19 June 2015

The No. 1 Line hare

The first part of the No. 1 Line track weaves gently through possum-shattered forest, past the sign indicating the side track to the giant rimu — ‘Giant rimu: 1 min’, it says, but if you look at the sign you can see the tree just 20 metres away — and on to the junction where the track branches. The left branch takes you to the giant rata banded with sheet metal to keep possums from climbing the double trunk and eating the tree into oblivion, and the right branch begins the climb that steepens progressively before reaching the first lookout about 20 minutes from the car and then carries on more gently to the top seat. Beyond that, the re-marked track winds down and up and around and through horopito and toro and other scrub and eventually into the tupare, the leatherwood, also known by worse names, and right over to Kiritaki hut on the other side of the range. If you had the time and the inclination you could walk all the way across the southern Ruahine Range to Hawkes Bay. I might do that one day, although Hawkes Bay’s farmlands hold no appeal for me, and the only truly compelling reason for visiting Hawkes Bay would be to return to the coast, to Flounder Bay and the Cove of Giants and Earthquake Bay.

But too many memories haunt me in those places.

Shortly after the climb began I heard voices. I kept walking, almost soundlessly because the recent rain had left the ground damp and soft. I heard something coming down the track and guessed it would be a dog — the only other car at the end of the road had been a ute with a large, box-like canopy  that advertised ‘K9 search detection dog training’. I stopped so I wouldn’t be detected, so I’d see the dog before it saw me.

Sure enough, a beautiful, sleek dog, mostly but not entirely Alsatian, came running down the track. A transmitter collar encircled its neck, the short aerial pointing up and slightly back. The dog carried something I couldn’t identify in its mouth. If the dog had been black it might have materialised from Tarkovsky's Stalker, and I fell in love immediately. Not wishing to startle it — startling anything with a mouthful of fangs is never a good idea — I called out when it got to within about ten metres.

‘Hello there,’ I called.

The dog braked hard and looked at me. I wondered if it would start growling, but instead it looked at me while it made up its mind. Then it barked a few times — muffled barks, because it still hung on to the thing in its mouth, but loud enough to let someone — its owners, perhaps me — know it was barking. The barking didn’t sound aggressive. I tried to encourage the dog, who turned out to be a bitch but only literally, to come closer to check me out and understand I wasn’t a threat, but she turned and trotted back up the track.

I followed, and soon met the owners — a man about my age in a blaze orange camo fleece jacket, and a much younger woman. Both had UK accents, his more marked than hers. They'd taken the dogs — the other was a gorgeous, small, part-golden-lab — to the top seat. We chatted for a while. The small gorgeous semi-lab sat obediently next to the man while the semi-Alsatian tugged on the thing in its mouth as the woman tugged back. The dog kept her eyes on the woman the whole time with that beseeching ‘Play with me, pleeeease!’ look, which the woman refused, although it was obvious she loved the dog.

The little lab-like thing, the man said (although he didn’t call it that), would be re-certified as a search-and-rescue dog in September, her current certification having expired.

I wanted to get accidentally lost so I could be found by one of these beautiful dogs.

Eventually we went in different directions, slightly reluctantly.

‘Nice to have met you,’ the man said.

‘Likewise,’ I replied, ‘nice to have met you too.’

I started walking up the track, pausing momentarily to scruffle the little dog's head and let  it sniff my hand. Its nose felt damp and very soft and I felt a quick surreptitious lick of its tongue. They started down, but the part-Alsatian came bounding up the track after me, no doubt thinking I was a better bet for some playtime. The woman called it back, and unfortunately it obeyed her.

When I’d seen the ute parked at the end of the road my heart had sunk. I’d wanted the place to myself. Yet, when the dog turned and disappeared, my heart sank again, very slightly. I almost wished they’d been going up the track so I could have brewed tea for them at the top.


The compensations of solitude take some beating, though. At the top seat I had the whole mountain range to myself. I assembled the Caldera and started heating water and after the Lapsang Souchong had steeped put the foam pad on the still-frozen ground and sat, tea at hand, and scanned the far mountainside for deer. I saw one, too — big, dark body; cream-coloured arse; too far away for the Bushnells to resolve antlers if the deer had any. It probably did, I decided, concluding on the basis of the animal’s bulk that it was a stag. I put the binoculars down, wrote a few notes in the little Moleskine, and when I picked up the binoculars again the deer had gone.

I continued to scan the mountainside. A bird flew into the field of view — a falcon! I followed it through the 10x42s, watching it flare its tail, hover momentarily, then circle around as if checking a potential meal fluttering in the scrub far below. Then it carried on up the gully and disappeared. I watched a little while longer, wondering whether it might reappear, but I never saw it again. Just like the deer.


Back at the car, I put the camera on the seat next to me, the 100-300 mm lens mounted. Already the late afternoon had begun to darken slightly, and cloud had begun to encroach from the south and west. I drove slowly down the gravel road and at the hairpin bend slowed to a crawl, glancing across the small gully. I’ve often seen a hare there (I’m tempted to call this part of the road the Hare-pin Bend) and hoped to see it again.

