The Gardens of Kanazawa

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Japanese gardens are landscapes in miniature.

Rocks symbolise mountains, streams represent rivers and ponds stand in for seas; water cascades from one pond to another in allusion to mountain waterfalls. Every stone is carefully chosen for colour, shape and size, and placed with precision in clusters.

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Just as much thought goes into to the placement of suteishi (‘discarded’) stones, which are meant to seem random and express spontaneity, for even the spontaneous is meticulously planned in Japan.

On the backstreets of Kanazawa, there are old Samurai houses with gardens no bigger than you would find behind a modest house in the English suburbs. Yet, without seeming cramped, they incorporate streams filled with koi carp, lanterns, pagodas, mini-boulders, arched bridges, cedars and firs.

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They are not gardens in which you could kick a football about or set up a barbecue and have friends round for burgers and beers on a hot summer’s evening, but the idea would assuredly horrify in Japan, in any case. They are gardens to gaze at, gardens to cheer the soul.

Kenroku-en is just a few blocks away but on a wholly different scale. It is a public garden – once part of the grounds of Kanazawa Castle – which undulates over 114,000 Sq m and is reckoned one of the three most beautiful in Japan. The name means something on the lines of Garden with Six Attributes, a reference to an ancient book which posited that the ideal garden would have the six attributes of “spaciousness & seclusion, artifice & antiquity, water-courses & panoramas”.

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At the highest point, there is a view through the cherry blossom across the city and the hills to the mountains; fish eagles soar overhead. Nearby is the pond known as Kasumiga-ike, which stretches over 5,800 Sq m. An old wooden tea house sits over the pond on  pillars.

The path spirals down the hill, named Sazae-yama – or Turban Shell Hill – after the pattern on the shell of a type of sea snail which is a popular local delicacy. The ground either side is carpeted in moss and dotted with fallen blossom.

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It leads down to another pond, Hisago-ike, fed by a six-metre-high cascade from Kasumiga-ike which tumbles down through the trees and rocks with a soothing hiss. Mallards glide across the surface, smearing the reflection of the deep green fir trees and soft pink cherry blossoms. Herons take to the air with a little jump from a rock. Koi carp teem at the edges. Bees buzz the blossom.

The path meanders through the gardens, ushering you into secret spaces, opening out into vistas (spaciousness & seclusion), past fir trees with their roots exposed, and wooden props under the branches of the oldest and biggest to stop them breaking in heavy snow, and cherry and plum blossoms and Japanese maples and stone lanterns and pagodas thickly coated with moss, which is welcomed for the impression it gives of great age (artifice & antiquity) over humped-back bridges across streams lined with iris and azaleas, offering glimpses again of the mountains (water-courses & panoramas).

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Every rock, every tree, every lantern seems so perfectly positioned that to move any one would ruin the harmony of the whole garden. It is a profoundly peaceful place: a place where anxieties melt away and you feel a rare lightness of spirit.

© Richard Senior 2016

Another Day in Swakopmund

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Another day in Swakopmund, another group of travellers, another early minibus out to the dunes.

This pretty German Colonial town is marketed as Namibia’s adventure capital. There is sandboarding, quad-biking, ballooning, camel-riding, sky-diving, parascending and deep-sea fishing. Yesterday was sandboarding, today is ATV’s.

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Travellers stepped out of the minibuses which had collected them from tour agents, guest houses and campsites around town. We were funnelled inside, given waivers to sign and helmets to wear, and led off in small groups.

I pulled on the helmet, started the quad bike and we rolled out of the centre in line astern behind the guide, past grassy hillocks into the open desert. The sun cast long shadows behind us, the sky was a deep and improbable blue, the sand glowed orange and pink.

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Skudding across the floor of the desert, throttle wide open, engine howling, feeling the heat rise from the crankcase, looping up, along and down a high dune, treating it like a berm on a mountain bike trail, kicking up the odd puff of sand; back onto the flat, then bumping over the crest of a smaller dune. The driver in front takes the next one too slow and bogs down; the back wheels dig in, churning up sand in clouds. I swerve round her and keep the throttle open and make it up and over the top, getting momentarily airborne.

It is a landscape of majestic nothingness: a sea of sand blown into waves by the wind, the colours changing as the sun rises as the morning unfolds. They filmed Mad Max: Fury Road here, using these dunes to represent the apocalyptic landscape of a world after a nuclear war. In reality, the toxic smoke would block the sun for years and start another ice age, but only the cockroaches and hardier sorts of wasp would mind: humans and everything else would be extinct.

