Thursday, 20 September 2018

Strictly Ballroom with a stabbing

When I first lobbed in Hong Kong way back in the early 1990s, someone I knew roped me into doing some ballroom dancing classes in deepest Causeway Bay at Paul Bishop's sprawling dance school. Imagine my surprise a few years later when I was back there as the feature writer for the South China Morning Post's Postmagazine, on the scent of a drama that made Baz Luhrmann's sequinned epic look tame.

LIFE mirrors art. Truth is stranger than fiction. And in Hong Kong, a further general rule applies - any confluence of arty life and weird truth will quickly find its way onto the big screen.

Strictly ballroom: Or is there, in those pants?
It is almost certain that, even as you read, script writers are scribbling, casting directors are casting and celluloid is whirring as a host of low-rent Shamshuipo production houses jostle to be first to bring the twisted Terpsichorean tale of Scott Todd and Chan Ming-ming to a cinema near you.

The plot is equal parts Strictly Ballroom, sordidly bedroom and sadly courtroom; just your average boy-meets-girl, boy-dances-with-girl, boy-dumps-girl, girl-stabs-boy kind of story.

Quirky uber-waif Faye Wong would be perfect for the part of Chan Ming-ming, the tall, slim divorced mother-of-one who was quick-stepped off her feet by the oily charm of her teenage dance instructor. Perhaps Chris Bale could be tempted from television to the silver screen to play Paul Bishop, the balding dance instructor to the rich and famous who plucked Todd from obscurity in Manchester to unleash him on Hong Kong's light-footed ladies-who-lunch.

Scott Todd: Blood on the dancefloor
Lydia 'Fei Fei' Shum seems tailor-made for the role of the mystery matron named in court as Jenny Choi, a dumpy but loaded businesswoman who, dance insiders say, won Todd's affections with a fat wad of cash to bankroll his new dance school.

And for the starring role as the snake-hipped, slick-coiffed Don Juan of the dance floor, why not . . . Scott Todd? With his taste for the high-life, his smooth-talking self-confidence and talent for the tango, he seems a natural for the movie business. Let us blur the boundaries between art and life a bit further and ask him to play himself.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

The King and us

One of the most bizarre entries in the fairly weird collection of yarns I penned for the South China Morning Post's Postmagazine was joining the Hong Kong Elvis Presley Fan Club on its trip of a lifetime, a pilgrimage to Graceland for the Candlelight vigil and stations of the cross observed each year in Memphis, Tennessee by the true believers.

FOR three nights running now, the King has come to me in my dreams. Conjured by a combination of greasy junk food, Deep South humidity and serious sensory overload, he wafts into my subconscious as a giant, disembodied head. Not beefy, bloated Las Vegas Elvis, but the preternaturally beautiful young Hillbilly Cat. His airbrushed skin kissing the inky lustre of his soaring pompadour like a peach on black velvet; the perfect pink cupid's bow mouth curling up at one corner. And as I'm transfixed by those sad soft glazed eyes, an unshakeable conviction takes hold. Elvis is about to eat me. His lips part to reveal a graveyard of rotting teeth and a grotesquely swollen tongue, drooling hungrily. As the King moves in to chow down, I awake with a jolt and a stifled shriek, a sweaty wreck in a sodden bed.

In his pomp(adour): The Hillbilly Cat
Strange? Sure. But it would be stranger not to have such visions after a few days immersed in the madness that is Memphis in August. For when the going gets weird, it seems the seriously weird go to Graceland. The ante-bellum mansion has become Mecca, Calvary and Varanasi for the ever-swelling ranks of true believers coming to commemorate the death - and lucrative resurrection - of Elvis Aaron Presley.

In these sacred surrounds, the quirky quickly becomes the quotidian; the bizarre, banal. Where within a week, you can attend the Elvis for Everyone Convention, rival Elvis impersonator contests, the Heart of Elvis show, the Elvis Fan Club Festival, the Elvis: Legacy in Light Laser Show, Elvis Video Nights, the Elvis Reunion Concert, the University of Oxford International Conference on Elvis Presley (topics to include The Elvis Connection to Feminine Spirituality and Understanding Your Inner Elvis, along with a guest performance by San Francisco Lesbian impersonator Elvis Herselvis) and, bafflingly, even the Elvis Presley International five-kilometre Run. Where you can stuff yourself with fried peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches and empty your wallet on all manner of Kingly kitsch.

