiful garden, my own deckchairs from which to catch the late afternoon sun, and my own view of the rolling white chargers of the Pacific. This was a truly special place to end my holiday, walking along the beach collecting pebbles and driftwood, sunning myself in my little part of the garden above the beach, strolling down the beach later to enjoy a really excellent dinner at the Nautical Inn, with a fine bottle of Russian River Chardonnay from the Napa Valley, and enjoy the sunset from my table.

Sunset from my table at the Nautical Inn

US Presidential Process

Barak Obama
OK, I’ve been watching this, because the UK media has been full of it,
and considering how much global impact the result is likely to have it
is rather captivating at times – like when you slow down on the motorway
to gawp at the accident on the other carriageway, something in you
really wants to look, despite how distasteful it all is.

So I have been a Hillary supporter for a while, because I quite liked
Bill and thought it would be good to see a Clinton dynasty to rival the
Bush dynasty. I had even felt that although Obama was saying some quite
interesting things, Americans probably weren’t ready for a black
president, but might be ready for a woman.

Tonight I have changed my mind. Tonight I think Americans ARE more ready
for a black president than I thought – SO LONG AS HE”S A MALE – and SO
LONG AS IT ISN”T HILLARY CLINTON. Tonight I changed my mind – and the
thing that changed my mind was this: 90% of Obama’s fundraising is made
up of individual donations of under $100.

This is what a Democratic strategist interviewed on Channel 4 News said.
I’ll repeat it if you like. 90% of Obama’s fundraising is made up of
individual donations of under $100. He has raised more millions of
dollars than McCain, more even than the most formidable fundraising
machine in Democratic history (until now) – Bill Clinton. 90% of Obama’s
fundraising is made up of individual donations of under $100.

This is completely unprecedented. This means, I think, that the US really IS ready for change.

Roll on Obama. I can’t vote for you, but I sincerely hope you win – more
importantly – I sincerely hope you really do make a change, and that
you don’t get yourself shot.

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 15: Uluru

So, at last, I have been to Uluru. To the Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, to be precise. It was a 24 hour stopover – the flights from and back to Sydney essentially free, included in the globe-trotter ticket I bought for this trip downunder. I arrived at about 1pm at the Voyages Resort, where there are hotels for all budgets, (and the cheapest is dear for a backpacker) all run by the one company that got the government concession here. The first thing you notice as you get off the plane is the heat. It is 36deg here. The Park is some 40km from
Uluru, outside the National Park, adjacent to the new airport. My room is basic, but I shall only be putting my head down in it so I am content.


Kata-Tjuta gorge
At 4pm, I depart on my first tour – the Kata-Tjuta Dunes Sunset tour. Cherry, guide to the 20 tourists and driver of our mini-van on this Discovery Ecotours trip, is fresh, cheerful, and informative. We visit the large rock formations collectively known by the European name of The Olgas, their aboriginal name, Kata-Tjuta. The local peoples – a cluster of three dialect groupings, are known as the Anangu (pr. ‘ananoo’) but the stories of these lands include peoples from all over Australia. The Anangu have been living here for 22000 years, the deep red centre of this island continent – one of the last areas to be populated. We Europeans first sighted it in the 1870s. Tourism began in the 1950s, which was when the National Park was created – a slice taken out of the Aboriginal Reservation that covers the wider area. In 1985 the Land Rights Act returned ownership of the National Park to the Anangu, on condition that they lease it back to the Australian government for 99years. It was at this point that the resort and airport were relocated out of the Park, and the indigineous people began to have at least something of a say in the running of the land they had occupied for so long. None of them live a nomadic life anymore. They wear western clothes, live in houses, and are prey to the demon drink.
But their culture lives on through their ceremonies, rituals, social structure, language, mores. They have managed to restrict access to much of the park – with the voice of the conservationists on their side keen to preserve this unique environment. Everyone has to pay $25 at the entrance to the park, for a three day ticket. 25% of this goes to the local people. About $6. I spent about $400 here in 24 hours, on hotel room, food, wine, t-shirt, hat…. ..and $6 of it went to the indigenous people.

Kata-Tjuta sign
Kata-Tjuta is the ancient sacred site of the Men’s Mysteries for the aboriginal people, where their young men are initiated to this day, and it is to a carefully fenced-off area with clear walkways and viewing platforms that we are taken, into a gorge that is no longer used by the indigenous people, and their gorges are off limits. Here the trees from which the men make their spears and spear throwers grow, drinking up the rich water source at the foot of the rocks. Only yards away from the rock formations, the desert takes over again, with coarse grass the only greenery that breaks the surface. Somehow, on this tour, with the multi-national cohort and our Australian tour-guide, on the carefully managed paths, it is landscape that we have come to see, and the mystery of this place is carefully hidden from us. Cherry cannot know anything about the mysteries, for she is female, and there are female tourists with us. She explains that amongst local people, only men are allowed to come to Kata-Tjuta. It feels somehow as though sacrilege has been committed. Walking back out of the gorge, back onto the bus, we are taken to a viewing platform on the top of a sand dune, from which to watch the rocks gradually change colour as the sun sets behind us. Cherry gets out bread, oil and balsamic, and a seed mix which includes a local tree bark, and pours sparkling wine into champagne flutes for everyone, except the children who get orange juice. I, of course, tickled by the sheer decadence of this experience, have to mix the too, and soon several of us are quaffing bucks fizz, in the desert, watching the sunset over Kata-Tjuta. It is somehow fittingly colonial, distant and distinct from the true and ancient meaning of the place.

