Yoke north Australia’s summer temperatures of 40-plus-degrees Celsius with its debilitating humidity and you’ve got the two best reasons to do nothing stupid. So why I decided to ride my bicycle 330 kilometres from Digger’s Rest Station to Purnululu National Park, and 330 back, is all conjecture.
But I do know why I started cycling around Australia in the first place – to travel slow and simplify my life. The previous 5,000-kilometres had done just that, but in weather I wore well.
Up here at the top of Western Australia in November, there’s a season they call the Build Up. It’s where the gods experiment with heat.
When I left Digger’s Rest Station, I peddled into a wind so hot it was like riding into fire. Literally. I could feel it peeling the skin off my face. The humidity drip-fed sweat into my eyes and plastered my red long-sleeve shirt to my body. Within an hour, I marvelled at my stupidity.
I drank like a thirsty fish while peddling down a highway that dissolved into a watery mirage. Six hours and 90 kilometres later, I collapsed on what felt like the most comfortable air mattress on the planet.
I ate my heated dinner rations of 250-grams of rice and a tin of sardines from a dented billy. I could smell the desert while lying in my tent at night. It smelled as old as the dust of the bones of creation. Between utter silence, I heard howling dingos, the soprano chimes of butcher birds, and smiled myself to sleep.
My fourth day revealed the ultimate challenge of not just this sojourn, but my entire Australian rideabout; 46-degrees Celsius, infinite humidity, along a 65-kilometre four-wheel-drive track made of muddy water crossing, chain-eating sand, rim-cracking rocks, and butt-jarring corrugations. It felt like riding over a serrated baking tray.
But allow me to point out that there are two types of people who cycle long distances – cyclists on tour, and tourists on cycles. I am the latter. And this was the only time I ever envied those travelling on comfy seats in air-conditioned vehicles, music playing, cold drinks at hand.
So the air-conditioned Purnululu Visitor Centre, at the 51-kilometre mark, became an obsession. I prayed to see a building as I summited every hill, rounded every corner. Eventually, I wobbled up its wooden steps. Josie the receptionist smiled and said, “You look a bit hot, mate.”
The outback’s midday glare succumbed to the evening’s pastel greens and browns as I arrived, relieved that body and bike were intact, at the Walardi Campsite. I’d cycled the 65 kilometres in eight and a half months. Whoops, I mean hours.
I would go on to ride another 7,000 outback kilometres but, profiting from hindsight, I tackled the return 65-kilometre journey over two days. And I never rode with stupid again.
Cascada de Mandor, four kilometres from Aguas Calientes, has a beautiful setting – as you can see. And now the rain, never far away, is joining the waterfall’s spray.
It feels lush, damp with growth, green with promise, where every living thing is an opportunist. I can feel the vitality, hear the trees groaning their reach for the sun.
Everything is a tangle, dense, searching. If I fell asleep here, I would wake with vines circling my limbs.
Riverside ferns and mosses and trees lean into the falls impatience for its water, as if not getting that floating droplet will negate its very life – and the next, and the next.
The water announces its presence like a brass band, forcing the air ahead of it in an elemental parade. It huffs and puffs its way through surrounding jungle, sending it dancing and fluttering.
The larger canopy above looks down on all this and glows benevolently. It’s old enough to know the order of things, has gained noticeable status by its sheer gravitas. I can hear its wisdom of silence and acceptance. I can sense its inevitable rebirth.
Everything is awake, even that which is asleep. And here, under my feet, generations of leaves gift themselves to the soil, to this jungle, to me, and all.
And me, no more alone, no more important, no less beautiful, no less participating in this cycle of life as every other living and dying thing.
I bury my green tendrils into this earth and feel this earth transmit its ancient lives into mine. The leaves of my skin join this forest floor. My limbs dance in this water. This forest accepts me for what I am. And I rejoice in being part of this forest, this water, the Cascade de Mandor.
A sign of how groovy Australia’s Wintermoon Festival was going to be showed itself within minutes of my arrival. Dianne, disguised as a rainbow, asked me, “Do you know the Four Agreements?” I didn’t, but I knew she was going to tell me. She counted them on her fingers as they rolled off her tongue; “Honour your word, don’t take anything personally, don’t make assumptions, always do your best”. She eluded there was a fifth, but for that, I had to wait.
For the festival too. It was Monday and the official fun didn’t start until Friday, so I loitered at the Stoney Creek campground, startled by the iridescent blue Ulysses butterflies against rainforest green. I watched the school bus pass every morning with big eyes on little faces. I met Graeme from Mackay who was wallowing in the silence, reading and, more importantly, not being at work. I met festival volunteer Clair from Brisbane who helped make 1200 pizza bases and Tess from across the ditch who helped weave the Tranquility Temple together. Bettina, a masseur from Starlight Community, wasn’t a volunteer but offered them all a free massage.
