‘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.’
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.’
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.
‘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.’
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.
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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.’
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