The familiar and the strange – they came together sharply on a bicycle ride into the remote mountains hereabouts. The familiar: a bicycle, tent, food to cook on a fire, warm clothes for a chill winter night. The strange: a smartphone, bought in China, full of a language I am learning. Above all, it had the inevitable feature of the selfie camera – something I had never experienced before.
Having been away from home for some months, I longed to refresh myself in the mountains. Familiar haunts beckoned, where I knew I could camp freely, light a fire and have the bush to myself. I would ride into the Watagan Mountains and then Yengo Wilderness, before descending to the coast on the third day. All too brief, but three days would be enough. After all, the direct route was one and a half hours by train.
On the first day, I was seeking a resting place I had found by happenstance many years ago. At that time, I had been exploring, looking for a space away from the breath of other human beings. As the light faded, I had turned up a dirt road, hoping for the best. It appeared as if made for me, in a corner of the bush with a magnificent view north-westward over the valley I call home.
Now I arrived, only to find that camping was no longer permitted in this spot. The arrow pointed to another place, without water and without toilets (and thus with much old toilet paper in the surrounding bush). But it did have one or two other campers, as well as a young man sitting by a fire next to an old caravan. He waved as I rode in, so I came over to say hello.
Less an intrepid mountain-biker using some makeshift accommodation on a cold night, he was at a loose end. He was squatting in the abandoned caravan, albeit with the claim that he had asked a friend to tow it up there. As he threw pieces of old foam rubber on a fire and lit another cigarette, he asked, ‘Pudding?’ I assumed he meant desert, but I declined and retreated to my tent, not quite taken with the unfamiliarity of the spot. I knew from then I would return only of necessity.
The next morning, I breakfasted at my old spot, lingering in saying farewell. By the time I was on the bike, I knew I would need to keep moving, for on winter days the sun is reluctant to hang around too long. Along familiar back roads I pedalled, through Ellalong, Wollombi, and Bucketty, until I turned onto the dirt track of the old Great North Road. On this day, I knew every curve, every rise and every drop.
As an old mood was upon me, the unfamiliarity of the smart phone began to assert itself. It provided nothing more than a glorified version of the Brownie Box Camera of half a century ago, yet it enabled me to see what I knew so well in a new way. The question became: how to take a selfie that was not self-indulgent? An oxymoron perhaps, but I recalled the old photographer’s advice that an ugly portrait is easy to make. Unwashed, unshaven, sweaty and wearing a brightly coloured bicycle helmet, it seemed that the task would be even easier.
I began to experiment. A late splash of sunlight through the trees; long shadows on the dirt track; angles from above and below; a look at or away from the camera; flick the camera direction and take a conventional shot; flick back and take another selfie. Less a proof I had been there, or even a set of poses for an Instagram account (God forbid), I realised that for decades I had been behind the camera taking shots of others. Rarely was I to be found in a photograph. Now it felt like my opportunity to catch up.
With no-one to share the photographs with, I began to enjoy myself. A couple of shots became a score, a score became a hundred. But what would I do with so many photographs? Later that evening, after pitching the tent, lighting a fire and cooking a meal, I perused the shots. The multiplication of the digital age was upon me, in the midst of the wilderness where I had no other electronic device. It was as though the sheer repetition of ones and zeros of digital codes unwittingly influenced the number of shots one took. Keep one’s finger pressed on any part of the screen and the camera reeled off shot after shot after shot. Yet, the solution was disarmingly simple: I deleted the majority and then perused the constantly varying flames of the fire.
Why delete so many? Was it too unfamiliar, so that I sought a way of controlling it? Perhaps. Yet the act itself was part of a larger and quite new strategy of the last year or so: to let go and excise so many parts of daily life. Fewer and fewer were the obligations, expectations, commitments and engagements. Email checking had become a process of deletion without reading them. Deadlines had largely disappeared, and so sleep had become peaceful and long. And I really would not be on a bicycle in the bush, taking three days to travel through the mountains to a destination that took me an hour and half on the train if I had pressing matters to complete or deadlines to meet. So used had I become to the buzz of constant, frenetic activity, that letting it go felt decidedly strange.
That evening I enjoyed a rare glass of wine, a dry white that I had never tasted before. But the strange wine joined a familiar meal when camping: two-minute noodles (or ‘convenient noodles’ as the Chinese call them), a can of red kidney beans and a can of tuna – all of them cooked together in a battered and black billy that doubled up as a bowl. A big feed for a hungry body, restocking for the energy needed in the morning. I also needed it for the night to come, for the weather was uncommonly cold.
On the next and final morning, I lit the fire for warmth, packing and dressing in between moments of warming my frozen fingers. By the time I was winding out along the dirt track from this remote corner, the unfamiliar had become part of me. Yet what seemed familiar had now been estranged.