THE FOREST OF STONE

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

IMG_4982
Primeval.

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

IMG_5003
Petrified Trees at Curio Bay.

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.

l3bmUULDS+igeUW0FQCoHQ
Petrified Tree Stump.

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.

u+OIj4u3QZSZ59G%Y0vjEA
Erosion.

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 orZQ6vg4cbTN2JPclpGPCZhA 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.

NORTHERN LIGHT

I’ll never let you go
If you promise not to fade away…
                                     – Muse, Starlight

Dusk on The Esplanade.  As the evening hubbub of Cairns comes alive, I sit at a corner table at the Coast Roast café watching the transition from day to night over the rim of a coffee cup.  Day ends quickly in Far North Queensland. The arrival of darkness isn’t so much a slow adagio dimming of light as a sudden shut-off.

But although the sun has long since slipped behind the rampart of hills west of town, the night sky retains a faint afterglow of soft indigo light.  The sodium vapour street lights add their orange blush to the sky and a few stars twinkle on the horizon.

The silhouettes of fruit bats, like scale models of stealth bombers, wheel in the air overhead.  From the fortress tangle of a gigantic strangler fig across the street, screeching rosellas compete with the techno-throb of car sound systems as the city’s

cairns 3
Evening on The Esplanade (photo supplied)

population of boy-racers begin their nightly patrol.

My day had begun deep in the Outback among the Quinkan rock-art sites near the township of Laura, three hundred kilometres inland from Cairns.  For the previous ten days I had driven alone on the long straight roads of the Outback, with only the stereo in my 4WD for company. But the silence and vastness of the empty bush had begun to get to me.  I needed a latte, a comfortable bed and a text message. There was only one thing for it: I had to flee the Outback and drive, hell for leather, down to Cairns.

A sudden descent through rainforest, three bars of coverage appeared on my phone and I was in Cairns…

I’d left Laura as butcher birds were gurgling their dawn wake-up calls to the bush.  The eastern sky had the burnished copper glow which heralds yet another scorching day in the Outback.  The road unfolded ahead like a red scar scratched across the dirt landscape.

The drive to Cairns passed in a blur of images spooling past the window: an endless movie backdrop of trees and ancient rocky hills.  A bush fire crackled to itself beside the road; tiny half-abandoned settlements of timber and tin appeared in the rear-view mirror before I had time to notice their arrival.   

Later, miles from anywhere, I passed the bloated corpse of a bull, its rigid legs pointing to the sky and its mouth a rictus grin of surprise from the ambush of the road train which had killed it.  A sudden descent through rainforest, three bars of coverage appeared on my phone and I was in Cairns. Within minutes of hitting town I was feasting under the golden arches.

August mornings in Cairns are perfect.  The air is cool and dew sparkles on every surface.  The man-made beach on the Esplanade, with its gleaming steel fish sculptures

CAIRNS1
The Esplanade (photo supplied)

and glossy boulders, reflects the pink and blue pastels of the sky. Offshore, massed clouds glow in the sunrise.  Magpie larks flit from tree to tree, while market stallholders set up their colourful tents.

I watch the city’s morning rituals from the same café table I sat at last night.  A pair of teenage Aboriginal girls screech and giggle beside the phone boxes, their chatter competing for attention with the “pee-wee” of the larks and the cheeky warble of strutting mynahs.

Fuck you, fuck you…” one of the girls is shouting at her friend.  The roar of a jet taking off drowns it all for a moment. The Esplanade is virtually empty.  The backpackers and tourists which thronged the bars and restaurants late into the night have yet to surface.  I finish my coffee a set off to explore.

A forest of masts and rigging rocks on the sluggish water of Trinity Inlet.  Lying beyond the weed-strewn railway tracks and framed by dusty godowns, the Port of Cairns seems a long way from the tourist melee of The Esplanade.  Leaving my car in the shade of a palm tree I wander the wharfs where fishing boats, prawning luggers and yachts bob on the ebb tide. Mangrove forests choke the muddy banks on the far side of the inlet. Sparks of molten metal fall from blow-torches, and angle grinders howl on rusty steel as shipwrights refurbish a trawler in the dry dock.

Eddy James, manager of the Cairns Sugar Terminal, is opening the security gates of the terminal to allow a truck and trailer-load of sugar into the compound.  The terminal consists of a pair of vast warehouse, each able to hold 117,000 tonnes of raw sugar trucked down from the mills of Far North Queensland. A zigzag of conveyor belts connect the warehouses.  I talk to Eddy through the chain-link fence and ask if I can have a look around.

The air is heavy with the sickly smell of sucrose.  Eddy pushes a tiny red button set into the cliff-like front wall of Warehouse Two and a giant door slides open.  Inside, a conical, twenty-seven metre high mound of raw sugar gleams sweetly in the gloom.

“Makes yer teeth hurt just lookin’ at it eh mate?” says Eddy.  We descend a staircase to a chamber beneath the floor where a kilometre-long conveyor belt takes the sugar out to the hold of a waiting ship.  I picture the tonnes of sugar pressing down on the concrete above and imagine my last thoughts if it gave way: “parting is such sweet sorrow…”        

Violent waves are shattering themselves on the rocks at Machan’s Beach, a cluster of shacks and houses scattered across the delta of the Barron River on Cairns’ northern edge.  American ex-pat Gage McCassan is casting a prawn net into the river where it empties into the ocean. The water is the colour of black tea from tannins leached from the rainforest by the river on its short, precipitous journey from the brooding hills.

Northern light has a look all of its own…

“I ain’t caught a damn thing,” says Gage ruefully.  His net, fringed with lead weights plops into the water and he draws it back towards him.  Nothing. “But I don’t mind,” he adds. “The kids are happy playing on the beach and this is better than working in the garden.”  

At Sonya’s On The Beach it’s a lazy Saturday afternoon.  A couple of girls chat over the newspaper; a collection of locals yarn at the bar. A radio warbles somewhere inside, tuned to a talkback station no-one is listening to. I order a beer and sit gazing out across the ocean.  You could while away a lifetime in a place like this, talking about cyclones and tides and the minutiae of life by the sea.

Later, I stand in the sandy bed of another of the Barron’s streams. Out on the mangrove-lined, crocodile infested river, a couple of fisherman in an aluminium dinghy pull a giant

machans
The Barron River near Machan’s Beach (photo supplied)

barramundi out of the water.  A thunderstorm glowers offshore. Northern light has a look all of its own. The bay is a sheet of silver welded to the sky.

Evening again, another coffee at Coast Roast.  Another day is ending and the nightlife is humming.  There are beers to be drunk, nightclubs to frequent, all manner of adventures to be had in the warm night air.  Cairns invites action. I could melt into the crowd and lose myself in the sybaritic pleasures of this northern night under these northern lights. But I find it easier to just sit and watch. I order another cappuccino as the rosellas begin to screech.

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

 

Corner Country

“I thought of all the songs I’d sung
About this Outback track,
And that is how this vision came to me…”
– Slim Dusty, Along the Road of Song.

Beyond Bourke, a one-dog-town on the banks of the Darling River in Western New South Wales, the single lane bitumen road gives way to a rutted outback track. My rented 4WD moves about on the loose red sand like a schooner under sail; thick eucalypt forest crowds to the edges of the road. The Australian expression “back-o-Bourke” refers to any place a long way out. And here on the road to Tibooburra, I am a very long way from home.

Image 6-02-19 at 11.37 AM
The Cut Line.

The village of Tibooburra crouches in the lee of bouldery hills in the middle of a howling wilderness. A dust storm has hit the town when I arrive. It thrashes the gum trees outside the Tibooburra Family Hotel and bowls random items – a plastic chair, a sign saying “open”, an empty beer can – down the main street. A collection of dusty 4WDs are angle-parked outside the hotel.

Image 6-02-19 at 2.02 PM
Tibooburra

I order a beer and a steak at the bar then repair to a corner table. The conversationsaround me are typical of any Aussie pub: work, gossip and who will win the cricket. On the wall behind me, a wide-screen TV beams in live coverage of an AFL match in Melbourne.

Communications are the lifeblood of the Outback. In the early days of European settlement, news took weeks to filter across the vast distances. But the advent of satellite phones, radio telegraphy and the internet has meant isolated communities such as Tibooburra are now hooked into the instant information age. Even cellphones work out here, although my New Zealand handset stubbornly refuses to connect to the local CDMA network. I fiddle with it while I await the arrival of my food. I decide that, like me, it’s intimidated by the vastness of the coverage area. The massive steak the waitress sets down soon makes me forget about the tyranny of distance; my phone will have to work its problems out on its own.

There is something inexpressibly sad about abandoned farm buildings, where people toiled to make their dreams come true but ultimately failed.

Next morning, I drive out to the ghost town of Milparinka, 60km west of Tibooburra. Established in 1855 as a police outpost, the town once boasted a school, pub, courthouse and jail. Little remains now. Over the years the population drifted away and the town fell into disrepair. The pub closed in 2004 and only one reclusive resident still lives in the town.

Image 6-02-19 at 11.39 AM
Pale Shelter: the old Courthouse, Milparinka.

But the old courthouse has been restored to its former glory by volunteers and is now a museum dedicated to preserving the history of this forgotten corner of Australia. I let myself in through a side door. The courtroom is a cool haven from the enervating heat outside. A hot wind howls around the eaves of the building; the sash windows tap-tap-tap in their frames.

The room smells of wood and dust. Its walls are lined with faded sepia photographs of families, police officers and sundry scenes of local activity. Printed excerpts from court records show that most of the cases heard here were for minor offences: “having horses loose in the town”, “stealing a coil of fence wire”, “taking a wagon without permission”. Reluctantly, I leave the shelter of the courthouse and head west, deeper into the Outback.

The disused woolshed at Waka Station stands next to the road between Tibooburra and Cameron Corner. There is something inexpressibly sad about abandoned farm buildings, where people toiled to make their dreams come true but ultimately failed. Red dirt has blown in through holes in the walls; parts of the roof are open to the sky. I wander through the silent shed imagining the activity which once took place here: the spinning shaft of the shearing plant, the clattering hand-pieces, the wool falling from the sheep’s backs on to the polished timber floor, the row of sweating shearers and scurrying rousies carrying armfuls of golden fleece; the heat and stink and noise.

Image 6-02-19 at 11.35 AM
The old woolshed at Waka Station.

It is all gone now. More red dirt coats the old Lister petrol engine which once drove the shearing plant; a matted fleece sits un-skirted on the wool table. The counting-out pens are empty and overgrown with weeds: they will never again see the white mobs of freshly shorn merinos.

Nearby, the cookshop windows gape sightlessly out across the shimmering landscape. White tiles flake off the walls of the roofless shower block. I imagine the shearers stretched out on the ground drinking beer after a sweltering day’s work in the woolshed. The scene reminds me of the 1975 Australian movie Sunday Too Far Away, in which a shearer’s wife laments the lack of physical and emotional contact with her husband and lists the reasons as: “Friday too tired, Saturday too drunk, Sunday too far away…”

In the hot space of the bar in the Cameron Corner Store, stockman Jake Lewis is drunk. Slouching beneath his big Akubra hat, with a can of Bundy and cola in his meaty fist, Jake is regaling the room with a story about how he single-handedly outwitted a renegade bull by tripping it up with the handlebars of his dirt-bike. At least, that’s what I imagine he is saying. He has obviously been in the bar for a considerable part of this Sunday afternoon and his speech is as scuffed as his dusty RM Williams boots.

The assembled drinkers, all of whom are at various stages of inebriation, listen intently, occasionally offering jocular interjections as they guzzle their beers. I sit quietly in a corner drinking ice-cold lemon squash. When Jake’s story eventually ends, the Corner Store patrons return to taunting me about sheep, sex with sheep, the marital possibilities of sheep and all the other tawdry insults Australians feel compelled to heap on “bloody Kiwis”.

Cameron Corner is the point where the state boundaries of New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland intersect. The corner (one of four such points in Australia) is named after John Brewer Cameron, the NSW Lands Department surveyor who spent two

Image 6-02-19 at 11.40 AM
The place where three states intersect at Cameron Corner.

years from 1880-1882 marking the Queensland/New South Wales border.

It is one of those strange places where the tenuous lines of time blur. As each state has a different time zone you can celebrate New Year’s Eve or your birthday three times in the space of three hours. The Cameron Corner Store is supposedly a Queensland business with a New South Wales post code and a South Australian phone number.

By five o’clock, with the sun an incandescent ball in the sky, the store patrons adjourn outside for a round of Tri-state golf. The golf links consist of nothing more than a baking expanse of desiccated and spiky spinifex grass with ragged squares of plastic turf for teeing off. The three putting “greens”, one in each state, are patches of bare red dirt

Image 6-02-19 at 11.41 AM
Tri-state Golf.

sprayed with diesel to keep the vegetation from re-growing. The inebriated golfers take forever to reach the first (Queensland) hole but manage to consume a number of beers along the way. I leave them to complete the rest of the round without me. A final volley of insults about sheep-shaggers accompanies me as I drive away.

I reach Jack’s Camp at dusk. A vandalised, graffiti-covered double-decker bus sits forlornly beside a lone ironbark tree. A pair of morose magpies mooch about looking for a handout. I climb to the top deck of the bus and wonder about the journey which took it from the streets of London to this lonely Outback space. It is an eerie place to be alone, so I decide to drive through the night to Innaminka. I watch the old bus shrink in the rear-view mirror until it disappears in the mauve twilight.

…it seemed as though I was caught in some time travel time vortex from which I could never escape.

Image 6-02-19 at 11.42 AM
Number 12 bus: Stretham High Street – Oxford Circus via Outback South Australia.

 

At nine o’clock next morning I sit with a trim latte in the Outtaminka Bar of the Innaminka Pub. Katie, the bar manager, is from Birmingham. In a neat inversion of the Australasian bar staff in Britain, she answered an advert in an Adelaide backpackers for someone with a sense of adventure and ended up here.

During the night I had driven through a pitch black wilderness beneath a sky encrusted with a crushed-glass glitter of stars. To pass the time I searched the static-laden AM radio band for programmes beamed in from distant cities. Out in this no-man’s-land of time zones I had listened to the same programme play at different times on different channels and it seemed as though I was caught in some time travel time vortex from which I could never escape. The lights of Innaminka had appeared like a beacon in the darkness just before dawn.

Outside the tinted windows of the Outtaminka Bar, the heat is already shimmering across the river red gums growing along the banks of Cooper Creek. The temperature is forecast to reach 42 degrees at midday. I should be outside exploring. But time is something there is plenty of in the Outback. The spirits haunting Corner Country have been here a long time. Another hour won’t matter. I decide to have another coffee before I set off in search of more ghosts in this vast red dirt landscape.

 

Ghosts of Cooper Creek

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.

Travel Writer at Minkie
Travel Writer Life: Dawn at Minkie Waterhole, Cooper Creek.

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 John  King, 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.

Cooper Waterhole
Cooper Creek.

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

Storm Clouds
The old AIM Hospital, Innaminka.

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. 

Road
Forty-three Degrees Celcius on an Outback Road.

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. 

Pub Carpark
The Scene at Innaninka.

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.

Dawn at Minkie Waterhole

 

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.

fullsizeoutput_7af
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.

fullsizeoutput_7b2
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

fullsizeoutput_7ae
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

fullsizeoutput_7b3
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

fullsizeoutput_7ac
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.

fullsizeoutput_7a8
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.

Uluru
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.

UluruKata
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     

The Light Horse

With cold steel bayonets gleaming, in sodden seas of blood
They raced towards the stronghold, all in a crimson flood,
Such maddening surge of horses, such tumult and such roar
The Wells of old Beersheba had never seen before …
                                     – Edward Gerard, The Wells of Old Beersheba

One hundred and one years ago, on October 31st, 1917, my great-uncle, A.F. Blakiston, took part in the last cavalry charge the world would ever see. The Battle of Beersheba took place in Southern Palestine (now Israel) and saw the eventual capture of the high ground from which the approaches to Gaza were defended by a seasoned Ottoman (Turkish) garrison.

After a number of previous defeats, the allied commander, General Edmund Allenby, had called in the Australian Light Horse Brigade, ordering them to charge the defences of Beersheba. Armed only with bayonets (their rifles had to be slung over their shoulders while mounted), which they held out like swords in true cavalry style, the Aussies galloped across the open ground between the British lines and the Turks’ positions, jumped over the trenches, leapt from their horses and laid into the stunned Turks with enthusiastic abandon.

lighthorse

The Ottoman forces were routed, the Allied forces (which also comprised Australian and New Zealand foot soldiers) mopped up the remaining pockets of resistance, and then began the long march towards Jerusalem, which they captured six weeks later.  The Charge of the Light Horse went down in history and in Australian folklore. Amongst the young Australian horsemen, most of whom hailed from the vast cattle stations of the Outback, where horsemanship was prized over all things, was a scattering of men from other countries, including, quite by chance, my great-uncle, A. F. Blakiston.

“[A] great sight suddenly sprung up on our left, lines and lines of horsemen moving. The Turks were on the run and the Aus. Div. was after them. We could see the horses jumping the trenches, dust everywhere.”

