Monday, 18 August 2014

There's no accounting for folks


If I travel any distance on the canal system from my current moorings I have to leave the Aylesbury Arm. At the top of the arm is a two chamber staircase lock. This means, in normal operation, the bottom chamber will be either full, or empty (empty meaning the water level is at the lower, exit level). Also in normal operation, the top chamber will always be either full, or half empty (meaning the water is at the level of the full bottom chamber). This has always been the case every time I have gone through this system.

Until yesterday, that is. I arrived at the bottom of the staircase, and went to ensure it was setup for me to go up. To operate a staircase, the top chamber needs to be full, and the bottom empty. I was gobsmacked to find that the bottom chamber was empty, but so was the top one. It was not just half empty, but had a water level equal to the lower level of the lower chamber. This does beg the question "How on earth did anyone manage to get the lock into this state?"

Then today, I went for a stroll round the junction, crossing each of the arms of the junction. When I arrived at the staircase, a boat was trying to go down it. The operator had never done a staircase lock before, and was finding it very difficult to understand. Looking at the lock, I could understand his confusion. The top lock was full (in a normal fashion), but the bottom chamber was also half full. In this position it was impossible to operate it without first restoring it to a normal state. Again the same question - how had it been got into this state?

So fundamental questions of physics - how are people managing to coerce a mechanical system, designed to manage water over a gradient, and lift boats through a distance of (estimated) 4 metres, to end in a state that is extremely difficult to understand. (I can come up with a plausible scenario to explain the first of these examples, but not the second).

My brain hurts.

Monday, 4 August 2014

The Chilterns

Radio controlled glider over  Beacon Hill, Ivinghoe
Some time ago a friend asked me why I travel so far when I have the Chilterns on my doorstep. Well, after today, and a three hour walk in the Chilterns, I can now answer this question.

While the Chilterns are close, it still takes over half an hours driving to get there. as the road network is basically old estate roads, which don't deal with today's volumes of traffic well. I originally tried to do this walk on Saturday - big mistake. It's August; very good weather; school holidays; a weekend, and, because of the driving, getting to the start point at 10:30 meant that the all the car parks were full; there were hundreds of people about, and I just turned round and came back. Today, while still August, good weather, and school holidays, there were only half a dozen cars in the car park. The first section of my walk was comparatively deserted, with only a couple of people on it.

However, the entire walk was in a landscape that has been changed, managed, maintained, and manicured by humans for over 6000 years, and can hardly be called a natural landscape now. The entire walk was on well way marked paths; all the paths are clear, and well maintained, even to the extend of steps down on slopes. However, while there are hills in the area, including the one from which the photo was taken, they are not very steep - I reckon I climbed about 240 metres in all. So all in all, pretty easy walking; pretty easy navigation; and (especially on Beacon Hill) scores of people out on the route. Most of the walking was on chalk, which while not as hard on the feet as granite, it is still a lot tougher than peat. So pleasant enough but not what I would call proper walking.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

What is this?

Any idea what this is?
I saw this on one of my walks in the area round Marsden. I have no idea what it was, and it is difficult to be sure of its size. If I had to guess, I'd say it was about four feet across and on a pole, going down into an unseen dip, about six to ten feet high.

When I did the Kintyre Way with Ani Sherab and Phen it was extremely enjoyable, but it was not what I had originally planned to do. My original idea had been to do the walk solo, and use it in part to assess my current level of walking, navigation, and other skills needed for hill walking. So I decided to go off to the Peak District for a couple of days, to do these odds and ends.

Some of the lessons I have learned, from both this couple of days, and the Kintyre Way.
I'm not as young as I used to be.
I'm not as fit as I used to be.
I'm not as fast as I used to be.
My navigation skills need a little bit of refreshing - I managed to make one minor mistake in my navigation, which was perfectly OK in the situation, but in different circumstances could have been significant.
Going up hill is hard work - doubly so in direct sunshine all day, on the hottest day of my year so far.
My own stamina and speed is the limiting factor on my walking - as it is for boating. A walk of 21.5km and 770m climbing was beyond me since it would have taken me more than 8 1/2 hours - and I wasn't prepared to do that, so terminated it at a point where I had some choices as to where I went. By contrast on the following day a walk of 15.5km and 425m rise was a doddle.
I should do only one thing at a time. If I am primarily walking, take the minimum photographic gear possible, and store the camera away except when I stop deliberately to take photos; contrariwise, if I am primarily taking photos, then I should walk the minimum necessary to get to where I am taking photos; should have my gear packed away until I am on site; and should have the minimum amount of gear necessary for whatever photo opportunity I am exploiting.

