When I bought my binoculars with the intention of travelling to the deserts of Central Australia, those deserts didn’t seem so far away.
A few days driving, something like that.
But then the restrictions on travel were ratcheted up – and up – and before I knew it, damn well everything was far away.
One couldn’t go anywhere excepting the supermarket and petrol station.
Stay at home was the idea.
Home? Anya and I had never actually had a home.
I started making preparations for the time when the restrictions would be eased. When we could resume our normal lives which meant going somewhere.
On clear nights, I focused on the stars which were visible despite the light pollution. During the days, especially during the early hours of the morning and the last hours of the afternoon, I watched birds and as far as that went, I was definitely in the right place; the holiday shack we were renting south of Adelaide was next to a reserve where there was a wealthy of my feathered friends including: swallows, magpies, plover, willy wag tails, field hawks and galahs.
Another form of preparation involved researching basic astronomical terms, e.g. ‘nebula’, ‘quasar’, ‘black hole’, ‘galaxy’, ‘supernova’, ‘neutron star’. I soon discovered that understanding even the basics of the universe in all its infinite dimensions, was no small task.
One day, early in April, Anya yelled out to me: ‘There’s going to a supermoon in a few days!’
She drew my attention to an article she was reading on a news website. It bore the heading:
‘A circuit breaker for the virus lockdown and all you have to do is look up!’
On April 7 it said, we would be able to see the biggest full moon of the year. It would be at least 10% bigger and brighter than a normal full moon. The reason for this was simple: in its monthly orbit around the earth the moon would draw closer to the earth than normal – it would be a mere 356, 907 kilometres away.
A circuit breaker for the lock down?
Not likely. The fact was, I wasn’t interested in the moon.
For a dedicated star gazer, the moon was an enemy as potent as clouds or pollution. The moon’s light bleached the night sky of all but the most brilliant stars. The moon, at whatever phase, made any attempt to peer into the depths of the Milky Way pretty futile.
But oh well, I thought, I might as well focus on that craterous butter ball in lieu of some decent stars.
April 7 arrived.
In Europe, a good 20 hours behind Australia, people were able to view the supermoon first. And what they saw was unique: the best supermoon in decades thanks to the absence of pollution – a direct result of the lock down and the consequent the absence of cars on the roads and emissions from factories.
Along with all its obviously negative consequences, The Virus had been extremely beneficial for the world’s environment. We got a glimpse of what might our world might look like if we ever made pollution a priority instead of worshipping economic growth to the exclusion of all else.
Anya had been making her own kind of preparations for a possible future departure.
She had gone through our pile of maps and sorted through them, selecting the ones covering the north of South Australia (an enormous area as big as France or Germany). She had spent time on the net checking towns which had caravan parks as well as places to rent.
On the afternoon of April 7, she suggested that we erect our two person tent in the backyard. I thought it was a bit premature but nevertheless the purpose of the exercise was obvious to me. The tent was a dome tent and although we had bought it a few years ago and used it many times, the chances were we had forgotten how to set it up. The problem was this: during our long years of trekking in the Indian Himalaya and then afterwards, doing long bike riding journeys in Australia, we had used tunnel tents. We were programmed to using them and setting them up quickly. The dome tent was roomier than a tunnel tent – and heavier – but its structure was quite different. So that afternoon, we went out into the backyard and after a process of trial and error, got it up, in the process remembering all the salient details.
Afterwards, we crawled inside and lay down there a while and listened to the musical chortling of the magpies.
When I went to dismantle the tent, Anya demurred.
She wanted to leave the tent up.
The sight of the tent in the backyard suggested to her adventure and hopes for the future.
It was a symbol.
Our first tunnel tent
That night, as the supermoon appeared above the hills on the horizon, the main problem wasn’t pollution – it was the clouds. Due to certain shifts in oceanic weather patterns, there were far more clouds than was usual for this time of the year – accompanied by unseasonal but very welcome rains. The summer had started with the worst bushfires in the history of South Australia and now the we were experiencing the wettest autumn in over 20 years.
Wearing warm clothes and a coat, I went out to back patio and sat in a plastic chair and focused my binoculars on the glowing orb rising over the distant hills. The moon was so bright it burnt through the clouds, almost like the sun might do during the day.
Then finally it lifted above the clouds, a large burning white sphere. I was reminded of a poem we had learnt at school: ‘The Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyes. The voice of the best English teacher I ever had, an American woman with a booming voice and raucous laughter, came back to me:
‘The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas….and the Highwayman came riding, riding….’
