Friday, 29 June 2012

June 27 - Cairo, Egypt

My original plan was to spend around 10 days in Egypt where I could travel along the Nile visiting date plantations and see something of the huge Egyptian date industry. At the time of booking my travel there was a lot of civil unrest with the revolution - which has subsequently ousted the president who'd ruled for the past 30 years. With the ongoing trouble and violence over several months I decided to minimize my travel to a day. As a safety precaution I arranged for my hotel to pick me up from the airport as well as assign me a good driver who spoke English to drive me around Cairo.

As it turned out, just a few days before my arrival there were new elections to elect a new president (with a victory margin of less than 1%) which marks an historic new chapter for Egyptian democracy. Street demonstrations, protests and military activity had settled right down and I probably could have extended my travel plans.
Traffic in Cairo is chaotic - just continuous tooting, motorists pushing in and dodging pedestrians, heavy all day and night, taking lengthy periods of time with many delays to drive relatively short distances and quite 'hairy'.
Driving around Cairo was fascinating with date palms heavy in fruit everywhere. Date palms were being farmed on small blocks on the edge of the city. 
It was interesting to see the different crops being grown beneath the palm canopies - mangos, bananas, corn, cotton, vegetables and livestock, making for an attractive landscape. Also gave me a few ideas to implement back home.
Of course when in Cairo the pyramids are a 'must see'. When I arrived I realized just how few tourists there were. I almost had the place to myself. The revolution has kept tourists away - which I didn't mind at all!
The pyramids and Sphinx cover a large area (about 9km) and vehicles are not permitted to drive around them. It is not practical to walk that distance in the soft, white, reflective sand in 40 degree temperatures so I hired a horse and rode around. After watching so many doco's on TV over the years about the history of these 5000 year old pyramids and their stories, it was a great thrill to see them up close and connect with their history.
Egypt was hard travelling but I'm glad I spent time here. Although I didn't get right into the date cultivation side of things I still compiled some good notes on the mixed/inter-cropping farming systems.
Next step: Kuwait!

June 22-26 Spain

I flew directly from Dublin to Alicante in Spain and went by taxi to Elche. I have been fascinated with Elche for a long time as it has a small but old date industry. The history of Elche is interesting with the Arabs ruling over the land from the 8th century for some 600 years. Still today there are hundreds of thousands of date palms all over the cities, decorating and beautifying the urban landscape. Apparently they are all grown from seed and not cultivated for fruit but are highly valued as ornamentals and kept nicely pruned.
The Spanish date industry which does produce commercial fruit is located 38 degrees north of the equator on the Mediterranean Sea. This location is affected by sea breezes which cool the summer heat, equating to a significantly cooler climate than all other date regions including the Riverland, that I'm aware of. My interest lay in seeing which varieties successfully ripened in Elche and what management methods have been adopted to produce commercial fruit in this region.
I was most fortunate to meet with Dr Michel Ferry, a date expert from the date palm research centre in Elche who agreed to show me around. He was involved in sending tissue cultured date palms to Alice Springs from France in the late 1980's so has had some historical involvement in the Australian date industry. Michel met me at my hotel and introduced me to Susi Gomez, a biological specialist in date palm pests. Also Antonio Urban, a date plm grower who also grows Canary Island palms and sells into the ornamental market. This photo: myself with Dr Michel Ferry and Antonio Urban.

This photo: Sunflowers are cleverly grown alongside date palms so birds are distracted from the date fruit.
We began with a tour of Antonio's date plantation where I had the opportunity to look at some 8yr old Medjool and Confitera varieties, originating from Dr Ferry's tissue culture facility. Confitera is a local variety I haven't heard of. We looked at tree canopy management, discussed pollination techniques, pruning methods and irrigation systems adopted, however the main issue was definitely the Red Palm Weevil. This pest has in recent years been accidently introduced to Spain from Egypt in a shipment of ornamental palms. It has subsequently infected wide regions of Spain, killing many date palms. The Red Palm Weevil originates from Asia. It is large (matchbox size) and lays its larvae in the palm trunk. The larvae eat the trunk from the inside out, killing the tree. Consequently this infestation has stopped expansion of both the date industry and ornamental palm trade as customers lose confidence in the life expectancy of their palm purchases.

This photo: Huge potted Canary Island palms ready for sale. 1000 & 1500 litre pot sizes.

