Friday, December 28, 2007

sailing on an ocean of sand

September 19th 2003

At this time of year I think it appropriate to tell you about the time I rode into Bethlehem on a donkey. The missus was preggers and I had to find a hostel ... oh wait a minute, that wasn't me.

It wasn’t Bethlehem, it was Jaisalmer, and there was no donkey but a camel. But the story is similar. Oh ... and no wife up the duff. ('A bun in the oven' for all you Seppos. Seppos...septic-tank ...Yank. Do I have to explain EVERYTHING?)

Anyway, I WAS riding a camel, and it was bloody uncomfortable let me say. It is one thing to sit on one for a quick 50 metres up the beach and back for the novelty, yet another to have to sit on the damned thing for hours while meandering along in the desert dunes looking for the campsite.

I was in India. Jaisalmer to be precise, in the North-Western part of the state of Rajasthan. Jaisalmer was pretty much one of the first places I visited after arriving in the country.

And it was spectacular.

terry under a jaisalmer arch

Often referred to as India’s Golden City because of the colour the sun turns the abundant sandstone in the late afternoon. The fort and many of the city’s temples and ornate buildings are constructed of the stuff.

local architecture

more of the same

and more

and a bit more

the local kwik-e-mart

The heart of Jaisalmer is dominated by the fort built in 1156. A magnificent edifice which gives the entire city a feeling not so much India, curry and Swamis and Sadhus - but of Arabian Nights.

the fort

I was in Northern India for a month travelling with Jane and Shane and we were generally travelling in a circle around Rajasthan with a side trip to Agra, Varanassi and Chandigarh.

Our hotel in Jaisalmer was built into the castle walls - the drop out of my room window was considerable. The hotel also had a sitting area on the top of one of the fort’s myriad bastions - which was perfect for sitting around at sunset and ruminating on the days sightseeing.

good coffee spot

view from the roof

The camel trip in question was a ride for several hours out into the Thar desert, which borders India and Pakistan.

them thar desert dunes

It was pleasantly hot and very dry, and the camels were not spitting too much. (Though for long periods of the journey out, the one on front of me was spitting considerably and continuously from the other end. Touch of Delhi-belly I suspect.)

on board s.s.camelus

at the helm

It was a jovial jaunt, mainly because those of European heritage without years of riding experience and the appropriate genetic make-up look bloody stupid on camels. Occasionally one of the creatures would take off on a lolloping lope and then things would really become amusing. Especially when one of our group came a cropper and a riderless mount was seen being chased across the desert by a group of wildly yelling Indians.

jane looking quite the part

Eventually we reached an area where we were to ‘set up camp’. This term, in certain desert regions, could suggest a huge white billowing marquis with pennants, and embroidered silk bolsters casually strewn on the ornate woven rugs. Trestles laden with exotic fruits and spicy Indian delicacies, and perhaps fanners, waving large feather creations creating soothing gentle breezes for us while we gossiped excitedly about the days adventures.

as good a spot as any

What we got was a subcontinent swag - a rug on the sand for our sleeping bags and a bowl of dhal Darl!

It actually was much better than it sounds. Sleeping under the stars in the desert is something to cherish. The sky was so cloudless and clear I doubt I have ever seen the night sky more full of stars than that night in the desert.

I woke the next morning after a really good nights sleep with a large exotic looking frog sleeping in the palm of my hand. I received such a shock that it immediately became an airborne amphibian and disappeared over the crest of the nearest sand dune. Where the hell it had come from is anyone’s guess - I always though frogs liked to be near water. The hills were alive with the sound of dung beetles - but a frog?

It could’ve been worse; I could have woken with a frog in my throat.

some eg's of my Indian 'one a day' artworks.

Friday, December 21, 2007

amazing coincidence #3

14th May 2001
Flying always excites me. Even after years of being squashed in seats designed for 5 year olds, being served food that barely deserves the label 'food', and having to sit next to a variety of extras straight out of a Fellini movie, I still get a thrill out of walking down that rectangular metal tube that leads to the plane.

I do, however, tend to get a little bored. Once I have examined everything in the seat pocket, rung the flight attendants bell enough times until I get from them a smile that can be best described as 'tight-lipped' and eaten all of my fruit mentos and kit-kats, I begin to look around for other means of distraction.

On this particular trip I ran into a friend at the customs gate in Sydney (this is not the coincidence - this is well within the realms of the distinctly probable.) I was heading for New York on an overnighter and was intending to sleep on the flight as much as I could.

