Crown of Palaces

The sun is dipping behind a stretch of cloud, cooling the air to a temperature more inviting of indolence than traipsing one of the seven wonders.

We waited in line with the monkeys, venerated the soft blue of the background framed by the cylindrical minarets, took the view from Princess Diana’s seat, roamed the antechambers and paraded the monument lawns…… and now we sit.

The hum of insects hang on the breeze replacing the no longer audible car horns. The white marble changes hue and the intricate inscriptions demanding reverence. A dreamy languor descends as we soak in the splendour, hand in hand. Resting our tired feet and watching the people go by.

A group of Polish girls are taking turns at being photographed. One by one they all strike the same poses. First they present with one leg bent and a hand on the hip which makes them look sort of like a lame dog. Then they turn around for the bum pose. Facing away from the camera, then hand on hip they glance back over their shoulder towards the camera. Finally the very structured stroll across the Taj Mahal’s marble plinth. This pose comes complete with false starts and specific casual hand gestures.

A group of Chinese girls and boys join the Polish girls at the monument’s base. The poses of Chinese tourists have a uniformity that seems to change through the years. There was a time about twenty years ago when Chinese tourists all seemed to stand straight, arms straight down their side. Then about fifteen years ago, presumably because slide shows back home became too monotonous the same pose but side on with a look across the shoulder seemed to be all the rage. Then about a decade ago this pose seemed to give way to the enduring V for victory sign. Hip kicked one way, shoulders the other and the peace sign held up near the side of their head.

Tourists are now encumbered by the selfie stick. Not wanting to miss a moment where the selfie is required, the selfie stick is now permanently attached to their phones. Some of the boys text with their selfie stick laying awkwardly; out of place on their shoulders. They stop texting long enough to pose for a group selfie. The congregation rotating turns, each vying  to use their own phones to capture the moment.

A young man with a Canadian badge on his back pack spends the best part of his next hour trying to take the perfect shot of his girlfriend. She dances and leaps across the promenade. He adjusts the shutters and sends her back to her starting position to repeat. Holding her up when an unsuspecting tourist stumbles into the scene.

A French couple take turns at sitting and staring into the distance. A beautiful reflective moment broken as they jump up and rush back to the camera to see if their partner perfectly captured the serenity. They didn’t. Back they run to sit again with their legs folded and to reset their far off gaze.

We surreptitiously approach these sites of monumental importance and for a brief moment immortalise ourselves in the shadow of their significance. Perhaps to remember how it was when travelled to sites of social consequence, perhaps to remember how it should have been. Maybe to deceive our future selves or others about our time there.

I raise my camera to the air. High enough so as to reduce the double chins but whilst still getting the onion shaped dome into the shot. I cheekily cut my wife’s head out of the picture. We reset as she stretches up to kiss my cheek.

Click.

Perfect.

I guess we all want to be immortal.

Pub Crawl?

“Pull the nose up a little Robbo.”

“A little more, that’s it. A little more. Pull the nose up mate….”

I felt the controls move in my hand as the pilot took over control of our light aircraft and touched us down safely at our first outback pub. I have never flown a plane before and it felt a little bizarre to be trying to land a plane now under the watchful eye of our pilot and my white knuckled mates in the cabin behind me.

We circled the pub a couple of times signalling to the publican to leave his only two customers and bring the ute to the airstrip. Some boys had arrived, on an outback pub crawl… by plane.

To keep his licence, Sam our pilot needs to keep his flying hours up which can be an expensive proposition. We struck a deal whereby we pay for fuel, food and accommodation; he takes care of the rest. A cheap way for three of my closest mates and I to fly around outback Australia for five days stopping at some of the country’s most iconic bush pubs. Sam closely guides our take-offs and landings and then throws us the controls.

The redness of the earth below is harsh and undulating and broken by the carvings of long dried waterways. The dirt tracks scouring the sparse scrub below inspired a renewed realisation of the remoteness of some of our destinations. Occasionally the dust from a road train hangs in the air showing us the direction of dirt roads in the distance.

We skirted metres above Lake Eyre racing Emus across the white pan, Galahs guiding our wingtip. We played golf across three state borders at Cameron’s Corner. We circled the amphitheatre of Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges and walked around the Dig Tree in the footsteps of famous explorers Burke and Wills.

We ate kangaroo burgers and quandongs and bush tomato chilli jam. Sitting around a fire at night beneath a black sky shattered into a million stars. We slept underground in reconverted opal mines in White Cliffs, in repurposed shipping containers in Parachilna and in old drover’s quarters at William Creek.

