Why monsters and art are good for you

This weekend I attended the Nuart Aberdeen 2018 festival. Nuart is a street art festival originating in Stavanger and brings together internationally renowned artists to transform city spaces. For the next few years, the festival will take place in Aberdeen and has already brought a fabulous splash of colour to the granite city.

I was delighted this year to see that the 2018 festival had embraced the supernatural in it’s street art, and I found myself wondering around Aberdeen on the hunt for supernatural critters. It also reminded me how prevalent the supernatural is in our contemporary lives, and reaffirmed the importance of being a researcher in this area. Here is why…

The supernatural is fun…

One of my favourite moments as we walked around Nuart was the ‘Chalk Don’t Chalk Monster Workshop’ (by artist Bortusk Leer). As we climbed the steps to the Rooftop Gardens we emerged into a world of googly-eyed, spindly-armed, multiple coloured monsters – and you couldn’t help but smile!

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Families were taking part in the workshop with kids drawing their own versions of monsters with chalk on the ground. They were equally as weird and wonderful as the ones created by the artist, and you couldn’t help but imagine what your own monster would look like. Monsters here were a fun and exciting was to engage kids (and grown ups!) with art, and to encourage imagination and creativity.

 

The supernatural tells a story…

As we walked around the city it was clear that the supernatural was used in some of the artwork to communicate a message or tell a story. Perhaps most prominently was a piece by artist Bordalo II who designs large-scale public sculptures of animals out of materials that contribute towards their extinction or environmental degradation. For Nuart in Aberdeen the sculpture was a Unicorn.

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I was talking to my husband over lunch after we had toured the city and we were discussing this particular piece of art. We read in the brochure about the political message behind the materials used and both initially commented on the existence of Unicorns in the first place. However, it was not until later as I thought more about it that I realised that this was probably the point. If we continue to destroy the environment by using and disposing of these materials these animals will become just as mythical as the Unicorn itself.

Art and the supernatural, therefore, has the potential to communicate interesting and important messages.

The supernatural is part of our past and present…

I was impressed to see that one of the artworks told the history of the witch trials in Aberdeen. The artwork had a fabulous title “We are the granddaughters, all of the witches you were never able to burn” (by artist Carrie Reichard). As well as telling the history of witchcraft accusations and burnings in the city, which resulted in the death of 30 people in Aberdeen and up to 3800 across Scotland (mainly older women), it did something more.

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Next to the history of witch trials in Aberdeen was a mosaic of famous and inspirational women from the city. There was a clear message, and the supernatural featured in this story of empowerment and change from the past to the present.

Art and the supernatural worked together at the Nuart festival to inspire, enchant and talk to people. And perhaps that is why we continue to embrace the supernatural in our contemporary lives, because it allows us to see, experience and interpret the world in more extraordinary and meaningful ways.

And my favourite piece from the festival…

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Orkney: Stepping back in time with ghosts…

I was fortunate enough last week to travel to Orkney as part of a student trip. This was my first trip to Orkney, and spending my teenager years growing up on the Isle of Skye I was looking forward to returning to island living and ‘island time’ for a few days. Last year, I visited Skye for the first time in several years and was shocked to see the impact of increased tourism. In particular, I was concerned to see how the commercialisation of folklore around sites like the Fairy Glen had been leading to the degradation of the natural environment. I was, therefore, interested to see if Orkney was experiencing similar problems.

In the last few years Orkney has become a very popular destination for cruise ships. This has resulted in a seasonal influx of large tourist numbers coming off the cruise ships to explore the island each day in the summer months. From discussions with some of the Orcadians during our trip these visitor numbers had brought positive economic benefits to the community. However, inevitably large tourist numbers entering the island was also causing issues in terms of pressurised infrastructure and degradation to historic sites. The community is, therefore, currently looking to adapt its tourism offerings to ensure a sustainable approach to welcoming tourists and sharing the ‘gems’ that Orkney has to offer, whilst preserving its heritage and natural environment. 

