Wednesday, May 22, 2013



a city, a river and a national park.

Travellers to New Zealand will often take the travel agents’ word as gospel and accept the five day Tourist Diamond tour of Auckland - Bay of Islands- Rotorua/ Taupo - Queenstown with, maybe, if time permits a stop over in the country’s lively, visually exciting capital Wellington.

What Travel Agents don’t tell travellers is that New Zealand is not a small country - represented as it is on maps as two or three insignificant looking dots at the bottom of the Earth. New Zealand is, in reality, a long country with vastly different climates and landscapes. You can place the northern most point of the country at Calais, Maine and the southern most point at Mrytle Beach, South Carolina for distance, about 1600 kilometres, then flip them upside down so the northern tip is on Mrytle Beach and the Southern tip is on Calais to give you an indication of the climate range within the country.

In terms of width the Eastern most point of the country could be on the Eastern seaboard of North Carolina while the Western most point would be about 103 kilometres within Tennessee.. a distance of 400 kilometres. Incidentally, New Zealand’s coastline is only 4790 kilometres less that that of the USA. Within this area are rugged mountainous landscapes, tussock deserts, snow covered active and dormant volcanoes, geysers, mud pools and heavily bush clad hills and valleys that both appeal to and challenge the traveller willing to escape the secure comfort of a packaged tour.

Forgotten, or ignored by the Travel Agent, are the cities, townships and National Parks scattered across the North and South Islands of New Zealand. The central North Island city of Wanganui / Whanganui (both spellings are used) with its river, once billed as the Rhine of the South Pacific, and surrounding National Park is worthy of a lengthy stop-over, particularly over the southern hemisphere summer when you can take the opportunity to take a leisurely canoe trip down the river from its headwaters in Tauramanui  to the small, riverside village of Pipiriki just out of Whanganui and then stay over in the city with its vibrant and interesting arts community and Victorian and Edwardian architecture.

One of the great pleasures of a holiday can be escaping from the city and relaxing in the bush or paddling a canoe down a river watching the birds flitting among the trees along the banks.

A five day canoe trip down the Whanganui river (Grade III) can be booked with any number of Canoe hire companies along the river. The trip can be reasonably challenging or moderate to easy depending on where you choose to enter the river.
If you go in at Tauramanui, near the headwaters, you will hit the more challenging of the rapids which will test your skills as a budding canoeist. We took the easier option of a three - four day trip and went in at Retaruke just down the road from the Department of Conservation accommodation at Whakahoro.

Here, at the confluence of the Whanganui and Retaruke rivers the water flows relatively quickly but does give you plenty of time to adjust to paddling a canoe before hitting the rapids. In the past, Retaruke had been the last stopping point of the Hatrick Riverboats as they hauled their way upriver from Wanganui to  the rail terminus at Tauramanui and had boasted a houseboat which served as an hotel for travelers as well as another hotel- Lacy’s and a school which is now an overnight hut for canoeists.

We stayed overnight in the Retaruke Hut along with a group of boy scouts doing the river trip from Tauramanui. They arrived at the hut mid afternoon wet and bedraggled after falling from their kayaks and canoes at every opportunity the rapids had given them. Come the dawn, we breakfasted, loaded up our canoes and, with the help of the Scouts, launched ourselves onto the river and the beginning of our adventure.

Once we’d sorted out the protocols of paddling (necessary when you haven’t been canoeing before!) we were away. The first set of rapids were easily passed - the mantra of “aim for the V of the rapid and keep paddling” proving to be all we needed to know.

Soon we were alone, the silence of the bush clad hills and river enveloping us as we headed down river to our first stop off at the DoC John Coull  Hut some six hours paddling away.

This was our longest day on the river, partly because it was our first day and partly because the temptation to idle along punctuating the day with frequent stops for photographs, listening to the call of the native birds, (the Tui has a really magical call.) or to pull into the remains of moorings left from aborted attempts to farm the river valleys was all too easy to succumb to.

We arrived at John Coull late afternoon. Pulled our canoes up onto the river bank, unloaded and carried our supplies up the short track to the hut where we were met by the “hut warden”, a volunteer DoC officer whose task it was to act as custodian, adviser and welcoming committee to the groups, who, like us, escape the city for a few calming days on the river.

The evening passed pleasantly chatting with other canoeists and learning the history of the river from its pre-European times - when it was an important trade route for the local Maori from the Central North Island to the coast.

The next day took us through a series of rapids and on to the Bridge to Nowhere. We set up camp on the DoC campsite and paddled across the river to the remains of the Mangapurua Landing and the beginning of the 45 minute walk up the track into the bridge.

The bridge is all that remains of a farming settlement created after WWI by an optomistic government which had seen the upper reaches of the river as having potential for settling the servicemen returning from the battlefields of The Somme and Gallipoli. Unfortunately, with the only sustainable access being the river the viability of the farms was always going to be questionable and, eventually, the Government decided to close the valley and stop funding the track maintenance in 1942 with the last families leaving the valley by the end of that May.

Now the bridge, the remains of the orchards and the occasional crumbling chimney are all that remain amid the regenerating bush.

Another day’s gentle paddling took us to Tieke Marae where, depending on the number of Maori living on the site you are welcomed, entertained and given lessons in Maori protocol.  There is, on the opposite bank, The Bridge to Nowhere Lodge that offers camping and accommodation as well.

The next day is a short and very easy paddle to the village of Pipiriki which was once the terminus for the first day’s riverboat trip up river on the Hatrick Riverboats. In its heyday Pipiriki had boasted a luxury hotel which was the place to stay for those heading up river . Unfortunately the hotel burnt down in 1959 and has never been replaced.

Pipiriki is now just a sleepy village which marks the end of the canoe trip down river and the end of the Wanganui River Road drive.

From Pipiriki the road winds along the river bank, through small Maori settlements or Pa whose names reflect the influence of the early missionaries as they moved up river from Wanganui... Atene (Athens), Koroniti (Corinth), Ranana (London) and Hiruharama (Jerusalem). For those who want to finish off the canoe trip with a half day tramp the Atene Skyline track offers spectacular scenery.

