Up North Again (part II) – The life of O’Reilly.

Despite the fact you needed forearms like a Viking to actually negotiate corners at slow speed I was becoming increasingly positive about my loaned car, which I suppose was appropriate for a Proton. After a few minutes I had to pull over to check I was not heading in the wrong direction. I thought that the car may have developed a mind of its own and was heading for the dense centre of Brisbane, but it turned out that I was neither lost nor in possession of a car with a mind of its own. If I had gone only a few metres further down the road I would have found the road sign I needed.

The little car whizzed down the motorway with surprising ease, but I was glad to get onto roads more in keeping with its scale. Queensland’s government really should be congratulated on its efforts to reduce the road toll by significantly reducing the number of roadside objects that you could possibly collide with. Unfortunately, this high minded and laudable scheme seems to have resulted in the removal of most of the road-signs. It would appear that those which do remain are rapidly being converted into small, vertical nature reserves, bound up with a wonderful array of flowering creepers and small shrubs. So navigation was often based on glimpses of partially obscured signs and any confirmatory signs that you were actually heading for Tamborine were missing. What you did find though were large numbers of parked cars, normally clustered around mysterious road junctions. Their drivers were hopefully studying hand drawn maps that were lacking in both scale or detail, in the hope that they may be able to draw some meaning from the faded cartography. Well good luck. Much to my surprise the only thing I managed to collide with was my destination.

The road to O’Reilly’s Rainforest Lodge snakes up and out of a town of rather shocking ordinariness that belies its location. The hills that are topped by O’Reilly’s sit within the Lamington National Park - a World Heritage Site no less, so expectations were high. As you drive along this winding road it soon becomes clear that something interesting is happening. Firstly there are no rainforests to begin with - the vegetation is dominated by eucalypts, and looks familiar. But as you go higher you move into areas with higher and higher rainfall - brought by moist winds that collide with the mountains and give up that moisture as rain. Walls of vegetation start to push in on the roadside, whereas before there was open space and views. The trees start to gain wide buttresses to hold them up; the finger thin gum trees disappear. The road itself narrows and becomes more and more serpentine. Dense eucalypt woodland can be dominated by the straight lines of their trunks, but here everything was fluid and plastic. At one point I drove through a section of woodland that pulsed with the calls of cicadas, loud enough to hear within the car, but falling silent a few moments, a few meters, later. Large Wanderer Butterflies flapped across the road, and purple flowers hugged the corners of the road. There were a lot of corners, there were a lot of flowers.

At times the road became a single lane with confusing give way signs and painted white lines. Give way to what? The possibility of a car? The chance of a landslide? A passing goat? You could normally see only a few tens of meters down the road, so I pressed on regardless. Near the top of the hill my progress was slowed by a succession of powerful Subarus. Heaps of them, dozens in fact. They all seemed to be driven at break-neck speed by young looking men, who seemed determined to get to the next corner half a second faster than the car behind them. But once they got to the corners they often found their way blocked by a less than young man, in a less than powerful Proton travelling at a more sedate, some might even say, elderly, speed. I trundled on, corner after corner, increasing the workout for my arms and shoulders. Most of the trees were marked with reflective patches, testament to the difficulty that night driving would bring. Many of the trees were marked with paint marks and gashes - many seemed to be at the height of Subaru spoilers!

The vegetation became thicker and thicker, with the roadside curtain of vines and creepers growing equally dense. You could see where images of lurking danger grew from when you see forest that looks like this. This looks like the kind of thing that used to be called “jungle” when I was a kid, rather than the rainforest it is called today. You have to wonder how it changed from a source of fear and death to the salvation of the world. Both are clearly incorrect, but both have elements of truth hidden within them. Arriving at the top was a bit of a shock really, for there was open space and grass, car parks and buildings, feeling a little like coming upon a lost city, buried in the past.