And there it was, half crouching, ears laid back against its shoulders, looking nervous. I slowed and stopped, turned the engine off and wound the window down. Through the lens I could see the hare staring at me. Very quickly, though, it began to relax and groom itself, wiping its paws over its face, nibbling its toes. On two occasions it punched the air rapidly with its front paws, like a boxer warming up. Finally it nibbled some grass then loped a short distance across the hillside. I photographed carefully, trying different ISO settings to search for the best combination of shutter speed and image noise. Mostly I just liked watching it. I love hares, love their wildness, the way they seem so comfortable in their solitary lives, the aura of mystery that accompanies them. Rabbits seem busy and jumpy and preoccupied and sometimes a little dimwitted — harebrained, I suppose — but hares in contrast strike me as far more contemplative and comfortable in their own being, except of course when they think they might be shot. I’m glad this hare so quickly realised I offered no threat.

The hare was nibbling weeds in the middle of the rough hillside when I turned away, put the camera down, started the car, and eased slowly down the road. When I looked back, the hare had gone. In those few seconds it had vanished as utterly as if it had been absorbed into the hillside. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had.


1, 3 & 4. The hare. From the series of photographs.
2. The No. 1 Line track just before the top seat. Late March 2015.
Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

31 May 2015

The Hermit Marshes

The day after the deluge, I saw the aftermath — how the rough paddock beside the railway line had turned into a small marsh, the wrinklezinc water shining in the quiet morning light, the low rushes reminding me of the places I found so fascinating and wonderful as a child and still do. The small marshy paddock reminded me of places I’ve never seen but want to — places where wizened Chinese sages live solitary lives in small huts and spend their days listening to the thin cries of strange birds, fishing for eels and catfish that taste mostly of mud, watching the trickle of smoke from the small fire rise into the low grey sky, drinking tea from small cracked cups with a tea patina accumulated over years, at night watching the moon and eating their meagre meals of rice and vegetables and mud-fish, and just sitting there motionless so anyone seeing them would think they were meditating and therefore must be wise and gnomic. But really, they just sit there.

I want to see those places and I don’t even know if they still exist. Most have probably been drained and turned into productive land. ‘Productive’ — I hate that word. To me, it connotes the taking of something beautiful and wondrous and mysterious and removing those very qualities so it becomes merely useful. It’s like seeing a gorgeous pheasant dustbathing in sunlight in a little clearing in a small stand of scrub in a forgotten corner of a farm and seeing only a meal’s worth of pheasant meat. Productivity would argue for clearing the scrub to grow ryegrass and white clover and get one more stock unit’s worth of grazing, which of course would produce more meat than a stringy old pheasant. This, apparently, would be making good use of the land.

To me, ‘productivity’ connotes the valuing of quantity over quality, and in that contest between quantity and quality, quantity will always win because by its very nature it’s easy to measure; quality, on the other hand, is far harder — and often impossible — to measure.

So, I wonder whether, or to what extent, those exquisite unknown lonely places still survive. Probably they don't, but I’d like to go there anyway. Maybe these words, or someone else’s better words, are the only way to do that now.

I drove on past the idea of marshes and thought about why travelling, meaning the movement, the actual going from place to place, seems so appealing. I love sitting in a bus, going somewhere, and I’d be happy sitting in a bus going nowhere as long as the bus was in motion, going somewhere. While I’m on that bus I can’t attend to important matters — productive tasks, that is. I can’t work in any reasonable sense; I can’t read (at least not for more than a few seconds); I can’t do anything productive in the usual sense of that loathesome word. For a few hours I’m free from the demands of the world.

Maybe that’s why I sometimes prefer buses over trains — on a train, I can almost write, so I think maybe I should be writing. On the kind of trains where you sit stealing glances at the person sitting facing you (who you sense is also stealing glances at you) on the other side of a small, cold table, writing would be perfectly possible if I decided to open a laptop or tablet, but buses don’t offer that option. Handwriting's even harder — far harder. The best I can do is jot a quick, short note or two when the train stops, or scrawl, often illegibly, when it's moving. The little Moleskine cahiers I carry everywhere carry a record of my travels not just in what I've written but in how it's written — when I browse back through them and come across what appears to be written in Arabic (which I neither write nor understand), I know I was on a train or bus.  I've seen people jot notes by hand in a moving bus but I haven’t developed that skill and have no idea how  they manage it.

But it’s irrelevant anyway, because mostly I don’t want to write on a bus or train or aeroplane because I have more important things to do, like looking out the window at the place I’m passing through and letting my mind wander. The importance of these inactivities cannot be overestimated. For me, time travelling is time out.

Having said that, I’ll now point out I have written in aeroplanes. While they still seem like time out for me and I'd furiously resent having to work on a plane, they’re usually so smooth it’s easy to write by hand with the cahier (big or small) on the fold-out tray table. Even that has shortcomings, though, because the person in the adjacent seat (on both sides if I’m unlucky) will inevitably want to sneak a look at what I’m writing, and even if I’d otherwise be happy to share the writing, the knowledge that someone might be surreptitiously reading constrains my writing; in fact, sometimes all I can find to write about is the awkwardness of writing about someone sneaking a look at what I’m writing, which of course makes it impossible to write.