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As we explored Orkney we had the privilege of meeting a number of individuals who shared their stories and experiences of living on the island. We also had the opportunity to hear some of the fabulous folklore and ghost stories that Orkney has to offer – which are in abundance! Unlike Skye, the stories we discovered where not offered as a commercialised package but came from the personal stories that had been passed down through the years. There was something authentic, exciting and precious about these encounters which made you feel like you were hearing them for the first time. The ghosts stories we heard also provided the opportunity to learn about Orkney and its community in different ways: 

  1. Ghost stories enabled us to discover Orkney’s people. We were very privileged to visit Skaill House out of season and hear some of its ghost stories. skaillhouseWe learnt about the wife of one of the laird’s whose ghost is said to reside upstairs. She appears to get frustrated when the staff tidy up too early in the morning, showing her displeasure by banging on the floor. We also learnt about the son of one of the Lairds who was tragically killed in an accident involving his horse. The boys picture can be found in the house, and it is said that he is responsible for the rocking horse moving on its own. A polite ghostly gentlemen has also been seen in one of the exhibition rooms and has been known to answer visitor questions – only for them to later learn that he was not really ‘there’! Through these stories we learnt a lot about the former residents of Skaill House, their personalities, what they liked to do and their relationships with each other.skaill2
  2. Ghost stories also helped us to see Orkney in different ways.  As well as learning about some of the personal stories of Skaill House, we also learnt more about its location. The house is built upon a Norse graveyard and is situated just along from Skara Brae, illustrating the significant age of the land and how its use has changed through the years.  We also learnt about ghostly footsteps that are heard in the Orkney Museum, often at lunchtime. We had not heard of the museum being haunted until these stories were told, and suddenly the age and former use of the building as a family home was brought to life. These stories added layers to the sites we visited, allowing us to see them in different and more complex ways.  skarabrae
  3. Ghost stories allowed us to step back in time. By learning about the personal stories of the people of Orkney, and how the places had changed and evolved through the years we were able to experience the temporal dimensions of the island. These stories paint a picture of how things were, the ways they were experienced and the people that played a role in these past events. 

The ghosts stories of Orkney provided a unique way of seeing the island and appreciating its heritage. Beyond its ghosts Orkney also has a rich history of folklore, many of which can be read in Tom Muir’s Orkney Folk Tales. These stories have the unique quality of giving life and context to places that are not necessarily ‘tourism hotspots’. As such there may be an opportunity here to use Orkney’s folklore and ghostly tales to develop alternative forms of tourism to help alleviate pressure on popular destinations. 

There is, however, a lesson to be learnt from Skye and the ways that folklore have been commercialised. Orkney offered us an authentic glimpse into its heritage through ghost stories, and this felt important not just as a visitor but for the people we spoke to. Stories may be an interesting way to share Orkney’s heritage in different ways, but how these are developed and offered will need careful consideration to ensure the people, place and past associated with them is represented in authentic and sustainable ways. 

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Why host a conference on the supernatural in contemporary society?

On 23rd and 24th August 2018, we will be hosting a new conference called, Supernatural in Contemporary Society (SCSC). The conference will be held at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, and aims to provide a platform to discuss the continuing role of the supernatural, and its value to culture, heritage and tourism. I am hugely excited to host the conference and we have two excellent key note speakers lined up – Dr David Clarke and Professor Dennis Waskul. However, why host such a conference? And why focus on contemporary issues?

The inspiration to host SCSC came predominantly from the fascinating body of research that exists out there on the supernatural in a range of contexts. I have, however, often found it difficult with my own research to find a ‘home’ for it. There are obvious homes for research in the realms of parapsychology with conferences such as the Annual Convention of Parapsychological Association or the SPR Annual Conference. There are also some fascinating projects and conferences available for those that explore the supernatural in the realms of literature and folklore – see for instance the excellent conferences hosted this year as part of the Supernatural Cities and the Open Graves, Open Minds projects. Networks such as Exploring the Extraordinary have also provided opportunities to explore extraordinary experiences in a range of subject areas. However, there is not a clear home for research that explores the supernatural in everyday contexts such as tourism, events, heritage, media, and as a profession. Additionally, there seemed to be an opportunity to host a conference that could explore links between subject areas and potentially promote cross-disciplinary working. After recently writing a chapter for a new book, The Supernatural in Society, Culture and History (by Dennis Waskul and Marc Eaton), it became clear that there was value to be had in making these links across research topics. As such, a conference that invites research from a range of scholars has the potential to provide interesting insights and opportunities for future research directions.

