The Harmony of Height

THE HARMONY OF HEIGHT

By Fergus Blakiston

Out of the maze of valleys,

The thousand mountains, shining,

Lifting their rock and snow

Into upper air, ocean of light

                    – Charles Brasch, Hawk Over Brown Peak

 

At sunset I sit on a rock ledge above the Mueller Glacier.  Day ends quickly the Southern Alps.  Though a chill grasps the air as the sun dips behind the South Ridge of Mount Sefton, the rock beneath me holds the day’s warmth.  Far below, the mountain’s shadowy silhouette crosses the Mueller Valley and scales the Sealy Range.  To the north, standing like a sentinel above the Hooker Valley, the icy bulk of Mount Cook is bathed in golden light and, further back, the sunlight gleams on a thousand shining mountains. 

The indigo sky is clear save for a few streaks of high cirrus cloud; a pale silver moon hangs above Cook like a piece of a child’s mobile, suspended on an invisible thread.  Avalanches boom and snap from the ghastly cliffs of Sefton’s East Face as hanging glaciers shed huge chunks of ice.  The slopes at the bottom of the face are grubby with debris. 

The avalanches are almost continuous.  Their white noise reverberates around the peaks as the glaciers disintegrate.  The mountains are never totally silent.  Rock shatters, ice cracks, water roars: the entire onomatopoeic soundtrack to the turmoil of raw geology, plate tectonics and the mountain-building process.

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We had spent the afternoon slogging up the Sealy Range from the Mount Cook Village.  Bent beneath my pack, I kept myself focused on the climb by reciting the script of Monty Python’s Life of Brian in my head.  I was out of shape after a summer of slothful indolence and this was an impromptu ascent, cooked up over a curry by my mate Mike and I the previous week.  I’d done no training for the climb and our provisions – cheese, wine, chocolate bikkies and the like – were more suited to a gentleman’s afternoon ramble than an early autumn alpine tramp.  Spasms of cramp wracked my legs and my eyes smarted from the formaldehyde sting of sweat. 

We arrived at the Sealy Tarns, halfway up the flank of the range, at lunch time.  The sun was gloriously hot and we lay shirtless in the tussocks beside a mirror-calm tarn eating boiled eggs, salami and bread.  Parties of guided walkers passed by, hurrying upwards on some unwritten schedule.  For our part we were happy to lounge in the sun reading the paper and feeling smug.

We reached the Mueller Hut, bright red in its cradle of rock and fresh snow,  at two.  The hut is popular with backpackers and a full house was forecast for the evening by the hut warden.  We sat on the deck chatting to other hikers about the rigors of the ascent from the valley.   A pair of older trampers from Christchurch were sharing, with loud voices, their enlightened views on “women-folk”, “communists” and “the little konichiwas”, so we set off across the snowfield beyond the hut in search of less crowded lodgings.

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The last rays of sunlight shine through a hidden pass at the head of the Mueller Valley.  Cloud pours over the Divide through a notch between two fanged peaks, like dry ice at a rock concert. The Mueller Glacier, striped with slot-car tracks of moraine, curves down from snowfields beneath the Main Divide.  The East Face of Sefton gleams like polished marble. 

Mike has tea simmering on the primus so I clamber down to join him.  Our digs for the night are an overhang of rock we have christened Drippy Rock Hotel after the melt-water seeping from the stone.  We sip the warm shiraz and nibble cheese and crackers as if we are in the lounge bar of some posh alpine lodge instead of our less comfy but no less convivial bivouac.  

Sprawled on the rocks beneath the overhang we yarn about the things that drive people to climb mountains.  With their deadly shifts in weather, their deathtrap crevasses, avalanches and eternal coldness, it’s easy to perceive the mountains as utterly inhospitable and cruel.  But the mountain are neither cruel nor kind: they simply are.  Humans may seek to test their inner strengths in the mountains but our puny presence matters not one iota to the implacable rock and ice giants.  They exist.  They have always been there and will remain long after the human race has disappeared.

The combined effects of a hearty feed of stew, several post-dinner cups of coffee, and a few lung-fulls of a certain herbal substance mean I spend a restless night, listening to the growl of avalanches across the valley.  The mountains stand awash in starlight: a negative image in black and silver. 