Nevertheless, I can sometimes write while travelling — for example, last year I several times managed to write extensively in the big cahier while flying. I think of that — of writing in an aeroplane while returning from Leh to Delhi (or was it from Srinagar?) — and the ache for India returns, and that raises the paradox I don’t understand: I long for teeming India yet also long for places like those existentially lonely, hermit-haunted marshes, which I find impossible to imagine still exist in India — if anything remotely like those marshes does exist, the fish will not only taste of mud but will probably be dense with heavy metals, litter will line the waterways, goats will gnaw the rushes, and someone not more than a hundred or so metres away will snap small branches of scrub for firewood.

I don't want to think about that, though. I might be wrong and hope I am. Even if I never see the hermit marshes, I want to know they still exist; I want to know that in some almost-forgotten corner of an out-of-the-way part of that old, overwrought land, some small silent sage still sips his tea as he listens to the wind in the reeds and the thin cries of unseen birds.

1. Not 'productive' land — and may it stay this way forever. Leatherwood (tupare) on the Ngamoko Range, Ruahine Forest Park.
2. Not reeds or rushes: snow tussocks along the old, recently re-marked section of the No. 1 Line track in the southern Ruahine Range.
3. Not a marsh (although almost boggy enough in places). This is the interior of the leatherwood jungle that covers the tops of the southern Ruahine Range. Who knows what it keeps secret?
4. Not a sage. Some scribbler in a small clearing in the leatherwood on a cold day under a heavy sky; the Lapsang Souchong tea almost ready.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

07 May 2015

Light and time

The light in the evening looked old, like light from the time when I was growing up on the loess hillsides of Christchurch’s Port Hills with their volcanic rocks rough with lichen, with pale tussocks and small banks pocked with tiger beetle holes, where little owls and hares hid, and finches scattered up into the sky from rickety wire-and-batten fences and long, dry grass; from the time when Birdling’s Flat meant the possibility of geckos. The light looked soft, as if all the edges and angles had been worn off it. Perhaps the wind had done just that. It certainly seemed wild and strong enough, thrashing the trees about, churning the hay paddocks so the seething air took visible form — the wind incarnate. Once, a gust caught the car as if a giant had poked it sideways with an invisible finger.

The light seemed old, and the age carried me back to another time when both my parents were alive and the thought they might die was inconceivable and unbearable. They both did, long after that time, in a time long ago, separated by two decades. The light took me back not just through memories but beyond, to a time before I'd even been born, to a time before any human left a footprint on an empty beach, a time when the only footprints might have been made by moa and birds with pseudoteeth cruised the coast around Motunau Island. I felt the presence of that time, re-entered it even as I drove home through that strange soft light with the wind pushing at the car, and I realised that time is sometimes neither linear nor regular. Time makes no sense — at least none I can comprehend — but the idea of time as something measurable makes even less. Time makes its own rules.

I drove on, not sure where I was and less sure when. Space and time can’t be separated, the physicists say, and maybe they’re right, but if that’s true then I don’t understand why we think of them as so utterly different. Why is it so easy to understand great distance (particularly when it separates you from someone or somewhere you love), and why can I believe that crossing that distance is just a matter of travelling in space — no big deal in theory even if the difficulty in practice drives me to despair — yet at the same time I know so clearly that I can never, meaning in no possible way, cross the time back to the past? Tell me why it’s so impossible to understand how the past is irretrievable and the future inaccessible if space and time don't differ. Tell me how it happens that, moment by moment, the future becomes irretrievable.

I drove on, moving through the old, worn-out light, with the future changing into the past and the past haunting me. I drove the Napier Road towards Ashhurst, through a wild sky scattered with finches from the past and hung now with a hawk here and there; driving through memories of clay banks with tiger beetle holes, a goldfinch nest high in an old willow, herons roosting at dusk and owls starting up with their beautiful sad calls, a hare disappearing beyond the curve of the empty hilltop, Pegasus Bay stretching out green and luminous in the nor’west light of the place I left so long ago, Motunau Island crouching there in the far distance. When the past returns it takes you to another place, and sometimes you know neither where you are, nor when.

1. Birdling's Flat: a long, low, shingle spit that stretches south from the south-western hills of Banks' Peninsula and separates Lake Ellesmere from the ocean. My father told us he'd caught geckos there in his younger days, but we never found any. 

2. Motunau Island sits in the northern curve of Pegasus Bay. Fragments of a prehistoric pseudotooth bird (Pseudodontornis stirtoni — the taxonomy's debated) were found on Motunau beach, opposite the island.

1.Another place, another time: on the flight from Kazakhstan to Kathmandu, September 2014.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

26 March 2015

Three fine things

One of the great perks of working for a university is access to an excellent library. Right now I have several books on loan from Massey’s library, and yesterday, walking to the car carrying three of those, I thought how they summed up my major interests — my delights, or perhaps even passions (or, less kindly, obsessions). One was Phillip Lopate’s To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, one was Jerry Thompson’s Truth and Photography: Notes on Looking and Photographing, and one was Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen’s An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions.

Writing, photography, and India. I can think of worse interests, worse things to be passionate about or obsess over — cars, golf, and reality shows, for example. I’m sure cars, golf, and reality shows can be defended as worthy obsessions, but defending them would sound like rationalising — an attempt, after the fact, to justify the indefensible. In contrast, I find it harder to see how defending an interest in writing, photography, or India could be criticised as mere rationalisation, but I’m biased.