The supernatural also continues to be a prominent feature in our modern world. However, we are often focused on ‘why’ this is rather than considering the value and impact it may have. Looking at contemporary issues of the supernatural in everyday society may allow us to explore these issues further. In addition to academic papers, the conference will also invite short case study presentations and posters from industry, and host an industry workshop with heritage organisations to consider the value and impact of the supernatural for tourism. Heritage organisations are increasingly using ghostly stories and supernatural legends to promote their sites . For instance, the recently opened Peterhead Prison is already hosting overnight ghost hunts and ghost walks, and the National Trust regularly promote their ghosts to attract visitors. A conference that focuses on contemporary contexts (such as heritage), explores links between research and industry, and is forward thinking in terms of future research and projects, should be beneficial for scholars, organisations and those with a general interest in the topic.

SCSC therefore intends to provide a platform for sharing research across disciplines, exploring areas for new research directions and developing networks for academic and applied projects, and discovering what the value and impact of the supernatural is within contemporary society. If you have an interest in the supernatural, have research you would like to share or have case study examples to discuss with our delegates we would be delighted to see you there!

You can find out more about the conference and the Call for Papers here – http://www.rgu.ac.uk/scsc

You can also follow us on our Twitter (@SCSC2018) and Facebook.

 

 

 

8 Tips for Talking Ghosts: The Media

Ghosts don’t frighten me…but the media does!

Today I attended a workshop run by Women in Journalism Scotland who do some excellent work training, mentoring and encouraging women in the media. I took part not because I am a journalist but because if I’m honest the media makes me a little nervous. My nerves are not necessarily about appearing on camera, giving an interview on air or being quoted in an article, I have done some of those things before. You see what unnerves me is the context…my area of expertise is the paranormal, and that comes with baggage!

It’s a hugely frustrating piece of baggage (the kind where you take your holdall and after hours of lugging it around train stations and airports wish you had purchased a wheely bag…but also kind of know that a wheely bag doesn’t get you to the same exciting places as one you can carry, adventure-like, on your shoulder…). Its frustrating because I know I am knowledgeable in my field, I have been involved in the area for over 10 years and received a PhD in the topic. I also know that there are some really interesting and engaging conversations to have and although I am comfortable talking to peers, colleagues and my students about it I still find myself  nervous of having such conversations through the media. The paranormal unfortunately is a topic ‘haunted’ by its past, and current popularisation. It has a history of sensationalised cases that have hit the media and then turned out to be either fake or misunderstood. In recent years the rise of paranormal TV, film and representation on social media has left its scars and the paranormal has found its place in entertainment rather than perceived as a serious topic of research. The question of “is it real?” and “do you believe?” has dominated debate and opinion, and those who research the area are often considered ghostbusters regardless of their focus. It’s credibility as a discipline is, perhaps understandably, sometimes questioned.

This is a shame. There are some fascinating studies that explore the Supernatural and it’s role in our society beyond questions of belief or existence (not that these are bad questions!). However, I fear that like myself some people will be nervous about sharing this research with the public through the media. I am an academic, and I understand that whatever opinion I give or research I share reflects on my academic credibility, as well as the University I represent. I am nervous that the newspaper headline will read Ghostbuster Lecturer…or an interview will be accompanied by spooky sound effects in the background…the usual clichés. However, after attending the event today I have realised something – the only way to tackle this issue is for experts in this area to lead the way and shape the conversation.

I raised my concerns at the event today to a panel of journalists and explained my area of expertise and why I was concerned. It was lovely to see the excitement that this kind of topic brings when people hear that the paranormal is your area of study – I encounter it quite a lot and this is positive! They sympathised with my plight but also provided some good tips (for both this topic and more generally) that I thought would be useful to share. This advice is from industry professionals working in the media and journalism, and whilst I am yet to try these out, I hope they will be useful for others considering sharing their research.

