Too much of a mediocre thing. Eating in America

I was just reading a blog from the States, and it was about a diner in Oregon that serves ridiculously large pancakes.  The image in the post, reminded me of the many times that I have been to America and how I am usually disappointed with the food that I get served at restaurants over there.  Of course there are some great restaurants in America, but the trouble is, there are so many more that aren’t.  One gets the impression that some marketing genius has decided volume surpasses quality.  It reminds me of that old joke from the rag trade, “never mind the quality feel the width”.

I took this picture of a meal that my wife and I ordered at a restaurant in Page Arizona, because it reminded me of a humorous little book called “Never eat anything bigger than your head”.

Never drink anything bigger than your head

On a more serious note, we had ordered some margaritas and you can see the size of the drinks that we received and they were strong.  

As in most small towns, Page has very poor public transport infrastructure, and it strikes me as irresponsible that such large drinks are served to people who have no other way of getting home other than their own transport.  In my minds eye, I can imagine getting pulled over by the police, and being booked after a breath test and protesting that I’d only had one drink as I’m taken away!

As Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said “less is more”.

Vermillion Cliffs and the Navajo bridge. Arizona, USA

On the highway southeast from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon the highway passes through the spectacular Vermillion Cliffs on the way to Lee’s crossing

Vermillion Cliffs Arizona 

Also in the area and of particular interest to my wife as she is an engineer, is the Navajo Bridge.

Navajo bridge Arizona

The Navajo bridge is a single arch steel span of 834ft (about 250 m) long and its 467 ft (about 140 m) in height from the river.  In one word, spectacular!

Olympic Park Mangroves. Homebush, Sydney, NSW, Australia

I’ve just come home from cycling in Olympic Park in Homebush, with my friend Paul.

What a beautiful winter’s day!  It was 14°C (57°F), which is a good temperature to go cycling in.  Not too cold, not too hot, but just right.  On days like today, I can’t help but think about when I used to live in Canada, and how long and cold winters were there.  In comparison, what we have here in Sydney can hardly be called winter at all.

I love cycling around Olympic Park (it’s where many of the Olympic events were held in the year 2000), as there are 35kms (just under 22 miles) cycle paths in a reasonably natural setting considering its history.  Homebush Bay used to be a centre of heavy industry, and before the Olympics, it was nothing more than a toxic waste dump ground, set in a salt marsh.

Fortunately, the area was cleaned up, to make way for the Olympics.  Luckily, a lot of the land has been returned to its natural state.  It’s quite amazing to see scenes like the one below, so close to the city.

Mangroves at Olympic Park Sydney

How taking photographs can get you into trouble with the police in Spain

When I was in Madrid back in 1982, I went to the Post Office near the Atocha station to mail some postcards.  Near the Post Office, in one of the side streets there was a large informal market on the sidewalks. 

When I came out of the Post Office, I noticed there was a disturbance, as two police were trying to arrest a rather large woman.  Now this woman wasn’t large as in fat and soft, she was large as in robust and sturdy.  As a matter of fact she had the body of someone who looked like they did hard manual labour on a farm or something similar, all their life and the two police looked like a couple of pathetic little city weeds in comparison. 

One of the policemen had her by the arm as she resisted and he pushed her up against their Land Rover, whilst the other policeman had his hand on his holster ready to get out his gun.  There was a large angry crowd of a couple of hundred people pressing in close to the police, shaking their fists and yelling abuse. 

The Spanish aren’t a very tall race of people and being about 6 foot tall (183cm) I could see over the crowd quite well, so I took out my camera and started taking pictures from about 50m away (about 50 yards).  I had taken about 10 photographs of the two weedy little police trying to subdue a force of nature when one of the police turned in my direction to see me taking photographs.  He instantly raised his hand and pointed a finger at me in an aggressive manner.  So I stopped taking photographs and let the camera hang from my neck, while I raised one of my hands in a placating way to show my acquiescence, then I turned around and walked away quickly. 

I thought that, that would be the end of it, but I was wrong, because after I had gone about 100 m (about 100 yards) I was suddenly grabbed by one of my arms very forcefully and spun around to be confronted by the very agitated policeman who had been pointing at me.  He made it very clear to me, even though I didn’t speak very much Spanish at the time that I was to go with him back to the Land Rover. 

It flashed through my mind that it would be an easy matter for me to release myself from his grip and make a run for it.  Strangely enough, common sense, overcame my usual stupidity as I realised that as a brightly red haired and bearded, 6 ft tall (183 cm) freckled and pasty foreigner I would be very easy to spot amongst the smaller and swarthier Spanish.  I also figured that being alone with some annoyed Spanish police in a police station would be character building, in the bad kind of way. 

By the time we got back to the Land Rover, the crowd had grown and the lone policeman, had his hands full with the fired up Amazon. The cop who had me by the arm roughly shoved me into the front of the Land Rover, on the passenger side, and made it clear that I was to sit there and wait.  Meanwhile, just outside my window (which was open) the police were still trying to subdue the woman. She was tossing them around and yelling out blue murder.

As the woman being arrested was raising hell, a younger male version of herself, rushed from the crowd to her defence. I can only presume that the man who was built like a bull was her son.

The young minotaur charged straight into the policeman holding the woman and body checked him against the car with a sound that I usually associate with ice hockey. The policemen who had grabbed me then pulled out his gun and swung the man against the Land Rover, hitting his head against the door pillar near my head with loud smacking sound.   Then, quick as a flash the policeman, shoved his gun up the man’s nostril so hard that I thought he was going to tear it right open.  I instinctively pulled my head away, as I expected to be splattered with brain in any moment.  