But that is to jump ahead of the story. We are here in the eye of Typhoon Elvis with six members of the International Elvis Presley Fan Club's Hong Kong chapter, who have travelled halfway around the world on a solemn pilgrimage to worship at the altar of the King. Meet club founder Regina Cheung, vice-president Katima Khan, and paid-up, card-carrying members Mabel Lee, Elsa Yuen, Tina Lam and, yes, Elvisina Tang.

Despite what might seem the excessive devotion denoted by the latter's choice of moniker, these ladies actually tend towards the saner end of the Elvis fandom spectrum, in that they boast not a single Elvis tattoo or white jumpsuit between them, nor do any profess to have fathered the King's love child or spotted him serving up slurpees in a 7-Eleven. What unites them - and tens of thousands of other pilgrims - is a forgiving and unquestioning love of their idol; a love that transcends the cheeseburgers and amphetamines, that rises above the weird obsessions and the snivelling sycophants. A love that draws them inexorably to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee ...

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

How to miserably fail the SAS Survival Test

Of all the stories I wrote over a decade in Hong Kong, this piece for the South China Morning Post's Postmagazine was the one that came back to haunt me for years. I'd be out at a club or cocktail party or dinner, and invariably someone's jaw would drop and they'd say: "You are the idiot who did THAT story on the island?"

Bear in mind this was years before Survivor, or Bear Grylls or reality television. I still don't know what I was thinking. I've managed to unearth this from the SCMP vaults. Enjoy.

THIS was the mission: drop a complete and utter city slicker on an unforgiving, uninhabited island for four days with no food, the bare minimum of equipment and the SAS Survival Handbook and see if he can ... well, survive.
The Bible ... for idiots

I chose to accept. There was a certain seductive glamour about such an adventure. One man against the elements. I would go out there a pale, soft, well-fed urban specimen who turns to jelly at the sight of so much as a cockroach and return a lean, bronzed, hardened survivor, able to cope with anything nature could throw my way. Assuming, of course, I returned at all. 

It was a decision that, on numerous occasions during those four days, would cause me to curse, shriek, scream, rant, rage, imprecate, fulminate, mutter and howl at my stupidity in agreeing to such a daft and twisted plan. But it was also to prove one of the most intensely challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.

After consulting Hong Kong climbing and survival expert Conway Leung about the best place to conduct a survival test, I decided on Chek Chau (Port Island), a small island out past the Tolo Channel, named for its rust-coloured rocks and directly north of Tap Mun Chau (Grass Island).

It is deserted, and ringed by craggy rocks - broken only by several small, windswept beaches - which give way to vertiginous cliffs and hills covered by dense, almost impenetrable scrub. It was, he assured me, free of the marauding hordes of wild pigs which terrorise some of Hong Kong's remote islands. Snakes, smugglers and illegal immigrants were the main risks.

According to the handbook: "Islands offer a special challenge to the survivor, especially small islands and those lacking resources. The feeling of loneliness is emphasised on an island and the sense of isolation is acute. The problems are mental as well as physical. You will have to overcome some or all of the following stresses: fear and anxiety; pain, illness and injury; cold and/or heat; thirst, hunger and fatigue; sleep deprivation; boredom; loneliness and isolation. Can you cope?" 

I had no idea. But I was about to find out - the hard way. On the advice of Leung, and after a thorough perusal of the handbook, which was to become my survival bible, I assembled my kit:    

One pair of hiking boots
One pair of hiking pants 
Two pairs of socks 
One T-shirt (camouflage) 
One pair of shorts 
One woollen jumper 
Two pairs of underpants 
One cap 
One Goretex waterproof jacket 
One large knife 
One Swiss Army Knife 
Ten litres of water 
One ball of string 
One spool of fishing line, plus hooks and sinkers 
One stick of insect repellent O
ne tube of sunblock 
One pack of 10 large garbage bags 
One small first aid kit 
One small torch 
One box of matches 
Two packets of tissues 
Two notepads 
Two pens 
One small backpack 
One Mars Bar 
One brick-sized mobile phone (for emergencies).

