Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bird Gossip

I'm starting to know and appreciate the brush turkeys that hang around Rainforest Hideaway. At first I didn't like them because I thought they were ugly. Indeed, there is little to admire (from a human perspective) about their clashing primary colours, especially the coarse, sparse, black hairs decorating their red head. But I engage with them every day on the back veranda where they come for breakfast with the guests, and I have come to like their cheeky personalities and bright sparkling eyes.
Learning to tell the difference between males and females was a step towards recognising individuals. I'm pretty sure there are three regular visitors: two males and a female. The dominant male will chase anyone off including females and scrub fowl (though he makes himself scarce when the much bigger cassowary come to call). When the dominant male senses the other male he makes a deep booming noise and puffs out his yellow neck into a big dangly bag.
The less dominant male has taken to coming onto the front veranda to get to the house without having to deal with the boss at the back. Unfortunately that's also where we keep our seedlings (papaya, passionfruit, coriander and lemongrass) and turkeys have already scratched a number of seedling trays to oblivion. So when I hear his claws tapping up the steps I chase him off.
One morning I tried imitating the dominant male's 'boom boom' as I chased him, thinking that might be a sound he would respond to, rather than my high-pitch telling off in English. He ran away from me but came back immediately and repeatedly so I think my booming wasn't very convincing. Several of the guests heard me though and got all excited thinking it was a cassowary booming.

Paris and Nicky the cassowary chicks (long legs, small brains, love being photographed, no sign of parents from a young age)

The cassowaries are no longer such frequent visitors as when I first came to live at the Hideaway. Instead of almost daily, we might see one every week or two (but that hasn't stopped me naming them all). First Mama Cass stopped calling, but Papa Cass and little Paris and Nicky would still come by. Then one day I saw the chicks here on their own. I was dreadfully worried that something had happened to their dad and they would be vulnerable without his protection. But the two chicks came by several times without an adult, so they were obviously surviving ok. Then late one afternoon just one of the chicks showed up alone, acting very disorientated. It was back again the next morning wandering around the house for ages. I really started to worry that both the father and the other chick had been gotten by dogs or hit by a car or something.

Paris in foreground (Nicky's large feet behind her head)

Fortunately that weekend I had an opportunity to ask Lawrence Mason, who has been guiding here all his life, about them. He told me the chicks had been seen together that very afternoon on his adjoining property and that they were of an age when the father would no longer be willing to have them around (cassowaries are very solitary and territorial). A week or so later I saw Mama Cass at the house for the first time in ages, and then I heard that the chicks were establishing themselves a couple of kilometers away at the Cape Trib Farmstay.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Splash, Snake and Sting

Cooper's Creek was still flooding across the road (though not as deeply) when Rachel and I set off on our weekend to the Atherton Tablelands. After watching several other little cars of the same breed as ours bravely ford the waters, we summoned the courage to drive across ourselves. Well, actually I waded across on foot first so that I could take this photo of Rachel driving the causeway. As you can see the water was actually not very deep at all compared to two days earlier and five days later (but those are other stories...).

After a stop in Kuranda to visit the Butterfly Sanctuary, we carried on to Mareeba where we enjoyed what would prove to be the only sunshine of Rachel's entire six days in Far North Queensland, reinforcing Mareeba's town slogan of '300 days of sunshine per year'. However, we spent most of our allotment of sunshine inside Coffee World indulging in coffee, liqueurs and chocolates and admiring the hilarious museum of every coffee machine and pot ever made.

We spent much of the weekend driving around the Tablelands under grey skies and walking on muddy tracks through quite a different kind of rainforest than I'm used to at Cape Tribulation. Rachel saw a Lumholtz tree kangaroo. I saw three platypuses (I want to write platypii but the spell check says no!). We visited many many waterfalls, which are one of the main natural attractions on the Tablelands. But my favourite bit of landscape was the Mt Hypipimee Crater lake which is unbelievably deep and mysterious.

