Gujarat, India. Part 2

Gujarat, India. Part 2

Dasada, Little Rann of Kutch, Patan, Modhera and Ahmedabad

Dasada and the Little Rann of Kutch

Dasada is a small rural town, and a gateway to the little Rann of Kutch. The Little Rann is a salt desert, and part of the Great Rann. Despite its name, it is a very large salt desert of approximately 30,000 square metres.

I love camels. I was very happy to see camels, camels and more camels around Dasada. Camels alone, camels pulling carts, camels with beads around their necks, all looking as haughty and superior as only camels can.

The Rann Riders Resort, near Dasada is a perfect place to stay to explore the area, for many reasons. The resort is eco friendly. The owners very actively assist the local communities. They care about conservation and sustainable tourism.

My accommodation at Rann Riders was a Kooba house of the Bajania, which I loved. There were also Bhunga structures of the Rabari shepherds. There are other options, but I loved my little house.

A jeep safari, run by Rann Riders into the the Little Rann, proved to be a magical and inspirational experience. The people from Rann Riders have a superior level of care for the environment, and knowledge of the geology and of the wildlife which inhabits the area. I felt so privileged to see Asiatic wild ass – an endangered species. The birdlife would make the most experienced birdwatchers feel that they had died and gone to their heaven. My visit was not during the optimum bird watching time, but I still experienced the joy of viewing the few remaining flamingo’s in what was left of the wet season water.

Among the local people Rann Riders were assisting were the Mir, a nomadic people, who were living in temporary “homes” nearby. The Mir women created artwork with beads, and sold their creations by the roadside of their temporary dwellings. Rann Riders, on their website, acknowledge that, with the design intervention of some of their guests, (see below*) the Mir women were able to create jewellery, using their beads, which people would buy.

I shall never forget these beautiful women and children, and shall always feel so privileged to have met such resilient women.

Patan and Modhera

The drive from Dasada to Ahmedabad takes about 2.5 hours – or it would were it not for the need to stop and explore stepwells and temples along the way.

Stepwells are unique to India, and are subterranean water storeage and resource systems. These wells were constructed in Gujurat from around 600AD, and later spread to other parts of India. Stepwells evolved from pits in the ground to multi levels of elaborately carved sculptures – artistic and architectural masterpieces.

The Rani-ki-vav is a UNESCO World Heritage site at Patan, on the banks of the Saraswati River. It is constructed in the form of an inverted temple, and has seven levels of stairs, each level containing beautiful sculptures – said to be about 500 principal sculptures and many more minor sculptures. It was not difficult to descend down the levels and although the climb up was more onerous, I spent time on each level examining the sculptures, so really only ascended one level at a time.

Detail of a very small number of the sculptures.

The Modhera Sun Temple is a shrine dedicated to the Hindu sun god, Surya, and was constructed in the early 11th century on the banks of the Pushpavati River. The Temple is made up of three parts, Gudhamandapa – shrine hall, Sabhamandapa – assembly hall and Surya Kund – stepwell.

The temple is an excellent example of Solanaki style architecture, magnificently carved inside and out with gods, goddesses, birds and beasts and flowers. I could easily have spent more time examining these carvings in order to learn more about the gods and goddesses.

The Surya Kund contains several platforms and terraces, which include numerous small shrines. This stepwell was much easier to descend into, and particularly to ascend than was the Rani-ki-Vav. The Surya Kund would not provide relief from the heat as the Rani-ki-Vav does since the platforms and terraces are more open to the sun.

Modhera Sun Temple. Rear Shrine hall: Front Assembly hall.

Ahmedabad

Ahmedabad, situated on the banks of the Subarmati River is the largest city in Gujurat, is named after Sultan Ahmed Shah, who founded the city in 1411. Ahmedabad was an important business centre during the Mughal period, and was home to Mahatma Ghandi for several years. His home is now a museum, the Subarmati Ashram. Ghandi arrived in Ahmedabad in May, 1915. He started spinning at the Ashram in 1918. “The spinning wheel and hand-woven cloth or khadi gradually became emblematic of Ghandi’s economic, social and political ideals. He believed that the demise of handicrafts and cottage industries, in particular the art of spinning, had led to the decline of village life..” (Ghandi, Peter Ruhe, Phaidon – page 68).

The Ashram was far from serene, with large number of people viewing the interior and many more relaxing in the grounds on the river bank. Not a place for quiet contemplation

Ahmedabad is India’s first World Heritage City. A heritage walk through the old quarter of Ahmedabad showcases the various architectural styles, which blends Hindu and Islamic influences including Islamic monuments, and Hindu and Jain Temples. The carved wooden houses are unique, and athough one should not covet thy neighbour’s ox (or whatever), I certainly coveted these houses.

The streets in the old quarter provided the opportunity to observe day to day life in that area. People in temples and at shrines, women making bread, a woman ironing and cows and goats milling about.

I was a little startled to observe a palanquin, covered by fabric to ensure the occupant was not able to be observed, passing by. It reminded me that Ahmedabad has a large culturally significant muslim population. It occurred to me that if I had a palanquin when I was a teenager in a gossipy New Zealand village it would have saved me from those lace curtain twitchers in that village.

A palanquin passing by.

The Sidi Saiyyed Mosque is a beautiful building, built in 1573. It has an exquisite Tree of Life stone latticework covered window, the beauty of which adds to the architectural splendour of the mosque.

Having “collected” photographs of doors in many places I have visited over the years, I managed to add to my collection in Ahmedabad.

The Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad contains superb textiles dating back to the 15th century. It was founded in 1949, and contains a magnificent collection of antique and modern Indian textiles. Even a most unpleasant bossy attendant did not totally diminish the experience, but she certainly did not make a wise career choice.

The creativity and imagination which is invested in the making of Kathputti puppets and the narratives the puppet shows tell results in a visually exotic experience, even though not a word of the story was understood by me. The actions of the puppets occasionally gave some vague idea of the story, such as a snake being pursued, or retribution of sorts for a recalcitrant.

Kathputti puppets are made of wood and are very brightly coloured. They have sharp features, and “speak” in a high pitched squeak.

Attending the performance outdoors with a background of large trees, watching puppets and humans perform, was a fitting finale for my visit to Gujurat.

I hope that visiting Gujurat was not a once in a lifetime experience. There are a lot more stepwells to explore.

(**Note: One of the Rann Riders guests who provided the Mir women with design assistance and materials, and assisted with marketing, is Carole Douglas of Desert Traditions in Australia. Carole is a textile and arts expert who has been visiting Gujurat for many years. Her company organises small tours to Gujurat, (and other places) and can take textile and embroidery lovers to visit many artisans homes and businesses which tourists do not generally get to see. Desert Traditions believes in and practises sustainable tourism. Carole can be contacted at http://www.desert-traditions.com

Desert Traditions can also be found at face.book.com/deserttraditions and on instagram.)

Photo Credit – Carole Douglas of Desert Traditions.

Gujurat India: Part 1

Gujurat India: Part 1

Kutch – North West India.

Bhuj, Bhujodi, The Banni, Hodka, Bhirandiyara, Kala Dungar (Black Hill), Rann of Kutch, Lakhpat, Mandvi,

I have been fascinated by India for as long as I can remember. It was not the British Raj that interested me. I was appalled to read about that history. Rather, it was Mughal India, and before, which fired up my imagination.

I had little specific knowledge of Gujurat prior to my visit. The State has so many historical sites, ranging from the Indus Valley Civilisation, Hindu and Muslim pilgrimage sites and Buddhist caves, a Unesco world heritage city and sites and more.

