Sunday, 14 September 2014


[The perfect place for contemplation] 
Tasmania’s coast is a restless, constant reminder that we are islanders. Living on this heart-shaped island fills us with a restive contentment; an internal tide. Sometimes it tugs at us to leave in search of more, at others it floods us with an ache to return. In between there is the glad, shifting present.

As Seamus Heaney said of his Ireland.

         Come back to this
         ‘island of the ocean’
         where nothing will suffice

[Rock formations, Lulworth, Tasmania]
* * *

We are spending the weekend at a house overlooking Bass Strait, that most solid reminder of Tasmania’s separateness. The Strait is a gap, a filter, both environmentally and socially. That small aquatic separation gifts us the astonishing flora and fauna we treasure. And that disconnection from the main can also give us a sharp perspective on what happens there.

Like the peasant at the edge of the court, we recognise the fragility, folly even, of those closest to the throne. We see clearly that even at the glittering, crowded centre nothing will suffice.

[Treasure and distractions on a Bass Strait Beach]
So we return to our fringe, wiser perhaps. But there is a melancholy here, a sense that – like the Irish – our island’s troubles will continually resurface. A sense that the young, the ambitious, the talented often leave; that we who stay will look over the waters with a longing for those no longer here. Such feelings of separation are universal of course. But somehow a body of water refracts and magnifies them.

And water brings reflection too. Our first afternoon by the Strait is cool. But the unmistakable tang of the sea is not to be resisted. We walk along the shore, not at our normal brisk pace, but at a slow amble. It is partly the soggy sand, the uneven cobbles, the slippery rocks. But it is also what happens when thought and coast meet.

[Reflecting on a Bass Strait Beach] 
We wander between pools; examine the ever varying rocks; swerve the occasional surge of waves; compare the myriad shells. We think and chat about the aeons of time and the restless patience of the sea that have together produced this present. And like every present, it is momentarily producing a new present, only for that moment to be swept impatiently away by the time and tide that have a reputation to uphold.

Looking over today’s waves has me thinking of particular partings. One afternoon I stood high on Don Heads, well west of here, but overlooking the same Strait. Some dear friends had left on the car ferry to Melbourne. From this headland we watched the ship ploughing into a decent headwind, taking our friends away.

[Looking across Bass Strait from Waterhouse Beach]
That time the tug of the main relented, and they returned, sharing more years with us on this side of the Strait. They left again, as we all must in one way or another. But there is a small comfort in knowing that they carry this island with them. Because once this place has you – as it has me, whether it be my birthplace or not – it holds you wherever you may go.

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!