Wednesday, October 29, 2008

True Blues

True Blues

I would speak every word with the pure compelling light

of the Ulysses’ flashing flutter.

That heart-skipping blue, the colour of delight

lit from within like an exhalation.

I would see every sight with the iridescent shimmer

of the Quandong fruit.

Sapphire spheres dotting the rainforest floor,

shining violet indigo like magic candy.

I would touch each thing with the neon tips

of the Staghorn coral.

As they glow underwater like azure stars

reaching out from a tangle of grey to grasp at life.

I would stand on this ground with the deep intensity

of the blue sea star.

Toeing between the rocks in rich cobalt velvet

settling on any surface with serenity.

Crocheted Blue Sea Star on baby beanie.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Butterflies, dead and alive

Back at Cape Tribulation it is butterfly season. It is not uncommon to see a mixed dozen in one place at the same time. The most glorious are the Ulysses, with their vibrant, metallic azure wings, but they are all gorgeous: the tiny creamy ones, the big black ones, the myriad of different blues.

It's not easy to take good photos of butterflies, as they move so fast (especially the Ulysses- fastest butterfly in the world). Often when butterflies do sit still for a minute they close their wings and hide their prettiest aspect.

When Rob found this dead Blue Triangle (what a prosaic name for something so lovely) in the carpark he called me out to take a photo of it, but its kind of raggedy and well, lifeless.

A few days later I got lucky with this live, but somewhat lazy (female Orchard?) Swallowtail, down near the beach. I was looking out for crocodiles, but was more than happy to get a couple of in-focus snaps of this beauty.

The Daintree is not the kind of rainforest that has big, showy, colourful flowers. Instead, the splashes of colour among the green are from new leaves (which emerge in cream, pink, red or purple before turning green), pale fungi in every shape and texture, lolly-coloured fruits and along the edges, the beautiful butterflies. They are like flying flowers; delicate, ephemeral, fragile and exquisite.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Cape York Pt 4- Fire Forests

I inhabited a vivid tropical rainforest landscape in my imagination long before I ever came to the Daintree. No such anticipation prepared me for the dry sclerophyll forest that characterises most of the Cape York that I saw.

My eyes, saturated with five months of Cape Trib's chaotic greenness (on top of a lifetime of New Zealand's verdant pastures and olivey dense bush) were shocked by the dominance of brown, grey, orange and black in the landscape. It took me until Weipa (near the end of the trip) to begin to understand that there is a unique, stark, beauty to this dry open forest.

Scorched pandanus seeds

The Language of Forests tells me that dry sclerophyll forest "can survive a fire; although the crowns of the trees may be burnt, they will regenerate from epicormic buds buried within the bark. Species of the understorey may recover from fire by shooting from underground rootstocks. Dry sclerophyll forests are characteristic of soils of low fertility."

Notes from my journal:

Cape York is the driest place I have ever seen.

We are driving through an eerie landscape of dead grass,
widely spaced spindly gum trees
and endless termite mounds,
like gravestones,
like castles,
like ruins.

Inside a termite mound

It's an apparently lifeless landscape.
The few cattle we see, silvery brahmins, are so rare that they appear like a mirage.

Termites on charred bark

I don't know if I can write poetry here on Cape York.
I don't have an emotional involvement,
I am only passing through,
glancing around without committment.
Without love there isn't much poetry.

And anyway, this place beggars the language
(as Apsley Cherry-Garrard* said about Antartica)

The forest by the beach in Weipa is a strange deserted landscape. I am the only one here. Me and some burnt bicycles.

Smoke on the horizon
smouldering landscape
crisp, scorching, charred.

Brown and grey smoke
billowing up out of the mangroves
skimming the horizon
across Albatross Bay.

I am choking on the testosterone in the air.

It's very open where the fire has been recently
but elsewhere its dense with long dry grass.

I took charcoal rubbings of iron bark, a smudgey maze.


Last day, Coen, on the rocks:

What is this firehorse to make of this fire forest,
smouldering into stark beauty?

What a long line of sight between the trees:
it is a place to aim far.
Aim big, this place tells me, and don't act alone.

I bring my arid heart
to this arid land
and set fire to my feelings.

