exploring the cities, the reef, and the red centre

It’s been a busy five weeks in Australia, and we only scratched the surface of what’s possible in this vast country. But we did take in several major cities, explored a coastline, snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef, hiked the challenging Valley of the Winds trail through the spectacular rock formations at Kata Tjuta, and completed the 9.4 km base walk around the most famous red rock in the world: Uluru — aka Ayers Rock.

We also sampled many craft beers and dropped by many brewpubs along the way; our favourite was the 4 Pines brewery and restaurant in Manly, just outside Sydney— they also had the best ribs we’ve ever tasted.

Our favourite urban area was greater Melbourne — easy to get around on trams and buses, lots of interesting neighbourhoods and festivals, and free admission to major art galleries. We also had a friend in Melbourne (who we first met in the Amazon) and relatives in the suburbs, so that helped us feel welcome. From Melbourne we explored the Great Ocean Road; it reminded us of the Sea to Sky highway that connects Vancouver and Whistler. Even with mountains, seaside cliffs, lighthouses, and brewpubs, the highlight was seeing not one, not two, but three wild koalas along the way. Oh, and by the way, koalas are NOT bears, they are marsupials, something completely different.

In Sydney we walked around the iconic opera house, visited more free art galleries, but two highlights come to mind. Our AirBnB was about 2 km from the opera house, and on our way we were watching for a cafe to have a coffee and snack, and found ourselves facing Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, perhaps the most famous food truck in Aussieland. Their specialty is meat pies, and g’day are they delicious! Later we ended up at Fortune of War, which claims to be the oldest continuously running pub in Sydney, and mostly filled with locals which is usually a good sign.

We happened to be in Brisbane during the Commonwealth Games, talking place just down the coast. Officials had bizarrely recommended that residents stay home or leave the area during the games because it would be too congested — and only realized their mistake when games attendance was much lower than expected but then it was too late. The local media reported that the closing ceremonies took place in a nearly empty stadium. We took a very pleasant boat cruise upriver to visit a famous koala sanctuary, established in the 1930s in response to the possible extinction of koalas when they were wantonly killed by the thousands for their fur coats, much like the near extinction that faced the buffalo in Canada for the same reason.

Confession time. We knew about the big cities and the vast outback, but we had no idea a large portion of Queensland is tropical — hot and humid, and perfect for vast plantations of sugar cane, coffee, banana, citrus fruit of every description, and avocado. But this also means the water off the ‘far north’ coast of Australia is a steady 27-28 degrees C throughout the year. You don’t need a wetsuit to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, but you do need a ‘stinger’ suit, a tight-fitting Lycra suit that protects swimmers from a dangerous species of jellyfish who also like warm ocean water. We called them Smurf suits because they are head-to-toe blue. We had booked an overnight excursion to the Reef, which meant that after three sessions of snorkelling and a gourmet dinner on the first day, we awoke floating over the reef and ready for a 6:30 am snorkel and another after breakfast. And what fantastic snorkelling it was, probably the best we’ve ever enjoyed in terms of the diversity and colour of the coral and the fish.

In the first few days we were in Australia, the number one recommendation we heard repeatedly was to go see Uluru, and we finally gave in and booked our flight to the ‘red centre’ of the continent. We’re so glad we did.

At one time, people could camp or stay at motels within a few feet of Ayers Rock. But eventually, Indigenous protests and negotiations resulted in tourist facilities being moved away from the rock, title to the land returned to the traditional owners, agreements made around co-managing the national park that included the Uluru and Kata Tjuta rock formations, and new tourism facilities established at Yulara, just outside the park boundaries. The resort trains and hires local Indigenous people, who make up about 30% of the 1000 staff on site. There is of course much more to it than that, but it all seems to be working really well.

From the Ayers Rock Resort we caught the bus to hike Kata Tjuta one day, and to the walk around Uluru the next. Both days involved getting up by 5 am because the bus excursions included watching the sun rise on the rocks. We respected the wishes of the Anangu people who ask visitors not to climb the rock they hold sacred. Only a small percentage of visitors still climb Uluru, and in fact the jointly-managed national park has set a date in October 2019 when the steep path, known as the Mala Walk, will be closed to the public.

