2016: preparations.

Preparations for 2016 actually began in October 2015, when I found I’d been accepted for an expedition to a place less people had been to than had been up Everest. Hiking in 4 hot countries with uphill climbs and a jungle river had proved decisive. It was a real triumph for someone of my age but I felt “you’re in the army now!” And got the training going with much more exercise and tapes to grasp the basics of 3 languages. Where was I going? To keep the suspense up more will be revealed….much later.

2016 started with a dire January: flu wiped out much of the exercise and a previous good trading record was marred by a record loss; which set an unshakeable trend of bad luck though the losses weren’t as heavy. The only good thing about January was a good time at my place with the SF book club. It was my choice and my planetary mapwork was appreciated.

Winter in fact was a time of bad luck everywhere and an ending I didn’t need: I would have to go on to blood pressure tablets though at least it was the minimum dose.

Spring brought improvement and change.

After the programming fiasco of the last Easter SF convention I expected very little from its successor in Manchester apart from getting drunk with a few friends. The wet weather seemed to bear this out when I arrived in Manchester after nightfall making the place look like ‘Blade Runner.’ The weather improved though and so did my luck. The only thing this convention was disorganised at was letting programme participants know they were participating in programmes. The result was the best convention surprise I’d had;- finding when I arrived that I was on a panel. On Sunday morning though when the Saturday night drunks were sleeping it off or coping with breakfast. Shouldn’t be a major event then, but the advantage would be it being a laid back affair. Wrong! It was in the main hall which was packed with people – plus spotlights – who’d come to hear the exalted and I was one of them! It was a thoroughly good event but there was more. A creative writer buttonholed me afterwards to discuss a planet he was going to write about and wanted me as consultant. One hears all sorts of ideas at conventions which usually disappear afterwards especially if money is involved. This one didn’t though and I found myself receiving my first payment for consultancy work!

Meanwhile my writing was suddenly making progress. A creative writing lecturer had become interested in my Chernobyl article, a friend of his compared me to Ballard – an SF author it was an unexpected honour to be compared to – and the word was I should be paid for that kind of article. I was invited to read some of it out in person for the great and the good at a university do. Very heartening!

Otherwise Diana – the woman whose acquaintance led to Terraforming Mars for the Chicago planetarium at the turn of the millenium (The Great Martian War) and who was the reason I’d come to live in Rowner – had quit America and returned to Britain for good. Her mother had died, the same woman who’d given me invaluable support in finding my present home and who’d had the idea of saving the neighbourhood from a new housing estate by buying shares. I’d wound up being the only person able to buy them in 2014 and had become a local hero.

I was also looking after a cat. A couple well regarded in SF circles had broken up, the woman was moving into our area. Molly the cat was hers and and arrived amidst a fragrant pong of cat poo. Caught short in transit. I was given a fortune in cat food plus cat litter and Molly became my companion for summer while the woman was going through the throes of buying and selling property.

I’d started indoor climbing and found the blood pressure tablets did not hinder things; including a successful tackling of ‘the pain train’ which was an overhang traverse. I thought the name was that of a punk rocker band.

Then there was the every 2nd year sponsored walk for my special needs school. This time up the ‘Shipwrights Way’ from Portsmouth Dockyard round Southsea seafront then north up through Havant, Petersfield, Liss, Liphook, past Bordon, then finally to Alice Holt Forest and Bentley railway station on its northern edge. There were supposed to be sculptures on the route and I wondered if they were still there?

It was really all part of the training for the great adventure to come so whereas I usually devote several articles to a walk I’m squeezing this one into ‘preparations.’ It was 50 miles long anyway as opposed to 65 and fairly uneventful.

I had a few ice creams hiking along the long Southsea seafront for the weather was sunny and warm with the promise of heat to come. I seem to bring this weather out every time I go on a sponsored walk.

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Southsea also had its museums. The Royal Marines one was handy for reminding me of toughness of spirit and body and what I’d already achieved with that.

The ferry to Hayling Island – where Shipwrights Way went – was closed so I had to remain on the Portsmouth side of the muddy marshy wastes between. By the time I’d got round that I was tired and grateful to reach Havant for it was late. I’d started after 2 in the afternoon after getting the kids home from school.

It was the latest I’d get home for I was up at the crack of dawn for the rest of the journey; catching the first bus down to the harbour then across on the Gosport ferry for the train which would take me to Havant, Petersfield and Liphook just short of Haslemere. North of Havant station was a vast council estate. On the other side of that and clear of it by just a mile was Rowlands Castle: a lovely village around a long green with a Shipwrights way sculpture. Proof that they existed. Very nice breakfast there too; salmon on toast.

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Then it was a long hike up a long dry valley to Queen Elizabeth Country Park on top of the South Downs. Got lost here twice because Shipwrights Way twisted about here and the Park consisted of forest. Not around when the Romans were farming this area I found.

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Eventually there was a good South Downs view with what seemed to be a hanging valley: a landform usually associated with glaciated terrain. See the Lake District and Scotland. The way descended through an overgrown chalk quarry anyway to a lovely duckpond and village; Buriton. Then later Petersfield.

Next day I had off for the new boots I was trying out were wearing through a toe. Later I found the arrangement I had to return them if this sort of thing happened would be reneged upon by the head of the footwear department. Meanwhile the company concerned had got into trouble through mistreating workers. He didn’t like being reminded of that so I took care to hammer him on that target especially! Such is my loathing of commercial crap; regardless of whether it happens to me or anyone else at all.

Next day was a good test of mapwork: finding my way north east from Petersfield along the railway line through varied terrain;- wooded, almost suburban, minor roads and paths but without much in the way of hills.

Lunch was at a pub where I impressed the landlady enough with my endeavor and adventures for her to give me a fiver. First time anyone has donated en route. The only other company was a girl working there and revising for GCSE’s and a local character later who’d had some bad luck rolling cars. I advised stock car racing which was well received.

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The landlady told me to photograph their monkey puzzle tree on the other side of the pub when leaving. Helicopters used it for navigation when heading for army country nearby she told me. I could see why for it looked as tall as a redwood with an umbrella of dark foliage on top.

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Restricted areas lay to the north. What I call army country. The one I trekked along the edge of sat on the steepest ridge since the South Downs, forested with heathland below. The sort of wild looking place that sported danger notices where I wondered if a helpful Alsatian or Labrador had ever trotted back to its owner with a mortar bomb in its jaws?

This was part of the same broken up escarpment which formed Leith Hill too. It was older rock than chalk so in theory one could say it was Dinosaur country too.

After that it was downhill to a well kept pond and estate. I only realised when I reached the gates at the other end it was supposed to be private. Goodo.

I had to wait for an hour for the train back from Liphook.

The day after that I had off for the weather was deteriorating.

The day after that was little better but it was the last day I had.

Not long after leaving Liphook I began to feel I needed the loo. Because it was so early nothing was open so I had to walk miles and miles down the backlanes under pressure – of a sort – until eventually – when desperate – I discovered a leisure centre at Bordon. Even then it was hidden in the centre of a school and the only gents toilet was occupied! Lucky there was a disabled loo next door that wasn’t.

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After that it became a nature walk through woods which were a strip following a stream amidst housing estates it seemed. One of the Shipwrights Way sculptures was there. A toad which seemed to be on silent vigil guarding the limited natural sanctity of the place.

Much of the route from Petersfield had seemed to be a jumble of fields, woods, streams, the odd pond and nature trails amidst houses great and small, on gently rolling terrain.

The ground rose again though to Alice Holt Forest. A little known but substantial forest south west of Farnham. This was where the timbers for the old warships at Portsmouth had come from. Hence the significance of that and Shipwrights Way. The trail I was to follow stretched for 3½ miles through it. Journey’s end was on the other side.

There was a childrens party in there amidst habitations made from branches in a clearing. Then I heard more noise. A whole tribe of council house people were wandering up a trail crossing mine in a small valley. I pressed on ahead of them up to flat high ground where there was comparative civilization: a car park, visitors centre and cafe where I had a good chat with an old couple. My luck was in for while this was going on under cover there was a downpour outside, which stopped when I got going again.

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Last of all? Downhill through the woods to a little railway halt called Bentley station right on the northern edge of the forest. The train arrived and I was on my way home. Except that one stop up the line there was a points failure at Aldershot with only a bus to get us there. Except the one I spotted was going to Haslemere, only one stop up the line from Liphook, a short cut across a big corner plus the chance of catching a mainline train rather than one that stopped at every station! Another sponsored hike successfully done.

After that? There was the disaster of Brexit on June 23rd. Guess which way I voted. But I also hadn’t got any foreign currency by then for the next great journey.

Wednesday 20th July. School’s just broken up for the summer holidays and in a few hours I’ll be leaving. There’s that feeling I often have: of canoeing down a river through a gorge with the current increasing and a great thundering noise up ahead. Soon I’ll be shooting the rapids. Taking off from Heathrow for adventures in strange foreign worlds.

© D Angus 07 16.

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Thailand: last stop before home.

That should be the Vietnam coast down there.

I like looking out of plane windows: a whole new visual perspective on the world. Landscape, geological features, man made features, weather and fantastic cloudscapes. Unless onboard entertainment – such as a good film – provides sufficient diversion. Most people preferred any media thing, or sleep. Sometimes one had to be careful when looking out of a window to avoid being thought antisocial.

There were big regular features down there miles across it seemed; some arrangement of earthworks, hard to tell if they were ramparts or moats or both. That wasn’t Angkor Wat by any chance? We should be over Cambodia. Reckon it was! But by the time the camera was clicking only a small part of it was visible, which didn’t show up on the photos.

Thailand became visible in long strips of fields set in what looked like a huge plain. It reminded me of Poland. The plane was descending towards Bangkok so I got a good look at what was below. Canals seemed to take the place of roads and some, many perhaps, of the fields were actually small rectangular lakes. The fretted grey outline of the city itself was on the slanting horizon now as the plane descended towards the airport east of the city and the fields were turning into industrial or housing estates.

Bangkok airport was huge with a space age design. Despite that I found the meeting point for the lift to the hotel easily. People were helpful and we were soon on our way.

It was a short journey to the hotel but still interesting. There was a motorway with flyovers giving a view of built up and industrial areas just as there are in most countries with big international airports. On the other hand an extensive affair with many pagodas at a corner of the airport resembled a temple, maybe. It was a hotel and restaurant complex. We were also driving under the odd big blue ornately shaped gold embroidered banner erected gantry fashion over the road. At the centre was a portrait of a regal looking lady with statements either side in Thai and English: ‘LONG LIVE THE QUEEN 12 TH AUGUST 2015′. A recent development then. A shrine was also a base for another similarly adorned portrait of her shaped like a giant teardrop. Gold embellishments also adorned poles at regular intervals. Likewise there were statues with the same hue at regular intervals along the sides of the motorway I later realised. Some at least were bare breasted. It conjured up a parallel world feeling. One of the experiences of travel. Some things being surprisingly similar to the world one saw at home, others outlandish or intriguing. Would Britain have developed as differently had history taken a different course.

The hotel overall was in a similar league to the one at El Nido. A modern block, a postage stamp of a swimming pool but there was a dining area with alcohol available and a Thai massage room. My room was a typical hotel room but the bed was more comfortable than those in Indonesia and the Philippines because this Thai hotel at least supplied slimmed down duvets – the best way I can describe them – rather than sheets. Air conditioning by the way worked fine. So did the TV.

The opposite kind of fortune had seemed to await me in Thailand as opposed to the Philippines: instead of a tropical paradise where I’d get high with friends I’d be on my own in a big city, a friend in Thailand being on holiday with his family while I was here. The Philippines had been a disappointment. Maybe it would work the other way round here.

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I was on the 4th floor and so had a good view. Not one of a tropical paradise like in the Philippines admittedly. The neighbourhood was hardly salubrious with ad hoc modern architecture, some industry and shanties and a small sewage farm, I found later. It was still interesting. In the foreground was undergrowth and a big irregularly shaped swampy pond or small lake lengthening into the distance which – for some reason – I thought would be a good place to dump bodies. Later I realised it was an overgrown version of the bodies of water I’d seen from the air. Beyond that was the airport. One could pick off planes landing with photographs.

 

On my first full day in Thailand I started to explore Bangkok, getting a lift from the hotel to the nearest metro station. It was going to be simpler coming back to go one stop further to the airport and get transport from there for walking was hard in the tropical heat.

The metro train here was elevated so one had a grandstand view of the suburbs going into the city. There were more of those city block sized lakes, often overlooked by flats. Maybe they were fish farms.

To begin with I hadn’t a plan apart from getting to the centre and having a look round; but then I spotted a snake centre on a map and headed for that: across a road junction surrounded by skyscrapers and clogged with traffic, down into an underground metro then up again at a corner of a park. There was a small shrine there.

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One would see these shrines all over Bangkok and elsewhere. Looking like miniature temples: beautifully maintained dolls house temples, with gold embellishments and offerings such as flowers and figurines. They’d crop up anywhere from outside a prestigious establishment to a building site outside my hotel. The resemblance I felt they had to dolls houses wasn’t too far from the truth. ‘Spirit houses’ are what these structures were known as. And they were there to house spirits of all sorts: wayward ghosts, local spirits and Hindu deities to name a few, although 97% of Thais are Buddhists. The building site near the hotel was significant too: their chief function was to re-house spirits made homeless by demolition and modern construction, to give the perpetrators the best chance of health, wealth and prosperity! Or the spirits – of the malingering droput variety perhaps – could bring about dodgy consequences. Yes I’m serious! But I’m not explaining this to mock a culture as being rubbish; it’s more in a ‘spirit’ of whimsical humour and delight at the things an alien culture can come up with. My final observations? Weird though it may seem it’s not such a bad idea compared against the absurd excesses of ‘market forces.’ Shame some of this sentiment can’t be used to better the lot of those humans – and other living things – disturbed by developers; whom I hope may be plagued by unappeased spirits.

Onward down a straight road to the snake centre on the right. The entrance was guarded by a herd of small carved elephants on a lawn, beyond that a large pond in front of an imposing building. Part of a hospital complex? I was entering the ‘Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute’ established in 1912, originally to distribute rabies vaccine after a princess had died of rabies infection. It was later placed under the supervision of the Thai Red Cross Society and in 1923 became a snake farm. This lay beyond the imposing building.

Many tourists went there and I was just one of them again but what the hell? I was fascinated by snakes from a very young age: their sinuous shapes and movement, the extraordinary patterns and colours of their scaly bodies and the notoriety of many. There were many snakes here including some of the most notorious and as luck turned out I was not to be completely on my own. Some time was spent with a girl from south London – small world – who kept a few snakes and was just as interested in a place like this.

The structures I noticed most of all amidst the tropical greenery were as follows:-

A high lenghty mesh enclosed space like an aviary; securely thorough in its construction. It needed to be. The ‘aviary’ was actually a King Cobra enclosure.

An intriguing affair under a roof with open sides with a walkways and pits as curved and sinuous as the snakes within.

There was another building beyond with 2 floors of vivarium exhibits and an auditorium with an area walled off by glass. That was where the milking of King Cobra’s took place. A team of white coated staff demostrated this. I’d seen it before while illustrating 4 reptiles in a smaller snake park near Johannesburg: the head of the snake securely held, mouth opened, fangs puncturing the polythene top of the beaker, or funnel in this case. The length of the King Cobra though was always impressive and it was here. It’s one of the world’s largest poisonous snakes, in excess of 13 feet. The Bushmaster of South America rivals it in length and the Black Mamba, though the mamba weighs less; while Diamondback Rattlesnakes may match the King Cobra in weight but not in length.

There were the other notable snakes of this region too of course. The medium sized banded krait, Russels viper, surprisingly small but size is no indicator of potency of venom, certainly in this case. Pythons, tree snakes and water snakes. In some ways the most memorable was a non poisonous snake which could extend most of its length up the glass of it’s enclosure in a ceaseless effort to venture beyond. I couldn’t stop taking photographs.

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The afternoon snake handling show? Okay it was for the tourists but it was spectacular, especially the methods and the close proximity of deadly snakes to people on seats a short way above. The King Cobra was the star of course. It’s banded brown beige length rearing up in regal manner as it faced its admirers with the flattened ‘v’ of the underscales resembling livery. It seemed to strike a pose of formal royal enquiry: ‘You seek an audience? To discuss matters of death?’ The handler catching it certainly seemed to want that: his hand circling slowly over the snakes head to grab it behind. What was to stop the reptile just striking forward? Only animal psychology it seemed.

Other snakes? There were other Cobras, ‘Monocled Cobra’s’ with a single patch on the rear of the hood whereas Spectacled Cobras in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Riki Tiki Tavi’ had 2 on the tops of a ‘V’ marking. There was a snake that was camouflaged to look like a Krait but was non poisonous, like the Coral Snake and the Milk Snake which had very similar markings. The Krait itself was incredibly unaggressive, to the point where the handler could handle it freely; I know it’s odd to think of snakes having temperaments but the Boomslang is reputed to be similar whereas the Mamba is highly strung. Like the ‘Copperhead Racer,’ its snazzy markings like a villian’s shirt, its upper length zig zagged like a spring about to bounce forward and hit the handler with open threatening jaws. Then there was a Pit Viper at home on a small branch, a fragment of its natural habitat; like other tree snakes it looked as though someone had tipped a can of bright green paint over it.

Finally there was the python handling. I couldn’t resist.

Afterward I wandered – slowly because of the heat – around a large park near the spirit house I’d seen; mostly lawn and lakes but with huge tropical trees and stands of spectacular vegetation. Some distance away on the other side of the park was the shrine where the bomb had gone off that I’d seen on TV in the Philippines. I’d no wish to go there; to do so just for the bomb would be ghoulish. This incident became known as the Bangkok Bomb; killing far fewer people than the Bali Bomb. It was still mass murder and personally I’d have no regrets if the perpetrators of such crimes were assassinated by cobras. I particularly felt for one Chinese relative, who had to identify the mutilated bodies of his entire family!

It was easy to get back to the airport. The terminus the other way had the suggestive name of ‘Bang Sue.’ A district of accidents and legal complications or – more likely for many I think – the neighbourhood of a very liberated and popular lady perhaps? Suggestive place names are one of the attractions of travel. Anyway it was easy to get from the airport to the hotel too; where I had a good evenings conversation and drinking session with an American couple from Hawaii.

 

Back into Bangkok again after a good nights sleep. This time it was to be a river trip.

I tried comparing the suburbs here to the ones at home around London. The stations on this line at least were hangar like spaces up flights of steps. Residential architecture was more regimented it seemed with an imposing view of pylons beyond. Maybe there were no real upmarket areas between the city and the airport 15 miles to the east, but Google Earth displays similar looking places elsewhere around Bangkok. The houses and flats did indeed look like the Thai version of housing estates with no hills or difference in ground level for relief. On the other hand there was the odd temple – doubtless many of those spirit houses too – and more artificial lakes here. Wonder if it was better to have fishing as a hobby here and if so what would one catch?

Other unusual things? Trees on modern highrises, on a few occasions. While approving of the apparent awareness of green issues I wondered how their root system was coped with? At the other end of the scale was the advertising covering some of the metro trains. Although not a fan of advertising I liked the novelty of the futuristic technology. Alternative Britain again: a juxtaposition of science and shrines.

I got to the river embarkation point and realised that by chance I was witnessing the site of a Bangkok bomb after all! Or to put it accurately the one that hadn’t killed anyone. There were 2 bombs and the one not exploded at the shrine went off under a bridge at the landing stage I’d got to, Sathon pier, when people were walking over it. The bomb exploded like a submerged geyser giving them a fright and a shower of water, which might even have been funny had it not been potentially lethal.

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The Chayo Praya River flowed through the city like the Thames but it was wider, flowing more than 231 miles from upcountry. Every kind of boat was on it. From sleek palatial tourist vessels to long craft like the one I’d been on in Indonesia, though some of those were as fast as speedboats, sending up a spray from their outboard motors. There was a train of massive barges with a guy relaxing in a hammock on one of them. There were too, many identical boats with ornate roofs on them, like a cross between a boat and a house. One is in the photograph here.

