Last Ride on the Sunlander

‘Hurry up!’ The door handle jolted up and down, up and down, while the door itself banged and rattled with the pressure.

‘It’s locked!’ said the same young vocal chords to no one in particular.


Without a shred of clothing on me, I opened the shower door a crack and peered out. Before me was small, curly-haired Aboriginal boy of about six, somewhat startled at the naked apparition before him.

‘I won’t be long’, I said and closed the door again.

As I emerged from my morning shower, someone yelled, ‘Shower’s free’. The boy grabbed his backpack and raced up the aisle.

‘Coming through’, he yelled, with his father following in his wake at a more sedate pace.

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Everyone smiled. Apparently, he had been running up and down the aisle, climbing on the seats, retrieving his small backpack from the overhead luggage rack, and busting for one of the great experiences on a long-haul train – a travel wash.

He was but one in a carriage full of Aboriginal people from the north – curly-haired and wearing variations of the black, red and yellow, the colours of the Aboriginal flag. Already in Brisbane, a number had joined the train heading north: a mother with four little children, a solitary man or two with magnificent grey and black beards, a young handsome couple. But by the time I woke from my lengthy slumber, our carriage in particular was full of Aboriginal people. At some time in the early hours of the morning they had joined our journey north.

By this time, we had already been on the Sunlander, the old and sturdy train between Brisbane and Cairns, for most of the previous day. With the night past, we had another day to go. The train trundles along at a little over 50 kilometres per hour, covering the distance of 1700 kilometres more than 30 hours. Generous stops along the way – 27 in all – allowed the smokers to get a breath of nicotine and tar and the rest of us to stretch our legs. And those stops are legendary: Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, Proserpine, Townsville, and on. The Sunlander may not be as well-known as other long distance trains in Australia, but it is a journey that rivals the best.

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For a change, we had opted for the economy seats. Since the train was in its last year of travel after more than half a century of service, the seats were heavily discounted. At $61 each, it was an option hard to refuse (the sleepers were over $600 for a cabin). It was to be one of the last rides on the Sunlander.

Back at the beginning, as we waited at Brisbane’s Roma Street Station, she said, ‘Won’t it be romantic’.

‘Let’s see how we feel after sleeping a night in the seats’. I said.

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The train rolled into the station. Paint peeled from the carriages and rust holes poked through at alarming points. Each little movement was accompanied by clunks and groans and squeals. Between the carriages, you could peer directly onto the tracks slipping by beneath the train. Inside, the carpet had clearly known better times and the seats bore the stains of ten thousand travellers. If you are going to ‘retire’ a train, then it makes little sense to spend money on sprucing it up. Yet it still bore plenty of signs of its former glory: the toilets were spacious in the way of bygone assumptions; each ‘sitting car’ had a glorious shower with full running water at one end; and the seats themselves reclined forty degrees back so you could rest your head without it lolling about when asleep.

To be sure, we had asked if any late cancellations for the sleeper carriages had come in at the last minute. It was not to be, even though the sleepers made up two-thirds of the train. A ‘sitting car’ it was, for the long, slow haul north. I did manage to persuade the conductors to re-allocate us seats in the last carriage, where the two-plus-one formation gave us wider seats and more leg room. But we were to share what was essentially a large dormitory with a bunch of fellow travellers for the next day and half.


The result was one of the best rail journeys we have had for some time. But the big question is: what do you do for those long hours, especially in a ‘sitting car’ seat? To begin with, bring your own food. We could have opted for the microwave-warmed items of the buffet in the ‘lounge car’ (aka. mobile bar) or the overpriced fast food of the dining car with its variations on hamburgers. We could have brought on overflowing bags of chocolates and sweets, as some of our fellow passengers did. Or we could have gone Russian, and smuggled on endless bottles of vodka to wash down sliced sausage and cheese. But we did none of the sort. Instead, we went for bags stuffed with loaves of bread, oranges, apples, cucumber, mushrooms, bunches of celery, bags of nuts, cans of beans and a travel favourite of mine, processed cheese. At regular intervals from our seats, the sound of crunching could be heard as we devoured yet another meal of relatively fresh stuff.

And we made sure we brought plenty of material to pass the time. For me that included my Chinese workbooks and a few volumes of Stalin’s works – as one does on a long rail journey. More often I would put my feet up on the back of the seat in front of me and watch the land roll by slowly. Or hike the train: it was long enough for a serious expedition on foot, with its endless carriages strung together. At one end was the baggage car, which I could see through the window of the last carriage, and at the other end were the sleepers, into which I slipped on my explorations towards the front of the train.

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On those hikes, I engaged in studying the most intriguing part of the whole journey: other people. What do they do? Now the real advantage of travelling in the economy seats became clear. The seats in the various carriages were full of doddery old fogies, the down-and-outs using the cheapest form of transport available, the families with children who could not afford a sleeper, the couples who had struck up a relationship from the time we left Brisbane, and the odd backpacker. The two drinkers fidgeted, waiting impatiently for the bar to open. One in particular was obviously driven by his multiple addictions. Diminutive, with grey hair and a ragged red face, he was either dashing out at each stop for hasty puffs on a cigarette, or to the bar in his quest to empty their stocks single-handed. Meanwhile, the old fogeys snoozed and read and stayed put, amazing me by their ability to sit for hours on end without needing to go to the toilet. The children fidgeted and clambered over the seats, especially in the ‘lounge car’. One woman avidly read a massive book while chewing through endless packets of confectionary shaped like ‘bananas’. A plump couple sat and knitted for the whole journey – producing enough to clothe all of their grandchildren. Young couples pretended to sleep under the cover of checked blankets.