We also saw this red belly black snake. I've been going round for ages saying I wanted to see a snake, trying to spot them when I am in the rainforest, and hoping that I don't encounter one by stepping on it in the dark. I thought a big amethyst python would be a benign snake to see for my first FNQ snake encounter. But this sinister black snake was just sitting on a pile of dead wood right next to a fairly busy walking track. Though its eyes looked open it didn't move the whole time I stood at what I hoped was a safe distance and utilised my 12x optical zoom to take photos. It did change positions however, before Rachel saw it 20 or 30 minutes later. My new wildlife book says red belly blacks are 'potentially dangerous' but this sleepy specimen was all potential and no action thank goodness.

My actual encounter with venom was from flora not fauna. See these luscious berries? Don't they make your mouth water at the thought of their raspberry-inspired succulence?

See how when photographing the berries I didn't focus at all on the leaves? If I had paid attention to the shape of the leaves before I reached out my fingers to pluck a single juicy berry from the laden tree, I might, just might, have noticed and remembered that the notorious Stinging Tree*, along with its large heart shaped leaves, has pink raspberry-like berries. If you look closely at the stalk from which the berries are suspended you might notice (as I didn't) the many fine hairs covering it.

The hairs covering every part of the stinging tree are made out of silicon, and are in fact microscopic slivers of glass filled with neurotoxins which cause agonising pain which can last for up to six months. As soon as I had that pink berry between my fingers and felt the silica hairs dive into the pad of my thumb and the crease of my index finger I realised I had met the stinging tree, Dendrocnide moroides.

The pain of the stinging tree is just as excruciating as its reputation threatens. I could tell I was lucky to only have been pierced by the hairs on a very small area of my body, but the pain spread through much of my hand which swelled up and throbbed with varying degrees of intensity from preoccupyingly painful nettle rash (when still and dry) to being stabbed with white hot needles through the bone (when wet, pressured or moved).

All my remembered knowledge of the stinging tree (which I have been alert to, to the point of paranoia, since I first heard of it in FNQ until the very moment that I became mesmerised by the pink berries) churned through my mind, particularly the longevity of the pain and the utter lack of any traditional or modern antidote for the poison. I tried to imagine hurting this much for six months and felt feeble and defeated at having to soldier on through my life so bravely.

After a few hours of misery (more dismal waterfalls, a pretty good farmers/flea/craft market which I just couldn't really enjoy) we went back to our accommodation where the helpful staff suggested trying to extract the stingers with hair removal wax strips. Luckily one was found and applied and followed by applications of duct tape for good measure. All the attention and pressure on my poor hand reduced me to tears at that point but within an hour or two the pain had started to recede.

By the next morning I was ready for another bout of sightseeing. One track we visited had a sign near the start warning about the stinging trees. I wish that every track was so well informed.

I suspect I still have a slivers of toxic silicon broken off deep inside where fortunately they seem mostly impervious to water, which is the worst thing for most people who've been stung. Pressure or cold (I'm trying to remember to squeeze the toothpaste tube with my other hand) can still surprise me with a stab of deep awful pain, but mostly it doesn't hurt at all. In retrospect, it seems like I went into mild shock when I was stung and it took much longer for my mind to clear than for the pain to ease.

*This is such a good link to Stinging Tree info you really should check it out!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Exotic Fruit Tasting

The ten fruits at the tasting

I have my first visitor here at Cape Tribulation! Rachel has come from Wellington to spend a week with me in Far North Queensland. I’ve been so looking forward to sharing this place with a friend, but unfortunately she has arrived just in time for some spectacular rain.

I had warned her about the lack of cell phone coverage up here, but today we haven’t even had any internet connection. Far more dramatically, Cooper Creek has flooded across its causeway over the only road so that it is only accessible to 4WD vehicles. I am too scared that our tiny rental car would be swept off the road and we would have to swim the raging torrent, fighting off 4m crocodiles, to reach the shore soaking wet and miles from anywhere.

