Say, porter, when’s the next train down? – Rudyard Kipling, My Sunday at Home
On the platform at Allahabad Railway Station I saw a dog asleep on a pile of luggage. Or perhaps it was bales of cotton, sewn up into jute parcels. Whatever they were, the dog looked very comfortable: stretched out like a cat in front of a fire.
In the linear world of India’s railway platforms life is condensed into the essentials: food, shelter, drink and movement. And cellphones. Everyone has a cellphone, from the lowliest sweeper to the fattest tycoon.
Stalls sell chai and chips, pakoras,and panni, biscuits and books. Hawkers ply the polished flagstones calling “chaiiiii….chaiiiii.” A team of green-shirted men sweep and mop and tidy: cleaning up the endless stream of rubbish dropped from train windows.
I caught a glimpse of another westerner through the open doors of a carriage standing on Platform Two. Or perhaps it was just a trick of the light. The dog slept on, oblivious of the activity around it. I had another two hours to wait until my train to Varanasi departed.
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.
My desire to travel across India by train is heavily influenced by the writing of Paul Theroux, whose book The Great Railway Bazaar was one of the primary inspirations for my becoming a travel writer. The works of the historians Michael Wood, Dan Snow and William Dalrymple have also been pivotal in the development of my interest in India.
From my Second Class air conditioned bunk I watched Uttar Pradesh spool past outside. On the outskirts of the city, filthy suburbs of shanties built from junk gave way to a scrubby, litter-strewn hinterland where pigs, dogs, cows and goats picked through the refuse for digestible tidbits. The train rattled across the Ganges on a steel bridge. On the silty river flats people had buried their dead. Rectangular garlands of orange and yellow surrounded each grave. Mother Ganges would come for them during the Monsoon.
And then the countryside, flat and fecund, gleaming with water. Fields of bright yellow mustard flowers waved on their tall pale green stalks under a sky of featureless silver-grey haze. A girl in a lime green sari pumping water by hand from a well. Stooks of maize stalks and brown domino rows of cow shit, patted into patties and set out too dry. The white exclamation point of a brick kiln chimney. A man in a white dhoti whacking listlessly at the dusty weeds beside a substation. Battalions of pylons marching into the distance. Black and white goats on the edge of a paddy field. Life-giving water shining on the yellow clay.
Some kids were playing cricket on a dirt pitch beside the line where the train stopped for some reason. I climbed down from the carriage and bowled two balls: New Zealand versus India replicated in the dust with a single bat and a pile of bricks for stumps.
I talked to a woman in a beautiful yellow sari. She gave me some jackfruit curry and two chapatis.And then the linear world of the Nandigram Express was at Varanasi Junction and I was back out on another platform.
Nothing changes but everything changes… – Sharon O’Neil, Kids in Our Town (1983)
I turned 29 in India. It was 1992. My girlfriend Linda (now my wife of 27 years) and I were four months into a nine-month journey from Britain back home to New Zealand. On this trip we had already visited Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia. We’d celebrated Christmas 1991 at the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and New Year in Harare. We had stood on the summit of the Khyber Pass in Pakistan and looked down into Afghanistan and spent weeks having some epic adventures in the wintery vastness of the Karakoram Mountains.
Now, we were in Pushkar, a small town in Rajasthan, the desert state in India’s north-east. For my birthday, we ate at a restaurant overlooking a lake and drank a bhang lassi (a yoghurt drink laced with marijuana). We were young and free and the world was our playground. We would spend another month in India, then cross the border into Nepal. From Kathmandu we would eventually fly to Hong Hong, spend a month in China then travel down the length of Southeast Asia: through Thailand, Malaysia and the long, jewelled necklace of Indonesia, all the way to Timor, across to Darwin and home.
Travel was in our blood. It was what we did best. We got married, worked for a year, and left again. Back to the road. Out in the world. New York, Amsterdam, England, Iran, Pakistan again, and China. By then it was 1994. We went home to Geraldine. Settled down. Bought a house, raised two amazing daughters. Careers, bankruptcy, a secure job. Money. The stuff of life. And then, I was back in India.
I turned 57 in India. I was in the holy city of Allahabad, where the three holiest rivers in India – the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Sarasvati – join their waters together. I’d come to India alone this time, for no other reason than to challenge myself out in the world. But everything was different. India was crowded, filthy, noisy and incomprehensible. As a twenty-nine year old, travelling with Linda, it had been easy. We had slept in bug-infested flop-houses, eaten in the cheapest joints, ridden 3rd class and haggled over every last Rupee. We had leaned on each other and it had made the hardships bearable…even fun.
But now, of course, I was different. The hard-core backpacker lifestyle held no attraction anymore. I had thought that it would: it didn’t. I was too old and too used to comfort to slum it. So I moved up-market. I stayed in nice hotels; I rode 2nd Class Air Conditioned trains; I took Ola and Uber rides whenever I could; I found cafes serving good coffee; and I used technology – Google Maps, a hotel booking app, Wikipedia – for all of my research, planning and logistics. It made travelling easier. It made it bearable.
India is fun. India is chaotic, filthy, bizarre, unknowable. I am a ghost here…a ghost of my younger self. I turned 29 in India. And I turned 57 in India. Nothing changes but everything changes.
The lights went out. And we were on our way to Gondwana.
There is something ineffably romantic about an Indian railway station at night. The hot air, the rumble of steel wheels on iron rails, the beggars, the dogs, the huddled forms of people sleeping, wrapped in their blankets; the squawk of the tannoy announcing arrivals and departures to all points across the country, the hawkers – “pani, pani, pani” – selling water, the red-clad porters; the toilet stink of urine, the smell of diesel and dust, the stark light of arc lamps casting hard shadows on the platforms. And over it all, a fat orange moon hanging low in the velvet sky.
My train, the Nandigram Express, arrived at Aurangabad Station at precisely eleven pm. I clambered aboard and after a short search, found my berth, Number 4, an upper level bunk. By the time I’d lifted my little backpack and myself up, the train was in motion. I curled up. The lights went out. And we were on our way to Gondwana.
The supercontinent of Gondwana (also known by the erroneous name Gonwanaland: erroneous because the word wana itself means “land”) existed from the Neoproterozoic Era (500 million years ago) until the Jurassic Period (around 180 mya). It was formed by the accretion of several massive chunks (cratons) of the Earth’s crust and covered an area of approximately 100 million square kilometres: around one-fifth of the planet’s surface.
Around 180 mya, Gondwana began to break up. Driven by plate tectonics and volcanism, the continent split into a number of new cratons. These massive chunks of land would eventually become the continents of Antarctica, Australia, South America and Africa. Another, smaller piece would, eventually, become my home, the mostly submerged, waterworld continent of Zelandia. And finally, a small piece would become India.