Here, then, is the complete and unexpurgated diary of a survivor ... 

DAY ONE "From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached." Franz Kafka 

11am: Just arrived on the island after a 20-minute sampan ride from Wong Shek pier in Sai Kung country park. The gold-toothed old lady thought I was nuts and she was probably right. The wind is already howling, so it looks like a cold night ahead. 

It is Tuesday, November 18, and I won't see another soul until I get picked up on Friday. Got off to a disastrous start. 

There's quite a bit of swell today, and as I was jumping off the boat onto the beach a wave hit us and I was thrown off balance, dislocating my shoulder as I landed. I've done it several times before, and putting it back in is agonising (think Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon). So I'm injured before I even start. 

I was thinking about getting back in the boat and going home but recall Kafka's words of wisdom (and consider the taunts of my colleagues) so I decide to soldier on. This was one of the few places I could get ashore - most of the island is surrounded by flesh-shredding, barnacle-studded rocks. 

The beach is about 80 metres long, and covered in pebbles in pastel shades of pink and purple. Terrific. This is supposed to be a gung-ho survival test, and I wind up on the Laura Ashley beach. It is bounded at both ends by rocky outcrops, and above the high-water mark a small stretch of wind-flattened grass cowers beneath steep, rocky slopes. There's a lot of rubbish washed up - gross. But there's also lots of driftwood - good. 

Midday: Damn, it's not even lunchtime and I'm already thinking about that Mars Bar. I brought it because Leung suggested that it would be a good test of willpower to bring one item of food but try to resist it, living only on what you can catch. I had a prodigious pig-out the night before and this morning I ate a tin of baked beans, figuring that if it gets cold, some natural gas might come in handy. I've walked up and down the beach. There's plenty of wood, a lot of which has rusty nails sticking out, so I'll have to watch my step. I saw one dead fish, so there must be some marine life out there. 

Now, priorities. I have to work out where I'll sleep. Collect some firewood. I've got a feeling I may be stuck on this beach. Had a good look at the cliffs, they're pretty steep and I don't have a great head for heights. If I fall and break a leg I'll be in all sorts of strife. There's a strange feeling in my stomach: a weird conflation of fear and exhilaration. 

Fish traps? Save the bother and head for the local chippy.
1pm: It's getting hot and I realise there is no shade whatsoever. I've made five attempts to scale the cliffs in different spots, and each time chickened out half-way up. The rock is crumbly and bits keep breaking off, so it's a risky proposition. Guess I'm stuck here. There aren't many options for a camp site. Haven't seen much sign of wildlife. I can hear birds, but can't see them. I'm going to keep an eye out for snakes. 

The handbook offers detailed instructions on how to kill them, plus this valuable motto: "Overcome your fear and learn their habits. Remember, a snake is a steak!" It also says you should beat squeamishness regarding insects, which are rich in fats, protein and carbohydrates:

"The most useful are termites, ants, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, honeybees and caterpillars." Yeeeuuuckkk. Still, this is no place for the delicate. 

3.30pm: I've established a latrine (and christened it) in a rocky gully. I've fashioned a crude bed on the grass, spreading out four garbage bags and pinning them down with rocks. 

I don't think it's going to be a comfortable night. The beach has a fairly steep slope and the grass is rooted too deeply to pull out. Made my first kill. Almost. Found a lizard under a rock and hit it with a stick. Unfortunately I fell for the oldest trick in the book. It played dead for a bit, then ran away. But its tail fell off. I also caught a grasshopper, so I've got some fishing bait. Feel quite confident about tonight, looks like it will be clear. Rain would be a nightmare. 

4.45pm: I've made a clearing for a fire, and ringed it with rocks. I've built up a good pile of kindling and firewood. The grass up on the hills is tinder-dry, so I'll have to be careful about sparks. I rigged up a fishing line, using the lizard's tail as bait, walked around the rocks and threw it out. I'll leave it overnight, and with any luck have fish for breakfast. A Marine Police launch has stopped directly out to sea and I'm sure they're looking at me, wondering who the mad gweilo is. 

5.30pm: The sun has turned into a red fireball and is swiftly sinking behind the mountains. The sky is a gorgeous palette of orange and pink and the only clouds are high and windswept, which bodes well for fine weather. I flick idly through the handbook. A chapter on camping tells of how centipedes and various other insects love to curl up in groins and armpits for warmth. Great. I see two sea birds fly past. Kentucky Fried Gull? Think I'll get the fire going. 

