Tag Archives: camping

This tenting life – birds, books and bush

17 May

I’ve spent five of the last six weeks sleeping in a tent. And while I did love staying in a house in Margaret River – thank you Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival! – I was keen to get back in the tent. Living out of a tent is a very immersive experience. There is almost nothing between you and the environment. You hear every bird call, every shower of rain and every wind gust. It seeps into you, this richness. In the house, I enjoyed the soft bed, the hot water and cooking in a proper kitchen. But I missed the birds.

Camping in the middle of Wilpena Pound, Flinders Ranges

I’ve never been a birdwatcher, but I’m trying. I’ve got binoculars and a bird book and when I see a little brown bird I attempt to identify it. It’s been enjoyable trying to put a name to all those flitting friends.

The other thing about camping is that there is often no phone reception in the places – mainly national parks – where we like to camp. The result of this is that I’ve read a lot of books. I’ve found some treasures here and there, given to me by other travellers or picked up at a roadside stop. I also read on my kindle and listen to audio books in the car. I’ve posted a list of all the books I’ve read and the birds I’ve seen below and chosen a favourite of each.

In a couple of weeks, on May 31st, I’ll be talking at Katherine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in Perth and then from June 13 to 16, I’ll be at Geraldton Big Sky Writers Festival. I’ll make an effort to spruce myself up a bit before then, so I don’t look like I just crawled out of a tent!

Emus at Flinders Ranges

Books read over the last six weeks.

‘The Story of a Marriage’ by Andrew Sean Greer

‘Catching Teller Crow’ by Ambelin and Ezekial Kwaymullina

‘The Third Wheel’ by Michael J. Richie

‘Imaginary Friends’ by Alison Lurie

‘A Widow for One Year’ by John Irving

‘The World Made Straight’ by Ron Rash

‘Dead Parrot’ by John Huxley

‘Women in Black’ by Madeleine St John

‘Longbourne’ by Jo Baker

‘Coming Rain’ by Stephen Daisley

‘The End of all our Exploring’ by Catherine Anderson

‘The Passenger’ Lisa Lutz

‘The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells’ Andrew Sean Greer

‘The Big Twitch’ Sean Dooley

‘Life List’ Olivia Gentile

‘The Lessons’ Naomi Alderton

Favourite book: ‘Catching Teller Crow’ by Ambelin and Ezekial Kwaymullina

Birds sighted (and identified) over the last six weeks.

Pardalote

Hooded plover

Flame robin

Yellow-tailed black cockatoo

Wedge-tailed eagle

Magpie

Sulphur-crested cockatoo

Galah

White-browed scrub wren

Richard’s pipit

Eastern rosella

Crimson rosella

Rainbow lorikeet

Raven

Spur-winged plover

Currawong

Black-headed cuckoo-shrike

Little hawk

Swallow

Major Mitchell Cockatoo

Purple-crowned lorikeet

Superb blue wren

Port Lincoln parrot

Grey shrike-thrush

Hooded robin

Red-eared firetail

Chestnut-breasted shelduck

White-tailed black cockatoo

Kookaburra

Peregrine falcon

Red-capped parrot

Rufous treecreeper

Rock parrot

Red-capped dotterel

Sooty oystercatcher

Pied oystercatcher

Crested tern

Samphire thornbill

Emu

Red wattle bird

Australian bustard

Golden whistler

Silvereye

White-eared honeyeater

Willy wagtail

Brush bronzewing pigeon

Sanderling

Pacific Gull

Silver Gull

Brown falcon

Dusky wood swallow

Mulga parrot

White-browed babbler

Mallee ring-necked parrot

Pelican

Black swan

Butcher bird

Budgerigar

Wood duck

Caspian tern

Elegant parrot

Ibis

Corella

Favourite bird: Major Mitchell Cockatoo

Bad Pilgrims – Cycling the Shikoku Pilgrimage

13 Mar

In April last year, I spent three weeks cycling the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage in Japan. We only got to Temple Forty, but we had an amazing time. Here’s my article in Metropolis Japan.

Bad Pilgrims

My husband, my son and I are in a fast food store in Tokushima on the island of Shikoku, about to embark on a pilgrimage to the eighty-eight Buddhist temples which ring the island. This pilgrimage usually takes six to eight weeks to walk. As we only have three weeks we plan to cycle. That should be plenty of time, we think.

The pilgrimage is my idea. I have been obsessed with it for many years. I have, in fact, written a whole novel about a woman who wants to do this pilgrimage. It is counter-intuitive to do it now, when I have already written the book, but I like to mix things up.

‘I will not complain if things do not go well while on the pilgrimage, but consider such experiences to be part of the ascetic training,’ states the oath in our guidebook. As our plan is to ride 1200 kilometres on a bike designed for short urban commutes this seems ominous.

The commandments in the guidebook are more specific, ‘I will not harm life, steal, commit adultery, lie, exaggerate, speak abusively, cause discord, be greedy, hateful or lose sight of the Truth.’ While we finish our hamburgers we debate whether this means we can’t eat meat. We decide that it probably does.

After a couple of false leads, we find the bike hire down in the basement outside the train station. The staff, two friendly gentlemen, seem surprised that we want the bikes for three weeks. We hand over a bond of thirty dollars per bike and set forth with no other identification needed. Only in Japan.

At the first temple I persuade my family that we all need to buy a hakui, or white vest. This identifies us as pilgrims. The writing on the back asks Kobo Daishi, the revered founder of the pilgrimage, to keep us safe. At any rate, it will be good for visibility on the roads.

I also buy a tote bag, some paper ‘prayer slips’ to give to people who help us and a brocade-covered book which will be stamped at each temple. There is a range of other paraphernalia which we decline.

Our guidebook says that Tokushima area, our starting point, is the place of spiritual awakening. As we cycle around the island we will pass through the place of ascetic training, the place of enlightenment, and finally, the place of nirvana. That’s something to look forward to.

The procedure for temple visits is outlined in our guidebook and, if done correctly, would take quite some time. We distil it to a ten minute version which includes bowing, hand-washing, bell ringing and book stamping.

Despite our efficient temple visits, by the end of day one we are already behind schedule. We’ve fiddled around with our backpacks – on back or in basket? – dealt with a flat tyre and experimented with GPS and riding attire. The walking pilgrims smile and wave at us as we go by. And then again as they go past us shortly after. I sense we are becoming a running joke.

We had intended to spend the night in the bell tower of temple six, but shortly after temple five it is getting dark and starts to rain. We find a little henro, or pilgrim, hut beside the road and call it a day. The host of the shelter, an old man, drops by and soon returns with two more tatami mats for sleeping. He mimes a squatting action and points at his house to indicate we can use the toilet. We buy pork curry at the convenience store down the road and skulk out, hoping no-one will notice what bad pilgrims we are. The rain patters on the roof and we curl up on the tatami mats in our sleeping bags. Extraordinarily, this pilgrimage is unfolding just as I’d imagined.

The next day brings the start of the osettai – traditional gifts to pilgrims. I buy some mandarins and an old lady throws in some dried sweet potato. I give her one of my prayer slips and she looks chuffed beyond belief. Throughout the journey we are showered with lollies, hot drinks and fruit. I feel like the whole island is cheering us on.

On the third day we tackle temple twelve, the ‘pilgrim crusher’, named for its location on top of a mountain. We push up a 400 metre pass, then on the long ride down I get a flat tyre and we retire to the nearest village for repairs. Some lovely ladies insist on giving us lunch as osettai and we even manage some conversation. When we eventually make it to temple twelve there is snow on the ground.

After a week we hit Kochi prefecture, the place of ascetic training, and finally leave the walking pilgrims behind. We stay in henro huts plastered with prayer slips, in free rooms in temples and in our tent. We aim to find campsites with the hat-trick – hot baths, a convenience store and a toilet.

We camp next to a ropeway station, on a rocky point with crashing waves, beside a lively frog pond and in a patch of wasteland with a large boat as a wind shelter. After an eighty kilometre ride down the last wild river in Japan we find a campsite in the dark and set up to a rising orange moon. We sleep in a temple garage and watch sunset bathe the bell tower in a soft golden light.

I learn that singing keeps your spirits up when you’re on a narrow ramp in a dark tunnel and that the less you have, the easier it gets.  I also learn that large grapefruit will always be given as presents before climbing hills. I think I am becoming a pilgrim.

At temple forty, the furthest point from temple one, we run out of time. Hiring a large car, we dismantle our bikes and slot them inside. We return the car at Takamatsu, one days ride from Tokushima. Even though we have not reached nirvana, or even enlightenment, we have passed our ascetic training with flying colours.

We ride into Tokushima to find that the long-heralded cherry blossom season has at last arrived. Every time the wind blows, petals fall like snow. We wheel our bikes back down into the basement and the rental man seems pleased to see us. After some confusion, where we pass money back and forth between us, we establish that there is no more to pay – the deposit is enough. Our bicycle hire has cost us less than five dollars a day.

We’ll be back. How could we not when enlightenment and nirvana are still to come?