To look through the fire forest
is to see myself from afar:
the undergrowth flared off,
scorching my stiff scars
setting off my untamed heart again
thump thump thump
leaping across the landscape like a kangaroo

There is such sweetness here in the regenerating green
life comes bursting out of the ashes
like water sparkling between rocks.


*Author of The Worst Journey in the World, possibly the best book title in the world.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Cape York Pt 3- Settlements

Pearl divers suit, inthe museum on Thursday Island

Not very many people live on Cape York. It is possible to drive all day and pass just a couple of isolated compounds. Where these included a roadhouse selling fuel and other necessities for travellers we often stopped for a break. As the Cape juts into the Torres Strait (the island-dotted sea that separates mainland Australia from Papua New Guinea), the local population is an intriguing mix of Torres Strait Islanders (a Melanesian culture), Aboriginal Australians and tough outback white Australians.

Unloading the barge at Seisia

We camped a few nights at Seisia which is the settlement around the wharf serving Bamaga, the largest of the little towns near the top of the Cape. Seisia was unmemorable except for the excitement of watching the weekly barge being unloaded with fuel (the communities' electricity is all diesel generated), food and other goods. It is desperately hot, with few trees to provide shade, and the tantalisingly clear azure sea is said to be full of crocodiles so swimming isn't an option. However, Seisia (named by combining the initials of the first six family to settle there mid-20th century) does have the advantage of being handy to such tourist attractions as the Tip and Thursday Island.

Looking west from the start of the headland track to the Tip. The boat belongs to a chap who had sailed solo up the east coast from Brisbane, recently survived a crocodile attack, and was desperately looking forward to getting to Seisia for chocolate, coke and jelly snakes.

The Tip may be an iconic spot, as the northern most point of mainland Australia, but it is refreshingly unmanaged, confusingly unsignposted and thus satisfyingly challenging to get to without actually being a difficult walk. Those of the party who could, all scrambled out over the rocky headland, from which you can look simultaneously at the Coral Sea and the Torres Strait. I have visited the equivalent spots at the tips of the the North and South of New Zealand, so I add this to my collection of photos of myself standing on godforsaken yet symbolic rocks.

Meliors at the Tip

The day after the Tip, Juliette, Johanna and I took the ferry to Thursday Island (TI). I enjoyed the tiny museum tucked into the underground rooms of the old garrison; TI was long considered of strategic importance being located on the narrow channel between Australia and Asia. The museum included indigenous artifacts (lovely carvings), pearl diving and beche de mer history and a huge old lighthouse lamp, bigger than me. We also visited the local cemetery which was divided by culture so that the austere Japanese pearl divers graves contrasted with the lavishly colourful indigenous graves across the lane.

Pearl divers' section of the cemetery

Other things to do on Thursday Island: visit two funky old churches, the classy arts centre (the only architecturally designed contemporary building I saw on the whole of Cape York, it was just like going home for lunch) and shopping! TI is the commercial hub for the Torres Strait and there was a whole street of shops to browse, several of them quite good. The sheer novelty of seeing books, clothes, cosmetics for sale was fun (until you see the inflated prices) but my favourite was the locally designed bead jewellery. Unfortunately that was the day I hit a cashflow crisis that was to constrain the whole second half of my trip (and due to bank error is still continuing to keep me broke) so I couldn't actually buy anything.

The lighthouse lamp on Thursday Island

Back on the mainland, Bamaga also had shopping: a supermarket and a small cramped novelty/dry goods/souvenir shop, both enclosed inside the kind of disturbing security cage that was a feature of every commercial building in every indigenous community we passed through. In Bamaga we stocked up on necessary supplies for the next stage of our camping trip, but we didn't really get into serious retail therapy until we hit Weipa (where the prices are more comparable to Cairns). My enthusiasm for wearing crocs (the only footwear I brought on the trip with me) infected three other members of the party and in Weipa they all got some too.

The only 'crocs' we saw in Weipa, and they were harmless

Aside from my brief but pleasant commercial transactions with various indigenous people on the trip I only had one extended encounter, with an Aboriginal lady in Weipa. She wandered into our tent in the middle of the night while everyone else was asleep and since I am insomniac and was closest to the door I responded first. As I led her out of the tent and tried to keep her quiet, I realised that while she was very confused, she wasn't drunk. Later Kerry suggested that she was an ex-glue sniffer which made perfect sense, since she seemed too young for the dementia-type behaviour she was exhibiting.

