Friday, 27 December 2013

Yosemite VII

It had come to this. I was crawling on my hands on knees through the dirt around my half-constructed tent, dragging the hammer and bag of pegs, taking care to keep my damaged foot raised and muttering to myself about the injustice of it all.

All around me were happy families clustered around their Winnebagos, the kids riding bikes, laughing and ding-dinging their bells, the parents reclining in camp chairs with beers and peanuts at hand, there were people returning from the shower tousling their fresh clean hair, invigorated after a day hiking the trails of the spectacular Yosemite Valley.

And there was me like a modern-day Smeagol with bandaged foot, grovelling in the dirt.

The logistics were proving difficult. My food was stored in the bear locker which was a few metres from the camp table, which was in turn a few metres from the tent, which was a few metres from the car. Every movement required careful planning. Get all ingredients for dinner, got tea, got toothbrush...I couldn’t carry things by hand, so had to load it into bags or ditch the crutches and hop around. No fire because it was impossible to gather wood, no beer because I was on antibiotics, my tent smelled like pee because the tree I was camped under was dripping something weird down, and my thermarest had a leak that needed pumping a few times per night. I looked at other people sitting round the fire with their special someone, drinking and laughing, then I looked at me sitting in the dark with my crutches and John Muir book for company and my pee-smelling tent and flat mattress to look forward to.

This trip to the US had taken a sharp twist in tone when I was suddenly unable to hike. No longer would I be striding the trails, the sun on my face and a whistle on my lips as I traversed mountains and cupped my hands to drink cool, clear river water. Now I was one of the mob. I was on the park shuttle bus with the group of elderly tourists with name badges on their chests and they smiled knowingly at me and my crutches as they looked down at their own walking sticks. Welcome to our world they were thinking as they swayed back and forth in time with the movements of the bus. I was there at the lookout with the people in zip-off pants, many-pocketed vests and three hundred dollar boots who hike from their car to the lookout point (via the hotdog stall), on their five minute stop off at this vantage point of immense beauty.

I got myself to the lookout at Glacier Point. It was this kind of view that inspired John Muir to write “But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its walls seems to glow with if into this one mountain mansion Nature had gathered her choicest treasures.” It was a place that deserved a show of reverence.

Out of a house-sized campervan piled Brendan, Alex, Mum and Dad. The two boys wore matching polo shirts of blue, black and white horizontal stripes. They had snowy white hair and they ran this way and that, kicking rocks and pulling faces.
‘Alex! Brendan! Come here!’ mum screeched as she emerged from the behemoth. But they had quickly spotted the cafe and came racing back demanding candy.
‘Not now boys, let’s go and get some shots of the wilderness’ dad said.
They followed him over to the lookout where there was a jostling mob of tourists, politely shouldering each other out of the way so they could paint on an appropriately serene smile for the camera in front of the Yosemite Valley sprawled below them.
Dad had the camera jammed in their face and mum was at his shoulder saying ‘Brendan smile properly! don’t do that thing with your eyebrows, this photo’s for Poppy so make it nice. Oh, Brendan!’

There was so much to look at – I surprised myself by realising I was having a great time.

Crazies in Yosemite in earlier times

Modern day madness

Friday, 15 November 2013

Yosemite, Part VI

I was close now. Waking up early on the third day there were about twelve miles to walk (all the maps and signs were in miles, so I’d converted my thinking). But the previous day I’d been limping along at only a mile an hour, the discomfort in my foot just wouldn’t allow for more. I got going before the sun rose to give myself time to get back to the car and medical attention.  In the shadow of the early morning I wound down the escarpment, surprising a family of deer on the way.

I was determined to get back, but also worried about what was to be done with this horrible cut on my foot, which was still oozing blood and throbbing relentlessly.

Reaching the valley floor the path followed the shallow, clear waters of the Tuolumne River as it snaked its way towards home. In the glowing sunshine I hobbled along, stopping now and again to catch my breath. I gazed around at the line of pine-covered mountains rising on either side of the river plain, the snowy peaks back from where I’d come, and the bubbling river flowing gently along, quietly doing what it was made to do.

