A Change of View

I got to thinking about change recently. One morning I looked in the mirror and was surprised to see an old man staring back at me. Where was the eighteen-year-old kid I knew so well? I don’t feel any different to that cocky young lad, at least not in my head. Actually, that’s a bit of a lie; I do feel different to that kid, and life has certainly changed me. It’s sadly evident in my physical decay. Okay, maybe decay is a bit too strong a word; maturity sounds better when it comes to the change in me. Having said that, my wife has been waiting for me to mature for the last 50 years, God bless her. We’re all subject to change of course. What’s the line? ‘The only certainty in life is change.’ We can’t do much about it, so there’s no point fighting it, I suppose. I can’t see me going for a Botox anytime soon, so I need to give in and accept it.

An old man staring back at me

In truth, I do embrace change. I get edgy when things stay the same for too long; it’s why we’ve been on the move for so much of our lives. My wife and family have come to embrace the same outlook on life. Change brings spice to life; it challenges you and inspires you to build and grow. It’s why we like living here in the Southern Highlands of NSW where we get four distinct seasons, unlike other parts of Australia where the climate doesn’t change throughout the year. And as enthusiastic gardeners, we get to see that constant change in the plants, trees, flora and fauna that inhabit our garden.

Spring in my garden

On a broader scale, the world has changed beyond recognition in the years since that young man inhabited the mirror, and it’s changing ever faster with each passing year. Technology rules the world, and if you can’t keep up, you’re left at the wayside. I do wonder how some of us oldies keep coping with even the basics of living in this digital universe. We’re just getting used to how to rewind the tape in our VCR players when the next thing we know is we’re pulling our videos out of the air, streamed to our wristwatch phones while they monitor our hearts and steps on the way. Whatever happened to black and white TV, waiting in line at the phone box to make a call and a yearly check-up at the doctor’s office?

What ever happened to the phonebox?

Getting back to that old fella in the mirror, I wouldn’t trade the change in me. The lines and wrinkles on my face are the result of the incredible experiences life has thrown in my path. Navigating change is all part of life and brings us to who we are now. We have the scars, aches, pains and grey hair to show for it. I’d sometimes like to have the eighteen-year-old look back at me from the mirror, but I wouldn’t want to lose the experiences I’ve had as the price I’d have to pay. Life is change and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Spare the Rod

I watched a TV series recently that triggered some less than happy memories for me. The television drama was set in a post-war English village and the particular scene, a young boy and his teacher in a classroom drama. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, the incident shown reflected my own school experience.

At six years old, I had just started to learn ‘joined-up’ handwriting along with my class. I was progressing well when a change of teacher brought my development to a sudden and violent stop. It would have an impact on my entire education. Picture, if you will, a small boy intent on forming his letters on the lines of an exercise book, when he suddenly feels a sharp pain, accompanied by a loud crack. Startled, he looks up to see his teacher holding a twelve-inch ruler, the same one she has just used to crack across his little knuckles. Unable to understand his crime, the six-year-old fights tears in an attempt to be brave, but it’s an incident that will stay with him for life.

That was to be my first taste of physical punishment and it came because I was left-handed. It was quite common practice in those years to force children to use their right hands, even when they were natural lefties like me. It certainly wasn’t the last time I felt the ruler on my knuckles and I did not respond well to the campaign to change me. Persisting to fall back on my left hand, the fight became a battle of wills. My general schoolwork suffered as a result. In time, I knew what to expect and when the ruler fell, I was ready and braced for impact. As time went on, my resistance was interpreted as deliberate rebellion. I was a troublemaker and other teachers picked up on the label. I was expected to be a disturbance in class, even before a teacher had a chance to know me. As I moved through the years, the ruler became a cane and my school life became a battle to the very end when I was expelled, age fourteen.

It’s hard enough to imagine how an adult could use a ruler on a child, but that a full-grown man could take a metre-long piece of bamboo and use his full force to beat a child is now beyond belief. Before I was ten years old, I had become a regular victim of corporal punishment. The headmaster of my primary school had an umbrella stand with a variety of canes of different thickness. The worst were the thin ones that whipped through the air with a loud woosh before finding their mark. Welts would last for days, followed by bruising. I never told my parents when beaten. It just wasn’t done back then. It didn’t take long before I rose to my teacher’s expectations and gladly gave good reason for punishment. If they wanted trouble, I was, by then, happy to oblige. As I grew older, the canings were directed at hands rather than buttocks. I often wonder if the arthritis I now feel in mine is the result of the regular beatings. All these thrashings did little to change my ways, at least not in a good way. Trouble followed me always and I took pride in being able to take my punishment without giving the satisfaction of signs of pain.

I know I’m not alone in these experiences, and there are many of my generation who will say that it did them no harm. Some even say it’s what’s missing in schools and would be glad to see it returned. ‘It did me good.’ I’ve heard some say, looking back. Did it do me any good? I think it probably made me stronger as a result. A little headstrong maybe, willing to take risks because I never feared the consequences. After being expelled from high-school I spent a lifetime playing catch-up on my education. I certainly don’t see myself as a victim of my school years, but I’m sure that it shaped my life in ways I could do without and made things harder. And I could easily have continued on a path to destruction. But I’m thankful that after leaving school I had people around me that influenced me in positive ways. None more so than my wife, my family and friends, others that came along and showed me the way. These are the angels that guided me.