I'm not just biased, though: I’m also comfortable with these kinds of contentious assertions, at least when I make them or when they’re made by people I like. (In fact, I might even like them more when someone I like makes them, because then I don’t have to make them and can instead keep quiet and appear reasonable and fair-minded, although I’m not.)

But back to my three delights (not the only ones, of course, but they’re right up there at the top with a few others). As I thought about them, I realised how well they complement each other. Writing and photography — well, the way they go together should be obvious. Conversely, they sometimes work against each other, as is the case in a great many books where either the text or the photographs dominate, one subordinate and usually diminished as a consequence. Coffee table books, for example: great photographs (sometimes), but even when the text amounts to a work of literature (as, for example, John Fowles’ text accompanying Frank Horvat’s photographs in The Tree), that text would have been better read independently without the distraction of photographs that compel the eye to linger (the more haunting of Horvat’s photographs in The Tree, to use that example again).

Perhaps, though, that potential conflict between writing and photographs creates the kind of challenge that leads to something better — not conflict, but a kind of creative tension. No great work of art ever comes easily, except perhaps to geniuses, whose existence I doubt, having been disappointed so often by their works. For writing and photography, the challenge remains, in my view, unmet — I’ve yet to see the book I want to see: one where the text and the photographs don’t just avoid competing with each other but complement each other in a way that creates a greater work of art than the two simply juxtaposed.

And India? Well, what better subject for writing and photographing? That should say it all, so I’ll say no more, bearing in mind Amartya Sen’s quotation from one of his teachers, economist Joan Robinson, who said, ‘...whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.’

How true.

1. The mention of the three books in the first paragraph should not necessarily be taken as a recommendation because I haven't read them yet. I have, however, now read much of Phillip Lopate's book and have found it enjoyable and thought-provoking. 

1. At Leh, October 2014.
2. On the flight from Kazakhstan to Kathmandu, September 2014. You can see a larger version of this photograph on The Ruins of the Moment.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

09 March 2015

Weta, rat, dog tucker

New Zealanders use the expression ‘dog tucker’ — literally, dog food — to describe something or someone about to meet disaster. For example, a professional rugby coach whose team loses eight straight games will inevitably be described as dog tucker — his sacking will be as certain as sunrise. Sadly, the term doesn’t just apply to rugby coaches, as I found out last night while prowling around the lower section of the No. 1 Line track, looking for interesting animals to photograph. Only a few minutes after entering the forest, I came across a beautiful, large, female weta — a flightless, nocturnal, grasshopper-like insect — sitting on the trunk of a tree at about head height. I photographed her and carried on up the track. Not long afterwards, I had an encounter that left me depressed, thinking this beautiful, ancient insect would inevitably end up as dog tucker.

Or, in this case, another type of tucker.

I’d heard something that sounded like the rasping of another weta but not quite right for that. I picked my way past the giant rimu and through a tangle of shrubbery, turning my head so the lamp played over the ground, along the fallen, rotting branches, and over the foliage. Nothing. Then I heard the sound again and turned towards it. A shadow moved, then two small orange-yellow eyes glowed back at me. I kept the headlamp trained on the eyes and switched it to full power. There, sitting on the fallen stipe of a tree fern frond, was Rattus rattus — the black, ship, or roof rat.

New Zealand has three species of rats, all introduced by humans. Kiore (Rattus exulans) are now rare on mainland New Zealand, and brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) tend to stay close to the ground, so they pose little risk to arboreal animals — my weta would probably be safe if she stayed up her tree. But black rats climb nimbly, as this one demonstrated when it finally ran off along a thin, flexible stem of supplejack and vanished into the night.

In New Zealand, the two pests with the highest public profiles are possums and stoats. While rats do get mentioned, in the public’s consciousness of conservation pests they rate less highly compared to possums and stoats, yet an infestation of Rattus rattus means disaster not only for the larger native insects like weta, ground beetles, and some of our spectacular weevils, but for birds too — the agile black rat easily raids nests, devouring eggs, chicks, and sometimes the adult birds who, particularly at night, can be sitting ducks (or in this case, fantails, riflemen, tomtits, and so on).

Rats also damage ecosystems by eating seeds. While some seeds need to be eaten so the plant can disperse, rats are not effective dispersers of larger seeds like those of tawa (a bit like an olive). Kereru, New Zealand’s native pigeon, swallow tawa fruits and crap the seeds out, often well away from the fruiting tree (Wotton & Kelly, 2012), but a tawa fruit is too big for a rat to swallow whole. Instead, the rat will do its usual ratty thing, nibbling away the flesh and either dropping the seed without dispersing it or gnawing the seed and therefore destroying it.

I could go on about the evils of rats, particularly black rats, but a more pressing point is what we should do about them. The good news is that possum and stoat control operations both kill rats. Rats eat and are killed by the poison baits used for possum control, and the traps used for stoat control also trap and kill rats. The bad news is that these control programmes don’t cover the whole country. They certainly don’t include the No. 1 Line track.