It is worth stopping off in the settlement of Hiruharama (Jerusalem) to pay homage to both the pioneering work done by the Roman Catholic order of the Sisters of Compassion and New Zealand’s most revered poet, James Kier Baxter.

The Catholic mission, initially established in 1854, became under Suzanne Aubert (Sister Mary Joseph) from 1883 an influential village along the river as the Sisters at Hiruharama, in addition to the usual customs of religious life, taught and nursed, farmed newly-cleared bush, tended an orchard, made and marketed medicines, sold fruit to tourists and raised homeless children. The convent and church are still cared for by the order of “The Daughters of our Lady of Compassion”.

The settlement is also the place where J.K.Baxter, a noted New Zealand poet, established a commune in the 1970s and where is died and is buried. His simple grave can be seen in the churchyard there.

Coming into Wanganui from the River Road the highway curls through the picturesque village of Ūpokongaro where you can stop for a meal at the local hotel or the cafe. Upokongaro has a unique Anglican church, built in 1877, with a triangular steeple which, local rumour has, was covered with metal from beaten out kerosene tins.

Watch out for the riverboat, The Waimarie, which sometimes brings excursion trips for lunch or dinner at the local hotel.
Stay over in Wanganui:
We never have a problem with accommodation in Wanganui, but that’s because we have family there. For travelers the city has a wide range of accommodation to choose from - the Youth Hostel Association has a very pleasant hostel right on the riverbank and close to the town centre while the central city can offer good mid range hotel and motel accommodation all within easy walking distance of the central city.
Wanganui was founded in 1840 by the New Zealand Company at the mouth of the river and access to the fertile hinterland. In its early years the city was under threat during the Anglo-Maori wars and, for some twenty three years, from 1848 till 1870, was the home of the 18th Royal Irish Regiment which was stationed there to guard against threatened attacks from Maori from Taranaki and from the upper reaches of the river.
Because of its early settlement and prosperity the city boasts some very attractive and unique Victorian and Edwardian buildings. All of which are within an easy and very pleasant walk.
We always enjoy, on a Saturday, a walk starting from the bustling farmers market that sprawls along the riverbank beside the old Wanganui Rowing Club building (1898)- now the home of the riverboat museum, the Tramways Trust  and the Arts Centre. Here you can learn about the Hatrick Riverboats which carried passengers and freight up and down the river between 1891 and 1958 and watch the patient restoration of the 1920s trams at the Tramway workshop.

Take some time to explore the many art and glass making workshops along Taupo Quay and around the base of Queens Park.
From here you can walk through Moutoa Gardens and up to Queens Park where  the Sarjeant Art Gallery (1919), the Regional Museum (1928) and the Alexandr Heritage and Research Library (1933) are worth a good morning’s browsing. The museum has some of the best exhibits of Maori and pioneer New Zealand artifacts in the region.
From the museum you walk across the courtyard of the War Memorial Hall which was built in 1960 to commemorate the fallen in the Second World War and is an outstanding example of mid-20th-century modern architecture.
It is worth walking across to St Hill Street to the Royal Opera House, which is the country’s oldest municipal opera houses built in 1899. The wooden building is still in use and hosts many local and touring shows.

After lunch, walk down Victoria Avenue and across the bridge to Durie Hill. Take the lift up the inside of the hill to the War Memorial Tower which commemorates the men and women from the city who died during World War I. From the tower you get a marvelous view over the city and the river out towards Taranaki (the cone of Mount Taranaki / Egmont can often been seen on the horizon) in the NW and to the north the volcanoes of the central plateau - Ruapheu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. Maori myth has it that the Wanganui River was the trail left after Taranaki, which was, at that time, living on the central plateau with the other mountains, fought with Tongariro over the beautiful Mt Pihanga and lost. In sorrow and anger Taranaki fled and finally found himself anchored where he is now.

From the hill either walk down the steps or take the lift back to the riverbank and amble along to the Red Lion Inn for a beer and a meal as you watch the rowers practicing their strokes, the riverboats, the Waimarie and the Wairua, coming in to moor for the night and just generally enjoy the sunset over the city.
The next day, especially if it’s a Saturday or Sunday, take the opportunity to idle the day away by either taking a trip up river to Upokongaro on the Waimarie or investigate a day trip to Hipango Park further upriver on the Wairua. (You will need to enquire and book the Hipango Park trip in advance).
The Captains of both vessels will give you a running commentary on the history of the riverboats, the local history and the sights to be seen along the river as you chug along in these unique, especially designed riverboats.

While in Wanganui, it is well worth taking a drive to visit the Putiki Marae and historic church and wandering around Virginia Lake on St Johns Hill before striking out either to the NW to Taranaki or heading South to the capital, Wellington, and take the ferry across to the South Island.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013



For many travellers to Abu Dhabi the trip will begin in the shopping malls and end at Ferrari World and the high octane of the Formula 1 races as, because of the marketing done by Travel agents world wide, that is Abu Dhabi and much of the UAE.

However, there is a great deal more to Abu Dhabi than this. For a start Abu Dhabi is more than the city. It is the largest Emirate in the UAE with three major nodes - the capital -Abu Dhabi, the Oasis city of Al Ain on the Oman border and Al Gharbia, the industrial city in the Western Desert. Between these cities there is plenty for a traveller to explore.

One of our favourite experiences while living in the Emirate was the camel racing and the camel souk at Al Ain.
Camels at the Camel Souq

The Camel Souk is behind the Al Bawadi Mall on the outskirts of Al Ain. Here the locals bring their camels for sale either as breeding stock for camel racing or beauty contests or for slaughter as camel meat is a delicacy particularly at big celebrations.

The Camel Souk is best visited in the morning when trade is at its busiest and the exchanges are at their most interesting and vocal. You can, if you’re worried about finding the Mall and the Souk, simply follow the stream of small trucks heading to the Souk with two or three camels strapped onto the tray, their heads swiveling in idle curiousity as the trucks speeds along the highway.

