BACKSTORY: Part One, The House of Blakiston.

Over the next few weeks, my diary entries are pretty sparse. In late February and early March 1989, Linda and I were living a quiet life in Melbourne, Australia, working long hours and saving our money for the next leg of our travels which would take us to England. So, while not much is going on, let’s re-cap my backstory and find out about some of the aspects of my life that had occurred before we set off to travel…

I come from Geraldine. Someone had to. My hometown, Geraldine, on New Zealand’s South Island, doesn’t have any notable citizens. We can’t lay claim to being the birthplace of a great politician, or an eminent scientist, or even some famous deviant, serial killer or chef. The closest thing Geraldine has to a celebrity is Jordan Luck: frontman of the band The Exponents. And even then, Mr Luck is actually from Woodbury, five miles west of Geraldine. He did, of course, attend Geraldine High School, my alma mater. He was, in fact, a year ahead of me, and his sister, Tamsin, and I were in the same year. But although The Exponents are an iconic New Zealand band, their fame, unfortunately, hardly extends beyond our shores.    

Furthermore, the South Island of New Zealand doesn’t exactly occupy a prime position on the globe. Our island is close to the uttermost end of the Earth.  It’s about as far south as you can go on the planet. Go much further and you start to go north again. Beyond Bluff, the southernmost town in the British Commonwealth, next upright creature you’ll run into is an Adelie penguin.  That’s how far south we are.

fac bene nec dubitans

As well as coming from the arse-end of the planet, I also come from a long line of travellers: restless souls who roamed the globe searching for adventure and a better life. Some of them were seekers of political change, such as John Blakiston (1603-1649), whose signature appears on the death warrant of Charles the First, executed by Cromwell and his henchmen – of which JB was one, the traitorous bastard  – during the English Civil War.

warrant
The Death Warrant of Charles I. John Blakiston’s signature and seal is second from the top of column three.

My great-grandfather, Charles Robert Blakiston came to New Zealand in 1860 having first tried his luck in the Australian goldfields.  When he arrived in the settlement of Christchurch (which is today New Zealand’s second largest city) he traded a horse for a plot of land which he subsequently sold to the fledgeling city for a fortune.  He ended up a successful lawyer and member of the New Zealand Provincial Government. His son, Arthur John Blakiston, born in 1862, managed a high country sheep station for forty years and lived long enough to be photographed holding me as a five-month-old baby in 1963.

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My father Arthur Norman Hunter Blakiston, 64; my great-uncle Arthur John Blakiston, 103; Ferguson Arthur James Blakiston, 5 months.

Another of my great-uncles, Thomas Wright Blakiston, was an eminent explorer, soldier and ornithologist. He fought in the Crimean War, was on the Palliser Expedition which mapped the border between Canada and the United States, explored the Yangtze River during the Taiping Rebellion, and lived in Japan’s northern-most island, Hokkaido, for 21 years. There will be more about TWB in later posts.

Then there was Lionel Blakiston, Thomas’s cousin.  Lionel was a British telegraph engineer who emigrated to Rhodesia in the 1880s and was subsequently killed in the Mashona Uprising.  Upon hearing that Mashona tribesmen had taken a group of women and children hostage, he rode to their rescue, bringing them home to friendly territory but getting mortally wounded in the process.  A street in Harare, in present-day Zimbabwe, bears his name along with a school, whose coat of arms is that of the Blakiston Family: a cock gules above a bar argent.

In 1760, my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Matthew Blakiston was elected Lord Mayor of London.  He lived for that year, as all Lords Mayor did at the time, in the Mansion House, a grand, collonaded residence opposite the Bank of England.  His wife, Emily, is the only woman ever to have given birth in the Mansion House. Lords Mayor were usually older men for whom the post was the final, crowning achievement at the end of long, successful careers.  Blakiston, however, in keeping with a family trait of marrying and producing offspring late in life, was still in the process of creating a family when he became Lord Mayor and his son, Matthew, was born at the Mansion House that year.  

For his efforts as head of the City of London, Matthew Blakiston was created a Baronet in 1763, exactly 200 years before I was born.  He died in 1791 and was buried in the graveyard of St. Martins-in-the-Fields.

The Baronetcy is a hereditary knighthood: a “Sir” rather than a Lord, and not a peer. Although the term “baronet” has medieval origins, the modern Baronetcy was established in 1611 by King James 1 as a method with which to fund his Irish wars.  The idea was that any man who could provide the Exchequer with the money necessary to keep thirty soldiers in the field for three years would be granted a Baronetcy. The title would be handed down from father to son, thus ensuring a continual supply of cash to fund whatever war happened to be going on at the time.  

Do well and doubt not.
                        – Blakiston Family Motto

This proved to be a nice little earner for a while; at least, that is, until the sons succeeding to the title began to run out of money.  Just because the title of Baronet had been granted to a wealthy great-grandfather didn’t necessarily guarantee the family fortune would still be intact for his great-grandson to invest in dubious overseas campaigns.  The Baronetcy, therefore, lapsed in its role as a revenue supply for the army and became simply another hereditary title.

The Baronetcy awarded to Matthew Blakiston was passed down from father to son for seven generations until it hit a dead end.  The 7th Baronet, Arthur Frederick Blakiston, a decorated First World War hero, member of the first Barbarians rugby team and Master of the Wylie Valley Hunt, died “without issue” (i.e. without children). It seemed that the title would become extinct.  But the tireless heralds at the Royal College of Arms, keepers of the arcane language and symbols of the realm, were on the case. They traced the male line to my father, Arthur Norman Hunter Blakiston, who acceded to the title of 8th Baronet in 1974.  

Dad never set any store in airs and graces.  A privately-educated, university-trained solicitor he was nevertheless a rough diamond.  He called a spade a fucking shovel and to him, a man’s worth was proved by his actions, not by his breeding.  The title of Baronet was the absolute antithesis of the egalitarian principles he lived by. But he was a perceptive man and he realized that one day, his eldest son might have a use for the title, so he reluctantly accepted it, and that was that.  

He seldom spoke of it.  His friends occasionally ribbed him about it.  My mother’s friends began calling her Lady Blakiston and our house became known as Sandybrook Hall, after the family seat in Ashbourne, Derbyshire.  At school, I was sometimes teased about it. My best friend, Keats, used to call me Sir Bastipol Bock for reasons known only to him. But it was nothing that caused even the remotest bit of hurt and the perpetrators would soon tire of hassling me and find some other unfortunate to pick on.     

My father died in 1977 when I was fourteen.  He was seventy-eight years old. Students of arithmetic will notice that he would have been sixty-four when I was born and they are right.  He was sixty-five when my brother Joe came along. That same family peculiarity, of having children late in life, that had seen Matthew Blakiston’s wife produce the Mansion House’s only baby, had surfaced again.  

It meant that instead of being born in the 1920s, as would have been the case if dad had taken the usual route and started a family in his twenties, I grew up in the 1970s.  It meant that instead of being a fan of Bing Crosby or Cole Porter, I was able to become a fan of Pink Floyd, Genesis, My Chemical Romance and John Denver. It meant that instead of having to go off to World War Two and have my brains blown out for King and Country as my Uncle Jim (my mother’s brother) did, I was able to watch the Gulf War on CNN.  It meant that I would be able to be a part of the technological revolution created by the internet and social media. And it meant that in the year 1988, instead of being a grandfather of seventy-something years, I was able, as the 9th Baronet of the City of London, to set off out into the world…

TO BE CONTINUED

25/03/89

We caught the 8:46 train from Slough to Paddington then the Bakerloo Line to Charing Cross. We emerged from the station to the most wonderous sight. There before us in the bright English sun, was Trafalgar Square! The statue of Lord Nelson, flanked by 4 lions, rose directly in front of us, grey stone buildings surrounding us on all sides, Whitehall, The Strand and Pall Mall, leading off to our left, right, and ahead. Pigeons were everywhere, perched on walls, monuments and small children who screeched with delight every time a pigeon landed on its shoulder.