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At last, we arrived in Cairns, deep in the tropical north. Now it seemed like ages ago since we had left the relatively familiar (and for me alienating) surrounds of Brisbane and the reaches of the Sunshine Coast. There we had been farewelled by a big kangaroo that lazily scratched its belly as we passed – as if indicating that we would have plenty of time on our hands on the journey to come. Soon enough mango and palm trees grew freely among the eucalypts, with banana plantations and then swathes of sugar cane the further north we pushed. Alongside the cane fields ran the narrow tracks of the cane trains – really toy trains with tiny engines and oversized carriages for hauling their loads of cut cane. Even further north, the mountains begin to hug the coast. Here they trap the topical rains of the wet season, so they are covered with a jungle of vines and thorny plants and the towering trees of the rainforest canopy. Yet, on the other side of the rain shadow, the dry tropics soon appear. On the border between the wet and the dry snakes love to gather: the deadly taipans, innocent tree snakes, and massive pythons with a love for small animals, birds and especially chickens (which have the unfortunate combination of being both incredibly stupid and incredibly delicious for so many). And in the hinterland of Cairns, one finds the lands of old and not-so-old hippies, who had acquired land cheaply some years ago and were now sitting on real-estate gold mines. Long ago, they had made the jungle their home, amongst the pythons and bandicoots and cassowaries. To one such place we headed for a few days, the highlight being the open-air toilet.

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But as I sat and the pondered the universe on my throne, watched by a chicken and a couple of horses, my thoughts were already moving towards another journey: westward of the coast, the dry sclerophyll forest passes into the open grassland of the plains and then the arid zones of the interior. In this direction too does a train run, all the way to the mining town of Mount Isa. The Innlander, it is called, and it takes one across to the Northern Territory border. Next time.

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Is Australia a Western Country?

‘What is the West? I ask.

‘You know, what is opposite to Eastern Asia’. She says.

‘But what about Africa?’ I say.

‘No, that is not the West’. She says.

‘What about Russia?’ I say.

‘That is also not the West’. She says.

‘Is it in the East?’ I say. ‘After all, most of Russia is in Asia’.

‘No, it is not Eastern either’. She says.

‘Japan?’ I say.

She pauses. ‘Well, it is geographically in the East’, she says, ‘but culturally and economically it is Western’.

‘And Australia?’ I say.

‘It may be in the Eastern part of the world’, she says, ‘but it is culturally Western’.

‘Like Japan?’ I say.

At this point, the distinction between East and West begins to break down. I have had similar conversations in ‘Eastern’ Europe, where the differences between East and West shift once again. So also do the problems of identifying what exactly is eastern and western: what about Austria or Greece? What happens in each case is that the terms are reproduced for the sake of defining what ‘East’ means. ‘West’ becomes the useful, if somewhat elusive, Other in order to define what is not Western.

But let me return to Australia.

I am intrigued by the fact that many who visit Australia come here with the preconception that it is a Western country – much the same as, say, England, or the United States, or perhaps parts of Western Europe. Time and again, they are disconcerted and thrown when they arrive.

There was the woman from England who was completely thrown by the presence of Indigenous place names throughout the country, mingled in with place names of a European provenance. Or the woman from China, who was disconcerted when walking the streets to find that most people were obviously not white and did not speak any language she knew. Or the man who had lived for some time in the United States and England, who thought he knew what to expect in terms of religion and politics, only to find that the situation here did not quite fit any of his known categories.

I could multiply the examples indefinitely, but I am interested in the disconnect between preconception and disconcerting experience, especially in light of that distinction between East and West. Let me begin with the question of history. Australia is a curious meeting of the oldest continuous culture in the world and one of the youngest. Archaeological and textual evidence indicates the presence of Indigenous Australians for 45,000 years or more. Over that immense expanse of time they developed more than 400 hundred languages and complex societies. By comparison, the initial European settlement began barely more than 200 years ago – a mere moment in light of that longer history. To be sure, the meeting of the two was fraught with conflict, with the only wars fought on Australian soil ones of conquest and attempted annihilation.

Initially, this may make Australia seem like any other colonial country, such as those found in South America or North America. The difference is one of the massive gap and discrepancy between old and new, between the sheer age of Indigenous culture and very late invasion and settlement. However, a further factor plays a role. Europeans were by no means the first to engage with Australia. Although no firm evidence exists, it is highly likely that Chinese ships touched on Australia’s northern shores centuries before Europe emerged – late in the piece – from its backwardness. Then, some four centuries ago, Muslim Makassans searching for trepangs (sea-slugs) came to northern Australia – to what are now known as north-eastern Arnhem Land, Groote Eylandt, and the Cobourg Peninsula. This engagement was long and fruitful, with the exchange of turtle-shell, pearls, and cypress pine, as well as metal axes and knives, rice, cloth and tobacco. The local Aborigines did not generally regard the seasonal appearance of the Makassans as a threat, even travelling to Makassar in marriage arrangements. Linguistic, cultural, artistic, technological and ritual traces run deep even today, when the Muslim influence is more openly claimed among the Yolngu of Elcho Island. When it first became aware of such long-established contact, the colonial governments outlawed interactions between Asian and Aboriginal people, so as to benefit colonial enterprises. Yet Aborigines and Indonesians continued their interactions, in shared political strategies of resistance. This shared resistance also appears with the central Asian (‘Afghan’) cameleers, who came to central Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. They were simultaneously vital for transporting supplies to colonial outposts in the deserts and shunned by the European-derived communities. Indeed, these cameleers found more in common with Aboriginal communities. Just as interactions between Aborigines and Makassans were outlawed, ‘Afghan’-Aboriginal relationships were strictly prohibited by many state governments. Despite this, descendants of such relationships are part of the more than 1000 members (a conservative estimate) of the Australian Aboriginal Muslim community.

These facts make me profoundly suspicious of the focus on the story Australia’s European colonial history – from the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century – as the key to understanding Australia today. This focus means an overwhelming focus on European models for understanding Australian society, culture and institutions. It may take the form of focusing on the conflicts between convicts/settlers and indigenous peoples. It may appear as a focus on the constitution of a federated Australia, with its European shape. It may be a focus on the various institutions established in the colonial era. It may take the form of contesting the master narrative of colonial history. And so on. To be sure, this is one component – a ‘Western’ one – of the formation of Australia. But the danger of focusing on it is that it becomes determinative, for the reconstructed origins become the source of identity today. The catch is that the majority of Australians are not partakers of this story, for their backgrounds are exceedingly different.

