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Amber (Amer) Fort, Amer Town, near Jaipur, india

Amber (Amer) Fort, Amer Town, near Jaipur, india

Last week I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon wandering around the incredible 400 year old Amber Fort (also called Amer Fort), on the hills outside Jaipur, in India’s desert state of Rajasthan. Talk about atmospheric! Set into the side of a mountain, overlooking a decorative lake with paterre garden island and surrounded by Great-Wall-of-China spines of defensive walls, the fort is a maze of rooms, twisting stairs, courtyards and vantage points over four storeys, and is built of red sandstone and huge slabs of marble.

Cool marble sitting galleries, used by women at Amber Fort, Jaipur (and yes, that's solid marble!)

Cool marble sitting galleries, used by women at Amber Fort, Jaipur (and yes, that’s solid marble!)

It wasn’t hard to imagine what it would have been like at the height of Raja Ram Singh I’s powers, as there was an outrageously over-the-top Bollywood film being recorded the day I was there, with huge men in cardboard armour and swirling, dancing, martial arts performers doing their thing, while the local audience ooh’ed and aah’ed. Pretty surreal and pretty memorable.

Central garden courtyard and audience pavillion, seen from the ramparts of Amber Fort

Central garden courtyard and audience pavillion, seen from the ramparts of Amber Fort

On the walk up into the fort, I also passed a somewhat underwhelming, though no doubt, trusty, local police car, ready to leap into action if needed – I guess it was parked at the top of the ramparts slope so it could get a run-up to catch the invading hoardes….

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Local squad car, ready for action, at Amber Fort, Jaipur

The surrounding heritage town of Amer, is also worth a wander – it’s small windy streets are jam packed with artisans producing everything from Hindu carvings and miniature painting to gleaming copper pans, and there is a surfeit of temples – apparently the Maharajah’s mother took a keen interest in building temples throughout the township. If you arrive early in the morning, before the heat of the day, you will also see the parade of hundreds (literally) of elephants, their faces painted in bright powders, as they carry the tourists up into the fort. Unmissable.

View across the lake from one of the corner ramparts at Amber Fort

View across the lake from one of the corner ramparts at Amber Fort

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Finally! Melbourne for Dogs is finished and off with my fabulous editor at Woodslane who will work her magic. Did you know it takes up to 5 months for a guidebook to go through the editorial/design/cartography/printing process once it leaves the author’s hands and before it hits the shelves? It’s somewhat akin to having a baby, though at least you get to sleep through the nights. Anyway, to celebrate, I have hauled off to Italy for some summer sunshine and a week of walking around Lake Como. The weather is perfect for walking just now: in the 20’s and cloudless skies. I only have a short time in between other commitments, so I have headed off on the 34km, 2 day ‘Dorsale’ walk, which goes along the spine of the mountains edging Lake Como, from Como in the south of the lake through to the tiny town of Bellagio, which is poised in the centre tip of the upside down Y of the lake.

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It’s a great solo walk: with a reasonable map and guide notes from the local alpine club, and the extensive (if somewhat confusing at times) array of signs, you basically keep the lake on your left and head north. The walk starts with a welcome leg up the first 900m of ascent, courtesy of a vertiginous funicular railway from Como up to the tiny alpine town of Brunate. From there there’s another 700 metres of ascent for the day, but it’s not all in one go, and the huge views give you plenty off excuse to stop and gape when you need to catch your breath. The walk takes you past mountain refuggios, tiny roadside chapels, grand old Italian villas, through beech forests and eventually up above the treeline into glorious mountain pastures, absolutely heaving with wildflowers, bumblebees, grasshoppers and butterflies. I expected Julie Andrews to appear, twirling around and singing ‘the Hills are alive…..’!

Cows puttering past the refuggio on their way to dinner!

Cows puttering past the refuggio on their way to dinner!

I passed only 8 other walkers the whole day which is remarkable when the lakeside towns are just heaving with people at this time of year. However, when I descended into the 1100m Pian del Tivano valley at the end of the first day to stay at the Alpetto del Torno mountain Refugio (for the best gnocchi I have eaten eaten in my whole life, thanks to Ugo the super chef/host), the valley was also heaving – not with people, but with dairy cows with bells around their neck, making music as they ambled around the pastures. Perhaps I’m not in a sound of music ad after all, but one for luxury milk chocolate! It is very close to the border with Switlzerland after all! More tomorrow in Day 2.

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Amazing what you find hiding in your draft folder ….. 3 years later!  For the Melbourne for Dogs readers:

Am finally into the nitty gritty of Melbourne for Dogs, and decided to check out some reader recommendations for great off-leash dog walks.  Gardiner’s Creek Reserve in East Burwood, right next to the Deakin University campus was top on my list. And of course after weeks and weeks of unremitting 30 degree plus heat, the designated day dawned ….. bucketing rain, fabulous lightning and thunder and radio warnings of flash floods!  Well, that was annoying.  After an hour, it eased up so I thought I’d give it a crack anyway.  My enthusiastic co-author was all for it, so we picked up our trusty two-legged companion, Deb and headed north.  My readers are right – Gardiner’s Creek Reserve is just perfect for off-leash bound-y dogs, with around 2.5km of tracks through the manicured bush reserve and the opportunity to get their feet wet in the meandering creek – though thanks to all the rain, the creek was more a roaring torrent, so even Expeditioner Indie had to keep her distance or risk taking a water-slide detour to Port Phillip Bay.

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Have just spent the past week getting out and about with the Geelong Walks book – so exciting when all your work comes to fruition and people start to use it! Now, though, my plate is clear so I can knuckle down on Melbourne for Dogs, which is due to the publishers at the end of April.  From that point, it is still around 5 months of editing, designing, cartography etc until it reaches the shelves – I find the whole ‘hidden’ processes behind books quite fascinating.