The Kutch District of the State is famous for its handicrafts, beautiful landscape, The Great Rann of Kutch, beautiful beaches and lots of animals. I am generally more interested in historical and archaeological sites and art and architecture than in handicrafts, textiles and embroidery, but I have to say that visiting artisans in their villages, watching them at work and seeing the exquisite embroidery, watching master weavers and viewing the finished products is an experience I will never forget.

Bhuj

Bhuj, the administrative centre of Kutch, is an interesting town to explore, due in part to damage and destruction by earthquake and the subsequent rebuilding, making for an interesting mix of architecture. Great loss of life and property occurred during severe earthquakes over the past 200 years – (16 June 1819, 21 January 1956 and more recently 26 January, 2001).

The streets of Bhuj are teeming with activity, filled with colour and fun to walk around. Cars, trucks, tuk tuks, motorcycles and bicycles weave around cows, goats and pedestrians.

From Bhuj it is possible to become immersed in a large area of Kutch.

Village visits.

I felt very privileged to visit artisans at work in their own villages. Watching the Masters of Weaving and the women working on traditional embroidery and seeing the finished products had me (almost) wishing I could create such beauty. My attempts at handcraft have never produced a thing of beauty and have always ended the life of the planned item prematurely.

The finished products created by the artisans using traditional skills are many and varied. Colourful, beautiful and functional. I did get to try my hand at creating a pattern with woodblocks. I rather enjoyed choosing woodblocks and stamping the fabric, but the finished product was not fit for purpose.

The people in the villages were very welcoming and friendly. The experience of sitting in their homes, observing the way they lived their day to day lives, enjoying music and most of all meeting all the beautiful children was a very happy, thought provoking experience. Life in the villages is far from easy, and I hope that these beautiful children are able to obtain an education. The women and little girls were all dressed magnificently. Their clothes were works of art.

The Banni, Kalo Dungar and the Great Rann of Kutch

A day trip from Bhuj to Kalo Dungar provided a day of visual splendour and the opportunity to experience sights, sounds and sunsets which were unforgettable.

The distance from Bhuj to Kalo Dungar is around 89.8km. Every km offered something of interest, be it people, animals and landscapes. The road crosses the Tropic of Cancer – pathetic I know, but I always love to cross borders and boundaries, and photograph the signage if possible.

Kuldip Gadhvi at the Tropic of Cancer

We were very fortunate to be accompanied on this entire trip by Kuldip Gadhvi, the owner/operator of Kutch Adventures India (**see notes for more information). It would be very hard to find someone more passionate and caring, with a such an extensive knowledge of the history, environment, people and places of Kutch. Kuldip is committed to sustainable tourism and cares very deeply for the environment. He is welcomed and respected by the artisans, which makes for a great experience for those visiting.

The Banni Grasslands spread over an area of around 3847sq metres. The Banni has an arid grasslands ecosystem, with high salinity. Vegetation is sparse. Kuldip explained that the grasslands are under pressure – for example by overgrazing, and invasion by a non native, thorny shrub/tree. Cows cannot eat this invader, and are being replaced by buffalo. Droughts are common, which increase the salinity. Human induced climate change adversely affects the area, as it does the world over.

For a tourist from a relatively wealthy country, it was very humbling to see the Maldhari (shepherds/cattle breeders) herding their flocks from their settlements in the morning, and then herding them back in the evening. The sunset was spectacular.

I enjoyed stopping at truck stops by the side of the road for a refreshing Chai.

I am not a tea drinker, but sitting at this truck stop, watching the tea being made, and observing people going about their daily lives, and truck drivers enjoying their chai, I discovered that actually, tea could be delicious.

Kalo Dungar is the highest point in Kutch – 462 metres above sea level – and provides sweeping views over the Great Rann of Kutch, a salt marsh in the Thar desert covering around 7500sq km. Visually, initially, this area looked like the sea. Looking over the area from Kalo Dungar, towards Pakistan took my breath away. This vast expanse of “nothing”, which in fact is not “nothing” was awe inspiring.

I love water buffaloes, goats and pigeon houses. So how good was this day to provide opportunities to see each of these in addition to all else.

The buffalo were enjoying their morning – beautiful creatures. I have always loved goats, and had never seen such varied markings and colours. The goats pictured are just a small sample of the many I saw – just love the spotty eared goat.

Lakhpat

Once a great trading port on the Indus River, Lakhpat declined after the 1819 earthquake caused the Indus River to change its course. A port no more. In addition, the loss of the river meant crops could no longer be grown.

I love historical forts and castles, especially those which are are more or less deserted. The walled city and fort at Lakhpat fitted my criteria for a most desirable place to visit, so I was very much looking forward to exploring it. The fact that Lakhpat is only 30km from the Pakistan border made the visit all the more exciting.

The visit turned out to be interesting and fun. Climbing up onto and walking along the northern city wall, looking out over the Rann towards Pakistan provided panoramic views. It was very difficult to visualise the Indus river flowing past this wall, busy with boat traffic bringing goods to trade, with rice crops growing around. What once was the river is now part of the Great Rann.

Here, the loss of the water source was caused by an earthquake. The consequences for this area were severe. How much more of our land is being laid waste by human activity? If we wish our grandchildren to inherit a sustainable life, governments and major polluters must act with a great deal more urgency to reduce carbon omissions. Farming must be sustainable. We must stop massive land clearing. The consequences for the world – and not just a part of the world, will be catastrophic if we do not. Our grandchildren will not inherit a sustainable life.

Remains of numerous old houses, some of which would have been quite grand, give an idea of what Lakhpat once was.

Some religious monuments have also survived. An octagonal shaped tomb built from black stones, with intricate carved stone decoration was built for Ghaus Muhammad, a sufi saint, who died in 1855. The tomb stands out starkly in the landscape. Unfortunately the door was locked – the view of the tomb through the keyhole was less than optimum. The five domed mausoleum of Sayyed Pir Shah Dargah, built from white stone also stands out. It also has beautifully carved stone decoration.

Mandvi

I was very interested to visit Mandvi, an ancient port, the home of a 400 year old ship building industry. Smaller boats, such as fishing boats are now being built, but in the 18th century the ship building yard could anchor and repair up to 400 vessels.

Boats are built in the same way as they were hundred of years ago – the skills are passed down the generations. The shipyard is on the banks of the River Rukmavathi, which flows into the Arabian Sea.

Glamping at Mandvi Beach was a highlight of my stay at Mandvi. I love camping – glamping takes it a further level, especially when the location is on the shores of the Arabian Sea. I was very keen to conquer yet another body of water – by conquer I mean to swim, or paddle, somewhere I have not been before. I was not disappointed. I loved the accommodation, and paddling in the Arabian Sea added another special experience for someone who grew up with the Pacific Ocean to the east of the country and the Tasman Sea to the west. Lets face it, paddling in the Arabian Sea sounds a lot more exotic – and in reality felt a lot more exotic.

Gujurat is “dry”. That is, alcohol is not available, well that is unless you are a tourist and obtain a Liquor Permit. I am very proud of my liquor permit, which is stamped into my passport. I had stocked up in Bhuj and had a bottle of some dubious white wine with which I intended to chill, and relax with in my tent. Well, chill was not possible, but its amazing how good a warm, second rate white wine can taste when drinking it in such an exotic environment.

A magical experience was dining at the beach, accompanied by a most interesting presentation from Kuldip about Hindu gods and goddesses. I had only really heard of a very few of them (Vishnu, Lakshmi, Shiva and Ganesha, and Ganesha was the only God I could recognise), and was not aware of what they all stood for, so I learnt a lot from Kuldip. Sheer magic, dining beside the Arabian sea, after listening to stories of the gods and goddesses as darkness slowly descended.

Mandvi was my final destination in Kutch, and I was sad to be leaving. An adventure never to be forgotten.

