Michael Kirby on the Journey That Changed Him

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Sep 29, 2015

by MICHAEL KIRBY, Jurist and Academic

A yearlong overland adventure helped strengthen former high court judge Michael Kirby’s bond with his partner – and with the rest of humanity.

“It will be the end of your legal practice,” warned a barrister friend. 

“If not the end of civilisation as we know it!” I responded, with more than a hint of sarcasm.

Inspired by the famous 1968 London-to-Sydney car rally, I had just announced I was taking a year off to travel “overland” with my partner, Johan van Vloten (the journey was actually his idea). Briefs awaiting my attention were politely returned as we prepared for an adventure that would take us through India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, eventually to the Netherlands and England.

After picking up our VW Kombi in Singapore, we made our way to Madras then down to the tip of India, up to Simla in the Himalaya and then through the Khyber Pass, with its ghostly memorials to the British regiments that had guarded the porous borders of the north-west. 

In Peshawar, a charming man asked us to hide a little packet in our tape recorder and deliver it to London. The offered reward would cover the costs of the trip. We declined. As we reached the border of Iran, the Shah’s police went straight to the recorder. The packet of drugs could have left us marooned in the prison in Mashhad, as several young Australian travellers were said to be. 

Every night, locals gathered around our Kombi to look at our “luxuries”. Speaking with them we drank deep at the well of civilisation. Only in Afghanistan, where guns were everywhere, did we feel unsafe. This was before the Russian and later American incursions. We stood at Cape Helles. We saw where Xerxes crossed the Hellespont and where the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli. We crossed the communist states of Eastern Europe. A Stalin biography was confiscated in Ceauseşcu’s Romania. And all too soon the bright lights of Austria welcomed us.

In busy lives, routine prevails; every day of our journey presented fresh experiences. Along the route a steady stream of fellow voyagers greeted us. And in the distance, the caravans of camels moved at a stately pace as they had done for millennia. We learnt the essential unity of human beings.

When we got home we knew we had shared a great privilege. Our most enduring dividend, however, was personal. If you can live with another human being in a confined space for a year, you will likely stick together for life. Relationships are like an overland journey: ups and downs, dangers and joys.

Taking time out to think about life and the gift of consciousness fills the soul.

The music and poetry of the world remain with us decades later as a lasting treasure.

The briefs returned. Life resumed its hectic pace. Civilisation survived. Often a memory flashes back. And after the memory comes a smile. 

Michael Kirby, a former justice of the High Court, recently chaired a UN inquiry into North Korea.