Thoughts on Departing Life


What do you do when your Oncologist explains you have incurable bone cancer, not just in one location but in bones throughout the body, and in the lymph nodes as well?

At 81, why should you cry? I’ve had a lucky and happy life, full of achievements, with virtually no regrets. But it is a shock and demands a re-think about priorities — family responsibilities, personal estate issues, unfinished projects, bucket lists. What to keep doing, and what to give up.

And then there is an ethical question. Is it right that Australian taxpayers money is being allocated to keep me alive just one or two extra years. Every hormone therapy injection costs the Government over $1000; the new drugs I am on are also extremely expensive, and there are the regular bulk-billed appointments with the Radiation Oncologist, the Medical Oncologist and the Palliative Care doctors and nurses. Couldn’t this money be better spent on children with cancer, or indeed on education opportunities for the disadvantage?

Even given this treatment, the prognosis is that I will die before my wife, Dorothy, who is in a nursing home with dementia. How much time should I give to her? Can I justify going to my son in Canberra for Christmas leaving Dorothy behind in the nursing home, or going off the WA Kimberlies for that trip I always wanted to do? I don’t have a God I believe in whom I might ask. I have no faith in supernatural interference on my behalf. I have to fall back on my own ethical standards and values.

We all have to die. That is one of the outcomes of living. So much chance has led to our birth as humans on this remarkable planet, one of a hundred million or more in the Universe. I believe we have no status in this Cosmic system, no rights to immortality — not for us, not for our species, not for our Earth, not for our solar system. Existence itself is an absurd phenomenon — not guaranteed, just a strange occurrence in the space-time journey.

I must put aside this metaphysical musing. The immediacy of my life is with me. It dominates my everyday thoughts and all my current decision making. What to do first, what next? Do I keep eating, do I keep active in orienteering or bushwalking , do I sell my push bike, do I keep driving myself, and then what help do I need in the home? There are no right or wrong answers, simply conundrums. Teasers. It is tiring.

And what is more macabre in all this, should I plan my own funeral?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Landscape Aesthetics – West MacDonnell Ranges

The Larapinta Trail wanders through the West MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia where the desert colours, spectacular landforms, and surprise features add scenic delights to the natural wilderness.

What is it that makes this area one of Australia’s scenic treasures?

I will first suggest the Majesty of the landscape. Those element of sheer size like the deep slot canyon cut through the range known as Stanley Chasm,  or the specatular broad sweep of Ormiston Pound, or the view over the Finke River catchment from the trail up Mt. Sonder.











The second quality is Atmosphere or more correctly the ambience of a place. This is how it fells homely or inviting — creating a sense that says, ‘Look at Me’, aren’t I beautiful, inviting, here to be enjoyed.



A third quality that makes landscape memorable is the Serendipity experience when you come across a feature that catches you by surprise, like a waterhole in a desert, rare cycads in a remote gorge, or a strange rib of ancient rock advancing across the spinifex adorned hills with the clouds above echoing the same shapes. Such delights are often the ones you remember the most.















And finally, putting it all together, is the Artistic Quality, captured in the framing of the landscape in the lens, where you trap  those delights of light and colour, contrast and form, perhaps enhanced with the reflection in a river pool, or the soft mood of the later afternoon.









You should go to the Larapinta, West MacDonnells, while you can. It was on my ‘bucket list’ and I managed to walk a lot of the trails while the asthma was taking my breath away and the Prostate Cancer was beginning to attack my bones. Such a joy!













Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

West MacDonnell delights

Pass, gorge, gap, chasm? After visiting so many in the West MacDonnell Ranges it is difficult to remember from the photographs which is which. I visited several of these sites with Life’s an Adventure on a 5 day tramping trip. So here are my photos and impressions of some of those special places so significant in the folk law of the indigenous peoples.

The first site was Stanley Chasm, such a narrow defile cut into the pre-cambrian rocks and lit up in various colours according to the light at the time of entry. The chasm is now blocked at the north end by a landslide composed of huge quartzite boulders.

