Learning from experience

Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing

[Oscar Wilde]

 Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.

[Jules Verne]

The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing

[Henry Ford]

 

green and white tents near trees

Photo by ajay bhargav GUDURU on Pexels.com

In 1971, I spent about a fortnight driving around France with several friends including the now well-known journalist Matthew Parris. He was our driver, and we travelled in the car that he had driven through Africa and Europe from South Africa to England a year or two earlier.  We camped ‘wild’ wherever possible, avoiding official campsites.

The first night was a disaster for me. We had a canvas tent with an inner room, which had its own built-in groundsheet. The outer room was without its own one. I helped lay out the groundsheet for the outer room and decided (for no good reason at all) to leave its edges protruding beyond the outer wall of that part of the tent. I was one of those assigned to sleep in the outer part of the tent.

I laid out my sleeping bag on the ground sheet, and then crawled into it. To my surprise and horror, I could feel every pebble and stone beneath me. When I had bought the sleeping bag, I had naively believed that it lived up to its name; that it would help me to sleep. Nobody had advised me to buy a Li-Lo, an inflatable mattress which would have cushioned me from the ground beneath me and the misfortune that was about to befall me. 

During the night, there was a thunder storm. The rain came down heavily and before long, my sleeping bag was soaked; the water had crept into the tent via the groundsheet. Although I had a miserable sleepless night, I was not put off the idea of camping. Next day, we tied my soaking sleeping bag onto the roof rack above our car and it dried in the wind as we drove along. We also stopped in the aptly named town of Tonnerre (‘thunder’ in French) in France, where I purchased a Li-Lo. The rest of the holiday went swimmingly so to speak.

Herodotus and ants in the refrigerator

My PhD supervisor, ‘Prof’, and his wife ‘Wink’ used to spend their summers camping by the sea in northern Greece. Prof spent his days profitably studying an aspect of the area’s local fauna.

Prof, a good scientist, had an insatiable curiosity about everything. This knew no rest periods. Quite a few years before I met him, Prof and his family began taking summer holidays in Greece. They camped there in their caravan, which they hauled across Europe with their old Land Rover. At first, they visited many of the tourist sites in Greece as well as spending time relaxing by the sea. One of the beach resorts that they visited was Platamon in the Greek part of Macedonia. While his family were enjoying the sun and swimming, Prof noticed some large ants scurrying about on the sand. They were large enough to be seen from quite a distance. What interested him particularly was that they were most active around midday when the air temperature was at its greatest. At this time of day, hardly any creatures, let alone insects, were active. The temperature of the surface of the sandy soil on which these ants were busy carrying out their daily chores was in excess of 40 degrees Celsius. The two-coloured (red and black) ants whose bellies were carried vertically were members of the species known to taxonomists as Cataglyphis bicolor. Prof nicknamed these ants ‘catas’.

These desert ants caught Prof’s interest. After all, they were far more interesting to him than swimming or reading books. Why bother with fiction, he would have asked, when life itself is so interesting? This fascination with insects was not new; it began in his childhood days, when he had been keen on entomology. He began observing the ants in his usual methodical way. This had two results. First, their behaviour began to obsess him to such an extent that his interest in connective tissue gave way to his study of the ants’ behaviour and ecology. Secondly, because of this interest every summer holiday had to be spent in Platamon. He could not get enough of his ants. I will return to them later.

Prof’s curiosity was unending.  It extended to bizarre extremes as I was to discover shortly after I began working with him. Wink was keen on arranging large parties at their home in the Home Counties. Prof noted that the guests standing chatting with glasses of drinks in one hand helped themselves to whatever was offered to them on trays. At one of these parties, Prof, who was not keen on small talk, retired to the kitchen and opened a tin of fish-flavoured cat food. He spread this in thin layers on salty Ritz Crackers before laying them out neatly on a tray. He called the pretty young daughter of one of his guests, one of Wink’s cousins, into the kitchen and asked her to offer his unusual snacks to the guests. He wanted to test his theory that people at parties would eat anything that was offered on a tray. The young girl, who was aware what Prof was up to, began carrying the fishy snacks towards the living room, but halfway down the long corridor she turned around and returned to the kitchen. She told Prof that she felt a fit of giggles was about to begin, and that she would not be able to keep a straight face whilst offering the crackers to the guests. Wink, who told me about this later, was both furious and amused.

After many years without one, Prof and Wink acquired a small camping refrigerator. This allowed my friends to refrigerate bacon and butter and to keep milk for longer periods in the summer heat. It also allowed Prof to refine his research in an interesting way. He used to pick up a cata and then pop it into a small specimen jar. Ant and jar were then put in the refrigerator for a few minutes. The ant’s metabolism slowed down in the cold, and the creature became immobile. When it was so anaesthetised, Prof removed the ant and painted a small identification mark on its belly with the kind of paint (it was the ‘Humbro’ brand) that was used to decorate model aeroplanes made from kits such as used to be manufactured by companies like Airfix. When the ant warmed up and awoke, Prof placed it carefully exactly where he had found it.

