They say that Einstein said that the sign of an idiot was doing the same thing twice (actually I think the word was repeatedly) and expecting a different outcome. This is the thesis of the Idiot Traveller. I am a world expert, while travelling, in repeating mistakes.
I am also happy to go on accrediting the saying (in reality it was “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results“) to Einstein, although there is no evidence he ever said it.
So having done little travelling in the last year it was important to follow the the creed of the Idiot Traveller. You start with booking your car, for pick up on arrival in Tirana, on the wrong day. Cost: an extra €30. You compound this by booking it for return two days after you leave, cost €60 (wasted). How does one do this? Buggered if I know.
Then based on these mistakes you book your car in Podgorica a day late and at the airport. Which isn’t useful when you are arriving by bus. Cost €20 (taxi fare) and €30 (extra days rental).
Then of course there is the small issue of leaving bits of my DNA everywhere. No, not in that sense. Two pairs of sunglasses, adaptor, hat, keys (requiring me to be rescued via a new set of keys sent by taxi). The list goes on. You’d think that after 55 years of travelling (yes I was first stuck unaccompanied on a plane at 8) that you’d learn to check twice before moving.
So, our first job was to persuade the rental company to find a car a day early. This might have been easier if I hadn’t decided to try and entertain the rental car person with my witty repartee about drivers in Turkey and Georgia; asking him if Albanian drivers drove like Turks or Georgians (the thesis being that Turks are good drivers and Georgians are simply people in cars with a death wish).
That’s right. Jokes don’t work well in second languages. He looks at me strangely and replies “No they drive like Albanians. Here we are Albanians”
Panda 2 (right): cheaper to run and prettier
On finding we have a Fiat Panda and him asking if a Panda is ok for us. I tell him it’s fine. Cheap to run. Just find a patch of bamboo. That joke doesn’t work either. At which point Kaylee tells me I’m an idiot (traveller) and the car guy thinks so too.
Solitary confinement creates trauma..
Albania, was until 1991 Europe’s equivalent of North Korea. An entirely closed and paranoid society. Its long time leader, Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodgeha) believed Albania was the only true communist society on earth and refused to even associate with Russia or China after they fell out.
No one was allowed to leave Albania and few people, if any, entered. The society was a police state with everyone subject to strict controls and surveillance. Any breach of the rules and everyone in your family paid the price.
If Albania were a person (Al Bania) he would be a very disturbed individual and this, perhaps, explains Albania’s many idiosyncrasies.
The House of Leaves
Albania’s trauma is well documented in a great little museum called the “House of Leaves” located in central Tirana just across from the orthodox cathedral.
Albania was, for fifty years, the archetypal police state. Every aspect of public and private life was controlled via the state security apparatus.
Tens of thousands of Albanians were recruited as state spies to eavesdrop and spy on their fellow citizens. Virtually no one was allowed to enter or leave the country. The society was completely closed. Everything was rationed. In 1991 there were a mere 3000 cars in the entire country (heaven!!)
The House of Leaves Museum tells the story of the ubiquitous state security apparatus. The walls list the thousands executed, imprisoned or persecuted by the state under the leadership of Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodgeha).
Mercedes for everyone
One of the first things one notices about Albania are the German cars, especially the Mercedes. For a poorish European country it has a remarkable number of expensive cars. That, in itself would not be an issue except that there is a German car gene that emerges in Albanians driving German cars…it’s a sort of arsehole gene which convinces them that they can drive as they want regardless of road rules, safety or manners.
If you drive a Mercedes you may overtake where you want, when you want. You may drive at whatever speed you feel like but, most importantly, it is compulsory to treat every other car driver as a second class citizen, cutting them off , cutting in, abusing them and generally. No level of psychopathy is too extreme for Mercedes owners.
This specific problem (call it the Mercedes syndrome) is compounded by an odd Albanian trait which essentially persuades all Albanians that it permissible to simply stop wherever they want, for whatever reason. Need to grab a coffee. No worries! Simply stop in the middle of the road, blocking all traffic, and nick in for take away. Feel like a park? Don’t worry about finding a parking place. Just stop. Need to pick your nose? Look at your phone? Think about the meaning of life? Just stop where you are. No worries.
