An evocative echo of a distant past has ruffled Hector’s feathers, with the news that the conqueror of Everest, Edmund Hillary, had died.
When Hec was a very young fledgling, around seven or eight in human years, there took place a Very Good Year. It was 1953 and it brought a Triple Whammy: the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II; the Coronation Test series between England and Australia; and Hillary and Sherpa Tensing Norgay’s historic successful attempt to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain.
It was, in retrospect, the last fading echo of Empire. And Hec was at that time resident in Cyprus, an ‘army brat’, there because his dad was serving those fading imperial obligations. That northern summer, or a good part of it, was spent in the cool heights of the Troodos Mountains on that lovely but sere eastern Mediterranean island, at a camp annually established to provide relief for the garrison from the heat of the plains. It was in no way similar to Simla, but the thought was there.
The Test series was broadcast ball by ball – complete with intermittent fade and much static, also largely something of the past nowadays – and the Coronation itself was a radio event like no other. And for Hec, Edmund Hillary, from the farthest flung dominion, and Tensing Norgay, from the country that since 1815 has provided Ghurkha soldiers to the British army, crowned it all with their Boy’s Own adventure on that far, far mountain peak.
Hillary’s passing brought pause for reflection. How much has changed in the 54 years since that golden, tented, summer amid the cedar forests of the high Troodos. And golden memories, too: of the search, eventually successful but so profoundly disappointing (it was a very small trickle hidden away under rocks and ferns!), for the poor little runnel that was Cyprus’ only perennial stream.
This was particularly exciting because that little runt of a river eventually feeds the island’s largest watercourse which then flows through Nicosia, the capital.
In those days (it has been ‘controlled’ today) it was at Nicosia a wild, dry and stony creek, home to snakes and other nasties, until either winter rains or melting Troodos snows caused riverine tsunamis, one of which nearly terminated Hector’s contemporary ambition to reach double figures, and that of the family cat, marooned on the branch of a Eucalyptus tree).
Cyprus, pre-EOKA, seemed to the young Hec to be basking in the late autumn sunshine of the third, fourth or fifth empire that had held the island. It was a place of fascination and some potential adventure (the Cephalonia earthquake of 1953 shook us badly in all senses); of lazy days on empty little beaches (they’re crowded with tourists today) searching with horrified fascination but in vain for a fearful, fatal fin cruising offshore; of strange-tasting lemonades under the carob trees on springtime trips to the seaside; and of the excitement, one winter morning in Nicosia, of waking to find a lonely (and very tiny) little patch of snow in the street, while the Troodos mountains gleamed whitely in the distance; of scrambles round Crusader castles; glimpses of Byzantine splendour in the monasteries atop impossible rocky crags; fabulous Ottoman mosques that truly evoked a sense of the peace of God; an expedition to Salamis (ruins of same, an opportunity for much eight-year-old adventurism with the deliciously frightening risk of a reptilian encounter thrown in); and rambles along the Venetian walls of Nicosia and among the colonnades of Crusader abbeys, with a curious sense that one had been there and been seen there before. Such is the forceful power of history.
Some people make history, while others scratch around to find inspiration from it, and them.
Hillary’s life achievements make pale shadows of most, Hector’s included. Human genius and strength of character turned a New Zealand beekeeper into one of the most inspiring and far-sighted natural leaders of the 20th century. Hillary was a modest man, a product of Britain’s extraordinary history of plantations of its peoples and its heritage of language and law around the world.
It is good for the soul to recognise the great. Of whatever provenance, they are a gift to us all.