Even with the gun up his nose the young man made it clear with loud bellowing and much muscular thrashing about, that he was a force to be reckoned with, and the police should let them go.  One didn’t need to speak the language to understand what was going on.  All I had to do was look around and see the faces of the crowd, who were definitely on the side of the man and the woman being arrested, to know that something unjust was happening. 

Only about 30 cm (about a foot) away from my head I could see the fierce determination of the young man and a panicky look on the policeman’s sweaty face as the situation escalated.  I had the feeling that things were spiraling out of control and there was going to be a death, in seconds.  It is no exaggeration to say that the atmosphere was explosive.  I know it sounds trite, but that’s the only way to describe it.

The Land Rover was being rocked back and forth as the man and woman struggled with the police, and then all of a sudden the woman broke free and ran up the street.  The crowd parted to let her past and instantly closed after her making it very difficult for the policeman pursuing her.  In the confusion, the young man threw his policeman to the ground and ran in the other direction.  The policeman instantly got to his feet and went in pursuit. 

So there I was sitting by myself in the Land Rover and instantly the mob crowded around the Land Rover to give me cover and made motions for me to leg it. 

It was amazing how the crowd reacted in such an overtly anti-authoritarian way.  Up until that point, I had preconceptions that the Spanish were still crypto-fascists.  Franco hadn’t been dead for that long and I suspected that his spirit still lived on. Of course I was wrong, the Spanish are just like everyone else in that they don’t like to see what they think is injustice.

I raised my hand and waved the crowd off, letting them know that I wasn’t going to run.  Like I said before, I knew I’d be too easy to pick up later and it would bode badly for me if I ended up in jail.  I had a suspicion that I’d get that crap beaten out of me if I took off.  I’d already had an experience in Houston, Texas in the US that gave me some insight into how quickly one can lose their liberty.

While I was waiting for the police to come back, it did occur to me that I should replace my film in the camera, but to be honest, I was just too scared and a little freaked out.

Sure enough, both the police came back with their quarry and threw them, handcuffed into the back of the Land Rover and locked them up.  Then they came around to the front of the Land Rover to deal with me. 

Even though they were little guys I could tell they weren’t in the mood for any more fun and games.  They roughly dragged me out the front of the Land Rover and threw me up against its side.  Their blood was up and they were yelling stuff at me in Spanish while they shoved me around a bit. 

They grabbed my camera out of my bag (it was an old gas mask bag) and started clawing at the various knobs trying to open it to get the film.  It was an old Nikon F2 with a motor drive, and they are not that easy to open for those who don’t know how to do it.  With calming gestures, I got them to allow me to take the film out so they wouldn’t damage my camera.  I took the film out and handed it to them, and with a smirk, one of them pulled all film out to expose it to the light and threw it in my face.  They then shoved to me one more time away from the Land Rover and got into it and drove away.

There was a young man in the crowd wearing a blue shirt that I had noticed before, who came up to me and wanted to know if I had substituted the film.  When I said no, I hadn’t, he looked genuinely disappointed.  He then told me that there was money to be made with such photographs, as the tabloids apparently love to publish images like the ones that I had been taking.  I was then asked if I was a journalist, and when I explained that I wasn’t the young man looked even more crest fallen.  I guess in his eyes it was all very exciting, and I think he would’ve thought it was very cool to meet a genuine photojournalist.

Nobody I asked was able to explain to me why the woman had been arrested in the first place and few minutes later, the crowd dispersed and I went on my way minus a beating and one roll of film.  I was starting to think that I was getting better at dealing with the police now.

But then I went to Morocco….  and that’s another story for another time.

In praise of the French

Nearly every time I mention the French to people, I get a negative reaction.  I’ve been to France twice and I can’t understand why this is the case. 

I guess the French have been getting some bad press from the Americans, because the French want to maintain political independence and don’t just want to be lickspittle, sycophants like us Australians.  It really gets my back up, when people (particularly in the American mass media that influences so much of the rest of the world) automatically bad mouth, the French with comments like “cheese eating surrender the monkeys”.  It would seem that some people have forgotten the help the French gave the Americas during the war of independence, and the statue of liberty. 

Australia sucks up to America in gratitude, because of what happened to us during the Second World War, when the British cut us loose, after the fall of Singapore and the Americans saved our bacon in the Pacific.  Here in Australia, we feel vulnerable, because we are an under populated country with densely populated countries to our north who have demonstrated a certain amount of antipathy towards us.  Our Prime Minister John Howard, who seems hellbent on strutting on the world stage, rattling his tiny little sabre, doesn’t help this situation. 

The French much to their credit, have taken responsibility to a large extent for their own security after WWII and have tried to distance themselves from the current debacle in Iraq.  With hindsight, the French decision to remain aloof from the American oil grab disguised as a hunt for weapons of mass destruction and the toppling of a tyrant seems quite prescient and wise.

Sure enough, the French, the British and us Australians for that matter, owe a deep debt of gratitude for the sacrifices made by Americans on our behalf. Having said this, I still feel that our countries shouldn’t just jump into bed with the Americans when they are led by such a deluded and dangerous idiot as George Bush, who insists on doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.

It’s true that if Paris is the only place in France that someone visits, they will see the busy and uncaring side of the French personality, just as one would see the same behaviour in any other world-famous large city, crawling with tourists.  I think that what many people don’t realise when they are travelling is that they tend to only meet people who they engage in commerce with and not with local people they may have met on another basis.  I’ve found that most people in the many places of the world that I have visited, who deal with the public are sick and tired of the public and can be quite jaded and offhand because of it.

The two occasions that I visited France were back in 1982.  On both occasions, I travelled by hitchhiking.  I’ve done a lot of hitchhiking, and one of the things that I really like about hitchhiking is that one gets to meet the generous and gregarious section of the population of the area one is travelling through. 

