the curious hills, finally, shrugging,
called me foolish, stubborn.
That’s how it is, I said. I’m going
where my pig is headed.
These words, found on a greetings card, are the preface to the diary I started to keep when I set off on my worldly travels back in 1971. That was when I quit teaching in order to hitchhike through Europe, allowing happenstance to determine my destination.
One lift was to the Malataverne Festival held in a disused quarry far off the beaten track and billed as the French Woodstock.
Getting away was simple: you queued up at a table and found someone who would offer you a lift. Mine was a Parisian family, the Du Pasquiers who were headed for their weekend holiday retreat in Le Verdier in the Cevennes, a region of the Massif Central mountains towards the south of France.
The area was described by the 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet as offering “nothing but rock, razor-sharp shale. You feel the struggle of man, his stubborn and prodigious labour in the face of nature.” The family told me that their retreat was where Robert Louis Stevenson’s donkey Modestine died. That’s as maybe, because in his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879), RLS describes his sadness at having to sell her because she was no longer fit for further travel.
To get away from this very remote hideaway, I decided to walk into St. Jean du Gard where R.L.S. ended his long walk and probably sold Modestine.
It was a beautiful day, a blue sky and I began to feel calm and contented as never before. The road was empty of traffic. I was alone and felt free to sing The Happy Wanderer – something I never do in company. Some kilometres along the way, I rounded a bend and saw a man standing beside his Citroën deux-chavaux, the a-typical cheap French car of the time, and he was singing too. We sang to each other for a few minutes, smiling all the time, until I took my leave.
A short while later, rounding a bend I came across a row of three-storied houses which faced across the valley. An old lady with a mongrel dog came up to me and said she seen me a few miles back. As no vehicles had passed me that morning, I figured that she’d been somewhere up on the mountainside.
She asked if I was hungry, to which I replied that I wasn’t but had “much thirst”. We entered the cool front room, she knocked on an inner door, and Monsieur le Maire came out and insisted that water tasted much better with the wine produced from his small vineyard. It did, and even mixed 50/50 was far stronger than any wine I’d previously tasted.
So, with many thanks for this unexpected hospitality, I set off once again with heightened spirits, followed by an arthritic dog. Along the way I fed my hunger with ripe cherries picked from the orchards alongside the road, and stopped to sketch this amazing view.
Yes, I remember that walk of forty years ago with almost total recalll. I remember others too: the teenage rambles through the countryside of Kent, Surrey and Sussex, the counties south of London, and later the hikes across the Mountains of Mourne and Galway in Ireland (where I encountered the gun-runners of the IRA heading into Ulster). Later still, I explored the hills of the Yorkshire Dales and the Cumbrian Fells in northern England,
So how come I can’t recall much of the flights which have since taken me round the world and that I only have a dim recollection of the many long-distance bus journeys my long frame has had to endure?
One hundred years ago, before globalisation and the accessibility of world travel, the eager traveller would have committed him/herself to a lengthy and often eye-opening journey which would have involved numerous boat voyages, horse-back rides, steam trains and coaches, depending on the destination. This meant that the journey was a very important part of the whole experience, and this importance was not taken lightly.
Until the advent of the internal combustion engine and air travel, horse-drawn conveyances and shank’s pony determined routes, which generally followed the contours of the land. In the UK and much of Europe, one can be fairly confident that others have trodden the same paths. Two thousand years ago, the Roman invaders paved ancient pathways; some of which are still in use today, although motorists are most unlikely to think of the significance.
It is in walking for the sake of it that we truly discover ourselves: leaving a little brain space for potentially dangerous footfalls, we cleanse our minds of the commonplace and put them in synch with our bodies and the history of the landscape. We become whole beings.
Some folk, with more puff than I have left, aim higher and scramble up volcanoes. Dan Quinn, co-creator of Indonesia’s Gunung Bagging website and recently of this parish, says: “Being on a mountaintop can be a transcendental experience; what better way to temporarily forget the time, day, year, epoch in which you live? The trivialities which comprise much of everyday life can be viewed with some perspective and you almost always return home afterwards feeling illuminated in some small way.“
Or, as Aldous Huxley said more pithily, “My father considered a walk among the mountains as the equivalent of churchgoing.”
We Jakartans don’t have easy access to quiet rural byways. When strolling through the weekend retreats of the tea plantations of Puncak or along the southern coast around Pelabuhan Ratu, you could well meet your neighbours, and you won’t learn much about yourself or the cultures which have shaped the land.
For that you have to go further afield. Leaving aside major long distance treks through jungles and up volcanoes, these are a few areas I have wandered in comparative comfort.
The vast Dieng Plateau, the caldera of an ancient collapsed volcano, can provide days spent hiking through the spectacular landscapes and exploring the mineral lakes, although be careful not to inhale the noxious fumes occasionally emitted. The plateau is also dotted with the ruins of seventh century Hindu temples.
There are many splendid walks to be found in Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi, whose people were animist Bugis who settled the uplands and were mostly converted to Christianity by Dutch missionaries about a hundred years ago. The landscape is a mixture of mountains, jungle and farmlands. Rantepao, the centre of a diverse and fascinating culture, is a good base with fairly comfortable accommodation.
With its unique Minangkabau matrilinear culture, this is by far my favourite part of Indonesia with Bukittinggi as a comfortable base. Walk the 15 kms of Ngarai Sianok below the town, with fruit bats hanging from the tree tops on the ridge. Catch public transport to Harau Valley; if you climb to the top there are deep bat caves to explore and you may even spot tiger droppings as I did a few years back. For a laid-back couple of nights, backtrack to Lake Maninjau which is reached down a steep road with 47 switchbacks. There is little traffic along the lakeside road, so it’s ideal for a gentle stroll.
Robert Macfarlane, author of a trilogy of books about walking in Britain says, “Walk, and you will probably feel better.”