The fossilised remains of Gondwana’s flora, especially a species of tree known as Glossopteris, can today be found on all of the continents that once comprised the supercontinent. In Antarctica, which lay in the centre of Gondwana, fossils of tropical trees can be found: evidence that the frozen continent was once an Equatorial paradise. And India was on the move, drifting north at a rapid rate until it smashed headlong into Asia. And it was in India that Dr Seuss (no relation) came up with the name Gondwana.
Eduard Suess (1831-1914) was an Austrian geologist and it was he who first noticed the correlation of glossopteris fossils found on the continents that had once all been joined together. He derived the name Gondwana from the Indian region, home to the Gond people, where rocks containing the fossils had been found. Now, as I slept, lulled by the gently rocking motion of the Nandigram Express, I was bound for Nagpur, capital of the Gond Region, on a night train to Gondwana.
Seven islands on the high side of the bay as you’re looking west… – Gordon Lightfoot
Dusk on the Arabian Sea. As the sun dips behind the distant skyline of the Deccan Traps, a warm breeze ripples the bay where the sea touches Mumbai. The ferry leaves its stone pier beside the Gateway of India, built to commemorate the arrival of George V and the Empress Queen Mary in 1911 and cuts its way out onto the darkening waters. Oil rigs and tramp steamers lie moored in the sunset light. Seabirds wheel and swoop alongside the ferry’s superstructure. The fare to Alibag, an hour away on the farther shore, the Indian shore, is 25 Rupees.
The modern city of Mumbai comprises what was, originally, seven separate islands: Colaba, Old Woman’s Island, Mahim, Mazagaan, Parel, Worli and the Isle of Bombay. The island’s first inhabitants were the Koli people, who migrated from Gujarat sometime in prehistory. The islands were incorporated into the Mauryan Empire under the Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. Ashoka encouraged the islands to become a centre of Buddhist culture and they remained so until they came under the suzerainty of the Moghul Empire in the 14th century. The Gujarat Sultanate took over control in the 15th century and they, in turn were succeeded by the Portuguese, who acquired the islands as part of the Treaty of Bassein in 1535.
By then, European powers were exerting an increased amount of control in the subcontinent. The British entered the picture in 1661 when the islands were ceded to them as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II. Strapped for cash, Charles rented the islands to the East India Company in 1668 for the sum of £10 per annum. By 1845, the islands had been merged by land reclamation into one landmass.
For several decades, Mumbai – or Bombay, as the British called it – was the hub of the East India Company’s operations in India. Following the Indian Mutiny of 1857, control of the subcontinent was wrested from the increasingly inept and dangerous East India Company and India became the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire and the heady days of The Raj, celebrated in novels and songs, began.
But nothing in India lasts forever. The endless cycle of death and rebirth are a natural part of life and, as the Buddah said, everything must pass. By the time King George and his wife arrived to inspect their Indian dominion, the glory days of the Empire were past. The grand sandstone arch of the Gateway of India would not be completed until 1924. A cardboard model was all that was there for the King and his missus to see in 1909.
Everything must pass. Even empires. The ferry motors east into the night. The lights of Mumbai fade astern.
(This story, written in 1993, was my first attempt at travel writing. It was written on a small portable typewriter in our old house at 28 McKenze Street, Geraldine, New Zealand. I sent the story to The Press, one of New Zealand’s premier newspapers. It was not accepted for publication and it would be a further two years before my first travel story would be published. This is the first time that this story, about our journey down the Zaire (Congo) River, has appeared in public.)
In his novella Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad described the Congo River as “…an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.”
Today, the river is known as the Zaire (a Lingala word meaning “river”) but is largely unchanged from the river Conrad sailed in the early years of this century, as it sweeps through the implacable forest on its 4,300 kilometre journey from its headwaters in Zambia to the Atlantic Ocean. Where it meets the sea, the powerful current carries the discoloured water over 100 kilometres offshore, gouging a 1,200 metre deep canyon in the ocean floor in the process.
As dawn approaches, cool and mist-shrouded, the face of the river is revealed: opaque, inscrutable, an enigma of brown water. Here at Kisangani, where the river bends north-east, the Stanley Falls, named after the explorer Henry Morten Stanley, mark the upstream limit of the 1,900 kilometres of navigable river. Above the falls, the river is navigable in broken stretches for a further 1,600 kilometres, and the entire river, with its myriad of tributaries and branches, offers more than 13,000 kilometres of waterways reaching into every corner of the country.
Out in mid-river the current takes the barge in its grip…
Aboard the barge M.B. LOKOLE, the frenzy of pre-departure activity begins with the first glimmer of dawn. Our small group of western travellers, all passengers on an Overland Expedition travelling north form Nairobi to London, mark the boundaries of our section of steel decline a wagon train forming a protective circle. Around us, several hundred native Zairians come aboard laden with luggage, food, animals and children. Several goats are tethered beside us; a monkey on a leash stares down at us from a pole; baskets of blackened and evil-smelling smoked fish; fruit, vegetables, meat and a multitude of other delicacies culled from the forest and sold by the waterfront traders to passengers departing on the irregular ferries and barges which ply the river. The babel of colour and enterprise on the riverbank will disappear before the LOKOLE is out of sight – the traders returning to the main market in town or to their villages in the forest.
By 8:00 AM the sun has burnt the last tendrils of mist away and is already uncomfortably hot. We rig up a crude shelter using tent flies and sticks as the LOKOLE backs away from the waterfront and turns downstream. Out in mid-river the current takes the barge in its grip, insisting that it moves at the river’s swift pace. The river is wide – 2 kilometres at Kisangani – but its glossy surface hides sandbars and snags so the captain, Mr Chimungu, must steer a zig-zag course from bank to bank, guided by his old and dog-eared charts.
The day passes slowly. Heat presses down on the river and forest like a heavy blanket. The M.B. LOKOLE carries a cargo of dried fish, the cloying smell of which emanates from the hold and hangs in the air. Amazingly, people are camped down in the hold amongst the stinking load.
“It’s a lot cooler down here,” a man named Hastings tells me. “The smell is bad but you get used to it.”
Local traders paddle out from each village in pirogues: dugout canoes fashioned from single giant tree trunks. Each trader has something different to sell: mangoes, bananas, fish, a freshly-killed antelope, monkeys with their fur singed and hands cut off. Passengers haggle furiously and usually get the best deal as the LOKOLE carries the pirogues and their owners swiftly downstream necessitating quick sales before the traders are too far from home.
