Uluru Logistics

The only toilets out at Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas, are long-drops at the sunset viewing area. They stink. This is not surprising since water is in short supply.

At Uluru itself there seems to be one permanent waterhole called Mutitjulu. This is a sheltered recess in the south side of the rock and the water source is the rock itself. When it rains a significant part of the rock drains to exactly this location. Indeed, heavy rain is said to create a waterfall.

Eighteen kilometres north of Uluru is the town of Yulara. The town gets its water from an aquifer and I mention this because nearly everything else has to be brought in from elsewhere. This piqued my curiosity when I visited recently. How does a town in the middle of the desert keep itself running?

Indeed how stuff is actually organised and run is something I’ve long found interesting. I’ve never studied it formally and I doubt I ever will. But for instance, while the highlight of the festival of San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain, is each morning’s bull run, the cleaning and hosing of the streets after the first night’s drunken partying is something to behold. The organisers know exactly what they’re doing.

In Yulara’s case, the town exists so that tourists visiting Uluru have somewhere to stay. Everything is expensive and I assume that this is because tourist money pays for it all. There are approximately 910 people working in the area and they need electricity, water, gas and food. As with any community, these things must either be produced locally or brought in.

Water, as I said above, is sourced locally. There is also a solar array spread across five different locations in and around town that produces 15% of the town’s electricity needs. The rest comes via generators. The town is too small and far from anything to be connected to a grid.

But what about other things? Food for example? The answer is that there’s no agriculture in the area so everything, as I said above, has to be brought in.

And this explains some of the expense. Twice a week there are three truckloads of goods from Adelaide, 1663km away. That’s how the town is supplied.

This in turn explains why the local IGA, the only supermarket in town, is dominated by South Australian produce. Farmer’s Union Iced Coffee can now be found in supermarkets throughout Australia but neither Perth’s nor Melbourne’s stock the “strong” variety. Likewise, soft drinks like Sno-Drop and Big Sars are South Australian peculiars but can be found at Yulara.

So does the town make money? I concluded that it must do or it wouldn’t survive. The hotel prices in town are probably kept high to ensure profitability.

And as long as Uluru remains, I expect that that will continue.

The Melancholy Roman

The old gods, and the new

A Offer You Can't Refuse
The Marina Bay Sands, in an image taken from their website

Okay, the heading is a trifle Game of Thronesish. I was actually thinking about which Singapore hotel James Bond would stay in, if he was staying there.

I say “there” when I could be saying “here,” for as I type this I am in that world-famous city-state. And in case you’re wondering, Singapore is indeed worth a visit.

The most famous hotel in Singapore, and one of the most famous in the world, is the Raffles. I believe it is very expensive and the drinks in the bar eyewateringly so. Indeed, the bar is famous for the ridiculous prices that tourists pay for cocktails just to be able to say they’ve had one there.

Now, as I made clear in a previous post, I like the James Bond films. In the books, though less obviously in the more recent films, Bond was from a well-to-do background. I believe Bond was modelled on Ian Fleming’s own idealised vision of himself. And as the Kim Philby spy scandal made abundantly clear decades ago, the British intelligence community was once recruited almost exclusively from the British upper classes. In hindsight that’s ridiculous.

What it does mean, though, is that we can be certain that a James Bond of yesteryear, if passing through Singapore, would have stayed at the Raffles. There is simply no other place that a (world famous) British secret service agent would have been.

But now? As it happens, right now the Raffles is behind hoarding. There’s a gap at the front so that tourists like myself can gawp at it, and take pictures. But it’s a little sad and a notice nearby explains that the hotel is closed for refurbishment.

The Raffles under refurbishment

It might be better if that doesn’t happen. Along the hoarding there are illustrations that are meant to evoke the hotel in her heyday. They are in a 1920s or 1930s style and unwittingly convey an obvious truth. Whisper it, but the Raffles will never again be so fashionable. Time marches on.

About three kilometres away are the Gardens by the Bay. These are gardens built on reclaimed land and are one of Singapore’s must-see tourist attractions. And looming over them are the three skyscrapers of Marina Bay Sands.

And here’s the thing: Marina Bay Sands is a resort, according to Wikipedia. Most obviously, though, it is a hotel. It is undoubtedly the largest hotel in Singapore, possibly the best situated, and certainly the most prominent. And frankly, it’s where James Bond would stay if he was visiting Singapore today.

Which is my point.

The Melancholy Roman.


El chupinazo, or what little I could see of it.

I arrived in Pamplona and scoped out the entire length of the bull run, and quickly concluded that whatever I may have thought before going there, there was no way I was going to run with the bulls. It’s one thing to watch it on tv from home. Actually being there and thinking about it focusses and sobers the mind.

That evening I asked at my hotel’s reception how I could at least watch the run in person. “You can’t,” I was told. It was too late to rent a balcony and all the good vantage points would be taken by locals in the early hours of the morning.

The receptionist recommended I instead head to Plaza de Toros, the bullring. Tickets would be on sale before 7am for people to pay €6 to sit in the stands. We could watch the action from the streets on the big screens when the run started at 8am, then see the runners and the bulls enter the bullring at the end of the run.

My hour sitting in Plaza de Toros turned out to be not very pleasant. “Bored drunks chain smoking” would be an accurate description of many of my fellow spectators. Time passed very slowly indeed.

Now, if you enter a Pamplona bull run you can’t get out. There are no exits from the course. Sure, you can quit before it starts, but once it begins you’re officially in it till the bulls are safely away, come what may.

Turns out there’s an exit clause, and I discovered it like this:

About a minute before 8am, and before the bulls were even released, a dozen supposed runners entered the bullring through the tunnel where the bulls come in. They received sarcastic cheers from the crowd.

The run itself started, and about a minute later hundreds of runners, dressed in the characteristic white and red, surged into the ring. We could still see the action on the screens. Shortly afterwards, the bulls themselves ran into the ring, crossed it and were safely secured out of sight in the pens on the other side.

And you see the exit clause? If you enter as a runner but hang out near the entrance to the bullring, you get to participate in the run in the technical sense, without actually putting yourself in any danger.

Since I was going to be in Pamplona for one more morning, didn’t want to sit in the stands of Plaza de Toros again, and couldn’t watch the run from anywhere else, entering the run while avoiding danger seemed like the best thing to do.

And it turned out that there was entertainment in the ring itself, once the run was over. The local breed of cows have horns. To entertain both the audience and the runners after the run has finished, young cows are released into the ring, one or two at a time. The tips of their horns are padded so they can’t do serious injuries but they still run about in the ring. People get knocked over and occasionally flipped in the air. It is quite the game for runners to avoid the charging animals. I watched one runner successfully attempt to somersault cleanly over one of the cows.

This spectacle was well worth seeing. I figured it would look even better if I was at ground level, just behind the wooden barrier that ran around the ring. If I came in as a runner I could be right down there, rather than up in the stands. And I wouldn’t even have to pay for an entry ticket.

The next morning I caught the same bus into Pamplona as the runners from my hotel. I told them, as I had the previous morning, that I couldn’t face running with the bulls. I then explained my sneaky plan to technically enter the run but sneak into the ring before the bulls arrived.

“That’s called the chicken run,” one of them said.

“That suits me perfectly,” I replied.

Everybody enters the run near the town hall. You are corralled into a relatively small area and you have to be there before 7:15am. Even though I was going to do the chicken run I still felt nervous. God knows how everyone else felt.

About ten minutes after we entered, police kettled everyone in. It got quite hot from so many bodies packed into such a small space. Some people smoked, but it was still better than being in Plaza de Toros. And nobody was drunk. You’re not allowed to run drunk.

Most of the balconies overlooking the small plaza were already filled with people watching. And almost everybody, runners and spectators alike, was wearing the white and red of San Fermin.

At 7:45am the police relaxed the cordon. We were now free to walk to wherever we wanted on the course.

I passed the infamous Curve of Death and into Calle Estafeta (Estafeta Street). I will never forget that walk. It’s a long, straight, narrow street lined with tall buildings, and every balcony was filled with people looking down at the runners – looking at us. They didn’t know that I wasn’t really a runner.

Every shop front in the street was barricaded. Indeed, the only thing that wasn’t barricaded was the ATM on the corner. But what doesn’t show up on tv is that all the barricades have viewing slots cut into them. At every viewing slot there were faces looking out, ready to watch the action.

I saw three men clinging to the outside of an ornate window grill, about two metres off the ground. I saw another man try to shimmy up a drainpipe, only to discover that he couldn’t get any kind of foothold at all.

There was a further police cordon up the street and we were held back for several minutes, then we were allowed to go forward again.

Between the end of Calle Estafeta and the entrance tunnel to the bullring there were a series of wooden barricades. These would be the perfect place to execute my chicken-run plan.

But the barricades curved around to the left. I stopped just past the curve and a new plan occurred to me. The bulls would probably shoot past it. More to the point, in case of danger I could drop to the ground and slide under the wooden planks, out of the way. It seemed like a good idea. So I changed my plans and decided to participate in the run after all.

There’s a great quote about planning and preparation, which is often attributed to Mike Tyson but goes back at least to Joe Louis. The quote is this:

“Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the face.”

Some of the other runners had gone past, closer to the bullring. An official on the other side of the barricades tried to tell me and two others to move further down, but we ignored him. And I remember looking across to the barricades on the other side, and seeing the line of photographers and spectators perched on a second series of barricades.

I looked at my watch, and noticed to my astonishment that it was 8 o’clock and 15 seconds. Then I heard the bang of the first rocket exploding, indicating that the gates to the corral had been opened. A few seconds later I heard a second bang indicating that the bulls were in the streets.

The bulls can do the entire run in less than two minutes, but I knew that there was no way they could do it in under about 90 seconds, so for the next minute I stood and watched as the seconds ticked away on my watch.

And then people started pushing and shoving, trying to get past and I found myself literally being pushed, forcefully, towards the bullring.

Now, one of my reasons for not wanting to take part in the bull run proper is that I’m not a very fast runner. A Spanish fighting bull can run at a top speed of 24km/h. That’s 100 metres every 15 seconds and I simply can’t run that fast. If a bull sprinted after me, in other words, I wouldn’t be able to get away.

This turned out to be completely irrelevant.

I was repeatedly pushed from behind and from the side as well, and bounced along the barricade a few times. But I couldn’t run because there was a guy in front of me, and a guy in front of him, and frankly, I was just trying my hardest not to fall over. People were jostling and shoving to get past, to get away from the bulls, wherever they were. We none of us seemed to be moving very fast at all.

What I hadn’t realised in advance is that nobody on the ground knows where the bulls are. Bulls are not as tall as most adults, so even if you look behind you, if there are people between you and the bulls you won’t see them. More to the point, you couldn’t possibly look behind you because if you did you’d trip over for sure, with all the jostling.

So we weren’t moving very fast, we knew the bulls were somewhere behind us and we couldn’t look back. If that sounds like a recipe for chaos it really was, and I’ve never known anything like it.

I stopped trying to stay close to the barricade, a space in front of me opened up, and I executed my chicken run. I ran for the tunnel. I saw one person to my right, just ahead of me, trip and fall in the tunnel itself. Normally you’d stop and help someone in a situation like that but in the running of the bulls, if you’ve ever watched the footage, that’s exactly how the pile-ups start. The only sensible thing to do was to run clear, to the left. Which is exactly what I did.

The bull ring is surrounded by a wooden barrier that I mentioned earlier. If I could get over the barrier, which is maybe 1.4m high, I would be safe. Alternatively, there are two small alcoves where bullfighters enter and leave the ring. My plan the entire time had been to use either of these options to get out of the ring proper.

