Hot Air Ballooning – Nile Valley

Gliding majestically above the landscape is a lot of fun. Doing so in Luxor added an extra dimension, and offered a great deal more than just fun. Being in the company of an Egyptologist elevated this ballon trip to euphoric heights.

Emerging from the hotel in Luxor at around 5am, we were greeted by the beautiful sound of the Islamic call to prayer from the nearby mosques. The stage was set for a very memorable experience.

The boat trip across the Nile to the balloon airfields on the West Bank felt a little surreal. Strings of lights along both shores, illuminated ancient monuments and modern hotels and the early morning activities of people going about their daily lives on and around the Nile was like something from a dream.

Arriving on the West Bank was less than dream like. It was still dark. There were huge numbers of people swarming around the wharf. A hand came out to assist me down the gangplank. I did not need assistance, but thought it was one of the boat crew being helpful and that it would be rude to dismiss “the hand”. Turned out to be the hand of a young man on the wharf, looking to earn a little money. He would not let go of my wrist, and demanded money to do so. When I refused, he clamped his other hand round my wrist. My powers of persuasion convinced him to relinquish his grip, and he melted into the darkness.

Arriving at the airfield, we were greeted with a sea of colour in the darkness. Several colourful balloons were in process of being inflated by gas burners glowing yellow blue, green and red in the darkness.

Weather conditions were apparently perfect for our flight, so we scrambled into the basket, accompanied by the hiss of the gas jets blasting into the balloon. Our balloon was then untethered, and we soared into the heavens above. `

The landscape unfolding below us gave us a glimpse of of villages and people coming out to start work in the fields, with their donkeys. A patchwork of fields of crops, initially mostly maize, sugar cane and then date palms stretched out beyond the villages, and the Nile could be seen in the distance. A large number of the buildings were roofless, but the occupiers of buildings with a roof utilised the area to dry food.

The most exciting aspect of this balloon flight was the opportunity to view some of the ancient Egyptian sites from above. Slowly drifting past the Colossi of Memnon was a memorable moment. These monumental statues are 18 metres high, and are carved from blocks of sandstone. They were constructed as guardians of Amenhotep III mortuary complex. Amenhotep III (1386-1353BCE) ruled during the 18th Dynasty of Egypt. I had been overawed standing at the feet of the Colossi the day before. Viewing the Collossi from above with the remains of the mortuary temple stretching out behind them gave the whole site a different perspective.

We had visited the Ramesseum, the mortuary temple of Ramesses II the day before the balloon trip. Viewing it from above added an extra dimension to the experience. Ramesses II ruled for 67 years between 1279-1213BC. The Ramesseum contains the remains of a 20metre high statue. An inscription states “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look upon my works, ye Mighty and Despair.” This inspired Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias, and as we silently slid past the Ramasseum, I was reciting (to myself) “I met a traveller from an ancient land”. Tacky, I agree.

After gliding over the Theban Necropolis, we drifted over the remains of what I had noted as “an outline of a palace”. I spent many hours trying to identify it, with no success. Thanks to the Egyptologist and one of her colleagues, the site was identified as the small temple of Kom es Samak, at Malkata South. Samak means “a mound of fish” – further reading identified that there was a lake full of fish on the site, and excavations identified a lot of fishbones. Further reading http://www.jstage.jst.go.jp (thank you Egyptologist). The archaeologists decided that construction of what is now a “relic” had occurred in the reign of Amenhotep III, because they had discovered inscriptions on some of the bricks “Net-Mat-Re” the name that Amenhotep III adopted on ascending the throne.

Flying at such a low altitude provides an opportunity to look down on this ancient area and view the landscape and monuments from a totally different perspective. The narrow green strip of cultivated land along the Nile Valley merging abruptly into desert illustrates the stark contrast far more dramatically than viewing from the Nile, or driving along the edges of the cultivated land.

Cultivated land merging into the desert.

We also drifted over the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III, who ruled for 31 years (1184-1153BCE). Ramesses III was assassinated, possibly by more than one attacker. Finally we viewed the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, who ruled in her own right from 1473-58BCE). Hatshepsut was one of the few female Pharaohs, and attained exceptional power for a woman. She came to power in questionable circumstances, but so too have many rulers. It is said that at her request, she was depicted as a male in many images of her. Did she think that looking like a male gave her more authority? As we sailed past her Mortuary Temple I thought about the issues modern female political leaders face – would they fare better if they looked like a man.

The magical experience was coming to an end. The gas jets were silent and we were slowly descending down to land. There was quite an audience viewing our landing. Not only were the recovery teams standing by ready to fully deflate the balloons, and stow them in their vehicles, there were dozens of spectators.

Getting out of the basket was a challenge for me. I was only a head higher than the top of the basket, and there was no little stepladder to assist. Hauling myself up to the top of the basket, I more or less fell down the other side. Not the most elegant way to alight.

I will never forget the experience of hot air ballooning in the Nile Valley. It was fun. It was exciting. With an accompanying Egyptologist, it was also an opportunity to learn more of the history of this ancient land.

Plague – 2020

I did not contract the plague. None of my family caught it. I did not lose my job. I did not lose my home. No one I knew died.

I did lose my lifestyle and I did have mental health issues, and although my loss is trivial in the scheme of things, I can mourn my own personal losses.

My year commenced in the usual way. Travel. January sees a trip to Echuca in Victoria. A flight to Melbourne, picking up a car to drive to Echuca to visit old friends – the matriarch who lives in New Zealand and is my oldest friend, a fellow child bride from the 1960’s, and her family. Catching up with the matriarch’s family from Echuca and London was very special.

So far so good.

National Council of Women Australia day lunch in the strangers (strangers!!) dining room at NSW Parliament in January – not celebrating the invasion. Instead, an aboriginal welcome, and very impressive aboriginal speakers.

My life is looking good. I fly to Cairns on 24 January to attend Tash and Luke’s engagement party in Atherton on 25th January. Spending time with the family was such a pleasure, and the engagement party was a most joyous occasion.

Bronwyn and I went off to Port Douglas for a few days at the Sheraton Mirage resort. Floating about in the lagoon around the resort, with a vino in a mug, made for a most relaxing “float”.

A day out on the Barrier Reef on a Quicksilver Barrier Reef Cruise was a highlight of the Port Douglas visit. Bronwyn signed up for a snorkelling trip outside the barriers. Not to be outdone, I signed up as well. Thank you Bronwyn, I would never have been brave enough to do that on my own. Sheer magic.

Moving on to early March, attending a discussion on the Status of Women and International Progress on Women’s rights, and a discussion on Surveillance and Privacy little knowing these would be the last social engagements for a long time.

I was travelling to Tasmania on 24 March, for a week of travelling around the State. By then things were going a bit pear shaped. Valiantly I fought to the end, but the Tasmanian Government slammed its borders shut. This certainly solved the argument about whether to wear a mask at the airport and on the plane.

My usual trip to Europe in April May started to look a bit dicey. Not to worry. August will do. In March the Australian Government introduced a ban on all overseas travel as an emergency requirement under the Biosecurity Act, by way of a determination by the Minister for Health. There was no review by Parliament. Preventing citizens leaving their country is extreme. Australia was one of the few democracies in the world which banned its citizens from leaving the country indefinitely, and still is. The initial determination was made when little was known about the threat the virus posed. Tests to detect the virus were still being developed. When the initial determination was made, perhaps the consequent breach of human rights was no more restrictive or intrusive than was necessary in March.

The determination continues to be renewed. By now, almost 10 months later, the determination is far more restrictive and intrusive than is necessary if citizens are happy to be tested prior to leaving and prior to returning, and are happy to pay the quarantine costs.

An exemption to the travel ban was available on various grounds, the most relevant of which for most people was on humanitarian grounds. Citizens soon discovered that even the imminent marriage or even death of a family member did not constitute humanitarian grounds.

The Australian Government applied a cap on the number of people who could arrive in Australia per day – due to the lack of quarantine places. There were a very large number of Australian citizens stranded overseas, unable to get flights back because of that cap. Hence the travel ban has continued. The plight of many of the stranded people is dire. Jobs lost, visa’s expiring, homeless due to vacating rented accommodation, only to find their flights cancelled when they get to the airport. Arrivals from overseas cannot self quarantine (well unless they are celebrities or certain privileged persons). Hotel quarantine has had some spectacular failures. Surely citizens should be able to return and quarantine at home. Electronic monitoring and random checks should be at least as effective as hotel quarantine.

My diary from March onwards is best ignored. Everything was cancelled. Nothing happened for several months.

From initially assuming that this plague would go the way of the bird flu, and others, I moved on to obsessively following the news, and watching with horror at the speed at which it moved and the lack of resources of most governments around the world. The images of people being “sealed” into their homes in Wuhan were very disturbing. The stories of the dead being left in their homes in Italy were equally disturbing, as were images of the consequences of the policies of various governments, including the US and the UK.