When I returned over an hour later, past the tree where I’d photographed the weta, she’d gone. I hoped she’d climbed higher into the canopy where she might be harder for a rat to find. The very fact she’d survived and grown to adulthood comforted me. Rats might have a relatively low status in the public consciousness compared to possums and stoats, but weta are ingrained in the national psyche — so much so that the company responsible for the remarkable special effects in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films named itself after these charismatic insects — and the thought that weta might become rare around here appalled me. More than that, though, I’d formed an attachment to this particular weta, who had been so cooperative, calmly sitting there while I photographed her. I hadn’t seen a big beautiful weta like this for a long time. She was the only one I saw last night (although I heard a couple more), and I couldn’t bear to think she was dog tucker.

Or, more accurately, rat tucker.

1. Strictly, 'weta' should have a macron over both vowels, thus: 'wētā'. The word without macrons has an entirely different meaning, but in practice you're unlikely to be misunderstood.

1. Last night's weta: Hemideina crassidens, the Wellington tree weta. The long thing that looks like a sting is her ovipositor—the apparatus she uses to deposit her eggs.
2. ... And this is last night's Rattus rattus. Note the very long tail and large ears, characteristics distinguishing it from the Brown rat, R. norvegicus. You can see a larger version of the photograph on The Ruins of the Moment.

Wotton, D. M., & Kelly, D. (2012). Do larger frugivores move seeds further? Body size, seed dispersal distance, and a case study of a large, sedentary pigeon. Journal of Biogeography, 39(11), 1973–1983. doi: 10.1111/jbi.12000

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

15 December 2014

The Geminids let me down

Last night a strong easterly wind howled in the trees and banged on the broken verandah roof. Easterlies do the damage here, picking up speed as they race down from the Ruahine, and because they’re uncommon, the trees grow with less bracing against these winds from the east. When a tree goes down, chances are good that an easterly did it.

Still, by easterly standards this was tolerable. I stood in the dark, the big down jacket fully zipped, hands in pockets, watching the sky overhead. Despite the wind, no cloud obscured any part of the sky except the crest of the southern Ruahine, where a low cap rolled over from Hawkes Bay. No moonlight faded the stars nor cast shadows under the birches. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, more and more stars appeared. I watched the sky for a long time, hoping to see something of the Geminid meteor shower, but nothing appeared. I had a wish prepared, ready for a sighting of a shooting star. A satellite crossed the sky, a star travelling fast, and a little while later another sailed through Orion and onwards on its endless orbit, but satellites are not shooting stars and wishing on one seemed unlikely to work.

Eventually I returned inside and looked on the Internet for up-to-date information about the Geminid shower. Look 28 degrees past true north, it said, and about 11 degrees above the horizon. I went back outside later, still about two hours short of peak viewing time, but I wasn’t going to wait up until one in the morning. Surely something would show up early. I checked my wish, found it good, and kept looking. I looked, and looked, and looked more. Even though I hadn’t been gazing straight up, my neck hurt when I lowered my head to its normal position, and for a moment I felt a little unsteady on my feet. Overhead, the Milky Way scintillated with countless stars; low in the south-east, the Southern Cross hung upside down. I ran an imaginary line through its long axis, another perpendicular to the one joining the two pointers, and noted  where the two lines met. That’s south, down there. I like doing that.

The easterly continued to whip my hair around; the meteors continued to refuse to appear. I gave them another 60 seconds, counting down in the dark, then counted down another ten. I walked back to the door, watched a little longer, and braced myself for disappointment. The stars shone undisturbed by delinquent meteors.

I stepped inside and closed the door, my wish not only unfulfilled but not even wished for. It’s just ridiculous superstition, I thought. If you have a wish, do something that might bring it about.

Sometimes, though, nothing else is any more effective than wishing on stars.

Photograph: Another night a long time ago; a night not as good for meteor spotting; a night when wishing would have been just as effective as last night.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

26 November 2014

Leaving and returning

First, this post has taken a while to write for reasons I trust will be obvious if you read it. Apologies for the delay. Second, no need to worry—I'm O.K.; this is how I was, not how I am. Finally, this post confirms the truth of the observation that writing is never finished, only abandoned.

I leave Leh for the last time in the middle of October on the start of a journey that will last several days, cross two time zones, and leave me lost, cast adrift in a sea of confusion. A taxi takes me away from Leh, and as it turns a corner, there, straight ahead, rise the dawn mountains. Fresh snow coats the peaks and dusts their lower slopes, and early light colours the high snowfields with pale orange and pink; the summit of Stok Kangri hides behind thick white cloud but lower on the mountainsides wraiths of cloud linger around dark valleys and shine bright as they wander the dawn-facing slopes. The sun has not yet risen; all the light comes from below the eastern horizon and the land glows as if lit by its own immanence. I sit, silenced by one of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever seen, as the taxi carries me away from Leh towards the airport. How can I leave this place? Any possibility of a return lies too far in the future, and I can’t bear that thought.

Now, as I scribble these lines in a café in Palmerston North, I can picture that sublime landscape; I can see it vividly in my mind, and I know I have to go back. So much feels unfinished; so many things I intended to do I've left undone. When I got out of hospital I brought my flights forward; I chose to leave India early because I didn't want to risk another run-in with bad food or poisonous water so soon after a serious gut infection. I wanted to return to a place where I could recover easily, and although India captivated me, it can wear a body down. I  needed time to focus what little energy I had on rebuilding my strength and regaining lost weight so I'd have at least a little in reserve if I had a relapse or suffered some other illness. I tell myself this, but now I'd gladly have run that risk for the sake of an extra three weeks in India. I can't believe I willingly chose to leave early.


