Lyle is a freelance writer who specializes in “lifestyle” issues like wine, food, travel, music, film and memoir. He currently writes “On The Vine,” a weekly wine column for the San Francisco Examiner.
Described by some as “the city’s hippest hotel,” the new Kelly Wearstler designed Hotel Proper, located at Market and McAlister Streets offers ambience and sweeping city views at Charmaine’s Rooftop Bar and exceptional cuisine and spirits from the restaurant, Villon, yielding a post-modern style menu that reflects the decor.
Villon, (pronounced Villian) sits adjacent to the artful lobby salon, carrying a similar theme along its walls to the striking, multi-level spirits library, complete with sliding ladder.
It is from that spirits library that they prepare BVHospitality’s “7X7” cocktail compendium that pays tribute to the square miles of San Francisco. With seven cocktails in each of seven categories, there are choices for every palate.
Scanning through cocktails with names like “Earthquake Proof,” “Hanky Panky” and “Ver Sales,” a satirical play on how someone from Kentucky would pronounce Versailles, I settled on “Martinez,” a flavorful and balanced mix of Old Tom Gin, Sweet Vermouth, Maraschinos and Bitters, served up.
After Patty, our server, introduced us to the menu, we were joined by General Manager Jens Halbert who also served as our sommelier for the evening.
The dinner menu is composed of a diverse selection of small and large plate dishes. To begin, we selected the Yellowfin with Korean rice cake, pepper relish, tonnato and a California Kale Salad with pearl onions, manchego custard and something called hippy vinaigrette that Jens paired with a 2015 Weingut Jager Gruner Veltliner Ried Vorderseiber Wachau from Austria.
I have a preference for Gruner Veltliner, especially from the Wachau region
along the picturesque hills above the Danube River. The crisp Weingut Jager release had balanced expression of fruit and mineral elements along the finish.
This and other wines that were served are part of a diverse list, ranging in price, that includes very good, highly rated selections that won’t break the bank.
Next, we were encouraged to try the Nachos with Chorizo, quesillo, crema, described as
“everything in every bite” as the ingredients were spread throughout a long, thin flaxseed tostada. With this dish, Jens opened a bottle of 2015 Jones Family Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from the Napa Valley.
This limited production sauvignon blanc is crafted by noted winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown for the Jones Family and spends three years in barrel
and bottle before release. Like the Sea Fog Sauvignon Blanc from The Grade Cellars in Calistoga, another Thomas Rivers Brown creation, the Jones Family release expressed intricate, full-bodied flavors that also paired nicely with the Cod served with King Trumpets mushrooms, bitter greens and dashi, a cooking stock used in miso soup.
The next two dishes, a Berkshire Pork Chop with fennel, apples and yogurt and Short Ribs with carrots, fava beans, spring onion and black garlic jus
were artfully paired with the highly reviewed, opulent Band of Vintners Consortium Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2016 that reveals a complex flavor profile found in wines at twice its price.
The consortium consists of Napa Valley winemaker Dan Petroski , French winemaker Stéphane Vivier and Master Sommelier Jason Helle, a powerful trio who use their contacts to secure top quality fruit for this value-priced release.
Chef Mikey Adams surprised us with a wonderful salmon and shrimp in creme sauce original dish. Chef Adams actually began his cooking career
while attending college in Edinburgh, Scotland. Once Stateside he honed his skills at Shimo Modern Steak in Healdsburg and Central Kitchen in San Francisco before assuming the reins at Villon.
The pastry chef at Villon clearly defines his dessert choices. There are no chocolate-covered strawberries here. From a selection of offerings that ranged from a Chocolate Millefeuille with puff pastry, spiced chocolate mousse to Pavlova, a meringue-based cake with Blood Orange sherbet,
Meyer lemon, huckleberry and fresh thyme, we selected a Caramelized
Banana Tart with malted custard, Stout sauce and yogurt that Jens skillfully paired with a sparkling, drySchwaab Dietz 2010 Brudersekt Riesling Trocken from Germany’s Mosel region, to balance the sweetness of the tart. It’s always nice to end with bubbles.
Villon, located in the new mid-Market area, boutique Hotel Proper, was a pleasurable discovery that, while easily accessible to local theater and other events, is well worth devoting an entire evening to experience superb service while exploring new cocktails, creative and excellently prepared food plates and a divergent list of fine wines that represent both the local region and the Old World.
There is so much to love about Spanish wines from Rioja and other regions. Fueled by a high quality to price ratio, they have significantly expanded their presence into US markets over the past few decades. According to the newsletter, “Spanish Wine Lover,” imports from Rioja bodegas has grown from fewer than 20 in the 1980s to over 180 today.
Imports from Rioja, Ribera Del Duero, Rias Baixas and sparkling cava from Penedes are readily available and many have captured the attention of
consumers and restaurant sommeliers. Spanish wines, in many ways, are produced with a completely different mindset from those in California or other states. No one seems to be in a hurry. The focus is making the best wine and not releasing it until it is ready, which could be years after it is bottled.
A relative newcomer to the Rioja region that is steeped in old traditional, Bodegas LAN, founded in 1972, consistently exports some of the finest examples of good value wine from Rioja as well as some premium releases.
Their 172-acre Viña Lanciano Vineyard sits near the natural border of the Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa sub-regions. It is divided into 22 separate plots that are all surrounded by the Ebro River and LAN is deeply committed to sustainable viticulture and to co-exist with the native plants, animals and reptiles. By practicing biodiversity, adding natural flora and fauna to the vineyards, and using much manual labor, LAN has reduced pollution and water use and eliminated the need for chemical herbicides.
Tempranillo is the main grape varietal used in wines from Rioja, including those from the Bodegas LAN. The true character of Rioja is revealed when tempranillo is combined with garnacha, mazuelo, viura and graciano, with the best examples coming for the cooler, higher-elevation regions like Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa.
Today, the LAN brand is consumed locally and around the world. I recently joined CEO Enrique Abiega and Trinidad Villegas, LAN’s Export Director for the USA for lunch at Bellota, south of Market. We shared conversation, tapas and raciones while tasting the current vintages of their food friendly wines.
Enjoying a rare visit to California, Abiega began our discussion by pouring Bodegas Lan Santiago Ruiz, Albarino Rias Baixas ($20), a beautifully rounded, fruit driven white with a rich mouthfeel, a departure from the varietal’s typical crisp, acidic features. We spoke of the Sonoma County fires, drought and of the importance of LAN’s dedicated effort toward sustainable practices. Enrique and Trinidad have been with the LAN team for many years and both strongly feel that their methods create wines that, for the price, can compete with any others.
The tapas that included a fresh, decorative heirloom tomato salad, patatas braves with chipotle salsa and Spanish omelette, were paired with the
aromatic vintages2015, 2016 LAN D12 ($18) and the LAN Vina Lanciano Reserva 2012 ($25), aged 42 months between French and Russian oak and bottle conditioning.
The ninth and tenth vintages of the D12 both had intense bouquets, earthy qualities and the balanced, fruit-forward flavors of wines twice the cost. The hand-selected grapes for the Vina Lanciano go through full malolactic fermentation before extensive aging that results in an earthy, food friendly wine with integrated flavors and soft tannins.
A wonderful vegetarian paella that included wild mushrooms, autumn squash, sun chokes and pomegranate along with wood- grilled, dry-aged beef were paired with vintages2103, 2106 LAN Edición Limitada Rioja ($50) and the vintages2014, 2015 LAN Xtrème Ecológico Crianza ($20), a 100 percent tempranillo from the organic certified Ecological Mantible parcel, named after the nearby Roman Mantible Bridge.
After Wine Spectator magazine raved about the LAN 2005 Edición Limitada Rioja, future vintages have been on the radar of consumers. Low yield vines, full malolactic fermentation and aging in new French and Russian oak barrels produce concentrated aromas, fruit-driven flavors, hints of spice and a lush texture.
Both the growing and winemaking methods for the Xtrème Ecológico
Crianza call for minimal intervention. After initial fermentation, the juice is transferred to new oak barrels for 14 months and sits another nine months in the bottle. The color was dark and deep and, as with many of the LAN wines, the candied ripe fruit aromas were intense and the flavors, layered and complex. A tremendous value available for under $20.
I was impressed with all the Bodegas LAN releases that were served and would recommend them when exploring fine, value-driven wines from Rioja and other Spanish regions.
Often overshadowed by those on the valley floor, the Spring Mountain District appellation sits above the town of St. Helena, overlooking most of the Napa Valley.
Early wineries on the mountain thrived in the late 19th century but due to a phylloxera infestation, the vineyards were deserted and remained fallow
and overgrown for decades. Fortunately, a renaissance began in the 1960s through the 1980s with the emergence of many iconic wineries like Smith-Madrone, Cain and later Philip Togni, who established the region and still produce fine wine today.
Back in the 1880s, Spring Mountain grew from 55 to over 200 acres, mostly planted in zinfandel. Today, it supports more than 1,000 acres, predominantly planted in cabernet sauvignon, merlot and other Bordeaux varietals. The mountain represents only a small percentage of Napa Valley vineyards, but the releases from this secluded gem are recognized worldwide.
The Cain Vineyard sits high above the town of St. Helena overlooking Napa Valley. (Courtesy/Cain Vineyard and Winery)
Last month, I had the pleasure to taste wines from Cain Vineyard twice in one week. First at the Slow Wine Tour at Pier 27 which highlights sustainably-made wines and again at Cook’s St. Helena restaurant where we celebrated the 30th anniversary of Cain Five, their flagship Bordeaux blend.
The winery began in 1980 after Jerry and Joyce Cain purchased the land and set about to establish a mountain vineyard that focused on Bordeaux varietals like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec. The Cain Vineyard sits along the crest of the Mayacamas mountain range, straddling the peak at elevations from 1,400 to 2,100 feet. Surrounded by forest, exposed to wind, cooler temperatures and thin soils that are common on steep slopes, the vineyard creates complexity and a distinctive personality to the fruit used for their premier blend.
Among its many attributes, the Cain Vineyard soils share a unique tarweed plant that is credited with influencing the herbal quality and spirited aromas of their wines.
Striving to showcase the complexity and individual traits of their vineyard sources, Cain winemaker Christopher Howell creates only three cabernet blends each vintage, known as Cain Cuvée, Cain Concept and Cain Five. The one outlier that we tasted was the 2017 Cain Musque, a sauvignon blanc release that features musque clones from vineyards in Monterey County.
Cain credits its success with a simple technique of partial extraction of the grapes, Their goal is “to get what we want and to leave the rest behind,” something they achieve organically through labor intensive tasks like hand picking, manual pressing and the use of native yeasts.
Tasting several vintages of Cain Five at the same time, I was taken aback on how much the expressive aromas varied year to year. The nose of the vintage 1985 was vibrant with aromas of dried mushrooms and forest floor while the 1995 was much more akin to perfumed candied fruit. A personal favorite of the vintages tasted, the dense, full-bodied 1995 Cain Five had an extraordinary mouthfeel with fine, structured tannins.
Cooler temperatures required the mix of some outside fruit in the 2000 Cain Five that led to more herbal aromas while those of the 2005 vintage revealed toasted nuts with red cherries and exotic spices that preceded balanced flavors and a lush mouthfeel.
Returning to an earthy bouquet, the 2015 Cain Five ($125), their current release blending cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec had a rich density with herbal and savory notes to compliment tannins that forecast a prosperous future.
The Cain Cuvee, sourced from the estate and other valley floor vineyards, uniquely blends two vintages. The current Cain Cuvee NV15 ($36)features grapes from 2014 and 2015, delivering deep savory and red fruit flavors with a lengthy finish.
Showcasing vineyard sites on the alluvial benchlands throughout the Napa Valley including Beckstoffer George III in Rutherford, Truchard in Carneros and Stagecoach in Atlas Peak, the Cain Concept is defined as the ripest and roundest wine in their portfolio. The current 2012 Cain Concept ($100) displayed lively aromatics and ripened fruit flavors that honored the pedigree vineyards.
Surprisingly, the Cain Five anniversary tasting ended with the PNV Lot 3 Francois’ Pick 2018 Malbec, poured by Cain’s long-standing associate winemaker, Francois Bugue. The aromas in this special release were fruity and floral with balanced, delicate flavors, a departure from the full-bodied cabernet blends.
Cain Vineyard and Winery is another top notch producer which personifies the stability and sustainability among the pioneers who, years ago, forged the renaissance in the Spring Mountain District.
A few weeks before social distancing and isolation became part of our daily lives, we had the opportunity to meet with a small group in the downstairs lounge at the Saratoga Restaurant on Larkin Street to celebrate the release of Redbreast 27 Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey, the oldest permanent
expression from the iconic label. As it assumes its place at the head of the Redbreast family that includes 12-, 15-, and 21 year-old releases, Redbreast 27 creatively adds ruby port barrels from Portugal’s Douro Valley into the aging process.
While bourbon or sherry casks are commonly used to age Scottish and Irish whiskey, master blender Billy Leighton and blender Dave McCabe, who created the Redbreast 27 project, chose to take it a step further with the addition of ruby port casks. The Douro Valley in northeast Portugal has created first-class port for centuries and now their re-used casks are adding expressive fruit characteristics to a world-class distillate.
In discussing the project, Leighton added, “We wanted to push the boundaries and yet create an expression that would seamlessly take its place at the head of the family. Nearly three decades in the making, we are incredibly proud to present Redbreast 27 Year Old — a cask strength Redbreast expression that is a joy to behold in each and every sip.”
Cask strength is a term used to describe whiskey that has not been significantly diluted after the maturation process. Most are diluted with water to a 40% alcohol- by-volume (ABV) level intended to reduce costs and appeal to a larger range of palates.
The creators of the new blend used higher cask strength to expose full expression from both the distillates and casks. McCabe adds, “Bottled at 54.6% cask strength, the ruby port barrels contribute notes of mango, pineapple and berry to the robust flavor of Redbreast 27 Year Old, clearly distinguishing it from the previous expressions in the collection, treading a beautiful balance of tradition and innovation.”
Redbreast, as a brand, began in 1903, but faded in the mid-1980s. It was in danger of distinction before being revived in 1991 by Midleton Irish Whiskey, a powerhouse in the production of single pot still whiskey that blends a mash of malted and unmalted barley. Since its acquisition by worldwide spirit producer Penrod Ricard, Midleton Whiskey has been at the forefront of a recently revitalized Irish whiskey scene including Jameson, the world’s leading brand.
“Redbreast 27 Year Old showcases why and how tradition and innovation continue to be of significance to whiskey aficionados and new whiskey drinkers alike,” says Sona Bajaria, vice president of marketing for high end Irish whiskeys at Pernod Ricard USA. “We know that when consumers land on Redbreast, they fall in love and want to pass it along to friends, family and those who share a love for premium whiskies. Redbreast is the standard bearer of premium Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey and the new 27 Year Old expression celebrates our heritage with an experience worth the journey of nearly three decades.”
My encounter with Redbreast 27 was extraordinary. The described fruit, red berries and spice elements on the nose and palate were evident as was the rich texture. The finish lingered for minutes. With its cask strength, my preference was to add one ice cube to the glass.
The experience that is Redbreast 27 is not for everyone. It is produced in
limited quantities and retails online for $500-$600 per bottle. However, hardcore whiskey aficionados dare not miss an opportunity to secure a bottle. Other more readily available aged Redbreast releases include the 12-year ($70), 15-year ($110), 21-year ($210) and the Redbreast Lustau ($80) a collaboration with Spanish sherry producer Bodegas Lustau.
The small gathering at The Saratoga was my last visit to San Francisco before sheltering in place to help limit the spread of COVID-19. I plan to return sometime in the future to explore the menu and enjoy their own balance of tradition and innovation. Thanks to Redbreast 27, the last visit left a memorable taste in my mouth.
I have struggled lately with trying to find the relevance of writing about wine and spirits during these difficult times. Then, I experienced my first shelter in place happy hour with old friends via Zoom. We spent a virtual hour enjoying a libation, talking current events, sharing health updates, laughing at jokes and maintaining significant social contact.
Life goes on, but we are all going to be doing things differently for a while. After a period of quiet adjustment, many in the food, wine and spirit industries have been creative in developing new courses of action to encourage customer contact, many aimed at convenience and value.
Direct to consumer sales through local wineries and online sites have increased exponentially over the past decade. Today, I am seeing discounts up to 65 percent from sites like Wine Access, wine.com, Wine Express and K&L Wines. Many are featuring good value deals for obscure California wines, creating a ripe environment for exploration and discovery.
One such wine is the D’Alfonso-Curran Loureiro 2018 ($24) from the winemaking team of Bruno D’Alfonso and Kris Curran in Santa Barbara County. I am only familiar with loureiro as a white grape grown almost
exclusively on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain and Portugal and know that this release has earned good reviews from critics. Its offer at a 30 percent discount spurred me to take a chance on a wine that Wilfred Wong described as “active, dry, fresh and crisp with aromas and flavors of savory spices, chalk, earth and mineral,” characteristics that appeal to my senses.
Cameron Hughes Wine has been a source for high quality, value- priced wines for years. The success of his unique direct to consumer platform as a “négociant” rather than producer, requires that he seek the highest quality wine to offer under his own label at value prices.
One of his current releases is the Cameron Hughes Lot 715 2018 Anderson Valley ($13), a distinctive white blend of gewürztraminer (67 percent) and
Muscat (33 percent). I have a preference for gewürztraminer and thinking of the added texture and flavor from
the muscat grape, along with the low price, is enough to peak my interest.
I am also finding good discounts on bottles and cases from various California and Pacific Northwest wineries. Of note, Oregon’s Bergström Wines and Fort Ross Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast, both notable producers of pinot noir and chardonnay, are offering sets and cases of new releases at savings more than $100.
While tasting rooms are closed, wineries are not only offering tremendous discounts, but novel virtual tastings opportunities. Locally, Hall Wines, Frog’s Leap, St. Supery in the Napa Valley and Gary Farrell Vineyard and Winery, Halleck Vineyards and Inman Family Wines in the Russian River Valley have put together a series of interactive virtual tasting options, complete with sommeliers.