The number of deaths in aged care homes were appalling. Even worse were comments along the lines that they were old and were going to die soon anyway, and the like.

From obsessively following the numbers to avoiding all news of the plague, I decided to stop following the plague news items. That was difficult. Nothing other than numbers of infected, numbers of dead, speed of transmission and political point scoring seemed to be newsworthy.

Only time will tell which approach to dealing with the plague was the most effective. Elimination (will it wreck the economy and leave following generations with a huge debt – and is it possible without locking everyone up), control, with occasional lockdowns (more deaths, but was this economically more effective) or lets go for herd immunity, (with a huge death toll and unknown consequences for the economy).

During the first lock down period, the images appearing of deserted cities made me think of Neville Shute’s book “On the Beach” where everyone died of radiation exposure, country by country person by person Walking around the neighbourhood was a surreal experience. People scurried across the road if they saw someone coming in the other direction. Mostly the streets were deserted. There were jokes about dogs being sick to death of being taken for so many walks every day. Scoutie though is up for a walk any time anyone needs exercise. Hunting lizards several times a day is Scoutie heaven.

I became preoccupied with planning what I needed to do to stay sane – well as sane as I was at the beginning of the plague. Ramp up the reading. Order boxes of books on line. Decided to spend a few hours each day reviewing various reference books, and learn more on the topics covered.

Whilst this kept me occupied for a while it soon felt quite pointless – just doing something to fill in time. A few days staring at the ceiling in despair followed this realisation.

Conducting several games of scrabble at a time on line was fun for a while. One by one, people got tired of it until no one wanted to play.

Next, a massive jigsaw puzzle. I was given this puzzle in 2012 It was in six parts, and until 2020 I had managed to complete two of the parts. I am now nearing completion of the fifth part. If I get to complete the final part any time soon, I will almost be ready to start howling to the moon.

The giant jigsaw puzzle

Bentley came to stay in March. Bentley’s arrival provided a distraction. There were now two dogs to take for walks around the block. Lizard hunting by 2 doggos meant much longer walks, and so more time away from home.

As the months of 2020 went by, one grey day after another, staying in bed seemed to be a rather attractive proposition. One can run one’s life from bed – so long as someone brings you a coffee early. Reading the news (oh joy – more updates on the plague), attending to one’s banking and shopping, sending and reading emails and reading books. Researching for travel blogs. Why bother to get out of bed.

I increased family history research to learn about the places the ancestors had lived, the lives they may have led, and the historical events which occurred during their lifetimes, for the purpose of writing blogs. Travel blogs were written more frequently, and the research for these was interesting.

Gardening usually occupies a considerable amount of time. It did seem however that whenever I finally motivated myself to get out in the garden it was raining, hailing or blowing a gale or all of those things.

Wine consumption increases. So does cheese consumption. Thank goodness for Cheese Therapy – Blessed are the Cheesemakers.

Feasts abounded. Let’s face it, what better consolation to alleviate the sheer greyness of life in the days of the plague than to eat, drink and be merry. So we ate, drank and were very very merry at times.

It was fascinating to observe the manner in which people were dealing with life’s new realities. The stoics gritted their teeth and “got on with it”. Some people became totally obsessed and fearful, to the point that the plague was all they could talk about.

People started stockpiling food, and rather weirdly, toilet paper. Some of the stockpilers of toilet paper, when challenged, said they were buying for their friends and family as well. Reminded me of the “just asking for a friend” scenario.

The virtue signallers came into their own. They did not stockpile toilet paper. They only purchased what they required for the week. They told us how many times they washed their hands every day, and how they managed social distancing and wearing masks, mentioning how many people they saw who were not as diligent as them. It was bad enough seeing the government’s childish exhortations to wash hands. It was excruciating to hear the virtue signallers day by day, blow by blow sternly lecturing the less diligent.

The judgmental ones were out in force – they were closely related to the virtue signallers in a lot of scenarios. They were not bothered by facts and/or reason. Politicians were up there with the judgmental ones. They appeared to be a great deal more judgmental of those who were not of their political persuasion. The Prime Minister (Liberal) and his groupies castigated the Victorian Premier (Labour) for closing the border, but praised the NSW Premier (Liberal) for doing the same. The sheer hypocrisy of such behaviour does not appear to be apparent to the PM.

There were the people in denial – like me – who kept thinking that it would all be over in a couple of months, every couple of months. We then moved onto longer time frames for it being over. If I couldn’t get to Europe in April, then August would be fine. It will certainly be possible for Christmas. If not, I would go to New Zealand. Then I couldn’t even leave the State, so have to finally face reality. It won’t be over any time soon. Vaccinations won’t be available for a while and there is no point in planning anything because the Government won’t let you out of the country, the States slam their borders shut without warning, and hot spots are declared even in your own suburb, State/City.

At the end of July, I escape from Pymble. A few days at Coledale Beach, just south of Sydney. It felt like a “get out of jail” card, with great thanks to KT and JTH.

Towards the end of August it was possible to attend a lunch, at which a guest speaker gave a presentation on Millicent Preston, an Australian feminist and politician who was the first female member of the NSW Legislative Assembly. Attending this lunch, even with the plague restrictions, was a joy.

By October, with plans to be in London for the arrival of my first great grandchild, I am sure that I shall get an exit visa on humanitarian grounds. When both grandmothers are rejected, I am reminded of my unimportance in the scheme of things. The maternal grandmother finally receives an exit visa on humanitarian grounds. She is unable to travel (despite business class bookings) because even though she had a confirmed return flight, there was no guarantee that the flight would not be cancelled.

My great granddaughter was born in London just before Christmas. Not being there did not diminish the joy of her arrival. After all, this was not about me. It was all about the creation of a new family unit.

Who would have thought that a visit to Coffs Harbour would have been so exciting. At the end of October I was fortunate to be able to share a week with family in Coffs Harbour. This visit was special on lots of levels, but particularly being able to visit Briggsvale near Dorrigo, where my father worked in the late 1930’s. It was all the more poignant because my father had contracted polio as a child, and spent some time in an iron lung. As a young child in Auckland in the late 1940’s, I remember being in isolation due to a polio epidemic. I can still recall standing at the front gate and calling across the road to the children opposite. I can also still see the water sparkling at Takapuna Beach, which was only a couple of minutes away, and not being able to go to the beach.

The house benefitted from the inability to travel. It acquired a new bathroom. It got itself a new coat of paint, outside and inside. Lots of little repairs, and lots of maintenance. The roof, not to be outdone, has signalled a need for repairs. The garden is looking splendid.

The body politic did not cover itself in glory throughout this year. Sadly we have become accustomed to politicians lying, so very little of what they said was believed by me. “We are following the science” they say. The “science” is never disclosed. The science must be different in different places. Wearing a mask seems to have a different science depending on the State. The science seems to discriminate between big sporting events and the small number of people I can entertain at home.

Keeping the black dog at bay requires a lot of effort. Travel planning for 2021 has a wedding in Atherton to attend in May. I saved the date months ago. Hoping for a NZ bubble before that. July August, Europe.

Shorter term on keeping the brain alive is Egypt. Some years ago I had one of the more memorable adventures of my life visiting Egypt. I acquired numerous books, and planned to learn a lot more. My fickle self took over. I moved on to the Caucasus, but before I had really got into the history, it was time for Iran and the Persians. The Hittites took up a lot of my attention, followed closely by Russia and the Mughal empires. Eastern Turkey and Mesopotamia required my attention. Back to Egypt – all I have to do is narrow down “Egypt”. Well not all I have to do. I have to deal with motivation and procrastination. I have turned procrastination into an art form. No need to do this today – tomorrow is another day. Who would have thought “tomorrow” would be another several hundred days.

A sample of the books I acquired about Egypt.

Staving off the black dog has been a battle. Lots of exercise helps. Lack of motivation does not. Fitness levels have dropped alarmingly. The gift of a fitbit, and a competitive streak are now taking care of the lack of motivation. Begone black dog – the sword of Damocles is hanging over your head.

Losing my lifestyle is trivial in the scheme of things. Mental health issues can be dealt with. Not being able to travel is not life threatening.

Documenting my year has made me realise how fortunate I am, and has helped put my losses into perspective.

That does not mean that I cannot still mourn.

Skippers Road, Skippers Canyon, New Zealand.

Skippers Road, Skippers Canyon, New Zealand.

A Road less travelled

Skippers Road has been described as New Zealand’s most dangerous road. It is a one way gravel road, carved out of the side of a canyon, with extreme hairpin bends and with the canyon wall on one side and a vertical drop down to the Shotover River on the other side. A more accurate description might well be the scariest road you will ever drive on, and if you are scared of heights, its not the road trip for you.

