Category Archives: Family

Cloud Dreaming

Area showing rough location of the bush schools
Area showing rough location of the bush schools

The first trip – Yakanarra

Flight

It is no accident that the mudmaps drawn to design networks invariably represent the “internet” as a cloud. “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now” … and both meteorological and information highway types often seem just as incomprehensible. When I tell people that I am flying across Australia to the remotest regions of the Kimberley to set up some internet and network control systems for aboriginal community schools the question is always asked: “Why?”

After the preliminaries, the dialog, the logistics, the sheer magnitude of the task, the researching and “google earthing”, the system imaging, and the last minute crises, I awoke very early on a Saturday morning (exhausted from all manner of things) and hauled stuff onto the plane. I’d tried to read up on what to expect at the communities and blending this with what I understood of the aboriginal culture from various sites, media, and movies I set out on my own walkabout with “Songlines” (a book by Chetwyn) and an open mind. Reading about dreamtime stories and the motivation behind aboriginal paintings drew an immediate parallel behind the stories told by the paintings and those told by the cave paintings on whiteboards in Classroom 5 Block C.

Ours, the ones we print out on thermal paper from the base of the whiteboard, are a throwaway representation of something that is used as a reference, a guide, not to a honey ant colony and food, but to communications, pathways and learning… and communities.

In my drowsy state of mind peering out of the porthole I can’t help but think that I also have my dreamtime stories, perhaps far more abstract, perhaps not so oriented to survival on a harsh earth, perhaps not so tactile and instantaneous. Perhaps the songline for the journey I am undertaking was written before any airline ticket was bought. What I am doing here in this aircraft is now simply playing out the “song” I have already written for myself over the past few months.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe I have some strange misconception of what it is all really about and perhaps that is why I must venture out and validate this concept. Maybe there are two journeys: discovery of the reason; and then enacting the quest. This walkabout then starts with:

“I am meeting someone of my cloud dreaming tribe in the far north, of a far western state. Why? To see if our minds meet.”

Maybe it will all go pear shaped and I will flounder and die of thirst in a desert, real or imagined.

Termite mound and Boab Tree
Termite mound and Boab Tree

Lines

Clouds have random characteristics, not only in shape but in their formation. To a Hang-glider pilot they indicate lift, and the food of flight. They come in many species and temperaments and finding the right kind is a skill that is as difficult to acquire as knowing where the best bush tucker is. They often come in “streets”. There are “elders” in the Hang-gliding community that know and understand the ways of clouds in ways that are truly intuitive. It is not unusual to witness an elder such as Rohan Holtcamp “sing” a novice pilot into a thermal from the ground. They are often happy to talk their stories of clouds in the way that a fisherman might explain where the barramundi might be found. Their love for the sport runs against all grains of its digestibility to the man on the street, and this passion is a virus that infests all pilots. It is a binding element for pilots that come from all walks of life. It is just as part a totemic relationship as the second paternal line of the aboriginals. I’m certain my mother must have inadvertently encountered one of the spirit children of Cloud Dreaming. Not surprising since many an uncle has been involved in aviation … none as pilots.

The internet also has lines, all interconnecting in ways that are synergetic. The web first created the lines within CERN to be able to path out research and knowledge. As knowledge was shared the lines were connected between CERN and other collaborative systems creating a corroboration (corroboree?) of dances. This created more and more interconnections, and now with the web we have scientific songlines, religious songlines, education songlines (amongst others), and yes there are less savoury songlines. There are some paths that will take you to the bad dreaming areas of the internet and in the educational process it needs to be understood that pretending they don’t exist does not mean that people won’t wonder and wander. In the early years it is simply important to put barriers in the way and as time progresses explain the presence of the barriers. The danger of traversing these boundaries can then be a part of the learning process.

Broome

The Jabiru
The Jabiru

With the Bike shop closed I did a walk to Cable Beach. It was very “touristy” but still nice. Hitched a lift back to town with someone who works intently with the communities and discussed too briefly the hot topic at the time which was the native aboriginal tongue spoken as primary (while English is relegated as a second language). I saw little sign of the indigenous people and couldn’t think of how I could contrive contact. It would have to happen naturally.

