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Topographic love – by Justyna

16 Apr

Topo love 1

I met Michal in Romania, trekking through the Fagaresh Mountains. It was August 2003. It was meant to be a week long summer hike, through the ridge to the highest peak and back down. Tents, views, sore calves and the sweet, sweet mountain air. Of course it wasn’t that at all. There was a freak change of weather, it started to snow, temperatures plummeted, nights fell below freezing, putting up a tent became painful and finding the mountain trail almost impossible. Visibility fell to about two meters. If I had had any greater knowledge of the harsh European mountain weather conditions then, I would have crapped myself. But I was oblivious to the fact that it had all become very dangerous and continued to rub Akileine ointment for my bad knee, into my feet for the purpose of keeping them warm (as all our hiking boots had soaken through with all the snow and began to feel frozen). There was a Hollywood moment though that Michal later admitted was the clincher for his sparked interest in me. The wind was billowing, the snow pounding down hard, it was day four of this winter hell, we were all tired and unsure of how far we had left to go, and apparently I, with great determination and semi-frozen fingers took out the topo map when no one else would, and motivated us into action. There was also another moment when I had to do a number two behind some rocks on top of the saddle, having my butt nearly flash-frozen by the icy wind, but I don’t think that quite clinched anyone’s moment.

Topo love 2

Michal then visited me in Australia in January 2004. We were still at this stage, not a couple. Within days of his arrival I took him to Kanangra Boyd national park. Backpacks packed with three days worth of water, a tent, a topographic map, compass and some nuts, I wanted to show off my amazing Australian bush and its hardcore remoteness. He was suitably impressed. I wanted to show off more when he suggested we trek back through the gully floor, by agreeing to the incredibly stupid idea. Like me in Romania, Michal had no idea about the dangers of the Aussie bush or the uncompromising character of Kanangra (although I did tell him about those Newcastle uni students who died there whilst canyoning), but I should have known better. We studied the topo, aligned the compass and began the descent. What appeared to be a four hour traverse down, turned into a thirteen hour nightmare due to the dense foliage, massive rock-face drops, vines, flies, leeches, impassible terrain etc. I reckon it was actual hell, especially for me as I was soberly aware of the consequences – lack of water and lost in a remote national park that no one would ever find us in. Michal though was the positive, logical foreigner. And as a result provided me with a Hollywood moment clincher. We had pitched our tent on a bit of flat land we could find in the narrow gully. The night was a horrendous ordeal of weird sounds, barks, hissings and the thought that we would never get out of there, ever. When we woke at 5am the next morning, Michal optimistic we would get to a suitable gradient to climb back out, having studied the map and compass thoroughly, I was a bit of a mess. I was determined to walk but refused to eat as I was so nervous and stressed that I could not keep any food down. Michal (knowing that on an empty stomach I would be a liability), made me sit on a rock, whilst he pulled tiny morsels of bread, small enough for me to chew and not gag, and actually fed me. Yup. I sat there on a rock and was hand fed tiny balls of bread by a dude I wasn’t even sure then I was that keen on. But he knew how to read a topographic map. And that’s why we got married.

Topo love 3

Kazek recently was taken to the mountains by Michal for some day treks (whilst I de-phlegmed the baby son in hospital). Apparently our 2 and a half year old is quite the highlander goat. There was an equal ratio of piggy-backing and actual trekking. He also followed the trail with his finger on the map Michal carried. The seed has been planted.


Map – by Karen

15 Apr

If you ever ponder a map of the world, one of the little mind games you might play is to look at the most remote places and wonder what they’re like, or why anyone ever lived there. Rapa Nui (Easter Island), or those tinier little dots in the Pacific… Indeed, a lot of the most remote little countries are Polynesian. I have been fascinated by Polynesia since I randomly took a course on Literature of the Pacific at UNSW. An amazing, robust and highly “advanced” culture was established in places like Hawaii, long before a Spanish dude first stumbled across the Marquesas. As emphatically noted in a book I’m reading, The Wayfinders, settlement of Polynesia by its first inhabitants involved determined and visionary exploration by a race of master navigators (although the author of the Wayfinders doesn’t believe in race, so probably wouldn’t use that word). Imagine being part of the group that packed pigs and possessions into catamaran and set off from your island home with the purpose of finding an as yet undiscovered replacement, and never returning. These people had no instruments, no sextants (everyone’s favourite mysterious seafaring term), and a strong Easterly current that persists throughout most of the year that convinced earlier Europeans that the Polynesians must have originated from the west – South America. They did not. They came from New Guinea, but had a better knowledge of the trade winds than many European explorers.

