Sunday, 27 October 2013

Explorers and Risk-takers

I was in a good mood, having one of those English conversations, with a stranger, over a counter. I was enthusing about the mildness of the day and the gorgeousness of the autumn colours. She responded by complaining of the short days and the misery of getting up for work in the dark, and going home in the dark.
‘Yeh, it’s tough. Not sure I could live in the north.’ We were waiting for her colleague to arrive and help me with something, so, unusually, we had time for conversation. I spoke a little about our trip last winter to Tromsø, north of the Arctic Circle, where from the end of November the sun doesn’t rise at all. Our visit was in late December. S & I didn’t know what to expect. We woke bewildered at 9am to complete and absolute night-time. We breakfasted and went out to explore. How could people cope with utter blackness for weeks on end? Yet although the sun doesn’t rise at all in December, there is a suggestion of daylight. The skies lighten to a beautiful twilight from about 10am. That fades to darkest night again by 2pm. (There are graphs at showing the level of light at

That darkness wasn’t at all gloomy. Light blasted out wherever there were houses, and shops of course. Norwegians aren’t private curtain-closers like us English. They are generous with their illuminations. Light streams from big windows even of remote homes. The countryside feels friendly, fresh and alive. And social life seems to ignore conventional timetables so there are midnight concerns and plenty going on.
Note the sculpture in celebration of whaling that has made Tromsø rich 

the lit up Arctic Cathedral

Tromsø with, on the left, the fine Rica Ishvashotel where S & I stayed

The long weekend in Tromsø introduced me – at the museum of Arctic explorers there – to the astonishing Fridtjof Nansen (1861 – 1930). He was attracted to the idea (!) of using the flow of polar ice to carry a boat right across the Arctic, and thus reach the North Pole. The theory was that a boat might leave Siberia and traverse the Arctic to emerge from the ice at Greenland. So Nansen deliberately set out to wedge his especially strong boat, the Fram, in pack ice. The plan didn’t quite work, progress was slow and Nansen calculated that the boat would take five years to cross to land again. They decided to split the party and strike out on foot for the Pole. The 14-month long expedition was treacherous, involved two of the team overwintering on the ice in a tent and spending a month on an ice floe. By the time the ice started to melt some of their navigational equipment had failed but they still managed to reach safety despite their home-made kayaks being trashed by walruses. These explorers were immensely resourceful and I couldn’t help feeling it was no wonder that the Norwegian Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole. Scott by contrast was an amateur.

What is it that makes people set off on expeditions? I think it is the minority who go in search of glory. I guess for most it is the call of adventure, to step outside of the humdrum. To challenge oneself. To see how you’ll cope. To take a risk and see what happens. To see what fate flings at you. That attitude was one that prevailed amongst the expatriates we lived amongst in Nepal. Most were risk-takers. We were an odd unconventional bunch of kindred spirits, even if we weren’t all heroic explorers.
One such risk taker returned to Cambridge last weekend, having achieved a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Anton Wright (with Mark de Rond) managed to row the entirety of the River Amazon, a terrific achievement rowing 16-hours a day in a boat that leaked. They navigated 2000 miles over 31 days. The self-effacing Anton, who returned 18kg lighter, said that the flow of the river helped a lot and sometimes they’d make 100km in a day.,
Then earlier this explorer-themed week A & I went along to the Arts Picturehouse to see original footage of the 1924 film featuring Mallory and his The Epic of Everest. Again this was an astonishing tale of determination and true grit. The film had been remastered and was, of course, silent, but the shots of grinning locals and the desperate aridity of that part of Tibet helped me see again the riches of my life in England. Travel – even vicariously – does that for you.

Returning, after the film, to our tiny but luxuriant and wild little garden, I felt myself moved by the wonderful autumn colours, and it was with delight I was welcomed home by the low croak of a resident frog. An aeroplane had just flown over, and I do believe he was calling to it. Maybe he was in love.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

In the Forest

... in the forest
I often go there, to those quiet places,
To rid myself of the ugly urgent things
That torture men.