**Notes: Kuldip Gadhvi has won awards for Responsible Tourism. Kuldip can take you to “Explore colourful culture, communities, crafts and off the beaten trails of Kutch Gujarat with Kutch Adventures India” (from Kutch Adventures India website https://www.kutchadventuresindia.com )

Kuldip and his family also operate a homestay in Bhuj – Desert Adventures, which is a wonderful home, very comfortable and ideal for anyone who wishes to experience genuine Indian cooking, and a meaningful cultural immersion with a friendly happy family.

Finally, some images from the Aina Mahal, an 18th century palace, now museum in Bhuj.

Alexandria – Egypt

Alexandria – Egypt

Driving into Alexandria from Cairo, we became entangled in a traffic jam of immense proportions. A 20 minute drive became a 2 hour odyssey due to a tram coming up a one way street in the wrong direction. It was excellent – a walking pace tour of parts of Alexandria which would not be normally undertaken, which provided an interesting view of the daily lives of the people in that part of Alexandria.

We were staying at the old Cecil Hotel on the Corniche, with sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea. The Cecil Hotel was built in 1929 in the old Colonial style, and its guests included writers such as Somerset Maugham and Agatha Christie. Winston Churchill had been a guest, as had Al Capone. (I draw no comparisons.) The Cecil was the residence and headquarters of Field Marshall Montgomery, the Commander of the Allied Forces in Egypt during WW2.

My Uncle Bill (Winchester) had been in Egypt during WW2, with the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and I recall his complimentary views of Montgomery. So much so, that my cousin Kay had a guinea pig called Monty, named after the Field Marshall. This called for a drink in Monty’s Bar.

Uncle Bill was responsible, I am sure, for my early interest in exotic places. Not that I heard him talk about Egypt much, but a photograph of him with the Pyramids at Giza in the background made me determined to visit Egypt one day. It took a long time, but Egypt was worth waiting for.

The Cecil Hotel had featured in several books I had read. Lawrence Durrell’s books, “The Alexandria Quartet,” set in the 1930’s, made frequent references to the hotel.

I wanted to see what Justine had seen while waiting in the Cecil:

“gloved hands folded on her handbag, staring out through the windows upon which the sea crawled and sprawled, climbing and subsiding across the screen of palms in the little municipal square, which flapped and creaked like old sails.”

William Dalrymple first came to Alexandria, he said, through the pages of the Alexandria Quartet. He visited Alexandria in 1994, and in his book “From the Holy Mountain” he makes reference to the Cecil Hotel, and Justine (p376):

“I can see across Saad Zagoul Square to the Hotel Cecil, where Justine first makes her appearance ‘amid the dusty palms, dressed in a sheath of silver drops, softly fanning her cheeks with a little reed fan'”

The glamour, sophistication and intrigue, so well described by Durrell had long since disappeared. No Rolls Royces, no apparent assignations and definitely no Justine. The old birdcage lift was still there, the marble staircase still looked very grand, but overall the Cecil had the feeling of fading grandeur, with rather sad looking red velvet curtains and rather outdated decor, but that did not diminish my romantic view of the hotel, nor the pleasure of staying there. I could visualise myself, as Justine (in my dreams!)

My room did not have sweeping views of the Corniche or the Mediterranean. Rather, the view resembled that described in “Miramar” by Naguib Mahfouz (1967)

“From my balcony I cannot see the Corniche unless I lean over the railing. It’s like being on a ship. The sea sprawls below… the Sea. Its guts churn with flotsam and secret death.”

The New Zealand Soldiers apparently had quite generous leave entitlements, and they travelled a lot. I like to think that Uncle Bill visited Alexandria, and perhaps walking along the Corniche, strolled past the Cecil – maybe had a drink in the bar.

An evening stroll disclosed some interesting looking street food – including shavings of palm trunks. The starchy pith of the trunks are set up like a large kebab, with pieces shaved off as required. There were numerous fairy floss vendors, but the highlight of the stroll was sharing a shisha in a side street – apple flavour. Once I got over the initial coughing fit, it was a most pleasant experience, and with the call to prayer echoing around us, it was very atmospheric.

Leaping into the unknown.

Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great (on the site of an earlier Egyptian settlement called Raqote), has been described as a melting pot of people from all over the ancient world. In addition to Egyptian sites, the city contains Graeco-Roman archaeological sites and monuments, as well as modern sites commemorating ancient sites such as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Qaitbey Fort – the latter, it is said, built in part with the stones of the Pharos Lighthouse.

The Catacombs of Kom el Shuqqafa.

Young males in Cairo and Giza were constantly trying to sell postcards and little souvenirs. I had my first experience with the female version at The Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqqafa in Alexandria. The girls were a lot more ferocious than the boys, and they had streamlined the process by not trying to sell anything. They wanted money. Just as I thought I had shaken them off, they would pop up in another part of the Catacombs. The Catacombs were eerie enough, without half a dozen young girls surrounding me in a corner, pulling at my clothes and demanding money.

The Catacombs are apparently the largest Graeco-Roman necropolis in Egypt and date from the 2nd century AD. They are considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. The three levels of the underground tunnels were cut through solid rock and contain rooms and burial chambers. I found the combination of different cultures on the figures carved into the walls – ancient Egyptian gods for example, with Roman and Greek dress – fascinating.

Pompeys Pillar and Serapeum

Pompeys pillar has nothing whatsoever to do with Pompey. Well really, why would it? The pillar, 30m tall, was erected in honour of Diocletian in 297AD, and is the only ancient monument left standing in Alexandria. The Serapeum is located near Pompey’s Pillar, and Pompey’s Pillar came from the Temple of Serapis. After the temple was razed to the ground, on the order of Theodosius in 391AD, only the subterranean part of the Temple survived. The subterranean part of the Temple contained the temple library, which included religious texts.

The Great Library of Alexandria and Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The Great Library of Alexandria was among the most famous libraries in the ancient world. It supposedly contained works of many great writers, including Homer, Plato and Socrates. The library was established in around 295BCE, probably by Ptolemy I. The library was destroyed by fire – allegedly started by Julius Caesar in 48BCE, although he was not actually intending to destroy the library. Rather, he was trapped by Egyptian ships in Alexandria, and he ordered his men to set fire to the ships. The fire got out of hand and destroyed the magnificent library. Well, that is one story, among many.

No archaeological evidence of a great library has been discovered, and its location is unknown. Was there such a library, or is it a myth? “Even though the papyri themselves have not survived, the legacy of the libraries is attested through the scholarship of such writers as Apollonius of Rhodes and Aristophanes of Byzantium, who both served as directors of the Great Library.” (Thank you Dr Melanie Pitkin.) There are numerous imaginary images of what the Great Library may have looked like. Looking at the first image below, I wonder how the scholars found anything. Perhaps there was a Dewey decimal equivalent for the papyri.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a modern library, was opened in Alexandria in 2002 – a very beautiful building, circular and tilted and built alongside the circular harbour. The reading room, stepped over seven terraces can accommodate 2000 readers. The library’s focus is on storing and and preserving digital information, although it can house up to 4 million books.

I could have happily settled myself on one of the terraces in the reading room, reading, thinking and dreaming.

Not only is this a library. It contains museums, a planetarium, a manuscript laboratory and showcases contemporary Egyptian art. A truly exceptional place. The images below are some of the items of contemporary art on display when I visited.

Qaitbey Fort and Pharos Lighthouse.

The Fort is a 15th century defensive fortress, built by Sultan Qaitbey to defend Alexandria from the advances of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks still managed to invade Egypt, and they used the fort. It was severely damaged during the British bombardment of Alexandria in 1882, and has undergone many repairs and renovations. Today, from a distance, it looks rather like the kind of sandcastle that very clever sandcastle builders erect or a toy lego castle. It is however impressive, contains a mosque and offers splendid views.

