Cycling the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and Tiburon

I picked up the bike at the rental store on Pier 39, upwind of the sealions, and pedalled along the Embarcadero past the crab and clam chowder stands of Fisherman’s Wharf and dropped down to Beach and joined the trail which cut through Fort Mason where I was staying in a hostel in an old wooden building which used to be part of an army base dating back to the Civil War.

“The coldest winter I ever spent,” said Mark Twain, “was a summer in San Francisco”. The city is often shrouded in what Kerouac called “an advancing wall of potato-patch fog”. But it was clear and bright the whole time I was there and warm until late afternoon when you all at once needed a coat. 

I rode alongside the marina and took a slight detour to poke around the Palace of Fine Arts, built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Then I rejoined the trail and cycled under palms along the shore at Crissy Fields, past pretty wooden buildings which were once a coast guard station and further along, at the opposite side, century-old seaplane hangers.  

The Golden Gate Bridge was centre stage in the distance and I headed towards it, navigating around a professional dog-walker with a fleet of dogs of various breeds and sizes and a family riding bikes three abreast.

The trail ran alongside the Bay and water lapped against the rocks. The stanchions and chains of the fence beside it were rusted where waves had lashed them. Fort Point came into view. It was built about a century before the bridge which now towers over it, just before the Civil War. It was there in Vertigo that Kim Novak’s character faked an attempt at suicide.

I pressed on towards it then found my way up to the carriageway onto the bridge and, though I had crossed it before on foot, still felt a slight thrill passing under the iconic towers. I crossed the Bay into Marin County and wound down the hill to Sausalito. 

It is technically a city in its own right but it is hard to see it that way when it only takes up two square miles and has a population of just 7,000. Kerouac wrote of it in On the Road as a “little fishing village”.

It was a bohemian enclave in his day and still was in the Sixties when Cosmopolitan wrote of:

“Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, a lovely stretch of land resembling the French Riviera, is an artists’ colony that can best be described as Barge Bohemia. It’s a pleasant place that looks a little like Monte Carlo, with gaily painted houses hanging on the hillside and a harbor crammed with the strangest flotilla I’ve ever seen: ferry boats, broken-down barges, houseboats and, here and there, a sleek yacht or two.”

It has gone steadily upmarket since then and is home now to Isabel Allende and Dave Eggars. There are big houses among the trees in the hills and Porsches and Ferraris parked in the street and delis and designer shops along the main drag. But the modern-day affluence has not bought out the atmosphere.

DimiTalen / Wikimedia Commons*

I cycled through the middle of town and alongside the harbour. There have been houseboats in Sausalito since at least 1906 when the earthquake left San Francisco in ruins. A shipyard was built at the edge of town in World War II and. after it closed, old ferries and landing crafts and barges were moored there and ramshackle living quarters built on them from scavenged materials.

One boat had sash windows reclaimed from a house, another repurposed a railway carriage. As they rotted they were set onto concrete platforms. There are about 400 of them now and, at least from a distance, they still have a freewheeling, hippy aesthetic, but can sell for $2m.

Leaving Sausalito, the trail continued along the Bay and over Coyote Creek and into the Bothin Marsh Preserve. Wading birds tottered through the wetlands and the sun glistened on the surface of the bay and ahead, in the distance, loomed Mount Tamalpais.

Stas Volik / Shutterstock.com

I had been on a bike just three times in the best part of six months since I left home and this was the first ride of any length, but it was a perfect day for cycling and I felt as if I could go on until nightfall.

I rattled over the bridge and through Bayfront Park and over another bridge onto the opposite side of the Bay and traced the headland round. I rode through quiet and comfortable residential neighbourhoods until again confronted with the expanse of the Bay. The houseboats of Sausalito were on the opposite shore now, in the distance ahead the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond it Alcatraz Island and to its right the skyline of San Francisco.

I climbed up Strawberry Drive and descended into Harbour Cove, round the marina and onto the road towards Tiburon. Somewhere along the way I had picked up a slow puncture and the tyre was properly flat by the time I got into town and bumped and wobbled towards the pier for the ferry back to San Francisco.