Then we walked over the range into the Ormiston Pound and out through the broad gap that is Ormiston Gorge. We were told it was quite a dry year but I was surprised by the amount of water. It turned out to be a photographers delight yet my special interest was the geology. To think that the rocks around us were laid down as sediments 700 million or more years ago as part of the Earth’s earliest continental crust, and had drifted to almost all points of the globe before being thrust up in mountain building orogenies, crumpled and metamorphosed by pressure — the sequence is uncertain — before being lodged in the centre of the continental land mass that is Australia,the superimposed streams

 of much wetter climates wearing away the more recent sediments and cutting through the rangers to be gathered into the Finke River flowing south. Now the country of Central Australia is a dry desert landscape, the West MacDonnell clothed in species of spinifex, hardy hakea, and red mallee clumps, with river the lovely red gums along the creek lines.








At the magnificent Glen Helen Gorge I tool photos on my Ipad of the large pools and the kids swimming. Some day I’ll find our how to transpose them to my computer.

I believe the next photo is Serpentine Gorge then the Ochre Pits and Inarlanga Gorge with the smoky green fronds of the the ancient cycads.







The Ellery Creek Big Hole where we lunched on our final day was really special. It was busy with tourists bur never-the-less spectacularly beautiful, one of the true highlights of our adventure.








Simpsons Gap in comparison was somewhat disappointing, which far less water than I remember from a previous visit and with no rock wallabies to be seen,though our guide, Daniel, sat waiting for an hour hoping to spot one frollicking amongst the rocks on a large scree slope.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mt. Sonder trek – one dent in the bucket

As an 81 year old the ascent of Mt. Wonder, 1,380m, in the West McDonnell Ranges was always going to be hard. As an 81 years old asthmatic it would be doubly hard; and as an 81 year old male on hormone therapy to suppress prostate cancer it was ridiculous to try. But, then, I was with a Life’s and Adventure tour encouraged by the tour guides and my tour companions who expected me to give it a go.

The first steep section came a kilometre into the walk with seven kilometres ahead on the daunting climb. I was ready to go back, could not get enough oxygen into my lungs, my breathing shot, and my coughing only controlled by ventolin intake. Chelsea, the female guide, didn’t want me to go back alone. She had a duty of care for me as well as all the party up ahead, so I pressed on slowly. I endured the strain by stopping every 15 metres on the steeper sections till we reached the main ridge and the walking became easier.
At one break we sat on a high point admiring the view — admiring the majesty of it. I talked about landscape aesthetics and how scenic quality could be rated and valued and Chelsea told me about the lectures in her first year at Latrobe University delivered by Genny Blades about the differing environmental viewpoints arising from different cultures, both indigenous and modern — where our values come from. Genny Blades had been a member of the staff at Maroon Outdoor Education Centre when I was Principal, and it was pleasing to hear how Genny had impressed Chelsea and helped to mould her environmental attitudes.

We then tramped on, and Chelsea and I were welcomed at morning tea where the fifteen others were about ready to press on. I would have been happy to call it a day having achieved more than I expected of my self, and one lady in the party, Michelle, was thinking the same. However with more encouragement we went on.

A kilometre later Chelsea had radio contact from Daniel, the lead guide, that Michelle had become scared about the prospect of exposure on the very steep final climb. As  I was convinced I shouldn’t go on, Chelsea went up and retrieved Michelle and we took on the long seven kilometre toddle back down the mountain together.

That was my Sonder Wander coming to a close and so I felt I had kicked another dent in the bucket. There were three more days to go with Life’s an Adventure and also quite a few other adventures in spectacular landscapes remain on the list still to be experienced. That bucket is in for a few more dents before I flatten it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What’s in a Name Tag?

Last Monday, returning from voluntary work in the library at the Royal Geographical Society of Queensland, I had just hopped off my train at Coopers Plains Station when, looking down as I stepped off the kerb into the carpark, I saw what appeared to be a name tag lying in the gutter. I immediately thought someone could be missing this so I picked it up to read the name. My God! It read Robin Simson in bold print!

