Thursday, May 29, 2008

Daintree Infusion

I have dreamed of the Daintree for so many years that to finally, actually live here in reality is quite a dreamy experience. You may recall the poem, Daintree Calling, that I wrote before I first visited in January, and posted here on my return to Whangarei. I'm now working on a 'response' to that irresistable call which includes these lines:

I have come here to fall in love

with the forest, to live intimately in its embrace

to let every cell of my body be infused

with its essence. I give up

my southern/city tainted blood

to the leeches and sandflies,

wanting my veins to run with Daintree sap.

What does it mean to let myself be infused with the essence of Daintree? It seems to mean allowing many of my attachments to fall away and genuinely relaxing into having all my attention on being here, right now. Consider the mundane aspects of everyday life in the rainforest:
At first not 'being in contact' with family and friends, with the outside world, via cellphone (no coverage), landline or email (unreliable access), or snail mail (uncertainty about what address to use)was challenging, but now I can barely rouse myself to pursue the necessary communications that are possible.
More recently I still thought I needed to have 'my own space' that was private and comfortable but instead I have chosen to stay where I sleep in an office/laundry room which is two flights of stairs, two rooms and a veranda away from the bathroom. My priorities for creating a sense of (temporary home) have been turned upside-down and now it's the qualities which connect me to the wilderness, rather than those which separate me, which matter most.
Coming here to wwoof and without my own vehicle meant abandoning most illusions of control over my future activities and allowing events to unfold at least partly in the hands of my hosts and other people around me. My current challenge is letting go of my 'need' for a shopping trip to a real town (Mossman, Port Douglas or Cairns, I don't really mind) to replenish some personal supplies. The list keeps growing, and I keep missing out on appropriate rides with acquaintances, yet I don't feel desperate enough to make a concerted effort (eg pay the ridiculous bus fare). The local shop is having an outrageous sale on Cadbury chocolate bars which is apparently more than enough retail therapy for me right now! Come to think of it, perhaps my easy-going state is because my veins are running with Dairy Milk.

I am surrounded by people who constantly have lessons in non-attachment forced on them by the rainforest. Clothes, furniture and books all rot quickly in the pervasive damp. Anything electrical can only have a short life of erratic efficiency caused by unreliable solar or generator power, persistent wildlife of all denominations and of course the inescapable moisture. Vehicles break down, gardens are overgrown/eaten/diseased, buildings are encroached to near-disintegration, creeks rise and cut off the only access road, (and to the North the roads are 4WD only anyway). And there is little money to made here yet the cost of living is high and rapidly increasing due to our inherent dependence on petroleum for generating electricity and for transporting in food and every other consumable.
Cape Tribulation is a small, friendly town that is proving easy to feel accepted in. Like many communities that survive in adverse conditions people are kind and generous. Yesterday was my host, Rob's, birthday and a local nightspot put on a Thai-themed party night for him. Almost everyone in the area seemed to be there, including little children and wild men down from the hills. Rob was shouted beers until they ran out and after dinner an enormous chocolate cake appeared from the kitchen on fire with sparklers.

Most people who live here have a 'Cape Trapped' story that begins with a short touristy visit that became a permanent residence. It gets in your blood, this place, and its hard to regret the way it transforms us.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Flirty Fan Palms

Flirty fan palms

rising confidently on delicate trunks

like courtesans of the rainforest.

spreading their crimped mandalas high above

the chaos of the forest floor, a dense green tangle of diversity

spotted with poisonous fruits in lolly colours.

I am the plain and earnest student,

come shyly to study the lush abandon

of the tropics, to learn

how to live lavishly

on an impoverished planet

in this greenness my blood runs ruby

Monday, May 19, 2008

Hanging out with the Cassowaries

A highlight of my first trip to Cape Trib in January was several cassowary sightings. These spectacular, big, colourful birds are rare and endangered and not every visitor is lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them stalking deliberately through the forest. I felt very lucky in January, and now, staying at the Rainforest Hideaway I am lucky again.
A family of cassowaries are almost daily visitors here, coming right up to the veranda, which is raised high about their heads, creating a sense of mutual safety and separation between bird and human.

These photos are of the slightly larger female, who spent about 15 minutes hanging out with me late one afternoon when I was here alone. She sat down by the steps and started grooming in a very relaxed manner, allowing me lots of time to take photos of her amazing colours on the skin and feathers of her neck and head, the texture of her hard crest (which is apparently spongey on the inside of the hard covering) and her enormous feet and talons.

Shortly after she stood up and stalked off, a group of guests arrived just in time to see the Papa Cassowary come to visit with his two little chicks. Little is a relative term as they are the size of 10 year old human children. They made a soft high whistling noise as they scratched around on the forest floor while Papa kept a keen eye on the humans standing around frantically snapping photographs.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Golden Orbs and Jade Flowers

Remember the afternoon I spent watching the golden orb spider catch and devour a butterfly? Well I finally got my act together to post the photos I took of that gruesome event.

In the past three days all the golden orb spiders I've seen, and some that I've heard about from other people seem to be letting their nests fall apart. And this morning the big spider that was hanging over the barramundi fish pond off the dining deck here at the Rainforest Hideaway had disappeared, presumably fallen to her death and the barramundi's breakfast. conversations with locals about this phenomena are hypothesizing that the golden orbs are dying off for the winter, and that cold weather or another trigger in the past three days has sent them all into decline. I'm personally finding the weather very mild so I'm not convinced that the temperature is the trigger, but then I'm not a spider and I'm not a local so I can't really judge.

Golden Orb spider catching Green Spotted Triangle butterfly and starting to wrap it in silk ( right)
Golden Orb continuing food preparation ( left)

One morning Alison, my WWOOF host at the Exotic Fruit Farm took me to visit her neighbour Dawn at Gray's Farmstay, also a tropical fruit orchard and where I happened to stay when I visited Cape Trib in January. Dawn showed us her jade flowers in bloom, and they really are the most extraordinary and beautiful flowers. The vine is growing all over a big tree and the flowers hang down in long bunches taller than me. Close up each blossom is exquisite, with the stamen hidden inside a little pouch so cunningly concealed that I can't imagine how this plant ever gets pollinated. Aren't the colours unusual?

Jade Flower in situ (above) and in detail (right)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dressing the Mangosteen

Mt Sorrow from the Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm orchard
My first WWOOFing task at the Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm has been dressing the mangosteen. Mangosteen are considered the queen of tropical fruit, with a hard purple-brown skin and flesh that looks like garlic cloves and tastes like heaven. As they have proven to do particularly well in this orchard, less satisfactory types of trees (and there are over 150 different species of tropical fruit grown here) are gradually being replaced by baby mangosteens which can take 12 to 20 years to start producing fruit.
Mangosteen in need of a makeover
My first evening here, before I had even seen the orchard, Alison and I watched the movie, The Devil Wears Prada, which is why I came to interpret my orchard job in fashion terms. Dressing the mangosteen involves firstly (while the rain is pelting down) cutting up a roll of weed gunnel which is a black cloth with a surprisingly nice drape into sections with an x sliced in middle of each one.
Then when it stops raining, you find a baby mangosteen all overwhelmed with weeds and first kick back the weeds to see that there is a nice circle of bare earth around the little tree, thanks to the work of the last WWOOFer. If any naughty weeds have started to infiltrate the clear circle, you squat down and hack at the roots with a pick axe, avoiding any of the many rocks studding the ground. Then take a double handful of chicken-shit pellets (not as disgusting as that sounds though they smell of ammonia) and sprinkle those around the base of the tree.
Mangosteen half-dressed in gunnel-burqua
Then take the square of weed gunnel and gently slide it over the mangosteen so that the tree emerges through the x-hole in the middle. Pulling each little branch through is like dressing a baby, but a baby with eight or ten arms, perhaps the baby Hindu goddess Vishnu. After I started reading Geraldine Brooks' Nine Parts of Desire about women in the Islamic world this black cloth started reminding me of a burqua.
Eventually, the gunnel gets pegged down at each corner and then you look around for some mown grass clippings to pile on top of it as mulch. Then you set up a wire frame around the mangosteen and finally drape a netting over the frame like a ballgown over a hooped petticoat and clip it on with staples. Finally you stand up straight, stretch and look up at the looming peak of Mt Sorrow and see whether it is shrouded with cloud or (rarely) clear.
Mangosteen fully dressed and awaiting only a layer of mulch to finish it off

Sunday, May 11, 2008


I've been off line in more ways than one since my last post. My first WWOOFing gig has been at Prema Shanti Yoga and Meditation Retreat Centre. Almost as soon as I got there I came down with a cold (caught off the snotty baby I was dandling in Cairns) and so had little energy for anything other than my WWOOFing work and yoga classes.
WWOOFing was pleasant enough in my mucas-addled state: I fell into a trance as I swept and mopped the temple floor and verandas, feeling as though each swipe of the mop was a gentle sponge across the baby Buddha's bottom. The most energetic thing I did was attack the overgrown gardens: hacking weedy shrubs and pulling down huge garlands of vines. As always such clearing leaves an ugly hole (which will no doubt be grown over within a week of rainforest vigour) that offended my eye. I tried to compensate by weeding the gravel path, and was able to leave that looking nice. As I got sicker, my energy for doing even light work declined and Suzanne, my host, was extraordinarily kind and generous in letting me stay on an extra day to just lie around resting. So I barely ventured off the Retreat grounds for three days, and spent most of my time lying on a sofa on the veranda watching the rainforest and dozing or reading. Nonetheless, it was not boring!
I spent an afternoon watching a huge golden orb spider catch, subdue, wrap and consume a green spotted triangle butterfly while the tiny red male on her back clung on through her exertions. I saw numerous musky rat kangaroos which are the size of large rats, the shape of wombles and the colour of rust and which are the oldest type of kangaroo. There were further spider adventures when one of the other guests with a spider phobia found a large huntsman in the shower with her and shortly afterwards got herself locked in the bedroom with an even bigger one! My own loudest squeal was while I was weeding and felt a tickle on my leg. When I looked down a stick insect about half the length of my calf was clinging to my bare leg, camoflaged for sitting on bark not skin. The most amazing camoflage though, was a little brown frog which looked almost exactly like a dead leaf sitting on the lawn among nearly identical dead leaves, only the frog's shiney eyes in their beautiful dark mask giving away its true identity.
Yoga was great, and I will keep on doing classes with Suzanne while I'm in the Daintree. The meditation was challenging as always and an opportunity for self-awareness. It seems I am more addicted to modern communications that I would have liked to think. Cut off by no cellphone coverage in the Daintree (Telstra lied about NextG) and my low energy keeping me from going out in search of landline and internet opportunities, I gradually became obsessed, in my meditation time, with the calls, texts, emails and posts I wasn't getting or sending. Monkey mind couldn't stay away from worrying about that during the practice, even though in the non-meditation times I could easily let go of any concern or urgency.
Anyway, I am mostly recovered and hardly blowing my nose any more now. I have moved on to my next WWOOF host (Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm) where I am able to use the dial-up (thank you Allison and Digby!). But I still don't have cellphone coverage and will not for weeks or months, however long I stay up here in the rainforest. So, dear reader, if you are one of my texting or phoning buddies, I'm sorry but we will have detach from that method of communication for a while. I do have a snail mail address, so if you are inclined to send me a real letter or care package email me for the latest.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Slow train from Cooroy to Cairns

When I boarded the train at Cooroy I was excited about the 28 hour journey ahead of me to Cairns. I settled in to a little berth which I was pleased to discover I had all to myself. But within 45 minutes we were pulling into Gympie Station (a twenty minute drive from the farm where I've been staying for two and a half weeks) to the announcement that we would be delayed there for 'two or three hours'.
Gympie Station is nowhere near Gympie town, and is one of the least interesting railway stations I have had the misfortune to wait at. The platform was sandwiched between the train and a steep cutting so there was no view, except of the other 160 passengers getting increasingly irritated. I had been informed by several people of the phenomena in Queensland where pensioners get free train travel, so the trains are all full of old folks. Our train was no exception, the under 60s numbering less than a dozen at that stage of the journey.
Every couple of hours another announcement would confirm the swirling rumours that we weren't going anywhere soon. Eventually, the beleagered train people told us that they'd organised 'a coach tour of the gold mines and complimetary afternoon tea'. You've never seen such a stampede to the parking lot, where we spent another 30 minutes waiting for the promised coaches.
The tour of the gold mines consisted of hurtling past a single open cast mine on our way to Dingo Creek winery, where the complaining crowds were saited with cheesecake, scones and wine tasting. Back on the buses we took the long way back to the Station via Traveston Crossing. I got to show off my local knowledge of the proposed dam to my seat mates on the bus. But back on the train, we still weren't going anywhere!
Seven hours in Gympie. Seven hours waiting for a bridge to be fixed. It didn't really worry me, as I have no particular timetable to follow for my travels. But other people were running out of patience, and/or food and money. But eventually we rattled off over the bridge and up the coast into the night. I made the most of my private berth, playing music and dancing in the dark watching the stars and silver eucalypt trunks spin past. When I got tired, the nice porter pulled my bed down from the wall and I fell into a broken sleep, rolling around as the train hurtled along much faster than it had gone at any point during the day, trying to make up some of the lost time.
At 3.00 I woke to find the train stopped and my new berth mate knocking at the door, boarding at Rockhampton after a 7 hour wait. Next day, it was interesting to have her local knowledge of a lifetime in Queensland as the landscape subtly changed from rolling pastures to flat sugar cane interspersed with rainforest.
QR managed to make up two hours of the delay and we pulled into Cairns Station only five hours late, at 9.30pm instead of 11.30pm- a much more civilized hour to arrive to stay at a CouchSurfing host's home. This is my first CouchSurfing experience and its lovely. Anne and Kerry are relaxed hosts with a big house with so many people staying that I'm hardly worth blinking at. I helped feed a grandbaby this morning, and had a good chat with Kerry about art- he is a talented painter who directed me to an excellent art supply store (Art Barn). Anne gave me a huge pawpaw from one of their trees to take away with me.
I've spent the day in Cairns stocking up on supplies for going into the forest for a few weeks. It's my last day in a city for a while so I went to the Regional Gallery and saw a stunning sculpture exhibition by Ben Trupperbaumer. His exquisite 'Little Dwellings' will stay in my mind as I go into the bush hoping to imagine exquisite books.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Travel dreams and book shelves

You know how when travelling you often dream of home? My dreams lately have been populated by New Zealand family and friends but the setting is usually in oversized white stone buildings like Brisbane's Southbank.
I spent a couple of afternoons wandering around Southbank when I first landed in Aussie three weeks ago (and I spent a memorable week at a conference there about five years ago) which was obviously enough to impress the the architecture on my psyche. I wonder too, if their empty white spaciousness is appearing in my dreams because I have been staying in a little farmhouse that is chock full of things. It is a lovely and facinating home, with museum-like displays of antiques interspersed with delightful objects collected on travels in Asia and Europe plus all the usual bits and pieces that accumulate in a lifetime of being interested and creative.
Continuing my bookshelves documentary project here are some photographs from around the Hill's home. This morning I dreamed that my friend Helen, the New Zealander I stayed with when I first arrived in Brisbane, had organised a huge gathering of parents and their preschool children. They crowded into a steep stepped ampitheatre of white stone, creating a chaotic cacophony.

I stood up on my step to give the opening speech of the event, having absolutely no idea what I was going to say and was surprised to hear myself boldly starting with 'Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoua. Nau mai haere mai. Ko Meliors toku ingoa*'. The crowd of children and their adults fell into an instant hush except for a whisper of 'more more more' from someone nearby. But then I suddenly realised I was speaking Maori and lost my confidence so totally that I woke up!
Tomorrow I move on from the Hill's farm where I will have spent two and a half weeks. I'm catching the train to Cairns which is a 30 hour journey! I expect that once I am staying in the rainforest, I will start dreaming about the rolling farmland of the Sunshine Coast and this cosy house.

* Rough translation: greetings everybody, welcome to our place, my name is Meliors.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Big Hairy Bananas and Little Peach Pellets

The antique book press so beautifully restored by Helga and reassembled by Victor

Helga and I have been making lots more paper back at the farm. This time we used pulp that Helga had prepared earlier and stored in the deep freezer. Victor's been on at her to use up the pulp so he can fill the deep freeze with a naughty cow, thus he was willing to let us push his sign-painting activities to the back of the shed and take over the table with troughs and cloths and water and pulp for a few days.
As we undertook this over the first really cold days of winter, I discovered that making paper is infinitely more pleasurable as a summertime activity, but that having one's hands immersed in cold water for hours on end is less pleasant on a chilly day. By the second day we'd decided to include buckets of hot water in our trough, and to time our actvities in the warmest middle of the day. And in between I booked a train ticket to Cairns where the daytime highs are consistently around 29.
Victor and his cows

We defrosted bags of agapanthus, mystery garden mix, bamboo, banana and native peach pulp. On the first day we bleached agapanthus and the mystery mix and pulled those plus the unbleached bamboo. We made them into fuzzy edged A4 sheets plus a few little squares (with the cutest little mold and deckle) and after pressing out most of the water, we stretched them onto the smooth concrete floor of the shed to dry over night. This ensured that they came up completely flat and smooth, unlike all the paper I helped make at Wallace House last week which had been taken up too early and is irredeemably rippled.
Agapanthus, bamboo and mystery garden papers drying on the concrete

The agapanthus makes a thick fibrous mat of opaque golden paper which is so tough and strong that I couldn't tear it once it was dry. The mystery garden mix made a lovely versatile paper, smooth and easy to write on, strong and flexible and it bleached to a creamy beige while retaining a pleasant brown fleck. What a shame we don't know exactly what plant(s) went into this pulp because it is so nice.
The bamboo had been pulped complete with the tough green bark and leaves and hard core and came out like a bran biscuit: rough and textured, almost sandy in many shades of brown. Helga says that on their trip to Thailand in January, when they visited many different Thai paper makers, she learned that proper bamboo paper is made using only the part of the stem that lies between the green outer coat and the hard inner core. (She also saw at the Brisbane Craft Fair this week they are selling bamboo wadding for inserting into quilts (instead of nasty dacron) and she reckons that must be made of the same part of the bamboo as good paper).

Helga pulling big banana paper in the wheelbarrow

Next day, we decided to make some of the banana paper into A3 sheets, which required using the wheelbarrow as a trough as it is the only thing big enough to take the A3 mold and deckle. We had a bag of long fibre banana and a bag of short fibre banana both of which we bleached but pulled separately. The short fibre banana was made into the big sheets which came out hairy (strong) and translucent (fine). The long fibre banana which we made as A4 sheets was (unsurprisingly) even hairier. In fact it was so hairy that the edges were often compromised by fibres hanging over the edge of the deckle so persistently that they pulled away chunks of the wet pulp from the molded sheet. And when it came time to remove the paper from the cloths by rolling it onto the concrete, the fibres clung to the cloth and tore rather than stick to the concrete like most wet paper.
The banana paper which Helga had made in the past (and used to make a stunning big paper parasol for an exhibition) had also had a shiny glossy quality, almost like it was varnished, but the banana paper we made this week was mat. We have speculated about whether the freezing process might have removed the glossy quality from the banana pulp or whether harvesting the banana at different times of year may create different kinds of paper (shiny when the sap is rising?), but we just don't know. If any readers have insight into these banana paper mysteries, your advice is welcomed! I am very interested in making more banana paper as I have plans which require its combination of strength and translucence.
We started putting bleached native peach pulp to the trough while there was still some long banana in the water, and the peach added strength to the wet paper being pulled around by the long banana fibres. Gradually the banana disappeared and we were pulling peach alone. The native peach is not a peach at all, no relation in fact, being named solely on the resemblance its leaves have for the original. It actually bears tiny little fruits like peppercorns which the pigeons adore.
Peach paper pulp is made out of the inner bark only. It makes a thick soft creamy smooth paper that I anticipate will be a joy to print on, so I am very interested in making more of this paper as well. As we pulled we noticed tiny balls of peach fuzz in the pulp, which couldn't be broken up by stirring the trough. Helga reckons these are the result of spending too much time in the beater (back before the pulp was frozen). It seems that beating for too long will begin to reconstitute fluffy pulp into a solid mass. Luckily the presence of the little balls of peach are unnoticeable in the dried paper.
Botanical papers handmade on the Sunshine Coast, April 2008