I trace the slow transit of Venus across the sky and watch satellites, gleaming with reflected light, skid across the black background of the universe.  Occasionally, a meteorite flashes its dying moments above the peak of Sefton.  It’s so still can almost feel the earth spinning on its axis.

Eventually I fall asleep and when I awaken the sun is pouring pink light over the summits.  The snowfield surrounding our bivouac is frozen solid.  The seepages from Drippy Rock have been staunched by the frost.  Even the avalanches have fallen temporarily silent, held in check by the frost’s icy grip    

In keeping with the relaxed approach to the whole expedition we loll in our sleeping bags until the morning is well under way.  Mike cooks a pan-full of bacon and we perch on top of the rock munching bacon sarnies and slurping coffee.  A few parties of guided trampers crunch purposefully past on crampons, heading up the eastern side of the valley towards the Annette Plateau.

A pillow of cloud hangs in the valley below; tendrils of mist reach up to envelop the lower slopes of the Sealy Range.  But at Drippy Rock Hotel we bathe in the warm autumn sunshine, with out gear strewn haphazardly around us and our boots unlaced.  I try to remember the lines of a Dennis Glover poem called The Harmony of Height:  “What pleasure lies in height and cold, the splendour of the hills…”

To me, the greatest pleasure of the mountains is to simply sit and look around.  No epic ascents for me.  I prefer to leave the dangerous stuff to mountaineers.  The day is still young.  We could climb nearby Mt Ollivier (1933m) or practice our step-cutting on the glacier below.  But the morning is far too nice for anything as strenuous as that.  I open a packet of chocolate biscuits and put the billy on for another cup of coffee.

Bewitching Broome

BEWITCHING BROOME

by Fergus Blakiston

I dig my toes into the sand,

the ocean looks like a thousand diamonds

strewn across a blue blanket…

– Incubus, Wish You Were Here

I fell in love in Broome.  It was easy.  You simply couldn’t go there without falling in love: if not with someone then just with the place.  I can’t tell you why.  It just happens.  Perhaps it’s the way the setting sun slides into the Indian Ocean, leaving the western sky stained the colour of amethyst and marigolds, that captivates you.  Maybe it’s the way the warm waves topple onto the perfect arc of Cable Beach, hypnotizing you into believing anything is possible.  It might be the murmur of the wind in the palm trees – as graceful and slender as a pianist’s fingers – that seems to whisper “come and find out.”   It could be nostalgia for the town’s roaring heyday as the pearling capital of the world which makes you yearn for romantic adventures which are their own and only reward.

Whatever the reason, there’s something indefinable about Broome that takes hold of you when you’re least expecting it.  Broome weaves its magic gently, lulling you insensible with the caress of sea breezes, which make their way into your room at midnight.  Broome sidles up to you, like a new friend on a sunlit street, takes you by the hand and leads you into temptation.  You want to dive naked into her blue-eyed ocean and lose yourself in her depths.

Broome is full of people who arrived there intending to stay a few days and never left.  Every taxi driver in town has a story about how they drifted into Broome from different parts of the world, succumbed to the soft gravitational pull of the place and didn’t move on.  Dan Balint, a surfing Sydneysider, came to Broome in search of waves and now owns a tour company – Kimberley Wild – specializing in bush tucker expeditions into the rugged Kimberley region. 

The northernmost town on Western Australia’s coast, Broome faces the Indian Ocean like a colonial aunt, wistfully staring out to sea as she remembers her glory days.  For Broome was once a wild and tempestuous place, her fortunes founded on pearls.  Their mysterious allure brought divers from all over the world to risk their lives collecting oysters from the seabed beneath the waters of Roebuck Bay.  Only one oyster in a thousand yielded a pearl.  Yet such was the world’s hunger for these perfect, lustrous spheres – and the mother-of-pearl shells they grew in – fortunes were made.  As the graveyard on Beach Road filled up with drowned Aboriginal, Chinese, Malaysian and Japanese divers, the coffers of Broome’s pearling companies bulged with money.  The pearl barons built grand colonial residences overlooking the ocean; along Dampier Terrace, pearls were traded in tiny shops whose verandahs conjoined into a long, covered boardwalk. 

