Rivers are one of the world’s great natural barriers. Two sides; the where you are and the where you will be. A journey, possibly difficult, possibly not, from one to the other. It’s hardly any wonder we gravitate towards them, walk beside them, swim in them and write stories about them.
My father claimed that Cornwall would float away if the chains on the Tamar Bridge were cut. The Cornish reversed this idea, with their wild, western county being the solid anchor that keeps the rest of Britain in place. Neither versions account for Ireland. But both stories hold that rivers carry an essence of difference, with the water itself more than just a physical boundary. Such ideas abound in the world; the passage up or over a river as a quest; the failure to cross a river and its consequences; the river as a protective barrier; the transition from here to the hereafter; these are common themes. The journey from one sort of madness to another deeper one in the search for Colonel Kurtz. The bridge over the Nederrijn at Arnhem, one bridge too far, where heroism and desperation combine to form a story that transcends the final outcome. The Bruinen rising in foaming white horses to protect the bearer of a greater evil from the powers that would claim it as their own. The ferryman on the Styx, claiming the final fee, the one way ticket. Stories. Fiction. Fact. The real and the imagined, all with a river at their heart.
We pass by more sugar cane. Small railway tracks pass between the fields and over the roads. Sugar is an industry so big it needs its own trains to move the canes and the broken trash, squeezed free of its sweet juice. Although we can see trees on some of the hills the landscape is dominated by sugar, that sweet and deadly source of many a person’s problems. We arrive at the ferry and pay for the journey – thankfully this ferryman sells return tickets. I look across the river and into the trees.
Rarely have I seen such a clear demarcation. Sugar dominates one side, a solid wall of trees the other. From our side it looks like a fairy tale woodland – one into which you could walk and lose the path in a few footsteps. Light falls on the trees, but none seems to come back. It looks old, but it looks inviting, like a closed door in a house, behind which things are clearly not the same. This is not some heart of darkness, but it does look strangely different; it looks like another kingdom, it looks like a place of adventure. If you were unaware, scared or hungry, you could easily conjure all kinds of animals and stories at a river crossing that looked like this. River mist as dragon smoke; fish swirls the lost souls of the drowned. This feeling of otherness is compounded by the presence of a life-sized wooden cassowary and signs warning about the presence of crocodiles. One can be harmful, the other always. We don’t need to conjure monsters here; they have lived in this river since the river began.
The ferry pulls itself across the river on sunken, rust red cables, thick as my kids’ arms. Welcome Swallows perch on the deck rails and hunt for insects over the river. We watch the water for scaled logs, but we have to stay in the car. Near the far bank the swallows gather in loose groups on bare branches and twigs. Light rain dimples the water, larger drops fall from the branches as we near the bank. I choose to believe that a swirl between the boat and the shore is a fish. Let’s not get over excited here.
The road runs away from the river out through mangroves. There is a simple rule for the creation of the vegetation here – if the highest tides can cover the land you get mangroves. If the land is only flooded by the height of the wet season floods, then rainforest grows. From the ferry the road looked like a dark tunnel, the road surface itself a strip of darker darkness moving into the trees. But being on the road is very different. There are lighter patches and areas of darker shade. The trees on the right do not always reach over to join with the ones on the left, so at times you can see the sky above. If a tall canopy tree reaches its limbs out over the road, a rain of heavier, larger, drops fall from its branches onto the windscreen of the car. Away from the river we start to see areas of ground that have been cleared – there are a few open paddocks, fruit trees set out in neat rows, even a tea plantation. But all of these are edged by thick hedges of trees I don’t recognise. Our journey north has taken us away from the land of the eucalypts, and now we are in the home of the oldest rain forest in the world. Further south, at the fringes of the rainforests, an ecological battle has been waging for years almost beyond count. The eucalyptus, allied with their destroyer/creator fire, are on the move. The rainforest, the shrinking memory of an older wetter Australia, retreats back towards the north. If anything beyond the realm of the normal lives across the river, it’s the ghost of an Australia that has almost gone.
Looking into the forest canopy from the ground is not always the comfortable. Your neck soon begins to ache, your eyes strain for flashes of colour among the silhouettes and darkened branches. The forest floor is surprisingly dark, dominated by soft plants with wide leaves, clothed in moss and simple plants. Plants that you me t in senior biology classes, but soon slipped into the unopened cupboard of memory. Mosses. Liverworts and ferns. Salaginella. The best way to see the trees is to climb up and look from leaf level. A series of linked zip wires – flying foxes to some people – connect the tall trees that walk their way down a slope. This gives you a chance to abandon the forest floor and gain the canopy. All you need is a head for heights and the willingness to wear a silly hat! The first leg is a winch up, but it’s all downhill from there. Carabineers click and lock into place, safety tails are moved from fixed point to fixed point. You are always clipped on to something. The hardware clinks with a soft, but percussive, ring. The guides work with a smooth, practiced rhythm, stacking the ropes into barrels, passing you slowly down onto the wire. As I wait I look into the canopy and talk to the kids – fearless in their anticipation of the height and the speed.
Layer upon layer of leaves and branches open up before you. Each one growing in response to the energy they need. This is architecture of light and space, built one cell at a time, built from the gas that pushes at the edge of every well meaning conversation. In the forks and gatherings of branches, falling leaves are trapped and rot, forming a soil in the air. Plants sprout from the elevated forest floor; another layer of complexity, a vegetable mezzanine. In the cone shaped baskets of high born plants water gathers and whole ecosystems develop, hemmed in walls of cellulose, recycling the dead and the fallen. Little moves in the canopy, a few white butterflies and higher, almost out of sight, small swifts dash over, chasing invisible insects. The rain keeps falling, water trickles down the trunks of the trees and as we look out to sea a ship passes, distant but seemingly close. Climbing plants inch their way towards the sky, hijacking the trunks of taller trees. Leaves spread out flat to catch as much of the filtered light as possible. More layers, more growth, more and more and more.