Yakanarra

The Jabiru that Don owns and flies around the region is a recreation registered craft that yields a whole new outlook on this territory. It is versatile enough to cover substantial distances in minimalist comfort with some room for essentials. It is used by the “God Botherers” of the region to carry “the word” and Don has taken it pretty much around Australia. We flew over mudflats and arid territory with just a peppering trees, as dune like spines of geological crust stretched to the horizon like the scales of a fish. The earth became progressively redder, and we passed Geegully creek, long perfectly straight lines – roads, and nameless gullies. The Boundary Hills heralded a change in landscape to the Fitzroy river plain. Making a slight detour we passed over Noonkanbah then Mount Tuckfield and Kadjina and finally over the St George ranges to Yakanarra. A fly by and we were down and met by Helen the principal. Just before I went to work we had a quick look at the nearby “soak” where the Brolgas squawked with the sound often simulated by the didgeridoo. With the patience of a saint Don waited as I configured the system with Kitty and little urchins patiently did tasks and retrieved cookies for their trouble. All too soon it came to time to go before sunset and we got our lift back to the airfield to fly back to Derby. With the sun setting in our eyes it was difficult to discern features and we made a beeline to the airport. Finally landing as the sun faded.

Yakanara Airport
Yakanara Airport

Derby

Here I meet with friends. A couple that moved to Derby from the sleepy suburbs of Melbourne to build and help battle disease. I mentioned that I’d looked at clouds from up and down. Ness and Adam are people I’ve flown hang-gliders with. When the whole trip started to crystallise I thought there might be a great opportunity to catch up. It’s through Ness and Adam I got in contact with Don. Derby is one of the best kept secrets of the Kimberley, it is the gateway to the archipelago to the north and places like the Horizontal falls “The Horries”. The extensive mudflats that surround Derby make for a great towing paddock or land yacht area, and it has the remnants of many a bonfire. With the huge tides experienced here it also presents extraordinary scenes like yachts beached nestled and sheltered  in trees that make an improvised dry dock 200 metres from the water. There does seem to be some resentment and hopelessness about the aboriginal predicament amongst some of the white community, particularly (it seems) from those that have been there for a long while.

Broome

Broome Dreaming
Broome Dreaming

In Broome I met and did a handover to the Purnululu support staff as they were visiting Broome with a whole tribe. The locals are very welcoming and a walk to anywhere is often punctuated with g’days and various greetings. I befriended John who performed some black magic on me and sucked the pain in my neck out through my wrist. We talked, bought a few beers and sat down by the port area while he told me some of his dreaming stories. He is a displaced Northern Territory fella that wears a straw cowboy hat and had made a living as a jackaroo and with Rodeos. He told jokes and anecdotes like the story of his mate that accidentally drank his own glass eye, and old bible stories, probably from when he was on a mission somewhere. He told me things about my family relationships and seemed keen to tune in to my aura.

John has many small superstitions like not sticking sticks up in the sand. This latter I suspect because you might stand on it barefoot. It gets me thinking there is much more common sense with John than it seems at first. He even taught me some of the local lingo. I have the words written down somewhere and I include them here:

East: Gagada
South: Yulbari
West: Yabora
North: Gaylee
Beer: Garee
Ground: Barna
Kite(bird): Japurba

I have some contact details somewhere, and may try to send a letter to let him know of this article

Second Trip: Kadjina

Abandoned Station near Kadjina
Abandoned Station near Kadjina

There are some cries of distress that warrant investigation. So it was that I went out to Kadjina to finish the integration of the system that had been interrupted previously with power outages. Knowing there was a tax on the time involved I made it a 4 day journey.

Thursday afternoon there was a flight to Broome and then a 6am flight with the irrigation guys on the twin engine plane. We arrived at 7:30ish and “buzzed the airfield” to let people know we had arrived. The principal Maggie picked us up and on the 3k trip to the community advised us that the power was out (de ja vu?). After unsuccessfully trying to restart it everyone settled in the shade to avoid the heat. Intermittently the power would come on and die away again as Maggie’s savvy aboriginal assistants tried to restart the Cummins diesel generator set. We would frantically close doors to let the Aircon do what it could, only to open the doors again.

There are three intrepid women teaching staff at the community, one is a English Backpacker (Claire) whom I can’t help but think must have felt teleported to Mars. At about 11am the sparkies from somewhere near Fitzroy crossing rolled up in their truck, as the temperature crawled up through 42 Celsius. Aboriginal children skidded on a makeshift waterslide with plastic soap and water (constructed by Chrissie). About midday Maggie and Chrissie, as well as some of the aboriginal elders decided to jump in a troop carrier and head to Noonkanbah for an Icy pole and to sit in the Aircon for a while… a three hour round trip. I stayed behind in case the power came good (it didn’t). Claire and I sat in the shade and talked until the drone of an aircraft crept into the conversation. We looked at each other as if we hoped the other knew what to do. Maggies “other” troop carrier refused to start. We went looking for a parent with a car… “No miss all of ‘em went to town with Miss Maggie”. This left the electricians truck…

“Sure, Jump in” said the sparky as I heard the plane taking off in the distance

As we were driving away I noted that the front of the cab was for passengers and the back was completely full of tools. I imagined the tradesman trailer was also full of tools. “What if there’s more than one person?” I quizzed. I also noticed a lot of smoke coming our way from the East. Surely not a bushfire.

