Heat, Dreams and Solitude

Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps it was the solitude. Or perhaps a combination of the two, but they seemed to provide me with many friends – friends in thoughts (or were they dreams?) and even in person.


Long had I been wanting to ride again from Newcastle to Canberra, some 500 kilometres. Down the coast I would go, then through Sydney and the southern highlands into the high plains and sheep farms of the Monaro Plateau.

A week offered itself, albeit a week in February, in the midst of a long and hot summer. I’ll be fine, I thought. After all, I have ridden often in hot weather. Up to 35 degrees is fine. Somewhat warm, a little discomfort, but not too much. Occasionally, one can manage a few degrees above that mark. Drink more water, rest frequently … I knew the drill.

I was simply not prepared for what was to come. The numbers: over seven days the maximum temperatures on the bicycle were 41, 33, 38, 48, 39, 40, 41. Yes, the average was 40 degrees, with the highest a staggering 48!

Needless to say, such heat can wear you down, no matter how much water you drink and how much shade you seek. Maximum distances per day decrease – at least in theory – and heat exhaustion is a risk and a reality. As I was to find.

Thoughts … or Dreams

When your legs go throughs thousands upon thousands of revolutions on the pedals, when you are on your own doing so, and when the heat is relentless, day after day, thoughts tumble and surprise you … or are they dreams? How can my brain store so much random information? How in the world did that thought get triggered? Let me give a random sample.

Example 1: When I tire, I argue with imaginary and real opponents, manifestations of the ever-changing beast on my shoulder. And I tired more often than usual on this ride. Sixty kilometres in the heat seemed to be my limit, beyond which I hit my ‘wall’. On three of the days I did indeed hit my ‘wall’, with some force. After that moment, one cannot think much, for one is focused entirely on getting through the revolutions of the pedals. The time before is another matter.

With whom did I argue?

Well, when you have been a job for a decade or so, you build long-lasting common ground with some and you find equally long-lasting lack of common ground with others. My preferred approach is to have nothing to do with the latter. A preferred approach … but hardly practicable. I prefer to forget and move on. Others prefer to hold grudges for many a long year, waiting for their moment.

Add to all this the turmoil of a wholesale restructure that made all and sundry profoundly anxious about the ensuing chaos and you have a situation ripe for the re-emergence of gripes, the origin of which had been half-forgotten in the passage of time.

So, I imagined scenarios, enacted confrontations, wondered whether my new bosses understood my idiosyncratic way of operating – or as some point out, my tendency to ‘go rogue’.

Only after the ride did my wiser half ask whether the real question is whether I need to move on, to say farewell to one job and develop another. Good question. It went right to point and identified exactly what I had been seeking for a year or two, but without being able to name it.

Being on a ride away from a place is obviously symbolic at so many levels …

Example 2: A decade is long time. Almost ten years ago I rode these roads, but in the opposite direction, from Melbourne to Newcastle. With each push of the pedal, I was saying farewell to a well-nigh forgotten phase of my life.

Back then it was another time and another departure. Then, I was on an old red tourer that did not like the loads I put on it. It thought of itself as a racehorse and I treated it like a workhorse. Now I was on a true workhorse, a Surly Long-Haul Trucker that enjoyed as much as you could load on it. A strong, uncompromising bicycle that took on any task without complaining. I wish I had used it earlier. But it was not available at that time, perhaps waiting for me to reach this phase of my life. Then, I still pushed myself to the extreme, wanting a little extra in the competition of life. Now, I am content with a gentler pace, savouring what passes and knowing my limits a little better – although I occasionally give into the temptation to bust myself even these days.

Example 3: The mysterious Lake George, a place for thoughts and dreams. Mysterious? The lake has no streams that feed into it, so the water that appears from time to time is somewhat of a puzzle. Some suggest it relies on the trans-continental aquifer for its water supply, while other suggest it has something to do with the alignment of the planets. Others have more hare-brained ideas. I prefer not to speculate, but to enjoy it as it is – with or without water. The latter is often the case … which makes one wonder why it is called a ‘lake’.

Out of Goulburn and onto the Federal Highway (which would take me to Canberra at last), the lake gave me a tailwind. For 50 kilometres along its edge I ran, using the big chain-ring on the front. But I was not so interested in skipping by the lake too quickly. Often I found an excuse to stop, for a drink of water, a feed or a piss. I lingered, looking out over the flat land, the low hills on the lake’s edge, the big sky with its few clouds towering above. A kangaroo stood under a solitary tree, seeking shade from the heat. It looked out over the lake flats, until it saw me and bounded away. Like the kangaroo, my smallness was palpable, completely lost to the rest of the world. I turned my phone off, so that no trace of my passing would be noticed. The only way to find me was by the primitive mode of sight.

Solitude … of Sorts

My only companion for most of the ride was myself. Usually, I am good company, able to keep up a lively conversation with myself. But one cannot avoid other human beings … from time to time.

At first, it was a woman or two, albeit of my own demographic. Two women sat at a café in Ourimbah on the second day. I had stopped for a rare coffee and ‘sausage’ roll. They were obviously not of these parts, having come up from the southern metropolis for the day to scope out the area. One was amazed that I was riding to Canberra, fascinated that I should be getting back on the bicycle to pedal further.

