Iguazú – Argentina’s Waterworld Wonder

Travel

Argentina: La Parte Uno

Early the next morning the taxi does indeed get ‘removed’ to the airport at Santiago, but fortunately for the continued progress of my trip I get to keep it company on its journey. In the cab the transfer driver hands me a sheet from CTS to evaluate my experience of the Chilean leg of the tour. As the trip proceeds I find that this becomes the norm for Chimu – someone gives me a form with five minutes to complete it, just enough for a fleeting, impressionistic take on their performance, when you’d like to be take the time to be expansive about the things you didn’t like! The skeptic in me rails against this dubious, paying ‘lip service’ kind of practice, but nonetheless in the few moments I get before we get to SCL Airport I make a rushed attempt to summarise my complaints of the Chilean experience. I return the sketchily-filled questionnaire back to the driver and offer him some of my pre-breakfast snack (chocolates).

On the catwalk at the Devil's Gorge
On the catwalk at the Devil’s Gorge

At the airport I find myself once again exposed to the vagaries of LAN customer service. The seemingly complacent, unhelpful staff are vague and imprecise with their directions as to where I go next. I try to print my own boarding pass for Argentina from the self-serve ticket machine as advised by LAN staff, but the machine is not cooperating! Fortunately, a useful Chilean representative of Chimu Adventures is at hand and he comes to my assistance and manages after a few tries to print out my tickets (I’m absolving him from my general criticism of Chimu). By the time I get to the Immigration control point for departure, SLC’s signage is misleading and some of the necessary passenger forms are missing, the immigration official at gate 17 is not only unsympathetic and typically blasé when I protest about the shambles of the setup, she is seemingly sarcastic to boot! She forces me to go back and repeat the whole immigration passport check stage. Her inflexible, uncooperative manner leaves me to wonder, following on from my earlier experience with the LAN front counter, if the phrase LAN public relations is an oxymoron! If its anything to go by, some of the staff I’d met so far were certainly oxymoronic.

The flight to Buenos Aires is uneventful and pretty smooth. After touching down at the Airport I have a lengthy delay waiting for my connection to Iguazu. I pass the time sampling my first taste of Quilmes whilst staring out of the airport bar window at the Rio de la Plata, trying to see if I can chance a glimpse of the distant Uruguayan coast (the vast River Plate is up to 40km wide at some points). The Quilmes seems quite a decent cerveza, but maybe I’m just thirsty. After a second sampling, no, I decide, I do prefer this Argentinian drop to the Cristal I had in Chile. The flight is a fairly brief one, as the plane nears Iguazú the jungle becomes more and more dense. Then just as we get the “prepare for landing” instruction, I get my first, partial sighting of the Iguazú Falls. It’s certainly partial because I can barely make out the misty spray of the falls on the horizon, spiralling upwards out of a broad patch of deep green. I sit back and wait for mañana, when all of the mystique of the Falls will be revealed, hopefully.

Iguazú Falls are a trans-border phenomena, encompassing Brazil and the Argentine, with a third country, Paraguay, also very near to the location. My hotel in Puerto Iguazú, La Sorgente, is not old but its not new either, and the room door uses those old cumbersome latchkeys which I always have trouble with, but that aside, it is a quite reasonable lodging (outstanding even if I might extend to hyperbole, if the point of comparison is the dire AH Hotel in Santiago!) After settling into my room, I wander up for a look round the town. Frankly, it is a quite unprepossessing place, old dilapidated buildings, many signs have faded or partially unhinged. The surface pavement(sic) of the roads are a strange and primitive concoction of jagged pieces of broken rock mortared together, the result of which is unfriendly to both car tyres and human feet. The local youths seem to spend all day cruising up and down Avenida Cordoba in their defect-laden, beat-up old cars, their hands manically tooting the horn for no reason. And, as in Chile, the many mangy-looking, roaming dogs are an integral feature of the rundown local ‘picturesque’. Whatever money the Government makes from Iguazú Falls tourism (and I imagine it would be lucrative), by the look of this place it is certainly not being pumped back into the Iguazu infrastructure!

My first night in Puerto Iguazú I had dinner at the popular Colors restaurant in the Avenue. I’m not really much of a ‘foodie,’ someone with an always active and overdeveloped appetite, but in the spirit of “when in Rome …” I went for the whole meat package, the formidable bife de lomo, cooked Argentinian parrilla-style – an enormous 135g slab of tenderloin steak. More rare than I would usually have it, but I did enjoy it, and managed to get through it all, probably in part because I had skipped lunch and was a tad ravenous by 7pm.

Sth America's Waterworld
Sth America’s Waterworld

The next morning was a scheduled early start to fit in a full day at Iguazú Falls. This left me less than 15 minutes for a ‘run-through’ breakfast, even less given that the Iguazu bus arrived five minutes early, meaning I had to quickly grab my bag upstairs and scoot out the door brushing away the bread crumbs as I go. Like the early morning departure from Santiago, this was basically a sans breakfast day. I find that the bus isn’t ‘full’ as claimed by la guia who was obviously trying to hurry me up to keep on schedule, however we do make several hotel stops on the way to pick up a lot more people, so in retrospect I can understand his desire to expedite the action. We get to the entrance of the Falls complex and of course it is full of visitors, international, Argentinians from other regions, school groups, etc. After getting our tickets and navigating the turnstiles, the guide decides that we should by-pass the train immediately inside the gates and walk a couple of kilometres through the bush to the next train station. This sounds a bit curious to me, walking when the train is just there, but when we get to the second station he explains the method in this, the entrance train (which didn’t get to the second point until after we had got there by foot) had to terminate, and so passengers would have to alight to await the other train which is the one which goes to the Waterfalls. Our advantage, the guide was at pains to stress to us, was that by getting there first, it would ensure that we were in the first train to the Falls. Fine! But I was left wondering why, a) there was wasn’t more trains scheduled seeing that Iguazu was a world-class highlight on the global tourism calendar, and, b) the first train just didn’t go straight through to the Falls, considering that both trains left from the same track! To me, that would be logical, but it may not be the Argentinian way!