My wife, family and friends; these are the angels that guided me

Did the beatings work at all? Well, they did eventually succeed in making me right-handed, but even to this day I have a phobia about writing with pen or pencil. My awful script is an embarrassment and I develop an instant case of dyslexia if I have to write when someone is standing over me or looking on. In fact, any handwriting causes me to feel panic and a sense of dread. In other ways it set me back years, causing me to rebel in the first place. But in the end, I did come good, a responsible adult and productive member of society (I hope). Who do I have to thank for that? Well, I believe it was Mum and Dad, not my teachers, that taught me right from wrong. The strong influence they instilled in me, ultimately brought me back on track. As I write this blog, I’m thankful to them for their love, to word processors, and that I don’t have to write this in pencil.


I had a dream last night. I was at an airport searching for my luggage and every case on the carousel looked identical. I frantically pulled each one from the conveyor belt and checked the label for mine, but they were all labelled in Arabic script. The dream probably came about after seeing news reports about the disasters being experienced across the world as a result of the post Covid dash for travel. I can really sympathise with travellers as flights are cancelled and luggage lost, not to mention the long, long queues at airports and below par service that’s being provided. As airlines and customers come to grips with a return to business, not everything is going to plan.

After a lifetime of travel for work and leisure, I dream a lot about planes, airports, hotels and cities. I’m usually lost in a labyrinth of hotel hallways or wandering up blind alleys looking for a way to the airport.  It’s not the first time I’ve dreamt about luggage either, and it usually ends just before the strip search at the hands of a belligerent customs officer. Thankfully that never happened in real life, but lost baggage was certainly a constant hazard of my travels. Most times I had my luggage back and delivered to my hotel within hours, but there were a few bags that never returned from the lost luggage black hole that it went down.

I recall one instance when I arrived for an important meeting in Bologna. I was to meet the directors of a large company with a view to a new business partnership. The airport was busy with excited passengers, anxious to get to their final destinations. There’s nothing worse than standing at the luggage carousel and watching others grab their bags and haul them from the conveyor, the crowd of passengers dwindling down to nothing as the last bags are taken from the belt. You can’t help thinking that the last passenger to leave the hall with their bags intact had a little giggle and a smirk as they left you standing alone, still waiting. Occasionally there’s one piece of luggage going around and around with no one to claim it, but it’s not yours and all hopes are in tatters. On this occasion, I eventually conceded defeat and registered my claim at the lost luggage office.

Unfortunately, as it always seems to be with catastrophes, it happened to be the weekend – Sunday to be exact – and Sunday in Italy is still very much a rest day for everyone. So, as you might guess, finding a shop to buy emergency clothing proved to be an impossible task. With no other option available, I prayed that by morning I would have my suitcase and hoped I could still look my best for an introduction to what I hoped would be a long and fruitful association.

I stunk like an old dog blanket

Monday morning came and with it no sign of the luggage. With my meeting scheduled for 9am, I still had time to rush out and buy some suitable attire. Not so. Everywhere I went, the signs read: Chiuso! aperto alle dieci. 10am opening. This was a disaster. I’d spent 36 hours travelling from Sydney to Rome and then on to Bologna. My tee-shirt looked like old rags, jeans had red wine stains and I’d already turned my undies and socks inside out as a refresher. And, though I’d been able to shower, it seemed to me that I still stunk like an old dog blanket.

After a frantic search, I came across a sports shop where I begged the arriving owner to open up early and help save my trip. The clock was against me, but after some quick selections I was able to don fresh clothes and head swiftly for my negotiations. I wasn’t sure what was said exactly but the interpreter who had been called in to facilitate the meeting was able to explain to the immaculately dressed Italians in their Brunello Cucinelli, Giorgio Armani and other finely tailored Milanese fashions, why I’d shown up in track pants and a bright new Nike tee-shirt that read: BIRTH-SOCCER-DEATH across the chest. (I couldn’t resist it.) At least I had clean undies and my new collegues had a good laugh.

Lost bags aren’t the only luggage disasters in my catalogue of travel adventures. My wife and I were in Osaka when calamity struck. We had arrived in the city after driving a rental car from the north of Japan (an adventure for another blog) and had dropped the car off at the train station from where we would take the train across the city to our hotel. Unfortunately, we had arrived just in time for rush hour. Anyone who’s taken a train in a Japanese city at rush hour knows that it’s not for the faint hearted.

We’d boarded the packed train and were taking deep breaths so as not to panic over the crush, when our largest suitcase, packed to bursting, did exactly that; it burst completely. The zipper decided to let go under force, like a Jack-in-the-box, shooting the contents of our case into the air and spilling it around the feet of bemused commuters who tried to dodge the fallout. We tried to appear unfazed, in that embarrassed sort of nonchalant way in which we English tend to act when disaster strikes. Don’t panic!

