Off the Map

Never pass up a discount bookstore, because you just never know what you might find.  Not long ago I picked up a copy of Off the Map, an intriguing little paperback by British geographer Alastair Bonnett, who invites us on a tour of the world’s most ambiguous and ephemeral places.

Omani border with the United Arab Emirates - unrestricted, back then (1985)
Omani border with the United Arab Emirates, eastern Arabia – unrestricted, back then (1985)

Such places can be floating or newly-emerged islands, or even man-made; they can be unrecognised, self-declared territories and wannabe sovereign nations; or loosely-defined border zones.  They can be dangerous or nightmarish places whose existence is officially suppressed – think Wittenoon, Western Australia, or Chernobyl in the Ukraine – or they might equally be the magical retreats you shared with your childhood companions, places that adults never knew.

Bonnett’s mention of childhood retreats transported me straight back to the bush-clad hills behind our suburban home in 1950s Hobart, Tasmania.  Sunnyside Road ended in a cul-de-sac surrounded by native bushland, which to us kids (no ‘virtual’ amusements, remember!) represented a maze of paths and byways, of semi-secret
hiding places.  It’s all vanished now.

Set up to sleep rough under a railway bridge in Berlin, Germany
Ready to sleep rough under a railway bridge in Berlin, Germany

Ephemeral places also include those niches seized by the dispossessed, be they refugees, asylum-seekers or simply the homeless.

There’s nothing nostalgic about many other places Off the Map. Bonnett also remarks on Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within the territory of Azerbaijan.

Entering the de facto Republic of South Ossetia (photo by Anatoly Zhdanov for Komsomolskaya Pravda, 2008)
Entering the de facto Republic of South Ossetia (photo by Anatoly Zhdanov for Komsomolskaya Pravda, 2008)

Taking advantage of age-old ethnic rivalries, Putin’s Russia has carved out at least four more pseudo-republics in eastern Europe, two (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) from Georgian territory.  These separatist enclaves are recognised by no other major nation and co-exist uneasily with their neighbours.  After hearing a hair-raising story about an injured and penniless Dutchman who had been stranded in Abkhazia, I abandoned the idea of attempting to cross from Georgia.  South Ossetia is, apparently, little more than a single valley.

Greece hosts the ancient monastic enclave of Mt Athos, where women have been banned for centuries.  But productivity, not piety, drives an oestrogen-free island in the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf.  Many oil and gas industry workers shuttle back and forth from Das Island, 160 km offshore from Abu Dhabi.  This desolate landfall has become a vital production hub, covered with pipelines and pumping stations.

In the 1980s, at least, life on Das was not as bleak as this suggests.  The all-male community, 3000-strong, enjoyed a choice of catering ranging from mess halls to silver service restaurants, and superlative sporting and library facilities.

US border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
US border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Then there are the border zones…  who doesn’t get a buzz, an adrenaline rush, from crossing a foreign frontier?  So often, two cultures come face to face here, perhaps clashing, perhaps blending, perhaps mingling like oil and water, as the communities either side of the line draw life and purpose from each other.

Omani/UAE border post in the Wadi Bih, Musandam Peninsula, eastern Arabia
Omani/UAE border post in the Wadi Bih, Musandam Peninsula, eastern Arabia

In many parts of Asia and the Middle East, border fences and signposts are a recent innovation.  Tribal nomads often enjoy freedom of movement denied to the traveller on wheels, whilst townspeople flow back and forth on market days.  In Arabia’s barren wilderness, only the oases were traditionally attached to one realm or another.  The independent Sultanate of Oman is intertwined with the sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates, and many landlocked enclaves were crossed without formality until recent years.

Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas
Observing North Korea’s showcase Gaeong (Kaesong) industrial zone through telescopes at the Dorasan Observation Tower, DMZ, South Korea

Some borders still have to be observed from a safe distance.  The border between North and South Korea remains a ceasefire line; four kilometres wide and 248 kilometres long, the Demilitarized Zone is sealed against human intrusion and, ironically, has become a flourishing habitat for wildlife.

Off the Map reviewed in The Guardian.
This post was contributed by Philip Game

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