Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Beyond the Outback

The scene through the windshield was a Kindergarten landscape — the page split between a blue sky, a red earth, and a few faint patches of faded green. As I drove north to Alice Springs, it hardly changed, hour after hour. I'd left civilization behind — if you could call Coober Pedy civilised. It's an opal mining town, a last frontier kind of town where they probe the earth for flashes of colour, opal junkies seeking a vein. But the veins are never large enough, so they tunnel endlessly, burying their dreams behind them.

The road to Alice Springs is called the Stuart Highway, but it’s hardly a highway. It isn't paved. It isn't made. It's just a track corrugated by road trains with their multiple, overloaded trailers. The roadbed is covered with a layer of dust the colour and texture of paprika. It settles in depressions and surprises me with a silence that muffles the rumble of the car. 50 mph appears to be the optimum speed to keep the reverberations to a minimum. The optimum for a road train appears to be about 90 mph which means that every time one overtakes, I'm blinded by a rusty mist. It swirls behind the trailers as they chase the horizon, shimmering in the distance.

I'm not concerned about running off the road. It doesn't seem to matter when there's nothing to hit, except abandoned cars or various parts — a tire here, a bumper there. Tow trucks are desert pirates, cruising a road that begins in one place and ends in another with nothing much in between. It’s barely worth the cost of retrieving the deserted cars. Like everything that dies out here, they are soon picked clean by scavengers.

I can't help noticing that many of the vehicles are of the same make and model as the car I'm driving, a 71 Holden wagon, recommended because of the wide availability of parts. Rightly so — they were everywhere. I'd bought it in Sydney for $700 — a cash advance on my credit card. I hoped to sell it when I returned. It's the cheapest way to travel, that's if it survives the Stuart Highway.

The sign outside Coober Pedy had said last petrol for two hundred miles. I'd figured a full tank would easily make it but the needle on the gas gauge was sidling up to the red E sooner than expected — sooner than Alice Springs. I was hot, tired, and hungry, thinking that if I ran out of gas there'll be one more Holden on junkyard strip, when just by chance, I noticed in the rear-view mirror what looked like a cut off near the last corner I'd rounded. I would never have spotted it if I'd not glanced up at that very moment.

I turned the car round and drove back to the corner. Sure, enough it was an old dirt track intersecting at the bend in the highway. The track, hardly visible, wasn't marked on my map, but there was a small sign a little way in that proclaimed, with outback honesty, "Grub and Gas — maybe. About ten miles." I took a chance and drove down the track. I figured it might lead to a sheep station or mining settlement.

Nine miles in the engine began coughing, and then as I cleared the brow of a low hill it died completely. I coasted into town, what there was of it; a dozen abandoned buildings with rusty tin roofs and red stone walls blasted by the desert sand. I coasted right up to a gas pump, one of those old ones with a hand crank. It stood alone and untended like a main street cenotaph.

I got out and looked around. Opposite the pump was what may once have been a hotel. I crossed the street, pushed open the door and entered. I was surprised immediately by the air-conditioned coolness, then amazed to find someone sitting behind the office counter watching TV — unbelievable.

I had already prepared myself for a lonely night and long walk next day. There was hope after all. "Sit yourself down," smiled the man. "Have a beer, I'm just watching this old Ed Sullivan rerun.” I joined him, there wasn't much else I could do. Finally, the show ended, and the man stood up. He was tall, carrying some extra weight. With his sun worn face and thick white hair he was a black and white negative.

"I just love those old shows," he grinned. "Entertainment just ain't the same no more. Anyways, welcome to the Quality Hotel. Guess you'll be wanting gas, most folks do. Got
plenty of rooms too if you want to stay the night. Old fashioned service — an' the food is pretty good too. I cook it myself."

"Sure, thanks," I said. I wasn't likely to get a better offer.

He led the way into the dining room. It was spotless. The decor was early fifties, an old Wurlitzer stood in the corner. "Want some music?" he asked. "There's a good variety, mostly fifties and sixties." He pulled a handful of change from his pocket and slapped it into my hand. "Take your pick. I gotta get my apron on. I'll be back in a minute."  I chose a little Buddy Holly and early Everly brothers. Not my era, but I thought I may as well relax and get into the mood.

The place had a feeling of serenity about it, but I couldn't figure out how anyone could live so far from life. Through the window the street was windswept and empty. Beyond the Gas pump was the same Kindergarten landscape. It never seemed to end. When the old guy returned, I asked him what attracted him to this isolation. He just laughed.

