Lost in the mist

Back in 2009 I was staying with relatives close to the Pyrenees. I felt like a walk in the foothills, and found a detailed map book with nearby walks. The book was in French, and my ability in the language very poor. Nonetheless, I felt confident with the map provided and set out on a road south, starting out from a small village somewhere close to the Spanish border.

On the day it was overcast and rainy. Many of the hills were covered in cloud. I had no compass. Undaunted, and trusting in what appeared to be a well defined path, I set off.

At first I made good progress, and as I climbed I noticed a series of yellow markers on the path. I grew more confident as I ascended further, but was disappointed to see that the cloud cover wasn’t shifting.

The forest path was eerie with the mist, but it was quiet and the walk refreshing. At one point I passed some donkeys, and became aware there were some houses dotted around the lower slopes. Getting higher and higher, I finally reached what was probably the peak of that particular walk. It was then my problems began.

Everything was covered in cloud. After waiting a little while, I realised it wouldn’t clear even for a snippet, and so began to follow what I thought was the path down. That quickly led no where, except a steep drop. I had to be careful, because I knew there were deep ravines appearing without warning that people could easily fall in.

I retraced my steps, and searched around, but couldn’t find the correct path. I had no sight of the yellow markers. Worse still, when I simply tried to retrace my steps back the way I came, I found I had become completely disorientated and couldn’t find the path.

I was alarmed, but not panicked, and simply opted to find the easiest way down in roughly the direction I thought I had come up from. This quickly turned sour, as I struggled through the undergrowth. Soon the path I thought I was following deteriorated into nothing but dense bushes and trees. It was getting darker and I had no sense of where I was, except that I was head downhill.

I took a moment to consider my options, as much to quell the rising sense of panic. I was soaked, my clothes covered in muck, and my cheap poncho torn to shreds. For the first time I considered the possibility I might be stuck here over night, a situation made worse because I wasn’t sure I had clearly left details with my relatives of where I was going. Now I was really worried.

That was when I saw the marker.

On a tree, about 10 metres away and behind me, was a circular red mark. Further I realised there was another. I checked quickly and found they were only on one side. Looking downhill though, I began to realise there was a relatively clearer stretch of path through the foliage. Whatever path this was it was the best way back, so I began the descent in earnest and with a lot more hope.

Every so often I had to check behind me to make sure the red markers were there, but they were, and then finally I hit a section of the original path I recognised. Huge relief.

The light was dim, but bring out of the trees meant it was much easier to see now. I passed a couple of men busy with some logs. I expect I must have struck a miserable sight; caked in mud, soaking wet and with a ripped raincoat. I summoned as much pride as I could as I walked past them, feeling as daft as my appearance probably looked.

Not long after, I made it back to my car right at the bottom of the valley. I gave myself a few mental kicks for bring so stupid. It was a lesson learnt. Looking back at the hill there was still cloud cover, and I never got to see much of the Pyrenees that day. But I got back safely.

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The long walk to Bamburgh

It was 2010, and I was in the final stretch for moving to Australia. I must have gotten a thirst for exploring early though, and I spent much of final 12 months travelling to France or the Lake District. One day I read an article about top places to go in England, and was encouraged to visit the north-east coast.

I stayed at a B&B in a small town called Seahouses. My journey there was long into the night. I traveled straight from work in the north-west, traversing the passage across northern England. I passed Newcastle during sunset, but it was through stormy weather I traversed the coastal lanes to my accommodation. I was amused to see signs for Preston Tower (having left from my hometown of Preston earlier in the day). Still, I arrived safe and sound.

The next day I took a walk along the beach to Castle Bamburgh. It was windy, but dry and not too cold. As suits my tastes, it has a particular roughness, but with a rich spirit. The kind of place that makes you feel good just being there, taking the very best of nature.

I got to the castle, but didn’t explore inside. My joy is in the journey, not the destination. On the way back the tide was coming in fast. Had I waited another hour the beach would have been impassable.