Gary Farrell is offering virtual tastings that feature their wines from the Russian River Valley and another that includes top vineyards outside the appellation like Gap’s Crown and Durell. Each package includes up to six bottles, sent to your homes prior to a tasting led by sommeliers Tiffany Kuhn and Kevin Patterson via Zoom. Details on all options are available on the wineries individual websites.
Sourced Craft Cocktails, a company best known for providing quality spirits for large events and special tastings, has developed an interim program during this period of social distancing and mandatory home sheltering designed to put bartenders and mixologists back to work with bottled cocktail delivery. Through their website, Bay Area customers can order from a menu of bottled cocktails that will delivered directly to their homes. Each selected package, yielding up to twelve drinks, includes a 750ml bottle of the selected spirit, a sealed bottle of mixers made from fresh fruit and juices, a jigger and cups.
Among the eight different cocktail options available, Whoa, Black Betty (Grey Goose Vodka, fresh squeezed lemon juice, homemade blackberry syrup, shaken and topped with sparkling water), Irish Goodbye (Tullamore D.E.W. Irish Whiskey, Chameleon Cold Brew, homemade maple simple syrup, and oat milk) and Black Cherry Old Fashioned (Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve, homemade cherry syrup, and burlesque bitters) are just a few. Each order received by 3PM will be delivered the same day by a local bartender.
In addition to delivering high quality spirits during a time of need, Sourced Craft Cocktails donates a portion of the proceeds to the USBG Bartender Relief Fund.
What could go wrong? Six people, all Medicare eligible, with absolutely no nautical experience, rent a forty-seven foot, three-berth, three-bath boat named “Vision 3” and serve as its only crew and galley staff during a six-day, eighty-seven-kilometer journey through a canal in south France,
maneuvering through forty-two locks along the way. The ad assured us that “boating is the best way to slow down,” and bolstered our confidence, declaring, “No experience required-instruction is provided, all boats are fully equipped and easy to drive, you are the captain of your own boat with a huge choice of itineraries.”
Months before, David, reservation frontman and ex-officio Captain, began to express reservations.
“I’m worried about us being able to do this?” he said, “Have you all read the forty page Captain’s Manual?”
Looking up, I smiled and said, “David, it will be fine, people do this trip all the time. It can’t be that hard.”
Not persuaded, he continued to press the issue. “On what facts are you basing this.”
“The fact that we are all intelligent, capable people following thousands of who have done it.”
Beginning to laugh, David said, “Do you think any of us will be speaking to each other by the end of the week?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” I said, trying to set back any notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy, “Lets take it day by day.”
“Or minute by minute,” he uttered, reading my thoughts.
Anxiety aside, we were all committed to meet up in the village of Castelnaudary on the second Sunday in September 2016 to come face to face with “Vision 3” and her mysterious ways before embarking on a trek down the Canal du Midi, docking in small villages, medieval towns or anywhere along the banks, slowly moving toward our final destination of Homps. The reward for remaining civilized throughout this week would be another one together at a villa in Provence, rumored to be large enough to hide from each other if necessary.
We assembled in the late afternoon at the dock along the Grand Basin in Castelnaudary to complete some paperwork with “Le Boat”, our rental company, and finally boarded “Vision 3.” In addition to her three en-suite berths, she had a compact but complete indoor kitchen with window
seating, an upstairs sun deck with more seating and dining tables with covered shade screens, when needed. The ignition and electrical systems were in the galley, but the boat was driven from the controls on the upper sun deck where we were all seated for our one and only practice run.
The experience of guiding the boat around the Grand Basin was like learning to drive in a large, empty parking lot . Sooner or later, one must maneuver in a small lane in heavy traffic, where learning on the run can lead to consequences. Today, it seemed easy and fluid and confidence in our capabilities was high. Although not leaving the basin until morning, we were now living aboard “Vision 3” and, in fact, truly captains of our own boat.
Food was always a priority of this crew and it was decided to celebrate our last night in Castelnaudary, or maybe to the known civilized world, by eating the best cassoulet in the village. Along with nearby Toulouse and
Carcassonne, Castelnaudary boasts of being the birthplace of cassoulet and Captain David discovered that chef David Campigotto of Chez David, a small bistro in an alley off the stone street, was famous and cooks it around the world. This local dish is a rich, slow-cooked casserole that contains pork sausage, duck and sometimes goose confit, pork skin and haricot blancs (white beans). Today’s simmered a minimum of six hours and, paired with a cheap bottle of wine from the local Corbieres appellation, created an indelible meal, invoking memories of when I could eat like this regularly.
The next morning, after a breakfast that lasted longer than planned, we launched into the basin and our sojourn on the water began.
Leaving Castelnaudary was not easy. Beginning with the Excluse Saint-Roch, the gateway lock that exits the Grand Basin downstream, we encountered a three multi-lock sequence, totaling nine separate locks during the initial
sixteen kilometers of our journey. It was like being thrown out of an airplane on your first day of sky diving school as your instructor yells, “Just pull the cord when it’s time.” It seems simple enough, but a difficult situation in which to discover if you’ve got what it takes.
A lock is a simple device, used for centuries, to move boats between different levels of water. Once the boats are safely in the small tub-like basin and they have been thrust to the side and secured by a rope, loosely
wrapped around a concrete bollard, the rear gate closes and the front one opens, creating the same effect of pulling the plug in a bathtub full of water. The ropes secure the boat close to the side wall of the lock, but must be slowly released as the boat sinks. Maneuvering through each lock required finesse and focus, something initially lacking from this group.
Now is as good a time as any to introduce the crew.
Captain David, a former non-profit grants officer and current rock/blues drummer by trade, worries about big stuff, little stuff and everything in between. He worried about the crew’s capabilities which led to his pro-active approach in becoming proficient at the controls. He was our best option to drive the craft and was unanimously awarded the symbolic sea captains hat.
Monkey Girl is tall, lean and loves the physical work. She secured her spot as front ropes person from the beginning and was the most active crew member in the locks, jumping on and off the boat. She also cooks a mean, moist vegetable frittata and it is widely known that she is sleeping with Captain David. This has been going on for over thirty-five years.
Knotman, the oldest crew member, was on his last excursion before
undergoing full knee replacement surgery days after our return. The crew knew of his physical limitations, but we were not aware that, as a former Boy Scout, he had a merit badge in nautical knot tying, an essential skill in securing the boat when we stopped. This was not covered in our orientation, but, we were in good hands.
“In the forty years that we have known each other, I had no idea that you were a Boy Scout who could tie nautical knots,” I said.
“Would it had made a difference if you had known?”
“Yes. Until now, I never knew who to call when I needed a decent knot, I answered, “I’m surprised that this is one of the few things that you still remember.”
“It’s something you don’t forget, like tying a shoe” he mumbled, giving verbal instructions from his deck chair to those of us who washed out after Cub Scouts.
Ginny, the retired professor, after assuming various roles, settled in as chief navigator and keeper of the map, informing us when more locks were on the horizon. We met Ginny and Knotman on the same night that the original Godfather film premiered and spent much of the seventies riding around in a VW bus named “Bertha,” who was sweet but had no guts. I noticed that every evening at five o’clock, Ginny prepared a cocktail for Knotman. It always magically appeared.
One day I asked, “What is that?”
“Gin and tonic,” she responded. “Do you want one?” From that point on, Knotman and I had a gin and tonic at five o’clock each evening.
Karen and I have shared a berth for decades and one of our most difficult days had been on water, in a canoe on the Russian River forty years ago. This new experience would be different because we are now mature and wise enough to add a motor and recruit additional crew members. However, she hyperextended her knee during the first day, jumping off the boat in a lock while handling the rear ropes. For the next few days , soreness and stiffness restricted her to duties like meal prep, photography, navigation and keeping Knotman company on our walks.
I was nicknamed “Ropes Pierre” by Captain David, partly for my funny hat and partly for my adopted role as the rear boat ropes person. I was also the designated understudy to the captain, but, after several near crashes into the bank of the canal, it was mutually decided that I would drive during emergency situations only.
Captain David, clearly, had the most difficult task, made easier by his quick mastery of thrusting, using a video game-type controller that moves the boat sideways, left to right or right to left. He quickly mastered movement of the boat in tight quarters, through each lock.
His nervous voice escalating, Captain David declared, “Talk to me, people.” Five crew members began to speak at once.
A more emphatic, “I can see that!” prompted the crew to silence.
This is the way the first day went. The learning curve and the stress level was high. The lock attendants were accustomed to novice boaters and efficiently guided us through these difficult first locks. Moving down the canal, we watched the attendants hop on small motorbikes and take off along the adjacent trail. As we approached the next lock, there they were, waiting for us, looking comfortably familiar. Each lock became a bit easier than the last.
The difficulty in becoming proficient on steering these boats down the canal is that we are programmed for immediate response. Our cars, smartphones
, and even various remotes lead us to expect swift and precise feedback from our commands.
As the vessel veers slightly to the right, we turn the wheel to the left. Nothing happens, so we turn more left as it begins to respond to the first command.
“Oh shit,” says Captain David as he turns the wheel sharply to the right. The boat continues to turn left, so he turns the wheel more to the right. We are no longer veering to the left, now headed directly toward the right bank. The boat recovers, creating a herringbone pattern as we weaved through the water.
“Passing boat ahead,” Monkey Girl declared from her perch on the bow of the boat. The canal is narrow enough to require some concentration when other boats pass from the opposite direction. Panic ensued. We avoided the passing boat by overcompensating to the right, but now desperately needed to swerve to the left.
Seconds before impact, Captain David, his voice cracking, yelled, “We’re going to hit.”
Bam! There was a hollow sound as the hull collided with the right bank of the canal and a small tree branch swept across the deck. Traveling at a slow speed, the impact knocked over a few water bottles, but the crew suffered no more than an escalated heart rate. A short break was in order and Captain David thrusted us to a safe place along the bank, where we secured the boat.
Inspecting the hull for damage, he remarked, “There is a reason they install rubber bumpers on these boats.”
“Yeah,” I said, “for people like us.”
Our confidence was shaken, but reminding ourselves that we purchased the full insurance package reduced the stress. What else could we do? We were surely not the first nor the last rookies to make this mistake. Besides, we could only get better. The crew needed to jump back on the horse.
Realizing the need to reach our first destination by nightfall, we began again and by late afternoon we came upon a popular place to tie up along the bank, about a mile outside of the village of Bram. The first day on the canal was a roller coaster ride, but we survived it.
“Still think this is easy and anyone can do it?” Captain David asked, smiling over a glass of wine.
“Ok, maybe you were right.” I swallowed a taste of my wine and a bit of my pride.
The plan was to walk the mile and a half into the village of Bram, find a
restaurant and enjoy a relaxing meal off the boat on our first night. Along the trek, we quickly divided into three groups. Monkey Girl and Captain David were out front because they walk fast and Karen and Knotman, one requiring a walking stick and the other needing one, tailed behind. Ginny and I remained in the middle and caught up on politics and stories of old mutual friends.
Ginny grew up on a cattle ranch, now prime real estate in the heart of Silicon Valley, now harvesting Apples. Oracles and Googles. Her diverse career as a public administrator, consultant, Mayor, executive headhunter, college professor and department chair doesn’t overshadow her decades of successful civic activism in the small coastal town where she has resided for nearly fifty years. Today, we talked about our golf games, or lack thereof.
Soon some Aussies passed us on bikes, vowing to scout the Sunday night restaurant scene in the village. Australians are great people to encounter in foreign countries. They are experienced travelers and have pure enjoyment in meeting new people.
Outside of the village, we passed an old, decaying stone wall, with vines
draped from the top like dreadlocks. At eye level, someone, somehow had successfully grown moss that perfectly formed the word, “Imagine,” in script. Was it a mystical message from the canal gods, sage advice for the week ahead or just a great visual image. For me, maybe it was all of the above. Today, it is the cover photo on my Facebook page, my tattoo of social media.
As promised, The Aussies returned with an update. Apparently, Sunday nightlife in Bram is a oxymoron. We arrived to a village that was closed up for the evening, except for one small marche. A relaxing meal in town became an evening of shopping, hauling bags of groceries back to the boat, cooking and cleaning up before a well-earned rest. If you are thinking about a glass half empty, think again. The fresh produce was, in fact, amazing, we bought breakfast items for the next two days, made it to ten thousand steps, prepared a group dinner (something we’re good at) and laughed until our heads hit the pillow.
“Goodnight, John Boy.” A sound from Knotman’s berth was the last I heard. Our first day was complete, but the quest was just beginning.
We awoke Monday morning without power. Being stranded was annoying, but the inability to make coffee was nearly catastrophic. Le Boat would dispatch a technician who would be arriving within the next thirty minutes.
“So, you guys didn’t hear the gurgling sound last night?” Captain David directed his question to me and Karen.
“What gurgling sound?” Our berth was up front, directly behind the galley. Apparently, we were spared the noise that kept our compatriots up most of the night.
“It sounded like we were taking on water,” said Captain David, “I thought we were sinking.” He repeated himself. “I thought we damaged the hull yesterday and we were taking on water.”
“Sorry, we didn’t hear a thing.” I said.
Knotman chimed in. “I dreamt that the boat was adrift, then woke up and still thought we were floating, then the gurgling started.”
We finally got a good night’s sleep and, apparently, missed all the excitement. It was also a bit disconcerting that Knotman was dreaming of being adrift.
The technician arrived on a small motorbike with wooden tool boxes draped over each side like saddlebags. Of note, the distance that took us a full day of cruising, managing nine locks and a crash into the bank, he covered in thirty minutes on his motorbike. These boats go slow.
Our battery was dead. We had neglected to adjust the setting from battery to generator mode at the end of the evening, something none of us remembered being discussed at our brief orientation. Soon we had power and Captain David was trying to explain the gurgling sound to the technician who spoke little English.
“Beelge,” he finally responded as he reached for the onboard operators manual. He pointed out that the gurgling sound was the bilge pump evacuating small amounts of water that normally accumulates in the hull of the boat. Our encounter with the bank may have disturbed the small amount of water in the hull and the bilge pump did its job.
After some coffee, fruit and yogurt, we untied the boat at ten fifteen and headed south, down the canal, toward the next lock.
Captain David declared, “Under normal circumstances, there is no reason we can’t be moving by nine.”
I tried to contemplate what is was that we would be late for.
As we began to feel comfortable, the locks became fun, breaking up the
monotony of lying down on the sun deck, watching the clouds and poplar trees go by. The canal was losing many of its trees to disease and we passed several removal and restoration projects throughout the week.
These boats go slow. At one point, a female jogger pushing an infant in an ergonomic stroller, passed us, even managing a wave. The crew stared at her for a second, then looked toward each other and laughed.
I turned to Ginny and said, “I expect to see a large hippopotamus emerge from the water.”
“Yeah,” she responded jokingly, “and Captain David would have to shoot it with a fake gun,” She fully understood my reference to the slow Jungle Boat ride at Disneyland.
This new calmness gave us permission to unwind, relax and reflect.
His eyes staring ahead, behind dark glasses and looking patriarchal, Knotman declared, “I’ve wanted to do this for twenty years.”
Monkey Girl was animated. “Last Monday I was on a boat, deep up the Klamath River and a week later I’m on the freak’in
Canal Du Midi. Just sitting here thinking. Oh my god. Whoa!”
She made a swoosh sound while she moved here arm past her head, illustrating an inability to grasp it all.
Ginny said nothing but her laugh was unmistakable. It’s comforting. Her public and community life has earned her great respect, but everyone loves her laugh.
“I’m guessing that the Klamath boat went faster than this one,” said Captain David.
“Just a bit,” said Monkey Girl
“Tell them how you got up there.”
“Uh, on a board member’s personal jet.”
Captain David smiled. He privately enjoyed the status that Rosemary’s
work provided. In her professional circles, he enjoyed his role as an educated rock musician who could talk intellectually about politics or the newest restaurant in the City.
Karen chimed in. “Let me see if I understand this. You travelled by private jet and power boat to a remote location near the Klamath River to negotiate the purchase of redwoods from an Indian tribe?”
“Yes!” There was a hint of guilt in Monkey Girl’s voice.
“Hey,” I said, coming to her defense, “all the canoes were checked out.”
The crew laughed, remembering that we would have found the whole scenario offensive forty years ago. There is a huge difference between judging when you are young and actually doing after you mature, something we’ve all lived long enough to learn.
The fact is that we all proud of Monkey Girl’s efforts. In retirement, after a highly respected career, she finds herself on the Save The Redwoods board of directors, devoting much of her knowledge and youthful enthusiasm to something that she is passionate about.
Aside from our professional connections and our political compatibility, the glue of the crew’s long relationship is laughter, our comfort in laughing at ourselves and with others.
As Knotman says, We’re not much to look at, but we have great personalities.”
“Speak for yourself, my friend, you have to look at the whole package,” said Captain David, sweeping his hand across his body.
“My point exactly.”
“Lock ahead, two-hundred meters,” someone yelled, signaling everyone to take their positions, Monkey Girl on the front ropes, Ropes Pierre on the rear with Ginny, Karen and Knotman serving as back seat drivers for the Captain. I say this in a good way. Maneuvering a lock with several other boats requires all available eyes and ears.
This would be the last lock before the small port of Carcassonne, the
medieval walled city where we planned to stay for a few days. As we approached the lock, we all stood down. There was a traffic jam with several boats ahead of us in both directions. It was caused by two small tourist boats, dispatched from the port to go upstream, allowing tourists to experience a lock. The boat would go through the lock, cruise fifty meters, turn around and go back. This excursion is like going to The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas and thinking you’re in Italy. With twenty-seven locks under our belts, the delay did not sit well with us seasoned sailors.
I muttered something inappropriate under my breath and Captain David said, “calm down, don’t say anything.” Then, as the tourist boat passed us before turning around, he looked squarely at the tour guide, flung his arms above his head and said, “What the fuck!”
