Even more than northern Queensland, southeast Queensland reminds me, superficially, of New Zealand. The bland sprawling city of Brisbane looks like a hilly version of Auckland. From a car window the rolling pastures and wooded valleys of the Sunshine Coast look a lot like Northland or the Waikato. But this a deceptive interpretation, and one that disappointed the desire for novelty that brought me here. I wanted to see something new: strange plants and animals, yet for the first couple weeks I found it very hard to see anything that seemed very different from home (and wondered if I would have to head straight to the strange red earth of the Outback in order to really know I had left New Zealand).
Of course, my first couple of weeks here were hectic: a flurry of organising banks and telephones, as well as letterpress and papermaking. But staying at the Hill's farm has slowed me right down, allowing me to pay attention with all my senses. It also helps that Helga can spot a camouflaged owl at thirty metres and identifies every bird and plant by name, and often by origin and use.
I've fallen into a routine of an early morning solitary walk on the gravel road that runs along the valley floor then up and over the hills. Heading down the driveway, still half asleep, the air is suffused with the heady, delicious, seductive scent of lemon eucalypt, not a familiar smell, but one which I have fallen completely in love with. I pull a leaf to carry in my hanky pocket so I can keep it with me all day long. Along the road I pass through clouds of unfamiliar smells as different plants release their scents in the warm morning sunlight that gradually overtakes the crisp chill of the night.
Just after dawn the air is full of a dozen different species of bird song: from the manic cackle of the kookaburra and the quack/croak of the raven to the melodious whipbird, butcher bird and pigeons' trills. Alternating my attention between trying to separate and identify each different call and enjoying the unlikely harmony they create, my eyes unfocus, losing their attachment to interpreting what I see as familiar.
When I lift my lids again I see the landscape freshly. A kangaroo bounds across the road in front of me, its distinctive powerful hindlegs and tail disappearing into the undergrowth. I spot wallabies in the paddocks as I pass and they stand still, watching me as I watch them, their only movement is swivelling ears until suddenly they jump away with a thud, thud, thud over the tall grass.
I look out for snakes as I walk, wanting to see one, but wanting very much for my first Australian snake experience (and indeed all of them) to be benign. The snakes outside are all too well disguised for me to spot, but one afternoon Helga wakes me from a nana nap to bring my camera into the computer room. A baby carpet snake is curled up behind the printer, under the window. It is no wider than my thumb, and I know that carpet snakes are the desirable ones to have around the house as they catch rats and aren't venomous.
Thanks to Helga's directions I am becoming aware that the house and garden are teeming with exotic wildlife, including two little green frogs that sleep in the corners of the shower by day and come and go courting at night. Last night I met one at the basin when I went to brush my teeth. He posed obligingly for a minute and then, disconcerted by the camera flash, continued on his way: climbing the shower curtain before tucking himself into his corner of the ceiling.
To begin learning the language of this land, so I can hear its stories, requires dropping the blinkers of my attachment to the familiar, and opening up with all my senses. Ultimately there is much more than size and a few vowel sounds to the difference between our neighbouring countries.