The next day I visited Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, enjoying the sight of its unusual castle. Again I got to savour the natural state of the island, and the weather. I got more out of the isolated parts of the island than the castle.

It was a part of the country I’d barely experienced before, and I reflected it might be many years before the opportunity to visit again. I was only there a few days, but it was brief capture of a spirit of the UK that I suspect is under accessed. I’d definitely go back.

The Case of the Stolen Cereal

When I first arrived in Australia I needed somewhere to stay. Without confirming the type of bureaucratic details needed for bedsits, rental etc. the easiest and cheapest accommodation was a hostel. For the first two weeks I was in Australia, the YHA in Adelaide was my home.

Not being the backpacker type, I had little idea of what to expect. The only YHA I had stayed in was a small place in Rome. Adelaide was quite large.

There seemed to be an eclectic assortment of people staying there. Some were there for work, others travel or holiday, and a few I was never quite sure about.

While the YHA made efforts to organise events, it didn’t seem the most naturally gregarious of places. There seemed to be cliquey groups of travellers, often keeping to themselves in small groups. I managed to make some friends there, and even after I moved out kept in touch and socialised with them.

I was fairly distracted with the various actions necessary to get my tax file number, sort driving licence etc. so kept preoccupied for most of the time. Meanwhile, I noticed a large amount of backpackers who just, well, lazed around.

Adelaide is not furnished with quite the level of entertainment options of Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane or even Perth, but there were still things you could do. Most though seemed content to laze about, sleep during the day, or mess around in the kitchen. Given the cost of coming to Australia and opportunity to travel, I found it a most bemusing situation.

There was a high level of thievery, cereal mostly. Notably Western backpackers were very willingly taking foodstuff from Asian travellers, often in plain sight. I think they took advantage of a lack of familiarity with the setting, and maybe language too.

In basic terms it was perfectly clean and comfortable. They supplied free coffee (powdered International Roast, the coffee of champions!). I think for cultural and emotional enjoyment it was somewhat vacuous. I got more out of it in terms of socialising once I left. Still, as first homes go, it wasn’t a bad way to start.

The Old Scout Hall

When I lived in Mount Gambier, I got into the habit of exploring the town to find interesting things to photograph. Back then I was right at the start of my interest in photography, so was keen to try out photographing whatever I could.

On one particular early morning, I came to a local abandoned hall. I seem to recall it used to be for scouts. Having already explored the old hospital, my interest in abandoned places was peaked.

On entering I found the hall to be a little disappointing. There wasn’t much light since the windows were boarded up, and it lacked the sense of presence of the hospital.

Nonetheless, I took photos as best I could. I came across one room, with a sofa, a chair, a table and some letters scattered about, mainly on the floor. It was apparent someone had used the space to at least sort through their correspondence. I got the sense that someone had, at least for a short time, been sleeping in the room. The letters were still crisp, with no sign of mound or damp.

Looking back on the photo it is very poor. Awful glare and badly lit. Even the composition seems limited. Still, the image conveys the main sense of the room. There’s a sense of incompleteness, as though whatever denizen resided here intended to return. I wonder about the mindset of the person, what would cause them to open their mail here. Were they homeless, did they want privacy? Were they here for drugs, and in the midst of using got focused on more mundane issues? I find the latter, in my experience, just as likely as any other.

The Two Piers

Even though my maternal family originates from there, I’ve never felt that much affinity with Blackpool.

My experience of Blackpool was of a run down, has been town, dreaming of better days, slowly seeing out the passing of decreasing numbers of visiting ageing people who remember the town in its heyday. It was associated with dilapidation and drug use for a lot of people, with a faded atmosphere of yesteryear.

The most I ever got out of the town was enjoyment of the beach. While I saw little to warrant the historical moniker of Blackpool’s “golden sands”, I could take pleasure in the windswept bleakness, accentuated by the sharp cold weather of the north west of England.

The beach was dominated by the three piers, like outstretched fingers reaching for the sea, grasping for something that was gone. Like the town, they had an aged and rundown tone, left weatherworn from years of exposure and neglect.

One day, late on in winter, I took the opportunity to head to Blackpool for some photos. I was primarily interested in getting some long exposure shots of the sea, taking advantage of the fading light. The wind was biting, but there was little rain, just the spray of the sea.

The photo of the two piers captures for me the essence of the town. The reality, the dark frame in the foreground, seaweed hanging off, an old relic. Beyond, as though in the past, lies the full pier across a desolate beach, relatively pristine at a distance. It’s a false promise; the photographic equivalent of an unreliable narrator. One of my favourite photos.

The Squid

Mount Gambier’s old hospital was quite a curiosity for me. It had this intriguing quality to it, propelled by its derelict state. There was a sense of history to it too, since most residents of the town had been born there or had been intimately connected with a patient in some way. Sat atop the crater hillside overlooking the town, it was a dominant fixture of Mount Gambier’s cultural and architectural makeup.

At the time, I was just at the beginning of my photography journey. I took a lot of photos in that place. A near empty shell, there was an atmospheric peculiarity about the building, bestowing a sense of character. It felt like an aged, benign behemoth that was slowly passing away.

Around the building, many people had taken the opportunity to provide their own unique pictorial displays, many of them fascinating and high quality. My favourite was the squid. It dominated an entire side section, and at the right time with the right light, presented an effective contrast between the creative display and the fading architecture. It’s one of my favourite photos, remembering a formative period of my artistic life, and fuelling nostalgia for a building now gone.

Dimly lit windows

Dimly lit windows in the darkness before dawn were a common feature in the morning. It’s easy to forget in Australia just how dark it can get in the UK, and being an early riser meant I was up in the wee small hours.

My bedroom looked out over several terraced and semidetached Victorian-era homes. They were well made, with red bricks darkened by time and probably soot from the old coal days. It was a quiet neighbourhood, little indication of the bustling noise to come, as the various denizens would go to work.

Before all that hustle, I would look at these dimly lit windows, small flecks of light in the dark. I’d wonder who these people were, what they were doing. Were they like me, early risers? Or had they been up all night, and dawn signified bed time?

I miss those crisp and cold mornings, the kind of sharpness of the air that makes the body seem more distinct. I miss the dim light of the dawn, and the sulphur illuminated streets. I love the quiet, and these moments were just so peaceful.

The Dusty Whale

Crossing the Nullarbor the first time round was a whole new experience. It was 2012, and I was travelling to Perth to start a new job. I’d always enjoyed the openness of Australian country, but this was something else.

Stretching from Ceduna in SA to Norseman in WA, there aren’t really any towns along the highway. At various intervals there are roadhouses, with a transient community of bikers, travellers and truckers. Caravans were scattered about, with people washing or drying their clothes. It could almost seem settled. Only a few people live at the roadhouses, and I imagine almost all of them don’t live there forever.

The Nullarbor roadhouse felt like a pivotal stop, almost as though it was halfway. In truth, it was only day two, with two more days of long travel to get to Perth.

It was windy, dust and sand blowing all over. A ream of tissue paper, the big roll they supply for filling petrol, had broken free and huge strands of tissue paper danced in the wind.

I was struck by the sight of a whale, and a plane nearby. They perform whale spotting flights – the roadhouse is actually very close to the Australian Bight.

It was hot, probably about 40C, but relatively empty. The inside of the roadhouse looked barren, with bits and pieces for sale you might need urgently, mainly cosmetic and hygiene.

Like all roadhouses the smell of deep fried food permeated. I probably just got a soft drink and a sandwich. I hung around for a little while to take some photos. I couldn’t really escape from the barren landscape. Lots of people find it dull, but I enjoy it. There’s an opportunity to roam in my mind, and fill in the space myself. Perfect thinking territory, particularly with so little traffic and undemanding straight roads.

As I pulled away I thought I would like to come back, see it again. Little did I know it would be five years before I would come back this way, making another great journey of a different kind.