A Stranger in a Strange Land.

There’s a Blackbird on the lawn, a Common Mynah on the roof line. There’s a Magpie on the back fence, but it’s not a crow, it’s a type of butcher bird. Parrots flash overhead, seeking winter gum flowers. House Sparrows flick from under the eaves to feed on silver birch seeds. A late to bed possum hurries, fleet footed, along a wire. My birthday moves from spring to autumn during the course of a single plane flight. It snows in June. For year after year it barely rains, then in capricious novelty it floods. At Christmas I worry that it will be too hot to sit in the garden. The forest trees keep their leaves all year, and on a hot summer’s day the woods smell of childhood colds, night-time vapours, last night’s pyjamas.

A few sky bright shards of childhood memory linger. Skippy. Rolf Harris. People with skin so black that the light seemed to sink into them. Australia seemed so far away that it may as well have been the moon. Manchester was a long way away, Melbourne impossibly so. I only knew one family that had been overseas. The world was small, green, damp and English.

Fast forward to today and my own garden is a mixture of the then and the now. A strange combination of the visitor and the migrant, the welcome and the regretted, the native and home grown. The sparrows search in trees that shade our poorly placed western windows and, until it succumbed to disease, a gum tree grew by the back fence. I doubt that it was planted, it was a wild seed that found a place in its native soil and was allowed to stay. It found a kind of homecoming. It made me jealous.

Migration is not really a point of difference in Australia, it’s the common theme for most families. There have been people here for over 50,000 years, but in this part of Australia you would be hard pressed to know this. That history lies hidden, buried under other, more recent layers. When it comes to the surface it comes as a surprise. On the beach below the house in Tasmania the sand dunes were littered with oyster shells. Fragile things. Broken things. Ancient things. The shells are part of a huge midden, the discards from the fast food bay that has been harvested for years and years. I don’t know the age of these shells but it’s more than possible that they were thrown away before Rome or Athens ever were. They were left on the beach by a culture that is old beyond the reckoning of words. And when the story that this layer of land tells comes to the surface you find out that you know something different. There is a shift in what you know and a rattle as other pieces of the known world shuffle into their newly found place. A kind of history that mocks the lack of stone circles and hill top forts, but survives in stories and art and song.

In Campbell Town there are house bricks on the sides of the pavements with crimes and sentences stamped into them. The crimes and punishments of convicts shipped half way across the world to solve a problem not of their making. Stealing a pig: Seven Years. Selling Stolen Butter: Six Years. Attempted murder: Life. Stealing Gloves: Six Years – Two Weeks addition for breaking a glass. This is a record of the beginning of the Australia I see every day. The convict colony that became the modern nation. The words on the pavement, when read aloud, sound like some form of brutal machine poetry, propelled forward with an insane rhythm and logic all of its own. A kind of Beat poetry where the beatings were for real.
The shells and the stones both tell a story. The birds under the eaves and the trees in the gardens tell another. Layer upon layer. An onion skin reality, where each new layer does not bring you to the middle, but exposes another surface in need of exploration. Some layers come as a shock because they are new, while others surprise, because rather than difference, they reveal conformity. This, in a small way, is what I have written about up till now. The shock of discovery and the journey towards some small way of knowing.

When I arrived I could hardly take a photograph. I could not see the distance for the trees. It came as a strange and startling revelation to find out that the thing you had taken for granted was missed – the mid ground. It seemed impossible that in the middle of a place so large I struggled to show distance. Then I went to central Australia and the problem was reversed – a place so big and wide that I could never find the detail. What it all really meant was that I had to learn to see again, to see what was actually there rather than to look for what I hoped would be there.

When I did manage to look what I saw was unfamiliar, and what I recognised was unwelcome. Banks of flowers in the Grampians that I could not name, and sparrows and blackbirds dismissed as pests. When I saw rabbits I knew the harm they did, but still liked watching them – the same with foxes. I once watched a family of foxes through the fat lens of a telescope, seeing into the darkness when the human eye failed. It was a splendid, comical sight, with the cubs ambushing their parents and the parents rough and tumbling with each other and the cubs. Once they disappeared from sight they probably moved off to drive a small native mammal to the edge of extinction. How is it possible to enjoy such a sight, when I knew what the consequences were? Then I found out that some branch of my wife’s family released rabbits into Australia. Ecological curses don’t come much harsher than that. The fact that they now eat my mother-in-law’s garden seems to be a nice act of ecological circularity.

