Wondrous Affairs & Occasions
The Perilous Botanical Quest
The lost journal of David Piper: The Kanaracuni Cocktail Club
Chief Romulo and I were smoking kahuai* in the moonlight. There was a wide white ring around the moon. The chief told me that this was a bad omen. The following night the moon was full and surrounded by a thin band of rainbows. These were omens indeed.
We had travelled miles, traversed great rivers (ranging in colour from gold to the dark reddish-brown of cola), we had trekked through sultry rainforest and clambered hostile hills. All of this we had done in search of botanicals to make a new gin. But none of the plants we had tried met the exacting standards of our Master Distiller Lesley Gracie.
Time is like a claustrophobic sprinter: it is always running out.
Chronos’ sweaty hands were spinning the zodiac wheel like a celestial croupier and soon we would have to return.
I cannot remember if Lesley shrieked with triumph when she discovered the plant. I do recall that after all our trampings it was found a mere thirty feet away from our hut. Eureka! Great gilded goonga-goonga – we have it! We had been tipped off by the Yekwa’ana when we asked to be shown the plants with the most powerful magical powers. They led us to a plant called ‘Scorpion’s Tail’. This is named for its stems which curve upward like the menacing stinging apparatus of the aforementioned arachnid.
It is famously hard to describe a taste, even more so to describe one that is quite unlike any other. This taste is intriguing and delightful. For synesthesiacs I would say it is closest to harlequin green bespeckled with contumacious golden specks, or the haunting vocal refrain from Yma Sumac’s Ataypura. If lexical-gustatory synesthesiacs wish to taste it, try saying the word ‘oculoplania’. As Leslie took out her ten-litre alembic still, I held aloft my hand and whooped, “Now we will have cocktails!”
The Kanaracuni Cocktail Club
The Yekwa’ana’s favourite tipple is an alcoholic porridge made from fermented sun-dried leaves. This comes in two forms: one for energy in the day and one for storytelling in the evening. Not a bad drop, but I prefer a dry martini to porridge. As we all know, the dry martini is civilisation’s greatest achievement (after the heli-winklepicker and the turtleneck). In its cold crystal purity it is almost sacred.
Tonight in the world’s most remote cocktail bar we drink dry martinis mixed with the new gin. The Yekwa’ana sample my drinks with grateful (and curious) appreciation. The powers of this mystical drink are further enhanced by the magical qualities of Scorpion’s Tail combining with the moonlight. As darkness with its attendant orchestra of chirruping vampires enfolds Kanaracuni, our hearts are filled with joy and our mouths with the caressive flavour of unusually good dry martini.
There was just enough time to distill a minute quantity – so there will only ever be a handful of bottles of Scorpion Tail Gin. When they are gone, there will be no more.
Now back to Scotland! Awoooohhhhh!
*‘kahuai’ or ‘Rainforest cigars’ are made from local tobacco in lightly-resined bark
The Lost Journal of David Piper: Uncanny Misadventures in the Venezuelan Rainforest
The hidden story of the Perilous Botanical Quest has at last come to light. The first entry finds Hendrick’s Global Ambassador, David Piper, at his central London home.
‘As the swimmer and actor Johnny Weissmuller once remarked on being offered the role of Tarzan in a motion picture, “Me? Tarzan?” and I had similar misgivings when a surprising invitation appeared on my breakfast table this morning in the form of a letter from Hendrick’s HQ.
The Hendrick’s Distillery needs new botanicals for a new gin (no problem so far). It was the next suggestion that caused me to pause from my Eggs Hebridean and consider escaping to Paris (and laying low till it all died down, as I did during the Great Cucumber Drought of ‘06): they wanted me to put together a team and head to the rainforests of Venezuela to find the aforementioned (and as yet undiscovered) botanicals. Don’t get me wrong, I like adventure as much as the next cove, in fact sometimes I will cast all reason aside and mix an Italian tailored suit with English-made shoes (and to hell with the consequences!). But this was all rather rum (or gin to be precise).
I stroked my ocelot Rimbaud, and considered the situation. The suggestion to take myself, a man as perfectly evolved for the cocktail bar as a hippopotamus is evolved for mud, was clearly insane. I needed to think. I told the girls performing the tableau vivant on my kitchen table to hush-up and I put on my thinking hat (a pyramidical design with a receiver dish attuned to infra-sound, Orgone energy and Bulgarian radio).