The tour’s main guide, Rodrigo (who I renamed ‘Rodrigid’ as the day wore on), a smug dude with good English, displays an irritating trait of always referring to members of the tour group only by their surnames (no mister, señor, señorita,and so on). He annoyingly persists with this military-style form of address. Now, he may just be lazy and not want to bother to learn tour members’ first names, but I find it disrespectful and decide to throw it back at him by pointedly calling him “Mr Rodrigo” or sometimes plain “Apelido“, which made him laugh but I’m doubtful if he got my point.

El Diablo
El Diablo

The entirety of the Argentine section of the Falls can be split into two parts, the Cataracts and the Gorge. We arrived at the Gorge first, the entrance to which in Spanish is called Entrada to El Diablo Garganta, still needing to walk almost 1200 metres on a linear footbridge to the actual ‘Devil’s Throat‘. This recently-constructed metal and wood bridge or catwalk is somewhat of a marvel of engineering in itself, as it would have posed considerable challenges to erect across such turbulent waters. As you get closer to the throat, the roar of the powerful waters gets louder and louder and a couple of hundred metres away the spray shooting up from El Diablo can be seen. So, two trains, a hike through the jungle and a further ‘walk on water’, all of the preamble is worth it, 100 per cent, when you finally get to see it! At the edge of the waterfall, the footbridge bends round into a U-shape (more accurately, fork-shaped) to maximize the number of people that can view the waterfall from point-blank range. The viewing platform extends out over the edge of the land (as it does at the Grand Canyon), so that anyone standing on it, cannot avoid getting a decent old drenching! Ponchos are definitely the preferred fashion garb at the Throat! Standing on the catwalk, getting soaked by the spray, trying to look and take photos and videos at the same time, you get the overwhelming sense of all that cascading power! There is water everywhere you look, the impact of the spectacle is just totally fixating! I was fascinated by dozens of little birds that would rapidly dive into the enormous mouth of the waterfall, disappearing into the all-encompassing spray as if the mouth had swallowed them up, only to return skywards several seconds later. It was like they were playing ‘chicken’ with this, most powerful beast of nature, the whole spectacle was quite mesmerising.

Paseo Inferior
Paseo Inferior

Later we explore the multiple, other reaches of the Falls, walking on the National Park’s two trails, the Paseo Superior (Upper Trail) and the Paseo Inferior (the Lower trail). This gives us a different viewpoint and lots more photo opportunities. We also explore the Park’s flora and fauna. Unusual, dazzlingly beautiful butterflies can be seen as can the coatí, which are plentiful in number. These small, long-nosed relatives of the raccoon show no fear of humans and tend to hang round close to the Park kiosk and restaurant having recognised the visitors’ role as purveyors of food. As we cross one of the waterfalls on a catwalk we notice a family of the raccoon-like mammals directly below our feet on another rung of the bridge making the same crossing but seemingly unperturbed about how close they are to getting swept into the rushing waters of the falls.

As 80 per cent of the Waterfalls are on the Argentinian side of the river, the best panoramic views tend to be from the Brazilian shore. As I hadn’t had time to arrange a visa for Brazil before leaving Australia, I did the next best thing which was to pay for the optional Macuco Safari speedboat ride under the Falls. Before you get onto the boat, an attendant gives you a green waterproof bag and asks you to divest yourself of as much clothes as practicable. I was rather disdainful of the guy in front of me who had stripped right down to very brief swimmers, thinking that this turkey was really overdoing it, maybe he just had an exhibitionist bent? When I realised how drenched we would get in the boat, I took it all back. Only then did I remember the advice from the Chimu consultant in Sydney to pack my swimmers (I was kicking myself because I packed them but left them behind in the hotel room that morning!). Once underway, I soon realise that my concern was less about the threat posed by the precipitation from the Waterfall above, than from the action of the powerboat. As the boat accelerates and powers through the water, swerving rapidly from side to side, the huge waves rushing in over the side of the speeding boat douses me and fills up the bucket seat with water. Every time this happens, I instinctively rise from the seat and frantically start scooping the water out whilst clinging urgently to the seat in front. And as I do this the boat attendant immediately orders me to sit down. This pattern is repeated every time a horizontal flow of water rushes in. I bounce up and down continuously to keep bailing the water out; at the same time I had the added anxieties of trying both to avoid the vigilant watch of the zealous crew member and not to lose my camera overboard. Eventually, when I realise that it was inevitable that I was going to be saturated, I give up and stoically resigned myself to my fate. Mercifully, the ordeal is soon over and we return to the shore where I seek out a rock in the sun to dry myself on. Notwithstanding my discomfort due to a temporary state of sogginess, the boat afforded the perfect, up-close viewpoint of the falls.

