October 16, 2008

Nuclear Arms in the Middle East



When Prime Minister Helen Clark meets President Bush shortly at the White House, one of the main topics on the agenda will be Iran. In a world weary with the Iraq conflict there's little stomach, and likely to be strong public opposition, to engaging in a new battle with Iran. But as IAN WISHART notes in this analysis, the cost of allowing volatile states to go nuclear is too horrendous to ignore:


Imagine this as a nightmare scenario: a container ship plying a routine shipping lane approaches America's east coast. As the sun sets in the west the ship's crew, young Muslims, gather for evening prayers on the deck. But tonight there's a different mood on the ship, an electric excitement. One man, 19 if he's a day, waves a video camera around, recording speeches by each of the 18 crew, testimonies to their loved ones and, later, the world.

"Allahu akbar!" – God is great, the cry rings out, startling a gull on the railing. Then, from the bowels of the ship, the grinding of winches and gears as an object emerges from the hold and locks into position, a modified intercontinental ballistic missile carrying a nuclear warhead. Seconds later, the device is airborne, streaking towards the horizon leaving a slowly dispersing plume of exhaust gas in its wake.

Back on deck, the video testimonies, including footage of the missile launch, are already being relayed via an al Jazeera satellite orbiting far above, ready to tell the story to a world that doesn't yet know what's been unleashed. They won't have to wait long.

With a range of 2,000 kilometres carrying a one-tonne payload, the modified Shahab-3 Iranian missile could travel the length of New Zealand in just three minutes – not three hours like an airliner, three minutes.

Far above the city of New York, residents look up at what they think is a meteorite's trail until suddenly there's a blinding flash. All around them, lights go out. Computers stop, car engines seize and die. Life support units in hospital wards go blank leaving critically injured patients gasping like fish on a beach. Elevators grind to a halt, the power is down. Those who were looking skyward at the time of the flash will be, at the very least, temporarily blinded. There is chaos in the streets, but there is no radio, no TV and no cellphone or phone coverage. New York has just been returned to the 19th century, a time before cars and electricity were invented.

Seven minutes have passed. Seven minutes of hell, confusion and tragedy at the intersections where vehicles smashed into each other and pedestrians. Some, assuming it is the end of the world, are praying on the sidewalk in groups. Then, after seven stressful minutes, the biggest explosion they have ever heard shatters windows and bursts eardrums, as it buffets New York in a cacophony of destructive energy. It has taken seven minutes for the soundwaves from the nuclear explosion far above them to reach the ground.

It is not just New York. In Washington DC, Boston, Montreal and Miami, the scenes are equally primal. Over the next few hours and days radioactive rain and dust will fall, but few people will die of radiation in the short term. Most will develop cancers and other illnesses over the coming years.

By far the biggest loss of life is in the air – nearly 5,000 passenger aircraft (including several from New Zealand) carrying more than a quarter of a million people were airborne across the US at the moment the blast hit. With their avionics, engines and life support systems burnt out, the state of the art jetliners became nothing more than winged coffins, plunging and tumbling towards the ground.

All are victims of a new form of nuclear warfare – the ElectroMagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack.

If the above scenario sounds far-fetched and fanciful to you, here's a reality check. It is not only technologically possible, it has probably already passed through the crucial threshold of, not "if", but "when?".

The phenomenon of electromagnetic pulse as a side effect of nuclear blasts was discovered decades ago, but back then most of the military scientific research focused on maximizing the nuclear blast direct on a target to kill as many people and level as much infrastructure as possible; side effects were not really the primary issue.

According to US former defence intelligence analyst turned evangelist Chuck Missler, who's just concluded a speaking tour of NZ and Australia, the EMP threat is something we should have paid attention to.

"One of the scary discoveries is the threat of electromagnetic pulse. We've known for many years, obviously, that Israel is really a one bomb country - one nuke over Tel Aviv and it's over. What is a shock to discover is that the United States is also vulnerable to a single nuclear warhead," explains Missler.

"There was a commission set up by Congress, to assess the vulnerability of the United States to electromagnetic pulse attacks, and they published their report. It was a blue ribbon panel of about a dozen of our top scientists, who published their report in July of 2004, which happened to be the same month that the 9/11 commission published its report, and that of course is what the press jumped on. However, anyone who gets on the Internet can read the report, by searching for the electromagnetic pulse commission's report.

"That report points out that one nuke detonated say 100 miles - at very high altitude - over the United States would plunge the United States back to the 19th century, simply because the electromagnetic pulse would disable permanently the telecommunications circuits and the power grid. So if that were to happen, of course, the infrastructure collapse in big cities, and in terms of public health, water, terms of law enforcement, and so on, would create a state of pandemonium. It would literally take the United States out of the picture as a major world power."

To give you some idea of the scale of the trauma, the infrastructure that makes the United States a first world power would be out of action for months, possibly even a year or more in some cases. After all, the equipment you would normally use to repair power stations, phone systems and electronic equipment is itself electronic, and probably useless.

"Once an EMP attack occurs," says Missler, "you can no longer put in place a recovery plan. Your recovery plan, whatever it is, has to be in place before the attack, because you lose your ability to put it in place after the attack. When we were hit by Hurricane Katrina, some time ago, we discovered a lot of things. For example, how do you pump gas at a gas station if there is no power? How do you send an ambulance downtown, if there's gridlock because the signals are not working? You begin to realise that these various infrastructure systems are all interdependent on one another, and so the jeopardy of the major metropolitan areas, and thus most of the population, is very very serious. All of this leads to the view that you cannot let this happen. And if it's going to happen, you've got to pre-empt that somehow."

It was just such a pre-emptive strike that still has the Bush administration on the political ropes four years later. When the US attacked Iraq in 2003, it was this fear of a weapon of mass destruction falling into the wrong hands that drove US policy. But while Saddam Hussein was making all the running in hot air terms – boasting about what he might or might not have hidden away, it seems the US missed the bigger threat sitting just over the border – the People's Republic of Iran.

Unlike the Iraqi evidence, which turned out to be several years out of date, there is absolutely no doubt, publicly or privately, that Iran is working on a nuclear programme. The only doubt is over whether the programme is peaceful or military. Iran and its supporters claim the former, but there is good reason to believe the latter.