© Richard Senior 2021

*By DimiTalen – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31166480

The Barrier Reef in the Rain

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“Cairns experiences a tropical climate,” as Wikipedia reminds.

It was the wettest day of the wettest week in the month and a half that I spent in Australia. I walked in the rain to the terminal in what are known locally as boardies and thongs, or surf shorts and flip-flops as we would call them at home.

I had been in the city a few days by then, hoping for better weather that never came. I had wandered the streets to pass the time and to try to find something of interest. But if there were sights worth seeing, I missed them. If there were shops worth looking in, I passed them by.

It was the end of the road for my trip up the East Coast and I was there for the Barrier Reef. But, I wondered miserably, whether there was any point going out to it if the weather stayed the same. The girl at the hostel encouraged me.

In every stock image of the Reef, the sky is dramatically blue and the ocean a deeper blue with pools of turquoise, streaked with the greens and greys and browns of the coral. But on the day that I went, the sky was grey and the ocean the dingy green of a neglected watercourse downstream of a polluting factory.

There was a warning over the speaker that the crossing would be rough and all but about half a dozen of us stayed below decks. I idly watched a trawler coming in through the gloom and a crewman flicked me the middle finger. Yeah, G’day to you as well. Mate. 

The rain pounded down and the boat rolled and the wind howled and the waves flung themselves at the deck. Each one stung like a slap and wet me through afresh.

Image by yuejun gao from Pixabay

My eyes were screwed up against the saltwater but I knew from the banging of the door that the few other passengers out on deck had gone below. I tried, perversely, to tough it out. Then, eventually, inched my way, blinded by seawater, across the rolling deck to the cabin.

My teeth chattered, my knees knocked and I shook like a man in a shabby coat on his morning walk to the bottle shop. I have never been as desperately cold in my life, despite growing up in the North of England.

I wrung about a gallon of water from my t-shirt into the sink and lingered under the hand dryer to try to warm up. But I could not stop shivering and bought a souvenir t-shirt so as to have something dry to wear. I would have bought a souvenir jumper, coat, hat and scarf, as well, if they had sold them, but there were only t-shirts because Cairns experiences a tropical climate.

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I begged the crew for soup, or coffee or anything hot but they refused because of health and safety. They had probably been told by a bullshitter with a PowerPoint presentation that I would have grounds to sue them if I spilled hot soup when the boat was rolling, whereas it was entirely up to me whether I exercised my right to die of hypothermia.

The boat docked at the pontoon on the Outer Reef, which is probably a nice place to be in better weather as you gaze at the natural beauty and feel the sun warming your arms. On that day, though, it was as pleasant as trudging through puddles to get to the end of the queue for the taxis in some left-behind town you are anxious to leave. 

I continued to shiver in the glass bottom boat, but it lifted my spirits to cut through the gloom of the surface and catch sight of the Reef with the soft coral waving in the current and the fish meandering between, around and among them.

Then I squeezed into a wetsuit, slung a weighted belt round my waist and lowered a heavy porcelain collar over my neck. I had a transparent sphere screwed onto it and oxygen was pumped inside. I walked down a series of steps and platforms under the surface and down towards the ocean floor.

A scuba diver appeared and handed me sea cucumbers and coral to feel and squirted out food to attract the fish. A kaleidoscope of fish swam around me. Brilliant blue surgeon fish with fluorescent yellow fins. Orange, green and purple parrot fish. Big fat wrasse. Little yellow butterfly fish.

I was glad, in the end, that I went, and I stayed below decks on the voyage back to Cairns.

© Richard Senior 2021

Moving On

No more beach bars. No more fire shows. No more dancing barefoot on the sand in the warm night air with coconut palms in silhouette and longtail boats rocking gently at anchor. No more cold Singha beer at the end of hot days. No more ramshackle restaurants with open sides and red snapper speared with lemongrass sizzling on charcoal grills

But I was ready to move on by then. I had been back in Thailand for the best part of a month, after making my way through Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos and then from Chiang Mai through Bangkok to the Lower Gulf Islands, Samui, Pha Ngan and Tao.

