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Sacred Places and Earthly Paradises


Place has played a huge part in my life, as I've lived in several countries with diverse landscapes.

This series of articles was written for I explore the effects of landscape on the psyche, and how the history of cultural and literary symbolism resonates with the experience of different landscapes.

Sacred Places and Earthly Paradises will be a book featuring my photographs and writings on the subject.



The Magic Isle

I discovered Magnetic Island in far north Queensland eight years ago. This is my sixth return. On my first visit I fell completely in love with its beauty, and have since been drawn to return again and again. I’ve wept to see it recede into the distance when I leave on the ferry to Townsville. It’s become far more than a holiday destination for me, this magic isle.

From the sea Magnetic Island is dark green with a rim of beaches. Along this narrow strip lie the accoutrements of human habitation. The island is officially a suburb of Townsville and many residents and students commute to the city daily, but beyond the tamed edging lies an impenetrable interior of boulders and bush. A few tracks traverse the hills but most of the island is protected national park and undisturbed. Wilderness spills into the community as yellow-blooming kapok trees, screeching cockatoos, the occasional snake. The villages look up to rocky hills and out to sea.


I was fascinated to read recently about the significance of islands in many cultures as settings for psychological and spiritual transformation. In his thesis on the subject, E J Federenko writes of this preoccupation with the regenerative powers of islands as ‘a constant in human experience’. In Western culture the island is a magical place, and this archetypal pattern is traceable through Western literature since Homer wrote the Odyssey.

The castaway experience resembles the archetypal hero’s journey as explicated by Carl Jung. It’s an archetype of rebirth: the island experience allowing the passage of growth towards a wiser consciousness.

It’s easy to see why this is so. Islands are often isolated and remote. They are neither ocean nor mainland and thus transitional. Being cast upon a small place surrounded by water means a physical journey must be taken there and back, and an inner journey in that isolation requires contemplation of the self.



Federenko explores the castaway experience in terms of six archetypes: wanderer, hermit, artist, magician, king, and hero.

His analysis struck a deep chord with me. One year I visited the island for three months, staying in a small apartment facing a rocky lookout spiked with hoop pines, five minutes from the beach. My express intent was to paint. I worked a market stall selling handmade wares, and had significant visitors for short periods – loved friends, and most notably two cousins from overseas with whom I had never met in one place. These were intense meetings and I felt the need to share my island paradise with those closest and dearest to me.

But the rest of the time I was effectively a hermit in retreat, a contemplative and an artist. I struggled with loneliness and slept poorly, but the sounds and colours, the warmth and fresh air, illuminated my soul. The bright fish, flowers and parrots, the rocks underfoot, the soft sand and washed up coral – these formed the earthly paradise in which I rested.


Magnetic Island has changed me. It’s given me time and space to be. It’s fed my imagination and my dreams. It’s nurtured me with natural beauty and allowed me the small adventures of kayaking with turtles, snorkeling among angelfish, swimming naked in a circular bay. This evening my partner and I walked a mirror-smooth shore at twilight. Soft-eyed wallabies accepted pawpaw offerings from our hands. The moon rose, a silver crescent above the hills.

In the dark, Scorpius winds his tail across the star-scattered heavens. Across the strait, fairylights of civilisation string the coastline. And here, over sea and under sky, lies the magic isle…

With thanks to E J Federenko for his insights – Islands and Transformation: An Archetypal Pattern in Western Literature



Island Haven?


My friend’s t-shirt depicts a silhouetted island, and just returned from my favourite tropical paradise I identify the familiar outline as Magnetic Island. But a closer look shows it to be Tasmania. The eye sees what the brain thinks.

On my lower back I carry a third version, a microcosmic islet drawn in smooth pale gold. I was marked at birth with this beautiful shape, an enchanting precursor on my skin of the marks two islands would one day make on my psyche.

A week ago, sitting in shorts and singlet in my tropical retreat, I wrote about islands as magical transformative places. Now I write from a snug eyrie on an island thousands of kilometres south. I’m back in Hobart, garbed in layers and ugg boots. The wild spring weather dumped a load of snow on Mount Wellington last night and the tropics seem worlds away. As does the magic of islands. I’m home, sweet home, chilled to the bone. My island haven, my cold cold prison.


The enchanted isle has a dark side.

Just as the physical characteristics of islands encourage positive transformation, they can be entrapping. Being remote and surrounded by water can be liberating, but also dangerous. The castaway may survive, or die a desperate death if the isolation is not breached and there is no escape. The words ‘isolate’ and ‘isolation’ themselves gives rise to both positive and negative synonyms: ‘separation’, ‘inaccessible’, ‘loneliness’, versus ‘secluded’ and ‘sequestered’. Being on an island may be a release from the rat race or an experience of disconnection and alienation.

