Great days are made of Hay!

Firstly, apologies for the length of this blog post…but I had so much to share…!

On Sunday 24th May I had the great fortune to visit my beloved Hay-on-Wye again, nestled deep in the Welsh and Herefordshire countryside (it straddles the border between England & Wales), for their world-famous literary festival, The Hay Festival.

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It was a truly wonderful and exhausting day, tinged with great delights and just a little bittersweet sorrow. For it was almost exactly three years ago that I last visited the Hay Festival, as I did on Sunday, with my good friend and fellow fantasy writer, Will Macmillan Jones, and it was on this occasion, three years ago, that we saw the wonderful Sir Terry Pratchett on what turned out to be his very last appearance at Hay and one if not the, last public appearance before his untimely and sad passing earlier this year. I remember the event well, Will being a truly gifted comic fantasy writer akin in many ways to Terry Pratchett, his hero, was particularly excited to see the great man as was I. Sir Terry was witty, erudite, bracingly honest and, quite understandably given the nature of his condition and imminent demise, more than a little wistful and reflective. We noted that trademark and cutting sense of humour which was so prevalent in his work, but was now tinged with a grimness, a reality of the brevity of life perhaps. And so, coming back to Hay for the first time since that auspicious visit, brought the enormity of losing such a literary giant into clear focus. He was a man of many talents and his legacy will outlive us all.

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For this year’s visit, despite the sad memories of three years ago, I was very excited to see one of my favourite writers, Kazuo Ishiguro. I had read ‘Remains of the Day’ and ‘Never Let Me Go’, some time ago, and yes, saw the ubiquitous movies, and loved them. I was not to be disappointed. Kazuo Ishiguro proved to not only be an extraordinarily talented writer, but a genuinely lovely human being. Honest, warm, and completely open, he seemed amazed and genuinely humbled by his own success and quite baffled about how he has arrived where he has. Not a hint of complacency or arrogance.

SAM_7052He spoke in the main Tata Tent on stage to TV & radio presenter, Martha Kearney, a woman I knew well from various arts programmes and the whole conversation was televised. I was pleased to be sitting at the back behind the whirling TV cameras, and despite being so far away from the stage, we had a great view!

SAM_7054Kazuo Ishiguro spoke about his newest book, ‘The Buried Giant’, and the elements which permeate his work, the quietness, stillness with emotions bubbling under the surface, which is the trademark of his writing. He spoke about things unsaid, how we all have such buried giants in our lives, and whether we should speak about such experiences openly, good and bad, or self-censor ourselves, a kind of collective amnesia to allow us to continue in our daily lives rather than be caught up in the pains of the past. Should we remember everything regardless of the consequences? It’s a powerful notion. After all, although ‘The Buried Giant’ is not an overtly allegorical tale, none the less, the author spoke about conflicts such as the Rwandan Genocide and the Yugoslavian War, where neighbours had lived in relative peace despite their religious or cultural differences for years until suddenly a catalyst, a memory, an event had sparked hostility long harboured but buried, and the outcome of that Buried Giant was the slaughter of thousands and the disintegration of the country.

SAM_7056Is it good to remember or better to forget?

Interesting notions to be sure. I found myself conflicted over it. Certainly I have witnessed and been a part of a very traumatic past, full of personal tragedies and barbarity, things that scar, things that are best forgotten in order to try to move on and form some semblance of a future, of a future happiness. Churning up such painful memories for me, are not entirely helpful. I lived those events that made me who I am, I survived them and talked about them infinitum afterwards, but at some point a form of amnesia is helpful, a means of wiping the slate clean and starting again. In my case, new home, new location, new name. But certainly I found it a mesmeric and remarkably personal talk.