Mercedes, yes, religion and communism, No!!
One of the side effects of 50 years of totalitarian communism (a sort of oxymoron) apart from a love of symbols of outrageous consumerism (eg Mercedes, BMWs and Audis) is that all the most obvious remaining signs of the era have been systematically erased, except perhaps in Albanians commitment to secularism (it is the least religious society on earth some say).
The giant statues of Stalin, Lenin and Enver Hoxha now hang out discreetly behind the museum, hidden from the everyday of Albanians, waiting, one day perhaps, to be restored as a part of history rather than as the open wound of the recent past, as they might currently be seen. We visited Stalin, Lenin and Hoxha, where they were hanging out, as part of the city walking tour (highly recommended) which also included Enver Hoxha’s house – also closed for now as part of the same concept of keeping the recent past hidden.
Ironically, directly across from Hoxha’s erstwhile house is a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet (apparently Albania’s first fast food outlet – as yet Albania has no McDonalds) the sign of which reflects nicely in Hoxha’s living room window – a symbol, so our guide tells us of the victory of capitalism.
The remnants of the recent past are everywhere. In the park on the corner are one of the 270 bunkers built all over Tirana/Albania from which the valiant Albanians would repel the perfidious Americans, Russians, Chinese etc. And in the middle of the park a piece of the Berlin wall sent to commemorate the fall of communism. It sits next to a replica of the entrance to the chrome mines where political prisoners were sent to mine and die.
The abandonment of the past is not restricted to images but to buildings also. On our tour we pass the Pyramid, constructed after Hoxha’s death and intended to be a massive memorial to his memory. Today, after several uses over the years, including as a Telecom building it lies empty.
Despite the irreligious attitudes of Albanians, the wasteful symbols of formal religion abound. A new and, as yet, unfinished mosque donated by Turkey (a miniature version of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul) – costing billions because the Turks need to waste their spare billions on something – and a cathedral incorporated in 2014 and incorporating an impressive ceiling with the largest mosaic in the Balkans.
Speed limits and speed humps (aka sleeping policemen to the Poms)
In theory there are speed limits in Albania but everyone ignores them. There is a good reason for this as Albanian speed limits are totally idiosyncratic. You can be speeding down a freeway at 80-100 kph and next minute there is a 30k speed limit. The reason? An intersection. Never mind that only one tractor and a passing camel have emerged from that intersection since Christ was a boy. And it’s like that at every intersection. So everyone just ignores them.
Similarly most stretches of superhighway have 30, 40 or 50 k limits for no apparent reason other than either (a) a peculiar Albanian sense of perverse humour (let’s really give drivers the shits) or (b) let’s collect lots of traffic fines by imposing weird and ridiculous speed limits.
If this were not enough, Albanians have an obsessive love for speed humps. Everywhere. And often. And in the weirdest places.
That is bad enough in itself but for whatever reason the accepted speed to traverse a speed hump is apparently 0.1 kph. So everyone slows to a virtual stop even though most of the humps could be comfortably crossed at 50 kph. The reason for this excessive caution is not clear but maybe goes back to when there were only 3000 cars in the country and a car cost you the equivalent of 10 years wages.
Having said this, most of the speed humps are entirely unnecessary since traffic in Tirana makes traffic in Istanbul or Sydney look like a paragon of fast flowing traffic. The city is one large traffic jam – but nevertheless it has many redeeming features from a plethora of tree lined pedestrian streets, good markets, to great night life, good food (especially the boreks) and lots of friendly, helpful people.