But, as I recover in Green Park, I don't have the benefit of hindsight, and I bring the flights forward as far as I can afford. I leave Leh early in the morning and fly to Delhi and later in the day catch up with a friend, too briefly and for the last time. When the time finally comes, though, at least this last journey in India must be the most appropriate of all: sitting in the back seat of an ancient Ambassador that keeps stalling at the worst possible moments in the mad traffic of late night Delhi. But the driver, with his short-cropped, orange tinted hair and confident smile, has the car's temperamental engine under control and I relax, trusting his competence.

He delivers me safely to the terminal. I smile and thank him, then turn and enter the limbo of the airport.


One of the things I've learned to expect about travelling in India is not to expect anything. Expecting a bus to leave on time, for example, is laughable; expecting it to leave late might be more reasonable but still not guaranteed. But the most unreliable expectations, I've learned, are expectations about emotions, and I don't know how I'll feel as I leave India.

So I've prepared myself for  almost anything: loss, relief, grief, any emotion at all — or so I think. What I haven't expected and haven't prepared for is this emptiness, this near-complete lack of emotion. When the Airbus 330 rises into the Delhi night at almost 3 a.m., I feel numb. Perhaps I'm emotionally as well as physically exhausted, or maybe the enormity of leaving has overwhelmed my ability to deal with that knowledge. Maybe both. Maybe this is one of the stages of grief — the stage of disbelief and denial. I look out the window at the orange and yellow lights of Delhi as they shrink into the past, and I think of all the things happening down there, all the people I've met, all those lives carrying on; I think of everything that's happened over these last months, and for an instant the shock of leaving hits me hard, like a blow.

Then the numbness returns and mostly I feel empty, with just those glimpses of all I’m leaving behind — India’s chaotic energy and immediacy and rawness; its sophistication and subtlety, too; its otherness; its ability to delight and appal, sometimes simultaneously, as when I saw from the train to Bharatpur a family apparently living on the railway siding — despite their apparent lack of almost everything we’d consider essential, they sat talking and laughing, able to find at least a few moments of joy in the simple act of being together as a family. So much else, too — the abundance and diversity of birds, so many of which seem so comfortable and at home right in the thick of the human mêlée and noise and filth; the irresistibly cute palm squirrels; the gentleness and kindness that, while by no means universal, was common enough to be distinctly noticeable; above all, my friends, most of whom just a few months ago I’d never even known existed; all these things and more.   These moments, when I truly comprehend, hit me like a punch to the heart.

The A330 flies on, out of the night, through dawn and into late morning, until eventually a long, thin, brown streak appears low down in the sky —the filth of Shanghai’s smog. We fly low over the city and the harbour, where ship after ship lies anchored in water the colour of weak coffee. On land among the buildings that go on forever, a massive chimney spews steam into the sky. I try to appreciate the thought that I’ve almost completed the first leg of the long journey, but the prospect of waiting over nine hours for the next flight puts paid to that. I still can't grasp the true significance of having left India, still feel emotionally drained, still lack the physical and mental energy to do anything except endure the hours.


At Gate 213 I try not to think about the time. Finally, accepting I can’t go nine hours or more without eating and drinking, I check that the small food counter accepts credit cards and order a cheese and egg sandwich and a Tiger beer. This should all be safe, I think, still anxious about my gut, but I’m dismayed to find the cheese and egg sandwich includes a lot of unpeeled cucumber slices and the beer comes with ice cubes. I discard the cucumber and drink the beer anyway, rationalising the risk by reminding myself this is, after all, an international airport and poisoning passengers would have bad repercussions — not just for the passengers. 

While I finish the beer, I chat with a cheerful Australian, originally from Melbourne but now living in London, and with a big, affable maths teacher from the US. The Aussie and his girlfriend leave to board their flight; the maths teacher heads off a little later. A young guy with a physique like a power lifter comes and sits at the counter and orders a sandwich. He’s from Lithuania, has been in China on business (something to do with telecommunications), and about eight years ago spent three days in Wellington. That too, had been on business, so he hadn’t had much chance to look around; nevertheless, he liked the city.
   ‘Very good lamb steaks,’ he says. Clearly, they made a good impression.

The menu lists Tie Guan Yin, a tea I’ve enjoyed back in New Zealand. Curious to know how to pronounce the name, I ask the woman behind the counter. She doesn’t have it right now, she says; it’s off the menu. I try again, but she still doesn’t understand that I just want to hear her pronounce the name. Eventually an elegant woman, 40-ish I guess, intervenes and helps me try out the pronunciation. ‘TEE-uh gwun-een’ is probably close enough to be understood. She smiles and nods when I finally get it right, then rushes off to board her flight.

Afterwards, a passable coffee revives me a little, and that, with the beer and the direct engagement with other human beings, helps me feel more human. But I’ve been travelling for well over a day now, and even when I managed some sleep on the flight from Delhi, that’s been in the same set of clothes. Thank heavens for merino, but I’m still beginning to wonder whether someone with a mask and a long stick will appear and usher me outside to be hosed down. I do the only thing I can and freshen up as best I can with wet paper towels — hardly the shower I long for, but at least I feel cleaner.


