My Travels: A Photo Shoot at the Foot of Sirente

Sirente is a long mountain that rises from the village of Rovere on the Altipiano of Abruzzo and at its peak reaches up to 2200 meters above sea level. The plateau of the Altipiano sits at between 1350 and 1450 meters above sea level.

Rovere sits on the western and southern slopes of a small hill at the base of Sirente. From the north it presents a quaint skyline.  It is one of those kitsch pictures you always want to capture, so as I drove out of Rocca di Mezzo at 5 am I was tempted to stop on the road and take a photo, but decided against it. It was just too kitsch! When I turned down the road that runs parallel to the cliffs of Sirente for 40 kilometres, I saw mist in the valley before Rovere and turned off into the fields and set up my tripod. I had to take a picture of Rovere.

A slightly less kitsch picture of Rovere

Remember it is midsummer in Italy, and they are experiencing a heat wave. It was 7 degrees Celsius above zero below that mountain and fortunately I was wearing a thick winter jacket. The three quarter moon was quiet high but as the sun rose orange rays warmed the Velino Range in the background and presented a beautiful spectacle.

I packed up and drove about 15 minutes along Sirente towards the town of Seicinaro. I stopped in the Prati di Sirente (the plains) where the mist was thick and banked up against the mountains.  There was a large herd of cows feeding like happy babies in a cot with warm milk. Instead of mobiles making noise, the sound of their bells rose and fell, echoing in the quiet cold air. I took some photos of the cows and one I thought would make a good black and white photo with the white mist behind and the light rising through the mist onto the cliffs high above.

The moon had not really set any further and was still high, so I had to use the wide angle lens in portrait mode to capture the cliffs and moon in one picture.

From there I moved on to the watering point, a stone trough, further down the plains. The mist had burnt off and the light was harsh, even thou the sun had not yet peeped over the foothills nestling the Pagliare di Tione to the north. I decided to pack up and drive home. Already I had seen a wild rabbit and was satisfied with the wildlife viewing. Along the way back just before the turnoff to the Anatella Fountain, where the road is thickly wooded, I spotted movement in a small opening about one hundred meters to my left. My heart jumped. It was a young male deer with 20 centimetre antlers and a smaller doe. Fortunately I had my 70 – 200 mm lens on the camera on the seat next to me, and I managed to get some photos to prove I saw them. It all happened very fast and they were quite skittish. The shutter noise of the camera really scared them. It is hunting season here, even though it is part of a reserve. One time we were walking in the mountains a few years ago and we came across a hunter shouldering a shotgun. He had lost his dogs, and asked us if we had seen them.

Happy with the deer viewing I drove home to process the pictures. All in all a happy morning  with some good photographs.

A happy view of a forest with the sun behind the leaves

My Travels: Summer in the Appenines

Yesterday I arrived in Roca di Mezzo, on the Altipiano of Abruzzo, a large plateau home to five quaint mountain villages set at 1350 metres above sea level. Rocca di Mezzo lies between the capital city of the region, L’Aquila, which was recently devastated by an earthquake and Avezzano, a medieval university city to the south.

The weather was gorgeous. Warm in the high twenties with no wind and bright sunlight. I had an awesome lunch with the family cooked by Zia Luciana. The meal was exquisite and  it was rounded off by her homemade straciatella ice-cream and a liqueur, crema di limone. She had made this a few years ago, with alcohol infused with fresh lemons then mixed with boiled milk. The end result was a liquid creamy lemon scented drink that smoothed the path to my bed for a siesta. I lowered the shutters leaving enough space between the slats for the bright afternoon light to filter through into the shadows like some lanquid lazy waterfall in slow motion and fell asleep.

When I awoke the house was deserted but I heard low voices from two sides of the garden. I walked downstairs past Zio Franco’s museum, which houses old agricultural and military implements. The large metal garage door

Zio Franco’s Key Collection in his Museum

faces the afternoon sun and in winter is frozen; ; now it emanated a haze of heat. I opened the small factory type door to get out and saw the men sitting under the shade of the gazebo next to the vegetable garden. Tomatoes were training on simple bamboo poles while spinach flourished, some recently harvested. A variety of herbs released subtle fragrances into the warm still air. An old friend of my father-in-law, Italo, was sitting with Zio Franco. I knew something was wrong when Italo did not recognise me. I had only met him once but my previous experience with the villagers was that they had memories like elephants and never forgot. Then the second time he asked me if I was from Rocca, I knew he had lost it. By the end of the half hour visit he had repeated four verses of his favourite poem perfectly five times, each time not realising he had just recited it a few minutes ago.