The pearling luggers and all they suggest – flinty-eyed divers, the creak of rigging and the vagrant gypsy life of the sea – are gone.  Today, pearls are mostly grown in land-locked artificial pearl farms.  But  Streeters Jetty, where the luggers once tied up in their hundreds, is still there, jutting into a narrow channel cut through the inscrutable mangrove forests an the fringe of the bay.  Nearby, on Dampier Terrace, decaying timber and tin warehouses gaze sightlessly out at the bay.  Pearls are still big business in Broome.  You can pay thousands of dollars for a pearl brooch at Paspalay Pearls on Carnevon Street or spend less than a hundred on a cultured pearl necklace: no less beautiful because it has a romantic story – whatever you want it to be – attached to it 

Erik Heinrich was naked.  The Canadian travel writer stood like a Norse god on the pure white sand of Cable Beach, firm of buttock, taut of thigh, his blond hair streaming in the wind, washboard abs gleaming in the afternoon sun.  I had met Erik a few days earlier at a bush camp on the savage coast of King Sound, north of Broome.  Now we were standing (I was fully clothed, by the way) on the edge of the sea with the glittering beach stretching away towards Gethsaume Point.  Offshore, a handful of surfers rode waves which had been born on the fragrant coasts of Africa, gathering their strength over five thousand kilometres of ocean to fall idly at our feet.

“The only word you can use to describe this beach is ‘sassy’,” Erik said.  I carefully maintained eye contact to avoid an accidental downward glance at the last turkey in the shop.  “I’m writing about the ten best beaches in the world,” he continued, “and this might just be the best of them.”  

The relaxed approach to clothing on the beach is just one manifestation of the laid-back attitude the locals call “Broome Casual”.  Shorts, t-shirts and reef shoes are the dress code around town.  Open-air dining is the norm.  At the local movie theatre, Sun Pictures, movie-goers sit outside on deck chairs.  Cafes open early and close late.  The Shady Lane Café – on the boardwalk between Dampier Terrace and Carnevon Street – is a perfect place to while away a tropic afternoon.  The spreading branches of a fig tree form a shady canopy against the sun and you can watch the world go by over the rim of your coffee cup.

Broome’s accommodation options range from cheap and cheerful backpacker’s hostels where the partying never stops to luxury apartments with every appointment a wayfaring lover could wish for.  But pride of place among Broom’s lodgings must go to the Cable Beach Club.  Built by British construction magnate Lord McAlpine – who was himself captivated by Broom – the resort is styled like a Chinese Imperial palace.  Carved dragons and elephants peep from the foliage along winding paths of terracotta; luxury, wood paneled bungalows lie discreetly amid shady groves of palms; twin pools invite you for night swimming as a ghost moon sails overhead.  At sunset you can rendezvous at Lord Mac’s, the most perfectly-placed restaurant in Australia.  As the sun drifts towards the horizon, you sip cocktails while camels sway languidly along the beach below; cruise yachts, their sails red in the sunset, tack and jibe on the ocean.  And in the instant before the sun disappears you feel a little sad at the ending of one perfect day but joyful at the prospect what you might discover about yourself tomorrow.         

I was a willing victim.  Like the pirates and pearlers and dreamers before me I succumbed eagerly to Broom’s magic.  Unable to sleep in the sultry nights – when the air in my room felt as warm and aromatic as a ‘98 Shiraz – I began taking midnight walks down to the beach alone.  The sky, as dark and velvety as black sambuca, formed a vast dome over the ocean; champagne bubbles of phosphorescence sparkled on the waves.  Broome was bewitching me and I had fallen spellbound, drawn in by her gentle voices and her temperate beauty.  I wanted to learn all her secrets; to discover everything about her.    

And then one day she was gone.  As the aircraft turned like a sea eagle in the sky I looked down on Cable Beach and the waters of Roebuck Bay, scored with the white trails of boat wakes. There are a million stories in Western Australia.  Out there, on what could be the edge of the world, anything is possible. You can slip into Broome-time, fall in love and make up your own ending.  One thing is certain, you will never be the same again.

Vanishing Point

VANISHING POINT

By Fergus Blakiston

Did I get lost while I was gone

I travelled space for much too long…..

                                                            – Yellowcard, Space Travel

Midnight on the Nullarbor.  A sliver of moon hangs low over the eastern horizon.  Cold air, barely enough to call a wind, shifts the dust around the compound of the Nullabor Roadhouse where I am spending the night among a collection of trucks and three resilient British cyclists.  Somewhere off to the north, the generator which keeps the Roadhouse’s lights gleaming through the night, throbs and clatters. 