There are some hugely attractive locations in this country, and it is a long time since I walked to enjoy them.
Marsden garden

Friday, 20 June 2014

Midsummer Day's Eve

We walked down from the B&B to Southend, and then the tiny bit of the Kintyre Way from the road at Southend to the small headland where the Way actually finishes. A few pictures and Ani Sherab and I went to wait for the bus to Campbeltown, while Phen decided to walk back to the town, to meet up with Maryna, and not to come on the rib ride we have organised.
When we got to the information bureau in town, we learnt that the proposed trip had proved popular, with eleven people booked up for it, so I did not have to cough up the guarantee I had offered. Off we went, out of the harbour, past Sanda, towards the Mull of Kintyre, though not into the race there, which did look very fierce. Then back, via the seal shores, to Sanda and round it, with all its birdlife - puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots, gulls, terns, and more. I did manage to grab some photos - here - while travelling in a lumpy rib at speed. 

Then it was back to the harbour, to meet up with Phen who arrived in town about 1/2 hour after the end of the trip. We met up with Maryna, revisited the Indian restaurant, and returned to the B&B. Then off to bed to get up in time to be walking down to the harbour by 06:30 to catch the only ferry in the week that stops at Arran from Campbeltown. The others got of at Arran, in order to travel onto a party and/or Holy Island, while I carried on to Ardrossan, in order to drive down to a motel in Carlisle, before completing the journey.

A fabulous 11 days or so. My interest in walking has been reawakened in a major way.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Walkers and wimps

Ireland beyond a Kintyre Way waymarker
Between the three of us, we seem to have two pairs of problematic feet, and one duff hand, plus one pair of legs just getting into gear. Just before negotiating the pipeline on Tuesday, a horse fly (my least favourite type of sentient being) stung the back of my hand. This morning it is not in very good condition, and had been getting worse up to last night, since it happened. Neither Ani Sherab nor I feel capable of doing the section described in the route from Machinhanish to Southend. This is the longest and toughest section of the route, and the route notes suggest that it will take 8 to 10 hours. As we have already been walking at a pace that adds about 30% to the estimated times, and at best we would be walking even slower than this; it does not seem feasible. Add in the fact that on this section it looks as if one either does this section or does something else - there are no options to shortcut the route as there were on other sections - and that Phen was raring to do this final section - we decided to do different things today.

Phen started off walking to do the final section down to Southend. Meanwhile the "we're wimps and proud of it" section caught a bus back to Campbeltown to visit the tourist information office we had seen at the end of the quays there. This was intended to find out information about walks on the Mull of Kintyre, and whether there were alternatives we might investigate; it was also intended to find out about medical services for my hand. By this time it was starting to improve so I did not think it necessary to even find out information about services, but I was overruled by stubbornness even greater than my own. What we did find out was that it was possible to take a rib ride that would enable us to fulfill some of the objectives of the various walks on the Mull of Kintyre - to see the iconic lighthouse, and to see Ireland. This was not a run that the rib normally does, so I had to guarantee that I would pay for up to four places on the boat if it proved not to be attractive to other tourists. We booked this up for tomorrow, got a map of the town, with medical facilities marked on it, and then checked out the ferry terminal and the aquadome/library before making our way to the bus down to Southend.

We arrived at Southend which contained (we thought) the final marker for the Kintyre Way. Later investigation showed that in fact it continued for about 1/4 mile on to a little headland. What it also gave was a marvelous view of Northern Island - only about 10-20 miles away at this point. We walked gently northwards up the last two or three miles of the Kintyre Way to the accommodation we had booked. Phen turned up triumphant about 1/2 hour later. The B&B did not provide an evening meal, but were happy to run us back to Southend to the only pub; and instruct us to request a lift back from the pubs landlord when we wished to return. We duly did this so getting a decent evening meal without additional walking.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Golfers and bird watchers

Today started misty, and remained misty for the duration of our walk, which was a short one, although completely on the road. Passed Campbeltown Airport on the way, which is unusually long. Also passed a farm specialising in Holstein cattle breeding. and a house with bonds (brick laying patterns) unlike any I have ever seen before. When we arrived at Machinhanish we found it mostly the golf course, golf club, and golfing hotel. 