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Another of Kazuo’s wonderful observations and one which most of my fellow fantasy writers will wearily nod their heads in agreement at, was the acute prejudice Kazuo Ishiguro faced when he told people that his next novel was going to be a fantasy book! He injected the conversation with humour, saying how unprepared he had been for the sheer level of prejudice he found against ogres. He talked about the inherent dangers in people being pigeon-holed into only writing in a certain genre, and how freeing it was and necessary to cross those invisible genre boundaries. Quite rightly, he talked about how people took the ‘rules’ of their chosen genre far too seriously and that he didn’t want to adhere to any restrictive and creative constrictive rules. Good for him! Yes, I see myself as primarily a fantasy writer, but I also write sci-fi, literary, children’s and poetry, and I hate some of the rigid made up ‘rules’ which others always want to adhere to those of us who write in those genres. I love the freedom of Ishiguro, that he defies such constrictions and instead writes about themes which inspire him, whether it falls into the category of literary, historical or sci-fi fiction. These genre boundaries are primarily there for marketing purposes by publishers after all.

SAM_7048It was refreshing and enlightening to hear. But yes, myself and Will certainly pricked our ears up when Kazuo described the snobbery and prejudice against the fantasy genre, as of course, most fantasy writers have experienced this, how somehow the fantasy genre is frowned upon as being a lesser form of writing than crime, sci-fi, historical etc., that somehow it is only the domain of the childish and illiterate.

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SAM_7002After the event, Will and I raced to the festival bookshop to meet Kazuo in person. While he was graciously signing my books, I asked him the question again and he elaborated, that yes, he had been hugely taken aback by the level of prejudice in the book industry against the fantasy genre and fantasy writers, that so many people had been surprised by his wanting to write in that genre! In fact, Kazuo went on to say that he was actually writing a newspaper article about it along with a prominent fantasy writer! SO great to have a light shone on this subject at last. SAM_7075

Great writing is great writing, regardless of genre!

Lol, anyway, I digress. It was fantastic meeting Kazuo and being able to chat to him for a little while, a real gentleman and such a genuinely lovely person. I marvel at his talent, and certainly hope to achieve even a little of his quality and success in my own writing.

Another funny moment, was Ishiguro talking about how he had always thought that writers peaked at 45 (so I only have a few years left!), and that all their greatest work, their seminal pieces had been written before this time…he then went on to say, that as he had now passed 60 yrs, he was rethinking this! 😀

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After our fabulous Kazuo Ishiguro event, we continued to wander around the Hay Festival. So many events going on, the whole place was buzzing. Musicians on tom-tom drums, SAM_7023Romany caravans, fluttering flags that gave the whole place a Tibetan feel, bohemian artists around every corner and to suit every taste, from street art to posh galleries, children events to the most intellectual fair. A heady mix of art & culture under canopies of white. The sky threatened rain, but the rains held off and in dazzling moments of perfect sunshine, I defy anyone not to think they had risen to Elysium!

SAM_7007Just before we left, to take the shuttle bus into the town itself and ensconce ourselves in their beautiful bookshops, I took a photo which for me perfectly encapsulated the Hay Festival experience – a woman fast asleep in a deck chair in the blustery sunshine, surrounded by bibliophiles of every age, total heady exhaustion!

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We headed into Hay-on-Wye. The first sight was a little dismaying though, for amongst the plethora of bookshops which over the years I have visited so many times, there were noticeable gaps. Yes, even in a book heaven and haven like Hay, at least two bookshops had closed, replaced by clothes and odds & ends shops. We’ve all heard the disturbing news of bookshops closing around the country, but to have at least two (I suspect three) independent and antiquarian bookshops close in Hay-on-Wye of all places, filled me with dread. I ask all of my friends out there, by all means by your kindle editions from Amazon, but please, PLEASE support your local independent bookshop! If you don’t support your local bookshop, frankly, it may not be there for many more years and what a poorer world we would have as a result!

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We wandered in and out of the bookshops, the posh expensive one, the cheap as chips one, the Hay castle one (on a wonderful honesty basis), and my favourite, The Hay-on-Wye Booksellers! Yes, I totally blew my book budget and bought loads! I couldn’t help it. Although my feet were aching with a dull persistence, the nooks and crannies of this shop held me in sway, around every corner was a little gem, a little undiscovered beauty…ah! I wish you could see and smell the pages, the leather bindings, gold leaved embossing, the parchments, the buckram coverings, the slightly imperfect spines, the whole experience….sheer book bliss!