Remaining calm and composed, we gathered our belongings from the floor, even as they became tangled under foot in the stampede for the exit. “Sumimasen! Excuse me, sir, you’re standing on my knickers.” Now, while Japanese people are wonderfully polite and accommodating folk, they tend to be more single-minded during rush hour in the city. No one felt obliged to come to our aid as we scrambled for our things, and when the doors opened, we were lucky to get out in one piece. To this day, I’m sure I saw some guy getting off the train carrying a briefcase and wearing Christine’s nightie.  

Sumimasen! Excuse me, sir, you’re standing on my knickers

After millions of kilometres (yep, 2.4 million by my calculation) of travel since leaving England in 1982, it’s no wonder I dream about it. There’ve been a few nightmares, but all in all I’ll take them along with the wonderful experiences. May there be many more dreams to come, but I might wait a little longer until they sort out the luggage problems.

May there be more dreams to come

A Matter of Choice

I remember someone telling me, “You always have a choice.” I’m sure it was probably after I’d done something wrong and had made an unwise decision that had gotten me into trouble, and it was probably my mum who said it. It’s true to some degree. We’re faced with choices every minute of every day from the moment we wake. Get out of bed or sleep a little longer, skip breakfast or bacon and eggs, pancakes perhaps? Bus or take the train? And so it goes throughout the day. Some psychologists estimate that the average adult makes upwards of 35,000 conscious choices per day.

Photo by Edward Lich

Some decisions are easier than others and some are so important that they’re life-changing. Decisions are usually behind those sliding door moments when our lives take a turn that we didn’t envision, like deciding to take a lunch break at the exact time a leggy blonde passes the door to the shop in which we work, saying hello and asking her out on a date. The choices we make can have consequences throughout our lives; they accumulate so that the impact has a knock-on effect, causing further decisions to be made as a result. They inevitably affect others and their choices. Sometimes we don’t even realise that we’ve made a monumental choice until later, and the next thing we know is we’re standing in front of the registrar with that same leggy blonde saying, “I do.” (50 years on and it’s still the best decision of my life)

Photo by Michael Bußmann

We weren’t always faced with such a vast number of decisions each day. Life in medieval times would certainly have been far simpler when it came to choices. I can imagine a Monty Python like scene: “What will we eat today, dear? How about oats? Or should we live dangerously and have some turnip broth? And what shall I wear to the pillaging, sheepskin or sackcloth? I think the sackcloth makes me look slimmer, don’t you?” Perhaps a return to simple would be easier on our anxiety levels, though our dress sense may suffer. Just choosing a coffee now comes with a certain degree of mental gymnastics. Flat white, latte, short black, mocha, cappuccino, skimmed or full-cream, sugar, sweetener or a sprinkling of cocoa? And would you like a donut with your coffee? Krispy Kreme has 25 varieties to choose from. It’s easy to see how decisions become so overwhelming because of the sheer number of choices we face during our modern daily routines. 

Photo by Nico Bhlr

So, what happens when we can’t choose, when the choices we face are too overwhelming? How do we cope when the decisions we’re about to make are so critical they’ll have an impact on our entire future? Choosing a career, a house, a move to a foreign country, these and others like them are complex choices and can’t be taken lightly, but they’re the type of choices we all confront at sometime in our lives. The experts tell us there are decision making strategies like writing out a list of pros and cons. Imagining and evaluating the consequences of each choice is also recommended by some as a decision making strategy, or looking at the problem more objectively in the third person in order to get a better perspective. Sounds easy enough in theory, but I reckon anxiety over choice comes from our emotional instincts rather than rationality; mostly we’re afraid of making the wrong choices.

Photo by Jan Vasek

I’ve always had an issue with choices; I’m cursed with liking everything (A bit of an exaggeration) and I don’t want to have to choose between stuff I like. It comes from a need to experience as many different things as I can possibly cram into my life while time allows. Take my career as an example. When I was young I wanted to be a vet, then a chef, then a merchant seaman or an artist; I’d have been happy with any of them had they materialized. Instead I’ve played at being a butcher, a civil engineer’s labourer, a fashion designer, a boatbuilder, a salesman and a company director to name just a few. There’s a huge gulf between designing women’s fashion and manning a jackhammer deep in a muddy underground shaft, but I enjoyed each job as much as the next. The same eclectic alternatives apply to other aspects of my life. I like modern houses, log houses, thatched cottages, old barn conversions; I’d live near the beach or high in the mountains; I could live on a boat or a farm. We’ve moved houses and countries so many times that home is where I hang my hat and I’ve loved every one. 

Photo by Alexas Photos

How do I make my choices then? Well, I don’t so much choose as go with the moment and the opportunities; I let the choice choose me. The point is, I find that I can’t easily rationalise my choices because, often, there’s not a clear-cut favorite to choose from. I go with my gut and roll the dice when it comes to making decisions. You’d think that this trait would make me indecisive but I find it has quite the opposite effect. I’ve always been quick to make decisions (some might say too quick) because most times I don’t see the downside. I’m not saying I always get it right, but I never look back with regret, except to say I’d change any decisions that might have hurt others. 