What really struck me about hitchhiking in France, was how a genuinely hospitable, generous and warm the French are.  Whilst in France, I came across the concept of the “bon homme” (good man).  I constantly met French people, who automatically went out of their way to do more tham the right thing by me. 

To illustrate what I mean about the French I will describe to you in a few hitchhiking anecdotes, my experiences with them and how good they were to me.

The first time I went to France was by “The Magic Bus” from London and it turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. The Magic Bus Company was a budget bus company aimed at younger travellers, and I was under the impression that it would be a very friendly party type of experience.  Actually it was just a cheap bus company, and of course, as with cheap bus companies all over the world, the bus broke down.  It was about two o’clock in the morning, not long after we had left the ferry, when the Magic Bus “failed to proceed”.

Most of the people got out of the bus and started hitchhiking in the night to Paris.  I guess they had jobs to get to. I wasn’t too worried because I thought that at least I’d save a night’s accommodation costs by sleeping on the bus.  The same thought occurred to about five other young people, and we all introduced ourselves to each other and got stuck into some duty-free alcohol.  So there we were, a small group in the back of the bus, power drinking straight from the bottle, alternating between Scotch whisky and Pernod.  It was a quick succession of one swig of Scotch whisky and then a swig of Pernod. 

The last thing I remember was trying to take a picture of the sunrise in the morning.  When I woke up I was lying sprawled upside down in a very deep farm ditch, with my camera complete with attached tripod, still around my neck, attached by the camera strap.  I had a killer hangover, and I was covered in my own vomit and splashes of mud. To add insult to injury, my backpack had been thrown off the bus and the bus was nowhere in sight. 

Yep, I’m a class act. 

It was a Sunday morning and it was stinking hot, as I gathered up my strewn belongings and walked about 5 km to the next village.  It was a very small town, and luckily it had a fountain in the main square, where I could clean myself up a little.  Unfortunately, because it was Sunday, no banks or businesses were open, and I was unable to change money anywhere, and I had no local currency.  At the time my French language skills were nonexistent, and strangely enough, I couldn’t make myself understood.

The only thing left was to hitch hike to Paris with my hangover and stench.  After a short time by the side of the road I got a lift with a French truck driver.  Like many French people, he didn’t speak English, and of course my French was nonexistent so we weren’t able to communicate and I wasn’t able to explain why I stank.  In the afternoon, he stopped for lunch, and we went into a cafe.  When he saw that I only had travellers cheques and I couldn’t cash them he bought me lunch complete with a beer.  After lunch he took me all the way into the centre of Paris and dropped me off at a youth hostel.

After a few days in Paris, I caught a train out of the city, south to Chateaudun to avoid having to hitch hike through the city.  It wasn’t very long before an old Renault 4CV stopped, and a door releasing Indian music was flung open and a French hippy with long hair and granny glasses, invited me in.  Once again communication was difficult but with some effort, I found out that my ride had just come back from Pakistan that day and was driving back home to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast.  I was heading south to Spain via  Bayonne so I was happy to get a ride part of the way. 

As we travelled on, the fellow who picked me up suggested that I should stay with his friends in La Rochelle.  I explained to him as best I could that it would take me about 200 km out of my way. Plus, what was he doing offering me a place to stay with his friends when he hadn’t even spoken to them first?  His answer to me is typical of why I love the French.  With a withering look of pity, that the French are masters of, he said to me that they were his friends and he felt free to offer to their hospitality and also what was my rush?  Didn’t I know how to relax and live a little? 

So I took a chance and accepted his invitation.  I’m so glad I did.  I was taken to a very nice house, built so that its backyard, complete with a few wind surfer boards, opened onto the beach.  My new hosts had the good manners to treat me as though they had known me all my life.  I was told I could stay as long as I liked. 

They were a very interesting group of people, who made their living by buying old Peugeot, 404s and driving them through the Sahara desert down to Benin, where they sold them for more than 4 or 5 times more what they paid for them.  I was given my own room, fed, and shown around the local area.  I am absolutely certain that I saw a side of French life that most people who visit France would never get to see. 

Dinner in La Rochelle

In the mornings, one of my hosts would go out to buy fresh warm croissants.  We would all have a French style breakfast, dipping our fresh croissants into a large bowls of coffee.  One of their friends owned a bar that was inside the walls that made up the fortifications built by Cardinal Richelieu back in the 17th century. We spent an afternoon there drinking, and nobody would take my money.  Again communication was very difficult, but my hosts didn’t seem to mind, and I found their lifestyle and attitudes a revelation. As a matter of fact they took me to dinner at various other friends places as well and I was treated like one of the family each time.

More hospitality in La Rochelle

After about four days, I was starting to feel a bit guilty, so I borrowed an English to French dictionary to ask them what they were getting out of having me staying with them.  After all, we couldn’t communicate very well and I was eating their food, plus they wouldn’t let me help pay for anything.  Not to mention the fact that overstaying one’s welcome is the height of bad manners. 

Once again, I was exposed to the Gallic withering look of pity, as they questioned me about why I was unable to just accept their hospitality.  They just didn’t seem to be able to understand why I couldn’t just relax and enjoy what they had to give.  I tried to explain that I should eventually get going on my travels. To which they replied, that they were planning on heading 250 km south along the coast to buy another Peugeot in another three days, and that if I liked, I could stay until then and they would give me a lift.  I have to admit I was enjoying my time with those wonderful people, and they didn’t have to argue their case with any great force to convince me that their logic was sound.  So I spent another three days, lounging around the La Rochelle beach house, dividing my days between socialising and windsurfing.  It was all very idyllic.

Finally, a week after my arrival, five of us squeezed into a car and headed south.  When we came to where they had to turn off the main highway, and I was getting out of the car, I was presented with six beers and given a big hug by everybody, slapped on the back and wished “bonne chance” (good luck)!

Within half an hour, another car with two French punks playing revolutionary Nigerian separatist music by Fela Kuti, stopped and I was given a ride to Biarritz, which is a beautiful old resort town just north of the Spanish border on the Atlantic coast.  Once again, I was asked if I wanted to stay with the couple who had picked me up. They were going to stay at the woman’s parent’s vacant holiday house.  I was expecting a small, modest little house, but much to my surprise the two punks I was riding with took me to a huge and luxurious mansion, tastefully decorated with 19th-century furniture.  We had a very entertaining night drinking, eating merguez sausages and listening to punk music.  As they both spoke a fair bit of English the communication was much easier and we all had a good laugh telling each other funny stories.

In the morning, after a fantastic breakfast of more merguez sausages, they drove me to the nearest bus stop to catch a bus to the Spanish border.  Once again, I was given hugs as my new friends left.  I was finding the French to be very warm and sincere in their hospitality. 

I continued down through Spain and I spent a couple of months in Morocco where I met more amazing French people.  I’ll be writing some stories about my experiences in Morocco, at a later date.

When I was in Tarrazout in the south of Morocco, I met a French couple, who invited me to come and stay with them in Rouen, Normandy, when I was passing through France again on my way back home.  So on my way back, whilst I was hitchhiking in Spain, a Frenchman in a Volkswagon picked me up. 

The Mathematics Professor of Rennes

Once again my lack of French made it difficult for me to communicate.  Another problem I had, was with French pronunciation and when I was asked where I was going, I said in my mangled French (which I had been picking up since I been in France in Morocco) that I wanted to go to Rouen.  The Frenchman’s face lit up as he explained to me that that’s where he was heading.  By nightfall, we had reached what I thought was my destination, only to find out that I had ended up in Rennes in Brittany, which was about 200 km southwest of Rouen. 

It just goes to show how bad my French pronunciation is.  I’ve even had a guy in Paris say “no, no don’t speak French, we’ll speak English”.  Usually the French encourage foreigners to speak French but I must’ve been hurting his refined sensibilities. Quelle horreur! (What a horror!)

Once again, I was invited back to stay with my lift.  It turned out that the guy who picked me up in Spain was a mathematics professor at a nearby university, and he invited me to stay with him a few days if I wanted to.  Since I wasn’t in a hurry, I thought why not? I was starting to get the hang of going with the flow.  So I hung out with the maths professor for three days in the beautiful and very quaint town of Rennes and had a great time.  When it came time for me to leave, the maths professor drove me to the edge of town and dropped me off by the side of the road with the now obligatory hug and pat on the back, complete with “bonne chance”.  I was beginning to think that the French really took the “fraternity” part of their national motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”, seriously.

When I got to Rouen, I met up with my friends from Morocco who I stayed with for three days.  Once again, I was shown great hospitality, and I had a very social time as they shared their friends and good times with me.

Barbeque in Rouen

I found that most people I’ve come across, in the many places of the world that I have been to, are nice people.  There seems to be a commonality of decent behaviour around the world.  Most people I’ve met have tried to be good people, but the French I found to be the most decent of them all.

And that’s saying something, considering that I’ve been to Japan several times and the Japanese are amazing.

Climbing Cornerstone Rib. Crater Bluff, The Warrumbungles, NSW. Australia. 1993

This was written 1993 for a club magazine.

Ever since I saw the video, “BASE Climb” (where a couple of guys jumped off the Great Trango Tower in Pakistan), by Leo Dickinson, back in 1993, I had wanted to climb Cornerstone Rib in the Warrumbungles. In the video there was footage of the base jumpers training on Cornerstone Rib.  At first the climbing shots didn’t look so hot, but when the camera just kept on pulling back on the zoom, and the climbers were reduced to little specks on this amazing looking volcanic plug, it just looked so utterly spectacular. 

The Warrumbungles are a series of volcanic remnants in a national park near Coonabarabran, which is about 8 hours drive, N.-west of Sydney.

The BASE Climb, video was much discussed by those I know, who climb.  A friend, Colin Skinner, had on various times in the past tried to climb at the Warrumbungles but had been rained out on each occasion over the October long weekend and felt that he was cursed.  Obviously it was not a power place for him, but he said he’d like to try one more time to overcome this spot on earth where he felt the dark forces of nature held sway over him. Another climbing friend of mine at the time, Peter Butler, with the physique of a greyhound knew he wanted to thrash himself on such a massive block of stone.  The pain!  The agony!  The ecstasy!  Pete was just chomping at the bit to give Cornerstone Rib a try.

My regular climbing partner at the time was Tim Allen.  Tim’s father is Bryden Allen, one of the heroes from the dark ages of Australian climbing, back in the 60s, and who was the first to climb Cornerstone Rib 30 years previously. The Warrumbungles had piqued Tim’s curiosity, as he knew his father had been one of the people to open up many of the climbs in the area.  One of the first guys to climb in the Warrumbungles was called Dr Dark; great name eh?

I knew that the climb would be a great place to use all my shiny bits of pro (the temporary pieces of protection that one places as one is climbing) and thereby justifying their purchase! 

This picture taken about a year before this story shows a typical “protection rack”.

I’ve always been a bit of the gadget freak.  Plus there was the added of attraction of doing what I consider to be a “real” climb. A climb with multiple pitches, and exposure (great height), that is.

The October long weekend (Labour Day), is an opportunity for many families to go camping and as a consequence, the main camp grounds at the Warrumbungles were fully infested with families in caravans and 10 room mansion’s disguised tents with the ubiquitous early rising and screaming children (It’s no wonder why my mother hated me in the mornings when I was a child).  After the long drive in, we were so tired and we were disappointed that we didn’t get the chance to sleep in.