8 Tips for Talking Ghosts (or indeed anything else…)

1. Do your research into the publication/ media outlet. Tabloids are likely to sensationalise and there may be specific media outlets that work with your topic (for instance my research into haunted heritage may receive a better write up with someone like BBC History).

2. Be honest and communicate the parameters you would like to talk within. If you are not comfortable talking about an area raise this in advance, a good journalist will adhere to this. This it seems is particularly important in the paranormal world – I often find that everyone assumes you are a parapsychologist in the field, and often ask psychology based questions, even if this is not your area of study.

3. Ask for either the questions or general ‘jist’ of the interview in advance. Again, most journalists should at least be able to give you a feel for the direction of the interview.

4. Prepare. Particularly think of any challenging questions that could be asked and how you will respond.

5. Don’t feel that you have to answer everything. If you are unsure be honest and explain in the interview that this is not your area of expertise.

6. Think about what the key message is you want to communicate and make sure you get this across. Interviews may be short or cut off quickly so you want to get your ‘sound bite’ in when you can.

7. You can say no. If your not comfortable doing the interview or with the outlet it will be published in you can say no, other opportunities are likely to arise.

8. Be proactive. If you want to be a spokesperson for your area of research seek out opportunities in places you would like your voice to be heard.

I hope these tips are useful. I certainly found the sessions helpful, and will be using this advice in the future if media opportunities arise. Please do feel free to discuss any experiences you have had with the media and paranormal below, or indeed share your own advice on the topic.

 

The night I found my scream! Experiencing the York Maze Hallowscream

On Sunday morning I woke up a little bleary eyed, and slightly bemused as I came to terms with my surroundings – a small, but lovely, AirB&B in York that we had booked out for the weekend. As I reached for my water I noticed that my throat was tender, and my voice a little croaky as I attempted to clear it. Coming down with a cold was my first thought, a common side effect of teaching freshers at the University, however, as I slowly awakened I started to remember the night before. My throat it seemed was less impending ‘freshers flu’ and much more likely the result of being chased by numerous supernatural and nefarious creatures, and the inevitable screaming that followed!

The evening before we had visited the York Maze Hallowscream. As horror buffs, we had planned the trip for a few months, travelling down from Scotland simply for the hope of being scared. We were not disappointed.

At 6.45pm we were picked up from York in the Hallowscream bus. 9A fairly normal looking bus from the outside, but as we entered we were greeted by two cheery ghouls who took our reservation. We sat towards the back of the bus, and I could not help but notice the excitement and evident anticipation as the other guests also discussed their destination. The bus started to move, and the television screens sprang to life revealing the story of the Hallowscream event. A gruesome story of a circus master and his performers slain on the grounds of the Maze, only to return to seek revenge on the living…a glimpse into the horrors that awaited us…

The bus pulled up outside the Maze and we were wished well by our goulish driver and host. As we started to make our way to the entrance, the sounds of screaming could be heard and the very faint but definite murmuring of a chainsaw. As we reached the queue the chainsaw sound grew louder…as did the screams. Excitedly we waited in line, exchanging expectations and excitement at what lay beyond the entrance. We did not, however, need to wait long. Just as we reached the entrance from the darkness a clown appeared, chainsaw in one hand and a fearful grimace on his face. He ran into the crowd, scattering punters as they hid behind each other squealing and darting in different directions. Nadine grabbed onto me and her mum, “No, I can’t do this”…but it was too late we were here, and we were here to be scared.

We collected our RIP tickets (allowing us to be VIPs for the evening) and made our way through to the first experience, a health and safety briefing. This was, however, unlike any H&S experience I have encountered before. After being herded into a large barn (which had a somewhat sinister feel to it anyway) we were addressed by a spectral head which took us through how the event would run, and laid the ground rules – no running (?!), and no touching the actors. We were then released into the night…

Our first experience had a rather unglamourous beginning as we all decided a toilet stop would not be a bad decision given the inevitable scaring that was to follow. Just as we were about to leave the toilet block, however, a women came crashing through the door looking rather flustered. Instead of entering a cubicle she just stood there looking at the door. Bravely, Tracy slowly opened the door and peered out into the darkness only to quickly retreat shutting the door behind her to the sound of a chainsaw reving up outside. 4The door then flew open and in jumped our not-so-friendly clown friend from earlier. At this point Nadine dived into a cubicle, locking the door behind her. The clown soon left, and the chainsaw noise dissipated. After a few minutes, I slowly opened the toilet block door. The coast was clear. Confidently I walked out calling for Tracy and Nadine to follow me. A few feet out, however, I regretted my decision. The clown was hiding around the back waiting in the shadows to jump out at me, with a scream I darted off into the safety of the well lit area beside the cafe only to here Tracy and Nadine also scream and retreat back into the toilets. It took a good 10 to 15 minutes before Nadine could be coaxed from the toilet cubicle and we were reunited once more.

We headed towards the main Hallowscream attractions. Even the walk towards the attractions was exciting, there was the trepidation of another chainsaw wielding clown jumping out at any moment and some fantastic special effects including a giant eye ball that looked down on us as we entered the marquee. Inside music was playing, food stalls lined the sides of the tent, and every now and again a scream could be heard followed by a creature in hot pursuit of an unwitting punter. This was going to be a good night…

 

There were five attractions on show to explore at the maze. I will not go into details of each of them so as not to ruin the experience for those that attend. They were all, however, fantastically scary. For the first two attractions 2073 and The Difference Engine, Nadine clung so tightly to my back that I thought she might actually climb inside my skin. Each attraction was a sensory overload as you are subjected to total darkness, strobe lighting, smoke filled rooms and fabulously realistic props, all whilst actors taunt and surprise you at every turn. Your mind is left completely bewildered as it attempts to cope with an assault on the senses all whilst battling with an “i know its not real, but…” conflict you are experiencing inside. You come out of each attraction exhilirated, amused and relieved to have reached the end and survived…only to be greeted by that chainsaw wielding clown or other characters such as Leatherface and the creepy twins which keep you on your toes, even as you are munching down on your tasty pulled pork burger from one of the stalls! Perhaps my favourite and most frightening moment was at the end of one of the attractions when you assume you have finished only to face a long smoked filled corridor. At the end, a man is standing with a rabbit head and chainsaw by his side. With only one way out we edged towards him, crowded together in fear, when suddenly he ran full speed towards us, chainsaw in hand. We fled darting through the smoke only to exit screaming and flustered past the waiting crowd…who must have wondered what fears lay ahead of them…

We had three hours between arriving on our bus and the time we were due to leave. It went past so fast, and we could not quite believe when it was time to make our way back. We left excited, entertained and somewhat exhausted after all of the scaring and screaming. On the way back to the AirB&B we relayed stories of our most fearful or humorous moments…all agreeing that actually the start of the night, Nadine barricaded in the toilet as a clown waited outside was one of the highlights! It was a lot of fun being scared, and whilst it was not ‘real’ it provided the opportunity to imagine the ‘possibility’ that it was. Each corner turned, each darkened room entered, and each ghoulish character we encountered offered a chance to escape reality and be fearful in a very ‘real’ way. As Tracy said on our way back home you got the most out of the event when you embraced and immersed yourself in the experience as the ‘victim’. Experiences such as Hallowscream allow us to let go of the sensible and rationale side of ourselves, allowing ourselves to become reenchanted with the world, even if only for a few hours.

As I lay in bed nurturing my croaky throat the next day, I smiled. We had travelled for nearly 5 hours to be scared and we had made the most of it, war wounds to show. The Hallowscream had lived up to our expectations…and I was already planning for the next one…

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Nice view, two bathrooms…and a ghost!

I have lived in a few properties over the years that I considered to have spooky goings on. Indeed those earlier experiences were probably partly responsible for my interest in studying the supernatural. However, I never considered the possibility of a resident ghost being a marketing tool for selling my home – indeed I would have thought quite the opposite!

