The Waterboarding Duck

Evolution has been kind to the duck family. Ducks are viewed as benign creatures, who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. However, don’t be fooled by the ducks that have survived through to the modern day. A few centuries ago a particular branch of the duck family, called the waterboarding ducks, were found in parts of Leicestershire and Rutland where they terrorised the local wildfowl populations.

Ducks such as teal and the mallard are called dabbling ducks, which means they tip up in shallow water, putting their beaks and heads under the water and look for things to eat. The waterboarding ducks were dabbling ducks of a different kind and behaved in two different ways. If another duck was already in the dabbling position, the waterboarding duck would ambush the dabbling duck and try and drown it by forcing its backside under the water. The dabbling duck would come to the surface, but would be disoriented and the waterboarding duck would then steal whatever food was in its beak.

The other tactic used by the waterboarding duck was to force other ducks to dabble by grabbing their throat and forcing their head under water. The duck would by nature try and feed and then once it had caught something, again the waterboarding duck would steal its food.

The behaviour of the waterboarding ducks alienated them from other waterfowl, who would always fly away, perhaps not surprisingly, when the waterboarding ducks came near. This behaviour led to many waterboarding ducks starving to death as they had lost their innate ability to find food for themselves.

The Hopping Race in Trevelez

Trevelez is a beautiful village in the Sierra Nevada mountains just to the south-east of Granada. This village is situated around 1,500 metres above sea level, making it the highest in Spain. Some of the streets in the village are narrow and others are extremely steep, which is why Trevelez hosts a unique hopping event that tests people’s leg strength and balance to the limit.

On the last weekend in August hoppers from all over the world flock to Trevelez where they take part in the Trevelez Hopping Extravaganza or the THE as it’s known in the English-speaking world.

The first event is the hopping marathon from Lanjaron to Trevelez, which takes place on Friday. Competitors can hop using either leg, but they must come to a halt before changing legs and they must draw the attention of the Switching Judge to this change before proceeding. This is to stop people from skipping along the road. Crafty contestants switch legs at the water stations along the course. Contestants are also not allowed to tie both legs together and hop using both feet at the same time; this rule was introduced in 1934 when a hopper, Ferran Alberts, tripped over the kerb, hurtled down a steep embankment and broke both limbs when he caught his legs in an olive tree.

The record for the course is 4 hours 45 minutes by Lanjaron native Fernando Villa in 1969, one of the five times that he won the event during his career. Fernando switched legs every two miles and also held his other leg for the first two minutes after each change in order to stretch the leg and prevent cramping. The ladies record is 5 hours 14 minutes by Angela Steuben from South Africa, set in 1998; she trained for the race by hopping up and down Table Mountain three times a day for three months.

Even though it’s a marathon race, the Lanjaron – Trevelez is not the hardest race of the weekend. The blue ribbon event takes place on Saturday and it’s called the Backwards Hop race, where competitors hop around Trevelez five times in reverse. In this contest only one leg can be used for the entire race; to ensure this rule is strictly enforced the other leg is tied. Competitors can use wing mirrors attached to their shoulders to help guide themselves around the course; they must not be guided by a coach and can’t attach guide dogs to their bodies.

The steepest part of the course is at the southernmost edge of Trevelez where one 400-metre road connects the lower town with the upper town; this is the part of the course where the race is won and lost because most people have difficulty walking down this road in a forwards direction in dry weather. In fact most competitors spend more time on this section of the course than on the rest of the course altogether. Grooves are cut into the surface of the road to make gripping the surface slightly easier but even then it’s horrendously difficult. Most injuries are caused when people overbalance on the later laps due to exhaustion. Even the strongest hoppers can spend ten minutes negotiating this road.

The rest of the circuit is through narrow streets, past bakeries, shops, and cafes – the downhill section is fairly gentle and allows racers to gather their strength before the uphill.  The person who has won this race most often is Benjamin Ortega from nearby Juviles with eight victories between 1948 and 1963; he trained for the race by hopping backwards up Alcazaba the third highest peak in the Sierra Nevada three times in succession. His advice for hopping backwards up the steep hill during the race was to take small hops and always keep the back straight so as to avoid overbalancing.

Extract from the book: Sports the Olympics Forgot

The winners of the Sony world photography awards 2017 – in pictures

From Saudi single mothers to Chinese child gymnasts, the winners of the world’s largest photography competition have documented scenes across the planet

Freddie in the Douglas Fir

After many successful forays into the garden, Freddie suddenly decided that he wanted to start climbing things such as the fence and trees. He found the fence very hard to navigate as he didn’t have the strength to pull himself up the links. Trees on the other hand weren’t too difficult and he enjoyed climbing into the branches so that he could be higher than me when we were in the garden together.

Eventually Freddie decided that the Douglas Fir in the corner of the garden was his Everest. The lowest branch was around twenty feet from the ground and the trunk was too wide for me to put my arms around. Freddie stood at the bottom of the tree and jumped on to the bark and clawed his way up a few feet miaowing to himself, before falling off. He decided that more momentum was required so he began his run-up ten feet from the tree; about two feet from the base he leapt on to the trunk and started to climb again miaowing to himself for encouragement.

The problem was that as he climbed his front paws became further apart, so that by the time he was fifteen feet from the ground his face and tummy were pressed tight against the tree. He couldn’t go any further; he gave a distress miaow and then fell off the tree, landing on his feet of course. Freddie was undeterred and started his next run-up fifteen feet from the base of the tree; he must have reached one foot further up the tree before falling off.

However, Freddie was encouraged by this progress and started his next run-up right by the house; again he leapt at the trunk from two feet away and climbed steadily, but around 17 feet from the ground his face was pressed against the bark and he fell off. I had seen enough and tried to stop him make another attempt, but he dodged me and attacked the tree again, but with the same results.

I stood right by the trunk to stop Freddie making another attempt, but he approached from a different angle and landed on the trunk near my head. I took a hold of him and tried to pull him away from the tree but he dug his claws into the bark and refused to move. I prised his paws away one at a time and took him back into the house with him yowling in my arms. The next time Freddie went into the garden I watched him very closely, but he contented himself with sitting at the base of the tree and practiced jumping onto the trunk. He was happy doing that although who knows what he tried to do when my back was turned.

Extract from the book: Where is Freddie Cat?

HASTE – At the Giza Plateau

I was called to the Giza Plateau near Cairo in Egypt where a giant building project is being undertaken by the Pharaoh. I meet with the Grand Vizier amidst reports of many people being killed during construction.

The Vizier greets me warmly and we walk to the site, where I see that a giant cube is being built. The walls are around 30 metres high. Men are hauling massive stones from the ground up the sheer sides of the cube using ropes that are tied under the stones – the ropes occasionally break with the stone plummeting to the ground as a result.

“Does that happen often?” I asked indicating the stone lying on the ground with men standing around scratching their heads.

“It happens frequently because the ropes are not strong enough to haul the stones up the walls for more than 15 metres. I am not sure what we are going to do as Pharaoh requires another 110 metres of height over and above what we have now.”

“Well, the first item I must give you is a warning that none of the people working are wearing a hard hat, proper boots, or protective clothing in contravention of edict YTGF7777-88d8d of the construction worker’s code.”

“But if a ten-ton stone lands on your head it won’t matter whether you’re wearing a hard hat or not.”

“It’s the thought that counts. You have to be seen to be trying to look after the welfare of your people.”

“Appearances are everything. Even though people are willing to die to help Pharaoh.”

“Are they being paid to do this work or forced to be here?”

“They aren’t being paid, but they do get accommodation and food provided for them.”

“And they can leave when they wish?”

“Not really – it is thought an honour to be here and help with this building. The work is very tiring and we don’t force people to work for too long as they can cause their fellow workers problems if they are fatigued.”

“It would count as volunteering I suppose, but even then, this site is still a work environment and the employment safety laws still apply.”

“I understand completely – would you like a closer look?”

“Why does Pharaoh want to build a cube?”

“Because it is perfectly uniform in three dimensions, width, height, and depth. It’s perfect like him and he believes it will be his legacy for future generations and they will know him because of The Cube. There will be paintings on it and an inscription that will read ‘Look upon my work ye mighty and despair’, or something similar.”

“That sounds very poetic – how big will the letters be?”

“Two metres high roughly.”

“Where is all the stone coming from?”

“It’s coming from quarries along The Nile and is being carved on the edge of the plateau before being moved up here on stone rollers.”

“Is The Cube being built on a right of way – there seems to be a path heading to that corner? I must ask you to move the whole structure 1 foot to the left – I will issue you with a Blocking Right of Way notice B76-909-JJJJ-2929.”

“That means relocating 100,000 tons of stone.”

“You’re breaking the law – some poor sheep herder will have to drive his flock around the whole structure. Whilst you are doing that I would also suggest re-aligning the whole structure with that tree on the horizon – that will impress people in the future. They will try and prove the alignment relates to where a particular heavenly body appears over the horizon on the longest day of the year, or the shortest day. Perhaps burrow into the structure too and leave some parts of The Cube hollowed out, that will confuse them no end.”

“Oh, I see, leave a few mysteries for those to come to solve.”

“Except they’re not mysteries, you are just playing with their minds – leave a boat under The Cube for example, have a few empty rooms containing hieroglyphs, build steps down into the sand that don’t go anywhere.”

“I like the way you think – all these items will allow the name of Pharaoh to endure beyond his time to the stars and back.”

Just then a worried-looking man ran over to the vizier and asked him for a private conversation. They were away for about two minutes before the vizier returned.

“It seems we have a major problem,” said the vizier stroking his chin, “but perhaps you can help us?”

“What is the problem – are the stones too heavy to be hauled up off the ground for the required distance already?”

“They are and as I said earlier we have another 100 metres to go straight up.”

“Well, might I suggest a pyramid then, a stepped pyramid with a base angle of 52 degrees or so, whatever angle it has to be to rise to 139 metres. You can drag the stones up the various levels. Or build a spiral ramp.”

“Or use the Wand of Osiris which allows the stones to float lighter than air.”

“Why don’t you use that for everything?”

“Well, I do – I go around straightening things and making sure they’re aligned, closing gaps to make sure the rats can’t get in, making the structure waterproof, not that there’s much rain here of course. But I wouldn’t use the Wand all the time, because that would defeat the purpose of channelling the people’s efforts into creating monuments and making sure they have a common purpose of helping cement the legacy of Pharaoh rather than uniting to oppose him.”

“It also tires them out so they can only think of sleep when they’re not working.”

“There is that too, but they do get a day off every month.”

“That’s insufficient time – I will issue you with a notice as you’re contravening edict 8282-3ij3393-333fl relating to worker’s rest time over a calendar month.”

“Most people only work for six weeks at a time and then return to their home villages for the rest of the year.”

“It is still a contravention of the law.”

“Perhaps they won’t have to work as hard on a pyramid as they do on a cube.”

“Let’s hope so for their sake.”

“Less working hours, better working conditions, I think you’ll agree.”

When I returned the following week, I found the Egyptians were working on building a nice new pyramid and working conditions seemed safer.

Gobekli Tepe

Gobekli Tepe is an unprepossessing archaeological site in Northern Mesopotamia – the area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. No postcards of the site are on sale and no
guidebooks. Indeed, the gatekeeper has only one book for sale and that’s an English translation of the work by Klaus Schmidt that first alerted the world to his significant
discovery in southern Turkey near the Syrian border.

The archaeologists believe that Gobekli Tepe was built by hunter-gatherers somewhere in the period 7500BC – 9500BC, which means this site is at least 5,000 years older than
Stonehenge and The Pyramids at Giza in Egypt. Gobekli Tepe was built just after the last Ice Age and yet people in those times weren’t supposed to build things, to carve stone,
and to raise monoliths in the name of religion. Prior to the discovery of Gobekli Tepe it was thought that these huntergatherers just hunted, gathered, and then moved on in their nomadic existence.

Those thoughts have to be rethought as these particular hunter-gatherers obviously had advanced building and artistic skills and a desire for something to worship. Their society had an artisan class, a priest class, and so was almost certainly hierarchical. Visitors to the site walk on gangways above the four enclosures that have been unearthed so far. Each enclosure contains numerous monoliths that are surrounded by 2-3 metre high stone walls. Enclosure A was discovered in 1995 and excavated between 1996 and 1997.

The main features of this enclosure are the T-shaped megaliths. On the two central pillars there’s a depiction of a net made of snakes above a ram and a vertical row of a bull, fox, and crane. Enclosure B was excavated between 1998 and 2002 and contains two
pillars that are 4 metres high and show reliefs of foxes. The floor is made from a substance similar to concrete, which is waterproof. Enclosure C was discovered in 1998 and contains two concentric circles of pillars. Enclosure D, discovered in 2001, contains two central pillars 5.5 metres high. Another pillar contains an image of a headless man
with an erect phallus.