I was very fortunate to be meeting up with some old friends, A and J in Queenstown, who suggested a day trip into Skippers Canyon some 20km north of Queenstown.

I experienced a most exciting and interesting day, which included some of the most exceptional scenery around, a scary road and adventure and history. A is an experienced driver, who had navigated Skippers Road on previous occasions.

The road signs at the entrance to Skippers Road make it quite clear that this road is not for the faint hearted.

Since I am not one of the faint hearted (well not when the driver is an experienced 4WD driver who had navigated this road previously) these signs were of interest only and not off putting.

And so we descended into Skippers Canyon. The road was completed in 1891, and is approximately 22km in length. The road was carved by hand by early gold miners. Gold was discovered in 1862, and prior to completion of the road, access was by horses on pack track trails. Looking down the road to the first hairpin bend, I realised that if we were to encounter an oncoming vehicle, one driver would be required to reverse to the nearest spot where 2 vehicles could pass. Driving this road is not for a beginner.

The Shotover River is popular for white water rafting and jet boating. The rafters are transported into the canyon in small buses, which each tow a trailer full of rafts. Luckily we did not meet one of these. The launch site for the rafts is at Deep Creek, about 45 minutes drive from the start of Skippers Road. While we were watching rafts being launched, a helicopter arrived, carrying passengers for the jet boat.

The Shotover River was known as one of the richest gold bearing rivers in the world, although as there is no official data recording the amount of gold found, it is not possible to substantiate this claim.

Skippers Road may well seem to be a very narrow road, but we came upon an even narrower road near the Aurum Recreation Reserve. It even had a signpost with the name of the “road”, branching off Skippers Road, near a small waterfall.

During the gold rush, the settlement had a population of around 1000. A school opened in 1879, and at the settlement’s peak, there were 27 pupils attending the school. There were four main hotels in Skippers Canyon, and numerous “sly grogs” during the gold rush but by 1901, miners were leaving Skippers for the West Coast goldfields. The school closed in 1927 and by the 1940’s the settlement had been abandoned.

To visit the remains of the settlement, we crossed over Skippers Bridge, a suspension bridge 91 metres above the river. The bridge is only 2.2 metres wide. It was opened in 1901, ironically just as the miners were departing to the west coast.

Skippers Bridge

The remains of the settlement are within the Mt Aurum Recreation reserve. There is little left to see other than the schoolhouse and the Mt Aurum homestead, which have been preserved. We were the only people there, and it was almost impossible to visualize a settlement of 1000 people – and totally impossible to imagine the lives the people there led. They would not have experienced the tranquility and beauty of the place. When we visited, there were two old lilac trees in bloom – lilac is not native to the region, so someone, sometime, perhaps wished to create a little bit of home in the wilderness.

There has been some debate around whether Skippers Road is dangerous, or merely scary. The NZ Herald reported (12 March 2014) that a British driving firm “Driving Experience” labelled Skippers Road “as unbelievably scary as it is beautiful”. Their report gives Skippers Road an overall fear factor of 7 out of 10.

The image accompanying the NZ Herald Report.

I would have to weigh in on the side of scary, not dangerous. The tourist operator’s drivers are very skilled. My friend was very skilled. It could be dangerous, I suspect, if there was an influx of less experienced drivers on the road.

A, the skilful driver, and J, in Skippers Canyon.

I am very lucky to have had the experience of being driven over the road less travelled.

Living in Timber Mill Communities: 1934-1948

Living in Timber Mill Communities: 1934-1948

Max’s Story.

The milling of New Zealand native forests started with arrival of the first British Colonists in 1840 who cleared vast areas of native forest. The “immense woods, lofty trees and the finest timber” described by early explorers were reduced very rapidly.

The resulting environmental degradation left mountainous areas susceptible to erosion. Flying over the heavily milled areas between Taupo and Napier, the scars of erosion are still visible.

Max completed his education at Mt Albert Boys Grammar school during the depression. As he was unable to find employment in Auckland, he cycled to Taumaranui to seek work in the timber mills in the rugged King Country, a distance of around 240km today. It took him more than a week to cycle over largely unsealed roads, with steep, narrow, and winding mountainous roads on the final part of the journey. It is estimated that today it would take a cyclist 16 hours to complete the journey.

Max was to work in the timber milling industry for around 15 years.

Taringamotu Totara Sawmill Company, Oruaiwi NZ.

Max obtained employment as an Orderman at Taringamotu Totara Sawmill Company in the township of Oruaiwi, in 1934.

An Orderman is responsible for the fulfilling of orders by the selection of material for cutting to required sizes and lengths, and checking and measuring completed orders and compiling for despatch. The role of an Orderman suited Max very well. He only had one arm, so the jobs involving sawing and chopping were probably not open to him, although he was pretty competent with a saw and an axe.

Oruaiwi, also known as Waituhi, was a small settlement in the valley of the Taringamotu River. The houses were wooden, with corrugated iron chimneys, and a bush railway track ran through the settlement.

Leaving his home in Auckland Max must surely have found Oruaiwi somewhat of a challenge, although he seems to have found the life in remote milling towns enjoyable. The single men’s accommodation was pretty basic, but it was a pretty blokey atmosphere, which Max enjoyed all of his life.

Oruaiwi Township
Max at Oruaiwi

Smyth Bros & Boryer Limited, Arohena, NZ.

Max moved to Arohena in 1936, to work for Smyth Bros & Boryer, Sawmillers & Timber Merchants. Apart from a working holiday in Australia in 1940, he worked for that company until March 1945 as a timber orderman, and then from 1943, he also worked in the office on timber invoice work for half of each working day. The timbers milled were rimu, white pine, totara and matai.

“Arohena had a school, tennis court and a hall, a shop, a row of family homes and a line of single men’s huts and the cookhouse. There was a mill office and the mill owner’s house.

The mill building was behind a big timber yard. It incorporated the log skid, locomotive terminal, and repair and truck sheds. …. The large area of sawn, stacked and labeled timber was criss crossed by hand truck lines. Truck roads transversed the area to allow for loading of customer orders. Circular turntables re-aligned the tram tracks for direction changes, and Max Bridges, holding his clip board under the stump of his missing arm, kept law and order, and recorded the incomings and outgoings of the timber. He later married our primer teacher, Cecelia O’Neill, and they had a garage at Arapuni when the mill closed.” (To Arohena from Chunuk Bair – Untitled media.ap.aucklandmuseum.com).

Arohena is in the Waikato area, which was less isolated than the King Country and the social life was, by all accounts, much livelier than was possible in Oruaiwi. Socials and dances were held in the local hall, and in the neighbouring villages of Pukeatua, Kihikihi and Arapuni. Max and his co-workers also went to the pictures, in Arapuni. The picture theatre was an old corrugated iron shed with numerous holes in the roof and walls. Max used to tell children that the theatre had twinkling stars on the roof, which made it sound rather splendid. He had to confess to the disappointed children that the stars could only be seen through the holes in the roof.

Max also enjoyed fishing on the nearby Waikato River and Arapuni Lake. He was a dedicated fisherman all of his life.

A re-enactment of the Battle of Orekau -“Rewi’s Last Stand” was filmed near Arohena, in 1940 and Max had a “bit” role as a British Soldier. Originally a silent film made in 1925 it was a historical drama based on the last stand of Rewi Maniapoto at Orekau, between 31 March and 2 April, 1864.

Site of the Battle of Orakau

Max married Cecelia O’Neill in Te Awamutu on 10 April 1941. Cecelia was a teacher at the Arohena school, by then a two roomed school. Max moved from the single men’s huts and he and Cecelia lived in one of the unpainted wooden houses provided by the mill owners to married staff. Their daughter was born while they were living in Arohena.

Max, second from right – Arohena

Arohena today is a farming community, with little sign of its former timber milling history.

G.L. Briggs & Sons, Briggsvale, NSW

Max left New Zealand on 10 May, 1940 on the Monterey bound for Sydney, via Melbourne. His occupation was listed as an Orderman.

His ultimate destination was Briggsvale on the Dorrigo Plateau in Northern New South Wales, where he was to work at the sawmill there. The journey from Sydney to Briggsvale by train would have taken more than a day. The train from Sydney to Glenreagh was an overnight trip, and he would then have had to get the train from Glenreagh to Briggsvale.

Ulong Railway Station – on the line from Glenreagh to Briggsvale, which Max would have passed through. (Picture credit Margaret Anne Block)

G.L. Briggs & Sons established a sawmill at Briggsvale in 1923, an isolated spot in the middle of virgin forest. Max worked on the planer, tallying and sorting timber. When Max worked at Briggsvale, there were around 150 residents. The village, comprising staff cottages and barracks was situated next to the mill.