Arthur Frederick Blakiston was born in the English county of Derbyshire in 1892.  The son of a Baronet, he was educated at Bedford School and at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.  A fearless horseman, “Blakie” as he was nicknamed, rode furiously to hounds and was a fearsome rugby player.  Following his war exploits, he would go on the play rugby for England from 1920-1925 and tour South Africa with the British Lions, playing in all for of their test matches there.

I first encountered Blackie in early 1990, when my girlfriend Linda and I went to visit his widow, Lady Ann Blakiston, in the village of Corton, near Warminster, on the edge of the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.  We were working as live-in bar staff at a pub in Central London at the time, a couple of Kiwi kids out exploring the world. I knew of Lady Ann’s existence both through the well-researched Blakiston family tree, and through my cousin John Blakiston, a Colonel in the British Army with whom we had already stayed with on several occasions since arriving in England in March 1989.

Lady Ann’s neat cottage, whose address was simply 8a Corton, was a shrine to the memory of the beloved Blackie. Over tea and lardy cake (a traditional West Country dessert) Ann regaled us with tales of her late husband’s adventures. The old fellow obviously had no liking for those in authority and had often traded a safe comfortableafb life and income for penurious adventures that were their own reward.   

 

 

On the ship home from the British Lions’ rugby tour to South Africa, Blakiston and one of his team-mates were leaning on the rail of the afterdeck, discussing what their prospects would be when they landed back in England.

“How much money do you have?” asked Blakiston’s friend.  Rummaging through his pockets, Blakiston took out his last coin, a silver sixpence bearing the profile of King George V, surrounded by the legend GEORGIVS V DEI GRAS:BRITT:OMN:REX.

France v England 1925 2
Arthur Frederick Blakiston, England vs France.

“This is it,” he said, looking down at the gleaming coin in his hand.  “How much do you have?” His friend replied that he was penniless. With that, Blakiston hurled his last sixpence overboard.  It curled through the blue air, glinting momentarily in the sun, and disappeared into the ocean.

“Well,” said Blakiston, “we’ll both start from scratch when we get home.”

Having joined the Royal Field Artillery at the outbreak of World War One, Blakiston had been gassed at Ypres, won a Military Cross for gallantry at Verdun, and had been posted to Palestine with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, now under the command of Allenby, in June 1917.

Bored with endless maneuvers and constant drilling, Blakiston decided to sneak away from his regiment and join the Australian Light Horse Brigade on their attack of Beersheba. By doing so he contravened a standing order that British soldiery did not mix or fraternize with “colonials.” However, Blakiston had no liking for regulations or those in command. To him, the opportunity for a pell-mell gallop across the desert was too good an opportunity to miss.

No record of Blakiston’s impressions of the charge exist. However, it is easy to imagine him in the thick of the fighting, spurring his horse on in the same headlong way he charged down hedges while hunting foxes on the downlands of England. A contemporary account of the the action, written by James McCarroll of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade, paints the scene: “[A] great sight suddenly sprung up on our left, lines and lines of horsemen moving. The Turks were on the run and the Aus. Div. was after them. We could see the horses jumping the trenches, dust everywhere.”     

LIght Horse charge at Beer Sheba
In everything he did throughout his life, Arthur Frederick Blakiston was the embodiment of the Blakiston family motto, Fac Bene Nec Dubitans: Do Well And Doubt Not. And in the charge of the Australian Light Horse Brigade, Blakiston took his place in the last cavalry charge the world would ever see.

The House of Blakiston

blakiston-coat-of-arms-blakiston-family-crest-7
Fac bene nec dubitans. (Do well and doubt not.)

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

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

I come from Geraldine. Someone had to.

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

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

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

fullsizeoutput_448
My father Arthur Norman Hunter Blakiston, 64; my great-uncle Arthur John Blakiston, 103; Ferguson Arthur James Blakiston, 5 months.

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

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

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

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

fullsizeoutput_68e
Sir Matthew Blakistob, Bt. and his wife Maria.

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

 Fac bene nec dubitans…Do well and doubt not. 

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

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

afb
The 7th Baronet, Sir Arthur Frederick Blakiston.

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

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

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

fullsizeoutput_69a
The 8th Baronet, Sir Arthur Norman Hunter Blakiston and his wife Mary, Lady Blakiston. (My Parents.)

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

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

fullsizeoutput_691
The house where I grew up, “Wynwood” at 28 McKenzie Street, Geraldine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_7518
The 9th Baronet, Sir Ferguson Arthur James Blakiston. 

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

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.

city4

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.

city2
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.

city10
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.

city1
The City of Light.