August 1984. Every morning for four days we boarded a plane, each one smaller and older than the last: Sydney to Hong Kong to Beijing to Urumqi and finally Kashgar. Thirteen thousand five hundred kilometres later we landed in China’s far and wild west, Xinjiang Province.

“It’s like Genghis Khan come to Chinatown,” says Patricia, a rugged skydiver and schoolteacher from Adelaide, summing-up Kashgar on first sight. The central market is a rip-roaring son et lumiere of braying donkeys, boisterous kids, honking trucks and a million watermelons for sale. Then add kebab sellers, camels, carpets, ancient hutong alleys, the looping scrawls of Arabic text, fading Cyrillic signs, high cheekbones, men in skull caps and women in purdah. The faces are Turkic, Tartar, Mongol and Han, but ironically it is us, a rare gaggle of Western tourists, who turn out to be the “exotics” here. Children press in, peering wide-eyed at our hairy arms, blue eyes and Disney-colored trekking gear.

Our final flight from Urumqi to Kashgar was aboard a vintage Russian Ilyushin operated by the Civil Aviation Authority of China, ominously known as CAAC. I looked down to watch the endless corrugated ridges and parched lakes of the Taklamakan Desert drift far below, with an occasional ruler-straight road bisecting it all from horizon to horizon. Where the Pamir Mountains rise in the south I see passes that were the old Silk Road trading routes to Afghanistan, Persia and beyond.

Our Ilyushin rattles and bounces to a halt at Kashgar, the legendary oasis where those Silk Road routes began. We — seven of us, mostly Australian — are here to do two weeks trekking under the auspices of the Chinese Mountaineering Authority. We meet the CMA team. Zhuang, the interpreter is a nervous, moon-faced young Han originally from the east coast. Asila, the cook has a Turkic face straight out of Istanbul or Erzurum. And then there’s a lantern-jawed “liaison officer” from Beijing, Mr Lee, a dour flatlander who soon demonstrates little interest in mountains, exertion or “minorities” (as the central government patronisingly calls their ethnic nations). Meanwhile, “we” are the usual mottle of trekker types: Pat the schoolteacher, Judy a Melbourne pharmacist, Michael a dapper Kenyan lawyer (and dead ringer for British actor Rex Harrison) and a family of three from suburban Sydney, plus me as escort and general dogsbody.

Xinjiang (“new frontier”) is a huge province of over 1.6 million square kilometres whose official tag, Uyghur Autonomous Region is an exercise in irony — “autonomy” for anyone not being Beijing’s strong suit.In Kashgar a grandiose statue of Mao Tse Tung poses rampant but ignored by the town’s passing ethnic Uyghur, Kirghiz and Kazakh residents. In the streets here’s a scattering of blue Mao suits and khaki PLA uniforms but as far as the locals seem concerned out here in East Turkestan, 4000 kilometres from the capital, the Great Helmsman can probably, well, go row a boat.

All day we bounce south in a bus, climbing onto the Pamir Plateau via the Karakoram Highway. It’s a military-capable road but in places is no more than on-loan from the crumbling banks of the Gez River. Blinding snow peaks and heart-stopping cliffs overshadow it. One tremor and they’d close on the road like a book slammed shut. We unload our gear at a yurt camp at 3500 metres beside the beautiful Lake Karakul. The snow-capped massifs of Mounts Kongur and Muztagata float, mirrored in its waters. Meanwhile, the CMA team sets about hiring seven pack camels — the shaggy, two-humped Bactrian kind — and a team of Kirghiz handlers.

After acclimatizing for a day we start our first trek, traversing a set of stony ridges that rise towards 7719-metre Mt Kongur. A few hours, however, we’re forced to halt at a river so swollen by mid-summer glacial melt-water that the camels cannot cross. The handlers tell us that only at dawn, before the daytime 40°C temperature melts the higher snows will there be a chance to cross. But if we do, we might not be able to return for a week. Over lunch we parley and decide to reroute tomorrow from Mt Kongur to nearby Mt Muztagata, “Ice Mountain Father”.

The following afternoon we linger with the villagers in a dusty settlement called Supas, only to discover that our camel team and Me Lee have advanced far out of sight. A weary, catch-up trudge along a desert valley follows as we try to locate the camp. Darkness falls and we are still wading through creeks, calling in the bloody wilderness for Lee to lead us from it. Tough. In camp he is already sacked-out, snoring in his tent. Only Asila’s excellent dinner of mutton, capsicum and noodles, plus soup (always served last) saves the sullen day. I fall asleep, drafting indignant exposés of the CMA to Chairman Deng Xiaoping.