In The Wayfinders, Wade Davis shares this anecdote about that bonza bloke Captain Cook, one of the few earlier explorers, according to Davis, who really “got it” about the Polynesians:

In 1769 he met in Tahiti a navigator and priest, Tupaia, who drew a  map from memory of every major island group in Polynesia, save Hawaii and Aotearoa (NZ). More than 120 stones were placed in the sand, each a symbol of an island across a span of more than 4,000 kilometres from the Marquesas in the East to Fiji in the West, a distance equal to the width of the continental United States. On a journey with Cook of nearly 13,000 kilometres from Tahiti to New Zealand, he was able to indicate at every moment of the voyage the precise direction back to Tahiti, though he had neither benefit of sextant nor knowledge of charts.

A map in his mind, that was passed down as cultural inheritance. A different way to learn the world. Looking at the map I’ve posted above, which reconstructs the original journeys to settle Polynesia, I feel amazement that New Zealand was first inhabited only about a thousand years ago, whereas it’s nearest neighbour Australia was inhabited for something like 40,000 years, with the Aboriginal people believed to have been the first group to walk out of Africa.  A kind of geographical joke of juxtaposition. But the Polynesians kind of took the long way around.

In my life, I’ve known three kinds of people who love maps. Firstly there are those who “love maps”. They like to say this because it aligns them with some kind of intellectualism. They will often be heard saying that they love maps. Secondly, there are the people who actually love maps, and they’re a bit like the first group, because they say they love maps an awful lot. You will know they are in group two though because they are not wankers. There is a lot to love about maps no doubt, when I think about their appeal, I feel it in the depth and breadth of sheer novelty. I’m of the opinion that the intelligent mind has an endless thirst for the kind of novel information that an array of unknown place names provides. It thrills us to behold, for example, that even if we could never leave Australia again, there would still be Inveresk and Forth and Fingal, and the adventures that could go with them.

The third kind of map lover probably won’t talk much about loving maps, because maps are not a fetish item for them, but as for our friend Tupaia, an integrated worldview. My father-in-law goes in this category. Upon reaching a new place, if there is any map or cartographic resource, he will practically sprint across to it, often seeming to have completed the important part of his experience of a location after seeing its layout. Even in the children’s section of the Botanical Gardens, no map goes unviewed. If asked for directions, he will use terms like “head south for 500 metres” when a simple “turn right” would do. I remember him once saying something along the lines of, “I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people don’t even know what direction their house faces”, as if to say that they wouldn’t know what day it was. This is a very singular and endearing trait, fuelled by a keen spatial intelligence that eludes me.

I am going to say that I rather like maps. It’s the second category I’d be closest to. The novelty-seeking brain. Today I think I’ve navigated myself out of a mess that that brain had drawn me into. Inspired by Beth and by my own dis-ease with my smartphone-brain augmentation, Richard and I have agreed on a rule of no non-utilitarian smartphone use during the waking hours of the kids. It can be a map, it can be a phone, but it cannot be an open faucet of information and amusement, preventing us from ever experiencing a moment of boredom or contemplation or sub-optimal use of mental faculties. Because if we’ve evolved this long with down time and boredom and not instantly knowing who that guy in that movie was, then maybe there’s something important about not being so mentally stimulated all the time. Survived one day. I wonder how I’d fare on a catamaran trip of 13,000 kilometres into the unknown. The idea captivates me.

Maps in my blood by Beth

12 Apr

My great grandfather William Guy Harding was a cartographer – he was my Mum’s Dad’s Dad. Maybe that goes some way to explaining why I find maps totally hot.

Before my bedroom walls were covered with Cure posters, they were covered with maps. Said maps came as inserts in my Grandad (Dad’s Dad’s) National Geographic magazines. So that’s two sides of the family with the map-love. I’ve noticed that Leo has a fetish for maps at the moment which I’m encouraging.

Here is one of William Guy’s maps. I could say that the narrow depth of field was on-purpose arty, but it’s more just that it was taken at night on the kitchen bench because daylight hours are filled with a sick child obsessed with maps atm, and this one is really delicate, so no tiny (ripping) hands allowed.

Being a cartographer would have been so different then than it is now. Real pen and ink stuff. I bet it’s one of those jobs that sounds glamourous but it was really really hard. Especially if you were one of the early people who had to go out and gather the data for the maps by boat and land.