Cory - the long-nosed Argie coatí
Cory – the long-nosed Argie coatí

After the speedboat escapade the tour guides shuffle us immediately on to an open-top truck for a slow drive through the Nacional Parque jungle and rainforest, stopping several times to have our attention directed towards different types of forest vegetation. If the idea to pile everyone into the back of an open-top truck was devised to help the boat passengers dry off, it was certainly appreciated – the hot jungle sun took care of the rest! If there was a disappointment with the jungle part of Iguazú ,it was with the paucity of wildlife that we managed to spot. Apart from the conspicuous, aforementioned raccoons, little else in the way of fauna could be spotted. I wasn’t exactly expecting to see jaguars or ocelots in the trees (perhaps thankfully so!), but I was hoping for a glimpse of the odd tapir and certainly, of the elusive toucan, given that this South American bird appears on just about every Falls souvenir painting, plaque and fridge magnet sold in the local shops!

Most of la Catarata visitors seemed to be be from other parts of Argentina, probably a big proportion from BA, but the day-trippers in my tour group were a real mixed bag, North Americans, Britons, Australians, other South Americans, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch. I engaged in a stimulating conversation with a young Spanish honeymooner who has surprisingly good English. An endearing sidelight of our talk was, if I said anything she thought of note, she would turn and patiently translate it to her new husband who was both monolingually Spanish and seemingly monosyllabic. As the señora and I conversed in English at great length, this was considerate of her, making him feel connected to the discussion.

La Catarata
La Catarata

Argentinians like to refer to Iguazú Falls as ‘la maravilla‘ (the wonder), witnessing its massive power and sheer scope is undeniably one of the world’s great sights. Given that ”comparisons are odious”, as the cliché would have it, I am be reluctant to speculate as to which is the greatest waterfall, Iguazú or Victoria Falls in Southern Africa (even leaving aside the problematic question of what we mean by ‘greatest’). That I visited both waterfalls when they were not at their peak complicates this issue further. Rather than trying to rank them, it is more useful to recognise that both waterfalls are stupendous natural phenomenons in their own distinct ways.

For another thing, it is a bit of an “apples and oranges” comparison, they are both waterfalls but are quite different in their form and composition. Victoria Falls or Mosi-o-Tunya, is the largest, single curtain of water in the world, at its highest it is 26 metres taller than the highest point of Iguazú. Iguazú, conversely, is composed of approximately 275 discrete waterfalls (rather than one continuous stretch of water), and extends all of 2.5km along the Argentine-Brazil border, the sheer number of individual waterfalls scattered about the place makes for an unforgettable spectacle. The pros and cons can be stacked up against each other, one after another. there is nothing at Iguazu to equal the Devil’s Pool in Zambia! The metal footbridge at Iguazú allows you to get right on the edge of the waterfalls, palpably face-to-face with an incredibly imposing curtain of water known to Argentinians as the Devil’s Throat, but at Iguazú you can’t leap into the rushing waters of a rock pool which pushes you to the very precipice of the waterfall, as you can at Victoria Falls. Both of these falls, you can see, have their own distinctive characteristics, and both are world-class natural wonders, exceptional in their own ways.

On returning to the hotel I had intended to eat at the hotel restaurant, until I notice that they are still painting the interior. Accordingly, I decide to avoid the paint vapours and head back to the township to eat. I discover that Puerto Iguazú is much larger than the one street (Av Cordoba) ‘hick town’ I had assumed it to be on my first day. Cordoba Avenue is not even the main road but leads on to Victor Aguirre, a much more central street with its own little side streets. This part of Port Iguazú is made up of a liberal smattering of largely unexciting bars and eateries, and a welter of souvenir and gift shops all basically duplicating each other’s products as you commonly find in any tourist Mecca. After dinner I take a last look round the township and head back to La Sorgente. My last night in the port of Iguazú.

Middle East Conflict: The Personal and the Political in One Department

Creative Writing, Politics, Tertiary Ed

Indulge me if you would and spare me a few minutes to recount the following little tale about an academic department in a leafy, red brick outer-suburban university in the Antipodes. This story has a ring to it so palpably real that were it not for the certain knowledge that it is a fictional account, an imaginative invention of my mind, I could almost feel I was there, observing it first-hand! Indeed, I shall put myself into the story (as a mute, peripheral onlooker) as it unfolds. The setting for this narrative is a second generation middle-ranking tertiary institution in the early 1980s. For purposes of imprecise identification lets call it Governor Bligh University … that’s got a nice colonial ring to it!

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Leafy western redbrick
At the beginning of the 1980s I commenced what I refer to in a jocular fashion as my undergraduate career at Gov Bligh University. I did have earlier brief tertiary false starts at Kenso Tech Uni and Warrumbungles CAE but the less said about these the better … and I won’t even mention the University of Central Australia (he says mentioning it!). I came to GBU as a cod-ordinary arts student very keen to study politics. In particular what was starting to catch my attention was the evolving political situation in the Middle East.

This newfound fascination with Middle East politics was, admittedly, partly motivated by an extrinsic factor: I had a Coptic Egyptian girlfriend at the time, but that aside I definitely had an intrinsic interest in the political dynamics of this crucial and volatile region of the world (and yes, my interest in Middle East politics did outlast my interest in my Middle Eastern girlfriend!). So, wanting to get a handle on the complex, endlessly convoluted politics of the region, I signed up for MEP269. In doing so, I unwittingly became an observer of an engrossing little political (and personal) duel between a brace of antagonistic academics.