One of the best rainy-day activities (actually one of the best any-day activities) in Cape Trib is the Exotic Fruit Tasting at the farm where I did some wwoofing when I first got up here. I did the tasting back then but didn’t take my camera so I’ve been waiting for another chance to go, and Rachel’s passion for fruit proved the perfect excuse.

Every fruit tasting starts with a glass of Tahitian Lime juice to clear the palate and then some hot roasted Breadfruit chips which are similar to potato wedges and possibly even yummier. Breadfruit is usually cooked unripe and eaten as a vegetable but apparently once picked, it ripens quite quickly and turns into banana flavoured cream which can be used as a batter for making hot cakes or muffins. I can’t wait for breadfruit season (summertime) so I can start experimenting with it!

Digby cuts a pommelo

The next fruit on the menu (there are always 10 fruits to taste) was Pommelo, and I’m very glad because I had thought pommelo was pretty much the same thing as a ruby grapefruit and had been merrily misinforming all sorts of people along those lines. Pommelo is actually an early, wilder ancestor of most of the citrus fruit we know today. It is grapefruit coloured and grapefruit shaped but the size of a beachball! The pommelo we tasted was a smaller version known as the ‘Cocktail Pommelo’ (cf cocktail onions) and it was the size of a child’s head.

Black Sapote (Chocolate Pudding Fruit)

Next we tried three different kinds of sapote all of which I know but still learned more about. I have already posted about my cooking experiments* with Chocolate Pudding Fruit or Black Sapote, but at the tasting I actually learned how to cut it open properly instead of the arduous approach I have been taking. I had no idea that the sweet little Sapodilla can contain up to 17% alcohol as the sugar ripens and ferments inside the airtight skin, nor that until the 1950s the tree was widely grown, not for its brown and grainy fruit, but for its sap which was used to make chewing gum until replaced by petroleum synthetic latex (bleuch!).

The tasting finished with three fruits from the amazingly delicious custard apple family. I’m already a big fan of the Soursop and Atemoya (which everyone just calls custard apple) and I had tasted an (in retrospect) inferior specimen of Rollinia before. The Rollinia at the tasting was exquisite and very much like a lemon meringue pie. Rachel and I both thought we’d both died and gone to heaven and it was difficult to resist beating up the other tasters so as to eat all the Rollinia ourselves.

Rollinia (lemon meringue pie fruit) cut up and ready to eat

Our host for the tasting was Digby Gotts himself and we heard the facinating story of how he and Alison left their Melbourne teaching careers and found themselves growing fruit in Cape Tribulation. As an teacher, Digby must have kept even a Year Nine class enthralled as he is a enthusiastic, knowledgeable, funny and calm presenter. After we were full of fruit it was still raining so we took our tour of the food forest and fruit orchard under big umbrellas, sampling things like curry leaves and tumeric root along the way. I showed Rachel some of the little mangosteen trees I had dressed while wwoofing there.

* Tonight's version of Chocolate Pudding is black sapote, chocolate port, yoghurt and drinking chocolate.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Translating the calls of the Night Chicken*

The orange-footed scrub fowl may not look

like the Italian movie stars of the rainforest,

being small and sleek and subtly beautiful.

Pair-bonded megapods**, they work hard all day eating,

building massive birthing barrows,

and scratching up the forest floor with a vigor

all out of proportion to their unassuming appearance.

But by night, oh by night, they are noisy neighbours,

unabashedly, torridly, passionately, loquacious.

Waking to the nearby cries of the night chickens*

is like watching a sexy Italian film with the subtitles turned off,

the volume up high, and your eyes closed.

Who knows what the orange-footed scrub fowl are saying to,

and hearing from, each other in their conversations after dark,

but I imagine Sophia Loren clasping a dark-haired lover

to her heaving bosom as they verbosely make love

with indistinct murmurings,

throaty chuckles, gurgles of delight,

shuddering moans and drawn-out ecstatic shrieks.

