Posts Tagged ‘lyall watson’

At the beginning of March, I was contacted by Peter Rowland who’d stumbled on this site while looking up my uncle, Lyall Watson.

Peter lived in Camps Bay, in the same complex that Lyall lived in for a number of years.


Lyall invited Peter to drop in for a drink one evening. It was winter but a pleasant evening and they sat on Lyall’s stoep and looked out across the bay. The following is Peter’s account of their conversation.

‘Lyall asked if I had ever heard of the green flash in the sky. I hadn’t and he then told me about Jules Verne and the green flash [this is a reference to Jules Verne’s book ‘The Green Ray, about two people searching for the elusive green flash at sunset]. There was a point at his house, that if you climbed onto his garden wall, you could get onto the roof. So, drinks in hand we climbed up. We sat on the ridge, looking west. The sun was still above the horizon, but as we sat there, he said he could see whale spouts from the whales in the bay. I said rubbish, or a word to that effect! But he knew what he was talking about and after a while, there they were.

‘He told me that there were two types of whales and if I watched carefully, I could see the different sprays coming from the blowholes. Then, as the sun was going down to the horizon, he told me to watch. Lo and behold, as it slipped below the horizon, just as it went and disappeared, there was the green flash! He told me that it only occurs over the sea. I have NEVER been able to see a sunset without watching for the “flash” and thinking of him. We did that a number of times.’

Thank you for sharing this memory with me, Peter. It’s given me great joy to imagine the two of you sitting on his roof, drinks in hand, looking out at the whales and watching for the green flash.

The Green Flash explained

Green flashes or rays occur at sunset or sunrise when a green spot appears for a couple of seconds above the sun or is visible as a ray shooting up from the sunset point. It usually only lasts a second or two and is caused by atmospheric refraction. Apparently it is best seen with a clear view to the horizon and in an area without pollution.

Find out more.



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My thanks to Bob Snoijink, who contacted me on this blog to describe his meetings with my uncle, Lyall Watson.

Since making contact, Bob has created his own blog, A Gift of Untold Stories, to share the stories Lyall told him. (I recommend scrolling down and reading from the bottom post up, so that you get the recollections in their correct order.)

Hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

cover of Gifts of Unknown Things

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I received this wonderful letter from Robert Steinbach, recounting his meeting with Lyall more than 40 years ago. Robert has kindly given me permission to use it in this blog. What follows is written in Robert’s words…

My wife and I just spent the morning tying the final knot in a thread that Dr. Lyall Watson placed in the fabric of my life in 1971 on the island of Sifnos.

Lonely chapel

Chapel in Sifnos

Yesterday, I read a wonderful article in the Stanford alumni magazine about Alice Coogan.  In the closing paragraphs, the author wrote about Alice meeting Lyall Watson on the Orinoco River in 1991, her marriage to Lyall and her death shortly thereafter.

My urge to contact Lyall was crushed by a comment in the author’s credits that Lyall had died in 2008.  Our effort to answer questions and bring closure (including 2008 obituaries from the UK available in seconds on the Internet — amazing) led to your blog and the invitation to share stories about Lyall.  Your blog makes it clear that my brief, chance encounter was not as unique as it felt.  Clearly, his charismatic aura provided instant connections wherever he went throughout the world.  His omnivorous approach to science provided him with synergetic insights unavailable to many.

I was on a six-month walkabout to my home in San Diego from Mombasa, Kenya where I had debarked from a sabbatical leave oceanographic expedition.  Lyall arrived in the port of Kamares, Sifnos – white pants and a canvas sea bag as I recall — on May 21, 1971.  He presented himself as a professional nomad and we traded the usual information that travelers do.  I connected with him again that evening as we participated in Kostas Name Day celebrations.  Everyone in the village named Kostas has an open house with food and drink.  He was so worldly and I such a novice that I didn’t realize until today that he was seven years my junior.

As we moved from party to party he told me of the house he built from scratch in Mozambique.  He harvested the wood for the structure, melted the sand for windows and forged the nails to hold it together.  In the end, he was so sick of it that he walked off and left it.

He was in Greece for a reunion with a Russian countess at the Temple of the Athenian Zeus at midnight on the Summer Solstice.  Their initial meeting had been nine years prior. They parted without exchanging contact information, but agreed to meet again three years later at a given time and place.  That reunion took place – she was now married — and they agreed to meet in another three years.  At the second reunion she had children and this was to be the third reunion.

Fascinated by the story, I gave him my post-solstice mail drop and requested a report.  I received a postcard from him when I got to Copenhagen that an era had ended.  She didn’t show up and sadly, of course, no further information would ever be available.

As brief as my encounter was, Lyall and I exchanged letters a few times and he sent me a copy of Supernature when it was published.  Reading it with my bride, other of Lyall’s books and the stories above, gave her a sense of having met him as well.

Since then, news of his publications and adventures has occasionally appeared and we have appreciated his incredible skill with knowledge, people and institutions.  We have lost a great spokesperson for the joy of curiosity and exploration.

Unfortunately, I have no pictures of Lyall in Sifnos.  In the non-digital days of expensive film and postal service only, I did little more than exchange addresses with interesting travelers I met. I regret that I have no photos of Lyall to contribute to your blog,  I found several here, in particular those of Louis Egan (July 26, 2012), that show him as I remember him.  Many of the posts make me envious of those who were destined to spend more time with him than I did.

The only evidence of my connection with Lyall is this entry from my traveling address book.  It’s a bit charred around the edges because it was in a metal box when our condo burned down in the 2003 San Diego wildfires.

old address book

the page from Robert’s address book with Lyall’s details

Thanks for starting the blog – a wonderful tribute to your uncle and a gift to those who respected him and were changed by his writing.  I have appreciated the posts from people who knew him far better than I and it has filled in many missing strands in the Lyall Watson thread of my life.