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What a thoroughly lovely day….I must mention that we popped into Shepherds, the most gorgeous ice-cream parlour, something straight out of a Neapolitan street, all rounded art deco glass front, high lacquered countertops and mosaic tiled floors, with the scent of espresso in the air! It was, without doubt, the best ice-cream I have ever tasted outside of Italy itself, only later did I find out that this family firm was venerated by many others (besides my taste-buds) and made their delicious ice-creams from sheep’s milk! Wow and yummy! SAM_7096

All in all, it was one of those magical days that come along so seldom. Great company and great culture colliding into one utopian day that left me utterly exhausted but on a high all the way home. Thank you, Hay, I SHALL be seeing you again, very soon! Next year, I have my sights on the wonderfully talented, Neil Gaiman (appearing at Hay this Friday 29th May). SAM_7084

See you all next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, and the year after… 😀 xxx

P.S. For other Hay Festival experiences, including the amazing Sir Terry Pratchett event, see previous posts: https://sophieetallis.wordpress.com/2012/06/08/make-hay-not-war-a-tribute-to-hay-ray-and-sir-terry/

and

https://sophieetallis.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/make-hay-while-the-sun-er-shines/

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A day of celebration for literature lovers and dragon hunters!

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean...

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean phrases (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What a day this is?

One could almost propose the 23rd April as being the ‘Birth of a Nation’ day. After all two great leviathans of English culture fall on this day. The first of course, is our patron saint, St. George. That stalwart of Englishness (though of course he was actually Greek), a brave knight, slayer of dragons, protector of the innocent etc. The second, is William Shakespeare, as today is thought to be his birthday (23rd April 1564), coincidently, the 23rd April is also the day of his death in 1616. The birth and death of undoubtedly the greatest writer that ever lived.

English: Birth place of William Shakespeare, S...

English: Birth place of William Shakespeare, Stratford upon Avon, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wow…literature, dragons, rich language, history, myth…what a potent combination!

Although those who know me, know that I’m not religious at all, and am not generally into the exploits of various saints, apostles and acolytes etc, I am, however, deeply fascinated with history, heraldry, and mythology.

Saint George's DayWe all know the wonderful stories surrounding St. George, more fiction than fact of course, but as with any great story, there are always kernels of truth. St. George has been England’s patron saint since the 14th century and his emblem, a red cross on a white background was adopted by Richard The Lion Heart and brought to England in the 12th century. However, his legend goes back far further than that. A Greek who became a Roman officer, St. George was born in Cappadocia, Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) in around AD 270 and was beheaded on the 23rd April AD 303 for his Christian views, by the Emperor Diocletian (245-313 AD), who led Rome’s persecution of Christians at that time.

As with any great figure and martyr, after his death his legend really began. Stories of defying death and fighting evil or the devil, often depicted as a dragon in those days, grew and spread throughout the old world as the new Christian faith took hold.

But for me St. Georges Day, not only represents the real arrival of Spring – swaying daffodils, tulips tentatively pushing up, snowdrops and crocus gone, the first cutting of grass, magnolia and cherry coming into bloom and buds of new life on the trees, it also represents our rich and varied history and our ties to the past.

Of course as a child, loving fantasy and loving dragons, the story of St. George had an instant appeal, although I always felt a little sorry for the dragon!

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a teenager reading the obligatory Shakespeare diet of Hamlet, Anthony & Cleopatra, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar and Romeo & Juliet, I was more than a little flippant regarding his literary genius. I remember calling out from the back of the class, in my best West Yorkshire accent (don’t ask me why), “Ooooh, Willie Shake or won’t he?” to a chorus of tittering friends. Ahem…I’d love to say I’ve grown up since then, but no, not much.

But of course my respect for this English literary giant has grown enormously. The sheer breadth of his work is staggering. The rich patois of his language. The ingenuity of his plots. The magical weaving of his storytelling. The profoundly deep soul he imbues in every sonnet.

William Shakespeare has without doubt enriched all of our lives. His words have fallen into common usage, his stories have been adapted and retold a million times and in a million languages. As much as I love Chaucer and Mallory, no single figure before or since, has had as much impact on literature and life and simply who we are as a species, as William Shakespeare.

Free hugs on St.George's Day

Free hugs on St.George’s Day (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although I’ve never been a flag waving patriot, one those people you see with St. George’s flags and crosses adorning their houses or painted on their T-shirts or faces, I do feel very lucky and proud to be English and to be part of the rich tapestry that makes up this little country, this sceptred isle.