I have never managed to build a sandcastle which remotely resembles Quaitbey Fort, but clearly it is possible.

Kom al-Dikka

In the centre of modern Alexandria, a semi circular Roman amphitheatre was discovered under Kom al-Dikka (Mound of Rubble), when the site was being prepared for a housing development in 1965. Luckily for humankind, the Alexandrian authorities and developers are not the same species as are found in the city in which I reside. The amphitheatre would not have survived in my city, and consequently the rest of the site of what was once a busy Roman city would not have been uncovered.

The Roman amphitheatre at Kom al-Dikka is the only such theatre in Egypt and dates from the 2nd century AD. There are 13 tiered rows of seats, and some mosaics can still be seen on the floor. Great imagination was required to imagine the concerts, lectures and plays which would have taken place in the theatre, due to the proximity of modern blocks of apartments surrounding the site. It was necessary to find a spot where the modern buildings were not so visible to ignite a little imagination. Maybe it would have been easier if it was possible to sit on the seats – alas, forbidden.

There are remains of imperial baths and cisterns on the site, and houses in the domestic quarter, with the remains of mosaic floors. The villa of the birds, as its name suggests, had mosaic floors featuring birds. There is also a mosaic floor featuring geometric designs and floral motifs with a panther at the centre.

Alexandria is elusive. The modern city is Egyptian, yet its past, the melting pot of many civilisations from the ancient world, seemed to permeate the city I visited. C.P. Cavafy’s poem, “The City” encapsulated my feelings about Alexandria perfectly.

“You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,

find another city better than this one.

Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong

and my heart lies buried like something dead.

How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?

Wherever I turn, wherever look,

I see the black ruins of my life here,

where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.

This city will always pursue you.

You’ll walk the same streets, grow old

in the same neighbourhoods, turn gray in these same houses.

You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:

there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.

Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,

you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.” – C.P. Cavafy – Translated by Edmund Keeley.

Hastings New Zealand – early settlers

Hastings New Zealand – early settlers

James and Mary O’Neill (Tyne)

Many people of European descent who were born in New Zealand after it became a Colony of Great Britain in 1840, have ancestors who made the long voyage by sailing ship to start new lives. I published the story of my search for Irish ancestors, among whom were James and Mary O’Neill, on this site on 7 December, 2019. travelwithgma.wordpress.com/category/ireland

This then is the story of their life in New Zealand.

The family embarked at Plymouth for transshipment to New Zealand on 29 September,1877, on an assisted passage, at a cost of forty nine pounds sixteen shillings. James and Mary accompanied by two daughters Mary aged 5 and Bridget (Delia)aged 3, arrived in Napier on 4 January 1878 on the Renfrewshire, after a voyage of 97 days. Their son Edmond, aged 17 months, died of diarrhoea on the voyage on 31 October 1877, and was buried at sea, in the vicinity of the Canary Islands. Five other children died on the voyage.

Renfrewshire (Picture held at State Library of Queensland 49708)

It is hard to imagine what daily life on the ship was like. The Renfrewshire does not look big enough to have carried 204 passengers plus crew and cargo – 300 tons of cargo were unloaded in Napier.

After such a long voyage, the family must have been looking forward to disembarking. According to the ship’s master, “when the Renfrewshire arrived at the Port of Napier, everyone was in complete health, and … all on board were up, dressed, and ready to go on shore.” It would have been very disappointing to find that the ship had been placed in quarantine because of an earlier outbreak of scarlet fever on board, and that they would not be disembarking for up to another 21 days. The ship was provided with fresh provisions, and arrangements were made for friends and family on shore to communicate with the ship.

Prior to disembarkation, all of the passengers clothes and possessions were fumigated. Mary would have been very busy, as “all the women then had to wash all their clothes and bedding after fumigation”.

A petition was drawn up by the Renfrewshire immigrants, complaining of being wrongfully detained in quarantine in Napier and was presented to the Minister for Immigration at Wellington. James and Mary must have signed the petition, as it was reported that all of the passengers had done so.

I imagine that the family was somewhat overwhelmed, still no doubt mourning the loss of their son, finally being disembarked to the Park Island quarantine station on 17 January, 1878, after 13 days in quarantine. The Barracks Masters book records show their arrival at Park Island, and fortunately for the family, their departure later the same day. The immigrant’s luggage was loaded onto drays to be taken to the Depot, and immigrants “were marched all into town to the Depot.”

The records stated that they were to go to a “friend’s residence in Napier.”

The Napier James and Mary would have seen on arrival. (Images – Alexander Turnbull Library Wellington)

Several of Mary’s siblings had already arrived Napier. It is possible that, on leaving the barracks, James and Mary stayed with one of them.

James was initially employed by Thomas Purvis Russell, a land owner at Woburn, Waipukurau. Woburn Station comprised 25,737 acres in 1851 – much larger than any farm James had worked on in Ireland. The Station ran sheep and cattle, and had 5 horses. The first sheep were merinos, imported from New South Wales.

In around 1878 Woburn was being cleared from a wilderness in which Maori hunted pigs, snared birds, fished Lake Hatuma and planted scattered patches of kumera and taro. A very alien landscape for James and Mary, who had been living around the Ballingarry area in Ireland.

Ballingarry – the area in Ireland where James and Mary lived before immigrating. Mary’s father and grandfather had farmed in the area.

The photographs from Woburn Station are held by the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

James worked as a labourer and had the responsibility for the transport of timber to outlying areas and goods and supplies from Napier. James work involved ploughing and it is recorded in the Hawkes Bay Herald (24 June 1880) that James O,Neill was placed third in a single furrow ploughing competition for which he received a prize of a guinea (one pound one shilling). There is a small cottage near the woolshed which was formerly used for accommodating workers which dates from the 19th century. It would be similar to the house James and Mary and their children lived in.

It is not clear how long James and Mary lived at Woburn. Their son Martin was born at Woburn in January 1880. They had at least four more children, all born in Hastings – William 1882, Margaret (Maggie) 1884, Catherine (Katie) 1887 and Johanna 1889. Johanna died in 1890.

James attended a land auction for the lots in a plan of subdivision of the Township of East Hastings, held at the Criterion Hotel, Napier on 4 September, 1879. The owner of the land being auctioned was Thomas Tanner. James purchased Lot numbers 69 and 70 for 34 pounds. Lots 69 and 70 were in Karamu Road, on the corner of Avenue Road East. The address was 301 Karamu Road, Hastings.

Above: Early views of Hastings.

James built a house, stables and depot for his carrying business on the land. Initially water supplies were difficult, with daily supplies carried from Heretaunga Street. James is said to have transported timber for his new home in the goods he carted from Woburn to Napier/Hastings. The home remained in the family until 1940 when it was sold to NZ Railways for development into a bus depot. When the house was demolished in the 1940’s it was found to have been built with wooden pegs and had roof trusses which were screwed together.

James and Mary O’Neill’s house – 301 Karamu Road, Hastings.

James established a successful horse and cart carrying business in Hastings. He held the lucrative Royal Mail contract, for which he used an express cart. When he was joined in the business by his son William, a further low cart was was used for general cartage. James and William were well known for their contribution to the operation of the Hastings Volunteer fire brigade. Their horses were available to pull the appliances, and when not required were left to graze at leisure in the streets. It was a well known joke that firemen not only had to put out the fire, but also had to find the O’Neill horses afterwards.

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James O’Neill, near Railway Station.

James was prominent in the Hibernian Club in Hastings, which held its preliminary meeting at Kelly’s Hotel, Hastings in 1884. He occupied all of the offices in the Hastings Lodge. He was active in the Hastings Volunteer fire brigade and supported his sons in their involvement with the Rover Rugby Football Club.

