Tuesday, April 25, 2006

My Meeting with Death, Part2

So here I am in Mesa Verde, Colorado, where there are these extraordinary medieval Indian villages, hidden inside caves, along canyon walls.

I look kind of relaxed, don't I? That's because I don't know what's about to happen next.

Twenty minutes after this photo was taken I was driving back to my lodge in the westering light, all sunburnt and contented... when this bloody great black bear just ran in front of my car, about ten foot away. A bear! A bleeding great bear!

I nearly crashed the car in surprise. I was pretty shaken - and I'm afraid I didn't have the time, or the inclination, to get a photo. Jesus. The adrenalin rush was intense. I guess this is because we are meant to instictively fear large predators, or something.

Anyway: wow. I'm not sure how close to death I was (again) but obviously if the bear had stopped, turned, come over to the car, prised the doorlock open with a credit card and started to get ursine on my ass I'd have been in deep doo-doo. Lucky, really.

Still. A bear! I saw a bear! A bloody great bear! Yo!

Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde, Colorado; the entire settlement is tucked inside a mammoth cave, halfway down a canyon wall. Amazing, right? But not as amazing as seeing a bear! Hooray!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

My Recent Powerlunch With Death

So here I am this afternoon, doing my Thelma & Louise thing in a canyon near Moab, Utah. I'm on my way to see the Corona Arch, one of the many wonders of the area. That's the Colorado River in the background.

I look kind of relaxed, don't I? This is because I don't know what is about to happen next.

The hike to the arch, according to the guide books, is 'moderately easy' and 'ideal for kids', and takes about an hour and a half.

Doddle, right?

Ninety minutes after this photo, with no arches in sight, I started to wonder what kind of kids would find this hike 'ideal' - as I shimmied up cliffsides and scrambled through broiling crevices. As for 'moderately easy'? - jesus, I must be unfit!

Two hours after the photo I noticed that my water was running out. It was 90F in the shade. The sun was unrelenting. My head started to swim. I decided, in my dizzy state, that I must have gone down the wrong canyon. This was proved when I came to a sheer rock wall.

I doubled back - or at least I tried to. I got lost again. I nearly fell off a cliff. My head was swimming, my water was used up - I noticed I was staggering. At this point I saw - no joke - vultures circling overhead. Or maybe they were buzzards.

Whatever. I was a bit scared by now, and starting to think I might have to sleep here. But I had no water. Big Jim Cougar would be after my ass. Nasty.

I tried one more side canyon, thinking it should lead back to the Colorado. At this point, I was stumbling along, dehydrated, half delirious almost, and I was about to step off a rock when I saw this, just inches under my descending boot. I was about to tread on a rattlesnake.

Fuck this for a game of soldiers. I took a photo, backed off, then scrambled down and out and through the junipers as fast I could. I leapt off rocks and sprinted down gulches. Suddenly I knew, somehow, exactly where I was going. Ten minutes later I emerged onto the riverside road where the mountain bikers were sitting in the shade, sipping Wasatch lager.

Like nothing had happened.

So here he is, the venomous critter - about twelve inches from me. After a swift bit of Googling, I think this is a highly toxic western diamondback rattlesnake. But, if anyone knows better (i.e. snake-experts, or native Utahns (hello Corey!)) please let me know. But I'd be very disappointed to hear that my fabulously scary close encounter with death was actually a close encounter with some silly Arizona Nicesnake, or the Lesser Nevadan Yellow Friendlyworm, entirely unvenomous and indeed known for its charity work. So bear that in mind when breaking the news to me.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Crikey, a Winner

Yep, here I am - near Moab, Utah.

Incredible as it may seem, someone has actually guessed right as to my whereabouts. I'm in Moab, southern Utah, visiting Arches National Park. As proof, see the photo above, where I am standing in front of an arch.

Congratulations to Corey Shuman, for guessing correctly. However I feel it is only fair to point out that Corey actually lives in Utah, so he was therefore barred from entering the competition under a new rule I have just made up. Hence I am unable to offer him the prize of a small flat in London.

Sorry Corey. But well spotted nonetheless.

To make up for your loss, here are a couple of pictures of me standing in a fossilised brontosaurus footprint.

Me, standing in the fossilised brontosaurus footprint (though you can't actually tell that from the photo).

My actual boot, in the actual fossilised brontosaurus footprint.

A Hint

Still can't work out where I am? Derrr. Here's a clue, this photo was taken today. Check the colour of the rocks. Try and ignore my dodgily bouffant haircut.

Where am I?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Toffeewomble: On Tour Again

Where is this? Yes!

OK guys, I'm off on my travels again. But where? I think I might make this the subject of the my fourth official Toffeewomble picture competition.

