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My Solitudes : Chapter One : River in Summer : Excerpts

It is less than five minutes walk from the station to that point on the road where the trail drops away on one side, leading down to the river. I’m sure that most people passing by never notice it at all; it must be used only by the local fishermen, and probably not very frequently even by them. The path is very steep, but thankfully short; so many years have passed since I’ve walked with a backpack that I’m a bit unsteady on my feet. But I soon arrive at the bottom, at the point where the trail breaks clear of the undergrowth and ends on a large craggy rock, overlooking this section of the river.

If I had been trying to design a good location for this first little adventure, I couldn’t have done better. The valley is deep, and the sides are steep and heavily forested. To see open sky I must crane my neck back sharply. The river here is in places shallow enough to walk across, in other places deep and mysterious; alternately rough and gentle, headstrong and lazy, it flows past the green valley walls. The riverbank opposite is a wide strand of gravel, presumably piled up by the water in typhoon season, but the side where I stand is quite different - mostly large boulders and broken cliffs. Tucked away among this jumble of rock is a small patch of sand just big enough for my tent, providing a perfect camping spot. It is high enough above the water to avoid dampness, there are no old and shaky-looking trees hovering above and threatening to fall in the night, large boulders on each side protect it from the wind, and best of all, unless I have been disoriented by the curves of the river, I think that the morning sun will shine directly down onto a tent pitched here!

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to get the tent set up. I think I have chosen a good one for these little expeditions. It is a 2-3 man model, which is of course much larger than I need, but because I won’t be doing any extended hiking with it, I selected for roominess rather than ease of carrying. Once it’s up, I throw the rest of the gear inside, and walk over to the edge of the river to start an initial patrol of my new ‘kingdom’. Now I know myself quite well, so during the time that I was planning these trips, I made some basic rules about how I would behave. I knew that it would be all too easy for me to get completely wrapped up in an exploration of this fascinating place; climbing this rock, looking beyond that bend in the river, investigating that clump of trees over there ... I would find myself constantly on the move, seeing all that there was to see, consequently seeing nothing really, and of course, completely missing out on the peaceful solitude I was in search of. I had thought about making myself a ‘10-meter’ rule: I was not to stray farther than that distance from the tent. No matter how interesting the next bend of the river looked, I was to stay put and see what this bend had to offer. It seemed a bit silly to be so regimented though, so I compromised with myself: I would make an initial exploration of the general area, in order to ensure that I wasn’t overlooking any particularly interesting possibilities, and when that was done, would restrict myself to the immediate environment of my campsite.


Seen on a map, the Tama River in this area follows a pattern of straight stretches alternating with large sinuous loops, and my campsite is on one of those large bends. The river flows into view from off to my right, and is forced by a high steep cliff into a very sharp turn, almost doubling back on itself. It then slows and deepens into a round pool, in which the water rotates continuously in a wide vortex. A high stone crag guards the exit from this pool, and that portion of the water that wishes to escape from the ‘trap’ must squeeze past it. The flow is then straight for about 100 meters, shallow but rushing down a definite slope, a ‘riffle’ between wide gravel beds covered with tall grasses. Halfway along this stretch a small rivulet joins from the right. At the bottom of the slope the stream opens out into another deep and green pool, bordered by high, steep cliffs. It is forced by these to turn to the right and soon passes out of my sight.

I scramble over the rocks scattered along the bank, clamber to the top of the tall crag, and get a general overview of my home for the next day. It is now mid-afternoon, and if all goes according to plan, I will be here for a bit more than twenty-four hours, leaving tomorrow evening. The sky is mixed overcast, but at the moment the air is quite warm, and as I stand at the side of the round pool watching the water swirl endlessly in a circle, the invitation is too strong to resist. Off come my shirt and jeans, and in I go. The water is cold enough to make me shiver as I dive in, but not numbingly so. Down under the surface, I feel the tug of the gentle current carrying me around the pool. One circuit is enough for now, and I haul myself out onto a sloping rock facing the sun, the lower half of my body still under the surface. The warm sun ... the cool water ... the time stretching out before me ... I lie there, not thinking about much of anything at all, the water gently lapping at my waist. The swim has been a symbolic little ceremony. My adventure has begun ...


I soon rediscover something that I learned many years ago, but had forgotten; that a simple tent like this one, made of just a few scraps of thin fabric, can produce a remarkable transformation in one’s environment. Inside this shelter I become a blind man; it is my ears that are now my dominant sense. The fabric blocks all sight of what is around me, while the sounds - the breeze in the trees and the raindrops falling - come to me unimpeded by the tent walls. Our eyes are such a dominant sense organ that most of the time, input from our other senses is almost totally ignored, merely providing a background accompaniment to the all-important vision. During my time in this valley so far today I have looked around me ceaselessly, my eyes never still, taking note of this object and that, this action and that, but now, blinded by the thin nylon, I notice things to which I was insensate just a moment ago. What had been a single ‘noise’ - the rippling sound of the river tumbling past my campsite - has become a medley played by a collection of individual ‘instruments’. In one spot ‘here’ I can hear the sound where the water must be splashing up against a large stone, over ‘there’ is some kind of gurgle where the river is swirling past an obstruction; in yet another place is a kind of hissing where the water is probably running over a shallow stony place. There are many more voices than I can identify. It’s like being in a large room full of people at a party; at first you can hear only the overall noise of them all chatting to each other, but if you close your eyes (must you close your eyes?) you can tune in to individual conversations ... It gives me a glimpse into the rich world of sonic sensation in which blind people must live. I wonder if there is any way that we can develop such sophisticated hearing ability without having to lose our sight first. Are our eyes always to remain so dominant?


It is very much warmer now, and I am starting to sweat here under the sun. The stones underfoot are hot to the touch; the deep green of the pool off to my left beckons; it’s time for that swim I postponed this morning. I have brought a face mask with me, and now dig it out of my bag, strip to my briefs, and slide under the surface of the pool. The jagged and craggy rock faces surrounding my campsite are interspersed with a lighter and smoother type of stone, greatly water worn. Once underwater these all appear fantastic and mysterious. I swim along with the sunlight beaming down through the water all around me, and watch my shadow explore in my stead all those dark crevices among the rocks where I dare not go myself.

There are a lot of fish down here. None of them are willing to let me approach too closely, so whichever way I turn I am faced with the sight of their fleeing tails. Off to one side I notice a sudden movement down near the bottom, and turn my head just in time to see, heading out of sight down into the deeper water under the cliff, a long and dark fishy shape. About 30cm long I think, although it’s very difficult to judge sizes down here. So what that fisherman said yesterday was true! There are huge fish under here. I try and follow him, but have to surface for breath, and when I duck down again, he is lost to view. It seems incredible that such a fish has been able to grow so large here, with all those fishermen trying day after day to lure him out. He must be eating a lot, in order to have grown to that size, but has apparently learned to tell the difference between safe food and their lures. Can fish be really that intelligent? It hardly seems possible, but there he is ... I wish him the best of luck, and turn away to leave him in peace.


... But that’s still in the future. For now, the chilly breeze is strengthening steadily, the sun has dipped below the mountains behind me, and I can no longer put off starting to gather my things together. It is but a few minutes work to fold up the tent, stow everything into the backpack, and clean up the campsite. Before I tramp through the bushes that guard the entrance to the trail, I turn back to look once more. Nothing left but a few footprints. The river flows on as if nothing had happened, as if nobody had been here. A man came here, sat for 24 hours, then got up and left. He made no more impact on this place than that white bird which flew down the river and silently disappeared around the bend; leaving no trace, changing nothing. The water just keeps flowing by ceaselessly and unchanging.

I head up the trail into the woods ... to the station ... and home. Yes, a most satisfying day ...