In the evenings I would see animals with pouches running along the street wires, I liked then a lot but my wife called them “roof rabbits” and cursed their nocturnal thrashings. Eventually I saw a mammal that lays eggs – a platypus, or five to be exact. Now that was something I knew I could get excited about. I saw them at Lake Elizabeth in the Otways, west of Melbourne. The lake was formed by a landslip in 1956 and was named for a distant queen, and now it’s home to that most Australian of Australians. Each of these things peeled away layers of uncertainty, but at the same time added a feeling of distance. A combined feeling of knowing and separation that pushed understanding in one direction and acceptance in another. I began to wonder if it was possible to become Australian at all.

However, some things have. Dingos are no more “Australian” than cats, but they are accepted as being part of the ecology. They probably don’t have a history here beyond 50,000 years – now I admit that’s a long time, but it’s nothing compared to the marsupials that have been here essentially forever. Australia has lost most of its big marsupial predators and given the size of some of them it made the place safer as a result. But how much of this change was driven by the presence of a canine predator that was brought here by man? In Queensland they still organise hunts to remove cane toads – a noxious predator that was brought here by man as well. But the dingo is considered part of the scene and the Cane Toad is not. How long will it take for this to change – if it ever changes? What about the sparrows – two species -, the Mynah and the host of other species that are now common, when will they be Australian? What about the ivy that creeps with powerful fingers through the lats of my fence, pushing apart the handiwork of last summer? And if we could remove them at the click of a switch or the sweep of a wand, what would replace them? I doubt very much that the displaced species would come back to their old haunts, they’re too changed, too damaged, too fractured. So an understanding of what is Australian and what is imported, alien and undesirable is, to say the least, blurred at the edges.
Trying to understand a new place seems to butt up against that classic quantum problem of not being able to measure two things at the same time. You can measure speed but not direction, or the other way around. So in a place that’s new if you concentrate on one thing, you lose sight of another. And when you regain sight of the thing you have lost, it’s changed.

When I first travelled out to the west of the state I saw flocks of white parrots – Short Billed Corellas. The maps said I should find them there and find them I did. Sometimes on the ground, gathering at field edges, mining for roots and sometimes in the air in noisy, loose flocks. They were where conventional wisdom said they would be – and this was easy to understand.

But this winter they have moved into the suburbs. By concentrating on location I’d lost track of movement. The Corellas were feasting on Liquid Amber seed pods and flying over my house, calling me to peer out of the window regardless of time or purpose. I found a flock on the road, on the way to work, and I stopped to photograph them. They owned the place. As cars inched their way through the flock I had to shoo the birds out from under the wheels. It was as noisy as before and now some birds mined the nature strip rather than field edges. Was this an expansion or a return? And how would I recognise the difference anyway?

In the last week I’ve found two species of lizard around my house – and bear in mind that we are solidly into winter here, so it’s not prime lizard season. If I find one more species that’s the same number as the whole of the UK. A Southern Marbled Gecko, with splayed sticky feet, rushed out from beneath a bag and hid under the coat stand. When it sat on your hand you could see its ribs pumping in and out. It was a little over an inch long. Last night, as I split the wood for the fire, a skink of some sort shot out from under the bark of a log. It had lost the tip of its tail in the past and it scuttled away, probably less than pleased to have been disturbed. Reptiles are still a novelty. When I left the UK I had seen two thirds of all the species of snake to be found there, which seems impressive. But what it means is that I had seen both of the common English snakes, and had never seen a Smooth Snake – a rare southern heath dweller – and that sounds much less impressive than before. I could probably exceed that count within a kilometre of my house right now.On most days I can find invertebrates in my garden that you would only find in nature reserves in the UK. A Praying Mantis that would stretch across the palm of my hand calmly lays its eggs just outside my front door. It leaves a shiny, silver package; something to check each day as I go to work. As a kid I watched Raft Spiders fishing in wheelbarrow sized ponds near the village of Street. These are the UK’s largest spider; but really they are not that big. As far as I am concerned Huntsmen are big - and ugly - and distinctly unwelcome as they walk along the bedroom wall, up on to the ceiling and (in the worst part of this journey) across the ceiling above the bed, down the curtains and out through the window. Once that journey is over I can unclench my toes and almost relax. If an invertebrate can have a sense of theatre, then a Huntsman has it in spades. I found one a while back, sitting on a brick wall. Just lurking there on the edge of a pedestrian’s peripheral vision. Any further away and it would have been hidden, any further out and it would have been visible before you drew level with it. I actually think it was hoping to scare its prey to death. It almost worked. In the past all this weighed heavily on me – I felt I did not know any of the names, any of the stories, of the things that I saw or the places I visited. But that wasn’t true. What was true was that I was not ready yet for them to become part of my own story. I was not really here, and I was sure as hell not there either. I was trapped in between, looking for one and finding the other. Heavy clouds stacked around me. It seemed that even in drought the sun did not shine. The tug of deep, lifelong interest dragged against the sheet anchor of despair. Each day the line between them grew tighter and tighter until it pulled me out of shape and remade me in a way that I hated.