Down the road at Marulan (between Moss Vale and Goulburn), I stopped for a lunch of sardines, baby spinach and bread rolls. Before long, a middle-aged woman stepped out of her automobile and began reminiscing about the rides of her youth. She had moved to these parts anticipating a high-speed rail connection. Of course, in Australia with its woeful politics, such projects are promised from time to time during election campaigns, only to disappear in the too-hard-too-expensive basket afterwards. She had been waiting for 30 years.

More often I encountered ‘grey nomads’, old fogeys trying to make the most of retirement before the various ‘medical conditions’ took their toll. At the wonderful Campers’ Kitchen at Moss Vale, when I was still recovering from heat exhaustion, a couple laid out a tablecloth, carefully cooked a meal and sat down to eat. We talked, of journeys taken and journeys planned, of places visited and places in one’s dreams.

At Goulburn, a couple of old men arrived late, well after I had pitched the tent, eaten and had a couple of beers. Each drove his own car, each was obviously keen to get on the road, and each was intrigued by my simple gear and bicycle. Who knows: were they old mates seeking to live a dream that might soon escape them? Did they imagine other ways to travel apart from the comfort and ease of their vehicles?

As for me, I wondered why more and old fogeys found they could talk with me. Was it because I too was on the threshold of that phase of life? If so, I would continue to pedal, albeit a little more slowly and for more modest distances.


Share bicycles and cultures

Why do share bicycles work in China but not in Australia?

I have witnessed them first in China and then in Australia, but I have been struck by how differently they are perceived and (ab)used. Let me tell the story of share bicycles first, before returning to what is really a cultural question.

A couple of years ago I returned to Beijing to find the city festooned with millions of share bicycles. The idea: by using one of the universal payment platforms on your mobile phone (this too was another relatively recent phenomenon), you could unlock a bicycle wherever you found it, pay a small fee, ride a shorter or longer distance, and then leave it locked again for the next rider. Favoured locations were metro stations, shops, schools and so on, but they really covered wherever people needed to go. It did not matter which company produced the bikes or which of the two major payment platforms you used – Alipay or Wechatpay – for the process was incredibly simple.

Initially, a range of start-ups offered bicycles, but soon enough it boiled down to two or three: the ubiquitous yellow bicycles by ‘Ofo’ and the orange and silver ones by ‘Mobike’. While Ofo went for cheaply produced bicycles on a massive scale, Mobike took more time, designing a robust bicycle that is nearly indestructible and of course more expensive to make. Given that Mobikes are more reliable, they have become the bicycle of choice wherever possible.

The idea itself is not so old: a thought bubble by Hu Weiwei – now president of Mobike – in 2014 led to plans for developing the scheme. Apart from the usual questions for a new company, the project assumed a technological and logistical level not found elsewhere in the world at the time. Technologically, the simple yet universal payment scheme, using QR codes, had to be developed and fine-tuned first (Tencent and Alibaba had already done so). Logistically, the ability to produce and distribute millions of bicycles in the largest country in the world required a whole new level of logistics, if not future-grade infrastructure.

However, technology and logistics is only part of the story, and a relatively minor one at that. The real reason they work in China is cultural.

A few examples.

1. If a share bicycle is damaged in some way – a broken seat, a buckled wheel, a malfunctioning brake – you simply take a photograph with your smartphone and send it to the Wechat account of the company in question. Soon enough, the bicycle will be picked up and repaired (since its location can be identified by GPS).

2. If you find a row of bicycles parked in a designated area at the end of your ride, you park the bicycle in the same area. In this way, they remain organised and avoid the clutter that comes from simply dumping them. And if someone is there to ensure the bicycles are indeed so organised, you listen to what they say.

3. Since you would like to find a bicycle in working order when you need it, you leave the bicycle you have used in such a state for the next person. It certainly does not mean that you throw it into a river, damage it, or try to toss it onto a roof. Someone else’s benefit is also your benefit.

Now to Australia. More recently, a couple of share bicycle companies have attempted to establish a foothold there. I assume this is the case in other countries, but I have not as yet been in other places to witness the process.

The story could not be more different. Again, a few examples.

1. A share bicycle is left in someone’s ‘private’ front yard. For days and then weeks, the bicycle remains there, until the person in question calls the local government to have it removed.

2. A number of share bicycles are retrieved by maintenance people form the Yarra River in Melbourne. People had thought it would be ‘fun’ to toss such bicycles – which cost much more than the rental fee – into the river.

3. Piles of damaged and mutilated bicycles began appearing around the major cities. People seem to think it is perfectly fine to destroy the bicycles in question after using them and then create an ‘artwork’ of bicycles in a similar state.

4. Local governments (councils) begin measures to control the ‘messy appearance’ of share bicycles scattered through their jurisdictions. The councils tell the companies that they need to ‘manage’ the bicycles, whether tossed in rivers, thrown over traffic signs, or mutilated and piled high. It is, of course, the fault of the companies and not of the wilful individuals who use them.

What is going on here?

It seems to me that a place like Australia lacks an overall sense of the common good. Compare it to graffiti or vandalism of ‘public property’, whether trains, buses or public buildings. To be sure, the share bikes are not quite the same, since companies offer them. But there is a strong dimension of the ‘public’ or the ‘common’ about them. So they become targets for vandalism and destruction. Above all, there is little – if any – sense that someone else might benefit from your care for the bicycle: ‘I will do with it what I please and to hell with the rest of you. I might even take a picture and put it on Instagram’.

The contrast with a place like China could not be sharper. Despite all the things you might read about a selfish generation or two, the over-riding sense remains one of the need to think and act in light of what is good for all, rather than what is good for me. This reality has as much to do with the ‘benevolent humanism’ of Chinese tradition, in which the world is basically a good place in which to be, and the socialist tradition, in which the collective is primary – so much so that the individual is defined through the collective.

A final note: lest I risk idealising the Chinese approach to the share economy (which also works in other places), let me point out that share bicycles have had their teething problems. The initial clutter of bicycles around hubs was a problem – think of a sudden influx of millions upon millions of them in major cities. And the quality of some the first ones produced left much to be desired. But these problems were not seen as insurmountable, not a reason to dispense with the whole approach in light of some myth of individualism. Instead, they required practical solutions to make the system work better.

The Heat Exhaustion Ride

The difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke seems marginal. Both are caused by the body’s inability to cool itself. Internal moisture becomes scarce, sweating stops, and the body temperature starts to rise. The signs: dehydration, lack of sweat, faintness and dizziness, red skin, exhaustion, vomiting and diarrhoea, leading to muscle cramps and potential collapse. The last few are more typical of heat stroke. What is the difference between the two? Heat exhaustion entails a rise in body temperature between 37 and 40 degrees, while heat stroke is above 40 degrees. More importantly, heat stroke requires immediate hospitalisation, since it is life threatening.

Why was I interested in such matters? Over a week in February, in the midst of a long, hot summer, I had set out on my bicycle for a week’s ride, from Newcastle to Canberra – some 500 kilometres. Loaded with a tent, some clothes and food, I was keen to get away.

I had checked the forecasts before departure and they seemed bearable enough. Somewhere around 30 degrees – no worries, I thought, forgetting that such measurements apply to the shade, not to long periods in the direct sun. On a bicycle over a long day, anything below 35 degrees is endurable. Drink enough, rest when needed, and you are fine.

Alas, only one day was in this comfort zone, at 33 degrees. The rest were well above, pushing into the high 30s and low 40s. And one day would simply blow away any previous record, rising almost to 50 degrees and taking me into a zone I had never experienced before.

A Gentle Beginning

The ride began gently enough. On the first day, I aimed for a coastal camping spot slightly less than 50 kilometres from home – at Munmorah.

Suburban streets, a rail trail for some 20 kilometres, some hills and I would be done. Perhaps as a forewarning, the temperature on the bicycle peaked at 40 degrees. The only relief was a stiff headwind – so stiff that it produced whitecaps on the usually tranquil Lake Macquarie to my right. By the time I arrived at Munmorah, after 47 kilometres, I felt as though I had ridden double that distance.

The next day – from Munmorah to Narara (to see my mother) – was genuinely gentle. I have camped at Munmorah National Park on quite a few occasions over the last few years. Each time I am told I should pay the ranger in the morning. Strangely, the ranger has never appeared before my departure. Of course, I would fully undertake to pay aforesaid ranger should she or he make an appearance. But the ranger in question seems to be somewhat mythical … or perhaps it is due to my preference for leaving before 8 am.

A gentle ride it indeed was. A little over 50 kilometres, along bicycle paths that skirt Budgewoi Lake. No stress, a mild 33 degrees, a twist and turn and I was at my destination.

Into the Mountains

The route for the next day I knew well: the old road from Gosford to Sydney, long ago abandoned by traffic that now prefers the freeway. It had been a while since I had tackled this old route, although my memory always focuses on the three long and winding climbs through rugged bush. Tough climbs. In between – or so my memory tells me – are relatively flat sections, giving me time to catch my breath for the next assault. Memory really is an untrustworthy faculty: the parts in between rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall … sapping your energy before you realise.

I was to feel their effect after cresting the second tough climb, up from Moonie Moonie Creek to the top of Mount White. Thus far I felt as though I had paced myself well, climbing with some reserve, enjoying the old bends and the sounds and smells of the bush. This would have been a good place to stop, replenish liquids and energy sources, rest a while and then ride on. But no, I had my mind set on a stop further along, after the relative ‘flat’ section through the Mount White area and then down to the Hawkesbury River. The sun bore down at 38 degrees, the relentless rises and falls wore me down, moisture was scarce and my energy was soon gone. By the time I descended to the Hawkesbury I was spent – with one massive climb to go.

A pile of soggy cheese and pickle sandwiches disappeared in no time, tasting like a veritable feast. Litres of water followed, from the local rainwater tank that one is not supposed to drink in these times. And a rest, so that my body could begin to replenish itself before the last effort.

By the time I finished the day at my resting place near Parramatta, I felt as though I had been pushed well past my comfort zone. The fitness gurus say that one can improve fitness only by extending oneself, by going beyond the limit. Today, I had been well and truly past that limit. Surely it would be easier from now on.

Through the ‘Desert’

Out of Parramatta is a marvellous piece of bicycle engineering – a veloway. Swinging west and then south, it runs some 40 kilometres to Casula, on the outskirts of southern Sydney.

Why call it a ‘veloway’? It is a purpose-built cycling freeway, following the route of the western orbital motorway (now mundanely called the ‘M7) that enables through traffic to bypass Sydney. The veloway was constructed as part of the larger project, using the latest designs and techniques for safe, dedicated cycling. More than a decade has passed since it was first unveiled and it remains one of the best examples of what Australian planners and engineers can do for cycling if they set their minds to it – not that they always do so.

Needless to say, I was much looking forward to it, with the thought that I would perhaps be the only ‘through cyclist’ for the day. To be sure, a good number use the route, whether for training runs or as a convenient means to get from A to B. But I was passing through, not wanting to dwell too long in any one place, always drawn to the road once more.

But the road so often changes without notice.

The morning may have been a glorious ride, largely on my own, along this stunning piece of bicycle engineering. But the afternoon was another story. With the veloway coming to an end, I paused for lunch. It had already become warm enough and I was feeling it. Nothing like what was to come.

I pedalled out onto the shoulder of the motorway. Normally, it takes me a while to become used to the noise of trucks and other traffic. This afternoon, I hardly noticed the trucks, for my attention was elsewhere.

The thermometer on my bicycle jumped to 48 degrees! Before lunch, it had registered 40 degrees already. Tough enough. But 48? I had never in my life experienced such heat. The wind felt like a massive blow dryer stuck on ‘super-hot’.

I began to notice that the animal carcases on the side of the road – inevitable sights on a bicycle in Australia – were merely skin and bone, if not bones alone. Usually, I encounter carcases in various states of slow decay, depending on how recently they had been unfortunate enough to encounter a vehicle. Not now. They looked as though some alien predator had sucked them all dry. I felt as though I was riding through a desert.

After 10 kilometres, I pulled over and drank a litre and a half of water. But I could not urinate. Was the lack of sweat normal, I wondered? Was the involuntary drip of moisture at the corner of my mouth just the result of exertion? Was the faint feeling and slowness of thought simply the result of extreme conditions? And was the deep weariness normal after four hard days on the road?

Within a few more kilometres, I came across a sign: ‘Cyclists prohibited on motorway due to roadwork. Please take a bypass’. Clarity of thought was needed, but clarity was hard to come by, let alone shade. I paused long on the side of the side, pondering my options in the sun. I had planned to camp towards the west, but was this a viable bypass route? Not really, it turned out, since the road – the old highway – wound its way through ‘Razorback’. Not what I felt like in weather like this. How about eastwards? This was closer to the railway line should I need it, or the other bypass through other mountains. Caution came to the forefront and I opted for a hotel a few kilometres back.

Upon entering the simple room, I cried out in relief. It was cool, the bed clean and inviting, the cold shower a blessing. I drank and drank and drank – water. Indeed, I had become aware of how much I was focused on water. I was constantly on the lookout for water, seeking to replenish my supply of four litres. Usually, this amount is more than enough, but on this ride I ran short time and again.

By the next morning, I realised I had a slight case of heat exhaustion. Not heat stroke, thankfully, although the ride as a whole turned out to have an average temperature of a ‘shade’ under 40 degrees – actual temperatures on the bicycle, out in the sun (minimum 33 and maximum 48). It took me until lunch time to feel as though I was once again hydrated to normal levels. And I realised I would not be riding much on that day. A short ride to the railway station saw me on a local train to Moss Vale and its camping area. Here at least the evening was cool, so much so I had to zip up my sleeping bag.

A Decade is a Long Time

A rest day is a mighty blessing. I have not always taken rest days, pushing on day after day. But of late I have come to appreciate a pause, to rest, eat, drink and rest. The day afterwards, one feels renewed.

So it was when I set out from Moss Vale, to ride 75 kilometres to Goulburn. I took my time through the hills, drinking plenty, managing now the relatively “cool” 38 degrees. And by now I was once again aware that the rhythmic working of one’s body enables the mind to run where it will, if not to completely unexpected corners of memory and bodily associations. The thoughts become one’s friends, especially when such a ride is a solitary experience.

Today I began to recall a ride of almost ten years ago when I rode these parts. Saying my last farewell to phase of my life that I have largely forgotten (for we forget what is unpleasant and traumatic). I was riding from Melbourne to Newcastle, with each pedal down a push away from that life. Obviously, I was riding the other way on that occasion, northwards, but moments recalled the earlier ride. The camping area slightly north of Goulburn had not changed so much. New owners perhaps, but the singing ants were still there, as well as the outdoor model railway – requiring daily maintenance. The old internet station too was there in the campers’ kitchen, requiring a coin for an incredibly slow connection. I had used it then, to check on email – which the next generation or two regards as very ‘traditional’. Now one can – in theory – access Wi-Fi throughout the campsite, to be used one’s ‘smart’ phone. I did not use it, since I am not into the incessant checking of social media, let alone email messages that people may want to send me since they know of my social media aversions.

All this is to frame the changes of a decade in terms of technology fetishism. Truth be told, the technology we now have is clunky and unreliable, geared to become obsolete by the time a year is out. The changes were more in terms of a life. Then, I was on an old red tourer that was not quite up to the loads I liked to put on it. I treated it like a workhorse, but it preferred to think of itself a racehorse. It popped two spokes on the ride. Now, I was on a true workhorse, a Surly long-haul trucker. A strong, uncompromising bicycle that took on any task without complaining. I wish I had used it earlier. Paradoxically, it was not available at that time, perhaps waiting for me to reach this phase of my life. Then, I still pushed myself to the extreme, wanting a little extra in the competition of life. Now, I am content with a gentler pace, savouring what passes and knowing my limits a little better.

So why am I planning almost 100 kilometres to Canberra tomorrow?

Dreaming of Food

I had longed for this day, for it was to take me along the mysterious Lake George.

Why mysterious? The lake has no feeder streams, relying purely on the continental aquifer than runs across the breadth of Australia. When the aquifer is saturated elsewhere, the lake fills up; when it dries out, the lake empties. As a child in Canberra, I recall the lake being full quite a bit. But for years, decades even, it has mostly been empty. Only once in recent years do I recall it being partly full. Is this because the aquifer has dried out somewhat of its own accord? Or is it due to the bottled water companies having unrestricted access?

After a few hills out of Goulburn, one turns onto the Federal Highway, the road to Canberra. A wide shoulder, few trucks and sweeping views of Lake George took me in for the next 50 kilometres. It helped that I had a mild tailwind, enabling me to use the big ring on the front and ride at a good clip. Often I paused to look out over the flat land, skirted by a few low hills.

The big sky towered above, giving me the sense of being in a vast expanse, lost to the rest of the world and its concerns. With my phone turned off, no trace of my passing could be detected by anyone – except by means of the old medium of sight.

Apart from the lake, my thoughts had begun to focus on food. I imagined what I would eat on arrival: fresh fruit piled high, cheese and tomato on toast, iced mineral water with limes, cold beers … on and on I dreamt. Why? Deciding to use up the last of my food stocks, I found that I had nothing more than two stale slices of bread and umpteen muesli bars. The bars are great energy packs, with quick release sugars and slow releases nuts. But they really function as a supplement to more substantial meals. By noon, I was thoroughly sick of the bars, even though I had no option but to keep eating them.

For the final run into Canberra I had to say farewell to the lake but not to the dreams of food. The dreams stayed even when the temperature climbed past 40 degrees – again – and when the long hills took their toll, leaving me exhausted and drained. Even then, the first thing I did in Canberra was stop to buy way more food than I could eat and drink. Only then did I pedal to my destination.

Paxton Pub, or, Great North Walking

Not the most inviting place on first impressions.

Outside, a handful of wrinkled men sat hunched over their beers, cigarettes hanging out of the corners of their mouths. Any stranger was sized up. A gruff word of welcome came from one pair of lips. But then they would accept you as you are.

Inside was warmer, the beers cheap, the memorabilia of years hanging on the walls. The publican too loved a smoke, but he also loved pulling beers in his Hawaiian shirt.

I have been to the Paxton pub twice, once on my own at the end of a long day hiking a section of the Great North Walk, and once with my partner at the beginning of a hike. The first time I arrived in a winter dusk, with a flu-induced delirium, the second time we were on the way to rediscovering one another after too long in different parts of the world.

During the short days of a local winter, I had been longing to complete a quiet section of the Great North Walk, on my own from Pokolbin to Newcastle. It would take me through my beloved Watagan mountains, with a mixture of camping and pub stays. Five days in all, after some rain so the creeks would have water to drink.

Perhaps I should have seen the warning signs, but I told myself that the wicked flu was passing, that I was feeling fine and could manage the hike. A bus and taxi eventually found the starting point, a bare sign in the midst of the Hunter Valley vineyards. The sun shone on a cool day, my new leather boots felt fine and I strode along absorbed by the pleasure of the hike.

By the first climb, I felt a twinge in my right foot and a flush in my head. The boot came off to reveal a raw blister, which I duly bandaged. I’ll tighten the boots, I thought, and it will be fine. Soon enough multiple points began to blister, burst and ooze. Multiple bandages tried to soften the continual pain.

In the midst of the mountains, the flu-daze was upon me. What should have been perhaps ten kilometres became one hundred. The last two felt like two hundred. All I could manage was one painful foot in front of the other.

In this state, I met the Hare Krishna hippie, or at least believe I met him. He was waiting at a bus stop with a young boy and seized upon me to pass on the news of warning. Apparently, the world was coming to an end, with the mark of the beast (666) everywhere to be found. I had enough wherewithal to wonder how the Book of Revelation might fit in with Hare Krishna teaching, but refrained from asking for clarification. He and his son lived on the local commune, and with his dreadlocks and bright clothes, his mission in life was to post small stickers in innocuous places to warn us all of our impending doom. I strode on, leaving him to his important task. Mine was to get to the pub.

By dusk the pub finally appeared. In my state, I could not imagine a more welcoming sight. Yes, my room was available, since I was the only one staying amidst the 30 rooms, the grandeur of which was still evident despite the years of neglect. Yes, I could wash, in the women’s bathroom in a shower-bath that bore a sign ‘out of order’. Yes, I could eat, for the publican’s partner had come in to cook her one dish, a meat platter. And yes, the beers were cold and cheap.

Such was my delusion, that I still planned to continue the next day in the mountains, camping for a few nights. A little more bandaging on my feet, a cold-and-flue tablet and I would be fine. At 3am I woke and realised it was not on. It would be the utmost foolishness to be lost in such a state in the bush.

Reluctantly, I returned home via buses and trains, longing to tackle it again.

After my feet had recovered and my partner and I were equally recovering our life together, we agreed to the hike to celebrate her birthday. Both of us were keen, as is our wont, to get away from the world for a little while.

We began at the pub, after the buses and trains. A balcony room, but again we were the only visitors. The few regulars tried to be friendly, the bistro was now closed for good, the pokies were long retired, and the beer garden out the back was overgrown. But the publican, festooned in his Hawaiian shirt, struck up a conversation.

We talked of the troubles of country pubs, how locals no longer came to the pub regularly, how the bowling club was closing down, how the last three years had been the most difficult in his life as he tried to make the pub work. I commented on the bikies rolling past on weekends, on the appeal of Wollombi up the road, of all manner of possibilities for attracting passers-by to drop in, for it is a beautiful part of the countryside.

After my partner ducked off to photograph the last light through the windows, the publican asked us directly: ‘are you interested in buying the place?’ Of course, we were strangers visiting (me a second time), asking all manner of questions about running a country pub, so he was interpreting it all as inquiries from prospective buyers. It would be one of the last things we would want to do in our increasingly unencumbered and simplified lives.

The next day, cooler after the rains, was glorious. Some twenty kilometres of mountains, bush, stunning views, stops to eat and talk, chocolate and muesli bars to share, water to find, and the deep weariness of bodies working all day as we reached our goal – it was a hike for the ages. We climbed and we dropped and climbed again. We ducked through overhanging bushes and branches on a track seldom used. We savoured the fresh water at an old vineyard. And we rolled over the last few kilometres through the flat countryside of the vineyards.

As we did so, we recalled our earlier hikes in eastern Germany, Scotland and Denmark, a mutual love of being out and relying on ourselves. She is a tough one, able to tackle such tasks in a way few are able. I can usually keep up with her, with the stamina of experience.

Above all, I relished being out together rather than on my own.

Returning to St Alban’s

Would this be my last time here?

This question played on my mind as we drove through the dark of a late night to a place that has drawn me for many a long year. Three or four former lives came back to me, reminding me that things change, don’t they?

I speak of St Albans, at the edge of the Yengo Wilderness, between Sydney and Newcastle. Its core is the Settlers Arms – an inn originally built in 1836 for travellers on the Great North Road to Newcastle. I am still such a traveller, seeking out the road yet again to stop for a while in a place that has had a curious pull on me.

A river valley, rugged and densely bushed mountains, a village of a dozen houses, a common and free camping area by the river, a sandstone inn built in a style long ago abandoned in light of Australian conditions …

Such a list does not capture the pull the place had had on me, the beckoning curve of a path that opens out to an ancient spreading tree or two, which invite you to sit and reflect, or the community of locals in for a drink and a smoke after the tourists have gone, or the smallest bar in the world, a window really, where one person at a time can order a drink, or the mists of the morning, when the towering cone-shaped crown of the rare Deane’s Gum is lost in the fog while the birds noisily shake off the drops of the morning, or the memories of a lifetime the place invokes, or the wilderness all about that draws me in, the chance to sense a way of being that is slower and quieter, along ancient Aboriginal paths. …

On this late evening, we – my partner and I – had arrived after a harrowing summer. St Albans, at the Settlers Arms, was a respite, a place where there is no phone coverage, where we could be free from the world and its demands (our preferred mode of being).

Much may have changed in my life to this point, but St Albans seemed to have remained the same. In its very continuity, it has been able to map the phases of that life.

The quietness of the place initially had much greater appeal during times of turmoil and frenetic demands. I recall stumbling across it in the early 1990s, a detour taken along a dirt road while exploring wilderness camping with young children. Through that decade I had a dreadful job, the children grew and a relationship broke down. At first we would all go, camping up the road at a quiet spot (Mogo), just by the Great North Road – the slave road from the 1830s, built by convicts. My parents seized the opportunity to come along, my father still fit enough to camp, growing close to my children over those years. But as the two boys became teenagers, they preferred to do other things, and as their mother increasingly preferred not to camp, I took the two girls, still with my parents coming along. Once, in 1998 I think, we stopped at St Albans on the way through to the camping spot and my youngest ate the ‘best mashed potato’ she had ever had. Mention St Albans today and she will say the same thing.

St Albans was the point where many different paths collided at the end of the decade. We tried to repair a relationship with a romantic weekend at the Settlers Arms in those last years, hoping to do it yearly, but it happened only once. I met another woman there later, who would bring a glimmer of hope and then much turmoil and pain.

And I indulged in my preferred mode of travel to get there too – a bicycle. At times with one or two companions, we would pedal the 100 km or so to get there from western Sydney, drink, eat up and then pedal home. On the last event of that life, in the first year of the new millennium, it was just me and a close friend, following the river on a different route. At the time it seemed like a farewell of sorts. We camped by the river out the front of the pub, drank many dark ales, I smoked a few cigars (for I had taken up smoking in the mess of my life) and we talked late into the night.

But after a few years – the ‘lost years’ – I returned, first in tragic circumstances and then to feel the old pull.

On a fateful winter’s night in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, my second son almost died in a house fire as I camped out the front of the Settlers Arms during a long-anticipated ride along the Great North Road. My world felt out of kilter that night and I was spooked by the place for a little while – but that occult sense draws one in as well.

Yet a couple of years later I would return with a woman whom I wished I had met in my youth, a woman from across the seas and halfway around the world. She at first fell in love with the place, relished the beer under the ancient tree, the sandstone inn, the low, smoke-stained ceilings, the long deep rest in a warm bed. We would return again, I on my bicycle to the camping spot and we with her parents to stay at the inn in the last year of that decade.

Some years passed without a visit, as my life – with the only one who really had become my soul-mate – took on many new dimensions.

But one Saturday during winter, my second son phoned me to say – in his characteristic nonchalant way – that he was getting married. This was the son who had entered his terrible twos and left them at about 25. At last, he had met a down-to-earth woman who knew when he was trying to charm. They grew closer together, but surprised everyone with the announcement.

And they wanted to get married in St Albans. Or rather, they wished to do so in the old ruins of St Joseph’s church, a few kilometres out of the village. I had ridden past the ruins many times, noting the broken-down walls, vegetation growing as it will and the missing roof. Of late, someone had stabilised the ruins, cleared the vegetation and added a roof that highlighted the ruins. The church was converted into a function centre, with kitchen facilities, seating and accommodation upstairs. My son and his fiancée had asked me to officiate at the wedding, recalling a life of many years ago when I undertook such tasks.

So I returned to St Albans, still with my soul-mate from across the seas. As we wound our way along the dark road, I became – momentarily – acutely aware of the years that had passed. Memories came flooding back. Many lives collided with one another. The wedding itself would happen soon enough, with its expectations and duties – which I would perform with deep appreciation. Given our complex history, my son and I had drawn very close and the feeling ran very deep.

Yet St Albans had truly remained the same. In the past, it beckoned to deeper continuities, to passions deeply held and commitments one is reluctant to relinquish. As we talked late into the night, sharing in a way that is rarely possible with another human being, we realised how much we had changed, how much we had seen of the world, how other places beckoned and how our commitments had changed.

Perhaps we will return to this place, but more likely not.

Writing with Jethro Tull

A teenager in the mid-1970s studying for his high-school exams, bulky old-fashioned headphones wrapped around his head and plugged into a cassette player, blocking out the noise of his three brothers and sister as he tries to concentrate. And what is he listening to? Jethro Tull.

That teenager was me, almost 40 30 years ago. Ever since, I have listened to Tull while writing. The first bars of a Tull album have the effect of switching my concentration on and the noise of the world around me off. Only then can I write, pretty much unbroken for the next forty to sixty minutes. The words flow, my fingers dance over the keyboard, and my mind seems to fire off all sorts of new ideas. Sometimes, if the mood takes me, I will listen to another artist or three, but when I really want to think and write, it is Tull to whom I turn.

How did it all begin? I came to Jethro Tull latish – in the mid to later 70s, after the flurry of early records when they established themselves as one of the great bands of the time. My first taste was a crackly cassette tape, recorded from one of those vinyl records, of Minstrel in the Gallery. From that moment I was hooked. I loved the way hard rock, classical and medieval strands wove themselves together in the music, especially since I’d been through rock and jazz guitar and was then deep into classical guitar on an old axe I’d picked up cheaply somewhere. But my family was poor, my father a clergyman on a subsistence wage with five children to feed. So I couldn’t rush off to buy a bunch of new records. We had an ancient mono record player that my father wouldn’t let us touch and I had a tinny cassette player. I had to save hard to afford even one new record or tape, so I picked up an original Living in the Past from the sister of a friend for a couple of dollars, handed other friends cassette tapes that had been wiped so they could record over them, and scoured the discount racks at record shops. Slowly I built up a collection.

The first new record I bought was Heavy Horses. It was really precious, a brand new album in a cover that wasn’t bent or stained and a record that wasn’t scratched. It is still one of my favourite albums even after 30 years. So the Tull I got to know first was the Tull of the later 70s and 80s. Apart from Heavy Horses, records like Stormwatch, Broadsword and the Beast, Songs from the Wood and even A were my staple. Later I picked up the earlier albums and by the time Crest of a Knave, Catfish Rising and Rock Island came out I could afford to buy them when new.

How did I come to listen while studying? In my high school years we lived in a house that was really too small for five kids, four of us teenagers. I had been in a room with two of my brothers, but eventually I squatted in the back veranda. I built a wall out of book-shelves, bits of wood and a curtain, moved my bed and small desk there and it became my bedroom. The catch was that my new ‘bedroom’ was right by the toilet. Every morning, one after another, my parents, three brothers, sister and whatever friend was staying the night would make their way to the toilet. I could tell who it was not merely by the sound of footsteps, but also by the distinct noise they made when pissing or crapping. So it went on all day. I was also hard by the loudly squeaking back door, which was really the main entry point for the house, next to the laundry and its perpetually running washing machine and my room opened out onto the kitchen, which was the social hub of the house. My brothers and sister would always have friends over, they would talk in the kitchen, use the toilet, and the back door would swing and squeak without ceasing. That’s why I soon got some old headphones, plugged them into my cassette player and listened to Tull while studying.

What do I write? Since those days I have been pretty much a full-time writer. And I write all sorts of things. It might be magazine articles on Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia or long-distance bicycle rides. Or it may be a short story on the end of the world from the point of view of religious crackpots. Lately I have been actively filling up my blog (stalinsmoustache.org). But I spend most of my time writing about Marxism and religion. When people ask me what I do, I say, ‘Oh, I write about religion and politics’. And they would immediately turn to another topic, or better still, someone more interesting. Not any more, since religion and geopolitics have become vitally important, and the rise of China has put Marxism and modern socialism firmly on the agenda.

For all that time Jethro Tull has been in the backdrop. If I need to think through a problem, I put on a quieter album. If I’ve been stalling and need to get writing, it’s always Crest of a Knave. If I need a long stretch of concentration, I listen to one of the concert albums. If the wind is up and the rain is pouring, Stormwatch or Broadsword and the Beast comes out. If I need to get fired up and write fast, it will be a good rock album like Aqualung, Catfish Rising, Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll, Minstrel in the Gallery or even Rock Island. Every now and then I begin with This Was and work my way through the whole collection, ending with some Youtube videos of the latest concert gigs. And unlike many a Tull fan, I thoroughly enjoy the latest offerings, such as Home Erraticus and Thick as a Brick 2.

I’ve been listening to Tull and writing for almost four decades. Who knows? Perhaps I will do so for another four.


A Journey of Rediscovery

It began as a delayed mutual promise: to travel around much of Australia by rail. Often we had put the journey off, due to commitments, time pressures and responsibilities. In the end, some years ago, we simply decided to go, frazzled and pressured as we were.

The journey would take us northwards from Adelaide, two days on the Ghan train to Darwin. A car was needed for the next leg, almost 2000 kilometres through the Gulf Country, heading eastward to Mt Isa in far north Queensland. Another train would take us a further 1000 kilometres to the coast, and then we would wind our way some 3000 km southwards on a couple more trains, down the coast to home. It was to be a 9000 kilometre journey in all.

We began wearily, with long months of disrupted sleep behind us and expectations from work weighing upon us, all of it symbolised by the creaking burden of books in our packs. Initially, on the Ghan we plunged into our books and opened our computers to get some headway on the many tasks we hoped to complete on our way. Gradually, we turned less to the books and the computers began to be lie dormant for longer periods. I pulled out my camera and spent long hours walking the train and standing at windows, testing the capabilities of the camera. She slept much and gazed out the window, an open book lying on her lap unread.

In Alice Springs, Katherine Gorge and Darwin we simply walked all day. Still our talk was around projects, plans, grant funds, writing tasks and ways around problems at work. We went over difficult conflicts and frustrated projects, looking for new ways to achieve them.

The talk continued in the car we rented for the next few days. We intended to belt along the main road and get to Mt Isa as soon as possible. Soon enough a turn beckoned, into Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park. Our talk turned to other matters, of life and death and love and the endless, endless land. We stayed a night in a remote community or two, struggling to find accommodation. Until we happened upon an extraordinary road.

Named innocuously the Tableland Highway, it was barely a ribbon of undulating and wavy asphalt across vast spaces and beneath infinite skies. Water was scarce on the way, marked by the regular wind pumps of yesteryear. Now we fell silent as we were absorbed by the land. Occasionally, a native animal would pass our way, especially as dusk drew near. We stopped regularly to soak it all in, simply standing and looking out, aware that we were possibly the only human beings as far as our eyes could see.

On every roll in the road, I felt as though I left behind one more expectation, one more pressure, one more plan, one more struggle. Into the sky and the open plains went my sense of self-importance. I had begun against my best intentions to believe in the hype and to throw my weight around, feeling that I had the gravitas to do so and thereby change the world around me. As the road unwound through the vastness, that whole sense was simply taken away, little by little. By the end of that road, as we drove into Mt Isa, I had rediscovered myself.

I did not realise it at the time. In Mt Isa, I slept deep and long for the first time in months. The sleep would continue all the way home. Her process was more gradual, for she was processing much about identity apart from her work. She spent the 28 hours on the amazing Innlander train, from Mt Isa to Townsville, looking out the window and snoozing. I found this rail journey one of the most fascinating I have done for a long time. I absorbed everything around, thrilled by the experience. The train played only part of the role, for it was the rediscovery of myself now expressing itself.

By the time we left Cairns a few days later (after a short bus ride north from Townsville), we realised what we needed to do. The train helped, with its rail-bed sleepers on the run south to Brisbane. She would disconnect from what frustrated her at work, pursuing her passions in new areas, wherever that took her and wherever that might be in the world. I would resign from the many editorial boards, networks and leadership roles, disconnecting from the identity that had been forced upon me. I too would recover my passions and pursue them, anticipating the opportunity to join her wherever she went.

The return home, after the day-time XPT train from Brisbane, saw an immediate manifestation of all that we had experienced. We had a massive purge of books, thousands of them. Books we would never use again, crap books we had kept, and anything deemed fit to go. Our home opened up and we felt we could breathe again. The resignations and disconnections took another day. We were full of enthusiasm, freed, passionate and rested. The summer that followed was long, quiet and simply glorious. It was perhaps the most important journey we have undertaken for quite some time.

2015 September 247 (640x423)