All in the architectural hotchpotch of a 3rd world city: surviving pockets of riverside slums balanced precariously on pole foundations, old colonial buildings, temples like giant embellished bells or with ornate roof structures, the inevitable modern blocks from the ‘Assumption College’ to towering prestigious hotels and a high rise or 2 that was straight out of a science fiction illustration.

The prize though was Wat Arun or ‘Temple of Dawn.’ The name on its own was good enough to go for but from the photos I’d seen it was an amazing structure;– like an colossal gold bell with an ornate handle for its tower. Something like that was a must for an adventurer. Should be opposite the palace and coming up soon.

But as the boat came round the river bend I couldn’t help exclaiming “Oh CRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAPP!!!!”

It might as well be vandalised for there was the ruinous scribble of scaffolding all over it! Just like the Parthenon it was bloody refurbishments all over again. The curse of my adventures. What with the heat I was too demotivated to go to the palace instead – the boat didn’t stop there anyway – and – amidst photography, changes of transport and a meal – made my way back to the airport and hotel.

After a kip to regain strength I went on a wander around the neighbourhood and came across 2 Siamese kittens playing outside a shanty. The family there were pleased to see how delighted I was with them. It took me back. When I was a teenager my family had a dynasty of Siamese cats and I wondered then whether I’d ever get to the country they originated from? Now I’d made it here I their presence reminded me in a comforting way of the adolesence I’d had: long ago in a faraway land I was on my way back to.

 

More or less. I still had some days left and took a bus next morning to Pattaya Beach. Motorway all the way across a plain although there were some hills skirted and palm plantations on the approach to the destination. The driving was better in Thailand than in the Philippines. More like Bali. The Buddhism influence perhaps?

I’d rolled the dice with the hotel picking a cheap one without knowing what it would be like. A base to be endured maybe, until I could return to the relative luxury of the one in Bangkok. Here was a real surprise though for it turned out to be a massive luxury affair with open air lounge, landscaped swimming pool, spectacular tropical plants everywhere. Plus a penthouse type suite for me with open plan shower and balcony with table. A hotel good enough for James Bond and the equal of the one I’d used as a base for the Komodo Dragon adventure. My room was better in fact but for some reason this hotel didn’t have a bar. Not that that mattered much for there were restaurants and stores in the neighbourhood. Of course it couldn’t match the view and sunsets at the Indonesian luxury place either, though the Pattaya view wasn’t bad: a smaller Bangkok with distant hills.

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The only reason I could see for the price being the way it was was the distance from the beach; a good mile if not more. Some distance away from the action. What Pattaya Beach is notorious for was along the beach area in the side streets leading back into town.

Bar girls. Prostitutes. Hardly ideal and undesirable to many. I’m going to disappoint those who expect me to moralise further along those lines though. Sex slaves? To blanket ‘the world’s oldest profession’ with that assertion is like saying they’re all ‘healers’ which is how one science fiction writer described them in his novel. Many are neither though they both exist within the profession. Criminalise the clients? Well along with the slobs and the psychos disabled people would be criminalised and those who’ve been unlucky in love or those whose only crime is being unable to fit into the accepted way of doing things. As for the accepted way of doing things? The puritanical extremes of political correctness and pressures upon one’s time have largely killed off the art of socialising and flirting, isolating many into many lost souls out there. Enough for internet dating agencies to be as numerous as flies around dung, making a killing out of a basic need being frustrated, without truly satisfying that need in many cases, isolating the lonely more than ever. And if one’s going to attack what goes on in Pattaya Beach on the basis of money the whole system needs to be overhauled;- such as material status, mortgage slavery and money problems being a major cause of relationship breakups. I guess I’m probably in danger of being attacked in the quagmire of sexual moralising I’ve got myself into now; but despite sooner being elsewhere to keep my mouth shut would be abandoning the principle of freedom of speech, which I’m dead against doing. My parents were involved in a world war that had something to do with that. So if this attracts the attention of moral fascists out there I can only say:- ‘Go ahead, make my day.’

Well Pattaya Beach held other attractions such as wind surfing, excursions to offshore islands and elephant rides out of town. I chose a mini-expedition through the tropical heat to ‘The Sanctuary of Truth.’ A sanctimonious name possibly but interesting.

The beach itself was a healthy sight in the morning, with a person practising yoga on a stretch of sand clear of people, with a backdrop of windsurfer parachutes out in the bay beyond. There were so many of them.

The northern headland was right by there, with the Sanctuary of Truth on the other side. Hiking off into the back streets around there I found myself passing a forest of condominiums and hotels. It felt like a forest for the buildings were towering and opulent. One even looked as though it had a mosque on top. At another a security vehicle appeared right behind me as I was taking a photo. Well those upmarket towers made for spectacular compositions.

I risked irritating the security profession further by following a lane down to the shoreline and finding myself wandering along the back edges of properties. It seemed to alternate between public and private. Something of an obstacle course but doable so I risked it and wasn’t challenged, getting good shots of people fishing on a quay, rounding a headland and then there it was in the distance on a flat promontory.

Being backlit by the sun gave it a dark look and sinister air amidst the heat and horizontal empty expanses of beach, sea and coastline. Like something out of Mordor in its desert wastes. But the alien spiky look to it reminded me of something else. The castle of the ‘Skeksis’ in ‘The Dark Crystal.’ Surrounding walls resembling battlements could be made out. I was getting into this now!

Getting away from the beach through the labyrinthine levels of a luxury hotel I was able to walk down a lane which went to the proper entrance. A wooded slope was some distance beyond with the temple – for that was what it was – beyond that. The closer I got to it the more intricate it appeared but there was one problem. The racket of my old enemy refurbishments again! There was no sign of scaffolding though.

At the bottom of the slope were wooden carvings of deities and elephants. There for rides, I was tempted but wanted to be careful with money being not far from this Asian oddysey’s end. Besides it would have been a diversion for across a small lake affair was the temple itself which by now looked fantastic. The whole thing looked as though a mass of carvings had taken over a palace, rising in an ornate triangle of roofs and towers surmounted by mythical figures to a point about 105 metres up.

A closer look across an ornamental lake affair revealed refurbishment. In just one corner of this structure. Although it was noisy and there were a few people with hard hats around this was bearable and what I was about to see made one forget about that. I found a workshop as big as a barn with an impressive model of the place – still higher and bigger than people around it – and carvers working away within. Later I learned from a woman who’d lived near Pattaya that it was a never ending job and the refurbishments were part of that.

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The place itself was a vision in the true sense of the word. One of bizarre splendour. As though a surrealist painting had become architecture. Deities, elephants, monkeys, serpents, gargoyles, massive heads. All together and on top of each other. The feeling that it had not so much been carved but grown somehow got out of control inside the temple. It reminded me of the film ‘Alien’ since there was an extruded look about the bizzare chaotic profusion of carvings. Another weird aspect was the wood seeming to have an almost golden glow in some parts and I wasn’t sure whether I was looking at heaven or hell what with the visual impact and the subject matter but I could appreciate – as an artist – the dedication and the work that had gone into all of this apart from which there was the achievement which was utterly fascinating. It was as though they’d managed to solidify a vision of someone who’d been on a hashish trip or whatever. Like, some amazing stuff man! I wondered what one would feel if smoking a joint in here?

No wonder Christian missionaries had been freaked out by this sort of thing. ‘Thou shalt not make graven images’ and so on, apart from the potent competition. The deities consisting mostly of bare breasted ladies didn’t help either although personally I welcomed them as warding off of the evil excesses of puritanism. I really felt as though I was getting to grips with a culture that was truly alien.

It seemed to be mostly Buddist inspired but there was also some Hindu influence in the carvings and because of a tolerant aspect: for all religions and philosophies were regarded as being one way or another to an enlightenment and heaven. Something else to annoy the Christians or Muslims. This place was constructed as a reflection of an ‘Ancient Vision of Earth,’ a manifestation of Heaven on Earth. It’s halls encompassed such things as the Universe, love, truth, even the family.

‘Humans are only dust in the universe and will ultimately become one with it.’

‘Physical beings deteriorate, ravaged by time, but truth and goodness are immortal.’

These were a few of the ‘truths’ I found written here.

Meanwhile one of the many apertures in this place framed the distant manifestation of materialist values: the massive hotels and condominiums.

 

Time to continue my existance before I became dust. If fate or God or whatever would allow me to get home. A bus back to the airport hotel. A night or two there and then the final 2 flights back from the space age airport with massive Thai scupltures of warriors, deities and a golden dragon.

I’d hoped to see the Himalayas but was sitting on the wrong side of the plane as we crossed northern India.

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Eventually there were mountains but they were mostly arid although high enough in some places to have snow. It looked like Afghanistan to me. I hoped not to see a surface to air missile coming up from below.

Much further on the remains of the Aral Sea lay below. A huge abstact of wasteland and remaining lake muted with haze.

There were large squalls verging on storms as we came in to land at Moscow. The need to get photos of the dramatic effects overcame trepidation, over a landscape of forest and pale blocks of flats. A citadel of grey towers in the distance by a storm appeared to be the fabled city itself.

The airport appeared dowdy after Bangkok. More like Manila. But there was a grandstand view of Aeroflot planes and others set against a spectacular sky.

 

The weather at Heathrow seemed also tricky judging by the lights in the night below being obscured by various masses of darkness which must be cloud and the long time it took to land.

I had to hurry to make the bus and wasn’t even in the right terminal, having to take a train and I went down the wrong corridor. When I eventually made the ‘express’ it made a sick joke of its name by doing absolutely nothing for too long!

The bus had just left 5 minutes ago the woman at the terminal told me and there wasn’t another one.

I’ve been on 13 flights and this is the first time” “It’s not my fault!”

Typical. Some staff in my home country have a bad habit of taking things personally and I left before I really lost it with her. 13 flights going without a hitch only to miss the last bus home in this bloody country. Welcome home! Typical!

I had to get out of the airport and grin and bear the cost of a hotel for the night but got into a limbo of traipsing down endless subways and corridors seeking a sign that led to salvation.

The attitude of the staff here didn’t improve. Eventually I came across a knot of them standing in the middle of a vast hall chatting. But they were having their social get together and made a point of completely ignoring me!

EXCUSE ME I WANT TO GET OUT OF THIS AIRPORT WOULD YOU PLEASE HELP ME THANK YOU!”

That should get their attention short of assaulting them! For what that was worth. I was directed back to where I’d come from, landing back at the bus terminal again. Luckily the woman I’d offended had gone home.

Someone informed me of the obvious. There were local buses too and that was all I needed to get me out of here.

The bus deposited me across a dark expanse of main road from the hotels.

The first one was of prestigious size and appearance but seemed to have forgotten – what with that concern – to actually provide a bloody entrance. There was a rear one but I gave this pretentious place the finger and trudged across a dark traffic haunted waste to the next.

That turned out to be the hotel hosting a science fiction convention I’d attended. It seemed as busy in the middle of the night as it would be during the day and there was a long queue but when I got to the desk the black guy and I hit it off. He appeared entertained by my tales instead of offended and my tales became full of humour. Best of all this place was quite cheaper than I’d thought an airport hotel would be so I decided to pay them for a sumptuous breakfast too.

Now for a drink to end my travels and travails at a bar I’d drunk at before with friends at the convention. After that surfing the room TV and the bed for the night was utter luxury.

 

© D Angus 05 16

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Philippines: paradise lost.

I woke up as the plane was landing at Manila airport.

I was on my way to a tropical paradise but I regarded Manila – or rather parts of it – as a circle of hell. It looked like that as the rising sun struggled with choking clouds and was only able to give a dim ruddy hue to the scene: the brightest objects being a few aircraft and the dark blocks of the city silhouetted amidst the gloom beyond.

Here for 6 hours. Mike had thought that unwise. He didn’t like Manila airport and it was one of the less interesting ones around, but I wasn’t bothered, had a relaxing massage – not the bar girl sort but literally a massage – and thought about where I was going.

5 years ago I’d discovered a tropical paradise on the island of Palawan. This pencil shaped jungled mountan range of an island lies between Borneo and the rest of the Philippines. It had been a land bridge connecting both. I’d spotted the paradise on the internet one night when I couldn’t sleep: a land of impossible beauty, of coconut palm coves under fantastic rock formations, turquoise seas crying out to be swam in, coral reefs and so on. It became a who dares wins triumph. After a hair raising 200 mile drive it was not only as good as it looked but a woman travelling in the same vehicle turned out to be a local girl. She and her husband had the hotel room next to me and befriended me. We – and another friend or two – had a brilliant time together and I swore someday I’d return.

We hadn’t stayed in touch but I’d managed to regain contact to find that by a fantastic stroke of luck one of their trips back there was coinciding with my arrival. We would celebrate our reunion and my Komodo Dragon success in drunken revelry at that beach restaurant again with sand under the tables, torches above and the South China sea for restaurant décor! We could go island hopping too again. Absolutely brilliant!

Manila airport had long since brightened into sunny weather with the odd titanic thundercloud by the time I took off again. The spectacular cloud formations were not enough to obscure the azure sea below which matched the sky, apart from small islands outlined by white beaches and the exquisite turqoise of shallow water marking a reef. Turqoise is my favourite colour, reminding me of what was to come.

Puerto Princesa airport was still a landing strip in the jungle virtually in the city but there were signs of it being extended. Puerto Princesa was the biggest town on Palawan, halfway up its length, similar in size to Gosport.

The hotel was within walking distance from the airport. I was shown to the rear past tropical trees to my room, which was large but windowless. Same league as the hotel near the Bali bomb then. No problem, tomorrow I’d be heading north to that paradise.

For old times sake I took a walk around town. Puerto Princesa prides itself on being a city within a forest. The suburbs certainly were. Maybe I hadn’t seen enough tropical vegetation in Indonesia but it seemed more lush, more diverse, more spectacular here. I love exotic vegetation. Everything seemed further though and boy was it hot! Again the water I was carrying was a life saver. The centre seemed the same frenetic scene and I rounded off the day after nightfall with a massive pizza and beer on the rooftop part of a restaurant. Quicksilver geckos on a white wall with creepers made for photos – when you were lucky enough to get them – that looked like designs involving lizards.

The morning of departure and I didn’t have to get up early. When the combi transport arrived it looked smart and professional so with any luck it should be a safer ride than the last time I was here. And I wasn’t on my own. The van was full and a New Zealander and his friend a Canadian in the 2nd row provided good company. We were all set and moved out joining the slow traffic through the north of Puerto Princesa.

Up there was a reminder of dangerous driving with a car upended into a ditch in the suburbs. Soon we would hit the open road.

Then out of the blue a problem pulled us over and killed the progress I was enjoying! Somebody had waited until we were almost out of town before telling us they needed a cashpoint. Why was this our problem? Why didn’t the driver or everyone in the vehicle say ‘well it’s too late now’ or ‘grow up and get organised?’ I tried a furtive few words towards this effect but the consensus was that of dutiful acceptance and a ‘U’ turn to crawl back the wrong way looking for a cashpoint. It was like a dream gone bad.

Those responsible were at the rear: a tall young bearded dickhead with the look of ‘why shouldn’t I have the right to do this if it suits me?’ And of course someone like that is never without a girfriend! The little woman, who for all I knew was the cause of this.

We found a cashpoint at a supermarket and they did their dismal zombie routine with the difficulties of technology while I photographed a dog lying under a truck who – judging by its expression – felt the same about existence just then as me.

I must have been successful in sinking into a state of apathy for we were back on the road for awhile before I realised we were still going the wrong way! “They couldn’t get the cashpoint to work.” the New Zealander informed me.

I can’t remember loathing a couple so much. The reason being that something much more crucial was at stake here than whether I was annoyed or not: life and death.

For Philippine driving can be dangerous. And because of this idiocy our driver would very likely make up for lost time by driving like a maniac up that road to the north. Those two would probably make all the difference between a successful trip and death or serious injury for most of us while they were relatively safe in the rear.

They really made a job of it too. We were obliged to crawl back almost to the centre of town to waste another yawnworthy amount of tme. It was all to no avail when we were finally heading in the right direction. The other cashpoint hadn’t co-operated with those cretins either. With any luck there were no cashpoints where we were going. There weren’t last time.

The car in the ditch was passed; an omen of our very near future?

It was very nearly worse than that! I was absolutely right about the driver making up for lost time. Instead of a ride to enjoy it was a white knuckle one. One place that sticks in my mind was where the New Zealander said “don’t overtake:” on a blind bend with none of the vehicles being overtaken giving way. One vehicle coming the other way then would have meant a dreadful collision! Lives ruined and the end of this story very likely.

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The further north one went the more the driving seemed to settle down or maybe there was less traffic to overtake. Apart from motorbikes and once in awhile something more spectacular such as that crowded bus where they were hanging on to a goat at the rear.

Or maybe the scenery was a balm for the nerves. Almost all forest actually apart from the odd rice paddy, settlement, glimpse of green mountains or the sea. But what forest: lush shades of green rain forest, jungle plants with huge leaves, coconut palms, stands of tall forest giants. Last time I was here they called it the last frontier. Man doesn’t surround nature here like in the UK. It’s the other way round.

We had lunch at a place with a view of the sea just south of the few towns on the route. Almost half way there.

The journey went on to the north. 5 years ago there were roadworks, then a dirt road writhing through the jungled hills to the destination. This time there were still roadworks now and then with tarred road in between. Resurfacing probably.

There had been a mountain across an inlet of sea, bigger than anything else. The Canadian said he’d already seen it. We were getting close. After awhile the sea could be seen to the west this time; almost there. The town was extending southward! Much of it a building site of what would become small modern hotels and the like. The commercial world was catching up with paradise. I hoped it wasn’t going to be for the worse.

We were at the bus station! Previously a bare patch of ground above the town. There was still bare ground but a few service buildings too. Despite another dangerous journey I’d made it back to paradise anyway and was jubilant! I assured people I could make it on foot from here, even in the heat, for the town proper – El Nido – was hemmed into a ½ mile triangle of ground by hills and the sea. It would have fitted into my part of the housing estate I was in back home.

Out on to the road I realised the bus station had been shifted further from the town centre. It looked like ½ a mile to the next bend instead of to the beach; but I footslogged on.

Slowly on my triumpal return I entered familiar territory: the towering limestone precipice on the left, El Nido with its narrow shanty flanked streets had been ramshackle but seemed dingier now, a glimpse of the sea at the end of a street, turn right and there’s the Asylum Bar, very close now to the police station under the big trees opposite the hotel.

I checked in to the same single storey hotel I’d checked into 5 years ago. The room was supposed to be more luxurious than the last time I was here but it was more interesting; seemingly catering for women with flowery arrangements and trashy romantic thriller paperbacks. TV worked okay anyway.

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At the back it was just as it was 5 years ago. Sand underfoot. Hammock, white chairs, fence and entrance to the beach under those palms. Fantastic view beyond. Perfect.

Time for a beer in paradise, up at the little palm thatched cafeteria/bar to the left where one also had breakfast. While there I could see some of those beach restaurant tables along the beach to the right. The ‘Seaslug.’ Where we’d eaten out 5 years ago and where we were supposed to meet, at 7 I thought. A man there looked as though he was waiting for someone. It just might be my friend! It was 5pm now, maybe I’d got the time wrong. Beer bottle in hand I descended from the bar and sauntered along the beach.

It was! The German husband. A good reunion, more beer! They’d checked the hotel register and seen my name there so they knew – barring accidents – I should arrive. We were supposed to meet at 5 after all.

The others turned up. The woman looked younger, I told her. I was re-introduced to the teenage daughter, now in her 20’s, a German relative and 2 children who just been christened. It was all happening quickly now but there’d be time as I was here for 5 days.

For awhile we drank and chatted. Discussing Greece and Syria. Reminiscing about an American at the hotel misbehaving and the police inviting him across the road for a chat.

Then there was a chunk of bad news. There’d be no island hopping. Commercial firms had the place sewn up and although my friends had local contacts none of those could help with trips to the islands. Sometimes I just hate the moneygrabbing commercial world.

Then suddenly it was all over. They had to go home for an evening meal and put the children to bed. Don’t worry they knew where I was. So although the sunset was still fabulous I was on my own with: ‘well, not quite the kind of reunion I’d been banking on.’