The Hastings Parish of the Catholic Church began in 1882, and James and Mary would have been parishioners. A new Church was opened in 1895 which James would have attended, as did his children and great grandchildren. I took my first communion in that Church, and spent many unhappy hours there. The only part I understood was the sermon, as the mass was said in Latin. I did love the building though. Many family weddings and funerals were held in this Church. Sadly the Church was destroyed by fire in 1992, 100 years after the foundation stone was laid.

Church of Sacred Heart, Heretaunga Street, Hastings.

We are left to imagine what Mary’s life was like. From the hardships of the voyage to New Zealand, to life that would have been very challenging at Woburn and then to a home in Hastings where initially the water supply was difficult and having babies every couple of years. To add to the burden, Mary, to assist with family income, was kept busy as a midwife and in general nursing duties. In 1892, already suffering from consumption, she developed influenza and died on 20 April, 1892. Pity the older daughters -Mary and Delia, who became responsible for the rearing of the family.

James died on 10 July, 1920 at home in Karamu Road. His obituary can be found at Hawkes Bay Tribune July 10, 1920.

Headstone – Grave of Mary, Johanna and James O’Neill. Hastings Cemetery.

James left an estate of 1100 pounds. Probate of his will dated 5 February 1913 was granted to Denis Murnane, farmer of Meeanee (James brother in law, who married Mary’s sister Johanna in 1880) and his son William O’Neill. (Will and Probate record on Archway Archives New Zealand). Among his bequests was to his son William of “all his horse harnesses, carts and other conveyances, horse food, horse covers and all other plant and implements used for and in connection with my carrying business.”

Acknowledgments:

Garry O’Neill, grandson of James and Mary for information about Woburn Station, and oral family history: M.B. Boyd “City of the Plains – A History of Hastings” published 1984 – page 125: Knowledge Bank – Hawkes Bay Digital Archives Trust – many references: Hastings Library.

Mt Ararat: Noah’s Ark

Mt Ararat: Noah’s Ark

Myth, Legend or Historical Event.

I grew up with the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, reinforced by the Nursery Rhyme “The Animals Came in Two by Two”. At that time it sounded like rather a nice thing to do to save all the animals. Clearly I had not thought about the very unpleasant notion of killing all the people.

My world was small – life and education in a country village in New Zealand/Aotearoa was limited. For many years, the history and geography of Britain was just about as close as I got to the world beyond our borders. Mt Ararat, and where it was geographically was well beyond my comprehension.

I always enjoyed the picture book illustrations of Noah and his Ark, and the animals. I love the iconography of religious art illustrating the Noah’s Ark biblical story. It is most interesting to follow the evolution of Ark inspired art over the centuries.

Over the years, I had occasionally read of searches for Noah’s Ark on Mt Ararat, and elsewhere. Despite various claims that remains have been found, there is no evidence to support any of the claims. It was not until I travelled to Armenia and Eastern Turkey, and saw Mt Ararat that I became more interested in the story of a great flood.

Armenia

Travelling through the Caucasus, Armenia was the place from which I first set eyes on Mt Ararat. I shall never forget that first view. Very blue sky, not a cloud in sight, with this beautiful snow capped mountain rearing into view. A somewhat embittered Armenian guide made it quite clear that Mt Ararat was Armenian – even though a redrawn border following the Treaty of Moscow and Treaty of Kars in 1921 resulted in Mt Ararat being under Turkish control.

Mt Ararat could be seen from almost everywhere in Yerevan it seemed. Even my hotel room provided a panoramic view of the mountain. The view in the morning was accompanied by coffee and the evening by wine. Sitting on my balcony enjoying some excellent Georgian wine watching the mountain fading away as night fell provided a perfect start to the evening.

Listening to some members of the Yerevan Opera singing at the Zvartnots Temple provided one of those spine tingling moments of sublime beauty – viewing Mt Ararat through the archways of the Temple while enjoying the singing made for an unforgettable morning.

The Armenian guide’s complaints of historical wrongs inflicted on Armenia were never ending. Her bitterness tainted the narrative – she was unable to impart the historical facts in a dispassionate manner – quite understandable, but not for a tour guide.

It became obvious though that Mt Ararat is a revered symbol for Armenians, not just the sour tour guide. The centre of Armenia’s Coat of Arms includes a depiction of Mt Ararat with Noah’s Ark sitting on top. There were Noah’s Arks everywhere, from ornaments to beautiful wooden toys.

Mt Ararat featured in numerous ways commercially, including Mt Ararat Brandy/Cognac. As a cognac lover, I can vouch for the deliciousness of Mt Ararat cognac. A private tasting at the Ararat Brandy Factory provided the opportunity to taste 5, 10 and 20 year old brandy.

Eastern Turkey

To view Mt Ararat in Eastern Turkey I visited Dogubayazit, which is approximately 15km from Mt Ararat and 35km from the Iranian border. Driving south from Kars, as we neared Dogubayazit Mt Ararat appeared in all its glory – again, as in Armenia, not a cloud in sight. We couldn’t stop at the best viewing point – apparently over the previous few months, tourist vehicles had been attacked by young men armed with heavy sticks.

Our hotel in the town had a huge mural of Noah and his Ark on Mt Ararat. Other than that there seemed to be no commercial acknowledgement of the biblical tale. Mt Ararat was visible from many places during both days we were in Dogubayazit. Lunching at a spot with the mountain reaching far up towards the sky in front of us, it was impossible to visualise it being under water.

Dogubayazit is one of the few places I have visited where I was hesitant to go out on my own, especially after the story of young men attacking tourist vehicles, and the delightful Turkish archaeologist’s comments that Ataturk’s reforms had never reached this far eastern part of Turkey. That is, men still had multiple wives, and it was not unknown for women, while cleaning windows, to fall to their deaths. There were also stories about Dogubayazit being a marketplace for drugs coming from Afghanistan.

The hesitancy was brief. I ventured out after dinner. There were very few women out and about, and those who were were pretty much covered up. I felt perfectly safe

Flood Narrative

I began to think about the flood narrative after seeing Mt Ararat. I had not seriously believed that there was a Noah to whom God commanded to build an Ark. It seemed practically quite improbable that all the animals on earth could fit in the Ark along with their food and water. Is the narrative in Genesis literally true, or was it just a mythological story? Could there have been a historical event behind the story contained in Genesis?

Many cultures have a great flood story, but only two are similar to the biblical story. The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Epic of Atrahasis, both of which were passed down orally before being recorded, and both pre-date the biblical story told in Genesis.

Each of the stories have a god who decides to punish humankind by unleashing a flood. The Noah character (Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh and Atrahasis) were warned, and told to build a boat. The dimensions of the boat differ – the Mesopotamian boat was to be round, or maybe square, and to be a reed boat. Noah’s boat proportions, described in Genesis 6.14-16, resulted in either a box shape, or a ship shape, depending of how the dimensions in Genesis are interpreted. No matter what the shape of the Ark was, all have similar characteristics – a door, stalls, several levels and a window among others.

Replica Noah’s Ark, Kentucky – The Ark Encounter.

The extent and duration of the flood differs from 7 days, 6 days and 7 nights and 150 days. The reasons for the god’s desire to destroy humankind varied between the sins, noise and overpopulation.

The resting place of the boat also differs. Genesis 6-7 has the Ark coming to rest on the Mountains of Ararat. Gilgamesh favours Mt Nisir (Nimush). Mt Pir Omar Gudrun, in Iraqi Kurdistan, is thought to be the Mt Nisir of Gilgamesh. The description of the end of the flood is missing from Atrahasis, so it is not known where that boat landed.