The church of St-Martin’s-in-the-Fields, standing on the South West corner of the square, was our first stop. It is a smallish church, the size of Chch Cathedral¹, with Roman pillars at the front. Inside, I asked about where Matthew Blakiston² was buried but all graves had been removed and the Crypt had been turned into a restaurant. We had a hot chocolate down there then went back out into the sunlight.

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St-Martin’s-in-the-Fields, Elizabeth Tower and Horse Guards.

We decided to walk down Whitehall and about 1/2 way down we happened to see the changing of Her Majesty’s Life Guards. Two fierce-looking guards dressed in red and balck with shining helmets were mounted on horses outside the gates of the barracks where, at precisely 11:00 AM, the new shift of guards rode out and exchanged places with them. We jostled for position with the hoarde of tourists & the whole thing was

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Horse Guards.

fascinating.

We continued on down Whitehall past Downing Street, guarded by two Bobbies³, until we came to wonderful scene of the Houses of Parliament. Big Ben rose above us on the left of Parliament Square and Westminster Abbey, parts of which are [sic] cloaked with scaffolding, stood across the grassd area of the square. It was almost too much to take in at once. Everywhere we looked we saw buildings and places we had only dreamed about. We walked along past

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A Bobby at Horse Guards.

the Houses of Parliament, climbed the 13th century jewel Tower, pushed and shoved our way into Westminster Abbey along with a thousand others then wandered through the medieval cloisters at the rear of the Abbey where the 10th century monks who died of the Black Death lie alongside of a grassy quad where several boys from the Abbey school were playing cricket.

 

We had lunch at a street café then caught a river cruise down to the Thames Barrier† and back. The history of London flowed over us like the cold, dirty water of Old Father Thames flowed over the piles & steps of the London docks: Tower Bridge, Executioner’s Dock, Waterman’s Steps, hundreds of old, old riverside warehouses decaying amidst the new docklands developments of flats, pubs and houses.

When we got back to Westminster Peir it had gotten quite cold so we wandered back up to Picadilly Circus and caught the tube back to Paddington then home to Slough.

¹The Anglican cathedral in the city of Christchurch back home in New Zealand.
²My ancestor, Sir Matthew Blakiston, Bt. was Lord Mayor of London in 1760. He was created a Baronet in 1763 and I succeeded him as the 9th Baronet in 1977. When he died, Sir Matthew was buried in the crypt of St.-Martin’s-in-the-Fields. See the post The House of Blakiston for more information.
³ British police are known as Bobbies after Sir Robert Peel who introduced the world’s first organized police force in London in 1829.
† The Thames Barrier is a flood control dam built across the lower reaches of the River Thames.
 

 

 

24/09/88

Mucked around home all day then caught a 6:50 bus into town. Had a drink at a pub then tea at the Milano Restaurant.

****

My diary entries for the next few days are pretty run-of-the-mill. But rest assured, dear readers, the adventures are about to start! In the meantime, here’s some background information about my life before we set off to travel…

blakiston-coat-of-arms-blakiston-family-crest-7

BACKSTORY. PART 1: The House of Blakiston.

I come from Geraldine. Someone had to. My hometown, Geraldine, on New Zealand’s South Island, doesn’t have any notable citizens. We can’t lay claim to being the birthplace of a great politician, or an eminent scientist, or even some famous deviant, serial killer or chef. The closest thing Geraldine has to a celebrity is Jordan Luck: frontman of the band The Exponents. And even then, Mr Luck is actually from Woodbury, five miles west of Geraldine. He did, of course, attend Geraldine High School, my alma mater. He was, in fact, a year ahead of me, and his sister, Tamsin, and I were in the same year. But although The Exponents are an iconic New Zealand band, their fame, unfortunately, hardly extends beyond our shores.    

Furthermore, the South Island of New Zealand doesn’t exactly occupy a prime position on the globe. Our island is close to the uttermost end of the Earth.  It’s about as far south as you can go on the planet. Go much further and you start to go north again. Beyond Bluff, the southernmost town in the British Commonwealth, next upright creature you’ll run into is an Adelie penguin.  That’s how far south we are.

As well as coming from the arse-end of the planet, I also come from a long line of travellers: restless souls who roamed the globe searching for adventure and a better life. Some of them were seekers of political change, such as John Blakiston (1603-1649), whose signature appears on the death warrant of Charles the First, executed by Cromwell and his henchmen – of which JB was one, the traitorous bastard  – during the English Civil War.

warrant

The Death Warrant of Charles I. John Blakiston’s signature and seal is second from the top of column three.

My great-grandfather, Charles Robert Blakiston came to New Zealand in 1860 having first tried his luck in the Australian goldfields.  When he arrived in the settlement of Christchurch (which is today New Zealand’s second largest city) he traded a horse for a plot of land which he subsequently sold to the fledgeling city for a fortune.  He ended up a successful lawyer and member of the New Zealand Provincial Government. His son, Arthur John Blakiston, born in 1862, managed a high country sheep station for forty years and lived long enough to be photographed holding me as a five-month-old baby in 1963.

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My father Arthur Norman Hunter Blakiston, 64; my great-uncle Arthur John Blakiston, 103; Ferguson Arthur James Blakiston, 5 months.

Another of my great-uncles, Thomas Wright Blakiston, was an eminent explorer, soldier and ornithologist. He fought in the Crimean War, was on the Palliser Expedition which mapped the border between Canada and the United States, explored the Yangtze River during the Taiping Rebellion, and lived in Japan’s northern-most island, Hokkaido, for 21 years. There will be more about TWB in later posts.

Then there was Lionel Blakiston, Thomas’s cousin.  Lionel was a British telegraph engineer who emigrated to Rhodesia in the 1880s and was subsequently killed in the Mashona Uprising.  Upon hearing that Mashona tribesmen had taken a group of women and children hostage, he rode to their rescue, bringing them home to friendly territory but getting mortally wounded in the process.  A street in Harare, in present-day Zimbabwe, bears his name along with a school, whose coat of arms is that of the Blakiston Family: a cock gules above a bar argent.

In 1760, my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Matthew Blakiston was elected Lord Mayor of London.  He lived for that year, as all Lords Mayor did at the time, in the Mansion House, a grand, collonaded residence opposite the Bank of England.  His wife, Emily, is the only woman ever to have given birth in the Mansion House. Lords Mayor were usually older men for whom the post was the final, crowning achievement at the end of long, successful careers.  Blakiston, however, in keeping with a family trait of marrying and producing offspring late in life, was still in the process of creating a family when he became Lord Mayor and his son, Matthew, was born at the Mansion House that year.  

For his efforts as head of the City of London, Matthew Blakiston was created a Baronet in 1763, exactly 200 years before I was born.  He died in 1791 and was buried in the graveyard of St. Martins-in-the-Fields.

The Baronetcy is a hereditary knighthood: a “Sir” rather than a Lord, and not a peer. Although the term “baronet” has medieval origins, the modern Baronetcy was established in 1611 by King James 1 as a method with which to fund his Irish wars.  The idea was that any man who could provide the Exchequer with the money necessary to keep thirty soldiers in the field for three years would be granted a Baronetcy. The title would be handed down from father to son, thus ensuring a continual supply of cash to fund whatever war happened to be going on at the time.  

