UNDER THE SUN

You’re in by Karumba,
Where the fishing boats come in;
I can’t believe this feeling,
But I wish that I was there,
Every passing day…
                    – Goanna, Every Passing Day

Fifteen nautical miles north-west of Karumba the oppressive air presses down on us with an almost tactile force. Thunderheads massed on the horizon foretell a cooling storm to come, but for now the four of us aboard the Kathryn M2 are at the mercy of the monsoonal heat. The boat’s hull cleaves the water of the Gulf of Carpentaria with a sibilant hiss; the diesel engine thrums beneath the deck plates. We are making eighteen knots, heading back to port with our day’s catch: three decent barracuda, a black kingfish and half a dozen Spanish mackerel. Standing on the bridge, with a cold beer in my hand, I watch the green smudge of the Australian coast drawing slowly nearer. Behind us, the boat’s wake unfolds across the sea which lies like a sheet of obsidian beneath the luminous immensity of the sky.

Karumba is situated in the south-east corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria: the southernmost extremity of the Arafura Sea. Nearby, where the sluggish Norman River falls into the Gulf, a delta of tidal creeks and wetlands extend inland in a series of meandering saltwater estuaries. This mangrove-choked landscape is the habitat of estuarine crocodiles (the bad ol’ boys of the crocodile world) and a vast array of bird species. The Gulf is located on the migratory path known as the East Asian Flyway and hundreds of thousands of birds use the region as a jumping-off point for their flights into Asia and beyond. Flocks of eastern bar-tailed godwits, fresh from their summer on the Avon-Heathcote Estuary, at Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand, stop off to rest here en route back to their breeding grounds in Alaska.

The Port of Karumba was originally a refuelling and repair stop for the Empire Flying Boats, which connected Sydney to Great Britain. The aircraft landed on the stretch of the river in front of the town and during WW2 were the only aerial connection Australia had with the rest of the world. Karumba was also a Catalina Flying Boat base for the Royal Australian Air Force and the ramp onto which these amphibians taxied now forms one of the town’s streets.

I first heard of Karumba in the mid-eighties in a song called Every Passing Day by Australian band Goanna. At the time I was working on a High Country sheep station, deep in the heart of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. It was a world of sheep dogs and horses, hobnail boots and musterer’s huts, harsh winters and late snows. For me, Karumba was out on the edge of the world, about as far removed from the High Country as it was possible to get. Lying on my bed in the shepherd’s quarters, listening to that song while the nor’ west wind shrieked around the eaves, I imagined steaming mangrove swamps, crocodiles and tidal mud, fishing boats coming home in the sunset and endless, punishing heat. Karumba seemed like the sort of beyond the pale place I would never visit. And yet, in one of those strange twists that life can take, here I was, sailing home to Karumba after a day’s fishing on the Gulf, with the first flickers of lightning exploding across the sky and the air heavy with the scent of rain.

By the time we reach shore it is raining: a heavy, blattering downpour which pock-marks the opaque water of the river and runs in deluges from the scuppers. We adjourn to the Sunset Tavern (one of the few places in Eastern Australia where you can watch the sun set over the ocean) to relive the day’s escapades. Outside, sixty millimetres of rain falls in less than an hour. By nightfall the storm has moved on and a watery sliver of moon hangs in the sky.

Karumba is the southernmost port on the Arafura Sea: surely the most evocatively-named sea in the world. The name is redolent of pirates and pearling luggers, of spice islands and hidden mangrove coastlines. It’s the sort of sea that a character in a Joseph Conrad novel would set sail across: “blue and profound, without a stir, without a ripple, without a wrinkle, viscous, stagnant, dead.”

Prior to the European discovery of Australia, the Arafura Sea was the haunt of Macassan fleets from the Celebes Islands. The Macassans harvested beche-de-mer (a type of sea cucumber resembling a black, tumescent penis) which they cured on the beaches and sold to the Chinese as an aphrodisiac. Later, pearl divers came, then shrimp fisherman. Today, Karumba is home base for Australia’s largest shrimping fleet.

The day after my fishing trip is a Saturday. Nothing much is happening in Karumba. A few fishing boats come and go at the pier; the tide rises and falls among the mangroves and mooring ropes along the Norman River; mirages shimmer on the asphalt road leading out of town and into the Outback. Ceiling fans stir the tepid air in the Animal Bar of the Karumba Lodge Pub; next door, the Suave Bar is empty. I sit in the shade of a spreading fig tree outside the Post Office drinking chilled orange juice from a plastic bottle. Ants are nesting in a crack in the concrete sidewalk. A girl arrives in a dusty 4WD and empties the mail from box 71 of the 233 red mail boxes set into the wall. Magpie larks play in a listless, desultory fashion on the blue and orange phone boxes.

All day thunderheads have grumbled out on the plains. The sun is incandescent in the pewter dome of the sky. As afternoon wears on the heat grows more and more oppressive. Mosquitoes feed on my exposed skin and flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos fly screeching from tree to tree. It is as if the natural world knows something is about to happen and is restive.

As the sun begins its descent into the sea, the horizon is shrouded by roiling clouds. Bolts of lightning jump earthward from the black belly of the storm. The atmosphere seems charged electricity and heavy with moisture. This is the real deal: the full spectacle of heat, convection, air masses, water vapour, static electricity and raw energy. The sun has gone out. All that remains is a pale, flat, eerie glow which casts no shadows. Huge knives of lightning slice the sky, thunder detonates overhead with ear-shattering force and the air turns the colour of soot. As the storm rages all around I take off my shirt and let the rain beat on my bare skin like a benediction.

Karumba is the sort of place which epitomises the adage “the journey is the destination”. You need to make a real effort to get there by driving west from Cairns through 800 kilometres of empty Outback. And, let’s face it, there’s not a lot to see once you’ve arrived. Sure, people come from all over the world for the excellent fishing. Campers spend months at the Sunset Point Caravan Park just doing nothing. And there is a zinc smelter to visit if you’re really stuck for entertainment.

But the real attraction of visiting a place like Karumba is being on the edge of the world. Tropical towns by the sea have a different feel to inland places. They look outwards, towards the emptiness of the ocean, away from the security and certainties of the land. For me the pleasure of being in Karumba lies in simply watching the sun set over the sea while the Sunset Tavern regulars, oblivious to the solar spectacle outside, gamble on television horses racing in other parts of Australia. It lies in the thrill of watching the violent arrival of a tropical storm after the ennui of a 45 degree day. And, best of all, it lies in the pure, unexpected delight of being in a place I have dreamed of for so long.

In Karumba I can smell the warm breath of Asia. Across the narrow waters of the Arafura Sea lie the jungle islands of Irian Jaya, the coral atolls of the Moluccas and the teeming shores of Indonesia. Yet even this close to Asia I am rooted firmly in white Australia. Satellite dishes beam the latest news of the world into town; every meal comes with chips and beetroot; men in grubby shorts and tee-shirts drink copious quantities of Victoria Bitter beer from ice-cold glasses; and, on the edge of town, Aboriginal people move like ghosts in their own land.

On my last evening in Karumba I drift down to the Sunset Tavern to watch my final Arafura sunset. Day ends suddenly in the tropics. Sunsets are always brief but spectacular. I sit on a rocky outcrop, still warm from the day’s heat, as the sun sinks inexorably into the sea and the sky turns the colour of spilled blood. Distant thunder clouds, piled on the horizon, are lit from within by strobes of lightning. As the sun disappears, the colour bleeds from the sky, the sea fades from pink to indigo, and night comes down like a theatrical curtain.

I sit for a while in the gloaming listening to the pulse of the ocean. The incoming tide roars on the shoreline with a noise like a distant cheering crowd. Karumba had once been a place which existed only as a collection of images conjured in my imagination by the words of a song. But now that I have seen it, Karumba is real. It has been burned into my memory during the time I have spent out here, under the sun on the edge of the world. The ocean glitters in the starlight and I know that, for the rest of my life, I will go to Karumba in my mind, once or twice every passing day.

Photographs are copies from the article I wrote for the magazine Avenues in 2005.

FOOTNOTE: Goanna’s 1984 album Oceania is a forgotten masterpiece. Upon its release it failed to chart and quickly disappeared from view. I bought a cassette copy of the album in 1985 from a record shop in Timaru on the South Island of New Zealand. I have it still: worn out, spliced and almost inaudible after thousands of playings. Oceania was never released on CD and, until August 2020, was unavailable in any form whatsoever. But in September 2020, after my daughter asked me what my all time favourite song is, I discovered that a remastered edition of the album had appeared on Spotify. I am listening to it now. It is my favourite album of all time and the song Every Passing Day, upon which this story is based, is my favourite song ever. The story itself, which appeared in the magazine Avenues in 2005, won a QANTAS Media Award for Best Magazine Travel Story in 2006. I’d like to return to Karumba some time soon, to smell the warm breath of Asia and watch the passing days out there on the edge of the world.