With lips pursed, she lifted the microphone to her little mouth, looked
directly at Captain David, mimicked him with his own words, then added, “We have prior-i-tee,” with heavy emphasis on the last syllable. This became a repeated catch phrase, but the crew soon let it go. We had four days to get to Homps, reachable in a day and a half if we pushed it. Time was not an issue.
Albeit frustrating, the delay had given us a chance to meet with other crews, many displaying their national flags. There was a group from South Africa, the Kiwi’s from New Zealand and the couples from San Francisco, on their third trip. The greeting served as more than a cultural exchange. It helped to be on a first-name basis now that the gridlock had freed up. To make up for lost time, the lock operators were surely going to pack as many boats in the lock as possible.
We entered the lock second and were directed toward the right wall, an easy thrust for Captain David. “Front ropes secure,” shouted Monkey Girl.
“Back ropes secure,” I called out. We were in position and could do nothing but wait for the other boats to load.
“Sorry, mate.” said the New Zealand captain, apologizing for the fact that he couldn’t stop his slow-moving boat from drifting into ours. Luckily, we were all floating. While holding my rope taut, I was able to stick out my foot and stop the multi-ton vessel in its tracks.
Interrupting our lock “block-party,” the rear gate began to close and within seconds we were face-to-face with a wet, slimy wall as we descended. Both of us yelled, “Ropes free!,” simultaneously, assuring Captain David that, when the front gates open, he was free to thrust the boat to the left, then forward into the lower canal. After nearly an hour delay, the port in Carcassonne was less than three hundred meters ahead.
We found a spot to park the boat and Knotman did his thing while the some of us secured hook-ups to replenish our water and electrical supply and others gathered clothes for the port laundromat. We were all ready to pause for a few days and channel our energy toward exploring the old walled Cite’, the most noted stop on our journey.
Stepping into my berth, Ginny asked, “Have you seen Knotman?”
“Not since I saw him walking down the dock ten minutes ago.”
Before leaving, she said, “Well, if you do see him, I’m looking for him.”
Moments later, while folding freshly laundered clothes, I glanced out my small berth window to solve the mystery. There was Knotman, two boats over, sitting on the South African’s sun-deck, chatting away, enjoying a gin and tonic.
“Ginny, look at the sun deck, two boats over,” I yelled. Soon, her familiar laugh emerged from the galley. “Why am I not surprised?”
I have known Knotman for forty-five years. Early on, he had a deserved reputation as a serial party-crasher. This type of hobby is quite spontaneous, one never knows when an opportunity may present itself. From personal experience, he and I, in 1976, at a Berkeley marina hotel, crashed a post concert party for Joan Baez. We were returning from the restroom when we saw a small sign outside a private room that read, “Diamonds and Rust, Inc.” We took a chance and after we came face-to-face with Ms. Baez helping her young son in the buffet line, realized privacy was in order. As we left, I whispered, “Great concert.” She smiled and continued to multi-task. There is also the story, many years ago, of Knotman crawling through a window to crash a wedding at the Sunnyside Inn in Lake Tahoe, where Captain David was playing drums in the house band. That’s the Captain’s tale to tell.
Knotman was our ambassador to the South Africans and we acknowledged each other while dining at the same restaurant. After dinner, I found Karen, sitting at their table, engaged in conversation.
“What’s up?” I asked.
A woman at the table said, “We’re talking politics with your wife, what’s it to you.” After the chorus of laughter, I decided to join them. From the beginning, the conversation focused around one question, “What in the hell are you Americans doing with your election?”
One man, Gary, explained that he had made three bets on current issues with a friend back home, a local tax measure, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump. He had lost the first two bets and would never live down being swept.
“Trust me,” I said, “it will never happen.” I still feel bad about giving him a false sense of confidence. I remember that moment as the time when I first should have realized that I live in a California, progressive bubble and am out of touch with fly-over America.
Carcassonne is a special place. Well, actually, Carcassonne is a nice city, but the old walled Cite’ is the special place. Everyone should see it once in their
lives. Monkey Girl, Captain David and I decided to leave early and walk the two-mile, moderate uphill climb from the port. The others would join us later, all agreeing to meet up at the Porte Narbonnaise entrance. My walk mates had been to Carcassonne before and were filled with advice, most notably that it must be seen, both by day and by night.
Conversation stopped after we arrived and entered the medieval fortress through the Porte Saint-Nazaine gate. We had each drifted off, taking photographs. With settlements dating back to 3500 BC, the old city was restored in 1853 and became an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Today, it is a fascinating visual facade for the shops, restaurants and plazas that are filled with tourists.
Choral voices could be heard, coming from inside a chapel within the Basilique Saint-Nazaine. The once designated cathedral had been downgraded to a grand, awe-inspiring “ordinary church,” combining Romanesque and Gothic architecture with unearthly gargoyles standing
watch from all sides.I entered the dusky chapel to find four men, standing below a majestic altar, illuminated only by colored light through thirty-foot high stained-glass windows, beautifully chanting in a very Gregorian way.
These are brief but enduring memories because they are unique and special. I was pleasantly reminded of a night in Venice, nearly twenty years ago, when Karen and I ended an evening of “chichetti” (Italian bar hopping) with late-night Vivaldi, performed by a chamber orchestra in a small chapel near a
dimly light piazza. Today, I videoed forty-one seconds of their glorious harmonies on my smartphone to help me always remember this moment. The last time I checked, my memory was not improving.
The entire crew united and, after a brief stroll, dined together at Auberge des Lices, a quaint restaurant/inn, quietly tucked away in a small courtyard near the old cathedral. It was relaxed and so were we, two and one half days in.
Carcassonne at night is jaw-dropping, an emerald city glowing on top of a
hill. It danced in and out of view from the window of our cab as we traversed the dark streets up to its gates. I clicked the heels of my shoes together and rode the moment like a magic carpet. We were returning to
the castle, one with over 5,ooo years of history that, today, is still the prototype design used in films like Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.”
Good or bad, Carcassonne first established itself during the Middle Ages, evidenced by the slivered openings in the stone walls, used as cover by
archers and to pour scalding oil on their enemies. By the beginning of the nineteenth Century, a depressed economy and impoverished population left the old Cite’ abandoned. In 1809, re-routing of the Canal du Midi through the lower town began a small revival, but by mid-century, it faced demolition. A successful effort to declare the site a National Monument led to restorations under the oversight of French architect Viollet-le-Duc. Nearly one hundred-fifty years would pass before the UNESCO designation saved it for eternity.
Tonight, we seemingly entered through a different Porte Narbonnaise gate. It looked strange and intimidating, like someone’s face in the dark, illuminated only by a light under their chin. Preservation married a
Medieval site with twentieth century architectural lighting that altered the entire aesthetic into a dramatic art piece.
It was quiet and the streets were empty, this night. Captain David remembered a restaurant below the illuminated castle and was dogged in his effort to find it. We did find it, but it was unaccessible, hosting a private event that required space rather than ambiance.
A few yards away was Méli et Zéli Restaurant. Knotman checked out their menu and thought it looked good. A nearby chalkboard described “Desserts Du Jour: Creme Brûlée, Baba au Rhum, Tarte au Citron, Poirier…” We weren’t sure if the last item was some type of pear dessert or a reference to the style of Derek Poirier, a member of Team USA at the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie in Lyon, France, a
competition among the world’s best. It will remain a mystery.
While adjacent to the enlightened castle, neither the outdoor patio or
indoor of the restaurant offered unobstructed views. Noticing our hesitation, the waiter walked over and began talking to Monkey Girl, our best option to converse in French. The conversation was short.
“The best that I could determine,” she reported, “is that he is willing to put a table wherever we want.”
Ginny asked, “Where did you tell him to put it?”
She smiled. “How does in the street outside the restaurant sound?”
That’s exactly where they put it. It became our private table in the shadow of the castle.
Monkey Girl rewarded herself with foie gras. The rest dined on saumon
marine’ a’l’aneth (salmon marinated at the dill), entrecôte a la plancha (beef ribsteak of the floor), and cassoulet, all paired with a bottle of 2013 Cuvee’ Sextant from the local Corbieres appellation. Good times on a slow night in Carcassonne.
Leaving Carcassonne was as difficult as leaving Castelnaudary on our first day. Ecluse #51 was a bit congested with morning commute traffic. Everyone’s going somewhere. It was our fifth day and our twenty-fourth lock.
Karen took a turn handling the rear rope duties. She stretched her knee out in Carcassonne and had tired of desk duty. Monkey Girl was everywhere during our departure, jumping from the boat to lock and back, getting updates and pulling us forward as the gridlock eased. Once through, she
remained busy wrapping her ropes.
Captain David responded. “Please sit down and relax, you’re making me exhausted.” He knew it wouldn’t last, but occasional reminders can briefly put Monkey Girl in pause mode.
None of this ongoing group dynamic bothered me. I relished in observing the natural order that developed among the crew in this unusual habitat. I thought it would make a great story.
There was more than three kilometers to the next lock, time to relax and enjoy the countryside, the autumn pastures, yellow and brown, the old stone-grey structures with roofs from the century they were built. The canal permits access to old country France where the past is the present. Soon, we passed by a field of sunflowers. Karen was fixated.
“They were looking at this when they painted,” she said, referencing the Impressionist painters of the nineteenth century, bohemian artists who began painting everyday life. We had seen so much of their original works in the Musee d’Orsy in Paris, the Chicago Institute of Art and others that she recognized the real landscape. It was present at Monet’s gardens in Giverny, in the village of Anvers d’ Orse, where Van Gogh spent his last years, and here along the Canal du Midi. Van Gogh’s “The Sunflower Field” moving slowly on a gorgeous day.
Captain David addressed the crew. “Will someone call Monkey Girl’s cellphone, she can’t find it.”
No luck. Someone said that they reached her voicemail, but she sounded gurgled.
Monkey Girl responded. “Kidding aside, I think that’s where it is and probably harder to find than fricken Dory.”
When leaving Carcassonne and since we met in 1974, Monkey Girl is
someone who always needs to be active and, this time, it resulted in the deposit of another Iphone 6S on the muddy floor of the canal. One can only imagine how many are down there.
Ordinarily, the loss of a phone would be catastrophic for Monkey Girl. She would be missing an important conference call or expecting a critical email. Today, we laughed it off. She had cleared her calendar and her mind. A phone isn’t a necessary tool to be a front ropes person on a canal boat. However, she would have a new Iphone7 within forty-eight hours after returning home. Without the calm of the canal, we tend to revert to our old ways.
“Low bridge ahead!” Someone had spotted one of the old bridges near Berriac, a small village inland from the canal, south of Carcassonne, and
yelled out a warning. Based on our experience with similar bridges earlier on the junket, the alert did not mean to use moderate caution, but to lay down on your back to avoid decapitation or, at a minimum, a bad headache. Although beautiful and charming, these low, narrow bridges were not designed to accommodate modern boats. Today, during our cruise between Carcassonne and Trèbes, we came upon several, aptly naming them, “The Low Bridges of Berriac.”
The lower levels of the boat were safe, but, between locks we all hung out on the upper sun deck. This required that the entire crew, including Captain David, lie flat on our backs as we passed through. Face up, under the
bridge, I could see the detail in each stone of the timeless mosaic. Vision 3 was in free fall. We set her direction, lied down and prayed that we would avoid the curved sidewalls during the seconds it took to pass under. We did it with inches to spare.
It was amazing to watch the large barge boats maneuver through the low bridges. With berths below the deck, they sit lower in the water than Vision 3 and, defying perceptions, they certainly can’t be any wider. The difficulty is that they are nearly one hundred feet long.
Most barge boats look lived on. A home on the water with worn deck chairs and geranium-filled flower boxes and the charm of a bed and breakfast.
They’re typically available for charter on one-way trips down or up the canal where the captain and chef are provided. Expensive and food-driven, it’s another option to experience the solitude of the canal. Our fear was that we would awaken each day to a wonderful breakfast, then watch the scenery pass, anticipating a extraordinary lunch with an afternoon break, checking emails before cocktails and dinner. It sounded appealing for a one day excursion, but the thought of idle minds and putting our bodies on a highly caloric recess for a week was never an option.
Waiting our turn to go through ecluse #57, Écluse de Villedubert, we watched an experienced young captain of African descent as he masterfully guided a barge boat first through a lock sequence, spinning the large wheel and thrusting to a forty-five degree angle just to fit. Then, floating by our boat, he smiled and waved with his left hand while fluidly spinning the wheel with his right. Once he was perfectly aligned, the crew watched him gracefully steer through the first of the many recognizable low bridges he would encounter between Berriac and Carcassonne.
“Are you watching this guy?” Ginny asked no one in particular.
“Amazing.” Karen wondered aloud how many times he had cruised this exact route. The charm of the barge boats and their flamboyant, talented captains are part of the theater of the canal.
Around the next bend, some old brick buildings came into view that seemed to be touching the water. Today, they marked the entrance to the small,
winsome port of Trèbes, a place to tie up for the night. The last census determined that Trèbes
had over five thousand residents, up four thousand from the first in 1793. There have been few changes to the town over that period of time.
During our brief visit, we decided to stay close to the boat and explore the ambiance along the tiny waterfront that included a bank, a wine shop featuring local Corbieres-Lanquedoc-Rousillon wines and a few restaurants.
The wine shop featured a young, knowledgeable proprietor who openly
shared his knowledge. Although we could spend more, those of us choosing the wines felt that we could get balanced flavors and rich texture for ten euros. We did, time after time.
The crew’s desire for a light aperitif before dinner and the advice of the shopkeeper lead to my selection of a Domaine de la Rogue Cinsault-
Grenache, a rosé that blended two regional grape varietals. Grenache adds the flavor and Cinsault, the texture.
We drank it on our deck, under the shade covering as the setting sun splashed light across the water and century-old building fronts. Amid this setting, we could have spent five euros and it would have tasted just as good.
The crew chose a quaint outdoor cafe on the water for dinner and, within minutes, were greeted by a young waiter. Knotman ordered a carafe each
of their house red and white wine and Karen ordered a decaf Americano. The young man left, vowing to return.
“Are you guys watching this?” Ginny, the observant one, pointed out that ours and other waiters were crossing back and forth over an adjacent road as they worked. Apparently, the indoor portion of the cafe and the kitchen were separated from the outdoor waterfront tables by a road with vehicular traffic. Soon, our waiter emerged through a doorway, looked both ways and crossed the road with our drinks.
Captain David said. “Think they have workman’s comp insurance?”
Monkey Girl laid out her odds. “I’m going to go with a low maybe.”
“Are you sure this is decaf?” Karen repeated her stock question to anyone
serving her coffee after nine in the morning. The waiter stared at her for an instant, returned the coffee to his tray, turned and walked back across the road. Trapped laughter escaped.
Karen felt justified. “Listen, I feel sorry for the guy, but I still need to sleep tonight.”
We had a very nice local dinner, mostly seafood and our waiter got a workout. He managed a smile as he distributed dessert menus, but his eyes said, “Ne me faites pas remonter
la route” (Please don’t make me cross the road again). We passed on dessert, paid the bill and said goodnight.
The quiet walk across the bridge with the calm water, now being lit by the
moon, created a lasting visual image of our abbreviated stay in Trèbes. We weren’t certain if there was somewhere we needed to be or if we just needed to be somewhere else, but it was determined that we would pull anchor in the morning.
I embrace the rare times when I find myself alone, absorbed in a moment. Tonight, on the deck, before turning in, it was ten minutes of watching the stars through the black shadows of the towpath trees with “Waste a Moment” by Kings of Leon blaring through my headphones. It was the dichotomy I wanted. Listening to Southern American boys in Southern France helps me connect the dots. “Take the time to waste a moment.”
The morning began as peaceful as the night ended. The galley was quiet and the water was undisturbed. I poured a cup of coffee.
“Croissant monsieur et madame?” Without notice, Captain David stuck his head through the door, speaking in his best bad French accent.
“Croissant, sir?” I responded with my best effort to mimic the Inspector Clouseau character made famous by Peter Sellers in the early Pink Panther movies. More than anyone, David gets my humor. We both remember classic funny lines that we have heard over the past fifty years and when our memories intersect, we share a moment and nobody else in the room gets us. Today, it was Peter Sellers, tomorrow it could be Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin or even Adam Arkin.
We like to think that, back in 2010, they made a film about us titled “The Trip.” In our world, actor Steve Coogan played the Captain David character and Rob Brydon was me. Two men, on assignment for a magazine, touring the fine inns and Michelen-starred restaurants of the European countryside. Coogan’s script perfectly captured many of our dinner conversations before we could get them down on paper.
Inspector Clouseau speaks in his thick French accent. “I would like a rhuume.”
Not understanding the request, the British hotel clerk says, “a rhuume, sir?”
In frustration, Closeau responds. “Yes, I said a rhuume!”
The conversation goes on, classically orchestrated by Seller’s subtle style.
Appreciation of great comedy helped forge a long friendship between a Jewish boy from Flint, Michigan who has been a drummer in the San Francisco rock scene for four decades and a California-native WASP kid who stuck to some straighter line.
Today, on the boat, Captain David had something sweet. This and other mornings when we were in port, he and Monkey Girl would leave early and
set out to find a local patisserie. They would bring back a warm, fresh tart or scone and carefully cut it into five pieces, enough for everyone but Karen. We instinctively respected her wishes and the crew was always willing to insulate her from any food that lists sugar higher than the forth ingredient. Personally, I believe we should offer a piece to Karen and let her decide what she wants to do with it.
Ecluse Trebes was a three-lock sequence that provided a test for those entering or exiting the port. I liked my perch on the back deck where I could continue to enjoy the picturesque harbor while handling the ropes. Once through the final gates, Trebes slowly faded from distance but remains, to this day, a tranquil memory. We had nine kilometers of relaxed, uninterrupted cruising until the Ecluse Marseillette, our next lock, where we planned some exercise by walking into the village.
Captain David spoke. “Did everyone see their potpourri?”