It was a lovely poem, something to the effect of “the road is long but I’ll take it anyway, and if my soul needs a rest I will stop.” And it ends “and when I leave, I will be fortified with wine to continue”. Italo has a beautiful voice and in the quiet of the mountain the words resonated against all the mountains around he had climbed with his youth. The men had climbed all the peaks in their youth: the hills around like Monte Rotondo and Monte Canio, the mountains behind, Sirente and Velino and across the L’Aquila valley, the highest in the Appenines, the Gran Sasso. This peak forms part of a high ridge whose skyline forms a silhouette of a sleeping beauty, la bella dormentata.

He left and we moved to the other side of the gardens under the shade of plane trees and drank some beer and spoke and laughed and played with the children.

That is just a few hours of summer in the Apennines. Imagine a whole summer!

Afternoon light over the geraniums of my room

My Travels: Masterful Menu Mind Games at Campo Imperatore

Summer this year in the Appenines of Abruzzo arrived with hot days and cool nights. We had a new visitor to the Altipiano, a plateau at about 1400 meters above sea level and adjoining part of the National Park of the Sirente-Velino range. A must see for any visitor is Campo Imperatore, another plateau at 2200 meters above sea level at the National Park of the Gran Sassoon d’Italia. There is a cable car from the village of Assergi to the plateau, to access the area for climbing in summer and skiing in winter. You can also drive up to Campo Imperatore.

We usually drive up through the valley of L’Aquila, now three years after the devastating earthquake that ruined this beautiful medieval city. The shorter drive is directly to Assergi then up to the glacier formed moonscape plateau. The longer route to the east is via Rocca Calascio and the Castel del Monte, one of the rugged mountain villages that qualifies as “una dei borghi piu belli d’Italia”. I remember Michelle Pfeiffer as the lead actress in “Ladyhawk” when I was younger. The film was shot on location at the well preserved castle of Calascio. Now I have forgotten the acting and see only a well preserved castle set high on a mountain beneath the shadow of the bulk of the Gran Sasso.

From Castel del Monte we drove along the plateau, high ridges to the north running parallel with the road and culminating in the twin peaks of the Gran Sasso, Corno Grande and Corno Picolo. The hotel at Campo Imperatore comes into view suddenly as the road curls up to a higher level. It is a rectangular structure with small windows for the rooms because of the cold, and a semilunar curved dining room area with larger windows to allow diners to appreciate the magnificent vista.

The entrance of Hotel Campo Imperatore

The hotel is dated. Patches of brown painted plaster scar the facade, evidence of the severe climatic conditions it is exposed to, as well as the lack of funds because of the ongoing economic crisis. The reception area is small with an old high wooden counter housing the reception staff. Photocopied articles on the local vegetation and other interesting things littered the top of the counter. One of these was a recount of the daring German Luftwaffe rescue of Benito Mussolini from his incarceration in the hotel in 1943. Amongst the mountain memorabilia lie quotes and items honouring Il Duce. It costs €2 to visit the room he stayed in, still clad in the original mauve velvet. I visited the room a few years ago.

The receptionist was shoddy, but so was the waiter at the restaurant. He was a young man wearing low hung  jeans with a funny hairstyle and a few body piercings. Little did we know that the hotel was being run by Neopolitans.

The hotel restaurant had a facelift about ten years ago and slowly with neglect the decor has wilted and weathered. The seats are covered with white quilted fittings that are now yellowed and dirty from not being washed. I watched our waiter clear a nearby table of guests that had finished lunch. He removed the cutlery and crockery, returned and picked up one of the used cloth serviettes and dusted the table down inexpertly. Then he folded the serviette, which like ours had long last been starched, and reset the table with dirty linen. I then noticed how dirty our table was.

I took some photographs through the windows and then settled for lunch. The menu was set: pea soup followed by pasta Amatriciana and then deep fried pork steaks with a green salad and grilled vegetables. Desert I saw being served in whiskey glasses: a wet Macedonia, a fruit salad. We all agreed to start with the pasta but Gigi was keen to replace the pork with lamb chops. The lamb is particularly flavourful up in the mountains.

The view through a glass of Pecorino

The moonscape through the glass

“I am not sure if we have any. I’ll go ask the chef” said our waiter.

“OK,” said Gigi, “go see. We’d like them grilled if you have.”

The waiter wandered off in the direction of the kitchen before being sidetracked by another table and eventually returned, confirming that the kitchen did indeed have lamb chops. We thanked him and asked to order drinks. We all took some sparkling water. Then Gigi asked for wine.

“Do you have some Pecorino?” This is a regional grape variety.

The waiter looked blank, then confused. “Eh, no. We serve the pasta with Grana Padana.”

We looked at each other and smiled. Gigi spoke. “What other wines do you have?”

In all honesty he said he was not sure and went off to get the sommelier.

“Sorry, he’s new and does not know the wines.”

“Where’s he from?”

“Napoli.”

“Where are you from?”

“Also Napoli.”

I spied a wiry energetic dark haired man flitting from the kitchen serving a suspicious looking table. Neapolitans for sure, I thought.

The sommelier brought us a bottle of five year old Pecorino, from the Sophia Estate in Abruzzo.

Gigi was not happy. “this wine should be drunk when it is a year old.”

“No, it has matured and is ready to accompany good cheese and meat. Try it.”

We did. It was a dark dull yellow, like a South African wooded Chardonay. It did not taste of much and it held no aftertaste. We drank it anyway, in lieu of negotiating with the sommelier to get some ham and cheese as an antipasto instead of the soup.

We waited, longer than we should have for a set menu, and then our pasta arrived. The penne were al dente and the sugo was perfect, except that it had peperoncino, or chilli in.

Gigi again. “eh,it is good, but Amatriciana should not have chilli inside.” The chunks of ham were a delight in the mouth, with just enough fat to smooth the crunch as you chewed.

Our waiter returned. He cleared our plates. He came back, looking as if to ask if everything was alright with the meal when he surprised us.

“I will now bring the antipasto.”

He turned on his heels, walked into the kitchen and came out with three plates of prosciutto, salami and pecorino cheese.  It was really good, especially when he brought some rough potato bread to accompany the antipasto that came after the pasta. We said nothing to him.

He came again, slouching from the kitchen. “I am sorry. We have no lamb chops. There was a mistake. They’re all marinaded and ready for frying.”

“OK, we all said. Just bring the pork.”

He served a table that had arrived after us. They were already getting the pork.

As he walked back to the kitchen past us he calmly said “we have found some lamb chops and you will be served what you requested.”

The meat came with limp lettuce cut into strips and a small helping of grilled vegetables. The meat was flavoursome and tender.

The fruit salad was not memorable.

The coffee was good. The wiry Neapolitan came out of the kitchen made went to the bar. He brought three coffees, one normal, one decaffeinated and one ristretto for me. It was perfect, less than a mouthful of full flavour with a thick crema.

The meal took over two hours. It was funny to think my serviette would be used again without a wash. And I was sad we did not take up the offer of the waiter for our guest to see Mussolini’s room at no cost because we had eaten at the restaurant.

The Gran Sasso

My Travels: Setting up a Tripod in Rome

A peep at San PietroMy evening in Rome started out on Piazza Bologna at a Kosher Sushi Bar called Duruma. It was hot and sticky and a very refreshing Mojito or two prepared me for an evening of photography in Travestere. We drove by car to Piazza Trilussa and got stuck in Roman traffic at 8:30 in the evening! I was late, and Patrizia arrived a little after me on her bicycle. While I waited in the piazza I did not notice any other photographers. It was easy to recognise her when she arrived: she was the only person carrying a tripod in a bag over her shoulder.

Pat is a professional photographer who has been living in Rome for the last five months and has worse in the fashion business in Paris, but is happier doing reportage. I had booked a night shhot with Rome Photo Tours online the week before. After quick introductions we moved off onto Ponte Sisto on the Tiber. There are markets on the banks below the road level with small bright white square marquees set up in rows like some medieval knights congress. There are outdoor cages and bars and even cinemas on the banks of the river and leading onto the Isola Tiberina.

