Sean, Thierry and I made an early start to climb up to the summit of Keli Mutu¹ in time for the sunrise. We left the Losman² at 2:50 AM and walked up the road to where a path led down to a small stream and a waterfall then began to climb steeply up the mountainside. Thierry set a cracking pace up the narrow path which initially led up through farmland and a couple of small villages, still asleep at this hour. We had torches to help light our way but the moon was almost full and gave plenty of light to see by.
After about 20 minutes of manic climbing, I had to stop for a breather as the pace Thierry was setting was too fast for me. Sean went on but stopped up ahead and waited for me while Thierry carried on without us, evidentially trying to prove something or other to himself!
Sean and I reached the summit road at the six-kilometre mark at 3:40 AM and it took us another hour to walk from there up the seven kilometres of easy-graded tarmac to the summit of Keli Mutu. The air was cool without being cold and it was quite a pleasant climb under the soft silver glow of the moon and the brightest stars shining in the violet sky.
Further up the mountain, we entered a forest. The moonlight threw psychedelic patterns of tree ferns and bamboo down onto the surface of the road. As we approached the summit, the road began to level out and the rainforest gave way to pines. The air was tainted with the unmistakable smell of sulphur. The trees began to thin and open out onto a barren plateau. Above us and to the right, silhouetted against the sky, was the crater rim. We climbed up and peered over the edge, down into the pit where a lake of mercury shimmered in the moonlight.
The entire scene was surreal, other-worldly. Beneath our feet was a skin of loose, rubbly scoria and pumice, blasted out of the crater (Kelimutu last erupted in 1968) then eroded and scoured by wind and water, and dotted with stunted bushes. The crater’s edge stood jagged and abrupt, dropping almost vertically to the limpid pool of the crater lake. Above us, the sky was a velvet dome, distant and cold yet seemingly close enough to touch. The silence was almost complete save for the gentle murmur of the wind across the volcano’s summit and it was easy to believe the local legend which says that the spirits of the dead find refuge beneath the surface of Keli Mutu’s crater lakes.
Thierry, waiting for us on the very top of the mountain, signalled to us with his torch and we made our way across the summit plateau to a concrete platform overlooking the two main crater lakes. It was chilly on the top of the mountain and the wind rapidly cooled the sweat we had worked up on the climb as we sat in silence and watched the stars begin to fade. The sun flew its colours on the eastern horizon; to the west, towering thunderclouds, piled into the stratosphere and lit from within by lightning, glowed pink and purple.
As sunrise approached the peace and solitude of the volcano’s summit was shattered by the arrival of two bus-loads of tourists including Linda, Trish, Ed and Michelle. As it turned out, the sunrise itself wasn’t particularly spectacularly. But given the location, atop a volcano with the water of two crater lakes changing colour from silver to green to grey and, finally, to a pale shade of turquoise, it was an amazing spectacle. Behind us, also in a deep, sheer-sided pit, the third of Keli Mutu’s crater lakes (Tiwu Ata Bupu – the “Lake of the Old People”) was a sinister black, its water opaque and glossy, its viscous surface hiding secrets known only to the spirits of the dead.
When the pressure of the tourist crowd and the jabbering of the bus drivers and flunkies became too much we moved from the main summit to another vantage point on the very lip of the crater where a narrow point jutted out above the jagged ridge of crumbling rock separating two of the crater lakes. The colours of the two lakes were almost identical but the northernmost lake carried a slick of poisonous-looking sulphur and, indeed, the water would probably be acidic enough to peel off the skin of anyone unfortunate enough to fall into it.
We took turns standing out on the point for photos then Thierry, Ed, Michelle, Linda and I set off to walk around the path leading along the crater rim past a sign which read: “Danger ouse. Do not go.” The path wasn’t in the least bit dangerous although if you happened to step over the edge there would have been no stopping a plunge of 100 feet into the acidic water of the lake.
It would have been nice to spend all day exploring up there on the summit of Keli Mutu, but Linda and I had to get back down to Moni⁴ in time to catch a ride back to Ende⁵. So, we said goodbye to Thierry on the rim of the volcano and it seemed an appropriate place for friends who have shared such adventures⁶ to part: with handshakes high on a volcanic mountain with a shimmering crater lake behind us and an endless sky above.
We set off down the road through the trees and caught a last glimpse of Thierry on the ridge above us. The walk down took two hours and was pleasant on the upper slopes but by the time we reached Moni at 9 am I was quite worn out. We hastily packed our gear and caught a passing passenger truck that was headed down to the town of Ende. The trip was quite speedy being downhill and we were back in the Losman Ikhlas in time for a mid-day meal. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and were in bed early as our flight to Kupang, in Timor, was scheduled for 7 am next morning.
¹Keli Mutu (also spelt Kelimutu)is a 1,639-metre volcano on the island of Flores in the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago.
²A small, family-run hotel.
³We had met up with a bunch of other travellers on our journey through the Indonesian archipelago.
⁴We’d spent the night in this tiny, isolated village at the foot of Keli Mutu.
⁵Ende was the nearest town to Keli Mutu and it’s airport was where we would fly further east to the island of Timor where we had booked flights across to Darwin in Australia.
