Evening on the Steppe

I’m on leave so I’m posting a bit more than usual. Here’s another short piece that sits better like this than as a poem.


Evening on the Steppe

A chill presses down on the grass the air settling on the steppe; a landscape purpose-built for the nomad.

A ger lies to the north, a white blemish on the distant and fading mountains, where fine green cloth folds over the granite beneath now washed in soothing evening light; lengthening shadows unmasking the ephemeral drainage gullies.

Mother and daughter, vivid in purples, whites and reds, lug water over river-worn rounded cobbles past a satellite dish gazing into the evening sky; hot yaks-milk tea, mutton stew and the television beckon.

Smoke winds skywards coiling around the first of the night’s stars, solitary in subtly deepening blue, from where the Tengre gazes down, straining to hear a shaman’s chants.

Somewhere Ghenghis Khan stares up, trampled by a thousand years of wild horses, not even remembered by a standing-stone.

Vasse Felix is Heaven on a Plate

I don’t often write about food, but for the Vasse Felix restaurant I have made an exception. This is a gorgeous winery in the Margaret River region – famous for it’s world class wine. Vasse Felix does a wonderful selection – my favourite being the Cabernet Merlot, although the Sauvignon Blanc Semillon is also a stand out for me.

But to the food – the glorious food. I should have got a copy of the menu of the day, but here goes from memory. I started with the scampi (raw I think – but I’m no expert) which was accompanied with a sort of salad. This took me right to the pearly gates – in a good way! The main course was lamb off the bone which just dissolved in my mouth accompanied by enough vegetables to enhance he experience, but not too many to take away from the lamb. I was definitely in heaven. Then, oh then, there was the dessert. It was a rich chocolate, with cardamon sponge, a delicious ice-cream, and passionfruit – and then I realised that I had scored a time-share in heaven. The staff were knowledgeable and vivacious, the wine was it’s usual excellent self, and the setting, overlooking the creek lined with tall eucalypts on one site and the vines on the other, snuggling under a blue sky, was perfect. And the price was very good – no complaints from me after that meal.

Full marks for Vasse Felix. It’s been 5 years since I ate there (that was the best meal I have had, at least up until now) and it will certainly not be 5 years until I return. This has to be one of the best restaurants in Australia.

Eat there – that’s an order!

Rogue Sheep – a danger in the Aussie outback!

In Spring 1993 I was doing soil sampling, putting grids in for drilling, or doing any one of the jobs an exploration assistant does. Spring is also the time that the days can become just that little too warm for rogue sheep.

Rogue sheep? 

Yes. Rogue sheep.

Most, if not all, of the land on which I went soil sampling, putting in grids, cleaning up, or drilling, was part of one sheep station or another. These are vast holdings that can contain thousands of square kilometres of land. Just imagine the difficulty in keeping the fences in good shape. Also, try imagining the difficulty in making sure that all the sheep are rounded up when it comes time to shear them. This is where rogue sheep come into their own.

Bearing that in mind, there is one more thing that I want you to try and imagine. Picture wandering though the outback and coming across the stereotypical galvanised iron windmill-powered water pump and sheep troughs. The scrubby bush is quite thick around here and this clearing provides a pleasant place to stop for a break. The windmill is clanking, almost screaming, along but producing no water – the farmer probably hasn’t been around to maintain it yet – and the troughs are dry. Then there is a rustling sound and an apparition appears out of the bush. It looks like a sheep, but it has wool hanging off its severely matted fleece and wild red eyes that seem to be struggling to focus. You have been found by a rogue sheep.

It has escaped shearing for a couple of years and is now half-crazed by the heat caused by three years of wool growth. A closer look and you see that it has seen you and is struggling to decide what you are, as short-circuits overcome normal thinking. The one thing it knows is that you are at the water trough and that is where it wants to go. It is time to move, and move swiftly. An assault by a crazy sheep can do you some serious damage.

A spring thunderstorm can be the end for these poor creatures. As their fleeces become saturated, the weight can cause them to be unable to walk. They collapse and die from exhaustion, leaving only the smell of death, scattered bones, and some wool as a reminder of their presence. In bad shape or not, these creatures need to be avoided as they are unpredictable. I didn’t want to have to go back to Leonora and admit to being gored by a sheep. A camel would have been acceptable, and there are plenty of feral camels out on the outback, and even an enraged goat, and there are so many feral goats in the outback that it’s not funny, but not Shaun the sheep.

So if you’re out in the bush in Spring keep your eyes out for crazed red-eyes rams that have lost their grip on sanity. I mean it!


Waiting in Olgii

Waiting in Olgii

They let us check our luggage in at the airport
then told us the flight was delayed;
something to do with the Turkish Ambassador.

We waited for our plane back at the ger hotel
on the outskirts of Olgii.
It was next to a swift brown river.

I spent hours watching a yak
graze on a sliver of an island
barely a few centimetres above the silty torrent.

There was a certain empathy between us,
both stranded, unable to leave;
the shared bond of the incarcerated.

At dusk, the yak strolled easily from its prison,
coming ashore close by where I sat.
It professed to be unconcerned about my plight.

Changing Planes in Beijing

A journey back into the archives from 2007

On my way to Mongolia I had to change planes – it was an experience…I believe the airport has been upgraded since then

On our way to Mongolia we had to change planes at Beijing, as well as changing airlines. Now this may seem, at first glance, a fairly simple procedure. That is certainly what we thought as we left our Singapore Airlines flight secure in the knowledge that our luggage had already been booked right through to Ulaan Bataar. All we had to do was find the transfer desk. The transfer at Beijing was to take under two hours and I considered that this was a good thing considering that I have experienced the boredom of a five or six hour period of transit on numerous occasions. Just remember that, less than two hours was a good thing. After all, the last thing we wanted to do was spend hours hanging around a departure lounge.

After disembarking from our flight and finding the transfer desk, we encountered our first problem. We were politely told that this desk was only for those people transferring onto Air China flights and that we had to go further down the hall. We were given very vague directions and ended up at a point where we were clearly heading towards the exit from what we thought was the ‘arrivals’ area. Realising that we could not possibly be exiting the airport without a visa, we asked a meandering member of staff where we should go, and were summarily directed back towards the international transfers counter. We presented out tickets once again, and again there was much shaking of heads and consternation before we were once more told that we needed to go ‘down to the end of the hall’. Once more we were pointed in the direction of the exit from the ‘arrivals’ area. Our explanation that we had no visa was brushed aside as this apparently did not matter.

So off we went on our way down to the desks marked ‘Arrivals’. On our way we passed a counter where we noticed that we could, if we wished, purchase a visa for China. Was this perhaps a good idea? We gave it serious thought before deciding that it was probably unnecessary. We were, however, still nervous as we approached the counters that marked the way out towards immigration. We showed our passports and air-tickets to a man who showed no real interest in them, barely even glancing at them, before waving us through. That was easy! What now? I can say that at this point I felt a wave of relief. Perhaps this wouldn’t be too bad!

We found ourselves standing in another hall that had counters where people were queuing, but they all appeared to be for Chinese nationals. We walked all the way up to the end and back again before we saw a counter that had ‘d/p’ above it. We took a punt that this meant departures and went up to the bored-looking policewoman sitting there. She politely told us that we needed to fill in an Arriving Passengers form before we could come through. We retreated and filled out the little blue form (one that we had declined when the cabin crew had handed them around on our last flight as we were not stopping in China), hurriedly checking our flight and passport numbers. Our passports were then scrutinised and our blue forms taken as we went past her. All this time the clock kept inching towards our departure time.

Confusion then returned as we went the only way possible, which led us down to the baggage claim area. Once down there we searched in vain for a transfer desk. There was none. Two circuits of the area re-affirmed this. There could be no option other than to go through customs and into China. But surely this was not an option without a visa?

The lack of visa turned out not to be a problem (they appeared to have a liberal approach to visas and other bureaucratic paperwork – was this really China?), but before we could go through we had to fill out another form to declare that we had nothing to declare. We waited in a queue for what seemed like an eternity, constantly glancing at our watches as the time ticked by. Once we had handed in our forms and shown our passports yet again, we went through into China. Then we had to work out where to go to check in to our Mongolian International Airlines flight.

The main hall of the airport was full of people meandering or hurrying in various directions, and it was not immediately obvious where we had to go to find the check-in area. By now it was almost an hour since we had disembarked from our inbound flight and we were keen to check in as soon as we could for our next flight. Perhaps two hours had not been enough? I was beginning to think that we might be in danger of missing our flight. I could hear the clock ticking away in my mind and I must confess to feeling the merest hint of mild panic. I tried to ignore it.

After much confusion we found out that the departure lounge and check-in area was on the floor above us. So we made our way up the escalators to another big hall where we once again had to fill out a form, this time to declare that we were not taking anything out of the country. On top of this there was another form for departing passengers, but by now my passport and flight numbers were indelibly imprinted on my brain so there was no need for opening the passport yet again. Yet more queuing had to be done at this point, each minute seeming like an eternity. This was the time when someone in front of us decided that they didn’t understand, or simply didn’t like, what they were being told by an official, leaving me looking on in an agonised state of half-panic mixed with a desire not to look angry and upset myself, while the argument ensued; all the time watching as my departure time moved ever nearer. After a few minutes, which seemed like hours, an official, who looked like a military officer, decided that we were looking stressed enough and called us over to check our forms. They were in order, and we were waved through. Another hurdle overcome.

We wiped the sweat from our brows and carried on, soon finding ourselves at the check-in area. Thankfully it did not take too long to find the appropriate desk for our flight. To our initial relief there was still a substantial line of people waiting to check in, but it soon became apparent that the line was barely moving. Unfortunately the clock was still moving and I once more began to wonder whether we would get to our flight or whether we would end up watching it soaring gracefully into the sky. Thankfully this also occurred to staff members, who made sorties from their positions to tag the baggage before it got to the desk, significantly increasing the speed of the process. This worked and we were soon checked in, although there was some consternation that we didn’t have baggage with us. However we managed to convince them it was checked through from Perth and would be already on the plane. At least we hoped it would.

It was getting tight with time, about fifteen minutes until departure, so we hurried through the departure lounge, only to be met with the passport control area. Of course there was a passport control area, there’s one at every airport, but in our haste we saw it as just one more obstacle put in our way in an attempt to stop us catching our flight. There wasn’t another flight until the next day, and we didn’t fancy trying to catch up with our guide who might be half-way into the Gobi Desert by then! There was yet another form to be filled in and a nervous wait in a queue, waiting to be ‘checked’, as we watched the minutes tick by for yet another agonising period of time. Common sense told us that we were among lots of people waiting for the flight and that it wouldn’t leave without us…but you never know.

We needn’t have worried, as once we found the appropriate gate with about three minutes to spare, we were left to wait for another 25 minutes before boarding. Of course we had to the same in reverse when we came back through Beijing on our way home, but being ‘experienced’ in the process we managed to get through in about half an hour. We were able to look at nervous transit passengers with an air of superior knowledge and comfort, and patiently explain the process to those panicky and worried faces that hung on our every word like it was gold. Five forms and a few queues later we were on our flight to Singapore, with, I must add, our luggage, which apparently had no dramas at all on its round trip from Perth to Mongolia and back.

First swim of winter

It’s officially winter, but did that stop going for a swim today? Absolutely not! Do I need my head looked at? Possibly. Was it cold? You bet it was, but not cold enough to my wife and I off entering the heaving grey Indian Ocean.

So here is a poem about swimming in the Southern Ocean – which is a bloody lot colder than today, although not as cold as the lake in the Cirque de Troumouse in the Pyrenees – that was real spanner water – tightened my nuts in an instant. Anyhow, enough about my attempts to reverse puberty through injudicious swimming in icy water. Here’s the poem.

Swimming in the Southern Ocean

The metronomic waves massaged the beach sands
providing rhythm to thoughts
reminding at regular intervals,
don’t drift to far away,
insistent sometimes,
but every now and then I missed a beat.

The southerly droned on, and on,
just static on which to build
swell dreams.

Do those Antarctic gulls ever wonder
what might be?
Calling out to me, mocking,
hooting with laughter, before floating away.
Why swim in that icy water?

This constant assault, this ridicule
is rather stimulating,
soothing at the same time.
Laugh if you really want to birdbrain,
I’m going back to a comfortable fire
and a silky Lake House merlot.

Mongolia and Horses!

I thought I’d repost this – had a read and chuckled, so why not! And I’ve added a picture of me on a horse in Mongolia…what more could you ask for?


On a  horse

In a fit of eccentricity my wife and I decided to go on a vacation to Mongolia to have a look around. After all it is the place that produced Ghengis Khan, Kublai Khan and Tamerlaine, home of the Gobi Desert, as well as being the centre of one of the largest empires that the world has seen. After the initial three weeks of festivals, mountains, lakes and open plains, we then left our group and went off to see the remote Tsaartan people who live in the extreme north of the country. However to do this required a significant horse trek…and I had done next to no horse-riding. I looked forward with some trepidation to the 60 kilometres of travel that awaited me. Needless to say the Tsaartan had moved and the ride extended to over 120 kilometres!

Day 1 – consists of two lessons and a practical session

Lesson 1

‘Have you ever ridden a horse before?’ the Trek leader asked me through the interpreter.
‘Uh…no not really. Well once when I was about nine years old I did, but only for about 15 minutes.’ I replied.
‘Nevermind. It’s easy. Just get on the horse and we’ll go from there.’
‘What about a safety hat of some sort?’ I enquired only to be met with a blank look.
‘Just get on the horse and don’t fall off.’
I proceeded to get myself up into the saddle and found a set of leather reins begin put in my hand. They were more like shoelaces in my opinion.
‘OK Peter, tug left and right to steer and tug back to stop.’
I nodded and made some tugging gestures to show that I had understood.
‘To get going say “Cho” and give the horse a good jab in the ribs with your heels. If you want to go faster just dig the ribs some more and say “Cho” some more in a louder voice.’
I waited for some more instruction…but I waited in vain.
‘Right. Off you go and try to keep up.’

Lesson 2 (5 minutes after lesson 1)

Learn to trot and then fast trot as other horses begin to disappear into the distance.

Practical: Ride for six hours until it is time to reach camp and on the way see one of your guides thrown off a spooked horse. But we don’t talk about that because you just don’t fall off horses in Mongolia, and anyhow she was ok. So no worries! And while you’re at it cross a couple of rivers and learn how to hold on as your horse occasionally decides to jump over things for no apparent reason. At the end of the day it is compulsory to open a bottle of vodka and consume its contents prior to going to bed.

Day 2 – consists of two lessons and a practical session

Lessons 3,4 & 5 (Duration 9 hours)

‘Stop complaining about your sore knees and get back on the horse.’
‘And good morning to you too!’
Time to get back on the horse, which is now looking at me in a scornful way. I could swear that it’s smirking and I know that it’s thinking “Right sonny Jim, you thought you had a tough time yesterday, but just you wait. Hahahahahaha!’ Perhaps this paranoia is just part of the training? The trek leader tells me that lessons 3, 4 &5 are to be combined in one mornings’ riding, which will incorporate theory and practice.

Lesson 3

Enter forest – not just any forest either. The forest will be dense and have muddy and downright boggy areas, and a path that winds its way up and down very steep and slippery slopes between the trees – the gradient must be up to 1 in 4. Some trees will have spaces of approximately one metre between them through which the path will go. The horse may try to scrape you off at these points so you will really need to have mastered the basic steering technique by now or be good at putting your knees back into place after such events!

Lesson 4

Now you are out of the forest. The next lesson is riding up precipitous rocky slopes trying to ignore the long drop off to your left. A useful hint here is to pray that the horses instinct for self-preservation is greater than its desire to unseat you and send you tumbling into the raging mountain river some hundreds of metres below.

Lesson 5

Negotiate severe boggy ground not less than 2 km in length where you horse may find itself up to its backside in the mud. The landscape will be such that it will be impossible to tell which bits of ground have a covering to 6 inches of mud or which may be a metre or more in depth. You may find that your horse decides to ignore your yelling and screaming at this point and just stand still while wondering which way to go. If all else fails get assistance from and experienced horseman to find another path. This is likely to be almost as muddy and boggy and further ‘cement’ the relationship that you have developed with your horse.

After a short break for lunch and some photo opportunities with cute reindeer, some entertaining repartee with the local people, and hopefully a blessing from the local shamen, you will repeat lessons 3,4 & 5 in reverse. Note that your horse will ensure that it takes every chance to bruise and batter you on the return journey – so beware! It is permitted to be led by an experienced horseman during some of the more challenging parts of this journey, but of course this is only if you are a nancy who can’t ride and it is never admitted to.

At the end of the days lessons and nine hours of riding it is time to dismount. No cries of ‘Ahhhh my knees’ or ‘I have chafing’ or ‘I can’t walk anymore’ are permitted. You must walk confidently to your tent showing no signs of protesting joints. In fact you may be expected to go through two or three rounds of traditional Mongolian wrestling with your guide, who will probably be shorter, broader and much more suited to the sport…as well as knowing the techniques. Landing on your back a few times may in fact loosen up your aching muscles and prove beneficial. Failing this the bottle of vodka that follows will certainly prove beneficial.

Day 3 – consists of one combined lesson and practical session (4 hours)

Lesson 6 (The final step of the beginners course)

Buy now you will realise that any sort of complaining is simply ignored and so you will stoically get back into the saddle with a look of supreme confidence.

While riding back to your transport you will fast trot and canter. Your guide will give you a withering look when you say ‘This is murder on my backside’ and tell you to grip with your thighs and half stand in the saddle, using very clear sign language. He will then shake his head and laugh at your attempts to do this as you canter along at a steady pace hoping that the torture might soon stop!

The ride will be very quick and once it is over you will be able to call yourself a beginner at horse-riding in Mongolia. Your horse will quickly distance itself from you to avoid the shame of carrying a beginner. You will now have travelled over 100km on horseback across some of the most difficult terrain known to man!

For those who wish to take the intermediate course, which consists of galloping, shooting a bow from a galloping horse to hit a target, herding yaks and other livestock, and cracking walnuts between your thighs, further information can be obtained from your local nomadic family.

To celebrate the successful completion of your journey it is compulsory to open a bottle of vodka and consume the contents.

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