Meeting the Deputy Minister for Justice
You know how it is? You rock up in your AirBnB in Divjake after going out for dinner and go to tell your host (who speaks no English) that you will be leaving very early in the morning so will not need breakfast. Not to worry. she indicates that her daughter, Fjoralda, speaks good English. So we sit on the lounge chatting about life, death, Albania etc…Eventually I ask Fjoralda about her work and life and it turns out that Fjoralda Caka is the Albania Deputy Minister for Justice. You never know who you will meet on the lounge in Divjake.
A day at the beach and in the mountains
This was the archetypal Australian at the beach experience. Arriving in Divjake – which unlike many of the ugly beachside towns find throughout the Mediterranean (see eg most of Spain, most of the Albanian and Montenegrin coastal architecture) – has made a real effort with its buildings and streetscapes.
It’s a hot day and we head for the beach – which turns out to be a wasteland of eroded dune systems – systematically vandalised by thousands of cars – dirty looking water in a lagoon etc. We dutifully pay our beach entry fee anyway and head out on the long ricketty boardwalk which had been built over the lagoon out to the ocean proper…
The boardwalk ends at a bar on the beach which, at least serves good gin and tonic and plays some good blues…while we contemplate the miles of cars and umbrellas on the beach and long for a proper Australian beach.
If you can criticise Albanian beaches (or at least the ones we saw because we heard Himare and other places are much better) – you can’t criticise the mountains which are spectacular and a welcome escape from the heat and crowds of the coast. if you are a walker or mountain lover – Albania’s alps are beautiful and rugged.
Skanderbeg and Krujë
Then there is the famous Skanderbeg. Now you may never have heard of Skanderbeg but every Albanian has. There is a statue on every second street corner in Albania. There are Skanderbeg streets, Skanderbeg parks and a giant Skanderbeg museum to be found in Krujë just outside Tirana.
But there is more. Not content with populating the country with more Skanderbeg statues than there are Albanian citizens, they are busy erecting Skanderbeg statues in every other country in the world. No Skanderbeg in your country? Don’t worry one is coming soon.
Skanderbeg mania and idolatry not withstanding, Krujë is well worth a visit. The old citadel incorporates not just the aforementioned museum, but the ethnographic museum, a great old church now converted to a mosque and incorporating some nice frescoes, among other things such as great views, the Skanderbeg olive tree….
See the full set of images on Flickr below click links):
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.
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.
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 foodcooked 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 availablein 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 therethat 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.
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.
Music in the desert camp. The locals do the jam session
THIS IS NOT A HISTORICAL RECORD. AS PER TRUMPIAN LOGIC, NO APOLOGIES MADE FOR ERRORS, EXAGGERATION, OMISSIONS, BAD TASTE OR MISREPRESENTATIONS.
The call came from Canberra. I’d spent a year there as “National Liaison Officer” (NLO) for the Wilderness Society (TWS). A grand title but little else. I had been lobbying politicians and the media to act and write about the proposed Gordon-below-Franklin dam which, if built, would destroy the essence of the free-flowing Franklin River in south-west Tasmania.
But at the end of 1982 I’d been summoned by the cadres-that-be back to Tasmania to work on the Franklin Blockade. It was all hands on deck. The basic formula in TWS was this:
Take a completely inexperienced 20 something year old. Don’t just throw them to the lions but first make sure the lions are in a den of iniquity (eg Parliament House, Canberra). The goal you give them should be somewhere past the lions, over a bed of nails and a few burning coals.
Then make sure your chosen one comes un-armed and ill-equipped except, perhaps, with an unjustifiable over-estimation of their own abilities and worth. If they survive that experience then they probably have some worth to the organisation. Hence my summons.
But Canberra followed me to Hobart. The Leaker, called.
The voice on the line said “I have the Attorney-General’s opinion on the Federal Government’s responsibility, under the World Heritage Convention, towards South-west Tasmania and the Franklin River”.
This was, if we could organise it without the source losing their job, the smoking gun. A national story. A critical source of pressure on the Federal Government. The opinion was clear. The Commonwealth had an obligation, under the treaty it had signed, to protect world heritage. It could intervene to prevent the Franklin River dam being constructed.