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The following day I decided to just relax and plan. There was going to be another meeting late that afternoon. I had another massage. Bona fide parlours were common from here to Thailand I found. I also must have spent some time loafing and swimming at the beach. Unfortunately I also picked up a cold. The kind of bunged up one that’s ongoing.

My German friend was also vulnerable to that he told me, when we eventually met for a beer. It was because the Europeans weren’t used to this climate, although the last time I was here I’d had no problems. Happily there was more conversation: not so happily much of it was about things that were wrong here. There was an increased environmental tax but not even litter bins had resulted from it. This used to be a backpackers paradise but what with that and the boat trips being sown up it had become a centre of commercial corruption. Shit. Just another case of commercial crap imposing itself on everything again. There was though also the violence. I knew that the Philippines could be a violent place but wasn’t sufficiently educated. I’d checked out wanted posters at the police station involving 2 local political leaders: they were both wanted for murder! My friend more than equalled this by informing me that most of his wife’s relatives had died violently and he’d witnessed a murder in broad daylight in Puerto Princesa where someone walked past him and shot a man in front! It was a row over a traffic accident. I’d witnessed the aftermath of one when I’d hiked around town a few days ago. Given the state of driving here there was plenty of scope for more of that sort of trouble.

By the way his wife had to go to Puerto Princesa tomorrow and back again in one day! For a dental appointment apparently. I wished her luck!

Then I was on my own again for the evening except for those unwanted thoughts along the lines of ‘was it something I said?’ It was more likely the need to look after young children – a major game changer – and maybe limited finances too. Whatever the reason things weren’t shaping up like last time and compared to then something was wrong, sadly.

The following day I went on an cruise around Bacuit Bay. On to one of the outrigger boats which were everywhere in El Nido bay like giant versions of insects that lived on a pond’s surface.

Just like last time it was off with a group through a watery gap between the main island and a few domed mountains tapering down to a spike of a headland. Beyond lay Bacuit Bay: a deep wide one littered with small islands or mountain sized lumps of old hard limestone, often jagged, clothed in tropical vegetation wherever it had a chance. The few longest islands, mini mountain ranges, lay to seaward. This was the land of impossible beauty I’d seen on the internet.

Before long there was a casualty though. Maybe the weather was windier than last time for my white floppy hat blew off, landing in the sea. The crew thought it could be retrieved but by the time they’d swung the boat around and returned to the rescue there was no sign of it. Like the clock on Skyros another old comrade had become a fatality of this campaign, sinking into the indigo deeps of Davy Jones locker.

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I got some photos of what kind of heaven this place could be, but there were fewer opportunities than last time when it was sunnier.

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A typhoon was approaching the northern edge of the Philippines, the opposite end of the archipelago from El Nido, but it had the effect of sucking in cloud from a wide region, some of it across El Nido.

And this time I was bringing a cold along. Like a typical British tourist perhaps. When we snorkelled I didn’t seem to be as good at swimming as last time. 5 years older perhaps but there was also the cold.

I was dismayed at the state of the coral. There was a distressing amount of it broken up into fragments although there were still some spectacular formations. 5 years ago there was an odd clump of white coral in an otherwise spectacular alien fish city of a ‘seascape?’ Small fish had been everywhere, each one a masterpiece of design and colour.

After this I tended to give the swimming a miss – unlike last time when I swam at every opportunity – feeling too weak and trying to sunbathe, except it was cloudy when I wanted to.

Back in El Nido I tried to find another hat, settling for a turquoise one in the end.

The following day brought an improvement. I got up early to explore some of the northern tip of Palawan, something I didn’t get round to last time. El Nido was almost there but there was an airfield just to the north of the town to start with. Then more in the way of cultivation amidst the jungle hills.

Transport was a tricycle and driver. Motorbike covered metal sidecar combinations: they were everywhere in the Philippines, often gaily coloured with original names on them: ‘Rich Anna’ and ‘Bam – Kids’ to name a few. The streets of Puerto Princesa were crawling with them and when there was traffic in El Nido it was usually tricycles.

The country going north was more picturesque than spectacular; good for some good shots of water buffalo and egrets in the rice paddies. There was also a long idyllic beach and stretch of coconut palms with rock outcrops offshore that just managed to be islets with trees and even habitation in one case. There was a price on this beach sightseeing though and I realised I was running low on cash.

I hoped it wouldn’t be a problem for an expedition to a waterfall on the way back. Where the English is partial – as it is in the Philippines – misunderstandings occur more easily.

We stopped for a break I thought, by a hut with dog in the road and a pig lying under some shrubbery. By the time I’d photo’d the pig a small wiry lady of indeterminate age was right behind me. She would be the guide to the waterfall. We set off smartly but I still couldn’t get a price out ot the driver for this.

Relax and enjoy: this little expedition which developed into a memorable trek. The first bit involved crossing a jungle stream, or river, depending on what one wanted to call it. Beyond was an exploration of the richness of Philippine plant life: giant bamboo, over a wall into a palm grove, rain forest giants.

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We recrossed the river many times. Boulder and rock strewn it was adding up to the kind of adventure I enjoy. Plus opportunities to take each other’s photos.

My guide was a character. Chatty and strong willed she insisted on holding my hand aloft to ease my passage; as though we were always about to enter a ball as a regal dancing couple. The one time I managed to assure her I was okay and walk unaided I promptly tripped over a root. A source of merciless humour from then on. The way had become hillier with many roots. According to her I was tired and slow. Well I had the cold still but I didn’t feel as bad as yesterday, whereas she’d done this for most of her life so was probably fit in a way that was unknown in the world I came from; where every 2nd person of any age either seems to have something wrong with them, or knows someone who has.

The waterfall when we reached it was small but beautiful in its own way with a handy rock pool to bathe in. Not to be missed in the heat one had to get used to. There was a butterfly there too.

On the way back I took a pictorial record of a small tree with a intriguing bark patterns. It had a kind of small fruit – my guide showed me – like a lemon. If only we lived in the kind of world enabling people to have more time to explore more – at the cost of living rough at least some of the time to suit the environment – to appreciate the natural world.

At the end of the trip though I was obliged to guess the right amount to offer the guide and got it wrong. It was 3 times as much! Luckily I had just enough cash but the damage was done. As soon as she had the money she walked off abruptly marring an otherwise good experience.

My response to the shitty debate about being ripped off or ripping them off and so on ad nauseum is I just don’t like haggling at the best of times and it goes against the grain for me to do it in 3rd world countries where nearly everyone is bound to be a dammed sight poorer than the tourist. On the other hand – although I’m not normally one to interfere in the local way of doing things – the locals here at least might make life easier for everyone including themselves by getting their heads around being clear on price when dealing with tourists. If I have any advice for tourists it’s get a clear price if possible.

Another day another adventure hopefully. I wanted to take a longer boat trip to photo an incredible rock formation in the sea that was so undercut by erosion it almost looked as though it was hovering above the waves! Like one of the islets in the sky creations from the fantasy artist Roger Dean. Trees and a rock structure resembling a roof added to my fantasy. I’d photo’d it 5 years ago but the images weren’t good and this time I still had 2 days to play with.

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The typhoon though had taken up residence on the northern edge of the Philippines and although we were nowhere near the storm itself it was managing to reel in a endless belt of cloud and rain and murk right across Palawan. And another effect of the commercial world muscling into El Nido was a tight control on boat trips. Mine was disallowed. Not that I would have missed much. I consoled myself with the odd photo of the bay misty with rain, like a Chinese print.

I got through one of the trashy novels from cover to cover, loafing in the hammock when the rain was elsewhere, in bed when it was not. There was trouble where I was going as well. A few bombs had gone off in Bangkok, killing 30 people at a shrine.

In the afternoon and evening amidst beers I went on patrol up and down the beach hoping to spot my friends, to no avail. Never mind. Still a day left. Surely they wouldn’t let me go without one last meetup.

The last day was a repetition of the one just gone. Lousy weather. No boat trip. No friends. Maybe there’d been a tragedy on the road to Puerto Princesa but I was never to find out for it was as though they’d just vanished.

It was so different from the island hopping, swimming, singing and revelry in the tropical evenings 5 years ago and seemed to prove what my father had told me about it being a mistake to follow up on a good experience as the 2nd can’t match it. I remain unconvinced believing that to be negative thinking. Attempting to reinforce success in this way involves risk of course but it could even be better the 2nd time or another good memory to help ward off the dross in life we all have to put up with at some stage or other.

There was – however – no getting around the fact that although last time I felt nothing could go wrong in El Nido this time it was a case of nothing going really right.

At least the return drive to Puerto Princesa was okay, the cold had nearly gone and out of the 13 plane flights there were now only 4 to go.

© D Angus 01 16

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Indonesia: here be Dragons!

“I’ve already paid!”…….“I paid at the desk back at the airport!”……..“That was what I was told to do!”

And I was pissed off! Hardly surprising when after a flight across the planet starting yesterday afternoon the taxi to the hotel was – predictably – twice as much as I was told it would be, the driver didn’t want me and took a route through town in the tropical night that – when I got my bearings – I had reason to believe was deliberately lengthy. All this after a long flight when one feels tired and disorientated in an unknown place after nightfall. This was a weak link in my journey through 4 countries. Taxis were usually more expensive than one was led to believe and potential trouble. Mike – a genius otherwise with travel plans – couldn’t understand this and had lined me up for a situation I despised. And as for being accused of not paying; well that was the last squalid straw! The driver was forced to learn fast that I was in the mood for a fight, gave in and left.

The hotel was not a luxury one I’d hoped for but would have been ‘interesting’ in other circumstances. It seemed to be composed of converted colonial bungalows up a back street staffed by teenagers. I knew a few words of Indonesian for courtesy’s sake and they knew more English so one could just about communicate, but that was another problem to be coped with. I was led to my room through a confusion of light and shadow, raised levels, the odd exotic plant and a small swimming pool, starkly illuminated or in black shadow in the hot tropical night.

My room appeared to be one small league up from the Athens hostel. Looking bare with basic old furniture. The TV reception was bad enough for it to be almost as unworkable as the Greek one. At least the room was big with a double bed. Last time I was in the Philippines they just had sheets on beds being a tropical country. Same thing here. So one could actually get cold if the air conditioning was on all night. Another way was by using the shower here which was just a nozzle in the same tiled room as the toilet. I tackled that with humour imagining I was being harangued by Michael Caine;- “Ow can you be bladdy cold you’re in the bladdy tropics fer Chrissake!”

There was no room safe but there was a small cafeteria at the other end of the space I’d walked through. At last I was able to unwind as long as I kept my stuff within sight.

Never mind, the main plan was holding. I’d wondered what the flight was going to do regarding the Middle East and Isis held territory? But the route was south then east across the arid masses of rock that passed for mountains in Sinai and Saudi Arabia, before flying into the night through the Empty Quarter until the plane was over Abu Dhabi, it’s pinprick city lights and tentacles of more light along the outlying highways in the night making it look like a bejewelled organism in outer space. During the long wait there I’d resigned myself to the dead weight of the largely useless laptop in my cabin max – which could have held a paperback – for the whole journey; it resolutely didn’t delete junk emails. Court martial and set a date for execution by hammer on my return then. Onward across India to SE Asia, somehow sleeping while hurtling through the atmosphere 1,000s of feet up until dawn over Java. The volcano that had closed 4 airports in this region had quietened down, the airports were open, so Jakarta airport was okay apart from an obstacle course of customs and security, but there was time for it was another long wait for the plane to Bali; hence the arrival after nightfall. I’d got here on schedule with all my stuff – apart from my old alarm clock which had joined Rupert Brooke on Skyros Island – and there’d been no problem with baggage at the airports. Now for a good night’s sleep before the challenge of tomorrow.

Easier said than done. It sounded as though we were next door to the centre of Bali nightlife: between a karaoke bar and the biggest disco in town. I got to sleep by imagining – then dreaming – that the pandemonium was the awesome WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP of those native drums and delirious chanting when that actress was being sacrificed to the monster gorilla in that film King Kong. Well the film was set near Indonesia on an island off Sumatra and where I was going in the next few days would be the closest anyone could get to that.
Thousands of feet up again the following day; but this time it’s on a propeller driven plane and although it looks gleaming and efficient it belongs – like the one that got me to Greece – to another of the world’s ten most unsafe airlines, giving an Indiana Jones feel to the adventure! Especially as when I get to my destination I’ve got to get to a harbour as soon as possible after checking into the hotel to hassle for a trip to the island. A chancy operation but Mike told me it could be done. There might be an opportunity to arrange this at the hotel anyway. I’d given the whole thing up for lost when the original trip fell through and the price was hiked by $300 dollars so I was doing it now quite literally on a wing and a prayer and there was no guarrantee that I’d find any dragons when I got to the island. Komodo Island. Komodo Dragons. Hence the title of this journal. Yes that was the reason why I was in Indonesia, to fulfill one of my boyhood ambitions – after watching David Attenborough – and have a cracking good adventure while doing so!

It felt like that as the plane descended over steep hills set in an endless sea, very close over one of them to land on Flores;- one of the main long islands along the chain of them from Sumatra to New Guinea, the western end of which was going to be the base for this exploit.

There was an easy link up with the drive to the hotel and on the way the driver told me he could contact a friend who ran trips out there. I was ahead of the game but wanted to check out the hotel.

The hotel this time was luxury jackpot! No trips to the island though so I gave the green light to the driver. His friend came, agreements were made, money changed hands, hands were shaken.

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By the time I’d sorted myself out sunset was on it’s way. Out by the pool with a beer or 2, the sun silhouetting boats that looked as though they could have sailed out of a film, I felt my luck was in!
Up and downstairs in the hotel lobby at the for the rendezvous at 6 am. A few night staff were lounging below the wall TV or asleep on a sofa. Dawn had arisen.

The guy taking me to harbour hadn’t though. The time for departure came and went with no appearance. Don’t panic.

By quarter past I felt the pressure – not of panic but anger – rising inside me.

By half past I was doing something about it by trying to get the staff to do something. Communication – though difficult – was not impossible. The whole thing had been a long shot and I had to hassle hard before the trip left without me.

Eventually a driver turned up to take me to the harbour. The fellow supposed to meet me had had an accident. Now it was a battle against fate and would we still make the boat?

Down at the ramshackle harbour the boat for the journey was still there thank God! But I was the only one going! And the boat itself:-…. Not a sleek tourist vessel but a narrow long craft decked out in blue and pink. I hoped the crew of 2 weren’t as frivolous or were going to kidnap me. Sulawesi island to the north was reported as being unsafe and north of that were the Muslims of Mindanao in the Philippines where the police kidnap tourists, so I’d heard. The guide was a skinny teenage girl, of 17 – she told me later – but the tour uniform and cheer found in tour guides anywhere was reassuring and I’d wanted adventure anyway, which by its nature was supposed to involve risk.

Kchunk kchunk jalopy jalopy jalopy rrrrrrrracket! went the boat’s engine, giving it all it had got to the point of breaking down by the overwhelming sound of it; as the boat edged out of the harbour, edgeways it seemed to me, although that was probably down to where I was sitting, nevertheless it looked as though we were taking on the sea crossing slightly sideways and would we make it without breaking down, sinking or exploding? It was 30 miles each way, littered with reefs and the odd whirlpool, I later learned.

The harbour shrank into its proper perspective astern: dwarfed by the immensity of nature, although the hotel was too tall for its surroundings really. The immensity of nature this time was an emerging moutain range to the south with small islands everywhere and the odd fishing village, one of them had a mosque. 100 million years ago some present day mountain ranges looked not unlike this: a chain of volcanic and mountainous islands emerging from under the sea.

The thrill of adventure took me over. Here I was on a rickety boat in the hands of people I’d never seen before that I had to trust to get me there and back again, through unknown waters. (Well it felt like it.) As for ‘there’ it was the haunt of dangerous – almost mythical – dragons. And not a health and safety official for thousands of miles! Absolutely bloody brilliant!

So was the scenery. Rumpled convoluted hills and mountains of all sizes, some conical indicating volcanoes, or piebald with shadowy valleys, tawny grassland scorched by dark areas of previous fires, stretches of trees and tufts of palms; ascending up to the dark bulk of primeval mountains to the south, all the more awesome with overhanging mountain ranges of cloud. It was easy now to imagine this sort of scene in the Jurassic or Cretaceous.

Here be dragons! There were some on Rinca Island which we were passing now, about the same size as Komodo Island. But Komodo Island had more so the best chance of seeing them was there. And it was further so being the kind of nut I am it had to be Komodo Island.

Not that Rinca should be underestimated. A party of scuba divers had become beseiged for a night on the island by the Komodo dragons there. Further incidents involved an old woman who was bitten on her leg and a guy who actually survived a dragon that had ‘stealthily entered the house and suddenly jumped on to the victim!’

Yes this region was one place where that ancient call to adventure ‘here be dragons’ had some truth to it. Rumours of dragons and a ‘land crocodile’ led to the discovery of Komodo Dragons by Europeans around 1910. They weren’t fire breathing or the size of Dinosaurs but were undisputably awesome animals – whopping big for lizards – and dangerous. The first zoo in Europe to have the honour of exhibiting Komodo Dragons was actually London Zoo in 1927. Since then their spectacular size and primeval nature have made them favourite zoo attractions. The film ‘King Kong’ released in 1933 was inspired by an early expedition to Komodo Island.

And now I was on my way there! We had something to eat and the sea became rough which only added to my delight while the crew and guide became concerned about spray drenching me. No worries I explained: my smile was that of ‘a crazy old man’ who’d refused to grow up and was really in his element now.

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Komodo Island. Like Rinca it was tawny with grassland over sawtoothed mountains. ‘Here be dragons!’ I tried to spot any for it was mostly open country. We were navigating a minute part of the biggest tropical island archipelago on this planet, so one would imagine the scenery being carpeted in jungle but the trees here were mostly woods hugging the shore or clustered up valleys and defiles, with tall mop like palms on the hills. A friend has remarked since that the crumpled terrain spotted with clumps and scatters of trees looked ‘made up.’ Maybe it was a climate anomaly. It looked sufficiently alien for dragons anyway and I even wondered if they’d been ripping up too many trees?

Round a headland was a village beyond a bay. I’d heard that one here was supposed to have a wall of stakes round it to stop the dragons from getting in, just like in King Kong!

There was a long jetty within the bay. I had a perilous moment getting myself and camera over the gap between the prow of the boat and the jetty. A national park existed here to protect the Komodo Dragons and the place had the trappings of controlled conservation: an ornamental wall with sculpted dragons on it, bare tidy spaces under trees and around huts and a lodge with massive photos of the dragons and maps.

There were introductions to a young lad who was a park guide and then the head of the park, at least in that area. I had time to comment on whether there was a wall around the village I’d seen, like in King Kong, prompting laughter from the head which indicated it was folklore for the tourists. Then we were interrupted by someone saying there was a dragon nearby!

It was a very young one crossing a sunlit patch of rough ground, with striking markings in contrast to the duller hues of the adults I’d seen on photos. The size of a monitor lizard and looking exactly like that. Logical since Komodo Dragons are really giant monitor lizards. Oh well – I thought taking the photos – at least you got here and got a result. Very likely wouldn’t see any others though. So that was the joke;- I’d come this far to see a baby dragon.

Further on though was confusion. I was warned to avoid an adult lying across a path! Sure enough I could see a big prone form dozing across a path amidst the dappled shadow of the trees but there was something odd about it’s sprawled posture; indicating it could be stuffed. On the other hand reptiles looking inert to the point of being dead could suddenly move very quickly and these were dangerous animals. It became apparent though that this was a wind up for the tourists.

But then the real thing came round the corner of a hut! Just as long or longer than a 6ft. man definitely, skin like chain mail, the grey bulk of it much bigger than a lizard ought to be, one felt. An adult Komodo Dragon for real! But everyone seemed to take it so matter of factly. To me it was like a Stegosaurus showing up with nobody seeming to care! It was probably there for the mud wallow at that corner with water in it but before long people were getting close to it. It was amazing how close people could get to it. Too close in my opinion.