When, in my teaching days, I would come home wearing a name tag from a conference or Principal’s meeting, my wife, Dorothy would say, “Hello Robin, now I know who you are.” It became a standard joke in our household. So, should I now wonder, if I really am Robin Simson, or is he or she lying in hospital after being bashed and robbed in the Coopers Plains Station carpark; and if so, maybe I should visit him or her and return that little slip of card, the announcement of his or her identity. Maybe this patient is a mystery, admitted to the hospital’s emergency ward with no identification, the manbag or handbag stolen by the thief. In which case  this name tag could be the one clue to his or her identity.

In truth, name tags tell us very little. It’s like a label on one of those little tubs of dip — Garlic and Tomato, Capsicum and Olive. There appears to be hundreds of strange combinations. You only know the truth when you sample it on a cracker biscuit. Then you announce, ‘lovely’, to your host, with the expression on your face telling a different story. The test is in the after taste, after you and the ‘dip’ converse a little more.

One might think when introduced at a conference, ‘Robin and Simson is a strange combination’. Shouldn’t it be Robyn and Simpson for starters. And if this person is female has she lost her hair to chemo-therapy and there is now just a little stubble growing back; or if male, why can I see nipples pushing out of his shirt, and why does he wear a neck scarf and not a tie. Ultimately like the dip, any superficial gender considerations should not matter, the test of identity is in the tasting — getting familiar, knowing how the person thinks. It is the after taste that you will remember.

Still there could be other explanations for the soiled name tag’s return to my life. Did I drop the name tag in my hurry to catch the train in the morning, and did some thoughtful soul pick it up in the carpark and place it just where the owner was likely to see it as he or she left an afternoon train and stepped into the carpark to go to his or her car. Or had someone eating dip at a social gathering see that I had left it behind, and with good intentions to return it to me, carried it around for weeks in a coat pocket forgetting about and it; and it somehow fell to the ground without them noticing as they took out their railway gocard. Indeed, there are 1001 scenarios as there are dip flavours.

The truth is most likely more like this. I put on the RGSQ name tag before leaving home to go to the train. I was running late for the train due in two minutes, and already announced by the loudspeaker on the station platform. Rushing from the car, I knocked the name tag off with my manbag as I slung the bag over my shoulder. The tag lay in the gutter all day being scuffed by passing shoes, but no one thought to pick it up. Just left my identity there to be trampled.

Thinking further it could have been washed into the sewer in the next storm and floated away out to sea, into oblivion. Sad, but somewhat a joy, that final adventure we all face. There is something good about death at sea. Saves the family the funeral expenses.

As for today I am still here, Robin Simson writing this piece for my blog. and I have the name tag by my computer it case the computer asks me my name. But I know there is still an aspect of the mystery that defies explanation. The name tag had a clip that attached it to a shirt or coat. The clip was not lying in the gutter when I picked the name tag up. Did a child souvenir the clip and discard the tag? Who knows?

Life is all the more entertaining for the existence of unsolved mysteries.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Gender Identity

Last night I watched the re-run of the tele-movie, Carlotta, on ABC2. What a courageous production and beautifully presented. Jessica Marais was magnificent in the title role, the story of the legend of Les Girls who first appeared on the stage in Kings Cross in Sydney in 1959, and continued to perform for three decades. Born a boy in a household with an abusive step-father, Richard Byron knew in his heart he was feminine, and so at fifteen left home to become Carol Spencer and join up with fellow transgender performers. Carol took the stage name, Carlotta, and was one of the first in Australia to have successful transgender surgery.