Mt Ararat is the favoured landing place of Noahs Ark. There is a slight problem however. According to some archaeologists, Mt Ararat was formed after the “great flood”. Biblical scholars have pointed out that God did not refer to Mount Ararat, but to the Mountains of Ararat, in an area called Urartu (Hebrew equivalent of Ararat) which could mean that the Ark came to rest somewhere in the Land of Ararat.

The Abrahamic Religions have similar Noah and the Ark narratives. The Old Testament in the Bible is much the same as the story in the Hebrew Bible, and both have the Ark coming to rest on Mt Ararat. The Quran also has a similar story, although The Quran, Sura 11.44 has the Ark coming to rest in Judi.

I have not provided any references, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this is a travel blog, not a research paper, and secondly because translations have differed so much over the centuries that for each of these stories there are several different versions. The bible I looked at was the King James version. My copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the 210 version published by The Folio Society, and translated by Andrew George.

Atrahasis and Gilgamesh were inscribed on clay tablets with cuneiform script. The Gilgamesh flood tablet, and part of the Atrahasis flood tablet are in the British Museum.

Conclusion

I believe there was, historically, a great flood. Archaeologists have found evidence of such an occurrence. There are numerous theories about the cause of a great flood, many of which do not favour the view that (a) God was the cause. I am more inclined to believe the non god causation.

One thing I am sure of is that travel, for me, provides a great deal more than the pleasure of seeing and experiencing different countries and cultures. It motivates me to research the history of the places I visit, ancient and modern.

A Possible Home Town – A third possibility – Heart and Soul

A Possible Home Town – A third possibility – Heart and Soul

London

Having concluded that I don’t really have a home town (in) travelwithgma.wordpress.com/2022/02/15 – it was suggested to me, by Dr Jody Thompson, that there could be a third possibility for claiming a place as a home town. Dr Thompson suggested that maybe a home town could be where your heart and soul I had previously concluded that a connection to a place where I had not lived was not sufficient for that place to be my home town. Nor could I claim the place where I grew up, because I hated that place with a passion.

Being a “head” person, not a “heart and soul” person, I had not considered the possibility of a home town being where my heart and soul was, although I had referred to London as my soul city on occasion.

I knew London well, long before I visited it. Growing up in a country colonized by the British, the school curriculum was very anglo-centric. Kings and Queens of England and the history of Britain were taught, rather than the history of New Zealand-Aotearoa. It was as if the history of Aotearoa only commenced with the British invasion. Geographic features of of Britain were familiar. Our reading books were generally set in England, written by British writers. Enid Blyton made Cornwall pretty familiar, Peter Pan bought Kensington Gardens to life.

My Nursery Rhymes were set in London and other areas in the UK. I was very happy to finally hear the bells of St Clemens (of oranges and Lemons fame), London Bridge (is falling down), York (The Grand Old Duke of York), and many many more.

Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury writers made Hyde Park Gate and Bloomsbury familiar. My first visit to the British Museum did not feel like a first visit. I had read about and seen images of a lot of the items held there.

The British Royal Family were revered in New Zealand – possibly because of the percentage of immigrants from the UK. Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London were constantly pictured in newspapers and magazines as were Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and of course members of the British Royal Family.

My ancestors mostly came from the UK, (Ireland, Scotland and England, with one outlier from Portugal.) A lot of my English ancestors were born and lived in Southwark, London after their migration from Suffolk a couple of hundred years ago. I have previously written about my search for Uk ancestors – see travelwithgma.word.press.com/2020/02/09

I was an adult when I first visited London. The red double decker buses, with destinations such as, for example, High Street Kensington, Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street and Regent Street felt familiar, as did all the major landmarks. I was quite at home in London. I have visited London on numerous occasions, with new discoveries on each visit. Threadneedle Street, Poultry Lane, the various Royal Parks, Dulwich Gallery, Frederick Leighton’s House and the Wallace Collection.

I lived and worked in London for a couple of years. In some respects it felt like coming home. I lived in several different areas in London, so got to know those areas very well.

Mayfair

My first residence was a little apartment in Bruton Lane, Mayfair – joy. Bruton Lane was off Bruton Street, a few steps from Bond Street. Berkeley Square was at the other end of Bruton Street.

There was a mock tudor pub on the corner of Bruton Street and Bruton Lane, the Coach and Horses, which is apparently the oldest building on Bruton Street. The food served in that pub was excellent. A picturesque pub, serving good food and only a minute walk from home was a delight.

I have very happy memories of a visit from NZ cousins while living in Bruton Lane. We decided to go to dinner one night at a “restaurant” in Berkeley Square (A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square). We did not realise that the second floor restaurant which we had noticed was the dining room of a private club. The receptionist looked a touch startled to be confronted by 3 people, one on crutches, not dressed in accordance with the dress code, asking for a table. To her credit, she let us in, and didn’t tell us it was a private club. Pretty cool for Mayfair. I don’t recall what we ate, but I do recall cousin Ken asking the waitress if she had heard many nightingales singing. She looked blank. You know Ken said, “A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square”. She was too young to remember a song written in 1939.

We were actually at Morton’s Club, which had a magnificent view overlooking the length of Berkeley Square, from north to south.

Middlesex Street

I then lived in Middlesex Street (Petticoat Lane) for a few months. Hearing the Cockney accents as the traders set up their stalls was quite surreal. I had not previously spent any time in this part of London. My explorations were an adventure. Spitafields market and Brick Lane with its Indian Restaurants were a quite different experience.

Putney Bridge

My longest time in an area was at Putney Bridge, in a beautiful Mews House in Church Gate alongside All Saints Church, Fulham, beside the River Thames. The tower of the church dates back to 1440. The Bishops Park and Palace in Southwark was over the back fence. I frequently walked or rode a bike along the Thames Path, sometimes cycling as far as Richmond.

The graveyard at All Saints came alive in spring. A host of golden daffodils appeared. Wordsworth’s Wandering Lonely as a Cloud came to mind every time I saw them. Although the graveyard did not contain ten thousand daffodils, those in the graveyard “tossed their heads in sprightly dance” and although “my heart with pleasure filled” I did not actually dance with the daffodils.

The second and third floor windows of my Mews House looked out over All Saints and Putney Bridge. The view over Putney Bridge was ever changing and I never tired of looking at it. Morning mists in winter and at night, when it was lit up with red London buses travelling across it provided the loveliest of visions.

I could have climbed over the back fence into the gardens of the Bishops Palace in Fulham, but I resisted the temptation, and walked to the entrance. The gardens are the second oldest botanical gardens in London, and contain riverside gardens and a walled garden. I spent a lot of time in those gardens.

Sloane Gardens, Sloane Square

My final residence in London was an apartment in Sloane Gardens. Sloane Square and the Kings Road provided much entertainment and interest.

How good was it to be able to walk to the Chelsea Flower Show. This was the year Mary Reynolds became the youngest person to win a medal. She created the Celtic Sanctuary.

It was from this location that I was dragged kicking and screaming back to the Antipodes, bound for Botany Bay.

Fortunately for me – it was not “farewell to England forever”. I visit London at least annually, sometimes for up to 3 months. During these visits, I have become familiar with Islington, Primrose Hill and Richmond. When my flight arrives at Heathrow, I feel as if I am home. I don’t feel like that when my flight touches down at Sydney on my return. It takes me weeks to recover from my my return.

What is it about London which makes it a contender for my home town of the heart and soul? Is it possible to claim a town as a home town on the basis of heart and soul?

Growing up in London would have provided a totally different life than the life I experienced in London. Post war London looks pretty grim. Rationing was still in place. Post war, a little village in New Zealand showed no signs of the destruction London experienced. There was no rationing. The air was fresh and clean, and the rivers were not polluted.

What did London have that I would have found far more to my taste than what was offered by life in a village in New Zealand?