ANT 1

Prof ‘stalking’ marked ants in northern Greece

Prof was delighted when he saw his first marked ant reappearing the following day, and again the day after. Now, he was able to follow the activities of individual ants. The marked ants were not given numbers; they were given names. Thus, ‘Alybel’ had a spot of silver coloured aluminium painted on its belly; ‘H’, who had a particularly plump belly, was named after Prof’s school friend, the larger than average Canon H; and so on. Another was named ‘Canon’. These names appeared in the scientific papers that Prof published eventually.

Once he had developed a method for tagging ants, Prof began to follow them about as they carried out their daily labours. He bought an enormous number of aluminium garden tags before leaving England for Platamon. Each of these had a rectangular part that was to be used for writing the name of a plant and a contiguous tapering section that was supposed to be stuck into the soil next to the labelled plant or seedling. Prof numbered his miniature labelling stakes from 1 upwards and kept them in numerical order on a long wire. When a marked ant poked its head out of the nest, Prof began stalking it. Every 10 seconds, he placed one of his numbers with its sharp point on the position where the ant had been, beginning with tag number 1, and then 10 seconds later number 2, and so on until the ant returned to its nest. Thus, he left a trail of aluminium labels that mapped out the ant’s footsteps. After the ant returned to the nest, he plotted out the ant’s exact path on a paper map. He did this without difficulty as he had learned how to draw maps during his spell in the army at the end of WW2.

While Prof was stalking ants, he must have looked quite odd to the casual passers-by. Dressed in a khaki safari jacket and unfashionably long khaki shorts, his head, which was largely hidden by a wide-brimmed straw hat, bobbed up and down at regular intervals as he laid each successive marker. He hoped that no one would disturb him or his markers but made no fuss when the goatherd’s goats strolled over his open-air laboratory. Once, I remember him trying to explain to the goatherd (in broken Modern Greek) what he was trying to do. The goat man remained mystified. The Greeks, incidentally, referred to the catas as κλέφτες (‘thieves’ or ‘robbers’). Prof used to wonder whether the catas, which were capable of carrying loads much heavier than themselves, were the same ants that Herodotus claims carried gold in India.

Herodotus (c480-c429 BC) wrote

(see: http://www.livius.org/sources/content/herodotus/the-gold-digging-ants/):

Besides these, there are Indians of another tribe, who border on the city of Caspatyrus, and the country of Pactyica; these people dwell northward of all the rest of the Indians, and follow nearly the same mode of life as the Bactrians. They are more warlike than any of the other tribes, and from them the men are sent forth who go to procure the gold. For it is in this part of India that the sandy desert lies. Here, in this desert, there live amid the sand great ants, in size somewhat less than dogs, but bigger than foxes. The Persian king has a number of them, which have been caught by the hunters in the land whereof we are speaking. Those ants make their dwellings under ground, and like the Greek ants, which they very much resemble in shape, throw up sand heaps as they burrow. Now the sand which they throw up is full of gold. The Indians, when they go into the desert to collect this sand, take three camels and harness them together, a female in the middle and a male on either side, in a leading rein. The rider sits on the female, and they are particular to choose for the purpose one that has but just dropped her young; for their female camels can run as fast as horses, while they bear burthens very much better.”

However, these ants, according to Herodotus, hid from the heat:

When the Indians therefore have thus equipped themselves they set off in quest of the gold, calculating the time so that they may be engaged in seizing it during the most sultry part of the day, when the ants hide themselves to escape the heat.”

So, the ants that Herodotus describe differed from the Cataglyphis ants in northern Greece in that they became invisible during the hottest part of the day. Maybe, it was hotter in the area that the ancient Greek described than in Greece.

A nest in Macedonia

In about 1977, I travelled to Greece overland with my PhD supervisor (‘Prof) and his wife (‘Wink’). Every year they towed a caravan across Europe to their favourite camping spot near Platamon on the coast of northern Greece. They were averse to camping overnight in campsites. They preferred to camp ‘wild’ at spots of their own choosing. Their journey involved three nights in the former Yugoslavia, a country where camping outside official campsites was against the law. However, over the years they had found several places in Yugoslavia where they could camp ‘wild’. Prof and Wink were always anxious when they travelled through that country, constantly worrying that their illegal camping activities would get them into trouble. Let’s join them on the last few hours before leaving southern Yugoslavia (in what is now Macedonia) and an official campsite, where circumstances forced us to stay one night. Here are two extracts from a book, which I have not yet published.

OHRID 0

Picnic north of Ohrid in Macedonia, 1977. The author is standing

“After lunch, we drove onwards towards the town of Ohrid that lies on the eastern shore of the lake bearing the same name. As the sun began to set, we faced a problem. Prof and Wink had never travelled to Ohrid before and knew of no places where we could camp ‘wild’. Driving along, we could see nowhere suitable to do so. Cautiously, I recommended the town’s campsite. I had stayed there a few years earlier with my friend Hugh. It was a lovely spot next to the lake shore. Reluctantly, Prof agreed that this would have to be where we should spend the night. At the entrance of the camping grounds, we had to surrender our passports in order that the camp could register our presence to the police. Prof was reluctant to let go of his passport, but when the officials assured him that they did not need it for long, he gave in.

While supper was being prepared, I took a stroll around the campsite. An elderly employee of the campsite approached me and greeted me like an old friend. When I shook his outstretched hand, I remembered who he was. I had met him the first time I camped in Ohrid for a week in the late 1960s. On that visit, I used to walk from the campsite to the town in order to do sightseeing or to catch buses from it to other places in the area.  At the end of each day, I used to walk back to the campsite, where Hugh had sunbathed all day. On one of these return journeys, this man, who greeted me so many years later, had seen me on the road and had invited me into his home to meet his family. I was touched that he recognised me…”

OHRID 1 1973

Ohrid in 1973

“… we continued our journey towards Greece on the following morning. We left Ohrid and drove across the mountains east of Lake Ohrid to Resen, where we did not stop. Had we not been in so much of a hurry to leave Yugoslavia – Wink and Prof always felt more than a little uneasy being there – I would loved to have visited the nearby Lake Prespa, which, like Lake Ohrid, shares its waters between Yugoslavia (now Macedonia or FYROM or Northern Macedonia) and Albania. Unlike the bigger Ohrid, Prespa also shares its water with Greece. In fact, the frontiers of the three Balkan countries meet in the middle of the lake. We crossed another mountain pass after leaving Resen, and then descended into the plain in which the town of Bitola stands.

We parked near a large mosque in Bitola, and then began wandering around an open market. Prof stopped by a stall selling green grapes. There were flies crawling all over them. He took out a notebook and pencil, and then pointed at a fly on one of the grapes. He was hoping to learn the local word for that particular kind of fly; he was always trying to improve his vocabulary in the languages that he encountered en-route. He even carried a miniature tape recorder in which he recorded people pronouncing words in, usually, Modern Greek. He used to listen to these recordings and try to repeat them in order to improve his pronunciation. The seller of the grapes, seeing Robert’s interest in his wares, was hoping to make a sale but could not understand what the foreigner was asking. Both parties were left unsatisfied.

OHRID 2 BITOLA 77 Train from Medzhitlija

The road from Bitola to Medzhitilija on the Yugoslav side of the Greek border in 1977

After leaving Bitola we drove southwards across a flat cultivated plain until we reached the Yugoslav customs post at Medzhitilija. We waited in a queue of vehicles until we drove under the wooden canopy over the roadway adjacent to the border officers’ cabin. Before handing our documents to the official waiting alongside the car, Prof looked up into the eaves of the steeply pitched roof and began pointing at something. The customs officer looked up and then at Prof, who was frantically leafing through a small well-worn Serbo-Croatian pocket dictionary.

“I wonder what the Yugos call a house-martin’s nest,” Prof kept muttering.

The officer looked him, puzzled rather than impatient.

“For heaven’s sake, let’s get on,” Wink shouted at her husband from her perch behind us. 

She, even more than Prof, was keen to leave the communist country where, on previous trips, they had had minor though worrying brushes with authority.

Minutes later, we were driving south along a Greek road …”

Veggie mush

I became such close friends with my former PhD supervisor, ‘Doc’, and his wife ‘Wink’, that I accompanied them on their long summer holidays in Greece.

PLAT 77 Campsite with moon

Camping at Platamon in 1977

Every year they drove down to northern Greece with their caravan, which they towed with their aged Land Rover. I accompanied them on several journeys during the late 1970s. Also, I used to join them at their favourite camping spot, a patch of uncultivated land just south of Platamon in northern Greece. This scrub-covered sandy area is now covered by a village known as Nea Pori.

On one occasion, I arrived at Platamon on a train, which I had boarded in Belgrade. It must have been almost 11 o’ clock at night when I disembarked. I was hoping that I would find my friends camping in their usual spot.

As I walked from the station through the village on my way to the camping spot, I passed the grocery shop that Doc and Wink always used. Its owners were sitting at a small table on the street outside it. They recognised me and invited me to join them in a drink. I was handed a tiny glass, such as one might use for shots of strong spirit, and they filled it with beer. We knocked glasses together and I downed the tiniest portion of beer that I have ever drunk. Then, they told me that my friends had arrived and were camping in their usual place. I walked there through the darkness, and saw them fast asleep under the awning. As silently as possible, I erected my tent and went to sleep. Fortunately, I did not disturb them.  

The railway station was at the north end of the centre of Platamon, well beyond the shops that Doc visited. Whenever we drove into Platamon, Wink would rush to it because there was a small newsagent’s stall near it. She was hoping to find a copy of an English newspaper. She did occasionally but it was always a few days out of date. Apart from her, there were few others in Platamon who would have wanted to read an English paper.

By the time that we returned from Platamon, the sun would have been setting for a while, and it was time for our sundowners and olives. Doc used to prepare supper (dinner, if you prefer). He often fried the fresh fish which we had just bought in Platamon. He was a good cook. The fish or meat, if we were eating that, was often accompanied by a mixture of vegetables that included onions, aubergines, peppers (green or red), and tomatoes. It never contained garlic because he did not like it. These were stirred together in a pot until they were cooked.

Doc referred to this dish as ‘veggie mush’ (pronounced ‘moosh’). When I told him that the dish, which he believed to be his own creation, resembled the classic French dish ratatouille, I could see that he was flattered that his own creation could be compared to something enjoyed by gourmets.  

The sky at Platamon was frequently cloudless. Where we were camping there was little ambient light so that the night sky could be seen easily. We used to stand looking up at the star-filled canopy that covered us. Shooting stars shot over us frequently, momentarily altering the map of celestial objects that twinkled down at us. Doc would stand with me and point out the various constellations.  He showed me how to identify the North Star. We stood in a glorious silence that was only occasionally interrupted on some evenings. Otherwise, we could neither hear the sea, the sound of whose waves were lost in the dunes that were between us and it, nor the trains that ran along the tracks a few hundred yards to the west of us.

 

Read this before travelling under the English Channel!

This is an excerpt from a book I wrote some years ago about travels with my late PhD supervisor, Robert, and his late wife Margaret. Every summer, they used to travel with their caravan to Northern Greece – a nine day journey, camping along the way. Here is what happened on the first night across the English Channel.

HARK 78 Ptit S Bernard RDH AY MH

L to R: Robert, Margaret, and Adam  

After docking at Calais, we drove a short distance southwards towards the village of Coquelles. Having driven right through the village, we stopped in a lay-by situated in the midst of ploughed fields. There was neither a house nor a person in sight at this isolated spot.

At this point, I should explain that Robert and Margaret preferred to camp ‘wild’. That is to say, they preferred not to camp in officially organised camp-sites. This preference was not based on financial considerations, but on a desire to spend time far from the madding or maddening crowd. Robert once told me that his idea of hell would be to be trapped forever in a bus full of passengers chattering incessantly. I trust that St Peter has sent him to a better place!  Robert told me that if were to be born again, he would like to be reincarnated in the form of his pet horse named ‘Hobo’. This pampered creature spent all day in a huge field in the open-air, and lived an ideal life, neither having to make or listen to small-talk nor to attend committee meetings…

HARK 78 Ptit S Bern Camping

 

…Soon after we parked at our first camping site in the northwest corner of France, I felt the need to pass motion. There was not a toilet to be seen where we stopped and there was none in the caravan. The compartment in the caravan that had been designed to be used as a toilet was being used instead as a wardrobe and general storage cupboard. I wondered what arrangements had been made for evacuating one’s bowels. I asked Robert. Before he replied, he handed me a spade and a pickaxe. When I had these heavy implements in my hands, he pointed at the ploughed field across the road from where we had parked. He told me that I was to dig a hole in the ground, do my ‘business’, and then cover it up, taking care not to leave any signs that the earth had been disturbed. Robert was a keen environmentalist, but definitely not a ‘tree hugger’.

Armed with my workman’s tools, I entered the field and hid behind one of the few small windswept bushes near one of its boundaries. This was the first time that I had ever used, or even held, a pick-axe. So, I raised it high above my head, and brought it down sharply towards the ground in front of me. As soon as the cutting point of the tool hit the hard earth, it bounced of it. The ground was as unyielding as concrete. I tried again, but with the same unproductive result. By now, I could feel that things were becoming urgent and if I persisted in trying to dig a hole, I would soon find myself in an embarrassing hole. Making sure that I was not observed, I voided on to the surface of the earth, rather than beneath it, and then I returned to the caravan.

rob map

Late in 1994, nineteen years after I defecated onto that field near Cocquelles rather than beneath it, the field no longer existed. It had been excavated and destroyed to become a part of the French terminal of the recently constructed Channel Tunnel.

 

Beneath where I had once squatted, thousands of passengers now stream daily on their way to and from France.

I have been one of them.

 

aegean

FOLLOW ADAM YAMEY’s ECCENTRIC ADVENTURES WITH HIS PROF  HERE