SHADOWS ON THE HILL

The river stretches a braided thread of silver along the valley floor.

Morning in the High Country. On a hillside far above the Phantom River, a musterer gives his sheepdogs a command: “Speak up!” His four black and tan huntaways immediately set up a cacophony of loud barking. The musterer joins in with his own voice, shouting out “hey, hey, hey” into the still morning air. Even his heading dogs, Queen and Chucky, normally silent and observant, add a few high-pitched yaps into the mix.

High above, on top of the High Claytons range, another musterer’s dogs answer the bark-up. From below, the dogs of the three other men, who are spaced at intervals down the hillside, complete the chorus. The noise echoes back back from the gullies and ravines on the opposite side of the valley, which lies in deep, hazy shadow. The river stretches a braided thread of silver along the valley floor.

The barking alarms the merino wethers who have been grazing alone and in pairs on the tussock-clad hillside. It is early April and the fine-wooled wethers have spent the summer months roaming the hills of the station’s 35,000 acres. The sheep form themselves into long lines and move off ahead of the dogs’ noise. The musterers begin moving too, following the sheep south-west across the hillside towards the distant ramparts of the Two Thumb Range.

The Phantom River.

It is the third day of  the autumn muster: an annual event which brings the sheep down off the high tops before the winter snows arrive. At 4am, the musterers had gathered for breakfast around the big kitchen table in the station’s homestead. Fortified with bacon, eggs, sausages and toast, washed down with copious quantities of tea, each of the five musterers had made a pile of sandwiches for lunch while the runholder explained each man’s beat (the route they would follow across the hillsides) for the day.

The High Claytons.

An hour later, as the rising sun cleared the triangular bulk of Mount Peel, the musterers were atop the High Claytons. In earlier times they would have spent three hours climbing out on foot. But these days, 4WDs are used to carry musterers and their dogs to the hilltops. Although the air has an early morning chill, the day promises to be sunny and hot.

The hills shimmer as alpine breezes ripple through the vast fields of snow tussock, which can grow to a height of a metre or more. As the musterers walk their beats through the steep, rocky faces they encounter not only wild deer and chamois, but dozens of Himalayan tahr. Introduced into the Southern Alps in 1904 these agile mountain goats can climb the most perpendicular rock faces with speed and grace.

On the Hill

For the shepherds and musterers who work on the High Country stations down the length of the South Island, work is slowly disappearing. Years of low wool prices have meant the farming of sheep has become less economically viable in the High Country. Vast tracts of land have been closed up or taken over by the conservation estate, and as the usage of the high country has changed, so the demand for high country mustering skills has diminished.

Mustering gangs once camped out for weeks at a time in backcountry huts where traditions and hierarchies were observed and maintained. Now, musters are completed in days using helicopters and 4WDs. Hobnailed boots, billy tea and camp ovens have been replaced by GPS locators, energy drinks and Vibram rubber soles.

But change is an integral part of the High Country. The grey slopes of scree and shingle, the beetling bluffs of black rock and the endless ridges and summits – which generations of musterers, in typical understatement have simply called “The Hill” –  are in a constant state of change as the elements shape and reshape the landscape.

By 2PM,  the musterers are nearing the end of the block. The long lines of wethers, which have moved ahead of the musterers and their dogs all day, descend a steep ridge towards Spurs Flat.  The huntaways keep the sheep moving while heading dogs cast left and right to bring individual sheep into the main mob which is gathering on the edge of the flat.

Each musterer controls his dogs with unique whistled commands. The older, experienced dogs instinctively watch the sheep, turning runaways back into the mob and keeping the animals moving. The younger dogs run boisterously alongside, learning the skills from their teammates and from the occasional profanity-laden command from their human masters.

The infant Orari River marks the end of the day’s muster. Beyond the river, which here is merely a trickle of crystal water bled from the snowfields of the Two Thumb Range, Horse Spur rises in a rounded fold of russet and gold tussock. The mob will be left on the spur to be gathered up tomorrow: the final day of the muster.

But the wethers, creatures of habit and suspicion, are reluctant to cross even this small creek bubbling across grey shingle between grassy banks smudged with matagouri. The dogs move the mob to the water’s edge. An older wether leaps across and soon the mob is following. The sheep string out across the hillside beyond.

Crossing the Orari River.

The musterers sit in the tussocks discussing the day’s work. Each has a story of good runs by their dogs and difficult sheep which had to be carefully extricated from a gully or ridge using cunning and skill.  The runholder arrives in a 4WD with flasks of tea and a fruit cake. The dogs sprawl around in the sun, mark their territory with squirts of piss, occasionally snarling at errant youngsters.

The wethers have dispersed across the face of Horse Spur. The afternoon sun glitters on the waters of the Orari River as it begins its journey down through the muscular hills. The musterers load their dogs onto the 4WD for the long journey back to the homestead.

At dawn tomorrow, the musterers and their dogs will once again be out here among the tussocks and rocks, mustering the Merino wethers ahead of them as they move across the flanks of the High Claytons like shadows on the hill.

A BEND IN THE RIVER

(This story, written in 1993, was my first attempt at travel writing. It was written on a small portable typewriter in our old house at 28 McKenze Street, Geraldine, New Zealand. I sent the story to The Press, one of New Zealand’s premier newspapers. It was not accepted for publication and it would be a further two years before my first travel story would be published. This is the first time that this story, about our journey down the Zaire (Congo) River, has appeared in public.)

In his novella Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad described the Congo River as “…an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.”

Today, the river is known as the Zaire (a Lingala word meaning “river”) but is largely unchanged from the river Conrad sailed in the early years of this century, as it sweeps through the implacable forest on its 4,300 kilometre journey  from its headwaters in Zambia to the Atlantic Ocean. Where it meets the sea, the powerful current carries the discoloured water over 100 kilometres offshore, gouging a 1,200 metre deep canyon in the ocean floor in the process.

As dawn approaches, cool and mist-shrouded, the face of the river is revealed: opaque, inscrutable, an enigma of brown water. Here at Kisangani, where the river bends north-east, the Stanley Falls, named after the explorer Henry Morten Stanley, mark the upstream limit of the 1,900 kilometres of navigable river.  Above the falls, the river is navigable in broken stretches for a further 1,600 kilometres, and the entire river, with its myriad of tributaries and branches, offers more than 13,000 kilometres of waterways reaching into every corner of the country.

Out in mid-river the current takes the barge in its grip…

Aboard the barge M.B. LOKOLE, the frenzy of pre-departure activity begins with the first glimmer of dawn. Our small group of western travellers, all passengers on an Overland Expedition travelling north form Nairobi to London, mark the boundaries of our section of steel decline a wagon train forming a protective circle. Around us, several hundred native Zairians come aboard laden with luggage, food, animals and children. Several goats are tethered beside us; a monkey on a leash stares down at us from a pole; baskets of blackened  and evil-smelling smoked fish; fruit, vegetables, meat and a multitude of other delicacies culled from the forest and sold by the waterfront traders to passengers departing on the irregular ferries and barges which ply the river. The babel of colour and enterprise on the riverbank will disappear before the LOKOLE is out of sight – the traders returning to the main market in town or to their villages in the forest.

Me on the bridge of the MB LOKOLE

By 8:00 AM the sun has burnt the last tendrils of mist away and is already uncomfortably hot. We rig up a crude shelter using tent flies and sticks as the LOKOLE backs away  from the waterfront and turns downstream.  Out in mid-river the current takes the barge in its grip, insisting that it moves at the river’s swift pace. The river is wide – 2 kilometres at Kisangani – but its glossy surface hides sandbars and snags so the captain, Mr Chimungu, must steer a zig-zag course from bank to bank, guided by his old and dog-eared charts.

Muzungu on the river.

The day passes slowly. Heat presses down on the river and forest like a heavy blanket. The M.B. LOKOLE carries a cargo of dried fish, the cloying smell of which emanates from the hold and hangs in the air. Amazingly, people are camped down in the hold amongst the stinking load. 

“It’s a lot cooler down here,” a man named Hastings tells me. “The smell is bad but you get used to it.”

Local traders paddle out from each village in pirogues: dugout canoes fashioned from single giant tree trunks. Each trader has something different to sell: mangoes, bananas, fish, a freshly-killed antelope, monkeys with their fur singed and hands cut off. Passengers haggle furiously and usually get the best deal as the LOKOLE carries the pirogues and their owners swiftly downstream necessitating quick sales before the traders are too far from home.

Late afternoon brings an immense thunderstorm. Jagged bolts of lightning leap down into the forest from towering black and gold clouds accompanied by peals of thunder and a wonderfully cooling rain. As the storm clears, night begins to fall. River and forest blend into one.

With a resounding crash the barge is run aground against the riverbank for the night, further navigation impossible in the darkness.

Without the noise of the engine, the night air is full of the sounds of the forest: cicadas and frogs, unseen birds and the occasional scream of an animal falling prey to another animal. The black water whispers against the steel hull and around us the people begin to sing, their rich, harmonious voices a Congo sleepsong.

