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              

65km/h on a Sandboard

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Swakopmund, Namibia. A mind-bending, hallucinatory place: an authentic slice of small-town Germany deep in Southern Africa. Cutesy, pastel-coloured Jugendstil buildings. Signs on store fronts in Gothic script, all umlauts and harsh consonants. A Lutherian church; a bierhaus selling good lager and sturdy plates of sausage and sauerkraut.

Leave town early in the morning in an old Volkswagen minibus. The sandboards strapped to the roof; a mangy dog standing on my knees so it can look out the window, wobbling as it tries to keep its balance.

Arrive at the dunes. Take down a sandboard, change into snowboard boots; trudge up the long curving track to the top. Grab a cloth, dip it in wax and smear it over the bottom of the sandboard. Find a place to sit at the edge of the slope.

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Third in line. The first guy struggles to stay on his feet, falls over a few times, wobbles, squats and touches the ground, as if reassuring himself it is there. The second is an experienced snowboarder and streaks down the dune at speed, slaloming round imaginary poles to show off.

My go then. Follow the instructions: turn my back to the slope, do a backwards roll. Straight away scudding diagonally across the dune, balancing better than expected.

Picking up speed. Halfway down. Much faster now; faster than feels comfortable on a first attempt. Shift my weight to my toes to slow the board; but it digs in and stops dead and the kinetic energy flings me forward onto the sand and rolls me like a barrel with the board still clipped to my boots.

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Unclip from the board, spit out the sand, empty it from each of my pockets in turn, wipe the thick off my arms, then plod back up to the top of the dune.

You looked like a helicopter trying to take off sideways,” someone says.

I get further down the slope on my second run then come off again, but not as spectacularly. Land head-first. Glad of the pisspot helmet. But it rattles my brain nonetheless. On the third run – or it might have been the fourth – I glide all the way to the bottom and feel good. The snowboarder, by then, is doing jumps.

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Move to a different slope, and a different, brutally straightforward, style of sandboarding. Take a big sheet of plywood, lay face-down on it, lift my feet, grab the corners and curl them up, then just hang on as the board careens down the slope. There is no slowing, or stopping, or steering, as there is with a proper sandboard: just staying on or coming off. It feels stupidly fast – I will find out how fast – and totally out of control, which I suppose it is, except I could bail if an unexpected springbok suddenly heaves into view.

Whisk past the guy at the bottom with the speed camera, heading for the run-off slope. Somehow hit it at the wrong angle, bury the board in the sand, fly a few metres then bury myself. Spit out the sand, shake it from my hair, rub it from my t-shirt, empty my pockets again.

65k,” the guy with the camera says.

© 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

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

Poling Day

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The Okavango River was clogged with chest-high papyrus reeds and looked from the bank like a field after weeks of rain. As the polers approached, they seemed to be floating supernaturally over the ground, until they came closer and you could see their makoros through the reeds.

They were modern makoros, made of fibreglass, instead of the hollowed-out trunks of sausage trees. I had seen Malawian fishermen in the traditional sort; but they are rare, now, in Botswana. I slung the tent and my day bag inside, and the poler took my bedding roll, unfurled it with a flourish and fashioned it into a seat. I sat between the bags and he stood at the stern and poled us away from the bank. The flat-bottomed makoro slid over the reeds with a gentle rasping sound, and into a channel where the reeds towered over us and brushed against my arms either side, and the makoro creaked and the water lapped against it and there was a splash like a pebble flicked into a pond when the poler sunk the pole to the bottom to push us along.

We followed the small procession of makoros as it snaked along the channel. Flies droned and dragonflies hissed; kingfishers trilled and barbets chattered and lilac-breasted rollers made a sound like a man half-heartedly sawing wood.  Cape Turtle Doves kept up the chant they start at dawn and never let up all day: Bots-wana, Bots-wana, Bots-wana, Bots-wana….

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The channel widened further in, and water lilies were scattered across the space which the reeds had surrendered; a little further, we were out in the open river. It was a deep blue against the green and yellow of the reeds, and the poler’s reflection shimmered in the surface. The papyrus closed in on us again as we neared the uninhabited island where we were to camp for the night. The polers ran the makoros aground, and we jumped out, pitched the tents, dug a toilet, gathered firewood and sat out the heat of the day.

In the late afternoon, we set out again in the makoros. Bullfrogs growled, hammerkops manically cackled, and a bush shrike seemed to be trying to whistle When the Saints Go Marching In. A family of hippos waded between islands in front of us. The weaver birds’ massive communal nests hung from branches over the river. They are built like city apartment blocks, with chambers for each of a hundred pairs, or more.

The sun leaked out of the sky and dripped onto the horizon and its orange effulgence spread over the water. In the half-light, as we creaked and splashed back to our island, the papyrus around us erupted with whistles and cackles, trills and chirps, shrieks and hisses and the hammer-drill grunts of the hippos.

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© Richard Senior 2015

Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 7*

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Dr Livingstone thought that Victoria Falls sounded better than the local name, Mosi–oa-Tunya, which means “the smoke that thunders”. It did to him. The government is threatening to change the name back, which has got people worked up in support and against, but is hardly among the more urgent things which need to done in Zimbabwe. As with Myanmar, Ho Chi Minh City, and Uluru, the old name will stick whatever the government says.

The word “awesome” has become as devalued now as the old Zimbabwe dollar; but, when you first see the falls and it pops into your head, it belongs there. A mile of water, hurtling out of control, tumbles over the edge and disintegrates into abstracts: thick gouache white swirling over slime green, tumbling, tumbling, tumbling a hundred metres into the gorge below, hissing and rumbling, roaring and thundering like some massive industrial process; the spray rebounds, a gathering storm, higher – way higher – than the top of the falls, until a perfect rainbow chops it in two and it comes down again as an unseasonal shower and soaks the path and the sightseers who stand there and gawp.

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Victoria Falls is a tourist town, but it was never anything else. Almost as soon as Livingstone had reported back, the curious came to see the falls and curio traders came to sell the curious curios. A village grew up and then a town. The railway came west from Bulawayo, and Cecil Rhodes commissioned a bridge across the Zambezi into modern-day Zambia. What started as temporary quarters for railway workers ended up as the grandly Edwardian Victoria Falls Hotel with its hushed five star luxury, its private path to the falls, and its zebra skin drapes and kudu heads and sepia photos of locally famous white men.

Hawkers follow tourists down the street, waving wooden animals and bundles of worthless billion dollar notes. Agents compete to take them on day trips across the border, or send them bungee jumping, zip-lining and white-water rafting. The shops sell curios and postcards, souvenir t-shirts and safari suits with as many pockets as anyone could want. (The locals shop at markets out of town.) There is pizza and car hire, tapas and bureaux de change; there is French fine dining and Chinese takeaway. And there is Boma.

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A whole goat, on the bone, was splayed across a vertical frame in a fire pit and slowly cooked for hours so that the meat smoked while it grilled and the fat rendered down and fuelled the fire and the aroma filled the room. Marinated warthog steaks, eland meatballs and boerewors sausages were grilled to order in front of you. There were mounds of the polenta-like sadza, which I had read about in Doris Lessing, and found was the same thing as ugali in Kenya; and salads and soups and dried mopane worms – actually caterpillars – which you pick at and crunch like a bag of crisps.

I would miss Zimbabwe, but it was time, now, to move on: time to explore Botswana.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Part originally posted as ‘Smoke that Thunders’ on 11 September 2014

Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 6

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The vultures crowded like excited spectators into the baobab tree. The boldest hopped down and inched towards the buffalo. But a lioness saw them and mock-charged to force them back. She took her turn, then, to tear a piece from the carcass while the male, full for now, reclined in the sun. Another lioness kept watch on the vultures.

Is the buffalo dead?” asked Nahid.

Nah,” said Lisa, “just resting”.

We had turned north from Bulawayo and driven the 200 miles or so to Hwange National Park. It used to be called Wankie Game Reserve, until they found out why visitors were sniggering, and it is best known for its elephants. There are something like 40,000 there, in a park the size of Belgium. A small herd bathed in the river, while two young males wrestled on the bank, trunks entwined, tusks locked, stirring up clouds of dust as they struggled for grip.

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Always, on safari, the drivers stop and chat sotto voce about the game they saw further down the track. The word “shumba,” – chiShona for lion – had sent us hurrying to see the lions tackling the buffalo carcass.  So I thought nothing of it when the other jeep stopped, but I was puzzled why the passengers sat grinning in silence. Something was off. Then they bombarded us with elephant shit and drove away laughing.

That evening, after a few drinks – and after cleaning off the elephant shit – we set off in the jeep again with torches. Bush babies leaped between branches, and an elephant padded stealthily across the road.  We called in at a smart safari lodge, got more drinks and sat at the waterhole watching zebra and gazelle.

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Then, in the morning, we continued north.

© Richard Senior 2015

Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 5

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We set off at first light in an old, open Land Rover.

Hard men in military fatigues paced the edge of the national park with AK47s. Ian stopped and spoke to them in sinNdebele and they slung their assault rifles over their shoulders and jumped on the running board and hitched a ride down the road. I assumed they were soldiers but Ian said they were rangers, protecting the park’s rhinos from poachers. It is a huge problem in a country with 90% unemployment and a black market willing to pay US $60,000 for a kilo of rhino horn. But it is a problem wherever there are wild rhino. South Africa lost the equivalent of one every eight hours in 2014. Some predict that they will be extinct in the wild within 20 years.

We stopped and jumped out and Ian led us deeper into the park on foot. The sun had taken the chill off the morning by then and the light was beginning to dazzle. The insects hummed and the Cape turtle doves incessantly voiced drink lager, drink lager, drink lager. We weaved around termite mounds taller than us and the gaping holes of old aardvark burrows, and Ian slowed us down and got us to crouch in single file, and we crept to within a few metres of a family of white rhino. The rhino sensed us and some looked up, but they decided that we were no threat to them.