She told me that she had driven up from Arakun (a couple of hours away) with some other people who went off to Napronam to drink. She didn't want to be around drinking people (a sentiment I can fully empathise with) so she was wandering around Weipa in the middle of the night, halfheartedly looking for an address where her sister might or might not be staying. What she really wanted, she said, was to come and sleep in our tent if we would just give her a blanket.

I couldn't help her, not having a blanket to share, or considering it appropriate to invite a stranger to sleep in our tent full of other people's children so I handed her off to the camp manager who obviously had been woken this way before and was immediately aggressive, inviting reciprocal aggression from the confused lady. I shamefully snuck off into the shadows while they shouted at each other. I'm not proud of that, I just couldn't think what else to do.

The history of European-Indigenous relations in Cape York includes some of the most horrific stories in Australian history (including, but not limited to, the Jardine brothers in the nineteenth century* and the wholesale removal of the Mapoon community at gunpoint to make way for Comalco's mines in1963. Yup, that's only 45 years ago, when my confused tent lady was probably a kid). There are some very positive initiatives occurring now to try and turn things around**, but it still looks to me as though most of the black people on the Cape are in general still much worse off than most of the white people.

There are apparently only two places on the east side of Australia where you can watch the sun set over the sea (or in this case the mangroves). Unfortunately some of the local ladies consider that the best way to enjoy the sunset on the beach is by driving quad bikes up and down with their children, directly through groups of sunset tourists trying to appreciate the peaceful beauty of the scene.

Weipa is the richest settlement on the Cape York, being a mining town. There is not much there if you are not a miner or a fisher. The best thing about Weipa for me was the birdlife which was the most abundant and diverse I have seen yet in Australia. The worst things were the mosquitoes, the humidity, the frustration of not being able to swim in the croc infested waters... But I also enjoyed our bus tour of the town and mine, wandering in the fire forest by the beach (more about this in my next post), watching the sunsets and visiting the library to research the history of a commercial spaceport once proposed for the town. But four days there was more than enough for me, I was keen to get back to camping on the rivers and being able to swim in clean fresh water instead of the dirty campground swimming pool full of active boy children.

Strip mining bauxite at Weipa (bauxite is what aluminium is made out of). To get a sense of the outrageous scale of these machines, note the driver standing outside her cab while her truck is being filled.

*I couldn't find a link to the Jardine story that doesn't present them as plucky heroes defending themselves against a plague of hostile savages and I refuse to endorse that version of events.

** cf arts in the Torres Strait, employment in the mines

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cape York Pt 2 - Dry Rivers

The Dry season on Cape York really is dry, unlike the 'Dry' in Cape Trib in which the rain is just not quite constant. The Wet season on Cape York is just as wet though, and for several months every year all the roads are closed as the rivers that seam across the Cape turn into deep, raging torrents. Evidence of the contrast between Wet and Dry on Cape York can be found in every riverbed, most of which were completely dried up when we passed through a couple of weeks ago. We camped where the rivers were still running, which often meant driving several hours further than planned, just to get to water (without a crocodile warning sign).

Cormorants on Coen

In New Zealand, you would never dream of camping on a riverbed, as the danger of rain upstream causing your campsite to flood is everpresent. In Cape York, however, there is no rain in the Dry and so I enjoyed the novel sensation of camping on sandy river bottoms sheltered between high banks, made taller by the only big trees ever seen in that landscape. There were always warm, deep swimming holes, yes, but mostly the water meandered shallow and sluggish, always west to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Up the Coen, with bathing beauty

My favourite thing to do on these rivers is to strike out from the campsite alone, meandering up or down stream, exploring as far as I safely can, either rock hopping, walking the wide squooshy sandbars, wading through shallow dappled water, or scrambling up the banks. Everywhere I go, I'm surrounded by a rag tag horde of different kinds of flies. Every time I sit down it's on top of an ant highway. But there is nothing scary here, nothing dangerous. I stop often to cool off in swimming pools, write under shady trees, watch unfamiliar birds and take lots and lots of photos. I indulge my obsession with trying to capture images of light on water.

