England won the Rugby World Cup. Fair play to them!

They did it after years of hope, disappointment and close-run affairs, close-run the wrong way for them. They promised so much and never delivered. They just didn’t have it, so said everyone. And they were installed as front-runners so often, presumably by commentators who only wanted to gloat when inevitably they blew it.

But this time- they didn’t. And everyone in Athenry can be delighted or mortified because, if it wasn’t for us, they’d never have done it. It’s Athenry’s Cup really, not theirs.

The seeds of England’s glory were sown on a hurling field in Connacht in 1987 when Athenry hurlers won the county final against the aristocrats of Galway hurling, Castlegar. It was a huge day for Athenry and it gave the inspiration to England’s rugby team, who have gone on to consign the British rugby aristocrats, Wales, to the same oblivion as Castlegar.

National success didn’t immediately come Athenry’s way.

We were obliterated by a Southern Hemisphere team, Midleton, in 1988 and wondered how we could ever win, since there would always be some heavyweight from the tri-nations of Cork, Tipp or Kilkenny, only waiting their turn to hammer us.

And so, it was with England’s rugby team, who had pinned their fate to ours with the same tenacity as a Fianna Fail TD clinging to his vote.

Australia beat them in Twickenham in 1991 and even when England beat one of the big three – Oz, New Zealand or South Africa), it took too much out of them and they were disposed of easily by one of the others with the disdain of an understrength crisis-ridden Kilkenny polishing off an unbeatable Galway.

Still, for the sake of both teams, Athenry plugged on. There were disasters. Dunloy overtook Athenry in an All-Ireland semi-final when it seemed that only the calendar stood between Athenry and the title. Athenry grieved, and so did England. Strong contenders in the 1999 World Cup, they had their tender parts well kicked by the drop goals of Jannie de Beer. It seemed to give the lie to Hollywood all right for the heroes, you don’t always have happy endings.

In this case, however, there was a dawn. Athenry finally succeeded- 3 times. England had been shown the way.

Hurling has its John Dentons and so rugby has its referee Watson, whose decisions almost cost England the prize. But England were unstoppable, they had learned gamesmanship, as we in Ireland know to our cost. (Of course, they didn’t learn that from Athenry).

Luck also favoured England. Whereas our own Eugene was once sidelined for a robust challenge, Wilkinson stayed on the field after a far more serious tackle – nearly taking an opponent’s shorts off. A try was averted and England are now World Champions.

They copied Athenry to the end- going to extra time as our hurlers did in their finest hour. It would be naive to expect those pompous English to admit the debt they owe to Athenry but our hurlers have the maturity to rise above this pettiness. After all, isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

Whether England can emulate Athenry’s achievements fully is another matter but, in November 2003 at the Telstra stadium in Sydney, Athenry can reflect on a job well done.

Paul Holland is a regular contributor to the Athenry Journal – Click on his name below for more of his articles!

Who could ever forget April 1986 and the day an explosion ruptured a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, sending radioactive fall-out around the world?

For people opposed to nuclear power, it was a case of “I told you so”. For myself, it was terrible – a glimpse of something that hung over us for decades – World War 3.

Chernobyl left the headlines, but the work of Irish people with Belarussian children, whose lives were blighted by the disaster, kept it in my mind.

l always had ideas of visiting the place and last summer on a visit to the Ukraine, my wish came true. I went for a day-trip with Valentina, my guide, and driver Sergei who was born and raised in Chernobyl.

Departing Kiev on the 16O-km journey north, I reflected that this city of 4 million might well have been empty now but for fortuitous winds at the time. The radioactive fall-out mainly hit rural areas of present-day Ukraine and Belarus, and a pocket south of Kiev. Disaster, yes – but nothing to what it could have been.

Ghost country

We drove through the beautiful farmland of Ukraine until we reached the roadblock and fence that marks the 30km exclusion zone. In no time, we were passing untended fields and derelict farm buildings. Side-roads were turning green under the encroaching vegetation. The only permanent residents are about 300 older people who preferred living in radiation at home to living in exile. They grow their gardens and are helped by regular food deliveries from outside.

Thousands of people work in the area monitoring the environment and the stricken reactor. But the radiation level is too high for safety, so work schedules are for 2 weeks, followed by 2 weeks outside the area. Every year, workers undergo a full medical examination.

Then it was on to the reactor complex. There were 3 working reactors besides the doomed No.4. Units 5 and 6 were built but never commissioned. Now, work is proceeding to dismantle all the units. Nos. 3 and 4 shared a common smokestack.

Keeping it stable is a constant priority. Dismantling No.4 will happen when the technology to do so safely is developed. Right now, it’s a learning curve.

The remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after the explosion. Photograph: AP

Poison debris

The doomed reactor core has been partially probed but 75% of it remains hidden. Inside, there is a cocktail of fuel rods, nuclear waste, concrete and other chemicals. Fission and other reactions still generate heat, and radiation. Water, whether from rain or condensation, is a hazard because it leaches out poisonous waste, initiates chemical reactions and causes cracks to form in the entombed debris.

The interior is regularly sprayed with foam to keep down radioactive dust. Rain and the weather are excluded by a sarcophagus made of metal and concrete but serious leakages are happening due to deterioration of the structure. Work on a new sarcophagus is proceeding as a matter of urgency.

Any radioactive debris that could be collected has been lodged in over ground and under ground repositories. This includes a few hundred trees, which withered and died after the accident.

These storage facilities are safe for a 100 years and after that, as one technician remarked, ”lt’s our grandchildren’s problem”.


A few km from the reactor complex lies the ghost city of Pripyat, once home to 50,000 people. A typical Soviet city, it has its tower blocks, bus stops, telephone kiosks, shops and a hotel. The trees are untended, weeds are growing in the streets and the square is overrun with shrubs. The Chernobyl station director had a luxury apartment here. He swapped it for 5 years in a more basic one. On one apartment you can still read a notice proclaiming that “the victory of Communism is at hand”.

In the terrible days of 1986, this city and hundreds of villages were evacuated, never to be re-settled. In came the looters to take anything that wasn’t nailed down, and plenty that was. Fridges, Televisions went on sale to unsuspecting customers who didn’t realise just what a red-hot bargain they were getting.

Heading home, we drove by a huge radar complex, a relic of the Soviet space programme, looted and deserted. We also took to the side-roads to see a few small towns and deserted villages that nature is rapidly reclaiming. Toys lay strewn in a children’s playground. I stood uninvited in a kitchen and thought of its departed owners.

At the boundary fence, we got a radiation check.

Why did it happen I asked my guides? They didn’t know – maybe an experiment, human error or maybe it was just a shoddy reactor. One good thing though, the cleanup has been a huge technological learning experience for the entire world and if energy shortages ever force widespread use of nuclear energy, we’ll be better equipped to handle it safely.

More about this disaster:The truth about Chernobyl? I saw it with my own eyes…
Kim Willsher  Reported on the world’s worst nuclear disaster from the Soviet Union in   www.theguardian.com – Sun 16 Jun 2019 10.00 CEST

Gerardus Mercator‘s map of the North Pole from 1595

It was surreal – I felt as if we were sneaking out of Spitsbergen when we boarded the midnight helicopter which was to ferry us to the Yamal about 40 miles away. Nuclear-powered ships aren’t allowed dock in Spitsbergen but if you want to reach the North Pole, Yamal is the only ship guaranteed to take you there.

From the air, our ship looked unremarkable except for its red colour (reminding me of the Golden Gate). Only as we approached to land did its size become apparent- an absolute colossus, 23,000 tonnes and its nuclear engines packing 75,000 horsepower. lt’s a match for any ice bar the Ross Ice Shelf.

Next morning, I was on deck just in time to see the approaching pack ice. Some years ago, that was where my Spitsbergen trip ended. Yama| barely slowed, crashing through like a bulldozer that handles like a sports car. Cracks in the ice radiated off towards the horizon.

Spectacular views

You get some huge views from the upper decks so I noted for the first day or so that there were quite a few areas of open water and indeed, we often availed of it to make faster progress. But generally we were breaking through ice. It was constant thunder initially and once or twice I looked up to see where the fighter jet was. Further north, where there were more snowfalls and maybe different ice quality, it was more of a muffled crumpling sound. Many times, I went deep down inside the ship to simply sit and listen. Imagine yourself by a log fire at night, with a storm blowing outside- on a night like that, I’ll always be on the Yamal.

Going north, we often travelled through a flat snowscape where you couldn‘t tell sky from horizon. Sometimes, everything disappeared in a snowfall. Often, you had sunshine and could admire the ice ridges, meandering lines of glistening white and blue spires – hundreds of them- stretching as far as the eye could see. They were anything from a metre to ten metres high.

Seabirds fly

We weren’t always alone. Seabirds occasionally followed the fish, maybe feeding in the water exposed in its wake. We saw plenty of polar bears, on one occasion mum and two cubs, and even if bears weren’t around, we saw their tracks in the snow. Under the breaking ice you could see algae.

At times, the ice was particularly tough and it took three or four runs against it to break a path through but we never retreated and, finally, to the sound of the ship’s hooter, we ground to a halt at the North Pole. It was midnight.

Amazingly, the sky cleared, the sun shone and everybody was crying and hugging everybody else. A solitary kittiwake flew by the bridge. We parked for a few hours’ sleep. Next morning, we descended onto the ice. I walked behind an ice pinnacle out of sight of the ship into a white world that had neither direction nor distance.

