The forbidding splendour of Rannoch Moor: We complete the West Highland Way (sort of)

The anceient Bridge of Orchy (with two walkers on it) and behind it the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, a busy oasis for West Highland Way walkers.

The ancient Bridge of Orchy (with two walkers on it) and behind it the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, a busy oasis for West Highland Way walkers.

A grey Scottish gloaming was settling over the Bridge of Orchy Hotel as we pushed open the front door marked “Walkers Welcome”. In the dimly lit lobby a black-bearded head rose from behind the reception counter.

“Ah, Mister George,” it said in a thick east European accent, “you booked a queen room, no?”

“No, I booked a standard double or twin room.”

“Hah? No, you wrong, Mr George.” He placed a dog-eared piece of paper before me. “You book a queen room, see?”

It took a while to explain that my name was George Quinn, and “Quinn” was not the same as “queen.” The receptionist looked doubtful but eventually he handed over a room key. We grabbed it and headed upstairs to our comfortable but slightly shabby twin room.

Bridge of Orchy consists of one hotel – quite a substantial two storey building – about six cottages and their outbuildings, a tiny usually unstaffed railway station, a mini fire station, and an ancient arched stone bridge. But for the single night we stayed there the hotel and village surged with visitors. The hamlet is remote but it is an oasis for walkers. The following day as Emmy and I sat killing time in the bar I estimate well over one hundred sodden souls shuffled through the hotel’s warmth in the space of about two hours. They downed coffees and slices of thickly iced carrot cake or put weighty lumps of steaming pizza into their mouths, babbling through the crumbs in a hundred different languages.

In the Bridge of Orchy Hotel walkers crowd the bar at 11.00 in the morning.

In the Bridge of Orchy Hotel walkers crowd the bar at 11.00 in the morning.

The previous night I had ordered a serving of Scotland’s national dish, Haggis Neeps and Tatties. I had no idea what to expect. I knew that haggis was made from shredded beef and mutton bound with oatmeal, spiced with who-knows-what, and boiled inside a sheep’s stomach. When you’ve eaten chicken brains, and witchetty grubs, and dog meat (as I have) this sounds almost ho-hum. But neeps and tatties?

The waiter explained – wrangling his Romanian vowels into the corral of English – that neeps comes from “turnips” and tatties was the Scottish word for “potatoes”. Afraid that I might be disappointed to be served such proletarian fare he added:

“The chef gives it a good splash of whisky.”

Haggis Neeps and Tatties

Haggis Neeps and Tatties

In the event Haggis Neeps and Tatties was neither memorable nor forgettable. A grey mound arrived squatting in the middle of a plate anointed with gravy. It certainly didn’t look appetising, but I dug my fork into it anyway and discovered that most of it was mashed potato with an orange-yellow layer of turnip on it topped with some brownish organic matter. The brownish organic matter was (presumably) haggis. I raised a forkful to my mouth. Hmmm… not bad. It tasted quite nice in a bland savoury way. There was no hint of whisky though. It took me only a few minutes to devour it, and I have to say, I enjoyed it. When the waiter returned he seemed surprised.

“All gone, eh. That was quick.” I got the impression diners were not always as enthusiastic as I had been.

Emmy and I were customers of the Glasgow-based company Macs Adventure. To crank ourselves up (but not too suddenly) to the level of fitness required for the walk along Loch Ness to the other side of Scotland we had chosen an initial one-week package called “West Highland Way Rail and Hike”. This alternated sections of rail travel with sections of hard hiking up the length of the West Highland Way from Glasgow to Fort William and (as a bonus) on to Mallaig. Macs Adventure booked our accommodation for us – mostly in pubs and B&Bs – and transferred our suitcases from lodging to lodging using a “safari” service. All we had to do was walk or ride. We carried a small back pack – small-ish, actually, because each morning our backpacks had to be stuffed with a first aid kit, at least a litre of water, a rain jacket and water-proof leggings, fruit and sandwiches for lunch, spare socks, sunscreen and insect repellent, walking poles, maps, and a trowel for the possible emergency of trackside poos. I have to report that, as I write these words in Mallaig at the end of the Rail and Hike package, Macs Adventure have done a reliable and thorough job.

Back to Bridge of Orchy. At 2.00 pm on the rainy afternoon of August 1st we found ourselves on the platform of the Bridge of Orchy station looking across the rails and over a fence at walkers labouring, heads down under their ponchos and hooded raincoats, along the adjacent West Highland Way. One of them turned into the station and flung her backpack down beside us.

“Zo, ver are ze banks?” she said accusingly in a thick German accent, her eyes glaring up and down the station platform.

“Banks?” If there was a bank in the tiny deserted railway station I felt pretty sure I would have noticed it. But I remained open-minded and cautious. “I don’t think there is a bank here.”

“No no no no,” she said, presuming she was dealing with the village idiot. “Banks! Banks for sleeping!” She pressed her palms together, laid them against one cheek and tilted her head.

“Oh… bunks.” Behind me I saw a small printed notice taped to the inside of a window: “West Highland Way Sleeper Reception. Open 5.00 pm.” The young German was busy hammering on doors and rattling door knobs. When she saw the notice she yanked a mobile phone from her pocket and began jabbing at it. About fifteen minutes later a rotund Scottish gentleman strolled on to the platform and explained to her that the station bunkhouse would not be accessible until after five o’clock.

Apparently some railway stations in remote places are now providing limited but bookable and very cheap dormitory accommodation for walkers. The Scottish gentleman suggested she walk down to the Bridge of Orchy Hotel and wait in the bar until the bunkhouse opened at 5.00 pm. She protested.

“I have paid twenty-five pounds for a bunk this evening. I want to access it now so that I can claim a bottom bunk.”

Suddenly her outrage turned to pathos. There were tears in her eyes but the beginnings of a rueful laugh too.

“I can’t climb up on to a top bunk,” she whispered. “I can’t do it. I am hurting too much.” And she slumped on to a platform bench.

At this moment our train arrived for the journey to Spean Bridge. Emmy and I leaped aboard and from our comfortable, dry, warm seats, through a big window spotted with raindrops, we saw the girl sitting alone on the platform staring ahead unseeing, absently turning her mobile phone over and over in her hands.

We headed out of the station into the wilderness of Rannoch Moor. I was in for a surprise. The austere splendour of the landscape was far beyond what I had expected. The train sped over vast grass slopes between lakes and twisting rivers with huge knobs of mountain on the horizon. It was wild, open, wind-swept, empty country darkened in places with stands of forest. Crooked scribbles of water sliced vertically down the green hillsides. In the distance sinews of snow were still stencilled on the steep-sided mountains, clamped over their peaks like white spiders legs. As we raced towards Tulloch station in the centre of the moor a column of startled deer jumped away from the rail line and bounded off to suddenly evaporate in the green expanse of the plain. Somewhere inside I felt a knot of emotion. Several times goose-bumps crept across my skin. This was not an intimate, or friendly, or merely picturesque landscape. It was forbidding yet grippingly, emotionally beautiful.

A hardened walker: Emmy strides that path between Spean Bridge and Fort William.

A hardened walker: Emmy strides the path between Spean Bridge and Fort William.

After a comfortable night at the Distant Hills guest house in Spean Bridge, the following morning we hoisted our backpacks on to our backs and strode down the main street, the first yards in an eighteen kilometre stretch west into the centre of Fort William. It was a warm, silent Sunday. We walked into a small refreshing breeze under a cloudy sky flecked with blue. The walking was easy. It was possible for once to look left and right and enjoy the countryside. We walked through fields awash with daisies and clover, foxgloves and ragwort, thistles and shiny orange toadstools. Reeds grew in muddy profusion at the path side, jostling with dense sheaves of grass, bracken and blackberries.

Trackside foxloves, and...

Trackside foxgloves, and…

... a friendly local

… a friendly local, not far from Spean Bridge village.

