The Selfie Tour

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.

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The Best Cup of Coffee

I’m sitting in the corner feeling glad.

Got no money coming in but I can’t feel sad.

That was the best cup of coffee I ever had.

And I won’t worry about a thing,

Because we’ve got it made,

Here on the inside; outside’s so far away.

These are words from a little known song (at least these days) from 1970, simply called ‘Inside’. Yet they capture a particular intensely felt moment for me, and have done so since I first heard them many decades ago.

I no longer drink coffee, but I used to drink it with enthusiasm and with deep pleasure in my twenties – the same way I approached smoking. It helped my concentration while young children were being born and growing up around me. It helped me stay awake late at night while I continued studying. And it helped me unwind when I had a rare occasion to be away from other human beings.

Out of thousands, if not tens of thousands of cups of coffee, one has forever remained etched in bodily memory.

I was on a solo road trip through the mountains and narrow tracks of eastern Australia. Some parts were barely discernible, where no one had passed for many a year. Other parts left a dust trail billowing behind me. Other parts were worn, rocky and bumpy and required low gear. At nights I camped in remote places, with only dingoes and kangaroos for company. Together we chatted and smoked by the campfire late into the night.

On this particular day, the dirt track had been particularly slow and bumpy, with not another human being within the known distance. I was working my way through a mountain range, bump after jarring bump. By the time the sun was lowering, I began to wind my way down the western escarpment of the range.

A space opened up on the side of the road, with an old fireplace that beckoned me to stop a while. I lit a small fire, enough to boil some water in the blackened and knocked-about billy and make some coffee – as I had so often done before. Nothing fancy, but I poured it into an old and stained enamel cup and rolled a cigarette. I sat quietly on the ground and looked westward over the hills and plains as the sun set, drawing on the smoke and sipping the coffee.

I am not sure quite what it was. Was it the taste of an old and unwashed billy? Was it the fire that burned with eucalyptus wood? Was it the end of a weary and dusty day of driving? Was it the taste of tobacco newly rolled along with the coffee? Or perhaps the view from the height and the joy of being away from other human beings? Probably all of the above, but they still do not capture the feeling. I still recall the taste of that coffee and the act of sipping calmly while the world lay there before me.

It remains the best cup of coffee I have ever had. To be sure, I have tasted fancy, crafted coffees since then. I have bought my own coffee beans and ground them myself. Indeed, I have drunk thousands of cups of coffee since.

But none have been able to come close.

Old Ghosts

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His lame leg is stiff and twisted awkwardly at the ankle, the belated effect of childhood polio. The grey moustache bristles with the effort of pitching the worn tent. The lean frame bends stiffly at the waist as he works in the pegs and poles. But he has done it so many times before and insists on doing it mostly by himself. My youngest daughter, his favourite grandchild, assists him with tenderness and adoration – holding a rope here, a peg there.

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I had not expected to meet him here, an old ghost who had once frequented these parts. Yet here he is; his presence palpable as I pitch my tent on the same spot. Some twenty years ago, he had come here eagerly along with my mother. They were keen to take time with their grandchildren, sharing a love of camping in the bush. Since then he had died and I have become used to not thinking of him for long stretches of time. But then he returns, unexpectedly.

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Or perhaps I should have expected it, for this is one of my favourite places in the world – in the Yengo Wilderness. The long day on the bicycle, or two at a more reasonable pace, is full of anticipation. The dirt track for the last six kilometres even more so.

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A last turn of the track and I glimpse the simple shelter on a nondescript shoulder of the ridge. Around the small clearing the trees and wallabies and pademelons and goannas quietly carry on as they have always done. Nothing much has changed for two decades, if not much, much longer. Here one can be entirely removed from the world and get in touch with a far better one.

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While I pitch the tent, gather wood, light a fire and wash with a cup from the water tank, I pause often to look out, suck in the air, absorb the trees, greet the animals. I may see my small children playing with a ball (or a goanna running off with the ball), chopping wood, being washed in a bucket, eating a meal at a foldout table, brushing teeth before bed, reading while wrapped in a sleeping bag. I may recall the strange visit a decade ago (after too long a gap) when I was conscious of the tap on the tank while one of my sons – unknown to me until later that day – was in an intensive burns unit after his house burnt down. Or I may revisit my times here since, regretting that it has been too long since the last time a couple of years ago and vowing to return far more often. But above all, I sense my father, appreciating ever more deeply why he felt the call to come to places like this.

