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