Of Boots and Blackberries

While I’m away on tour I generally get up at dawn, stealth a quick coffee then slip out the hotel door. It’s a habit born of restless legs and a somewhat frustrating ability not to be able to sleep late in a strange bed. Today, I’m in George Town. Here with Sarah to perform at the lovely little Tamar Valley Festival right up at the top of the little island of Tasmania off southern Australia. I love Tasmania, it’s like coming home. Even more so at the moment as the difference in temperature between here and Brisbane is over 25 degrees and a swimming pool of humidity less. It reminds me a lot of England.

It’s five am and blowing a gale outside. The sun is shining but it’s only about 7 degrees. I don’t have a coat, only a fleece and a long sleeved shirt (we left Brisbane at 38 degrees, 95% humidity and expected the same temperatures -sans humidity- here so we packed quite light). A friend once told me I have nails for blood because I rarely feel the cold. The heat is another thing altogether.

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There’s an oddly ceremonial feel about pulling on an old pair of walking boots.

They don’t so much fit as encase; they’re more foot casts than boots. Laces seem almost an afterthought. My boots can all tell stories. I walk them to death then very reluctantly buy a new pair. There’s a lovely synchronicity about the newish Scarpas I’m wearing. The pair they replaced (a mere 10 year old pair of Caterpillars that somehow far exceeded my expectations) are actually resting in Launceston, 30 miles from here, having suddenly arrested during my last trip to the Tamar. They’re planted out in a friend’s garden with herbs, slowly returning to the earth. Very fitting. These new ones were broken in on Cradle Mountain, as much of a baptism of mud, water and rock as they could have. I have urban boots and mountain boots. My mountain boots (a pair of full-leather Scarpas) are over twenty five years old. The idea of being buried standing at some wilderness spot, anchored by them is very appealing.

The main street is deserted. I can hear the distant rumble of a car somewhere but it’s the wind that snatches me. It’s not cold enough to be a slap in the face, more like a stiff shove from a chilled oven mitt, and straight away I’m leaning into it, zipping the fleece up over my neck and my hands are quickly nested in my pockets.

Low Head is my aim this morning, a lighthouse further up the estuary, along a river track greened by gorse, blackberry and button grass. The sun is coming up slowly, and I’m sharing the path with Silver Gulls, necks turtled into their bodies the same way mine is in my fleece. They stomp away from me like grumpy old men, occasionally lifting into flight that more often than not sees them carried backwards on the wind. The larger Pacific Gulls are more stoic, standing in conferring groups on the little islands exposed by the tide. The river has been coaxed by a stiff brush into stippled life. The Tamar is wide here, estuarine, taking a long exhaling breath after the rushing adventures of Cataract Gorge upstream in Launceston

Fingers guiltily stained with blackberry juice, I leave the path for the shoreline and as usual my eyes follow by moving from the sky to the stones under my feet. Cuttlebones litter the shore like pale spear blades, featherweight, they’re blown east by the wind like jellyfish. I’m searching for a talisman stone, something to pick up and hold as I walk. It’s an old habit I have trouble explaining. It’s not so much souveniring as having some sort of connection to where I am, something to carry, to warm in my hand as I explore. Stooped and searching, I find a bird’s egg quite by chance. Breathtakingly camouflaged against the muted myriad of stone browns and quartz. I nearly pick it up as my stone, so perfect is the pattern and position, but I leave it be. There’s no sign of the owner, but I’m sure I’m being watched from the gorse, so I move along.

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When I break free of the shelter of the tall gorse, the sun on my back is earnest, almost apologetically eager. The wind is still insistent, but at least now there is warmth. My rambling along the shoreline away from the track has proven to be my undoing, and after a series of leaps and some tracking inland through the scrub, I realise I’ve reached the point where I can go no further without getting either wet or suddenly learning flight. But I’ve found a small inlet, almost a bay, isolated from the prescribed path. The resignation of having to backtrack a fair way is almost immediately offset by the thought of a swim. I’ve not long finished reading Roger Deakin’s wonderful book, Waterlog, where the noble narrator would shed his clothes at some remote location and wild swim with the enthusiasm of a fox cub. Alas I have neither the courage nor the fortitude for such actions, but for a short while it’s a very appealing thought.

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Doubling back, I chance across some more blackberries within a sunsplashed tangle. It’s really too early in the summer for them, but a few have ripened to little glassy raven-bead clusters (with just enough youth in them to make my mouth tingle). I remember blackberrying expeditions back in Kent, England, during the long dog days of the August school holidays. Daring ourselves to go deeper into the living (and often seemingly sentient) thorn to try and find the most perfect berry. I have memories, no doubt magnified by time and age, of finding blackberries the size of golf balls that would explode like ink bombs. These are tiny, but no less appealing, and I wrap them carefully in a handkerchief to take back to Sarah. I didn’t make it to Low Head. As usual, my wanderings have eaten away the early morning, and with the sun very much risen but the wind no less insistent, I head back to the hotel and the promise of another coffee.

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