There had been a lot of argument over whether these animals were actually poisonous. Two glands in the lower jaw secreting proteins inhibiting blood clotting and causing paralysis seem like enough evidence to me.

The Komodo Dragon was a female, I was told. One of the tourists knelt to take a photo of her from the front less than her length away from him. If that animal had lunged forward the way I felt it could have it would have had him! But she just lay there in repose, as though enjoying being admired.

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My turn came and I was motioned closer by the park guide who had a long branch ending in a fork. If I’d have seen the ‘U’ tube I’ve watched since returning home;- of a Komodo Dragon belting after a deer for an astonishing distance I wouldn’t have got as close as I did; but I was to be photographed with a Komodo Dragon, something I really prized. In theory I had more chance of getting away than the foolhardy tourist in front of her for if she became frisky I was near the tail as opposed to the head and it’s not easy for a lizard to turn around. The photo above captures one of the more memorable – not to mention fantastic – days of my life and how incredible it is that these monsters seem to have become so used to people around them. Nevertheless I felt that there could be accidents waiting to happen here.

I lined up the camea on this lady dragon from the side at a safe distance, I thought, intent on getting ‘portraits’.  But before my eye, through the viewfinder, her mouth actually broadened into a smile!  An unnerving experience.  What the hell was going throuh her reptilian brain?  Was she actually pleased or sizing me up as food or even ‘giving me the eye’?!  She didn’t try to attack so maybe I should just take perverse satisfaction in having this effect on an animal such as this.

The park guide, tour guide and me made our way inland. In the bank of a dried up watercourse he pointed out a hole under a tree that reminded me of badger burrows I’d seen in Gosport. Only this one was created by a Komodo Dragon. They retire to their burrows at night to retain body temperature and can stay cool by day within them.

My encounter with a female dragon would have been a good enough result I guess but the story wasn’t over yet when we moved on I found! There was a bridge over the watercourse with another dragon at this end of it! A handful of tourists were milling around again seemingly unaware of the potential danger while another park guide stood guard with another forked branch. I wondered if it could stop this Komodo Dragon for it seemed a bit bigger, stouter, longer. It was a male, I was told.

As we drew close it decided to lurch on to the bridge and I got a rear shot of it with a man on the other side transfixed by the prospect of a great photo of this thing lumbering towards him. A woman who originally had the same feeling gave in to common sense and legged it; also included in my photo of the whole thing. Luckily he got out of the way in time too.

Then there was the ultimate surreal walk of my life! A well maintained path led off into the jungle and this Komodo Dragon seemed to prefer the smoothness of it to the natural habitat on either side. So it started walking up the path with a patient plodding manner, with a steady regular flip of its paws, and kept on lumbering onward, and kept on. While we followed respectfully behind it as it dictated our speed, nobody being foolish enough to overtake. Like traffic behaving itself when a police car’s in front. In a sense it did police me at one spot when it took a short break and I got too close for its comfort. A cock of the head meant “watch it!” I retreated. It’s not every day you get told what to do by a lizard.

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Yes it certainly was surreal ‘being led up the garden path’ as it were, by one of the more dangerous animals on this planet who’d obliged us by taking on the role of an veteran guide with an unhurried casual manner; because he’d led so many dumb tourists before.

After what felt like a long way the park guide drew level with this Komodo Dragon on a space by a flimsy sapling and motioned me forward. I passed with nothing between me and this monster lizard but the sapling and the guide with an inadequate looking stick. The dragon was taking another break lying in the middle of the path and was as close as the door into the room – not a big one – where I’m typing this now. The guides and me got beyond him. Other tourists and guides remained behind.

This walk didn’t lead to more spectacular dragons but there were still discoveries. I’d thought the Komodo Dragon’s main diet was buffalo but it was mostly deer. Now and then we could see them in the underbrush of the dry woodland we were passing through.

We went up a steep hill. Nothing more than a spur of bigger hills and central mountains. There was a good view of the bay though and a name hinting at volcanism: Sulphurea Hill. A dragon had taken a dump there. I was invited to survey a soggy grey/brown ball of a turd with milky issue around it.

The woodland below held more deer, some spectacular palms and tree ferns, but was mostly dry forest: a profusion of bare trunks and branches and little enough greenery for it to begin to resemble winter woodland in England. Except it was hot and we were really in the dry season here. This part of the East Indies is a region of monsoon forest which we were walking through, cloud forest on the mountains and savannah. Photos taken after the monsoon show this country green enough to resemble a island sized park, with mountains and beaches thrown in.

It was in these woods that the 2 guides I was with told me they were really boyfriend and girlfriend. So: my lust for adventure had become the girl guide’s ticket to get over to the island and see him. I approved, for it’s nice when a lunatic enterprise of mine happens to work out benevolently for others involved. Back at the beach I left them alone for a bit by buying a T shirt with a dragon on it.

Again that worrying step across camera ruining deep sea water from a stable jetty to a rocking boat. Made it; but there was one more stop on the way back.

It was snorkelling over a coral reef, a spectacular one. Colours, shapes and size. And every tropical fish a jewel of colour. I couldn’t admire it for long though for the life jacket chafed me raw under both arms.

On the way back I decided to tip the 2 boat crew members to their delight and shaking of hands. I’d already done likewise to the guides. Why not? This enterprise had been run on quite literally a wing and a prayer and had turned out to be a real who dares wins triumph against the odds: a journey across half the planet on a schedule with no margin for error, to hunt dangerous monsters with a camera, with no guarantee of seeing any. I’d seen 3; it had been a good hunt!

It was such a good result that even a theft didn’t mar it. Back at the dock on Flores I took a last photo of the boat, then found the tour guide had made off with my Komodo T shirt which was in her bag. Oh well, I was thinking of tipping her more anyway since she’d been with me all the time; so that solved that problem. Neat! Photos were the real trophies I came for anyway.

And it wasn’t over yet. The organiser who’d had the motorbike accident was there and announced that despite that he would kindly take me back to the hotel on the back of his motorbike! He considerately showed me his injury too, a bloody scrape on the shin. All this while a tropical thunderstorm had built up and was about to break gave a ‘this is getting better and better!’ feel to the situation. I could tough out the rain (Ow can you be bladdy cold you’re in the bladdy tropics) so I tried to get it across to him;- forget the rain! Just drive safely and get me to the hotel in one piece!

It must have worked for although it was a wobbly ride it wasn’t that fast. The rain started but only became a downpour on the entrance drive to the hotel. Like any good adventure there was suspense right to the triumphal end.

The rain was soon over in time for more photos of the sun sinking into the sea while downing celebratory beers to honour what must be one of the more fantastic days of my life. A hairy, cockeyed,surreal and comical cracking good adventure!

 

Back in Bali there was some confusion with the hotel over my lift there from the airport. Maybe Mike had a point after all preferring the taxis. When I eventually got back to the hotel I still had plenty of time to chill out. This included a quick foray up the back street to the main tourist drag and a photo each way before popping back to my quarters. There was some sort of monument to the right at a junction but otherwise it was a crowded garish tourism scene with the odd tropical plant.

 

The plane taking me to the next country wasn’t taking off until well after nightfall on my last day in Indonesia so Mike had managed to line up a one day tour of Bali; an island I’d felt guilty about overlooking in my haste to hunt dragons. For it is a beautiful island.

The trip arranged for me was better organised than the dragon venture, with a rendevous that went according to plan, with a spruced up air conditioned combi. Again though I was the only one going.

The Guide was a Catholic. Indonesia is mostly Muslim. Bali is the biggest enclave of Hinduism outside of India, but it’s a Hinduism influenced by Buddism and ancient beliefs. There’s a religious ritual for everything here but they’re observed more in the spirit of celebration than duty. The Balinese are also prolifically creative. The result is an artistic powerhouse inspired by their religious beliefs.

It’s as though their religion was not only tolerant to other beliefs but a visionary drug if their art was anything to go by. Anything from masonry to fabric was utilised for fantastically intricate and frequently colourful work. The costumes of the Barong dance being a good example with the monster in particular taking on aspects of a LSD induced vision. That was the first example of Bali creativity we visited: a dance which was also a play about the struggle between good and evil. The plot was chaotically entertaining and the ‘gamelan’ orchestra of xylophones, gongs, chimes, percussion and flutes really got one into the atmosphere of it.

To be honest a lot of it was a tourist trap. One was taken to several craft centres where one was ‘encouraged’ not to just admire but to buy stuff. Wasn’t my original plan but it all looked beautifully made and I became interested enough to acquire a shirt of lurid swirling marine colours depicting a kraken in a storm. It actually became very useful for it was a lightweight but distinguished addition to my T shirts to the point of women admiring it, I found. I was less interested in a silver ring but the woman at that craft centre was expert at the hard sell, though she only succeeded at the cost of some haggling, which I was only good at because initially I didn’t want it; but I’m still wearing it. I managed to avoid taking woodwork on board – though it was the same striking standard – being concerned about the trees needed to make a store of woodcraft.

Perhaps I shouldn’t worry. Bali is much more a typical tropical island than Komodo. Though it was city, habitation then rice paddy cultivation as we drove inland one could see lush tropical vegetation where there was the slightest chance for it to grow back towards a jungle again. Then there were the standards here. I’m probably wrong but did the psychology brought about by small temples or offerings to the gods at almost every home help to curb commercial excesses denuding the island of trees? The driving too, didn’t seem bad compared to many 3rd world countries, more laid back perhaps. I’m not normally a fan of organised religion which could be responsible for a lot of evil but maybe Bali could show the world how it should be done if one’s going to have that kind of society.

Then there were the ‘Penjors.’ My internet research has only just revealed the correct name and explanations in broken English. Indonesian flags were everywhere through the outlying suburbs and villages because of yet another festival tomorrow. Along with these were upright bamboo poles outside every house drooping over the road, embellished with ‘coconut, small shrine, snack, fruits, paddy and many more’ so the description goes. Penjors: an example of the fusion of art and religion here, these weird looking 10 metre long lengths of bamboo tree had become religious artifacts through a competition for artistic excellence. They were burned after a month to symbolise a break with anger and emotion. An answer to rioting and crime? Get rid of those urges through ritualised vandalism perhaps?

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The Bali temples could look like fragments of heaven; with tropical paradise vegetation, pagodas and pyramidal roofed structures, exotic statues. One was on a clifftop, another on a great rock set in the sea, another in a volcanic lake. We saw 2 others which were sited at springs; of holy water in at least one case. Water gushed into rectangular pools inhabited by large fish but at certain times of year people bathed there. One of those -Goa Gaja – included a cave, the entrance of which was sculpted into a mouth big enough to swallow the devoted and others.

It was worth noting the sarongs around the statues at the entrance and elsewhere. They were supplied at the temple entrances. The laundry logistics of my lightning campaign had led to me running out of jeans and track suits by now so I was wearing shorts. Not to be advised when touring these parts of Bali. The Balinese often prefer legs to be covered.

One structure kept being repeated: an open gateway between 2 identical edifices scuplted to a greater extent or less on 3 sides of each edifice with the outer side sloped or rounded. By contrast it was sheer and unembellished where one walked through. The guide explained that they symbolised a mystical mountain one passed through.

The volcanic mountains to the north were sacred in fact. Treated like gods with the kind of respect shown to volcanic eruptions. Dead flat to begin with the ground gradually rose towards the volcanic terrain forming the spine of the island. Gullies became surprisingly deep and filled with jungle. More numerous too the further north one went, broadening into valleys, forming ascending ridges between.

Eventually we were on high ground and at a restaurant where I could have a break and a meal. It was a meal with a view. A grandstand view of the volcanic forces shaping this planet.

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Right before me was a panorama of curving escarpment to the left, volcano with barren slopes around which a road ran, including through a village, right in front, large lake under more escarpment and mountains over to the right, rain forest with the odd habitation in the foreground. I had this grandstand view which I could photograph at leisure between mouthfuls of delicious food because the restaurant was sited on the edge of the escarpment which was actually a ‘caldera’ wall; formed when a volcano blows its top off or slumps inward, maybe sometimes both. Either way I was on the edge of what was once a much bigger volcano.

The volcano before me – Batur – was more than one volcano. One on it’s southern flank had erupted the most recently on this side and I could see the lava flows. The guide told me it had erupted in 1922, the year my father was born. Research shows it’s erupted many times since, sometimes every several decades, sometimes through several consecutive years. One last thing: the alignment of this volcanic complex marks a fissure system pointing towards the restaurant where I was.

Furthest to the right – to the east – a great domed cone of a mountain loomed above the clouds and the landscape. Mount Agung. The name means ‘paramount.’ It was Bali’s most sacred mountain and the highest at 3,142 metres. It erupted less frequently than Batur but its 1963/4 eruption was one of the largest in the 20th century with many fatalities.

On the return journey I was shown a cocoa plantation where – on a covered gallery with benches and a view of rain forest – one could sample various high grade cocoa beans and associated foodstuffs. I spotted an old friend: a papaya or pawpaw tree.

We returned past increasing settlement, endless bamboo penjors, motorbikes and a fortune in artistic craftwork stretching across half the island. The guide – impressed with my knowledge of calderas and pawpaws – chatted. I’d overlooked one thing though that had been right under my nose.

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“You know you’re next to where the Bali bomb went off?” No I didn’t! But hang on, there was a monument just to the right of where the backstreet to my hotel came out. So that’s its site! I’d wondered how close I was to that event but somehow hadn’t cottoned on to the monument’s significance. The land plot opposite the monument used to be the site of the nightclub and hadn’t been rebuilt since then.

In 2002 the ‘Bali Bomb’ – 3 bombs including 1 main one – killed 202 people from 21 countries. Most were Australian and there were 28 Britons. The trouble was the force of the bomb igniting and exploding nearby cars, one man remarked back at the hotel. The swimming pool there might well have been used to soak burn victims, swimming pools were. If this horrific crime was intended to stop tourism it’s been a complete failure.

Nightfall. Time to go but there was a problem represented by a youth whose nervous giggle was truly irritating. I gathered despite the language barrier that the car taking me to the airport had left 10 minutes earlier than the agreed time to pick up someone else. Why? But I waited without losing it despite not being sure of when the plane was going. This approach led absolutely nowhere with no result but the irritating giggle. My car was stuck on the main road somewhere. Finallly I made it clear that I was infuriated, took off with my gear on foot, followed by the giggle on a motorbike who caught up with me at the main road. It was jammed solid! But there they were!

It took ages to get out of there but reaching a the huge exotic statue on the junction near the airport was a good sign. When we got close enough to the right building I fled.

The plane wasn’t taking off until the early hours. Strange how arguments at the beginning and end of my Indonesian foray had bracketed what had actually turned out to be a brilliant success! And I was over half way with the 13 plane flights. 6 to go. Next stop: celebrating my success with friends.

© D. Angus 01 16

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Greece: calm amidst the storm.

The hardest part of travel is the first step.

True enough. It was a wrench shutting and locking the front door leaving home for a long journey. Had everything been thought of and done? Oven switched off? I’d checked that everything had been switched off. Doors locked? Likewise. Everything sorted that should be taken with one? Etc. And this was the most complicated journey I – or I and Mike my travel agent friend who’d be looking after my place – had planned. 13 plane flights – a real test of logistics and superstition – through 4 countries and places not exactly safe such as Kiev; luckily the undeclared war had remained in the east of Ukraine. Then there was that Java volcano that had taken out 4 airports – 2 of which I was supposed to be landing at – just as the Iceland one had shut down airports with clouds of ash. A friend called it “Dave’s apocryphal holiday” what with Greece and its economic storm being on the route too.

Also I was trying out a daring concept: travelling light to the point of putting nothing in aircraft holds; feeling that to do so on as many as 13 flights was asking for trouble with delayed or lost baggage. I’d come across ‘cabin max’ bags and although the weight allowance was only 7 kilos it should still be possible to squeeze 5 pairs of shirts, a similar number of jeans and shorts, socks, pants plus toiletries into one. Apart from that there was the large camera bag which in theory would be allowed too. Mike thought I was nuts but I was adamant about nothing going into the hold. I’d wash clothes whenever possible and wear more than one change of them if necessary to get through airports.

The hot climate in all 4 countries to be travelled through worked in my favour: no need for bulky clothing. One plastic mac and light pullover was all I took for rain and unexpected cold.

I needed the plastic mac on the first day, taking the bus and ferry to Portsmouth harbour station under a gloomy Gosport sky through streets drab with rain. Typical of England one can’t help thinking. It was just about the only time I needed it. Then I shared train seats to Gatwick Airport with 2 large ladies – there are a lot of them in this part of the world – plus their children.

At Gatwick the check in wasn’t open for another 3 hours. A dread of arriving too late at airports had led to miscalculation. I relaxed into the evening at a coffee bar with a magazine in an easy chair by a huge window displaying drizzle over a motorway.

Wearing 2 pairs of trousers I got through the first check in when it was time with no problem. The first hurdle was overcome.

Kiev was reached at dawn. There’d been riots here since I’d come to the city with a friend 2 years ago during a non existent spring with dirty great dumps of snow at the airport. Now Kiev seemed peaceful again in high summer, with breakfast in early morning sunlight at a spot in the great length of the departures hall. There was a 6 hour wait and there would be more of those.

On to Greece. Soon the plane was over alternating sea and country that began to look arid. Mountainous too. Had to be Greece.

Greece had been teetering on the edge of economic catastrophe – and dragging Europe with it – for months if not years. Were events waiting until I got there? There were likely to be large numbers of desperate people in Athens and I had a long journey from the airport to my place for the night that I regarded as vulnerable. It was my first time in Greece and one tends to be vulnerable after a long journey or flight to an unknown place – fatigue and sometimes jet lag -and therefore easy meat for anyone up to no good, so I followed a military strategy: seize the initial objective in strength and consolidate: get to the hotel ASAP without going anywhere else then secure valuables, shower, eat, booze, get a good nights sleep. Tomorrow’s the time – when fully rested and wide awake – to get out there and see what you can do. Maybe I was over-reacting but I’d sooner be safe.. and I knew of at least one case where a lady without this approach got lost, asked thieves for directions and lost her laptop to them.

Athens airport in brilliant potent afternoon sunlight, flanked by mountain sized hills . So far so good; despite getting here by one of the world’s most unsafe airlines – I learned later – via a country unofficially at war where an airliner had been shot down.

I’d never been to Greece before. I always tried to learn a few words of the local language of any country I was visiting but the alphabet – being different – didn’t help. It was still surprising how far one could get with the aid of signs at the airport and elsewhere, words similar to English or English adapted from these words: also tone and gestures. Also surprising how many people worldwide spoke a few words of English. The station was easy to find but there seemed to be no directions for Athens or its stations.

I still got on the right train because the airport was a terminus, I realised later. The airport slipped away through arid countryside but could still be seen for a long way because it was in a basin of terrain. After a stretch down the centre of a motorway – just like in America – there was the first change of trains.

Underground into Athens. Stay sharp on the Metro. But it was okay. Not too many people, station names clearly marked in and off the train and commendable maps in 2 scales at each station telling one what was above. One more junction and 2 more stops brought me to where I wanted.

It got more dodgy from then on. The Youth Hostel linked ‘hotel’ was easy enough to find in the canyons of seedy grandeur of central Athens; but a disreputable looking character thought I was lost and attached himself to me while stayed alert. Though the streets weren’t empty they weren’t crowded so he didn’t seem to have an accomplice.

He drifted away and I found the hotel: a long flight of steps up to a cramped desk area. It was run like a Youth Hostel. Further steps up led me to a broad landing with tall imposing doors. It had been agreed that though the room had 3 bunks I was on my own and I was looking forward to a shower in what I expected was a large area beyond that door.

The only good things about the room were no one else being there and the air conditioning. There was no shower or loo but 3 bunks in a cramped sweaty space with a window opening on to a narrow waste at the back of buildings, the waste being a similar level to the window giving easy access from outside that I didn’t want. I felt better after washing myself as best I could in a basin but then a key opened the lock and there was a girl who said she was ‘cleaning.’ Late afternoon was an odd time to be doing that. This place didn’t feel secure. I was going to stay put apart from going to the loo across the hall . Tough it out with no food or booze. I was quite capable of doing that for one night knowing it was easy to eat and drink too much and abstinence teaches one to savour luxury afterwards. Tomorrow would be an easier day. It was possibly paranoid and I didn’t care, having lost a camera and mobile phone at another hostel. Security was paramount on this trip, especially at the start of it!