Eliot Falls (detail)

I fall in love with these rivers, each with its own particular character. Exploring upstream at the Wenlock, the whole width of the river is suddenly deep between steep banks. Carrying my camera I don't want to risk wading so I scramble up a fallen tree onto a platform of fissured lava. This moonscape is harshly hot, and I push my way through twiggy low thickets plagued with flies looking for a way back down to the water, which I can glimpse: cool, shady and inaccessible. I find a patch of shade over a small bowl of coarse white sand and sit for a while before abandoning my upstream adventure and finding a long, dull way back to the campsite.

Wenlock River, downstream from the Lockhart Road ford.

The next day I head downstream, wading through stretches of knee-deep muddy brown water before coming to a long dry band of sand (hot, golden, barren) separated by a wall of rocks from the remaining water flow (dark, sinister, fecund). I think I recognise tracks of a wallaby as well as a pig, a dog, a man. There are many birds: kites, egrets, emerald green pigeons. The gum trees lining this nearly-dry river are tall and green with smooth white trunks, and I imagine in the Wet, their tops appear on the surface of the deep river like low bushes.*

Eliot Falls
As well as the unofficial campsites, we also spend a couple of glorious days at a Jardine River National Park camping ground next to Eliot Falls and Twin Falls. The campground is busy for the school holidays, with dozens of people in every swimming hole. In my compulsive search for solitude I find myself at the top of Eliot Falls, where the water flows shallow, wide and flat before abruptly dropping into a fish hook shape cut in the rock floor. Wading across the top of the falls to the opposite bank from the formed tracks, I find little shady shelves where I can sit, feet dangling over the cliff edge, wrapped in the dense white noise of falling water which insulates me from everything but the heat.

A mini waterfall viewed through a natural hole in the rock, downstream from Twin Falls.

When I am ready to rejoin the world of human company, there are lots of places to swim. At Twin Falls the double-decker swimming holes are separated by massaging waterfalls, and when not full of tour bus tourists, it is spacious and peaceful. Upstream at the Saucepan, the water falls over a wide low lip just the right height to sit and let it pound tense shoulders into submission. There is also a water chute, a very deep hole for diving and shallow holes like bathtubs (and the water is bath warm).

Coen River, upstream from the Bend

Returning to the Coen after 10 days further north in unbelievable heat, it was a novelty to feel a momentary chill when emerging from the warm water after a dip at dusk the first night. Next day, I set off upstream towards the top of the river valley which in the Wet must be white water but now is a dynamic sandstone chaos of hot rock, smooth beneath my bare feet. I love the way the Coen shows its bones in the Dry season. Centuries of flow have carved curves and cracks into the boulders as low water burbles fast and narrow between.

Coen River, looking downstream towards the campsite

Striding across crevasses, scrambling up tipsy walls, I find myself again in the stretch and pleasure of exploring alone. This kind of adventure requires my full attention, and anchors me in the present moment. At the head of the valley I sit and look back down the river I have traversed. It is our last day of camping and this viewing platform becomes a site to evaluate the whole trip.

For me, in Cape York in the Dry, the strongest element in the landscape was the water, despite its rarity. Simultaneously holding light and dark, movement and depth, clarity and murky sludge, it was perceivably being sucked up into the arid air. Swimming in fresh water was the greatest pleasure I found there and my long rambling river walks were a sanctuary. Just as the rivers are life to this barren Dry land they were delicious oasis of delight everywhere we camped.


* Unfortunately, when we returned to the Wenlock 10 days later, the river was even lower and murkier and worse, the campsite had been so comprehensively trashed that we decided to keep driving for two more hours down to Coen, even though we would have to set up camp in the dusk. In the intervening school holidays, the river bank had been used for a toilet without digging a hole, dirty toilet paper was blown across the whole site, and as well as an abandoned full rubbish sack, there was plenty of loose litter. We took the rubbish sack and some empty bottles away with us, but weren't willing to risk staying by water potentially contaminated by human waste.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Cape York Pt 1- The Road Trip

A classic Cape York photo- though this is unusual for being Kerry's 2WD fording a creek on Old Telegraph Road!

