Sable Island’s Lonesome Pine

Please note: There were some inaccuracies in the original post which are now corrected. My apologies.

A brisk wind was gusting straight down the expanse of South Beach as Debbie set Sable Aviation’s little Islander down with deceptive ease. Earlier that morning the Parks Canada team had scouted out a suitable stretch of sand firm enough, despite the rain which had cancelled our flight plans a day earlier. The spot was about four kilometres from Sable Island Station, the sole permanent habitation for those on the island for professional reasons. For the few hundred casual visitors permitted each year between June and October, staying overnight is not an option. By sunset we had to be airborne again.

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Snakes in the Cave – Batu, Malaysia, 2018

A 24-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur offered a perfect opportunity to visit the famous Batu Caves, a half-hour from city centre by commuter train. For tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists the main attraction is a profusion of flamboyant shrines and statues, particularly those inside the vast Temple (or Cathedral) Cave, 272 steps above the imposing guardian statue. Near the top, a gate on a side-path caught my eye, its sign welcoming passers-by to a “Dark Cave”. Checking that out after visiting the main feature turned out to be the best decision of my day.

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The Case of the Disappearing Island: Bay of Bengal, 2009

Before taking up writing full time I’d spent a quarter-century assisting people on both sides of international disputes to meet informally and explore solutions that might be politically difficult to discuss officially. Indeed, in some cases, officials couldn’t even talk at all. It’s discreet, behind the scenes work that occasionally enables politicians to take credit for newsworthy diplomatic breakthroughs; sometimes sows seeds that won’t bear diplomatic fruit for years; but often has no measurable results at all, other than fostering modest improvements in mutual trust and communication. Inevitably, though, this somewhat arcane field of “Track Two diplomacy”  provides its practitioner with some quite interesting moments.(*)

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The Pangolin Strikes Back

The pangolin is a gentle little creature; harmless unless you happen to be an ant. It’s the only mammal covered with scales – picture a pudgy, pointy-nosed otter covered with large fingernails. When threatened it curls into an appealing ball that resembles a large seashell. Its most deadly predator is the human which, unlike other species, doesn’t simply hunt for food, but mindlessly drives any prey it relishes toward extinction. By some reports the pangolin is the most illegally trafficked animal in the world. But, to the satisfaction of those of us who cheer for the underdog, it seems that this mild-mannered little creature may have struck back.

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A Mountain in Tibet – the Kailash Kora

Kailash and Mansarovar

A majestic mountain called Kailash towers above the high point of the Tibetan plateau, a three-day drive west from the capital of Lhasa. Until mid-20th Century it had been seen by only a handful of Westerners, but it has always been sacred to millions of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Tibetan Bonpo. Today, hundreds visit between June and September, most to attempt what one lyrical author has called “the greatest and hardest of all earthly pilgrimages” – a 52-kilometre “kora” or circumambulation of the mountain at altitudes ranging from 4,600 metres (15,000 feet) to over 5.600 metres (18,500) where the available oxygen is only half that at sea level.

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Ship Strikes – A Whale’s Eye View

The last few years have been rough for the 400-odd remaining Atlantic Right Whales; a once-abundant species that’s never recovered from being hunted almost to extinction. A habitat close enough to shore to coincide with fishing zones and ship traffic lanes means that some die a slow death from tangling in fishing gear while others are wounded by ships’ propellers slicing into their backs, sometimes dying from direct blows. Some people may wonder how a species so finely evolved to detect underwater sound can be so vulnerable, but not me. I learned the hard way during a few adrenaline-filled moments on a Cold War submarine patrol.

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Trekking to Mount Everest – Goals and Intentions

Our Nepali sirdar (expedition team leader and guide) moved quietly from tent to tent, waking us in turn. In the cold pre-dawn darkness we dressed quickly and followed him up to a small plateau above the town of Namche Bazaar, 3,500 metres (11.500 feet) above sea level in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley. There we stood as the sky lightened slowly until, finally, a golden glow illuminated the summit of Mount Everest (Chomolungma in Nepalese), topped with a halo of cloud, jutting coyly above the massive Lhotse-Nuptse mountain wall, 28 kilometres away. After some time utterly absorbed in the moment I turned to thank our Nepali friend but no words came. Choking back unexpected tears, all I could manage was a soundlessly mouthed “thank you”.

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