So, today on his birthday, I bow with reverence (dizziness allowing) and say a heartfelt thank you and Happy Birthday to the creative genius that is William Shakespeare. xx

Happy St. George’s Day and Happy Birthday Willie Shake!

😀 xx

Oh, and this post is featured in The Bedlam Media Daily under their leisure section! http://paper.li/bedlam_media/1315567686#!leisure

New Zealand Odyssey Part VIII – Capital Blues and the Gateway to the South.

With a heavy heart, I dragged myself away from magical Lake Taupo and the wonders of the Tongariro National Park.

Leaving my rental car and the majesty of New Zealand’s active volcanoes behind, I grabbed a cheap bus ride and headed south towards the country’s capital, Wellington, the southernmost capital in the world!

Known as ‘Windy Wellington’, it certainly lived up to its name! Situated in the latitudes of the ‘Roaring Forties’ and perched on a range of steep-sided hills that run down to the harbour and the sea beyond, Wellington is also particularly exposed to the coastal gusts that blow through the Cook Strait. The city also lies on an active geological fault line and has a high degree of seismic activity as a result, with several small earthquakes occurring every year, and was the sight of New Zealand’s most powerful recently recorded earthquake, in 1855, reaching a massive 8.2 magnitude.

Arriving, somewhat weighed down by my now massively heavy backpack, I got a room in a small B&B then set out to explore the wonders of Wellington.

I wandered amongst the harbour and quayside, a picture of city tranquility and civic pride. None of the dirt, litter and graffiti so prevalent in our own capital. Public sculptures and fountains jostled amongst neatly clipped lawns and perfectly manicured flowerbeds. Only the unpredictability of the sea reminded you of the wildness beyond the city fringes.

I took the cable car and drank in the breathtaking views over the city as I passed Kelburn cricket grounds and headed up the hillside to the botanical gardens above and the Carter Observatory and Planetarium. Seeing the stars of the Southern Cross for the first time and a different night sky to one you’ve always known, is strange and thrilling.

The next few days whirled by in haze of sightseeing, but there was always something dogging my tracks, like a whisper on the wind, a feeling of melancholia that I couldn’t shake…

Rarely in life do we realise that we are having the time of our lives while we are actually having them! Yet I was all too aware, as I reached the mid-point of my four-month odyssey, that I had never felt happier, freer and more contented, and that the experiences and memories I was making, would stay with me for a life-time and shape my life in ways I could never have predicted.

Booking my ferry ticket, I posted home some of the encumbering weight of my backpack, before bordering the Interislander Cook Strait Ferry and saying farewell to New Zealand’s North Island!

93km and 3 hours later, for what has been deservedly described as ‘one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world’, I saw the stunning inlets and channels of the South Island’s Marlborough Sounds. A 4000km2 maze of coastal ‘sea-drowned valleys’, of heavily wooded hills and sparsely populated quiet bays at the far north of the South Island, which evoke the best of ancient Scandinavian legends. A heady mixture of mystery, Maori mythology, spectacular landscapes and sweet solitude. Nature at her best!

I arrived at the sheltered harbour of Picton, gateway to the South Island. Grabbing another cheap bus, I headed west through the glorious rolling hills and vineyards of Marlborough’s famous wine region to the bohemian city of Nelson, the geographical centre of New Zealand. A small but wonderfully artsy feeling place, full of galleries, indie record shops and festivals, Nelson became my base for the next week.

Bathed in the highest amount of sunshine per year, making it the ‘Sunshine Capital’ of New Zealand, you can understand why it’s cerulean skies and dry heat are so perfect for making fine wines. And so, despite sadly not being a lover of wines myself (my immature palate makes them taste as disgustingly sour, as when I tried sipping them at age 13), I found myself getting lost down empty country tracks, picking grapes and macadamia nuts from the roadside! Bliss.

After happy days soaking up the sunshine and culture of friendly Nelson, I took my rental car and headed west, as I found myself aching once more for wild places. Branching off from the State Highway, I took the picturesque coastal road past Motueka and onto the pretty little town of Kaiteriteri with its sandy beaches and cafes…But still the wild beckoned me.

