Under a cold, broken, patchwork sky, we drove north towards Bicheno. The rivers were still filling from the recent rain; they strained at the bridges and flirted with the idea of flooding. The tyres hissed on the wet road, fields shone with water, ditches were full. In places the road disappeared entirely. Even in the car you could smell water and damp leaves and freshly turned soil.
We ate a meal of quiet exceptional ordinariness in a shop that was for sale, and where it was clear that the staff had long since lost the capacity to smile. Just metres from the sea we ate fish that seemed to have been caught just before the fall of the Roman Empire, and chips that were made of cotton wool and lino. For once, tomato sauce felt more of a necessity than an indulgence. Some you win, some you lose.
The bus that would take us to the penguins was due in a few minutes. People gathered in a car park, in the darkness, outside a surf shop. Some went inside, so I joined them. The shop was mercifully free of sweatshop penguin tat. There was no café. There was no flash, commercial AV production. There was no metre high plastic penguin set in a “realistic diorama” for you to lean against, flashing a peace sign, while your friends take your picture. There was just quiet conversation and over-dressed families waiting for the bus. I took all of these as good signs. As we fastened our seat belts the layers of fleece, down and gortex that most people were wearing formed wide, glacial valleys in the clothes. A lady with a Scottish accent and a woollen hat laughed at the excess. My kids looked warm, pulled their hats over their eyes and lost their gloves. A slight sea mist turned the bus’s headlights into solid beams that flicked out in front of the bus, searching. A wallaby stood by the roadside confused by the light before it disappeared in a quantum of movement into the darkness.
Your suitably bearded guide gathered us into a group and talked about the walk ahead. “Watch your step”, he said as we walked down towards the sea. Both H and P were excited, and if the truth be told, so was I. After a few hundred metres we found your first birds. I’m not sure who looked the more embarrassed, the penguins or us. But it was clear we were both watching each other. Both groups, penguins and people, looked a little over dressed. Both groups shuffled their feet and glanced around, not really sure of what to do. We knew what not to do: no flash photography, in fact no photography at all, no torches, no sudden movements and definitely no picking up the penguins! The penguins seemed to be working to the same set of rules.
Apart from the occasional violent beak shake to flick out saline snot, the birds just stood there and we just stood there too. The birds were probably a wee bit confused, but we stood still because we were all just a little bit charmed. After a while the penguins waddled off, with each rocking step seeming to hover on the edge of a fall. They walked stiff legged as if they were on stilts, rocking from left to right on rigid legs. We met a group of birds – a parcel apparently – coming up a side path. We went through the same embarrassed observations, of watching the watchers. In the thick bushes and undergrowth the birds were settling in for the night, and noisy conversations were being had at the mouths of nest tunnels. Some of the birds used boxes to nest in, and lifting the lid revealed the rather smelly interior. Some birds were in moult, some were busy trying to make new penguins, and some birds looked frankly bored – with an “oh, it’s you again is it?” look on their face. The shrieking and hooting continued, and I imagine the place would have been very noisy in peak season. We looped back towards the bus, and soon were on the way back. There were no frills here, just the penguins, the night and the sea. But with birds like that, do you really need anything else? I think not.
Within minutes of leaving P is asleep, slumped, floppy necked in her seat. But H is different. He sits there, eyes wide with the expectation of hope and the novelty of night driving. A real set of cat’s eyes flashes from a fence line, a fearsome alien hunter of night time natives. Possums dash through the lights with frightening disregard for their own safety, a few wallabies stand and stare. There are no devils – they have already been lost from here.
The darkness outside the car was not only broken by the headlights beam, but also by night sounds from the damp roadside. We would drive into the hot spots of frog calls, where the whole night was dominated by their calls. Even over the gentle voice of the radio the frogs were clear, but then as suddenly as they had come they would be gone and the night felt even more silent than before. We arrived home to a set fire and welcome beds. The wind had dropped and the sky was clear. There were stars and satellites and even the distant call of the waves seemed softer.
