Thursday 10 February 2011

Round the World

For most of the last year, I have felt as though I have been writing a story. That my travels formed some kind of narrative and that today I would pen its final words.

Keeping this blog has made me so much more aware of my daily experiences. It's forced me to crystallise and articulate the thoughts and ideas that have occurred to me along the way. And all along, I've been wondering how the story would end - writing bits of it in my head, clutching at the themes and ideas that I've towed around with me and wondering how I could tie their loose ends together. I've amassed quotes from the things I've been reading, held onto them until the end.

The shape of the story was pretty obvious really - a round the world trip is only ever going to be circular. Back from whence I came, richer for all the experiences and back into the arms of the friends and family I left behind.

Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.
Moby Dick

It's a curious thought. That actually leaving and travelling is an act of regression - you just put yourself a year behind and then try and catch up. Which makes the culmination of the experience its object. Everything that happens serves only really to advance you to the end (which was also the beginning):

We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot

And then, back home, as the days and weeks advance, the journey, the adventure, would slip quietly beneath the waves of time; the memories and experiences would fade, the only question being which of them would stand the longest.

But no. Having assumed that I would have spent all of the last week feeling as though I were sliding into an abyss, I have actually felt pretty happy and excited about it all. And most of that joy comes from the realisation that this is not the end. Not any kind of end. Just another cusp, another line between two things. And I can quote myself on that one:

An understandable duality shrouds you when you stand on the brink of something. A border or cusp, real or figurative; leaving one thing behind, entering another. Reflection, anticipation. It might actually be the greatest thing about travelling, moving form one place to another, body and mind constantly charged and energised by these changes. And not just travelling but life, too, come to think of it.

It's not just this. A clock has been running alongside me for the whole trip. I knew roughly when I would make the big changes and swap continents. I rarely wanted to leave anyone or anywhere, but each time I had to, or chose to, I kind of knew that it was time. And that's exactly what it feels like now. Time.

And so I'm sat in the lounge at Sydney airport preparing (not that you ever can) for the monster 24 hour flight that awaits me, and soon I will be home. But I won't be leaving this year behind in my wake, forever glancing over my shoulder as it is slowly consumed by time. Quite the opposite in fact - the things I have seen and done, the places I have walked, the people I have met and loved, their faces, the landscapes; the dirt and sand I've trodden through, oceans I've swam in, mountains I've climbed; every single breath I've taken has filled my lungs with something new and special and lifted me way higher than I ever thought it possible to go, and I will carry them with me for the rest of my days.

Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.
Leonardo Da Vinci

The world we inhabit is a place that is incredible way beyond our comprehension. I implore you to get out there and explore it. I know it's not going anywhere, but we are. We are dying, from the minute we arrive on the planet, we are sliding towards our inevitable end. Get out there now. Feel the earth between your toes. Scratch beneath the surface of all the things that surround us and they'll reward you every single day of your life.

If you're lucky, like me, you could get close enough to the Heart of this world that you might just feel it beat.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Skin Deep

This is my fourth visit to Sydney and I'm still not quite sold. The initial impact of the beauty can't sustain the place indefinitely, and when its effect wears off, I find myself feeling a little unfulfilled. Looking good, after all, is never enough on its own.

Sydney is ridiculously beautiful. The city clings to the edges of the ocean and a preposterously stunning natural harbour, with its bays and coves and sweeping shores. In the middle of them, two of the world's most iconic and recognisable structures sit alongside one another, and very occasionally you can glimpse them through the legions of photographers.

Can you tell what it is yet?

The residents seem to take the city's aesthetic pleasantness as a challenge to their own. People care about how they look here. Beach bodies, surgically enhanced when deemed necessary (about 20% of the time) keep themselves in shape through constant exercise. What should be a tranquil, restful stroll through the Botanical Gardens is always rendered exhausting thanks to the joggers. At least 10% of Sydney's 4.5 million inhabitants are running around the Domain at any given moment.

Sans joggers

People love Sydney for its beaches. Until this time, that always meant Bondi to me, and I'd never really seen the appeal - basically a crowded beauty contest with the occasional threat of being eaten by a shark.

Sydney Harbour from the Manly Ferry

At the weekend I took what must rank as one of the best public transport options in the world - the Manly ferry. Basically a half hour cruise through the harbour, better than any tourist charter, for $6. And when you walk out onto the art deco wharf at the other end, you have been transported to a world whose inhabitants, whilst no less concerned about their appearances, seem a little calmer and content. It felt somehow Californian, if that can possibly make any sense.

Manly Beach

I think if I were going to live in Sydney, I'd want to be in Manly. I've always stayed in Kings Cross, where hundreds of strip clubs (Showgirls, Bada Bing, The Pleasure Chest), extremely gay men, homeless people, drunks (more in the morning, they seem to sober up or run our of money by midday and just fall asleep) and backpackers (millions of them plodding around like upright tortoises) all mingle with the rest of the Sydneysiders as they hurry about their day.

Fountain, Kings Cross

I hope I haven't sounded too cynical here, because I like Sydney. It's just that beneath its beautifully tanned skin, I can never find enough soul to keep me going. I'll take the uglier, calmer, more interesting Melbourne any day of the week. She'd still be great company in my old age long after Sydney had had her wrinkles botoxed out.

Sunday 6 February 2011

Blue Mountains

It's funny how our perceptions of the world ebb and flow with our surroundings. Things start out pretty simple in the womb. Through childhood your world is small - house, school, grandparents' house. As we grow up, the world we physically inhabit expands, as does our perception of it; country, continent, planet. Universe. The number of people we know or remember increases as we encounter them.

At some point it stops expanding and, as we get older still, it begins to contract. We start forgetting things as our memories fail us; people, places. The spaces we actually inhabit become our world again; second childishness. And when that last act is over, we're stuffed into a tightly fitting receptacle once more. Back, in a sense, from whence we came.

A similar thing happens with people from different places. Their perceptions of time, space, distance, culture and others are shaped by their environment. It's why people from little country towns are more likely to be rednecks. And it's why if you're English, you consider a journey of anything more than two hours to be an enormous expedition only to be undertaken in the most pressing and unavoidable of circumstances.

Big countries, like Australia and the States make you immune to lengthy overland travel. Small ones, like England make you lazy and complacent. My tolerance has slowly increased over the last year; cover enough long distances and they begin to diminish; every step you take seems to foreshorten the next. And you learn through experience that most of the things you travel to see are emphatically worthwhile, encouraging you to make the effort more often.

With time more precious and finite than ever, I can't resist "popping" out to the Blue Mountains for a night from Sydney. It's only two and a half hours on the train, and will be my last chance to get lost in a little nature before the long haul home. I was thinking how I never "popped" to the Yorkshire Dales or the Cotswolds from London, and wondering why. Then I paid $7.80 for my ticket and climbed aboard one of Sydney's awesome double decker trains.

Katoomba is the main hub town in the Blue Mountains, and it gets you very close to the Three Sisters, the park's most iconic sight. With the mercury hovering around 40ÂșC, it's probably a bit hot for walking, but I stride out anyway. A long walk along the cliff, down 900 steps into the valley behind the sisters, round to Katoomba Falls and back up the (slightly sinister sounding) Furber Steps, and I am well and truly knackered. I was out for about three hours, and it took another three to prise the sodden shirt off my back.

The Three Sisters

Blue Mountains National Park

In the morning, and similar heat, I spurned the chance to lie around in bed and walked off towards Leura Cascades. There were hardly any other people about, so I found myself sharing the trail with the locals instead, and many of them were strangely calm and unfazed by my presence.

A friendly lizard

At the falls, I had a choice of heading back along the cliff walk or dropping down into the valley and through Fern Bower before, inevitably, having to climb back out again. There were plenty of moments on the endless descent, perspiration flooding my eyes, when I regretted my choice, but reaching the bottom and standing underneath Bridal Veil Falls wasn't one of them.

Bridal Veil Falls

I boarded the train back to Sydney smelly, aching and knackered. But smiling contentedly, full of the simple joy that I get from being immersed in nature, and earning it through sweaty toil. I stared out of the window for a while before apparently dozing off, the perimeter of my tiny universe, which thankfully still seems to be expanding, nudged a little further forth.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

I drove all night

Driving on your own can be bloody boring at times, and not even the scenery is enough to keep you awake. You need music, conversation. With no CDs or Aux port, I am at the mercy of Kiwi radio stations. When there's a signal they actually play decent tracks, but the problem is the talking. Lots of talking.

It took me a while to tune into the accent. Clessic Huts on Radio Inzid. And then you have to guess what they're selling in the endlessly shit commercials that clog the airwaves. Massive bid sale, they say. Bids for what? Something for the kuds presumably. Unless they're too busy eating fush 'n' chups or you can't drag them away from the ixbox in the bidroom.

One easy distraction is to pick up hitchhikers, and there are plenty of them to choose from. I seem to stop mainly for Germans, though I managed to bag a rare Chilean on one trip, and yesterday a Kiwi who had clearly been on the piss all day and spoke with an indecipherable accent anyway. I reckon I'm the kind of guy you want to pick you up when you're hitching - the Chilean and his German mate got dropped at their hostel in Kaikoura and I even picked them up again the next morning to take them on to Blenheim.

Covering the whole of New Zealand in three weeks entails a lot of driving. 3,045 miles of it in my case, and still nothing like enough to get me even close to everywhere I would have liked to have gone. Northland and the Bay of Islands? Nope. Milford Sound? Nope (though I did fly over it, hardly the same as sailing up the middle). Christchurch? Dunedin? Tour a few wineries? Whale watching? Swimming with dolphins? No, no, no, no, no.

Yesterday I woke up in Wanganui in the west coast of the North Island and drove across to Hugh and Indri's place in Waihi Beach. For the six hours it took me to cover just under 300 miles, it rained incessantly. I'm sure I passed through wonderful countryside (the roads were winding enough to suggest I had) but I just couldn't see it.

With the radio in a silent spell, and no hitchhikers in the mist, I got thinking again. Thinking about all the things that we come so close to but never see. Driving in these conditions is like walking by torchlight - you see where the beam shines, but nowhere else. It's not just the obvious things we miss, but people and places elude us by the tiniest margins, floating within our grasp but obscured on the edge of darkness. We don't even know they are there.

It probably doesn't bear dwelling on too much. We tread such a narrow path through life, that the multitude of alternatives will always be consigned to oblivion. Better make sure it's the right one then. Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.