What had once seemed exotic was now just part of the familiar backdrop. The guest houses seemed ever grottier. I had increasingly started to notice the smell of the sewage, and the bing-bong bell on the door of 7-11 was beginning to get on my nerves.

I climbed into the back of a Japanese mini truck with other travellers who were leaving the island and found half a space against the bodywork. There was nothing to hold onto for peace of mind and nothing much to stop me tumbling out, and the driver screamed the engine up and down the hills and round the corners on the way to the pier.

It was the usual drill for Thai transport hubs. Someone slapped a fluorescent dot on my singlet and I went to stand with the throng of travellers with different coloured dots according to destination.

No one seemed to know when the boat might come in. I did not even know where it was going. I assumed Surat Thani, where I had taken the train to get the boat to Samui. But in fact, it was Chumphon. I would find that out when I got there.  

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It was a sedate crossing to the mainland. I sat on the rail with my legs over the side and the wash soaking my feet, sharing sun cream with a girl from California.

The sun was setting by the time we came in.  It backlit the jungle behind the town, cast the mountains into shade. Songthaews, or share taxis, collected those of us were going on by train and ferried us in convoy to the station.

As the train rattled through the night, the guards came through and turned the seats into beds. The bar was closed and the doors between the carriages locked.

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I woke up early and looked out of the window as the train was slowing and recognised Ayutthaya by the sinister long-nosed tuk tuks and the abundance of stray dogs sniffing round in the crepuscular gloom. It was light by the time we pulled into Bangkok.

The local buses had intimidated me once. The destination boards are all in Thai script and conductors are unlikely to speak much English, but I asked at tourist information in the station for the route number and said “Thanon Khao San” to the conductor, who pointed out the stop as we approached.

I went to the quieter end of Soi Rambuttri and into the foyer of a guest house where I had stayed before and put my bag with those of the departing guests and checked my emails on their computer.

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Bangkok has a centripetal pull. Wherever you travel in South East Asia, you always, eventually, find yourself back in Bangkok. It was my fourth time there on this trip. I had seen the temples and the royal palace, browsed the night markets, fingered the amulets, wandered the workaday streets of Banglamphu and ventured beyond into the modern city.

I walked the block for the umpteenth time. Rambuttri, Chakrabongse, Khao San, Tanao and back along the other side of Rambuttri. I picked up lunch on the way from one of the carts which line the streets, better the further you get from Khao San Road.

It occurred to me that the tuk tuk drivers, masseuses, tattooists and street vendors no longer followed me down the road trying to shake me down for a few hundred Bahts, hearing no as not at that price.  No one harassed me at all.

Maybe my tan was deep enough by then that I looked as if I belonged. Or maybe it was because I had adjusted to the Southeast Asian pace. It had taken me a while to stop charging around at London speed, as if constantly late for a meeting. I would shift gear again, though. Geographically, I was heading further East: culturally, I was going back to the West.

In the late afternoon, I picked up my bag and went to find a taxi to take me to the airport for the flight on to Sydney.

© Richard Senior 2020

Riding with the Gauchos

The gauchos were hard, taciturn men. Their English was limited. My Spanish was worse. “Signor,” one growled and handed me the reigns of a horse he had led from of the paddock.

I grew up around horses and rode them for a term at university. Yet I have never been remotely confident with them. They always seem to be in charge.

There had been helmets whenever I had ridden them before. In Patagonia, a beret is thought protection enough. My beanie hat would have to do. We had mounting blocks back then, as well. Here in Argentina, you either swung up in one fluid movement as the gauchos did, or you floundered about like an upside down beetle until you were shoved into the saddle, like me.

We clip-clopped out of the estancia*, escorted by a fleet of dogs. The hooves kicked up the dust.

– acortar, said one of the gauchos riding alongside and holding up his reigns.