Good luck on your projects, and best wishes.

Robert and Virginia Steinbach, San Diego, CA

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Here is another recording from Keith Williams.

In this one Lyall Watson talks about the chimpanzee, Bongo, and the way that pride comes before a fall, in this case for Lyall as a budding new zoo director …

Lyall Watson and Bongo

In the recording, Lyall talks about his fluency in speaking monkey. I’m not sure if that’s what he was demonstrating in this photo (taken on a family holiday in 1974), but it comes close!

Lyall Watson monkeying around

Lyall’s monkey face

I hope you enjoy listening to this recording as much as I did.

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This is another recording of my uncle Lyall Watson sent to me by Keith Williams.

The Explorer – 12th August 1982 2

In this recording, Lyall talks about the explorer who was the inspiration for his book Lightning Bird: Adrian Boshier.

This is who I think Lyall wanted to be – he would have liked to turn back the clock and be one of the early explorers, mapping out a new world and uncovering its mysteries.

A documentary was made on Adrian Boshier: Rradinokga. (You can see a trailer for it here.)

Adrian Boshier - the explorer

Adrian Boshier – the explorer

Lyall Watson - the explorer

Lyall Watson – the explorer

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I am indebted to Keith Williams for sending me recordings he’d made of my uncle Lyall Watson. I’m not sure where they were originally aired but imagine it was on the BBC and, from the sounds of it, Lyall is reading from his work rather than talking off the cuff.

This recording is about his grandmother (and my great-grandmother) Ouma. The family stories about her are all as fabulous as this recording suggests.

Oma – 13th August 1982 2

I think that Ouma is sitting in the middle, wearing pink in this photo from my christening… (please correct me if I’m wrong, family! And send better photos of her if you have them.)

Katherine's christening: seen with grandparents and two great-grandparents.

Katherine’s christening: seen with grandparents and two great-grandparents.
Back row: John Davidson, Mary Lyall-Watson and Doug Lyall-Watson
Front row: Beryl Clarence, Katherine, Grace Morkel (nee Devine) and Cynthia Davidson

close up of Oma at the christening

close up of Ouma at the christening

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A while ago I was contacted by Louise Egan, a woman who travelled on the Linblad Explorer when my uncle Lyall Watson was working there as expedition leader/scientist in residence. It was such a joy to hear from someone who’d met Lyall in the early 70s and remembered him so fondly.

Lyall Watson cutting loose on the dance floor

Lyall dancing with Louise on the Linblad Explorer

Louise and her sisters Marie and Joanna and their parents travelled on the Linblad Explorer in 1970 and 1973 and she said she would be happy for me to share her memories here. (Thanks to Marie for the fabulous photos.)

The following is an edited extract from Louise’s email to me:

“Back in 1970, Lyall was probably the first adult I ever called by his first name. [He] was in a notably younger age group than my parents — he could wear those “groovy”, Indian-style, embroidered shirts with open collar, beads, and yes, white bell-bottoms, and playful straw hat and look totally cool. And he could dance rock-n-roll and look right doing it — unlike my parents & their friends, who looked so awkward.

“There were a bunch of kids on the Lindblad Explorer in the summer of 1970, same for the summer of 1973 in Indonesia. The two summers kind of blur in my mind – but in both cases, we all loved Lyall. He was a fun, energetic excursion leader, always approachable, ready for any kind of conversation. His daily talks on the ship covering what we would see on the islands were interesting – on some aspect of nature or the culture we would find on an island – and never too long or over our heads. He was also the first one I’d ever known who could say he was the first “white person” ever seen by people on an island.

 Lyall Watson dancing

“I can picture him leading us around an island — the hat, loose shirt billowing in the breeze, his white pants. At one point, I asked him why he never took any pictures. I forget what he said, but his response made me realize that this man traveled for his living but the trips were also his LIFE — he seemed to take such joy and interest in doing it, it didn’t really seem like a job for him.

“Lyall was the first one to tell me about the Greenhouse Theory. We were on a cliff overlooking a beach somewhere one evening and my younger sister was with me – she remembers it too. For some reason, he started telling us about what we now call global warming. It was pretty overwhelming to hear all that but it did give me an early feel for the environmental movement that I became aware of a bit later.

“One of my favorite talks of his was when he showed us the kinds of faces monkeys made that showed different emotions: fear, anger, happiness. He made each kind of face, which of course, made everyone laugh – but his point was very well taken.

“One thing that my siblings and I loved to do in the summer of 1973, was sing songs from musicals or TV shows. One song we liked in particular was the theme song to The Patty Duke Show — we have pictures of us “cheerleading” at some native island soccer tournament and singing that song. And for the Farewell Dinner that year, I wrote a tribute to Lyall using the tune to Patty Duke and I think it spoke for everyone:

Here’s Lyall who’s lived most everywhere –

From Zanzibar to Berkeley Square;
And Lyall’s also seen the sights from faraway, exotics heights —
What a character (“charac-tair”)
But that’s Lyall, incredible Lyall, and you’ll see

One kind of funny fellow, looks like a chimpanzee!

Where Lyall adores the nature scene, the ocean trips,

 on birds he’s keen —
And Lyall loves to rock-n-roll but not much makes him lose control –
You know what we mean;
Cuz that’s Lyall, incredible Lyall and you’ll find …
He laughs a lot and talks a lot and has to put up with a lot —
But he won’t lose his mind …

Cuz Lyall, YOU’re one of a kind!

Thank you Louise and Marie for making my day with these memories.

For those who want to sing along, here’s the Patty Duke intro song…

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