Late afternoon brings an immense thunderstorm. Jagged bolts of lightning leap down into the forest from towering black and gold clouds accompanied by peals of thunder and a wonderfully cooling rain. As the storm clears, night begins to fall. River and forest blend into one.
With a resounding crash the barge is run aground against the riverbank for the night, further navigation impossible in the darkness.
Without the noise of the engine, the night air is full of the sounds of the forest: cicadas and frogs, unseen birds and the occasional scream of an animal falling prey to another animal. The black water whispers against the steel hull and around us the people begin to sing, their rich, harmonious voices a Congo sleepsong.
Loud scraping and banging sounds signal our departure form the riverbank. The morning mist wreaths the forest crowding down to the water’s edge and swallows the tops of the highest trees. Against the mist the forest is deep green. Verdant. Impenetrable.
Soon after first light I go and sit with a group of men at the front of the barge and watch the morning come to life on the river. Fishermen cast weighted nets form their pirogues, each cast yielding several fish form the murky water. Birds glide low over the water catching insects or diving for small fish just below the glassy surface.
I strike up a conversation with a young man called Jacob, French-born to Zairian parents. He has come to Zaire to find his roots.
“This country has everything,” he says, “minerals, oil, fertile soil. It could feed itself and much of the rest of Africa if it was allowed to develop.
“But,” he continues, “this country has been brought to its knees by its corrupt government. It makes me very sad.”
Jacob’s comments echo the unspoken thoughts of most Zairians. Since taking power in 1965, President Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga (the name means “the always victorious warrior who is to be feared”) has squandered billions of dollars in export revenue and foreign aid while the infrastructure of Zaire has crumbled almost beyond belief. With a personal fortune estimated to be as high as five billion US dollars, Mobutu exerts a witch-doctor-like control over his people. His photograph is displayed in every shop, house and office; his official statements refer to Him in the upper case; press photographs always show him to be larger than the people around him.
But here on the river, life seems far removed from the political problems of Zaire. Traders continue to paddle furiously out to the barge, their muscles straining, faces contorted and sweating with the effort of catching the passing vessel and its potential customers.
The cries of the new-born baby girl mingle with the sounds of animals, chattering and laughing people, and the steady beat of the cleansing rain.
Mid-morning, we stop at a village to drop off passengers and freight. Wandering through the market, there doesn’t seem to be any food for sale, merely bananas and a few piles of soggy oranges. At the top of a dusty track we find a bar run by the local mission selling cold beer and Coca-cola. It is pleasantly cool and shady inside the bar-room, but soon the sound of the whistle has us running back down to the waterfront to re-join the LOKOLE, berthed alongside the rusting hull of a dis-used river ferry.
The afternoon heat is oppressive, but as afternoon draws into evening and the sun sinks languidly towards the forest, the daily thunderstorm arrives to cool the air. In true African fashion, a baby is born amid the chaos of passengers and cargo. In marked contrast to the drama attached to child-birth in the developed world, the mother simply squats down and with the help of two other women gives birth in just a few minutes. The cries of the new-born baby girl mingle with the sounds of animals, chattering and laughing people, and the steady beat of the cleansing rain.
Aground on the river-bank for a second night, three of us accompany Captain Chimungu up to a nearby village for a drink. The forest is silent and bitch black except for the pale starlight filtering down through the canopy. The Captain seems to be able to see in the dark, but mumurs that he comes this way “pour un bier” on every journey. The village is nothing more than a few huts amid a jungle clearing and we sit around a lantern drinking Primus brand beer and talking to the villagers in French and broken English. They tell us that Queen Elizabeth visited here in 1958 and that she owns some palm oil plantations in the area. I try to imagine Her Majesty and her entourage sitting around on tea chests drinking beer in this humid and isolated placeWhen the beer is all gone, we make our way back down through the stygian forest to the barge where millions of insects are swarming around the single light on the roof of the wheelhouse.
We continue downstream at first light. Slowly, people begin to stir aboard the barge. Women light their cooking fires and prepare the day’s first meal. The men collect in their usual groups around the deck to talk, smoke and play cards. Traders come out from the riverbank with their smoked fish and monkeys. The smoked monkeys are a macabre sight, their faces seared into grisly poses, teeth bared, eyes bulging.
We have almost no food left but Captain Chimungu takes pity on us helpless Muzungu (African slang for “white people”) and gives us some freshly-caught fish, some potatoes and some onions which we cook and eat along with some bully beef and some rice.
By 7:30 AM the sun is beating down from a sky the colour of burnished copper. The river is very wide, more like a shining lake than a river with the forest a thin, dark line on the far bank. Water hyacinths float gently in the current, taking all their nourishment form the river as they drift indolently towards the sea.
At midday the town of Bomba, our destination, comes into view. The scene at the waterfront is reminiscent of that at Kisangani, as traders vie for the best positions and passengers jostle in the queues waiting to disembark.
Captain Chimungu wishes us “Bon Chance” as we gather our tourist paraphernalia and clamber ashore. There is an impromptu “customs check” with the local police. A small bribe changes hands before we can set off up the dusty Main Street to find somewhere to stay.
Behind us, down at the river, a shrill whistle signals the departure of the M.B. LOKOLE on the next leg of its 1,900 kilometre journey around the bend in the river.
FOOTNOTE: Since September 1991, president Mobutu’s iron grip on Zaire has been loosened by civil unrest, rioting and secessionist uprisings.
The latest spate of turmoil, in January this year , was caused by Mr Mobutu’s issue of a virtually worthless five million Zaire banknote (the unit of currency is called the ‘Zaire”) in a vain attempt to keep up with the country’s hyperinflation. Up to 1,000 people, including the French ambassador, were reported to have been killed in the violence, perpetrated mainly by drunken soldiers from the Israeli-trained Elite Guard.
With support growing for the opposition Sacred Union Party, led by Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi, Mr Mobutu’s hold on power, and, some would say, reality, is becoming increasingly tenuous. There are fears, however, that with Mr Mobutu deposed, the country would dissolve into civil war. Zaire, four times the size of France, could easily fragment due to secessionist pressure in several parts of the country, especially the south-east.
It appears that Zaire’s future, like the great river in Conrad’s story, flows on “…into the heart of an immense darkness.”
President Mobutu Sese Seko was chucked out of power, and out of Zaire, in May 1997. He died a few months later in Morocco. Zaire was renamed The Democratic Republic of the Congo following Mobutu’s departure.
The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time. – Henry David Thoreau
On a hot, humid morning, one hundred and eighty million years ago, a volcano standing on the edge of a primeval forest of primitive conifers on the eastern coast of the supercontinent of Gondwana, erupted with shattering violence. The blast wave from the eruption spread out from the volcano’s conical slopes. Traveling at the speed of sound across the surrounding country, it flattened everything in its path. Trees were snapped off at ground level and flung down into haphazard rows. The heat of the blast instantly incinerated the foliage, their ashes blown into dust. The blackened plain was stripped to bare soil. Chunks of pumice and incandescent blobs of lava rained down on the devastated landscape. The sun was blotted out by a roiling plume of pulverized rock, dust and poisonous gas, lit by jagged bolts of lightning, which reached the stratosphere and was torn away by the jet stream to encircle the Earth. Worse was to come. Mudslides raced down the volcano’s sides, engulfing everything that remained in a cloying, anaerobic blanket. These lahars, as geologists call them, completed the work begun by the volcano’s blast. The flattened trees, the tree stumps, even the very soil of the plain, was buried under a thick layer of mud. The volcano continued to erupt. Lava flows covered the landscape. Rivers rose and fell, spreading sediment and gravel across the plain. Gales blew for thousands of years, carrying dust and grit from distant mountains to accumulate in deep beds of loess.
Its perpendicular heights had been laid flat. And it had been turned to stone.
But as the millennia ticked slowly by, the radioactive core of the planet began to cool. The volcanoes ceased to erupt. Their magma pipes solidified into plugs of solid rock that would one day form otherworldly clusters of symmetrical, vaguely conical mountains. Things settled down a bit. The Earth continued on along the elliptical path of its orbit around the sun. And time began seriously to pass. One hundred and eighty million years later, I awoke on the edge of a primeval shore of blackened reefs, pounding surf and a thin mist rolling off the sea onto a landscape frosted with ice. The air glowed pale pink above the coves of Curio Bay, fading up to a
rich blue as light from the rising sun filtered into the sky. Inside my truck, a rime of frozen condensation decorated the windscreen. The temperature felt well and truly subzero.
I started the engine and lay with my sleeping bag pulled up tight around my neck while the heater thawed out the interior. Below the isthmus where I was parked, the sea sloshed back and forth into a narrow slot in the reef. The water spilled out over the surrounding rock like an over-flowing bath. I could see penguins hopping into the water and swimming briskly out through the waving forests of kelp to their fishing grounds. The ocean steamed like a young man’s dreams. Later, after a reborative latte, hot and hot, full of sugar, and served up with a plate of toast, butter and jam, I set of along the cliff top though groves of rustling flax to the southern end of the bay. I descended a steel staircase to the reef, exposed by the receding tide, and walked out into the forest that had stood there so long ago.
The trees lay in the haphazard rows where they had fallen. Their stumps protruded from the soil beside them. It was as if I was standing there alone in a sylvan glade, with the sunlight filtering down and the sound of birds echoing around. The only difference was that this was a horizontal forest. Its perpendicular heights had been laid flat. And it had been turned to stone. On that distant day when the forest had been overwhelmed by the lahars, the fallen trees, the tree stumps, and even the soil was buried in a layer of volcanic ooze devoid of oxygen. As oxygen is required in order to make organic material decompose, the buried forest had simply lain there, inert, encased in its sterile cocoon of mud. As time passed and the volcanic conniptions above had quieted then ceased, a process began which would completely replace the stem tissue of the trees with minerals. This process. known as permineralization, retains the original cell structure of the parent tissue, but replaces it with silicates such as quartz. The permineralization, or petrification, process can only occur underground and takes millions of years to complete. The rivers which flowed across that ancient landscape were rich in the minerals required to petrify the tissue of the buried forest. As the mineral-laden water permiated through the layers of mud, the minerals began replacing the lignin and cellulose in the plant tissue, forming a kind of stone mould which retained the shape of the cells down to a microscopic level. Elements such as chromium, manganese, carbon, iron and copper created different hues in the petrified tree trunks.
The tree stumps
underwent an identical process, which preserved and petrified them in the ground where the trees had stood. Even the soil, which is, of course, organic material, became petrified. But while this unhurried, gentle transformation was taking place at a cellular level, another bigger, more ambitious transformation was going on around it. The rocks where the trees lay, the volcanoes and, indeed, a big chunk of Gondwana itself, was on the move.
The the lump of continental crust that would one day be known as Zealandia lay on the eastern side of Gondwana. For millions of years this massive supercontinent, itself a remnant of another former supercontinent, Pangea, had wandered the globe: a gigantic raft of rock floating on a subterraneann ocean of magma. Eighty million years had passed since that summer day when the volcano had erupted and buried the trees. As the eons ticked by, ranges of mountains were eroded by wind and frost, ice and water. Their sediments were washed into shallow depressions in the continent’s surface, accumulating layer upon heavy layer and pressing down on the crust beneath. As the weight increased, the crust began to stretch and become thinner. Continual faulting and rifting created a basin into which the sea flooded. Elsewhere on Gondwana, the continental blocks that would one day become Australia and Antarctica were also in the process of separating from their mother continent. But out on the eastern coast, as the inland sea grew wider and wider, New Zealand and Australia would now forever be separated by an ocean.
Around seventy-five million years ago, Zealandia was completely separated from the remains of Gondwana. The seafloor between the two continental blocks continued to spread apart, pushed by upwellings of new rock on the fault line between the Indo-Australian Plate and the Pacific Plate. On this slow-moving porridge-pot of rock, constantly subsiding and cracking and bubbling, the tiny chunk containing the petrified trees rode. By forty million years ago it was roughly in the position it occupies now, albeit still buried deep in the floating crust. As New Zealand came to a halt, a new tectonic fault grabbed it like a slewing truck, sliding half of it northwards to form the North Island. As the Pacific plate shoved against this new fault, the rocks surrounding the ancient, lithified trees were thrust upwards to the surface. The scene was set for the trees to re-emerge for me to stand on, one-hundred and eighty million years after they had been buried.
…with me standing there in a clearing like a character from a science fiction film.
There was one final stage of the process. The surrounding rocks needed to be stripped away from the petrified trees, stumps and soil. For that to occur, some decent erosion was required. And for that, you need some big, energy-laden waves. Luckily, plate tectonics had sorted that out as well. The Gonwandan remnant that made up Australia and Antarctica had been split apart by tectonic action separate from that which had been working on Zealandia in general and New Zealand in particular. As Antarctica wandered off from Australia like a runaway child, oceanic currents began to circulate around it. These currents, known as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, effectively isolated Antarctica, upon whose shores tropical forests had once flourished, from the warmth of Australia and South America. The continent froze.
Frigid storms wracked the cold waters around Antarctic, generating huge seas whose waves, propagating outwards, smashed into the southern coast of the South Island. The energy contained in the waves began eroding the rocks surrounding the petrified trees, exposing them to daylight once more. They chipped and gnawed at the coastline, creating Curio Bay and nearby Porpoise Bay, and carving out the fretwork of cracks and fissures in the rocky platform where the trees lay.
I stood there now, watching the waves surging up onto the rocks. A flock of seagulls, looking like the black and white keyboard on an eighties synthesizer, fluttered and fussed just out of reach of the waves. Pools of water, left by the receding tide, lay around the trees. The sun glittered on their trunks and branches. The woodgrain stood out as clearly as a piece of new timber on a wood-turner’s lathe. The stumps were also plainly visible, their outer skin of bark and sapwood distinctly different in texture from the heartwood within. The surrounding soil, lithified just like the trees, formed carpets of raised grey nodules between the stumps.
I lingered there among the old trees for ages. Well, that is to say I lingered for an hour or so at least: The term “ages” being a highly relative term when I considered just how long the trees had lain there and the stupendous journey that they had been on. I couldn’t escape from the image they conjured in my mind of a quiet stand of forest, with a warm mesh of dappled sunlight filtering down, with me standing there in a clearing like a character from a science fiction film. I imagined the camera panning around me as I looked up into the towering canopy, with a flare of light coming into the wide-angle lens.
But then, alas, I was jolted back into reality by the wash of a wave coming over the rock platform and the arrival of a the first tour group of the day. I toyed with the idea of zapping them with my imaginary phaser but decided against it. So with my tricorder in my hand, I climbed the steel steps back up to the present day and set off north to find some trees that were still living.
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away… – Percy Bysshe Shelly, Ozymandius.
At Curdimurka Siding, the windows of an abandoned railway station stare sightlessly out onto a landscape of grey saltbush and red dirt. The roots of a coolibah tree have cracked and heaved the platform. Swallows nest in the eaves of the verandah; galahs roost on the rusted water tower. The tracks of the disused Central Australian Railway, half buried by drifting soil, converge into a vanishing point on the flat horizon.
The station building stands alone in the wilderness. Inside, the names of passing travellers are scrawled in charcoal on the flaking plaster walls. Through a grimy window I watch a four wheel drive towing a low-slung caravan and a cloud of red dust pass by out on the Oodnadatta Track. A loose sheet of corrugated iron rattles on the roof. The hiss of locomotive steam is just the sound of cicadas.
The Oodnadatta Track runs from the village of Marree, in central South Australia, to Oodnadatta, four hundred kilometres further north on the edge of the Simpson Desert. The track follows a course roughly parallel to the route taken by the Central Australian Railway.
The light is so harsh I am just a shadow in the resulting image.
Nicknamed “the Ghan” (short for Afghan, a reference to the Afghan cameleers who pioneered transport routes into Australia’s inland), the Central Australian Railway operated for more than a century. The last train passed down the line in 1980. A new railway had been built further west. The Ghan was no longer needed. The iron tracks were torn up. The stations, sidings, bridges and water towers were left to subside into the desert.
Beyond Curdimurka, on the edge of Lake Eyre, I walk out into a white limbo of salt. The hot air is heavy with the briny scent of sodium chloride. The thin, crystalline crust crunches underfoot. Fed by a catchment comprising one sixth of Australia’s area, Lake Eyre occasionally fills with water. But mostly it is dry: a bleached landscape of blue and white, like an overexposed photo negative. I set my camera on a tripod and take a selfie. The light is so harsh I am just a shadow in the resulting image.
On a flattened ridge overlooking the lake, some deranged artist has created steampunk sculptures from bits of iron scavenged from the railway. A pair of aircraft, their tails buried in the dirt, protrude from the ground. The scene is reminiscent of a Pink Floyd album cover. I leave the white sepulchre of Lake Eyre behind and drive north towards an unreachable point where the edges of the track converge and the sky comes down to meet the Earth.
I camp for the night beside a waterhole on the Warriner River. The girders of a Ghan railway bridge, balanced on thin steel struts, cross the river just downstream. Thousands of wading birds screech and titter on the water.
I pitch my tent on a spit of red sand surrounded by bright green acacia bushes laden with fragrant yellow flowers. My campfire crackles and snaps as I cook steak, onions and tinned peas for tea. Later, I drink coffee and condensed milk squeezed from a tube and watch the last rays of the sun drain from the sky.
I am struck by the thought that the heat and light produced by the burning wood of my campfire fell as sunlight on the Outback decades ago. In a strange, tenuous way, it connects me with the days when the Ghan trains rattled over the old bridge which now stands silhouetted by the rising moon.
…black-clad crows, like hunched station-masters, gurgle their disapproval.
Two thousand feet above William Creek, bush pilot Sarah Stevens puts her Cessna 172 into a long banking turn. The aircraft skips and yaws in the bumpy air. Our destination is the Painted Hills, a jumble of ridges and hummocks etched with ochre and yellow minerals, pure white clays and purple shales. As we fly low over the hills, their colours and tints are reflected from the underside of the Cessna’s wing.
We circle the gigantic spiral hole of the Prominent Hill copper mine then turn north-east on a heading of 063° which will take us back to William Creek. Far below, the waterways and channels look like veins on the back of an ancient hand. William Creek’s handful of buildings coalesce out of the haze. On our approach to the runway, I look down on the parallel lines of the Ghan railway and the Oodnadatta Track. They are nothing more than indistinct scratches on the landscape.
The Algebuckina Bridge spans the Neales River, fifty kilometres south-east of Oodnadatta. Completed in 1892, the colossal steel lattice of girders and cross-braces, half a kilometre long, seems to hang in the shimmering air above the green water of the river.
Steel bars block the ends of the bridge. Recklessly, I clamber around the outside edge and walk across, stepping from sleeper to sleeper. Corellas and galahs shriek at me from their guano-splattered roosts on the girders; black-clad crows, like hunched station-masters, gurgle their disapproval. In the centre of the bridge, the steelwork draws linear projections which collapse to vanishing points behind and ahead of me.
Oodnadatta, the “driest town in the driest state of the driest continent”, arrives out of the blue. After days alone in the wilderness, the ragged collection of buildings, scattered along a short, wide strip of tarmac, feels like a bustling urban environment. At the centre of Oodnadatta, The Pink Roadhouse could be a set from Pricilla Queen of the Desert.
I wallow in the sybaritic pleasures the roadhouse offers: hot showers, cold drinks, steak sandwiches. But I feel a strange desire to return to the long, converging vistas of the Oodnadatta Track, and the decaying remnants of the Ghan. I walk to the northern edge of town where the tarmac crumbles into red dirt again. The boundless desert stretches away before me. The road runs to a point where the sky comes down to meet the horizon, and vanishes.
I live and breathe the silences and dust where no man reigns… – Cold Chisel, Wild Colonial Boy
Dawn at Cooper Creek.Day begins early out here in the far north-east corner of South Australia.Long before first light seeps into the sky, the birds are awake: screeching and wailing and squabbling in the river red gums along the banks of the Minkie Waterhole.Sprawled on my camp stretcher, beneath the diaphanous folds of a mosquito net, I watch the stars fade.The Southern Cross, whose four points have shone brightly through the trees all night, lingers longest.The waterhole lies mirror-calm in its frame of trees, reflecting their gnarled branches and bushy crowns in perfect symmetry.
It is pointless trying to sleep with the avian racket going on overhead so I rise and boil water for tea: black of course, this is the Outback and milk is a luxury.I sit on a spit of white sand down by the creek watching the sunrise.Fish jump and plop out on the water.A pelican cranks itself aloft like a Catalina flying boat.I can already feel the heat seeping inexorably into the air even though the sun has yet to clear the horizon.
It is a ghost river in a land full of ghosts.
Cooper Creek is the third longest river in Central Australia.It rises on the inland slopes of the Great Dividing Range near Charters Towers, a thousand kilometres to the north-east.But unlike our steep New Zealand rivers, the Cooper is a sluggish creature.Its waters seep slowly westwards through thousands of channels and billabongs.Eventually it loses itself in the salty expanse of Lake Eyre, dying without fulfilling the dream of every river: to fall gently into the sea.It leaves no trace of its passing.It is a ghost river in a land full of ghosts.
In 1861, the explorers Robert O’Hara Burke and William Wills met their deaths on the banks of Cooper Creek not far from my camp.Burke was the leader of the grandly-named Great Inland Exploring Expedition which had set out from Melbourne in 1860 with the intention of being the first expedition to cross Australia from south to north.
Having established a base camp beside Cooper Creek, near present-day Innaminka, Burke and Wills, along with two others, set off north towards the Gulf of Carpentaria, two thousand kilometres away.It took them four months to reach the north coast of the continent and return.Through mismanagement and bad luck, by the time they arrived back at Cooper Creek one of their number, Charles Grey, was already dead.Burke, Wills and JohnKing, the third remaining member of the party, were in advanced stages of malnourishment.The rest of the expedition had given them up for dead and returned to civilization.The three men began starving to death in a land of plenty.
The local Aboriginal people had lived happily on the banks of the Cooper for millennia.
To them the waterholes, forest and scrub-lands were a well-stocked larder with everything needed to sustain them.But to the pompous Burke, the local people were not to be trusted and the party made little effort to learn from them.Consequently, first Burke then Wills expired: skeletons dressed in rags under the trees.Only King, who understood the locals’ abilities better, survived.He was rescued after four months.
With my breakfast of black tea finished, I break camp and set off in my 4WD.As I drive up the rutted track leading away from the creek I wave to Jim and Dave, a pair of retired teachers from Adelaide who are spending a week camping and fishing at the Minkie Waterhole.A dingo idles across the track in front of me; emus peer at me with wide, glossy eyes.I reach the road, which is really no more than a slightly wider dirt track than the one I have followed up from the edge of Cooper Creek, and turn east into the sunrise towards Innaminka.On the radio, through the static of the AM band, I hear the forecast temperature for the day: forty-three degrees.
Innaminka is a town that died and was reborn.Crouched on the edge of a howling, red-dirt wilderness, the few scattered buildings have been revitalized by both tourism and the discovery of natural gas reserves further west.The town originally comprised a pub and a police outpost servicing the lonely cattle stations along the Cooper.In 1910, the Australian Inland Mission established a hospital at Innaminka and for sixty years it provided medical care for the outback families and stockmen whose lives depended on the “mantle of safety” provided by the AIM hospitals across the Outback.
But eventually, Innaminka fell into disrepair.The pub burned down, the police post– described as “the loneliest posting in Australia” by officers unlucky enough to be sent there – closed and the AIM hospital fell into disrepair.Innaminka became a ghost town.
In the 1950’s a few audacious tourists began passing through the Cooper Creek area.A new pub was built and Innaminka began it’s long, slow come-back.In the 1990s the
vandalized ruins of the AIM hospital were completely re-built and now house the headquarters of the Innaminka National Park.And, best of all for a road-weary and dusty travel writer, the Outaminka Bar at the Innaminka Pub serves the best coffee west of the Blue Mountains.
I spend three days camped at various spots beside Cooper Creek.Each day I rise with the birds and set off to explore before the day becomes too hot.I visit the Dig Tree, an ancient coolabah tree where supplies were left for Burke and Wills by the expedition before they retreated back to Melbourne.The tree still bears Burke’s carved initials and the Roman numerals LXV denoting it as the expedition’s Camp 65.In 1899, a local man carved a likeness of Burke in the bark of a nearby tree.The solemn-eyed, ghostly carving still gazes sightlessly out across Cooper Creek.
An ominous bank of cloud, as black as charcoal, hangs over the landscape and bolts of silver lightning jump across the sky.
I visit the spots where first Burke, then Wills died.They are lonely, isolated places where the incandescent sun beats down with an almost tactile force.Hot winds shake the desiccated leaves of the gum trees with a sound like crumbling bones.In this land of vanishing rivers, beneath the vast cobalt dome of the sky, I often feel very small and alone.I can sense the endlessness of time out here.The implacable waters of the Cooper lie motionless between banks of sand, never giving up any secrets.Only the gurgling crows seem to recount the memories of ghosts.
By mid-afternoon each day the temperature reaches the forties and I retire to the cool sanctuary of the Innaminka Pub to drink cold liquids of various kinds and chat to the locals.The shop next door keeps me in supplies and I can update my Facebook page via satellite from there for a dollar a minute.
On the third morning, however, the weather is different.I awake to the low grumble of thunder off to the west.An ominous bank of cloud, as black as charcoal, hangs over the landscape and bolts of silver lightning jump across the sky.I break camp and drive into Innaminka.The dirt compound out in front of the pub is full of four wheel drives. Campers from all over the area have made for the safety of “town” before the roads become impassable.
The air is heavy with the sweet smell of rain: an aroma only the desert can produce.I sit on the verandah of the old AIM hospital and listen to the first heavy spots as they hit the corrugated iron roof.Thunder splits the sky and shafts of lightening crackle and fizz in the air.The rain increases in ferocity until it sounds like ball bearings hitting the roof.It seems as though all the energy amassed by the heat of the previous few days is suddenly being unleashed.
And then, just as suddenly as it arrived, the storm has passed.The sun sparkles on beads of rain hanging from the fences around the AIM.Wreaths of steam rise from the road.
The wet red dirt sticks to my boots as I walk across to the store where the assembled 4WD enthusiasts are discussing the weather.The forecast is for more rain in the days ahead.The last thing I want is to be trapped out here by a flood.
I decide to let discretion be the better part of valour and leave while I still can.I re-fuel my vehicle, send an e-mail home saying “I’m OK…see you soon”, then watch Innaminka fade in the rear-view mirror.
I reflect on the fact that Outback travel isn’t for everyone.The mind-bending distances, the punishing heat and the vast, silent, red-dirt spaces make visiting the Outback a very different prospect to the Australian coastal holiday experience.A digital display on the dashboard tells me it is forty-two degrees outside.I turn up the air conditioning and the stereo.Off to my left, Cooper Creek shimmers in a quicksilver mirage, then vanishes into the sunlight like a ghost.
He wears the colours of the summer soldier, carries the green flag all the winter long. – Jethro Tull, Jack-in-the-Green
Dawn on the Salisbury Plain. High above the market town of Marlborough, the B4003 – a narrow tarmac road slung between parallel lines of bushy hedgerows – undulates between fields of wheat and barley stitched neatly into the dark soil. The rising sun paints the crests and folds of the landscape in mauve and pale green. Tendrils of mist curl in the hollows like primordial phantoms.
Standing beside my borrowed car I can see out across the Vale of Wiltshire all the way to Swindon. An aircraft drags a vapour trail across the sky; the glitter-gleam of sunlight on chrome reflects from cars westbound on the M3 Motorway. Down there, the crowded and frenetic world of Southern England is coming to life on this warm Sunday in early June. But up here on the plain, the quiet, bucolic world of the West Country seems caught in a centuries-old time-warp.
The tightly-packed fields cover the surrounding land in a patchwork of russet and brown. Farmhouses crouch in the shelter of tiny valleys. I hear the rasping call of a pheasant in a nearby copse of sycamores. A pair of chaffinches twitter on a fencepost beside the road. Somewhere in the distance I can hear a pigeon calling out its mournful song which sounds like it is saying “take twoooo cows Taffy.”
We spent almost two years in the West Country. When the time came to leave and return to New Zealand it was like leaving home.
It is almost twenty years since I last saw this halcyon landscape. In the late eighties and early nineties my girlfriend (now my wife) Linda and I lived near Warminster, an army garrison town on the far side of the Salisbury Plain from where I now stand. Back then we were a couple of kids from rural South Canterbury out seeing the world. I had relatives living in Wiltshire. We found work in Warminster, rented a cottage in the nearby village of Corton, and settled down.
We spent almost two years in the West Country. When the time came to leave and return to New Zealand it was like leaving home. We had put down roots in the West Country. And now, quite by chance, I have an opportunity to return, albeit very briefly, to the Salisbury Plain.
I am in England for my cousin’s wedding. Three days before, I had escaped the winter blizzard which subsequently closed Christchurch Airport and had flown via the Arctic Circle to the warmth of a Northern Hemisphere summer. Still operating on New Zealand time, I’d found myself awake at 4am this morning and had set off into the cool dawn to drive across the Salisbury Plain to visit the Wylie Valley, where Linda and I had lived all those years ago.
At Avebury, a mysterious circle of giant stones stand erect in fields of short grass where desultory sheep are mooching in search of breakfast. The village consists of a pub (supposedly the only pub in Britain within a stone circle), a short street lined with picture-postcard thatched cottages and a stone parish church. The cottages are decked with Union Jacks and bunting to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee which took place just a few days ago. I walk through a lychgate set into a low wall and up the path to the church.
The church’s heavy timber door is locked so I wander around the grounds looking up at the walls and imagining the lives of the people who have worshipped here over the last thousand years. A gnarled oak, centuries old, unfolds its branches above the nearby graveyard. The headstones have been weathered and broken by time and are canted at odd angles in the soft ground. Wandering among the graves, I am struck by the thought that it was from quiet country parishes like this that many of New Zealand’s early settlers came from and that maybe, just maybe, one of my own ancestors may have once walked in this very place.
As I drive deeper into the Salisbury Plain, the landscape becomes bleaker and more empty. Up here, trees find it difficult to grow in the thin, chalky soil and the sky-scape is big and open. In places, tank tracks flagged with concrete paving stones cross the road. The British Army occupies large tracts of land on the plain, which it uses for training soldiers and tank crews. Working in Warminster during the first Gulf War in 1991, we were treated to daily shows of military firepower as tanks, infantry and A10 strike aircraft practised the manoeuvres they would use against Saddam Hussein’s forces in the deserts of Iraq, a world away from the green folds of the Salisbury Plain.
a translucent dream-world of pillars…
A thick mist covers the plain as I approach Stonehenge. The great stone circle, with its massive lintels, looms out of the mist like an unfinished city. Tall mesh fences surround the entire site and security guards in bright green Hi-viz vests patrol the perimeter. Lurid signs warn of the penalties for entering the grounds without paying the extortionate entry fee charged by English Heritage.
A group of druids clad in white robes are gathered in the centre of the circle – it is approaching Summer Solstice – and I figure they must have negotiated some sort of spiritual, New Age bulk entry to the site. For my part, having wandered around Stonehenge many times in the past when security was less intrusive, I have no desire to experience the place again. As I drive away, the sun breaks through the mist and illuminates Stonehenge in a purple haze.
I follow a by-way down a gentle valley cloaked in deep green forest. The mist hangs in the trees and drifts across the road in eddies and swirls. In the half-light of early morning it feels like I am driving through a translucent dream-world of pillars propping up an invisible sky. The aroma of wet earth and vegetation fills the air. A fallow deer peers at me from a clearing beside the road.
At Corton, a few more miles down the road, I feel like I am home.
I cross the A303 motorway and dive off onto a narrow lane called High Street. Suddenly, I am in the familiar surroundings of the Wylie Valley. The road winds through the thatched hamlets of Bapton and Stockton, still asleep at this hour.
On the hillside behind the tiny stone church at Stockton, a giant ANZAC insignia commemorates the thousands of New Zealand and Australian soldiers who camped here during World War One while they trained up on the Salisbury Plain. In the churchyard, a handful of white, rectangular headstones mark the resting places of ANZAC soldiers who succumbed not to war wounds, but to influenza.
I turn off onto a tiny lane leading between hedges of hawthorn down to Sherrington. In olden days, villages like this were a tiny microcosm of the world: with a pub, Post Office, black-smith and manor house. These days, places like Sherrington are inhabited by city professionals, who commute from their rural idyll to work in the glass and steel towers of London and Salisbury.