Cape York is one of the very inaccessible regions of Australia, as most of the roads are 4WD only during the Dry and closed completely during the Wet. Unlike Cape Tribulation which I call home at the moment, Cape York is, literally, off the beaten track of international tourist destinations. When I started mentioning to friends that I'd been invited to join a family camping trip to the northern-most point of the Australian continent, I realised that hardly anyone has been there, including some of the most well-travelled people I know.

Sign at Musgrave Station about halfway up the Cape

I've got about a 1000 photographs, 40 journal pages, and half a dozen sketches from our 19 day, 2000km, eight campsite, two vehicle, nine person trip so I'm going to be posting about Cape York for a while. This first post is to set the scene with an overview of the travel conditions and introduction of our camp/ers. I will be posting in more detail about the rivers, the settlements and the forests of Cape York. For now, imagine a huge, unpopulated, hot, dry, dusty landscape.

Grass fire, one of many 'controlled burns' we saw, as the graziers prepare for the Wet

There are patches of seal along the main road, where the worst bits have been fixed up, but mostly the drive is straight and flat along endless miles of dusty track slicing between charred (and sometimes still smoking) dry open forest dotted with spectacular termite mounds. The termite mounds come in a facinating array of shapes and sizes and change colour with the soil, ranging from bright orangey-red to creamy white to dark brown to this particularly tall mustard-coloured community.

Me (I'm 5ft) in front of a termite mound at Bramwell Junction

I spent the trip as a passenger with Kerry, who in his career has surveyed lots of the very roads we were driving on. Not only was he a fount of interesting and useful information, but he really knows how to drive in difficult conditions (Anne was also a talented and heroic 4WD bush basher, but I never got to ride with her). Kerry successfully took the 2WD through places that were supposed to be only 4WD access. Nonetheless, by the time we limped back to Cairns, the 2WD ute was held together with wire (including the battery) and the canopy of the 4WD was tied on with red rope after it broke off (shearing the shock absorbers).

Just as we finished unloading everything out of the broken canopy, a kind truckie stopped and shared his expertise and strength to (literally) tie it back on. His temporary repair held all the way home.

It's been an unusually dry year, and many of the rivers that would be expected to still be running were completely dry. Most of the rest have crocodiles. It's a harsh country, but we did manage to find a few campsites where green trees cling to the edges of wide deep river beds seamed with a trickle of warm water and inland enough to be croc-free.

Setting up camp at Twin Falls

My fleeting, low-tech, camping experiences in New Zealand and the US did little to prepare me for the Eaton Family Holiday. We set up a slightly different configuration at every spot, but our campsite included two gazebos (where most of us slept), up to three dome tents, an ensuite tent with chemical toilet, two picnic tables, about ten folding chairs, three kitchen benches, a shade cloth, an electric fridge with generator to power it, electric lights, DVD player and laptop (since the gennie was running anyway), camp stretchers and air mattresses, gas stoves and last but not least, the kitchen sink, in its own little stand. Setting up and packing down was usually quite stressful, and the cauldron for any difficult group dynamics to play out.

We made it to the Tip, the northern most point of continental Australia

Our party included four young people (aged 9, 13, 15 and 17) including Johanna the German exchange student who'd been in Australia one week before embarking on this particular adventure! The adults included two of the most open-hearted people I know: Kerry and Anne, who organised the whole trip with fearsome efficiency; their close friend, Jill, not long out of a five month hospital stay following a car crash; and the newcomers, Juliette and I, who felt like the 'single girls' as we didn't have our own children with us.

I had a marvelous time, especially exploring the rivers and forests, but also playing charades after dinner, attempting to make bread in a camp oven, swimming with the girls, walking with the children, and endlessly staring out the window at the imperceptibly changing landscape as we drove hour after hour up and then down the Cape. More stories and pictures of the wonders I saw, coming up soon!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Lace Monitor (goanna)

There are a few lace monitors that hang around the house here. One even came into the kitchen recently and went through the rubbish bin, leaving a great mess scattered across the floor!

I found this one sunbathing one day. Isn't he handsome? The big ones are as long as I am tall (155cm), but this one is only about a metre long.

Friday, October 03, 2008