At one point we hang from the cable over a river bed, fresh with recent rain. A few honeyeaters dash from one side to the other and back again, following the river’s edge. These open, watery, paths form a network within the forest; they become highways along which larger animals move. Some always contain water, but others are empty now in the dry season (which, standing in the rain seems a comical observation). Spiders have built their webs across open spaces and gaps and wait, silky traps at the ready. The more you look the more you see -the slow passage of snails, the ripple of feet on a millipede. And eventually the slow descent of a Ulysses butterfly falling with the slowness of tissue paper, as patternless as a drunken man. A stunning blue insect that shows itself in a car park and seems destined to land on our bonnet, but veers off at the last minute. It glows in the open air above the parking spaces. More light seems to come from its wings than fall upon them, like some kind of photochemical trick played on entomologists by the blind watchmaker of evolution. Life shows itself in unexpected ways, it’s that kind of place.
Roots bind rocks and earth and hold tight to the thin soil. Fungi shine in the wet darkness. From death to life and back again. In the darkness of the floor some plants have moved away from the light – a seeming violation of Grade 1 science – and become parasites. They lack chlorophyll and seem to have taken on the weird form of fungi as they draw their sugar from the roots of trees whose leaves do not dwell in the darkness of the forest floor.
The trees grow all the way to the sea – famously meeting the reef – and during the highest of high tides the sea comes into the forest, bringing sea fish over the land. Where the sea cuts away at the sand of the beach you can measure the depth of the soil in inches rather than feet. But above this thin mantle grows a forest that looks as lush and as fertile as any I have seen – this is the illusion of fertility that this region creates. Rather than being rich from an over abundance of nutrients, these forests harbour what they have against the stripping forces of rain and erosion. Natural selection favoured the fast and the efficient, the nutrient canny and maybe even the sly, in the fight for energy and matter. The forests may have been here for millions of years, but each day they are different. Each day part of them dies and each day part of them is reborn. We pass through the forests looking in wonder, while the old atoms pass round and round and round.
But the forest floor is clearly not all death and decay – pushing up through the leaf mould are flowers of remarkable shapes and colours. Some of these plants will go on to produce fruits of an equal diversity. Fruits that look like fruits, fruits that look like flowers, fruits whose colour suggests that they should be left well alone, and ones that look (and apparently taste) like apples. Here and there, in no particular pattern the fruits ripen. The animals consume the fleshy bribe of sweetness and the seeds move on; the forest spreads its young within itself, protecting its future. Some of the fruit falls to the floor uneaten where it is sought by one of the region’s iconic birds – the Cassowary. We see it on road signs, in wooden form by the ferry and another model in a garden – we have to go back to check on this last one, just in case, but the bird seem illusive. It specialises in eating the kinds of fruits that would render many other animals immobile. The Cassowary Plum – its favourite food apparently – is an elongated purple fruit, rather like an under inflated rugby ball. It contains a potent neurotoxin that would flatten an elephant but leaves the bird unharmed.
We walk along a sharply winding board walk through coastal forest with the sound of the sea in the background. Leaves fan out overhead, old logs sink into the soil, occasional patches of light filter through holes in the canopy. I bend down to focus on a bank of moss, slick with a varnish of water. I look up and see P rushing towards me – “Cassowary!” she tries to whisper, but it comes out as more loudly excited than she intended. I leave the moss and follow.
Two birds – a young one and a female – pick their way through the woven bushes. In and out of view; slowly moving towards us. For a bird that has a reputation for being bad tempered, even aggressive, they seem very calm. The female is resplendent with blue wattles and skin around the head. The casque, a horny growth from the top of the head, is larger than the rest of her head. The young bird is about half the size of the female and dull by comparison. Its feathers are limp and brown – it looks like a feather duster. We stand still and the birds keep moving – closer and closer. Eventually I have to move backwards, not out of anxiety about the bird’s reputation, but because it’s too close to focus on! It pauses on the board walk, checks for traffic, waits for the young bird to peck at something that caught its eye, and then walks on. Its movements are surprisingly silent for such a large bird. It places its feet with a kind of deliberate stealth and pushes through the bushes with barely a ripple of the leaves. We all watch and watch and watch. The birds move deeper into the forest and are lost in the green darkness. It seems strange that such a large bird can move away and seemingly disappear, leaving no trace. It makes me wonder how many times people (me included) walk past them and never see them. Later in the week we see two cross the road in front of us – a distant glimpse that would have added to my list, but also left a sense of regret. I’m glad I met the birds in the forest.
We head back to our accommodation on the strangely named Turpentine Road. Boots, shoes and raincoats clatter on the floor outside the door of our room. Soon the kettle sings. As I tidy up the wreckage left on the porch by the kids I am visited by a Yellow- Bellied Sunbird. It hangs from the flower bells and probes with a deeply curved bill. We walk to dinner. H reports the presence of a “Scrub Finch” on the path ahead – a bird of transcendental colour and rareness to match the phoenix. I still don’t really know what he saw. We eat in the company of bats, bandicoots and beetles. A few forest floor dwellers rush out to sniff at food scraps. My daughter falls in love with Barney (the bandicoot!) and we look for him every night thereafter.
The narcotic effect of red wine and fresh air drives us to bed early. The kids are already asleep. The faint light from the bathroom casts soft shadows. The tick of the clock seems strangely loud. I fall asleep to dream of trees and rivers, of deep green leaves and the sound of my children breathing in the shadowed darkness.