When the force grew too great, the line snapped, and without an anchor I fell. I grabbed the only thing I knew I knew. I pulled my family in tight around me, and hoped that the storm would pass. Eventually it did. But what I saw when the clouds cleared surprised me. It was not the damp woodlands of Somerset, the cold shores of Northumbria, the open hills of the Lakes, but it was a place I recognised. My insistence that this was a place I could not understand was a recipe for disaster, a philosophy of despair, I had to open my eyes and pay attention.

I had planned to write this as my 50th post – as some kind of way-point on the way to who knows where. But I forgot. I was too busy looking. I was too busy becoming less of a stranger in a land that becomes less strange with each passing day.

......went up the hill.

The wind that blew the clouds away had a harsh, cutting edge. It sliced through you. It made you wear layers. It made you wear a hat. On that windy night we saw the first sparkle of stars. A few patches of cloud were still fleeing before the breath of the wind; they promised more rain, but it never came. A kind of gunboat weather, all threat, but no action.

Under a cold, broken, patchwork sky, we drove north towards Bicheno. The rivers were still filling from the recent rain; they strained at the bridges and flirted with the idea of flooding. The tyres hissed on the wet road, fields shone with water, ditches were full. In places the road disappeared entirely. Even in the car you could smell water and damp leaves and freshly turned soil.

We ate a meal of quiet exceptional ordinariness in a shop that was for sale, and where it was clear that the staff had long since lost the capacity to smile. Just metres from the sea we ate fish that seemed to have been caught just before the fall of the Roman Empire, and chips that were made of cotton wool and lino. For once, tomato sauce felt more of a necessity than an indulgence. Some you win, some you lose.

The bus that would take us to the penguins was due in a few minutes. People gathered in a car park, in the darkness, outside a surf shop. Some went inside, so I joined them. The shop was mercifully free of sweatshop penguin tat. There was no cafĂ©. There was no flash, commercial AV production. There was no metre high plastic penguin set in a “realistic diorama” for you to lean against, flashing a peace sign, while your friends take your picture. There was just quiet conversation and over-dressed families waiting for the bus. I took all of these as good signs. As we fastened our seat belts the layers of fleece, down and gortex that most people were wearing formed wide, glacial valleys in the clothes. A lady with a Scottish accent and a woollen hat laughed at the excess. My kids looked warm, pulled their hats over their eyes and lost their gloves. A slight sea mist turned the bus’s headlights into solid beams that flicked out in front of the bus, searching. A wallaby stood by the roadside confused by the light before it disappeared in a quantum of movement into the darkness.

Your suitably bearded guide gathered us into a group and talked about the walk ahead. “Watch your step”, he said as we walked down towards the sea. Both H and P were excited, and if the truth be told, so was I. After a few hundred metres we found your first birds. I’m not sure who looked the more embarrassed, the penguins or us. But it was clear we were both watching each other. Both groups, penguins and people, looked a little over dressed. Both groups shuffled their feet and glanced around, not really sure of what to do. We knew what not to do: no flash photography, in fact no photography at all, no torches, no sudden movements and definitely no picking up the penguins! The penguins seemed to be working to the same set of rules.

Apart from the occasional violent beak shake to flick out saline snot, the birds just stood there and we just stood there too. The birds were probably a wee bit confused, but we stood still because we were all just a little bit charmed. After a while the penguins waddled off, with each rocking step seeming to hover on the edge of a fall. They walked stiff legged as if they were on stilts, rocking from left to right on rigid legs. We met a group of birds – a parcel apparently – coming up a side path. We went through the same embarrassed observations, of watching the watchers. In the thick bushes and undergrowth the birds were settling in for the night, and noisy conversations were being had at the mouths of nest tunnels. Some of the birds used boxes to nest in, and lifting the lid revealed the rather smelly interior. Some birds were in moult, some were busy trying to make new penguins, and some birds looked frankly bored – with an “oh, it’s you again is it?” look on their face. The shrieking and hooting continued, and I imagine the place would have been very noisy in peak season. We looped back towards the bus, and soon were on the way back. There were no frills here, just the penguins, the night and the sea. But with birds like that, do you really need anything else? I think not.

Within minutes of leaving P is asleep, slumped, floppy necked in her seat. But H is different. He sits there, eyes wide with the expectation of hope and the novelty of night driving. A real set of cat’s eyes flashes from a fence line, a fearsome alien hunter of night time natives. Possums dash through the lights with frightening disregard for their own safety, a few wallabies stand and stare. There are no devils – they have already been lost from here.