This was an opinion and a document that, unlike the Loch Ness Monster, we knew existed but which, like the Loch Ness Monster, no one had ever proven to exist. The Government’s attitude was like the three wise monkeys. What opinion? See no evil, hear no evil and say nothing.
This was one of the most important outcomes of the year I’d spent in Canberra cultivating contacts and building relationships.
The source was clear, I needed to organise this, immediately and according to their instructions. It had to be done in secrecy. The journalists we were to use had to be completely trustworthy with no risk of the sources being revealed. It was on a need to know basis. Only a couple of people in the Wilderness Society were to be involved.
It was some compensation for my year of living ignominiously in Canberra. I was Mr “No, sorry, the Minister/the bureaucrat/the MP can’t see you.”
Robert the Bruce had nothing on me. The famous Robert took seven goes before he defeated the English at the Battle of Bannockburn. Smiting the English was nothing on getting a meeting with a politician who didn’t want to know. Paul Keating took me eleven phone calls and several informal meetings with his staffers before I bagged my target.
Loosely, you can describe this job as follows: Ask some 26 year old smart arse who thinks he knows everything, but actually knows nothing, to give up his (paid), but extremely tedious, job working on the Examiner Newspaper, in Launceston.
There, demonstrating overweening hubris, he feels frustrated because he thinks he should go from cadet journalist to senior investigative journalist in six months; reporting on country football is well below him. Offer him the opportunity to go to Canberra and live on the dole and an expenses stipend. Persuade him that, there, he will change the world. It would not appear to be the dream job. No office, no salary, no accomodation, no prospects and no friends.
When you are operating at this level of investigate journalism then almost anything looks good
Nevertheless at first sight this seems attractive. How many 26 year-olds are asked by a nationally known, and much loved, figure to take an apparently important national position and move to the national capital. There, single handed, they will persuade the nation’s Government to reverse its long held position that the Franklin is a brown leech-ridden ditch which, more importantly, the Government believes, will not change a single vote.
In reality the job is to be the champion of, apparently, lost causes.
The role (because one could scarcely call it a job), for no salary, is to daily humiliate yourself before two groups of people, politicians and journalists, who, largely, don’t care about what you are asking, offering or telling. On the whole they think you are an annoying irrelevancy selling an irrelevant annoyance.
The cause you are championing, to protect, a small river, in a small state, at the arse end of the world, where it is cold, wet and miserable, 250 days of the year, is worth less than a politician’s promise.
Besides, there are virtually no voters living there and certainly none that are not so stupid that they can’t be persuaded that giving away free electricity to multinational companies is more important than some latter-day pseudo scientific concept of wilderness. And weren’t the blackfellas there first, anyway? So how can it be wilderness?
But you go, anyway. And very quickly learn the difference between big fishes in small ponds vs little fishes and large ponds.
There were exceptions to the rule about lack of political interest. Michael Hodgman, scion of a famous Tasmanian family. Now, while not wanting to speak ill of the dead, one has to say that Hodgman, who was the Minister for Tasmania, when such things existed in the Liberal Government, was one of the biggest media harlots of all time.
Invite him to open a used septic tank and he’d come if it guaranteed publicity. He was pro-dam and widely detested but we invited him to open our new office and shop in the Monaro Mall, Canberra. He couldn’t refuse. This led to two things (1) good publicity in the Canberra Times and other papers and (2) widespread condemnation from colleagues as champion hypocrites (guilty!!).
The most difficult target of all, at least on the Labor side, was Paul Keating, the Shadow Treasurer.
Now Keating couldn’t give a rat’s arse for wilderness or the environment generally. If it didn’t walk, talk, vote and earn money then the Keating political radar couldn’t detect it. And if you were from (a) Tasmania (b) lobbying for an environmental cause you had less reason to attract his attention than a cockroach.
Cockroaches at least needed exterminating so someone could earn money from carrying out that extermination and that which was good for the economy. And the economy, to be clear, was, apart from antique clocks, the only thing on his radar.