Following a twisting road, which can only be described as a single gravel track hardly wide enough for a car, with sheer drops inches from my wheels, I gingerly skirted the forested hills and cliffs towards my destination, Marahau, hoping against hope not to met a car coming in the opposite direction!

Crossing the Otuwhero Inlet, I was immediately amazed by the startling azure of the Tasman Bay and the Pacific beyond and the almost ethereal white of the beaches. Sheer paradise. Marahau, a tiny inaccessible village, gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park and outpost for laid back beach bums, surfers, hikers, adventurers and those wishing to get lost, had the most magical feel to it. Artisan and bohemian in the extreme, with only one way in or out, its solitary grocery shop, cafe, post box and the few dotted roads, houses, caravans, water taxis and kayaks, invited you to stay a while…and so I did.

THIS was a place to live and breathe and write! Hemingway, Greene, Kerouac…if they knew this place existed, they would have packed their cigars, white shirts and shades and headed here on the first plane. Du Maurier too…but maybe without the cigars!

I splashed out, booking myself into the rather posh, Ocean View Chalets, self-contained wooden chalets perched on stilts and overlooking the sea. The view from my balcony was nothing short of spectacular. This was the stuff of dreams. If you couldn’t be inspired here, then you couldn’t be inspired anywhere.

Wishing every minute would stretch itself and every hour would become a day, I spent the next three glorious weeks in a heightened state of happy delirium. No drugs needed, just utterly intoxicated on life.

Taking the Abel Tasman walkway and coastal track deep into the rainforest, I was astonished to see a passing group of little wild blue penguins casually crossing the path in front of me, as a cacophony of exotic birds cooed in the canopy above.

Abandoning shoes, I spent most of my days walking barefoot, hanging out on the beach as if it were a religion, beach combing, sketching and horse riding along the surf…yes, as clichéd as it is, there is nothing like it! Writing for hours and hours as the sun hovered overhead, a guiding light for my imagination. Watching the sunset blaze into the ocean, or the drifting embers of a bonfire on the beach, sharing gentle conversation with strangers, all as blissfully happy as me.

Days were meant to be like this…

For the love of maps!

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Ever since I was a young child, I’ve had an absolute fascination for maps.

The ‘tone and timbre’ as I call it, of an old map, holds within it such beauty and mystery. The texture of the parchment, the ink used and how it has aged over time like the best of wines. To follow the winding paths and coastlines, the mountain ranges and sprawling settlements. Every mark, every crease, every nuance holds a story. As objects, they are works of art and are simply gorgeous to look at.

file000816536459[1]But of course, maps can and have been highly divisive. History shows us that in the wrong hands they were the latest and most effective tools of warfare, propaganda, divisions of state, ideology, ethnicity. They were the bringers of colonialism and with it, the most terrible atrocities and suffering through the destruction of indigenous tribes, the conquering of nations and the carriers of disease. In a world without the internet, without weapons of mass destruction, the nation with the most skilled mapmakers found themselves at the top of the ruling tree. Empires were made or broken by those who could claim the seas and conquer the new chartered lands. Maps were the driving force of every expansionists dream.

But, in literary terms, maps can be the most wondrous of additions to any story!

Cartography, and particularly fantasy cartography is the stuff of dreams. map-of-middle-earth-lord-of-the-rings-2329809-1600-1200

As a child I would get utterly lost in the detailed maps of Milne’s 100 acre wood from ‘Winnie the Pooh’, Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, C.S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’, and of course Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord Of The Rings’. Now, maps are just as prevalent and cherished as they ever were, from Warhammer to Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’, Paolini’s ‘Eragon’ and George Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’.

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Maps serve as keys to the imagination, holders of knowledge, portals to lose yourself and unlock the greatest flights of fantasy…

Below, my own flight of fantasy, ‘The Lay of Fendellin’ taken from my debut novel, ‘White Mountain’ – Book 1 of ‘The Darkling Chronicles’.

The only limits, are our own imaginations!

New Zealand Odyssey Part VI – Geysers and the Beating Heart of the Earth.

After weeks in the wondrous far north amongst the giant sand hills, magical kauri trees and golden beaches of the beautiful Bay of Islands, I left the car and took the bus, heading south to the pulsating heart of New Zealand’s North Island.

The landscape slowly changed from tropical to temperate, as I passed lush rolling pastureland, populated of course by lots of sheep! After a small stop near Hamilton to view the amazing glowworm caves, eerie and unsettling in equal measure, I continued on toward Rotorua.

Sitting on an intense geothermal ‘hotspot’, Rotorua is a sleepy kind of a town with a relaxed atmosphere, that lies on top of a restless giant. For someone who is normally so in tune with nature, I was utterly amazed and unprepared for what I saw – a living, breathing, bubbling planet, full of life only a few inches beneath my feet!

I disembarked from the bus and explored the town on foot before hiring another car for exploring. The smell of sulphur hung thickly in the air, mixing with the exotic flowers that fill Rotorua’s many parks and its enormous pineapple shaped palm trees! I checked into the aptly named Tiki Lodge motel, and started my adventures.

First, a visit to the Whakarewarewa thermal village, a wonderful maori centre surrounded by hot pools, boiling mud lakes, lunar landscapes and shooting geysers.

Watching the maori craftsmen carving was inspirational but again it was the spectacle of nature that left me speechless. Travelling south to the Waiotapu and Waimangu valleys, I was faced by yet more steaming lakes, strange silicate formations, smoking vents and fumaroles and the magnificent sight of Waiotapu’s world famous, ‘Champagne Pool’, and Waimangu’s amazing ‘Inferno Crater Lake’, apparently the largest geyser-like feature in the world! I stood at the edge of the most brilliant ice blue lake I’ve ever seen…but a lake made entirely of bubbling acid!

Waking early on yet another gloriously sunny day, I strapped on my small day backpack and decided to go for some adrenaline thrills! Oh dear! Dangling from a chair lift some 100ft or more off the ground, I was hoisted up the side of Mount Ngongotaha, giving the most amazing views over Rotorua City, Lake Rotorua and the surrounding area, including the distant volcanoes to the south. Then, once I’d explored the summit, I found myself sitting on a piece of plastic which barely covered my bum, halfway between a sledge and a tray, and proceeded to throw myself down the  mountainside on ‘The Luge’! Whizzing down a twisting turning concrete luge track at startling speed is just about the most fun you can have…EVER! Suffice to say, I had to repeat the experience quite a few times! 😀

My next stop though was far more effort intensive, more contemplative and ultimately more rewarding.

Travelling south of Rotorua along the volcanic plateau I came to the dormant volcano, Mount Tarawera, which erupted in 1886 killing over 150 people and swallowing whole villages in its wake. Today, it was an uncharacteristically grey day. The mountain was shrouded in low hanging clouds which seemed to roll down to meet me as I nervously joined a climbing party heading for the summit. Lagging behind and gasping for breath, I used my camera as a good excuse to keep stopping for photos, but nevertheless, I pressed on.

Some 5 or 6 hours later, I eventually broke through the mists and reached the summit. Utterly exhausted but elated I took in the brooding atmosphere of the volcano and the breathtaking views over the Tongariro National Park to the south with its active volcanoes, Mount Ruapehu and the perfect cone of Mount Ngauruhoe in the distance.

With a mixture of excitement and a little trepidation, I followed the guide, from the summit down into the crater itself. Sliding down the crater sides, a mixture of scree and gravel, you could actually feel the heat of the volcano through your boots! I have never experienced anything so fundamentally powerful and primeval…a truly humbling experience.

After a few weeks around the wonderfully visceral Rotorua area, I continued my journey south into a whole new world and one which truly brought me to my knees…

A four month odyssey – the real inspiration behind White Mountain!

In November 1997, feeling more than a little lost after my Art Degree and really not knowing what to do with myself or my life, I embarked on an adventure – one that would become an odyssey and a truly life-changing experience.

Without much thought for the future, and deeply unhappy with the present, I flew to New Zealand, in a haze of confusion.

After 26 hours I disembarked in Auckland. I found myself sitting by the harbour side overlooking the volcanic island of Rangitoto, on a beautiful summer’s morning, with nothing but my backpack and a huge smile!

My adventure had begun…