The whole presentation made we wonder once again about the male-female gender thing. It seem to me that there is continuum from extremely macho masculinity to the most fragile and reclusive of a feminine identity. Where does each of us fit on the spectrum? How much of the male hormone, testosterone, does my body produce and how is this balanced with the female oestrogen? It all gets very complicated as we change through life, and especially when replacement or suppression of these hormones is prescribed by our doctors – for example, to counteract the effects of menopause in women, or the stress of impotence in men. And then, what if at certain times in our lives, in response to joy, sadness or trauma, the natural apple cart of the hormones is upset, the balance changes, and we are left confused – a feeling of not knowing oneself.

The hormone therapy I have undergone to suppress the prostate cancer in my body has brought about mood and outlook changes. Indeed, I wrote about this in my memoir:

“How could I be a man and yet feel somehow womanly. I could not describe my feelings as that of a ladyboy, more of a suppressed female twin within me fighting to escape and to be given expression, to be noted. Some sectors of society might suggest that I should feel ashamed, but I did not. Any shame had more to do with confusion, my concern over how my incipient femininity could survive in harmony with my outwardly male persona.”

So how difficult would it have been for Richard Byron to take his first coming out step, and how much more stressing for Carol Spencer to face up to the sex-change surgery. It makes me full of admiration for those in his/her situation who tackle their gender identity problems with courage. Fortunately most of our society has moved on from the prudish attitudes of the 1950s. We have become more tolerant and sympathetic .There are examples and pathways to follow. Many of us might very well ask ourselves, ‘Where do I fit? How female is my maleness, or how male is my femaleness?’

Posted in Memoir writing | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Magic of Framing

The view from a hilltop is a broad continuous vista which moves and changes as you turn your head – the image revolving through the variances in foreground and background, aspect and light. It is not focussed by framing, but loose and serendipitous to the mind. It can be adored as beautiful scenery or disappointing because of the occurrence of scarring and blight.


I once tried to rate scenery on a value scale as if one could measure the aesthetic ‘quality’ in a way you might judge a photographic competition. There are many ‘intangibles’ involved in peoples perception, memories and sentiments which clouded and distorted the scores; and ultimately the published results never gained traction with planners, or politicians.

I was hoping to see governments legislate to protect highly rated scenic areas by imposing development restrictions and codes of practice. But my approach at the time assumed that the natural is always preferable to the built-up, that construction always has an ugly over-tone, the insidious source of scenic disharmony. Now, I admit, it is obvious that this is not always the case.

Stepping Stones

Stepping Stones

Rarely would we perceive ugliness in the form of a bridge or ford across a river, or the presence of a sailing boat drifting across a lake. And one must admit that man-made can be truly beautiful – the Tag Mahal being the supreme example, and the Sydney Opera House another. Still I must impose a word of caution, for the pictures we see of these iconic buildings are always ‘framed’. The image is captured. Peripheral vision is lost – absent from the equation. We are not seeing any of the shabbiness around and beyond, the despoliation evoked by a combination of paving, noise, signage, large billboards, or the clutter and garbage that seems inevitable in urbanised areas.



All this, of course, illustrates the magic of framing, such as with this photograph from a popular viewing point in Paris. There is something lacking in a scene until it is framed, just as there is in a painter’s masterpiece on canvas.

I love how Albert Namatjira alerted us Australians to the beauty in colour and form of the Flinders Ranges landscapes, but without framing, the capturing of the vistas in a particular expression of weather and light creating the striking imprint on our minds would be lost in a miscellany of other experiences, other views, other happenings as out eyes wandered.

st-aidans-beauty-missing-a-gloveI feel sentimental when I view this photograph of  Dorothy as a young schoo girl – the curls, the eyes, the smile I fell in love with – this one all the more memorable for she is captured beautifully presented but for missing her right glove. It provokes more memories of our courting days – relaxing  on the beach, nights on the dance floor, holding hands in the moonlight as I escorted her home, and those pensive moments walking a rainforest trail together.

Yet it is the ‘framed’ portrait hanging on the wall, the pictures in the scrapbook, the wedding photos, that most delight and fire up the mind, that bring the tears to my eyes.

They are among my favourite things. They are extraordinary.They resound with magic. They are precious beyond comparison. They are ‘framed’ in my mind.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment