Songlines of the Here + Now

Words & Photographs by Tanya Houghton

Songlines; ancient Aboriginal maps passed on through song, story or dance. When sung, they describe landmarks along a journey, enabling the user to navigate their way across vast distances of the Australian landscape. In doing so, they keep the sacred land alive.

I have always been in awe of the vast range of ancient landscapes within Australia and the comparisons between stories of the past and the present, the indigenous and the modern and the connections formed to those landscapes. It was upon learning about Aboriginal Songlines that the idea to take on a project going walkabout alone across the Australian landscape was affirmed.

Over the course of the summer, I set off to explore the deep-rooted connections of Australians’ to the landscape they call home. Weaving my way across the country, I spent five weeks working out of a make shift studio in the back of my car and spent my nights camping in a tent, in the country’s national parks.

Covering a total of 10,500 km, I collected scattered stories and imprinted memories strewn over the landscape. I gained a deeper understanding of the Country’s past and of the Aboriginals’ deep-rooted connection to the land that has been their home for thousands of years. What emerged were two conflicting devotions to the Landscape. That of the Aboriginals’ sacred connection and that of the newer generations commercialisation of space through modern land tourism. Despite the tenuous past of the nation, there is a shared love of the land, both past and present.

Giving no weight to any one persons, physical representations of individuals I encountered were removed. The stories that were shared are represented through the landscape in which they were created. The resulting body of work is a collection of landscapes and still-lifes, stories and natural interventions that explore human experience through listening to the language of the Australian landscape.

Songlines of the Here+Now, will be exhibited at The Argentea Gallery in Birmingham 13th September – 27th October 2018. To learn more about Tanya’s work, click here

Captured Contrasts

Japan - Tom Bunning Photography Limited

Layered in meaning and as diverse as they come, attempts to photograph Japan can lead to quite an adventure.

Photographs by Tom Bunning; Words as told to Jen Harrison Bunning

Being a photographer can give you access to things that most people could only dream of seeing. It can be a key to a world of possibilities, a passport behind the scenes of other people’s lives or a ticket to secret spaces. However (with apologies to any budding image-makers certain that every day is a veritable dream), after ten years on the job, it can be dull: there are studio shoots where the day passes without a whiff of sunlight; tellings off from benighted bookkeepers when you fail to produce a crucial receipt; and hours spent in airports praying your kit clears customs. But then there are days when you get a phone call that makes your heart sing, and in this case it went like this: “Tom, how’s the first week of October looking? … Good, you’re off to Japan.”

There are a number of my esteemed fellow photographers who, as soon as they know they’re off somewhere new, jump online and begin to research: where they’re going, what kit they should pack, which perfect shot they’ll seek. Not me. I know I should be doing these things but there’s something wonderfully freeing about foregoing research, over-packing and being carried along on a wave of juvenile excitement, hoping my instincts, eyes and camera will deliver the goods. And this system hasn’t failed me yet. I never come home disappointed that I didn’t get that ‘perfect shot’.

Instead, I return with a treasure trove of images and associated memories of human stories and wild places. But Japan? From what I’d happened to soak up from books and films, I was diving in to a world of blazing neon, dangerous culinary delicacies, vast swathes of protected parkland and complicated social etiquette. Was my usual blasé attitude going to work in this most respectful and mannered of countries? We would have to see.

Tom Bunning, Tokyo

First stop: Tokyo. From touch-down it was a short, wide-eyed transfer from Haneda Airport to Palace Hotel Tokyo where, after a quick freshen-up in the luxurious Evian Spa, I was off on a crash course in the art and architecture of Aoyama, courtesy of the hotel. With the wild child fashion district of Harajuku to its west and Chiyoda with its stately brick station and imposing Imperial Palace to its north, it would be easy to forgive Aoyama an identity crisis – but there’s no need, for it has a brilliantly bonkers inner life all of its own. Here, huge brushed-concrete walls nestle against towers of twisted glass and locals take matcha tea and Taiwanese pineapple cake in the playful wooden lattice structure of the SunnyHills cake shop. Prada, Mui Mui and similarly high-end brands vie for first place in the ‘Most Impressive Architecture of a Retail Store’ competition (designed by the likes of Herzog & De Meuron and Gehry, no less), whilst the Nezu Museum (by the architect of the 2020 Olympic Stadium, Kengo Kuma) sits serenely behind its bamboo grove cloisters.

Despite its tranquil corners, there is an overriding sense of impermanence and newness in Aoyama which, as our guide Professor Matsuda explained, is partly due to earthquake fears as buildings are constantly torn down and rebuilt to the latest quake-proof technology, but also to the nation’s long-term obsession with the new, the disposable and the consumable. It’s a fascinating area and I could have spent hours there but Japanese trains wait for no man (and especially for no man slowed down by an abundance of camera bags), so it was all aboard the great green dragon of a bullet train for a silent and speedy 700 kilometre journey north to Aomori and on to Towada-Hachimantai National Park.

Tom Bunning, 320kph, Japan
Tom Bunning, 320kph, Japan

Some places in the world make you feel like you’re the first person to ever stand there. Even if you’re with a guide and gaggle of fellow travellers, everything is turned down a notch and all you know is what’s directly in front of you. If you visit Towada-Hachimantai National Park on a rainy October day, this is what might happen: your eyes may feast upon the towers of light casting through the clouds, the lush green wall of conifers, the mist hanging on the horizon. Your ears may delight in the silence, punctuated only by the creaking of branches and the odd birdsong. You may look out over the lake and feel a deep sense of freedom. But if you do visit and you don’t experience any of this then don’t despair, as you’ll still be treated to a spectacular view.