In between, I sauntered the one kilometre down the dusty country road to Wintermoon’s main site.
On the Lunatic Stage, one of four stages, I saw pyramids of stuff covered with black plastic, weighed down with pumpkins. I helped volunteers place hay bales for seating in front of the Southern Cross Stage. I watched magician Sean Tretheway bewilder workers with pieces of rope that shrank, grew, unknotted, joined, before our very eyes. I shot the breeze with those on duty at the main gate.
On Thursday, the first of my immediate neighbours circled their wagons. When settled, we jammed on guitars, djembe, and pots. As a second lot of neighbours set up, I heard one say, “I’m so hungry I could eat the arse out of a low flying duck.” My third and final immediate neighbours were a gorgeous mum and her two teenagers. The daughter told me; “Mum’s always had a bit of hippie in her.” OK, I thought, I’ll be a hippy. That night, I went to sleep under a near full moon with the smell of woodsmoke, listening to laughter, singing, guitars, and a fiddle that hit all the notes – nearly.
Although the music didn’t officially start until five on Friday arvo, I entered the festival site after lunch and, whammo, practicing on a couple of hay bales by the chai tent were two performers at the festival, Rebecca Wright and husband Donald Mackay.
When they are inevitably performing on the international circuit, I’ll be able to gloat that I sat within two metres of them and listened to the acoustic warmth of Donald’s harp-like nylon string guitar, Rebecca’s weeping cello, and her clear voice singing her song about ‘the shores of my heart’. I tipped my hat a little so they couldn’t see my tears.
Of all the musical talent at Wintermoon, from the grab-your-granny-and-doe-see-doe dancing of the Bushwackers, to the passionate 40-year-old voice coming from 17 year-old Alys Longmate, to Richard Perso playing raunchy guitars, didgeridoo and drums simultaneously, to the banter and ballads of John Schumann & Hugh McDonald, who were the only act I saw receive a standing ovation, it was that encounter with Rebecca and Donald that remains my musical highlight of Wintermoon.
In fact, encounters is what Wintermoon became. Meeting people there was as easy as saying, “Gidday”. Perhaps because most were stoned or perhaps because everyone was chilled. Whatever it was, I met more people in that week than I met in the previous four months.
I went with a couple of them to the festival’s official opening at the Tranquility Temple; carpeted ground under a large tree, walled by woven palm leaves, a ceiling of green and blue tarpaulins painted with purple and white spiritual symbols. Cynthia guided a meditation. On the in-breath, we imagined a silver light from the sky entering our Sahasrara, or crown chakra, and a golden light from mother earth entering our Muladhara, or root chakra and, on the out-breath, a rainbow swirling around our body. I was getting into it but got distracted by a raucous food processor from a neighbouring stall.
It turned out to be the Hare Krishna mob. This was good, because a festival isn’t a festival without them. They, as always, sold big food for small bucks. Hare Rama! But they weren’t as entertaining as the Hungarian food stall next to them.
When a customer started their order with an “Uummm”, the dude would interject with, “Ve don’t sell um’s here. Everybody vants um. Maybe Hare Krishna sell um. Ve don’t sell dis um”. When anyone complained about waiting, which they often did, he would say, “Vhat you vant? I can’t go more slow.”
So many people wore tie-dyed clothing it looked like a rainbow had spilled over Wintermoon, or as one stall declared, “Dyed and gone to Hippy Heaven”. When I asked the hippiest heavenist dude of them all if I could take his photo, he thought momentarily and replied, “Yes. But the price is you must hug a complete stranger”. I agreed.
To escape the stalls, the music, and the relentless heat, I joined others in the cool tumbling waters of St Helen’s Creek.
Meanwhile, poets, songwriters and magicians gave workshops in the yurt. The inimitably creative and compassionate soul, Anneka, directed a lantern-making workshop in the Igaloo. The subsequent glowing pumpkins, birds, and flowers paraded through the festival site on Sunday night, the final night.
For the finale of the final concert, the musicians unplugged, climbed off the stage to the dance area and played an acoustic version of Ghost Riders in the Sky. So, there we were, the devil’s herd of cowpokes howling at the full winter moon, “yip-i-yi-a…yip-i-yi-yooo”.
When the music stopped, we placed our arms around the shoulders of those in front of us, complete strangers, forming an enormous round scrum of human hug, like a mob of tie-dyed penguins.
