The Art of Map-Reading

Kath Heiman — 18 August 2017

Remember the feeling of anticipation you got as a kid before a significant event? I envy how excited my six-year-old daughter gets about days in the calendar that have long since lost their draw for me. Take her enthusiasm for Easter this year ­— an event that took place while we were on the road.  

Two weeks early, she drew up a daily chart on which she began crossing off the days until the Easter Bunny was due to arrive. Then she bought 12 hollow plastic eggs, filled them with small candy eggs, and packed them for the trip. As parents, our job was to hide them around the camper trailer on Good Friday night so she could hunt for them on Saturday morning. The reason? Well, she wanted a 'practice run to assist her to successfully search for the Easter Bunny’s offerings the next morning. And I think it paid off for her, too. With friends and relatives camped around us, she gathered enough chocolate on Easter morning to last her the rest of the year!

While I don’t think I’ll ever be able to regain my daughter’s youthful exuberance, I know there’s one area of life where I come close. It’s when I’m planning for a big trip away. And the feeling comes at that moment in the home office when we unfold a new map. I mean a real map. A map made of water-resistant paper folded in that special way that few of us really understand.  

I once learnt how to properly fold a 1:25 000 topographical map. And I have to say it was great to set off across unfamiliar country on foot supported by a well-folded piece of paper that revealed so much detail about the country around me – its contours, high points, boggy points, tracks, roads and all the bits in between. All that fantastic information was available so simply.  All I had to do was to look ­— to really look ­— and I’d find everything I needed to know.

These days it’s easy to forget the value of a really good map. Since the advent of affordable GPS, the industry of map printing has nose-dived.

Many of us are happy to outsource the task of navigation to a digital device on our vehicle's console supported by a shrill electronic voice telling us where to go. Our only contribution to this electronic effort might be to select a celebrity’s voice, like The A-Team's Mr T, who’ll happily direct us to “turn left, fool!”. Our only encounter with a paper map may occur when we jump into mum’s city runabout equipped with a local UBD.  

While these navigations aids are OK, I reckon there’s so much you miss when all your map offers is a few black lines to designate roads ­— and a couple of shades of brown and blue to distinguish the dry bits from wet bits.

When you reach for a quality map, the world around you changes immediately. All at once, you’re privy to information about road quality, topography and hydrography as well. 

These maps are not cadastral or GPS specific. They don’t just tell us about roads and boundaries ­— and they don’t rely on batteries. They ‘speak’ to those of us who take the time to work out what they have to say.

I find them mesmerising and can look at them for hours. Why? Because when you understand how to ‘read’ them like a loved one, you can see what’s going to happen before it happens. They might be presented in two dimensions ­— but when a map is read properly, it is like living in a matrix where everything ‘pops’ out in 3D. I’ve heard that, for some, it’s actually like operating in 4D.  

So, if you haven’t spent time with a high quality paper map lately, go on. Do yourself a favour. And if you really love your maps — store them safely, rolled up in a tube for the next trip.


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