Climbing even the smallest ridges was a marathon. Back nearer the ship, we took a zodiac ride on some peaceful open water. Everybody celebrated in his or her own way. I took a polar dip – finding the water warmer (!) than the air. The American passengers played a baseball game.

The weather shifted continuously from snow to blue skies to grey cloud and back again. Fortunately, no high winds or wind chill.


Helicopter flight

Our trip “home” to Spitsbergen took us through Franz Josef Land. Unlike the incredible peaks of Spitsbergen, it’s mainly a set of sinister low islands, rounded and smoothed by glaciation into snow domes. We landed here by helicopter. I will always remember one particularly beautiful flight over the mountains, down along a snowfield to the melting sea.

We cut through the pack ice and the Yamal nosed its way – as if it was a gondola – right up next to Rubini Rock, a sheer basalt cliff. From the bow, we looked up and downwards at the nesting sites of about 750,000 birds – auks, guillemots, kittiwakes and others. We were fanned by flying wings, deafened by the chatter and some of us were hit by organic confetti.


There were other cliffs, flights and landings in soggy tundra or cindered slopes. But one dinghy ride stands out. It was midnight Arctic stillness and we drove by ice floes and gleaming snowy islands. We stopped in silence to observe a giant walrus polluting the ice a few metres away. Abruptly, our expedition doctor asked to go ashore – anywhere- as his bladder was in imminent danger of bursting. Impossible – the shorelines were frozen – so he relieved himself over the side while we all studiously looked the other way. Surreal!

Paul Holland is a Secondary School Teacher who delights in exploring unusual world environments.

This Author takes a look at the massive advancements taking place in the world of communicatins.

It’s not just one gender that likes to gossip. What after all is gossip but an exchange of data? And data takes many forms, whether it’s information about your neighbours, the stock exchange, the hurling results or the sonic boom that my nieces call music. Like it or not, we love data and, if better methods of exchanging it become available, we’ll be attracted to them like flies to cow-dung.

There are plenty of flies in the Western world who simply can’t get enough of communications, and when you consider the fact that half of the world’s population hasn’t made or received a phone call, you‘d have to admit that fair play alone means that communications will have to expand. Whether it’s driven by godliness or greed, the information revolution is sure to continue.

Even if it was only to summon a witch doctor, information has had to be carried for as long as we‘ve been here. Horses and pigeons were pressed into service and with the faster transmission of data for administrative purposes it became possible for countries as we know them to develop. How long do you think we in Athenry would take orders from distant Dublin if we were back in mud huts and not a horse was available?

Smoke signals

But news still travelled slowly in bygone days and, even when messages were delivered, how many could read or understand them? I think the Red Indians stole a march on us all with their smoke signaIs – anybody could understand them and the signal travelled at the speed of light. We caught up. We invented the telegraph and the telephone. Radio and television came in the last century.

Nobody could have predicted their impact. Whereas they started out as a means of improving trade and government, or providing entertainment for the masses, their true effect ran deeper. Information no longer came directly from the Oracle, whether that was Church or government. It flowed between people themselves- you could say they were empowered. True, repressive regimes controlled the media and tapped people’s phones but, as we’ve seen in recent decades, history is a tide you can‘t turn.

Frightening changes

Juda,s in a film, berated Christ for starting his mission in an era with no mass communications but how might Christ have fared in the glare of a critical media and informed population? Things would have turned out differently. A lot of us are frightened now – particularly if we’re thirty years or older – because by God, the future will be different from anything we know.


Ask anybody what the biggest communication upheaval has been in recent years and the answer would probably be the internet. The concept isn’t new. Its really thousands of computers linked together by phone lines and it’s global.  It’s more than a means of reading articles or downloading music. Nowadays it’s the channel through businesses place and receive orders, advertise their wares and look for employees. You write your letters and consult your electronic nurse with problems you might be too embarrassed to confide to a live one. You chat with people (not always a good idea). Banks do their business by computer to the point of over-dependence. Air traffic control, environmental monitoring and news of famines come through computers.

With so much being done by computers, one major benefit has been improved efficiency. The amount of air travel today couldn’t be sustained without them. Any time there’s a blip on the computers near Heathrow, millions of travellers are delayed. More and more shopping is done on the Internet. Many high-street stores in Britain now have an internet-shopping facility. It’s only a matter of time before the high-street facility closes.

What does that do for employment and property values?


A lot of office work can now be done on the home computer. More people book their flights on the Internet. Did I say flights? High-flying executives will make increasing use of video link-ups for meetings and may one day forgo that tedious flight to Brussels or critical media and informed population or wherever. Taken to its logical conclusion, we might well be looking at emptier roads and desolate airports before long.