Loud scraping and banging sounds signal our departure form the riverbank. The morning mist wreaths the forest crowding down to the water’s edge and swallows the tops of the highest trees. Against the mist the forest is deep green. Verdant.  Impenetrable. 

Ennui on the Zaire River

Soon after first light I go and sit with a group of men at the front of the barge and watch the morning come to life on the river. Fishermen cast weighted nets form their pirogues, each cast yielding several fish form the murky water. Birds glide low over the water catching insects or diving for small fish just below the glassy surface.

I strike up a conversation with a young man called Jacob, French-born to Zairian parents. He has come to Zaire to find his roots.

“This country has everything,” he says, “minerals, oil, fertile soil. It could feed itself and much of the rest of Africa if it was allowed to develop.

“But,” he continues, “this country has been brought to its knees by its corrupt government. It makes me very sad.” 

Jacob’s comments echo the unspoken thoughts of most Zairians. Since taking power in 1965, President Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga (the name means “the always victorious warrior who is to be feared”) has squandered billions of dollars in export revenue and foreign aid while the infrastructure of Zaire has crumbled almost beyond belief. With a personal fortune estimated to be as high as five billion US dollars, Mobutu exerts a witch-doctor-like  control over his people. His photograph is displayed in every shop, house and office; his official statements refer to Him in the upper case; press photographs always show him to be larger than the people around him.

But here on the river, life seems far removed from the political problems of Zaire. Traders continue to paddle furiously out to the barge, their muscles straining, faces contorted and sweating with the effort of catching the passing vessel and its potential customers.

The cries of the new-born baby girl mingle with the sounds of animals, chattering and laughing people, and the steady beat of the cleansing rain.

Snake, aka Dingwe (see curseofthetraveller.com for explaination)

Mid-morning, we stop at a village to drop off passengers and freight. Wandering through the market, there doesn’t seem to be any food for sale, merely bananas and a few piles of soggy oranges. At the top of a dusty track we find a bar run by the local mission selling cold beer and Coca-cola. It is pleasantly cool and shady inside the bar-room, but soon the sound of the whistle has us running back down to the waterfront to re-join the LOKOLE, berthed alongside the rusting hull of a dis-used river ferry.

The afternoon heat is oppressive, but as afternoon draws into evening and the sun sinks languidly towards the forest, the daily thunderstorm arrives to cool the air. In true African fashion, a baby is born amid the chaos of passengers and cargo. In marked contrast to the drama attached to child-birth in the developed world, the mother simply squats down and with the help of two other women gives birth in just a few minutes. The cries of the new-born baby girl mingle with the sounds of animals, chattering and laughing people, and the steady beat of the cleansing rain.

Sheltering from the sun.

Aground on the river-bank for a second night, three of us accompany Captain Chimungu up to a nearby village for a drink. The forest is silent and bitch black except for the pale starlight filtering down through the canopy. The Captain seems to be able to see in the dark, but mumurs that he comes this way “pour un bier” on every journey. The village is nothing more than a few huts amid a jungle clearing and we sit around a lantern drinking Primus brand beer and talking to the villagers in French and broken English. They tell us that Queen Elizabeth visited here in 1958 and that she owns some palm oil plantations in the area. I try to imagine Her Majesty and her entourage sitting around on tea chests drinking beer in this humid and isolated placeWhen the beer is all gone, we make our way back down through the stygian forest to the barge where millions of insects are swarming around the single light on the roof of the wheelhouse.

We continue downstream at first light. Slowly, people begin to stir aboard the barge. Women light their cooking fires and prepare the day’s first meal. The men collect in their usual groups around the deck to talk, smoke and play cards. Traders come out from the riverbank with their smoked fish and monkeys.  The smoked monkeys are a macabre sight, their faces seared into grisly poses, teeth bared, eyes bulging. 

Cooking over charcoal on the MB LOKOLE.

We have almost no food left but Captain Chimungu takes pity on us helpless Muzungu (African slang for “white people”) and gives us some freshly-caught fish, some potatoes and some onions which we cook and eat along with some bully beef and some rice.

By 7:30 AM the sun is beating down from a sky the colour of burnished copper. The river is very wide, more like a shining lake than a river with the forest a thin, dark line on the far bank. Water hyacinths float gently in the current, taking all their nourishment form the river as they drift indolently towards the sea.

At midday the town of Bomba, our destination, comes into view. The scene at the waterfront is reminiscent of that at Kisangani, as traders vie for the best positions and passengers jostle in the queues waiting to disembark.

Captain Chimungu.

Captain Chimungu wishes us “Bon Chance” as we gather our tourist paraphernalia and clamber ashore. There is an impromptu “customs check” with the local police. A small bribe changes hands before we can set off up the dusty Main Street to find somewhere to stay.

Behind us, down at the river, a shrill whistle signals the departure of the M.B. LOKOLE on the next leg of its 1,900 kilometre journey around the bend in the river.

THE END

Preparing fish on the MB LOKOLE.

FOOTNOTE: Since September 1991, president Mobutu’s iron grip on Zaire has been loosened by civil unrest, rioting and secessionist uprisings.

The latest spate of turmoil, in January this year [1993], was caused by Mr Mobutu’s issue of a virtually worthless five million Zaire banknote (the unit of currency is called the ‘Zaire”) in a vain attempt to keep up with the country’s hyperinflation. Up to 1,000 people, including the French ambassador, were reported to have been killed in the violence, perpetrated mainly by drunken soldiers from the Israeli-trained Elite Guard.

With support growing for the opposition Sacred Union Party, led by Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi, Mr Mobutu’s hold on power, and, some would say, reality, is becoming increasingly tenuous. There are fears, however, that with Mr Mobutu deposed, the country would dissolve into civil war. Zaire, four times the size of France, could easily fragment due to secessionist pressure in several parts of the country, especially the south-east.

It appears that Zaire’s future, like the great river in Conrad’s story, flows on “…into the heart of an immense darkness.”

President Mobutu Sese Seko was chucked out of power, and out of Zaire, in May 1997. He died a few months later in Morocco. Zaire was renamed The Democratic Republic of the Congo following Mobutu’s departure. 

Moonlight Encounter

The inlets and coves, slotted into the coastline like notches on a sailor’s knife handle…

I was jumped on by a possum at Curio Bay. Now that’s not a sentence you’ll read very often. It was just after ten o’clock at night and I was standing on a headland overlooking the bay, with surf booming on the reefs below and a big, silver full moon lying on the horizon. The evening was, as yet, still warm, but the shimmering of the stars pointed to a hard frost to come, as the latent heat remaining from the day radiated out into space through the clear, empty air.

I’d left Slope Point as the sun sank below the western skyline and had driven east through a pink gloaming. It was as if the Earth was lit from within by some understated IMG_4974source of translucent light. Every rock and hillside seemed to glow. The inlets and coves, slotted into the coastline like notches on a sailor’s knife handle, lay gleaming under the pastel curtain of the sky. The trees, flaxes and reeds growing along the roadsides and dotting the hills, stood motionless in the twilight. It was as if I was driving through a different world, or another world altogether, suspended halfway between day and night.

Evening lasts a long time in these high southern latitudes so it was still light when I reached Curio Bay. The visitor center at the Curio Bay Camping Ground was still open so I went in to ask about the cost of a campsite for the night. With only ApplePay on my cellphone (I don’t have a bank account, let alone a bankcard) I was restricted by my merge supply of cash as to where I could stay and dine. Travelling around Southland I had found that the concept of contact-less payment was yet to gain widespread favour and I’d been forced to part with valuable cash on several occasions that would have merely been a matter of tap and go in a more technologically advanced part of the country.

I had forty-two dollars in notes and a handful of change left to my name so the campsite needed to be cheap if I was going to eat dinner as well.

“Mate for forty-two bucks you can get a campsite and a great dinner here in the restaurant,” Tom Robinson, the camp’s manager and tour guide told me when I explained the parlous state of my finances.

“And,” he continued, “you’ll have enough left over for breakfast in the morning too.”

With my truck parked on a grassy isthmus between the flax groves of the main campsite and the pyramidal bulk of Grayling Head, I’d walked up to the restaurant in the dark and eaten an expansive dinner of lasagna, chips and salad. Afterwards, feeling somewhat bloated, I had walked up to the top of the headland to shake things down and find some cellphone coverage. And it was here, while updating my social media that I encountered Percy Possum.

The possum, bless him, must have been shuffling around up there for the same reason as me: just chilin’ in the moonlight and taking in the view. Possums are the marsupial equivalent of stoner humans. They just do their own thing, man, y’know, clambering around in the trees eating billions of tonnes of foliage, staring down on-coming headlights, getting it on with the ladies, and pretty much just living the possum version Sc1M26vpQv6ph1MfV8j60Qof The Good Life.

