Posts Tagged With: river

Agog in Prague

Prague is a strikingly beautiful city, albeit a little heavy on the whole Medieval Catholicism thing. It has park areas like this:

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…as well as densely packed looming Gothic edifices like this.

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The bridge in that night photo is the Charles Bridge, the main pedestrian thoroughfare between the Old and New Town areas on the east side of the river, and the more modern areas to the west. It is lined with ominous saintly statues and throngs of tourists.

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But it is not the only bridge into the old city, and by crossing a little further to the south you get a great panoramic view of the river and the Charles Bridge connecting the two halves of the city.

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The river is dotted with pedal boats, as you can see; the unseasonably warm sunny weather brings them out in droves, a celebration of the most inefficient form of transportation known to man.

Our first destination of the day, about a 20 minute walk from our flat across the Charles Bridge, was the Jewish Quarter. Tiny — perhaps 700 meters on a side (less than half a mile) — it houses five synagogues and an ancient Jewish cemetery. The usual starting point when touring the Jewish Quarter is the Maisel Synagogue, because the tickets are sold there and because it houses a display of artifacts and an historical narrative of the history of the Jews in Bohemia. Short summary: restrictive laws and humiliation, occasional easing, relocation, re-imposition of restrictive laws and humiliation, enlightenment and false hope, expulsion, return, pogroms, re-relocation, re-enlightenment, World War II. Today there are somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 Jews in the Czech Republic, about half of them in Prague.

The most venerable of the synagogues is the Old New Synagogue, so named because it was the New Synagogue in 1270, later superseded by a newer New Synagogue a mere three hundred years later. So it became known as the Old New Synagogue, primarily due to a failure of imagination. It is tiny, with thick stone walls, and it is still in use.

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Our next stop was the Pinkas Synagogue, known for its Holocaust memorial, which, in the philosophy of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, is little more than a compelling list of names on the walls: 78,000 of them, sorted by the neighborhood from which the Jews were taken, then alphabetically within the neighborhood, then by dates of birth and death. In most cases the date of death is unknown, and so the date is the last day on which the victim was seen alive. 78,000 names on a wall is a lot, and the emotional impact grows as you move from one room into the next, only to be confronted with more names, row after row after row of them.

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Adjacent to the Pinkas Synagogue, appropriately enough, is an old Jewish cemetery, densely packed with headstones pointing at random angles. (In the 2 x 2 grid of photos below the color one, you can click on the thumbnails to see larger images.)

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And now to answer the question that you, if you are a nerd like me, have been wondering about for 40 years, namely: did Mr. Spock’s “live long and prosper” Vulcan salute really come from a Jewish priestly blessing? Answer: yes, and here is your proof (beside the fact that actor Leonard Nimoy actually said that this was the case):

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Alice, being generally estranged from popular culture, pointed this and a couple of similar headstones out to me and asked, “What’s the weird hand gesture?” I informed her that it was the Vulcan salute, which she did not feel fully answered the question, and which required additional explanation.

We left the Jewish quarter and walked the short distance to Old Town Square, dominated by the much photographed city hall and overseen by the statue of Bohemia’s favorite saintly regent, Good King Wenceslas. The Christmas carol notwithstanding, Wenceslas was actually a 10th century duke. His 17-year reign was marked by the usual political intrigue and minor military skirmishes, and he was considered neither particularly saintly nor un-saintly at the time. However, in the year 935 he was murdered by his brother, Boleslav the Cruel, whose name is so cool that I am thinking of changing mine.

Nobody liked Boleslav — he might have considered a different nickname — and so a retroactive cult grew up around Wenceslas, and he was deemed a martyr. The Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously conferred the title “king” upon him, somebody wrote that Christmas song a couple of centuries later, and bingo, the guy is a pop culture icon.  In my opinion there are better ways to achieve popularity than being run through by a lance at age 35. In any case, here is the square and the town hall. I have no idea why Superman is in the foreground, a little left of center; Alice speculates that someone lost a bet.

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Part of the reason that we went to the main square, besides finding an ice cream vendor, of which there are fortunately many, was that it is just around the corner from Prague’s famed 600 year old, 2 1/2 story tall Astronomical Clock, which I mentioned yesterday.

And now a brief diversion. If you have been following this blog for a while, then you may recall that if there is one single word that can be applied to Alice’s and my travels to the great cities of the world, then that word is…. scaffolding. Yes. As soon as we book a trip, some mysterious omniscient organization — possibly Interpol, or the Illuminati — notifies the authorities at our destination so that scaffolding can be erected before our arrival. I suspect that they take it down as soon as we leave. You name it — the Parthenon, the Via Veneto, Big Ben, Notre Dame — we have seen them all, covered in scaffolding. (The Eiffel Tower is a freebie because it sort of is scaffolding.) I am quite convinced that if someone had somehow figured out how to put scaffolding around blue-footed boobies and Darwin’s finches then our trip to the Galapagos might have been a very different experience. So with that background information, here is Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock as we beheld it this afternoon:

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Sigh. It is of course supposed to be back in place some time next month.

Well, the only way to sublimate our disappointment at this turn of events was to go the Sex Machine Museum, right down the block from the afflicted clock.

What? You mean you’ve never heard of Prague’s Sex Machine Museum? Housing some 200, um, devices spread out (so to speak) over three floors, the museum’s reviews range from “must see” to “tourist trap”, but for ten bucks we thought it was a hoot. If you can get through this place without laughing out loud at least once, there is something seriously wrong with you.

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This being a mostly family blog, and me not wanting to be banned by, I can’t show photos of most of the exhibits; X-rated barely describes some of them. But I will make one or two observations. First, it is clear that late 19th and early 20th century sex devices had a distinctly…. how shall I put this…. “industrial” aspect to them. Yes, “industrial” is definitely the word.

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There was one mid-19th century item, which I couldn’t get a good picture of, and which I probably wouldn’t show anyway, that — I am not making this up — was steam-powered, using a coal-fired boiler. No kidding, this thing belonged on a narrow-gauge railroad track, and definitely not anywhere near anyone’s genitals.

But my absolute favorite — and possibly the best best museum exhibit in the history of time — was this remote-control Ukrainian sex toy from the 1960’s:

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Seriously, this is an erotic device. It positively screams, “Defend the Motherland!” Or more likely, moans.

At this point, the astute reader may have noticed that in the space of a few hours we visited a Holocaust memorial, followed by a visit to a sex machine museum. I know what you’re thinking, and you are probably right: we are going to burn in Hell. But we will deal with that later, because we wanted to finish our afternoon by visiting Franz Kafka instead. More accurately, we went to visit Franz Kafka’s head. Or still more accurately, an 11 meter tall steel statue of his head.

As you can see the head comprises a number of horizontal slabs — 42 of them, to be exact — which rotate to cause the head to metamorphose into random shapes. Or rather, they are supposed to. No one seemed to know when this action would take place; there was no information to be found about it online — randomly? On the hour? Or what? — and the speculation arose among those of us waiting patiently for something to happen that the thing was no longer functional.  There is some circumstantial evidence for this because if you look carefully you will see that the slab corresponding to the middle of Franz’s nose is out of position. All I can tell you for certain is that we waited for 45 minutes for something to happen, and nothing ever did. The experience was…… Kafkaesque. Hmmm.

Giving up, we made our way back to the our flat, rested up for a couple of hours, and had an elegant dinner at a nearby restaurant, supposedly one of the best in Prague, that specializes in duck, plus the kind of meals where the animal’s head is hanging on the wall. It was excellent. (We both had the duck.) Tomorrow is our full day guided tour, so I’ll report back.

Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Czeching In

Sorry, no photos in this entry… we arrived in Prague late yesterday afternoon, met with our tour guide, and had dinner. We haven’t had the chance to do any real tourism — with accompanying photos of course — so that will happen today.

We have a full-day city tour booked for tomorrow with a private guide, a genial former organic chemist named Martin, whom we met through a friend of a friend. Turns out he’s a pretty well known guide and is mentioned in travel guru Rick Steves’ best-selling guide to Prague. (And needless to say, Martin’s been flooded with bookings since being cited in Steves’ book, so we’re lucky to get him.) We met him for drinks yesterday evening to plan out tomorrow’s tour and also to give us some ideas for today’s walking around so we don’t duplicate the sights on two consecutive days.

Immediately following drinks with Martin we promptly went out and got scammed in order to have a complete travel experience. We have experienced three scam attempts on this trip, and saw through the first two of them. They were in Paris and easy to spot. On our first day, some young guys with fake laminated IDs tried to “help” us buy tickets in the Metro. Alice almost got taken in but I saw through it and shooed them away. Three days later a guy on the Quai d’Orsay (the tree-lined sidewalk that follows the left bank of the Seine) “found” a massive fake gold wedding band on the path, declared that it didn’t fit him, and tried to sell it to us.

But last night was the perfect storm, when we were tired from a day of traveling (that included some glitches) and unfamiliar with the local currency. The Czech Republic, though a member of the EU, still uses its own currency, the koruna, at about 21 to the dollar (25 to the euro). We only had euros on us so I withdrew a few hundred dollars worth of koruna from an ATM on a busy street. A few seconds later, a guy offered to break a bill for me, since the ATM only dispensed large notes. He offered four 500 Kč bills (worth a little under  US $25 each) for my 2000 Kč note, and in my fatigue I did not ask the obvious question: Why would anyone want a larger bill for smaller ones? You almost always want to go the other way around. So I went for it, and — as I learned about an hour later when I tried to spend one — the 500’s were fake. I’m out a little under $100 but at least got a story to tell out of it. The irony is that the fakes do not even resemble actual 500 Kč  notes. (Though of course at the time I did not know what actual ones looked like.) Not-particularly-close inspection reveals that the writing on them is Cyrillic (instead of Czech) and declares them to be 500 Russian rubles. But they’re not that either. They’re basically realistic props, complete with embedded strip and watermark. Oh well. At least it was a more interesting scam than the attempts in Paris, and I have four fake banknotes to show for it.

So welcome to Prague. We are staying in a large, utterly beautiful apartment a very short walk over the Vltava River, the body of water where vowels go to drown. The apartment is at least 1000 square feet (93 sq meters) with high arched ceilings and thick painted stone walls; it is a renovated very old building. The flat is owned by an artist — a photographer as it happens — and so is beautifully decorated as well.

Prague itself is a very compact, walkable city whose architecture has preserved a lot of its 18th century character. Because of this, it is a popular movie filming location. It stood in for Vienna in the movie Amadeus — the actual Vienna being too modernized and too expensive to film in — and is the go-to Generic Eastern European City in any number of spy movies, e.g. The Bourne Identity.  It’s got a population of 1.3 million — and had 6.6 million foreign visitors in 2017. That’s not quite as lopsided as Iceland, but it’s close. There are a lot of tourists here, Germans being by far the largest group, with the US and UK in second and third place.

The city is loosely divided into four districts, being the “Old Town” and the “New Town” on the east side of the river and the “Little Quarter” and “Castle Town” on the west. We’re staying in the Little Quarter, a few minute walk over the Charles Bridge from Old Town. Our apartment living room faces north towards Castle Town: from our window we can see the imposing Prague Castle, a gloomily imposing 9th century edifice that houses the president of the country and was the former seat of power of the Holy Roman Empire. (Fun historical fact: the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor much of an empire. But it shows the importance of branding.) The castle also has the distinction of being the largest castle in the world, sprawling over 17 acres (7 hectares) not counting the exterior grounds. God knows what the heating bills are like.

Our plans today are relatively modest. We’re going to walk into the Old Town and visit the tiny Jewish Quarter, which has five synagogues including the most famous one: the “Old New Synagogue” (it’s a long story), which is the oldest in Europe that is still in use. And, being an astronomer, I feel compelled to make a pilgrimage to Prague’s famed Astronomical Clock, which is over 600 years old. It shows the Moon, the Sun, assorted astronomical information, and the appearance of a proper 500 koruna banknote.

Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lon Chaney, Call Your Office

So it appears that in France they believe that “The Phantom of the Opera” was a documentary. And, weirdly, that may not be altogether off the mark. The famed book, about a half dozen movie versions, and the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical all take place at L’Opera de Paris, also known as the Palais Garnier for the young architect who designed it in the 1870’s. Interestingly, the following things actually did happen in real life:

  • Some flooding occurred during construction, necessitating the inclusion of a retaining wall that created a small sub-basement pool that still exists and became the “Fantasy Lake” of the story.
  • One of the construction workers had a terrible facial deformity that he kept hidden. He loved the building and pretty much hung around there in secret all the time.
  • A counterweight from the chandelier in the main auditorium broke loose and fell in 1896, killing a spectator.

Who knew? In any case, the building is a spectacular one, built in an ornate neoclassical style, all marble and curlicues and domes and staircases. We took the tour. Here is the main lobby. It made me feel like I should have arrived in a horse-drawn carriage.

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Here’s the domed main auditorium. It seats nearly 2,000.

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And here is the dome itself with the infamous chandelier. You may note that the painting style does not exactly say “1875”. That is because it was repainted in a more current motif in 1968 at the behest of the then Minister of Culture, author Andre Malraux. The style may look familiar to you, since the artist is… Marc Chagall!

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And finally, here is the austere, understated Great Hall, in case the palace of Versailles isn’t garish enough for your tastes.

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Now here’s the weird part: the blockbuster Broadway musical “Phantom of the Opera” has never been shown in France. Apparently it was finally scheduled to run in Paris two years ago in October 2016, but a fire in the theater a few days before opening destroyed everything. So… no “Phantom” for Parisians, L’Opera notwithstanding.

Our next stop was a pilgrimage of sort, although I am not sure if it counts as a pilgrimage when you’re making the trip for somebody else. My former Evil Assistant and longtime BFF Angie is a devotee of insanely expensive designer purses (or, as she describes them, “receptacles for my soul”) and so we spent a few minutes wandering through the Insanely Expensive Purse And Other Retail Store district, just off the Champs Elysée. Our specific goal at Angie’s request was the Hermes flagship store (it’s pronounced er-MEZZ, you Philistine, not HER-meez), which we photographed but did not enter because we were not worthy. Angie was outraged that we did not take the opportunity to stop in and pick her up something called a “Birkin 35 Vermillion Togo”, which a moment of Googling revealed to be a $10,000 purse. I told her that we had decided to wait till it went on sale.

Designer-purseless, we moved on to one of our favorite museums in Paris, the Picasso Museum.

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The Picasso Museum is four stories tall, and by the time we got to the top I must confess that even we, big fans that we are, were utterly Picasso’ed out.

We had dinner at an excellent nearby Greek restaurant, three doors down from one of the sleazy sex shops on our street. Our dirty little secret (unrelated to the sex shops) is that neither Alice nor I are big fans of French haute cuisine. We love French “street food”: baguettes, crepes, that sort of thing. But I am not especially fond of creamy sauces, and Alice, being lactose intolerant, can’t handle the French fondness for butter and cream in everything. So when in Paris we go ethnic, much as we do at home. As you might expect Paris has very cosmopolitan restaurant offerings; so far our diners have been Italian, Vietnamese, and Greek. Tonight we’re doing Japanese.

It was dark after dinner, and so we made our way to the Seine for our nighttime boat ride. The Bateaux Mouches (literally “fly boats”, as in the insect, named for the Mouche region of Lyon where they were first built) are one of Paris’s delightful institutions They’re huge barge-like tourist boats, perhaps 200′ (60 m) long that hold hundreds of passengers, and they’ve been plying the Seine since 1867. Americans and Japanese seemed to be the predominant groups last night. The best time to go is at night when the monuments are lit up, so here are some shots from our trip. (The first, showing the beacon, is from shore, but all the others from on board. The second one shows Notre Dame over the rooftops.)

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Eifel Tower Moon crop (5 of 1)

Note the sequence of low bridges in the middle photo. The boats have unusual design to accommodate them: the ship’s bridge (where the captain steers) is on a hydraulic cantilevered arm and can raise and lower by several feet as needed.

We returned home about 11 PM, navigating the gauntlet of prostitutes working the street near our flat. One surprisingly pretty streetwalker, all hot pants and fishnets, greeted me with that most venerable come-on: “Hi! Do you speak English?” I said, “Yep,” and continued to walk, but before I could take another step, Alice charged up from a few feet behind me, grabbed my arm, and forcefully declared, “HE’S MINE!” It was such an absurd, retro bit of rom-com that all three of us — including the hooker — burst out laughing. Which, I suppose, was as surreal a way as any to end the evening.

We had another “museum day” today — St Chappelle cathedral, with its spectacular stained glass, and the Musée d’Orsay. I may write about them later if time and energy permit. This was our last day in Paris: we head to Prague tomorrow morning. We loved our time here; for us, Paris is the most enjoyable city in the world to simply be in, regardless of whether one runs around checking off all the traditional sights.

Categories: Europe, France, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Roadside Waterfall

Driving around in northern Iceland is a head-turning exercise in trying to take in first this volcanic feature, than that unnamed waterfall. The countryside is pretty isolated in the north, where the largest town, Akureyri, has a population of less than 19,000 which, amazingly, makes it the second largest city in Iceland after Reykjavik.

That Alaska-like low population density means that we needed to be mindful of our fuel tank, so we started the day by backtracking into Saudarkrokur for gas. While Tim and Alice coped with the one-pump street corner filling station, Janet and I walked down the block in search of a restroom, ultimately finding ourselves in the local bakery/tea room. It was there that we discovered that Icelanders are really excellent bakers with an inordinate fondness for pink icing. Seriously, everything they sold looked criminally mouth-watering, and half of it had pink icing. Wanting to blend in with the locals, I bought and ate a fresh doughnut with pink icing. It was as light as air and I’m sure contained at most zero calories. That’s how I know that they are excellent bakers.

The landscape in northern Iceland is oddly like Hawaii except for the large temperature difference and presence of sheep. It’s volcanic terrain dotted with cinder cones and the occasional serendipitous waterfall within a few hundred meters of the road. Here’s the first one we encountered, photographed by drone:

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This is a pretty typical sight. In this case, we were still close to a fjord flowing northwestward, which at this time of year and this far inland was at a very low water level, creating this abstract scene as viewed from some 200 meters directly above.

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I’m rather proud of this photo, but if you are having trouble visually parsing the scene, here it is again looking more upward towards the sea.

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Swiveling the drone to look upstream towards the mountains (and the sun), the same river looks like this:

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Such are the rewards of driving in northern Iceland. While I was flying the drone, Alice walked a quarter mile or so up the road, where we had passed a gravel lot packed with cars and trucks. Turns out that it was also packed with sheep: this was the venue where the various livestock owners identified their particular sheep via ear tags. The sheep all graze together, you see, and are herded together en masse and sorted by owner later.

We continued on our way and spotted a gravel spur and small parking lot at the head of a path leading down to a valley. A short walk down the path took us to a precipice overlooking a river with an oxbow bend around a steep basaltic hillside. Here are Alice and I defying death, about 15 meters above the valley floor on a somewhat precarious lookout point. We look a lot cheerier than we felt; the path was loose dirt and rock, slipperier than we’d like, and it was a long way down.

Iceland Alice & Rich Precipice

Our next destination was one of Iceland’s better-known waterfalls, the Goðafoss, which means “Waterfall of the Gods”. Like every stationary object in Iceland, this one has a legend associated with it. As the story goes, in the year 1000 a local chieftain named Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði — his friends called him Bob — was taking a lot of political heat from the Norse, who had recently converted to Christianity from Paganism and wanted Iceland to do the same. Chief Bob had to make the big decision about which way to go, and since I am not typing this by candlelight you probably know the outcome. Deciding that Icelanders should become Christian, he demonstrated his commitment by throwing all of his statues of Pagan gods into this waterfall. Hence the name. (What history conceals from us is that that Bob went home and got an earful from Mrs. Ljósvetningagoði, who went out and bought a new set of idols at Pier One the next day.)

Anyway, here’s Goðafoss. The main cascade (there’s a smaller one a short way downstream) is about 12 meters (40′) high. The river above it is the Skjálfandafljót (pronounced “Snuffleupaguss”), which is the fourth longest river in Iceland.

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Our next stop — and our destination for the day — was Lake Mývatn, which means “Midge Lake” due to the ubiquitous dense swarms of the goddamn things. (They even got into our noses and mouths, and I can only imagine what it must be like in the summer. Thank God they don’t bite.) Mývatn is a popular tourist area because of all the geothermal activity: there are natural hot spring baths, nature trails through volcanic formations, and “resort farms” for lodging, including the one we are staying at. The lake itself is dotted with what appear to be mini-volcanoes, and sort of are. Here is the scene:

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What they actually are, are “pseudocraters” (that’s their real name), essentially burst lava bubbles that formed when the original lava flow overran a marshy area. They’re also called “rootless cones” because despite their appearance they are not actually lava vents. Rather, the moisture in the swampy land under the then-hot lava flow boiled away and emitted steam from underneath the lava, swelling it into a bubble that hardened and later collapsed. It’s an odd, unearthly sight. Or at least I think it is, since the midges kept swarming around my head.

We finally came to rest at the Vogafjós Farm Resort. In case you are wondering what that means, it means that we have a very comfortable motel-like room, all wood paneled and with a super-comfy geothermally heated floor (!), and that there are cows outside. There is also an excellent farm-to-table restaurant, in this case the farm-to-table distance being zero. Their specialty is lamb — quite the best I have ever had — and “Geyser Bread”, which is a very moist dark rye bread baked by burying it in the hot ground near a geothermal vent. Yes, really. It’s great!

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ever Northward

We are now near the town of Sauðárkrókur, which if you’re allergic to the weird typography is written as Saudarkrokur in non-Icelandic. That’s actually a little misleading since the third character, the ð, looks like a d but is actually pronounced th. But the main point is that it is at a latitude of 65.7°, which puts us about 55 miles (90 km) below the Arctic Circle. You wouldn’t know it from the weather, which was mostly sunny and mild today, reaching about 15 C (59 F). The relatively balmy temperatures and the sunshine, combined with much milder winds, made it a fine day to continue our drive to the north and take in the scenery, which at its most idyllic looked like this.

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I took the top two via drone; it was a good day for that too. All three shots were taken about halfway into today’s journey, when we stopped for lunch at a turnoff from the road next to the river in the picture. Our company was a team of sheep herders and their dogs and ATV, rounding up an enormous flock on a nearby hillside.

Our first stop of the day had actually been an hour earlier, at the Grábok (the name means “gray rock”) cinder cones, the remnants of a not-completely-ancient volcano. It’s setting is a stark volcanic landscape with close greenish-yellow ground cover, as you can see here.

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This particular environmental motif is typically Icelandic: if you live outside of the city you are morally obliged to build a white farmhouse with a red roof on an otherwise desolate landscape with mountains in the background. If you don’t believe me, compare that last photo to the first one in this post after the lead-in paragraph. See?

Grábok is about 100 meters tall and has a convenient boardwalk leading up its side and around the crater rim. You can see it clearly in this drone view, taken from about 100 meters above the crater rim:


Iceland Grabrok and North Drone 2018-016

(I also shot a nice video of the drone flyoner, which I will post at a later date.) You may also notice a few rows of stones, about a quarter of the way up from the bottom of the image and about a quarter of the way in from the right. That is an archaeological site, the remains of a settlement dating from the 10th century, when the Norse first arrived in Iceland. In the century or so after those initial settlements, the locals were building sod houses like these.

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The walls and the roof are all made of chunks of sod as advertised, and since plants like to grow upwards, the roofs sprout. These particular guys are found at the  Glaumbaer Folk Museum, a little ways south of Sauðárkrókur. They are surprisingly sophisticated dwellings, extending two stories underground and containing kitchens, storage areas, and dormitory-like bunk bed sleeping quarters. The fronts of the buildings are made of wood as you can see (now reconstructed, of course), which raises the obvious question of how you build with wood when there are no trees around. The terrain is bleak and treeless, with not a lot of promising building materials. But we are very close to the coast, and so the answer is: driftwood! The early inhabitants gathered enough driftwood to build houses, furniture, and (I presume) horse carts.

Speaking of horses, there are a lot of them around. Small in stature but nimble on the rough ground and on ice, Icelandic horses are all the descendants of the initial cargoes of ponies from Norway, brought over in the 10th and 11 centuries. They still look like ponies, and according to my dictionary definition they are ponies, being barely 5 feet  (1.5 meters) high at the shoulder. However, you must not call them ponies here. To Icelanders they are horses, dammit, and if you call the horses “ponies” the locals will throw you into a fjord with your hiking boots tied around your neck.

I should also mention that they all have gorgeous manes; they all look either blow-dried or carefully windblown. You can admire the mane that this not-pony is sporting against a dramatic background.

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Beautiful, yes, but what are all these horses for? There isn’t a big demand for draft animals in Iceland these days, and a horse this size would hardly do the job anyway. The answer is that most are pets or used for riding, and the ones that aren’t suitable for either of those or for breeding are… eaten. (Do not tell my niece, who is a very avid and experienced horsewoman.)

I mention all this horse stuff because our lodgings this evening are a beautiful 3-bedroom guest house on a working farm about 10 km south of Sauðárkrókur. And by a “working farm” I mean that the owners were out all day gathering sheep into this pen:

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-066

(The horns notwithstanding, these are all ewes. The males are kept separately.) Like most farms it is kind of in the middle of nowhere, so we returned to town for dinner, driving northward along the fjord around sunset as a sharply-defined cloud layer formed a few tens of meters over the water, hovering like a gigantic UFO.  The town itself is very small, with a only a couple thousand inhabitants, and just about the only restaurant was the suspiciously-named “Hard Wok”, whose two-page menus offered cuisine from about five different countries, including Chinese, Italian, and Mexican food. Our meals were surprisingly good.

Tomorrow, we fuel up — with actual diesel this time, thank you very much — and continue eastward and a little farther north.



Categories: Europe, Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Saguaro Lake

Speaking of lakes, since we are wrapping up our stay in Scottsdale, Arizona, before heading home tomorrow, I thought I’d throw in one last very brief blog post from our current venue.

When you think of Arizona, you probably think “unbearably hot desert”, and in general you’d be right. But the weather has been unusually cool these past few days, with highs in the low 60’s (around 16 C). It was especially beautiful today, up close to 70F (21C), so our very dear longtime friends and perpetual Scottsdale hosts drove us on an outing to Saguaro Lake, about a 20 minute drive from home.

Saguaro Lake is artificial, the result of damming up the Salt River in 1930. It’s long and skinny, only about 2 square miles (500 hectare) in surface area and about 100′ (30m) deep. It’s a beautiful deep crystal blue, surrounded by several hundred foot high sedimentary cliffs. There are about 10 species of fish — trout and that sort of thing — so as you’d suppose it’s a popular boating and fishing spot. There’s a even a tour boat that brings you around the lake and into some of the narrow canyons on a 90 minute excursion. (We took that boat tour a few years ago on a blistering summer day with temperatures in the 105 F (41 C) range. It would have been a lot more fun today.)

The lake sits in a region called the Tonto National Forest (no Lone Ranger jokes, please). There was a uniformed ranger-looking person sitting in a white pickup truck in the parking lot, so I asked her if it was allowable to fly my drone. “Beats me,” she said, “I’m a Forest Service biologist and have no authority over anything.” That sounded like permission to me, so here is the drone flight. The video is a little under 5 minutes long, and you can see the tour boat starting at about 2:45.


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Waipio? Wai not?

The oldest part of the Big Island is its northwestern corner, a 15 mile (25 km) long, 10 mile (16 km) wide peninsula called Kohala. It is, in fact, a single giant extinct volcano, the first part of the island that formed. That makes it about a million years old, and it last erupted about 120,000 years ago. So it’s old; eroded and overgrown, it’s now cattle grazing country, a huge grassy hill dotted with overgrown volcanic cinder cones and commanding a view down the coast.

When the clouds are not in the way — which they are, more often than not — you can see Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa as well.  Today we had — what is for this part of the island — uncharacteristically beautiful weather; the day was clear and warm, though distant clouds kept Mauna Kea out of view most of the time.

At the southeastern end of the peninsula, on the windward side where Kohala joins the rest of the island, is one of the Big Island’s most paradisaical  locales: Waipi’o Valley. A 1000-foot deep, half-mile wide slash in the lava-stone coastline, Waipi’o’s striking appearance is matched by its comparable inaccessibility. It was the home of ancient Hawaiian chiefs and is still considered a “cultural seedbank”, dotted with taro fields and threaded by a shallow river that flows down to a black sand beach. The nearly vertical green walls are punctuated by waterfalls, giving the place a serene Edenic feel. I wrote about it a year ago in this blog post.

It’s tough to get down to the bottom: you need a good four-wheel drive or really strong thighs and cardiovascular system to tackle the intimidating 25% grade. We did it for fun when I lived here, 35 years ago; today I sent a drone in my place.

The cranky “Resource Ranger” (that’s what it said on his name tag) wouldn’t let me launch the drone from the lookout point and admonished that I must not fly into the valley at all. So I walked a few hundred yards back down the approach road and launched from there instead, being careful to stay out over the water and above the rim of the valley. Here’s what it looked like from my airborne proxy, nearly 500 meters above the beach.

If you’d like a greater sense of immediacy about the place, here’s the video from the same drone flight:

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The Namib Desert is believed to be the oldest desert in the world, but I have not asked to see its driver’s license to confirm this. It is also one of the driest places in the world, which I can definitely attest to on the basis of my cracked leathery lips. It’s long and skinny in shape, paralleling the Atlantic coastline of the country and totaling roughly 4000 square miles (10,000 sq km) in area. With a sand covering that averages about 10 meters in depth, I calculate that it holds on the order of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 grains of sand (yes, that is an actual calculation… it’s what I do), which is very roughly equal to the number of stars in the observable universe. (This is why I became an astronomer.)

Interestingly, it has several geological distinct areas with different surface characteristics. We are in the southern Namib, known for its dune fields, e.g.,

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More on those in a moment.

We flew into the Kulala region, in the south, on a pair of smallish planes over terrain like what you see above. The airstrip was, well, a desert airstrip:

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And here we are in the sophisticated VIP lounge of the main terminal building…

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(That is actually the entire airport.)  We loaded ourselves into our van and trundled off over the moonscape to a nearby hill, our 4×4 grinding through the steep sand to an outcropping at the rocky  summit from which we could watch this boring and not at all colorful sunset.02 Kalula Day 1 2017-090

I should emphasize that despite a healthy dose of self-congratulation and genial self-delusion, even given the stark and sere surroundings one would have a hard time making the case that we are roughing it. Our first evening’s hilltop “sundowner” (repeated each of the subsequent two nights) included the ever-affable Lloyd and our two drivers — Michael and Castro — serving us drinks and canapes as we marveled at what intrepid explorers we all were. (Side note: yes, “Castro”.  Cuba and Russia were big supporters of Namibian independence. We have so far on this trip had two drivers named Castro.) But hey, this is how we roll. Overseas Adventure Travel, our most excellent tour operator, caters to active, educated, affluent seniors or, as we like to call ourselves, “The Reason Our Children Won’t Have Social Security.”

But I digress. Another short 4 x 4 drive brought us to the Kulala Desert Lodge, our home in the desert. Our accommodations are notionally tents but are really comfortable cabins (electricity, full bathroom with shower, plenty of hot water, and marginal wifi) with canvas walls.

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Those are solar water heaters at far left. Notice also the ladder at the left side of each cabin, leaning against the adobe (I think) rear wall.  The top of that structure is a flat surface with a low wall, and upon request the staff will set up a mattress and bedding there so that you can sleep under the African stars. We did this last night, and it is quite the primal and even romantic experience to do so, especially when you wake up in the middle of the night and open your eyes to the vault of the Milky Way arcing overhead through the velvet sky. Though it is, admittedly, somewhat less romantic to then climb down the ladder in pitch blackness and work your way around to the front of the cabin in order to go inside to pee. Plus you run the risk of running into an antelope whilst doing so. We were actually awakened in the middle of the night by an oryx clopping around next to our cabin and brushing against the ladder. (Trust me, it puts a whole new spin on the old “Honey, wake up! I think I here something downstairs!” trope.)

Notice my clever segue into the animal life here. It is astonishing to me that many of the large African mammals — elands, oryx, zebras — have adapted subspecies of themselves to survive in a climate that gets bare millimeters of rain in a good month. They look like their savanna counterparts but have evolved sophisticated hydration and cooling systems to survive. The oryx, or gemsbok, is probably the iconic Namibian animal, a regal antelope that stands about 4 feet (1.3 m) high at the shoulder and can weigh up to 600 lbs (290 kg) or so. They are all over the place, including marching through our camp at night. The Hartman’s Mountain Zebra looks like your regular Kenya/Tanzania/your local zoo zebra but has adapted to survive on, well, pretty much nothing at all.

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There is even a species of bird in which the female absorbs water through pores in her breast and stores it there, then suckles her young (after a fashion) by allowing them to suck the water out through the pores. Such is life in the dunes.

Ah, the dunes. Massive, orange fields of them. This area, called Sossusvlei, is rich with them. The largest have numbers or names, the numbers representing their distance in kilometers from some fiducial measuring point. The tallest of them all in this area is aptly known as Big Daddy, towering at 1,066 ft (325 m) high. That was a bit too ambitious for us, and so we undertook instead to conquer the most popular of the touristic dunes, the locally-famous Dune 45 at a mere 100 m or so high. Up we trekked, along with dozens of others, on the ridge of the dune that in some places was only about a meter wide. When you crane your head to admire the view, or to let someone pass, there’s a real risk of tumbling off the ridge and rolling down the face of the dune, which might or might not be fun but would definitely obviate your upward progress.

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Hiking up a sand dune is hard, hard work. You’ve gotten a very small taste of it if you have ever run across a sandy beach — not the packed sand closest to the water line but the deep, loose stuff, say 15 meters further inland. Now imagine tilting that up to about a 30 degree angle. You take your stride, say 2 feet (60 cm) in length, plant your foot, start your step… and your leading leg ends up pushing a six inch depth of sand downhill towards your lower foot, so despite expending all that muscle power your 2 foot stride buys you about six inches of forward motion. It is slow and exhausting, pushing all that sand around for such slow progress, and you end up at the top with aching legs, heaving lungs, two shoes full of sand, and a satisfyingly spectacular view.

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Now you’ve got to get down, and you’ve got a decision to make. Your options are (1) go back along the ridge the way you came up, or (2) screw it and go barreling down the face of the dune like the two figures in the photo above. We opted for the latter, thus:

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That’s our travelmate Cheryl in the middle, on her butt. This was a deliberate strategy on her part because she has a bad knee and figured (correctly) that this would be hard on it. Her posterior technique was successful, in addition demonstrating that is possible to go for the better part of a day wearing a pair of underwear that holds over 3 kilos of sand.

The more traditional technique is being demonstrated by Al, in the white shirt on the left. You lean back a bit and step downhill heel first, which slides you down by several inches with the flat of your foot acting as a brake. Then you repeat the operation with the other leg, shifting your weight back and forth sort of like ice skating. It gets you down fast and is rather exhilarating. Then you spend the next twenty minutes shaking sand out of your shoes and socks, which is a lot harder than it sounds because the dune sand is as fine as dust.

Not far from Dune 45 is Deadvlei, another peculiarity of Namibian desert geography. It’s a former — very former, as in 800 years ago — oasis, now a hard clay pan because the river that fed it changed course. The dried clay has a top layer of white calcium carbonate (chalk, basically) and the bed is dotted with 800 year old dead acacia trees, making for an extraterrestrial landscape that has been the setting for a number of films and countless surreal photos, including mine:

02 Kalula Day 1 2017-245 The following day dawned dark and early as we awoke pre-dawn for the highlight of the trip so far. I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

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We were part of a flotilla of three balloons, each holding up to 16 passengers in a large waist-high wicker basket. Our pilot was the owner of the company, a genially cocky, ponytailed Jack-Sparrow-like native Namibian named Dennis. All of the women had a crush on him, and man, he controlled that balloon like nobody’s business, eventually setting us down at the landing site onto the back of a flatbed truck. (Admittedly with some help from the ground crew, who pulled us over to the truck as we hovered about five feet off the ground. But even so….) Here’s Alice with Dashing Dennis, along with the champagne breakfast in the desert that followed our successful flight.

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One of the many remarkable things about the flight — and if you’re bored by the images above, please check your pulse — was the bird’s eye view that it afforded of Namibia’s famous “fairy circles”. These are flat bare circular areas in the landscape, ranging from about 2 meters to 10 meters in diameter, ringed with tufts of grass, and of utterly mysterious origin. Here’s what some large ones look like from the balloon. (That’s a dirt roadway for size comparison.)

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Biological phenomenon or M. Night Shyamalan movie?

Explanations for their existence include fungi; termites; a complicated moisture feedback loop involving the surrounding grasses’ root systems; local radioactivity; and aliens. Pick your favorite.

It’s hard to overstate the sense of wonder and transcendence that this balloon flight affords. The scenery was beyond spectacular, the sense of scale and otherworldliness overwhelming.  When we first booked it, the flight seemed a little pricey at US$350 or so, not a small amount. It was worth it. If you ever make it to this region, bite the bullet and do not fail to do this with Namib Sky Balloon Safaris.  Tell them Rich and Alice sent you. They’ll have no idea who you’re talking about, but it’ll make us feel good.

Our final stop of the day was Sesriem Canyon, a sight that to be honest was so utterly anticlimactic after the balloon ride that my laptop is sneering at me as I write about this. In a nutshell, it is a canyon, about 100 ft (30 m) high, carved by a recently-dried-up river and composed entirely of knobbly conglomerate rock. When the river was flowing, local travelers used it as a water source, gauging its depth by tying lengths of leather thongs or belts together; the name itself means “six belts” (or “thongs”) in Dutch and Afrikaans.

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This fascinating geological phenomezzzzzzzzzz……….

We hiked down to the bottom and followed the riverbed upstream for a few hundred meters. The walls are dotted with rock pigeon dens (with corresponding collections of guano on the ground), and the ground hosts poisonous horned adders (sidewinder snakes) as a welcoming committee. We encountered a couple of these, which our guides herded out of the way with long sticks.

OK, better quit now as this post is clocking in at over 1900 words, about twice as long as usual. We’re out of the desert as I write this, having moved on to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, both on the cloudy coast. About which more in the next day or two….


Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Gorging on Waterfalls

I mentioned yesterday that the Finger Lakes were formed during the last ice age and are thus quite young: a few tens of thousands of years. But they have company, in the form of a number of spectacular narrow gorges. The best known of these is Watkins Glen at the foot of Seneca Lake. It’s an insanely photogenic canyon, 400 ft (120 m) deep and about a mile and a half (2.5 km) long. If you walk the whole length — we did about half — you’ll go up and down something like 890 steps, and you’l see 19 waterfalls.

The geology of the gorges is interesting. They are sedimentary rock, a mix of shale, limestone, and sandstone. These differ a great deal in their hardness and thus their rates of erosion, resulting in a number of natural staircase-like rock formations.

That’s today’s geology lesson, so here are some photos from today’s hike:

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Pretty cool, huh?

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Whales, Kayaking, a Lighthouse, and Stuff

Kind of a grab bag of topics since I haven’t posted in a few days, in part because I’ve been tired in the evenings: there is a haze of “vog” (volcanic fog) on the island — it having made its way 500 km to Kauai all the way from the Big Island — which has given me a minor but enervating cough. But there is nonetheless lots to tell, and I want to get it down before we leave tomorrow for the penultimate leg of this trip, three days in Honolulu with our old friends Laura and Brian. (That will be followed by four days in Scottsdale, Arizona on our way home.)

At home we are avid if not particularly ambitious kayakers, and since Kauai is the only one of the Hawaiian islands with navigable rivers — six of them, supposedly — it seemed reasonable to find a riverside kayak rental outfit. Such a place existed, quite close to us in fact, and so we spent a pleasant three hours kayaking on the Hanalei River, beginning about a mile from Hanalei Bay and working our way upstream to a nature reserve a few miles away.


The experience was, as I remarked in a Facebook post, just like kayaking at home except for the palm trees, the hibiscus blossoms floating on the water, and the whole laid-back tropical gestalt of it all. We did not see a lot of animal life in the nature reserve — a few fish, some turtles, a few egrets — but gliding among the palms and pandanus trees and spotting modest mini-waterfalls along the banks gave the whole experience a pleasantly dreamy ambience.

