On the Beach

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Next, we read about the cobalt bomb, which was worse than the hydrogen bomb and could smother the planet in an endless chain reaction.

I knew the colour cobalt from my great-aunt’s paintbox. She had lived on Capri at the time of Maxim Gorky and painted Capriot boys naked. Later her art became almost entirely religious. She did lots of St Sebastians, always against a cobalt-blue background, always the same beautiful young man, stuck through and through with arrows and still on his feet.

So I pictured the cobalt bomb as a dense blue cloudbank, spitting tongues of flame at the edges. And I saw myself, out alone on a green headland, scanning the horizon for the advance of the cloud.

Bruce Chatwin – In Patagonia

At half-past five in the afternoon the temperature was still over 30 degrees, but slowly the heat began to go out of the sun as it dipped towards the horizon. Dogs chased each other, had stand-offs, ran through the surf barking with what could only be joy. People made their way down to the water’s edge, some taking up positions on an outcrop of rocks that jutted into the waves. They stood around in small groups, some couples quietly holding hands, eyes turned seawards. Two Goan girls picked through a rockpool, foraging for crustaceans. A bearded man of indeterminate nationality did a headstand on a yoga mat. A Russian nearby turned his back to the sea and held his phone out in front of him; on the screen I made out a woman’s face, blue-lit from her computer. She was wearing a heavy jumper, watching this Indian Ocean sunset from a wintry Moscow. Children played, turning cartwheels along the damp sand. Next to me a man watched the advancing ripples of water with an expression of solemn appreciation, as if in a gallery. And I suddenly felt connected to every single person there somehow, as fellow members of a species – all of us part of humanity, drawn together by this elemental force of the sunset at the ending of the day.


In the green room at home in England, on the shelf at the foot of the narrow bed, lies a book. On the cover a Naval officer is pictured standing looking out to sea, the white top of his cap contrasting with a bilious green sky. Behind him, further along the beach, stands a woman in a red dress. She is barefoot, her arms folded about herself. Is she looking at the officer, or past him, out to sea? It is not clear. To the left, below the arc of the horizon looms the ominous black outline of a submarine, hull half-visible in the molten white waves. Above it is a curious shape in the sky, a thin pale stalk swelling outward at its top. A mushroom cloud.

On The Beach was written in 1957 by Nevil Shute not long after he’d emigrated to Australia from England. The book details the lives of a small group of people in Melbourne who are awaiting the inevitable arrival of a cloud of deadly radioactive fallout. A nuclear war the previous year in the Northern Hemisphere has contaminated life on earth, leaving only parts of the far south habitable – southern Australia, New Zealand, Patagonia. But global air currents mean that soon these locations too will succumb to radiation poisoning.

Life in Melbourne continues with a veneer of normality, despite a few changes due to circumstances. There is no fuel, for example, so people travel once again by horse and cart. Others plant gardens knowing full well that they will not live long enough to see them bloom. A group of old buffers decide that they might as well drink their way through the club’s wine cellar, since there’s no point in keeping it, and there are campaigns to have the fishing season brought forward by a few months. The Australian government issues suicide pills. Everyone adapts to the new reality in their own way.

The book opens with a description of Peter Holmes waking on a golden, sunlit morning next to his wife Mary, trying to recall the mysterious sense of happiness that he feels. Is it because it is Christmas? No – that was last week. Slowly as he becomes conscious he recalls that he has to go into Melbourne that day, to a meeting at the Navy Department. He’s hoping for a new command – his own ship. At the foot of the bed their baby daughter Jennifer awakens in her cot with a series of small whimpering sounds.

Commander Dwight Towers is the captain of one of the last American nuclear submarines, temporarily assigned to the Royal Australian Navy. He becomes attached to a young Australian woman, Moira Davidson, wry, funny and cynical by turn, thinly hiding a terrible vulnerability, who is herself coping with circumstances by drinking heavily. Towers is already married; his wife and children were living in the United States when war broke out, and they are almost certainly dead. Despite knowing this, he buys birthday presents for his children and maintains a fiction that they may be alive. Once, in an unguarded moment, he admits to Moira that he knows they are dead, and asks if she thinks he is crazy to pretend they are still alive. She replies that she does not – she understands. He kisses her in gratitude.

Shute’s characters are, as always, decent and upright individuals who are not given to great displays of emotion even when inwardly reeling. They possess a stoicism that was a characteristic of the time amongst the generation that had come through the Second World War – a quiet fortitude to their suffering, which when it occasionally slips, is all the more shocking. Moira cycles through different emotions – tearfulness, determination, and inevitably the anger and bitterness of someone who feels cheated of her future. When Peter Holmes tentatively tries to broach the subject of suicide pills to his wife, she goes into complete denial, refusing to entertain the notion. He becomes exasperated, and shouts at her about the awful sickness that they will all succumb to. Her tears and childlike naivety in response prompt an enormous welling up of compassion within him. He knows he cannot ask her to administer the pills to their baby, but is determined that they will die together as a family.

Towers embarks on a mission to check for survivors in the northern hemisphere, sailing the submarine across the Pacific, as far north as the Gulf of Alaska. Returning down the coast of the United States, they halt briefly off San Francisco. Through the periscope they look out upon a deserted city. The Golden Gate Bridge has fallen. One crewmember jumps ship to spend his remaining days in his home town. Finding no trace of life the submarine returns to Australia. Towers goes on a trip with Moira, both aware of the feelings developing between them, and yet he cannot become involved with her without feeling disloyal to his wife. Nevertheless their platonic love for each other deepens, thrown into relief by the precariousness of the situation, of the fleeting sweetness of life. It is all the more moving for being necessarily chaste.

As the situation worsens and more people begin to show the first signs of radiation sickness, Towers decides that rather than commit suicide together with Moira, he will instead follow his duty to the end, take the submarine out into international waters and scuttle it, going down with his ship. In doing so he will, in his mind, be reunited with his wife and children. Moira drives up to a hilltop to watch the submarine heading out to sea for the last time. It is a testament to the humanity of the book, that even in this appalling, apocalyptic scenario, that some things still endure at the end of the world. As Moira looks out to sea, torn with emotion, she achieves a kind of peace: admiring and understanding Towers’ decision, filled with love. She imagines herself together with him as she opens the box containing the pill.

Sometimes I think of that young woman, standing on an Australian headland looking out to sea, waiting for the arrival of a cobalt-blue cloud, and it breaks my heart.


Elections in Goa. Small trucks – camionettes – drive around the neighbourhood blaring out music and speeches. Aam Admi have the best tunes, and the crew wear the white forage caps favoured by Arvind Kejriwal, the party’s leader and Chief Minister of Delhi. The BJP – Prime Minister Modi’s party – are the loudest, the volume so high that it distorts into static. It’s all quite friendly, with none of the sinister overtones that you sometimes get during elections in tropical countries, but there’s an underlying seriousness to it all. For the last two weeks, bars and restaurants have been rigorously enforcing last orders for alcohol at 10pm – these places which are so laid back for the rest of the year. The owners are all nervous, fearing a visit from the police, who normally turn a blind eye to such things. Now the shops and supermarkets have stopped selling alcohol too – there’s a ban from the 2nd to the 5th of February, although polling day is technically only on the 4th. Although it is illegal to smoke in restaurants, everyone still does, even beneath the hand-made No Smoking signs – but now all the ashtrays have been taken away. In one place the waiter mistakes our hand-rolled cigarette for a joint and tells us to be discrete as there’s a cop at the bar. It’s a temporary tightening up, an establishing of a pretence of rules more in line with the rest of the world. Democracy is a serious business, is the message.

Exactly what the rationale is for enforcing an earlier closing time for a fortnight before an election is unclear. It doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. One explanation is that voters are sometimes bribed to attend rallies with alcohol (undoubtedly true), and licensed premises have a readily available supply. But of course there would be countless ways around that, with alcohol smuggled across state borders, and the explanation is more akin to the recent, economically disastrous policy of demonetization, where the most common notes in circulation were withdrawn overnight. It served no practical purpose other than causing massive inconvenience – 90% of the money found its way back into the economy within a couple of months, making a nonsense of the claim that such a policy would wipe out black money. Psychologically, however, it was a shrewd move: it gave people a sense that they were all in it together, that the agreed menace of corruption needed addressing somehow, and this gave everyone the opportunity to do their bit, to feel that they were suffering for a greater good. It makes a population compliant.

One of the ironies of this, of course, is that the political parties regard their voters with such contempt that they can be bought by the promise of a few drinks. And yet it strikes me that this situation is not dissimilar to the one I am currently in. K’s bike developed a puncture the other night. We parked it at a small pizza place, and the next day I went to a puncture shop, who collected it and fixed the puncture. The problem I have is that the bike is at the puncture shop. K is in Pune. Given that I cannot ride two bikes at once, I shall have to ask a friend for a favour, to ride the thing back home – a favour that really only merits the offer of beer. To offer money would be insulting. To offer nothing at all would be crass. Beer is the perfect solution.

So I have visited a small shop where the owner discretely went out the back with my rucksack and illicitly filled it with Tuborg, for a suitable fee. In India there is always a way.


I have written before of my fellow foreigners here, how they are brought together in a temporary truce that transcends nationality. I’m thinking of the group of Germans who sat at the next table to me the other night – perhaps six or seven of them, most in their 50s or 60s. They were from Munich, and I eavesdropped as best I could, occasionally losing the frequency of their Bavarian accents, then tuning in again. Two ferries out on the estuary had a near miss, pirouetting silently upon the seashell-pink water, which prompted them to comment upon Indian driving generally. The ferries were “schwein teuer”, apparently – swinishly expensive. The Goan electorate might as well vote for “Koko nuss” – coconuts – or perhaps, as one sour-looking man opined, a banana. I thought, as I often do in these circumstances, of recent history, and how they had, within their lifetimes, been born into a wasteland of rubble, a nadir of barbarity, which had gone on to become the economic powerhouse of Europe, with a society almost at the zenith of what we call civilization. The paradox was heightened by the group behind me, who spoke Czech. Across the courtyard were a large Russian family. And I thought: right – so this lot here invaded that lot behind me, occupying the Sudetenland, which was part of Czechoslovakia. Then they invaded that lot over there, who repelled them, occupied half their country, then went on to later invade this lot behind me to crush the uprising in the Prague Spring. And how did all this come about? What delineates this group from that group? Language? They are not so dissimilar, and besides, it’s easy to learn another’s language – often to find that other people utter the same banalities to each other that we all do. Culture? These three groups here have a great deal more in common with each other culturally than they do with any of the Indians in whose village they are currently sitting. What an utter nonsense it all is.

Because it strikes me sometimes that to travel is to embrace strangeness, and there are times when India is deeply, inexplicably strange. Waiting for a bus in Mapusa the other day, sitting on a low wall on a steaming night with an endless stream of two-wheeled traffic snaking past, I looked around myself at all the Indians who calmly accepted me in their midst. There was a man wheeling a bicycle which had a 50kg sack of wood on the back. A group of small children came to beg, proffering little steel bowls – one spotted a couple embracing, saying goodbye to each other, and managed to insert the bowl between them before being rebuffed. Women in saris sat waiting for their bus with large bundles before them. Further along the wall upon which we sat, there was an invisible border; here, people lay stretched out asleep, curled on their sides – the inevitable accumulation of pavement dwellers of any Indian town. And I sat there among them, with 2500 rupees in my wallet – about twenty quid these days – which is several months’ salary for some of these people, and nobody did anything, hassled me, visibly resented me for it, anything. There was just a quiet acceptance that although they lived in their world and I in mine, we were sitting next to each other on the same wall, and we in fact had more in common, in our daily needs or desires, than differences between us.

There are times, though, when you know that you will never understand this country – it’s extraordinary beliefs, the pantheon of its gods, the vastness of it all. You can’t even read the simplest signs. Who are those two men in the small van waiting at the gate? Two pot-bellied uncles in white shirts who are holding mobile phones. They have been there an hour, waiting for something, watching the passing traffic. Are they police? They don’t have the worn leather jackets, moustaches, tired eyes and cigarettes of any Arab mukhabarat. They lack the safari suits, flares and Afro hair styles favoured by Zimbabwe’s CIO, who seemed to model themselves on the 70s film star Shaft. These are just two rather portly Indian men whose presence, like so much here, is inexplicable.

Riding back from Mapusa round the hairpin bends over the hill in the dark, I came down into the valley where we live. The air was cool on the hill but thickened into sultriness across the marshes. The Enfield thunked along in fourth gear like an outboard motor, the buckled concrete of the road causing the bike to pitch and yaw as if I were in a small boat at sea. The temple was glittering with lights – thousands of them in spiralling patterns, and I heard the yodelling squeeze-box notes of music, and a man singing. These songs often go on for hours, everyone packed in together in the sweltering darkness. Sounds of a small handbell being rung, then a series of explosions from firecrackers – chasing away the bad spirits. A kind of sermon began, the Konkani language utterly different to the nasal “aap” and “hai” sounds of Hindi; this was a more rounded and mellifluous tongue that might as well have been Yoruba. The man was becoming more voluble, and then the congregation began a strange kind of groaning and crying. I pulled over, switched off the bike and listened to the utter, barbaric strangeness of the sound – this mass of people wailing on a hot night, the distant hollow thunk of a man chopping coconuts with a machete, the howling dogs, the endless chirp of crickets. Goosebumps rose on my bare forearms even as sweat trickled down my chest, and I thought: you will never understand this place – the hopes and terrors of these tropical people, the things that they fear in the darkness, the lamentation of the gods. This is the world we inhabit.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot – The Hollow Men

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A Schooner to Hobart

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In the covered shelter overlooking the temple hot pools the women are singing, perhaps 30 or 40 of them; a robust, brassy chant that rises and falls to the accompaniment of their clapping. Round and round the chorus goes, as wild as the mountains that surround us, bold, glittering and defiant. I can only make out their shadowy figures from afar, but can picture them from the sound: a grandmother bawls out the lead in a voice cracked with age, a call and answer to the high, clear notes of a young girl, perhaps in her teens. Then the rest join in a shrill, powerful chorus. It has a barbaric splendour to it, full of strength, and slowly the village becomes quiet around us in awe as the women make their voices heard. Then the singing dies away, and the low roar of the distant river rises again as it rushes on into the darkness.


Naggar had been picturesque, but after a week it was time to move on. With no clear destination in mind many possibilities presented themselves: Kinnaur was out, but perhaps we could go to Dharamsala, and a small village above the town where we had stayed three years previously. But it was going to be a long slog to get there, and at peak holiday season accommodation might be in short supply. We toyed with the idea of a return to Ladakh, but the region’s remoteness, previously an attraction, now became a liability; we both needed somewhere to rest up and recover, not go into one of the wildest parts of the Himalaya which took two days’ ride to reach.

Then I remembered Vashisht. It was a village just three kilometers across the valley from Manali, but a world away from the snarling traffic and reggae-blaring coffee shops that Old Manali had become. Vashisht was known for its hot springs which lay in the very centre of the village as part of  an ancient temple complex, and when I had visited previously, nerves frayed from Afghanistan, it had been a tranquil spot to linger in for a while, still retaining something of its village atmosphere.

Trudging up the hill past the castle, laden with backpacks, we emerged into what passed for a town square in Naggar. There were several taxis parked up but no drivers in sight. A lone autorickshaw was parked by the chai stall, and we found the driver – a young, sleepy-eyed guy in a red polo shirt. Could he take us all the way to Vashisht? Certainly, he said. No problem. We agreed a price, clambered in and set off on a roller coaster ride down the lanes. A short way beyond the village he turned off onto a dirt track that zigzagged its way down the mountainside, past small stone houses and bushes of wild cannabis. “Short cut,” the driver explained. We clung on, pitching and yawing our way over the bumps. We crossed a narrow bridge bedecked with prayer flags that was just wide enough to accommodate the rickshaw, and turned onto the main highway to Manali.

As we buzzed along, I started to notice that the driver appeared to be swaying. He’d glance down at the handlebars with his hooded eyes, give a strange half-smile, and begin a slow clockwise rotation of his upper body. It looked like he was going into a trance.

I tapped him on the shoulder. “Thik hain, bhai?” You OK, brother?

“Haan, haan, thik hain.” He straightened up once more. He was driving well – his reflexes seemed good: he braked swiftly to miss a motorbike that pulled out in front of us, avoided the potholes and anticipated all the countless hazards. But again, after a few minutes, he began that odd swaying rotation. Was he drugged? Falling asleep? I couldn’t tell. We were coming into Manali now, past the private bus stand by the river where we had arrived three weeks earlier. I did a quick risk assessment, debating whether to get him to stop and find another rickshaw. But relative safety – he’d got us this far. Nevertheless I kept a close eye on him.

The traffic was worse than ever. Nose to tail gridlock for several kilometers. Masked Himachali cops waved arms and blew whistles seemingly at random, trying to control it. As we neared a line of parked rickshaws, a paunchy guy in blue shirt and aviator shades stepped in front of us, blocking our progress. He began barking at the driver in the manner of officialdom everywhere. He wanted us to turn back, it seemed. We had the wrong plates. The driver explained he’d come from Naggar. It was the rickshaw cartel, where they had unofficially assigned themselves certain routes. Our driver was an outsider, and not welcome. There was some shouting back and forth in Hindi, and then we drove on once more.

“Yahan se right.” The directions came back to me after a three year absence, through the mental maps of other cities. Straight on led to the Rohtang Pass, culminating in a wall of mountains, the other side of which lay Ladakh. And much seemed familiar, but so many other places intervened: these trees are not the gum trees of Victoria; not the pines of Scandinavia, nor the poplars of Italy. How many places have I been? Sometimes you feel you have seen too much, travelled too far. The memories blur together, superimposed over one another. A place will pop into your head at random, temporarily transporting you in time and space. In the end destinations become immaterial, and the only consistent theme is your endless journey. But over there was a hotel where I had once stayed, and there a barber’s where I had a haircut. I had been here before. What had changed in three years? Myself, immeasurably.