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There is something ethereal about the country around the Matobo Hills. The dusty lanes overhung with trees. The bleached yellow grass, the vivid blue cloudless sky. The famous balancing boulders, the curvaceous granite hills. Water lilies floating on a reflective river. A profound sense of stillness. We drove deep into the communal lands, where joyful children ran out with fruit for sale. “You can leave what you like in the Land Rover,” Ian said confidently, “It’ll be safe enough here”.

We clambered to the top of a hill where the winds of millennia past had scooped out a cave, and the Bushmen of 11,000 BCE had painted stories on its walls of giraffes and lions and hunting and cooking and setting up camp, which it is easy to make sense of still. What is harder, though, is to comprehend as you look at these paintings – which are not fenced off, or behind glass, or supervised by guides – were already there at the end of the Ice Age, when the mammoths and sabre-toothed cats died out, when the Bronze and Iron Ages came and went, and Stonehenge was built in England, and the pyramids in Egypt, and a series of great empires waxed and waned, and the modern world slowly emerged and evolved, through wars and inventions and social change, into what it is today.

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At the township bar, where we stopped in the late afternoon, the beer-happy customers gyrated to dancehall which shook the walls, and Ian chatted to a wobbling man in sinNdebele, while we nodded and shook hands and said hello and sipped at the porridgy traditional beer served out of gallon drums. I had worried that people in Zim would be hostile, but found nothing but friendliness throughout the country. It is always a mistake, though, to assume that governments speak for their people, any more than mine does for me.

We trooped up the hill which they call World’s View and looked out across illimitable hills and over the park to the horizon with no sign at all that there might be a town within a thousand miles. A century old slab of brass is bolted to the rock and tersely engraved with the words: HERE LIE THE REMAINS OF CECIL JOHN RHODES.

The light began to fail and the sun slipped out of the sky and a band of orange spread up from the horizon and gradually faded out.

The peacefulness of it all,” Rhodes remarked, while sitting on this spot, “The chaotic grandeur of it. It creates a feeling of awe and brings home to one how very small we are”.

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© Richard Senior 2015

Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 4

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From Masvingo, we drove 150 miles west to Matabeleland and stopped in Bulawayo.

Like a ghost sign on a gable end, old Rhodesia is still plainly visible in the shabby-gentile second city. The Palace Hotel, where Henry Morton Stanley reportedly stayed in the 1890’s, is still open for business. “Scarcely suitable for gentlemen,” he is supposed to have said, “let alone ladies”. It is not as good as that anymore, though.

The joke in Rhodesia’s last stubborn years was that, when international flights came in, the pilots announced, “We are now arriving in Salisbury [Harare] where the local time is 1950”. But that seems like the distant future at the stately Bulawayo Club, with its verandas and courtyards, dark wood and heavy furniture, its chandeliers and hunting trophies, and its 120-year history of giving the right sort of chap a refuge from the wife, the children and hoi polloi: a place for brandy, cigars and snobbery.

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The surrounding streets are lined with parades of Edwardian shops with wrought iron walkways, and signs in Sixties typefaces swinging above the doors: “Le Style Fashions,” “Justin Smith (Pvt) Ltd, the Rexall Chemist”. The paint has faded, the ironwork rusted, the wood is beginning to rot, and the statue of Rhodes which used to stand in the middle of town was toppled long ago; but to outward appearance, little else has changed in the 35 years since Rhodesia was wound up and Zimbabwe came into being.

An old Wolseley growled past as I looked around the city centre: a rare classic in Britain, to be polished and taken to shows, but an everyday runabout in Zim. It must have been built sometime around 1960, when the British prime minister spoke in Cape Town of “a wind of change … blowing through this continent,” and signalled the end of the African empire, which entrenched Rhodesia’s white elite, whose prime minister declared that he would “never in a thousand years” agree to majority rule, which in turn led to 15 years of civil war and finally to modern Zimbabwe.

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© Richard Senior 2015

Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 3

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Masvingo is a small, dusty town of functional buildings with scabrous paint and signs mottled with rust.

It never amounted to more than a supply town for cattle ranchers, but it was the Plymouth, Massachusetts of the self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia, later the unrecognised breakaway state of Rhodesia. Cecil Rhodes’ Pioneer Column set up camp there in 1890 and built the first colonial town. They called it Fort Victoria. The old watch tower and government buildings survive, hidden amongst the low-rise concrete from the back half of the twentieth century.

But, while Rhodesia’s history might have begun in 1890, Zimbabwe’s goes back centuries further. The state took its name from a ruined city to the south of Masvingo, known as Great Zimbabwe, a corruption of dzimba-dza-mabwe: great houses of stone. The oldest part was built around the time of the Battle of Hastings: the newest 400 years later, about the same time as Machu Picchu.

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It is a fascinating site, sprawling over 1,800 acres – twice the size of Central Park – with smoothly curving dry-stone walls, speckled with lichen, rising up to 35 feet, and maze-like passages, and trapezoid doorways, and steps wending up between boulders balanced atop one another and emerging in the earliest part of the city – built ten centuries ago – at the crest of a hill overlooking the expansive valley.

It cannot be long before someone influential declares it the Must See sight du jour, and floods it with gushing, purple prose and insists you must see it at sunrise.

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© Richard Senior 2015