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From the ever-changing urban landscape of Tokyo in the south to the ancient arboreal backdrops of the north, next I was off to a city that had no choice but to start again. Despite my lack of planning, the one place I had intended to photograph was Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, a city that thrived on commercial fishing before it was devastated by the 2011 tsunami. I’d read about the effects of the disaster at the time; the dead, the missing, the school children and teachers swept away on the bridge, the port and buildings swallowed up by the water. I’d planned to shoot the wasteland, the reconstruction, the decimated waterfront, to take portraits of the people I met and to tell their stories. But when it came to it I couldn’t hide behind my lens. I felt I had to be entirely present, to listen and keep what I witnessed in my mind’s eye and not commit it to memory cards and print. I can’t tell you exactly why I felt like that. Perhaps it was the only way I knew how to honour Japanese culture’s acceptance of impermanence and insubstantiality, of mono no aware. Perhaps I’ll go back someday and it will feel right to capture it then, perhaps not.

Luckily, I did manage to photograph a little more of Japan than Tokyo and Towada. I rode the Gonō Line along the shore of the Sea of Japan with the Shirakami mountain range looming overhead.

I saw leaves fired up by golden light in Ginzan Onsen and followed in the 1,000 or so steps of one of Japan’s most famous poets, Matsuo Bashō, up a winding mountain path to Yamadera (mountain temple) perched high in its craggy nest. It’s a long and arduous climb but when I reached the top I was able to catch my breath in Godaido Hall, an observation deck dating back to the 1700s that juts out from the mountain.

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Here, as the sun set, I was rewarded with a view of rolling pastel hills and golden cedar trees. If I was poetically inclined I might have recited Bashō’s famous haiku penned here in 1689,

“the stillness / penetrating the rock / a cicada’s cry”

– words that felt pretty spot on, even for a non-poetic type.

On my way home, back on urban turf for the night in Sendai ‘City of Trees’, I began backing up my images and gazed out of a high hotel window. With the twinkling towers of the city growing out of the concrete-covered earth in front, and my photos of mist-shrouded woodland and ancient temples on the screen behind, Japan’s new and old – its man-made glass towers and natural wonders, its thriving capital and tsunami-devastated coast – seemed at once intrinsically linked and yet miles apart. This wouldn’t do. I would have to make a plan to come back, and go deeper.

São Tomé e Príncipe

Words & Images by Miguel Neves

The sense of stillness is palpable, the scene before me otherworldly. In the archipelago of São Tomé e Príncipe the world is put on hold and time has no need to move forwards; the only real motion is the swaying of the banana trees and the Atlantic Ocean’s gentle waves that roll upon seemingly empty beaches.

This feeling of timelessness – of a land forgotten – is also present in the island’s colonial architecture. The tropical rainfalls of October to May leave their mark on São Tomé e Príncipe. They blemish the facades of the old Portuguese era buildings, leaving room for mould and vegetation to form between their cracks and tiles, blending the work of man and nature. 

Perhaps the residents of São Tomé describe this sensation best with the islands’ motto of ‘leve, leve’, which translates to ‘lightly, lightly’. This seems to capture the idea that life here should be enjoyed at a leisurely pace and that one should not trouble themselves with mundane problems that really do have no place among these parts.

It’s in this communion between man, nature and time that sets São Tomé e Príncipe apart and allows this place to consume you. You can get lost in thought here, free from worry, totally absorbed in a collage of green. You breath, hike up mountains, wander through villages and float in turquoise water, free from time’s constraints.  

Miguel Neves is a travel photographer and videographer from Lisbon, Portugal who imbues his landscapes and portraits with genuine emotion, hoping to not only tell stories but shed light on the deeper connections that bind us to the world and to others.

Follow his work on Instagram @thedeserts and Tumblr

 

Postcards from Japan

We returned to Japan this April with Wondertrunk & Co and Polaroid Originals to explore glorious San’in – a lesser known region on the island of Honshu that overlooks the Sea of Japan (bring on the freshest fish we’ve ever sampled) and remains a centre for Kagura (a brilliantly dramatic dance – serpents and all – performed for the gods), craft and Shintoism. We’re working on a custom magazine with Wondertrunk at the moment, but in the meantime, wanted to share some of the polaroids gathered on the road. Getting rather hooked on shooting on vintage film, there’s something about slowing down and rationing your images that makes you see a setting in an entirely new light. Watch this space!

Park City Mountain

By George Lavender

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” Ansel Adams

George Lavender is a designer and art director based in New York who grew up on England’s South Coast. Having spent much of his time in cities – both New York and London – over the past few years he finds himself compelled to get away from his desk and head into the wild whenever possible. Many of his adventures revolve around snowboarding and the mountains, which means hiking trips in the Welsh hills or clambers over the boulders of Norway are never far from him mind. A creative at heart, he inevitably finds original ways to capture these daredevil jaunts. 