¿Que?

-acortar

-Perdón, no entiendo

“Espeak Inglis?”

-Si”

“Shorten” he said and gestured on his own reigns.

But however much I shortened the reigns, it never seemed short enough. “Shorten,” the gaucho called out repeatedly. It did not matter much, though, because the horse took no notice of me, anyway. It knew the way and followed the others. It carried on walking when I asked it to trot but, later, broke into a trot on its own initiative.

The only other guests were a couple from Venezuela, but they were more competent with horses, and spoke proper Spanish, and had signed up for a longer ride. They cantered off towards Lago Argentino with some of the gauchos.

The rest of us passed along dusty tracks into the hills. The landscape was starkly beautiful with stubbly grass and clumps of bush interspersed with rocks. The sun-bleached greens and windswept greys contrasted with the emerald green of Lago Argentino and the snow-dusted mountains beyond it and the deep blue of the sky swirling with clouds which threatened but never brought rain.

On the way back, within sight of the estancia, the horse decided that it had done enough for the day and declined to go any further. It knew full well that I had no authority to make it.  

“Come on!” I said in frustration, as if to a car which refused to start, and with just as much effect. Then ¡vamos! as if it might be a language problem. In the end, one of the gauchos had to ride back and coax the horse in. It listened to him.

Back at the estancia, I was handed a gourd of maté and a silver straw.

Yerba-maté is a plant of the holly family native to the Southern Cone countries. Its leaves have been dried, infused in hot water and drunk since pre-Colombian times. The maté gourd is as ubiquitous in modern Argentina as Styrofoam coffee cups in London at rush hour. They are cradled by passengers on buses, drivers of cars, people riding pillion on motorbikes and passed between friends in the park.

It is said to be an acquired taste, which means that it is foul to the uninitiated. I drank some out of politeness, passed back the gourd and said muchas gracias and adiós.

© Richard Senior 2020

*Ranch

Gangneung at a Gallop

The route from the station to the guest house looked straightforward enough. Cross the roundabout, down the main road. Last side-street on the left before the bridge, then take the first right.

The 202 and 303 buses ran between the Intercity Bus Terminal and the railway station. Just make sure to check that the destination board read 시내 (downtown) and not 경포 (Gyeongpo).

A 202 appeared at the top of the hill and pulled into the stop, then a 303, then a few more of each. None was heading 시내. The passengers from the Intercity bus from Gyeongju thinned out until I was the only one left. Other Intercity buses came in and disgorged their passengers and they, in turn, bundled into buses and taxis, got picked up by friends or set off on foot down the road.

Ojukheon

The train station would have been a perfectly sensible point of reference had it not been torn down to make way for a new line since my guidebook had been published. I would find that out later, though.

The tourist information centre gave me a route map and circled the stop nearest the guest house. It was on a street without obvious landmarks but I got there by counting off the stops on the map.

I should have taken another bus to Ojukheon House after I had dropped off my stuff but set off walking instead and was committed by the time I realised how far it was. It was a boring route with nothing to see except concrete and road signs and petrol stations.

Ojukheon

Ojukheon was the home of the sixteenth century artist, Shin Saimdang, and her son, the Confucian scholar, Yi I. Neither is exactly a household name in the West but they are celebrated enough locally to appear, respectively, on the 50,000 and 5,000 Won notes.

The walls are surrounded by coiffured bushes and bursts of azaleas in purple, pink and red. Two flights of steps lead through a gateway into the complex of wood-framed houses topped with swooping tiled roofs.

Further up the road, and further than I thought, is Seongyojang House which is an eighteenth century complex of hanok* houses set into woodland studded with pine trees and overlooking a lotus pond.

Seongyojang

After trooping round the houses and up through the trails in the woodland and looking back down on the complex, I did not much relish the long walk back to the guest house, so carried on up the road to the beach. It was, yet again, a much longer walk than expected but I eventually came to a stop for the 202 bus.

