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.

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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.

Queen Charlotte Track (2): Recovery

While Emmy was sleeping off her sea sickness I made a quick excursion to a waterfall about a kilometre away on the hill above Furneaux Lodge. Well… it was supposed to be quick, but the path was difficult and ultimately it took me about three hours to walk to the falls and back.

But it was worth it. The bush was largely (but not completely) pristine native bush. There were tangled skeins of black, woody, supplejack vines (kareao in Maori). In some places they lay on the ground like electric power cables waiting for a walker’s boot to trip over them. It was these vines that in childhood my friends and I prized above all plants. If we found a suitable one we made it into a tough bow and fitted arrows to it made from straight stalks of bracken.

Supplejack vines lie across the path like electric cables.

Like an anaconda snake: a tree root on the path

Everywhere there were thickets of silver fern (ponga) with fronds that were green on the upper surface and silvery white underneath. These are the plants that – besides the kiwi – have become an almost universal symbol of the New Zealand nation, decorating the playing jersies of the god-like All Blacks in particular. But the ferns are not mere mythic symbols, they really exist, and here they are abundant.

Green on top, silver underneath. New Zealand's famed silver fern.

Dry fern fronds hang like exotic necklaces.

There were spindly, black-trunked tree ferns (mamaku), many rising as high as coconut trees. In places they stood in dense clusters with whorls of foliage overlapping in lush profusion as in a prehistoric forest. Here and there a mamaku had crashed to the ground, the hexagonal markings on its trunk like the scales of some eerie black python.

Mamaku ferns stand as tall as tropical coconut palms.

Prehistoric forest habitat... once inhabited by the three-metre tall moa?

Like a scaly fossilised python, a fallen ponga trunk stretches out across our path.

Tea tree (manuka) shrubs were prolific, some forming tunnels of grey trunks and grey vegetation over the path. A few displayed the small white flowers that produce New Zealand’s famed manuka honey. Manuka honey is said to have anti-microbial properties. It is effective as an antiseptic on skin lesions. My favourite toothpaste is New Zealand-made Red Seal Propolis toothpaste infused with honey extract (though I’m not sure whether the extract is manuka honey). The packaging claims it sweetens the breath and keeps gums in good shape, and I think it does.

Queen Charlotte (before she had her 15 children, presumably). Wikipedia image..

The next day, Friday March 9th, Emmy bravely hoisted a backpack on to her back and we set off on the 14 kilometre segment to our next stop, Mahana Lodge at Punga Cove. The track took us around the densely forested shoreline of Endeavour Inlet, named after the ship captained by James Cook when he “discovered” and named Queen Charlotte Sound in 1770 (he stopped by again in 1777). By the way, Queen Charlotte was the German-born wife of King George the third who ruled the United Kingdom from 1760 to 1820. Queen Charlotte gave birth to 15 children and stoically tolerated her husband’s bouts of insanity made famous in Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of King George III (which Emmy and I saw in Bath, England, last year – great show!). Of course, there is a bizarre disconnect between a wild and beautiful arm of water in one of the world’s most remote archipelagos, and a king’s consort who patronised Mozart and Handel in her salons at Buckingham Palace. But history has a habit of smoothing out the jolt of these disconnects and today nobody thinks twice about the powdered, bewigged and bejewelled lady whose haughty face stands behind the name of the sound.

On the track between Furneaux Lodge and Mahana Lodge: a view over Endeavour Inlet.

Fourteen kilometres is not a long stretch but we took it slowly. It was around 3.00 pm when we ambled in to Mahana Lodge (41° 7’52.40″S, 174° 9’14.36″E, see http://www.mahanalodge.co.nz/) to a wonderfully warm welcome from our hostess, Ann Martin. She conducted us to our accommodation, a comfortable cabin behind the main buildings of the lodge. We stretched out on the comfortable bed. On the opposite wall a window looked into a profusion of branches and leaves alive with tiny birds. Around us the forest buzzed and hissed and clicked in the late afternoon warmth. We soon sank into a deep sleep.