Next day we wind our way out of Karakul Lake valley and onto Muztagata’s lower slopes until at 4200 metres we pitch our dome tents on a grassy high pasture. There’s a roaring torrent nearby and in the dusk we watch a dozen plump yellow marmots come out to gambol along the river bank. Come morning we set out for the Muztagata base camp at 4700 metres from where an Italian climbing expedition is wending its ant-like way up the slopes far above us, en route towards the 7546-metre summit.

We take a lower, less ambitious trail, scrambling across a scree of unstable boulders. Suddenly Mr Lee announces that he will go no further.”We’ve paid the CMA a small fortune for you to guide us,” I protest. Zhuang translates briefly but replies, “Mr Lee says his contract only requires him to go to 4700 metres and he has already exceeded this height.” Lee slopes off down the mountain, back to camp where for the rest of the day he diligently maintains the party line, horizontal on a stretcher.

We continue across the boulders and scree, and soon reach Jambluck Glacier, the largest in China, a spectacular ice-fall that tumbles out of a deep fissure in Muztagata’s flank. We make our way through it amid a sea of frozen waves, shark fins, mutant pyramids and scissor peaks that are endlessly sculpted by the sun and wind. We’re at one of the most distant points on earth from either a city or the sea. The high altitude light, unscreened by pollution or humidity is almost blinding but from here we can see west to Russia and south to the Karakoram Range, as well as downwards to a thousand feet of shale and vertigo. Colin, a realtor from Sydney squats on his haunches, scanning a panorama that’s like the goalmouth of heaven. Every good trek has its absolute “Just shut up” moments. Colin recognises his one. With his camera left deep in his pack, he murmurs, “No point. You can’t photograph an experience.”

Days later, back at Lake Karakul, we’re invited to the wildest horse game on earth, Buz Kashi, the savage first draft today’s well-bred polo. The name like the game itself comes from Afghanistan: buz means goat and kashidan, to pull. Kirghiz horsemen from around the valley have gathered on a natural arena, a long plain bordered by hills and a river. Spectators with faces straight from the days of Tamurlane are perched on a “grandstand”, a rocky outcrop right above the action. Like the players, almost to a man they are dressed in black corduroy breeches and coats, high leather boots and karakul-trimmed hats. “Almost to a man” is a fair term because the only two women spectators are Uyghurs. A blokey event like this, replete with strange men and sneak-a-peek youths is no place for a shelteredKirghiz girl.

The “ball” is the body of a kid goat slaughtered for the occasion. In the good old bad days, in Afghanistan where the game originated, it was sometimes played with a live human as the ball, along with whipping chains for use against the rival team. Without ceremony or a signal the tournament begins. Sixty wild horsemen thunder across the plain in pursuit of a bloke who’s got the goat. He whips his horse but they catch him and crush around in a furious scrum of tugged reins, flailing whips and jerking mounts.

A spirited youth on a superb black colt bursts from the pack, the goat tucked beneath his leg and his whip singing. The mob streams after him, hell-bent for leather but he gallops straight for the goal line at the base of the rocky outcrop where we sit. Spectators flee as the hooves shower them with sand. A pandemonium of roaring men, still grappling for the dusty carcass, erupts around the rider. He has scored. He drops the goat and someone tosses him a red and blue-checkered scarf that he winds around his waist as a panache trophy.

In a frenetic display of horsemanship riders swing down out of the saddle at full gallop to scoop the dropped goat from the ground. Not once does a rider fall. The pursuit is always at full-tilt, the rules if any are unclear. As suddenly and as unceremoniously as it began, the game ends. The horsemen amble off into the distance, to their herds and yurts, and echoes of Kublai Khan. I note that by the Islamic Hijri calendar we are in the year 1404.

A truck arrives to ferry us back to Kashgar and its famous Sunday market. Over ten thousand people throng the town’s colonnaded bazaars and its huge maidan of vendor stalls. If aromas could riot, this would be it, with gusts of garlic and saffron, musk, dung and horseflesh, samovar chai and pirated perfumes assailing every nostril. There are families on donkey carts, tribesmen in long chapan gowns and turbans, Uyghur women in brocaded frocks and bright kerchiefs, and Chinese office girls in high heels and Mickey Mouse T-shirts: they’re all here to mix and flirt, drink tea and gossip, and to sell, buy or trade everything from herbs, tractors, hats, goats, camels and air-conditioners to the services of al fresco barbers, tooth-pullers and knife-smiths. Here at the largest free market in China it’s always been old-style Silk Road capitalism. Socialism doesn’t even bother to get out of bed.

From the yellow tiles and minaret of the Id Kah Mosque in the main square to the border of Soviet Tajikistan, it’s clear that Xinjiang prays, eats and trades not as Communist China but as part of a deeper, far older abstraction, Greater Turkestan, Moslem Central Asia. Awash with weathered tribals in baggy pantaloons and flowing coats, it strikes me that Kashgar looks more like old Afghanistan than today’s Afghanistan — following the Russian invasion and mujahideen fight-back — ever will again.

