The Jewel in the Crown

IMG_2216.jpgEntry to the throne room can be from The [Latrobe] Valley of course, and there is nothing especially wrong with that, not per se.

However, this study in pastel is Loy Yang A Power Plant, operated by Alinta Energy and owned now by Hong Kong-based Chow Tai Fook Enterprises. It is the successor to Hazelwood, the ‘dirtiest’ power station not just in Australia but in the OECD. That includes any in Poland (joined 1996) where the emissions in the urban winter air can make your teeth grind. THE Least Efficient Power Station: 1.58 tonnes of CO2 emitted for every megawatt of electricity produced via burning (comparatively) wet brown coal. Emitting 18 million tonnes of CO2 annually, not to mention 1000 tonnes of boron, 77,000 tonnes of hydrochloric acid, 27,000 tonnes of oxides of nitrogen, 29,000 tonnes of other particulate matter including highly poisonous polychlorinated dioxins — all into the air.

Air borne pollution from the normal operations of each of the Valley’s three remaining coal-fired plants probably kills around 60 people a year in Gippsland, and makes many more sick.

That’s the bad news. Clearly.

HERO-01_Matthew-Gardiner_Experimenta_Photo-NickyPastore_6453.jpgBeyond that I need to say that in The Valley’s Regional Gallery in Morwell we found a most intriguing collection of quasi-art, its International Triennial of Media Art. Something so special it stopped us for a hour longer than we had imagined it might. The Folded Geometry of the Universe at left, 3D and about 400mm long in reality, and formidably elegant. (Folded by Michael Gardiner in 2016.)

We were on our way to Tarra Bulga National Park, 40km south of Traralgon, to find the Tarra Valley Loop, a 25km walk.

The Park is a standing monument to South Gippsland as it once was. Not the manicured green bottoms full of rich red and black soils, upturned to accept the metre plus annual rainfall with tidy caterpillars of cyprus climbing over them …IMG_2609.jpgnor even the less immaculate and more typical mix of things:IMG_2732.jpga herd of cows in the distance, a crease jammed full of exotic weeds, on the hill in the background a recently felled plantation (E. nitens, Shining Gums, which in the right circumstances, viz. right here right now, will grow three metres a year), a fringe left to both frame and moderate the horizon line. But in a region afflicted with drought, the lowest rainfall ever recorded for the first four months of a year, undeniably verdant pasture.

It wasn’t always like this. In 1840 Paul Strzelecki, a Pole after whom the area is named (so, Brian Taylor, let’s say it as it is: Sh-trz-let-ski) fought his way through the natural forest somehow. ‘Nearly impenetrable scrub interwoven with grasses and giant trees both upright and fallen and scattered in confusion’, he claimed. His party ate koalas and wombats to keep themselves alive until they somehow found their way to the marshy shores of Westernport Bay.

The trees were giants. One felled at Thorpedale was measured on the ground at 114 metres (375 feet). The biggest were ‘ringbarked’ by cutting a continuous notch an axe-head deep around the trunk thus stopping the transport of nutrients from the leaves to the roots through the phloem and cambium layers, resulting in a lingering but assured death. In his wonderful book The Bush, Don Watson who grew up here quotes a squatter writing: ‘After dinner I went with Jim to ring trees on Daves block I could ring an acre in 2 1/2 hours and Jim could take out the saplings in 2.’ Don comments: ‘ Eight hundred hours (320 acres by 2.5 hours) and a few days burning in summer putting paid to several million years of growth.’ A bit strong, but that’s the direction of travel.

IMG_2603.jpgAt the southern end of the Tarra Valley the ‘shack in the bush’ of past history is still in evidence. 

I didn’t know what we were going to apart from a long walk just to see if we could, and the Tarra Bulga Guesthouse at Balook where I’d booked accommodation.IMG_2219.jpgOur hosts Nina and Peter had cooked and served 220 meals the previous day, a Saturday lunch, so it wasn’t completely unknown to the world at large. The number of fancy houses on their 10 acres along the Traralgon-Balook Road also said we weren’t in the middle of nowhere, although the sensational view from Mt Tassie rather suggested otherwise.IMG_2217.jpg

When we left the next morning it was raining softly but steadily — this year an unfamiliar and delightful experience.img_2220-1.jpg




This walk has been carefully tailored by volunteers from the Grand Strzelecki Track Group to make the most of areas which are least changed by human intervention. But the length of the walk means that almost the first half lies outside the boundaries of the National Park.

But it still begins among big trees IMG_2671 (1).jpgand heaving tangles of forest.IMG_2225.jpgThere are several sites of old homestead clearingsIMG_2231.jpgand for some distance the impact of the Black Saturday fires (7 Feb, 2009) is evident. The new stands of Mountain Ash saplings are about 25-30m high — three metres a year that would make the rate of growth — but there was also this unusual forest of acacias, straight, jammed together and, perhaps as a consequence, very very tall.IMG_2692.jpgSome kilometres of plantations followed, all Nitens like these, with their typical cascades of bark.IMG_2244.jpgAfter a fierce, concentrated and slippery climb up Duncan’s Track there is a section on the contour through lovely forest and fern trees, Butler’s Track (below). Great walking through little known history.IMG_2238.jpg

IMG_2243.jpgIMG_2722.jpgRain forests have fungi, especially if it has been warm, and Tarra Bulga was no exception. Wonderful things appeared, some with caps 350-400mms across, monsters, although these were more to be filed under Beautiful.IMG_2720.jpg












You cross the modest trickle that is the Tarra River through massive trees, and a dense understory with all manner of vegetation and moving creatures, lyre birds, wombats, black and swamp wallabies, kangas. The walk, 4 or 5km through and above the valley to a view of the far away coastline, is simply splendid, and then it’s a long slow climb mostly through protected forest back to Balook.

* * * * * * *

If patches of South Gippsland are memories of what the crown might have been — and on this experience they really are — what’s the jewel in this diadem?

From where we were you need to drive past the building below to get there. The old Yarram Courthouse built in in 1907, now an information centre and art gallery. The Victorian Heritage Register says: ‘unusual massing and roof form, displays considerable creative and technical achievement’. Indeed, but what’s the word for it? Stylish. Let’s go with stylish. Stylish in a way that might not, would not, occur today. Much appreciated. Thank you.IMG_2608.jpg

And you get here, a backwards tick.wilsonsprom_ast_2009073_lrg.jpgA NASA image of Wilson’s Promontory taken during the fires of 2009 during which about one-third of the Park, the brown areas, was burnt. This particular image has been included not because of the fires, but because it provides an establishing shot, an outline of The Prom. You can even see the northern boundary of the National Park across the Yanakie isthmus from Shallow Inlet. And because it’s striking.

People tend to take the same pics at The Prom.

Here’s a standard: waves gliding in at Norman Bay and Squeaky Beach from Mt Oberon at sunset.IMG_2614 (1).jpgHere’s another: Tidal River looking up stream. Quite Japanese-y in the particulation, variety and harmony of its features: rock, wood and water.IMG_2834.jpgAnd another: the classic granite tors and orange lichen, in this case at Tongue Point.IMG_2145.jpgI’d like to say these photos and better versions of them do the place justice. But they don’t.

The Prom, people respond, a slightly wistful quality filtering into their voice. Mmm yes, The Prom. I know what you mean. Have you …? Of course. Yes. Of course we’ve been to The Prom. We used to go there … And an underlying note of knowingness, complicity in understanding what is implied, appears.

What is it we know? Because The Prom is indeed the jewel in the crown of South Gippsland. But why? What is it about The Prom that makes the shout ‘Hands Off’ so near unanimous? It’s something more practical than adoration, but these 505 square kilometres of ‘nature’ are special, catching and holding very tightly.

8ed803b4da29949e65e3e4250f5531ce--australia-trip-melbourne-australia.jpgIt might be that the 30 kilometre drive from the park entrance to Tidal River is like an overture at the opera helping you to slow down and start looking, listening, tuning in, becoming more alert and sensitive to what will come. During that time you will have driven through six markedly different vegetation zones, some of them repeating, but each of them with their own diverting features.

It might be the fact that on that drive you will probably have already seen scores of emus, kangaroos and wallabies in the wild. Or it could be the greeting in the car park from the case-hardened wombats.

And The Prom’s delights are not hidden. The entry provides glimpses of its perfect beaches and its colours of aqua water with crisp white collars, the unusual grey-cream and sparkle of the granite tors, the violent orange of the lichen and the endless range of greens in the vegetation.

This time the flowers were out at Tongue Point. It was a garden; overplanted, but a garden. I hadn’t seen it quite like this before. But you must assume that, even though Tongue Point is not one of the popular walks, hundreds of thousands have. This is a pleasure widely shared.IMG_2894.jpg


At The Prom you walk. Telegraph Saddle to Sealer’s Cove and back is a classic Australian day walk. It’s an oddity in that it runs in an almost straight line west-east and yet it’s got it all.

IMG_2259 (1).jpgAfter a drive up to Telegraph Saddle you start reasonably high and walk along an undulating track through eucalyptus forest dryer than on the other side of the saddle.

A while ago now, floods caused sometimes huge landslips, in a dozen or so places destroying the track.

Parks Victoria has warmly thanked itself for its tireless efforts to renew the track at each of these sites.IMG_2322.jpgAnd they have, and its great, and no doubt they were tireless and in several spots brilliantly ingenious to be able to rebuild the track. Really. Salutations Parks Victoria.

Three kilometres to Windy Saddle where on this day the sun was out and bouncing off the surface of this perch at its highest point. The Prom is natural but ordered. A lot of people use it, the parts you are encouraged to use anyway, and they are well catered for.IMG_2262.jpgThen there’s the wonderful rolling descent through the wet side, downhill apart from a dip down into and up out of the creek valley at Ferny Glade.IMG_2268.jpgAnd then, with about 2kms to go to the Cove, you come to the swamp and the duckboard which will take you through it, IMG_2276.jpgoften suspended above the froggy, mossy waters of Blackfish Creek, IMG_2319.jpgwhich, surrounded by melaleuca, opens out onto something more like a real creek very close to the beach.IMG_2317.jpgThen you suddenly plunge out onto the Cove itselfIMG_2280.jpgwhich, after an hour or two of enclosure, offers a massive inhalation of space.

With its suggestions of symmetry and its pure creamy sand, the beach is glorious. Stubs of a handful of old wharf piles blackened by the weather are a reminder that there have been timber gatherers here. In fact in 1854 Sealers’ Cove had a steady population of more than 60 (six women at the time). Those stubs are the end of a tramway of which there is now otherwise very little evidence.

The beach has been returned to its original inhabitants. Gannets, shearwaters, shags, sometimes an albatross and almost always muscular assertive Pacific Gulls, half as big again as ‘normal’ gulls and with blood red tips to their beaks.IMG_2285.jpgI went looking for the name of the tiny crabs that were everywhere, (I have just realised they are the dark dots behind the gull in the pic above) and failed. [Later: mictyris longicarpus, the Light-Blue Soldier Crab. Mr B. ‘Smartypants’ Findlay.] But I did discover that near the low-water mark the gastropods Dicathais orbita and Turbo undulatus, chitons of the genus Plaxiphora spp. and the limpet Patella peroni are common. Who knew? And who knows what these actually are. 

I also found a list of fish common to its waters which deserve recording simply for their names: the large bastard trumpeter, old wives, magpie perch, wrasse Notolabrus, southern hulafish, vicious sweep, the toothbrush leatherjacket, herring cale, Odax cyanomelas and mado. Wouldn’t they all have a good time together, just simply introducing themselves. Hi … I didn’t quite catch your name?

IMG_2772.jpgReturning to the crabs, they are about as big as your fingernail and toddle across the intertidal area in their thousands. But they are there one minute and gone the next. At a sign of danger, it takes them perhaps three seconds to bury themselves completely, although they do leave behind  distinctive little balled mounds. IMG_2316.jpgThey dig lying on their sides. Swivelling all the while, the bottom four legs chew out the sand; the top four ball it and pass it out onto the beach. It is a process which is something to behold.

Like the rest of The Prom, just under the surface is all manner of life,IMG_2315 (1).jpgalthough not as much there once was.

In a single year (1804) an American ship took more than 600,000 seal skins from this area. The slaughter this entails is implied. Today in all the waters of southern Australia there would not be 600,000 seals. The timber getters lasted six years at Sealers’ Cove. They had exhausted the growth worth cutting. You’d think this might be a lesson in the zero-sum resource exploitation game. But at the time it must have seemed as though there would always be ‘plenty’ with both a small ‘p’ and a large. Interest transferred to stripping South Gippsland.

In essence the history of Wilson’s Promontory is one of thousands of years of exposure to nature’s furies — with the Koories [local Aboriginal peoples, mainly Brataualang and Gunai/ Kurnai] living in parallel with these forces — broken by a brief interlude of a century of exploitative use by Europeans, before returning to the domination of nature, says Geoff Wescott in his handbook to understanding The Prom (1995: 27).

In 1908 James Barrett wrote about the state of The Prom in The Argus: The Park is let on a grazing lease by the Government. It has just been burnt thoroughly from end to end. The fine timber at Sealers’ Cove has gone, and doubtless most of the native bears and other animals have gone with it. The scrub has gone. The Promonotory now presents a piebald appearance — green patches alternating with patches of blackened sand and bare charred timber … Either the national park is a park or a cattle run, it cannot be both. An end must be put to this ruinous vandalism.

It had been declared ‘a temporary reservation for a National Park’ in 1898, one of the first in the world, actually the second after Yellowstone which wasn’t called a National Park in its legislation. Despite this, grazing was not completely outlawed in its northern sections until 1992. Despite this, it is now a successful case of intelligent human intervention in the cause of natural preservation.

‘Natural’? What’s that?

‘Natural’ a very short time ago geologically meant The Prom was a chain of islands, even more recently a part of a land bridge with Tasmania used by Indigenous peoples. ‘Natural’? In some parts it is criss-crossed by tracks and roads. Tidal River has shops, cabins, camp sites, generators, fresh water and sewerage systems — without which it would be much harder to visit, and maintain. If it was just left, now, Coastal Tea-tree would probably create a vegetal mono-culture in its northern regions; introduced plants would thrive; foxes and other introduced predators would compete with and deplete native species. Uncontrolled fires, which appear to have become more frequent, would change and limit the range of plant species.

So. Intervention. Management. Control. Change. Providing great things but herding people into certain parts of the Park where their impact can be contained and limited, all the while educating them about appropriate behaviour. Fencing off the hoon tracks on Mt Oberon so they’re no longer used. Patrolling and servicing the more remote camp sites. This is why there are ballots for the 442 camp sites at peak periods. This is why there is not an 18-storey resort hotel.

These are not simple matters. But a balance seems to have been struck at The Prom that is both popular and successful, respectful of human interest and contact while at the same time ensuring that the exquisite natural environment is maintained.

And that’s why I think The Prom is the jewel in the crown. Because it’s an example of intelligent and diligent resource management, living proof that it can be done and done well. Salutations indeed Parks Victoria.





30 Gloucester Street

30 Gloucester St_3.jpg

Reservoir (‘Rezzavor’ or just ‘Rezza’, but never ‘Reservwa, puzzling to a Francophone) was built on the very edge of the city in the 1950s: a suburb of workingman’s houses. I say ‘man’s’, because women had been sent home from their war time jobs and generally speaking only a man could ‘own’ a house.

Rezza houses were built quick and cheap using indigenous materials and construction methods. No masonry, no deep footings, no slate roofs, no foot thick walls. As elsewhere in the nation Australian light timber framing was the go here. Stud walls made out of green eucalyptus hardwood on stumps dug into soil which moved, and moves, with the seasons.

Cheaper houses were clad with ‘fibro’ which, after the people who made it — that is actually made it, not the ones in the office — kept dying on us, turned out to have a very high content of crocidolite or blue asbestos.

It came in handy sheets, was great to paint, and was highly stable even if the rough use that might come from backyard cricket or kicking the footy would knock the corners off. But if you were cutting it, the asbestos would come loose and you could be breathing in mesotheliomic air.

Some advice from the Bureau of Premise Inspections: Important! If you suspect you have asbestos in your home, Don’t cut it! Don’t drill it! Don’t drop it! Don’t sand it! Don’t saw it! Don’t scrape it! Don’t scrub it! Don’t dismantle it! Don’t tip it! Don’t waterblast it! Don’t demolish it! And whatever you do… Don’t dump it!

‘Better’ houses had weatherboard. 

Jessie’s house had both. Fake brick made largely of asbestos tacked onto deteriorating weatherboards which have a life, like light timber-framed buildings themselves, of about 40 years.

Men in space suits came to take the fake brick off which they did efficiently, quickly and I thought cheaply. And they carted it away. Where to? Back to Wittenoom where it had been dug from? Probably not. Wittenoom is now a declared contaminated site with entry forbidden. Don’t know. Somewhere.

At that time I patched up what was left and painted it carefully several times, but as would be evident 2019 minus about 1950 equals plus or minus 70 years, and the wall, a western-facing wall completely unsheltered from the weather, was cactus. The boards had split at the ends. The paint bubbled because the surfaces had been painted so often. Anywhere near a source of water was rotten with the ever present prospect of dry rot, a fungus that allows you to poke your finger through a piece of wood 50mm thick.

Walls like that make me anxious. I like buildings to be sound and sealed. There is no special reason why they must be, but that’s what I like. Every time I walked past, and this is my daughter’s house, thus regularly, I would see another blister or another crack or another join that was dismembering itself. And there comes a time, as these experiences progressively build on each other where something has to be done. It really just has to be done.

In addition it’s no use living in the best street in Rezza almost next to Crispe Park (pron. ‘Crisspark’) if your joint looks like a dump.

So I roused myself and sought assistance from my friend, staunch and true, Mr Findlay. I knew most things would be out of true and plumb (wasn’t too bad as it turned out) and that the wood framing would be either rotten or like tempered steel and shocking to work (the latter mostly as it also turned out), there’d be no insulation, all the stuff round the electricity supply was shot and a bit spooky  …

Buuuuut, once you get going, well you know, a visit to Bunnings cut cut cut hammer hammer hammer screw screw screw. This too might be a man thing. Atavistic.

These pictures are here partly to celebrate the process (like Tubular Bells: (deep sonorous voice) ‘… the structural ply’) and the result, which was fine. But as well I like the visual aspect of the time series, the change in the weather, the ‘bung eye’ with the drop sheet over one window, how much rubbish is left in the front yard, whether Robbie’s car is home, and so on. And also to give three modest cheers for light timber framing, sufficiently uncomplicated that anybody can attend to it.

Here’s where we start. I have put my hand through a board to cart off to the paint man so he can identify and reproduce the hue. They are so smart these days. Just so smart.


30 Gloucester St_2.jpg



30 Gloucester St_6.jpg






Not the best thing done ever, but hmmm yes, satisfying. That’s the word we’re searching for.

Don’s Feasts

He was in his best smart casual clothes, had a bit of product in his hair and just for one minute he looked shy. But for one minute only. Because this was the boss, the tour guide, the director, the man. He was, of course, going to make it work. It was within his power, well within.

We’d had to talk him into coming to Belgrade to pick us up. That could have been unfair. He was quite big enough to look after himself, in fact a potent brew when roused. But I don’t know what it’s like crossing the Croatian border into Serbia, driving a rented car and needing to offer a paper thin even if true reason if asked — picking up some Australian friends to drive them back through Eastern Croatia to eat, drink and make merry. You could get some arsehole on the gate who wants to refight the war; or you could, as we later discovered, run into a cheery squat young woman with a large pistol on her hip who simply wanted to wish us a good day.

You don’t know, and of course Don wouldn’t say, what he might have been thinking. Far too practised at this game to say; just waiting to play the cards as they are led. Or as Lord Rowland would say hands flying up in the air, eyes rolling, ‘Don. It’s Don. You know Don.’

As it happened, nothing did happen. He was there, we had had a few days of investigation of the White City and beyond, so we were there too. We even knew where to take him for dinner, Dwa Jelena (Two Deer), to offer him the chance to run through what might be wrong with the cuisine. Or the wine. Or the company. But no. It was a party, a fine reunion. Hoorah. I’d forgotten what huge fun we had together.


A new chapter had begun.

From Belgrade it was the same vast expanse of the Pannonian Plain, laser-levelled for agriculture, that we were passing through as when we went to Sremski Karlovci with Joci, but the green protuberance of Fruska Gora (‘The Frankish Mountain’, a reference to ancient borders) was to our right rather than our left. Don may have driven us along the ridge of the national park for reasons of picturesque-ity … I can’t remember. We didn’t dawdle; I do remember that. We had crossed the border into Croatia (the agreeable woman mentioned above) before lunch time.

IMG_0756.jpgWe arrived at Ilok, more specifically at Stari Podrumi (‘Old Basements’, probably Cellars really) a winery/ accommodation spot where the solid doors closed with a satisfying ‘climp’ and the windows were the complex European type which open in several directions if not necessarily at the same time. Suddenly Croatia rather than Serbia. Out our window I could see the Danube, on one side Srbija; and on the other Hrvatska. We were just into Croatia. A couple of hundred metres. But it felt like a long way further than that.


We’d got a bit starey-eyed as this photo suggests, a bit tired, and I could have had a sleep — but I didn’t, and of course I was just as glad. There’s a lot to engage with here at this junction of worlds, not to mention the appetising consequences of some of the most fertile soils in Europe.

The feasts began immediately.

IMG_0760.jpgLunch was Paprika Fish Stew, followed by (at left) two types of pike — rolled in beer batter and chunks deep fried — with catfish in a seeded batter of some sort, accompanied by an award-winning Iločki Podrumi gewurtztraminer. Whatever anyone else thought, I believed it was important to make the most of staying at a superstar winery.

After lunch we had a tour of the cellar with a young woman who spoke excellent English and besides being delightful had answers to all our questions. Quite good going really.IMG_0767.jpgHer name was Maria. I think she stayed with us as our guide to the church, the fort and other highlights of the town. I hope we gave her a good tip.IMG_0771.jpgIt was just near here that our vehicle pulled over and we had an encounter with strawberries, the best strawberries I have ever eaten. They were startlingly good: plump, as big as a baby’s fist but not inflated artificially with hormones, crimson, with a strong inviting smell and irresistible flavour. Powerhouses of the genre.