Our bush-clad accommodation at Mahana Lodge.

Much better than TV: our personal window into the bird-filled bush at Mahana Lodge.

Dinner was served at 7.00 p.m. in the fading light of early evening. The lodge’s ten guests assembled around a long table in a semi-outdoor garden conservatory. John Martin put on a spectacular display of culinary magic, all home-cooked and (mostly) home grown. I had flavoursome venison patties served on a bed of sweet potato (kumara) mash. Emmy (her appetite suddenly reawakened) tucked into a crispy home-baked chicken and mushroom pie. The side dishes of juicy salad – pulled straight from John’s garden just minutes before – were garnished with the mild, delicious bite of bright red nasturtium petals. Home baked bread and a caraf of Marlborough pinot noir kept the conversation flowing well past nightfall.

Walkers seated for dinner at Mahana Lodge.

Venison patties on kumara mash with (right) chicken and mushroom pie and (centre) nasturtium-decorated salads: our delicious meal at Mahana Lodge.

The following morning, as we checked out, Emmy asked Ann about a mystery that had made her look around nervously the previous night.

“Yesterday afternoon I took off my boots and left them on the verandah outside our room. A little later I found that one of the boots had moved… it was lying under a nearby table and the sock was missing. I went searching for the sock and found it in the garden around the corner at the side of the cabin. How could that happen?”

Ann laughed. “It must have been a weka. There are lots of them around here.”

A weka? I had a vague memory of a small, fat, flightless bird. Later in the day we were to see more – much more – of these endearing but kleptomaniac little creatures.

Queen Charlotte Track (1): A Rough Beginning

The Marlborough Sounds are at the northern end of New Zealand’s South Island. Its narrow channels of water lie between fingers of land that reach like a badly deformed arthritic hand into the waters of Cook Strait. The walk runs for 71 kilometres, from north to south, down one of these fingers (see http://www.qctrack.co.nz/about/). Normally walkers complete the trip in four days. Having little information about the rigours of the walk, Emmy and I decided to take no chances and complete the walk in five days with a one-day recovery break at The Portage resort after the track’s longest segment. We decided to stay at lodges along the way, with our bulky luggage transported from lodge to lodge by water-taxi. Arrangements were made for us by Greg Thomson of Natural Encounters (see http://www.natural-encounters.com/), one of several local companies that offer a variety of support services for walkers and cyclists.

Emmy and I were on the interisland ferry Aratere as it glided quietly out of Wellington harbour on the afternoon of March 7th. We found a seat in the forward lounge where there was a good view over the bow into the tumbled, white-capped expanse of Cook Strait. The sea was rough (at least it seemed so to us landlubbers) but the ship hummed under us with remarkable steadiness. An overcast sky hid the horizon. It was an hour before the South Island – only 25 kilometres from the North Island – eventually emerged. From a ghostly outline it slowly came into focus, a barrier of dark hills directly across our path.

Slowly the South Island emerges from a hazy horizon.

The ferry heads straight towards a barrier of dark hills.

Somehow a chink opened up in the pallisade (Google Earth: 41°12’38.57″S 174°19’5.62″E) and we squeezed through into the flatter waters of Tory Channel. Half an hour later we turned into Queen Charlotte Sound and headed into a strong, chill wind gusting up the narrow trough of water from the cloud-cropped hills to the south. Fold after fold of headland jutted into the grey satin of the the fjord. Silence fell over the passengers as they watched the patchwork green slopes flow past on both sides of the ship.

Looking down Queen Charlotte Sound into the teeth of a chill southerly wind.

Bush covered hills slide past as the ferry nears Picton.

The ferry swivelled and reversed into its berth in the small town of Picton. As arranged, Greg Thomson, our host from Natural Encounters was waiting for us outside the arrivals lounge. He whisked us immediately to our very comfortable accommodation just five minutes away at the Fernview Cottage B&B. Here we relaxed into a simple but tasteful and quiet colonial ambience maintained with careful attention to detail (the peach-coloured roses in our room were real!).

