In a big country.

Everything is big these days.  Big meals.  Big games. Big news.  Big risks.  Bigger promises, backed by bigger lies.  And today’s big is much bigger than yesterday’s, and will be much smaller than tomorrow’s.  Yesterday’s big TV will be tomorrow’s phone screen.  Everything is so big, and hence so uniformly forgettable, that when you come face to face with things of genuinely enormous magnitude it takes you by surprise.

Four and half hours out of Melbourne airport and I’m still in Australia.  For much of that time the view down from the window has shown nothing but red soil and rock pocked hills running off into the distance.  The flight path to Darwin takes you over Australia’s red centre, over lands that are some of the most thinly populated in the world.  For the most part, over landscapes not riven by the familiar comfort of road or rail.  The straight and narrow of human transport is missing – instead the land is broken only by lines of stone and the transitions of geology and climate.

A flight across the heart of Australia, from southern Melbourne to northern Darwin, gives you more than enough time to think about the real meaning of the word ‘big’. Four hours and more of flying gives a sense of scale that is often missing in the simple facts and figures.

But in this case, the facts and figures are almost enough by themselves. 

If the Northern Territory, with Darwin as its capital, sat alone as a country it would be the 20th largest in the world.  Larger than France.  Larger than Germany.  Almost six times larger than the United Kingdom.   Countries that stride the world stage with a confidence disproportional to their size would slip easily into the coat pockets of the Northern Territory – assuming it even got cold enough there to need a coat.

You don’t ever really get a feel for how crowded a place is until you go somewhere essentially empty.  About 240,000 people live in the Northern Territory, with more than half of these people living in Darwin.  Reading in the UK, Geelong in Australia and Glendale in Arizona have the about the same population as the entire NT.  The part of Somerset in which I was born also has a similar population, packed into are area 1/380,000th of the size of the NT – and it never struck me as crowded!  Such numbers, such disparities of scale, are almost beyond comprehension.  I was born into a place of classic rural Englishness, small woodlands, streams that flooded in winter but ran all year thanks to regular rain and fields of almost incandescent greenness.  There were always villages and people just over the hill, or waiting in the valley bottoms. There were four seasons, which changed with a kind of fluid predictability.  Sun in summer, dull rain and sometimes snow in the winter.  Spring with a riot of new green and migrant birds.  Autumn with leaf colours, conkers and the first touches of frost.  You were never far from rain.  The seasons behaved themselves and made sense. They mirrored the stories in books and on the TV.

But around Darwin there are only really two seasons -  a wet one and a dry one.   Talk of spring or winter is little more than an attempt to force a round southern peg into a northern square hole.   I arrive well into the dry.  Temperatures in the early morning are cool, but by the afternoon it’s an energetic version of warm.  You need a hat, but not for warmth. Cool water is better than hot chocolate – although tea in the morning is still welcome. This is not winter in any way that makes sense.

I fidget in my seat, watching the land from the air, my book lodged in the seat pocket, ignored.  I cannot settle.  Too many thoughts.  Too much anticipation.  Ideas roll around my head, like marbles on a table or stones on a wave washed beach.  Only when these ideas collide does anything new form.  Ideas as impacts and sand; percussive and shifting.  Long distance adventures and the wonderful smallness of home.  Summer in January.  Seasons as rainfall.  Fire as a maker creator not a destroyer. A land that has been walked on and known for 60,000 years or maybe longer, making a mockery of the idea of emptiness or wilderness.  A place beloved of myth makers and interveners.  A place that, for much of the time, is ignored and for many (myself included) remains essentially unknown.   

This is a different kind of north.

On the first evening in Darwin I walk in a park by the water.  A long hem of green stitched between the city and the sea. The path wanders, meanders even, through benched viewpoints and flowering trees.  The piles of clothes and football themed bags stacked under the benches speak of something I cannot see.  Directly opposite my hotel is a War Memorial, simultaneously saying that we will remember, and reminding us not to forget.  Blank stonewalls wait on either side of the memorial for more names to be added: virgin pasture where the ambitions of old men can be sown with the blood of the young.  A couple sit on the steps, eating takeaway from cardboard cartons.  The air smells of cigarette smoke, beer and fried food.  I don’t know if this is disrespect or the kind of freedom that was hoped for by the names engraved on the walls around them.  