Photo by Esa Riutta

Despite my mum’s words, there’s not always a choice. We don’t choose where we’re born nor the environment in which we grow. Spare a thought for those born in conflict zones, children who face hunger and poverty, those born to abuse. In the end, choice is a privilege, one we should never take for granted. We all make good choices and bad ones, but ultimately we’re shaped by them. They define us, and as we grow older, we each become the sum of the choices we’ve made throughout our lives.

we each become the sum of the choices we’ve made throughout our lives

Alone with my thoughts

Isolation, it’s a word we’ve all come to recognise a little too well of late. Covid has forced us all to understand what it means and has tested our ability to deal with being isolated from friends, family and the world at large. It’s not until we’re faced with the loss of freedom that we realise what we’ve taken for granted. It’s not that we necessarily use our liberty to the full when it’s available, but the loss of it stirs a strong reaction that can manifest in feelings of deep deprivation.

Photo by C Salem

It’s human nature to want what we can’t have; it’s a principal that drives our consumer economies. We’ve been programmed to strive for things beyond our reach. So, when we’re deprived of basic human rights, like freedom of movement, freedom to socialise in person, we’ll often fight tooth and nail to get it back, especially when that loss of liberty has been enforced by law. Most of us, however, believe in the greater good and are prepared to sacrifice part of our freedom for the larger society in which we live. I tend to rationalise that my sacrifice is still my choice as a member of a democratic and free community and so I retain some power over my own freedom by opting to obey the rules for the sake of everyone.  

Photo by Fernando Zhiminaicela

If these last years of intermittent isolation have taught me anything, it’s that not everyone has the same liberty to lose. It made me reflect on those who live without freedom of movement, populations governed by despots and dictators, authoritarian regimes that run roughshod over people by force. They use violence and intimidation to control the masses. In these places, it’s dangerous to have even freedom of thought. Despite the Covid restrictions, I’m grateful that I live with the kind of liberty some can only dream of.  

Photo by Efes

There are others who also suffer from isolation and lack any freedom of movement and they are more prevalent than we’d sometimes be prepared to admit. I’m thinking of those among us who are isolated through age, mental and physical disabilities, or just plain loneliness. For many, isolation comes out of fear, fear of meeting people, fear of not being able to cope, fear of not fitting in or of failure.  

…just plain loneliness

Photo by Steven Hwg

Loneliness and social isolation often come with age. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly a quarter of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated. As we get older, we can find ourselves living alone, we lose family and friends for all kinds of reasons and we are more prone to sickness and chronic ill health. And we don’t necessarily need to be isolated to feel lonely, it’s common for loneliness to be felt even in the midst of a crowd.  

Image by Graehawk

I have to admit that I’ve never felt lonely; alone yes, but never lonely. I’ve had wonderful, loving family and friends around me all my life and never had time to feel lonely. Isolation is a different matter, I think everyone feels alone or isolated at some time in their life, when those we care about are not around to confide in, or when decisions are to be made that can only be made alone. And being alone or isolated can be a deliberate choice; everyone needs space to meditate occasionally, to take stock. When I look back at my working life, at times it’s been too hectic a ride. Time alone was always at a premium. Now I have the time to pursue the things I love to do, I find that they’re often lone pursuits like writing, painting and photography. I enjoy immersing myself in those activities but I have to remind myself to emerge from my studio every so often or my wife will come looking. Friends find it funny that I have a door bell hooked up from the house to the studio so Christine can buzz me when it’s time to eat. I think I’d starve if she didn’t. 

Time in my studio; a welcome kind of isolation

There’s another aspect of self-isolation that comes with age. I think we sometimes chose to be more isolated as part of a decluttering of our lives as we get older. We appreciate a simplification of our once busy lifestyles and do this by limiting our interaction with others to the extent we have in the past. We choose instead to spend time with those we really care about and less time with people we have no interest in and doing things that don’t matter. Time is more precious as we age, and while I long for a time when isolation is once again a choice and not a requirement, I do appreciate my time alone with my thoughts, and to just watch the world go by. 

Photo by Raymond Revaldi

Alone with my thoughts, and just to watch the world go by

The world around us

I’ve always felt the need to be close to nature. It’s a gift passed on to me by my parents, both of whom had a great love for the outdoors. As children, my brothers and sister were taught to observe the natural world around us. Digging around under rocks or up to the rims of our wellies in ponds and streams, we were encouraged to look deeper for the wonders of nature. We’d go on endless walks in the countryside and holiday in the mountains, camping beneath the stars in farm fields and pastures. During my years in business, there were limited opportunities to fully commune with nature, to get down and dirty with the bugs.

Photo by Rick Lee

Long days in the office, airports and distant hotels, left little time for family commitments, let alone a walk in the grass. Fortunately, for me, that all changed when I retired from the rat-race and a life where the only digging was in delving into the details of a spreadsheet analysis. I quickly rediscovered the leisurely pace of a life without goals and deadlines. I was now able to set my own schedule for writing at a desk in the home office, riding a bike, tending the garden, or walking in the park. It gave me a chance to re-imagine the world of nature and to open my eyes to life’s rich facets.

Photo by Rick Lee

As the pandemic took hold last year, I was reminded how important it was to maintain this newfound flexibility and my connection with the great outdoors. But, while frustrated by the restrictions, I realized that I had more than enough still to discover in my own backyard. I could enjoy nature right here where I lived. With this in mind, I decided to build a creative studio overlooking the garden where my workspace could spill seamlessly into nature and inspire me. Finished last summer, it’s not a huge space but it’s filled with light, encouraging me to try out some painting and photography along with my writing.

My creative studio in the garden

With the doors wide open, it’s like working in the wild and I’m constantly drawn to appreciate something that’s caught my eye, a flower emerging from the leaves, a bee in flight or a bird bathing in the pond.

Photo by Rick Lee

As I’m enticed to step out and look closer, I get absorbed by the sheer volume and diversity of life around me. It’s not a huge garden, but with a camera in hand, it’s like going on a miniature safari every time I venture beyond my door.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

What I find is a parallel world of drama, an alien landscape full of creatures in constant motion. Look closer and I’m quickly absorbed into a life without Covid, lockdowns fade from my thoughts and, for a while at least, I’m transported to an alternative reality. There’s a world to discover, an escape we can all make in these trying times. We just have to dig deeper to find it.

The zebra’s arse

We’re in lockdown again and I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll ever get the chance to travel again, to venture beyond our shores. I’ve always thought myself lucky to have had the opportunities to travel, it’s a privilege I’ve never taken for granted. If the borders were to stay closed forever, I could hardly complain, having seen so many places, met so many wonderfully diverse people and experienced so many inspiring cultures. The memories I have are precious. They serve to give me comfort during these trying times, and once again I find myself going through old photos on my virtual travels, reliving the moments that have brought me such pleasure in years gone by. 

Hilltop Camp, Hluhluwe–Umfolozi.

Seventeen years ago, I realised a childhood dream when my wife, Christine, and I travelled to KwaZulu-Natal to visit Africa’s very first nationally protected nature reserve at Hluhluwe–Umfolozi. Established in 1895, the reserve covers a wilderness area of almost one thousand square kilometers, rolling hills and heavily wooded valleys along the Imfolozi River. I could barely contain my excitement to have finally arrived at the very summit of my bucket list as we drove from Durban to Hilltop Camp at the heart of the reserve. My lifelong quest to see Africa’s spectacular wilderness had started on my first day at school. (Just a few years prior) Along with other wide-eyed four-year-olds, we gathered cross-legged on the floor of the library to listen to a student teacher regale us with stories of her summer vacation, a trip to the dark and mysterious continent of Africa.

Photo by Rick Lee

She showed photographs of her safari and continued the African theme later in the day with tales of those early explorers, Livingston and Stanley. Her descriptions of exotic wildlife had me enthralled while kids around me lost interest and fidgeted absently, more interested in their new school mates than the wilds of Africa to which I had been transported. She was a stand-in teacher and I never saw her again, but her tales were the seeds that would lead me to roam around the world as I grew older. I sometimes wish I could tell her how much she had inspired me. 

Photo by Rick Lee

After bringing an end to hunting in the region, the reserve at Hluhluwe–Umfolozi became famous throughout the world when in the 1950’s Operation Rhino was instrumental in bringing the white rhino back from the brink of extinction. Today’s animals thrive under the reserve’s protection and the program has replenished the rhino breeding stock across the continent. A true success story.

I sometimes wish I could tell her how much she had inspired me.

We stayed at Hilltop Camp, established in the 1930’s, and were taken by guides tracking lions on their night hunt, though — thankfully perhaps — the large male we followed did not make a kill and so we were spared the trauma of watching.

Photo by Rick Lee

We watched zebras grazing alongside wildebeest, rhinos wallowing in mud pools, and elephants and giraffes stripping leaves from the trees under the heat of a mid-day sun. Our guide took us up the river to watch crocs basking on the riverside, while villagers washed their clothes and bathed in the same river within sight of the four metre giants. It seems incredible that people can and do live in close harmony with wildlife, even when it poses a danger to life itself. It’s hard to imagine that having crocs in the bath, and lions in the pantry could be seen as a normal and daily occurrence. Normal it may be, but we couldn’t help feeling anxious for the little boy we saw playing on the riverbank nearby.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

The dangers are not to be underestimated but it’s easy to relax in such beautiful surroundings. I’m now thinking back and laughing at the day we joined a 10km dawn hike. The ramble started well before daylight and our guide, let’s call him Bob, had instructed us to wear something warm as the nights could dip down to single digits and mornings were cold. Sleepy-eyed, we woke to the sound of eerie and unidentified animal cries. 

Photo by Rick Lee

We dressed quickly, donned our warm jackets and headed to the Land Rover to be greeted by Bob. We drove to our start-out point as the sky took on that silvery pink morning glow just before sunrise. Other than the obvious excitement and anticipation at what we might see, we hadn’t really given too much thought to the implications of our undertaking. It was only when Bob began his pre-hike safety talk that the reality hit home. We were going to be on foot, exposed to the predators and big game animals that kill for a living and could hurt us if they should choose. Oh yeah, hadn’t thought of that!