Before long I began passing people with fishing rods, father and son out for a day in the wild. It looked like paradise, and I envied them for their lack of worry.  

In mid-afternoon, physically and mentally exhausted, I presented myself at the Ranger hut. I needed some help I told them and they called a first aid officer in to look at me.

‘Sorry if I’m a bit smelly’, I said as I unwound the manky, blood-soaked bandage from my foot, ‘it’s been a tough few days’.

‘That’s fine’, she said. Then, looking at the wound, ‘Yeah, you’re going to need to get to hospital for this one. Or there’s a medical centre in Yosemite village if that’s easier for you.’

I drove down to the busy Yosemite village and pulled up at the medical centre. I was waiting behind a Belgian guy who’d smashed his knee rock climbing, and when it was my turn I went in to see Andy the nurse. I took the bandage off.

‘Eeeeeergheeew’, he said. ‘Why didn’t you come in sooner? Hey Jen, come and look at this!’ he called.

In came Jen, another nurse. After looking with a delighted grimace at the gaping, festering wound which now seemed to take up most of the sole of my foot, she asked if I’d mind if she took a photo.

A doctor came in and poked around inside for a bit.

‘We don’t normally put in sutures after two days, but I don’t see any other options’, he said. ‘There’s a high chance of infection so you need to get straight back here if it gets sore and red’.

Up until now the pain had never been too terrible. But after flushing out the wound, it was time for the anaesthetic. I hate needles at the best of times, I really do. And I discovered that a needle in the foot is like no pain I’d ever come across. Six times they jabbed me with that little stick of fire and six times I writhed on the bed as though undergoing an exorcism.

Drained, lonely and sorry for myself, I hopped out of the medical centre to face the next question... how does a man on crutches go about setting up a tent? 

Looking back at the mountains I'd been exploring, the path home was flat and sunny.

In dappled sunshine I limped along beside the quiet river.

Paradise, but I was determined just to get back. 

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Yosemite, Part V

I stumbled over the pass, and down the other side. It was fairly steep and rocky country but there were a series of flat grassy meadows ahead. Perfect little nooks for making camp. The view back behind me was of the last of the day’s light on a snowy peak, and ahead was a deep green valley with a twisting river at the base. 

Following the regulations for the Park, I had my food stored in a borrowed bear-proof canister. The black, football-sized container was to be left thirty metres from the tent during the night. The Park had lots of information about how black bears can sniff out a morsel of food from several kilometres away, and such is their taste for human food (not humans themselves though) that they’ll go to great lengths to get their paws on some. Including busting up picnics, and breaking car windows to get the goodies within. There were photos of bears climbing in car windows, and instructions on what to do should a bear approach - mostly making lots of noise and throwing 'small stones.'

Exhausted after dinner, I crawled into my tent ready for sleep. I’d taken no chances and left my canister a good distance away.

But during the night not long after going to sleep, trouble struck. I heard a sniffing and snorting and snuffling round outside the tent and a flapping of the fly. A bear!, I thought as I lay dead still in fear.

I remembered the instructions I'd read, so I kicked into gear and began yelling ‘go on get out of here you bear’ and clapping my hands and clanging my water bottle as loud as I could. After about twenty seconds of this intimidating display of power I stopped to listen for sounds of a bear going away, but instead of less snuffling there was now a rustling round the other side of the tent as well. Two bears? Oh, crap.

Maybe a whole family - a village of bears - had descended on my helpless green tent to plunder the goodness within. Had they smelled blood and sensed I was easy prey? Or did I have any food in there? It was all stashed in the canister thirty metres away, though I had my painkillers and the little bottle of iodine water purifiers with me. I guess I should have put them in the canister. Damn.

It then dawned on me that amongst all the rustlings of the tent there was  no identifiable sniffing and snuffling sounds or actual bear footsteps. After listening for a while longer I poked my head out and confirmed that the wind had come up pretty strong and the fly wasn’t pegged down very tight and was flapping innocently in the moonlight. 