Where am I going? For a clue: see above.

As this competition seems a little bit easier than the others, indeed fatuously simple for regular toffeewomblers who know my interests, I'm afraid I'm going to have to rein in the prize giving. So, this time I shan't be offering a townhouse in Mayfair as the first prize, but a small flat, maybe just a studio, in Stoke Newington Church Street.

Sorry about that. See y'all in ten days. Happy Easter!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Last Night A Website Saved My Life

Whaddaya mean, you didn't read my column in last Sunday's Telegraph? Gah! Here it is again then....

Last Night A Website Saved My Life

It's not often a strange facial bloating tells you something important about the world. But that's what recently happened to me.

About a month ago I suddenly developed a weird swelling under my jaw. And I mean suddenly. In a matter of hours I went from looking perfectly normal - to looking like a mating canetoad, with a mammoth bulging on the lower right side of my face.

I was about to call the doctor, and declare my imminent doom, or at least a spectacularly aggressive tumour, when, just as quickly, the swelling subsided. It just deflated. Wow. For an hour I tried to work out the correct response. I decided to ignore the entire event, as you do when something sinister but inexplicable happens.

But then, a fortnight ago, it happened again. Up came the swelling, just as quickly - and down it went again. This time however, my bullfrog impression was the precursor of a whole series of swellings. One moment I'd be staring happily out of the window, the next - Hello Bulge. And so it continued. I noticed that the swelling seemed particularly urgent whenever I was about to eat.

Disturbed, I started Googling. Within a few hours I had self-diagnosed. What I had, it turned out, was a salivary calculus, or sialolith, a stone in the salivary duct running from the submandibular gland (under my jaw) to my mouth. The swelling was saliva backing up, unable to drain into the mouth. It happened during mealtimes because that's when I most needed to salivate.


The website that gave me my diagnosis also told me some palliative treatments. Every time I ate, I had to massage the gland under my jaw, by hand, to prevent the swelling. And so for a week I sat there, in restaurants, vigorously rubbing my jaw - while people stared over. Sometimes my embarrassed fiancee tried to explain my weird behaviour: Oh don't mind him, he's just massaging his glands.

Obviously this couldn't go on. Last Sunday, as the pain worsened, I went to A&E. The doctor was impressed by my self diagnosis - spot on! - but she refused to refer me to maxillofacial, who could apparently cut the stone out, because I needed my GP to give the nod. So I went to my doctor the next day - and she was equally useless. Yes my diagnosis was right, no she wouldn't do anything about it.

This was particularly frustrating because, by this time I had worked out - through Googling - where the stone was and how it could be treated. I told the doctor that I was sure the stone was right under my tongue. Because I could feel it. I then told her that some stones, ones that could be felt orally - i.e. like mine - were said to be easily removable by a doctor. Just using forceps. It turned out my doctor didn't know this, and she refused to do get busy with her forceps, anyway. Finally she said she'd refer me to maxillofacial. And I'd be treated 'within a month or two'.

A month or two? Sod that. Five days ago I summoned up the courage and I attacked what I thought was my stone with two matchsticks and a plastic fork from Pret a Manger. Slowly I squeezed the blob along the duct. At 4pm it finally popped out in a squidge of blood and lots of spittle. 2mm wide, it was. All that misery for a 2mm wide stone.

So that's what happened. I self diagnosed, and then I self operated.

And the moral of the story? I think this is yet another situation where the Internet is revolutionising things - in this case, medicine. Previously, medicine was a closed book, a hermetic science. Only doctors knew all its secrets and mysteries. Now anyone with a brain can go online and get a good idea just what is wrong with them, and how to treat it.

And if they want, they can damn well treat themselves, if NHS doctors are less well-informed, or too cowardly. To me, this seems a real watershed. It's like the translation of the Bible from Latin into the vernacular. Now we all know how the magic works.

That said, I don't necessarily recommend using two matches and a plastic fork.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Hardest Dog in the World

The Japanese Tosa. Don't pronounce it 'tosser', because if you do this deceptively sweet-looking pooch will probably bite your head off.

I'm down in Cornwall at the moment, doing some glamorous research into branch railways. Ah, journalism.

Actually, it's quite fun. Spring is here, the daffodils are out, and Visit Britain have put me up in the most expensive hotels in the county - so, likesay, things could be worse.

Except for the dogs, that is. No, not the women of Cornwall. The aggressive hounds. Every beach I go to, and every woodland glade, seems full of leapy great mastiffs, drooling and barking.

Actually, that's a lie. I have encountered just one dog this week. A nice spaniel in Trellisick Gardens. But as I am desperate to find a means of introducing my blogpost, I thought this might do.