While out on their early morning patisserie search, he and Monkey Girl bought three cute little handmade pouches and secretly placed one in each bathroom. It was nearly impossible to remain anonymous when you are living on a 47-foot boat with five other people.
“Yes, Captain”, said Knotman, “how frick’en thoughtful.”
“Well, I thought we are six days in and, besides, they are probably made by local artisans.” Captain David, once again, rode the fence between
explanation and justification.
Smiling, Knotman said, “I am truly appreciative and will certainly thank you for days to come.”
Bam! A piercingly loud sound silenced us.
Startled, Captain David said, “What was that?”
“Sounded like a gunshot,” said Ginny, answering for the group.
Addressing Monkey Girl, perched on the front deck, Captain David said, “Are there any boats coming?”
“No, the water is clear.”
Bam! Bam! Two more shots and the sound was louder and closer.
Offering food for thought, Knotman said, “Maybe, it’s canal pirates.”
Deadpanned, Captain David said, “No one said anything about canal pirates.”
Feeling the need to add my two cents, I said, “It wouldn’t be the only thing they missed in the orientation.”
Bam! Another ear-piercing gunshot.
As we slowly cruised around a bend, the canal revealed two men with shotguns, hunting birds in an open field. Sounds that are unsettling in the modern world were, in this part of southern France, nothing more than farmers seeking fresh duck meat for their next cassoulet. Watching them as we passed was reminiscent of the times, as a young boy, that I accompanied my father and his friends, watching them hunt duck and pheasant. I also remember jarring my teeth on small pellets, accidentally left in the meat of the catch.
I was thinking about food and asked if anyone else was getting hungry. It was agreed that we would tie up along the banks near Marseillette, have lunch on the boat, then walk into the village to explore and exert.
Ecluse Marseillette was the first of nine locks we would encounter in the next nine kilometers. As we finished one, we prepared for the next, destined to work our way to Pulcheric, hoping to find fresh, locally grown foods.
Marseillette was one of the more picturesque locks along the canal, with
green manicured hedges surrounding the same simple stone lock house design used throughout the canal, each with pastel blue or green window shutters. The lock houses serve as housing for the lock masters and most of the unique settings resulted from long term residency, something we would discover further down the canal.
Once through the lock, we could see the aged Marseillette skyline in the distance, with its signature clock tower standing tall. Soon, we were along the bank and Knotman was instructing the two ropes people on the proper nautical knot to secure our boat.
Lunch usually consisted of assorted charcuterie and cheeses modified with more vegetables and white meat than the traditional varieties of pork sausage. Once we added some olives and any leftovers from the previous night’s dinner, lunch became another feast.
“The cupboard is not totally bare, but we definitely need to pick up a few things,” said Karen after we finished lunch.
Speaking up, Monkey Girl said, “According to Rick Steves, there is a supermarche in Pulcheric and we thought that we would stop there for the night, walk into town and shop.”
“Sounds great to me,” said Karen. She began making a list on her phone.
Knotman decided to stay back as we as we began the short hike into Marseillette. He needed a nap after two glasses of chardonnay at lunch.
Along the bank, a few yards up from our boat, I saw an old, worn wooden sailboat with faded green and white paint, a natural cherrywood mast and
a makeshift, weathered red canvas canopy, hung adjacent to the green, port-holed galley and adding more living space for the sailor. Surrounded by several ducks on the bank, the boat seemed to project a colorful past as it floated stoically still amid the backdrop of the murky canal water and trees, lit by the afternoon sun.
Captain David watched as I shot a few photos with my phone. “Isn’t that a great boat?”
“Oh yeah, I said, the stories it could tell.”
Marseillette is described as a commune is southern France with about 700 residents. Today, on a Thursday afternoon, it looked deserted with no sign
of people on the small sidewalks or in the windows of the flats. It reminded me of streetscapes painted by American Impressionist Edward Hopper, barren and mysterious.
“Let’s find the highest point and start there,” said Captain David, realizing that we could probably see the entire village from any hill.
“Look for the cathedral, they’re usually on higher ground.”
He was right. We found the local cathedral on the hill adjacent to a vista that may have explained why no one was in town.
To the west and spread across a large valley that extended all the way to the Pyreness Mountains was flat, fertile agricultural land, divided symmetrically into vegetables, orchards, vineyards and flowers. There
were also large empty sections that were, most likely, show-stopping fields of lavender during the summer months. Marseillette was not a port, but an agrarian village with a canal running behind it.
With no specific landmarks to photograph, our right brains kicked in as we all began to shoot this place as it was with narrow streets, old stone bridges and, of course, the village clock tower that resembled a turret at a miniature castle. Although people were scarce, our concentration in taking pictures was periodically broken by a delivery truck that sped by. FedEx and UPS are truly everywhere.
Reaching Pulcheric by six o’clock required that we quickly return to the boat and leave. We had to maneuver several locks and were hoping to avoid any delays.
Captain David approached me as we stepped onto the rear deck of the boat.
“Hey Ropes, look at this.” He had stopped on the walk back to take some photos of the old sailboat. There was one shot that he was particularly proud of and I thought it was framed better than those that I took.
“Very nice,” I said, “I like that you zoomed-in closer.”
He smiled and nodded, as to agree. I guess that on the canal and in life generally, it’s really all about who takes the best pictures.
The final chapter of this Thursday could be named, “Locks After Lunch.” In the next hours, the canal would drop twenty-two meters with the aid of nine locks and the crew was ready for the challenge. The real question was if the locks were ready for us.
Minutes from Marseillette, we could see an increase in boats cruising in both directions. This signaled that the lock masters would have to cram as many boats as possible through each sequence to keep up. We had to renew our focus.
The first test was the Ecluse triple de Fonfile a Blomac, commonly known as the Fonfile lock. It was an ordinary three-lock sequence, but small with tight spaces. We anticipated going through the chain with another boat, but were surprised when they insisted on adding a third. The lock masters had more confidence in our abilities than we did. Although the tasks such as thrusting and securing the vessel did not change, more precision and speed control was required.
As she turned toward me, smiling, Karen said, “just like those guys that took us zip-lining in Hawaii, they’re trying to push us and build our confidence with each new lock.
I responded. “Our delicate self-esteem aside, they’re bent on getting as many boats through before they close at six.”
We did get through flawlessly, but quickly folded our ropes and remained in position for the Ecluse Saint-Martin, our third-eighth and thirty-ninth locks, one kilometer ahead.
Captain David said, “What time is it, anyway?”
Knotman answered. “Does it matter. We’re going to get there when we get there.”
Affirmation that long time residency leads to the most creative and colorful lock houses was clearly evident at the Ecluse de l”Aiguille,” our fortieth lock. There were at least six boats ahead of us, so Captain David thrusted to the bank and we secured the boat. Monkey Girl hopped off and walked ahead to scout the situation.
Climbing back aboard several minutes later, she said, “Boats are jammed in both directions, but there’s a neat sculpture garden next to the lock house.”
“We’re screwed,” said Captain David, his mind in another place.
I asked, “What kind of sculpture?”
“Ya know, whimsical stuff, mostly made from junk, a little funky.”
Not in a mood to discuss whimsical three-dimensional art, Captain David said, “We’ve got two hours to get through here and reach Pulcheric before the locks close.”
Knotman questioned, “What’s so special about reaching Pulcheric?”
“There is a supermarche and we need some things for dinner and breakfast” said Karen.
We had reason to worry, but as long as we are delayed for a few minutes, I wanted to check out the sculpture garden.
The Ecluse de l”Aiguille, surrounded by trees, lawns and mature shrubbery
was among the most aesthetically pleasing locks on the canal. However, the biggest attraction is Joël Barthes, éclusier sculpteur, who has lived in the lock house since 1988. As the story goes, within a few years after moving
in, he found a large piece of wood and transformed it into a decorative feature for his yard. He never stopped. To date, he has created over two hundred pieces from junk and recycled materials largely donated by locals. Some pieces have been sold, but most remain on the property. He had an exclusive exhibit space with several visitors assured each day.
Joël has participated in a few exhibitions, but, for the most part, he enjoys moving boats efficiently through his lock and pursuing his art career on the side. Today, he did his job well and our delay was shorter than anticipated.
The gates open and we were free to, once again, float down the canal. One of Joel’s metal men was attached to the last lock and seemed to be opening the door for our new adventure.
I shouted out. “Full throttle.”
The crew laughed. We would proceed at the same speed we always had. Still not competing with cyclists or joggers, we could out perform most conversational walkers, unaware that they were in a race.
“Monkey Girl”, are you getting these pictures,” said Ginny
“I don’t have a phone.”
“Well, I’ve got pictures of the pups.”
“That’s right, they’re together.”
Beginning in 1978 and for the next twenty-two years, our colleagues on the crew were footloose and fancy free while Karen and I were focused on parenting and finding good childcare. Today, the roles have reversed. We enjoy our freedom while the rest of the crew are challenged to find, not just dog sitters, but quality dog sitters. Pet friendly lodging and eateries are required now when the group travels locally.
All of this because Captain David and Monkey Girl are the proud parents of Mojo, a refined standard poodle, white with patches of grey and black. Lotti, a pure white, soft-coated Wheaton terrier is Knotman and Ginny’s little girl.
The dogs were with different sitters, but, due to scheduling issues, were together for the next four days. The current sitter was texting photos of Mojo and Lotti playing side by side and our colleagues were gushing over each one.
“They really do play well together,” said Monkey Girl.
“I know, we need to set more play dates.”
“I totally agree.”
Young parents are adorable. Especially when they are missing their children.
I volunteered to steer for awhile so they could all enjoy the reassuring photos, delivered by satellite from San Francisco to our floating home. Karen and I glanced at each other, smiling. We have raised two boys who are now raising their children. We have wonderful memories of Bon Aimee, our golden retriever and, before that, an poodle terrier mix named Cocoa, our practice child. One day, in the future, we will most likely get another dog. But for now, weighing the added stress and responsibility always leads us to “been there, done that.” We enjoy playing with our friends pets whenever we can and going home alone.
Reaching Pulcheric before the locks closed was beyond our control. We had over an hour to travel two kilometers and open water ahead. Success was dependent upon the number of other boats waiting to get through. Our fate would slowly be revealed after the next few curves in the canal.
As we turned, Ginny made a quick observation. “It’s not looking good.”
“No, it’s not, said Captain David, we just need to tie up and wait.”
There was little movement over the next twenty minutes and then there was none. Time caught up with us and the locks closed for the night. We weren’t going anywhere until morning.
Pulcheric, the supermarche and the ten-thousand steps into town and back were not happening.
Dinner had the improvisation of a jazz concert. Wine, olives and the last of some Comte cheese started us off. We had eggs and an onion that Monkey Girl turned into one of her frittatas. Salad was a collective of every vegetable we had left and there was even a bar of chocolate for dessert, which was cut into five equal pieces.
We stayed up and talked politics until we wore ourselves out. Ginny always had something to share from Politico, the Captain recited David Borowitz from New Yorker magazine and I was starting to follow clips of Stephen Cobert monologues that were becoming increasingly poignant.
Karen was taking in all in and becoming more agitated and animated with each passing comment. We have shared a berth literally our entire adult lives and since the first day, she has always been a Socialist with a taste for nice things, a Lexus Socialist, through and through.
Politically, Karen is the most and least cynical member of the crew. Her unique political perspectives are based, more than anything, on history. She is a firm believer that homosapiens shares a genetic deficiency that makes them repeat their mistakes.
“Shall we make a list of the maniacal dictators in the world that were elected?” She threatens a lecture to those who don’t share her concern that Donald Trump could very well beat Hillary. She’s right. One only has to go back to the start of the Twentieth Century to assemble a legitimate top ten. Ask anyone who was part of the Allied Forces, less than a decade before my birth.
Is Karen not reading Politico or David Borowitz or watching Cobert? She agrees with them, enjoys there humor, but does not rely on them to deliver us from evil.
“Karen, you are so right about history, but he’s imploding before our eyes,” said Captain David, “Pussygate will probably break him.”
I could see comfort in the eyes of four crew members and I could feel mine. Pussygate would be the beginning of the end.
The crew is so politically aligned that these late night discussions never turn sour. They are pep rallies that leave us high enough to fight another day. We had done this many times before, but never on a boat in Southern France, our cupboards bare, our bellies full and each filled to the brim with exuberance and buoyancy.
A robust sense of freedom exudes from the soul when one has no place to be other than where they are.
THE NEXT MORNING
I could hear the wind and feel the cool air as my eyes opened from a deep sleep.
Karen was awake. “It’s cold, I needed an extra blanket. My phone says there is a seventy percent chance of rain later.”
The grey, overcast skies were clearly visible from the galley. The prediction from Karen’s weather apps may be low but we’ll all know if it changes. She is what I call a “weather watcher,” moving back and forth between Google Weather and the Weather Channel so as not to miss anything. I never look at mine, it’s too much work. I simply ask Karen about each day and she delivers a detailed, hour-by-hour analysis.
“Honey, do you think I should wear a sweater?”
“Well, at six it will be seventy-two, but then drops to sixty-seven,then…”
“Great. I’ll just layer.”
There was enough food and coffee to get us through breakfast. The lock was free and opening soon. We needed to decide what we were doing.
Captain David said, “Lets not go into Pulcheric. We can pick up some lunch in a village along the way and, surely, there is some type of marche in Homps.”
“Knotman and I want to cook our balsamic chicken and grape dish tonight,” said Ginny. It was our last night aboard Vision 3.
I responded, “Love that dish, but need I remind you that this is the third time you have cooked it for us.”
Robin spoke. “She never does that.”
“Apparently she does.”
Monkey Girl questioned, “Does what?”
“Cooks the same dish twice for the same people.”
“He says that but it’s total bullshit,” said Ginny defending herself. “You just said that I’ve already cooked it twice for us. But, if it’s troubling for you, we can take a pass”
“No, no, no, no.”
Robin and Ginny are entertainers and love hosting dinner parties. They cooked their delicious balsamic chicken and grape recipe one night in Todo Santos and Karen suggested that it should become a vacation tradition.
“You’ll never see it again,” said Knotman that night, six years ago.
He then outed Ginny’s secret rule that any of her guests would not see that same recipe twice. Although she has never quite admitted it, she now feels comfortable and will nudge the rules for us. Aside from Todo Santos, they served it at a party after my son’s wedding and, hopefully, would again tonight in Homps.
Once through Ecluse Pulcheric, we kept going, all agreeing that there was no longer a need to “slep” into the village for food. We had over six kilometers to the next lock and saw the need to soak up as much of this visual as we could in the short time we had left.
The overcast sky was a canvas, the dark clouds moving across like black brush strokes. The light drizzle would soon turn to rain.
Ginny, our chief navigator said, “It looks like there is a tiny port in La Redorte and we should get there before noon.”
“I thought I read that there was a Roman aqueduct in La Redorte,” said Karen.
“Your’e right, it shows it on the map.”
We were counting down. Ecluse Jouarres was quick and easy, even in the rain. After an eight-foot drop, we gently cruised into an empty, passive water stop in the commune of La Redorte. They had become so
commonplace that the thought of only one more lock before our final destination was insignificant.
After thrusting to the wall and securing the boat, we decided to raise the sun shade to keep as much of the deck dry as possible. The light rain was giving no signs of letting up.
Once moving on the water, the shade came down in anticipation of another low bridge and we would be open to the elements. Maybe it would pass after some time exploring the village.
As part of a government reorganization in 2015, La Redorte, population around twelve hundred, is defined, like Pulcheric, as one of twenty-three communes within the canton or territorial sub-division of Le Haut-
Minervois. It is most known for the Chateau de la Redorte & Spa, a five-star resort catering to all of southern France and advertised as only a thirty-minute drive from Carcassonne, a place we left three days ago. These boats go slow.
It was decided, after grabbing some umbrellas, that we would all go our own ways and meet back at the boat in ninety minutes.
“Whoever sees an good food option for lunch, buy it and we can eat on the boat,” said Captain David, proposing a strategy that sounded good to everyone. None of us were hungry yet.
A five hundred foot walk and a bridge crossing left Karen and I in the only
village center, one long street for all the businesses, retail and public services. I loved the buildings for their authenticity and their architecture. Like a few days ago in Marseillette, I began photographing nearly everything. For some reason I wanted to capture the look of this genuine small village that, most likely, exists to support the Chateau Spa.
I shot the post office, an old dwelling with ivy-covered walls and, what turned out to be one of my favorite photos, an old bookstore with pale blue shutters. As I was
seeking a better image, I saw a familiar face coming out through the door, waving something that looked like an old paperback book.
“Hey Ropes, I bought you a present,” said Captain David, yelling across the street.
“Great.” I waved an acknowledgment as we continued in different directions.
Minutes later, we ran into Knotman and Ginny and walked together for awhile until we spotted our other compatriots entering a little shop with a brightly painted hot pink and gray sign that read:
“Look at those guys,” said Karen.
“My guess is that it’s gonna be fresh hot rolls and pastries for lunch,” said Knotman.
Karen, fearing that she will be stranded on a boat with nothing but carbs and sugar, said, “Not me!”
“Don’t worry, we always take care of you.”
I know that in emergency situations, Karen always has a stash of baby carrots somewhere. Years ago, we were sitting in the Cabo San Lucas Airport, waiting for the other members of the crew to arrive, when a beautiful, happy looking Golden Retriever, attached to a security guard, sat at her feet.
The guard said, “Ma’am, are you carrying any fruit or vegetables?”
With people around us staring, Karen plead guilty and pulled a baggie out of her purse and handed it to him. He politely nodded and confiscated her carrots.
When the crew arrived, after a few hugs, I declared, “Karen has already been busted.”
I relished in telling the story and ended with, “One day, we are going to be detained in some remote place in the world because of your damn carrots.”
We laughed and Karen gave me a look that encapsulated every expletive imaginable. She doesn’t always appreciate that great comedy comes from life.
“It looks like a quaint little place, let’s check it out,” I said.
Ginny added, “And find out what the Captain and Monkey Girl are up to.”