And this was all before our trip to Principovac for dinner. Don knows how to pack an itinerary.

vinskiturizamuslavoniji-2.jpg‘Near the centre of the historic town of Ilok, on the landscape hill offering stunning views of Ilok, Srijem and Backa, lies the Principovac Castle and Estate that was built in 1864th as summer residence of the Odescalchi family – The Dukes of Ilok, who stayed here during hunting seasons and grape harvestings. Whether you are a true wine connoisseur or you’re on just your way to become one, when you taste the royal Traminer and Graševina from Principovac in different styles you’ll realize that wine is here much more than a profession – it is a lifestyle.

‘Inside the restored castle of Odescalchi family is the Principovac restaurant, which has rich gourmet offer – new age cuisine that is based on indigenous ingredients, flavours of the Croatian Danube and Slavonia prepared in a sophisticated way serving each course with a glass of wine chosen from our rich wine offer.’

Weddings, parties, anything. Four-star accommodation, golf, team building, tennis and badminton courts, playgrounds for children, aquarium, ‘8 km of wine roads ideal for running, romantic walks, bike rides, moped rides or electric car rides’. Exhausting even thinking about it.

We dined at the restaurant with the ‘rich gourmet offer’, and on our own. I’m not 100% sure that the staff thought our presence was preferable to getting home for a big feed of strawberries, but it was all just fine.IMG_0775.jpgTonight, for our pleasure, hmm we drank the Graševina and that was something to behold… now, not in order, medallions of veal, cabbage rolls (closest to us, which were amazing), steak en croute and ‘Herbie’s Dinner’ (which I may have rendered incorrectly) which Don assured us was an outstanding regional speciality and I can’t remember for the life of me what it was. We finished with some of the chateau’s palachinka, a fine digestive. I slept like baby.

On a fresh morning, the precursor to a hottish day, we had the most leisurely of breakfasts under this linden tree. Great coffee. It was sort of perfect.IMG_0777.jpgThe door on the right is the entrance to the cellars, the door on the left to the feasting hall, a little piece of eastern Europe which could have been lot of places.IMG_0765.jpg

We were on our way further east 40 km to Vukovar but we took some time to have a splash in the Danube, a doughty river. Lord R on an embankment.IMG_0773.jpg

I was interested to see Vukovar because, with Srebrenica, it is one of the very serious sites of the 1990s Balkan wars. What would be left from scenes like this I wondered.Unknown.jpeg

During this very muddled conflict (which I have tried to describe elsewhere), fighting broke out in Slavonia (eastern Croatia) in May 1991. In August, the predominantly Serbian Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) launched a full-scale attack against Croatian-held territory of which Vukovar was the lynchpin.

Vukovar was defended by around 1,800 lightly armed soldiers of the Croatian National Guard (ZNG) and civilian volunteers, against approximately 36,000 JNA soldiers and Serb paramilitaries equipped with heavy armour and artillery. During the battle, shells and rockets were fired into the town at a rate of up to 12,000 a day. At the time, it was the fiercest and most protracted battle in Europe since 1945, and Vukovar was ‘the first major European town to be entirely destroyed since the Second World War’ (see below).

When Vukovar fell on 18 November 1991, several hundred soldiers and civilians had been killed by Serb forces. In one case at least ‘massacred’ is the term used by Croat commentators. Two hundred bodies were exhumed from a single grave. Subsequently most of the city was ‘ethnically cleansed’ of its non-Serb population — at least 20,000 inhabitants were expelled from the city — and it became part of the self-declared Republic of Serbian Krajina.

There are terrible stories about the 87-day siege, of starving women and children living in cellars and other underground dwellings, inevitable parts of the horror of war. I don’t know much about wars, but the story of the Serb combatants might be more unusual. This follows one account with convincing sources.

Serbia was never formally at war and no general mobilisation was carried out. An estimated 150,000 Serbs went abroad to avoid conscription, and many others deserted or went into hiding. Only 13 percent of conscripts reported for duty. Another 40,000 staged rebellions in towns across Serbia; the Serbian newspaper Vreme commented in July 1991 that the situation was one of ‘total military disintegration’.

Serb morale on the Slavonian battlefield was poor. JNA commanders resorted to firing on their own positions to motivate their men to fight. When the commander of a JNA unit at Vukovar demanded to know who was willing to fight and who wanted to go home, the unit split equally. One conscript, unable to decide which side to take, shot himself. A JNA officer who served at Vukovar later described how his men refused to obey orders, on several occasions ‘abandoning combat vehicles, discarding weapons, gathering on some flat ground, sitting and singing Give Peace a Chance by John Lennon.’

A tank driver, Vladimir Živković, drove his vehicle from the front line at Vukovar to the Yugoslav parliament in Belgrade, where he parked it on the steps in front of the building. He was arrested and declared insane by the authorities. His treatment enraged his colleagues, who protested by taking over a local radio station at gunpoint and issuing a declaration that ‘we are not traitors, but we do not want to be aggressors’.

But things changed: fresh (and more capable and determined, or ruthless if you like) leadership in the form of General Života Panić, and fresh ‘troops’, Serbian paramilitary volunteers: well armed, highly motivated, undisciplined, famously brutal. ‘Arkan’s (Željko Ražnatović) Tigers’ had arrived.

The commander of the southern JNA corps was videotaped after the decisive battle praising the Tigers: ‘The greatest credit for this goes to Arkan’s volunteers! Although some people accuse me of acting in collusion with paramilitary formations, these are not paramilitary formations here! These are men who came voluntarily to fight for the Serbian cause. We surround a village, he dashes in and kills whoever refuses to surrender. On we go in triumph!’

And the core of the city, with its unbroken history since neolithic times, was left in ruins.

The degree of destruction of the city is contested. For example an American historian who visited the city shortly after the decisive battle writes: ‘I want to correct a misstatement that has become an urban myth in the annals of the Yugoslav wars. Having visited Vukovar shortly after the conclusion of hostilities and several times since, I can assure you that the city was far from “totally destroyed”. To be more precise, only the relatively small downtown area was devastated. Although there was significant damage to outlying structures that were targeted by JNA artillery (every non-Orthodox church, the train station, the Eltz palace/museum, the water tower, among many others), most of the rest of the town was surprisingly intact.’ And I must say that’s how the pictures look to me. 

But less contested is the damage that was done to the longstanding multicultural harmony of the city.

Some indication of its more recent demographic diversity can be gained from this table.

National structure of the population of Vukovar:









One commentator says: Before the war, more than 20 ethnic groups lived in Vukovar. Not only Serbs and Croats, who made up the majority, and those who identified as “Yugoslavs” (roughly 10 percent), but also Ruthenians/Rusyns, Hungarians, Ukrainians, and many others. Moreover, the citizens of Vukovar were proud of their multicultural city, and ethnic background was irrelevant in daily life and social relations. That is no more. The city’s children are now educated separately by ethnic group; the Cyrillic (Serbia’s choice of alphabet) on road and other signs required by Croatia’s constitutional protection of minority groups is regularly vandalised.

Vukovar had for centuries been an important port on the Danube with the interesting demographic history that that entails. It seems to have been the world’s heart of copper-smithing during the Vučedol culture of 3000-2200BC. At one time it had eight mosques to cater for its Ottoman population. At other times it has been home to the Romans (who for centuries used the Danube as a line of defence), Vandals, Goths, Huns, Avars, Slavic Russians, Magyars, Slovaks, Jews, Austrians and so on. But there is something about multiculturalism that really offends some people. They just hate it.

The history, but not the offence, was on display in the city’s wonderful museum. I’m not sure that I was looking properly or if we ducked through the side of the city — I might in fact not have credited just how complete the restoration of the town had been. This today, for example, is exactly the same view as the troubled ruins above.


The equivalent of $40m Australian dollars (kuna from the EU in fact) has been spent on the restoration of Castle Eltz, the building housing the museum. There are are still some pockmarks in the tower, but everything else was in pristine condition. And excellent.

IMG_0791.jpgOne reason for its interest is that the only reference to the recent troubles is some silent pictures in the top floor. The other floors are concerned with the region’s history from pre-historic times with consistently thoughtful and high quality exhibits. 

Zoran, below, made a florid, arty and enthusiastic guide. He could have been dressed by Eastern Market which will make sense to no one but Myrna.


IMG_0786.jpgJust as it happens in the basement  there was an exhibition about torture which I confess I had to be dragged away from.

There are just so many ways to use physical pain, most of which seem to be been employed since time immemorial, and most of which seem to have found willing employers.

Perhaps we need to be reminded of this when the US decides that water boarding — a very old form of punishment —  is a perfectly acceptable way to force confessions and information out of prisoners.

To far happier moments. We had arrived in the middle of the Kopački Rit wetlands, ‘the greenest waters and forests in the whole of Slavonia’, at the junction of the Drava and Danube Rivers.IMG_0798.jpgThe border between Serbia and Croatia at this point is a long series of curlicues (the thin black line below), perhaps to share the best aspects of this highly fertile region. For reasons of convenience I’ve tipped this map over, North is on the left hand side. It’s just to illustrate what I mean, and you’ll get the point.Screen Shot 2019-02-15 at 1.51.22 pm.png

A highlight, and a superior photo of a highly photogenic subject.IMG_0802.jpgWe had moved on to the Komoran Restoran, another of Don’s Specials. ‘Komoran’ means ‘gloomy’ in Hungarian, but I’ve spelt it wrong obviously. ‘Kormoran’ means ‘cormorant’ in Croatian, and that would be far more suitable because of its splendid setting in the middle of the wetlands. And we were having a major regional specialty.In our region Catfish on Forked Branch and cooked in smoke is the most appreciated fish specialties’ (tourist info), and this was it on arrival.IMG_0806.jpgDon said it was even more special because it had been caught from the bottom of Danube in the muddy waters, and er hem I must confess that was how it tasted. (Look, you can’t go ooh ahh about everything. You’ve got to call it how you see it. The spuds were nice and the visuals outstanding. We were also entertained by some nesting and very familiar martins.)

It was 20 km, if that, to Karanac where we were to spend the night.IMG_0834.jpg Karanac is an ‘ethno village’ whichhas in the past few years become a magnet for numerous foreign and domestic tourists who enjoy the rich gastronomic and tourist offer of this area. In Karanac visitors can experience the feeling of far gone, past times, where each household had a story that was slowly carried on from generation to generation, keeping its authenticity and lifestyle far from the hustle and bustle of an urban area.’ Website publicity, but all true.

What that meant in addition was that we stayed at a mate of Don’s who was pumping up the tyres of this industry, that you could stay in a delightful cabin like this, IMG_0820.jpgthat you could trip over an offering like this in the footpath,IMG_0818.jpg


IMG_0821.jpgthat you could stay somewhere with a garden that would feed you most things you would want to eat,IMG_0828.jpgand that you actually could eat at the local pub. IMG_0813.jpgPaprika soup was the dish du jour, the highlight special and it was delicious.

It also meant that Don was in his element. Never looked better.IMG_0830.jpgThis was taken, a regretful farewell, after a most sumptuous all-star breakfast a lot of which had come out of the garden or from the chooks and cows in the paddock. This was a highly successful deviation.

We went further north up into the corner of Croatia to Batina where the Allies (a reminder, Yugoslavs and Russians, allies) crossed the Danube in the closing phases of the Second World War.IMG_0836.jpgHow did they do that? A unit consisting mostly of soldiers from Vojvodina (now northern Serbia) crossed the river on rafts or fishing boats under cover of an enormous artillery bombardment of the German positions on the right bank of the river. The battle went to and fro as efforts were made to supplement the allied soldiers on this side of the river, until after 18 days all Germans between the two rivers, Drava and Danube, had been killed or driven out.








According to some historians the Battle of Batina was the biggest battle by number of participants, intensity of fighting, and strategic importance that occurred in Yugoslavia during the World War II.

South to Đakovo (with a ‘dj’) and its horses. The Stud Farm in Đakovo was established in 1506 which qualifies it to be among the oldest stud farms in Europe. Horses of the Lipizzaner breed have been bred in the Stud Farm since the beginning of the 19th century. I think the only other Lipizzaner ‘school’, a successor to this one, the original, is in Austria.Unknown.jpeg

The horses trot, dance and jump and do clever formation things while you watch, delighted. 1.jpgI’m not so much a horse person, but amongst our number were those who are.IMG_0849.jpgHe knew what he was looking for.

IMG_0842.jpgWe had look at the cathedral, yes and no; its crypt, better.

But then, suddenly, hordes of young people started appearing.

Hordes …


IMG_0845.jpgIt was the last day of school, and all the graduands had come into the middle of town, stopping it absolutely — but with no complaints, this was a significant cultural event — and with their umbrellas and their costumes they performed a lengthy quadrille (dance in fours). It was one of those moments that can happen when you’re travelling, completely unexpected but such a thrill to see.

They were so well drilled and well behaved. Youth and beauty, a joy to behold. I asked Don what happens next and he said, they go off and get drunk. Of course.

Back to Zagreb for a warm welcome from the family: Mirjana, Lucas, Ivan, Dina and Nika.IMG_0869.jpg

And that night — what can I say — another visit to the Restoran Trnjanska and its finest black lamb. The Grey Falcon had, as always, done his job.IMG_0878.jpg

Port Lincoln


Two words. Dean Lukin.

Three words actually. Dinko ‘Dean’ Lukin is the actual name, a bit of Croatian blood swirling round in the background there, the first and only Australian to win a gold medal in weightlifting at the Olympics, and not just any gold medal — the super Super Heavyweight Division, Sooooper Heavyweight, cream and ice cream, three big scoops, on your plum pudding — 138 kgs himself on that day in 1984 in Los Angeles. Beat the American with a final clean and jerk of 240kgs, a personal best.

Sure the eastern bloc countries stayed home but that’s their choice, and you might have forgotten his golds in the Commonwealth Games both sides of his Olympic triumph. Tonga, Fiji giving it their finest. The dramatic eyebrows didn’t do it by themselves but they played their part. He liked to lift angry. Don’t we all. He lifted his 240 after his brother had slapped his face. Hard.

After his competitive life he decided to drop weight and was so successful the circumference of his waist became smaller than either of his thighs at their fabulous peak as he became an elegant multimillionaire property developer and, with the publication of The Dean Lukin Diet, a best-selling author.

He has a son Dean Jnr, (in the middle below) an accountant and a bit of a hard charger with very large images in his forward vision.

581fe174a71eaa6fe7371b408aab7436.jpeg‘The Lukin family’s $289 million dollar Port Lincoln development has State Government approval, opening the way for up to 280 jobs a year during the next decade.

The project includes a 300-500 block housing development in two residential areas on the 118ha site, as well as a major wharf revamp and an industrial precinct. Lukin Corporation chief executive Dean Lukin Jr said it was the largest regional development in South Australia for many years.’ (Adelaide Advertiser 8/8/14)

This development includes a golf course shaped like a shark, and designed by? Of course, The Shark. (at left, Dinko Dean on the right. See what I mean about the eyebrows. Perhaps you can’t. They’re a bit like The Joker in Batman.)

Dinko Dean’s father, Dinko Snr, was a major figure in the development of Port’s bluefin tuna industry (current turnover round $420m annually) most importantly by beginning the process of catching tuna in the wild and then farming and fattening them in pens for sale, mostly to Asia. He made a fortune. He also left his first wife Ann in 1993 causing ructions in the business which as a result closed for a time and in 1996 met his second wife, Lakanna, a 29 year-old Thai woman who was working in a local restaurant. She changed her first name to Lukina because it meant ‘belonging to Lukin’ in Croatian. We’re deep in gossip now, but as you might possibly anticipate there was trouble over the will. Big trouble. 

But Dean Lukin … mate … wouldn’t you wanna get a bit involved with where he grew up?

Two more words. Made up words this time. Makybe Diva.

Triple Crown. Three Melbourne Cups. In A Row. 2003. 2004. 2005. Over the distance may well make Winx, international Horse of the Year 2018, look a bit ordinary. That might be a bit like comparing Marcus Bontempelli with Dame Margot Fonteyn but you get the idea.

Owner: Tony Santic, a bit of Croatian blood swirling round in the background there. That would be Tony of ‘Tony’s Tuna’, a very major Port Lincoln concern selling marine produce throughout the world. On his staff at one time he had Maureen Dellar, Kylie Bascomb, Belinda Grocke, Dianne Tonkin and Vanessa Parthenis.IMG_2051.jpgThe Tuna Boat Owners Association who are also behind the cultural centre and its program, the art competition, the very fine local sports facilities, the Tunarama festival and most of the other things that happen in town, made a major contribution to the erection of this statue.

Port Lincoln, not to be missed.


* * * * * * * *

Screen Shot 2019-02-08 at 5.01.12 pm.pngWe flew there. From Adelaide it’s a 650km drive of variable interest round the top of the gulfs. In the Saab 340 it took about 40 minutes.

We hired a Yaris. There was nothing wrong with it apart from the suspension, road holding, transmission, engine and brakes.

The airport is 14 km from the town, looking for a suitable bit of flat land I guess. The first view across Boston Bay is slightly disconcerting. Did the silos have to be that big, I mean THAT big, you wonder.IMG_2056.jpgAt Port Lincoln we worship at the temple of Ceres. (Note the Santa installed above the ‘R’ below. Viterra might be a Canadian company but they’re making an effort.) Round the back Lord Gypsum has his own premises.IMG_2259.jpgThe grain &c. mostly comes in trucks these days. There was an endless and noisy procession of B Doubles doing a loop out through the bulk handler. Once it came by train. I wondered just how the line hooked up to Adelaide or anywhere else really. Maybe Whyalla. But it doesn’t, and didn’t. Its termini are just termini, two lines parked out on their own, finishing at the major centres of Thevenard and Buckleboo. Port Lincoln could, if you let it, feel very isolated.

But it doesn’t. It feels like a going concern. It has a population of about 16,000 and is the ninth biggest town in South Australia. (Quick quiz: Adelaide is obviously number one. Tell me four of the other seven. OK, three then. See the end of this blog for an answer.) And it’s well lubricated with money.

As far as I could tell Port Lincoln comes in two parts: Traditional (or Classic) and Contemporary (or Deluxe).

Traditional: Liverpool StreetIMG_2424.JPG


Foreshore, groovy place:IMG_2433.JPG

Foreshore, special occasion:IMG_2417.JPG

Foreshore, another special occasion. The Tunarama Festival’s highlight, the tuna throw:image.adapt.1200.HIGH.jpg

Foreshore, safe swimming:IMG_2178.jpg

Foreshore, also safe swimming. With that very gentle shoreline gradient of the South Australian gulfs, it’s a long way to get your calves wet with the tide out. And yes it is a municipal bulldozer doing something unfathomable further down the beach.IMG_2160.jpg

Eyre Peninsula gateaux. No surprises here:IMG_2192.jpg

Houses: A couple of defining aspects of traditional South Australian domestic architecture. 1. A colour scheme of rust and sandstone, or maroon and ochre if you like. 2. Brick with masonry infill. A keenly illustrative example:IMG_2144.jpg

Also. Suburban versions. IMG_2161.jpg



And more up market:image-1.jpgThis one was for sale: $670,000. It had a commanding view of the silos. Just incidentally, I would like to point to the four types of gardens in the four photos. There was a lot more of numbers 2 and 3, than 1 and 4.

But then you go round Kirton Point, and another world emerges — Deano World. You’ve left Boston Bay and are almost in Proper Bay. And that is its real name. Advisory nomenclature: that’s where you should park your boat, and that’s where they do park their boats. A small part of the tuna fleet.IMG_2239 (1).jpg

And if you’re lucky enough to be an owner with a fishing licence …IMG_2226.jpgIMG_2229.jpg… complete with statuary on the corner which you mightn’t be able to see in the bigger pic. (But at left.) The name of the boat is ‘The Battler’, and you can get a very nice reflected view of the Yaris in the lounge room window.

Just by going round the point, we’ve suddenly arrived at the Gold Coast.



IMG_2222.jpgCollective noun for palm trees. A surfeit.IMG_2228.jpgThe white building at the back here is the new municipal swimming pool and leisure centre (gym). Forget the shark proof pool on the foreshore, you don’t need to swim in the sea any more. In front is a pub with pokies, and a boat that says:IMG_2253 (1).jpgGet into it.

* * * * * * * *

I had chosen a motel on the beach unwittingly in what I am calling the Traditional part of town. And there we found Del Giorno’s where we ate very well. From the most extensive menu: 

DINKO TUNA STEAK: char grilled, with sautéed cherry tomato and chimmichirri sauce 34


KING PRAWNS LUKINA: Western King Prawns on house made potato rosti, fresh avocado, cherry tomato and coriander, with chilli 37

But we also went to Coffin Bay.IMG_2173.jpgThis is a surrogate for a photo. ‘Wake’ by Sally Kunze: $1200. It could have won the Annual Port Lincoln Art Competition, on show when we were there, but didn’t. The people running the show told me there were more than 60 artists living in and around Port Lincoln. But it’s here because that’s what Coffin Bay, with its oyster beds, looks a bit like. In addition, while there is trouble finding something interesting to do with the foreground, the sky’s good.

South Australia has got a thing about food and drink, of course, and if you eat and drink badly there you will have had a run of appallingly bad luck. I had a great meal at Amalfi in Adelaide, but I think the best meal we had was in Coffin Bay. (Population: 611.  Speaking only English at home, 97.8%. Most common response for religion: No Religion 64.3%.)

IMG_2166.jpgMatthew Flinders named the Bay, but not ‘Coffin’ with its lugubrious overtones. You might imagine one of his sailors dying and being buried there just for example.

He named it Coffin‘s Bay after Sir Isaac Coffin, a British baronet who was the naval attache at the port where Flinders’ ship ‘The Investigator’ was fitted out. Thinking about it, that probably doesn’t do a thing for the lugubrious overtones. I wonder if Sir Isaac spent much time on the topic. But all this would probably be news to anyone who has spoken of Coffin Bay or its produce in the last 50 years. (At left MF doing compass work just outside the Archway named for him.) 

It is famous for its oysters which, with Sydney Rock and Tasmanian, round out the holy triumvirate of Australian edible molluscs. I am inclined towards Sydney Rock myself, with that bit of extra flavour generated by all the pollution.

We had some oysters but not at Coffin Bay’s 1802 Oyster Bar and Bistro where we lunched. We had Heirloom tomato salad with whipped goats curd, pickled fennel, wild rocket salsa and sourdough; House-smoked fish pate with fennel lavosh and pickled baby vegetables; and King George whiting escabeche, lightly fried and cooked in charred orange juice, with potato fondant, cavalo nero and heirloom carrots; washed down with a Clare Valley reisling. And, while it might sound just a bit SA hipster-ish, it was a feast.

I’d say, even if you’re not a fan of weightlifting or if you happen to miss the Tunarama Festival, its still worth going to Port Lincoln. It’s another world.

* * * * * * * *


IMG_1867.jpgStrathalbyn, in the middle of the Fleurieu Peninsula and in the middle of a drought.

IMG_2398.JPGThe State Library in Adelaide where we found Sturt’s journals.

IMG_2403.JPGFrom a distance it could be a weaving. But it’s not. Just blue dots, and your eyes. A wonderful piece of work. ‘Tali. Sand Dune’ by Ken Kunmanara, who is from the APY Lands and who died at Mutitjulu, part of the circuit, in 2018. The most excellent Art Gallery of South Australia.

IMG_2409.JPGPirie Street, Adelaide late at night. The City of Adelaide, Light’s block (roughly 3km x 2km) enclosed by gardens, has a most desirable and deeply unusual mix of domestic and public buildings, light industry, coffee shops, Main Street shopping, units, historic terraces, institutional buildings, hotels and other sorts of accommodation, laneways, major thoroughfares, clubs, galleries, restaurants and everything else that could make life interesting. And you CAN live there. It’s a living city.

IMG_2145.jpgSimon and Mags at Maggie and Colin Beer’s farm near Nuriootpa. Could have bought, you know, jams and chutney, Pheasant Farm Pate, but didn’t. We were too late for lunch. Much as I love them, looked and left.

IMG_2297.jpgAt the gate of Bethany vineyards, the oldest in the Barossa. Without trying, we’d sort of been following these Tour Downunder chaps around and, suddenly, we had a chance to see them. They went past in a blur of colour and with a remarkable whirring noise. Most exciting. Richie Porte with his cheeks blown out at the front. Didn’t do any good. Again.

IMG_2344.jpgTerrific silo art at Waikerie. A yabby on the left by Jimmy DVate and a series of ideas on the right.

IMG_2356.jpgSouth of Robinvale, table grapes covered with dozens, in sum thousands, of hectares of plastic sheeting. What do they do with that when they finish? All so we can avoid one of the really deleterious effects of climate change, i.e. having grapes with a bit of brown on them.

* * * * * * * *

The Ten Most Populous towns in South Australia: In order, Adelaide, Mt Gambier, Whyalla, Gawler, Port Pirie, Bridgewater, Port Augusta, Murray Bridge, Port Lincoln, Mt Barker, Victor Harbour, Aldinga.

Population of South Australia: 1.67m. Population of Adelaide: 1.32m.


The Mouth of the Murray

‘Most of the effect of climate change will be felt through water.’ (Sir Nicholas Stern in his major report for the UK Government The Economics of Climate Change)
Somewhere over there between the two dredges (on this day wearing red) is the mouth of the Murray. Despite having a collection area of 1.1 million square kilometres, one-seventh of Australia, bigger than France and Germany combined, and collecting on average half a million gigalitres of water annually from the Basin as a whole — a stupendous amount, one gigalitre is a billion litres — not enough water flows to the end of the Murray-Darling river system to maintain a gap in the coastal dune enabling access to the sea. The dredging process costs $6m annually. Staggering isn’t it.
rm_mouth_deh_aerialphoto_1981_x.jpgIt has in the past closed entirely. In 1981, even before the Millennium Drought had kicked in, both branches — Goolwa (to the left) and Coorong (to the right) — had silted up and, as you can see in the picture above, the ‘entrance’ is an exposed sand bar.

* * * * *IMG_2317.jpgThese pelicans are fishing at Blanchetown lock, Number One (of 26), closest to the mouth, after the barrages. Their catch will eventually be affected by the disastrous fish deaths round Menindee.

* * * * *

There are three stories here, all complex. All have the makings of a tragedy, the tragedy that the news right now is circling around — catastrophe today, forgotten tomorrow. But the story in the end will be told by the mouth of the Murray.

2230123_1520484054032.pngThe Murray-Darling Basin covers a vast amount of territory in four states and the ACT, far more than most people imagine. In a blog in part about the floods in Toowoomba in Queensland I mentioned that the rain that fell in town during those floods could prospectively have ended up in Lake Alexandrina 2795km away: it’s downhill all the way.

But it wouldn’t today.


It wouldn’t today because in many places the Darling is dry. Between 1945 and 2008 (years at the end of two almighty droughts) there were never any ‘no flow events’. It was always a flowing river continuous from above Bourke to Wentworth where it meets the Murray.

At present where it’s not dry it is often de-oxygenated because of lack of flow, or covered in blue-green or the more dangerous red algae. Those factors will all kill fish (in their millions as it turns out) and the many other creatures which depend on that water, including the people who pipe it into their homes at Walgett (not the dry Namoi any more but bore water), Brewarrina (average annual water bill $1972, the highest in the NSW) and Wilcannia, all significant Aboriginal communities, all already significantly disadvantaged. 

Unknown-1.jpegBourke was once an important inland port. The evidence is still there. The paddle steamers with their cargoes of wool going south and supplies going north would tie up to the top rail of its wharf (at left). They could and did (if not for long) ply the length of the Darling and the Murray and from time to time steam out through the mouth to reach Adelaide.

But at Bourke now, and I remember the shock I got when flying in for the first time, they grow cotton, hundreds of thousands of acres of cotton, one of the thirstiest agricultural crops in one of the hottest and driest parts of this country. Representatives of the industry assure us that this is done in a highly efficient manner and that the product is of surpassing quality.

agriculture_costs_graph.gifWhy is the Darling dry? Because of the very bad drought that has affected western NSW for some time. No argument. The Darling runs almost exclusively through arid country where evaporation eats up 94% of the rain that does fall.

But a second reason is that cotton farmers — operating at all the black dots north of Pooncarie in the map above — have re-engineered the landscape to harvest every available flow. Two cotton-producing companies, Webster Ltd and Peter Harris Inc, have rights to 70% of the water in the headquarters of the Barwon-Darling. More than 80% of water taken from this region is unmetered. There have never been any prosecutions for water theft here. The Queensland government believes in very light touch regulation, whereas, in this arena, the NSW Govt aided and abetted by Barnaby Joyce when he was Federal Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources just seems straight out baldly corrupt.03b812315771b4a43348ef084e449ddf.jpegDamming floodwater at Cubbie Station.

Cubbie Station (see map above, near Dirranbandi, Qld) was formed by buying up 51 properties with their accompanying water rights to be the largest irrigated farm in the world today. It’s storage on the Culgoa runs for 28 kms. It has rights to 460,000 megalitres of water — more than the aggregate of every other water user downstream in NSW! — enough to grow 200 square kilometres of cotton. 

That could be the case — but as well as the fuss the publicity of these facts has caused, there hasn’t been enough rain to make harvests of anything like this sort, to the extent that the property was put up for sale and sold in 2013 to a Chinese corporation. It seems true that there is no water at all in Cubbie’s storages at present. But there is a great deal, harvested according to a generous interpretation of the law, in the dams and storages of other cotton growers in northern NSW.

And then there was Barnaby Joyce’s brokerage of the Federal Government’s buy back of water rights from Tandou Station (near Menindee, also owned by Webster’s, chief executive Chris Corrigan) in two tranches totalling $112m. The government paid twice the going rate per litre for what is described locally as ’empty buckets’, water rights which are nominal only and never likely to be accessible except during major floods when most people have plenty of water. So $112m was spent on something which will have no possible benefit for downstream users or the general health of the river. Good money if you can get it, and top work thank you Barnaby.

Given the ferociously political nature of these issues, to be even-handed, if you want to read how Michael Murray, the general manager of Cotton Australia, responded to a particular set of criticisms by Sarah Hanson-Young, click here. In terms of lessons in media management it is worth noting how he dodges all the fundamental questions by focusing on specifics. He doesn’t for example have much to say about the appropriateness of cotton-growing for Australia. That is taken as given. He has recently said, “As an industry, we are growing very tired of being ‘the whipping boy’ for all the problems that are being brought on by this crippling drought”. 

The ABC research unit offers the following. ‘In 2008-9 … whilst urban water users faced severe restrictions … and the vast majority of the [Murray-Darling] Basin was enduring the peak of the worst drought in living memory, the cultivation of cotton and rice consumed 981 gigalitres of water. This figure equates to the combined water consumption of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide (990 gigalitres) over the same period, to produce a crop with a combined value of less than $650 million, in a year when the gross value of national agricultural production was in excess of $46 billion’.

So, number one, the drought. Sure. But two, crazy use of the water driven by politically protected upstream commercial interests. And then there is three: the NSW government’s policy regarding the lower Darling, ‘de-commissioning’ the Menindee Lakes, a casual eco-catastrophe.

‘De-commission’. What a word. The five Menindee Lakes provide a buffer for the Darling, holding prospectively large amounts of flood water which can be released when river flows decline maintaining the health of the lower Darling as well as providing their own natural ecologies, an intriguing destination for Outback travellers and the lifeblood of Menindee, a small local community.

images.jpegThe lakes have also been the main source of Broken Hill’s water supply. (A modest proportion comes from captured rainfall and local natural aquifers.) Water has run through a 140km pipeline providing one important reason for maintaining good supplies of water in the lakes. That pipeline is ageing and needed about $110m spent on it to keep it in good working order. But that was not the decision of the NSW govt. It decided to build a new 270km pipeline from the Murray at Wentworth at a cost of $467m (also costing more than $25m annually, at least in the first four years, to run). 37.4 megalitres a day will be pumped from the Murray. A megalitre is one million litres. That would be 1.7 million litres an hour.3799.jpg

This is a pic of the last pipe going in. It’s done. acadd49bab25e4f4e37ef3e4265d3df3.jpegThus there is no need for the Menindee Lakes anymore (‘de-commissioned’), cotton growers can up their demands in the Darling headquarters, and the lower Darling doesn’t need to flow at all. All the flow can be used further north. That can happen. Mr Joyce has noted that this would be most beneficial, and that he thinks it should happen. The argument goes that the Lakes are sources of unsustainable levels of evaporation. At present it is intended to leave four of them with a puddlesworth each. 

And the Murray?

‘Taking the city’s full allocation from the Murray will not have any effect on the river, according to Broken Hill water policy expert Stan Dineen. “That will have no impact,” Mr Dineen said. “It is only a small amount. [That’s up to 10 gigalitres or 10 thousand million litres a year]. They could lose that somewhere and wouldn’t even notice.”‘ (SMH, 17/4/18)

And that’s the second story: the Murray. What sort of shape is it in?

* * * * *


The Murray also runs in part through an arid landscape. IMG_2312.jpgThis pic was taken at Truro, 30 kms from the lush vines of the Barossa (misspelt in an early edict from ‘Barrosa’, a battle the British lost in southern Spain in 1811). Just incidentally, for some unexplained reason people had started stringing up soft toys on fences near here.

But it’s almost gibber, stony desert. Truro hill is the last before the endless plains of the north, and somewhere down there in the haze the Murray is ambling, sedentary, often doubling back on itself as though uncertain of its destination, unable to make up its mind.

gettyimages-540119103-612x612.jpgNot my photo of course, but a very good indication of the nature of much of the river’s course.

Unlike the Darling it doesn’t live off flood waters. It rises in the Australian Alps, nominally at Cowambat Flat not far from Mt. Kosciuszko, living off snow melt and the water that alpine swamps and peat and moss beds hold. The volume of its average annual flow is 10,900 gigalitres, but this is one of these cases where the idea of ‘average’ is plainly unhelpful. Recorded flows 1892-2008:figure3_1.pngThe caption notes that for 2000-08 the average is 3,980GL, one-third of the long term average. 

How was it looking a week or two ago? Pretty good, even if there were a few too many jet skis for my taste.IMG_2236.jpg

But then hell hath no fury like debates about the Murray River.

Its water maintains huge irrigated industries, from dairy to wine (annual output of primary production round $4.5billion, Basin total round $8b). Then there are the countless millions (one estimate: $345m annually) spent by tourists.

But as well its ‘valley’ contains several thousand ‘key environmental assets’, like the Barmah forest, a small flood plain area believed to be very special to the local Yorta Yorta people, 16 wetlands (of a total of 32,000 in the Basin as a whole) protected as highly important under the international Ramsar convention along with more than 110 species of birds and animals which are threatened with extinction.

And then there is the small matter that in dry years it provides most of Adelaide’s potable water as well as maintaining the towns and industries of South Australia’s lower lakes, Albert and Alexandrina.

There are stakeholders growing out of your stakeholders, all sure that Armageddon will follow if their slice is cut more thinly.

So in we wade.

Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 2.32.59 pm.pngI would like to take as one text Myth and the Murray: Measuring the real state of the river environment by Jennifer Marohasy published as a ‘backgrounder’ by the Institute of Public Affairs in 2003. According to the ABC’s Michael Duffy: ‘She is the best-known proponent of evidence-based science [apparently a special sort] in the country.’

Ms Marohasy has good scientific credentials and this is her conclusion:

‘We have all heard about the declining health of the Murray River, including poor water quality, dying red gums and threats to the continued survival of the Murray cod — this is the popular view in urban Australia. Along the river, communities believe that the end of commercial fishing, a substantial restocking effort, improvements in on-farm practices and the construction of salt-interception schemes have resulted in a healthier river. The available evidence supports the local view and suggests that, with the possible exception of native fish stocks, the river environment is healthy.’

On salinity she provides evidence that suggests that there is no long term trend in salinity levels in the river as measured at three important locations (significant ‘take off’ points). She ventures beyond the river to its floodplain in a discussion of the impact of irrigation on the groundwater salinity which had destroyed the life of vast tracts of land between Kerang and Robinvale.

135,000ha of land were salt-affected in 1995. Thanks to massive effort, both public and private, the anticipated growth of the salt pans to 175,000ha (with the implementation of the restitution plan; 325,000ha without) has seen them actually reduced to less than 10,000ha.

We need good news, and that’s important news. One thing it means, which she seems to gloss over, is that if you put your back into a problem with some keen thought and common concern you might be able to fix it.

Fish: she acknowledges the take has reduced mightily since the early 20th century when it was common for the annual catch of Murray Cod to be in the order of 1500 tonnes. In 1928, there were 1300 commercial fishermen operating on the Murray. This had started to become economically unviable by the 1930s due to declining fish numbers. In 1993 the number of commercial fishers was down to 28 and now there are none. But, she says, the number of Cod and Silver Perch going up and down the Torrumbarry fishway has been reasonably steady over the 10 years for which she had data (1992-2002). 

739_0_BU4355.jpgHer data on turbidity and unhelpful added nutrients like phosphorus show no special trend over the time series she has, and she pooh poohs the claim by the Wentworth Group (of distinguished scientists) that ‘vast numbers of 300-year old red gums are dying along the Murray floodplain due to extreme drought following a severely depleted river flow’. She persuades herself this is not true because the method of assessment was visual and not sufficiently rigorous, but also because the annual remedial flows that now flood the Barmah Forest (above) are correcting the problem.

She has also found a research paper that suggests rather courageously and against the flow of conventional wisdom that: It is well documented that the Aboriginal presence, far from having a benign impact on the landscape, resulted in the extinction of many animal species and maintained the Australian flora, particularly in semi-arid regions, in a fire-mediated sub-climax.’ Her conclusion is that the Barmah Forest only exists because of the control on Aboriginal seasonal burning which resulted from European occupation.

I’d like to believe her conclusion, just as she would like me to. Stay calm. We can put aside grounds for concern: everything is okay. The $13b assigned to correcting the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin is yet another example of irrational and futile government waste. And as far as she goes, she’s convincing and she does have some good points to make.

However, in typical IPA fashion, she begins her paper with a swipe at the CSIRO, the Wentworth Group and other collections of scientists (who swarm around this topic) and bureaucrats, accusing them of not listening to the locals who know and love their river, of relying on trivial evidence and then making it lean in an ideological direction thereby producing deceptive results unnecessarily catastrophising the facts. But if making a case for a pre-existing point of view is a sin, she’s standing in a bucket of guilt which goes well up past her withers.

In two moves that are typical, Ms Marohasy says: one, there is a category mistake. The bad guys treat the Murray as though it was a wild river. It is not, and hasn’t been for more than century when they started up the big pumps near Mildura.

While the Australian Bureau of Statistics report gives the impression that the ‘degradation’ to the Murray River by way of ‘salinity, loss of fish species and algal blooms’ is caused by water diversions leaving too little water in the river, a total water balance is not provided to enable a comparison of the amount of water extraction with the amount of water stored by the dams. In reality, as a consequence of the increase in government storage capacity (i.e., dams) over the last 50 years, the water level in the main stem of the river is unnaturally high for much of the length of river, most of the time.

She also offers a fairly well-rehearsed photo of the Murray to show what it can be like, ‘naturally’: the bed of the Murray at Koondrook downstream from Swan Hill in 1914.

Dry Murray 1914 blog.JPG

There are five or six of these photos. They were all taken in the drought years 1901, 1915 and 1923, and are all immediately downstream of major irrigation outtakes which were hard at work.

But she’s quite right to argue that beginning with the idea that all engineering works should be removed from the river (there are more than 3000 dams on the rivers in the Basin) is nonsense, but it’s hard to find examples of this notion expressed, especially in government publications. It’s the proverbial straw man.

The second move is to say, there are no hard data. All these scientists at work, but they don’t know what they are doing. They are making conclusions from models and projections the terms of which are usually wrong. A typical complaint: No data are provided to establish an actual link between diversions and river health, and no other measured statistics are provided to give an indication of actual river health. 

Well, the clear fact is that those scientists are hard at work. Marohasy’s paper was published some time ago (2003) and maybe there has been massive outcropping of research publication since that time, but a contrary document published in 2012 from one of her bêtes noires, the Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology, has a source list of more than 3000 references to support its contentions, starting at ABS/ABARE/BRS (2009) Socio-economic context for the Murray-Darling Basin descriptive report and finishing at Zukowski S, and Walker KF (2009) Freshwater snails in competition: alien Physa acuta (Physidae) and native Glyptophysa gibbosa (Planorbidae) in the River Murray, South Australia. Those references are all related to her topic.

The CRCFE paper is not concerned with agriculture or tourism. It is A Review of River Ecosystem Condition in the Murray-Darling Basin. Its conclusion: Significant degradation of all systems examined.

The authors also point out that: Water dependent ecosystems are complex, dynamic networks with multiple feedback mechanisms that will respond to changes in either the physical or biological environment or the movement of material between components of the system in ways that can be difficult to predict. This places ecosystems in a similar category to the stock market or the human brain. This complexity affects our capacity to clearly ascribe causality to system changes, especially in situations where there have been various applications of multiple interacting pressures applied to the system. 

The CRCFE paper makes specific conclusions about particular areas and one is the Coorong and Murray Mouth.

The Coorong and Murray Mouth is the only estuary within the Basin and therefore a critical window on cumulative change evident across the Basin, particularly in the lower sections. …The primary cause of decline across the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth has been identified as reduced inflows, changed magnitude and frequency of flooding exacerbated by drought.

The evidence of the relationship between reduced inflows and declining ecological condition has been well documented and researched. The Coorong and Lower Lakes are listed as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, with an Ecological Character Description benchmarked for 1985 when the site was listed. In preparing the Ecological Character Description clearly stated that the character of the site at the time of listing was already ‘seriously degraded’.

The overriding driver of the condition of the Coorong and Lower Lakes is altered hydrology. Reduced flow volumes, reduced frequency and duration of medium-sized flood events in spring, and increased risk of the Murray Mouth closing are the main factors implicated in observed environmental changes at the site.IMG_2122.jpg

Half way along the Coorong last January (2019).


Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 12.55.15 pm.pngAs the Murray approaches the coast, it forms the terminal lakes of Alexandrina and Albert (the ‘lower lakes’) before dividing into five channels that flow into the Murray Mouth area. 

At the river’s end, the Murray water either flows into the sea or enters the Coorong, a system of tidal lagoons and coastal dunes that stretches approximately 100 kilometres southeasterly from the mouth.

The actual mouth of the river is a relatively narrow, and at time restricted, tidal inlet that flows between a much wider gap in the coastal dunes. This channel is the only open ocean link for the river, and also forms the only connection between the sea and the saltwater lagoons of the Coorong.

The Murray Mouth forms part of the Coorong National Park, and the entire Murray estuary is listed as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. Although the environment of the estuary has altered significantly due to European settlement, the lower lakes, Murray Mouth and the Coroong continue to be areas of outstanding national and international conservation value, especially as a habitat for birds. Stormboy for example.

These are the facts as presented by Bruce Thom, Chair at the time of the National State of Environment Committee.

One [Murray-Darling] Basin Plan objective is for the mouth to “remain open at frequencies, for durations, and with passing flows, sufficient to enable the conveyance of salt, excess nutrients and sediment from the Murray-Darling Basin to the ocean”. A target for the mouth was for it to be open without the need for dredging in at least 95% of years. But this target is far from being met; more realistically we estimate that the mouth will require dredging in at least 95% of years. 

But how permanently was the Murray mouth open away, or over time was it periodical, and therefore something we don’t need to worry about? Was the mouth open or not, for example, when Sturt came on it in 1830? A vocal and vehement group surrounding Ms Marohasy say, no. He had trouble getting through the mud flats, and the opening was closed.  But from Sturt’s journal: ‘The entrance appeared to me to be somewhat less than a quarter of a mile in breadth. Under the sand hill on the off side, the water is deep and the current strong. … The mouth of the channel is defended by a double line of breakers.’  The natural closure of the mouth may well be possible, but this is not the evidence I would choose for confirmation.

But, some say, that issue is only a symptom. We need to get on to the real problem. ‘The blocked Murray mouth has become a symbol of greed, and unsustainability. This has spurred water reform. But this is misguided and ignores history and the nature of barrier estuaries.’ This comes from the ‘Myth and the Murray Group’. Where they want to focus attention is on the estuarine nature of the lower lakes. Are they a changing transition zone between salt and fresh water influenced by tides, wave patterns, seasons, floods, droughts, or are they and have they always been fresh?

In 2006 water levels in Lake Alexandrina fell precipitously from 0.85 metres above sea level to -1.10 metres below. There was simply not enough water in upstream dams to keep both Lake Alexandrina and the adjacent smaller Lake Albert supplied with adequate water. And this is what the Goolwa Channel looked like.Screen Shot 2019-01-25 at 4.17.26 pm.pngSo why didn’t the sea rush in to accommodate this variation in levels?

Because of the Barrages. The five Goolwa Barrages, 7.6 km of them in total, were constructed in order to reduce salinity levels in the lower reaches of the River Murray, Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert. From the 1900s, with the advent of increasingly large irrigation schemes, landowners along the lower reaches of the river strongly urged the construction of these barrages, primarily to keep the water fresh in the lower reaches of the River Murray, as well as Lake Albert and Lake Alexandrina.

Work commenced in 1935 and was completed in 1940. Their impact is to cause an increase in water level of approximately 50 cm as far upstream as Lock 1 at Blanchetown (274 km from the mouth). Aerial_view_of_River_Murray_barrages_with_superimposed_text_-_PRG-1258-2-546.jpeg

So, from one perspective anyway, ‘instead of being a healthy estuarine ecosystem of 75,000 ha, characterized by mixing of brackish and fresh water with highly variable flows, the barrage construction has transformed the lakes into freshwater bodies with permanently raised water levels and distorted ecology’.

The first part of this view is confirmed by early maps. Like this one, the first: John Arrowsmith 1838.Screen Shot 2019-01-25 at 4.18.41 pm.png

The area behind Hindmarsh island is clearly labelled ‘salt’ and the middle of Lake Alexandrina ‘brackish’. (You may note that the mouth figures, open, on this map.)

But there’s another equally vehement point of view. Contrary to what many believe today, salt water intrusions into the lake environment were not common until after 1900 when significant water resource development had occurred in the River Murray system (Sim and Muller: A Fresh History of the Lakes to the Mouth 1800-1935). This study describes the sense of South Australian injustice at the consequences of the Victorian and NSW irrigators and essentially makes a historical case for the existence of the barrages. They were essential for a fair water deal for South Australians, and even so Victorians could take less out of the damned Murray.

And as Bruce Thom writes they provide major contribution to the closure of the mouth. The tidal basin pre-barrages was approximately 100 square km and post-barrages around 10. As a consequence the power of the tidal exchange was greatly reduced. Along with this reduction and the progressive extraction of river flows upstream, sand from the sea began to accumulate at the river mouth. The river started to choke such that in the early 1980s and again during the millennial drought it closed. Sand from alongshore and offshore was feeding into the entrance so that dredging was required. We now know that only major flood flows such as occurred in late 2010 can flush the sand from the entrance. Massive sand volumes within the entrance have further weakened tidal flows and the sand keeps coming once flood flows subside.

So, should we prop up an artificial freshwater environment which generates these negative consequences? The people building the housing development and marina at Goolwa think so. So do the people working the farms which surround the lakes. So do the citizens of Adelaide whether they realise it or not, because only this way can the fresh quality of the backup supply of their drinking water be guaranteed. 

Or should we join the climate change deniers who have chosen to make the estuarine nature of the lower Murray an issue, and open the barrages, especially the Mundoo barrage which lines up with the mouth and which would help significantly with scouring to keep the entrance open? The silting of Lake Alexandrina would be significantly reduced. It might even help to save the Coorong.

What’s the official line? This is from a paper ‘All about the barrages’ published, but not endorsed by (!, so cautious), the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in 2011 and updated in 2017. The ‘Key Messages’:

  • There are different opinions on whether the Lower Lakes were predominantly freshwater, estuarine or saline before European settlement. However, the weight of evidence shows that the Lakes were mainly fresh, with short periods where some flows from the sea entered the Lakes.
  • The barrages are not the only cause of ecological change in the Lower Lakes; decreased flows from upstream usage has a big impact.
  • Removing the barrages might have some limited environmental benefits, for example, preventing acid sulphate soils in the Lower Lakes area during severe droughts. At the same time though, this would allow sea water to flow in causing drastic changes to the ecology. It would not return the environment to a ‘natural state’ without significant reduction in upstream water usage. A natural estuarine environment – where substantial quantities of fresh and sea water mix – would only be returned if the natural end-of-system flows were returned.
  • Removal of the barrages would not reduce the need for freshwater flows into the lakes, which are not simply ‘lost’ to evaporation, but rather flush salt from the entire system and also provide base flows for water delivery and environmental benefits along the entire river.

The authors point out that:

It is true that the construction of the barrages has significantly changed the ecology of the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth; particularly in times of drought. However, simply removing the barrages would not reinstate these original ecosystems. Firstly, we must factor in the effect of the development that has already taken place in the Basin. Water used for irrigation, agriculture and drinking has significantly reduced flows from what would have been the natural situation, and it is not practical or desirable to stop these activities.

And neither it is. But …

* * * * * * *



It wasn’t me, said the Minister.

As the Minister travelled past residents with placards in hands, the wash from the speed boat stirred up the dead fish causing the crowd to cover their noses.

After avoiding the 150 protesters gathered, Mr Blair met with a select few in a different spot 400 metres upstream amid a heavy police presence.

‘It stinks, it’s rotten, it’s putrid. And it’s not just in the river, it’s in our water systems through town,’ chairperson of the Menindee Barkandji Elders Group Patricia Doyle said. ‘When you shower you can smell this water. Drinking this water? It’s awful’.

Darryn Clifton from the Darling River Action Group said Mr Blair was being disrespectful. ‘A good mob of people turned out here today to listen to what he [Mr Blair] had to say and he came here and said nothing.’

A spokesperson for the Minister later denied there was ever an official event organised with locals. Minister Blair said he had not been responsible for the water flow levels.


It was me, said the  Federal Drought Envoy!

“We have taken water, put it back into agriculture, so we could look after you and make sure we don’t have the greenies running the show basically sending you out the back door, and that was a hard ask,” he said in the recording.

“A couple of nights ago on Four Corners, you know what that’s all about? It’s about them trying to take more water off you, trying to create a calamity. A calamity for which the solution is to take more water off you, shut more of your towns down.”5ab624eff99df67b104c414fca1a1d11.jpeg

* * * * * * *

IMG_2111.jpgAnd what about the Coorong? What will happen to it?

The Coorong gets gradually more salty as it runs more than 100 kilometres from the north lagoon down to the south, and as that happens the biodiversity changes too.

“As you come down that gradient the biodiversity changes from being lots of little fishes at the top end, and when you get to the south lagoon there’s just one fish left. In hyper saline water, three times as salty as the ocean, it’s really salt tolerant,” Mr Paton said. “Some people would know it as whitebait, but it’s hardyhead. There’s one prominent invertebrate, it’s a little chironomid, and there’s one key aquatic plant, a plant called Ruppia tuberosa. Only three living things. …

Read on … it’s fascinating.


Jerusalem, Jerusalem …

If you have settled views with relation to Jerusalem and want to stick with them, I’d avoid going there. Stick with your prejudices. That may be more satisfying in the longer term. Otherwise …

IMG_1510.jpgA Gentleman with four proteges in hats/kippas in the lobby of the King David Hotel (see somewhere below) with what its Swiss designer believed to be ‘Biblical’ decoration. 

Fifty shekels. Where are you going? Okay yes. 50 shekels. I’m here. You’re here. I’ve got a car. Taxi? Of course. This is a taxi. You want to get to the hotel. I will take you. Why are you waiting? Sure my son is in the front seat but I am taking him to music lessons. Electric piano on the back seat is nothing. That is his. It can sit on him. What is your hotel? Sure I know it. You give me 50 shekels and I will take you.

Fifty shekels (20AUD). Probably should have been more like 15, but he had our cases jammed violently into the boot before I could take more than one deep breath. It’s that On Arrival Thing that you discard after use and try never to think of again. It had happened at Urumqi too, just the same. Whaddayado? He’s here. We’re here. Who wants to fight over 10 bucks? What am I? I’m tired. We’d left Tashkent at 2.30 in the morning and spent a bad short night on the plane. We had to wrestle with the security at Ben Gurion airport. We want to get to the hotel. The light rail terminus is somewhere here, but the bus station looks like a bomb site and I can’t see anything that looks like a light rail terminus. Plus we’ve just done some heavy duty public transport on the bus from Tel Aviv, the number 893 I think, otherwise unspecified, a strangely informal and anarchic experience. Maybe once you’ve been brought up Jewish it is assumed responsibility for public order has been internalized and minimal supervision is required. That’s how the bags went into the bowels of the bus; and that’s how they came out. A version of egalitarianism. Help yourself. But get on with it.

So. He takes us. The meter doesn’t get any exercise. Of course. In the front of the small car his young son does sit arranged around a large electric piano keyboard. He dumps us, congratulating us for our choice of destination on the curb of a main-ish road, frantic with traffic like all Jerusalem’s narrow arteries. Where’s the hotel? Down there.

Yeah, well it wasn’t. We were somewhere near but it took us another 15 minutes to actually find it on the other side of the road from where we’d been directed — our very fine hotel with a perfectly adequate room and a huge terrace just for us, completely charming, sympathetic and helpful gay receptionists and a breakfast of simply unparalleled splendor. Really and truly. (Pictured, about one half of the premium food that was on offer at breakfast.)IMG_3300.JPGGood enough in fact for our fellow guests to take huge platefuls of same off to their rooms to eat later. 

But there. We had arrived in Jerusalem.

* * * * * *IMG_1316.jpgWhen we arrived I thought for whatever reason — maybe that sharp hard light — that it looked a bit like Sydney without the harbour, ripples of low white tower blocks, spread for kilometres over the hills, especially their peaks, glarey in the heat.

The next day on our way to the National Museum we found Toorak, Camberwell and Glen Iris.IMG_1339.jpg


But we also came across signs like this.IMG_1337.jpgFor 15 years Lehi — also known, especially among British newspapers, as the ‘Stern Gang’ after its leader, Avraham Stern — was responsible for an underlying rumble of tit-for-tat direct action including the bombing of various British administrative buildings in Jerusalem and the massacre of several hundred Palestinians at the village of Deir Yassin. (Palestine was a British protectorate as a consequence of the carve up of the Middle East after WWI.)

In one of those weird turn-ups infecting this part of the world, after its formation Lehi, an organisation of Jewish freedom fighters, sought alliances with Nazi Germany (and, as it happens, Fascist Italy) believing they were a lesser enemy of Jews than the British. To this end, the Ha’avara Agreement was consummated in 1933.

The deal was to fight alongside the Nazis against the British in return for the transfer of Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe to Palestine. After Stern’s death in 1942, the new leadership moved their allegiance for a time to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Both Germany and Russia deported significant numbers of Jews, somewhere between half a million and a million, to Palestine.

Around this time a British High Commissioner said to David Ben Gurion, leader of one of the Jewish militias and first Prime Minister of Israel: ‘If you temper your activity it is likely that we will grant Jews independence in Palestine’, to which Ben Gurion replied: ‘You are mistaken sir. Independence is never granted. It is taken.’

One person’s terrorist is someone else’s freedom fighter: a truism, never more relevant than this very day.

After dining at Nagila, a vegetarian restaurant where we ate very well, we walked home through Fitzroy. (Hmmm you’re sure? Okay. A version …)IMG_1330.jpg

* * * * * *

Control of Jerusalem since the birth of Christ

  • 0 – 390AD               Romans (polytheism, Christian after 313)
  • 390 – 634                 Byzantines (Eastern Orthodox Christianity)
  • 634 – 1099               Muslim Caliphates (Islam)
  • 1099 – 1187             Crusaders (Roman Christianity)
  • 1187 – 1260             Muslim Caliphates (Islam)
  • 1260 – 1291             A battle front between Mongols and Mamluks (?)
  • 1291 – 1517               Mamluks (Islam)
  • 1517 – 1917                Ottomans (Islam)
  • 1917ish – 1948        British (Christian)
  • 1948 – present        State of Israel (Jewish)

Aggregate (approx.): Muslim — 1090 years; Christian — 440 years: Polytheistic — 313 years: Jewish — 70 years

It is not a good idea to conflate political control with religious affiliation, nor to assume that religious affiliation is anything like universal among any group of people. What we’re looking at here is ‘churn’. Churn, and for complex reasons which can as often be metaphysical as bellicose.

* * * * * *

Jerusalem is the Holy City, yet it has always been a den of superstition, charlatanism and bigotry; the desire and prize of empires, yet of no strategic value; the cosmopolitan home of many sects, each of which believes that the city belongs to them alone — the house of the one God, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions. …

 Jerusalem has a way of disappointing and tormenting both conquerors and visitors. Every visitor in all ages arrives with a vision of the authentic Jerusalem and then is bitterly disappointed by what they find, an ever changing city that has been destroyed and rebuilt many times.…

Holiness requires not just spirituality and faith but also legitimacy and tradition. …  and nothing makes a place holier than the competition of another religion.

No other place evokes such a desire for exclusive possession. Yet this jealous zeal is ironic since most of Jerusalem’s shrines, and the stories that go with them, have been borrowed or stolen, belonging formerly to another religion. The city’s past is often imaginary. … Most but not all conquests have been accompanied by the instinct to expunge the taint of other faiths while actually commandeering their traditions, stories and sites.

From Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book Jerusalem: The Biography. Montefiore, a distinguished writer and historian is a member of the British Jewish family who could claim to have done more than any other group to establish Israel as a nation state, especially Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) a towering figure in this process and, with his relatives the Rothschilds, in British history more generally.

In more recent times, the Six Day War in 1967 was a marked turning point in Israeli history with a major impact on Jerusalem. In essence Jewish forces destroyed the Egyptian airforce and pursued its ground armies across the Sinai Peninsula to the Red Sea. Some of the land taken during this time has been retained for an expanded Israeli state. (Palestinians refer to this time as an-Naksah ‘The Setback’, and the 1948 partitioning when more than 750,000 Palestinians left Israel as al-Nakbah, ‘the Catastrophe’.)

As part of the Jewish victory spoils in 1967, East Jerusalem was reabsorbed into the city’s municipal boundaries for the first time in 19 years, and Jews returned to the Old City from which they had been expelled by the Arab Legion (among other anomalies, largely populated by Chechen soldiers with British officers) in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

After the 1967 annexation, each religious group was granted administration over its holy sites. For the first time since 1948, Jews could visit the Old City of Jerusalem and pray at the Western (‘Weeping’) Wall, the holiest site where Jews are permitted to pray. Jews remained barred from praying on the Temple Mount although they were allowed to visit. Jews also gained access to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron for the first time since the 14th century. Previously they had only been allowed to pray at the entrance.

The success in the 1967 war generated a world-wide wave of enthusiasm for the Homeland among Jews and support arrived in all imaginable forms. We visited one of these. Jerusalem’s Israel Museum is a world class institution with stunning exhibits.

How could a country of 8.5 million (2 million in 1960) which is 70 years old have such a thing? Read the tags. ‘Donated by the Glimcher family, New York’, ‘by Ada and Gerry Morgenstein, Austin Texas’, ‘by the Schleimann Consortium, Chicago’ and so on. You can see, and feel, how the money has poured in, the vast nation-sized sums of money.

It was here we found this, the Tel Dan stele.IMG_1350.jpgDating from around 900 BC, it provides in ancient Aramaic the first reference outside the Bible to the House of David, slightly weirdly highlighted in white on this stele fragment. 

For the sake of interest, it says:

And the King of Israel entered previously into my father’s land. Hadad made me King. And Hadad went in front of me, and I departed from the seven [……]s of my kingdom, and I slew [seventy] kings, who harnessed thou[sands of cha]riots and thousands of horsemen (or: horses). [I killed Jeho]ram son of Ahab King of Israel, and I killed Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram king] of the House of David. And I set their towns into ruins and turned their land into desolation … etc etc. That’s how things rolled in those days.

Nearby, the same age, is this magnificent wall panel, a relief decorated with cuneiform of genies flanking a palm tree suggesting the bestoyal of abundance on the kingdom. It comes from Nimrud, capital for some time of the ancient Assyrian empire and 20km from what is left of Mosul. In 2015 the quite substantial remains of Nimrud were first looted then demolished by bulldozer and explosives by the Taliban. That’s how things roll in these days.IMG_1364 (1).jpgIt was donated by Baron and Baroness de Rothschild, Paris.

IMG_1399.jpgSupport is multi-lateral. On one of the walls of the buildings backing onto the Weeping Wall plaza above me in this photo is a sign saying ‘Colel Chabad, Free Kitchen for the Needy, Sponsored by the Luxenberg Family N.Y.’.

One of the most interesting sources of this support was, and remains, the community of Evangelical Christians in the USA who believe that two of the pre-conditions for the Judgement Day were met by the outcomes of the Six Day War: Israel was restored, and Jerusalem was at last fully governed by Jews. Somewhat perversely, after a complex set of events which can now be anticipated, including St Michael fighting the Anti-Christ on the Temple Mount, the outcome will be the conversion or destruction of the Jews, the Second Coming and the Thousand Year Reign of Christ. [Does this in any way help to explain how Donald Trump might come to be re-elected?]

* * * * * *

Fifty shekels. Where are you going? Okay yes. 50 shekels. I’m here. You’re here. Taxi? This is a taxi. Yeah another one. This time outside the museum. We could have walked but it was very hot.

The nature of the deal is such that we both know it’s a rook, if a very low key one. That’s all on the table sitting up, barking. But that’s part of its attraction. We should be pleased if not honoured to be involved in such a transaction, lying back into it, enjoying the frisson of the interaction. The Law is irrelevant, nothing. It’s between us, one human to another. That’s the only way the deal can be made to mean anything. Is he going to get what he wants? Sure. Are we going to get what we want? Sure. Is it going to cost more than it should (Should? What is ‘should’? Pffft)? Most certainly. But for the difference, to accommodate and explain the difference, he’ll add colour. In addition we are going to get entertainment, advice, philosophy.

How old do you think I am? Don’t know. I was born in 1965. Look at me. Do I look like I am 53 or do I look like I am an old man. Mmmm hard to say. I live in Jerusalem. I live under pressure every day. I am an old man. I have seen many things, but like everyone in Jerusalem I live with a weight on my shoulders which is never removed. The missiles? Rockets? Maybe. But I live with the weight of history, all the weight of history that the rockets are a part of. How about moving? What, am I moving? How can I move? I am a Jew living in Jerusalem.

He was most engaging and, as far as his own circumstances went, had a real perceptive sharpness, the keenest eye. I doubt whether he would have had much interest in the nature of other people’s experiences, but he would have been interesting to talk to for longer.

In his lifetime Israel’s Defence Forces have been involved with: 1964–1967 War over Water (control of the Jordan’s resources), 1967 Six-Day War (the Big One), 1967–1970 War of Attrition (hostilities in the Sinai), 1968 Battle of Karameh (vs the PLO), 1973 Operation Spring of Youth (raid on PLO in Lebanon), 1973 Yom Kippur War (major war with three Arab states fought largely in the Sinai and Golan Heights), 1976 Operation Entebbe (hostage rescue), 1978 Operation Litani (PLO in southern Lebanon), 1982 Lebanon War (same), 1982–2000 South Lebanon conflict (with the Christian militias against the Palestinians in the Lebanese religion-based civil war), 1987–1993 First Intifada (Palestinian uprising), 2000–2005 Second Intifada (Palestinian uprising), 2002 Operation Defensive Shield (invasion of Palestinian areas for the purposes of counter-terrorism), 2006 Lebanon War (vs Hezbollah), 2008–2009 Operation Cast Lead (Gaza Strip: Palestinian deaths c. 1200; Israeli 13, four from friendly fire), 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense (Gaza counter-terrorism), and 2014 Operation Protective Edge (Gaza counter-terrorism: 2000+ Palestinians killed, 8000 homes razed, 89,000 damaged; 34 known tunnels destroyed, two-thirds of Hamas’ rocket arsenal used or destroyed).

I haven’t included the number of missiles fired by Hamas and Hezbollah at Jerusalem: a lot. This is some weeping sore that Jared Kushner is going to sort out for us. Knowing all that, however, helps to explain the palpable tension which sometimes crept into the experience.

Our driver dropped us at the Jaffa Gate, its walls pock-marked either side with bullet holes from the 1948 war.

The Holy City looked hot, bright and glarey.IMG_1415 (1).jpgThe Jaffa Gate is quite small and, for defensive reasons, L-shaped in plan view. What we are looking at is a massive anachronistically paved area which flows from a large break in the wall. Both are consequences of the wish of German Emperor Wilhelm II to enter Jerusalem in 1889 astride his horse just as the Crusaders did in 1099. Just as an aside, such was the slaughter in 1099 blood is described as being calf deep which I can’t believe if only because of the slope of the site. I am however inclined to believe an account which suggests that six months after the bloody entry by the Christians the city still stank quite literally from the carnage. All inhabitants were killed.

We ran the gauntlet of the touts and plunged into David St visible at the end of this plaza. I have just noticed that in this photo you can also see the Mount of Olives with the tower on top of it in on the horizon. We plunged in looking for some sustenance. We went for a menu without prices — salad, hummus, felafel and granita — in a somewhat derelict shop at the butt end of an alley. It was, you may say, satisfactory.IMG_1381.jpg* * * * * *

In an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry ‘Jerusalem syndrome’ (2000, 176, 86-90), Bar-El and others identify and describe a specific syndrome which can emerge in tourists to Jerusalem with no previous psychiatric history.

A previously mentally balanced person becoming psychotic soon after arriving in Jerusalem is the most widely evident type of this disease. A distinct pattern of behaviours is noted.

  • Anxiety, agitation, nervousness and tension.
  • Declaration of the desire to split away from the group or the family and to tour Jerusalem alone.
  • A need to be clean and pure: obsession with taking baths and showers; compulsive fingernail and toenail cutting.
  • The need to shout psalms or verses from the Bible, or to sing hymns or spirituals loudly.
  • A procession or march to one of Jerusalem’s holy places.
  • Delivery of a sermon in a holy place. The sermon is typically based on a plea to humankind to adopt a more wholesome, moral, simple way of life. Such sermons are typically ill-prepared and disjointed.
  • Paranoid belief that a Jerusalem ‘agency’ is after the individual, causing their symptoms of psychosis through poisoning and medicating.

The authors report 42 examples of such cases studied over a period of 13 years. Critics subsequently have pointed out that Jerusalem has around 3.5 million tourists each year and although several hundred are admitted to mental hospitals, the proportion is no higher than other intensively visited sites.

However when David Ben Gurion returned to Jerusalem in 1948 he did describe the population as ‘20 percent normal, 20 percent privileged, and 60 percent weird’.

* * * * * *

Breakfast this morning hadn’t been quite up to its usual standard, a little bit ragged and we couldn’t get a proper coffee for some reason. Ah, of course … that would be Shabbat. The Sabbath.

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Verily ye shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you. Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work [melakha – מְלָאכָה] therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD …. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. (Exodus 31: 12-17)

It had begun the day before. It was about 2pm and we wanted to go for walk round the Ramparts. Closed. ‘Madam’, the security chaps said, ‘Madam, the word is “closed”. Don’t you know the meaning of the word “closed”?’ And it was closed because of Shabbat which according to the letter of the law begins a few minutes before sunset on Fridays and finishes a few minutes after sunset on Saturday. During that time Orthodox Jews refrain from melakhot, 39 categories of activity. Over the years there must have been some tremendous fun sorting these out. Decades could have been spent on a single sentence, careers made and destroyed by the employment or removal of a single word.

On a less domestic scale this means a lot of things stop (in Jerusalem, not in Tel Aviv): restaurants close, shops and businesses close, no public transport. This is Jaffa Street, the main street, about 3pm on Shabbat.IMG_1501.jpgJust round that visible kink in the road there was a coffee shop open, non-kosher, probably run by an Arab or a Palestinian. As we sat there I watched a Jewish family with two young children playing with policemen’s horses before a portly middle-aged Orthodox Jew appeared and began chastising them. I couldn’t understand the language of course, but I did understand his tone and the way they slunk off. You’re supposed to be at home.

Between that point and and the 15 minutes required to walk back to our hotel we were accosted three times by young Orthodox chaps policing the streets asking in a somewhat threatening manner where we were from and if we were Jewish.

About 35 percent of the Jews who live in Jerusalem (65 percent of its population) describe themselves as Haredi, or ultra Orthodox. Haredim average 7.6 children per family, are not likely to participate in the workforce, can avoid conscription, and are disinclined to accept secular authority — a challenge therefore to govern. About 19 percent of Jerusalem’s Jews describe themselves as ‘secular’ (cf. 45 percent in Israel as a whole and 64 percent in Tel Aviv).

At 9.45pm we were starving and thought the restaurants must be open again by now. Surely. But no. That would be the chronological religious insurance policy that we might call the Shabbat Spill Over Effect. In the course of going back to check the vegetarian restaurant we liked, we found an Ethiopian restaurant next door which was open.

One interesting thing about this was that there was a lot of noise coming from a back room. I poked my head around to look and on the telly it was Uruguay v. Portugal (2-1, Ronaldo goes home) being watched by a crowd of young Haredim both using electricity and getting stuck into the grog. That’s certainly not work of course.IMG_3400.JPGA second thing was the food. It wasn’t a complete novelty. We’ve been initiated into the delights of this type of African food previously, but there it was in a lane off Jaffa Street, Jerusalem. Mind you, there have been Jews in Ethiopia for at least 15 centuries, so perhaps not a real surprise.

The third was that the only other people in the section of the restaurant where we were sitting was a family, a couple with an 18 year-old girl, from East Bentleigh, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Remarkable enough in itself. They were also Christian Jews — luminously alive (the 18 yo evidently less so) with the fact that they were Christian Jews — and ScoMo-like wanting to testify to the fact. They had brought 80 other Australian Christian Jews to Jerusalem where a world-wide conference of Christian Jews was being held. (Should that be Jewish Christians perhaps? I’m going with what they said.) They were in fact co-organisers of this conference, and the woman of the party was aglow with the experience.

Christian Jews, eh. Why not? Although that’s not everyone’s view. We shared a cab getting back to Ben Gurion airport with a stubby and mature ‘Holocaust Educator’ from Houston Texas who, when we mentioned this, said, ‘What are Christian Jews? You can be Christian. You can be a Jew. Nothing else.’

* * * * * *

About 37,000 people live in the Old City of whom only about 3,000 are Jews. Before 1967, of course, there were none. Jews were banned from living there. Now there are about 6,000 Christians, but more than 70 percent its population is Muslim.

IMG_1429.jpgThe Muslim Quarter is not generally much frequented by tourists. It has wider streets, less clutter generally, several schools. We were there because we’d wanted to avoid the crowds and to go out through Herod’s Gate to the Arab shopping centre outside the Old City, at left, quite a different proposition to the main Jewish shopping centre a kilometre away.IMG_3395.JPGIMG_1430.jpg

The Muslim Quarter, or this part of it anyway, also has a different flavour. Rather than being the backdrop for exotic religious theatre there is a clear sense that people really do live here.

The young chap in the pic above gave me a light but cross punch in the back when I was taking a photo of what I imagine to be his school (at left). To which I say, quite right. Tourists probably should stay where the tourists are rather than invade more private precincts. He was more convivial a little later when we bought a granita from his dad.

It was a bit the same when we got something to eat at Uncle Moustache Resturant,IMG_1431.jpga bit prickly at first and then when he discovered we were Australians he became the soul of polite and generous hospitality. And they were very good meals: kebbe (lined up on the side of his fryer), felafel, salad, bread and the best hummus I’ve ever tasted. Cost? Minimal.

IMG_1489.jpgA little later we were poking round, still in the Muslim part of the Muslim Quarter, and I saw this erm … neck garment in a shop window. It took my fancy. Who would buy such a thing? Under what circumstances? An intending Cleopatra maybe? Our mate here was only too happy to explain. He had sold two recently, one to an American who came in and didn’t even haggle, just slapped his card down on the desk. Sold. Bang. US$1200 just like that. 

He asked me if I liked it. In my most cautious and culturally sensitive fashion I said I thought it was teetering on the edge of being startlingly awful. He said they were his sentiments exactly, and we had bit of a giggle about selling such things.

We had quite a chat, about religion among other things. He didn’t much care for it one way or the other and didn’t feel any compulsion to change his view, a happy atheist, perhaps one of many, swimming along in this religious ocean. He was a lovely guy. In September this year he intends to complete his scuba diving certification near Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef.

Just nearby:

IMG_1493.jpgLook at the mountain peak. Spicy. Fabulous.

* * * * * *

IMG_1406.jpgThis photo contains a number of Jerusalem-y items.

A bit of archeology: King OG’s finger (That’s what it says. ‘High monolithic pillar, abandoned because of cracked rock. End of Second Temple era. Discovered 1871’). A bit of kitsch: a fibre glass Lion of Judah. A bit of nationalism: a flutter of Israeli flags. A bit of climate: random banks of air conditioners (Jerusalem is not in Europe, nor is it European. In so many ways it is in the Middle East.) And a bit of security/ control: that’s the wall of Jerusalem Prison.

* * * * * *

It was hot. We’d seen the things we had on our list and thought we’d like a swim. Clearly you don’t go to Jerusalem just for a swim, in fact there seemed to be an acute shortage of accessible pools. But then there’s no Nobel Prize for swimming is there, and the beaches of Tel Aviv are not so very far away. The 50m Jerusalem Pool was closed in 2014 after a community campaign that lasted for six years and ended in a judgment by the Israeli Supreme Court. It was replaced with a block of luxury units.

While the presence of a YMCA in Jerusalem caused just a moment’s pause, that it had a pool made perfect sense. Our route took us through a delightful park and within shouting distance of Mr Trump’s new Embassy in Gershon Agron St. We went down George Eliot St and George Washington St to get to King David St, a very grand commercial and institutional thoroughfare, and we found the YMCA okay. It looked something like this,YMCA_BUILDING_JERUSALEM_1933_from_East.jpg except that that is 80 years ago, and black and white.

It’s not a model. That is the real building. I tried to take a contemporary picture of the tower but I couldn’t, partly because it is so high but also because there were thick stands of trees in the way.

Here’s Elias Messinas in the ‘Jerusalem Post’ describing it: The historic YMCA building on King David street is a truly inspirational architectural jewel in the city, built in 1933 by American architect Arthur Loomis Harmon of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, the architect of the Empire State Building in New York City. The building is a mix of styles, combining ymca.jpgstories from the Bible, the New Testament and the Koran, and local architectural historic styles that characterize the city – Herodian, Byzantine, Mameluke, and Ottoman – in its rich decoration. Interior and exterior. For architects and architecture students it is a great site for inspiration, exploration, and sketching — and so indeed it is.

It also says quite a lot about American architecture of the early/ mid 20th century. Hugely ambitious with a presentiment that if you could draw it, it could be built. The interiors in particular are a statement of this sort.

In 1924, Archibald Harte, General Secretary of the International YMCA, raised one million dollars for the construction of this building. Perhaps representative of a time when the US was at the apogee of its idealistic creativity and wealthy open-handedness, Harte had a startlingly detailed vision for a permanent YMCA building in Jerusalem. For years, he cultivated donors who shared his vision of a ‘Sermon in Stone.’

After seven years of construction, the new Jerusalem YMCA was dedicated in 1933 with Lord Appleby’s words: ‘Here is a spot whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity be fostered and developed.’ Harte retired to his home on the shores of Galilee which, in due course, he bequeathed to the Jerusalem International YMCA as an international conference facility.

There were a few tricks to get to the pool. We needed to walk through the hotel, the rest of the building, at which you are welcome to stay, although: ‘Some guests commented the rooms were small & dated, and that maintenance could be improved. Some guests also said the bathrooms were small & cleanliness could be improved’. But, hey, you are downtown in Jerusalem in a city landmark. Quit moaning.

Down the stairs round the back and into the entrance, all recently refurbished and very nice. This was going to be a very pleasant swim. Myrna went to pay. 95 shekels each. 40 bucks for a swim! Each! How could that be? You can stay for a whole day; you can use the spa; you can sit around … But we just a want a swim for half an hour. Up and down a bit and we’ll be out. No. Is there like a pro rata thing for a short time? No. But this is the YMCA. Creating opportunities to grow in body, mind and spirit; making a positive difference by providing opportunity to each and every person to be healthy, happy and connected. You know, ‘each and every’, ‘connected!’… We’re even members at North Melbourne. Surely … etc. etc. He got sick of us. Shutters down. Clonk. Well that’s the price. Flat and square. Just so very final. The Hard Man of the Jerusalem YMCA. 95 shekels each. Phoooof.

We sat and thought. We had walked some distance and it was hot and a swim really would be quite nice. Aha. Is there a concession maybe? Old people? By the time we’d had this stroke of genius he’d gone and been replaced by a pleasant young woman. Yes indeed there was a concession. 10 shekels. That sounds more like it. 10 shekels. Even erring on the side of generosity. Let’s go. Two people, that will be 170 shekels. Whaaat? 70 bucks! Oh the concession is 10 shekels, not the price of the ticket. Mmmmmph.

I was starting to really feel like a swim, so I said bloody hell okay let’s do it: two old people concessions paying a fortune please. Here’s her Seniors Card and I’m obviously very old. And she said, ah in five minutes time it’s women only for the next two hours.

This is what we missed. Nice, but, even if the Israeli Squad trains here, its still only a pool.124399094.jpg

We repaired over the road to the King David Hotel for some lunch to salve the wounds from the battering we had given ourselves.

The King David is another Jerusalem landmark. (See the photo beginning this blog.)

1920px-King_David_Hotel_from_garden_side._1934-1939.jpgIn 1929, Palestine Hotels Ltd. purchased 4.5 acres on Jerusalem’s Julian’s Way, today King David Street. There are photos (above, 1931, from the back, now with a terrace and dramatically re-landscaped) which indicate that it was nakedly out on its own. The only other building nearby was the YMCA (after 1933, but actually visible in part to the left in this photo). I might say that like a lot of buildings in Jerusalem, it is built out of limestone threaded with pink, ochre and a strong chrome yellow, providing an exquisite visual effect.

From its earliest days, the King David Hotel has hosted royalty, often in flight from their kingdoms: for example, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, forced to abdicate in 1931, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, driven out by the Italians in 1936, King George II of Greece, who set up his government in exile at the hotel after the Nazi occupation of his country in 1942. They all lived there on a more or less permanent basis. During the British Mandate (1923-48), the southern wing of the hotel was turned into a British administrative and military headquarters.

On July 22, 1946, the southwestern corner of the hotel was bombed, an attack led by Irgun, another Zionist paramilitary group — 91 people died and 45 people were injured. An earlier attempt to attack the hotel had been foiled when the more ‘official’ Jewish forces learned of it, and warned the British authorities.

When the British Mandate expired (? I have no idea of the correct verb; ‘was relinquished’ perhaps?) in 1948, the building became a Jewish stronghold and an important venue for politicking. It also, just as it happened, was right on the armistice line that divided Jerusalem into Israeli and Jordanian territory. So from your room you could reach your arm out more or less into No Man’s Land. In a gesture of confidence, when East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War, the hotel added two floors.

The last ten US Presidents have all stayed there. And Prince Charles. And Madonna. But none of them appeared to be there while we were ordering our smoked salmon and beer for the terrace. Similar price level to over the road but it was food and delicious and the service was exemplary. We were overlooking the hotel’s back garden and its 50m pool which looked extraordinary. Our waiter thought it might be 200-300 shekels for a swim down there. We let it go.

For dinner that night we had sushi and Maccas at the food court of a supermarket/ medical centre built into the heart of a military post in the Israeli countryside. Russia beat Spain on penalties. Next day we were in Montenegro.

* * * * * *

This is where this series of blogs began, the Muslim Street in Xi ‘An. China.IMG_0415.jpg

On our first night in Jerusalem we had eaten our vegetarian meal and needed a bit of a wander round before sleep. A random path took us west towards some noise and suddenly we found ourselves in the Mahane Yehuda markets, even while winding down brimming with noise and vitality. The little bar/ eateries were going full tilt with crowds clustered around TV sets with the soccer on (England v Belgium, 0-1), some people watching, some people not, most engaged in rowdy conversation. Pastries, confectionary, halva, fruit, vegetables, spices, shashlik, two dozen sorts of meat in bread, groceries, pies and other baked goods, but above all drinks and noise.

It was just so like Xi ‘An 6720km away. The hats were different but not by much, only by about 50mm of raised collar.IMG_1332.jpgIt struck me many times on this trip, that regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion or any other barrier, how hard it is to stop people socialising. Among other things commerce crosses all borders and, as that smart American gentleman quoted at the very start wrote, when it stops we’re in trouble. Soldiers become the substitute.

The prospect of making money will take people on all sorts adventures as will simple human curiosity. These things often exist in combination as I am sure they must have in Zhang Qian, the first recorded person to make the long and extraordinarily arduous journey from eastern to central Asia, and back again with a new family, an injection of Sogdian or possibly Uyghur into the Han population. Did anyone object I wonder? Was it a subject of gossip at court, or was his standing so elevated that convention and politesse put a plug into the mouths of the rakers and purveyors of muck?

Romeo and Juliet relies on an archetype of transcendent relationships: amor vincit omnia, romantic attraction conquering by taking no account of, disregarding, the artificiality of social barriers. At every national/ ethnic/ racial intersection on the Roads, and of course elsewhere, there is muddle of inter-relationships, extending far beyond borderlands. It’s everywhere.

And that was as true of the various forms of religion which had been our constant companions, from the impossibly paradoxical attitude to Islam in China — celebrated wildly in Xi ‘An, subject to a vicious crackdown in Urumqi — to the furious muddle of religiosity manifest in parts of Jerusalem. What did Simon Montefiore write? Most but not all conquests have been accompanied by the instinct to expunge the taint of other faiths while actually commandeering their traditions, stories and sites.

Religions ought to be studied in school. Ought to be, … but not as taught by people from ACCESS Ministries’ Christian Religious Education. So much can be learnt from the study of various religions, from the extraordinary insight into human motivation and marketing genius of the Roman Catholic church to the phenomenal talent for narrative embroidery of Japanese Shingon Buddhists. If we want to understand human nature, they provide some of the most accessible entry points.

And we would also find this.

Everywhere too is a history of dominant groups trying to change that muddle of inter-relationships, trying to tidy up and get things in a bit of order. Push them out, pull them in, stick those ones in gaol, kill them over there, shift that annoying border — trying to assert rights of ownership to property through often spurious longevity or history, or even religious edict. This of course is just as human as commerce and curiosity. You could call it the triumph of the irrational, except that that gives rationality a standing that might be hard to justify. 

What is left in our formal histories is the big events and the big names — Darius, Alexander, Baldwin, Chinggis Khan, Temur the Lame, Stalin, Mao — all killers, all generators of cataclysm, all disruptors, the people who asserted their dominance through conquest and separation, the people who buggered things up properly. They must get their run in any history of the Silk Roads, but another and just as real historical story, here and elsewhere, is what happened despite them.

Swapping stories, exchanging items of clothing, going on visits, providing guests with food and shelter, doing deals: that’s more like it. There are thousands of differently coloured tracks contributing to what was never single highway, just a great swarm of activity moving indiscriminately but animated by all the things that make us human. That’s what we had been part of.


Cities of the Silk Roads: Uzbekistan#2

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We got to Samarkand by Very Fast Train. That surprises some people. It needn’t. In some regards Uzbekistan is a very modernised country with an intriguing mix of the very old and the very new.

Temur is buried in Samarkand. He is to be left alone. A team of Russian busybodies exhumed his body on 20 June 1941. curse-of-tamerlane_10.jpgThree days later Hitler invaded Russia. He lies now in this unassuming black coffin (in the centre below) — not even the most ostentatious in the room — in accordance with Islamic practice which discourages lavish display.8234e0372f3e07f129eb162be4e12828.jpegBut in fact there was lavish display. Just look at this.IMG_1087.jpgLochin telling us the story, Tony taking pics, Torquil looking on. Temur’s mausoleum and a very serious encounter with muqarnas ‘created by the geometric subdivision of a vaulting structure into miniature, superimposed pointed-arch substructures, also known as “honeycomb”, or “stalactite” vaults. Made from different materials like stone, brick, wood or stucco, its use in architecture spread over the entire Islamic world’. They are simply amazing.IMG_1084.jpgIMG_1090.jpgAnd once you started looking, they were everywhere. This is the pishtaq, the formal entry, to the mausoleum of Temur.IMG_1078.jpg


The iwan is the recessed area. Look at its roof.

But there are so many things to admire here, starting with the range of colourings in the tiles, the multiplicity of the patterns, their arrangement, the cunning of the use of the calligraphy in the third top layer. The minarets too are covered in a stylised version of Allahu Akbar, ‘God is great’. 

This visit was to begin a flood of encounters with remarkable pieces of architecture.IMG_1172.jpgPeople come to Samarkand to see the Registan (literally ‘sandy place’), the heart of Temurid architecture. This is two-thirds of it.  You can see the bend, rather spooky in the flesh, in the right hand minaret of the Ulugh Beg madrassa, the oldest which significantly influenced the design of the others. Madrassas throughout the USSR were closed in 1925 by order of Stalin and most fell into acute disrepair. You are looking at wonderful and incomplete restorations.

This is the other third.IMG_1103.jpgThere are many reasons for its significance but at least one is the primary decoration of this element of the Registan, the Sher-Dor Madrassa, the ‘lion-bearing school’.IMG_1115.jpgFor fear of idolatry, Islamic decoration is meant to be non-figurative and yet here on one of Islam’s great monuments we have lions (masquerading as tigers), deer and faces set into rising suns. After a week of patterns, flora and calligraphy this comes as a surprise, and a cause for some wonderment.

What was going on? No one can be sure. It’s a madrassa not a mosque; that lets the reins off a bit. It would also make sense to assume that there was some Zoroastrian influence in play, and also that Governor Yalangtush who commissioned the building in 1619 might have wanted some form of facial recognition. Regardless, it makes this building special, a standout in a heavily congested field of architectural delights.

We went back to the Registan two nights later for a light show projected on the face of the middle madrassa accompanied by a very racey soundtrack which you needed headphones to hear.IMG_1169.jpgThe paying customers sat on those seats. The unpaying customers, and there were hundreds and hundreds of them, were just behind me staring through a chain-link fence.IMG_1174.jpgIt was a spectacle. Formidable. We learnt that Love makes the world go round, and that Uzbekistan and Samarkand in particular are pretty much at the centre of the universe as indicated above by Temur hosting not just Ulugh Beg, his grandson, but the Mona Lisa and I think Shakespeare just out of shot on the far left. Remember you are looking at the face of a complex building, a fact which was forgotten a few minutes into the 20 minute show. Made in Germany, it was brilliant, and nothing the security could do to shoo away the freeloaders had any impact.

And then there was this day which just unrolled one remarkable thing after another. My journal is reduced to headings.

IMG_1122.jpgIt began at Shohizinda, ‘the Living King’, so called because it is believed that Mohammed’s cousin Kusam-ibn-Abbas is ‘buried’ here. Inverted commas because popular legend has it that he was beheaded for his faith. But he took his head and climbed into the deep well (named ‘Garden of Paradise’) up the back of the buildings where he’s still living now. There are certainly mausoleums for members of Temur’s extended family, Rumi the scientist and astronomer, as well as other dignitaries and aristocrats. And it just goes on and on. I haven’t got a photo which does it justice as a whole. But I do have this photo of the main element of Kusam-ibn-Abbas’s mausoleum, which I think was also where we listened to an imam sing an extended prayer. Glorious.IMG_1131.jpg

This area is quite close to Old Samarkand, a series of holes in banks of clay, legible to an archeologist no doubt but not so much myself. The Afrasiyab Museum is nearby and it had a collection of stuff to look at. I say, well … educative. Its heart is the remnants of a substantial fresco important for the historical record of which this is but a very small part.Foto13-1920x1080.jpg

And then Ulugh Beg’s observatory. It was 39 degrees and largely shade-free, which limited its impact for me. But what was going on at both Shohizinda and the observatory — everywhere — was this: a mutual admiration society in the fashion stakes. There were these wonderful vibrantly coloured clothes wherever we looked.IMG_1132.jpg

IMG_2935.jpgIt was a Saturday I note, so probably a day out, a day for wearing your finery, and speaking the universal language of lifting a fold of clothing and making noises and gestures of deep approval.

Then — we did everything this day — then we went out of town to a small scale Uzbek version of Sovereign Hill where we saw paper being made and polished by hand,IMG_1145.jpga new building being built,IMG_1147.jpgdances being danced,IMG_1153.jpgand a feast being eaten.

It looked like a wonderful meal, a really fine version of standard fare, but I still wasn’t eating. Underpinning this enterprise is Lochin and his mate, the owner of the establishment, trying to keep old Uzbek culture alive. More power to their arms. Then that night we went to see the light show at the Registan. Then, later: tired, very tired.

What we were looking at out the bus window.

The suburbs (Note the long walls behind which there was often a large garden)

A car boot saleIMG_1185.jpg

The countryside. The further west the more desert-like.IMG_1186.jpg

A farm. This appealed to me because it shows just how committed these people are, in the most precarious of circumstances, to trees.IMG_1193.jpg

Government housing. We saw thousands of these, literally. If you are prepared to wait 18 months one of these could be yours for $US3000. If you don’t want to wait, $US8000. US dollars were quite normal currency, not for small things, but for any bigger purchase.IMG_1241.jpg


There is a perfectly serviceable, well maintained and direct road from Samarkand to Bukhara (in case of puzzlement, ‘Buxoro’ in Uzbek). My heart drifted sideways as we turned south-ish onto something considerably inferior in the road stakes. Where were off to? Mystery Tour.

IMG_1201.jpgAn hour or so later we arrived at Shahrisabz (Shar-ree-sarbz) at some sort of fete, like a tentative service club offering, a collection of minor Sunday surprises. Either children or very small people being married, several dozen in fact

IMG_1197.jpgvery junior boxers laying into each other (one kid would have a turn, biff biff biff, and then the other, biff biff biff),IMG_1202.jpgmartial arts troupes, a smattering of food and craft stalls, a sort of information-y booth where the primary concern was taking selfies with non-Uzbek visitors, and a group of recalcitrant (as far as the Russian cameraman was concerned anyway) Uzbek dancers, singers and musicians. He could not get them to do what he wanted; they just kept launching off into enthusiastic private performances.IMG_1216 (1).jpg

Temur was born near Shahrisabz and built a mighty fortress/palace here, the Ak-Saray (‘white palace’), purportedly with 1000 rooms. Certainly the remains of the pishtaq (in the distance below, and in the first photo of this sequence, 75m high originally. Could that be true?) suggest a mighty building.

An inscription on one of the towers boasts: ‘If you feel like challenging our power, look at our buildings’, reminiscent of Shelley’s Ozymandias: ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ But instead of nothing beside remaining, with lone and level sands stretching far away, there is another cause for despair: something intended by the government to be ‘a theme park tourist attraction’. It was built in 2017, a product of bulldozing two ancient ‘mahallas’, housing areas. This destruction caused the area’s delisting from the UN’s World Heritage collection.

IMG_1220.jpgShahrisabz, a fairly nondescript city with a big history and a population of 100,000, extends over a large area, but this strange affair, about 500m long and 200m wide is somewhere near its middle. At one end are the remnant towers of the Palace entrance. At the other is a tomb Temur built for himself. But he is entombed in Samarkand and instead his son’s body lies here. In between there is a weird expanse of concrete paving, lamps, water features, young trees and turf (Shahrisabz = ‘city of green’) surrounded by two- and three-storey apparently empty buildings, some commercial and some intended for housing. It is to be a tourist attraction. It’s hard to see just how.

On reflection what we might have been looking at was a particularly strong example of contemporary Central Asian public space design. See e.g., these pictures from Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan (at left) and Astana, capital of Kazahkstan.images.jpeg5760.jpg




Shahrisabz also has a Polish War memorial. I wondered why. The story. In 1939 when Poland was partitioned by the Nazis and Russians, somewhere between 600,000 and a million Poles were shipped off to Central Asia by the Russians, primarily to Uzbekistan where they were initially put to work on cotton production. They were unsure who to fight for in the War but an army of 60,000 displaced Poles from Central Asia fought for Russia before transferring their allegiance to Britain and becoming the Second Polish Corps of the British Armed Forces. There are 22 Polish War Memorials in Uzbekistan. Another odd footnote: Regiments of (non-Polish Uzbek soldiers were dominant among the Soviet troops which took Berlin ending WW II.

We had an excellent late lunch on the roof of the Cafe Fez with just enough breeze to be comfortable and moved on.

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IMG_1232.jpgWestwards was into more flattened, arid country. We had left the comparatively fecund country around Shahrisabz and its Keshka Darya (‘beautiful/ pleasant river’). It seemed a long drive as such things often do — early start, big deviation (worth it) to Shahrisabz, unknown and fairly featureless country, no landmarks to judge progress, not a great deal of speed over rough roads. The photo below features a natural gas plant scarcely visible in the far distance.IMG_1235.jpgIMG_1248.jpg

It was 38C as usual when we woke next morning for breakfast in our excellent hotel, the precursor to another packed day. Bukhara is described as a ‘city-museum’ with more than 140 historical monuments, and it did feel like that. Not that it was awash with tourists, but it did have a great many tourist facilities — that sort of restaurant, that sort of hotel, that sort of market, those sorts of galleries. I don’t know what the signs on the building at right say in Russian (except ‘cafe’ and ‘restaurant’), but the sign in English says ‘The One BURGER Open 24 hours’.

Samanid_Shrine.jpgWe walked through an amusement park to find ‘one of the most highly esteemed works of Central Asian architecture’, the Samanid mausoleum built between 892 and 943 AD. I remember it mostly for the fact that it is built entirely out of mud, and that all that decoration is the product of cunning placement of bricks of essentially the same shape and size.

But it has other significance. Orthodox Sunni Islam strictly prohibits the construction of mausoleums over burial places, and yet …  The Samanid mausoleum is one of the earliest of the very few departures from that restriction in the history of Sunni Islamic architecture.

IMG_1253.jpgIt is one of the oldest monuments in the Bukhara region. When Chinggis Khan invaded (1220AD, most of its population at the time being Indian/ Pakistani traders and their families!), the shrine had already been buried in mud from flooding, thus saving it from destruction. The site was only rediscovered in 1934 by Soviet archeologist V.A. Shishkin, and required two years for excavation and, I can only presume, a great deal of restoration.

The shrine has been considered sacred by local residents, and pilgrims would pose dilemmas and questions to a mullah who would reply from behind a wall in order to preserve anonymity for petitioners. The shrine was once the centerpiece of a vast cemetery where, among others, the former Emirs of Bukhara were buried.

IMG_1254.jpgAnother short walk got us to this working (‘Friday’) mosque where a very friendly and considerate imam gave us instruction in the meaning and practice of Islam. I thought again how generous Lochin had been with his efforts to introduce us to his religion, and also how likely it was that the Russians, having made every effort to do so, had succeeded in knocking some of the sharper edges off Islam in Central Asia. We were directed to the mihrab, the niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca, next to which was, as customary, the minbar, the pulpit from which the sermon is given. He also told us about the nature of prayer and showed us how to participate. Some of us did.IMG_3105.jpgAs we left, Myrna held out her hand for him to shake before realising that this was not quite the done thing. He smiled and laughed, took her hand and shook it warmly. 

We moved on to the Ark Fort.IMG_1263.jpgThis was the fortress home of the Emirs of Bukhara, the last of whom was driven out by the Russians in 1920. (As it happens the Russian forces were led by Mikhail Frunze who as hugely retentive readers may remember lent his name to his native town Bishkek from 1926 until independence in 1991.) These walls were extraordinary to see as were the bits and pieces collected to interest visitors up the top. This, I think, is where the people who looked after the stables lived. IMG_1261.jpgI like the colours and the forms in this photo just per se. Maybe the shadow play on the imperfections in the rendering. But there is something else about what we saw here. I think perhaps expressions of grandeur which are intriguing but not very grand, qualified with something more local, individual and ‘imperfect’. Something that is wrestling with an introduced culture without completely understanding it, modifying it according to local precepts producing something which is often desirably unusual. This is an observation about civic architecture and art. Those sorts of ‘mistakes’ don’t interrupt the purity and precision of most of the religious building.

This is the last Emir, Khan Sayyid Alim. He fled (hmm examine photo and insert suitable verb meaning ‘ran away from’) before the Russians came.IMG_1258.jpg 

We’re still walking. We are in the forecourt of several mosques near this wonderful minaret, IMG_1264.jpgand, below, this working madrassa for students aged over 18, four levels of study offering both religious and secular subjects. Not all students join religious orders. The quality of the education received at many major madrassas like this one is believed to be very high.IMG_1265.jpgAnd a required photo apparently.IMG_1268.jpgThere is something very satisfying about these forms and colours in this environment.

We hadn’t even had lunch yet. (Outstanding dumplings and plov, a bit like risotto. We were coming close to exhausting the range of Uzbek cuisine. Again the meal was made more pleasant by being up on a shaded roof in the breeze. )

There was so much more but let us throw ourselves on a pile of rugs. Trample them. Smell them. Rub your hands on them.IMG_1269.jpgI am a sucker for rugs, a complete sucker. Check out the one at the front under the red and orange one. An ancient design with a family of deer wandering round what might be the Tree of Life populated by birds. (We found the identical design on a rug of the same size in Israel’s National Museum. ‘Song of Songs’, Bezalel Workshop 1820.) So striking. So intense. I saw it as soon as we walked in. (I wonder why it had been placed just there … strange.) Silk. Amazing to the touch. Shimmering with light. I look at it every day and am grateful. Cost? Formidable. There were no bargains here. These are real ones.

These rugs were being made by 60 youngish women who tire — after couple of years, no longer; their eyes go — of tieing 400 knots to the inch. As the salespersons are keen to point out, the work involved! Months in even a small rug.IMG_1294.jpg

IMG_1296.jpgAnd how do you sell rugs? 

Simple. Seduction.

Meet Sabira. She knew all the ways to sell rugs and probably anything else that might have taken her fancy. The knots she ties circumscribe first your will and then your wallet. She had honed her skills and her English accent working in London for several years. 

We had dived in fully clothed and made our purchase. Marty and Rikie took a more measured approach and spent a night deciding to go back and have another look. Rikie put a dint in Marty’s bargaining position by calling out across the room, ‘This one Marty. Buy it for me for my birthday’, but we believe it has already been a great success in its new home.

We saw a photo gallery, we saw pottery being made, we saw a miniaturist, and we saw a collection of suzanis (‘by needle’) which attracted a great deal of comment when Myrna posted her photos of a dozen or so on her Facebook page. They exemplify what might be imported from Uzbekistan to influence Russian/Western European artistic influences. No special interest in precise symmetry, although it could occur when desired, skilfully but not industrially made, a real pleasure in modest eccentricity.  They were vibrant and deeply engaging.Kermina_Suzani.jpg

And then on the outskirts of town — sited by hanging a sheep in each of the four quarters round Bukhara and being guided by the one where the sheep rotted most slowly — we came to the Summer Palace now in some decline, another strange amalgam of Russia and Central Asia. Here too is this ‘style’ that I am trying to describe.IMG_1279.jpgThe Grand-ish Hall. Note the muqarnas in the alcoves.IMG_1282.jpgPots full of flowers which will never die. (and Muqarnas)IMG_1283.jpgA sitting room, and these colours are all true — a fury of decorative art.

These are the reasons why you might go to Bukhara.

IMG_1299.jpgFinally, a small mosque built by a businessman to assuage his god. Tiny inside, and infected with a rash of some sort of commerce, what I’m really looking at is the stork nest — part of the building, lovely — and what I’m really doing is standing next to and chatting with a delightful 10 year-old girl who is trying out her English to sell me some beans and nuts. My one regret, from weeks in Central Asia — my sole regret, it had been more than wonderful — is that I didn’t buy any.

The Very Fast Train took us back to Tashkent for a 2.30am flight to Istanbul. We were driven to the airport by a 6 foot 4 Kazakh who spoke perfect English and whose son, by dint of the new Silk Roads, was studying Japanese in America. We got to the deserted airport 3 hours early with only the football for company. Uruguay 3: Russia 0. Not a popular result here, but I was secretly just as pleased. 

And then, a destination the Silk Roads often tried to dodge, somewhere I was looking forward very much to visiting — JERUSALEM …



Cities of the Silk Roads: Uzbekistan #1

The BorderIMG_1004.jpg

Screen Shot 2018-08-16 at 7.38.29 pm.pngYes that’s Uzbekistan. But look more closely at this section of the border with the Kyrgyz Republic.Screen Shot 2018-09-18 at 1.02.08 pm.png

It’s a crazy puzzle. 

Tajikistan, which is mostly the Pamir mountains, makes its claim round a corner to some of the Fergana Valley, manages to include the Kairakum Reservoir and take a skinny bite out of the end of a river valley. But what are those green floaty bits up to?

They are exclaves. You can’t see them all here but there are eight altogether: smallish parcels of land completely surrounded by another country. There is one Tajik and four Uzbek exclaves in Kyrgyzstan, a Tajik exclave in Uzbekistan, and a Kyrgyz exclave in Uzbekistan. Vorukh, where things have turned into shooting match about the route of new road, is another Tajik enclave in Kyrgyzstan. We had to drive right round the Uzbek bulge — all the bulges, large and small — to get to Osh (in Kyrgyzstan but on the border) where we could enter the country. 

Political, demographic and civil engineering are not always complementary.1200px-Central_Asia_Ethnic_en.svg.pngOchre for Uzbeks, red for Tajiks, brown for Kyrgyz. Sort that out. (No one lives where it’s white: mountains or desert.)

Stalin used to shift the borders of the Soviets on a whim, at times to keep them in order or to punish or reward the citizens or more usually his trusties, their bosses. But the breakup of the USSR has left behind a legacy of disputed borders and we were crossing at the site of one of the liveliest disputes.

In 2010 at Osh this became a shooting, burning, killing war between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz who had previously lived reasonably happily cheek by jowl. It doesn’t seem to have been a dispute over territory as it was in 1990 when 80,000 Uzbeks were displaced: just agitation, trouble-making. The effect? More than 2000 buildings destroyed and an uncertain number of lives lost but probably about 50. Errant Tajiks, deposed Kyrgyz leaders, Russian mavericks, even gypsies, were among those blamed along with more obvious targets.

The remnants of these eruptions — shell holes, half destroyed building, bundles of razor wire, serious fences — were all there to see as we crossed the 200m of no man’s land border.

The photo beginning this blog is one of my favourites from the trip, but it is deceptive. Other people in that line-up who had been waiting some hours to cross the border were audibly and visibly cross. When this began to sound like an eruption dozens of military border guards rushed out of their quarters to settle things down. It must be said that it seemed more like an angry game than a declaration of war. But it’s more uneasy than this smile would indicate. Walking that 200m in our tourist bubble was a strange experience.IMG_1001.jpg

* * * * * *

Unknown.jpegUzbekistan (‘ston’ locally where ‘o’ where we might expect ‘a’ is a common Uzbek linguistic formation, ‘Toshkent’ for example) is just getting over 25 years of rule by Islam Karimov (with Putin at left), an Uzbeki who was appointed as leader by the Russians in 1989 for the very purpose of quelling violent ethnic clashes. When the Supreme Soviet of Uzbekistan reluctantly approved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Karimov became president of the Republic of Uzbekistan where he sat till 16 months ago when he had a stroke and died.

A Soviet loyalist, he was also by nature an isolationist both from other countries and from the vagaries of contemporary life. Being everyone’s stern father doesn’t leave you much room to manoeuvre that way. It is only since the advent of his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who believes in the economic value at least of tourism, that it has become relatively easy to visit the country.

We were grateful for that. There is a great deal to see in Uzbekistan.

Partly because of the remarkably fertile Fergana Valley, the area of the highest concentration of colour in the map above, 300km long and about 80 wide, along IMG_2705.JPGwith the slender strips of fertile green in the arid mountains (see at left for example, out the train window, Adijan to Tashkent), this region has hosted urban civilisations for a long time. Samarkand and Bukhara had been cities for centuries before Alexander the Macedonian conquered them in the 4th century BCE. It was here too that Chinese explorer Zhang Qian sequestered before returning home to make his report on the fertile aspects of Transoxiana, the land between the Amu Darya (in Ancient Greek ‘Oxus’) and Syr Darya, the huge rivers that used to feed the Aral Sea from the Pamirs and the Tian Shan.

When the Islamists conquered Iran this area became an important site for the maintenance of Persian culture. In 1219 Emperor Chinggis (Gengis Khan), founder of the Mongol Empire, invaded what is now western Uzbekistan. Then in 1369, Timur became the effective ruler and made Samarkand the capital of his future empire.

Amir (King, ‘Emir’, Emirates) Temur is also known as Tamburlaine (as in Marlowe’s play) or Tamerlane which is a derivation from Temur iLeng, or ‘Temur the Lame’. Of Mongol ancestry, he began his adult life as a sheep-rustler and bandit, and was injured in a skirmish which left him lame in his right leg and unable to raise his right arm. But our Uzbek guide Lochin wagged his finger at the use of ‘Tamerlane’ as being disrespectful of a great man, the heart and soul of Uzbek history and connected to a great many of the things that we saw and sites we visited.

Here he is at that very strange place Shahrisabz.IMG_1219.jpg‘The Scourge of God’ ended up with an empire that extended from the Mediterranean to India, famously built on blood and bone. Biographer Justin Marozzi suggests he was responsible for the slaughter of millions — ‘buried alive, cemented into walls, massacred on the battlefield, sliced in two at the waist, trampled to death by horses, beheaded, hanged’. The stories go that at Baghdad he had 90,000 of the inhabitants beheaded so that he could build towers with their skulls. At Sivas in Turkey, where he promised no bloodshed in return for surrender, he had 3,000 prisoners buried alive. His apologists pointed out that he had kept to the letter of the law (if not quite its spirit). Perhaps too symmetrical to be believed in entirety, an absence of the eccentric ribs and splotches that hint at truth-telling — but yes. Not entirely spotless.

He was however also responsible for an ambitious building program and a flowering of the arts and science. The evidence is there for that.

Noted astronomer and mathematician Ulugh Beg was his grandson. Beg (which wasn’t his actual name, ‘Ulugh Beg’ means something like ‘big boss’, ‘chief’) built the first ever madrassa (Islamic centre of learning of which there are now hundreds of thousands world-wide) which later became one element of the Registan of Samarkand.

Samarkand, Tashkent and Bukhara were vital and important commercial centres for another several hundred years until their influence and buoyancy dissipated via the combined impact of feuding Uzbek Khanates (kingdoms, three of them spread along the Silk Roads from the Kyrgyz border: Kokand, Bukhara and Kiva) and competition from the trade routes established by sea.

Uzbekistan is also famous for being the site of one of the most well defined ecological disasters of modern life. This one.images.jpegThe Aral Sea, 1973-2014. 40 years. Once a huge body of water abundant with life, it is now almost extinct with all sorts of knock-on consequences for those living in the region. Sandstorms for example. Appalling. So bad it is now a tourist ‘attraction’.20100404-aral-sea-muynak-port-unphoto-1400x500captn-1.jpg

What happened? Beginning in the 1960s plantings in the Fergana Valley which had supplied food for hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants for millennia were switched over 20 or so years at Moscow’s behest from food to cotton. This policy converted almost the entire agricultural economy of Uzbekistan to cotton production. It is now an embarrassment to mention the fact that in the national interest each year at harvest families were relocated, factories shut and schools closed to provide a workforce to pick the crop. There are still vestiges of this phenomenon in public decoration. One of Tashkent’s underground stations, I think Bobur, is decorated with wall panels of stylised cotton buds and hordes of pickers. We still saw cotton plantings but they were interspaced with a wide range of other crops. Sandalwood, for example, was quite widely in evidence. Cotton production has gone from 10m. tonnes (its peak, and the largest producer in the world) to 3m. tonnes last year.

Unknown.jpegBut the ecological issue was far more profound than the cultural one. The Aral Sea’s two main tributaries were the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Water from the Amu rarely flows into the Sea any more and from the Syr never. It has been diverted by irrigation plans and methods of the lowest imaginable quality. There is a high level of awareness of this issue but since the breakup of the Union of Soviets no money to do anything about it.

* * * * * *


It took us about an hour to get across the border, a haphazard affair, but seemingly with officials going out of their way to be both pleasant and helpful — to us anyway.

Our first destination was the bank to acquire piles of sum, 5970 to the AUD. We saw one man filling four cardboard cartons with stacks of high denomination notes and heading off with them on a hand truck. It was suggested he was going to buy a car.IMG_1023.jpgI had no plans to buy a car, but it was quite hard to work out how much money to change. This lump of 5000s I thought might last a week but I spent it in three days.

Things had changed. The country had a different feel. This could have been Kyrgyzstan.IMG_1009.jpg

But this probably couldn’t.IMG_1021.jpgJust to the left was a massive market with very large patriotic urgings on its walls. The building to the right and the tops of those on the left are probably government housing.IMG_1018.jpgLess Russian, more Persian. We were coming to some of the most wonderful examples of Muslim architecture and decorative art in the world. This panel above was perhaps 1/20th of the decoration on the ceiling of one of the deep verandas which were often present in older buildings. Almost always decorated richly enough to give you pause and to wonder how it had been done, and how it had been maintained.IMG_1013.jpgThis stone mural was the best feature of Andijan’s museum, a sad dark place with, inter alia, a large collection of representational paintings which were ugly, poorly crafted full of muddy colours and badly presented. We went there while we were waiting for our train to Tashkent. One day it may be full of wonders but it was a slightly punishing experience as we tried to be polite listening to a long dull explanation of each of the exhibits which was then translated. Hard work. I was also hungry and tired. We slid out of range. The hunger issue was resolved by eating in a cafeteria, a meal for which I had high hopesIMG_1024.jpgand which ended up doing me and my exhaust system in for several days. Tasted good though. 

We visited a super market and climbed aboard for the slightly eccentric train trip to Tashkent. ‘Eccentric’ in the sense of its complex changes in direction and speed, slooooooowwww then FAST, but also what we were looking at out the steamed-up windows. There’s a photo above. Arid hills creased with a sliver of green, snowy peaks over to the south — a mixed economy. At least some of those green slivers were mining towns, because unlike KR Uzbekistan has got a number of things in its ground that people want, not least oil and natural gas. There is some money here, possibly plenty, but culturally it still seemed to be struggling for confidence, settling its priorities and getting over Big Daddy. They leave a deep mark those men.


('Stone City', suggestive of indomitability)

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Hmmm. Good one. That map tells you absolutely nothing, doesn’t it. Tashkent is in the eastern end of Uzbekistan, one of four regions with, spreading west, Samarkand, Bukhara and Kiva being the other population centres.

2.5 million people, one of the big cities of Central Asia, damaged by an earthquake on 24 April 1966. ‘Massive destruction’ is the term used, with 85 percent of the city’s buildings destroyed including the majority of the old city and its landmark structures. But the brave citizens said no, we will not be daunted. Heroic style. Signified by, we were told, a much loved monument (which I note, says 26 April. I’ll leave it with you.)

The earthquake had several effects. One was to produce a monument to Soviet town planning and architecture. Wide boulevards, massive plantings, grandiose buildings and a staggering amount of white marble.IMG_1069 (1).jpgThis is just a small section of the central ‘park’ area named after Temur who has pride of place in the middle, with our fascinatingly sub-grand hotel in the photo below as a backdrop. The hotel was representative of vast aspirations which had not worn well, but it did have a very interesting and diverse clientele: a genuine gathering of nations. You’d stay there for that reason alone.

At night.IMG_2783 (1).jpgAnd, yes, the whole vast wall of the hotel becomes a screen. (I don’t know what impact this had on people whose rooms were on this side. We looked outwards to the back.) A lot about Tashkent, now, says modern, today, up to date — and also, look how modern, today and up to date we are. Down the street the shops were good and interesting, full of course with China’s produce, shopkeepers were friendly. The eateries at night looked great, packed with people having a good time.IMG_1058.jpg

Our first port of call was to …. how do I express this? one of the original copies of the first Koran. That might be right. It looked like it had been constructed out of some gelatinous substance (deerskin actually) and had BIG WRITING and you couldn’t take photos.

unknown1.jpegLet’s see if I can find one. Bingo.

I believe there are five of these in existence. One here and one (of which there are no photographs) in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, one in the British Museum I think. But it’s all shrouded in thick fog as such things tend to be. With hindsight I can appreciate why Lochin wanted us to see this early in his guidance. From some points of view it is a gigantic experience to have seen this. I hadn’t at the time been sufficiently enculturated.

The building housing this, many other versions of the Koran and other sacred and learned documents was the madrassa Muyi Mubarak, the ‘sacred hair (of Mohammed)’, a strand of which may or may not be included inside. It is in Khast Imam Square which provided our first view of the interior of a mosque, from my earthbound perspective a vision of vacancy, stillness.IMG_1037.jpgOutside it was another story. Islamic decoration. Incomparable. Simply breath-taking. Maths run wild! IMG_1038.jpgIMG_1057.jpg

Tourists don’t usually come to this square, a nondescript affair really. But they do go on the underground, a source of great civic pride: three lines, 40km, 29 stations, c. 180,000 daily rides and glorious decoration. (Melbourne’s underground: 12 km.; Geelong’s: 0)

And even if not so many other people do, they go to the market, Chorsu Market.IMG_1041.jpgIMG_1045.jpgThe market! Ah Lord. I customarily resist markets unless I want to buy something.

We needed coffee. No coffee shops so the horsemeat salesman organised his wife to provide us with two cups which cost us exactly nothing. Mmmm what sort do you think? Turkish? Uzbeki? Russian maybe? No. ‘Labros’, the local brand of instant. There she is getting the hot water out of the urn, and you’ve found our hiding place (where we were able to sit down).

Then to get into the spirit of things we thought we might buy some nuts and dried fruit. Looked good, the samples tasted good and the sparkly-eyed young man on the right was eager to sell us some.IMG_1046.jpgWhen you go, keep an eye out for him. He put modest amounts of things we didn’t especially want into ziplock bags and then, holding our money, suggested the price was 150,000 sum. 25 bucks! We hadn’t bought anything for $25! It’s what happens when you get over-excited about yourself, and forget that foreigners might be soft touches but they aren’t complete morons. The female foreigner instituted direct action, snatched the money out of his hands, returned the produce and no transaction was recorded. Markets. Plloooffff.

It went on. Flea market: hats, scarves, clothes, books, bits of remnant engineering. God it went on. Jacob bought a glass vodka dispenser in the shape of a fish. He may not have been able to do that elsewhere.

Hot, tired, hungry, lunch was at an establishment which was an interesting combination of a KFC and a high class cafeteria prodigiously swollen with staff.

And then the museum. My hunger had been replaced by treacherously loose bowels, and I wasn’t perfectly set up to enjoy civic landmarks. It could have been very good especially the third floor which provided a very sanguine and optimistic picture of Uzbekistan Today (as well as an unreconstructed paean to the late Mr Karimov). I learnt that of the 100 national Parliamentarians, constitutionally 15 must be from the environment movement. Not quite sure how that would work out in practice, but an excellent gesture at least. I learnt there was a good deal of angst about the fate of the Aral Sea. I learnt that there were major chemical and mineral industries in Uzbekistan and that this ‘impoverished’, second-and-a-half world country can sustain a substantial car manufacturing industry (GM Chevrolet, Daewoo, MAN trucks and SAZ buses) whereas Australia can’t.

We got back to our hotel to find members of another Intrepid tour who raved about several art galleries and design museums they had seen and incidentally that there was an opera house with a very full schedule of programs. Well! Let’s go baby! Opera in Tashkent, what a delectable prospect.

Tonight’s program: ‘The Demon’ by Anton Rubinstein, libretto based on a poem by Lermontov, sung in Russian. A deep expression of Russian Orthodox Christianity written by a Russian Jew on stage in a Muslim country. What could be more appropriate?

It is not often performed for reasons which may become apparent by reference to this summary of the libretto.

Demon sees and falls in love with the lovely Tamara who is awaiting her wedding to Prince Sinodal. Tamara is fascinated but frightened. [an old story] The Prince’s caravan, making its way along the Silk Roads for his wedding, is delayed by a landslide. Demon organises Tatar attack during which the Prince is mortally wounded.

Sinodal’s body is delivered to the wedding preparations. Tamara is overcome by grief, but to her horror, keeps hearing the supernatural voice of the Demon. She begs her father to let her enter a convent. Demon intends to enter same convent believing that his love for her has opened his spirit to goodness. [! Yeah sure.] An Angel tries in vain to stop him.

Tamara prays in her convent cell but is constantly troubled by thoughts of the Demon, who appears to her in her dreams. Demon now appears in reality, declares his love for her and begs her to love him in return. Tamara tries to resist her attraction to him but [of course, it’s the Bad Boy yarn] fails. Demon kisses her in triumph. The Angel suddenly appears and shows her the ghost of Prince Sinodal. In horror, Tamara struggles out of the Demon’s arms and falls dead. [And let that be a warning to all you young ….]

The Angel proclaims that Tamara has been redeemed by her suffering [phew], while Demon [hiss] is damned to eternal solitude. The Demon curses his fate. In the final apotheosis Tamara’s soul is carried to Heaven accompanied by angels as sung by a huge chorus of women standing round the arc of the third floor, a sublime finale.

Mmmm … how to interpret this? Should we call in Dr Freud? Or is the question of interpretation utterly superfluous? That might explain why the guy sitting next to me had a conversation on his mobile phone during the second act.

IMG_2777.jpgThe Opera House, half full that night, had recently been refurbished and was lovely. The cast was most capable, except for the chap whose magnificent mane played the Demon and whose family, friends and groupies comprised the front few rows. The chorus was magnificent and Tamara had a powerful and lilting soprano. A wonderful 60,000 sum worth ($A12.00). Tosca was going to be on the night we returned to Tashkent. What a feast that could have been.

We walked back to the hotel with ice creams through a dulcet night to find Croatia mashing Argentina 3-0.

We weren’t in Tashkent long enough. That’s my summation. It looked fabulous but was always just a smidgen out of reach because we were hostage to THE PROGRAM. The one where TP dominates all else. The one where you get monotonous lectures in heavily-accented English about not much. The one where when you get hungry or need a cup of tea you just have to shut up and wait because it’s not the next thing on the list. The one where you just have to assume ‘it will all turn out for the best’.

On reflection I realise that Lochin really wanted to show us his version of the absolute best of his country and it was a collection of very fine choices, and he really did give us a very great deal including a splendid and sensitive insight into the Uzbek practice of Islam. In fact I have written here: ‘so well prepared, knowledgable, quiveringly sensitive,  a perfect host, obviously powerful figure in the tourism community’ (as well as several times National Judo Champion of Uzbekistan), but. BUT. A standard pedagogical problem: you might have a purpose and a brilliant plan and resources, but you’ve got to be responsive to your class. That old ‘zone of proximal development’. I’ve written about this issue elsewhere.

I’d go back tomorrow. I should.

But let us keep MOVING FORWARDS … There is so much still to see!!

Silo Art


In Victoria’s Wimmera and Mallee regions, a silo in a clump of mallee or casuarina, the strange and delightfully untidy trees indigenous to this area, is always the first sign of human habitation. There mightn’t be a town, there mightn’t be a house, but over that horizon there will be a shed, a road and a railway line.

They stopped bagging grain round here in the 1930s and built two types of silos suitable for bulk handling. They were the same except the ‘Williamstown’ had a flat concrete roof and the ‘Geelong’ (you just cannot keep a good town down!) had a peaked iron roof. Both were about 35m high.

These industrial farming days grain is often stored on the farm in portable metal silos. When it is consolidated for transport it is stored in long heaps under giant plastic tarpaulins almost the same colour as the Mallee skies.IMG_1958.jpg

Near where I spent some time growing up there is a marvellous variation: the Murtoa Stick Shed.Murtoa Stick Shed exterior.jpgBy5ve1QCQAA0RpD.jpgBuilt in 1941, it is 300 metres long, 80 metres wide, 20 metres high at the ridge with the roof angle following that of loose grain. Unused now, at its peak (1989-90) it stored, right up to the roof, more than 100,000 tonnes of wheat. It’s called the Stick Shed because the roof is held up by 560 undressed mountain ash poles. What a feat of rustic building. Not to be missed.

IMG_1852 (1).jpgWe passed the Stick Shed on our way to Rupanyup, our first port-of-call, because we were on a tour of Silo Art.

In the brochure and on the website it says:

The Silo Art Trail is Australia’s largest outdoor gallery. The trail stretches over 200 kilometres, linking Brim with neighbouring towns Lascelles, Patchewollock, Rosebery, Rupanyup and Sheep Hills.

Providing an insight into the true spirit of the Wimmera Mallee, the trail recognises and celebrates the region’s people through a series of large-scale mural portraits painted onto grain silos, many of which date back to the 1930s.

The project saw a team of renowned artists from Australia and across the world visit the region, meet the locals and transform each grain silo into an epic work of art; each one telling a unique story about the host town.

The Silo Art Trail was conceived in 2016 after the success of the first silo artwork in Brim. What started as a small community project by the Brim Active Community Group, GrainCorp, Juddy Roller and artist, Guido van Helten resulted in widespread international media attention and an influx of visitors to the region and the idea for a trail was born.Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 7.08.06 pm.png

What does a town with pulse look like? IMG_1853.jpg

They have been bigger and more demographically muscular in the past — before tarred roads, before the car and the truck, before industrial scale farming. When Patchewollock shopped in Patchewollock. IMG_1948.jpgNow instead of Patchewollock shopping in Patche, Patche (if there’s anyone at home) shops in Rainbow, Rainbow in Warrack, Warrack in Horsham, Horsham in Ballarat and Ballarat is already commuting to Melbourne, so … might as well.

The Silo Project was one idea to arrest the effects of the cosmic attraction to The BIGGER. One good idea. There was traffic the day we followed the trail. Tag-alongs of Greyish Nomads have found it.



Number One. There it is. Great.

Rupanyup’s silo art is the work of Russian mural artist, Julia Volchkova, who turned her attention to the town’s youth and their great love of team sport. The work vividly captures the spirit of community and provides an accurate insight into rural youth culture. [nah nah nah. Too much. You’ve let the received vocab run away with you.]

The featured faces are those of Rupanyup residents and local sporting team members, Ebony Baker and Jordan Weidemann. Fresh-faced and dressed in their sports attire (netball and Australian Rules football, respectively), Baker and Weidemann embody a youthful spirit of strength, hope and camaraderie.

Rendered onto a squat pair of conjoined Australian Grain Export steel grain silos, the delicately nuanced monochromatic work is typical of Volchkova’s realist portraiture style.

We were a bit worried about the surface. The original paint is rusting off in patches, but it was like that when she painted them. A little bit Sochi 2014, but so much skill. At least they are not looking down.

Up the road through Minyip to Sheep Hills. From nowhere I remembered that Max Wright came from Sheep Hills. I once saw him kick 11 goals for Warracknabeal against Horsham. I thought he was too shy and good-looking to be much of a footballer. He had a narrow face with a gently aquiline nose under a tidy shock of auburn curls. But year after year Warrack’s success was built on Max Wright’s slender shoulders. He had the gift.

Because there are no longer any sheep at Sheep Hills — they’ve gone south with climate change (there have never been any hills there) – and because of Max, a photo taken out the car window in Warracknabeal’s main street.IMG_1875.jpg

Sheep Hills main street. Look at that sky. Utterly seductive.IMG_1871.jpg


Number Two. Sheep Hills.

Throughout his career, Melbourne-based artist, Adnate has used his work to tell the stories of Indigenous people and their native lands, particularly the stories of Aboriginal Australians. In 2016, Adnate developed a friendship with the Barengi Gadjin Land Council in north-west Victoria and found his inspiration for this mural.

GrainCorp’s Sheep Hills silos were built in 1938. Adnate’s depiction of Wergaia Elder, Uncle Ron Marks, and Wotjobaluk Elder, Aunty Regina Hood, alongside two young children, Savannah Marks and Curtly McDonald celebrates the richness of the area’s Indigenous culture.

The night sky represents elements of local dreaming and the overall image signifies the important exchange of wisdom, knowledge and customs from Elders to the next generation.

Adnate spent four weeks with the community in late 2016 to conceive and complete the mural. He says that he sought to shine a spotlight on the area’s young Indigenous people and highlight the strong ancestral connection that they share with their Elders.


The only attempt at full colour.

We weren’t sure about this one initially. The splashes of colour on the smaller silos either side may be surplus to requirements. However the way the star whorl and the face paint bounce off each other is most convincing. In their reflections the eyes have lovely and telling details. It won us over and if we were in competitive mode this might be equal best.

Off to Warrack for some petrol and to follow the Henty Highway north.IMG_1861.jpgIMG_0818.jpgThere is a view that you can’t or, really, shouldn’t take photos like this. They only hint at the whole feeling of epic spaciousness or for that matter the death cage match between the tidy monoculture, not yet exposed to summer, and the fabulous mess of the indigenous remnants (at left). And also, they say, too much sky. Too bad. 



Number Three. Brim. The Original, and compelling.

IMG_1880.jpgGuido van Helten’s iconic Brim mural was the first silo artwork to appear in Victoria, and soon infused the town’s community with newfound energy and optimism. After gaining widespread local and international attention, Brim’s silo art success shone a spotlight on the Wimmera Mallee region and inspired the establishment of the Silo Art Trail.

Completed in early 2016, with limited financial resources, van Helten’s mural depicts an anonymous, multi-generational quartet of female and male farmers. Rendered across these four 1939-built GrainCorp silos, van Helten’s subjects bear expressions that exemplify the strength and resilience of the local farming community.

By rendering the figures as both central and peripheral, present and absent, the work explores shifting notions of community identity at a time when rural populations face both immense economic pressure and the tangible consequences of climate change.

Using the documentary style of humanist street photography as studies, the translucent aerosol technique conjures a sense of ghostliness. The resulting characters are profoundly connected to their chosen place, infusing the landscape with a comforting, familiar presence.

This is the first one we saw and why we went. The sun was a bit northerly as we arrived. An hour or two later the shadows would have been more kind. Despite an indication of problems with perspective — why have them all looking down and tucked away under hats and sunglasses? — it’s still a very fine piece of work. Better in the flesh.

An idea of the challenge involved.Screen Shot 2018-09-26 at 3.01.29 pm.png

IMG_1888.jpgThrough Beulah where my family once lived during a drought of epic proportions. That must have been more than 80 years ago. At left is the church where my father was the minister.

Even though the cafe closed in August, Beulah looked like it was going okay. Not that we saw a single person anywhere. At exactly that time the Southern Mallee Giants (at home in Beulah) were playing the Horsham Demons in the Wimmera Football League’s grand final. That would be the football team of a town of 207 (albeit with a terrific oval and clubrooms, most impressive) playing the football team (actually one of) of a town of 17,900. Horsham won, but only by nine points. An honourable loss. (The boys will come back harder next year, &c &c.)

Through Beulah towards Hopetoun.IMG_2218.JPG

Number Four. Roseberry.


Before commencing work in Rosebery, Melbourne artist, Kaff-eine spent time in the Mallee assisting fellow artist Rone on his Lascelles silo project. During this time, Kaff-eine travelled to neighbouring towns, discovering the natural environment and acquainting herself with local business owners, families, farmers and children – all with the view to developing a concept for these GrainCorp silos which date back to 1939.

Completed in late 2017, Kaff-eine’s artwork depicts themes that she says embody the region’s past, present and future.

The silo on the left captures the grit, tenacity and character of the region’s young female farmers, who regularly face drought, fires and other hardships living and working in the Mallee. In her work shirt, jeans and turned-down cowboy boots, the strong young female sheep farmer symbolises the future.

The silo on the right portrays a quiet moment between dear friends. The contemporary horseman appears in Akubra hat, Bogs boots and oilskin vest – common attire for Mallee farmers. Both man and horse are relaxed and facing downward, indicating their mutual trust, love and genuine connection.


First go. I think maybe next time she will choose a different angle for the photo to work from for the guy on the right. You have no choice but to look up at the mural, from below, but the perspective from which it is rendered looks down, from above. That might be one of the reasons his legs go a bit wonky. It’s also a reminder of just how hard it would be to pull one of these off successfully.

The old Roseberry Presbyterian church has been made into coffee shop and is now set into 20 year-old garden replete with plentiful local bird life. Excellent cup of tea and a Kooka’s Country Cookie or two. Heartily recommended.

On on on, veering north-east to Lascelles.

Number Five. Lascelles.

This one provided a different challenge: finding the best surfaces on the silo with other buildings too close on one ‘wide’ side and the train tracks on the other. So the couple are separately on the north and south walls. (Note football jumper: it was the day after the Pies had won their Prelim.)



In order to capture the true essence of Lascelles, Melbourne-based artist, Rone knew that he had to learn about the town from those who were deeply connected to it. Here, he depicts local farming couple Geoff and Merrilyn Horman, part of a family that has lived and farmed in the area for four generations.

(At left, the gazanias which were growing everywhere.)

Rone says that he wanted the mural to portray his subjects as wise and knowing, nurturing the town’s future with their vast farming experience and longstanding connection to the area.

In mid 2017 Rone worked for two weeks to transform the two 1939-built GrainCorp silos. He went to great lengths to paint in the silo’s existing raw concrete tones to produce a work that would integrate sensitively into its environment. Utilising this muted monochrome palette, he added water to his paint as a blending tool to produce a ghostly, transparent effect – a signature of his distinctive painting style.

All that is true. A wonderful performance.

To get to where we were going we had to turn off at Speed, the location of an ancient Mallee dad joke.IMG_1937.jpgI liked it better when it was more declarative, just: Speed. Please slow down. Hilarious.

Turn west at Speed for Patchewollock and while there are still crops as far as the eye can see we’re getting out into the ‘marginal’ country. What a peculiar and limited term that is. The striking Big Desert is not far ahead west, an extraordinarily diverse and complex set of ecosystems. The photo below is actually nearby at Wyperfeld National Park: spinifex, sheoke, mallee and a hundred different ground species.IMG_1967.jpg




Back in Patche we have more art, corrugated iron Mallee fowls.

An entree for the main course.


Number Six. Patchewollock.


To prepare for his Patchewollock mural, Brisbane artist, Fintan Magee (family from Northern Ireland, and unsurprisingly something of a specialist in political wall art) booked a room at the local pub to immerse himself in the community and get to know its people. When he met local sheep and grain farmer, Nick “Noodle” Hulland, Magee knew he had found his muse.

Why Hulland? According to Magee, the rugged, lanky local exemplified the no-nonsense, hardworking spirit of the region. Perhaps more importantly though, Noodle had just the right height and leanness to neatly fit onto the narrow, 35-metre-high canvas of the twin 1939-built GrainCorp silos.

Completed in late 2016, the artist’s depiction of the famously reserved Hulland portrays an image of the archetypal Aussie farmer – faded blue “flanny” (flannelette shirt) and all. Hulland’s solemn expression, sun-bleached hair and squinting gaze speak to the harshness of the environment and the challenges of life in the Wimmera Mallee.

Commanding face, but what’s he doing with that stick? And things go awry on the right hand side, both arm and shirt. But still an 8.4.

You’d go for the art, but if you add in the drive and a night at the Pot O’ Gold Motel in Rainbow (get it? I did only recently), it’s an absolute 11.IMG_1969.jpg

* * * * * *

On the way home we had an unexpected revelation. If you share our fetish for the Australian country motel you will have come across Kooka’s Country Cookies, very often sign of a good motel and a good manager. Aimable in French says it perfectly.

We were coming back down the Sunraysia Way and at Donald there was a sign saying ‘Home’ of said biscuits. We drove through a parade of derelict buildings and went to visit. The derelict buildings were once the Donald Meatworks (abattoirs) employing 200 people. They closed more than 20 years ago with the consequent loss of 200 jobs, an event which would have a huge impact on a community of this size. The Donald community decided to do something about it.

They bought equipment from a factory closure in Melbourne and installed it in the canteen of the meat works and began baking and selling biscuits. They nearly went broke when (and because) managers from Melbourne came up to take over and started selling off the company’s assets leaving it, to all intents and purposes, bankrupt. But the suppliers (mostly local, all Australian) didn’t call in the debts immediately and allowed the company (with locals in charge again) to pay them off over time. Coles and Woolworths wouldn’t take their product until they packaged it differently (on trays rather than in bags), but when they did this they got over the hump.

Today they are exporting to China and countries in south-east Asia as well as selling throughout Australia. And there’s full-time work directly for 25 Donaldians. Hooray!

IMG_2238.JPGKerry Vogel who described herself as the ”accountant/ sales manager’ told me that story.



Cities of the Silk Roads: Kyrgyz Republic #2

v4ZwQyWHGNOdfxj_pX7gPIWE1R9lOKsw3Tw-mZJCfYg.jpgA defining aspect of the Kyrgyz Republic is its topography. Mountains. Bishkek is on a plain which extends into Kazakhstan and Osh is at the end of the Fergana Valley — but, yes, mountains. High mountains.

82547On the border with China at the far right of this map is Jengish Chokusu, ‘Victory Peak’, 7439m asl. It is very rarely climbed because of weather and access issues and the fact that the most common route involves a 14km trek along the top of the massif of which it is a part, above 7000m all the way. On the Chinese side (pictured at left) it is called Tomur, ‘Iron Peak’ in Uyghur. I think it has only been successfully climbed once from this side.

The big lake in the map above is Issyk Kul, ‘Warm Lake’, one of the largest bodies of inland water in the world. Despite being at an altitude of 1600m and in a zone of ferocious winters, it never freezes. It is, lightly, saline. It is also endorheic. While it has plenty of tributaries (118), it has no apparent outlet and appears to maintain the same level year round. Magic. With its average depth of 280m, it almost certainly feeds an undiscovered underground aquifer, but still. How does it maintain exactly that level? And how do you explain the remnants of two ancient cities which have recently been located on more shallow parts of its floor?

This area has been a crucial landmark on the Silk Roads and was something special for us to see.IMG_0736.jpg


We got to Balykchy at its eastern end. Karakol at its western end, by road 225 km away, is larger and the regional capital.

I want an excuse to put this photo in but I haven’t got one. Thomas, Swiss financier, Tony, Australian engineer and public administrator, and an unknown local who was interested in this collection of travellers.

You can get the train to Balykchy, one of many important Russian contributions to Kyrgyz public infrastructure.

We had already had some other local colour, high order local colour.IMG_0691.jpg


Whip in mouth, he is picking up the headless body of a goat weighing 30-40 kilograms so that he or one of his mates can carry it tucked under one leg (!) down one end of a paddock and throw it onto a circular rock cairn.

I was interested to see that all standard game procedures apply — man-on-man, zone defence, the chop out, pop one over the top of the defence to a spare loose man. Ulak tartish, a very popular Kyrgyz sport and a staple of the Nomadic Games. Highly photogenic, and er hem manly.

thumb_IMG_0703_1024 (1).jpg

We ate at this village in the Headman’s house. Artem is reaching for the right word for his translation during the q&a session. The Headman is wearing a Kyrgyz hat, which in the country were everywhere in evidence. ‘It is shaped like that to remind us of the mountains.’ The Burana Tower, a major Kyrgyz landmark, is featured in the picture behind them.

Hospitality has a fundamental place in Kyrgyz culture. It is a matter of great shame to seat a guest at an empty table. The food must be waiting. Et voila!

In the foreground are borsok, soft and light doughy things which have been deep fried and are very popular. Three excellent salads with ingredients straight out of the garden, hard-crusted and sturdy white bread, drinking yoghurt, something else — very just from the dairyish — perhaps a dressing to have with the salads, piles of biscuits (including Tim Tam look- and tastealikes), and small mountains of confectionary. The other yellow things are like soft crostoli which might have been dipped in condensed milk. Good, but you don’t need too many of them. A vegetable soup to come and then some sort of meat stew.

Elsewhere you might have the option of shashliks on a metal skewer: like clockwork, two pieces of lamb meat, one piece of lamb fat, two pieces of lamb meat. Plov. Naryn (thinly sliced meat with noodles in bone marrow broth). Or fruit. It was high summer, the height of the growing season and we were given the best of it.


This is just so unrelated but never mind. Near here, and possibly exactly here, was where the Bubonic Plague which killed one-third of the world’s human population is believed to have begun. The Burana Tower is all that is left of the Qarakhanid kingdom which once dominated this area and far more. It suffered a 100 percent wipeout. One theory is that the disease was carried by fleas in marmot furs which were traded along the length of the Silk Roads. The Plague (1340-1400) definitely did begin in Central Asia and travelled in both directions along the Roads.


We spent the night in a homestay on the fringes of Kochkor, among other things a trailhead for outdoor adventurers. Downtown looked like this.

(For those who have played the clip back and forth back and forth desperately trying to catch it, Myrna is discussing her brother’s interest in eccentric cars and motor bikes. Torquil, with similar interests, had found an old Lada. How do you double the value of a Lada? Fill the petrol tank. Boom Tish!)

Song Kul

The drive alone was worth the price of admission.IMG_0751.jpgThe Tokol Valley. 

We had been driving along the Kashgar-Bishkek four-lane highway constructed by the Chinese to make it easy to get stuff from Chong Qing and Chengdu into Central Asia, before we turned off here: if you like, from the best road in the KR to, in a very competitive field, one of the worst. Our initial destination was the 3600m pass at the end of this valley. A farm every kilometre or ten. It’s hard to tell when progress is so slow and such a battle was being waged against corrugations, potholes, mudslides and missing bits.IMG_0763.jpgA template for the farms. Small house and bigger barn, all mud brick, a woman hanging her washing out, sheep, goats, horses. A stream. You might note the open roof cavity. Ubiquitous in this very difficult climate. The ceiling would be made of mud brick or concrete and, however non-intuitive, this would be considered a system of insulation. The unaccustomed start shivering just looking at it.

Up and over the pass. 3600 metres. The cold was well established, but some people were too rugged to notice.IMG_0787.jpgAnd very strangely, just out of nowhere, came this horseman. Literally nowhere. We were a long way from even the sign of human habitation. A horseman. I accused our guide, Artem, of setting this up. ‘You right Keneshbek? What? Yeah well we’re here now. Now. Come on. Have you got the good horse? The good horse! Yeah just ride out, no need to look at us or anything. Just … ok. Great.’IMG_0779.jpgIt was a moment. A great photo as a result of the sheerest good fortune.

Then down, but not very far in terms of altitude, into the Song Kul (‘Last Lake’) basin. It’s the second biggest lake in the map beginning this blog, thick healthy summer pasture surrounded by very high but quite placid mountains.IMG_0803.jpgBelow: our accommodation, and perhaps more interestingly, our dining room and the kitchen as well. There wasn’t anything else.IMG_0832.jpg


Dinner: excellent bread, the absolutely ubiquitous tomato capsicum cucumber and white onion salad, lamb and vegetable soup, fish from the lake, biscuits, lollies, red and white Kyrgyz and Uzbek wine, cognac-infused tea or coffee. Complaints? None.

I went off with the walkers, although some animal lovers went for a ride. IMG_0820.jpgThat is what it looked like from up the hill. The yurts are the white dots by the lake at the horse’s rear. There are some petroglyphs on the rock I’m standing near. Couldn’t really … perhaps you needed to be more expert than me to get hold of their full significance.

IMG_0798.jpgThis is how you put up a yurt. Three of the distinctively Kyrgyz tunduks are visible, one at the top of the frame and two leaning on the covers at left. Erecting a yurt is one of the sports at the Nomadic Games. I think I remember Artem saying that the record is less than 10 minutes.

The journal: ‘I’m in a yurt. It’s 150m to the toilet and it’s raining. There’s a leak dripping right on to the end of my bed and creeping up towards me. Very nippy. Probably about minus 5 with a good wind chill factor. How is this going to go?…’IMG_0833.jpg

IMG_0837.jpg‘Sleeping in a yurt loomed as one of the challenges of the trip. Dormitory accomm, snoring, cold, 150m to the toilet etc etc. But it turned out just fine. It was cold. Formidably. We did have a number of people in the yurt. It was 150m to the toilet. Fresh snow is falling on the hill we climbed yesterday. When I wandered off for a pee it was absolutely silent, and still — no animal noise, dogs had been barking earlier — no wind either. The bedding weighed kilos and the [coal and very effective] stove went out, but it was snug. And I was happy.’

Kyzyl Oi

The snow in the night had rendered the next pass impassable, so it was a long and tedious drive back the way we had come, through Kochkor, five hours over the shocking roads rather than two. That might have been one of the reasons that getting to Kyzyl Oi was such pleasure, but there were others.


We staggered out of the minibuses to be greeted by a herd of children wanting to speak English with us. Unexpected. And being able to do so quite capably. Even more unexpected. Go the teachers of English at Kyzyl Oi.

It was a lot warmer: that was another thing. While a new challenge had emerged — old bitumen road with remnant tarmac like anti-tank traps and craterous pot holes in which goats could hide, razor sharp edges — we had still managed to come down about 2000m to this extremely warm welcome. IMG_0864.jpgThere isn’t much at Kyzyl Oi, just a remote village that wanted tourists, and not just for their money. IMG_2345.jpgThis was where we stayed. Just to the left out of frame an addition was being built to the very well outfitted ablution block (flush toilets and a sewerage system rather than two planks over a big hole). Myrna is with our hostess who brought a desire, an expectation and a capacity for conversation with breakfast. Her elder son was a dentist, another daughter a midwife. The younger daughter helped her with the hospitality. The kid on the right, a very sweet boy, is her youngest.IMG_0869.jpgI got the feeling that this was a town that wanted to be part of the contemporary world outside, where you developed yourself moving on if necessary, you had ambition. It is strange how this communicates itself so obviously. When I lived round there, Nullawil  — a tiny community, a few families really, near Birchip and Wycheproof — was just the same. A clutch of strong, interesting outward-looking people determined to maintain and cultivate those qualities.

As well a river roared past. This is the Kokomeren, major tributary of the Naryn, one of the Kyrgyz Republic’s big rivers. They fish in here. And make catches. How? It’s hurling past at, what, maybe 40km an hour?IMG_0880.jpgThe farmers of Kyzyl Oi take their stock over this bridge on a regular basis. There must be others but it is the only bridge I can remember for 80km. It has taken quite a whack to its concrete pile supports and the girders on this side have collapsed, but I’d hate to be the person trying to rebuild it. Just watching the water power past in a fury was entertainment in itself. We followed it up its gorge for about 60km and not for one second was it less than a noisy torrent until it spread out through the pastures of the Suusamyr basin. But first …


Worth waiting for! What a statue! Superb. A horse on manback rather than a man on horseback. Fantastic aesthetic and structural balance, well chosen and deft modelling. That’s the one in Bishkek outside the Sports Palace and over the road from the Arzu restaurant celebrating Кожомкул, Kojomkul — a real person who was born in 1889 and died in 1955.

IMG_0883.jpgSources agree that he lived in a village (above) in the Suusamyr basin now named Kojomkul after him, that he was kind and concerned about the common good, that he was unchallenged as a wrestler, and that he was big. Definitely big. How big? 230cms tall (7’6″), and weighing 165kg (350lbs). That big. One story has him lifting and carrying on his shoulders (maybe moving?) a stone weighing 750kg.

IMG_2374.JPGJust out of town there is this memorial, a rickety shelter over a mud yurt where a friend of his (or ‘a distinguished figure’, or from one source, his mother) was buried in 1924. He carried this stone weighing 160kg from the flood plain of the river several kilometres away. (I nearly got it. If I’d had proper shoes on …)

And the horse? Well, it is said that in his prime Kojomkul carried a horse on his shoulders 100 metres to commemorate and perhaps prove the legitimacy of the story of At-Bashi (Horse Head), a town not so far from here. In her blog Madeline Stoddart, an American Peace Corps worker in Kyrgyzstan, tells it like this.

A man, having sold his cattle, began returning to the North on horseback. Exhausted after crossing the Tian Shan mountains, he stopped at Jailoo, a summertime pasture, to rest and turned his horse free to graze under the stars. The man woke as the sun rose over the mountains, but the horse refused to return to him. He chased it down from the pasture, finally catching it in a valley. The horse stubbornly refused to let the man ride, so he hoisted the animal up on his shoulders to walk to a sheltered place for the night. Tired and hungry from the chase, the man killed his unfaithful horse and roasted the meat over a great fire. He ate heartily, then packed for his long journey North. At the edge of his camp, he left the horse’s head, calling the place At-Bashi – in Kyrgyz, horse head. The rest of the horse he carried on his back, eating every night until there was only enough meat scraps to boil for soup. This dish is called naryn, a boiled bone soup with finely cut meat, and where he left the bare carcass of his disloyal horse became the city of Naryn.

Under the Soviets Kojomkul became a chairman of his collective farm, while still competing in wrestling tournaments throughout Kyrgyzstan. A story common to all the sources suggests that he was known for distributing his winnings (goats and sheep mainly) amongst members of his community. He also spent a year in gaol for refusing to write letter condemning a chairman of the neighbouring commune. These are stories entirely appropriate to such an excellent statue.

Suusamyr and surrounds

A high plain, 2500m or so above sea level, surrounded by snowy peaks. We found coffee at the Gazprom service station over in the distance, but ate lunch here in a yurt.IMG_0892.jpgThese foals are tethered to the ground so the mares won’t stray and are easy to milk, because this is the starting point of kumis, fermented mare’s milk, for sale at road stalls for 50km along this busy road (Bishkek to Osh as well as bulk tourism on its southern entry). The owner of these horses showed us how he made it, fermented with a piece of yeasty bread, slightly smoked in some underground container and regularly paddled.

I don’t know how popular it is as a drink; maybe it’s the sort of thing you do when you’re on holiday. But it could be culturally important. After all a bishkek is the paddle used to churn the fermenting milk.

We’d come in from a quiet rural track up to the pastures. It got grubby with rubbish discarded from the additional traffic on the big road as well as high and cold. IMG_0895.jpgAlabel Ashuusu Pass where the sign said 3175m above sea level and Marty’s altimeter app said 3173m. I’m sure we could have got him up those last two metres.

It was a longish drive to Toktogul down the hill through collections of resort accommodation, food stops and roadside stalls — their purpose was clear, their nature more mysterious — to a fertile valley and a circumambulation of the rather splendid Lake Toktogul.



That night we stayed in this Soviet era accommodation designed for use by Youth League/ Young Pioneers groups.

Its evident decline was offset by this view, the lake and the swim we had in it.IMG_0905.jpgThe lake is dammed at one end for hydroelectricity production. Some of this is sold to Kazahkstan; some may go to Uzbekistan although it has plenty of energy resources of its own. The hydro plant was showing major signs of wear and limited upkeep, but you could get an idea of what, quite recently, had once been.

Tash Komur

‘Hard Coal’. That’s what the name says. A mining town in the middle of what looked like a paradise of minerals, it spread for some distance along the Naryn River here much modified for industrial purposes. Just out of town was this building.IMG_0950.jpgIt’s not a great photo. It’s from the van where I was holding my teeth apart to stop them from shattering. But for me it was history.

I say this is, was, a Russian administrative headquarters — mining? civil? possibly even military but probably not. It says order and stability, and four storeys says substantial, plenty of work gone on in there. The roof is enclosed. The symmetry and once good order of the windows suggest good quality industrial craftsmanship. The mural, that you can’t see, on its wall wants you to think positive if perhaps unaccustomed thoughts and suggests an identity that you might want to aspire and relate to. It’s not the work of nomadic horsemen or ulak tartish  players. And, unused, an anachronism, it is sliding at some pace into disrepair. The grave sites cement these impressions. (Kyrgyz cemeteries look like complex tiny towns with endless small buildings.)

What have the Romans ever done for us (I mused)? ‘Well there was the aqueduct … sanitation, yes …, irrigation, medicine, public baths … roads.’ ‘They brought peace.’ ‘Brought peace?!! Oh shuttup.’

In this case, just imagining, what was brought might have included, say, a big shoe factory, a car parts manufacturer, a huge food processing plant, industrial style tourism, the mining development, the hydro … some of which at least would have been set up for reasons of decentralisation and to give people ‘new style’ work regardless of where the markets said they should have been located. And when Big Brother (wearing his Motherhood costume) withdraws, what then? Who is to say who benefits from the effects of imperial oversight (and injections of hard cash)? Nothing is simple. 

There are two histories at work here, as elsewhere in the Republic: that of 1924-1991; and everything that came before. They don’t marry easily. But that doesn’t make the country any less interesting.


IMG_0939.jpgWe were on our way to Arkyt, scarcely visible at left from up the top of the hill, another remote-ish homestay at the end of an odd little run of Holidayland — yurts with fiber glass roofs, ‘log’ cabins, unemployed frames of rusty steel with flapping fabric, coffee shops but not as we know them. That sort of thing.

And this was The Worst Road Ever. Ever. The purpose of roads generally is to allow/ enable passage. This road had deliberately chosen to actively oppose any ingress. It had an invisible sign up saying: ‘Ye shall not pass. Irregardless. Anyone who ventures further is just so cactus that, mate, I can’t tell you. Fully gone.’ On this occasion that was us.

We didn’t need to go. At the other end was a lake in the middle of the mountainous ‘Yellow Bowl’ so called for its flora. But you didn’t need to take Kiwis or Swiss there. They’ve got better at home. And we’d seen the like. Quite often. And we’d been driving over shit roads for days now grump grump and our bedroom didn’t have a window grump grump grump grump grump.

At the lake, a further 90-minute drive from the village over a 40km cattle grid interspersed with inexpressible voids, three groups of people drew my attention.

The dancers. Twenty or so middle-aged mostly men but a couple of women dancing to an accordion very capably played I must say. They had eaten but weren’t I think drinking. Nonetheless, to my grumpy mind something indeterminately salacious was happening. I could be way wrong about this, way wrong, but it was a bit like lurching through a door and finding the makings of a swingers’ party. Grump grump grump.

The young men sitting on the ground under a tree. (The girls were taking selfies down by the water.) I went past them several times perhaps an hour apart and they hadn’t moved, doing nothing except smoking and looking like they were mortally offended by even passing company. The word ‘surly’ was coined for just such a situation. But surly with slightly menacing overtones.

The chaps staying in the dacha. Up the top there were a small number of places to stay. We walked past them, and their occupants were layed out on the wooden outdoor furniture dead drunk or close to at two o’clock in the afternoon. Fair enough. Their choice. They weren’t bothering anyone.

But I felt bothered. Like I’d had an encounter with a range of cardinal sins. I hadn’t. Just GRRRumpy. I’ve already said. I do beg your pardon. Sorry.

It was a delicious dinner.

IMG_0937.jpgJust by the way, this is what I mean by an open roof cavity. That building is finished. It will stay like that even when the temperature is minus 20. And they are our roadweary vans.

Either on the way there or on the way back we fell to talking about the Kyrgyz ‘cultural tradition’ of bride-kidnapping. Do, as Kyrgyz lore asserts, ‘all good marriages begin in tears?’ Is it worth talking about except as an interesting relic of times past?

A research study supported by a Kyrgyz non-government organisation recorded 24,000 cases of non-consensual bride-kidnapping in the two years 2015 and 2016. This number is inevitably coloured by the process of categorisation and could be lower. Or it could be higher.

Some other responsible estimations indicate that about one half of all Kyrgyz marriages stem from this practice. The same source suggests that two-thirds of these are non-consensual, often involving violence, cultural shame, and, in the very worst cases, rape. If the kidnapped woman has been kept in the house overnight it will be assumed that ‘the marriage’ has been consummated. The stigma associated with leaving a forced marriage, even before the marriage begins, is so great that many women stay out of fear, shame, or lack of an alternative.

Not all bride kidnapping is violent. ‘Ceremonial’ bride kidnapping is exactly that – a ceremony that commemorates a distinct if somewhat distant part of Kyrgyz culture, but where all parties are expressly involved and consenting. Mock bride theft is also consensual. It can be used to evade expensive dowry payments or parental disapproval. It is also sometimes used to speed up an engagement toward marriage or to hide pre-marital pregnancy.

One of the stories told in our conversation was of a bride in a taxi so distraught that the driver stopped and refused to be involved in the process any longer. The bride quickly straightened up, stopped crying and spoke severely to the driver. ‘Just do your job!’ Might be true, but it is an easy out. 3879975.jpgA screen shot from a Russian comedy, ‘Kidnapping, Caucasian style’ using the topic as a central theme to hang the jokes off. Real images of the process look rather more horrible.

The research referred to above suggests that genuine bride theft is a corruption of a consensual tradition and has been steadily increasing since the fall of the Soviet Union. Some believe that, after the generations of gender equality encouraged by the Soviet system, bride-kidnapping has become a tool to reassert the dominance of masculine identity in the Kyrgyz Republic, a country that has struggled with identity politics since long before the Soviets left in 1991. The judicial system often sides with the men in the very few cases that actually make it into the courts.

There are dozens of other countries where bride-kidnapping is to a greater or lesser degree an embedded practice. But without any fear of insensitive cultural intrusion, it does seem like something that could genuinely be left behind forever. Urgently.


IMG_0960.jpgStill eating? Come on. Everyone’s left.

This might have been at Suzak. We were working our way round the very complex eastern border with Uzbekistan on our way to Osh and the end of the tour. We stopped at this bakery/ restaurant, and this pic appears here to reflect again on the astonishing (and colourful) hospitality that was so often a feature of our time in the KR.

It is the owner’s private garden. There were too many of us for out the front. We would be easier to manage. The food was modest, plentiful and very well cooked. And exactly as requested. We had been driving through the end of the Fergana Valley, this remarkable hub of fecundity, and all along the road were piles of various types of delicious-looking melons. I asked if we could have some. Off someone went to the market and this was the result. Another feast.

IMG_0986.jpgThe rooftops of Osh (from Sulayman Mountain), where we didn’t spend nearly enough time. The thumbnail dip into it suggested a really interesting city with a great deal to entertain a traveller.


We got there late-ish, climbed the Mountain, the only World Heritage site in KR. It has a museum of some importance built into its side to celebrate the 3000th anniversary of Osh, unlike Bishkek an ancient city.

Sulayman Mountain, sometimes called the Stone Tower, reaches strikingly upwards out of the flatlands of the Valley. It is considered the mid-point of the Silk Roads. That was exciting.

It also contains a shrine that supposedly marks the Biblical King and Islamic prophet Solomon’s (Sulayman’s) grave. According to legend, women who ascend to the shrine on top and crawl though an opening across the holy rock will give birth to healthy children. Saw this. Didn’t do it.IMG_0984.jpgShe may have. It could have been a bit lost in translation but these are her five children. The perky chap in the red polo shirt who spoke good English and wanted to engage in conversation is 10. She is 25.

IMG_0982.jpgThe Mountain is surrounded by the graves of those who want to be buried as near as possible to a holy place. The same phenomenon is obvious in Jerusalem and probably anywhere there is a place with some religious significance.

We ate a celebratory final dinner too tired to do justice to such delicious cooking, a genuinely sumptuous meal. Next day we crossed into Uzbekistan or, as they would prefer, Uzbekiston, and THAT WAS AN EXPERIENCE …