The Road to Damascus

Given the evidence of the past eighty years, and especially this past week, it’s difficult to imagine the Middle East has ever known peace. Yet when these words were written in 1926, Beirut and Damascus were recommended to well-heeled tourists looking for an exotic travel experience.

M_BeirutBeirut …. [is a] busy port and a flourishing Syrian town. The visitor sees evidence of this in the fine harbour, the shipping, the commercial buildings and busy streets. But the East is ever present in the native portions of the population with the varied costumes and dwellings. Beirut has its good hotels, fine buildings and a stately Government House from the roof of which one gets a glorious view of the Mountains of Lebanon and the beautiful surroundings to the town.

M_desertThe Lebanon Mountains and plains between provide scenery of remarkable beauty. Contrasting indeed is that apparently trackless waste, the Syrian Desert. Hot, dry and desolate, at times there is practically no vegitation, while after rain, the desert becomes an almost impassable quagmire. On occasions bands of Bedouin horsemen spring seemingly from nowhere, friendly or otherwise, to disappear as quickly as they came. Camel caravans set out to cross this uninviting area, but for the 600-mile journey to Bagdad the motor transport is preferable to the traveller. The cars start from Beirut, additional passengers being picked up at Damascus.

M_olivesThe ancient capital of Syria is set in delightful surroundings, the minarets and domes rising above the white-terraced roofs completing a picture of impressive beauty. Entering Damascus, most of the streets are narrow and ill-kept, while the houses are in a state of dilapidation. But there are many places of interest; the magnificent Great Mosque, the Mosque of the Whirling Dervishes and numerous others. The bazaars also are particularly attractive. Damascus has of course much association with Biblical history. The traveller can pass along the famous ‘Street called Straight’ and can view the window said to be the one from which St. Paul was let down in a basket, also the houses reputed to have been those of Ananias and Naaman the Leper.

M_Damascus street
‘Around the Mediterranean’ cigarette card series, Major Drapkin & Co., makers of the famous ‘Greys’ cigarettes. 1926.

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An Irish taxi

With St. Patrick’s Day coming up this weekend I thought I’d get in early and share these impressions of an Irish jaunting car from 1935.

A J. Valentine postcard from 1935.

Postcard by J. Valentine from 1935.

Postcard by J. Valentine from 1935.

Postcard by J. Valentine from 1935.

Postcard by J. Valentine from 1935.

Postcards by Valentines.

Wellington panorama

One of the finest views of the city is to be obtained from Mount Victoria, and the Centennial Look-out near the summit, which is to be officially opened on Friday at 3 p.m., gives fine panoramic vistas.

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On one of the piers there is a bronze bust of the Duke of Wellington, after whom the city is named.

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On another pier is the bust of the founder of Wellington, Edward Gibbon Wakefield.

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A further link with the Duke of Wellington is stone from the demolished Waterloo Bridge over the Thames, which the Duke officially opened* in 1817. The stone forms the base of the memorial, which consists of a concrete shelter, surmounted by a large hood. Lines pointing to places of interest round the city will be drawn on the top of the wall, while a telescope has been bought for use from this commanding spot.
Wellington Evening Post. 12 March 1940.

*The Duke didn’t open Waterloo Bridge. He accompanied the Prince Regent who performed the ceremony.

Mount Victoria is still the best place for 360° “panoramic vistas” of Wellington and should be on every tourist’s itinerary. Driving up the narrow road from Oriental Bay to the top can add to the experience! If you’re more than reasonably fit, and have the time, you might like to walk up the winding track through the “bush.”

cent_view

This view looks out across Evans Bay to Wellington airport with Cook Strait beyond. The area to the right of the runway was the site for New Zealand’s Centennial Exhibition from November 1939 to May 1940. Construction of the present airport began in 1958.

To find the Centennial Lookout on Mount Victoria, walk back down the road from the car park and past the communications mast. The Lookout is on the rise to your right.

Queen of the Sea

The cruise season is underway again in the southern hemisphere. Just thinking about this annual invasion of floating palaces made me nostalgic for the time (not so long ago) when cruise ships were much smaller and looked like ships, not multi-storied apartment blocks on a barge.

A brief search through the files came up with one example that was based at Southampton, England, and very popular in the 1960s and ’70s.

Reina del Mar (1955) from a postcard.

The Reina del Mar wasn’t even built for cruising but evolved into the trade. Launched in 1955 as a passenger/cargo vessel, she spent her first eight years sailing between Liverpool and the west coast of South America for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, at a loss. The route, like many others at the time, lost business to airlines and jet travel. The company reluctantly decided to withdraw her from service in 1963 and she was chartered for cruising by the Travel Savings Association, a partnership headed by South African millionaire Max Wilson. This episode deserves a page of its own and is well explained here.