Colin has a condition that causes his hand to tremble slightly. Attempting to cash travellers cheques he is almost accused of forgery when his counter-signature doesn’t match the original. A female bank teller with beady, abacus-hard eyes snaps at him, “No same sign, no money, tell police.” “But none of my signatures ever looks like another,” he pleads, showing his shaky hand. Interpreter Zhuang won’t get involved because, as he explains, the teller is a Party girl and if he aggravates her…? Don’t ask. Wanting to be rid of this troublesome gweilo, the teller tells Colin where to go — the black market moneychanger down the street.

“You know that CAAC stands for ‘Chinese Aircraft Always Crash’, don’t you?” says someone. Thanks. We’re on a shamelessly bootlegged version of a Fokker Friendship, heading north back to Urumqi. On a wing and a prayer we cross arid plains scrawled with calligraphic cloud shadows. The capital city, of around one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Tartars, Mongols, Hui and Hans, is a long way from lovely, having been slam-dunked with heavy industries. No stately pleasure-domes of Kublai Khan here. The early-‘60s, Soviet-inspired civic structures — pure Socialist Brutalism — might explain why China soon after started throwing things back across the border at the Russians, if not their architects.

Our second trekking region is in Tienshan, the Heavenly Mountains. Aboard a minibus we wind upwards into the fittingly celestial scenery around Tianche, Heaven Lake. Steep hills drop from the snowline in a rhythm of serrated ridges dense with un-logged spruce forests. Nine oxen, a horse and three Kazakh herdsmen meet us at a lakeside yurt. After loading the pack animals we’re soon off, hiking into classic postcard-style scenery whose lushness feels like an alpine oasis compared to Muztagata’s high desert-scapes. We’re invited for tea into the yurt of a Kazakh family who for a few summer months are back in their traditional high pastures and free from the lowlands government commune where they must spend most of the year.

We’ve collected new cook Wei who, besides being a dab hand at garlic eggplant and even desserts, is an actual mountaineer, speaks excellent English, seems smarter than our interpreter Zhuang and is certainly more fun than Chairman Lee.

A glorious two-day trek from Tianche gets us to 3000 metres and the base camp of Mt Bogda, the Mountain of God. An intensely blue sky vibrates against the snows of Bogda’s seven-peaked massif and its neighboring mountain. The latter is a poetically challenged giant known only by its surveyed height, Mount 4613. Near Bogda base campwe come upon the poignant shrine to a young Japanese woman who died on the mountain in 1981. She had reached Bogda’s summit and was returning to base ahead of her team in order to cook a cake for them — it was her 29th birthday. Crossing a glacier she slipped into a crevasse and died.

We pitch our tents among moraine rocks below the snowline while Wei cooks a giant omelet — quiche moraine, of course — for supper. Our plan is to make daily excursions from here. The first is to the eastern slope of Mt 4613 where a half-kilometre ramp of virgin snow falls invitingly from a craggy overhang. The skiers in our group groan for their absent skis or snowboards. It’s a good, hard scramble to reach the pass from there we look down on another absolute, “Just shut up” vision, the uninhabited Jian Jung Gou valley and its floating jade-green lake.

Next morning Lee casually announces, “We will return today to Lake Tianche.”

“What? We’ve gotthree more nights here. Why would we go back?” I ask. Lee replies with a smirk but Zhuang translates shamefaced: “Because there’s no food for the pack animals.”

“Lee’s in charge of that. Why didn’t he arrange to bring fodder?”

“Because you didn’t tell him to,” answers Zhuang, sheepishly.

“Me! His job is to arrange supplies — including for the animals.”

I soon understand why early political negotiations with the Chinese were dubbed “ping-pong” diplomacy. The discussion is a back-and-forth volley, with Zhuang rendering oddly brief translations to Lee of our much longer questions — the other trekkers have now joined in and are livid about Lee’s Great Leap Backwards. Questions, answers, half-answers and Lee’s stonewalling continue until I notice Wei rolling his eyes. Stir-frying noodles, he mutters over his wok, in English, “Oh boy, wish I was translating here.” Being “only” The Cook he is not permitted to intervene as The Translator.

“Zhuang,” I ask. “Are you translating everything to Lee?”

“Please understand, Mr John, there are many things I cannot say to him.”

“Why not?”

“Because Mr Lee is a Party member and I am not.”

Lee’s agenda has been to return us to the yurts by the lake where he can spend the final days snoozing and smoking. The group is having none of his sabotage. Stalemate. Eventually we move the pack beasts to higher pasture and change the trek route but not the duration. Patricia announces that “Lee couldn’t organise a root in a brothel.” Zhuang, anxious that this jibe lies both above his head and below the belt, sidesteps the translation.