We had wonderful and varied experiences in Australia: the train system between the cities we visited was inexpensive and ran on time, the craft beer and local wines were excellent, the people were great, the art galleries were free, and the landscape was outstanding. Go to Australia, but not for less than a month!

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exploring the resplendent island

Imagine an art gallery that is just a large dusty room with randomly mounted, rapidly deteriorating paintings of unidentified people and places by nameless artists. Oh, that would be the national art gallery of Sri Lanka. Sure, the country is still recovering from a decades-long civil war and the legacy of colonial occupation, but maybe they should not be describing this as a national gallery until they are able to put more effort into it. At least the security guard wandered over to point out that some of the paintings were of ancient kings and past presidents.

Nevertheless, we spent several relaxing days in Colombo in a very pleasant Airbnb space, walking or catching wild tuk tuk rides to and from supermarkets, historic sites, and a mixed bag of bars. We especially liked a beer house in the old Dutch Hospital complex, and Cloud Red, a bar high atop a hotel not far from our place. The national museum is well worth visiting with it’s extensive collection and well explained history of the “resplendent island”.

We organized a driver to take us to the interior of Sri Lanka, in order to see some of key historic sites outside Colombo, experience the highlands, go on a safari, and spend some time laying in the sun.

Over the next several days we visited five UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the ancient cave temples at Dambulla, the site of a 5th century mountain-top fortress at Sigiriya, the ruins of the 11th century city of Polonnaruwa, the shrine of the Sacred tooth relic in Kandy, and the 17th century Dutch fortification at Galle. Perhaps the most impressive was Sigiriya, partly because it was, after all, on top of a mountain that we had to climb1202 steps in rock, brick, and cast iron stairs bolted to the side of a cliff face to reach. Picture a narrow metal fire escape attached to the side of a twenty-story building! Because it was abandoned centuries ago, the ruins at the top are just traces of foundations and a brick-lined water reservoir (photo above). Certainly the original occupants were safe up here because they could see anyone approaching to attack, but it would be very vulnerable to a well-planned siege.

We also walked through a tea plantation (they call them tea gardens) and visited a tea factory to see how the leaves are dried, ground, sorted, and packaged for bulk export. Workers pick only the top two or three leaves from each bush, but revisit each plant once a week year-round. After 18 years the plants are pulled up and the patch left for a year before new plants are started. Tea is not native to Sri Lanka, but first grown here by the British on an experimental basis in the early 1800s. Many decades later a modest 23 Kg was prepared for export; before long production had increased so dramatically that Ceylon became synonymous with the best tea on the market. Tea still accounts for 17 percent of annual exports.

We stayed near Yala National Park so that we could do a “Jeep” safari (the trucks are actually Indian-made knockoffs). We knew it wouldn’t be as dramatic a day in the bush as we had experienced several times in Africa, but we did expect to enjoy the day. Unfortunately our driver was very uncommunicative, sitting as he was in a closed cab with us in the open back. We also discovered that the safari drivers who take visitors into Yala are the most undisciplined guides we have ever met. At animal sightings they would cut off and block each other off, drive in reverse, and spend a lot of time yelling at each other. And at the park ranger who was trying to bring order to the trucks gathered along the road near a pair of leopards who eventually had enough of the chaos and wandered deep into the bush. To top it off, our driver didn’t deal well with an uneven and rocky section of the road — something snapped under the rear end, rattling loudly on our way out of the park.

Ah, and our last day in Sri Lanka? Poolside at a resort just outside the old Portuguese / Dutch city of Galle. Perfect!

our new favourite beach

The first words out are: What a fabulous beach!!! The sand on Beau Vallon beach, outside the capital city of Victoria, was smooth, cool and wonderful to walk on. The water was not cold, not hot, but just right! We had a fabulous time jumping the waves, floating in the water and soaking up the sun. Of all the beaches we have visited in our travels, this is now number one!

We stayed in an Airbnb a few blocks from the beach, so an easy walk.

Don was a bit under the weather for a day or two, so I went to the local store to buy supplies (we had a full kitchen). I found the store and picked up my basket, browsed and put groceries in. I was looking at a meat product, but couldn’t figure out the price, so I went to the counter to ask the staff… when I got there, he was not there, there was no one there, not a single other person in the store!

