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Monday, 24 November 2014

The lost villages of East Anglia and Zeeland

Last year at this time, we made our way across East Anglia to the Norfolk Broads, driving over vast empty spaces that stretched out to the horizon and on past homes marooned on the ripples of black ploughed up land like becalmed ships at sea. Crossing the wastelands, the feeling of being at sea was enhanced by the roll of the road – our car now travelling over a waterlogged, shifting landscape. Ahead, nothing interrupted the ocean of scruffy wetlands but for the odd isolated windmill, sails spread out to embrace big skies.
We were on our way to Norfolk and Suffolk for a week of cycling and canoeing, and exploration of seaside towns and villages like Southwold and Aldeburgh; echoing the fenland bleakness, on the cusp of winter.
We visited Aldeburgh on a cold, bright day in November: fishing boats shored up on the pebbled beach; guest houses hunkering down for winter. The beach was only a place for a brisk walk; head down against the icy wind, coats pulled close around the neck. As we waded through the pebbles, we came to a long spit with a Martello tower in the distance. We headed out onto the spit towards it. Other than the lookout, there was just a boatyard and boathouse - where once there’d been a thriving boatyard, a village and a long row of store huts. The last house in Slaughden was called ‘The Hazard’, because of the frequent storms. Once a thriving farm, it eventually lost its 30 acres to the sea - a farmhouse without its land. A non-farming family took it over in 1922, but in a space of a few years they’d been flooded out four times. In 1926, the storm was so severe; the inhabitants woke up to find the shingle had reached the top floor! In the Great Storm of 1953 the rest of the village succumbed to the sea and the broad slice of land was reduced to a narrow spit.
At the end of our week on the Broads, we took the coastal road home. We stopped off at Sea Palling, another seaside resort devastated by the storm of ‘53. The sea had breached and ripped through a section of the protecting sand dunes and carried away the Longshore Café, a bakery, general store and several homes. Villagers clung to the roofs of their homes as the ocean engulfed them, waiting to be rescued. Seven people died and thousands of acres of land were destroyed.
Further along at Happisburgh, we could see how nature had taken great ‘bites’ out the land. The neighbouring medieval village of Whimpwell had long surrendered to the sea, only surviving in the names of lanes and buildings.
A few weeks after returning home, a severe storm, combined with a spring tide, caused devastation again - a storm as severe as the storm of 1953. But unlike 1953, there was no loss of life this time- and less damage -thanks to advances in meteorology and technology. None the less, three properties fell into the sea, and another four were badly damaged.  The sea continues to claim back.
Roll on a year, and we’re in Zeeland in the Netherlands, spending another week cycling and exploring. Learning about the impact of the Great Storm of 1953 in East Anglia a year earlier, I had not given a thought to the devastation across the sea in the Netherlands. Nearly two thousand people lost their lives here – and tens of thousands lost their homes. The Dutch were determined never to let a catastrophe of this scale happen again.
Patrick, my son, and I saw this as we cycled across a bridge over the Oosterschelde in the mist, seven long miles following the line of the storm surge barrier and dam. And of this, almost three miles of massive sleuse gates that can be closed at a moment’s notice.
We cycled on to Zierikzee, the land flat, flat, flat; the sea always out of sight on the other side of the dyke. Beyond the town, the Watersnood Museum tells the story of the 1953 flood, its cost, and the massive building programme of 13 delta works across the area. One exhibit of a trashed room is accompanied by the words: We lost everything in one fell swoop. From our wedding photos to the bread bin: all gone.
Cycling back over the Zeelandbrug, and along the coast, it struck me that this bleak, but strangely poetic landscape, echoing East Anglia across the sea, holds a fragile beauty.

First published on Wanderlust's web mag on my regular blog, Freewheeling

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Playing Russian Roulette on the Odontotos, the toothed railway

I had the train timetable clutched in one hand, my ears pinned back, feeling for vibrations underfoot.
"There's a train due down the mountain in about 20 minutes," Tom said. "We need to be careful not to get caught in a squeeze."

We were in the Greek Peloponnese, flanked by Mount Chelmos on one side and the eastern extension of Mount Panachaiko on the other. Squashed between the two is the Vouraikos Gorge, with its great sculpted walls of limestone and conglomerates. And squashed again within the gorge is 'Odontotos', the 'toothed' railway.
Long, long before the rack and pin railway was built, Hercules – a guy with a bit of a reputation for brute strength – had arranged a seashore rendezvous with the woman he loved, Voura. Not prepared to let the few mountains in his way make the going arduous, or downright impossible, he used his legendary strength to force a passageway through to the ocean and his girl – and the Vouraikos Gorge was born.
Of course in reality, it's the power of nature, not Hercules, that has created this wild, dramatic and incredibly beautiful valley. From the seaside town of Diakofto, we took the first train of the day up to the tiny village of Zachlorou. Getting off, we crossed the line to the taverna, freshly hosed down with water; the waiter brushing up the remaining leaves scattering the terrace. We enjoyed a Greek-style 'Nes' coffee overlooking the gorge, watching butterflies dance a pas-de-deux above the riverbed, savouring the early morning quiet and coolness beneath the plane trees before walking into the heat of the Greek day... and a game of Russian Roulette on the railway track.
A year earlier in Sri Lanka, I'd watched the locals use the railway lines as a convenient footpath. It seemed a foolhardy activity, if not downright dangerous, yet at the same time, there was something romantically appealing about walking a train track. When I read about the 'Odontotos railway' and the 13 (or 22) kilometre trek back down to the sea along the sleepers – I knew this was one walk I had to do.
Now walking down the mountainside, it was almost time for the train to reach us on its return journey to Diakofto. As we stepped along the sleepers, we realised there was mostly plenty of space at the side of the track, but at other times there was nothing but a drop – or a tunnel wall. I didn't want to be squished by a train – or to be pushed, like a ragdoll, into the gorge below.
I heard a faint sound, a high frequency hum. Was it the wind? It was difficult to tell, but I was certain I could feel the metal of the track vibrate beneath my feet. Then there was no doubt about it: we could hear the rumble of a train. We leapt to the side and sure enough the train rounded the bend, the driver blowing his horn enthusiastically - just to be clear we weren't going to step onto the track again.
As the day wore on, it was reassuring to see that the train timetable more or less matched the arrival of the train as it trundled up and down the mountain – in accordance with our rough calculations of how far down the track we were. None the less, it felt as if we were engaged in a risky game, particularly in the narrow tunnels or in the gouged out rock face.
The goatherd, on the track below us, was equally aware of the imminent arrival of the train. We heard him before we saw him, whistling to his goats, the telltale sound of bells echoing around the gorge. As we rounded the corner, we found him sitting on the side of the railway line, his flock now safely out of way on the steep banks of the River Vouraikos.
Before I saw him, I'd pictured the goatherd as an old man with a chamois leather face, perhaps with a stained cotton shirt of frayed cuffs and collar, and a rough woollen waistcoat. I imagined a flat cap and pleated trousers gathered with string. His eyes would be watery and he'd be chewing on a blade of grass while holding a crook in a weathered hand.
But instead, when I turned the corner, I saw a boy dressed in combat trousers and a baseball cap talking into his mobile – the kind of lad you'd see lounging around an air-conditioned shopping mall, not this wild and inhospitable landscape.
"Kalimera," I shouted out.
The young goatherd gave me the customary curt Greek greeting, a sort of downward, upward nod, before continuing to chat into his phone.

We left the boy behind and soon reached the narrowest point of the gorge – a sliver of daylight streaming through the rocks at Portes. Here the train is forced through a tunnel. A sign indicated no entry for walkers. The alternative offered to us was a rusting metal bridge with handholds too far away to grasp. With my younger son Patrick, a similar age to the goatherd, I set off across the bridge.
Between the metal planks, not much wider than our feet, the gorge fell away sharply to the river that was tumbling down towards the Gulf of Corinth. Tom, and our elder son Jamie, looked on in disbelief – both vertigo sufferers.
Three quarters of the way over, I saw the section of metal I was stepping on had eroded to half its original width. On either side of the eroded plank, there were sheer drops. We made it across and looked around. Tom and Jamie were nowhere to be seen.
We spotted them emerging from the forbidden tunnel. They'd preferred the narrow blasted route through rock, with no room either side for human bodies – if perchance a train would come through...

We continued down the valley, elated to see the town of Diakofto and the sea spread out at our feet. We'd played the game of Russian Roulette – and won – bones and bodies still intact.




The Odontotos-Diakofto-Kalavryta Railway fact file

  • The Odontotos rack and pin railway is said to be one of the most spectacular railway lines in the world.
  •  Odontotos means the 'tooth' train.
  • The 22 kilometre train journey starts at the coastal town of Diakofto and terminates in the mountain village of Kalavryta.
  • The journey in its entirety takes approximately an hour (one way).
  • There are over three miles of cogged sections.
  • You can walk the entire section from Kalavryta (22km) or alight at Zachlorou and walk the lower, and most dramatic part (13km) – or simply buy a return ticket for the train.
  • There are six tunnels and 49 bridges along the entire length of the railway line.
  • Vouraikos Gorge is in a National Park that includes limestone caves with stalactites and stalagmites. It's also a European nature conservation site (Natura 2000), chosen for its unique flora and fauna, geological, scientific and educational value.
  • During the Second World War all 1,200 men of Kalavryta, including boys over the age of 13, were executed by the Germans for their alleged part in the Resistance. The Germans rounded up the remaining women and children and set the town on fire. More fortunate than the men, most of the women and children escaped.
  • At the cliffside monastry of Agia Lavra, a flag of freedom marks yet another Lakavryta resistance over a century earlier – when the people of Kalavryta revolted against the Turks.
  • Just a few miles away from Kalavryta is a ski centre, offering some of the best snowboarding and skiing in Greece.
 
First published on Wanderlust e-magazine as part of the Freewheeling blog

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Is this the world’s strangest racing championship?

Is this the world’s strangest racing championship?
The girls, country gals born and breed, with names like Betty and Ginger, are ready and lined up to do battle at any price – at least in their owners’ minds. Welcome to the strangest racing event in Britain, maybe the world.

The World Championship Hen Race takes place on the first Saturday of August every year at the Barley Mow pub in Bonsall, Derbyshire. The summer event seems bizarre to say the least: Who in their right mind would think of racing bird-brained chickens on an annual basis? Only Bonsall, is the answer.  Indeed Bonsall’s a weird place any time of the year.  For a start, it touts itself as the UFO centre of the world, with its residents claiming numerous sightings of unidentifiable objects on the moors above the village.
 
There’s no sign of little green men on this rainy, August day: just fifty odd hens, their owners and trainers, along with several hundred bemused spectators, some who have come from the other end of England to enjoy the event.
The hens’ owners fuss over their feathered friends, although some of the names, it now materialises, are less country sweet and more sardonic nasty – names such as Korma, Kebab, Nugget and Drumsticks. It’s just as well the fowl have a poor grasp of English – and their fate.
But for now, they are preened and pampered, tucked in cages with fresh straw and water, some with umbrellas over their cages to keep them dry.
The races begin, the birds lined up with their trainers. And it’s off. Some of the hens shoot across the 15 metre track in record time and there are murmurs of ‘fowl’ play. Race assistants are allowed to rattle bags of food at the other end of the track behind the finishing line, but today’s crafty tactics include rattling metal tins and banging forks to ensure there’s no doubt where the finishing line is. It’s enough to ruffle a few feathers. Other rumours have been circulating that some over-competitive trainers have been coaching their hens for months, putting them through a rigorous exercise regime and keeping a close eye on their diet.
Some of the other birds, however, are hopeless cases, stopping to peck at the ground, amble over to the audience or even wander back to the starting line. They’ve ‘beaked too early,’ Colette, the Barley Mow landlady and mistress of hen puns, comments.
Other potential winners of the feathered variety allow their competitive streak to get the better of them. But Collette, adjudicator as well as commentator, is taking no nonsense: the slightest peck, never mind a full blown hen fight, gets the yellow card, then disqualification.
 
I’ve decided on my favourite now. A solemn boy dressed in red from head to toe is racing his bird, Road Runner, and she looks a cracker. She’s got stiff competition though from Save Our NHS and Living Wage entered by the local Labour councillor.
 
Then there’s a tough looking guy calling himself Coop-erman, dressed in a  brightly coloured suit printed with words like ‘booo, crack and pow’, and his gangster accomplice, The Master General , kitted out in sinister black. They clearly mean business. Just as I’m starting to feel I’m in the middle of a whacky dream, a man with an Irish accent steps onto the racetrack in cowboy hat, jeans and suede waist-coat and starts to sing Nessun Dorma – to inspire the hens, it transpires.
 
A number of heats later and the final line-up is ready to go. Road Runner’s in there, and would you believe it, she shoots across the track in seconds: pure poultry in motion. It’s been a closely run race and I have to wait a few minutes while video is scrutinised. But finally the winner’s declared – and it is Road Runner.
By the end of the champion races I’m convinced I’m in the middle of the most surreal dream, with Road Runner sitting serenely in the winning cup and another feathered competitor drinking ale from her owner’s wooden tankard.
 
And just as I’m thinking things can’t get any madder, the two assistant organisers who’ve come dressed to the event in matching feather-print dresses and boa scarves, run up the track to do a human version of the race.
 
It’s all getting too much for me by this stage and I realise I’m in need of a lie down. 

10 other crazy events from around the world:
1.       Fire swinging in Stone Haven, Scotland
2.     Cheese rolling at Cooper’s Hill, Gloucestershire
3.       Battle of the Oranges, Ivrea, Italy
4.     Baby Jumping Festival, Castrillo de Murcia, Spain
5.     Holi Festival of Colours, India (Coloured power)
6.     The monkey buffet festival, Lopburi provence, Thailand
7.     Boryeong Mud Festival, South Korea
8.       Penis Festival, Kawasaki, Japan
9.     The Tuna Toss, Port Lincoln, Australia
10.  Moose Dropping Festival, Talkeetna, Alaska

First published on Wanderlust's web mag as part of my regular blog, Freewheeling
A version of this piece won the Telegraph's Just Back Competition in September 2014

Monday, 28 July 2014

Cycling through England

Just after 8am we slip out our own front door... and start to travel.

We will not cross skies or seas or bolt across the land in trains or cars; not travel at 500 mph - or even 100 - but at the stately speed of 10.
Sometimes less, if there are hills in the way.

We're on bikes, my son and I, travelling down through the Midlands of England into Hertfordshire - on a journey that normally takes just over two hours by car.
We will take three days.

On the first day we cycle as far as my neice's house with a present for her new born baby. Years later I'll tell Alyssa we rode 55 miles with her 'welcome to the world' present in the pannier. By the third day I will reach her Grandmother, my sister. I'll pass on the latest news about her daughter Rachel and husband, Steve, and tell her all about Ayssa. Never mind that the news will be two days old and out of date.
I'm experiencing what it's like to live in the past - when times were slower and news travelled slowly too.

At the beginning of the the First World War, young men, some just boys, joined up to see the world - or at least the trenches of France. Many of them had been no further than a five or ten mile radius of their village or town. Such was life for most of people. Travel was mostly restricted to foot or bike, occasionally a train. And now I'm experiencing that pace of life.
The world looks very different from a saddle.

At 8.30 we've reached the Cromford canal, shrouded in morning mist. I breathe in the smell of wild garlic; hear the Little Grebes pipe on the water. The dew-covered verge-side vegetation slaps against my legs; cold, wet.

Cycling engages all the senses. Travelling by car or train or plane sanitises them.

Late morning, we leave the dismantled railway trail and canal path behind. We stop in the village of Belton in search of a caffine shot. Two women hog the single outside table of the village shop. The pub has closed down. A local stops and asks:
"Can I help you?
"The pub?"
"Sorry, the pub has closed, but come and have coffee with me."
We follow him down the street to the Victorian house with its cottage garden and orchard. Raymond has a summer house, a Victoriana vintage chic-shabby living-room open to the orchard on two sides. It's a British take on the outdoors Mediterranean living space. He brings us coffee and cold water.
You don't have to go to Eastern Europe or further afield to receive hospitality from a stranger.

Over the next two days we cycle along country lanes, past barges on canals, through villages and towns.
We squelch through dark, puddled tunnels and slip past street musicians in market towns.
We watch children at play in city parks and young British Asians gathering for barbecues. In Leicester we'll follow Muslims in long, white gowns as they head for the mosque during Ramadan. We'll hear the wood pigeon and the skylark. We'll hear the roar of traffic on the motorways, and I'll visibly shrink at the speed of the traffic from the bridge above.
We'll stop at village pubs and park cafes and skirt city shopping streets, and I'll have a detailed picture of modern Britain.
You get a much stronger sense of what Britain is today, if you travel by bike.

By the end of day three I'm tired and hot, and I've never reached my sister's house with such elation. I'm so happy to be at a journey's end.
But I'm already thinking of my next trip through England... and beyond.

Cycling by numbers:
8 cups of coffee on the road
5 cities
4 ice-creams
3 pairs of sunglasses lost
1 puncture
0 carbon footprint

Monday, 7 July 2014

The mystery of Scotland

There are some things in life that are a total mystery to me. The fact that the Highlands of Scotland are so empty of tourists (outside of the hotspots) is one of them. But I’m not complaining. The expansive, empty landscapes of Scotland are the nearest thing we have in the UK to wilderness.

Last week I rented a shack (the website, advertising it as a lodge, was over-stretching itself a bit) at the end of a three mile dead-end lane high above Loch Ness. There was a gap in the front door, and the single-glazed windows constantly steamed up with condensation, but it was paradise. Surrounded by moor and birch trees, I woke up every morning to the sound of cuckoo. I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard the cuckoo.

The nearest town of Inverness was recently awarded the accolade of ‘second happiest place to live in the UK’ - and I can see why. It takes just an hour to get to Ullapool from Inverness and a couple to reach the Isle of Skye. Then there’s a whole coastline of wide golden strands on the town’s doorstep, along with moors and lochs. This was brought home to me as we drove through the suburbs of the town when we had to hit the brakes for a young fawn that raced out onto the road. That it was at least a quarter of a mile from open countryside was slightly puzzling, I have to admit.

Just up the east coast, we happened on some grey seals lounging, as only grey seals can lounge, on a sandy spit near Dornoch. And although the east coast is Scotland’s poor relation, the coastline between Brora and Dornoch is the cyclist’s, walker’s and wildlife enthusiast’s haven.

Over in Ullapool we bathed in sunshine whilst further south in Britain it tipped it down. Ullapool will now be my place of eternal sunshine. I ate my lunch overlooking the harbour enjoying the warmth on my skin, remembering another summer’ evening in Ullapool when I’d watched the local kids fishing on the harbour wall. Kids knee-high to a grasshopper without an adult in sight, and I remember thinking, what a place to grow up. I was puzzled when I saw they were throwing their catch back into the water. It was then I realised that they were feeding seals bobbing up and down in the sea below them, and my envy of their idyllic childhood deepened. That summer we’d eaten one evening at the Arch Inn and almost suffocated in the heat.

Back in the present, we drove on to Achiltibuie, surely one of the most beautiful places on God’s earth. On the single track road, Stac Pollaidh came into view, a strange conical mountain rising out of the moor from nowhere. Other mountains around rose up from the moors like isolated fangs. It’s a strange landscape with a wild beauty. We drove on past sea lochs, laced with pale beaches until we reached the edge of the village. I walked down to the shoreline as a group of kayakers paddled towards the shore.

“A massive starfish,” one of them shouted.
I wandered across to them to have a closer look.
“It’s lost one of its arms!” exclaimed one of the kayakers.

It was a brittle star, a pale sandy hue with four – or was it five? – long ‘hairy’ sinewy arms. The fifth or sixth detached arm floated at its side.

The kayakers gathered around the sea creature, intrigued.
“This is how the starfish reproduces,” one of the kayakers said knowingly. “Another starfish will grow from the detached arm.”
He looked over at me, smiling. I gave him a half grin, not sure if this was another ‘haggis story’.

Not being an expert on starfish, I looked it up back home, and did indeed discover that asexual reproduction can take place in starfish, alongside more conventional spawning, and indeed a severed arm can reproduce a whole new starfish.

The kayakers dispersed and I wandered on along the shore, carefully picking my way through the pebbles, afraid of treading on dunlin eggs camouflaged in the rocks. All around me the dunlins piped and chirped, dipping and rising close to me. Once on a pebble beach near Fort William I had almost tread on their eggs, being so close in shape and colour to the rocks they were nestled in.

In the village, I sat in the beer garden, drinking a glass of wine while looking across to the Summer Isles and Skye beyond. This place is hopelessly romantic, even the names. I sat on the bench looking across the water, sparkling white, to the islands and the smudged blue hills beyond, wondering yet again why this part of Scotland is so empty.

But that's okay.

First published in Wanderlust online magazine on the 15th June 2014

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Under big skies in Norfolk

Under big skies
The water is steaming, a white vapour sponging the darkening sky. I watch the heavens smudge grey and pink before deepening to navy-blue.
High above us midges dance in dizzying circles. I plunge under the warm, bubbling water and when I surface again, one single star has appeared, alone in the sky. “Vega, Arabic for swooping eagle,” says Tom my husband. “It’s one of the brightest stars in the northern sky.”
We’re in the Norfolk Broads, the part of England that juts out like a bottom. We’re travelled less than 200 miles for an autumn break, but it feels as hot and exotic as the Okavango Delta in Botswana or the Sundarbans of India. We’re sitting outside our cabin in a hot tub.
Vega blinks at me and the longer I gaze, the more certain I am the star is moving, swooping towards me like a silver eagle. “Just think,” says Tom, my husband. “It takes twenty-six years for the light to reach us here on earth. Vega could have died for all we know - since we’re looking at the past.”
It’s a dazzling thought.
And one by one, other stars appear. The sky is clear, the night still, the air almost balmy. It’s hard to imagine that a violent storm, St Jude, had passed over here just a short time ago.
On Monday, Jude - the patron saint of despair - had whipped the oaks behind our cabin in fury. Branches and twigs crashed onto the roof, the birch trees lining the wetlands in front of the window bent over at an alarming angle. We gazed out from the safety of four walls, feeling stranded, like a ship at sea. Then the storm was gone as suddenly as it arrived.
With the return of calm, we’d taken bikes and cycled the Norfolk lanes. The sun shone benignly, the trees motionless: it was as if the storm had never happened - except the roads were swollen with mud and stones and the debris from the winds. Occasionally trees protruded onto the lanes, already cleared, cut back from where they’d crashed onto the road.
But grey returned to gold. Autumn shone. Now and again, the roadside held little offerings of garden fruits and vegetables: marrows and pumpkins, apples and sweet chestnuts. I filled the basket of my bicycle with plump cookers and Coxes. We pedalled on past wooden barns, thatched cottages and village ponds, scattering grouse and pheasant and duck. Overhead wintering geese shot an arrow across the big, big skies of Norfolk. 
By Wednesday, the sky was deep blue, the sun warm on our skin. We hired a canoe and paddled up the River Waveney, listening to the whisper of the reeds. We tied up our canoes and ate our sandwiches, lifting our faces to the sun. Heading back downstream, we held our paddles across our knees and let the current take us gently home.
Now in the hot tub, the sky’s filling, filling up with stars. A satellite shoots across our vision. And I realise that I am an insignificant speck out in space, yet I feel the universe belongs to me.


Sunday, 8 September 2013


Through Thai paddy fields by elephant
 
The elephants had been plodding along quietly in the heat of the day. The somniferous air and the rhythmic swaying of the great beast under my body lulled me into a dreamlike trance. Then without warning the elephant behind me sneezed and let out a great low rumble that vibrated across the valley. She swung round on the path until she was facing the undergrowth below the track. My elephant jolted round too, letting out a high-pitched trumpet that tore through the air and bounced around the hills, blasting my ears. My dreamlike trance was replaced with shock, then fear.


Earlier, as I'd headed out on my journey, the only sound had been the dull slap of my elephant's ears against her head, swipers that would crush any insect that dared to land within their reach; that and the quiet squelch of water as the female carefully planted each footprint into those of the elephant's in front, leaving circular waterlogged pools the size of dinner plates.


From the elephant's back, I could see the valley stretching out on either side of me. Beyond the muddy path, a farmer worked the land with his rotivator, his form mirrored in the still waters between the fresh green plants. To his right, paddy workers hunkered down by the water's edge, eating a breakfast of rice and papaya.

We passed on by farm dwellings: raised, open-sided buildings with corrugated tin roofs; motor bikes and farm equipment stored beneath their stilts. In a garden children made mud pies from the sticky red clay under a line of wet washing. Behind them a  row of upside-down wellies dried out on wooden stakes.




We continued on through the hamlet, passing wooden shrines with offerings of Fanta cans, on past water tanks of fish or frogs and squares of cultivated fruit and vegetables.


On and on we plodded, the elephants flanks sashaying to and fro. It was then I noticed my bearer was heavily pregant. I wondered if she felt the weight - her mahout on her head, two passengers and her unborn baby.

We headed down to the river. My elephant scooped up muddy brown water in her trunk and squirted it into her mouth, drinking thirstily. She waded along the stream before joining the mud track again.

I caressed her back. Her hide was thick and rough like stone. Dust gathered between the crevices. Her skin was as wrinkled and tough as a thousand year old woman. I wondered if she could feel my fingers on her body - or was it just the faintest sensation - like a tickle?

It was at that point on the journey that my elephant had startled and swung round. It was unclear what had disturbed the two elephants. Had the female behind caught a glimpse of a shadowy movement through her tiny inadequate eyes? Did something cause her to sniff the air, then sneeze? Had she heard something in the undergrowth? The elephants sudden movements had taken me by surprise. The calm lollop and the near silence in the valley had lulled me into a false sense of security. Now, the swift violent reaction of the beasts made me aware that I was not much more than a gnat on the elephant's back. As she swung round, I grabbed the rope that secured me to the makeshift wooden seat. It was then that she let out an ear-splitting trumpet followed by a long low growl. I felt her great bulk tremble, a small earthquake under my legs. As the sound tore through the air, I was sure this single creature had produced the same number of decibels as an orchestra at full volume.

Later we wondered what exactly had disturbed the elephants. A snake in the grass? Some other threat hidden in the undergrowth? Or was it simply because the elephant behind had sneezed, scaring herself and our skittish pregnant elephant in front?

Then as quickly as the commotion had arisen, our elephants were quietly picking their way through the footprints again, ears flapping, tails swishing, dreaming of the bananas that were waiting for them at the end of the road.