Obscured by Clouds.

Tasmania sits to the south of the Australian mainland, isolated from the larger island by Bass Strait - a wild and rock studded stretch of water with a reputation for danger and seasickness. The Spirit of Tasmania chugs backwards and forwards across Bass Strait on a daily basis, bringing eager visitors one way, and somewhat damper returnees the other way. Amongst other things Tasmania has a reputation for rain, scenery and wildlife - we wanted to avoid the first, soak up the second and watch the third. As it turned out, we were soaked by the first, had trouble seeing the second and managed to find a few of the third.

Most holidays start with frantic packing, unpacking, repacking and frayed tempers. The late arrival of a large box of toys for the kids is likely to strain the relationship between the provider of packages and the car packer. The kids are both bored and overexcited. But finally we are packed, and surprisingly it’s late in the afternoon, but that’s OK. The short drive to the ferry terminal only lasts about 30 minutes, far better than the longer drive to other destinations. However, getting onto the boat itself is a much slower business. Minutes tick past and we don’t move; it’s like checking in for a flight, but whilst sitting inside motor powered luggage. After 40 minutes we have moved forward a car’s length. Security checks the luggage, the roof box and the engine bay. They check for pets, fruit, damp fishing tackle and gas canisters. Tasmania is clearly under threat from people casting explosive cats and apples in all directions. P needs the bathroom. I need a drink. We all need to move forward. Eventually we get on board and move off to our cabin.

Real Estate agents may have described the cabin as “deceptively spacious” - but I would have described it as tiny. The cubby house in our garden is about the same size, although it has more spiders. Clearly the probation on pets is because you would not have room to swing a cat, although you may have had no problems swinging a hamster if you had the inclination - but at least we knew it was all ours. Outside in the cheap seats people were engaged in strategic manoeuvres for seats and sleeping spots. On the upper decks sleeping bags had been laid out to claim the best spots. Dinner was served by the plate - flat rate dining with an emphasis on size rather than substance. Mothers cautioned their children about overeating and the perils of seasickness and then proceeded to polish off enough food to feed a small nation. I know that I’m a snob. I finish my meal, encourage the rest to do the same and head off for bed.

The room is vibrating. It’s not the waves. It’s not the beer either before you ask. The engines shake the whole ship with a kind of 6/8 beat, with occasional bars of 2/4 thrown in for good measure. Free form engine jazz. It does not encourage sleep. The top bunks offer little headroom, but at least the kids are asleep and we are moving. Tasmania comes closer with every passing minute. Devonport arrives in the wee hours of the morning. The dock is lined with the markers of seaside arrival; car parks, old sheds, rusting machines of unknown purpose. We hurry to the car deck and then wait. And wait. We wait again as we pass through security again - we are checked for pets, fruit, damp fishing tackle and gas canisters - again, and strangely we still don’t have any.

We drive into the island state and it rapidly becomes clear that things are different. The landscape seems to be a contradiction, both small and large at the same time. The land is folded, creased in intimate ways, with tiny patches and twists, but it is also filled with greater distance and larger size. While some roads are the ruler straight byways of the mainland, roads that seem to make no concession to the landscape, others are twisted and plastic. These roads flow through the landscape rather than just bisect it. These are roads that have been made with the landscape, the easiest way rather than the fastest way. Not for the last time I am reminded of England. Small roads. Patches of woodland. Steep sided valleys, tiny and almost hidden, with fast flowing streams. In places there are stone walls by the side of the road. But then the distance appears and the illusion of Englishness fades. The distant hills are fuzzy at the edges with trees. The paddock trees are huge, but straight, with leaves and branches growing in clumps. They have few low side branches. When these trees were young they were forest trees, and their form still shows this. They are the ghosts of a forest that has only recently been lost.

We pass through small towns; they may even be villages, with equally small churches. Towers and spires, arches and stained glass windows. Many of the buildings have rough edges and still bear the marks of simple construction. They lack the ostentatious grandeur of goldfield churches and buildings, but they fit into the landscape. They seem to sit low to the ground, and come from it rather than rest upon it. They seem part rather than placed, a part rather than apart.

