THE ancient tombs of many of Egypt's most famous rulers, with their treasure-troves of sculptures, paintings, hieroglyphics and carvings, are amazing enough in themselves, but the fact that they were ever discovered in the first place is nothing short of a miracle.
Hidden among rocky ravines in a sea of shifting sands on the edge of one of the world's most inhospitable regions, they were first found in the early 1700s in what has become known as the Valley of the Kings, one of Egypt’s major historical centres in a land that appears almost awash with significant temples, monuments and statues.
And while finding the great tombs, that were created over a 500 year period between the 11th and 16th centuries BC, was an astonishing feat in such an environment, it was the very nature of the arid climate that helped preserve the great treasures of rulers like Tutankhamun, Ramses the Great and Tutmose III.
The descent beneath the desert sands to the hidden tombs, with their sculpted and painted walls telling the story of each ruler, is a stunning surprise for the visitor, with the extreme temperatures in the region and the total lack of rain, wonderful insurance against damaging moisture.
Colors of paintings that relate the story of each Pharaoh’s rule and the way of life at the time, are as bold, strong and as vibrant as if done in recent times rather than over 3000 years ago – and even graffiti left by raiding Turks centuries ago remains in perfect condition.
And interestingly, while called the Valley of the Kings, its tombs also contain the remains of several of the Pharaoh’s wives, children and related noblemen.
Along with the remains of Egypt’s most gigantic temples and monuments in nearby Luxor on the edge of the great River Nile, the Valley of the Kings – that was World Heritage listed in 1979 – represents some of the ancient Egyptians' greatest artistic achievements.
Karnak temple with its 60-odd hectares of ancient architecture is probably the most awesome, with parts of it in immaculate condition despite having been built several centuries B.C.
And if you think Karnak a wonder in daylight you'll be even more surprised by the spectacular sound and light show that is conducted at the temple around dusk every evening.
Strategically placed spotlights see columns and walls silhouetted vibrantly against a cloudless sky, creating one of the world's most remarkable spectacles.
As these spotlights track around the temple, the history of the buildings and the manner in which they were constructed over 18 dynasties, lost and then recovered, is narrated over loudspeakers... but be warned that the narration is not in English every night.
In Upper Egypt - along with Luxor - the main centres of history are Aswan and Abu Simbel, which are all easily accessible by air, train and road links, but can also be reached at a more relaxed pace by using one of the dozens of cruise ships that ply the Nile between Cairo and Aswan.
To permit easy access along the river most vessels have a draught of only a metre or so and generally take a leisurely four or five days to travel from Luxor to Aswan, although shorter or longer trips can be arranged.
The cruises can be joined as a self-contained package holiday or included in holidays which also offer a few days in Cairo or Alexandria and Aegean or Red Sea beach resorts.
While there are frequent air services from Aswan to Cairo a good option is the overnight train that departs Aswan punctually at 5 p.m. each day and offers a superb view of the Nile Valley and wonderful desert sunsets as it races north to the capital.
While not to be compared with the Orient Express or South Africa's Blue Train, the Nile train has comfortable sleeping cabins, typically local meals and a licensed club car where the after-dinner entertainment includes an exotic presentation of belly dancing.
(A RANGE of package deal holidays to Egypt are available in Australia through Icon Holidays, that can also add tours through Turkey and Greece. All itineraries include first class accommodation and first class cruise vessels. Phone Icon at 1300-853-953.)
March 24, 2008
March 17, 2008
ALTHOUGH he died eleven years ago, the name James A. Michener is still
as synonymous with the South Pacific today as it was when he put pen
to paper 60-odd years ago and chronicled the lives of Bloody Mary,
Nellie Forbush, Emile de Becque, Atabrin Benny and a host of other
Yet few know that this remarkable author of more than 40 books that
sold over 75 million copies, had to use a nom de plume in 1947 to have
his original classic, Tales of the South Pacific accepted.
Nor that the same publisher rejected his second manuscript, citing a
"lack of any literary potential."
Tales of the South Pacific of course went on to become a household
name, with the stage show and movie of the same name still enchanting
audiences to this day, four decades after Mitzi Gaynor first Washed
That Man Right Out Of her Hair.
And the book won Michener the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
In January 1992 Michener and I "Returned to Paradise" to his beloved
Vanuatu, where as an American Navy Lieutenant in the 1940s he worked
on the island of Espiritu Santo amongst the characters whose lives he
later made famous in Tales of the South Pacific.
Regrettably the tail-end of Cyclone Betsy prevented our cruise ship
from landing us on Santo, but the ever-positive Michener said just
sailing-by was a fair enough alternative.
Had we landed, he would have found the island still sprinkled with
relics from the war years he spent there: two of its three wartime
airstrips are still there but largely now overgrown, Bloody Mary's
trade-store stands forlornly next to a concrete slab that's all that's
left of Michener's own Santo digs, and the strangely octagonal-shaped
home of Tales' French planter, Emile de Becque is occupied to this
And in the jungle the wreckage of wartime planes, trucks and supply
sheds lay vine-enshrouded and rusting – while off-shore he would have
seen the brooding volcanic Ambae Island that he dubbed Bali Hai in
None of Tales' characters were figments of Michener's imagination; all
existed, he just changed their names to protect their anonymity.