The hours creep past. I wander down to the next boarding gate, where just a few people linger, and find a relatively inconspicuous corner where I can lie down on the seats with my bag as a pillow. Someone else with the same idea snoozes quietly on the seats backing up against my row. After a couple of short sleeps of uncertain quality I return to Gate 213 to find most of the passengers gone, so I stretch out again on a row of out-of-the-way seats and sleep for almost an hour. 

Finally, the call to board arrives, and immediately the usual enormous queue forms. I have no interest in standing in a queue, particularly when it means I’d end up sitting even longer in a seat on the plane, so I sit and wait until the line reduces to just a handful of people. Even so, I then have to stand in a packed shuttle bus until several late-comers arrive. 

As usual, the Airbus leaves late. Unusually, the delay isn’t just ten or twenty minutes or even half an hour — it’s an hour and a half. The first passengers to board will have taken their seats a good half an hour before that, so they’ll have been sitting for two hours before we even leave the ground. I’m glad I waited to board, particularly because my seat turns out to be in the first row, crammed up against the bulkhead with even less leg room than usual. The flight’s scheduled to take ten hours and 40 minutes but given the delay in departing, I’m hoping they’ll try to make up time. They do, but only half an hour, so instead of arriving at Sydney at 10 a.m., we arrive an hour late. That’s an hour less I’ll have with my sister, who’s come to meet me.

Back at her place I finally get my longed-for shower, a sourdough baguette filled with avocado and smoked trout, and company that eases the sense of separation from India. Afterwards, we sit on the verandah, looking out at a park that reminds me too much of the Deer Park in South Delhi, where I used to walk each morning as part of my recovery. Magpies instead of crows, rainbow lorikeets instead of rose-ringed parakeets, but similar trees shading a similar slightly dry and dusty ground — I half expect to see a few dogs cooling off in shallow holes they've dug, but the only dogs here trot along on leashes. The differences only emphasise the similarities.  Time flies past too fast, though, and soon we're back in the taxi, returning to the airport. I should have stayed overnight, but when I brought the flights forward I never thought about that.


The Air New Zealand A320 is only the second plane in this entire journey to leave on time. I sit next to a big kiwi guy who's recently trekked to Annapurna Base Camp. We talk until the plane takes off, joking sometimes about the usual things like getting crook, the Kathmandu madhouse, Nepalese buses, and other things that hindsight makes bearable, then he retreats into a movie and I scribble notes. Everywhere I see and hear reminders of New Zealand — the hostess's accent, the scenery on the safety video, the black upholstery, and so on — and I wonder whether I'm returning too fast, whether I'm already beginning to lose some of the feel of what India was like (already, I note, I say 'was'; already I think of India as being in my past). I realise I'm clinging to my memories and think perhaps I should try to resist this ache to hold on to what was. 

But what precisely is wrong with that? As I've said before, I don't know much about buddhism, but a common theme of that philosophy seems to be the overriding importance of the present. The past and the future are illusions, it says; all we have is the present, this moment right now. I used to think this was wonderful and profound, but now I'm less sure. What exactly is this 'present', and in what sense can it be all we have when, after all, nothing is more transitory? Try to think of the present — try it now — and what happens? It's gone; it's passed; now has become the past. The past seems far more substantial, even if our recollections so often deceive us, and the future, even if we can't know it, seems no less illusory than this present; in fact, I find it easier to think of some time in the future than to pin down the present.

I suppose the injunction to live in the present might be intended simply to ease the ache of loss and lessen the worry of what might or might not be. If so, it seems at least useful, but to me the main benefit is clear: when you ponder the past or fret about the future, you're missing what's happening now. To lose yourself in the present can be achieved (seldom deliberately, though) and can be a kind of ecstasy; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called it 'Flow'; others call it 'being in the zone'; and one of the essential differences between this state and the conscious act of paying attention to where you are is that when you lose yourself that's precisely what you do — you're no longer aware of yourself. Maybe that's what Eliot meant when he said, 'Love is most nearly itself/When here and now cease to matter'. I, however, am lost in a different sense, for different reasons. I know where my body is located but I don't know where I am.


At Wellington, not long before midnight, my brother waits to collect me. As he drives me home I look out at the night harbour, sodium light rippling on dark water, the quiet, clean city; and as I stand outside his house while he parks the car, I hear a ruru calling — the first New Zealand bird I've heard since early July. The first bird I see in the morning is a riroriro, going about its tiny life completely unaware of me, of India, of anything at all beyond its own small territory and the compulsions of its instincts. Everywhere I go, birds comfort me.


A couple of weeks after returning, I visit friends for dinner. They’ve travelled overseas while I was on my journey, so talking with them lets us compare impressions, lessons, ideas. All evening the conversation centres on travelling and I’m struck by the way we don’t bore each other with this talk. I’m conscious of how travellers’ tales can be not merely uninteresting for one’s friends but can be actively off-putting. A friend whose travels make mine look like a stroll to the gate pointed this out; you visit friends after a significant journey, she said, and they’re not interested in hearing about it.

At first I wasn’t sure whether to agree or not, but this was her experience and her travels have been exceptional. Maybe mine have been more ordinary, or maybe I’ve been blessed with more tolerant friends, but this lack of interest hasn’t been as noticeable for me. Also, I’ve long been aware of the risk of annoying my friends with too much talk about my own travelling and have tried to suppress the urge to talk constantly about it. However, my friends naturally want to hear something about my journey; the difficulty, I find, isn’t avoiding the topic, it’s being aware of when I’ve talked too long and letting the subject drop.