This proved to be a nice little earner for a while; at least, that is, until the sons succeeding to the title began to run out of money.  Just because the title of Baronet had been granted to a wealthy great-grandfather didn’t necessarily guarantee the family fortune would still be intact for his great-grandson to invest in dubious overseas campaigns.  The Baronetcy, therefore, lapsed in its role as a revenue supply for the army and became simply another hereditary title.

The Baronetcy awarded to Matthew Blakiston was passed down from father to son for seven generations until it hit a dead end.  The 7th Baronet, Arthur Frederick Blakiston, a decorated First World War hero, member of the first Barbarians rugby team and Master of the Wylie Valley Hunt, died “without issue” (i.e. without children). It seemed that the title would become extinct.  But the tireless heralds at the Royal College of Arms, keepers of the arcane language and symbols of the realm, were on the case. They traced the male line to my father, Arthur Norman Hunter Blakiston, who acceded to the title of 8th Baronet in 1974.  

Dad never set any store in airs and graces.  A privately-educated, university-trained solicitor he was nevertheless a rough diamond.  He called a spade a fucking shovel and to him, a man’s worth was proved by his actions, not by his breeding.  The title of Baronet was the absolute antithesis of the egalitarian principles he lived by. But he was a perceptive man and he realized that one day, his eldest son might have a use for the title, so he reluctantly accepted it, and that was that.  

He seldom spoke of it.  His friends occasionally ribbed him about it.  My mother’s friends began calling her Lady Blakiston and our house became known as Sandybrook Hall, after the family seat in Ashbourne, Derbyshire.  At school, I was sometimes teased about it. My best friend, Keats, used to call me Sir Bastipol Bock for reasons known only to him. But it was nothing that caused even the remotest bit of hurt and the perpetrators would soon tire of hassling me and find some other unfortunate to pick on.     

My father died in 1977 when I was fourteen.  He was seventy-eight years old. Students of arithmetic will notice that he would have been sixty-four when I was born and they are right.  He was sixty-five when my brother Joe came along. That same family peculiarity, of having children late in life, that had seen Matthew Blakiston’s wife produce the Mansion House’s only baby, had surfaced again.  

It meant that instead of being born in the 1920s, as would have been the case if dad had taken the usual route and started a family in his twenties, I grew up in the 1970s.  It meant that instead of being a fan of Bing Crosby or Cole Porter, I was able to become a fan of Pink Floyd, Genesis, My Chemical Romance and John Denver. It meant that instead of having to go off to World War Two and have my brains blown out for King and Country as my Uncle Jim (my mother’s brother) did, I was able to watch the Gulf War on CNN.  It meant that I would be able to be a part of the technological revolution created by the internet and social media. And it meant that in the year 1988, instead of being a grandfather of seventy-something years, I was able, as the 9th Baronet of the City of London, to set off out into the world…

TO BE CONTINUED

12/6/89

We caught the train into London and went via the Circle Line to Kensington High St.  We drew £1900-00 out of the bank and paid our final instalment of £1868-00 to Kumuka¹.  From there we went to Harley St², where all the doctors hang out – Rolls-Royces, BMWs and Mercedes very thick on the ground, polished gold plaques proclaiming the presence of flash specialists behind painted, locked doors. We found the International Vaccination Centre & made an appointment for next Monday.

We cruised on a bus for an hour or so and ended up at Hyde Park on a beautiful evening so we wandered around amongst people in horrid deckchairs, sat beside the Serpentine³ while the sun went down behind the trees and watched the squirrels play on the well-kept lawns. We caught the Underground from Marble Arch to Liverpool Street then the trains home.

¹ Our 16-week Overland Expedition, travelling north from Nairobi in Kenya via Uganda, Zaire, Cameroon, CAR, Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, Morocco and Spain begins in August.

² The prestigious street in Marylebone has been noted for its medical specialists since the 19th century. Coincidentally, it was named after Thomas Harley who was Lord Mayor of London in 1767, seven years after my ancestor Matthew Blakiston occupied the same position (see the earlier post https://curseofthetraveller.com/?s=the+house+of+blakiston about my family backstory).

³ The Serpentine is a small man-made lake created in 1730 at the behest of Queen Caroline, the wife of King George II.

28/03/89

Linda has a cold so I left her to her own devices for the day and set off into The City¹ to find out a bit about my relations. My first stop after getting off the tube at Blackfriars was the College of Arms² to see James Woodcock, the man who researched the title. It turned out that he was away in India. Next stop, after a couple of photos, was Mansion House³, closed for Easter, then the Bank of England on Threadneedle St. I looked round the museum there , then went in search of the Guildhall. I found it quite by accident and went inside. The hall itself, where the Corporation of London holds banquets, is a huge cavern of a place with stained glass windows at each end and lovely, ornate wood carved panelling around the walls. On the bottom right-hand of the window at the far end of the hall is the name BLAKISTON and the date 1760. The names of every Lord Mayor for the last 800 years are inscribed on the windows.

I left the Hall and caught a bus round to Whitehall where I spent an hour on a fruitless search for information on James Gillingham.⁴ Not having had a very successful day with my reli-hunting, I caught a tube back to Paddington & went round to the London Walkabout Club⁵ & got some brochures on African safaris then went home.

¹London’s central business district, which is also the oldest part of town, is known as The City.

²The College of Arms is the office where titles and lineage are maintained. In 1977, after the death of my father, Norman Blakiston, it was a person from the College of Arms, James Woodcock, who had proven my right to succeed as the 9th Baronet.

³Mansion House is the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London.

⁴My mother’s brother who was killed in Italy in 1993.

⁵A long-standing travel agency specializing in providing travel services for Australians and New Zealanders.

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Letter home from Linda to her family written in Slough.

25/09/88

Mucked around home all day.

****

My diary entries for the next few days are pretty run-of-the-mill. But rest assured, dear readers, the adventures are about to start! In the meantime, here’s some background information about my life before we set off to travel…

BACKSTORY. PART 2: The Flaxton Boys.

I was born at 11:20AM on February 19th, 1963.  It was a Tuesday.  It was the last month of summer in the Southern Hemisphere.  According to “The Internet”, I had been conceived on May 29th the previous year!!  That same February day, Seal Henry Olusegun Olumide Adeola Samuel was born.  He would go on to become the British singer Seal who would write a song called Crazy with includes the lyrics: “in a sky full of people only some want to fly; isn’t that crazy…”

My father, Norman (Norm) Blakiston, was 64 years old; my mother, Mary, was 36.  But you already know that story. This is the story of me from that day on.

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My aunt, Hilda Blakiston with me and my brother, 1964.

We lived in a big old house at 28 McKenzie Street, Geraldine.  The house had originally been a boarding house. It had big rooms, high ceilings and a long hallway, six feet wide and thirty feet long, running down the middle.  Myself, my brother Joe (fourteen months younger than me) and our friends would build blanket forts in the hall on wet days and throw marbles at each other. We had our own rooms and there were enough spare rooms for us to have winter and summer rooms: warm rooms in winter and cooler rooms in summer.  The red, corrugated iron roof amplified the sound of rain and one of my favourite sounds is still the sound of rain falling on a tin roof.

Our house stood on an acre of land in the centre of Geraldine.  There was a hen coop, an orchard, a couple of fields where we kept our pet lambs, and a big oak tree where we built a rambling tree hut.  Across the road, the Waihi River chattered in its bed of stones, hemmed on both sides by willows and sycamores. We tickled trout, built dams, rafted the

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28 McKenzie Street, Geraldine. Richard “Ollie” Creed, Joe Blakiston, Robin Patrick, FAJB, 1971.

brown floods, and swam in the green pools of the Waihi (it’s pronounced “why-hee”).  On the hill beyond the river, Talbot Forest (the Bush, as we called it) was a venue for wargames, hide and seek, and clandestine cigarettes.

