MackenzieOn Sunday March 4, 1855, James Mackenzie made camp below the summit of a mountain pass. Nearby, on a small flat where two streams met, a flock of 1000 sheep grazed, guarded by Mackenzie’s faithful sheepdog, Friday. Mackenzie had stolen the sheep from a farm called The Levels, near Timaru, and had driven them over the remote pass that he had discovered three years before. But as he ate his meagre supper of cold gruel, Mackenzie was unaware he was being watched.

On the hillside above, John Sidebottom, manager of The Levels, and his two Maori shepherds Taiko and Seventeen, scrutinized the camp below. They had pursued Mackenzie for two days through rugged, trackless hills, up the twisting bed of a stream, over the pass and, finally, down to the spot where they now hid.

Leaving the cover of the tussock, the three men crept up on Mackenzie. The sheep-stealer had trained his dog not to bark so she gave no warning of the men’s approach. After a struggle, they overpowered him and tied his hands. Mackenzie fought wildly at his bonds, so Sidebottom took away his boots and threatened to “apply a bark poultice to his head” if he did not settle down.

Despite being barefoot, Mackenzie escaped from his captors during the night. He turned up in Lyttelton six days later, intending to take a ship to Australia. However no vessel was ready to leave and as he waited for one to depart he was arrested again on March 16.

Convicted of sheep-stealing, Mackenzie was sentenced to five year’s gaol. In the first year of his sentence Mackenzie escaped five times. On each occasion he was re-captured. Eventually the authorities decided the easiest option was to set him free on the condition that he quit the country. Mackenzie left New Zealand in 1856, bound for Australia, perhaps thinking his talents as a rustler would be more appreciated there.

James Mackenzie is one of New Zealand’s few folk-heroes: our own version of Ned Kelly or Dick Turpin. Little is known about him and even the spelling of his name (McKenzie or Mackenzie; James, John or Jock) is open to conjecture. How many sheep he actually stole and how he managed to drive them so far with only one dog depends on which version of the legend you believe. But one thing is certain though: he was a tough bastard. You had to be to survive out in the hills.

Fast forward one hundred and thirty years to nineteen eighty-five. A young shepherd watches the last of a mob of one thousand merino ewes cross the Mackenzie Stream and climb the farther bank to a gate set into a ten wire fence. The hills of the Mackenzie Pass are now part of Grampians Station; the shepherd is one of four single men employed to tend the station’s thirty thousand sheep. Six sheep dogs follow at his heels as he jumps the creek and follows the mob up to the gate.

The long-legged ewes, freshly blade-shorn, mill around a monument to James Mackenzie, which sits on the flat where his stolen flock grazed the evening he was captured. Guided by whistled commands from the shepherd, the dogs keep the mob together while he opens the gate then leans on the monument as the sheep make their way through and climb in long lines out onto the hills beyond.

Fast forward another twenty-eight years. West of Timaru, I turn off State Highway 8 at Albury onto Mackenzie Pass Road. My car moves about on the loose gravel as the road undulates through rolling farmland towards the distant brown hills. Fat sheep lounge in paddocks of rippling grass. Yellow smudges of gorse and broom stain the hillsides.

As I draw closer to the looming Dalgety Range, the hillsides become steeper. Spiky matagouri and fragrant, needle-sharp spaniards grow thickly on the slopes. The sides of the valley draw in leaving just enough room for the road and a glittering creek. The road crosses several narrow bridges and steps across a constantly shifting shingle scree.

The Mackenzie Pass occupies a narrow notch in the ranges. A buffeting wind snatches at the snow tussocks growing beside the road. The distant snow-capped Southern Alps lie blue/black in their veil of haze. The road, a powder white scratch in a beige landscape, winds out from the hills and seems to lose itself in the vastness of the Mackenzie Basin.