The walk-in up to the top where the climbs are was up a well-maintained track and it would have been an easy walk if we didn’t have to take all the climbing gear plus camping gear as well as extra water.    There was no water to be had at the designated campsites inside the park.. Our packs were very heavy, and this brought to my attention the amount of fitness, one would need to do mountaineering.  Our walk-in was only about 4 km and not much above sea level and on firm ground, never mind being at 8000m (26,000ft) trudging through snow during a blizzard with frostbite and lugging heavy pack!

Colin and Peter had managed to arrive a day earlier than us, and had arranged to meet us at the smaller camp ground at the top (known as Grand High Tops).  When we reached the campground, we set up our tents next to our friend’s tents, and then we went looking for them.  We found some high ground and looked across at Cornerstone Rib with binoculars, to see two little specks, which were Colin and Peter.  They seemed to be having a bit of trouble figuring out which way to go and were spending a lot of time in one place.  They were on about the fourth pitch. Each pitch is about 25 m long, and the climb up on Cornerstone Rib was about 8 pitches.

Cornerstone Rib is part of a volcanic dyke that makes up the “Butter Knife” which goes across from Grand High Tops down a valley to “Crater Bluff”, an old volcanic plug.  When you look at Crater Bluff, Cornerstone Rib looks like the most obvious route to climb.

The red line shows the route of
I didn’t take this photograph but I’m using it to show the
“Cornerstone Rib” climbing route up Crater Bluff.

About 2 1/2 hours later, when it was quite dark, our friends turned up at the campground.  Of course, we were very keen to hear how the climb went and what we heard was a bit disturbing.  The guys said that they would never do it again as it was on loose rock and the protection (protection is were one places various safety devices in cracks in the rock, and then attach their rope to) was insecure and the long and short of it, was that it was a scary, windy and exposed climb, even if it was only a grade 14 (US 5.8, UK 4b, French 5b+).  Whenever I had been climbing with Peter and Colin in the past and I had seen them having trouble with a climb, I knew that I was going to have a lot of trouble and probably wouldn’t be able to do it, so I was quite concerned.

I had seen Colin lead climb (leading is where you are climbing up past your last place of protection and place protection as you climb), grade 23 (US 5.11d, UK 5b E2, French 7a) and I also knew people who had seen him in Thailand on grade 27  (US 5.12d, UK 6c, French 7c) sports climbs. Peter Butler was also a much better climber than me, and the best I could manage at the time was to grovel and fall up grade 21  (US 5.11b, UK 5b E2, French 6 c) leads.  So naturally I respected what they had to say about climbing, I must admit though, that I was shocked by their shaken state and I found it hard to understand why these guys at such a time with a lowly grade 14  climb (US 5.8, UK 4b, French 5b+), which they should have found easy to do.  When I asked Colin for advice about the climb, he said, put in as much pro as possible and make sure you don’t fall on it. Peter nodded in agreement.  Usually after a climb there is an air of exhilaration, but on this night there was a pall of doubt hanging over the rest of us.

The next morning, Tim Allen and I got an early start and on the way to the climb we saw a koala, which is pretty rare because they are so quiet and keep still.  The first two pitches of the climb were quite easy and we quickly soloed (climbed without protection) them.  It was more scrambling than climbing.  The third pitch was also not so bad, but of course, we definitely felt the need to use our safety gear.  Tim and I had been arguing the day before about whether or not we should use single rope or double rope.  I was for single and Tim was for double.  Double is considered safer, but I was concerned with the weight.  I eventually capitulated, and we used two 11 mm ropes instead of the normal 9 mm ropes that are customarily used in tandem.  Double rope technique also requires a fair bit more communication between the lead in the second, which is hampered by strong winds.Another unpleasantness about climbing in strong winds is that one tends to brace against the wind to prevent being blown off, but of course, winds usually come in gusts and when one is bracing against the wind and it suddenly stops, there is a tendency to suddenly fall in the direction that the wind was coming from.  It is very disconcerting!

As we headed up the climb, the conditions got worse, as the wind picked up.  It was at this stage that I was thinking about what mountaineers have to go through again.  By the time we got to the fourth pitch it was easy to see why Colin and Peter had taken so long.  About 8 m (26ft) from the belay point there is a bulge in the rock that requires a committing move to get over.  Normally that sort of move is not so bad, but the height (exposure) was starting to get unnerving and stuff that is easy to do on one pitch climbs, take on a different hue when they are attempted a few pitches up.

While I was messing around looking to for a way up over the bulge, there was another two guys climbing off to the right of us up a manky looking corner.  They were only about 10 m away (about 32 ft), and we were able to talk to each other.  They said they were climbing up that route, to keep out of the wind.  They had long beards, and looked as though they’ve been climbing for years, and their choice to climb on the corner showed the experience they had.  It was fascinating to watch them climb.  They only had one piece of protection and it was a large hex about the size of a fist attached to a sling about a metre long (about a yard).  They just raced up the climb, and quite often they didn’t even use their one piece of protection, and they were climbing the full-length and 50 m of rope at a time.  They were amazing, and absolutely fearless.

I finally overcame the bulge by going around it to the left into the wind.  The fifth pitch looked much harder and is seemed to be to be ever so slightly overhanging with milk crate to refrigerator sized blocks of loose rock.  All the angles on the rock were sloping down and it was impossible to mantle over them.  Every time I put in the protection, it didn’t feel positive.  I could hear the words of Colin ringing in my ears, “put in plenty of pro-make sure you don’t fall”.  He wasn’t kidding!

To add to the drama, the wind was really starting to pick up and the gusts were constantly pushing me off balance.  The first couple of pitches were relatively easy and I couldn’t understand why Colin and Peter were so shook up the day before.  Now, I understood!  Things were at that stage where I started asking myself how far I want to take this climbing lark.