Trusty bear canister

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Yosemite, Part IV

My heart was heavy and my stomach queasy as I gently pulled my boot on over the bulky bandage. I looked around at the wonderful mountain scenery I would no longer be exploring - but I had to get this foot looked at. It would be the end of my hiking for a while, I knew that much. I stood up and gingerly put some weight on the left foot. Surprisingly it didn’t feel too bad.

And so began several minutes of internal dialogue...You might never come back here, just keep going – No, it’s too risky, gotta get this foot fixed up – Come on, two days forward or one back, what’s the big difference? – What about blood loss, infection, amputation, slow death? – Look at these mountains, this sky – You’re all alone, don’t be crazy – It’s just a cut – It’s a big cut – I’m walking on – Don’t do it - I’m doing it.

I did it.

Some of the time it was fine, and the landscape was so incredible I was glad to have gone on. I filled my water bottle from cool, bubbling rivers. I hiked quiet paths with views over deep, wooded valleys. I ate simple, tasty food and I contemplated the world around me.

At other times, like when I unwrapped the bandage in the evening and saw blood still oozing insistently out , and I was further from help, I doubted the wisdom of my choice. As I woke in the morning the slow throbbing in my foot reminded me of the previous day’s mishap. It was more painful and I needed a stick to lean on as I hobbled along. I was making slow progress, and climbing over the final pass for the day, I needed to rest every fifty metres and then verbally talk myself into standing up and walking on.

The adventure continued. 

Barren highland landscape

The green Tuolomne Valley

Have you ever seen a river meander like this?


Saturday, 4 May 2013

Yosemite, Part III

In the afternoon of the first day, after climbing a rocky pass, I came across a glittering pool. The water was emerald green and a waterfall was crashing down into it, bringing chilled mountain water replenishment. I’d been walking all day, building up a good sweat and hadn't seen anybody since crossing paths with a family going fishing early in the morning. It seemed like the perfect wild place for a cold mountain swim.

With my clothes lying in a pile on the bank I waded in. It was cold, but I was determined. All around was high Sierra scenery and empty space - I was living the dream. This was it.

After a couple of steps, my right foot slipped on a rock. I put my left foot down suddenly to stop my fall and it landed on the upturned edge of a knife-sharp rock lying on the lake floor. With all my weight on the foot it slid along the sharpened edge of the rock.

I looked down and saw red streamers of blood swirling into the cool, clear water.

Sitting back on the bank, I had a look. There was a deep gash along the arch of my foot, and inside I could see layers and colours and squishy bits moving around. Blood oozed out and ran onto the ground.

I moved quickly to bandage it up tight, and then the grim situation began to sink in. I’d come across the world for a hiking holiday and now I’d put a gaping wound in one half of my means of transport.

A long way from help - a long way from anyone at all, I sat in the sunshine on the bank of a clear mountain lake. Like a siren of the hiking world, it had lured this unsuspecting traveller in, to meet my demise on its razor teeth.

Though I always packed a basic first aid kit, I never really considered having to use anything except bandaids for blisters. I hadn't reckoned on spilling blood on Yosemite soil.

The question loomed...what was I to do now?

It wasn't any of these lakes, but one a bit smaller. I guess I wasn't in the mood for photos at that moment.  

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Yosemite, Part II

The thing I love most about going on a hike for a few days is the simplicity of it all. Out of communication, away from advertising, away from traffic. And as I often tend to hike alone; away from people.

The rhythm of the day is broken down into the basics. Eat, walk, rest. There aren’t many decisions to be made, and there’s a whole lot of space and time for thinking. Everything I need for the few days I’m away is carried on my back. Simple.

I like to rely on my body, my own physical exertion, as a means of transport. 

I’m with Thoreau when he says “Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”

Admittedly, it seems that simplicity is relative to time and place. When John Muir explored in the Sierra Nevada in the nineteenth century, his preparation went like this: "I rolled up some bread and tea in a pair of blankets with some sugar and a tin cup and set off."

In contrast, a quick tally of a typical hike for me revealed that – excluding food – I carry and wear at least thirty five items, worth well over two thousand dollars.

Still, life on a hike is definitely simpler. With a solid pair of boots on my feet, a map and compass in my pocket, a pack containing warm gear, sleeping gear, basic but healthy food and a book and journal, and with a few days and a few kilometres of path ahead of me, I’m about as happy as I can be.

That’s how it was that crisp sunny morning in Yosemite National Park. I’d mapped out a three day loop walk that would take me from Tuolomne Meadows over a couple of passes of around 11,000 feet, around the shore of several highland lakes and back beside a clear bubbling stream into Tuolomne on the famous John Muir trail.

I’d be walking through glacier-carved foreign lands, one of the world’s most famous and striking National Parks. The autumn weather was perfect for hiking, cool and sunny. It was bear country (black bears, not grizzlies), I might see deer, and the higher peaks were covered in snow. You can drink from the rivers, and camping is allowed anywhere along the way.

I felt a lucky man, light and free, as I shouldered my pack and set off up the track.


Following a path into beautiful country, on a cool clear morning = happiness. 

Above the tree-line, the path continues.

On top of the first pass. 

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Yosemite, Part I

I hired a little hatchback and rolled east out of San Francisco. Through flat sunny plains and towards the Sierra Nevada. The craggy mountains were just a name to me, I didn’t really know what to expect and even as I drew near there wasn’t much to prepare me for the sight.

Driving into Yosemite Valley I was overawed. The landforms are towering, there is a feel of the ancient and the powerful, the spiritual nature of the earth. Giant granite rockfaces climb heavenwards, standing watch over the coming of day and the coming of night, the changing of seasons, the passing of ages.

Waterfalls dropped from on high, vapors drifting off like steam. Squirrels and deer haunt the shadows. Snow lay thick on the high ground, but the sky was crisp and blue. Pine, spruce and fir trees, so foreign and lush to my Australian eyes, stood around clear quiet lakes.

Yosemite is rich in history. Until 1851 it was home to the Ahwahneechee tribe of indigenous Americans, but with white settlers flooding to California during the gold rush, they were routed and by 1855 tourists were arriving. In 1864 Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant, which entrusted the valley to the state “for public use, resort and recreation.”  This was eight years before Yellowstone became the world’s first official National Park.

I sensed it was a special place. And, I soon learned, I wasn’t alone. Yosemite National Park is the United States’ most popular and receives three and a half million visitors a year. Like busy little ants we shuttled around, from carpark to booking office to campsite.

On one hand, I thought it was fantastic that so many people were connecting with the real world, breathing the fresh air and walking the trails. On the other hand I really wouldn’t have minded if some of these people had buggered off to the shopping malls in the nearest city. 

The park covers over three thousand square kilometres, but the majority of visitors stay within the eighteen square kilometres of Yosemite Valley. The glacier-carved valley is spectacular, more than worthy of this attention. This is where the peaks with names like Half Dome, the Sentinel and El Capitan are found. With their stark, striking forms they have become recognisable, almost like a symbol you’d see on a tshirt.   

You need to book ahead for one of the four hundred daily passes to hike up Half Dome.

I’d planned to join the masses for some day hikes around the valley, but for the time being I was craving some space, so I waited in line at the visitor centre to arrange a pass for a three day hike in the quieter northern region. With the route mapped out and everything I needed with me, I was ready for a stroll through the backwoods.


From Tunnel View lookout. El Capitan is in the foreground on the left, and Half Dome is in the background, just right of centre. 

Half Dome. 

El Capitan. Can you spot the rock climbers? No, neither can I, but they're bound to be there - the place was crawling with them.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

New Year in an Old Town, Part III

Djenne feels like the ancient world. Gusts of wind whip up the dust as donkeys pull carts of firewood along the streets. Mobs of children covered head to toe in dust carry buckets in which to put their begged food. The buildings are almost entirely mud built. Only the mopeds zipping around give the game away.

In the oldest part of town, narrow alleys wind in and out between the two storey houses. I wandered through and saw gutters holding pools of foul-smelling muck, children playing, women sweeping and girls pounding millet.

Some of the houses contain workshops where bogolan cloth is made. Using mud and leaves, patterns are painted onto strips of cotton cloth. These are sewn together and used for blankets, table cloths and clothing. The designs are usually symmetrical patterns in black and shades of brown. The workshops have walls covered in bogolan, and piles and piles of it cover the floor.