The Mackenzie Monument stands on a corner where the road curves to cross the Mackenzie Stream. The three-sided obelisk has an inscription in English, Maori and Gaelic which reads: “In this spot James Mackenzie, the freebooter, was captured by John Sidebottom and the Maoris Taiko and Seventeen and escaped from them the same night.”

I sit on the ridge overlooking the monument. It’s early afternoon. The wind shuffles a high overcast across the sky. The creek chatters in its bed of stones. Looking down, I remember the day I crossed that mob of a thousand and put them out onto the Monument Block. I remember the dogs I had with me that day – Mick, Bess, Jill, Torn, Dale and Tex – and how good it felt to be young and fit and alone in a mountain world. I was a shepherd; nothing else mattered.

The Mackenzie Pass today is a quiet, virtually forgotten part of the South Island. A battalion of power pylons marches over the hills. The road hardly ever sees a car. On easterly days, mist spills over the top of the Dalgety Range and cold winds whistle down the valley. Rows of dark green pines shiver in the breeze: austere inhabitants of an austere landscape. Overhead, clouds polarize white against the cobalt blue sky.

The discovery of Burke’s Pass – an easier route into the Mackenzie Country – in 1858 left the Mackenzie Pass an almost unknown detour. Mackenzie would have liked it that way. If his ghost walked through the pass today he would probably recognize all the landmarks he knew 150 years ago.

But memories are the only real ghosts. And memories, like history itself, are open to re-interpretation, embellishment and exaggeration. The truth should never get in the way of a good yarn. It is the hills, the glittering creeks, the golden snow tussocks rippling on the muscular hillsides that are the real things. All the rest is just part of the Legend of James Mackenzie.


Out here nothing changes,
not in a hurry anyway.
You feel the endlessness,
running on the light of day…
– Goanna, Solid Rock

Before the Dreamtime there was nothing. The Earth was flat and lifeless; no stars glittered in the sky. The universe was dark and silent. The Ancestors lay sleeping, deep in the ground where they had passed the ages. But the Ancestors were restless; their long sleep was nearing its end. On the first morning of the world they awoke, flexed their ancient limbs and began calling the world into existence.

Emerging from the ground they created the stars and the moon. They created the animals – the frilled lizards, the snakes and the kangaroos – and the rains. They brought forth all the rainbow-hued birds and created trees in which the could live. They made the people, the laws and language and dance. They carved the rivers, filled the seas and built the mountain ranges. And as they brought the world to life, the Ancestors walked the land, naming the places and singing songs of the creation.

At Uluru I came face to face with these Dreamtime stories, etched into the flanks of the great red stone white men named Ayers Rock. On the 1800 kilometre flight west from the rainforests of Far North Queensland, I had travelled back in time both literally (the Northern Territory is half an hour behind Eastern time) and figuratively to the six hundred million year old Red Centre of Australia. The landscape which unfolded beneath the aircraft’s wing seemed so old it was almost worn out. Its features – dry creek beds, bony ridges, rumpled sand dunes – looked like blood vessels and sinews in the back of an old man’s hand.
The aircraft’s final approach took us over Uluru at dusk. As the pilot executed a banking turn into Connelan Airport I had a glimpse of the rock standing pink and mauve amid a sea of sunset orange. The surrounding landscape was covered with desert vegetation: yellow spinifex grass, desert oaks, manuka-like mulga trees and a profusion of desert flowers which had sprung to life after a recent rainstorm.

Archeological evidence suggests that Aboriginal people have lived around Uluru for at least 10,000 years. According to the tjukurpa (pronounced “chooka-pa”), or law, of the local Anangu people, Uluru was built by two boys who played in the mud after the rains which followed the creation. In Anangu legend the three central ancestral beings of the creation were the Mala (rufus hare wallabies), the Kuniya (woma pythons) and the Liru (poisonous snakes). The stories of each of these beings is engraved onto the surface of Uluru in the form of protruding rocks, snake-shaped cracks, ocular caves and dozens of vaguely human and animal profiles.

