BBC Radio 4 - Thought for the Day
24th August 2001
My heart goes out to the family of Ellie James, the teenager who perished on Mount Kinabalu this week. After days of anxious searching in the hope that she may have survived, this was such a tragic conclusion to a family holiday in a spectacular natural setting.
The mountain is climbed by tens of thousands of people every year but fierce storms created fatal conditions for Ellie. The incident has raised the issue of whether or not Mount Kinabalu should be so accessible to general tourists. I can’t comment on the safety arrangements in Borneo or what guidance should be offered to hikers ascending into rarefied conditions. But, I am in favour of preserving the sort of “wilderness experience” that, I suspect, was part of Borneo’s attraction to the James family.
I remember a trip to India when my family stayed at a friend’s farm high in the Shayadri mountains of Karnatak. One day, we trekked down through the uninhabited forests to a sacred site of rock pools and waterfalls said to have healing powers. It was so beautiful and enjoyable, that we lingered too long. Darkness was descending and we had a three-hour return hike to escape the dangers of panthers prowling at night. As I tramped up the forest paths with my two year-old son on my back, I was aware, probably for the first time in my life, that we were in the middle of nowhere with no possibility of getting help from anyone else.
I am torn by the paradox that, on one hand, the situation could quite easily have become a terrible disaster, but, at the same time, I felt it was invaluable to have been able to feel alone and void of human assistance in the face of untamed nature. It seemed to strip away the façade of human invincibility we try so hard to cultivate in our every-day lives? Yes, of course, we must make our roads safer, improve health care, and introduce sensible safety measures in the workplace – but as the Hindu scriptures say “padam padam yad vipadam” – for all mortal creatures there is danger at every step.
There is no need to be fool-hardy or reckless, but I believe that the experience of wilderness and the realisation of our fragile existence invokes humility to counteract the arrogance of mankind’s supremacy. It offers a depth of emotion that modern theme-parks with all their thrill rides cannot match. And it invites a moment to contemplate our place in the universe and where we stand in our relationship with our creator.
© BBC This script was commissioned by the BBC for broadcast as “Thought for the Day” on the Today programme Radio 4.