Anyway here's a list, of the toughest dogs in the world. I've chosen four famously brutish breeds, and tried to work out which is the nastiest, bitiest, eatiest, rabidest cur of all. And people say blogging is pointless!

Which is the Hardest Dog of All?

Killer Dogs

Britain: Old English Mastiff
USA: American Pit Bull Terrier
Japan: Tosa
South Africa: Boerboel

Where do they come from?

(Britain) The Old English Mastiff is a direct descendant of one of the world's oldest killer dogs, the 'pugnace', or Broad Mouthed Dog of Britain, whose matchless ferocity was lovingly described by Julius Caesar in 55 BC.

(USA) The American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) is a descendant of the original English bull-baiting bulldog, crossed with a Staffordshire terrier, with a dash of some particularly nasty gene all its own.

(Japan) The 'Sumo wrestler' of the dog world is a hybrid dating from the 1800s which comprises a mix of bulldog, mastiff, Great Dane and native Japanese hunting hound.

(SA) The bloodline of the Boer's favourite mutt can allegedly be traced back to the Assyrian attack dogs favoured by Alexander the Great, which were employed in the arena to fight lions and elephants.

Big bastards, are they?

(Britain) They don't come any bigger. According to the Guinness Book of Records the world's mightiest pooch was an English mastiff named Zorba de la Susa, which weighed in at 325 lbs. The average is 200-225lbs.

(America) Not really. A big APBT weighs about 30lbs. But size isn't everything..

(Japan) Big enough. Male Tosas average 140 to 180lbs.

(SA) A sizeable 'bullenbijter' (Afrikaans for 'bull-muncher') is almost as big as a mastiff.

What else?

(Britain) This generally light brown, black masked dog is also known as the alaunt, and was famously used at the Battle of Agincourt.

(USA) Short haired, often piebald or white, APBTs commonly sport a black eye patch - like the one on Oliver Reed's dog in the film Oliver!

(Japan) The Tosa's preferred colour is red, and they are claimed by the Japs to be 'the most intelligent of dogs'.

(SA) Only recently recognised as a true breed, the Boerboel's African ancestors were so brave - or savage - Aristotle named them Leontix: sons of lions.

What do they do now?

(Britain) Nowadays mastiffs are essentially a show breed. i.e. they slobber, fart, snore and crap, and eat you out of house and home.

(USA) The US Marines' wartime mascot is also a favourite in the illegal dog-fighting rings of the Deep South.

(Japan) Another show breed, Tosas also make 'excellent estate guard dogs'.

(SA) Very much a working mutt, Boerboels are bred specifically to guard and protect South African farmers and their families out on the veldt.

Nasty streak?

(Britain) Probably not, inasmuch as any aggression has been progressively bred out of the OEM since bull-baiting was banned in the UK in 1835.

(USA) Just a bit. In 1992 the 'little rascal' was responsible for 20% of all severe dog bites in Florida.

(Japan) Depends. In the 19th century Samurai warriors were advised to study the Tosa for its qualities of courage and boldness, but also loyalty and calmness.

(SA) Tell me about it. When Boerboels were first openly advertised in the South African press they were candidly described as 'racist watchdogs' bred 'especially for South African circumstances'.

I'm a bit insecure about my masculinity, so I think I want to buy one. How much?

(Britain) A pure bred OEM pup will set you back about £300.

(USA) Increasingly less popular - with their bad rep - APBTs are coming down sharply in price. Say £50 a puppy.

(Japan) As Tosas are regarded as a 'national treasure' in Japan, and are rarely exported, you would probably have to pay a minimum of £2000.

(SA) The Rand is weak. Approximately £100 the pup.

So that's that, then?

(Britain) Yep, just nip down your local kennel club.

(USA) 'Fraid not. American Pit Bull Terriers are one of only two breeds specifically banned by Britain's Dangerous Dogs Act.

(Japan) The other is the Tosa.

(SA) Very debatable. The Boerboel is so unpopular it's even been dissed by the Pit Bull Breeders of France who describe it as being 'excessively aggressive and virtually uncontrollable.'

So which of the world's toughest attack dogs would win in a fight?

(Britain). Jan Libourel, editor of Handguns magazine, asked this very question last year. He didn't even bother to mention the mastiff.

(USA). But he did claim the APBT was, pound-for-pound, the hardest dog in the world.

(Japan). Then again, he also admitted the Tosa would win against an American Pit Bull Terrier by sheer size.

(SA). He forgot to mention that Boerboels have been seen to attack and kill leopards.

So which is the Ben Hur of curs?

Britain's Old English Mastiff: 7/10

America's Pit Bull Terrier: 7/10

Japan's Tosa: 9/10

South Africa's Boerboel: 8/10