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The guide raised his hand to get us to stop, left his quad bike running and walked off into the desert. He came back with a namaqua chameleon in his hand. When he released it, the dark chameleon began to lighten until it was a similar colour to the sand, although it is said to be a myth that they change colour for camouflage. It shuffled off, then, with its comedy power walk, all elbows and knees.

We pressed on into the desert and the surefooted ATV’s clung to the side of the dunes, and powered up steep slopes and rolled down the other side, and I felt in control throughout and never in much danger and came round to thinking that the popular idea that these things are deathtraps was just scaremongering by the tabloid press.

Then I heard later that one of the guys I had got the minibus with that morning had gone over the handlebars and wound up in hospital with a broken scapula.

© Richard Senior 2016              

A Flying Visit to the Grand Canyon

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It was only 275 miles to the Grand Canyon.

Back home, that would be the sort of journey you plan for months and talk about for years, but travelling, back to back, through Australia, New Zealand and the US had changed my ideas about distance irrevocably.

I was going to go by bus. I had done similar bus journeys often enough over the past few months: Port Macquarie to Byron Bay (249 miles), Airlie Beach to Cairns (385), Nelson to Christchurch (257), Franz Josef to Queenstown (219), and most recently LA to Vegas (270). But then the agent told me that the bus came at five in the morning, and that meant getting up at four, and four is a time to come in, not go out.

There was another way, though. If I gave up on the idea of a helicopter flight to the floor of the canyon and went to the South Rim instead of the West, I could go on an executive plane for the same sort of money, and get up at a sensible time.

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I would never get to fly in an executive aircraft in the ordinary course of things, so it was worth doing just for that. It was essentially a miniature airliner but with the trim level of a Mercedes, and the whole experience hinted at what regular flying might be if airlines gave two shits about passenger comfort and the cabin crew were not on such power trips.

At ground level, only the intense dry heat reminds you that Las Vegas was built in the middle of the desert, but from the air you see that there is little for a hundred miles all around it but mountains and dust.

We flew east over the Hoover Dam, proud symbol of a lost Keynesian world, across the Arizona state line and on over the West Rim and the glass-bottomed Skywalk and followed the canyon round to the airport at the South Rim, where the captain pulled off a perfect landing, shaving off height as we floated down the runway, easing the nose up, and finally settling it gently on the wheels.

So did I do okay then?” he asked brightly, but did not get the applause he deserved because most passengers expect every landing to be like that and complain if it is not, even in a 20-knot crosswind.

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Of course the Grand Canyon is massive; we all know that. The sort of people who fill their heads with facts and reel them off at half a chance will tell you that it is 277 miles long, a mile deep, four miles wide at its narrowest point, and eighteen at the widest.

But figures like that never mean very much until you see the thing for yourself. The vastness of it astonished me. I gazed across at the opposite rim, as you might look towards the outer suburbs from the tallest building downtown, and deep down at the floor where the Colorado River, which carved this great gash into the earth, looked a pathetic trickle.

My eyes recalibrated for the scale, and when I looked round, the people on a nearby ledge seemed for a moment the size of toy soldiers until I refocused again.

The colours in the rock constantly change as the sun makes its way across the sky, from red to orange, from violet to pink; from cream to beige to gold, from grey to blue to green. I could have stayed and looked all afternoon at the contours and folds, the stripes and shadows, the ever-changing palette.

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There were warning signs everywhere exhorting people not to try hiking to the floor of the canyon and back in a day but a cheerful group of guys appeared at the rim having done just that and I would almost certainly have had a go myself if I had been there long enough. It looked eminently doable to me.

As it was, though, I only had an hour left to walk the first bit of the trail, down and round, down and round and then turn back, get back on the bus and back on the plane to Vegas.

© Richard Senior 2016

Dawn to Dusk at Chobe National Park

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It was cold in the early morning in an open Land Cruiser. I layered up in just about all of my clothes, knowing that I would have to peel most of them off after the sun came up. But it was dawn and, as yet, the only hint of the sun was a pinkish effulgence along the horizon. It was a good time for spotting game.

Just inside the park, there was a buffalo carcass, picked clean in the night, the best bits presumably eaten by lions, the rest polished off by vultures. There was a flock of them sitting in the trees around it, and a little further down the track, a coalition of lions. A lioness crossed the track right in front of the jeep; her fur was still stained with the blood of the buffalo. She walked with pugnacious purpose, as if on her way to argue with some petty bureaucrat.

Giraffes and kudu grazed peacefully just a few metres from the lions, but it no longer surprised me, as it had when I first got to Africa, how close together the carnivores and herbivores lived.

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We were camping in the grounds of an upscale safari lodge on the banks of the Chobe River, across two bridges, through trees and way out of sight of the overfed, big-tipping tourists. There were signs nailed to the trees near the river which read Beware Crocodiles and Beware Hippos, with a crude picture of each in case you were not sure what the big thing was which was chasing you down.

Hippos might be herbivores, but they panic if they think their route to the water is blocked and kill more people than any other animal in Africa. And, no, smartarse, malarial mosquitos don’t count.

In the mid-afternoon, when the heat of the day had begun to die down, we went out on the river in a safari boat.

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The water was a rich royal blue; the sun glinted on its surface. The soil on the banking was dry and dusty but dotted with trees; there was a tangle of roots at the water’s edge. A telegraph pole, shouldered aside by an elephant, stood at a 45-degree angle.

A crocodile lay at the side of the river, its lime green eyes twinkling with malevolence, a sharp-toothed grin on its face. “He’d make a good handbag,” someone on the boat said, distastefully; and the crocodile was probably thinking along similar lines about her.

There were islands in the middle of the river and a family of four hippos had migrated to one for a spa day: they luxuriated in the mud and laid down to snooze while oxpeckers fussed over them, ridding them of bothersome parasites.

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A buffalo grazed up to its chest in reeds while a white egret strutted about on its back. More egrets poked about in the reeds and were startled when a hippo surfaced without warning and stayed for a while with its wet head glistening above the water and its dangerous bulk below like a submarine. The egrets came back when they saw that it was only a hippo and one pecked at its snout while the hippo watched indulgently.

Another croc lay on the island with its horrible mouth wedged open for ventilation. A flock of cormorants sat dangerously close to the crocodile, as if for a dare.

A herd of elephants shuffled along the bank, stopping to pick up trunks-full of dust and toss it over themselves. They got to the water’s edge, limbered in and swam across in line astern; the calves entwined their trunks around their mothers’ tails, like small children holding a parent’s hand when crossing the road.

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The sun began to set again, then. It tumbled down behind the acacia trees and vanished from sight, leaving only a salmon pink glow in the sky.

© Richard Senior 2016

Camel Train to the Sahara

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How are you, my friend?”

“I’m very good, thank you. And you?”

“Very good. Insh’Allah. First time on camel?”

“Yeah. I’ve ridden elephants, though.

“Camel is different.”

“Of course. No trunk, right?”

There is an art to getting on a camel. No one told me what it was. I got on like a drunk trying to scale a fence. The Bedouin, then, told the camel to get up and, in three distinct movements, it thrust its head forward, extended its back legs – tipping me forward as if in a roller-coaster going over the top – then brought its front legs up to meet them.

There was a group of us – British, French, Dutch, Austrian, Canadian, Korean and Japanese – gathered from hotels, hostels and riads around Marrakesh and driven 350 miles across country to the edge of the Sahara where the road stopped abruptly and the towns thinned out to villages, then hamlets and finally to nothing but an isolated hostel and sand. The camel train would take us the rest of the way.

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The camels were roped together in two groups of four with a Bedouin leading each group. I had the camel at the front of the train behind a Bedouin in an ankle-length thobe and turban, and jeans and Asics trainers. He hummed to himself as he ambled through the dunes, until his smartphone rang. He was a digital nomad.

The winds had stacked, shaped, sculpted, smoothed and polished the sand into hills and valleys, peaks and troughs, soaring anything up to five hundred feet, then plunging back to the desert floor, gently undulating, and soaring up again; the ridges were sharply creased, the slopes pristine.

It was all the same to the camels, who plodded along with deliberate steps, never slowing, never slipping, up sinuous inclines, along knife-edge trails across the dunes, and down slopes steep enough to worry me about going over the handlebars. They have a reputation for being foul-tempered things which spit and burp and growl, but then so do some of us. These camels had a relaxed air and beatific smiles. They seemed barely to notice, let alone to care about, the strangers on their backs.