And, of course, they just love weed. Anyone who has grown the green gold out in the bush will know that if the crop isn’t protected by wire netting, possums will eat the fuckin’ lot. They’re the Cheech and Chong of the animal kingdom. And even though they are filthy, disease-ridden little vermin cunts, responsible for spreading bovine tuberculosis, scoffing the eggs of native birds, and the annihilation of thousands of hectares of native forest every year, its hard not to like them, with their cute button noses, big goggly eyes and shambling gait.

I had sometimes heard people say that if a possum gets panicked it will run up the tallest thing in its vicinity. If the tallest thing happens to be a nearby human, well, up it will go, scratching the fuck out of you with is claws in the process. But I had never encountered a panicked possum.

Mostly, you encounter them at one remove, as they go under the wheels of your vehicle with a wet thud, knocking the alignment out of kilter as they do so. The roads of New Zealand are decorated with the gory remains of dead possums, in various stages of decomposition ranging from sad piles of fresh fur amid a reddish splatter of blood and entrails, to vague, black, desiccated outlines, melted into oblivion by the sun and mashed wafer-thin into the tarmac by dozens of passing cars.

However, as I wasn’t currently doing anything to send a possum into a state of panic, or, indeed, even expecting to encounter a marsupial of any kind on that high, moonlit promontory, the sight of a possum sitting on the ground beside me came as something of a surprise. Obviously, it came as something of a surprise to the possum as well because it promptly leapt onto my chest, its vicious little claws grasping the material of my puffer jacket for purchase.

At close range, a possum’s features quickly lose their cuteness. The creature’s little button nose housed the sort of wicked-looking teeth you would see on a church gargoyle. Its goggly eyes looked positively rabid. For a moment it peered up at me with a sort of dazed recognition, like a mountaineer spotting the route up a particularly difficult section of a crag.

But before it could begin its final ascent of my north face I slapped the little bastard hard across the mush and said “fuck off, Percy.” It fell to the ground with an indistinct thud and shuffled off down the seaward slope of the headland. For my part I just stood there blinking, like a possum in the headlights, I suppose, wonder what the hell had just happened.

It hadn’t been scary, just somewhat incongruous and as I walked back down the track to my truck I thought: “well that’ll make a great opening line for a chapter.”

extracted from The Greenstone Water

 

The Right Moment

Caught up in another dream,
drifting on a blue ocean…
  – Gerry Rafferty, The Right Moment

At dawn, I am standing on a new land.  It is low tide, and in the small dark hours before the arrival of the new day, the sea has withdrawn from Wainui Inlet and created the sandy islet upon which I stand.  A tiny, gentle squall of warm rain blows across Golden Bay.  Cat’s paw ripples mark its progress across the water and I feel it buffet me as it strikes my island.  The offing is empty save for a few tawdry gulls pecking at a half-submerged sand-bar further offshore.  Out on the horizon, the sea and the sky are welded together in a seamless joint of blue and grey.

ISLAND

A landscape of golden sand-flats stretch away behind me, curving around a low point upon which stands a single kanuka tree.  The ocean has sculpted the sand with stripes and hollows, rills and fissures, hummocks and crenulations.  With each tide the moving water brings subtle changes to the inlet and the shallow, muddy estuary behind it.  It is a place of constant movement and change.  Even now, the tide has turned and my tiny sand country is growing smaller. I turn my back on the ocean and wade back towards terra firma. 

When you arrange your day by the tides it is all about timing. 

The Wainui Inlet cuts a deep notch into the hills on the eastern edge of Golden Bay.  The ocean wraps itself around a rocky headland which guards the outer edge of the inlet, and slides up onto a long strip of low dunes covered with sedges and gorse.  Thick, coastal rainforest cloaks the spurs and valleys running down to the water’s edge from the skyline ridge which rises steeply from the inlet’s eastern shore.

Our home for the week is a small, rented cottage overlooking the mouth of the inlet.  It is a simple place: a few bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room opening onto a concrete patio and a lawn running down towards the ocean.  There are kayaks plied up behind a shed out back and a lemon tree hung to breaking with bright yellow fruit.  It is a bach in the true New Zealand sense: nothing fancy but perfect for bare feet, sandy towels and eating outdoors.  

When you arrange your day by the tides it is all about timing.  You have to wait for the right moment.  By midday, the ocean has once again seeped into the inlet, filling its nooks and crannies; swirling into its secret places; hiding its islets and sandbars beneath a shallow skin of water.  I launch a kayak and paddle out past the rocky pinnacles on the western side of the inlet.  

The boulders and outcrops which have so recently been part of a sandy beach are now jagged islets and black, submerged reefs.   I paddle west, hugging the land like an explorer charting an hitherto unexplored coastline.  In some of the coves, the ocean has piled up stacks of sun-bleached driftwood.  The tangled heaps are the skeletons of forests, washed down from hidden mountain ranges and cast up on this distant shore.  I think of a line from James Reeves’ poem The Sea

“And ‘Bones, bones, bones, bones!’
The giant sea-dog moans,
Licking his greasy paws.”
 

Tiny creeks drip from bush-filled gullies and flow out across the sand in patterns which resemble veins beneath the skin of an ancient hand.

At dawn the next day I am paddling on an ocean of liquid glass.  Beneath my kayak, the waters of Golden Bay lie in a flat plane stretched out to the horizon.  The gentlest of swells raises and lowers me as if some giant slumbering sea creature is breathing in the depths.  The vast dome of the sky glows pink and mauve as the rising sun clears the hazy, jumbled skyline of Abel Tasman National Park. The noise of cicadas, echoing across the water from the shore, sounds like steam escaping from the boiler of a long-gone coastal freighter.

GOLD

I switch on my phone.  A couple of text messages come through.  I update my Facebook page with a photo of my feet in the yellow plastic bow of the kayak and the empty ocean surrounding me.  I title the photo “My Wednesday Morning” then switch the phone off.  I don’t need to hear from anyone.  I am on holiday.  I turn the kayak and paddle back towards shore.

There are four of us at the cottage this week.  For Linda and our girls Lydia and Emma, the holiday is all about sleeping in, sun-bathing, reading and just doing nothing much.  For me, it is all about exploring.  Whenever it is low tide I can wander along the beach where there are caves and outcrops and raggedy coves of weathered rock to explore.  Tiny creeks drip from bush-filled gullies and flow out across the sand in patterns which resemble veins beneath the skin of an ancient hand.

Occasionally I come across evidence of other beachcombers: footprints, driftwood huts, indistinct paths leading up into the hinterland beyond the beach.  But for the most part it is just me, the edge of the land, the shifting patterns of light and shade, and the ceaselessly moving ocean.

PATTERN

On our last day at Wainui I paddle inland with the high tide.  The sun is incandescent in the blue dome of the sky and although a westerly wind is whipping the ocean outside into a chaotic chop, the waters of the inlet are calm.  Crowds of oystercatchers rest on the sandbars, awaiting another low tide when the mud-flats, with their infinite supply of cockles and worms, will once again be revealed.  Cormorants roost on the crooked limbs of dead trees protruding from the water.  

At the head of the inlet I stop paddling and just drift.  Soon the tide will turn again and I will be able to let its gentle weight pull me back out towards the blue ocean.  All I have to do is wait for the right moment.  

Journey to the Centre of Australia

You can feel the distance.
It carries a weight that’s heavier than anything.
                                                            – Kate Kacvinsky, Awaken

Dusk at Eringa Waterhole.  As the setting sun slides below the western horizon, flocks of galahs and corellas set up a cacophony of screeching as they return to their roosting trees.  The south-east breeze dies away.  The surface of the waterhole gleams like a mirror in its frame of trees.  A big, perigee full moon stretches a ladder of silver across the water.

By the time I have pitched my tent and organized my camp it is dark.  I light a fire in a circle of stones.  The dancing firelight flickers in the branches of the river red-gum trees growing along the edge of the waterhole.  I boil some water and brew a cup of tea, then open my computer and write the first paragraphs of this story.

I am deep in the arid heart of South Australia.  Over the previous four days I have driven north along the Oodnadatta Track: a lonely outback road on the western edge of the Simpson Desert.  My destination, the geographical centre of Australia, lies further north over the border in the Northern Territory.

T30
Eringa Waterhole, South Australia.

I sit up late into the night at my Eringa camp, listening to the comforting sounds of the ABC coming over the AM band on my 4WD’s radio.  Barramundi plop and splash in the waterhole as they catch insects flitting over the surface.  A kookaburra cackles occasionally.  Nearby, the roofless remains of the old Eringa Station homestead stand awash in moonlight.

The windows of the abandoned railway station stare sightlessly out onto a landscape of grey saltbush and red dirt.

In the cold of dawn I fan the fire back into life and cook bacon and eggs for breakfast.  One of the simple pleasures of travelling in the Outback is cooking your own food over open fires.  I drink coffee squeezed from a tube and stare into the glowing embers.  The local birdlife squawks and gurgles; the waterhole reflects the trees and the big sky.  Through the crackle and pop of static, a disembodied voice reads the news.  But the goings-on of the world are of no importance out here.

T33
Eringa Station Ruins.

At Abminga Siding, a hundred kilometres north of Eringa Waterhole, the road crosses the remains of the old Central Australian Railway line. Nicknamed “the Ghan” (short for Afghan, a reference to the Afghan cameleers who pioneered transport routes into Australia’s inland), the Central Australian Railway operated for more than a century.  The last train passed down the line in 1980. 

The windows of the abandoned railway station stare sightlessly out onto a landscape of grey saltbush and red dirt.  The roots of a casuarina tree have cracked and heaved the platform.  Swallows nest in the eaves of the verandah; galahs roost on the rusted water tower.

Inside, the names of passing travellers are scrawled in charcoal on the flaking plaster walls.  A loose sheet of corrugated iron rattles on the roof.  The hiss of locomotive steam is just the sound of cicadas.  It is a lonely, melancholy place.

Beyond Abminga, the road crosses a vast plain of gibber desert.  The gibbers, small rounded ironstones patiently polished by the wind over millions of years, form an impermeable glaze which protects the soil beneath from erosion.  The blasted, featureless landscape looks like the photos of Mars beamed back by the Curiosity rover.

T22
Outback.

I pass through a gate set into a two-wire fence which forms the border between South Australia and the Northern Territory.  The road bends slowly west: a graded scratch in the red dirt running to a vanishing-point on the horizon.  The suspension shudders and rattles as I drive along the corrugated surface. The wind whips a cloud of fine crimson dust off into the grey saltbush scrub growing along the roadside. The sky is a vast indigo dome draped with fuzzy strips of altostratus cloud.

T37
Desert Colour.

A bullet-scarred sign bolted to a steel pole reads “Lambert’s Geographical Centre 21km.  4WD Only.”  I turn off onto the track and engage four wheel drive, low ratio.  The surface is soft and sandy; scrubby mulga trees scrape against the bodywork.  A colourful profusion of wildflowers, brought to life by recent rains, carpets the ground.

the burning shores of the north where you can smell the hot breath of Asia.

I drive for half an hour.  Side tracks join and branch off from the track.  I begin to feel a little anxious about getting lost.  No one knows where I am; my cell phone doesn’t work.  I stop and mark an “X” on the ground with sticks and set my odometer to zero.  If I haven’t reached the LGC after five kilometres I will turn back.

In a patch of deep sand the colour of chili powder, the tyres lose traction and I am stuck.  The rear wheels have sunk to the axles.  I discover that the front hubs are unlocked meaning that I have only been in two-wheel-drive since I left the main track.  With the hubs locked I easily drive out of the hole.  Two minutes later I am in the centre of Australia.

Named after cartographer Bruce Lambert, the Lambert Geographical Centre was calculated in 1988 as part of Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations.  The location was computed by measuring the distance from 24,500 points around the continent’s coastline.  A scale model of the flagstaff on Australia’s parliament building in Canberra marks the location at LAT25° 36´ 36.4”S, LONG134° 21´ 17.3”E.

I stand beneath the monument with my arms outstretched.  I can feel the weight of the continent balanced on this point.  I close my eyes and imagine the farthest corners of the Australia: the cliffs of the Great Ocean Road, the bustling Eastern cities, the endless white beaches of Broome and the burning shores of the north where you can smell the hot breath of Asia.

Centre2
The Centre of Australia

A battered visitor’s book sits in a converted jerry-can welded to an iron post.  Most of the comments are of the “ticked off the list” variety.  I sign my name and write a line from a Bastille song: “under the weight of living.”  On the way back out to the road I stop and lie amid a sea of pure white daisies, like desert snow on the red ground.

A few days later, I sit in a café on Rundle Street in downtown Adelaide.  After the silence and emptiness of the Outback, the hustle of the city jars my senses.  The street outside is shiny-black with rain;  avalanches of cars rumble past as the lights change from red to green.  There is a girl sitting near me on the same table.  If this was the Outback, we would talk.  But this is the city so we say nothing to each other.

I think of my camp beside Eringa Waterhole, the ruins of Abminga, the wildflowers of the desert.  I can feel the weight of the distance between me and the places I passed through on my journey to the centre of Australia.  I finish my coffee and walk out into the darkness on the edge of the continent.

Into The West

I continued west towards the setting sun, now almost invisible behind the snow-encrusted ramparts of the distant ranges.

West of Riverton, State Highway 99 undulated through a bucolic landscape of rolling, lime green hills, their sensual curves highlighted by the lowering afternoon sun. Sheep dotted the paddocks and shelterbelts, stark against the blue of the sky, broke up the skyline. The road crossed the estuary of the Jacobs River at Riverton and skirted the southern edge of the Longwood Forest.

The Longwood Ranges were a major gold-mining center in the latter half of the nineteenth century. After gold was discovered at Round Hill, one of the peaks in the range, in 1870, European miners began working claims in the area. Plagued by a lack of water for sluicing the gold-bearing gravel from the hillsides, the mining operation was slowly abandoned until Chinese miners arrived in 1880. The industrious Chinese patiently began re-working the unoccupied claims, winning the gold that the earlier miners had missed.

By 1882, the were five hundred Chinese living and working at Round Hill. The encampment was informally renamed Canton and was the largest Chinese community in New Zealand at the time. It was the southernmost settlement of Chinese in the world. Mining continued in the Longwood ranges until the 1950s when the gold finally played out.     

Te Waewae Bay and the ranges of Fiordland.

At Orepuki I met the coast. The long sweep of Te Waewae Bay stretched away towards the distant peaks of Fiordland. The lower limb of the sun was touching the ranges and casting shadows of their tall, ragged silhouettes out into the hazy air. I turned off the highway at Gemstone Beach and drove down a short, sandy track through dunes covered in marram grass to a rough parking place. A sign on a open gateway read: No Parking, Mental Health Patient Lives Here. I presumed it was some crude reference to the reaction the unseen resident would have if someone blocked his exit.

The waters of Te Waewae Bay lay blue and calm below the dunes. Long easy, lines of waves rolled in towards the beach and tumbled lazily onto the sand. The southern end of the beach was framed by crumbling cliffs of orange clay interspersed with black layers of peat. A lurid sign, featuring a hapless stick figure being crushed by angular blocks of falling from an overhang, warned people not to walk under the cliffs. Beyond it, the beach curved round to a low, grassy headland with a collection of shining cribs nestled in its lee.

Beyond Tūātapere, the landscape grew cold and wild. Heavy stands of native forest crowded the road. A white rime of frost clung to the hollows.

I continued west towards the setting sun, now almost invisible behind the snow-encrusted ramparts of the distant ranges. The road skirted the edge of the land, which fell abruptly to the curving beach in a series of lustrous green ridges, shimmering in the last burnished light of the day. Smoke curled upwards from farmhouse chimneys and herds of cows made their way languorously back to their paddocks after the afternoon milking.

Tūātapere lay smoundering in the shadow of the ranges. The sluggish Waiau River, framed with dense groves of flax, bordered the southern edge of the town. Pyramids of newly-felled logs stood in timber-yards on the main road.  A forestry town, Tūātapere has the look and feeling of an outpost; a last bulwark of civilization on the edge of Fiordland.

Tuatapere Town Sign (photo supplied)

Surprisingly, Tūātapere bills itself as “The Sausage Capital of Southland”, an odd claim to fame given its isolation. Although I didn’t feel like sampling whatever sausagey fare the town might offer, I was happy to see that Spark, in their infinite wisdom, had provided a free wifi connection next to the Four Square Supermarket. Feeling that it would be my last chance to avail myself of complementary data, I uploaded my Snapchat story, posted an Instagram photo of Gemstone Beach, and continued west into the gathering dusk.                       

Beyond Tūātapere, the landscape grew cold and wild. Heavy stands of native forest crowded the road. A white rime of frost clung to the hollows. The darkening ocean lay out beyond the edge of scrubby fields of bracken fern. The tarmac road gave way to gravel, potholed and riven with corrugations which made the suspension judder and shake. Shaggy Hereford-Angus beef cattle stared balefully from behind fences of barbed wire.

On a damp, slippery cutting, half clay and half gravel, I encountered a logging truck and trailer, fully-laden with logs, bogged in the road. The skidding wheels had carved up the road’s surface. A pair of unhappy truckies, both wearing shorts and high-vis vests, stood smoking beside the cab. The trailer was half off the road, and canted sideways into a ditch.

“Got any beers in the back?” asked one of the men hopefully as I pulled up beside them. I turned the engine off and replied that I didn’t.

“I’ve got a two tonne towing strop,” I said, facetiously, looking at the bogged rig. My tiny Subaru, as powerful as it was, would have no chance of helping. But it lightened their mood and, reaching into the glove compartment, I extracted a bag of lollies.