I looked around, checked the front door… yep, it was locked. They had closed the store for lunch and obviously did not know I was inside. I found two doors at the back of the store, locked from the inside, but decided not to open them as who knows if an alarm would go off that would have the police running over from the station across the road.

I decided not to panic and had the most leisurely experience of grocery shopping ever (no one to get in the way). When I finished my shopping, I put everything on the counter, picked up the newspaper, relaxed and read until the shamefaced staff came back…

You never know when odd things will happen to you… they were very apologetic as this had never happened to them before… I told them this was the first time I had ever been locked in a store. Don and I have had a good laugh over it!

We spent ten days enjoying the beach, the Boathouse Bar, and cooking in our lovely little apartment.

We then went to Victoria for a few days. On Sunday we walked to “Eden”, it was about 32 degrees that day and the distance was about 5 km. Eden, built by South African investors on reclaimed land, is clearly a place for the ultra rich. They brag that people from 50 countries have bought in. If you’re interested, there are still a few places available, but with rising sea levels we wonder how safe an investment this is.

Eden had one of the only grocery stores open on a Sunday, one of the reasons we walked so far. The other is that it features the only micro brewery in the Seychelles. The beer was okay, expensive, but refreshing. They had only one Lager and a thin “dark” beer. Not our usual micro brew experience.

It was still very hot; when we left the gated community we found the local bus to take us most of the way home. I must say riding the Seychelles transit bus system is a terrifying experience. The drivers go extremely fast, don’t care about others, horns always blaring and they don’t slow in the curves. We took buses several times and each time we were appreciative we stepped off alive.

The Seychelles are lovely and the beach on Beau Vallon was spectacular… we hope all will be good for many years to come.

Happiness!

Deborah

awesome tanzanian safari

We’ve never seen so many big cats. More than 50 lions, cheetahs, and leopards over 6 days. Not to mention scores of elephants, Cape buffalo, and giraffes, and hundreds, probably thousands, of zebra, gazelles, and wildebeests. Oh, and while we’re at it, throw in some jackals, hyenas, scrub hares, mongooses, and countless species of weird and wonderful birds. The Tanzanian “northern circuit” has a lot to offer, and is no poor cousin to Kenya or South Africa when it comes to wildlife viewing.

We were so lucky to have an excellent driver/guide for our Tanzanian safari. Elisante with African Savannah Trekkers took us deep inside Tarangire National Park, along the rim and down across the floor of the massive caldera (crater) within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, out into the vastness of the Serengeti, and over to Manyara Lake National Park to see thousands of flamingos feeding in the lake.

It was very hot and dry, animals were often gathered near rivers and waterholes — with any luck the heavy rains will start in a few days. March and April is a short but important rainy season here. Farmers around Arusha, our launching point, have tilled the soil and are waiting to plant corn and other crops as soon as the rain starts. In the meantime, on safari with the roof up for viewing means within minutes everything inside is covered in a layer of red dust and it is all you can taste. But we so enjoyed the 360 degree view!

Sometimes we would travel for an hour or two across the savannah along dirt tracks, dry grass and solitary trees as far as one could see — and then suddenly, under one of those lone trees would be gathered a family of cheetahs or a pride of lions (including one group of 18 lions and sleeping in the shade except for the rebel sitting in the tree!). Less frequently, someone will have spotted a leopard sleeping in a live or fallen tree, and soon other safari trucks would gather around, everyone hoping the leopard would get up and walk over. Eli was very patient with us; we hung out even after everyone else had given up on one leopard in particular, and sure enough, she stood up, stretched, and walked away for us.

One day out in the Serengeti we came across others watching three young cheetahs resting and playing under a tree not far from the road. In fact there were at least a dozen trucks lined up, but Eli pulled up so that we would have a very clear view of the family; the mom was resting on the other side of the tree. Two of the cheetahs wandered into the middle of all the trucks, but then one seemed to be watching something behind us all. We swung around to see a jackal running parallel to the road and before we knew it the cheetah was dashing up the road ahead of us. We then realized they were chasing a young gazelle and soon all three young cheetahs had joined the chase. Eli quickly repositioned the truck to give us a front row view of the brave little gazelle running back and forth across the road as the cheetahs played cat and mouse with it. Unfortunately, all this commotion attracted the attention of a passing hyena, who dashed past the cheetahs, grabbed the gazelle, and trotted off with lunch.

