The Marrakesh Express – Two Weeks in Morocco Pt 1. Maudlin’ Musicians and Metal Miners

I must have been in my teens when “Marrakesh Express” came out (1969). Those were heady days. Before Hendrix (1970) and Joplin died (1970). The Lizard King was still alive (died 1971). We were still trapped in Hotel California. Barclay James Harvest would play at our school a year or two later, followed by Genesis. We paid them £200 and a year later they were playing in Brighton for£2000. There are some music pundits that say that Marrakesh Express is among the worst pop songs ever written. But we didn’t care because to us it represented something totally different from the school environment in which we were trapped.

I can remember, to this day, singing the lyrics of the CSN song and fantasising with my teenage mates about heading off to Morocco – before we even really know what drugs and sex were. Instead I made it to the Costa del Sol, with two other school friends, where we got drunk on cheap champagne and risked imprisonment by hiring a car on a provisional licence and then driving around the Pyrenees with no insurance. That was the limit of our budget, nerve and time.

Had we met any women in Spain, I know that I, for one, would have had no idea what to say, let alone anything else. Being brought up with two brothers and attending an all male school for all but two of your school years will do that. It took me another 15 odd years (odd being the operative term) before I got over that handicap in life and, I’m sure, some of my female friends will argue I never got over it.

So, I guess, Morocco had been on the proverbial bucket list for somewhere around 50 years before I finally landed in Fes, earlier this year. A trip taken somewhat wiser about things like drugs and sex (or at least I like to believe so) but just as profoundly ignorant about Morocco and most of Africa.


Marrakesh Express

Whoopa, hey mesa, hooba huffa, hey meshy goosh goosh

Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes
Traveling the train through clear Moroccan skies
Ducks and pigs and chickens call, animal carpet wall to wall
American ladies five-foot tall in blue

Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead bring us back to where they’ve led
Listen not to what’s been said to you

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
They’re taking me to Marrakesh
All aboard the train, all aboard the train

I’ve been saving all my money just to take you there
I smell the garden in your hair
Take the train from Casablanca going South
Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth

Colored cottons hang in the air
Charming cobras in the square
Striped djellabas we can wear at home
Well, let me hear ya now

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

They’re taking me to Marrakesh

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

They’re taking me to Marrakesh

All aboard the train, all aboard the train, all aboard


And so I boarded my RyanAir flight. As any wise traveller knows this, in itself, was my first mistake. Non Gaelic speakers may not know it but Ryan is the Gaelic word for “complete shite”. And if it’s not it should be. If you don’t have a bad back when you board you will when you are carried off. The seats are made from some form of indestructible rigid plastic and, far from reclining, are actually set in a bolt upright position.

RyanAir. Almost impossible to find anything uglier or less comfortable

The décor is what you imagine they’d put in Guantanamo to torture the inmates. And all this before you even get to the booking process and charges which if you have any self-respect, you’d never put yourself through twice. People say “Oh but it’s a budget airline”. I mean, Aldi is a budget supermarket but no one would go there if they behaved like RyanAir. Can you imagine? Want to walk down the aisles? That’ll be $5. Basket? $5. Customer assistance? $20. Pay for your goods? $5. Use the toilet $10. Still at least we got their alive albeit with a stiff neck and sciatica.

My second mistake in Morocco was breaking rule 2 (the first being don’t travel RyanAir) – which is don’t try and cram a four week itinerary into a two week period. One would imagine any Idiot Traveller would know this after 60 odd years of travelling. But no. So Morocco turned out to be like the proverbial curate’s egg, I.e good in parts – meaning of course that a revisit is required to make amends.

This is a country which is fundamentally Muslim and traditional in it’s Berber culture. It’s population is about 75% Berber and about 25% Arabic.

Morocco hasn’t been overly corrupted by tourism, and is also a relatively modern in ways that many African countries are not yet. Good public transport, good drinking water, great food, good accommodation and remarkable accomodating to tourists. So it’s really the best of both worlds. Politically is is relatively liberal and socially and religiously it falls somewhere between a historically liberal and secular muslim society, such as Turkey (perhaps was), and the more conservative societies of Iran and Saudi.

On the road to Merzouga, Morocco

My two week trip took me on a circuit via Fes, to Volubilis the ancient Roman city, to Merzouga, in the desert, and then on through the Atlas mountains to Marrakech before finishing my trip in Casablanca and then flying back out from Fes.

It’s a day long trip into the desert but it’s a trip that should really take at least two days and once you are there it’s a full day trip back to Fes or onto Marrakech. In the ideal world this should be a week’s circuit at minimum. A couple of days out. Three or four in the desert and a couple of days back. And even that is scratching the surface.

On the road to Merzouga

My first AirBnB was in the heart of the Medina, which is reputedly the largest and oldest in Africa. Morocco greeted me with freezing weather and the tail end of a few days of rain. And it turned out that the AirBnb, I’d selected, while having many redeeming features, not least it’s location, could well have doubled as the site for the winter Olympics.

Absent any heating the only solution, after about 4 pm, was either to go out or to bury oneself in bed wearing every possible scrap of clothing. Still the food  cooked by our friendly hosts was good and his brother, usefully, also owned a cafe about 50 metres up the road which allowed for evening entertainment and supplies not normally available  in the Medina.

I shared the paid bit of the accommodation with two other guests, an Australian woman, Tiffany and a French woman, Alex, with whom I would visit the desert out near Merzouga.

Mohamed and the monkeys at the ski resort

The Idiot Traveller rule for all new places is to have at least a half day, if not a full day. for organisational purposes. Work out where you are going to go. Find the teller machines, the railway and bus station, the best cafes, the interesting bars, the live music. Work out the timetables, plan your route, make your bookings if necessary.

Fes (Blue gate, Mosque, square outside Medina, pottery shop)

Then a minimum of two days to put that plan into effect. That’s the theory but often the first day turns into a sort of desultory blob of a day where you get up late, have a brunch, get some money out, study your map over a coffee, stroll around a bit and climb up the nearest hill (if there is one) where you can buy a wine and look at the city below. That then becomes your spare day so you need four days minimum instead of three. So that was day one in Fes. Meaning the first part of day two is taken up doing what you should have done on day one.

Fes

My second day in Fes involved a side trip to Volubilis, the ancient and former capital or Roman Mauretania. Not that I was aware that the Romans even came this far south-west but clearly they did since just an hour from Fes is bloody great Roman ruin, estimably well preserved.

This was an Idiot Traveller instant decision – the sort you make when you haven’t been forced to make decisions of any importance for so long that you can no longer remember how to make them. Shall I go, shan’t I go, shall I go, shan’t I go…for about four hours. With the result that by the time I actually headed for the station it was already about 11 am.

So you jump the train omitting to note that one should get off at the second stop in Meknes. As a result you descend at the first station in town thus finding yourself marooned several kilometres from the “grand taxis” which you are supposed to share to go to Moulay Idriss, the nearest town, and then on to Volubilis.

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The holy city of Moulay Idriss

Here I encounter Chloë Mayoux who has made the same mistake as I but hasn’t yet realised that she has made that mistake. Chloë is a half French, half British being. She can’t decide if she is French or British and thus was a sort of Brexit before Brexit ever existed.

Cat Brexit

Chloë says she feels more British than French even though she exhibits every sign of being psychologically about 90% French and prefers to speak French. She is being cajoled by an elderly Moroccan who is trying, illegally, to sell her an unofficial tour of Volubilis.

On seeing me he determines that I shall (a) be his second victim and (b) by persuading me he will also be able to persuade Chloë as the cost to each of us will be halved. Unfortunately for him I perform the Scots gambit, a tourism form of a chess move which prevents one being checkmated by a clever tourism operator and saves a lot of money.

So I persuade Chloë, clearly against her better judgement, to share a petit taxi to where we can get a shared grand taxi. 

Chloë’s protective alarm systems are at Code Red. I can sense the hackles rising on the back of her neck as she tries to decide if I am (a) an axe murderer (b) a sex slave trader (c) merely a dirty old man who is likely to annoy and harass her. Having made the judgement that the latter is the most likely and reasonably benign outcome, but clearly still being very doubtful, we set off.

Communication is sparse as Chloë follows the female strategy of “don’t think I’m going to encourage your interest in me by speaking to you”.  This is a sort of partial inverse of the female complaint about being sexually invisible after about age 50.

strangers

In fact the same sense of invisibility applies to older men but, not only that, one is burdened with the perils of being perceived as a potential serial molester of young women if one is the least bit friendly to any female stranger under the age of 30. It is perhaps poetic justice for several thousand years of patriarchy.

Arriving eventually at Volubilis I can tell that the last thing Chloë wants is to be forced to do the tour of the ruins with me. Which is fine because I feel the same way. For me being forced to undertake tours as part of a group, however small, is about as satisfying is it is for my partner to be forced to take me shopping. It ruins the entire experience.  Still we bump into each other a few times as we tour the ruins and by the time we come to return it appears that Chloë is no longer at code red.

Volubilis itself is a delight. It’s large and well preserved as Roman ruins go. It sits high on a mini-plateau with spectacular views all around – especially good for sunset viewing – and it has a plethora of well preserved buildings, mosaics and bath houses.

This was the ancient capital of the Roman-Berber kingdom of Mauretania and, as such, was full of grand buildings. Historically this was also the capital of numerous empires. Built in and occupied since the 3rd century BC, Volubilis had seen its share of residents – Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans – before being taken back by the locals by 285 AD.

The city remained occupied by Latin Christians, then Muslims, then the Idrisid dynasty, the founders of modern Morocco. In the 11th century, it was abandoned when the seat of power moved to Fes. The ruins remained substantially intact until they were devastated by an earthquake in the mid-18th century and subsequently looted by Moroccan rulers seeking stone for building Meknes.

The buildings include a massive arch to the Emperor Caracalla. It was built in 217 by the city’s governor, Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus, to honour the Emperor and his mother. Caracalla was himself a North African and had recently extended Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of Rome’s provinces.

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The Triumphal Arch of Caracalla

By the time the arch was finished both Caracalla and his mother, Julia had been murdered by a usurper – perhaps a warning against misplaced vanity. Other major buildings include the Capitol dedicated to Juno, Jupiter and Minerva and the Basilica . The Capitol was built under the obscure (at least to me) Emperor Macrin (the ancestor of the current French President, perhaps).

The Arch, Basilica and Capitol, Volubilis

Volubilis is sufficiently intact that, wandering around the ruins, in and out among the baths, houses and mosaics one can almost imagine the footsteps of a thousand years ago, echoing down the stone streets. In winter this is exploration of the past at its best. There are few places in the world to see better examples of Roman mosaics, in situ.

Volubilis. Every step a joy

Our return trip to Fes is more relaxed and somewhat hilarious, or at least the first part. Our “grand taxi” is an old Mercedes which is already completely full save the front passenger seat. This means that Chloë and I have to share that seat and I make the mistake of not insisting on being in middle.

Being a manual car this means that every time the driver changes gear Chloë has to perform a feat of yoga practice combining a new move, known as upward dog, combined with a right hand twist in order to avoid getting groped by the taxi driver each time he changes gear. This is repeated about 40 times on the trip becoming increasingly hilarious as time passes. Maybe it was the Roman air. Our return to the station is made easy by a Moroccan woman who goes out of her way to accompany us the 500 metres to the station out of the goodness of her heart and we finally arrive back in Fes around 8 pm.

I have another day in Fes. The Fes Medina has allegedly over 8000 streets and lanes and venturing out into that maze of alleys to find a particular location is a bit like looking for ethics and values in a modern day democracy. They are out there somewhere but finding them is somewhat tortuous with no guarantee of success.

