Fiona McIntosh, author: What travel has taught me


Nature is humbling. Two special places on our planet have made me catch my breath; made me feel unimportant in all the right ways and helped me appreciate that I am part of something so much bigger. The first was getting close to the San Rafael Glacier in Patagonia. Witnessing the cerulean towers of prehistoric ice cracking to send frozen pillars crashing to the sea was both magical and melancholy. It was watching millennia disappear. Seeing Kanchenjunga in the foothills of the Himalayas convinced me I was floating alongside these great sentinels of Earth. The sublime colours of sunset licked a golden red shine across the face of the mountains, and I was sure I was glimpsing anyone's version of heaven. It made me tremble with emotion and humility.


My work as a historical writer often embeds me into research into the World Wars and one tiny village, high in the Luberon in southern France, stays in my heart. We were based in Saignon for 10 days and at first the locals ignored us. Each day I'd take my breakfast outside and gradually, first through nods/smiles, I'd welcome them to join me and soon I was surrounded by locals eager to recount stories of surviving World War II . Despite my school French and their barest English, I learned about their courage in resisting the Germans in the most passive ways: things like dropping eggs as they were being handed over, blocking the town fountain and tiny children moving food in toy trolleys to the resistance fighters in the hills. When we left it was like leaving family.


When I travelled to Gallipoli I hired a scholar from the university in Istanbul who would balance my perspective with the Turkish stories. What an eye opener. What a pleasure to sit beneath a fig tree and take coffee surrounded by old men who raised their glasses when they learned we were Australian. I became teary meeting the old woman we passed, who was bent double crushing walnuts in the sun but generously invited me into her humble hut. We were all strangers and yet there was this sense of kinship, bound through war of decades past.


One of the most emotion-charged discoveries of my travels occurred on a whim. I made an unplanned visit to a hospital near Darjeeling. We could hear children laughing and it turned out they were confined to an isolated fever ward. Despite being forbidden to go in, I could see them through the open door and couldn't resist. The result was 15 hilarious minutes with smiling youngsters that touched my heart. It was only later with a sense of wonder that I realised they were from an orphan's school where my grandmother taught during the 1940s. This was the very school at the "top of the world" I'd heard about through my childhood.

Fiona McIntosh is an internationally bestselling author of novels for adults and children, and lives in South Australia. Her new novel is The Diamond Hunter (Penguin Random House, $32.99). See