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.

The wind whispers “beware”

The evening is coming.  I walk through the dance floor, the sun retreating, sucked from the darkening corners, leeching itself from the dusty floor. Lunging and fleeing at the horror of the disco lights being switched on.

“Got your gloves on boys? I think we’ll have trouble.”

I step onto the street and light my cigarette, looking up the walk towards Guildhall. Save for two chavs trying to bum some cigarettes from a passer-by, the strip was dead…. for now.  A deep sigh and I start to prepare myself mentally, to stand on the door for another night in deep analogy. As a backpacker turned publican to support my travels, my shaking over the past few months is diminishing. I hope to god it is still only visible from the inside.

It may be a desolate evening on Guildhall Walk but it is still early and the wind rushing past the door is whispering “beware.”

“I just heard the Fleet haven’t got any security on tonight” Chandler comments, shaking his head as he lights his cigarette. “She must have forgotten the game was on or something? Maybe she’s closing up? Some of the other pubs in the street are, not worth the trauma.”

It was the calm before the storm. Portsmouth were playing Southampton in the local derby. I had bulked my security to six and told them to be extra vigilant on the door. That meant checking everybody’s ID. Not to ascertain age but to ensure that we were not letting any Scummers into the pub.

I had nothing against anyone from Southampton. In fact those that I knew were quite pleasant. But fitting in meant using terms like moosh, supporting Harry and Jim to take the Blue Army to the top of the league, and of course referring to everyone from Southampton as Scum. If we accidentally let some in, history has taught me they will inevitably make their city of origin apparent to everyone in the vicinity, provoking a mass brawl. A lapse on the front door would almost certainly result in carnage.

“Come on, lets duck around and see what’s going on, we’ll give her a radio to call us if she gets into trouble.”

****

I moved to position on the door through the sweaty grindings of an inebriated sea of dancing peroxide in strobe and coloured lights. Here I have somehow found my home, hopefully temporarily, inside the bottled and released actions of angry young men.

All under control, I thought as Chandler put in the call on the radio “Robbo, trouble at The Fleet. What do you want us to do?”

Shit, I spoke too soon. I press in my mic “Meet me out the back in the lane, keep two on the front door and one inside, bring the rest.”

The short cut across the lane allowed us to be at the front steps of the Fleet in seconds. It was kicking off well. At first glance there was two separate fights each consisting of about four or five punters. We split into twos and made short work of it. Barging into the middle of the fray we collared the main trouble, worked out who was fighting who and ushered one lot out into the lane.

The baddies on the street wanted to go on with it for a bit but having one publican with a mile of front and three security guards who didn’t need it, seemed to settle them down reluctantly until their supporters inside kicked off again with the same group of guys.

They were dealt the same apparent injustice as their comrades and were also relegated to the alleyway. All seemed to be calm inside with the antagonists now pacing the laneway between The Fleet and the back of my joint. After checking the manageress was ok I left Chandler and another guard on the door of The Fleet to ensure the bad guys didn’t get back in and start things off again. I needed to get back to my gaff to ensure it wasn’t suffering the same fate.

We were not in my bar twenty minutes when Chandler put another call through “Robbo receiving?”

“Go ahead”

“Ah Robbo, I think you had better get back over here…..and bring help.”

One of my bouncers heard the call and met me at the back door, we poked our heads out into the lane, the crowd had swollen to over fifty and Chandler was pushing some back onto the street.

“Crap, lets go” We jogged quickly along the fence line and onto the steps of the pub, joining our other two guards. The crowd had lathered themselves up into a frenzy. Shouting. All the bad words. The guys inside were just as bad, banging on the windows riling them up further with every jeer.

‘What the hell happened? They were calm?”
“As soon as you left these guys called in their mates, we’ve had our hands full keeping them outside and then these pricks in the bar started taunting them. We’ve got to shut the doors, we can’t take all of them.”

“Do it, close ‘em.”  It perhaps wasn’t my call but this was getting out of control. Adam grabs a door but the angry mob rush at us in an attempt to force their way past. We were four guys standing on the steps of the pub, pushing the crowd back. A bottle smashes above our heads and a fist glances my cheek. “Shut the door” I yell.

The onslaught was relentless though and none of us could remove ourselves long enough to unhinge the doors. Our pushes became punches to try and protect ourselves before the mob lunged as one, busting through us.

I am forced to the left of the door, my security all to the right and a sea of aggression divides us. The next few minutes was a free for all, like a medieval war scene, two opposing forces collided as the wave of baddies flooded the door. Terror sets in, your instinct to survive heightens prickly on your skin as you duck and throw haymakers in futile attempts to avoid the flurry of fists, boots and bottles.

A guy rushes me with his fist cocked, I throw one, hitting him worse than flush and then wrestle him past me against a pool table as another one follows him, punching me in the eye. The adrenaline pumping through my veins, a natural anaesthetic. I ward him off the best I can, my arms feel like they are restrained as we jostle, my punches ineffective.

We spin, someone has picked up a pool cue and swings it at me, he is just out of reach. I am punched in the back of the head. I fail to turn to see my new opponent, instead I palm the second guy in the face and launch myself at the snooker fan forcing him backwards onto the second table with his cue lost from his grip. One massive elbow across his head and he stumbles back off, hesitant to reengage.

I look up breathless, stricken with fright. The battle was lost. My shirt ripped, hair wet with sweat and beer. My bouncers each had their hands full, and were being pushed back towards the bar by the animalistic horde. Men were now leaning across the counter grappling at the terrified bar staff. I make my way through the frenzy of fists, lashing out at anyone and everyone in desperation for survival.

I see Chandler and grab his attention, pulling him back towards me “get the guys, protect the bar staff and let these idiots punch themselves out” I yell. He grabs the other two bouncers and we span the bar face, kicking and punching off anyone that came close, staff behind us in a mix of fear and excitement.

Someone ripped a radiator out and hurled it, a glass ash tray took a gash from someone’s head and pool cues were the weapon of choice at the far side near the tables. It was hard to see whether anyone knew which side they were on anymore or if they were just caught up in the exhilaration of the moment.

Fights however never last long, for starters I don’t think anyone really enjoys getting the daylights kicked out of them and it is a fact that kicking the daylights out of someone else is a very tiresome exercise. The fight began to peter out and we moved back in, grabbing the weary combatants and throwing them out onto the street one by one. This time their obnoxious stance of defiance was fleeting and they all walked away, no doubt to tidy themselves up to enter another pub somewhere to celebrate and retell tales of their gallant and bravery in battle.

We empty the bar, shut the doors and to the shaken thank yous of the manageress we ambled back to my pub…… no doubt to retell of our gallant and bravery in battle also.

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.

The search for the Pangolin

Today is World Pangolin day and so I thought I would share with you a little bit about my search for this amazing little creature.

Pangolin are the world’s most illegally traded animal. The Asian market uses the scales for jewellery and medicines (most likely for impotence) and drain foetal blood for an elixir to reduce blood pressure. This wonderfully funny looking creature is now critically endangered.

The Pangolin is the only mammal covered in scales (made from the same material found in a rhino’s horn), it can live on the ground or in trees, it eats up to 70 million insects a year and its tongue can be longer than its body. In 2012 Sir David Attenborough chose the Pangolin as one of his ten favourite species he would save from extinction.

I first became intrigued about Pangolin when I was asking a Zimbabwean local about black magic.  He told me a story of a worker at a cotton mill near Harare in Zimbabwe who had found a Pangolin in the bush. The worker didn’t know what the bizarre creature was; describing it as a lizard that walked on its hind legs that had fish like scales. So he killed it.

African tribal beliefs are that the Pangolin is a mythical creature. This belief may partly lie in the fact that Pangolins are attracted to eat shiny objects and as such, years ago, when you killed a pangolin and cut open its stomach it sometimes contained diamonds.

The worker in this story showed the Pangolin to his co-workers who explained what it was and that it was very bad luck to kill a Pangolin because it held magical powers. Because the Pangolin was already dead the workers ate the animal. That day the cotton mill they were working at stopped. Without warning and without explanation.

The German owners of the mill called for their technicians to source the problem but no problem could be found. They engaged electricians from Harare who also could find no problem with the equipment. They had no choice but to call on their German headquarters to fly down experts in the machinery mechanics but they too could find no trace of a problem with the mill. It was a mystery that the mill could be in perfect working order but simply would not turn on.

