Category Archives: People

Happy New Year from Sydney. NSW, Australia. 2011

I’ve been so slack with my blog lately.

I could always use the excuse that I’ve been caught up in the social whirl that is what the silly season is all about. I HAVE been socialising an awful lot of late, but that’s still not a good reason for not posting for so long.

Lately I’ve been wrestling with what direction this blog should go. One of the reasons why I have a blog is to practice writing about my early years of colourful stupidity. I know I have at least one book in me. The reason why I write about other subjects besides my past  is to show that I’m not a complete out-of-control-wingnut with poor impulse management. I guess the problem I have is trying to control how, many people are prone to pigeon-hole others. It’s just so easy to form a mental image of someone when you don’t have to use many words to describe them.

I once heard it said that autobiographies are just a self indulgent way to try to control how the subject is perceived and that biographies are much more relevant.

As I think about what direction I should take this blog, I’m constantly conflicted about how much I should expose. Then again, it’s such an act of hubris it is to think that anybody would be interested anyway. I have to admit that such thoughts are fleeting because of all the affirmation I get from my friends.

I think that friends not only enrich our lives, but they are also the benchmark by which we can measure how successful we are as human beings. It’s not success in one’s career or one’s finances that define us in a cosmic sense, but our relationships.

The last week has been a blur of feasting and drinking with good friends. One event after the other. In the short moments between engagements I’ve been catching myself counting my blessings. I feel so lucky on so many levels.

Yesterday I was at a new year’s day get together with one of my wife’s co-workers. I know most of Engogirl’s comrades in engineering and count them among my friends. As the evening wore on I got to hear many accounts of how people spent their new years eve. Sydney is famous for it’s new year’s eve fireworks. People come from all around the world to see the fireworks and each year the crowds get bigger. This year about 1.5 million people lined Sydney harbour to see one of the best and longest fireworks shows available anywhere on planet.

For the well heeled there are very expensive viewing positions but for most people, it’s a case of arriving at least 12 hours before the show to secure a good spot. Of course Sydney at this time of year is stinking hot and many people try to drink themselves into some kind of comfortable place. All along the foreshore in various parks are crowds of hot, sunburnt, inebriated people having a great time. The vast majority of people are in a splendid mood and there is a real party atmosphere.

Luckily for my wife and I, a friend of ours (Peter) has just bought a lovely house in East Balmain that has great harbour views and he invited us to his place to watch the fireworks in comfort. No cars are allowed in of out of Balmain after 3pm on new year’s eve, so we and Peter’s other guests (also our friends) arrived at about 2.30. Before we settled in, to relaxing with food and wine, we took the opportunity to have a walk around the nearby parks that overlook the harbour. Every vantage point had been taken hours ago and there were quite a few people already flaked out on the grass.

A multitude of foreign languages could be heard, and there were plenty of very happy light skinned northern Europeans working on character building sunburns.   

It was pretty easy to pick out the people who are used to living in such a hot and sunny place as Sydney.

The smart people just relaxed in the shade and saved the drinking for later.

Because of Peter’s invitation to his house, we were able to kick back in comfort, drink lovely wines and eat nice food as the day wore on. At one point in the evening, another friend of mine said to all of us at the table with a chuckle, “I wonder what the poor people are doing?” I replied to him, “some of us are sitting with their rich mates drinking their fine wines, in their beautiful houses!”  To which our host beamed with pride and said, “what’s the point of having all this if you don’t have friends to share it all with?”

[youtube 48ulv6KnRts] 

Watching humans develop. Seven Hills, NSW, Australia. 2010

A little while back, my friend Paul was talking to me about the latest drama he was having with one of his teenage sons. I thoughtlessly commented that I thought he was having so much trouble because he had spoilt his kids by trying to be their peer, rather than their parent. Paul smiled and replied to me, “that’s right, tell about how to raise kids now, when you don’t have any of your own, but know everything about it. Because if you have kids all that certainty and knowledge will disappear and you’ll realise that you haven’t got a clue”.