"We'll talk later," he said. "Now, what are you going to eat?"  I couldn't believe he would have everything listed on the menu, but he didn't hesitate when I made my requests. After I'd eaten, he insisted I step into the bar for a drink. Like the dining room, the bar too was spotless — but empty. He poured me a drink, and then invited me to join him on the porch to watch the sun go down.

"Simple pleasures," he remarked. I agreed. I felt pleasantly content. I sipped my drink and relaxed as he told me his story.

"I first came by here in the early seventies," he began. "I was jus touring around with a bunch of friends at the time, raising hell. We'd been drinking and partying and it was late. I wandered off and darned if I didn't get lost. I was out there in the desert for days, jus wandering around. The boys thought I'd left town on my own, so they left too.

By the third morning I got the feeling nobody was looking for me. Funny thing was I wasn't scared. I jus seemed to focus on what was going on around me. It's amazing how much there is to see when there's nothing else to do but look. You know, the desert looks dead, but life is real intense here when you learn how to see it.

Anyway, I was starting to think I was close to the end of mine when this Aboriginal kid found me. He was out there wandering around too. Except he could have wandered around for a month with nothing but his hands in his pockets — if he'd had pockets. Me, with all my money and resources was about to check out. It was like I just relearned something I used to know as a kid. Like I'd come home to something that seemed right.

I call it quality; you know quality of life. I decided to stay. My toy box had been fit to bust for some time and jus didn't give me pleasure no more. I could see the good life was killing me and I didn't like the look of the future. I cashed in all I could and simply bought up what was left of the town. I have plenty to live on. I find pleasure now in giving the best of old-fashioned service to the occasional traveller who happens by."

It was only when I asked him about family that a cloud came over his face. "They couldn't come," he answered. "They couldn't let go of the quantity. I still stay connected — kind of." 

We sat quietly for a while then, watching the sun put a fresh coat of paint on the biggest sky I'd ever seen.

"You know," he said, breaking the silence, "The sun doesn't go down, we're racing away from it at a thousand miles an hour. Jus a matter of perception. Things aren't always what they seem, nor what we want them to be"

He stood and went inside, returning with a guitar. He sat back, put up his feet, and began to play. His voice was rich. It wove in and out through the colours of the sunset, then when the sky in the east turned a deep indigo, it fell into a perfect harmony. I was spellbound.

"Did you write those songs?"  I asked when he'd finished.

"Kind of. I guess I had a little help from God. He's the real creator you know. But since we are made in his image, I create the best way I know how. He jus gives me all the notes."

"How do you mean?" I asked, curious.

"See those stars up there. That's quantity, and quality. Every one of those stars is a musical note put there by God. I just pick out the ones I need."

"You could make a fortune with those songs you know, they're perfect."

"Make a fortune!" he snorted, "And then what? No, I'm happy to play for myself, or whoever wants to listen. It's enough."

I slept well that night. I rose early to find the old guy had breakfast prepared. I ate, and then went to the office to pay my bill. He wouldn't hear of it.

"I don't need your money son." he chuckled, "I don't have any use for it. Let's get that car of yours filled up. You'll be wanting to leave."  I wasn't sure I did, but we went out to the pump together. He checked the oil and the tires, then cleaned the windshield. He filled my gas tank, that is, he half-filled it.

"I'd feel better if it was full," I suggested nervously.

"Full!" he said, "you don't need it full, son. You're too focused on the quantity. This is quality gas, finest gas in two hundred miles. What more could you want? Guaranteed to take you to the Alice." 

I had no reason to doubt him. We shook hands. "Thanks again," I said.

"You're welcome. Be on your way. An when you think of me, think about quality."

We said goodbye. As I drove off, he yelled, "Don't look back son."  But I just had to take a quick glimpse in the rear-view mirror as I reached the top of the hill. He was gone of course. The place again looked deserted, but I knew there was life there. It was just hiding away from the brutal glare of the midday sun.

I reached the Highway and headed north. Rumbling along to Alice Springs on my quality gas, thinking a quality highway would be a delight. I went on to travel the Northern Territory and Queensland, seeing people and things that TV would never make real.

By the time I returned to Sydney the car was only running on three cylinders, but I was able to sell it in time to cover the payment on my credit card. I had to admit the car was a wreck, and it had never really been mine, but it had fulfilled a dream for me. I was beginning to understand what the old guy meant. The car had quality. He really believed in quality, right down to his shoes, the strangest shoes for a desert dweller. They were blue — blue suede.

c David Hobson 1996. Published in Mixed Messages 2007

Monday, 21 November 2022

Echo Through Time

From 12,000 miles away the story swept through the media. Within twenty-four hours the news had faded, but not before providing me with the disturbing explanation of an echo that had spiraled through time, to a mountaintop twelve years in the past.

