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……
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…..
Late one afternoon in winter, Anya and I arrived in a small town called Marrabel.
We were hitch hiking north.
Marrabel was the ‘mid north’ and we were on our way to the Flinders Ranges which lay in the ‘far north’.
The mid-north was lush country in comparison with the far north. There were rolling hills which in winter garnered enough rain to make planting wheat and grazing sheep possible. Many of the gum trees were large, quite a contrast to the stunted versions in the far north which was semi-desert.
Most of the people who ‘lived’ in Marrabel didn’t actually live there, but rather, somewhere out of Marrabel, 10, 20, kilometres away.
Only 50 people lived in Marrabel itself.
We arrived late on a blustery, sunny, winter’s afternoon.
Along the ‘main street’ – the only street – were some old colonial era houses on one side and a small park on the other. There was not a single person to be seen anywhere. The only noise to be heard was the wind whistling through the trees.
At the end of the ‘main street’, on the corner of a T junction was a pub.
On one corner of the junction, directly opposite the pub, was an electricity sub-station, a mass of wires and terminals behind a high metal bar fence glinting in the sun.
There was also a statue of a horse next to it but we didn’t see that.
We came to the pub, eased off our heavy rucksacks and left them outside and walked inside. There was no one there except for a woman standing behind the bar wiping glasses. We made our way past tables and chairs and approached the bar. Behind the woman was a sign above a row of spirits bottles which read: ‘When I die bury me under the pub, that way my husband will visit me every day’.
Her name was Wendy. She was tall, middle-aged, with short blond hair. Unlike so many Australians, she was not overweight.
We asked about accommodation.
We had our tent with us – in preparation for a long walk in the Flinders Ranges – but we’d camped out the last few nights in some rough places and now we wanted to have an easy night: dump our stuff in a corner, not have to put up the tent, have a shower, sleep on a bed.
But the Marrabel pub didn’t have any rooms.
Wendy was apologetic and made a suggestion:
‘You can put your tent up down on the rodeo ground and I can make you a meal tonight.’
She wasn’t sure, but she thought there was a shower somewhere on the rodeo ground.
I knew nothing about rodeos. I couldn’t imagine ever going to one. My idea of a rodeo was from my childhood when I was raised on diet of American westerns: check- shirted cowboys with ten gallon hats riding wildly cavorting bucking horses and yelling ‘yippee!
A rodeo was an American invention and I assumed it was something recently introduced into Australia, like grid-iron and basketball.
When I expressed this opinion, Wendy’s reaction was immediate and impassioned and I realised I had made a mistake:
‘Marrabel’s had a rodeo for 70 years!It’s famous all over Australia!’
I was intrigued: a town with no shops, no petrol station, whose official population was 50 – and it was famous all over Australia?For 70 years?
Seemed like local chauvinism gone mad to me.
But I was wrong about that. Every year, in October, Marrabel, a nothing little town in South Australia’s mid-north, became a major stop on Australia’s national rodeo circuit. On that one day of the year it underwent a Cinderella-like transformation.
‘We can get anywhere up to 7, 8,000 people’ Wendy said ‘from all around Australia. From that one day in the year, we make enough money to finance our football and netball teams.’
Just how did this one-horse town get onto the national rodeo circuit?
As it turned out: because of one horse.
Wendy pointed in the direction of the door:
‘There’s a statue just outside at the corner of the intersection next to the electricity sub station….’
There came a time in my life when I began to detest Christmas.
When I was a kid though, Christmas was kind of magic.
Santa was busy back in those days, bringing presents to kids all over the world, even distant South Australia. His heavy red clothes, long white beard, sled, and reindeer, didn’t prevent him from mysteriously appearing in Australia in the middle of summer – when 35 degrees centigrade was nothing out of the ordinary.
So there it was in our lounge: a synthetic Christmas tree covered in fake snow and bright coloured lights. Christmas dinner: roast turkey and vegetables followed by plum pudding and custard.
The air conditioner working overtime.
Even then I detected a kind disconnect about Christmas.
At the church I attended I heard about the supposed reason for Christmas: the birth of Jesus Christ. On the one hand this divine miracle and on the other, Father Christmas and his reindeer and a plastic pine tree covered in lights and the next morning, presents under the tree.
A time came when I was too old to believe in Father Christmas.I became rather cynical. Strip away the hype and Christmas was really just an orgy of spending, over eating and drinking; a consumer event accompanied by an advertising blitz. This whilst all over the world, there were so many people living in dire need.
From that point on, Christmas was to an event to be endured. The idea of having a memorable Christmas seemed impossible. I did my best to be somewhere in the world where they didn’t celebrate Christmas. Which was how I ended in a place which I thought was as far away from Christmas as you could possibly get: a small town in southern India famous for its Hindu temples.
On a Sunday in the summer of 2010, on a bike trip in the south east of Belgium, Anya and I stopped for the night in the city of Diest. Late in the afternoon we went for a walk around it’s beautiful old centre dating from the early Middle Ages.
Everything was closed and the streets deserted except for one place: a small shrine cum museum. It was over 400 years old and dedicated to a young man who in the early 17th century had walked to Rome on a pilgrimage. It was a hard journey; on the way he was attacked by a bear and badly injured; he had kept going, only to be robbed and beaten by thieves. Recovered, though badly injured, he had continued the journey until he reached The Holy City, where he had died shortly afterwards.
His name was Jan Berchmans (pronounced ‘yan bergmanz’) and he would have been forgotten, slipped into the mists of history, had not been for his being canonized by the Pope. This changed everything. For centuries afterwards, Diest became the destination of pilgrims from all over Belgium. Saint Jan Berchmans was worshipped en masse with ceremonies led by the local Bishops.
In recent times however, Saint Jan Berchmans had been relegated to obscurity.
The caretaker of the shrine was probably fairly typical of the prevailing attitudes:
‘Why he was made a saint? He hadn’t performed any miracles. All he did was walk to Rome. These days you can drive to Rome in a day! The Vatican would probably like to annul his sainthood, but it can’t really, it would set a bit of precedent….’
The memory of visiting the shrine of Saint Jan slipped into the past, lost amongst a welter of other travel experiences, until October this year when it suddenly surfaced again, this time in a very different area of Europe….