Walking into La Mie’nervoise, I felt that I had won Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. The smells were indescribable. The left side of the shop was a
virtual fairyland of tarts, torts, eclairs, macarons and fresh pain d’epices. On the right side, the smells from fresh, warm baguettes, brioche, boule and Fougasse bread with gruyere cheese signaled that this little spot was both delightful and dangerous. The bakers were proficient artisans but, in the end, the shop was nothing more than an alluring house of temptation.
We bought two large sandwiches that were taken back to the boat and cut into many pieces. It was the same drill for the eclair that accidentally fell into someone’s bag.
Holding up a well-used paperback book for me to see, David said, “I bought you an Elmore Leonard book, Mr. Paradise.”
He pulled it back. “But I want to read it again first, then I’ll give it to you.”
We had both separately binge watched the series, “Justified” on the FX channel. The many seasons were based on “Fire In the Hole, one of Leonard’s books. Captain David was surprised that I hadn’t read any and
took on the responsibility of assuring that I did so. I look forward to it after he finishes re-reading it.
After a few curves on the canal, we came upon the picturesque Roman aqueduct. I am amazed at these remarkable design feats. From reading history, Karen can better visualize what it may have been like centuries ago when they performed an essential role in the
modernization of the world. We had seen remnants of this system at Pont-du-Gard a few hours from here and as far away as Segovia in central Spain. The aqueducts are symbols of human ingenuity and innovative spirit.
The Curse of Narbonne
The afternoon rain turned into thunder and lighting. The canal was now adjacent to miles of flat agricultural land and, off in the distance, the lightning bolts had an air of being close to the ground. The crew had three kilometers, one lock and one night left aboard Vision 3. We would debark the next morning before traveling by train to Montpellier.
Knotman limped up the steps to the sun deck. “I finished our travel plans for tomorrow,” he said. “We leave from the Lézignan-Corbières station at nine-fifteen and have a thirty-minute layover in Narbonne. We’ll be in Montpellier by noon.”
Karen lifted both arms and let her head and shoulders fall back against the padded seat. “No, not Narbonne!”
“That’s right, you guys weren’t too happy with Narbonne when we first met up,” said Captain David, “in fact, Ropes Pierre was thoroughly pissed.”
“At anything and everything,” I said, owning my state of mind when I arrived in Castelnaudary.
Ginny spoke up. “Alright, let’s hear this story.”
“It’s difficult for me to talk about,” I said smiling.
“Nothing is difficult for you to talk about. Let’s hear it.”
Although the crew met briefly in Paris, each couple traveled separately to Castelnaudary. Our itinerary led us on a high speed train from Gare Lyon
direct to Narbonne. After a brief lay over, we would transfer to a more localized train for the short ride to our final destination. The first leg of the journey foreshadowed a relaxing travel day. Then we arrived at the Narbonne station.
With only fifteen-minutes before our train departed, we had little time to locate the next track and move our luggage to the new platform. The electric signage with that information was not working. The small waiting room was congested as two repairman were stretched across the floor working on the under belly of a dissembled ticketing machine. Their work created dust and a little puddle of water. Lifting my luggage, I stepped over four big feet and began to look for an information desk. We had twelve minutes before our connection was due to arrive.
The information desk and the ticket counter were one in the same. With no signage available, there were nearly twenty people ahead of me with questions. Anxious and not feeling in control, I looked through a glass wall to the main platform and saw Karen holding out both hands with her fingers spread. We had ten minutes to determine where we had to be and get ourselves there.
I extended my arm to indicate the many people in line that would have their questions answered before me. We both were beginning to panic and I knew that this mime between us would not end well. Most likely, one of us would, in total frustration, adjust our glasses with a middle finger, our secret, all encompassing password for “stop talking, “I’ve had enough” or “I don’t want to deal to you when you’re this way.”
It seemed like each person before me was involved in an extended conversation, but, ten minutes after our train was scheduled to depart, I spoke to an agent.
“That train was delayed one hour, now 14:15,” she said.
My impulse, after having been in line for twenty minutes, was to seek a longer dialogue. I wanted to suggest that they could save their customers valuable time during these power outages by having someone service the people in line with only quick questions. Then, realizing who and where I was, I decided to find Karen to tell her that we did not miss our ride.
“Merci,” I said and left.
We now had forty minutes before our new train arrived, time to use the restroom and get something to eat. There was a orange cone on the floor in front of the men’s room and a hand-written “out of order” sign on the door, secured with black electrical tape, a classy touch.
The attendant was as helpful as the situation allowed. “It’s not working, just use the women’s.”
I hate using women’s bathrooms. Firstly, there is usually a long line for me to feel conspicuous in and, secondly, there is this pressure to leave it better than I found it. On this day, it was open and I was in and out in record time.
Complaining as I lifted up one slice of bread on my turkey and cheese sandwich, I said, “Karen, this bread is wet.”
“Too much mayo?”
“No, wet like soggy, like it was frozen overnight, then put on a counter to thaw.”
“Take it back.”
“Forget it, they’re all this way.” I peeled off the turkey slices and cheese and threw the inedible bread in a nearby trash can.
The delayed coach arrived on time. Once inside, we gathered our luggage around us and sat in seats down the aisle. Karen pulled up a book on her Kindle and I put on headphones and scrolled through my music library. This is where we go to decompress. The Narbonne station experience was behind us and we planned to be in Castelnaudary within the hour.
Karen tapped my shoulder and I paused the music.
“We’re going to be there in five minutes.”
We gathered our luggage and prepared to enter the station.
There was no station in Castelnaudary, just something that looks like a bus stop with a plexiglass overhang. As the train slowed to a stop, we patiently stood beside our seats. When the doors opened, we made our way down the aisle to the exit. Seconds later, they closed and the train began to accelerate. Unlike our upscale ride from Paris, this commuter train operated like a rapid transit system. Doors open, people get off and on, doors close and life quickly moves ahead.
We both looked at each other, stunned, to the delight of a French couple, seated a few rows back, who were laughing uncontrollably. I was angered for an instant, then realized that there is humor in the sight of two Americans carrying backpacks and luggage, looking shocked as the doors closed in their faces. Maybe they weren’t trying to be rude, just couldn’t stop laughing.
“You can get off at the next stop,” said the French man, still very much amused.
I was relieved that he spoke some English and nodded.
The next stop was eighteen miles south of Castelnaudary, some remote pastural commune named Avignonet. As we quickly departed the train, I turned toward the French man. “Will there be another one coming that can take us back?”
“Eventually.” Both he and the woman began laughing again.
We stepped off the train to nothingness. A defining fact about the commune of Avignonet is that the population of 281 people in 1793 dropped to 214 in 2010.
For the short term, I thought that our best hope was to sit down and wait for the train that we were told would eventually come. Karen felt differently.
“Do you think they have Uber or cabs out here?”, she asked. The slope between frustration, anger and cynicism is a slippery one.
“No I don’t. If you’re looking for ground transportation, I suggest that you jump on a fucking cow and hope it’s going in the right direction.”
“Well, if there is no trains coming until morning, I want to explore other options before it gets dark.” She walked off.
“Do you have phone service?”
“No, but I’m able to text Monkey Girl. They’re looking into options.”
Moments later, I noticed a dim light far down the tracks coming toward us. Waving my arms to get her attention, I called out Karen’s name. Twenty meters down the track, she heard me and turned.
“Train coming!” With one arm raised, I frenetically pointed a finger in its direction. She started back, walking along the side of the tracks.
Turning my head, I suddenly realized that this train wasn’t stopping. In an instant, it was upon us, bound for Paris at one hundred-fifty miles per hour, no more than six feet from my nose. It was five seconds of chaos. The sound was excruciating, my eyes were nearly shut from the blast of wind and my lips quivered uncontrollably. Down the tracks, Karen was frozen with fear, her head turned downward and away from the blast. Then it was gone and the silence was deafening. I checked in.
“Are you okay?”
“I think so.”
“I’m guessing that wasn’t our train after all.”
Checking to see if she adjusted her glasses, there was no sound or movement. We both needed a moment to sit and compose ourselves, then refocus on getting to Castelnaudary.
Relief arrived twenty minutes later in the form of a slow, quiet northbound commuter train. We boarded and sat on our suitcases next to the doors for the ride back and, fortunately, slept in a bed that night.
Laughing, Knotman said, “Well Ropes, you must have been beside yourself.”
“No, I was beside him, listening to his entire sermon.” Karen sought the sympathy she deserved.
“I got him a glass of wine, some cassoulet and he was a new man,” said Captain David.
Mellowed out after six days on the canal, I raised my glass. “We survived the curse of Narbonne.”
Karen offered a prophetic warning. “And we’re going back.”
It was appropriate that the water entry to Homps required finesse through another low, narrow bridge that served as the portal to the compact, but easily maneuverable lock. Once the gates opened, we drifted into the basin. Within minutes, Captain David backed Vision 3 into a berth as Knotman yelled out instructions for the final time. Once the boat was secured, I connected to the electrical power station and water hook-up, which consisted of coupling our issued garden hose to a nearby spigot, pushing it through an opening on the lower deck and turning it on. We would all have a nice last shower. For the evening and next morning, Vision 3 was our floating Air BNB.
Homps is a small commune with less than one thousand people whose residents mostly work in farming, but its ideal location supports vacation
rentals and tourism. In addition to the waterfront amenities that the Canal Du Midi brings, it is centrally located with easy access to Carcassonne, Minerve, a medieval Cather Castle and the small fortified village of Aigne that was described as a magical fairy tale.
Ginny and Knotman left the boat first, wandering into the village to find poulet, raisin and vinaigre balsamique. They had planned a nostalgic dinner, one that would certainly evoke old memories and create some new ones. The rest of us walked over to the Le Boat office to arrange for transportation to the train station the next morning.
As we walked back by Vision 3 on our way into the village, Captain David noticed something.
“Hey Ropes, didn’t you hook up the hose for water.”
“I did.” I now noticed that it was missing.
Both Karen and Monkey Girl shrugged the shoulders of innocence.
Captain David questioned. “I wonder if someone from Le Boat took it.”
Moments laters we were back in the office describing our plight to the receptionist.
“It’s the gypsies,” she said, “When people leave their boats, they steal and sell them to others. They get five euros for each hose.”
Admitting to little knowledge of gypsies, they seem to get blamed for many things in Europe. Throughout Spain, France and Italy, there are warnings that they will pick your pockets, steal your purse or sell you fake merchandise. We always take precautions for the worst, but also have fond memories of being serenaded by gypsy minstrels in the old moorish Albaicin district of Granada. A beautiful evening of authentic music with stunning views of Alhambra was worth the risk.
“Do you have a replacement for us?” Captain David’s tone expressed an expectation.
“No, just grab one when it’s free,” said the clerk.
“If I was continuing down the canal and just paid five euros, I may not want to give it up.”
We left the office with the understanding that we were on our own. The rain had stopped and the thunderous late afternoon skies had the hue of orange sherbet as we walked along the path. Captain David turned the opposite direction at the fork.
I asked, “Where are you going?”
“To get my hose back.”
A mischievous laugh from Monkey Girl expressed her support of the idea.
“Let’s just say that we steal a hose and later someone knocks on our door asking where we got it,” I said.
“We tell them that we bought it off a gypsy for five euros.”
“Great idea, let’s do it.”
After reconnecting our hose, we walked into the village to pick-up some fruit for breakfast and some greens, a baguette and a bottle of wine, our contribution to dinner.
As we crossed the new bridge that spanned the canal, I made eye contact
with a gypsy man standing alone. He knew that I knew and I knew that he knew that I knew. However, his enterprise would continue long after we’re gone. Later, I saw the old man buying food at a small marche. That five euro note circulated well through the local economy.
Our last supper was marvelous as always and the backdrop was stunning. As the sun began to set, the orange creamsicle clouds burned golden at the tips like fire against the darkening blue sky. A pinkish hue illuminated the galley through dinner and slowly faded with our last glass of wine.
Knotman offered an amusing challenge. “If we wanted to do another week or so, we could take this boat to the Mediterranean.”
No one answered. The canal experience had pushed our mental and
physical proficiencies, sometimes to the brink. However, we survived it all, knowing that mastery could be in hand after some practice. Most important, our friendships were intact and strong. Even at an advanced age, this crew, as a whole, remained better than the sum if its parts. We left the canal knowing it would never leave us. Tomorrow evening, in the city of Montpellier, the crew would celebrate our canal experiences, the ups and downs that made it all real. On our last night as sailors, we fell asleep to the rhythm of heavy rain, lightning bolts and the thunder that followed.
Our suitcases were packed and stacked near the rear door before we had coffee and breakfast. We wanted to start the transition day on schedule and make it as stress-free as possible. With clear skies and good intentions, we arrived at Gare Lezignan-Corbiere ninety minutes before our train would depart for Narbonne. We hurried, now we waited and did some serious people watching. Small town train stations are as essential to the fabric of French culture as road stops and freeways are to ours.
Narbonne was only twelve kilometers away and, as we boarded the train, Karen and I warned our compatriots not to get too comfortable and to be mindful of exiting quickly. The crew had to split up to find available seating, but we sat on our luggage near the door. Fool me twice, shame on me.
First off the train, we checked to see if the others had exited safely. Captain David and Monkey Girl emerged from the rear of the car but the others were nowhere in sight. As the wave of departing passengers dissipated, we saw Knotman sitting on a bench and Ginny in a discussion with an attendant.
As we approached them, I asked, “What’s going on?”
“Knotman left his walking stick on the train,” said Ginny, “We got everything off but that.”
The Narbonne station had claimed another victim. If recovered, the attendant said it could be back at the station by next day, long after we had left the region. It was gone.
The immediate task at hand was to transport the crew and luggage downstairs through a tunnel that led to the opposite platform. Four of us handled the bags and Ginny handled Knotman. We made the transition with minutes to spare.
Sitting down during the forty-five minute ride to Montpellier, Knotman said, “I loved that stick. I bought it in Beijing.”
“And now, it will spend its remaining days with an old Parisian,” said Ginny, adding some levity to the situation.
I thought about the curse of Narbonne, but decided not to share it. Our experience aside, it is reputed to be a very nice city with much history and it was time to move on.
As on the boat, we each assumed a specific role to get the luggage and our hobbled crew member up three flights to the Montpellier station taxi
platform. Four of us approached the top of the stairs as Knotman and Ginny walked out of the elevator doors and, within minutes, the crew piled into two cabs for the short ride to the Grand Hotel du Midi. We had less than twenty-four hours to unwind and celebrate our adventure before moving on to something closer to our comfort zone.
After check-in, we strolled through the old narrow streets with chic shops before settling in at an outdoor cafe for lunch. It was then that I realized Montpellier was a special city with a romantic charm, hidden from the world, at least the one between my ears.
Seconds from our hotel we came upon an entire city block that was covered
by a canopy of pink umbrellas, like some miniature Christo project. During the weekend, the streets were open to pedestrians only and the shops, unlike other upscale destinations, were promoting sales and discounts. With these distractions, getting the crew to the cafe was like herding cats. We all saw places that we wanted to re-visit.
The afternoon was a good time for the crew to couple-up and go separate ways. Karen and I, as is often the case, found a shoe store. An hour later, we both left wearing our great deals, mine a European-style, black lace-up with hard rubber soles, dressy, but casual.
Returning to the hotel, we saw Monkey Girl and Captain David standing by the concierge who was engrossed in a phone call. Intent on spending the crew’s travel fund on food, they had worked hard to secure a reservation with a known chef who usually cooks for only two parties per night.
“Well, look at this guy,” I said as Knotman strolled in with his new walking stick. They had spent their afternoon productively.
“Good as new,” he reported.
“Try to hang on to this one,” said Ginny, securing the last word.
The Last Night
The crew met in the hotel lounge for cocktails before walking to dinner. As we sat around a small table, the waiter delivered our usual: three vodka martini’s, a gin and tonic, a Manhattan and a decaf Americano. The purple velvet drapes and mahogany walls of the lounge added an old world elegance. In contrast, a young Asian DJ, tucked away in a dimly lit corner playing her techno music, created a modern, global vibe.
The concierge approached our table and spoke to Captain David. “I’m sorry sir, but the chef is ill tonight and will not be cooking.”
“Bummer,” said the Captain, recalling the effort he put into this reservation.
With the same thought, Monkey Girl uttered, “Huge bummer.”
Fortunately, the concierge prepared a backup reservation before presenting the bad news.
“Sir, I have contacted the maitre’d at La Grillardin and she has a open table at seven-thirty, but needs it for another party at nine. It’s very pleasant and I’m certain you will enjoy her menu.”
We took the advice from a gentleman who makes dinner reservations for a living and, with limited time, finished our drinks and began a leisurely walk to the restaurant.
Imagine walking through a smaller Paris at night with no traffic other than pedestrians. The streets were hosting a festive affair highlighted by eclectic music, culinary scents and herds of young good-looking people.
I turned to Karen. “This is where I would be spending my weekends if I was twenty-one and single.”
“Me too,” she said.
We later discovered that there are ten universities within one hundred kilometers of Montpellier and students flock here on weekends. Youthful hearts and minds are contagious. Karen and I have guiltless memories of our wild, romantic college days because we were together, although not in Montpellier.
As the narrow street twisted, we came upon a small plaza with tables set
between large trees, lit only by the glow of street lamps. It was another image of the region’s charm and part of the restaurant. Unfortunately our table for the next ninety minutes was inside.
We were seated in a long, narrow room with a table set for six and one
other for two, occupied by a young couple. Considerate of their quiet romantic dinner, we tried not to be disruptive old sailors boasting about life on the water.
With a few bottles of wine, we ordered dinner quickly. Monkey Girl, once again, selected the homemade foie gras and I the grilled scallops with risotto and fresh vegetables. At first, no one took notice when Knotman ordered something on the menu that read:
“Camembert cheese, cooked in its box in the chimney (in the oven at lunch time), smoked pork and boiled potatoes”
The foil covering the top of the traditional Camembert wooden box, was cut open and the hot cheese was poured over the remaining ingredients.
“My arteries are tightening up just watching this,” I said. “Can I get you something green?”