We graced the tiles of pubs like the Birdsville, the Mount Hope and the Prarie. Grand old pubs, with history on the walls. Pubs where you land your plane on the dirt road a couple of hundred metres from the front bar, where the old cockeys pull up a stool next to you to tell you stories of the land. Pubs where the Akubra hat of each local bloke who has passed on is nailed to the roof.

And as this venture was officially a pub crawl we felt obliged to drink beer in between….. just to wet the whistle….. flying in the outback can be a thirsty proposition…. you understand.

The Cave

The movement of the water around me echoes the catacomb walls as my panicky hands grapple for the errant regulator caught on top of my tank. I duck below the water trying to loosen the hose but it remains caught. I resurface and call out to the others to wait but they have all started their descent and are already below the water. The cave darkens as I reach for my secondary regulator and deflate my BCD. The last of the torch light disappears under a ledge below me. I am now descending in complete darkness.

My fins hit the rocks on the cave floor as my eyes try to adjust to the irrational darkness. I can’t see the opening, I can’t see anything. I dare not attempt to follow. Even if I could feel my way to the entrance of the cave chamber, without a torch I’d most certainly get lost in the tunnels leading to the outside ocean. I sit there for a minute or two before resurfacing. Alone, floating in the darkness of the cave.

Minutes ago I bobbed in this spot. Rising and falling with the swell, watching the torch lights attach themselves to stalactites as divers scan the inside of the dome. In this pocket of air we were free to talk, to explore, to marvel at the water mirroring blue tinsel across the rocky cupola and casting its ripple of shadows.

I had no hesitation when one of the divers asked to lend my torch. Brad, my kiwi dive buddy left his torch on the boat by mistake and was keen to inspect a coconut crab scaling the rocky wall more closely. Obviously caught in the excitement he failed to bring it back. A point I could have lived with if my regulator hose had not become tangled.

They would be almost out of the tunnel by now; emerging from the mouth of the rocky cavern that swallowed them half an hour before. They would be passing schools of squirrel fish and sweeper fish, maybe even occasioning a banded sea snake. Between equalisations they would be hearing the sweet song of the Humpback whales, their eyes coin-like in wonder.

The tide fills and drops the level in the cave as I sit there in the water alone in the darkness. Entombed. I pull the regulator from my mouth. I need to save my air for when I finally get out of here. The sound of my heightened breathing is disconcerting as it amplifies off the blackened walls.

I wonder how often a group dives this cave? How long could I be trapped here?Hopefully the excitement of the dive does not overpower the Dive Master’s sensibilities that the boat is returning one short. Perhaps Brad will remember his buddy when he finds he has two torches on the boat.

Until someone returns I will wait here in the darkness. Waiting on a light to appear from somewhere below. Waiting and spinning sinister speculations on my fate.

Prey

I crawled up the sand away from the other divers desperately clutching at my chest. My breaths shallow, useless, unable to satisfy my burning lungs. I rolled to my back, sand and saliva mixing grainy on my face. Trying desperately to fill my tightened lungs with air I gasp and swallow as I wrestle my wetsuit to my waist.  I whispered to myself, ‘Moses is right; this may be all in your head.’

 

Moses and I rolled off the bow at Silk Cayes, three pronged sling spears in our hand. We signalled our descent and ducked below the white caps to the calmness of a slow ocean current. Normally an advocate of taking only memories and leaving only bubbles, today we were diving with a purpose. There was a predator on the loose. One that needed to be eradicated.

Lionfish are introduced in the Caribbean. According to local legend a resort’s fish tank broke so they threw the Lionfish into the ocean. From there, having no predators, the Lionfish have multiplied in numbers and are eating all the reef fish on the Belizean coral reef. They can consume thirty juvenile fish in a minute and can reduce certain species of fish by up to 80% in an area within a five day period. Against all other instincts, today I am a hunter.

The coral in the clear warm waters off Belize inspires an inner tranquillity. Angelfish and Parrotfish brighten the scene, Jackfish school in a twisting cloud that bends and reforms as we pass and a lazy Grouper watches on as we scour the gradient of the reef.

Lurking in the coral recesses, the Lionfish hang in suspended animation, rocking gently on the ebb and flow. Their beautifully striped red, cream and black colouration and elaborate fins a warning to their protruding venomous spines.

The Lionfish venom won’t kill a human, but it will make you wish you were dead. I keep a respectful distance as I line my shot.

At first I wasn’t very accurate and managed to “scare” more than I speared. But as we traversed the lower realms of the reef I got the hang of it and soon was dragging a couple of dozen in the bucket behind me.