In my view better by far just to set off blindly and hope that, by chance, good things will happen. This was my plan if you can call a plan with only unknown unknowns a plan. But the advantage is that you stumble across all sorts of interesting little side alleys and cafes populated only by locals where you can either have good conversations or get mugged and robbed.

Either are, of course, interesting experiences but one is less stressful than the other. In addition you escape the majority of the other tourists who tend to stick to tried and true routes. Still since I was close to the famous blue Gate and the tannery these were included in my itinerary.

The trip to the desert was like Gordon and Speke’s search for the source of the Nile. We knew, ostensibly where we were going, but beyond that we had little information about the how, when, why or who with.

Lake Victoria
Lake Victoria, Nile source

This was a variation on my Fes Medina exploration, this time with some known unknowns as well as unknown unknowns. I was to travel with Alex, a young Frenchwoman just about to return to France having finished her studies, who was desperate to visit the desert before she left.

Then there was Mohamed the owner of the AirBnB, his cousin Salah and there was the driver who was apparently anonymous and who tried hard not to smile or communicate during the entire trip. 

Prior to leaving I knew only Mohamed and Salah among the group and they were the known unknowns.  Alex, Mohamed and Salah had known each other for a while, so I felt a bit like the third wheel.

Alex and me, Mohamed and me, the two boys and Alex and the road trip crew

Alex and Salah, in particular, and Mohamed to a lesser degree apparently had a form of love hate relationship going on where which felt like some form of asexual codependency where Salah spent the entire trip trying to touch and fondle Alex, which she accepted and appeared to even like until such time as it went beyond some unwritten and unspoken boundary at which point a shouting match would start and Salah would sulk off in a passive aggressive way until the entire sequence started again.

The trip to the desert passes through the nearest ski resorts and through many kilometres of semi-desert with the shining Atlas mountains in the distance.

It’s a fascinating trip broken by a few stops to visit villages and desert oases en route.

Each of the stops and where we go next is a bit of a magic mystery tour because Mohamed’s idea of being a tour guide is to just to go and not really tell anyone where the tour group is going, or when or why. The exemplar of this was arriving in Merzouga where Mohamed and Salah just mysteriously disappeared leaving Alex and I abandoned with no information and, more importantly, no alcohol.

In the morning we pile into the van and are driven out to Khamlia to see a performance by a group of musicians from the Gnaoua – about whom you can read more below.

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The music and performance are worth going for but for the sense that The Gnaoua musicians feel like a cross between circus performers and sweatshops labourers in Bangladesh.

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The Gnaoua – maudlin musicians

There is a distinct sense of ennui which makes watching the performers a tad uncomfortable for the onlookers – in fact some look so sad at being there  that you feel that they are about to start weeping – . You know you will be shuffled out the door and in another half an hour the performers will perform the same songs for another group of tourists. It’s the sort of thing that makes one want to avoid anything organised of this type.

From here we drive further into the desert to look at a semi-traditional Berber settlement – where the inhabitants are still on the margin of our technological society but are no longer nomadic and then onto a desert mine where a couple of miners scrape a living extracting a variety of stones for jewellery via a semi mechanised small scale mine.

Metal miners in the desert cold

Being winter the conditions are harsh, cold, with a biting dust laden wind. My sense of discomfort at being a spectator of other peoples’ lives is repeated. No matter how hospitable the people are or how interesting the places are the sense of intrusion is overwhelming.

Berber desert dwellings. How to feel intrusive

The sense of exploitation soon becomes a sense of the ridiculous. We are to go into the desert to camp overnight at a desert camp. These are specially constructed for tourists to give them a better sense of being in the desert. Which, in itself, is fine but it’s the way we get there that is somewhat hilarious. We are to go by camel about which I don’t have a particular issue until I discover that while Alex and I are to ride the three others, our camel guide, Mohamed and Saleh are to walk alongside.

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And the poor shall walk. While Alex and I perched precariously on our ships of the desert, like Lord and Lady Muck, the poor people walked

So, there we are perched precariously on our lurching ships of the desert to go to somewhere which is close enough to walk to, while alongside us the serfs are required to walk. Not only that but they are doing so in a wind which constantly lifts sand into all our faces and much so for those walking. It’s a neat encapsulation of modern day capitalism where the rich ride, metaphorically, on the backs of the poor (who cannot afford a camel ride).

Nevertheless the night is entertaining with good food, wine and music….unlike the previous stops the workers at the camp appear to be enjoying their work and the evening jam session is a delight. That combined with the beauty of the desert night and dawn make a Moroccan Desert experience of sorts a must do – just not the way this Idiot Traveller did it.

Alex and Salah desert camp
Dinner in the desert

Music in the desert camp. The locals do the jam session

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Environmental Anecdotes (Episode 2) The Franklin Campaign: The Law of the Land and other Legends in their own Lunchtimes

This is not a historical record. As per Trumpian logic, no apologies made for errors, exaggeration, omissions, bad taste or misrepresentations. For those with a humour deficit it’s worth pointing out that satire and sarcasm are not to be taken seriously, especially when written about individuals.

I well remember the day and a few others like it. Few campaigners have ever imitated their state premier live to air as part of their daily campaign activity. But on this day Geoff Law excelled himself. Now I write about Geoff because, in my view, he represents the archetype of a good campaigner. Smart, laconic, stubborn, persistent, talented, and immensely annoying to those in authority.

The best campaigners have, hopefully, shortened the lives of a good many corrupt and incompetent politicians by creating major amounts of stress for them. Geoff is one.

If the biggest companies in Australia had been run for the last forty years by those running environmental campaigns, instead of a bunch of incompetent, unethical, greedy losers, Australia would be the envy of the world instead of the a source of immense shame to many of its citizens.

It was the famous (or infamous) Franklin River Blockade, in Tasmania (https://www.wilderness.org.au/history-franklin-river-campaign-1976-83). The location was the Information Centre, in Strahan, from where the blockade was run.

The Franklin campaign became a national issue with tens of thousands turning out in Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart in support of the campaign

Each morning between 7 am and about 10 am the four of us, Geoff Law, Pam (now Lileth) Waud, Cathie Plowman and I would staff the phones and respond to the never-ending requests for interviews from breakfast radio, around the country.

On average we’d each do 4 to 6 interviews in this time each one almost tediously the same as the previous one, one inane question after another: What’s happening today? Will anyone be arrested? What’s the weather like? Any more bulldozers? Is the Earth flat? The banality of breakfast radio can make Donald Trumps tweets look good.

It was Geoff who cracked first. On his 6th interview of the morning, no doubt, he could take it no longer. The interview was with 3AW then the station with the largest breakfast audience of all.

At some critical juncture Geoff had a stroke of apoplexy and started imitating the unmistakable gravelly tones of Tasmanian Premier, Robin Gray, live to air. Gray always sounded like he’d had a long night, too much whisky and too many cigarettes & was highly irascible. No cigarettes for Geoff, probably no whisky. But the irascible nature was common to both Geoff and Gray.

Outside the Information centre, Strahan
Outside the Information Centre (L to R – Chris Harris, Bob Brown, Sue Downey (Telegraph), Bill Lane (ABC), Geoff Law. Photo: Ian Skinner

Now in theory Geoff should have suffered eternal shame and never lived down this episode but one suspects he has dined out many times on this day’s performance (though, in a Trump-like, alternative facts, response to my query for details, he categorically denies this well documented case of mimicry ever happened). And it wasn’t his only famous case of mimicry.

Among others, Geoff liked to imitate Bob Brown, because a bit of satire is always good for the famous. Bob liked to introduce himself, often, with the phrase “G’day, I’m Bob Brown” among his other items of anachronistic speech and Geoff liked to practice to ensure that he was tone perfect. Because if you’re going to be Bob, you better be perfect.

Wandering alone across Mt Wellington one day, repeating his “G’day I’m Bob Brown” imitation, Geoff failed to notice a gobsmacked family standing by the path listening to him. At which point undeterred he looked them straight in the eye(s) and reassured them of his identity, once more repeating for their benefit “G’day I’m Bob Brown”.

The good use of mass media and editorial support of many major national papers (notably the Age and Canberra Times) was a critical factor in winning hearts and minds

I don’t remember when Geoff arrived in Tasmania. He was yet another Victorian who arrived to tell Tasmanians how they should live, abandoning his taxpayer-funded engineering or law degree or whatever it was he could have used to better himself and has spent the last 35 years wasting his life trying to stop progress – and as such is an archetype of those who worked on the Franklin Dam.

Not content with spending four years taking Tasmania back to the dark ages by preventing the Government giving yet more subsidised power to wealthy multinational companies, through stopping the Franklin Dam, he has spent the subsequent 30 years undermining the states most widespread industry, forestry. So much so that in 2004, he became one of the ‘Gunns 20’ – a group of conservationists and organisations being sued by wood chip giant, Gunns, for actions arising from the campaign to protect Tasmania’s forests.

While supporters of the Franklin campaign came from all works of life, backgrounds and ages, the core activists were primarily young professionals and students – seen here at a victory party after the High Court decision in 1983

It was not more than a few days after Geoff’s attempts to break into national live comedy on 3AW that the first bulldozer arrived in Strahan. Naively we’d imagined that the Government would not break its own laws. I was camped in the Ab Divers Inn, as it was known (where the Abalone Divers normally slept), when I was woken in the early hours of the morning by an apparition wearing a bloody headband and a mohawk.

Saul, my apparition, had been in the Information Centre when a rock thrown by supporters had sailed through a closed window, scattering glass around and hitting Saul on the head. But more importantly than his sartorial elegance, he brought news that the first bulldozer, to be used to start work on the dam, was approaching town. We would have received news earlier but the Government had illegally cut many of the phone lines to Strahan including every line in and out of the Information Centre.

The Wilderness Society functioned very informally. There was no real structure making it difficult for people to fathom where power lay. Shown here a “national” meeting in the Brindabellas (right). An informal meeting at Liffey in Tasmania and the team that worked on the Flinders by-election in Victoria (left). Photos L & R: Chris Harris. (centre image): unknown

Leaping from my bed into the dawn cold, we rushed outside and hijacked a passing car, which we assumed was being driven by a blockader. To this day I have no idea where the driver was going or even who they were but, faced by a bloodied Saul and I, they meekly surrendered their car so we could drive to the Blockaders’ camp ground a kilometre away.

I arrived equipped with bullhorn and a feeling of self-importance. No doubt rousing the blockaders from their sleep so that they could confront the bulldozers would mean, effectively, that I had saved the river single-handed. Like a demented Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer I raced around the campground summoning the faithful to lie down in front of bulldozers.

The hordes stumbled from their sloughs of sleep, scrambling into clothes and headed for the waterfront, most on foot but some in the few vehicles available. To no avail. As we approached the bridge over the creek the light of a police car parked diagonally across the bridge appeared out of the morning mist. We were stymied. At this point, like some, figure from a John Wayne movie, a shout went up “across the creek” – at which urging, the assembled masses, like lemmings, threw themselves in the water.

Meanwhile the erstwhile hero, yours truly, was stranded on the pipe across the creek, where, in my inimical courageous fashion, not wanting to get wet and cold, I had hurried thinking myself smarter than most. But a burly copper stood on the far side. So while the hordes poured across the creek to confront the dozer, I balanced dizzily on the pipe. My traumatic experience probably explains why, later, Geoff Law, unkindly, described me as standing, hornswoggled, with my mouth open.