Max and his workmates would catch the train to Dorrigo for social events – sport and the local pub.

Class A Climax geared locomotive, Briggsvale.

Max revisited Briggsvale in 1975 with Cecelia and his daughter. He identified the remains of the single men’s quarters and the cookhouse. The mill building, though in a state of disrepair, was still standing.

Max’s daughter and granddaughter recently visited Briggsvale. No one appears to live there now. It was necessary to bush bash and trespass to access the site. The site had not changed a lot since 1975, but it was not possible to re-identify the cookhouse site, or the single men’s quarters.

Above Left: Briggsvale in the 1970’s. Right: Briggsvale 2020

Max came back to New Zealand from Sydney on the Awatea, arriving in Auckland on 3 November 1940. He returned to his employment in Arohena.

Tarawera Timber Co Ltd., Te Haroto.

Moving to Te Haroto in 1945, Max was employed as an Assistant Yardman. His duties “besides classing, tallying and loading lorries, included the making out of specifications for each load”. (Reference from Tarawera Timber Co. Ltd, dated March 14, 1947.) His wage was six pounds per week.

Napier Taupo Road winding down to Te Haroto. (Credit – Whites Aviation)

Te Haroto is situated on the Napier-Taupo Road, in Hawkes Bay. In 1945 the road was narrow, unsealed and steep in parts. The hairpin bends were the stuff of legend. The big timber trucks frequently had to reverse a couple of times to get around the worst of the bends. Driving that road was not for the faint hearted. Cars would have to follow timber trucks for many miles before there was any opportunity to overtake. Radiators were apt to boil – there were numerous spots along the road, signposted, where they could be topped up from a stream. Bridges were narrow one way affairs, the downhill traffic being required to give way to those vehicles labouring uphill. Max had an old de Soto car, which managed the road pretty well.

Max and Cecelia initially lived in one of three little wooden cottages, built right beside the Napier Taupo Road. It must have been less than pleasant, with timber lorries constantly rumbling past on the unsealed road.

Conditions were primitive. Cooking was done on a fuel stove, with no temperature gauge. Cecelia used to wave her hand in the oven to guess what the temperature was. Great skill was required to keep the stove at a constant temperature.

The laundry consisted of a copper and a pair of concrete tubs, and was in an outbuilding with only cold water available. There was no time to cook on washing day, so Monday was washing day as there was always left over roast from Sunday, which was either eaten cold or minced and turned into something else.

A fire had to be lit under the copper, and when the water was boiling, in would go the items being washed. A wooden stick was used to stir the items around, and to lift them out into the tubs. A wooden scrubbing board was utilised to totally clean the boiled items. They were then rinsed and the white items were lifted into the second tub, which had a blue bag dissolved in it, to keep them white. There was no wringer, so all the laundry had to be wrung out by hand.

Old house at Te Haroto, which is much like Max and Cecelia’s house.

Ultimately, Cecelia ran the single men’s cookhouse, and they moved into the accommodation right at the mill. Cecelia had attended university, and held a BA. She was also a trained schoolteacher. Cooking for all the single men on a fuel stove in a remote timber mill community would surely not have been how she had envisaged her future.

Cecelia’s home town was Hastings, in Hawkes Bay. At least in Te Haroto she was closer to her family, and could often get a lift on a timber lorry to visit them.

Social activities included various sport, socials, and occasional concerts. The concert performers were generally people from the community who could play a musical instrument or sing. One performer played two instruments at the same time, a guitar and a mouth organ (held to his mouth by a strap).

Agricultural shows were held annually, which attracted people from the whole area. The shows always had woodchopping competitions, sporting activities, food stalls and a beer tent. Occasionally they featured Scottish dancing competitions. The highland fling and the sword dance from old Scotland would surely have been somewhat strange in a remote New Zealand timber milling community.

At the Te Haroto Show, 1946 – note the motor vehicles which navigated the local roads.

Max could see that the future of milling native timber was limited. Fire and logging had rapidly depleted native forests. Deforestation was becoming more environmentally contentious, particularly in areas where erosion had become a problem in the early 1940’s. The work was physically hard, with long hours and not well paid. He left Te Haroto after 15 years work in the timber milling industry in 1947. He made lifelong friends while living in the remote timber milling communities, and he always spoke fondly of his time in these communities.

A great tree comes down on hills already stripped of bush (Page 59 “The Way we Were Pictorial Memories of early NZ – Hawkes Bay/East Coast)

In New Zealand, native forests now have some legal protection. Native forest logging ended on public land in 2002. Logging of native trees is governed by a permit system. Exotic forests were planted, mainly pinus radiata to satisfy timber needs, one of the earliest being Kiangaroa, in the North Island.

Max enjoyed working and living in remote saw milling communities. He made lifelong friends, and he always spoke fondly of his time working at the timber mills.

Solomon Islands

Living in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s felt somewhat like being an observer in one of Somerset Maugham’s short stories.

Many of the British Colonial officers from Maugham’s stories were recognisable 50 years after he wrote these stories. There appeared to be a pre-occupation with class, tradition and position among the long term serving officers and perhaps even more so among their wives, whose status varied according to their husband’s position. Most of them had been in the Colonial Service all their working lives, and appeared to be trying to create a life which they could never have aspired to in the UK.

I grew up in New Zealand. Going to the Solomon Islands was the first time I had left New Zealand, and I was totally unprepared for life in a British Protectorate.

The journey from Auckland to Honiara, in those days was an adventure in itself, especially for a first overseas trip. An overnight stay in Fiji was necessary. Descending from the plane in Nadi and experiencing for the first time breathing in warm humid air is still a vivid memory, as is the scent of frangipani.

The flight from Nadi to Honiara was long, with two stops. The first in Vila and the second in Santo in the (then) New Hebrides.

Stopover in Santo, Vanuatu

The view, on descent into Honiara, was spectacular. The sea was several shades of blue, startlingly white coral sand beaches, fringed with coconut palms. The palm trees merged with jungle and mountains beyond.

The requirement for flexibility was illustrated immediately on arrival. There was no house available in Honiara, and one would not be available for another three months. Luckily a house was available in Gizo, in the Western District. Oh, and also your temporary accommodation at the Mendana Hotel is not available. Lucky me – I get to stay in a motel (and that is a generous description). Hovel would have been a more accurate description. Mouldy bathroom (though I was to learn that mouldy bathrooms went with the territory), all manner of insects and no airconditioning.

Gizo is a small island, 11km long and 5km wide, about 380km north west of Honiara. It was the site of the second government station in the Protectorate, and was established in 1899. The main purpose for establishing the station was to control head hunting, which was rife in the area. On their way home from raids on nearby islands, the headhunters stopped at Gizo to wash and clean the skulls. Headhunting had mostly been suppressed by 1904.

The flight to Gizo was about 1.30 hours, in a small baron beechcraft plane – so small that passengers were weighed with their luggage to ensure weight limits were adhered to. Flying at a relatively low altitude made that 90 minutes among the more magical of my life, even now after many years of world travel. Islands with palm fringed beaches, lagoons of immense beauty and reefs turning the dark blue of the deeper parts of the sea to a myriad of shades of blue to almost white. Along the way a small underwater volcano was erupting, which would ultimately result in the creation of a new island. The pilot made a couple of circuits to enable passengers to get a good view of the steam and bubbles created by the eruption. The outline of the top of the volcano was visible under the water.

One of many small islands

Gizo did not have its own airstrip at that time. It was necessary to land at the old war time airstrip at Barakoma on the island of Vella Lavella, north west of Gizo. The journey to Gizo was completed by a 90 minute boat trip. Alighting from the aircraft with nothing in sight other than the airstrip surrounded by palm trees, with the sea to the north, was a surreal experience. The silence when the aircraft engines stopped was deafening. There was absolutely nothing there. Finally a mini moke appeared out of the jungle. The transport to the wharf.

Gizo was a bit of a shock, to say the least. The waterfront area was dismal. There was little sign of life. The main street was dusty and forlorn looking, lined with a few Chinese merchants shops all closed. It was hot – very hot.

Outside Chinese Merchant’s shop, Gizo main street – 1969

First impressions are often not best impressions. I had arrived at the hottest time of day, when people are not out and about. Although it wasn’t called a siesta, in fact that is what it was.

Later that day I was taken to the recently opened Commonwealth Bank of Australia to meet the manager, and change some money. The manager gave me a tour of the bank, including a small wharf beside the bank building. The wharf was lined with cages containing crocodiles. I shall never forgive that manager. He told me that the crocodiles were the bank’s security – they were released into the bank at night. I believed him.

My house was on a ridge behind the Gizo township. The views south, across a lagoon to a reef, and beyond was spectacular.