9pm: I've been sitting here watching the flames for three hours. Haven't eaten since 7am. Not a lot in the way of nightlife here. My stomach's growling and the Mars Bar beckons. The fire has died down to embers and the tiny waves are creeping up the beach. It's chilly and the wind is getting stronger all the time. I've got all my layers on - T-shirt, jumper and the Goretex. I thought there'd be no mosquitoes this time of year, but they descended in droves at dusk. I coated myself in repellent but it didn't deter them. Anyway, bedtime.

DAY TWO "The soul is the weakest part of the body." Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky. 

7am: In the space of one night - the longest of my life - this has gone from what I thought would be a jolly Boys' Own Adventure to a genuinely wild and desperate fight for survival. The temperature plunged last night and the wind groaned and ululated like a banshee. 
Punters were shocked by the contents of the Fat Slags' purses

The forecast had been for a minimum of 12 degrees, but it's always two or three degrees colder in the New Territories. By midnight, despite all my layers and two garbage bags over my legs, I was shivering uncontrollably, teeth chattering like castanets, and the sand beneath me seemed to have turned to ice. I vowed that if by some miracle I made it to morning without dying of hypothermia, the first thing I would do was get on the blower and put an end to this madness. 

Meanwhile, shelter was essential. I grabbed my torch and staggered about until I found a decent-sized rock which at least stopped some of the wind. I crawled behind it, wrapped myself in a plastic cocoon of garbage bags and hunkered down. For an hour or so, it was considerably warmer and I was feeling quite smug and snug, that I would make it through the night and kick this island's craggy butt. But the wind just laughed and began to blow harder, warbling eerie scales like some demented tenor. Within an hour, I was shivering again. There were lumps and bumps and twigs and rocks sticking into my back, and despite repeatedly slathering my face and hands with repellent, the mosquitoes managed to bite me in the most exquisitely painful places - eyelids, lips, nostrils, fingers. I could hear all sorts of creatures creeping and scrabbling about, and my imagination ran wild with horrific images of big-fanged, spiny-haired bugs and ravenous centipedes wanting to set up camp in my jockey shorts. 

I finally nodded off some time after 4.30am, so numb and exhausted I had become impervious to pain. When I awoke half an hour ago, it was light. I feel like I've been 12 rounds with Evander Holyfield. My back aches. My face itches. My recently dislocated shoulder is throbbing. It's still freezing. And there are two more nights to look forward to. This sucks. I want to go home. 

9.30am: I checked my fishing line, or at least I would have if it hadn't become hopelessly snagged on the rocks. Had to cut it loose, so there goes any hope of breakfast. I've made a good shelter now, which I'm sitting here gloating over. The rock I crawled behind was about half a metre high, and had a flat top, so I've piled more rocks on top of it to add another 40 centimetres or so, and covered the whole thing in a plastic bag to block the gaps. 

I also found several sheets of washed-up plywood, which I managed to prop up at a right-angle to the big rock, so the whole thing is quite cosy now. Forget willpower - I just scoffed the Mars Bar. But I've decided to stick out at least one more night. I've sacrificed one of my notebooks - stuffed one of the garbage bags with scrunched-up paper to make a "mattress". And I've removed some rocks and smoothed out some of the bumps on the floor of my shelter. After last night, it's just bliss right now sitting in the sun warming my chilled bones. 

11am: Have been for a rock-hop as far as I can to both the north and south of my beach. To the south, I could go only about 400m. To the north, I made it around to another beach, which was a bit bigger than mine, but even more exposed, with no shelter at all. From this beach, I could see across to China: hazy peaks like the spine of a deformed, distant dragon, pocked by the crusted yellow scabs of quarries. 

I'm down to shorts and have my shirt off now. The sun feels so good. I even managed to find some breakfast: I discovered a bed of oysters, and used my knife to prise them open. Quite small, but I found about eight decent ones. The water here seems very clean, so I hope I won't get sick.