The other attractions here were the wildlife (pictures here), the beach, and the Machinhanish Sea Bird Observatory (MSBO). The observatory is an extremely well sorted out, and contains some of the pictures taken here. These are superb photos. I bought a copy of their 20th anniversary DVD containing a very large number of their photos. The wildlife and beauty of the beach and shoreline could keep me happy for a very long time, even with the golfing fanaticism evident. This was also the place where THE two quotes (here and here) of the trip were heard.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Hobbling on

Tibetan Buddhist nun fearlessly tests out bridge with very low weight limit.
Our reconsideration of routes yesterday led us to skip the coastal section, which the route notes suggest may be impossible during very high tides, and the next couple of sections to Saddell. Instead we caught a bus to Saddell, and started from there. This meant we saw some of the very steep sections of road from inside a bus rather than by pounding them on foot.

Once we reached Saddell, there are options as to the route to take.  There is a  alternative section of the Kintyre Way going up Saddell Glen. The main route, which we opted to take leads up through a forested area. There was nobody else on this section and it was pretty good going. It leads eventually to the head of Lussa Loch which is a man made reservoir. We stopped here and decided to choose between various alternative routes when we had walked the length of the loch and reached one of the junctions in the route there. We had already chosen not to try the very long extension to Bellochantuy. This effectively adds one day onto the main route. We thought it likely that we would choose the shorter, and slightly easier, alternative route for the end of the day. Blisters and foot and leg ache were beginning to show themselves in Ani Sherab and myself, but Phen was starting to charge, fueled by copious amounts of coffee at both breakfast, and supplied in a flask by the various B&B establishments en-route.

Down the length of the loch, to find that Phen had continued on - we hoped straight on down the main route to Campbeltown, though we had no way of knowing which way he had gone. It was abundantly clear by this time that Ani Sherab and I needed to take the shorter option and so we set off down the appropriate path. Our route, not route marked like the main line of the Way, had one really awkward navigation point: we had to leave the path to follow a pipe line down to a second, then over the second one (by the bridge portrayed above) before traversing across to another path. The route by the pipelines was through a very wet (after seven days of hot, dry weather) small valley, with the pipeline on supports above us. This was difficult to negotiate, and was by far the wettest point of the Way so far. It also raised some slight concern: if Phen had come this way, without a map, there was no way he could have been aware of this section of the route. He would have continued on into a network of trails and forestry paths. By this time, after some hours of walking, we had seen three other people and two border collies since leaving the bus.

The final section back to the road and bus at Peniver was very difficult because Ani Sherab's blisters had become very painful indeed, and could only walk very slowly. I was walking slowly, but did not have the same degree of difficulty with my feet. We managed to catch the 17:10 bus to Campbeltown and ended up in the centre of the town around half past.

Ani Sherab and I were in the middle of Campbeltown, with, as far as we knew, about a half hour walk to the B&B. In the light of the state of our feet, and our disinclination to walk back and forth, we decided to have a meal at the Indian restaurant we could see. I phoned the B&B to inform them that we would be arriving round about 20:00. Then it got a little confused. My phone call was answered by the man of the house; I said that we had a reservation and would be arriving a little later. He appeared uncertain about my booking, and called his wife, putting the phone down while he did so; I then heard Phen's voice saying that he was one of three people booked in for the night. Then my phone call was terminated.  It turned out that he had rung the door bell at the exact moment that I had phoned. Things were further complicated by the fact that the owner had misrecorded the booking - she had it recorded for July rather than June. She was very relieved that we were going to be some time getting there, as it gave her time to prepare the rooms. She got her husband to run Phen down to the Indian, and pick up our luggage. We had an enjoyable meal and then went to the B&B to find everything sorted out and as planned. Phen had both gone straight on at the decision point, as we had hoped, and had been walking fast enough that after some searching for the B&B he arrived coincident with my calling them. All's well that end's well.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Tougher walking