I knew it was pointless trying until after they had served dinner as no matter how much I make myself look unapproachable (wearing of sleep masks, blanket pulled over head, big cardboard sign around neck saying 'wake me and you're dead') I am always shaken awake by the 'hostie' with a big sarcastic smile announcing "Your special meal Mr. Culver". (Perhaps the constant pushing of the attendant's bell is NOT such a good idea.)

But what I needed was a distraction to fill those long slow minutes between doing up the seat belt and graciously receiving my dinner tray of boiled and sliced cardboard and polystyrene.

I opened the in-flight magazine. It was probably filled with rivetting travel-oriented articles like "How to Overcome Long Haul Constipation with No Second Language" or "50 Exotic and Exciting Places You Have Bugger All Chance of Ever Being Able to Afford to Visit".

Flicking very quickly through said magazine (creating a small zephyr to flutter my neighbours warming face towel) I stopped at the crossword.

If you know me at all, you will be aware that I DO love a crossword. And this one proved fiendishly difficult. Lots of clues about Major League Baseball or minor Fox television celebs. But it was sufficient to keep me occupied for 20 minutes.

I realised it was time to stop when the Flight Attendant flung my meal tray from the aisle on top of it. (And I was by the window no less)

I managed to sleep the remainder of the flight arriving (relatively) fresh faced the next morning at La Guardia (which I thought was a tropical disease). I spent an engrossing 5 days 'doing' as it were, New York.

One evening I was standing on 103rd Street station. Whoever had the job of naming Manhattan Streets must have been the MOST unimaginative person imaginable:

"Lets call this one '5th Avenue'. That sounds exciting."
"Well ok. Then what shall we call this next one?"
"Oh What about '6th Avenue'?"

I happened to notice a group of four Europeans standing next to me - mainly because they bore an uncanny resemblance to The Mamas and the Papas. Well two days later sitting in a downtown diner with a New Yorker friend of mine, the same four came in and sat down at the next table.
(No, this isn't the amazing coincidence. It's just kinda cuteishly improbable.)

I finally left NY for the UK from JFK, again on United. Once buckled in and ready to go I decided on a whim, to return to the crossword I had attempted on my inward flight.

I turned towards the back of the magazine (which was the same monthly edition) to the correct page and.....

'drumroll please'....


All my answers (perhaps 15 or 20) as well as the scribbles I had made in the margins were there. I instantly recognised my own illegible scrawl.

(Now THAT is the amazing coincidence.)

I was so taken aback that I even showed the flight attendant. She murmured some equally astonished words of agreement (which sounded a little like "Why do I always get them in my aisle?)

I even tore the crossword out and have it tucked somewhere into the back of one of my travel diaries. What does it mean?

Well nothing really. It just goes to show that strange things happen.

As Professor J.A.Paulos, from Temple University in Philadelphia, and best-selling author of 'Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences' says:

"Believing in the significance of oddities is self-aggrandizing ... It says, 'Look how important I am.' People find it dispiriting to hear, ‘It just happened, and it doesn't mean anything.'"


A couple of weeks later I was standing in one of 15 lines at the ticket counters at Clapham Junction station in London when I received a tap on my shoulder. It was a very old friend from Sydney who had moved to London about 5 years previously who I had completely lost touch with.


(image: from my 'one a day' artworks.
See more here.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

once was nancy

Today is another sad anniversary.

Four years ago my oldest friend Snjeza died from pancreatic cancer only a few weeks after diagnosis.

She was one of those friends with whom it did not matter how often we caught up our paths forever travelled in the same direction.

Different paths granted, but parallel nonetheless. Some friends paths diverge so that at some point in time you lose sight of one another. But I could always glance across the road, so to speak, and catch sight of Snjeza.

We first met in Year 11 (5th form) at high school and immediately became great friends. She was Nancy back then, but soon reverted to her real name.

terry and snjeza 1976

terry and snjeza 1976

We had many laughs together.
Like the time she taught me some Croatian.

Apart from the usual ' are you...good morning' etc she also taught me a swag of expletives in that particularly juvenile way that one does when learning a new language. (C'mon - I bet every single one of you knows at least one foreign swear word - if not 20)

The first time I went to her home and met her mother I thought I would greet her in her native tongue.

Unfortunately I mixed up good morning with another popular reproduction-based profanity and effectively told her mother to 'F*** off'. In her own language.

As if this wasn't bad enough, a month or so later her mother had to spend the night in hospital for a minor test.

Eager to make up for my howling error at our first meeting I decided to accompany Snjeza, and by way of a conciliatory peace offering I took a large bunch of chrysanthemums.

When I walked into her hospital room, Snjeza'a father visibly paled with a look of shock on his face.

How was I to know chrysanthemums are Yugoslavian funeral flowers?