Red Palm Weevil is the #1 pest problem for date growers throughout the world and has been introduced to nearly all date growing regions over the last decade or so with major negative effects. It was recently discovered in the USA but at this stage not in Australia that we are aware of. Wealthy nations have been investing many millions of dollars into finding technologies to combat this pest. Elche was famous for producing ornamental palms and sending all over the world but trade has significantly reduced with the news that Elche has the weevil. Antonio Urban and family were big suppliers into this market. They have approx 500,000 large Canary Island palms ready and waiting for sale.
This photo: Standing amongst ornamental Canary Island palms looking at Red Palm Weevil management issues.
Owner Antonio Urban (far left) Susi Gomez (biologist), myself and Antonio Urban jnr.

Dr Michel Ferry is held in high regard internationally for his campaign on controlling the Red Palm Weevil. He is involved in assisting some other countries design and implement control programs. All of the trees at Antonio's property have a small probe inserted in the trunk where once a year a systemic insectide is injected to control the larvae of the weevil. This seems to be the most cost effective method for ornamentals however for fruit production this method can result in chemical residues in fruit.
There are a number of varieties ripening successfully in Elche, some of which we have here in the Riverland. I was also extremely keen to hear of the methods developed to artificially ripen fruit which involves harvesting dates at the khalaal or semi ripe stage and lightly freezing for a prescribed length of time. This helps the fruit ripen when returned to room temperature and also reduces labour inputs as whole bunch harvesting is possible.
I was taken to a tool shop supplying a wide range of specialty knives used to prune and de-thorn date palms. We've developed some of our own tools over the years but I could not pass up the opportunity to acquire these different tools. I now have 3kg of large, medium and small sinister looking knives in my suitcase with 8 more flights ahead. I'm a little nervous about explaining their use to customs officers!!
My trip to Elche was very worthwhile and I'm pleased to have made the acquaintance of Michel, Susi and Antonio and will continue to exchange information which can mutually assist.
After leaving Elche I travelled up the Spanish coast via Alicante, spending a couple nights at Benidorm and moving past Valencia and onto Barcelona. Along the way I enjoyed seeing the different models of Mediterranean horticulture from my bus window. Citrus, olives, stonefruit, figs, pomegranates, tomatos and vegetables. I finished with a couple days looking around Barcelona before leaving Spain for my next destination of Cairo, Egypt. This photo: Christopher Columbus monument in Barcelona.

Monday, 25 June 2012

June 17 - 21 Ireland

I’m really pleased with how well my UK leg went and really grateful to DPD staff for showing me around. My next destination is Dublin for 4-5 days. Ireland to my knowledge has nothing to do with date production so why would I go there? This leg of my Nuffield journey I have dedicated to personal development. My objective is to visit the land of my ancestors to gain an understanding of the reason behind them leaving their families and the Irish landscape, to migrate to Australia. My parents have documented the family history from the time of the first immigration but all connection to the distant family line in Ireland has long been lost.
The first Reilly family members to migrate to Victoria came in the 1840’s when Melbourne had a population of only about 3000. That original family lost half its members to disease on the voyage out. My first stop here in Ireland was the Kilmainham jail in Dublin. It is now a museum conducting tours but was once a notorious jail. I wanted to gain an understanding of Ireland’s oppressed and bloody history.
There have been no less than 5 uprisings dating back to the 1600’s. Mostly to do with the native Irish being unhappy with living conditions under British landlords. This jail housed political prisoners along with hardened criminals. Children young as 5 were also admitted for petty crimes. It was built to house 300 but in one year alone had 9000 intakes. This was mainly due to people trying to be arrested because in jail at least they were entitled to 2 meals a day and medical supervision – better than on the outside during the time of the great famine in 1845-1855.
Many prisoners faced deportation to Australia and the US.

The personal situation and my family’s reasons for migrating to Australia are unknown however the year of their immigration occurred during the great famine so it’s highly likely to have influenced their decision. They possibly may not have had much choice but what would have been known to them was the great risk of not surviving the journey on disease ridden ships. Many who took the voyage were never heard of again as the dead were thrown overboard.

As it turns out, the first Reilly family to immigrate lost the wife and 2 children on the voyage, leaving the husband and 2 children to start a new life in a strange land. I can’t imagine how harsh life would have been leading up to the time of leaving Ireland and the difficulties of beginning a new life in a strange land. The sacrifice was immeasurable and I am certainly grateful for the events which have evolved and provided my family and I with the opportunity to enjoy a comfortable, stable life. I visit out of respect for my ancestors.