After eleven phone calls and meetings with his minions, I finally organised a meeting to talk, I naively thought, about the economics, or lack of them, of constructing the Franklin River Dam and supplying its power to a small number of energy intensive, capital intensive and job-poor multinationals.
We met in King’s Hall, in the old Parliament House. It was to be an impromptu stand-up meeting. I was given five minutes to make my case. It was late 1982. I forget the date. But I remember the meeting well and the timing. I arrived at the scheduled time. Keating and minders arrived ten minutes late. He was en-route to another meeting. I introduced myself. No response, just silence for two seconds. “I, um, wanted to talk about the Franklin Dam…”.
That was it. Keating started. Those fucking Tasmanians. They were a bunch of fuck-wits. There were worse terms. They were nobodies, knew nothing. It was a diatribe that lasted about fifteen to twenty seconds. Keating’s description of Tasmanians was not pretty and, I sense, much of his language was not generally heard in the Queen’s salons (see the collected insults of Paul Keating)
As for me? Well I got just enough time, after he’d finished, to advise him that the Franklin Dam made no economic sense before one of his minders intervened to advise he was already late for his next meeting. That was it.
But back to the Leaker. The terms were clear. The document could be removed from the office but it had to be done late at night. It could be out of the office for no more than two to three hours and had to be returned before first light in the morning. No more than two TWS people to be involved and a maximum of two trusted journalists.
The journalists could not keep the document but could only view it and make notes. And they could not name the source. They were to ensure that the relevant department was not named in the article. And it had to be done within the week. It was Monday October 4th . I made some very cryptic phone calls telling people I had something they wanted but they couldn’t know what it was or where it came from.
They were to meet me the following day for a briefing. I flew to Canberra the next morning. On October 6th, I met with the chosen journalists and one person from the Wilderness Society to brief them.
Meetings in the dead of night (L to R: Jennie Whinam, Crispin Hull, Simon Balderstone). Images: Russ Bauer (L), Others unknown.
On the night of October 7th, 1982, we met Crispin Hull from the Canberra Times and Simon Balderstone from the Age, in the offices of the Canberra Times. It was 4 am. Jennie Whinam from the Canberra branch of the Wilderness Society accompanied me. The fifth person was the leaker.
The journalists had 30 minutes to read the A.G.’s opinion and make whatever notes they needed. It was then to be spirited away. The stories in the Age and Canberra Times were to be published two days later, on Saturday October 9th. Crispin Hull and Simon Balderstone had a maximum of a day and a half to seek comment, do further research and write their stories.
At 5 am, the Leaker left the office to return the document. By 5.30 it was safely back in the office and locked away. I flew back to Hobart later than morning. Two days later the stories were on the front page of both papers. The shit hit the proverbial fan. But despite an intensive witch hunt within the Government the culprit was never found. Job done.
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.
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.
L to R: Jenny Scott (far left), Deni Greene)
L to R – Pauline Duncan, Doug Hooley, Kaylee MacKenzie
L to R Chris Day, Michael Fogarty, Leon Barmuta
L to R: Deni Greene (white jumper), Liz Bennett
L to R: David Nielson, Les Southwell (green shirt), Vince Mahon (foreground), Rudi Frank (rear blue shirt)
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.
L to R: Vince Mahon, Bob Brown, Pam (Lileth) Waud, Lincoln Siliakus, Judy Richter (Mahon), Margaret Robertson, Bob Burton
L to R standing: Geoff Lea, Unknown. Judy Richter/Mahon, Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, KA, Tracy Diggins, Bob Brown, Ros Jones, Ivor Jones, Roger Green, L to R seated. kneeling: Ross Scott, Rudy Frank, Doug Hooley, Chris Arthur, Geoff Goode?, Michael Fogarty.
Rear: Rudy Frank, Geoff Bell, Tom Hogarth, Benny ?, Jennie Whinam, Henry Burmester, Keith Tarlo, Muriel Storey-Edwards, Unknown, Margaret Grainger, Michael Fogarty, Unknown. Kneeling: Cam ?, Jan Boersma, Unknown, Chris Harris. Seated: Karen Alexander, Janet ?, Unknown, Elisabeth Tilley, Russ Bauer with Elisabeth Tilley’s daughter, Val ?.