I have not done any serious city night digital photography, and Pat was very helpful in advising settings. We shot a warm sunset over the river with city cupolas in the distance and seagulls dotting the sky. She told me in her listing lispy Spanish accent of one time when she was changing lenses on her camera and her tripod was stolen, so I kept a keen eye on my equipment. It was so hot with a back pack on that I had to wear my bandana at night to prevent the sweat falling in my eyes.

We moved back into Trastevere and set up opposite a bar and did some mood pictures of people sitting at the bar and the interior. I was a bit nervous about shooting without permission but Pat reassured me. We moved into a small intersection on the cobbled streets near Piazza Di Santa Maria in Trastevere and did some great panning shots. By now I was shooting only in black and white and had a lot of fun watching people and trying to capture the mood. We moved into the main piazza but everyone was very still, with the youngsters lounging as if they were on a hot beach, and not on the steps of the fountain. The only people moving were the kids playing its bright blue lights that they launched into the night with catapults.

We moved off to a restaurant with an interesting interior and were taking pictures when an aggressive manager came out and chased us off. Seems he must have had a film star inside or someone who felt guilty because he as having dinner with someone other than his wife. This broke the tone of the shoot for a while until we got onto the Isola Tiberina. This housed outdoor temporary restaurants, cafes, bars, a disco and even a movie house all in the shadow of the ruins of the Ponte Emilio, the remaining arch of an old bridge that has no connection to the banks anymore. Colloquially they call it Il Ponte Rotto, the broken bridge. There were two Geisha dressed Italian beauties with parasols that allowed us to take pictures of them but nothing came out good.

It was a great evening. It was super to have photographic company to empower me to place my tripod and take pictures. Pat was also fun to be with, taking me to spots with good views or angles and we both had fun.

Playing in the shadows in fornt of the gelateria

On Trail: Playing in the Bush

The second time I was in the Timbavati I was very lucky. The Timbavati River was flowing clear in parts, and submerged in other sections. It was April, with warm days and cool nights. Unlike my first trail which was with fellow school friends, this was a mixed group with adults. I was in my last or second last year at school, well over thirty years ago as I write.

It was great to have access to so much water. Washing up was easy: we just scooped pots and bowls through the wet river sand and rinsed off in clean water. It was also good to be able to sit in the water and have a bath, girls first, then guys.

One day we were having lunch on some rocks in the bend of the river. The water had been channelled into a narrow fast flow for some length and as we were relaxing after lunch, someone threw a leaf into the water and we watched it bob and tack as it flowed down the river. I looked around and broke off a frond from a reed and lowered this into a fast flowing section. “Mine’s faster” I said. “Let’s have a race.”

So we did. All of us including Alan Shore, the field guide, chose their “boats” of leaves and we started the regatta just as the river entered the channel. We were oblivious to everything around us as we ran barefoot along the river sand and over rocks to follow our leaves to the finish. We did this over and over again. It was just so much fun. At the end, when we had finished racing and splashing in the water, Alan said “so, you see how important it is to play?” We all nodded. Some of the adults even mentioned things like stress and big city pressure.

But it was an important lesson: remember to have fun in what you do. It was easy to have fun on foot in the bush. It was easy to be enticed and excited by the wonders of nature. But how difficult is it to have fun in your daily life? Being at university and studying had some fun aspects, but it was hard work. Working itself has some fun aspects, but that’s even harder work than studying. So how do we recapture that lunchtime game chasing leaf boats in a clear river oblivious to the big five that wandered around us?

I am not sure. I still do not have the answers. Perhaps one of the ways to recapture that fun is to tell stories. Our ancient forefathers would have sat around the fire at night telling stories, recounting hunts or seasons or people they had met.

Now we sit around glowing screens at all times of the day or night reading words that sometimes do not even tell a story.

Early morning mist at a dam in Timbavati

On Trail: Chinese,Japanese, Oh! Taiwanese

In the old days under the Apartheid government South Africa had few state friends. Indeed, the only three were Paraguay, Israel and Taiwan. There was a program to teach their diplomats English by inclusion, so they lived in Johannesburg for 3 months and attended adult English classes at WITS. Somehow someone (and I think it was Fran) thought it would be good for them to spend five days in the African Wilderness on trail.