We spend our last three days exploring pine-forested valleys and a necklace of frozen lakes. Finally, cautiously, we hike the base of Bogda’s fateful glacier where the seracs soar like giant ice-carvings and the Japanese climber’s silent cairn tells its story.

And then it is time to descend, down through chocolate-box scenery of grazing horses and snowy peaks, past summer yurts and log bridges, and back to Tianche’s heavenly lake, there to farewell the crew and Lee, our own Great Wall, and commence the long rewind back from Tamurlane time.


In 2020 The United Nations and Human Rights Watch continue to report that Xinjiang is home to an extensive gulag network of ideological-industrial holding camps. Their purpose is to “re-educate” Moslem Uyghurs and others into Han culture and over-write local ethnic identities. An estimated one million principally non-Han citizens are believed to be detained or working in these centres which often double as factories for export products. “1984” lives on in Xinjiang.

All images and words ©John Borthwick 2020


“Shoot the bugger!” screamed someone as Captain William Bligh was bundled overboard at musket-point and into a longboat. Dawn was breaking off the tiny Pacific island of Tofua when HMAV Bounty’s first mate Fletcher Christian ordered his captain and 18 loyalists into the six-metre boat. Shooting them might have been a kinder fate. Instead, they were set adrift in mid-ocean, some 6000 km from the nearest European outpost at Kupang, Timor.

April 28, 2019 marked the 230th anniversary of the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty. Overlooked amid the ensuing blue water opera of passion, heroics and revenge is that the Bounty might be seen, whimsically perhaps, as the pioneer of South Pacific cruising. If so, was the tempestuous, brilliant William Bligh — who is officially credited with discovering 13 Pacific islands — the South Pacific’s first European tourist, even if its most reluctant one? As visitors to the Pacific today, we sail in the wake of Bligh and the Bounty.

Bruny Island, Tasmania. In August 1788, His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty, on a mission from England to Tahiti, made its first Pacific stop in Tasmania. As well as ‘discovering’ Hobart’s Mt Wellington, William Bligh planted at Adventure Bay seven apple trees — the very first the for future ‘Apple Isle’. On the shores of the bay, today’s Bligh Museum of Pacific Exploration commemorates the Bounty visit as well as those of other great navigators such as Cook, Flinders and D’Entrecasteaux.

Bounty Islands. On a roundabout route to its place in history, Bounty passed a desolate cluster of 13 granite islands in the Subantarctic. Now New Zealand territory, this uninhabited group is home to the world’s largest breeding colony of New Zealand fur seals and vast populations of seabirds. Bligh named the islands in honour of his ship, no doubt having in mind more glorious landmarks to append his own name to than these guano-bombed outcrops. The islands are now World Heritage-protected. Landing is prohibited and they are seen these days only by occasional expedition cruises. Bounty then headed north to warmer Pacific latitudes, but life at sea on any 18th century ship was always harsh and often more so under Bligh’s rigid discipline.

Tahiti, French Polynesia. The Society Islands, aka The Isles of Love, are renowned today for their lagoon resorts, vivid reefs and postcard lushness. To Bligh and the British Admiralty they simply meant breadfruit. Bounty’s mission was to collect a thousand saplings for transportation to the West Indies, hopefully to be used there as cheap food for sugar plantation slaves.

You can stand today on the black volcanic sands of Point Venus, 10 km from Papeete, and look across Matavai Bay to where Bounty rode at anchor for over five months during 1788 and 1789. While gathering the breadfruit plants, its crew were seduced by ‘paradise’ in the form of ample food and generous, amorous Polynesian consorts.

When Bounty up-anchored on 4 April, 1789 and sailed from ‘Otaheite’, its lowly sailors knew their days of near-aristocratic indulgence were reverting to the norm of being little more that seagoing slaves. (As the writer Dr Johnson noted after visiting a British man-of-war of that era, ‘Serving in a ship is like being in a prison — with a chance of drowning.’)Many of the crew, Fletcher Christian among them, were lovesick for their Tahitian sweethearts, while the caustic manner of Bligh, their master, commander and tormentor was salt to their wounds.

Cook Islands. All Polynesia had been populated by 1000 AD but Bligh is credited with ‘discovering’ Aitutaki — ‘Wytootackee’ — in the Cook Islands. He recorded, ‘I saw no Smoke or any Sign of Inhabitants, it is scarcely to be imagined however, that So charming a little Spot is without them.’ Bligh wasn’t the only ‘first white man to see’ part of the Cook Islands. Following the mutiny, Fletcher Christian aboard the fleeing Bounty sighted Rarotonga, which today is the most populous of the Cook Islands and its capital. But Fletch, being a no-good, shipjacker, would never be credited by the Admiralty with anything but heinous mutiny and thus candidature for hanging from the highest yard-arm. His sighting goes pointedly un-commemorated.