The evening is warm and the sea adds salt to the mix.  Below the bushes, off to the side of the path, in the dust and the weeds, a family of Double Barred Finches beg for food and squabble in a feathery heap.  Orange-footed Scrubfowl mine beneath the larger trees.  With pointed heads and fast moving feet they search for food in the mulch.  Dig and look, dig and look.  As the light fades small groups of people begin to gather under trees, loose groups that talk in a language I can’t follow.  Bright lights flare in cupped hand and the sea breeze pushing flame and smoke away from their dark faces.  This is a vision of Australia that I rarely see.  My leafy suburban home is a world away from here.

In the dark before the next dawn, I walk back out through the gates of my hotel.  The groups of people are still there, some sleeping, some standing by the sea wall - silhouettes cast against the pale of the sea sky.  I can’t help but wonder how many times this scene has played itself out.  And it surprises me still that in my life time the original people of Australia were still excluded from any formal census.  We can protect, even explain, the actions of those who came before us by saying that ‘things were different then’.  But the lack of humanity needed to dismiss people as being no more than part of the fauna of the continent defies belief.   

I find such thoughts, such observations, hard to bear.  They weigh me down when they occur – I have no idea how the people who carry the real consequences of such things manage to do so. Some statistics would suggest that they do not.

The line of light between sea and sky has widened a little, though the streets are dark away from the pools of lamplight.  In the fig trees that flank the road birds squabble and bats talk.  Walking back towards the light of the hotel gate I hope the day will bring clarity of thought – or at least the stillness in which new things can grow.

A brightly lit four-wheel drive wagon pulls up, the pale hull of a boat following like a metal tail.  Fishing rods waggle over the stern of the boat, like antennae or whiskers.  The wagon is cleaner than any fishing vehicle I have ever seen; no smell of bait, no half eaten lunches or abandoned coffee cups. No scatter of hook packets or boxes of lead weights. It’s shocking really.  But it does give everyone more legroom, and you don’t have to drive with the windows open.

Soon the road opens into the kind of straightness that signifies open spaces and far-flung places.  A few roadside wallabies hop away from the lights of the wagon and an owl, otherwise unidentified, drifts through the beams. Away from the sea the night seems to have crept back, so that it is darker than before and the line between sky and land fades to ambiguity.  The headlights drown out the stars and we drive in a bubble of light in the darkness.

Up ahead, a pale glow reveals itself as a truck stop where we pull in to buy functional coffee and ugly but delicious bacon rolls. Putting the coffee in a cup holder in the wagon it feels like a small desecration.  We turn left from the bitumen road onto one of gravel and dust.  The wheels clatter chunk over bumps and the coffee in the cup vibrates in sympathy.  By the time we reach the water I can see clear arches of dirt on the windscreen where the wipers have caused an otherwise unseen change.

As the boat is readied, I walk down to the jetty where other craft are tied up. A large dragonfly, not yet sun warmed, perches on a branch that reaches down to grab my hat.  In the distance a flock of Magpie Geese take wing; hundreds of birds, maybe more, like smoke on the horizon.  There is a faint chill in the air; like a memory of something that has yet to happen.  Wisps of smoky vapour lift from the water and disappear into nothingness in the air.  A communication between the two great oceans of water – the liquid and the gas.  Blocky boats, drawn from the simplest parts of both house and boat hold fast to moorings, ungainly, their sides wrapped in two forms of water.  A state change where things become new, but stay the same. 

If water had a memory, what would be its dream state? Would it hark back to the crystalline order of ice?  The disorder of liquid water in which all things are found? Would it long for the space filling capacity of gas, where it could be everywhere at all times, and still be absent?  And what of me?  Would I also hark back to some time past or does the dream state lie ahead?  How long would I have to wait here to find the answers to the questions?