Part of the path took us through the blasted environment of a commercial pine forest, then, as we approached Fort William, the path veered around a golf course. It took an hour to walk along the suburban fingers of the town to the kilometre-long pedestrian mall that hosts the business centre. Here back-packed crowds wandered from shop to shop. I too stopped at a souvenir shop and bought a tee shirt. Its message read “I walked the West Highland Way.” In my case it wasn’t strictly true, but there was no version of the tee-shirt with explanatory footnotes about trains and rain. And anyway, we had knocked over the last leg from Spean Bridge to Fort William with no trouble at all. I deserved a reward. We had hardened up. We were ready for Loch Ness.

The rain drenched main street of Fort William.

The rain-drenched main street of Fort William. The sky is grey, the air is cool. This is summer 2015 in Scotland.

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From train to pain to rain: Glasgow to Bridge of Orchy

We rolled our suitcases into the street from Glasgow’s Carlton George Hotel and pulled them around the corner to the Queen Street railway station. A noticeboard apologised for disruptions to train services but our train for Ardlui on the banks of Loch Lomond left exactly on time. After emerging from a tunnel it cut between lush banks of shrubbery punctuated with brick walls. We saw flashes of Glasgow’s suburbs: naked rows of unlovely tenement strips coated in grey stucco. Grey is a pretty popular colour in the suburbs of Glasgow.

Worry on the left, hope on the right... at Glasgow Queen Street station about to board the train for Ardlui.

Worry on the left, bright optimism on the right… at Glasgow Queen Street station about to board the train for Ardlui.

The weather was warm with sunlight oozing slowly from a sleepy, cloud covered sky. The views folded out into flat vistas of parks and suburbia and eventually to bright green farmland sloping gently into the Clyde River. The track rose into hills, stands of Scottish fir trees appeared framing picturesque glimpses of water below seen through racing green lace-works of leaves.

An hour into the trip and we were edging into a highland landscape. Rugged, steep, stony cliffs loomed. Several bare, grass-covered pyramid peaks marched past above us, and below fingers of water pointed the way into the interior. An overcast sky began to press down.

As the train slid into Ardlui station after an hour of scenic magnificence heavy rain began to fall and the temperature dropped. We had arrived in the Scottish highlands, and the region was determined not to betray its reputation for gloomy weather.

Ardlui is small, scarcely more than a hamlet, but in summer holiday-makers jam its cramped caravan park and camping ground. Bumping on jet-skis or pulled along on water skis they buzz back and forth across Loch Lomond, cutting white scars into the lake as they swerve around yachts and launches idling in the water. Above them the quiet hills rise steep and bright green into the grey sky.

On the morning of Tuesday July 30th we started walking the West Highland Way. It was a reassuring start. A ten minute launch ride took us across the loch to a small, spindly steel jetty a hundred metres from the Way that had already wriggled up to Loch Lomond from the suburbs of Glasgow. “The West Highland Way” is much too grand a name for the foot wide, rock-strewn trail of mud that snaked away before us up into the hills. Our walking poles came out immediately and stayed gripped in our fists for the next five hours. We levered ourselves up through gauntlets of bracken, peering over it at views down Loch Lomond. Again and again we were stopped in our tracks by the vast splendour around us.

At the start of the walk: a narrow trail through a vast landscape.

At the start of the walk: a narrow trail through a vast green landscape.

The going was tough, especially for me. I was not in top shape. Emmy was better prepared and often walked a hundred metres ahead while I puffed and stumbled and found excuses to stop. There were quite a few stiles to cross too. I discovered that age had taken away from me the confident, leg-swinging straddling of stiles and had turned each crossing into a wobbling exercise in keeping balance. We negotiated at least thirty mini-quagmires of mud, rocks and water that days of rain had laid down along the track. Two hours into the walk, and still not halfway to Crianlarich, I was aching and struggling.

I struggle through a

I struggle through a “cow creep” between Ardlui and Crianlarich.

There is something unexpectedly good about walking in remote places. You can’t wimp out. There are no bus stops or taxi stands. There are no snack bars or coffee shops. There are no seats or shelters. No mobile phone connection either. And you’re pretty much on your own (we met only a few fellow walkers who whizzed past us with annoying cheerfulness). So there are no options. You have to plough on into your pain and keep putting foot before foot. It hurts, but because you have to do it you discover that you can do it.

The walk from Ardlui to Crianlarich is not long, about fourteen kilometres. But it is rough, and it took five hours of pain to deliver us to our destination. As we trudged into the centre of the village looking for our accommodation at the Crianlarich Hotel exhaustion tricked me into making a right turn instead of a left turn. We walked to the edge of the village before I realised the mistake. So we had to walk back, adding more than a kilometre to the burning ache under our feet.

A hot shower and an hour’s deep sleep only partly revived me. At 7.00 pm we hobbled grimacing into the hotel dining room. On the walls above the dark wainscoting the remains of meals past looked down – stuffed stags heads and assorted animal skulls, around a dozen of them, were staring down at diners. A waiter with the bullish dimensions of a rugby player greeted us at the door.

“How are we this evening?” he roared in a broad Scottish accent.

“I’m fine,” I said, “but what about you?”

He leaned towards me and lowered his voice.

“To tell you the truth,” he said conspiratorially, “I’d rather be somewhere else.”

This did not bode well for the evening’s meal. But I needn’t have worried. In the kitchen a hard-working squad of cooks from Romania and Hungary, who clearly were glad not to be somewhere else, were cooking up a storm. When my order of fish and chips arrived I had to look at it, then look up at the waiter, then back at the plate before me, then back at the waiter again. His smirk said “Yes sir, it is your order”.

On the jumbo size plate lay an enormous crescent moon of fish, its two cusps easily jutting beyond the edges of the dish. Under it lay a bed of flat cut, deliciously crisp-looking potato chips lightly sprinkled with grains of rock salt. Healthy, sweet-looking green peas were in attendance too, not to mention what looked like home-made tartare dressing and a juicy wedge of lemon. For a weary walker it was a vision from heaven. Glancing up at the glassy eyes and antlers and skulls above me, I wolfed it down.

Delicious... what more can I say?

Delicious… the best fish and chips I have ever eaten.

After getting hammered on the fourteen kilometre walk from Ardlui to Crianlarich I was dreading the next leg – a twenty-one kilometre slog mostly through forest country to Bridge of Orchy (pronounced /OR.key/). The day dawned cool and overcast with rain clouds scudding from horizon to horizon. For the first few kilometres we weaved through a dripping forest of Scottish fir trees. The path was wet and slippery after overnight rain, and very stony. As always in Britain the forest was wrapped in total silence. We knifed through banks of thick moss and soft green hooks of wet bracken massed at the path side. In the distance steep hills appeared and disappeared behind cowls of misty cloud.

We couldn’t do more than creep forward, jamming our walking poles into the mud and sucking our boots up with each step. Intense weariness clambered aboard and my steps became more and more laboured. At one o’clock, four hours into the walk, we were approaching the village of Tyndrum, still thirteen kilometres from Bridge of Orchy. It didn’t look good.

But the weather saved us. As we plodded into Tyndrum rain began to bucket down, fine but heavy. Tyndrum has two railways stations, a lower station for trains to Oban, and an upper station for trains to Fort William. And the Fort William line passes through Bridge of Orchy. It was a no-brainer. Bent under the downpour we walked as quickly as we could up the hill to the tiny station. Yes, the next train did stop at Bridge of Orchy and it would come by in one hour. Perfect. We sat on the deserted platform munching apples and watching the rain-hooded ghosts of Tyndrum’s hills.

Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy takes just fifteen minutes by train. We enjoyed every second of the warm, dry carriage. It was raining hard in Bridge of Orchy too, but I had a spring in my step as we headed down the hill towards the hubbub of the bar in the Bridge of Orchy Hotel.

Arrival at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel. Warmth, dryness and a bottle of cider.

Arrival at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel. Warmth, dryness and a bottle of cider beckon.