Find out more about George and his travels here: george-lavender.com

“Snowboarding is such a well documented sport in this day and age, it’s almost impossible to scroll through my Instagram feed without seeing several tweaked grabs or cork spins. However, having just purchased a new (old) 35mm film camera, I wasted no time in booking my own snowboarding escape and snapping away during my trip to Park City Mountain, Utah. I’ve always been fascinated by the moments of pure stillness and tranquility in the mountains, the kind that stop you in your tracks so you can just take a minute to appreciate your surroundings. That’s the quality that shooting rolls of film teaches you, make every shot count and take it all in.”

All images shot with Olympus XA2 on Kodak portra 400.

In Search of Chaos

India is impossible to fully understand. Alive with contradiction and sacrificing any semblance of order for an intoxicating sense of possibility, here neighbouring communities feel worlds apart and normality means very little indeed.

Aware that India would be equal parts confronting and mesmeric, I read all I could before travelling, falling for the poetic brilliance of Arundhati Roy, getting swept up in the drama of Gregory David Roberts and encountering Indian creativity with Tara Books. For good measure I even gave up days to Bollywood classics. But nothing quite prepares you for the moment you hit the ground – the noise, colour and chaos. As a writer I strive to avoid cliches but with India you simply can’t. This country is everything. All at once. The living, somehow-functioning embodiment of ‘feast for the senses’.

And so I quickly discovered that India is beyond comprehension – it’s far too focused on revelling in its own complexities – but that’s part of its allure. For instead of trying to grasp it, you give yourself over to the moment, experiencing everything as it unfolds and getting swept up in the romance of it all.

People talk about coming to India to find themselves but after my month in Rajasthan I wonder instead if this is where you come to lose yourself. Surrounded by passion and life, you don’t feel like a single entity, but rather like you’re part of a wonderfully mad story where no one really worries about the plot.

Which is where Polaroids and rose-tinted glasses prove handy. Firmly rooting you in the analogue world, this camera forces you to consider every shot, talk to your subjects and work with the setting at hand. Essentially, be present and accept imperfection. And India couldn’t be a better subject. Diverse and brilliantly bonkers, it can never be fully captured and so you let go and just embrace it, savouring your photographic memories and those lingering traces of its unique frantic energy long after a holiday’s end.

Post created with the fab sunnies brand Sunday Somewhere and, of course, Polaroid Originals!

Minimal Norway

Words & Photographs by Auriane ALIX (@aurianealixphotography)

The infinite nature of White is inspiring. White as a colour. White as a space. An empty space waiting to be filled. Or left as is. White draws the viewer’s eyes towards what’s important. Or towards the small details asking to express themselves.

Some people are afraid of White. Anxious. How to fill this blank, infinite space? Where to begin? If for some people, White is an impediment to creativity, it is the detonator of an explosion of ideas for others. White makes everything possible. White is a field without foundations, from where we can construct everything.

White is permanent. Constant. You can cover it up, but not make it disappear. It will always be there, just underneath the surface. Whatever we do, White is here, under creativity, under the ideas written down on paper, or somewhere else. White is a base. Malleable, it is suitable to every inspiration. The cradle of human creativity.

White is relaxing, restful and peaceful, like a slow watercourse, without any waves. It soothes the conscience, heals darkness. Chases shadows away. Illuminates faces. Icon of purity, it conveys a feeling of achievement, of work well-done.

Minimalism. White leads to refinement. Simplicity, without uselessness. However, simple doesn’t rhyme with bland. Once again, minimalism draws the viewer’s eyes towards what’s important. There is no place for the superfluous, forced to give up its seat for the scope of purity, the scope of nothing, the scope of White.

White snow is resplendent. The snowflakes fall from thick clouds, almost in slow motion, leisurely, gently, carefully, as if they were afraid of breaking their many frozen crystals. The snow is soothing, soft, elegant. The flakes touch the ground in hushed, muffled sounds. Pile up on tree branches, letterbox corners or sloping roofs.

In Norway, where I was standing, all I could see was White. Bright White. I was surrounded by light. Outside the car, it was so cold that I could barely feel my hands while taking those images. As I walked in this blind immensity, I could hear my feet sink into the snow with this typical and satisfying sound, while I could feel my body stoop a few millimetres with each step.

While the car was slowly making its way around the icy patches on the frozen road, some details caught my attention before disappearing again behind the rough, invisible landscape.

This landscape made me feel simultaneously trapped and free. I couldn’t even distinguish the skyline from the snow. The distances were blurred. Touches of colour appeared from times to times. A cabin almost covered in snow. A road sign rendered invisible by the amount of snow on it. Some people snowkiting, their coloured veil beautifully contrasting on the bright white snow.

But the main feeling was freedom. Whether it was freedom conveyed by the almost infinite playground and landscape I had in front of me, or by the magical effect of White.

Auriane’s images are available as prints at auriane.alix@gmail.com

Chasing Landscapes

Tom Bunning Lac d'Aiguebelette

Seeking beauty, soliloquies and great heights in Savoie Mont Blanc

Photography by Tom Bunning, words by Jen Harrison Bunning

Think of the Alps and your mind might conjure up pale peaks and wooden chalets puffing merry little smoke plumes from their chimneys. It’s mid-February, or March perhaps, and there you are slotting perfectly into the winter alpine scene: whizzing down slopes, knocking powder from your boots and sipping chocolat chaud with blankets on your knees and the soft sun on your face.