But Snjeza and I never really travelled much together. As this is a travel blog I will mention one of the few trips we did do back in 1982.

I had recently finished a Eurail trip around Europe and was at the tail end of my travels. Snjeza was just setting out on her own trip so we arranged to meet up in Yorkshire, England where some family members were living at the time.

We had a brief excursion to Ilkley where we clowned around on the moors ("Heathcliffe ... it's me Cathy ... come home now..") generally acting like 6 year olds.

It was wet and muddy on the moors and Snjeza found it particularly amusing that our English word 'bog' meant 'God' in her Croatian dialect.
("Watch out Snjeza - don't step on the God.")

But the biggest laugh I had was when she and I took a train up to Edinburgh. On the way, following the journey on our map, I managed to convince her that the border between Scotland and England would be clearly visible from the train.

"You see Snej - what they have done is to cut all the hedges, dig the fields and build stone walls along the border so it resembles a huge dotted line right across the country. That way people will know when they have crossed over."

Bless her, she looked and looked and looked - desperate to see us crossing between the two countries.

malcolm, snjeza and terry - eating, drinking and being merry, yorkshire 1982

snjeza with a bit of god on her jeans, ilkley moor.

snjeza, mandy - and me (looking clearly moronic) on ilkley moor.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

just in time

28th August 2001

I had had Frequent Flyer/Mileage Plus points for years and had never had the opportunity to use them.

One day, thinking about this, I decided to call the airline and ask about using my points to book a flight as there had been a spate of media stories about how difficult they really were to use. My points were with United but I was able to use them with Ansett, the Australian domestic airline.

At this time I only had 30,000 and I wasn’t sure where this could get me to.

I asked the Ansett airline agent if I had enough points to get me to Alice Springs (never having been there before.) Sure, she said, it’s only 10,000 to the Alice.

Well when can I go, I asked? Oh we can’t tell you, you must give us a date and we will tell you if it’s available.

So I plucked a date out of my head to try out the system: Umm…how about the 4th of September (one week away)?

When would you want to return she asked?

Oh say 8 days later?

12th September. Ok? So would you like me to book that for you?

Suddenly, with no original intention of going anywhere I found myself with a possible flight booked.

Ok, I said, book it.

So I found myself with a ‘spur of the moment’ trip. The best kind.

Not having a drivers licence, and realising the central desert region has quite a lot of interesting things to see that are all spread far apart with large amounts of inhospitable desert in between, I soon realised I needed to find a tour of some sort to get me around.

I found a small-group camping trip company that was perfect and booked online. It was for 4 nights/5 days and included the night before and after at the Youth Hostel in Alice. It provided all camping gear, food, transport and guide.

I think this was the first organised tour I had ever been on and I was a little reluctant about doing it. But it turned out to be very rewarding. The group consisted of 12 people from a variety of countries such as Italy, France, the UK, Denmark and me. (I'm a country unto myself...)

They were all generally a friendly bunch, none overtly obnoxious, the Poms were a little raucous and in-yer-face, the Danes somewhat shy and distant and I found myself getting along famously with the Frogs (being a little bit of a Francophile as I am).

The trip took us to Mt Conner (var. Connor), a large flat topped mesa-like megalith which stands starkly in the middle of a large completely flat desert region not far from Uluru, for which it is often mistaken for.

We then took in Kata Tjuka (The Olgas):


Then we passed the West McDonnell Ranges stopping for the night at Kings Creek Station, one of the largest cattle stations in the region. Here I flew in my first helicopter which looked like an escapee from a children’s carousel, very small with no doors.

The third day found us at Kings Canyon:

and Gosse Bluff:

“About 142 million years ago, a one-kilometre-wide meteorite or comet, travelling dozens of kilometres per second, slammed into Australia. It tunnelled hundreds of metres underground in a fraction of a second before detonating in an explosion that would dwarf the most powerful nuclear bomb.
The resultant crater was more than 20 kilometres wide, enough to swallow a good chunk of Melbourne. The ground in the crater's centre instantly rebounded, forming within seconds a circular peak of hills more than four kilometres wide.” reference

gosse bluff (photo courtesy of here:)

That evening about half the group left (they were doing the 3 day trip) and the remainder continued to Ellery Creek Bighole, Aboriginal ochre pits, Ormiston Gorge, Wallace Rock Hole, Standley Chasm, Palm Valley and Hermansberg, before heading back on the evening of the last day to Alice.

ellery creek.

ochre pits these are believed to have been used continuously for thousands of years.

ormiston gorge.

ormiston gorge rock wallaby.

ormiston gorge.

ormiston gorge.

ormiston gorge campsite.

standley chasm.

palm valley - where we were fortunate to have some rain.