I looked across to a Black Tipped Reef Shark trailing to my right. Black Tipped Reef Sharks are generally not aggressive. They are beautiful, timid and social. Since making my way to Belize to dive the Blue Hole I had many wonderful up close encounters with these curious sharks.

At six foot and over a hundred kilograms I was genuinely excited to see this shark moving in and out of my periphery. Black Tipped Reef Sharks are quite harmless…. except when you are dragging a bucket of dead fish behind you and then they are considered extremely dangerous.

As this dawns on me, I look behind me. Another shark emerged and another and above another. Four sharks, excited by the smell of the blood of the fish in the water. Casing us.

One by one, they came into sight and then disappeared into the blue. No longer objects to be marvelled at. They were now vicious and energetic hunters, their eyes beady and foreboding, focussing on Moses and I. The hunters had become the prey.

I tap the fins of Moses ahead, signal that something is wrong and raise my hand flat, sideways and vertical against my forehead. He points at his eyes and signals we move ahead. The sinister outline of their pointed snout and blackened dorsal prowling across our perimeter, skirting the margins then darting away.

We flee across the base of the reef, escaping the predation of a pack of menacing sharks. Through the watery depths, my heart racing, fins kicking double time. Sharks following frighteningly close.

I look again to my air supply. As this was my first spear fishing experience, I had failed to fully appreciate how quickly you can use the air in your tank as you exert yourself at depth.

I signalled to Moses again that something was wrong. This time signalling that I only had 25 bar left in my tank. I cursed myself for my stupidity. An advanced diver I knew better than to get myself in this situation. I looked up towards the surface as a figure casts an alarming shadow. 25 bar wasn’t enough to get me to the surface with an appropriate safety stop.

We signal to each other to head towards the surface and to stop at 5 metres. If we don’t wait there for 5 minutes we put ourself at great risk of decompression sickness.

Suspended in the blue we float, bubbles trailing to the surface. The sharks return, circling below us. I count five now. My tank is nearly exhausted, the sound of our strained breathing and my heartbeat in my ears the only sound.

As my tank empties I grab Moses’ emergency buddy regulator and we both pull the remaining air from the one tank for the rest of our safety stop, silently keeping a watching eye for the sharks. It was getting quite tough to pull the air through the regulator from Moses’ tank into my lungs when Moses signalled it was time to surface. Moses looks at his watch, gives me the OK and I start to ascend.

As we fin to the surface I look around, I cant see the sharks. There is only one thing worse than seeing a pack of frenzied sharks in your midst and that is not seeing them. Then Moses’ watch starts sounding. This was his dive watch telling him it was not safe to surface yet. We waited another minute but his dive watch was still going crazy. Moses signals for me to surface. I pause. We can’t ascend too quickly after diving so deep but there was no choice, we had no more air. I look down, still can’t see the sharks.

I sat on the back of the boat as we made our way to the nearest island. My chest tight, unable to take a full breath, lungs felt like they were burning. Moses sits next to me explaining he thinks his watch is broken, “we are ok, no problem, we are safe up.” I wasn’t so sure. “Its no problem Robbo, this…” he points at my labouring chest, ” this in your head.”

 

I lay on the beach, half in the water. The sun warming my tanned skin. The fire down the beach wafting grilling Lionfish and the flow of the wave gently rising to my navel. The clouds above stretch across the blue, interrupted by a palm fidgeting and rearranging its shadow. I roll my eyes closed, concentrating only on my breathing. Deep, slow, I breathed.

Eventually I return to the group, a plate of Lionfish awaiting me. The crew and some local islanders enjoying the merits of our excursion in a postcard perfect scene. I pull up a patch of driftwood near Moses. “You ok Robbo?” he enquires.

“I think so Moses, I just had to give myself a good talking to. I’m alright now”

“We will go down again then after lunch?” He queries, picking at the remains of his fish

“Absolutely mate, I wouldn’t miss it.”

The Pofadder

We start on our afternoon walking safari through the Okavango Delta, the sun still hanging high in the sky. A light breeze occasions our sweaty skin providing a momentary reprieve to the oppressive heat. The dry open fields of bush and savannah grassland framed by fingers of delta water carving through the dryness.

Ahead of us an unsuspecting Pofadder basks in the sun, camouflaging itself in the dryness of the grass. Bitis arietans, is a particularly aggressive biter and is answerable for more fatalities than any other snake in Africa. Preferring to bite rather than avoid confrontation it releases a cytotoxin venom, which in the remoteness of the Delta is likely to result in a best case scenario of the victim losing the limb this viper strikes.

