It was Friday and I was stuck in traffic. I engaged third gear for the first time in a while and almost immediately depressed the clutch. I drifted to a halt about 50m closer to the Grampians. At this rate it was going to be a long evening. The car in front of me had a broken driver’s-side brake light. The driver to my left had a beard and to my right sat a Carlton supporter. Up ahead the blue and red flashing light meant that somebody was having a worse night than me. One brake light man nipped into a gap to his left and moved twenty meters forward. Beard man seemed to be shouting into his phone. Flocks of silver gulls flew with heavy lazy wings towards the river. Two pelicans drifted past. Eventually the movement started to outlast the pauses, and we went forward. People gathered around the crumpled front of a damaged car and pointed at the crumpled rear of another. Cause and effect. A bad way to start the weekend. I pulled round the witch’s hats as a man swept red glass from the road.
The sky was clear, but dull, as if the sun could not really be bothered for the last hour of the day. Colours faded down to a grey scale of tone as the sky darkened. One patch of cloud glows faintly pink. Night falls without sunset fanfare and I drive on. The tyres whoosh on the road and double chop over seams and bumps. The sat nav says things that I already know, but I keep it on anyway, more for company than necessity. Moths flutter flash in the headlights, and sometimes eyes shine from the sides of the roads. Something glides across the road – an owl maybe. A fox, fleet and four footed, pauses mid-road to stare me down. The white lines flicker past.
I turn on the music and sing to songs from another time. It’s a pleasure best taken alone. I turn on the radio and listen. The announcer stumbles over his words. He needs a coffee and so do I. The night air is clear as I stop at some roadside way station. Like most journeys I wish it was over, but I can’t wish away either the time or the miles. I make the final turn at Stawell to Halls Gap. Prime kangaroo country – kanga-bangers as I heard them called – prime RTA country. I drift a little to the right, hold the middle ground and drive on. One last set of eyes, one last hard brake and I arrive. A bobook owl calls its name in the darkness and the milky way clouds the clear sky. I unpack and settle in. I hear the siren call of football finals and relax before the TV. I pass the evening with two German PhD students – who with almost perfect comedic style are a Hamburger and a Frankfurter! As I settle down to sleep I can hear the rush of the wind and the repeated call of the owl.
I awake to the rush of the wind and the distant, floating calls of corellas. I dance around the other people in the kitchen as I make breakfast and drink tea. I feel old and somewhat out of place. I feel strangely foreign in a crowd of Germans, Japanese and Americans. As usual, people ask if I am Irish – and for the umpteenth time I explain that no, I am not, but that I am blessed with a regional accent. More than anything else I think you need a small personal space in a youth hostel. Morning rituals are probably best abandoned. Hot water is made to be shared and your plans for the day are dissected. Advice is sought and given, and somehow in the chaos everybody gets out the door.
I drive north with only a vague idea of where I am going. Not having the kids in tow means no real plans; I can stop where the fancy takes me. The land has been burnt and flooded. Some roads are still closed and many of the trees have a wrapping of new growth leaves. The car bounces over ruts and bumps, it rocks side to side in the gusts of wind. It’s a wild day, a forceful day. I pull over, roll down the window and listen. Above the wind I can hear the call of a Fan Tailed Cuckoo – sad and distant. Even with the wind it seems quiet compared to the tyre noise and bumping of the un-made road.
In the end I settle on the walk to Mt Stapylton. The path leads over solid rock towards a deep bowl of land. Natural gutters flush water down the surface. In places water pools in depressions and hollows. Plants grow in lines and patches, chasing the water. Thousands of feet must have come this way, because the path is marked by a pale streak up the rock as well and little red triangles of paint. A polish point path of the journeys of other feet. Native mint, a splash of purple, lights up the pathway. In the distance it looks strangely out of place, a paint splash of colour against the rock. The wind flaps and waves the plants, and a green grasshopper and its companion seem to hang on for dear life. Photography seems tempting but proves difficult. Too much movement; too much inanimate life in the living things. Birds hide in the bush bottoms and sulk. Overhead even the eagles seem to struggle. I walk on.
Beyond the top of the rock slope is a deep bowl of land. The far side a solid slash of red. This is the sandstone cliff known as Taipan wall – a climber’s Mecca of steep, or slightly overhanging stone. I can hear the call of at least one pair of climbers somewhere up there on the pale face. Metal on metal, metal on stone, short, sharp calls of encouragement and failure. A coloured pathway of gear zigs and zags up the face, following a line I can’t really see. It just looks steep and straight and strenuous from the ground. From the rock it must look even worse – or even better depending on your view. The lead climber sits on his gear and tradition falls away. I watch and wonder at the things people do. I walk on.
At the crest of the bowl is Bird Rock – which is (unsurprisingly) a bird shaped rock. Does it mean anything? Did it ever mean anything? It’s too easy to fall into a mindset that says “I can see that this is a bird”, so it must have had some significance to the older people who walked this land. But is that romance, or is it real and is there any possibility that that they are the same thing? The rock really does look like a bird – but I will leave its significance to people better judged to say.