I realise that somebody is calling my name.  The cascade of thoughts breaks off and I walk away from the jetty and towards our boat.

For me, fishing is about silence and repetition – the cast and recast, and the quiet observation are hypnotic, therapeutic.  So it comes as a disappointment that today we will be trolling for fish.  A lure is towed behind the boat, concentrating on fishy looking areas; it is not the most energetic way to fish.  I have heard this method likened to looking for a lost golf ball with a lawn mower – you just drive about, backwards and forwards, until you collide with your target.  This may be unfair – and the need to flick the rod tip every 10 seconds or so does add a sense of rhythm, but it feels very passive.  Two fish come to the boat, neither to me and a third is lost.  The sky lightens to full blue and I continue to troll.  No more fish come to the hook and we seem not to be able to try anything different – maybe there is no need, maybe the fish really are not in the mood, maybe it’s just me and my confused thoughts putting the fish off the feed.

We are fishing in Corroboree Billabong, an off-shoot of the Mary River.  We meet no more fish and but many crocodiles.  The first is disappointing, the second predictable, as these waters hold more crocodiles than anywhere else in the whole of Australia. They rise from the riverbed – logs come to life – and swim off through the clear water.  They thrash away from the surface of weed beds, disturbed by the boat and they bask in the sun on muddy banks – solar panels with teeth.  If find myself valuing the stability and space of the boat.

If the fishing is slow then the wildlife is more than compensation.  As the waters of last season’s rain run out and off to the sea the wildlife of the top end gathers around the shrinking waterholes and falling rivers.  There still seems to be plenty of water in the Billabong, but the level is the best part of three metres lower than its peak.  At high water this is an inland sea of fresh water – spreading landscape wide as far as the eye can see.  It would surely be a thing to witness.

Dragonflies are now thick over the lily patches, flycatchers flash past and Rainbow Bee-eaters hunt from flowered watch-posts.  The hunter becomes the hunted as a bee-eater catches a large dragonfly and subdues it by smashing it, hard and often, onto a branch.  The diversity is remarkable, the food webs uncertain.

We eat lunch sat in the boat, tied below a tree, shaded by the branches and the number of Kites that sit on them; a congregation of birds of prey, hoping to share some part of our lunch.  In the water Sooty Grunter snatch slowly sinking pieces of bread, but ignore our lures.  Lunch spot fish educated beyond the tricks of my amateur hour castings.  Out-foxed by a fish.

We keep trolling and the fish keep staying away.  Sea Eagles wait, also unfulfilled, for a fish to show itself.  High in the trees the eagles have the best view of the water and we have the best view of them. I assume that in the long run the eagles will always out-fish the people.  Kingfishers do the same.  Nature is waving at me and laughing; it has a valid point.

Eventually the fishing comes to an end – one last troll, one last hope for collision, but nothing happens.  The fish have won, and I have seen more than enough to keep me happy: the dawn mist alone made the early start worthwhile.  All else is a bonus.

I return to my hotel fishless but happy. 


On the grass across the road there are still groups of people who I do not know how to reach.  Some small part of the happiness drains away.   It’s a different kind of north and it needs a different kind of response.

Waders and wet meadows.

I woke to the sound of gulls fighting over a fish.  Possibly both herring.  I lay still and let the sounds of the day come to me.  Swallows chittered softly somewhere and house sparrows chattered to each other from the bushes in the garden below.  There was a sharp rhythmic pinging sound as a rope slapped against a flagpole that proudly flew the flag of Orkney.  Bright sun leaked around the edges of the blinds, even though it was only just gone 5 o’clock.  Here, the tilt of the Earth brings early mornings and late evenings; there is no midnight sun, but the days of summer are long.  Compared to the tram bustle and traffic drone of Melbourne, such sounds are a lullaby and I quickly fall back into sleep.   Strangely, even the morning sounds of a place I have never visited before sound more familiar than the soundscape I have awoken to for more than 20 years.  That may explain why my return to sleep was so rapid, so predictable.