If you are heading to the Souk it is advisable to observe the dress code and, particularly if you are a woman, ensure that you are wearing a reasonably long skirt and a long sleeved blouse as the Souk is a predominately male preserve and local custom is that women are “modestly” dressed.

Once you begin walking around the Souk you can be assured of many offers of help and advice on the qualities of the camel you should look for for breeding or beauty along with offers to pose for photographs with you alongside their camels... all for a small fee, of course! However, this is all part of the fun and experience of the Souk so relax and enjoy it.

However, to us, the most entertaining and best experience of Abu Dhabi are the Camel Races that are held at any number of the local race tracks scattered across the Emirate.
At full stretch Camels racing

There are weekly races held at the Al Wathba, Al Magon and Al Ain tracks throughout the year, although more often in the Winter months as it is cooler and more comfortable  for both spectator and camel. The races are sometimes advertised in the local newspapers, particularly if they are part of a festival or sponsored by the Royal Family, otherwise it pays to contact the Camel Racing Federation ( +971 2 5839200 ) and check the timing and location of the races as, while they are said to run on Thursday and Friday mornings between 7.00 am and 2.30pm, the timings can vary. Several times we discovered that the races had finished by the time we got to the track around 11.00am - 12.00pm. However, training goes on every day so you can watch the camels being put through their paces even if you miss out on the excitement of racing.

Camels heading for the track - Al Ain. Abu Dhabi


We always knew when we were nearing a race track as, along the horizon we would see strings of camels heading towards the venue. Then, as we got closer, the road would be blocked by the constant parade of camels all blanketed in the colours of the different stables that were based around the track.

Once through the parade of camels and safely parked we were able to wander at will around the holding pens and grooming areas where the camels squatted on the sand idly chewing their cud as their trainers and owners groomed and prepared them for their races.  The preparation often included the checking and cleaning of the robo-jockeys.
Robo-jockeys being readied for racing.
The “robo-jockeys” are boxes, dressed in the stable “silks”, with a revolving whip, controlled by the owner, that are strapped onto the camel, just behind its hump and substitute for human jockeys. Although there are, apparently, occasions when races are held with human jockeys, who must be over 15 years old, riding we never saw one.
Camels waiting for their race

The races, which can take any where between 5 to 15 minutes, depending on the length of the race, are organised by the age of the camels with the young camels racing around a 4-6 kilometre track and the older ones covering up to 10 kilometres at speeds of over 40 kph with what appears to be any number of camels in the race. We saw races with 10 camels as well as races with 20 or more camels jostling for position along the track.

The race starts with the camels being lead onto the track and marshalled into line behind the starting gate. While this is going on the owners and their drivers, in their 4x4s, line up on a parallel track with the robo-jockey radio control at the ready. Spectators gather either at the starting gate or  climb aboard a mini bus to follow the camels as they race around the long oval track that is the race course. One of our friends even secured a ride on the roof of the TV broadcast camera van as it, too, tracked the race on its specially designated parallel track!

 In the starting cage each camel is held steady by a trainer clutching a halter rope until the order to start is given. At that point the trainers drop the ropes and dash for the fence line, leaving their sandals in huddled clumps on the track, as the starting gate lifts and the camels begin their mad dash around the track, enthusiastically accompanied by the stream of 4x4s  each with a camel owner leaning out of the passenger window, robo-jockey control box at the ready, ready to urge his particular camel on.
And they're off!!! Trainers let the camels go as the gate goes up for the big race.

Unlike horse racing which echoes to the sound of hooves pounding along the track, camel racing is silent as the camels stretch, speed and pad their way along the sand. However, as the race spreads out the excitement of the owners, trainers and spectators builds and horns start tooting, owners yell encouragement to their animals and the hiss of the robo-jockeys’ whips flailing the air urging the camels to faster speeds can be heard. At this point the camels, with foam flicking from their flapping lips, increase their stride in an effort to pass the straining animal in front and thus win kudos for their owners, especially if the race is one held under the sponsorship and auspices of the His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and organised by the UAE Camel Racing Association,as there is every opportunity to win their owners huge cash prizes, luxury vehicles, and even golden swords and cups.

Incidentally, at the 2013 Camel Races the third and fourth round winners each received Dh1million    ( $US272,000)  in addition to a golden sword, with the Organizing Committee allocating a total sum of Dh3,380,000 ($US920,000) to the lucky owners in second to fifth place.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Return Home (much interrupted) Part 3


The Crossroads of Carnowen

Carnowen 2012

Stone cottages- Carnowen

Carnowen townland is part of the Donaghmore parish and sits at the crossroads to Convoy, Raphoe and Castlefinn. All of which are 4 km away from the huddle of a General Store, Presbyterian church and Manse, the old school and community hall and a cluster of small, rather battered looking, stone cottages that are Carnowen. It was from here that Mum and her family had emigrated in 1925.

When we first visited Carnowen, back in 1998, Joy and I had been introduced to the community when we had been invited to a  “viewing” in the old school hall. We had, initially, thought that we were being taken to a funeral wake but had found ourselves looking over the furniture, kitchen utensils and miscellaneous knick-knacks that were the estate of an elderly woman which had been left to the local church.

This time there was no such community event to attend so we could search out more information on the sprawling family tree that records the inter-relationship of the several families that had settled in the town-land from 1604. Our relations held a huge store of family stories that provided a mosaic of events, marriages and relationships which overlapped one another in time and space of a virtual historical continuum. This overlap was somewhat disconcerting as the realisation that an event being recounted with great animation had happened almost three centuries before and not, as we had assumed, in the immediate past.

Once we had adjusted to the concept of an ever flexible time and location of families by townland we could add more detail to the family story and build up images of the men and women who were part of our shared history. The poem I wrote (with considerable poetic license) in 1998 gives an idea of the stories that we were told about the different branches of the family.