The path leads to a dead end, which in other places may have been called a box canyon. Today’s path cuts back on itself and leads to the top. A fainter one, hidden in the bushes, leads onto Hollow Mountain and a walk that I need to do again. I go a little way along it for memory’s sake and stop for lunch under a wind driven sky. Flat land stretches out beyond me. Roads are red and straight. I listen for the distant rustle of eagle wings, but this time I am alone. And without shame I know that I am happy to be here. I double back towards the summit, past caves and strangely shaped rocks. The top is marked by a pile of sticks and a metal notice. Both seem out of place. Was there a plan, sometime in the past to light a fire here as a signal? And if so, who was meant to see it and what did it tell? The sign seemed equally strange. It said, in a roundabout sort of way, “you have reached the top – please don’t go any further”. This was helpful advice for those of us who can fly, but the rest of us mortals would probably be content with just the top. Pale butterflies flew around the summit and I could hear a large group approaching the dead end on the path. There were circles cut into the rock and I again wondered if they were manmade. I let the view sink in, and was glad that for a few minutes I was alone at the top.
The trip back, as ever, seemed shorter than the trip there. Check points came faster than expected. The climbers had gone, the weather threatened rain and the wind plucked at my hat. A lizard dashed away under a rock and slowly crept out again. I pointed it out to a passing family – German I think – but they had already seen one, and who needs two lizards when you can have one. Eventually the lizard rushed out of its hiding place and perched on a rock.
The road, dusty, smooth and then dusty again leads back to Halls Gap. I turn a sharp corner and find a car where one should not have been. He may have been a Frenchman coming down my side of the road. He may have been a rally driver, drifting through the corner. He may have been both. I lost sight of his car in the dust. At that point I sighted a large roadside bush, growing larger by the second. Strange as it may seem at this point I began to think that the day was about to become painful or expensive. Possibly both. The bush filled the windscreen and the car stopped. Oh shit. I backed the car out of the bushes and checked it out. It seemed OK. I checked myself out. I seemed OK. There was no skill involved here, it was just flat plain luck. I got back in the car and drove back towards Halls Gap. Slowly.
A few hundred meters (although I still think of the word ‘yards’ here if the truth be told) down the road an echidna wanders across the road. I pull over to watch it. Its gait is unmistakable; the back half waddles and the front half shuffles as it moves. It reaches the roadside bushes with a deal more grace than I recently managed, and, sensing me watching, it buries itself into the ground. I can see it breathing, see the occasional twitch of its long grey blue snout. It settles in to outwait me. It wins. I have seen too much roadside vegetation for today. I continue on my way home. But I can’t help myself, and very soon stop at a flooded field. Australian Shellducks drift through the flooded grass. They have a white neck band, much like their cartoon counterpart, but as far as I know the similarity ends there. Out in the deeper water Australasian Grebes dive for food. Both birds are shadowed by their young. On the far side of the water a mob of kangaroos lie in the late afternoon sun. This may not be the red centre or the while sails of the Opera House, but this really is Australia. A day that could have ended very badly indeed winds down to a halt. I arrive back at the hostel, make tea and toast and think about the day. I’m glad to stop driving.
It’s still windy when I wake the next day. The corellas are still calling and a Sulphur Crested Cockatoo hangs off the wooden frame of the building. Red Browed Finches skip in the gravel. Guests are excited by the kangaroos on the football oval behind the hostel. I make more tea and more toast and go in search of orchids.
Heatherlie Quarry is one of my favourite places. A place where the wheels of industry cut into the bones of the Earth to make the monuments of a new colony. Parliament House and the State Library grew out of the effort put forth in this place. Now it sinks back into the hands of nature. Little stone is cut now, and when it is removed, it is done so with care and discretion. But in the thin soils that formed in the wake of the drill and the blast, orchids flower. Delicate flowers of strange shape and bright colour, formed by the selective dance of flower and pollinator. Formed by the long dance of evolution, step by step. Building on the past. Building on the best of the former generations. In a place that built monuments to people’s confidence in the future this seems only appropriate.
Searching for orchids is like looking for yesterday’s shadows or tomorrow’s sunrise. You always seem to be a day too late, or a day too early. In many places the ground was thick with the flat leaf rosettes of orchids that were yet to flower, but that promised abundance soon. By the path’s edge Wax Lips and Greenhoods nodded in the wind. Fairy Fingers hid in the darkness of the shadows, and Heath glowed in patches of sunlight. Sundews glistened as flies hovered. A small blue butterfly – possibly a Blotched Dusky Blue – drifted past and settled. A few centimetres of metallic colour.
Despite the wind I heard a strange, sharp, rattle from the undergrowth and another echidna walked into view. It pushed its nose through the leaf litter and sticks. I got as close as I could, but, just like before, it buried itself into the soil. This time I was going to wait. Settling onto a block of quarry waste I waited for it to re-emerge. I waited. And then I waited some more. The echidna’s nose slowly floated out of the ground. Through the camera’s eye I can see the nostrils open and shut, open and shut. The nose goes back down into the litter and I wait some more. And some more. Two Grey Fantails, possibly males, call and fight a few feet about my head. A lizard dashes over my feet. And still I wait. The echidna does not move, and neither do I. But in the end it wins. Pins and needles tickle my leg and I lose contact with my bum. I get up and leave and walk the ten meters back to the path. When I turn round to look for the echidna it’s gone. Two nil to the monotremes.
The downhill path takes me back to the car and the journey home. The orchids will flower tomorrow, the echidnas will still be there tomorrow as well. And luckily, I’ll be here as well.