Meanwhile back in Portsmouth a friend had been kind enough to arrange a barbecue inviting other friends I hadn’t seen for a long time, the day after I flew out. It was going to be a long night. During the first part of it there was a party next door just to rub the point home. My time would come.

Early morning. I was told breakfast would be outside the building. The place it was supposed to be at was closed. Across the street was another place that was only good for a coffee. While there another young disreputable came up and begged for money. I’d been expecting this in Athens and gave in anyway – to a small extent – having brought plenty of Euros because of cash points drying up. There was a surprise here though.

“You speak good English.”

“I am English.” He’d come out here years ago from Sheffield and what with the economic crisis had been on the streets for awhile. Now this was interesting. He wasn’t violent, knew the score around here and – because I’d done him a favour – could be a good and fluent source of info. We chatted. It seemed that Athens was not dangerous as long as one used common sense. One shouldn’t throw caution to the winds.

I relished breakfast at a classier place further on, found the hotel where I was supposed to meet people at 11 am. and left the cabin max there.

There was still time to reconnoitre the Acropolis and get back in time for the rendevous. It was only a mile or two away and one of the main streets – the ‘Athinas’ – led straight there. Walking down it past a down and out sleeping on a bus stop bench I could see the high buildings and trees framing a distant high crag beyond and part of a temple was on top of that; though I was dismayed to see scaffolding up there too. I hoped if I got up there that refurbishments or repairs wouldn’t ruin the atmosphere of antiquity.

‘Acropolis’ is derived from Greek words meaning ‘edge’ and ‘extremity.’ From the map it looked as though it was on the southern edge of Athens centre. The whole thing was 150 metres high; a citadel of rock 300 metres across, crowned by a showcase of ancient Greek architecture and civilization dating back to almost 500 BC.

After ousting a tyranny in the 2nd half of the 6th century BC the Athenians founded the world’s first democracy as a radical solution to prevent the aristocracy regaining power; thus becoming the fabled and revered cradle of that political process. This first democracy promoted not only full participation in affairs of society but the kind of quality of life which prized personal development rather than wealth and possesions along with working all hours to get them. These ancient democratic Greeks might have had much to say about present day Britain regarding ‘aristocracy’ in terms of corporations and the super rich; market forces and the commercial world.

The road to the Acropolis was lined with substantial city buildings and trees so there was a fair amount of shade but when I penetrated a tourist area beyond and narrow uphill streets (stay sharp) modern buildings gave way to the older ones and ruins of antiquity, which seemed to reflect and build up the heat. Luckily I’d supplied myself with bottled water. One couldn’t rely on any water but bottled where I was and where I was going. I would need it.

I got into a kind of park with views of Athens and the odd temple. That being the marble Doric styled Temple of Hephaestus about a mile away. It looked complete enough to look much as it had done thousands of years ago. Much of the rest of the ancient architecture around here existed only as columns or blocks of pale stone. Anyway: I continued around the base of the citadel of rock hoping to find a flanking way up, but found that barred not only by gates with a pay booth – should have realised that would be so – but also a traffic jam of tourists although it was only something like half past eight. No chance of getting up there and back in time now, but there was time to continue the reconnaisance around the whole thing. The rear was even more forbidding: no way in and a massive sheer wall complimenting the sheer height above. How old could that be? At least it was good for photography along with secluded streets and exotic plants with some sporting flowers, a shaded restaurant in a downhill alley with the sun scorched city beyond, a small domed church with an ongoing service. It was a trial of endurance though because it was bloody hot! Thank God I had bottled water and you could get it easily here.

Finally, in time, I realised I’d circumnavigated the Acropolis and went back up Athinas to the rendevous hotel, past a drunk lying face down on a grating with a glass of beer nearly drunk beside him. A representative of the Athens science fiction group rather than a casualty of Greek economics perhaps? Knowing the amount of alcohol my friends consume.

Back at the hotel a young fellow proposed a market survey on tourism. Tourism, one thing the Greeks had going for them, was threatened by the economic storm and resulting cashpoint problems. I was early so there seemed enough time to co-operate. While this was going on people assembled and I had to hurry the guy up towards the end. Such is the nature of market surveys.

I was meeting people here for a Skyros holiday which in my case involved a 2 week writing course. Skyros Holidays were ‘alternative holidays’ involving health, well being and the creative arts.  Skyros holidays had a strong Greek connection because they were compatible with Greek philosophy and one of the 2 founders was Greek: Yannis Andricopolous, Ph.D. A former political journalist and editor he’d become an author. I was glad I’d read a trilogy of his regarding the present commercial/political status quo and the freedom to some extent from that through Greek virtues; it seemed to confirm a lot of what I thought. I’d met Yannis too, at their Isle of Wight Skyros base for weekend breaks, celebrating a New Years Eve there. Skyros holidays were present in places as far flung as Cuba and Thailand but we were heading for Skyros Centre on Skyros Island.

The holidaymakers were mostly – or nearly all – women; I chatted to a few from Ireland. The coach showed up.

After we finally got clear of Athens we were on high ground. Greece is a country of mountains, though the ones around Athens and further north had the shape of giant hills, clad in dusty pine woods, olive groves and frequent habitation. It was also a country of views, panoramas of faraway mountain and sea fading into blue haze.

A stylish white car ferry was our boat for the first ferry crossing. A few accompanying sea gulls made for great photo opportunities. I love the way they just glide up and hang there in the air, as though waiting to be photographed.

The countryside on the other side seemed to be more of a holiday zone. With a ferry terminal looking like a resort and a now and then secluded bay with sunbathers. Otherwise it was more or less a repetition, with its mountainsides and arid heaths.

Then the ferry to Skyros Island. A bigger stretch of sea with the mainland disappearing into the sky behind us and the mountains and hills of Skyros materialising out of it on the forward horizon.

There was a minute port called Linaria´. There was a ride to where we were staying on the other side of Skyros.

A white cuboid inhabited rock outcrop the size of a town on the side of a mountain. That’s the appearance of Skyros town from one viewpoint. We got into it at the other end, where the road became a lane at an open square, dwindling past shops, restaurants and bars into stepped passages and steep alleys. There was hardly a level bit of ground anywhere. The white canvas of the architecture picked out the details of door and window woodwork, wrought iron railings and stairs, chairs, and shops with their wares. Most of all the green of plant life, isolated often against the white but crawling over buildings and curtaining off them in the form of vines: an occasional surprising statement too of exotic tree or mass of brilliant purple or crimson flowers. All set off against the brilliance of white buildings and hot blue sky above. Perfect for a photographer.

Then there were the inhabitants: The local jabber and melodic chatter along the main street of wares and bistros, sometimes almost linked to the frantic newsround buzz and screech of insect communities in the greenery. Scrawny but graceful cats lying or watching in their miniature neighbourhoods. Children with flawless brown skin wandering fearlessly through the sun. Stunted but formidable old women dressed mostly in black sussing out the incoming lunatics of the Skyros Centre losing themselves up and down the wrong passage and directing them to the asylum. Yes they warned me. It was easy to lose your way here and I loved it. One of our group later called the place enchanting. A word that might be improved upon accuracy wise but I haven’t been able to do so.

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After walking through most of the town we were suddenly at the centre. Through an arch in a white wall and down some steps was a paved area;- a terrace with big long solid tables shaded by a framework; all rich brown wood. Exotic plants were everywhere but even the massive fronds of a palm didn’t obscure the view beyond a low broad wall: beyond an open slope lay one of the few flat parts of Skyros framed by hills and the slope we were on, speckled with white buildings and greenery stretching to the sea, almost as pale as the late afternoon sky.

There was a welcome and a briefing about where we would be staying. I was introduced to one of the old ladies who offered a place nearly back at the commercial part of the town. Up two flights of steps and through a solid door was a sizeable high ceilinged room with a coffee table & chairs, TV, small doors on the left to a balcony and ornate plates on the right wall. Later I learned that plates on a wall in a Greek home could be a sign of status. Before me was a kitchen the same size as the bathroom to its right, with shower;- over that was a level near the ceiling with steps come ladder ascending to a double bed. The windows were small giving a dolls house come eyrie feel to the place. The balcony added to the feel of an eyrie with a view over flat rooftops to arid though partially wooded hills. It projected over the way we’d just walked to get here; within jumping distance of the rooftops. I wondered about security but I learned that Skyros just wasn’t the kind of place to worry about that. The perils of economics aggravating crime had been left behind at Athens and the old small television reinforced this by appearing not to work. I didn’t worry feeling that one of the pleasures of travel was a temporary change giving a fresh look at life. It would be interesting and healthy to abstain from a TV and the world outside for a fortnight.

I’d travelled widely but had never stayed anywhere quite like this before. The same could be said of the town. It was the opposite from the pretentious grossly overpriced housing estates of the UK enforcing conformity. White walls appeared to be the only conformity here. The houses, small from the outside, seemed roomy enough and their closely knit adaptation to every level encouraged creativity and intimacy. It was well;- enchanting could be one way of describing it.

The idyllic feeling continued when we met at the centre for the evening meal and the first taste of Greek cuisine, definitely good for you. Drink including alcohol was available too up another flight of steps on the Skyros Centre building to the left of the entrance. One was relied upon to leave money there and it worked. While we relaxed under these influences into twilight deepening towards night and lights began to sparkle out on the plain we learned more from staff members Richard, Clare and Ari. I’d met Ari on the boat: an American from New York he was sociable and a comic at the meetings. Anyway;- Skyros town was built on the side of a volcanic plug, which explained the huge rock above us. It was built on the other side from the sea to confuse pirates or raiders anyway and the up and down convoluted layout of the place was perfect for defence and ambush. Just as well the weather was good now because when it rained any path and passage became torrents of rainwater. So there was no artificial drainage; the sort of thing that made one think the place should be a slum but there was a sense of neatness and order here, somehow it all worked. By the way, a path going down the slope below went to the beach which was surprisingly close, just round the shoulder of the slope we were on.

There was a monastery up above us on the rock, the volcanic plug itself. Maybe it was that which gave a touch of Tibet to the place though I’d never been there. There were no soaring snow capped mountains or ethereal waterfalls cascading into chasms but for me the Skyros Centre took on aspects of a cross between Shangri La and Rivendell; maybe because there was a great view in an idyllic setting and – like Frodo and company at Rivendell in Lord of the Rings – it was the calm before the storm to come; the awesome adventures for me were still to come after leaving here.

Morning. They would all be lovely ones here. After nearly totalling the TV by losing my balance on the stairs or steps I was on my balcony looking over the rooftops at my first morning on a Greek Island. Too late for morning yoga but that was optional and my first week of the two was going to be more holiday than work which meant more drinking and less exercise.

Breakfast was at 8.30. A meeting of discussion, information and compliments would follow without lasting long. Then there’d be a little time before the courses which would finish at lunch. Time to get to know the layout of Skyros Centre more: kitchen and lounge/library on same level, massage room – handled by the yoga teacher – and a comfortable meeting room up the steps where the drinks were. Ari – a psychologist – led the meeting where we got to know each other better, including names, in theory anyway. I’m worse than most at remembering names, especially when the weekend after we arrived I still hadn’t got my writing course tutor’s name right. Embarrassing.

Maybe it was because Mez gave us plenty to think about. A lecturer and author she was an energetic and creative tutor, setting short timed themed writing which was often entertaining. There was ‘homework’ though that was not really compulsory and sometimes not discussed the following morning. There was plot structure and aspects of writing a novel and marketing it. All discussed seated around one of those big tables with the view.

I was the only man in the writing group of 6 women and Mez. The same was true of the ‘Life Choices’ group which Ari ran in the meeting room. It made for a good last email to my SF friends back in Blighty along the lines of ‘loads of women and booze in a place like Shangri La.’

Then there was the art course. Only one person on that. She and the tutor retreated up to what I thought was a large garden shed with windows on the other side of the terrace from the centre. It was the Art Studio. I felt for the tutor, Amanda, somewhat: a lady from Brighton she was a good conversationalist and found me interesting too.

There was no washing machine in my kitchen; which meant I would be picking up some powder myself, scrunching my clothes around with that in the sink and hanging them up anywhere I could to dry which wasn’t too difficult in this kind of heat. Hadn’t done it this way since crossing Africa in 1978. All part of the fun of being here.

The only part that really wasn’t fun was having to put used toilet paper in a bin by the loo instead of down the same. The Greek ones were small enough to get bunged up if one did that. It went completely against my instincts of not leaving the worst samples of oneself around for others; particularly maids, whose job could be demeaning enough anyway. But this was the rule in Greece and its worst aspect for me. Not that Greece should be singled out. The loos in Indonesia and the Philippines would have the same design and the same rule that applied in Greece applied in Thailand. Let’s change the subject now this explanation is behind me, as it were.

The afternoons were ours to play with. The Greeks had a pretty prolonged siesta judging by the shops closing at 2 pm and not opening until 7. I went to the beach past 3 cats taking it easy under a park bench – well it was the same as that – at a junction. I called it Lazy Cat Corner. (Meanwhile back at the Lazy Cat Corner ranch.)

At the beach I witnessed a ship in the sky! No really; It looked like that! The haze was such that the blue of the sea blended into the sky without a horizon and it was almost as though Skyros was floating in the sky. An incredible effect but I didn’t have my camera. Sometimes it seems the best photos are the ones that got away.

Turn left out of the Skyros Centre instead of right – down to the beach – and one goes uphill. That way is the ‘Manos Faltaits Museum.’ Manos Faltaits was an artist whose style reminded me of Modigliani. The museum was housed in the Faldai family residence and was almost more of a multilevel warehouse than a museum. Chock full of costumes, paintings, embroidery, antique furniture, ceramics, daggers, cooking pots and vintage photographs: a history of post Byzantine Greece to the present day, preserving tradition.

It was also on the site of an ancient temple. And there was a naked male statue – like ‘David’ – on a pedestal; that the women made a bee line to have their photos taken under this example of manhood, much to my amusement.

After the museum there was a break on a terrace shaded by vines, with a fantastic view of the plain and sea which still looked like the sky.

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Shangri La? Rivendell? How about simply a Greek paradise. Backed up by a great meal at dusk and beer that went down very well in a nearby restaurant with a view, followed by a drunken trek home through the steep labyrinth of Skyros.

I was down on the beach the following day with camera but the seamless blending of sea and sky had gone. Going back up the incline was a killer in the heat.

Meanwhile back at the Lazy Cat Corner Ranch the moggies were laid out by the heat into identical corpse positions along the ground under the bench, by the time I trudged back up there. I was feeling the same way myself what with the incline I’d just come up so I didn’t blame them, renaming the place Dead Cat Corner. It became known as such.

The heat had the opposite effect on the Cicadas or whatever insects were making the racket. A nadge-nadge-nadge-nadge-nadge noise that was almost loud enough to interfere with the writing group what with readings and so on. It would seem to be even louder than what I’d encounter in the tropics later. One of these insects was found camouflaged to look exactly like tree bark.

The writing group continued its good work anyway. Which included mine even after I’d been kept awake in the small hours by Greek youths partying under my place with what sounded like toy cars running down inclines. The following morning I’d warned Mez that I was likely to be slow witted but she thought highly enough of my stuff to say I should be kept awake more often. I told her I’d try not to make a habit of it.

Sometimes we’d eat out, there being many places to chose from. The same applied to drinking; the most memorable evening being the cocktail evening trawling the beach bars. That would coincide – Ari told me – with a full moon being up over the sea so I took my camera along.

Talk about a great evening. I’d no idea what I drank but it was all nice and the effects were extremely pleasurable. It also either helped me take good photos or didn’t harm my attempts at it because I got some good mystical ones of that full moon; the sky displaying the pastel hues of the afterglow of sunset. Once in awhile one comes across a fragment of heaven on Earth where the place is not only beautiful but has an otherworldly feeling and the company’s good. Skyros was it.

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Well into the night we had great seafood at a restaurant at the other end of the bay where there was a small harbour. Several of us then tried skinny dipping we were that loosened up from normal inhibitions. I’d make it an offence to spread them, regaling everyone at the restaurant with how I hated that word ‘inappropriate’: “a mealy mouthed pusillanimous kiss of death office politician’s charter of a word from the curse of political correctness” were the words I used, or similar. After the holiday I told a lady that people fond of using that word should be sentenced to loss of love life for an indefinite lingering period. Anyway it was unlikely that people could see us from the shore but one had to be careful of submerged rocks or concrete in the harbour.

Then back in a bar in the early hours I danced salsa with Amanda who later told me I was brilliant. How this should be so was mystery to me. I’d not only not danced salsa for 15 years but wasn’t that good when I did! Perhaps it was the cocktails; but I was told not to say that.

I’m not sure how I got back up the mountain not only to my eyrie but up that ladder to my bed! But I made it and somehow could rouse myself early enough the following morning to photograph a man sweeping the shadowed street cum alley below my window, while – remote from his toil – the early morning sun highlighted the hills out of town. Did he do the whole town on his own or were there others? Either way that was why Skyros town was tidy.

There was another place on the island for Skyros holidays: Atsitsa Bay. A drive across the island there went through hills wooded with pine. There was also a strange tree I’d never seen before. A stunted oak might be the best way of describing it. Another small plain was to the north west, like the one before us at the centre. There was a military airfield there; Skyros being central in the Aegean Sea.

Atsitsa Bay seemed to consist of a hotel on one side and the Skyros holiday resort on the other, apart from the ruin of a dock consisting mostly of a double pillar that stuck up like a sea stack at the entrance to the bay. There had been a railway there from a mine on the island. Otherwise it was a delightful rocky cove with pine woods.

The resort spread through subtropical vegetation on different levels; though it wasn’t on a mountain like Skyros town. The odd sculpture helped give it the feel of a hippie sanctuary and life was largely freewheeling here. One could chose from a great variety of things:-
Landscape Art.
Yoga.
Windsurfing.
Singing.
Meditation.
‘Passionate Living.’
Mosaics.
Abseiling.
That was one variety for a 2 week holiday but there were many others.

There was a beach party in a neighbouring cove. One could walk there but some swam. Sure enough there was drink and company there. As for swimming this Greek holiday and my further travels would see me catching up on years of neglect of that.

Once again Ari was a good source of info. for some great photography. The sunsets were good here he told me and though I missed sunset itself I got a few good ones of the declining sun burnishing the sky and sea into bronze and gold. The dying glow of the western sky at dusk was good too with the ruin adding a great silhouette throughout.

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Then there was food and drink and an audience for a Hollywood writer waxing enthusiastically about where we were and how good it was for creativity. A celebrity on top of everything else. If only mankind could slow down from the commercial rat race into more of this kind of life.

Nor was that the only trip there. They were good at organising trips at Skyros Centre. The 2nd journey there involved a boat trip. Another halcyon time: of cruising round a remote part of the coast in the sun, witnessing a beached boat wreck as big as a house and contorted strata on the cliffs;– a fantastic sight. I got spectacular photos of that cliff strata; like a geology lesson on the forces that build fold mountains. This is an active area regarding that and there was a notice about earthquakes at the centre.

And then there was the swimming.

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There was one place in particular. A secluded cove free of humanity apart from us, with beautiful turquoise hued sea. It was as though a swimming pool had morphed into this small bay. The waters were incredibly clear; which happily went against my feeling that the Mediterranean region might be a trap for pollution.

The worst thing that happened here was the laptop I’d brought refusing to delete junk emails or send any home by the end of the first week . I was cut off which could worry Mike. I hoped it was the wifi here but suspected it wasn’t. The bloody thing was now wasting time that could have been spent at the beach and had been nothing but trouble since I bought it in June, wasting time that could have been spent learning how to take great photos with the Nikon instead of good ones.