All around me, people I know are raising children, and when ever I visit them I feel like some sort of a low rent David Attenborough. Sitting aloof and feeling emotionally detached, watching their children as though they were animals on the Serengeti. Often when I see children around the two years old mark, I think about how they are at the point in their lives where they are on the cusp of superseding adult chimpanzees in intelligence.

When I look at very young children I sort of see them as little unreasoning animals that have immediate wants that have to be met without regard of anyone but themselves. For that reason, I never feel angry at them as they are screaming for something like food or attention. Such young children don’t have the developed intellect to reason or be reasoned with, therefore, it’s not like they’ve made a choice to “misbehave”, they’re just trying to communicate the only way they know how.

I always find it fascinating watching parents cope with crying children. There’s not many parents that aren’t immediately galvanised into some kind of action when their child cries. Every attempt is usually made to placate their little screamer. Food, attention, pleading, threats, distraction and just about anything that will quieten and pacify is tried. All the while, the parents are conscious of the fact that other people are watching them and judging their parenting skills.

Last week, my cousin Andrew (who I haven’t seen for twenty years) with his wife Midori (Green in Japanese), and child Sakura (which means Cherry Blossom) came to stay with Engogirl and I for a fortnight after fifteen months in Japan with Midori’s parents. Andrew is the brother I never had, and it was a real pleasure to catch up with him after so long, but that’s not what this post is about.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had the chance to observe a twenty month old child at close quarters. It’s been very interesting to watch the clash of cultures as different approaches to child rearing are applied. Midori, being Japanese is a very indulgent mother. It’s just the way the Japanese are. Japanese kids, from my (ignorant) western viewpoint,  are spoilt rotten until they are teenagers. The slightest little squeak they make is attended to, immediately.

Andrew on the other hand was the product of a very harsh, neglectful and abusive childhood and as such is very mindful about his duties as a father. Andrew has read fairly widely about child rearing and wants his daughter to have all the love and every opportunity that he never had, but Andrew also has a western attitude to discipline. Children will be made to understand their place in the world, which isn’t in the centre of it.

Both Midori and Andrew obviously love their child so much and each of them does what they think is best for Sakura. Midori caters to every need in an instant whereas Andrew tries to guide and educate. It’s like watching a struggle between the id and the super ego. On one hand there is the emotional response of Midori and the more rational approach of Andrew.

What I found interesting is that at twenty months old, Sakura is in transition from non-rational little animal into rational human. The animal part of Sakura is catered to by Midori and the developing rational part is appealed to by Andrew.

To paraphrase my friend Paul, I don’t have kids, so what do I know? In truth, when it comes to children, not much. I do find parents and young children absolutely marvellous to watch and think about though.

Everyone who met Sakura instantly loved her. Sakura is a total delight, so bright and lovely. A real little angel if there ever was one. Sure, she had her tantrums but they were few and far between and they were over fairly quickly, thanks to Midori’s Japanese placating mothering skills.

It was amazing to watch how quickly Sakura was starting to learn English and how well she responded to instructions. In short, it looked to me that Sakura was receiving the benefits of two cultures and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. A sort of cultural hybrid vigour, if you will.

Andrew and his family left for their home in Cairns in Queensland last Tuesday. Both Engogirl and I were surprised at how much we enjoyed their visit and how much we enjoyed having little Sakura around. Having said that, let me state the bleeding obvious, such young children sure do need a lot of attention and care.

On Friday night, Engogirl and I went to some friend’s house for dinner. Our friends also have very young children and both my wife and I found it quite interesting to watch undiluted cultural parenting skills. At first we both thought that the stricter western approach seemed right, but as the night wore on we both felt that Midori’s more indulgent responses coupled with Andrew’s rational instructions were more effective in getting the results they wanted.

Scenes from the top of Mount Wellington. Tasmania, Australia. 2010

Years ago I bought a book called, “The Royal Tour 1901, or the Cruise of H.M.S. Ophir; Being a Lower Deck Account of their Royal Highnesses, The Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York’s Voyage Around the British Empire”, at a garage sale. It was a fascinating reproduction of a British seaman’s illustrated journal of his time as a sailor on the 1901 royal tour that visited Australia.