Eventually word got round the crew of the worker who killed the Pangolin. Some of the men went to the site manager and explained that the killing of the Pangolin had caused the machinery to stop working. The German managers at first dismissed this information but as the days grew to weeks they became increasingly desperate for a solution.

The workers finally convinced them to call in the local tribal chief who suggested if the bosses promise not to punish the worker for his mistake in killing the pangolin, and for a moderate fee of course, he would be able to fix the situation. The German managers reluctantly agreed to payment on result and the chief called in the local witch doctor.

The witch doctor performed a ritual and when he was finished the chief sent the managers back to the mill. The machinery began to work immediately.

 

I have been searching for a Pangolin in the wild for over a decade throughout Africa and Asia since hearing that story and last year I got my best chance yet to finally see one.

My friends and I were staying at Erindi Reserve in Namibia. It was my first time back in Africa since I finished working as an overland tour guide many years ago. The first few days we had been on morning and evening game drives and by night we braii over a fire twenty metres from a waterhole where we were visited by Hippo, Crocodile, Oryx, Springbok, Impala, Blue Wildebeest, Red Hardtebeest, Elephant, Kudu, Giraffe and Zebra. Not bad viewing over our boerewors.

However this day we were to join our guide PJ to monitor a male Pangolin on the other side of the Reserve. We started out through the savannah of Erindi following a weak signal from the tagged Pangolin’s transmitter. PJ uses the transmitters to gather information about the Pangolin to help ensure their survival in the wild.

Early into the drive we encountered an Aardwolf with her cub. Aardwolves are shy nocturnal insectivorous mammals. It is extremely rare to see one at all, especially in the middle of the morning. Two Aardwolf cubs peek from the hole in their midden and curiously glance at us before darting away and returning. We unfortunately must interrupt this beautiful moment, we have a more pressing engagement with the Pangolin.

We continue through the scrub when we spot a Lion pride of nine. PJ identifies this pride as one led by Etosha, a strong and aggressive matriarch. Always a blessing, we must give appropriate time to appreciate the majesty of this animal. As we sat transfixed to the scene metres in front of us, two new males approach the pride.

PJ turns to me with an excited look.

“Takeover?” I ask. He nods back with a grin. This was truly a rare experience and one that sent thrills through our group. Traditionally the approaching males will kill all the cubs, bringing the lionesses in oestrus so they can start to build their own pride.

We watched on for hours as the lions tactically positioned themselves and attacked. However, after an aggressive and violent start, Etosha was too powerful and the males submitted, leaving her pride in tact. We still had a long way to go and had burned valuable Pangolin time. A detour that no one regretted.

One more stop to fearfully admire a three metre Black Mamba that crossed the path of the vehicle. I am told if a Black mamba bites you it is best to find a shady tree and lie down beneath it… dead bodies don’t smell as much in the shade. We watched on and followed slowly alongside the snake that seemed unphased by our presence. The Pangolin signal was strong, we weren’t far, so we said goodbye to the terrifying Mamba, all hoping we would never see one this close again.

Eventually we made it to where the transmitter was sending its signal but it appeared the Pangolin had already gone underground. We found fresh spoor as we walked around an Aardvark hole. We could smell the Pangolin, on musk, deep in the hole but he wasn’t coming out to meet us this day.

On the way home we found another pride of five lions. This one PJ said was led by Shadow. A 230kg male who terrifyingly got his name from his habit of following people home. We again sat transfixed to the pride before the declining sun cast a caramel hue across the savannah and beckoned us home. Diligently watching we didn’t have Shadow on our tail.

We eventually got back to our camp after an exciting day in the Reserve. Once again the Pangolin had eluded me.

Bizarrely, I kind of like that though. I love that nature isn’t on demand. Many years I have spent roaming the wild, looking for the Pangolin. Each trek leading me through breathtaking scenery and chance encounters with wildlife. It occurs to me, the experiences I have had in search of the Pangolin have contained some of the most deeply enriching and exciting moments.

I hope I see a Pangolin one day. Regardless of whether I am lucky enough to spot one though, given my encounters on the way, searching for this magical creature may bring some of the most rewarding times of my life.

 

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.”