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PHULBARI

HANS HOEFER TOOK THIS AMAZING PICTURE

‘It all looked exactly the same – only heavier, more permanent; mature. That it was overgrown and would remain so till the monsoon was over only added to the faded glamour; the Miss Haversham of it all. I was back in the dream place.Mist drifted through the fol-de-rols and salas; trellises and walkways sprawled empty across the property – all waiting for the guests who never came…’

In 1967 a young German graphic designer set out in a VW bus and drove from Europe to Asia; a  brave thing to do in those days – but very apropos. The whole world was changing and Hans Hoefer set off to see it before it was gone. His timing was perfect. He was especially intrigued by Bali, where he earned a living selling his photographs and sketches. It didn’t take him long to see a gap in an emerging market.

It was the right idea at the right time in the right place. In one brilliant move he tied together all his passions; design, photography, words and travel. Young Hans Hoefer made a guidebook.

Insight Guide: Bali was published with the financial backing of a local hotel in 1970.  With superb photography and text on the history, culture, cuisine and special topics of the destination, in one sweep it transformed and influenced the publishing scene of travel guides forever.  I bet it changed Hans’ life, too. Twenty five years later, when he divested the title in 1997, Insight Guides was one of the biggest companies in travel publishing, having sold over 20 million copies on over 125 destinations, and the only guidebook series available in 10 languages.

By the sound of it, our not-so-hippie Hans ended up a squillionaire.

So what does a retired fifty-something squillionaire do with all those squillions?

‘Rejuvenated, rather than retired,’ Hoefer sniffed at a reporter once, ‘I don’t know why people need to ‘escape’ from their professional life. Why view retirement as a form of escapism? If you loved your work, why would you need to get out of it?’

He was in his early fifties with too much money. He still carried a mindset brimming full of counter-cultural ideas. Those formative teenage years in the Sixties re-emerged with a vengeance; Rich Van Winkle woke up in a Nineties cave.

‘There shouldn’t be a distinction between working life and non-working life. It simply freed me up for another phase.’

This phase involved him buying properties in Sri Lanka and transforming them into very swizz boutique hotels, buying/building an eighty-five foot schooner that plies the S.E. Asia waters – and the grandest folly of them all; buying up the top of a mountain in Nepal and creating an organic farm. Ever the businessman, Hans has made Hoeferworld available to the cashed-up cognoscenti.

‘I see myself as a rocket in space that occasionally switches on its engine to speed up and change direction,’ he once said.

The Hoefer Space Program was in full flight during the early 1990’s – as were the dreams.

I don’t yet know the circumstances that led a man with too much money to a green dot on a map of Nepal in 1993.  I don’t yet know what prompted him to buy the top of a bare mountain and start building;  I’m lost in confusion. But I’ll bet Friedensreich Hundertwasser had something to do with it.

You can be forgiven for not knowing just who Hundertwasser was – but if, like Hans, you lived in Germany and Austria during the Sixties, he was a very big deal indeed.

He was born Friedrich Stowasser to a Jewish family in Vienna on 15 December 1928. Before he was twenty all of his relatives on his mother’s side were killed in the Holocaust after which he assumed his extraordinary nom d’artiste: Peace-Kingdom Hundred-Water. It was clear he was quite some guy.  He’s described as ‘eccentric and playfully self-advertising’ but he may just have been a pain in the arse. His original, unruly, sometimes shocking artistic vision expressed itself in many ways – in pictorial art, environmentalism, philosophy, and design of facades, postage stamps, flags, clothing and architecture. Travels to Morocco, Tunisia, Nepal, Tokyo and Siberia were inspirational for the path he intended to follow.

Hundertwasser developed an abstract, decorative, two-dimensional and vibrantly colorful, utterly distinctive style distinguished by ornamental spiral and labyrinth forms, circles, meanders and biomorphic shapes. He called his theory of art “transautomatism”, based on Surrealist automatism, but ‘focusing on the experience of the viewer, rather than the artist’ – whatever that means. focusing on a reconciliation of humans with nature and a strong individualism. There was nobody quite like Hundertwasser. He was fascinated with spirals, bright colors and organic forms;  ever the comedian, Hundertwasser called straight lines “the devil’s tools”.

