Moonlight Encounter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

extracted from The Greenstone Water

 

A WALK ACROSS THE ROOFTOPS

Hong Kong has a secret alter ego.

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.

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The Noonday Gun, Stanley, made famous in the Noel Coward ditty Mad Dogs and Englismen.

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.

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The Wilson Trail in the New Territories.

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

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Floating Homes, Quarry Bay.

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

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Forest shrine in the New Territories.

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

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Caged songbirds in a Kowloon backstreet.

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.

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China in the distance.

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.

Wide Awake in Dreamland

Out here nothing changes,
not in a hurry anyway.
You feel the endlessness,
running on the light of day…
                 – Goanna, Solid Rock

Before the Dreamtime there was nothing.  The Earth was flat and lifeless; no stars glittered in the sky.  The universe was dark and silent.  The Ancestors lay sleeping, deep in the ground where they had passed the ages.  But the Ancestors were restless; their long sleep was nearing its end.  On the first morning of the world they awoke, flexed their ancient limbs and began calling the world into existence. 

Emerging from the ground they created the stars and the moon.  They created the animals – the frilled lizards, the snakes and the kangaroos – and the rains.  They brought forth all the rainbow-hued birds and created trees in which the could live.  They made the people, the laws and language and dance.  They carved the rivers, filled the seas and built the mountain ranges.  And as they brought the world to life, the Ancestors walked the land, naming the places and singing songs of the creation.

The story of Lungkata was also a blueprint, a route map, a recipe book and a parable. 

At Uluru I came face to face with these Dreamtime stories, etched into the flanks of the great red stone white men named Ayers Rock.  On the 1800 kilometre flight west from the rainforests of Far North Queensland, I had travelled back in time both literally (the Northern Territory is half an hour behind Eastern time) and figuratively, to the six hundred million year old Red Centre of Australia.  The landscape which unfolded beneath the aircraft’s wing seemed so old it was almost worn out.  Its features – dry creek beds, bony ridges, rumpled sand dunes – looked like blood vessels and sinews in the back of an old man’s hand.

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Uluru (stock photograph)

The aircraft’s final approach took us over Uluru at dusk.  As the pilot executed a banking turn into Connelan Airport, I had a glimpse of the rock standing pink and mauve amid a sea of sunset orange.  The surrounding landscape was covered with desert vegetation: yellow spinifex grass, desert oaks, mulga trees and a profusion of desert flowers which had sprung to life after a recent rainstorm.

Archeological evidence suggests that Aboriginal people have lived around Uluru for at least 10,000 years.  According to the tjukurpa (pronounced “chooka-pa”), or law, of the local Anangu people, Uluru was built by two boys who played in the mud after the rains which followed the creation.  In Anangu legend the three central ancestral beings of the creation were the Mala (rufus hare wallabies), the Kuniya (woma pythons) and the Liru (poisonous snakes).  The stories of each of these beings is engraved onto the surface of Uluru in the form of protruding rocks, snake-shaped cracks, ocular caves and dozens of vaguely human and animal profiles.

The following morning I went walking with Jacob Puntaru, an Anangu elder, and Kathy Tozer, a white Australian who has developed a close rapport with the Anangu people.  Kathy interpreted my questions for Jacob and translated his replies.  We followed a path through olive-green mulga trees to a clearing where we sat while Jacob lit a fire.  His skin was as black as night; his face and hands had been deeply wrinkled by the bright Central Australian sun.  As the astringent eucalypt smoke swirled around us, Jacob related the story of Lungkata, the blue-tongued lizard.     

“Long ago,” he said,  “Lungkata traveled up from his country to Uluru.  He came across Panpanpalala, a bell-bird man, who had killed an emu and had set about cooking it.  The bell-bird man was asleep so Lungkata stole the emu and took it to a hideout, way up there.”

Jacob paused and pointed to a small cave notched into the rock near the summit of Uluru2Uluru. 