1pm: Have spent some time consulting the handbook. Despite the oysters, or perhaps because of them, my stomach is rumbling and I figure it's time to get serious about finding food. I turn to the section on traps and trapping, which outlines the four fundamental principles of this craft: mangle, strangle, dangle, tangle. There is page after page of complex traps, most of which look like you would need a degree in engineering and a fully-equipped workshop to construct. 

So I decide to stick to the simple stuff. First, I make a snare out of the coiled wire from my notebook. I doubt there's anything here worth snaring, but I attach it to a stick and hide it up in the grass anyway. 

Then I make a bird trap. I put a fish-hook through the grasshopper, which is beginning to look pretty dry and unappetising, tie the hook to some fishing line and anchor it to a big stick. I put the grasshopper on a rock and hope it looks irresistible to any passing bird. I find the perfect stick to whittle into a formidable spear. It will probably be of no use, unless someone decides to pay me an unfriendly visit. 

2.30pm: I have collected a dozen or so pippies (small clams) from the water's edge, so at least I'll have something for dinner. After scouring the beach I found a soft-drink can, which I rubbed against a rock until I could force the top off. It should do as a cooking pot. It's time to check in, so I give my boss a quick call to say I'm okay. 

3.30pm: Damn, I think I'm getting sunburned. I didn't think the sun would be too fierce seeing it's nearly winter, but perhaps I've underestimated its strength. 

4.30pm: Yep, I'm burned. God, I'm an idiot. I come from Queensland, skin cancer capital of the world. What was I thinking? I had put on some suncream, but I forgot about my legs and my back, which are already a throbbing neon pink.

5pm: I'm going to get the fire going now and cook the pippies while it's still light. I feel much better prepared for the night this time. I've already covered myself in insect repellent, because I don't think mosquito bites and sunburn will be a terribly pleasant combination. My attempts at trapping have been a spectacular failure. The only thing mangled and tangled is the grasshopper, which after a day in the sun looks like some kind of insect mummy.

6pm: Took my spear and went off to see if I could catch a fish that way. Ha. Didn't even see any. But Operation Clambake was a roaring success. Got a great fire going, filled the can with sea water, popped in the pippies and managed to manoeuvre it into the fire without spilling it or burning myself. The water bubbled, the pippies opened and I supped like a king. Kind of. Actually, each one contained a piece of meat about the size of a large grain of sand. The handbook warns that bivalves feed by filtering water through their digestive systems and can build up dangerous concentrations of toxic chemicals in polluted waters. Oh well, I'll take my chances. Buzz. Slap. Here come the mozzies. 

8pm: I'm sitting by the fire enjoying another wild night's entertainment when I suddenly realise my pulse is hammering like a freight train. Panic grips me when I remember an allergic reaction I once had to clams in a restaurant in Macau, and I'm cursing myself for eating the pippies. I am gripped by The Fear, realising I'm a long way from help if I become seriously ill. Oh God. I don't want to die out here. Hold on, I tell myself. Sit down. Shut up. Get a grip. Panicking won't help. 9pm: I don't feel nauseous, just dizzy and feverish. 

My whole body feels like it's on fire, but the wind is beginning to howl again, so it's too cold to take off my jacket. I'm staring at the embers and hallucinating. They take on all manner of strange shapes and forms. I see a frog with a top hat, a devil, a minotaur with a cigar, Picasso faces. A glowing gallery of Hieronymus Bosch grotesques. This is not helping. I think it's time for bed. 

DAY 3 "And this also," said Marlowe suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the Earth." Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. 

6.40am: Yessss! I'm alive. But I don't feel so great. It was a hellbroth of a night, peppered with mind-warping fever-dreams, seasoned with shivers and garnished with mosquito bites. I don't think I managed more than two hours of sleep in any one stretch. At one point I remember staring for what might have been minutes or hours at the fat, silver gibbous moon making its ponderous arc through the heavens, convinced it was laughing at me. 

I feel weak and hungry, and something tells me it's a feeling I'd better get used to. At least the shelter was a success. It was another windy night, but my construction kept the wind-chill factor down to a tolerable level. It's a beautiful morning. The hills are shrouded in mist and the only noise is the distant hum of the fishing trawlers and the odd bird squawk. One more night, oh Lord. I think I can do it. 

7.30am: I've smoothed out a bump that during the night began to assume the stature of K2 as it poked and chaffed against my sun-scourged spine. I feel listless and sleep-deprived. I'm bored and hungry. I've just made a sketch of the vista from my "front door".