First thing next morning, I walked to the building site where the station used to be and took a rail replacement bus to Gangdong-Myeong, where the military stands ready for when the shooting starts again.

So far as the rest of the world is concerned, the Korean War ended half a century ago: a little-read chapter of a Cold War which itself is fading in the popular memory. But there was only ever a ceasefire agreement, never a peace treaty. The international forces fighting on either side went home, but the hostility between the two Koreas remained as hostilities went into uneasy stasis.

Jeongdongjin Beach (via Shutterstock)

The road to the beach is an agglomeration of tank traps, razor wire, sentry posts and heavily-armed patrols. At the optimistically-named Unification Park, there is an old US warship and a North Korean spy submarine which snarled up on rocks nearby in the Nineties and triggered an urgent manhunt. One of the crew remains unaccounted for.  

But the bellicose air evaporates at Jeongdongjin Beach at the bottom of the hill. Turquoise waves froth onto a pleasant stretch of sand. There are seafood stalls, a scenic train and a whimsical hotel in the shape of a cruise ship at the top of a hill.

Back in central Gangneung in the afternoon, I walked the five-mile trail around Gyeongpo Lake which meanders through grasslands, between pine trees, along boardwalks, past flowerbeds sculptures and statuettes, and from there up to the beach where I lazed until the light started to fade.

Gyeongpo

I stopped to eat at one of the seafood restaurants which line the road along the beach and then took the bus back to the guest house.

Maybe it is was the Kloud beer which I washed the fish down with, but the journey seemed oddly exhilarating as the driver flung the bus round the corners and a warm breeze wafted the through the windows and the neon of the night shimmered from the facades of the buildings. 

I had allowed two weeks to make my way up South Korea from Busan to Seoul but that was tight and I was pushed for time at each stop on the way. I had to press on the next morning to Sockho.

© Richard Senior 2020

* traditional wooden houses

Mosaics and Mausoleums in Morocco

It was early in the morning and we headed north to the mountains against the traffic.  

Grands taxis careered in the other direction, towards Meknés, so crammed with passengers that they bottomed out over bumps. A man led a donkey along the side of the road. Others walked alone, dressed for work, miles from the nearest settlement.

We swung round a corner and passed a flattened jeep with its wheels in the air and shattered glass all around it. “Oo-la-la,” said the driver, but kept up the speed.

At the height of the Roman Empire, its southern border ran right across the top of North Africa from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. The province of Mauretania Tingitana in what is now Morocco stretched from Tingis (Tangier) in the north to Volubilis in the south, 20 miles or so from Meknés. It was here that Juba II, a Romanized Berber installed on the throne by Caeser Augustus, commissioned the building of a royal city in 25 BCE.   

It was already hot in the early morning. The sun dazzled and the sky was deep blue and cloud-free. I had the site to myself at that hour and wandered along the dusty lanes, poked about the ruins and scrambled over rocks and looked across the valley to the mountains.

Volubilis had been abandoned by the fourteenth century. It was ravaged by an earthquake, plundered for stone for building and all but forgotten until the French Colonial period. Excavations began before the First World War and continued after independence. About half of the 40 acre site has been dug out.

Intact mosaic floors have been unearthed in the ruins of villas, the remains of the underfloor heating exposed. A triumphal arch and part of the basilica have been pieced back together. Storks nest at the top of the reassembled columns. There are steps and plinths with Latin inscriptions and what is left of the public baths.  

Image: Shutterstock

Nestled in the mountains over the valley a few miles to the west is the town of Moulay Idriss. It is named for the founder of Morocco’s first dynasty and contains his mausoleum. It is a place of pilgrimage for Moroccans.

I declined the services of the guides who approached and tried to make my own way through the warren of lanes which thread up to the terraces at the top of the town. But I was surrounded and hassled and, in the end, it was easier to go with a guide: not so much so he could show me round but to keep the rest of the people out of my face.

We threaded between the claustrophobic walls, up flights of steps, round dogleg corners, past scabrous doors and flaking paint and sagging telephone wires and emerged on a terrace which looked down across the green roofs of the mausoleum and the scrum of houses which surround it and extend to the edge and tumble down the side of the hill.