“When the bell-bird man discovered his emu gone he went to ask Lungkata if he had seen it.  Lungkata replied that he hadn’t.  But Lungkata had broken a sacred law by stealing the emu and as punishment the bell-bird man set fire to the rock.  Lungkata was burned and fell to his death.” 

The sheer face beneath the cave was blackened as if a fire had, indeed, swept the rock.  Jacob waved his hand towards the foot of Uluru. 

“Over there you can still see pieces of the emu lying on the ground turned to stone,” he said.  “And the tail of Lungkata is poking from the ground nearby.”

As I listened to the story I realized that what I was hearing wasn’t simply an entertaining tale.  The story of Lungkata was also a blueprint, a route map, a recipe book and a parable.  The information imbedded in this and every Aboriginal legend has been passed down through the generations.  With each telling, more information would be added to the story.  So a person traveling to Uluru would be able to go over this and other stories in his mind and divine the best route, where to find food and water, how to cook the food he found and how to behave when he reached his destination. 

To the untutored European ear, Aboriginal stories seem nothing more than quaint works of native fiction. Yet the parable of Lungkata has a deep significance for modern visitors to Uluru.  Before the advent of tourism, only initiated Anangu men were allowed to climb Uluru.  But nowadays, with hundreds of people clambering up the steep path to the top of rock each day, accidents are bound to happen.  When a person falls to their death, and the Anangu hear the helicopter rotors thrashing the hot air as the body is recovered, they see it as the legend of Lungkata coming true.

“This is not something I made up to entertain visitors,” Jacob Puntaru said.  “These things really happened and you only have to look at the rock to see the proof.” 

The sand underfoot was the colour of chili powder and every bit as hot.        

Later, I set off to walk the nine-kilometre path around the base of Uluru.  The rock rose from the desert in great billows like an enormous petrified wave.  Its deep red colour was bought into sharp relief by the intense blue of the sky.  Iron oxides ran in stripes through the stone which felt cold when I touched it, like the skin of a reptile.    

It was easy to see how the Anangu could read stories into every crease and bulge of Uluru.  Staring up at the rock from the sparse shade of a  bloodwood tree I could see a dingo’s paw, a human face, the pock marks of spear-thrusts and a coiled snake.    

Uluru3The sand underfoot was the colour of chili powder and every bit as hot.  Occasionally, a breeze would come out of nowhere, blow for a few minutes, then fade to nothing.  These desert zephyrs, however fleeting, were a welcome relief from the heat and made me less envious of the tourists cruising by in air-conditioned buses. 

It took three hours to circumnavigate Uluru.  As I explored the rock’s recesses and gorges I began to sense the endlessness of time out here.  The domes of nearby Kata Tjuta and the monolithic bulk of Uluru have seen the sun rise for 109 billion mornings.  We humans, on the other hand, have existed for a mere eye-blink of time by comparison.   

After a cold drink, I headed west in my rented 4WD.  The sun dissolved the road into a shimmering mirage: the landscape swam and wobbled in the heat as if I was looking at it through a glass bottle.  The sky was incandescent, the colour of burning magnesium.  Ahead of me, the domes of Kata Tjuta rose from the desert like a cluster of bald heads.      

To the Anangu people, Kata Tjuta (also known as the Olgas) is a deeply sacred place.  For 10,000 years they have lived around these 36 strange red rocks – whose name means “many heads.”

The car park at Olga Gorge was empty.  Leaving my vehicle parked in the meager shade of a mulga bush, I set off along a rocky path leading upwards between the highest domes.  The air was blisteringly hot.  Dunnie budgies (flies) swarmed around me.  The domes were composed of orange pebbles cemented together with coarse red gravel the consistency of crumbled biscuit.  Time, wind and water had sculpted their sheer sides with Mondrian-style stripes, grooves and fissures.

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Kata Tjuta (stock photo)

As I climbed higher the gorge narrowed, constricted between the sheer walls which seemed to lean inwards until the sky was reduced to a crack of cobalt blue overhead.  A wooden observation platform stood amid stunted bushes at the head of the gorge.  Had I been there at sunrise or sunset the view would have been stunning.  But the afternoon air was suffocatingly hot – each breath felt like I was inhaling molten treacle – and the determined hordes of flies detracted from my enjoyment of the vista.  After a short time I decided to retreat. 

In the endless sea of scrubby desert surrounding Uluru, the Aboriginal people have found all they need to sustain their culture, the oldest on Earth.          

As I walked back down the gorge, a squadron of tour buses materialized in the car park as if created out of the hot air.  A crowd of sweating tourists began toiling towards me, swatting at the flies and stumbling over the rough ground in shoes more suited to a cocktail bar than an outback hillside.  I saw an American woman wearing rubber kitchen gloves and a face mask and carrying a can of fly spray. 

On the way back to Yulara (the village which provides amenities for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park) an Aboriginal man flagged me down.  His wife and two children sat in the shade of a battered Holden station-wagon playing cards. 

“Buy us some beer would ya mate,” he asked through the open passenger side window.  It is a request tourists often hear around Yulara.  The Anangu elders have declared the area “dry” and the only way Aboriginal people can obtain alcohol is by getting tourists to buy it for them.  I was tempted to oblige him – I was hankering after a cold beer myself – but out of respect for the local by-law I politely refused and gave him some cans of lemonade for his kids.

I rose at 4.00 am next morning to watch the sunrise light up Uluru as it has done for the last 109 billion mornings.  Parked between two tour-buses I sat on the roof of the 4WD in the chilly darkness before dawn.  The bulk of Uluru was nothing more than an area of blackness against the starry sky.  But as the light grew stronger the rock began to glow, first a pale blue, then deep purple and finally, in the instant before sunrise, a rich ochreous red.

Within minutes, the tour-buses departed, conveying their passengers to buffet breakfasts in air-conditioned hotels. I was alone in the desert.I thought about the stories Jacob Puntaru had told me the previous day.  In the endless sea of scrubby desert surrounding Uluru, the Aboriginal people have found all they need to sustain their culture, the oldest on Earth.  They recognize the interconnectedness of all things, from grains of sand to the mightiest of mountains.  While Europeans see the land as a resource to be exploited and changed to suit them, Aboriginals see themselves as keepers of the land and strive to keep it the way it is: part of the never-ending legend of the Dreamtime     

Maps

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

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

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

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China: The Middle Kingdom.
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Indonesia.

 

The City of Light

“I dig my toes into the sand;
The ocean looks like a thousand diamonds,
strewn across a blue blanket…”
                                 – Incubus, Wish You Were Here

Dawn on Tahunanui Back Beach. At this hour, the beach is empty: a strand of grey sand adorned with a tide-wrack of driftwood. Off to the west, the heaped blue hills of Able Tasman National Park crouch in a purple and mauve haze. The ocean is mirror calm, and slides up onto the sand with a low, sibilant hiss. Offshore, a sailboat, hull down on the horizon, makes its way north on the tremulous breeze; a container ship, like a floating, angular city, makes its approach to the Port of Nelson.

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I walk east along the beach towards the rising sun. The sand is cool beneath my bare feet. The receding tide has left an archipelago of tiny, wet-sand islands. Terns and gulls take momentary possession of these new lands then flee, crying, at my approach. The upper limb of the sun clears the horizon and golden light floods across Tasman Bay.

At the end of the beach I cross State Highway 6 and climb the two hundred and sixty-nine steps to Queen’s Road Reserve.

Nelson is a city of light. Situated at the top end of the South Island, the city receives two thousand four hundred hours of sunshine annually, making it one of New Zealand’s sunniest places. “The Naples of the Southern Hemisphere” proclaimed one early chronicler, in reference to its sunny location. Established in 1841, Nelson is the country’s second oldest city. Its founder, Arthur Wakefield, named it after Horatio Nelson, the famed naval commander who won the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic War.

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Driftwood Life.

Many of the city’s streets and public places commemorate people and actions from Trafalgar.

 

At the end of the beach I cross State Highway 6 and climb the two hundred and sixty-nine steps to Queen’s Road Reserve. From the park’s observation platform I have an uninterrupted view of the vast, pale expanse of the bay. The long narrow isthmus known as the Boulder Bank, its end hooked like a shepherd’s crook, shelters the waters of Nelson Haven, the city’s long, deep harbour. An exclamation-point lighthouse guards the entrance; a flight of steel cranes stand waiting up at the port.

 

It is mid-January, high summer in Nelson. My family and I are staying in a rented house a few minutes’ walk from the beach. Arriving the previous day – a hot, windy Friday – we had unloaded our stuff and headed straight for the sea. The water of Tasman Bay is shallow, and warms to the temperature of a bath. We swam in the gently toppling waves then lay on the sand to dry out. Later, we’d walked across the road to Sands Fish and Chips for a post-swim snack, ably assisted by some of the local gulls.

Every Saturday morning, the Nelson Farmers Market cranks into life in Montgomery Square, right in the centre of town.  The market is the usual collection of meretricious jewellery, organic produce, gimcrack souvenirs and dubious works of local art, mixed with coffee, food stalls and a few buskers. At the end of one row of stalls, AJ Hickling is playing an upright piano he salvaged from a rubbish dump. Dressed in a chunky hand-knitted poncho, dreadlocks hanging down over his tanned, tattooed shoulders, he is acity3 virtuoso player and I watch, captivated, for an hour. Money cascades into his tin; tourists, including myself, upload videos and pictures to social media in real-time.

Tiring of the crowds, I walk up Trafalgar Street and climb the flight of wide marble steps, inlaid into a low hill,  to Nelson Cathedral. Inside, the sound of the city fades to a murmur. An organist plays Bach on the organ in the chancel.  The organ’s two thousand, five hundred pipes fill the interior with their rich, melodious tones. In the east transept, beneath a rose window of red and azure stained glass, concentric rings of candles burn in a circular candelabra.  Sprigs of laurel and roses adorn the pews. Tourists wave selfie sticks, like latter-day censers, around in the nave. Later, back down on Trafalgar Street, I sit at a pavement café table watching the world go by over the rim of my latte glass.

On a hill near the eastern edge of Nelson lies the Geographical Centre of New Zealand. Well, almost. These things are never a certainty. The actual geographical centre is located in “a patch of unremarkable, dense scrub” in the Spooners Range, thirty-two kilometres south-west of town. Nevertheless, the notion of being in the centre of the country is appealing, so I climb Botanical Hill, as it is known, early one morning.  

The trail leads from a grassy park, where a man is flying a remote-controlled helicopter, up through groves of rhododendron and native trees. A stainless steel monument atop the hill commemorates the point from which the first geodetic survey of New Zealand was begun in the 1870s. From this three hundred and sixty-degree viewpoint, the “zero-zero” points in neighbouring survey districts (including the just-visible North Island) could be triangulated.

Early on Sunday morning, I sit in YAZA! Café watching thunderous rain fall from a murderous sky. The wind thrusts random patterns of ripples across the pools of rainwater lying on the black asphalt of the empty car-park outside; a few desultory tourists drag their wheeled suitcases through the tempest. The café door creaks in the wind like a schooner under sail.

I leave the shelter of the café and walk down to the marina.  The storm has thrashed the waters of The Haven into a grey mess.  Moored yachts, which yesterday lay on a flat silver mirror, ride out the heavy weather, battened down.  The wind sings in the rigging; halliards and down-hauls tap rhythmically against the swaying forest of masts.  The rain runs in torrents from the scuppers.

By mid-afternoon, the storm has abated.  Rents appear in the cloud-base, and in the high teal sky, a ghost moon, its bottom shorn off, floats hesitantly, as if blown out of the night and into the day.  On Trafalgar Street, the storm has left a tide-wrack of coloured petals, shaken from the baskets of pansies and geraniums swaying on the verandahs.

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After the Storm.

 

The Maitai River emerges from a narrow rent in the hills on the eastern edge of the city.  On a weekday morning, armed with a latte from the Pomeroy’s Coffee trailer, which opens early beneath a giant fig tree at the top end of Trafalgar Street, I drive into the valley as the sun is just touching the ridgetops.  Beyond the picnic sites, campgrounds and scattered clusters of houses, the valley narrows to a deep, wooded canyon. The river curls in a serpentine torrent beneath cliffs festooned with dripping native bush. Above the river, pine forests, planted in deft, symmetrical rows and draped with skeins of mist, rise vertiginously to the skyline.  In places, waterfalls tumble from the green heights, shatter on the grey rock next to the road, then roar through culverts to spill into the river.

Each turn of the road, now hemmed between the racing river and the valley walls, reveals a new vista of shadow and shade.  It seems as if the road might go on forever. But a text message tells me breakfast is soon to be served out on the deck so I turn around on a tiny hem of grass and return to the beach.

The ocherous gleam of the setting sun paints the sky crimson and orange, as night comes down on another day in the city of light.

On our last evening in Nelson I walk down to Tahunanui Beach at dusk. A pathway ofcity9 hardwood beams leads through a forest of kanuka and broadleaf growing on the dunes. Flights of sparrows flit amongst the tall grasses, feeding on the bounty of their seeds. Across the bay, the ranges are draped with livid, bruised storm-clouds, lit from within by flash-gun flares of wildfire.

Another storm is forecast and even now, a few heavy raindrops are being blown out of the west.  The incoming tide roars on the shoals and over-falls of the inlet. Gulls hover expertly on the gusting wind.  A few tourists, their phone screens framing the sunset, line the water’s edge. The ocherous gleam of the setting sun paints the sky crimson and orange, as night comes down on another day in the city of light.

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The City of Light.

Time in the Flinders Ranges

Here endless trickles count what comes to be
and grain by grain the runnels decimate Eternity.
                                                           – Colin Thiele, Centralian Sandhill

 

North of Burra, the Barrier Highway unfolds across a landscape parched by drought.  The harvest-bare fields lie grey beneath the broiling South Australian sun. Dusty merino sheep cluster around hay feeders, and mooch along the fence-lines.

A lone tractor drags a cloud of dust along a red-dirt side road. Skeletal steel windmills – the icons of the Outback – spin languidly  in the hot wind. Grain silos stand in the cornersof the fields like crash-landed spacecraft.

Windmills near Burra SA
Technology, Old and New, Near Burra, South Australia.

I pass the abandoned farmhouse immortalized on the cover of the Midnight Oil album Diesel and Dust.  Its sightless eyes stare out at the beige ground; its tin roof is red with decay and rust.  The road runs between rounded, parallel ridges surmounted by dozens of wind turbines. Each turbine has three giant arms revolving slowly in the invisible wind;  their shadows lie stark on the slopes beneath them. Far off in the distance I can see the Flinders Ranges, floating in a pink and mauve haze.

The Diesel and Dust House
Diesel and Dust.

The Flinders Ranges unfold into the centre of South Australia in a series of broken, canted ridges.  Some of the oldest rocks on Earth are found among the folds and synclines of the Flinders. From a distance, the ranges protrude from the Earth like the curved backbone and ribs of some immense, fossilized animal: a Dreamtime creature stripped bare of flesh and turned to stone.

I travel north through the afternoon.  The sun keeps pace overhead and dips towards the western skyline.  Beyond Orroroo, the vistas stretch out across vast plains of grey saltbush, backed by ranges glowing violet in the sunset.  As the last light bleeds from the sky, kamikaze kangaroos bounce through the headlight glare; the corpses of those that weren’t quick enough lie splattered on the bitumen.  My world narrows down to a strip of cats-eyes embedded in the centre of the road like diamonds trapped in graphite. It is pitch dark by the time I reach Wilpena Pound and stop for the night.

Wilpena Pound, on the western flank of the Flinders Ranges,  is an amphitheatre of ancient, weathered rock formed into the shape of a pair of cupped hands.  The Adnyamathanha Aboriginal people lived with the sheltered confines of Wilpena Pound for thousands of years.  Their Dreamtime story tells how a pair of serpents encircled and killed a group of people camped at a billabong.  The serpents’ bodies were turned to stone, forming the outline of Wilpena Pound.

Much later, European farmers stocked Wilpena Pound with cattle, utilizing the enclosing ranges as a “pound” or natural corral.   But the landscape proved too hostile for farming and was eventually abandoned. The melancholy ruins of farm buildings can still be seen within Wilpena Pound, which  today forms part of the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park.

Night in Wilpena Pound is silent.  Lying awake in my luxury “glamping” tent at the Ikara Safari Camp, I look up at a sky encrusted with stars.  A black rim of rock forms a border against the sky. The beacon of the Southern Cross turns slowly overhead. The air is so still I can almost feel the Earth moving through space.

I wonder about the light from the stars I can see.  Some of them are so far away that their radiance has taken millions of years to reach me.  And in a strange, convergent way, the ancient rocks of the Flinders Ranges may have been forming at the same time as that starlight began its long journey across time.

The places depicted in the photographs seemed frozen in a state of suspended animation, like insects caught in amber.

When I was a child, I was fascinated by a book in my parent’s bookcase called Time in the Flinders Ranges.  The book was illustrated with grainy monochrome and orangey Ektachrome images of twisted rocky ranges, gnarled eucalypts, strange marsupials, billabongs and red dirt roads.  The text described the experiences of someone who had spent some time travelling in the Flinders Ranges.

But to me the title of the book had a different meaning.  It implied that the concept of time in the Flinders Ranges was somehow different to the rest of the world: that it ran more slowly.  The places depicted in the photographs seemed frozen in a state of suspended animation, like insects caught in amber.

At first light I  take to the sky. The best way to gain a perspective view of Wilpena Pound is from the air.  As his powder blue Robinson chopper lifts off from the helipad at Rawnsley Park Station, my pilot Neil’s voice crackles over the intercom.

“I love flying Kiwis over the Pound,” he says.  “They seem to appreciate the grandeur of the place a lot more than Aussies.”  A gusty south-easterly wind lifts us rapidly over the outer cliffs of Wilpena Pound.  The castellated stone gleams in the morning sun; eucalypt forest clings to the scree-slopes and cliffs.  We fly in a long loop over the perimeter of Wilpena Pound.  A pair of hikers wearing bright red jackets ascend the peak of Mount St Mary, the highest peak in both Wilpena Pound and the Flinders Ranges.Beyond the far rim, the Outback stretches level and brown to the curved horizon beneath the azure dome of the sky.

Later I drive down a dusty, powder white road which leads me deeper into the Flinders

Bunraroo Road, Flinders Ranges
The Flinders Ranges.

Ranges.  The road undulates over a series of steep ridges then descends into the deep ravines of the Brachina Gorge, where the geological story of the last half billion years can be read in the folded, fractured strata.  As I drive, with the stereo blasting and my phone recording Snapchats to post later, it feels as though I am travelling backwards into the dim reaches of deep time: a time when the Earth emerged from the world-enveloping ice age known as the Cryogenian, and complex life began to evolve.

The 25-kilometre Brachina Gorge Geological Trail traces a lineal history of Earth’s geology beginning with “young” Wirrealpa limestone.  Formed in a shallow sea, and containing fossils of abundant marine wildlife, the stone here at the top of the rock record is a mere 520 million years old.

I spend the morning dawdling along on my voyage through geological time.  I climb a fossilized reef, 530 million years old; walk along a 590 million year old beach of petrified quartzite sand; see 630 million year old traces of stromatolites, whose ancestors oxygenated the Earth’s atmosphere; and lie on a bed of diamictite containing pebbles rounded by glacial rivers which flowed at the end of the Cryogenian.  