1982-01-12 Police blockade bridge from Greenie Acres
As useless as….stuck on the steelwork protecting the pipe while Pam (Lileth) Waud negotiates with the police (photographer: unknown)

As carnage ensued in town, with dozens of blockaders attempting to get onto and around the barge, some leaping into water that couldn’t have been more than 12ºc, we attempted to get word out the world’s media, not only of the arrival of the bulldozer but of the perfidy of the Tasmanian Government which, completely careless of Australian law, had pretty much isolated Strahan, cutting all roads and most accessible phone lines, including all those to the information centre .

The lack of phone lines was a disaster, not just because we couldn’t get news out but because after weeks of being feted by the media, people, such as I, who had become media whores, had to go cold turkey. Fortunately they hadn’t thought of the line to the TWS shop and we leapt onto it like the pack of media whores we were.

My week got worse the following day when the bulldozer went upriver. I went with it, and a boatload of journalists, to witness the first confrontations of the campaign between blockaders, on one side, and workers and (ostensibly) Police on the other. Though in fact many police were sympathetic to the degree that at least one wore a ‘No Dams’ sticker on the inside of his cap.

The Franklin Campaign was gold for many cartoonists

Once again, I was part of the champagne set in the relative luxury of the shark cat while others got their hands dirty – both literally and metaphorically. Other than chatting to the assembled media I had no role but I quickly found one as the person who lost the best photographic materials of the blockade.

As Bob Burton, one of the key TWS organisers, was getting arrested he threw me an entire film of what I assumed to be the arrival of the bulldozer and the arrests. The average 8-year-old slips fielder could have caught it but, no, it sailed clean through my hands, over the side of the boat and into the depths below.

The campaign to preserve the Franklin River and prevent the construction of the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam remains one of the most famous and pivotal Australian environmental campaigns. It created a generation of activists many of whom are still active today. It brought down Governments, created a panoply of villains, martyrs and ‘heroes’ and is the source of enough anecdotes to fill several small books.

The organisation used a lot of quality advertising and materials and had significant support from professional photographers, designers and advertising agencies

A total of 1272 people were arrested, most for trespassing on Hydro land at the river, or on road works. Not one arrest was for a crime involving violence.

447 went to jail when they refused a bail condition not to return to the river.

Run, mainly, by The Wilderness Society (TWS), it was anything but a conventional campaign and was one that could never be run today since it relied entirely on volunteers and on Australia almost being a real social democratic state. It was probably the last campaign run entirely by dole bludgers (plus a few respectable employed people).

Almost the entire campaign was run by people living on the dole – a neat irony that the Australian Government, effectively, funded the campaign against itself. I spent three very good years providing social services to the Australian public undeterred by the theoretical need to actually look for work.

Each fortnight I’d drop down to the CES and receive my social wage which I then used, from the perspective of the Tasmanian Government, to undermine the entire fabric of society. Too many rallies to organise? No mind, just drop your dole form in the mail. Burnt out and need a break in the bush? I remember well going to the CES and the pleasant staff member just telling me to drop in the form a week early before I left to go bushwalking.

Left to Right – Blockaders head upriver on the J Lee M, blockaders on the Crotty Road and a letter to Geoff Law from Tasmanian Parks Minister, Geoff Pearsall, in which he refuses to meet on the grounds that TWS is not a genuine conservation organisation but a “political organisation in opposition to the Government” (photographer – centre: unknown)

Perhaps it is our fault that the current Government uses the CES’s successor, Centrelink, as some form of latter-day Inquisition through which, far from helping people, it persecutes them.

This is why the former-day CES was viewed by more recent Labor and LNP Governments as a throwback to Socialism and, so, was replaced by Centrelink, the role of which is to demonise the unemployed and ensure as few as possible actually get money from Government.

But 1982-3 was during an epoch in which Government actually believed that its role was to provide services, and public servants did not fear for their jobs on a daily basis, so the CES was stuffed full of people who actually believed that their role was to help rather than demonise the unemployed.

Thus did the baby boomers not only get a free education and use their entire carbon budget in about five years but also lived off the fat of the land doing nothing but undermine society as we know it.

The No Dams triangle was an ubiquitous symbol of the campaign. See here as a car sticker, on a banner at the blockade and draped over the front of the TWS “head office”, in Hobart, at a celebration after the dam was stopped by the High Court decision (photographers: unknown)

The people who ran the Wilderness Society were a motley bunch who had drifted in from various parts of the world and Australia – along with actual Tasmanians. Although Bob Brown was the figurehead, he didn’t run the organisation.

In fact Bob, for all his virtues, was and remains one of the world’s most disorganised people. He couldn’t, as they say, run a bath let alone an organisation. One strongly suspects that Bob will be late for his own funeral. So much so that, at various times in the campaign, the cadres in TWS had to organise minders to see that he caught his flights and attended the meetings that he was supposed to attend.

The real “master” minds behind the Franklin Campaign were people such as Vince Mahon, Geoff Law, Emma Gunn, Karen Alexander, Judy Richter (now Mahon), Bob Burton, the Lamberts, Geoff and Judy, and many others of that ilk, often un-known and unsung.

Other than the cadres who ran the organisation & blockade there were the larger than life figures such as Bob Brown, Tasmania Senator, Norm Sanders, celebrities such as Bellamy, Dick Smith and a conga line of politicians who came to visit hoping to gain political advantage.

Runner duckies (rafts) and blockaders with banners confront the first bulldozer heading up river and destruction in the rainforest (Photographers: unknown)

Norm Sanders main blockade claims to fame were piloting his 1954 war-surplus Cessna 180 around the Franklin and Gordon Rivers to undertake reconnaissance and drop supplies, such as newspapers, upriver much to the annoyance of the Tasmania Government who, if my memory is correct, tried to get him banned from flying in the area.

Aside from that role, he was best known for outraging adherents to the purity of non-violence (NVA) when he grabbed the handle bars of a local pro-dams motor cyclist who was harassing the first blockaders camp, Greenie acres. To listen to the outraged cries of protest for this breach of NVA dogma you would think he’d murdered the first-born of every pro-dam adherent in Strahan, good idea though that would have been.

The Tasmanian Government and the media always had this delusion that the Wilderness Society was a slick, well-oiled machine, powered by millions in donations. The truth was far from that. Each day, until Judy Richter took the reins of the finances, was an exercise in estimating how much more money Bob Brown could plan to spend than was coming in through the door.

The blockade, was one of the biggest sources of expenditure in the history of the campaign – and most of that expenditure was incurred out of the Information Centre.

The “use” and participation of celebrities from all walks of life, including politicians (Bob & Hazel Hawke with Karen Alexander and Bob Brown – left) and business figures such as Dick Smith (seen in the right hand photo) played a major role (photographers: unknown)

The Information Centre, in Strahan, Tasmania, was always the nerve centre of the Franklin River Blockade. This was where blockaders registered, where the organisers worked from, where the media came for information or to register to go upriver, where logistics were managed, supplies were delivered and where alarms were raised.

There were ten or more key organisers based in Strahan, working variously on media, training, legal issues, transport, logistics (food, accommodation etc) and a further half-dozen or so based in Hobart.

It was from the Info Centre that we communicated with “head office” in Hobart. The legal team operated from a desk in the window and communications were maintained with “up-river”. Scheduling was done here including supply runs, timings of training, planning for direct action and a myriad other tasks. Each day dozens of new blockaders would be registered and dispatched to camps and non-violent action training (NVA), like proverbial cannon fodder.

Teams were organised to bring new blockaders from Hobart and security was organised to protect the camp grounds and to give advance warning of bulldozers and other heavy equipment. Celebrity visits were coordinated and from here negotiations were undertaken with the Ab Divers to hire their boats to carry journos upriver at great expense to the media.

The issue of the Franklin was not just an environmental one but a social, legal, political and international issue, involving Aboriginal land rights, the world heritage treaty, High Court cases and elections.

The presence of the national media was, of course, essential to the success of the blockade but was, also to a great degree, the source of tension. The blockade wound on with each day following another, in the same pattern, often without anything very interesting occurring. The journos, under pressure from editors, started to get antsy, as each trip upriver, costing $100 odd a time, produced no deaths, disorder or violence on which to report.

Geoff’s humour did not save him from my wrath when, later in the blockade when being hassled by bored journalists, he suggested to me that we organise a stunt upriver to keep them entertained. Ever the hypocritical purist I remember shouting at him that we were not in Strahan to organise stunts for the benefit of the media. Never mind, of course, that it could be argued (though not by the purists) that in the broadest sense the entire blockade was, at that point, a giant stunt for the media.

More broadly, and cynically, one could argue that the entire process of consensus decision-making under which the blockade was run was simply an exercise to prevent anything from ever taking place. Any suggestion from the more radical elements, such as Ian Cohen, that any real action should be taken was easily blocked at any consensus based meeting.

There was a real division between some “upriver” people, who advocated blowing up bulldozers, and similar, and the core TWS activists Hobart who they viewed as a bunch hierarchical bureaucrats and control freaks.

Election night 1983

No, campaign shall be won without much laughter. After the Federal election was won by Labor, which had promised to stop the dam, in 1993. The Wilderness Society campaigned in 13 marginal seats and it’s estimated that its campaign effected up to 2% of the vote – enough to get Labor across the line (L to R Bob Brown, Margaret Robertson, Karen Alexander). Photographer: unknown.

The process of making consensus decisions took, on average, longer than it is taking to achieve peace in Palestine.

So much so that, on at least a couple of occasions, heavy equipment arrivals that were notified to us a couple of hours before they got to town, actually arrived while the so-called affinity group that were supposed to take action against it were still puffing on their metaphorical peace pipe wondering what to do. Fortunately others took the law into their own hands and simply acted in the absence of any formal decision.

I spent three months organising things for the Blockade and in the Information Centre, having been recalled from my year long stint in Canberra, before I was ordered away to work on the 1983 Federal election campaign. My first order of business was organising the communications for the Information Centre: six telephone lines, four for the media and general business, one for the legal team and a telex line.

To do this meant finding a wilderness sympathiser in what was then Telecom Australia and persuading them to carry out work in two weeks that would normally have taken two months. In the hostile political climate of Tasmania, the mere fact that we were able to rent the blockade office and get communications put in was a source of political outrage for the Government with questions being asked about how it was achieved.

The end of the road – after the High Court decision in late 1993. Banner posters from the Australian and the Herald.

The infamous telex, long consigned the IT scrapheap, was our only method of sending out media releases. To do so required you, firstly, to have several stiff drinks, and then to launch into the process which involved typing your media release on the antiquated keyboard. This then, like magic, appeared on a piece of ticker tape containing a series of punched holes – a little like a modern form of the telegraph.

Having produced this tape you then somewhat counter-intuitively fed it back into the machine which miraculously produced a print out, of what the string of punched holes meant, in a legible form at the other end. At the other end the recipient needed to don ear muffs if they were to continue work since the clatter of the telex machine drowned out most other sound (see a telex in action here).

The entire blockade was run on the cusp of the modern communications era. TWS got it’s first fax in 1983, its first computer in 1984 and of course its first mobile phone around the late 80s or early 90s. I remember getting my first flip Motorola, about the size of a brick, in 1994. Journalists had to queue for the only spare telephone in the Information Centre to file their stories in time for the following days editions.

Hubris and naivety
I titled this article in my archives “naivety and hubris”. Sometimes when one reads back the things one said, at the time, it’s surprising that anything was achieved (left to right Cathie Plowman, Chris Harris, Geoff Lea, Pam (Lileth) Waud.

Communications between base and upriver was via a secret repeater station called Echo which was staffed by Paul Dimmick. He managed blockade communications – via this crucial link which had a line-of-sight view of both Strahan and the blockaders’ camp. It took two days to cut a 2.6 kilometre hidden path up to a forest hilltop for Echo. Volunteers sat for three months under an aerial strung between trees, passing messages 24 hours a day. Police never reached them.

