“I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.” –John Muir
My story, “India: Living and Dying” has just won third prize in the major 2015 Transitions Abroad Narrative Travel Writing Contest. This vivid short piece and accompanying photographs, taken from the original notebooks from my first trip to India back in 2007, are a literary meditation on Buddhism, death and dying in India.
It’s an unfortunate consequence of the novelty-chasing nature of the 24-hour news cycle that big events — even truly enormous and terrible ones — don’t hold the world’s attention for long.
Even before another 7.0+ magnitude earthquake rocked the country of Nepal yesterday in the aftermath of its slow recovery from a massive 7.8 tremblor that has left nearly 10,000 dead and much of the country devastated, the world — lured on by ‘newer’ news — had already begun to turn its attention elsewhere.
Countless millions of Nepalis — many in very remote communities that were inaccessible at the best of times — remain in dire need of aid and assistance. Access to medical care, shelter, clean water and basic sanitation are as critical now as they were when news first flashed across your screen.
I’ve already made a donation to Oxfam’s relief effort, and I may do so again.
I urge you to do the same. The media fails us when ‘out of sight’ means ‘out of mind’ for something this important.
This weekend, I threw rocks at a fox trying to steal my socks. This is not a Seussian riddle. It is literally true.
Some context: Having finally gotten the main elements of my new(ish) Surly Disc Trucker together (56cm with 26-inch wheels, modded with flat bars, MicroShift thumbies, a Tubus Logo rear rack and Ergon GP5 grips/barends) I decided it was time to take my inaugural shakeout ride. This is to say, an overnight tour, packed light(ish) with food, bivvy bag, camping mat and sleeping bag in a set of Crosso Twist 52L panniers (not quite full, but with all water stowed therein as well, for lack of bottle cages as yet!).
Having never actually properly loaded up my trusty steed before, I think my outlook as I steered the bike down across the Pyrmont Bridge over Darling Harbour and thru the streets of Sydney to Circular Quay could pretty accurately be described as ‘shitting myself’. The fear, however, quickly subsided as I made a happy discovery: a touch twitchy though the steering was with all the weight in the back (especially when out of the saddle), the Surly overall was rock solid — so stable that, even in traffic, I very quickly forgot that I was hauling around a significant amount of weight in my back end.
Wanting to avoid central Sydney’s murderous weekend gridlock, I popped onto the fast ferry across the harbour to Manly — a wonderful sense of travel-freedom — and headed off with my phone’s GPS speaking to me thru my pocket towards Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park thirty or so klicks north, rolling through backstreets, along bike paths and onto the shoulder of the occasional major road (unavoidable in these parts, unfortunately). The bike remained, in all circumstances, admirably stable. That legendary stability when loaded up is a characteristic of the frame geometry that’s earned it its informal title as the world’s most popular touring bike, and indeed is a major reason that I ended up going with one myself, but it’s still something that truly has to be felt to be appreciated.
That stability would get an even better test once I entered the national park itself. I’d scoped out a remote little rock outcropping overlooking the delightfully-named Coal and Candle Creek at the far end of a 4km firetrail called the Waratah Track (Google Earth is marvellous for just this sort of thing). Within a few hundred metres of the turnoff from the main road, however, it became clear that this wasn’t just a dirt road, but a full-on 4WD track, with steep, legs-churning-in-lowest-gear climbs thru heavy crud and fast, flowy descents strewn with big rocks and deep boggy spots. I hadn’t biked a proper trail requiring anything technical in years and yet, even loaded up, the Trucker was cutting confidently through all of it. Everything is more fun when you’re muddy.
My drivetrain and brake rotors were gritting with sand and mud by the time I reached the end of the track, making the guiltily-consumerist part of my mind reflect on the eventual possibility of an expensive but maintenance-free Rohloff Speedhub. As the dirt track ended, it narrowed to a trail of bare rock that curved around towards an open spot with waving eucalypts and picture-perfect views of the boats moored down in the river far below me. No one would be coming this way in the hour before sunset. So: remove shoes. Remove socks. Fluff out bag. Eat peanut M&Ms and watch the world soften as it is gilded by its nearest star. In the gathering twilight I cooked a simple meal and watched the sky above the ridgeline opposite delaminate into fuzzy pastels, bending the light of the vanished sun as it rose orange-peach to yellow-green to deeper and deeper indigo, airplanes blinking like fireflies amongst the stars as they burned out from the darkness.
At length I slept. And then came the fox.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that I am not concerned that my socks obviously smelled like food — because what else, really, could a fox be after in stealing them? But to wake to a rustling in the leaves less than two metres to my right and see a pair of glowing, obviously-non-wallaby eyes, was a thing significantly more alarming.
“Aaaaaaaaaaah!” I said with considerable dignity and composure, turning on my headlamp and weakly chucking a handful of pebbles in the fox’s direction.