The study of Middle East politics in the Department of Political Science at GBU at that time worked like this: two lecturers took turns to run the introductory UG course on a year-to-year basis. In the year that I took the course it was the turn of Dr Noam Mordecai-Ryka. Had I taken it the year before or the year after, the Middle East course would have been run by Professor Dwayne Boemsteenboer. Boemsteenboer and Mordecai-Ryka were poles apart in so many aspects of their views and personalities. Each of them were driven by a passionate, some would say partisan, commitment to one particular side of the Middle East debate. From this clash of personalities came a mutually personal and increasingly bitter enmity. Boemsteenboer was a very self-confident, somewhat intimidating mid-west American Arabist with Iraqi Ba’ath Party sympathies, whereas Mordecai-Ryka was a liberal Australian Jewish scholar of East European ancestry with an entrenched commitment to the cause of Zionism (albeit from the standpoint of a small ‘z’ Zionist).

The consequence of this pedagogic bifurcation was that if you were taking MEP269 one year you would get Boemsteenboer’s pro-Palestinian slant on the Middle East situation, one heavily critical of his own countrymen’s (America’s) complicity in the imbroglio and sheeting home the blame for a lack of progress toward peace to the intransigent Israeli bullies, buttressed by US superpower, and unwilling to negotiate a just solution. Boemsteenboer’s homeland, the US, would be lambasted for using a non-Arab, alien, Western implant (the state of Israel) for Cold War gains, as a proxy military force to gain a hegemonic advantage over the Soviet Union in the region.

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GBU

But if you took MEP269 on the alternate year you would get the avowedly Israeli perspective of Mordecai-Ryka and his young female Jewish tutorial assistants, and an emphasis on Israel’s isolated position in a hostile sea of surrounding, undemocratic, authoritarian Arab States intent on the destruction of the Jewish homeland. Israel’s continued hard line on West Bank Palestinians would be justified on the grounds that the small ‘underdog’ Jewish state was fighting for its very survival. Indeed, I well remember during this period Mordecai-Ryka being interviewed on ABC TV just after Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Noam’s response to a question from interviewer Murf Paulfry was to justify Israel’s use of this dangerous pre-emptive strike option on the grounds that Israel would never be the second state in the ME region to launch an attack against its enemies.

Less I give a distorted view of these two academics’ teaching styles, let me hasten to add that for either of the combatants we are not talking here about the crass arguments and wholly transparent bias of, say, a David Irvine trying to rewrite the history of the Nazis’ Jewish holocaust. Both Mordecai-Ryka and Boemsteenboer were well respected scholars with a string of insightful and critically well-received papers on the Middle East to their names, but the reality is that both had a political axe to grind, and so any expectation one might have of an objective, neutral, down the centre account of the Middle East conflict was out the window.

The task of the inexperienced undergraduate politics neophyte taking the course would be to try to read widely on the topic at hand and reach a well-reasoned conclusion which balances the robustly-argued critique on the conflict presented to them by the convenor (be it a pro-Palestinian or a pro-Israeli one) and the countervailing arguments from the other side of the debate. Great if it happens and a terrific learning skill to acquire, but the question that poses itself is how many first year students fresh from Year 12 would have the experience and sophistication to pull it off? Inevitably, the endorsement of a partisan position on the Middle East also had a polarising effect on students taking the course.

When I came to Gov Bligh University and enrolled in the Politics Department in the first semester, it was not long before I discovered a state of fraught and increasingly icy relations between Professor Boemsteenboer and Dr Mordecai-Ryka. The personal tensions seemed to have built up over the previous two years, ever since Mordecai-Ryka arrived as a fresh-faced lecturer at GBU with his recently minted National University PhD and some ‘intelligence’ work background.

What started off conceivably as a simple difference of opinion or value-systems, a rigorous intellectual debate between two superbright scholars within the same department, eventually developed into an antagonism that became very personal. Everyone in the Department (and many outside) knew that the atmosphere between the two was quite toxic, both were inclined to avoid each other where possible. The ill-will between the two was clearly discernible to colleagues (Mordecai-Ryka himself when I encouraged him to reflect on his differences with Boemsteenboer described him in highly disparaging terms).

There was nothing dramatic, no observable verbal exchanges or confrontations between them, but an on-going, lingering war of words which extended beyond Mordecai-Ryka’s departure from GBU. The feud between them eventually spilled out beyond the department and the University and into the wider academic community. Even the Sydney Morning Herald ran articles about the heated, personal conflict, depicting it somewhat over-statedly in boxing terms as a sort of head-to-head public slanging match.

Someone in the Department of Political Science obviously had a wickedly mischievous sense of humour about the Mordecai-Ryka/Boemsteenboer animus. When Mordecai-Ryka returned from OSP the last time before leaving Gov Bligh for good, he was re-officed into a room right next door to Boemsteenboer! I could almost visualise the sparks of vitriol being projected from both sides against the adjoining wall!

I can’t speak with any certainty about Boemsteenboer’s motives or the emotional and intellectual drivers that propelled him to hitch his colours to the Palestinian mast. He remained an elusive figure around the campus, not very visible except for classes. My personal contact with the American don was restricted to observing his slick and authoritative lecturing style in the International Relations course, and to a singular encounter at enrolment where he dismissively and unreasonably (to my mind) refused to sign my program to take extra semester units. Whereas with Mordecai-Ryka, who was convenor for both poli-sci courses I took that year, Middle East Politics and Australian Foreign Policy, I was able to get some insights into what was firing his engine.