This was the iconic (to use a much overhyped term) Franklin Campaign. Run on a shoe-string, in an epoch when carrier pigeons had only just been retired and staffed, euphemistically, largely by a bunch of 20 something year olds who didn’t have anything better to do with the odd year or four.

This is the Second of approximately 20 anecdotal posts on environmental and social campaigns.

Previous posts in this series:

Episode 1: The Coronation Hill Campaign (Kakadu) Beating BHP with Bravado and Blue Tarps

Images from these campaigns:

Environmental Anecdotes (Episode 1) Beating BHP with Bravado and Blue Tarps


The historical information in this blog is accurate so far as I can recall. However others are welcome to add comment which correct any factual inaccuracies and the blog will be updated as people do this.


February 13, 1988. BHP’s team had been drilling at Coronation Hill near Kakadu for months. More than enough time for us to carefully prepare to confront the crew from the Big Australian, as it was then known. In 1982 the preparation for the Franklin River blockade had taken months, with hundreds being trained in non-violent protest, with offices and communications plans carefully laid.

But in the NT, we didn’t do things like that. No, the plan was laid a couple of days before over a cafe latte and a bowl of pasta at the Roma Bar which was, then, the only place in the NT where, mythology had it, you could get a decent flat white. It was also the meeting place for all things ‘left’ in the NT.

Here with a single good bomb you could have wiped out most the NT Labor Party (if you could call it left), most of the leftie-stirrers from the Northern Land Council (NLC), every progressive lawyer in Darwin and anyone else with pretensions to undermining civilisation as the NT Government, the miners and the pastoralists saw it.

“What’ja doin’ next week?”. The question forced out through a mouthful of good Italian pasta and parmigiana was, it turned out, a leading one. No invitation to a good party or a day at the beach. Or this remains the legend of how this blockade was planned by a few of us.

No the invitation was to appropriate a leased NLC vehicle, obtain an access permit from the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Authority, with the consent of traditional custodians, chuck in a couple of blue tarps and swags, an esky with enough food and drink for a week and rack off to Coronation Hill, which lay in the middle of the proposed Stage 3 of Kakadu National Park.

Kakadu is one of Australia’s best known and important national parks. For many years Governments had been promising to incorporate a third stage into the park, the areas comprising the old Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral stations. This would protect the headwaters of the South Alligator River and the famous Yellow Waters.

The discovery of gold, platinum and palladium in the old uranium mining areas of the South Alligator River Valley had started the Commonwealth Government backtracking. The Wilderness Society, ECNT and other organisations had been campaigning to ensure that the Commonwealth Government kept its promise.

The Wilderness Society had recently obtained a legal opinion written by barrister, Tim Robertson and fortified by that and a few beers later that day, the idea of occupying BHP’s drill rig was agreed.

Coronation Hill Permit
The permit from the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Authority to enter onto the South Alligator Bula Complex.

The plan was to…well…go the exploration area. We had no plan about what we would do, no idea how many people BHP had working there, what their reaction would be, how long we might have to stay. There was no plan B in case of illness, violence or police arrest. It was the ultimate fly by the seat of your pants action.

In fact you could say…strategy preparation: nil. Planning for potential confrontation and violence in an isolated area, 150 kilometres from the nearest help? Don’t you worry about that. Communications strategy?..nope. Breakdown or injury? She’ll be right. Arrest potential and strategy? WTF. Exit strategy? What? But we were well armed with hubris and over-confidence.

Coronation Hill Age article
Government announces plans to “legitimise” BHP’s right to be at Coronation Hill (in effect stating their doubt about existing rights)

At this stage there were two of us, Richard Ledgar and me who had agreed to go. Not sufficient for our major intervention. We carefully fished around for a third person, making certain that we didn’t know them or anything about them, just to be certain that we could increase the margin for error as much as possible. We found Scott Wootten who agreed to accompany us on our meticulously well planned confrontation with what was then Australia’s largest company.

Ranger water
The NT Government had a fairly blasé attitude towards Aboriginal health and welfare (cartoon, Michael Pickering)

Richard and I knew each other well but we’d only just met Scott. So there was clearly no risk, under stress, for internal tension between the three of us. Our only contact with the outside world, was two way radio, powered by car battery. In the event of that failing, we planned to resort to carrier pigeon.

So, backed by the Wilderness Society (TWS) and fortified with local support from the NT Environment Centre (ECNT), the moral backing of the traditional custodians and sanctified with the legal opinion provided to TWS, which said that the drilling at Coronation Hill was illegal, off we went into the night.

Late on the 13th a white land cruiser, with our team of three, approached the first locked gate on the road on the road to Coronation Hill. The least organised, most impromptu and most poorly resourced “blockade” in Australian history was about to start.

rotated_Michael Pickering Cartoon - Eyes of their whites
The Government’s view of the land councils was that the problem was just the white advisors of the Central and Northern Land Council (CLC, NLC) and without them the traditional owners would be compliant (cartoon Michael Pickering)

We were armed with our permit from senior Jawoyn traditional owner, Peter Jatbula, and keys which allowed us access to Coronation Hill an area designated  a sacred site by the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Protection Authority. Other than that we had no right of entry and had to pass through several locked gates. The keys we had – issued as part of the Aboriginal permit, would open some, but for the rest our key was a bolt cutter.

Our legal opinion written by Wilderness Society legal counsel advised that the renewal of the mining exploration lease at Coronation was invalid as it had been incorrectly renewed. This was to be brandished at the unknown number of BHP workers, a bit like a wooden stake or cross at a vampire in the absolute knowledge that they would instantly admit defeat and pack up and leave.

Chris Harris, Richard Ledgar, Scott
How the NT News (Darwin’s newspaper) saw the Coronation Hill occupation

We planned to occupy BHPs rig and other equipment to highlight the illegality of the lease, to denounce the proposed gold mine in what had been promised by the Hawke Government as Kakadu National Park’s 3rd stage, and to condemn the desecration of Jawoyn sacred sites.

We had food for a week and expected to be arrested within a couple of days; we hoped the occupation and our arrest wouldlead to national media coverage on mining in and around Kakadu, an issue that had already been highly controversial and frequently covered by the mass media, and thus force the Government’s hand.

Our only means of communication with the outside world was via VJY, which was a short wave radio network which provided communications between remote areas in the territory. In the event of accident or any conflict with BHP staff we were more than 150 kilometres from any friendly assistance from comrades in Darwin.

Members of the Federal Government appointed Resource Assessment Commission visit Coronation Hill to inspect and report back to the Government

Just on dusk we passed through the final gate onto Coronation Hill itself, which we unlocked with our special key obtained from the hardware store. No illegal BHP chain shall go uncut!!

The proposed gold mine was the site of an old uranium mine and was part of what the Jawoyn traditional owners saw as “sickness country”. The boundaries of sickness country coincided almost exactly with the areas which had produced uranium deposits and had been mined subsequently.

Traditionally Bula, the spirit that inhabited this area, would create sickness if disturbed and this was one reason that local Aborigines were so opposed to further mining.

The drill site was quiet, with no security and no BHP employees present; everyone had knocked off for the night and were down at the main camp about 100 metres away. We did a quick recce and then set up camp just above the drill site and next to the front end loader. Camp was simply the vehicle, a tarpaulin, fridge and basic supplies, plus three swags and the radio. Satisfied that no one know we were there we turned in for the night.

Coronation Hill occupation
Occupying the drill rig while the BHP crew wait for us to make a mistake.

It was a dawn call in the morning as we were uncertain what the movements of the workers on site would be, but we were certain that they wouldn’t be offering us café latté from their BHP funded espresso machine.

We occupied the drill rig and then went to find the employees. In essence BHP had two pieces of equipment essential to their operations, the drill rig and a loader/backhoe. Due to our careful strategic planning we had just sufficient blockaders to occupy both and have a spare person to guard our camp, radio and to prepare food.

Neither machine could be left unattended at any time, so we could only change shifts when there were no BHP staff present. This left us all plenty of time to relax comfortably in the tropical sun with nothing to do and no one to talk to for hours on end, as clearly envisaged in our strategy.

We arrived in their camp and presented them with the legal opinion and a media release, as well as a notice stating that they were in illegal occupation of a sacred site and therefore liable to prosecution. All this was done with some degree of trepidation. Paranoia told us that had they so chosen the workers could have quietly murdered us, disposed of our bodies in some old mine shaft and then denied all knowledge of our arrival.

They were requested to cease operations and leave the area. The employees were clearly gob-smacked and didn’t know what action they should take. They returned to the accommodation area to discuss the unforeseen arrivals.

BHP coronation hill advert 10-3-1989
A story about BHP’s infamous advert posing the “it’s the platinum and palladium or the Pig-nose turtle” question

As it turned out in the long-run, we might just as well have pierced their entire operation with the metaphorical vampire stake since the legal opinion and the subsequent publicity that the occupation generated led directly to the abandonment of the entire mining proposal.

We returned to the drill pad and called the Environment Centre NT (ECNT)  to update them and give the go-ahead for the first media release. This set of a storm of action at our media centre under our blue tarp with numerous calls from national and local media. The media centre consisted of a portable radio and battery extracted from the NLC vehicle.

The use of the NLC vehicle and radio was another stroke of brilliant planning.  From the point of view of the NT Government, which behaved as if the proposed Coronation Hill mine was the only thing saving the NT from the next great depression, this implicated the NLC.

Monsoon forest at the creeks on the way to Coronation Hill

To the NT Government the NLC (which was the regional representative organisation of the traditional owners) was the Great Satan which continued to seduce the naive Traditional Owners from their rightful path – a path which would lead them to untold mining riches and, of course, more wealth for their white brethren.

So our use of NLC equipment, even though it was leased to Richard and technically entirely under his control, was a gift to the government. The end result being that a week later, on our exit from Coronation Hill, he lost his consultancy contract with the NLC. In our brilliance and careful planning we failed to foresee something so bleeding obvious.

But, ironically, it was our almost entirely non-existent media strategy and threadbare equipment that proved our greatest strength. Every broadcast over VJY, which is an open radio network, every media interview and every communication with our comrades in Darwin were monitored by anyone caring to listen including the Commonwealth and NT Governments, the NLC, the media, BHP and, no doubt, the intelligence services, among others. Normally one might think this a great disadvantage but it proved to be the opposite.

BHP’s chosen strategy was to intimidate us with their presence and sheer numbers. So whenever we called anyone or anyone called us, they would crowd around the radio to listen in thinking this would prevent us being able to talk for fear of communicating our deadly and secret strategies.

We quickly realised it had the opposite effect because we could bullshit away about how great our media coverage had been, or how the NT Government couldn’t intervene because it was Federal Government land and how the Federal Government had received legal advice that we were right about the leases having been incorrectly granted. For the BHP staff, listening in, it was quite demoralising.

To our support crew back in Darwin we’d tell them of our plans to stay as long as necessary, despite having no clue about how we could possibly do that since, after a week, we’d be reduced to three rice crackers between us; leaving aside the likelihood that we’d either die or heatstroke or boredom or both.

Our greatest satisfaction was knowing that our small effort at preserving Kakadu was being broadcast to the world to the world at remarkably regular intervals via a string of calls from national and regional broadcasters.

This included one ABC reporter who greeted us one day with “How is it going, Comrades?” completely unaware that every right wing philistine who thought the ABC was a nest of communist vipers was listening, and that his comment simply reinforced their prevailing views about the ABC.