I paid the guide his best and final price and he talked the driver into giving him baksheesh, as well. Then it was back to Meknés and a train the next morning to Rabat.

© Richard Senior 2020

Chasing the Sun Through Namibia

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South from Swakopmund to Walvis Bay, then inland. Cutting through and skirting around the Namib-Naukluft National Park and setting down for the night in Sesriem.

Up again in the early hours. You would resign if your boss made you set off so early and so often for work as needs must when travelling in Africa. Yet you accept it, if not gladly then with only muted grumbling. Most days. Getting up in what ought to be the middle of the night, dismantling and packing the tent in the dark, shaving in cold water sinks under the supervision of an oversized spider. They are, as Hemingway put it in The Green Hills of Africa, “the discomforts that you paid to make it real”.

A peachy glow at the horizon, a penumbra of blue hint at sunrise as you head out towards the dune, 45 kilometres from Sesriem Gate.

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Image: Shutterstock

It is a Thing To Do in Namibia. You have seen the pictures in the agents’ windows. The sky a cobalt blue which seems to have been created in Photoshop but is just how it is there, on a clear day. Dune 45 bifurcated by its crest. One side, in the sun, a searing orange: the other, in the shade, oil black. There is usually a Land Cruiser in the shot, at the base of dune, to show scale.

There are always Land Cruisers in the early morning, as every traveller who passes through stops off at the dune to climb the ridge and sit at the top and watch the sun come up.

It is 170 metres to the top, or 560 feet. Some of the travellers in front find it hard going, or their hearts are not really in it. They slow the line right down. It is a frustrating stop-start procession to the top.

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Image: Shutterstock

There is an odd light this morning. The sky is a lavender colour and the sporadic trees have a painterly quality.  You can tell that the sunrise will not be spectacular, but it is only polite to stay and watch it. There is a hold up again as people begin to pick their way to ground level, so you skip the queue and run straight down the side of the dune.

From there onto Deadvlei. A drive and a walk across the sand. Around the time of the first Millennium of the Common Era, floodwaters from the Tsauchab River carved out a hollow which became a marsh, where camel thorn trees took root. Two centuries later, the droughts came and the marsh dried up and dunes rose around the clay pit blocking the path of the water for evermore.

The trees died and the sun scorched their skeletons and so thoroughly drained them of moisture they cannot decompose.

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It is a starkly beautiful landscape, surreal as a Dali painting. You walk across the creamy clay, baked and tessellated by the sun. It contrasts with the rusty orange of the dunes around it. Dotted about are the remains of the trees which died in what we call the Middle Ages. You wander among them, give one an exploratory tap.

Later you head back to Sesriem, then push on south to Fish River Canyon. It is the next biggest in the world after the Grand Canyon. Less than a third as deep and half as long as long, but it has been around for 500 million years longer and, to put that into some kind of perspective it is about 250 million years since the first dinosaur, about 60 since the last.

You wander round the lip, gaze over the folds and contours of the rock and try to process the unfathomable scale. You stand at the edge and look down and, as often, someone takes it as a challenge. They balance on their hands and dangle their legs over the chasm. But you were not competing and take no notice.

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The late sun is casting deep shadows by the time you leave. There are tiny flickers of flame from campfires deep in the canyon. In the morning, you will travel on to Orange River and the next day cross into South Africa.

© Richard Senior 2020

 

Sailing in Sydney

I took the lift to the viewing platform at the top of the tower which sprouts from the Westfield centre and looked out across the city and over the harbour to the Heads. It was Sydney Regatta week and an abundance of yachts was sailing in the bay with spinnakers puffed up with wind, a swirl of blue and pink, purple and green.

I would be out there myself the next day.

Sailing on an America’s Cup Yacht had been on my bucket list since the summer of the previous year when I crewed on a boat in the Round the Island Race. I was not even sure whether it was possible, and had no expectation of making it happen on this trip.

