Friday, 30 December 2011

The Godley, Murchison, Tasman, Whataroa, Butler Franz Josef and Maccaulay valleys and their mountains.


31 December 2011 will draw to a close in 15 hours with New Zealand being the first country in the world to see the New Year in. What a year for me in terms of work, family and mountains it has been. I feel so proud of the work our International Red Cross (IFRC) team has done in Sri Lanka with the SLRCS in finishing off our tsunami work, building houses and communities for people displaced by the war, and providing housing, livelihoods and water sanitation to those affected by floods earlier in the year. The picture  below which I took a few days ago symbolises the braids of my my life in our world, which I am constantly twisting, straightening, bending and  and prioritsing, and like this once simple river upstream,, our world has become complex and we have to change to survive, and flourish. I hope your New Year will be one of positive change, and that you develope stronging coping mechanisms to deal with the extra pressure place by climate change, economic recession, employment uncertainty and increasing conflict over scarce resources. May God give you the strength to carry through on your New Year's resolutions.,
Let you hair down tonight and celebrate your acievements. Happy New Year.
Shortly after we took off from Lake Tekapo and at the far end of the lake, we flew up the Godler ricer which is glacial-fed, braided and incredib;le colourful. Photo: Bob McKerrow.

On the mountain front this year, I added a new mountain range to the long list I have walked in over the years, the Elburz mountains in Iran. In July i made a quick trip back to New Zealand to see the heaily snow-capped Southern Alps, and the last week I have been basking in the sun at the foothills of our magnificent NZ mountains. and visited Mount Cook and flew over the Godley, Murchison, Tasman, Whataroa, Butler  Franz Josef and Maccaulay valleys and their mountains. Here are some photos of this trip to a remote part of New Zealand.

Peaks at the headwaters of the Godley valley.

Mt. Sibbald on the eastern side of the Godley valley

Tom the pilot with Air Safaris in Tekapo with Ablai my son. Bob McKerrow

The Sibbald range in the Godley valley. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Godley Glacier and the headwaters and beyond. Photo: Bob McKerrow

We flew over the Liebig Range and dropped into the Murchison. Photo: Bob McKerrow
At the headwaters of the Murchison valley looking far afield. Photo: Bob McKerrow

From the head of the Murchison looking towards Elie de Beaumont. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Head of Godley and Murchison valleys. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Head of the Tasman Glacier looking to Aoraki Mt. Cook, Dampier, Tasman and others. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Mt. Darwin at the Tasman saddle end of the Late brun range.Photo: Bob McKerrow

Malte Brun and the cheval ridge slightly left of centre. I first climbed this in December 1967. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Keith McIvor (right) and I left on the summit of Malte Brun almost 44 years to the day when we climbed it. Photo: Jim Cowie

Tasman Saddle  Hut ( the orange speck) near the end of the Tasman glacier, a refuge for mountaineers. Photo: Ablai Mckerrow

Elie de Beaumont and to the left of the summit the Maxmillian ridge, first climbed by Ed Hillary, Ed Cotter, Bill Beavan and Earl Riddiford. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Upper Whataroa valley. West Coast, South Island. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Looking from the lip of the upper Franz Josef Glacier into the Spencer Glacier: Photo: Bob McKerrow

 From the head of the Tasman Glacier looking towards the Whataroa and peaks at the head of the Butler, Perth and Wanganui Rivers. Anyone recognise the small alpine lake to the centre left of the photo ? I think it is likely to be the small valley to the true right of thesnout of the Whymper Glacier. Photo: Bob McKerrow

St. Mildred Peak  at the head of the Franz Josef Glacier, and top end of the Baird Range, looking to Elie de Beaumont. Photo: Bob McKerrow

 St. Mildred and Drummond Peaks at the head of the baird Range and at the head of the franz Josef Glacier. I first climbded these peaks on a ski touring trip with Mike browne, Dick Whitley and Mel Lapwood in 1976. When I was living at Franz Josef in 1990-93 running the national park, I climbed these peaks many times and with Bruce White, took a group of students from westland High Scholl to the summit of St. Mildred. see photo below.Photo: Bob McKerrow

Twenty- one years earlier with 6th and 7th form pupils from Westland High on the summit of St. Mildred overlooking the Franz neve. This was sponsored by the Charlie Douglas young explorers scheme. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Taking young people into the mountains has been one of the greatest joys of my life and two days back, I took Mahdi, my 8 year old son, to the top of his first peak, Mt. Roy. Here he is celebrating below.