Maggie and her art
Maggie and her art

“It’s probably just a mail plane”, he replied. This made sense to me and I could simply hold the satchel of mail on my lap.

When we finally got there we saw a mother, a father, four children and various bags and bits, the bounty of what may have been a shopping trip. We jammed the mum and three young girls in the cabin, the father and his son on the trailer and I sat onto the roof of the 4WD and held onto the ladder… You can have your desk job!!

That night the power came back on and the work started.Throughout the discussions with Maggie I got a sense of a vision for the outback that may really hold some hope. Everyone knows of the challenges. The scarcity and then deluge of water could quite easily entrap me into Garee for satiation or cure for cabin fever. These communities are both “dry”, there is no alcohol permitted and alternative community attractions are contrived. Education may be an attraction but I tend to think it would be the path followed after community engagement. I get the sense that Food stores, consistent water, the internet and the retrieval of Songs from the tenuous line between the dish and satellite form the real attraction. I hope these little islands of technology survive the wet. I’d like to think I can provide help to ensure it.

Early the next day I was woken by the yelping and howling of the dogs chasing away the prowlers that could smell the bitch on heat underneath Maggies house. Not wanting to waste a good morning I grabbed some water and went for a walk. I can understand how the aboriginals prefer the open air. Even I could take tentative steps in “reading” the land. The “slate” is so clean that any disturbance writes a story in the sand. The tracks making lines to the next article revealed. Not yet sure of any treasure it may yield.

Zen and the art of Hang Gliding

The art of hang gliding stems from a deep mysticism, with its origins in mythology (The Garuda, Hermes, Apollo, Icarus and Daedalus) through to James Barrie’s Peter Pan. The craft is, of course, taught by the Masters of the art. Their teachings are held in reverence, it’s as if these teachers have attained spiritual enlightenment. It has been a source of amazement to me that the basic skills of Hang Gliding are usually attained within a week. What is the process that follows after?

Corryong
Mount Elliot Launch

While in Bright, at the Mystic landing field and Porepunkah airstrip, I was performing the usual routine of the packing of the glider and was reflecting on the fine flights had. Thoughts wander, and I contemplated the notion that this pack-up ritual vaguely resembled the Japanese Tea ceremony. There is an order to the process that is logical and grounding. While newcomers to this ritual may still require some cognitive process, the Initiates and Masters seem to perform this ritual automatically, but are usually immersed in their contemplations. Such phenomenon is demonstrably Zen at the core.

The fundamental tenet of Zen is that enlightenment (Satori) is attained through practical application “without words, without explanations, without instructions, without knowledge”. This pervades through the hang gliding community as an unspoken philosophy. There are, of course, regulatory frameworks and broad strategies, but the Spiritual side is self determined. There is a Zen phrase:

“A finger is needed to point at the moon, but that we should not trouble ourselves with the finger once the moon is recognised”.

The original “Masters” of Hang Gliding provide a finger that is soon dispensed with, knowing that the spiritual aspect of the art will finish the learning process. Enlightenment in Zen “doesn’t mean withdrawal from the world but means, on the contrary, active participation in everyday affairs”. It is not a monastic recluse that partakes in Hang Gliding it is someone answering a call and embracing all the obligations. This call, like the approach in Zen, emphasises life’s practicalities but nevertheless “holds a mystical experience in wonder and mystery in every single act.”

There is occasional talk of having a so-called Sherpa that can carry and set up your glider, and then pack it up when the flying is done. This may be from those who consider the art to be akin to middle age knighthood, where to attain the highest rank one needed to ascend from Page through Squire to Knight. The process is really more holistic for reasons of safety as well as pleasure (although having a buddy co-pre-flight makes good sense). A Zen parable runs:

A monk told Joshu: ‘I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.’
Joshu asked: ’Have you eaten your rice porridge?’
The monk replied: ‘I have eaten.’
Joshu said:’Then you had better wash your bowl.’

