recollections

12, Flinders’ Ranges, the Outback: Huddling around a lonely fire, dogs slinking about at the edge of darkness. We skewer sausages and roast them, with the dusty land, the infinitude of stars as companions. In the morning, I wake early and with the rising sun, trek out to see the kangaroos grazing amidst the bush.

15, Sabah, Malaysia: Chased by a storm at dusk, we stop at a deserted prawning farm by the river, the smell of marshland and rain heavy in the humid air. We pull at our lines to draw the prawns and the water bubbles as fish surface briefly. Then the skies break and rain batters the zinc roofs, vestiges of a fading era. A great peal of thunder and for a brief second white lightning illuminates the entirety of the marshes as the building shakes. Plunged into semi-darkness as the electricity goes out, we wait, a little shaken, for the lights to come on.

17, Yosemite, California: My brother and I step out onto the ice and it cracks ominously. He throws a stone, breaking the placid surface of the lake where it is yet unfrozen. I can see bubbles, tiny and fragile, in the clear ice beneath my feet.

19, Bagan, Myanmar: We sit outside a temple on flimsy chairs, sipping sweet coconut juice through pastel plastic straws. The dusty ground is the color of burnished copper, as is everything in this sacred region. Behind us, miniature wooden puppets hang spookily in a tree, the late afternoon sun casting strange shadows. Later, we cycle by starlight over treacherous dirt roads past fields of dry, uncut grass and the sensation of flight, of freedom, is exhilarating.

On Arches National Park (Part 2)

Yuriy and Julia (i.e. Mr and Mrs Globetrot) took some incredible photos of Arches National Park in Utah. I love this national park (see my earlier post) and having climbed up to view Delicate Arch myself, I can assure you it is every bit as spectacular as these photos.

I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams… (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince)

On Ball’s Pyramid

The Lord Howe Island Group is situated off the southeastern coast of Australia. Australia, where I have spent many Decembers during my childhood, is a place of many wonders and these islands are no exception. Particular reverence is to be paid to Ball’s Pyramid, a stark, jagged volcanic stack rising steeply from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Born of an ancient shield volcano and caldera formed 7 million years ago, discovered in 1788, it holds the allure of peaks like the K2 or Everest, a siren call to climbers and adventurers to come forth and conquer it. A team from Sydney finally did, in 1965.

Hatty Gottschalk‘s photographs take us where these adventurers have been.

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“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. – Captain Ahab, Moby Dick”

On the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert is the driest non-polar desert in the world. It lies west of the Andes Mountains, on the Chilean coast. It has been described as a desolate lunar landscape on Earth, with lunar rovers being test-run on the terrain. This parched landscape also has its share of geysers and volcanoes, believe it or not. During years where the El Niño effect is especially strong, where the waters off the Peruvian coast warm, the Atacama desert blooms into what is called a “flowering desert” or desierto florido (because Spanish sounds so much more romantic).

The arresting landscape, as seen below in photos taken by Stéphane San Quirce and lepinephotos.

The geological landforms are stunning. Photos by mikkol79gaujourfrancoise,

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The blooming desert after rain, by Miss Mountain and lephinephotos.

And the beautiful Licancubar volcano, by Francoise Gaujour.

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The blue, shimmering Altipatic Lagoon:

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The Paranal observatory situated on a mountain in the desert, that study the skies for worlds vast beyond our imagination, beautifully photographed by Owen Perry or Circa 1983. These deserve a later post all of their own.

On the Alhambra

The Alhambra is a mystical, beautiful place, a Moorish fortress palace sitting atop a hill rising above the Spanish town of Granda. It is a relic from the time when the Moors ruled Granda and filled it with music, artists, poets and poetresses who dreamt up poetry “like the language of doves”. Granada, the birthplace of the spirited poet Federico Garcia Lorca and his passion for duende. Lorca, Leonard Cohen’s greatest influence and probably the greatest Spanish poet to have graced this earth, lived and died in his beloved Granada at the hands of fascist soldiers during the Spanish Civil War.

Lorca, who weaved immortal words from duende, Spanish nights and roses:

Today in my heart
a vague trembling of stars
and all roses are
as white as my pain.

Listen to Frances Mayes describe the Alhambra’s Courtyard of Lions:

“The root of the word paradise means “walled garden”. The enclosed Islamic gardens profoundly influenced the western medieval gardens. The cruciform designs of the monasteries conveniently paralleled Christian iconography, but the design previously reflected the Islamic concept of paradise, with four rivers flowing out in the cardinal directions from a single source. “Four-chambered heart,” Ed muses. “Did they think of that too?”