It was amazing to witness extended families of elephants grazing and drinking water from the river, and so much fun to watch baby elephants playing with each other in the mud. It was awesome to see hundreds and thousands of zebra, gazelles, and wildebeests watching out for each other scattered across the landscape (although we were told the zebras are quite smart, and during migration let the wildebeests cross crocodile-infested waters first!). And so many flamingos!

Save up your shekels and plan now to go on safari in Tanzania, you’ll be glad you did!

wide sandy beaches washed by warm ocean water

If you grew up in the 1960s, Zanzibar was in the realm of the mysterious, exotic, and far away. Various books and movies (perfect example: “Road to Zanzibar”) played with the island’s historic role as a centre for the Arab slave trade and as a major source of spices for Europeans. In fact the “spice islands” were once the world’s main source of clove, but they also now grow and export lemongrass, nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric, vanilla, chili, and black pepper. Some of our favourites!

But even with all this spice production, it is tourism that is beginning to bring in more foreign currency— people from around the world attracted to soft sandy beaches washed by the warm Indian Ocean, and in some places, enough wind to attract serious kite surfers.

We started with two weeks in Nungwi at the northern end of Zanzibar, in a small beach bungalow just 50 paces from the beach. Breakfast was in a open-air dining area facing the beach and we had exclusive use of beach lounge chairs out on the beach itself. Breakfast featured a huge plate of fresh island fruit and eggs any style – a good start to the day. It was interesting that the bungalows and hotels in Nungwi have attracted Czech and Russian tourists in a big way — we hardly heard any English spoken except when our fellow visitors ordered drinks or meals. Nearby, there are some resorts that cater exclusively to Italians, who were apparently the first to invest in this part of the island.

“Beach boys” as they are called, come by every few minutes offering deals on snorkelling, fishing trips, spice tours, and more, or selling crafts they claim they carved themselves. And then there are the “Maasai boys” from the northern region of Tanzania, dressed in red tartan cloth and carrying sticks or clubs, posing for photos and sometimes selling crafts they also claim to have made. Lastly, women regularly come by offering massages — seems unnecessary when you’re relaxing in the sun and have forgotten all about work and other stresses.

We did head out on a large traditional wooden dhow, although the Yamaha outboard that supplemented the traditional triangle sail would obviously be a 20th century addition! The goal was to snorkel around the Mnemba atoll — we saw lots of small colourful fish and some unusual starfishes, but we’d probably have to be much further out, or join the divers to see more.

Next stop for two weeks was another beach bungalow, this time down the southeast coast near the old fishing village of Jambiani. Once again, our accommodation was 50 paces from the beach, and included breakfast: a plate of fresh fruit, eggs any style, and toast or pancakes. And right out front, beach lounge chairs. The beach here receives much more seaweed than in the north, but staff rake the area out front while locals collect seaweed along the beach — some of it is dried for export but we learned that one type is used in the local manufacture of soap.

A national park just north of here is a refuge for the endangered Red Colobus monkey, found only on Zanzibar — but we were lucky that a family regularly visited our area — once coming down from the trees just long enough for me to get a clear shot of the otherwise energetic baby in the group (below).

A family member begged us to try The Rock, a famous restaurant built on a big chunk of rock that sits out in a small bay a few km north of here (photo above); at high tide you are rowed out. We were able to walk to the front steps and take our seats with a view out to the Indian Ocean. Excellent food and wine, but our favourite dish was the “zanzibar-spiced” vanilla ice cream. Real vanilla. Cumin. Yum, the best ice cream we have ever tasted!

We spent our last couple of days on Zanzibar in Stone Town, briefly a Portuguese mission before the Sultan of Oman decided he wanted Zanzibar for himself. Successive sultans built first a fort then a palace, all from which to control the trade in cloves and other spices, and profit from human misery. Sadly Zanzibar was the last territory under British influence to abolish the slave trade. And although the sultan’s so-called House of Wonders was the first building in Zanzibar to feature electric lights and the first in East Africa to have an elevator, it is now in such a state of disrepair visitors are no longer allowed inside. The Sultanate of Oman is apparently funding the restoration of this building, still the tallest building in Zanzibar. It would be great if the restoration work didn’t stop there — although we enjoyed wandering the ancient alleys of Stone Town, the whole place is one of the dirtiest and most decrepit historic neighbourhoods we have ever visited.