"If we travel on to Convoy, set back among the
we come to the family church.
The stones here lean against the wind in green
damp field,
a record for those, like you,
"And here," she said." are John and Margaret. (your
mother's name's from her.)
Rather it's Margaret here.
John's overseas. He died mining.In California.
Lost his leg, then his life.Crushed in a mine collapse.
Gold fever does that to a man.
His name is here.
He wouldn't want Margaret to be lonely.
Her being here and him dry in distant, sun drenched
"And now -This is your Uncle David.
He's your uncle on your Gran'mother's side.
Would be, let's see, two - three generations out.
A man of letters - a lover of words -And women.
Took Julia, his cousin, to wife. Left her here and
With her sister, to seek his fortune in Dublin.
Julia, that's her grave beside him, died in childbirth
some few months later.
Her sister, that's her grave beside the gate, left five
Before she died - of cancer - beside the Liffey."
"And this, you see this grave? That's your cousin, Kate
Albert's daughter's got her name -
She died at 83 waiting for her lover to return.
He lies alone in France.
A skeleton in some deep trench along the Western
But this is life. We can't all find love."
"Then we drive on down the road to Castlefin
They're all there - waiting.
There's Tom, he died - a heart attack - on his wedding
And, Mary, that's his wife, longing for his embrace.
Died of consumption.
There's poor drowned Keith. Dead at Portrush - on
A misfortunate family - all here together.
This fallen angel is your Aunty Norma..Or she
would've been if she'd lived.
She died within the month.
We only now have found her grave Lost - Beneath the
Over here - your Gran'parents. George and Tilly sleep
closer now 

Than they later did in marriage.
Your mother's ashes are here as well -
Her sisters' wait on mantles keep their husbands
company still -
We forgive the mason's RIP
This is, then, your family.
Here in the land

However, when it came to adding specific details to my grandfather and grandmother’s families the paucity of available records and memories left me with hints of answers to family questions about inherited family names but no direct connections to explain or account for their retention. So how and why my Aunts had the middle names of Morrison and Taylor or my Grandfather was J.G.Orr Bates  remain as mysteries to unravel once I can access Births, Deaths And Marriage records.

We pilgrimaged to the remains of different family homesteads scattered between the town-lands that made up the parish and discovered the remains of door steps and porches burred under grass and weeds, the remains of large family homes gradually crumbling into the paddocks and, occasionally, a house that had withstood the tides of emigration and was still occupied. However, all of the sites remained living and populated in the memories  and stories of our hosts. (A feature we, at home in New Zealand, would do when the NZ families gathered for a reunion in January 2013.)
Breaghy 1905

On the other hand, the town land of Corravady where my Grandmother had lived in 1901 was no more than a name recorded on the ordinance map in the middle of a forest.

We were taken to Portrush where we were shown the boarding house once owned by the almost legendary (at least to those of us bought up on family stories in NZ) Aunt Ena. The boarding house had been, according to Mum, been a popular visiting place for the family prior to their departure for New Zealand in 1925.

While to us 1925 was a century ago to some, in Carnowen, it was no more than the recent past for some of the locals for when we been to the “viewing” both Joy and I had become aware tat we were being followed around the hall by a woman who appeared to have focussed her attention on me. We, on being introduced, discovered why as she confidently declared: “You’re Stella’s boy” and that I was “obviously a Thompson” and that she had farewelled my Grandparents and Mum, who was, at that time, 5 years old, when the family had left Carnowen.

Later, we were to meet more family members and, from their photograph albums, add images to the family tree - a genuine putting of names to faces as the earlier post on the Bates Family reunion shows.

Family Reunion- The Bates Family from Carnowen, Ireland

The Bates Family of Carnowen
Family Reunion in New Zealand
January 18-19 2013.

The Bates family has a long connection with Donaghmore Parish in the Raphoe Diocese. There are references to the family in the 1795 Flaxgrowers List, the 1857 Griffith Valuations and in lists of wills held in Raphoe, Co. Donegal. The family were also pew holders at the Presbyterian church in Donaghmore.
Breaghy, The Bates Family Home.

The family held land in Breaghy in the Donaghamore Parish as John Bates, the ancestor of the New Zealand Bates, is listed in holding lands (2a-3B) in the registers between 1885 and 1909.
The Bates Family. George is at the middle rear

In 1926 John George Orr Bates (b 1892), the son of John Bates, decided to take his family to New Zealand as the land he was farming was to be inherited by his elder brother, David.(b 1890). John G.O. Bates thus joined the diaspora that had already taken two of his brothers away from Donegal and overseas. His younger brother William James (b1895) had already emigrated to Manitoba in 1912 and his other brother, Albert (b1898) had settled in Jamaica in 1918.

J.G.O Bates family of his wife, Matilda (nee Thompson of Carravady) and his three children; Margaret (Stella) (b1919), Gertrude (Wendy) (b1921) and Desmond (b1923) left for New Zealand on the Corinthic in February 1926 and arrived in Wellington (NZ) in late March- early April of that year.
On Board The Corinthic. The children at play

The family initially settled at Matarawa, a small farming community near Fordell, about 25 km from Wanganui. John apparently worked for a local farmer until the chance to buy his own small holding in Putiki, Wanganui came up. In 1928 the family moved on to the farm, which they named Carnowen, and into a large farm house, originally built by the local Maori for the Churton family, a Pakeha-Maori family closely connected with the Putiki iwi.

John, worked at the local fertiliser factory as well as working his farm for many years until, with his son, Des, the farm had become an established milk supplier and noted pedigree Friesian herd.

The family also grew with the births of Audrey (1927), Georgena (b/d 1930) and Isobel (b 1938).
The Bates Family circa 1943
Isobel lays a wreath in memory of the Bates family

In January 2013 a family reunion was held in Wanganui to celebrate the lives of John G.O. Bates, and his wife Matilda and their family as their only surviving daughter, Isobel, was on holiday in New Zealand from her home in Canada. The reunion was also a chance for all the family members to visit thePresbyterian cemetery at Matarawa and to lay a wreath at the family grave site.