What came across clearly enough to the interested observer was the outward appearance of the personality differences between the two exceptional Middle East scholars. Boemsteenboer was fairly stiff and colourless, blunt-talking, seemingly without humour, and unnervingly robot-like in his rapid delivery of facts and cogent arguments in lectures. He was not given to any visible warmth or friendly disposition, and you would certainly never call him exuberant (the term “charisma by-pass” comes to mind). You had to readily concede that he really knew his stuff, but you were not likely to be charmed, or inspired even, by him in conversation.

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Corridors of discord

Ryka on the other hand always came across as far more approachable, personable and engaging (very PR conscious), got on with the other Governor Bligh academics apart from those with a political axe to grind. Noam made himself very available to his students – he freely gave out his home number to students! I recall talking to him at home on the phone on a number of occasions. Mordecai-Ryka certainly connected with students in a way that the remote and aloof Boemsteenboer could or would never do. It was apparent that Mordecai-Ryka was keen to progress up the academic ladder, conscientious in his work and committed in putting his hand up for the little administrative tasks (committee participation, academic advising, etc) that many, less motivated academics, would try to avoid like the plague! This made Mordecai-Ryka popular, getting on well with the head of department and it was no surprise that he was rewarded by being promoted to senior lecturer in minimum time.

Mordecai-Ryka left Gov Bligh a couple of years later with his ambitions enlarged to go on to great (vain)glory in the US. No doubt, had Mordecai-Ryka been satisfied to stay on the academic treadmill in Australia, he would easily have made professor. In any circumstance he was never one to understate his academic accomplishments, as a memorable interview he gave several years ago to Australian television reinforced. An enthralled female interviewer gushing over the Australian background of the now American power player, referred to him as having once been a lecturer in a modest regional city university, pointedly Mordecai-Ryka was super quick to correct her minor, inconsequential inaccuracy with the self-satisfied words,”Senior lecturer, Jana”.

Talking at length with Mordecai-Ryka after classes made me acutely aware of the depths of his ambitions. I asked him once why the Middle East was his bag, the focal point of his intellectual energies, his answer, sidestepping the obvious personal element of his Jewishness, was to declare that he was only interested “in the big picture”, the global dimension! His background gave a clue to his ambitions, with fierce sibling rivalry playing its part. Mordecai-Ryka’s older brother, Moshe, had already made a name for himself in academic circles and literary publications, so the younger Noam always felt he had a lot to emulate, a lot of ground to catch up (significantly the older Mordecai-Ryka brother did eventually become a full professor in Australia – unlike Noam).

Intra-university disapproval of the young Jewish politics lecturer was not confined to Professor Boemsteenboer. After a history class given by an abstrusely intellectual and flaky Marxist lecturer one day, I was walking along the Humanities Building corridor with the same academic, when Mordecai-Ryka walked past us from the opposite direction. I acknowledged Noam who I was on good terms with. The left-wing dogmatist, let’s call him Dr Mervyn Picklewhiting, stone-facedly ignored Mordecai-Ryka (works for him!), then straight after he had passed us leaned over conspiratorially to me and murmured sotto voce, “he’s a spy!” The academics in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Gov Bligh, at that time described as ranging the full ideological gamut from “a Marxist orientation to those whose political critique of post-industrial society was informed by Marxism”. Picklewhiting and his lot, with paranoiac zeal, outed Mordecai-Ryka, as a ‘spook’ – supposedly to do with his having previously been employed within the Australian intelligence network in an agency allied to ASIO.

After a couple of years Mordecai-Ryka decided both the Gov Bligh and the Australian pond was too small for his aspirations and left the University to reside permanently in Washington and work for American think tanks and Israeli lobby groups. Within a short period he had done a ‘Rupert Murdoch’, trading his Australian citizenship for a glossy American one. This was a necessary step in the Mordecai-Ryka grand plan, opening the door for him to the US State Department and swift promotion to high diplomatic and consular US posts in Israel.

When I eventually heard about the ‘Americanisation’ of Mordecai-Ryka it made me chuckle! I recalled that Noam had once mentioned in class his overseas’ experiences of meeting strangers who responded positively to him when they discovered that he was Australian. Mordecai-Ryka waxed lyrical with pride about the high regard this identity was held in internationally. Vaulting ambition and expediency can bring about a complete turnaround in values and in allegiances!

In the end both Boemsteenboer and Mordecai-Ryka seemed to overreach through injudiciousness or perhaps a touch of hubris, and got a bit burnt, Icarus-like, by their outspokenness and capacity to polarise. Boemsteenboer found himself in the hot seat during the 1st Gulf War copping flack from the Australian Government for voicing public opposition to its decision to invade Iraq. This incident prompted conservative political commentators and the Australian Jewish lobby to vilify him for what they saw as bias against Israel and inevitably, and expression of the American’s anti-Semitism. Eventually Boemsteenboer left Governor Bligh and Australia to return to his homeland.

For his part, Mordecai-Ryka’s smooth pathway through the corridors of power in Washington received a jolt when he was recalled from his post in Tel Aviv and denied a security clearance relating to irregularities in the handling of administrative matters under his charge. His star did eventually rise again, such was the determined nature of the Jewish political dealmaker, but he was much more chastened and wide-eyed about the world of politics second time round.