It was a superb trip and opened my eyes to how incredibly diverse the Australian landscape can be. There is so much to this country besides endless kilometres of mallee scrub and featureless desert with sporadic gums. You just have to get out there and find it.

*Footnote: In the Alice Youth Hostel on my last night I was woken by whispering in my dorm. Some guy, at around 4am, had woken another backpacker and in my half dreamy state I though I heard him say “flew into the World Trade Centre then another plane smashed into the Pentagon.”

I remember thinking to myself “Why would anyone wake up another person to tell them about the bad dream they had?”

The next morning around 7am as I wandered past the TV room on the way to the showers I noticed about thirty people in front of the tele which I thought was pretty odd as morning television just isn’t that interesting.

The rest, as you know, is history.

So I arrived back home in Sydney on the morning of September 12th 2001 and 2 days later Ansett went belly up.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

odd things I've seen on planes #2

26th March 1993
Flight between Karachi and Rome.

For a considerable number of hours I found myself sitting next to a Filipino woman who was cradling between her knees a one metre high painted wooden statue of a supplicating Jesus.

(photo: mock-up)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

in lieu of a loo

16th May 2002

Hang around with travellers long enough and you’ll soon end up talking about poo.

It doesn’t matter what nationality, religion or social strata you belong to when the topic turns to toilets the conversation immediately becomes lively. Even those quiet retiring types who usually sit sullenly in the peripheral shadows of the discussion group suddenly perk up and interject with their own ablutionary experiences.

Ah the toilets I have known.

There is probably an entire book on my own experiences.

There are two Tibetan toilet stories I want to share with you. One involves me and the other one of my travel companions.

My experience involves what is undoubtedly, in my experience, both the grossest and yet at the same time the most beautiful and sublime toilets I have ever been to. And let me mention - I have been to some really gross toilets.

This particular one is situated at 5,200 metres above sea level. At this elevation the air is thin, breathing is more laboured and even walking a few hundred metres is tiring. I am in a valley on the Tibetan plateau and have just spent the night in a monastery at the village called (appropriately enough) Rongphu (pron. ‘wrong-pooh’)

I woke early. Earlier than the others in my group. So I ventured outside to see what the weather had in store for us, as that morning we were to walk to Everest Base Camp.

It was still dark, but I could see on the horizon that the sunrise was imminent. I wandered a little way from the monastery down beside some low stone walls which served to separate various sections of monastic activities. Within one of these enclosures were several Yaks - a creature I had developed an immense fondness for, having only ever previously encountered them in crosswords.

I stopped briefly for a yak with a yak.

The sun, though not yet visible, was providing enough light now for me to see where I was going, so I ventured a little further into the valley.

There was a fair amount of cloud about but Qomolangma (Mt. Everest) was already partly visible through the breaking cloud. And what a breathtaking vision she was.

7am and everest through the cloud

As I walked the cloud quickly grew thinner and thinner until it completely disappeared and left the sky a dazzling light blue, and Everest, in her serene majesty and grandeur swept magnificently upwards from the dusty brown sandy valley floor like an enormous starched white serviette. For a confirmed montophile like me, this was the ultimate experience.

view from the loo


Oh? The toilet? Sorry I was swept away reminiscing about Everest for a moment.

Well about this time the culmination of the scenery, the thin air and an early morning timetabled regularity, I realised I needed to find a bit of privacy somewhere pretty damned quick. But this is Tibet. No trees. No hedges. Not even a shred of a shrub within coo-ee.

But nearby I could see yet another enclosure of low walls so I dashed over grateful for even a little bit of cover.

Unfortunately this enclosure, consisting of three walls (the fourth side faced straight down the valley towards Mt. Everest) was in fact a refuse dump. Appropriate as this may be, it was also the most disgusting, putrid and noxious pile of garbage imaginable. So there I squatted, surrounded by rotting vegetable matter and a surprisingly large quantity of goat’s feet (presumably there is not a lot of meat on the hoof) attending to natures business with one of the most spectacular views I could ever possibly imagine.

The second story involves one of my group's female members heading off to one of our Tibetan hotel’s ‘hole-in-the-floor’ toilets (always situated on the first floor so the waste could be collected for use as fertiliser) and returning several minutes later looking a little ashen faced.

What’s the matter we enquired?

Well, she said, once she found herself squatting over the hole, she peered down to make sure her aim was accurate and to her horror she discovered she was staring at a Tibetan pervert underneath looking up at her.

Enough to make anyone’s sphincter snap shut like a camera shutter.

everest base camp

everest base camp cafe

terry at mt.everest base camp marker