Tofua Island, Tonga. The Tongan Islands are known today as the Friendly Isles, a magnet for yachts, game fishing and whale watching, but as the Bounty wended its way through the archipelago in late April 1789, there were few friendly notions brewing on its foredeck. The rot set in terminally at Nomuka Island when Christian led an armed party ashore to find water but retreated under threat from hostile locals. Bligh publicly damned him as a ‘cowardly rascal’ afraid of ‘a set of Naked Savages’.

“Vintage engraving showing mutineers seizing Captain Bligh on board the Bounty. The Mutiny on the Bounty was a mutiny aboard the British Royal Navy ship HMS Bounty on 28 April 1789. The mutiny was led by Fletcher Christian against commanding officer Lieutenant William Bligh. According to most accounts, the sailors were attracted to the idyllic life on the Pacific island of Tahiti and were further motivated by harsh treatment from their captain.”

Picture this: 28 April 1789, beneath the brooding volcanic crown of Tofua Island in the Ha’apai Group, William Bligh is roused from his bunk at bayonet-point and thrown into the longboat, along with his 18 loyalists. Scant food and water, plus a sextant and compass, but no charts, are flung after them.

In this frail craft it was as far to the moon as to a safe shore. No blue lagoons or happy hour sundowners for these doomed men. But, as the mutineers set Bounty’s sail for Tahiti and its promises of languid paradise, the iron-willed Bligh set his own mind to the near-impossible, to navigate the tiny boat to Timor and revenge.

Fiji. Thus began the survivors’ 41-day, open-boat voyage, regarded as one of the most outstanding feats of seamanship in maritime history. As the first Europeans to sail through Fiji, Bligh marked their route so well that his chart of the ‘Bligh Islands’ (as he modestly named them and as Fiji was first known) is still useable today. The strait between the main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu remains named after him.

Fiji’s beautiful Yasawa Islands today are famed for resorts like Turtle Island and the 1980 Brooks Shields’ movie The Blue Lagoon. Inevitably, there is a Bounty Island Resort. For the castaways, however, if there were to be any picnic in the Yasawas, they feared that they would be the main delicacy. Bligh recorded his men as having to frantically out-row a pursuing canoe of supposedly salivating cannibals.

Restoration Island, Cape York Peninsula. Constantly rowing, and aided by only two small sails, they inched their way towards ‘New Holland’ and through the Great Barrier Reef. Many of the men could barely walk when on 28 May they beached on a sandy islet that Bligh called Restoration Island, where they found water, oysters and berries aplenty. They ate ravenously. The island (“Resto” to today’s locals) sits a few hundred meters offshore from the Lockhart River mainland and 800 kilometers north of Cairns.

In 1932 the young Errol Flynn, sailing to New Guinea in his schooner Sirocco, visited the island and was fascinated by its Bounty connection. He soon went on to play Fletcher Christian in his first film, the 1933 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. Some 70 years later, Russell Crowe, star of another maritime epic, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, lingered at Resto in 2003 while on a seafaring honeymoon with wife Danielle.

Kupang, Timor. Reaching the northernmost point of the Australian continent, aka New Holland, the wretched survivors found a passage, now known as Bligh Entrance, through the Torres Strait and rowed on, ever westwards. More dead than alive following their six-week voyage of ‘extreme hardship, brilliant navigation and mutual hatred’, they sailed into Kupang harbour, Dutch Timor, on 14 June 1789. Bligh, always a stickler for protocol, insisted on doing so under a makeshift Union Jack.

Today’s travellers might head to Indonesia’s West Timor for surfing on Roti Island or next door to independent Timor-Leste for birding, diving and mountain biking but, for Bligh, Timor was just the beginning of his furious return to England in order to restore his reputation and to call down the Admiralty’s implacable wrath on Fletcher Christian and company.

Pitcairn Island. Meanwhile, back on the Bounty, the mutineers hightailed it to Tahiti and the longed-for good life but, understanding too well the grisly penalty for mutiny, most of them knew better than to linger where the Admiralty would surely track them. Collecting their female consorts and six Tahitian men, Christian and eight mutineers sailed the Bounty off the map.

After desperately searching the ocean for a haven they came across uninhabited, uncharted Pitcairn Island in January 1790. They burned the Bounty to avoid discovery and thus became the first permanent European settlers in the Pacific Islands. Within months, however, they were at each other’s throats. Within a decade all but one of the mutineers were dead.

The fate of the vanished Bounty remained a mystery for almost 20 years until an American whaling ship stumbled upon the island in 1808 and was greeted by a gaggle of polite, robust, English-speaking, mixed-race youngsters and a white-bearded, Bible-quoting elder, the last surviving mutineer, John Adams. Visitors today can reach this truly remote corner of the Pacific, with MV Bravo Supporter calling there several times a year. Some Bounty remains, mostly ballast stones, remain visible in the clear waters of Pitcairn’s Bounty Bay.

Norfolk Island. The mutineers’ English-Tahitian descendants thrived and multiplied on tiny Pitcairn to the point of overcrowding. When Queen Victoria granted them lush Norfolk Island in 1856 the entire Pitcairn community of 194 people was relocated there. Today, there are resorts, good dining, reef diving and convict ruins on Norfolk. And, of course, Bounty lore and proud ‘Mutiny’ descendants galore.

Footnote: The author sailed in April 1989 on the 200th anniversary re-enactment of the mutiny aboard the replica vessel built for the 1984 movie, The Bounty.

© John Borthwick 2019


Dust On My Shoes front cover


‘In a cobbled lane with a pompous name there was a well appointed tavern …’ So wrote Peter Pinney in one of his luminous tales of travel adventure. From Mozambique to Martinique and almost everywhere in between, Australian traveller and writer Peter Patrick Pinney (1922-1992) often found the tavern door to adventure standing ajar. He made a career of nudging it open and then stepping across the threshold.


‘Nobody ever lived their life all the way up except bullfighters,’ opined one of Ernest Hemingway’s alpha male characters. As far as I know, Peter Pinney didn’t ever fight a bull (most likely the foppish machismo of matadors would have struck him as vapid) although he did do battle with a spectrum of foes, from World War II Japanese invaders in New Guinea to sour French bureaucrats in a dozen colonies. Probably more than anyone else I have read – and certainly anyone I ever met – Pinney lived his life “all the way up”, and yet he was not an aggressive or self-aggrandising man. He was, by his own description, ‘just an ordinary, unremarkable sort of bloke – which often was very helpful in certain tight situations.’


This “ordinary, unremarkable sort of bloke” made a true profession of travelling – not as a tourist or explorer, but as an in-it-up-to-the-neck vagabond adventurer. His 1948 to 1950 overland journey (which became his first book, Dust On My Shoes) from Greece to India and then Burma pioneered the route which later generations of hippy trippers turned into the “Overland Route”or “Dope Trail” pilgrimage. Whereas many of them became trapped in the eye of a chillum in Goa or Pokhara, Pinney and his tearaway Dutch pal Marchand trekked on, illegally, across Assam and into headhunter country in upper Burma. There they were told, ‘No white man has come through those mountains since the British forces in ‘forty-five … and they took an easier route than you.’


Chindwin-Irrawaddy Map


His books are replete with frontiers: some physical, some political, and many bureaucratic. (He regarded “bickering with the Law” as the “natural corollary of travelling”.) But journeying for Pinney was not just the storming of backwater colonial borders or the accumulation of anecdotes as “next book” fodder. Instead, it was his work, both physical and intellectual, and his pages carry self-reflective passages where, often in conversation with some more sedentary local soul, he ponders the traveller’s philosophical conundrum: the slings, arrows and joys of the peripatetic life, versus the surgical drip certainties of hearth and taxes. A fat but unhappy baker somewhere on the Niger River warns him ‘… no man can be happy if his heart lies in another place, apart from him.’To which Pinney considers the possibility that: ‘Unhappy, then, is the man whose heart lies on the far horizon, and always moves ahead.’


Original early 20th-century Burmese 'steamer' passenger boat.
Original early 20th-century Burmese ‘steamer’ passenger boat.


Peter Pinney’s continuous “moving ahead” commenced while he was at a Sydney boarding school. He learned to “ride the rattlers” during his holidays and saw much of east coast Australia from freight trains. By the time he had matriculated (having hung by the knees from the arch of Sydney Harbour Bridge), his senses of both adventure and irreverence were sufficiently well honed that all he wanted (or was suited) to do was travel. But that was 1941, and “travel” then meant becoming a “dollar-a-day tourist” in the Australian Army.


WWII Commando Peter Pinney by IvorHele


‘I was firstly a traveller, then a writer,’said Pinney. ‘If I hadn’t travelled, I wouldn’t have been moved to write.’ With Army “travel” he started a life-long discipline of diary keeping, which in the Australian wartime Army was illegal. When the military censors captured his tiny, secret book, written in miniscule script, they “filigreed” it with a razor. Undeterred, Pinney continued recording; when posted to a jungle commando unit in New Guinea and later in Bougainville, the cat n’ mouse game of preserving his diary from preying officers continued.


As a writer, Pinney was an untutored natural. Riding freight trains, crawling through Japanese lines and living on your wits from civil war Salonika to Burma’s fateful Chindwin River may merit a double PhD from the university of life, but it is no particular apprenticeship in the art and crafting of prose. Yet, from the beginning his writing style was spare, observant and witty, with a novelist’s feel for dialogue and plot. Of writing his first book Dust On My Shoes (at age 28) he said:


‘… there seemed to be a great deal of work involved; and it nearly didn’t get written at all. I was in Calcutta, and I was broke, my last few rupees having been stolen as I was standing in a tram. But having dealt me several unkind blows, Fate allowed me to make the acquaintance of half a dozen airline pilots – American, English, Australian – who proved anxious to have someone look after their house. In my spare time I could write. I had no idea how to write a book. My only feedback was when one of the pilots picked up a typed page and read a few paras, laughed with friendly derision and handed it back.


But I stuck at it. I wrote 180,000 words and sent the manuscript to [publishers] Angus & Robertson. They said they would accept it – ‘but cut out 60,000 words’. If someone takes you to the top of a high mountain and says, ‘All these lands I will give you, if you cut your wife in half’, what do you do? So I cut out 60,000 words, whole sheaves of pages, adding a line here and there for continuity. And it became a best-seller, despite that derisive laughter.’


Smokin' Chindwin monk


For some 20 years (while encountering six civil wars, among numerous other crises), Peter Pinney lived to travel. He didn’t just travel in order to live by his subsequent writings. His peregrinations through Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, the Pacific, New Guinea and Australia became the grist of six travel books and one novel. After decades aboard, he returned to Australia. During the 1970s, he skippered a lobster boat in the Torres Strait Islands and in the 1980s finally came ashore to settle in Brisbane where he wrote television scripts and a trilogy based on his Pacific jungle war experiences – and those tiny, secret diaries which had preserved. Twelve books, six civil wars and at least ten passports is not a bad innings for any writer. Not to mention hanging out in Tahiti in the early 1960s and playing Marlon Brando’s double in Mutiny On The Bounty.


When I discovered his Dust On My Shoes, I devoured it (as only a restless, stuck-in-Sydney teenager could do) and then went on to read everything else of his that I could find. Credit, blame or thanks are due to him for having presented vagabondage to me as a perfectly worthwhile career option. Thus I travelled, and later became a travel writer.


Fishing canoes at morning on Ayerawaddy (Irrawaddy) River


The year before he died, his publishers asked me to edit an anthology of Peter Pinney’s best travel tales, which became The Road to Anywhere (University of Queensland Press, 1993). The question soon became (and remains): How can I leave out that bit — and that one? And so on. It was soon evident that the quartet of books that covered his extended absence from Australia, from 1947 to 1962, formed an extended narrative, a unique tale of out-there adventures “on the road” before travel (and then tourism) became not just a rare privilege but, as today, virtually an obligation.


I had the privilege of meeting Peter and his wife, Estelle, at their home in suburban Brisbane. Having the chance to meet a “hero” in the flesh is to run the risk of encountering perhaps a shadow of the person one has imagined. Peter, on the contrary, turned out to be all the humorous, compassionate and fair dinkum things that his pen had suggested – and much more. Like me, many people I know who’ve read his travel books remain secretly envious of how Peter Pinney lived his life, fully –  indeed “all the way up”.

 Shwe Moat Htaw pagoda beside Chindwin River


Burma’s Chindwin, Pinney’s river of no return


Most books don’t change your life. When I first came across Pinney’s Dust On My Shoes, I all but peeled the print from its pages, such was my enthusiasm for his epic tale of travelling in the late-1940s, overland from civil war-torn Greece, via the Middle East, Afghanistan and India, to Burma’s Chindwin River.


Whether among minstrels in the Sahara or smuggling booze in Central America, Pinney made an art of outwitting border guards and baiting colonial desk-wallahs, while befriending locals and staying one step – rarely more – ahead of broke, if not busted. Every few years, he would pull up a deserted beach somewhere – Zanzibar was one such place – and write a rattling good book about travelling on a freedom road that now is pretty much (as the Beatles said) “gone forever, not for better”.


Shwe Moat Htaw pagoda beside Chindwin River

The little town of Kalewa overlooks the Chindwin River in remote, northwest Myanmar – or Burma as it was in Pinney’s day. An old Buddhist pagoda, Moat Htaw, crowns its hill on the western bank. Raintrees shade the shore below the temple where people come to wash and chat each evening. Other than a growing population and a few satellite dishes, Kalewa’s riverfront probably doesn’t look dramatically different from how the twenty-seven year-old Pinney and his resourceful Dutch companion, Robert Marchand, 31, found it in 1949. They had worked their way overland from Europe, living off their outrageous if not larcenous wits while heading ever eastwards. Upon reaching Assam in northeast India, border officials detained them and absolutely forbade the pair to attempt to enter Burma.