Dharma Hotel was a succession of long, echoing corridors which carried the unmistakeable reek of cooking gas. A six storey monstrosity, it had a perfect bird’s eye view over the village from the hillside, reached by a flight of steep stone steps from behind the temple pools. These lanes were mediaeval – spattered with cow dung and with open drains running alongside. Rounding one corner we had a near miss as a lady in a nearby house flung the contents of a bucket out of her open doorway. Gardez l’eau. I remembered this slow trudge up, heart hammering. We had come from sea level in Goa, and were now at 6,500 feet. Ahead of us three local labourers toiled upwards, each with a stack of bricks on their back supported by a band around the forehead: I counted 24 bricks in the load of the man ahead of me. They would do this journey over and over again each day, 40, 50 times. They moved in slow motion, faces impassive, eyes on the step ahead, lost in their own private worlds. And how many people had I followed up mountain paths over the years? Robustly jovial Manyikas in Zimbabwe, endlessly laughing and singing; the fearsomely proud Tajiks of Panjshir who brought a casual, dashing flair to everything they did; rugged Gurungs in Nepal whose men supplied the Brigade of Gurkhas, legendary for their toughness, who knew no flat land from the day they were born – all mountain people whose steps danced effortlessly up the track ahead.

We adjourned to the terrace for lunch, and found we were back in backpacker territory; the menu was a combination of Western and Indian dishes – pizza, falafel, aloo gobi. In the distance the white wall of the Rohtang Pass barred the valley, and above it the sky was darkening. A wind sprang up, and the first spots of rain began to fall. Seizing our plates we moved into the dining room, which was notable for the absence of any tables. A group of six or seven men were sitting in a circle in the centre of the room, gathered around an enormous hookah. It was one of the largest I’d seen, with a stem that was over a metre long. Each would puff on it for a while then give it a little flick, and it would spin round the group before coming to rest in front of someone else. On one wall an enormous television played an Indian soap opera, involving liquescent-eyed beauties demurely quailing in front of scowling mothers-in-law – a staple of the genre. Occasionally a banner would pop up on screen titled “Breaking News – Ranbir spotted in Colaba nightspot with Deepika”, or “Karina dazzles at blockbuster launch”, on what was ostensibly a news channel.

You can tell a lot about a country by its media. Bollywood has never translated particularly well to other cultures – it’s too Indian somehow, too rigidly formulaic – but that’s precisely what offers an insight into local aspirations. A film of any genre would be unthinkable without at least one song and dance routine, although if it is the type of Action blockbuster popularised by Hollywood the routine might be not-so-cunningly hidden; in a nightclub scene, for example, which the hero and heroine just happen to visit before becoming the stars of the show, everyone else somehow magically lining up around them. There’s also a dearth of originality; it’s quite common to find yourself watching a sequence which somehow seems oddly familiar, due to it having been lifted almost scene by scene from Hollywood. But nobody cares – nobody cries foul, or sues anyone else. The local audience doesn’t mind; indeed they somehow relate far more to the sight of Shah Rukh Khan chasing a baddie over the same red-tiled rooftops of Dubrovnik than they would Daniel Craig. Never mind the silliness, the parodies and the intertextuality. He’s our boy.

But the night bus movie to Manali unwittingly showed everything that was wrong with the country. Racist, sexist, disablist, homophobic, it would have prompted howls of outrage in any Western audience – in fact it did so even on the bus; two of our fellow passengers, both British, winced their way through it – while all around us Indians laughed. It was called Housefull 3 (how they had made two previous ones along similar lines defied belief) and revolved around a patriarchal Indian father not wanting his three daughters to marry. He was a millionaire, the setting somewhere in England (success comes only with getting out), and it managed, typically, to make the women look like silly bimbos who sneaked out to spend their time jumping up and down in slow motion to a series of Bollywood hits on party boats up and down the Thames, pausing in their tepid twerking only to pout for selfie shots. Their hapless suitors feigned disabilities to gain admittance to the family home (one blind, one crippled and one mute), and were mocked for their afflictions. The grand country house that was the family home was run by a domestic staff who were all black. In one unforgettable scene an Indian actor woke in horror to realise that the woman beside him in bed was also black – a fact he had been unaware of because it was dark (the audience howled with laughter at that one). And in almost every shot, somewhere, looming with semiotic aspiration, was a Union Jack flag – either hanging from a flagpole, or as the logo on somebody’s sweatshirt, or on the masks of three jewel thieves. It was a slavish display of repugnantly Anglophone loyalty, a perpetual Stockholm Syndrome of the mentally colonised. Kick us enough and we’ll lick your boots in gratitude. We only want to be like you. Trouble is, we just don’t know how.


Sometimes you cannot see what is right in front of you. Your mind is elsewhere entirely. The eyes unconsciously take in a scene, but it means nothing, has no relevance to what is going on in your inner world. Then suddenly you register what is before you, and the present comes rushing back, like surfacing for air. I am miles away, reliving events, rewriting new ones, and then I find myself noticing a flock of white egrets flying up the river. I’ve been watching them for perhaps a minute without realising, taking in their curious head-up posture while flying, their neatly trailing legs, the shape that their wings cut through the air, a sideways figure-of-eight, tracing infinity. They rise, climbing, and split into twin skeins, perfectly framing the rising moon behind the mountains which turns them silver, then they are heading in different directions, one group gliding across to the western bank and settling there on a small beach, the other flying on over the village, making for the pass. I’m grateful for their presence now, like a sign, and wonder at how I could unthinkingly observe something so beautiful and be so preoccupied as to not notice.

I was woken soon after six in the morning by loud voices outside. Many voices. Emerging onto the balcony I saw an Indian family on the next balcony. Beyond them were another couple on their balcony, and on down the line – six balconies in a row, each with people standing on them, all of them having a shouted conversation with each other. A man on the next balcony saw me and called out: “Good morning sar!”

“Morning,” I croaked at him.

“Where are you coming from?”

Goa. Delhi. London. Suffolk. I don’t know. 

“England,” I replied. “And you?”

He gestured to all the adjacent balconies. “We are from Jalandhar. In Punjab!”

Jullundur. “I know it. Lawrence Durrell was born there. The writer.”

He smiled uncomprehendingly, so I nodded in their general direction and went back inside. K sleepily stirred. “What is all that bloody noise?”

“Punjabis.”

“Oh god.” She pulled the pillow over her head and went back to sleep.

By nine the Punjabis had gone, perhaps on a jeep ride up to the snowfields to have their photographs taken – one of the more popular excursions for the plains dwellers in mid-summer. On a flat roof below us a blonde girl was doing exercises, standing up, touching her toes, then forming a bridge with her bottom in the air before repeating the process. I watched her perform the same routine for half an hour – in which time I drank two masala chais and smoked three cigarettes. Then I saw another western girl appear on a balcony below her, dressed head to toe in skintight black lycra, headphones in, some kind of health monitoring device strapped to her upper arm. She looked as if she was about to go jogging round Hyde Park. She unfurled a skipping rope and began bouncing up and down, her ponytail jigging prettily behind her. “And now I must do my skipping!” I thought unkindly.

I was distracted from observing her aerobics by the sight of an Indian couple slowly climbing a spiral staircase to the rooftop. Both were decidedly large, and must have been in late middle age. They hauled themselves upwards using the handrail, then tottered across to a swing seat onto which they collapsed, fanning themselves. There they stayed for a few minutes, until the man rose and began a curious, knee-lifting walk around the rooftop perimeter. He wore baggy white shorts and a yellow T-shirt. He turned and beckoned to his partner, who slowly got up from the swing seat and went over to join him. She began to imitate his strange gait, lifting the knees high, then they both turned on the spot and went backwards a few steps, turned forwards again, and clapped their hands over their head. One, two, three, four steps forward, turn, turn, clap. One, two, three, four, turn, turn, clap. I realised they were dancing. Perhaps they had music on a mobile phone that I was too far away from to hear. They went in a circle around the rooftop, then reversed their steps and went backward. I watched, mesmerised.

“Come and look at this!” I called inside.

K emerged. “That aunty and uncle? What are they doing?”

“I think they’re dancing. Isn’t it awesome?”

Together we sat and watched these big people, aunty and uncle ji, high-stepping and clapping their way round and round the rooftop, and as they turned I realised both of them wore huge smiles.


The rain comes at four o’clock every day. The sky darkens, the Rohtang Pass slowly vanishes and the mountains echo to thunder. The wind sweeps up the valley, prompting a flurry of activity in the village below – washing is taken in, the hay which is laid out to dry on the flat roof opposite is bundled up hurriedly, and tables and chairs are cleared from the terraces. Soon the rain begins to fall, and the cloud descends down the hillside opposite, dripping stands of conifers looming, silhouetted against the mountain’s flanks. Twin headlights nose cautiously along the other side of the valley as vehicles tentatively find their way back down from the high passes, and eventually the road snarls into gridlock, a long line of vehicles inching forwards with a muffled honking. The sky boils black and grey with torn cloud, tendrils of shredded mist, and a lowering fog draws a diaphanous curtain over the scene.

By evening the rain has stopped and people emerge into the streets again, waiters shaking off chairs, stallholders setting up once more. The river has doubled in size across the boulders of its bed and is roaring in full spate, silt-grey and green woven through with twisting braids of white water. Sometimes you see fishermen selling their catch, smoked on roadside braziers, a small bundle of trout held aloft, with scales of burnished gold, sightless eyes opaque now, fins akimbo. There is a damp chill in the air, reminiscent of home somehow, which induces a certain wistfulness – I haven’t felt this cold for months. You look out at the rain-slick streets of London through the droplets trickling down the bus window on a blustery evening, monochrome passers-by clad in black and grey, huddled in coats, clutching umbrellas, hurrying home. And perhaps you think to yourself: What am I doing here? 

I was leaving India in two weeks. The end of another half-year, my biannual peregrination to the subcontinent like that of a migratory bird. This time I had covered a lot of ground, from arid Gujarat in the far west to the deep tropical south of Kerala, and now the north, here in Himachal – “abode of snows”. That was why, I knew, my mind was turning to other destinations once more. Thoughts of home mingled with other places, other possibilities.

Travel becomes its own imperative – a legacy of latent nomadism. It winds up some internal spring within you tighter and tighter, some escapist urge to see new places, other people. It might take a month, or a year, but sooner or later it manifests itself. You pace out the corners of your apartment, stare out of the window for the hundredth time, and everything familiar is sickening. Your life is on hold. Your mind turns to other places you’ve been, other trips. You remember the colourful awnings of a market flapping in the breeze on a sparkling day, like prayer flags. Where was it?… There was a big red ship in the harbour, an icebreaker. Hobart.

We went to Salamanca Market and bought some local honey – blackwood, I think it was. Acacia melanoxylon. It came from way down on the south-eastern coast of Tasmania, where the road ended and there was just miles of bushland, the Franklin-Gordon National Park. The bees flew through the forests all day and returned to their hives at night. The honey tasted strong, not floral so much as a rich, vegetable scent, rather like artichoke. And it was just like the Heaphy honey from the top of New Zealand’s South Island, at the start of the Heaphy Track. I walked that track, and had the honey for breakfast each day, with Weet-bix (no ‘a’) and dried apricots and water from the river, mashed into a paste. Perhaps there’s a connection – similar flora, rain-lashed island wildernesses on the same latitude, just across the Tasman amid the Roaring Forties of the vast Southern Ocean.

I had met Mick in a hostel the previous day. A great black-bearded gentle giant of a guy, he offered to show me round Hobart, his home town. He was in his late 60s, and his marriage had just ended, so he had pitched up at a backpacker hostel as he had nowhere else to stay. His memory was going, and lines of concern at what looked like a bleak future were etched across his brow like lightning. Now he was forgetting the words for everyday items, and I had none to offer him in consolation.

After the market we went to watch the footie in a pub – the AFL final. Hawthorne Hawks against Sydney Swans. I snatched off my bush hat when Jane Fonda sang “Advance Australia Fair”, prompted by Mick rising rather unsteadily to his feet and removing his own. He nodded approvingly.

The barman came over. “What can I get you, gents?”

“I’ll have a…” Mick frowned, trying to remember. The barman was a young guy with a frosted mat of spikes for hair and tattooed arms. The silence went on.

“Sorry mate. Gimme a minute. I’ll have a…”

He started to go red. His forehead puckered with a knot as he tried to remember. The barman looked at me, and I silently willed him to wait, to be patient. He did.

“Bugger it, a beer, dammit. In a…”

We waited a bit more. A bottle? A pint? The barman started fiddling with glasses, eyes drifting to the screen overhead.

“A schooner! A beer in a schooner!” It was a half-pint glass. Mick’s face cleared with relief. He’d remembered.

 

 

Shared Journeys

The Eternal Traveller

I was walking up a hill in Assisi, dragging my case behind me. The rhythm of its wheels on the cobblestones seemed familiar. Da-Dah da Da-Dah da Da-Dah da Da-Dah. The wheels jolted over the ruts and set up this continual refrain which I couldn’t quite place. Then it came to me slowly: I had the couplet in my head for years, but couldn’t remember the words – only the sound and rhythm of it, and the rough English translation of what it meant. It was a description of the sacking of an ancient city by the Mongols. Where had I heard it? I thought it Persian, and very old. I walked up the hill, mentally chanting nonsense words: “The hatstand the milkman the brassband the land!” I couldn’t get it. Into the mental archives it went. Later, after we had found our accommodation, a small cavern owned by a poet, built into the hillside and beautifully furnished, I took out my notebook – a battered black moleskine – and wrote down: hatstand, milkman, brass band, land. Persian? Balkh? Bokhara? 

Hoping the language hadn’t changed much since antiquity, I messaged a Persian-speaking friend. “How would you translate something like: ‘They came and they destroyed and they burned and they looted and then they vanished?’”

He came back with a line of text in which some of the words were familiar – amdand, kushtand, sokhtand – but the rhythm was missing. Round and round in my head it went. Virgil wrote a Latin equivalent in hexameter: “Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum” – “The qua-druped’s gall-oping hoof shakes the ground”. Da Dah-da-da Dah-da-da Dah-da-da Da! But what was it in Persian?


The Notebooks:

In France these notebooks are known as carnet moleskines: ‘moleskine’, in this case, being its black oilcloth binding. Each time I went to Paris, I would buy a fresh supply from a papeterie in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie. The pages were squared and the end-papers held in place with an elastic band. I had numbered them in series. I wrote my name and address on the front page, offering a reward to the finder. To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe.

In twenty odd years of travel, I lost only two. One vanished on an Afghan bus. The other was filched by the Brazilian secret police, who with a certain clairvoyance, imagined that some lines I had written – about the wounds of a Baroque Christ – were a description, in code, of their own work on political prisoners.

Some months before I left for Australia, the owner of the papeterie said that the vrai moleskine was getting harder and harder to get. There was one supplier: a small family business in Tours. They were very slow in answering letters.

“I’d like to order a hundred,” I said to Madame. “A hundred will last me a lifetime.”

She promised to telephone Tours at once, that afternoon.

At lunchtime I had a sobering experience. The headwaiter of Brasserie Lipp no longer recognised me, “Non Monsieur, il n’y a pas de place.” At five, I kept my appointment with Madame. The manufacturer had died. His heirs had sold the business. She removed her spectacles and said, almost with an air of mourning, “Le vrai moleskine n’est plus.”

Bruce Chatwin. 


My notebook copy

My own moleskine lay open on the table before me, broken-backed, its flyleaves speckled with a kind of international grit. Unlike Chatwin, in twenty years of travel I’d never lost one yet – although I often kept several in circulation at once, rotating them. The opening lines of this one began: “New Delhi, Christmas Day 2010. Pigeons are landing on the maidan playing field in small, ochrey puffs of red dust. They are thin-looking creatures, as are the Indian crows. Call of mynah birds overhead. Faint tang of drains, incense, sandalwood soap, Wills Gold Flake cigarettes. It feels like a long time since it last rained.”

In the small pocket at the back were: a ticket to the Proms at the Albert Hall in London; a sun-faded postcard from Kyneton, Victoria, showing the bank, the old mill and the hotel known as ‘The Swinging Arms’; a pass for the Annapurna Conservation Area; an entry ticket to the Durbar Square in Bhaktapur, Nepal; ten Indian rupees, and a twenty Afghani banknote. I began to write some first impressions of Assisi:

Hollow metallic tontin of tongue-lolling churchbells. Crucifixes for sale and T-shaped Tau signs. Small religious figurines of St. Francis and enormous, head-sized meringues in the cafes. After the hordes of Gore-tex clad tourists vanish at dusk, the alleys become the preserve of huge cats in residence beneath battered Fiats – the only cars small enough to negotiate the narrow bends. The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi stands overlooking the plain below. A sense of something spiritual – a special place.

We walked along the dark and winding streets in search of dinner. Down towards the Piazza Communale we found a small restaurant which was almost deserted, but seemed nice. It was run by two brothers, and had only recently opened. They specialised in local cuisine; very local – they could tell you the provenance of just about everything on the menu. For antipasti we selected a cheese platter, which came on a long, olivewood board. There were four kinds of pecorino, all at different stages of maturity.

“I suggest,” said the owner, “you begin at this end, with the mildest, and try it with some honey. Then progress towards the more mature ones, which you should try with either the fig jam or the chilli preserve.” He was right – it was a delicious combination. Then, another Umbrian speciality: Papardelle con Ragu Cinghiale – wide pasta like tagliatelle with a wild boar sauce. The sun was dipping behind the distant hills in shades of vermillion and purple, silhouetting the poplar trees. Lights began springing up across the darkening plain, and in the distance a lone church bell began tolling, melancholic and solitary in the evening chill.


It was a wild November night on the Suffolk Coast – a gale in the autumn of 1989. Rain spattered the windows and the TV aerial on the tiled roof of the Red Lion pub across the road was swaying back and forth in the wind. The pub sign squeaked on its hinges. On the wall by the yard was a sign that said: “Private Property – No Access. Rights of Way Act 1942”. The sign looked like it had been there since the war. And in the distance, out in the blackness, the sea boiled and roared, the crests of the waves whisked into sprays of silver in the light of the moon. It was easy to imagine a U-boat in 1942 waiting for clearer weather just offshore, lying calmly just beneath the surface, and the captain peering through the periscope at the shimmering lights of the town as the waves washed over the lens intermittently in their remorseless progression towards the land.

In the tall, thin house that smelt of wood polish and echoed to the slow tick of the grandfather clock in the hall, we sat in a small pool of golden light on the second floor, my grandfather in his armchair doing The Times crossword, my father sitting on the sofa nearby, reading another section of the paper, and myself, aged 16, listening to the storm outside and half-watching the TV that was on in the corner. It was an arts review programme, I remember, and the presenter was talking about a new book – a novel about Meissen porcelain – “Utz”, by Bruce Chatwin. It was the last interview he ever gave, explained the presenter, before his death from AIDS at the age of 48.

On the screen a gaunt figure, skeletally thin, sat with staring, bright blue eyes. He never blinked. His hair had almost gone. In an eerie, high-pitched voice, plummy as an old lady, he spoke about Meissen, and a man he had come across in Czechoslovakia who couldn’t bring himself to flee the Communist regime because it would mean abandoning the art collection which he loved – a man who was also in love with his maid, who looked after the small porcelain figurines. “And the maid wins!” he cackled. His nose was running, and he sniffed repeatedly. It was pitiful to see, and utterly haunting.

I’ve almost finished my big book – there’s a terrible old character with a twisted gut called Hanlon – and now I have a whole novel growing in the notebooks too. I can see almost all of it. It’s set in Prague and I shall call it “Utz” – “Utz!” Anyway, one day you must tell people Redders, but not now. It’s a fable. It’s all there, ready-made. And the moral is simple: never kill yourself. Not under any circumstances. Not even when you’re told you have AIDS.

Redmond O’Hanlon – Congo Journey

Chatwin had considered taking a trip to Switzerland, to the top of the Jungfraujoch, and jumping off. Or of going back to Mauritania, to the nomads there, and just taking off all his clothes and walking off into the desert. But he couldn’t do it. As Hermann Hesse says in Steppenwolf: “Suicide cases… are those individuals who no longer see self-development and fulfilment as their life’s aim, but rather the dissolution of self, a return to the womb, to God, to the cosmos… They see death as their saviour, not life, and they are prepared to jettison, abandon and extinguish themselves in order to return to their origins.” Chatwin, though, knew deep down that he wasn’t prepared to give up like that. That self-development and fulfilment was something to follow to the end, to be “defeated and laid low by life itself, rather than by one’s own hand”.

Dad looked up from his paper and frowned. “Poor chap. He really does look ill.” Grandpa’s paper came down and he peered at the screen. There was something mesmerising in this ghoulish spectacle – Chatwin’s passion for his subject, his enthusiasm and the fire in him despite his failing body. He spoke, in that strange, slightly querulous voice, of art, and Patagonia, of Aborigines going Walkabout, and nomadism, and the aesthetic imperative that leads to the mania for collecting, possessing that which cannot be possessed. “Of course, art always lets you down.”

Chatwin died soon after that interview. I didn’t know who he was at the time, and hadn’t read any of his books, but I have never forgotten it. In the writing of this piece, to try to confirm the accuracy of my own memory of the event, I searched for the interview online, and found a clip of it. I wondered whether to include it; people should remember him as he was when he was well, remember him for his writing, his beauty, his manic intelligence, his adventurous spirit and his extraordinary journeys. Not as a gaunt and haunted figure with so much still to say in the few remaining moments of lucidity left to him. His mind was going. But it was him, unquestionably, and still there, and still bursting with ideas and enthusiasm.

https://youtu.be/aN3tyNfVzjI

Though he was very weak and so thin you could see the white bones in his arms, his telephone was still plugged in to its socket. He was making and receiving calls, talking to his friends all over the world.

 Redmond O’Hanlon – Congo Journey    


Assisi was all about Saint Francis, and in numerous shops small plasterwork figures of him stood in rows in cabinets, styled in various poses. One of seven children born to a prosperous cloth merchant, he had a fairly wild youth, and had gone off to war against Perugia in 1201, when he was taken prisoner and held in captivity for a year. On his return to Assisi a serious illness led to what has been described as a spiritual crisis, but the following year he joined another military expedition to Apulia. On the way a strange vision convinced him of the need to return to Assisi at once and devote his life to God. He took a vow of poverty and spent the next years living essentially as a beggar in the surrounding countryside, wandering.

Reading the account of the saint’s life, I was put in mind of another soldier called Francis who had experienced a revelatory vision, but one who couldn’t have been more different. Sir Francis Younghusband, imperial soldier, diplomat and explorer, pioneered a route into Tibet on an espionage mission, and became the British resident in Kashmir in 1906. He became increasingly absorbed in mystical religion after an experience in Lhasa which he described as “a curious sense of being literally in love with the world”. He published a number of New Age books on his return to Britain, and became a proponent of free love, “the freedom to unite when and how a man and woman please,” as he put it, and wrote to his friend and lover Lady Lees saying: “I have made the discovery that bodily union does not impair soul union but heightens and tightens it”.

The Basilica of St. Francis was perched on a hill at the far western edge of Assisi – a site that used to be known as the Hill of Hell, as criminals were put to death there by being flung off it. Now it is known as the Hill of Paradise. The basilica itself consists of two churches, one on top of the other. The Upper Church was Gothic, the interior decorated with frescoes thought to be by Giotto. Overhead a cross-vaulted ceiling was decorated with golden stars on a deep blue background, and induced a light and airy sensation of soaring aspirations. Below, the Lower Church was an enormous crypt, entirely in the Romanesque style. It was dark and lit with the flickering flames of long, tapering candles. The atmosphere was one of introspection, contemplation.

In a nave off to one side there was a small chapel to St. Mary Magdalen, and at a bench before the altar a priest was praying with his eyes shut – a man in his 50s, with tight-curled iron-grey hair – his hands clasped before him, lips moving silently. As I entered the nave soundlessly on my rubber-soled shoes he suddenly looked up, startled, and saw me. I wondered what psychic field I had brought into the church to interrupt him so. What was the state of my soul, to have this effect? It meant no harm. We held each other’s gaze, deeply and questioningly, wide-eyed as if seeing something in each other for the first time. Then, embarrassed at disturbing him, I dipped my head, placed my hand over my heart in apology in the Islamic manner – a gesture I have always found touchingly respectful, however automatically ingrained it may become – and retreated. He closed his eyes and resumed his prayer once more. Perhaps I could have gone and prayed next to him. But I didn’t have his faith, and felt no urge to – no Franciscan revelation impelling me to do so.

I’ve always been interested in accounts of life-changing revelations. As humans we walk along our familiar pathways too often with eyes half-shut, and have at times to make a deliberate effort of will to notice things. Travel can introduce a kind of artificial jolt to the system, where you are physically transported to a different environment which sends you into a kind of sensory overload, where everything is unfamiliar so you are forced to see with new eyes; not just physically transported but also spiritually. And yet you can’t induce the pliant and open state of mind that is necessary to achieve this artificially – merely travelling somewhere different is not enough; one has to endeavour to see differently too. A concert can do it, music transporting you, manifesting itself in great emotion – your hair stands on end, your eyes fill with tears and you feel unable to breathe, filled with love. It leaves you changed somehow. Art can do it – I remember standing before a Caravaggio and having that same sensation, of a great pressure building up within me, right in the centre of my forehead, and I felt deeply moved and filled with tenderness. It transports us in time and space and we are not the same afterwards; we have altered our gaze and induced a new perspective, become beautifully broken.

I read a review the other day of an art exhibition in Goa: Julian Opie’s landscape prints titled “Winter”. Reviewer Madhavi Gore described the artist using satellite imagery and Google mapping to convey the wintry French landscape, there in steamy, tropical Goa, and spoke of the tradition of landscape painting as being rooted in the desire to possess, to inhabit those landscapes, in a claim of ownership: “Opie’s installation reminds us of humankind’s constant and consistent need to plot and map our footprint or location, and acquire a position of perspective – visual, aural, existential.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.in/madhavi-gore/julian-opie-brings-a-fren_b_8366440.html

It made me think about that action of plotting and mapping. What was the one group of people who did this to a greater extent than anyone else? People who actually described their world as it occured, footstep by footstep, mapping its features and by doing so, bringing it into being, constructing their own creation mythology in the process? It was the Australian Aborigines. The Songlines.

In the early 1980s Bruce Chatwin travelled to Australia, inspired by a book he had read, Theodor Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia. Chatwin had been trying to write a book on nomads for years, but had got bogged down in the weight of research and had to abandon it. Now, Strehlow’s account of Aborigine traditions and mythology suddenly shone a new light on the subject. For Chatwin it was the missing piece in the jigsaw, or rather several missing pieces. He couldn’t quite see how it was going to fit together, but knew that this was an important area that was little understood, and felt “it might answer for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness”. The book he ended up writing, The Songlines, described how the Aborigines, despite belonging to many different tribal groups, dispersed across vast distances and with often no language in common, nevertheless had a similar series of creation myths or ‘songs’, which connected together. In their songs they had created not just a physical map of their immediate surroundings, but also a moral universe, and these formed a network that spread out across the continent of Australia:

Every song cycle went leap-frogging through language barriers, regardless of tribe or frontier. A Dreaming-track might start in the west, near Broome; thread its way through twenty languages or more; and go on to hit the sea near Adelaide.

“And yet,” I said, “It’s still the same song.”

“Our people,” Flynn said, “say they recognise a song by it’s ‘taste’ or ‘smell’… by which of course they mean the ‘tune’. The tune always stays the same, from the opening bars to the finale.”

“Words may change,” Arkady interrupted, “but the melody lingers on.”

“Does that mean,” I asked, “that a young man on Walkabout could sing his way across Australia provided he could hum the right tune?”

“In theory, yes,” Flynn agreed.

Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines

“Walkabout.” As a term it is still little understood. Merriam-Webster traces it back to 1908, making reference to “a short period of wandering bush life engaged in by an Australian Aborigine as an occasional interruption of regular work”. Wikipedia adds that “the only mention of ‘spiritual journey’ comes in a usage example from a latter-day travel writer” – that travel writer being none other than Bruce Chatwin. But The Songlines was published in 1987. Was it really possible that there had been no deeper understanding of the term in all that time?

A film called Walkabout [spoiler alert] was directed by Nicolas Roeg in 1971, which was the story of two white children – a teenage girl and her younger brother – who become lost in the Australian desert where they are rescued by an Aborigine boy. Together they travel through the Outback, in a landscape which author Louis Nowra described as being: “of an almost hallucinogenic intensity. Instead of the desert and bush being infused with a dull monotony, everything seemed acute, shrill, and incandescent. The Outback was beautiful and haunting.” But it’s also a film about the mysteries of communication and cultural incomprehension. The Aborigine boy, increasingly drawn to the girl, paints his body with white clay in ritual and performs a courtship dance outside the hut where she is. He dances all day, and then all night, but she ignores him. That is to say, she cannot bring herself to look; we get the clear impression she knows what is going on, but lacks the equivalent language to be able to process it and respond. In the morning the body of the Aborigine boy is hanging from a tree outside. Rejected, he has taken his own life. And, years later, in an apartment block overlooking Sydney harbour, the girl stands in the kitchen as her tired husband comes home from work, loosening his tie, complaining about his boss, and her eyes over his shoulder seek out the distant horizons of the Outback again, and a memory of her and her brother swimming in a billabong together with the Aborigine boy, laughing and naked:

For we never hold hands, nor kiss,

Nor were we ever more than children.

Ricardo Reis – Come sit by my side, Lydia


In a caravan somewhere near Cullen, Australia, trapped by a storm that had turned the roads to mud, Chatwin settled down to write. He describes having a presentiment that the travelling phase of his life might be passing – a tragically accurate prediction, as it turned out – and wanted to reopen his old moleskine notebooks before the malaise of settlement crept over him. Twenty years of travel, questions, quotations and encounters, with the theme of restlessness and nomadism running through it all. Pascal, he remembered, opined that all of man’s miseries stemmed from his inability to remain quietly in a room.

“Could it be,” Chatwin mused, “that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?” (O’Hanlon recalled Chatwin telling him a story about a female southern albatross that wandered into the wrong hemisphere and built a nest in Shetland, waiting for the mate who never came.) The notebooks ranged far and wide, both geographically and metaphysically. And then, reading The Songlines again, in the section where he is leafing through the notebooks, one entry leapt out at me off the page:

Amdand u khandand u sokhtand u kushtand u burdand u raftand

They came and they sapped and they burned and they slew and they trussed up their loot and were gone.

A survivor’s account of the sacking of Bokhara by the Mongol cavalry in the 12th century. The rhythm of the Persian words describes the thud of horse hooves over the plain.

Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines

There it was. I had read The Songlines years earlier, and the line had embedded itself in my consciousness, the rhythm of it thrumming away until suddenly it surfaced again in the rumble of wheels over cobblestones in a small Italian hilltown, rather than hoofbeats across the great plains of Asia. The contempt of the nomadic Mongol horde for the settlers of Bokhara, undone by a sedentary life. A similar divide occurs amongst African tribes between the hunter-gatherers and the farmers, the cattle-herders who go in search of fresh pasture and the cultivators across whose lands they pass. Here, in these pages, was the book on nomadism he never wrote. And at the end of the book, in another eerie presentiment, which I find haunting and yet strangely beautiful at the same time, he describes being led to an ancestral site by his guide Limpy and coming across three Aboriginal men:

In a clearing there were three ‘hospital’ bedsteads, with mesh springs and no mattresses, and on them lay the three dying men. They were almost skeletons. Their beards and hair had gone. One was strong enough to lift an arm, another to say something. When they heard who Limpy was, all three smiled, spontanously, the same toothless grin.

Arkady folded his arms, and watched.

“Aren’t they wonderful?” Marian whispered, putting her hand in mine and giving it a squeeze.

Yes. They were all right. They knew where they were going, smiling at death in the shade of a ghost-gum.

Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines


Bruce Chatwin died in Nice on the 18th January 1989. In the last months of his life he had astonished friends by converting to the Greek Orthodox faith, and his ashes were scattered near a Byzantine chapel above Kardamyli, in the Greek Peloponnese. The chapel was near the home of his friend and mentor, the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, with whom Chatwin had stayed for several months while working on The Songlines. “There was never, not a word about God,” said Leigh Fermor reflecting on their conversations. But the notebooks told another story. “The search for nomads is a search for God”, read one entry. Another: “Religion is a technique for arriving at the moment of death at the right time”. Writing of a journey to Stavronokita on Mount Athos, he wrote: “The most beautiful sight of all was an iron cross on a rock by the sea. Just below the monastery the dark cross appeared to be striving up against the white foam of the sea.” And finally, one last entry: “There must be a god.”

IMG_9480

Collins St., 5 pm.

The sunshine renders Melbourne almost cartoonish: the vivid green lawns, shimmering glass buildings, and palm trees set against a Prussian Blue sky. As cities go it must indeed be one of the world’s most ‘liveable’, in the curious phrase of The Economist Intelligence Unit, which has placed it at number one on their ‘liveability index’ four years running, as if one weren’t really fully alive in other, less favoured conurbations. Joggers run past exchanging breathless gobbets of snatched conversation, striving to keep a level tone: “Got your email”… puff, pant… “Oh right?” … pant, puff … “I copied in Charlie”… puff, pant, puff… A convoy of skateboarders trundle by, veering round office workers walking at a quick clip. The muted clang of bells from the trams, the distant rumble of traffic, and the shrieking calls of cockatoos in the trees overhead.

Collins St., 5 pm, is the title of a 1955 painting by Australian artist John Brack which hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria. A sea of commuters goes by in the foreground, the men all identically clad in brown raincoats and pork pie hats, only a pair of spectacles here or a moustache there distinguishing them from each other. Two female typists are at right, one with a tight, pursed smile that doesn’t quite manage to reach her narrowed eyes, the other with high arched brows, an open, unassuming gaze, and an expression of dim-witted, rather dog-like optimism. In the background a line of Lowryesque figures streams past beneath the grey edifice of the Bank of New South Wales. There’s a grim humour to the painting which made me smile wryly the moment I saw it – the loss of individuality in the mass, the conformity, the drabness. The diminutive, bristling toothbrush moustache and horn-rimmed spectacles on one man immediately conveys some middle-manager, perhaps a martinet at work who is hen-pecked at home. The jutting jaw, the squint, the angular cheekbones – all somehow convey a lack of vision. The painting perfectly complements the one next to it on the gallery wall – The Bar (1954), modelled on Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. In Brack’s version the shadowy, cadaverous drinkers – the same commuters from Collins St., with their hats and spectacles – down pints, draw deeply on cigarettes and stand elbow to elbow in a joyless ritual known as ‘the six o’clock swill’ due to Australia’s restrictive licencing laws at that time. In the foreground facing us stands the barmaid, hands upon the counter, narrow-eyed, with a face like a skull and a lemony complexion, that same tightly humourless smile and deep shadows under her eyes. They are disturbing, deeply satirical pictures, and while the costumes may have changed, with more variety in the conformity, it’s a scene which still rings true today. A group of young Chinese tourists go around dutifully photographing every painting on their phones, and then… wait, no, will she really? Yes, one of them, wearing Mickey Mouse ears and Ugg boots, is posing in front of The Bar and flashing a peace sign for the camera. She adopts a kooky, knock-kneed, pigeon-toed pose. How cute. Ought I to photograph the spectacle myself, thus creating a work of performance art? Sadly I didn’t.

collins-st-5pm

The Melbourne free city tram goes in a circular route around the outskirts of the CBD (Central Business District), heading nowhere useful. As I boarded an announcement played in the kind of enthusiastic American accent that seems to end each sentence with an ejaculation: “Hi! My name’s Dave, and I’ll be your driver today! Welcome to the free city tram!” At this point the driver rose from his seat to fetch a large metal spanner from a shelf. He was a large man in his 50s with tattooed arms, scabs on each elbow and a heavy, pendulous look. There was no greater contrast to the dementedly exuberant voice on the speaker and this rugged, blue-collar Australian tram driver – the entire thing was a recording. As we clanked past the Melbourne Aquarium we were informed that within we could expect to encounter “sharks, colourful tropical fish, and turdles”. A little further on, at a car museum, we could see cars owned by “such stars as James Dean, Picasso, and Ringo Starr”. Quite an eclectic collection.

The Claremont Guesthouse in South Yarra is an old Victorian hotel done up as an upmarket hostel. An elegant central staircase is lined with portraits of sylphlike women in diaphanous gowns. They all have pale, dewy complexions and stand around in various poses of coy abandon. Backpackers plod up and down the stairs, depositing luggage. Three school groups are in residence for a volleyball tournament, and they gallop along the corridors excitedly, shrieking and pushing each other. I overhear a team briefing of teenage boys in the dining room, delivered by a man in a tracksuit: “Now you’ve all worked hard to get here, so let’s work together to make it happen. And most importantly, have fun. Just be aware that if you head out to get some food this evening, there’s a pedestrian crossing 100 yards up the road on your right. Use it. It’s not like home now – there’s traffic here, trams, all sorts, so don’t just run out into the road.” It makes me wonder what sort of place they come from, that they need to be told of the existence of traffic on a road. They sit around with expressions of acute boredom until a girls’ volleyball team file in to the other end of the dining room, whereupon they become animated. Even so, they are too shy to actually interact – I see the two groups later, sitting at opposite ends of the dining room, surreptitiously scrutinising each other as they play with their mobile phones. When the boys all get up to leave one of the girls groans pleadingly to herself: “Oh don’t go!” But go they do.

I was wakened at midnight by furious banging and crashing sounds from next door, and cursing I got up to go into the corridor, expecting to encounter rampaging adolescents. Instead I was greeted by the sight of a small Asian man pushing a cleaning trolley. He grinned apologetically. “Cleaning bathroom sar.”
“At this hour?? Well must you do it so noisily?” I realised that I sounded like a character from a black and white film. I got a head waggle in response. In a mood I went downstairs for a cigarette, and in one of those fortuitous encounters ended up having a long conversation with an interesting man in a hat about his experiences of taking ayahuasca in the Ecuador rainforest.

This disruption was to subsequently happen on each night that I stayed at the Claremont: come midnight there was a tremendous banging and crashing as he cleaned the bathrooms. A few days later I received an email from the hotel saying that my feedback was important to them and asking me to rate my stay, and I replied, rather peevishly, that it was unique in my experience to stay in a hotel that had a policy of waking up all its guests at midnight, and that I would stay elsewhere in future until their ill-conceived policy was abandoned.

I have, in many ways, been fortunate enough to have travelled in places that were largely untouched by tourism. Perhaps every generation feels this, and bemoans the lost idyll prior to the onset of ‘civilisation’. Mass tourism kills the very thing that sustains it – that sense of difference – by bestowing upon a place a uniformity and a conformism that renders everywhere superficially the same. Exactly how superficially is a subjective judgement. I remember that even the remotest bottle store in rural Zimbabwe would have the Coke logo emblazoned next to the storefront name – a small concrete shack with a sign saying Mutasa Butchery and Bottle Store, and the red and white swoosh behind it. Inwardly, however, these small shops were not exactly in tune with head office’s marketing directives. For a while, in the ’80s, it was impossible to buy a Coke unless you had an empty bottle to put down as a deposit. The wise traveller carried a crate of empty bottles jangling in the boot for forays into the rural areas. Then there was the great Castle Lager shortage of ’92. They had the beer, they had the bottles – they even had the labels. But what was lacking was the glue to adhere label to bottle. Hence a national shortage. By ’93 there was a newcomer on the market – Zambezi Lager, which had a picture of Victoria Falls on the label. It was a gassy, metallic-tasting brew that caused explosive eructations, but was nevertheless popular due to novelty value. The real treat, if you were a beer drinker, lay to the north in Malawi, where Carlsberg was brewed locally. This being southern Africa there was a racial dimension even in beer-drinking: Africans were said to prefer the brown label Carlsberg; whites inevitably ordered the green. The green was a pilsener, the brown slightly sweeter, but had it not been for the label I doubt many would have known the difference.

Well, we drank a great deal of beer in those days. I remember the long drive across Zimbabwe to Nyamapanda, queueing in a line of trucks to enter Mozambique with our transit visas safely in hand (“O portador” beneath the crossed machete and AK47 of the national flag). And then the rather tense run through northern Mozambique, which jutted out in a dog-leg on the map to separate Zimbabwe and Malawi. We’d pass through bombed out towns with every wall pockmarked with shrapnel, along streets called things like “Avenido 25 de Junho”, and slow for the numerous checkpoints – usually we were waved through. You’d often see soldiers hitch-hiking, and it could be useful to pick them up as they inevitably got us through with minimal fuss. African villages would be seen through the screen of trees just back from the road – the circular thatch of ‘rondavel’ mud huts. They were much larger than the usual grouping of half a dozen or so dwellings on the Zimbabwean side; Mozambique had been at war for 30 years, and people huddled together as a form of protection. Bombed out tanks lay just visible in the bush. We’d cross the Zambezi in the town of Tete, which was always stiflingly hot, crawling over the long suspension bridge, past tollbooths that issued us a torn ticket for one car in exchange for a bundle of torn meticais, the local currency, or perhaps some low denomination Zimbabwe dollars. I remember one day the tollbooth was deserted, and I drove through unthinkingly, only to be halted by a yell. A bearded African man in a Hawaiian shirt was shouting and waving at us from the opposite carriageway. He wore a pistol on his belt. Thinking that he might be official I halted, and he ran up to the window. “Where is your ticket? You must buy a ticket to pass.” Expecting the usual transaction I rummaged for local currency, but he rejected it and demanded payment in US dollars – I think he wanted $50. This was so outrageous that I laughed, whereupon he took out the pistol and started waving it in the air while shouting. Eventually we persuaded him that we only had Zimbabwe dollars – meanwhile offering him a cigarette (“Please – keep the pack”). Grudgingly he accepted 20 Zim – barely one US dollar – and 20 Madison Red and sauntered off, tucking the pack of cigarettes into his pocket as he did so.

Just the other side of the bridge was a small restaurant, tucked into the lee of one of the pillars, and we often used to stop for lunch there. The staple was “bif normao” – normal beef – a kind of steak with a fried egg on top, usually served with chips and a small pile of toxic-looking salad that we carefully pushed to one side. There was a local beer – was it MM? Dos M? The ubiquitous Google these days tells me it was Mac Mahon, marked with “2M” on the label. It was said to contain formaldehyde, which given one’s life expectancy in Mozambique was not a significant concern. I remember the waiter once trying to calculate our bill in meticais, and running out of digits on his calculator – it only had room for 9. We handed over US$10 and received a wad of change.

North of Tete there was a gigantic triangular peak of granite sticking up out of the bush. Rumour had it that there were Renamo bases on it – the guerrillas mired in an intractable civil war against the government, who were known for their atrocities. They carried out ambushes on passing vehicles, abducted children from villages, and disfigured their victims. It was always a tense time on the journey. The high embankments that the road cut through afforded perfect shelter for an ambush, and we would inevitably extinguish cigarettes, switch the music off and speed up, scanning the tall, tawny grass alongside the road as we passed. We’d watch the sun dip towards the horizon off to our left, until it became a huge red ball hanging on the skyline and the surroundings darkened, the cool air through the open window bringing the smell of woodsmoke, the sound of lowing cattle and the scents of dusk in Africa. Finally there was the frontier, and policemen in smart blue uniforms instead of shapeless camouflage, and the sign, “Welcome to Malawi – The Happy Country!” It was, in comparison.

There was an interesting report the other day on Vice News about Australia (which makes a change), saying that 93% of Australians see themselves as being middle class. This is curious. Australia’s class system has gone through many stages of evolution over the years, but this latest one seems mathematically improbable. In the early years as a penal colony, the convicts themselves were, naturally enough, on the lowest rung of society. But within their ranks, although most undoubtedly came from working class backgrounds in Britain and Ireland, were some individuals from better circumstances – middle class clerks, disgraced solicitors, even the occasional minor aristocrat. In that sense the penal colony was a great leveller – whatever their background, they were all convicts together, and indeed the hardened professional criminals ruthlessly picked on those ‘fallen gentry’ who found themselves thrown together with people from very different backgrounds. By imposing a system of convict overseers who in many cases had earned their freedom, the authorities inverted the class system, so that a man who may have been a labourer at home found himself in a position of authority over another who was an educated middle class professional. In time, families came out to join convicts who had earned their freedom, and this resulted in a bizarre hierarchy where as long as convicts continued to arrive, there were always going to be people to look down upon, so that within the span of a seven-year sentence it was possible to climb from lower to middle class. Some convicts were assigned as bonded labour to new arrivals, and thus Australia’s class system was born.

The new middle class was itself desperately snobbish, keen to distance themselves as far as possible from their own humble origins by adopting all manner of airs and graces in order to distinguish themselves from their less fortunate convict brethren. This was a class within a class, in many ways, as the British still ran the colony, with governor-generals bristling with titles appointed from England. The stain of convict heritage was so shameful that it was only really in the last two decades that Australians began to openly admit their convict ancestry almost as a badge of pride. “Look where we came from, and what we’ve made of it.” As a result, this country defiantly proclaims its working class background at every opportunity – think Britain’s White Van Man, but driving a ute. “Tradies”, as tradesmen are known, are looked up to in a way that would be completely alien in Britain – however much “respect” Mr Milliband may have for them. In much the same way that distressed denim, originally workwear, became worn as leisure attire as a parodic signifier of one’s “working man” credentials, in Australia the Tradie look is elastic-sided Blundstone or Redback boots, Hard Yakka trousers or shorts (yakka is Aussie slang for work), and a fluorescent yellow or orange polo shirt. All over the country, from Darwin to Hobart, you’ll see men in pubs at the end of the day wearing identical outfits. Similarly, the vehicle of choice for the discerning boy racer is not a hot hatch, as in Europe, but a ute – originally a “utility vehicle”: basically a pimped out pick-up truck, preferably lowered so as to make it unusable for load carrying, with tinted windows and a loud exhaust. The myth of the self-made man, who has got to where he is because of good, honest hard work, is still very much in place.

And this goes hand in hand with a number of conceits. There’s a certain playing to the lowest common denominator. For so long a provincial backwater, Australia has never really come to terms with the fact that it’s a player on the world stage culturally. There’s still a slight sense of insecurity about it – a suspicion of ‘education’ in a similar way to the distrust in parts of the United States towards East Coast intellectuals. This manifests itself in the phenomenon of the “cashed up bogan” – what we might call Essex Man in the UK: someone with lots of money and absolutely no taste. Bogans (which I’ve written about before at some length) are similar to what we call chavs in the UK, with one crucial difference. Chavs are the underclass. Bogans can be too, but their roots are more anchored in working class culture. No-one in the UK would proclaim themselves “just a chav at heart”. And yet, in Australia, it’s an identification with working class roots, a bold statement of “ordinariness”, and a suspicion of arty-farty cultural highbrows. A number of shows on television highlight this: a comedy called, with admirable directness, “Upper Middle Bogan”, and the execrable “Housos” (housemates), which seems to consist of disgusting people shrieking obscenities at each other and loudly celebrating their own stupidity. It’s hard to know who the joke is really on here. Is this self-mockery or a vitriolic sneering at others perceived as lower on the class rung? Perhaps it is both.

So why the middle? Why not be proudly working class? This is, after all, one of the wealthiest nations on earth, with an admirably egalitarian approach. There’s no tipping in Australia, for example: serving staff are paid well enough to get by on their salaries – something which would be unthinkable in the United States. The answer comes back to Australia’s foundation: no matter how wealthy people are, they still associate upper class with ruling class, and where the ruling class were essentially operating to an imported British framework, identifying oneself too closely with it is almost a sign of “un-Australianness”. The working class, on the other hand, are just that bit too closely associated with Boganism to many – the lack of culture which might seem de rigeur to blend in in a small town begins to look pretty parochial in a big city, which is where more than 80% of Australians live; they are, paradoxically, given the size of the place, some of the most urbanised people on earth. Hence the safe ground of the politically neutral middle, which has consequently expanded to accommodate them all. If class is increasingly based upon measure of wealth, then it’s true – Australia, with a more equitable dispersal of wealth across the general population than many other western countries does indeed contain a very large middle class. In the words of Professor Clive Hamilton at the school of Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University: “Australians are some of the most conformist people in the world, so we don’t want to stick out as different.” They even claim to have invented the expression “Tall Poppy Syndrome”, where poppies will twine around a taller one to bring it back down to size.

Travel is loneliness… disorientation. I don’t know what got me thinking about Africa, but perhaps it was the sense of being rootless, coupled with the excitement of discovering new places. Of going into that strange limbo where we are leaving one place and heading for somewhere new. I view yet another hostel with a sigh, and remember a few of the places I’ve been, and think to myself, “well, this isn’t so bad.” Travel is exhausting, and yet routine is anathema. At some point a new place becomes familiar, we get into its routines, and then suddenly one day it feels too predictable, too boring. We go in search of the new, half-dreading the exhaustion, the potential pitfalls, the stress of it all – not knowing where you’ll stay, enduring long, uncomfortable journeys, the hassle and the rising panic – and then we do it anyway. Perhaps it’s a strange assertion of self, seeking rootlessness and dislocation from the familiar, wanting to detach from the ties that bind in order to get down to some essential truth of oneself: I travel, therefore I am. Rather that than five o’clock on Collins Street.

The Night Train to Boganville

Sydney Central Station, 8.20 pm.

There’s a curious mixture of legitimate travellers and those on the seamier side of life, with a hair-thin line separating them. People sit disconsolately, surrounded by luggage. A group of furtive smokers has congregated just outside – two young German girls with brand new Deuter rucksacks, a guy in a suit who keeps checking his phone, a middle-aged lady in cocktail dress and heels. Ten yards further along there is a soup kitchen, and the homeless line up to receive a bowl. A guy walks past with no shirt and no shoes – I saw him earlier in the city, in a kowtowing position, on his knees, forehead touching the ground, hands mutely outstretched before him in supplication. Into one of them someone had placed a ten cent coin. Now he’s altogether more animated, swaggering up to take his place in the food queue.

I become aware of someone standing in front of me and look up to see a cop. He’s tall and skinny and has bulging, hyperthyroid eyes. “I wouldn’t smoke there if I were you,” he says. “Not unless you feel like losing four hundred bucks.” Right, OK, I say, and wander across the road to finish my fag. Australia’s draconian smoking laws, which vary from state to state in degrees of incomprehension (no smoking in a public place – NSW; no smoking in a covered area where people are eating – Vic; no smoking unless you’re so drunk that it’s the least of your problems – NT), are selectively applied. There are at least a dozen people smoking outside the station. And the packets are decorated with pictures of various smoking-related ailments – one can order 50 grams of gangrenous foot (“Smoking causes peripheral vascular disease”), or perhaps a pack of 20 pink-tinged toilet bowl (“Smoking can lead to bladder cancer”). It doesn’t stop anyone.

The train is full tonight for the eleven-and-a-half hour slog to Melbourne. I’m already soaked in sweat from walking around Sydney all afternoon, and resign myself to an uncomfortable night. The carriage smells of old socks, and we haven’t even left yet. The conductor’s voice crackles over the tannoy: “Welcome aboard the NSW Trainlink XPT service to Melbourne.” She adopts a firm tone: “Anyone under the influence of drink or drugs, wearing soiled clothing or indulging in antisocial behaviour will be removed from the train and met by the police. You are reminded that smoking is strictly prohibited and there are smoke alarms fitted in all toilets and at every station. If you are caught smoking you will be prosecuted in accordance with Federal law.” On and on and on it goes, the hectoring, the nannying, as the carriage’s occupants sit there being scolded like an unruly class of schoolchildren. “You are reminded that it is an offence to drink any alcohol which has not been purchased from the buffet car. This is a fully booked service tonight so please remain in your allocated seat.”

It’s all nonsense. Pointless, patronising finger-wagging nonsense. As events are to prove.

A guy comes and takes the seat next to me. 40s, very pale skin. He has a gingery goatee and aviator shades on. His arms are covered in tattoos. I make out a vaguely Scottish accent beneath an Australian twang:

I’m just here for the night. Had tae get the fuck out of Dodge, know what I mean? Dunno where I’m going yet. Three times now, I’ve started over, and I’m getting sick of it. She kicked me out. Been together three years, I’d built a patio, spa bath out the back, all that – just want a quiet life, you know what I mean? Yeah – I’m from Scotland originally, but been working in WA on the mines. Welder. So we were making plans, getting settled, but she was always off out with her ‘mates’. Well I know now, don’t I? What sort of mates they were. Bunch of islanders – you know, Polynesians, Samoans and that. Aye, so she was out and I was just clearing out this cupboard and I found a holdall. Didna recognise it, you know? So I open it up, and guess what’s in it? Whole bunch of passports, credit cards, you name it – all in different names. Well, I’m no angel, you know? I’ve done stuff. Never been in the gaol though! But if you want to fiddle the books, take a bit on the side off of a big corporation, fair enough, know what I mean? But I wouldnae steal from a working man. He’s grafted for that, like. So I told her – you’ve got 24 hours to get rid of that stuff, no questions. Well I come back Friday and it’s still there, and there’s a shitty little message on ma phone to mind my own business. So you know what I did? I went to the cops with it. Me! Handed it all in, like. Aye, well now ah’m in the shit, because there’s a bunch of islander lads looking for me. She was just holding the stuff, you know? So I’m up here, but I’ve got nae money at all – only these. D’you know anything about stones? Well these were in the bag and I took them out before handing it to the cops. I reckon they’re worth a bit, but I’ve been up and down the main drag looking for jeweller shops but it’s all watches and shit. I dunno what I’m going tae do now – I’m flat broke. Might jump a train at Southern Cross. Just got to keep moving, I reckon.

We crawl out of Central and slowly make our way past bricked-up warehouses and inner city housing. We don’t get far. After ten minutes or so we stop at a suburban station where two cops are waiting on the platform. They board the train and proceed along the carriage, checking the rows of passengers. They linger at the Scot for a moment – something about him isn’t right – but he doesn’t fit the description they want, and on they go. Everyone appears hopelessly respectable, and they enter the next carriage. The conductor, a short woman with a page-boy haircut and fussy walk, intercepts them and points towards carriage D. Through the carriage door I see them escorting a couple off the train – a young guy in shorts and T-shirt (perhaps it was soiled?) and a woman who is clearly very angry. The cops talk to them on the platform for a while, the woman’s voice rising in shrill protest. The young guy sits passively on a bench nearby, occasionally interjecting feebly. This goes on for a few minutes, the woman arguing with the conductor, the police ready for trouble. Eventually bags are collected off the train and the couple are escorted out through the station, the woman shouting and pointing at the conductor. Passengers crane their necks to see what is going on outside the windows, but there’s nothing to see – the couple have gone. There’s a jolt, and we begin to move again. After a few minutes the conductor’s voice comes over the tannoy again. She sounds stressed. “We apologise for the unscheduled stop. Passengers are reminded that anyone found under the influence of drink or drugs will be removed from the train. We’re very serious about this, as one couple have just found.” The Scot next to me – no angel, as he says – raises his eyebrows archly and goes: “Oooh!”, and we both laugh.

I read for a while – Graham Greene’s “Travels with my Aunt”, which seems fogeyish and archaic. There’s a black man in it who speaks of himself in the third person and is little more than a crude caricature. The book was written in the late 60s, and is peppered with a slightly self-conscious amount of hippyish slang in the mouths of certain characters, as if Greene was trying to reproduce a language he didn’t entirely understand. Not his best, by a long shot. I head to the bathroom, and when I return I notice that there are a different couple in the seats behind us. My Scottish neighbour leans over, and with his head conspiratorially close to mine – although there’s not much chance of him being understood as he’s speaking pure Glaswegian – mutters: “Coupla smackheids. Watch yer bags.” Apparently some other passengers in Coach D complained about these two, so the conductor decided to move them. Presumably she considers myself and the Scot to be less squeamish about the company of junkies. And that’s what they are alright – there’s no mistaking it. The pallor, the whining speech, the furtiveness. I eavesdrop on the conversation behind me:

Where’s the cigarettes? Give them here. My mum bought them for me, so just fucking give me them. It’s not my fault the other people complained. I’m running out of medication for my schizophrenia. Yeah I can smoke on the platform at the next stop. Don’t tut at me – you’re always tutting at me. 5 years I looked after those kids, then 18 months with you and they end up in the system. So don’t you tut at me. Give them here! Fuck!

The conductor comes back and talks to them in a low voice. The gist of it is that she’s done them a favour by moving them and if they don’t behave they’ll be put off the train. Slowly it dawns on me the full measure of incompetence that is going on here. She put the wrong couple off the train at the previous station, because the junkies were in their allocated seats. No wonder the woman was so angry. I mention this to the Scot, and he laughs mirthlessly.

We trundle on, into the night. After a while the carriage lights are switched off, and the only illumination comes from people’s mobile phones. The African ladies next to us draw shawls round themselves and nod off. At Wagga Wagga several passengers leave the train, and the Scot moves to a spare seat further back. A young lad in his teens with a skateboard gets on and comes to sit next to me. He’s got that same bleached shaggy hair and baseball cap as the lads on the sailing ship – clearly a ‘look’ amongst Aussie teens. His friends have come to see him off, and stand the other side of the glass making faces, the girls blowing kisses. As the train begins to move two of them run alongside, the taller one taking off his shirt and whirling it round his head, running along full pace beside the train, grinning and whooping. The teenager doesn’t know where to look – he’s both touched and embarrassed, and checks around to see if anyone else has noticed. It’s one thirty in the morning in Wagga Wagga and these lads are giving their friend a proper send-off. As the platform drops away behind us the two small figures slow and then come to a halt at the barrier, the one still waving his shirt, and the teenager looks out of the window for a long time after them, then pulls out his phone and scowls at it, blinking hard.

I dozed off somewhere in the wilds of New South Wales, because when I awoke he was gone. The junkies behind me were having a row about money. They hadn’t got any. The conductor came back and told them off for disturbing the other passengers: “If I have another complaint about you I’ll put you off the train at Albury.”
“Noooo – please. We’re sorry. We have to get to Melbourne.”
“I’ll ask you again. Have you taken any drugs?”
“Only my medication for my schizophrenia. It’s not my fault that I’ve got a condition.”
“Well I don’t want to hear another peep out of you until we get to Southern Cross. And you smell of cigarettes. If you smoke on this train again, you’ll be off.”
The conductor departed, and the two of them resumed their row, sotto voce. I’d had enough, and spotting a spare seat up at the front, got my bag and moved to it. Ten minutes later the conductor came back into the carriage, and spotting me occupying a previously empty seat, shone a torch at me:
“Where did you get on?”
“Sydney.”
“Well what seat is on your ticket?”
“The one directly in front of those two junkies that you decided to place behind me. I’m sick of listening to their bitching, they smell, and I don’t fancy getting robbed. So I’m sitting here now.”
“Oh.” She looked a bit taken aback. “OK. Well there’s someone else getting on at Henty. But she’s on her own. So you can stay here.”
“Super. Thanks very much.”


Henty, NSW – 3.00 am.

Sorry… sorry. Did I wake you? I don’t know what seat I’m in. This is 4E? OK. Sorry. Yeah, going to Melbourne. Actually Geelong – my mum lives in Geelong. She’s looking after my daughter for a few days, but she’s been really naughty so I’m going down early to pick her up. Britney. She’s two. Everybody reckons I’m too young, but I’m 19! It’s cos I look young. I’m always getting ID’d. And people are so judgemental. Yeah, I had a row with my partner. Yeah, it got a bit physical, and it’s like a line you cross, you know? And you can’t go back. He’s 19 too. He lost his job and now he just sits on the playstation and I have to do everything. And I’m pregnant as well. Look! Does it show? Some people want to feel. I’m spending fifty bucks a week on tomatoes. Just craving them. I’ve got loads of different kinds at home. Well it’s better than chocolate! Oh my god, there’s a man being sick. I think it’s that junkie guy. I’m scared of junkies – always think I’m going to get stabbed or something. Did you ever see Twilight? I read the whole series. Always loved reading – I wish I could study literature or creative writing, but it’s too late now I suppose. The Vampire Diaries. No? Oh I love that show. You know Huge Ackmann got skin cancer? Oh look – the conductor’s coming. I reckon she’s going to chuck him off at the next station. You’re from London? Really? No way! I thought you were an Aussie. You don’t sound British. Not like those crime dramas where it’s all “Cor blimey” and “bloody hell”. Oh wow, London. I’ve never travelled. I wanted to go to Bali but it’s too humid, like Darwin. Not London though – I mean there’s not much to see, is there?


Southern Cross Station, Melbourne – 7.40 am. 

The junkies are smoking furiously on the platform beneath a huge No Smoking sign. Passengers are waiting around for their luggage from the goods wagon, which is being brought out one bag at a time, by one man. The train crew changed in the night when we crossed into Victoria, and the new conductor, a harrassed-looking middle-aged lady, is having a rant to one of the other crew members: “Five complaints! Five! Why the bloody hell the NSW team let them travel I don’t know. Yeah, I called ahead for security to meet us here but of course there’s no sign of him. Well I thought he was dead! He was face down in the corridor covered in vomit, and when we sat him up he had four different bank cards in his pocket – all in different names!”

Seeing my bag emerge from the carriage I seize it and trundle off down the platform. Southern Cross hasn’t changed. I make a beeline for the coffee shop and get an enormous flat white. Heading out onto Swanston Street I see my usual bench has been occupied by three people surrounded by luggage and a pram. They are most definitely bogans – the Australian version of a chav. They wear bits of high street sportswear, one of the women in bright pink sweatpants with frayed trouser cuffs and an oversized little-girl nightie. She is bull-necked and enormous and she’s swearing like a fishwife at the guy. They are on their feet, circling each other, yelling abuse, faces scarlet with rage. Some disaster has befallen them – burned out of their house? Evicted? Benefits cut off? Who knows. Here they are, on the street with nowhere to go, and she’s very angry about it. Beside them a baby in a push chair cries. It is one of the most depressing scenes I’ve ever witnessed. And around them commuters stream past on their way to work, averting their eyes.

“Hi!” There’s a voice at my elbow. It’s the girl who got on at Henty. “Oh my god, these people. They scare me. Bogans, we call them.” Standing, I see just how small she is – barely five feet tall. She looks terribly young. “I just tried to buy some smokes in the 7/11 and they wouldn’t serve me. Have you got a spare one?” I duly oblige. It’s windy, and she can’t get the lighter working, so she ducks her head inside her T-shirt – which says Beyonce on it – exposing her pregnant belly as she does so. The bogans are actually chasing each other round the bench now. Where are the cops? Probably off harassing smokers, or escorting perfectly respectable passengers off trains because they were mistakenly in the wrong seat. I despair of it.

“I never want to turn out like that,” says the girl.
“You never will,” I say. And in her eyes I see gratitude.


Kyneton – 10.37 am.

Given that I left Katoomba at 10.15 am yesterday, I’ve spent the last 24 hours on trains. I’m sticky, short of sleep and have a banging headache. The green pastoral land of Victoria whizzes past outside – merino sheep at a trough, cattle lying in the shade of the trees. Occasionally there’s a billboard for the local elections – around here it all seems to be Donna Petrovich for Macedon Ranges. She beams out from the billboards looking like a rather dowdy housewife. I saw another one somewhere up north, of an old white guy in a suit, which said simply: “Integrity. Experience. Common Sense.”, and I immediately formed a mental picture of some town councillor who’d been in office for as long as anyone could remember. The Victorian elections are in full swing, with a series of adverts on TV like public safety films, which is in fact what I initially took them for. One particularly disturbing one was a recording of a phone call to the emergency services. A distressed woman. Her baby wasn’t breathing. The ambulance staff try to reassure her, but she’s sobbing down the line. And after this harrowing footage comes the punchline: “Under Dennis Napthine’s premiership, funding for health care services in Victoria have been cut.” This was followed by another advert saying that you were legally obliged to vote, or face a hefty fine. I await scenes of brutal assaults with the caption that police funding has also been slashed. “Oh, you voted Labor? Who’s gonna help you now?”

Kyneton drowsed in soporific sunshine. I trundled my backpack through the botanical gardens, taking a shortcut, and stopped under a tree for a while with rosellas – a kind of parakeet – chattering overhead. Down Ebden Street, past the gym that plays country and western (I assume it’s local radio, and it makes quite a change from the usual pumping dance music), the fire station (Fire Hazard: Very High), across “historic” Piper Street at the hotel, then down and into the driveway. Pepper the dog pranced on her hind legs and turned several circles – I suppose she thought she might not see me again. It’s rather touching how an animal can become fond of you… and we of it. She’s so timid, but she knows I’m alright. Now she lies at my feet in the sunshine, having followed me from room to room all morning, occasionally pushing her white furry snout under my hand to be stroked, which she responds to with a satisfied pigletty grunting sound. It’s good to be back.

Sailing

In a city that revolves around life on the water, it seemed appropriate to get out on it. An unusual opportunity presented itself in the form of the James Craig, a restored tall ship dating from 1874. Formerly known as the Clan McLeod, the ship had rounded Cape Horn no less than 23 times in its career, and then ended up on the copra run to Papua New Guinea. Increasingly decrepit and falling apart with tropical rot, it eventually sank off Tasmania. There it lay on the seabed, until discovered by some sailing ship enthusiasts – although enthusiast barely covers the unswerving dedication and obsessiveness that led them to salvage the ship and completely restore it, using an old photograph from the 1900s of it in full sail to accurately replicate the rigging. Now one of the very few tall ships from that era that can actually put to sea – ‘The Museum that Floats’, as the brochure put it – it was crewed entirely by volunteers.

There’s something about putting to sea in a sailing ship that brings out everyone’s inner Captain Bligh (a much maligned man, apparently, due entirely to Charles Laughton’s portrayal of him as a malevolent sadist in the film Mutiny on the Bounty). The crew of the James Craig followed more of a participatory paradigm, in that despite nominal positions of rank such as Captain, First Mate and so on, everybody seemed to be on a relatively equal footing. They’d dash to a particular rope and start hauling on it to cries of: “Come on you dogs, put your backs into it!”, fully getting into the spirit of the occasion. Insurance clerks, call centre workers, bus drivers by day, this was what set them apart – the fact that at weekends they sailed one of the last tall ships. Passing beneath the Harbour Bridge there were five great blasts on the ship’s hooter, and green and yellow Sydney ferries heading in the other direction were lined with tourists photographing the ship. It was a Saturday morning, and there were a number of weekend sailors about, such as the small yacht which didn’t quite know where it was going. Another blast of the hooter, and a figure in the stern muffled in orange oilskins glanced over their shoulder and froze with the indescribable expression of someone who has just looked round to see a three-masted sailing ship bearing down on them. “Man the capstan!” someone cried. “Splice the mainbrace!” A girl power-walked her way up the deck in a low-kneed scoot, all hips and elbows, to berate some of the crew who were standing around chatting. “C’mon guys! We’re all part of a team here!” In response one of them muttered: “Yeah, we’re all playing for Team Australia” – a wry jibe at Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s description of the nation’s political woes in sporting terms, those presumably being the only ones he personally understands.

A group of lads on a school outing were mustered into vague formation pulling on ropes to raise a sail. They were all cut from a pattern of shaggy blond surfer dude hair and baseball caps. They did well enough until we passed Sydney Heads and the swell of the open sea hit us, whereupon they lay around on the grating retching noisily into sick bags, aghast at their own uncoolness. A blackboard listed the various activities that they would be taking part in that day: speed measuring, navigation, depth sounding and dandefunk. I spotted the Historical Accuracy Officer making her way along the deck. “What the dandy fuck,” I innocently enquired, “is dandefunk?”
She decided she must have misheard. “It’s a culinary treat!” she replied enthusiastically. “We’re making some down below using the original recipe!”
I took a pinch when the bowl went around – it was a sort of gingery molasses crumble, which one would have had to be at sea for a very long time to regard as a treat.

The temporary sick bay of the grating was filling up. I hadn’t appreciated before just how much a sailing ship actually moves – not just the pitch and yaw of the swell, but with a kind of corkscrewing movement over the waves. The rigging turned this way and that as the breeze filled the sails, and large wooden winches and hoists swung about. A man with a banjo serenaded us with sea shanties, the chorus of which mostly seemed to involve being ashore and consuming large quantities of whiskey. In response the crew hauled on yet more ropes, and sails rose and descended accordingly. Soon we were fully rigged and bounding across the waves, which began to darken the further out we went. “It’s a 30 knot wind,” said the doctor. “You can tell by the whitecaps.” Gobbets of spray were flung up over the bows as we rode through the mounting swell, and it became difficult to walk on the pitching deck – one moved from pillar to post in a zigzag fashion, clutching on to the only supports. Lunch was served – a large picnic bag each containing rolls and a muffin – but there were few takers. Fortunately I appear to be immune to seasickness – several North Sea ferry crossings as a child, the Irish Sea in all its temperamental glory, and one unforgettable night crossing from Shetland to Orkney in a Force 10 gale, when the hallways became as steep as mountainsides, plates cascaded out of the racks in the kitchen and even the crew were lying on the carpeted foyer of the lounge as I ate haddock and chips in the canteen, holding onto the table with a spare hand to avoid being deposited on the floor, have pretty much confirmed my immunity.

Docking again at 4pm after a day out on the open sea, Darling Harbour came as something of a shock. It was a Saturday, and the waterfront was lined with bars and cafes that belted out music, with a continual promenade of passers-by headed from one to the next in search of amusement. Girls in miniskirts and high heels, tourists with daypacks and sunhats, cops in shorts and sunglasses with pistols at their belts. I decided that it was time to leave the city for a while, and head for the Blue Mountains. The view from the train between King’s Cross and Sydney Central reminded me of somewhere else entirely, but I couldn’t be sure where. Purple sprays of jacaranda were dotted around, with occasional palm trees giving the scene a tropical atmosphere. Three large and decaying tower blocks loomed over the harbour, favela-like, with mildew-blackened walls in the humid air. In the manner of all such urban housing they had a battered and rather menacing look.  This was the Woolloomooloo Housing Project, and the blocks posed a stark contrast to the neat villas and whitewashed walls just a few streets away. At Central I bought a train ticket to Katoomba, in the heart of the mountains, just a two hour ride from downtown Sydney.

Sydney’s trains are double-deckers, and this was essentially a branch of the suburban rail network that continued on to the town of Lithgow, a few stops further along from Katoomba. We passed through a series of small, drowsy suburbs, the train stopping frequently at stations which either seemed to be named after places in Britain (Woodford, Penrith), or vaguely Aboriginal (Bullaburra, Warrimoo). I’d booked at place at Number 14 Guesthouse, largely on the recommendation of a Croatian couple I had met in Sydney who had enjoyed it, and it proved to be a good choice, with a plant-covered balcony and nice wooden-floored rooms. It had been a guesthouse since the early 1900s – there were photographs of ladies in ankle-length skirts posing on a walk through the bush –  and had an old advertisement pinned to the wall: “30 rooms. Cleanliness my motto. Beautiful views. Motor trips arranged.” Of this, the only aspect which seemed to have changed were the views, due to the onset of suburbia and a busy road just outside which meant the incessant grumble of traffic. Katoomba itself was a fairly typical small town with a main street lined with cafes and outdoor shops, the only thing distinguishing it from a thousand and one other small towns being the steepness of the main street, which dropped sharply away downhill and ended at a cliff overlooking a spectacular vista of the bush-covered Blue Mountains rolling away into the distance.

Most of the Blue Mountains towns are strung out along a ridge, with Katoomba being the main tourist centre. At the edge of the town, a half-hour walk downhill from the main street, lies the rock formation known as the Three Sisters – three dramatic pinnacles of rock. These used to be popular with rock climbers and abseilers until a few years ago, when climbing was banned due to the amount of damage caused to the surface. Aborigine legend has it that an old chief, fearing an attack by his enemies, turned his three daughters to stone for their own protection, but he was unfortunately killed before he could reverse the spell. I walked along a quiet suburban road, emerging into a large car park where several coaches had drawn up. Large numbers of sightseers, most of them Chinese, were converging on the viewpoint overlooking the Three Sisters. Put off by the clamour I snapped a few photos then headed off along a trail leading to a quieter viewpoint a few minutes away.

As I walked along, I heard a high-pitched call. “Yeah yeah!”  – or perhaps “Yeye!”. A small Chinese girl, perhaps five years old, came toddling along the path, calling out. “Yeah yeah! Yeah YEAH!” Her tone was becoming increasingly agitated. She had clearly lost her mother somewhere in the crowds. She trotted past me, little pigtails bobbing, calling out all the while. I wasn’t sure what to do. I watched her heading across the main viewpoint, threading her way through groups of people, making for one of the paths that led off on a 15-minute walk. I decided I must intervene. But how? I couldn’t even ask her name. What could I say? Even so, I turned around and began following her in case she headed off down one of the tracks into the bush. I could always bribe her with barley sugar, a bag of which I had in my rucksack. “Ba Li Shu Ga?” I considered the ludicrous media paranoia of life in Britain, where so many people wouldn’t dare to intervene for fear of being branded a paedophile – “Man Lures Child With Sweets”, or suchlike – and it doubled my resolve to do something out of sheer common humanity.

At that moment, an elderly Chinese couple came walking across from the car park. The little girl was heading rapidly away from them, but at that point something made her change her mind and she turned back towards the car park as she trotted along. “YEAH YEAH!” Her tone was increasingly frantic and she seemed on the verge of crying. The Chinese couple stopped and looked back, then had a short discussion between themselves. I reached them and said: “I think she’s lost her mother”. The man, in his 60s and wearing squarish gold sunglasses, replied in good American: “Lost her mom, huh?” He spoke a few words of Chinese to his wife, who called out to the little girl, beckoning her over. I mentally translated the conversation: “What’s your name? Have you lost your Mummy? Well don’t worry, she’ll come back. We’d better wait here by the car park for her”. Mutely the little girl nodded and then put up a hand to be held. They headed over towards one of the benches and sat her down on it, where she looked miserably at the ground, blinking back tears. Figuring she was in safe hands I watched for a while then wandered away.

Sydney

Even on an overcast day there’s a glimmer behind the clouds in Sydney – an underlying brightness which sends camera light meter readings skyrocketing; lumpen grey skies, but behind them the power of the southern sun. The city feels tropical, with palm trees and lianas in the quiet leafy streets around Potts Point echoing to the limpid calls of mynah birds, reminding me of India. Large black and white birds stalk about with beaks curved like scimitars: Australian white ibis – historically rare but increasing in urban areas of the east coast since the late 70s. Despite this, debate rages over whether they are a pest or a vulnerable species. Apparently they have periodically been culled in Sydney “due to their smell and at times obtrusive nature”. I must admit I hadn’t noticed the smell, but they are certainly curious birds, and will happily march up to you with an unblinking glare in the hope of food. They honk like discordant bassoons when disturbed, which is frequently. 12 hours from Melbourne on the train here, and it feels like another climate zone altogether. Toward evening columns of fruit bats fly overhead, into the city. Today’s high was 37 degrees C.

The city’s most iconic landmarks reveal themselves only gradually, in a series of tantalising glimpses – a brief view of girders through the canopy of trees assembles itself, upon rounding a bend, into the famous Harbour Bridge. A fragment of sweeping white curve, like the sail of a dhow, becomes recognisable as a corner of the Opera House. And suddenly there it is before you, dwarfed by the bridge from this angle, and yet somehow self-contained and in proportion. The city is surprisingly quiet for mid-morning on a weekday – no distant rumble of traffic, only the flat mechanical hammering echoing off the water from the naval dockyard at Wooloomooloo, where two gigantic warships merge into the grey background. The green and yellow Sydney ferries criss-cross the harbour waters, on the way to Manley on the north shore – so named, apparently, by a British naval officer in the 18th century who spotted a group of Aborigines on the shore and, admiring their physique, pronounced them “manly”. Yachts and assorted pleasure craft are moored along the jetty; loud laughter came from one, and I could hear London accents. The name of the yacht was “Job Done”. East End villains on the run? Bunch of city boys who made good on the stock market? Either way, here they were, living the dream, drinking on a yacht moored in Sydney harbour.

Conversations:

Oh, you’re from London. What do you think about all these Muslims then? I remember my sister – she died of overwork, bless her; all my family died of overwork. Not that I’m sorry! They were all experts in their field. Anyway – when she was the advisor to President Mitterrand, told him to isolate them all in neighbourhoods outside Paris. ‘Monsieur Le President, you merst keep zem in seclusion, to prevent their contamination of French society’. And I remember when I met the Governor General of Australia, Sir John Kerr – a very good friend of mine – I told him: ‘We should adopt the French solution here in Australia’. Of course, later when I was advising Tony Blair about Iraq – I didn’t think much of Blair actually; he wanted to be a war leader but hadn’t got the guts of Thatcher… although I’ll never forget her pushing back her chair at the cabinet meeting, standing up to her full height, and saying: “Sink the Belgrano!” Just like that! Ooh, she was cold. But Blair, when my report was published by Chatham House, denied all knowledge! Never trust the British – although my cockney cleaning lady, I always used to ask her opinion, because I knew she’d tell me the honest truth…”


Sure, I brought my bag in. We just got off a cruise ship this morning – Fidgy, Taheedy, Noo Zealand, and now Australia – and I figured what better way to celebrate arriving in Sydney than a concert in the famous Opera House. Well, the guy at the door says “Sir, you have to hand your bag in at the cloakroom.” So I told him: “Buddy, I got passports, ipad, ipod, imac, camera, everything in here! No way am I handing it in!” Well, he let me come in with it in the end. No, it’s fine – I’ll just rest it on my lap like this.


Well we bought a sailboat at home in Vancouver, and then we figured – right, honey? – that we’d better learn to sail it! So we sailed in the north-west a little, then this guy, old seadog kinda guy, he told us: “Whatever you paid for it, you’re gonna spend one quarter of that every year in maintenance.” And you know what? He was right! Right, honey? We spent four thousand dollars that first year, on berthing, wharfage, rollocking, keel hauling and whipcording. And it got too much. So we sold it and just took off around the world. We’ve done South America, then were in NZ for a year, but it got kinda expensive, so now we’re in Sydney to make money. And you know what? I’ve been offered four jobs since we got here! We think we’ll go to South East Asia next – maybe Bali, or Thailand. And then who knows?


King’s Cross used to have a reputation for seediness, but the decline of the sex industry, largely due to the rise of the internet, has had the unexpected effect of making the area more salubrious. There are still a few token clubs along the Darlinghurst Road, but they are side by side with budget travel agents offering the kind of group tours of Australia by bus that backpackers are drawn to, and of course backpacker hostels themselves. These vary considerably in quality and ambience, with some offering wild booze-fuelled nights out on the town in a kind of organised pub crawl, and others offering a quieter experience “for the older traveller”. As I seem to be increasingly in the latter category these days, I chose Eva’s Backpackers on Orwell Street, and am very glad I did so. My first night in Sydney was at the Sydney Central YHA, which, like every YHA I’ve stayed at in Australia, had superb facilities but a total lack of ambience. Central was 8 floors of card-operated rooms ranging from 12-bed dorms to hotel-standard doubles, a cinema, and it even had a swimming pool on the roof. Despite the name, there was no real centre to it – people sat in small isolated groups around a cavernous dining room, and occasionally interacted with each other in the elevators which were the only true communal space. Waking up in the morning it was necessary to take the elevator to the first floor kitchen, then descend again to ground level and head outside onto the street for a cigarette, which led to the curious sight of groups of bleary-eyed backpackers standing around in their pyjamas clutching cups of tea as they puffed away, while a steady stream of besuited office workers headed past them along the pavement into the city centre. Eva’s, in contrast, has a rooftop garden area with a view across the city – perfect for gathering one’s thoughts first thing in the morning.

Walking round the botanical gardens I realised I was fast approaching the Opera House, so decided to pop in to see if there were any concerts on. A harrassed-looking girl staffing the information desk, clearly a tourist herself who had picked up a job there – a job which would have been made a great deal easier if she was equipped with a mouse mat to enable her to use her computer properly – looked up forthcoming events and informed me that there was one the next day. “Mozart, Shoeman and Beathoven,” she intoned uncomprehendingly. Marvellous, I said. What pieces? She frowned at the screen, and said: “Piano conserto? That’s Shoeman. And Symphony number one for Beathoven.” As this excruciating conversation was going on, a Chinese woman who had been hovering at my elbow physically intersected herself between me and the desk. “How much tickets?” she bawled. The information girl, to her great credit, ignored her, and continued to tap away at her computer in an attempt to furnish me with a ticket. The Chinese woman tried again, louder: “Ticket! For Opera House!” The information girl addressed her firmly: “Madam, I am dealing with another customer. Please wait your turn.”
“Ha! Ha! Ha!” went the Chinese lady. I reached over her to proffer a $50 ($39 for the ticket, which was reasonable, and a $5 booking fee, which was not), and duly got my ticket.

Well, the concert was excellent. There was a French pianist for the “Shoeman”, and he was a little off – a few clangers, and not quite playing to the same tempo as the orchestra – but having got rid of him and settled into Beethoven’s 1st, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra rose to the occasion. An excellent connection between players and conductor, and they all appeared to be having great fun – many were grinning broadly at the end of the first movement, knowing they’d played it well. It was a little strange to go to a concert at 11 o’clock in the morning, and stranger still to emerge from it into 35 degree heat, blinking in the noonday glare, but a very nice experience. The concert hall itself was impressive – longer and narrower somehow than many London halls, but the acoustics were reasonable, if not quite up to the standard of the Barbican. Apparently the London Symphony Orchestra are playing next week, with Gergiev conducting. Prokofiev’s piano concerto and Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony – probably his most harrowing, with screaming strings and that relentless DSCH motif throughout. Heavy going. Unfortunately I won’t be here for it – I’ll be in the Blue Mountains, just west of Sydney. And after that, who knows?

The Oodnadatta Track

At home we used to have a collection of National Geographic magazines going way back to the 70s; the earliest issue I remember was from 1979, and the cover feature was “Walk Across America”, about a man who had walked coast to coast across the US. The picture showed him wearing a backpack, baseball cap and brown flares, dating the image immediately, as he headed along some road across the Prairie. Inside, the adverts were equally historic: black and white photographs of microwaves with dials instead of buttons; enormous television sets with a tiny screen surrounded by acres of oak panelling; gigantic American cars pictured in a variety of US beauty spots: Lincoln, Cadillac, Buick. America was huge, I decided, and so was everything in it. Somewhere in that issue was a feature on Australian Aborigines, with many pictures of rock art and dancers attired in the white body paint of ceremonies. I remember one picture in particular – it was of a lizard, shot from a lizard’s eye viewpoint with the camera on the ground. Just behind it an Aborigine woman charged towards it with a large stick held aloft. The caption, with the characteristically folksy style that dominated the magazine at that time, stated: “One lizard’s lucky day. The goanna got away, so this Aborigine woman of Oodnadatta, South Australia, settled for a store-bought meal instead”.

Oodnadatta. It held the record high temperature for Australia, 50.7 degrees C (123.3 F), and wryly proclaimed itself “The driest town in the driest state on the driest continent”. I wondered where exactly it was, and found it on the accompanying map – a small black dot in an expanse of beige, connected to another distant black dot marked Marree by a dashed red line, under which were the words “Oodnadatta Track”. What kind of track? A road through the desert? An ancient walking path from the Dreamtime that followed an Aborigine songline? The magazine failed to say. But my curiosity was piqued by this strange world where women clubbed lizards to death for dinner in preference to the convenience of “a store-bought meal”, then chucked them whole on a fire (assuming of course that the goanna hadn’t got away).

The Oodnadatta Track is one of the three great Outback tracks through South Australia, the others being the Birdsville Track, which heads to the tiny hamlet of Birdsville in Queensland that comes alive once a year for the surreal Birdsville Races, and the Strzelecki Track, named after Polish explorer Pawel Strzelecki who had himself named Australia’s highest mountain Mt Kosciuszko, after a Polish national hero. The Strzelecki was described in the guidebook as “the least interesting of the Outback tracks… stretching from Lyndhurst to Innamincka… rough as guts, heavily corrugated and treacherous after rain.” It was also 4WD only, as was the Birdsville Track. But there on the map, snaking down from the Stuart Highway at Marla to Marree, just north of Flinders Ranges National Park, was the Oodnadatta Track, described as being in good condition, motorable in a 2WD car, and heading in exactly the direction that we wanted to go. We decided to give it a shot.

According to Google Maps, it was a ten-and-a-half hour drive from Uluru, where we were, to Oodnadatta. This seemed ambitious, but do-able. Neither of us were particularly keen on heading back down the Stuart Highway for three days, via Coober Pedy again, and then heading back up from Adelaide on another road to get to Flinders Ranges. We filled the water container in the boot, checked tyre pressures, fuelled up in Yulara, and hit the road once more, heading for Erldunda, a small roadhouse on the Stuart Highway just before the border with South Australia. The driving was monotonous – set the cruise control to 130 (80mph) and just point the car south. The occasional road train heading south provided the only break in the tedium – cruise control off, move out to the other side of the road, speed past and then settle back into the rhythm. Eventually Erldunda appeared, and we pulled in, fuelled up yet again, and had a look round the attached cafe. Everything on the menu appeared to be fried. They even had fish and chips, which, given that we were about as far from the sea as it was possible to get in Australia, lacked a certain appeal. In the event we ended up having a picnic out of the boot of the car – sandwiches with “Tasty” cheese (I’ve often wondered just how bland the other kind is), smeared on with a Swiss Army Knife that was becoming oleaginous with margarine. South once more, heading out of the Territory, and we began to encounter signs saying “Welcome to South Australia”. There were several, so it was quite difficult to know exactly where the border was; one sign was a kind of billboard montage of Adelaide by night, the gleaming skyscrapers and artist-impression cityscape providing a strange contrast to the howling wilderness we were actually in. Another sign warned of quarantine ahead – the usual bins for contraband fruit and vegetables which were prohibited from being transported across state borders. We had some illicit strawberries, bought in Yulara, as well as a contraband orange, but, while we had been conscientious enough to deposit some bananas in the bin on our way up, we were now hardened offenders, and blithely drove past the quarantine while I kept an eye on the mirror for some fruit and veg Highway Patrol car pursuing us.

By now it was late afternoon, and after a quick turn around the car park at Marla and coffee out of a machine, we turned off the main road at a gigantic signpost proclaiming the start of the Oodnadatta Track. Adjacent to it was another road departments sign with sliding notifications about the condition of the road – all of them read “Open” in green. We were good to go. We bumped over a cattle grid and hit the dirt. The surface was pretty good at first, and we cruised along at 90kmh, throwing up a long plume of red dust behind us. Cows watched bemused from the scrubland that stretched away all around us. Another cattle grid was signposted, and we had to slow right down for it as there was a sharp concrete lip several inches high before it. The landscape was vast, and I was reminded of an account I had seen by a German soldier describing what it felt like to cross Russia during the second world war. He said that he was from a small village in the south of Germany, hemmed in by mountains, and this was the first time he had seen land that just went on like a sea, the slight undulation meaning that you never saw the horizon. Weeks and weeks they went on, in an unchanging landscape, and the other troops became melancholic, a kind of depression setting in that they would never get anywhere, the scale of the land pressing down on them like a weight under the dome of the sky, diminishing their presence to that of an ant walking up a beach. It felt similar. That sense of space which can seem like freedom to visitors from more crowded countries like the UK can begin to weigh upon you, as if you’ll never escape from it – the land will just go on and on forever, and you’ll never make any progress across it.

We could, though, measure our progress in the passage of time. The glare of mid-afternoon had subsided, and the shadows were lengthening. The sky was changing, darkening and becoming softer at the edges, and the colours had shifted from the bold burnt umber and ultramarine of noon to a subtler, flat wash of watercolour in gunmetal grey and blue. The landscape changed subtly too, almost too imperceptibly to notice until it had already happened, and you realised that the gum trees were beginning to clump more closely together, or that the endless rise of the distant horizon was in fact beginning to descend and your view was extended. We came, abruptly, to a bend in the road with a few buildings around it, and stopped, shocked by signs of habitation. Creeping forward again we saw a battered sign by the road, which read, simply: Oodnadatta.

Coming down the main street we inspected the dilapidated houses with some misgiving. Three wrecked cars lay in various stages of dismemberment outside a low clap-board house. On the porch was a sofa from whose carcass springs erupted. There was a small general store which appeared to be shut, and a lone petrol pump which wasn’t connected to anything. The outline of an old traction engine lay off to the left; was it really possible that it had been abandoned at a time when such things ran, and was still here, preserved by the desert climate? We passed a pub which looked like a shack; four Aborigines sat outside, all wearing beanie hats pulled low against the gathering chill of evening. It looked like a shebeen in some South African township. Towards the other end of town we saw a sign for The Pink Roadhouse – the focal point of Oodnadatta – and headed down an alley to the caravan park where we had booked a cabin for the night.

A series of small portakabins stood around a dusty courtyard. There were a few other 4WD vehicles here and there – one, in the very centre of the courtyard looking equipped to handle almost anything. It was an old Toyota Land Cruiser with sand ladders on the side, a heavy duty winch, and what looked to be a tent on the roof. A couple of Australian guys in their 50s were sitting in camping chairs next to it and gave us a wave as we drove in. There was a kitchen area nearby which essentially resembled a looted shack; it was open to the elements on three sides, and contained a microwave oven, toaster and a kettle. That was it – no pots and pans, no cutlery, no stove. A foul-smelling sink dripped in the corner. We had tins of food in the back of the car, but nothing to cook them in. Even the standby of instant noodles was going to be a problem with no bowl. I contemplated sticking them directly into the kettle and boiling it, and perhaps fashioning a fork out of an old stick (wouldn’t be the first time). Fortunately at that point the Australian guys wandered over. “How ya goin’?” They saw our dilemma, and offered to lend us plates, forks and so on. This was a lifesaver, so dinner that night was nasi goreng flavour noodles, a cheese sandwich, and some toast and Tasmanian honey. I remembered the Tim Tams and offered them round by way of thanks.

Bob and Rob (or similar) were both in their 50s and had driven down from the Queensland coast via the Birdsville Track. One was a surveyor, the other an artist, and they drove around the outback in search of projects to survey and draw. They were admirably self-sufficient, but expressed mild disappointment at Oodnadatta. “We stopped off for a beer at the pub on the way into town,” Rob said. “It was alright.” The way he said alright spoke volumes. “Mostly Aborigines here,” he went on. “And by the look of it,” – he nodded round the kitchen – “they’ve pretty much stripped the place.” It was the usual problem of travel in the developing world: an impoverished local population, and a bunch of (relatively) wealthy tourists camping right in the middle. There was an atmosphere that night of somehow circling the wagons, watching out for each other, which may or may not have been entirely in our imaginations. As night fell there were strange sounds just over the wall, from the broken-down shacks that lay adjacent to the caravan park. An eerie whistling, like someone calling a dog, that went on and on, and then several loud crashes like things being smashed. Perhaps it was kids throwing stones onto an old corrugated iron roof. Either way it seemed like a rather ominous soundtrack given the circumstances. The portakabin rooms were clean and had towels and soap provided, but we made sure we locked the door that night and took everything out of the car.

In the morning we headed in to The Pink Roadhouse to check out. It was quite a surprise. An English girl was behind the counter, and there were rows on cakes on display, a coffee menu, all manner of outback souvenirs for sale, and several homemade maps of the track with tips on outback driving. A lone Aborigine man sat at a table as we came in, sipping from a bottle of Coke, so we greeted him. After a pause of about five seconds, he nodded in acknowledgement, then shuffled off outside. We got ourselves a couple of coffees, and the English girl showed us the town on the map. She’d moved there from Staffordshire – from rolling green hills to this flat, sun-blasted wilderness – and seemed determined to make the best of it. Back in the car once more we drove around the empty streets, the small houses shuttered against the glare. A lone figure was visible heading north along the road: it was the Aborigine man from the roadhouse, on a tricycle with a trailer, slowly pedalling along. We gave him a wave as we went by, and again five seconds passed before he raised a hand. I wondered what his story was. A former employee who had retired? Either way he was the only living soul we saw in Oodnadatta that morning, a small figure slowly riding away into the glare.

On the roadhouse map there was a circle just next to the dam on the road into town and the legend “Afghan Graves”. We must have driven straight past it the night before. The Afghans came as camel handlers in the 19th century, running long baggage trains of the animals to supply the growing settlements of the outback. Some accounts describe them as Indians, but in fact most were indeed Afghans from the south of that country – Helmand and Kandahar in particular – as well as Balochistan, which lies in present-day Pakistan. These men were used to harsh desert conditions, and lived in their own little neighbourhoods adjacent to the small settlements, building mosques and keeping largely to themselves. The camel trains continued until well into the 20th century, when increasingly they were replaced by the railway – still called the Ghan line today in honour of the Afghans. As Muslims, Afghans would not normally have been buried in the Christian cemeteries, but had a small area nearby marking their graves. The Afghan graves at Oodnadatta were set on high ground overlooking the dam, in a little fenced off area. There were no headstones visible – just mounds of broken rocks in the scorched earth – but it was possible to see that they were all in alignment and pointed towards Mecca. It was a melancholic spot. The hot desert wind fluted and moaned, throwing up small dust devils which whirled away like tornadoes. The ground was covered in dark stones with a shiny mineral patina from the heat of the sun. Nearby lay the mummified carcass of a horse, one leg stiffly held outward. Later, in the town of Marree, another Afghan settlement, we met an old railway worker who remembered the Afghans coming through town: the jingle of the camels’ harnesses, the men with turbans above wind-darkened faces speaking Pashto or Farsi, the slop of their sandalled feet through the sand. All gone now, only these few broken rocks as evidence that they were ever here.

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The Red Centre

A pedestrian bridge led over the sandy riverbed of the Todd River, leading to the town centre. I had heard that cars parked on the riverbank were vulnerable to being broken into, as the river had become a popular spot for the local homeless to congregate. In previous years so many had camped out in small ‘humpys’ that it had become a veritable shantytown, but there had clearly been a clean-up campaign, as I couldn’t see anyone in the shelter of the straggling trees that dotted the riverbed. The Rough Guide mentioned Todd Mall as being one of Alice Springs’ ‘must-do’ attractions, and we navigated our way towards it by iphone. Outside the Thirsty Camel pub a few drinkers stood about in small groups, and opposite, on a low wall, sat a few Aborigines. They had the air of people waiting for something. Todd Mall itself was virtually closed, despite it being five o’clock in the afternoon; Aborigine children ran around barefoot, shouting with laughter, the adults slowly padding after them. A group of police stood around their van, scanning the passers-by, on the lookout for trouble. More police took the details of a group of young Aborigine men standing nearby. This was a scene that was to repeat itself often – three times that hour alone I saw police talking to young Aborigine lads. One got the impression that the town changed significantly after dark. Passing a small patch of greenery we saw several Aborigine women sitting together in small groups on the other side of the road, chatting. One of them saw me smoking and made a miming gesture, asking for a cigarette, without much hope of success.

It reminded me very much of Marble Arch in London, which in recent years has become a popular hangout with Roma beggars. I remember the shock and outrage in the British papers at the sight of women in headscarves with children begging in the streets. It was a similar feeling in Alice – with a similar theme: all the beggars were of one distinctive ethnicity – Aborigine. And it caused an uncomfortable racial dimension to their obvious dispossession. They sloped about, rifled through bins for cigarette butts, wandered barefoot through the shopping malls looking shellshocked, and seemed utterly lost. They were all dusty, I noticed. Perhaps it was due to long journeys from outlying settlements in utes, but so many seemed to be covered with a thin film of powdery red dust, like the bloom upon a plum. Outside a bottle shop a lone white policeman sat disconsolately. An Aborigine woman carrying a baby approached him, asking something – from her gestures it was clear she wanted to go in. “I can’t let you in there,” he said, wearily but sympathetically. “You know it’ll just lead to trouble.” She wandered off, looking for someone else to appeal to, her eyes briefly sliding over mine before dismissing me as a hopeless prospect.

I had heard, of course, about the dispossession, the catalogue of social ills that befell many Aborigines, but it was still a shock to be confronted with it. Mentally I conjured up an apologist, a fictional Aborigine spokesperson, saying: “Of course it’s shocking, but these people are the ones drawn into the towns, just like any homeless. Out in the settlements it’s quite different.” But in my heart I knew it was not. Some were better, some worse, but everywhere there was this sense of an historical trauma. I’ve seen it before, in different forms, in other parts of the world; the sense that there’s been a calamity that people are still reeling from the aftershock of, moving slow and dazed through a world they don’t understand and have no agency in, seeking solace in the oblivion of drugs or alcohol. I’m sure there are all manner of laudable initiatives and worthy projects, some of them more successful than others. I’m sure there are successful Aboriginal businesses, individuals, associations. And yet, to an outsider flying in with no agenda other than to record what they see, these are the first, and most visible, impressions of Alice Springs. In fact crime has risen dramatically in the town in recent years – according to the Northern Territory Justice Department’s quarterly report, cases of assault have risen 87% since 2004; sexual assaults rose by 97%. Break-ins rose 185%. The police commissioner cites most crimes as being due to drunkenness and vagrancy. And some people have had enough – increasing numbers are moving away from the town citing fear of crime. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/destroyed-in-alice/story-fn59niix-1226008040782?nk=c0bc372d301bc99faff439298fed95ec

On a small hill overlooking the town stood a gleaming white monument – the ANZAC memorial. Plaques around the base commemorated Australia’s war dead, – ’1914-18’,  ‘1939-1945’, the most recent plaque reading ‘Afghanistan: 2001-‘ with the end date left blank. A small crowd had gathered to watch the sun set behind the distant hills, and on the far side of the site a huge moon rose, shimmering in the warm air as the city exhaled the heat of the day. Some people had brought deckchairs, and there was a man with a TV camera. Apparently there was going to be an eclipse. As the moon rose we headed down the hill and stopped at an Indian restaurant for dinner, before heading back across the small park outside the hostel. Two Aborigine women were coming the other way, with a slow, swaying gait. As we drew near the older one – she had a shock of white hair – said: “Look at the moon!” Her friend glanced at it and giggled nervously. “The moon is going!”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s the eclipse.”

They walked on, periodically turning to look upwards. I felt relieved they hadn’t asked for money, and then immediately guilty at the thought. I had fallen into the same trap that I’d seen other white Australians do in Alice Springs: when an Aborigine had drawn near they would unconsciously tighten their grip on their bag, or look down and cross the street. Every time an Aborigine asked for money, or a cigarette, or anything at all, it just reinforced the whole stereotype, and they became further stigmatised and still further dispossessed, regarded with suspicion, the mild tension subsiding only once they had passed by. In such insidious ways racism grows, in the fear and the suspicion, in the spaces between people, taking root in the fertile ground of mutual distrust and incomprehension.

Nevertheless, Alice Springs traded heavily on its Aboriginal connections. Todd Mall was lined with galleries full of Aboriginal art, souvenir shops sold T-shirts with the Aborigine flag on them (black rectangle horizontal above a red, surmounted by a yellow circle, representing the people ((black)), the land ((red)), and the yellow sun). There is apparently a co-operative in the town to showcase the work of Aborigine artists, although it has been criticised for elitism, only selecting well-known artists to the exclusion of others. In Yulara there was a cafe which advertised itself as a training initiative for young Aborigines – we went, and the food and coffee were excellent, although the customer service was as authentic as only a bored young person with a Saturday job who really doesn’t want to be there can manage. On entering a YHA hostel you’ll often see a plaque next to the entrance saying: “This hostel is built on land traditionally belonging to the Arrerntje people”, for example. On the SBS nightly national news the credits close with the statement: “This programme was filmed in studios on land belonging to the Cammeragyal people.” There’s an acknowledgement, at least, an attempt at recognition of an historical iniquity, without ever quite knowing what to do about it or how to redress it. Various politicians over the years have squirmed and engaged in tortuous wordplay to avoid having to “apologise” for assorted historical crimes – apologising before the media being the modern-day equivalent of the medieval penance. Initiatives are launched, projects begun, all with the best of intentions, and yet the only option available to most Aboriginal people seems to be to integrate into a predominantly white, 21st century capitalist economy which many want no part of. The week I arrived, Canberra journalist Jeremy Geia announced that he was leaving Australia while remaining on the continent; he returned his passport, driving licence and medicare card, reverted to his tribal name and went back to live in the traditional lands of the Yidindji people, in the north of Queensland, revoking any allegiance to the Commonwealth of Australia.
http://www.theguardian.com/world/postcolonial/2014/aug/26/-sp-the-man-who-renounced-australia

On the map of central Australia, three things stand out in proximity to each other: Alice Springs, Kings Canyon, and Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock). Barely an inch apart on a large-scale map, their proximity is relative in Australian terms – it is a four-and-a-half hour drive from Alice Springs to Uluru. In part this is due to there being no direct road; it’s necessary to drive back down the Stuart Highway some way before turning off to Uluru. Kings Canyon lies on a branch road off the main one to Uluru, but there was a more direct route known as Ernest Giles Road a short way south of Alice. This was described as unsealed, with 4WD advised but not essential. Many unsealed roads in Australia have large billboards at the entrance with a sliding status to indicate its condition: “Open”, “Closed”, or “4WD only”. Ernest Giles Road was labelled “open”, and given that we had an all-wheel drive SUV with good clearance, we decided to save ourselves several hours by taking it. In fact the road was very good – gravel, mostly, with occasional stretches of rough pebbles and a few patches of soft sand which caused the steering to slew a little. I was a bit concerned about our tyres, as they were a make I’d never heard of – called Nixon Terror Max or something – but in the event they held up well. Some of the stones, however, would have made a nice bang; you had to constantly scan a few yards ahead to watch for fist-sized rocks shaped like little pyramids with a sharp top. Driving along in the heat of the sun, your whole concentration preoccupied with scanning the surface ahead, reminded me of the many thousands of kilometres I drove on dirt roads in Africa. This was a veritable highway in comparison. Despite some rough patches where the whole car shook over the corrugations, we made good progress, the red sand of the road stretching away into the distance beneath a deep blue sky. By mid-afternoon we saw the sign for Kings Creek Station, where we had booked a safari cabin, and we pulled up outside, next to a huge tour bus and a couple of other 4WDs.

As soon as we got out we were surrounded by flies. They weren’t in huge numbers – just enough to be annoying. We made our way across the parking lot giving occasional waves. A group of elderly French tourists stood out on the verandah wearing head nets, like a bee-keepers convention. The safari cabins were basically large tents on a wooden base, with a couple of camp beds. There was the inevitable fluorescent strip light, and a fan, which was essential – the temperature was in the mid-30s, and inside the tent it was sweltering. Outside there was a breeze but this advantage was offset by the flies. We tried various combinations, sitting inside, then out, kitted out in our own head nets. Relief only came with sundown, when, as if from a signal, all the flies disappeared. In the early cool of dawn the next morning there was a brief interlude between mosquitoes going off duty from the night shift and the first rays of sunshine which brought the first fly of the day.

Our ambition that day was to walk round the rim of Kings Canyon – advertised as a three-and-a-half hour hike. It was necessary to leave early as the walk closed at 9am due to the heat. Numerous warning signs stood at the entrance about the dangers of heatstroke, the importance of carrying enough water and so on. We had two 800ml bottles of water and a litre-and-a-half of diluted cranberry juice, which we figured was enough. The only really tough bit of the hike was the first 15 minutes or so, when you basically climbed up the side of the canyon from ground level. With sweat running down my nose and my throat parched already I wondered whether I was really in a fit state to do it – I still had a stinking cold, but hoped that walking in what was basically a glorified oven might burn it off. The terrain levelled out on top and we found ourselves in a surreal landscape of deep red rock formations which led to a series of viewpoints overlooking the canyon. The landscape stretched away for miles, sage green and ochre, tinged with a shimmering, hazy blue in the distance where it merged with the sky. At around mid-way on the walk a wooden staircase descended into the canyon, which was cool in the shade of gum trees overlooking a small pool of water – an oasis in this desiccated landscape. A signpost had a quote from an Arrerntje Aborigine elder, saying: “This is a sacred place. Refresh yourself by splashing water on your face if you wish, but please do not swim.” Birdsong trickled down through the green shade of the trees and it certainly felt like a sanctuary of sorts, away from the harsh glare of the sun and the waves of heat off the red rock.