A lot of this could have happened and didn’t. It would appear that people still like to get out and mix – the shopping trip being an excuse for socialising. However, there is a growing insularity in people. How many of us have a neighbour we don’t know? A week ago, I visited a pub and shared the counter with a bunch of people, all yelling into mobile phones. This was after I had been bumped into about a dozen times by robots talking to themselves….l mean, the mobile. With face-to-face contact well on the mobile phone trend can only continue.

And, maybe that is a good thing. No more need for phone lines, which means everybody on earth will be in reach.

We’ll still need phone lines or broadband or optic cables for computers but that won’t last. Although the technology is young and having plenty of problems, computers and mobile phones will eventually be linked by satellite. The only cables left will be electricity cables – no way around that, l’m afraid.

As computers become faster and more reliable, people will stop wasting paper. You’ll read your books off the internet – the only reason this hasn’t caught on is that publishers haven’t found a way of preventing illegal copying and distribution – yet.

Hi tech future

Long-term, what do I expect? Well, it won’t be long before we have a “digital device” in your house that will be aTV, radio, computer, shopping counter and a system for controlling your cooker, central heating, air-conditioning and alarms.

Expect credit cards, ID cards, pension books to go. You’ll probably be able to push your finger into a slot (a fingerprint is ID enough) any time you buy something, enter a club or cross a border. Expect cash to disappear. It’s a truism to say that traditional jobs will go but, honestly, who would lament some of the jobs that are now history?

And privacy? Yes, but we’ll lose and gain there. With the global village becoming a reality, we could well see world government, particularly with the global move towards learning English.


Society will change. But one thing won’t – our ability to misuse things. Porn on the Internet, nuisance phone calls, John Rusnaks, party propaganda on envelopes…..the day that ends will indeed be the Last Day.

Outside our world are millions of light years of Universe. Maybe it beckons to us but one thing is certain – we’ll never control it as we did the Earth until we have faster-than-light communications. That, truly, is the next hurdle.

Paul Holland is a teacher in Presentation College, Galway and has travelled widely.

Croagh Park in the 1950s

Sometimes I wonder if God, or maybe a G.A.A. supporter no longer with us, puts something in our way when our efforts come to nought and hope has all but died. Or is it some demon, fiendishly frustrating the honest toil of others to reach the promised land, that hands you the key to the green pasture just to watch the anguish of people, more deserving than you, turning maroon with envy?

Or maybe it’s the plain probability which dictates that you’ll be missed by a million bolts of lightning just to be incinerated by the million and first.

I had barely joined the frenzy, partly because I knew a hopeless cause when I saw one. And, miraculously, on the wings of flying forwards and back doors unlocked, the phone rang and a voice said; “If I was to get you a ticket for the Galway- Meath game, would you go?” In the name of the G.A.A. and the dead generations, yes!

It was years since I had been to Croke Park on All-Ireland day and my first thought, sitting in the Upper Cusack with a breeze blowing across me, was that this was sure better than watching through that hole in the fence we call a television in a darkened living room or smoke-filled pub. And, when you see the big picture, you know what a lousy sod the ref is with none of those annoying close-ups or action replays to suggest that he might actually be right sometimes.

Yet, as the game unfolded and my horror at Galway misses grew, my mind started to go back in time to 1964, in fact …

It was one of the most exciting days of my life. My first visit to Croke Park when my age had just reached 2 digits. I was in the company of my late father and it was the All-Ireland semi-final between Galway and Meath.

What struck me was the clarity of that resurrected memory, no doubt stimulated by what was happening before me. A beautiful day. Same colours. Galway, going forward, patiently moving the ball around, doing best when they kept it low. Their frustrating wides, but undeniable talent and dedication.

And Meath? Tough and fair. At times living on nothing. Absolute masters of the high ball and clinical (or murderous, take your pick) finishers.

Galway edged it on the day and went on for the 3 in a row. But when Meath emerged to win the title in 1967, there were few people more satisfied than many Galway supporters (and particularly my father) who simply saw a good team finally getting their reward.

But I was back in the present and gradually the ghosts of the 6Os were taking to the field again. Galway were pulling away. It wasn’t 3 in a row but 2 out of 4 years wasn’t bad!

It’s been 37 years since I first saw Galway and Meath play and, in spite of revolutionary coaching methods, competition from other codes and the stifling rat-race of the Celtic Tiger, their basic footballing styles haven’t changed. Maybe it’s history repeating itself or maybe it’s one comforting bit of constancy in a changing world.

I’m one of that vile species called secondary teachers. Midway through the awful year of 2000/2001, I thought it might be appropriate to book a tour to a place that has seen enough conflict over the centuries to make our own dispute less than a footnote- Georgia, of the former USSR.

Georgia is dominated by the Caucasus mountains- a chain pushed up by the same processes that formed the Himalayas. The only difference between these ranges is their respective heights. In every other way, dusty valleys, alpine meadows, forested slopes and snowy peaks- you have little to choose between Pakistan and Georgia.