That suspicion is enhanced by what is arguably the most significant point: since the end of the Second World War, the demographic, social, cultural, and especially religious nature of Australia has changed dramatically. Up until the war, 95 per cent of the nine million population had a background in Europe, particularly England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Now the majority of Australians are not from a north-western European background. This is the main reason why the colonial narrative I mentioned earlier is dangerously conservative and alienating for so many.

These changes in demographics have led us to the current situation in which the very identity of what ‘Australia’ might be is up for profound and long debate. On one side is a strident minority, who still hang onto the myth of a glorious colonial story, to the ‘anglosphere’, to the political alliances and comparisons with Western Europe or North America. The louder the noise they make, the more it signals that such a story is losing what grip it might have had. On the other side is the majority, for whom that story is meaningless. For them the fact that Australia is part of south-east Asia is more important. I do not speak of geography alone, for it also entails economic, social and cultural factors.

The debate over ‘Australian identity’ goes on, swinging now one way and now another. A good symbol of this debate is the national election of 2013: on one side was a candidate for prime minister, an immigrant from England who proclaimed that Australia is part of the ‘anglosphere’; on the other side was a Chinese speaking candidate, with his eyes firmly set on the Asian context. Other signs are the inability of Australia to decide whether it is still part of the economic and military sphere of the United States, or whether it is part of the Asian sphere. My own sense is that Australia is already part of the latter, since Australia is already primarily tied to Asia in economic matters, and increasingly so in terms of culture and society. Even the BBC world service identifies Australia as part of Asia.

Will Australia then become an Eastern country? This would be a mistaken perception. The main reason is that the whole East-West distinction is one of the northern hemisphere, with its land masses and imperial conflicts. Instead, we need to trouble that distinction. One way of doing is to suggest – and here I follow others – is that Australia is a Southern country. It is neither Eastern nor Western, but Southern. It has more in common with Africa, South America, New Zealand and the Pacific. In fact, we are in between the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean and south-east Asia. However, this entails not some fixed cultural identity that can be opposed to others. Rather, it indicates the possibility of avoiding that curious fiction of finding some sort of ‘Australian national’ identity (although some try). Instead, I prefer the in-betweenness and instability of any identity. Of course, any national political myth or imagined community is inherently in between and unstable. So is it not better explicitly to build that uncertainty and instability into any political myth?

Sense of Space

Making Space

‘I’ll never get off’, I thought to myself. The Beijing metro carriage was impossibly crammed with bodies. Faces were squashed awkwardly against the windows; doors bulged from the pressure; few held the overhead bars for stability since one could not move anyway. My stop was seconds away. Having given away any thought of being able to get off, I studied the metro map to find out how far this train would go – the theory being that the end of the line would see fewer people and a chance to disembark.

Anxiously I nudged my shoulder and shifted one leg a centimetre or so. Miraculously a ‘path’ began to open up. Or rather, the smallest of space appeared between the two people before me. I shuffled into the opening and yet another opened up. As I did so, other people were also moving to the doors, and a subtle shifting of bodies began. I was at the door not a moment too soon. How did that happen? I wondered. Somehow in a completely jammed carriage, space appeared all over the place. Not vast swathes, but just enough between bodies – if one does not mind full body contact in the process.

Filling Space

‘I’ll never get a ticket’, I thought to myself. I was in what may euphemistically be called a ‘queue’ in some other places. Forget a carefully guarded line, in which every one gives room to the person who has arrived earlier and is before you. Instead, the queue in question was really a scrum at the ticket window. A man wedged his shoulder between those in front, held out a wad of cash, and yelled at the ticket seller. Would she tell him, calmly and firmly, to get to the back of line and stay in his place? Not at all. She quietly responded to his call, took his cash and handed over a ticket. A woman pushed in from the side, wedging her way through and asked loudly about a train. Again, the ticket seller answered her as though it was the most normal thing in the world. So it went on, one after another person walked around me, in front of me, and even through me (or so it felt). The ever-changing crowd at the window simply shouldered, reached or sidled within vocal range and managed to get their tickets.

What was I to do? Wait patiently until they were all gone? I decided to try my luck. A closed the space in front of me and became somewhat intimate with the woman in front. A man worked his way out of the crowd, ticket in hand, and I immediately filled the space he had briefly carved through the crowd. As another tied to sidle around me, I blocked his way with my back and legs. And I used my height advantage to reach over the heads of those before me to thrust my cash in the face of the ticket seller. ‘Nanjing’, I called out, ‘T23’. I called again, and as she finished with the previous customer, she took my cash, processed the ticket and handed it to me.

I was keen to try out my new skill: at shops, vegetable markets, metros, food stalls. Sometimes it was easy enough, at others a thrilling challenge. To order dumplings and soup at a milling food stall on a holiday is a feat for a foreigner, but I have emerged from such encounters in triumph. How so? The other side of people willingly making room for you when trying to leave a crammed metro carriage is that they also instinctually fill whatever small space opens up. A gap here, an opening there, it must be filled. After all, the space is there for you to fill.

Always Room

‘I’ll never get on’, I thought to myself. The bus had pulled up among half a dozen others, out on the roadway itself. A stream of people – all black haired with a few grey ones amongst them – rushed out to the bus door. Already the bus was to my eyes overfull, but one by one the new passengers found a way in. By the time I came to board, I had all but abandoned the idea of ever joining them. Thus far, I was immensely proud of myself, for I had negotiated the matter of bus stops, routes and the destinations – all in Chinese characters. No language I knew was used alongside such characters, not even pinyin. After all, foreigners take taxis, don’t they? But now my pride slid as I contemplated the bus door.

In a last-ditch effort of wishful thinking, I grabbed the handrail and lifted a foot. The continual shuffling of people on the bus – undertaken subconsciously and without yells from the driver – left me a ledge at the door. Further shuffling and I had space for my chest and head; a little more and my bum and shoulders were on board as well. When the driver was satisfied I was actually on the bus, he shut the door and hit the accelerator. We were on our way. How did this happen? Were people being nice to a bewildered foreigner? Did I appear stern, threatening perhaps, so that people involuntarily moved out of my way? No, in a country such as this no-one claims space as a private fiefdom – or as they say euphemistically in some other places, no-one has a large ‘personal space’. Instead, there is always room for one more.