Recently, a few news articles have caught my eye though and it appears that there is currently a boom in ‘spooky’ real estate. Consider for instance the “Haunted Hill House” in Mineral Wells, Texas. Evidently in need of a few repairs and on at the price of $99,900 it is marketed as having 5 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms (1 sealed for unknown reasons) and nine resident ghosts. The property is also sold as a thriving ghost tour business hosting paranormal investigations for $400 a night, and operating as a paranormal research centre. The owners claim to have tried to renovate the property but faced difficulties due to ‘supernatural complications’. Likewise, in October 2016 (rather appropriately) the reputedly haunted “The Cage” residence in Essex, UK, went up for sale. Even the estate agent claimed to have captured paranormal activity with one of the photos from the property featuring its very own orb. The Cage is a well-known haunted location in England, with a dark history of imprisoning Ursula Kemp accused of being a witch before being hung for her alleged crimes in 1582. The property was marketed as either a residence (for those brave enough!) or a popular paranormal business. If, lg_8e8cd7-ClownMotel_Bethanyhowever, a haunted house is not quite enough for you then why not double up on the phobia potential and purchase America’s ‘Most Haunted’ Clown Motel? As of July 2017, the notorious clown motel, not only filled with thousands of clowns but located next to a cemetery in Nevada, was put up for sale for $900,000 (the only stipulation being that any buyer must keep all of the clowns…).

Indeed a number of properties have started to appear on the market with their very own ghosts – Carbisdale Castle with ‘Betty’ the ghost, the ghost of Bela Lugosi (the 1930’s Count Dracula) in his Hollywood home, or Darnick Tower which has various ghosts haunting the grounds. Ghosts it seems have become a popular selling point…particularly it seems if the property in question requires a bit of work!

The move towards marketing ghosts or hauntings to sell a house is an interesting development. In the three examples mentioned earlier, the properties were not only being sold as a residency but also for their business potential – further demonstrating the commercialisation of ghosts in our modern society. A haunted house traditionally would have been considered a concerning feature, and as demonstrated by the infamous ‘Ghostbusters’ ruling in 1991 deter potential buyers. In this particular case, a New York Court officially ruled a house as ‘haunted’ after a seller was taken to court for not declaring the property as haunted at the time of the sale. Whilst it could not be proven that a ghost inhabited the property the previous owner had perpetuated rumours that the house was haunted. It was only after the buyer had put a considerable down payment on the property that he found out its reputation – this led to a court case ruling in the buyers favour. Since this case some states in America now require sellers to declare if a property is allegedly haunted – or at least if you have publicly acknowledged it as haunted. As discussed on Realtor failure to do so could result in grounds for the buyer to sue.

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Given the current trend for haunted house sales, however, it seems like keeping your ‘ghosts in the closet’ is not only a poor legal decision but also potentially a poor sales decision! To hell with it, instead of the smell of freshly baked bread to lure your buyers in, why not crack out the Ouija Board and leave a few windows open to ensure the odd cold spot lingers. In fact I think I won’t bother with replacing the old doors and creaky floor boards in our house if we put it up for sale, instead I’ll find a ghost and let them do the selling for me…

 

 

 

Seeing heaven – extraordinary experiences at 5895m!

On Sunday 16th July 2017 at 6.55am I summited Kilimanjaro with Mo, my mother-in-law. It had been the accumulation of 2 years of planning and preparation, walking plentiful Munros across Scotland, going to the gym several times a week, and talking LOTS about what it might be like to climb the highest peak in Africa. It took us 7 days along the Lemosho route to reach the summit, and another 1 day to descend. It was a significant challenge, but also an extraordinary and beautiful journey!

Needless to say climbing Kilimanjaro was far removed from my normal day-to-day routine which is, to be fair, pretty ‘kushti’, and certainly does not require much thought about oxygen levels, heart rate and where to go to the toilet (which turned out to be daily concerns on the mountain!).  It was also a completely different environment, nestled in the heart of Africa yet the ascent took us through four completely different climates – from the thick jungle to barren desert, from mid 20C to -15C degrees. It was a physical and most certainly, mental, challenge.