Leslie Stainton speaks of the view from the Alhambra:

“From the heights of the Alhambra I have often watched the sun linger on the horizon and contemplated the mournful sound of Granada’s church bells at dusk. Lorca said there were a thousand of them. They blend with the music of the city’s two rivers and its hundreds of fountains and hidden springs. The water in Granada is somber. In its presence you feel you have touched the city’s pulse.”

Intricate and elegant Arabic inscriptions have been carefully carved into the walls of the Alhambra. Tourists and visitors continue to be perplexed by the artful words, a language beautiful but incomprehensible. “The form of script is angular kufic, whose uprights sprout into decorative foliage, or intertwine; curlicue cursive; or a mixture of forms. In a culture that banned human images, the form as well as the content of the calligraphy was designed to exalt temporal and heavenly rulers.” These writings have been decoded by researchers and they reveal stunning lyricism.

On the basin of the Fountain of Lions:

For, are there not in this garden wonders
that God has made incomparable in their beauty,
and a sculpture of pearls with a transparently light,
the borders of which are trimmed with seed pearl?
Melted silver flows through the pearls,
to which it resembles in its pure dawn beauty.
Apparently, water and marble seem to be one,
without letting us know which of them is flowing.
Don’t you see how the water spills on the basin,
but its spouts hide it immediately?
It is a lover whose eyelids are brimming over with tears,
tears that it hides from fear of a betrayer.
Isn’t it, in fact, like a white cloud
that pours its water channels on the lions
and seems the hand of the caliph, who, in the morning,
grants the war lions with his favours?

And in the Hall of the Two Sisters, it is declared:

I am a garden adorned by beauty:
my being will know whether you look at my beauty.
Oh, Mohammed, my king, I try to equal
the noblest thing that has ever existed or will ever exist.
Sublime work of art, fate wants me to outshine every other moment in history.
How much delight for the eyes!
The noble one renews his desires here.
The Pleiads serve as his amulet;
the breeze defends it with its magic.
A gleaming vault shines in a unique way,
with apparent and hidden beauties.
The hand of a devoted to Gemini;
and the Moon comes to converse with her.
The stars wish to rest there,
and not turn around the celestial wheel,
and they wish to await submissively in both courtyards,
and serve tenaciously like slaves:

The Alhambra stands as one of the pinnacles of Islamic architecture, overflowing with light, shadows and the Arabic love of numbers, poetry and geometry. I shall continue to dream of it, hazy in the golden sunlight, the sound of water trickling past walls carved with untold stories, a paradise tended to by the hearts, hands and minds of men.

On Arches National Park and Edward Abbey

I love Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Documenting his three seasons as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Southeastern Utah, it is a passionate and oftentimes angry love letter to Nature and the desert. The NYT described it as such: “A passionately felt, deeply poetic book. It has philosophy. It has humor. It has its share of nerve-tingling adventures…set down in a lean, racing prose, in a close-knit style of power and beauty.”

I own a physical copy and flipping through it now, I find lovely passages:

Now the night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation.

Suddenly it comes, the flaming globe, blazing on the pinnacles and minarets and balanced rocks, on the canyon walls and through the windows in the sandstone fins. We greet each other, sun and I, across the black void of ninety-three million miles. The snow glitters between us, acres of diamonds almost painful to look at.

I read Desert Solitaire, Abbey’s thesis on the desert and freedom, after my visit to Arches National Park. How I wish I could have had his book on hand while travelling amongst the cliffrose and juniper, the burnished rocks and soft sands. Here are a couple of photos from that trip (I will upload more in future). I believe the bottom is Landscape Arch.

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The Edge of the Earth

untitled by Nicola Abraham on Flickr.

And I liked the idea of telling my kid, “When you were inside me, we went to see the edge of the earth.”

But the truth is, the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic. There is no adventure I would trade them for; there is no place I would rather have seen. Sometimes, when I think about it, I still feel a dark hurt from some primal part of myself, and if I’m alone in my apartment when this happens I will hear myself making sounds that I never made before I went to Mongolia. I realize that I have turned back into a wounded witch, wailing in the forest, undone.

Most of the time it seems sort of O.K., though, natural. Nature. Mother Nature. She is free to do whatever she chooses.

Today I read this beautiful piece of travel writing, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” by Ariel Levy. Here are some of my favourite parts. Do me a favour and go read it here.

Nugget Point

Nugget Point

One of my favourite places on the South Island. It’s a long dreary drive out, but I promise you that it’s worth it. We were lucky enough to be the only ones at the lookout, with the wind, the ocean and rugged cliffs for company.