Flexible Space

Making space, filling space, always room for another – by this time it was becoming clearer that space is produced hereabouts in different ways. Space is to be shared, not hoarded. For a foreigner, this reality can be thrilling and daunting: thrilling if you are seeking to get on a bus, metro or train, or indeed to get off; daunting if you need to engage in filling space in order to achieve anything at all – eating, travelling, finding a seat, walking, even sleeping. Actually, space is not merely shared, but it is also flexible.

On a long-distance train in the sleeper carriages, the corridors are often full of people, passing by with luggage, or for a smoke at the end of the carriage or perhaps for the toilet. At my first encounter with a fellow corridor walker, I slipped into the nearest cabin to let him pass. He did so with a slightly bemused look on his face. Puzzled, I walked on, only to encounter another. Before I could re-enact my evasive action, she simply shifted her shoulder slightly and swivelled her hips. She suddenly made the narrow corridor seem as open as the plains outside the window, passing by with the least trouble.

In the corridors of such trains, there are fold-out seats just large enough for smallish bum-cheeks. Should the sleeping compartment become too confined, you can always take a seat outside the door, in the corridor. The first time I did so, I stretched my legs and calmly looked out the window. In a matter of seconds one of the attendants came striding along. I duly stood up to let her pass, but she motioned for me to sit down again and simply slipped by me. I felt not even a brush of her clothing. So I settled down again to resume my peaceful gaze. Before long, the loud call of the man wheeling the food trolley arrived in our carriage. Surely he could not get past without me standing. Yet once again, he did so deftly, the trolley designed to deal with such situations as a matter of course. People continued to pass to and fro, gliding past me without even noticing my presence. Flexible space indeed, but in the midst of it I felt as though I had all the room in the world. At last I could relax.

2010 June 71a

Before Creation: Hiking the Great North Walk

The light was gone. I had a stark choice: camp here in the dense bush, with half a bottle of water to last the night and morning; or push on with a sliver of torchlight.

The torch it was, to help me avoid twisted tree roots, clamber over tumbling boulders, and negotiate wet and slippery footsteps beneath seeping rock-faces.

After that decision, I had little time to ponder anything – apart from the identifying the next twist in the track, or indeed finding the track itself. Often it all but disappeared in the gloom. The moon may have been out above the trees. But here, in the dense foliage, the only light was my slender torch.

On this bone-chilling evening in the middle of winter, I was forced to take it easy, treading carefully, a marked change from my rush to beat the light not long before. Now my mind began to work again, pondering the simplicity of light and dark. I felt I was returning to basics, to the mythical first moment of creation when light is separated from primal darkness.

Darkness and Light


‘And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good. And God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day’.

This simple but all-pervasive awareness of light and dark was one of the two experiences that etched themselves most deeply into my consciousness. By this stage of a long day, I had already hiked almost 25 kilometres – about the limit for my ageing legs as they bore a pack full of camping gear, clothes and food. That day was part of a larger whole, for it was the second last day of a two week hike: the Great North Walk from Newcastle to Sydney. For years I have felt the invitation to do the hike, beckoned by a sign near my home in Newcastle. It reads: ‘Great North Walk. Sydney Cove – 250 km’. I have dreamed of it over the years. And since I have covered the distance in nearly every other way – train, bus, car, bicycle – why not walk? Yet it is far tougher than those other means, winding through the bush, up and down every mountain in sight, over every slippery rock, and through the densest forest you can possibly find. Precipitously rugged – the words can barely catch the bodily feel of the hike. Walk that distance?

I had decided to undertake the hike in winter, with its long nights and short days. Nights on the mountain tops required a winter sleeping bag inside my small tent, along with multiple layers of wool on my body. I like to sleep warm, toasty even, for then my mind and body close down for a lengthy sleep. But the darkness began almost too soon, usually within half an hour of finding a campsite. Just enough time to decide on the optimum place for my tent, to let the sweat dry so that I could don my warm night-gear. As the last of light went – before 17.00 – I lit a fire to cook up a magnificent repast of dried peas, tuna and mashed potato.

Soon enough I learnt to avoid the well-used camping spots in the damp clefts of valleys and ridges. Leeches and a dripping tent in the morning made for less than pleasant overnight stays. Instead, I preferred the dry and less frequented ridge-tops and their hard ground. Here was space for perhaps two or three tents and a small campfire. Here was a more open bush and here I could lie beneath the vast canopy of stars. The mornings with their cool winds would leave the tent dry and ready to pack. Of course, no water is to be found in such places, which both keeps them under-utilised and more attractive. So I had to make sure my water bottles had been filled at a stream before arrival.

But what does one do on a long night of fourteen hours? We have become so accustomed to trying to defeating the darkness, to banish it with all-pervasive lighting. But our efforts are feeble, creating little pockets of light in the surrounding gloom. Only a creator God can make a permanent change to the surrounding darkness. Even in this case the blackness of night is primary, the state of the cosmos before light is created. So I found myself enjoying the darkness, and my body responded. A simple meal, a bush wash (a corner of a cloth dipped in water), and brushing of teeth take up only so much time. I would check the map by torchlight for the next day and sit for a while watching the embers of the fire die down. But with such an early sunset, I was snuggled in my sleeping bag by 19.00 and asleep five minutes later. Occasionally I would wake very early, perhaps after nine hours sleep and well before any glimmer of light. For I moment I would ponder a pre-dawn start on the day, but as soon as I pulled the sleeping bag tighter around me, I would fall asleep for another three hours. With sleep like that, it takes little time for the body to become attuned to first light and the sound of birds trying to warm their chilled bodies.

The best light is God’s light. I was up quickly, keeping on the warm clothes of the night while I break camp and have a quiet breakfast – of dried fruit and nuts. In fact, the chill remained well into the morning, so that only much later did I strip down, pull off my woollen long johns, and don my hiking shirt, now well dried from the sweat of the previous day. Yet in winter the sun gave me no more than ten hours of hiking. More than enough, it seemed in the early morning as I strode along refreshed and eager. But the sun had a strange habit of staying low and racing towards the horizon, especially in its last few hours. At times I paced myself well. With plenty of distance covered in the morning, I could ease up in the afternoon and know that the sun would not beat me to the camping spot. But at other times, I aimed a little too far. Then I found myself racing the sun’s light, sprinting up mountains and stumbling down them to ensure I arrived before its light faded. And on that second last night, it well and truly beat me, leaving me with an hour or more of deep darkness before my destination for the night.

Empty Mind

An empty mind may well be a second key feature of the moment of creation, a return to the primeval state before thought is formed. I first noticed – if I can put it that way – my empty mind on the third day of the hike. It was an afternoon, when I would typically tire of the steep climbs and sharp drops, when I began to sense that my feet had had enough, when I automatically put one foot in front of the other with little thought for what is to come. All of a sudden, I had a thought. I do not recall the thought, but at the time I was struck by the fact that it was actually a thought. Or rather, I became aware that this was the first thought that had come to my mind in more than two hours.

Until that moment, my mind had been completely empty of any thought whatsoever. Normally, my mind is full to overflowing. A crucial part of hiking, day after day, is that my mind may run freely. Thrillingly pleasant and completely unpleasant thoughts run across one another without hindrance. I revisit old arguments and win them. I recall journeys once made, places where I stopped and camped, even retracing in detail the trails once followed. I talk to trees, thanking one for giving me some dropped wood for a fire or another tree for taking care of my pack as I lean it up against the trunk. As I become older, I have ever richer memory tracks, conjuring up moments I thought forever forgotten.

But I have rarely had an empty mind. Once that solitary thought had come and gone on the third day of hiking, my mind became empty once again. Half a day it continued – blank. The next day was the same, and the next. In the mornings, I went through the routine of packing the tent and sleeping gear without any thought for what I was doing. The evenings were the same, with pitching camp, lighting a fire and cooking a meal.

The day after I had finished my mountain hiking, some thoughts began to return. Above all, I wondered about – indeed, I marvelled at – my experience of an empty mind. Was it exhaustion, when all my energy was devoted to finding water, to determining how much food remained, to making it to the next camping spot? Not really, since I was not that exhausted. Normally, tiredness brings out old annoyances and arguments, even people with whom I no longer have any contact (in fact, I see little point in maintaining any contact whatsoever with such people). Out on a trail, I clear those annoyances from my system, leaving them beside the trail as I hike on. By contrast, the empty mind was akin to the effects of meditation. My body’s repetitive acts, of walking for hours on end, brought my mind to a state of complete calm. Not an easy achievement in a time of information overload and endless stimulus, of massive diaries and appointments to keep. But it is one I wish to achieve again.


I must confess to a third primal experience: solitude. I may have passed by the tent of a weirdo who liked to pitch it in the midst of the track and stay for days. But we did not speak to one another. I may have met a beautiful woman with a sad face, but we uttered barely a word for we both sought solitude for our own reasons. Mine was sheer pleasure and release. Away from other human beings, words become minimal, the needs of life basic, the issues fundamental. So accustomed do I become to my own company that I find it difficult to communicate with others when I emerge. The prattle of company becomes unnecessary and trivial.

I mean of course solitude in relation to other human beings, for I had plenty of other company: the wallaby, initially startled at our encounter but then intrigued enough to stop for a longer look; the wombat taking a dump on a flat stone (as is their wont), who quietly finished what he had to do as I strolled by; the curious lyrebird in a remote corner, who had obviously not read the textbook that says lyrebirds are immensely shy of human beings; the towering trees in the temperate rainforest, whom I slapped affectionately and with whom I shared a story concerning light and dark, an empty mind and solitude.


Sweating My Way Through Sichuan

I wipe my knuckle under my nose once again, and all of my companions follow suit. The universal signal of Sichuan it is, repeated countless times each day. Sichuanese do so as a matter of course, an act so instinctual it barely registers even on the subconscious. But I am acutely conscious of the constant prickling in my nose, the drip that keeps forming on its tip, the cough and splutter with yet another mouthful of food, the sweat that forms readily on my brows … Make no mistake: I have eaten hot food plenty of times before, even priding myself on the ability to handle a spicy dish. But this is a whole new dimension to eating.

2014 May 272a

Domesticating Spice

I am in Sichuan for the first time, having arrived by long-haul train from Beijing. My first discovery is that three main types of dishes are offered here: very hot, extremely hot, and infernal. If they want to show mercy to a foreigner, they offer you a very hot plate, but if you have the temerity to say you are used to spicy food, they gleefully produce a range of dishes that burn their way through from one circular muscle in the body to the other. As I sweat my way through another meal, my host tells me that the signature chilli used in nearly all Sichuan cooking is not a native plant. Or rather, it may be so now, after 500 years, but it was introduced from Central America. When the Spanish set up their trans-Pacific routes – running from the west coast of the Americas through the Philippines to the east coast of Asia – they brought with them two main items of cargo. One was precious metals, gold and silver for the imperial coffers. The other was the small plant with its fiery red fruit – chilli peppers. It would not be the first time that staple local food actually had a foreign origin, but the Sichuanese have incorporated the humble chilli – combined with garlic and the distinctive Sichuan pepper – into a cuisine that is the envy of most.

Yet, for some reason that is beyond me, the food sits well on my stomach. How to make sense of this apparent contradiction between the burning feeling in my mouth and the calmness of my guts? After another glorious meal, I ponder two possibilities. First, the multiple uses of chilli ensure that any bugs you may have lurking in your nether regions are burned away. The food cleans as well as satisfies. Second, I find that I know clearly when I have had sufficient food, since the sucrose and fat found in so many dishes elsewhere in the world is simply not present here. Fat may make the food taste good (for tongues that have grown up with it), but sucrose is the real culprit. It masks the body’s satiety indicators, so that you keep on eating until overloaded. Not in Sichuan, where one’s body recovers its old mechanisms for determining what is enough.

Fiery Independence

But Sichuan has more, much more to offer than its food. Its distinct identity is not merely defined by its suspicion of the northerners, with their political power and industrial might. Nor is it defined by dialect, or physical characteristics. Or rather, its identity is made up of these factors, but the sum is greater than the parts. They are indeed suspicious of northerners and that suspicion has a long history indeed. It may have been the Tang Dynasty, based in Xian, or the Song dynasties of Kaifeng and Luoyang, or the Ming and then Qing Dynasties of Nanjing and Beijing. Thousands of years of northern dynasties, seeking to hold their away over those in the south-west. By the time the communists came to power, this tradition was well and truly established. Chairman Mao’s decision to make Beijing their capital – a relative newcomer on the scene of possible capitals – ensured the tradition of suspicion continued. And this despite the fact that Mao himself was also from the south, from Hunan province (although that too is north of Sichuan).

The people here have their own proud history. Even though they are very much part of China and have been for millennia, they like to tell of the times when Sichuan had its own power base. ‘Power base’ is perhaps too strong, but in the dim and very distant past it was not under distant imperial sway. For example, in the city of Chengdu is the Jinsha archaeological site. The Shu people had relocated their political centre from Sanxingdui (2050-1250 BCE), forty kilometres to the north, to Jinsha, where they settled down for more than half a millennium – 1200-650 BCE. The site itself was discovered by accident in 2001 during some reconstruction work, and the site has since become a distinct and well-preserved location, trying to present a glimpse of what life was like. Remains of ivory, jade and gold are plentiful, as are stone and bronze implements. Clearly, both technologies existed side by side. But I was most intrigued by learning that elephants and lions and deer were plentiful, in a lush plateau teaming with plant and animal life.

But as I tour the site, what strikes me is the way the uniqueness of the ancient Shu culture is highlighted. They lived in the Chengdu basin, a plateau ringed by mountain ranges. As far back as Chinese culture is known, the Shu had developed a unique cultural presence for almost two millennia. They did so largely isolated from the rest of China, which began to note their presence – through a mix of fabulous stories, legends and miscellanea passed down from one writer to the other – only in the fourth century BCE. This was probably due to the first official contact between the Qin and Shu states in 476 BCE, when the latter sent emissaries with gifts to the Qin court.

With such a long history of independent existence and subsequent domination by one emperor after another, it is no wonder the people of Sichuan value their distinctness. The land itself certainly helps. In order to get there, I travelled by train, journeying westward from Wuhan and passing through Chongqing. From the vast river flats of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze), we burrowed through tunnels and crawled over mountains passes, following the river upstream. ‘Upstream’ is really a euphemism, for in order to pass from the basin to the river flats, the Chang Jiang has to tumble through the precipitous Yangzi Gorges. We rolled over bridges beneath which were narrow valleys with towns and the ever-present rice paddies. To me it seemed as though the ranges were impossibly steep and perilous. But to the north and south are even greater ranges, the Qinling and the peaks of Yunnan respectively. Yet even these are nothing compared to the Hengduan Mountain system in the west half of the province. Range towers above range, with peaks reaching above 7,000 metres. Only through these formidable mountains can one reach Tibet.

Surrounded by such a natural fortress, it is no wonder Sichuan was able to maintain its distinct traditions for so long, as also for endless independence movements when the faraway empires waned in power. So also has the local dialect has been able to flower, and the people with their lithe physiques.

Bodies and Feel

Physique is hardly the word, unless one wants to speak of wiry and petite frames (with their gender associations). I am interested in the barely perceptible signals of how people are with their bodies – how a shoulder may move, a chin, the hips on walking. The women carry their bodies in a way that is both restrained and relaxed. Minimal may be the best word: minimal in terms of clothing, makeup (usually none), and body parts needed to walk. That is, a Sichuan woman manages to walk without apparent effort, using the fewest parts of her body to do so. Is it laziness or perhaps avoidance of physical exertion? No. It signals a deep comfort with their bodies.

The men too tend to be diminutive, as is more common in the southern parts of China. But they have an almost indescribably nonchalance that is captured in the slight nod and shrug at a comment or observation. This is all that is required for acknowledgement. Or, if you need correction, they do so quickly and easily. They walk and stand with a knowing nonchalance, that is perhaps best captured in the old saying, ‘You’d better not go to Sichuan; it wouldn’t help your career’. Often this is understood to refer to the many opportunities to unwind, to the distractions posed by members of the opposite (or same) sex. If you want to be a workaholic, to make your way in the world, then Sichuan is not the place to go. But I suggest it may be read in another way. Sichuanese know that too many other things in life are important – the passions, acts, and pursuits that make us human.

Such as food – to which I cannot help returning. In the end real feel of Sichuan is its food. Chinese may be among the only people that travel according to their stomachs. Before I departed from Beijing, many people asked me, ‘Are you going to Sichuan for the food’ – as if that was the major reason for going at all. I may not have set out with my stomach in mind, but it certainly turned out to be the key experience.

Each day, my host takes me from one of his regular, everyday eateries to another. ‘I want to show you a little of everyday life here’, he says. One place serves only three dishes, each one a variation on rice noodles in soup and pickled cabbage. For dinner it was mapo doufu, with its signature combination of ‘heat’ and ‘numbing’ spiciness. ‘We don’t say the food tastes spicy’, he says, ‘we say if feels “tingly-numbing”’. Upon my request, he writes down the character: 麻 or . He tells me of the way this doufu is made, with salty broad bean paste, fermented black beans, chilli oil, Sichuan peppers, garlic, green onions, rice wine and the secret ingredient, chilli flakes of the heaven-facing pepper (朝天辣椒). Another is an impossibly fiery and pungent hotpot, into which we dump meatballs, strips of vegetables, noodles, and all manner of things, only to retrieve them a few minutes later when cooked and spiced. The endlessly flowing beer is merely to keep one’s throat a little cool. Yet not all is spicy. On an afternoon, we stop by a well-known roadside stall to buy a cool drink. Or rather, it is more like an iced jelly, made from a local plant and with nuts and herbs and whatnot sprinkled on top. Each of them is a sensation, each of them a feeling of what is really important in the day.

2014 May 264a


Knots and Knots

What does one do on a long voyage, not on one of those cruise ships that try to make you forget you are on your own at sea, but on a container ship? I was on a voyage half way around the world, from Melbourne to Tilbury (on the Thames), via Panama. For more than a month we crossed two great oceans and five seas. For the whole time the only source of entertainment was my own imagination. So, at those moments when I was not on the bridge, sneaking up to the bow, reading, writing, destroying the weight machine or playing table-tennis table, I practised … knots.

Beside the map of the world, on which I traced our route with strips of white paper, I found a chart with knots. And so, as the ship belted along at twenty knots, I learnt to make knots. A couple of old pieces of rope and I had entertainment for hours, practicing something I had wanted to do as a child when I first learnt how to tie a reef knot (that’s as far as I got then).

I began with a simple noose or slip knot – the sort you make by mistake when trying to find a knot that won’t slip. I progressed to the figure of eight knot, double eight noose, before realising there was a theme here: the nooses are among the easiest and most common knots. And the most effective. The heaving line knot is your classic hangman’s noose from the movies – a loop with half a dozen neat curls that look like a neat pile of rope. Easy to make; efficiently tightened. Time to move on, nervously.

The carrick knot is a skilful bit of ropemanship, as is the carrick rope ladder: it reminded me of a sly, fast-talking Irishman – some superficial good looks and impress-a-woman kind of thing, or perhaps an elaborate pastry, rather than anything eminently useful. The double-eight noose fell into the same category, as did the surgeon’s knot (unless it was for tying up veins after an amputation), and even the French bowline and bowline on the bight (see below).

Others are fancy names for the sort of knot you would tie instinctively and roughly, saying ‘I don’t know the first thing about knots’. Now I can say, ‘I reckon two half hitches should do it’ and do exactly the same thing. Sure to impress.

Some drove me nuts at first, like the manharness knot or lighterman’s hitch or rolling hitch, which are basically ways of hanging something securely from a pole. They look like an extraordinarily complex thing until you get the hang of it, and then the beauty of their simplicity shows through. It did not help that I was figuring out how to tie these knots from a completed display with mini-ropes on a wall hanging. Some simply had to be pried loose and examined closely before being returned to their place, sagging a little. The display is not quite what it used to be.

My favourites? The bowline, mainly for its name but also the way it seems to come naturally. A small loop, large loop paid out and a quick twist and fold-back through the first. Beautiful piece of work, although the variations seem to me unnecessarily elaborate when the simple one does the job perfectly well: the French bowline (an extra loop) and the bowline on the bight (great name, but …). The sheet bend is a delight (single better than double), a simple way to tie two ropes together securely so that one is an anchor and the other can pay out two lines from there. But the one that seduced me is the sheepshank: a simple twist, curl, loop, fold-back and tie-off, it produces an impressive and very functional knot. Its purpose: I actually don’t know, but I suspect it may be for tying sheep’s rear legs together …

Yet the Everest of knots is the Spanish bowline, the second last knot I taught myself (the last was the rope ladder, a variation on the heaving line knot). Gradually ascending the scale of difficulty, I moved through the stage of the bowline, the French bowline, the bowline on the bight and then … the Spanish is a beautifully symmetrical piece of ropemanship, looking a little like a pair of testicles. Two loops hang down, topped matching twists and curls above the loops before the two ends of the rope, having magically turned inside out and then outside in, line up together at the top. A tug on the loops and the ends and the Spanish bowline announces itself.

La Tour 343 (29 07)a

Smells, Spaces and Tea-Houses in the ROC

The passport stamp at Chiang-Kai-Shek international airport in Taipei stated that I had entered R.O.C. – the Republic of China. Once upon a time, in fact not that long ago, the only Republic of China recognised by most countries in the world was that tiny island, Taiwan. And I am sure that once, not so long ago, you would not arrive and feel that something was missing. But it took me a while to identify that missing feature. The first hints came with the cracks in the tile floor, the old fittings in the bathroom, the faded decorations in the main hall: this was an airport not undergoing renovation. Most airports one visits (and I like to visit as few as possible) are in the process of one or another or multiple upgrades – to improve your flying experience, they claim, but really to fleece you more readily. But not at Chiang-Kai-Shek airport. Everything seemed to work, the airport staff alert, but there was simply no need to upgrade, for this airport was not expanding.

Walking the City

The fate of Chiang-Kai-Shek airport, and indeed the legacy of the man himself, was tied up with the convoluted politics of that island. I had time enough to ponder such matters in the days to come, but for now my thoughts were broken off by the arrival of our guides: Michael and Yu-Yeh. He felt rather important, having been delegated to chaperone an overseas ‘professor’ – a title that stuck no matter how much I tried to disabuse him of the moniker. Yu-Yeh had far greater depth, preferring to stick to her Chinese name.

We buzzed off on the freeway to Chung-Li while I got my bearings. Freeways are not among the most beautiful of human creations, easily run down, full of heavy metal pollution, scars on the landscape. But the trucks belching along beside us were battered, the articulated buses tipped up in the middle, and the air was a permanent soup. It was obvious that this part of what is really a beautiful island was the dumping ground for filthy American-style industry. Thankfully we slipped down to Chung-Li soon enough, but not before I had asked about their names.

‘How come you are Michael?’ I said. ‘And you are Yu-Yeh? One in English; one in Chinese’.

‘Huilin is my Chinese name’, said Michael-Huilin.

‘And Lisa is my English name’, said Yu-Yeh Lisa. ‘But I don’t use my English name much’.

‘How does that work’, I asked. ‘Do you get two names at birth or do you choose a name that means the same in English? I remember a girl of five who moved to Montreal a few years ago. Her name was unpronounceable for English speakers – Xi Xun I think. In a week or so she became Michele’.

They both laughed. ‘No, we simply choose an English name that we like, or perhaps that has a meaning we like’.

‘So you are like a parent choosing a name for its child’, I said. ‘Except that parent and child is the same person – you – choosing a name for yourself at your own birth!’.

They dropped me at the university rooms where we were to stay for the night. Simple rooms, firm beds, disposable indoor slippers (which I still love to get), a fistful of travellers’ toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste.

