One evening in boarding school at Rishi Valley, in the south of India, I walked past the open-walled auditorium where people were skipping and curtseying and dos-i-dosing their way through the weekly session of Folk Dance, which at Rishi Valley was as licentious a time as we ever had, unless you agree that cooking Maggi noodles over candle flames after 10pm is pretty edgy. I was feeling like the master of the universe, when the universe turned around and put me in my place.
RV is an enormous oasis of trees in an arid, boulder-strewn landscape. The sunset, refracted through gritty red dust, had turned the sky a primeval red; the crickets and birds had set up a howling that echoed through the valley; the trees loomed like unfriendly aliens. Then a convoy of gigantic bats with the wingspan of pterodactyls came sailing across the sky, silent as murderers. As I watched, the faint glow from the auditorium suddenly seemed embryotic and helpless against the natural world; the music sounded tinny and forlorn, and even the flirtiest dancers looked like matchstick figures jerking about on strings. The world had gone all primal. I had a sudden keen desire to find a nice safe cave, keep the fire going, and watch for predators. All at once, banding together in society seemed like a very good idea.
When you live, as I do, in a metropolis, growling about traffic and heat and overmuch noise and too little water, it’s possible to become so used to the domesticated universe that you forget how wild and unforgiving the planet can be—and I mean that as a compliment to the planet.
The earth won’t hesitate to remind you, though. Certain places in the world give me the most extraordinary geographical willies: to be there is to be kicked in the solar plexus with the full and intense sense of where exactly one is standing on the globe. Places like the Zanskar Valley, cripplingly and exhilaratingly remote, do this. Oceans and seas do it also; I get quite choked up when I dip my toes in a new one. I most recently stood eyeball to eyeball with geography on Kangaroo Island, which is a twenty-minute turboprop plane ride away from Adelaide, off the South Australia coast.
Kangaroo Island is a nature preserve; on the northern coast is a place called Seal Bay, where you can walk on the beach among some hundreds of the rarest Australian seals, and watch them play in the surf, snooze on the sand, and do ‘seal yoga’, which is to say, prop themselves up on their flippers and crane their necks to stretch their muscles. The crashing waves, wheeling gulls and sleek barking seals make for a friendly, pretty wilderness.
On the south coast, however, at a small promontory called Admiral’s Arch after the water-sculpted rocks, things turn rather more serious. As I stood at the edge of the cliff looking out over the water, the guide said, “There’s nothing but four thousand kilometres of water between your feet and the next bit of land—Antarctica.” That explained the serrated wind that was cutting through my clothes, flesh and bones, and also the chill in my spine as I watched the Southern Ocean hurl itself against the shore, throwing freezing spray a hundred feet into the air.
You don’t often get a chance to stand on the rim of the world. When you do, look at it very carefully; it makes you appreciate the simple joy of sitting in a comfortable chair with a hot cup of tea in your hands.