Unfortunately I gave it away a few years later.

The book was interesting to me because it was full of descriptions of Australia and Australian life from over a hundred years ago. Although the author Harry Price, didn’t have much good to say about Sydney (probably one of the more dangerous ports in the world at the time and who could blame him), where I live, his book is full of little glimpses of the naive and excited mindset of an ordinary person who felt they were part of a great empire. Like I said before, fascinating stuff.

One of my favourite parts of the book is when Harry decided to use his day of shore leave to walk from Hobart (Tasmania) to the top of Mount Wellington which looms over the town. 

Mount Wellington is further away (19kms or nearly 12 miles by road) than it looks from Hobart, and it’s surprisingly high (1,271 metres or 4,170 feet). An ambitious and very steep day-walk that Harry Price was ill prepared for.

Locals in Hobart can tell you that the summit is quite often covered with snow, even in the Summer.

Not only were Harry’s navy shoes totally inadequate for the task, it also snowed as he reached the summit and he wasn’t wearing warm clothing. A sodden and freezing Harry got back to his ship late at night and with bleeding feet. I remember as I read the book how I identified with Mister Price’s optimistic cluelessness. I totally understood the young Harry’s delusion of being 10 feet tall and bullet-proof. I’ve felt the same way in the past and it’s gotten me into what I like to describe as “character building experiences”.

It must be a testosterone thing.

When ever I hear people use the word “adventure”,  I’m always reminded of something I read years ago (I can’t remember who said it and I haven’t been able find out, but I was under the impression it might have been Mallory), that, “adventure is discomfort, remembered in comfort”. Although many people wish they had more adventure in their lives, I can honestly say from personal experience, that adventures are usually very unpleasant when they are happening, but of course they make for great dinner table chat. 

Nowadays I feel that adventures come from bad decisions and are to be avoided.

Orkestar Bobana Markovica – Otpisani!!!

Tonight I’ve got a bunch of friends coming over for a Balinese influenced dinner. Now I know, should be listening to gamelan music, but to be honest, South East Asian food requires a lot of pounding with a mortar and pestle, plus a heck of a lot of fine grating and Balinese music just doesn’t suit such activities.

A while ago, fellow blogger Vanille and her husband Paprika came over from N.Z. for a visit and I met up with them. As we toured the city together, conversation turned to music. I’m always interested in what other people’s taste in music is and we pledged to swap some music that we like, to turn each other onto something new and not on commercial radio (in Oz and N.Z. at least).

Vanille is from France and Paprika is from Hungary, so I knew they’d send me some stuff I’d never heard before. Today as I pounded and grated for what seemed like hours, I listened to the Bobana Markovica Orchestra and it struck me how perfect the music was for what I was doing, even though I was preparing Asian food.

[youtube H3zhqWXtDDE]

 

Street ceremony. Munduk, Bali, Indonesia. 2010

Just about anyone I’ve spoken to, who has been going to Bali over a long period time will comment on how the island has changed so much over the decades but the people are still pretty much the same.

Bali is such a magic place that despite recent terrorist attacks, it attracts more tourists every year. With over half a million visitors a year, Bali is in danger of being loved to death. More tourists, means more development to cater to their every needs. The Balinese seem fairly pragmatic about the huge influx of foreigners. I suspect it’s because the average Balinese only makes about $125 a month and there is a lot of unemployment, so they probably think of tourism as a boon.

In many places around the world that have been overrun by tourists, the locals can get quite jaded and nasty (as I’ve seen in parts of Croatia), but not the Balinese. With the exception of Kuta beach, which has been the stomping ground of drunken tailer trash Aussies, most of the locals in Bali are such nice people.

Actually they a really, really nice people. So warm and friendly.

As a foreigner walking down the street in a small town away from the touristy areas (which are full of hawkers hassling for a sale), you will be greeted with huge genuine smiles and a “hello!” “How are you?” Where do you go?”  The Balinese love to have a chat and it’s not uncommon for people serving you in restaurants etc, to try and strike up a conversation. Just to make a connection, and for no other reason than they friendly people .