The evidence is two-fold: firstly, in the nature of activities being undertaken by Iran, including test-firing ballistic missiles from the decks of cargo ships in the Caspian sea, as reported by the respected Jane's periodical:

"The May edition of Jane's Missiles and Rockets reports that recent missile tests by Iran may have been part of the development of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) warhead. Jane's cites testimony from the Senate Committee on the Judiciary's Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Homeland Security from March 8, 2005, by Peter Pry and Lowell Wood. Wood is a member of the Congressional EMP Commission, which released its important report on the EMP threat in July 2004.
"Some of Iran's tests of its Shahab-3 had been terminated before the completion of their ballistic trajectories, that is, exploding in mid-flight by what appeared to be a self-destruct mechanism. Iran has nevertheless described the tests as fully "successful." Pry noted that the apparent contradiction would make sense "if Iran were practicing the execution of an EMP attack." Lowell Wood is quoted as having testified to the subcommittee that such an attack upon the United States could keep off most electrical functions for a time period of a few hours or decades, depending on how it was executed. Wood also warned the subcommittee that such an EMP warhead could be delivered against the United States by "a Scud missile launched from a freighter off the Atlantic coast."
The second piece of evidence suggesting a military motive is religious – Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is on record, repeatedly, as suggesting Iranians should be ready in the near future to play a key role in the battle of Armageddon. Ahmadinejad is firmly convinced the return of Islam's final prophet, the Mahdi, is imminent and that it must occur at a time of nuclear confrontation.

"Ahmadinejad of Iran is very, very candid," says Chuck Missler, "that he is driven by his eschatology, that is his theological beliefs about the end times, and he believes that his destiny is to usher in the Islamic view of doomsday, so to speak. That's a scary agenda for someone who can put his finger on the button.

"Ahmadinejad has the mentality of a suicide bomber, he is perfectly willing to sacrifice Iran for the cause of Islam. He regards Islam as the issue, not Iran. And that's worrying, to have someone in an official powerful position with that mindset."

The West has already seen what the mentality of martyrdom can do for Islam, and when young Muslims are repeatedly taught that death in jihad grants automatic access to paradise, the principle can be applied equally well at state level, not just for individuals but the entire population: sacrifice in the name of Allah is a destiny to be sought, not feared.

On that basis, argues Missler, can the West trust Iran not to put its nuclear material to military use?

"Clearly, Iran is seeking weapons grade material, because the sites, and there is over a dozen of them involved, are all heavy water sites, and that's for plutonium, weapons grade plutonium. It has nothing to do with Bushehr, which is a uranium power station. It's just a cover story. The real goal, of course, is a weapons grade capability. Ahmadinejad has been very candid in his speeches, that his goal is to wipe Israel off the map, and when the Majlis - the Iranian parliament - voted on the nuclear programme. 247 of the 290 members of Parliament voted by standing up and shouting 'death to the United States, death to Israel'.

"Most Americans presume that somehow Israel will pre-empt this, and I think most Israelis assume that somehow the US will pre-empt it, but meanwhile, the intelligence services – the Mossad, Shin-bet and some of the others - they estimate that it is a matter of months not years, before Iran has the capability that they are seeking," says Missler.

Of even more embarrassment to the US, some of the missile technology now being deployed by the Iranians has been traced as based on American technology supplied to China by the Democrats when Bill Clinton was president. China, North Korea and Russia are heavily involved in the Iranian buildup.

So the question again arises, should New Zealand support, even if only morally, a US or Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities? The question is far more complex than it may appear.

On the one hand, as many on the Left point out, Iran has committed no crime at this point warranting international attack. It should be free to pursue a peaceful nuclear power programme without interference from the West.

On the other hand, sitting as it does on some of the world's largest oilfields, why would Iran need nuclear power in a land where oil is cheaper than water? And the West cut Hitler some slack, with Chamberlain's famous "Peace for our Time" declaration, only to discover the extra time gave Hitler the opportunity to build a formidable military capacity and launch blitzkrieg surprise attacks. If Britain had taken Hitler's rhetoric seriously, argue critics, instead of shying away from pre-emptive military action, 50 million lives might have been saved.

But there's another angle that no other media have focused on yet: the economic price.

If Iran, or a terror organization like al Qa'ida using Iranian, North Korean or old Soviet missile technology, were to launch a successful EMP attack on the United States, the economic effects would hit every single household in New Zealand, and the rest of the West, harder than any other financial burden outside of a fully-engaged wartime economy. As New Zealand's second largest trading partner, the United States is a huge market for New Zealand goods and services. With US computer networks, power stations and phone systems shut down for months or years, you can kiss goodbye to the boom times and say hello to the biggest financial depression the world has ever seen.

Then you can factor in the tragedy. An EMP strike 160kms out in space would knock out every airliner with a line of sight to the blast, meaning many trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights. The scale of loss of life of New Zealanders would make the Erebus disaster look small. The psychological impact of such an attack would dwarf the effects of 9/11.

Then you can factor in the retaliation. During the Cold War years, the US ensured that its nuclear arsenal and command and control facilities were shielded from any potential EMP caused by a Russian first strike. Additionally, the strategic nuclear submarine fleet that cruises the world 24/7, hiding in magnetic anomaly areas like the one off New Zealand's Fiordland coast, are capable of launching a retaliatory strike if required. You can take it as read that an atmospheric nuke over North America causing 5,000 airliner crashes, more than 250,000 fatalities and innumerable chaos on the ground would likely be met with the launch of a full nuclear strike against every populated city in Iran, if not some neighbouring states like Syria as well. The death toll would climb into the millions, if not tens of millions. An itchy trigger finger in the US (as much of its conventional military would be out of action) would mean a much greater readiness to launch a nuclear strike against anyone vaguely threatening or looking like they might try taking advantage of a crippled America.

With America gravely wounded, Israel would be releasing the safety catch on its 400 nuclear missiles – distances in the Middle East mean advance warning is measured in seconds, rather than minutes. This, of course, assumes that Iran doesn't try an EMP attack on Israel simultaneous with the US strike.

Says Chuck Missler:

"Most people are really unaware of the nature of the tensions that are brewing, but people in the strategic arena are very sensitive to the fact that we have nuclear weapons increasingly being proliferated. The nightmare scenario of 50 years ago was called the Nth country problem, back in those days there were only two players, they were both in balance, and they were both rational. The United States could count on the Soviet Union doing whatever was in its own best interests, so it was a rational environment. Today, we have not two players, we got over a dozen – frankly - and they are not in balance. There is a race going on. So the real issue is, how do you have what we call a chicken race with someone who believes he goes to heaven if he loses? So it is a tense time."

There is some suggestion that America's tough talk against Iran, and rumoured threats of a pre-emptive strike, may be having some slight affect against Ahmadinejad domestically in Iran, particularly after late February's speech where he described Iran's nuclear programme as a runaway train, "with no brake and no reverse gear".

Britain's Guardian newspaper reported those comments had alarmed some Iranians:

"Mohammad Atrianfar, a respected political commentator, accused the president of using 'the language of the bazaar' and said his comments had made it harder for Ali Larijani, the country's top nuclear negotiator, to reach a compromise with European diplomats. ... 'This rhetoric is not suitable for a president and has no place in diplomatic circles,' said Mr Atrianfar, a confidant of Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential regime insider and rival of Mr Ahmadinejad. 'It is the language people in the bazaar and alleyways use to address the simplest issues of life'."

Associated Press reported Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was less than impressed as well, although some Iranian commentators put that down to Ahmadinejad's economic policies, rather than foreign policy.

Still, as Iranian author Amir Taheri wrote in a commentary for the Gulf News of the United Arab Emirates, "the nuclear issue has become a regime change issue" in Iran, and its outcome will radically change the course of the country.

"If [Ahmadinejad's] Khomeinist regime emerges victorious from the current confrontation, it would move to a higher degree of radicalism, thus, in effect, becoming a new regime.

"The radical faction would be able to purge the rich and corrupt mullahs by promoting a new generation of zealots linked with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and the security services. It would also move onto the offensive in the region, seeking to reshape it after the Khomeinist revolution's geo-strategic interests.

"If, on the other hand, the Khomeinist regime is forced to back down on this issue, the radical moment would fade, while the many enemies of the regime regroup to either topple it or change it beyond recognition as Deng Xiao-ping did with the Maoist regime in China."

But the Bush administration's rhetoric will have to convince more than just a few religiously liberal journalists and commentators if it is to have any effect, and so far Iran is showing no sign of pulling back from the brink.

As a former intelligence analyst specializing in guided missiles, Missler's views on Iran are pessimistic, given the upsurge in radical Islam throughout the Middle East.

"In very real terms, Iran represents a much more serious proximate threat to the United States than Iraq did. When they were broke it wasn't a problem, but now they've got oil revenues and nuclear weapons it is a whole different ball game. "Clearly the United States has got her hands full with the Iraq mess on the one hand and a growing serious threat of Iran on the other, but who knows, I think the next 6 months to a year is going to be more turbulent than most people have any idea."

Missler's views as a Christian evangelist are also resonating with the public, he says, and they include the key role that Iran (Persia) plays in a dramatic future battle outlined in Ezekiel 38 and 39, in the Bible. Missler's public meetings in Australasia have coincided with the latest ratcheting up of the nuclear tension, and "I've been getting standing room only at some of the meetings," he says.

So, in asking the question again, is a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities something the West should contemplate, or should we, like New Zealand's position on the Ruapehu Lahar, allow nature to take its course even if it means a greater loss of life down the track? There is good reason to believe that public opinion inertia, coupled with a strong PR push by the AntiWar movement, will prevent both the United Nations and the US from making a decision in time. Better start stocking up that bird flu cupboard again…

Posted by Ian Wishart at 11:54 AM | Comments (0)

June 16, 2007


Back in the 1970s, some of the world’s richest oilmen came prowling the coast of New Zealand. According to popular rumour and conspiracy theory they struck it big, but chose not to tell the NZ Government. Now the official documents have been released, and they confirm the Great South Basin is one of the biggest unexplored conventional oilfields in the world. IAN WISHART has more

Once upon a time, in the tradition of all the best legends, there was a land that we now call New Zealand. Only, back then, it didn’t have a name and it looked and sounded very, very different from the way it currently does. A land of lush jungles and grasslands, peppered by volcanoes but no Southern Alps, ancient New Zealand was also much bigger than the current version.

Residents of modern New Plymouth, for example, who currently step off the footpath virtually into the sea, would have faced a long walk to the beach back then – something in the region of 140 kilometres further west. It was a dangerous walk, Jurassic Park-style velociraptors lurked behind pretty much every second bush, and dragonflies practically the size of small dogs would have made the journey interesting as well.

When they finally reached the coast, our travelers would have crested the ridge to see a sweeping delta, with herds of dinosaurs on the plains and a massive river winding like a silvery ribbon through the deceptively tranquil-seeming countryside.

Something happened, however, not just in New Zealand but around the world, and not only did the Age of Dinosaurs come to an end but so to did the layout of the planet as we currently know it. Land was swallowed by the sea, never to emerge again, taking with it the animals and vegetation.

Cut forward 60-odd million years, and a boat carrying a gaggle of kiwi oil geologists is heaving in the swells rolling in across the Tasman sea; their instruments and seismic gear tell them they’re several hundred metres above the dinosaur delta.

And where the ancient river carried debris and silt to an ancient sea, there’s buried treasure, they tell themselves.

One of those expressing excitement is Chris Uruski, a geoscientist at New Zealand’s Crown research institute, Geological and Nuclear Sciences. Uruski has been studying the figures, and reckons the Taranaki Basin oilfields are similar to those of Australia’s Gippsland Basin, off the Victorian coast.

“Both basins,” Uruski told a petroleum conference in Melbourne four years ago, “were formed in similar climates about 100 million years ago, occupy the same latitude, and are mostly offshore. But the important feature they shared was a large delta – where ancient river systems and the sea met millions of years ago.”

Prime conditions, he added, for the presence of huge volumes of oil. “We estimate that the Deepwater Taranaki Basin may contain as much as 20 billion barrels of trapped oil.”

If 50% of that trapped oil can be found, he says, maybe half of that again, “perhaps five billion barrels, may be produced from that basin.”

What’s that worth in today’s petro-dollars? The correct answer is another question: “How many zeroes would you like on the end of that cheque?”

Many oil industry pundits now believe we’ve reached “Peak Oil”, the point where most of the easily accessible black gold, Texas tea – call it what you will – has already been discovered and extracted.
With the massively populated China and India now demanding Western-sized oil deliveries, there’s increasing pressure on prices at the pump worldwide as demand outstrips supply.

All of which makes frontierlands like New Zealand suddenly flavour of the month in boardrooms across Texas, New York and Europe. We may not have the “bubbling crude” of Jed Clampett and the Beverley Hillbillies fame that seeped up out of the ground, but we have submerged oilfields that would make Rockefeller weep.

How much would five billion barrels in the Taranaki Basin be worth? On today’s rates, somewhere just under the half-trillion dollar mark. By the time the wells are drilled, the rigs are in place and the stuff is refined, petrol prices might well have doubled.

Which is why the opening up of the mythical Great South Basin, off the Southland coast, this year, is creating so much excitement. In the words of Uruski, while Taranaki is potentially huge, the South may yield three times as much crude.

“The Great South Basin probably has larger potential,” he told Explorer magazine last year, “so we’re talking perhaps of 15 billion barrels”.

For those old enough to remember, the legend of the Great South Basin began in the early 1969 when Hunt Petroleum, founded by Texas oil billionaire H L Hunt, came knocking on New Zealand’s door, looking for oilfields away from the Middle East.

The TV series Dallas was based on the lives of Hunt and his children, and in fact the scriptwriters had to leave out much of the wilder exploits because no one in TV-land would have believed them.

“During the initial years of exploration activity, 1970-73, several phases of seismic shooting were undertaken,” notes an official evaluation released on the Crown Minerals website just before Christmas.

International pressures from the first OPEC oil shock in 1973 stepped up the pace – the Hunt firm had been stung in Libya when its assets were nationalized by Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi in 1972. Drilling began in the Great South Basin in 1976, and was big news for a while in lil’ ol’ New Zealand.

“It started back with Hunt Petroleum of course,” says Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt, “the biggest Texas oil company in the world, a family company, and they came down here in the late 70s early 80s and drilled a series of about eight bores. But they did find oil, and there’s all sorts of people like that fellow Todd – he’s an auctioneer down here – he’s got a little canister of oil. Bill Todd, he’s got a canister of oil that he proudly shows everyone, beautiful oil – it’s not black crude, its golden oil, a bit like the old Singer sewing machine oil we used to have when I was a kid. Very fine, looks like you could almost put it into a diesel car and run it.”

How much oil? In a 1981 appraisal for the NZ Government, the oil exploration consortium reported, “The Great South Basin has the potential to contain up to 10 billion barrels of recoverable oil.”

Twenty five years later, in March 2006, the Government carried out fresh seismic surveys and, as NZPA reported, found signs that the Great South Basin was “far larger and more extensive than previously thought”.

For officials to be estimating a 15 billion barrel yield, that could mean potential reserves of up to 40 billion barrels. Add that to Taranaki’s 20 billion, and you’re getting close to the Iraqi total of 80 billion. Admittedly, both Iraq (surprisingly) and New Zealand remain underexplored. Only 2000 wells have been drilled in Iraq, whereas 1 million were sunk into Texas, and New Zealand has 360 abandoned oil and gas wells, according to GNS figures.

Of course, there are vast differences in the Iraqi and New Zealand oilfields. It is one thing to sink a hole in the desert and simply start pumping. It is entirely another to send a drill bit 1.2 kilometres below the surface of the Southern Ocean, and then to drill for another kilometre or two through rock, all the while being pounded on the surface by the Roaring 40s and the massive swells of the frigid south.

“No, it wasn’t easy going for them,” says Shadbolt of the Hunt venture in the seventies, “because the theory was that in the Southern Ocean there wouldn’t be waves bigger than 10m or something, and there were waves of 15m coming in. So poor old Penrod 78 [the drilling rig], which was huge for its day, got smashed to pieces and had to retreat up to Stewart Island, so it was pretty hard going for them. At least we established that we need the really big rigs to have a chance down here.”

And therein lies part of the problem. With oil exploration surging as the big companies strive to find replacement fields before the cheap stuff runs out, getting a major drilling rig to come down to New Zealand is nigh on impossible, as Crown Minerals group manager Adam Feeley explained on National Radio last year.

“The biggest problem though , is actually just finding drilling rigs…in some cases you can’t get access to a rig at any cost – at least, not for 18 months. Right now, the demand for rigs is outstripping supply.”

It wasn’t just a damaged oil rig that prevented the Hunt brothers from taking advantage of the Great South Basin back in the 1980s, however. The impact of the oil shock had led them to diversify away from oil:

“But the [Hunt] sons took over, and they came up with a cunning plan,” remembers Mayor Tim Shadbolt. “They thought that if they could get one product or one resource, and have the world monopoly on it, then they would be the richest family in the world, instead of the richest family in Texas. So they looked at diamonds and various other options, and eventually they came up with silver. They decided to give the world a monopoly on silver, and therefore they would control the price and therefore they’d be multi-multi multibillionaires. And the cunning plan worked for a while. They bought up all the shares in silver mines, silver outlets and silver distributors, and once they got control – I don’t think they had total, but I think they had around 90% – of the world re sources, then they started jacking the price up of course.”

They began their little adventure in 1973, when silver was just US$1.95 an ounce. In early 1979, at the peak of their NZ oil drilling, they’d pushed the silver price up to US$5, but in 1980 it exploded, topping out at US$49.45 an ounce.

“Of course there is always a flipside,” chuckles Shadbolt, “and the flipside was that all the users got together, with the shock of the price increases, and the biggest user of silver in the world at that time was the photography industry. Silver was part of the processing of photos, so they got a lot of scientific boffins and worked out a way to recycle the silver that is used in the photographic process. So overnight, the Hunts lost their main customer, and the second thing that happened of course was the American stock exchange, which worked out that this was happening and it was not a good thing for competition, and it started bringing in all kinds of regulations to close them down. Or at least make them pay. So overnight, they went from being multi-multi-multi-billionaires to being in not quite such good shape, and they fire sold a lot of their properties in New York.”

The losses for the Hunts kept mounting, and by 1987 had hit US$2.5 billion against assets of only $1.5 billion. The oldest son, Nelson Bunker Hunt, declared bankruptcy in 1988.

The Hunts had bailed from New Zealand in the early 1980s, even though they struck oil, and lots of it, on the sly. It was a confusing picture for a while, because the National Government of Rob Muldoon had declared that nothing of note was found in the Great South Basin. Yet despite that declaration and the disappearance of the Hunts, rumours grew. A young Radio Hauraki news journalist, later to become a magazine editor, was contacted in 1984 by an oil worker who claimed to have worked on the Hunt exploration when they struck big oil.

“They simply cemented it up, put a cap on it, and sailed away. We were all sworn to silence,” he added, “but don’t let them tell you there’s nothing there. It’s a huge field!”

In his recent book, “The Lost Oilfields of New Zealand”, Southland author and former oil worker Brian Jackson recounts a similar story, saying workers on the Hunt rig were locked inside when they unexpectedly hit an undersea “gusher”, 50 or 60km east of Stewart Island.

Jackson claims the Hunts didn’t want New Zealanders to see the oil or get a bearing on the location.

“The anchors were pulled and the rig was put under way,” he told journalists at the time of his book launch, and “when it had moved away from the oil slick, the New Zealand crew members were unlocked.”
Tim Shadbolt, who can see the boomtimes for his region if this all comes off, has met Jackson to discuss the Great South Basin.

“I’ve met with him, and he has got all sorts of theories about how [the Hunts] deliberately left, how they stalled the government – they’re supposed to have a government engineer with them every time they are drilling, and on this day they deliberately gave him the wrong time to meet at the wharf. So he didn’t get there, and that was the day they had the gusher that they supposedly cemented up. It could all be true, and none of it could be true. Oil is like gold, it creates this huge emotional drama for everyone involved. New Zealanders are great gossips.

“The rumour is,” adds Shadbolt conspiratorially, “that one of the basements in these properties in New York [sold by the Hunts] contained all the South Sea oil basin research and seismic information – it sounds ludicrous, but it is a bit like grandma dying and the kids, who are not that interested, throwing out all her Queen Anne furniture into a rubbish skip or something.

“There is no doubt at all, that it is the biggest unexplored oil-field in the world – or virtually unexplored – but we all know there is oil down there and it is very good quality oil, so it is definitely going to happen.”

But at what price? Apart from losing the shirts off their back in their ill-fated silver venture, another reason the Hunts apparently upped stakes was because of a royalty spat with the New Zealand Government, which wanted the standard OPEC rate of around 20%. In today’s dollar terms, assuming 15 billion barrels at US$60 each, that’s a total field value of NZ$1.3 trillion. Twenty percent of that would be a cool $260 billion for the NZ economy, and that’s not including the money spent on infrastructure and bases in Southland.

But while the citizens of Southland will enjoy the economic trickledown, the revenue for New Zealand overall won’t be anywhere near $260 billion, because the Government is asking for royalties of only a quarter of that.

Tim Shadbolt sympathises with those who claim it’s a sellout, but says they’re ignoring reality.

“I’ve been to several meetings with people who were involved at the time [of the Hunt exploration], and had several meetings in my office with key players, and down here the general consensus seems to be that Muldoon was playing hardball with these guys and wasn’t happy with the percentage shares. They felt that because the conditions were so rough that the government should be getting less, and that’s why – when they pulled out – Muldoon didn’t want to sort of lose face and admit that he mucked up, so he tended to emphasise that no one knew. And he was right, I mean, you can’t say whether there is significant oil there or not, after drilling only eight holes. Nobody knows – to me, that is the reality. It is basically an unexplored field.

“Because of the conditions, it would be like North Sea oil, it would be the toughest conditions in the world to actually work in. They say, in round figures, that it’s around $1 million a day to keep a big offshore rig drilling. So there is a huge risk factor in there, and I think that is why the present government is accepting a lower royalty percentage, whereas Muldoon was holding out for 20 or so per cent the usual rate.”

But there are other jewels up for the finding in the Basin. Natural gas reserves are now estimated to be ten trillion cubic feet, or around three times larger than the Maui gas fields that supplied New Zealand for decades. The Government is hoping the combined oil and gas yields will lure Seven Sisters companies like Royal Dutch Shell or Exxon Mobil – major players with the financial grunt and big rigs at their fingertips. There’s even speculation Hunt Petroleum might come back – according to one Investigate source the company has been sniffing around for land near Bluff and making other inquiries with local industry.

Some oil industry veterans are privately voicing the prospect that the Taranaki and Great South Basin finds could be enough to catapult New Zealand into OPEC, the oil production cartel.

Others, however, argue that while we may have the resources, New Zealand currently still doesn’t have a high enough profile on the world stage. There is, GNS scientist Chris Uruski told Explorer magazine, “A perception that New Zealand is gas prone”. It is oil that is sexy, not gas.

“Explorers have told me…New Zealand is much too nice a place to find oil! Really, it is not proximal to anything much, apart from Australia and Antarctica, which also have small populations.
Our remoteness is a definite disincentive, particularly for those who still think they are in danger of finding gas here.

“The main barriers to exploration are financial and will,” he argues. “So far, explorers have played it fairly safe. Generally, exploration companies like to expand exploration efforts incrementally from land to shallow waters, further offshore, gradually getting deeper. New Zealand’s potential lies mostly in deep water, so it needs someone with deep pockets to take the plunge.”

Still, with oil prices hitting record highs last year and fewer new fields being discovered, Uruski believes New Zealand’s time has come. The only alternative for the major oil companies at the moment is the even more expensive option of extracting oil from shales and other rocks in North America and Venezuela. The two-largest known oil reserves in the world are locked up in those shales, around three to four trillion barrels of oil. But the technology involved in extracting oil from rock is a whole lot more expensive than deepwater drilling for underground oil lakes.

In the meantime, Invercargill is gearing up for the boom.

“The tenders will be closed on second of April,” says Shadbolt. “We had a meeting in Invercargill last night of various companies that are involved in the oil industry, and we asked guest speakers from local companies like L. and M. Mining – who have been doing a lot of testing in the area – Crown Minerals sent a spokesman as well, and they have said yes, there is a significant interest from the main players, the big companies, who have uplifted all the data that they have available. They will be in negotiations with the companies who have tendered, and it will be announced in August who has got them.
“From council’s point of view, we just want to make sure that the oil companies are very aware of how many good engineers we have got down here, and try and make sure that once again we become the centre for the testing that is done. So we have set up a website, www.oilgasmineralsnz.com, and it lists everything that you would need for oil exploration.

“We are also running a series of workshops, just to let local businesses know what oil companies are like, how they operate, what their expectations are. For example, they run 24/7 all year, there is no such thing as after hours or anything like that when you are dealing with the oil industry. They are insistent that everything has to be – if you say you are going to do something it has to be done, because it is such an intense operation and such an expensive project to do.”

Is Southland ready to be the new Emirates?

“They are already calling me Sheikh Shadbolt down here, they are teasing me. But oil does seem to flow in the most adverse environmental conditions. It is either deserts or the most ferocious oceans imaginable, but nobody knows, at the end of the day, no one can say for certain what’s down there. All we know is, it definitely is oil.

“The mood of the city is quite excited actually,” continues Shadbolt, “and although you don’t get a huge benefit compared with the wealth generated, you certainly get the guys on rest and recreation with big wages – they come into town with big excitement, so it’s almost buzzing. And we are on a bit of a roll anyway at the moment, everything we touch seems to work out really well, so there seems to be quite a lot of interest all right.

“Every time a big block of land now gets sold around Bluff or the coast down there, it immediately unleashes a wave of speculation, “oh, that’s Shell, Shell’s bought that!” I just take everything with a grain of salt, it is possible, you don’t know because they do it through agents, and we have tried to track down who is behind some of these things, it is possible but we just don’t know.”

And that, in a nutshell, sums up the mystery of oil: until you strike a gusher, you really just don’t know.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 01:55 PM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2007

Book Reviews: April 07 issue

In association with The Nile


Michael Morrissey's picks for an Indian summer


INES OF MY SOUL by Isabel Allende, Fourth Estate, $36.99

Ines of my Soul is Allende's tenth novel – and an excellent one it is too. Initially a fully paid up member of the Magic Realism school, she, like Louis de Bernieres, has to a large degree moved onto being a historical novelist sans the Irish tall story-style embellishments which characterise this highly influential manner of writing fiction extensively deployed by Latin American writers for several decades.

Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, widely regarded as the world's greatest living writer, is most famously associated with Magic Realism. While Allende is not quite in Marquez's class, she is a very good writer indeed and this novel shows off her talents to great advantage. Magic Realism, richly imbued with what might be dubbed the Latin American voice, is characterised by narrative being overwhelmingly dominant over dialogue which becomes correspondingly sparse; a heavy Latinate style; highly colourful character contrasts and of course touches of wild exaggeration.

In Ines of my Soul the exaggerations are minimal, and Magic Realism greatly diminished. Instead we have a rich surfeit of blood and thunder sixteenth century conquistadors armed with sharp swords and large doses of warrior spirit as they set about the brutal conquest of Chile. Blood lust, gold lust (as well as the usual fleshy variety) permeate this complex tale narrated by Ines Suarez, a passionate woman who loses a husband and gains a lover - the war hero Pedro de Valdivar, a lieutenant so to speak, of Francisco Pizarro, the most famous conquistador of them all.

Ines, like the men who stride through these pages, is no lily-white lady herself. She is a swordswoman who beheads her enemies, and doesn't seem overly bothered by the ruthless conquest of the local Indians and the unflinchingly stoic Mapuche – who do not break even under torture. I did not, as some hostile reviewers imagine, that Allende herself condones this behaviour but assume like all good fiction writers she is letting her story and character speak for themselves with the voices of their time – accordingly, it is for us in more hopefully enlightened times to make a more strict moral judgment.

The book is energetic and colourful throughout though at times I found myself wondering is every man so swashbuckling (ie tall, handsome, cruel, a great lover, an even greater swordsman, and always greedy for gold) – aren't there cobblers and or cooks labouring away humbly? But this is after all the dashing world of the conquistadors and the violent world of sixteenth century Chile.


CROCODILE by Lynne Kelly, Allen &Unwin, $39.99

Whether through fear, sound survival instinct or meagre travel, I have led a crocodile-free existence. Reading this book - unlike a book on orangutans or dolphins - doesn't make me pine for any personal encounters. The scaly monster, which may well be the fact-founded basis for dragon legends, more than lives up its reputation as a fearsome man-muncher.

Some crocodile facts – there are fourteen species of crocodile, eight of alligator and caiman and one only of gharial. One of the India crocs is cutely named a mugger. The most recently discovered crocodile is the Philippine crocodile - in 1935. The most to be feared are the Australian fresh water crocodile affectionately nick-named “freshies” and the Nile crocodile both of which have claimed many lives. The latter kills hundreds of people a year though Kelly points out there are 800 million people in Africa – and the hippo kills more. In general, people do not survive a crocodile attack but Val Plumwood survived three of the dreaded death rolls by an Australian freshwater crocodile in 1985. Some accounts of their ferocity have proved to be exaggerations – the tale that nearly a 1000 Japanese soldiers were eaten in Burma during the Second World War in a single night is a wild exaggeration spawned of wartime wishful thinking.

The crocodile is a remarkable animal. It can advance on prey without causing a ripple, and their blood's unique chemistry enables it to utilise more oxygen from a breath of air than any other animal; it is the only animal that has actively controlled muscular valves in its heart. Its incredible immune system means that even serious gashes heal in a few days due to an antibiotic in their blood called “crocodillin” – currently the object of research to see if we humans can befit from it – hopefully it will not turn our skins scaly. (And just to confuse, crocodiles are often referred to as crocodilians.) Their toughness is legendary. Captain Lort Stokes of the Beagle wrote, “It was not before he had received six balls in the head that he consented to be killed”.

Though the alligator is a much more peaceful beast than the crocodile, attacks have increased because people feed them – they then begin to associate food with human beings and act accordingly. Though reputedly you can keep a crocodile's jaws shut with a strong rubber band (something I'm not about to test any time soon), it takes an almighty amount of force to open them once they are closed shut.

This is a lovely and well-informed book with inside covers appropriately rendered in a crocodile skin motif plus some startling art illustrations ranging from the ancient Egyptians to contemporary Aborigine showing the crocodile and humans have been acquainted for thousands of years. An excellent gift for reptile lovers - and one that won't bite.


IN THE NAME OF HONOUR by Mukhtar Mai,Virago, $34.99

Mukhtar Mai's tale is a harrowing but ultimately heroic one. In the savage world of Pakistan tribal custom in which she was raised, western notions of justice do not figure. In this brutal world, one member of a family can be punished for the crimes of another. Standards of proof are low or difficult to impossible. A woman who is raped, for instance, needs the testimony of four honest Muslim men and, as Mai ironically points out, sometimes – as in her case - the only four such witnesses are the very ones who perpetrated the deed! And what criminal is going to testify against himself?

Mai's living nightmare began when her younger brother aged but twelve was accused of flirting, then of raping Salma, “a rather wild young woman in her twenties”. His punishment was to be kidnapped, beaten and sodomised - for merely talking! If that were not enough, Mai was abducted and then systematically raped by four men. In her society, it was expected that through feelings of shame, she would commit suicide. Instead, her anger compelled her to live and seek justice. Sometimes “shamed” women are mutilated – their noses cut off – at least Mai was spared this barbarity.

In her rage, Mai contemplated hiring hitmen to kill her attackers or buying a gun herself but in her society women have no money. Instead she chose to seek justice through the legal system. Fortunately, the judge who heard her story was fair, impartial and patient. She describes him as “a distinguished man, very polite, and the first official to call for an extra chair so that I may sit down”. Whenever she became agitated he told her to calm down, take her time, have a sip of water. Thus gradually was her story revealed.

Over and over again, Mai makes the point that the fact she was illiterate made her vulnerable to manipulation. A standard technique was for the police to write the “confession” or statement the way it suited them and for the non-literate woman to affix her thumb print. Obviously the woman in question is not accurately aware of the content of what she is 'signing'.

Luckily, Mai's case was taken up by the media and Amnesty International also became aware of it. The course of justice was not smooth. Initially,14 men were arrested, six condemned to death, eight set free. Then five were acquitted. Finally, after the intervention of the Prime Minister, the men were re-arrested together with the originally freed eight. Thus at the conclusion of the book justice appears to have won out – no easy task in her country. Mai ends her book with this plea: “.... the real question my country must ask itself is, if the honour of men lies in women, why do men want to rape or kill that honour?”


LIMERICKS: THE OAKLEY COLLECTION by John Bentley, Polygraphia, $25

John Bentley is already a noted short story writer of witty complex stories deploying a neo-Joycean playfulness with language accompanied by learned footnotes giving his oeuvre a late modernist ambiance. In addition, he is a noted limerickist and this collection has numerous amusing example of the genre.

The limerick is a five-line poem with two recurring rhymes in an aabba formation. Though it has been most famously associated with Edward Lear – who write 212 of them and is known as the poet laureate of the genre – it dates back to ancient Greek times. There are also several examples in the plays of Shakespeare. Other distinguished writers such as Tennyson, Swinburne, Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson have seasoned the mix.

The modern limerick, like the short story invented by Poe, often has a twist or punch in the last line – and bawdy or ribald examples are legion. Many of us have probably heard, over a few pints, bawdy variations of the man from Nantucket. The form allows for play with language, deliberate misspellings, split line typography to achieve unlikely rhymes and so forth.

Bentley's limericks range far and wide from the local to overseas, with learned references from history, literature and psychology:

“The Magic Flute takes more time that it warrants,”
Said Bruno (the muso and thespian) Lawrence,
Whose company, Blerta
Never performed “Zauberflote”
I believe Freud would explain his abhorrence.

And in more satirical vein:

Said J Hunt, “There's a current malpractice
To address me, on e-mail or faxes,
In a manner quite sinister,
As a Cabernet minister!
Be assured, when I order a cab, it's a taxi!”

In naughtier bawdier vein – and more salty examples can be therein located - is this item:

There was an old fellow from Clapham
Had bollocks so low he could trap 'em
By crossing his knees
Though a cough, frat or sneeze,
Or patellar reflex would un-wrap 'em.

In addition, there are a goodly number of paintings and line drawings which add an attractive visual flavour to the combination - Bravo John Bentley!


NEW ZEALAND AS IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN edited by Stephen Levine, Victoria University Press, $35

This intriguing book is a collection of 14 essays by leading academic historians speculating on alternative pathways for New Zealand history. Normally the zone of fiction writers - consider for example the large number of works on the topic of Germany winning the war – here the new 'discipline” of counterfactual history is debated and defended. While some historians (though none are named) are not happy with this type of speculation, the historians contributing here have gleefully taken part and cooked up multiple versions of our possible pasts. Time travel by historians instead of fictioneers is a pleasing novelty though at times the ideas might have enjoyed a more dramatic exploration by the latter instead of the former. Still, this is a brave and in the main, successful attempt by customarily fusty academics to plumb alternative futures, or should I say alternative pasts.

As a World World Two freak, I found the alternative of Japan invading New Zealand by leading war historian Ian McGibbon the most adrenalin-raising and the notion of Nelson becoming the capital of New Zealand by editor Stephen Levine the least interesting (sorry Stephen). McGibbon's exploration has Japan invading Wellington and occupying the central part of the country. As many as 6 atomic bombs instead of the historic two are needed to bring about eventual defeat in 1946.

Giselle Byrnes asks “What if the Treaty of Waitangi had not been signed on 6 February 1840?” and concludes that the most likely outcome is that “the British would have annexed only those areas that British settlers had occupied leaving Maori with their autonomy intact”. A similar speculation – looking at the notion of Maori not being made British subjects in 1840 - leads to the startling conclusion that the wars of the 1860s could have been avoided.

Erik Olssen looks at the possibility that strikers in the 1913 Waihi strike - New Zealand's largest – succeeded and concludes that New Zealand would have moved more sharply to the Left and the Labour Party would never have been founded in 1916 – tough luck Helen!

Donald Anderson has several startling variations to offer - Churchill killed in the Boer War so no invasion of the Dardanelles, no entry of Turkey into the First World War so no glorious defeat at Gallipoli. And a chapter in a similar vein by Denis McLean has Prime Minister Savage reversing his famous words thus: “Where she goes, we cannot blindly go; where she stands, we do not find cause to stand”. Heresy!

John Wilson suggests that Muldoon Think Big projects may have failed in the late 1970s due to an unexpected drop in oil prices but the current oil crisis may force us to re-examine this philosophy. Other topics covered include speculation over the All Blacks not winning the final test in 1981, Ruth Richardson not delivering the mother of all budgets and Winston Peters not going with Labour in 1996.

To my mind the obvious omission from this collection is What if the Spaniards Had Discovered New Zealand Before the Dutch and the British? The notion has been investigated by several authors including Robert Langdon, Roger Herve, Ross Wiseman and K.L. Howe and many others including my own fictional account in Paradise to Come.

It will be fascinating to see what other professional historians of the non-counterfactual variety make of this collection of essays by their more fearless - or should that be reckless? - colleagues.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 11:38 PM | Comments (0)

Blame it on Rio: April 07 issue



Chris Welsch discovers Samba is the heartbeat of Brazil, and manages to avoid the Carnival

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Rain fell in sheets that battered the pavement like the waves crashing on nearby Ipanema Beach. The beat was steady and slow - whush, whush, whush, whush. The taxi pulled up, slick and yellow, and my wife and I ran out of the door of our hotel, hunched against the deluge, to meet it. Inside the cab, our Brazilian friend greeted us with apologies for the rain.

Our destination for the evening was the Rival Theatre, which occupies a cavernous basement hall with an entry on a narrow side street in the Lapa District, one of Rio's oldest, grandest neighborhoods.

Our friend, Cristina Walmsley, a carioca (native of Rio), was well-known to the doorman, who greeted her and my wife with kisses and me with a heartfelt handshake. We entered the hall, and a waitress took us to a table not far from the stage.

Shortly thereafter, Arlindo Cruz, a massive man with a tiny mandolin, sat down on a stool center stage. More than a dozen percussionists, guitarists and horn players lined up behind him and they began to play. They took up the beat of the rain and the ocean - steady, even, seductive. That was the base from which Cruz's plaintive vocals rose and fell.

At the first note, the music lifted everyone in the bar onto their feet. Men elegantly shuffled the tidy two-step of the samba. Their female dance partners matched the beat with their feet, but doubled it with their hips. There was no self-conscious hesitation; the separation between band and crowd didn't exist. Cruz sang, the crowd sang. The band members danced, we all danced. That is the spirit of samba.

We went to Brazil on a long-postponed honeymoon, but the reason we'd chosen the destination was for its music. One borrowed CD a few years ago has led to an obsession with the popular sounds of Brazil.

As human beings, we are often drawn to what is alien to us. My genes, and those of my wife, Silke Schroeder, came down from people who lived in the darker, colder parts of the world.

Samba, with its distinctive, floating downbeat, is a product of warm, sunny places. At its core, driven by percussion, samba has African roots, but like Brazil itself, samba is a stew of other places. From Portugal, samba gets its guitars, and an undertow of heartbreak. From indigenous Brazil, samba is infused with the soul of the country itself. Samba's most distinctive sound is the lilt of the cuica. If you've heard samba, you know that squeaky cry - it sounds like it's coming from a jungle bird of particularly iridescent plumage. The moment I heard samba, I felt a twitch in my hips and a strong pull toward Brazil.

We had a room at the Arpoador Inn, a hotel at the eastern end of Ipanema Beach. It was plain, clean, comfortable and right on the waterfront. We slipped into a leisurely carioca rhythm. We hit the beach during the day, the clubs at night, all the while accompanied by a steady samba beat, whether it was set by drums or waves or just a passerby, singing on the sidewalk.

Infrequently, we roused ourselves from sun-drenched torpor to explore Rio, a city of magnificent and miserable extremes. The dragon-backed mountains that ring the beaches serve as the majestic if unsteady foundation for the tumble-down slums called favelas that precariously cling to their flanks. Those who can afford it live on the low ground, near Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. There, on the sand, some of Rio's extremes meet. One group tans and swims, the other rents umbrellas and sells snacks.

We did our part, watching the surf and the passing show from under an umbrella, drinking iced coconut milk and snacking on Globo biscuits, which look like doughnuts made of styrofoam. For some reason they were saltily delicious and crunchy on the beach; when we ate them anywhere else they tasted like salted styrofoam.

We didn't want to spend our whole honeymoon in the middle of a big drunken party. So as Carnival approached, we left Rio. The sentiment was shared by some cariocas, apparently. When we told our hotel manager we were checking out for a week, he said, "Can I come with you?"

We had made reservations at a pousada (a small inn) on Ilha Grande, about 160 kilometres south of Rio. Getting there involved three hours in a private bus and another hour by ferry.

The words Ilha Grande are delicious in Portuguese - EEla GRANji, but they just mean Big Island. Until 10 years ago, it was home to a prison known as the Devil's Cauldron and a small village where the prison employees and their families lived. Now it is my idea of paradise: a car-less isle with a few hotels and restaurants, big, empty beaches, shady jungle trails and not much to do.

Silke had spent many hours on the internet finding Pousada Asalem, and all that research had paid off. It was in an isolated spot in the jungle, a half-hour walk from the island's only village, on a slope overlooking the bay.

There was a main house, with a big veranda where meals were served. The six rooms were built into the side of the hill above. The pousada's chefs served us meals of fresh fruit, eggs from the resident chickens, fish from the sea. Our suite had an airy loft, a giant yellow hammock and a palm-framed view of the bay. At night, samba from the Carnival parties in the village of Abraao drifted across the bay.

On the day of Carnival, we walked into town to catch the parade. It consisted of a marching samba band of about 20 villagers followed by a troupe of 40 children in costumes followed by another 100 people shuffling along to the pounding drums and blasting horns. It lasted about a half-hour, everyone cheered and sang, and then it was over. It was perfect.

A stage had been set up on the town square for a night of pop music and dancing for the young folk. We left before the real debauchery kicked in, although we heard music and shouting in the distance until after 3 a.m. At one point I heard what I thought might be gunfire.

At breakfast the next day, Paolo, the manager of the pousada, told us we'd missed some excitement. "I was there watching from the second story of a bar," he said. "A fight broke out. There was one police. He broke up the fight, but then the mother of one of the guys started biting him. Then that guy got mad because the police was hitting his mother. They both attacked him. Then the police pulled his gun and shot into the air, but they kept hitting on him. So he shot the guy in the foot. Then more police come and shoot pepper spray. I got some in my throat. It was a mess."

He told the story with some concern, which evaporated the minute the story ended. He never mentioned it again, and neither did anyone else.

Still, the story echoed later in the day. We went on a hike through the jungle to a tiny beach, where we met an American woman named Bobbi Oleo, her Brazilian fiance and several of their friends. They were all from Sao Paolo, and like most of the other tourists on the island, they were refugees from the big Carnival celebrations in the cities. They invited us to join their group for lunch.

"By now you've figured out that Brazilians are whimsical," Oleo said. "They change plans very easily. They say they're doing one thing and then do something else. That's probably why they're happy most of the time, even though things are difficult here. They live in the moment."

To that end she told us about the time she and her fiance were stuck in a traffic jam in Sao Paolo, on their way to a concert. A man came up to their car and robbed them at gunpoint. She was traumatized and wanted to go home, but Eduardo (the fiance) didn't see why. "He didn't want to let a little armed robbery ruin an evening of music."

Rio seemed a little tired and run-down when we returned. Pieces of paper, colorful feathers and sparkly pieces of what had been very small costumes littered the ground around the Arpoador Inn.

The beach was just as we left it, and our favorite umbrella vendor welcomed us home to our lazy post by the sea. I did feel a small ghost of regret flitting through my mind. I missed Carnival in Rio: The ultimate samba celebration. There are huge samba clubs of 4,000 to 5,000 people that spend the whole year writing and perfecting a samba, making costumes and building a float for the big contest at the Sambodrome, where more than 100,000 people will join them in song.

That night we consoled ourselves to a fine meal at a feijoada restaurant. Feijoada is one of Brazil's distinctive dishes: a hearty black-bean stew that is a staple of Carnival time. Loaded with cured beef, spareribs and sausage, it's remarkably heavy. As we were walking home, Silke pondered, "How can people eat like this and then dance?"

Not 10 minutes later, we saw a truck coming down Avenue Viera Souto, which fronts Ipanema beach. On top of the truck was a band. Twenty drummers marched behind it. A crowd of at least 200 dancers followed, doing the samba.

The band played the same song, over and over, and as the waves of sound washed over us, our feet moved, our hips shook, and we sang even though we didn't know what the words meant.

Bean stew, the heaviness, the impending trip back to a cold, hard place - none of that even came to mind.

Music pervades every aspect of life in Brazil; accordingly, the depth and breadth of recordings is rich. Here are a few starting points for an aural expedition.
Luaka Bop/ Brazil Classics
The CD series from David Byrne (former frontman of the Talking Heads) offers samples of many artists, styles and time periods. It is an irresistible invitation to the world of Brazilian music.
Martinho da Vila
This samba legend with a deep, melodic voice developed a reputation as a master composer and singer during a 40-year career.
Marisa Monte
The Brazilian pop diva dabbles in many styles. "Universo ao Meu Redor," a recent release, is a passionate study of samba, even if it is too slick to satisfy old-school samba fans.
Caetano Veloso
Veloso - one of Brazil's national treasures - has spent his remarkable career moving fluidly from one style to another with the only constant his signature, lilting voice.
Jorge Ben
Another groundbreaker, Ben merged funk and samba to create a sound all his own. "Africa Brasil" remains a classic of Brazilian popular music; my favorite Ben CD is "A Tabua de Esmeralda."
A traveler's checklist for Brazil
Explorer Amerigo Vespucci was better suited to naming things than he was to figuring out what they were. When the Portuguese ship he was piloting floated into Guanabara Bay on Jan. 1, 1502, Vespucci wrongly believed it was a river mouth. Thus, he dubbed the place the River of January, though there is no river. Now Rio (pronounced HEE-u in Portuguese) is home to 6 million cariocas (the preferred label for Rio-ites), with a laid-back attitude and culture that is unique even in Brazil.
In Brazil, crushing poverty fuels crime in the big cities. Holdups and petty theft against tourists are not uncommon in Rio de Janeiro. Even well-traveled neighborhoods such as Lapa, where many of the liveliest nightclubs are found, are unsafe at night. Having a friend in Rio who knew taxi drivers and where to pick them up safely was invaluable. In daylight, tourist areas are generally safe. Nighttime requires more caution. Use taxis and avoid solo travel. The U.S. State Department consular information sheet is worth reading: travel.state.gov/travel.
Don't head to Brazil without a good guide. Lonely Planet's Brazil guides are reliably comprehensive. If Rio is on the itinerary, read "Rio de Janeiro/Carnival Under Fire" by Ruy Castro, a true carioca. In 242 pages, he somehow manages to weave together all the disparate strands of Rio into something truly beautiful and melodic, like the city itself.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 10:37 PM | Comments (0)