The thoughts and memories come think and fast, the landscape a mental trigger to elsewheres and elsewhens. The turn of the road here, the shape of the land there, each seems to hold something that takes me away from the here and now. Such thoughts come with the golden glow of a memory and the blue funk of regret. Why can’t I just see this place for what it is rather than try to build bridges to a place which, because of time, no longer exists. The car swerves to avoid a wallaby and I am back in the here and now. Brought back by one of the true markers of difference, as if the place knew what I was thinking and needed to give me a gentle nudge.

We head south and east, towards Freycinet. It’s a picture postcard place, featured on tourist maps and calendars, and even under a grey sky the first glimpse of the Hazards is exciting. They are a chain of round top hills that fall away into the sea and form one side of Coles Bay. The town of Coles Bay itself sits across from the Hazards with a fine view, and a waiting house. The car disturbs butterflies from the drive, dozens of them. It’s an unexpected greeting. The air outside the car has an autumn chill, brought by southern latitude and winds. I moved south as the sun moved and seasons had rushed ahead of me, one a day away from home and a week closer to winter. As unpack the car it starts to rain. Light and windswept, but rain. By the time I finish unpacking the car it’s not light but it’s still windblown. It continues to rain for the next 72 hours - almost non-stop.

The clouds are at sea level, and the see level is just about zero. We settle into the house and find comfort in card games and the soft heat from a pot bellied stove. Occasionally a dragon hiss boils up from the fire as rain leaks through the roof. The near horizontal rain pushes its way between the chimney and the roof and comes inside to join us. A rust red streak on the fire shows that this has happened before.

That night I fell asleep to the crackle of water falling from the gutter onto the decking outside the window. It sounded like the violent pop and fizzle of an egg frying in over heated oil, irregular and sharp. When I woke in the morning it was still going. There was no view to speak of from the house, and for much of the time there may have been no garden either - I had no real way of telling. Water was running down the track to the house in coffee brown steams, taking the soil down to the sea. A few birds sulked in the undergrowth and there were no butterflies.
Under these conditions there is only one thing to do - go outside. It’s not a matter of if you are going to get wet, that’s a given, it’s just a matter of whether you care about getting wet. Rain walking has more appeal than many people think. Down by the sea the low tide had exposed rocks and beds of kelp - perfect conditions for rock pooling. Once the first crab dashed for cover when a rock was lifted any thought of rain whooshed from the kids’ heads. Crabs! Lots of Crabs! Purple crabs, crabs with strange long claws, soldier crabs on the sand. This was a playground of the inquisitive, a source of adventure for the curious. Chitons - “like fossils” - cling to the rocks, sea anemones - “like jelly sweets” - hide in the depths and starfish - “Patrick!” - are all found. The waters here are so rich that we find fish on the beach, as if a wave has just left it there. The solider crabs twist themselves into the sand, round and round, building delicate sand hideaways. A White-faced Heron hunts by the rocks, and the crabs panic. Gulls drift past, the tide turns, time passes and still it rains. Nobody seems to care. Warm drinks and towels wait back at the house; it’s all you need.

The next day brought yet more rain. The land was saturated with water, it lapped at the edges of the road, it pushed against window frames, it filled the rivers to bursting. The swollen streams meant even beach walks became difficult, each one barred the way. Some could be jumped, most were too deep, too fast. Eventually the clouds began to lift, but some, reluctant to leave, lingered. They formed lines and patches on the hill tops, some looked like chains of smoke, some looked like crowns. But whatever they looked like, they stayed. That afternoon the clouds gathered back together and the rain fell with a renewed vigour. A White-bellied sea eagle flew through the clouds, its grey wings the same shade as the sky, only its named belly really showing. As it flew away it became a white patch in a grey sky, like a glimpse of the sun peaking through.

I hoped it was a sign of things to come.

In the wake of the flood.

There’s a mark, a line really, along the banks of the Yarra at Studley Park where the flood water flowed. It pulled out the creeping plants, pushed over smaller trees and took them all downstream. Some trees are hung with a flood washed tat, like dowdy, unloved Christmas trees, trimmed with junk. Bottles are lodged in the crooks of branches, ragged sheets of plastic flap. When the river was pushing through, heavy with soil and waste, you could hear the collisions of the river junk on the tree branches - it sounded like a low pitched rattle buzz. Where branches fingered the water the abandoned consumer crap built up in moving layers. Water bottles, possibly bought by the health conscious, seemed to be the most common items, followed by the smashed remains of polystyrene packaging. They hissed and fizzed on the surface, constantly in motion. Sometimes, they organised themselves in a way that convulsed the whole surface of the water and a breakaway raft of junk would be swept downstream. Larger items, trees, barrels and the prow of a canoe, pass by. The viewing platform buzzed with collisions, and occasionally it shook as larger, unseen, objects rammed into it. The hire boats were heaped up, partially submerged. The ducks looked lost, having probably never seen anything like this before. Our rain gauge filled and it kept raining. People were being warned not to swim in swollen rivers, which was clearly good advice, but it was also remarkable that it was needed.

Around the river a grey green sheen had been laid over plants and paths alike. It looked like some huge slug had left a slime trail over the world and now it was drying out. Drying to dusty powder that made you sneeze, clogged the gears of your bike and stuck like glue to your shoes. The flood’s edge was marked by a shift from grey to green, and its height showed in the snaggle tangle of plants on fence wires and gate rails.

The rain has gone now, but not its impact. I went north and west - towards the Grampians - to see what was about, to see what had happened in the wake of the flood.

“Drive 109km, then keep left” - not even turn left, just keep left. That in itself was enough to tell me this would be a dull drive. Not even the novelty of changing gear or actually moving the steering wheel. An arm droops from a truck window, an elbow from another. A tradie in his rust bucket ute drinks a beer, his dog pokes its head around the cab, mouth open catching flies, ears flapping like flags. At the end of a long driveway a green wheelie bin sits without a home in sight. Taking out the rubbish must be a real chore.

I head west, out of Melbourne, towards Horsham and into the sunset. In places smoke drifts across the road turning the world pink and grey. Fire trucks with flashing lights park up by the side of the road. The lights finger through the thickening air. They wait for a fire that today, does not come. This is a controlled burn, a “fuel reduction burn” as if there could be any other type of fire. Knocking down next summer’s fires with an autumn burn, fighting fire with fire. You can taste the acrid smoke, and even in the car your eyes sting a little. To the left of the road a pillar of smoke rises and grows, but I follow the setting sun instead. The world fades down to grey, a world of tone rather than colour, but at the same time the sky comes to life. Flaring out of the west. Silky fingers of cloud seem to flow from a hole at the horizon’s edge, from where the road meets the sky. A cloud fan of colour fills the sky. The Sat Nav becomes redundant as I follow this celestial guide. Even in the fading light you can see water. Roadside ditches flow, dams are full, fields are flooded. Lakes that have always been a distant spectre lap at the roads edge.

The hotel in Horsham is clean, efficient and utterly anonymous, although I do have a fine view of a local roundabout. The fire fighters from down the road organise beer and dinner, the roundabout attracts teenage drivers with money and rubber to burn. As ever, sleep comes slowly in a strange bed.

The next morning shows no sign of rain or flood and I go to have a look at Lake Hindmarsh. For most of the last ten years Lake Hindmarsh has not been a lake at all and it’s barely been a marsh either. But the waters from local rain and the more distant floods have reached this lake. It’s a stopover on the way to other things, but at present the water takes a pause and fills it. You would have thought a lake of this size would have been easy to find - but that was not the case. Roads were still closed from the recent floods and I only found out about this when I arrived at the ‘road closed’ signs. This was not good for the blood pressure, but it did mean I did far more exploring than I had anticipated.

The landscape was flat and dominated by agriculture; fences, broken down gates, mysterious buildings seemingly dropped into the fields and paddocks at random. Some seemed to have been long abandoned, filled with rusting material and mouldy bales of hay. On some of those fence lines there were the remains of foxes, caught and hung up to rot. The tails moved slightly in the wind, a counterfeit of life. Proof that somewhere in this seemingly empty landscape farming still went on. The fox is not native to Australia and it has been justifiably demonised, so on fence wires and in the middle of the road their bodies are left to rot.

