Joining the Pilgrims – Part 2

In the cold and dark I joined the pilgrims as they began their ascent over the 10, 000 steps, but for a while, I couldn’t see them and I was actually struggling to see the steps in front of me.

Then dawn broke and there was light and the show began.   

The forms and faces of the other pilgrims became visible and what a truly eclectic mix it was: young couples, elderly couples, family groups and larger groups belonging to a sect – one lot clad in saffron and chanting, another dressed in pure white cotton and carrying small brass pots of water.

Everyone was on the move towards some unseen goal, some destination ahead which no one knew…….

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Joining the Pilgrims – Part 1


Located in the state of Gujarat in the west of India, Junagadh was a pilgrim town with a difference.

A few kilometres away, on top of a high ridge, were famous temples. But to reach the temples, the pilgrim had to climb stone steps: 10, 000 of them.

That was a lot of steps.

Mind you, I didn’t have a problem with the idea of ascending all those steps.

A pilgrimage, as far as I was concerned, wasn’t meant to be easy.

My conviction on this point emerged after previous visits to the famous pilgrim towns on the coast of Gujarat: Dwarka and Somnath.

In Dwarka and Somnath there were temples which were famous all over India and which every year were visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims – and it was in these sacred towns that I got to see the contemporary Hindu pilgrimage industry first hand.  The pilgrims came in luxury coaches or cars, stayed in luxury hotels, dined out and bought souvenirs – and in between visited the temples which were in effect, a part of a corporate pilgrimage industry.  

Vendors did a brisk trade selling trinkets and souvenirs and in the temples, the priests had thoughtfully installed ATM’s to facilitate the donation cash flow. 

The spirit of consumerism loomed larger than any kind of spiritualism.   

In the past, pilgrims who went to sacred towns like Dwarka and Somnath had to endure great hardships to get there. They walked there and more than a few of them would have perished on the way. The pilgrimmage wasn’t meant to be easy let alone a form of self indulgence. 

Of course, climbing ten thousand steps wasn’t the same as experiencing the ancient pilgrim’s uncertain, primordial world, but it did at least put more emphasis on the notion of the pilgrimage involving physical effort; of the means of getting to the end destination being at least as important as the end destination itself.

And I can say also that Junagadh was a far more memorable journey than either Dwarka or Somnath…………


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The Windmill


It was after hearing the stories from my dying mother in law that I decided to visit the old windmill. It was one of those things I’d always meant to do but never got around to and I mean it’s not as if it was far away: 10 minutes or so on my bike.

Originally built in 1738 and restored 20 years ago, the windmill was situated in the somewhat appropriately named ‘Southern Corridor Park’ (zuidelijk randpark): a long strip of land, approximately 200 meters wide and two kilometres long sandwiched between apartment blocks on one side – and the main  highway from Rotterdam to Amsterdam on the other. The park had been turned into a recreational area, an oasis of green in the midst of a big city; there were open grassy areas, lines of trees, a number of small lakes, a bike trail ….and the old windmill.

For years I had regularly ridden passed it but never really gave it a second thought. Then one day, I stopped, got off my bike, and took a closer look.

It was 21 metres high – high alright – but windmills 40 high were not unusual. In 1738, there were an estimated 10,000 windmills in The Netherlands, most of them concentrated in the west of the country between Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

Windmills were used to pump water out of the soggy farming land and over the dykes and into canals and rivers. But they were used for many other purposes such as milling grains, sawing planks (crucial for the shipbuilding industry) and grinding spices.

Inside the windmill, I was surprised at what I found: a complex system of shafts and cogs – like clockwork – most of them made from wood. In its time I realised this was an impressive piece of machinery: high tech.

No other visitors appeared.

I was alone inside this strange, centuries old machine. My thoughts drifted and another windmill appeared before my mind’s eye, along with the reminiscences shared by mother and daughter during their last days together …….

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Mary Anning


Late one afternoon in a high altitude gorge in the Indian Himalaya, whilst looking around for rocks to hold down the tent, I found a fossil.

It was a small one, no larger than a debit card.

I couldn’t believe my luck. Over the years I’d seen many fossils in the quarry like terrains above the tree line but this was the first time I’d seen one which was small enough to take with me.   

I picked it up and studied it: there was a spiral of fine indentations, which at a guess had been some kind of shellfish or a worm.

With the light fading and a cold wind blowing Anya yelled out at me rather testily:

What are you doing?!

We’re supposed to be getting the tent up!

I shoved the fossil in my pocket.

For years afterwards, it sat on my desk next to my laptop.

I made no effort to find out what kind of fossil it was, of which creature. It was a souvenir.   

Then one evening, decades later, I saw a film called ‘Ammonite’ and as a result, that small souvenir garnered at random in an abyss became a stepping stone on a journey into the life story of a remarkable woman……

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The One Horse Town – Part 2


Marrabel: it was a dot on a map, until it was hauled out of obscurity thanks to a horse which no one could ride. Experienced rodeo riders came from all over Australia and were defeated by that crazy mare and eight years passed before someone managed to stay on her for 10 seconds. In the meantime, a town no one had ever heard of became well known along with its annual rodeo, held in the spring and drawing riders and spectators from all over Australia.

But then one day, a storm appeared over the horizon and the town’s fame turned into notoriety and the unrideable horse became a symbol of a shameful past.

As visitors, people passing through, Anya and I knew nothing about this. With our tent pitched on the deserted rodeo ground, an icy wind blowing across the empty grounds, we convened to the pub as darkness fell with no more in mind than enjoying a warm meal and a glass of wine. It was a Tuesday and our expectation was that we were going to be back inside our tent early that evening.

But ended up staying much longer than we thought, making our way back to the rodeo ground late that night with a blaze of stars above us – and haunting, unanswerable questions trailing behind us…..

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