In Apr/May 99, Jasper Winn goes off to Interlaken, fancying himself as an Edwardian ‘tiger of the hills’. He paraglides in the ‘under-utilised emptiness in between the bumpy bits’, passes on the Wilhelm Tell Show, and hikes up the 1,950m Niederhorn.
One group of walkers had taken out sandwiches and were immediately surrounded by a flutter of Alpine choughs. With their yellow beaks and black plumage they looked like tiny and irritated waiters who, despite hard work, didn’t expect to get tipped much. I’d been hoping to see more of the region’s wildlife. A marmot or two, perhaps, or a far-off chamois. But now, so close to the cable car terminal and with more and more people tramping the path, I’d given up hope.
And then we rounded a corner and there was a male ibex nibbling on a tuft of grass, throwing his horns back every now and then as if troubled by a gigantic and very heavy quiff. In theory these animals were amongst the rarest and most timid of the Alpine fauna, but in this case the theory didn’t seem to have much basis in reality.
The ibex positively encouraged me to crawl around taking photographs, and ran through his full portfolio of ‘quietly grazing’, ‘alert for danger’ and ‘silhouetted against the sky’ poses. He then sauntered over to a cliff edge, and whistled up a friend. The two of them did some gravity-defying gymnastics, involving tiny ledges, nonchalant leaps and balancing on pebbles, and then disappeared from view. Presumably to pick up a cheque from the local tourist board.
Aug/Sep 94 has publisher Paul Morrison entranced with Dingle, the peninsula on Ireland’s south-west coast. He’s drawn to the ‘music [that] is meant to be danced to’.
I thought hurling was the most dangerous pastime in Ireland till I came across set dancing. You can forget any notions of similarity to the tame barn dancing preferred by the British. Encouraged by distant memories of do-si-doing at a wedding, I figured I’d be game for anything, and made the near-fatal decision to take the floor. And then as the caller rehearsed the dance I stared in bewilderment at the steps and turns I was expected to mimic.
“Try not to injure anybody and don’t leave teethmarks on the floorboards!” came the caller’s exhortation as the music started up. I waited in dread for my turn to come, trying to hide the panic in my eyes as I smiled politely at the local girl who had volunteered to partner me. Then, amidst a flurry of tapping feet, this slender teenager spun me around and threw me in the right direction as I struggled to avoid the path of oncoming couples. If I was a hedgehog I’d have curled up.
“Chain – house – polka!” came the screaming liturgies from the caller, who counted time in Gaelic.
“Leath, aon, dó!” was the battle cry, as the music got faster, the feet became a blur, and I concentrated on survival. The floor was alive with clomping, stomping heels and toes, closely followed by the echoes of my own mis-timed efforts.
“Cross – swing – house – come home – repeat!” I was trapped in a choreographic terror-go-round with no way off.
“Square – house and FINISH!” came the final call, and at last, after the third “just one more time”, I retired to the safety of the bar, nursing a bruised ego to match the bruises I had doubtless inflicted.
In Oct/Nov 98, John Pilkington is three months into his trip along the Silk Road when he realises that the Hunza Road has ‘disappeared among a maze of animal tracks’.
Marco Polo, whose Asian travels had inspired my trip, never seemed to have problems like this. Slumped mournfully on a boulder, I became aware of four robed characters striding purposefully upwards from the valley below. They were Kyrgyz, one of several ethnic groups who migrate each summer to the high grasslands, living in the famous circular felt tents known as yurts. They certainly knew where they were going. Best of all, as they drew level I could see that they had in tow half a dozen grumbling, gurgling camels.
I approached them cautiously. It is only a few decades since foreigners on this route used to vanish without trace, victims of Kyrgyz brigands. But these were fellow travellers rather than highwaymen, and at my tentative “Salaam alaikum” they broke into broad grins. Horny hands were extended in my direction. “Salaam, salaam!”
It was only a matter of time before my new acquaintances suggested I have a ride. Had I known about camels I would have firmly refused this offer. Camel riding should be put alongside bungee jumping in any sane person’s list of Things Not To Do. To a cacophony of disgruntled belching, the largest beast was made to kneel and I clambered aboard. I was just getting comfortable when without warning, as if spring-loaded, its rear end shot up. Only by desperately hugging the forward hump did I avoid being pitched over its woolly head. Hardly had I recovered from this indignity when the front end sprang up with even greater force, throwing me back towards the tail. Clearly annoyed at finding me still aboard, the creature then gave a horrible roar, swung its neck round and attempted to bite off my kneecap. Be warned – kindly camel-drivers who offer you rides may well just be seeking some amusement to liven up their journey.
Dea Birkett goes husky sledging in Finland in Oct/Nov 99, despite not liking dogs and never having been skiing.
My two travelling companions were far better prepared. If they hadn’t been conceived in the southern counties, Nigel and Wendy could have been born mushers. Wendy – a picture of freckled health and well-tuned legs – had lost count of how many times she had been skiing and was learning to fly in her little spare time. Nigel typically opened a conversation with, “Well, when I was attempting the Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas.” By way of warning to me, he said, “Women have poor circulation problems, because they’re designed to reproduce. Everything concentrates on their middle section. So women have to clench and unclench their toes all the time they’re on the sledge, to keep warm and prevent frostbite.”
A husky sledge is like a wooden zimmer frame on skis, with a pouch at the front to carry any injured huskies. This zimmer frame travels up to 20km per hour and tackles corners at an angle that defies gravity. The first day we made a trial run, covering less than ten kilometres... [My six dogs] all spent a great deal of time defecating, farting and urinating bright yellow pee onto the pristine snow. And they seemed to be able to do all this while travelling at 20km/h, which was a feat in itself.
Following Nigel’s advice, I made super-human attempts to keep my extremities warm in subhuman conditions of almost minus 40. “Clench, unclench, clench, unclench,” I kept muttering to myself, screwing up my fingers and toes. But inside the four layers of socks and gloves, I could hardly distinguish where my digits began and my arms ended.
I blame the speed for making me fall six times although, admittedly, I was the only one amongst us to do so. Once, Wendy had to jump off to avoid running over me as I lay stranded like a giant Teletubby in the deep snow.
Dec 00/Jan 01 sees Stanley Stewart crossing Mongolia by horseback in search of eagle hunters. On day three he reaches a valley of Kazak gers.
“Orolobai keeps an eagle,” [the woman] said, directing us down the valley. “You can’t miss him. His ger has a television aerial.”
One of the most endearing features of the Mongolian countryside was that you could travel a thousand miles without coming across a television. Now we rode down the valley to meet what I feared might be the only couch potato in western Mongolia.
Orolobai was a burly square-jawed Kazak in a pink skull cap. Delighted at the prospect of guests, he invited us in for tea. When we had demolished a few bowlfuls, Orolobai invited us outside to meet the eagle. But first he had to change. Much tradition adheres to eagle handling, he explained, and he needed to be dressed for the part.
Suddenly Orolobai had the flustered air of a man preparing for a formal dinner party. One of the problems of nomadic existence and moving house every three months was the difficulty of keeping track of things. Orolobai bellowed for his wife and daughters and they began to search through the suitcases and the chests, while he stood in the middle of the ger, waving his arms ineffectually. “They were with the blankets on the second camel,” he whined...
As Orolobai lifted the bird gently and settled it on his arm, it never took its eyes off me. I tried to act nonchalant. I looked away; perhaps the bird didn’t like people staring back. I gazed at some distant hills. I examined my boots. It was at this point that I realised with a start that I was wearing a woolly sheepskin jerkin. I glanced up. The eagle was still staring at me, his head slightly cocked. I wondered if he had mistaken me for a stray lamb.
I slipped the jacket off, very slowly, and dropped it at arm’s length to one side. Almost immediately the bird lunged towards it. Unbalanced by the sudden manoeuvre, Orolobai stumbled forward, and in an instant the eagle was on my jacket , sinking its talons into the fleece, and savaging it with his hideous beak.
“Seems to like that jacket,” Orolobai panted.
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