The solution hit me like praying mantis to a car windscreen: I knew the perfect companions for such an expedition. With a squeal of ‘Allons-y!’, (that startled my bearded dragon Dr. Faustroll causing her to lose balance and fall onto my collection of Tunisian erotic toby jugs) I selected a crimson rose as my boutonnière and headed to the nearest telephone…’
The Lost Journal of David Piper
As I lay in my bubble bath singing a particularly spirited rendition of Aqua’s ‘Barbie Girl’, I had what my friends refer to as a ‘Piper Epiphany’ or rather more clumsily as an ‘Epiper-phany’ (sometimes when I mention that I’ve had a brainwave, my unkind pals don crash helmets).
Yesterday I made a phone call (since the demise of the telegram, my hand has been forced and I must use it). I have nothing against the telephone; as an ambassador one must, after all, shake ‘the cold claw of modernity’. To be honest I always prefer meetings in the flesh (I’m not suggesting that I have cannibalistic tendencies, far from it, the closest I get is social kissing). I’d always rather assumed that my telephone was some quaint kind of objet trouvé, and was rather shocked the first time it shrieked at me, interrupting my meeting with the greatest mixologist of Japan. Since then I’ve become rather attached to ‘phones, though I’m not sure they’ll catch on (I won’t be getting rid of my trusty Teslascope any time soon).
The person I telephoned was Lesley Gracie. As well as a lover of orchids, and the proud (and presumably sleepless) owner of eleven animals, she is Hendrick’s Master Distiller. Lesley is the ‘Einstein of Gin’, the ‘Spinoza of Spirits’ and the ‘Dante of Distillation’; as the creator of Hendrick’s Gin she was clearly qualified for this rainforest lark.
But all of Gracie’s knowledge would amount to nowt if we were both gobbled up by a jaguar or poisoned by the world’s most venomous arachnid (the wonderfully scary Brazilian Wandering Spider). Our trip would be dangerous and ran the risk of spiralling into a tragic opéra bouffe (and I hate tragic opéra bouffes almost as much I hate imperfect Perfect Martinis). What I needed was some kind of outdoorsy chap who knew one end of a machete from the other and could navigate by the hoot of an owl (or something like that).
But who could be trusted to guide Gracie and myself through the sultry dangers of Venezuelan rainforests? The thought that popped into my head in the bath was the solution to this riddle: I would invite the greatest living explorer in the world: Charles Brewer-Carías. Now where did I put his number?
The Lost Journal of David Piper
I think it was the ancient Greek historian Herodotus who noted that it’s very hard to buy a well-cut safari suit. I spent today in central London, negotiating tourists standing on the wrong side of the escalators and temperatures that wilted buses. I was in search of expedition garments with the necessary level of dash. Herodotus was right, but was he right about everything else he said? After all, during his travels he claimed to have seen men with the heads of dogs, tribes who squeak like bats and ants that dig for gold. According to my best friend, (the crypto-zoologist and belly-dancer Callista Tunguska) a Minhocão was recently spotted in the Venezuelan rainforest. When she told me this I was nonplussed, as I didn’t know what a Minhocão was. When she explained that a Minhocão is a giant worm (around four metres in length) with tentacles protruding from its head and a mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth, I ceased my state of non-plussedness and became distinctly plussed. In fact my plussedness multiplied the more I read about the plethora of poisonous, venomous and vampiric nasties waiting for me in the screaming valleculae of the rainforest. Oh dear.
As I sat on the upper deck of the omnibus, the heat lulled me to sleep and I had fevered dreams of Herodotus’ discoveries. I was woken by my own voice shouting “I will not eat monkey brains! ” (Third time this week that this has happened).
Before I could meet my team, my doctor had to give me the all-clear. He tapped my knees and was surprised when the reflex this generated was not a jerking lower leg but instead a slice of cucumber flying from the cuff-cumber launcher in my shirt sleeve. Similarly when he asked me to cough, he was taken aback by an olive catapulting from my epaulette. The brave olive, like some tiny salty Icarus, flew across the room; once it had reached the climax of its parabolic flight it plunged dramatically and landed with a plop in the doctor’s coffee. Dr Tesla wiped the coffee from his spectacles and gave me his serious face.