A few miles down the road from our house, east of Hanalei Bay, Kilauea Lighthouse perches on a dramatic promontory, overseeing a violent surf and a hillside heavily dotted with red-footed boobies. Here’s the scene:


If the lighting looks a little unusual in this picture it is because it is actually a nighttime scene, a twelve-minute time exposure taken by moonlight… hence the creamy, blurred-looking surf. But back to the birds. The red-footed boobies, thousands of them, look like white confetti on the far hillside, but close up resemble ungainly seagulls with enormous red feet and blue bills. You can see them as white dots at upper right in the shot below. (You can also see that you would not want to swim here.) We have seen their more famous cousins, the blue-footed boobies, in the Galapagos.


The lighthouse’s location is quite the quite the focus for local wildlife. There were some nenes (Hawaii’s state bird) walking around the parking lot, a pod of whales cavorting offshore, and the occasional Laysan albatross — an endangered species — gliding by on what could be a several thousand mile journey. They breed in Hawaii but may travel as far as Japan or the west coast of North America to feed. Here’s one that we saw:


When we returned from the lighthouse our AirBnB hosts invited us to attend a bonfire and barbecue on the beach at Hanalei Bay at sunset that evening, a practice they happily indulge in every Friday night. We went, enjoying the sunset over the waves and silhouetted mountains along with about four other couples, all with interesting backgrounds. (You kind of have to have an interesting background if you’re living here.)

The next day (yesterday, Saturday Feb 4) was our opportunity to complete the geographical trifecta, as the day dawned clear and we got to see the Na Pali coast from the sea. (We had already seen it from the hiking trail lookout and via helicopter.) Our tour operator, Na Pali Riders, were quite the cowboys, leading about 20 of us into what was essentially a large Zodiac, a rubberized pontoon boat right at the water level, powered by twin 250 HP motors. That thing could move, and with the trade winds coming up and the surf high, the ride was anything but smooth. How bone-shatteringly bumpy was it? Well, in addition to a rope handhold running along the edge — and you sit on the edge — there was a rope foothold around the perimeter of the floor. You keep one foot slid underneath it to keep you from bouncing backwards into your own personal whale-watching adventure.

Speaking of which, en route to Na Pali we first encountered a large pod of spinner dolphins, maybe 100 in number all told, to set the stage for the excitement that would follow. Here are a few of them:


(My photos from this boat trip, by the way, were taken with our “backup camera”, a nice waterproof point-and-shoot, since I did want to risk my nice SLR and expensive lenses ending up photographing the cetaceans from underneath. Picture quality is not as high, but the thing is indestructible, which is a big plus in this environment.)

Anyway, whales. We got lucky: we encountered a number of them, most thrillingly a mother and a juvenile. The latter was only a few weeks or a month old, “only” 10 ft long or so and just learning to breach:

na-pali-whales-kauai-021That’s Mom’s pectoral fin on the right, the baby breaching on the left. Notice that baby is flopping over on his back: that’s how whales actually do it. So here are two more shots, ’cause you can never have too many whales.



The whales were clustered near the southwest corner of the island, a little south of Na Pali itself. So we motored up the coast to catch these striking scenes, which I promise will be the last ones I show you of Na Pali.





We’ve already had the Jurassic Park discussion, but if it all looks a little “Skull Island”-ish to you, there’s a good reason for that too: the 1979 remake of King Kong was filmed here.

In addition to these A-list destinations, Kauai has its share of minor touristic oddities as well. We hit a couple of them on the way back from our Na Pali expedition. They include salt evaporation ponds, which are basically very shallow artificial lake beds next to the sea. Just add water and wait, and voila! Sea salt! (Add pink food coloring and you can pretend it’s from the Himalayas, a designation about which I have always been deeply suspicious.)

But probably the surrealistic best of the B-list sights is the “Russian Fort”, which we visited briefly. Very briefly. Still, its history is so weird that it is worth relating.

Kamehameha I unified the islands under his monarchy in 1810, but unsurprisingly not everybody got with the program immediately. Chief among these (hah! get it?) was Kaumuali’i, who ruled Kauai and much preferred doing his own thing. This included seizing a cargo ship belonging to the  Russian-American Trading Company in 1815. The Russians were none too pleased at this and dispatched an agent, a German physician named Georg Schäffer, to free the goods.

Schäffer figured his best play was to befriend Kamehameha and then convince the latter to pressure Kaumuali’i. The befriending part worked OK… the pressuring part, not so much; Kamehameha didn’t see much upside to antagonizing his disgruntled underling on behalf of a guy who looked like the Wizard of Oz. So Schäffer went straight to Kaumuali’i, who promptly conned him. Kaumuali’i convinced Schäffer that if the Russians would build a fort, they could seize the entire island chain from Kamehameha. Schäffer promised the Tsar’s support, and had the fort built.  Then things went predictably sideways: (1) upon learning of all this the Tsar said, “WTF?”; and (2) what Kaumuali’i was really planning, of course, was to take the islands for himself (“We don’ need no steenkin’ Russians!”). So the whole endeavor collapsed, Kamehameha’s supporters took over the fort, and after a halfhearted attempt to retake it several years later, Kaumuali’i’s guys threw in the towel. The place was abandoned in 1853 after decades of proudly defending Kauai against, well, nothing. Today it’s a rock wall about shoulder-high (about 1/4 of its original height), tracing out a rough octagon a few hundred feet across. We were positively rapt for about 3 seconds.

I never did learn what was on those cargo ships, but in the interest of adding some irony to the whole bizarre tale I like to imagine that it turned out to be something of absolutely no use to the Hawaiians. Fur-lined mittens and frostbite ointment, say. You can think of your own.

Today was our last day on Kauai. The weather was beautiful, and so we made the precarious hike down to Queen’s Bath on the coast. I’ll post some photos of that in a few days. But for now, on to Honolulu.

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