With Boemsteenboer and Mordecai-Ryka back in the US, although based in widely disparate parts of the country (both of them still “rusted-on” to their opposing ideological standpoints), the corridors of Governor Bligh University must seem a much more mundane and comparatively ho-humdrum milieu these days – especially in the Department of Political Science.

The Accidental Survivor: Part II

Bushwalking

Day 2

During what felt like a never-ending night I had heard ripples in the water, sounds made by small marine life I assumed. When first light arrived (around 6am), I was surprised to discover how close to the water I had decamped for the night. The spot on the sand where, overcome by fatigue, I had crashed in pitch darkness was about a metre away from one of the “natural pools”. Looking around at my surrounds in daylight I soon realised that this was not the old swimming holes as I had imagined the night before, rather it was just a wider part of the creek. Disappointed, I slowly gathered myself together and splashed water on my face to clear my head, and tried to figure out the best route from here. As I had come this far (how far was that exactly?), I felt that my best bet was to continue the search for the swimming holes, which according to the (now seriously compromised) guidebook map connected via an access path with the elevated walking track from which I had unwisely strayed. Once here I felt escape from this bush maze would be within easy access.

The Creek - sedate from without but deceptively unstable from within.
The Creek – sedate from without but deceptively unstable from within.

By now the seriousness of my situation was starting to kick in. I was undeniably stuck in this deep, unknown ravine and needed to find a way out. The bush on both sides of the creek looked very daunting with no favourable prospects for progress evident wherever I glanced. I pushed on nonetheless down the creekside in my original direction, but the path through the bush was so difficult that I eventually abandoned the “make a path” route and decided to try my chances in the creek bed itself.

The creek presented a different but equally arduous challenge. The rate of headway I was making was even slower than on land. My movements were ever so tentative as the creek was precarious and deceptive … my feet and shins made this discovery with painful clarity. Each forward step I made was taken with a degree of trepidation. The large stones and boulders, covered by thick coatings of moss at the end of each section of water, proved an incredibly slippery obstacle.

I lost count of the number of times I slipped and landed heavily in the water. Sometimes the only way forward was to climb over the large boulders which acted as natural dams curtailing the flow of water into a trickle at different points in the creek. From there I would continued on the creek floor, treading ever so warily because of the unseen submerged logs and large rocks, which despite my ultra-cautious approach, I would still regularly manage to hit with my shins. I soon discovered that wading through the entire length of the creek was not a possibility, as regularly I would walk, crab-like, across a long, flat rock platform and suddenly without warning the platform would end and plunge me into a two metre watery hole. I would find myself submerged, backpack and all, under the water, and forced to swim strenuously for a good 30 or 40 metres until I could again stand up. As I am not a strong swimmer, the more I had to do this, the more it was taking out of me physically, and also pushing my anxiety levels up.

Struggling to negotiate this hazardous water course, I started to entertain a new thought: what are the chances of drowning in this perilous creek? They seemed to be increasing the further I went. My misadventure had already prompted me to contemplate the prospect of meeting my quietus in this bush entanglement, but I had thought the most likely danger was expiring from thirst or perhaps from hypothermia. The thought of death by accident or misadventure in this stark environment, maybe something sneaking up on you unexpectedly, was a new anxiety, one that would revisit me again later this very day.

Soon after venturing into the creek I noticed a helicopter circling round in the approximate vicinity of the valley. As I had seen absolutely no one else anywhere along Glenbrook Creek since descending into this off-track jungle, I reasonably concluded that the helicopter must be searching for me. This reassured me somewhat and seemed to confirm that some of my emergency calls the previous day had been received or at least traced. My flagging spirits were uplifted a little, someone was aware that I had gotten myself lost, someone it appeared was looking for me. This optimism was to prove, in the end, without foundation. Nonetheless, for the time being, it did give me hope. Later on in my escapade things things looked much grimmer, although I can honestly say that I never really gave up hope, not then or at any point.

After an hour-and-a-half to two hours in the creek, struggling alternately to walk, tread water and swim, and finding nothing, I came to the conclusion that the swimming holes were either non-existent or the guide map had got their location very wrong. I decided to backtrack in the direction of the old ladder (where I had unhappily first entered this unforgiving stretch of ‘wildness’). As the day wore on, I became increasingly dehydrated, the sludgy, copper-metallic looking water in the creek was unprepossessing to the palate as well as the eye, so I decided drinking from it was not something I wanted to risk … not just yet (although I acknowledged to myself that this was a decision I might be forced to re-evaluate as I became more desperate for water).

When I got tired of trudging through the creek I switched to the far side bank and hacked my way through as best I could. All the while I was trying to see across the creek through the foliage to identify one of several distinctive markers or features that I had committed to memory on my initial trip down the creek. I was searching for some clue which would tell me I was close to the point at which I had made my entry on Wednesday. The problem here was that the only way I could get through the dense jungle of trees and bushes was by following the line of least resistance. This meant sometimes moving away from the creek, higher up the hillside where the thicket and shrubbery was not so all-invasive. From this position it was very difficult to get a sighter of the obscured creek, let alone the far side of the bank. As a consequence, I completely missed spotting any of the markers that I was relying on as my lodestars. Thinking that these distinctive features were much further downstream than I had originally imagined, I continued on along the creek, until I was far past the point where the old ladder was.