It’s notable that Australia sends refugees to islands for ‘offshore processing’. The geographical disconnection is mirrored by a psychological one – out of sight, out of mind. They are effectively cast out and cast off. As were convicts sent to Van Diemen’s Land from Britain. Yet some of the latter were transformed by the opportunity to begin anew, establishing successful livelihoods unfettered by the past.

Prison, or paradise?



My family emigrated from South Africa in 1987. Our destination: a remote and mysterious island, Tasmania. We’d searched photographs and pamphlets to gauge the nature of our new home. It was a haven we sought, free from violence and fear. How perfect it looked, the wilderness untouched, the thousand lakes, the pure white sands, the green pastures. An earthly paradise.

Our arrival encompassed relief. Overwhelming relief. With a slow adjustment to the freedom that comes with a gradual release from fear. And an earthly paradise it was. Our island haven. Our place of peace. Tasmania was our salvation and our absolution.

On some days it still is. On days when the sun shines warmly on lush lawns and the blue river and beauty entrance utterly.

And other days I feel trapped, trapped by the seemingly endless cold, trapped indoors, trapped by Bass Strait, trapped in a narrow world where too few people result in inward-looking politics and where my penchant for bright clothing stands out like a sore thumb.


Over time my relationship with Tasmania developed an intense ambivalence. A love-hate dichotomy – can’t stand it, but can’t leave it. I’ve tried.

Tasmania became imprisoning because I felt disconnected. For a decade mainland Australia was a blank map for me. I felt stuck on this southern tip of the continent, more connected to that other southern tip, the tip of Africa across the vast ocean, than to the rest of Australia. I had to work at that new connection deliberately and purposefully. And I did. And in doing so found another island haven, a tiny, warm, soft island, my magic isle of the far north.

But is my magic isle thus because it is somewhere I visit rather than reside? Is this how it retains its enchantment? Would my sacred place of contemplation and retreat become claustrophobic if I lived there permanently?

And is the life-enhancing and spiritual experience of an island ultimately affected by whether one has the means to leave it?



I know that when I leave Tasmania, I miss it. Not the inclement weather, but the bonds, loved ones, the tracery of roots and memories. This island allowed me to become who I am now – so different to the shy Southern African woman I was on arrival. Someone who girded her fishmobile into action one year to traverse the desert and explore unknown territory. If I’d not been confined to an island, would my need to do so have been so compelling? Would it have required as much courage?

I escape the confines of the island by travelling beyond it, at least annually and usually in winter. It gives my body and mind space to expand and the capacity to return with gratitude. For this earthly paradise with its fresh air, crisp fruits and exquisite natural beauty is indeed a place of peace, and it is home.


An excellent book that captures the dual nature of islands is A Hostile Beauty: Life on Macquarie Island. It has stunning photographs by Alistair Dermer and a thought-provoking commentary by Danielle Wood, whose passage on islands as paradise and prison led me to write this article.


Living on the Sea’s Edge

Like so many Australians, my life is lived on the sea’s edge. In Hobart I live a stone’s throw from the beach I see from my window. I like to see the sea; its presence anchors me and allows for a sense of spaciousness. As long as I can see the sea, I don’t feel closed in. Yet to sail upon its waters out of sight of land I dislike intensely.

With the vast majority of Australians living on the sea’s edge, it shapes our identity. The beach is a vessel for all our idyllic childhood days: sun, sand, surf. Seaside holidays, windswept saltcrusted skin. We invest much nostalgia in this vision of the beach. Think of Bondi – that classic Ozzie scenario of bronzed bodies, white sand and rolling waves. The beach to us connotes leisure and pleasure. We love our Billabong and Ripcurl surf culture. So different to the harsh outback, the red centre, the desert flats, the inland waterless regions away from the sea.

The ocean frightens yet draws me. Its power, immensity and potential to engulf haunt my dreams in the form of unstoppable tsunamis. Living on the sea’s edge always holds that possibility, and I am always conscious of it.

It could be said that my dreams embody the archetypal symbolism of ocean as representing the unconscious mind. We like to skim the surface in our canoes and yachts, but down below are unfathomable depths, dark and mysterious. The impenetrable deeps frighten us.



Interestingly I was born in a landlocked country. Zimbabwe was a place of sunshine, heat and dust. Those who lived there longed for holidays by the sea. This involved journeying for two days by road or train. Many former Zimbabwean children recall the raptures of arriving at the coast to hurl themselves bodily and joyfully into the waves.

At the age of three my family moved to the Cape Peninsular – the Cape of Good Hope, Cape of Storms. The blustery, warm, mountainous and beach-rimmed city of Cape Town nurtured my childhood. I have vivid memories of swimming at Fish Hoek beach, leaping into green warm waves, lolling in the gentle swell beyond the breakers with my father and sister for company. Washing sand from my feet and out of my cozzie. Collecting shells and searching rock pools for sea urchins and starfish.

My mother spent much of her own childhood beneath the ramparts of Table Mountain in view of the sea, and has never lost her taste for the wild waves typical of Cape Town’s beaches. She’s also never lost her fear of sharks. Great whites circle the peninsula and occasionally people are taken. Such events are rare but encapsulate our dread of fearful things arising from the deep.

When we moved to inland Grahamstown later in my life, I missed the sea. I felt cut off.


Now we live in Tasmania, an island edged by the ebbs and flows, the tides and currents, the ceaseless motion of the sea. As is the larger continent of Australia.

The sea presents us with the reality of constant change. Its aspect alters with the weather. Cloud and wind, light and dark, sun and moon – all reflect on its surface. Yet its enormity also seems unchangable. It is always there. Perhaps this constant presence is a comfort and a reminder of something larger than ourselves and our daily moods. The shore offers us the many delights of rockpools, sandcastles, fishing, shell-collecting, sunbathing and swimming – a hedonistic rim to the larger, scarier entity that stretches farther than the eye can see.



They were wrong. Heaven is not in the sky, it is in the sea.

The coral is beyond everything beautiful. With its shoals of flickering fish. Underwater only the sound of my breath, small crackles, the scrape of parrotfish beak on coral. Green hair waves in the water wind.

We swim into the shallows. Turquoise pales to white. It’s like reaching the end of Narnia.

Each grain of sand is clearer than clear. My hand looks super-real. I float.

The light is pure. Soft. Gentle. Utterly brilliant. Mysteriously not blinding. Sunlight plays waterlights on the sea floor.

I grasp sand in my hands with amazement and joy. White drifts. Flecked crimson, purple, cornflower, scarlet and rose.

Sand falls from my fingers in slow motion.

I want to float endlessly in the warm water that is no-water because it is almost not-there. Watching tiny coral skeletons flow from my super-real amazing hands.

The light. The light.

Is this what it is like to die?

On the boat my feet hurt gladly, sandgrains caught between rubber and skin. Heavenly sand.


‘That is what it is,’ said Reepicheep. ‘Drinkable light. We must be very near the end of the world now.’

Lucy could only say, ‘It would break your heart.’

‘Why,’ said I, ‘was it so sad?’ ‘Sad!! No,’ said Lucy.

– from C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. As they sail upon the Last Sea.


And that was my first experience of the Great Barrier Reef. Far from land, in the dark ocean a sudden opening into smooth waters surrounding a cusp of bright white sandspit. For nights my dreams glowed turquoise and blue.

Researching the symbolism of water and sea I came across references to drowning and awakening. Water has cleansing powers, and the ocean’s immensity is said to represent the unconscious mind. Thus immersion and resurfacing carry connotations of baptism and rebirth.

You may remember Jane Campion’s powerful film, The Piano, in which the mute Ada is shipped to remote New Zealand by her father to marry a stranger. She finds solace in her piano, but her misery permeates this dark narrative. Finally, despite rescue at hand, Ada throws herself overboard with her piano to drown. She sinks into the deep silent ocean. But life reasserts itself and she surfaces. ‘What a death! What a chance! What a surprise!’ she says. ‘My will has chosen life?!‘


My experience of snorkelling the reef also embodied a surprise awakening, less literal but equally transforming. I had expected beauty, of course. I’d longed to see the Great Barrier Reef since I was a child, had viewed thousands of images of its colour and diversity. But nothing prepared me for the three-dimensional reality of exquisitely shimmering life.

The journey was fearful, my drowning phobia running riot on the two-hour outward bound trip. The epiphany was breathtaking. The beauty of that sunlit waterwashed undersea world subsumed me and lifted me out of myself entirely.

Returning to normality broke my heart. I wept into my goggles as I swam back to the boat, undone by profound feelings of loss. I’d been awakened to another reality, perhaps even another state of consciousness, and could not bear to lose it.

I didn’t. I will always carry with me the memory of supreme peace.