I have always loved cities. I was always in my happy place in a city, be it a small city like Hastings (which I attempted to appropriate as my home town), or better still, Auckland – when we arrived in Auckland in summer, I used to wind the car windows down (yes, wind) to smell the melting bitumen. Very evocative for a kid from the country where the roads were not sealed.

Visiting the Auckland Museum was one of the pleasures to be had in that city. There were shops, a lot of shops. The Farmers Trading Company, with a rooftop playground was a little paradise. There were lots of people. The anonymity of living in a city would have been so much more to my taste than the curtain twitchers reporting on my every move to my parents.

Living in a small village provided little exposure to culture. The first ever live performance I experienced was attending a performance by the World Famous Hogarth Puppets at the Municipal Theatre in Hastings. I was entranced – not just with the puppets, but with the whole experience. The Art Noveau interior felt very fancy.

Municipal Theatre, Hastings 1937: Spanish Mission style with Art Noveau interier.

The New Zealand Ballet Company came to Putaruru once. I can’t remember what they performed, but I do recall the thrill of “going to the ballet.” Attending a performance of Lay Bayadere at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden a lifetime later, bought back the memories of my very first ballet attendance in Putaruru.

The only musical I ever attended in Aotearoa was a performance of My Fair Lady in Auckland, in about 1961. I have never forgotten the magic of that night. Travelling to Auckland, dressing up and attending a plush theatre (well plush after the corrugated iron picture theatre I attended), and savouring every moment of the performance.

Live music performances were almost non existent, unless you can count one of the West boys playing a guitar and mouth organ simultaneously at the local hall.

Compare these cultural experiences with those available in London. I had a friend who had grown up in London at the time I was living it a little village. Coincidentally, she had lived around the corner from my house in Putney Bridge, so the Fulham Bishops Palace, park and garden were in her back garden. She went to the theatre and attended concerts. She visited the British Museum. The movie theatre she attended was not made of corrugated iron. She frequented the wonderful royal parks and gardens. London was always her home town, despite not having lived there for a long time.

If I had grown up in London, I would very happily claim it as my home town, but I didn’t grow up in London. I am sorry Dr Thompson, the head has overruled the heart and soul – I could not in all honesty claim London as my home town, but I rejoice in the fact that Charlie, the newest member of the family can claim London as her home town.

A comment on My Home Town blog (published 2002/02/15) has provided me with a home town. “Allover” is my home town. Thank you mitchteemly.

Mosaics: Villa Romana del Casale – Piazza Armerina, Morgantina, Sicily.

Mosaics: Villa Romana del Casale – Piazza Armerina, Morgantina, Sicily.

Sicily has a rich and varied history due to the various civilisations which have occupied it in the past. In antiquity Sicily was settled by the Phonecians, the Greeks and the Romans. Ancient ruins are abundant, some still in excellent condition.

As a mosaic tragic, I was on the hunt for Roman mosaics, and so was very much looking forward to visiting Piazza Armerina in Morgantina to view the remains of a Roman villa.

The Villa Romana del Casale is an example of a luxury Imperial Roman Villa, containing late Roman mosaics dating from around 4th century CE. The mosaics are said to be among the finest Roman mosaics in situ, due to their artistic quality.

The site became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997.

The mosaics are very well preserved due to being covered in mud, from landslides and floods over the centuries. All of the rooms in the villa contain mosaic floors, unusually even in the servant’s area and utility rooms.

The rooms with particularly interesting mosaics include the Ambulatory of the Great Hunt, The Room of the Gymnasts, and the Room of the Fishing Cupids. That is not to say that the other rooms are not interesting, such as the mythical scenes, including the Labours of Hercules, but the mosaics were similar to numerous other sites.

Ambulatory of the Great Hunt

The most impressive in my opinion was the Ambulatory of the Great Hunt, which is a corridor having a length of about 60 metres. Romans conducted these great hunts to capture exotic birds and animals, which were later shown at the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum in Rome.

The left side of the corridor depicts various hunting scenes. The animals and birds being hunted and captured are in Africa and are being loaded onto ox drawn carts to be transported to the port of Carthage to be loaded onto sailing ships.

The central part of the corridor shows a basilica, in front of which are animals being unloaded at the port of Ostia.

Towards the right of the corridor, a sailing ship can be seen in the Port of Alexandria, Egypt which has an elephant and a bison being driven on board. Animals such as dromedaries, tigers, hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses were also captured in the Nile Delta.

Tiger cubs are seen being captured in the final section of the corridor, along with a griffon lured by a bait inside a box. There is also a lion killing a wild donkey.

The far end of the corridor a girl is depicted holding an elephant tusk, representing India, a phoenix and a tiger.

The Room of the Gymnasts

In 1959-60 a mosaic identified as the Room of the Gymnasts was excavated. Over the years, the mosaic has been identified as the “bikini girls” – I prefer to describe them as the gymnasts. The gymnasts are engaged in various sports, including a jump with weights (the weights looking very much like the weights we use today), a discus throw, a cross country race and a game with a ball.

Room of the Fishing Cupids

This room was a dining room. The cupids utilise several different methods of fishing, and can be seen with nets, fishing lines, a harpoon and a fish trap. The sea is teeming with fish of different kinds, including what looks like a dolphin.

A villa and colonnade can be seen in the background.

I had arrived at the Villa much later than planned – it was seething with humanity. The mosaics are viewed from walkways, which were so crowded, it took a Herculean labour (the thirteenth labour of Hercules) to actually view the mosaics properly. It was beyond Hercules efforts to obtain photographs which could possibly do justice to the mosaic floors.

Moral of the story – get to the Villa early, and do not become distracted by anything – even a travelling companion falling down and breaking a rib. Just get a cab and go.

Capri

Capri

Chiesa San Michele, Anacapri

Churches in Italy never fail to impress. Architecture, paintings, sculpture, mosaics, history and so much more.

Chiesa San Michele has something I had not previously seen in the numerous churches I have visited. It has a ceramic floor of Majolica tiles, called the Garden of Eden. Dating from 1761 there are approximately 1,500 tiles showing Adam and Eve as they are expelled from the garden. Leonardo Chiaiese was the craftsman who created this masterpiece, depicting the serpent in the tree, the expulsion and some of the most glorious animals described in the bible.

Facade of the Church of San Michele, Anacapri.

To properly appreciate the entire floor, it is necessary to climb up to the gallery.

View from Gallery.

Having viewed the entire floor, I then descended down to the ground floor to examine the floor in detail. My favourite animal/creature I think was the unicorn, closely followed by the elephant, the camel and the owl.

There is, of course more to see in Chiesa San Michelle, but the majolica tiled floor is unique – the art and general decor is secondary.

Looking over the majolica tiles toward the altar.

Capri is so beautiful, has so much to offer historically and is so much more than just the blue grotto. This church was an unexpected delight.

Wittenoom – Pilbara Region, Western Australia.

Wittenoom – Pilbara Region, Western Australia.

Long Weekend Visit from Perth

The Matriarch, from New Zealand was visiting the Bro and Gemma in Perth, and so I came over from Sydney to join the trip to Wittenoom.

Wittenoom is approximately 1,409km from Perth. Driving time, just over 15 hours. Who, in their right mind, would drive for around 30 hours for a long weekend.

Happy to report that not being in my right mind resulted in a magical journey.

First day was to be a relatively easy drive. We were spending the night in Kalbarri, about 573km north from Perth, which took around 6.5 hours to drive. Kalbarri National Park deserves more than an overnight stop. At the time we visited, there were over 700 varieties of Banksia in the park, and numerous varieties of birds. The beach gorges rose dramatically from beach level. The soaring coastal cliffs towered above us to the east. Behind us, looking west, the Indian ocean lived up to descriptions of wild, with large waves smashing onto the shore. A few hardy people were surfcasting from the beach, sometimes barely visible through the spray from the surf.

Second day was to be a rather longer drive – 762km from Kalbarri to the roadhouse at Nanutarra where we were staying the night, before the shorter drive to Wittenoom next day.

The landscape changed quite dramatically, the further north we headed. River gorges, scrublands, dry riverbeds, lined with eucalypts surviving on the water below the surface, to remote mostly arid flat landscapes.

Carnarvon, the only “town” between Kalbarri and Nanutarra provides a green oasis in the desert. The Gascoyne River flows through the town, providing water for crops such as banana. The river was not flowing – apparently it only flows above ground for about 120 days of the year. The irrigation pipes and pumps lining the dry riverbed go below the surface into the river flowing below.

The views of the Murchison River gorge along the road north from Kalbarri required frequent viewing stops to admire the river gorge cliffs, bushland, and the river below. Since our visit, two skywalks have been constructed, which jut out from the top of a cliff. The views from the skywalks would be even more spectacular than those experienced by us, though I find that hard to imagine.

Nature’s Window – Murchison River below.

We had planned to stay at the Nanutarra Roadhouse a little south of where the road inland to Mt Tom Price and Wittenoom turns off the North West Highway. Disaster. We were about 15 minutes late, and unable to let the owners know, so they had sold our rooms on. We had to choose whether to abandon the trip to Wittenoom, and head further north on a sealed road, or drive to Wittenoom in the dark on a mostly unsealed road, in a vehicle with no kangaroo bars.

Wittenoom not marked, but beyond Mt Tom Price turn off. (Photo credit, Nanutarra Roadhouse)

We chose to continue on to Wittenoom. The pub there had rooms available, and it was that area we wished to explore, and to return to Perth on the inland highway, rather than return on the North Western Highway. Driving time just over 5 hours.

So the nightmare began. I have never seen so many kangaroos. They came in from the left, from the right, in droves. I still have visions of kangaroos taking over the world. The Bro had the misfortune to be driving. Passengers were the lookouts – to a point. “Kangaroo left – no another right – coming in from all directions. Slithering and sliding our way very slowly towards Wittenoom, we came across a man near the Mt Tom Price turnoff, sitting forlornly beside a dead car. He had hit a cow (ye gods, there were cows as well as Kangaroos!).

The forlorn one sat between the Matriarch and me. He perked up when he produced a bottle of whisky from his bag and proceeded to swig from the bottle. He did offer the bottle to the Matriarch for a swig. Although she was pretty partial to whisky she declined, on the basis that he need not share!

As we were arriving so late, we had anticipated waking “mine host” on arrival. Not necessary. The pub was easy to locate and was seething. We arrived as a huge fight was taking place between Western Australian road gangs, and Commonwealth Government road gangs. The latter were there during a period of huge road improvements financed by the Federal Government, which apparently annoyed the WA road gangs. As our whisky swigging passenger melted into the affray, the Matriarch staggered out of the car, saying she was totally discombobulated, and needed a bed immediately.

Mine host materialised out of the chaos, and the Matriarch was happily ensconced in her bed in no time.

Wittenoom was established as a blue asbestos mining town in around 1947. The mine closed in the 1960’s. It has been reported that asbestos contamination killed more than 2000 workers and their families.

When we visited, there about 100 permanent residents. The workers houses had mostly been demolished, although a few skeletons still existed. There was no sign of the road gangs when we left the pub to explore Wittenoom and the gorges surrounding it. Possibly nursing epic hangovers.

There was little left in the old Wittenoom township, other than the house skeletons, although there was an artist in residence we were told – from recollection, in the old cinema, or a building beside it.

It is easy to see why the remaining residents did not wish to leave. The scenery around the old township is magical – pools, ponds, gorges, with waterfalls, and beautiful tall white trunked eucalypts.

The Bro and Gemma, Wittenoom

We were keen to explore the Weano Gorge. This required a scramble over boulders, a walk through narrow passageways, with high walls of rocks towering above, and a climb down a knotted rope to the handrail pool. The Matriarch decided that she was definitely not going to do that. She was very happy to stay in the car, reading and knitting.

We got back to the car to find the Matriarch not particularly chilled out. “Do you realise how quiet it is, its kind of creepy. The silence is deafening”. She was even more spooked later to discover that there had been a sniper in this part of the world around this time.

The termite mounds around Wittenoom are huge. Insect skyscrapers.

Red dust is all pervasive when driving in the Pilbara region. It’s not too bad if you are the only vehicle on the road, or your vehicle is ahead of all others. We were doing OK until a truck overtook us. “Eat my dust” took on a whole new meaning. We not only ate it, but that red dust seeped into the car, and even into the suitcases in the boot.

We were returning to Perth on the inland Road, the North Western Highway. Meekatharra was our destination on the first night. A mostly flat desert landscape. We arrived in Mt Newman, wondering where the mountain was. It was no more, it was a sad hole in the ground. We were driving up a road to view the hole in the ground when we were accosted by “security”. “What are you doing here? This is a restricted area.” We were escorted out of the restricted area.

Right to left: The Bro, the Matriarch and Gma at Mt Newman

There are some very long straight roads along the inland highway. Huge road trains traverse the area, but if you lie down in the middle of one of these long roads, you can hear a road train coming from a great distance away.

Left to right: Gemma, the Matriarch and the Bro beside a long straight part of the road.

At dusk, driving along long straight roads from north to south, through flat countryside, we experienced the sight of a wall of darkness moving towards us from the east. It was quite surreal – a dark wall moving inexorably towards us.

Star gazing in the outback provides a whole new experience, illustrating how insignificant we are in the scheme of things.

We arrived in Meekatharra, our overnight stop, in the late afternoon. Driving into the town, we were stunned at the size of the police station – it was huge, and bore no comparison with the size of the town. The accommodation at the pub we had booked consisted of demountables in the paddock at the rear. The pub did not provide meals. There appeared to be nowhere to eat other than a pub that advertised Chinese food.

OK, Chinese food is fine by us. There is a food and wine menu, which looks promising. “Would you like X wine”, no could be see the wine list. Wine list produced. Everything on the wine list other than X was unavailable. Felt like we were part of a Monty Python “cheese” sketch.

Moving on to food. “Sorry, the truck from Perth has not arrived” was the response for almost everything we ordered. We ended up with various dishes which were not reliant on the truck from Perth. They consisted mostly of cabbage, and all tasted the same. Dessert. Well what can go wrong with fried ice cream? As it happens, a lot.

Back to our cozy demountables behind the pub. The matriarch and I have a frog in the toilet. We dealt with that, by scooping the frog out and liberating it, and retired to bed.

We then discovered the reason for the size of the police station. Meekatharra was alive with the sounds of drunken revellers, doing what drunken revellers do best. Driving cars with less than optimal exhaust systems, executing wheelies and screaming, singing and generally making a lot of noise.

Snug in our demountables, we were awoken on numerous occasions by patrons from the pub weaving their way to the car park, and lurching into our little hut.

The distance between Meekatharra and Perth is around 760km, the landscape moving from desert to wheat fields and finally the urban area of Perth. It was an 8 hour drive, and a time to reflect on the diversity and interest that Australia has to offer.

Wittenoom no longer officially exists. The town has been wiped from the maps. No signposts show the way to Wittenoom. In 2006, there were eight permanent residents when the electricity was shut off. Wittenoom was degazetted in 2007, struck from the records and wiped from maps. In 2019 five of the residents were forced out. There was one remaining resident refusing to leave but presumably he will ultimately be moved on.

“Wittenoom”, the place, does exist. The last permanent (white) residents may have been moved on. The aboriginal people of the area who worked in the mines were decimated, but the first peoples are still there. Hopefully this magical area may one day be safe to visit.