So with no known living relatives and no idea of which part of the country the original family even came from, where could I possibly begin? I had some incredibly good fortune. After touching down at Dublin airport I lined up in the taxi queue and on hopping in a taxi noticed the driver’s ID card read ‘Bob Reilly’! I asked him where I needed to travel to in order to find the origins of Reilly. He started singing ‘Come back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjames Duff.....’ which he explained is a familiar Irish song. Ballyjames Duff is in County Cavan near Cavan Town. Bob told me every second person in Cavan Town is a Reilly – that was a good enough lead for me.

Next day I boarded a bus to Cavan Town, 2 hours from Dublin. I would be satisfied with a quiet walk through the cemetery to read headstones and give me a feeling of connection. When I arrived in Cavan Town I was told to head for the Genealogy society at the local library. Here they told me that this is the original place the Reilly’s came from but staff were unable to make any links to the family tree my father had drawn up for me.

I received directions to the oldest Catholic church in town to investigate the cemetery. I had a good look through the church and grounds but there was no cemetery and the church was empty other than for 3 tourists. With nothing to lose and knowing it was a long-shot, I asked them if they knew where the cemetery was. Another bit of good fortune.....turns out these 3 were part of a group of 6 USA Reilly’s who had travelled to Cavan to do precisely what I was hoping to do. They were however better resourced than I and had been in the area a few more days. They suggested I make a trip to O’Reilly Castle (which I’d never heard of) and supplied me with the name of a farmer and tourist operator who may be able to help me get there. Within 2 hours I had taken a bus, disembarked at Butler’s Bridge and walked through 1 hour of heavy rain with a heavy backpack and food supplies until I found this farmer and his canoe hire business.

It was getting  too late in the day for a visit to O’Reilly Castle but after providing the farmer and a staff member/part time historian with my background, I was surprised to receive a load of info about the O’Reilly’s. There was enough time in the day for the farmer to drop me off at nearby Drumlane Abbey which he suggested would be of interest to me. This 6th century ruin and surrounding ruins is small but has a very old cemetery with an amazingly high number of Reilly and O’Reilly graves.

The oldest marked grave is 1715 with burials from the 6th century to 1700 being unmarked. This cemetery is still in use today and continues to see Reilly’s and O’Reillys being laid to rest - suggesting there is still a strong local population of Reilly’s.

I was beginning to feel I had stumbled into the right area. The farmer was also kind enough to provide accommodation for the night although I had to walk back to his farmhouse from the Abbey which took 1 and a half hours and was undertaken in very ‘wet’ rain! I didn’t mind because as I walked along the quiet and skinny lanes on the edge of the Lough Erne river /lake system I knew I was walking through my ancestor’s country.

The next morning I found out O’Reilly Castle (Clough Oughter) is on a man-made island in the Lough Erne River and getting to it is a bit tricky. The farmer/tour- operator who was flat out carting silage, gave me a map of the river system, a brief run-down on how to operate the outboard motor, pointed me towards his boat and wished me ‘good day’.

I successfully navigated the 6hp dinghy up the Erne River until I discovered O’Reilly Castle. It is an impressive structure standing 18.5m tall and dates back to c.1221. This castle/fortress was originally built by the invading Normans as they were looking for a stronghold so they could attempt to conquer local O’Reilly, O’Rourke and O’Neill clans and seize their land. Soon after, O’Reilly defeated the Normans and subsequently used the fortress for protection and as a prison for centuries.
Sounds like there has always been conflict between the neighbouring clans. O’Neill took over the fortress in c.1646.

In 1653 Oliver Cromwell’s troops attacked the fort, destroying it with canon-balls as they gained control over the lands and subsequently gifted land to the English landlords and Scottish farmers. The fort has not been lived in since that time. Note: there are a few man-made islands along the Lough Erne. It is believed these date back to the stone-age when protection was needed from wolves and bears inhabiting the surrounding forests.

The local historian gave me fantastic background on the O’Reilly clan. They were an ancient race which inhabited that area and ruled over East Breifne for centuries. They were pagan but later integrated Christianity. An attractive culture but warfare was a necessity of the times in order to protect land and livestock from neighbouring clans. Human habitation on the Lough Erne waterway can be traced back thousands of years.