Apart from this we resorted for entertainment to a range of unorthodox recreation. Among those, for me, was sitting up on the drill rig trying to learn to whistle effectively. I sat there inserting my fingers into my mouth at various different angles for a couple of days while various siffling and snuffling sounds emerged, much to the bemusement of the gathered BHP drillers, until one day a clear high pitched whistle emerged.

For the next two days I continued to practice while both my colleagues and the drillers became increasingly annoyed at being subjected to a variety of meaningless piercing whistles for no apparent reason. But at least now I could attract attention when needed.

Aside from this and reading, there was little to do except drink tea and coffee. We were ill prepared for our week long sojourn. And of course even had there been reception in this remote area of Kakadu-to-be there were no mobiles and no computers in this epoch.

By day four a sort of somnolent truce had settled over the place but on day five the BHP management decided they needed to get rid of us. This involved variously increased efforts at harassment including verbal and physical intimidation and culminating in hiring a helicopter to hover over the camp tarpaulin in an effort to blow it down and away.

Unfortunately for them, they were unaware that I had a private pilots licence and was well aware that the pilot of the chopper was acting in breach of all aviation rules. A quick call to the ECNT, assisted by the eavesdropping of the BHP interlopers, in which I said that I planned to make a formal complaint to the aviation authorities, at which point the pilot was at risk of his or her licence and the chopper quickly disappeared.

By day seven it was reasonably clear that we had successfully stopped work and elevated the issue up the national agenda. We had done this to the degree that we were shortly thereafter invited to Canberra to discuss the issue with then Resources Minister, John Kerin. Nevertheless it was clear we were not going to achieve our recently decided goal of getting ourselves arrested and therefore further elevating the issue in the public eye.

The NT Government could not arrest us because the mining lease was on Commonwealth Land and the Australian Government, we believed, was unwilling to do so because having clearly indicated that we believed we were legally on the lease, we had also earlier declared publicly that we would prosecute for unlawful arrest if anyone tried to arrest us.

By the end of day seven we made the decision to leave, leaving only the issue of how to get out of the place. The problem being that the NLC had decided to reclaim its vehicle leaving us stranded with no transport. So we had to arrange to get picked up by our colleagues in Darwin.

In keeping with the rest of the occupation, our exit from Coronation Hill was met by yet more unplanned eventualities. As we proceeded down the road back to Darwin, travelling at our normal speed of about 110 km, I was driving David Cooper’s landcruiser when I glanced out the window to see a wheel accelerating past the passenger side window. Moments later the vehicle lurched and their was a great grinding and tearing sound.

The bolts holding the rear passenger side wheel had sheered off, leaving us stranded 150 kilometres from Darwin in the middle of the night. So ensued a trip back to Pine Creek to get a new wheel and wheel studs. A glorious end to our brilliant campaign.

Postscript: While the Coronation Hill occupation elevated the issue a step or two higher on the national agenda it took another two years of vigorous campaigning by environmental and Aboriginal organisations before the Government even reduced the size of the exploration area (which it euphemistically called the “conservation area”) and until 1991 before the Commonwealth Government stopped the exploration and included the area in Kakadu National Park.

Images from these campaigns: Campaigns and Direct Actions

 

97 Days Adrift in Europe (part 15) – Rome

After 93 days, this is the last stage of my short European trip. I will hop on the ferry from Dubrovnik to Bari and then by train on up to Rome for my first visit to the Eternal City.

First, however, I must survive the trip to Bari, deck class. Travel terms are a bit like those used by real estate agents. When you buy a house (not that most people will ever be able to), you go out on the deck/verandah, tie yourself to the handrail, stand on it, peer through your binoculars at the tiny window of blue ocean and ask “Is that what you mean when you say ‘ocean glimpses'”. To which the real estate agent replies, “No that is what we call expansive ocean views”

Leaving Dubrovnik for Bari, Italy

So it is with travel. Take the term “economy class”, on airlines. First there is, mostly, nothing economic about it. For the $2000, odd, it takes to fly to Europe you could buy 444 cafe lattés. 444. And think how much more pleasure you would get from 444 cafe lattés than you will get from a flight on a flying silver cigar tube. It’s more fun poking your own eyeball out than it is flying.

Secondly, it’s definitely not classy. No, the words “airline” and “class” should never be uttered in the same breath. Similarly with “first class”. I mean, first? This is like offering someone a Big Mac and calling it gourmet food. It would only be gourmet if the only other choice were a turd sandwich.

Random Rome – 1 – round every corner a little treat

So it is with first class on airlines. It is only “first” in comparison with “economy” which, if we had truth in advertising, would be called “jail class”. You are effectively locked in for the term of your flight (life if you crash) and fed pigswill. Once imprisoned the jailers come around and give you orders in return for your $2,000. Seat upright, blinds up (or down), you can’t listen to that now, put that under your seat, do not leave your seat, don’t breathe out, prepare to die etc.

Whichever way you look at it flying is a turd sandwich, uncomfortable, evil smelling, bad for your digestion, your health, your wallet and your temper. And that’s before you board the plane.

Which, in a roundabout way brings me to “Deck Class” on ferries. In theory this means that you get a nice comfy reclining seat in which you can sleep. But, no. You get an unpleasant, uncomfortable, narrow, plastic lined seat, hard as rock which smells of the vomit from the last 20 passengers that had the misfortune to sit in that very seat.

Random Rome – 2 – No Roman was ever too tiled to build a fountain

So every passenger who is in “Deck Class” knows they have two choices. They can literally sleep on the deck or they can compete for the ten comfortable spots in the bar where you can stretch out and there are cushions. Even here, the ferry owners have attempted to ensure no one gets a good sleep by putting up little separators on each lounge just where your knee or shinbone would be if you were to fully stretch out. So you are forced to sleep partially in foetal position.

But before you get to enjoy this luxury seating, however, you must race up the boarding ramp and fight off your fellow deck passengers who, when you beat them to the spot, will spend the rest of the trip trying to work out how they can pay you back by stealing your camera, iPad etc or by by infecting you with the Ebola virus they contracted in West Africa. Nevertheless anything is better than real deck class – unless you are carrying your own mattress around all of Europe, of course.

Unexpected explosions of old buildings on the new

It is a beautiful full-moon lit night as we leave Dubrovnik for Bari and we enjoy a smooth crossing to Bari arriving at 8 am. Bari is a well designed port, if you are a long distance walker.  The ferries come in approximately 2 kilometres from the entrance to the port and the ticket offices. This makes a lot of sense to foot passengers with plenty of luggage who have to lug it the entire 2 kilometres. I am later informed that there was/is a shuttle bus – but in the form it appeared it was clearly wearing an invisibility shield.

I start walking but it’s already hot and after 500 metres I find myself opposite the street which goes to the train station – which is my destination. I can either walk the remaining 3.5 kilometres up and back to the street which, as the crow flies, is just 40 metres away or I can jump over the fence and risk getting either impaled or shot by trigger happy Italian Carabiniere.

The Pantheon. A little old building just around the corner from the……

This is Italian humour at its best. “They” made jokes for 20 years (until it became politically unacceptable) about Italian tanks with one forward gear and ten reverse gears. So we, Italians, will make the foreigners unnecessarily walk for kilometres with a 20 kilo bag.

I examine the 3 metre high metal fence with a view to climbing it. It appears that someone has filed ever point on fence to a razor tip, presumably anticipating just such a plan.

“Luigi, what are you doing, today?”

“Nothing Paolo”

“Please go and sharpen our fence”

“But Paolo, I only did that yesterday”

“Yes but the three tourists who were impaled yesterday, on one of them the points didn’t penetrate entirely through their body”

Around the corner from the….Largo de Torre Argentino & the Fountain of Trevi

Nevertheless I find a relatively hidden spot where the columns and adjacent trees make climbing and descending relatively easy and not withstanding the imagined fusillade of shots from the guards, two minutes later I find myself on the other side of the fence.

Two hours later I am on my way to Rome on high speed train. I shall be staying with my friend, Mike Krockenberger, from day 2 onwards, but the first night I at an AirBnB about 15 minutes from the station. Because I am much later than anticipated, mine host has taken himself off to work at his restaurant.

I am stranded outside the flat, Idiot Traveller, style. I have no way to contact him because my phone has gone flat. My only option is the grocer’s opposite. It turns out, in due course, that the shop owner has a highly honed skill in deduction. Strange tourist comes in pointing at the phone and gesticulating at the tower block opposite but he does not deduce that this is the person for whom his mate Alessandro has left the keys.

…….Which are around the corner from the Italian Parliament, the Egyptian Obelisk of Montecitorio (every city must have one) and Aurelio’s Column…and just before you get to…..

Eventually I get to make a call at which point mine host tells me he has left the keys in the grocery shop opposite and asks to speak to the owner. Now, I’m not one to judge but I feel the shop owner was lacking a little in his use of grey matter.

Day 1 in Rome starts with a 3 kilometre walk up the banks of the Tiber, crossing at Garibaldi Bridge, and then on a standard tourist track up around the Largo di Torre Argentina, the purported site of the assassination of Julius Caesar, , then on to the Pantheon, passing in front of the Montecitoreo Palace, home of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Immediately adjacent is the Marcus Aurelius Column dedicated, of course to yet more wars waged by the powerful using the bodies of the poor as cannon fodder. From here the Fountain of Trevi is a mere 200 metres away.

The fountain was originally the “terminus” of the Acqua Vergine one of the aqueducts that supplied water to ancient Rome. Nowadays it is the home of a never ending infestation of tourists who come not only look at, to give it its due, what is a pretty spectacular fountain  but also to throw coins into the fountain. The Fountain is best avoided except at quiet times.

Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s column

An estimated 3,000 Euros are thrown into the fountain each day. In 2016, an estimated US $1.5 million was thrown into the fountain. The money has been used to subsidise a supermarket for Rome’s needyhowever, there are regular attempts to steal coins from the fountain although it is illegal to do so. The coin throwing is based on two myths. The first is that the throwing of a coin from the right hand over the left shoulder will ensure that you will return to Rome in the future.

The second legend was the inspiration behind the film ” Three Coins in the Trevi Fountain“. This legend claims that you should throw three coins into the fountain. The first coin guarantees your return to Rome, the second will ensure a new romance, and the third will ensure marriage.

This is, of course, another Italian joke because you will, for certain, be required to return to Rome when your romance has ended and your marriage has crashed and burned. All you will get for your coin is heartbreak and having to endure the crowds in Rome for a second time.

From the Fountain of Trevi it’s less than a kilometre down to the Roman Forum and Trajan’s market which was the Roman equivalent of Walmart with over 150 shops.

The world renowned symbols of ancient Rome are, of course, not to be missed but for me the real charm of Rome are the myriad and random bits of ancient Rome on which one stumbles in places one would least expect them. Columns emerging from the side of modern buildings, bits of ancient wall tacked onto apartment building, Roman era drinking fountains still operating today and a thousand other surprises.

Random Rome – just outside Mike’s flat someone scattered an old arch and a bit of wall

It’s around these areas too that you get to enjoy many of city buskers – most of which or whom are incredibly talented such as the Cocktail Band who were playing next to Trajan’s column.

In the afternoon I head over to Mike Krockenberger’s flat. He has spent the last two summers here having found that his health is much better in Europe than it has been in Australia. His flatmate is away working so I get to stay in the spare room. In hindsight this turns out to be a mistake since my minor cold turns into major health trauma for Mike and pretty much knocks him out for a week – including his planned trip away.

Mike spends two days chaperoning me around Rome before I nearly kill him with the dreaded lurgy.  I am as always a grateful guest.