“I’m not a greens guy,” said Knotman.
“One worm in your salad back in 1976 and you’re no longer a greens guy?” I said, mentioning something that happened forty years ago in a San Diego restaurant.
“Oh God, the worm story,” said Ginny laughing.
Knotman added. “I forgot about the worm.”
“If I don’t keep it alive, this story may die forever,” I said, referencing my photographic memory for all things mundane. The truth is that Knotman is a great greens guy and many have enjoyed his gourmet salads over the years.
We were all relaxed and the impressions of our experiences were flowing freely. Karen turned the conversation to average daily temperature.
“Actually, the weather has pretty much cooperated all week.”
“We had a bit of everything,” added Knotman.
Captain David chimed in. “I’m happy that it wasn’t bloody hot the entire week.”
Monkey Girl added, “The weather is turning autumnal.”
“As are we,” I said.
For the remaining forty-five minutes, we continued with stories about life on the canal and toasted for each time we ran aground. In the end, all was overshadowed by Captain David’s question.
“So, where is our next adventure?”
After some initial research, that question would be answered at the next crew retreat, when we gather with our recipes and wines, an easel, some paper, tape and multi-colored pens. In a relaxing atmosphere, Knotman will deliver his financial report, we will become motivated, and new ideas will begin to ooze. One will rise to the top and the next adventure will soon be confirmed and calendared. That’s essentially how this crew rolls.
Karen and I, holding hands, walked back toward the hotel together, in the streets among the young, beautiful people.
“Do you feel old?” she asked.
“No, I feel young, I just look old.”
We would have an anniversary soon and could not have dreamed forty-seven years ago that we would be here tonight in this place, still together. I’ve known Karen longer than I have known anyone. In the early seventies, we attended a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert in Berkeley. Singer songwriter Neil Young, in his slow, whiney voice, introduced another band member, Stephen Stills. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re still playing together.” An apt description of any relationship that has survived time.
Another singer songwriter, Joni Mitchell honestly described the consequences of a long affair when she said, “There are some lines you have put here and some you’ve erased.” Longevity is nice, but much better if you’re still playing together.
Minutes later in a plaza, aglow with the cobalt blue light of the Opera House facade, we came upon a crowd of people that circled several street dancers putting their talent on display. To the crowds rhythmic clapping, each
performer took a turn with a brief breakdance routine. We were immersed in the moment, our youthful spirit intact. I didn’t want to leave and felt a connection with this group of young strangers. It was the perfect climax to a sojourn that had taken us from surviving the curse of Narbonne to Castelnaudary, through forty-two locks, medieval Carcassonne, the low bridges of Berriac, the charm of Trebes, to this night in Montpellier.
The crew felt fortunate to have, for a week, lived a charmed life on the Canal du Midi. We were tested as a team and proved to ourselves that we were up to the challenge. More important, we felt blessed to still have desire and an appetite for more.
Rachel Martin, who co-founded Oceano Wine in San Luis Obispo with her husband, Kurt Deutsch, can truly be described as bi-coastal. Before Oceano, she worked with her step-father, John Kent Cooke to establish Boxwood Winery in Middleburg, VA and also spearheaded an arduous effort to establish the certified Middleburg Virginia appellation.
After completing a fine arts degree, Rachel became determined to professionally pursue her passion for wine and completed another degree in viticulture from Napa Valley College before attending the esteemed Sensory Evaluation program at the University of Bordeaux School of Enology. It positioned her to help lead the emergence, with her family, of the Virginia winery that focused on Bordeaux varietals.
Oceano co-founder Kurt Deutsch, seeking to broaden the audience for Original Broadway cast performers, established his career by starting two record companies. Their releases have won four Grammy Awards with recordings that include The Book of Mormon, In the Heights and Beautiful, the Carole King musical. Rachel and Kurt actually met at the Middleburg Film Festival after they were seated across from each other at a dinner prior to the screening of one of his movie productions, “The Last Five Years” with Anna Kendrick. The chance meeting became a romance and they were later married.
Fast forward a few years when Rachel was introduced to Henry Warshaw, a neighbor of Kurt’s father who happens to own the 96-acre Spanish Springs Vineyard near the coast in San Luis Obispo. In spite of her East Coast roots, the calling to become a California winemaker surfaced and began to unfold. In 2016, the couple, who still reside in New York City, secured access to great chardonnay and pinot noir grapes and Oceano Wines was established.
Spanish Springs, a true coastal SIP certified (Sustainability in Practice) vineyard, is the sole source of fruit for Oceano’s chardonnay (10 tons) and pinot noir (6 tons) releases. It is located less than two miles from the beach and has the combination of cool, foggy mornings, warm afternoons and evenings with cooling coastal breezes, perfect climate for chardonnay and pinot noir.
For years, unique vineyards in this region have fallen under the expansive Central Coast appellation. Today, with the full intent of creating a new SLO Coast Wine appellation, local wineries have banded together in a strong marketing effort to increase consumer awareness. Rachel Martin and the Spanish Springs Vineyards are a major part of that process.
Oceano added the experience and expertise of California winemaker Marbue Marke to mentor the team. Rachels admits that he often tempers her enthusiasm with a dose of reality that ultimately helps to achieve the goal of making wines that she enjoys drinking. Mr. Marke, a native of Sierra-Leone in West Africa, abandoned plans for medical school to pursue an enology degree from the University of California, Davis. After graduation, he added a MBA from Sonoma State University and before joining the Oceano team, developed an impressive resume at several wineries in the Napa Valley and Sonoma County.
Carrying on the complex operations, Rachel travels from New York to oversee the night harvest of the coastal San Luis Obispo grapes that are, in turn, transported in refrigerated trucks to the Napa Valley and vinified by Marbue at a custom crush facility. Their current limited production totals 630 cases of chardonnay and 230 cases of pinot noir.
Barrel-fermented in all French oak, 33% new, the unique 2016 Oceano Chardonnay ($38) displays an aromatic bouquet dominated by citrus and orange peel notes. On the palate, the wine has a complex and flinty flavor profile of stone fruits, melon and grapefruit. While tasting together, Rachel identified additional hints of white flowers and ginger.
Composed of Swan and 115 clones, the 2018 Oceano Pinot Noir ($45) has a savory quality with salty characteristics that add to the forward flavors of cherry, raspberry and cranberry. Rachels seeks a tension in the wine that exposes its origin as ocean fruit. In a crowded market of California pinot noir, this wine, at its current retail price, is a good value.
Ironically, most of the Oceano Wines are distributed in New York, New Jersey, Florida and Michigan. They plan to expand production to 11,000 cases in 2019 and 15,000 cases by 2020 that will increase supply in California. In addition, their first albariño release is expected in 2021.
I enjoy chardonnay and pinot noir and have sampled many California and Oregon releases. Oceano Wines have the unique qualities and flavor profile to earn a spot on my table.
Last year I was sitting with Cam and Kate Solari Baker at their Larkmead Vineyards estate in Calistoga, tasting new releases and discussing their history that dates back to 1895. One of the wines that we tasted was the Larkmead Dr. Olmo 2015, a 100% cabernet sauvignon release from the same vines that were planted and studied over eighty years ago by Dr. Harold Olmo who was a professor of viticulture at UC Davis.
When Napa Valley icon, Larry Solari (Kate’s father) purchased the winery in 1948, he and Dr. Olmo became fast friends and they worked together on clonal research that led to the production of highly sought after grapes from their property.
The Bakers initially honored the professor in 2015 with the release of the Larkmead Dr. Olmo 2013. Now, they are celebrating the winery’s 125th birthday with a $200,000 gift to the UC Davis Library to preserve and digitize the work of the late Professor Emeritus who is considered by many as one of California’s most prominent viticulture researchers. More than archiving Dr. Olmo’s work, they anticipate that much of the effort can open doors into the future.
In a statement about the gift, University Librarian and Vice Provost of Digital Scholarship MacKenzie Smith said, “As we preserve and increase access to these documents, we hope to uncover elements of Dr. Olmo’s research that could provide new insight into modern-day generations.”
Cam Baker added, “Napa Valley owes much of its success as a wine region to him. It’s our hope that through the digitization and analysis of Dr. Olmo’s research, more findings will come to light that will guide Napa Valley into its next chapter.”
Dr. Harold Olmo joined the faculty of the UC Davis Department of
Viticulture and Enology in 1938 and over the ensuing years was not only instrumental in developing the finest university program of its kind, but also helped pushed the Napa Valley into one of the world’s top wine growing regions for cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.
During his lengthy career he introduced over thirty grape varietals, but it was his development of the Oakville clones that catapulted Napa into stardom. His worldwide travels and discoveries helped amass an extensive grapes collection that earned him the nickname, the “Indiana Jones of viticulture.”
Kate Solari Baker, who grew up on the Larkmead estate, has seen firsthand the sustainability of Dr. Olmo’s work. “The true effects of Dr. Olmo’s research are long term. Today, we actually have Dr. Olmo’s groundbreaking Oakville clones planted in the vineyard, meaning that our cabernet sauvignon wines are in part a direct result of his work and legacy.”
Larkmead winemaker Dan Petroski describes Dr.Olmo research as fearless and says that he was always motivated to do whatever work was necessary to find the answer. However, he is hopeful that preservation of Dr. Olmo’s research can provide future insights as he continues to help shape future discussions on climate change and wine.
Hosted by winemaker Dan Petroski, the “Salons at Larkmead” are discussion-based forums for fellow winemakers, industry leaders, and journalists shaping the narrative on climate change.
To that end, Petroski and Larkmead are spearheading an effort similar to that recently implemented in the Bordeaux region of France, by dedicating three acres of the 110-acre estate to experiment with new grapes varietals
that may be more suitable to warming temperatures. The plot will be planted with grapes like tempranillo, touriga nacional and aglianico that normally thrive in regions of Spain and Portugal where it is significantly warmer.
Petroski adds, “Climate change is very real and already affects vintners around the world. The fact is, cabernet sauvignon may no longer be well-suited to Napa Valley’s climate in 20 to 30 years. As one of the world’s top wine regions, we need to research and plan for inevitable warmer temperatures.”
The real story here is that Larkmead Vineyards is leading the effort to preserve the past and guide the future dialogue on one of the largest issues to ever confront, not only the wine industry, but the entire planet.
The menu of the estate wines, while elegant, remains narrow and consistent. The Larkmead Wines, released in the Fall include three
cabernet sauvignon wines called “The Lark,” “Dr. Olmo” and “Solari” and a rare Italian wine called tocai friulano from a small patch on the estate.
The Vineyard Series/Spring releases include another cabernet sauvignon, the merlot dominant “Firebelle,” “LMV Salon,” a blend of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon and the well-structured “Lillie,” a sauvignon blanc in honor of Lillie Coit, who lived at the estate for many years.
“When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”
― Nelson Mandela
An African winter sun was ascending as our Airbus began its descent into Johannesburg, leaving a two-tiered, radiant orange and blue line across the horizon. The beauty of our planet is glorious and unparalleled, yet we are reminded that it is the worldwide heat and polluted air that enhances the vivid orange.
As I looked down over the arid land and diverse structures that lie outside of the central city, I thought of the oppressors and the oppressed that is the recent past of South Africa and the present in many parts of the world. Since leaving my home country a week ago, thirty-eight people have died from three separate, racially motivated aggregate shootings. Global racism and anti-Semitism is alive and well.
Within ninety minutes of our arrival, we came to Liliesleaf, the site where
six of the eventual Rovonia trialists, including Nelson Mandela, were arrested for plotting to overthrow the apartheid government. Billed “A Place of Liberation,” Liliesleaf was used by members of the liberation movement while underground for a period of twenty-two months from October 1961 to July 1963.
Now surrounded by third world suburbia, the Liliesleaf compound is a grouping of nondescript buildings containing historical exhibits, including a safari tourist vehicle that was used to smuggle guns into the country. It was daunting to stand in the one room stucco and thatched-roof building, with only a single bed and small wooden desk inside, that served as a hiding place for Nelson Mandela, masquerading as a gardener.
On July 11, 1963, Liliesleaf was raided by authorities and thirteen men; six native Africans, five South African Jews, including Liliesleaf owner Arthur Goldreich, a muslim and an Englishman were arrested.
How they were discovered remains a mystery. It could have been the United States Central Intelligence Agency who, because they were primarily Communists, had been monitoring the group or a local twelve-year-old African boy who became aware of vehicles coming and going and began recording specific information. The most likely scenario is that it came from within, prompting Mandela’s famous quote: “Nothing is black or white”.
All of the native African men were convicted and given life sentences. Nelson Mandela served twenty-seven years before being freed. Denis Goldberg, the leader of the Congress of Democrats, was the only white man convicted while the others escaped or were released and exiled.
In 1990, execution of a consulting contract with the City of Pasadena required signing an affidavit declaring that I was not affiliated with a company that was doing business with or in South Africa. The one-two punch of worldwide economic and political pressure delivered the fatal blow to the apartheid regime, but the movement began at Liliesleaf by individuals who were willing to risk everything for the freedom of the native people.
Into the Zulu Bushland
Our thoughts and mindset transitioned during the ninety minute flight to Durban, the third most populous South African City and the largest in the Kwa-Zulu-Natal province, where, in most areas, survival of the fittest applies to the people, not just the lions, elephants, rhinoceros, water buffalo and leopards, known as the “Big Five” of the Zulu bushland animals.
We were greeted by Siyanda, our driver who patiently waited while we ordered some airport food before undertaking a three-hour drive into the heart of the Zulu nation that was, for me, inordinately transformative. It would soon look and feel like the 21-Century Africa that I had envisioned
I learned to drive in California and can’t relate to anything different. I told Siyanda that I sometimes become unnerved while riding in a vehicle where the driver sits on the right side and that moves through traffic in opposite direction to what we do in the states, especially through a crowded airport.
“Ah yes,” he said with an inspired native accent, “just remember that the steering wheel is always in the middle, no matter where you are.”
We drove by fields of sugar cane, pineapples and managed eucalyptus forests that were mainly harvested for construction lumber and utility poles. Soon we passed native people selling fruit, men walking goats and cows, women carrying pots on their heads and babies on their backs, hitchhikers and young students in uniform, all walking along the busy highway that carried cars and trucks at high speed. It looked dangerous and chaotic, but they managed it all as a part of daily life.
Fifty years ago, I married the same woman twice in one year that, in the letter of the law, may constitute bigamy. I discovered that a Zulu man can have as many wives as he can afford, but the price for each bride is eleven cows. Engagements require only a few, but marraige doesn’t occur until the eleventh cow is delivered. Hearing that story made me wonder if the young men with short sticks, herding cows along the busy highway were about to make a payment to Zulu love’s lay-a-way plan.
After three hours in the van, our travel weary bodies were shaken into
alertness as Siyanda left the highway and drove off-road along a washboard trail for the last few miles that led us to the guarded gates of the Nyala Zulu Game Reserve. Named for an antelope and the local province, it would be our home for the next six days.
Stretching my legs, I stood in front of the van, looked out across the horizon and reflected for the first time that, not only was I in the continent, but I was about to explore the African bushland, something that I wasn’t certain I would ever do. Karen and I have the good fortune of maintaining the physical and mental passion to explore new things and let the world take us out of our comfort zones.
After a quick check-in to the Safari Lodge, we had little time to become familiar with our spacious suites, change our clothes and walk past the crocodile pen to the loading area. There we met Sandiso, our guide, and climbed into a ten passenger all-terrain vehicle to enter the reserve for a two-hour, late afternoon expedition.
Claiming that his name meant something like “unexpected arrival,” Sandiso explained that he was a twin, but the doctors did not realize that his mother was carrying two babies. His brother was delivered at the hospital and his mother was soon sent home where he was delivered a short time later. Whether or not we believed his tale, Sandiso’s knowledge and abilities as an animal tracker and off-road vehicle operator gained our trust within the first thirty minutes.
His six days on, four days off schedule had allowed him to pursue a degree in wild animal management and, throughout the week, as we were busy looking through a camera lens at these incredible beasts in their natural state, he willingly imparted facts about their behavior, what they ate, if, what and when they hunted, gestation periods and how they parented. He made it a true audio-visual experience.
Karen asked, “Sandiso, how long will the rhinosaures calf nurse?”
He smiled and said, “Until the baby’s horn grows to five centimeters. Then the mother gets tired of being poked in her belly and decides that it’s time for the young one to start eating grass.”
One early morning, we caught the mother and calf still asleep in a small clearing surrounded by native needle bushes. The young one was cuddled into his mother the way our babies do. The adult rhino was patient,
affectionate and enormously protective from any perceived or real threat. They are too large to be threatened by other animals, with the rare exception of an attack by a large pride of hungry lions or hyenas, who are generally satisfied with hunting smaller antelope or impala.
I asked Sandiso, “How many rhinos live in this reserve?”
“We are not permitted to reveal the number of rhinos at this or any reserve,” he said.
The biggest threat to all rhinos are still illegal poachers who kill them for
their horns that are viewed as an aphrodisiac in some Asian countries. To save the animals lives, many preservationists saw off their horns. Unfortunately, the only options are often disfigurement or death.
Early one morning while scanning the wormberry bushes in the larger Hluhluwe Game Reserve, we came across a young calf standing next its mother who had a fully developed horn. The enormity of the rare majestic site took my breath away as I quietly scurried to capture it on film and gained a renewed realization of the desperate need to preserve them from extinction by humans.
The face of my phone read 5:12 AM and the smell of Karen’s
fresh coffee permeated the air of our open room. The alarms from our iPhones chimed simultaneously, each with a distinct ringtone. When we have to get up early, both alarms are set as a safeguard against one of us accidentally pushing the PM button. Experience tells us it’s the smart thing to do.
Some mornings I jumped into the shower, but most were about throwing some cold water on my face, brushing my teeth and stepping into clothes
that were laid out the night before. Shaving wouldn’t be necessary until we returned to Johannesburg the next week.