Gizo ended up being a lot of fun, and a gentle introduction to the absurdities of British Colonial life. There were very few Europeans – the bank manager from Australia, a school teacher and surveyor from New Zealand, missionaries and a few lands department ex Africa British Colonial people. There was, of course, the British District Commissioner. A very pompous chap, and his wife, who considered Australians and New Zealander’s did not know how to dress or behave appropriately. What a trial for her to have to be among people whom one would not naturally mix with “at home”. Her racist attitude to Solomon Islanders was pompous and paternalistic.

She might have been correct in some respects about Australian and New Zealander’s ignorance of the social mores of a dying Empire. We were a somewhat irreverent bunch. The pomp and ceremony of the dying days of the Empire were an occasion for great mirth. ANZAC day was not acknowledged in a Protectorate. This needed to be remedied. Every morning a Solomon Island police officer, folded British flag under his arm, would march from the police station to the flagpole, and with some ceremony raise the flag. Each evening, the reverse occurred.

On 24th April, after the British flag had been lowered and marched back to headquarters, the irreverent ones raised an Australian flag on the flagpole. Early next morning we are all out to observe the ceremony. Policeman marches up to flagpole. Rope not in correct position. He was most confused. It took a while to remedy this rank insubordination, but ultimately the Australian flag was lowered and the British flag reigned triumphant.

Hell hath no fury than a Colonial power feeling insulted. The bank manager and the school teacher were recalled to Honiara, for a dressing down from their superiors.

Flexibility was also required when it came to food shopping. I arrived “between boats” – every four or five weeks a boat bearing food from Australia arrived in Gizo. Thank goodness for the local markets, with an abundance of local fruit and vegetables and fish. The Chinese Trader’s stores stocked staples, such as flour and sugar. There was also a huge variety of canned food. The only thing I found difficult to deal with was canned butter and milk.

There was no school for ex pat children. My children were hastily enrolled with the New Zealand correspondence school. Their inept mother was the supervisor. The materials arrived. For mathematics, there were cuisenaire rods – mathematical learning aids. Interactive, and a hands on way to explore mathematics and learn mathematical concepts. I had not the slightest idea of what do do, even though I am sure the instructions were perfectly adequate. Three months building houses with cuisenaire rods should surely not matter.

So, what did one do when not working. For socialising, there was, as described in Somerset Maugham’s stories, a jolly little club. The Gizo hotel had just opened.

There were wonderful boating and snorkelling experiences to be had, although I found snorkelling somewhat stressful. There were coral snakes (if you get bitten you will die), and stone fish (wear sandshoes in case you stand on one. If you do you may die, but you will almost certainly suffer excruciating pain). Don’t stand on a sea slug, (you will not die, but the sea slug will empty its insides out all over your foot.)

A day trip to Kasola Island – called Kennedy Island due to John F Kennedy’s boat being sunk nearby during World War II – with a picnic lunch on a beach, and snorkelling was always a great day out. I did see a coral snake just off Kennedy Island. It was directly below me. I willed myself not to panic, glided over it and made straight for the beach. No more snorkelling for me that day.

On Kennedy Island

The local priest, Father Meese was an interesting man. He was quite a businessman. He acted as agent for various commercial companies, such as Solomon Islands Airways, and had a sheaf of business cards for each of the organisations he represented. He was frequently seen driving his mini moke overloaded with local children around Gizo.

I decided to attend Mass one Sunday. Solomon Islanders were sitting on one side of the Church and Gilbertese people on the other. Where should I sit? I decided to sit at the back, and change sides during the service.

The sermon was delivered in pidgin english. The topic was from Leviticus on revenge – “fracture for fracture eye for eye and tooth for tooth”. Listening to the familiar words in pidgin english was a delight. I wish I could remember the pidgin words. I reflected that this phrase must have been spoken in so many languages, starting from ancient Mesopotamia where it was part of Hammurabi’s Code, before the bible was written.

The time came for my return to Honiara. Back to civilization, in a manner of speaking. Woodford School relieved me of my pathetic attempt at educating my children. Mendana Avenue, the main street was then lined with beautiful ponciana trees. There were shops, including a bookshop. Joy. Chinatown was large, and the local markets very extensive.

The Solomon Islands are believed to have been settled around 2000BC. The first contact with Europeans came in 1568 when Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana visited the area, naming them Isle de Solomon. He was hoping for a King Solomon mineral riches experience, and there were rumours that he discovered the place where King Solomon obtained the gold for his temple in Jerusalem.

It was around 200 years before the area was visited again when in 1866 Britain and Germany divided the islands between them – British in the South, Germans in the north. The Germans ceded their rule to Britain in 1889. Tulagi was the administrative capital of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. The capital moved to Honiara after World War II.

The Colonial Office appointed Charles Woodford as the first District Commissioner in 1897. He justified policies favouring foreigners ahead of Solomon Islanders because “my opinion is that nothing…can prevent the eventual extinction of the Melanesian race” (RNZ.co.nz./collectionsSolomon Islands – a brief history part 3-5). The British, on their invasion of Australia, appeared to do their best to ensure the original people suffered the same fate.

With this small amount of knowledge of the history, I commenced life in Honiara.

Honiara – Point Cruz in background.

I discovered that the Gizo District Commissioner’s wife was a pussy cat in the scheme of things. She and Mr Pompous were amateurs in the superiority game

There seemed to be a presumption of superiority over Solomon Island people, which manifested itself in racist attitudes, paternalism and the infantilising attitude towards Solomon Islanders – grown men and women being referred to as “boys” and “girls”.

I receive a formal invitation, in the mail, from my next door neighbour to a dinner party. I was to RSVP by mail. The invitation informed me that HE was arriving at 7.30pm. So – who might HE be, and why did it matter what time HE was arriving. Well, HE was the His Excellency, the High Commissioner, and one was expected to arrive before him. No wonder these minor functionaries became so self important.

Luckily a friend briefed me about the so called protocol at these dinners. After dinner the men would go to Africa, and the ladies would withdraw to the hostesses bedroom. Going to Africa meant the men were all going out to pee on the lawn. The women sat and stood around in the bedroom, waiting their turn to use the lavatory. There was a queue system. The head of the queue was the wife of the most senior man, and so on down the ranks. Nothing to do with need, or their own rank. As a feminist, it grated that women were happy to accept their status, according to their husband’s position.

Single women, no matter what their occupation was, were at the end of the queue.

Some slight satisfaction was to be gained from jumping the queue, thus proving that antipodeans really did not know how to behave in the appropriate manner.

There were a couple of “jolly little clubs” in Honiara. The Yacht Club and the Guadalcanal Club. There was also a golf club, with a nine hole course. The Guadalcanal Club had a swimming pool, tennis courts and a bowling green. Solomon Islanders, at that time, were not admitted to membership of these clubs. They were however employed by these establishments, to wait upon the members. Infantilising these men, certain members would click their fingers and call “boy, another G & T (or whatever).” The Solomon Islanders were not “boys”. They were mature men. Looking back, I am impressed at the self restraint the Solomon Island people exhibited.

An invitation to a dinner at Government House arrived in the mail. By this time, the Solomon Islands were heading towards independence and prominent local people were included on the guest list. I was seated next to a Solomon Island man who would go on to become the first Chief Minister and Prime Minister.

He had attended Te Aute College in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand (where incidentally my grandfather, Bill O’Neill had lectured students on the finer points of rugby union – (George Nepia, a former All Black in his autobiography “I George Nepia” – ‘but after a famous character of Hawkes Bay Rugby, Bill O’Neill, a leading referee had come out to the college and lectured us with blackboard illustrations, I began to get the drift.'”).

It was customary at the conclusion of these dinners for port to be served. The port bottle would start with the High Commissioner, who would pour his and the woman’s beside him. The bottle would then be handed to the next man. Women did not get to touch the bottle. I was so impressed when my Solomon Island companion poured his port, and handed the bottle to me to pour my own. YES.

Toward the end of my time in the Solomon Islands, it was announced that the Queen of England, her husband Phillip, Lord Louis Mountbatten, her daughter Anne and her then husband would be arriving on the Britannia to grace us with their presence.

I am a Republican, and I can only excuse my acceptance of the invitation to attend a reception on the Britannia as a lapse of my moral compass, and curiosity. I comfort myself with the fact that I refused to curtsey to the British Queen. The invitation stipulated the dress code as “casual island”. We were ferried out to the Britannia by boat. There is a receiving line. The British Queen, her husband, Mountbatten, Anne and her husband, all in formal frocks and tiaras for the ladies, and dinner jackets and medals for the men. Well, let us try to demoralise the guests in casual island dress shall we.

A loyal ADC is circulating. “Are you having a good time he enquires of me”. Whoever has a “good time” at a cocktail party, which this was, minus the cocktails. A warm gin and tonic with no ice is hardly inviting. I ducked the question, and said that it was an interesting experience. I asked him why the royal persons were in formal dress when the invitation stated casual island dress. “Oh, the natives expect them to be formal” was his response. The natives!

There was, of course, a lot more depth to living in Honiara than the social scene. The pompous ones were a minority overall, and most people were not characters from Somerset Maugham’s short stories.

Sporting activities included tennis, golf, lawn bowls, boating and fishing. There was a Honiara branch of the Hash House Harriers (a walking and running organisation), which my son, aged 10, enjoyed.

After a Hash House Harriers run in Honiara.
On a coral beach, north east from Honiara

Another popular activity was searching for World War 2 relics. The Japanese Imperial Army invaded the islands in World War 2 in 1942, and some of the bloodiest battles, including the Battle of Guadacanal, August 1942-February 1943, occurred in the Solomon Islands. The battles were conducted on the land, and from the sea and air.

Fossicking would almost always turn up something of interest. Shell cases of all sizes were a common find. There were wrecks of ships on the beach, and crashed planes in the bush, as well as old military vehicles. Iron bottom sound, north of Honiara, was as its name suggests, a graveyard of US and Japanese ships and downed fighter planes. Paradise for scuba divers.

The British Solomon Islands Protectorate was one of the final countries remaining of the British Empire. During the period leading up to self government, there appeared to be little effort put into training Solomon Island people. Maybe this was because there were very few alternate employment opportunities for the British Colonial Service officers – Hong Kong could hardly accommodate all of them.

The UK granted the Solomon Islands independence on 11 July 1978, at which time the Solomon Islands joined the United Nations as its 150th sovereign State. The newly independent Solomon Islands joined the Commonwealth, with the British Queen as head of State, represented by a Governor General.

Happily Charles Woodford’s prophesy that there would be an extinction of the Melanesian race was false.

I left the Solomon Islands, enriched by the experience of learning about the Melanesian culture and the history of the Islands. Although not enriching, it was also a learning experience to observe the behaviours of the long serving British Colonial officers in one of the last fragments of the British Empire.

Gardens of Stresa, Northern Italy.

Arriving in Stresa as evening approached was magical. The mountains surrounding Lake Maggiori were starting to merge into the dusk, their snowy white peaks starkly contrasting with the bluish purple of the mountains.

The winding road down into Stresa provided beautiful views of the lake, the Borromean Islands, and boats heading in to the wharf.

Lake Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy, and crosses the border into Switzerland. Messing about in boats is clearly a popular activity. Fishermen’s boats abound on Isola dei Pescatori, pleasure boats of all kinds jostle for space with the ferries around Stresa. Stunning lakeside residences have beautiful yachts moored nearby.

Serious hikers and cyclists were thick on the ground early in the morning, heading out to conquer all obstacles. No doubt skiers joined the early morning exodus during the season. Being among the more slothful types, I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on the terrace of my hotel, overlooking the lake, contemplating the leisurely activities I had planned – visiting the gardens of Stresa and surrounds.

Gardens

Isola Bella

Isola Bella, one of the Borromean Islands, is wholly occupied by the Palazzo Borromeo, and its extravagant garden. Work started on the Palazzo and garden in 1632, and was not finally completed during 1948-59.

The garden is constructed on ten terraces, and is Baroque Italian style. It is the most grandiose, flamboyant and fanciful garden I have ever visited. Magnificent trees, ponds and fountains, statues, obelisks and pinnacles, orderly flowerbeds and lawns, shrubs, flowers, roses, hydrangea, camellia, azalea and citrus together with expansive views over Lake Maggiore to the mountains provide a visual overload of massive proportions.

Approaching Isola Bella.

The garden is entered through the Palazzo. A colossal camphor tree greets you as you emerge in to the garden. It arrived as a sapling in 1819. There are numerous notable old trees around the garden, which help to balance the grandiose architecture and ornamentation and “carved” trees with nature.

The Teatro Massimo (the rear of which is visible in the image above) has to be the most extreme baroque architectural garden structure ever. It is topped by a unicorn being ridden by a winged figure representing either love or honour. There are 4 huge statues representing four elements – fire, earth air and water. There are statues of the four seasons, each holding a plant applicable to their season. Add some huge scallop shell decorations and many more statues, and you should get the vision.

Terracotta pots of pansies or pots of round clipped buxus lined the various steps between terraces, carpets of multi coloured poppies filled some of the formal flower beds, and everywhere statues were thick on the ground. Here a Neptune, there a Diana presiding over a pool and huge concrete vases, some filled with fruit.

Diana presiding over a pool.

White peacocks strut about on the manicured lawns in front of the Teatro Massimo, occasionally showing off their magnificent tails.

A loud voice rang out over the lawn “Oh I say Mabel, look at them peacocks – we don’t have any in England”. It made me think of a visit to Leeds Castle in Kent a few weeks earlier, where several white peacocks were strutting their stuff. If I had been able to identify the voice, I may have suggested she and Mabel should visit Leeds Castle.

Sipping a cocktail in the Piano Bar at my hotel that evening, looking out over the Lake and listening to Chopin was a perfect end to an enchanting day.

Villa Taranto

“A beautiful garden does not need to be big, but it should be the realisation of one’s dreams” said Neil Boyd McEacharn, the creator of the Botanical Gardens at Villa Taranto, Pallanza.

One of the ponds at Villa Taranto

All very well for him – the beautiful botanical gardens at Villa Taranto cover around 20 hectares. Still, that gives those of us with city gardens some hope of creating a place of beauty.

McEacharn established the gardens in 1931-40. He travelled the world in search of rare species. There are around 20,000 plant varieties in the gardens, which include a terraced garden, a bog garden, a water garden, a dahlia garden and a herbarium.

The Villa Taranto contains one of of Europes largest collections of exotic species. McEacharn’s dream to create one of the world’s most beautiful botanic gardens was fulfilled. The fountains, ponds and architectural features add to the beauty of the garden.

McEacharn died in 1964, and is buried in a mausoleum in the garden.

Isola Madre

Gustave Flaubert, in 1845, said that “Isola Madre is the most sensual place I have ever seen in the world”, and described it as an “earthly paradise”.

Isola Madre is the largest of the Borromean Islands. The botanic garden on the island covers an area of eight hectares, and is described as an English style garden, and was landscaped in the early 19th century. It is one of Italy’s oldest botanical gardens, and contains a 200 year old Kashmir Cypress and a 125 year old Jubaeae Spectabilis Palm. There is no trace of the earlier orchards, and olive and citrus groves.

The garden seemed more tropical to me than an English style garden, with its eucalypts, banana and hibiscus, although it does have wonderful azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. The ponds and landscaping were a little reminiscent of an English garden.

The modern sculpture in the garden included Velasco Vitale’s Foresta rossa (red forest) and Branco, a pack of dogs. Foresta rossa is the name of a pinewood near Chernobyl, so named because immediately after the disaster in 1986, the trees all turned red, and then died. Foresta rossa was created from concrete tar and sheet metal.

Foresta rossa

These dogs are fun. They are created from different materials, and all look different. Each dog is named after a vanished city.

Champagne cocktails in the Piano Bar that evening provided a perfect end to another day in paradise.

Giardino Botanica Alpinia

The Alpine Garden is 800m above Stresa, and provides panoramic views of the Borromeo Islands, Lake Maggiore and its surrounding peaks. The Swiss Alps can be seen in the distance.

The garden was created in 1934, and is the second largest alpine garden in Italy. It covers an area of 40,000 sq. metres, and contains more than 1000 species of alpine and sub alpine plants, and includes many rare trees.

The garden contains botanic species from the Alps and Alpine foothills and from the Caucasus, China and Japan. A wetland area has been created for aquatic plants. An Alpine garden is a pretty wondrous place – seeing the variety of plants which grow and thrive in an alpine climate never fails to impress me.

Wetland area.

I combined my visit to the Alpine Garden with a long walk which took me through Alpinio and through beautiful trees of many varieties.

Alpinio

I then utilised the Mottarone cable car to reach the top of Mottarone. I felt as though I was on top of the world, looking down on creation, when I walked up from the cable car terminus. A 360 degree uninterrupted view of mountains, from the Ligurian Apennines, the Maritime Alps to the Monte Rosa Massif, and the high peaks of Switzerland, seven visible lakes and the Po Valley – this view has to be up there with the best.

Having dinner on the terrace, looking out over the lake, accompanied by a cold crisp white wine, I felt as if all was well in my world.

Parco della Villa Pallavicino

The Pallavicino family acquired this property in 1862. The park was a work in progress for many years, and in 1952 a zoo was added.