After a breakfast that was 2/3 the size of yesterday's, by request, we set off on the first substantial leg of the Kintyre Way. Started by taking a small shortcut (according to our host, one that is taken by most walkers on the Way) along the road before turning off onto a haul road. This road used by the timber industry, construction traffic for the wind farm, and traffic related to the wind farm, was  to form our route for most of the day. In the first part of the day there was virtually no traffic. Towards the end there were half a dozen or so lorries coming past. This was triply annoying: they kicked up dust; it was very difficult for us to pass us without us stopping, often just off the road, and this broke up the natural rhythm of walking; and they disturbed the peace and tranquility of the walk. Climbing up through the forest, Arran came into view, and then the wind farm. Then linking up with some of the circular walks based in Carradale we came down to the hamlet and our hotel.

At one of the stops, I sat on my map case, and heard a crack. A cursory check revealed no damage, and I assumed that it had been a piece of gravel turning over. Much later in the day, we stopped for a break on a very low wall, had our first encounter with midges, and set off again. Some way down the path, when I went to consult my map, I realised I had left my map case, maps, and my camera behind. So retracing my steps to the last stop, recovering my camera, and returning to Ani Sherab and Phen was my additional bit of walking for the day - about 15 minutes in all.

Then onto Carradale, with blisters and tired legs starting to appear. No pictures for today. I was carrying my camera, but too busy concentrating on walking to take any. When we got to the B&B in Carradale, and I was unpacking my rucsac, I realised that the circlip holding my compass together had come adrift (from sitting on it). I could not get the circlip back into position, and asked Phen for help. After a while of trying he managed to refit the clip. He then turned the compass over, and realised, and showed me that I had cracked the case so badly that it was no longer usable. So bye-bye compass.

Blisters, aches and pains, forced us to review what we intend to do tomorrow. We are going to skip a portion of the route at the beginning by taking a bus and then giving ourselves a variety of options tomorrow.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Gigha

The place where we were staying provided an absolutely enormous breakfast, which we took our time over, as we had another gentle walk planned for today. We caught the first ferry to the Isle of Gigha with a view to doing part, or all of the north end and twin beaches walk. Seeing children arriving by ferry to go off to school, with a bus awaiting the ferry, and notices advising of the runs arranged around the the school run was a bit unusual, but understandable. We walked to the north end of the island, and onto the twin beaches. These are beaches, separated by a very small ridge, which form an isthmus, and are only present at low tide. The nicer of the two is the north beach, fringed by low dunes, and shoreline vegetation. It is made of fine white sand. This is where we ended up for a while, sunbathing, paddling, sitting, and just absorbing the quiet. There were three or four other small groups of people there, with all of us effectively in our own little worlds.

After paying a visit to the other beach, with its massive freight of sand worm casts, we walked back towards the ferry terminal, only stopping to do that most important of business - eat ice cream. Returning to Tayinloan rounded off a pleasant day.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Kintyre Way - off we go

Today is the first day of walking, rather than travelling to get here. After a very good breakfast, off we went. The first part of this walk, which is actually the third stage of the Kintyre Way, starts off with mixture of road and beach walking before heading a little inland. Then back towards the beach, where I was able to demonstrate my acrobatic skills to the world. Stepping down a small, muddy, slope to the path on the beach, I somehow managed a somersault turning 180o in two dimensions, landing (inevitably in the sole patch of stinging nettles around) facing where I had been 0.1 second before, flat on my back. Onward to a long beach walk, mainly pebble, but with some sand. Whichever we were walking on proved to be hard work, but more than compensated for by the glorious views of the bays we followed. We did pass the lowest trig point in existence - marking a huge altitude of two metres above sea level.

Although old hat to my companions, I was fascinated by the oystercatchers along this stretch. We did see a substantial variety of wildlife en-route: a fox on the beach; oystercatchers; a lizard on the side of a small plank bridge; herons; and a variety of other birds. My ancient method of classifying birds, into chaffinches and web-footed chaffinches seemed to strike a chord with Ani Sherab, though of less interest to Phen, who is rather more knowledgeable about birds than me.

