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………


Garry said…
Hi Stewart

So pleasing to see the mention of my favourite bird yet again in one of your posts. After all, this is the Year of the Magpie.

I was intrigued to read of you meeting up with a long lost friend. It happens. In the mid-70s I worked very closely with a girl in my year level at teachers' college. In our final year we shared a joint ecology project, spending several weekends trapping and marking small creatures near the mouth of Parker River in the Otways - sminthopsis, antechinus, potoroos - and surveying the surrounding flora. The last time I saw her was the day of my wedding, which came the weekend after we finished college. In those pre-internet days we then went our separate ways and totally lost touch with each other. Seven years later my wife and I had been on a nine-day trek through the Annapurna Sanctuary region of Nepal. We were doing a trek that they only issued a couple of permits per year for - up ridges and down valleys each day, rather than the standard tourist walk up a ridge to Ghorepani and back again - so in nine days we never saw another Westerner. Eventually the path brought us back to our starting point again, as we approached a Tibetan refugee camp on the outskirts of the town of Pokhara. As we wandered into the camp from the mountains we saw a small group of Westerners heading towards us, about to begin a trek of their own. To our absolute amazement, in that group was Debbie, our old friend from teachers' college. We sat down together and shared a steaming hot cup of tea and caught up on seven missed years of each others' lives.

Just wondering too, Stewart, do you actually know all those bird names or do you have a little reference book in your pocket when you go for walks?


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