Rather prosaic perhaps, but early in the hang gliding course the Masters place heavy emphasis on the set-up and strip down of the glider, and advice as to stowage of pack up gear, along with preliminary ventures into ground handling.

Anticipating flight often involves the process of “Hang waiting”. During this period the preparatory ceremony (set-up/pre-flight) has usually been performed, and the contemplation of fluid dynamics commences. To attain enlightenment a Zen master will provide their student a “koan”. This is a paradoxical question that is intended to stop the mind and empty it in preparation for Satori. Since no one has perfected “Thermal Detection Goggles” much time is spent on the paradoxical nature of thermal behaviour, or coastally on fronts, wind cycles, and launch directions. This period serves to empty ones mind, become transcendentally detached from the earth, and thus in tune with the heavens.

Zen is blended between Buddhism (meditational) Taoism (mystical), and Confuscianism (formalised and dealing at times with morality). A common symbol across these beliefs, and based in Toaist thought is that of the T’ai-chi T’u. This is the familiar image shown at the start of this article. In its origins the dark and light tadpole shapes represent the shady and sunny sides of a mountain. Each “tadpole” has within it the seed of its counterpart, and represents the balance of yin and yang. These two opposing characteristics need to live in harmony with each other. Its western analogy is the pendulum, which will inevitably swing the other way.

Those catabatic (yin) and anabatic (yang) airflows, or onshore/offshore cycles, that effect prospects of flight are both manifestations of the cyclic nature of the T’ai-chi T’u. The yang or (lighter side) represents the bright side of the mountain, it is creative, implies movement, and also is aligned with heaven (It is also designated as male for what it’s worth). If these meteorological forces are in sway then we will hopefully have some yang for launch.

Once having performed the launch ritual and found ourselves airborne we move directly to a state of Satori. One of the Zen methods of invoking enlightenment is for the Master to shock the student at a critical juncture through a yell, or a hit with a stick. I wouldn’t advocate this as a requirement after a hang check, but then perhaps the sudden flurry and injection of adrenaline already performs this for pilots. The eastern mystics also study these meditation techniques because of its value to warriors. The detachment attained through meditation allows one to concentrate strongly on the task at hand, to the expense of any distractions. A Zen Master Yasutani Roshi describes the meditative state of Shikan-taza as follows:

“Shikan Taza is a heightened state of concentrated awareness wherein one is neither tense nor worried, and certainly never slack. It is the mind of somebody facing death. Let us imagine that you are engaged in a duel of swordsmanship… were you to relax your vigilance even momentarily, you would be cut down instantly.”

He goes on to describe the crowd that gathers, but suggests that you (the warrior) are distracted by neither their noise nor presence. The Bhagavad Gita, India’s favourite religious text is set in a battlefield, and Bushido is a form of Samurai swordsmanship strongly influenced by Zen. Certainly the vigilance of the pilot is key to a safe, enjoyable, and successful flight.

One of my early revelations in the understanding of thermals is that if one takes the path of least resistance they should get prepared for a landing. The thermal will tip your wing away and you will always find sink. I struggled with early theory advising that the air just outside a thermal sinks faster than air further afield, so that when encountering a sink on my right wing I yielded right in search of the thermal beyond (to the despair of those on the ground watching the eagle to my left). The Lao Tzu would say ‘Whenever you want to achieve anything you should start with its opposite.’

Invariably the pendulum will swing and the yin again strengthens over the yang. “Landings are mandatory”. The yin is the darker side of the T’ai-chi T’u, being the shady side of the mountain. It further represents the earthly aspect of the balance, and brings things to rest. It is intuitive, and is described as female, or maternal.

So we go back to the pragmatic duties of pack-up and the cha-no-yu (tea ceremony), although my luck is usually better and my wife has a few cold beers at hand. Soon afterwards; I become thankful for the yin.

Authors notes:

Other activities are attributed to Zen like structure: “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” (Robert M. Pirsig), “Zen in the art of archery” (Eugen Herrigel), “Zen and the art of Windsurfing” (http://www.hsuyun.org/Dharma/zbohy/Literature/essays/sangha-essays/windsurfing.html).

This article is in contrast to true Zen, that would simply state “The instant you speak about a thing you miss the mark”.

Much of the facts and material quoted here has been obtained from Fritjof Capra’s “Tao of Physics”.

This article was originally printed in Soaring Magazine (Skysailor) 2005

Since then there have been others along this vein, here’s a useful one on Zen and Thermals