Discouraged by my failure to spot the target, I decided to turn back and head east once again. It was late afternoon by now. During the day I had had several sightings of the copter and also a light plane that seemed to be in search mode. Most of the time though, the aircraft were a long way from where I was. Something else about them was causing consternation, their search method: they was making wide, sweeping passes across the creek from one peak to the other and then taking a line down the contours of the mountain ridges which took them away from the creek. Now, I don’t profess any expertise in the area of ‘best practice’ search and rescue, but surely, common sense would say that (if they were looking for me), then the bush on the flanks of the valley was so dense and thick that there was zero chance of spotting anyone in the midst of such a boscage of foliage. When I first heard the copter overhead, I had decided to stay in or on the creek for as long as possible whilst walking. I reasoned that the best chance (the only chance realistically) of the copter spotting me was if I put myself in as open as possible position, ie, either in the water itself or on a clear area like a sandbar alongside the creek! But for some reason that I couldn’t fathom, the copter never once, in all the time it was hunting for me, attempted to search down the line of the creek itself!

Pausing on a sandbank for several minutes, I mused on some of the other implications of being isolated in the bush for an extended period. One consideration which I found mildly concerning was that I did not have my blood pressure tablets with me in the wilderness. At this time it wasn’t worrying me to miss a few days (I had done this before without concern) but I knew that I couldn’t go without my BP medication indefinitely, especially if my stress levels rose which was likely.

I decided to move off the sandbar and make for the upper slope to try to find a more manageable pathway through the bush. I got only 15 metres or so up the hill when I heard the copter again, this time however it was hovering high up but directly above the creek line. I scrambled back down to the sandbar and began waving my hat and bright blue backpack in the air to attract the copter’s attention, even trying to hoarsely shout out (I knew they wouldn’t be able to hear me but desperate straits drives you to try even the lowest of percentage chances!). It was to no avail, straight away the copter turned away from me and made a line for further west. I was left wondering if only I had stayed on the sandbar two minutes longer, would it have made the difference in the copter spotting me? Who knows, but this is just the sort of negative and futile idea that you naggingly cling to when one of the very few thin shreds of opportunity you had has just slipped through your fingers. The realisation had hit me by this time that I was trapped – and my options for escaping this trap seemed to be diminishing rapidly.

Disheartened at losing what I thought was a real chance of escaping the dilemma, I decided (wisely or unwisely) a different stratagem was required … I chose one which reflected my desperation. I was now convinced that the helicopter wasn’t going to find me, in my more delusional moments I may have even felt that they were not even trying to find me! I concluded that I had to find my own way out and couldn’t rely on external factors to do it. And I had to do it now! All I knew was that I did not want to spend another freezing night in the national park. The approach I decided on was a very direct one, I would charge up the nearest gradient on the northern side of the creek, which I knew was the direction of the walking track leading back to Blaxland, back to civilisation. With scant regard for myself, I set off. I didn’t care anymore about the likelihood of further damage the briar, bramble and other thorny bushes might do to my already tortured legs (my left leg with its ragged criss-cross pattern of scratches was already beginning to resemble the handiwork of a clumsy, blind tattooist!). Perhaps I was gripped by one of those atavistic urges that people find it trendy to reference these days, but, whatever, I was just intent at that moment on throwing myself wholeheartedly if recklessly into the tree-laden hillside. I was determined to reach the top and get free of the bush by nightfall!

Vertical rock-face followed by more vertical rock-faces.
Vertical rock-face followed by more vertical rock-faces.

After taking a circuitous route up the hill, I soon reached my first formidable barrier, a range of massive, stone-faced rocks. Everywhere I looked along the rocky range I could see only sharp vertical inclines, no easy, gradual ascent to the top revealed itself. After much deliberation, I decided on the route that seemed least hazardous. Somehow, going slowly, up and sideways, I managed to scramble to the top of these massifs, only to be confronted immediately with a next, higher level of stony cliff-faces! I scouted round the parameter of the base and eventually found an easier, lateral pathway up to a sort of ‘mezzanine’ level of rocks, which shortened the vertical portion of this climb.

I scrambled up the tree-lined hill with a determination now verging on desperation to reach my goal by nightfall. A third, sheer vertical incline of massive rock formations loomed into view. I contemplated my options for several minutes and again elected for the zig-zag approach to the top, up, sideways and up again. This time, the linear vertical incline portion of the cliff was longer than the previous ones, some 50 to 55 feet in length. I studied the rock-face, noting that the horizontal crevice lines in the rock were not at all pronounced, barely deep or wide enough to take the toe of a boot.

I psyched myself up to take on what I knew would be a Herculean task for a novice climber (let alone someone like me without any climbing experience whatsoever and without any equipment at all!). I slowly but determinedly started the ascent, miraculously I got about three-quarters of the way up, I won’t say I did it easily because that would give the wrong impression, but it seemed to be going OK. Steadying myself to take another step and grab, which would take me almost to the top, I noticed that the heel of my left foot was starting to come out of my boot. As I was precariously balanced on the vertical rock, I wasn’t game to reach down and try to nudge it back into the boot, I was fairly certain if I did, I would lose my balance, with predictable and dire consequences. I didn’t feel that I had any real choice about my next move, I knew I couldn’t hover there indefinitely and I wasn’t confident about reversing back down, so after a moment’s hesitation and deliberation, I took the next step up … one small step etc, but a disastrous one for this man! My left foot, half-in, half-out of the boot, couldn’t support itself in the narrow crevice, and with the boot working its way off, the leg gave way and I plummeted down. I was powerless to stop my descent, gravity and the rocky ground below controlled what would happen next.