The reunion brought together 60 members of the familes of Margaret (Stella), who married Frank Henry Papprill, Gertrude (Wendy) ,who married Hugh Knowles, Desmond, who married Nancy Beattie, Audrey, who married Noni Gestro, and Isobel, who married Robin Patchett. As well, members of Albert’s families, from Australia and Canada, also joined the celebration taking the opportunity to share family memories and family ties.

The reunion has allowed the family tree to be updated with recent births, deaths and marriages recorded and an archive of family photographs and records begun.
The Bates family has close ties to the Elliott, Fulton, Colhoun, Cooper, Roulston and Thompson families of Donaghmore which have been kept up through correspondence and visits over the years.

Friday, April 5, 2013



India was a total unknown for us as the information on getting around was usually pitched at rough travel and emphasised the strenuousness and grot of travel on the subcontinent. Tales of Delhi belly, disease and explosive gut were almost regarded as de rigour by anyone we asked. Other people merely asked, "Why go to India? You wouldn't catch me going anywhere near India!"

Once booked, paid for and airborne we had no time to concern ourselves with other people's worries. The first leg Air NZ to Singapore was smooth and without a hitch. The second leg, Air India to Mumbai then Delhi was to prove a killer... the plane landed first at Chennai - midnight  - which required a 45 minute layover while locals disembarked and new passengers climbed on. Here the cabin crew sprayed the aircraft for possible bug infestations which did little except to encourage a couple of cockroaches to crawl out from behind the entertainment screen and amble along the wall for several minutes.

Then it was on to Mumbai. A flight accompanied by a Bollywood movie of uncertain plot structure and atrocious singing. Here we were in transit from 1.35am till 8.45am in an "empty" lounge staffed by a couple of touts who, for a fee, would collect tea & snacks from a shabby snack bar hidden in one corner of the lounge. They also collected fees from anyone who chose to lie down on the loungers arrayed in one end of the place.

There were two toilets - one at each end of the room - both of which were without toilet paper  and which encouraged anyone to consider constipation as being a religious experience.
With such facilities welcoming us to India we dozed, woke, walked around, watched a miscellany of cultures passing  and chatted with other transiting travellers until the airport eased itself into full life and our flight was called.

We arrived at Delhi around 10.20 to be met by the Oasis Tours, the tour company which had arranged our trip, to be taken to our hotel in Karol Bargh and for the first time on any of our trips we slept for fourteen hours - not jet lag just plain, old fashioned exhaustion.

Delhi, when we emerged, was a mass of hustling auto-rickshaws, self appointed guides and small children begging. There was no way we could walk any where and get our bearings which decided Joy that we should wait until the guide the Oasis provided appeared and would escort us through the maze of streets, lanes, auto rickshaws, cycles, cows, cars, mechanics repairing cars, motor bikes and machinery, clothing stalls and people and help us get some bearings amid the pot holes and tendrils of haphazard electrical wiring.

Joy had her shoes buffed to a glaze by a shoe cleaner who used his fingers to rub the polish into the leather. For this Joy paid him 100 rupees ( $NZ 3.00 ) which, our guide told us, was about a week's wages for him.

Nothing like a quick shave on the street.

We were then taken on a tiki tour of the sites of Delhi - Qitab Minal, Najafkhan's tomb, Snake charmers,  India Gate, Parliament Buildings... through squatter camps of India's poor huddled out in lives of digging, lifting, carrying under blankets, tents, flimsy shelters of cardboard, plastic and Iron. Among all this women in bright coloured saris carried loads of bricks on their heads while the men squatted, smoked and talked amid the dust and grey of the building sites.
The contrasts couldn't have been more marked that evening when we ended up in Connaught Place for New Year's Eve. The noise and enthusiasm of middle class young Indians on the town was at odds to the desperate quiet of the squatter shacks we'd seen earlier.
Thieves Market- Delhi

New Year's Day we visited the Red Fort, Ghandi's ghat and the Thieves Market below the Red Mosque where the bustle of noise, hawkers and pilgrims grew in intensity.
We headed back into Connaught Place in the afternoon where the remains of the Raj - the last New Delhi fade into decay. Here Buildings reminiscent of Bath and neo-classic English architecture  collapse in a melange of traders, vehicles and dusty shops. The streets around the Circle were continually jammed with auto-rickshaws, taxis, carts, and buses all using the one essential instrument of an Indian vehicle- a horn which, when combined with the shouts of hawkers , the chatter of pedestrians and the jangle of speakers calling prayers in Hindi creates the overwhelming impression of India.
Nothing like a few snakes to keep one amused.

We explored Delhi over the next two days learning, at each stage, about the necessary elements of India driving - a good horn, good brakes and a relentless belief in any one of five Gods. It also helped to hang a shoe or a black hang man's noose to the bumpers of the vehicle to ward off any possible disaster that didn't come from your own driving. At one stage we were caught in a traffic jam, caused by a Sikh religious procession,  that stopped us getting back to our hotel by the most direct route so our driver took us on a two hour tour of the back alleys of Delhi, past people huddled by fires, washing in puddles left by the local water tanker, urinating, cooking, feeding their babies, welding furniture, weaving mats, dying, assembling rattan blinds, conducting business amid bullocks, horses, rickety wagons and wandering cows.
Hindu Religious procession - Delhi

On Wednesday we set off on our trip proper - to Sariska and the sights and sounds of Jaipur.
Our journey to Sariska was four hours encountering all forms of transport - children walking carrying babies, men and women cycling carrying loads of cartons , pony and cart, horse and cart, bullock and cart, camel and cart, people and cart all carrying loads that were out of all proportion to the size of the harnessed animal. Add to these tractors and carts, motorcycles and carts, motorised hoes and cart, auto rickshaws and carts all carrying at least eight passengers as well as the load between the villages that sprawl, like strange organisms,  along and across the roads and one could realise why the trip took four hours.
Camels & carts on the road to Siriska

The villages offered every sort of trade imaginable - marble carving, steel welding, brick making, dung briquette making, furniture making and TATA Truck repairing complete with itinerant ear cleaners, vegetable hawkers, somosa stalls and water sales (served in glasses of doubtful cleanliness ) which added interest to the trip.