So I picked up six men in their thirties and forties who were all shorter than me and walked with small incisive steps and as the week unfolded kept repeating “Ah, so” in unison at the marvels of the bush.  We spent the first two nights at the Big Rock Camp in Pilanesberg and then walked up to Bailie Loop and camped on the escarpment at the small waterfall, safe from the rhinos that loved that plateau.

There were two memorable moments. The first was up on the plateau, once camp had been set up and we were relaxing. Arnie Warburton (my second in charge and senior) called me to come have a wash with him in the stream. I went reluctantly but he cajoled me, and as we sat drying in the dying sun on the still warm rocks he handed me a cool beer that he had secreted in his pack and on the way down to the camp had left to cool in the stream. Arnie is long gone, but he was a wise and impish at the same time kind of guy. It was a great treat to have that beer and escape the intensity of the Taiwanese trailists for a few minutes. He complimented me on the trail so far.

The second was after we had our Indaba after the return. We were still at the old Parktown house under the big tree in the garden and I remember the translator/teacher being there as well. They were all filled with a spiritual gratitude for the time spent in the big open space. They told us of how and where they lived in Taiwan and what little of nature they saw, and how being at one with the wild animals had elevated their sense of living. One of the trailists, a gentle soul, almost had me crying when he commented on how beautiful it was to see the grass waving in the wind like the waves on the sea. His eyes really appreciated the simple beauty of Africa.

Arnie looked after me. From when they chose me to run trails to accompanying me on that five day trail. He tried to make a manly man out of me without changing who I was. I cannot remember him ever being negative or unhappy, expect once when I saw him say goodbye to his children and go back to his girlfriend, Theresa.

For the Taiwanese it was good for them to spend five days in the African Wilderness. Absolutely.

Arnie Warburton in the Bush October 1985

On Trail: Teutonic Design

I remember one trail with German, Swiss and Austrian exchange students: they were all young adults at university who were brought out by The South Africa Foundation to spend three months in our country and see what makes us tick. In the eighties the only ticking was that of the time bomb waiting to destroy the government in power.

They were an energetic and keen group. They walked fast and asked lots of questions.  And they just wanted to see big game. The small interesting things were not that important to them. We had good views of three white rhino and a calf driving in on the Friday night and the Saturday walk was filled with all sorts of antelope, including eland, wildebeest, hartebeest and impala. It did not keep them happy, and they were looking for confrontation with the big five. In the afternoon on Bailie Loop we found a mother white rhino and calf.

From a distance I explained our policy and protocol again for viewing dangerous game on foot: they were to stay behind me, stay in single file and follow my hand instructions. Everyone was excited, because seeing a rhino on foot adds another dimension: their huge bulk and tends to make you feel small and respect nature. I also explained to them that in the open veld with no cover we would not approach the animals closer than one hundred meters. As we got close and stopped, I knelt down so the others could see over me. The rifle butt was in the dust and the barrel was cradled on the side of my neck. The next thing I saw out of the corner of my eye was a tall German walking out sideways and moving forward with his camera to get a better shot. The rhino sensed this and I hissed at him to get back in order. He did, with a long face. I lifted the rifle onto my thighs, so that I was facing the rhino, but I should have shot the German. I was so angry with his attitude.

Back at camp toward evening he tried to make amends and was over keen to assist with the meal.  He had his own ideas on how the food should be cooked, so I left him to it. Then he needed a break and went to the loo, armed with spade and toilet paper. On his return he spoke. “Why don’t we dig a trench over there” he said pointing down the valley to a clearing behind some scrub, “and then everyone can relieve themselves in the trench and will need to cover up only that section they have used.”

I went to pick up the rifle to clean it. “That’s not how we do it. This camp is used three or four times a month and the place would be filled with trenches like the First World War before we knew it. Animals will be attracted by all our waste protein and dig it up, anyway.” I raised the rifle to the dying light to check the barrel. Then I sighted a tree in the distance away from the group. I should have shot him, he was a real pain!

The dawn watch on trail: waiting for the sun.