Eventually, I arrive at the point I have come to the Flinders Ranges to see: the Ediacaran GSSP.  Installed in 2004, the GSSP (Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point) is

gssp
The Ediacaran GSSP, Enorama Creek, South Australia.

circular brass plaque embedded into a tilted slab of strata in the north bank of Enorama Creek.  This “golden spike” (one of many worldwide but the only one in the Southern Hemisphere) marks a point in Earth’s geological history where everything changed. After eons of global glaciation, when almost all life had been extinguished on the Earth, the beginning of the Ediacaran Period, 635 million years ago, saw the planet begin to warm up.  The glaciers melted, the oceans teemed, and complex life, which would eventually give rise to human beings, began to evolve.

As a complex organism I need to eat, so I stop for lunch at the North Blinman Pub: “the highest pub in South Australia.”  Established as a mining town in the 1860s, Blinman today relies on tourism for its wealth. I sit outside on the verandah drinking ice-cold West End Draught and eating a steak sandwich, the staple dish of Outback pubs.   

A row of dusty four-wheel-drives are angle-parked outside.  A hot south-easterly wind bustles autumn leaves along the wide street.  A few tourists wander up and down the street. A gauge on the wall beside me shows the temperature at 28°: not bad for an April day. Back in my vehicle I descend into the confines of the Parachilna Gorge  

I camp beside a tiny waterhole surrounded by gnarled river red gums.  An ephemeral creek trickles from the waterhole over a lip of pale green limestone formed in some shallow ocean half a billion years ago.  As afternoon draws into evening, I climb to the summit of a low ridge and sit watching the day end. The warm stone radiates the heat of the day.  A currawong warbles in the trees below; magpie larks “chic-chic-chic” down by the waterhole.

Parachilna Gorge Emu
Emu, Parachilna Gorge, South Australia.

I imagine that this scene a hundred years ago, or a thousand, or a million years ago, would have looked almost exactly the same.  I can feel the slowness of time out here. In New Zealand, the forces of wind, water, ice and tectonics can shatter and change the landscape in days.  In the Flinders, change takes place one sand grain at a time.

A lone car drags a trail of dust along the valley floor and disappears into the darkening hills.  A big full moon, the colour of chardonnay, hangs in the lavender sky. Westward, the sun has long since disappeared behind the rim of the ranges.  I should return to my camp while there is still a little light left. But there is no hurry. The rock I am sitting on has been here for half a billion years.  My presence here is only an instant of time in the Flinders Ranges.

Prologue

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“The earthquake struck at two minutes and fifty-six seconds past midnight. Deep underground, the ancient rocks of Zealandia ruptured. With a gigantic, tectonic shudder, the edges of two continental plates slipped sideways. The Earth roared. Coastlines leapt. Hillsides collapsed.

As the shockwaves propagated outwards, away from the initial rupture, the ground opened. Straight lines suddenly became curves. The ocean drained away from the shoreline. In the dark ranges, unseen and unheard, avalanches of grey stone crashed into the valleys. Rivers changed course and the sharp, ozone smell of shattered rock filled the air. The entire island stretched, becoming two metres longer as the fault-lines scraped violently past each other. To keen-eyed observers, and there would soon be a record number of them, the atlas of the world changed, suddenly and irrevocably…”
– Excerpt from THE GREENSTONE WATER.

 

 

 

 

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Welcome to TravelWriterLife

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Hello, and welcome to my blog: TravelWriterLife. For the next six years my other blog, CurseOfTheTraveller, will be dedicated to daily posts of entries from my travel diaries written between September 1988 and June 1994.

With that in mind, I decided to launch another blog where my travel stories, photography and other bits could appear. Here you will find links to my published work, occasional articles by other writers, travel and adventure stories previously published on CurseOfTheTraveller, excerpts from the book I am writing, and any other bits and pieces that take my fancy.

Sometimes the journey is the destination; sometimes the destination becomes a journey. All travel is an adventure; every journey is exceptional. And all genuine knowledge originates in direct experience.

Enjoy…