“My dear Piper, you are perfectly evolved for the cocktail bar.”
“This I know, my honey-scented physician, but am I full of enough vim and vigour to take on an adventure in a rainforest?”
“With sufficient training, maybe a ten week survival and fitness course, you will indeed be.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell the old practitioner that my aeroplane left in two days.
The Lost Journal of David Piper
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, both as Hendrick’s Global Ambassador and in my previous incarnation as Commander of Special Operations, it is the importance of preparedness. Before you gallop, like some moon-crazed stallion, into the mistaken belief that I’m some tightly screwed nut with a wall planner tattooed on my chest and a spreadsheet embroidered on my bed sheets, let me explain what I mean: I believe that the minimum of preparation is always desirable. The trick is to pack light, think fast and talk with the purring gravitas of a Merlin aero-engine (the latter is not always possible; I always carry a bicycle horn for use on the rare occasions that I am stuck for words). With this in mind I packed the bare minimum. Here is my inventory:
- Teslascope (an interplanetary communication device designed by the physics genius Nikola Tesla)
- Orgone energy accumulator
- The complete works of A. E. Housman (signed)
- Fabergé egg (scrambled)
- Rainforest survival kit (also slightly scrambled, I fear)
- Hendrick’s hip flask (fully loaded)
- Cocktail kit
- Assorted morning, mid-morning, luncheon, post-luncheon and evening wear (including my flamenco outfit)
- Mobile Gintibulator
- Combined ectoplasm detector/travel fondue set (one careful owner)
As you can see, I am a master of minimal packing. The other items are essentials not worth noting. Well, if you insist on knowing some of them, I have also packed my alpine horn, a divining rod, my favourite toothbrush and a bum bag embroidered with the poems of Rimbaud. Now where did I put my passport?
The Lost Journal of David Piper
Stow the old duty free in the overhead locker and chocks away! As my aeroplane arouses its quartet of turbofan engines they issue a mellifluous roar and our machine departs Heathrow to rollick with its cumulus chums (excuse my grandiloquent spilling of ink, but I am rather excited). I open my book, Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma chambre (Journey around my room). Poor Xavier was arrested following a duel (I ask you, is that a crime?), and while imprisoned in Turin in 1790 wrote a wonderful book about a man who took a journey across his bedroom. This satirical story is told in the grandiose* style of a traveller’s tale, though our hero only travels a tiny, tiny distance. In beautiful detail we hear his brave accounts of the exotic sights from his exploration of his armchair, and the epic journey north to his bed. The journey I am beginning is a longer one. I cannot relax. I open my book of Kapka Kassabova’s poetry at random in an act of hopeful rhapsodomancy (the ancient practice of selecting poems at random to divine your future). I am scared of what the rainforests have in store for me.
*(I am allowed grandiose and grandiloquent in the same paragraph as I paid for an additional linguistic luggage allowance for this flight).
Next to me, as cool as a schälgurken in a Siberian cryogenics icebox, sits our Master Distiller Lesley Gracie. She is drawing some kind of equation or botanical recipe on her notepad, a genius at work. I decide it’s best not to disturb her and I instead try balancing olives on my nose.
On egressing the ‘plane at Caracas I am hit not so much by a wall of heat as by a battering ram of fire; in my Sherlock Holmes-style cape I am feeling a trifle overdressed. In an act of wanton abandon I undo my top button.
We are met at the airport by Charles Brewer-Carías, the great explorer. As we sit sipping juice he explains the next part of our journey. It appears that things are about to get a little hairier.
The Lost Journal of David Piper
In 1536 Gonzalo Díaz de Pineda travelled to the east of Quito (in what is now Ecuador) in search of the mythical ‘City of Gold’ El Dorado. Gonzalo found no gold (though he did find a grove of cinnamon trees). For centuries this gold-rich wonderland has tantalised the greedy and the curious alike. Thousands of quixotic, and often cursed, expeditions have been launched to find this elusive golden city and so far all have failed. So it was something of a surprise when Charles Brewer-Carías announced to Lesley Gracie and myself that he knew the exact location of El Dorado. We were at Charles’ home (perhaps the highest house in Caracas). We sat on a veranda so beautiful that I wanted to pluck my eyes out and pat them on their little slimy tops to thank them for delivering such pulchritudinous qualia to my dizzy mind. But my eyes remained in my head and this I am glad of, as here was an area blessed with the presence of dozens of hummingbirds. I love hummingbirds. It is not for nothing that ‘charm’ is the collective noun for these iridescent emissaries of paradise.