After all the paper was dried it made quite an impressive pile on the dining room table. I went through and tested a sample of each type of paper with different pens and pencil, and for its folding qualities. With these samples and notes in my journal I am only taking as much of the paper as I could squeeze into a single plastic file box for the next stage of my journey.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Pink tongued lizard

Yet another wild animal inside: this pink tongued lizard (about a foot long) was hanging out in the ironing basket.

Save the Mary Flotilla

Last Sunday was the second anniversary of the announcement that a dam was proposed on the Mary River, at Traveston Crossing, not far from where I've been staying the past two weeks.
The area is some of the most fertile farmland left in Australia, known as the food basket of Brisbane. The Mary River itself is home to the rare and endangered species such as the lungfish (a dinosaur contemporary), and the unique Mary River Turtle. Mary River flows out to Hervey Bay and the famous sanctuary of Fraser Island, home to rare dugongs as well as many other special species.
The creek on Helga and Victor Hill's farm where I've been staying will run much higher if the dam is built, and the road I've been walking along will be partially submerged. They, and many of their neighbours are outraged by the dam proposal and have devoted much of the past two years to fighting against it. One of Victor's contributions to the campaign (as well as narrating bus tours of the threatened area, ringing talk back radio and prolific letter writing) is the painting of signs. This is about a third of the signs lining the road frontage of their farm.
Victor also made this fabulous creation to demonstrate the proposed water level above currently dry land. It usually lives outside the farm gate with all the signs, but for last Sunday's flotilla, it was moved down to the Mary River.
As well as being the anniversary of the dam announcement, last Sunday was also a chance for dam opponents to join Steve Posselt for a stretch of his epic journey kayaking from Brisbane and along the Mary River. Steve Posselt is a water engineer making this cross country trip to draw attention to the significant flaws in the dam proposal and the terrible consequences if it goes ahead. As the Mary does not actually connect up to Brisbane he hauled his kayak overland across a very big hill. Luckily he has a special wheelie kayak: the wheels flip up for when he is on the water and when the water doesn't go where he wants the wheels flip down and he dons a harnass to pull it along.

Over a hundred people came along last Sunday to paddle down the river with Steve, enjoy the beautiful environment which will be destroyed by the dam and protest for the TV cameras. It was a misty morning and I helped out at the gateway to the launch site, making sure that every paddler signed the registration form/disclaimer before they got on the water. Unfortunately I didn't get to go for a paddle, but I watched from the bank as the colourful flotilla set off in perfect weather.
The dam wall is proposed for Traveston Crossing, currently a bridge where the flotilla was to finish. Upstream the Mary runs through flat farmland which would make for a wide shallow dam, perfect for evaporating (rather than storing) water in this hot dry climate. The rainfall in this area is relatively low, compared with the coastal end of the River, suggesting that the dam is unlikely to be unable to collect enough water to try and store anyway, and certainly not enough water to enable the proposed fish lifts to function (apparently the dam proposal suggests that itinerant workers can be hired to manually catch and lift endangered fish over the dam wall so they can get to and from their spawning grounds).