Djenne is famous for its Great Mosque. The largest mud built construction in the world, its formidable profile looms over the centre of the town. Tourists aren’t allowed inside, but the outside view is majestic enough. It is dotted with struts made of bundles of palm sticks which protrude to the outside. It has three main towers and many many pinnacles. The mud walls are a metre thick, and the main prayer hall is twenty six by fifty metres in size. There is also an interior courtyard of a similar size, and other galleries, including one for use only by women.

After every rainy season the there is a festival in which the whole town helps to repair the mosque. It needs to be coated with a new layer of mud. The new plaster is mixed in pits and the dusty boys jump in to play, which stirs it up, then it is carried to the mosque and men swarm over the building, standing on the sticks poking out of it, to cover the mosque with its new coat.  

In front of the mosque is the large open space which holds the bustling Monday market, and at other times you can see tourists – cameras held high – sauntering back and forth gawking at the mosque, while locals criss-cross the square on bicycles or mopeds.

Gangs of those same dusty boys careen about harassing herds of ambling goats, chasing each other or making inquiries of the tourists. ‘Mister, give me a gift’ they say in French. Maybe they’ll demand money, a hundred Euro ought to do it. If this fails they still like to know your name, where you’re from and any other important facts that spring to mind. Trying to be helpful they adopt the pompous air of a tour guide and point to the mosque, whose giant frame blocks the horizon, and say this is the Great Mosque of Djenne. Oh really? Thank you very much.

Antonio, Alicia and I went to a small hotel for a quiet drink. There were only tourists there as the locals are Muslim and do not drink. When we returned to our hotel I saw that Betty had come to my rescue. She must have noticed my discomfort and asked the staff for an extra mattress which was placed on the floor for me to sleep on. I saw that Antonio felt rebuffed, but pretended not to notice.  


The Great Mosque

Dusty boys take a break

Friday, 1 March 2013

New Year in an Old Town, Part II

Just before arriving in Djenne Antonio proclaimed the four of us simply had to spend the night together, as though our taxi ride had somehow bonded us as family. Sure, these people are annoying and don’t show any signs of liking each other, but it’s New Year’s Eve, I thought, so why not? We climbed out of the taxi and began the task of finding somewhere to stay. 

Walking through the town, Antonio was like a character from a movie. Dressed in traditional African bou-bou (bought at great expense, but much to the delight of the Malians), he strutted the streets picking up children and putting them on his shoulders, hugging women, laughing and making merry with men, goats and donkeys. He was a whirlwind full of ideas and we others could only follow in his wake.

A small hotel told us they had a four person room at a cheap price. I waited in the courtyard with the bags while the others went to look at the room. Two minutes later Antonio came to fetch me, and showed me into a small but comfortable room with a double bed off to one side and two singles up the other end. 

He said “Steve we’ve discussed the bed situation and” he glanced at Alicia “think it’s best if we take the double bed.”

“Of course” I said, having thought it obvious.

“So it’s settled then. We’ll take the room!” he proclaimed with his right hand raised in the air, index finger extended, to signify the sealing of the deal.

We then went out to collect our bags. Betty struggled in with her gigantic backpack and dropped it on one of the beds, Antonio came in and flopped down on the double bed and then Alicia came in and put her bag down on the other single bed. She sat on the bed and started sorting her stuff out, making herself at home.

Nobody else seemed to think this was strange. Wasn’t that my bed?

As my mind worked through the scenario, it dawned on me that when Antonio said we’ll take the double bed, he might have been referring to he and I. I didn’t understand, but guessed that maybe in their culture it wouldn’t be right to share a bed with his wife when other people were in the room. But to share it with a stranger?

So this is how I was to see in the new year, cuddled up to this hairy, larger than life Italian man. It wasn’t even a real double bed, more like one and a bit singles. And with the mosquito net hanging over the sides, the space was further constricted.

I put my bag on the floor in the centre of the room and thought about this.

“Um, I might go get a drink somewhere” I said.

“Not me”, said Betty ‘I’m going to rest here a little while.”