Whenever I’m in “a predicament”, I find it helpful to tell myself to calm down and concentrate and it was this aspect of climbing that was one of its main attractions for me.  It is very satisfying to delve into oneself and find those hidden reserves that we hoped might be there.  It is even more satisfying to overcome a daunting situation through relaxation and concentration.  I find that climbing has put a lot of things into perspective for me, especially when it comes to what is to be feared or not.

All that remained to do after that fifth pitch navel gazing was to marshal my forces and “just do it”!  And so I continued placing dodgy pro after dodgy pro. I guess I was concentrating on the task at hand so much that I missed the start of the sixth pitch, and I continued to climb off route and onto the sheer face of the wall, away from the arête (the corner ridge).  As I climbed, I noticed that the rope was not coming after me so easily and I started to yell down to Tim to give me some more slack.  The wind was blowing so hard that all I could hear was a muffled unintelligible reply.  The ropes still seemed tight, so I yelled for more slack!!  Muffled reply.

F#$&ing SLACK!!!

Not so muffled reply.

IT’S F#$&ing ROPE F#$&ing DRAG!!!
(translation: the tension was caused by the weight of the two 50m lengths of 11mm rope dragging over the rock).

It was not the place to be having to struggle up, with trying to hang on; placing pro and having to drag out what felt like a dead body on the end of the rope, moving over loose overhanging rock, while being buffeted by the wind and placing dodgy pro on what is an awesome wall of stone, 140 m up (about 450 ft)!

Through the gusts of wind, I could hear a thin voice of Tim calling out for me to look out for a belay point as I was running out of rope (I’d never done that before)!  At this point I was beginning to wonder if I’d been wrong in doubting the existence of God.  As I looked around, I couldn’t see any place to belay from so I just kept on climbing hoping that there was enough rope left.  There was one other problem, I was running out a quick draws (clips that connect the protection to the rope) and pro.  Just when things were bleakest I managed to get over yet another bit of manky loose rock to a point I could belay from.

Ask anyone who has been climbing with me and they will take you how paranoid I am about setting up belays.  I usually put in at least three to five bits of pro-making sure everything is mega safe.  Since I had so little pro-left and the rope wasn’t long enough to reach a better belay point, I had to content myself with a sling around a boulder that in fact probably weighed about the same as myself and placed a nut (a small piece of protection) in a movable crack as a belay.  The area I had to sit on was loose and in no way did I feel good about things.  Anyhow, in the circumstances, I had no choice.

Luckily, Tim didn’t fall and we didn’t have to test the belay.  When Tim, who is a bit of a Luddite, saw the belay his face lit up with glee to see how shonky the belay point was that I had set up.  It gave Tim, a warm inner feeling to see how uncomfortable I had been, having to belay off so little gear.

All that remained was for one more pitch and then the descent.  Tim led the last pitch in fine form (we found out later that we just could’ve walked to the side to get to the top).  Just as I got to the top, I said to Tim “scary, wasn’t it?” and he agreed.

At the top we savoured the moment and flicked through the notebook that was left at the top, under a cairn of stones to help people get over the need to spray paint their initials with “I was here” all over the rock.  As we were looking through the book we came across quite a few names of friends and people who we recognized and of course we had to leave our little scribbles of drivel to prove that we too had climbed up Cornerstone Rib.

We descended down a route called the “Green Glacier” sharing our ropes, with the old hippies who we had been climbing next to.  They were nice guys and we made good time down.

We got back to our camp before dark, and as we walked into camp, I said to Colin and Peter with mock bravado.  “What was all a fuss about it was a piece of piss”.  “Oh yeah!” They replied in chorus, “how come you said to Tim that it was scary”?  Apparently they could hear everything that was said between Tim and I, quite clearly across the valley. The valley acted as an amphitheatre, amplifying and carrying the sound with great efficiency.  They had watched throughout the day and heard little bleat and profane curse we made.

Young and clueless at a Consulate do. Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 1975

From the end of 1974 until the beginning of 1975, when I was 18, I lived in Cambodia for about six months during the war against the Khmer Rouge.  During my stay in Cambodia, I tried to make a living teaching English as a second language.  The first couple of months were quite difficult as I didn’t have very many students and I almost didn’t have enough money, to feed myself.  In a two-month period, due to a bout of malaria and lack of food I lost 10 kg (about 22 lbs).  During this lean time I had made the acquaintance of the first secretary of the Australian consulate, a Mr Dixon.  Mr Dixon (unfortunately I can’t remember his first name) could see the straits that I was in.  I guess he felt a bit sorry for me, and since he had a government supplied house complete with a gardener, chauffeur, security guard and cook, he would invite me around the dinner, and also to the occasional consulate do.

On one occasion I was invited to a barbecue at the consulate for Australia Day (26th of January) in 1975 .  On the invitation, it said come dressed casually.  In my minds eye, I had envisaged a bunch of the egalitarian Australians standing around a fire with steaks on the end of sticks, barbecuing their own meat with a beer in the other hand, dressed in T-shirt, shorts and thongs (also known as flip-flops or jandles). Just like back home.

It came as quite a surprise to me as I turned up at the consulate dressed in a tattered old T-shirt and frayed jeans to be sat at a long, linen covered table, set with heavy silverware, next to the uniformed militarily attaché.  There were about 40 of us seated at the table, which was outside next to a large swimming pool.  When the food was served it was brought to us by uniformed staff, who dished out the French style food with silver service.  All the other men who were at the “barbecue”, with the exception of the military attaché, were dressed in polyester safari suits.  I guess in diplomatic circles, safari suits are considered casual, and barbecue was code for alfresco dining.  Opposite me at the table were my friend Mr Dixon and his secretary.  I was later told that Mr Dixon had made sure I was sitting next to the military attaché because he knew I would provide some entertainment, as I drove him crazy with anti-Vietnam-war talk.  As a matter of fact, the military attaché was quite annoyed that I’d managed to dodge conscription by being out of the country traveling.  He also opined that it would probably do somebody like me a bit of good to be under some military discipline for a couple of years.  I was definitely the youngest, scruffiest, noisiest thing at the table, and I’m sure the military attaché would have liked to punch my empty head in.

I didn't have much reason to smile when this picture was taken

I felt that I had infiltrated an alternative world.  Making a living wasn’t difficult for these people, as they all had profitable diplomatic jobs or positions in non-government aid organizations.  The life of well-paid expats in Third World countries is redolent of the life led by the British Raj, as they all had servants and chauffeurs to smooth the way through the ubiquitous soirees and heat.  I envied them.

The conversation around the table was fascinating to someone like me. One fellow, from the British Embassy was telling us about one of the new guys at his work, who had scandalized Phnom Penh diplomatic circles by making the great faux pas of turning up to a diplomatic event drunk and in the company of two hookers.  Another guest at the table was telling us how Cambodia had become a brass exporter, because Lon Nol’s wife had arranged for much of the artillery ammunition supplied by the Americans to be fired, just outside of the city, so they could get the brass casings and sell them.  There was also talk, about an Australian persona non-grata who had worked as a mercenary for the Cambodian government forces. 

I had met the guy who they were talking about and I asked him why he had worked as a mercenary. He told me that he met the owner of a plantation that was now under Khmer Rouge control. The mercenary (I can’t remember his name) said that he had been promised a job as a supervisor, after the war if the government forces won, if he could help the plantation owner train his personal squad of men to fight.  I asked him how it went and he said it was a total shambles.  Apparently there was absolutely no discipline, and all the Cambodian soldiers under his command were conscripts who didn’t really understand why they were there and they were impossible to control.  He told me one time that when he was out on patrol in a rice paddy that a Khmer Rouge soldier broke from his position and ran across the field in front of them, only about a hundred meters away, and that all his soldiers opened fire, and that all 20 or 30 of them missed as they sprayed bullets in every direction until their magazines were empty.

I’ve seen evidence of this sort of thing when I was in Phnom Penh myself.  One day when I was in my hotel room, not far from the central market, I heard a series of rifle shots.  About 5 shots in quick succession were fired, so I ran out on my balcony to see a group of about three soldiers shooting at a man fleeing from them.  The fleeing man went around the corner and then down a lane that I knew was very narrow, and I felt the sure they would get him as I heard about another 10 shots being fired.  I quickly grabbed my camera and ran downstairs and then to the lane, fully expecting to see some triumphant soldiers standing around a body in the lane.  But no, every single shot had missed.  As somebody who’s been in the army cadets and been trained to shoot, I couldn’t believe that so many shots would have missed, particularly in the narrow lane.  On reflection, I’m even more amazed that none of the bystanders in the streets were shot.

Over the years often thought of the kindness that Mr Dixon showed me and I’ve tried to track him down, without any luck, to thank him.

Motorcyles and Hill Tribes.

Whilst I’ve always been attracted to motorcycles I’ve also been very wary of them.  One of the reasons why, is because my father died in a motorcycle accident when I was about three years old, and another reason is, that I recognize that I love speed.

On several occasions, while I’ve been traveling I have rented motorcycles to get where I needed to go.  Quite often in Third World countries, all that one needs to hire a motorcycle is some valid currency, as opposed to a valid driver’s licence.  As a matter of fact, when I was in Bali, I admitted to the people renting me a motorcycle that I had never ridden a motorcycle before.  They said no worries, just come next door into the empty lot and we’ll show you how. After five minutes of instruction, I was out on the very dangerous Balinese roads without a helmet.

A fellow traveler, who I’d met a few weeks previously in Portuguese Timor (as it was known back in 1974) was also renting a motorcycle at the same time, and he also received the same intensive training as I did. Later I was told by his friends that unfortunately, he failed to lean as he made a turn around a corner and left the road, crashing into a deep ditch and broke his neck, paralyzing himself from the shoulders down.  To make matters worse, the Hindu beliefs of the locals made it very hard for this unfortunate fellow to get any medical assistance.  Apparently the locals felt that it was the will of the gods that people have accidents and that he was doomed and going to die anyway.  Nobody would help, and the injured man’s friends were frantic trying to get him to hospital, but nobody would stop and help with transportation.  Finally, the injured man’s friends just stepped out into the road and blocked traffic and made a guy driving a car, take their friend to hospital.  They told me, they almost had to use violence to get the man to put their injured friend into his car.  To make matters worse, when the motorcyclist got to Hospital his friends were told there wasn’t really anything much that the local doctors could do for him.  So they telephoned his parents to arrange for him to be taken back to Australia for further medical treatment.  When the injured man’s parents rang the airline company to arrange to get him to come back to Australia.  They were told that they would have to buy five first-class tickets, so he could be laid in a stretcher and he also had to be accompanied by a trained nurse.  It must have cost a fortune and because of this story; I always travel with travel insurance nowadays.

A few months after Bali, I was in northern Thailand and I visited the hill tribes of Chang Mai.  Back then, there wasn’t really any public transport to get up into the hill tribes and you either had to go on an organized tour or rented a motorcycle, so I rented a motorcycle. 

 The bike, I rented was a Honda 125cc dirt bike. About half of the journey to the hill tribes is on the highway and the driving was quite easy, but then one leaves the road and travels on dirt tracks that were more pathways than roads.  It had been raining that day, so it was very muddy, and as an inexperienced rider I was having a great deal of difficulty negotiating the steep slippery terrain.  Eventually, I did get to the hill tribes and got to see the villagers, and it was all quite surreal, as there was a very fine misty rain falling, it was almost like a fog. 

In amongst the mist, little people, dressed in black would pop into and out of view. It was all very strange as there wasn’t really any infrastructure to deal with visitors to the villages and people just sat in their doorways out of the rain staring back at the strangers in the mist. 

 There weren’t that many men in the village, I guess they were all out working in the poppy fields.  Most of the people I saw were either women or little children minding other smaller children.

On the way back from the hill tribes, I had to cross a small creek, and as I was going over the muddy bank of the far side.  I flipped over the motorcycle onto my leg and the hot exhaust pipe burnt my inner thigh.  It was very painful and within a few days I had a very nasty tropical ulcer suppurating on my leg. I had applied anti-bacterial ointment to my burn, but the ulcer just got worse and after about a week and a half I was getting quite worried.  By then, I was in Huay Xai, Laos, so I went to the doctor at the local Red Cross outpost.  Back in those days, if you had a tropical ulcer, the remedy was usually surgery, but I was lucky as there was a new antibiotic called Bactrim,and fortunately the Swiss doctor was able to prescribe some for me.  It worked a treat, and within a week and a half there wasn’t any sign that I’d had such a serious infection on my leg.

Interestingly, while I was waiting to be seen by the doctor, I met a fellow traveller, and he looked very yellow, so I said to him I thought that he had hepatitis.  He told me that he’d been feeling very run down and sick during the last month. When he was in Chang Mai he’d gone to see the doctor and they did exploratory surgery on him, but they were unable to find out what was wrong with him.  I guess at that stage he wasn’t yellow enough for them to see that he had hepatitis, which I could plainly see and I wasn’t even a doctor.

Fast-forward several more years to the early 80s, when I was in Puerto Rico.  I had rented a dented, dirty Kawasaki 100, because I wanted to see some of the countryside of Puerto Rico.  Like most rental motorcycles I’ve seen outside of the first world it was a piece of ill maintained rubbish. The motorcycle was supplied without a helmet and my safety gear consisted of T-shirt, shorts and thongs (otherwise known as flip-flops or jandles).  I set off first thing in the morning while was the sun was still coming up, and there was still a heavy layer of dew on all the roads.  I was surprised at how good the roads were as I headed out of San Juan.  They had four lanes and were as smooth as an ice rink.  Since the roads were so nice, I thought I could open the bike right up and see how fast it went, which was only about 100 km an hour, (about 62 miles an hour). So down the road I sped, as the poor little “Kwakka” revved its heart out.

As I was riding along, enjoying the countryside I started hearing strange clicking sounds coming from the back of the motorcycle.  I had no idea what the noise was but I was soon to catastrophically find out.  All of a sudden, the back wheel locked up as the chain came off and the bike started to go down so I stuck out my foot to upright the bike.  As soon as my foot touched the pavement, my thong was torn off, but at least I had managed to keep the bike upright. The bike then flipped over towards the other side and was about to go down.  By now, the adrenaline pumping through my system was like like honey on the gears of my perception and I felt as I was partaking in a slow motion movie of my own demise.  As I started to go down in the opposite direction, I found myself contemplating my end.  I thought to myself, so this is how I die. So this is where my story finishes.  Somewhere in-between exclaiming OH SHIT! And contemplating oblivion, I suddenly had the strange thought that I could do a somersault if I wanted to. This all happened in less that a second.

As somebody who has grown up in Sydney Australia, I’ve spent quite a bit of my time as a youngster at the beach, and as a result, I’ve done lot of body surfing.  Now, if you’ve ever gone body surfing at Bronte Beach in Sydney.  You know how to handle a dumper.  Dumpers are large waves that don’t break in open water but smash straight down onto sand, and if you’re not careful, you can get hurt.  What one does to avoid a broken neck, as one is falling off the top of the wave onto the sand, is to tuck one’s chin into an one’s chest, and put one’s shoulder forward to hit the sand with your shoulder in a rolling motion.  So there I was, on a motorcycle with a locked up back wheel quickly going out of control, contemplating somersaults and remembering childhood body surfing.  In an instant, I made a snap decision.  I stood up on the foot pegs and jumped forward over the front of the motorcycle as it went down into the highway. I was flying through the air at about 100 km an hour, no helmet, dressed only in a T-shirt, shorts, and one thong.  By this time, I was in, what I guess was an adrenaline driven calm.  I felt very tranquil, and as though I had all the time in the world to perform a few somersaults, and as I neared the verge at the side of the road my body surfer instincts took over and I landed on my shoulder and rolled to a sliding stop in the loose gravel with a slight graze on my shoulder and nick on the back of my hand. As I sat on the side of the road in a daze, I watched my motorcycle in slow motion go end over end, bending the whole frame in half so that front wheel nearly touched the back wheel.

With the clear and present danger over, and my life preserved, I went into shock.  Being in shock is a little like just waking up, in that, one is groggy, conscious but not really aware.  I had the presence of mind to pull, the mangled motorcycle off the road and then hitch hike back into San Juan. I went straight to the motorcycle hire place and told the owner what had happened to his motorcycle.  He wasn’t too happy, but he wanted to know where the bike was, so we all got into his pickup truck and went down the highway to get it.  He couldn’t believe that I was in such good shape considering what the bike looked like when he saw it.  He soon got over his disbelief and then started to try and accuse me of trashing his bike and demanding that I pay for the damage.  By now my shock was starting to wear off and I wasn’t feeling as dozy as before so I let him know in very angry terms that he was very lucky I didn’t try and sue his arse off for providing me with a motorcycle that had a loose chain that nearly led to my death.

So there you go, motorcycles and me aren’t a good match.