Charles unfolds a large map on the table, “Here is El Dorado. I have visited it.”
If anyone one else had made such a grand claim I would have dismissed it as the balderdash of a blatherskite. But these were the words of the greatest living adventurer and I felt a pang of excitement. But Charles is keeping the location of El Dorado secret from the world at large for the time being (I’m not sure if he’s joking when he talks of leading a blind-folded expedition there, I wonder how the helicopter pilot would navigate while blind-folded).
Our time in Caracas is short. We’re involved in a rather heated kerfuffle while trying to buy an ice-machine (essential for cocktails in a rainforest) and the police are called, but the matter is resolved amicably. We also take the time to purchase some good quality machetes. Feeling rejuvenated and fizzing with the liveliness of a sugar-rushing parakeet we leave Caracas.
Our tiny propeller-driven aeroplane lands at Canaima, the last outpost of civilisation (if indeed there is such a thing). As we leave the plane we are smashed by a three-ton sledgehammer of heat that baffles the body’s trusty thermostat and leaves one gasping. Canaima Airfield is little more than a hut and an airstrip on the extreme edge of a forest. From there we head to Canaima Lagoon, a vast picturesque body of water framed by a crashing waterfall, with verdant giggling mountains beyond. At this point Charles suggests we take a walk behind the waterfall.
Behind the thick veil of water was a walkway. As we took this path (the longest of its kind I believe) behind the thunderous wall of water, the light refracted in mystical ways forming a rainbow ring in front of me wherever I turned – was this an omen? A Jungian symbol? An errant heiligenschein? There was something distinctly friendly about the way this confused circumzenithal arc followed me – perhaps this wasn’t a rainbow at all, but was instead a cathodoluminescent Cocker Spaniel wishing to accompany me on my journey. Woof! Woof! Here boy!
The Lost Journal of David Piper
Our local guide’s ability to navigate the rapids is almost uncanny. In large canoes we have been navigating hidden rivers in search of a tribe that live with a virtually Stone Age level of technology. We moored at a remote clearing and crossed an ominous black, oily swamp by squelchy foot. The sense of foreboding was overwhelming and would prove prescient. Our companions for this expedition have been from the Yekwa’ana tribe, the Sanema tribe that we are in search of are rather more mysterious. Renowned for their great folk knowledge and closeness to nature, we are hoping they may aid us in our quest to find new botanicals.
The sense of doom grew as we ascended the hill to their village. A wild-haired old man wearing a loin cloth and weighed down with a mass of tobacco, mumbles as we walk past. As we climb higher we pass stranger characters who flock to observe us.
We meet the tribe at the summit and our chief introduces us. The villagers understandably view us as aliens and we are faced with a sea of curious eyes. After about ten minutes, Charles said that though he doesn’t understand this language (and he is one of the few outsiders who can speak most of the languages of this region), the one thing he heard was the word for ‘bows and arrows’! On hearing this – and seeing the accompanying angry faces – Charles suggests we make a calm retreat back to the boats.
We later found out that some opportunists in the Sanema tribe realised we were vulnerable as we only had three guides and were unarmed (their chief was away and a young rash deputy was in charge). Our guides had been told we needed to give money to be there, which is apparently a breach of normal etiquette. Our guides replied in no uncertain terms that we would do nothing of the sort. The atmosphere was charged with danger, a feeling heightened when the Sanema replied that they had us surrounded. Of course we were unaware of our peril as we walked carefully back across wobbling logs and black ooze. We returned to our canoes. One of the Sanema tribe sat in our canoe and folded his arms, his countenance a brazen billboard of defiance. Our exit, or rather escape route, was blocked. Scared and stuck – we were furious. Our chief was fuming. My instinct was to remove the blighter from our vessel, but I’m glad I didn’t. If I had raised my hands I would have had six arrows shot through me; we later realised that six men armed with bows and arrows had been watching us from a concealed ledge.