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Now that I am back at sea level and have had some time to consider the journey, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on a side of climbing Kilimanjaro that I have been able to find little written about since I returned. This being the ‘extraordinary’, and what some may consider ‘spiritual’ experiences, encountered on the mountain. Whilst I do not align myself to a particular religion, there were moments when the beauty and immensity of the journey probed at deeper philosophical and spiritual questions. I found this particularly valuable at a personal level, but it also made me consider the role that these experiences play in a broader society that in many ways strips us of these moments for philosophical and deeper thought. Perhaps finding these moments is what makes touristic experiences such as climbing Kilimanjaro so popular in our modern Western world…

During our 8 day journey there were numerous moments of reflection, and I guess the fairly long days of walking (usually single file), focusing on getting to the next camp, fostered this. However, there were a few defining points along the way that made a deeper connection more pronounced. Firstly, the environment was phenomenally beautiful. At night the stars stretched vastly across the sky and as we neared the latter part of our trip the Milky Way appeared brighter and deeper. One evening, myself and one of our group, Rob, stood and stared at the stars for what must have been half an hour. This combined with the silhouette of Kilimanjaro as a backdrop and the lights of Moshi in the distance made for a truly stunning scene and a real sense of ‘smallness’ in the immensity of the Universe. Day 2 Z24We were also above the clouds. The beauty of this took me by surprise, and even now when showing people the photos, I can’t stop pointing out the carpet of clouds laid out below us! Whilst not religious, I had grown up with the socially constructed image of what heaven would be in my mind, and this was it – I was seeing heaven. Day 5 Baranco 16Secondly, the physical challenge and effects of altitude impacted people differently. For me, altitude did not effect me in the way I expected – most usually headaches and nausea – instead I could not sleep….for three days! By day four I was utterly exhausted, and had begun to have some rather trippy visions. To try and help me sleep I had started to meditate and on the third night had experienced a vision of a floating head of a bearded tribesman hovering over me! It was incredibly clear and difficult to shake, leaving me wondering the next day what it might mean…fortunately Mo, was carrying some Diazepam, and I managed to knock myself out for the following four nights! Although I am not one for usually taking pills, without these I am sure I would have either run out of energy or gone slightly loopy! Finally, summit night was perhaps the most physically challenging but also mentally exhausting experience of the trip (and indeed of my life so far!) . We arose at 10pm after very little sleep to start our ascent at 11pm. Not only was this surreal, but trekking at night in the cold and dark with nothing but a head lamp and the feet in front of you is somewhat of an assault on the senses! However, even in what was a fairly gruelling 8 hour trek to the top there were some truly wonderful moments. I saw my first ever moonrise over Mawenzie Peak, a stunning golden glow emerging over the cloud lined tops of Kilimanjaro’s second highest point. About two hours from the summit as I lifted my head to look towards the top where I could now see head torches disappearing, I also saw the most amazing shooting star. It literally appeared for the few seconds that I took to look towards the summit and shot across the sky in the direction we were heading. At that point in time, I don’t know why, but I knew we were going to make it.

We arrived at Stella Point, the first stage of the summit, as the sun started to rise. We walked for a short while longer before stopping, having a seat and some cold tea. We watched as the golden glow of the sun appeared over the top of the clouds, the glow somewhat more beautiful as it was the first warmth we had felt in 8 hours of climbing.NOVATEK CAMERA

At this point I knew why there were stories of people finding God at the top of Kilimanjaro. Indeed the Chagga people believe that the underworld can be accessed at this point where the sky and the earth meet. According to this belief you may find heavenly paradise, or the gateway to the “ghosts”, depending on which gateway you pursue.

For me, I did not find God or indeed a gateway to another world. However, I did feel an extraordinary connection to the world at that point and the beautiful immensity of it all – so much so that my first reaction on reaching Uruhu peak was to cry. I had seen heaven at the top of Kilimanjaro but not in the divine sense – instead heaven appeared to me as a window into the breath-taking beauty of our world and the extraordinary possibilities that we have to experience it.

Day 7 Summit M

Day 7 Summit V