The following morning I went walking with Jacob Puntaru, an Anangu elder, and Kathy Tozer, a white Australian who has developed a close rapport with the Anangu people. Kathy interpreted my questions for Jacob and translated his replies. We followed a path through olive-green mulga trees to a clearing where we sat while Jacob lit a fire. His skin was as black as night; his face and hands had been deeply wrinkled by the bright Central Australian sun. As the astringent eucalypt smoke swirled around us, Jacob related the story of Lungkata, the blue-tongued lizard.

“Long ago,” he said, “Lungkata traveled up from his country to Uluru. He came across Panpanpalala, a bell-bird man, who had killed an emu and had set about cooking it. The bell-bird man was asleep so Lungkata stole the emu and took it to a hideout, way up there.”

Jacob paused and pointed to a small cave notched into the rock near the summit of Uluru.

“When the bell-bird man discovered his emu gone he went to ask Lungkata if he had seen it. Lungkata replied that he hadn’t. But Lungkata had broken a sacred law by stealing the emu and as punishment the bell-bird man set fire to the rock. Lungkata was burned and fell to his death.”

The sheer face beneath the cave was blackened as if a fire had, indeed, swept the rock. Jacob waved his hand towards the foot of Uluru.

“Over there you can still see pieces of the emu lying on the ground turned to stone,” he said. “And the tail of Lungkata is poking from the ground nearby.”

As I listened to the story I realized that what I was hearing wasn’t simply an entertaining tale. The story of Lungkata was also a blueprint, a route map, a recipe book and a parable. The information imbedded in this and every Aboriginal legend has been passed down through the generations. With each telling, more information would be added to the story. So a person traveling to Uluru would be able to go over this and other stories in his mind and divine the best route, where to find food and water, how to cook the food he found and how to behave when he reached his destination.

To the untutored European ear, Aboriginal stories seem nothing more than quaint works of native fiction. Yet the parable of Lungkata has a deep significance for modern visitors to Uluru. Before the advent of tourism, only initiated Anangu men were allowed to climb Uluru. But nowadays, with hundreds of people clambering up the steep path to the top of rock each day, accidents are bound to happen. When a person falls to their death, and the Anangu hear the helicopter rotors thrashing the hot air as the body is recovered, they see it as the legend of Lungkata coming true.

“This is not something I made up to entertain visitors,” Jacob Puntaru said. “These things really happened and you only have to look at the rock to see the proof.”

Later, I set off to walk the nine-kilometre path around the base of Uluru. The rock rose from the desert in great billows like an enormous petrified wave. Its deep red colour was bought into sharp relief by the intense blue of the sky. Iron oxides ran in stripes through the stone which felt cold when I touched it, like the skin of a reptile.

It was easy to see how the Anangu could read stories into every crease and bulge of Uluru. Staring up at the rock from the sparse shade of a bloodwood tree I could see a dingo’s paw, a human face, the pock marks of spear-thrusts and a coiled snake.

The sand underfoot was the colour of chili powder and every bit as hot. Occasionally, a breeze would come out of nowhere, blow for a few minutes, then fade to nothing. These desert zephyrs, however fleeting, were a welcome relief from the heat and made me less envious of the tourists cruising by in air-conditioned buses.

It took three hours to circumnavigate Uluru. As I explored the rock’s recesses and gorges I began to sense the endlessness of time out here. The monolithic bulk of Uluru have seen the sun rise for 109 billion mornings. We humans, on the other hand, have existed for a mere eye-blink of time by comparison.

After a cold drink, I headed west in my rented 4WD. The sun dissolved the road into a shimmering mirage: the landscape swam and wobbled in the heat as if I was looking at it through a glass bottle. The sky was incandescent, the colour of burning magnesium. Ahead of me, the domes of Kata Tjuta rose from the desert like a cluster of bald heads.

To the Anangu people, Kata Tjuta (also known as the Olgas) is a deeply sacred place. For 10,000 years they have lived around these 36 strange red rocks – whose name means “many heads.”

The car park at Olga Gorge was empty. Leaving my vehicle parked in the meager shade of a mulga bush, I set off along a rocky path leading upwards between the highest domes. The air was blisteringly hot. Dunnie budgies (flies) swarmed around me. The domes were composed of orange pebbles cemented together with coarse red gravel the consistency of crumbled biscuit. Time, wind and water had sculpted their sheer sides with Mondrian-style stripes, grooves and fissures.

As I climbed higher the gorge narrowed, constricted between the sheer walls which seemed to lean inwards until the sky was reduced to a crack of cobalt blue overhead. A wooden observation platform stood amid stunted bushes at the head of the gorge. Had I been there at sunrise or sunset the view would have been stunning. But the afternoon air was suffocatingly hot – each breath felt like I was inhaling molten treacle – and the determined hordes of flies detracted from my enjoyment of the vista. After a short time I decided to retreat.

As I walked back down the gorge, a squadron of tour buses materialized in the car park as if created out of the hot air. A crowd of sweating tourists began toiling towards me, swatting at the flies and stumbling over the rough ground in shoes more suited to a cocktail bar than an outback hillside. I saw an American woman wearing rubber kitchen gloves and a face mask and carrying a can of fly spray.

On the way back to Yulara (the village which provides amenities for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park) an Aboriginal man flagged me down. His wife and two children sat in the shade of a battered Holden station-wagon playing cards.

“Buy us some beer would ya mate,” he asked through the open passenger side window. It is a request tourists often hear around Yulara. The Anangu elders have declared the area “dry” and the only way Aboriginal people can obtain alcohol is by getting tourists to buy it for them. I was tempted to oblige him – I was hankering after a cold beer myself – but out of respect for the local by-law I politely refused and gave him some cans of lemonade for his kids.

I rose at 4.00 am next morning to watch the sunrise light up Uluru as it has done for the last 109 billion mornings. Parked between two tour-buses I sat on the roof of the 4WD in the chilly darkness before dawn. The bulk of Uluru was nothing more than an area of blackness against the starry sky. But as the light grew stronger the rock began to glow, first a pale blue, then deep purple and finally, in the instant before sunrise, a rich ochreous red.

I thought about the stories Jacob Puntaru had told me the previous day. In the endless sea of scrubby desert surrounding Uluru, the Aboriginal people have found all they need to sustain their culture, the oldest on Earth. They recognize the interconnectedness of all things, from grains of sand to the mightiest of mountains. While Europeans see the land as a resource to be exploited and changed to suit them, Aboriginals see themselves as keepers of the land and strive to keep it the way it is: part of the never-ending legend of the Dreamtime.

Within minutes, the tour-buses departed, conveying their passengers too buffet breakfasts in air-conditioned hotels. I was alone in the desert. Yet out here I knew I was never really alone. The stories etched deep into the landscape would always keep me wide awake in Dreamland.

City of Light

At dawn I watch from the window of my hotel room as the sun rises over St. Claire Beach. A lone jogger makes her way across the shimmering sand; a row of old wharf posts jut from the beach like an installation artist’s representation of Stonehenge. The sun bursts from the sea like a revelation.

It is early March. A southerly weather system has the entire South Island in its grip. The TV forecast spooling across the screen in my room shows rain on the West Coast, showers in Christchurch and sunshine in sheltered Nelson. But here in Dunedin I can piece together my own forecast while standing at the window: cold wind, squally showers and the best light in the world.

Dunedin is a city of light. Its clear air, fresh from the Southern Ocean, sharpens and focuses the sunlight. Rainbows form over the folds and hummocks of the peninsula and brushstrokes of colour flood the city at dawn when the sun shines directly down the harbour. As I drive into town, through the brick and weatherboard suburb of St. Kilda, I watch a constantly-changing collage of light and shadow as the wind shapes and re-shapes the clouds as they rush across the sky.

I have breakfast with butterflies. Inside the Otago Museum’s butterfly house it is a balmy twenty-eight degrees. My cold camera immediately fogs up. A rainbow collection of butterflies from all over the world flit about in the dripping tropical forest where a waterfall cascades beside a giant banana tree. As I stand on a suspended glass bridge high in the treetops, my banana muffin becomes breakfast for both me and a scarlet swallowtail butterfly.

At the Chinese Gardens, one of only three such authentic gardens outside China, golden fish are swimming in reflective, willow-fringed ponds. The wooden pagodas, built by Chinese craftsmen without using nails, frame views of limestone outcrops and tiled courtyards. In the teahouse, I sip fragrant jasmine tea from a tiny pottery cup while three old men play mahjong at a nearby table.

Later, I sit in silence in a different yet no less peaceful space. The gothic First Church, built with money from the Otago goldfields, stands on a flattened hillock overlooking the harbour. A Polynesian woman wearing an ornate white hat decorated with flowers sits in a pew near the altar. We are the only people in the church. I can hear the wind moaning around the eaves outside; the vaulted timber ceiling creaks as the building shrugs its stone shoulders at its force. Outside, the leaves are beginning to turn to autumn gold.

For a coffee junkie like me, Dunedin is caffeine Nirvana. I fortify my morning wanderings with takeaway brews from d’Oro, an early-opening café in the Casino building. Up in the suburb of Roslyn, a short Mornington bus-ride uphill from The Octagon, I while away a several pleasant hours in Rhubarb Café, a converted butcher’s shop serving what I consider the best coffee in Dunedin.

Food is also a constant distraction. I form an almost obsessive relationship with chef Michael Coughlin’s pork belly recipe at the Pier 24 restaurant in St. Claire. The bacon sarnies sold at the Farmer’s Market, held beside the railway station every Saturday morning, would sustain a gold miner through a hard day.

Wherever I go in Dunedin, I am never far from the natural world. The city’s founders created a green belt running north/south between the hills and the harbour. Narrow roads wind through tunnels of overhanging vegetation which occasionally open to give foliage-framed views out across the city. The steep streets (including Baldwin Street, the world’s steepest) lead quickly from the busy city centre up to suburbs where the closely-packed houses seem suspended halfway to the sky. Even the dead get a view: every grave in the Northern Cemetery commands a panorama of the town below.

The rain from a passing squall is hammering at the windows of Salt at St. Claire as I lunch on seafood chowder on a cold Friday. As every explorer knows, a good lunch is as important as taking a bag of lollies in your backpack. A van pulls up outside. Shaun, from Elm Wildlife Tours, has arrived to take me to the edge of the world.

Out on the tip of the Otago Peninsula, the wind is alive. It clutches at my clothes and sings a Siren song in the fence-wires. Shaun leads our party of ten down a steep track to a sweep of beach guarded by fangs of rock. The headland above shelters the beach from the worst onslaughts of the wind but its cold remnants still rattle the flax bushes growing on the beach margins and whip up miniature storms of sand.

“Let’s just stand here quietly for a minute and see what happens,” says Shaun. Off to our right a female Yellow-eyed Penguin watches us from a screen of tall grass. Her mate calls to her as he waddles up the path like an office worker home in time for tea. The pair entwine their necks and croon to each other.

“They’re singing a love song,” whispers Shaun.

Down on the beach, a different male/female drama is unfolding. Three male Hooker’s Sea Lions are competing for the attentions of a lone female. A massive, battle-scarred older male lumbers around the doe-eyed female as he works to prevent the other males – louche youngsters who fancy their chances – from approaching her. For her part, the female seems happy to tease all three and encourage the continuous scrapping.

Eventually, the female tires of her ersatz suitors and flops into the sea. The older male follows her and the pair disappear beneath the waves to feed. The younger males sprawl on the sand and go to sleep. We leave them to slumber and walk up through the dunes to a hide overlooking the beach.

A dozen penguins are standing about on the edge of the sand, calling to their mates whose nests lie hidden in the thickets of flax and tussock on the cliff. Another sea-lion dozes nearby, occasionally raising its head for a desultory look around. It is almost dark by the time we have climbed back up to the waiting van.

The following afternoon I wander through a different kind of wilderness: Castle Street. Running from the Otago University campus up to the Botanic Gardens, Castle Street is home to some of Dunedin’s iconic examples of student flat grottiness. But as I stroll around in the autumn sunlight the street looks benign and sleepy. Many of the flats have names – such as Pink Floyd The Wall and The Bee Hive – and a few of their denizens are moving sleepily about. Rectangles of melted asphalt along the street mark the spots where couches have been ritually cremated; middens of empty beer bottles piled up at the gateways speak of great sacramental occasions gone by.

Later, I watch the sunset from the headland at Second Beach, a few minutes walk south from St. Clair Beach. Forests of kelp, anchored to the weathered volcanic rocks, sway to and fro with the swells. The distant hillside suburbs of the city are awash with golden light as the sun sinks towards the hidden interior of Central Otago where the golden fortunes of Dunedin’s early days were found.

The sea is calm. Gulls and terns hang on updrafts over the cliffs. I have a dinner date at the nearby Pier 24 Restaurant in the new St. Claire Beach Resort. Soon I will be drinking warm red wine and mingling with a new crowd as darkness engulfs the ocean outside the restaurant’s big windows. But for now I am content to stand here alone on this rocky headland, watching another day end in the city of light.

The Fragrant Metropolis

Think of Hong Kong and what do you see? Crowded streets cut like chasms through forests of Lego-block apartments; avalanches of neon along Nathan Road; ancient Chinese traditions shoulder to shoulder with the highest of the high-tech; and perfect blue buildings beside the milky, jade-coloured waters of Victoria Harbour.

These, and a million other images form the usual perception of Hong Kong. But the city also has gentler, greener side. It is a secret alter ego of lush bamboo forests, secret gardens, tiny verdant parks and sudden bursts of foliage concealed amid the frenetic urban crush.

To the city’s six million residents, crowded into tiny apartments stacked into the sky, parks are places of refuge: communal back yards where they can relax, breath and commune with the natural world. It’s just that lack of space means their gardens have to exist in a smaller, more perpendicular context. Hong Kong’s gardens and green spaces form horizontal oases within the vertical wilderness of glass and steel.

Hong Kong takes its name from a Cantonese phrase meaning “Fragrant Harbour.” For centuries before the arrival of Europeans, the shores of the harbour were covered by vast forests of sandalwood, whose perfumed wood was used in the manufacture of incense.

The forests are long gone, replaced by sprawling ghettos of apartment blocks, offices, snaking roads and traceries of pylons. These days the fragrance of Hong Kong is that of industry, smog, the whiff of money, the smell of success. Yet you still can still catch the scent of old Hong Kong. It’s in the bouquet of ginseng and cloves along Bonham Strand where the old herbalists shops still stand; it’s in the fragrance of magnolia from tiny garden hemmed by skyscrapers; and it’s in the sweet aroma of joss-sticks wafting from the doors of tiny, scarlet temples whose interiors glow with the sheen of oil and gold.

There’s something ineffably exotic about touching down in Asia, with its velvety night air, smoky haze and light everywhere. As my Cathay Pacific flight executes a slow adagio turn in the night sky, Hong Kong glows beneath the wing like hot embers in the darkness. I had set out that morning from small-town New Zealand. Now, here I was touching down on the outer edge of China.

Next morning I ride the spotless Mass Transit Railway to Admiralty Station. Stepping from the underground station I follow gleaming marble steps and aerial walkways to the Botanic Gardens and step inside while the rest of the city goes to work. The gardens occupy an area of 5.4 hectares, surrounded on three sides by skyscrapers. A forest-clad hillside rises vertiginously behind. Stands of bamboo, fragrant climbers, native Chinese trees and walls of orchids frame views of the surrounding city and smother the noise of traffic into a barely audible murmur.

The massive glass walls of the buildings reflect the morning sunlight down into the park’s shady recesses. Water tinkles from fountains and carp float dreamily in lily-covered ponds. People practice tai chi in a paved amphitheatre. Three burly men move in perfect unison through a set of kung fu movements.

Later, deep in the bedlam of Wing Lok Street, where shops sell song-birds in exquisite cages of polished bamboo, I meet Peter Lim, out for a stroll with his two caged birds. One, an Indian Myna, is worth twelve thousand Hong Kong Dollars (roughly NZ$2500).

“A champion singing bird,” he tells me with pride as he poses for a photo. The other bird is a silvereye, just like the New Zealand waxeye. The advent of the SARS virus has meant that caged birds, assumed to be carriers of the disease, are now less popular in Hong Kong. But still, wherever I go in the city, I see caged song-birds in windows and doorways, and sidewalk stalls selling crickets with which to feed them.

One hot afternoon I take the Kowloon-Canton Railway out to the New Territories town of Sha Tin to visit the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Once a sleepy fishing village, Sha Tin has been submerged by apartment blocks and shopping centres. But the temple, located on a forest-clad hillside overlooking the town, is an sanctuary of quietude and contemplation. There are actually 12,800 Buddhas there, varying in size from tiny brass effigies to giant statues. Each statue represents a bodhi, or follower of Buddha, who has achieved enlightenment.

No two of the statues are alike and I spend several pleasant hours walking the temple’s shady pathways looking for familiar faces – I spot Willie Nelson, Ben Harper and Elvis – amid the thousands of golden phizogs. In the main courtyard I sit on a wooden bench sipping green tea while clouds of scented incense smoke swirl around the terracotta rooftops and bonsai trees. Nearby, a pagoda houses the body of Yuet Kai, the monk who founded the monastery in the 1950s. After he died in 1965 his body was encased in gold leaf and it now sits in the lotus position inside a glass case, staring eternally out across the Sha Tin Valley.

Returning to the city at dusk I take a detour to the Kowloon Walled City Park. This peaceful park full of old trees, ramshackle walls and formal Chinese gardens was once a notoriously dangerous part of Hong Kong. It’s labyrinthine streets and passages were the haunts of smugglers, Triad gangs, prostitutes, racketeers, opium smokers and assorted thugs who would do anything to anyone for money.

The Walled City was demolished in 1984 and the land re-modelled in the Jiangnan garden style of the early Qing Dynasty. Strolling around the darkening park, where the riff-raff of Kowloon once prowled, I pass a song-writer composing beside a stream, couples canoodling in leafy glades and old men playing that most opaque of Chinese games: mah-jongg

On my last morning in Hong Kong I walk down to the waterfront where a collection of junks (flat-bottomed Chinese fishing boats) are moored amid the sleek yachts and motor-boats if the city’s elite. From the stern of each junk sprouts a tiny garden of ferns, flowering creepers and potted shrubs. It reminds me just how important gardens are to the residents of Hong Kong, whether they live in a penthouse apartment or a humble junk afloat on the oily waters of Causeway Bay.

That afternoon, as a sleek train glides me silently towards the airport and my flight home, I catch glimpses of tiny window box gardens amid draperies of laundry drying in the dirty air. Clumps of shrubbery cling precariously to the grubby walls of tenements beneath tree-branch TV aerials and tangled vines of electric wires. In this larger than life, concrete and asphalt environment it is the minuscule green pockets which seem to give the city it’s real energy. And it is in the natural world that you find the heart, lungs and soul of this fragrant metropolis.