Sariska is in the heart of the National Tiger Reserve (800 sq km with 40 tigers roaming free ) with the hotel being the maharajah's hunting lodge, a base for tiger hunting expeditions between the Wars and immediately after W/WII. Here one learnt that Tiger hunting had the odds loaded against the tiger in a greater manner than those loaded against a fox. According to the photos at Sariska to be an effective Tiger hunt one needed 15 elephants, 200 beaters, a photographer and a hunting party made up of a young Maharajah (preferably able to look smug when standing beside a dead tiger ), several weedy looking, bespectacled English men and at least three heavy, tweed clad, leather booted women who would pose for the camera with thin smiles all of whom were armed with heavy bore rifles guaranteed to knock either the firer or the target over with one shot.
Our safari drive through the park allowed us to hear of a tiger sighting the day before and lots of sightings of deer, hyenas, jackals, wild boar, peacocks and a miscellany of birds one needed a reference book to identify. (Something a bus load of Yorkshire twitchers had in abundance back at the hotel.!! )
Hawa Mahal the facade to hide the harem.

The next day was on to Jaipur - a drive through open countryside punctuated with small hamlets and occasional workers then huge truck stops with  more TATA trucks in various stages of repair spread along the roadside. Some were perched on oil drums while men crawled underneath stripping differentials or draining oil in conditions that NZ OSH inspectors would spasm over.
Jaipur, nestled under the protection of the hills and walls of the ancient fortifications, welcomed us with a parade of elephants heading towards the Amber Fort and a sky full of fighting kites looping and swirling above the city.
The city is a monument to the obsessions and hobbies of the Jaiput Royal family. The Royal Observatory, a sculpture garden, built by the Maharajah in 1728, of gigantic instruments designed to measure time and the position of the planets at particular zodiacal moments impresses one, not only for the technical brilliance but also for the dedication to the concept that larger gives greater accuracy.  The royal hobby was such that five of these massive instrument collections had been built through out India.
Throughout the city the other royal obsession can be seen in the Hawa Mahal -a giant facade that allowed the ladies of the royal court to observe the processions and people without being seen themselves, the Jal Mahal - a pleasure palace in the middle of the lake so that the royal women could be cool in the heat of summer, and the Royal Palace and Amber Fort where the Maharajah could indulge himself and his wives in mirrored and jewelled rooms where, with a single candle, one could imagine making love under the night sky or, in summer, lying on a swing, shaded by a marbled roof they could indulge their passion to the sound of artificial rain dripping from the eaves.
Mind you, the ramps and especially built carriages on which the royal women were wheeled through the Palace and Fort, by the court eunuchs, hinted that there was a lot of each woman to love.
If you need Ganges water.. take in silver only.

A feature of the Palace are the two giant silver urns, each 1.5 metres high, created by Madho Singh II in 1901 to take Ganges water to England when he attended the coronation of King Edward VIII as he didn’t trust western water to be pure enough.
From Jaipur to Agra was meant to be a four hour trip which took six on a road punctuated with villages, lifting tar seal, countless road works and stops to pay state transport tax to use a Delhi registered car in Uttah Pradesh. As is usual in India the roads were a mess of every different transport and loads so that speed was often limited to the top speed of the slowest family transport.
From Fatehup Sikar to Agra the road was lined with men and their “trained” bears all attempting to slow and stop the tourist cars so the bears could dance. Interestingly, no cars stopped even though the bear owners often moved their bears into the centre of the road.
Driving through Agra Market - narrow streets, thousands of bicycles, bullocks, auto rickshaws, walkers we saw one of the more bizarre sights - three men wheeling a cycle rickshaw with a dead cow strapped across the handle bars and seats with its rigour mortised legs sticking mournfully in the air. Their priority, to remove the cow from sight,  seemed appropriate as we hurried to see the Taj Mahal in the early evening light.... after all both were celebrations of  a deep seated love.
The Taj Mahal, once we had worked our way through the streets, touts and beggars, proved to be, as all the brochures exclaim, an architectural wonder - a marriage of Moguhl and Hindu building and art and the skill of the marble craftsman all done in the name of love.
Taj Mahal at sunset

The builder, Emperor Shah Jahan, had commanded the tomb to be built when his wife of 19 years, Mumtaz Mahal, died on giving birth to their 14th child as a statement of his devotion to her. He, however, spent the last years of his life imprisoned in the Red Fort condemned, by his son, Aurangzeb, to live on gazing at the Taj Mahal until his death in 1666.
That evening we were treated to a firework display and wedding procession that marched, instruments blaring and skyrockets exploding through the streets at 2.00am - an astrologically propitious time for the nuptials regardless of all else.

From Agra we took the train to Jhansi then a car to Khajuraho.
The Agra Railway Station  revealed the lives of the beggars of the city for, on arrival, we watched as, from a plastic sheet, a family emerged. First, a man intent on folding the blankets into orderly piles, then a little girl holding her baby brother toddled out to sit in the gutter waiting for their mother who soon emerged with what appeared to be their breakfast - a bun and a bottle of some sort of drink. This was shared, not only with the children and the blanket folder but with a puppy and two other men who appeared out of the car park. One of the men, legless from the waist,  was being dragged along on a wheeled board  by another whose feet had been distorted by elephantiasis. They later appeared on the train platform begging and offering to clean our shoes.
The train trip was a demonstration of Indian Rail efficiency. Within minutes we’d been served water, tea and a snack and the assurance that we would have breakfast as soon as we’d left the station. A promise that was rapidly kept.