Photo by Alexas Photos

It’s quite sobering to know that there’s nothing between you and a hungry pack of hyenas, no fence to stop a charging buffalo or angry elephant. “If we are charged by any of a dozen possible wild beasts,” said Bob, “don’t run.” Don’t run? I looked at Christine’s white face, drained of all blood and enthusiasm. Don’t worry, I tell her. They have to say that stuff to keep the lawyers happy. Bob continued. “Keep your eyes locked on their eyes and back away slowly. Trust me. Whatever you do, do not run,” he repeated emphatically. Our group was a small one made up of two other couples. “Can they smell fear,” one of the guys chirped in. “Only if you poop your pants,” said our guide cheerfully. Christine was not amused by his humour.

Photo by Albrecht Fietz

In for a penny, in for a pound, we put our fears aside and followed our intrepid leader into the wild. We walked in a single line with Christine immediately behind Bob and me following at the rear of the line. Ten kilometres is a long way in the African bush. The terrain, sometimes challenging, took us through dense thickets of acacia, across dried up creek beds and through waist high grasslands.

It’s quite sobering to think that there’s nothing between you and a pack of hungry hyenas

It was during one of these long grass sortees that I became a little nervous. Lion territory. We had seen them the previous night from the safety of a Land Rover, as they stalked through the tall grass. Now, here we were traipsing through that very same terrain. Bob was a stout enough fellow, but he hardly looked capable of fending off the various attacks he had so painstakingly warned us about. He carried a bolt action rifle, for emergencies and only to be used as a last resort. Fine, I thought, but I wondered what his criteria was for last resort. 

Photo by Rick Lee Our guide Bob

The sun had risen now and with it the temperatures rose quickly. Bob set a brisk pace, making us sweat at the exertion. I took a moment to strip my jacket and tie it around my waist. As I did so, my imagination began to wander. I could see lions lurking in the sway of the grass, leopards waiting to pounce on the straggler of the group. Every movement in the breeze, every shadow seemed to signal an imminent attack. I hurried to rejoin the end of the line and it was then that the horrible thought hit me. When grabbing something to wear in the darkened hut, I had unthinkingly chosen a striped tee-shirt. I looked down at my garb and gasped. Zebra’s arse! I must have looked like a zebra’s arse, waddling through the undergrowth at the end of the line. All I needed was a long black ponytail and the disguise would have been complete. I looked up and saw Christine had stripped off her own coat and was now resplendent in fluorescent pink. I imagined the wildlife laughing at us. Two clowns in the bush, what an appetiser!

Photo by Katja

I’m here to write this little memoir so I obviously survived to tell the tale. It’s one of those stories that gets told every so often and we have a good laugh about it. However, and on a more serious note, on our return to camp that day we were informed about the death of a guide in the months prior to our visit. While conducting a similar hike within the reserve, he was charged by an angry male elephant. Like Bob, he had had his rifle but chose not to use it on the elephant. It seems his idea of a last resort was for the benefit of the wildlife he served to protect.

Photo by Rick Lee

Our time in Africa was an amazing experience and one we shall never forget. We saw an incredible diversity of wildlife just as it’s meant to be seen, in its natural environment without bars and cages, thriving alongside local communities who have long since learned to coexist. As if to demonstrate that closeness between the people of Africa and the nature that surrounds them, and with our stay at an end, we had left camp before daylight and were driving the three hour road to Durban. We had a flight to catch down to Cape Town. The sun had not yet risen when we saw two cats walking down the middle of the road. Okay, you guessed it! I’m not talking stray tabbies here, these were the real deal. Mesmerised, we watched two majestic male lions sauntering along the road as if nothing could be more natural than to take a stroll before the morning traffic.

Photo by Rick Lee

We watched for several minutes and caught a few grainy photos in the breaking light until they peeled off into bushland. The encounter was thrilling. Minutes later we passed three local men walking along the same road; perhaps they were on their way to work. I’m reminded that such habitats, as those in Africa, are under great pressure around the globe. As humans expand their domain, that of the natural world shrinks in equal measure. But I’m given hope by what I saw in Africa. Life can coexist in close proximity, man and beast, each just going about their daily routines, each respected for their place in the world.

Anyone can make an ass of themselves but it only takes a silly mistake to become the zebra’s arse.


Cold comfort

I’m looking out to the garden from my little work studio and can’t help being struck by the stark beauty of trees devoid of leaves. It’s winter here in the southern hemisphere. A yellow sun, rising low in the eastern sky, sends long shadows that emphasise the architectural forms of branches. Amongst the twisted bows, I can see a single maple leaf clinging stubbornly against the elements and a pair of currawongs (large Australian birds in the crow family) chase each other in and out the bare limbs. Perhaps they already have ideas of a spring romance which is just around the corner.

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

Shelley, Ode to the west wind

Daffodils are well advanced now and some have flower buds. We have one more month of winter before the blooms unfold. Seasons follow a distinct pattern here in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, unlike Sydney and the coastal fringes where there’s little to mark the changing months. Australia’s high country can experience extremes throughout the year. Summer temperatures reach up into the forties, while winter snow storms see temperatures plummet below zero. Frosts are common and further south the mountains disappear under blankets of thick white powder, perfect conditions for the ski fields that dot the region.

In the natural world, seasons represent the ever changing cycle of life. They remind us of the relentless march of time, the inevitable nature of our fleeting existence. It’s an irony that the one constant in life is change. There is no stopping winter from becoming spring, spring becoming summer and the certain truth that summer will give way to autumn before winter returns. Of all the seasons, winter can be the hardest for life to encounter, but it’s not the bleak landscape it might appear on the surface. Hidden from sight, roots continue to strengthen, sap begins to rise and spring bulbs are sprouting. The earth is cleansed by the frosts and ice, diseases brought into check by winter’s chill. Those flora and fauna that survive through winter are stronger for it. 

Photo by Denys Nevozhai

Like hibernating bears, there are those of us who dread the coming of winter. They hide away, longing for the days of spring, shrinking from the cold and cursing the dark nights, only to emerge from their dens when the temperature soars. Age plays a part in our resilience to the cold months and how we approach them. In my youth, winter brought dreams of snow, ice and fun. It brought thoughts of Christmas joy, hot drinks, blazing fires. During our years in Canada, winter, for my family, meant digging out the skis and the skates (and digging out the driveway). Out came the toboggan, the boots and snow suits, the gloves and beanies. Canadian winters were long and often severe, longer still if you didn’t embrace them. Our experience of the northern winter was truly magical and our fond memories of Canada’s cold months will last a lifetime.

Photo by Hannah Pemberton

Just as we anticipated the season’s first floating flakes of snowfall, by the time spring arrived — after months of short days and early nights —  we were ready for the change, a new start for spring. I would often get out the garden hose and wash away the last remnants of snow, those dirty remains of compacted ice that flanked the drive and defied the warm sun. By the end of winter I was always eager to turn the page to a new season and hoped there would be no late snowfall to spoil the change. Spring promoted a feeling of optimism, enthusiasm for the year ahead.

Photo by Thomas Lipke

Our lives have a way of mirroring nature. There are emotional seasons, dark days of winter when things don’t go well. We sometimes struggle through these times with little hope they’ll end. Unlike the natural calendar, our personal seasons are unpredictable and follow no regular pattern. Trials and troubles can appear suddenly out of the blue, challenges can seem insurmountable and we spend our days resenting our luck rather than counting our blessings. Of course, it’s easier to find the positives in a chilly few months of weather — even finding ways to enjoy them — than it is to find the bright side of ill health, job loss or or countless other personal traumas.

There are emotional seasons, dark days of winter when things don’t go well.

It’s not always the major ordeals that test us. For some it can be as simple as we’ve allowed ourselves to sink into depression for no apparent reason, for others it’s just been a time to withdraw and rethink our lives. I’ve had my share of difficult seasons and they didn’t always have a clear explanation. But, no matter what the cause of my emotional winters, I always found comfort in knowing that the season would change. Just like the four seasons of nature, none lasts forever and a period of renewal always seems to follow. Bright skies will return and my faith in the future will be rewarded. Winters can make us or break us. They’ll make us stronger if we roll with them and acknowledge that they form the natural cycle of life, a necessary period designed to regenerate, to restore our roots. We can emerge with renewed vigour because of them, refreshed by the promise of a change in the seasons. After all, without the darkness of winter, how can we truly know the light of spring? 

Photo by Rick Lee

Four Horsemen

One might be forgiven for thinking that we’re about to see four horsemen come riding over the horizon. Survival, at times, seems precarious at best on a planet that throws us new challenges daily. In the space of twelve tumultuous months, we’ve seen devastating fires, pestilence on a biblical scale, and great floods to wash away our hopes of a return to normality.

Image by ATDS Photo

At times end of days looks a real possibility. Add to this the hostility and anger, the divisions that appear to be growing within our societies, the adversarial stances taken by once friendly neighbors, tensions between traditional adversary nations, and our future looks dim.

Image by Enrique Lopez Garre

Catastrophes, both natural and man-made, are nothing new of course. The planet is a dynamic ball of smoldering molten rock; it’s still cooling down at its core 4.5 billion years after its birth. We cling to it for survival and have been doing since life first found a tenuous foothold amongst the bubbling pools of toxic chemicals and noxious clouds of gas. We think this world is ours, created for our exclusive use. But, in reality, we as humans have no right to the planet. We have to work for our keep, respecting and nurturing the delicate balance of our existence in a hostile world that only tolerates our tenancy; it has no respect for our grandiose views of self-importance.