In the centre of the village, the quiet Wylie River spreads out into rectangular water meadows where cress and mint grow wild and the thatched cottages unfold their reflections on the water. In the wall of the old Post Office, now someone’s house, a bright red VR mailbox recalls long-gone days when Queen Victoria’s empire spanned the world and even quiet corners of England like this were part of a global village.
At Corton, a few more miles down the road, I feel like I am home. I drive past The Dove Inn – where Linda worked as a chef – and down the street to 42a, the house owned by my aunt, Lady Ann Blakiston, where we lived. Nothing seems to have changed. Sundial Farm, across the road, is still owned by Richard and Robin Witt; next door, Saracen’s Cottage still has its window-boxes full of pansies.
I walk around the village savouring the warm feeling of nostalgia. Although my life has taken me a long way from this place, I remember with fondness the time we spent here. Ash and chestnut trees lean over the street, draping their olive and emerald leaves almost to the ground. Doves coo in dovecotes and crows gurgle like disembodied spirits from the rooftops. The millstream chatters between its primrose-clad banks. Dew shimmers on the village green.
Beyond Corton, Five Ash Lane runs along at the foot of the Great Ridge Wood. In places, centuries of traffic has sunk the road-bed deep into the ground like a fortification. I park the car in a lay-by and walk into the wood. A bridal path climbs gently through alders and birches which drip with viridian and lime foliage, dappled with pale gold and shimmering white.
Even the air seems tinged with green as if the sunlight has distilled the colour of the trees into itself. A fox crosses the path ahead and pauses to stare at me with dark, malevolent eyes. I hear it’s rasping call long after it tweedy coat has rendered it invisible in the undergrowth.
I crest the hill and the landscape bursts in front of me, rolling away in waves of olive and teal, dotted with the shattered white of chalk outcrops and the bright yellow of rape fields. A skylark twitters somewhere overhead and I can hear the tolling of the church bell at nearby Sutton Veny.
I sit on a rock and look out over the Wylie Valley. Soon I will have to begin my journey home to the bright blue winter skies of New Zealand. But for now I am content to sit here in this quiet corner of England where ridge after wooded ridge roll away before me, fading gradually into fifty shades of green.
Beyond Stanley – a trendy seaside suburb on a peninsula suspended from the south coast of Hong Kong Island – the Wilson Trail climbs steeply up the flank of Ma Kong Shan. A cool breeze blows in from the South China Sea, rustling through the leaves of the low shrubs and stunted trees cloaking the hillside. Far below, the sandy coastline traces a white line between the sea and the green hills. Across the bay, Lilliputian machinery pulverizes rock from the deep gash of a quarry: raw material for Hong Kong’s insatiable appetite for reclamation.
An hour’s climbing has taken me from the seaside to the high tops. The path alternates between concrete steps and rough gravel. A black snake, sunning itself on a boulder, eyes me balefully then slithers off into the grass. Fantail warblers twitter in the undergrowth. I meet a party of Japanese ladies hiking in the opposite direction towards Stanley, red-faced and puffing beneath floppy hats. From the summit of Violet Hill I can see China.
The usual perception of Hong Kong is one of crowded streets cut like canyons through forests of Lego-block apartments, avalanches of neon along Nathan Road and perfect blue buildings beside the milky green waters of Victoria Harbour. But Hong Kong has a secret alter ego. Step away from the frenetic crush of the city and you enter a world of lush lowlands, bamboo forests, rugged mountains and empty beaches. Dozens of walking trails give access to Hong Kong’s parks, making it east to escape the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the city.
From Violet Hill the trail crosses the flanks of Mt Butler then descends into the urban
chaos of Quarry Bay. One minute I’m strolling through a forest of silent bamboo; the next I am on a city street, with concrete under my feet and a maelstrom of traffic swirling around me.
The following day I ride a gleaming MTR (Mass Transit Railway) train beneath the harbour to Lam Tin, where the New Territories section of the Wilson Trail begins. As the
train comes to a halt, its doors slide open in a silent ballet of technology and I step out onto Mainland China. As I walk out of the station into the congestion of Lam Tim, half the world’s landmass lies ahead of me. Given time, and the right visas, I could conceivably walked all the way to the English Channel.
But I have my sights set on a slightly less ambitions goal: to walk across the New Territories on the northern section of the Wilson Trail. I navigate through a wilderness of towering apartment blocks – pausing at a noodle joint for a late breakfast – and then, as suddenly as I had entered the city the previous day, I am in the hills again.
The trail climbs through a shady forest of rhododendrons.
The path curves upwards along the flank of a ridge to the remains of a old fort which once guarded the eastern approaches to Victoria Harbour. Huge cargo ships lie at anchor in a bay below. The hillside is covered by a vast, tiered graveyard, which steps down the hill like paddy fields of grey concrete.
It is a long, hot haul up seemingly endless steps to the summit of Lion Rock which stands like a sentinel above Kowloon. The city rumbles far below. Chrome and glass gleam in the sunlight. Down there, the whirl of trade and commerce continues amid the oppressive crush of the city. All I have is open sky and long blue vistas across the hazy hills.
After two days of hiking I take a day off in order to rest my feet and legs, which ache from the jarring of walking up and down concrete steps. But although my 21st-floor hotel room tempts me to indulge in slothful indolence, the city filling the window is too full of potential adventure to resist for long. So I fill my day riding trams to and fro along the
waterfront, poking my nose into back alleys and browsing in shops selling a happy miscellany of goods.
Next morning I take the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR) out to the New Territories town of Lo Wu where I pick up the Wilson Trail again. The trail climbs through a shady forest of rhododendrons. I meet a family out for a stroll along the ridgeline and we sit chatting in the shade of a pagoda on the hilltop.
The trail wiggles indecisively across the hillside, beneath antennas and communications towers, towards the eerie no-man’s land between the Hong Kong Special Administration Region and the People’s Republic of China. In the distance, crouching in a pall of smog, lie the skyscrapers of Shenzhen, the first city beyond the border. It isn’t exactly the end of the trail but I have a hankering for a cold beer and a sit down. My Chinese friends have headed back down the hill and I decide to follow them. I can leave the last few kilometres of the Wilson Trail for another time.
As the train glides silently back into the metropolis I sit with my feet up on my backpack and reflect on the juxtapositions I have witnessed on my walk across the rooftops of Hong Kong. I have hiked the high tops and the teeming lowlands, gazed down the long views and the peered into urban interiors. The sophistication of the city has nestled easily alongside the simplicity of the countryside: perfect blue buildings, the press of humanity and the emptiness of the hills.