Think of the Alps and you probably wouldn’t picture yourself in the height of summer following gently twisting roads to explore a land awash with lush green fields and flower-filled plains, and speckled with turquoise lakes. The Alps in winter? We had the measure of that alright, but the Alps in summer was an unknown and delicious-sounding prospect.

So in late August we set off to explore the richly contrasting natural beauty of the Savoie Mont Blanc region. We would immerse ourselves gently: first a dip in the magical oasis of one of France’s largest lakes, then onwards in the path of the brave Tour de France riders, winding our way (by automobile, naturally) along the Relais du Chat.

We’d climb the Col du Pré, swing our way up to the l’Aiguille du Midi to gaze upon the terrifying beauty of the White Lady of the Alps and her rocky courtiers, and end up in the shadow of a sea of ice that inspired a literary monster’s lair. This was big game landscape hunting, and we were off.

Tom Bunning Lac d'Aiguebelette

 

Nestled in the crook of the long ridge of the Chaîne de l’Epine, Lac d’Aiguebelette is a shimmering emerald wonderland. With wild reeds, gently sloping banks, little golden beaches and waters that can reach 28°C, it’s no wonder that children from the hamlets dotting the surrounding terraced hills often learn to swim before they can walk.

We took a boat out into the middle of the lake where we paused to soak it all in. With no motorised vessels allowed on the water, the only sounds to be heard were those of the reeds whispering in a gentle wind, rower’s oars dipping in and out of the turquoise depths, delighted cries from young swimmers and the odd fisherman’s barque gliding past in search of lake-fish.

We looked down upon the mill-pond water with its reflections of lush green trees and silvered rocks and then cast our eyes skyward to see a trio of hang-gliders flying silently overhead, their bright sails casting shadows on the side of the ridge as they passed . . .

Tom Bunning Col de Pre

We were off on a mission to the Roselend Dam via the Col du Pré mountain pass. This scenic, twisting road took us through the region’s highest village, Boudin, situated at some 1,300 metres above sea level. The 20-odd chalets that make up this picturesque hamlet are grouped in rows, all clutching the slope’s edge with their faces turned down and out into the valley. Despite being designated as a protected heritage site since the early 1940s, Boudin remains a living and breathing year-round community that’s kept busy by tourism in winter and quietly gets on with agricultural matters the rest of the year. As we wandered past its wooden huts with neatly-stacked wood stores, taking in a 16th century baroque chapel and community bread oven, we imagined life here in bygone days; the harsh, isolating winters no doubt justified by summer’s soft and curving undercoat of greens and golds, embroidered with wildflower meadows and scattered with gently lowing cattle . .

Tom Bunning Roselend Dam

Unlike nature’s pearls of d’Aiguebelette and Bourget, Lac de Roselend has been hewn out of the land by the hands of men, but it’s no less beautiful for that. This 3.2 kilometre reservoir is nestled in the heart of farming country near the foothills of the Mont Blanc massif. Somewhere in its depths lies the submerged hamlet of Roselend, swallowed up by the dam on its creation in the 60s, but this vanished village is the lake’s secret, its innocent surface as smooth and bright as stained glass . . .

Aiguille du Midi, France - Photographed by Tom Bunning

. . . We stood in line to board the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi and looked up at the lines of metal cable spinning towards the skies. It seemed impossible: an extraordinary feat of engineering, but it was as real as can be, and we were going up there. If you’ve a head for heights you might like to look out of the windows as you journey up the cliff face but I must confess that I remained firmly in the centre of the car, eyes squeezed shut and heart in my mouth as we rolled along, jolting over pillars in great swings to the whoops of fellow (quite clearly deranged) passengers. One down, another to go, and this 20-minute torture ride would be over. As we were hustled out onto the platform at the Plan de l’Aiguille (a mere 2,317m) and once again stood in line to face certain death, several variations of I can’t believe you made me do this and many unprintable words were uttered. But then, after one more stomach-jerking ride up into the abyss, we had reached our destination, de l’Aiguille du Midi, a 3842m peak in the Mont Blanc massif with panoramic views of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps.

. . .  and then there were the mountains, those great condors of the earth – Dome du Gouter, Mont Maudit, Mont Blanc du Tacul, Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, Grand Combin and, of course, Mont Blanc herself – with their craggy heads cast skyward and ridged wings of rock cascading across the range to touch a fellow giant.

With our heads in those clouds and our feet unsteadily rooted to the ground some 3,700m above sea level, we watched as climbers, swaddled in layers, clambered over the metal gate one-by-one, slowly but surely inching out onto the Arête des Cosmiques ridge and then down to the vast glacial plains below, growing smaller and smaller until they were Lilliputian in scale.

. . . Montenvers lay ‘undiscovered’ until the 18th century when two Englishmen, the bumptious young aristocrat William Windham and the experienced international explorer Richard Pococke, met in Geneva. Tempted by reports of the terrifying, untamed ice fields of Savoye and its inhospitable locals, the pair embarked on an expedition to hunt down those wild landscapes for themselves. In 1791, together with a band of friends, servants, porters and guides, they set out on a five-hour trek up the rocky, overgrown path towards Le Montenvers. What they discovered at the summit had them in raptures; “you have to imagine a lake ruffled by a tempestuous wind frozen up all of a sudden,’’ said Windham, giving the glacier its name, La Mer de Glace, or Sea of Ice. Five years later, local explorers Jaques Balmat and Dr Joseph Vallot went one further and reached the summit of Mont Blanc but, no doubt to the great relief of the tight-knit population of farmers – who had already ‘discovered’ these high mountain pastures and were eking out a tenuous existence grazing their small flocks of sheep – it was to be another 20 years before the climb to Le Montenvers became popular with the masses.