Geraldine in the 1970s was a backwater.  It serviced the local farmland; old folks retired there.  In summer, the sun would melt the tar on the main street and the grass would be burnt brown for months. Winters were harsh, or seemed to be, and I remember biking to school in shorts even in the hardest frosts.  There were WW2 veterans in our town: battle-scarred, lame old men with haunted eyes. Women wore floral dresses and men wore hats.  Geraldine was the same as every small town in the southern world. It was a colonial town, out on the edge of the British Commonwealth.

I was a Cub Scout.   I hated sports. I ran in the cross country team because it allowed me to get away by myself.  I was never a team player. I was a frail, sickly boy. I got bullied a bit at school but nothing serious, nothing scarring.  My friend Steve Keats was a runner too and we started climbing hills to keep fit. That was the beginning of my love for the hills and for the wilderness.  Our heroes were mountaineers – Chris Bonnington, Sir Edmund Hillary – and our bibles were accounts of epic climbs and disastrous expeditions.

My mother was a church-goer; my father wasn’t.  He set store in a man’s self-reliance. He hated pretence and people who considered themselves above others because of birth or money.  He was a man’s man. He’d been educated at a prestigious boy’s school and could quote Shakespeare and speak Latin. He swore like a fucking trooper and used to say that he hadn’t learnt a new swear word since he was seven.   And, like his son would be, he was a loner.

Mum went to St. Mary’s Anglican church most Sundays.  Anglicanism is a very English faith: quiet vicars, ornate churches with stained glass windows, a subdued, reverential communion, no fire-and-brimstone sermons.  Both my brother and I were “confirmed” meaning we were able to take communion (that is, drink the blood of Christ and eat his body). It all sounds so weird and arcane now.  I didn’t believe a word of it. But we went along for mum’s sake. We both did altar boy duty on alternate Sundays once a month. You dressed in black vestments which smelled of body odour, and helped the Vicar out with the communion.  I would sit in the carved wooden chair at the side of the altar and pick out rock-climbing routes across the vaulted wooden ceiling. We worked out that if you volunteered for the early 8AM service (which no one wanted to do early on a Sunday) you’d be out of there in forty minutes.  The 10:30 service lasted an hour and a half!

My father died in June or July 1977 when I was fourteen.  He was 78 years old and suffering from diabetes. He had also been a chain smoker for his whole life so who knows if it was the smokes or the sugar that killed him.  He had always known that he would die while we were young and I can remember him telling us “not to fret” because he had enjoyed his life and had done his best to set us up to enjoy ours.

I left school in August 1980.  I had a job on a farm about half an hour’s drive from home. Actually, I never officially left school: I just never went back after the August holidays.  I joke with people that every morning, a teacher at Geraldine High School is still calling for me in the roll: “Blakiston…..is he here today?…..No?…(puts an x by my name)….absent….again…”

I worked for a year and a half on the farm in Cattle Valley, then got a job as a high country shepherd. I worked at Grampians Station on and off for the next four years.  In between times I went to Agricultural College and earned a Diploma in Agriculture. But I still went home most weekends. It was too easy not to. All the things I was familiar with were there.

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Mary Ferguson Blakiston (nee Gillingham), 1926-1982.

My mother died in 1982 from breast cancer.  Joe and I inherited the house from her and put a tenant in it. He was the cook at the local pub (hotel/bar) and single, so we would still turn up there at weekends, get drunk and crash out.  Colin, the tenant, looked after us, cooked us greasy meals and kept the fridge stocked with beers. I was living my little dream of being a shepherd, with a pick-up truck, a saddle, a team of sheepdogs and no ties to anything…

TO BE CONTINUED

HIGH COUNTRY HOMES

 

 

fp10

So and no otherwise
Hillmen desire their Hills.
– Rudyard Kipling, The Sea and the Hills.

Dawn in Pleasant Gully. The Te Moana River chatters in its bed of stones.  A bellbird drops limpid notes from the cover of a broadleaf tree.  Wisps of fog hang in the bushy ravines and tussocky basins beneath the summit of Fiery Peak, which stands like a sentinel overlooking the valley.  The rising sun paints its bluffs and screes crimson and gold.

I sit on the step of the Pleasant Gully Hut drinking coffee and watching the day arrive.  I can see the steep track I will be climbing today.  It zig-zags up a long spur and disappears over Fiery Pass, notched into the ridgeline of the Four Peaks Range.  The sky is deep blue; this November day promises to be hot.  I finish my coffee, close the hut door and set off uphill.

Four Peaks Station occupies the southern end of the Four Peaks Range, west of Geraldine in South Canterbury.  The station encompasses the twin summits of Devils Peak and Fiery Peak which fall away into vast faces of snow tussock.  Streams of pure snow-melt cascade down from the tops, spilling over hidden waterfalls and joining to form the Te Moana River.

Four Peaks is a working sheep station, and wiry half-bred sheep, along with cattle and wild deer, run on the hills.  But as well as traditional farming, the owners of Four Peaks have developed a three-night walk which introduces visitors to the pleasures of staying in historic shepherd’s huts along the way.

The previous day I had set off from the Four Peaks Station homestead on the far side of the range.  Following farm 4WD tracks I had ascended a low saddle then sidled around the southern end of the range and down into Pleasant Gully.  As I walked I hummed the old Dance Exponents song Why Does Love Do This To Me?  The line “Jackie came, she went away; deep in the valley I kissed her that day” was supposedly written about Pleasant Gully.

028Built in 1900, the Pleasant Gully Hut was once the furthest outposts of the historic Orari Gorge Station.  My great uncle, Arthur Blakiston, worked on Orari Gorge as a shepherd during the 1880s, and was station manager from 1910 until 1935.  In his memoir My Yesteryears he describes life at Pleasant Gully.

“We lived on meat, bread, scones and potatoes,” he writes.  “After chops and tea for breakfast at 1:30am we would climb out to our beats on the hill.” My evening meal was a little more salubrious: porterhouse steak topped with Mount Peel blue cheese followed by a can of boysenberries and a plunger of coffee.  No shepherd ever dined so well.

I reach Fiery Pass at midday after a long, hot slog up the track.  To the east, the Canterbury Plains stretch out in a hazy patchwork to the edge of the ocean.  To the west lies the Two Thumb Range and, beyond, the Southern Alps.  The track descends a sunny face scored with deep gullies of running shingle, then winds along the edge of the Mobray Stream to Sutherland’s Hut.

Built in 1866, Sutherland’s is the oldest hut on the walk and possibly the oldest surviving back-country hut still in use in New Zealand.  It’s stone walls and steep corrugated iron roof have weathered countless snowstorms and gales, yet the hut is still as sound as the day it was finished.

In the 1980s I spent several seasons working as a shepherd on Four Peaks. During the autumn muster we would spend a week camped at Sutherlands Hut.  We bathed in the creek and lived on fried chops and boiled spuds. We were young and fit.  It was a great life.

The life of the shepherd is a solitary one, and my constant companions in those days were my sheepdogs: Bess, Jill, Mick, Bounce, Spook and Quarter.  Now, thirty years later, as I wander alone in these same hills, I find that every ridge and valley is imprinted in my memory.  I remember great runs my dogs did as we mustered the country, and drunken nights in Sutherland’s Hut, drinking beer and whiskey and telling tall stories.