The stars form a brilliant canopy above my makeshift sleeping arrangements, which consist of a mosquito net slung from the door of my car over my camp stretcher. A satellite passes languidly overhead. In the darkness nearby I hear the rustle of feet and a pair of green eyes peers back at me from the edge of my torch’s light.  Lulled by the starlight, I drift back into sleep.

The Nullarbor stretches for almost 2000 kilometres across southern Australia: from Port Augusta in South Australia to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia.  Covering an area of 200,000 square kilometres, this great plain is the world’s largest single piece of limestone.   The name Nullarbor is derived from the Latin nullus for “nothing” and arbor for “tree”. The Spinifex Wangai Aboriginal people, who have inhabited the region for millenia, call the area Oondiri meaning “the waterless.”

Nullarbor Road Sign

Nullarbor Road Sign

Daylight arrives suddenly.  Without a skyline of bush or hills to provide dawn’s slow introduction,  the sun clears the flat line of the horizon in a sudden rush, like theatre house-lights switched on at the end of a show.  I stow my simple camp in the back seat of my car and I am on the road while the shadows are still long.

Beyond the Roadhouse the highway runs along the Bunda Cliffs, suspended mid-way between the ocean and the sky on the outer edge of the land.  I turn off onto a rough dirt track.  It is blocked by a locked gate but there is enough room to squeeze the car past and I drive a few hundred metres to an empty car park at the road’s end. 

A short walk through stunted scrub leads to the cliff top where I stand on the rim of the continent looking out at the great Southern Ocean which, with the exception of a few storm-lashed rocks, is empty all the way to Antarctica.   I have been wandering around blithely for half an hour before I notice the myriad of cracks in the ground.  This section of the Bunda Cliffs is about to collapse into the ocean.  I beat a hasty retreat to the safety of the highway.

When the space station Skylab fell back to Earth in 1979, most of its remains fell on the Nullarbor.  At Balladonia (on the western edge of the plain) there is a small museum containing several chunks of the space station which were salvaged from the surrounding land.  It seems fitting that by quirks of gravity and mathematics, this orbiting laboratory which had spent so long in the sky, should fall into this vast terrestrial space.  Perhaps its computers used their last moments of awareness to guide the falling wreckage into a final resting place which most closely resembled the emptiness of space.

To me, crossing the Nullarbor also becomes a kind of space travel: a voyage through an immense void with only the shift of light to guide me.  I drive for hours.  The road unfolds into a vanishing point ahead of me and closes behind me with barely a ripple.  Out here, on the longest long straight road in the world, I am alone, with nothing but the horizon and the sky for company.  But in the midst of such enveloping vastness it is the small wonders around me that I begin to notice: the wildflowers blooming along the roadside, the drifting clouds, the rhythm of the tyres on the tarmac. 

At Eucla, I turn off the highway again and follow another dirt road down an escarpment into an arid labyrinth of sand dunes.  The dunes are slowly overwhelming the old Eucla Telegraph Station, abandoned to the elements more than a  hundred years ago.  The windowless remains of the buildings protrude from the ever-shifting sand, their walls bleached white like the bones of dead animals.  Once an integral link in Australia’s immense telegraph network – the Internet of it’s day – the only messages the station receives now are initials scratched into the soft stonework; it’s keepers are gurgling crows who listen only to codes tapped out by the branches of nearby casuarina trees.

From the telegraph station I set off across the heaped sand towards the invisible ocean.  A vague track twists between the dunes and crosses shallow salt pans.  The forlorn remains of a windmill, its vanes and frame rusted into an almost unrecognizable mass, lie where it too crashed to Earth.

I emerge from the dunes onto a beach of pure white sand washed by warm, perfect waves.  A derelict jetty, its heavy timbers bleached by years of exposure to wind, sun and salt, juts out into the ocean.  I climb up and sprawl, shirtless, in the sun on the warm planks. 

No one knows where I am.  I have vanished.  Like the stars ahead of daylight, the telegraph messages and the falling space station, I too have disappeared into the void of the Nullarbor.  The ocean slips to-and-fro beneath me, wrapping its arms gently around the piers and sighing on the sand.   Soon I will have to return to the road.  But for now I am content to lie under the big sky on this forgotten jetty, out here alone at vanishing point.

The Old Jetty at Eucla

The Old Jetty at Eucla