A hotel (a very nice one) owner I met in Ubud, told me that most foreigners are reasonably understanding of the chatty locals, but he mentioned a French couple who told one of his waiters, “please don’t talk to us, we don’t talk to staff”. The hotel owner then went on to explain that the Balinese waiter didn’t take offence, but he did think that there was something a bit mentally wrong with the abrupt couple and as such, he felt a bit sorry for them. Whereas the Danish guy who owned the hotel wanted to throw them out for being so rude and “up themselves”. Same situation and such culturally different responses.

In my experience of three visits to Bali (the first in 1976, the second in 2004), the Balinese have retained such a beautiful countenance that it truly astonishes me and it makes me wonder why I’m amazed and why they seem to be so relatively unaffected by the tourist onslaught.

Just like other people in the world, the Balinese would like to live more comfortable lives and even though the average Balinese doesn’t have that much in a material sense in comparison to us in the “west”, they seem to have a very rich community life that is held together with the glue of a multitude of religious obligations they have, and all the Hindu ceremonies that they participate in.

When we were being driven around (about $45 a day and way less stressful than driving Balinese roads yourself) in Munduk by a local, we passed a large gathering of people sitting on the footpath.

Our driver stopped the car and said, “you go take a picture”.

To which I asked, “are you sure, is it all right, will they mind?”

The driver then said, “just stand back, and keep out of the way and it will be O.K.” He seemed to be proud of what was going on and wanted us to record it.

So I took a few shots and we went on our way. As we drove off I asked our driver what it was all about, and he said, “Don’t know, some ceremony for family”. At first I thought this was an odd answer but later on I saw a Balinese religious calendar and I was stunned to see so many religious events all around Bali. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I said there is probably some public ceremony going on somewhere in Bali every single day.

Although I haven’t got a religious bone in my body, I find myself thinking, “oh well, what harm does it do?” It keeps them busy and happy. I’d say that Hinduism has had a very positive effect on the Balinese.

As a matter of fact, I’d much rather hang out with a bunch idolatrous Balinese than fundamentalist monotheists back home, any day.

Little girls at the beach. Gili Air, WNT, Indonesia. 2010

As I walked past these little girls who were having such an unselfconscious blast in the water, I felt uplifted and glad to see people so blithely happy.

 

Then, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad for them, knowing that when they get older, going to the beach won’t be such a simple and carefree affair because they live in a Moslem community. Before anyone thinks that I’m trying to start some kind of anti-Moslem rant, consider a strange man taking a photograph of little boys at play at the beach in the West and what kind of suspicions that would raise.

All around the world in so many societies, men are often seen as predators.

What I think that what so many people forget, is how many men have an instinctive need to protect. Years ago I remember being brought to tears whilst reading the paper about the “Port Arthur massacre”. The article recounted how some of the men who died that day, did so because they stepped in front of their loved ones to protect them from the gunman and took the bullets themselves.

So heroically selfless.

Yet this same heroic protective instinct causes some men to oppress others for what they think is for “their own good”.

My great shark hunt. Queensland, Australia. 1971

This is another episode in the “All the dumb things” series

When I was about 15 in 1971 I got interested in going to Queensland. At the time, I had a friend called Karl and I talked him into going up (we lived in Sydney) there with me during our school holidays in the summer. Back then airfares to Brisbane were very cheap so we caught a plane. From Brisbane we decided to take a train up to Cairns, stopping off at Proserpine on the way. I wanted to go Proserpine because from there we could go to Airlie Beach, which was near a few well-known resorts and the Great Barrier Reef.

The resorts had names like Daydream Island and South Molle Island. As a small child, growing up in the city, places with exotic names, evoked in me, visions of “Adventures in Paradise” a show that I used to love. Also as a kid I was fascinated with the idea of small islands and I used to fantasize about living a subsistent life on one.