It simply hadn’t occurred to me that other people would have exactly the same plan, and that hundreds of people had already raced past me and beaten me into the ring. I simply could not so much as get to the barrier.

I headed for one of the alcoves. But these are only about 50cm wide and I could not get in, because again, too many other people were trying to do the same thing.

All I could do was what other people were doing, which was standing to the side of the ring, near the barrier, hoping that when the bulls entered they wouldn’t come in our direction.

I was still there, at the side of the ring, when I saw three bulls enter. Luckily they ran straight across the ring and into the little tunnel on the other side, to the pens.

The above description probably sounds chaotic. I would probably have been willing to swear testimony, under oath, that from when I first got shoved and started to move, to when I saw the three bulls, fully five or six minutes had passed. I would have sworn it.

In actual fact, I was able to work out later with a fair degree of certainty that all that action took place in about 60 seconds.

Still standing near the barrier inside the ring, it occurred to me that I could watch what was happening in the streets outside, on the big screens. Other people around me started doing the same and I heard someone say “faltan dos” ie there were still two bulls out in the streets.

My cunning plan, to slide under the barricade to escape a bull? We watched on the screen as a guy tried it. Turns out that bulls won’t wait for you to execute your cunning plans. Last I heard, the guy had sustained injuries from the bull that, let’s just say, might interfere with his ability to become a father.

The bulls were eventually all brought in. Along with hundreds of other people, I must’ve been in the ring when they came in, yet I only saw four in total and I know for a fact that there were six.

The final injury count for the run was 14 hospitalised, 6 having been gored.

And the bulls themselves? It’s the ongoing tragedy of Pamplona, and other such events in Spain that the bulls are still killed in the afternoon bullfights. This is wrong. If human beings want to do silly things for entertainment like taking part in a bull run, or engaging in sports like boxing or cage fighting, as far as I’m concerned they’re fair game. After all, they give their consent. The bulls don’t.

The Melancholy Roman

A quick guide to Petra

The Treasury, seen from above

Yes, that Petra. It featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade but was famous long before the movie was made. To give some context, the movie came out when I was ten years old and I’d already heard of it.

Yes, I was a bit of a bookworm. But let’s face it, a lost city in a hidden valley that you have to go through a narrow canyon to get to is exactly the sort of thing that captures the imagination at any age.

Getting there

Petra is in the south of Jordan, about three hours from the capital, Amman. To go to Petra you actually go to the adjacent town, Wadi Musa.

Wadi Musa translates as “Moses Valley” and both the town and the valley are named for a local spring. In the Bible, Numbers 20:9-11, Moses strikes the ground to force water to appear for the thirsty Israelites. Local tradition has it that the local spring is one and the same.

To actually get there from Amman the options are limited. Public transport isn’t great, though there’s apparently a limited inter-city bus service. Most people go as part of a tour group or rent a car in Amman. I hired a car and driver, which was easy but expensive. It should be said that in 2016 Jordan was cheap compared to the West but expensive for the Middle East.

You could probably visit Petra as a day trip but that would be tiring. I stayed in a hotel in Wadi Musa.

The town itself is built on the sides of the valley it shares its name with. There are quite a few hotels but the best option is to stay in one of the dozen or so that are within easy walking distance of the Petra Visitor Center. In any case, you’ll quickly realise that the town is dependent on the tourist trade.

Petra itself

The most famous feature of Petra is the rock-cut tomb known as “The Treasury.” Everyone knows that when you approach Petra through its narrow canyon, you only see the tomb at the other end at the last minute.

The canyon itself is called “the Siq” and is about a kilometre long. It’s rarely more than about 10 metres wide, is frequently narrower and has many twists and turns. But it’s easy to walk through and is paved. The walk itself is quite something and would be a tourist attraction in its own right almost anywhere else in the world.

While your first glimpse of The Treasury after walking through the canyon is supposed to be something special, it’s actually anticlimactic. By the time you’ve reached Wadi Musa you’ve already seen pictures of it dozens of times in tourist literature.