During the night, a nor’ west wind gets up.  The hut creaks and rattles; heavy raindrops crackle on the roof.  Yet when I walk outside to check the weather, the sky is clear and encrusted with stars: the rain was just a spectre, like a ghost of storms past.

I dawdle around the hut next morning, reading an old western novel and watching merino wethers mooching about on Blue Mountain Station over on the other side of the stream.  At midday I set off up the steep track which zig zags across the face of Mount Mobray to the Jumpover Saddle.  From the saddle, I climb to the top of the range.

fp24wIt is early evening by the time I reach the summit of Devil’s Peak.  The eastern plains lie beneath a fluffy counterpane of white cloud.  Westward, the Two Thumb Range crouches in a steely blue nor’ west haze.  I have five bars of phone coverage.  I update my social media and call my wife.

Row upon row of mountains, each range a slightly lighter shade of pale blue, stretch away into the setting sun. The high basins still hold the last remnants of the winter snows.  Out on Ashwick Flat, the waters of Lake Opuha shine like a sheet of pewter on a beige background of dryland farms.

fp15Alone in this vast space of mountains and sky I am surrounded by nature.  A nanny thar flees at my approach, vaulting sure-footedly into the Jumpover Bluffs with a clatter of falling stones; a pair of chucker partridge take flight from under my feet; somewhere overhead a skylark twitters.  I descend the scree-slopes and tussock faces back to the Jumpover Saddle.  It is nearly dark by the time I reach Devil’s Creek Hut.

It’s amazing how a hot shower can re-invigorate a tired body.  All of the huts on the Four Peaks walk are equipped with gas showers (along with log burners and solar-powered lighting) but the one at Devil’s Creek is especially good.  I cook tea then sit outside with a fp17coffee listening to the creek chattering in its bed of stones beside the hut.

Tomorrow, I will have to return home from the hill.  But tonight, I can rest here alone in my high country home and remember the long-ago days when I was a shepherd in these hills.  A sheep bleats from up on the side of Devil’s Peak; a magpie gargles in the branches of the big macrocarpa tree across the creek.  The western sky fades from purple and mauve to black.  One by one the stars come out.

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WHERE THE PRAIRIES MEET THE MOUNTAINS

 

At Waterton Lakes National Park – a landscape of perpendicular mountains and deep, glacial lakes on the eastern edge of the Canadian Rockies – the wind was a living thing.  Parked on The Bosphorous,  a promontory overlooking Upper Waterton Lake, I felt it clutching my car as if invisible banshees were trying to get in.  The peaks around the lake – some resembled broken stumps of teeth, others the prows of great stone ships – stood firm against the wind.  Rafts of cloud lumbered across the sky.  The highest tops snagged the clouds, tearing them open and releasing sheets of rain.

Waterton_LakesThe 2½ hour drive south from Calgary had taken me across a seemingly endless expanse of rippling prairie.  Elsewhere in Alberta, the prairies rise slowly to the mountains through rolling stretches of foothills.  But Waterton’s peaks seemed to erupt from the landscape, like sea cliffs from the ocean.  One minute I was crossing the prairie; the next I was encircled by mountains with the sky compressed into a narrow crack above me.

Everyone who visits Waterton Lakes National Park does so by choice.  This quiet corner of Alberta, far from main highways and transcontinental railways, is the end of the road.  You can’t go any further unless you want to hike.  The park encompasses 525 square kilometres of mountains, lakes, forests and prairie.  With neighbouring Glacier National Park, across the border in Montana, USA, Waterton forms the Waterton/Glacier International Peace Park.  Established in 1932, the Peace Park was the first in the world to span an international border: symbolizing friendship between nations and the need for countries to share resources.

Though an international boundary divides the two parks, Waterton/Glacier functions as one ecosystem.  Water and air flow freely in both directions.  Animals and birds use both parks in their annual cycles of migration, breeding and foraging.

More than 220km of trails amble through the park, ranging from short strolls to multi-day wilderness treks.  Designated trails cater for horse riders and mountain bikers.  In winter, walking track and roadway alike become cross-country ski trails.  Upper Waterton Lake – the deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies – freezes over and it’s possible to ice-skate from Waterton Townsite (the park’s only village) all the way to Goat Haunt at the head of the lake, 6.4km inside Montana.

It was late November, the last month of Fall.  At Waterton Townsite, trees wore their autumn finery: rich golds, earth browns and pale lime-greens.  Piles of leaves gathered around shuttered summer cottages and tumbled in the wind along Waterton Avenue.  A couple of sleek mule deer stags sparred on the lawn of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police post. 

“It can get kinda breezy here at this time of year,” park ranger Locke Marshall told me as we sat in his office at Park Headquarters.  Outside, the howling Chinook hurled leaves horizontally against the window.  It slashed at the surface of Upper Waterton Lake raising curtains of spray.

“This is nothing,” he added, continuing the understatement.  “Days without wind are unusual here and gusts of 160 kilometres per hour are common.”

I had come to the park to explore the landscape my great uncle, the explorer and adventurer Thomas Wright Blakiston, had discovered 130 years before.  I wanted to see the waterfall and stream named after him and climb to the 2920 metre (9646 feet) summit of  Mt. Blakiston.  Locke Marshall smiled knowingly and glanced outside at the shrieking wind when I told him I wanted to climb the mountain.mountain-meadows_842-836

“Forget it,” was his advice.  He also warned me not to hike alone.  Autumn is bear season and a close encounter with a black bear was something I didn’t want, he told me.

I arranged lodgings in the Olde Worlde comfort of Kilmorey Lodge – feather beds, creaky wooden floors, antique furniture – then set off along a winding road leading up the Blakiston Valley.  The citadel summit of Mt. Blakiston towered overhead.  From the head of the valley a trail led to Blakiston Falls, through a forest of  Lodgepole Pine and Engelmann Spruce.  Hiking alone in the creaking forest was eerie. Was I being scrutinized through the trees by an irritable bear?  My imagination created a watching Bruin from every shadow and the growl of a wolf from every noise.

Red-Rock-Canyon_06At Blakiston Falls, the crystal waters of  Blakiston Stream stepped down through a series of rapids and tumbled over the 12m high falls, en route to the Hudson Bay, 1300km to the east.  I sat on a rough wooden bench in the deserted valley, climbing the mountain in my mind and feeling envious of my great uncle.  To travel through country never seen by European eyes is something no longer possible in our modern world; in his day, half the Earth was still unexplored.  The wind rattled in the trees.  Snow flurries swept the mountainsides.  Beside the falls, a passing bear had clawed its signature in the silver-white bark of an aspen.

Back in Waterton Townsite the streets were almost deserted.  Many of the eateries and lodges were already closed for the winter.  But Zumms Café was open and cozy, so I ordered coffee and pie, found a sunny table by a window and settled down to read an account of T.W Blakiston’s explorations.  A Captain in the Royal Artillery, Blakiston had been in charge of “magnetical observations” on the British North-west Exploring Expedition.  The expedition had been dispatched from England to map the Canadian Rockies and search for a pass through which a railway could be built, linking the rich prairies of Central Canada with the ports of the Pacific Coast.

A stickler for precise military organization, Blakiston had quarreled with expedition leader, Col. John Palliser, about the way the civilian expedition was run.  Unable to reconcile his unbending army ways with the informal leadership of Palliser, he set off on his own.