We head out along a thin trail carved by animals through the savannah grass. Master, a member of the local Bayei Tribe and expert tracker in the Delta helping me lead the group. He has been training me to track animals through the bush, to decipher the subtle notes of broken twigs and tracks. I recall my many failed attempts when I started this training. At each track in the dirt he would point.

“Wildebeest?” I would look at him like a student eager to please his teacher

“No Robbo”

Hartebeast?”

“No”

A sounder of warthogs run by, tails in the air as a guide to the scurrying suckers following an impatient mum. The babble of the Delta waterways close by, keeping inconsistent time, occasioned by a stirring bush. The whisper of the breeze through the Mopani trees only interrupted by the coos of tourists spotting something big in the distance.

Our group stops momentarily to observe a cohort of zebra grazing across the expanse. No fences, no vehicles, in a line we pause to appreciate the wildness of it all before starting out again. We try to keep our footfall light on the dusty track, eyes keenly scanning the scene for hints of wild in the dry savannah.

The Pofadder ahead recoils, ready to strike.

Overhead the shrill and ominous cries of an African Fish Eagle, the sound of the African wild, signals the danger unfolding. The grass reaches up, slowing our steps, pulling us at our legs in an attempt to prevent our path to the wickedness ahead. But a sinister trap had already been laid and we were about to be under attack.

The Pofadder strikes. Silently, swiftly. I saw nothing, heard nothing, only the barking and high pitched braying of the zebra as two long fangs inject a venomous cocktail deep into the fleshy skin. The victim jumps back in a terrifying and futile panic. Kicking out as the Pofadder recoils, resets, pausing as the heavy feet of our group push up the trail.

Again the Pofadder strikes. A new victim now. Master and I turn to see the terror in her eyes as the serpents powerful thrust sends frantic and repeated blows to the ankle of one of my female passengers.

This second attack however was thwarted. The Pofadder’s mouth was still full of frog. Its first victim kicking, sheathing the viper’s fangs. The girl jumps away with a shriek and the Pofadder retreats back into obscurity in the grass.

Our hearts race frantic. We stand there all scanning the ground for further terror before composing ourselves to continue cautiously forward. A close escape. Fortunately for us, not so fortunate was the poor frog.

Want Power?

I follow the rope down. The blue slowly suffocates the light as I keep my eyes fixed on the braided cord.  Every few metres I lower my hand to my mask to equalize the pressure building on my face. Upside down. I follow the rope still. Down into the blue.

At twenty metres I grope for the weights at the bottom of the rope, my breath running low. I feel I’ve been underwater too long already. My chest tightens as I straighten and look back up towards the surface. Its too far and I first feel my lungs start to burn. A desire to swallow filling my mind to distraction I start my ascent. My diaphragm starts to tremble. Fighting to breathe I foolishly open my mouth, it floods with water causing me to cough.

“Calm yourself Robbo” I repeat in my mind, “you’ve trained for this.” My blood is still fully enriched with Oxygen. “You don’t need to breathe” I tell myself.

I close my eyes. I feel tired. I try and concentrate on my slow kicks to the surface, searching for the power to overcome the desperation in my lungs.

*****

“Something… want something?”  A murmur comes from a local boy as I pass. I’d have questioned whether he was even talking to me if there was anyone else remotely close. “Hey, you want something, want power?”

I continue walking down the dirt road to the centre of town, picking my way around puddles in the street and dodging a Shetland horse drawn cart. Wooden shop fronts with thatched roofs line the strip. Restaurants, bars, yoga studios, and dive shops. Purveyors of tours and Bintang and ice cream attempt to prise me from my path.

I had made it to Gili Trawangan in Indonesia to learn to free dive. The goal was to dive on one breath to a depth of 20 metres. Each day my instructor Victor refined my technique. Victor is the second best freediver in the Ukraine and he can dive to 85 metres. Mike who owns Gili Freedive is the British champion who reaches depths of 103 metres on a single breath. I am in awe of these guys. Baby steps.

After two days of exercises and training, breaking through the mental urge to breathe and the physical symptoms of CO2 build up I surfaced to the cheers of Victor and my fellow students. Mission accomplished. This evening I am out on the town ready to relax and celebrate over dinner.

Travellers pock the road. Their hair braided and skin deeply tanned. There are no cars on Gili Trawangan. Travellers walk, take a cart or ride a push bike. The horses were not well maintained and one had already bitten me on the hip as it passed, leaving a bruise and who knows what rabies type mad horse disease it might be carrying.

Another man sidles next to me on the road. “You want something, you want power?”