But then I found out by chance about an outfit which ran voyages out of Darling Harbour in a pair of IACC yachts from the nineties.

The Darling Harbour Yacht Club invested US $10m in its challenge in 1992, when the International America’s Cup Class standard was adopted. Its boat, AUS 21, came sixth, out of nine, in the Louis Vuitton Cup races to decide which of the challengers would face the defending team.

The other one, AUS 40, was built for the Antibes Yacht Club as a challenger in the 1995 Cup with the flag number FRA 40. But it was not finished in time and, in the end, the nearest it got to the  America’s Cup was as a training boat for the Swiss challenger in 2000.

I was on the older boat with the better backstory. Nothing about AUS 21 looked dated, even if it was two decades past its prime by then. It was all Kevlar, carbon fibre and alloy, everything pared right down to save weight; everything streamlined. It made the yacht I had raced on the year before seem as clumsy and well-padded as a cross-Channel ferry. But then so did our place in the results table.

I had been sort of working then, even if I was doing it for fun and paying for the privilege: I had an appointed station and had to stay there and do as I was told.

This was different. Some of the passengers wanted no more than to laze on the deck and top up their tans and that was fine; but you could get involved if you wanted to. It would have frustrated me just to watch. I manned one of the grinders, as they call the winches which tension the sheets (that is, ropes) which trim the sails and regulate speed. It is a good upper body workout.

We raised the mainsail as we slipped out of the harbour and motored round Millers Point. The staysail went up as we passed beneath the Harbour Bridge.

Then cruising towards the Heads, making 8 knots according to the digital display. The yacht could do about 18 with a good wind behind it. Then heeled right over with everyone up on the rail. Then tacking across the harbour. Throwing my weight into the grinder. Sliding over to starboard. Heads down as the boom crashes across the deck.

We were out for around two hours then headed back, lowered the sails and motored under the Bridge. I watched a group slowly make its way up the arch.

I would be up there myself the next day.

©  Richard Senior 2020*

*Except America’s Cup images via Pixabay:

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The Parrillas of Buenos Aires

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“There are gods here beside tango and football or soccer as we call it. There is beef….” – Anthony Bourdain

Grass-fed beef sizzles on the grill. Fruity Malbec swirls into glasses. Waiters scurry with plates and bottles. Customers wait in line at the doorway. Aromatic smoke from the grill wafts under their noses and into the street.

The parrilla is an Argentinian institution. They are on almost every block in Buenos Aires. The word means grill and rhymes with Alicia, and not as I thought with Mariaand, no, not with gorilla, either. Argentinian steakhouses elsewhere in the world try to recreate the ambience, but it rarely travels well.

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A parrilla can be bustling and informal like El Desnivel in San Telmo, where the walls are cluttered with old photographs, tango posters and beer adverts, and the chimichurri comes in a plastic bowl and locals jostle for tables with tourists clutching Lonely Planet guides.

But it could just as well be hushed and slick like Al Carbón in the Microcentro with its blonde wood floor, exposed girders and customers negotiating deals over food which is not just put on the plate but presented.

Or it might be as traditional as El Establo in Retiro with shaded gold lettering on the windows and an interior of wood panelling, landscape paintings and hunting trophies.

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But at the heart of them all is the long grill with a firebox at one end where burning wood glows red hot and the smouldering embers are shovelled up and laid beneath the  slats, which are v-shaped and on a slight incline to drain off excess fat, and the parrillero* uses a pulley to raise and lower the grill to regulate the heat.

By tradition, you might start with sweetbreads or chitterlings cooked on the grill. But the more squeamish can choose things like boquerones (marinaded anchovies), grilled Provoleta cheese sprinkled with dried oregano, slices of prosciutto served with palm hearts, or empanadas, as if you will not have eaten several of those already.

Order bife de chorizo for main and you get a slab of sirloin steak the thickness of three fingers. Ojo de bife gets you ribeye, entraña skirt, vacío flank and lomo fillet or filet mignon.