Survivor? Bah, Johnny-Come-Latelies. I was first.
9.30am: Just woke up again. Dozed for another hour or so and feel a bit better. The sun is already starting to burn off the mist and cloud, and it looks like another hot day. My legs are the colour of Brenda Chau's Rolls-Royce. I've been reading the blurb in my first aid kit, and it sounds like I had a mild case of sunstroke. The symptoms are fever, rapid pulse, dizziness, seeing things. Yup, that about sums it up. Apologies to the pippies. Another long day looms, and I just want to get it over with, so I can get on with the serious business of getting through another night. 

10am: I see some sparrows and take some pot shots with my miserable excuse for a slingshot. The sparrows live to fight another day.

11am: Just returned from another oyster hunt. Found four decent ones. Better than nothing. Feel a little bit revived. My priority now is to make a roof for my shelter so I can spend the day out of the sun. 

12.15pm: Sitting under my new roof, feeling very proud of myself. I split open one of the garbage bags into a flat sheet, and rigged it up with the string. Nothing for it but to sit out the heat of the day now. Should also be useful if it rains tonight. Damn, just noticed my pack has been overrun by ants attracted to the Mars Bar wrapper. I lick off the remaining chocolate, along with lots of ants. Quite tasty. 

2pm: I'm bored senseless, but at least I'm out of the sun. Just sitting here, drinking lots of water, alone with my thoughts. All this solitary time in the great outdoors tends to turn a man's mind to matters metaphysical, which is probably a great reason for staying in your flat. 

I've made myself a bola, which consists of five plastic-wrapped rocks tied to pieces of string. The idea is to whirl it round your head and throw it at a bird, but I think I stand more chance of knocking myself out. My shelter is so successful that the island's mosquito population has moved in with me. 

I'm convinced my face is now an amorphous blob, swimming murkily beneath a translucent carapace of sunscreen and insect repellent. My bum is numb, my back aches worse than ever, and I am heartily sick of sitting on rocks and sleeping on lumpy, sloping ground. 

4.30pm: Feel better now. Have been drinking water all day and the feverish feeling has gone. I'm ready to face another night. Checked in with my boss, told her I'm still alive and determined to go the distance. It's amazing how quickly you learn from your mistakes in these situations. My shelter feels like The Ritz now compared to my first night here. 

5.45pm: Just spent 45 minutes walking up and down the (92-pace long) beach. I told myself it was to make sure I would be exhausted enough to sleep well tonight, but secretly I fear I've become like one of those crazed zoo animals who pace back and forth all day. Ironic, really. Put an animal in a cage and it goes nuts. Put a human in the wild and he goes nuts. 

Have found some interesting objects on my beachcombing forays and I now have an impressive collection of sea-smoothed glass and pebbles. I have also constructed three totem poles: the crab claw, the chicken stick and the coral skull. Don't ask me why. Probably because I'm losing my mind. 

I have made an interesting discovery. Rancid, sweaty socks, left in a stiff sea breeze all day, end up smelling as sweet as if they'd just come back from the laundry. Or perhaps it's just that my nostrils have been seared to the point of being useless by the proximity of my grubby, unwashed body. 

I could have a wash in the sea, but it's too chilly and, to be honest, I can't be bothered. Whom do I have to impress out here? The crabs? The seagulls? Frankly, they don't give a damn. 

6.30pm: Fire time again. Ah, another night on the town. Think I might really live it up tonight and throw on a few extra logs. The mozzies seem to be keeping a healthy distance tonight. Maybe it's because I've smeared so much goo on me in the past three days I'm now a walking stick of insect repellent. Tonight's is the most glorious sunset so far. 

8pm: The fire's roaring. My thoughts are racing. Three days without seeing a soul is a lot of time inside your own head. I haven't decided if that's a good or a bad thing. One long milky cloud is stretched the breadth of the sky - a fat white snake squirming among the stars. 

9pm: The Fear returns, albeit briefly. I look up to see a sampan with a spotlight heading right at me, with someone on board beating an aggressive tattoo on its hull. But it's just a night fisherman, trying to scare something edible into his net. Soon afterwards, a Government Flying Service helicopter is doing a spotlit sweep of the area. One sweep misses me by about 30m.