The park is approached along a line of Cypresses, tortured to form a row of arches, reminiscent of a cloister, with magnificent views over the lake.

The garden is said to be reminiscent of an English garden, which in parts it was. The rose garden is mid 20th century, and did remind me of English rose gardens, especially the rose archways in the Regents Park in London. The rose garden was established in mid 20th century.

The current flower garden layout is from the 1950’s, and is also reminiscent of an English garden. The flower garden was the former kitchen garden.

The trees are magnificent and include centuries old chestnuts, beeches, maples redwoods and magnolias. There are numerous water features from ponds and fountains to waterfalls.

There are grassy slopes, leading up to more forested areas, with rather odd, though pretty, flower beds here and there. Peacocks roam about, adding to the colour and contrasting beautifully with the green, green grass – or should I say lawns. What I have in my garden is grass full of weeds, what this garden has is beautifully manicured carpets of green.

Grassy slope, with magnificent trees in the background.

I thought that the request from the grass was a great deal more persuasive than the usual command to keep off the grass.

Grand Hotel Des Isles Borromees

I stayed in this historic hotel in Stresa, and had the bonus of its park to wander around. The hotel opened in 1863, and the park/garden has evolved since then.

Grand Hotel des Isles Borromees

The park contains hundreds of varieties of azaleas and camellias, and is in the style of a classic Italian garden. There are pathways winding through trees. Marble statues, mostly representations from Greek and Roman mythology, are liberally sprinkled around, including Neptune with his trident, Apollo and Fortuna, Paris and Helen, Dionysus cupids, and many more.

My room overlooked a fountain and garden. Fountain doesn’t seem an adequate description. The fountain is a reproduction of a marble fountain by Italian sculptor Vicenzo de Rossi. It is much more than a mere fountain. Two levels, granite stairs, multi coloured arabesques, mosaic walls, and a superb mosaic carpet. Statues representing 5 continents (sad to say us Antipodeans are not represented as Oceana had not been discovered).

The most startling thing about this fountain is that on the hour a music box in the fountain plays Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from the ninth symphony. Luckily it ceases late at night. I love Beethovens 9th, but a music box version of Ode to Joy every hour stretches the friendship.

There were no gardens on the Isola dei Pescatori, the third of the Borromean islands, but I hopped off the ferry there one day to have lunch. It is a very pretty spot, with the fishermen’s boats lining the shores, swans sailing around majestically and lots of lovely spots to sit and enjoy the views. However I shall never again ask for a “doggy box” at a restaurant.

Having arrived in Stresa at dusk, leaving early in the morning provided a different perspective. As my car wound its way up from Stresa, the lake was sparkling in the sun and the snow on the mountain top was starkly white in the morning sun. There were a lot more boats on the lake. The ferries were making their way to the islands and settlements around the lake and the pleasure craft were heading out the places unknown. I was sad to leave. There are many more gardens to explore in the area, so I will return.

Baltic States -Wind Vanes and other photographic themes from other places.

I love photographic themes. When I travel, as secondary photographic travel narrative, I choose a theme. On my visit to the Baltic States, I chose wind vanes as a theme. Other themes have included Pub signs in London, detail on Art Nouveau buildings in Riga, Door knockers in Rome and Paris, and Georgian doors in Dublin – the least original theme ever.

Images from previous travel themes.

London Pub Signs

Art Nouveau Detail on Riga Buildings

Door knockers in Paris and Rome

Wind Vanes

Wind/weather/weathercock vanes have been around for a long time. Apparently they were independently invented in Greece and China around 2BC (though the dates vary considerably).

The Huainanzi, a guide to the theory of practice of government in early Han China (2CBE), describes a wind observing fan.

The Greek astronomer Andronicus is said to have created the first recorded weather vane. It was on top of the Tower of the Winds, in the ancient Agora, and was a tribute to Neptune. The octagonal Tower of the Winds was named for the eight Greek gods of the wind. It still stands, minus the original weather vane.

 

In the 9AD a pope decreed that every church should be topped with a cock shaped wind vane, as a reminder of the prophecy that the cock would not crow the morning after the last supper, referencing Peter’s betrayal of Jesus.

Weather vanes were often found on the front of viking ships – bronze weather viking vanes have been discovered from the 9th century.

In the middle ages, public buildings in Europe were adorned with weather/wind vanes which took the shape of an arrow or pennant.

The Baltic States have a huge variety of wind vanes.

The wind vanes on the Curonian Spit in Lithuania were quite different. They were introduced in 1844 by fishing authorities and were affixed to all sailing boats permitted to fish in the Curonian Lagoon. It made for easy identification of every boat, and where it came from.

In Nida today, there can been seen numerous examples of these wind vanes. They are made of wood, and people now use them as decoration to their homes, and in public places as a display.

In choosing wind vanes for my theme in the Baltic States, I inadvertently discovered the fascinating history of them.

In choosing future themes, I shall look for objects which also have an interesting history. Clock faces come to mind especially astronomical clocks, such as the Prague Orloj.

Earlier posts:

Mesopotamia

Northern Mesopotamia.

Travelling in a very small part of the Cradle of Civilisation – South Eastern Turkey.

Crossing the bridge beside the Malabadi Bridge, over the Batman Creek near the town of Silvan in southern Turkey, I arrived in Mesopotamia.

The Malabadi Bridge is a beautiful structure. A masterpiece architecturally dating from the 12th century. It is a spanned stone arch bridge, with a height of approximately 24m and length of just over 281 metres.

Mesopotamia (from the Greek, meaning two rivers) is referred to as the cradle of civilization. The world’s oldest civilisations inhabited this region, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and it was here that people began to read and write, create laws and live in cities. Today, most of Mesopotamia is in Iraq, but parts are in modern day Turkey, Iran and Syria.

Many empires, rulers and dynasties occupied Mesopotamia, from ancient times until today. The architecture, art and literature bears witness to the diversity of the history.

My travels were only in Upper Mesopotamia, now south eastern Turkey. I suspect I have left it too late to visit Iraq and Syria. Having looked out over both countries from the Turkish border towns will probably be the closest I will get.

Hasankeyf (ancient Assyrian name Castrum Kefa – castle of the rock), is being sacrificed to “progress”. The town has been flooded by the reservoir for the Ilisu dam on the Tigris River. On 5 July 2020, an article by Carlotta Gall appeared in the New York Times titled “An Ancient Valley lost to ‘Progress'”, (nytimes.com/2020/07/05/world/middleeast) which is well worth reading.

The Hasankeyf I visited is no more. This 12,000 year old settlement was once an important commercial centre along the silk road. Approaching the town, we passed cliffs, honeycombed with caves, which had been inhabited since Neolithic times.

Just prior to crossing the Tigris to enter Hasankeyf, the ruins of a 12th century bridge, which Alexander the Great may have crossed, came into view. I am sad to think that the ruins are now under water. No one will now experience standing on the banks of the Tigris looking at the piers of that bridge. Perhaps a generation who never experienced the wonder of that view will be content with an underwater view.

Hasankeyf stood on a rock, high above the river. It is hard to visualise the scene now. To sacrifice such a historically significant medieval site, with its palace, city walls, elegant houses and several mosques, including the Great Mosque, which was well preserved, is cultural vandalism. Some of the people who were displaced were the last of several generations of their family who lived there – some had even been born in one of the caves in the cliff.

Mardin, (known as Marida – of antiquity, Mardia by the Byzantines, Merde-Merdo-Merdi by the Syriac and Marde – Persian) where we were staying the night, is built on the slope of a hill, looking south over the great Mesopotamian Plain to Syria and Iraq. If we had telephoto eyes, it would have been possible to see the Persian Gulf.

Mardin has a very large number of Syrian refugees living in the city, in part because of the proximity of Mardin to the Syrian border. There has been a huge influx of Syrian refugees since 2011, and an escalation of the refugee crisis in 2014 meant a lot more Syrians were trying to leave their country. In October 2019 there were 88,000 registered Syrian refugees in Mardin – nearly 11% of the population.

Mardin is an architectural gem, with its ancient citadel and 14th and 15th century Islamic buildings – there are 14 historically important mosques in the city. The citadel, above the city was first built in 975.

The Citadel

The city has a medieval feel to it, with its narrow lanes and vaulted passageways under the upper storeys of houses. The old mansions are built of stone, decorated with carved stone fruit, flowers and animals. While strolling through this part of the city, people on their balconies invited us into their homes to taste their wine.

The most historically important mosque in Mardin is the Ulu Cami (Grand Mosque). Construction of this mosque began in 1184AD and was completed in 1204AD. I love the minbars, and the one in Ulu Cami, while not as impressive as many I have seen, was nevertheless attractive.

The refugee issue became apparent when we visited Deyr-az Zaferan, a Syriac-Jacobite monastery, 7km from Mardin. Although the monastery is open to the public, when we visited we were limited to a very small part. We were told that because the monastery was sheltering a large number of Syrian refugees.

The foundations were laid in the 4th century AD. There is an earlier underground chamber which is said to have been used by sun worshippers, as long ago as 2000BC.

The monks were nowhere to be seen. They apparently speak Aramaic – the language of Jesus. It would have been interesting to hear the language of Jesus spoken. I did hear Aramaic spoken a few months later in Ethiopia, so all was not lost.

Deyr-az Zaferan

I fell in love with the replica of Al-Jazari’s Elephant Clock in the Kasimiye Medrese in Mardin. Al-Jazari (1136-1206) was an Islamic scholar, mechanical engineer and inventor. He wrote a book, in 1206 “The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. The Elephant clock is a splendid example of an Ingenious Mechanical device. It is a weight powered water clock, and stands 22ft high. The timing mechanism is in a water filled basin inside the elephant. The serpents play a part in the moving of the water.

Different cultures are represented on the elephant clock. The elephant is Asian, representing India, dragon like serpent represents China, phoenix on the top represents Egypt and the turbaned figure represents muslim cultures.

I really covet that clock.

The Elephant Clock

The market in Mardin was excellent. I rarely enjoy markets, and unlike other people, have never found a treasure or a bargain in the many markets I have visited. This market was very clean and tidy, with the usual wonderful array of food. The silk scarves were the loveliest I have seen in markets. There was also a lot of soap, made by the Syrian refugees.

Mardin market.

Harran (ancient Carrhae), now a village near the Syrian border, was an ancient city of strategic importance situated on the road from Nineveh to Carchemis. It was mentioned in the bible, (Patriarch Abraham’s family settled there – Genesis), but it was in existence long before biblical times. Ruins date back to the 3rd millenium BCE. Arriving in Harran, seeing the kumbets (mud brick houses, constructed without wood, which resemble beehives) and the ruins, transported me back to antiquity.

Local people no longer live in the beehive houses in Harran, but that did not diminish the feeling of antiquity. One of the houses is set up as if people live there. I loved the carpets and cushions.

I thought Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids were pretty old. Well, they are, but not as old as Gobekli Tepe, in north western Mesopotamia, about 20km from Urfa. Dating from around 9,500BC, the standing stones/T shaped pillars are 5,500 years older than the first cities of Mesopotamia, and are about 7,000 years older than Stonehenge and are from the neolithic period. Some of the pillars are plain, others have high and low relief stone carvings decorating them. The site is thought to be the first human built holy place. I have visited a lot of standing stones over the years. I am over awed by all of them, but I was blown away by those at Gobekli Tepe.

Urfa (Sanliurfa, Edessa, Adme) is in upper Mesopotamia, and is said to be where the prophet Abraham was born. He was born in Ur, but where is Ur. Ur of the Chaldeans is in southern Iraq, whereas Urfa is in northern Mesopotamia. The arguments for and against are fascinating, but I think I shall go with Urfa. I visited his birthplace in Urfa – a cave), saw the castle from which he was thrown by Nimrod, and dipped my finger into the sacred lake which Allah formed in place of the flames into which Abraham was to land. The burning logs were turned into fish. The lake is full of fish – descendants of the burning logs perhaps. The cave was pretty nondescript, but watching the devout pay their respects was quite fascinating. Kneeling and praying, and then, still on their knees, moving backwards out of the cave, to show respect.

After a busy day following Abraham, I retired to the roof terrace of my hotel with a glass of wine. Enjoying the views, and contemplating watching the sun go down, I was attended on by hotel staff. Madam cannot drink alcohol on the roof terrace, as it overlooked a mosque. Madam retired to her room without a view, so as not to offend.

The large noisy market in Urfa was as good as that in Mardin. I am always drawn to the spice stalls by the aroma, and the beautiful colours.

Spice Stall, Urfa Market.

Driving to Kahta, I had my final view of the Euphrates, and drove out of Mesopotamia.

It was not my last view of Mesopotamia. From Kahta we journeyed up into the hills to climb Nemrut Dagh to visit the surreal setting of a handmade terrace, on which sat monstrous seated statues of different gods. I have written about my visit to Nemrut Dagh in “A Recent Journey into the Distant Past” (24 July 2017). If you are interested, you can scroll down to my very first post.

Built by King Antiochus I in the Eastern Taurus Mountains.
Colossal Statues East Terrace, Nemrut Dagh, Eastern Turkey.

From Nemrut Dagh, there is a spectacular view across the Euphrates Valley, deep into Mesopotamia. A perfect place from which to farewell Mesopotamia.

 

Travels with my Cars

From 1937 Big Austin to BMW

I grew up in a country where, because of foreign exchange restrictions, new cars were impossible to acquire unless one had funds overseas, preferably sterling. The person with sterling could obtain a new car, sell it after a couple of years for as much, if not more than they paid for the new car. As a consequence, even old second hand cars were relatively expensive.

I had no access to foreign funds, and I had 100 pounds to spend.

For my 100 pounds, I acquired a 1937 “Big Austin”. Big was clearly an aspirational description. It had 4 doors, a windscreen wiper on the driver’s side only, and the turning indicators were little arms, which were switched on and off. No heater or air conditioner. A hot water bottle was useful in the winter. It was many years before I acquired a car with a radio.

To enable me to see over the steering wheel, I needed to sit on a cushion. To reach the pedals, I needed a cushion at my back. A tall person, on the other hand, almost had their knees under their chin.

The gearbox was unsynchronised, so gear changes involved a double clutch. I had learned to drive in my parent’s Zephyr 6, which did have a synchronised gearbox. I had to learn to change gears all over again.

Most of my driving lessons were on the local football field. Driving round and round a football field in no way prepared me for driving on the road, but at least I could change gears. Venturing out onto the road with my father as instructor was stressful. Scraping against the curb elicited the response “well that was six months wear off the tyres”.

The double clutch procedure accomplished, it was time to get my driving licence. The tester was tall. Sitting in the passenger seat with his knees tucked up underneath his chin, he was not comfortable. I credit my very short driving test to his discomfort. Hill start – I didn’t need the handbrake for the hill he chose. Reverse park – reverse into the fire station driveway, which was three fire engines wide. Once around the block, and back to the station. I had passed in all of about 5 minutes.

Glowing with confidence, I did a U turn outside the police station, which was on a State Highway. Bearing down, at some speed, was a huge timber truck with a full load of logs. Due to the timber truck driver’s skill, my early death was avoided. I had to pull over to the side of the road to recover.

My parents would not let me drive on my own until I had mastered changing a wheel and had some basic knowledge of how the engine worked. Engines were pretty simple in those days. I accomplished these skills pretty quickly.

We lived in a country village. There was no such thing as 7 days a week petrol stations. I always had a gallon of petrol in the car. I ran out of petrol one morning on my way to work – not a problem. Well, actually it was. I could not get the lid off the can. I wore stiletto heels in those days. I tried to punch a hole in the top of the petrol can with the heel of my shoe, to no avail. Arriving late for work resulted in a deduction in my pay. As I only earned Twelve pounds ten and tuppence a fortnight, this was drastic.

Luckily a truck driver stopped, opened the can and I was on my way.

I sold my Big Austin a couple of years later for 100 pounds. Over the years I have owned numerous cars, but have never sold one for anywhere near the price I paid.

Many years later, having owned a couple of different models of Datsun, Fords, including a little Ford Prefect, several Toyotas, a Renault, several Mazdas, a Mini Cooper, a Honda, a Hyundai and a Subaru, I acquired a BMW.

I no longer have to check oil and water levels. Nor do I have to check tyre pressure. I have an on board computer which tells me everything I need to know. I have “runflat” tyres, which will get me to a tyre repair place – no need to change a wheel. In fact, I don’t actually have a spare wheel.

I have a built in GPS system. To be fair, when I acquired the Big Austin, I did not even require paper maps to get around my country.

No more cushions to enable me to see over the steering wheel. With the touch of a button, my seat can be raised, lowered, moved forward or moved backwards. Even better, my seat preference can be set on my “key”, so if someone uses the car with the spare key, and changes the seat configurations, the minute I insert my key, my seat returns to my settings.

I am able to drive in comfort no matter what the weather is. Warm in the winter, cool in the summer. I can listen to whatever I wish – music via spotify, blue tooth from my phone or radio.

It has been an exciting ride from my first car to my current car. When the time comes to replace the BMW I may not need a car anymore. Excellent public transport (ahem) may obviate the need for a car, as it did when I lived in London. Alternatively, a hybrid or a fully electric car may replace the BMW.

Will it be as exciting as my journey from my 1937 Big Austin to my BMW? I doubt it. It certainly will be a shorter journey.