Which could be why this thing is sticking out of the top of a mountain in Nepal.

Dreams can come true. This magnificent obsession slowly took shape. Fifteen years ago, it was finished. Fields were planted, the first crops came through. Hans kept adding to his cave house. By 1996 things were ticking over very nicely. There was just one little problem.

No sooner was it finished than the Maoists swept into violent opposition to the Nepalese government and, in effect, closed Phulbari down.

Phulbari has remained, preserved in political aspic for the decade since – maturing, lovingly maintained  by his staff. Profits from the flourishing organic gardens keep it ticking over.

Few, including the Hoefers, come to stay.

PART TWO 

It’s a nasty stretch of road from Thamel to Dhulikel, a pot-holed, pock-marked plod of a highway that stretches from Kathmandu to China. The air is filthy, the traffic is vile, horns and screeches, belching fumes warn the incoming of more hell to come, console the outgoing with thoughts that there must be somewhere better than this. A wise punter would just wind up the windows and think of home.

Stick with it. After about an hour of this, just as you get to Dhulikel, if you dare open the windows, you’ll find yourself breathing in real, live air. It’s no illusion. One side of this horrid Nepali tourist town is open to the valley below. Tourism has built a row of hotels pointing at the non-existent view of the Himalayas in the distance. This is the raison d’etre of Dhulilkel – the view.

‘Ptooey,’ you can say, as your car takes a mysterious right, just before the Bus Station Square. In a blink you’re off the bitumen and in the hills. Hardly a house, just a brief Bhutan of jungle, a Darjeeling of descending slopes, a Bali of rice paddies etched layer by layer in curves down the steep sides of the mountain. Yup, you’re climbing through a mountain, curving along the ridges, up, up, up from Dhulikel. The odd person will pass you on the road. Watch their expression. See that double take, that ‘what on earth are foreigners doing here?’ expression?

That’s when you know you’re in Dog-world.

Stay focused. When the big views swing from the right-hand side of the car to the left and get bigger… you’re nearly there. Well, kinda. Now is the time to offer soothing words of encouragement to your driver. The road hasn’t just got worse; it’s just got worse than that. If you can’t see anything out the window, don’t fuss. That’s not blind panic; there’s a shower coming through.

Everything goes white. The road turns to river, the rivers turn to mud. You’re driving up a mountainside in Nepal and you can’t see a thing. If you could see the view you’d be gasping. You’re gasping anyhow, but that’s just sweet Nepali fear – you ain’t stopping till you get to the top.

Note your driver’s body language. If his head is swiveling from side to side, if he’s muttering ‘no-o-o-o, no-o-o-o…’ you’ll know you’ve almost arrived. Right at the peak of despair you’ll come to the next turn off. This one goes left.

Well, what’s left of the road goes left.

*

Phulbari? Phulbari?’

‘Five minutes!’ waved a hand.

The scenery is glorious. Grey mist parts to reveal luscious green fields, terraced, abrim with produce. A conga-line of houses snaking up a hill, a glimpse of gold, a clump of damp bamboo. The road is mud and river, mixed thick with dirt-brown green.

‘Phulbari?’ Phulbari?

‘Five minutes!’ waved a hand.

‘Phulbari?’ Phulbari?

She looked at us with an expression of utter confusion. What on earth are these foreigners doing – here?

Double-Dog-world.

You’re on top of a mountain somewhere strange in Nepal. The rain has stopped, the mist has cleared. There’s a track, a farm-house, some chai, a kitchen full of gentle locals, a host: a Govinda, a welcome-back smile, that gate…

Phulbari.

Fool-bari.

NO ADMISSION

WITHOUT PERMISSION

Says the gate.

*

//

‘This’d be a great place to drop acid!’

Well, that’s a line I haven’t heard since 1975. It was delivered, in all seriousness, by a forty-one year old Social Studies teacher from Washington. He has a prom-book haircut and must have looked great in a shirt and tie, a kindly Matt Damon teaching thinking to teenagers.