“We’ll joining you” Antonio said, “It is the new year’s eve is it not?”



Friday, 22 February 2013

New Year in an Old Town, Part I

“Allow me to tell you that myself, I am Antonio. And this is the lovely lady who is my wife Alicia. You are going to Djenne, no? Welcome my friend, you are number five. Now we just wait for four more. Stand here, you don’t need to move.”

I was used to being surrounded, hustled and cajoled by locals in Mopti; trying to get me to stay at their hotel, travel in their taxi or buy their artwork. It’s a busy hub of a town in the centre of Mali, a base from where people launch their trips to Timbuktu, hikes in Dogon country, or visits to the wondrous mosque of Djenne. Built on the banks of the Niger River, Mopti port serves as a centre for river transport up and down the country. Tourists get mobbed by men touting once in a lifetime opportunities, and I had learnt to deal with it.

But this Italian gentleman, Antonio, was something else. In his thirties, short and stout, he’d taken it upon himself to organise the other passengers and distribute vital information.  The guys who normally had this job were leaning against the taxi and laughing among themselves, taking a breather from their task of recruiting new passengers.

I got talking to Betty, an elder American lady who was also travelling to Djenne.

“I hate this place” she told me in her syrupy Californian drawl. “I’ve travelled through Europe, North America and South East Asia, but this place is so dusty and so expensive. The food here is so bad, but in South East Asia it’s superb. And the people! In South East Asia they’re so gentle and polite, but here they are rude – all they want is money. Can you believe yesterday a young man told me I know we don’t have much time, but I just want to get to know you better, while he was caressing my arm! I told him where to go, oh yes, I’m an old lady for crying out loud.”

Lowering her voice, and with a glance to the left and right she said “And that Antonio, he’s so bossy and thinks he knows everything. Reminds me of that air-sole I used to be married to.”

The creaky old Peugeot taxi was finally packed full enough for us to leave. I tried to ignore Betty’s chatter and focus on the flat, barren landscape we were passing through. Away from the river the land looked desolate.It was made even less hospitable by the overcast sky, misty air and gusts of wind that blew up clouds of dirt.

Close to Djenne we had to cross a river, requiring a barge to carry us over. Standing at the edge, looking into the water, I found myself chatting with Antonio. “That Betty is to me so annoying. She won’t keep herself quiet and won’t agree with anything I suggest to” he said, adding with a sly grin “yesterday a young local man told me he was interested in her, and I told him to go for it because she’s single and keen for some action!” He gave me a wink.

...continued next time...


Mopti's busy port

Ten people fit in an old Peugeot taxi. It broke down more than once. 

Monday, 4 February 2013

The Wizard of Chefchaouen

High up in the Rif Mountains of north western Morocco is a town painted blue and white. The walls of the shops and the houses are whitewashed and many then coloured blue, and from a distance the town looks like a fairy tale come true. 

In summer tourists come to breathe the mountain air and eat candy and take strolls around the marketplace.

In winter the people of the town scurry through the stone streets wearing long woollen gowns with pointed hoods, and they duck into their stores advertising spices, goat’s cheese, woollen blankets and crafts, to escape the cold and to talk to their neighbours.

I too walked the stone streets, getting lost and found again as the narrow ways wound up and down the steep hillside. The mountaintop above Chefchaouen was dusted with snow, and on one of my rambling walks it began snowing in the town. As the flakes fell gently on the grey stone pavement children ran excitedly in and out, and the adults raised their faces to the sky. ‘The first time in twenty seven years it has snowed in the town!’ an old man told me with a grin.

Leaning against a doorway a voice called to me ‘Welcome friend, from where do you hail?’

‘A long way from home friend’ he said on learning I was Australian. ‘Come in for a cup of tea, and I can show you my shop.’

‘I’d like to, but I’m travelling light and am really not interested in buying anything’ I told him.

‘Of course, of course, just come in and we can talk a little.’

I followed him into his little store which was cloistered and warm. The walls were hung with rugs of rich colour and fabric, there was candlelight and the smell of herbs and spices. He sat himself on a low lounge chair and gestured at one opposite for me. He was of middle age and of middle size and had an air of calm about him, his movements were unhurried and assured. A serene smile sat across his face as he looked over at me.