Another pillar in this enclosure possesses a similar image. Both of these men are wearing a belt with a loincloth. Other carvings in this well-preserved enclosure depict boars, bulls, gazelles, foxes, spiders, scorpions, and snakes. Currently only about 5 – 10% of the whole site has been opened to the elements – the remainder lies under the dirt, soil, and detritus that the centuries piled on top of Gobekli Tepe after it was abandoned by its creators.

However, the archaeologists do believe that when the site was abandoned, Gobekli Tepe was covered by the ancients with 500 cubic metres of earth, which created an artificial mound that remained hidden for around 9,000 years. Standing at the entrance to the walkway over the four excavated enclosures it’s difficult to comprehend that 11,000
years ago hunter-gatherers were creating a religious site at all let alone one that will be an acre in size by the time the whole site is excavated.

Looking at the carved monoliths the visitor has to comprehend that these stones weren’t dragged here from a local quarry and roughly erected. They were shaped expertly and some had their surfaces carved with a lot of skill. There didn’t appear to be any mistakes, there were no half-carved animals or rough attempts that had been discontinued – everything was complete and looked as though it was meant to be.

Where did the carvers and shapers practice their skills – what remains to be discovered? Were there journeymen craftsmen who travelled around the ancient world and created these sites for the people of the time in a similar way to the tradesmen of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries who carved their insignia into the cathedrals of Lincoln and Trondheim?

One of the 5.5 metre high monoliths rests on a square,  stone base. On one edge of this base are carved seven wading birds standing proud from the rest of the stone. These birds are evenly spaced and from a distance look remarkably similar. Their beaks are well defined and their bodies appear curved and smooth – such carving is quite remarkable given that, according to our current timelines, the birds would have been carved with stone tools, not metal ones.

At some point the stone base has been damaged meaning that two of the birds have lost their heads, but their bodies are preserved. The bodies of all seven birds exhibited no discernible chipping marks that you might expect with a stone implement and indeed it looked to me as though the carvings had been sanded as they seemed so smooth.

The only other side of the square base that I saw didn’t contain any carvings, so why was so much lavish ornamentation confined to one side of the base? The answer to this, and many other questions, remains to be found in the secrets that Gobekli Tepe still keeps to itself.

Extract from the book: Travel Tales from Exotic Places

Autophoto: how photographers fell in love with cars – in pictures

An exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art contemporain in Paris examines how the car gave photographers a new way of exploring the world. The 500 works include pictures by Jacques-Henri Lartigue and Lee Friedlander. It opens on 20 April

Grand Turk

Grand Turk sits apart from the other islands in the Turks and Caicos, separated from South Caicos by a trench 7,000 feet deep. People flying over to Grand Turk from Providenciales – one of the Caicos Islands – will notice the change in the colour of the sea from a light-blue to a dark blue, a change that happens instantaneously. The trench is one of the deepest in the Atlantic Ocean and is an essential visit for divers from all over the world. The light-blue is a result of the reef that surrounds the Turks and Caicos, which is why clear and shallow sea can be seen from most of the beaches.

Visitors arrive in two main ways on Grand Turk. A new cruise ship terminal has been built on the south of the island and the passengers from these ships are taken around the island on tour buses. Some of the more adventurous hire All-Terrain Vehicles and proceed in convoys around Cockburn Town, the capital of the Turks and Caicos, and its surroundings. Other tourists arrive on Beechcraft 99 planes from Providenciales. These planes are the size where everyone gets a window seat and can see the pilot’s dashboard. It’s amazing how many different lights come on during the 30-minute flight – it’s best to look out of the window and watch the islands go by.

On arrival at Grand Turk airport, the only activity was the maintenance men cutting the hedge in front of the arrivals building. The airport is named after JAGS McCartney, who was the first chief minister of the Turks and Caicos when he died in a plane crash in New Jersey in 1980. JAGS are his initials and stand for James Alexander George Smith. McCartney was from Grand Turk and National Heroes Day, a holiday celebrated on the last Monday in May, commemorates his life. The sun was beating down but a gentle breeze from the Atlantic felt disarmingly cooling.

Once the bags had arrived on the carousel, I quickly realised that the other 14 passengers on my flight – the flight had been full – all had people to meet them. Once their vehicles had gone there were no other cars around. I asked one of the Inter-Caribbean airlines staff how I could find a taxi and she very kindly ordered one for me on her mobile phone. After 5 minutes, Delphine Simone from Queen Bee taxis arrived and whisked me off to the Osprey Beach Hotel. The fare was seven dollars, which for this part of the Caribbean is very cheap.

The Osprey Beach Hotel faces westwards towards South Caicos. The line of dark-blue water where the ocean trench started could be clearly seen about a mile out to sea. The sandy beach disappeared southwards in the direction of the cruise ship terminal and northwards towards Cockburn Town. The hotel serves meals around the swimming pool with some tables overlooking the waves that hit the beach every few seconds. When I asked to switch rooms the following day because there appeared to be a herd of wildebeest in the room above, I was moved without any fuss to a better, single-storey room with a patio that looked over the ocean.

Opposite the hotel is a diving company where you can also hire bikes for travel on dry land. I headed left out of the hotel along Duke Street. Just after the Sandbar restaurant is a sign proclaiming the Columbus Landfall National Park. There’s a feeling on Grand Turk that Columbus didn’t first make landfall in the “New World” on San Salvador in The Bahamas but rather landed on Grand Turk instead. This will almost certainly never be proved conclusively one way or the other. What can be said with confidence is that Columbus almost certainly landed near a place called Cockburn Town, as that is also the name of the main town on San Salvador.

Along Duke Street are some lovely restored buildings dating from around one hundred years ago with casuarina, frangipani, and Caribbean pine trees in the gardens. The sea is never far away with its clarity and light-blue colour being a constant feature all the way into town. There is a bank on Duke Street, which has a technologically advanced ATM with a touch-sensitive screen.

On nearby Pond Street is Her Majesty’s Prison, which is open for visitors when a cruise ship visits the island. This prison held inmates for over 150 years before being closed in the 1990s, when prisoners such as Pablo Escobar’s brother-in-law had found it all too easy to escape with outside help. Around a dozen cells held the male prisoners and there are fewer cells for the women. The three solitary confinement cells would have been brutally hot in the summer sun. The exercise area allowed prisoners to receive messages that had been thrown over the wall. The entry fee is $3 and the prison is well worth a visit.

The next place of interest is the Turks and Caicos National Museum. The exhibitions begin with the poetically titled “Wreck of the Molasses Reef”, a heavily-armed caravel that hit the reef surrounding the islands in 1513. After the initial discovery by professional divers in the mid-1970s, the wreck was dynamited by some glory-hunters, who thought the caravel was carrying treasure, but none was ever found, which means the caravel predates the Spanish invasion of Mexico.  The museum outlines the story of the dating of the wreck and has a number of objects from the caravel on display, with visitors being given the opportunity to guess the function of the item via a series of buttons.

The National Museum also outlines the story of salt production on Grand Turk. Between 1678 and 1964 salt was the number one export of Grand Turk and the salt pans that produced the salt can still be seen in the centre of Cockburn Town. In 1907, there were 230 acres of salt pans on Grand Turk and each acre produced 4,000 bushels of salt. One bushel contains between 75-80 pounds of salt. The role that Grand Turk played in the historic flight of John Glenn in Friendship 7 is also well documented – after splashing down Glenn first stepped ashore on Grand Turk. There’s also a collection of messages in bottles from various parts of the world and a fine model of the ocean topography around the islands, showing how steep the drop-off is into the surrounding trenches. The gift shop has a fine selection of locally produced artistic mementoes of the islands.

Walking around Cockburn Town, there’s an odd assortment of modern buildings, carefully restored older buildings, and houses that will almost certainly be blown over in the next hurricane. Grand Turk was affected by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the Osprey Beach hotel had some of its beach front destroyed. Two blocks away from the sea, the salt pans host some fish and bird life, with egrets wading in the shallows.

There are some restaurants along Duke Street serving local specialities such as curried goat and peas and rice. Some also serve grits, which I can’t really recommend. I’d always associated this ground-corn foodstuff with the southern USA, but it has percolated over to the Caribbean too. The Sandbar has great views over the sea from its bar stools.

The restaurant at the Osprey Beach produces wonderful food and I can particularly recommend the Crab and Pasta salad eaten at a table with a view over the clear light-blue sea. Two people were swimming in the sea, three were heading off to dive on the 7,000-feet wall, and three more were thinking about sunbathing in the early afternoon. Four yachts bobbed on the waves just offshore. Grand Turk doesn’t have many visitors and so makes an ideal destination for those who like a quiet time under the sun with the Caribbean for company.

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