Breaking camp the following morning, my neighbours and I questioned the wisdom of heading back to reality. I shared a coffee with Dianne and she fessed the fifth of the four agreements; question everything!
Wintermoon Festival is held on the first weekend of May in Queensland, Australia. Visit http://www.wintermoonfestival.com/
The jacket would not leave me alone. It wasn’t just how the golden grassy fibres made an open strong weave, it was the patches of regal-gold and blood-red silk on the shoulders. It gave the armless jacket a ceremonial air. It looked like it was born there in the Himalaya. Woven and smuggled from the Tibetan plateau. Being a hedonist in the 1970s, I thought it should spend the rest of its life with me.
“Oh, no, no, sir! That is not being possible” reasoned the Indian stall holder in Manali’s market. He wobbled his head to emphasis the impossibility of it. “I am in business to make money and if I sold this jacket to you at this price, sir, I will be losing money. What is your best price, sir?”
I had walked to Manali for my weekly supplies and, once again, to haggle for the jacket. And once again, we didn’t reach a compromise, so I went to my next weekly appointment – sharing a chillum, packed with the famous rip-your-head-off Black Manali hash, with the sadhu in the main street.
The blue aromatic smoke wafted through his waist-length dreadlocks and over his face, painted with white and red markings, giving him a mystic, almost heavenly aura. An effect that grew with every toke.
That made buying the weekly supplies of rice, flour, and vegetables an entertaining affair. I carried them the four kilometres back to my mountain-side cabin, high on a narrow ridge, up past Little Manali. All the while thinking about that jacket while watching the Himalayan vultures rise on the thermals.
Only after two months of haggling did the stall-holder’s resolve weaken. “OK. OK. My mother will cry and my children will go hungry but if that is your best price…”
Auspiciously, the first time I wore the jacket was the first time I applauded a building. It was a month later after an electrical storm at the Taj Mahal.
A nearly full moon cast cloud-shadows. The white marble’s glow was almost blinding when the lightening cracked the sky. It threw shadows and light at every which angle. The thunder claps wrapped themselves down the tall minarets and onion-shaped roof, through the soles of my feet and up into my potato head.
Within 20-minutes the storm passed, the clouds parted, and the Taj Mahal glowed unrelentingly in the moon light. So spectacular was this light and sound phenomenon that the hundreds, perhaps thousands of Indians, and me, broke into spontaneous applause.
The jacket stayed in my bag until Lake Pokhara, West Nepal. The eight-kilometre-high Annapurna massif seemed so close in the clear October light, I instinctively reached for the peaks like low-hanging fruit as I floated on my back in a canoe in the middle of the lake.
Toward the end of my six-week stay, I took to wearing the jacket as groovy day-wear. Immediately, some of the locals start treating me with unparalleled respect. Many stopped, pressed their palms together at their forehead, muttering a mantra, bowing in a slow and determined way. I returned the courtesy. On one occasion, a couple prostrated themselves. This made going anywhere a lengthy and embarrassing process.
It became more embarrassing, no, humiliating, when the Nepalese guys who ran my favoured restaurant explained to me the jacket’s significance. They said the jacket is only bestowed on a Buddhist who had completed years of study and meditation and is well on the road to nirvana. Perhaps even, they said, of the Dalai Lama “themselves”. Further more, the man who sold it was, “a very bad man.” This jacket was earned, not bought. The kept asking, “do you understand”?
Being a pseudo-Lama was too much even for this hedonist. The jacket stayed in the pack while I dithered longer than a stoned committee about what to do with it.
Meanwhile, the amebic dysentery was proving more difficult to shake than the jacket. I thought a couple of weeks on an Israeli kibbutz with its Mediterranean climate, healthy diet, and outdoor exercise would do the job. Three months of light duties and no end of prescribed drugs later, I recovered.
To celebrate, I spent time along the Red Sea, (before it became a part of Egypt). Sitting alone under a date palm on a postcard beach, no one in sight, I contemplated whether the man who sold me the jacket could have not known of its significance. I thought how much longer I could travel from the money I could earn by selling the jacket. I had had offers. I considered what a magnificent gift it would make. I fantasised returning it to the Tibetan plateau. Knocking on the door of a monastery, presenting it like folded laundry – yeah, right. So I buried it. Deep.
Potosi is so old, so tragic,
its history is forged
from wordless memories,
of voices so forbidden,
we will never know its stories.
A silver tongue long raided,
its dignity smelted from flesh,
generations of silver crosses
praised in cathedrals
of indigenous bones,
monuments that will never talk
for all the silver in the world.