After spending time at O’Reilly Castle I was back in the boat and going further up the Erne to the site of some megalithic tombs. I pulled the boat onto the bank and trekked through forest to find the site of these ancient tombs. The historian suggested there is a strong probability these tombs belong to the O’Reilly clan as it was in their territory of East Breifne. Incredible for me to think ‘here I am at the burial site of my ancestors dating back to the stone-age’.

Another local farmer I spoke with suggested they could be as old as Stonehenge. I was even lucky to have found them as they are in amongst a newly harvested pine plantation with no signage and don’t appear on any tourist map. The whereabouts are only known to a few. Apparently these tombs would have been much larger and more impressive but over the centuries large slabs of rock have been removed for farm dwellings. There is otherwise no rock in the immediate area for some 20 miles which makes the construction of these stone tombs all the more impressive.

My surname of Reilly originates from O’Reilly – apparently the O was dropped by personal choice to avoid religious persecution.

What a remarkable few days. After arriving in Dublin on a whim and no idea of where to start, I had discovered and walked and navigated through the country of my ancestors. I had visited their Christian and their Pagan places of burial and entered their fortress - O’Reilly Castle. I witnessed from the high living population of Reilly’s in Cavan that the Reilly clan still lives on today in East Breifne. Had also importantly gained a sense of where my people come from along the Lough Erne River over which they ruled through ancient times. I have collected a published history of the O’Reilly clan and plan to share this account with the rest of my family, particularly the younger generation, knowing regardless of how hard we think we work and how tough things get, we have it easy in comparison to the events which shaped our family’s history and immigration to Australia.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

June 16 - Last day in the UK

Today I flew out of the UK to my next destination. The flight was leaving from  Bristol late afternoon so that gave me time to enjoy a drive through the beautiful English countryside and villages. Also time for a tour of the historical Wells Cathedral and castle buildings which date back more than a thousand years.
This was the site of the administration headquarters for this very powerful church which ruled over a large geographical area and has a colourful history. The main admin area is surrounded by a moat. Housed in the cathedral are tombs of bishops from over the centuries. My time in the UK and with DPD has been absolutely fabulous but it is now time to move on - next destination: Dublin.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

June 15 - Somerset

The morning was spent in the DPD nursery looking at plant health management. Later DPD staff accompanied me on a tour of local interesting producers. We visited The Somerset Distillery where we met owner Julian Temperley who has revived the tradition of distilling apple spirit. It is thought cider apples have been grown in this region for more than a thousand years. Julian's apple spirits are aged in oak barrels for up to 20 years and his product which includes a 42% alcohol brandy is internationally acclaimed.
Julian was generous with his time and gave us some very interesting background on his industry plus an extensive tasting of his range of apple based cider products.
We then went on to a winery specializing in fruit wines such as apricot, blackcurrant, nettle and ginger, gooseberry and elderflower to mention a few. This retail shop was buzzing with customers keen to purchase these surprising products. We met with vineyard manager Rob Corbett and went to look at a vineyard on the Lymelight range overlooking slopes, valleys and the sea.
Later we drove down to the Lyme Regis shorefront. This area of ruggard coast line is world heritage listed because of the incredible deposit of fossils which date back 185 million years to the Jurassic period.
Some of these fossils are in museums all over the world and there are several fossil shops set up in the town selling to tourists, private collectors etc.
The beach is stone and pebble - a very dramatic coastline with really old stone houses overlooking the view out over the harbour.
Another fantastic day!!!

June 14 - London to Baltonsborough

After a night in London it was an early start to catch a train to Baltonsborough (Somerset) to meet for the first time, the staff from Date Palm Developments (DPD). We have had a close working relationship with DPD for a dozen years. They are world leaders in the tissue culturing of Date Palms and have more than 25 years experience, making them pioneers of this technology. They send plants all over the world which has made major expansion of the international date industry possible using superior genetics.   This photo: Staff at DPD
With enormous help from DPD we have managed to obtain and introduce new Date Palm genetics with which to further develop the Australian Date Industry. I have been very much looking forward to meeting Dr Avril Brackpool and staff plus seeing their nursery operations. This photo: Tubestock
Ready for dispatch
I had a fantastic day and learnt heaps. All the questions I had in regards to the processes DPD use to tissue culture and handle the sensitive nursery stock were answered. The staff provided me with demonstrations of their techniques. There are definitely improvements we can make in the way we are processing our Gurra Downs Australian stock. We had a very valuable exchange of information and ideas.

