this (well-charted) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Janelle McCul­loch Re­view wel­comes sub­mis­sions to This Life. To be con­sid­ered for pub­li­ca­tion, the work must be orig­i­nal and be­tween 450 and 500 words. Sub­mis­sions may be edited for clar­ity. Send emails to this­life@theaus­tralian.com.au

My fa­ther loved maps. He loved the idea that the world could be un­der­stood through topo­graph­i­cal lines and car­to­graph­i­cal loops. He loved the cu­ri­ous places on his maps, but also the idea that mag­nif­i­cent land­scapes were wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered be­yond the mar­gins. Maps spoke to him of un­known lands and places of the imag­i­na­tion.

Topophilia — or love of place — seems to be fash­ion­able again, but Dad was al­ways aware of our deep con­nec­tion with our land­scape, es­pe­cially here in Aus­tralia. Maps, he felt, helped us to un­der­stand this coun­try and our place within it. And he never, ever trav­elled with­out them.

When I landed my first job in Syd­ney, he re­stored a lit­tle Nissan hatch­back for me and, as a fa­therly gift, filled the glove­box with maps. There must have been 30 of them. I said: “Dad, one of these is a map of the Ood­na­datta Track? I’m not likely to be go­ing to the Ood­na­datta Track any­time soon.” “Just take it with you!” he said sternly. “You never know.” When­ever my friends opened the glove­box, all the maps fell out: a tum­bling wa­ter­fall of crinkly car­tographs. “That’s my dad,” I al­ways said, half-apolo­get­i­cally. “He loves maps.”

Nat­u­rally, Dad was ex­pert at fold­ing his maps. Some­one once told me it’s all do to with com­bi­na­to­rial math­e­mat­ics, which made sense be­cause Dad was a math­e­ma­ti­cian. I was not math­e­mat­i­cally in­clined and there­fore failed at mas­ter­ing the craft. My at­tempts al­ways looked like origami gone awry.

When I started trav­el­ling the world for work, Dad loved to lo­cate me in far-flung des­ti­na­tions on his at­lases, cal­cu­lat­ing the dis­tances and lo­gis­tics of get­ting there with his math­e­ma­ti­cian’s mind. The plan­ning of these trips with him was of­ten more plea­sur­able than the jour­neys them­selves.

When Dad and Mum re­tired, they hit the maps in a se­ri­ous way. They ven­tured up the mighty Ama­zon River and down to Patag­o­nia, ex­plored Alaska, criss­crossed the out­back, Africa, Europe and the US more times that the most of us have cups of tea. His beloved road at­lases were al­ways by his side.

Twenty years af­ter he gave it to me, I still keep the map of the Ood­na­datta Track. Some­times I take it out, un­fold it, smooth down its creases, and think of him. It’s my dad’s love let­ter to his daugh­ter.

My dad is now in a place where there are no maps, and I’m qui­etly wor­ried he won’t be able to find his way. But when you pass away, you don’t get to take such things with you.

Travel well, Dad. I will miss you. I know you’ll have a grand ad­ven­ture, map or no map. Go far into the mar­gins. And don’t look back.

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