The Reina’s new role called for an extensive refit.

Reina del Mar in 1964 with TSA logo on funnel. Card by J. Arthur Dixon.

1964. The Reina del Mar in TSA livery after her refit. Postcard by J. Arthur Dixon.

The cargo holds were converted to cabin space and the superstructure extended forward above them to form the Coral Lounge, claimed to be the biggest public room on any ship then afloat. The box-like structure between the bridge and the funnel was a cinema, perhaps not the best place to put it. Every movement of the ship could be felt at that height, making it difficult to concentrate on a movie when the Reina was “on a roll” (and not in a good way). The postcard above was sent from Gibraltar in 1964. The cryptic message on the back says –
“11.45 p.m. Monday Oct. 26
….as you can see we are on a Med. cruise. 1st stop Gibraltar at 2 p.m. 2nd stop Naples Thurs., Palermo Sat., Lisbon Nov 4th. The passage Friday very rough, alright now.”
Seems like the Bay of Biscay lived up to its reputation on Friday (not a good movie night). It isn’t always like that.

Sadly, the TSA organisation collapsed a year later but not before Wilson had given the British cruise “industry” a much needed shake-up. One of his partners, the Union Castle Line, took over the Reina del Mar charter and she appeared in company colours soon afterwards.

The Union Castle cruise ship 'Reina del Mar' in Grand Harbour, Malta, c. 1971

Grand Harbour, Malta. 1971.

Union Castle eventually bought the Reina in 1973, just in time for an oil crises that saw fuel prices quadruple. This made the company’s only cruise ship uneconomic and she was scrapped in 1975 – at 20 years old. From that point on cruise ships would be built using the economy of scale to keep fares affordable. More passengers on more decks.

Cycling and the YHA

cyclist_woman 1939Before Britain had motorways, traffic congestion or road rage, the humble bicycle must have been a much more enjoyable form of private transport than it is today. These cigarette cards issued by John Player in 1939 recommend combining the healthy, freewheeling lifestyle with membership of the Youth Hostel Association for an idylic, affordable holiday.

This modern girl cyclist is a picture of health and fitness and contrasts favourably with the narrow-waisted, over-clothed female riders of 40 years ago. The cycling girl has been one of the greatest influences in gaining freedom for women to act and travel independently, a right that was denied her grandmother. In the background is Ferniehirst Castle Youth Hostel, near Jedburgh, in Scotland. It is a fine relic of a Border stronghold and a “show” Hostel of Scotland. Ferniehirst Castle is one of the chain of Youth Hostels linking Edinburgh to Newcastle.
Ferniehirst was a Youth Hostel for fifty years but has been privately owned since 1984.

cycling_groupCyclists and walkers of both sexes may join the Youth Hostels Association (England and Wales) for 2/6d [2 shillings and 6 pence] a year under the age of 25, or 5/- for those 25 and over. The same subscriptions apply to the Scottish Y.H.A., but the age limit for 2/6d. is 20. There are nearly 300 hostels in England and Wales and over 50 in Scotland where members can stay for 1/- a night, cooking facilities being provided for those carrying their own food. The wardens of many hostels also supply cooked meals, average prices being 1/- per meal. We show Hartington Hall Hostel, Dovedale, in the Peak District.

cycling_family tandemThousands of cycling mothers and fathers became acquainted and enjoyed their courtship on “a bicycle made for two.” And they do not forego the pleasures of cycling after marriage. When the little one comes along, the happy couple wait only the passing of the baby-in-arms period before the addition of a side-car to the tandem makes possible healthy and enjoyable week-ending and holiday touring for the family trio. Many tandem side-car clubs have been formed and family rallies are held. Houghton Mill Youth Hostel in Huntingdonshire forms the background to this cycling scene (now in the care of the National Trust).

cycling_borderMore and more cyclists are touring abroad each year. A cycling holiday in a foreign land amidst strange scenes, peoples and customs, is a fascinating experience and costs little more than a tour at home; in some countries, indeed, the rate of exchange is favourable. In 1938 the Cyclists’ Touring Club supplied 1,139,000 miles of routes to members touring abroad and issued 5,686 Triptyques, or customs tickets, to facilitate the passage of bicycles from one country to another without customs deposit. The picture shows a frontier post between Yugoslavia and Germany.
Later in the same year these cards were published, the world went to war. Invading German troops crossed this border in April 1941.

The Unquiet Earth

New Zealand, 1885. English historian J.A. Froude follows a popular tourist route to the North Island’s thermal region.

…..we saw in the distance a blue, singular range of mountains, while immediately underneath us, a thousand feet down, stretched a long, greenish lake with an island in the middle of it, and a cluster of white houses six miles off standing on the shore. The lake was Rotorua; the white houses were Ohinemutu, the end of our immediate journey.

Rotorua_Ohine

As we drew nearer to our destination both Ohinemutu and the district touching it seemed to be on fire. Columns of what appeared to be smoke were rising out of the Ti-tree bush, from the lake shore, and from the ditches by the roadside. We should have found the lake itself lukewarm if we could have dipped our hands in the water.

The smoke which we had seen was steam rising from boiling springs – alkaline, siliceous, sulphuretted, and violently acid – not confined, too, exactly to the same spot, but bursting out where they please through the crust of the soil. You walk one day over firm ground, where the next you find a bubbling hole, into which if you unwarily step, your foot will be of no further service to you. These springs extend for many miles; they are in the island on the lake; they must be under the lake itself to account for its temperature. Across the water among the trees a few miles off, a tall column of steam ascends, as if from an engine. It arises from a gorge where a sulphurous and foul smelling liquid ….. bubbles and boils and spouts its filthy mud eternally. I have no taste for horrors, and did not visit this foul place, which they call Tikiteri.

Rotorua_Tikitere

The native settlement [Whakarewarewa] was at one time very large, and must have been one of the most important in New Zealand. It owed its origins doubtless to these springs, not from any superstitious reason, but for the practical uses to which the Maori apply them.

Rotorua_Whaka

They cook their cray-fish and white-fish, which they catch in the lake, in them; they boil their cabbage, they wash their clothes in them, and they wash themselves.

Rotorua_cooking

Text source: ‘Oceana, the tempestuous voyage of J.A. Froude, 1884 & 1885.’ Ed. Geoffrey Blainey. 1985.
Images from postcards in my collection.

Manawatu Gorge, N.Z. Then and Now

Today’s post is part history, part travel advisory for the benefit of visitors. The second part won’t be news to New Zealand readers!

MG_painting

This postcard mailed in the early 1900s, shows a painting of the Manawatu Gorge from the eastern entrance, as it was in the 1860s.

In the early days the Manawatu Gorge, a natural cleft dividing the Ruahine and Tararua ranges, was covered with beautiful bush from hill top to the brink of the river that flows through it. There was no track through the gorge, and the settlers in the Woodville district were unable to have any direct communication with those living on the west coast.

When the Government decided to open up the country, a bridle track was made on [the southern] side of the gorge; it was later widened into a road, but until the bridge was built, people crossed the river in a cage suspended from a wire; cattle forded it as best they could. Later timber was cut in the bush about the settlement of Woodville, then hauled by bullocks and floated down the river to the site of a bridge which was opened in 1875.

After the bridge was built a four-horse mail and passenger coach travelled daily through the gorge, and its arrival was eagerly awaited by everyone at Woodville, for it was their only connection with the outside world…….

Then the [railway] line through the gorge was commenced [on the opposite side], and the Woodville end became a very busy settlement, where temporary dwellings housed many of the workers on the line. The boring of two large and three small tunnels, bridge building, and excavating, made the job a long one, and the work gave many of the settlers a good start.

At last it was finished, the eastern and western coasts of New Zealand [North Island] were linked by road and rail, and the first train travelled through the gorge in 1891.
‘Tales of Pioneer Women’, Ed. A. E. Woodhouse. Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd., 1940.

MG_closed

The Manawatu Gorge now. State Highway 3 from the western end.

The road has been vunerable to landslides, euphemistically known as “slips” in New Zealand, since it opened. The rail line as well, to a lesser extent. Each one seems to get bigger and more expensive to fix. The engineers and road crews had not long recovered from repairing a huge slide that closed the road for 18 months when another came down in April this year, followed by a smaller event a couple of months later. Expert opinion is that the hillside is unstable and moving slowly all the time, encouraged by a very wet winter. It is too dangerous for road crews to go in and clear the mess. (Some of the boulders are about half the size of a small car).

MG_gorge

Looking east down the gorge. Ruahine mountains and rail line at left; Tararua mountains and road at right.

Fortunately there are two alternative routes; the Saddle road to the north, and the Pahiatua Track to the south. Not a “track” anymore but neither road was built for State Highway traffic volumes. Noises are being made about building a new road along a reliable route while bureaucracy uses buzz words like “public engagement in the process” and moves at its usual glacial pace. A final decision will be made in December, after the ground dries out. Meanwhile we have to wait and see which political party holds the purse strings after the general election on 23rd of this month.

MG_track

One alternative route, over the Pahiatua Track. Not a “track” anymore but obviously not made for high traffic volumes.

Whatever the outcome – if you’re planning to visit the North Island of New Zealand, don’t expect to cross it via the Manawatu Gorge this summer. Or, perhaps, ever.

Sometimes Nature wins.