“Haven’t got any beer,” I said. “Have a licorice allsort though.”

They took two each and I asked what had happened.

“Fuckin’ thing lost traction halfway up,” said the younger of the two. “And when I tried to back back down to firmer ground the cunt slid off the fuckin’ road.”

His older companion blew a cloud of tobacco smoke into the frigid air and nodded. “Not the first time it’s happened just here,” he said, as if to allay the younger driver’s obvious embarrassment. His rig, another truck and trailer, fully loaded with logs, stood at the bottom of the cutting.  

We introduced each other and I offered to take them back out to where they could get cell phone coverage to call for help.

“Nah mate,” said James, the younger driver. “We’ve radioed out for another truck to come over from town and pull it out. Just gotta wait for it to get here.”

“Where the fuck you going at this time of day anyway?” asked Dave, the other man.

I explained that I wanted to drive as far west as it was possible to go and that I planned to sleep in the back of my truck. Both men looked at me as if I was nuts and, indeed, it did sound preposterous, stupid even.

Dave gave me some vague directions to follow, told me not to go through a certain gate which might get locked behind me, and we discussed whether or not it was even possible for me to get past James’ rig. I left them standing there in the twilight, rolling cigarettes and swearing, and squeezed past the mud-splattered wheels of the truck, my own little rig half off the road in the long grass. At the bottom of the hill I reached the end of the public road at the Hump Ridge Track carpark.

As I drove deeper into the forest it became progressively darker and colder. In places the road was flooded, the surface of the water frozen into a thick layer of ice.

The Hump Ridge Track was first cut in the late 1890s to provide access for the logging of the vast tracts of native forest which grew along the southern coast of Fiordland. The track was a herculean effort of ingenuity and hard work. Leaving aside the violence and vagaries of the weather in this part of the South Island, where rainfall is measured in metres, the landscape posed some huge challenges for the builders of the track. Massive rivers which flooded often had to be bridged. Deep, sheer-sided ravines needed to be spanned with timber viaducts. The freezing winters, the frequent rain, and the cold winds which blew almost constantly, must have made living and working in this extremity of the world an exercise in pure masochism.

But the payoffs were immense. The nascent country needed building material, and the native forest species, especially kahikatea, rimu, and matai, yielded exceptionally strong and durable timber. A timber mill to process the felled trees was established in 1920 at Port Craig, forty-five kilometres along the coast from where I was now. At the time, it was the largest sawmill in New Zealand and employed two hundred workers. The ravines were spanned by some of the biggest viaducts ever built in New Zealand. The largest of these, the Percy Burn Viaduct, is 125 metres long and 36 metres high.

The viaduct is still standing today and is the one of the biggest wooden viaducts in the Southern Hemisphere. It was fully restored in the 1990s when the then Labour government established the Hump Ridge Walking Track. Although at the time the walking track, which cost over three million dollars to build, was criticised as a vanity project for the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, it has since become a popular and well-used walk. Tourism has, in fact, revitalised the Tuatapere area and people from all over the world come to do the three-day Hump Ridge walk.

Beside the car park, a battered pipe and netting gate blocked the road. A hand-painted sign, similar to the one I’d seen at Gemstone Beach, warning of the mental state of the owner, announced that there was a charge of five dollars to use the road beyond this point. A box made from boiler plate with a slot cut into it was, presumably, where you deposited the cash if you were dumb enough to be fooled by this.

As I was reading the sign, a battered red car, its headlights gleaming dully in the damp air, slithered down the greasy track and pulled up on the opposite side of the gate. I dutifully swung the gate open and waved at the two grim-faced, bearded men inside. They drove through without a glance or a thank you, the miserable fuckers. Perhaps they were logging contractors, following the trucks out after a day of felling trees. Maybe they were hikers, or dope growers. Hell, they could have been murderers heading home after disposing of a body, a job which, incidentally, would be relatively easy out here in the empty, forbidding wilderness which lay ahead of me.

In any case, I thought, they weren’t Irish tree fellers…because there was only two of them. Giggling at my own wit, I drove through the gate (without paying), closed it, and headed west into the wilds of Fiordland.  

Fiordland National Park, the eastern edge of which I was now, somewhat tentatively, driving into, occupies the entire south-west corner of the South Island: an area of around thirteen thousand square kilometres. That’s roughly the same size as the American state of Connecticut.

Riven by fjords, the drowned valleys of former glaciers, and clad with almost impenetrable rainforest, Fiordland (the name is derived from a variant spelling of fjord) is a wilderness, virtually devoid of human habitation. With the exception of Milford Sound, the Milford Track, and a few other tourist hotspots, Fiordland is empty. Access is limited to helicopters and, in the case of the rumpled outer edge of the island, where the full force of the Southern Ocean collides with the land, sturdy and well-equipped boats.

“when vegetation rioted upon the earth and the big trees were kings.”

Trawlers and lobster boats are, essentially, the only craft which ever visit the isolated sounds on the south-west tip of the island. The sounds have evocative names that conjure images of wild seas, wild country and tough explorers. Many of the landforms – Dusky Sound, Breaksea Sound, Wet Jacket Arm, Acheron Passage – on the outer edge of Fiordland were named by Captain James Cook as he sailed The Endeavour slowly southabout the island. My favourite of the names he conferred is Doubtful Sound, which got its title because Cook recorded in his ship’s log that it was “doubtless, a sound.”

Beyond the gateway, the road deteriorated into a rutted, muddy track. The passage of countless logging trucks had broken through the gravel surface and created long stretches of mud. Bracken fern grew right to the edges of the road, and the snapped, truncated stumps of trees leaned over above.

But I’m no stranger to rough, four-wheel-drive tracks and I had absolute faith in my little Forester to make it through. Besides, I thought, the murderers/loggers in the red car had just driven along here, so it couldn’t be too bad. Nevertheless, I pulled the transfer lever upwards into the Lo-range position.

At a fork in the road I chose the left-hand option. The right-hand track led through an open gate with a heavy chain and padlock on it. This, I presumed, was the gate that Dave had warned me not to go through. I descended an escarpment clad in a plantation of eucalyptus, their stringy bark hanging in long tendrils from their tall, slim trunks. Their presence here, in this cold, wet place seemed incongruous, vastly at odds with the hot, dusty, brightly-lit Outback country of Australia, their natural habitat.

Into the West.

As I drove deeper into the forest it became progressively darker and colder. In places the road was flooded, the surface of the water frozen into a thick layer of ice. Along both sides of the road, the bracken, grass and shrubbery was rimed with a heavy white coating of frost.

My headlights cast a feeble glow into the frigid twilight, halfway between daylight and darkness, ahead of me. To keep my spirits up, I selected a Spotify playlist of electronic dance music on my phone. As the kick-drum thud of an Armin van Buuren song boomed from the speakers I crossed a black river, hemmed by dark, overhanging trees, on a bridge of hewn logs. On the far side, I crested a ridge and saw, for the first time, the vastness of the landscape into which I was heading.

In Heart of Darkness, his novella set in the jungles of the Congo Basin, Joseph Conrad describes a time “when vegetation rioted upon the earth and the big trees were kings.” In Conrad’s day, the late nineteenth century, the big trees would still have been here. Now, they were all gone. The sawmillers of Port Craig had taken care of that. But now, after a hundred years of being left alone, vegetation was once again rioting upon the Earth. Before me lay a rumpled expanse of regrowth forest, stretching away towards the distant Hauroko Range, now just a vague snowy skyline on the western horizon.

I had expected to be able to see the coastline bending away to the south-west. But the ocean was gone, replaced by a seascape of forest and the dark heave of the Hump Ridge. I stopped the truck, turned off the music, the engine and the lights, and stepped out into the motionless evening. In the silence I could hear the whisper of an unseen river in its bed of stones. Somewhere, a stag roared, guttural and blood-curdling, like the sound a dragon would make. Behind me, a big full moon, the colour of chardonnay, was rising through the trees.      

I thought of the lines from the poem Dominion by the New Zealand poet A.R.D. Fairburn:

and the night sky, closing over, covers like a hand
the barbaric yawn of a young and wrinkled land

I stood there in that vast space, feeling very small and alone.  I was as though I was about to step off the edge of the Earth. No one knew where I was. Dave and James probably wouldn’t remember me passing by. The coves in the red car had paid me no mind. I hadn’t even put five bucks in the boilerplate box. If something went wrong – a flat battery, getting stuck – it would mean a long walk and an expensive rescue. The forest suddenly seemed vaguely threatening in its cold silence: aloof, implacable, utterly impersonal.

It was time to let discretion be the better part of valour. I had accomplished my objective, which was to drive as far west as it is possible to go in the South Island. To go on, though mildly heroic, was, at best, a bit pointless. At worst, it was just plain stupid. I returned to the warmth of my truck, with its thudding music and its heater. Turning round on the slippery ground I was at pains not to go too close to the edge of the road. To get bogged now would’ve sucked big time.

Rainforest Moon.

Driving back out of the forest, the moon played games with me, sometimes appearing to the right of the road, sometimes winking through the treetops on the left. In the darkness, with the road unfolding ahead of me in the headlight, my spatial awareness became unsteady. It was only the rainforest moon, hanging like a beacon in the eastern sky that kept me on track.

I re-crossed the log bridge, skirted the frozen pool, passed by the now locked forestry gate and descended to the five dollar road gate. No one was around. There were no lights on in the nearby farmhouse. I closed the gate like a sneak thief and drove away. Up the hill, the logging trucks were gone. All that remained were the gouges in the road where James’ truck had been bogged.

Excerpt from The Greenstone Water

Sgt. Dan the Creamota Man

The past is, of course, another country. They do things differently there. 

When I was a kid, back in the seventies, our wintertime breakfast of choice was Creamota, a sort of sweet, creamy, rolled oat porridge made at the Flemings mill in Gore. The Creamoata mascot was Sergeant Dan, a plucky amalgam of a boy scout and an ANZAC soldier. There was the Stirring Times Creamota Recipe Book, in which Sergeant Dan showed you how to cook all manner of yummy things using, of course, Creamoata as a base ingredient. You could get Sergeant Dan recipe cards, so mum could make such things as Sergeant Dan’s Sweetheart of Wheat Custard, and join a club called Sergeant Dan’s Creamota Corps. It was a simpler time back then, a time when you actually cooked your porridge on the stove, in an aluminium pot guaranteed to give you Alzheimer’s in later years. There was none of your thirty-seconds-in-the-microwave nonsense.

The old Flemings Mill, Gore.

The Flemings Mill still dominates the skyline of Gore. I could see it as I drove into town on State Highway One, past the giant statue of a leaping trout and the billboard advertising the Gold Guitar Awards. The wide main street had angle parking and the kind of deeply-verandahed shops typical of colonial towns, where the sun and the rain beats down and perambulating shoppers need shelter from the elements.

I parked in front of a solid, two-storey Victorian edifice with the legend H&J Smiths Progressive Stores emblazoned in plaster above its pedimented windows, and set off to find some lunch. Along the street there was the usual assortment of corporate frontages and local retailers, as well as a few empty shop, like missing teeth in a worn smile. Changes in retail patterns wrought by the likes of malls and online shopping have been hard on rural towns all over the South Island. But still, Gore’s main street had a cheerful, if somewhat tattered confidence, and in the bright, cold southern light it felt friendly and prosperous.  

And then I thought, “Well fuck this”…

I took a window table in Café Ambience and sat doodling over my notes as I watched the people passing by outside. The café was warm and crowded. The windows were a little steamed up, which added to the feeling of coziness, like a farmhouse on a winter’s day. My quiche and salad were superb and, in typical farming fashion, was a big enough meal to sustain a shearer through to afternoon smoko. The café had wifi, of course, so I checked out what was happening on Facebook and did a Google search for information about Sergeant Dan.

Back out on the Gore-Mataura Highway, the town’s unimaginatively-named main street, I walked up to the Railway Station, a solid two-storey Edwardian building of brick and limestone. A white-painted statue of a Romney ram stood on a plinth beside the station. The statue pays homage to the role played by the Romney sheep breed in the economy of Southland.

Originally bred in the Romney Marsh region of Kent, in South-east England, the first recorded shipment of Romneys to New Zealand was in 1853, when nineteen ewes and a ram were sent aboard the SS Cornwall to a stud in Wellington. A dual meat and wool breed, Romneys were soon recognised as a breed perfectly suited for New Zealand’s relatively cold and wet climate. Southland, with its boggy soils, cold winds and steep hills, was ideal Romney country and the breed became the  Southland

Stubborn, thick-willed and stupid, even by sheep standards, Romney’s are often referred to as “boof-heads” because of their woolley faces and obdurate attitude. As shepherds, working with the noble Merinoes, we looked down our noses at Romneys, considering them, and all other sheep breeds for that matter, as inferior. As my old boss Peter Kerr used to say, “There are only two kinds of sheep, Merinoes and others.”   

But regardless of whether or not we smug shepherds approved of them, by the nineteen eighties, Romneys made up fifty-five percent on the country’s flock.

Across the railway tracks from the Romney statue stood the imposing bulk of the Flemings Mill, a mural of Sergeant Dan adorning the front wall. With his wide-brimmed slouch hat, shouldered rifle and shining boots, Sergeant Dan stood to attention, peering out over the town. Originally created in 1915 by Charlotte Lawlor, who worked for the advertising agency that handled the Flemings account, it seemed to me now, with the cynicism of age, that Sergeant Dan’s protruding belly, large buttocks and rouged cheeks were a little at odds with the rugged, tractor-driving, can-do, soldierly farm boy persona we attributed to him as kids.

Sgt. Dan.

The past is, of course, another country. They do things differently there. As it happens, the Flemings mill, Creamota, and Sergeant Dan are all things from that foreign country known as the past. Flemings was taken over by the Australian food giant Goodman Fielder in 2006. Creamoata, along with several other Flemings products familiar to all Kiwis, Thistle Rolled Oats, and Sweet Heart-o Wheat, were absorbed into the Uncle Toby’s brand and disappeared. The Gore mill itself closed in 2008.

But, I was happy to see, the name of Sergeant Dan lives on in Sgt. Dan Stockfeeds. It was emblazoned on the side of a truck that was loading bulk pig food, or something, from an auger protruding from the front of the building.The mill that once produced the breakfasts of countless Kiwi kids now grinds up Primo Calf Meal, Porki Pig Complete Mash, Velvet Plus Deer Nuts (childish snigger) and something called Goat Pellets. There was some sort of neat symmetry in all of this.

Standing there beside the railway tracks, in the bright, cold Southland sunshine, I felt a brief pang of nostalgia. I thought of those long-ago winter days of hot breakfasts cooked by mum on the stove while she made our school lunches and we listened to 3ZC on the wireless. And then I thought, “Well fuck this”, walked back to my truck and headed west towards the uttermost end of the earth.

Extracted from The Greenstone Water, by fajB.

The House of Blakiston

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Fac bene nec dubitans. (Do well and doubt not.)

I come from Geraldine. Someone had to. My hometown, Geraldine, on New Zealand’s South Island, doesn’t have any notable citizens. We can’t lay claim to being the birthplace of a great politician, or an eminent scientist, or even some famous deviant, serial killer or chef. The closest thing Geraldine has to a celebrity is Jordan Luck: frontman of the band The Exponents. And even then, Mr Luck is actually from Woodbury, five miles west of Geraldine. He did, of course, attend Geraldine High School, my alma mater. He was, in fact, a year ahead of me, and his sister, Tamsin, and I were in the same year. But although The Exponents are an iconic New Zealand band, their fame, unfortunately, hardly extends beyond our shores.    

Furthermore, the South Island of New Zealand doesn’t exactly occupy a prime position on the globe. Our island is close to the uttermost end of the Earth.  It’s about as far south as you can go on the planet. Go much further and you start to go north again. Go beyond Bluff, the southernmost town in the British Commonwealth, and the next upright creature you’ll run into is an Adelie penguin.  That’s how far south we are.

I come from Geraldine. Someone had to.

As well as coming from the arse-end of the planet, I also come from a long line of travellers: restless souls who roamed the globe searching for adventure and a better life. Some of them were seekers of political change, such as John Blakiston (1603-1649), whose signature appears on the death warrant of Charles the First, executed by Oliver Cromwell and his henchmen – of which JB was one, the traitorous bastard  – during the English Civil War.

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The Death Warrant of Charles I. John Blakiston’s signature and seal is second from the top of column three.

My great-grandfather, Charles Robert Blakiston came to New Zealand in 1860 having first tried his luck in the Australian goldfields.  When he arrived in the settlement of Christchurch (which is today New Zealand’s second largest city) he traded a horse for a plot of land which he subsequently sold to the fledgeling city for a fortune.  He ended up a successful lawyer and member of the New Zealand Provincial Government. His son, Arthur John Blakiston, born in 1862, managed a high country sheep station for forty years and lived long enough to be photographed holding me as a five-month-old baby in 1963.

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My father Arthur Norman Hunter Blakiston, 64; my great-uncle Arthur John Blakiston, 103; Ferguson Arthur James Blakiston, 5 months.

Another of my great-uncles, Thomas Wright Blakiston, was an eminent explorer, soldier and ornithologist. He fought in the Crimean War, was on the Palliser Expedition which mapped the border between Canada and the United States, explored the Yangtze River during the Taiping Rebellion, and lived in Japan’s northern-most island, Hokkaido, for 21 years.

Then there was Lionel Blakiston, Thomas’s cousin.  Lionel was a British telegraph engineer who emigrated to Rhodesia in the 1880s and was subsequently killed in the Mashona Uprising.  Upon hearing that Mashona tribesmen had taken a group of women and children hostage, he rode to their rescue, bringing them home to friendly territory but getting mortally wounded in the process.  A street in Harare, in present-day Zimbabwe, bears his name along with a school, whose coat of arms is that of the Blakiston Family: a cock gules above a bar argent.

In 1760, my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Matthew Blakiston was elected Lord Mayor of London.  He lived for that year, as all Lords Mayor did at the time, in the Mansion House, a grand, collonaded residence opposite the Bank of England.  His wife, Emily, is the only woman ever to have given birth in the Mansion House. Lords Mayor were usually older men for whom the post was the final, crowning achievement at the end of long, successful careers.  Blakiston, however, in keeping with a family trait of marrying and producing offspring late in life, was still in the process of creating a family when he became Lord Mayor and his son, Matthew, was born at the Mansion House that year.  

For his efforts as head of the City of London, Matthew Blakiston was created a Baronet in 1763, exactly 200 years before I was born.  He died in 1791 and was buried in the graveyard of St. Martins-in-the-Fields.

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Sir Matthew Blakistob, Bt. and his wife Maria.

The Baronetcy is a hereditary knighthood: a “Sir” rather than a Lord, and not a peer. Although the term “baronet” has medieval origins, the modern Baronetcy was established in 1611 by King James 1 as a method with which to fund his Irish wars.  The idea was that any man who could provide the Exchequer with the money necessary to keep thirty soldiers in the field for three years would be granted a Baronetcy. The title would be handed down from father to son, thus ensuring a continual supply of cash to fund whatever war happened to be going on at the time.

 Fac bene nec dubitans…Do well and doubt not. 

This proved to be a nice little earner for a while; at least, that is, until the sons succeeding to the title began to run out of money.  Just because the title of Baronet had been granted to a wealthy great-grandfather didn’t necessarily guarantee the family fortune would still be intact for his great-grandson to invest in dubious overseas campaigns.  The Baronetcy, therefore, lapsed in its role as a revenue supply for the army and became simply another hereditary title.

The Baronetcy awarded to Matthew Blakiston was passed down from father to son for seven generations until it hit a dead end.  The 7th Baronet, Arthur Frederick Blakiston, a

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The 7th Baronet, Sir Arthur Frederick Blakiston.

decorated First World War hero, member of the first Barbarians rugby team and Master of the Wylie Valley Hunt, died “without issue” (i.e. without children). It seemed that the title would become extinct.  But the tireless heralds at the Royal College of Arms, keepers of the arcane language and symbols of the realm, were on the case. They traced the male line to my father, Arthur Norman Hunter Blakiston, who acceded to the title of 8th Baronet in 1974.  

Dad never set any store in airs and graces.  A privately-educated, university-trained solicitor he was nevertheless a rough diamond.  He called a spade a fucking shovel and to him, a man’s worth was proved by his actions, not by his breeding.  The title of Baronet was the absolute antithesis of the egalitarian principles he lived by. But he was a perceptive man and he realized that one day, his eldest son might have a use for the title, so he reluctantly accepted it, and that was that.  

He seldom spoke of it.  His friends occasionally ribbed him about it.  My mother’s friends began calling her Lady Blakiston and our house became known as Sandybrook Hall, after the family seat in Ashbourne, Derbyshire.  At school, I was sometimes teased about it. My best friend, Keats, used to call me Sir Bastipol Bock for reasons known only to him. But it was nothing that caused even the remotest bit of hurt and the perpetrators would soon tire of hassling me and find some other unfortunate to pick on.

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The 8th Baronet, Sir Arthur Norman Hunter Blakiston and his wife Mary, Lady Blakiston. (My Parents.)

I was born at 11:20AM on February 19th, 1963.  It was a Tuesday.  It was the last month of summer in the Southern Hemisphere.  According to “The Internet”, I had been conceived on May 29th the previous year!!  That same February day, Seal Henry Olusegun Olumide Adeola Samuel was born.  He would go on to become the British singer Seal who would write a song called Crazy with includes the lyrics: “in a sky full of people only some want to fly; isn’t that crazy…”  

We lived in a big old house at 28 McKenzie Street, Geraldine.  The house had originally been a boarding house. It had big rooms, high ceilings and a long hallway, six feet wide and thirty feet long, running down the middle.  Myself, my brother Joe (fourteen months younger than me) and our friends would build blanket forts in the hall on wet days and throw marbles at each other. We had our own rooms and there were enough spare rooms for us to have winter and summer rooms: warm rooms in winter and cooler rooms in summer.  The red, corrugated iron roof amplified the sound of rain and one of my favourite sounds is still the sound of rain falling on a tin roof.

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The house where I grew up, “Wynwood” at 28 McKenzie Street, Geraldine.

Our house stood on an acre of land in the centre of Geraldine.  There was a hen coop, an orchard, a couple of fields where we kept our pet lambs, and a big oak tree where we built a rambling tree hut.  Across the road, the Waihi River chattered in its bed of stones, hemmed on both sides by willows and sycamores. We tickled trout, built dams, rafted the brown floods, and swam in the green pools of the Waihi (it’s pronounced “why-hee”).  On the hill beyond the river, Talbot Forest (the Bush, as we called it) was a venue for wargames, hide and seek, and clandestine cigarettes.

Geraldine in the 1970s was a backwater.  It serviced the local farmland; old folks retired there.  In summer, the sun would melt the tar on the main street and the grass would be burnt brown for months.  Winters were harsh, or seemed to be, and I remember biking to school in shorts even in the hardest frosts.  There were WW2 veterans in our town: battle-scarred, lame old men with haunted eyes. Women wore floral dresses and men wore hats.  It was the same as every small town in the world. It was a colonial town, out on the edge of the British Commonwealth.

I was a cub scout.   I hated sports. I ran in the cross country team because it allowed me to get away by myself.  I was never a team player. I was a frail, sickly boy. I got bullied a bit at school but nothing serious, nothing scarring.  My friend Steve Keats was a runner too and we started climbing hills to keep fit. That was the beginning of my love for the hills and for the wilderness.  Our heroes were mountaineers – Chris Bonnington, Sir Edmund Hillary – and our bibles were accounts of epic climbs and disastrous expeditions.

My mother was a church-goer; my father wasn’t.  He set store in a man’s self-reliance. He hated pretence and people who considered themselves above others because of birth or money.  He was a man’s man. He’d been educated at a prestigious boy’s school and could quote Shakespeare and speak Latin. He swore like a fucking trooper and used to say that he hadn’t learnt a new swear word since he was seven.   And, like his son would be, he was a loner.

Mum went to St. Mary’s Anglican church most Sundays.  Anglicanism is a very English faith: quiet vicars, ornate churches with stained glass windows, a subdued, reverential communion, no fire-and-brimstone sermons.  Both my brother and I were “confirmed” meaning we were able to take communion (that is drink the blood of Christ and eat his body). It all sounds so weird and arcane now.  I didn’t believe a word of it. But we went along for mum’s sake. We both did altar boy duty on alternate Sundays once a month. You dressed in black vestments which smelled of body odour, and helped the Vicar out with the communion.  I would sit in the carved wooden chair at the side of the altar and pick out rock-climbing routes across the vaulted wooden ceiling. We worked out that if you volunteered for the early 8AM service (which no one wanted to do early on a Sunday) you’d be out of there in forty minutes.  The 10:30 service lasted an hour and a half!

My father died in 1977 when I was fourteen.  He was seventy-eight years old. Students of arithmetic will notice that he would have been sixty-four when I was born and they are right.  He was sixty-five when my brother Joe came along. That same family peculiarity, of having children late in life, that had seen Matthew Blakiston’s wife produce the Mansion House’s only baby, had surfaced again.

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The 9th Baronet, Sir Ferguson Arthur James Blakiston. 

It meant that instead of being born in the 1920s, as would have been the case if dad had taken the usual route and started a family in his twenties, I grew up in the 1970s.  It meant that instead of being a fan of Bing Crosby or Cole Porter, I was able to become a fan of Pink Floyd, Genesis, My Chemical Romance and John Denver. It meant that instead of having to go off to World War Two and have my brains blown out for King and Country as my Uncle Jim (my mother’s brother) did, I was able to watch the Gulf War on CNN.  It meant that I would be able to be a part of the technological revolution created by the internet and social media. And it meant that in the year 1988, instead of being a grandfather of seventy-something years, I was able, as the 9th Baronet of the City of London, to set off out into the world and put into practice the family motto, Fac bene nec dubitans…Do well and doubt not.

Maps

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Maps are fascinating. Their intricate detail and their arcane symbols always seem to whisper “come and find out.” 

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Michelin Central and Southern Africa.

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The heart of Africa. Once, in Kisangani, we embarked on a boat down the Congo River.

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Western Turkey and the Gallipoli Peninsula. The black line represents part of our journey through Turkey in 1990, from east to west through the centre of the country then back along the Black Sea coast.

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China: The Middle Kingdom.

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Indonesia.