Our first walk takes us around Rome by night. As mentioned, in other posts about this trip, night time tourism is always a good choice in busy tourist spots. The floodlit buildings are beautiful, the other tourists have dematerialised, it’s cool and you can enjoy the beauty and culture unhurried and un-harried.

Rome by night: Capitolini Hill, museums and steps and Septimus Arch

We descend via the remains of Nero’s Palace and then on to the Colosseum. Nero’s Palace stands on the ancient Palatine and Esquiline Hills. Here my erstwhile tour guide informs me that these giant mud brick remnants of Nero’s Palace and the stone exterior of the Colosseum were not always so. He also tells me that the Colosseum is not named the Colosseum because of its size but because it originally stood next to a giant statue of Nero – the area being named after the statue.

Originally most Roman palaces and the Colosseum were covered with marble and/or mosaics etc. But Nero’s successors and, later, the Catholic Church stripped all these buildings of their marble for use elsewhere. Because Nero was so hated his Golden House was a severe embarrassment to his successors. So after his death it was stripped of its marble, its jewels and its ivory within a decade. As for the Colosseum, you can see the holes on it where the marble was removed.

It’s very appropriate of course that some of the major Catholic buildings in Rome utilised stone stripped from the buildings of one of the bloodiest of emperors. From the butchers of empire to the butchers of religion.

Some old building from which the Catholics flogged the marble fascias – you can see where the marble fascias were, allegedly, attached as shown by the holes in the stone at right

The palace and grounds, encompassing 2.6 km², were filled with earth and built over: the Baths of Titus were already being built on part of the site in 79 AD. On the site of the lake, in the middle of the palace grounds, Vespasian built the Flavian Amphitheatre, which could be re-flooded at will, with the Colossus Neronis beside it.

The Baths of Trajan and the Temple of Venus and Rome were also built on the site. Within 40 years, the Golden House was completely obliterated, buried beneath the new constructions, but paradoxically this ensured the famous wallpaintings’ survival by protecting them from dampness.

For centuries, so well did the later Emperors obliterate all sight of Nero’s Palace, most of it was buried and remained “undiscovered”. It wasn’t until the 15th century when a young Roman inadvertently fell through a cleft in the Esquiline hillside and found himself in a strange cave or grotta filled with painted figures that the rooms of the ancient palace were rediscovered. Soon the young artists of Rome were having themselves let down on boards knotted to ropes to see for themselves.

Building on the left: home of some mystic whose followers have been stealing and buggering children for centuries; on the right home of some old emperor (artist’s impression of Nero’s Palace) – who did the same to half the citizens of the ancient world, if not always literally.

Today the site is a part of an extraordinary effort at restoration involving the removal of thousands of tonnes of covering earth and replacing it 3 metres above where it is now, with a subsurface infrastructure designed to seal off the underground architecture from moisture and regulate temperature and humidity.

The ultimate aim is to conserve the Domus Aurea and its ornamentation, removing salts, mineral deposits, fungal growths, and pollutants that are destroying the frescoes that still cover more than 300,000 square feet—the area of 30 Sistine Chapels.

From here we go up over Capitoline Hill where you can check out the square and buildings, including the Capitoline Museums which are, in fact, a single museum containing a group of art and archeological museums in Piazza del Campidoglio, the designs for which were created by Michaelangelo.

Rome by night. The Roman forum (top), Trajan’s market and the wolf with Romulus and Remus

From here it is down to the Roman Forum, up past Trajan’s column and Market and back to home. This little walk which takes little more than an hour or two passes not only those buildings but Constantine’s Arch, the Circus Maximus and the Roman Forum including Septimus’s Arch. A quite extraordinary circuit of some of the Europe’s greatest antiquities in just four kilometres.

The following morning I repeat my trip around the area we visited past Nero’s little pied-à-terre and round the Colosseum. At 7 am there is already a queue 30 metres long in front of the Colosseum even though it doesn’t open until 8.30 am. The entrance to the excavations under Nero’s Palace are closed but it’s easy to climb over for a quick look around the area above the work area. Not a lot to see but important to look just because they don’t want you to (yes I know, what if ALL tourists did this. Well they won’t).

Mike joins me later in the day for a visit to the Vatican, the source of a quarter of the world’s suffering, with the remaining 75% of its suffering emanating from Mecca and various political capitals around the world. Mike and I decide not to go inside since a goodly proportion of the population of Rome is already resident in long queues in their desire to see how the church of the poor and oppressed has transformed itself into a symbol of wealth, corruption and oppression.

Amen.

This is the 15th and final part of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South
  2. Part 11 – Prague
  3. Part 12 – Travelling Crazy – Banks
  4. Part 13 – Budapest
  5. Part 14 – Dubrovnik – Of Wailing Walls and Howling Trains

The Flickr Archive of images used in this post can be found below:

  1. Rome by night
  2. Rome detail
  3. Dubrovnik – Bari ferry trip
  4. Rome – General

 

Europe 2017 (Episode 4): A Holiday Oxymoron – Visiting Mljet – another “undiscovered Mediterranean Island”

Like military intelligence, the living dead, found missing and Microsoft Works, the concept of an undiscovered Mediterranean Island is about as near to reality as Australia being the Clever Country. So it is with Mljet – our island getaway, just over an hour from Dubrovnik. To be fair, however, the claim was “European Islands without a lot of Tourists”. Mljet could fit that definition depending on your definition of ‘a lot’.

Regardless, if you are not seeking a wilderness experience, it is a little gem, with crystal clear water, picture perfect clifftop and coastal villages, great walking and riding and spectacular scenery.

Odysseus Cave, Mljet; deep blue clear, cool water

The ferry ride from Dubrovnik takes about an hour from the modern port by the local fast cat. Coming from the north you can also, get there via the catamaran service that comes from Split.

This is the only part of the five week trip that is largely unplanned, so we arrive at Sobra, on Mljet, with no idea how we will get to Saplunara, on the southern, and quietest, end of the island.

This sort of unplanned arrival is, theoretically, the best type of holiday, where one just travels and arrives on a whim and makes the best of the opportunities that present themselves.

Saplunara; the peaceful southern end of Mljet

In this case it is just an Idiot Traveller oversight of the sort that is eminently avoidable if only I had actually given some thought to our next stop. Had we arrived on a weekend it is likely no cars would have been available so we would have been largely marooned on one end of Mljet which would have been very useful as most of what we want to do is on the other end. As it is we are able to hire a car just at the port.

This is where my instinctive reversion to adolescent tendencies cuts in and I can’t resist hiring a convertible VW Golf. Most of the cars available are, in fact, convertibles but even so my latent male bogan tendencies allow me revert to my memories of screaming around the European roads in my old convertible Triumph Vitesse. Usually I was over both the speed limit and the safe alcohol limit – albeit this was before the days when there was breath testing and before anyone, apparently believed drink driving was a problem.

Triumph Vitesse

Look just like my old Triumph – you can take away the car but you can’t take away the latent hoon

It takes about an hour to drive from one end of Mljet to the other along winding roads, and we enjoy views which, if you bought properties that had similar views, would cost $10 million if they were anywhere near the coast in Australia.

We quickly discover that the VW has no synchro, limited braking ability and a hole in the exhaust. This gives everyone within five kilometres the impression that an entire fleet of Triumph motorcycles is passing in convoy. For us, in the car, the exhaust problem threatens not only deafness but early brain damage via carbon monoxide fumes. And this is leaving aside the damage to Kaylee’s perm, and to her complexion, caused by too much wind and sun.

Our AirBnB at Saplunara sits on a quiet dirt road about 30 seconds walk from a spot where you can plunge off the rocks or, in the opposite direction a two minute walk from a quiet, partially shaded beach. It’s not really my type of beach but Kaylee is like the proverbial pig in shit with the tranquility, the sunshine and the water. Plenty of time to relax and read. On top of all those good things, the local village about five minutes drive away has a restaurant with a great location and good food and wine like a scene out of the Lotus Eaters¹.

In the morning we roar off, literally, to the other end of Mljet. The northern end is mainly national park but, if you want the party scene, also has the town of Pomena, just on the tip of the island.

The only real attraction of Pomena, for me, is that it has the only dive centre on the island, and so I get to go diving on our third day.

The owner of the dive centre, dive-master, boat captain and laconic Mjletian is, Ive Sosa, from the Aquatic Diver Centre, who quietly tolerates my apparent inability to organise or put on any of my equipment in any sort of manner that will ensure my survival for more than a few minutes underwater.

In our modern world, diving is a curious anomaly. It requires a massive infrastructure of boats, dive shops, ports, and equipment and the consumption of huge amounts of fuel to get to the dive spots but is one of the most tranquil, peaceful and meditative experiences available to humankind.

You slide beneath the waves and are left with just the sound of the escaping air. Your vision is narrowed to just what lies in front and you descend into this almost soundless nether world of rhythm, soft light, and sensuous movement. Everything, even the divers, try to move with a minimalist elegance of effort, conserving air and energy.

Meditation, yoga, the mountains, the wild lands – all places or states to which people go to find some form of tranquility, a type of transformation in a society where there remain few quiet places. The rhythm of swimming gives a form of meditative state to some but there are few greater states of grace than that experienced below the water’s surface.

We dive on an ancient 5th century wreck which is still surrounded by the pottery and old bricks that were destined for the, now ruined, palace at Polace, nearby. Visibility is about 50 metres. At about 12 metres I understand why Ive insisted I wear a hood on my wetsuit when we encounter a thermocline and suddenly the water temperature plunges from a pleasant 20°c down to about 12°c in the space of one metre. Thermoclines are most evident during the summer; the first at 3 – 5 metres, the next one at about 12 metres, and another at 18 metres.

Diving Mljet, crystal clear water, few currents and multiple great dive sites

To get to Pomena, our route takes us along the eastern side of the mountain ridge and past numerous jewel-like coastal towns, sitting hundreds of metres below our route along the main road. Each town has its own perfect bay filled with million dollar yachts, .

We visit four towns, on our way to Pomena and back, Korita, Okuklje, Kozarika and Blato. They are all perched around their bays with crystal clear water and old stone buildings, largely unspoilt by the waves of tourism that have overtaken much of Europe.

We venture down to each in turn, over the next two days, to see what they have to offer. Each is quite different with the sole shared quality being those crystal waters and a bunch of perfectly located AirBnBs and cafe-restaurants.

Korita, tranquil crystal clear water, million dollar yachts

En route to Pomena we also do a side trip down to Odysseus Cave. The descent is down several hundred steps which is a fortunate deterrent to many. We arrive at 9 am and have the rock platforms and caves entirely to ourself. Here you plunge off the rock platform into fifty metres of clear water and then, in calm weather, swim into the cave. Inside are the remnants of the old ramps on which fishermen used to store their boats and massive falls of rock which have carved off the cave roof.

Okuklje

Our first stop in the national park is Great Lake, at the centre of the park. The lake is encircled by a walking and cycling track and its history is dominated by the ancient 12th century Benedictine monastery on the Isle of Saint Mary. It remained a monastery until 1808 when Napoleon decided the monks had better things to do with their lives and then subsequently became a hotel. It has only recent started being repaired after the Croatian Government returned it to the church. The lake and its surrounds provide a relaxing days cycling, kayaking, swimming and checking out the local history.

Great Lake and the Island of St Mary

Our return trip takes us to Blato. Unlike the coastal towns that have benefited from tourism, Blato, once a thriving town of 250 is now a largely empty and much abandoned old town of just 40 people. It was the third settlement on the island and is the location of one the islands perched lakes as well as being one of the main agricultural areas on the island.

Blato provides the Idiot Traveller with a standard travellers’ intelligence test. This requires us to work out how to put on the roof in order to prevent further carnage being visited on us by the intense afternoon sun.

Travelling in a convertible one quickly realises why they never became the dominant transport mode since there are only about two countries on earth where the climate is sufficiently benign to prevent you either getting fried by the sun or frozen in driving wind or rain.

Blato, once a thriving community of 250 now largely abandoned in the flight to the coast

From Mljet it is back to Dubrovnik. We drop the Suzuki off, which has replaced the VW Golf when we could no longer tolerate the sense of imminent death that the brakes of the Golf engendered. The return trip is on the catamaran from Split, which was probably built in Tasmania (the catamaran not Split), a trip we do in company of several dozen teenagers. They spend the trip taking selfies and the males spend the trip preening in front of the girls each like latter day versions of Warren Beatty, about who the song “You’re so Vain” was allegedly written (at least in part).


¹ In Greek mythology the lotus-eaters (Greek: λωτοφάγοι, lōtophagoi), also referred to as the lotophagi or lotophaguses (singular lotophagus /ləˈtɒfəɡəs/) or lotophages (singular lotophage /ˈltəf/), were a race of people living on an island dominated by lotusplants. The lotus fruits and flowers were the primary food of the island and were a narcotic, causing the inhabitants to sleep in peaceful apathy.

This post is the fourth in the series Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia – links to previous posts in the series are below:

  1. Corsica
  2. Florence
  3. The Balkans

For the Flickr archive that contains all all the images from which the photos in this post were selected click on this link

Europe 2017 (Episode 2): Florence – Avoiding Peak Tourist

A Flying Visit to Florence

Our visit to Florence is really just an interregnum on the way from Corsica to Dubrovnik via Bari. There is no rest in Florence from the madding crowds….except choosing the right time of day and a 20 minute walk away from the city centre. Rules for the Idiot Traveller: anytime before 8 am is a good time to visit tourist spots and any place more than a kilometre from the key tourist attractions is a million miles from the madding crowd.

The Uffizi Gallery – no visit to Florence is complete without it

The saving grace of Florence, of course, in common with many European cities is the relegation of the motor vehicle to its rightful place as a second class citizen. Here in Florence, as elsewhere around Europe, it is the obligation of the driver to avoid pedestrians and to drive at a minimal speed to avoid accidents. Here the pedestrian is not just King but King Kong.

Since most Idiot Travellers do not follow my Idiot Travelling rules (probably luckily since they wouldn’t then be Idiot Travellers and the rules would be useless) 97% of all visitors to Florence are confined by their limited use of common sense/brain space to about two streets. There are at any time, it appears about three million visitors to Florence.

Peak Tourist (left) and non-Peak Tourist (right) – follow the Idiot Travellers’ rules to see tourist hotspots at the best times.

Of these about a million are on the Ponte Vecchio , another million in the Uffizi gallery, 800,000 on Via por Santa Maria and its surrounds and the remaining 200,000 in the rest of the city. And none are out of bed at 6 am. Thus I am able to peruse all the important parts of the city devoid of teeming hordes of American tourists going “Oh my Gawd, Larry, won’t you look at that…..”

We arrive in Florence by train and decide to catch a taxi to our AirBnB even though subsequent experience tells us that a fat man with two broken legs could have walked there faster than the taxi.

Emerging from the station we are confronted with a taxi queue longer than Sydney airport’s. Unlike Sydney Airport, however, whoever is managing Florence station (or maybe no one is) has managed to work out that if you have three parallel queues of taxis this goes three times as fast as having a single queue. Nevertheless we have enough time for Kaylee to go in search of English language magazines at the nearby bookshop.

Forte di Belvedere & Museum – modern art, cafe and great views of Florence

Like gift shopping, searching for an English language magazine is an essential activity for Kaylee, not far removed from the junkie’s search for the next hit. Most of the magazines never actually get read (which one could argue separates her from junkies) but only for the reason that she is actually just addicted to the feel of the paper and the sound of the pages being turned. It is not necessary to read them. Approximately half the biomass of the Indonesian rainforests is stored in in piles of magazines which are festering in some part of her ex-home in Wandiligong (while she is temporarily in Turkey).

I am nearly at the front of the queue by the time she emerges weeping from the bookshop because all the magazines are in Italian. My stay in the queue has given me time to notice the six electric cars at their charging points opposite – cars which work on the same principal as hire bikes, such as Paris’s Velib system – which allows me to consider, once again, the extraordinary stupidity of Australian Governments where our transport and electricity systems are relics from the dark ages.

Car share

The electric car share experience – pretty much unavailable in Australia as a result of politicians with fewer brains than a dinosaur

We have just two days in Florence which is just sufficient to take an early morning tour of the most famous landmarks at times when they are devoid of visitors. There are not even any drunk Brits throwing up, or urinating, in some quiet corner of some quiet street when I venture out. My sole companions are keen photographers, joggers, street sweepers and the odd party goer returning from the night before.

Old cities are magnificent at dawn, the combination of the soft light caressing old stone, the echoes of the empty streets with just the odd footstep and the opportunity to appreciate the tempo of the city uninterrupted by a myriad vehicles and the vacant narcissism of selfie-takers.

The tranquility of Florence outside “Peak Tourist”

From our AirBnB to the Ponte Vecchio, past the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Piazza della Republica and around the Uffizi gallery, I encounter no more than a dozen people where, yesterday, to move in the street was to experience intimate contact with half of Florence. The Ponte Vecchio, in particular, is more a crowd than an actual bridge and it’s impossible to appreciate anything about this ancient structure at any time after about 9 am. At 6 am, however, the river and the bridge is a thing of beauty with the old buildings lit by the rising sun.

Ponte Vecchio – at “Peak Tourist” it’s more a crowd than a bridge

Just on the other side of the Arno River at Peak Tourist (see my blog on Prague here for a definition) you can escape to the gardens and museums of the Giardino Bardini and the Giardino de Boboli, and their adjacent museums, where the crowds drop off by 90%, despite being in spitting distance of the Ponte Vecchio. The gardens are sanctuaries of anti-tourism where you can sit uncrowded, if not actually alone, and admire the gardens and the Florentine city scape. A tour through the gardens and the Forte di Belvedere, and its modern museum, and then through the Palazza Pitti delivers one back to downtown Florence via the Ponte Santa Trinita.

Bardini and Bobini Gardens…a long way from “peak tourist”

Despite the crowds there are aspects of nearly all European cities that are part of that special experience and the vast amount of great street music and performance is one of those joys.

Late afternoon finds us almost back at our AirBnB on Via della Ruote and we decide that since it is “yardarm time¹ we will sample the delights of one of the many stylish restaurants so we drop into La Ménagère for a quick drink. This is, of course, one of the joys of Italy, great locations, good wine/great apertifs.

20170714_193700

No time too early for an aperitif in Florence – at La Ménagère

On our second day, we head out to visit Mürsel, a school colleague of Kaylee’s, who is conducting an orchestra in nearby Arezzo. This is a flying visit an hour down the track by train but gives us an opportunity to take in a bit of the surrounding countryside, as well as to experience the psychology experiment that tells you that if you are going to get attacked, do so in a quiet street.

As we are waiting at Arezzo station, for Mürsel, we hear a brouhaha. Two men are trying to take something from a woman, who starts shouting and screaming. The station is crowded with dozens of people but no one does anything, either just standing and watching or ignoring the scene entirely. Eventually, overcoming my natural cowardice, the sense that as a tourist it’s not really my obligation to intervene, and my lack of health insurance, I decide to intervene and walk over and try and inject myself, metaphorically speaking, between the antagonists.

They pay not a blind bit of attention to me and continue to struggle and scream at each other, allowing me to believe I am not about to be stabbed, imminently. At this point Kaylee has followed and, as I look around I notice, that the entire rest of the station has apparently been given permission by my intervention to treat the event as a participatory spectator sport, with many standing just a foot or two away. At this point two gendarmes arrive and I am able to make an exit. Tourism at its best with never a dull moment.

We have just two hours in Arezzo so only enough time to meet Mürsel and have coffee and cakes. Never mind the medieval ruins, there are always more bloody ruins in the next town, but free coffee and cake is too good to be missed. Mürsel recounts for us his trials and tribulations dealing with various bureaucracies around the world in his global peregrinations, most of which involve some form of Catch 22 where you have to apply for some form of identification but in order to apply for that identification you need the identification that you are applying for.

Next morning we head of the Italian equivalent of the TGV which takes us very fast to Bari and our ferry to Dubrovnik.

¹ “yardarm time

This post is the second in the series Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia – links to the previous post in the series are here: Corsica

For the Flickr archive that contains all all the images from which the photos in this post were selected click on this link

 

 

Europe 2017 (Episode 1): Corsica for ……short people, the credit card-less and mirror manufacturers

Somewhere in Corsica you will find the bodies. The poor fools that travelled up the Cap Corse without cash. Ostensibly we are in France a modern, 21st century nation. But not in Corsica. No you are in anti-France where the French are just more foreigners, credit cards are a yet to be discovered means of paying for things. Alternatively they are a trick played on innocent Corsicans by tourists and the Italians (Genovese) who were simply invaders that happened to hang around for a century or four.

Bastia & Bastia street photography

In Corsica, cash is still King. Moreover do not assume that in the absence of credit card facilities, the natives will provide ATMs. No, for the idiot traveller if you do not bring cash from one of the major cities, tough. You shall neither eat, nor drink, neither shall you refuel your vehicle or pay for a camp ground.

And do not question the natives about why they do not accept cards, for they will simply make like Atlas did, shrug their shoulders and say “C’est le culture, Monsieur”. And good day to you, please die quietly if you find yourself stranded in our fair land with no fuel and no food. That cash culture has, of course, nothing to do with the fact that the Corsicans are the nearest thing you can find in France to the Sicilians and like the Sicilians they have a similar aversion to the tax man.

The absence of modern day credit is, arguably, yet another symptom, of Corsican resistance to outsiders. Ask mainland French people about the idiosyncrasies of Corsica and they will simply shrug and say “Mais, c’est La Corse”. In other words..it’s Corsica, shit happens, as the Corsican resistance will explain to the French.

Bastia

During the centuries of occupation, variously, by the Genoese, the French, British, Italians, Germans etc the Corsicans have quietly gone about their business resisting all of them with the leading “hero” being Pasquale Paoli. Language signs are frequently in Italian and French and Corsican, which is a variation of Italian and which is still spoken if not widely then, at least, as a symbol of Corsican resistance. A sort of “fuck you” to outsiders.

Various movements, calling for either greater autonomy or complete independence from France, have been launched, some of whom have at times used violent means, like the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica (FLNC). In May 2001, the French government granted the island of Corsica limited autonomy, launching a process of devolution in an attempt to end the push for nationalism.

Other than the risk of starvation and general penury Corsica also offers death by cliff diving. Somewhere, over the cliff, lie the broken vehicles and battered bodies of tourists who were too nervous for Corsica roads. The secret to driving on Corsican roads is to have nerves of steel and never to assume that around the next “s” bend a Corsican driver will not appear, on the wrong side of the road, attempting to overtake a tourist in a camper van.

Drivers of camper vans, are the devil incarnate. A brief conversation with a very pleasant Corsican shopkeeper revealed yet again the fundamental truth of tourism. Yes, they love tourist dollars but hate tourists and hate the drivers of camper vans most of all. Especially the big fat camper vans like the one we were driving. While not quite the cause of the last two world wars, tourism simply perpetuates the bad feeling created a by a plethora of historical invasions.

This van was supplied by a Portuguese company which, rather in the way God/Allah visited religion on Earth as a permanent scourge and bad joke, decided, as another sick joke, to visit on planet earth and, especially Corsica, vehicles that are fundamentally unsuitable for Corsica.  These vans are at least a foot wider than can reasonably be accommodated by Corsican roads resulting in thousands of tourists being permanently psychologically damaged by their driving experiences . 

Porto

The principal beneficiary of this decision by the car hire firm are the manufacturers of wing mirrors. Scattered along the roads of Corsica are about half the vehicle wing mirrors ever produced in the history of human kind, each one testimony to a soul permanently scarred by their experience of driving on Corsican roads. If the mirrors could speak they would record a multitude of humans now permanently scarred with anxiety about plunging off mountainous roads and a myriad of relationships damaged forever by arguments over whether to risk a head on with oncoming vehicles or a side-swipe with adjacent cliff faces.

The other trick the Portuguese visited on us was to decide that no one over 170 centimetres should hire their vans but they failed to tell the potential hirers of this limitation nor to explain why it was imposed.

Perhaps they decided that “short people got no reason to live” as advocated by Randy Newman so they planned to hire their vans only to short people who then kill themselves driving vans that are too wide for narrow roads. Regardless, as a person of “normal” height, as a result I spent the entire trip around Corsica sleeping in a semi-foetal position due to the shortness of the bed.

The upside of all this is a land of spectacular mountains, crystal clear creeks, alpine lakes and ancient hill top towns. Corsica is nothing if not a paradise for those who love the outdoors. Some of Europe’s best walking, paragliding, canyoning, cycling, diving and much else.

The GL20 is reputed to be the hardest long distance walk in Corsica along the spine of the island. We are somewhat less ambitious in our walking plans primarily because the inside of my right knee, according to the specialist, looks like the human knee equivalent of Pompeii after Vesuvius erupted. Almost nothing left and what is left is in complete ruins.

Our mini tour of Corsica starts in Bastia, where our host deposits us in one of the best AirBnBs ever, brand new, luxuriously appointed and overlooking the main square and hills. We try and overlook the fact that some poor Corsican is probably living on the streets as a result. Our vehicle is a Fiat rented from Indie Campers.

Once I have picked it up,  I am almost immediately forced to perform my first idiot tourist manoeuvre. Just as I am planning to enter a bypass tunnel with my 2.75 metre van I note the tunnel is only 2.6 metres high. There are cars behind me. I cannot go forward and I cannot go back. The only way out is over the 20 centimetre high concrete dividing strip which I have to hope to pass over without either losing the exhaust, rupturing the tyres or compressing the entire underside of the van.

Bastia’s main road comes to a standstill as I perform my escape. Had the dividing strip been just 2-3 cms higher I would have ended up trapped on it with the van balanced half on one side and half on the other, and unable to go either forward and back. My excellent judgement and driving skills, however, avoided that fate.

Cap Corse

After this auspicious start we head across the island to Saint Florent. We have been advised that there is a “sauvage” (wild) walk along the coast. Very gorgeous we are told. And so in a way it is. But sauvage it is not.

That is unless would describe as “wild” a coast dotted with tea cafes and water stops and populated by, apparently, half the population of Corsica. Even were the coast wild there are, immediately offshore, more yachts/boats than were sent to Dunkirk to rescue the British expeditionary force. The only thing deserted about the allegedly deserted beach is the presence of sand. No mind, we shall not whinge and we shall enjoy the water.

The next day takes us on our credit card and cashless tour of Cap Corse along the spectacular winding roads and through a plethora of fantastic hill and coastal towns. The highlight of the day is our visit to Nonza perched spectacularly above it’s black pebble beach and its iconic white stone “angel” laid out in white rocks on the black bench.

It’s actually intended, we think, to be an image of St Julia the patron saint of Corsica who was martyred in Nonza in the 5th century and after whom the Nonza church of St Julie is named. In keeping with the Corsican tradition of trying to ignore foreigners, such as the French, there are no explanatory signs.

Nonza

The legend tells that after she was martyred (crucified) her breasts were cut off and thrown at the rock, which immediately and miraculously gave rise to the natural water springs at the site. If you descend to the beach along the path you can drink at this spring in celebration of the inhumanity of the Pagan Romans towards the Christians.

A level of inhumanity which of course the Christians have repaid in spades by continuing to murder people of other faiths for centuries right up until today. At the beach you can inspect the beach drawings, made from white rocks on black, including that of Julia. It’s also a good spot for a swim on a calm day, despite the multiple admonitions not to swim due the dangerous currents – of which we found no evidence.

Nonza is also famous for the heroics of a lone Corsican soldier who, after all his colleagues had deserted, held out against the French invading forces. He, Jacques Casella, is celebrated as a Corsican hero and honoured by a plaque in the hilltop fort. Apparently he managed to persuade the French army that there were several dozen Corsicans firing on them.  Given that when the average French person takes their one hour lunch break they come back three hours later we can assume the French are not good with numbers.

Nonza

From Nonza we circulate around the Cap Corse, getting progressively more hungry and thirsty before finally at about our tenth attempt we find a bar which accepts credit cards.

The route off the Cape takes us back through Bastia and then on up to the mountains south, heading for Lac Melo a popular walk not far from Corte. The last 5 kilometres or so is a narrow one lane road. Negotiating this road involves a lot of luck in not meeting a vehicle coming the other way.

The principal goal here is to play a good game of bluff and chicken in which you try to get the other party to back up. If I fail to intimidate the oncoming driver I have to reverse my overlarge vehicle for dozens or more metres down a road where even going forward you require centimetre perfect judgement to avoid going over the edge. Apparently there used to be a shuttle bus with no vehicles allowed, but the Corsicans have decided life is more amusing watching the tourists negotiate the road and, hopefully killing themselves doing so.

Lac de Melo

Eventually we stop and hitch the last two to three kilometres because the signs all tell us that no camper vans are allowed further up the road. When we arrive we find, of course, that almost everyone has ignored those signs which reminds me, once again, that it is best to sin first and ask forgiveness later.

We walk to Lac Melo, a two hour walk which we share with a good proportion of the Corsican population as well as half of the visitors to Corsica, all of whom appear to be following us from place to place. On the walk up I admire the mixture of absurdly old and overweight people and tiny children who are struggling up the walk. They are probably thinking the same of me….look at that old bastard going to the lake.

On our return we hitch back to the vehicle where we stop and spend two hours lolling around in the mountain creek that runs out of the lake. This is one of the great joys of Corsica; a plethora of beautiful crystal clear mountain creeks with icy water warmed just sufficiently by the summer sun to allow pleasant swimming.

Even better there are multiple large flat rocks suitable for sun-baking and reading. We sleep by the banks of the same creek with the soothing sound of running water outside the van, after consuming a great wood fired pizza at the ‘Camping de Tuani’ campground cafe.

From here our trajectory takes over to Ajaccio and up the west coast of Corsica, stopping at Cascade des Anglais (the waterfall of the English), Piana. Porto, Ota, Venaco and back to Bastia from where our ferry leaves for Italy.

The only thing English about the Cascade des Anglais is, arguably, the crowds. We don’t come across any English people and the weather, mountains and forests are very un-English. Apart from anything it’s in Europe which the English, except arguably geologically speaking, are not. This central area of Corsica contains some of the best walking in Europe. Despite the teeming hordes we spend a pleasant half day in the area which includes sampling the local Corsican gelato which, for information, is nothing special.

Near Piana, which boasts some magnificent blue gums, we walk out to Capo Rosso (Red Cape). The full walk takes one to the old hill fort tower on the highest point. Very cleverly a combination of Idiot Traveller timing and lack of preparation, ensures that we reach the most exposed, steepest, part of the walk at the hottest time of day. Here my errant right knee decides that more than four hours walking is too much. These multiple misfortunes combine to stymie our effort at peak bagging. So an hour short of our target we turn around.

Capo Rosso

This is fortunate because with only three hours water for a six hour walk we just manage to avoid the European equivalent of the headlines one sees often in Australia. By that I mean a newspaper headline where some Idiot Travellers succumb to heatstroke and die because they thought that Uluru was only a short stroll from Alice Springs. Despite our attempts at an early death, we return having enjoyed a great walk perched high above the Mediterranean Coast with stunning views back across the bay on which Piana sits.

Piana, itself, is one of those small unspoiled clifftop coastal towns of the sort that one finds scattered throughout Italy. Unlike many of the beachside towns it is relatively uncrowded and the locals haven’t been overrun to the degree that the only people one meets are tourists.

We stroll the narrow streets down to the magnificent red cliffs which drop sheer to the deep blue hundreds of metres below. The contrast between the ocean and the cliffs is why Piana is considered one of the most scenic towns in Corsica. Almost every house has magnificent views and relative to Australia prices are cheap – only $1.1 million for your four bedroom holiday home…

Restonica

After Piana, we drop down to Porto and imbibe a bit of local history at the ancient Genoese fort (built in the 16th and early 17th centuries to protect the Genoese occupiers from invaders), including such useful information as the fact that the name of the French resistance, the Maquis, comes from the impenetrable local scrub. The port is a gem but the town itself has been partially ruined by too many ugly tourist buildings that don’t fit in.

Then on through the mountains via Ota and Evisa via the Gorges de Spelunca. The gorge itself is a popular stopping point en route through the magnificent scenery of the area. The track up the gorge follows an old route between the villages. It passes over the Ponte à Zaglia bridge which was built four hundred years ago to make life easier for the locals who traded and passed up and down the track.

It’s an easy walk up the gorge as far as the bridge and because the majority of people can’t be bothered to do the simple 60 minute walk many of best swimming holes away from the bridge are relatively uncrowded. For those with more time there are longer multi day walks through the river gorges.

Spelunca Gorge

From here it is back to Bastia for a final overnight stay before heading for Italy. The last night in Bastia is supposed to be a relaxing evening of dinner and drinks but we arrive to encounter one of the banes of AirBnB…a host that isn’t there and doesn’t answer her door, despite having replied 30 minutes earlier and said she would be.

At this point we have no vehicle, no patience, no vehicle and lots of luggage (that being a relative term – in fact we have two main bags each less than 10kg and two hand/man bags). We ring, we phone, we text. We contemplate a bomb scare to get everyone to evacuate on the basis that we can then ask around and find our hosts. We can get into the building and we can get to the correct floor but can find no door with the correct name.

After 3o minutes I go looking for other hotels. As I return I get a phone call – since Kaylee is not, apparently, an Idiot Traveller*** she has worked out that there are two halves to the building. In our initial exploration we were only looking for name plates on the the flats on the eastern side. Having found the flat Kaylee has managed to waken the hosts from their primordial slumber.

***Note: Kaylee avoids being an Idiot Traveller by not doing any travel bookings. With her latent (and largely un-used) internet booking skills if she were to actually try and book anything one can be sure that she would end up in Sydney, Canada, rather than Sydney, Australia and/or Paris, Texas rather than Paris, France.

It turns out that one of hosts had fallen asleep and the other was outside on the front verandah where, allegedly, she could not hear the bell. This is despite the fact that when we eventually get to her door and ring the bell half of the living dead are also awoken from a centuries long sleep.

We enter the flat and it is clear to the host that Kaylee is not happy – the host gets a frosty reception and starts to apologise profusely. Fortunately, it turns out that they are both very pleasant so normal relations are quickly restored and we soon decamp to one of their recommended restaurants where we are entertained by multiple street bands and good food and wine.

This is the first post in the series of five entitled: Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia

You can find the full archive of the images used in this post by clicking here:

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