On September 6th, 1858, after sixteen days exploring the labyrinth of mountains and valleys lying half in Canada, half in the United States,  Blakiston and his party of four Indians – three Red River half-breed voyagers and a Thickwood Cree Indian hunter – crossed the South Kootenay Pass from British Columbia into an unexplored valley containing three shimmering lakes.  He named them Upper, Middle and Lower Waterton after Charles Waterton, an 18th century naturalist.  Blakiston was responsible for naming many of the region’s landmarks, but a year later the International Boundaries Commission bestowed his name on the mountain, valley and stream I had seen.  His diary records his discovery of the Waterton Lakes.

After two hours travelling on level ground along Red-stone Creek we emerged on the Saskatchewan Plains just six geographical miles north of the 49″ parallel, and camped at Waterton Lakes, two miles east of the mouth of the pass.  The uppermost and largest of these lakes lies in a gorge in the mountains, and is crossed by the boundary line. The scenery here is grand and picturesque, and I took care to make a sketch from the narrows between the upper or southernmost and second lake.

Blakiston’s party rested beside the lake for several days, giving their horses time to recover from the arduous journey over the mountains.  The lakes yielded an abundance of fish and the Indians were adept at hunting game.  Blakiston spent time collecting biological specimens including a new species of stunted pine.  The wind which had tested my patience during my visit to Waterton also made an impression on Blakiston.

This corner of the mountains,” he wrote, “appeared to he a very windy spot, and when it was not blowing much on the plain, a strong breeze came from the south down the gorge in which is the Upper Waterton Lake.”

The following day I drove the Akamina Parkway into the narrow Cameron Valley.  Vertiginous cliffs towered overhead and deep evergreen forest crowded down to the edge of the road.  At the head of the parkway lay Cameron Lake, mirror calm in its frame of dark forest.  Though I was standing in Canada, on the northern shore of the lake, the US state of Montana was only a few kilometres away.  The southern half of the lake lies in Montana and the whole area is prime bear habitat.  I had intended to hike along the lakeshore to the border but lurid signs implied I might be torn to pieces if I did, so I contented myself with a stroll to nearby Akamina Lake, which lay hidden nearby in a throng of conifers.  A solitary moose was grazing the reedy fringes at the water’s edge.

On the way back down the valley I stopped at the remains of  Oil City.  The Rocky Mountain Development Co. drilled the first oil well in Western Canada here in 1901.  A 20-block town was surveyed and buildings erected.   But after only a year the oil ran out, the people left, the town vanished.  A monument stood atop the oil well and in a sunny glade of aspens, the foundations of the Oil City Hotel were slowly returning to the earth.

It was a forlorn place, where the hopes and dreams of many people were ruined.  But sitting in the sunlight beside the chattering Cameron Creek I thought it would have been infinitely sadder if an oil field had despoiled the magnificent natural landscape surrounding me.

The weather turned sour.  Blasting winds raked the slopes of Mount Blakiston for the next three days.  When it wasn’t raining it snowed.  Climbing the mountain was impossible.  I made friends with an American couple who were huddling in a tent in the campground, bedraggled and depressed.  Despite the weather, we decided to hike to Upper Rowe Lake nestled high in the mountains under the Continental Divide: a wiggly ridgeline where Alberta becomes British Columbia and rainwater runs towards the Pacific instead of the Atlantic.

From the rain-soaked valley floor we climbed through silent forest and traversed under forbidding cliffs as the rain turned to snow.  The forest took on the appearance of a Christmas card scene: dark green conifers frosted with a coating of pure white.  At Upper Rowe Lake there was already 15cm of snow on the ground.  It softened and rounded the features of the landscape.  Apart from the quiet tapping of snowflakes on the water, the silence was complete.  On the descent we found fresh cougar tracks in the snow.

On my last day in Waterton, I drove up to the summer-only border post at Chief Mountain.  Mist hung thickly on the forested slopes and a cold mesh of drizzle sifted down from the clouds.  I stepped over the frontier and stood in the United States of America.  The wind keened around the deserted guard-houses and passport control buildings.  I could have walked out into the States and no one would have known.  Wild animals do it all the time.

The International Boundary Line follows an arrow-straight swath of cleared forest, switch-backing across the mountains.  As I stood beside a concrete obelisk marking the boundary, a rainbow appeared, arching between the two countries.  It summed up everything symbolized by the Peace Park: that political frontiers are a typically human creation.  The natural world recognizes no such confines.  As Sitting Bull said: “The meat of the buffalo tastes the same on both sides of the border.”

Fifty Shades of Green

Fifty Shades of Green

By Fergus Blakiston

He wears the colours of the summer soldier,

carries the green flag all the winter long.

–        Jethro Tull, Jack-in-the-Green

StandingStones

 

 

 

 

 

Dawn on the Salisbury Plain.  High above the market town of Marlborough, the B4003 – a narrow tarmac road slung between parallel lines of bushy hedgerows – undulates between fields of wheat and barley stitched neatly into the dark soil. The rising sun paints the crests and folds of the landscape in mauve and pale green.  Tendrils of mist curl in the hollows like primordial phantoms.

Standing beside my borrowed car I can see out across the Vale of Wiltshire all the way to Swindon.  An aircraft drags a vapour trail across the sky; the glitter-gleam of sunlight on chrome reflects from cars westbound on the M3 Motorway.  Down there, the crowded and frenetic world of Southern England is coming to life on this warm Sunday in early June.  But up here on the plain, the quiet, bucolic world of the West Country seems caught in a centuries-old time-warp.

The tightly-packed fields cover the surrounding land in a patchwork of russet and brown.  Farmhouses crouch in the shelter of tiny valleys.  I hear the rasping call of a pheasant in a nearby copse of sycamores.  A pair of chaffinches twitter on a fencepost beside the road.  Somewhere in the distance I can hear a pigeon calling out its mournful song which sounds like it is saying “take twoooo cows Taffy.”

It is almost twenty years since I last saw this halcyon landscape.  In the late eighties and early nineties my girlfriend (now my wife) Linda and I lived near Warminster, an army garrison town on the far side of the Salisbury Plain from where I now stand.  Back then we were a couple of kids from rural South Canterbury out seeing the world.  I had relatives living in Wiltshire.  We found work in Warminster, rented a cottage in the nearby village of Corton, and settled down.

We spent almost two years in the West Country.  When the time came to leave and return to New Zealand it was like leaving home.  We had put down roots in the West Country.  And now, quite by chance, I have an opportunity to return, albeit very briefly, to the Salisbury Plain.

I am in England for my cousin’s wedding.  Three days before, I had escaped the winter blizzard which subsequently closed Christchurch Airport and had flown via the Arctic Circle to the warmth of a Northern Hemisphere summer.  Still operating on New Zealand time, I’d found myself awake at 4am this morning and had set off into the cool dawn to drive across the Salisbury Plain to visit the Wylie Valley, where Linda and I had lived all those years ago.

At Avebury, a mysterious circle of giant stones stand erect in fields of short grass where desultory sheep are mooching in search of breakfast.  The village consists of a pub (supposedly the only pub in Britain within a stone circle), a short street lined with picture-postcard thatched cottages and a stone parish church.  The cottages are decked with Union Jacks and bunting to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee which took place just a few days ago.  I walk through a lychgate set into a low wall and up the path to the church.

The church’s heavy timber door is locked so I wander round the grounds looking up at the walls and imagining the lives of the people who have worshipped here over the last thousand years.  A gnarled oak, centuries old, unfolds its branches above the nearby graveyard.  The headstones have been weathered and broken by time and are canted at odd angles in the soft ground.  Wandering among the graves, I am struck by the thought that it was from quiet country parishes like this that many of New Zealand’s early settlers came from and that maybe, just maybe, one of my own ancestors may have once walked in this very place.

As I drive deeper into the Salisbury Plain, the landscape becomes bleaker and more empty.  Up here, trees find it difficult to grow in the thin, chalky soil and the sky-scape is big and open.  In places, tank tracks flagged with concrete paving stones cross the road.  The British Army occupies large tracts of land on the plain, which it uses for training soldiers and tank crews.  Working in Warminster during the first Gulf War in 1991, we were treated to daily shows of military firepower as tanks, infantry and A10 strike aircraft practised the manoeuvres they would use against Saddam Hussein’s forces in the deserts of Iraq, a world away from the green folds of the Salisbury Plain.

A thick mist covers the plain as I approach Stonehenge.  The great stone circle, with its massive lintels, looms out of the mist like an unfinished city.  Tall mesh fences surround the entire site and security guards in bright green Hi-viz vests patrol the perimeter.  Lurid signs warn of the penalties for entering the grounds without paying the extortionate entry fee charged by English Heritage.

A group of druids clad in white robes are gathered in the centre of the circle – it is approaching Summer Solstice – and I figure they must have negotiated some sort of spiritual, New Age bulk entry to the site.  For my part, having wandered around Stonehenge many times in the past when security was less intrusive, I have no desire to experience the place again.  As I drive away, the sun breaks through the mist and illuminates Stonehenge in a purple haze.

I follow a by-way down a gentle valley cloaked in deep green forest.  The mist hangs in the trees and drifts across the road in eddies and swirls.  In the half-light of early morning it feels like I am driving through a translucent dream-world of pillars propping up an invisible sky.  The aroma of wet earth and vegetation fills the air.  A fallow deer peers at me from a clearing beside the road.

I cross the A303 motorway and dive off onto a narrow lane called High Street.  Suddenly, I am in the familiar surroundings of the Wylie Valley.  The road winds through the thatched hamlets of Bapton and Stockton, still asleep at this hour.

On the hillside behind the tiny stone church at Stockton, a giant ANZAC insignia commemorates the thousands of New Zealand and Australian soldiers who camped here during World War One while they trained up on the Salisbury Plain.  In the churchyard, a handful of white, rectangular headstones mark the resting places of ANZAC soldiers who succumbed not to war wounds, but to influenza.

I turn off onto a tiny lane leading between hedges of hawthorn down to Sherrington.  In olden days, villages like this were a tiny microcosm of the world: with a pub, Post Office, black-smith and manor house.  These day, places like Sherrington are inhabited by city professionals, who commute from their rural idyll to work in the glass and steel towers of London and Salisbury.

In the centre of the village, the quiet Wylie River spreads out into rectangular water meadows where cress and mint grow wild and the thatched cottages unfold their reflections on the water.  In the wall of the old Post Office, now someone’s house, a bright red VR mailbox recalls long-gone days when Queen Victoria’s empire spanned the world and even quiet corners of England like this were part of a global village.

At Corton, a few more miles down the road, I feel like I am home.  I drive past The Dove Inn – where Linda worked as a chef – and down the street to 42a, the house owned by my aunt, Lady Ann Blakiston, where we lived.  Nothing seems to have changed.  Sundial Farm, across the road, is still owned by Richard and Robin Witt; next door, Saracen’s Cottage still has its window-boxes full of pansies.

I walk around the village savouring the warm feeling of nostalgia.  Although my life has taken me a long way from this place, I remember with fondness the time we spent here.  Ash and chestnut trees lean over the street, draping their olive and emerald leaves almost to the ground.  Doves coo in dovecotes and crows gurgle like disembodied spirits from the rooftops.  The millstream chatters between its primrose-clad banks.  Dew shimmers on the village green.

Beyond Corton, Five Ash Lane runs along at the foot of the Great Ridge Wood.  In places, centuries of traffic has sunk the road-bed deep into the ground like a fortification.  I park the car in a lay-by and walk into the wood.  A bridal path climbs gently through alders and birches which drip with viridian and lime foliage, dappled with pale gold and shimmering white.

Even the air seems tinged with green as if the sunlight has distilled the colour of the trees into itself.   A fox crosses the path ahead and pauses to stare at me with dark, malevolent eyes.  I hear it’s rasping call long after it tweedy coat has rendered it invisible in the undergrowth.

I crest the hill and the landscape bursts in front of me, rolling away in waves of olive and teal, dotted with the shattered white of chalk outcrops and the bright yellow of rape fields.  A skylark twitters somewhere overhead and I can hear the tolling of the church bell at nearby Sutton Veny.

I sit on a rock and look out over the Wylie Valley.  Soon I will have to begin my journey home to the bright blue winter skies of New Zealand.  But for now I am content to sit here in this quiet corner of England where ridge after wooded ridge roll away before me, fading gradually into fifty shades of green.

TRUE COLOURS

TRUE COLORS

By Fergus Blakiston

 “And Wilderness is Paradise enow…” – Omar Khayyam

I thought I would die on the Dampier Peninsula. It wasn’t just the saltwater crocodiles lurking in the mangrove creeks. It wasn’t the black tip sharks patrolling the waters of King Sound. I could keep a wary eye on the 30-foot tides, which raced in twice each day, swallowing the rocky beaches along the coastline in minutes. The ferocious mosquitoes, the ants and sand flies were merely an annoyance. What affected me most out here was the isolation — the feeling of being at the uttermost end of the earth — and the realization of how vulnerable, emotionally and physically, humans can be when confronted with a true wilderness.

The 150-mile long Dampier Peninsula juts seaward from the northern tip of Western Australia. To the south-east, beyond the deep indentation of King Sound, lies the equally rugged Kimberley region: a wilderness of wind-sculpted landforms, hidden rivers and forests lost in deep gorges.

The Dampier Peninsula is pirate country. For hundreds of years before Europeans settled Australia, Portuguese, Dutch, Macassan and Chinese buccaneers frequented the coast of King Sound, laying low to evade pursuers and perhaps burying ill-gotten booty. Many of the sound’s landmarks — One-Arm Point, Disaster Bay — have names with an unmistakably piratical ring. The peninsula is named after William Dampier, an English privateer turned explorer who first mapped the western coast of Australia.

Around thirty percent of the peninsula’s 8000 square miles of land is owned by Aboriginals, whose ancestors have lived here for thousands of years, and their permission is required to visit many of the isolated missions and outstations. Yet for travelers willing to forgo the sybaritic resorts of Broome – the northernmost town on the coast of Western Australia – for a few days in the bush, the peninsula offers a perfect opportunity to interact with and learn from Aboriginal people.

Mark Manado’s family runs Barramundi Moon bush camp, east of the Beagle Bay Mission on the coast of King Sound. The evocative name comes from a song Mark wrote about fishing for barramundi at night. Although the name sounds exotic this was no luxury retreat. The facilities are basic and visitors need to be self-sufficient or, like our group, part of an organized tour to stay there. The attraction of Barramundi Moon is the chance to explore a remote and savagely beautiful part of the Dampier Peninsula in the company of Aboriginals who still maintain strong links with the land.

To reach the peninsula I had flown from my home in New Zealand to Darwin via Sydney, then on to Broome: a total of ten hours in the air. It was like flying from LA to Paris and it seemed as though I had almost reached the end of the world. In Broome I joined four other travellers with a shared interest in Aboriginal culture.

We had all discovered Barramundi Moon by searching the Internet; our driver and guide, Dan Balint’s company, Kimberley Wild, had also been engaged using the Net. There was a pleasing symmetry in using computer technology to arrange a trip into the wilderness to learn about the customs of the world’s oldest continuous civilization.

With Dan’s sturdy Landcruiser four wheel-drive packed with fresh water, food and camping gear, we drove north from Broome along the Cape Leveque Road: a grand name for what was nothing more than a deep groove carved through brick red dirt.