Mount Ruapehu is a dormant volcano with a lake filled crater at its summit. It lies just south of Lake Taupo on the North Island of New Zealand. Its nearest neighbour is Ngorongoro, an active partner in the same range. Even though the whole area is an unstable rift in the earth's crust, it is a popular ski resort in wintertime.

In February 1985 I was in New Zealand. I’d hitched a ride in the rain to Ruapehu. If the weather cleared, I had hopes of climbing it. Although eleven thousand feet high it was supposed to be an easy climb, made easier by a paved road that snakes up from a campground to the chalet.

I spent a cool night camped out but rose to the sun. I ate quickly and by seven started on the three-mile walk to where the real climb begins. I'd barely set out when a car stopped. The driver was on his way up to do repair work at the chalet and offered me a ride. As the car crawled slowly up the steepening grade, I gazed out at the scenery; a volcanic arena, peaks benignly coated with snow, thinly disguising formidable power.

The lower slopes of the mountain are violently barren. Charred and stunted pines are all that's left of the old tree line, crippled shadows against the massive cone of Ngorongoro. Less dormant than Ruapehu, innocent wisps of smoke betray it, like someone caught smoking, lungs full to bursting.

From the chalet my route lay up the ski field, a naked scratch on the side of the mountain, I tried to imagine it in winter, swarming with people, but exposed by the summer sun it was just rubble strewn desolation.

I began to climb, picking my way over rocks, stumbling upwards. I'd thought I was in shape but as I climbed higher, I could feel my body ageing with the effects of altitude. It was cold and I was tiring quickly. Each ridge conquered only revealed another, blocking sight of the summit. Underfoot the ground was unstable, loose, and crumbly, blackened wet cinders of lava smearing the old snow. My legs were heavy; my fingers sore from scrambling up the almost sheer slope.

As I dragged myself onto the crest I was gasping for air. From there I lurched along a narrow spine of bare rock which ended abruptly at the highest point, right on the edge of the crater. The blue sky should have been reflected in the water below, but it wasn't. Shielded from wind, it was grey and lifeless. Any other body of water would invite a stone to be tossed in. Not this one. It threatened retaliation.

I sat and rested as my breathing returned to normal. The pounding in my ears eased, replaced by an empty silence. I'd never been this high before, in a place so different, so far from people. Yet I was disappointed. I'd expected something more, enlightenment, wonder, or some emotion other than the pride that I'd made it. I wanted to be overwhelmed by the grandeur, to be amazed by the scenery, but the valley in the distance was hazy, without detail. Surrounding peaks blurred with the sky. I felt myself shrinking into insignificance against time and space. I was alone, the last person on earth, insecure, vulnerable. I wanted to return, to be among people, to feel alive.

Bang! The sound rocked me, then again, and again. Six times I winced before silence returned. Nothing had changed. The lake was still featureless. The smoke from Ngorongoro still whispered from its peak. The tranquility was ominous. Anxiety tugged at my sleeve. Panicking, I scurried along the ridge, retracing my steps to begin the descent, slipping, falling, tobogganing down the slurry, obsidian rocks piercing the snow like rotten teeth, snapping at me as I slid by. Down, down, down. I eventually stumbled into the chalet, grazed, and bruised, remembering little of my flight, as though I'd fallen through time.

I was able to get a ride down to the campground with someone from the chalet. I asked about the sounds I'd heard on the summit, expecting to hear a simple explanation, but they'd heard nothing. No one had. It was a mystery, and remained so until just this month, when, from 12,000 miles away the story echoed through the media. On the 4th of February, 1997 at Echo Lodge, a remote village on the slopes of Mount Ruahpehu, a popular ski resort in New Zealand, a deranged man has slaughtered six people with a shotgun

c 1997 David Hobson. All above is true.

Le Tour de France in Yorkshire

There’s a song by Kate and Anna McGarrigle with the line: “I’ve walked upon the moors on many misguided tours where Emily, Anne and Charlotte poured their hearts out.”

Emily, Anne and Charlotte, of course, were the Brontë sisters who lived on the Yorkshire moors in the early 19th century in the grimy industrial town of Haworth. Thanks to the literary merits of the Brontë sisters, Haworth, with its stone cottages and cobbled streets, is today a picturesque tourist destination.

In early July, however, Haworth will see a tour the likes of which the poor sisters could never have imagined. The town is expected to be jammed with people when a circus-like parade of promotional cars, trucks and media vehicles pass through, led by a platoon of police cars and motorcycles with lights flashing and sirens wailing. Meanwhile, helicopters will circle overhead as the crowds lining narrow Mill Hey road crane to see a kaleidoscopic mass of about 200 cyclists swoop into town.

This is the Tour de France — in Yorkshire, England. It may surprise many to learn that it is occurring outside France, although not unusual for the world’s largest annual sporting event. During its three-week run each summer, the race covers approximately 3,600 kilometres over 21 stages, mainly in France, but it typically dips into other European countries.

The decision to launch the tour in the north of England is seen as a huge coup for local organizers and an economic prize for both countries. It’s also partly the reason Yorkshire has been voted the third best region in the world to visit, according to Lonely Planet’s 2014 Best in Travel list. And for me personally, the prospect of these top cyclists travelling the roads and dales that I tackled as a skinny kid is the stuff of dreams.

The Tour de France claims a worldwide television audience with 4,700 hours of coverage. Add in another 12 million spectators along the route and it’s an advertising bonanza.

In 2012 the tour was won for the first time by a British rider, Bradley Wiggins (now Sir Bradley). Last year his teammate Chris Froome took the title. This, with spectacular successes in cycling at the 2012 Olympics, resulted in an upsurge in cycling in Britain, not unnoticed by the organizers eager for a larger audience.

In return for hosting two of the three U.K. stages, Yorkshire will have complete disruption of traffic with roads closed for up to eight hours along the route; however, the county is expecting an economic windfall of as much as $180 million dropping into its tourism basket.

In addition to a weekend of thrilling sport, the Tour will showcase some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain, thanks largely to the dramatic helicopter coverage of the race.

•••

From the Grand Départ on July 5 in the bustling city of Leeds, the first stage is a loop through the Yorkshire Dales (valleys), finishing in the graceful old spa town of Harrogate, a popular resort for the one-percenters of the Victorian era.

After an exhausting 200 kilometres, one might surmise that the riders could use a health spa, plus a considerable number of the more than 5,000 calories each will have burned through.

 On leaving Leeds, the route follows the valley of Wharfedale to the market town of Skipton, a favourite place of mine as it’s where my parents first met. The race passes along High Street, site of a lively market, and right past the Black Horse Inn where my mother once worked so long ago. Dad worked nearby on the Duke of Devonshire’s grouse hunting estate.

Much as they’d like, there’ll be no time for riders to pause at the inn to refuel on a pint of local ale and traditional roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. So focused, they’ll barely notice the canal basin on the Leeds to Liverpool canal, where a narrowboat can be rented for a more leisurely trip through the dales.

And the massive ramparts of the 900-year-old Skipton Castle, one of the best preserved medieval castles in England, will be just a blur to them as they race by en route to the hills of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

There are no Alp-like mountains on the U.K. stages, but the rolling terrain of the dales throws up surprises with sharp, steep hills that daunt the casual cyclist. As the riders pass by, they may not notice the quaint villages set in a patchwork of green fields, stitched in place with drystone walls of white limestone.

More likely they’ll be focused on strategy as a stage race is a chess game on wheels. It’s a team event with an outright winner based on accumulated time, but there are competitions within the overall race, and among the nine members on each team there are specialists to challenge for the title of best sprinter, single stage winner or the title of King of the Mountains

If riders do have a moment to admire the magnificent views, they’ll be able to see the three highest mountains of Yorkshire: Whernside, Pen-y-ghent and Ingleborough. Beneath these 700-metre peaks are natural caverns, the most famous being Gaping Gill. Big enough to hold a cathedral, it has a waterfall twice the height of Niagara Falls.

Leaving Wharfedale, the tour crosses Kidstones Pass into Wensleydale, home of the classic Wensleydale Cheese, then follows the valley to the lively market town of Hawes. From here, riders will tackle the formidable Buttertubs Pass, so called because of limestone formations near the summit. It will be the toughest ascent of the stage, a punishing five kilometres with a 20 per cent grade.

As they reach the top, they’ll see a landscape scoured to the bedrock in places by gales that rage in from the Atlantic. Pity the riders if it’s one of those days, but on a clear day the view is priceless.

After a hair-raising descent on a road little wider in places than a single car width —a road that also has cattle grids and ambling sheep — the route snakes down through beautiful Swaledale, hugging the river as it tumbles over Wain Wath Force with the sound of clogs on cobbles. “Force,” a term used in the north of England, is derived from the Norse word for waterfall — yes, the Vikings were here, too, long ago.

Henry the VIII’s men were in the area as well in 1539, busy destroying the nearby Fountains Abbey after Henry ordered the dissolution of the monasteries. What they left behind is a glorious ruin, one of the largest, best preserved Cistercian monasteries and a World Heritage Site.

It’s a short detour, but of no interest to the riders. There are now only about 30 of the 190 kilometres of the first stage left before the finish in Harrogate, and teams will be maneuvering for position, setting up their best sprinters.

Waiting crowds will be hoping for a win and the coveted yellow jersey for British rider, Mark Cavendish, a sprint specialist who’s already notched up 25 Tour de France stage victories. To streak to another win on home soil would mean every pub in town will be packed that night.

•••

The gruelling 200-kilometre stage two begins the following day from the walled city of York. Founded by the Romans in 71 AD, tourism is now York’s business with deep layers of history to explore, especially the 12th century York Minster cathedral that towers over the city. Across the river is the National Rail Museum with a vast collection ranging from the earliest steam engines to the Japanese Bullet train.

Maybe not as fast as a speeding bullet, but with an average speed as high as 50 kilometres an hour on the flat and 80 downhill, the riders will head back into the hills again before leaving the dales for the spectator-rich conurbation of southwest Yorkshire, heart of the 19th-century industrial revolution.  This is the area that gave rise to the Luddites, disgruntled hand-weavers who resisted change by smashing the first mechanized looms. They couldn’t stop it, but if you resist the technological revolution of today you might still be called a Luddite.

After passing through the Brontes’ Haworth, the race includes the town of Huddersfield, significant as the home of Brian Robinson, a childhood hero of mine who, in 1958, became the first ever British rider to win a stage of the Tour de France. Still riding today at 84 years old, he’ll sure be smiling when he sees Le Tour arrive on his own doorstep.

From here, the route turns up the Holme Valley, even more significant as it’s where I grew up, cycling forth on most of roads the tour has covered. When I left in 1967, the valley was home to numerous textile mills that after a century or so of belching smoke had turned every building black.

Today, almost all those dark satanic mills are gone, torn down or turned into condos. Soot stains have been blasted away from public buildings to reveal beautiful, golden sandstone, although the old weaver’s cottages that scramble up the valley’s hillsides are still dark, if fading.

Here, too, drystone walls quilt the fields, threading upward past human-made lakes and woodlands with green-barked trees to peter out before the bleak, yet starkly beautiful moors in the Peak District National Park. It’s here, when the heather is in bloom, where nostalgia tugs most hard on my sleeve.

Nonetheless these moors can be a desolate place when clouds drape low; with only coarse grasses, heather and peat bogs, there are few landmarks to guide a lost soul — just ask Jane Eyre. 

The valley below, however, is a welcoming place, attracting visitors in ever greater numbers since 1973 when filming began of the longest running TV sitcom in the world, Last of the Summer Wine. It transformed the town of Holmfirth when it became a destination for fans of the beloved show. The series ended in 2010 but visitors still arrive for the annual folk festival, brass bands and the best fish and chips in England.

Locals are friendly, and typically forthright with a sometimes impenetrable accent and a dark sense of humour — a barber shop, long gone now, was said to have had a parrot taught to screech the words, “Cut his bloody ear off, Fred.”

There may well be swearing in the peloton as it passes through. The seven-kilometre valley begins as a gentle incline, but it grows steeper as it reaches Holme Moss, the peak at the head of the valley and the toughest climb of the stage. Seen from the valley, it’s a forbidding wall, and an opportunity for the strongest climbers to break clear.

This is where I’ll be, the ideal vantage point to watch the arrival of the first riders as they explode up the climb, legs burning, lungs gasping as they pour their hearts out, as I did as a young cyclist so many years ago, dreaming of one day riding the Tour de France.

I never did, but my daughter, Leigh, competed in Le Grande Boucle, considered the Women’s version of the Tour de France, before going on to represent Canada at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

After clearing Holme Moss, it’s a fast descent down Woodhead pass before a to the finish in the city of Sheffield.

One more stage will follow in southern England with a finish in London, before the whole circus packs up and leaves for 18 more stages in France, finally ending with a final sprint up the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Yorkshire may never be the same.

c2014 David Hobson. First published in Grand Magazine 2014