We finished at Tayinloan, after a reasonable stage, which was ideal in easing us into walking, about 5 1/2 hours after starting, about 20% slower than the walkhighlands route map suggested.

Friday, 13 June 2014

The crew assembles

Today (Friday, 2014-06-13) I met up with my erstwhile companions who are walking with me for the next seven days. They picked me up in the taxi they had booked on their route from Holy Island. I was waiting for them at Brodick ferry terminal and off we went to Lamlash ferry terminal where we caught the ferry to Cloanaig. Once there it was a ride to Tarbet in order to wait for the bus to Clachan. While waiting we had a wander up to the castle and around the harbour. Again as in my experience of Scotland to date, Tarbet is an idyllic spot, full of beautiful views. Tarbet can be seen here.

Then it was onto Clachan and the first accommodation I had booked. An evening perambulation, a meal and so to bed.






Thursday, 12 June 2014

Return to Arran

I spent the night at a guest house I used when last I came to Arran. In the evening I went to the restaurant associated with the guest house, and had a very pleasant meal. In the interval between arriving and the meal I wandered about Brodick. One of the things that has brought me back to this part of the world is just how beautiful it is. The photo was taken from a narrow stretch of land just adjacent to a playing ground within Brodick bay.

This is fun and we're having it

While cruising the canal system over the last couple of months, I have been promoting a couple of sayings, one of which is the title of this piece. One of the reasons for my repeating this has been the volume of incidents. While incident is an integral part of cruising, this last trip has generated nearly as many as the previous 13 years. For instance, I have only gone badly aground six times over the period I have been living on a boat - but three of them have been in the last two months. Of these three, two caused me to stir up gunk and water in the fuel tank while trying to get free. In both cases, this caused the engine to stall and refuse to start, leading me to need to replace fuel filter and clean the fuel line and lift and injector pumps,

I had thought this tendency was continuing yesterday when I saw something I have never seen before - a car broken down at the side of the motorway with vapour. This time it was not steam, representing a duff radiator, (which is common enough) but rather smoke coming from the flames coming from under the nose of the car.

Today by contrast, was fairly straightforward. Simply drive to Ardrossan, buy a couple of ferry tickets, and take a ferry to Arran. As proof, the photo shows a ferry leaving the island.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Holiday preparations

Travelled up to Carlisle today by motorway,in glorious weather. I do wish on occasion that it was possible to stop on the motorway, so I could take photos. The views up through the Lake District and over Snap are truly magnificent. So I have to settle here with the good augeries that greeted me at the point I had done all the jobs I wanted to do and was ready to go.


Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Kintyre

Just about finished all the jobs I must do before I set off tomorrow for a walking holiday. Together with a couple of other people, I am trying to do the Kintyre Way, with some small modifications. We are missing out the first couple of sections and replacing them with a day spent on  the Isle of Gigha, and another on the Mull of Kintyre. Looking forward to it greatly.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Back to cruising

I have been cruising on the UK's system of inland waterways since the beginning of April. Until I started, I hadn't realised how little cruising I had done over the last years. As it is I have already this year done more cruising except for three years, than I have done over the last fourteen years. It is looking, given what I have committed to doing later in the year as if this will be the year I do more cruising than any other year, except possibly the year my major cruise was to Bath, down the Oxford canal, and the Thames. Anyway herewith are a small selection of the photos I have taken while cruising to Langley Mill and back.





Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Scaredy cat

I have been cruising on the inland waterways of the UK since early April. It has been about three years since I did any serious cruising, and a lot longer since I did any river cruising, let alone large rivers or tidal rivers. It therefore came as a bit of a shock to the system when I arrived at the River Trent and I realised how much I had to do to transition into appropriate cruising mode. My wake up call was Stenson lock on the Burton-upon-Trent to Derwent section of the Trent and Mersey canal. This lock is quite difficult, and it only misses deserving the word "Deep" in its name by a few inches - it is 'only' 12'4" deep.

So this is my checklist for a sole cruiser going onto rivers. Not all the items here are needed for every river; rather they form a progression from narrow, canalised rivers; up through larger rivers; large rivers; commercially used large rivers; and tidal rivers. Now the only question is not "Am I paranoid?" but rather "Am I paranoid enough?"

Start wearing life jacket
Start wearing kill switch cord
Ensure that the air klaxon is within arms reach
Rig river line (in my case, a line nearly twice as long as the boat, running from the front of the boat, where it is attached, to the steerer position at the rear)
Ensure that the life ring is within arms reach either inside or outside the boat
Store tv aerial and fittings inside the boat
Rig anchor, anchor line and anchor chain
Store barge poles inside the boat
Register VHF Marine band radio
Check operating procedures for radio and licence restrictions
Use VHF Marine

Friday, 13 September 2013

My photos

My photos are now available, starting with my recent trip to Arran and Holy Isle.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Symptom - broken Arm; cure - move home.

After travelling in the Far East last year, I returned to my mooring to find that the Aylesbury Arm was the subject of a planned stoppage from the beginning of October to the end of December. (A stoppage is where a waterway is closed for navigation for a period.) After that there were stoppages planned in both directions at the junction at the top of the arm from early January to the end of March. In total therefore it seemed as though I would not be able to cruise in my boat for about six months. As I had not decided whether to travel in this country or abroad this year, this was no great hardship.

Then I went up to Scotland for Ani Sherab Zangmo's ordination - a fantastic weekend. Whilst I was there, I learnt by email that one of the locks on the arm had collapsed completely - the wall on one side fallen into a hole that had opened up underneath it. So travel on the arm was going to be impossible for the foreseeable future. So back I go to Aylesbury to learn more about the unfolding saga.

The Canal and River Trust, in conjunction with various other interested bodies proposed providing a lift out of those boats that wanted to be free to cruise this summer, with a lift in at another location on the system. As  there were a large number of winter moorers in the basin, this was anticipated as a major operation. The end result was that yesterday and today 21 or so boats were craned out of the basin; loaded onto a specialist extending lorry; and moved 20 miles to the south end of Milton Keynes, and craned back into the canal. As these were (largely) residential, people were concerned that the shift go smoothly, and were anxious about the operation.

The biggest problem in the entire operation was that the first trip of the third (the last) lorry had a tire blow out on its trailer en-route. This was not as bad as it sounds, as the trailer could operate on two rear axles, rather than three, but did mean there was a limit on the weight it could carry, which also meant there needed to be a little reorganisation of the order the boats were lifted out.
Preparing the crane and the first lorry

Setting the slings

And up my home goes!!!

Manoevering the load for the lorry.

Anyway, I am now at Fenny Stratford on the Grand Union, unable to return to my moorings (which I am still having to pay for) until the arm is repaired. The good news is that the current estimate of when this might happen is the August bank holiday.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Three days up the Mekong

Travelling back to Thailand from Luang Prabang I took a boat up the Mekong for three days travel. This was upstream in more than one way - the journey is long enough that on a apparently level, but flowing, river, with no locks or rapids, the boat ascended 130 metres. In doing so it passed a number of villages of the local hill tribes.

These are some of the more accessible villages in this part of Laos - they are only one or two days travel along the river to a town where they use money. There is no other means of access to these villages, though for a few close into Luang Prabang, there may be a track of sorts during the dry season. The less accessible tribes are multiple days or weeks walking away from the river through dense jungle covered hills and gullies. Even without the jungle, the hills would be very tough going, because they are very rugged and steep. As a consequence of this inaccessibility nobody really knows much about the people living in Laos. The government of Laos has no idea how large the population of Laos is - they believe they have an approximation for the number of families living in the villages - but this is extended families, where children are not really counted until they become adult enough to form a family of their own. Even the headmen of villages may not have a clear idea of how many people there are - they know about the Smith family, the Jones family, and the McTavish family - but not how many dependants each of these families have.

This does by the way, put into perspective, the American bombing raids on Laos during the Vietnam war. The US dropped, on Laos alone, a volume of bombs about equivalent to all the bombs dropped in all theatres by both sides during the Second World War. Just looking at the terrain and those villages that are accessible is enough to determine that such an attack is bound to be ineffective. Its not so much taking a sledge hammer to crack a nut, as taking one of the world's largest ever bombing campaigns to kill three people and a goat. In addition, although LeMay's famous quote about bombing them back to the stone age applied to Vietnam rather than Laos, this objective was never achievable - most of the tribes are not very far from the stone age. True they use metal implements, though not many, but in many significant ways they are living a stone age existence already.

One of the signifiers of the difficult task facing the Laos government is that life expectancy throughout Laos is about 58. Most of the reason is the mortality of the hill tribes. Again an estimate, it is believed that the life expectancy of the hill tribes is 35. Equally there is no real concept of the value of education - if male children know enough to poison a crossbow bolt and hunt a small animal; if female children know enough to remove the inedible portions of some of the jungle fruits - this is enough.

Some of the government initiatives designed to improve services and facilities available to the tribes involve some fairly standard measures. The most visible of these is the forced relocation of some of the more remote tribes into joint villages with existing tribes who live in a more accessible place. Of course such force-majeure generates its own resentment and problems. Most of the tribes have a subsistence living. They can support themselves from their traditional jungle pursuits, supplemented by a very little agriculture. If they get relocated, they will encounter the concept of a cash economy for the first time. This implies that if they want to access any of the services being made available to them - health or education they are likely to have to interact with a town and money at some stage or other. The first law of ecology, "We can never do merely one thing", rears its head at this point.To do this, they need to  produce a surplus -often for the first time. This implies a much larger commitment to agriculture, which in turn, in this part of the world, means a substantial increase in slash and burn agriculture.  This has several knock on effects. First, just for the vegetation to recover some shadow of its former self, will take 25+ years from a particular patch of ground ceasing to be in cultivation. Secondly, though jungle is astonishingly fecund - almost by definition - once the soil has been denuded of nutrients it can take centuries of no human impact to re-establish the original balance. It can be denuded easily by agriculture and the growing of cash crops. Along the river, the scars not only of current slash and burn agriculture can be seen, but also the scars from the previous five or six iterations of this practice.

The lack of a money based economy, and the perceived need to provide services to these peoples, results in many distortions and complaints. The tribe people complain that the local town takes advantage of them - the local yokels - because they don't understand money. As a result the hill tribes believe they are always being taken for a ride by the townies - particularly for education. One of the carry overs from a non-monied economy - where wealth is measured by the number of large baulks of timber stored under the house - is that the people are in fact ripped off in a major way by unscrupulous Chinese buyers coming in to purchase the proceeds of illegal logging for teak, rosewood, and mahogany. This of course encourages the trade, as logging is seen as a cash crop. Incidentally, I have absolutely no idea how such buyers extract their purchases from the houses of the hill tribes. The search is also on for cash crops. This has historically been much of the root of the drugs trade - the area I'm talking about is the edge of the golden triangle. Drugs provide high density value - lots of money (comparatively speaking) for small packages.

As an aside when I returned to Thailand, and was starting to travel from Chang Rai to Bangkok, the police as is often the case on public buses, checked the passengers. The only person questioned was a young mother evidently from one of the hill tribes, with a small baby in arms. Not only was she questioned, but was also pat searched, as was the nappy (?) of the baby.

The hotels along the tourist trail - the Mekong - are doing a very good job in many ways. They provide a source of cash for the immediately adjacent village(s). They do provide support and encouragement in all sorts of practical ways to the local tribes. At each of the hotels I stayed at 95% of the food served  came from the local village (the odd 5% being things like alcohol, and western foodstuffs). Much of the efforts of local projects has been to find a cash crop that does not have the disastrous effects of drug or hard wood logging. They have had some success with Laos coffee - it is starting to make a market for itself.

And yet, cliched though it may be, the idea of the primitive but happy natives living in the garden of Eden, there does seem to be some truth to it. The Laotian hill tribe peoples do seem to have a happy (though short)  life. Obviously they have never known any thing else, and the alternative to living such a life is to not live such a life (and usually this means not living at all).

And yet......

Sunday, 2 September 2012

and Yet....


Before I came on this trip I would have said, without hesitation, that my favourite place on earth was the centre of the Tibetan Plateau. A few months into my trip, I might have changed this to say Kham,  now forms part of Sichuan Province in China. Still within what used to be called Greater Tibet, and still on the Tibetan Plateau. And yet, having visited Laos I am hard pushed not to change my mind and say Laos.

Laos has fantastic scenes of tropical beauty. Everywhere you look, especially but not exclusively outside the towns and cities there is beauty - flora, fauna, climate, geography, with the works of man a mere incidental footnote in the field of vision, if there at all. The people and the culture are gentle and pleasant, and make the visitor feel like honoured guests. And yet, I would not choose to live there, while I would live in Tibet in a heartbeat.

While Laos is not a place of contrasts, this visitor at least, was very conscious of the multiple contrasts he brought with him. The interior of Laos is incredibly remote. The town of Luang Prabang, where I was based is accessible by two means. One choice is Air Asia's journey by small, twin engined, prop driven, light plane once a day from Vientiene. Given that this flight is into an airport in the hills, which regularly have mist on them throughout the day, due to the high levels of humidity at this time of year; and given Air Asia's less than fantastic safety record, most people seem to choose the alternative. This is the overnight sleeper bus. Quite a good bus, though a little on the pricey side by the standards of transport in this part of the world. Having difficulty getting to Vientiene, more getting to Luang Prabang, all act as a filter on travellers that do make it this far. There are a (very) few backpackers, but mostly it is those with money - and sometimes lots of it - and mostly those on holiday rather than travelling for travelling sake. Like the family I travelled with on the sleeper bus. They were a Chinese American family, father, mother, son at university, and daughter just finished school and going onto university later this year. They were on a three week holiday, through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, This was obviously a high school graduation, or getting accepted at university reward, and must have cost a few bob, particularly given the up market hotels they were staying at. He said he was in semi-conductors. Later this turned out to mean, sole owner of a semi-conductor factory in southern California.

The effect of this on Luang Prabang is that there is some backpacker accomodation but in practice, it tends to be the low end of the accomodation there - which mainly consists of boutique hotels, starting at about $45 a night, and going up to $1250 a night. In this latter case, I fail miserably when trying to imagine what you get for you money, and how it can possibly ever be value for money. his in a town where there is a charity in town trying to help people to become literate in English, because that is the only way that they can get a job; and they cannot afford books or tuition. I was staying in such a boutique hotel, run by a French woman - but who had obviously been born in Laos, spent all her life there, but still regarded herself as French. She had one endearing quirk. In the morning she did not speak much English, but she did understand a moderate amount, and could speak some. However, as the day went on, her English abilities became less and less, so by mid evening she could not speak or understand English at all.

Moving on by boat, as I did, from Luang Prabang, again acts as a filter. The cost of a three day journey such as I made does tend to deter even the determined backpacker. I was fortunate in that, as I could see my trip coming to an end, I did have a little bit left in the budget. This trip gives travel on the Mekong during the day, interspersed with stops at tourist sites en-route. Overnight one stays at hotels set up specifically for this trade, on the banks of the Mekong. Staying in these hotels puts one firmly in the slightly Alice-in-Wonderland world of the rich - not the mega-rich. Both overnight establishments gave one the full French colonial experience - from the colonisers side of course. The accommodation was veranda-ed large airy rooms, complete with ceiling fan and mosquito nets. Drinks before dinner on the veranda. The ambiance of the hotels was such that if you dropped a napkin, three people would immediately come over; one to offer you a replacement; one to pick up the fallen item; and one to apologise on behalf of the establishment, for the napkin having the temerity to fall in the first place. They provided entertainment for their guests - in one there was a variety of native skills on offer - shooting the Laotian hill tribes crossbow, that is used in reality as a hunting weapon using poisoned bolts; planting rice; fishing; and panning for gold. The other had a tour of one of the local villages.

Both establishments were run by expatriates - both French. They both had the slightly chivvying and patronising attitude to their staff, who they obviously found a little dilatory in always doing what was required of them. All the elements that I expected to really hate. And yet, I enjoyed the experience; the hotels are doing a major job in involving local villages - the food in both places virtually all came from the local village; they are providing, often for the first time, access for hill tribes to a cash economy, and are forces for good in both conservation, and moving the Laotian economy forward somewhat. They are a real benefit to the locals. And yet - I'll be continuing this in a later posting.