But we were to go to a Hakka restaurant, deep within Chung-Li. The sun had set and we had to walk the city to get there. Anyone who has threaded his or her way through an Asian city will tell you about the new and battered motor-scooters, with parts and people hanging off them at curious angles, billowing smoke and pushing through the smallest opening, brushing pedestrians and cars on their way through, or about the bicycles themselves, ancient, bearing loads of every conceivable and even inconceivable item, or about those who choose to ride with face masks at silent protest against the poor air quality, or about the people weaving and winding their way through the organised chaos, dodging puddles and cars and motor scooters and bicycles and piles of vegetables and fruit and tables with goods.

But what intrigued me about Chung-Li (and, I was to find later, Chinese cities in general) is the organisation of space. It is though it is organised to ensure the immediate presence of human breath: shops much smaller, often mere alcoves with a pot and a few plates, signs impossibly large and bright in the night sky and of course tumbling over one another. In any other culture it would be would call a crowd, crammed, claustrophobically suffocating, but not here. It is perfectly possible to find a quiet spot of one’s own – a table in a corner where two or three could sit quietly and talk, a chair in a place not stepped in as often, a chance in the to and fro of people to reflect quietly, oblivious to the world a hand’s breadth away.

Visitors from Taiwan to my town – Newcastle – comment on how few people there are on the streets – and this during the busier times of the day. To me, of course, the streets seem full enough here, while those in China are at first overwhelmingly dense.

But our group threaded its way without wavering to the restaurant, where we were treated to a magnificent array of food, from succulent and mouth-watering vegetables, through glorious fish dishes and those that used parts of animal and plant I had never imagined possible for food, to a final triumph: a vast bowl of soup with every conceivable and inconceivable ingredient. From this we poured out helpings into our small bowls and sipped from the bowls themselves.

Not only was it a celebration of simplicity and the sheer pleasure of eating, but it also began to explain why Chinese toilets smell the way they do (the habit of throwing the toilet paper in a large bin, emptied every hour by some poor soul, only enhanced the aroma). After a few days of eating such food, my turds too began to have that distinctive, rich and earthy smell that only Chinese food can produce. The subtle transformation of the interlaced tastes of the food into the pungent and aromatic smell of what comes out the other end is impossible to describe, but it is certainly not the dull and cloying smell of a Western ‘poo bat’.


With a camel hump of a stomach and more Chinese beers than I care to remember, it was time to leave. But not before we had said our profuse thanks to the proprietor and cook. The reverential passing over of business cards – with two hands, a bow and an admiring study of the card (and its frequent spelling errors) – along with the introductions in strict order of rank were all done with comments about how the proprietor was a very good friend of our host, whose wife also is Hakka.

Our group was a grand mix: Kenpa, the impossibly young professor who seems to found the elixir of youth, Philip, the academic entrepreneur who kept talking of settling down quietly and writing but enjoyed the hurly-burly of deals and travel and opportunities, and Gan, the old Chinese theologian who wrote in German, for Germany provided one strong model of the intellectual life even here (that his wife was German no doubt strengthened the links for him).

In fact, it was during his presentation later on that I felt as though I had suddenly joined the United Nations. Gan had handed out a thick wad of notes for his lecture, all of it written in pompous German; he delivered his talk in Chinese; but we had a translator working away simultaneously, whispering English into one ear while the Chinese seduced the other ear.

Here too the question of status returned with a vengeance. Too used to the intellectual flexing and subtle competition between silverbacks that characterises intellectual life in the USA, here there was no question about one’s status: prominent place markers indicated that the professors should sit in the first row (partners were given the status of professor to ensure their place in the first row), the slightly less important guests should sit in the second row, and the unidentified riff-raff was permitted to sit in the outer row. No contest, no need to put on a posing routine, no worries.

But it did mean that a faux pas was all too easy to make. The keynote speaker, who had already horrified people by blowing loudly into his handkerchief at dinner in the midst of a swine flu epidemic, decided to stand rather than sit during his talk. He felt more comfortable standing, he said. So when my turn came to speak, I turned to my colleague and said,

‘Should I stand too?

‘Oh no’, he said, ‘That’s only for the president (of the university)’. At the brief opening ceremony and opening of the gathering, the president had stood while every one else sat. Even in his absence we were to show our respect by remaining seated.

The catch is that I am not one for such genuflection to external marks of status and privilege, preferring the first name basis of comrade for any transactions. So I found greater pleaser in our student guides, Michael and Yu-Yeh – especially the quiet and profound Yu-Yeh. They took us to museums and local eateries, but the crowning moment was a tea shop (minus Michael).

Yu-Yeh and two student friends ensured that status and respect was thrown out the window, for one a butch lesbian and the other a Marxist radical who could tell what side of the mountain the tea came from and how it was cut. The three of them led us through the rituals of the tea shop – the serving board with pot and small cups, the way to pour the hot water over the leaves and into the pot, how long to wait, how to pour and drink, and what was best eaten with the different teas. The English might pretend that they know what tea is, the Indians or Sri Lankans might proclaim that tea is their natural drink and flog it off to the world, but the Chinese know that tea is theirs by origin, that the skill of growing, drying and drinking is not learned in a lifetime or even in a century or two, but that it can become part of cultural wisdom only after the odd millennium or three.


Over tea politics was never far away, especially with a theologian, a lesbian and a Marxist. The first thing I learned, to my surprise, is that Marxism is a vibrant topic of inquiry and debate. But I should have known, given the mainland’s proximity, and yet I had assumed that Taiwan’s resistance to the mainland, US military protection and economic favouritism of that tiny island would have ruled Marxism out of court. Not at all: the proximity of the mainland and the fact that Taiwan has for too long been the dumping ground for the fag-end of filthy capitalist industries means that Marxism is a lively option indeed.

But the overwhelming political filter through which so much passes is the relation to the mainland: to cooperate or not to do so – on that question hung so much. With a surging economic superpower across the Formosan straight, isolation and belligerent talk meant economic exclusion. Cooperation, on the other hand, may mean jobs but it also raises fears that China would act on its long-standing policy of reintegrating Taiwan within its borders. As I was there, the ruling political party was distinctly on the nose and soon to be ousted, not least because of its isolationist stance. With the change of government that followed and the abandoning of the old Chiang-Kai-Shek polemic, direct flights and even passage by ship had been opened up once again. Above all the flow of goods and human interaction has sped up, revealing once again that a soft takeover is far more effective and subtle.