Bucks Fizz at Kata-Tjuta

Quite merry by the time we get back to the resort, after buying a better (kangaroo leather) sunhat and a flynet to keep off the extremely irritating desert flies, I bought a plate of raw kangaroo meet and barramundi fish and barbecued it myself on the backpacker-communal barbecues, washing it down with strong aussie wine. Then an early night, and up at 4.30am for the Uluru sunrise tour.

Sunrise over Uluru

Uluru Mala Face
There’s only five of us this morning, and our tour-guide, Jessie, is more experienced and more knowledgeable than Cherry was. Jessie takes us to the viewing area for sunrise, and we watch the colours change, drinking coffee and eating a light breakfast of cereal bars and muffins. Then he drives us around the base of the Uluru, telling us some of the tales of the aboriginal culture that tie aspects of this great rock into the history and mythology of both the local and many more distant peoples. It is quite fascinating. But the tension between landlord and leaseholder is so evident. All the literature from the Voyages Resort, and all the various tour-guide companies that operate here, include the statement from the Anangu that they would rather people did not climb the rock. Yet of course the climb is available and allowed and tour-guides take you up, and we watch the long line of tourists climbing the precarious path – with a steel rope to guide you – up onto the top of the rock. As Jessie explains to us, in the ancient tale of the Mala ancestors, it was a great wise elder who climbed the rock here, to plant the totem-pole announcing the beginning of the men’s mysteries ceremonies. The totem pole is echoed in one of the rock formations. The tourists tread this processional way, as if clambering up onto the High Altar in the Vatican, oblivious to all insult. I saw the request from the Anangu, and did not climb. I did not buy the postcard that said “I respected the wishes of the Anangu and did not climb,” but was amused to see it in the rack.
Uluru snake lair
As we drive around the base Jessie tells us a fabulous story about a snake ancestor and her eggs, and the shapes on the sides of the rock that pick out moments of the tale. It is quite fascinating to the see the mythology mapped onto the geology in this way. We leave the bus at a car park and Jessie takes us to see one of the rock-paintings – barely more than a classroom blackboard, really, with a jumble of signs and symbols used to aid in passing on the oral tradition.

Uluru rock paintings

We go right up close to the rock and see into one of the pools of water that collect at its base – surrounded by lush vegetation, small lizards, and more tourists. Then its off to the Cultural Centre – the exhibition space of the National Park, where everything has been prepared by/on behalf of the the Anangnu, and there are shops selling local crafts and artworks. I buy a hand-crafted snake, to remember the story. There are aboriginal women, sitting cross legged on the floor in one of the shops, painting. They chat amongst themselves, in a world completely their own, oblivious to the tourists standing watching them, somehow in another time and place from us altogether. Even now, in their presence, in this shop, I feel that their mystery is hidden from us. It is carefully managed, and very effective. The storyboards in the exhibition tell a little, and then fall silent. Here and there it is mentioned that the true ending of a story is reserved for initiates only. Perhaps, in the end, it is a mark of the victory of the aboriginal people here, that outsiders do not know, cannot understand their ways, their mysteries. They have kept the strength of their magic by keeping silent. It is good.

Having completed the circumference we pull in for a last stop at a viewing platform for a good view of the rock, and Jessie and I take each others’ pictures.

Jessie - Uluru guide


Then it’s back to the resort, for an hour wandering around the visitors centre, where I learn more about the geology and the natural history of the place, and at last back to the airport and back to Sydney.

I am glad to have been there at last, to have at least touched the surface of the mysteries of an ancient people, to have gained, at least, a knowledge of the power of its silence.

Trip Downunder Sept 07 – Entry 12: Coach-Cruise-Fly

Tandem Paragliding
OK so the second gig of the holiday, presenting to colleagues at Otago University in Dunedin, has gone well, and I am back in Queenstown, for the day trip to Milford Sound, and fun on my return! The day began early with a several hour long coach drive through three deep u-shaped glacial valleys across to the west coast of south island and Milford Sound. Here we joined a small ferry for a cruise down the fiord and out into the Tasman Sea briefly, then back up the fiord, to the small airport where I took the twin-prop Britten Norman Island Hopper back to Queenstown, sitting next to the pilot! To round off the day, I took the gondola up the mountain overlooking Queenstown, and completely on the spur of the moment went (tandem) paragliding, off the top of the mountain and back down into town. See here for slideshows of some of the most amazing scenery I have ever seen in my life!

### sadly the tag-based slideshow I created in 2007 is no longer supported by Flickr ###
Please visit the Flickr album to see the paragliding photos.