Anya appeared and grabbed a another plastic chair and sat next to me and we took turns with the binoculars. I began philosophising (I had looked up a few facts about the moon on the net).
The moon was formed 4.5 billion years ago (not long after our Solar System came into existence) when another planet, about the size of Mars, collided with the earth. This strange visitor had arrived out of the infinite depths of space and the impact must have been horrendous. From this point on, the fate of the moon and the earth were intimately related. The moon caused the tides and it modified the earth’s revolution on its axis having a stabilising effect on its climate.
The moon’s thick rocky crust is pock marked with large craters formed over the millions of years by the bombardment of asteroids and comets. Those craters were easy to see on this evening. I thought of the millions of meteors and comets which had once also blitzed our earth and had probably sown the first molecules of DNA – and thereby created the seeds of life on our planet. The moon – devoid of an atmosphere rich in oxygen which could burn up many of the wild visitors from space – bore the scars, whilst on earth we had inherited a chain reaction called life (although we had copped a few large meteors which had not burnt up sufficiently in our atmosphere to avoid devastating results).
From that chain reaction had eventually emerged Homo Sapiens. A form of life able to think, analyse, record – and imagine.
The moon, so close to the earth, was its soul mate. The moon and the earth were two sides of the same coin.
One, a scarred ball of rock. The other rich in water and life.
My photo of the supermoon that night
Anya listened to my philosophising and said that maybe the moon was barren and scarred, but it was also very beautiful.
She was glad we had left the tent up. With its dome shape illuminated by the moonlight, it looked like a spaceship, she said.
Spaceship for two. Drifting through space and time.
Yeah, beautiful madness, what would we do without it?
After she went to bed, I grabbed my MP3 player and ate a small part of marijuana biscuit and went back outside and listened to Mozart’s String Quartets, whilst gazing at the moon.
Einstein summed it up beautifully when he said that it’s as if The Music with its perfect balance and harmony had always been there and that Mozart had discovered it – in the same he discovered the Law of Relativity.
In the early hours of the morning, I sidled into bed next to Anya and with the music of Mozart replaying in my mind, drifted off into space.
Inside our capsule of two.
After a few hours of deep sleep and strange dreams, I woke up and found myself looking at a scene from over 20 years ago.
The spaceship had landed on a foreign planet. I stepped out.
Anya and I were trekking in a high altitude valley in one of the Tibetan Buddhist regions of the Himalaya. The valley was, even by the standards of the region, brutally inhospitable. It was like a high altitude tunnel, of rocks and boulders jammed between towering cliffs and snow bound peaks. Water tumbled over the rocks in angry streams, sometimes forming deep pools, other times disappearing under the rocks.
The echoes of water, restless, reverberated in the silence.
After a long day of carrying heavy rucksacks and with darkness descending, we were desperate to find somewhere to stop for the night. As small as our tunnel tent was, we could not find anywhere flat enough to set it up.
Then we saw them almost as soon as we were upon them.
Chortens, standing there like mysterious sentinels. Evidence of human beings.
The chorten was symbolic of a meditating Buddha. Unlike the grandiose chortens often seen in the large monasteries – concrete and painted white – these were typical village chortens constructed from mud and stones. There were two rows of them, maybe five or six in each row. They were about two metres high; they had a square base, a section on top which was roughly cylinder-like and on top of that, a crown, consisting of smaller section of mud and stone. These chortens had been white washed, but the crowns were daubed with red-brown clay.
Usually chortens were seen in the village fields.
What were these chortens doing here?
And where was the village?
Dog tired, we looked around us.
On the left of the chortens was a long ravine. We looked down the ravine and saw nothing but a chaos of rocks and cliffs.
Then scanning the opposite side of the valley, we saw it: a village. A cluster of traditional, flat roofed mud brick houses, like a wasps nest, set directly next to the cliff face. On the steep descending slope beneath the village, like a series of steps, were small fields bordered by low rock walls. Each field, brisling with ripening green yellow barley, was a different shape and size. The network of walls separating the fields looked like brown veins. In some of the fields people were weeding; the men clad in the long red robes normally worn by lamas, and the women in goatskin jackets and long black dresses. On a long scree slope near the fields were grazing yaks and a girl with a herd of goats.