As I pulled up outside the lodge there was a yellow and black flash as a bird flew low over the front of the car. I had come here to see Regent Bowerbird, and had managed it before I had even left the car, in fact I'd managed it before the car had stopped moving. As I parked I noticed another bird, sitting on a rusting engine block pecking at an apple. This was a female Satin Bowerbird, and it was completely unconcerned as I wound down the window and photographed it. Something was happening here, something not entirely natural, possibly out of keeping for a World Heritage site. The place felt like a theme park. “Rainforest” seems to speak of something a little more wild than semi-tame birds feeding in the car park, even if the birds are remarkable. It just did not feel entirely right. Bush Turkeys wandered across the road, and Red Browed Finches - a bird that seems to be both delicate and robust at the same time - flicked around, seeking seeds. I checked in and checked out my room, small, functional, but with the universal soullessness that comes with the territory. It had echoes of University accommodation, but without the Roger Dean posters. I was back outside within ten minutes.

Walking into the forest was like walking into another world - green, complex and surprisingly noisy. Bird calls, rustles, the rattle and thud of falling fruit, more bird calls. Even with the absolute certainty that the place was safe, the sheer energy of life that the place gave off was startling. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to walk through such a place knowing that there were animals out there, or worse still, people, whose express intention was to do you harm. Large rocks flanked the paths, held protectively by the finger-like roots of larger trees. There was no imagination needed to see the Ent-like form that these trees took - in fact it was probably harder not to feel an aura of sentience here than to feel one. Trees walking south, because it feels like you are going downhill. The rocks themselves were clothed in mini forests of moss and other plants, two knuckles deep in some places.

To walk in such a place without hearing would have been to have missed most of what was going on. The pale green filtered light seemed to hide things as much as illuminate, with layer upon layer of leaves setting up levels of interference that even the CIA would have been proud of. Most of the life was hiding in plain sight, so you had to stop and readjust, wait. Only then did it start to become visible. Looking with your ears. It also became clear that some places were worth spending more time on than others. Where the canopy thinned, often where a tree had fallen, and a patch of light reached the floor were great places to wait. Birds - often Rufus Fantails - hunted for insects, rarely still, dashing from perch to perch and bouncing into the air to snap some otherwise invisible speck of life. And for once you could see into the canopy.

Bird watching in this type of forest is to say the least, difficult. The birds were either hidden in the interleafed undergrowth, or silhouetted against the sky at the top of a 30m tree. This was a very different experience to seeing birds in the car park. But after a after a few hours I found myself back there. The call of the bowerbirds was too strong, even if I did suspect that they were animatronic replicas. The bold black and yellow of the Regents and the ever changing blue black of the Satins was almost irresistible.

The next morning I was up early for a guided walk; I was actually up an hour too early, but that was my own fault! The guide arrived with some chopped fruit and within seconds there were Regent and Satin Bowerbirds all over the place. It was the kind of abundance that you don’t normally find associated with this kind of beauty. I felt that the brilliance of these birds deserved more than to be reduced to a commodity that could be bought on tap. This was nature on a plate, rather than nature as a wild (or even wildish) experience. This feeling intensified as the birds perched on the guide's hand to take food. He did admit that he was not entirely comfortable with this, and I had to agree with him. This feeling did not diminish as we moved away from the feeding station. Birds hopped around our feet, and came when called. Again, this was a remarkable experience, but it caused a certain disquiet. Eastern Whip Birds are normally shy, retiring birds - even if the call is loud and far carrying. Here they came out on to the path to meet us. A part of the bird is that it is from the darker places of the world, it dwells in the hidden underbush of the forest. When you see it feeding in the open, away from shelter are you seeing the bird, or some constructed, convenient, humanised version of it?

But for all my concern it was clear that a number of the people who had risen early to go on this walk had never seen anything like this before - and to be frank neither had I. And it’s also likely that they would have taken away a sense of wonder at the richness of the bird life (or possibly the skill of the guide to conjure the birds from the bush to the hand) that they would not have gained if they had simply walked through the bush and seen a few glimpses and heard a few distant bird calls. It’s all well and good for me to hold the high moral ground, but some people need (or can only gain access) to the foothills. And at the very least they had got up early - although not as early as me! - just to see birds.

The next morning I walked away from the car park and along a track that allowed you to look downhill and into the canopy of the trees. This is much better for looking - you still don’t see much, but the actual act of looking is easier than the neck snapping contortions needed when the canopy is just straight up. At one time I considered lying on the floor to look up, but then I saw the number of ants and spiders that were moving over the forest floor and thought better of that idea. At one point a few trees on the downhill side of the path had fallen over, succumbing to storm, old age or termites. Here you could look flat into the canopy. I ate an apple, drank some water and waited. Then the hoped for but unexpected happened. A bird with dark barred feathers and a curved beak started to walk, headfirst, down a tree. To say this caught my interest is a bit of an understatement. I almost pulled a muscle getting my bins up to my eyes. There, bang slap in the middle of the field of view a female Paradise Riflebird was walking down the tree. A Paradise Riflebird! No feeding table. No bird wizard magically calling the birds to his hand. Just a remarkable bird and me, well it was just me until two other people showed up, but they were just as interested as I was. I watched it for about a minute, but then it was up and off into the distance, into the tangled green off the downhill trees.

Now if the Regent Bowerbirds were given to me on a plate, then this was a rare treat that I had found for myself. However, seeing the bird did raise some interesting questions for me, not the least of which was “Am I disappointed that the bird was a female?” To be honest the answer was “Yes I was”. The male of this species is remarkable, and although I could hear them, I never saw them. Now the female is hardly a dull bird, but it does not have the incendiary beauty of the male. From a “listing” point of view a Riflebird is a Riflebird, so I should have been pleased (and I was), but from a aesthetics point of view, seeing the female was a bit like seeing spring in black and white, satisfying but ultimately diminished. And I thought this paying attention thing was meant to be easy.

Much later I walked along an elevated boardwalk, which swung with every footstep, in the canopies of the huge trees I had been under all day. From ground level the canopy of the trees looked solid, almost uniform. From within it you could see the diversity and structure, the nooks and crannies of a 3D space. It was already dark on the forest floor, but the roof of the forest was still in daylight. Clear beams of light fell to the floor in a few places, catching leaves here and there, lighting them up like Christmas decorations. But the canopy was all daylight. Ferns grew along damp branches, lichens bearded many limbs, and all around birds were calling. The branch of a long dead tree still poked through the grasping fingers of a strangler fig - the last part of the host, smothered by its parasitic lodger.

Green Cat Birds called to each other, and for once I was able to see them. From the forest floor they could be heard but not seen, the polar reversal of the good child. They are a thickset looking bird, that punches its head up and forward when it calls. The call gives the bird its name - and while I could see that the yowling they produced was catlike, it was not fully convincing. However, calling a bird a “Green Cat Impersonating a Chicken being Strangled Bird” does not really have much of a future, even if it is (to my ears anyway) more accurate. Behind the Catbird I could hear the pea whistle call of a Rose Robin, but the bird itself was never more than a slight blur, a dash through the tree tops. That evening as the sun was setting I ordered a beer and watched the light finally fade from the sky.

The following day was to be my last at O’Reilly’s. I was up early again, and there in trees were the Regent Bowerbirds again. A Satin Bowerbird, with its obsession with all things blue, foraged around the BBQs - a true Australian. Its feathers seem to change colour by the minute, gloss to matt, blue to black. Its bower - a strange extension of its DNA and its urge to mate - was littered with milk bottle tops and straws. You have to wonder what kind of sensory overload it suffers when it sees a blue car, a Carlton jumper, or a glimpse of the sky.

The forest floor was even busier today. Log Runners were rushing everywhere. Splendid little birds which seem to be evolving into avian moles, burrowed through the food rich leaf litter. Kicking the debris sideways rather than backwards and sitting back on stiffened tails they seemed more mouse than bird. They were no easier to see than photograph. Scrub-Wrens flitted and built a ragged nest, Eastern Yellow Robins looked sideways and seemed to notice everything.

Down in the valley a Lyrebird was calling, running through its repertoire of croaks, clicks, grunts and impersonations. The day before I had been very firmly put back in my box by one of the staff at the lodge for suggesting that it was remarkable that this bird could sound like a camera with a motor drive. I was told that this was not remarkable, but was in fact rather sad that I should think that, as the natural sounds that the bird makes were far more interesting. I decided not to argue with a man who clearly held himself in such high esteem. Today he was down in the valley with the Lyrebirds, trying to push them towards a group of waiting birdwatchers that had paid for the privilege of his company and wisdom. From what I could tell he was running some form of ornithological hammer and anvil move. It failed. I wondered if he was about to tell his clients that they should appreciate the bird for all its natural talents and beauty, whilst had the same time driving from its home and trampling much of it underfoot. I thought about the Log Runners and birds as a saleable commodity. It did not feel like a good note to leave on.

The little Proton started first time, and I was soon on the way back down the hill. After about 20 minutes and an unknown number of kilometres down the hill a Regent Bowerbird flashed across the road and landed in its own little patch of sunlight. It fluffed itself up and pushed one wayward yellow feather back into place. Content with itself it flew off. Round the next corner the distant forest was punctuated with a single blue jacaranda tree. And in the fields at the base of the hill Grey Crowned Babblers chattered to their family.

These seemed more wild than much I had seen at the top of the hill - this felt like a much better way to leave.

Up North (again)

I was queuing again. I closed my eyes. When I opened them I could see a fan cutting lazy slices through the air. I could hear Martin Sheen. Tullamarine. Shit. I’m still only in Tullamarine.

I watched the sparrows again, this time they were on the verge of developing complex symbolic language and inventing agriculture. Thankfully I was asked to move to a different queue because I was allocated to sit next to an emergency exit. Things were looking up; I dropped off my bag - heavy again with reams of paper and headed for security. The man in charge of my travel destiny asked if I had any aerosols, to which I replied “no” - are you positive he said, to which I replied “yes” - good he said, I like positive people. Well I am glad my personality passed this rigorous security test, because how did he know I was not making it all up?

The flight to Brisbane was passed in the company of a geologist who was reading Homer - although not in Greek - what a lightweight! The conversation wound its way through many things, but came back, again and again to evolution and how - as he rather wonderfully put it - it was all written in the stones if you cared to look and how so few people actually cared to do so. If things are unchanging they are said to be written in stone, but written in the stones beneath our feet, written in the very bones of the Earth, is a story of change. So simple in origin, yet so complex in execution. Of descent with modification through generation after generation, down the merry dance of the rivers of DNA that flow through each and every life form. To try to deny this process would seem to cast people as a intellectual Canutes, tell the tide of human knowledge to hold fast and wait, to deny the very connection between the world of knowing and the world of wonder. It really does beggar belief.

Brisbane was little more than a touch and go. A brief stop on the way to Townsville - another two hours on a plane, another limestone biscuit, but this time in the company of an empty seat. Silence and book work to arrive over Townsville with its roads shining damp glitter black, with cloud topped mountains on one side and just clouds on the other. Walking into the open air was like having a bundle of warm, damp cotton wool dropped on your head. The air was heavy with water, you could have slaked your thirst by biting the air around you, you could feel your clothes soaking up the water from the air. You knew that the pages of your books would start to curl if you left them lying around. The lenses of my binoculars, still cold from the cargo hold, fogged up as soon as they hit the air.

Above the door to the hotel, White Breasted Wood Swallows, with dark tails and blue beaks, flashed overhead. My companions laughed as I met another birder before I had even removed my luggage from the back of the taxi. I think they may have noticed the secret handshake, but they were too professional to mention it. As soon as I could I got outside; all hotel rooms are identical, you can feel your soul leaving you as you walk into one - escape is the only option.

There was a lake behind the hotel with rafts of ducks, hiding in the lakeside weeds and muddy water was a Striated Heron. It flapped off, casting a disgruntled look over its shoulder. I think that I found the same bird the next day, and it still looked less than happy. I was thinking that this lake could have been anywhere, with its water's edge rubbish and abandoned shopping trolleys, but then I noticed a coconut next to the trolley. Coconuts and heavy humidity, I really must have moved North. The surface of the lake was often broken by splashy swirls, fish I thought or turtles, but then I remembered the coconuts and the humidity and the word “crocodile” slowly formed in my head. Come on boy, get a grip. Then there was a larger swirl, so I decided to move away from the edge of the water.

Tiny blue pigeons - Peaceful Doves - about the size of a Thrush, flick through the trees and seek seeds on the ground. A rail of some sort dashes over the footpath and heads for cover. Spice Finches, with a fine scalloped pattern on the chest, buzz in the tall weeds, slighter than the House Sparrows that they fly with. The sparrows are a well known introduction, but it’s disappointing to find that these attractive little birds are not native, but they were interesting none the less. That evening the heavens opened and solid rain, flooding rain, fell. Then the lights went out and I went to bed - simple as that. Lights out.

The next morning, after the storm, the air was fresher and cooler. An Egret sat hunched by the water’s edge and the ducks had disappeared. The car park was crowded with flocks of sparrows, but I still felt obliged to look through them, just in case. Nothing out of the ordinary showed itself, and I found myself wishing for less sparrows. At that moment something flashed over my right shoulder and plucked a sparrow from a branch. The Brown Goshawk landed in the next tree and stared at me with angry yellow eyes. Feathers started to drift down as the sparrow began its journey to hawkdom. One less sparrow, my mental wish granted. I’m ashamed to say that I did not think of using my new found powers of suggestion and effect to further the cause of world peace, or a quick fix for global warming. I did in fact think that a Peregrine would be nice, or maybe a …… or on the other hand a …… At this pointed I noticed a lump on the lawn, and I knew what it was even though I had never seen anything like it before, and I really would have never thought it into existence given the choice.

A cane toad. Ugly beyond the reckoning of most people, and, if I was not mistaken, rather smelly. I pointed out to the rather loathsome amphibian that it was ugly, smelly and unwelcome. It ignored me. It was at this point that I realised it was actually dead. This is a small victory for everybody except the toad. I would have thought that its sheer abiding ugliness would have alerted us to the fact that we should not have introduced this beast to our shores. A movement caught my eye and a somewhat healthier relative of the dead toad hopped past. I looked for a shovel, or some other heavy object to wield, but the monstrosity escaped. I spent most of the rest of the day indoors, cut off. I caught an afternoon plane out of Townsville and headed back to Brisbane.

The baggage carousel spat out my plum coloured bag with surprising rapidity. No matter how many times it happens, it’s always a welcome sight to see your luggage drifting towards you. However it was not a welcome sight to see our accommodation drift up before us. Although it proved to be clean and well run, it was situated in an area that the hotel receptionist, with disarming honesty, described has “industrial”. She was not gilding the lily - although I did manage to see three species of parrot on a short walk around the toxic pools and six lane highways. I later found out that the hotel had been used to house asylum seekers, and after the terror of their homelands and the hell of people smugglers I doubt that they viewed the place with such disdain.

However, there is no question in my mind that I will remember the place - not because of the nature of the room or the dullness of its surroundings, but because I met somebody there I have not seen since I was 18. The last time I knew that I had seen him we were little more than large children and now we met as fathers, husbands and immigrants. A world away from Somerset. Both of us the best part of half a life time away from childhood - both entering a new period of life, both finding that there may be no childhood's end if you are willing to embrace the journey and play along. The adventure ends when you no longer step over the front step and look for the new, when you cease to look for the different, or when you are beaten into saying you believe in things that made no sense as a child and still don’t. The conversation flowed, as comfortable as favourite shoes, as familiar as home cooking. Strange how you can pick up something you lost years ago and it still works, despite years of neglect.

I was shown many, many parts of Brisbane that I had never seen. Parts away from the centre of town, parts just across the road from where I slept. Pied Butcher Birds called from the park opposite, mellow and silver. They ganged up on one of the local pets, and were joined in the fray by Magpies. A black and white army bullying the local cats - a premonition for the next AFL season? I hope not. The Noisy Miners fought back, mobbing, pulling at the feathers of the Butcher Bird, not really the cat’s friend, but an enemy of your enemy can become an ally, a coalition of the harassed.

Down by the sea you could smell the growth, hear the life in the scuttle of crab feet, in the splash of distant fish, the call of distant Oystercatchers. A flock of Bar Tailed Godwits landed, bringing Curlew Sandpipers, Turnstones and a single Black Winged Stilt with them. They all ignored the kids with the boat, but were spooked to the horizon by a hunting Osprey, that may have really posed no threat to them at all. Certainly less of a threat than the boys with their fishing lines and sharp hooks. On the pavement a fallen flower looked like a pressed museum specimen, recording for all the world to see the abundance that was around it. A young bat hung from the tree, possibly abandoned, possibly lost. The street trees flowered in bunches you could have paid dollars for. In such places you can’t help but laugh at the sheer vitality, at the springing growth and rushing diversity.

The next day I would be headed south and inland in a borrowed car - small and welcome, a gift of generosity beyond expectation and thanks. However, no one mentioned the lack of power steering and the sharpness of some of the approaching corners. But that is another story, a story for later on………