We were coming into the 2nd week so it was time for yoga to calm the nerves; at the cost of getting up earlier. It was on a rooftop within sight of the centre going towards the beach, still with the view. Trouble was there was only one way in and out and one of the old ladies along the route kept letting her small vicious psycho yapping horror of a dog loose to attack the yoga teacher’s dog, more graceful, probably a greyhound. This resulted in some lively Greek slanging matches while other little old Greek ladies in black emerged in sinister fashion from doors in white walls to watch the fun. I felt guilty about its humorous aspect for it was serious enough to have us band together to run the gauntlet of what I called Yapping Dog Gulch until we reached the friendly territory (or couldn’t care less territory) of Dead Cat Corner.

There were a few trips I’d been looking forward to. One of which was with Ari up the steep alleys to as close as we could get to the monastery. I’d been nagged by one woman about getting flip flops like everyone else rather than wear hiking boots, but one had to watch ones step with the up and down nature of this place, hiking boots were good for grip whereas flip flops were useless and it was folly to risk injury when I had real challenges in front of me; all for the sake of fashion!

As we ascended we learned that the wealthier or more favoured Greeks lived on the upper slopes whereas the poor were down below; which explained the weeds growing in the byways below my place. But the route we followed seemed to be often up the side passages of houses and I expected a challenge of the private property nature only to emerge at picturesque junctions.

Churches and small places of worship exist at random spots in Skyros. One at least had a bright blue dome reminiscent of what I’d seen in Kiev. That might have been the one where a funeral was held lasting for a day at least; I was walking up the main shopping street and became aware that I was threading my way through a real crowd of people dressed in black. They were there when I went back that way later.

There were more cats. These looked healthy enough so maybe they were upper class ones. Cats in Skyros tended to be on the slim side though and I’d seen a few in bad condition. In the past things were rough for them until there was a drive for more humane treatment. The Dead Cat Corner cats had a small bowl of something so apparently someone was looking out for them.

The monastery – or it’s outer parts – was a study in photographic still life: an arched passage led up to a courtyard with rich brown pots and their plants and an occasional small tree set against the sunlight and shadow steps and white buildings, with magnificent views beyond. There were a few bells too. A service was in progress in the dark ornate interior of part of the monastery. Packed with the locally devoted. I felt like an interloper. This society was only carefree and creative up to a point; religion was more in evidence here than in Britain.

After that the descent. Although Skyros can be a confusing labyrinth there aren’t – as a rule – dead ends. So it was the kind of place where before long one can surprise oneself with an “ah I know where we are now.”

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That evening I had a meal with Ari and Amanda. Skyros comes alive at dusk with bejeweled lights and conversations at bars, bistros and restaurants galore. It’s got the perfect climate for it. After a hot day here there’s nothing better than to unwind in the evening with a beer or two and Greek cuisene when there’s no need to put more clothes on because it’s going to stay comfortable in a ‘T’ shirt all night. Carefree relaxation for all. Nice to have a table overlooking much of the nightlife too, as ours was.

The 2nd trip was to Rupert Brooke’s grave. Yes this notable First World War poet was buried on this island. I’d already referred to – or played on – that at the writing group to their amusement. My travelling alarm clock that was like an old friend became the first casualty of this campaign when it was dropped out of the camera bag on to the cobblestones and stopped working. So:-

Now I’m defunct think only this of me.
That in some corner of a foreign field
There lies a clock of England.

It was a journey across the whole of the island. Skyros is actually two islands joined into one, an enthusiast at Atsitsa Bay told me. I could believe it from the map and from the scenery. The other southern end of the island could be seen from the beach near Skyros town: a great mountain bulk like a gigantic hill descending in precipitous slopes and cliffs to the sea. The central part of the island was the narrowest part; consisting of a flat bottomed valley hinting at fault lines and a possible join of geology. The southern mountain being different terrain from the north;- massive, high and barren, in contrast to the jumbled hills and extensive pinewoods of the north.

There was a place in the valley where we visited dwarf ponies – and a foal – which are indigenous and unique to Skyros. Then the road wound up around the mountain bulk with views of silhouetted promontories and islands set in a dazzling sea.

Rupert Brooke’s grave was set in a secluded olive grove, surrounded by green railings which together with a low white monument formed a fence around his grave. His famous poem was inscribed at the front. He died from an infected mosquito bite on his way to Gallipoli when he was 28. What an age to die from something that insignificant, in its early stages anyway. Though many were dying tragically younger than that then. When I was 28 I crossed Africa but would live to have many more adventures and achievements, though there was time too for more frustrations and disappointments. The only thing death has taught me is the importance of making the most of life or having a happy one as long as one’s able, physically or mentally.

There was a bay at the end of the valley on our return where we could have a swim and supper at an open air restaurant. The drink flowed and one of our party had octopus, the size of the tentacle prompting another to exclaim “was that hacked off when it attacked a village?” An Irish girl who didn’t drink but was a comedian took drunken photos of me judging by the angle. Another fun filled evening. Make the most of it for poor Rupert’s sake.

Towards the end of the stay I decided to explore the plain below with my camera to the far coastline, hoping to link up with the others on the beach while returning; but I fell against the coffee table back at my digs breaking what looked like expensive china. At the centre Ari was on a never ending phone call so that delayed my worried report. I was sure I was in for financial damage but was told not to worry and – inexplicably – was not charged anything; which I think should be a recommendation for Skyros holidays.

Anyway, after this late start I descended to a hike past subtropical gardens and white villas to that far coastline; a scenic dazzling one especially to the west where there was a national park. Beyond the harbour were 2 more places of worship: one carved into a whitewashed corner of a huge rock, another on a rock outcrop offshore. The Greeks are a religious people or seem to be. Then the journey back past a spectacular eroded rock: many picturesque views of boats and bathers in beautifully clear water, with Skyros town on the slopes of the volcanic plug beyond and the awesome cliffs of south Skyros much further, but I was too late for some of those bathers to be the people I’d got to know.

The writing course was more or less wound up with a reading of work we’d done on the novels – short or otherwise – that we’d been preparing. It wasn’t a success for me although my descriptions of ‘dragon’ wildlife and jungle I’d been writing about were admired. I was having a bash at an SF fantasy extrapolated from the jaunt I was about to attempt. The trouble was I got bogged down in a quicksand of describing the planet concerned. Obviously planets fascinate me but I hadn’t put enough ‘human interest’ into it; according to the women. I’d noticed that they were better than me at putting themselves into other people’s shoes as it were, complete with emotions. I wondered if women tended generally to be better at that?

That was only one way of looking at it though, I felt later. It could be tedious trying to follow their stuff too, which often appeared to delve into the minutiae of people and their problems. It reminded me of soap operas which made me feel claustrophobic. ‘Let me out of here to the world outside!’ I wonder sometimes if soap operas and too much emphasis on what can go wrong with people is making us lose sight of alternatives? Is actually educating us into behaving badly? An alternative for me is to lose myself in the beauty and scale of the natural world. One example was being comforted by the fantastic tapestry of stars in a desert night sky reminding one of the true scale of things and reducing human affairs to their true proportion: ‘that big.’ (Tiny.)

The subject of feminism had also come up. It seems to me to be a broad church and I support aspects of it, or women’s rights anyway;- such as birth control, equal pay structures and last but not least equal educational opportunities. I get the impression though, that some feminists are not interested in equal rights but want to swap one power game – male dominated society – for another;- female dominated society. Worst of all are the puritanical feminists who seem to condemn men as being potential rapists and are hell bent on imposing no freedom of speech and a society of inhibited fear.

At least there was little puritanism in our group when Mez set us a final bit of fun in which we had to deliberately include as many sexual innuendos as possible. I played along with a piece based on Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There was a cabaret that evening and my offering followed the raunchy example of one of the women in the group. Mez publicly complimented me the following morning for not getting upset when they got worked up reading out the innuendos. (Why should I?) “Oh I thought it was wonderful,” I replied. “Just took awhile getting my head round it.” Laughter.

Our last night was a slap up meal at a restaurant in the town square. The waitress who served us had worked at the centre and gave me a big kiss when she arrived with my pizza. That – and the illuminated merrymakers eating and drinking all round the square – reinforced the feeling that Skyros town was one big fun palace; but I had an early night for it was time to leave.

My new travelling alarm clock went off. I heard a suitcase being trundled along the alley below in the night, went out on to the balcony and hailed one of our fraternity making his way zombie fashion to the centre rendezvous.

At the other end of town there was still noise and drinking at the clubs and bars. When do the young ones sleep in this place? Traces of dawn were coming up as we left.

“I’m off to the Misty Mountains, Rohan and Mordor” I exclaimed to Clare; to whom I’d explained my sensations regarding Rivendell. Well not exactly, but I was going to hunt dragons. (Don’t miss the next episode.) We saluted each other when I was on the deck of the huge ferry. Dawn came up as we left Skyros.

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Back in Athens everyone was flying home so I had with an afternoon to explore the Acropolis. The magic of such places can be imagining a different world with some props and the more info. the better. But! It was blighted by refurbishments. The Parthenon was a cage for construction junk and they even had a light railway up there. Talk about saving a ruin from becoming a ruin by ruining it. I consoled myself with the panoramas of city and landscape while thinking of an old Cliff Richard song ‘The Next Time’ that was filmed with the Parthenon in the background. Part of ‘Summer Holiday.’
“And heartaches such as this
Will just be ancient history.”

Back at the dump I was staying in though they had a room with a shower and a view this time.

Onward. Thousands of feet over holidaymakers in Greece. Greece had been a good time and the first stage was completed without mishap. Only 11 more flights to go.
© D Angus 10 15

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Conventions: 2014.

 After the walkabout I had a few weeks break, then I went and partied in London. And what a party it was.

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The biggest science fiction convention ever! And I was taking one of my planets there, one of the ‘ExoEarths.’ a 2ft diameter model of an Earthlike planet. An old one in this case for the continents were more regular in shape indicating an older geology, like Africa and Australia. I’d laid a van on for it and was to travel up with the driver, whom I’d previously worked with, taking models to a science centre near Winchester. I had taken this planet up on the train to London but I was going on to Dublin after the convention and needed someone to take it home. Just as well I was taking him up to London, for the convention location looked a muddle on the map.

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It was a good well organised trip on a sunny day. Journeying to a city too, in the 21st century – or 2014 anyway – can be a visual adventure. The cluster of high rises on the horizon nowadays can hint at science fiction and momentous things about to happen. Welcome to the future. It might not be one of manned space rockets, planets colonised and mankind looked after by robots. Residential architecture might be rubbish representations of twee England that has enslaved the population. However;- the solar system had been explored since my 1950’s childhood, there’d been a revolution in computer technology and commercial architecture was enterprising enough in style to be futuristic. To begin to take on the same kind of look as architecture found on SF book covers. That and the more streamlined cars and highways looked not too unlike the future imagined in the 1950’s.

Before the fun could start though there was the challenge of getting the globe into the Art Show within The Excel Centre. A building of a mile long. A tough nut for navigation. A tangle of roads led us to a parallel street to the one we wanted and we finally got to the wrong end of the centre of course! Refurbishments – always handy when you need to get to somewhere – had partially obstructed the access road and put the driver off going any further. Much later internet research revealed that this centre has had serious access problems!

I kept my cool because the refurbishments weren’t barring me from the centre itself, up a flight of steps on a higher level. Also my planet was light enough to carry and my only luggage was a backpack. Only problem was the planet was big enough to put a strain on one’s arms carrying it for any distance and once I was inside this vast exhibition hall complex its concourse stretched before me, down the length of the building to vanishing point.

No problem actually. My planet was in bubblewrap and I’d rolled it before in that. Yes, actually rolling it along the ground! One one occasion through Reading confusing a policewoman. This time it would be a floor, which would be easier, also it was deserted, so there was no one to wonder if I was a lunatic? Until I reached the other end where the SF fans were supposed to be, who could take this sort of thing more in their stride. So off I rolled it past occasional closed cafe’s and fast food outlets with large deserted seating areas, down the long echoing expanses.

It was the day before the whole thing really started but convention staff were here plus a handful of fans wanting to beat the rush and people like me wanting to set up. Gradually I was reaching inhabited regions: better lighting and a few people. Then a few people scruffily or unusually dressed. Science fiction fans. I was entering friendly territory. Well mostly anyway. Their numbers increased the further one went and eventually I found the right info. The Art Show was back aways through a narrow entrance. I’d rolled my globe for a distance not much shorter than the length of the building.

There was another huge space as big and high as an aircraft hangar on the other side of the entrance and a short corridor. Within it was the Art Show area. As soon as I got there they knew who I was and it was easy enough setting up. While there I started meeting people I knew. My Health and Safety friend from the local SF group confirmed with news of growing numbers that this was about to be the biggest convention ever. He was one of the staff and would be working throughout the convention. Some people are happier doing that and it was the kind of event where one should be ‘doing one’s own thing.’ There was too a well known artist whom I’d socialised with at previous ‘cons’ (SF fans jargon for conventions) and kept in touch with on Facebook. And another artist I hadn’t seen for nearly 20 years! That was a happy reunion with advice about art materials.

It was going to be a recurring theme at this convention: running into people not seen for decades. After setting up and registering at the convention – easy to do with not many people around – I had time to relax with a bite at one of the eateries just opened up. While I was perusing the con literature there a vaguely familiar looking woman came by, stopped and recognised me. A creative comical friendly lady I’d regretted losing touch with since 2001! She joined me for another joyful reunion. I was rapidly gaining a good feeling about this convention. Later we went to the exhibits area where she was also setting up some of her videos; though not without problems since staff were letting her down.

Early on in this convention I would be running into a guy I hadn’t seen since the last millenium and a lady I hadn’t seen since 1987! It would get better and better all the time.

Explorations of this vast place revealed the Art Show to be next to the Dealers area – books trinkets and so on – and Exhibits;- which could exhibit anything from wild and wacky ideas to established organisations like the British Interplanetary Society. This whole massive floor overlooked the ‘Fan Room’ – or rather hall – on a lower level. As did the concourse and a way to Docklands Light Railway. Here was at least one obligatory bar, fast food snack area, seating and chill out areas and marquees going up for promotions and fannish stuff. Later I realised that there was even a Tardis in there. The programming areas – for panels and discussions of anything remotely SF related – seemed to be around the back of the Fan Hall and on the upmost level above Operations and the Green Room, which had taken over an eyrie overlooking the concourse. Last but not least the opening ceremony and maybe a few films would take place in a huge hall on the other side of the concourse.

The first night here I would be staying with the same invalid I stayed with before did the sponsored walk 2 years ago from London to Chichester. Right out in Stanmore on the NW edge of London. Time for the light railway, tube and hike to his place.

Coming in on the morning Docklands Light Railway train were other fans heading for the convention, including a few Polish girls who were interested with my visit to Poland last year, until I mentioned Auschwitz. I didn’t blame them. Although it wasn’t my idea to go there it still put me into the disaster tourist category rather than someone genuinly interested in their country.

They were in for a long wait. Which was minor compared to those arriving later. The registration queue grew to an unbelievable length. Thank God I’d got here yesterday!

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Time to check in to a Travelodge on the other side of the dock by which the centre was situated. Or so I hoped. One could see the true scale and setting of the venue at the opposite end to from where I’d rolled by ExoEarth. A broad car park/plaza flanked by ornamental trees and a few hotels. And the expanse of Royal Victoria Dock. A flyover crossed it with a walkway under the road and I was able to look down the dock’s rectilinear length towards the Canary Wharf cluster of high rises and the City of London. Planes took off overhead down the dock’s length from London City Airport on the other side of the flyover, into a sky which would be mostly stormy throughout the convention. That didn’t stop canoing and other recreational stuff happening on what had become a man made lake. All it needed now was some wildlife.

On the other side was a tall sculpture of what looked like a silver naked lady with no face, legs leaning forwards but body backwards with upthrust arms, celebrating the airport it seemed, from the centre of a roundabout.

Then there was the Travelodge. I was too early after all. I’d have to insert myself in there that afternoon.

Memories of the first few days:-

Participating in my first programme panel. If I’m lucky I get invited to them and I had a fair number at this convention. I love the think tank style exchange of ideas and growth of knowledge, with fellow enthusiasts, some of whom are scientists. I love being treated on an equal basis with them to put it honestly, despite certain lowly aspects of my life. Ric was there. My Jewish friend in the local SF group who’d advised me on Auschwitz. He said I held my own well with them. As it turned out this was going to be a convention for compliments too.

Ric was also staying at the Travelodge and we occasionally had breakfast together when the degree of severity of ‘the night before’ allowed that synchronisation. Other notables were Dave – the Irish SF fan who’d been with us at the Kiev Eurocon and whom I knew well anyway – and the Science Fiction Collections Librarian for the SF archives at Liverpool University. He was also someone I hadn’t seen for a long time and it was good to meet up because I’d made out in my Will that the SF Liverpool Uni. archives were to be the home for my planets.

One of the programme events I went to was more of a tour, around a certain model in the exhibits hall, with eye catching out of scale incomprehensibly interesting structures. An architect from Greenwich University had led this futuristic project and thought architecture ought to be more represented in Science Fiction. I agreed. Much SF dealt with social trends and civilisation which would include urban environments, which must include architecture. Apart from that a lot of SF art involved futuristic cities and those in the western world were beginning to take on some aspects of science fiction.

There was more to this last one. The architect was a science fiction fan. His project was a cross between a conurbation and theme park. Within it one could design and act out one’s fantasies apparently. Whether one was underground or within the weird structures depicted by the students, some of which looked organic. They were, he assured me! He also hailed from the Essex side of the Thames estuary where his conurbation was set, naming it so the initials matched those of the city sized spaceships a favourite SF author. It was the same length too. Nobody else in his architectural circle had appreciated this and one reason he was at the convention was to mix with people who would.

But what about ‘we’ve all gotta have somewhere to live?’ The demands of the mundane world of the daily grind to pay the mortgage on some subsized architectually backward looking box? His project was to be realised in the post commodified era. ‘Commodified’ – the demands of commercial market forces – was a word he often used in a dismissive fashion. I liked his style. If only it was as easy to change the status quo as it was to dream up something like this! One reason it wasn’t – he told me – was major developers keeping prices artificially high by ‘land banks:’ reserves of bought land which would only be built on when there was a sufficient housng shortage to raise prices. Just when I think I can’t find another reason to loathe the world of residential property along comes another one I can add to my armory. This was one reason I went to conventions: information one might not find elsewhere.

There was another architect at his show whom I wowed with my planets, apart from discussing all this: an attractive girl in her twenties who really did look as though she was still in 6th form. She ran her own company. Another aspect of this convention was that it turned out to be a happy hunting ground for chatting up the fairer sex. I prefer to call it conversation.

I wished life was like this most of the time: the money somehow never running out during a freeform existence mixing with interesting stimulating people, for many of the more imaginative in Britain were here. From aged authors and scientists to precocious children, any one of which could be a future genius. With the odd alien thrown in, (yes I know it’s fancy dress but it’s well done here.) I even saw a sentient machine: what looked like a pole on wheels with a TV screen on top sporting a face. Apparently someone far removed was exploring this event by remote control.

What with that and people doing their own thing; whether it be socialising, working hard, debating, playing, wandering, drinking. With a glowing blue drone under unseen control flitting and swooping over this scene. It reminded me of the SF series involving those miles long spaceships. Our gathering could have been part of his civilisation, albeit in one of the smallest ships he’d referred to.

There was more programming for me. Dougal Dixon – an Earth Sciences author – had proposed we play drunken colonists explaining the colonial history of ‘Greenworld:’ a planet he’d devised and I’d ‘built’ so to speak.

Thus arose what was one of the best Saturday nights I’ve known. Maybe the best!

It began with a party in an adjacent hotel. A friend who ran a satellite company held these champagne ones and at this party there was not only a woman whose paintings were fantastic displays of light and darkness (she wore thigh high boots too) but the last ‘Hero of the Soviet Union.’ Da! He’d commanded the Mir Space Station in the last days of the Soviet Union which made him their last hero. As if that wasn’t enough there was another astronaut there under his command on the station: a woman I’d met years ago – like others at this convention – who recognised me and was convivial. To the extent of assuring me that if I could walk 65 miles for my school when I was 64 I was still fit enough to be an astronaut!

WOW.