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The sand glowed orange in the dying sun of the late afternoon; the shadows were long and dark. We stopped at the top of a dune and looked west and watched the sun slip below the horizon, then set off again in the twilight.

It was a lot more comfortable on the camel than I imagined it would be, but my thighs eventually began to protest at constantly stretching around the saddle bags and I was glad when we got to the camp.

The camels sank to their knees and I got off as clumsily as I had got on. The Bedouins unloaded the saddle bags and we dumped our stuff in the tents. They were a roughly rectangular shape, flat-roofed, waist-high, with a wooden frame covered with stitched woollen blankets.

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There was a big communal tent, too, with flickering lanterns, low tables, Berber rugs and a family of tabby cats. The Bedouins poured out mint tea, lit a crackling camp fire and cooked a simple but perfectly good tagine. The cats noisily begged us to share it and, as always, it worked with me: they got the chicken and I had the bread and potatoes.

I had packed an overnight bag and shorts and a t-shirt to sleep in, but I am not sure where I thought I was going to find water, nor whether I really envisaged stripping off and getting ready for bed in the dark and the cold of the desert. As it was, I just laid down fully-clothed and pulled a couple of Berber rugs over me.

The cats crept into the tent in the middle of the night, or at least I assume it was them: something around that size bolted out when I got up to go to the loo, and I didn’t want to think about what else it might be.

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A wind had picked up by then and howled with a quiet determination. The sky was crammed with stars. The camels were sleeping with their necks stretched out across the sand in front of them. The last embers of the fire glowed weakly.

I was perhaps an hour, as the camel plods, from the nearest hamlet but it was easy to imagine that I was hundreds of miles in any direction from human habitation, further from the modern world and all its annoyances: far from endless TV shows about forgotten celebrities and amateur property developers, interspersed with excitable adverts for products which nobody needs, from constant finger-wagging and pettifogging rules, from unsmiling one-upmanship where fun ought to be, from lives too busy for living. It was just an illusion, though.

We were back on the camels in the bitter cold dawn, hooded and gloved, to welcome the sun back up.

© Richard Senior 2016

Namibian Nights

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A rough, sandy excuse for a road led to the Spitzkoppe mountains. The sky was a searing blue lightly streaked with cloud. The peaks were the colour of caramel, the texture of crumpled paper. The afternoon sun lit the face of the rock, leaving their fissures and folds in deep shadow. The grass was the green-tinged yellow of over-ripened limes. In amongst it were spiky, highly poisonous, Damara milk bushes.

On the rock in a hollow at the base of one peak, there are Bushmen paintings of hunters, rhinos, giraffes and jackals. They have been there at least two millennia, and anything up to six. Yet they are out in the open as if painted last week and of no more significance than a tag on a shutter in a run-down part of town.

It is easy to see why Kubrick chose this timeless landscape for the dawn of man scene at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nothing much has changed since the Bushmen were there. A primitive toilet and the occasional notice are the only incursions of the modern world. The nearest town is 60km away. As so often in Africa, you come face-to-face with your own inconsequence in the earth’s epic narrative and see, for once, how petty, how parochial our conceits, our ambitions and anxieties are.   

We camped for the night in the lee of a mountain and the pegs got no purchase in the sand and the tents just sat on the ground, but it was a still night and there was no risk of them blowing away. Urban time has little meaning where there is nothing but natural light, so like the Bushmen millions of years before, we retired and rose with the sun.

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A little after dawn, we struck camp and headed out through the desert to the long, desolate shore known to the Bushmen as the Land God Made in Anger, to the Portuguese as the Gates of Hell, and now as the Skeleton Coast. Among the bleached bones of beached whales which birthed the modern name are the rusting hulks of over a thousand ships which ran aground on this treacherous shore.

Diogo Cão sailed down the coast in 1486 and planted a cross to claim the cape for Portugal, but the Portuguese never got a foothold in Namibia and the Germans, who did, took down the cross in the nineteenth century and shipped it back to Germany.

Cape Cross, where the old cross no longer stands, is home now to thousands of fur seals which swim backstroke in the surf, slide onto the rocks and lay in great piles on the sand, playing, fighting, mating and barking like fat men guffawing. They stink, of course, but they no doubt think the same about us.

© Richard Senior 2015