Green turf amid silent trees and soft light airs
And a spring of running water in the grass,
They freshen a jaded mind, they give me back to myself
They make me abide in myself

For is there any man can live in town,
Harried and always at white heat with some fresh disturbance and racket,
And not be dragged outside himself,
Not waste his time on emptiness
No longer privy to his own thoughts?

Marbod de Rennes, 1035-1123
(Translated by Helen Waddell, 1927)

The weather forecast was fair when I tumbled out of bed on Sunday morning, and then as I sank my ivories into a slice of wholemeal and home-made marm, the sun broke though and the autumn colours in our little garden glowed. I felt strangely liberated as I set out on my little solo adventure with my bins and cheese sarnies a quest to catch some Red Deer Rutting Action. East Anglia is known for its landscapes and cloudscapes and the tumbling cumulus looked very fine as the sun continued to spotlight trees and fields and hedgerows dotted with hawthorn and rosehip red. I was heading east congratulating myself on the early start when the thunderclouds closed in and driving conditions deteriorated to fast-windscreen-wiper-mode.
I passed a sign ordering me to Diss Norwich, which seemed harsh and unnecessary.
I contemplated turning back then argued that the East doesn’t have a high rainfall even if it is known for the intensity of its rain. And anyway the forecast had suggested that the coast would be rain free at least until lunchtime.
 By the time I’d left the billowing chimneys of the Bury St Edmonds sugar beet factory behind me, turned off the A14 and joined the tourist route at Stowmarket, patches of blue sky were showing again. The rain-washed countryside looked lovelier than ever. Ploughed fields were sprouting rich green and black silhouettes showed where crows patrolled. I found myself noting that some of my patients shared surnames with village names I passed, and here too was a surfeit of place names with ing in the middle or end, meaning the people or family of an Anglo-Saxon chieftain: Dennington, Badingham and Framlingham.

Saxtead Green and a brooding sky

I paused at the fine loo-with-a-view at Saxtead Green with its impressive windmill, and photographed it. My idea is to find interesting loos to add to a collection I’m posting on the How to Shit Around the World facebook page. I don’t care if people find my enthusiasms odd.
Yoxford - 93 miles from London
Then it was on along the Roman Road past an assortment of pink cottages (traditionally the colour came from ox’s blood) through Yoxford and on along mysterious winding lanes with hedgerows so high that they formed green tunnels to drive through.
I’d imagined that the RSPB reserve at Minsmere would be open and watery but there are also areas of mature silver birch forest. It wasn’t easy to see far and I rapidly decided I’d be unlikely to see any of the testosterone-fired battles of the Red Deer Rut. Deer in most places are extraordinarily shy so I satisfied myself with enjoying the antics of various birds including a nuthatch. They’re so attractive with admirable athleticism.
Then, on a slight rise, I spotted the russet rump of a large deer. She was head-down, grazing and appeared to be alone. A dog barked. The hind’s head came up and she was gone. I tuned into gunfire too, and wondered who was shooting what. No wonder the wildlife was nervous.

I continued. Only a few metres further on I registered movement and realised I was close to a herd. One of the hinds raised her head to show an elegant profile. She turned ears then head towards me and I could see her nostrils working. I was downwind and my profile was mostly hidden behind a conifer. The herd was females and youngsters, moving purposefully at right angles to where I was standing. Might they be looking for the stags? I heard a characteristic bellow. They moved on towards the sound. I tried to keep track of where the hinds were moving to hoping they’d lead me to a battling pair of stags. I kept them in sight with my bins for a while. But they curved around and crossed into a part of the reserve protected by fierce Keep Out notices. There was another tantalising bellow
The ground was squelchy. I found a broken down ‘pill box’ – remnant of the war and one of our line of defences against German invasion – and sat to soak up the tranquillity. Birds twittered all around me. I luxuriated in the isolation and peace, and my cheese sarnies.

By the time I’d left the reserve, I’d got good views of herds of hinds six times and had seen tens of these magnificent animals. The last herd even had an attendant stag. Perhaps he’s already won his battles. I felt smug. I’d walked by lots of folk on brisk walks with friends having loud conversations or with yappy dogs and I felt sure most were unaware of the beauty I’d seen.
It is just a pity that I only caught the fungi on film.