It was inconceivable that anyone could survive in such a place (and by this stage, we were well accustomed to seeing people in the Tibetan Buddhist areas of the Indian Himalaya living in seemingly impossible places). There was no communication with the outside world other than by days of walking over a thin trail through a quarry scape. There was no access to any kind of medical care or government rations of kerosene and food – available to the villagers in the less hostile areas of the Himalaya. The simplest physical complaint could easily result in death. During the winters, 5 months long, temperatures could plummet to -50. These people had to grow enough barley during the spring and summer in order to survive the long arctic winters, when they sat inside their tiny dwellings. In their own way, they were akin to high altitude Eskimos.
Well could Anya and I remember on our first trek into Zanskar in the spring of 1987 when we came to a village which had been buried under a landslide during the winter. Days later, at the monastery of Lamayuru, we listened to the story of a lama who had joined a group of villagers and lamas who gone out there to investigate and found two children who had survived the cataclysm.
‘This Zanskar’ he said in his broken English, ‘Is a terrible country!’
Yes, it was a terrible country alright and the survival of people in the high altitude valleys of the highest and most desolate areas of the Himalaya was a miracle. A hard won miracle at that.
We were a long way from the meditating Buddha sitting under the Bodhi Tree on the banks of the Ganges in 500 BC. Many times during our treks, I had wrestled with the contradiction between lamas residing in the monasteries engaged in the pursuit of enlightenment – and the all too earthly sufferings of the villagers.
On this afternoon however, seeing those rows of chortens and the village in that implacably hostile setting, my physical being almost paralysed with exhaustion, the only thing I felt was amazement.
No questions, no inner debates, no doubts, no thoughts.
Typical village chortens
Evening was closing in.
We had no time to waste.
We found a patch of gritty sand near a stream emanating from between boulders. It wasn’t a great spot but by this time we didn’t have much choice. We had just enough time to rinse ourselves off in the stream using a metal mug, put on our thermal underwear and have something to eat before crawling into our sleeping bags – before night fell, inky black and cold.
That night we awoke and heard a faint sound of singing coming from somewhere, mingling with the echoes of the water.
We got up to take a look – and then stood there staring in disbelief.
A powerful beam of moonlight – it must have a full moon – shone from out of the side ravine with the intensity of a laser beam, illuminating the rows of white-washed chortens and the cliffs and mountain peaks directly behind them.
The rest of the valley was enshrouded in total darkness.
Where was the singing coming from?
Then we saw them: a group of villagers standing next to the chortens. Adults and children, men and women.
The villagers had gone to a lot of work to build those chortens at the intersection between the side ravine and the valley. Time and energy they could ill afford given the exigencies of their tough and relentless lives. It was an astounding idea: those symbolic Buddhas of mud and stone had been constructed in exactly the place where the full moon shone through the side ravine and into the valley.
They were moon worshippers.
In the ethereal brilliance of the moonlight they saw the saw an earthly visualisation of Nirvana.
One day, sooner or later, when the restrictions were eased, we´d be there, up north, where the night skies were a star gazer´s paradise.
But as I lay there in bed reliving the past, lying in a small tent in a distant valley with my best friend, with the music of water and the singing of the full moon worshippers echoing in the night, I didn’t want to go anywhere.
It could wait.
The Highwayman – Alfred Noyes
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh.
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard.
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened. His face was white and peaked.
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s red-lipped daughter.
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—
“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight,
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”
He rose upright in the stirrups. He scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair in the casement. His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
(O, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.
He did not come in the dawning. He did not come at noon;
And out of the tawny sunset, before the rise of the moon,
When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop came marching—
King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door.
They said no word to the landlord. They drank his ale instead.
But they gagged his daughter, and bound her, to the foot of her narrow bed.
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
There was death at every window;
And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.
They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest.
They had bound a musket beside her, with the muzzle beneath her breast!
“Now, keep good watch!” and they kissed her. She heard the doomed man say—
Look for me by moonlight;
Watch for me by moonlight;
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!
She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!
The tip of one finger touched it. She strove no more for the rest.
Up, she stood up to attention, with the muzzle beneath her breast.
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s refrain.
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horsehoofs ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding—
The red coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still.
Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
Nearer he came and nearer. Her face was like a light.
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.
He turned. He spurred to the west; he did not know who stood
Bowed, with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it, and his face grew grey to hear
How Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.
Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high.
Blood red were his spurs in the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat;
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.
And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.
Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard.
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred.
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.