In February, I bought a pair of binoculars.
Oh, not just any binoculars: astronomical binoculars.
In other words: binoculars meant for stargazing.
I’d been meaning to do this for some years and never got around to it.
Why did I put it off for so long?
Well, there was the weight.
Binoculars meant for star gazing are heavy. You just can’t get around that.
Because of their weight, star gazing binoculars are not the sort of thing to just pop into your rucksack and until February this year, Anya and I had been living out of our rucksacks for years. Crossing borders and travelling on local buses and trains – and carrying rucksacks went together. And our rucksacks were heavy enough without adding a pair of star gazer binoculars to the load.
Then came The Virus.
It started in Wuhan, China: animal to human transmission. Then it spread beyond Chinese borders, first to Italy and Iran – followed by the rest of the world.
In weeks, an epidemic became a pandemic. As infection rates spread and people began dying, borders were closed and flights were cancelled. The global connected world, which we had all taken for granted, suddenly vanished. In its place came a world of nation states and closed borders. The international travel industry collapsed. Tens of thousands of planes were grounded and airports closed.
Each day brought new dark revelations and new changes.
It was as if we were living in a science fiction movie.
Only it was real, all too real.
Before Anya and I knew it, the notion of experiencing different places and cultures – which had been the cornerstone of our lives – became a memory.
When we flew to Adelaide South Australia from Amsterdam in late January, we had planned to spend a few months there, staying in a rented shack near a beach and then later, flying to South Korea and Japan.
The Virus put an end to that. We weren’t going anywhere. And who knew for how long?
If we were going to travel somewhere, it had to be within Australia.
Our Plan B was to travel north to Central Australia in our old Japanese car with our bikes on the back, stay at caravan parks, and ride over unsealed back roads.
It was then that I decided to buy a pair of star gazer binoculars.
What did the weight matter if they were on the back seat of our car, along with our clothes and tent and insulation mats and sleeping bags and fold out chairs and supplies?
Star gazing binoculars are heavy because their viewing lens – the lens at the end of the binoculars as it were – must have a wide diameter in order to let in enough light on nights when there is no moon and in places where there is no light pollution. These requirements incidentally are essential to serious star gazing: no moon, no light pollution – along with no clouds and no upper level moisture and oh yes, let’s forget: no smog and no air pollution.
Little wonder then that deserts are the best places gaze at the stars. They are distant from cities and suburbs and the air is dry and clear. As far as the best star gazing deserts go, outback Australia is in a class all of its own. The only other place on the planet in the same league is the Atacama desert in Northern Chile. And it, like Australia, lies in the Southern Hemisphere. The Southern Hemisphere is better than the Northern Hemisphere for star gazing; it affords the best and most expansive views of the night sky.
The first time Anya and I became aware of the spectacular the night skies in the central regions of Australia was in 2009, when we embarked upon a long walking trail through the northern Flinders Ranges. The word ‘ranges’ is a euphemism; the Flinders Ranges is a series of worn down hills and cliffs and canyons, separated by open plains, which runs into the heart of the Australian continent. It is surrounded in every direction by expanses of arid semi desert. The Flinders Ranges is a hard place to live in for both animals and humans, with summer temperatures regularly between 40 and 50 degrees Centigrade.
But it is utterly sublime when it comes to the night skies.
Anya and I started in the far north of the Flinders Ranges in the winter – the only time it is possible to walk there and especially with rucksacks – and made our way south. We adopted the same approach as we’d used for years in the Indian Himalaya: carrying all our own supplies and equipment and camping out in a small tunnel tent. Our aim was to see the native yellow footed rock wallaby in its native environment.
Even by the standards of Australian wildlife, this marsupial was a very beautiful animal.
We took along a small pair of light weight travelling binoculars to spot the wallabies amongst the cliffs. It didn’t take too long before we began using them for another purpose entirely.
During the days, we plodded along and scanned cliff faces looking for an elusive rock wallaby. On the moonless nights, we peered at the stars; the sky was crammed with them from one end of the horizon to the other, almost as if there wasn’t enough room for them all.
It was then that I first thought about buying a good set of binoculars which would allow me to look deeper into those brilliant desert skies.
It took me 11 years to getting around to it.
Finally I did, thanks to The Virus.
This weird stranger appeared in our midst and for a while, it almost seemed like a blessing in disguise.
That’s what I thought then.
Later though, my ideas on that score changed drastically.
What The Virus gave with one hand it took away with the other.
It was uncontrolled. Untamed.
It arrived in Australia (cruise boats being the main source of infection) and the restrictions were ratcheted up as the virus spread.
National borders being closed was one thing.
But then the state borders were closed. One after the other.
Then everyone had to stay where they were and not move outside their locality.
‘Stay in your own postcode’ was the message.
(Stay in your postcode! Only two months previous, the world’s horizons were limitless, now our lives were narrowed down to a metaphorical pinhead!)
Everyone was advised to stay indoors. No more than two people were to be together at any one time.
It reminded me of the story of Robinson Crusoe which I had read as a kid. A man survives a shipwreck and finds himself alone on an unknown and uninhabited island. We were metaphorically like Crusoe: our ship had run aground on a reef in in uncharted waters and we were marooned on a strange place.
Behind it all was a deeper crisis.
The things we had taken for granted – economic growth, consumerism, startling advances in technology, communications and health care – were suddenly looking shaky. The aura of our modern invincibility had been challenged in a way none of us could have imagined. We were in a state of collective shock. We had thought that we were above history, that we were immune from the ravages endured by the human race for thousands of years, including deadly contagious diseases.
With all our modernity and sophistication, we were now focusing on a brutally simple goal; to defeat a virus.
It was as if we had been transported back to the Middle Ages. Indeed, the apocalyptic visions of medieval painters such as Bruegel and Bosch, men for whom sudden death and devastating plagues were no strangers, suddenly seemed uncomfortably relevant to the 21st century.
Within a short space of time, the idea of departing the city and its suburban limits and travelling to a remote place in the far north and – focusing my binoculars on the wonderful desert night skies – was relegated to the realms of the impossible.
I had bought a pair of star gazer binoculars and now had no skies worth looking at.
Talk about a lousy investment (they weren’t cheap those star gazer binoculars!).
Then again, my problems were nothing compared to so many others.
I didn’t need a pair of high powered binoculars to see the unending tragedies unfolding all around me; people who had started businesses and seen them collapse before their eyes, with huge outstanding debts and kids to support; people who had made plans for a life, all of them dependent on a regular income, and seen them evaporate. Long lines of people at the unemployment offices looking lost and frightened.
Our media focused on our plight and that of the other western nations in the world; the rest of the world was a footnote to this singular obsession. But the scraps of information we received indicated the makings of a disaster far greater than ours.
In India, Indonesia and The Philippines for example, nations I knew well from past travels, millions of the poor had lost their jobs and their paltry incomes and were forced to leave the big cities – in lock down – and walk home to their villages. Their already perilous existence became even more perilous. Their sufferings were unimaginable quite apart from their risk of being infected and dying cruel lonely deaths without any kind of medical attention.
The plight of people near to me and others much further distant, became like an unendurably heavy rucksack on my back. Weight of Sisyphus.
I could not come to terms with so much existentialist injustice and so many people confronted by tragedy and not because they had done anything wrong but because of a disease.
But I couldn’t do anything about it.
I had to find a way to get by too, in an odd way.
Then a night came when my star gazing binoculars proved their worth.
And there wasn’t a star in the sky……