To the south-west of Kings Canyon, a couple of hours’ drive away, lies the main tourist attraction of Central Australia – the red centre of the Red Centre, as it were. Ayers Rock, now referred to by its Aboriginal name of Uluru, is a long way from anywhere, but acts like a giant magnet, drawing quarter of a million visitors a year to this remote and harsh landscape. Now that there are direct flights into nearby Yulara airport, Alice Springs has lost its unique position as the gateway to Uluru, and the tourist trade in the town has taken a knock due to rising crime. Yulara itself is basically a gigantic resort, with a series of hotels around a small town square which contains the essential facilities – post office, IGA supermarket and a couple of cafes; it feels a little like a provincial university campus. Apart from the campsite, the only budget accommodation in the resort was the Outback Pioneer Lodge, which had a range of rooms available. It was a curious sort of place – a hostel-style kitchen for the backpacking crowd, but also a couple of restaurants on site. The bar area blasted out rock music and there was a babble of conversation from assorted drinkers congregating around it. It was an amusingly ironic contrast with the hotel’s own glossy brochure, which had a quote from an Aborigine elder on it about the importance of Uluru to his people: “The most important thing about this place is the silence.” There wasn’t much silence in evidence in the Outback Pioneer Lodge. Toward late afternoon the place emptied, and a convoy of vehicles set out from the assorted hotels to Uluru itself for the sunset. Special parking lots have been designed with angled spaces so that you can sit in your car with a view of the rock. Most people, however, stood at the low fence which lies a couple of kilometres from the rock itself, and waited with an air of expectation. Gradually, as the sun dipped toward the horizon behind us, Uluru began to change: at first brownish in colour it began to glow inwardly with a reddish hue, different patterns and textures emerging down the raked sides that hadn’t previously been visible. Burnt umber, ochre, laterite red – it went through several shades, changing minute by minute. Finally, as the sun disappeared completely, the fire went out, and it darkened to a deep chestnut brown as the surrounding landscape became monochrome and the first stars emerged in the sky.

Is it worth it? This five day drive, the heat, the flies, in order to watch the sun set at Uluru? Absolutely it’s worth it. Even without understanding any of the cultural context you can grasp why such a site would be considered sacred, purely in aesthetic terms. This monolith that dominates the flat, surrounding bushland exerts a presence that is unique, no matter how iconic the imagery, or how familiar its outline. It is one of the natural wonders of the world, as well as being a spiritual centre in much the same way that a great cathedral, mosque or temple is. Even the tourists crowding into the viewpoints cannot diminish that presence.

Despite being politely requested not to by the local Aborigine community, due to its sacred status, many people still climb the rock. It is left to one’s conscience whether to do so, which to me seems an admirable way of doing it – no official prohibition, just a type of person who decides to put their personal wish to ‘conquer’ the rock above the feelings of a group of local people who have worshipped the site for thousands of years and consider walking on it to be an act of desecration. Sections of the rock are more sacred than others, and in some areas photography is prohibited as they are still used for secret rituals by the Arrerntje. These rituals – stages of initiation into the tribe, really – are so secret that men have no idea of the content of women’s ceremonies, and vice versa. To have a lot of outsiders blundering about in the area, walking upon the rock’s surface and taking photos would be little better than an act of cultural vandalism, given the circumstances. Nothing illustrates better the gulf of understanding between two cultures – one, custodians of the land, making a polite request not to scale something sacred to them; the other, knowing this full well, selfishly disregarding those wishes in attempting to conquer, to challenge themselves physically, to overcome what is essentially just a big lump of rock, “because it’s there”.IMG_6401.JPG

A Town Like Alice

It was strange arriving in Melbourne again after my trip round Tasmania. Only 5 weeks earlier I had flown in to Tullamarine Airport for the first time, shattered by jetlag, my internal body clock still somewhere over South-east Asia. This time it was quite different. The flight took just over an hour, and I watched the patchwork fields of central Tasmania recede beneath us, replaced by the deep blue of the Bass Strait, flecked with whitecaps. Soon the coast of mainland Australia came into view – a long beach, curving around the base of the continent and away into the distance, stretching as far as the eye could see. I thought about the huge landmass that lay to the north, from this southern, temperate tip up through the central deserts to the tropical north, and remembered the comment of the boat pilot off the coast of Bruny Island a few days before: “It’s 2200 km south to Antarctica from down here, and 2600 km north to Alice Springs.” It was a not-so-subtle assertion of Tasmanian ‘otherness’, a little jibe at the mainland’s expense. Closer to Antarctica than to the red centre of Australia – and even then, Alice is only halfway up the country.

Alice Springs… it was an iconic destination. I’d first encountered the name as a 9-year-old in the library at school, where there was a shelf of red faux-leather ‘classics’. Amidst the Trollope and Dickens and Austen nestled a book whose title was picked out in gold: A Town like Alice, by Nevil Shute. For some reason it caught my attention, and I was soon absorbed in a tale set in wartime Malaya, of a group of British women taken prisoner by the Japanese and marched up and down the peninsula in search of an internment camp (based on a true story, though the women were in fact Dutch, and it was Sumatra, not Malaya). Along the way (spoiler alert) one of the women, Jean Paget, meets an Australian prisoner of war, Joe Harman. He regales her with stories of his homeland – the space of the outback, the harsh beauty of the desert, and most of all, a small town nestled at the heart of it, Alice Springs. Moved by the women’s plight, Joe steals some chickens from the Japanese commandant, but is caught and crucified on a tree. The women are forced to watch, then marched away, believing him to be dead. But Joe survives, and in the chaos of the post-war world, he goes in search of Jean. Arriving in London he learns she is no longer there, but has gone to Australia. They are reunited in Alice Springs and move to the small fictional town of Willstown in Queensland, Joe taking a job as a cattle station manager and Jean starting a number of businesses in the hope of improving the town’s fortunes and turning rugged Willstown into a miniature version of Alice Springs – a town like Alice.

Nevil Shute was British, but, dismayed by the post-war decline in his native country exemplified by austerity and, as he saw it, growing socialism in the founding of the welfare state, he decided to emigrate to Australia in 1950. A Town Like Alice was written in the same year, and reflects many of his aspirations: the hope of a new start, the creation of a better society, where through hard work and self-sufficiency people could improve their lot. Before the Second World War Alice Springs had had a population of just 500 and was extremely remote, but the town had boomed in the wartime economy and drew in settlers from all over Australia. It was too remote for Nevil Shute – he settled in Melbourne, that most European of Australian cities – but it exemplified the ideal: the rugged, pioneer spirit; the establishment of a genteel society in harsh surroundings, along largely British pre-war mores; a new life. It was the remnants of the colonial dream in a post-colonial world.

Where the Aborigines fitted into this bold blueprint for a new society isn’t entirely clear. Alice Springs is known as Mparntwe to the local Arrernte people who have lived in the area for at least 30,000 years. Referred to throughout the novel as ‘boongs’ or ‘abos’, Aborigines are portrayed as basically decent but unreliable, different somehow, using different shops and bars to the whites, as befitting Australia’s unofficial apartheid of the time. Today approximately 25% of the population of the town is of Aborigine origin, and nowhere in Australia better illustrates the collision of cultures, with consequent, highly visible casualties, than Alice Springs.

Prior to 1980, when only unsealed dirt roads led to Alice, it would have taken over a week to drive there from Victoria. Now, in 2014, Google Maps estimated it as a three day drive: eight hours to Adelaide, nine-and-a-half to the mining town of Coober Pedy, and then a seven hour drive from there up to Alice Springs. Heading west from Bendigo we passed through the endless undulating Victorian farmland, dotted with a succession of small towns – Newbridge, Donald, Horsham, Bordertown. Each was well designed for passing traffic, with a cafe or two, places to park just outside, and always a public toilet nearby. The road was called the Sunraysia Highway, which made it sound like a Cambodian casino, and it was a standard single-carriageway tarmac road, with the painfully slow Victoria speed limit of 100 kmh (62 mph). Why, in such a vast country, it is necessary for the authorities to impose a limit of such glacial slowness on motorists is hard to fathom – not least because as soon as you cross the state border the limit goes up: to 110 kmh (68 mph) in South Australia, and then a giddy 130 kmh (80 mph) in the Northern Territory (they’ve always done things their own way up there.) We were glad of it in the NT, anyway – mile after mile of dead straight road going on for hours.

I’d booked a hostel in central Adelaide called The Guesthouse, which looked to be conveniently located for the road out of town the next morning. It seemed to be a public holiday – the city was eerily deserted by the time we arrived in late afternoon, but we found the streets around the Central Market to be bustling with people out for dinner. There were a great many Chinese about – the area seemed to be the local Chinatown – and we picked up some Tiger Balm in a Chinese supermarket, then chose a restaurant called China Chilli for dinner which seemed to be popular. Deservedly so: it was some of the best Sichuan food I’ve ever had: spicy hot chilli beef with onion and peppers, and Chicken Kung Pao (or Gong Bao, etc.). As we sat outside cars growled up and down the road, and we witnessed a minor road rage incident between a white couple and a Chinese man in a large Mercedes 4WD. “Check the numbah!” he yelled at them. “Check the numbah, check the numbah!” I assumed he was referring to his number plate, which said B3NZ 001. They seemed equally nonplussed, and eventually he drove off with a screech of tyres and a sulphurous puff of catalytic converter. The crowds ambled by, and eventually we made our way back to the hostel and our room, which smelled of Harpic loo cleaner, to be serenaded by the mechanical clank of the traffic light countdown just outside the window, with its laser beam pulse sound on the pedestrian green light. It was not a restful night.

South Australia is a bit of an unknown on the map, lacking the brashness of Queensland, with its beach resorts and rugged sense of identity, or the bold frontier spirit of the Northern Territory. Adelaide itself is quite small for a city, with a population of just over a million, and there aren’t really any other major urban centres. When I asked a South Australian I had met what there was to see in the state he went quiet for a while, then mentioned the Flinders Ranges National Park. “Other than that,” he mused, “there’s a whole lot of nothing.” We contemplated the concept of a whole lot of nothing together for a while in silence, and then he said, as an afterthought, “Oh yeah! There’s Coober Pedy.” This small, improbable settlement owes its existence entirely to opals, which are mined here – “noodling”, as local parlance has it. Indeed, on the map of Coober Pedy there exists a purple-shaded area just outside the town with the description “Public Noodling Area”, which had me intrigued for a while, until I found that it meant nothing more than pegging out a claim and digging for opals. Situated in the far north of the state, Coober Pedy’s climate is so extreme that many people have taken to living underground, and this has become an attraction in its own right – hotels and hostels offer underground rooms which have a constant temperature in the low 20s C, even when it can be in the mid-40s outside.

Having driven through a whole lot of nothing for nine hours it was a relief to finally arrive in Coober Pedy. Google Maps had come up with an interesting direction: “In 536 km, turn right.” We duly did so, and arrived at Radeka Backpackers. The room itself was described as ‘budget underground twin’, though it was more accurately hollowed out from the hillside. Inside rough-hewn rock formed a glittering mica ceiling, and it was indeed cool – as well as very dark. There were apparently two options in town for dinner: a Greek place (turn left) or John’s pizza place (turn right). I had been dreaming of moussaka and Greek salad for several hundred kilometers – we found that in the desert we craved fruit and salad, both of which were in short supply – but on reaching the end of the road just prior to turning left we heard an extraordinary noise. At first I genuinely thought it was a flock of galahs or some similarly raucous local bird; it was a harsh screeching cry that went on and on. Then we saw the source – a group of Aborigine women were having a row outside the Greek restaurant. After five weeks in Australia these were the first Aborigines I had seen, and it was a depressing spectacle. They were all at it, making a tremendous row, their multi-syllable language combining to form a continual babble. All were drunk. Eventually one woman broke away from the group and made her way downhill, barefoot and clad in a dirty dress, all the while keeping up a stream of yelled abuse at the others, who returned it. A police car drew up alongside her, two white cops, one male, one female. The window came down. “Excuse me!” I heard the male cop shout. In response she lifted an arm and pointed back at the crowd by the restaurant, yelling all the while. The police car did a U-turn and pulled up next the group. It was a thoroughly dispiriting scene, and we decided to turn right and have pizza instead. Down by the pizza place, outside the entrance to a mine a young couple sat in a ute and argued loudly. “What is it with this town?” I said. “Everyone seems to be having a row.” Fortunately in the pizza place they weren’t – it was full of families who had stopped in town for the night, due to the complete absence of anywhere else to stay, and locals popping in to pick up a takeaway. All the staff seemed to the Filipino. They were quickly efficient, with the air of people who have got used to keeping their heads down, and they swiftly brought our order of frozen lasagne and oven chips with a minuscule garnish of salad, everything in Coober Pedy having to come nearly a thousand kilometres by road up from Adelaide.

The next morning, emerging blinking from our subterranean cavern, we stopped off at the IGA supermarket to pick up Strepsils and tissues, as I had become afflicted with a cold in the night. The supermarket was vast, and clearly under the management of a 21-year-old, since at 9 in the morning the soundtrack was belting out dance music which had the thoroughly appropriate shouted chorus: “This is ridiculous!” We drove around the deserted side streets for a while trying to find our way up to the Big Winch, a local viewpoint over the town, and having reached it, and admired a collection of surreal sculptures congregated in the car park (including keyboards nailed to a pole with the logo: “White Man Totem Pole”), we were greeted by a small Chinese man who emerged from a tin hut nearby. “Come in, come in,” he beckoned to us. Inside the hut were rows of display cases with jewellery made from stones he had mined locally. Very locally – he had sunk a 20 metre shaft just across the car park. He’d been in Coober Pedy since 1979, he said, and came originally from Hong Kong. He seemed glad of the company, and prevailed upon me to smoke a cigarette sitting on the porch with him, while showing us small uncut opals he’d got from the shaft. We bought two in the end, for $5 – a small white piece of stone with a cool feel to it, and another which was shot through with flashes of turquoise. The view across the town was bizarre: large pale-coloured mounds dotting the surroundings bore evidence of the “noodling”. Wrecked cars and odd, random assortments of machinery lay about, near to houses that looked as if they’d been put up in a hurry. Apparently the dystopian movie Mad Max was filmed here; they wouldn’t have needed much in the way of set embellishment.

Heading north from Coober Pedy (turn left for Adelaide, right for Alice Springs) we crept our way across the map of Australia millimetre by millimetre. The landscape was semi-arid as opposed to outright desert, with thin, spindly shrubs and beige grass sprouting in tufts from the increasingly red earth. It’s hard to describe such a sense of emptiness. Gone were the small towns of Victoria with their cafes and public conveniences; here it was several hundred kilometres between stops, and the stops themselves were service stations with accompanying motel, known as roadhouses. In these you’d get a standard 70s-style motel room with air-conditioning (essential), a jug of cold water in the fridge (you had to buy more if you wanted it as the tap water was inevitably unfiltered from deep boreholes) and a TV with a dwindling number of channels the further north you went. Mostly, though, they provided a cool and shady spot to rest, curtains drawn against the glare outside, as three-wagon road trains thundered past.

These road trains owned the road. Everything was transported on them: three wagons packed full of sheep standing shoulder to shoulder; petrol tankers; refrigerated trucks for foodstuffs. They’d go all day and all night, running the gauntlet of the mobs of kangaroos who gathered along the verges at night and who had a fatal attraction to headlights; their dismembered carcasses lay fresh along the road every morning, picked over by crows and hawks. The road trains did the same speed as everyone else, and meeting one coming the other way and feeling the blast of hot wind as it passed made me glad I wasn’t on a motorbike. Three days to Alice, five up to Darwin, then turn around and back again, perhaps veering off for another couple of days to deliver to some isolated mining settlement. I later read that Yulara, the resort next to Uluru / Ayer’s Rock, is supplied from Adelaide by three road trains a week – nine wagons in all – which bring up everything consumed there; everything from the UHT milk that accompanies your coffee through to the cleaning products used in the hotels, the fuel that keeps the whole place going, and of course all the produce in the local IGA supermarket. Everything. In return they are filled with rubbish which is then trucked back down across the desert for recycling in Adelaide. Seeing them at night, with lights strung along their sides, they did indeed look like trains heading into the darkness, twin headlights feeling their way across the blank space of central Australia.

After endless empty kilometres we began to notice small things – anything. A distant radio mast on the horizon. An unmarked dirt track leading off into the bush. A tin can placed upon a rock by the roadside. On the rare occasions that there was a road sign we cried out “It’s a sign!” like evangelists while we scrutinised it from afar. Usually it was a road safety warning, about the importance of keeping your seatbelt on or similar. Occasionally it would say “Fatigue kills. Take a break”. But where? Then a few kilometres later would be a rest stop sign, and a lay-by with a picnic table and benches shaded on three sides from the sun. Pulling into one of these we got our first taste of the famous outback flies; they descended upon us within seconds, buzzing around our heads, crawling over sunglasses lenses and generally being annoying. We developed the continual lacklustre wave of the outback, perpetually shooing them away – but as soon as you had done so they settled upon you again. In the distance a white expanse of salt shimmered – one of the many salt lakes of central Australia which had tricked early explorers with their promise of water, and were subsequently named things like Lake Disappointment.

Dully we watched the kilometre markers counting down – small green signs saying “AS 90”. Then it was 70. An age of dead straight monotonous bitumen later and we were down to 30. The landscape began to subtly change, with rock formations looming. Squinting into the glare of the late afternoon sun, sticky with barley sugar and parched in the 5% humidity, we came into the outskirts of Alice Springs. Suddenly it was all so normal. Somewhere north of Coober Pedy we had started to notice that every oncoming driver gave a wave – keeping on good terms with the people who might just save your life if you got stuck out there. Now, in suburban Alice, the waves stopped. There were many Aborigines around, walking with the slow, swaying gait of people used to saving energy in a hot climate. We drove alongside the sandy bed of the Todd River – Sir Charles Todd, whose wife Alice had been the inspiration for the town’s name. The hostel we were booked at lay on the north bank of the dry riverbed, and we staggered in to our room, drew the curtains and lay down on the beds in the cool breeze of the air conditioner. Welcome to a town like Alice.