The problem is that these kinds of conversations need some common ground, some shared experience, preferably recent, if they’re not to falter. Talking about marvellous experiences to someone who’s just spent the last four months slogging away at work risks leaving them feeling as if they have nothing to contribute, and can even make them envious. Fortunately for me, my friends not only have a great capacity for putting up with hearing me talk, but have also travelled extensively themselves — some in India — so they do share similar experiences.

My friend also pointed out something else about returning from travels: that your friends expect you to be the same person you were when you left. This is understandable. What's harder is to recognise the changes in yourself, and after three and a half months of travel, mostly in India, I wonder how I’ve changed. Maybe I need to ask my friends, although most haven’t yet seen enough of me to be able to comment accurately.

My guess is that I’m now much less certain of many things; I think I understand much less than I thought when I started the journey. Often I realise I don’t know what to think, and when someone asks me something, particularly about India, I’m unable to answer satisfactorily — I simply don’t know whether I believe my reply. I’m still trying to pin down my intuitions and feelings. Will I ever be able to manage that? I doubt it, but I did realise recently that a lot of people now seem to think I have some kind of intimate knowledge of India, or at least that I’m able to speak with some authority on what life’s like there. In truth, I don’t have that authority or expertise. I can relate what I saw; I can reflect on my short time in India; but those few months and my highly selective, narrow view count for very little. How long would I need to live in India before I began to acquire some authority? I don’t know, but I suspect it would be years, not mere months.

The days pass. Mostly I feel disconnected, not quite emotionless but missing the intensity of feeling I'd thought was an inescapable part of who I am. A pipiwharauroa calls from the trees at the front of the terrace and the sound lifts my spirits, but even that call, which every spring delights me by turning my thoughts towards warmth and longer days, doesn't induce the intensity of feeling I experienced so often in India, and I begin to wonder whether one of India's primary gifts is the way it encourages — and sometimes forces — you to feel things, deeply and intensely. For me, the answer must be yes; emotions so often felt so close to the surface even long before I fell ill, and those feelings, usually wonderful and often evoked by even apparently insignificant encounters with people, animals, and places, seemed to arise from more than mere novelty. Here, though, back in Aotearoa, I feel terribly unmoved by things that should move me. I am numb, unable to respond.

But time, the saying goes, heals all wounds. While I don't consider myself wounded, I do trust time will heal whatever afflicts me.

So I wait for it to pass. I go for walks in the sun and wind and try to distract my thoughts by prowling for pictures, but I’ve lost the ability to see. My photographs stare back at me from the monitor, dull and dead and flawed beyond salvation.

I drive into town to be among other people; I write in cafés, spending too much on coffee, and read in the library, and buy more groceries than I need. None of the waitresses and checkout staff and others who knew me by sight notices I’ve been gone. Everything carries on the way it used to, but no one knows I’ve changed. No one says haven’t seen you in a while. I have not been missed.

I distract myself with work, and I realise my contract starts exactly one month after I left India. This seems significant, but I know it isn’t — it’s just a date. But everything has some kind of significance if I look for it  — everything, that is, except me. I feel as if I no longer matter. I feel forgotten.

This confirms what I've finally realised — that the hardest aspect of returning has been the feeling of being forgotten. Someone returns from a place they loved and they say how much they miss it. I miss India, although it nearly killed me and despite the horrors and the pain of what I couldn't help but see, but I know I can return some day and that knowledge lets me come to terms with missing India.

No, missing India isn't what's hardest — what I struggle with most is the thought I'm not being missed by India.

So I wait for it to pass. Days turn to weeks; a month goes by. The starlings in the paddock carry on with their restless rapid foraging and I wonder how they manage to focus on just one thing, which is the raising of their young who squeal for food whenever I walk past. One day the nest stays silent but the spring wind still roars in the old poplars.

I wait for it to pass, trusting my resilience, and knowing time heals even the unwounded.

1. 'Talking about marvellous experiences...': In a stroke of synchronicity, I'd only been back a few days when I came across a recent paper that confirmed exactly this point. See: Cooney, G., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2014). The unforeseen costs of extraordinary experience. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797614551372 [Paywalled; abstract here]
2. 'Love is most nearly itself...': T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: East Coker.
3. '...the thought I'm not being missed by India...': Apparently, being forgotten is worse than being ostracised. See: King, L. A., & Geise, A. C. (2011). Being forgotten: Implications for the experience of meaning in life. Journal of Social Psychology, 151(6), 696–709.

1. Main bazaar, Pahar Ganj, New Delhi. 
2. The Indus valley from above Leh.
3. Palm squirrel at the Hauz Khas complex in South Delhi.
4. These young guys at the Golden Temple in Amritsar saw me photographing and asked if I might photograph them. I obliged, they thanked me and immediately walked off. 
5. In the old town, Leh.
6. Magpie, Rumbak valley, Ladakh.
7. Evening street, Dharamsala.
8. Dusk in the Pohangina valley, Aotearoa. The view from the back of my place, looking towards the southern Ruahine Range.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor