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On the morning of our last day together as traveling companions with Wayoutback Desert Safaris, we wake to the sound of birds. We are not much more than 100 kilometers from Alice Springs, but well and truly in the heart of the outback. There are no amenities here that we have not brought with us. To reach the nearest toilet, our driver/guide points to the shovel and suggests walking a good long way from camp, well away from the water that has attracted all the birds.

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Most of us are soon mesmerised by the aviary all around us. This is a wonderland for bird watchers and long telephoto lenses. A large, awkward-looking baby hawk sits on a branch nearby, waiting for his parents to bring his breakfast. Flocks of budgies dart and soar in the sky overhead, gradually joining in larger and larger numbers until the sky seems covered with them. It is hard to imagine these same birds confined to cages, perched in solitary confinement in sombre cities around the world. Out here we can see them for the gregarious aerial acrobats they really are.

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One of our number wanders back to camp from a short walk and describes a creature Tamara thinks may have been a wild turkey. We are immersed in rich wonderland within a very dry jungle. it is magical, the perfect morning for our last day together.

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We take our time over breakfast and slowly gear up for our trip back to civilisation. Most of us have exhausted our store of clean clothes. Our one and only rendezvous for the day is with a lady named Loz, the host and spokesperson for the Oak Valley Aboriginal Community, due south of Alice Springs.

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As scruffy as we are, she takes us in. We are the Whitefellas who have shown up to hear her stories and to listen to the land. She shows us a hill full of rare fossils to start with, remains of the last retreat of inland ocean. We walk together through scrub bushland which should be rich with bush tucker, but it has been too dry. We scramble up to a sacred site replete with rock art.

She is full of stories, personal family history and tribal stories that connect her people to the land as powerfully as glue. By the end of the afternoon we will all fall under her enchantment. One story that stuck with me was about her uncle, if memory serves. Years of writing have failed to improve my memory and I am without notes.

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He lost his leg after being thrown from a horse. Despite being flown to a hospital in Adelaide, they best they could do for him was a wooden substitute. That didn’t stop him from riding, swimming swollen rivers, doing anything the young man wanted to do. In time, he made himself a better leg, articulated at the knee and ankle. Sent the old one back to the hospital as an offering.

It is time to go. We clamber back into Snooty for the drive to Alice Springs, the gathering of luggage, the brief goodbyes. Later on, a handful of us who are staying close to the centre of town will get together at a pub to drink a toast to the group adventure. In the morning, we will climb on metal birds to head our separate ways. Five rich and wondrous days will slip into memory.

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John McDouall Stuart was one of the most accomplished and famous of all Australia’s inland explorers. Stuart led the first successful expedition to traverse the Australian mainland from south to north. despite poor backing from the Government of South Australia. He never lost a man even though he encountered some of the harshest conditions on the continent.

The explorations of Stuart eventually resulted in the Australian Overland Telegraph Line being built and the main route from Port Augusta to Darwin being established, now called the Stuart Highway in his honour. He was born in Scotland, the youngest of nine children. His father was a retired army captain serving as a customs officer. His parents died when he was in his early teens and he came under the care of relatives. After graduating from the Scottish Naval and Military Academy as a civil engineer, the young man emigrated to Australia in 1838. He was a delicately built man, only 5′ 6″ tall (168 cm) and 121 pounds (55 kilos).

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It was on his fourth expedition, in the Spring of 1860. that Stuart came across the rugged region now called the MacDonnell Ranges. He and two other men had departed from Chambers Creek, South Australia on horseback, intending to find the centre of Australia. Unexpected rain soon ruined half their supplies, then, ironically, water holes seemed to disappear. Scurvy set in among the small group and Stuart’s right eye began to fail.

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Nevertheless, they found a major watercourse in early April which Stuart named the Finke River, and they followed it north-west to some rugged hills, which Stuart named after Sir Richard MacDonnell, Governor of South Australia. On 22 April 1860, according to Stuart’s calculations, the party reached the centre of the continent. Geographers no longer regard it as the exact centre, but that has done nothing to lower Stuart’s reputation.

Despite his many accomplishments, to say that Stuart discovered this area is like saying Columbus “discovered” America. The Arrente people had lived in the area for more than 30,000 years when the Europeans put in an appearance. They were desert people, constantly walking the country to gather food from underground larders, picking fruits and seeds, hunting animals and birds. Steep narrow chasms and gorges cut into the hills, some retaining pools of water throughout the year.

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This is a refuge for some rare and threatened plants; it is home to the smooth, white-barked ghost gum, the desert she-oak, river red gum, corkwood and coolibah. Twelve mammal species have disappeared since European contact, but there are still Red kangaroos, bilbies, mulgaras, and the black-footed rock-wallaby, although they are endangered. Goannas and a variety of other reptiles are still common, as well as 160 species of birds.

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Unlike Stuart, we are traveling in style on a trusty steel steed capable of carrying all sixteen of us, our gear, water and food to boot. Our fourth day takes us from Glen Helen Resort to Ormiston Gorge, the Ochre Pits, Serpentine Gorge and Ellery Creek Big hole before we launch well off the beaten path, heading into the back of beyond– Owen Springs Reserve.

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For thousands of years, Aboriginal people gathered ochre from the banks of a sandy creek site about 110 kms west of Alice Springs. The pits consist of several layers of multi-coloured, layered rock used by Australian Aborigines in ceremonies and played an important role in the Aboriginal economy, being traded with neighbouring clans and “countries”, in every direction on the continent. Prior to European settlement of the area in 1880, only certain Arrente men were allowed to collect the ochre.

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It was considered some of the choicest ochre – soft to touch, vivid, with a slight sheen to it. The colours range from gold to crimson. After the ochre was mined by the Western Arrernte, it was ground and mixed with Emu fat for ceremonial body adornment.

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If you want to get a 4 wheel-drive bus stuck in the middle of nowhere, you could hardly do worse than head across a dry river bed at the end of a long, hot day. We were following the meandering path of Hugh River, heading for what promised to be one of the only places in the area with any water left. It would be our campground for the night, a paradise for birds.

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Within ten to fifteen minutes of getting “bogged,” we had an audience, a truck full of Aboriginal men, who seemed amused at our plight and not particularly interested in getting their hands dirty. Our fearless guide and leader had no such qualms. She was soon digging out loose gravel from around the tires and directing us to unload the trailer. Snooty was well and truly stuck.

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After watching us awhile, the Ute full of husky men simply drove around us and disappeared. It is at times like this that your brain flashes back to all those missed opportunities to sign up for road service. Tamara was nonplussed. What is an outback adventure without the adventure? As it gradually dawned on us that we really were going to have to do this ourselves, the group gradually stopped throwing out questions and suggestions, and put minds and muscle behind the effort.

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Despite some serious reservations about our ability to push the trailer out of the creek bed and up the other side, it seemed like the only way to get Snooty unstuck. After a handful of frustrating attempts, Snooty finally got the traction it needed and came free. We followed this with a concerted push and the trailer followed the bus up the dry river bank traveling on human power alone.

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Stuart would have been proud. It was a day to remember, and a night to celebrate.

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At the tail end of our long, semicircular dirt journey, we find ourselves some 150 kms north of Uluru, still 325 kms southwest of Alice Springs. We are taking the scenic route. Each day of our trip involves a stop to gather firewood. Tamara, our guide and guardian, pulls Snooty off the road at places that look as random as the rest of the countryside, but she has chosen spots where permission has been granted to thin out the dead wood on the ground.

We all descend from the bus into the midday heat and scatter. We become hunters and gatherers, not so very different from the natives of this land. We are gathering the makings of fire for our evening meal. Our guide clambers up on to the roof and waits for the offerings of sticks and branches, rejecting those that are too small or too big or too rotten, arranging it all into a bundle that can be secured to the vehicle. It is hot, dirty work, as unfamiliar to us as bringing down an emu with a boomerang. We are glad when it is over.

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At the western end of the George Gill range lies Watarrka National Park. It is a rugged landscape of rock holes and gorges, dominated by the spectacular natural amphitheatre of King’s Canyon, towering 100 meters (300 feet) from the valley floor. Rock wallabies and dingoes live here, but they are shrewd enough to vanish from such a large, noisy group.

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At the top is a massive plateau of red sandstone, shaped by wind and water over thousands of years. Our six kilometre hike will take us up 500 well-formed, but steep steps to the top, then weave across weathered-dome rock formations and gradually down again to a secluded ravine called “the garden of Eden.” The park is named after an acacia tree (also called the umbrella bush) that the Luritja people know as watarrka.

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More than 750 plant species have been recorded here, including one species of fern that is found only in the park. The water at the bottom of the slot canyon optimistically called “the garden of Eden” includes sixty or so rare, relict species, such as the creeping swamp fern. This has survived fifty million years, from a time when a rainforest covered the area. Seed-bearing trees and insects attract eighty species of birds. They keep watch on us while we eat our lunch, ready to take advantage of our crumbs.

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Like many explorers, Ernest Giles seems to have stumbled upon the calling after failing at everything else. He was born in Bristol, England, but he emigrated to Australia when he was fifteen, joining his parents in Adelaide. In 1852 Giles went to the Victorian goldfields, then became a clerk at the Post Office in Melbourne, and later at the County Court. Tiring of life in town, Giles headed for the bush. By 1861, he was exploring on the Darling River, looking for land capable of cultivating hemp, a valuable comoddity at the time.

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Giles didn’t attempt a regular expedition until 1872, when he left Chambers pillar (a sandstone formation 160 kms south of Alice Springs), with two other men around the middle of August. They traversed much previously untrodden country to the northwest and west. Finding their way barred by Lake Amadeus and the horses getting very weak, a return was made to Adelaide, where the party arrived in January 1873. Giles was the first European to see the Olgas, Lake Amadeus, and the rugged formation now called Watarrka.

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The following year, another young English immigrant/explorer named William Gosse traveled through the same region, discovering Ayer’s Rock and one of the most interesting geologic formations in central Australia– Gosses Bluff. The original crater is thought to have been formed by the impact of an asteroid or comet approximately 142 million years ago. The original rim has been estimated at about 22 km (14 miles) in diameter, but this has been eroded away. What remains is about 5 km (3 miles) in diameter, 180 m (590 ft) high, the eroded relic of the crater’s central uplift. The impact origin of this topographic feature was first proposed in the 1960s, the strongest evidence coming from the abundance of shatter cones.

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A Western Arrernte story also attributes its origins to a cosmic impact: in the Dreaming, a group of celestial women were dancing as stars in the Milky Way. One of the women grew tired and placed her baby in a wooden basket. As the women continued dancing, the basket fell and plunged to the earth. The baby’s fall forced the rocks upward, forming the circular mountain range. The baby’s parents, the evening and morning star, continue to search for their baby to this day.

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When we reach our home for the night, the reward is well worth waiting for– a cool, refreshing dip in Pioneer Creek. Like all the other animals, we follow the water and sleep under the stars. On days like this, life is very good indeed.

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On our previous trip to the Grampians we had been so enchanted we decided to return. It was a last-minute decision and I wasn’t sure we would even find a place to stay since the school holidays have kicked in. In Australia, you are considered somewhat mad to go anyplace that might be attractive to children during the school holidays. The Grampians offer campgrounds, cockatoos and kangaroos, challenging hiking trails and overlooks, beautiful waterfalls and a zoo, so it falls into the category of child magnet.

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Despite the odds we did find a place to stay and I was even able to secure a Victorian Seniors discount. Our new abode was at least three degrees fancier than our previous accommodation, which was little more than a large trailer with amenities. This place had a working wood stove and a DVD player as well as a Queen-size bed, a full kitchen and bath. Even though it was a log cabin, the cabin was roomy and light. Outside, a ten meter stroll toward Fyans creek and you were in the middle of a mob of kangaroos. A couple of youngsters were sparring, an activity I have never witnessed before.

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We packed a dinner to heat up in the cabin rather than attempting to make a reservation at one of the restaurants in Halls Gap during school holidays. On the drive up, I was once again struck by the alarming signs indicating a nation of narcolepts. “A micro sleep can kill in a micro second,” said one. “Don’t sleep and drive,” said another, which seems a little too prosaic for signage. Most of them urged drivers to pull over and have a “power nap.” Not one mentions the Dreaming, but the ubiquity of the signs do make you wonder about the state of your fellow drivers. How far gone are they, a mere microsecond away from oblivion?

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You can never reproduce the magic of seeing a place for the first time, but we did do some things we missed on the last trip. We walked down the steep staircase that leads to the bottom of Mackenzie Falls, hiked the trail to the look-off over Lake Bellfield, followed the loop walk along Fyans Creek and revisited the Botanical Garden, an oasis of peace even during school holidays. Most of the trails in the Park are simply too difficult for someone like my wife, with no depth perception and little ability to deal with high contrast, but the enchantment of the Grampians lies above and beyond spectacular views at the end of a tricky trail.

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Check out the photos by clicking on one of the pics running alongside this post, or plug in http://www.flickr.com/photos/jhalbrook/sets/72157630924994030. All the best pics are on Flickr, user name Red Flier, the Grampians set.


Cerberus was wavering. Even though we appeared to have no reservation for a room at St. John’s College, Cambridge, my wife convinced him that she had stayed at the college before. She described the room and the route to the dormitory.  The problem was our arrival on a Sunday. The reservations people were not available. Someone had dropped the ball on our behalf, but protocol and five hundred years of history were at stake. Visitors pay to tour the grounds of the College, since it is one of the oldest in Cabridge. The gatekeeper had to appear to be protecting the place without being entirely unreasonable.

He had already revealed that there were rooms available.  It was a paperwork problem. With a little nudging, the man finally caved. We trundled our luggage through the maze of 16th and 17 century buildings and out across the Bridge of Sighs. Ours was a modest room with twin beds and an internet password that didn’t work, but we had a place to sleep and our very own bathroom. It was not hard to picture the place in winter without central heating and we counted our blessings.

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Our ill-timed arrival was compounded by a misunderstanding over the rendezvous for dinner, but all’s well that ends with a good night’s sleep and a hot breakfast. My wife was happy with the reception she received for her talk and I got to explore the city the following day. Cambridge is captivating. It has been an important town since Roman times, but in the year 1209 a group of religious scholars broke away from Oxford and came here. There are now thirty-one colleges clustered around the city center. King’s College was founded in 1441, and its spectacular chapel took seventy years to complete. With its fan ceiling, beautiful windows and alterpiece by Rubens, it is an architectural marvel.

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I have been remiss in attending to this blog of late despite having plenty of new photos and an adequate amount of topics to write about. I blame taxes. For someone who loathes them as much as I do, the procrastination of the work itself  consumes an enormous amount of time and energy, not to mention the actual effort involved in gathering the numbers together. But we are all plagued with the same disease and it is not very interesting.

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Here in London, I have done due diligence as a tourist despite the taxes. St. Paul’s Cathedral (all the way to the top), Tate Britain, twice, Tate Modern, twice, a tour of the Houses of Parliament, that delightful bicycle wheel, London Eye, twice, the Museum of London, twice, the Imperial War Museum, twice and the Natural History Museum.

Not to mention Kew Gardens, Hampstead Heath and various other venues for plays, dance and other productions. I have to return to the National Gallery, visit the Portrait Gallery, British Museum etc. Time is running out and there is a lot to see.  My work beleaguered wife has seen very little of this.  Guilty pleasures.

There are always surprises. The kangaroo in the creation painting on the ceiling of St. Paul’s cathedral, done shortly after the first ship returned from Australia and England learned about black swans and marsupials.  The fact that “London Eye,” the most popular paid attraction in all of England, was intended to be dismantled after five years.  That the man responsible for inviting the members of the House of Commons to join the House of Lords at the opening of Parliament gets the door slammed in his face, all because of an ill considered act of Charles I.

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I have been impressed by British television. We have watched some fascinating programs on everything from the Bronze Age in Britain to the makeup of the universe. The shows on offer make the American counterparts seem paltry and dumbed down by comparison.

On my walks and on the underground, I am usually accompanied by my Ipod. Recently, I have spent many pleasurable hours in the company of David Mitchell’s “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” Nagasaki, Japan at the end of the 18th century. I’ve been on three harrowing adventures with Michael Forsythe, the compelling killer at the heart of Adrian McKinty’s thrillers. Both writers from the UK, Mckinty now living in Melbourne. I’ve just started on “Old Filth,” by Jane Gardam.

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When the sun finally breaks through the blanket of cloud that seems anchored to this city, it is dazzling. The residents fling off their coats, caps and mitts and stroll around as if summer had arrived. Today’s chill gives the lie to that illusion. I slipped on my fleece gloves as soon as we headed out for the morning constitutional. The dogs like the cold, most of them anyway. This old dog could do with a few more days of heat and sunshine, but the cloud and cold seem appropriate. This is London, after all.


Our destination for the winter camping trip was a place called Falls Creek, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) to the northeast, on the way to Sydney. A good part of the travel there is on the Hume Highway, one of the most heavily trafficked stretches of bitumen (asphalt) in all of Australia. That part is fast. The last section, when you head toward the Alpine region, makes up for it. It is a slow, two-lane road, threading its way through farm country, gradually climbing into the Alpine National Park.

Our foray into the snow began long before we set out. For me it started on June 24 with a casual email from Alan, my cycling friend, alerting me to the fact that a winter adventure was in the works. It would likely happen the second week of August. Would I like to come?

Like a small snowball accumulating size and speed on its way downhill, a flurry of emails followed over the next five weeks, some were about dates and details, others were simply banter among the various members of the group. When it all shook out, there were six people going for five days the first week of August. It was all still weather dependent, of course. Rain can ruin the best-laid plans of ski trips, and winter weather here. like all Victorian weather, is anything but consistent.

The last weather prediction we received before heading out had good news and bad. The good news was that new snow was predicted. The not-so-good news was that it would probably be accompanied by gale-force winds. It didn’t occur to me that gale-force winds driving pellets of snow can feel like a shotgun blast.

The plan was to rise very, very early on Friday morning, meet at a designated carpool spot, then head out for the long drive in order to be at the campsite by early afternoon. I suspect I was not the only one who spent a restless night waiting for the alarm clock to bounce me out of bed at 3:30 am. We were on the road by 5:15, rolling into a McDonald’s just before our exit off the Hume Highway by 8:30. It was packed.

With the exception of some of the automobiles, an industrial-strength, Italian espresso machine and odd items on the menu, it could have been snow country, USA. There were skis and snowboards, parkas and boots. Heavy sweaters and hardy looking folks wolfing down bacon and egg sandwiches with a curious breakfast condiment, barbecue sauce.

From there, we headed east on the country road, through Myrtleford, Bright and Mt. Beauty. Then the climb began. Cars came toward us with patches of snow stuck to the roof, but we were driving through rain as well. We were almost at Falls Creek before it became apparent that there was going to be plenty of snow on the ground. The base of the ski resort is at an elevation of 1500 meters (nearly 5000 feet.)

On the last Saturday in August, Falls Creek hosts the Kangaroo Hoppet, a 42 km cross country race that counts as a main race with the Worldloppet ski Federation. Over the years, the event has been dominated by Australian racers, but last year’s male winner came from Germany.

We nosed our way to a likely spot in the huge parking lot, unloaded the Subaru, and headed off. The wind was whipping up. One of our members was already nursing a cold that would end up ruining the trip for him and his son. There were at least ten kilometers to go with 20 kilo (44 pound) packs on our backs and it was not going to get any warmer. Little did I know I would soon be plunging into an icy stream.

Stay tuned for the misery.


I got the bicycling bug after a week-long trip with my son in California. We rode from San Francisco to Mendocino, camping along the way. Until I got the hang of riding very, very slowly, I would often have to stop and push my bike up the longer hills. He wasn’t at all sure I was going to make it.

At the campsites we ran into many long-distance riders, people who had ridden across the U.S. or Canada. A few were planning rides all the way to South America. We took an entire week to ride the 150 miles, so it wasn’t a quick trip, but it was invigorating to be under pedal power, spinning slowly enough to appreciate the spectacular scenery and able to enjoy the benefit of churning up calories.

When I returned to Gainesville I bought a second-hand Trek. I would head out for a twenty-mile ride every other day on Millhopper Road, a lovely, tree-lined highway. Weekends I would usually ride with a group who went at a moderate pace on various country roads around Gainesville. I learned the trick of riding in a pack, what the French call a “peloton.”

Then I succumbed to the siren song of recumbent bikes. We invested in a tandem so my wife could accompany me. Shortly before moving here I bought a single. Now, I’ve found a pack of recumbent and trike riders, many who have built their own bikes (see the post on cycle recyclers.) Someone in the group usually organizes a “spontaneous” Sunday ride.

For my regular exercise fix, I’m dependent on the Moonee Creek Bike Path. It is not one of the most attractive paths in Melbourne. The first part of it looks very much like a shrunken version of the Los Angeles River. And there is graffiti, lots of it. For reasons I have yet to determine, Melbourne and its many suburbs are addictive to people with cans of paint.

But it is extremely accessible from where I live, and parts of it are beautiful. It goes north, following the meandering path of Moonee Creek. It ducks under a spectacular trestle bridge and rolls through a newly-reclaimed wetland area. A few kilometers from where I turn around is Tullamarine airport.

The WestMeadows coffee shop is my usual stop, offering cappuccino and pain au chocolat. Reason enough to stretch out and enjoy the sunshine, stoke the body’s engine with sweet tasting fuel, turn the bike around and fly south, fly towards home.

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