Sky Candy

I once took a balloon ride over the farmlands that surround my home. Floating hundreds of feet in the air with no roaring jet engine to assault my ears and nothing between me and the earth but a layer of basketry is probably the closest I’ll ever get to riding the winds like a bird. You expect it to be silent up there, but it’s not; the burners beneath the “envelope” flame noisily at regular intervals, and you can actually hear many sounds from the world below—dogs barking, cars honking, trains whistling. Above you is a rainbow canopy of brilliant colour. You gaze down at the patchwork of fields, roads, rooftops, and streams and it’s enchantingly surreal.

That’s the experience from the top down. Now, when I stand with my feet on the ground, looking up at a hot air balloon wafting by, I can feel that sensation of freedom again. Multiply that pleasure by a hundred times and you’ll start to understand the thrill of the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta.

Granted, the conditions the afternoon we attended were absolutely perfect: one of those rare English days with plenty of sun, blue skies, and almost no wind. We drove for miles through the countryside, searching for Ashton Court Estate, the location of the festival. Once again I thanked the patron saint of travelers, St. GPS.

The site was huge and grassy, with a few shade trees around the edges. A busy fairground with rides and games kept the youngsters happy while their elders staked out picnic blankets around the launch field. We sprawled on the gentle hillside and soaked in the sun with ice cream cones in hand to watch the entertainment. RC airplanes and stunt pilots in ultralights twisted and dove a few metres above the ground.

Eventually, the field cleared and the balloonists began driving out, trailers in tow. With practiced teamwork, they unload their baskets, unroll and hook up the envelopes (that’s the balloon part of the airship), and start up the burners to fill the envelopes. At this stage, the balloons look like a giant’s laundry spread out on the grass to dry. But as the air flows in, they come to life, big bubbles of trapped gas transforming flat into 3-D.

Slowly, each envelope grows, starts to rise and take shape. You recognize the traditional rainbow stripes, a multitude of corporate colours and logos, and, to everyone’s delight, the “special shapes.” An enormous one-eyed Minion grins at the crowd, while a pair of penguins (boy and girl) and the “Up” balloon—based on the animated film—carve out their unique silhouettes against the sky. There’s even a square balloon with a dragon wrapped around it.

Finally, like a child’s helium-filled toy accidentally released, the first balloon launches, followed by more and more, until the sky is filled with over a hundred gently ascending lighter-than-air vessels. They drift away, dandelion puffs at the mercy of the wind, gradually shrinking in our view until they disappear over the horizon.

And oh how I envy their crews! I want to see again what they see: ant-like people and cars,  little puffs of green that are trees, the houses no more than Lego blocks. I’m tired of being an ant, so look for me at the next balloon festival I can find. Maybe I’ll be able to hitch a ride.

“Up, up, and away in my beautiful balloon…”

 

Australian Anomaly

Is there anyone who sees a picture of a platypus for the first time and doesn’t think it must be something dreamed up by a Pokemon designer? Come on now–duck bill, lumpy tail, webbed feet, furry body, and venomous spurs on its hind feet. That can’t be right. And what are we all told about mammals: that they bear live young, right? Oh, wait, who’s got their paw raised in the back row? Yes, Ms. Platypus…What’s that? You’re a mammal and you lay eggs? Then provide milk to your babies through pores in your skin? How…special.

Certainly, the first British scientists to see a platypus pelt were flummoxed by the strange little creature’s appearance and believed someone was hoaxing them by sewing a duck’s beak onto a rodent’s body.

I was still very young when I learned about the existence of platypus (or platypuses, but not platypi, although there is some argument to be made for platypodes and platypoda). They were mythical beasts from a far-off exotic country, in the same category as kangaroos and Tasmanian devils. Unlike many other fascinating foreign species, platypus cannot be seen in zoos outside Australia. (They don’t like to breed in captivity. Neither do I.) I decided then that if I ever made it to the Land Down Under, I had to see a platypus with my own eyes.

Not so easy, as I discovered in my pre-trip research four years ago. To begin with, they are now extinct in some places where they once lived, such as South Australia. According to Wikipedia, their distribution in the wild is “unpredictable” and “not well known.” While they are out there, they are usually shy, nocturnal animals. Being semiaquatic, they spend a lot of their time underwater in murky streams. TripAdvisor’s forum “Where to see platypus” was discouraging: “Chances of seeing them in the wild are slim. No—make that almost non-existent….[G]o to a zoo.”

When I read about Eungella National Park and realized it was within reasonable detouring distance from my planned route through Queensland, I was skeptical. Sure, they promoted themselves as a “haven for platypus,” but maybe that was just hype. In any case, with wild animals, there are no guarantees. What were the chances of an average tourist like me actually seeing one? I told myself not to get my hopes up, even as I booked a stay at the Broken River Mountain Resort, located next to the park.

After a terrifying drive up the steep mountain road in the absolute darkness of unlit wilderness night, my companions and I checked in at the resort, and were assured that the platypus could be seen, sometimes from the viewing platform, often from the river bank under the bridge—but only at dawn and dusk. We settled into our cabin, dreaming of monotremes in the morning. Unfortunately, it was winter, the park is at a chilly altitude, the cabins are heated only by woodstove, and all of us failed utterly at getting a fire going in said heat source. I piled on every piece of clothing I carried in my luggage, huddled under the blankets, and shivered my way to sunrise.

At least we didn’t need to waste time getting dressed before waddling down to the river. No one else was there. We visited the viewing platform, but nada. We wandered up to the bridge and waited some more. In my heart of hearts, I knew this was a fool’s errand. So I was astonished to spot a faint v-shaped ripple heading up river. Something was underwater, moving with purpose. It could have been a turtle or a large fish but, of course, it wasn’t. It was my mythical creature, as I clearly saw when it surfaced. There it was, duck bill, plump tail, furry body, big webbed feet, and all.

Over the next two days, we spotted the platypus several more times, always at dawn or dusk, always near the bridge. Mostly they swam by at a leisurely pace, coming up for air for a few seconds as my camera clicked away, then diving again, but once we watched one feeding in the company of a little pied cormorant. Platypus use their “duck bills” to stir up the stream bed and uncover worms, larvae, and other edibles. The bird would dive at the same time as the platypus, and often came up with a fish. My guess is that the mammal’s activity incidentally flushed out the cormorant’s prey, making the bird’s hunt easier. The oddest part about this was that the cormorant would peck the platypus, as if encouraging or harassing it to dive. Maybe it was just communicating. Whether the platypus benefited from this relationship was not clear. I see someone’s doctoral thesis on the horizon….

This video, shot within a couple of days of my own visit to Eungella, shows this fascinating behavior. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocq2jq4I4t8

Seeing an incredible animal like this in the wild is a life-changer. You realize that there really are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. If platypus exist, then why not unicorns and sasquatches? Would they be any stranger? Who knows—maybe somewhere out there in some unexplored corner of the most inaccessible jungle there is even an honest politician.

In Search of Folk Music: Wales

Folk music is about history and storytelling, archaic language and ancient notions that are sometimes surprisingly (and disturbingly) contemporary, and modern ideas that may have their roots in antiquity. It’s also about shared culture and joining with your community to express joy, sorrow, outrage, or remembrance. It can be hilarious or mysterious, bawdy or accusatory.

I am proud to call myself a folk musician, and when I travel, I seek out like-minded folks.

In planning my trip to Wales, I thought with excitement of the country’s reputation for beautiful voices and fierce pride in Welsh traditions, and I determined to visit a folk club and share in the singing. With the help of Mudcat Cafe, an online community of folkies across the world, I found a songcircle in Wales that fit into my schedule. Then I resolved to learn one simple song in Welsh so that I could wow the locals.

This was a recklessly brave and foolish ambition. For those of you who don’t speak Welsh, I will point out that it is a fiendishly difficult language for outsiders to learn. I suspect that the native Welsh are genetically equipped with a tongue that attaches in some unique fashion and which allows them to shape the sounds.

Take, for example, the “ll.” Wikipedia describes this as a “voiceless lateral fricative.” There are literally pages and pages of helpful explanation on the Web trying to explain how to create this sound. Gwybodiadur.co.uk: “…put your tongue in the L position and say SH (not S). Don’t forget to keep the tip of the tongue up against ridge behind the teeth and not let it point forwards or downwards as it would do for a normal SH…you’ll sound a bit like a really annoyed cat.”  Try to imagine doing this while singing. Considering the level of skill and determination this demands, one ceases to be amazed that the tiny Welsh nation has doggedly resisted Anglo domination for hundreds of years.

However, I reasoned that even a somewhat mangled version of a Welsh song would count as a culturally sensitive attempt and gain me some brownie points. So I tracked down a short, repetitive, but lovely folk tune called Ar Lan y Mor and I prevailed on my Welsh-born friend for some lessons. I think he almost choked the first time I tried to sing it—no, wait, that was just him correcting my pronunciation.

After several months of practice, I found myself in a Pembrokeshire pub, surrounded by friendly locals. Folkies are, as a rule, very welcoming types, and, though no doubt nonplussed by my presence in the midst of their group, they were kind. When I announced that I would sing Ar Lan y Mor in Welsh, I gleefully noted their surprised and respectful expressions. Nobody laughed at my garbled pronunciation and all applauded warmly at the end.

Just as I relaxed back into my chair, feeling quite smug, the woman next to me leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, “Very nice, dear. Of course, we’re all English here.” Indeed, as I soon confirmed, they were all escapees from the Anglo-urban rat race seeking Welsh utopia and not one could tell the difference between an “ll” and an angry cat. Bloody ll, thought I.

At the end of the evening, I was slinking, crestfallen, toward the door, when a craggy old fellow at the bar with his face sunk in his pint, glanced up just long enough to growl, “I’m Welsh and ye did pretty well. Good to hear someone singing in Welsh.”

So my efforts were not completely wasted. I gained a healthy appreciation for those few who tackle Welsh as a second language—and they are as rare as red dragons. I witnessed first-hand the long-standing tradition of English empire-builders taking up residence on Welsh soil, a custom that dates back further than King John. And I scored a point for Canadian chutzpah.

O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau!*

Have your efforts to speak the local language during your travels been delightful or disastrous? Write a comment and share your story.

*“May the old language endure!”—from the Welsh national anthem

Birding by Boat

Birding can be a tough slog. Marching along steaming-hot jungle trails, toting gear, trying to simultaneously watch the trail for poisonous snakes while craning your neck to spot birds in treetops, and disciplining yourself to stand perfectly still as swarms of mosquitos descend joyfully on your sweating limbs. Don’t get me wrong—I understand that masochism is one of the primary attractions of the hobby—but yes, there are actually times when I wonder why I do it.

On the other hand, you could be gliding effortlessly along a cool river, fresh air wafting past your face—sitting down, no less—encumbered by nothing more than binoculars, as the guide points out the colourful species that are easily viewed along the banks.

Once you picture the difference between those two descriptions, you’ll begin to see why I’ve become enamoured of birding by boat.

My favourite experience with BBB was on the Daintree River in Queensland, Australia. The bed and breakfast, a highly civilized establishment called the Red Mill House, got us up before dawn with a quick snack and the promise of a full breakfast upon our return. We were out on the river in time to enjoy the sunrise and catch the early-morning bird activity.

The boat was small but very comfortable, with seats that swiveled in any direction, leaned back as needed, and were just easy to sit in for a couple of hours. No canopy on the boat meant I could easily see up and around to view and photograph birds overhead or high in the trees.

Murray, The Daintree Boatman, shared his vast knowledge of the river’s ecology—birds, plants, reptiles, insects—and history. Not only did he know where to locate specific species, but he was extremely respectful of all the creatures, even taking the trouble to replace an ant back on its tree unharmed after showing it to us.

After two hours, we were delivered back to the lodge, where an excellent breakfast awaited us, along with a chance to discuss the morning’s sightings with the two hosts, formidable birders in their own right.

Okay, so I’m not so much about suffering for my hobby. Or, at least, not about needlessly suffering for it. I won’t pretend I’m not a lightweight when compared what some birders go through to “twitch” a new species.

Still, I’ve paid my dues when necessary. There was the time on the Caroni Swamp in Trinidad, where we did the sunset tour to see the scarlet ibises come in to roost. Despite the withering heat and humidity, I was wearing long pants, socks, shoes, long sleeves, and a hat, all drenched in DEET, and still the mozzies feasted. They bit my nether regions between the slats of the boat’s bench, through my trousers. They flew up my nose when I inhaled. They attacked the lens of my camera such that I could see them crawling across as I tried to focus. Those were some serious bloodsuckers. My companion squashed one and cheerfully called out: “Only 999,999 more to go!”

But that was the only way to see those roosting ibises, and we willingly paid the price in blood and sweat.

Like I said, birding can be a tough slog. So I’ll take whatever comforts and conveniences I can get, when I can get them. After all, it’s all about the birds, not what you have to suffer to see them.

Or is it?

What have you endured in order to pursue your travel passion? I’d love to hear about it in a comment.