The most famous, Bloody Mary did run a questionable trade-store
business, and did have one of the few government-issue ice-making
machines on Santo, and she did drive an American Marines' jeep…
'acquired' under circumstances that Michener, at one time an
Intelligence and Supply Officer, told me "did not bear thinking
A feisty Tonkinese from now-North Vietnam, Bloody Mary was a
descendant of cheap labour brought into the-then New Hebrides by
planters, and one of the few who stood up for herself.
After the war, Michener returned to his job as a text book editor in
New York and in his spare time completed Tales of the South Pacific,
but as his company would not accept manuscripts from employees, he
submitted it under the nom de plume David Harper.
When it was accepted, Michener 'fessed up that he was 'David Harper'
and that he had a second manuscript for consideration. A superior
enraged that Michener had duped him, refused to even look at the
manuscript, so in his lunch hour Michener took it to another
When he told them who he was, the managing editor welcomed him like a
long lost brother – and accepted his manuscript sight-unseen. Puzzled,
Michener asked why all the fuss, and was told the radio had just
announced that Tales had won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.
He signed-over his manuscript – Fields of Fire – and when he returned
to his employer found they'd had a miraculous changed of heart, and
now wanted to buy his second work.
Michener's response was curt, and at 41 years of age he resigned to
start one of the greatest writing careers the world has known.
He churned out over 40 books and enormously wealthy, but with no
children, Michener and his third wife, Mari – who preceded him by
several years – gave over US$100m to universities, libraries and
James A. Michener died aged 90 on October 16 1997 after requesting
that his dialysis machine be turned off.
(Guided tours to sites made famous in Tales of the South Pacific are
available on arrival on Santo; see travel agents or phone Coral Seas
Travel on 1800 641 803.)
JAMES A. Michener on his 1992 "Return to Paradise."
BLOODY Mary's trade-store still stands forlornly on Santo today.
March 10, 2008
FORTY something years ago as an inquisitive teenager, Bill Calabria
had his first drink.
It wasn't long after that he had his last drink – in fact it was that night.
There's probably nothing much unusual about a young bloke having a
session on the grog and finding it wasn't for him, but what is unusual
is that Bill went on to become one of Australia's most respected
winemakers, something rather rare in an industry not exactly
over-endowed with non-drinkers.
But in Bill's case it wasn't a dislike of the stuff, but rather a
necessity: he suffers a very rare allergy to the acid in grapes.
And he admits he still sometimes turns down a drink with a bit of
reluctance. "But it makes me crook," he says. "Even my own stuff!!!"
Bill Calabria is Chief Winemaker at his family-owned Westend Estate
Wines in the NSW Riverina city of Griffith, an operation founded up by
his mum and dad back in 1945.
"They came out from Italy in 1927 and headed straight to the Griffith
area where they knew about the large Italian population of fruit,
vegetable and grape growers there, and bought five acres (2ha) of
"Because they were used to a splash of talkative red or white with
their meals, Dad grew grapes to make their own wine – he made the
first lot in Mum's laundry tub, and then built a tin shed to make it
on a regular basis," Bill says.
"It was pretty good, but in some ways pretty much as rough as his tin
shed," Bill laughs. "In those days, though, people weren't too fussy
and Dad's seemed to be better than some other local plonks.
"Soon neighbours started calling around to buy a barrel or two, and he
also started getting orders to put barrels on the train for Italians
living in Sydney and Melbourne."
Bill says that by 1945 his dad had refined his winemaking techniques
and was making very acceptable reds, whites and ports. "It was made
from whatever grapes Dad could get his hands on, so could still be
stuff… in those days true-blue Aussies drank beer, Pommie migrants
Scotch and gin and tonic, and it was only we weird foreigners who
As he grew up Bill worked on the family farm and his brother in the
Calabria Winery. "But somehow we swapped, and I ended up in the winery
and my brother on the farm," he says.
It was a fortuitous swap for today's Aussie wine lovers. Bill keeps
production limited to 400,000 cases so that he and his winemaking team
of Bryan Currie and Sally Whittaker can keep totally hands-on control
of what they are making.
And despite making wines that now sell in thirty-three countries
around the world, and are quaffed from NSW Parliament House to onboard
Lufthansa Airlines and the world's highest-rated boutique cruise ships
SeaDream I and SeaDream II, his Westend Estate is still very much a
"My wife Lena, our three sons Frank, Michael and Andrew, and our
daughter Elizabeth are all involved in the company," Bill says with
Bill changed the name of the company from Calabria Wines to Westend
Estate Wines in 1974 when he determined to make even higher quality
wines that reflected the individual character of the various varieties
of grapes that grow in the Riverina.
And he's fiercely proud of his region, being quick to point out it has
risen from a bulk winemaking area to one that now produces wines that
are lauded around the world. "The days of the Riverina being no more
than a mass maker only of cask and flagon wines have long since gone,
and makers here are getting medals for their wines at the most
respected international shows."
In typical Bill Calabria fashion he plays down his own accolades, but
we can tell you that last year alone his Westend Estate wines garnered
235 trophies and major medals in Australian and international wine
So for a non-drinker, how's he know what he's making? He shrugs. "You
don't have to swallow wine to know whether it's good or bad."
You'll find Westend Estate on Brayne Road in Griffith; their cellar
door tasting facilities are open 7-days; phone (02) 6969 0800.
TOP drop: Bill Calabria eyes a barrel sample of a Westend Shiraz just
ALL in the family: the Calabria family taste the fruit of their
efforts outside Westend's Estate's Griffith winery.
CELLAR Door at Westend is open 7-days for tastings and purchases.