Australia’s hot raw heart

For two in our group the pain arrives soon in the shape of blisters from ill-fitting boots. Fortunately I have comfortable shoes. My particular anguish stems from the abrupt shift from being fairly sedentary to being super active.

Hiking the Larapinta Trail definitely takes me out of my comfort zone. And that’s a good thing.

On the summit of Mt Sonder

On the summit of Mt Sonder

It’s hard-baked ground in the vast MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs, a sunburnt, cracked earth covered in mulga scrub, broken red rock and scree. Australia’s raw heart is a forbidding land of awesome proportion and isolation yet also a place of incredible beauty.  

The 232-km Larapinta Trail snakes across this tortuous terrain of wind-scoured broiled stone. It follows narrow spurs flanking precipitous gorges and winds its way up steep slopes that are littered with massive boulders.

The highest point, Mt Sonder, proves to be both the toughest climb and highlight of our four-day hike along sections of the trail.

Camp at sunset

One freezing night is spent in swags flung between ghostly river gums along the dry bed of the Hugh River. Another night I’m soaked in a desert storm despite ducking for cover when the rain arrives. Within moments I have sleeping bag and swag in a tangle and have brushed against all sides of my tiny tent which immediately starts to leak like a sieve.

Tough land, tough walk

Each day spent trekking through the spacious eternity of the Red Centre I sweat and I struggle up steep inclines, living fully in the moment, one step at a time, totally focused on not stumbling or slipping in loose shale or being stabbed by spears of tough grass flourishing beside the track.

All I hear is the steady, rhythmic crunching of dry earth beneath my boots. Work and city life pressures no longer exist. My Larapinta hike is more effective than meditation.

The scale of the surroundings renders anything human as infinitesimal. I’m overwhelmed by sheer immensity in size, proportion, scale and time.

The Larapinta leaves me with a lasting impression of my total insignificance in the grand scheme of things. This cosmic realisation is at once profoundly beautiful yet totally sobering.

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Heaven for shopaholics

New York’s the best city by far for a binge on almost everything. Whatever your choice, you’ll most likely find it bigger and better in the Big Apple, particularly when shopping, so to check out the latest and greatest in cameras I ride the subway to Manhattan’s west side, get off at 34th Street and walk a couple of blocks to 420 Ninth Avenue.

Anyone with an interest in photography will instantly recognise this address as the location of B&H Superstore.

B&HThis electronics behemoth occupies an entire city block, with 6,500 square metres of display space stocked with just about everything imaginable related to images and sound.

I’m like a kid in a sweet shop. I just can’t make up my mind. Do I head upstairs to photography right away, or do I first check out all the techno-goodies spread before my eyes on the ground floor?

Instant gratification wins the day, so I spend the next 40 minutes or more immersed in a world of portable entertainment, simply having fun messing about with stuff I have no intention of buying. I sample an ear-bashing brace of headphones, fiddle with professional audio and video gear, peer through binoculars and telescopes, assess home theatre systems and LED screens.

The photo department is more like a Photographic Expo than a city store display. Each brand of camera has its own dedicated kiosk manned by experts. I’m encouraged to pick up and handle whatever I want, so of course I spend ages doing just this. Prices are much lower than at home, as I expected, but most amazing of all is this sheer volume of choice. 

Leica S2-P littleAlong with apparently every photographic accessory ever invented, there are more cameras and lenses than I can possibly count, from the cheapest point-and-shoot to the top-of-the-range “in my dreams” Leica. 

As the B&H promo video suggests, I am now “discovering what a product range really looks like”. It’s precisely this experience that entices 5000 eager shoppers through the store’s front doors every day … or so they say.

My advice is simple. Just don’t go on a Saturday. B&H is owned by Herman Schreiber and he and most of his employees are observant Hasidic Jews, so the store closes 2pm Friday and reopens at 10am on Sunday.

Take an interactive look around the store for yourself

  

 

The fabulous Frick

Rembrandt Frick

Self portrait, Rembrandt

Manhattan is chock-full of cultural cornerstones. The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue is perhaps the best known and most stupendous with its “two million square feet housing more than two million objects of which you can see tens of thousands at any given time”.