Other people complain about the long, loud night calls

of the orange-footed scrub fowl.

I hear night chicken love chat as a romantic embrace spooning me to sleep.

Call me kinky. Call me a salacious eavesdropper.

But listening to the birds in bed turns me on.

* Before I knew the name of the bird making these night noises I called it the 'night chicken'

**Having big feet

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Azure Kingfisher

The guppy population in the fishpond at Rainforest Hideaway is kept under control by this Azure Kingfisher, who with his short tail and brilliant colours, is a frequent treat for visiting birdwatchers. The goldfish are too big for his beak and are so blase about his hunting that they will swim right underneath his perch. The red streak in the water next to the bird's reflection is a goldfish swimming past in the photo above. The kingfisher is, in turn, so blase about people that one day he swooped in right in front of our lunch table to catch a guppy less than a metre from us.

The opening in the forest created by the big fish pond lets more sun in than is found anywhere else on the site, which makes it an extra appealing place to sit. But even on overcast days, the setting is so beautiful and the birds and fish (not to mention occasional passing Lace Monitors) are so watchable, that the gazebo on the water is my favourite spot (where I was sitting when I took these photos).

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Library Fix

A happy coincidence of circumstances enabled me to hitch an unexpected lift to Mossman yesterday. Unlike my first (and last) visit when I needed to buy lots of things, this time I had only one goal: to join the library and bring home books.

In the past week, provoked by a fever of existential angst, I suddenly entered my novel-addicted state when I lose the ability to read slowly or in short bursts but instead am compelled to gobble fiction, preferably selected obscure science fiction, as fast as I can. It's some kind of chemical imbalance that, if I liked wine or jogging or reality tv, could probably be satisfied by another kind of fix. Unfortunately my drugs of choice are not so readily available in the rainforest, where the little two-shelf book exchange in the corner of the Cape Trib Shop, has proved insufficient to meet my narrow tastes now that I am on a book-reading bender.

This weekend I experienced that awful desperation that comes with being half-way through my Last Book. I know at least my mother, and Jo (oh, how we used to joke about our fear of somehow running out of books to read), will be able the imagine the bleak horror of such circumstances and anyone with a serious substance abuse problem will be able to empathise with the scrabbling panic of being down to the last cigarette or cup of coffee.

The gods were smiling on Monday morning though, when the B&B had no checkouts and all the guests finished breakfast early to depart for a rainy day on the reef, so with no significant housekeeping responsibilities I was able to join in Rob's sand-and-cement shopping trip across the river to Moss-Vegas.

There were errands to run on the way to Mossman: first unloading a trailer of rubbish and recycling at the Cow Bay Tip and then stocking up on fresh fruit and veges at Scomazzon's where the lady behind the counter was sure she'd overcharged Rob and insisted on weighing and totalling the large box of produce twice despite the line of customers growing behind us (the second total was greater than the first but she ended up only asking for the original price). By the time we cruised into Mossman I was panting with literary anticipation. Rob was taken aback, I think, when I forcefully declined to come for a cafe treat first, and hurled myself out of the car almost before he stopped around the corner from the library.

Being school holidays, the library was full of children, mostly from the local Kuku Yalingi community taking advantage of free internet access and largely ignoring the books as far as I could tell. But truly, I was too absorbed in meeting my own needs to pay much attention to anyone else there. I waited at the counter patiently for, oh, 5 seconds or so before calling out to attract the attention of a librarian.