Oh by the way, Farrokh Bulsara was born here. You may know him better as Freddie Mercury, former lead singer for Queen (now deceased). We dropped by the building his family supposedly lived in — there is some debate as to whether this is the right place or not, but a sign and short description of his life is posted by the front door

search for the big 5

In South Africa: Addo Elephant National Park, Kruger National Park, and Balule Private Reserve. In Botswana: Chobe National Park. All absolutely amazing!

In Addo, an hour from Port Elizabeth on the east coast, our first encounter with an elephant was awe inspiring. Our driver, Peter, followed the lone elephant to the watering hole. We watched as this very thirsty elephant drank non stop for more than five minutes.

We drove along the road, following, until he got pissed off at a Warthog that had been running around him. The massive elephant swished him off with his long trunk. He then stopped five metres ahead of us, turned, and gave us the evil eye. He started rolling his head back and forth, while continuing to stare menacingly at us… we realized he was getting very angry and might charge. Peter was about to back up when the elephant suddenly changed direction, urinated, dropped a large amount of dung and with what we imagine was a look of disdain, walked away. Needless to say, we didn’t follow him.

In Kruger National Park, we joyfully spotted four of the Big 5 on our first day out. We observed Elephants, White Rhino, Lions and a Leopard in their natural habitat, from the safety of our 4-wheel drive. We all took turns sitting on the much loved bouncy seats on the third tier in our canvas covered Land Rover. The second morning we spotted a magnificent male lion on a rock overlooking a field of Impala (small, but pretty antelope). The fifth of the Big 5 was a fabulous sighting! A herd of Cape Buffalo crossed the road right in front of us. They are very dangerous creatures, so William, our driver/guide, turned off the 4×4 and we all watched in silence.

There is a huge difference between professional guides (like ours) and the tourists who drive independently through Kruger. One such tourist started honking his car horn at the Cape Buffalo as he seemed to want them to get out of the way, so he could travel on. When there was a small gap between the buffalo, the car sped through. He was fortunate the animals did not attack him. We saw quite a bit of poor tourist behaviour in the park. Shame on them!

Our next safari stop was at the wonderful Naledi Enkoveni (star of the river) Lodge within the Balule Private Reserve. Again, an experienced guide, this time in an uncovered 3 tiered Land Cruiser. The first day there was an exciting afternoon jaunt; Don and I noticed clouds were gathering a long way off to the west.

We were in the upper back of the 4×4 and man did we have to pay attention. We were off-roading to the extreme and had to constantly watch that we were not impaled by tree branches, going ahead and in reverse. Quite the experience!!!!

Our driver spotted a 9-month old lion cub in the bushes, no mom around that we could see. We followed it for a bit at a distance, the cub was trying to hide under bushes from the lightning and thunder that had just started… and then the rains came.

WIth the rain pouring down on us, lightning flashing, and thunder crashing, our driver tried to get us home before worse things could happen. He told us that a few weeks past, they had hail the size of baseballs in the region. Even though we were huddled under the blankets, one of our fellow travellers spotted a male Black Rhino about 10 metres in the bush. We stopped and stared in awe.

Even though the rain was pelting us, lightning was so close we could smell the air burning, and the thunder was booming — we had to stay put. There is an anti-poaching protocol within the safari groups, that if you spot a rhino you stay there until another Jeep arrives. Well, we stayed and stayed and were totally drenched and finally another group arrived. Off we went immediately and when we pulled up to our lodge we were greeted with a shot of Sherry. It tasted fabulous and warmed us up quickly.

The next morning we went out again before breakfast, this time in the sunshine and we spotted and enjoyed watching a Black Rhino mother and her baby walking through the bush!!! It was amazing!

Our last safari, for this blog, was in Chobe National Park in Botswana. We stayed in Jollyboys Hostel in Livingstone, Zambia. Not only did we see Victoria Falls from the Zambia side, we walked into Zimbabwe to see the Falls from that side as well.