It never occurred to me that the tropics were, about the last place on earth that a pasty, freckled, red haired, white boy should try and make a home. It was only years later when I lived in Vancouver, Canada did I understand what habitat my genes were suited to. Long periods of rain and overcast skies made me feel “right”. I suspect my gene sequence was evolved as a good survival strategy in the last ice age by one of my mammoth hunting ancestors. As a teen, such realities never intruded into my thoughts.

Another reason why I wanted to go to Airlie Beach, was that at the time I used to do a lot of skin diving. I even learnt how to scuba when I was 14. The scuba course cost me $11 and was taught at a Y.M.C.A. indoors pool over a couple of nights. FAUI? PADI? Decompression tables? Never heard of them! We were told; ” just don’t come up faster than your bubbles and you’ll be O.K”. Every one knows that the Great Barrier Reef is a Mecca for divers and I considered myself one, so I just had to go.

When I look back, I’m amazed that my parents let me go, at that age, with only another teenager as a companion. Come to think of it, what was Karl’s family thinking? Letting him anywhere near me, never mind traveling up the coast thousands of kilometers away, with me.

The plan was that when we got to Airlie beach we’d hire a boat and live in it for a week and when we got there, that’s exactly what we did. We hired an open fourteen-foot aluminium dinghy equipped with a small outboard motor for eight dollars a day. After 5 minutes of instruction we were in the water and heading out to sea for the nearest island. Lifejackets? Never heard of them!

Enough of all this intermediate stuff and onto “all the dumb things”!

One day, while out in the boat, Karl and I saw some bad weather closing in so we headed for shelter in a fairly protected bay about 10kms north of Airlie Beach. We anchored in about 2 metres of water and swam ashore. We did this because the tides in that area are quite high and when the tide goes out you can be stranded on a tidal flat until the next tide comes in. The looming weather wasn’t as bad as we expected and we spent the next couple of hours ashore exploring the nearby bush.

Yep! You guessed it, when we came back to the boat the tide had started to go out and the dinghy was sitting in about 30cm (about 1′) of water which was too shallow to use the motor or row, so we started pushing the boat as fast as we could, towards the receding water. The problem was, was that the seafloor in that area has an incredibly level surface with not much of a slope for kilometers. This all meant that no matter how fast we pushed the boat, the water quickly went down to a level where we couldn’t push it any more. So there we were, stuck out in the middle of nowhere on a tidal flat for the next 8 hours which meant that we wouldn’t be able to leave until after dark. Food? Water? Didn’t have much of that. Contingency? Never heard of it!

The good thing was, that after the squall had blown over there were millions of butterflies migrating out to sea. It was sublimely beautiful and calm. Karl thought it would be a interesting thing to see how far out to sea we could walk. We walked for what seemed like an age, following the butterflies straight out to sea. When the water was only half way up to my knees the dinghy was nothing more that a speck the size of a piece of dust. On we walked following the butterflies straight out to sea until the water was up to our knees, further and further we went.

Not looking at where I was treading, staring at the horizon and the butterflies, I stepped on what I think was a Giant Reef Ray (Taeniura meyeni). The ray was huge, about 1.8 metres (about 6ft) across and about 3 metres long (about 9ft). As I stepped on the stingray, I barely had time to feel the ground move from away from under my feet, all I saw was an enormous mottled disc shape fly up out of the water with a tremendous splash, landing back in the water about 3 or 4 metres away with another big splash and then off it flew away under water. It frightened me so much that I just about rin over the top of the water all the way back to the boat without stopping or gasping for breath. It was a real son of mammoth hunter meets monster of the deep, adrenaline moment.

Back safely in boat we waited for night to fall and the tide to come in. As soon as the water got deep enough to put the propeller in the water we tried to start the motor.

Yep! You guessed it. The motor wouldn’t start and in our continued efforts to get the engine going we succeeded in flooding it. By this time we were both hungry and thirsty so we decided to take turns rowing back to Airlie Beach, which was quite a way off. On we rowed into the night, occasionally trying out the motor. This went on for what seemed to be hours and hours. During my turn at rowing we hit a large soft floating object, which jumped up out of the water creating a gigantic splash, drenching us and almost tipping over the boat. Needless to say it scared the heck out of both of us. We didn’t know what is was but we assumed it was either a dolphin or a dugong.

