Go West

With the sounds of a family wedding still ringing in my late to bed ears I was awoken by my children. Their sun clock woke them early and they demanded attention, stories, consciousness. The alteration of the clocks means nothing to them - and a few hours later I was on my way to Perth. A long day loomed.

I boarded the plane at just after 3 in the afternoon, flew for almost four hours and arrived two hours later. Such is the mystery of westward flight. You may read the time from your watch but your body tells you otherwise. In a different city, with my brain saying I should have been asleep hours ago, I struggled to stay awake. You can kid yourself along for only so long, in the end you have to give in to the siren song of sleep - a long day indeed.

As we descended into Perth I was watching a tourist information video on the plane. Amongst other information it suggested that the seagulls (their words I assure you!) should not be fed, as they can become aggressive! In a country blessed with more than its fare share of the deadly end of the wildlife spectrum I thought a warning about the hazards posed by gulls was a little misplaced. Over influenced by Hitchcock maybe?

The hotel room provided a map of the area, and sitting there on the edge was an advertisement that ran like this:
“Real Shooting …….Real Guns. Forget scented candles, whale music and all that tree hugging guff. Experience the excitement of real shooting for relaxation, recreation and fun…….shoot a variety of rifles, shotguns, revolvers and semi-automatic pistols”.

The young women with tossed hair and full lips seemed to be having a good time, but clearly not a whale of a time!
I am not making this up. The lack of full power assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades and the ability to call in air strikes seemed like an act of genuine restraint.

Where the hell was I? Gulls with a mass less than a meat pie and probably less threatening to your long term health are to be avoided at all costs, but I can wind down by blasting the crap out of (and I'm guessing here) human looking targets in the name of relaxation! Why not bring them together and declare an open season on Silver Gulls - kill two birds with one stone, or high velocity, armour piercing ammo in this case. The grinning girls in the advertisement and the shaven headed man grasping a large pistol scream for some form of analysis, but I’m not up to it. I’m still in shock, and I need to take shelter under the bed as there is a gull on my balcony with an evil look in its eye and mischief in its heart.

Things were not about to get better. The taxi driver and the waitress at dinner were straight from Bond double agent central casting. Bottle black and bottle blond hair, eastern European accents, although they managed not to pull any outlandish martial arts moves on us. Thankfully. But they made it clear we were on their turf. I may have been very tired, but I could have sworn that the buildings were changing colour as well. Very strange.

Then it peaked. On the way back to hotel I found a Scientology Centre. Tom Cruise, Ron L and all the rest. Alien Space Gods are here to save you! Help! I’m on an alien planet. I was grateful for the sleep that came rapidly, maybe it would be different in the morning. Maybe I was already asleep and this was all a dream.

The morning dawned with steel grey clouds, and faint beams of light where they were thinner. Tea on the balcony as the day grew. The road below was still lit by street lights, yellow and pale, dim and patchy. Then something moved on the roof of the shop verandas over the pavement. There it was again, running from shadow to shadow, our constant urban companion, the rat. Sneaking home maybe after a night searching for smoked ham, mutton bones, other peoples' possessions. Moments later it was followed by a second. The roof seemed to be some form of rat highway. I don’t think it’s in any way unusual, but just that we don’t normally see it. The night time life of cities and our own homes is probably more rich in diversity than we acknowledge. It's normally hard to pay attention when you are sleep.
I was in Perth to work not to watch rodents at play. The venue was an old school, on land granted to the state on the condition it was always used for education. It would have been a valuable piece of real estate, but now nature pushed in from many sides. Ravens played in the yard - and I use the term play without caution. Watching a bird push its beak into a crushed cola can and flick it out onto the lawn, then do it again, and again, while being joined by other ravens, is hard to interpret in any other way. Any fluid in the can would have long since drained away It's only a shame that the need to concentrate on the task in hand distracted me from ethology! The ravens were there every day. It seems a shame that many people just dismiss them as crows and do not give them a second glance.