The trouble with such big numbers is that, just like the Louvre in Paris, this cultural behemoth requires a lifetime of visits and close inspection to be truly understood and appreciated.

For the vast majority of travellers, those rarely in the city, the Met presents a great challenge. Visitors rarely have time for a comprehensive experience and have to choose carefully what they want most to see.

In this sense then, smaller can be greater, and I’m fortunate to be steered towards a worthy alternative, The Frick Collection, housed in a magnificent former private home not far from the Met. (1 East 70th Street)

This Manhattan marvel is perfectly suited to time-poor tourists seeking a stellar experience. The Frick contains one of the most extraordinary collections of fine art you could ever hope to appreciate in a morning or afternoon.

Renoir Frick 2

La Promenade by Renoir


And it’s a bargain; entry is $18 adults, $15 seniors. Children under 10 are not allowed so you can look forward to a squeal-free ambience while wandering spellbound through the mansion’s 16 galleries with your free audio guide.

Another singular joy of the Frick is being able to get as close as possible to priceless art. Naturally there’s security in place but it’s unobtrusive. Provided I didn’t try to touch I was able to keenly inspect, judiciously, the brushstrokes of Old Masters – Rembrandt, Velasquez, Turner, Degas, Renoir.

I’m a huge fan of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels (Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies) so I am elated to see the Holbein portraits of  Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. These two splendid oils are suitably juxtaposed either side of the great fireplace in the Living Hall. As the audio guide pertinently comments in my ear, “it’s hard to believe you are looking at the originals of these famous works”.

At the same time I can’t help noticing that Holbein’s portrait of More looks uncannily like the Cromwell of the BBC television series, far more so than does his painting of Cromwell. Perhaps the series producers got their portraits mixed up?

Holbein Frick

Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger

Above my head hangs the huge El Greco depiction of St Jerome, on an opposite wall are two paintings by Titian, and between them and where I stand is Michelangelo Buanarotti’s sculpture Sampson and Two Philistines gracing a elegant table.

Cromwell Frick

Thomas Cromwell by Holbein

And that’s just some of the art in this one room!

This superb collection of beautiful objects and extraordinary paintings was amassed by the 19th Century coke and steel industrialist Henry Clay Frick.

Indeed, it was a fortune well spent.

In addition to European masterpieces it comprises sculptures, 18th Century French furniture and porcelains and an unrivalled display of exquisite Limoges enamels. Wherever you look there’s something extraordinary to see. And I have hardly mentioned the wonder itself of being allowed to see the interior of this magnificent house.

My travel advice is that you promptly engrave the Frick’s address on your next New York itinerary.

 

 

That New York state of mind

Staying in the East Village turns out to be the smartest ploy imaginable. Our apartment, which I find on AirBnB, is located on 1st Avenue between 2nd and 3rd streets, just off Houston (pronounced “Howston” by residents of the Big Apple). Serendipity has placed us right at the heart of one of New York’s most interesting and flavoursome neighbourhoods.

New York springJust one block from our front door is an entrance to the subway F-line, so we have easy access on tap to almost anywhere we might wish to go.

Not that there is any imperative urge to stray far from “home” because all along 1st Avenue there are excellent restaurants offering a choice in cuisines that encapsulate the colourful, cultural diversity that is a hallmark of both the East Village and the Lower East Side.

It also means that following an inspiring yet inevitably tiring day of adventure while roaming around the big city there’s really no need whatsoever to leave our friendly neighbourhood for an evening meal. Even better, after we’ve dined we can simply stroll home well fed to our beds.

Even the weather does us a huge favour on the day we arrive in town by shifting abruptly from late winter chill to soul-inspiring spring sunshine.

This switch to a long awaited welcome warmth transforms Sunday in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park into a day of rich outdoor celebration and entertainment. There’s a jazz band in full flight at the NYU entrance and classical pianist in full cry on a baby grand beside the Garibaldi Statue.

 

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A spontaneous, joyous jam on massed guitars breaks out among the crowd gathered beside the famous Arch at the centre of the park. This celebration of live music and the general bonhomie of the people gathered in the sunshine prompts us to shift instantly and effortlessly into a New York state of mind.
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