The road (or “track” as the Aussies call an outback road) is impassable during the rainy season (“The Wet”) which lasts from December to April. It’s roughness inspired the title of Aboriginal playwright Stephen Baamba’s play, “Corrugation Road,” about the rigors of life on the peninsula.

Dan attacked the road like a rally driver. “The only way to drive on corrugations is to hit the buggers fast,” he shouted over the juddering rumble of the Landcruiser’s suspension. His face alternated between a mask of concentration as we lurched through patches of bulldust (deep, finely powdered dirt which can easily bog a vehicle) to a broad grin as we became airborne in the back after hitting a particularly big pothole.

As we hammered north through the gnarled eucalypt forest I wondered what lay ahead. The road ran into a vanishing point of red beneath a sky of burnished copper. The thrumming of the wheels on the dirt seemed to be chanting a mantra: “come and find out, come and find out…”

After three hours of bouncing we reached the Beagle Bay Mission, a tiny cluster of houses established in 1890 by French Trappist monks. In the 19th century, Europeans settlers clashed with the Aboriginals and the mission provided a refuge for many Aboriginal families. The simple, single-story mission church, constructed from timber hewn from the surrounding bush and stone quarried from the coast, was completed in 1901, and has an exquisite altar inlaid with mother-of-pearl depictions of biblical scenes and Aboriginal motifs.

As we stood in the reverential silence before the altar, another Landcruiser roared up outside.

“I’ve been looking for you mob,” Mark Manado said as he walked into the church. “It gets dark quickly up here and it’s easy to get lost.”

Tall and gangly in a New York City t-shirt, shorts and bare feet, Mark’s Portuguese ancestry had sharpened his Aboriginal features, giving him an aquiline nose and high cheekbones beneath jet black skin. His cousin, Stephen Victor, a grizzled elder of their Nimunburu tribe, grinned at us from beneath a battered Akubra hat.

The late afternoon sun slanted through giant fig trees growing on the mission grounds. Sulphur-crested cockatoos screeched overhead. Some of the mission kids played a boisterous game of Aussie Rules football on a dirt pitch. We piled into the vehicles and headed east through a forest of six-foot tall buffalo grass and tall, gaunt stringy-bark trees. The setting sun glowed hazy orange through the miasma of dust thrown up by our wheels. By the time we reached the camp darkness had fallen.

Mark lit a fire and each of us was assigned a roomy shelter in which to sleep. The shelters consisted of a corrugated iron roof over a concrete floor, with shade-cloth providing the walls. Each shelter contained four camp stretchers. Preferring to sleep outside in the cool the May air, I suspended my mosquito net from a tree I and slept on a stretcher beneath the star-encrusted southern sky.

Life at Barramundi Moon revolves around the tides and the eternal cycle of day and night. At low tide next morning we set off along the beach with Mark and four members of his family. As the day’s heat grew, we walked north beneath towering cliffs of rainbow-hued sandstone. These are the true colors of Australia: alternating bands of ochre red and pale yellow capped with a green skin of vegetation along the cliff top. Chunks of rock the size of buildings had fallen onto the beach, and the relentless ocean was patiently scraping their edges back into sand.

I clambered into a narrow cleft where a colony of common sheath-tailed bats had made their home. “They taste great roasted,” Mark called from outside as the bats flitted and dived around me, their shrill squeaks echoing from the walls.

Farther along the beach, Mark showed us a wide semicircle of stones, which once formed a fish trap, strategically placed to collect fish as the tide receded along a sandy channel. It was being taken over by mangroves, because it was no longer used. But as we stood inside the circle talking, Mark’s 5-year-old nephew, Vaun, speared a crab for lunch.

When we stopped for a rest in the shade of a massive lump of sandstone I asked Mark about the evocative name of his camp.

“A mob of us were going out fishing one night,” he said. “We were driving down a bush track when we saw the full moon rising ahead of us. I said to my son, ‘I can feel the barramundi in my fingers looking at that moon,’ and so we made up a song about it called ‘The Barramundi Moon.’ ”

We climbed a jutting headland and descended into the eucalypt forest for a lesson in gathering the natural fruits, berries, roots and vegetables Aussies call “Bush Tucker.”

“To us the bush is a giant open air supermarket, stuffed full of edible plants,” Mark said, plucking a handful of tiny translucent berries from a scrubby bush. (The berries tasted of tinned pears.)

“Bush tucker is high in carbohydrates and vitamins,” he continued. “You could survive out here for ages just by eating berries like these.”

But far from being a convenient larder, the bush is also a hardware store full of useful tools and a pharmacy in which Aboriginals can find cures for any ailment or injury. Mark knelt and dug a root from beneath another stunted bush.

“This is a Banjurra root,” he said. “If you crush it up and drop it in a rock pool it suffocates all the fish in the water. They float up to the surface and you can grab them.”

By now it was midday. The sun was incandescent on the ocean and beat down on us with an almost tactile force. The landscape span and wobbled in the heat as if we were looking at it through a glass bottle.

 “In heat like this you need to conserve your energy,” Mark told us. “Aboriginal people do most of their food-gathering and traveling in the early morning and in the evening. In the heat of the day we just rest up.”

As he spoke he plucked some leaves from an acacia tree and stuffed them into his pocket. Back at camp an hour later we boiled the leaves in a billy-can of water to make a refreshing herbal tea that tasted like peppermint.

That evening we walked out onto a reef exposed by the receding tide to watch the sunset. Wave-worn rocks enclosed pools where aquamarine crabs watched us with glittering eyes and long, black sea cucumbers lay motionless amid crimson and sapphire corals. As the sun sank into the land the air seemed to shimmer and in the moment between day’s end and night’s arrival, the sky and the sea fused into a seamless mirror of pink and mauve light.

Tide-oriented places like Barramundi Moon always seem to encourage a degree of soul-searching and I found the Dampier Peninsula particularly conducive to introspection. In new surroundings, freed from the routines of home, every emotion and response becomes intense. At Barramundi Moon, I no longer felt the everyday constraints on my thinking. I could change a little about myself and try something new in the safety of anonymity.

A few hours in jet aircraft and four-wheel-drives can shift us from the safety of familiar surroundings into an utterly alien place. I realized how being in a strange landscape can also bring people together. Stripped bare of luxuries our small group had formed a strong bond of friendship out there. 

Despite the fact that the six of us came from several different countries (three Aussies, a Kiwi, a Canadian and a Swede), during our three-day stay on the peninsula we learnt to rely on each other’s strengths, just as our Aboriginal hosts rely on the communal strength of their tribe to survive. We caught and cooked fish and crabs to eat, tended the campfire and took turns looking out for crocs whenever we swam in the warm waters of the Sound.

On our last morning at Barramundi Moon we clambered over a headland south of the camp to explore a cave. The coastline here was forbidding and primeval. Giant salamanders slithered on the tidal mud. A forest of inscrutable mangroves choked a brackish creek beneath cliffs of red and purple stone. The incoming tide roared on the overfalls and embankments of the reef with a noise like a distant cheering crowd.

The floor of the cavern was strewn with colored pebbles and crushed shells that crunched beneath our feet. At the back of the cave the numbers 1417 were etched into the damp rock of the ceiling. I ran my hands over the numerals and wondered about their meaning. Was it a date? Was it a set of coded directions to buried treasure? Was it the last message of a castaway, dying alone on this burning shore? Outside the cave, the ocean glittered in the sunlight, like a new frontier where anything was possible. I put my arm around one of my new friends and thought: “Out here you can make up your own ending.”