This region has been damaged by drought and then in the first year of recovery, inundated by flood. Crops lie damaged and unharvested in the fields, fence lines are battered and hung with dead plants, with branches and logs forced through the wire. Under the flush of new growth you could see the way the dead grass had all been been laid flat by the flowing water, neatly combed like a child’s hair.
Grasshoppers sprang in large numbers from the long roadside grass. They would smack into the windscreen, lodge in the radiator grill, and die in a splattered mess on the front of your car. Locals have spread a layer of shade cloth over the fronts of their cars - letting the air through, but keeping the bugs out. Red Rumped Parrots fly in flocks and a Brown Falcon hunts by the road side. A pied butcher bird flies in front of the car, and then dives off to the side and sits on a fence post. Its call is mellow and clear. The last time I saw one of these I was in Brisbane and the floods had yet to flow. You could see life and death in one glance. Ruined crops and natural growth side by side.
It is a Cartesian landscape, dominated by straight lines, with roads disappearing into distant vanishing points. The paddocks are squares and rectangles, the road junctions meet at right angles; seen from above the only curved lines would be creek lines, and many of these have been reduced to little more than canals. But next to the roads are strips of wildness that are unplanned and ragged, like the muscular plants that push through the gaps in the pavement, steroid dandelions, roided up hawkweeds, feral plants, wild plants. These edges are thriving, when the laser planed paddocks are empty. They are unseen places, sitting between the realm of road and agriculture. In many places they are the last common ground, unwatched, neglected and thriving. Human intervention seemed rare in these places and when it was visible it seemed to be about the celebration of ghosts. A large boulder with a metal plaque marks the point where a school once stood - years ago, life-times ago. But now there is no sign of people or place. The names of the maps are ghosts as well, as you drive you pass road signs that have nothing near them. They exist only in the historical and flat world of maps and records.
When I eventually get to Lake Hindmarsh I don’t recognise it. As I drive over a slight rise, acres of rippled brown are laid out before me. I don’t recognise it as a lake. It looks alien and imposed. It’s the wrong colour, it’s the wrong texture; its just wrong. Apart from the fact that it’s huge, it looks misplaced. For a short while it looks like some huge installation art work that doesn’t really work. A good idea misplaced, many dollars misspent. Where I gain access to the lake is a camp site. And like most camp sites, it is filled with a combination of beauty and destruction, broken bottles and shiny yellow flowers, rusty tins and the glitter flash of the wings of dragonflies. But most of the lake itself is empty of all but water. Two white faced herons stalk the margins, and swallows hawk for insects. A mouse spider, red and blue, stumbles over the sand. I had expected more. I had hoped for more. But the abundance of water seems to have spread living over the land. After I short while I leave, but this time the slight rise of the land shows something else.

Flooded paddocks flanked the road and in them were birds aplenty. Here was the abundance I had thought I would find. But it was not anywhere special or designated, it was on some old rough pasture, a flooded field, a piece of edgelands. Such places are important because they are often overlooked and neglected, they are places people pass on the way to elsewhere. In the damp and flooded grass Red Kneed Dotterels and Black Tailed Native Hens ran and fed. Red Rumped parrots perched on the wire fence and flew down to drink from puddles and pools. Ducklings splashed and chased in the ditches. Welcome Swallows hawked over the grass and along the road. Whistling Kites flew overhead and scared the other birds. Other cars pass by, with driver and passengers looking at the strange man with a telescope. They park by the full but empty lake and then they leave. They don’t see the Australasian Hobby, they miss the dragon flies but they do leave a pizza box and cola bottles. Sometimes despair is hard to avoid.
On the way home I pull over to look at Green Lake. Six months ago this was a field, as it had been for the best part of ten years, but not now. The boat ramp seemed to be covered in weeds - but this made no sense, the lake would have been over the road if it was weed. On closer inspection the weed turned out to be the discarded cases of dragonfly nymphs.

The piles of the pier and the nearby trees were thick with them. Sometimes they were linked together in discarded streamers, one case on another and another and another. The water’s edge was thick with cases and the bodies of the dead and the malformed.

A few dragonflies were still pulling themselves from cases, eyes first, then the body and wings. Dozens of adults were trapped in spider webs, or caught somehow on branches and twigs. The numbers were astounding.
If the lake really has been dry for a decade, where did these weird, alien creatures come from? It felt like an ecological resurrection, a real reason for celebration. I left the lake and headed home, away from the floods lands, away from the wake of the flood.