By this time I was a shattered nervous wreck and Karl wasn’t a happy camper either, but probability snapped back like an overworked waitress and we finally had some good luck, the motor started. Within about an hour we were back in Airlie beach dining on fast food.

Since the night was warm and the water was calm we decided, for a change to sleep in the boat while it was in the water. We usually dragged the boat up onto the beach (which is made up of finger sized pieces of coral in that part of the world). It was a beautiful balmy night, I felt safe, fed and comfortable. As I was lying in the boat enjoying the night, it came to me that a spot of night fishing would go down well. We rowed out a little further into deeper water and baited up our hand lines.

Both of us weren’t having any luck until I felt a weight on my line. Usually when you get a bite you feel the fish through the line take the bait. This felt like I’d snagged on old boot or something like it, so I reeled it in. As I got it close to the surface I could dimly see that it was a fish, a decent sized one at that, but it wasn’t fighting the way that fish usually fought and we didn’t have light so I couldn’t see what it was clearly. The only option was to lift it into the boat. As soon I lifted the fish out of the water I could see it was a small shark (cool!) about 50cm (about 20″) long, but it wasn’t moving around much like hooked fish usually do. So I lifted the shark with the line into the boat and as soon as I did, it bit through the line and all pandemonium broke loose.

It was dark, and we had this small shark that had suddenly sprung into action snapping at us from the bilge. Both Karl and I fell over our benches backwards; Karl into the bow and me into the stern and the shark had the middle. The shark was going berserk, jumping and snapping all over the place. It took me awhile, but I finally located my diving knife and stabbed the shark. That only annoyed it and the jumping and snapping were getting much more frantic. The situation quickly degenerated into a jumping, snapping, stabbing frenzy. The shark just didn’t seem to want to die (strangely enough), so I eventually ended up pinning the shark down with the knife and we waited for what felt like an eternity for it to stop moving.

The middle of the boat was now covered in shark blood and guts so we ended up dragging the boat onto shore and having an unpleasant sleep on the beach. In the morning when it was light we got a good look at the shark that was still in the boat. There, in the bloody bilge, lay a poor little shark that had been rendered inedible by my panicky ministrations. One side of the fish looked fine, the other side was a mixture of bilge, fish mince and guts.

I didn’t go into the water again for the rest of the trip.

pasty, freckled, red haired descendent of mammoth hunters with monster of the deep

 

This post was first posted on the 19th of April 2007

Army day at Eagle Farm Racecourse. Brisbane, Qld, Australia 1988

As I was looking through my old colour negatives (hence the crappy grainyness) I came across the image below that was taken 20 years ago (gee time flies).

Mother with her Razzbuffnik

The picture is of my mother and I at the ANZAC day (25th of April), “Army Day” races at Eagle Farm Racecourse on the outskirts of Brisbane.

We had gone to the races to test out some tips a guy I knew gave me. This guy wanted me to join a gambling syndicate so I asked him for some tips to test the infomation that he said he’d give to me in the futre if I joined. Although we have legal off track betting here in Australia, I thought that since my mother was staying with me for the 1988 Expo that she might enjoy a day at the races. I had no idea that the army would be at the race track in force with soldiers, tanks and recruiting tents.

At first it seemed a bit odd.  What was the connection between horse racing and the army?

There were a few guys dressed up in old WWI lighthorse uniforms on horseback wandering about, but they weren’t a main attraction. There were also a few armoured vehicles with soldiers standing around them near the almost empty recruiting tents, but I still couldn’t really understand why the army was there at all.

That is until I saw a few large army tents off to one side away from the grandstand. I thought it must have been an exhibition of some kind until I got closer and saw a sign that read “Army Officers only” and soldiers on guard outside controlling who went inside. My mother wanted to turn around because we wouldn’t be allowed in. I was curious though and insisted that we go on. As we got closer we could see the tent was packed with what looked like a party for officers and their families. So that was it! It was a nice little, tax payer funded, day at the races junket for the officers. There were way more officers in the tent than regular soldiers in the whole of the rest of the racecourse.

My mother still wanted to go back but I said “just act like you belong and we’ll just walk in”; and with a nod to the soldiers as we went by them, that’s what we did.

I was definitely the odd one out as far as dress was concerned, (they probably all felt sorry for whoever was my officer father) but no one bothered us as we walked up to the bar. I couldn’t believe it when I saw they were selling a sparkling white wine for three dollars a bottle! So I bought three! Needless to say my mother and I got quite tipsy but we sure did have a great day together.

To top it all off, all the race tips I’d been given came in and I made about $130 from $20. Thanks to the Australian Defence Force with their subsidised alcohol, plus a few good tips, it was the best day that I ever had at the horse races.

Epilogue:

After winning at the races I asked the guy who gave me the tips to give me some more to try to see if my success on Army Day had been a one off fluke or not. He said O.K. but that it would be the last time he’d do it for free. So instead of going to the race track I went and placed my bets at the local TAB (the state controlled off track betting agency).

Not only did all the tips not come in and I lost my little bets (wich I didn’t really care that much about) but I found the experience of hanging around a betting shop all day with a bunch of heavy smoking losers very un-aesthetic and I lost all interest in “investing” in the gambling syndicate.

This post was first post of Feb 11 2008

Cluless in the snow. Panorama Ridge, Garibaldi National Park, B.C. Canada

doug.jpg

Before I met Doug in the picture above I hadn’t done any real full on wilderness activities other than go camping when I was in the Boy Scouts and then later, when I was in the army cadets during my early years in high school.
 
Doug introduced me to snow shoeing and snow camping back in the early 1980s, when I was living in Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada.  One of the first hikes we did together was the Black Mountain loop in West Vancouver during the summer.  This fairly easy hike emboldened us to try hiking and snow shoeing the same area during the spring, while there was still a lot of snow on the ground at the higher altitudes. 
 
During the summer, the Black Mountain trail is fairly easy to follow, as there are psychedelic orange plastic trail markers on the trees.  During our spring trip, we had decided to go to the top of the Black Mountain (which required snow shoes) and then down through to a pass to lower altitude to where there wasn’t any snow so we could camp over night.
 
Following the trail markers during spring when there is very deep snow was a different matter entirely to summer as the snow on the ground was so deep it covered many of the trail markers. Unfortunately, during that particular hike in the snow we lost our way and ended up being benighted at higher altitude in the snow.  This was the first time that either of us had camped in the snow.  Back in those days, I thought that insulating sleeping mats were for weaklings and I used to camp without them. Doug didn’t have a sleeping mat either, so we decided that we would tear off as many small branches from the surrounding conifer trees as we could to make a layer of insulation underneath the tent.  It was very difficult to tear off the branches that we needed because our nylon covered gloves didn’t allow a very firm grip, so we had to take our gloves off to do it with our bare hands and of course it was freezing cold. To make matters worse, the tree branches were quite strong and flexible and were very difficult to remove.  It was getting dark, fairly fast, so we were only able to spend about an hour gathering material to put underneath our tent, to make a dismally ineffectual thin layer of insulation.
 
What followed was probably the longest and most uncomfortable night I’ve ever spent camping.  We’ve both didn’t get any sleep at all, because we couldn’t stay in one position long enough due to the fact that the point of contact of our bodies with the base of the tent was so intensely cold.  It was the pits. So much for my first snow camping experience.
 
In the morning we finally made our way back down to the highway and went back into town.  The first thing I did that day after I got back home was to go to an outdoor equipment store and ask them what was the best thing they had for sleeping on snow and money was no object.  The salesman showed me an extra large Thermarest for $82, which was a lot of money for me back then, and I bought it without hesitation.  Doug also brought a good sleeping mat a short time later, and with our new purchases, we decided that we were now equipped to go snow camping somewhere a little bit more ambitious.
 
 
For our next snow camping hike decided to go snowshoeing in Garibaldi National Park to Black Tusk via Panorama Ridge while there was still snow on the ground in late spring.  Garibaldi National Park is a spectacular wilderness park on the way to Whistler about 70 km (44 miles) from Vancouver.  The trail to Black tusk starts at sea level, where there wasn’t any snow on the ground at that time of the year, and goes up to about 2,100 m (6,900 ft) at Panorama Ridge.  At the lower altitudes one passes through fairly dense temperate rainforest. At the higher altitudes there are far less trees, but there was lots of very deep snow. 
 
Being Australian, I didn’t have very much experience with snow at all and although Doug was a Canadian he didn’t have much experience with snow in the wilderness.  Whilst we both knew that avalanches were a risk we both had no idea of how to detect high-risk areas and what to do in the event of an avalanche. 
 
On the way up to Panorama Ridge, some of the slopes were quite steep, and it was fairly heavy going with the snowshoes.  As we were walking up one particularly steep hill we could hear cracking sounds as large sheets (about 10m or 30ft in diameter) of the fairly fresh snow about 30 cm (approximately 1ft) thick beneath our feet was breaking off and sliding over the top of the older compacted snow below.  We found it amusing to turn around and ride the small avalanches down the hill. This happened about three or four times and some of the rides went for about 100 m (about 100 yards) or so.  Of course, now many years later with the benefit of experience in hindsight, I realise how dangerous those conditions were and how lucky we were not to have killed ourselves.
 
On the way to the meadows near Black Tusk, were we planned to camp I passed a small tree sticking up out of the snow.  Before I could realise what was happening, I had fallen about 5m (about 15ft) below the snow and was tangled up in the top of a large pine tree with my snowshoes and backpack, making it difficult for me to move. 
 
It had been snowing quite heavily, and there was lots of light fluffy powdery snow covering everything and what I thought was a small tree sticking up out of the snow was in fact a large tree in a snowdrift.  So there I was, tangled up in the top of the tree under the snow.  Doug of course, was trying to help me get out, but he couldn’t get near the top of the tree, as the snow was too soft and he was in risk of falling straight through the snow, just like I had.  Matters were further complicated by the fact that I had to somehow undo my snowshoes and get my backpack off, whilst tangled in the branches. 
 
Since I was at the thinner top of the tree, my weight caused the tree to sway underneath the very soft snow.  After about a half hour struggle I was eventually able to remove the snowshoes and backpack and throw them to Doug, who was waiting about 3 m away (about 10 feet) at the edge of the hole in the snow.  This wasn’t a very easy thing to do because every time I tried to throw my pack, the tree would sway in the opposite direction and I couldn’t throw it very far.  Luckily, Doug had brought long handled ice axe with him and he was able to retrieve my backpack before it fell back down into the hole past me to the bottom of the tree, which was about another 10 m (30 ft) below me. 
 
I tried a few times to jump from the tree to safety but as I tried to do so, the force I was using caused the tree to sway in the opposite direction, canceling my efforts out.  I eventually got out my predicament by swaying backwards and forwards in the top of the tree causing it to sway it towards Doug, who was waiting for me at the edge of the hole with the ice axe extended for me to grab on to.  I don’t know how I would have got out of that situation without Doug.
 
Since those first few snow camping experiences in Canada with Doug I’ve probably been snow camping over a hundred times and have learned how to do it much more safely and comfortably.

this post was first posted on 5th of January 2008

Art is for playing in. Cockatoo Island, NSW, Australia. 2010

Choi Jeong Hwa’s installation at this year’s Biennale brought out the playfulness of most of the children who saw it. The adults stood back and looked at it and the kids just raced around inside of it chasing each other, banging it all about and having fun.

Years ago I remember reading an article about how people’s educational background affects the way they perceive art.  According to some research done in the past, people who have very little education tend to see art galleries as temples and approach them with some reverence and awe, whereas people with a high level of education are much more comfortable in experiencing art.

Watching the children play in amongst the “art”, I found myself thinking about the study and it occurred to me that what the study doesn’t acknowledge is how we are taught to respond to art.

Perhaps in the past the less educated have been made to feel that art was beyond their understanding, whereas today’s kids haven’t been as oppressed by such elitist claptrap and just respond in a freer way.