Naturally, they did just that, escaping from arrest and hiking east from Nagaland through hazardous jungle terrain and mountain passes, at times in the company of tribal Kula head-hunters. Upon reaching Burma, they found their path again blocked, this time by the Chindwin River in monsoon flood, as well as by a communist insurgency on the other side of the river. To top it off, the British district officer arrested them (again), pending deportation overland back to India.


Older Burmese woman smoking cheroot


Determined to cross the Chindwin and press on to Mandalay, they climbed the hill to Kalewa’s monastery and asked the abbot for a letter of safe conduct once they had somehow crossed the swollen river. The monk first insisted on reading their palms but, foreseeing great misfortune in Marchand’s hand, he refused to assist in their plan.


Burmese Buddhist monk


Myanmar is a land of courteous people (if not generals), a place of both beauty and decrepitude where the 1950s are leap-frogging into the 21st century. When offered the chance to join the river ship Katha Pandaw on a cruise to the upper Chindwin, and in monsoon season, I grab it. Departing Yangon, we head up the Ayeyarwady River to Bagan’s treasury of 3000 temples. (“Are you stupa-fied yet?”quips our guide at the end of our day among them.) We soon join the Ayeyarwady’s main tributary, the Chindwin and witness Burmese time in rewind during our daily rambles ashore through market towns where streets are still called The Strand and where old European forts, warehouses and abandoned mansions recall the country’s colonial past.


British colonial-era buildings.


We wander through pagodas dense with intricate art, meet cheroot-smoking folk who smear their faces with white thanaka paste – local sunscreen – and sometimes we just take the pulse of day by sitting in a riverside chai shop. Rafts of precious teak logs head downstream while skinny canoes edge crab-wise across the current. Near Monywa, we visit Thanbodi Temple and its forest of half a million Buddha statues, plus an absurdly tall 125-metre Standing Buddha with a 100-metre long Reclining Buddha at his feet. Understandably, even devout locals sometimes call the place Buddhist Disneyland.


On board a Chindwin River cruise boat.


Our good ship Pandaw Katha is a teak-and-brass descendant of last century’s Irrawaddy steamers. Just add 16 ensuite cabins, good food, a wizened skipper, a for’ard viewing deck and ample gin and tonic. I wince to think what hard-travelling Pinney would make of it all.


We reach Kalewa towards the end of our 1000-kilometre, two-week journey. I hike up the hill that six decades earlier Pinney and Marchand had climbed in order to consult the abbot of Moat Htaw monastery. From here the broad river seems deceptively benign even in monsoon tide. Fishing pirogues drift on it. Women whack laundry on slapstones at its edge and labourers climb the bank unloading beer kegs from cargo boats.


Chindwin River


The two adventurers scanned the same landscape but a different river. The blue Naga Hills that they had just crossed lay behind them to the west and, beckoning somewhere ahead, was the proverbial road to Mandalay. Unlike my vista today, their Chindwin River was in full flood with whirlpools and eddies churning its surface. As Pinney wrote:


‘I looked at that swollen river racing past – we timed it at 12 knots – and listened to the boiling of the current as it turned the waters over and over and played with logs like matchsticks. I wondered whether there would be any chance at all even without the whirlpools.’


Regardless of the current and the abbot’s warning, early one morning the pair “borrowed”a local canoe and set out to take their chances. The canoe bucked in the torrent and soon capsized mid-stream. Pinney saw the seemingly indestructible Marchand swept away to never be seen again, while he, on the point of drowning, was rescued by villagers. Stunned, he later wrote, ‘The debonair, the cynical, the light-hearted, proud and resolute Marchand … the Chindwin had claimed him and rendered no return.’


Chindwin River


With our good ship’s safe, cushy journey over, like Pinney, we too leave the Chindwin River at Kalewa. For us, it’s only a bone-rattling bus trip to an airfield a few hours away and then an easy flight to Yangon. For Peter Pinney, expelled from Burma, it was a sombre turning-back westwards. He wrote, ‘Along the road to India I walked, away from the dawn, away from the river and out of the town, alone; and looking down I marvelled that there was so little dust on my shoes.’


Dust in my Shoes covers


Peter Pinney bibliography (travel, fiction and biography)

Dust on My Shoes. 1952, 1967

Road in the Wilderness. 1952

Who Wanders Alone. 1954

Anywhere But Here. 1956

Ride the Volcano. 1960

The Lawless and the Lotus. 1963

Restless Men. 1966

To Catch a Crocodile. 1976

Too Many Spears. 1978

The Barbarians. 1988

The Glass Cannon. 1990

The Devil’s Garden. 1992

The Road to Anywhere (anthology). 1993


Burmese mother and infant child.