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.
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 phone call came to Bob Brown’s office in the rear right hand room, upstairs.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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 needy; however, 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 archeologicalmuseums 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.
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:
I leave Budapest on one of the few rainy days of the trip, so far. And on a day that turns out to very Australian, based on the efficiency of my transport choice.
As you head south the trains head south too. Slower, rattlier, fuller. The reclining seats, the speed, the power sockets all disappear. The restaurant car feels like a bit of an old 1950s film with the red velvet seats and the full meals for less than $10.
Beer, slow trains, rain and more rain
The south of Hungary and the north of Croatia are emptier and older, too. We pass the rail yards at slug-speed – about the speed that Australian express trains travel at. The rail yards are populated, in the rain, with old fat freight cars looking like something out of star wars.
The trains are so slow as to be 19th century, they creak and groan and as they wend their way around the never-ending bends the wheels howl on the tracks like some lost soul in Trump’s nightmare America. I could be anyway in the Great Brown Land (that’s Australia, for those unfamiliar with the term). Except maybe for the rain.
I had hoped to travel all the way to Dubrovnik by nightfall but it turns out that the timetables and routes didn’t correspond with my reality. As the rain falls I ensconce myself in the dining car – the only place with a power socket – so that I can finish the unfinished travel stories of the last week or so. Invariably restaurant cars are the best place to travel, if you can. Proper tables, coffee, relative quiet and more space. You can read, write, eat, drink and stare out at the passing landscape.
Departing Budapest, in the morning, the trip to Split requires two trains, one to Zagreb, where a two hour wait ensues, and then onward to Split arriving at night. With the velvet seats, faux wooden panelling, soft lighting and falling rain it feels, not just 1950s-like, but like some experience out of Murder on the Orient Express.
As we moan and screech our way through the mountains this sense is elevated by the pantomime when, at each successive tiny station, regardless of whether we stop or not, the guardian of the station emerges replete with uniform and signalling flags and proceeds, like some character out of a historical railway pageant, to perform a marionette-like set of gestures with the two flags he(no women were seen) carries which signal, who knows what, to the train driver.
Liberated from his flags, the railway station guardian relaxes at his station
There seems to be no logic or reason for these rituals other than to provide employment to, possibly, the only remaining inhabitant of the region. It does not appear that any trains have actually stopped at most of the stations since about 1860 and there is zero evidence that anyone other than the station guardian lives any near most of the stations.
It turns out that there is a music festival on in Split, something I find out when I start a discussion with my fellow travellers across the aisle about why the train is so full and where they are going. They proceed to attempt to reduce me, without success since I have been forewarned about East Europeans bearing gifts, to the same level of inebriation as they are enjoying. They do this with the offer of an unrelenting supply of beer – which no matter how much is drunk continues to emerge, like some liquid form of the Magic Pudding.
Around lunch time we arrive in Zagreb, which for the geographically challenged, is the capital, and largest city, of Croatia. I have nearly two hours to explore in the rain. Like all European cities its outdoor sculpture reflects the long centuries of military conflict and nationalism and its squares are strewn with men on horses. European history might have been much improved had they fallen off.
Men on plinths, men on horses, men with swords, men on plinths in gardens.
Leaving aside the stone horseflesh, Zagreb offers plenty of choice if you like old buildings, churches, monuments, gardens and squares – and all within a gentle 20 minute stroll – plus, of course, the ubiquitous daily market. I undertake a sprinter’s tour of the cathedral, which is particularly magnificent as churches go, the main street, and the market and locate something approaching a tolerable coffee. Then I was able to say “my work here is done”, my tour returning me to the station with 30 minutes to spare.
We arrive in Split after dark. I have two choices. Stay at an hotel in Split and take the ferry in the morning or catch the bus down the coast a couple of hours later. The former is significantly more expensive and more hassle but has the attraction of a good nights sleep and avoiding two hours hanging around in the bus/train station. The bus station has all the charm of a Russian security guard and, if you want to eat, requires one to have a worse diet.
The Dubrovnik arrival is early in the morning, at the bus station next to the port. From here it is a 15 minute bus ride to my AirBnB. The first rule of Dubrovnik in regard to finding your accommodation is that there are no rules other than ‘don’t panic everything will come to those that wait’. Do not assume there will be street names. Nor should you assume that your AirBnB will actually be on the street which it claims to be. Even if it is, the actual entrance will be down a side alley, shrouded in bushes, through an arch and around several turns.
Dubrovnik at night
Under most normal circumstances you would ring and get directions:
“Hello, Goran, this is Chris. I’m in Dubrovnik near your place. I just need some directions…”
“Ok, hello, welcome. Where are you? What street?”
“Err, the street doesn’t have a name, we’re by a large square, next to….. (you give the name of a large prominent accommodation establishment just opposite).”
“I’m sorry Chris, I don’t know that place, please tell me what it looks like..”
Dubrovnik by night
” Well, it’s a square right under the city wall, there is the hotel (previously described), there is a shop selling vegetables, a house (#15 – the same number as are looking for), with two stone steps and many pots of flowers in front, there is a person selling shawls, there is another AirBnB, there are steps up to the city walls, there is a mural of King Kong, there is a lunatic asylum, four second hand London double decker buses, a model of an A380, a French patisserie, a statue of Winston Churchill and 15 black sheep and a camel grazing in someone’s front yard…”
En route to AirBnB #2, Dubrovnik
“I’m sorry, Chris, I don’t know that place, please tell me the name of the street…? Please wait.” For what, or why, we are not told. At this point the phone goes dead leaving us abandoned and with a $20 bill for an international phone call.
The point being that no matter how detailed the description you can be sure that “I don’t know that place” is the correct host response. Nevertheless, seconds later an elderly woman will emerge from the suspected doorway, which I had described in loving detail, and will embrace you, metaphorically, (sometimes literally) like her long lost child.
On this occasion, I am greeted not by an elderly woman but by a large man with exceptionally good English. He takes me to my extremely convenient AirBnB, just spitting distance from the main entrance to the old walled city, and deposits me in my room.
This is AirBnB Turd…as opposed to AirBnB Mango (you see here my careful and clever use of lexicographical juxtaposition to make a contrast) which is my normal, and positive, experience of AirBnB. To be fair that is a slight exaggeration but, nevertheless, the apparently spacious and airy room/unit with shared bathroom, turns out to be a poky flat with four bedrooms each occupied by at least two people. Which, had Idiot Traveller read further down the page which gave the description, instead of just looking at the pictures, I would have known
Use of the bathroom and/or kitchen require reservations about three months ahead and don’t plan on turning around in the dining room at dinner time or you are likely to get disembowelled by a fellow guest holding a sharp cooking knife.
I spend only one of my four nights here as, fortunately, it was only available when I booked for a single night. My second AirBnB is several notches higher on the approval rating with access to a great terrace overlooking Dubrovnik, its own bathroom etc. and it’s cheaper, too.
Night falls on Dubrovnik at full moon
Exploring the nooks and crannies of Dubrovnik is a real pleasure for anyone with an appreciation of culture, architecture, history, ambience, fantastic views, good food and for a myriad other reasons. It’s not without its drawbacks as described here in my post The Balkans: Beauty and the Beast – from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo on my visit, in 2017.
Chief grumble, for me, apart from the obvious over-crowding and the fact that almost no local people can afford to live in the old city any more (thanks to people like me) is that the city walls, which in the day time swarm with a non-stop stream of people, don’t open until 8 am and close at 7.30 pm (earlier at certain times of year). Given that dawn and dusk are the optimum time to be on the walls this makes no sense at all. You can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those refused access to the wall at the best times.
On the Dubrovnik walls at night
On the positive side, if you are prepared to risk life and limb, a quick shimmy up the walls in the south-eastern corner will allow you to get in free and avoid the crowds, as well as enjoying the best times of day. There is a silver lining to everything. So I found myself on top the wall, one evening, sharing the views and the soft evening light with two couples, one from Dubai and one Italian/Romanian couple.
This is one of the great places to enjoy sunset and dusk which, for me, came at the cost of just a pair of torn shorts. A slip on the pointed iron railings or off five metres of wall could have been more drastic.
Dubrovnik is only a tiny part of the attraction of Croatia and, as with all of the world’s popular tourist attractions, a short trip away from the centre brings you to a largely deserted part of the Adriatic Coast.
The Adriatic Coast heading north – largely devoid of tourists (relatively speaking)
Having gorged myself on an overdose of old buildings and crowds that make Pitt St look like the Itidarod trail on a slack day, I hire a scooter and head north-west along the Adriatic coast.
Once over the main bridge north, the traffic thins out and one has to resist the temptation, at age 60, to feel that one still has the reflexes of a young Michael Schumacher and that one is sitting on a Moto Guzzi, or similar rather than a scooter with notoriously bad cornering design. Still the curves are hard to resist as one slides down the roller-coaster road.
About an hour north of Dubrovnik is my destination for the day, Trsteno, and its Arboretum dating back to 1494. It sits just about the town’s jewel like harbour, a short walk down the road, where a handful of locals swim undisturbed by the, literally, millions of visitors to Dubrovnik less than an hour away.
Trsteno harbour and Aboretum
Dubrovnik has two million visitors a year of whom, it appears, about 75% visit in June, July and August. Each day brings a new swarm of 20,000 people to a town where the population is 28,000 and where you can walk from one end to the other in about five minutes.
Despite being well known, locally, it seems few tourists visit Trsteno even in the height of summer. This is another of the iron clad rules of tourism: more than a ten minute walk or a half hour drive and the visitation rate drops by 90%. Half cultural icon, stuffed full of old buildings and statues and half botanical marvel, the Arboretum Trsteno is one of those little gems that one should be prepared to travel for, with its old aqueduct that supplied water from the hills behind, its 150 year old trees scattered in among another 510 indigenous species.
Trsteno harbour and arboretum
I’ve seen other visitors comments complaining about the arboretum and saying that it is slightly run down. For me this is one of the attractions. The sort of down at heel, semi-neglected feel is precisely what gives it, its spirit and makes it well worth spending an hour or two.
The town features two other notable attractions: a beautifully crystal clear harbour to swim in and two of the largest old plane trees in Europe. At some 400 years old and nearly 50 metres tall they provide a great spot to sit and relax on a hot day. But take your helmet because a French tourist was killed by a falling branch a few years ago – arguably in revenge for Napoleon’s attempts to take Dubrovnik.
By the old plane tree
From the gardens you can descend via a windy coast road to the small harbour below which is shared, largely, with a handful of locals cooling off in the clear and sheltered water of the harbour. To finish off the day you can return via some quiet inland villages which give one a different perspective to the coastal towns.
This is Part 14 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:
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.
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.
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/ˈloʊtəfeɪdʒ/), 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:
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.
Piazza del Duomo
Via dei Calzaiuoli
Piazza del Signoria
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.
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 time”¹ 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.
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.
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.
Street images, Bastia
Street Images, Bastia
The old port at Bastia
The main square old Bastia from AirBnB
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.
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 .
The beach at Porto
Porto looking north
The beach and port at Porto (is that a tautology?)
Genoan Fort at 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.
Around Cap Corse
Hilltop towns everywhere
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 Beach and Angle
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.
Door -abandoned beach shack
Nonza Beach – Angel, Kaylee
Angle through rockhole
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
Lac de Melo
The walk to Lac de Melo
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.
At Capo Rosso
Along the track to the Cape
Capo Rosso view
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…
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.
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: