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It is winter here in Melbourne, the rainy season.  We have come full circle, living among students at University College on the University of Melbourne campus.  It was the very first place we stayed when we came to Australia over eight years ago.  I read an amusing memoir a few years back about an American TV comedy writer who lost his job and decided to “retire” at the age of 28.  He went to Florida, of course, moving in with an elderly piano teacher in a retirement village since he was too young to buy a condo.  He signed up for softball and shuffleboard and tried to fit in with people twice his age.  The young students here seem to tolerate us, but I suspect our gray hair renders us more-or-less invisible most of the time.  This was a Women’s College originally, which shows up in the attractive flower gardens and the extraordinary effort to make food for two hundred residents both nutritious and palatable.  

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We sometimes see students who think nothing of wearing their pajamas to dinner.  Monday and Tuesday, however, they all wear black gowns for “high table.”  Their tradition goes back to Oxford and Cambridge, where a table was set on a dias for the master and fellows of the college who sat, quite literally, above the undergraduates, no doubt engaging in scintillating conversation about arcane subjects.  It actually pre-dates the Middle Ages, when families co-habited with servants and animals and members needed to eat above the others if they hoped to eat at all.  At high table here, the students are served their dinners and allowed to partake of wine, but the noise level in the hall has driven us to fetching our dinner plates beforehand, like elderly orphans begging for scraps.

We are recently back from a sabbatical sojourn in Washington DC and Montreal, Canada.  When my professor spouse first mentioned the invitation to speak to a gathering in Quebec City, we were living in Washington DC and Montreal was our very next stop.  The timing of the talk didn’t register until I put it on my calendar.  It was for April 8, five weeks after our scheduled return from the sabbatical.  If push came to shove, you could get from Montreal to Quebec City by dog sled during the winter we just endured.  Melbourne, on the other hand, is not even in the same hemisphere as Quebec.  To get to Quebec City requires getting on at least two planes for nearly 24 hours and passing the time between meals reading or watching a movie or two or six or annoying your seat mate with your life history in excruciating detail.  I try to spend most of my time sleeping.  

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Melatonin is a hormone made by your body’s pineal gland, which is inactive during the day, but begins to produce melatonin when the sun goes down.  Melatonin levels in the blood rise sharply and you begin to feel less alert.  With any luck, you get very sleepy.  This helps regulate circadian rhythms, the “body clock,” which gets upset when you start whizzing around the planet at 550 miles per hour.  The pills you buy over the counter are usually lumped with vitamins or herbal medicines and are completely unregulated. They can give you very weird dreams and I would not suggest taking them, but they do make sleep possible during jet sitting jaunts of long duration.  I am a jet sitter, not a setter.  Setters are dogs.

We booked seats on a Qantas flight to LA, stayed overnight at an airport hotel, then flew up to Montreal the next morning where we stayed put for nearly a week.  With that recovery time, the talk in Quebec was just about doable.  

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I’m sure most people drive or fly from Montreal to Quebec City, but the train is infinitely preferable to either.  You check your bags in the station and get meal service if you book business class.  There is wi-fi and a large window to watch the world flying by at a reasonable trot.  There is the seductive rocking of the coach as it rolls through the countryside.  It was Spring, officially, but still plenty of snow on the ground.  

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The narrowing of the St Lawrence River below Cap-Diamant (Cape Diamond)  provided the name given to the city.  Kébec,  an Algonquin word, means “where the river narrows.”  Founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain,  Quebec City is one of the oldest cities in North America and a major tourist destination in Canada. The ramparts surrounding the old city (Vieux-Québec) are the only fortified city walls north of Mexico. The city of half a million is the capital of the province and home to Laval University, the venue for my wife’s talk.  I had been there only once before, on our rather casual honeymoon in the middle of December twenty-eight years ago.  

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The City is known for its fine food and French Canadian charm.  On this trip, we were fortunate enough to get a lot of both.  Our University professor hostess went out of her way to make us feel welcome.  Even though some sites, such as the Fortress, were not really open for tourists, I was glad we were not there at the height of the season.  The old city is small enough to be overwhelmed by millions of camera-happy visitors like me.  

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The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was one of the most important engagements in North American history.  It was a pivotal battle in the Seven Years’ War, known as the French and Indian War in the United States.  The battle began on the 13th of September 1759.  It was fought between the British Army and Navy, and the French Army on a plateau just outside the walls of Quebec City on lands originally owned by a farmer named Abraham Martin.  The battle involved fewer than 10,000 troops between both sides, but proved to be a deciding moment in the conflict between France and Britain over the fate of New France. It decided the future of Canada.  

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General James Wolfe’s plan of attack depended on secrecy and surprise. A small party of men would land by night on the north shore, climb a tall cliff and overpower the garrison that protected a small road, allowing 5,000 soldiers to ascend the cliff by the road and then deploy for battle on the plateau.  The culmination of a three-month siege by the British and several aborted forays, the battle lasted only fifteen minutes. British troops successfully resisted the advance of the French soldiers and militia under General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm.  Both generals were mortally wounded during the battle; Wolfe received three gunshot wounds that ended his life within minutes of the beginning of the engagement and Montcalm died the next morning after receiving a musket ball wound just below his ribs.

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In the wake of the battle, the French evacuated the city and their remaining military force in Canada and the rest of North America came under increasing pressure from the British. While the French forces continued to fight and prevailed in several battles after Quebec City was captured, the British never relinquished heir hold on the virtually impregnable Citadelle.  With the Treaty of Paris, France ceded most of its possessions in eastern North America to Great Britain in 1763.  

We have a friend who grew up here.  During the Winter Festivals in January and February, he would take part in one of the most grueling events of the season— ice canoeing across the Saint Lawrence.  It is the only way to cross the swollen river when there is too much ice for ferries, but not enough to form an ice bridge.   Crews of five athletes alternately push their canoe across the ice on the frozen parts of the river, and row in the open water with currents of four knots and tides of over 15 feet, encountering ice blocks weighing a few tons.   Our peaceful ferry ride across to Levy is as close as we will come to the practice,  

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The talk was well received and we were soon winging our way from Quebec to Toronto in time to board a giant Cathay Pacific jet bound for Hong Kong, a slight detour on our way back to Melbourne.  We used to live in Hong Kong but the city is changing fast.  The airport is brilliant and there are even more stunning skyscrapers but the air pollution seems worse.  I don’t imagine the air quality in the Special Administrative Region is at the top of PRC’s concerns about Hong Kong.  The so-called “umbrella revolution,” the pro-democracy demonstrations must have put China’s leaders out of joint.  

The reason for the Asian stopover was an invitation to address yet another group of students, and to introduce my wife’s new book—  “International Capital Markets :  Law and Institutions” to the Asian market.  

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We didn’t have a host or any other appointments other than the talk, neither did we have a week to get our brains and bodies back on Hong Kong time.  We took it easy,  threading our way through the intricate maze of walkways and roads observing colorful people and noisy birds.  Each morning we woke to the eerie calls of gibbons, sounding out their loud calls from Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, a stone’s throw away from our hotel.  

My wife caught up with one of her friends and I caught up with one of mine— How Man Wong.  He has a small  but effective outfit called China Exploration and Research Society, now based in a village  at the south-east tip of Hong Kong Island called Shek O. Finding How Man “at home” is quite a trick, since he is almost always on the move.  I was lucky.  Catching up on the most recent of activities of CERS took half a day, and  I was only getting a superficial picture.  While his main focus remains on China and the Tibetan plateau, he has been venturing into Myanmar, Bhutan and even Cuba.  Recording the adventures of 102 year-old pilots who flew over the Himalayas and supplied China during WW II;  trying to save freshwater dolphins in the Irrawaddy River with a cell phone message from Jackie Chan;  repatriating Burmese cats to Myanmar and honoring Cuban-born performers of Chinese opera.  His work boggles the mind.   Check out the website— http://www.cers.org.hk/index.php/en/ and see for yourself.  

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Three days later we were back with Cathay Pacific logging nine more hours in a tube from morning ’till night, flying on the backs of ancient plants and decomposed dinosaurs.  From late spring to the beginning of winter.  

We are in College now, back to our morning walks around Princes Park, petting the resident cat and lining up for meals in the dining hall.  The motto at University College is Frappe Fort or “Strike Hard,” which has been re-translated by the administrators to make it sound less threatening, a little less like something out of “Game of Thrones,” —  The politically correct version is:  “What you do, do with a will.”  Even if it involves indecently long periods spent on airplanes, waking up to Gibbon calls and loading up on Melatonin.  

Who can argue with that?  

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The last time I went to Chicago I didn’t make it.  It was a very long time ago so some of the details are hazy, but I do remember driving through what seemed like a minefield of tornadoes touching down on either side of the road.  I had a hard time keeping the lightweight VW bus on the highway.  A friend and I had started a small video production company in the early days of portable videotape equipment.  It took us a long time to realize that neither of us was cut out to be an entrepreneur.  In the meantime, I convinced my partner that we should drive to Chicago to see the Consumer Electronics Show.  She recalls that we were driving my old Saab, but I can still feel the steering wheel of her big bus as I wrestled to keep it on the road.

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We had just hit the suburbs when the intimations of disaster really started to settle in. Tornadoes were one thing, riots were another.  The rain started coming down in buckets and the underpasses of the Dan Ryan Expressway were flooding.  What had been a steady stream of traffic came to a complete stop.  That was when our VW van died.

I got out, managed to push it over to the side and then tried to recall everything I knew about VW engines.  I made an attempt to dry the points, then clambered back inside.  My partner was struggling to stay calm.  She had been listening to the local radio station.  A stalled driver at the very next underpass had turned down the offer (or extortion) of a gang of toughs who planned to push his car through the underpass for $50.  He had refused.  They got into an argument.  The leader of the gang finally pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and killed the driver.  Wendy recalls it differently.  She maintains that gang leader asked the driver for his wallet, and when he refused, they shot his wife.  It was a horrific story, either way.  Wendy recalls asking me at the time what I would do and getting the wrong answer from me.  We didn’t have time to argue.

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It suddenly seemed imperative that we get off the Expressway.  I hit the ignition and miraculously the van started right up.  The next ramp was intended as an on-ramp for the Expressway but everyone was using it to escape.  At the very top, a small African-American boy was directing traffic.  Across the road, two cops were sitting in a squad car, listening to their radio.  My partner maintains that the cops were berating the kid for directing traffic, and the drivers were yelling at the cops, telling them to leave the boy alone.  He was doing a fine job.

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We drove until I felt it was safe enough to pull over and look at a map.  It was getting dark but everyone was out in the street.  It was two AM.  The neighborhood we had landed in was as different from our home base as Nairobi is from Oslo.  The engine stalled again.  We sat there and listened to the radio.  It sounded like the city of Chicago was in riot.  Sirens, gunfire.  I scrounged around looking for a flashlight to have a look at the map.  Was that safe?  It was a good time for levity but I’m no John Belushi.  We settled in for a nervous night until the van started up.

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Wendy says we drove out of Illinois and spent the night in Gary, Indiana.  She maintains that we came back the next day to the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.  We wandered around looking for the Consumer Electronics Show for hours, until someone was kind enough to tell us it was happening the following weekend.  I don’t remember any of that but I trust her memory.  In which case, my lead line is a little erroneous, but not by much.

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The next morning we turned around and headed back to Iowa, a state full of cornfields and hogs north of Missouri, south of Minnesota.  Slightly dull, but safe, looking a lot like Kansas.

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It will come as no surprise that I was not enthusiastic at my wife’s suggestion that we attend an Alumni reunion of her old New York law firm in the city of Chicago.  The one and only time we had managed to attend a Cleary Gottlieb reunion was last year, in a city called Istanbul.  The timing of our gathering (or the riots) was unfortunate.  Our hotel was within walking distance of Taksim Square and we had not packed our gas masks.  You can read all about it in my post called: “Rihanna, Riots and the Istanbul Blues.”

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This event was small in scale, casual, convivial and calm.  Most Cleary alums were no doubt familiar with Paris on the Prairies, so the reunion attracted a handful of Americans from here and there, some die-hard Europeans, a lively young contingent of lawyers from Mexico, ex Cleary people based in Chicago and New Yorkers.

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We did a lot of walking, took in the wonderful Millennium Park, architectural tours, the Art Institute, landmark restaurants and a ball game at Wrigley Field as well as a Second City show.  We were entertained and enlightened by a local historian, who provided us with enough Chicago knowledge to pass for natives when we return.  The weather was glorious and the vibrant life in the city streets made it seem like Mardi Gras every single day.  All is forgiven, Chicago, Cleary.  We will return.

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Click on any one picture running alongside this post in the box called Flickr and you’ll be taken to my Flickr account— Red Flier where you can download any or all the pics from this trip.

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Even with knowledgeable advice of a native, it can be difficult to plan a holiday and get things right. My good wife (partner, in Australian terminology) had given me a window of exactly twelve days when she could take a break from her academic workload to get away. Twelve days seems appropriate for Christmas, but it was not nearly long enough to visit the places I wanted to see in New Zealand. The whole idea of going there had been triggered by a desire to do some sea kayaking on the North Island, a trip that would end up taking one week. It seemed like a journey to the South Island could be squeezed in before we headed North. That was my first mistake. Doing too much driving was the second.

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Christmas is a tricky time to visit the country. Unlike Australians, who seem to flee to foreign shores at the first opportunity, Kiwis are inveterate travellers in their own country as well as regular visitors abroad. My only previous visit to the country took place during the same holiday period eighteen years ago, before internet bookings. We were lucky to find passage for four of us on the ferry between the two islands. This time we were going to fly, so that bottleneck would not be a problem.

Unlike Australia, New Zealand’s geology is very active. Set on the collision zone of the Australasian and Pacific plates, there are significant earthquakes and active volcanoes as well as fast-moving rivers, glacial lakes and the famous fiords. The mountains are young and still growing. It is a land that is more like Western Canada than Australia. The hospitality of the inhabitants remind me of our own Maritimers of Nova Scotia. Tourism is an important part of the economy, of course, but that only goes so far in explaining the Kiwi instinct to welcome and engage with the visitors who arrive in droves on aluminium wings or steel ships. Our first taste of this gracious hospitality was at Centre Hill Farm near Pleasant Point.

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We had taken a late flight from Melbourne to Christchurch, sacked out at a motel near the airport, then picked up the rental car and driven south on Highway One. One is not the most scenic route in the world, descending through irrigated pastures toward Dunedin. But the farm stay was tucked away among pretty rolling hills and our cottage was utterly charming. Shortly after we arrived, Henry the cat dropped over for a visit. Our host followed soon after, and we had a chance for a nice long chat the next morning after a leisurely, delicious breakfast. We were made to feel right at home.

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We had only four full days, but the route I had picked out took us on a long loop that put about 850kms (500 miles) on the rental car. All of it on two-lane roads that were often interrupted by the ubiquitous Kiwi invention, one-lane bridges. I did manage to do one thing right, allowing enough time for one glorious day at Aoraki/Mt Cook. The weather gods were favourable to the outing, and everything from the informative and beautiful visitor centre to the well-marked trails are worth a week or more. It is truly spectacular. Fiordland will just have to wait.

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Mt. Cook is sacred to the Ngai Tahu tribe of the South Island. The Maori legend has it that the mountain and its companion peaks were formed when a boy named Aoraki and his three brothers came down from the heavens to visiting the Earth Mother in a canoe. The canoe overturned and the brothers moved to the back of the boat and turned to stone. Edmund Hillary earned his spurs on these peaks before tackling Everest. Highway 8 hugs the the southern tip of Lake Pukaki, offering gorgeous views of Cook and its sister peaks in the distance. The lake is fed by the Tasman River, coming off the Tasman Glacier, a block of ice that is rapidly melting away, creating a brand new lake.

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The South Island is an adventurer’s paradise, providing adrenaline sports junkies every opportunity to jump out of planes, leap off platforms, glide over mountains, shoot up and down rivers on jet boats, mountain bike, ski, kayak, hang glide, scuba dive etc. The downside of this fixation on providing risky activities to people from all over the world is that the government felt it had to put in place a no-fault accident insurance scheme. In other words, there is no one to sue if something goes wrong.

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I suspect that most of my fellow Americans believe that the right to sue is woven into the constitution. An Australian documentary I saw suggested that the liability regime provided an opportunity for some rogue outfitters to set up shop and put tourist lives in jeopardy, but I doubt if New Zealand is any more dangerous than the U.S. There have been fatalities from activities which seem like they should be safe, like hot-air ballooning. One very experienced pilot and ten clients died when his balloon drifted into high-tension wires on January 7, 2012. Bungee jumping, on the other hand, has a perfect safety record.

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And if you really want to take it easy, a whole new market in movie-related tourism has taken off, thanks to Sir Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit empire. If you need a respite from tramping in the mountains, shooting through gorges or leaping off cliffs, you can always head for the latest attraction in Kiwi Land designed to empty your pockets– hobbit tours. Discover Middle Earth and hole up with hobbits. Precious.


Seeing how things are a bit slow here in Melbourne for yours truly, maybe it is a good time to revisit London.

Allowing enough time to see Greenwich is trickier than it might seem. The scale of the place is deceptive, and you can eat up a fair amount of time just getting from one place to another. My first visit took place late one afternoon. I headed straight for the observatory to see the clocks. Anyone who has read “Longitude,” by Dava Sobel, will know what I am talking about. When ships from maritime nations first started sailing off the edge of the earth they had one big problem, how to figure out where they were. As long as they could see the sun and stars they could calculate their degree of latitude with a fair amount of accuracy. Longitude was the big problem. Getting a celestial fix is possible, but difficult, requiring careful astronomical calculations and advanced mathematics. Astronomers were working on accurate star charts, but they were still a long way off.

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The other solution was so preposterous that no one really thought it possible. Build a timepiece that would be unaffected temperature, moisture, the movement of the ship, maintaining near perfect time for thousands of miles from the point of origin to the final destination. This challenge was considered so intractable that the British Parliament offered a prize of £20,000 (comparable to £2.87 million in modern currency) for the solution. If such a clock were set at noon in London at the start of a voyage, you could see from the clock how far you were from London by taking a reading at the Sun’s highest point. For instance, if the clock said midnight at the noon hour, then you would be half way round the world, (e.g. 180 degrees of longitude) from London.

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John Harrison was a self-educated English carpenter who had already turned to clockmaking when he became aware of the great prize. He went to work on the intractable problem and he refused to give up, dedicating most of his working life to building a clock that would win his fortune. He made four clocks over a period of thirty years, finally constructing something resembling a a marine chronometer that kept nearly perfect time over long voyages at sea.

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On its trial run, when HMS Deptford finally reached Jamaica, the watch was 5 seconds slow, corresponding to an error in longitude of 1.25 minutes, or approximately one nautical mile. Even though Harrison’s persistent tinkering solved the problem, the Board refused to award him the full prize, an injustice that was finally rectified by an exasperated King George III and an Act of Parliament. I was fortunate enough to tag along with an extremely knowledgeable guide or docent, who was holding forth about Harrison. I was mesmerised for the rest of the afternoon.

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The town of Greenwich was named by Danish settlers, meaning the green place on the bay near the mouth of a river. The town is built on a broad platform to the south of a broad bend in the River Thames, with a safe, deep water anchorage. To the south, the land rises steeply, 100 feet (30 m) through Greenwich Park to the town of Blackheath.
The Roman road from London to Dover, Watling Street crossed the high ground to the south of Greenwich through Blackheath. This followed the line of an earlier Celtic route from Canterbury to St Albans.

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During the reign of Aethelred the Unready, the Danish fleet anchored in the River Thames off Greenwich for over three years, with the army camped on the hill above. From here they attacked Kent and, in the year 1012, took the city of Canterbury, making Archbishop Alphege their prisoner for seven months. When he refused to allow himself to be ransomed for 3,000 pieces of silver, they stoned him to death. It was only when a stick that had been immersed in his blood bloomed, that they decided to release his body to the Christians. Alphege achieved sainthood in the 12th century.

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The town of Greenwich is notable for its maritime history and for giving its name to the Greenwich Meridian (0° longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time. The town became the site of the Palace of Placentia from the 15th century, and was the birthplace of many in the House of Tudor, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The palace fell into disrepair during the English Civil War and was rebuilt as the Royal Naval Hospital for Sailors by Sir Christopher Wren and his assistant. These buildings became the Royal Naval College in 1873, and they remained an establishment for military education until 1998 when they passed into the hands of the Greenwich Foundation.

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The Cutty Sark has been preserved and restored in an amazing installation by the river. The clipper ship spent only a few years in the tea trade before turning to the trade in wool from Australia, where she held the record time to Britain for ten years. Near the Cutty Sark site, a circular building contains the entrance to the Greenwich foot tunnel, opened on 4 August 1902. This connects Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs on the northern side of the River Thames. The north exit of the tunnel is at Island Gardens, from where the famous view of Greenwich Hospital painted by Canaletto can be seen. It is a bit spooky walking under the river, but well worth doing for the wonderful view.

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There are any number of cities in the world in which the rich and the poor live cheek by jowl, but the stark disparity between the City of London and the East End is striking nonetheless. And it has been that way for a very long time. Fortunately for the adventuresome tourist, it is easy to explore both areas with informative guides. For my tour of the City, I signed up with Corinna of the “Hairy Goat,” who specialises in photographic tours.

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Corinna hails from “Down Under”, so we had some things to chat about, but it had to wait until the tour was over and she had a half hour to grab a sandwich before her next meet up. Running around “like a hairy goat” is one of the Aussie expressions she picked up somewhere along the way and it stuck with her. Corinna’s hectic work life seems like an apt description of the phrase.

Many of the outstanding details of the City are subtle and hard to spot, so it is very helpful to have someone along who can point them out and suggest angles. In addition to filling your head with history, she points out possible pictures that bring it alive. I had just started experimenting with slow shutter speeds and the effects are evident in my pics that afternoon.

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The boundaries of the City of London remain largely unchanged since the Middle Ages, and it still covers the “square mile” to the East of the City of Westminster and north of the Thames. This is the oldest part of London, stretching back to Roman times and even earlier. Aldgate, Ludgate, Bishopgate and Moorgate indicate where the main gates in the City wall were located.

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There are medieval and Christopher Wren churches, St Paul’s Cathedral, the ultra-modern Barbican Centre, Guildhall, Leadenhall Market, the Museum of London, narrow courtyards and claustrophobic alleyways butting up against spectacular modern buildings like the Gherkin and LLoyds, which represent the business of the City today– high finance.

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Many of the institutions that now reside in high rise buildings started in coffee shops, so it seems appropriate that the Royal Exchange has devoted most of its ground floor atrium to a coffee shop. The Monument to the Great Fire was erected near the point where the fire began in a baker’s house in Pudding Lane in 1666. Fanned by a strong east wind, the flames raged through the city for three days. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants. Even though there only six verified deaths, many more were probably cremated in the inferno. Then, as now, the poor didn’t count for much.

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Ben from Alternative London Tours had a large group in tow when we set off to see the street art that seems to have taken over the walls in the East End. Like many people, I got my introduction to “street art” through the work of Banksy, that elusive character with the hoody who seems to have been everywhere with paint cans and stencils. Ben’s job was to introduce us to some of the artists who have been following in his footsteps, leading the the whole scene in new, more sophisticated directions.