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Indie, Seagull Lookout, St Kilda Marina

Meanwhile, my co-author on Melbourne for Dogs, a.k.a. Indie, is just kicking back and contemplating the seagulls from her window seat on the front of my kayak, down at St Kilda marina yesterday – a great way to cool off after the longest lasting run of 30C+ February days we’ve ever had in Melbourne.  Needless to say, we’re enjoying doing the beaches chapter of the book just now.  West St Kilda Beach is a favourite – close  by and off-leash for dogs all year round – plus the kite boarders who favour it provide endless hours of entertainment for dogs who run after their enormous, colourful kites in the shallow waters. Dog heaven.

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ImageBack to Planet Oz to find my new book waiting on my doorstep. Yay! A year in the making and it feels like an elephant pregnancy, but finally Best Walks of Geelong, the Bellarine and the Brisbane Ranges is here. I think it looks great – but I would do! It should be in bookstores, newsagents and Tourist Info Centres in the region before the end of the month – let me know what you think!  You can also buy it direct through Woodslane’s online bookstore or other online booksellers.  It retails for $29.99 and includes 40 great walks. Alternatively, if you are in a cafe or other outlet and would like to stock it, let me know and I will put you in touch with the publishers. Now, finally, onto Melbourne for Dogs….

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Volcanic cones of Mt Etna, Sicily, in winter

Volcanic cones of Mt Etna, Sicily, in winter

I’m on the last leg of my trip before heading home, and my son and I are staying in the ancient town of Ortygia, Siracusa, at the southernmost tip of Italy.  Today we headed north for a close up look at the largest volcano in Europe: Mt Etna. At over 3300m tall, Mt Etna hasn’t once stopped erupting in its 200,000 plus years of existence, and what looks like a symmetrical cone from the coast (very much like Mt Fuji) is in fact a grumbling, steaming, spewing volcano with hundreds of different cones all over the place.  The most recent major eruption was in 2001, and the cafe we had lunch at, which is about 2000m, was partially covered by the lava flow from that eruption, which stopped at its walls – literally:

A CLOSE shave for the Mt Etna mountain refugio cafe

A CLOSE shave for the Mt Etna mountain refugio cafe

We did a short walk around the rim of one of the smaller cones, in a group collectively called the Silvestri Craters which are 2000m above sea level, and despite it being mid winter, noticed the air was ‘simmering’ down one slope, adn the ground was in fact very warm to the touch – nice to keep your toes warm on a cold winter day!

Getting up to Mt Etna is easy if you have a car – it’s only a short drive from Catania – which has been covered in lava flows numerous times through antiquity – though the resulting fertile soils bring people back, and Etna is now famous for its wine, pistachios, honey and lemons grown around its base. You drive through the most extraordinary rugged lava fields: an incredible moonscape which stretches as far as the eye can see once you are above the tree lines, and the steam which bellows from one of the top cones bulges across the skyline.

View across Mt Etna lava fields (my son's photo!)

View across Mt Etna lava fields (my son’s photo!)

As far as walking goes, you can either walk up the cones from the refugio at 2000m, or catch the cable car (when it is operating) and then 4WD truck.  Above 2900m you are required to be accompanied by licensed guides, as despite extensive monitoring, the volcano is still unpredictable and very active with new fumaroles and lava vent explosions happening with no notice.  In addition to the higher level walks, as you come to expect anywhere in Italia, with its extensive networks of hiking paths, there are a large number of signed ‘nature trails’ throughout the national park, which also take in the native chestnut groves and wild birch forests at lower levels. Covering an area of over 300 square kilometres, there are a number of quite distinct geological and floral zones on the volcano, and each cone has its own characteristic activity – be it flows, steams, smoke, ash or occasional lava explosions.  You could happily spend many months exploring and walking here – one day certainly wasn’t enough.

Lava formation, Mt Etna, Sicily

Lava formation, Mt Etna, Sicily

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Merrivale Standing Stone (menhir), Dartmoor (c) JP Mundy 2012

Merrivale Standing Stone (menhir), Dartmoor (c) JP Mundy 2012

My wanderings around the UK this (northern) winter, have brought me down to very wet, but always beautiful south Devon countryside, to visit friends.  The only solution for socialising in the current inclement (think floods, driving rain, more floods) is to meet up at some of the country’s gorgeous pubs, so we had every excuse we needed to find our way to the Dartmoor Inn at Merrivale, high up on sodden and windswept Dartmoor. Just behind the Inn is the old Merrivale granite quarry which once provided the stones for London Bridge.  Just a short walk from the Inn across the saturated moor, are some remarkable groups of standing stones (think Stone Henge but smaller and wilder) and double stone rows thought to have been placed there over 4000 years ago, though noone is really sure what prupose they served: celestial alignments to help with planting, burial sites or other sorts of ritual seem to get the most votes.

4000 years old and counting: Merrivale Stone Rows on Dartmoor (c) JP Mundy

4000 years old and counting: Merrivale Stone Rows on Dartmoor (c) JP Mundy

Dartmoor itself apparently has more than 70 stone ‘rows’, standing circles and towering standing stones on various sites. Merrivale is the largest and most diverse site on the whole moor with a number of parallel double and single stone rows, a stone circle, menhir (standing stone) and burial chamber.

As fascinating as all the stones were, probably the most interesting part of the walk was coming across a Dartmoor ‘quaver’, surely the nominee for the weirdest bog-effect in the world: somehow the dense peat matted together in places to hold bubbles of water under its surface, and walking on it was somewhat like walking on a bubbly water bed.  Utterly bizarre.

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