And there the similarities end. But for the fact that Stalin was born there, none of us would have heard of Georgia until the USSR broke up some years ago. Of all the old republics, Georgia was one fairly well placed to go it alone. It had oil-lots of it, minerals, timber, a thriving wine industry and an able leader from the old Kremlin, Eduard Shevardnadze. So far, however, it’s been a story of exploitation by foreign entrepreneurs or the country’s own leaders. The average Georgian is probably poorer now than 20 years ago.

Our trip to Georgia began in the capital Tbilisi, a green city in the mountains. In the old Soviet days, a ride up the funicular railway for a spectacular view was mandatory- now it’s closed. There’s no money to keep it open. Then there’s the Metro. Built in 1967, it’s a pale shadow of the Moscow subway, but it works. Still open are the Museum of Fine Art and the State Museum.

Tbilisi Funicular, Tbilisi, Georgia – abeonatravel.ge

There are money exchanges that conduct their business with absolutely no hassle. And there are the churches. Georgia is full of them. Some are in ruins. Some are hidden in cities or forests. Some are on mountaintops, requiring you to walk for hours to reach them. They are all Orthodox churches, poky and dark inside, with spires like obese candles. Many of them are taller than they are broad. But, inside them, you have the beautiful frescoes and paintings of every New Testament scene. You’ll see the distinctive Georgian crosses with their drooping arms and even if you’re a total non-believer, you’ll find yourself lighting candles. I must have lit a candle for every one of my dead forebears and a few more besides …

Later in the trip, I visited some old cave towns set in bare rock hills near the Turkish border. And, sure enough, there were the inevitable frescoes.

One day, after an idyllic mountain drive, we went right up to the border with one of Georgia’s breakaway regions. These areas are effectively under Russian control and will remain that way unless Georgia reasserts its claim to them and brings the hell of warfare down on itself again. Chechnya isn’t far from here. We didn’t linger at this frontier, let alone cross it- Rarely have I seen border guards exude such menace. Another time, maybe.

No trip to Georgia is complete without a visit to Gori and the Stalin Museum. I was almost aghast to see the man portrayed as a hero. The museum consists of pictures, documents and other bits and pieces e.g. railway carriages, depicting the great man’s life and achievements. You get a guided tour and after an hour-long talk, in which the words ‘purge’ and ‘gulag’ are omitted, you’ll think he’s a hero too. Georgia apparently escaped the worst of his excesses- the word is that he was afraid of what his mother would have to say to him.

We saw the ancient Hellenistic city of Vani, destroyed by Mithridates who was later crushed by the Romans. And lots, lots more … Our guide was the lovely Markka. She was a little girl when the Soviet Empire was imploding. One week, she and her sister were at a pioneer camp when fierce fighting began. They were brought home by a circuitous route to their parents in Tbilisi, who had feared they were dead. All too often in Georgia, and not just Georgia, that’s a nightmare that came true.

Nearly a quarter century ago, in another publication, I wrote about a rail trip from Moscow across Siberia to Mongolia and China. At the time, I was aware of an alternative route which the Russians and Chinese had jointly planned – one would be able to rail southeast from Moscow across the Volga into Central Asia and onwards to Urumchi in Western China.

Druzhba Sanatorium – Greyscape

The Soviets brought the railway to the new border post at Druzhba (Friendship) in 1961 and there the dream ended. The Sino-Soviet rift erupted and relations plunged to a nadir in the 60s, with the Cultural Revolution and murderous border clashes.

The railway was completed but the service was not inaugurated. Not until Gorbachev and Glasnost. By the time I got aboard, it was a truly international service, spanning 4 countries. Moscow was no longer the austere egalitarian city of my 70s visits. Now it was a traffic-choked haunt of nouveau- millionaires and nouveau-beggars. The sight of 2 old women in dirty overcoats singing in the Metro for a few roubles saddened me- in another time, they’d have had some boon-doggle job and enough to survive on. In short, some dignity.

My train slunk out of the city late one summer night. I woke the next morning as we crawled almost at walking pace through the dreary steppe. There were log cabins, without water or power. Farmland and trees came and went. One time, I waved to a group of women railway labourers (Some things hadn’t changed, after all). We crossed the wideVolga and through an industrial city. It was a place of chimneys and grey apartment mountains. ln a place of such unspeakable ugliness, the sheer lack of stimulation would either mean that your imagination took off and you became an artist or you gave up and became an alcoholic. Russia has plenty of both.

I’m not sure when I left Russia. If there was a border marker, I missed it.

One night, I stood at the door as we cruised through the desert. It should have been a lakeside journey. Out there, many miles away below the horizon, was what was left of the Aral Sea. It’s feeder rivers had long ago been diverted to the cotton-fields, leaving behind an ecological disaster to rival Chernobyl.

The dining car was sometimes open. One day, I got the entire menu- some vile canned meat- and wasn’t charged for it. I guess the Russians pitied me for my stupidity. Anyone with intelligence had stocked up on food in Moscow. Well, I was overweight at the time so. . ..

The scenery was now desert or semidesert. The towns took on a Middle Eastern appearance. Mosques abounded. When I jumped from the train in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, I was exuberant. Central Asia was the real goal of my journey. The flat steppe stretched forever. The sun always shone. The irrigated fields were full of crops and I forgot about the Aral Sea.

For many days, I explored the cities of Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand with its famous Registan Square. There is only one thing to see- the glorious blue domes. Some are huge. Some are small. Many of them are falling down but many more are restored. Beneath them you can have markets, mosques, dwellings and palaces. And here, at last, I could eat the food again.

Many people here felt a sense of loss at the Soviet break-up. Being part of a superpower meant you were somebody and going it alone isn’t easy. One lady, a former Intourist guide, still couldn’t accept the fact that she now needed a passport to go to Moscow. But the USSR is dead, and nobody doubts it.

My final call in the old USSR was Almaty, capital of Kazakhstan. The Russian Concorde used fly here one time. A green city with an amazing wooden cathedral. Music played in the square. Outside the city, steep slopes lead to snow-clad mountains.

Back on a dreadful train, with almost opaque windows and it was through farmland, hills, barren plains with miserable towns, lakes and swamps. Then in the distance across the stony desert, I saw a gap miles wide between 2 mountain ranges. Marco Polo saw the same gap, the Dzungarian Gate, the ancient entrance to China.

Marco Polo probably suffered. So did I. From arriving in Dostyk (formerly Druzhba) on the Kazak side to departing Aleyshenko on the Chinese side (where a few people got AIDS tests) took 10 hours.

That didn’t matter. Within hours, I was in typical Far Eastern farmland where not a metre of ground was left unused. Urumchi, the first major city, was quiet by Chinese standards. Signs are in Chinese and Uigur, an Arabic-looking script. I quickly learned that this wasn’t really China at all. The Uigurs are a distinctive race of people and some of them have aspirations to independence.

The journey out of Urumchi took me through glorious desert. Unlike Central Asia, this desert is almost empty of settlements. I snapped pictures all day long until a guard who questioned me severely in Chinese, which I didn’t understand, visited me. My camera had to be put away, on pain of I’m not sure what. Later on, I was told that we had been in the area where China tests its nuclear weapons.

Ahead of me loomed Jin Yu Gian with its pagodas and, amazingly, the train ran through a gap in the Great Wall of China.

I was still way out west but the pilgrimage part of the trip was over. I was in fertile land with teeming millions of people. The Yellow (should it be Orange?) River slid by. Vendors sold food on the station platforms and never did I miss a stop thanks to the kindness and concern of my Chinese fellow passengers. I had some days in Sian with its terracotta army, among other things. It was then southwards for a few days before an English-style high-speed train landed me in Hong Kong.

That was the end of the line. It was Heaven. It was Hell. I wouldn’t have had it any other way!

August 2000, I toured Tasmania in a hired car. It’s a land where the road often takes you through endless forest and national park. Driving there at dusk, I had the privilege of seeing Wallabies, Wombats, Tasmanian devils and many other creatures but not the one everybody prays to see- the thylacine.

It’s known by many names- the Tasmanian tiger, Tasmanian wolf, hyena or simply Tassie, to name but a few- and it’s Australia’s version of the Loch Ness monster.

Thousands of years ago, the thylacine was found as far north as New Guinea- this is established from the fossil record and aboriginal cave paintings.

The average adult was nearly 2 metres long, including the tail, and stood slightly over half a metre high. It had the head of a dog, the rear end of a kangaroo with its Un-waggable tail and dark stripes down its back- hence the name tiger.

The thylacine was a hunter, usually operating by itself or in small groups. Speed wasn’t its forte- normally it relied on stealth to catch its prey. The mother carried its young in a pouch and later trained them into the gentle art of killing for a living.

When the aborigines introduced the dingo as a companion, the writing was on the wall for the thylacine. It couldn’t compete against the pack-hunting skill of the dingo nor, presumably would it do well in any unfriendly encounters.

The rising sea provided a refuge. Tasmania became separated from Australia before dingoes penetrated that far south. The job of annihilating the thylacine was left to the white settlers- many of them probably distant relations of you and I who came on involuntary assisted passages to Van Dieman’s land.

As the forests were cleared for farming, white people saw the thylacine for the first time. Apparently, they were never numerous but their liking for sheep, an easy prey, soon made them a target. In the late 1800s, they attracted a £1 bounty (big money at the time). Sadly, in retrospect, we now know that Tassie was often made a convenient scapegoat for sheep-stealers and packs of uncontrolled dogs. Tiger skins were much in demand.

