May 2011

Essays

Craig Sherborne

The sound of silence

A tempting prospect, the Milford Track. © Richard Hamilton Smith/Corbis
Hiking the Milford Track, New Zealand

Bliss can never happen of its own accord. When it has been years-long away it needs some outside intervention. Narcotic versions were never for me – look at those grey-faced zombies stumbling down Fitzroy Street in Melbourne. That’s not bliss, that’s blankness. That’s filth and stink, defeat and barren dreams. So is the act of writing a good deal of the time, those scratchy veins of ink that disfigure the page where there is sex to do and hard death. The page itself is the world’s splashed under-sheet, while all the time I can just make out that there must be something better, though I can’t quite reach it. Something sending out fellowship that has no language, only breeze.

I found it in the mountains of the Milford Track in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. At 53 kilometres, the hike takes four days to finish if you’re not rushing. I smelt it on Lake Te Anau, on the boat that drops you at the foot of the track. The smell of nothing. The cold glassy water too cleaned by its own self for smells. Neon-blue water like an underwater sky – something to do with the volcanic chemistry. Even the beech forest between the mountain crags didn’t emit scents of green, as if green is nice as a colour but only inferior things have odour somewhere so pristine.

You breathe a healthy menthol cigarette of ice-breath when you hike the Milford, starting out through the Clinton Valley. A narrow track leads you beside more see-through water. You know it is water by the way it kinks around rocks and blurs over riverbed stones but in its transparency it is more like air. It makes a fidget sound and, when you do a push-up to sip a mouthful, trout meander below. The water is chill and burns your teeth.

The valley is half-a-kilometre wide and bends north-west as far as your eyesight into the mountains. It is a scrubby valley with a narrow river spine and walled by gnarled rock 1000-metres high. White cloud for a roof. Where the sun is let through it too is white. It is more mist than light. It is too hot for jackets. When the roof suddenly shuts the sun out you shiver as if in snow.

Rain comes. Every day it rains here. Sometimes it rains in the metres. The rock walls toss it down in great sheets, a vast unfurled material. Thousands of waterfalls turn the walls to liquid. You can’t imagine where all that water will go. It will surely wash the valley away and you with it. But it does go – into lakes so deep the rain makes no difference to their size. It gets sucked into the sponge ground.

Then the rain stops and the waterfalls keep pouring like ethereal decoration. The sandflies become frenzied. Move along, you imagine them meaning, poking you with their tiny flight, stinging skin if you stop too long. Don’t get comfortable. You can pass through here, but don’t remain.

New Zealand evolved out of Gondwanaland without animals. No dogs, lions, cats, snakes. No predators for the birdlife, which is why kiwis didn’t bother to fly. The alpine parrots called kea prefer a smug, lazy stroll on the ground rather than having to use their wingspan. The ungrazed mountains and valleys grew impenetrable with fern trees through the centuries. Which explains the silence. Birdlife mostly takes place hidden away in dense bush. No bird calls from the branches. This is a hushed wind and water land.

Leaving the valley, you climb the Mackinnon Pass, named for the explorer who discovered it in 1888. Back and forth across rock face you trek, up the cliffs where native lilies stare out of the jagged peaks like white papery eyes with yellow pupils. Snow lies muddy on stone outcrops; less muddy the higher you climb, more blindingly bright. The pass is narrow and smashed by boulders, almost impassable in places. This is avalanche country. Snow and stone collapse from peak to valley. There are treevalanches of beech and totara. They flatten the forest like a timber tide.

I had my father’s binoculars. He watched racehorses. I watched raceclouds. They charged around me, through me, and flicked away their wisp-tails, gone. For an instant – probably five seconds – I passed out, I think. No memory of any other time. No past or future, or feelings. Just a flesh shell with weather inside it, clutching a mountain, so elevated in spirit I wanted to let go and be pulled away by a gust and blown to obliteration, free. This was the bliss talking. I felt perfected. A sort of ultimate human. When my father died I saw him swoon with super-happiness, and sigh as if receiving a great revelation. He rattled his breath, smiled and let life go. Here it was happening to me. But it was not the right time for me to go. Up I went over the track and made it to the top and stood upon the glistening alps, saw where they cradled their glaciers like young. The bliss was no fleeting thing. I am scared of heights but the bliss stayed with me despite my concentrating on footholds.

It stayed on my descent on the alps’ western side that leads to Milford Sound. It was more muted though, like a charge that had worn out volts. Muted or not, it was better than any blast of normal emotion could be. Useful too for putting energy in your stride, the shuddering heel-to-toe stomping of going downhill then losing your way where avalanches have stacked up the stones. Bliss has no fear of falling stones or crevices. It is by nature averse to hesitation. It puts a skip in your feet no matter how steeply you might fall.

Bliss is sensitive to light. It doesn’t like too much heat. It craves the cool of branch cover and wet leaves. It is a ghostly creature, bliss. It responds well enough to glacial waters toppling rock ledge by rock ledge to the forest. It can’t tell if you’d class them as waterfalls or streams. It doesn’t care. It gets too distracted by moss on the tree trunks, green as jade, rough as bark. The kind called Goblin Moss draped like skins from branch to branch. Like a species of human vegetation born tied at the wrists and ankles, not in torture but perverse ecstasy. Growing tall that way: a swamp people dripping and dragging their feet in the one shadowy place. Bliss must feel at home among them. These must be its kin. This is where it wanted to stay.

There was not far to walk now. The track would soon end and I would not want it to. At Sandfly Point I would wait for the boat out. Make sure I had everything in my pack. Binoculars, spare clothes, food scraps, map. The rangers are particular about that sort of thing. I must not leave anything but my bliss behind.

Craig Sherborne

Craig Sherborne is the author of the highly acclaimed memoir Hoi Polloi, and its sequel Muck, which won the Queensland Literary Award for Non-Fiction. He has written two volumes of poetry, Bullion and Necessary Evil, and two novels, The Amateur Science of Love and Tree Palace.

Cover: May 2011

May 2011

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