If you are ever unlucky enough to find yourself in freefall like this, there isn’t time to think about anything much … its all happening so fast! If anything registers at all, it’s perhaps a kind of sense of unreality (like this can’t be actually happening to me!), and a feeling of anticipation, a dread of something bad. Then there’s a very sudden thud of body (your body!) connecting with solid ground. You are no longer moving rapidly, you’ve gone from 30km to 0 instantly, you have completely stopped dead, and you are left with a numbing sense of shock about what just happened. Well, that was my experience anyhow.

Although it all happened in a blink, when I had time later to reflect on it I could distinguish three separate stages in the trajectory of my fall: first, I immediately clipped the upper ridge of the cliff-face with my feet, then there was a second, much more solid contact (also with my feet) with a lower ridge on the rock-face, and finally, after involuntarily twisting my body around 180 degrees to be facing away from the cliff-face, I landed neatly on a flat stone step on my rump on the narrow path ledge below the rock-cliff. Because of the velocity that I was travelling at, I bounced off the step and was flung sideways on the path. Had I have bounced forwards rather than a lateral direction, I probably would have followed my detached boot which plunged down the hillside thirty metres or so to the floor of the ravine. The impact of my collision with the stone (cushioned a little by leaf litter ground cover) was taken squarely on my tailbone, but I instantly felt a very sharp shooting pain in my right side lower back – identified later by X-ray as around the L2 region.

I lay prone on the ground face-down for a couple of minutes in a state of shock, quite incredulous at what had happened. I checked myself, the pain at least was an indicator that I was not paralysed, and I was able to move. After gathering my wits and instinctively trying to come to terms with the enormity of what had occurred, I slowly got to my feet. I stared ruefully up at the vertical cliff-face, cogitating on the folly of what I had attempted. I did a bit of a mental calculation as to the likely distance I had fell. I wanted reassurance that the fall wasn’t as bad as I first thought. I considered the linear distance, I thought 30 feet, Ummm? I measured it again with my eyes. No, not 30 I muttered to myself, I had been too conservative in my estimate, no, it was probably more like 40, yes 40 feet! A chill went down my spine as I thought, God! 40 fucking feet!

As sobering a thought as this was, I didn’t really want to dwell on the disturbing implications of this realisation at that moment, and so I pushed any thoughts I had of dread to the back of my mind. I knew that later on there would be time to replay the traumatic and painful incident in my head over and over. All I knew right now was that I had been lucky (lucky to be still alive) … but maybe also not lucky (if it turned out I had sustained possibly a serious spinal injury).

Despite what had just occurred I was immediately gripped by a manic urge, possibly a subconsciously self-destructive one, to get straight back up there, to reach that cliff-top somehow, to not let myself be beaten by it. My haste to immediately try again wasn’t entirely an irrational response, there was a sense of urgency to my action … I knew I didn’t have any time to waste, I needed to reach the summit before dark and the night curtain was already starting to engulf the sky.

I started back up the vertical face from the same point I had just fallen from. This time though, when halfway through my ascent, I spotted a side route up to the top which looked less daunting than my original straight-up route which I already had just demonstrated was fraught with peril. Despite still feeling somewhat shaken from the fall I contemplated the merits of this alternate route. It involved jumping from the top of the rock I was perched on to another, slightly higher rock just over one metre away. Though easier than the sheer cliff-face I had still set myself a risky task that was very ‘hairy’ indeed. One small miscalculation could have been calamitous, missing the rock or bouncing off it would certainly result in another, this time more dangerous fall and quite conceivably a fatal one.

Fortunately I managed to make the jump unscathed and from there clamber up to the rock-face. I now found myself at an intermediate point in the rock-face, to get to the level ground of the top I still had to traverse another huge boulder, which I ungracefully did by dragging myself backwards with great effort, up the boulder using a thin tree (close by, precariously perched on the edge of a high drop) as leverage. With my back wedged against the massive, round rock, I used my feet (one shoe on, one shoe off) to slowly winch myself up the tree bit by bit. With enormous relief, I found myself at the top, or at least I thought I was at the summit.

I struggled through the thick underbrush on the upper slope of the rock-face but by now the light had deteriorated making visibility on the mountain an extremely ‘iffy’ proposition. I scouted round for somewhere to ‘crash’ for the night. There were no good prospects but hastily decided on a dicey patch of unstable ground on a rocky ledge. This was a place to rest rather than actually sleep for a couple of reasons. The precariousness of my perch wasn’t conducive to sleep. It was too uncomfortably rocky and the ground sloped away at the edges. I was exhausted enough to sleep but for most of the night I was repeatedly harassed by a particular pair of persistent mosquitoes working, it seemed, in tag-team unison on a mission to irritate and annoy! Also, being high up on a mountain, lightly clad and still wet from the creek, I was just too cold to sleep … and to compound my predicament it started to rain lightly which persisted through the night. Notwithstanding all of this, I was feeling strangely optimistic, buoyed by the sense that, finally, apparently, I was tangibly within reach of escaping this overgrown bush prison.