A couple of hours later I wake for real.  The gulls have gone, but the slap, slap, slap of the rope against the flagpole remains.  A breeze of varying strength will be my companion for the next few days; an Orkney weather constant I am told.  I suspect that I can also hear the whispered conversations of the local people, saying that the sunny weather will not last, cannot last.  But it does.

After breakfast we go in search of birds.  The mainland of Orkney does not have the abundance of wildlife of some places, but what it does have is a way of taking you back in time, to when plenty was a given, and rarity was not the new normal.  It’s a place where you expect, rather than just hope, to see things.  It’s a place where fields hold birds and flowers as well as grass and cows.  It’s a place where the edges are soft and uncertain, where diversity thrives in the absence of the ruler’s edge and the laser’s guide.  Field corners and fence posts hold surprises; owls fly unexpected over the road and flocks of eider, hidden by the edge of the shore, take flight on wings that whistle.  We hear the creaking call of a corncrake, a bird that winters in Africa and breeds in the long summer days of Scotland.  It’s a bird ill-suited to modernity, a bird that needs long grass and untidy corners in which to thrive.  Empathy may be impossible, the mind of the bird an unknown, but I think I know how it feels. 

It is undoubtedly an illusion, but heading to the southern islands of Orkney feels as if you are going down hill.  To the north, there are tall cliffs that are home to Fulmar and Guillemot, and a few Puffin; the people’s favourite.  Rock Doves, the wild first fathers of the urban pigeon, live in fear of Peregrine and you are never far from the sound of wave on stone.  Atop of Marwick Head a monument to Kitchener overlooks the cold waters where he died, his boat hit by a mine.  It’s both a strange and an appropriate place to commemorate World War One’s poster boy.  The long shadow of war reaches even to these cliffs, which seem to be haunted by more than just gulls.

The road south from the hotel takes us over a Churchill Barrier, another intrusion from the world of war into these cold waters.  The great natural harbour of Scarpa Flow is surrounded by Orcadian Islands, and the water the flowed between these islands could have brought submarines to attack the great fleet sitting at anchor.  So the ways were blocked, first with sunken ships and then, more lastingly, with barriers of stone and concrete.  The ships are fading with time, tumbling down to rust and broken beams.  But the barriers are still there.  Where they once brought protection they now bring changes.  Currents that flowed for thousands of years stopped in a geological heartbeat and sand that was once washed away formed new beaches on old rock.  Built by Italian prisoners of war, the barriers produced a landscape that looks more Mediterranean than Scottish, although my experience of both is weak.  In the strand line Ringed Plovers search for food in short rushed journeys, pausing to watch us watching it, pausing between tiny morsels of food.  Their stop start motion seems never ending, a life full of searching and uncertainty.  A dog bursts from the sand dunes, all flailing ears and disjointed limbs.  This is too much for the plovers, which take flight with sharp, ringing calls.  The wind, ever present, pushes the birds inland, over the dunes, out of sight.

The owner of the dog appears though a gap in the dunes and the Plovers never come back.  The dog runs in the waves and bites the water in excitement.  The owner takes a different approach and sits at the dune edge and watches.  The sea brings more sand to the beach and the wind takes some away.  Our footprints fill behind us, while the sand to our front is smooth and unbroken.  The wind keeps blowing. 

All hints of morning cloud have been shifted away by the wind, and the sky is deep blue and vast.  Sea smells and sounds fill the air.  From the far end of the beach the laughter and happy screams of cold-water swimmers add the only human sound.  Overhead, Little Terns screech protests at the dog and his owner, both of whom seem oblivious to the presence of the birds.  The terns are as tiny as their name suggests, but their voices are much louder.  They are flashy flyers with rolls and steep, wing bending turns and dives.  Plastic replicas, convincingly coloured, but unconvincingly still, sit on empty nests, presumably to encourage more authentic breeding.  The real terns are too fast and too tiny for pictures – and I suspect that the letter of the law prevents too close an approach.  These are bird for wonder and watching; there is little need for anything else.