Tomorrow I'll be off this island! I feel like a child on Christmas Eve. Just one night to get through, but it seems like it will last forever. 

DAY 4 "One thing that's certain about going outdoors: when you come back inside, you'll be scratching." P.J. O'Rourke 

8am: Had a terrific sleep and feel fantastic. Well, that's a relative term. I still feel like crap, but compared to the past two mornings there's no comparison. I woke up once or twice during the night, which was clear and calm, but dropped off again quickly each time. I think the mosquitoes were just taking a breather last night though, because this morning they attacked with a vengeance. I've got bites on my bites. 

My skin has the texture of that place with all the chocolate hills in the Philippines and I'm itching like a man on a fuzzy tree. Just spent an hour and a half walking up and down the beach doing the caged bear act again. It takes the mind off the hunger, which at this point is considerable, and I might as well present the mozzies with a moving target. 

It's an amazing monochrome morning. Grey sea, grey hills, grey sky, welded seamlessly. I awoke to find a bunch of bugs nestled in my hood, but they were just some harmless sand-creeping things and as long as they don't bite or sting, who am I to begrudge them warmth?

The water is like a millpond today, so I'm hoping getting back into the boat will be less painful than my efforts at getting ashore. I know the next few hours are going to drag by. The walking sapped the last of my energy, so it's a matter of just sitting and waiting.

10.30am: Here they come! A little sampan is chugging away, it's prow pointed right at my humble camp site. As the photographer and two of my colleagues jump ashore, I can't wipe away the idiot grin that has plastered itself from ear to ear. And suddenly I'm tucking into a sausage McMuffin and blathering like an idiot. 

One thing about being on your own for any period - as soon as there are people around, you can't shut up.

Happy as I am to be heading home, a bittersweet feeling is already seeping through me: that soft, blurry sadness that announces the end of a special experience. I know I'll miss this funny little beach, with it's steely mornings and heliotrope dusks, the faint grumble of fishing boats, the tiny exclamations of midnight waves as they nibble on the pebbled sand. 

There's a strange thrill in the thought that one can be so far from Hong Kong's madding crowd - and yet, so near - for the price of a cab and sampan fare. What did I learn from this exercise in survival?

That the mind can be a harsh and daunting landscape to traverse when removed from the distractions, comforts and stimulations of urban existence. That soft, flat beds and cushioned seats are a commodity not to be undervalued. That the elements earn a new-found respect when you can't simply shut a door to escape their embrace. That discomfort is the mother of invention. 

That I'm a better gatherer than hunter, and even my gathering sucks. That there are 101 uses for a garbage bag.

Am I glad I went through with it? Absolutely. How much longer could I have lasted? I don't know. 

Would I do it again? Hmmm. No.

Andrew Rutherford, design director and a member of the rescue party: 

It's Jason, but not as we know him ... we return to collect him. His inane grin and endless chatter about his ordeal seem reasonable and rational given his isolation. 

Even his uncanny ability to pinpoint the location of the smallest pebble on the beach ("oh yeah, I saw that on Thursday") doesn't qualify him for the Crazy Mr Kurtz award. 

Perhaps The Man With Too Much Time On His Hands Award. Until he takes us on a tour of his "totem poles". Pointing to some coral he has wedged on top of a stick, Jason enthuses about its "remarkable resemblance to an animal's skull". Then a piece of wood is placed next to it which looks "exactly like a chicken's head", and a crab's claw he is still working on. 

He points to a fish's backbone attached to a wooden stake which was to have brought him luck while fishing: a kind of offering to Tin Hau. 

Becoming more excited, he takes us on a tour of his more personal finds, lovingly set out in his "tent". There is a collection of green and blue glass worn by the sea. 

"Amazing isn't it?" Er, not really. Finally his most prized look-alike object: a stone which he swears looks like fossilised human droppings. 

Whatever Jason has been getting up to it appears his rescue hasn't come a moment too soon. His reversion from First World to Third, from post-industrial to Cro-Magnon Man, has been astonishingly quick. 

Although he doesn't want to cook us for breakfast or offer us to the god of weather, his ways seem similar to those of a witch doctor. 

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Great Shark Hunt

Latest column in The Australian, in which I recall the heady days when Hong Kong was terrorised by a tiger shark and great shark hunter Vic Hislop was summoned to save the day

Shortly after taking up residence in Hong Kong in the early 1990s, I woke one morning to find Vic Hislop, notorious Australian shark hunter, in my bed. Fortunately, I was on the sofa.

He staggered out into the living room; short, stocky, smelling vaguely of stingray. Vic had just flown in from Queensland, and we had put him up for the night in the house my friends and I had rented in Sai Kung, a fishing village and expat hangout in the New Territories.

Nearby Clearwater Bay had been terrorised by a spate of shark attacks and my employer, The Hong Kong Standard newspaper, on a brilliant wheeze from my flatmate, colleague and this paper’s national chief correspondent, Hedley Thomas, hired Hislop to catch the suspected tiger shark.

Five steps to make Australia great again

Latest column in The Australian, in which I burn the midnight renewables to come up with five simple ways to make Australia great again. 

Recently I was on holidays and ventured north to my banana-bending, daylight-non-saving, cyclone-prone state of origin, the one-time hillbilly dictatorship known as Queensland. As a hard rain fell and biblical floods gathered, I spent most of my time watching television with my dad. This meant a non-stop diet of Andrew Bolt, Bill O’Reilly, Mark Latham’s Outsiders (before his latest self-immolating spontaneous combustion) and hour upon hour of question time.

And people, it got me questioning, where is the love? Where are the leaders? Between Malcolm Turnbull’s search for his inner mongrel and Bill Shorten blowing, sucking and turning his back, it was depressing stuff. We live in an age of political pygmies, paralysed in the eye of a sharknado of stupidity, self-interest and hypocrisy. My holiday passed in a blur of North Korean nukes, Trump tweets, radicalised ratbags, flash floods and gender fluids. The main climate change has been to one of fear and loathing. We the people must rise up and reclaim our nation. So I’ve been burning the midnight renewables to come up with a list of simple measures to make us great again.

What ever happened to the heroes?

Latest column in The Australian ... No more heroes anymore

It is said that a prophet is not without honour except in his own town. And in every age, heroes are beset by the slings and arrows of cowards, snipers and trolls.

It was a bad week for prophets and heroes recently. It began with the fall of a titan of free speech, the late great Bill Leak, and there is nothing I can add to the avalanche of accolades and praise and laments that followed the death of The Australian’s artist, cartoonist and satirist non pareil, save to register my disgust with the legion of online trolls, perpetually offended political correctness sticklers and armchair culture warriors who exulted in his death and danced on his grave from behind their firewalls of anonymity.

A few days later, the father of this paper’s national chief correspondent and a long-time friend, Hedley Thomas, died. Hedley Sr had been a helicopter pilot flying dangerous missions over the jungle during the Vietnam War. Before the war he had flown Sabres and Vampires. He changed to choppers after breaking his back from the infamous configuration and G-forces exerted by the ungainly fused-tail Vampires.

Hell is other passwords

Latest column in The Australian, in which I go slowly mad trying to remember lost passwords. 

To continue reading this column, please type in your password. Did that sentence just give you the heebie jeebies, the screaming meemies, the abject abdabs or provoke an incipient conniption fit?

Passwords have become the bane and precondition of modern existence, a daily exercise in memory dredging and hair-tearing, desk-pounding, expletive-laden frustration that at times can send one to the brink of an existential crisis.

Passwords, can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Without them, you can’t pass “Go” and you might go to jail. Lose them, and you could lose everything. Your finances, your secrets, your online personas, your very life and soul.

I lost all my passwords recently. Oh, I’d listened to all the experts, read the articles, was smugly self-assured that I was ahead of the password curve and doing everything humanly and digitally possible to protect myself and my treasured little snippets of gatekeeping gobbledygook. I’d recently updated all my key social media passwords. My staple had been a dead dog’s name and a series of digits (I had seven dogs and they’re all dead, hackers, and no, it wasn’t my birthday, and I’m broke anyway, so don’t waste your time).

Not particularly secure, but easy to remember. I changed them to things I thought I would remember, with digits and the requisite non-alphanumeric characters. Then I encased the lot in the digital steel of one of those safe apps, which cost me $10 or so, a hefty spend in the app world.