Finally I awoke to bright sunlight. Motes of dust floated in sun warmed counter currents. The sea purred in the background, like a well fed cat. The advertised view was, for the first time, viewable. This was a day for a walk. We headed out to find another icon, but this time we were under a clear blue sky. We were not the only ones headed for Wineglass Bay that day; it’s a Freycinet classic walk. We left the car park, past people in long red socks and heavy sweaters and past people in dollar thongs and crop tops. Within moments of leaving it was clear that this was not a day for a long walk. It was a day for many, many short walks. The kids rattled from one side of the path to the other, responding to the pin ball ricochet of interest found. The walk became a jigsaw of discovery, as attention ebbed and flowed. It became a walk defined by width as much as length.
The hillside rocks look like a rabbit or a dinosaur or a fish – we all stop. A Scarlet Robin hides in the bushes – I stop. The kids hear a frog – they stop. A splendidly large black beetle walks across the path and we all stop again. We rescue the beetle from the feet of other walkers and leave it on a log. Later when I look at the pictures I can see that the beast has a mite infection – lodged down between head and thorax are dozen of tiny creatures; one crawls over the beetle’s wing case. And no doubt deep in the guts of the mite are tiny parasites living off it as well – “and little fleas have lesser fleas ..... and so on, infinitum”.
We see views, we eat some chocolate until the left and right, stop start walk brings us to the top.
Laid out in front of us is Horseshoe Bay, a sweep of clean white sand sheltered in a deep bay. Long, long ago I climbed to the top of Mt. Amos and looked down on this bay from a greater height and the water was so clear you could see the diamond kites of stingrays swimming in the water. Ghosting in invisible currents, sliding along level with the shore. On this day I don’t see such things. But it’s good none the less. People come and go with surprising rapidity. See the view, take some pictures and head back down. Some seem to stay for only a few minutes. We don’t stay too long, the kids need some food, and what’s a view to an eight year old when there’s chocolate and jelly snakes in mums bag! We decide to go down, but not to the car park. We don’t know if it’s wise, but we head for the beach.
The path to the beach is very different from the path to the viewpoint. The up path was testament to hard work. It was edged and smooth, the streams were bridged with care and cunning design. You felt sure there must be trolls under them. The down path was a testament to erosion. The up was a motorway, the down a little used track, a greenway, a winding and inviting way. Trees and bushes hung over the path, making a patchwork of light and shade. Even the kids seemed to notice the difference. There were occasional, mysterious rustlings in the bushes. They walk slower, they don’t dash off, and eventually we reach the beach.
Parts of the beach are thick with the weed we had seen elsewhere, orange and smelly. But where the sand was bare it your eyes hurt. The waves splashed over rocks rounded by the long passage of time, the dry sand squeaked if you shuffled your feet. There was a deep, child attracting pool, a dammed stream at the top of the beach, and in it tiny speaks of life swarmed with jerky movements. A tame wallaby posed for photographs and tried to eat your lunch. People found it charming until it bit them. The sky was crystal, the sea was sharp, there was no softness, but there was beauty. It may even have been breath-taking.
Certainly the people struggling back up the hill had had their breath taken away. They were passed by two small children, fuelled by chocolate and the quest for a special tree. It became a game of hide and seek between the tree and my daughter. The tree won. There is a chair shaped like a bed (or possibly a bed that passes for a chair) at the top of the hill and we stopped to drink some water. We were visited by wattle birds and watched by cautious ravens. People converged on the top from both directions, arriving “puffing, panting and a little pink”. Our chocolate stocks depleted, we head back down to the car park. We reach a path junction where the parks authority wants us to walk back by a slightly different route. It’s the first one way system in a national park I’ve seen. This place must be very different in peak season.
The next day is our last and we steal one more walk on the beach. It’s clean and flat and the kids run for no other reason that that they can. The waves in the bay have flattened to almost nothing. We find more shells, more birds, more crabs. The river still runs to the sea. It’s time to leave.
The road out brings one more treat. In the mirror I can see The Hazards stretched out across the sky line. The road is almost dry, but small puddles mirror the sky – patches of deep blue in the grey of the road. The traffic signs make me laugh, and I’m thankful we have not been attacked by giant kangaroos.
We drive north to a boat and sail north again to home. It’s good to go away and it’s good to come back.