⁶Since meeting this eclectic group of travellers we had climbed the volcano Batur and visited the dead bodies of Trunyan on Bali: snorkelled off the dragon island of Komodo; seen a boat full of people sunk by a whirlpool off the island of Flores; witnessed the prehistoric spectacle of the Komodo Dragons dismembering a goat; and travelled through the islands scattered like green and black jewels across the blue endlessness of Eastern Indonesia)
“When vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings…” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
North of Westport, State Highway 67 followed the coast on a narrow, scrubby littoral. The outer edge of the Denniston Plateau, where vast amounts of coal were hewn from the earthquake-rumpled landscape during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dropped almost vertically to the road, clad with wind-raked trees combed flat against the scalp of the land. The farmland was thin, hungry and tired-looking. Dilapidated houses, surrounded by scrapped machines and broken-down cars stared vacantly out at the sea. Abandoned sway-backed sheds, their skeletons of timber bones protruding from beneath warped and sun-faded weatherboards, stood beneath windbreak clumps of gaunt, twisted macrocarpas. Skinny cattle peered at me from behind bent and rusty farm gates tied closed with bits of plastic string.
At Mokihinui, the road turned inland, crossed a big river via a rattling bridge of silver-painted steel girders, then climbed in a series of zig-zags and switchbacks across the forested seaward slopes of the Paparoa Range. The heavy rainforest crowded the road. Gigantic matai trees, each one an ark of epiphytes, moss and dangling supplejack vines, towered overhead. I drove with the windows down and over the sound of the wheels on the road and the dulcet tones of the narrator of the audiobook I was listening to (Winston Churchill’s biography of the Duke of Marlborough) I could hear a chorus of birdsong: tui, grey warblers and bellbirds. The warm, sweet smell of the forest filled the air.
Below the road, the lower slopes of the hills, stripped, denuded, burned, slashed and scoured by generations of miners and woodcutters, were clad in an insubstantial skin of regrowth manuka and gorse. On the higher slopes, inaccessible to the axe and the steamshovel, the forest grew in a heavy, natural abundance. But in the white, skeletal branches of dead trees scattered liberally through the living vegetation, I could see the effects of another man-made scourge: possums.
Introduced into New Zealand from Australia in 1837 to establish a fur industry, the common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) has run amok in the tasty larder of New Zealand’s rainforests. Apart from the damage they do to bird species by eating their eggs, the nocturnal and highly mobile possums munch through an estimated 21,000 tonnes of native foliage every night. They are especially fond of the flowers of pōhutakawa and rātā trees: iconic species of New Zealand flora. Hunting and trapping only goes part of the way towards controlling these cute but rapacious critters, so the Department of Conservation (DoC) has gone hard out against them with a poison called sodium fluoroacetate.
1080, the brand name given to the synthetic form of sodium fluoroacetate (FCH₂CO₂Na occurs naturally in at least forty plants native to Australia, Brazil and Africa), is widely used by DoC to control introduced pests such as rats, stoats, ferrets and, our voracious possum friends. In the almost inaccessible ranges of the Kahurangi National Park, the poison is spread in pellet form using helicopters with spinning applicators slung beneath them. The applicators’ predictable ballistics allow for precise control of the application rate and a very strict code of practice is used by the pest control authorities to monitor and control the application of 1080. The pellets themselves are composed mostly of fat mixed with cinnamon and very small doses of sodium fluoroacetate. The poison breaks down easily after rain, does not remain viable in the soil and does not pollute or poison waterways. Admittedly, it is, for some, reason, highly toxic to dogs but to humans it is relatively benign unless a large quantity is consumed.
But despite the very well researched benefits and safety of 1080, a sizable fringe of idiots, egged on by spurious data shared on social media by various organisations opposed to its use, are in constant revolt against 1080. Hunters, who consider New Zealand’s forests and mountains to be their private domain, think that possums, deer, rabbits and himalayan thar are best controlled by shooting. However, the impossibility of overcoming the immense difficulties posed by terrain and population numbers makes this a difficult argument to justify. Conspiracy theories abound about “government-controlled” 1080 factories and moves to eliminate the local fur-gathering industries supposedly propping up the economies of small, impoverished towns.
Mostly, though, the opposition to 1080 is composed of the usual mix of well-meaning but mis-informed people whipped up into a frenzy by agitators with a motive of some kind. Regardless of this, however, as I descended through the forests cloaking the serrated hills I passed several vehicles towing the stainless steel applicator drums used to apply 1080 from the air.
The road descended onto the Karamea Plains, an altogether different landscape to the hard-scrabble farmland I had passed through on the southern side of the Karamea Hills. It was almost as though, having traversed the blocking shoulder of the Karamea Bluff, which separates the northern tip of Westland from the rest of the coast, I had entered a new country: Paradise beyond the Rubicon.
The wide littoral, backed by fluted and scalloped ranges beneath a blue infinity of sky daubed with brush-strokes of pure white cirrus, was fertile, neat and fecund. The sunlight shimmered in lush paddocks of ryegrass. Sleek herds of Jersey and Freisian dairy cows lolled contentedly in the fields. In massive glasshouses beside the road, incongruous in such an isolated place, the entire New Zealand supply of tomatoes used by the McDonald’s hamburger chain, are grown. In the warm, sub-tropical climate of Karamea, the cost of heating the glasshouses is so low that it offsets the cost of transporting the tomatoes out to Westport and beyond.
Karamea was almost empty. A tourist town as well as a farming town, the COVID-19 epidemic had shut off the town’s supply of tour buses, campers, cyclists and backpackers. All that remained were the local farmers and as it was mid-afternoon, milking time, even the farmers were busy elsewhere. I drove up Karamea’s short main street and continued north along a narrow road where the farm fences edged the tarmac and viridian grass waved in the wind. Small rivers of tea-coloured water ran down from the distant hills between banks heavy with flax. Dunes of pure white sand glistened along the edges of the seaward pastures.
I turned off onto a narrow gravel road leading up into the hills bordering the hidden Oparara Basin. The road twisted and wound up through the forest and I drove slowly in low range, mindful of risk posed by oncoming traffic on the blind and corrugated corners. After half an hour or so, the road opened into a car park fringed by rimu trees. There were new toilets and some interpretation panels beneath a roof of coloured iron. A couple of hopeful wekas prowled the periphery in search of tourist tidbits. A tui sang mellifluously in the treetops.
The road continued over a low bridge, twined through some low scrub and emerged at another carpark. A plasterer was working on another, smaller set of toilets: his old Ford Falcon station wagon laden with trowels, paint and buckets of Tradefix 40 plaster, a somewhat dissonant sight so far out in the bush. There were more wekas patrolling the perimeter of the car park. With their stocky bodies, brown plumage, long triangular beaks and powerful clawed feet they resembled a gang of thuggish chickens. Two of them sauntered over and fixed me with bright, red eyes, daring me to throw them something to eat. I declined the invitation so one of them pecked my foot as I turned to walk up to the Box Canyon Cave.
The Oparara Basin sits on a bed of 350 million year old granite overlain with a thin skin of limestone laid down around 35 million years ago. The limestone varies in thickness from 15 to 60 meters and is in turn covered with a rind of blue-grey mudstone. Saturated by an annual rainfall of up to six metres, the limestone of the Oparara area has been extensively eroded into a number of features – pinnacles, caves, arch and sinkholes – typically found in Karst landscapes such as that around Guilin in southern China. Extensive tectonic activity, along with changes in sea level, have isolated the basin whose paleozoology offers a unique record of many now-extinct species that once roamed the surrounding valleys and hills. The first intact skeleton of a Haast’s Eagle (Hieraaetus moorei), the largest eagle known to have existed, along with the skeletons of Lyall’s wren (Traversia lyalli), a tiny, flightless wren, and several species of Moa (Dinornis) have all been found in the caverns of the Oparara.
Leaving the wekas to sulk, I followed a short gravel path to the foot of a flight of wooden stairs which ascended the punga-clad remains of an ancient rockfall to the mouth of a cave slotted into a cliff of mossy limestone. Another set of steps led down into the crepuscular depths of the cave. My headlamp illuminated a high, vaulted ceiling carved with waves and ripples. The floor of the cave was covered with desiccated dirt and the air was cold and dry. It was silent. No sound of dripping water. No echoing rush of an unseen Styx. No keening of wind around the fluted and scalloped walls. Just silence.
As I walked deeper into the cave the evanescent gleam from the entrance faded until the only light came from my little Petzel headlamp. But in that vast hollow space, the headlamp’s 100 lumen beam scarcely penetrated the gloom. I stopped and turned the lamp off and was instantly enveloped by complete, almost tactile darkness. I stood there alone in that cocoon of utter blackness.
It’s an odd feeling to be by oneself, underground, in complete silence and complete darkness: not exactly terrifying but undoubtedly very, very disconcerting. I imagined the millions of tonnes of rock overhead and the absolute certainty that if it collapsed I would instantly be as extinct as a Haast eagle. I blustered my way through a Snapchat post, pretending that I wasn’t somewhat uneasy there in that potential tomb, but I was glad when, at the twist of a knob, I had light again.
The Box Canyon Cave had once been filled with flowing water. Over eons of time the water had carved passages and tunnels which led off from the main cavern. I explored some of them now, running my hand over the smooth limestone pillars and filigrees as I crouched low and squeezed through shoulder-wide crevices into tiny chambers. At some time in the distant past a landslide or earthquake had blocked off the river which had once flowed through the cave, leaving it to dry out and become a habitat for several unique species of arachnids including the Nelson Cave Spider (Spelungula cavernicola) with its 150mm leg span, cave wetas and the New Zealand short-tailed bat. None of these critters presented their credentials, however, but as I made my way back out into the daylight (after the cold dryness of the cave, the outside air felt humid and oppressive) I was certain that myriad tiny eyes were watching my exit.
Later, I followed a narrow, muddy path slung, in places, across the face of precipitous limestone bluffs, to the Oparara Arch. Here, the tannin-stained water of the Oparara River has carved a tunnel through a ridge of solid rock. Passing tourists had built cairns of water-rounded stones in a sun-dappled glade beside the river which emerged from the cavern in a series of slow, languid curves. Lurid signs warned of the dangers of entering the cavern but, undeterred (Danger, No Entry signs always say to me: “come and find out”) I waded into the river and walked upstream in the cool, knee-deep water.
The interior of the cave was choked with rockfalls and the jammed trunks of dead trees. The river entered the cave through a jagged slit, beyond which an iridescent profusion of forest trees shone in the sun. The noise of the water as it flowed over the stones and curled around the base of the rockfalls filled the cavern with reverberating sound. Alone in that wild, improbable space, I babbled a few lines into my Snapchat story then waded downstream and back out into the light.
An hour later, at the intersection of Kohaihai Road I faced a dilemma. It was getting late in the day and I still had to return to Westport, more than an hour’s drive away, before I could head on up to Blenheim where I was planning to spend a few days with my brother and his family. The sensible option would be to turn left and start back towards Westport. But, on the other hand, here I was, close to the top end of the West Coast. Five kilometres more and I would be at the end of the road: as far north as it was possible to drive on this side of the South Island. It wasn’t a difficult choice. I turned right and ten minutes later I was standing on the edge of the world.
Jack’s Beach lay bathed in a dazzling shimmer of silver light. Beyond a screen of pure white dunes the Tasman Sea crashed onto the steeply-dipping shore. The Kohaihai River curled out from a forest of nikau palms and fell gently into the ocean beside a bluff of black rock encrusted with ferns and flax. The breaking waves pushed ripples of salt water upstream to combine with the tannin-dark fresh of the stream. My bare feet sank into the soft, yielding sand along the edge of the lagoon behind the dunes. The trunk of a massive rainforest tree, bereft of branches and shiny-black beneath the water, lay submerged in the shallows. A lone pied cormorant sat drying its outstretched feathers on a snag of twisted sticks and stones on the farther shore.
I followed the Heaphy Track upstream for half a kilometre to a bouncy swing bridge slung across the river into a forest of nikau palms. The nikau (Rhopalostylus sapida) is New Zealand’s only endemic palm tree and grows abundantly in the warm, sunny climate of northern Westland. The forest floor was composed of soft white sand and was carpeted with fallen fronds. The crowns of the palms formed a coruscated canopy overhead. Their trunks tapped and creaked in the gentle breeze blowing in from the ocean. I thought of Joseph Conrad’s evocative description of the Congo River in his 1899 novella Heart of Darkness: “ Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.”
It was the sort of place where I could have lingered for hours, exploring the curve of the river and listening to the living silence of the palm forest. Darkness was still far off; the afternoon had life in it still. The sun was incandescent in the blue dome of the sky as I wandered back to my truck. The roar of the waves resounded from the bluffs overlooking the river. I turned the ignition key and turned south towards evening.
Out here nothing changes, Not in a hurry anyway. You feel the endlessness, Running from the light of day… – Goanna, Solid Rock.
East of Borroloola the back left tyre of my four-wheel-drive exploded. I was driving fast, too fast, probably, on a hellish stretch of road riven by pot-holes and deep puddles of bull-dust. The corrugated surface was so rough that I was unaware the tyre was disintegrating until I felt the automatic transmission change down a gear and realized the back corner of the vehicle was sitting low. By then I had driven several kilometres on the flat tyre and all that remained of the outer wall was a few hot shards of steel fibre and charred rubber. The rim was pitted like a golf ball.
I unpacked the tool kit and one of the two spare tyres I was carrying. The handle of the bottle jack was missing so I spent the next hour sprawled in the dirt beneath the vehicle, winding the jack up with an adjustable spanner. Once the ruined wheel was off I had to dig a hole in the road beneath the hub in order to get the spare on. I was covered from head to toe in bull-dust, grease and sweat. Even the flies wouldn’t come near me. I dusted myself off and continued on towards Hell’s Gate.
Beyond Wollogorang cattle station I crossed the border between the Northern Territory and Queensland. The sun was incandescent in the blue dome of the sky; the ground too hot to stand on in bare feet. The border itself was nothing more than a cattle grid set into a post and wire fence which stretched off into the bush and was soon swallowed by the trees.
Hell’s Gate turned out to be a far more pleasant place than its name suggests. I parked outside the Hell’s Gate Roadhouse in the shade of a spreading magnolia tree which shed its fragrant petals like desert snow. The beer was icy cold, the girl running the place was charming and friendly, and the Barramundi Burger I had for lunch was the best food I’d eaten since Darwin.
It was the sometimes bloody history of early European settlement which gave the outpost its ominous name. In the late 1800’s police stationed at nearby Corinda provided regular escorts for Territory-bound settlers as far as the rocky escarpments of Hell’s Gate, refusing to accompany the travellers past this point because of the fierceness of Aboriginals in the area.
Later, on an arrow-straight, red dirt stretch of road scraped through the bush, I was breathalysed by a pair of Queensland Police officers. Their white 4WD was the first vehicle I’d seen all day.
“You’re a long way from home,” the policewoman said, looking at the Victoria plates on the front of my vehicle.
“Further than you think,” I replied.
“Oh, you’re a bloody Kiwi,” said her burly partner, whose suntanned arms looked like truck axles. They checked my licence and I blew into a gadget which confirmed I wasn’t some drunken lunatic driving around out in the bush alone. A battered Toyota Landcruiser laden with grinning Aboriginals from the nearby Doomadgee Community pulled up and the police lost interest in teasing me.
Burketown (pop 230) shuts its shops early. I booked into the Burketown Pub – “the oldest pub in Queensland” – and by 5pm it seemed virtually everyone in town was at the bar. The English barmaid, Sophie, in a neat inversion of the Kiwi bartender in London, had applied for the job – board, lodgings and an air ticket from the east coast – when she ran out of money in Cairns.
I swallowed an ice-cold glass of Toohies New beer while some of assembled drinkers ribbed me about the destroyed wheel bolted to the back of my 4WD.
“Ya won’t be geddin’ that one fixed mate,” said a stockman sitting under a wagon wheel-sized Akubra hat.
When I asked him the way to the Burketown Salt Flats he nodded his hat towards the horizon and said “Just drive that way till you don’t see any more cane toads.”
In the darkness before dawn next morning I drove out past the edge of town. The road crumbled into furrows then into a single pair of wheel-tracks leading out onto the salt flats. The headlights cast twin pools of light onto the flat, featureless ground ahead; everything else was black as if I was driving into a void.
The salt flats were the quietest place I have ever been. I was the only living thing out there that morning. Nothing moved apart from vague air currents too insubstantial to be called wind. The surface of the ground was cracked like a reptile’s skin and the cool air possessed a vague odour of phosphate. It was so still I could almost feel the movement of the Earth.
A sliver of moon, attended by a pair of planets, hung in the eastern sky which was washed pale pink by the approaching sun. Soon, the heat would begin to rise and I would be on the road again, driving into another day of Outback adventures beyond the Gates of Hell.
Out where the river broke, The bloodwood and the desert oak… – Midnight Oil, Beds Are Burning
At Roper Bar I was swimming with crocodiles. And not the harmless freshwater variety, either. These were the real deal: big ‘ol, bad-tempered, drag-you-under-and-drown-you saltwater crocs. The sort of creatures only Crocodile Dundee could handle.
I had joined pilot Paul Smith and his friend Brigit, both of whom worked at the nearby Ngukurr Aboriginal Community, for a swim where the Roper River tumbles over a rocky slab of granite which gave the area its name. As we lolled in the cool water, Paul’s eyes constantly scanned the river for the tell-tale ripple of an approaching croc.
“We’re fine swimming here in the shallows as long as someone watches the river,” Paul said. “But out here you should never swim alone or even go near the water unless someone has told you it’s safe.” Of course where crocs are concerned, “safe” is a dangerously loose term. So when the setting sun began casting shadows on the river, making it harder to see into the water, I was happy to return to the campground and leave the Roper in the care of its Silurian masters.
Dawn in the Australian Outback is always heralded by the strangled gurglings, maniacal cackling, rasping, clicking and guffawing of birds. As I lay awake in the pre-dawn darkness, a pied butcherbird sang limpid notes in the tree above my tent, like a bell tolled in liquid. I rose at 5.30am, lit my petrol stove and ate peaches out of a can while the water boiled. One of the simplest pleasures of travelling in the bush is waiting for the billy to boil for a dawn cuppa. A pair of whistling kites eyed me from a tree-top as I broke camp.
Beyond Roper Bar the road became absurdly rough: corrugations, bull-dust and potholes you could lose an oil drum in. After an hour or so I stopped at the Tomato Island fishing camp. Mick and Rita Caulfield were mooring their aluminium dinghy beside a concrete boat ramp leading down to the glassy Roper River. Mick held a big barramundi Rita had caught. They invited me to visit their nearby camp.
Mick, stocky and graying, was a motorbike mechanic; Rita was a nurse who worked part-time at the Ngukurr Community, a five-minute boat-ride across the river. We drank coffee and they told me how they had quit their busy lives in Melbourne for the solitude of the Northern Territory bush.
“We went away for twelve months,” Rita said. “That was two years ago and we’re not ready to stop yet.”
“We spent the Wet (the rainy season) in Darwin last year,” Mick added. “Might settle down there when the time comes.”
Later, Mick took me upriver in the dinghy to see the wreck of the Young Australian. The bush grew down to the water’s edge; the river hid its secrets (and its terrors) beneath the glossy, opaque surface.
The wreckage of the boat, run aground at night by a drunken crew in 1873, lay against the upstream edge of a rocky islet. The rusted boiler, with its fire-door agape, had the appearance of a half-submerged skull. I imagined the horror of a sinking boat, the men scrambling blindly in the darkness as the water swirled across the deck-plates, and a crocodile-infested river to swim to safety.
Beyond Tomato Island camp the road hugged the right bank of the river. The radio picked up a broadcast in Pidgin English from Ngukurr. I sat for a while beside a lily-covered lagoon and listened to thunder growl in the distance. But it was an empty threat and no rain came.
Later, I hiked alone through the Southern Lost City, where eons of erosion have sculpted the hard granite into a natural architecture of towers, abutments, arches and grottoes. The hot wind had desiccated the surrounding bush and everything felt tinder-dry and lifeless.
I reached the dusty, red-sand township of Borroloola in the late afternoon. I had a cold drink at the local store, called home on the satellite phone, then drove out to King Ash Bay fishing camp, situated where the McArthur River drains languidly into the Gulf of Carpentaria.
I pitched my tent overlooking the river then retired to the Groper Bar for a beer. The bar occupied a rough corrugated shed with a big circular awning out back. Beers were served straight out of a rusty chest freezer. There were eleven other drinkers at the bar, mostly retired-looking gents in grubby singlets and shorts. A wall-eyed dog sprawled in the dirt.
The kitchen sold a range of fried food (is there any other kind at a fishing camp?) and as I worked my way through a giant steak one of the locals came over.
“That your tent by the river, mate?” he asked. I nodded and he continued. “If I was you I’d shift it back from the water a bit.”
I thought back to the Roper Bar and how I’d survived actually sitting in a river full of crocs. Surely I would be safe thirty metres from the river. Mick Dundee wouldn’t have been worried. Sensing my reluctance the old-timer glanced down at the hunk of red meat on my plate then back up at me.
“We’d hate to see you end up like that, mate,” he grinned. ”S’up to you but anything would be better than being eaten by a bloody croc.”
At Menzies, a dead-on-its-feet mining town a hundred kilometres north of Kalgoorlie, I turn off the bitumen highway onto a rutted track bulldozed through the red dirt landscape of Western Australia. My rented car moves about on the loose surface like a schooner under sail on a rough sea. A cloud of ochre dust from the wheels obscures the rear view.
After an hour or so, a signpost points down an even rougher track leading through scrubby sand hills to the edge of Lake Ballard. The empty lake, its bed white with salt crystals left behind when its ephemeral waters evaporated, lies pressed under the weight of the hot sky. Waves of heat distort the flat expanse of the lakebed, where fifty-one skeletal figures stand immobile in the shimmering air. I leave the car parked in the sparse shade of a bloodwood tree and begin to walk.
The Inside Australia installation is a collection of metal sculptures set up on Lake Ballard in 2003 by English artist Antony Gormley. The sculptures are based on computer scans of the inhabitants of Menzies, rendered in alloys of iron, molybdenum, iridium, vanadium and titanium. According to his website, Gormley sought “to find the human equivalent for this geological place.”
“I think human memory is part of place,” he wrote, “and place is a dimension of human memory.”
Out on the lake bed, I am alone in my own dimension of heat, flies and sweat. The red mud of the lake floor, overlaid with its rime of salt, has dried and cracked like the skin of a reptile. It’s slightly sticky surface sucks at my jandals, which, in hindsight, were not the best choice of footwear for exploring the widely-spaced components of Inside Australia.
Each of Gormley’s works is set a distance of seven hundred and fifty metres from its neighbour. The footprints of previous visitors trace indistinct pathways leading from sculpture to sculpture in a long loop around the lake. From a distance, the sculptures are merely vague outlines: shadows caught in the distorted, iridescent air. Up close, they are eerie, with outstretched arms, protruding breasts and shrunken heads.
The midday sun casts foreshortened silhouettes of each statue onto the ground, simplifying their forms even further, like the charcoal rock drawings of Aboriginals. As the sun moves across the sky, the shadows change shape and size, each one describing a sun-dial ellipse around the sculpture’s feet.
It takes two hours for me to complete my circuit of the sculptures. Back at my the car, my sweat- and dirt-stained reflection in the windscreen looks vaguely like a component of Inside Australia, seared by heat and light. I start the engine and let the air-con revive me before returning to the road.
As afternoon cools into evening, I walk alone through a deserted desert town. Whereas at Lake Ballard I had seen human shapes inhabiting an empty landscape, here in the abandoned mining town of Gwalia I walk through an urban space devoid of human forms.
The timber and tin buildings stand sway-backed and forlorn beneath the empty sky. Front doors hang agape in their frames, giving views down the throats of hallways to the rooms inside. Windows stare sightlessly out across the dusty street. A pair of morose emus, like feathered sextons in a kindling cemetery, watch me in a desultory fashion as I wander the ruins.
From 1897 until 1963, the Sons of Gwalia Gold Mine was the life-blood of Gwalia. The rough-and-ready township grew up around the nearby mine-shaft, which descended for a kilometre into the hard granite beneath the town. By 1910, more than a thousand people called Gwalia home. During its lifetime, the mine yielded 2.6 million ounces of gold: worth about NZ$2.4 billion at today’s prices.
But in the early sixties, the gold ran out. In December 1963, the owners closed the mine. Trains were dispatched to convey the remaining miners, their families and whatever they could carry to Kalgoorlie. Overnight, Gwalia became a ghost town.
The setting sun casts long shadows between the buildings. Inside the kitchen of a once-comfortable miner’s cottage, tiny shafts of light pierce the gloom through bullet-hole gaps in the tin walls. Cast iron pots stand on the long-cold stove; a table set with two plates and a fork sits askance on the disintegrating floorboards. Faded newspapers cover the walls in lieu of wallpaper.
Inside another cottage, books that will never again tell their stories stand on a shelf above a bed which will never feel the weight of a sleeping body. The roof is open to the sky. A glassless lantern, which will never light another night, hangs beside a back door opening onto the endless space of the Outback.
The grimy windows of Mazza’s Store – “Birthday Goods, Tobacco and Lino” – reflect the last rays of the setting sun as I sit on the store’s verandah watching the day end in Gwalia. Funereal crows, whose gurgling cries are the ghost voices of the Australian bush, perch in a nearby scribbly gum.
I imagine Gormley’s iron sculptures, radiating the day’s heat back into the air over Lake Ballard. Here in Gwalia, it is the past which radiates: in the deserted homes of the people who once gave this place a dimension of human memory. Their day’s work done, the emu-sextons pay me a last cursory glance before ambling off towards the abandoned pub.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The tumult and shouting dies; The captains and the kings depart. Far-called, our navies melt away; On dunes and headlands sinks the fire. Lo, all our pomp of yesterday, is one with Nineveh and Tyre… – Rudyard Kipling, Recessional.
And so I came, at last, to my final destination in India: the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. I had wandered through the stone garden of the Park Street Cemetery, sat quietly in the grand neo-Gothic St. Paul’s Cathedral and walked along busy, crowded Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road to the gardens of the Maidan.
The British loved to build. To them, as it was with most great empires, it was their buildings that spoke of their power, their cleverness, their capabilities. In the Victoria Memorial, the technology and vision that they had perfected over the previous century or so came together in what is, to me, one of the greatest buildings in the world.
Completed in 1926, the Victoria Memorial was commissioned by Baron Curzon, the Viceroy of India, as a monument to Queen Victoria, who had died in 1901. It was designed by the British architect William Emerson, who also designed the lovely blue-domed buildings at the University of Allahabad that I had loved so much ( see my earlier post The Blue Dome ), and its foundation stone was laid by the Prince of Wales, later King George V, on January 4th, 1906. A public subscription was opened to pay for the building’s construction and the entire project was financed by donations.
It was designed to be not only a fitting monument to Queen Victoria but also a museum: a place where future generations could come and experience the history and power of the British Raj. To this end, its anti-chambers and rooms were filled with paintings depicting the great moments of Indian history; with weapons used in the great wars fought by its rulers; and with sculptures of the great men who forged the Empire. As Curzon had put it:
Let us, therefore, have a building, stately, spacious, monumental and grand, to which every newcomer in Calcutta will turn, to which all the resident population, European and Native, will flock, where all classes will learn the lessons of history, and see revived before their eyes the marvels of the past.
But nothing lasts forever. By the time the monument was completed, the Raj’s seat of power had been transferred to Delhi. For all its grand colonial buildings, Calcutta had become a provincial capital. And the world was changing. The Great War had wrought rifts in the Empire from which it would not recover. The Empire was beginning to fade, just as the Persian poet Omar Khayyam had prophesied in his oft-quoted Rubaiyat:
Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai, Whose doorways are alternate night and day. How Sultan after Sultan with is pomp, Abode his hour or two, and went his way…
These were words that Kipling had echoed in his poem Recessional, written to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. He foresaw, just as Khayyam had, eight hundred years before, that all empires will eventually fall, leaving nothing behind but the buildings that the sultans, the emperors and the kings had built in their own names.
I walked slowly around the perimeter of the building to its grand front entrance. A marble bridge, designed by Emerson’s assistant, Vincent Jerome Esch, spanned a lake of reflective green water. Atop the bridge, a sculpture of Queen Victoria, resplendent in the ceremonial robes of the Star of India. I took out my phone and recorded a Snapchat of what I was seeing.
And here she is, Queen Victoria, Empress of India, sculpted in bronze towards the end of her life when she was fat, half mad and clinging to life. And you’ve gotta hand it to the Brits. When they built, they built big. They liked to build these massive edifices that said “look at us, look how fucking good we are.” Of course the Germans also tried that during the nineteen thirties with those square, box-like, blocky buildings of Nuremberg and Berlin. But they just ended up looking stupid, overdone and megalomaniacal. The Victorians combined Mughal architecture with their high-tech construction methods and sense of scale and proportion in order to create buildings like this which still look beautiful a hundred years later.
Nearby, bas-relief panels of burnished brass told the tales of India; of Sepoys and servants, Nawabs and Kings. A sweep of vast marble steps cascaded from the memorial’s entrance like a pure white waterfall. I climbed to the door and words failed me. To my Snapchat audience I said:
You walk inside this memorial to Queen Victoria and it just leaves you speechless. So I’m not even going to try to describe it. I’m just going to show you…
Later, outside in the garden, I stood beside a fountain, that quintessentially Moghul ornament, and looked back at the Victoria Memorial, framed by arcing, crystal jets of water. Bright red flowers grew in colourful profusion around the fountain’s perimeter. Crows balanced on the green-painted railings. Women in bright saris promenaded along the nearby paths beneath groves of peepal and guava trees.
I tried to think of some glib closing line to say: something pithy and intellectual to close off my broadcasts from India. But I had nothing. The monument had left me speechless. I took out my phone and launched Snapchat for the final time in India and said:
Well…I don’t think that I can top that, so I’m not going to try. Goodnight everybody.
…the tomb of Nithar, lies reflected in the shimmering pool.
In Allahabad I find a secret garden. I have been walking for hours: exploring the parks of the city’s centre, the exquisite domed buildings of the University, the sad, barricaded, derelict cathedral. I have fallen asleep on a concrete bench beneath a shady tree in Prince Alfred Park, and followed back streets through leafy suburbs. Now, I stand before a high wall of betel-splattered stucco. Inside, under the high blue dome of the sky, lies Jahangir’s garden.
Beyond the vaulted gateway, where vendors sell chai, puris and cold drinks, and a barber plies his blades on a worn wooden chair, a geometric pattern of flagstone pathways, lined with graceful palm trees leads towards a walled inner garden. Sprinklers shimmer in the midday sunlight. Families picnic on colourful blankets laid out in shady spots. Young men pose theatrically for photographs.
Inside the walls, three sandstone tombs, each of differing design, stand in a line flanked by gardens and flagstone paths. Begun in 1606, the tomb complex, known as the Khusrau Bagh, was designed by Aqa Reza, the court artist to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. The first tomb to be constructed was that of Shah Begum, Jahangir’s wife, who had died by suicide in 1604. Distressed by the enmity between her husband and their son, Khusrau (who had tried to usurp his father’s throne), Shah Begum had swallowed an overdose of opium. Her three-tiered tomb, surmounted by a rectangular divan, draws its inspiration from Fatehpur Sikri, the Mughal’s capital city in Northern India built by the first Great Mughal Emperor, Akbar.
I follow a path along the outer wall of the garden. There are rows of pale roses planted along the edges. Beyond the wall, in a grove of fig trees, goats graze on fallen leaves. Crows gurgle in the undergrowth. A couple of older men, the complex’s groundsmen perhaps, sit on a bench in the shade while a hose spills water onto a patch of lawn in front of them. The second tomb, the tomb of Nithar, Jahangir’s daughter, lies reflected in the shimmering pool.
The tomb stands on an elevated platform recessed with alcoves decorated with fretted stonework. Its central dome is flanked by four delicate cupolas. Some of the alcoves are closed with heavy doors of dark red wood. A group of schoolgirls, clad in white saris with colourful sashes, sit in a semicircle on another patch of grass in front of the tomb of Nithar.
I climb a set of steps set into the plinth of Nithar’s tomb and sit on a sandstone ledge beside a carved wooden door inset with iron studs. Flights of pigeons circled the dome of the third and final tomb, the Tomb of Khusrau himself. Khusrau Mirza was the Emperor’s second son. He rebelled against his father in 1606 in a bid to succeed the Emperor Akbar as the ruler of the Moghul Empire but was defeated in the battle of Bhairowal. He fled to Kabul but he was captured and taken to Agra where he was imprisoned.
In the Moghul world, succession wasn’t simply a matter of the eldest son inheriting the throne from his father. Rather, siblings competed against each other with intrigue, patronage and outright violence until a winner emerged. It was often the case that the sibling who gained the upper hand would have the rest of his family – brothers, sisters, cousins – put to death in order to guarantee that there was no one left to threaten his position.
In 1607, Khusrau was blinded as a punishment for rebelling against his father. Then, in 1622, he was killed on the orders of his brother, Prince Khurram, who had succeeded the throne and taken the title of Shah Jahan: possibly the most famous of the Mughal rulers.
I sit on the cool stone of Nithar’s tomb writing my notes and watching the scene below. A group of young people chatter and run. Beside me, the heavy timber door is weathered and cracked. Graffiti has been scratched into its blackened and cracked surface. The iron hasps and bolts are rusted and bent. The slow, inexorable hand of time has worked on the tombs, etching the history of years into every surface. The flights of pigeons circle the tombs and settle, momentarily, on the domes and cupolas before erupting into flight again to circle, wheeling in the high blue sky above Jahangir’s garden.
On the square plinth beneath his booted feet was carved one word: CLIVE.
It is sometimes said that Britain obtained its empire in a fit of absentmindedness. It wasn’t so much a desire to conquer and rule that motivated the British. Rather, it was more of a slow acquisition of territories by default: a kind of global game of pickup sticks where the sticks were colonies, countries and resources. At its zenith, the British Empire extended over 25% of the globe and contained within it a similar percentage of the world’s population. In school atlases, the pale pink wash denoting the countries and territories of the Empire was familiar to every pupil for generations. The sun never set on the British Empire and it was always time for a G and T somewhere. And the jewel in the Empire’s crown was India.
The British never set out to conquer India. It was actually a small company, housed in a nondescript building on Leadenhall Street in London, that set in motion the events that would lead to the control of the Empire’s greatest asset. That institution was called The East India Company.
On the 22nd of February, 1599, a group of merchants and financiers convened in a pub called the Nags Head Inn opposite the church of St. Botolph in Bishopsgate, London. Their aim was to establish a company to trade in spices from the East Indies, a trade dominated at that time by the Dutch and the Portuguese. Armed with a Royal Charter guaranteeing them exclusive access to all the seas and countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan, the East India Company, as it came to be known, began trading with the kings and rulers of Asia.
The risks involved were huge. Many ships were lost, along with their crews and cargoes. Piracy, danger, hardship and violence were the only factors that could be relied upon. But the profits were enormous. As its trading links with the rest of the world expanded, the company began gradually to establish footholds on the continents and territories it traded with. In India, the company’s first trading post, or factory as such outposts came to be called, was established at Surat on an inlet of the Arabian Sea on the western coast of the subcontinent in 1612. Bombay (now Mumbai) was added in 1668 and further factories were established around the entire coastline of India.
The company’s greatest factory was established on the Hooghly River, an exit tributary of the Ganges, in 1698. There were three villages in the area – Kalikata, Gobindapur and Sutanuti – and the town that grew up around them took its name from one of them: Kolkata. Initially, the company built a fort they named Fort William on the eastern bank of the Hooglhy at Kolkata.
There were frequent skirmishes with the French in the region and the fort and factories were sacked by the Nawab of Bengal, resulting in the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta incident, in 1756. But the town of Kolkata (or Calcutta as the British called it) survived and grew to become the seat of power for the company.
At the Victoria Monument, a vast domed marble edifice surrounded by fountains and gardens in the centre of Kolkata, I came face to face with the East India Company in the form of a statue. The subject stood resolute on its marble plinth. His eyes, set in a strong face with a rigid jaw and a slight scowl, stared rigidly out into the distance. In his left hand, he held a half-rolled scroll of documents; his right hand rested lightly on his sword. On the square plinth beneath his booted feet was carved one word: CLIVE.
Robert Clive (1725-1774), First Baron Clive, KB, FRS was the man who took the East India Company from a predominantly commercial trading company to a full-fledged military power with suzerainty over the entire Indian subcontinent. Prior to the Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which the company’s forces under the command of Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal, the East India Company (or John Company, as it was informally known) had concentrated on trade. For one hundred and fifty years the company had been content with buying goods – predominantly spices and cotton – for shipment back to England. But Clive changed all that.
By the time of the Battle of Plassey, the EIC already had a substantial army, composed mainly of Indian troops known as Sepoys. The troops were used to enforce the company’s often unpopular regulations, to protect its interests and assets and to generally ensure that what the company wanted, the company got. After Plassey, the company essentially became the rulers of India.
For the next ninety years the East India Company treated India like a cash cow, milking it of resources and establishing the highly dubious trade in opium which gave rise to the mid-century conflicts with China known as the Opium Wars. But all was not well in John Company. Since its zenith in the 18th century, the company’s profits had steadily declined. Its increasingly patrician (and, in many cases, oppressive) rule of the subcontinent had grown more and more unpopular among Indians.
In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, in which the sepoys rose up against their oppressors, the British Government took over control of the company. By then, the East India Company was in decline. Its assets were nationalised by the British Government. Its army, possessions and all of the machinery for administering and controlling India were ceded to the Crown.
John Company was finally dissolved on June 1st 1877. In an editorial, The Times commented that:
It accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other trading Company ever attempted, and such as none, surely, is likely to attempt in the years to come.
In my travels across India I encountered the legacy of John Company, and its successor, the British Raj everywhere I went. In the buildings, the railways, the bureaucracy; in the vast self-indulgent monuments, in the cemeteries, in the layout of towns and in the place names.
In the 1980s, a group of Indian entrepreneurs bought the rights to the name East India Company and established a clothing brand under that name. The company traded until the early 1990s when it too folded. In 2010, the moribund corporate name was once again acquired as the trading name for a clothing brand. Today, a British company trades under the name The East India Company, London. It sells tea, coffee, chocolates, nuts and spices. John Company still lives. It didn’t set out to create an empire. But it did.