Yesterday I drove Mrs Gee, a student nurse at the University of East Anglia, to UEA where she had to do some necessary admin that couldn’t be done remotely. While she was doing that, Posy the Golden Retriever took me for a walk in Earlham Park, which is just across the road. Earlham Park is lovely. Huge swathes of grassland punctuated by the occasional stately tree. Posy was delighted.
As we walked, a thick mist fell. It might have been a fog. What’s the difference between a fog and a mist? A mog and a fist? Either way, it looked like this:
fog mist murk, the self-similarity of the landscape increased — grass, grass, and more grass, with the occasional half-seen tree. I very quickly became lost. If it hadn’t been for the Ordnance Survey app on my smartphone, which showed me where I was, and, crucially, told me which way I was going, I might have wandered round for hours.
Most worrying was how much I had become disoriented. My innate sense of direction was skewed by more than ninety degrees. I was often quite surprised to learn of the directions indicated my my phone. Only by trusting it completely, and ignoring what my brain was telling me, did I find my way back to UEA and Mrs Gee, who had finished her business and was waiting for me. Time, it seemed, had passed. More time than I had expected. It’s chilling how quickly one can become lost without cues to tell us where we are.
I did, though, have one cue — a half-dismembered bicycle abandoned behind a bush, noted on my way out, greeted me on my way back. It was a waymarker, reassuring me that I was going in the right direction.
It reminded me of a time when I became lost in a similar way, in a similarly self-similar but otherwise very different landscape.
I had joined Meave Leakey and her field crew on the western shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya in the summer of 1998, where I spent a fascinating fortnight learning what palaeontologists actually do in the field. I wrote about some of my experiences in a book. A couple of the finds from this region eventually made their way into a well-known science magazine. I should say that I played no part in their discovery. Indeed, I could have walked over (or past) them several times without knowing they were there. Finding fossils and artifacts requires you to get your eye in.
But I digress.
Each morning we would walk from our field camp to where we would prospect for fossils. This wasn’t a single site, but an entire landscape that looked very much like the picture above — a self-similar scene of gullies, mounds and the occasional small bush or tree. Each person would spend their time largely alone, wandering around and looking at the ground to see what had weathered out. We would, however, try to remain more or less in sight of one another, and bright clothing was encouraged (I took a small collection of aloha shirts). When the time came to go back to camp, we’d always go in pairs, or as a group.
I discovered why when, one day, I foolishly decided to walk the few hundred yards back to camp alone. I thought I knew the way, but I soon wandered off course and got lost. One tree came to look much like another. These were the days before smartphones and GPS, so I had no artificial aids. The sun was not much use, either, as I was more or less on the Equator, and, at nearly noon, it was standing overhead. I was saved only when I saw a glint of metal under a tree, some hundreds of yards to my left — it was one of the field vehicles in the camp.
Meave was rather concerned, when I told her what had happened, and warned me sternly not to do this again. In foggy, doggy Earlham Park, even without a GPS, one will find civilization sooner or later, or at least another dog-walker, and there is little in the way of banditry or wildlife to interrupt one’s quest for safe harbour. The remote desert of northern Kenya is another matter entirely. I could simply have disappeared in its sandy immensity and never have been seen again.