It is said some of the locals are on crystal meth and they will approach you trying to sell you drugs to support their habit. Some follow you into the toilets, they stand next to you while you are peeing and pull out a bag of weed. Others simply prop up next to you at a bar and pull out a little box with bags of cocaine, HDMA, crack and ice. They refer to drugs as power. “You want something?” they would ask.

I start out down the road and immediately am beckoned towards a pizza shop. I stopped to give courtesy to the tout, pointing out to him though that there was a mouse in the window walking on the toppings. He acknowledged that it was in fact a mouse. “Good eye, please come and sit.” I don’t.

I move further along to the town centre. Under a mish mash of tarps, strung across a square concrete football field, the smoke wafts from coal BBQs, the heat being fanned to cook fish, rays, crustaceans, and local chicken. Aromas swirling through the mugginess around cats on the ground, Christmas lights hanging early or really really late flashing in one corner, across seafood stalls, laden with today’s catch under melting ice blocks and the more than occasional fly.

Locals are choosing their dinner, the newer tourists with a little more care circling a couple of times before committing or moving to a more “western” restaurant.  Bintang and fresh juices adorn pink lino covered wooden bench tables. Travellers are picking through charred fish and their day’s adventures in tongues from across the world. The smoke thickens, the sweet clove smell of Gudang Guram cigarettes linger in the air, I feel totally in place.

After dinner my dive buddies and I find an outdoor bar with live music. Travellers walk past us on the street as we settle in for the evening.

A guy selling DVDs comes by intently trying to sell his wares, surely this is a diminishing business that once flourished in South East Asia.

A guy walks by intently trying to sell some portable Bintang speakers. I have seen this guy no less than 10 times in the last few days and every time he played Sultans of Swing. He must really like that song, or by now really hate it.

A guy walks by selling woven bracelets… intently.

As we talk a local man is grabbing at my arm. “Want power?” he mutters. His eyes look through me, his clothes dirty and torn, face shifty and world worn. I politely decline as he pulls up a stool directly behind us. He opens his box of drugs and puts his feet on the back of my chair. Again he grabs me with his rough hands “what you want? Again I politely fob him off.

He interrupts us again, now bragging about taking HDMA that morning. He looks left and right down the street. “The high very good, you want?”

“No mate I don’t”

His partner in crime hassling a couple nearby spun around, his pupils like saucers, pronounced aloud “I take crack. You want something?” He grabs a bag of HDMA and tosses it into my lap. I pick it up urgently and throw it back at him.

“Why you scared?” he demands.

“Im not scared, I’m tired and you are annoying me” I replied curtly

“Tired huh? You just need some power!”

London Calling

There is an appreciation of distance, of architecture, of scale when you ride a bike through London’s inner city suburbs. One that is not apparent when you take the tube.

Dean and I ride fast through the streets, across bike paths and down cobbled mews, pausing at sites of significance or at interesting buildings or to make comment of the street life as it occurs to us. Down past Hyde Park, past Marble Arch, through to the back of Westminster Abbey, the cool wind on my face giving my cheeks a ruddy glow and making my nostrils wet.

We stop in front of the Big Ben and I start to think of how many have stood in this place, admiring it’s iconic tower, capturing the sight like a Polaroid to take with them to reflect on. I wonder if this memory will stay with me, not only the vista, but the smells, the feeling of the weather against my skin and the feeling of being privileged to be here. I cast my eyes to the city streetlights who have witnessed a million of me struck by the magic of London but who cannot calculate what a moment like this is worth.

We set off again, gaining a new perspective on the city and a vibration that you can only feel from a place whose history dates back so many hundreds of years. Each monument, each building, wildly atmospheric in the foreground of low steely skies.

Eventually we must head home. Up onto the footpath we dodge the evening traffic. I accept a flyer from a small Asian man as I breeze by. It’s not until our next stop that Dean suggests this man was not actually handing out flyers, that it appears I had snatch the takeaway menu from some guy on his way home. When our laughter finally subsides and the stitch in our sides becomes bearable again, we continue on towards Paddington.

These streets give the city a human side. I feel compelled to learn, to understand the kaleidoscope of humans that have built this place, each with their own story, their own sense of London. I felt it in my bones, the heartbeat, the pulse of the city, it was telling me a story. A story of kings, war, fire, plagues and music. A story of poets ascending the highest heavens of invention, of famous murderers, sportsmen and designers.

On every corner history lives on and each step in the footsteps of those who created the story and made up the fabric of this great city. A woven thatch of culture akin to the underground map and the A to Z combined.

Faraday to Keats, Beckham to Bowie, Hitchcock to Chaplin….. Robbo?