I mean;- I know I’d said that if John Glenn could do it at 70 then I still could but – to be honest – I just thought I was talking bollocks really. Until I got the most mindblowing compliment of my life!

Obviously this once in a lifetime party would have been enough for the night as far as I was concerned but – unbelievably – I had to leave it in order to get down to where Dougal was. It all happens at once.

Yet more unique fun. We were well on form with a good audience. I was really enjoying the part. Dougal’s Greenworld on which the play was set was named that way not because of its colour – the vegetation was red – but because of green issues arising out of colonisation of the planet by the human race and I was happy to play along with this theme – in the form of a drunken colonist – in raising people’s awareness. If there’s reincarnation I could do worse that wind up in a bar on another planet.

Back in the Fan Hall the boozing was well under way and the South Hampshire Science Fiction Group were there in full force. When I eventually joined them I mentioned the astronaut compliment, still spaced out. A friendly rival I sometimes wound up unintentionally proposed a fund for me:- “LSDIS: Let’s Send Dave Into Space!” A massed drunken cheer greeted this! Including mine with beer bottle held high for it was a magic moment. “I know it would suit you but it was very well done, very well done.” I assured him.

So well oiled I became that I euphorically assured another friend that I would be with my planets at midday tomorrow to meet someone he knew who was interested in them. Then totally forgot all about it to my chagrin. Something I have never done before in my life.

The convention carried on and there were more alcoholic get togethers. There was that meal where I rejoined the astronauts party; the last hero of the Soviet Union looking prominent by being the best dressed of us in his suit and tie. T shirts were more the norm at an SF convention. I – among others – was allowed to hold his gold medal. Heavy.

Later he was honoured in one of the big halls where he talked about the Mir Space Station in Russian, with the help of with a young interpreter I’d known from News Years Day do’s at my satellite friend’s place. I was in the front row with them.

Dougal held a liquid lunch for those who’d worked on Greenworld. I met the artist who’d illustrated the truly alien lifeforms Dougal had created. By then Dougal and I had laid on another simulated bar session. One of those problem child geniuses I’d briefly mentioned earlier asked some tricky questions, putting Dougal on the spot. I didn’t help matters by being amused. All good clean fun. Especially as I felt that this was the spirit of youthful enquiry at its best.

I was still able to help Dougal for I met a German woman in the Art Show – a publisher or agent – who took a professional interest in Dougal’s work and wanted to know if he was interested in ‘expanding into Europe’ so to speak. I’d no idea as to his commitments but there was a fair chance he’d be interested and told her that certainly they must meet. When I got this info to him he became excited. It seemed that – as my luck would have it – this was just the sort of thing he was after. It was that sort of convention.

There was a show on the life of John Wyndham. The first paperback SF book I’d read was ‘The Day of the Triffids’ after waiting for my father to get through it on holiday in Cornwall. It was extraordinary how a man with that intellect continued to lead a somewhat Spartan little travelled existence even after his books brought him considerable wealth. Then there are those who are super rich. Maybe we get a reverse status quo in a parallel Universe. Maybe that’s one appeal of them.

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There were good times in the Fan Hall. Dougal had held his liquid lunch there. Ric and I photographed each other coming out of the Tardis. Children colonised a large open space with cushions and one crawled around under a cardboard box like a tortoise. The spirit caught on with bubblewrap: when a swathe of it was jumped on by the kids to make it pop one of my friends joined in. To give support for arrested development so did I.

My involvement in programming and the Fan Hall went on until the last day. A vivacious girl I’d corresponded with helped me lay on a planetbuilding workshop for those child geniuses and a few arrested development adults in a marquee in the Fan Hall. She said I was fantastic after the do.

I rolled my bubblewrapped planet back down the length of the building to my rendevous point with my driver, where I intrigued a watchful child with my antics. He turned up, luckily for me.

It must have been a great convention. I felt really good despite not selling anything.

That was Loncon 3. What followed that was a tour of TV locations in London run by my friend Dave, the Irish SF fan. There were only 3 of us actually wandering around, much of the time on foot. Highlights for me included:-

Steed’s place (The Avengers) which was near the BBC.

Outside the BBC was a picket. It seemed demonstrations went unreported these days. ‘Safety before profits’ proclaimed one of the banners. In the opposite direction were sartorially dressed gentlemen and an opulent car outside a club. I doubted these two groups ever listened to each other.

The Regent Street Polytechnic. This had nothing to do with the tour. We passed it by chance and I had time to tell the receptionist within that my father had studied architecture there.

The subway passage Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner) stormed though on his way to resign. One got the impression it was under the Houses of Parliament. It was actually at Hyde Park. Parts of that subway complex were an abode for Eastern Europeans down on their luck.

The home of ‘The Prisoner,’ where he was gassed, later to wake up in ‘the Village.’ It was in Westminster. Unfortunately the block it was in was covered in scaffolding ruining the photograph I would have taken. Refurbishments.

Just round the corner in a front garden was a strange metal sculpture based on a plant. Looked like a sunflower.

More strangeness followed after a pleasant spell at a pub. When we reached Westminster Bridge the 3rd member of our party just wandered off and wasn’t seen again.

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At sunset Dave and I reached Leadenhall Market where I captured that on my camera; along with The Gherkin, the Thames at sunset and Tower Bridge at night. The bridge I was on gave good solid support for the camera, so the photos were clear of camera shake.

Dave called his tour a convention: a small travelling one as it were. There was another I was about to go to though. In Dave’s country. The European SF convention in Dublin, Ireland.

I had a day between my last night at the Travelodge and Victoria Coach Station. Luckily there was something interesting on at The National Theatre, South Bank: Love! Something of an exhibition of it. Erections dare I say it;– of gaily coloured words describing all aspects of love at the front of the theatre, exhibits and workshops within. Of course none of the workshops coincided with my movements or ability to get there and it all seemed a one off unfortunately. It was heartening though, compared to the usual rubbish choice of Sun newspaper ‘are you getting it every day’ culture, computer dating agencies everywhere like flies on dung and political correctness zealously imposing a climate of fear. I hoped the alternative on the South Bank was the start of a trend.

Lucky I was going on the journey to Ireland journey in summer. It took a long time to get out of London so I was surprised it was still daylight when the coach had gained full speed on the M1.

It was still daylight – just – when wind farms in the Midlands could be seen from the coach. They’ve been described as eyesores but were photogenic at dusk and a visual welcome to the 21st century. Let’s hope a lucky shot I took across the coach while on the move is not the sunset of mankind. Their energy contributions have been questioned and their size might indicate it’s a case of the government being seen to do the right thing rather than pull out all the stops for the best energy option. I’m in favour of solar power now and maybe fusion power later.

Nightfall covered a stop at a motorway station and the route along the North Wales coast. One could tell it was there by the way the masses of town lights ended at a clear border with a black void beyond.

At Holyhead there was the usual organised muddle of customs, under the stark lighting one gets in places like this at night. Not something to look forward to when one’s semi conscious after a long coach ride.

Finally the ferry. It was massive. That didn’t stop all the long seats being comandeered by temporary adult corpses trying to forget about the rest of the night by sleeping. Otherwise the passenger deck became largely governed by children who seemed to have their seat of power in the amusement arcade and gain their power from it, having more energy than those adults still on their feet. Kiddies weren’t allowed on the outer deck though which was the domain of cold gales, darkness and cigarette smokers.

There was a cinema. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes took me away from it all nicely.

Dawn came up when we reached Dublin. I could see the coast unfolding in the early half light and even the Wicklow Mountains. I’d never been to Ireland before.

I’d been saving Ireland until I was old and decrepit because it was so close and easy to get around. Now because of SF conventions I was getting there earlier in a slightly better state. Maybe just as well. The ferry docked early enough for – after a ride through a desert of dockland – everyone to be deposited at the coach station at dawn, with the morning to get through before I could check in to a boarding house I’d booked just south of the centre.

I was right in the centre of Dublin. There was an official looking building with a dome: The Custom House. There was the Liffey which cut a straightish course through the centre, widening past the docks into the harbour and a bay between headlands. My first sight of Ireland.

I crossed a bridge to the south. Was anything open? I had all morning to kill. There were a few massive piles of buildings which appeared to be museums. Also a park. Places were opening up and I had enough time to have breakfast twice at 2 of them. South Dublin was as urban as south London but somehow less tatty and fraught; with plenty of places to eat and drink.

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There was a park I wandered around. Quiet with ornamental trees and small lake. Perfect for a morning run and a runner passed me as I sat on a park bench checking the map.

A canal marked the southern edge of the centre. I still had to kill time and found another park with a tramp in it; on the run from another tramp or official, apparently. Overcome that this was my first morning in Ireland after a sleepless night he offered me a piece of cardboard, to rest my head on a seat. A comical but touching gesture. At the risk of stereotyping it seemed to me to be a classic Irish experience. This short stay was to give me a very limited experience of Ireland but while there I found there seemed to be a certain sense of kindness less common in England.

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The boarding house was in a leafy suburban neighbourhood. My room was at the top. Quite a climb but with a good view through a sash window and a small TV on top of a wardrobe.

It was on a parallel road to the one the convention hotel was across. It took only a few minutes to get there as long as one was careful for the hotel road was one of the main routes out of the city to the south. Another thing to watch out for was bicycles. There seemed to be a lot of them travelling at speed and the only reason I didn’t have a happy accident with one girl was her quick reflexes.

The convention was nice enough and well run. People were friendly, there was a really good Art Show, programme panels a few of which I was on, meals out with friends, Dave was there and met his family in the bar. There was plenty of alcohol of course, especially on Saturday night when future conventions were vying for popularity. Dublin was making a bid for a world SF convention in 2019 which I supported. It would be a good start or end to a more thorough exploration of Ireland.

Loncon 3 though was a tough act to follow. The one in Dublin just wasn’t as memorable and it must have been due to that, or convention fatigue on my part. Definitely wasn’t the convention itself which was still a good one to party at.

The real trouble for me was trying to go home.

It was pouring with rain. The sort of rain that’s not a heavy downpour and then it’s done, or a soft refreshing shower, both of which I actually like, but the sort of soaking rain that persists under relentless cloud all day.

The bus station was well within reach of where I was. Unless the weather’s like this. I wound up having to make 3 return trips to it that day! Luckily departure was not until the evening. Why did this happen? My paperwork was not in order.

I kept being turned away by a girl who looked like a school leaver. Who seemed to have forgotten her Irish roots in her dedication to becoming a company official: dead to all concerns apart from the rules and regulations of the company making money. It was then I learned that company officials can be crap regardless of what country one happens to be in; can mushroom a manufactured problem into the main purpose of a journey – sorting out that problem – rather than the minor detail it should be. The volume of explanation here indicates the expanding complicating quality of this sort of event.

Okay so it was carelessness on my part. Officials though often seem to forget common sense. The price on the paperwork I had was proof I’d bought the ticket, a man from the rear decided after the 3rd trip, making me feel a fool for not spotting that during 3 in and out trips – mostly walking – in the rain. Like a punishment I’d reached the end of because letting me go on the basis of price was the only way to get rid of me. By that time I was soaked through, which didn’t help a bug I’d somehow picked up at the end of the convention.

Yup. I was ill too and had been exposed to the perfect weather for it. That’s what I meant about the girl – I grew to hate – forgetting her Irish roots: kindness anyway. To the point of being deaf, dumb and blind to the fact I felt really ill, repeatedly pointed out to her. ‘Customer relations’ were also overlooked. If enough company officials ignore that concern customers should go elsewhere and – hopefully – the company will do badly to the point of the officials being out of a job.

I was so relieved it was finally over that I celebrated with a drink or two on the way back to my digs although I felt like crap. That didn’t stop the landlady offering a free extension on the room for the day although I’d been obliged to involve her daughter in helping me with fruitless phone calls arising from this crisis. More Irish kindness that might have been a real lifesaver in this case.

The nap I had during the afternoon just about fortified me for the journey. Then I was befriended at the bus station by a woman who was concerned about my coughing and shallowness of breathing. She was English but had lived in the middle of Ireland for some time, adapting to the finer points of the way of life here, it seemed.

There was a fantastic sunset over Dublin as the ferry sailed off from Ireland into the night. The photos I took of that though were so affected by camera shake and the state I was in that they were better described as abstract works of art. The night journey was probably worse on the coach but it was mostly hell and purgatory anyway. The kindness of my newly acquired lady stranger friend was there though and dawn over the wind farms of central England signalled much of the journey had passed into my personal history, lifting me to a better circle of hell.

We said goodbye at Victoria Coach Station and she tried to shake my hand but because of my bug I wanted to spare her that. So she became – she had my card – one of those met on my travels I haven’t heard from again but would like to.

Breakfast at Waterloo Station.  A view of the station with its rush hour commuters with the final leg of the journey to follow actually made me feel good, morale wise anyway, although my physical state continued to be crap.  Th final train journey down to Portsmouth was another improvement.

Then luckily I was able to hole up in my home for several days before school started and my job ferrying kids to and from it commenced. Time enough to recover.

So what sort of trip had it been? The biggest party of my life with the most mindblowing compliment. 12 days of high class fun more or less with a few days of humiliation hell and purgatory at the end. 12 days good to 2 bad. Pretty good trade off really!

© D. Angus 02 15

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HAMPSHIRE WALKABOUT: Along the Malborough Downs.

 

HAMPSHIRE WALKABOUT: Along the Malborough Downs.

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Down the grassy way under a summer sky and through an arch of trees into a field of barley this time. Wayfarers walk crosses clean through it as it did with the prairie sized one south of Arlesford. This field is on a similar scale with a farm and wood on the other side.

Into a leafy lane where I’ve bracken and birdsong for company and the odd car seems an intruder.

Down a track and under the shade of a railway bridge for a break. The bridge is the only sign of the first of 2 railways running west of Basingstoke. This one veering south to Winchester is the one I use now and then. When I’m flashing by above its difficult if not impossible to pick out this spot, the railway being hidden by trees along the embankment from the surrounding countryside and vice versa.

On up a slope past boys jolting down this grassy rutted track on mountain bikes. The track goes on between hedgerows and trees and I spot a butterfly.

Another lane, an upmarket country house and a silver leaved tree which doesn’t look part of the natural landscape tells me I’ve arrived at the hamlet of Deane. There’s a main road here, a bus stop – not that I need it – and a pub which would be good for a coffee if it’s open. I’m not sure it’s still in business.

I can see the bus stop at the crossroads ahead looking the same as the one in Dummer;- a hut like affair with – I find later – no timetable. The pub looks like it would after man. Derelict. Boarded up. Another dried up waterhole. I take a quick break at the bus stop then get moving. I’ve now got serious uphill hiking ahead of me up on to the Malborough Downs.

It begins past a church and a rustic abode called ‘Tom’s Cottage.’ A grassy path up through another wheatfield with – as with many others – swathes and flattened strips running off in parallel stretches, lines and curves. People will ask me about ‘crop circles’ after this walkabout but they’re not that.

A hedge at the top. Good for another break sitting on the grass relaxing agains the backpack. Already there is a view.

The grassy way continues up through another repetitious field. The horizon’s close though. Daisies survive along the edge of the way. Lichens too I see on brickwork when I reach a bridge over the 2nd railway beyond the close horizon at the top of the field. I get a photo of a train.

There’s a level patch. 3 horses under 3 trees at the edge of a field. A long clipped residential hedge of alternating light and conifer green foliage along a grass verged lane. Neat low fences. A barn. A bulrush swamped pond. A line of cows. Everything is picturesque here.

Then the ground ascends over a series of slopes and hills clad in wheat and woods with the odd farm nestling in them. The views to the south increase.

I’ve strained my left foot, feeling it first back at Doug’s when I got up in the morning. It seemed to recover but now I’m going uphill it’s worse: hurting enough to slow my rate of progress.

On a rare downhill slope in a wood I pick up a discarded water container with a tube attached. I’m rescuing it from being rubbish as I might be able to make use of it.

I’m heading for Hannington – one of the highest villages anywhere – on the eastern end of the Malborough Downs or North Hampshire Downs as they can be known here. Hannington is near that radio mast I saw yesterday but it’s main attraction is a hog roast at the village pub. A rare stroke of good luck puts this on my route on the right day. Doug had gloomily assured me he’d always found the pub closed, which contrasts with my fantasy of drunken revelry with countryfolk. Anyway I was there once before and it was okay then.

Or it’s practically on the route. Wayfarers Walk works its way round to the west of the village and I decide to follow that, leaving it at a spot I can get back to. I reach a lane at the hamlet of North Oakley, follow it past a few houses and trees out round the shoulder of the down. Over widening horizons hangs a variety of cloud; the sun shining through the higher haze highlights the thicker stuff into spectacular formations.

I strike off through inclining fields and reach a track. The map no longer makes much sense but the direction and lie of the land is obvious making the last mile or two of purgatory bearable.

I get into Hannington past some outbuildings emerging on to the village green by the church. The village seems deserted apart from a spectacular old car on the far side of the green and a lady who assures me I’m on the right track.

The village is at the pub along with numerous representatives of the surrounding countryside. I can’t get to the bar, but after cleaning up I see a big garden at the rear full of people attending the hog roast itself and ale being served there which is more available. Obective achieved. Having obtained the necessary victuals I relax and rest my feet on the grass by a low wall and a couple of young but large ladies, having impressed them with tales of my trek. Before long though drinking and eating (let’s get the priorities right) take over, giving me time to think.

I’ve got here in time for a limited break before going on further to what I call the Kinsgclere escarpment: the high ridge of the chalk downland just south of the village of Kingsclere. When I was much younger my family used the road over it as part of a route from our home at Burghfield near Reading to the A303 at Andover, which would take us to Devon and Cornwall. Later I did likewise on a motorbike. There was a layby near the top of that ridge with a spectacular view. That would be good for a rendevous with Steve, the last friend I would be staying with.

There was a fair amount of personal history here. More than 20 years ago I’d reached this pub on another hike to Andover which was the longest I’ve ever walked in one day: 32 miles.

When I got going parts of me were aching but it was only a few miles now. I couldn’t be bothered going back to the point where I’d left the route because the detour added more miles than I’d have hiked had I stayed on Wayfarers Walk anyway.

Hampshire walkabout 553

Back on the lane I followed it over a hill towards a pylon. On top a line of them marched across great open expanses of crops barely contained by the odd hedgerow and wood. In the middle of all this combine harvesters and tractors laboured like stylised insects.

My mobile rang. I was about to phone Steve and he’d beaten me to it. He’d just got home and would come out and pick me up for I can’t have been much over a mile from our rendevous. Faraway views stretched south and north. I was on the crest of the downs now and was walking down a grassy track – easy on the feet – through a vast blanket of cropland to where the line of it disappeared over the brow of the downland scarp.

The layby was indeed on the other side of that and I didn’t have long to wait for Steve, though he turned up behind me having driven up the back lanes.

Steve was a physicist working at AWRE. Or Awe Plc as it’s marked on Google Earth now. It wasn’t all atomic weapons for at one stage he had been involved in fusion power research: atomic power without the dangerous disadvantages. Like me he was a single guy living on his own but in some ways had a jet set lifestyle, flying to places in the USA such as the eastern seaboard and Los Alamos. I knew him because he was also a science fiction fan.

Steve lived in a semi more modern than Doug’s just south of ‘Awe Plc’ between Tadley and Silchester: site of the ancient Roman capital of southern Britain. He also lived on the edge of Pamber Forest: a tract of ancient woodland which existed as far back as Norman times. After I showered I was ready to pay for a Chinese meal for both of us in Tadley. Over more beers and a full meal deal he very kindly offered to run me up to the Kingsclere escarpment early in the morning before work.

 

Good though the meal and offer was it didn’t improve my left foot by the following morning, despite treatment with ointment. It ached with twinges of agony when I descended the stairs. My bloody mindedness took over now. Nothing for it but to press on, even if it meant hospital after the walkabout.

Hampshire walkabout 565

Back on the Kingsclere escarpment the view was certainly spectacular with early morning sunlight and shadow highlighting every aspect of everything under a sky of awesome cloud formations. In particular a towering fan shaped mass lying to the north east just like the one seen near Arlesford.

Steve and I took photographs of each other but he had to get to work. I had to get moving too. The shape of that cloud reminded me of ones I saw long ago on the Congo;- anvil and mushroom shapes slow motion expanding/exploding like immense hydrogen bombs over that river and rainforest. Stormclouds. Convection rainfall. That was what they meant. Unusual to have that so early in the morning though. The cloud I was looking at now covered the Lower Thames Valley and could spread so that spurred me to hobble on along the downs. I was like an ant making my way around and away from the cloud’s edge.

On my own again, apart from a few other dots on the landscape: a man and his dog, also dwarfed by the fan of cloud. Above wheeled a corresponding number of large birds. Of prey possibly.

Far out in the dark masses of trees making up the middle and far distance was a level pale streak of industrial development. It could be – being in the right direction – the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. If that was it the setting did look suitably sombre under that doomsday cloud for the original purpose. Steve should be arriving there now.

I was creeping up a long incline towards Watership Down. An unforgettable book and film about a journey to a promised land and a struggle won was set here with rabbits as the characters. My family and I had been to Watership Down once finding the copse where Richard Adams placed the final home of the migrating rabbits. Some wag had carved ‘Bigwig was here’ on a tree.

I saw nothing like that. Just a bare expanse of down divided along its length by a what looked like a racecourse, with occasional clumps of foliage spaced far apart but behind each other on my side of the course, looking like isolated sections of hedge. Deciding to rest at one I realised it was a jump for horses. Like the Lambourn Downs to the north this was horsebreeding country, and ideal training country.

I donned my mac for the outer haze of that cloud was spreading above shutting out the sunlight. It looked like rain and things didn’t look good. Apart from the depressing lack of sunlight and the foot I needed a loo despite taking care at that back at Steve’s. There was nothing like a pub until I got off the Malborough Downs near the end of the day’s walk. Oh well, when the going gets tough the tough ..well…hold on. Apart from getting going again of course.

Later I met a wood on the wrong side of my route where the ridge bent back in an embayment. That meant I must have wandered along Watership Down and left it without realising it! I didn’t remember that racecourse when I was here with my family so that must have confused me. After the walkabout Google Earth showed that if I’d wanted to get to the wood with the Bigwig carving I should have stuck to the track which went past it instead of leaving it just before the horsetraining stretch to get more of a view northwards off the downs.

There was a lot of money in these parts. A large country house come mansion sat in parkland below the escarpment.

After a few miles of views obscured by the wood and an Iron Age hill fort I was turning south into a southerly bulge in the route; descending to a gap in the hills where a main road went through. Back on the downs on the other side it was only a few more miles to the next main road which led down to a pub and accomodation. Thank God I’d planned limited distances for the last 2 days of the hike.

Descending from the high ground one could see that the road was busy with trucks and various vehicles moving at speed as though on a never ending conveyer belt. I’d be alright though for the ordnance survey map showed a bridge where Wayfarers Walk met the road.

Things were becoming more man made instead of natural. A helicopter – possibly police – was above. On the shoulder of a hill was a regimented windbreak of pine trees, 2 abreast. A pylon line swept over the steppe like stubble of a harvested wheatfield and a tractor on the skyline.

At last I could see the bridge under the road. It wasn’t until I got close that I realised the traffic was not going over the bridge but thundering past the other side. I’d misread the map, it was a disused railway bridge not a subway under the road!

There was a signpost but that looked damaged and the information there was useless. I went under the bridge to take a closer look at the road: made up of dual carriageways, no way under or over it, a gap in the crash barriers in the middle and it didn’t look too difficult on the other side, but the traffic was heavy enough for a motorway and it should have been one, being the main route from Southampton to the Midlands. Not a road I wanted to cross but the ground looked unkempt and impassable to the south and the map seemed to show the same thing to the north. Unless I crossed it I faced huge detours either way.

What I’m about to describe is not what I would advise anyone to do. But there was a traffic gap big enough for the next vehicles to be specks down the road on my side. It’s now or never! MY HAT’S BLOWN OFF! KEEP MOVING! Without stopping my run I got to the safe enough centre. After several cars had gone through there was – by sheer luck – another gap like the first one. Get the hat and get out of here! MISSED IT! GOT IT GO! I made it back under the bridge. At no time had any vehicle hooted me so I can’t have been close enough to them for it to be life threatening.

Nevertheless a direct crossing was out. Far too dangerous. I wasn’t even sure that somebody wasn’t alerting a police helicpter to get on my case. Got to work out another route on the map.

Going further south looked hopeless for a long way and would deepen the bulge in the route sending me miles off course. To the north though closer perusal showed that there was a barely visible sign of a subway under that road by a confusion of disused railway lines. A track on the other side led south then cut westwards across the bulge to rejoin the route on top of the scarp of the downs. That was the way to win this ‘battle of the bulge’ if that subway existed.

Then just as I was getting under way a small group of people appeared from the south telling me there was a way under the road in that direction. Just what I didn’t need for it reintroduced indecision, it was the wrong direction and the only track that way appeared to be a path used by animals heading straight into brambly undergrowth.

It was a difficult choice but I stuck to my plan. It was only a mile north and I got on to the disused railway but it seemed longer than a mile of course. Trudging along I reflected that this railway was one of those condemned to dereliction by Doctor Beeching when railways disappeared across Britain, removing a solution to global warming just before that became a problem. Getting rid of this railway was one of his worst choices. It was the main line to the north from Southampton and now the passengers and freight displaced by its demise were on that main road, so this railway was a strategically important line. What underlined the whole business was the route of this road or motorway not just following the railway here but also around Newbury. That was the notorious Newbury bypass over which a battle was fought with protestors! Talk about unnecessary; had that line remained open.

There was the subway! A crude square hole but the green of foliage on the other side promised salvation. On the other side there were a pair of pheasants to greet me.

That huge cloud had overextended, losing its fringe where I was, so my mac was back in the bag for now the sun was powering up the heat again and the chalk of the track was reflecting it up at me. It was only a small rise ahead but I had to cave in on it until I could get some water into me and relax my feet.

The landrover materialising right by me must have been driving on carpet slippers I thought. Quiet enough to have beamed down from whatever mansion around here it belonged to. Hardly welcome after the crisis I’d been through and ongoing physical trial. I didn’t like the leer on the face of the young guy in it either.

The real problem though was proposed by the driver: an old farmer Giles type judging by the accent. This was a private road and I shouldn’t be here etcetera. It developed into a regular verbal pissing contest to mark territory, what with him stating I should be back where I was and me replying that the signposting there was bad – for all I knew he was responsible for it – that this track would lead to the right route and I didn’t want to get wiped out on the motorway! He was impervious to my enterprise being a sponsored walk – which gave a clue as to his character – as did his persistence in repeating himself. It became a circular conversation for when the chips are down my resolve is firm.

Eventually he gave ground lecturing me in detail about where to walk to on the track – which was wrong – while I conned him by pretending to listen dutifully.

Oh you’re finally going now jolly good! That’s right just sod off and take your wide boy son or worker with you who – judging by the leer – thinks he’s cleverer than anyone he meets. I needed this pair like a turd in the backside when I was trying to recover my strength, with a bad foot while needing a loo, to complete a challenge for a worthy cause, after a trial of nerves that could have been life threatening. Better get going anyway before I get arrested.

Another battle won so some martial music was right to play in my mind at a time like this. A war game at home dealing with the Russian front offered 2 themes: ‘forward to the glorious slaughter comrades’ or what I can only describe as ‘the Hitlerjugend top ten.’ Innapropriate I know but my justification is Lily Marlene being enjoyed on both sides during the war. One in particular gave me strength;- demonic probably since gunfire formed the orchestra. It’s sentiment was so what if danger threatens on all sides, we have our courage and our cause. Shame about the cause in their case.

The best one for me though was ‘Dad’s Army.’ “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler” and so forth. The comedy of geriatrics and misfits taking on what could have been a horrific challenge and succeeding in their aim through no fault of their own. That together with the proud marching music was unbeatable for me. Maybe it was my imagination but my foot actually seemed to be improving.

The scarp I had to get back up was an decent opponent compared to the ones just gone, exerting a tough but fair price for being overcome, with a few surprises on the way up.  The first being a deer which dashed into a wheatfield so I could only photograph its antlers and title it ‘spot the deer.’  The 2nd being a log for taking a break on, with a good view under a few nice little trees giving cover from the sun and helicopters that might be hunting me.

I took photos and mulled things over. It wasn’t farmers I was against, feeling that there should be a code along the lines of Thou Shalt Not Leave Litter Or Disturb Livestock taught more effectively at schools and to the general public everywhere. After all if they were going to wander around the countryside like me they had to be considerate to whoever was there. I drew the line at the attitude of those landowners who didn’t seem considerate. There was a lot of money around here. Too often there seemed to be a progression from that to landowners assuming they could seal off huge amounts of country and make footpaths disappear. And I hadn’t forgotten how one with a similar attitude to what I’d just encountered had put me on to a dangerous main road I was trying to avoid on my first walk for the school.  That gave me enough bloody mindedness to attempt any number of hikes.

I was back on the downs and there was the linkup with Wayfarers Walk! A notice I’d just passed declared ‘ESTATE VEHICLES ONLY’ when I looked back at it. In the spirit of Dad’s Army I gave it the Churchill salute.

The trek to the next main road went smoothly enough along the crest of the downs; which were a kind of causeway between views of rolling English countryside under cumulus cloud cluttered skies. Except when there was a wood. In it I found a short tower like a castle turret. The word that sprung to mind was ‘folly’ but it was obviously inhabited with cars parked outside.

At the main road the bus stop shown on Google Earth wasn’t even there. Not even a shelter as far as I could see. That meant negotiating a main road down to a pub and where I was staying that night. The road was narrow for a main one and full of bloody blind bends. It didn’t seem much less dangerous than the road I’d come from. Luckily the main traffic was on that road and this one was quiet enough to hear vehicles coming. My objectives weren’t too far either.

I worked my way down to a straight stretch and there at last was the pub! Now would it be closed like that one south of Basingstoke? Just what I didn’t need but the place I was staying at was only a mile further.

Thank God it was open though! I was happy enough not to care about the wait for the loo and explaining the wait to the guy after me. Perched on a bar stool chatting to the barmaid later with a hearty meal and a few pints I was still too content to leave that for a more comfortable sofa. It was a rambling rustic thoroughly nice pub. My trials were over.

Well not quite. Afterwards the road hemmed me in again. Just as I was about to enter the tree tunnel come bobsleigh run with traffic I had to cross back over the road to understand what a man on the other side of it was calling across to me. He told me it was a dangerous road. I knew that but he meant well. He was one of the few surviving blacksmiths in England. His workplace behind him was a long dilapidated looking shed. After he’d gone back in I decided to take a look. He was hunched over his work so I decided not to disturb him and tackled the road again. (Remember you’ve been drinking so stay sharp!) There was a way out some distance down this road but I was hoping for a break in the hedge before then.

There was one, leading into an unkempt meadow. Hopefully there was an opening in the other end. There was and the farm I was staying at was after that.

I arrived. Solid Georgian looking farmhouse on the left, converted outbuilding on the right. That consisted of a big meeting/dining room with stairs up to a landing and bedrooms. Mine was up there with a sloping roof ceiling, roomy and comfy with a bathroom and shower. After some confusion with the shower I slept through the late afternoon; I’d arrived early. That bed was bliss.

In the evening I’d recovered enough to realise there was a small flatscreen TV across the room. Okay for channel surfing on remote while in comfort in bed. The TV informed me that the big cloud I was on the edge of that morning had flooded Ruislip and cause bad weather chaos elsewhere. All in all I’d come out of today pretty well.

 

Hampshire walkabout 700

The final day beckoned. There was a big breakfast while outside a shadow dappled lawn enticed me with seats under trees and animals beyond idyllic in morning sunlight. But I had to be on my way for the final push.

It was a piece of cake. Instead of a main road I’d learned there was a quiet parallel lane up to the escarpment, perfect for me. Up that lane past hedgerows wild and ornate with gardens behind, up to the golden fields beyond I strolled, all bathed in that beautiful sunlight. Before I knew it I was through a wood and back up at the folly on top of that scarp slope. It looked more picturesque from this side.

On the other side of the main road there was a long woodland track with glimpses to the left of copses beyond fields full of the high yellow grass of wheat, reminding me of savannah I’d seen in Botswana what with the rising heat. To the right was a stretch where vegetation ended closer than it should, unless there was a steep slope with great views beyond.

Eventually there were. A farm nestled below in a fold of terrain and woods. Nearby the whole region seemed to disappear under a dark green lawn of trees blocking out open areas like fields, extending to the far horizon. An immense wooded park was another way of putting it for here and there I could make out the roofs and upper parts of some of those big landowner properties.

Later one of the boys I took to school saw a photo of that and exclaimed in high pitched wonder “you can see the whole world!” just like Fiver in ‘Watership Down.’ Well not the whole world really but the views up here did inspire a sense of wonder.

Even the property up here was good. Such as that folly and a house I came across in another wood. It’s architecture appeared influenced by Scandinavia, Japan or Frank Lloyd Wright, rather than the pretentious overpriced bogus little England boxes that we are supposed to devote our lives to. But it was as though I was on a higher plane now. Not only spiritually but literally. Even a helicopter over one of those private estates was below me.

Hampshire walkabout 795

As I walked along this level ridge I felt as though I’d broken through some sort of pain barrier too. The most extraordinary thing was my foot didn’t hurt at all now! I’d noticed that on my way up to this ridge but felt it couldn’t last, but it was. Also I’d told the young guys at the radio interview that there was no such thing as perfect hiking weather but I was wrong and this was it! The beautiful weather was not only continuing but there was a breeze this high up that took the edge off the heat. Quite weird actually how after days of some sort of discomfort that I took for granted was a condition of hiking the whole thing had become painless enough to indicate I’d achieved a higher plane of existence.

Hampshire walkabout 803m

Then there were all those white clouds. They’d been forming up from little puffs and odd wisps into shapes and distribution that looked idealised, almost regular. Almost as though the children at the school had painted them! Had I expired and wound up in some sort of Heaven for someone who walks for a special needs school? That would explain the kiddie clouds and total lack of any sort of discomfort. All this and the landscape which was idyllic enough to be unreal under those clouds and endless immensities of blue sky, of a deep blue hinting at a subtly different atmosphere. Was I – on the other hand – on another planet that looked remarkably like England?

I wandered on in this bemused state but didn’t remain on my own. Normalcy returned to some extent when I met a local man out walking his dog. There was the companionship of a long rambling conversation with him; the sort one has in this sort of setting and weather.

That encouraged me to think – when we parted – that there’ll be more people on Walbury Hill – my objective – who could take a photo of the triumph of me completing another walk for the school. I was almost there. The last few miles of a walk can be psychologically the toughest but today had been a perfect day.

The track led past wildflowers and bushes to what had become a close horizon and I was there. On the highest hill in south east England. More of a featureless grassy plateau actually, probably because it was also an Iron Age hill fort. There were also no people to record my success. Oh well.

Hampshire walkabout 820

Wayfarers Walk ended here but the track led on to more views appearing where a few trees guarded the edge of the hill. A line of small clouds seemed to drift up and away into the summer sky like a few last stray thoughts on the whole enterprise.

There were all the people in cars! In a car park just off the hill and and along a high lane where they could still see the view. Was I becoming one of the last wild men while everyone else was evolving into a race of legless Daleks? Oh well. Just down the lane was a memorial to a group of men who’d had to be much tougher than any of us: the paratroopers who’s stormed the Merville Battery at the onset of the D Day landings. They’d practised the assault here because the terrain was suitable.

Walbury Hill might have been a bit of an anticlimax and I still actually had some miles to go, but it was downhill mostly, through a profusion of leafy lanes and it was still a lovely day. Besides, there was a pub I would soon reach where I could celebrate.

Ramble on. Down the hill past bushy wildflowered banks and stunning views. Into the shadow of sunken lanes where a tractor trims a hedge. Past a country mansion whose owner is disturbing the peace powering up the racket on his machine to mow his massive front lawn. Through a tree resplendant hollow with a signpost for Kintbury where I catch the train. The pub should be just up on the right and there it was but….

Oh no it was being refurbished! Just looking at a refurbishment can make me feel tired and builders hoardings can make me feel as though I’m being confronted with a blank wall of crap. Irritating. Apart from which they were probably ruining a perfectly good and historically valuable pub. Another manifestation of property values driven by market forces which I love to loathe. Once clear of it there seemed to be nobody around so I vented my feelings at the top of my voice with a poem I’d composed:-

“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Brainwashed shalt thou be.

Calloused.

Dumbed down.

Erased of courage and creative thought.

Fearful otherwise.

Gravity, debt pressing down on you like gravity.

Home ownership or financial black hole either way. 

In the status quo of property.

Just conform and be streetwise.

Kill all other dreams, all creativity.

Less they become a liability.

Marketing of mortgages makes us grateful slaves.

NO!

Ownership I don’t decry.

Perhaps I’d have owned more if that was run differently.

Question though one’s life revolving round it.

Rebel against the money tied up in it!

Stunting us with mortgages, maintenance, bloody refurbishments!

The curse of cowboy builders, DIY neighbours, estate agents.

Useless Mr. & Mrs. Dimmo on property programme infested TV!

Vent your spleen, their budget would set up you, me, or the odd 3rd world country.

Wankers.  And to Hell with those mortgage marketing bonus bankers!

X for execrable.

Yield not to the wonderland of property.

Zombiefied otherwise shalt thou be.”

It wasn’t home ownership I was against, it was the colossal amounts of money, conformity and lack of freedom tied up in it.  It’s not that I intended this blog to be an anti property diatribe but too often some manifestation of it seemed to interfere in my affairs and others.

Just as well I’d finished my rant anyway by the time I’d crossed what was Inkpen Common and reached ‘Hell Corner.’  Nothing hell like about it.  Just a party of people in a wooded lane around children on ponies.  Ramble on.  Down the rest of Rooksnest Lane into another lane named Pebble Hill, which became Blandy’s Hill after another mansion.  Ramble on.  Ramble on.  That was actually the title of a track based on Middle Earth by the rock group Led Zeppelin:-

“Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor

I met a girl so fair.

But Gollum and the Evil One!

Crept up and slipped away with her-er

Her her. Yeah.

And there aint nothing I can do about it.

So I guess I’ll keep on rambling!”

I’d started writing about this adventure by referring to Gandalf so why not finish in the same vein, or world?  Middle Earth and The Shire.  I could identify with some of the song, especially the bit about “Gonna work my way, round the world” which I’d done.  I confess that one of the reasons I’d ‘rambled’ or walked through many places and went on my travels was to compensate for things I felt I couldn’t do much about, by experiencing and achieving things others hadn’t.

I’d reached Kintbury.  I replenished at a corner shop; the only one I’d seen on the entire journey, then found an ice cream van after passing a graveyard.  Then I was crossing the canal by the railway, just missing a train.  There was another pub where I relaxed with a few pints and the barman took photos of me with the deflated balloon draped over the backpack.  The other refurbished pub and just been a blip in a day good enough to be memorable.  Not to mention the journey; an incredible fact struck me about that.  Despite walking 65 miles I didn’t have any blisters!

I finished a celebratory pint and crossed the canal to the station, hoping I’d missed the train again so I could go back to the pub.  I hadn’t.

Got a good shot on the way home of a big cloud haloed by its shadow.  A similar effect to those mountains at dawn in the French Alps.  I’d taken a shedload of photos on this journey, plenty for the photolibrary.

 

Sometime after I got home I notified Hampshire County Council about the lack of good signposting where Wayfarers Walk met that road, telling them it was a deathtrap because of that and because the bridge was not fenced so people could walk straight on to that traffic filled highway.

In September I would run into a brick wall trying to collect sponsor forms.  Nobody would know about them or care.  The biggest disappointment being my community centre where the form would be removed from the noticeboard over the holidays and not be found afterwards.  Nevertheless I would still make £250.50p.  More than last time.  There would be another school assembly in my honour.  Like last time.

In the meantime I was in for a couple of weeks of R and R.  Then it was off to the biggest SF convention ever in London.  Party on!

© D Angus 11 04

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