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I too feel the pull more strongly this time. Much has to do with a profound sense of turning, of a recovery of what I like to do rather than what others expect me to do (for their own benefit). With each pedal of the day, I had felt as though one unnecessary expectation after the other had been dumped. So by the time I arrive, they are gone, as if simply being here counts as completion of the process.

No wonder I have time for old ghosts on All Saints.

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Campers Kitchen

‘Happy hour’, said the hand-written notice on the door of the campers’ kitchen. ‘Relax, meet other travellers, share your adventures, dream of new places to visit: 5:30 to 6:30 pm’.

No-one was there when I arrived, so they were obviously not happy yet. I was sweaty, overheated and busted after riding my loaded bicycle for almost 100 kilometres, having ridden from Tamworth as part of a longer summer ride. Through the seemingly endless Goonoo Goonoo plain I had peddled, with its vast cattle stations and relentless sun. Just when I had almost hit my ‘wall’, the plain came to end and I was faced with an unforgiving and grinding climb to the top of the Liverpool Range. Sure enough, the drop on the other side into the first reaches of the Hunter was glorious, with my speed generating enough wind to drop my body temperature a degree or two below boiling. Murrurundi was as far as I would ride today. It was as far as I felt like riding for a few days.

While waiting for the party animals to arrive, I undertook a familiar ritual: pacing about to choose the best spot for the tent, pitching it, unpacking the bike, wiping it down and locking it, folding out bedding in anticipation of a comatose sleep, and – when all is done – finding a welcome shower. Al last I ambled back, a little stiffly, to the campers’ kitchen. Now the happy people were present: a red-faced man with a gold chain around his neck, a wrinkled and energetic woman, an expanding man with a grey beard and constantly moving mouth, and his chain-smoking partner. They sipped beers, breathed in cigarette smoke (willingly or unwillingly) and seemed to be happy enough, in obedience to the requirements of the hour.

‘We almost stopped to offer you a lift’, said the mouth. ‘We saw you on the climb and thought, “How can anyone pedal up that!” But we were struggling as it was’. I was later to find out why: their ‘campervan’ was a mansion on wheels. I was sure one would need a special escort for such a vehicle, with flashing lights and a sign, ‘Warning, wide load ahead’.

Indeed, much of the talk was over vans, maintenance, prices, good deals and bad. Not a topic one which I had much to say, given that the only thing in common between my steed and their heavy-movers were wheels. So I cooked a meal on the stove, a mix of beans, tuna and instant noodles – keen to build up my store of energy for the day to come. I joined them with my billy full of steaming sustenance, but as I listened to stories of vans and places visited, of plans for further travel should health hold (for they were not at the youthful end of life), my thoughts drifted to other campers’ kitchens.

This one had been recently built: half open-air, half enclosed. Unwittingly, it invited you in, to sit a while and ponder the universe, especially if those present were holding forth on matters of life and death that seemed strangely of great interest. But I have encountered other kitchens with far less appeal. Great caverns of concrete and steel and glass, they are as enticing as a family barbeque with one’s in-laws (or out-laws as the case may be). Function may have its – well – functions; something to be used without further thought. A stove, a kettle, a table, especially if it is raining – all are useful. But if a television is present or even – God forbid – an internet connection, then the place is clearly aware that it has no inherent appeal.

Yet three over long decades of journeying have stood out, for very different reasons. The first was a few lifetimes ago, tucked away on the edge – in Frankston – of Melbourne’s sprawl into the Mornington Peninsula. Perhaps it was more the turmoil of my own life at the time that made it seem like a sanctuary. Amidst the neat rows of tiny cottages, the permanent van dwellers, and the occasional tent, I had the campers’ kitchen to myself. Here I could cook in peace, read a little, shelter beneath the awning, even survey the ancient and empty fridge that stood proudly at the centre. A worn table and a couple of chairs completed the furniture of my home for a night or two.