Photo by Steve Wilson

The planet, for its part, has been fighting its own battles, tearing itself apart since time began, overheating, chilling down through periodic ice ages, cracking along fault lines then healing its wounds. Giant volcanoes erupt every year, demonstrations of power that prove that the earth is far from the finished product. It’s a world of constant change, death and re-birth. Despite the ongoing genesis we live at a time when the earth is at its most stable. We are lucky to live during a time of relative respite, when if we worked together to manage our footprints, we might ride out the storms that come to test us. Yet, we keep doing our best to abuse our good fortune. We plunder the earth’s resources polluting our own nests because of a lust to consume beyond our needs. When will enough be enough before the earth fails?

Image by Gerd Altmann

“Save the planet!” It’s a line we hear constantly, but save it from what, from us?  The truth is, it’s us that needs saving. The earth will shrug us off like flees from a dog’s back when the time comes. It’s not the planet that’s in danger. We seem to think human life is sacred, that the planet exists solely for our benefit. But, the natural order of life is that it comes and goes. We live, we die, whether we’re ants or antelopes, flowers or frogs. The transient nature of life means that nothing has precedence. We’re all just fleeting tenants of a world in constant change fighting for our survival and that of our children. Extinction comes to all of us as individuals, it’s an inevitability we just can’t avoid. Is the extinction of an entire species any different? When we cry “save the earth” we’re really asking to save our own hides.

End of days, Pompeii Photo by Rick Lee

The earth can look after itself, thankyou very much. A million years from now – a blink in the earth’s evolution – there won’t be a sign of human occupation. The world we know now will crumble to dust and disappear beneath a new layer of life.

The truth is, it’s us that needs saving

Photo by Fabien Monteil

Long after we’ve lost our battles to survive as a species, the earth will recover and new cycles of life will evolve and perish. Rainforests will thrive, new species will emerge and dominate, civilizations will rise and fall. Perhaps they will mirror our own human form, building great cities before making the same mistakes and perishing once more. But, through all this the earth, this dynamic living sphere we call home, will survive and flourish. Maybe we should be calling to save us instead of to save the planet, save us from ourselves.

My Eden

Of all the gifts I inherited from my mum and dad, the love of gardens is perhaps the most rewarding. Both my parents were avid gardeners. During summer months we would find them still working in the garden even after dark. I look back on my childhood where gardens featured heavily in daily life and see how easily the seeds of my own passion were planted by their love for the earth and its riches. Each had their own areas of particular interest. Dad had his veggies and flowers, prize winning dahlias and chrysanthemums the size of dinner plates.

Photo by Ksenia Makagonova

At one time, Dad had two allotments (rented plots of council land) in addition to the home garden. From spring to autumn, cut flowers would stand in buckets of water outside our house and sell for one shilling a bunch along with excess vegetables fresh from the garden. Most of the produce went to feed our own hungry mouths in a household of seven. In summer months our greenhouse would spill with tomatoes, the smell of which lingers in my memory along with that taste we no longer seem to find in modern varieties. They’re now grown for impact resistance rather than taste and smell.

Photo by Couleur

While Dad was the provider, Mum was the creator. A skilled gardener, Mum combined her horticultural knowledge of plants with an artistic flair for landscape display. We used to say that you could give her a walking stick and she’d bring it back to life in a spectacular display of leaves and flowers. Mum was a horticultural artist and worked her magic until well into her nineties. Her gardens did get smaller in her later years but they never lost their brilliance. She achieved many awards over the years including Grand Champions and Mayor’s Cups. It was in this environment of earth, sun and flowers that I grew and found my own love for gardens.

Mum with one of her prize winning gardens

Gardens are spiritual places. They provide escape from the modern world, sanctuary when we need it most. They are a microcosm of life at large, where the cycles and seasons encapsulate our hopes and expectations, where death and decay are followed by birth and renewal, hope follows despair. No matter how dark the winter, spring is a certainty. We sow, we reap, and so the cycle of life goes on. I’ve always found gardens to be places of contemplation, where one can find peace when troubled. They’re like churches and chapels, sanctuaries for those in need of some time to re-group before going again back to a world of ever-increasing pace. Gardens can leave you inspired and refreshed; they can restore the soul.

Our garden at Hill Top

Gardens provide habitat, havens for wildlife. They’re magical places where nature takes a helping hand from man; the results can be truly wonderful. I’ve created several gardens from scratch and find nothing more rewarding than seeing the wildlife move in to share it. Birds and lizards, spiders and butterflies, squirrels and possums, they all find a home once the welcome mat is rolled out.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece

Claude Monet
Our garden Tuggerah

Not everyone can have a large garden but the smallest of patches can be just as wonderful. There’s patios and balconies, even a window box can provide a touch of nature. For those who can’t have either, there’s the fabulous parks and botanic gardens that give so much pleasure to communities around the world. They maintain a vital link with the diminishing habitats of our forests and plains, wetlands and savannas.

Photo by Rick Lee

Sadly, gardens are reminders of what we risk losing if the natural world is left unprotected from our insatiable appetite for consumption. If habitat destruction continues at its current relentless rate, gardens may all be that’s left. Perhaps we need to take a seat on a garden bench and contemplate that thought before it’s too late.

When the world wearies and society fails to satisfy, there is always the garden.

Minnie Aumonier