Sunday, 24 August 2014

11 Dumb Ways to Die While Bushwalking



[Perfect weather for walking, but will it stay that way?]
People die bushwalking. Every year several people shuffle off this mortal coil while shuffling their boots through the Australian bush.

Our bushwalking retailers, bushwalking websites and other authorities issue warnings along the lines that “outdoor activities carry their own risks of injury and death.” They’re trying to tell us that when we lace up our bushwalking boots and hoist your pack, we’re doing something dangerous.

How dangerous? Well, it’s as risky as getting in a car; or catching an aeroplane; or going to hospital; or swimming; or making love; or riding a bike; or sitting on the toilet; or any of the other common activities that kill a proportion of their participants. If we wanted to be really paranoid, since most people die in bed, we might consider avoiding sleeping there.

Having established that most activities carry risk, wise participants will look for ways to minimise those risks. Or some might prefer to learn lessons from those who’ve already made mistakes. I’m in that second category. So I thought I’d offer here my own far-from-exhaustive list of dumb ways to get into trouble while bushwalking.


[A gently-flowing Ronny Creek, near Cradle Mt, Tasmania]
A few caveats: I point out that I have adopted – as one born-to-it – the voice of a dumb (male) walker! Also, although his list applies to bushwalking in Tasmania, it should be transferable to most cool/temperate/alpine walking areas. Here then are: 

11 Dumb Ways to Die While Bushwalking

1. Don’t take a map
Maps are expensive, and I’ve got a perfectly good road map after all. And don’t get me started on how expensive a GPS is! I’ve got my smart-phone, and I’m sure it has GPS built in. Besides the route is easy to follow - she’ll be right!

2. Don’t carry a tent
There are huts on this walk, for heaven’s sake! Why would I bother buying a tent that I won’t even need? Do they think I’m made of money? In an emergency I’ll just use the bin-liner I’ve got inside my pack.


[Who needs a tent: unless the hut is full]
3. Ignore weather warnings
I’m on a tight schedule, so I have to leave today. Besides those bushwalker’s weather alerts are a bit of an over-reaction, I reckon. I’ve got pretty good clothing and my bin-liner will keep stuff in my rucksack dry.

4. Wear denim or cotton clothes
If there’s one thing that drives me crazy about bushwalkers, it’s how incredibly daggy they look in all that expensive gear they get from those rip-off outdoor stores! My good ol’ jeans look SOOO much better, and they’re comfortable. Same with my cotton T-shirt. Okay they get a bit heavy when they’re wet, but since when did a little moisture kill anyone?


[Daggy, but effective for cold/wet weather]
5. Start late in the day
I believe in flexibility. We had planned to get walking by noon, but that early lunch turned into a long – and very pleasant - one. And we certainly weren’t going to leave our beers! Who cares if it’s nearly four o’clock?! We’ve got a warm inner glow, and a couple of torches to match. We’re up for navigating in the dark if we have to.

6. Don’t take a PLB
Here’s another con from the gear stores! A personal locator beacon will set you back hundreds of dollars. And I hear you have to register with some dodgy-sounding international organisation. If worse comes to worst, a good old smoke signal will do the same thing, and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

7. Split up from your group
If you’re lost, there’s a better chance to find the track if you all split up and go looking. Many hands make light work, and all that. You can always find each other again by shouting or whistling.

8. When you’re lost, just keep walking
I’ve got a great sense of direction, so I figure if I just keep looking I’ll eventually find my way back to the track. My other rule of thumb is to walk downhill. For one it’s easier, but for another it’ll lead you towards a lake or the sea, and that’s always good, eh!

9. Don’t leave your trip plans with anyone
As I said, I like to be flexible, so I never bother leaving my plans with anyone. Where’s the spontaneity in that? Also, I NEVER sign any of those damned log books. I don’t want the government knowing my personal business!

10. Cross that flooded creek no matter what!
I’ve already told you that a bit of moisture isn’t going to kill you. I’m not one to let a bit of flowing water intimidate me, or stop me from getting to my campsite on the other side. Just plunge on in and keep going, I reckon. Anyway I’m not a bad swimmer.


[A creek crossing: what could possibly go wrong?]
 
11. Never underestimate your abilities
I take learning seriously. It’s very important to think that you can work everything out on your own. If you stopped to ask for help every time you struck a hard patch you’d never improve your own abilities. What kind of wimp ever admits that he’s in trouble?!

* * *


As you can see, there are a good many dumb ways to die while bushwalking. If you’re as rigorously gormless as my dumb friend, there’s a good chance you’ll never even be bothered by the sound of the rescue helicopter. It’ll all be too late.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Through Any Window

I love windows. I love that they are interfaces between the outward and the inward. That at a window I am invited to give a part of myself – perhaps a fragment of my future - to places I want to be. And that in turn I can receive back the sky’s endlessly varying diffuse light, as well as its direct sun and moonlight.


[European window scenes from our 2013 trip] 
Windows, of course, are fragile: the thinnest of barriers, almost literally illusory. They remind me that even the best of shelters is temporary; that I ultimately belong “out there”. You were made from dust, and to dust you will return”, as Genesis 3:19 has it.

One of my most vivid memories has me in a hostel in New Zealand. It is forty years ago, so details are scant. But these elements remain lucid. I am on the top bunk in the dormitory. I wake to a cold, clear morning and pull back the curtains. A bright sun streams into the room, warming me deliciously.

I have to shade my eyes to survey the scene outside. The hills are green, probably, but something else wipes that mere detail away. In the middle distance stands a classic volcano-shaped mountain. I know it’s a volcano: it is smoking!

The mountain was Ngauruhoe, mid-way through its 1973-75 period of eruption. I was possibly in the small town of Ohakune – the geography makes sense – staying in an old schoolhouse turned YHA.

That morning there was no hurry to leave. We were hitching around New Zealand, and still had a few days to reach Wellington. While others rattled and scrabbled to get ready to leave, I lay back in the sunshine, every now and then glancing in disbelief at Ngauruhoe. It was one of the most blissful experiences of my hitherto brief life.


[Blissfully sunny: inside Greenstone Hut, South Island, NZ]  
Glass windows, like those in the hostel, have been around since Roman times. That’s nearly as long as Mt Ngauruhoe, which only bubbled into being around 2 500 year ago. But the mass production of glass, which took some pointers from volcanic processes, only began in about the 17th century. After that glass windows began appearing in ordinary houses and public buildings.

There were window openings before that, of course, though they were usually louvred or shuttered. When they had to keep the elements out, they also excluded the light. That meant no blissfully comfortable volcano watching for most of our ancestors.


[A playful see-through sign invites you into the Waitakere Ranges, NZ] 

Since that 1974 experience, a few other windows have made fresh claims on my bliss count. Moving windows are among the strongest candidates, especially on trains and boats. (I exclude planes because I find their speed usually interferes with any real sense of invitation into the scene.)

A small port hole on a slow barge provides a fine example. Our trip, by bike and barge through Burgundy, offered us a fresh, circle-framed scene every morning. One morning it might be a forested canal verge, complete with calling birds; another an ancient town or village, with the French equivalents of butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers hurrying by.

A thousand or so years before ordinary window glass came along, churches regularly used stained glass in windows. It was more about light and glass telling stories, and evoking awe, than it was about letting light into the buildings. One sublime example is Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. As with so much else in Paris we had to queue to get inside the gothic chapel; and as with most Parisian waits, it was worth it.


[Inside La Sainte-Chapelle, Paris]

The two-storey building’s lower chapel, with its ribbed and richly painted ceiling, is extraordinary enough. But the vast rose windows and stained glass “wall curtains” of the upper chapel, left us breathless. Bearing in mind that the vast majority of mediaeval church goers were illiterate, the high windows aimed to recount the story of the Creation in over 1,100 pictures. That is some task for a window!

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Gardens: Interpretations of Nature

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. - Cicero


[Part of the garden of Villa Carlotta, Lake Como, Italy] 
There are sounds we shouldn’t be hearing; feelings we shouldn’t be feeling. It’s still July, supposedly deep winter here in Tasmania. Yet there’s the unmistakable pee paw call of a spotted pardalote; the mating call, the one I associate with spring. That’s when large numbers of these little spotted birds migrate back from warmer parts to join the hardy individuals who have stayed here.

And I’m sure I’ve been hearing male blackbirds calling too, mostly tentative churrs and chips, but occasionally that elegantly fluid warble that surely must impress any female within earshot. There’s been sunshine too, warm and welcome on some of our still, cloudless winter days.

At times like this the garden calls, begging us to delve into its neglected dirt. Our excuses – it’s been raining; it’s too cold; we’ve been away; it’s such a mess – melt into the warming air. I start by ripping the rankest weeds from the raised veggie bed, then scrape a hoe through the tiddlers, and mattock the most resistant. It’s hard work, and something I can’t achieve without bending my back.

But the feel and the smell of fresh earth, and the winter sun on my bent back, reward my labours. When the bed is finally cleared of weeds I barrow in some compost. It’s distinctly second-rate: I’ve never mastered the dark art of composting. But a bag of sheep manure covers a multitude of sins. And when that mix has settled in and I’m ready to plant, a good dose of worm “juice” will top it all off.

* * *

A year ago we were also neglecting our garden, ‘though with the reasonable excuse that we were travelling in Europe at the time. Yet even there the urge to touch the earth was strong. Two particular gardens helped answer that call, though in different ways.

Claude Monet believed his garden at Giverny was his most beautiful masterpiece. Given his superb artistic output, that is debatable. Yet unquestionably the garden is magnificent, even 88 years after his departure.


[A living masterpiece: part of the water garden at Giverny, France] 
We joined the throngs who had travelled the hour or so from Paris to see the garden; to see if we could gain a sense of how it inspired some of his work. Our own inspiration was limited by the need to shuffle and negotiate our way around so many other visitors. Even so we managed to find brief moments, small spaces, nooks in which time stood still, allowing the dazzling colours, shapes, shadows and scents of the garden to enrapture us.

We half-expected to see Claude himself shuffle around the corner, painter’s palette in hand, muttering about his urgent need to capture another “free and emotional interpretation of Nature” (to use his words).


[Part of Monet's cottage and garden at Giverny, France] 

That may have been Monet’s definition of impressionist paintings, but it works well for Giverny too. And for at least parts of the stunning garden we found in the grounds of Villa Carlotta in northern Italy. The opulent late 17th century villa was built for the then marquis of Milan. Its 17 acre grounds contain an amazing garden, half the area of Hobart’s generous Royal Botanical Gardens, and every bit as complex. Its lower slopes, closer to the imposing villa, feature formal gardens and paths, with fountains and annual flower beds.


[Looking from Villa Carlotta over Lake Como, Italy] 
But it was in the “back yard” that we began rejoicing in the freer impressionist style: gardeners as artists. Up the steep slope from the villa they had created a marvellously incongruous blend of semi-tropical, woodland and flowering plants: bamboos here, palms there, ivy and rhododendrons everywhere. Here it was shades and colours and textures than mattered most, not botanical provenance.


[A shady "creek" with Tasmanian man fern, Villa Carlotta gardens, Italy] 
In the hot and humid conditions we gravitated towards the shady paths. And there, as though to turn our minds towards home near the end of our trip, we found some Australian man fern (Dicksonia antarctica) in a marvellously cool artificial gully. Surrounded by ivy, hydrangeas and busy lizzie, and over-towered by exotic trees festooned with elk-horn, “our” ferns were thriving, adding a beautiful southern hemisphere touch to a gardener’s interpretation of green absolutely worthy of Monet.