‘Australia, Australia...the land of kangaroos and Vegemite’ he said as he poured the sweet green tea and handed me a small glass full.  Steam rose from it, and the warmth of it in my hand, and the smell wafting from its surface were intoxicating on this cold winters day in the mountains of Morocco.

‘You know about Australia?’ I said. It was rare to meet people who spoke much English, let alone knew about my country.

‘Even though I myself have not ventured far beyond my town’ he said, ‘many people they come into my store, people from the corners of the globe. So it is as if I have travelled far without travelling at all.’

Sipping the tea, and feeling it fall smooth and warm down my throat I looked round the store, at his many fine crafts.

‘You like my store, no? Is there anything you like most in particular?’

‘No, I think everything is lovely.’

‘I know you, you’re backpacker, no? You carry all in one small pack and have no room for my fine things. But you have family no? You have mother and father at home maybe also brother and sister?’

‘Yes, I have a family, a good family.’

‘I know I know, you do not wish to buy. But if you were going to buy a something for your good family, what might you buy them? One of these fine rugs, perhaps?’ He gestured at the wall behind him where there was an array of beautifully crafted rugs of different weaves, colours and sizes. ‘More tea?’ he said with a smile and poured another cup full for me.

‘That blue one there is nice. And the red one over there is too, my parents live separately so one wouldn’t do.'

'Of course, of course. Excellent choice my friend, they are two of my finest rugs. I know you have no wish to buy, but just to pass the time, how much do you think you would pay for those two fine rugs?’

Gently and good naturedly the conversation wound, like the alleyways of the town, around and up and down. Never heading too directly to the end point, but circling and meandering as if there was all the time in the world and nothing to be gained by turning either this way or that.

And then with only a vague idea of what had happened, I found myself out on the cold street again with two rugs and a woollen gown of my own under my arm. I walked back to the hotel wondering how on earth I'd fit these into my pack and calculating how many days worth of my budget I had just parted with; handed over to this masterful wizard in his den on the hill, in the blue and white town in the mountains. 


Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Kings Of The Forest, Part II

How much have your eyes seen, if they've never seen the world’s tallest trees?

It was a question that had drifted in and out of my mind through the years, and it was there as I loaded my camping gear into the green Toyota and drove north out of San Francisco. Over the Golden Gate Bridge and through steady rain for a couple of days, into the countryside of Humboldt County.

On The Avenue of the Giants redwoods grow right by the road, which weaves and meanders like it was built in the time before the world was in a hurry. Though near midday, it was dark in the thick of the forest and cars had their headlights on as they moved like beetles along the forest floor.

The redwoods are the dominant tree of the area, and they stand straight and proud. Up to thirty storeys high, the tallest individuals grow in small groves where the soil and water are just right, often on flat alluvial plains. On a drizzly afternoon I took a walk through one of these groves.

There was mist floating round the upper portion of the trees, rain dripped from pine needles in slow fat drops, a creek was bubbling somewhere nearby and all around me the mighty redwoods shot skywards, like rockets paused mid-liftoff. I was slowly wandering through this ancient scene when for the first time in three days the sun broke through the clouds. Patches of golden light illuminated a mossy green limb, a breath of swirling mist. Beams of sunlight slanted through the forest, and raindrops were caught in the rays and briefly came alight like shooting stars plummeting earthwards.

The coast redwoods relish the winter rains and are able to capture the summer fog in their lofty heights to provide moisture during the dry months.

In the canopy of these trees, way up in the sky, lives an unlikely ecosystem. Species of plant such as ferns and huckleberry and even animals like worms and salamanders can live their entire lives in the redwood canopy.

The redwoods grow only in a narrow six hundred kilometre strip along the Pacific coast, from central California to southern Oregon.  Only five per cent of the original forest remains today, the timber being logged heavily since the gold rush of the nineteenth century. If left to live, they can stand for two thousand years.

In that forest of giants I wandered and pondered. My eyes’ thirst was slaked and I felt the kind of calm that comes at being reminded of my smallness and insignificance in this big old world.