At lunch time I wandered down into the car park, flanked by dense scrub. Bird calls. Insect buzzes. The occasional rustle of something larger, or clumsier. White cheeked Honeyeaters fought in the bushes, noisy, resolutely brave, even when under close observation. Young Black Faced Cuckoo Shrikes, with Zorro face masks and long pale wings, were being shepherded through the bushes by adult birds. A large red dragon fly landed a few feet in front of me, and cleaned its eyes. Sweeping movements of its legs over the huge globes that fill the front of its head. I heard the whoosh just before a saw the bird. A Willie Wagtail flashed over my right shoulder, just past my ear, and collected the dragon fly with a metallic snick. Surprisingly loud, surprisingly sudden. It landed in the nearby bushes with lunch in its beak, leaving a single wing drifting down to the ground. Thin, like glass paper, detailed, like net curtain. A lizard flashed across the path and darted up the trunk of a small tree. It stopped, confident in its camouflage.
That afternoon we were taken to the beach - City Beach and Cottesloe Beach.
Barely out of town really. Looking out to sea, past the swimmers and kite surfers, past Rottnest Island there is nothing but sea until you reach Africa. The distances here become strange, numbers with a vapour trail of zeros that feed off into near meaninglessness. The distance from Melbourne to Perth greater than London to Istanbul. But still in the same country. Longer than from the western edge of Europe to the gates of Asia. The return trip would take you a good way towards Africa, back to where we came from. How can it be so large? How can Perth be so distant?

The light from the beaches seems to flow up the planned, straight streets and fill the city with a kind of brightness. Perth really does sit on the edge of the ocean.

The next two days dawned pink and clear, with the sun behind us, east. I was not seeing much in the way of living things from the hotel - rats excepted! So I looked elsewhere. Windows. Edges. Glimpses of the river. And poking their heads above the mantle of a green building, grass trees. A roof-top garden, surrounded by the glass and steel of today and an ornate reminder of when buildings were built with curves. Even inside your room things can catch your eye - especially if you borrow a few ideas!

Down by the river, the evening on the last day, two swans with peddling feet took off from their river, The Swan River. Snake birds sat drying their heavy wings in the warmth of the setting sun, heavy birds, diving birds. Birds that need to sink more than they need to swim. They look old, more reptilian than most birds, and when they enter the river their bodies sink below the water line, head and neck above water - a water snake.

I kept walking and came to a kind of end, a bend in the river. Marsh land was being built here. With board-walks and boards to tell you what had been lost and what was being remade. I was asked to look around. The small ponds were bare, silent and I thought they were empty. But then there was a bird of prey in the air. How do they do that? You look as hard as you can and there is nothing there, and then, as if by magic, a hunter is hovering over the river edge. A black shouldered kite. Pale against the evening sky. It was hunting the river edge, it would hold up its head to look left and right and then look straight down, intent on its prey. In the end it looked straight at me. In a city that has built itself on what can be torn from the Earth, I was face to face with a predator. Red Eyes. Pale face, wings adjusting to the gusting wind. And as quickly as it appeared it was gone, around the corner.

There was nobody else on the board walks, but behind me was the stadium of the WACA, where people pretend that sport is a matter of life and death, and seem to miss the real life that goes on by the river.

As I was leaving the next day a flock of White Tailed Black Cockatoos flew over. Wonderful birds - but which of the two species where they? My bins were in my case, and my camera lens depressingly short. The birds gathered in a pine tree and teased me with fine clear views and open stances. They flew up on their long lazy wings and called to each other to leave. I could not name them, but did I enjoy them? Yes. Sometimes the effort we go to in naming things can pull a shade between us and what we are seeing. If you only see things to be named, you are looking through a dirty window on a clear day. Sometimes, we should just open the window and look.

The magpies on the grass called and I knew that they sounded different to the birds in my garden. Flatter, with less range, almost as if they were singing to themselves. Was this a regional accent? A western voice? Or was it just the one bird? I’ll have to come back to find out. We have a choice between first impressions and close attention. In Perth I gave in to the first and was caught out when I finally did the second. There on the banks of the Swan River with a Kite looking me in the eye, I knew that there was more to know about that aggressive gulls and shooting ranges.

First impressions 1: Paying Attention 3. Game over.


Garry said…
You are a great writer Stewart. The wild west, eh! Maybe they should have named their footy team the West Coast Seagulls if they wanted to strike fear into the hearts of their opposition. I like the trios of photos in your layout - very effective.
Chris C. said…
I am always intrigued by your uncanny ability to be ABLE to name the birds you see Stewart. Usually I see them but can't name them with the exception being when I can! Perth is a lovely city, its a pity you were introduced to the uglier side of violence. Quite amazing that it was advertised in a hotel room!

Keep writing. You're good at it!

Chris C
Anonymous said…
Hi Stuart, Garry C forwarded your blog post on. Wow. THis is terrific stuff with a real sense of voice. I am living in Perth now about 3kms out of the city near Subiaco. Love the pic of the Cottesloe groin. Very interesting to see some surf. Must have been windy and in the afternoon? I went surfing there last Friday just to get wet because. Rotnest Island blocks out most the swell, well in summer anyway. Hope you had a chance to check out the Swan River...it's just as a good as Tim Winton makes out in Cloud Street...lots of nooks and crannies hidden from the wind...beautiful parks and blue water etc. DMG former IGS

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