I love librarians, the way an addict loves their dealer, love for the pleasure they facilitate and resentment for the gatekeeping power they can wield. The sweet, helpful young man was pleased when I said I wanted to join the library and far more disappointed than me when I couldn't provide the requisite identifying documents to prove my residency. I interrupted his suggestions for ways to acquire appropriate identification by saying I'd just buy one of those Lifetime Visitor Memberships I'd read about on the website. I was already pulling the notes out of my wallet, thrusting $25 across the counter.
"No", he said, pushing away the cash, "it will only take a couple of weeks to organise a new driver's license and then you can join for free".
"Just give me a (f*cking- subvocalised, so as not to be banned before I'd even joined) membership card now, I can't wait two weeks, I need to take books home with me today."
"But..." he started again, still refusing the notes I was pushing at him.
"Please," my voice rising in volume and pitch in my agitation. "I'm not trying to have a go at you, I just want a card now, I'm desperate for something to read and I don't mind paying. Please..." I started laughing, slightly hysterically, at my own ridiculous urgency, and finally he accepted my money and gave me a form to fill out.

Naturally there followed minutes, endless minutes, of red tape and slow computer processing, while I tried to act casual (cool had obviously never been an option for me here) until he finally handed over my very own rectangle of swipable plastic, that sweet key to satisfaction and I could walk into the stacks and begin to fill my arms with books.

My fix:
Pip Pip: A Sideways look at time by Jay Griffiths (I'm only up to page 23 and its already changed my life)
Land of the Headless by Adam Roberts (the only sci fi I could find on the stacks that I want to read and haven't already)
Coral Reefs & Islands: A natural History of a threatened paradise by William Gray (lots of photos)
Tree: A Biography by David Suzuki and Wayne Grady (no photos)
Visions of a Rainforest: A Year in Australian's Tropical Rainforest by Stanley Breeden (illustrated with Willaim Cooper's watercolours instead of photos)
Djabugay Country: An Aboriginal History of Tropical North Queensland
by Timothy Bottoms (worthy and dull, with sad, sad photos)
Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey (I wanted His Illegal Self but would have to wait for 8 other people to read it first)
The Illuminator by Brenda Rickman Vantrease (historical novel about pre-letterpress book making)
The Encyclopedia of Scultping Techniques by John Plowman (not very well laid out)
Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind: The Zen Journal and letters of an Irish Woman in Japan by Maura Soshin O'Halloran (I anticipate uplifting from existential angst)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Finger Lickin' Surprise

I've been asleep an hour, still in a dreamless state, loosely draped in only a sheet against the midnight heat, when I feel the unmistakable texture of a very small, very raspy (cat-like) tongue licking my index finger.

Some deep, primal part of my hindbrain recognises this sensation as WRONG and I wake instantly and fully with a yelp and a thrash. A small animal scuttles the WRONG way, up the bed towards my pillow and thankfully past it to disappear into the gap between mattress and wall before I can turn on the light.

Remarkably calmly considering the sharp teeth that probably could have accompanied the rough tongue, I lie back and wrap the sheet tightly over my entire head and body for a few seconds before the suffocating heat becomes unbearable and I kick it off again. Inspired, I kick the mattress beneath me to try and scare off the finger-licker and it must work, because later, as I gradually coast back into sleep, I hear a small scuttling along the floor, away from the bed and towards the open window. Sleepily I wonder what might have motivated its investigative tongue. Was he looking for a midnight snack and testing my taste before taking a bite?

The following afternoon as I bask in lazy sunshine with my feet in the fish pond being tickled by guppies and my own personal dragonfly coming to rest repeatedly on my knee (he does this most sunny days when I sit in the gazebo) my daydreamy mind reconsiders. Really, the night's tongue brushing my finger was just as gentle a touch as the guppies delicately nibbling dead skin. If I were a different kind of animal I would probably be able to interpret a lick like that as communicating (as well as collecting) a great deal of information. If I only knew how to understand wild animals with more than my eyes and ears, perhaps I would know whether the lick was as benign in intention as the dragonfly's trusting flutter.

I don't really want to invite more unexpected encounters with animal mouths, but in truth, there was nothing horrible about this one.