Foxes, it should be said, do not attack people. Much less do they attempt to eat them. But I was not entirely convinced of either of these things at that moment. I tossed pebbles into the underbrush, following the sound of scuttling until it went away, and then bravely burned my camp stove high for a few minutes — a nod to some kind of atavistic impulse to frighten away nighttime beasties with a dramatic display of fire.
It was only when I woke in the morning that it became apparent what the fox was after: my socks, which I had cycled in wearing the night before, were up on the rock ledge where I had spotted the fox, intact but still (it bears mentioning) a bit ripe. The merino-wool-everything cycle tourist mindset, with its draw of natural odourlessness, now seems increasingly persuasive.
As for the ride out, post-morning-coffee: it was lovely, bright sun and cool air and chirping rainbow lorikeets in the branches. My Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes performed admirably as I barrelled down the long, steep curves of Liberator General San Martin Drive past the river I’d slept perched above the night before; and the stock Shimano drivetrain complained mercifully little as I pushed it up the 300+ metres of hard climbing on the other side. Eventually, unhappily, I hit the Sydney suburbs again, and thus began the frustrating but entirely un-noteworthy hours of fighting past strip malls and petrol stations amongst aggressive, smoggy walls of traffic.
You can see that this review, though (if it can honestly even be called that), is only peripherally about this or that bicycle component, about this or that piece of gear. More, it’s a review about what that bicycle, that gear, have allowed me to do, where they’ve allowed me to go, and how effectively and unobtrusively they’ve done so. If you’re thinking about a Disc Trucker as an all-purpose utility tourer — do it. It’s a marvellous machine and I’m sure I’ll write more on it as my relationship with the bike (and other gear) progresses. But the real takeaway for me is where the bike took me — alone in the wilderness with a fox at arm’s reach and the moon silvering the quiet water of the river down below me. More than counting grams or arguing headtube angles, that’s what touring is all about.
As photographers, we often run the risk of making our tools into ends in themselves. We covet new gear — lenses, bodies, flashes — thinking these will transform our craft. In this, we behave as if our creativity were limited mostly by the technology available to us, and not by our failure as technicians to see and photograph creatively. Yet this is the chief reason that, so much more than unpleasing bokeh or insufficient lens ‘sharpness’, we produce weak images.
With that as a preamble, I’ll go into the following:
I recently (well, nine months ago) bought a Fuji X-T1, a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera with an APS-C-sized sensor similar to the Nikon D90 of mine it replaced, but in a body that is significantly smaller, lighter, and more portable. The sensor, being of a generation more than five years newer than that of the D90, produces undeniably beautiful photos — punchy and creamy smooth even at high ISO, with lovely colour rendition and a dynamic range from shadow to highlight noticeably greater than the D90 ever did. Yet the main difference I’ve found in shooting with the X-T1 is not a technical benefit, but a practical one: the body and lenses are much smaller and lighter than the brick-like D90, and because of this, I’m not so loath as I once was to tote the camera with me, rather than leaving it at home. This is especially important with my fondness for landscape work; hiking with a DSLR seldom felt like anything but a chore.
As the adage goes, the best camera is the one that you have with you. Or, as they say in the sporting world, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. I’ve been quite pleased with the results from my new camera, no doubt, but more pleased still with its ability to do exactly what a tool is supposed to do: facilitating the process of creation without ever itself becoming a thing that the process of creation is ‘about’. It’s a tool that does its job, beautifully; and a big part of that job is just that I don’t have to think about it while I’m creating.
I always notice, when photographers gather at spots meant to be picturesque, the avalanche of equipment that attends it all: the ball-head tripods, the bags of lenses, the people toting 50-500 zooms up the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu. And it always seems to me the opposite of the ideal, the opposite of being where you are and noticing what’s around you, thinking about taking pictures rather than thinking about the pictures themselves. Don’t get me wrong: tripods have a place; a 50-500 lens has its place; almost any piece of gear can be the perfect tool in the right moment. Yet we so often make the moment about our gear, and miss the moment for it.
Slow down, carry less, see more. It’s not about the gear.
My grand prize-winning story for the SOLAS awards. “Into the Hills” has been published in the print anthology The Best Travel Writing Vol. 10, along with dozens of other superb travel stories from all over the world. Put out by perennial indie-travel favorite Travelers’ Tales, The Best Travel Writing series should be considered a first stop for anyone looking to go beyond the service-oriented ‘destination’ stories found in newspaper and magazine travel sections. It’s available in both print and Kindle versions, so have a read!
On the scale of galaxies, the bubbles in my glass of champagne,
the light upon my fingers as I hold it this night, do not exist.
These perceptions, so real to me in this moment,
are, in the macroscopic reckoning of the cosmic engine,
as conjectural as quarks are to my own consciousness,
supposed to truly exist by faith alone.
On the scale of galaxies, these bubbles, these fingers, this light
are virtual things, untouchable, unreadable, invisible and only weakly implicate.
Yet they exist, without faith and unnegated, all the same.