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We began our tour at Spitalfields market, what used to be London’s largest wholesale fruit and vegetable market. In 1991, it was moved lock, stock and barrel. All that remains is part of the Victorian structure. As in Canterbury, the Huguenots from France were some of the first refugees to settle in the East End. In the late 19th century, they were followed by the next wave– Jews. In the 1880’s there was an influx of 100,000 Russian, Polish, German, Austrian, Dutch and Romanian Jews. As they became more affluent, they moved to the outer suburbs or abroad, and the next wave of immigration began.

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Today, the East End is the most ethnically diverse area in the entire city as well as the poorest. Historically, it has suffered from under-investment in both housing stock and infrastructure. From the 1950s, the area represented the structural and social changes affecting the UK economy in a microcosm. It had one of the highest concentrations of council housing, the legacy both of slum clearance and war time destruction.

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The area around Old Spitalfields Market and Brick Lane, called “London’s curry capital,” has been extensively regenerated and, among other things, has been dubbed Bangla Town. Ben brings our attention to a building which has gone through several incarnations, first as a Christian chapel, then a synagogue, and now, a mosque.

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The progressive closure of docks, cutbacks in railways and the closure and relocation of industry contributed to a long term decline, removing many of the traditional sources of low- and semi-skilled jobs. However, beginning in the 1980s, there have been a number of urban regeneration projects, most notably Canary Wharf, a huge commercial and housing development on the Isle of Dogs. Many of the 1960s tower blocks have been demolished or renovated, replaced by low rise housing, often in private ownership, or owned by housing associations.

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Much of the area remains one of the poorest in Britain and contains some of the capitol’s worst deprivation. This in spite of rising property prices and the extensive building of luxury apartments in the former dock areas and alongside the Thames. With rising costs elsewhere in the capital and the availability of brownfield land, the East End has become a desirable place for business. And the City of London is right next door.

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There are a lot more pics at my Flickr site. Click on any of the photos running alongside this post and you’ll be taken to “Red Flier,” where you can check out the rest of my pics.


Ask any English major if he has read “The Canterbury Tales” and he will tell you proudly that he has, or admit sheepishly that she managed to avoid it without the academic sky falling in. I believe it was one of the first tomes I tackled during my freshman year at the University of Montana, but I can’t really remember anything about it except that all the ffs stand in for ss and middle English was very different from modern English.

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Pilgrimage was a very prominent feature of medieval society. The ultimate pilgrimage destination was Jerusalem, but within England Canterbury was a popular destination. Pilgrims would journey to cathedrals that preserved relics of saints, believing that such relics held miraculous powers. Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, had been murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by knights of Henry II during a disagreement between Church and Crown. Miracle stories connected to his remains sprang up soon after his death, and the cathedral became a popular pilgrimage destination.

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In the text, two characters, the Pardoner and the Summoner, whose roles apply the church’s secular power, are both portrayed as deeply corrupt, greedy, and abusive. A pardoner in Chaucer’s day was a person from whom one bought Church “indulgences” for forgiveness of sins, but pardoners were often thought guilty of abusing their office for their own gain.

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Chaucer’s Pardoner openly admits the corruption of his practice while hawking his wares. The Summoner brought sinners to the church court for possible excommunication and other penalties. Corrupt summoners would write false citations and frighten people into bribing them in order to protect their interests. Chaucer’s Summoner is portrayed as guilty of the very kinds of sins he is threatening to bring others to court for, and is hinted as having a corrupt relationship with the Pardoner. In The Friar’s Tale, one of the characters is a summoner who is shown to be working on the side of the devil, not God.

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Last Saturday we signed up for another excursion outside London to see the famous cathedral and take in the other historical sites associated with what is, historically, one of key birth places of England. Our London Walks guide showed up right on time and let us know that we were going to be taking the fastest train in the British Isles, thanks to the fact that the route toward Canterbury shares the same track as the Chunnel train to Paris.

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Canterbury is only 87 km (54 miles) from London, but the journey takes an hour even on a train that is capable of speeds up to 200 kms an hour. Go figure. The town acquired its English name from the Old English Cantwareburh (“Kent people’s stronghold”). In 597 AD, Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine to convert King Ethelberht of Kent to Christianity. After the conversion. St Augustine founded an episcopal see in the city and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

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The murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket by knights beholden to King Hentry II led to the cathedral becoming a religious destination from his death in 1170 to this very day. According to Simon, even Henry II felt compelled to make the pilgrimage, enduring the faint-hearted whipping of the local citizens as he approached the cathedral.

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The literary heritage of Canterbury continued with the birth of the playwright Christopher Marlowe in the 16th century. There are those who question whether Shakespeare really existed, putting forth Marlowe as an excellent candidate for having written the plays after his strange, some say staged, murder.

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As soon as we set foot on solid ground in the town, we modern-day pilgrims are on the move, hastening to keep up with Simon’s speedy stroll and condensed commentary. His is a thankless task, covering too much history in too little time. In short order, we are introduced to the Greyfriars and the Blackfriars, St. Augustine and Aethelberht, Archbishop Alphege and William the Congueror, not to mention Dane John and others I have already forgotten.

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It will surprise none of you to learn that the word “canter” comes down to us from the middle-ages, when the pilgrims would spur their horses forward after sighting the towers of the cathedral in the distance. By the 17th century, Canterbury’s population was 5,000; of whom 2,000 were French-speaking Protestant Huguenots fleeing persecution and the war in the Spanish Netherlands. The Huguenots introduced silk weaving into the city, which by 1676 had outstripped wool weaving.

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In 1620 a man named Robert Cushman negotiated the lease of the Mayflower in the village for the purpose of transporting the Pilgrims to America. The first scheduled railway service in the world began in Canterbury. Many historical structures remain, including a city wall founded in Roman times and partly rebuilt in the 14th century, the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey and the walls of a Norman castle. The Cathedral and a handful of other sites in the town make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The town of Canterbury is one of the most visited communities in all of England. Fortunately, many of the streets in the centre of the town are traffic free. It is a very busy place on weekends, uncomfortably crowded with tourists like us. I suspect it is not dissimilar now to what it was like in the middle ages, when pilgrims arrived in droves, seeking food and shelter and souvenirs to bring back home. At least there is refuge available in the many pubs, restaurants, coffee shops or in the spectacular cathedral itself.

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Much of the cathedral’s stonework is damaged and crumbling, the roofs are leaking and much of the stained glass is badly corroded. It is thought that if action is not taken now, the rate of decay and damage being inflicted on the building will increase dramatically with potentially disastrous results, including closure of large sections of the cathedral in order to guarantee the safety of the million plus worshippers, pilgrims and tourists who visit the cathedral every year. Needless to say, there is an ongoing fund raising campaign. One of the “Harry Potter” producers wanted to rent it as film location, but the Archbishop decided the cathedral was not a set.

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Once the Evensong service begins, the cathedral seems to undergo a metamorphosis. The hordes of visitors settle down. Music is the purest form of transport and the vast stone structure resonates with a waterfall of voices in this little town in England.


William Eades favoured warm red brick when he had the large country house built near the top of Holly Hill in 1693. His father was a bricklayer, a practical man, and the home reflects the taste of an artisan more than that of an architect despite its size and imposing exterior. Joshua Gee bought the house in 1706. He was a Quaker linen merchant who also traded in iron ore, one of the founding members of a company created to have pig-iron produced in Maryland for sale in England. At one stage in the company’s history, he went into partnership with the father of George Washington.

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The house got its current name when James Fenton purchased the property one hundred years after it was built. The Fenton family had made their fortune exporting coal from the city of Riga in Russia back to England. The family was very large and social, sponsoring weekly dancing classes for the girls. In 1829, James Fenton presided over a meeting of Hampstead tenants to protest a last effort by Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson to develop Hampstead Heath. Fortunately, his heir ceded his rights to the Heath and it passed into public ownership in 1871.

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Fenton house and its grounds served as a gracious home for a number of different families until it was bought for the last time by a Lady Binning in 1934. She bequeathed the estate, and her fine collection of porcelain, to the National Trust in 1952. As well as chinaware, Fenton House is the repository for Benton Fletcher’s exceptional collection of early keyboard instruments and the art collection of the late actor, Peter Barkworth, a resident of Hampstead for over forty years.

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Major Benton Fletcher, who amassed the harpsichords, clavichords, virginals and spinets, bequeathed the instruments on condition they were played regularly. If you pass an audition you may be allowed a tinkle; otherwise you can attend one of the concerts that take place throughout the year. The National Trust houses have just re-opened after a winter hibernation, and I was lucky enough to be going through when a local pianist dropped by to give an Italian harpsichord a beautiful workout.

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The formal gardens, with lawns, clipped hedges and flowery bowers give way to a more practical fruit, vegetable and herb garden in summer, making up of a 300-year-old orchard. There is a two pound donation requested in the honesty box to tour the garden, which is spare this time of year but very elegant all the same.

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The National Trust’s only public-access example of international modernism, Number 2 Willow Road, is the middle house in a terrace of three houses designed by Hungarian-born émigré architect Ernö Goldfinger. During his studies in Paris, Goldfinger was strongly influenced by Le Corbusier’s former mentor, Auguste Perret, an expert in designing reinforced concrete structures.

In the early 1930s, Goldfinger met and married Ursula Blackwell, heiress to the Crosse & Blackwell fortune. The remainder of his career would be based in the UK. Hampstead was a popular place for artists and architects after the War, and the family home near the Southern end of the Heath was completed in 1939. Ernö and Ursula stayed at Number 2 for the rest of their lives. Goldfinger’s view that ‘the most significant thing about a house is the view from within it’ springs to mind when you look from the huge windows toward the Heath.

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His choice of location incurred the wrath of an MP and other local grandees opposed to the project. The most notable of those offended was, of course, Ian Fleming. Fleming had been among several of the objectors to the pre-war demolition of the cottages in Hampstead that were removed to make way for Goldfinger’s house, but it was a chance encounter on the golf course between Ian and Ursula Goldfinger’s cousin that led to his decision to use the name for a villain in his book by the same name.

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The architect consulted his lawyers when “Goldfinger” was published in 1959, which prompted Fleming to threaten to rename the character ‘Goldprick’, but eventually Erno decided not to sue; Fleming’s publishers agreed to pay his costs and gave him six free copies of the book.

Goldfinger did make a modest attempt to fit the home in with the Hampstead aesthetic. Although it is made of reinforced concrete, the building is clad in red brick. The only real harmony, however, is on the inside. You can see what the architect was attempting to do with his easy-to-clean hospital floors and careful window and skylight placement for optimum natural light. He loved space-saving gadgets, pocket doors, hidden storage and fold-up beds. He was aiming for clean lines and lots of natural light. Unfortunately, my visit happened on a morose, rainy day, so I wasn’t able to enjoy its best feature.

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What makes this house unique is that everything remains as he left it when he died in 1987. He and Ursula were friends with a number of artists from Paris and London. Paintings and sculpture from Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, Roland Penrose and Henry Moore and others decorate the home. The colour scheme is unusual and certainly striking, but not unsettling. The furniture, designed by Goldfinger and his associates, looks a little dated now; the only room that really appealed to me was the dining room with its wonderfully deep windows.

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The volunteers are enthusiastic, however, more than making up for Goldfinger’s reputation as a prickly personality. The short documentary about his life and times is worth watching. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside the house, so I have been forced to rely on the work of others for this post. It would be hard to imagine two more different homes representing domestic architecture, and it is easy to see them both on the very same day. In between there is a nice long walk through the heart of Hampstead.


Salisbury Cathedral is considered to be one of the leading examples of early ecclesiastical English architecture. The main body was completed in only 38 years, from 1220 to 1258. The cathedral has the tallest church spire in the United Kingdom (123m/404 ft), the largest cloister and the largest cathedral close (adjacent church buildings) in Britain. Built under a Catholic Britain, the Cathedral was originally called the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Now Anglican, the cathedral contains such curiosities as the world’s oldest working clock (AD 1386) and the finest existing copy of the original four copies of the Magna Carta.

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The new cathedral was paid for by donations, principally by all the canons and vicars of South East England, who were asked to contribute a fixed annual sum until its completion. The owner of Teffont Evias quarry contributed most of the stone free of charge. To help build a cathedral was to do a good work and pave the way to heaven.

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Legend has it that the Bishop of Old Sarum shot an arrow in the direction he would build the cathedral; the arrow hit a deer and the deer finally died in the place where Salisbury Cathedral is now. Due to the high water table in the new location, the cathedral was built on only four feet of foundations. By 1258 the nave, transepts and choir were complete. The west front was finished in 1265. The cloisters and chapter house were completed around 1280. Because the cathedral was built in only 38 years, it has a single consistent architectural style, Early English Gothic.

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The only major sections of the cathedral built later were the cloisters, chapter house, tower and spire, which at 404 feet (123 m) dominated the skyline from 1320. Although impressive, the spire proved to be troublesome. Together with the tower, it added 6,397 tons (6,500 tonnes) to the weight of the building. Without the addition of buttresses, bracing arches and anchor irons over the succeeding centuries, it would have suffered the fate of spires on later great ecclesiastical buildings (such as Malmesbury Abbey) and fallen down.

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To this day the large supporting pillars at the corners of the spire are seen to bend inwards under the stress. The addition of reinforcing tie beams above the crossing, designed by Christopher Wren in 1668, arrested further deformation. Salisbury Cathedral has been well represented in art and literature, from the paintings of John Constable to the works of William Golding, Edward Rutherford and Ken Follett.

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Our visit was facilitated by London Walks, one of the outfits that helps organise London’s multitudes of tourists into something resembling purposeful pods, fast moving groups on a cultural prowl. Our guide, Hilary, met us at Waterloo Station, purchased the tickets and herded us on the train. It takes an hour and twenty minutes to reach Salisbury, but it is a relaxing way to travel. After lunch, a bus (or coach) picked us up for the ride to Salisbury Plain and the ruins of Stonehenge.

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One of the most famous sites in the world, Stonehenge is the remains of a ring of standing stones set within earthworks. It was in use from about 3100BC to 1600BC. It is in the middle of the most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, including several hundred burial mounds.

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Its exact purpose is not known, but it seems evident that the site is tied to the mounds, and that the stones are aligned with the summer and winter solstice. As Hilary informed us, this was a time when humans were changing from hunter/gatherers to farmers, so the arrival of winter and the renewal of spring would have been profoundly important. You can find out more about Stonehenge than you may ever want to know on Wikipedia.

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Recent analysis of the remains of a Neolithic settlement near the monument indicates that thousands of people traveled from as far as Scotland to the site, bringing their livestock and families for huge feasts and celebrations during the winter and summer solstices. The researchers believe that the builders converged seasonally to build Stonehenge, but not for very long – likely over a period of a decade or so.

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Suffice it say, there is nothing to indicate that the site has ever had anything to do with human sacrifice or Druids. What astonishes us is the sheer physical work involved in the project. The weight of the stones and the distance some of them were transported staggers the imagination. Approaching the site itself is a bit disappointing. It seems smaller than suggested by the pictures, but then it is roped off now, keeping the crowds at some distance. One has nothing but sky and gently rolling farmland for scale. I have to confess that I have added a little colour to the sky in some of the pics. It was chalk white while we were there.

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Our guide was amused to learn that I had visited a full-scale concrete reproduction of Stonehenge in a small town overlooking the Columbia River in Washington State, a couple hours east of Portland, Oregon. The replica was commissioned by an American entrepreneur named Sam Hill. It was his tribute to the soldiers of his adopted county who lost their lives in World War I. Sam was a Quaker pacifist who had been misinformed on a European tour that Stonehenge was a sacrificial site. You can check out my take on a previous post of mine called The Portland Connection.

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The land beneath the site of Stonehenge has changed hands a number of times over the centuries. In 1915, an auction by Knight Frank & Rutley estate agents in Salisbury included “Lot 15. Stonehenge with about 30 acres, 2 rods, 37 perches of adjoining downland.” A local man by the name of Cecil Chubb bought the site for £6,600 and gave it to the nation three years later.

A new visitor centre is in progress, which should keep cars and coaches at some distance. Tourists may have to walk a bit farther than they do now. All to the good. Sacred stones should be approached slowly, always on foot.


When your tour guide informs you after a long day that there will be a 4 AM wake up call, the obvious response is to organise a mutiny. But then, this is only the second day of the tour, so patience may be called for. It seemed to me that the reward for such madness should, at least, come close to compensating us for the interrupted sleep– a bird’s eye view of an erupting volcano, perhaps, or a front-row seat as thousands of wildebeests thunder past on their annual migration.

The denouement for the first day of this adventure (for which several hundred people lined up at the designated spot) was a complete bust. It was supposed to be the best photo op of the trip– the sun setting over Uluru. Only there was no sun, and the monolith itself was obscured by ash clouds from recent fires. At least our guide was good enough to break out some bubbly and hors d’oeuvres.

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There had been rain in recent weeks, but the light rains followed 156 days without any precipitation. While we were eating dinner, lightning bolts flashed in the sky and those who ventured out from under the shelter felt a drops. For most members of our group, it was their first experience sleeping in the great outdoors in a swag.

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There were some looks of dismay as the Europeans realised that a fat roll of canvas was going to be home for the night. Dingoes or no dingoes, lightning, rain or flash flood. There was talk of tents, a discussion Tamara gently steered back to the benefits of sleeping under the stars. My previous trip in the Kimberley had prepared me for this and I was looking forward to it. What I didn’t realise until the next morning was that I had thrown down my swag in a nest of ants. It made for a long and itchy night.

After breakfast, at the designated sunrise viewing stop, we milled about with the rest of the tourists, unsure of what exactly we should be looking at. Kata Tjuta, (the Olgas) were barely visible in the distance because of the haze. The most obvious points of interest were a couple of brushfires that seemed to be burning out of control.

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Both Kata Tjuta and Uluru are remnants of a huge bed of sedimentary rock, worn down over some 40 million years following the retreat of an inland sea. It is believed that Kata Tjuta may have been a single rock, even bigger than Uluru before weathering wore it down to thirty-six separate rock domes, one of which remains 150 meters (about 500 feet) higher than Uluru.

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Between Ayer’s Rock and the Olgas lies an ancient valley made up of sand layers which hold water, much of which seeps into Lake Amadeaus, ten kms north of the Park. Some of this water is estimated to be seven thousand years old. The dunes themselves are older still, fundamentally unchanged for 30,000 years. Our destination for the morning is the valley of the wind trail, which is too hot to tackle in the afternoon. That is the reason for the ungodly wake up call. When I step into the magic of the Olgas, all thoughts of mutiny evaporate like a sprinkling of raindrops in the desert. It is magical.

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As our eyes drink in the stark, beautiful landscape, Tamara tells us about the plants and animals, the myths and history. We should be on the look out for euros, she tells us. One of our group is soon fishing in his pocket for a coin. Not that, she says, the euro is a sub-species of the most widespread kangaroo, the Common Wallaroo or Hill Kangaroo.

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They have shiny button noses like koalas and wombats. Euros hop on their short legs in an upright posture. They are less elegant than Red and Grey Kangaroos on flat ground, but bound up rocky slopes with ease. Not far down the trail, one of our group spots one, but by the time I have my camera ready, he is too far away for a good shot.

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At the end of our 7.4 km walk, we jump on ‘Snooty’ for a very long ride to our next destination– King’s Creek Station. I should explain here that the vehicle we are on is one of several owned by WayOutback, and in the interests of identification, each one has a name. Snooty is a 4 wheel drive bus that seats sixteen. In addition, we are hauling a trailer, which holds all the food and kitchen supplies. More about the trailer later.

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We’ll be backtracking past Uluru to the Curtin Springs Roadhouse, then heading North on the Luritja Road, about 170 kms of dirt. Drive too slowly on a dirt road and you feel every bump, too fast and the vehicle shakes apart. We drove at the automotive equivalent of a fast trot, skimming the tires across the tops of the ridges, which were formed by the action of the tires themselves. Just beyond the Curtin Springs Roadhouse, we catch sight of Mount Connor, another monolith, larger but a lot less famous than Uluru. Curtin Springs cattle station is a mere million acres, so Mt Connor hardly takes any room at all.

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This is camel country. Most of the early European explorers used camels, and when they finally had all tracks in place for the trains and telegraph lines, they were too dear to their handlers to put down. Here and there, handfuls of camels were quietly released into the wild. Today, there are an estimated one million rogue camels roaming the outback.

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We reach King’s Creek Station at last. Some of our group head to the roadhouse for a drink after dinner. I spread out my swag under the stars. It would be good to have a long night’s sleep at last.

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If you get out on any stretch of highway in our part of Australia, you might easily come to the conclusion that this is a nation of narcolepts. Road signs leap out at you alerting you to the dangers of dropping off into oblivion. “Drowsy Drivers Die,” reads one not-too-subtle injunction. “A Micro sleep kills,” reads another. “Power nap, now!” I am not entirely sure what a power nap is, but it sounds essential to maintaining one’s consciousness on Australian highways, which seem to have the ability to knock each and every driver out for the count.

It seems a bit much, really, considering where we are. This is the state of Victoria, which is very, very small. Take a look at a map. We are not driving one of those roads in Western Australia where you come across warnings that the next petrol (and beer) is 300 kms away. Where the view out the window is nothing but termite mounds for hours on end. Where you really could nod off and massacre millions of termites with no trouble at all.

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We had decided to make a pilgrimage to the Grampians, a small, but rugged National Park three hours to the west of Melbourne. The only town within the boundaries of the Park itself is called Halls Gap. Since it is winter here, I expected to see more kangaroos than people, but I had not counted on the intrepid Australian campers or dedication of North American and Japanese tourists. For them, it is the height of summer, a fine time to visit Australia without the crowds.

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The Grampians form the western extremity of the Great Dividing Range. The sandstone ranges took shape some 300 million years ago. A series of low-angled sandstone ridges run roughly north-south. The eastern sides of the ridges, where the sedimentary layers have faulted, are steep and spectacular. The southern edge of the Park is nearly 100 kms from the Southern Ocean, due north of Port Fairy, where we once joined hordes of folkies for the famous festival. Forty million years ago the Southern Ocean covered all that land and the waves lapped at the base of Mount Abrupt.

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The ranges were named in 1836 by Surveyor General of New South Wales Sir Thomas Mitchell after the Grampian Mountains in his native Scotland. They are also known by the name Gariwerd, from one of the local Australian Aboriginal languages spoken in the area. It was an inviting landscape for the natives, rich in fresh water, wildlife, medicinal plants and food. They have left evidence of their 10,000 year habitation in one of best collections of rock art sites anywhere in Australia. The elegant Brambuk Aboriginal Centre provides a glimpse into the native heritage.

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The first European settlers used the “gap” to pasture cattle, then grow wheat. They were soon followed by logging companies who came in to take the tall, straight trees. The sandstone was cut and shipped out for the grand buildings going up in Melbourne, Ballarat and Ararat, thanks to the gold rush. Now, the gold arrives in the pockets of bush walkers and climbers, tourists attracted to the area for the spectacular views, wildlife and waterfalls.

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In January, 2006, parts of the Grampians were devastated by fire, five years later came floods that tore apart gorges and sent trees toppling over waterfalls. Many of the famous walks are now closed, pending the time and money to repair the trails. But when Spring rolls around, it will be wildflower season in the Grampians.

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We’ll be back. Now, if only I can stay awake long enough to drive there. The road is a long, drawn out whisper, “You are drowsy, now, you are very, very sleepy.” I must be in Australia. It’s the Dreaming.

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