I allowed twelve minutes for the walk from our room to the loading area, Karen claimed it took no more than seven. It was important for me to be on time, not just as a courtesy to the others in our vehicle, but to be loaded and moving into the game reserve as the sun was rising.
Sandiso said, “When the sun come up and when it go down is the best time to see the animals.”
The coffee woke me up, then the morning air chill, the vibration of a rutted dirt road and the adrenaline of anticipation made me exceptionally alert for the early hour. Each trip into the bushland had been a different experience that left me wanting more and the dawn was about to deliver.
Minutes into the light, we came upon a meadow of dormant grass, shrubs and a few marula trees that provided a panorama that was natural for the animals, but both extraordinary and alluring for me.
Zebras, impalas, nyalas and a few wildebeest shared the pasture; eating, playing or just passing through. I was in an hypnotic trance watching and
photographing the various species intermingle harmoniously, all focused on surviving another day. We were most familiar with seeing South African animals in a zoo where they are usually segregated by species into sterilized enclosures made to look native.
Capturing three zebras in a rare full trot was my prize shot of the moment, but as this “day in the life of” scene emerged, the impalas and nyala antelopes stood out as innately
nervous, always looking over their shoulders, ears out as antennas. This is because they are continuously hunted by one cheetah, the only predator cat within the reserve. It is estimated that it can easily kill and eat one hundred antelope in a year.
The most feared predators in South Africa are lions, hyenas, leopards and cheetahs, in that order. The presence of a just a few of the first three at the
small five-thousand hectare Zulu Nyala Reserve would eliminate the entire antelope and a good portion of the warthog population in less than a year. This magnified the intrigue of our trip to the Hluhluwe Game Reserve in a few days to search out the lions.
Sandiso asked the group a question, then answered it. “What do the most-feared predators fear?” They fear injury, so they tend to prey on something easy and more their own size.”
The large animals like rhinoceros, giraffe, elephants and hippopotamus are vegetarian and passive except when they feel threatened. When they roamed freely before they existed only in reserves, hippopotamus killed more people annually than any other animal. The size and potential
destructive abilities of the larger creatures secures them a safe place in the natural order. Aside from an occasional baby warthog, before their tusks have developed, the cats prefer to hunt antelopes. They are harder to catch, but offer convenience and limited risk of injury.
“How do the cheetahs hunt when they are pregnant?” I asked.
“Ah, good question,” said Sandiso. “They only have three-month gestation and can have up to four cubs. They can still hunt some of that time and also rely on small animals and rodents.”
Even with Sandiso’s skill and knowledge, we could not be assured of
spotting the reserve’s sole predatory cat. It was constantly moving and trying to be as discreet as possible. Fortunately, over three separate days, our glimpses of the cheetah advanced from some faint spots, obscured by indigenous brush to a sighting of the immediate aftermath of a successful hunt.
Still committed to finding the cheetah on the second day into the reserve, Sandiso found him for a face-to-face view, calm and sitting in the dry grass, sensory vigilant while enjoying a personal tongue bath. It never acknowledged our presence, less than thirty feet away. As it indulged us, I experimented with the various telephoto settings on my new camera and tried to capture its unrefined dignity.
Early the next morning, we encountered two cheetahs on the other side of the fence, in a neighboring reserve. Sandiso explained they often come looking for our cheetah to feel close and visit through the wire. He was devoted to us seeing the cheetahs in motion and decided to come to this
spot first. As we remained still and quiet, the visiting cats tuned us out and waited patiently, but their friend never showed up. Later that morning, before returning to the lodge, we would discover why.
“Wait, cheetah back on the left,” shouted one of our group members, as everyone’s eyes followed the tip of his finger pointing toward a small opening in the encroaching growth.
It was there, camouflaged into the surroundings and our presence seemed to be disturbing. With its bloody mouth secured to the neck of the fresh kill, the cheetah then lifted and dragged the dead impala across a clearing to a more concealed setting to finish its meal. The moment was brief, but a drastic departure from the graceful, dignified creature we watched earlier, enjoying a tongue bath.
During the afternoon expedition, after conferring on his radio, Sandiso quickly backed our vehicle down the makeshift road and headed to higher ground on the westside of the reserve. A group of adult giraffes, called a
tower, and a few calves were seen feeding in an opening close to the road.
As we approached, the strange looking heads atop long spotted necks became visible long before our vehicle found a safe place to stop. The tower of giraffes resembled Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” patches of brown and gold with vertical stems reaching up in different directions.
They were silent and deliberate as they chewed on leaves from the acacia trees, but their size and power was always on display. Fully grown giraffes have the body of a horse with added six-foot-long neck and legs. Life, for the young calves, begins with a six-foot drop to the dry, hard ground.
Watching for several minutes and photographing them at various camera
settings, I noticed giraffes began to look like that weird person at a party that doesn’t get it. Later, after encountering a large adult on the road, we were visually inspired with the sight of it moving away in the knock-kneed gallop before retreating into the brush.
With time remaining, we made a late stop by a large pond hoping to see hippos out of the water. They only venture out after dusk because their skin is extremely susceptible to sunburn. Today, we were too early and, although quite present, they remained submerged, eerily floating with just their pink eyes and ears exposed.
Adult hippos can hold their breath underwater for up to ten minutes and often allow young calves to ride them “hippo-back” as they remain
submerged. The need for mom to come up for air is humorously disturbing to the calf, who is startled by being thrown back into the water, only to climb back on and repeat the process.
We would come back to the watering hole another day. Sandiso’s desire to see the hippos out of the water led him to schedule a later departure time for the last day of our expedition that would allow us to remain in the reserve after dark.
He then was informed by a colleague via radio that three elephants had
been seen walking through a densely vegetated valley near the Northwest border. In the few minutes that we had left, he decided not to drive to where they were spotted, but where they were likely going.
Soon after stopping the vehicle and quietly waiting, we heard the crackle of breaking tree branches and watched the smaller treetops disappear behind the lower shrubbery. The elephants were close.
Sandiso had strategically positioned us at the point where the elephants would emerge from the thick flora to cross the road. He understood that if we were in their path that they would move around us as long as we remained quiet and still. We remained both as the sounds of movement got
louder and momentary patches of grey flashed contrast against the emerald sheen of late winter foliage.
In an instant, the elephants were upon us, massive in size, on a brisk walk to somewhere. They were so close to our open seats that we could see their eyes checking us out as they predictably changed directions and passed in front of the vehicle.
My heart pounded and my arms were paralyzed but luckily in a camera
ready position. My fingers managed to move rapidly, hoping to capture a special moment, one shot that I could treasure. Little did I know at the time, but future immersions with large herds of elephants were on the horizon.
Among the lions
We stepped into the truck at 5:15 AM, nearly an hour before the sun came up. Sandiso pulled the canvas over one side of the vehicle, making it a bit warmer, but movement sucked in the frigid night air and pushed us to zip up our down parkas, pull up our hoodies and cuddle together in the corner of the backseat. The 96,000 hectare Hluhluwe Game Reserve, the oldest in South Africa, was forty minutes away and we had no time to waste.
“If we want to see the lions, we must be there early,” insisted Sandiso.
It was dark and cold, the noise was piercing and the turbulence unsettling as we rambled through somewhere in the middle of nowhere, guided only by two headlights and a man who understood the land and the creatures who inhabited it. The truck strained at higher speeds and the all-terrain tires caromed across the surface of the dirt road, pitted from winter rains and hardened by the sun. None of it was about being comfortable, all of it was about being adventurous and trusting.
Still dark, at one point we slowed, then stopped. Eager to know why, I pulled back the corner of the canvas to find a sizable herd of cattle had engulfed the road and surrounded our vehicle. I wondered if they were moving to another pasture, a bigger watering hole or if the young Zulu shepherd was trying to marry every young woman in the village.
Well-timed with entering our destination, the glow of the early morning sun was welcomed by all who had risen in the middle of the night to be tossed around in the back of a bitterly cold truck with no explanation of what was immediately happening. Questions were futile because we couldn’t hear each other over the racket. With that behind us, our adventurous and trusting spirit took over and the focus turned to finding our Simba. Actually, our aim was to warm up, be observant in our seats and rely on Sandiso to do the finding.
Another reason for arriving early stemmed from the larger reserve’s status as a national park. Unlike our uncrowded private reserve, anyone could
pay the entrance fee and drive in. In minutes, we came upon a half dozen vehicles, a mixture of all-terrain types, like ours, and compact cars from Japan and China, parked randomly on the narrow pavement. It was a clear indication that something special was nearby and the fortunes of timing were upon us. Lions, four females and one large male, looking like Leo the Lion from the Metro-Goldywn-Mayer logo, were fifty meters out, moving and playing in the dried brush that nearly concealed them, playing havoc with the auto focus of my camera. With each movement, the lens, confused, would alternate the focus from brush to beast and back.
When I got a clear sighting, I noticed that one of the females was wearing a handsome blue collar with a device attached that looked like the newest model iWatch.
Sandiso explained that it was a tracking device that they put on many of the large cats to monitor their movements and their safety. He reminded us that the animals were well protected, but 96,000 hectares was a large area to patrol and poachers were still a problem.
Reasoning that this would be my best prospect, I spent the next quarter hour stalking them through a six-hundred millimeter telephoto lens from a hard front row seat. The first instinct was a volume shoot and I quickly snapped off dozens of photos with the hope that one would be good enough to keep.
Lions will make short stops to rest and allow the young adolescents time to wrestle or micro-sleep, but they are mostly on the move. Within a few minutes, they had advanced from the nearby brush to a higher ridge, a quarter mile away. As had Sandiso with the tracking, the telephoto lens performed well and carried most of the weight with my photography, leaving me with many more new shots and a overrated sense of my real skill.
Within the first hour, I checked another box among things I needed to do and see in South Africa. When sharing future tales of my exploits, inquiries about the lions would be first and foremost and the thought of saying, “No, we didn’t see any lions this time,” was unimaginable.
Thinking that the party was over, most vehicles left to explore the landscape in search of other animals. Only Sandiso and one other guide drove to a spot five hundred meters up the road and parked. The lions were no longer visible and most likely out of camera range if they were. After patiently waiting in silence, we soon realized that with extended knowledge of the land and the ability to think out of the box, the two guides made an educated hunch that paid off for everyone.
A buzz of conversation began as the first people spotted them and we all soon became aware that the all five lions had emerged from the brush and were slowly walking in our direction. A sudden shortening of breath and accelerated pulse indicated that my body and mind had distinguished between watching them play from afar and watching them casually walk toward us.
I said, “So Sandiso, what are we looking at here?
“We’re fine,” he said. “They are no longer concerned with the vehicles and will essentially ignore us.”
“Essentially?“ I said. “So, as long as everyone stays in the vehicle, we’ll be okay?”
Sandiso smiled. “Of course.”
That was the reassurance I needed, then he told us that lions are opportunists and will “convenience kill” even when they are not hungry. The concept of convenience killing would have been better discussed at another time.
Without the need of the telephoto lens, I leaned on the rail of the truck and
captured images of our feline friends as they walked by us. Although we weren’t acknowledged, they surely sensed us and, in some ways, trusted us. I tried to honor that trust, but, at times, felt like an invasive paparazzi as our vehicle crept slowly, and for the next thirty minutes, followed them as they meandered up the trail.
At one point, the male stopped to relieve himself, so we stopped, only to start moving again when he did. In a way, it was comical, reminding me of an I Love Lucy television show sketch. It was hard to distinguish if they were completely ignoring us or putting on a show, but the sight of these
creatures, at the top of the food chain, roaming freely around us, never fell short of amazing.
As we began to fully trust the moment, Sandiso injected another “survival of the fittest” anecdote as he explained that every antelope in the vicinity, those near the bottom of the food chain, sensed the lion’s presence.
Shortly after he mentioned it, several antelope, grazing in an overgrown meadow caught my eye and the attention of one of the female lions who, body slumped and head lowered, slowly entered the thick brush and instantly disappeared. Females do most of the hunting, but this unexpected scenario was about to become remarkable kinetic art.
Understanding that the end result could be gruesome, I switched my camera to video mode, focused on the innocent antelope and waited for the
scene to unfold. With natural order, it was routine in the life of South African animals and I justified to myself that the potential images would be nothing more than I had seen in Disney nature films growing up.
Suddenly, there was an unfamiliar
noise coming from the meadow, strange like nothing that I had heard before. The video camera captured a deep, guttural sound, one created by a sudden and forceful exhale of air through the snout. As my right eye continued to monitor the storyline through a lens, I heard Sandiso speak.
“It is the antelopes sounding their warning signals,” he said.
Immediately, the heads of each of the antelope lifted and their ears stuck out in a ninety-degree angle, twisting like a radar antenna seeking the clearest signal. Antelope do not run, they swiftly leap and bounce along like they have springs on the bottom of their hoofs. I captured the visual ballet of several antelope, randomly pirouetting through the tall grass, vaulting high, then disappearing out of view as the female lion, at full sprint, entered from a nearby clearing.
In a fleeting moment, the commotion ended when the lion stopped in a flurry of dust to either enjoy what remained of the antelope dance or contemplate an opportunity lost. There would be no dinner or convenience kill this time. Calmness returned quickly and we continued to follow the lion’s journey up the trail for a few more minutes before leaving the area. Much of the reserve, home to over seven hundred elephants and large flocks of water buffalo and wildebeest, needed to be explored in our remaining time.
As we departed, Sandiso yelled something in his native language to the other guide, who decided to wait with him for the lions to return. They both smiled and directed waves of acknowledgement toward each other before driving off in different directions. Curious as to why their strategy to wait for the lions worked, I asked Sandiso if he knew the other guide.
“He is my brother.”
Pursuing his answer further, I discovered that the other guide was, in fact, Sandiso’s twin brother, the older one who was born hours before in the hospital. Their genetic instincts and shared passion added a window of opportunity and realism to the morning that exceeded all my expectations.
Beyond the Lions
As we moved through other parts of the Hluhluwe Game Reserve, I couldn’t get the lions out of my mind and feared that any new experiences would pale compared to those of our morning. That changed when moments later, we were looking at a small stream with water buffalo and wildebeests slowing moving up the mountain in the shallow flowing water that had carved a path among the rocks and boulders.
Within a minute Sandiso was ready to move on. For him, settling on this small migration as the ultimate photo opportunity was never an option. His instincts told him that the real prize was nearby and, like a badass, he shifted into reverse, darted backward down the path seeking an opportune opening for a one hundred eighty-degree turn and, like an arrow from a bow, sped off in a different direction.
Sandiso could have relaxed and we would have enjoyed photographing the
beasts walking up the creek bed. Instead, he read the signals that placed a large herd at a nearby watering hole and trusted that, holding on to our hats, we would accept his frantic driving as a means to an end. We did.
I am a fan of National Geographic nature photographer DeWitt Jones and have, in the past, used his videos for management training purposes. His message, expressed through extraordinary photographs, is not to settle. His masterpieces evolve after many attempts and an attitude that the best shot is still out there. He and Sandiso refuse to let good get in the way of great.
Our vehicle slowed amongst the flutter of hundreds of disturbed birds as the native brush and Cape Teak trees gave way to an opening that revealed hundreds of water buffalo and wildebeests gathered and paused to quench their thirst before traversing the mountain stream. It was as good as any National Geographic cover photo, but live, a natural daily occurrence in this part of the world.
The viridescent foliage was a contrast to the black and brown shades of the herd, the dark mud and murky green water in the foreground. A mosaic of native scrub on the nearby mountains served as a backdrop to the serene portrait that, for an instant, disguised the reality of natural selection. Water buffalo and wildebeest often travel together and today’s spectacle included a few curious white cranes. Grasping the concept of safety in numbers, the wildebeest may feel protected in the company of the enormous water buffalo who, in turn, understand the value of running side-by-side with an easier target when encountered by a pride of hungry lions.
The engaging outdoor panorama turned my reflections inward to thoughts of a recent conversation.
Weeks before leaving California, I was visiting a friend who had recently traveled to Africa. Of all her experiences, I asked that she describe one image that stood out.
She thought for a second.
“Ya know, all the animals were great, but one day we came upon a large herd of wildebeest crossing a river. The sight of hundreds of them
migrating together, carefully passing through the crocodile infested waters, will always be with me,” she said.
This was my moment, the cover photo of my African memories, the one that would always be with me. People who look at the photo will never comprehend that both the opportunity and the image was made possible by Sandiso’s skills and relentlessness. I was fortunate enough to push a button.
Artist Georgia O’Keefe once said, “I often painted fragments of things because it seemed to make my statement as well as or better than the whole could.”
Looking beyond my enchantment with the entire view, I managed to use my telephoto lens to capture the diversity of the herd and distinct facial
striations on the water buffalo that may have been overlooked from afar. It turns out that the ferocious looking water buffalo, one of South Africa’s “Big Five” feared creatures, spends much of its day eating grass, at ease with most other animals, large and small. Their horns resemble a ceremonial headdress or a large handlebar mustache or a weapon of destruction backed-up by size and brut strength. Differentiated from antlers, the horns stay with them for life and are the main reason that they are not an endangered species although humans continue to seek them as decoration and high-protein chewables for their
We moved on, continuing to explore the massive reserve and soon Sandiso pointed across a canyon to a sole elephant lumbering up the mountain.
“It has been separated from the herd and is finding its way back,” he said.
It is rare to see a single elephant, they generally move across the land in packs. Sensing that the beasts was nearby, Sandiso drove along the dirt path, then without explanation, stopped the vehicle and we waited in silence. The sole elephant herd at the Zulu Nyala Reserve totaled three, but this larger national park would, once again, deliver experiences beyond our expectations.
Sandiso’s expertise paid off again. Four elephants appeared on the road,
walking at a brisk pace. Soon there were ten, then a full herd of thirty elephants walking directly toward us before veering off on both sides of our vehicle into some tall vegetation that partially camouflaged them. There were adults of various sizes and young calves grasping their mother’s tail with their trunks. It was a classic nature film except we were present and immersed in yet another extraordinary escapade.
