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.
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.