Our day long trip into Chobe started with being picked up from our hostel for the hour drive along the Zambezi River, a short 10 minute boat ride across to Zimbabwe, walking 20 metres to cross the Botswana border, and then a 45 minute drive to Chobe National Park. Our morning was spent with four other tourists on a small motorized boat that got us very close to the animals. Maybe too close! As we travelled up the Chobe River we saw hippopotamus in the water, a few over here, a few over there. Suddenly there was movement in the water underneath and our guide swiftly scooted the boat ahead — a hippo was trying to topple us over!

We were also able to get really close to the elephants and watch them mud bathe and swim cross the river in front of us… fabulous! According to our guide, the elephants were gathered in such large numbers because the rains hadn’t come yet (though it was the rainy season) and the Chobe River was the only source of water for miles around. If it had rained, the elephants would have been in other parts of the national park and we wouldn’t have seen so many along one stretch of river.

That afternoon we hopped onto a 4×4 for a land safari. Chobe is the perfect setting for the numerous giraffes, zebras and hundreds of elephants we saw. Our guide told us the zebras hadn’t been spotted for weeks… he said we were very lucky and we felt we definitely were.

We also spotted a lion resting under a tree very close by and we stopped to look and take photos. The most amazing feeling came over me when the lion and I locked eyes. It was me who broke away first… though I am sure it had been at least a 30 second stare!

I feel so fortunate to have had these wildlife experiences and many more, too many to contain in one blog post (our 100th by the way).

So, until next time my dear family, friends and fellow travellers, much happiness to you all!

Deborah

island hopping and walled cities

As we travel, we usually have some sense of what we expect to see and do in the next city or region we’re heading for. But with Crete and then Rhodes, we were just hoping to soak up some Greek island sun and maybe walk some trails. Little did we know that we would end up hiking down a 16 km gorge, wandering through ancient Minoan ruins and buildings built by an order of Knights, and spending time in not one, but two walled cities.

The Samaria Gorge is promoted as the longest gorge hike in Europe. It begins 1230m above sea level, and after 5-1/2 hours of negotiating steep rocky steps and loose gravel trails, hiking along dry creek beds and hopping on stones to cross streams, we made it down to sea level. We’ve done a few 8 to 10 km walks and hikes over the years, so this is a “personal best” when it comes to completing a very challenging hike. We also spotted several wild Kri Kri, a goat-like animal, although the photo above is a tame one that hangs out at one of the rest stations. Confession: we did need the next 24 hours to recover!

Crete has changed hands many times, but there is an enduring mystery around what happened to the once formidable Minoan empire, based on Crete and for centuries very much in control of trade throughout the region. Sometime after 1300 BC, the Minoans simply disappeared. Some historians suggest the collapse of the Minoan empire was the result of a major volcanic eruption and/or tsunami that destroyed their fleet and therefore means of maintaining their rule — others suggest infighting left them vulnerable to attack.

We visited the sites of two massive Minoan palace complexes. Phaistos is a set of hilltop ruins overlooking the Libyan Sea that were excavated and left as they were found, while Knossos was partially “restored” in the 1930’s by an archeologist who had a vivid imagination — signs describe where his ideas (and construction methods) conflict with current understandings of how the buildings were used and by whom.

We also spent a few days just outside the original part of Hereklion, fortified by the Venetians when they took control of the city in 1204. Most of the wall is intact, along with a small fort that protected the harbour. But other than some very old buildings, the oldest part of the city is not unlike the newer parts with trendy restaurants, flashy chain stores and overstocked souvenir shops.

Time to hop islands! Our ferry to Rhodes left at 6 pm and arrived at 2 am — fortunately our host was willing to pick us up at the terminal and make sure we were safely checked in, just inside the walls. In this case, it was an order of knights who built the walls and many of the surviving buildings inside. Rhodes is a remarkably well-preserved (and restored) medieval city. Indeed, there is an area of restaurants and souvenir shops that fills with tourists when there is a cruise ship in port for the day. But not many venture into the massive hospital built by the knights, walk by the inns they stayed in, or tour the very impressive Palace of the Grand Master.

Recalling our time in the Split and Dubrovnik and their “roles” in Game of Thrones, the new Star Wars, and other films, we asked an attendant if any television series or films were ever shot here, but her answer was no. That’s almost too bad. If you ignore the modern lighting and signage, you can easily drift back 600 years and imagine encountering some Knights of St. John, or the Grand Master himself.