Glazgeh, the friendly city

[First, a quick apology. Reliable wi-fi is a rare and precious commodity in the Scottish Highlands. After Glasgow we stayed overnight at hotels in Ardlui, Crianlarich and Bridge of Orchy. None of them had a satisfactory wi-fi connection. In fact in Crianlarich we were even outside mobile phone range. But five days into our Scottish odyssey here we are now in Distant Hills Guest House in the village of Spean Bridge where a wi-fi connection is possible but still very slow. So, here goes… my report from Glasgow. Fingers crossed.]

I was standing at the checkout in a Glasgow pharmacy. As the girl at the counter scanned my purchase she asked:

“De oo suidnf smdjd?

“Excuse me, could you say that again?”

She spoke very slowly.

“D’ye have a points card?”

“No.”

“Och… wde fhnsornfk djke ejsxsh?”

“Sorry?”

“Would ye like a points card? It’s free.”

“No thanks.”

She rang up my purchase and money changed hands.

“Whdb jfifk ejeod dkdk?”

“Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

She must have thought I was hard of hearing, or a typical tourist dullard, so she spoke syllable by syllable, a bit more loudly.

“Would’ye like a wee baggie?”

I could only guess what a wee baggie was but it sounded vaguely illicit and possibly enjoyable so I said “yes”. My purchase dropped into a small plastic supermarket bag.

The famous dialect of Glasgow is indeed a challenge. Emmy and I took a “hop on hop off” tourist bus around the city. The guide on the bus spoke with a broad Glasgow accent. Emmy claimed she understood about 50% of what he said. As a native speaker of English still clinging to the shreds of a Scottish heritage, it was a matter of honour for me to claim I understood everything he was saying but in truth I don’t think I made it past 60%. It was a shock to discover that the guide thought he was speaking standard English, because from time to time he illustrated his anecdotes by dropping into “real” Glaswegian English. And when he did he might as well have been speaking Cantonese. But around me a group of American tourists sat entranced. They almost abandoned their plans to go shopping (almost) just to prolong the pleasure of immersion in our guide’s exotic patter.

A Glasgow street scene: chunky heritage buildings in the city centre contrast with the ranks of featureless grey townhouses in the suburbs.

A Glasgow street scene: chunky heritage buildings in the city centre contrast with the ranks of featureless grey townhouses that dominate in the suburbs.

Glasgow must be the friendliest city I’ve ever visited. Forget tattooed, crew-cut football hooligans and Irvine Welsh’s foul-mouthed, head butting hard men. The people are wonderfully helpful and friendly but (and I like this) without too much smiling. It started with the immigration officer at Glasgow airport. Somewhat wearily he asked me what the purpose of my visit to Scotland was.

“I’m here to do some long-distance walking.”

I asked him if he had ever done any walking across Scotland. Instantly he brightened.

“No, but I like bike riding. I’ve ridden through the highlands and the lowlands.”

He put down his scanning wand.

“In winter too,” he added. Then he was off. A stream of advice poured over me. “Watch out for the biting midges… they’re ferocious. You should use Tabard repellent. And pack some warm clothes… the weather can change very suddenly. And it will rain at least every second day.”

I could sense restlessness in the queue behind me but he didn’t see it. He had a far-away look in his eyes. He was wandering in lands far beyond the glass walls of his cell. It was a while before he let me through.

Then on the bus into Glasgow I sat beside a Scottish passenger who had flown in on the same flight from Dubai. He quizzed me on our walking plans and (like the immigration officer) had some rich gifts of advice for us. I happened to mention that, at our first stop (Ardlui, north of Glasgow, on the banks of Loch Lomond) we would have to cross the lake by boat to set foot on the West Highland Way walking trail. A look of good-humoured horror spread across his face.

“You’re in Scotland,” he said. “Here, don’t ever say ‘lake’. You’re going to cross the loch.”

The friendliness pursued us into the streets. We were standing on the corner of an intersection waiting for the traffic lights to change. This unusual behaviour attracted the attention of a large beefy gentleman in a tradesman’s brightly coloured yellow jacket.

“Are you all right? Do ye need any help? Are ye lost?”

We assured him we were OK, just two old people waiting for the lights to change. As he turned away he couldn’t conceal his disappointment.

Maybe it’s a hangover from last year’s Commonwealth Games, but I suspect it’s just the way people are. It is strange to say this about a city with Glasgow’s reputation for toughness, but we encountered a kind of innocence here. Maybe they simply haven’t yet had enough foreign tourists squatting on them to besmirch that innocence.

The grave of Glasgow's patron saint St. Mungo underneath the main nave of Glasgow Cathedral.

The grave of Glasgow’s patron saint St. Mungo underneath the main nave of Glasgow Cathedral.

There’s a lot to talk about in Glasgow, but for me the city has a show-stopper that chases all other attractions into the shadows. It is Glasgow Cathedral. It is a big building, one that could only have been built with the ruthless coercive power of medieval religion. Its stone walls, pointed arches and massive fluted columns are darkened in places almost to black. The main nave is a vast vault of air reaching up into an arcade of curving, criss-crossed beams too distant for details of its embellishment to be seen. The space is bookended with palisades of shimmering kaleidoscopically coloured stained glass windows. There is a lower floor too. Here, squeezed among the columns that hold up the massive building lies the tomb of Saint Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow. It was once an important place of pilgrimage, and on a small scale it still is.

Around the lower level there are several small chapels and softly-lit prayer alcoves. In several of them spectacularly beautiful stained glass windows illustrate extracts from the New Testament. Of course a certain amount of military dross has been stuck on the walls too – several bronze plaques commemorating those who died in Britain’s wars of imperial aggression, plus an engraved marble relief of gallant highlanders charging into ranks of impudent Arabs in the 19th century battle of Tel El Kebir in Egypt. (Not much has changed, has it?) If there is an almighty God, and he has the dreary chore of sitting in judgement on the peccadillos of deceased soldiers, he will probably look sympathetically on the wrecked souls that have been blasted in his direction from Britain’s battlefields. But he may be less considerate of those who used the bullying power of Christian piety to decree death in distant lands for reasons utterly incompatible with – even contemptuous of – Jesus Christ’s teachings. How does this stuff get hung on the walls of a church? Beats me.

A prayer alcove

A prayer alcove, also underneath the main nave.

In the main nave stood a lectern with an enormous Bible on it lying open at the rhetorical magnificence of Job chapters eighteen to twenty-one. As other tourists jostled around me looking for good camera angles I managed to snatch up an impression or two from its pages. According to the Book of Job, travel is morally beneficial.

Have you never questioned those who travel? Have you paid no regard to their accounts that the evil man is spared from the day of calamity, that he is delivered from the day of wrath? Who denounces his conduct to his face? Who repays him for what he has done? He is carried to the grave, and watch is kept over his tomb. The soil in the valley is sweet to him; all men follow after him, and a countless throng goes before him. “So how can you console me with your nonsense? Nothing is left of your answers but falsehood!”

In_prayer_Glasgow_2

Not all the throng in the cathedral were tourists. On the other hand maybe this gentleman was was a tourist, but one who had seen too much.

Opposite the entrance to the cathedral stands the small but interesting Glasgow Museum of Religious Life and Art. It provides a pleasant counter to the Christian grandeur and barbarity of the cathedral. All the world’s major religions – and even “primal” religions – are given exactly equal status in the museum’s displays. It is a nice lesson in open-mindedness and comparative religion, especially right next door to Glasgow Cathedral. Best of all, an endless loop video allows followers of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Judaism to talk directly and informally about aspects of their faith. Without exception, they speak with strong Scottish accents.

The Road to Drumnadrochit

“Drumnadrochit.”

Roll this word around in your mouth. Trill the “r” (there are two of them) and gargle the “ch”.

Drrrrumnadrrrrohhhhit.

Thanks to this word, Emmy and I are about to set off on a walking holiday in Scotland and England. (There must be a better word than “holiday” for the grim agony of long-distance walking.) Somehow, the resonance of Drumnadrochit has awakened a memory from a past life. There must be a gene somewhere inside me that has recorded a whisper of my Celtic heritage. Anyway, I want to go there and hear local people say “Drumnadrochit”.

Drumnadrochit is a small village halfway along Loch Ness. We are scheduled to stay the night there on Tuesday, August 11th. And I’m going to report on it at length in this blog. We will be walking the length of Loch Ness – from Fort William in the west to Inverness in the east – in effect from one side of Scotland to the other. For me, the highlight will be Drumnadrochit.

Before reaching this emotional summit, we will be exploring the foreign-language landscape of Glasgow (English is not spoken there, so they tell me). Then we do a combination railway and hiking trip up the west coast through Fort William as far as Mallaig, opposite the island of Skye. From Mallaig we’ll do a one-day excursion to Skye, then back to Fort William for the trans-Scotland trek.

From Inverness we head down to Edinburgh by train for a few Festival events, then on to York and London also by train. After some shows in London and a day at the cricket (Australia tormenting the Poor Old Poms as usual) we’ll finish up with a nine-day ramble along the ancient pilgrim route through the North Downs from Rochester to Canterbury, then for good measure on to Dover.

That’s the plan.

But since we are both now VERY OLD there are opportunities for the plan to come unstuck with every step we take. In fact it’s practically guaranteed to happen. So stick with this blog, dear reader. Sometime in the next six weeks you will be rewarded with a disaster. Disasters are so much more interesting (correction… enjoyable) than nice goals smoothly reached after careful planning.

Don’t you think?

And this is what we are leaving behind. We are swapping Canberra’s wintery Lake Tuggeranong (below) for Loch Ness. You might ask “What’s the difference… the two lakes sorta look the same, don’t they?” Maybe, but being the capital city and seat of parliament Canberra has many, many more monsters than Loch Ness. Most of them are more funny than scary (though a few of them are genuinely scary), but unfortunately they live on the surface or splash around in the shallows. So we’re looking forward to Loch Ness for its silence and its depth. Cold_Canberra_2015b

From Home to Dome and Back: Dispatches from Small Wars in Australian Suburbia (1)

“The suburbs” are right at the centre of contemporary urban culture, especially in the sprawling cities of the US and Australia, so it’s not surprising that suburbia looms large in popular culture. After all, it’s where most people live. But for many, suburbia has a bad name or is seen as problematic. In popular culture the suburbs are a nice soft target. Back in the 1960s Pete Seeger, for example, sang about suburban uniformity and conformity.

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes, little boxes
Little boxes all the same…

In cinema and on TV the quiet exterior of the burbs hides a seething cauldron of passion and conflict. The (for a time) wildly popular TV show Desperate Housewives depicts the suburbs as a layer of prim and prosperous “make-up” (so to speak) laid on thick over a social complexion blotched by emotional lesions, bruises and scar tissue. In Clint Eastwood’s much praised Gran Torino suburbia is a battleground in America’s culture wars. “Get off my lawn,” Clint snarls down the barrel of his shotgun as the tides of Asian migration lap around him. Australia’s never-ending soap opera Neighbours is set in a suburb of Melbourne. Its characters walk in and out of one another’s houses as if they were members of a single extended family. According to Wikipedia, over the years Neighbours has focussed on many serious problems such as teenage pregnancy, marital breakdown, imprisonment, career problems, pregnancy, abortion, adultery, drug trafficking, stalking, kidnapping, accidental death, murder, incest, sexuality, gambling, surrogacy, and health issues like multiple sclerosis…. all in one street!

If only the quiet suburban street where I live was as interesting.

A view over the southern suburbs of Canberra. You can see why it is known as “the bush capital.”

Walking paths like this, shared with cyclists and joggers, criss-cross the suburbs of Canberra.

But wait… maybe my street is as interesting. Not as dramatic or sensational as Neighbours or Gran Torino, of course, but fascinating nevertheless. Even a short walk through the suburbs of Canberra – which is about as “suburban” as you can get – tells us a whole lot about the complexities of local society, even about the highs and lows of life in general. So come along with Emmy and me as we walk from our front door in Gowrie, Tuggeranong, to the Hyperdome shopping mall and back. In its own quiet way this walk twangs with social tension.

From home, our walk snakes through suburbs and parkland for about 17 kilometres. It takes us south through the sleepy streets of Monash, around Lake Tuggeranong, through the Tuggeranong Town Centre (better known to us as “lego-land”) to the Hyperdome, then back home through suburban parkland. It’s a walk we often do, and usually we knock it over in about four hours, including a generous stop for coffee and a big chocolate-topped caramel square in the Hyperdome shopping mall.

“Legoland”… the commercial centre of Tuggeranong, built in the 1980s, seen from across its adjacent, artificial lake.

Our first landmark, just 500 metres from home, is the Gowrie Primary School (http://www.gowrieps.act.edu.au/), a government school administered by the Department of Education and Training of the Australian Capital Territory. It has about 200 pupils and a total of 20 dedicated staff. The federal government’s My School web site (http://www.myschool.edu.au/) shows that, on the whole, the quality of Gowrie Primary School is good, though in some domains it is struggling to reach the national average by comparison with similar schools across the country.

In 2008 the federal government announced a “stimulus spending” program intended to buoy the economy in the face of the Global Financial Crisis. The money was splurged on education infrastructure – mostly buildings – in a program called Building the Education Revolution. It seems to have worked. As the economies of Europe, the US and many other countries were knee-capped Australia strolled away from the crisis pretty much unscathed. But there was criticism of BER, even ridicule. I had heard vaguely about this, but little did I know that just metres from my front door there was, in effect, a diorama that summed up the criticism beautifully.

Gowrie Primary copped two projects. The first was a multi-purpose building that included two new classrooms, a shared learning area plus community and student facilities. It cost 2.15 million smackeroos. Sounds expensive to me, but what do I know? At least it made some sense in educational terms. But the other project was more problematic. It was “new shade structures” over a small cluster of existing playground equipment. Translation: three fairly small curved iron roofs on stilts. And the cost? $124,000.

The Gowrie Primary School playground as it used to be…

… and $125,000 later, as it is now.

Why build an expensive roof over a few bits of play equipment? To protect children from the serious threat of sunshine, of course. But if a bit of sunshine is so dangerous what’s going to protect the fragile little darlings as they walk along unshaded footpaths? And play on soccer fields? And dig holes in their back yards? Or (the danger! the danger!) build sand castles on the beach in summer?

The playground project was unnecessary and outrageously overpriced. But worse, it was an investment in useless infrastructure at a time when teachers were on their knees begging for training to improve their classroom skills. $124,000 would have gone a very long way towards boosting learning outcomes and teacher morale at a school that is currently a bit below average. But for our politicians and economists and actuaries what was important was the necessity to spend, to “get the money out the door” as one of them said. And being simple-minded creatures, for them new buildings were easier to see and count than improved reading and maths.

Gowrie Primary is a capsule that represents what has happened at thousands of schools across Australia. Its “new shade structures” stands like a memorial to haste, waste and ruthless price gouging by construction companies.

But let’s move on. We step on to a “cycle path”, pad down a gentle slope, and suddenly we are at war. There is a sharp “ding!” behind us and a lycra-clad figure wearing a streamlined helmet and wrap-round sun glasses is bearing down on us at warp speed. Hastily we step off the path and bend away from the quick smack of air he leaves in his wake. “Four more!” comes a shout and four more hunched cyborgs with pumping thighs sweep past. Cautiously I look back, extend a leg over the path, stand on it cautiously, look around again, and resume walking. We survive the ambush, but somehow the pleasure of the walk has been tarnished.

Tilting into the corner, two cyclists bear down on us very fast.

I have to admit, though, that 90% of cyclists are cheerful, considerate and polite, sometimes embarrassingly polite. But the remaining 10% make your teeth grind. They seem to consist of two categories: frustrated Tour de France aspirants, and cycling ideologues. The former treat surburban paths as their personal velodrome. Sometimes they form peletons. They ride very fast. They hate using their brakes. You can’t talk to them, let alone reason with them… they’re too quick. A sweaty flash and a click of gears, and they’re gone. The second category can sometimes be downright nasty. They are pedal-power activists. You can’t reason with them either. For them, riding a bicycle is a statement of concern for the environment and good health. It is the way of the future. A crusade. Anyone who gets in their way – whether a motorist or a walker – is violating their rights and is an affront to their moral superiority.

For over a decade bicycle sales have boomed in Australia, far exceeding car sales. At the same time more and more people are taking up walking as a form of exercise and even (as in my case) a form of meditation. So far the two trends have managed to coexist on the increasingly clogged suburban artery-paths of Canberra. But it is an uneasy peace. At some point in the future someone is going to get injured, the two tribes will go to war, and they may have to be physically separated.

Here are a couple of news reports that illustrate the issue, one from Australia (http://city-north-news.whereilive.com.au/news/story/walkers-on-war-path-over-cyclists/) and another from the US (http://www.dnainfo.com/20100719/upper-west-side/cyclists-spar-with-dog-walkers-riverside-park).

A trackside map of Lake Tuggeranong. Starting from the bottom right corner we normally walk anti-clockwise around the lake following the squiggly green line – a distance of 6.7 kilometres.

So… dodging cyclists we reach the tree-fringed waters of Lake Tuggeranong, about an hour into the walk. We turn right and head north along the eastern bank of the lake. (You can see a photo of Emmy walking this segment of the path above the title of this post at the very top of the page.) Like the other lakes of Canberra, Lake Tuggeranong is an artificial lake (you can see its dam on Google Earth at: 35°24’30.87″S, 149° 3’48.61″E). Perhaps this is why it is difficult to keep it clean. Under its tranquil surface the lake is badly polluted. There are four main kinds of pollutant: storm debris, algae, intrusive fish species and man-made rubbish.

Lake Tuggeranong can be dazzlingly beautiful…

… but close up, its beauty is stained by blue-green algae and other pollutants, a gift to the lake from human life-style and commerce.

When heavy rain thrashes the Canberra region (it doesn’t happen often, but when it does happen it can be biblical) it throws debris into the city’s lakes. Several streams feed into Lake Tuggeranong and the traps at their entry points get overwhelmed. Leaf debris, jagged branches, sewage and mud fill the lake. At other times, especially after long periods of dry weather, algae oozes through the water like green vomit. Contact with it can cause skin irritation, stomach infections and even bleeding in the liver. Like a pin suddenly jabbed into a bureaucratic buttock, algae panics hit the local government several times a year. Lakes are closed, signs erected, edicts issued, and warning fingers are wagged at citizens through the mass media.

But why do these outbreaks occur? Well, blue-green algae is a natural component of fresh-water and marine environments everywhere. The bloom feeds off phosphate compounds that are found naturally. But phosphates are also used in huge quantities on farmland, in household gardens and in some manufacturing processes. These chemicals leach into waterways and end up in Canberra’s lakes. They should be diluted or flushed away by the natural action of rainwater, but climate change has reduced rainfall (Canberra’s last drought – the longest in its history – lasted from 2001 to 2008), and when phosphate use keeps rising, algae blooms banquet on the man-made feast, growing fat and greasy.

There are solutions, of course, but they would cost more money than people are prepared to pay. And most people prefer not to be confronted with the less savoury consequences of their lifestyle choices and profit-spinning enterprises. Environmentalists will cry out for action, conservative governments, commercial interests and “economic rationalists” will resist action. And anyway, efforts to restore degraded rivers and lakes have not been very successful. So the problem will persist and almost certainly get worse until the situation becomes unbearable. Only then will something really decisive be done. (For a short TV report on the issue, see http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-03-16/lakes-closed/3895324 ).

Perhaps it’s this nutrient-rich orgy that also sustains the non-native fish that have somehow got into the lake, and allows them to grow as big and fat as the blooms of algae. There are two species of foreign fish in particular that flourish: European carp and redfin.

According to Wikipedia, “in Australia, enormous anecdotal and mounting scientific evidence indicates introduced carp are the cause of permanent turbidity and loss of submergent vegetation in the Murray-Darling river system, with severe consequences for river ecosystems, water quality and native fish species. In Victoria, common carp has been declared as noxious fish species, the quantity a fisher can take is unlimited. In South Australia, it is an offence for this species to be released back to the wild. An Australian company converts common carp into plant fertilizer.” Redfin, also called European perch, likewise deplete stocks of native fish and cause turbidity.

The European carp, an abundant pest that takes food from the mouths of native fish and keeps the water of Canberra’s lakes clouded with mud. (Wikipedia image.)

Neither the European carp nor the redfin are considered good to eat. In Australia they are commonly seen as vermin and, by law, they must be killed when caught. In fact every year the Canberra Fishermen’s Club holds a day-long event called the Canberra Carp-Out in which anglers compete to take as much carp and redfin as they can from the city’s lakes, hoping this will free up the lakes for native fish to recover. Some hope. This year almost 1,000 entrants registered. They caught 1,113 “noxious fish” with a total weight of 1,481 kilograms (that’s over one kilogram per fish!). All were sent off to the Australian National University’s environment agency to be recycled into garden compost… an ignominious end for these innocent pests. Yet somehow they thrive. By next year they’ll be back more numerous than ever and the Carp-Out will be an even bigger event. Evidently the war on carp and redfin is not going to be won easily.

The turbid waters of Lake Tuggeranong also stink with rubbish, although as you walk the shores of the lake your stink-meter will go up and down depending on the time of year, the direction of the wind and the corner of the lake you are passing. Most often there will be no smell at all and not much to see. But around the next headland you will gulp and gag as a sour smell gets into your mouth. Trapped in the quiet waters of an inlet you will see milk cartons, plastic bags, beer cans, paper cups from McDonalds and KFC (both chains have branches on the lake shore), clothes, car tyres, plastic bottles, the occasional rusting supermarket trolley, and much more.

A rubbish trap in one of the streams that flow into Lake Tuggeranong. After rain, these traps fail to stop debris and rubbish from piling up in the lake.

On the annual Clean Up Australia Day hundreds of volunteers hold their noses, steady their stomachs, and fan out through Canberra to clear away a year’s deposit of detritus. In 2011 a total of 160 tonnes of gunk were collected in one day over the whole city, and many scores of these tonnes came out of the city’s three main lakes.

An Aboriginal ceremonial meeting place on the shores of Lake Tuggeranong.

Emmy and I have now reached an aboriginal meeting ground on the lake’s shore (35°24’31.19″S, 149° 4’10.46″E). Here we stop for a few minutes to draw breath and drink. We have covered a little over six kilometers. In my next post we’ll walk past a “Men’s Shed” just 500 metres ahead of us, tuck into some unhealthy food among the fatties of the Hyperdome, and look at two institutions of religious faith along the home stretch of our path.

Update: On May 24th 2012 Lake Burley Griffin in the centre of Canberra was closed by the National Capital Authority because of blue-green algae readings that were said to be 1000 times above safe levels and “potentially fatal.” A big water jet in the middle of the lake was turned off because of fears that it might spread a fine mist of algae laden water that would endanger the public. Read the full news report at: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/potentially-fatal-levels-of-bluegreen-algae-close-lake-20120524-1z86r.html#ixzz1vs9cbAiH

Refreshing greenery along the path from our home to the Hyperdome shopping mall.

Across Europe Alone, On Foot, Aged Eighteen

Patrick Leigh Fermor A Time of Gifts. London: John Murray, 2004 (first published 1977), 284 pp; Between the Woods and the Water. London: John Murray, 2004 (first published 1986), 242 pp.

In December 1933, as a snowy winter settled over Europe, an English teenager – Patrick Leigh Fermor – fresh out of school, set out to walk alone from the Hook of Holland across Europe to Istanbul (or “Constantinople” as he called it). As the crow flies this is well over 2,000 kilometres, but the distance he traversed must eventually have been closer to 3,000 kilometres. Although he seems to have walked most of the way, he didn’t walk all the way. He went by train over some legs of the trip, occasionally took lifts in cars and barges, and even rode part of the way on horseback. His parents sent him £1 a week to sustain him. He slept in barns or in the open or in small hotels, and thanks to miraculously acquired networks of generous acquaintances, he had memorable stays in the homes of local people, even in a few manors and castles. He was precociously intelligent, strong-willed and slightly eccentric with obsessive interests in certain arcane domains of art, architecture, history, literature and language. He was gregarious and made friends easily, but he also enjoyed solitude, a feature of his personality that is at the heart of an earlier book, the grippingly atmospheric A Time to Keep Silence in which he describes stays at quietist monasteries in France.

It took Fermor a little over one year to reach Istanbul. Around half a century later he published a two volume account of the walk that has become a classic of English travel literature. A Time of Gifts (1977) traces his journey from London to the Hungarian border, and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) follows him through Hungary and Romania to the Bulgarian border. A planned third volume that would have covered the last leg of his walk never materialised. He died last year aged 96.

Fermor brings the walking experience of 80 years ago vividly to life. Compare, for example, his walking kit then with the kit of today. He lists the paraphernalia he is carrying as he walks the mountains of Romania. He is wearing “ammunition boots” bought from Millets in the Strand, London. Two thousand kilometres after purchase he reports that his boots are “crunching along on their only slightly blunted hobnails [and] were still good for unlimited miles.”

He takes stock of his clothes…

“The old breeches were soft with much wear and cleaning, and every stitch was intact; only the grey puttees had suffered minor damage, but nothing showed when I had snipped off the ragged edges where snow and rain had frayed them. A grey shirt with the sleeves rolled up completed this marching gear.” (Between the Woods and the Water p.172-173)

He rummages through his “small” rucksack.

“[It] held all I needed, to wit: a pair of dark flannel bags and another light canvas pair; a thin, decent-looking tweed jacket; several shirts; two ties, gym shoes, lots of socks and jerseys, pyjamas, the length of coloured braid Angela had given me; a dozen new handkerchiefs and a sponge bag, a compass, a jack-knife, two candles, matches, a pipe – falling into disuse – tobacco, cigarettes, and – a new accomplishment – paper for rolling them, and a flask filled in turn, as the countries changed, with whiskey, Bols, schnapps, barack, tzuica, slivivitz, arak and tsiporo. In one of the side pockets there was a five-shilling Ingersoll watch that kept perfect time when I remembered to take it out and wind it up.”

“The only awkward item was the soldier’s greatcoat; I hadn’t worn it for months but felt reluctant to get rid of it. (Luckily. It was perfect for sleeping out, and, folded into a tight sausage and tied round the top of the rucksack, scarcely visible.) I still had the Hungarian walking-stick, intricately carved as a mediaeval crosier, the second replacement for the original ninepenny ashplant from the tobacconist’s off Sloane Square. Apart from sketch-book, pencils and disintegrating maps, there was my notebook-journal and my passport. There was Hungarian and Rumanian Self-Taught (little progress in the one, hesitant first steps in the other); I was re-reading Antic Hay; and there was Schlegel & Tieck’s Hamlet, Prinz von Danemark, bought in Cologne; also, given by the same kind hand as the rucksack, and carefully wrapped up, the beautiful little seventeenth century duadecimo Horace from Amsterdam.”

These few paragraphs say much (but far from all, of course) about Fermor’s interests and style. He is minutely observant. He is besotted with words. He has a knack for encapsulating what he sees in memorable images. Given that he wrote the two books decades after his walk, his detailed memory of the walk is phenomenal. He did, though, keep journals, most (but not all) of which, survived. He also appears to have retraced his steps over parts of the walk in later years. His copious and very learned commentaries on places, buildings, people and texts must, in part, have been distilled from the maturing of his mind, his reading and his experiences in the four or five decades after the walk itself. And there can be little doubt that much of the text, especially the dialogues, is not a documentary facsimile of what he experienced, but was imaginatively reconstructed decades afterwards.

There is no sarcasm, no rancour, little irony, no English snootiness, no hierarchy of cultures. All is fresh. There is little criticism of the communities and individuals he encounters, one of the few exceptions being a scathing portrait of some young nazis (he walked across Germany less than a year after Hitler had taken power). He takes pleasure in those he meets, from Romany shepherds to aristocrats of the remnant – soon to be erased – Hungarian aristocracy, from Konrad – a dodgy street-wise companion with hilariously bookish English – to Angela, his (married) lover for a blissful few weeks in the eden of Carpathia.

Above all it is the intensity of the experience and the exultant sense of youthful freedom that irradiate the narrative.

“As usual, on lonely stretches, poetry and songs came to the rescue, sometimes starting echoes. I still had plenty of food; there were dozens of streams to drink from, many of them thick with watercress, and as I flung myself face down beside one like a stag at eve, I thought how glad I was, at that particular moment, not to be standing properly at ease on the parade ground at Sandhurst. Oxford would have been better, but this was best.” (Between the Woods and the Water p.192-193)

The inevitable pains of walking are little more than momentary irritations.

“Running about in gym shoes next day, my foot landed on an inch of nail sticking out of a plank in a dismantled woodshed and it went clean through. There was little pain and not much blood but it hurt to walk on, so I lay reading in a deck-chair under a tree, then hobbled about with a stick. It healed in three days, and on the fourth I set off.” (Between the Woods and the Water p.215)

There is poignancy in his depiction of the soon to be devastated natural, and built, landscape with its soon to disappear wildlife and people. It is almost unbearable to learn in these pages what we are rapidly losing, or have already lost, in Europe, indeed across the world. Here, for example, is his unforgettable portrait of an eagle – descriptive writing at its finest:

“Soon after setting off in the morning, I halted on a grassy bluff to tie up a lace when I heard a sound that was half a creak and half a ruffle. Looking over the edge to a similar jut just fifteen yards below, I found myself peering at the hunched shoulders of a very large bird at the point where his tawny feathers met plumage of a paler chestnut hue: they thatched his scalp and the nape of his neck and he was tidying up the feathers on his breast and shoulders with an imperiously curved beak. A short hop shifted the bird farther along the ledge and it was only when, with a creak, he flung out his left wing to its full stretch and began searching his armpit, that I took in his enormous size. He was close enough for every detail to show: the buff plus-four feathers covering three-quarters of his scaly legs, the yellow and black on his talons, the square-ended tail feathers, the yellow strip at the base of his upper beak. Shifting from his armpit to his flight-feathers, he set about preening and sorting as though the night had tousled them. He folded the wing back without haste, then flung out the other in a movement which seemed to put him off balance for a moment, and continued his grooming with the same deliberation.

Careful not to move an eyelash, I must have watched for a full twenty minutes. When both wings were folded , he sat peering masterfully about, shrugging and hunching his shoulders from time to time, half-spreading a wing then folding it back, and once stretching the jaws of his beak wide in a gesture like a yawn, until at length on a sudden impulse, with a creak and a shudder, he opened both wings to their full tremendous span, rocking for a moment as though his balance were in peril; then, with another two or three hops and a slow springing movement of his plus-four legs, he was in the air, all his flight-feathers fanning out separately and lifting at the tips as he moved his wings down, then dipping with the following upward sweep. After a few strokes, both wings came to rest and formed a single line, with all his flight-feathers curling upwards again as he allowed an invisible air-current to carry him out and down and away, correcting his balance with hardly perceptible movements as he sailed out into the great gulf.” (Between the Woods and the Water p.193-194)

Equally he is sensitive to the palpable, but often esoteric and fragile, presence of history. Here is a random example from Heidelberg in western Germany, where a visit to a palace awakens memory of connections with the British monarchy of the present.

“That afternoon, with Fritz and a friend, I climbed through the woods to look at the ruins of the palace that overhangs the town: an enormous complex of dark red stone which turns pink, russet or purple with the vagaries of light and the hour. The basic mass is mediaeval, but the Renaissance bursts out again and again in gateways and courtyards and galleries and expands in the delicate sixteenth-century carving. Troops of statues posture in their scalloped recesses. Siege and explosion had partly wrecked it when the French ravaged the region. When? In the Thirty Years War; one might have guessed… But who had built it? Didn’t I know? Die Kurfursten van der Pfalz! The Electors Palatine… We were in the old capital of the Palatinate…

Distant bells, ringing from faraway English class-rooms, were trying to convey a forgotten message; but it was no good. “Guess what this gate is called!” Fritz said, slapping a red column. “The Elizabeth, or English Gate! Named after the English princess.” Of course! I was there at last! The Winter Queen! Elizabeth, the high-spirited daughter of James I, Electress Palatine and, for a year, Queen of Bohemia! She arrived as a bride of seventeen and for five years of her reign, Heidelberg, my companions said, had never seen anything like the masques and the revels and the balls. But soon, when the Palatinate and Bohemia were both lost and her brother’s head was cut off and the Commonwealth had reduced her to exile and poverty, she was celebrated as the Queen of Hearts by a galaxy of champions. Her great-niece, Queen Anne, ended the reigning line of the Stuarts and Elizabeth’s grandson, George I, ascended the throne where her descendant still sits.” (A Time of Gifts p.58-59)

This dense erudition appears almost on every page of the two books. Fermor’s esoteric scholarly impulses (today they might be called “nerdish” but eighty years ago they summoned up real respect) are imbued with reverence that fetishises the objects of his obsessive interest. Even his “little edition of Horace” mentioned above, gets the treatment. “It was bound in stiff, grass-green leather,” he says, “the text had long s’s, mezzotint vignettes of Tibur, Lucretilis and the Bandusian spring, a scarlet silk marker, the giver’s bookplate and a skeleton leaf from his Estonian woods.”

In fact his ultra-precise use of language can be a problem for the vocab-challenged reader (e.g. me). On almost every page I was brought to a halt by words I didn’t know. This was a real obstacle to enjoyment of the two books. Part way through Between the Woods and the Water I became so exasperated with my stop-start progress that I made a list of the words that I only understood after looking them up in my Macquarie Dictionary (and some of them weren’t in this pretty fat dictionary). Between pages 188 and 238 (50 pages) for example, I puzzled over the following (see how many you recognise): tines, boles, curvetting, semibreves, ashlars, dejection-cones, ruffle (describing a sound), buff (describing feathers), beetle (for felling trees?), billhook, deal (as in “cut into deal planks”), elf-locks, corvees, rebarbative, rubrics, distaff, shieling, adumbration, osier, greaved, undercroft, askim, cumbered, agaves, kursaals, sabretaches, viridian drugget, rubicund, sybaritic, snotties, volutes, hay-wains, tabards, gyre, empyrean, baldric.

For all this, Fermor’s memoir is compellingly readable. Above all it is the author’s exuberant embrace of life that is memorable. It would be much too glib to say it is a “hymn to lost youth” but the title of the first volume A Time of Gifts is lifted from Louis MacNeice’s poem “Twelfth Night” with its melancholy, solemnly tolling evocation of the sense of loss that follows the years of youth:

For now the time of gifts is gone,

O boys that grow, O snows that melt,

O bathos that the years must fill…

As I read I was increasingly invaded by a kind of despair. What Fermor embodied – his courage, his exuberance, his sense of adventure, his strong sense of personal independence, his initiative, his trust in people and trust in life itself… today they all seem to be increasingly under attack by disciples of the security industry and the “safety” ethic.. In particular, the notion that young people – teenagers – cannot be trusted to be left alone that I feel seems to be on the increase. This makes it more difficult for starry-eyed teenagers to do what Fermor did. Back in the 1930s the imperial ethos still ruled in Britain, at least it ruled the middle class and the petty aristocracy that Fermor’s family came from. It was common – in fact normal and expected – for young men to “go to the colonies” and go alone. For the middle and upper classes of Europe the imperial age was an interregnum of freedom between centuries of feudal and church dominated authoritarianism and the rise of fascism and communism. In the second half of the twentieth century, after the fall of fascism and communism, there was a widepread reaction against excessive regimentation and surveillance of young people. “Flower power”, sexual liberation, rebellious rock music, The Peace Corps, women’s emancipation… all these and much more flourished, and still do. But today there can be no doubt that the freedoms of teenagers are being wound back, slowly, steathily, but very steadily, mostly in the name of economic rationalism and security.

Somehow we now find ourselves in an age when many (most?) parents are reluctant to let their children walk alone to the local school. A few years back a New York mother triggered a furore when she permitted her nine-year old son to ride home alone – alone!! – on the city subway (see http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/23935873/ns/today-today_news/t/mom-lets–year-old-take-subway-home-alone/#.T4j5ZFG_G88. ) The mother was subjected to abuse and the gobbledigook of “experts”. Given that New York is today one of the safest cities in the U.S. few were able to produce coherent objections to the mother’s decision. The best that many could do was burble the word “inappropriate” (what a slithery, empty, weazel-word that is).

In 2009 Australian teenager Jessica Watson set off, with her parents’ blessing, to sail alone around the world. She was farewelled with cries of outrage. The Australian Childhood Foundation questioned whether a 16 year old girl would have the ability to fully understand the risks that such a venture would involve. The Australian Family Association said it is normally people of 50 or 60 who have the sort of maturity needed to deal with long-distance journeys and isolation.

Dutch teenager Laura Dekker got much the same treatment. She also wanted to sail alone around the world and her father supported her. But when the Dutch child welfare authorities got wind of it they objected and ruled that she was too young to be aware of the dangers. A court order placed her in shared parental custody with the Council for Child Care who stopped her departure. The court whined that an isolated two year voyage on the high seas would damage her development. A legal struggle ensued that eventually saw the decision reversed, and at the age of 15 Laura Dekker was permitted to set sail. She, like Jessica Watson and eighteen-year old British teenager Michael Perham, successfully completed the circumnavigation. No harm came to any of them, in fact it was the making of them.

At the entrance to a walking track near Kiama south of Wollongong in New South Wales, a big sign warns walkers (teenagers are explicitly mentioned) that they risk serious injury or death. One of the many mortal dangers they face, apparently, is the danger of getting skittled by a train. You might also get gored by cattle or trampled by horses.

… and here is the fearsomely dangerous track with the big warning sign on the right. The track is pretty much like this all the way down the six kilometres of its length, though in one or two places it does come within ten metres of a steep incline into the sea, and elsewhere it threatens the lives of walkers by approaching to a point about 50 metres from a railway line. But as you can see, there is not a single enraged cow or homicidal horse in sight.

Paradoxically, as our immediate social environment becomes safer there seems to be more and more concern about the fragility of personal safety. “Stay safe” has become a common expression at leave-taking. New Year’s wishes now regularly include an exhortation to “stay safe” in the coming year. The real safety threats we face – population growth, destruction of the environment, climate change, pollution, increasing social divisions, the disappearance of cheap energy etc. – are pushed aside by a fixation on a pastiche of quite rare threats with vaguely human faces: kidnappers, Muslim terrorists, perverts, drive-by gunmen, boat people, drug lords, enraged tail-gaters, teenagers in hoodies etc. etc.

It would be tempting to see conspiracies here, or fulminate in moral terms against timidity, excessive surveillance and obsession with risk aversion. But I prefer to see the phenomenon in more morally neutral, deterministic terms. Economic rationalism and rampant managerialism – two of the most powerful forces at work in our society – impress their values into every nook and cranny of our lives and minds in a creeping, incremental process that we tend not to notice. They rationalise personal surveillance in the name of efficiency, security, ever higher living standards, and even personal freedom. New technology makes close surveillance widely possible and unobtrusive. The mindset of the risk avoidance and risk management industries likewise comes to infuse everything we do. To maximise efficiency, productivity and profit outcomes, threats must be identified (if they can’t be identified they must be conjured up) and risks minimised. Children and teenagers have to be educated into this imperative, this “normality”. If children or teenagers want to wander off on their own in an unregulated way they now find it more difficult to do (far from impossible, of course) than it was in the days of Fermor’s youth.

