There was the story of how early convicts to our shores thought China and freedom lay just beyond the Blue Mountains. But even today you get some seriously geographically challenged people walking the streets.

I work in a shop that sells maps — Mapworld. A rarity nowadays with virtually everyone having a GPS and digital mapping on their devices. But people still hanker for a paper-based map they can hang on their walls or keep in their pockets. A way of planning their way around without batteries or satellites.

Sadly, the owners of our once-busy enterprise have announced it will close down this weekend. A sign of the times.

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Right now with all the floods, we are inundated with requests from insurance companies, of river systems and contour maps. This time of year, Swiss travellers usually want maps of Australia’s deserts. The Germans like to see our topographic maps of the Blue Mountains — they study them for ages, rarely buying, and then get lost.

North Americans are fascinated with the “Upside Down World Map” to convince the folks back home this is the way we see ourselves, on top of the world. There’s North Shore matrons discovering Umbria and star gazers tracking the umbra of the total solar eclipse, occurring in northern Australia later this year; bronzed surfers from Sutherland Shire needing a map of the waves off Nias in Indonesia; grandchildren of our Diggers searching their fallen relatives’ final resting places in the Somme or Sandakan.

People have no idea of the size of places. That’s not helped when the most popular world map remains based on Gerardus Mercator’s Euro-centric view, where Greenland is almost as big as Africa (in reality it’s only about  one-14th the size) and Norway looks as if it can stretch all the way from Cape Otway to Cape York.

My map shop colleague told me how she met a bewildered South Korean gentleman, looking for work in the WA mines. He only had a small postcard-sized outline map of Australia and a set of car number plates on him. He’d bought a second-hand car so he could drive from Sydney to Perth, that afternoon, just a few hours drive by his reckoning,  by just following the southern coast road. He finally abandoned his broken-down car on the Bulli Pass.

When she kindly went with him back to his car (she lived close by), he admitted he had thrown away the keys in annoyance into the bush, but had the good sense to take off the number plates and take them with him, as he thought he could get his money back from the used car dealer he bought it from somewhere on Parramatta Road. The radiator just needed water, unbeknown to him. At least he could read a map. Sort of.

Unlike the two fresh-faced young Italian girls backpacking around Australia, who had never seen a genuine road map before and were asking me what all these red lines (“highways”), blue lines (“rivers”) and yellow and black dotted lines (“Confino del stati” or “state borders”) mean. The ancient people of Bedolina in northern Italy produced the first map, on a rock, some 3000 years ago.

A large and jovial middle-aged Bavarian man told me last summer, with great conviction, that he would walk from Sydney to Brisbane right along the actual coastline. In three weeks. I warned him of the great distance, the heat, flies, snakes, walking on the sand and of the huge rocky headlands. I showed him on more detailed maps that there are so many large rivers and bays along the coast that it would mean he would have to turn inland quite some distance to cross them by road bridge, most likely the dangerous Pacific Highway. I even told him of the  lack of suitable gasthaus along his intended route. Not a pleasant stroll in the Black Forest.

He wasn’t deterred. I sold him a dozen-or-so topographic maps covering the Great North Walk, Sydney to Newcastle, and I got this modern day Ludwig Leichhardt to text me on his progress. After three full weeks he’d made it to Somersby, just on the other side of the Hawkesbury River, conceding it was much harder than he thought.

And why is it Europeans always seem to go in the wrong direction? Always driving (or walking) north into the the heat and humidity in our summer, or heading south in our winter to shorter, colder days?  Or going west across the Nullarbor against the roaring winds and into the setting sun. The Danes and the Japanese are specialists in attempting to do this on bicycles. And don’t get me started on them always walking on the right (wrong) side of the footpath when they see all us natives keeping to the left. I can only put it down to the conservation of angular momentum, where things go in the opposite direction in the other hemisphere. Or in their heads.

With so much talk of global warming and tragic tsunamis, we’ve had a few locals who want those beautiful plastic, Italian-made 3D raised relief maps that everyone wants to feel (like cartography for the blind) so they can escape and set up camp to the highest point when the great flood comes. The map of greater Sydney, rather pricey at $125, is beautiful as well as useful — head to Mount Bindo, just north of Jenolan Caves, it suggests, which at 1363 metres above (current) sea level it’s a full Centrepoint Tower higher than Katoomba and the closest place to Sydney to have a genuine snowfight. You’d never find the highest point in the Sydney region on a digital device.

In this digital age, people expect custom-made maps with only the details they want of an exact area they want. A New Yorker, fresh off an around-the-world cruise, requested “a map of just the Blue Mountains with New Zealand included” — totally omitting Sydney and the Tasman Sea. Someone else wanted a map of Italy with Paris included. A recent Kiwi migrant asked for a map of Sydney just showing all the places that had “good fush ‘n’ chups”.

Even newspapers (and online media) now rarely print maps like they used to. It’s a global world, everyone is just a few digital bytes away, so they say. But try saying that to a lost British (or German) backpacker deep in the Jamison Valley. Now that Mapworld is closing, don’t be surprised if there are a few more geographically challenged people walking around the streets of your town.

*Mapworld is at shop 16, Henry Deane Plaza, Lee Street, Railway Square, Sydney. Everything must go.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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