The five lessons travel taught me: Bob Brown


In 1971 I caught the cable car up Table Mountain in Cape Town. I could see people climbing through the boulders. In that age of apartheid, those in the car were white, those in the boulders were black. There is no such thing as divorced travel: too late I had learned that where there's a well-known problem, it's our job to make sure we don't become part of it.


Pack on back and walking from Glasgow to Inverness in 1970, I was bearded and bedraggled by the time I got to Loch Ness. At Drumnodrochit I asked old Peggy Mackenzie to give me a bed for the night. It was sleeting and getting dark. She stared at me for a long time before taking me in. It turned out she had just prayed to the good Lord not to leave her in loneliness through the winter. "So, Robert, what could I do?" she asked me later, much relieved to find out I was a young doctor from Australia. Sometimes Heaven intervenes to help even a heather-weary heathen.


Years later, en route from Glasgow to Vancouver, I was glued to the plane window by the stupendous sight of icebergs floating out into the blue Atlantic from the disgorging glaciers of Greenland. A steward tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I would put the blind down: the cabin wanted to watch the in-flight entertainment or go to sleep. I wonder how many passengers remember what entertained them that night as the splendid Earth passed so spectacularly below.


Partner Paul and I joined friends to raft down Tasmania's wild Franklin River. A week after setting out, with the challenging gorges behind us, we spotted a cardboard box with deflated balloons attached, on a shingle bank. It contained a bottle of champagne with a note from Dick and Pip Smith saying that they had heard we were paddling south and lowered this gift from their passing helicopter. Many years earlier Dick had lowered a radio onto a nearby mountain to help riverside environmentalists, who were blockading work on the dam proposed to drown the river, keep communications with the outside world. The blockade saved the river. At our last camp on the Franklin River, the champagne flowed in double celebration.


Lhasa was under the heel of the Chinese Red Army. Outside the ancient Buddhist Jokang Temple a teenage Tibetan girl came up and, looking me in the eye, placed a piece of paper in my hand, then disappeared back into the crowd. The pencilled writing warmly welcomed me to Tibet before saying, "We have full confidence that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will come back to his own country soon and hope Tibet will become peaceful". China has banned me too from returning to Tibet but the exiled Dalai Lama's intelligent compassion continues to give hope and light.

Among many achievements, Bob Brown led the Australian Greens from the party's foundation in 1992 until 2012. He was director of the Tasmania Wilderness Society and led the campaign to prevent the construction of the Franklin dam. Brown and partner Paul Thomas document a three-month adventure across Australia in Green Nomads Wild Places (Hardie Grant, $45). See