European and Australian zoos took more than their fair share of thylacines, all of which died in captivity. They made poor prisoners, not thriving or breeding behind bars. The last one died in 1936. Also, around that time, disease decimated most of Tasmania’s marsupials. Fortunately, the other species recovered. Not Tassie.

In 1936, the thylacine was declared a fully protected species. It was probably too late. Not a single verified live animal has been seen since then. Cameras have been placed in woodlands. Expeditions have taken place, with no success. Nevertheless, individual reports of fleeting sightings persist. Strange footprints, strange sounds, dogs recoiling in terror from an unseen enemy, kills of livestock that don’t fit a normal pattern …

To me, it’s the Loch Ness monster story all over again. But- the size and inaccessibility of Tasmania’s national parks are not to be underestimated- maybe the thylacine is making a slow recovery and, if it has any intelligence, it’ll stay well away from people.

So, why not take a drive around Tasmania? There’s a huge reward for anybody who can prove that the thylacine still exists. However, don’t catch one under your wheels or the reward might be for anybody who could throttle you!

Hope Bay Antartica

I got to tour Antarctica through a combination of a long Christmas holiday (rare) and a very strong Irish punt (rarer). So, the day I sailed out of steaming Buenos Aires for the ice further south was one day I was immensely contented with my lot.

The weather was glorious and the Plate estuary like glass. Rising up from the ocean in the distance was the mountain that overlooked Montevideo. I took a good look- this was going to be our last look at mainstream civilisation for a few weeks.

The ship ploughed its way southwards. Gradually, the air got cool and the sea heavy. Wandering albatross veered and dived ahead of us for hours at a time, never once, it seemed, flapping their wings.

We stopped in the Falklands for a day or so. A place of windswept moors and mountains, thousands of penguins and old minefields. But that’s all another story …

We soon met the Antarctic Convergence, where Antarctica is said to begin. This is the region where cold waters from the continent encounter the warmer ocean. The result, in our case, was a pea-soup fog. Standing on deck without winter gear wasn’t an option any longer.

As we approached the Antarctic mainland, the skies cleared and 24-hour daylight descended. Soon we were seeing monstrous icebergs and, with monotonous regularity, whales. Mountains rose from vast snowscapes as we made our first stop at Hope Bay.

Generally, the ship anchored offshore and a small fleet of inflatable landing craft ferried us to a designated area. You returned to the ship when you felt like it. The boat crews marked out how far inland you could go and enforced the limits strictly- I still have a sore ear from the rollicking I got the day that I ignored instructions and set off up a mountain. The threat of confinement to the ship kept manners on me for the rest of the voyage.

Hope Bay was a pebbly beach populated by thousands of Adelie penguins. Many of them were nursing mothers. Some penguins lay prostrate- their way of cooling off. High overhead, skuas waited their chance to seize young or weak birds while, offshore, seals waited for their prey to enter the water which, eventually, they would have to do.

Over the next several days, we weaved through icebergs, by sea stacks and cliffs to different landing places. And, always, there was the incredible wildlife- millions of penguins of all types, seals, whales, dolphins, albatross. . ..

Deception Island is in fact an old volcano with a collapsed wall. The ground and slopes are covered by black volcanic ash. Old whaling facilities and the remnants of an airstrip litter the shoreline. Here, I received a bloody head from a dive—bombing tern- I had probably wandered too near its nest. Here, as well, I had my only swim in Antarctica. The water temperature varied from freezing to boiling near the volcanic vents.

We drifted on. Eventually, we travelled down the beautiful Lemaire Channel, a place of plunging ice-cliffs, glaciers and soaring mountains. At the end of the channel was a set of dome-shaped islands and a seascape of broken ice floes.

Many countries maintain bases in Antarctica for research, but also for political reasons. The Argentinians once brought a woman to Antarctica to have her baby, and so bolster a territorial claim. Not so well known is that Britain and Argentina traded fire here, well before the Falklands war.

One day, I visited a base- about the size of a bungalow. There, in damp Spartan conditions, were a Scots lassie and some Argentinians on a 3-month stint. They showed me Antarctic moss and grass growing in the dripping crevices. Behind them were hills and, in the distance, the white haze of a frozen continent.

Our first disappointment was a landing which had to be cancelled because a bay was completely frozen over. This was, ironically, in a region known as Antarctica’s Riviera.

Further north, in the South Shetlands, I went ashore on a crescent-shaped island. Out of nowhere, gales blew up and the sea heaved. We raced for the landing craft and it took skill on the part of the crews to get us back on the ship. Most of the tour group didn’t get ashore at all and we all sailed away, exhilarated or deeply disappointed.