The second was on the coast road between Sydney and Melbourne. Here it was less the tumult of my life than the unexpected discovery it provided. On the headland of the fishing town of Bermagui stands the council-run camping ground, with terraced areas for tents and vans. Bermagui itself evoked ancient memories, of camping with my father and my two brothers in the bush nearby, of the legendary hills and green slopes of Mount Dromedary and Tilba Tilba, of journeys through on the way to Tasmania. But I had not been in Bermagui itself for three decades. With dusk falling and the tent pitched, I went in search of the kitchen. Eventually I found what seemed to be a kitchen: it boasted a partial roof and a plank or two for sides, a picnic table and a solitary and rusted gas burner that had seen service in at least three centuries. That was it – forget any other unnecessary appurtenances. With the coastal wind cutting straight through, I struggled to keep the gas flame alight under my billy. An eon seemed to pass as I awaited the contents to cook, but the eventual meal was one of the best I have eaten.

Yet the one I recall in almost legendary terms was on the north coast of Tasmania, many, many lives ago. We – for then I was married and two young daughters were with us for a few weeks of exploring Tasmania – happened upon a village called Stanley for our first night. Stanley’s claim to fame was its fishing and The Knot, an outcrop into Bass Straight. We rolled into town, seeking a spot to camp. One appeared, miraculously, right beside the water. Who could refuse? We soon found out why anyone with a tent would refuse: the upper reaches of the roaring forties do their thing in these parts. Included in their thing is the flattening of any tent that foolishly tries to stand up to the gale. By morning we were sleepless, having endured the flapping, banging and popping of wind-blown tents for the long hours of the night.

So we sought sheltered parts. At the back of the camping area was one such part: vast spreading trees provided a wind-break and a timber structure a refuge. It was painted yellow and red, with solid walls, tight-fitting doors and a sign, ‘Campers’ Kitchen’. One would not describe it or its contents as new, but they had endured the times, and I hope they still do. From its walls I strung a washing line, where clothes would dry in an instant in the wind. Inside we cooked, talked, read, played games, enjoyed a cup of tea or, in the evenings, a beer. And since our tents sat tight by the wall in the lee of the wind, we also slept.

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

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‘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.

Solitude

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.

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A Bicycle: Parable of a Life

Twenty years ago I walked into a local bicycle shop, seeking my first serious and well-made machine. I knew little about such matters, except that I wanted something reliable, comfortable and sleek. Much discussion and many test-rides later, I settled on a bright red Giant Kronos. Soon enough it came to be known as the Red Giant. Little did I realise at the time, but it would become a parable of a life.

My loathing of cars meant that the Red Giant was my prime mode of transport. A ride to and from work, the shops, to meet people – these are obvious. But it was the unexpected uses that made the bike what it was. My two daughters were still small and needed to get here, there, and everywhere. So I acquired a trailer attachment, with its own wheel, handlebars, brakes and pedals. A squeal of delight on the first ride by each daughter ensured that it soon became a staple mode of transport – to school, to parties, to swimming lessons, to baseball games …

The bike became a work-horse in more ways than one. My love of books, either borrowed from libraries or purchased second-hand, meant that its panniers were more often than not full of books. Weekly I would ride from Parramatta to Sydney, a 65 km return ride, in search of books. Before designated bicycle routes became a feature, I found my quiet route – along rivers, on forgotten ferries, through the waves of expansion that the city has undertaken.

The bicycle also had its days off, when we would free-wheel over long distances, either alone or together with others in organised rides. At the Sydney Spring Cycle we would meet thousands of others to ride roads closed off just for bicycles. Out of the city, we would be free to run on open roads where cars rarely ran. We also learnt serious mountain climbing, through the tough slopes in the wilderness north of the city. Yet, these were merely a taste of serious tours to come.

Eventually, the daughters grew up and rode their own bikes, along with their brothers. Eventually, my marriage broke up and the Red Giant found itself alone on cold, gravelly tracks in Melbourne, riding from humble lodgings to a small lonely office. Eventually, after the first decade of riding, it was no longer able to do so. A snapped seat stay, a worn drive mechanism, and cracked wheels meant that its future was in doubt. For a lost year or two, it was only a frame, stripped down and hanging in the corner of a work room.

But then I decided to rebuild the Red Giant, at the same time that I decided to get out of a disastrous relationship and rebuild my life. Slowly, the Red Giant came back together. New wheels, new drive mechanism, new leather seat, new headset, reconditioned brakes – all on a cleaned out, repaired, and repainted frame. I still recall that first ride in the Dandenong Hills after the Giant had come back to life. It was overjoyed to be back on the road. And I too was overjoyed to free as well.

Soon enough, the Giant and I moved to be closer to my children. Now we rode regularly and eagerly to see them, the girls an hour away by bicycle, the boys two days by the same means (three hours by train). By this time, I had ridden a couple of other bicycles. One was a dead loss, an expensive Cannondale tourer, and the other a useful addition, a fold-up Dahon on which I toured extensively. Yet, the Dahon was not as durable, and soon enough the frame cracked and I sold its repaired version.

I had one bicycle left: the Red Giant. And I had a big ride in mind: 1200 km from Melbourne to Sydney. Would it manage such a long haul, with camping gear, food and clothes in the panniers? Not sure, I went to see the local bicycle shop. Here I met Margaret, who had set the world record for Melbourne to Sydney in 1969. She took one look at the Red Giant and said, ‘Of course, it will make it. It’s far stronger than anything you can buy today’. So we did the ride, over two weeks along the southern coast and then into the mountains as it pedalled northward.

There was no stopping me. For the next five years, I toured every couple of months. Short camping trips into the wilderness; long hauls in my beloved Hunter Valley; even longer rides from Brisbane to my home (900 km). I would long for the day’s ride, for the camping spot in the bush, for the cooking fire at night, for the immensely long sleeps after a day’s ride.

By now, the bicycle was showing signs of age. I had patched it so much with red paint (actually nail polish) that virtually none of its original paint remained. It began popping spokes a little too often, the chain rings were worn, and the gear changes sluggish and slipping. The wheel bearings were no longer as smooth and the cables were worn. Should I rebuild once again? I sought out Margaret’s advice. ‘Twenty-year frame?’ She said. ‘It’s like an eighty year old man. I wouldn’t rebuild it, since you never know whether the frame will hold out’.

What to do? Sell it; leave it to gather dust in a corner? No, the Red Giant has moved into semi-retirement. We still ride locally, around town and maybe for a day ride. The panniers are still loaded with books, and I still use it for my local form of transport. But now it has a younger cousin, a Surly Long-Haul Tricker. It enjoys the long tours into the mountains, and on return the two of them share stories, the one reliving its past and the other with new tales to tell.

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In the Spirit of Lenin the Hiker: The Great North Walk

They say this is a hard walk. I had assumed they had 80-year olds with walking sticks in mind, or perhaps puffy coach-potatoes. ‘Hard?’ Yeah sure, it will be a cinch. Or so I think before setting out. My arrogant confidence in my physical prowess is soon to be reduced to more modest assessments.

The Great North Walk opts for the bush way between Sydney and Newcastle. Apart from some considerable stretches through relatively remote parts, that also means it climbs whatever mountain range one can find. Why skirt around one when you can climb it? The route covers 250 km, from Newcastle Harbour to Sydney Cove. It heads west from Newcastle and into the mountains, eventually turning south and twisting its way through mostly wilderness areas to Sydney. For a normal person, that means about two weeks walking. For those crazy track runners, it can be done – non-stop – in 56 hours. Or rather, two super-fit women did precisely that not so long ago. Not for me; I prefer the slow way, about 20 km per day.

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At least I am well enough equipped, the result of long years of acquiring lightweight gear from bicycle touring. One change of clothes (only for emergencies), a billy, a tent, highly efficient sleeping bag, and backpack as tough and as waterproof as they get. Half my 20 kg weight is water and food, making the pack a solid one.

Day 1: Newcastle to Teralba (30 km)

The first day – a long undulating walk of 30 km – is one of adjustments. Backpack off; backpack on; and again and again; waistband a little higher, so it sits on the hips to carry most of the load; tighten a strap here; loosen one there; make sure the heaviest items are snug on my back and not hanging wide out, where they cause the dreaded pack swing. So also with my boots: laces pulled, tucked, readjusted. With shoes as sensitive to the shape of my feet as these, I need them firm but not tight, for otherwise nasty blisters form with the constant rubbing. I learn again that feet change over the day. Initially, they thin out, as the fluids that gather from sitting are sent elsewhere in the body. Later, my feet thicken once again as muscles and joints become tired, for until today they haven’t been used half as much as they should be. I also have plenty of time to ponder the fact that I have one pair of decent walking socks with me. I wonder how they will smell by the end.

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It may be a longish walk for the first day, but the gradient is gentle, the walking easy. It runs south along the great beaches of Newcastle for quite a distance, then a turn right into Glenrock Lagoon and up the incline to Charlestown. It is the route that the local inhabitants, the Awabakal, used to take between Mooloobinbah (Newcastle) and Lake Awaba. From the rise in Charlestown, I drop slowly to the massive Lake Macquarie and walk its edge. Here the track is through urban bushland, with its expected scruffiness and weeds. Back streets too, skirting by golf courses, on popular lakeside paths. I have yet to get into the bush.

A wise person would travel light for the first 15 km, stocking up with food and water along the way. I manage to be reasonably wise regarding the water, but wonder why I have packed four days of food before departure. Ah yes, it means I can get used to the pack from the beginning. At the end of the day I realise it would be easy to ‘stealth camp’ somewhere in Teralba – a mining village on the edge of the lake – should I wish to do so. Tent up at dusk, down at dawn, no traces. But it’s hot, I sweat profusely all day. So I opt for a shower and the carefully mown grass of Teralba Lakeside Caravan Village.

In the tent as I drift off to a long sleep I think I am a champion, having walked a great distance on the first day. But the real hiking in the real bush is yet to begin.

Day 2: Teralba to Hunter Lookout … almost (24 km)

I wake a different, albeit stiff and tender man. The first day is always the toughest, shocking your body into working all day – which by rights it should be doing all the time. The second day is the most important. The urge to rest, coming from our overwhelmingly sedentary lives, is the worst option. Always best to get going as soon as possible, to get muscles working again. That way they recover an ancient, genetic memory, the pleasure of actually being used.

Used they certainly are, for I soon realise that yesterday was a gentle stroll. Today involves three mountain ranges, three tough climbs as I make my way into my beloved Watagan Mountains. And today I learn six lessons as the serious hiking begins.

1. Keep your rucksack snug on your back (and don’t loosen it for supposed comfort), for otherwise it throws you off balance and sends you careening down precipices.

2. Avoid precipitous descents and climbs along barely discernible tracks, with tree roots, massive fallen trees, mud, leeches … when the sun is setting! Foolishly, I attempt precisely that for the last part of today’s hiking, crashing, staggering, falling my way along.

3. Set yourself reasonable targets with a laden rucksack, full of food, water, camping gear and whatnot for a few days. Otherwise, you enter a liminal zone and arrive at your stop in a bewildered state.

4. Speaking of leeches, be generous: give blood for a good cause. They need it. So refrain from using salt, insect repellent or burning cigarette ends on those innocent creatures.

5. Carry enough water. You never know if you will need to pitch camp – yes, a tent is the only way to sleep – in a dry location.

6. Washing? That’s part of conspiracy by manufacturers of soap, shampoo and detergent. Since the vast majority of human beings throughout our history have had two washes in their lives, at birth and death, let the natural colonies of bacteria flourish. Take socks, for instance: you can switch feet and then turn them inside out on each consecutive day. That evens the wear, for at least four days or more. And the seriously powerful aroma of days-old socks is a wonder to behold. The same applies to undies.

Today, I can claim to have adhered to only the last three. I clamber over a track though the mountains with a devil-may-care attitude to the niceties of gentle inclines and declines. A leisurely amble – like yesterday – is for wimps. Straight up and down is the way to go.

For this leg, the roadways and fire trails up on the long climb to the Sugarloaf Range require persistence and some stamina. I meet mountain-bikers on a tandem, a couple of track runners who are looking a little spent, trail-bikers and walkers. Over the morning, there are some glorious moments: the dappled sun on a leaf-covered track; sun filtering through grass trees; the burst of energy when lunch and a litre of milk kick in. Just before lunch the serious climbing begins: a sharp climb over an unexpected mountain brings me to Heaton pass, where I stop for a lunch of bananas, nuts and raisins, and a long slug of milk (from the roadside shop). I am feeling the two climbs I have already done – feet a little sore, body aching.

But the toughest is yet to come. Immediately after lunch I take on the winding, impossibly steep slope into the Watagan Range. The 1.2 km needs an hour of small steps, heavy breathing, near slips and tumbles. At the top, by Heaton Lookout, I ponder stopping for the night. 20 km are up by 15.30 and I have two hours and eight km to go. In a moment of overconfidence, I think I know where the track will go from here on. It will be a gentle walk, won’t it, following a fire trail to my stop for the night?

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But no, the track veers off and plunges into the dense bush. Now begin rocky slides into gullies, with tree roots and vines to trip over, massive fallen timber (over which I have to haul my pack) and slippery heart-busting climbs. I am in another zone, popping chocolates, thundering and cursing along. There will be many more such sections on the walk, and I eventually become used to them, taking time and soaking in what are really quiet corners of wonderful bush. I guess the planners of the route wanted to give walkers like me the feel of some decent hard work.

In the last moments of rapidly fading light, I come into a clearing, a quiet, leafy corner with a view over the valley. I am shattered, but short of my imagined stop for the night. Even though I have managed the last four kilometres in a couple of hours (it should take three), I still have another four to go. In my bewildered state I ponder for a moment tackling the last part by torch-light, but I wake up to myself and pitch camp.

Dinner is a can of cold baked beans, stale bread and squashed banana. A small fire and a cup of tea are all that is needed before burrowing into my sleeping bag for 11 hours.

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Day 3: Hunter Lookout to Barraba (18 km)

After a breakfast of muesli bars and some dried fruit and nuts, I ponder what to do. Yesterday I had wanted to get to my beloved spot: Hunter Lookout. Now I need water, for I know of tank there. So I break camp and am off, opting to stick to the track rather than take the easy forest roads. Like yesterday, there are more gullies, slippery drops and leg-twisting climbs.

Unlike yesterday, this time I love it! I take my time, enjoy the mountain streams, refill water bottles, and pause long by a pool and its mossy rocks, fed by a creek that plunges over the cliff face. A couple of hours later, I am at Hunter Lookout, with a huge smile. I stay for a few hours. The fire boils a billy, the little known water tank enables me to refill once again, and I sit and soak in the view over the Hunter Valley, my valley.

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Since my last time here, a couple of goannas have made this their home. They have figured out that visitors have a knack of leaving leftovers, so they saunter in whenever someone is about, snuffling around for a tasty morsel or two.

Soon enough the time is up and I know I have some walking to do before the early nightfall of May. Now the walk slips into the national park and I notice the difference from the state forest immediately. Without trail bikes, four-wheel drives and logging trucks, the peace is palpable. And the animals know it. A pademelon skips out on the track and off again; a wallaby calmly watches me as I pass. The wombats may prefer the nights, but their multitudinous presence is marked by the many droppings. They like a clean slate to do their thing, preferably a smooth rock in a clearing. At times every single rock on my path is covered with their greenish, fibrous turds. The lyrebirds – yes, lyrebirds – have obviously not read the textbook that says they are supposed to be shy. I have never met one before in my life. In the next two hours I meet four! One does not bother to scamper off at all. Instead, it turns, stands and looks in my direction, wondering what this strange animal is doing in these parts.

The track undulates, with no climb too tough. I encounter a stile or two, passing through private nature reserves that abut the national park. I manage the last hill to the camping spot – Barraba – as the light is fading. It one of those entrancing spots, high up and in amongst ancient grass trees, with soft ground for a tent, and a fire place around which one can sit into the evening pondering the universe as the coals glow at the base of the fire.

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Day 4: Barraba to Watagan Creek (23 km)

After a stunningly good sleep, I wake at 6.30, notice the hot ashes on the fire and put some leaves and twigs on them. By the time I have packed a dew-heavy tent, the fire is flaring. The ensuing cup of tea means I leave a little later. Soon I pass by an old logger’s hut – all corrugated iron and rough beams – and meet a couple up on the ridge, escaping to their own hut on the mountain. They envy me my walk and the chance to enjoy the last of the good weather.

Eventually I drop out of the Watagans and down to the Congewai Valley, a drop that is glorious in the early rays of the sun. Here I walk through more of those private nature reserves, bought as private land but legally locked in as reserves for perpetuity. Walkers welcome, but not those who tear up the land and vegetation, scaring off the animals. Here too is a water tank that walkers are welcome to use, by a hut in the peace of the bush.

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I might have one pace on those impossibly steep climbs, with their slippery leaves and soil, with massive rocks around which one must edge. I have another speed entirely when given a flat stretch. So it is along Congewai Valley: five and half kilometres in an hour, and that with a wary cow and its calf out on the road. At first they run ahead, until they reach their fellow bovines in the field. While the mother hides her vast bulk behind a bush, her comrades draw near to give moral support. The calf puts its head against the mother’s flank, leaving the rest of its body in full view. It obviously feels that if it can’t see me, I can’t see it. I walk past, while the mother nervously stands guard. Obviously, the experience with human beings is not usually a pleasant one. A little further down the road, a creeping white sports car stops. Its occupant, a 20-year old bedecked in a singlet and smartphone, asks if I can get reception here. I shake my head as he tells he is looking for a mate, who is staying with a friend hereabouts.

The route as a whole counts at least one serious climb each day. This one is no exception, for I have to climb Mount Congewai: a gruelling 2.4 kilometre climb, with the last 900 metres particularly so. Finally up on the ridge, I follow a forestry road for four kilometres or so to Flat Rock Lookout, thinking to camp close by. But the spot is ordinary, to say the least – with room for one tent, it is right by the side of a dirt road that will have logging trucks rumbling by at first light.

As I pause to assess my weary legs, heavy pack, the remaining light (about half an hour) and water supply, a grizzled forester stops to chat. And talk he does – about the timber, trucks, tents, a walker he met entirely lost for two days and without water. His parents had been waiting for him in Cooranbong, but he was headed west, in the opposite direction. A call to his parents and a lift ensued. The forester claims that he too has been walking all day, so he is keen to get home.

My decision to walk on to Watagan Creek pays off, for not only does a heavy pack love a decent, but the spot is one of those that come by unexpectedly. I stop to fill my depleted supply of water in the creek, and then strip down for a quick wash. As I do so, a 4wd stops up on the bank. I dress smartly, as an ancient local comes down. He makes a passing show of checking the electric fence and then asks where I am headed.

‘The camping area on the other side of the road’, I say.

‘There’s nothing there’, he says. ‘No water, nothing. How long are you stopping?’

‘One night’, I say.

‘You can stop here,’ he says.

I look around at the creek, its grassed banks, the grand trees overhead. ‘Thank you,’ I say.

As they are about to drive off, I remember – a fire!

I race up the bank and ask his wife. ‘Yeah, no worries’, she says. ‘It’s not fire season. Just be careful’.

With the tent pitched, I light a fire of driftwood and sit by it until I feel the stiffness of my muscles. Bed at 8.00 pm is one of the great pleasures of life.

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Day 5: Watagan Creek to The Basin (13 km)

Today is the toughest day I have ever walked, let alone with a backpack: 13 kilometres in 6 hours!

In the morning, I dwell long by the fire for breakfast and over a cup of tea. At a deep level, my body seems to anticipate what is in store. Eventually I set off, briefly across a farmer’s field and a road and then up the first climb – Mt. Warrawolong. It is over a kilometre of steep, slippery track, corroded by trail bikers. Often I need to use my hands as well as feet for stability. I meet a biker on his way down. We chat briefly, he wondering how I do not get lost.

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The second climb: steeper but shorter, now over rock, loose pebbles and some twisting vegetation that holds it all together. At the top I pause at a wonderful camp spot, or rather, a clearing with a simple fire place and a great view. Next time I may use this place for my tent – but I will need water.

To get to the third climb, I need to drop steeply down to Wollombi Brook. In the midst of an autumn dry spell, the brook is empty, so refilling the water bottles has to wait. That climb is the steepest of all, requiring in places stone stairs, or rather, some pieces of rock roughly arranged between crevices. Moss covered it all is, since now I am in one of those gullies with temperate rainforest. Mottled light peers through the canopy, creepers and vines hang low, leeches wave from every leaf on the ground.

No more climbs today, but the last 2.5 kilometres – after an equally precipitous descent to the Washpool – is along a narrow track half way up a cliff face. To my right is a bone-breaking fall. To the left is the cliff face. In between is the narrowest of tracks, at times merely a footfall at a time. Add to that fallen trees, slimy edges, rock overhangs – one slip from a weary hiker would mean an enforced rest until help comes.

A real hike and I am buggered.

The question is: what do I think about, on my own during those long hours walking, climbing up and scrabbling down slopes?

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Water: will the next creek be dry? Do I need to ration it out over the next couple of days? Will there be a tank or a stream at the next camping spot? I think of my writing, my legs, where to stop next for the night, women …

When tired, I begin to argue with those who have annoyed me, or perhaps me them. It used to be my father, but now he is dead. It used to be women of former, bad relationships, but now they are gone. It may be my employer, with different expectations from my own desire to be on the margins, off the radar and undisturbed so I can write.

But then, with a campsite, a fire, a meal and a billy of tea, that soon passes.

Day 6: The Basin to Yarramalong (20 km)

The last day (for now) is one for meeting people, which feels a little strange after the solitude. But then more than half of the walk is along roads leading into Yarramalong.

After giving the tent some time to dry on a dewy morning, the first task of the day is … yes, a climb. Unlike yesterday, it is none too daunting, with the early part of the climb a little steep but the rest gradually and relentlessly heads upwards. Most of it is along fire trails, as is the slow decline for the rest of the morning. But now the trail is hardly used, so leaves and branches and stones make it their home. I love this part of the morning. After a long sleep and then finding the rhythm of the day in the first hour or two, I stride along taking in all that is about me – the trees, rocks, plants, occasional animals, a view from a height, the cool of a gully.

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Along the trail I pass by a glorious camping place: a grassy circle surrounded by trees, a jumble of rocks for a fireplace, no one passing by. Here I have one of my regular feeds, preferring to down some nuts and raisins every hour or two rather than have a large lunch.

At last – and reluctantly – I need to come out of the mountains. The drop is an enthralling section of track that passes through three mossy gullies en route to Cedar Brush. I take them slowly, pausing often to suck in the cool air. From Cedar Bruch the trail follows the paved road to Yarramalong. I cover the 11 kilometres in two hours! By now, I have become used to my usual rapid pace along a flat track, even with a pack – a damned good pack too.

But the road also brings people. I meet a dozen middle-aged and identically clad trail bikers roaring up the road. A few wave as they pass. An odd old couple stop for a chat as I am trying to find a semi-hidden spot for a piss. She is far more interesting; he is a pain, full of yellow-toothed stories about Ginger Meggs, of all things. At Yarramalong a forty-something artisan, Decorah Buckley, chats as I sit on the step of her shop in the late sun. Too much makeup, but very friendly …

But as I roll along the road, past the farms and houses, I think of Friedrich Engels in his weeks-long walk from Paris to Berne. He was a young man, fit and vigorous, sought after by the Paris police for his activism, and without much money. So he decided to walk to Switzerland, through the French countryside. He stops in villages to take part in festivals, to sit on grassy hillsides and smoke tobacco, drink wine, and chat up the local women. In the mountains I may recall Lenin the climber, but on the flats it seems to be Engels.

Yarramalong: a village in the fold of the valley, is the end of this leg of the Great North Walk for now. It marks roughly the half-way point to Sydney, and getting here I have covered 120 kilometres in 6 days, with 8 stiff climbs. The other half, from Yarramalong to Sydney, is yet to come.

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