Immersed in Elephants
Elephants are matriarchal and the herds, ranging in size from three to thirty-five, are led by the oldest female. As they lumbered down the road, this commune, with prehensile trunks swaying from one side to the other, created a rumbling noise and vibrations in the earth. Approaching and now close, their aura was colossal, but there was also a gentle intimacy to the elephants as they forged a path together. Mammoth proportions aside, their steps were soft and they seemed to glide while cutting a large swath through whatever route they took.
I was reminded of the old Yogi Berra witticism, “When you reach the fork in the road, take it.” Elephants don’t need to choose, the right path is wherever they make it.
Held spellbound in the moment, we watched the herd leave the road and cross an open meadow before entering the tall grass that camouflaged all but the wrinkles atop their gray heads and backs. The calves disappeared from view all together leaving us to follow their movements through the
snap of breaking twigs along the newly blazed trail. Even with our presence, they pushed ahead steadily and walked with purpose, leaving no signs that they were stressed or intoxicated from the fruit of the nearby marula trees.
Marula trees are prevalent in many African countries and here in the KwaZulu-Natal province. Aside from offering a graceful silhouette against a fading sky, they produce tasty fruit, high in vitamin C, and some locals believe it makes the elephants “drunk.” The large fruit drops to the ground and, high in sugar content, ferments quickly. When food is scarce, elephants have been known to consume large amounts, become intoxicated and, like humans, act a little crazy, maybe flip a vehicle or two.
There were no signs of intoxication today and, although sensing and sighting us, they were for the most part, focused on traveling to another sector of the vast reserve. However, like homosapiens, there are always a few exceptions and we had, on separate occasions, experiences with an elephant who detected us as invaders and obstructionists.
With the last of the elephants moving beyond the horizon, Sandiso, as was his style, drove to another location then stopped on the road, signaling that we wait in silence. After several minutes, that snapping sound made by branches breaking signaled that the herd was, again nearby. The sounds
became louder and louder until the elephants emerged from the bushwillow shrubs and crossed the road in front of us. We were hearing “elephant damage,” a term used to describe a landscape bereft of trees after the presence of elephants. Loss of marula and knobthorn trees has prompted some conservationists to advocate managing elephant populations to save trees.
For the second time in an hour, we watched the herd cross the road without incident until one of the adults reluctantly stopped, glanced our way and shook her head.
As the tension persisted, Sandiso found a teaching moment. “She does not like us here and her body language is telling us to stay away. Watch her head and feet.”
I needed some reassurance from our leader. “Should we move?”
“No, she’ll figure it out.”
We stayed(hoping she would), fully trusting Sandiso’s judgment and proven ability to drive in reverse. Feeling secure with our retreat and surrender strategy, we sat back and watched the drama unfold.
At first the elephant’s abrupt movements caused her ears to flap against the enormous head and her trunk to sway, then point skyward before exhaling the baritone horn sound that we all know. This time, the sound surrounded us, piercing and personal. Then, like a bull before charging the toreador, she lifted her right forefoot and repeatedly scraped her toes along the
surface of the newly formed path that intersected the dirt road, head still swaying and ears thrashing about. Concerned that movement may escalate things further, Sandiso signaled that we would wait it out. Like all of the situations he pushed us into, it ended with the elephant “nerving up” and calmly crossing the road to rejoin the herd. Tensions relieved, this episode injected a realism that could only present itself with us there, caught up in the moment.
By early afternoon, we had already survived a chilled pre-dawn roller coaster ride and immersed ourselves into the daily routines of a small pack of five lions, some migrating water buffalo and wildebeest and a large herd of elephants. We stopped to eat lunch by a lake profuse with wildlife, exotic birds in the air and on the water while anxious baby warthogs squealed and scurried haphazardly on the mud bank. By now, we understood their pre-tusk vulnerability and the behavior that results from being a top menu choice for predators seeking something quick, easy and nutritious.
Before re-boarding our all-terrain, open air vehicle for the return to the Zulu Nyala Reserve, I exited a restroom and found myself face-to-face with
a mature warthog finishing his lunch of local grasses. He looked up, uttered an obligatory snort, and went about feeding. Sometimes I wish that we would make the entire planet a national park like Hluhluwe, where aside from a few anticipated predators, we could all live together more harmoniously and fear each other less.
The following day presented a change of scenery as several of us joined Sandiso in a warm and comfortable van for a one hour drive to the quaint village of St. Lucia, South Africa’s first World Heritage Site, that rests along the shores of the Indian Ocean. Among many charming features, St. Lucia is essentially a tourist beach town where the trees were different and the salt-tinged air was heavier than anything we had encountered in the bushland.
After lunch and some shopping, we boarded a boat and cruised up a fresh water inlet near the ocean to catch more glimpses of enormous floating hippopotamuses. They were abundant and made me anticipate even more tomorrow’s planned evening excursion with hopes of observing them on land. Aside from the hippos and crocodile eyes buoyed above the water’s surface, a unique animal experience awaited us as we were walking to dip our toes in the Indian Ocean.
Within the first steps onto the beach, over a modest knoll, we found a huge sand sculpture with life-sized depictions of a lion, rhinoceros, water buffalo, leopard and an elephant, the Big Five of African animals. To one side was a large sign, also sculpted in sand, that read “Welcome to St. Lucia and
Africa’s Big Five.” An identical size sign on the opposite side read: “Hi, please support my hard work.” The young artist/entrepreneur had not only sculpted the five animals, but whimsically depicted them as “couch potatoes,” their bodies strewn across gigantic furniture also shaped from sand.
We made a well-deserved donation to the young master, who not only shared his talent, but created another memory from our brief time on the South African beach. As long as we both have our wits about us, there will
always be that image of walking barefoot along the surf of the Indian Ocean and encountering that incredible sand sculpture.
After envisioning the dinner waiting upon our return, I spent the drive home thinking of tomorrow’s last two journeys into the reserve, one in early morning and the last that would extend into darkness where viewing the nocturnal hippos took precedence.
I turned to Karen. “Is there a reason to go out in the morning,” I asked, “I
can’t think of anything new that we will see.”
“Have you been disappointed yet?”
“No, not even once.”
I waited for her to give me a convincing pep talk, but none came. My answer lay within her question. Each trek had provided once-in-a-lifetime encounters with the animals and I now asked myself why would I ever miss an opportunity to follow Sandiso into the amazing Zulu bushland? Our last day would be a full day.
Sandiso’s Farewell Gift
The rising sun casts an orange hue across the horizon as we entered the reserve on our last morning. Nothing new stood out and the next few hours before lunch would be a reprise of everything we had seen during the week. The morning light illuminated the open meadows like a stage and the animals, awakened and active, served as the characters, caught in a real life painting of stripes, spots and adornments. The vervet tree monkeys, with prehensile tails four times longer than there miniature bodies, were visible and moving nimbly through the branches. Only the cheetah, the sole predator cat, remained hidden, leaving some to fear the unknown.
There would be no walk after lunch today. I was prepared instead to relax and be fully engaged in the late afternoon and evening excursion that would be our last. We were still anticipating closure on a few goals and knew that Sandiso would be the linchpin to make it happen before we departed in early morning for Johannesburg.
The light was fading when we first stopped along the plateau and looked down at the hippos, still in the water. From a distance, we saw one on the bank briefly before she reentered the turbid pond. After that, we settled for watching the floating pink eyes of some and others submerged with young calves asleep on their backs.
Suddenly, I was startled by a reverberating sound that moved through the air like it was amplified. One hippo, annoyed with another, was voicing displeasure at high volumes. Her trumpeting snort, sounding like a baritone duck call or a raspy pig in an echo chamber, can reach 115 decibels, almost identical to those attained at a rock concert. Beyond the image of docile, leaf-eating gentle giants with sensitive skin, their resonant natural sounds were more akin to the aggressive, dangerous creatures that they are.
I questioned Sandiso. “Was that a grunt or a roar?”
“It was the devil laughing,” he said.
The sounds were breathtaking but, in the end, it did not brings the hippos out of the water, so we left and traveled to higher ground, trusting Sandiso to deliver an alternate visual experience. Within a few minutes, he braked suddenly, raised his long arm and pointed back toward the hippopotamus pond that, from a distance looked and sounded like an amphitheater.
“They are out of the water.”
We turned, looking back to into the distance and saw three hippos standing on the bank, preparing to stroll up to the nearby brush for dinner. Sandiso once again, shifted into reverse, backed up at high speed, and proceeded down the hill, slowing to a crawl as we approached the pond. He then stopped the vehicle yards away and placed his finger vertically across his lips, silently requesting silence. When someone tried to ask a question, he repeated the gesture. He knew that any sudden movement or noise would drive the hippos back into the water and it had become his personal challenge for us to see the animals on land.
Despite their enormity, hippos’ facial expression and body language always portrays them as shy, reverent and self-conscious. Their gawking pink eyes made them appear more menacing in the water. While observing their
expressions and deliberate movements, I could not, in a million years, have imagined that my first thought would be the memory, as a child, of watching large animated hippos, in tutus and ballet slippers, performing the “Dance of the Hours” from the Opera “La Gioconda” in Disney’s “Fantasia.” Witnessing them today, in the flesh, immediately took me back to the beginning, my first recollection of seeing hippos. In some ways, their true image resembled those caricatures in animation and children’s books. I was reluctant to share my thoughts in fear of seeing glazed stares from my colleagues. The ways of my vivid imagination and memory are, at times, too much for me to comprehend.
The hippos’ skin, looking like a thick, loose-fitting blanket thrown over their bodies, was iridescent with the natural shades of pink and grey that have inspired fashion designers for centuries. They shimmered in the glow of the last light bouncing off the water.
We watched in silence for several minutes. A few were quietly eating, others stood near the pond in some state of transition. Like in a daytime soap opera, the thrill came when one hippo caused the ire of another. As
the dispute unfolded, I quickly switched to video mode and captured a brief skirmish that ended with one hippo being chased into the water and the other standing on the bank, echoing displeasure at 115 decibels. The defeated pachyderm waited in the water for the aggressor to depart before taking some solace in a futile, ear-splitting last word. Species that share this planet are not all that different.
Coming into contact with hippos out of the water was a promise made and a promise kept. After days of anticipation, Sandiso ended our last trek into the reserve on a captivating high note. We all saw the satisfaction on his face but, as we drove off, the group felt compelled to praise him individually and honor his efforts. As the days of adrenaline rush were slowly transforming to fresh memories, no one, including Sandiso, anticipated the final encore that would put on display all of his skills and magic. This last ride was not over.
With twenty minutes of daylight left, Sandiso received a radio message from a colleague that the reserve’s three elephants had been spotted nearby. In a minute, we came upon a split in the dirt road that veered left and advanced straight up a hill. The characters of the quickly unfolding scene included two passenger filled vehicles parked single file in a standoff with the curious elephants, less then one-hundred feet up the hill. Sandiso parked at the base, blocking the others to facilitate our best view. With open paths on either side, it became clear that the elephants had chosen the road as their own and began to express angst at being blocked.
With flailing ears and trunk moving like a pendulum, one elephant became assertive and began trotting down the hill toward the startled passengers in the two vehicles. The ensuing visible and verbal tension caused both drivers to signal Sandiso to back-up and allow them to exit. He did and, as the others fled, we expected to follow them. Instead, Sandiso, in reverse, took us back up the hill, square in the faces of the small herd.
I asked the question that was on everyone’s mind. “Was that elephant charging?”
Sandiso, with motor running and rear view mirrors positioned to facilitate a speedy exit, tried to put us at ease.
“At this point, she’s just curious. Trotting downhill only looks like a charge.”
Seeking some clarification, I said, “At this point?”
“We are ready for whatever happens.”
Sandiso was speaking, but his eyes were locked on the rear view mirrors and his left hand clutched the gearshift knob as the three elephants lumbered toward us. Trust, instincts, fear and a sense of adventure all surfaced simultaneously as the spectacle began to unfold.
The two elephants in the rear pulled up, content to watch the leader, probably a scout, continue to approach us either out of curiosity or an attempt to take back what was rightfully hers.
Once again, Sandiso tried to put us at ease, “Her head is still, she’s mostly curious.”
“Or giving us one last chance to move voluntarily,” I said.
“We are okay, I’m watching closely,” said the man sitting in the driver’s seat with the motor running.
As the leader made her final approach, my friend Mario, who was closest, cooly pulled an Iphone from his parka and held it out like a shield. If this
would be our demise, it would be preserved for eternity in highly pixilated footage. Not to be outdone, I moved to video mode and added some realism to a surrealistic moment by filming Mario bravely filming the charging elephant.
Seconds seemed like minutes as the stand-off continued to evolve with the pachyderm circling from cautious to curious and back again. Then very close, with head and ears gyrating, she aggressively slid her toes against the dirt, lifting dust into the air. In a moment, the lie of the land changed and we were left looking back at the stunned elephant in the distance as our vehicle sped down the hill. Sandiso had determined that it was time to leave. The beast would always be victorious, but he managed an amazing surrender.
The air was still buzzing with many energized conversations as Sandiso stopped the vehicle and addressed the group.
“I always had your backs,” he said. “I could see everything.”
Everyone laughed. It was the laughter of relief and release.
The people among our group came here from different parts of the world with few thing in common. Aside from revering them and worrying about their struggle with extinction, we all had a deep desire to interact and connect with them in their natural setting. Today’s encounter enabled that to a degree that few people will ever be exposed to.
Now in total darkness, we wrapped ourselves in warm blankets as Sandiso pulled a powerful handheld searchlight from under his seat. He began driving with his left hand on the steering wheel, his right clutching the searchlight that he waved expeditiously, side-to-side and up and down.
He explained why. “Sometimes when hit by direct light, the animal’s eyes can’t adjust and they are temporarily blinded.”
He knew them as well as anyone and all of his actions ultimately respected their space and innate sense of being.
Animal sightings in the darkness were rare, but as we were about to the
leave the preserve for the final time, three large jackals emerged from behind some boulders, giving us a brief glimpse of their exquisiteness until Sandiso moved the light in a different direction.
“Jackals,” he said, putting emphasis on the last syllable.
Our safari was ending and, although it was too early to fully wrap my head
around the past week, I knew that Sandiso was at the core of every thing that happened. He was a man, one of the Big Six African animals. Like Pepe, our guide in the Sacred Valley of Peru or Pauli, our naturalist in the Galapagos Islands, Sandiso imparted the knowledge, aptitude and personality that connected us to the special people and animals of the Zulu nation whom we will never forget.
The San Francisco Bay is a one of the most defining features of our region. Aside from being one of California’s most important ecosystems, we rely upon it for commerce, recreation and its alluring beauty that makes the Bay Area an desirable place to live and visit. An artist friend once described the shades of blue that exist on the SF Bay as unique to anywhere else in the world.
The Bay is exposed, on a daily basis to man-made pollution, but fortunately San Francisco Baykeeper, a local non-profit, has worked diligently for the past thirty years to keep it as pristine as possible. Succinctly describing the role of San Francisco Baykeeper, executive director Sejal Choksi-Chugh says, “We’re the eyes and ears on the water.”
Since joining San Francisco Baykeeper eighteen years ago as a legal fellow, Sejal has directed her passion and dedicated a career for a cleaner and safer San Francisco Bay. In addition, her role as Executive Director/Baykeeper gives her a permanent seat on the Waterkeeper Council of the growing Waterkeeper Alliance, a global organization that “works to ensure that every community worldwide has the right to drinkable, fishable and swimmable water.”
In a stronger position, San Francisco Baykeeper continues to provide successful legal challenges and advocacy for policy development to enforce the Federal Clean Water Act.
On a cool, overcast morning at Pier 1.5, we joined Choksi-Chugh and volunteer skipper Matt Stromberg aboard the small Baykeeper patrol boat to get an up-close look at the important work that they do. The day was also an opportunity to showcase the new Baykeeper IPA, a collaborative brew produced by Anchor Brewing Company to support efforts for a more pristine Bay.
We cruised to the Point Richmond area where San Francisco Baykeeper worked through the courts to regulate companies that were violating the law and observed abandoned boats in Richardson Bay near Sausalito that become havens for garbage and other pollutants that eventually end up in the water.
Touting a “Drink beer, help the local waterways!” motto, Anchor Brewing Company, producers of the legendary Anchor Steam, is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of San Francisco Baykeeper with the release of Baykeeper IPA which recently debuted in 12 oz cans with an exclusive hand-painted label by watercolor artist Jenna Rainey.
The beauty of this collaboration is that it becomes one San Francisco icon supporting another. “Anchor earned its name in the late 1800s because of the historical maritime influence on the city. We have the San Francisco Bay to thank for many things,” said Scott Ungermann, Brewmaster at Anchor Brewing Company. “We put a strong ABV to Baykeeper IPA while still maintaining its crisp drinkability, making it the perfect drink for celebrating this fierce nonprofit while having a good time enjoying the Bay.”
A first glance at the beer in the glass reveals a brilliant golden color, but the San Francisco-style IPA also has a unique sweetness on the palate that compliments and balances the traditional bitterness. Four different hops were dry-hopped during the brewing process which amplifies the fruity, spice elements and aroma.
While good hops are essential, experts agree that the key to a great beer is finding the right malt and yeast combination that releases the hop’s best character. In this case, Anchor turned to one of the best, Admiral Maltings, based in Alameda and known for using top-grade organic, family farmed barley from the Sacramento Valley. For those who follow such things, Anchor created a special malt profile for Baykeeper with the addition of 2-row pale, acidulated malt, golden naked oats and toasted rice.
I enjoyed the beer and, without hesitation, would recommend its accessible flavors even if it was not supporting San Francisco Baykeeper efforts. However, after what I learned during our brief excursion on the patrol boat, it becomes my go-to brew to share with others. San Francisco Baykeeper enjoys corporate and foundation support, but nearly half of its operating funds comes from individuals. There are many ways to support San Francisco Baykeeper, the IPA just adds a delightful component.
Baykeeper IPA is available now nationwide in 6-packs of 12 oz. cans and on draught at select bars, restaurants and stores as well as at Anchor Public Taps and the Anchor Brewing Taproom.