Monday, 17 April 2017

Warren's hydrogen bomb ...

Today, on a park beach overlooking a sun-kissed Mairangi Bay in Auckland, I listened to my friend Warren Karno describe a hydrogen bomb blast over Malden Island in the central Pacific in 1957. Warren is one of a handful of people still alive today who have seen a thermonuclear explosion. A member of the Royal Air Force, he was told by his commanding officer to turn his back for 15 seconds to avoid being blinded by the flash, and then watched in awe as the air-burst, code-named 'Grapple', hovered 18 miles away at 5,000 feet like a freshly-minted second sun. Warren was ordered to return to Malden Island where he was exposed to radiation. Warren's book 'Grapple and the Guinea Pig' relates his experiences, and he told me of the genetic damage he suffered that he believes is now being passed on in birth defects and still births to his children and grand-children. A clip of one of the 'Grapple' tests ...

This week, we are closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and the Soviet early warning system malfunction of September 1983, when sunlight reflection off high clouds was logged as an incoming US nuclear missile attack. On that occasion the cool head of Colonel Stanislav Petrov, under a paranoid Soviet leadership, correctly identified the 'attack' as a false alarm.

Kim Jun-un
This situation right now in North Korea is quite similar.

The paranoid leadership in Pyongyang view every US move as a threat, and the diversion of a US aircraft carrier group this week to the Korean peninsula has caused the North Koreans to threaten a pre-emptive nuclear strike. No leader in his right mind would conceive of such a thing, but the 33 year old North Korean leader Kim Jun-un, is as belligerent and unstable as his US counter-part Donald Trump. Should there be an error in the North Korean early warning radars, or an over-zealous military report an incoming attack, Kim Jun-un could launch a nuclear strike on one of the dozen US army bases along his southern border, or just as likely ... on the South Korean capital of Seoul, which is 50 km south of this border.

Seoul is the second largest metropolitan area in the world, with 26 million people.

WW II was sparked by a deranged demagogue's invasion of a neighbouring country, and resulted in 60 million deaths. In an unprecedented move this week, China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, fearful of this very scenario, warned that war on the Korean peninsula could break 'out at any moment'.

North Korean missile technology is probably not yet capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to Seoul, but a nuclear weapon would be delivered by one of its nuclear-capable Illyushin Il 28 bombers, which travelling at 900 km per hour would reach Seoul in minutes. Such a catastrophe would leave millions dead and injure millions more.

The North Korean leadership lives in a paranoid parallel universe, not dissimilar to the aging and frightened Soviet leadership at the height of the Cold War. The recklessness of the Korean leader was demonstrated in February when he organised the bizarre killing of his own half-brother with a nerve agent at a Malaysian airport.

This is the true and terrifying danger that Trump's macho posturing brings with it ... that his bumbling belligerence will cause the panicking North Koreans to shoot first.

Night in a sea cave with a ghost ...

Last week I hiked out to the wild west coast and spent the night in my one-man tent, perched above the Tasman Sea in an ancient sea cave. Throughout the night, a sou'wester howled around the site, and big swells from the ocean rolled in and dashed themselves on the rocks below.

I drove out to Piha Beach at dusk, hiked an hour and a half up the Hillary Trail and made camp at Paikea Bay just north of Sir Edmund Hillary's former home high up on the cliffs. Paikea was a turehu, or supernatural being of Maori folk-lore, who rode the hump-backed whale and in local myth would ferry people up and down this rugged coast. Paikea Bay is a wind-blasted and remote spot, devoid of settlement, although ancient Maori (and Paikea himself no doubt) used the cave for shelter, and below the entrance lie heaped up shell-fish middens, and the remnants of camp fires.

After pegging out my tent as securely as I could, I lit my propane burner, cooked myself a Kathmandu instant meal titled hilariously Venison and Vegetables. Choking it down, I wondering why campers ever fall for the enticing photos on these bags. A cup of hot chocolate on the other hand, tasted several times more delicious than it would at home.

Paikea Bay
I had taken a book, 'Solitude and Loneliness' by the BBC radio writer Alistair Jessiman, who argues for spending time alone in wild places, and read this by the light of a failing LED head-lamp. Jessiman tells us that urban life tames the mind; reduces it to habitual and constricted ways of thinking and only by regular contact with the wilderness can we reconnect with the intrinsic and natural wildness of our minds, the untamed nature of our souls.

I didn't sleep much, as the wind threatened to tear my tent loose from the mouth of the cave and send it out over the Tasman like a demented kite ... but at times, in the dead of night, with the ghost of Paikea cackling in the high reaches of the cave, I felt a primal joy that came from the utter loneliness of the place, and the raw power of the elements around me.

In the morning it was raining, so I carefully packed up my possessions, and hiked back across several headlands to Piha Beach, a feeling of rare exhilaration dogging my path. I knew the effects of this experience would only last a few days, but I had supped at the table of the infinite, and that I would not forget.