Happy New Year to you all.
Bob McKerrow

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Aoraki Mount Cook visit yesterday

Yesterday, 27 December, I left Tekapo at 5.50 am for a trip to Aoraki Mt. Cook, home to the highest peaks in New Zealand. I worked  for the Natiuonal Park in 1971-73 as a mountaineer-general where I had mountain rescue, guiding and general conservation work. The best years of my life. In the winter, there were 350 women working in the tourist trade and only 90 men. But it was the mountains that called me back and back again since i foirst climbed here in 1966..

My first view of Aoraki Mount Cook looking across Lake Pukaki. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Trees, lake and mountains as I drive closer. Photo: Bob McKerrow

A reak delight to see the NZ Alpine Club. Photo: Bob McKerrow

One of the old cottages at the Hermitage and Mt. Sefton (l) and Footstoll (r). photo: Bob McKerrow

A statue of Sir Edmund Hillary who learnt to climb on ice and snow at Mount Cook and started climbing with Harry Ayres. Photo: Bob McKerrow

A close-up of the summits of Aoraki Mt. Cook. The east ridge is on the right skyline an ascent I did with Chris Timms in Dec 1971 Photo: Bob McKerrow

The south face of Aoraki Mount Cook and to the left of the south face is the Hillary Ridge. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Compare the above photos to the one I took in the winter of 1972 . Photo: Bob McKerrow

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Christmas Day at Otipua - New Zealand

Christmas day in New Zealand is like nowhere else. Beaches, cricket, touch rugby, BBQs at the beach, family, shorts and T-shirts, swimming, lamb, new potatoes, ham, green peas, mint, salads and heaps of vegetables, fruits, desserts, beer and wine. It's the informality I love. But above all, it is being together as a whanau (extended family) And when we have had a few too many, we can watch the Boxing Day cricket test and enjoy Australia being whalloped again. Not only did we beat them in the semi final of the rugby world cup, we beat them in the last cricket test played a few weeks back.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all our friends out there.

Love to you all.

Ablai I(eft) Jonts and Billy digging the Jersey Bennie potatoes for Christmas dinner tonight. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Harper going for the big hit in our T-Ball game.
Down at the skate park at Caroline Bayha

We couldn't hire the rugby world cup for Christmas but we managed to get a decent-sized ball.

Mahdi has a new friend, Murphy. He is named after Greg Murphy the V8 supercar driver.

Anita, Aroha and Naila chatting in the garden at the farmlet at Otipua.

Swimming at Caroline Bay, Timaru.

The boys enjoying a few games and a chat.

It's 6.15 pm. The new potatoes are cooking, the lamb is in the oven, Jonts is cooking some ham steaks and the table is laden with food and wine.

All photos: Bob McKerrow

Friday, 23 December 2011

Seven years since Indian Ocean tsunami struck.

What are the Lesson's Learned?

It has been seven traumatic years for those families and friends who lost loved ones in the tsunami. which struck so quickly and silently on 26 December 2004. The grieving goes on, and for many there is no closure as thousands of bodies were never found. But life goes on and if you travel today to the worst affected countries of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Maldives, India and Thailand, life in those affected coastal areas can be described as normal. But the recovery goes on in some countries, mainly Sri Lanka, as the 30 years long civil war, only finished in mid 2009. The conflict delayed many housing and community projects that were promised to the affected people.

I started this article in Christchurch New Zealand early yesterday, 23 December. During the day,  four major earthquakes struck. The headlines in the paper merely say:

5.8  5.3  6.0  5.0

My good friend Robin Judkins who we visisted in his severely damaged house  perched on a hill side in Sumner only the day before, dislocated his shoulder when the first quake struck yesterday  and he dived under a table for safety.

But the story in this morning paper about the Indonesian tsunami seven years on, really moved:
Wati, second right, poses for a photograph with her father Yusuf, right, mother Yusniar, left, and younger brother Aris

A girl who was swept away in the Indian Ocean tsunami seven years ago told today how she broke down in tears after tracking down her parents, who had long lost hope of finding her alive.

The 15-year-old showed up in Aceh province's hard-hit town of Meulaboh earlier this week, saying that not long after the wave hit she was "adopted" by a woman who called her Wati and forced her to beg, sometimes beating her and keeping her in the streets until 1am.

When the teenager stopped bringing in money, she was told, "Go ahead, leave ... go find your parents then, they're in Meulaboh."

With only patchy memories about her past - she was only eight when the tsunami hit, an age where most children do not know their relatives' full names - Wati began her search, telling people she thought her grandfather was "Ibrahim."

She met a pedicab driver in Meulaboh, who brought her to a man by that name. Though she did not look familiar, he, in turn, quickly summoned her parents.

The Red Cross tsunami recovery is about to draw to a close. Just last Monday Kristina Kumpala, secretary general of the Finnish Red Cross opened a hospital in Chavakatcheri in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.. With the war finishing in May 2009, the Finnish Red Cross funded hospital could not be started until June 2009. This a was a fine effort by the Finns working with the Sri Lanka Red Cross to finish a large base hospital in just over two years. As I write the American Red Cross are completing a 22 km water pipleline in Galle, in southern Sri Lanka.

Ten days ago when John Ekelund from the Finnish Red Cross visited Sri Lanka, I knew he had worked in Sri Lanka for almost four years on the tsunami recovery operation so I took the opportunity to get  his opinion on a number of issues as I respect him immensely for the work he had done.
" It was the commitment of Red Cross volunteers and staff that gave us the edge," he said. "We also displayed vision, we thought ahead when planning for schools or hospitals and tried to visualise the expanding needs in ten years. So we built for the present and the future and this approach has really paid off."

John was somewhat scornful of organisations that came in and with poor planning, and little liaison with community or local authorities, rushed through construction, took photographs and left, often leaning many liabilities and defects for other to manage.

" The Red Cross built quality houses, hospitals,water systems, schools and clinics and took a holistic approach and when working with communities, we built not only houses but toilets, clean water to each house, livelihoods and even playgrounds for the children." he said.

Since the tsunami struck seven years ago, I have been working on the tsunami recovery operations in India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia where I spent four years.

For each of the six solemn  years I have been at a commemoration ceremonies in India, Indonesia, Thailand and last year on 26 December, in  southern Sri Lanka. .I can recall the grief, emotions, wailing, the blank look on faces as famiies floated candles out to sea on rafts, or tied minature lanterns to kites and sent into the night sky in Phuket

I can repeat what I have said and written hundreds of times in praising the Red Cross volunteers, staff, engineers, day labourers, the affected communities in displaying unpreceedented solidarity and commitment in responding and building back better.

But I want pause for a moments and catergorically say that the most important single thing we can do is to capture the lessons learned so we minimise the effects of future earthquakes and tsunamis. Coincidentally as I write this, I am in Christchurch which was severely damaged in September last year and agaiun in February this year. Yesterday I had a look at progress made in the recovery operation and the challenges ahead. I visited a friend who was badly affected, and saw his house tettering on a cliff top in Sumner.

Lessons were captured from the tsunami and the best publication by far is the Tsunami Legacy, and another cracker, A Ripple In Development. Although good, these two publications did not drill in deep enough to where recovery really goes off the rails, and that is in  the poor or weak governance at local, regional and national level.

In the Christchurch Press on Monday 19 December 2011, there is an attack on the 'darling' of  Canterbury's Earthquake Recovery Agency, Roger Sutton the CEO.

On June 11 2011, The Press featured an illustration of Roger Sutton (left) in full armour, riding a horse and brandishing a sword, presumably at all those who stood in the way of Canterbury's earthquake recovery.
In hindsight, the metaphor seems a little over-cooked.
Sutton walked into the job as Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority chief executive with a strong public profile, built on his time in the top job at Christchurch lines company Orion. Since June, he has been co-ordinating the quake recovery, including deciding what land will have to be abandoned and which buildings will be demolished. If Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee is the recovery chairman, and effectively the entire board, Sutton is responsible for the nitty-gritty of shaking hands and fronting up to public meetings. After the February 22 quake, the Canterbury public regularly saw Sutton gesticulating at large diagrams on butcher's paper, describing how Orion's power lines had been munted and how they would be fixed.

The lines were repaired with minimal fuss and many people were suitably impressed.

But his performance since taking over at CERA has received a mixed review, with people in broken homes struggling to find answers often targeting him personally. While Sutton still has many defenders, Cera's Facebook page is littered with criticism of his performance, many mocking his much-lauded communication skills.

One post commenting on Sutton's regular newsletters likened him to being wheeled out like "some sort of old aunty at a wedding" before vanishing again.

Other posts expressed disappointment that he had failed to live up to his reputation as grand communicator.

Sitting in his 11th-storey Christchurch office overlooking the battered central city, Sutton was philosophical about his popularity dip. "I knew from the very beginning it was only going to go downhill," he said.

"By definition, in a role like this you're not going to keep all the people happy all the time. There is huge hurt out there. Some people's lives are really pretty crap."
Making these lives better had been harder than expected. Rogers Sutton goes on to outline his challenges.

The biggest challenge had been making clear decisions about what land can be rebuilt on. Sutton said the complexity of classifying land had been a surprise and had taken far longer than expected.

"When I took the job, there was a view by some that some of those land decisions would be made pretty quickly, and they just haven't."

Knights in shining armour such as CERA's Roger Sutton are only as good as the politician's making the decisions and the space and powers CEO are given to run recovery operations.

But where do world leaders learn about earthquake or disaster recovery operations?

World leaders/politicians need look no further than Bill Clinton or Dr. Kuntoro Mangkusubroto.

Kuntoro Mangkusubroto (left) with Bob McKerrow on a joint trip to Simeulue Island in 2007. Photo: Aroha McKerrow

Clinton was special envoy for Tsunami to Koffe Annan and the later to Ban ki Moon, SG of the UN. Dr. Kuntoro was the remarkable Minister for Tsunami.who led a brilliant team of practicioners to complete a massive recovery operation within four years. Did the NZ Government look overseas to see where the could get the best expert advice ? If they had of enticed Dr. Kuntoro and his operations manager Eddy Puwanto, I am sure the Christchurch earthquake recovery operation would have been much speedier. Bill Clinton together with Dr. Kuntoro coined the phrases, 'build back better' and 'breakthrough initatives.' Breakthrough initiatives are 'out of the box thinking' that accelerates recovery, something both the Japanese tsunami and New Zealand's Christchurch earthquake sorely need.

Thanks  goodness that the special adviser to Dr. Kuntoro, was Bill Nicol, who was at the minister's side for 4 years. The former journalist, TV front man, management consultant who has written controversial, yet highly accurate books on East Timor and malpractice in the Australian medical profession, has just completed a book called Tsunami Chronicles. Having worked with Bill and Dr. Kuntoro for 4 years during the Indonesian tsunami, Bill honoured me by letting me look at the first draft. What an amazing book which is written in a style that will guide Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ministers, other politicians, CEO and in fact anyone that works in a huge disasters. Bill leaves no stone unturned and visited Haiti to see if any of the tsunami lessons learned were applied.. Sadly little was and the book shows that organisations are superb at capturing lessons learned, but weak in applying them.

Yesterday when four major earthquakes hit Christchurch, I saw Mayor Bob Parker on TV, and also Roger Sutton. Parker communicates clearly and you feel you trust this man. Sutton, on the other hand, came across as being sound techically, but not a man that embues confidence, noe a sound communicator.

I feel it not too late for the Mayor of Christchurch, the CEO of CERA, and the Minister for the Canterbury Earthquake, to seek foreign advice on breakthrough initiatives, that would accelerate recovery. In addition, the Government could look at the number of New Zealanders working overseas with vast experience in earthquake and disaster recovery, to come back and lend a hand. It's not too late. This recovery operation in Christchurch will take 10 to 15 years to complete.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Earthquakes in Christchurch today - 23 December 2011

Damage in today's earthquake in Christchurch was quite bad with liquefaction and water spewing through the ground is an ongoing problem.

Yesterday was our day at the beach, and today was our day at ' Get High in the Adrenalin Forest' some 20 km north of Christchurch at Spencerville...

Mt family and I had just completed 2 levels of high and tight ropes, flying foxes and wobbly suspended steps, and as I was just walking to level 3 of difficulty, when the tree roots I were walking over shook violently  for at least 15 seconds. There was a strong upward thrust and iIlooked up, and there was my son, swinging on a high rope, 20 metres off the ground. EARTHQUAKE was my immediate reaction having been involved in 15 earthquake operations in almost 40 years.

It must  have been a few minutes before 2 pm. NZ time. While we were at Adrenalin forest, we felt two more aftershocks. Then as we moved to some open ground outside Northland mall, all shops were closed down and workers flooded out, many traumatised from so many earthquakes since september 2010.
25,000 people in Easternm Christchurch are without power. In the 2 hours we awaited for some sort of reading or prediction, at least 5 more significant aftershocks accured.

Roger Sutton the CEO of Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Agency said  a few minutes ago he flew over Christchurch  an hour or so agao and said "Liquafaction had affected many areas."

We are on holiday in Christcurch and when we returned to our Motel in Main North road, there were cracks in our room.

I will keep you posted.

Christchurch was still recovering from an earthquake in Sept 2010 and another more devastating one in February 2011.
Latest from stuff:

A swarm of quakes - including a magnitude 6 and three at or above magnitude 5 - have hit Christchurch, toppling already damaged buildings, injuring residents and disrupting power, phone services and retailers.

The first quake - magnitude 5.8 quake, 8km deep and centred 20km north east of Lyttelton - struck at 1.58pm, GeoNet said. It was followed by a magnitude 5.3 quake at 2.06pm, a magnitude 6 quake - the largest - at 3.18pm and a 5.0, just 10 km deep, at 4.50pm.

The quakes were felt as far south as Queenstown and as far north as Lower Hutt, according to GeoNet. People in Greymouth, Ashburton, Dunedin, Hanmer Springs and Oamaru also felt them.


A partly demolished building and a vacant house have collapsed following today's quakes, police said.

There were still no reports of widespread damage or injury, but there had been significant rockfall at Redcliffs, police spokesman Stephen Hill said.

A stopbank on New Brighton Road had also collapsed, and there were reports of major holes on Broadhaven Ave and liquefaction in Avonside.

Earlier today, Hill said four people had to be rescued after they were trapped by a rockfall in Boulder Bay.

One person, who was at the Eastgate Mall in Linwood, had been injured and was taken to hospital.

The WINZ building in New Brighton had suffered some damage and staff had to be evacuated.

Many malls were closed and police patrolled streets for damage.

Roads were gridlocked as people tried to rush home, but police warned motorists to slow down and drive with care. Drivers were urged to stay away from the hill suburbs as there was a risk of further rockfalls.

The Lyttelton Tunnel remained open.

St John Ambulance responded to at least 19 people with various injuries. They included six people who collapsed, two people who had seizures, one person who had a panic attack, and one person who received a knock to their head, St John Regional Operations Manager Chris Haines said.

One person was also treated by St John after having a minor car accident.

Other injuries included chest pain and anxiety issues and six people were treated for "unknown issues", Haines said.


The National Crisis Management Centre has been activated in response to the quakes.
Phone services were disrupted and about 26,000 Orion customers were without power in the eastern suburbs, including New Brighton and Dallington.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Iran is a much mis-represented country.

Iran is a much mis-represented country and was once home to the world’s earliest super power.

In 1979 I bought a copy of CROSSROADS OF CIVILIZATION -3000 years of Persian History by Clive Irvine. I was living in Geneva at the time and the book started a lust for learning about Persia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and India, all places that were once part of the Persian Empire. In his book Irving says “ The first Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great transformed the scale on which societies were organizised, and reconciled many people under one rule. Persians struggled to preserve their identity, indeed, each invasion was succeeded by a remarkable cultural flowering of an essentially Persian character, manifested in the poetry of Firdausi, the buildings of the Seljuks, the minature paintings of the Timurids, and the mosques of Isfahan.

In 1976 I spent considerable time in Afghanistan working for the Red Cross, first an earthquake, then a flood relief operation. I got close to the Iranian border many times and I understood that Afghanistan was once part of the Persian Empire for thousands of years. Here I began to understand for the first time. the scale and the culture of the Persians.

Bob McKerrow in 1994 at one of the forts built by the Persians in Herat, Afghanistan. Photo: Bob McKerrow collection.
So last week, another dream came true when I visited Iran for the first time and what I saw completely exceeded my expectations. It made me wonder as to why the world media is so biased about Iran for I found the people warm, intelligent and hospitable, and walked freely in all parts of the capital and adjacent Elburz mountains. People went out of their was to be helpful.

In these sad and dirty days of demonization and prejudice few books could be more apposite than Jason Elliot's thoughtful portrait of Iran Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran

 Jason’s book is clearly the best book written on Iran for decades and has received brilliant reviews. Jason Elliot stayed with me in Kabul in 1996 when he was working on his first book, ‘An Unexpected Light – Travels in Afghanistan and he came to our wedding in 1998 in Almaty Kazakhstan. We have remained friends ever since and rather than give my fleeting impressions of Iran, it is best coming from a Farsi speaking traveller who lived for years in Iran, and from one of his reviewers, Sara Wheeler.

Focusing on the tradition and spirit of the Persian people and avoiding contemporary politics, Elliot deploys a guileful blend of traveller's tales, topographical description and history - spiced up with a treatise on the meaning of Islamic art - to guide the reader towards an understanding of what that ancient country is, and, perhaps more importantly, what it is not.

A fluent Farsi-speaker, the author has solid experience of the region: his previous book, An Unexpected Light (2000), illuminated his travels in Afghanistan, Iran's eastern neighbour. In this new work he recounts a sequence of journeys over several years and at different seasons. Eschewing, as far as possible, the dismal wastelands of the urban centres, he shapes his voyages around the ruins and glories of old Persia. They embrace Isfahan, the 17th-century capital; the Mongol Ilkhanid northern capitals Sultaniyya and Tabriz in east Azerbaijan; Kurdistan and the remote and vertiginous Iraqi border, a smugglers' route for alcohol and satellite televisions. He takes in the Seljuk-era Assassins' castles near Qazvin, and, south of Shiraz in the heartland of ancient Fars, the pre-Islamic ruins of the first Sasanian palaces. And finally - of course - he inspects the Achaemenid remains at Persepolis.

The Elburz mountains with Teheran in the fireground. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Travelling on boneshakers and sleeping in dives, he drops in on the zurkhaneh, a kind of ritualised martial-arts arena, on Tehrani cocktail parties where he spies tattoos under the chadors, and on the world's first Caspian horse-breeding centre. He conjures the warm, cetacean puffs of steam from a samovar, the crackle of hollyoak branches and the shadowy mass of a Golestan bear, the trembling lamp of frosted glass in a dining car. As always, it is when he homes in on the tiny detail that the travelogue works best: supine on a stone slab in a hamman he describes watching individual drops of water detach from the ceiling, "feeling the tension grow in my forehead at each looming descent before the meteor-like impact". Everywhere he finds a people disillusioned with the broken promises of the regime - a bone-deep weariness and resentment. There is no crowing about uranium enrichment among ordinary Iranians. They are more interested in whether Elliot knows someone at the embassy.

A bazaar in Darband selling fresh meat for Kebabs. Photo: Bob McKerrow

In the early chapters Elliot struggles to find a voice, but as the pages turn he emerges as a sympathetic companion on the dusty road, lying to young women about his age and coping with disappointments with warm good humour (a taxi driver, he says, "robbed me courteously"). In a village near Yadz he spends the evening propped up against a cold stone wall deafened by the shouts of his hosts and the blare of the ubiquitous television. "I had often wondered," he confesses, "what it might be like to shoot a television." Always game for a waterpipe with a Turkman or a coy conversation with a veiled beauty, his puppy-like enthusiasm rarely wanes, yet he also has a sharp eye for the bathetic, missing one major site because he is sitting on the wrong side of the bus.

Elliot is not a stylist, but his prose is clear, notwithstanding a tendency to overwrite. "At midday," he explains, "funnelled through octagonal crowning oculi, the light drives downwards like an incandescent whirlpool, into which anyone passing seems to momentarily ignite like a human filament before being extinguished on the far side." Sustaining the narrative drive with lashings of direct speech, he elsewhere fails to win the war against cliché (an enemy wreaks havoc, the shah's days are numbered and every baleful event is heralded as "fateful"). But he quotes judiciously from his predecessors among travellers to Iran, notably, of course, Robert Byron, an author who has become such a Homeric figure in the consciousness of contemporary travel writers. (Byron, Elliot can't stop himself remarking, "spoke hardly a word of Persian".) He also quotes wisely from Hafez and the other great Persian poets, noting what a vital role poetry plays in the national psyche.

Rezi Ghaderi and his family have been selling quality Persian carpets for centuries. Photo Bob McKerrow

He has a firm grasp of history, whether describing the cavalry assault of Hulegu Khan and the ensuing Pax Mongolica, or Parthian fratricide and the volleys of flaming naptha bombs and jars of bloodsucking flies catapulted at Septimius Severus from within the besieged walls of Babylon. (He is less sure-footed off his patch, locating Herodotus 300 years too late in the second century BC.) As dynasties rise and fall he explores the concept of Persian identity. Any writer seeking to explain a culture east of Italy must be alert to the vital spiritual dimension, that mystical aspect of the human condition so conspicuously absent in the rootless west. Elliot is wonderful on this. In one of the best passages in the book he invokes Kipling's never-meeting twain, rightly regretting the debasing of even the words "mystic" and "spiritual" in our own language. Everyone struggling to understand Iran must grasp the fundamental truth of this gulf. To underline its importance, Elliot has taken as his title a reference to the Persian acknowledgement of an unseen world - ghayb - from which the soul receives its most rarefied nourishment. Everything existing in the visible world is the imperfect mirror of this hidden reality.

Isfahan, the fabled city of superb arhitecture

Through all his travel stories and all his historiography, Elliot traces the influence and development of the visual arts, and it is above all architecture that compels him. Many pages of intricate description reveal how viscerally he responds to "reciprocating melodies of light and colour", sensing pressed behind them "a language longing to be heard". He makes discoveries about site geometry, finding underlying principles of numbers and harmony - at one point he sits up till dawn with a map and a pair of spills, measuring the orientation of the Isfahan mosques. Alongside the physical journey the narrative thread follows his internal voyage towards an understanding of Persian architecture, calligraphy and painting. Mirrors of the Unseen is, above all else, an apologia for the unifying underlying meaning of Islamic art. Elliot leads the reader by the hand along his own trajectory of understanding, showing his presuppositions confounded and his "eyes being slowly retrained". Two hundred pages in (still less than half way), he announces: "I felt that, very slowly, I was actually learning something."

Dates and fruits from all parts of Iran are on sale in almost every street: Photo: Bob McKerrow

His bonnet is buzzing with bees, the noisiest of which concerns the metaphysics of the art he so admires. These have been summarily overlooked by scholars, Elliot reckons. Indeed he claims to have personally discovered layers of meaning ignored by thousands of pages of academic inquiry. "Islamic art as a whole," he states, "is seen by the great majority of art historians as essentially decorative, and lacking in any underlying principles." Only Arthur Upham Pope, author of the magisterial 15-volume Survey of Persian Art and Scholarship, is let off the hook. Otherwise Elliot accuses everyone who has ever thought about an old Persian building of judging that Islamic art cannot possess anything so vague as a "spirit". As the book unfurls he returns obsessively to this theme and becomes increasingly aggressive about it, even suggesting that "nearly all" contemporary studies of Islamic art converge on the verdict that it is "wholly lacking in ontological significance". Perhaps. It is a measure of Elliot's self-absorption that he thinks he is the first to think about meaning. But he does have some fresh ideas, and it is bold of him to make the rubbishing of generations of scholarship the central plank of his book.

Like Byron, Elliot displays a daring approach to form, even including a handful of sorties into fictional recreation of historical scenes. Striving to deliver history with a light touch, at one point he interpolates a footnote about a University Challenge contest between rationalists (Aristotle to Freud) and Mystics (Pythagoras to Gurdjieff), with King Solomon in the Paxman seat. He brings it off triumphantly, overall, though almost every chapter would have benefited from distillation. At 520 pages, few readers will wish this book longer (to be fair, before the longest essay on the origins and history of Islamic art he inserts a caveat lector advising uninterested readers to skip to the next chapter). Mirrors of the Unseen is not without problems. But it is indubitably important. It is a work of profound thought, imagination, passion and ambition. It should be widely read. And not, I hope, as the bombs are falling.

A 75 year old man I met walking up a track in the Elburz mountains. He'd lived all his life in the mountains. Photo: Bob McKerrow