If he had been young today Patrick Leigh Fermor might have been a teenager in a hoodie. By all accounts he was far from quiet and obedient at school, although in retrospect the misdemeanours that got him kicked out of schools seem very trivial. His account of his long-distance walk does us the service of telling us what we are losing. It is not just youth or a now-distant way of life, but the freedom to be young, to take risks, to be alone, and to be left alone.

Queen Charlotte Track (3): Views To Die For, A Walk To Live For

The sun at my back and my shadow before me on the Queen Charlotte Track.

Emmy and I left Mahana Lodge around 8 a.m. and climbed a steep, winding gravel road some 1.5 kilometres to the top of the ridge about 200 metres above Punga Cove. Here we spotted the entry point to the next leg of the Queen Charlotte Track (41° 7’46.73″S, 174° 8’33.20″E) that would take us 23 kilometres south-west to Torea Saddle and our accommodation at Portage Bay. There was a disquieting notice beside the track… the walk to Torea Saddle, it told us, would take nine hours. Others might walk it more quickly, but for us this turned out to be pretty accurate.

The path runs along a ridge of land that falls away sharply to the sea on both sides. The isthmus is never more than about two kilometres wide (not counting several headlands that jut out into Queen Charlotte Sound). Nowhere along this segment of the track is the bush untouched by human enterprise and intrusive species. In the valleys at the northern end broad tranches of land have been cleared for pasture. On the slopes of the isthmus and on neighbouring necks of land there are extensive pine plantations blotched by commercial felling. In places gorse and broom, with their bright yellow flowers, grow profusely on the trackside interrupted here and there by the purple of thistles and the streaked white of eyebright. In Queen Charlotte Sound and adjacent Kenepuru Sound mussells are farmed. They grow on ropes that stretch between floats arranged in rows across the surface of the water.

Many valley floors have been turned into farmland.

Unsightly swathes of felled pine forest (centre and right) on a headland above Queen Charlotte Sound.

The track is well defined and the walking is easy, often over a soft mat of pine needles and manuka debris. There are several good inclines that will push air loudly in and out of your lungs and fill your ears with the thumping of blood. As we walked, we savoured the mild scent of manuka, and later – as the day warmed – the faint, refreshing perfume of pine. Tunnels of shade – busy with the zizz of a thousand insects – alternated with sections flanked with grass or beaten earth basking in yellow sunlight. Big black cicadas buzzed out of the trees and blundered into us, their wings fluttering momentarily in our ears or beating on our hats. In places they lay dead or fluttering on the path.

Picturesque walking amid stands of manuka (tea tree) forest.

There are two shelters like this on the leg of the track between Punga Cove and Torea Saddle.

It was a walk of panoramas. In the morning there were vast views over farmland sloping away to Kenepuru Sound on the north side of the isthmus. The Maori name for the South Island is Te Wai Pounamu, The Land of Jade Waters, and at the northern extremity of Kenepuru Sound the water is indeed a milky jade green when viewed from the hills above. By midday we were looking south over endless folds and scribbles of dark coastline inter-leaved with the shining waters of Queen Charlotte Sound and beyond. From time to time the snow capped saw-teeth of the Southern Alps shimmered on the horizon further south. Again and again we stood suddenly silenced by the rugged splendour of the vistas.

Looking south, the pounamu-tinged waters of Kenepuru Sound.

Spectacular views of headlands and water from Eatwell’s lookout.

There were close-up pleasures too. Twice we encountered wekas calmly walking the track ahead of us. They politely stepped aside into the bushes to let us overtake them. The weka is about the size of a fullgrown farmyard chook. It has fine plumage mottled in dark brown and light brown in equal parts. Like many of New Zealand’s native birds, it is flightless. As Emmy discovered at Mahana Lodge, wekas are inquisitive birds. They often snitch food and shiny items from human passers-by.

Fellow walkers: flightless, bipedal, largely defenceless, overly trusting, and liable to take things that don’t belong to them. Pretty much like human beings really.

The endearing, vulnerable New Zealand weka.

Shortly after midday we reached the first of two simple shelters located roughly one third and two thirds of the way along this segment of the track. It was equipped with seats, a bench, a toilet and a tank of rainwater. As we sat in the shelter munching on bread rolls a wild weka strolled in. Completely unafraid (though it took care not to come within grabbing range) it snacked for a while on crumbs from our bread rolls before stalking off into the shrubbery. It didn’t try to filch anything from us, but others have not been so lucky. In the guest book at the shelter one exasperated visitor had written “The bird steals everything!”

“The bird steals everything!”

A weka taste-tests Emmy’s lunch.

It was five o’clock in the afternoon when we emerged from the bush at Torea Saddle (41°12’19.80″, 174° 1’58.61″E). After nine hours of steady walking we were both weary. My feet were burning, Emmy’s left knee was throbbing. It was a luxury to trudge the last 800 metres downhill on smooth asphalt and to check in to our accommodation at The Portage resort (41°11’56.29″S, 174° 2’6.53″E, see http://www.portage.co.nz/). We settled into our small apartment and sat on the verandah taking in the views out to Kenepuru Sound in the warm, slowly dimming stillness of early evening. It had been a testing day’s walk but very satisfying, and more spectacularly beautiful than any walk I could remember.

A view to the south from the heights of the Queen Charlotte Track. The Southern Alps are partly snow-capped even in summer.

The following day, a Sunday, was a “rest day” (we really needed it). It dawned misty and cool. We spent the day reading, snoozing, and watching the constantly shifting light over Portage Bay. The clouds lifted, rolled and broke over the surrounding hills creating dramatic sky-scapes that changed almost minute by minute. Light rain began to fall. A couple of yachts twisted uneasily in the bay. The temperature dropped. We turned on the heater in our room.

The front garden at the Portage Hotel resort.

Our apartment at the Portage Hotel with views over the bay from the front verandah.

During the night rain fell steadily. It had eased by daybreak, but the weather was still threatening. If we walked the last leg of the track from Portage to Anakiwa, 23 km away, we would have to reach Anakiwa by 3.00 pm in order to catch the last water-taxi to Picton at 3.30 pm. Sunday’s rain – occasionally heavy – would have made the track, at best, slippery, and more likely boggy in places. There was a certainty of more rain ahead. Given our slow traversal of the 25 kilometres from Punga Cove to Portage two days before, we didn’t really need to think long about our plan for the current day. One of the gifts of old age (and there aren’t all that many) is that it becomes much easier to make discretion the better part of valour. At 11.00 am we were sitting in a water-taxi bumping over Queen Charlotte Sound towards Picton. We had walked a little under 40 kilometres of the 71 kilometre track.

The shifting moods of Portage Bay, overcast but clear…

… then within minutes misty rain rolls in…

… sunlight breaks through and lights up the sea…

… the clouds lift momentarily.

That evening we relaxed at Greg Thomson’s Fernview B&B. Greg and I exchanged reminiscences about our eating adventures walking the Camino Portugues (see Greg’s Camino blog at: http://www.caminoportugal.blogspot.com.au/ and my review “From a mini masterpiece to a wallowing hippopotamus” posted July 21, 2011 in this blog) before Emmy and I headed into town for an evening meal at the Sea-Breeze Café and Bar. I wolfed down a plate of fish and chips (what else?) while Emmy did a good job of demolishing a brick-sized slab of blueberry cheesecake. The proprietor sang slow, sentimental songs at the café’s piano. A cool twilight descended on the largely deserted streets of Picton. New Zealand’s changeable weather had made the Queen Charlotte Track an unpredictable, and therefore especially memorable, experience. We vowed we would be back for more – and soon.

Picton’s quiet waterfront on our last evening in the Marborough Sounds. In the background our ferry waits for next day’s trip across Cook Strait back to Wellington.

Photographs can’t do justice to the natural splendour of the Queen Charlotte Track.