It was bye bye Antarctica! We headed north, past Cape Horn, around Tierra del Fuego, through the Drake Passage and Straits of Magellan to the tranquil port of Punta Arenas in Chile. From there, it was a series of flights back home. As yet, Antarctica hasn’t been mined for oil or minerals but fuel crises will probably change that. Moreover, global warming may already be affecting the ecology there. So, I would say, go there while it’s still paradise, albeit an unforgiving one.

Quinetra or Kunetra in the Golan Heights

Kuneitra is a small city located in the Syrian Golan Heights. It borders the no man’s land between Syria and the Israelis.

Getting to Kuneitra requires advance permission from the Syrian authorities and money to pay for the taxis that will take you the 30 odd miles into the gunsights of the Israelis. I went there at the end of a 2 week trip to Syria and Lebanon.

Kuneitra region is populated by people who came from the Caucasus about a century ago. The town was once a thriving centre, the “Pearl of the Golan” for the Syrians. It also became an armed centre in the 1950s and 60s with the establishment of Israel. The sounds of gunfire became as familiar as those of the traders.

In 1967, the Israeli Anny stormed the Golan Heights and captured Kuneitra. The Syrians recaptured it in the l973 Yom Kippur War. The Israelis retook it. Finally, with a little encouragement from Henry Kissinger (the U.S. state secretary), the Israelis handed back a portion of the Golan Heights, Kuneitra included. The pearl of the Golan was now but a shadow of its former self.

I was thinking of all this as we drove out of bustling Damascus and headed into the green open plateau of the Golan where the black basalt sometimes extruded. Village after village went by and, very soon, the first roadblock appeared. I was fine as I had my passport and slip of paper.

More villages, yet another roadblock and then we rounded a bend. To the front and right were the lovely slopes of Mt Hermon, a supposed site of Christ’s Transfiguration. On the rises to the front and left, a mile distant, we saw Israeli wind machines and communication dishes. In between lay the ruins of Kuneitra.

According to the Israelis, Kuneitra was simply destroyed by the wars. However, it is also known that Israel used Kuneitra when they trained Idi Aminis forces in street-to-street fighting in the early l970s. According to Syria, Israel handed back Kunietra but only after they had stripped it of wires, windows, furniture and fittings and then demolished it.

It hasn’t been rebuilt. Much of its population are housed in new villages further back the road towards Damascus. It makes sense Rebuilding Kunietra will be a huge task. Doing so a few hundred metres from the Israelis, with no final peace deal signed and further conflict always a possibility, might not be a good idea. Besides, there is a certain pride in that Syria will not rebuild the regional capital while the Golan is still dismembered. In the meantime, it is a Mecca for day—trippers from the local villages.

Our first stop was the Golan hospital, where we walked the ruined wards. One of the outer walls was pitted with bullet holes from the time when Israeli soldiers allegedly used it for target practice. We drove past dozens of houses, all collapsed like packs of cards. Grass encroached on the roads and bushes grew wild. Further on, we saw the intact shell of the Christian church, its spire scored by bomb fragments.

The city centre is recognisable, even if it’s only a set of hollow buildings. A series of shops wait for their next customers and the mosque looks like it only needs a lick of paint and some carpets. Nearby is the cinema. So is the cemetery.

Incredibly, in this ghost city, there were two houses with people living in them. According to my taxi guide, the Israelis originally gave people the choice of living under them or retreating into Syria. Either way, they had to abandon Kuneitra. When the city returned to Syrian rule, it was not repopulated. These people defied everybody and were rewarded by President Assad, who helped them rebuild their homes.

Finally, we reached two roadblocks with about 200 metres of two-lane roadway in between. Barbed wire stretched in both directions. The only people who can go any further here are UN personnel and sometimes brides heading off to a new life in Israeli-occupied Golan.

It was all so quiet and peaceful but it was the quiet of a graveyard. Was this what it was like in Athenry after it had been sacked by Hugh 0’Donnell 400 years ago?

I had been expecting vitriolic anti-Zionist propaganda from my taxi guide, a native of the Golan region. Instead, most of his commentary was matter-of-fact and hopeful for the future. He recalled his eternal gratitude to some Israelis. One day, out shooting, he brought down a bird which fell to Earth on the wrong side of the frontier fence. Up sped an Israeli patrol which retrieved the bird and flung it to him over a minefield.

On another occasion, his farmer parents were alarmed by gunfire from the other side. It turned out that some of their livestock had strayed close to a mined region and the Israeli border guards had fired the shots to scare them away.

Elsewhere in the Golan, separated families often talk to one another using loud hailers. With the movement towards peace in the Middle East, let’s hope that pretty soon these people can put their loud-hailers away and that maybe the rest of us might enjoy an open duty-free at Kuneitra Israel-Syria border.