June 13 - Paris to London

Left Paris late afternoon on the fast train to London. This is a non-stop one and a half hour service that travels beneath the English Channel. A Fantastic service. I can't help wondering why Australia doesn't have similar fast passenger train transport. After arriving I wandered down  Bond Street area where there were still English flags hanging everywhere after the national celebration for the Queens 60th year on the throne.

Monday, 18 June 2012

June 11 -13 Paris

Next distination - Paris!! Actually I'm on my way to England but seeing Paris is only a one and a half hour fast train ride from London I decided to fly into Paris. The flight was interesting in itself as I flew via Iceland with a couple hours stopover in Reykjavik. What I found remarkable was the sun was still above the horizon at midnight. In fact I could see both the sun and moon at midnight. Apparently there is only about 30 minutes of darkness per night at this time of year.
Musee du Louvre
Paris interests me from a date growing perspective because the French have had a longstanding involvement in the date industry with their Sahara desert colonies. In fact the French government gifted 50 of their famous Deglet Noor variety to both the colonies of New South Wales and South Australia in 1891. These palms came from the French territory in Algeria. The South Australian palms produced dates of high quality, very successfully for 25 consecutive years in the large SA government run project in the far north of the state at Marree. In 1916 these Deglet Noor palms were transplanted in the Riverland (near where I live). Today there are still 4 of them living at Barmera which started their life in Algeria pior to 1891.

Musee du Louvre
Notre Dame Cathedral
There are amazing statues depicting French history all around Paris
French date consumption per capita is large and this domestic market pays amongst the highest price per kilo anywhere around the world - with prices at their highest when dates are at their freshest (but decreasing as the dates are stored). Whilst in Paris I had the opportunity to do some sight seeing around this historic, timeless city. Total stopover time: 3 days

Saturday, 16 June 2012

June 2-10...Time with family in Annapolis

 We flew from a hot 44 degrees Celsius in Phoenix to a much cooler Baltimore on the east coast. Here we spent a week with my sister Gabe, husband Jeff and children Maddy and Brandon at the house they had rented for the summer holidays in Annapolis, Maryland. Having not seen my brother-inlaw Jeff for something like 18 years, I couldn't think of being in the US and not catching up.
Our first morning (Sunday) in Annapolis and a quick ride on the water taxi before church. Here we all are: Dave, Jonte, Anita, Jeff, Maddy, Gabe and Brandon.
Over the course of the week we ventured into downtown Annapolis several times to wander and explore.
Jonte celebrated his 12th birthday with his cousins while we were in the US. Aunty Gabe organized his favourite food 'T-bone' for tea!!
The boys enjoyed a spot of fishing and crabbing  from our jetty out the back. Not much luck in the fishing department but a few crabs were caught. It was interesting to see they were quite similar to the blue swimmers we catch here in SA although with shorter front claws.
Gabe drove us to Washington DC for a day of looking around Capitol Hill and the various monuments. First stop for the day was the White House.
Gabe, Dave & Jonte on Capitol Hill. Ths is the USA equivalent to our Parliament House in Canberra.
At the Washington Monument these people explained to us the significance of the United States Constitution.
National World War II Memorial with the Washington Monument in the background.
 Abraham Lincoln Memorial. This memorial is a 3km walk from the steps on Capitol Hill.
We completed our day with a visit to the Smithsonian Institute of Natural History before a ride on the subway to get back to our starting point. Lots of walking today!
Definitely a highlight of the week were our visits to the Amish Markets. The Amish people travel by bus from Pennsylvania (2 hours away) to run these markets each week. The markets are open from Thursday to Saturday and sell fresh produce - meat, fruit and veg. We were able to see a fantastic range of freshly baked breads, buns, cakes and all kinds of glorious foods being made onsite. We found this market inspirational and were highly impressed with  how this community of people, old and young, work together to run such an orderly, efficient, very popular market.
This week has been a great way to finish the USA leg of my study tour. It has been good to catch up with family, learn a little more of the USA political history and enjoy some time shopping, relaxing and visiting the Amish markets. My next destination is Paris, while Anita and Jonte head home to Australia.