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Surprisingly in a nation passionate about beef, the steaks tend towards overdone. By default, they come a punto, at best, which is medium well. If you want your steak cooked as it ought to be, you have to ask.

Muy jugoso, literally very juicy, is said to mean rare but is more often interpreted as medium rare. Vuelta y vuelta gets you something closer to the European idea of rare. At the other extreme, cocido is how my dad would have liked it: as if it had dropped into the firebox and been forgotten about.

It is often said that the only condiment needed for the meat is the salt with which it is grilled. But at some parrillas it will come with a bowl of chimichurri, made with finely-chopped parsley and garlic, a hint of chilli flakes, an abundance of dried oregano, olive oil and a good slug of red wine vinegar. There may also be salsa criolla, which is red and green peppers, tomatoes and onions diced and mixed with olive oil, wine vinegar, chopped garlic and a shake each of dried oregano and chilli flakes.

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Fries are the classic side dish, usually plain, sometimes a la provenzal with chopped garlic and parsley sprinkled over them when hot. There might also be a token salad of lettuce, tomato and onion.

Steak will not be the only main. Also popular are tiro de asado (short ribs), the Argentinian versions of chorizo and morcilla and – for groups – a parrillada or mixed grill. This might typically include vacío steak, chorizo, morcilla and achuras or organ meat. The ethos in Argentina is to use every bit of the cow, so there might be some surprising bits and pieces. They could serve you criadillas, if they have the balls for it.

Vegetarian options include cheese.

© Richard Senior 2020**

*Grill chef

**Except chorizo image via Pixabay

On a Slow Boat in China

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I embarked at Guilin on the boat for Yangshou and went up on deck and leant on the rail at the front in the sun.

It was a slow boat and chugged sedately down the Li River, winding its way, in convoy with other boats, between the ranks of misty karsts. They stretched into the distance and faded into silhouette in shades of blue and grey and smudged with the sky at the horizon.

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Every karst with an arresting shape has a legend attached to it and a picturesque name. There is Elephant Trunk Hill and Pagoda Hill and Ox Gorge, where a peak is reckoned to be in the shape of an ox and other features to resemble lions, tigers, bats and dragons.

The word resemble does a lot of heavy lifting along the Li River. Yearning for Husband’s Return Hill, which is not such a mouthful in Chinese, has a rock which is said to resemble a man in ancient costume and another supposedly resembling a woman with a baby on her back who is gazing in his direction. A rock which is claimed to resemble a container of rice is also part of the legend. TL;DR: the couple only had rice to eat, gave it to an old lady, starved and turned to stone.

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Buffalo waded into the green-blue water and snacked on reeds. Cockle-pickers sifted through sand at the side of the water. Vendors rowed up to the boats on bamboo rafts with boxes of fruit and called out like market traders. Around towns, flotillas of boat taxis scudded out to meet passengers with tiny outboard motors screaming. Occasionally there was a river barge with a patina of rust and a roof made from corrugated sheets. Sometimes a fisherman with a cast net.

At Nine Horse Mural Hill, the cliff face looms a hundred metres above the river and the rock is exposed in piebald patches which are believed to take the shape of horses, sitting, standing, galloping, or nodding to drink from the water.

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You might notice one of the horses even if you knew nothing of the legend, three or four if you had heard it and were trying your best to see horses. The others take more imagination by orders of magnitude, and those who see them all would likely tell you that any given object you pointed out looked like a horse.

Along the river, there is Green Lotus Peak where a group of karsts is thought to look like a lotus flower and there is a two-storey pagoda first built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Beyond it is Schoolboy Hill, which is a karst said to bring to mind a schoolboy reading a book.

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It takes half a day to get to Yangshou on the slow boat, but I was in no kind of hurry. The sun was hot and the landscape pleasant and the sense of peace was welcome after the bustle of Chinese cities.

I ignored the announcement to go below decks as we neared Yangshou and had the deck to myself until we docked and I went down and out and along the jetty and onto the street to find my hostel.

© Richard Senior 2020