On the hills beyond the edge of the island, a little further south, the view opens to show the line of the Barrier back towards the Mainland island.  The block ship sticks from the water, broken teeth, jagged with rust.  It’s only later that I find out that these sunken ships failed in their last task – to protect the great ships of war that sat vulnerable at anchor in Scarpa Flow.  834 men paid with their lives for that failure when the Royal Oak was sunk by a submarine in the autumn of 1939.   In the bright sun, with the wind pushing land waves of tall grass towards us, it is hard to believe that so much death and horror could come to a place so far from the centre of things.  Orkney has been many things to many people, but a vision of the islands as charnel house and slaughter field is hard to conjure.  Such things should be remembered by those who would lead us back to the Little Europe of the past that killed its young and its best with little thought or consequence.

The wind keeps blowing, but it seems people do not hear the words it carries.

Down by the coast a grey farmhouse sits, four square and firm in the lea of a small slope.  Its windows are small and the porch over the door large.  This is testament to the real weather of these islands, and the possibility that bright sun and blue skies are far from the norm.  Out to sea a boat passes with high kicked spray.  Fishing and farming.  In the field across the road a Curlew sounds its bubbling call.  A hint of the old ways in a new age. 

Land and sea.  Sky and sound.  The past in the present, with history in the rear view mirror as we drive away.  Heading south, looking for waders and wet meadows.

A maze of roads covers the southern end of South Ronaldsay.  Roads meet and depart from each other for reasons which may have made sense once, but now that reason seems to have been lost.  Navigation seems both pointless and futile; all roads lead nowhere and end up, eventually, back at the same place.  Ring roads and farm bypasses with white lines replaced by a median strip of grasses and weeds.  In the folds of the land yellow flowers bloom and sway.  Every field seems flanked by roads and pathways, ghosts from a time when each patch of land had a different name and a well-known purpose.  Calving fields, lambing fields, fields that offered shelter when the wind was from the east and fields fresh with the promise of early spring feed.  People have tilled and toiled here for so long that each and every inch of the land is known.  Only old places hold such a network of knowing.  There is the strange feeling that the roads are looking after you, guiding you back to a place that you know – it’s a small place, a place where you may not know where you are, but in which you never feel lost.

On a fence post a Redshank tells the world that this is his patch and that intruders will be dealt with.  Down in the mud and the long grass there must be a nest, or huddled young ones, as dependent on the adults as the adults are on these wet pastures.  To be complete both need the other.  It’s the way things are supposed to be.  A Curlew with a field running chick displays to lead us away, predators that we must be.  A few Lapwings feed in the mud.  I grew up calling this bird a peewit, a name that seems to have slipped from usage.  The name and the places in which they breed, both pushed back into memory, recalled only by the old and those of us who do not always accept that modernity is the same as progress. 

Down by the shore we sit in the shelter of a stone bank, thrown by winter storms and high tides.  Behind the bank a small church, built of rough cut stone, and haunted by the calls of Swallows, stands without a village or congregation.  The building is old, deconsecrated and for sale.  No running water, except that which falls from the sky.  No electricity.  Just four low walls and a sturdy roof.  As the UK prepares for isolation and America embraces lunacy, it seems the perfect place to be.  A place that, for a while at least, seems free from the constraints of idiocy and the constriction of possibility.  A family of Eider swims by the shore and a seal bobs in the water.  The air is clear and the sky open and fresh.  I wish my family could see this place.

A few hours later I drop my bag on to the floor of my hotel room in Glasgow.  My coat smells of salt air and sunshine.

As the day fades I hope the waders of Orkney survive the short summer night and wonder what it would be like to return in the winter, with its daylight famine and stormy darkness.

Barrow and beach.  Storm and stones.  Waders and wet meadows.  Sometimes the impact of place does not depend on the duration of the visit.  I suspect some places will linger longer than others.

By the time I am fully gone, I know I want to go back.