I thought he was being facetious and rambled on:

‘Yes, this place has that rock-star look about it, eh? I can imagine Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful here in the Seventies…’

‘No, I mean now.’

‘Now? Do people still take L.S.D.? Hasn’t it been replaced?’

‘Oh, yeah, there’s MTP and CIA and Extasy and Chopped Liver and Kyabsote,’ he said – something like that, anyway. Whatever it all meant, it all meant mind-altering substances that were probably bad for you.

The old man in front of him hesitated for a moment. It hadn’t occurred to him that there was generation after generation emerging, had emerged, would emerged that might career headlong into the same, melting psychedelic brick wall that he had, so many, many years ago.

I really had no idea who this fellow was.

The hilltop farmhouse Phulbari or “flower garden” is situated on the loftiest point at 1800 metres in the district of Kavre, southeast out of the Kathmandu Valley.Our unique estate lies at the end of a ridge bordering a forest reserve and surrounded by cascades of valleys, rising terraces and hillocks. The Phulbari farm lies on 10 acres of organically prepared land strewn with marigolds, dahlias, rhododendrons, wild weeds and orchids. In and around the hill are five ponds, fruit trees and plots that yield a mixed variety of radish, pumpkin, carrot, leeks, eggplant and more. Farmers, animal herders and their families populate the area and the local schools lie at the bottom of our hill. Nearby, a Tibetan monastery and important pilgrimage site.

A bare hilltop at the time of our purchase in 1993, the land has turned into an oasis of greenery and vegetation by applying perma-culture techniques. We introduced water harvesting and contoured landscaping with five fishponds, followed by careful inter-planting of diverse trees, shrubs and bushes. Conceived to follow the traditional spirit of Nepali country life where the outdoor is the actual “living room” and the house is the cave for the privacy of storing, eating and sleeping, the garden represents the home without a roof. There’s a Bougainvillea arbor on the east side for tea or light meals, the smaller shaded pavilion on the north face reached from a winding Philosophers Path, the courtyards facing each house, the twin pavilions by the big pond – even a circular open fireplace to linger beyond sunset. Each spot is a niche to relax, play or read or contemplate the fascinating work of man and nature.

www.villa-srilanka.com

That night Dog sat on a crisp white pillow in the window of his mountain retreat in deepest Nepal. Three Nepali gentlemen sat around outside. One was thirty-five; he’d been married for eighteen years: one was forty-five; he’d been married for twenty-five years; the last was fifty-five, married for thirty-five years. We were having a cross-cultural men’s moment.

‘How old are you?’

‘I am one hundred fifty years old,’ I replied, my traditional answer.

‘Really?’

Dogster nodded seriously. Now he was one hundred and fifty-one.

‘Where is your wife?’

‘No wife.’

‘Why not?’

‘She die,’ I lie.

It’s easier this way, trust me.

‘Sorry.’

‘No problem – is good.’

‘No baby?’

‘No baby.’

‘You come alone?’

‘Not alone. I am free.’

Here was a concept we could all agree on – the universal notion of unencumbered flight. Three Nepali heads nodded in unison. Between them they had thirteen children.

‘Travel all everywhere, everywhere?’

A week ago I was in Phnom Penh, about to fly to Australia – then I thought of Phulbari. The combination of my birthday and the mountain in Nepal seemed too good to miss.

‘Anytime you want?’

I nodded.

‘You don’t have phone?’

‘No.’

‘Just one small bag?’

He was referring to my shiny silver Rimova cabin bag on wheels with built-in jet propulsion and magical powers.

‘Yup.’

‘And the computer?’

Dogster’s slim, sexy black Sony VAIO was a particular hit in Nepal.

‘That’s all,’ I said as coolly as I could muster,’ I don’t need anything else…’

Govinda smiled sadly.

‘Ah-h-h-h…’ he said, ’you are a sadhu.’

There was a hint of fear in his soft Nepali eyes.

*

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