The drive to Khajuraho took four hours along a road that, despite being a tourist route, varied from genuine two lane to pot-holed three quarter lane tracks through villages, townships and truck stops.
On arrival the Tour guide  took us on a brief tour of the eastern temples and an introduction to the exuberance of the sculptures that cover the many temples the village is known for. The evening Son et Luminere at the Western Complex provided the mytho-legendary history of the temples and the Chandellas - the Rajput family that commanded the 85 temples to be built, over the 500 years of the dynasty, in celebration of the union of the 16 year old widow Hemvati with Chandra, the moon god and the birth of their son, Chandravarman.
Temple carvings Khajuraho

In day light the detail and dynamic of the sculptures reveal the diversity and unabashed celebration of life in all its forms that flourished under the Chandellas. The only active temple, Matangeshwar, was, that morning, a constant line of women in brightly coloured saris, offering homage to Shiva by walking up the steps to the temple then emerging to continue by walking 108 times around the sacred fig trees in a ritual guaranteed, according to the guide, to relieve them of any of the female ills they may be suffering from and ensuring long and prosperous life for their husbands.
May their husbands live long and happy lives while they remain free of "female ills".

From Khajuraho we flew to Varanasi, the holy of holies of the Hindu cities. To live and die in Varanasi is, apparently, something to be aspired to, for here, on the banks of the Ganges, the rivers Varuna and Assi converge “from the body of the primordial person at the beginning of time”, thus making the city even more sacred.
The city presented its-self as a constant noise of horns, cows, pigs, dogs, cars carrying the dead, strapped, wrapped in gold or red foil, on thier rooves to their sacred end and pilgrims all streaming towards the Ganges and the numerous ghats that line its banks.
Devotee on the Ganges at Varanasi

We joined the throngs at 6.00am, and, following a group of other tourists and an enthusiastic band of Shiva devotees came to the Dasashvamedha Ghat where we passed through souvenir sellers,  beggars and mendicients who were all clamouring for different forms of salvation - financial or spiritual, to our boatman to row past the ghats to the first of the two cremation ghats on the river. Here a fire was burning, supervised by six men who stood in front as we drifted past.
From here, we turned and headed back down stream, accompanied by dolphins and a gradually rising sun - a red-gold globe dim in the morning mist, past the pilgrims, of all nationalities, bathing and performing puja to the rising sun, to the Dom Raja ghat - the most auspicious cremation ghat on the river. Here three fires burned fiercely while the ashes from other cremations were raked into the river while children played and chased scrawny dogs along the water edge.
We scrambled onto the steps of ghat to walk through the warren of lanes, dodging cows, people and piles of rubbish to the Vishwanath Temple - the Golden Temple built in celebration of Shiva in 1777 and coated with one tonne of gold in honour of the god.
The afternoon was spent in Sarnath, a sacred site for Buddhism, for here Buddha preached his first sermon after gaining enlightenment. The village was once a sprawl of monastries and stuphas but is now an archeological site of excavations and devout Buddhist pilgrims praying their way around the stuphas to seek their own enlightenment.
Simla- Essex in India.

From Varanasi we flew to Delhi to take the train north to Kalka to join the Himalayan Queen and crawl our way up 7000 feet through the hills to Simla, the one time summer capital of India in the days of the Empire.
Our conductor, a genial Sikh, dozed and talked as we wound our way past villages and shanties, monkeys and children smiling from the hillsides, through orchards and terraced fields to Simla.
We stayed in The woodville Palace Hotel, a decaying Mararajah’s palace built in 1938 as a wedding present. The hotel was filled with photos of the family, hobbies and  friends over the years as well as being the base for the filming of a Bollywood style soap opera - “Black” - a circumstance which apparently drew so heavily on the Hotel’s electricity supply that all heating was reduced in the guest rooms and lounge reducing us to a huddle over the two column oil heater in a communal effort to create warmth as the thermometer dropped to C9o.

Simla is an English village transported from Essex and placed along the ridges that dictate the structure of the town. From the town square at one end
of the ridge to “Scandal Point” at the other end all of Simla parades, gossips and trades against the backdrop of the lower Himalayas. Here we experienced, for the first time, the pure Dickensian nature of the Indian banking system when we attempted to exchange some US dollars for rupees.
We went to five banks asking if we could exchange money only to be directed to the next bank. Finally we discovered the State Bank of Punjab which declared, in bold print above its uneven roof, that it was a Foreign Exchange. We eased our way past a moustachioed, shot-gun toting guard into a room with four large battered desks, covered in ledgers and files, behind which were the clerks all busily entering archane data into even more battered ledgers. Above them hung a sign proudly declaring that The State Bank of Punjab was a fully computerised bank. We were directed up a set of narrow steep stairs to another room with three more clerks all scribbling in huge ledgers to the man in charge of foreign exchange. After inspecting Joy’s passport and examining the US 50.00 note we wanted changed he carefully and slowly filled out, in triplicate, the specific details of the transaction.
Once completed he handed the top two copies to the youngest clerk and told us to follow him down the stairs, past the guard and out of the building, along the street to the Bank agency where, after being admitted by another shot gun bearing guard and another sign assuring us that the bank was fully computerised, the papers were passed over to a teller who then slowly counted out the rupees until satisfied that he had counted accurately passed them over to Joy.

Unfortunately for us, The Gaiety Theatre, made even more famous after Michael Palin’s Travel show, was reduced to a skelton of restoration so we couldn’t see any local Theatre group production but the stree theatre that is India provided plenty of entertainment as we explored the markets that sprawl down the sides of the ridge, watching Kashmiri porters carry what seemed to be increasingly heavier loads along the narrow lanes, up the ridges and through the crowds to whatever site or person had ordered them, all the while weaving through stall holders who plied trades from street barber to knife sharper, from tailor to clock repairer,   balloon seller and volunteer tourist guiding.

From Simla it was back to Delhi, to be welcomed off the train by the Oasis Tours representative to be taken to our hotel and preparation for our flight home.
The twenty days an experience to definitely remember.

Air New Zealand  - Auckland - Singapore. Hong Kong - Auckland.
Air India  - Singapore-Delhi.  Delhi-Hong Kong
Travel in India arranged by
2 Hauz Khas Village
New Delhi110016
Tel: 91 11 26963482, 26963483, 30907759
Telefax: 91 11 26963483

Total cost: India Travel: $NZ 3721.00 for two.Included Hotels, Breakfasts, Car & Driver, English speaking Guides, admission fees, train and internal air travel.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ski Through History in Lebanon

Ski Through History in Lebanon.

