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 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.”
I came to India to ride trains. They were one of my abiding memories from our visit to northern India in 1992. Trains were fun. They were linear microcosms of Indian life: miniature towns moving horizontally through the landscape and through the mornings, noons and nights of the subcontinent. I wanted to experience that feeling again. So after four days in Mumbai, I took an Uber to the Dadar Station where I was booked on the 2pm Express to Aurangabad.
I arrived early. I wanted to escape from the tourist hubbub of Colaba. And I didn’t want to miss my train. So with two hours to fill in I sat in the shade outside the station and jotted notes in my diary.
11:20pm THE SCENE AT DADAR STATION. An unholy noise, a sweet smell of cooking food, people everywhere: talking into phones, arriving, departing, the squall of car horns. A woman in a red sari, her hair tied up in a matching barrette, hoists her ample arse onto the back of her husband’s motorbike and they depart. From within the nearby temple, a sonorous clang of bells and the strident rhythm of drums rises to a crescendo then falls silent. A fountain of balancing cherubs – Eros of the subcontinent – stands waterless and dusty outside the terminal. A pair of bewildered-looking European tourists wearing sandals and socks, is shepherded past by a guide. In the sky, pale blue, cloudless, dusty, a black kite soars on a thermal, its outstretched wings motionless. A yellow dog mooches among the traffic; a scrawny black cow is tethered outside the station medical centre.
I watch 3 people clamber onto a scooter: mother, father and daughter along with mother’s luggage which is piled in the footwell. Only father puts on a helmet. A film crew arrives. They interview a boy sitting on a scooter. His grandfather – white dhoti, skinny brown legs, glasses – sits beside me watching.
The train was intense: crowded, hot and full of movement and activity. Halfway through the journey, at some town whose name I forget, hundreds of extra passengers got on board: freeloaders riding for nothing. They crowded the aisle, sat on the floor and squeezed into every cranny. It was dark by the time we rolled into Aurangabad.
Trains have been an integral part of the Indian transport system since they were introduced by the British in 1837. The first train was named the Red Hills Railway and was opened in 1837. It carried quarried granite from the Red Hills to Madras. The first passenger train began operating in Bombay (now Mumbai) on April 16th, 1853. Today, India’s network of railways is the fourth largest in the world, comprising 121,471 kilometres of track covering a distance of 67,368 kilometres. India Railway operates over 20,000 passenger services per day from 7,349 stations across the subcontinent. Many books have been written about the trains of India including the American travel writer Paul Theroux, whose book The Great Railway Bazaar was one of the primary inspirations for my becoming a travel writer.
After a few days I took a train to Nagpur in the centre of India. My berth was the top bunk in a 2AC carriage. It was warm and comfortable and the gentle rocking of the train sent me straight to sleep. I awoke at dawn, dressed and looked out onto a cool, landscape of low hills and bright green crops coated with a silver-grey wash of dew. I stood in an open doorway and watched the countryside roll past. It was perfect. I held out my phone, set to record video, and said: “good morning from an Indian train.”
A tall, gangly man in a white shirt and black pants, was opening channels along the rows with his bare feet so that a trickle of water could flow across the field.
The driver was a lunatic. I won’t go into the details…but fuck me, what an idiot! It had all begun happily enough. I’d decided to catch a bus up to Warud, two hours north of Nagpur. I wanted to walk among the orange groves the town is famous for and wander at random in the countryside. So I walked up to the Nagpur bus station and climbed aboard the Warud bus, which, conveniently, happened to be sitting in the compound waiting to depart.
The ticket wallah invited me to sit in the “special seat” right up front beside the driver. I could see through the floor and there were no seat belts but, hey, I thought, this will give me a great view of the journey. As we set off out through the crowded city streets, I began jotting notes in my diary:
Children in white marching on a dirt square.
A walled forest
A cow with a necklace of flowers
A white Hindu temple stupa like a wedding cake.
My diary continues: “very soon after I began jotting down these vignettes the driver went berserk. I won’t describe it…a total lunatic, a reckless disregard for the safety of his passengers.” It was insane: weaving back and forth across the highway, passing on blind corners and into the face of oncoming traffic, speeding. I kept thinking of a newspaper headline I’d read that morning about a bust crash that had killed 48 people: “DRIVER WAS BEHAVING RECKLESSLY.” I got off at the first town we stopped in and swore that I would never ride a bus in India again.
And then I heard the Dirt Music.
I had walked out of town. Google Maps told me that it would take four hours to walk back to Nagpur. It was a warm, sunny day. I could cope with a walk like that. After leaping from the bus in a deserted compound (I’d said “get fucked you idiot” when the driver objected) I had Face-timed home, figured out where I was, had a cold Coke to settle my jangling nerves, and wandered through the town’s back streets, stared at like I was from an alien planet.
On the scruffy edge of the town – it was called Yerla – the road crossed a short bridge spanning a small, half-dry river where a thin stream of stagnant water curled along a bed of fine red sand. Beyond it, the gates of a temple compound were decorated with gaily-painted reliefs of Hindu deities stood beneath the shady fronds of palm trees. A little further on, a rusty gate swung from a weathered timber post opened onto a field of brassicas. There was a group of brightly-dressed women squatted down in the centre of the field pulling weeds. A tall, gangly man in a white shirt and black pants, was opening channels along the rows with his bare feet so that a trickle of water could flow across the field.
A red-dirt track led from the gateway towards a dilapidated building: half house, half barn. There were some bullocks tethered beside the building. On the track, halfway between the gate and the house, two men, one astride a motorbike, were talking. I approached them and introduced myself. They seemed understandably perplexed at this European stranger who had walked in off the road but as I explained, with gestures and sign language, that I was interested in the crop growing beside us, they relaxed. The man on the motorbike, who spoke a little English, told me the other man was the farmer who owned the land and that the crop was cauliflower plants.
The farmer agreed to show me the crop and guided me along one of the rows to the group of women. They were chattering away as they worked, pulling out weed that looked to me like fathen (Chenopodium album), considered a weed in most crops but sometimes cultivated as a feed crop for chickens. The women seemed uninterested in me and carried on with their work.
I squatted down with the farmer as he examined some of the cauliflower plants. They were healthy and pest free and were growing exceedingly well in the rich, red, crumbly soil. I left the farmer to his work and walked along the narrow path bordering the field towards a dwelling of some sort. However a barking dog rushed out of the compound towards me so I turned and walked back to the first building I’d seen and photographed a wooden plough standing upright in the soil beside the tethered bullocks.
Then, with the dog still yapping and snarling at me from a distance, I ambled back out to the gate and sat under a tree for a while. Across the road, a pair of bullocks dragged another timber plough, with the ploughman balanced atop, through the soil of a small field. A couple of men had a stall set up under the banyan trees nearby, selling tomatoes, fresh vegetables and pyramids of greenish oranges.
The gangly man was still working his way down the rows of cauliflowers, pushing the soil with his feet to allow the silver trickles of life-giving water to flow. Snow-white egrets followed the water, picking up worms and mollusks the water brought to the surface. I thought: “What a great job on a hot day, playing around in water and soil with cool mud between your toes and everything working in harmony.”
I still had a long way to go and I wasn’t sure how or when I would be able to find my way back to Nagpur. But I could worry about that later. For now I was happy just to sit there in the shade, watching this tiny pageant of rural Indian life and listening to the dirt music.
The British are great measurers. They have a sense of order. You can see it best in their maps. The Ordnance Survey maps are a perfect representation in two dimensions of every detail of the three dimensional world. Perhaps it’s their Roman heritage. The Romans, too, loved order, measurement and straight lines. It gave their empire a fixed sense of civilisation; of known boundaries. Once you have named a place, and fixed it on a map, it’s there for good. Incontrovertible. Unassailable.
The British in India were great measurers. The boundaries of their biggest possession, the jewel in the crown of their Queen’s empire, were constantly being mapped and measured and refined, then re-measured, re-mapped and re-defined with ever-increasing accuracy. And to do this effectively they needed a starting point: a set location from which all subsequent measurements and distances could be calculated. So they measured and surveyed and computed. Through the heat and the dust and the monsoonal floods. From the fretted edges of the sub-continent to the highest hills and the lowest depressions. With theodolites and chains, they measured and calculated and mapped. Until they found the centre of India.
Surveying during the Victorian Era was nothing like it is today. There was no Global Positioning System to find a point on a landscape with a button’s push. There were no computers to crunch the numbers or laser range finders to measure distances. The Victorian surveyors mapped continents using theodolites (a type of small telescope), calibrated ranging rods, steel measuring tapes, Gunter’s Chains (66 feet long) and mathematics. These things are still in use today. A surveyor still has to be able triangulate. But the traditional tools are backed up by sophisticated technologies.
Yet the Victorians, and their successors, the Edwardians, with endless patience and attention to detail, managed to find the centre of the Indian subcontinent and mark it with a stone. The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India was begun in 1802 under the auspices of the East India Company. Its first leader was a British Army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel William Lampton. He was succeed by his assistant, a civilian surveyor named George Everest who went on to become the Surveyor-General of India and after whom the world’s highest mountain is named.
It took more than a century of careful triangulation to complete the survey of India. In 1907, the Zero Mile Stone was established at Nagpur to mark the centre of the subcontinent. The British erected a sandstone tower next to the small marker stone, which has a brass plaque affixed to its top, and which represents the exact centre point. It is from here that all distances in India are still computed.
It took the British one hundred and five years to find the centre of the subcontinent. For me, the journey to the centre of India was nothing more than a ten minute walk from my favourite Nagpur cafe: Corridor Seven Coffee Roasters. I simply finished my latte, said “see you later” to my friends at the cafe, and walked out into the February sunlight. Guided by the gentle, comforting voice of my Google Maps girl, I walked along Temple Bazaar, the shady street behind the cafe, turned right onto Nagpur-Chandrapur Road, crossed beneath the Mass Transit Flyover and there I was.
The Centre of India is contained within a small garden beside the Zero Mile Metro Station. A wrought iron fence separates the garden from the maelstrom of cars swirling past on Sri Baba Street. Four stucco horses rear from the ground beside the flagstone path leading to the tower. I walked into the garden through a small gate hanging ajar on rusty hinges, brushed past an overhanging peepal tree and put my hand on the warm, hexagonal stone of the tower. I imagined the vast lands surrounding me in all directions from this point. The towering Himalayas with their moraine-striped glaciers. The deserts of Rajasthan. The teeming Ganges Plain. The long, tropical coastlines of Kerala. The tea-clad hills of Assam and Himachal Pradesh. The stepped and colourful temples of hot, humid Tamil Nadu.
I sat for a while in the shade of the peepal tree and thought about my next move. From here I could go in any direction I chose. All of India lay before me. Anything was possible; any destination was reachable from here where I sat in the Centre of India. I could even, if I wanted to, go back to Corridor Seven and have another coffee.
From the fretted edges of the sub-continent to the highest hills…
So you are on a train, rolling across the plains of Central India. What do you do? Simple…you sit in the doorway of the carriage, with your feet on the steel footplate, and watch the pageant of rural India sweep by:
Curling diesel smoke.
A man grazing 2 cows in the shade of a tree.
Endless dry cotton fields.
A distant swell of low, distant hills, beige against the opaque sky.
Rivers flowing between banks of smooth red sandstone.
The rhythm of the bogies on the rails.
A herd of brown and white cows drinking at a river.
A wooden cart drawn by 2 white bullocks through a sea of green and yellow mustard.
At the railway crossings, tuk-tuks and trucks, cars and carts. A man in a white shirt picking snow-white cotton bolls.
A woman in an orange sari alone on a dirt path.
Hours later, beyond Manjur, the triple stacks of a coal-fired power station filled the air with a silver-blue haze.
Lines join in faint discord,and the Stormwatch brews a concert of kings… – Jethro Tull, Dun Ringill
The gods were angry. In the predawn darkness of Varanasi I was jolted awake, disoriented and cold, by an eruption of dense, booming sound. My fuddled mind processed the banshee wail of wind around the eaves outside my sixth-floor window and the clang of temple bells. An incandescent flash of silver-blue lightning lit the room as I struggled to extricate myself from the billowing folds of my mosquito net. A applause of rain spattered on the roof, increasing in volume to a tumult, then cutting off with the suddenness of a pulled plug. Another column of light, intense and jagged, erupted out on the river flats beyond the silver sheet of the Ganges; then the deep, reverberant, window-rattling crash of more thunder.
I had slept badly, haunted by a dream of having to escape the city in darkness. The previous evening, the power supply had been cut suddenly with an accompanying BANG that had echoed across to the far side of the river and back. I’d drifted off to sleep imagining terrorists attacking the city, hunting down and killing tourists. I’d lain there in the dark (power cuts are common in India) and plotted my solo escape from Varanasi, making my way through deserted alleys and back streets out into the safety of the countryside. The first peal of thunder had brought me back to wakefulness via these ethereal, half-remembered dreams.
Fully awake now, and upright, I pushed the rotted sliding window open. The temple bells echoed up from the ghats below. I could see the dim glow of funeral pyres and smell the acrid smoke of burning wood. A gust of wind pushed another squall of rain across the rooftops. It splattered into my face and dripped onto the floor. There were neon lights ablaze down by the river and the rain blurred them into pastel stains of blue and pink.
The lightning was coming in almost continual bursts now: retina-blinding shafts of white leaping from the white sandy river flats into the black belly of the sky. The detonations of thunder reverberated from the riverbanks and thudded from the tiers of buildings stepping upwards and back from the water’s edge. The rain hit the rooftops with a sound like flung ball bearings and the wind screamed around the flat concrete exterior of the Shanti Guest House.
The storm passed. The thunder died away to a distant rumble, like an angry man coming back into an argument as if to say “and another thing!” The sizzle and blast of lightning subsided into an occasional, insubstantial flicker. A great silence descended on the city, broken only by the continuing clang of the temple bells. I could hear the discordant chanting of the holy men down on the Manikarnika Ghat. A grey, watery light began to seep into the sky. The Ganges glowed like a curved strip cut from a sheet of burnished metal. The gods had been raging in their Eden. But for now, they rested.
…a long, basso profundo chant which echoed hollowly inside the temple.
It was almost silent in the cavern. The air was cool, and fragrant with the aroma of polished teak. The only light filtered in through the narrow doorway, with its carved lintel and ornately-decorated flanking columns. I was barefoot. The floor of the cavern, polished smooth by the passage of countless other bare feet before mine, was cold and slightly damp. At the rear of the cavern, half hidden in darkness, a statue of the Buddha, composed and serene, sat in asana.
The Ajanta Caves are carved into the wall of a gorge cut over millennia into the basalt rock of the Deccan Traps, two hour’s drive north-east of Aurangabad. The soft, black rock was erupted by the Deccan Volcanoes 65 million years ago as India passed over the Reunion Hotspot (see The Great Flood Part 1). It had lain on India’s western flank as the continent moved north and, eventually, slammed into the underside of Asia. As the continent pushed further north it raised up the Himalayas, changing the climatic patterns of India as it did so. The icey pavilions of the Himalayas created a barrier to the moist air flowing off the Arabian Sea towards the centre of Asia. The air was now forced to rise in order to flow over the mountains. As the air rose, the moisture within condensed and fell as rain. Lots of rain. The Monsoon was born.
The annual monsoonal floods began eroding the rocks of the Deccan Traps. It carved gorges and valleys. It shaped the ridges into narrow knife-edges. It sculpted the canyon walls into smooth billows and ledges. Waterfalls tumbled from vertiginous declivities. Rivers curled over beds of boulders that had tumbled from the heights. Forests grew in profusion, their roots and branches probing into every crevice and crack. Caves dotted the landscape: bubbles in the solid matrix of stone where gases had been trapped in the erupting lava. Eventually, men discovered the caves.
Beginning in the second century BCE (around 2,200 years ago), Buddhist monks began enlarging the caves at Ajanta. They carved elaborate decorations and effigies of the Buddha. They carved prayer halls and monasteries, temples and kitchens, cells for meditation and rooms for contemplation. When they ran out of natural caves to decorate, they began carving new ones. With endless patience, and the simplest of tools, they dug and scraped. The caves were works of art, affirmations in living stone to their deity, the Buddha.
I spent hours in the caves. Each one was similar but at the same time completely different: the sound of one hand clapping. In one cave, a Japanese tourist stood before a statue of the Buddha and sang a long, basso profundo chant which echoed hollowly inside the temple. In another, a statue of the Buddha reclining, stretched for twenty metres along the wall. Many of the caves were decorated with paintings depicting emotions in pose, form and colour. Some were completely bare of decoration.
The monks of Ajanta kept up their cave carving for seven hundred years. And then, around AD600, they just stopped. In one cave, the floor was only half excavated. Its pillars and platforms still bear the marks of their tools. There were no decorations. It was as if they had finished work one day and never returned. No one knows why the work stopped. Perhaps some great environmental catastrophe occurred. Perhaps the region was over-run by invaders. Perhaps they just got sick of scratching holes in the ground.
But their work remains, carved into the black, crystalline basalt erupted so long ago, and so far away, during the great flood.
Enlightenment, don’t know what it is… – Van Morrison
He was a vision in orange. His robes hung from his lean frame in flowing billows. Around his neck he wore a collection of sacred threads and clackering beads. His sandaled feet glided across the polished linoleum floor of the Nagpur Railway Station’s booking office. A crocheted bag of many colours hung from his tattooed shoulder. His wooden stick tapped on the tiles.
“I heff missed my train,” he said, pushing to the head of the queue, Indian fashion. “Vot vill I must do now?”
The woman behind the scratched and grimy perspex counter-guard eyed him with the long-practised scorn that Indian railway staff, used to dealing with an endless barrage of queue-jumpers, have perfected over the years.
“Counter three,” she said and returned to the business of organising my ticket to Allahabad. The German psuedo-Hindu groaned and moved away. The ticket clerk glanced up at me but I was silent. Karma is a bitch, I thought. No need to aggravate it by adding my opinion.
India is full of Westerners pretending to to be Indians. You see them on the ghats at Varanasi and in the Buddhist temple at Nagpur. They think they blend in, with their ethnic clothes, orange robes, matted hair and beads. But they are just as obvious as the elderly tourists in expensive clothes and improper footwear you see in the same places: shepherded around by touts and guides, shell-shocked and horrified, through the chamber of horrors that is Varanasi or the indecipherable chaos of the temples at Ellora.
You see them bathing in the Ganges, sitting cross-legged on the Raj Ghat, meditating in the temples, and wearing blue robes at the Buddhist shrines. They believe every word their handlers tell them. They wear their sacred threads. They stretch their limbs in the ashrams. They seek enlightenment. They collect their monthly remittances from trust funds back home.
India, to them, is a fully-immersive theme park. And they can go home any time they like.
Westerners visiting India seeking enlightenment are going to be disappointed. At the very least, they are only going to delude themselves into thinking that they have found enlightenment. India is, in fact, frightening. There is no enlightenment to be found here. India is crowded, chaotic, fascinating, brutal and relentlessly, overwhelmingly filthy. The erratic, stupid and plain dangerous behaviour of its drivers defies comprehension. The noise is constant and intense.
India is incomprehensible and unknowable. But perhaps that is it’s greatest attraction. India is impossible to understand; so it is best not to try and understand it. You just dive in, go with the flow and take from the experience anything you like. There is no enlightenment here. But you will find out things you didn’t know: mostly about yourself.
Besides, who needs enlightenment? Your orange robes won’t stop the train from leaving without you. Van Morrison said it best: “Enlightenment, don’t know what it is.”