The darkness outside the car was not only broken by the headlights beam, but also by night sounds from the damp roadside. We would drive into the hot spots of frog calls, where the whole night was dominated by their calls. Even over the gentle voice of the radio the frogs were clear, but then as suddenly as they had come they would be gone and the night felt even more silent than before. We arrived home to a set fire and welcome beds. The wind had dropped and the sky was clear. There were stars and satellites and even the distant call of the waves seemed softer.
Finally I awoke to bright sunlight. Motes of dust floated in sun warmed counter currents. The sea purred in the background, like a well fed cat. The advertised view was, for the first time, viewable. This was a day for a walk. We headed out to find another icon, but this time we were under a clear blue sky. We were not the only ones headed for Wineglass Bay that day; it’s a Freycinet classic walk. We left the car park, past people in long red socks and heavy sweaters and past people in dollar thongs and crop tops. Within moments of leaving it was clear that this was not a day for a long walk. It was a day for many, many short walks. The kids rattled from one side of the path to the other, responding to the pin ball ricochet of interest found. The walk became a jigsaw of discovery, as attention ebbed and flowed. It became a walk defined by width as much as length.

The hillside rocks look like a rabbit or a dinosaur or a fish – we all stop. A Scarlet Robin hides in the bushes – I stop. The kids hear a frog – they stop. A splendidly large black beetle walks across the path and we all stop again. We rescue the beetle from the feet of other walkers and leave it on a log. Later when I look at the pictures I can see that the beast has a mite infection – lodged down between head and thorax are dozen of tiny creatures; one crawls over the beetle’s wing case. And no doubt deep in the guts of the mite are tiny parasites living off it as well – “and little fleas have lesser fleas ..... and so on, infinitum”.
We see views, we eat some chocolate until the left and right, stop start walk brings us to the top.

Laid out in front of us is Horseshoe Bay, a sweep of clean white sand sheltered in a deep bay. Long, long ago I climbed to the top of Mt. Amos and looked down on this bay from a greater height and the water was so clear you could see the diamond kites of stingrays swimming in the water. Ghosting in invisible currents, sliding along level with the shore. On this day I don’t see such things. But it’s good none the less. People come and go with surprising rapidity. See the view, take some pictures and head back down. Some seem to stay for only a few minutes. We don’t stay too long, the kids need some food, and what’s a view to an eight year old when there’s chocolate and jelly snakes in mums bag! We decide to go down, but not to the car park. We don’t know if it’s wise, but we head for the beach.
The path to the beach is very different from the path to the viewpoint. The up path was testament to hard work. It was edged and smooth, the streams were bridged with care and cunning design. You felt sure there must be trolls under them. The down path was a testament to erosion. The up was a motorway, the down a little used track, a greenway, a winding and inviting way. Trees and bushes hung over the path, making a patchwork of light and shade. Even the kids seemed to notice the difference. There were occasional, mysterious rustlings in the bushes. They walk slower, they don’t dash off, and eventually we reach the beach.

Parts of the beach are thick with the weed we had seen elsewhere, orange and smelly. But where the sand was bare it your eyes hurt. The waves splashed over rocks rounded by the long passage of time, the dry sand squeaked if you shuffled your feet. There was a deep, child attracting pool, a dammed stream at the top of the beach, and in it tiny speaks of life swarmed with jerky movements. A tame wallaby posed for photographs and tried to eat your lunch. People found it charming until it bit them. The sky was crystal, the sea was sharp, there was no softness, but there was beauty. It may even have been breath-taking.
Certainly the people struggling back up the hill had had their breath taken away. They were passed by two small children, fuelled by chocolate and the quest for a special tree. It became a game of hide and seek between the tree and my daughter. The tree won. There is a chair shaped like a bed (or possibly a bed that passes for a chair) at the top of the hill and we stopped to drink some water. We were visited by wattle birds and watched by cautious ravens. People converged on the top from both directions, arriving “puffing, panting and a little pink”. Our chocolate stocks depleted, we head back down to the car park. We reach a path junction where the parks authority wants us to walk back by a slightly different route. It’s the first one way system in a national park I’ve seen. This place must be very different in peak season.

The next day is our last and we steal one more walk on the beach. It’s clean and flat and the kids run for no other reason that that they can. The waves in the bay have flattened to almost nothing. We find more shells, more birds, more crabs. The river still runs to the sea. It’s time to leave.

The road out brings one more treat. In the mirror I can see The Hazards stretched out across the sky line. The road is almost dry, but small puddles mirror the sky – patches of deep blue in the grey of the road. The traffic signs make me laugh, and I’m thankful we have not been attacked by giant kangaroos.

We drive north to a boat and sail north again to home. It’s good to go away and it’s good to come back.