As the long afternoon faded we walked into the centre of Picton in search of dinner. The blustery wind had intensified. Flags in the main street were shaking hard. In the waterside park the branches of pohutukawa trees were bobbing and writhing. A dark cowl of clouds hung over the almost deserted town. We found a haven of warmth in the Café Cortado where we demolished a big meal of fish and chips.

Picton’s Cafe Cortado: a haven of warmth and good food on a cold evening.

Fish and chips for dinner. This is Marlborough, so naturally your fish and chips are served with a glass of world famous Marlborough sauvignon blanc.

The following day – the first day of our walk – the weather was worse. The water was rough on the normally placid sound. Wind was still pouring over Picton like an enormous jet of water, scouring the streets, flattening trees against hillsides like waterweeds in a fast current. We had a water-taxi trip of 35 kilometres ahead of us to the start-point of the walk in Ship Cove at the northern end of the sound. It took well over an hour to get there as the boat bounced and slapped over the increasingly jumpy water. Emmy, who was already ill from a dud meal she had eaten on our flight from Sydney, quickly became sea sick. Queasiness overtook the other passengers too, but the driver of the water-taxi insisted on being cheerful. He force-fed us with facts and figures about the places we passed. “Tory Channel,” he shouted over the roar of the boat’s engine, “was the second most populated place in New Zealand between 1840 and 1860.”

Ready to go… inside our water-taxi on Picton’s waterfront.

Fortified by this useful information (and much more) we made it to the northern end of the sound. But a planned stop at Motuara Island – a carefully protected sanctuary for native birds (location at 41° 5’42.27″S, 174°16’27.51″E) – had to be abandonned. The sea was too rough to permit the water-taxi to berth. At Ship Cove a small cohort of walkers gratefully disembarked, but Emmy sat with her head down retching into a waste paper bin. The first sector of our walk was clearly off the agenda. We stayed on board and headed for our first night’s accommodation at Furneaux Lodge (41° 5’33.79″S, 174°11’14.01″E see http://furneaux.co.nz/) a couple of headlands away from Ship Cove.

Battered by rough seas on Queen Charlotte Sound…

… and Emmy finds it tough going.

Emmy walked unsteadily along the jetty and into the bar at Furneaux Lodge where she slumped into a pew-like seat and laid her head on the table. Even at 11 o’clock in the morning apparently this was normal behaviour for guests so her plight didn’t attract much attention. But as soon as the staff realised she was ill, not hung-over, she was hurried to a hastily tidied guest room and tucked up in bed.

Furneaux Lodge: a haven of good food and bushland quiet.

The cabins at Furneaux Lodge where we were shaken by a short, sharp earthquake.

The wind slowly abated and the sky began to clear. By evening we were both ready to eat. In the Furneaux Lodge restaurant, under sloping glass panels that gave us a restful view of the sky and bush, we enjoyed a meal of grilled salmon fresh from the waters of the sound, with local vegetables and a glass of delicious Marlborough sauvignon blanc.

Later that evening we had a characteristically NZ experience to bring our first day to a close. Just after 8.00 pm a short, sharp earth tremor shook our semi-detached cabin. It was like a sudden angry gust of wind that slapped the room hard, rattling the beams and slamming shut the bathroom door. Outside all was serene. It was a good, invigorating shake that set our hearts thumping for a few moments. The following morning we learned that the epicentre of the quake had been under the sea about 40 km north-west of Paraparaumu on the west coast of the North Island. The quake measured 4.9 on the Richter scale.

Canberra International Walking Weekend, Day Two

Dark predictions of rain – even thunderstorms – kept us glancing upwards as Sunday March 18th dawned. But again the sky was eggshell blue without a hint of cloud. The day’s walk would take us along the southern banks of Lake Burley Griffin – the biggish sausage-like lake in the heart of the city – through small stands of eucalyptus and pine trees, into the southern dormitory suburbs of the city and ultimately past Australia’s federal parliament rising above foothills of shiny government buildings.

About 100 walkers took part in the twenty kilometre walk. Here are some of them checking in at the control centre.

The walk produced the usual cast of stand-out eccentrics: a Dutch gentleman walking in sandals and a blue cotton kaftan with a Pashtun cap on his head and smoking roll-your-own cigarettes; a small group of Japanese women all wearing white cotton gloves; an energetic group of Dutch-Australians talking exuberantly in Dutch and sporting patriotic bright orange tee-shirts stamped with the cryptic message “Peaky Striders”. But unlike in Rotorua, this time no-one was playing the ocarina.

Walkers have their registration cards punched at a check point staffed by local volunteers. There is water and orange cordial to help walkers fight off dehydration on a warm Canberra day.

The first stage of the walk took us along a picturesque lakeside promenade and past lakeside parks where, later in the day, the aroma of roasting meat would drift up from barbecues and children would criss-cross the grass in pursuit of soccer balls. Already people were sitting on park benches, stretching their bare white legs in the sun and wriggling their toes. Across the lake a hot-air balloon slowly puffed itself up ready to lift into the lazy air.

Canberra's still autumn days are ideal for hot air balloons. Here one is about to rise from a spot on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin. Behind it lies the newly planted patchwork of the National Arboretum.

We skirt the south banks of Lake Burley Griffin. The low-rise centre of Canberra is mirrored in the water.

At midday we stopped in the courtyard of a small suburban shopping centre (see Google Earth: 35°19’31.22″S, 149° 4’57.09″E) and, sitting under a big tree, ate a bread roll from our back packs. Shoppers strolled in and out of a barely busy supermarket. The proprietor of a secondhand bookshop taped a hand-written message to his shop window then stood looking at it for long minutes, his chin cupped in his hand. A cyclist squatted repairing a puncture in his small son’s bicycle. Patiently he performed each stage of the repair, then leaned back on his haunches as his son repeated the operation. Two elderly ladies shared a walking frame, stopping every few steps to draw breath, rummage through their purchases and compare their shopping dockets. Everything seemed to be in slow motion and getting slower. Sunday afternoon lethargy was nodding over the city.

Walking in the morning shade of lakeside trees.

Around one o’clock, as we walked among the prosperous houses of Canberra’s inner south, clouds suddenly swarmed across the sky from the west. Drops of rain began to flick our faces and a small, cool breeze sprang up. Emmy and I had reached Parliament House, and at the northeast corner of its perimeter road (see Google Earth: 35°18’27.60″S 149° 7’38.37″E) we leaned against a granite wall and quickly put on our rain jackets. But it was a Sunday afternoon shower… it really couldn’t be bothered. After a few minutes it ambled off and left us sweating inside our water-proof jackets.

We pass Australia's federal parliament building, half hidden under a hill of grass.

We were now within sight of the end-point. At two o’clock, exactly five hours after departure, we were back where we had started. We had covered 20.72 kilometres. So over two days we had walked 42 kilometres. I savoured the figures in my mind’s eye. I liked the sound of them. Forty-two. According to Douglas Adams in The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. At that moment I reckoned he was right.

Emmy and I posed triumphantly for photos: two tough and very stringy old turkeys. The day ended with a presentation ceremony. I got a silver medal for having completed five annual Canberra walks. Proudly I stepped up to the podium, lowered my head to have the medal slung around my neck, and nodded in blasé acknowledgement of the audience’s applause. As I did so I made the mistake of glancing behind me. A queue of other walkers was lining up to receive their medals too, walkers who had completed ten annual walks, and fifteen, and twenty. And one international walker who had completed two-day walks in 21 different countries. Hmmmm…. you’ve got a long way to go, Quinn. Still… I fingered my silver medal and felt pleased.

I pose on the podium with other walkers who have won a silver medal for completing 40 kilometres on each of five annual Canberra Walking Weekends. In the centre, local parliamentarian Mary Porter who presented the medals.