. . . “This is the most desolate place in the world.” So said Mary Shelley when she visited the Mer de Glace together with Percy Bysse Shelley. She had started writing Frankenstein a month earlier while staying with Lord Byron at his Villa Diodati and it is said that her trip to Montenvers and the strange dreams she experienced while staying overnight there, inspired the dramatic scene where Victor and his creation meet.

I suffered a severe teenage pash for Percy B. S., wallowing in fountains mingling with rivers, sunlight clasping the earth, moonbeams kissing the sea etc. etc., before dumping him for the rather more real and troublesome prospect of long-haired boys of few words, cameras and fast cars. Now I barely recognise that poetically enraptured young woman of my past but, as dusk fell and we stood gazing out at the Mer de Glace, some of that doomed brooding poet’s lines came to mind and there, with the pockmarked rocks glowing red around us, a glinting river of ice snaking below, and the looming night swallowing up the last of the light, they seemed not silly nor overly romantic, but dark and earthy and true.

In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,
In the lone glare of day, the snows descend
Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there,
Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,
Or the star-beams dart through them.
Winds contend
Silently there, and heap the snow with breath
Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods
Over the snow.

Abbreviated article, extract from Lodestars Anthology Issue 9: France

Wanaka Wandering

Words & Photography by Angela Terrell

It’s immensely satisfying whiling away a week in Wanaka. Only an hour from Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island and sitting on the shores of tranquil Lake Wanaka, this town merges arresting topography with holiday charm; its dramatic backdrop, the mountains of Mt Aspiring National Park, the perfect playground for an array of activities that would keep even the most demanding outdoor enthusiast content. During winter, nearby Cardrona and Treble Cone are ideal skiing destinations, but in summer, whether tramping, cycling, paragliding, kayaking, jet-boating or clinging precariously to a via ferrata, it’s a paradise for adventurers, photographers or those who find simply sitting and enjoying the serenity gratification enough.

Any opportunity to leave the city behind and explore nature is welcome in my books, but it’s the mountains that elicit the most visceral response. I’m never sure if it’s their immensity or their harsh and unforgiving beauty that appeals to me most, but going heli-hiking with Eco Tours was a marvellous opportunity to lose myself in a mountain wonderland.  

Soaring along the braided river and over serrated ridge-lines we swung down sentinel-like outcrops to three lakes hidden within the folds of the alpine terrain and impossible to see until we were literally above them. This is real hiking with no marked trail, the tussock grass providing stability and necessary hand-holds as we traversed the steep mountainside. The views were magnificent though; razor sharp mountains as far as the eye could see, glaciers glistening under the scorching sun and lakes illuminated in rainbow hues; the emerald, aquamarine and turquoise rivalling any tropical oasis. 

If helicopters aren’t your thing, the walk to Rob Roy Glacier is equally breath-taking. Starting from the carpark in the flats of the river valley you ascend (sharply at times) through cool verdant forest to the Upper Lookout sitting in a glacier-carved basin, the enveloping schist mountains softened by carpets of dandelions, terraces of cascading waterfalls and glaciers clinging to the mountain like buttery icing. Sitting by the torrenting stream it was hard not to feel a mild sense of unease; the wind rushing down its course ferociously loud and obviously reflecting the amount of water coming off its melting core, and I wondered what would happen if a wall of ice clinging precipitously to the mountain above carved off. In landscape this erratic and magnificent a sense of powerlessness is inevitable, although once reassured that the glacier was still a kilometre away (perspective is definitely a challenge in this environment) and any falling ice would remain in the arms of craggy gorges above, it was possible to enjoy the all-encompassing vista with a little more ease!

Closer to home the Glendhu Track around Lake Wanaka is perfect for walking or cycling. Starting in town (after first organising a wonderful picnic from Big Fig – slow food served fast is their motto) what started as a relaxed ride became rock-hopping over knobby hillsides, the hairpin turns a reminder that any loss of concentration could result in falling into the water glistening like Christmas tinsel below. But around every corner was a panorama well worth assiduous pedalling.

As weather is ever-changing in New Zealand, options for days where hiking wouldn’t be enjoyable is always advisable, driving to Blue Pools on the Haast road a great choice. Setting off on an inclement morning the scenery played a constant game of cat and mouse with the weather, moody clouds sheathing the mountains so they appeared as ghostly suggestions then breaking to allow bursts of sunlight that saturated hues and added to the dramatic landscape. Passing bucolic sheep-filled paddocks encased by craggy hills then Lake Hawea, the road hugging the shoreline like a velvet ribbon, we reached the Pools where walking through ferny undergrowth laced with skeletal tree-trunks we stood under moss-laden limbs of rainforest trees (the perfect umbrella) and admired water so clear it was possible to see trout languishing in its aquamarine depths.

Of course there’s one activity that tops the lot and costs nothing, and that’s sitting by Wanaka’s lakeside as the sun slips below the mountain tops and the water changes chameleon-like from orange to pink then purple to eventually black as the day’s heat softens. Ducks share the shoreline with people frolicking in the shallows and picnickers chat as they enjoy delights such as fish and chips from Eric’s or pizza from Francesca’s food trucks. Not a mobile phone in sight, laughter floats across the ripples and the spectacle is better than any screensaver, its simple beauty ensuring an overwhelming sense of contentment. Whether whiling away a week or moseying a month, Wanaka is a delight for all.   

Those Swiss Yaks

Words by Dan Richards – you’ll find more of his writing in our soon-to-be-released France magazine.  

I’m in Switzerland.

In the morning, when the massive meringue of the mountains alpenglow pink, I sit with coffee by my window and read — today it was a Maigret (mysterious body in a canal). My cabin is a two-level brutalist pod, hanging on hawsers from a concrete canopy… named Fuhrimann.

Every hour, like clockwork, a little train trundles past — two green carriages appearing through a gap in the woods before sweeping in a wide slow arc over to the village L’Isle, then back. It’s very comforting. As much a part of the landscape as the farms and barns, the trees, the cows; it’s whistle as familiar the klang and clonk of their bells.

I’ve been to Switzerland twice before. The first time, I tried to climb Dent Blanche, a 4,357 metre peak in the Pennine Alps which looms sphinx-like over Evolène and Zermatt. My father came too. The trip was not a great success and we ended up benighted on the side of the thing with an unwanted but admittedly spectacular grandstand view of The Matterhorn.

The second visit was more successful, inasmuch as I got to the top of Dent Blanche, led by a Swiss Guide named Jean-Noël Bovier — although such was the quiet fury with which he dragooned my inept form aloft that I my greatest wish became, far above self-preservation, to make the man happy and, failing that, climb ahead and pull the thing up after me.

Now I’m back, third time lucky. I have a residency at Fondation Jan Michalski until December 20th and plan to use it to write. Admittedly, the library where I’m sitting is about 750 metres up Mont Tendre, a mountain which rises unseen somewhere behind me, but almost everything’s halfway up a mountain here… but the Jura are quite small and green in the general scheme. No, the view of the great whites across the lake is enough for me and the more lake and blue distance between us the better.

So you can imagine how my heart skipped when an email arrived yesterday from Walter, my editor at Faber who oversaw the climbing book.

But it was fine, he wasn’t demanding I shin up anything precipitous, which was a relief. Rather, he was writing to ask how I was, how the new book was going and, teasingly, whether I’d been back to see ‘those yaks.’ Ah yes, I thought, those yaks — a 2015 encounter in the high Valais which I remember very fondly but have until now never set down.

The yaks belonged to Rosula Blanc, if yaks can be said to belong to anyone. Enormous ancient beasts, their scale was the thing that first struck me when I saw their recumbent humps through a telescope, far and high across the valley from Yak shu lo ché / Yaks on the rocks, the farm in La Giette where she lives.

Only recently, Rosula has sent me photographs of a four day trek she made with several of her herd across the alps and I recognised a picture of an animal I met in 2015 — a steer named Naulekh, after a Nepalese peak. Shaggy white wedge face alert, black eyes, black nose with a grey-pinkish surround, slate horns swept back like a winged helmet. He lies on the puckered snow serene, rump to the camera, his back rises frosted and pale as a winter fell. Around him straw grasses poke through the snow. Behind him another yak, black with a pale muzzle, huddles up bunched with horns like chopper handlebars. The picture looks utterly cold but the pair seem happy enough; patient, beatific, almost biblical.

There’s something so sweet-natured in Naulekh’s face that he seemed holy. The scene took me back to childhood nativities and thoughts of shepherds, comets and mangers, church cribs, young children with tea-towel and hairband keffiyehs, ideas of warmth and gentleness. I was a shepherd once, in primary school; St. John’s Church, Keynsham. I vaguely recall competition for places. After the star turns: Mary & Joseph, the Kings, the inn keeper — and The Star itself now I think of it — the shepherds were best. I see us walking slowly down the main aisle past pews of proud parents, following the star — an Edward Ardizzone illustration, a Dylan Thomas short story; A Child’s Christmas in Keynsham.

We had one cassette in the car at that time, Under Milk Wood narrated by Richard Burton. A voice of rich coffee, warm dark and pause, never hurried but compelling; leading the way into that strange world — and later others: Zulu, War of the Worlds. But Under Milk Wood was my first encounter; I, in the backseat, invisible, listening, as my father drove — in my memory it’s always night; sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack… and I didn’t understand it all but I could always lose myself in the music of the words. There were cattle in the story, I remember. Christ-like cows. Hateful Farmer Watkins of Salt Lake Farm shouting at his cattle on the hill as he shoos them home for milking. A cow turns and kisses him:

SECOND VOICE

He bawls to the cow who barbed him with her tongue, and she moos gentle words as he raves and dances among his summerbreathed slaves walking delicately to the farm. The coming of the end of the Spring day is already reflected in the lakes of their great eyes. Bessie Bighead greets them by the names she gave them when they were maidens.’

BESSIE BIGHEAD

Peg, Meg, Buttercup, Moll, Fan from the Castle, Theodosia and Daisy.’

And Naulekh perhaps. ‘Five years old and my best,’ wrote Rosula, ‘the one with the most ambition to walk and a tough body, a strong character.’

Flash forward to this evening, early December, 28-something years after my turn as a nativity shepherd. I’m standing at my cabin window looking out into a Swiss dark full of processional stars — cars, little trains, the sky full of flickering planes for Geneva, two pinnacle beacons flashing red, flashing green— and the tinking clonk-song of cattle unseen, stood out in the night.

All these threads meet later this month when the Silvesterkläuse are abroad, uncanny wax and paper-masked New Year Mummers in ornate costumes and bells. They’ll sing sedate yodels known as Zäuerli whilst proceeding house to house celebrating Saint Sylvester whilst ringing Christmas out and the new year in — die Schöne (the beautiful) in traditional dresses, peacock-like headgear and spangles, and die Wüeschte (the ugly) mantled up in moss and pine clippings, hefting cow trychels big as propane bottles, clanking in their wake like evergreen yeti.

These rituals are then repeated 13 days later, a Janus déjà vu dating back to Gregory XIII’s introduction of his snazzy new calendar in the 16th century. The Swiss, quite reasonably taking umbrage with the papal postponement of New Year by almost a fortnight, began to celebrate it twice. So old Julian’s Silvesterkläuse falls on December 31st and Gregorian gets his terrifying turn in January.

It was on my second visit to Switzerland that I scrambled up the mountainside above Evolène with Rosula to meet the yaks. First we drove as high as we could up a series of steep hairpin tracks until we reached a farm building with a pitched red roof. Behind it steep green flanks rose to meet silver boulders, scree, cliffs and sky. Atop that somewhere was the crest of Pointe du Tsaté, but we weren’t going quite that far… although it felt like it as we climbed and my legs began to ache and lungs began to crackle. I’d mostly acclimatised to the altitude and heat in the few days I’d spent at Yak shu lo ché but I was not yet fully there — unlike the yaks for whom these steeps are a step down from the Himalayan plateaus. It was summer then and the days were blistering hot. The yak were specks near the sun, but grew as we climbed; first to the size of woolly washing machines, then cars and, finally, tractors. Massive animals watching us approach, very still, almost impassive, broadcasting potent mass; mammoth in almost every respect.

When we reached them, Anuun, an Australian Border-collie of tremendous enthusiasm, began to skirt around the outspread herd. At this, the statuesque yaks erupted up and chased her away. I stopped dead, frozen mid-step. Agog. The tableau had broken and exploded before me. What had been a pasture recalling Heidi was now a steep scarp of careering bulls.

Then it stopped. Just as fast as they’d exploded, they relaxed, sat back down.

As you were, they seemed to say. Just keep that dog over there.

Anuun sat down as well, over there, two hundred metres away. I’d frozen, he’d fled. I looked at Rosula who’d none neither. ‘They’re very protective of the calves’ she explained with a gesture to three yaks yonder — two tractors and a sit-on mower. ‘Tsarang, son of Chele and Udari was only born last week.’ 

I wonder how Tsarang is now, in December, in the snow. Two and a half years have passed since I saw him, new to the world and hobbledehoy, peering big-eyed from behind his mother. The heat was liquid that day, the air hardly stirring, the streams almost dry. I wondered how the yaks could stand it. They don’t really sweat, Rosula told me, and pant like dogs when they’re hot. They  regulate temperature by adjust their elevation; higher in the heat, lower in the cold.

They were high on the ramparts of Pointe du Tsaté that day — Yak Olympus.

That was June. How and where are those yaks tonight? Snug in the timber barn at Yak shu lo ché? Steaming, snuffling around, asleep. I hope so. I imagine them there, anyway. They’re family to Rosula, who talks of each as a distinct personality, reeling off a parent’s evening precis of each. Naulekh, for example, is ‘not the easiest one. He is really my yak, I know how to manage him and I adore him… but he is not always gentle and respectful with other people. He knows what he wants.’

There’s a short story that I love by Richard Brautigan called ‘I was trying to describe you to someone’ in which, having tried and failed to describe his love in terms of other people — ‘I couldn’t say ‘Well she looks just like Jane Fonda, except that she’s got red hair, and her mouth is different and of course, she’s not a movie star…’ I couldn’t say that because you don’t look like Jane Fonda at all.’

So he ends up describing her in terms of a movie about rural electrification, ‘a perfect 1930’s New Deal morality kind of movie to show kids’ which he saw when he was a child in Tacoma Washington — a movie about farmers living and working without electricity, until a new dam is built and electricity flows, appears to the farmer like a young Greek god, to take away forever the dark days of his life:

‘Suddenly, religiously, with the throwing of a switch, the farmer had electric lights to see by when he milked his cows in the early black winter mornings. The farmer’s family got to listen to the radio and have a toaster…’

‘That’s how you look to me,’ he ends.

It’s one of my favourite stories. I carry it with me. The way it slots together, crafted piece by piece, the lightbulb moment with the cattle at it’s heart. Electricity as a gift of love; as love itself.

One final piece.

One valley west of Pointe du Tsaté is Grande Dixence, the highest gravity dam in the world. A great stop: 15 million tonnes of concrete, 285 metres high, reservoir fed by rain and the meltwater from 35 surrounding glaciers.

In 1976, Dorothea and Ivor, my great-great-aunt and uncle visited Dixence. Ivor would have been eighty-three and Dorothea eighty-one, I can imagine them driving up zig- zags to the telepherique, returning together to the sites of some of their greatest adventures; birdlike in hats and coats, natty dressers.

They were great climbers in their youth. They put up routes on mountains all over the world but their ascents in the Pennine Alps are still celebrated. Their 1928 ascent of the Dent Blanche with Joseph and Antoine Georges, their great friends and Swiss guides, was the reason that I was drawn to climb it and my father before me in 1981 — the magnetism of the peak increased by the fact that it was our family who’d cracked the famous problem of it’s north arête… and it was after our benighting opposite the Matterhorn that I met Rosula’s partner, André Georges, great nephew of Joseph; and it was only through him I met the yaks.

Like the yaks, André is gigantic. I have a photograph of him stood with one of the animals which could captioned ‘man with yak.’ This is atypical. Were I to stand next to the same yak the caption would read ‘yak wholly obscuring man.’

And now, every December, I get a Christmas card with a yak pun and pictures of the beasts at play in the snow. Rosula rolling in the hay or perched precariously on the back of a yak named Thor or Hermes or some such immortal deus. Wishing you a bull-iant Christmas and a bovine New Year — the yaks brought into Christmas like they’re brought into the barn, included; if not domesticated then met halfway.

‘Animal husbandry partly involves orientating animals towards the human world, for instance by including them in human communication,’ wrote Karl Ove Knausgaard in a recent essay collection Autumn. ‘In all animal husbandry there is a zone that lies between humans and animals, where they meet.’

These boundaries blur at Christmas. Peace, good will to all men; get the yaks in and let them bounce on the sofa…

But what do the yaks get from Rosula, apart from winter bed and board? They are not completely domesticated and nor does Rosula want or expect that. In the summer the herd need to be self-sufficient on the mountainside but when Rosula pitches up they engage, orienting themselves towards her. The fact that Naulekh is not the easiest, needs careful management, has wildness within him, knows what he wants, is a given. That’s the relationship he has with Rosula. To the world he is a wool humvee or, more likely, an unknowable white dot up near the sun. But he and Rosula have a companionable understanding, and whilst he loves to be smoothed and brushed and fussed he is no pet — there are still flashes of Bos mutus, the elemental wild yak, in his heart.

So, freed of the old ways, yak as constant beast of burden, yaks for milk and meat, Rosula has opened up a path back to yak as long distance trekker — something not explored in Europe for millennia. This is a joy to both parties, the yaks love to boldly go. Particularly Naulekh whom Rosula refers to as her ‘best sports-yak’ — the one with the most ambition to walk.

Can a yak be said to be aspirational? Certainly says Rosula, they are a team, enthusiastically supporting each other — ‘yaks are intelligent and skilled on difficult ground. They carefully examine every obstacle and consider other possible routes before walking on.’ And indeed there is film of this which shows a bright eyed curious yak in a forest slow down, stop, look around at the stumps and mulch in her way then, thoughtfully licking her nose, proceed, leading her party on.

This is the gift. As the electricity was a way of talking about love, so that yaks, to me, represent a flash of pure joy, a way back into a childlike world of wonder. A miraculous meeting of worlds. I thought that the first time I saw them, so strange and beautiful.

As well as herd, the collective noun for yaks is cabinet — or wardrobe perhaps; wardrobe with all its mysterious Christmas connotations. Rosula leading the way through heavy lanolin-scented wool and fur into a land of snow.

She sent me another picture this morning: six yak on a snowy mountain pass, backs laden with tents and bags. They look alert, heads up, picking their way — greatly venturing, as great-great-aunt Dorothea used to say. Marvels in a marvellous world.

Rosula Blanc’s yak trekking in the Swiss Alps is a unique adventure — groups can head up and out for a near Himalayan hike with these most awesome and beautiful beasts in breathtaking scenery. Rosula herself describes it as like ‘being a nomad for a few days, living at the rhythm of the yaks, close to mountain nature and the elements surrounded by peaks of more than 4000m in altitude.’ Treks run for groups from April to June and September to October — there are no treks in July and August since it is too hot for the yaks.
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Contact Rosula and her team for more information — www.yakshuloche.ch / info@yakshuloche.ch
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Dan Richards was born in Wales in 1982.
 
His first book, Holloway (faber, 2013) was co-authored with Robert Macfarlane & illustrated by Stanley Donwood. First published as a limited run of 277 letter pressed books in 2012, Holloway went on to become a Sunday Times bestseller when published in a general edition by Faber in 2013.
 
Dan’s second book, The Beechwood Airship Interviews, (HarperCollins, 2015) took a journey into the creative process, head-spaces and workplaces of some of Britain’s celebrated artists, craftsman and technicians including Bill Drummond, Judi Dench, Jenny Saville, Manic Street Preachers and Stewart Lee.
 
Climbing Days, an exploration of the writing and climbing lives of Dan’s great-great-aunt and uncle – Dorothy Pilley & I.A. Richards – was published by Faber in June 2016. Writing in the Observer, Katherine Norbury hailed Climbing Days as ‘[T]he most enormous fun… Richards has something of Jerome K Jerome about him. It’s a miracle he lived to tell this tale and Climbing Days is a wonderful achievement.’
 
Outpost, a book about far flung shelters and eyries, isolation and wilderness, will be published by Canongate in 2019.
 
Dan has written about travel, literature, art and music for publications including The Guardian, National Geographic, Harper’s Bazaar, Monocle Magazine, us (of course), Ernest Journal, The Quietus and Caught by the River.
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