The other myth is that it comes on unexpectedly. After umpteen twists and turns you go around one last corner and Petra is there. Unfortunately this ignores the fact that the paved section of the canyon runs out. When you find yourself walking on sand it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the famous view will be around the next corner, which it is.

In other words, your first glimpse of Petra is unlikely to be the highlight of your holiday.

This is unfair to Petra of course. The site is genuinely impressive and there’s much more to it than just The Treasury. There are further tombs deeper inside the valley, there’s an entire amphitheatre carved from solid rock and there’s even a Roman street. Petra was built by the Nabateans but the Romans sure knew about it.

There are even a few treks you can do within the site. Sets of stairs carved into and between the cliffs lead you to vantage points with excellent views. One led me to a view of the Treasury from on high. Another, to what is called the “High Place of Sacrifice,” led to an even better view of the entire area. Descending from there I found myself climbing down ancient zigzags of sandstone steps like something out of an Enid Blyton novel. And there were no other tourists in sight.

Speaking of which, I have one more useful piece of advice about Petra: as everyone says, get there early. The site opens from about 6am in summer. As it happens I wasn’t there till at least half an hour later but there were still no other tourists in sight when I walked through the gate at the Visitor Center, and I saw maybe six other people in the Siq on the way in. Being early, quite frankly, means you get to enjoy the site with fewer of your fellow tourists for company. And that’s better.

The Melancholy Roman

Echo de menos Salamanca

Plaza Mayor

One of my favourite phrases in Spanish is echo de menos. It’s short, easy to understand and pronounce, yet it sounds nothing like its English translation. It means “to miss” in the nostalgic sense. “Echo de menos Salamanca” means “I miss Salamanca.” I stayed there for twenty weeks in 2011.

The city is the second largest in Castilla y León and around 200km west of Madrid. It used to be 2½ hours away by coach or train but the line from Madrid to Segovia has been upgraded and you can now get there in a little over 90 minutes.

And it’s worth it. In Spain, only San Sebastián in País Vasco rivals it for beauty. The jewel in its crown is Plaza Mayor, the finest town square in all the world. I visited again last week and the image at the top of this post shows how it looked on Thursday evening.

You may think it’s a pretty bold claim to say it’s the finest town square in all the world. I don’t. Not only is it beautiful, it’s the best used civic space I have ever seen. The plaza really is the centre of civic life in Salamanca.

Salamanca has other attractions, big and small. I photographed the astronaut in the stonework of the new cathedral:

El astronauta
Apparently controversial at the time, it’s now a firm favourite

And the victor symbols on the interior walls of the Palace of Anaya. Each symbol represents a Ph.D.

Victor symbols, Salamanca
The idea is of victory over the studies themselves

I also noticed more tourists in the streets than ever before. Maybe it’s because the weather was fine and unusually warm for October, and the old town has plenty of good places for outside dining. Or maybe it’s because the traveling time to and from Madrid has decreased.

Street dining
Diners and drinkers in Calle Rúa Mayor

Salamanca is also one of the most popular places in Spain for foreigners to study Spanish. The consequence is that you’ll hear more English spoken here than in most regional cities, it being the first or second language of a lot of language students. Still, the majority of the tourists on Thursday evening were clearly Spaniards.

Lastly, behold the façade of the university.

Part of the facade
Or part of it, anyway

The Spanish word for silver is plata. This style of stonework in the facade is called plateresque, the idea being that the stone is so finely carved that it looks like silverwork.

One popular pastime is to try to spot the small frog hidden in the detail. That’s not in the picture above. On the other hand, look at the writing around the medallion.

Medallion of the facade
The medallion of the facade, from a different photograph

The figures depicted are the famous Reyes Católicos. But what strikes me, even more than the inscription in Greek, is that Fernando’s name is given here as Ferdinand and Isabel’s as Elisabetha. They’re not known by these names in Spain and so I wonder why they’re inscribed as such here. I do not know the answer.

The Melancholy Roman