For many New Zealanders Lebanon may seem to be an unlikely place to consider for a Northern Hemisphere ski holiday but, despite the ravages of the 1975-92 Civil War and the brief 2006 Lebanon war, there is a thriving and well developed ski industry high in the Mt Lebanon range above the coastal town of Jouneih.

We were introduced to the area by our guide, Khalid, who, when he wasn’t guiding, was a professional ski instructor based in his home town of Kfardebian with a dream of skiing in New Zealand.

The ski fields were developed in the mid 1960s and, after the Civil War, expanded into the present 20 lift, 42 hill resort with over 80 kilometres of slopes which are hugely popular with the local Lebanese who drive the hour from Beirut for a day of great skiing.

We drove up from Jouneih through villages dotted along the ridges, past snow shrouded Greek and Roman ruins, cliffs with waterfalls cascading down their sheer faces and rock arches carved from the mountain sides by years of wind and erosion which span gorges at the bottom of which houses crouch huddled in snow to the ski fields of the 2465 metre Faraya Mzaar. Here, the car park and the lifts buzzed with activity as cars and vans filled with well bundled families pulled in, parked and unloaded excited skiers and snow boarders heading off for a day in the snow.

Khalid told us that during the four month ski season (December - April ) the mountain villages are bustling with activity as hundreds of cross country skiers, downhill skiers and snowboarders enjoy the many opportunities the fields offer.  For those who prefer a less physical form of activity on the slopes there are lots of snow mobiles and toboggans for rent from the numerous stalls dotted around the village.

We rode a lift to the top of one of the fields from where we were able to gaze out over the wine producing Bekka valley towards the impressive Phoenican, Byzantine, Greek, Roman and Crusader ruins of Baalbek until, wind and sun burnt, we descended for hot coffee and food at the Austria cafe and Bar. Khalid told us that the highest mountain, Jabal el Mzaar (2465 metres), had had a small Roman temple on its summit until it was destroyed during the Civil War. The temple area was reputed to be used by the Romans as a fire signal point to communicate between the coast and the temple complex of Baalbek or Heliopolis as there is a line of temples that stretch up the range from the coast to the Bekka valley.

We drove, from the cafe, to the private ski resort of Faqra with its ski fields reserved for the hotel guests and chalet owners,  which nestles among the remains of Greek tombs, temples and the ruins of homes from an ancient township dedicated to the worship of Adonis. Here you can take time off skiing and send time exploring the semi-restored ruins before heading back to the slopes for more exhilaration!

Khalid took us to meet his family who welcomed us with warmed cider, Lebanese coffee and apples chilled from the snow covered storage shed before we headed off, down the mountain, to Harissa, the religious centre for the Maronite Catholics, where the huge, white painted bronze statue of “Our Lady of Lebanon” stands, judging from the number of monks and large modern Maronite Cathedral, as a pilgrimage site, on the hill above the town. We climbed the spiral staircase around the base to grab some spectacular photographs of the bay curving from Jouneih around to Beirut which could be seen in the mid afternoon light.

We finished our day sitting, enjoying the warmth of the late April sun, at a cafe-bar that sprawled along the narrow ridge beside the road and ate deep fried whole sardines, hummus, bread and tabbouleh washed down with local beer and coffee amid groups of chattering locals celebrating a family birthday while we watched the little fishing boats and merchant ships plying the bay far below. Perfect!!

( We flew to Lebanon with Emirates. Our tour was organised by Atlas Tours. )

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Final Trip- The Return Home 2

Newgrange Neolithic Barrow

We met up with Roy and Inez and spent time with them catching up on family histories and events since their visit to us in Manukau just before we headed off on our Middle East adventures.

They took us to NewGrange Neolithic barrow to experience more of Ireland's ancient history. The tour was very informative and especially moving when the guide demonstrated the effect of the dawn sun coming through the entrance on the winter solstice. One could almost sense the awe our neolithic ancestors must have experienced as they huddled in the central cavern waiting for the dawn on a cold winter morning as the light edged its way along the entrance tunnel to finally settle in the centre of the room and then disappear as the sun moved above the barrow and away from the narrow window built to channel its light into the mound.
Joy at Newgrange

We left the Grange and headed off to County Fermanaugh to visit Sylvia and Kate in Enniskillen.
Kate, Joy & Sylvia at Enniskillen
We had last visited them back in 1998 when Joy and I had  made a flying trip to Ireland on our first sojourn in the UK. With this visit we added more detail to our shared family history and, from Sylvia's stock of photographs, added to the album and information we will share when, in January next year, we have a Bates family reunion in Wanganui which would mark off 90 years since my Grandparents bought the family to New Zealand.

A newspaper name to be proud of!
Enniskillen sits on a island between Upper and lower Lough Erne and is a Northern Ireland tourist centre. The town is dominated by the 15th century Enniskillen Castle with its museums for both the county and the Inniskilling Regiments. The town is also noted for the past pupils of Portora Royal School (1618) - Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde. We were told, with some glee, that when Wilde had been sentenced for homosexuality his name had been removed from the school honours board but then in more recent times been re-enstated. The brighter gold of the new lettering serving to accentuate his name and notoriety!

Joy and I explored the town and visited Castle Coole, a magnificent Neo-Classical house originally built as a summer residence for the first Earl of Belmore in the late 1790s. Apparently the building almost bankrupted him but, after his death, his son was able to both rescue the family finances and complete the house in the 1820s. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the house and property would have been bustling with servants and activity generated by vistors and tradesmen. Now, part of the estate is still the home of the Belmores while the bulk is administered by the National Trust and the bustle is generated by the tourists and locals picnicking and walking through the surrounding parklands.

Back in 1998 Joy and I had driven around the lough and visited Belleek, Boa Island and Devenish Island where St Molaise had established a monastry in the 6th century so, this time, we contented ourselves with exploring the town before moving on to Raphoe and Carnowen to both catch up with John and Joan Fulton and to add to our photograph collection of both family and the village where Mum had been born.

Carnowen School where Mum had once been a pupil.