Hello Johanna

I’ve been to the Otways before, but never to Johanna. It all seemed sort of familiar, but it really wasn’t. It’s only when you get ready for bed that you really begin to notice the differences. Before that it’s been a rush to get the car unpacked, find the light switches and work out how to turn on the oven. Eventually the kids are asleep and you can wind down from the day and go to bed. You get into the same side as at home, with the same book and bookmark, maybe even with the same clock. A glass of water on the bedside table. The same back and forth of conversation and plans for the next day. The same hissing flick of turning pages. But as you settle in the differences come to the fore. The sounds of the house settling down for the night are different. Logs crack and fall in the fire box, the bedside lamp may buzz. The dishwasher rattles and sings quietly until you turn off the light and then, in the darkness, it sounds like an express train – this is a strange phenomenon, but it seems to happen in every house I visit.

But mainly the difference comes from outside, and here the difference is the voice of the sea. As it grows dark – or as I become sleepy – the sea’s voice seems to come closer and closer until it whispers in my ear. A sound that is both gentle and violent. The in and the out of the ocean. A sea breathe. I always sleep well near the sea. Some people say it’s the sea air, I say it’s the sea sound. Like a lullaby from years and years ago, the sea’s voice reaches in and puts me to sleep. (Many years ago I lived on an island, almost on the western edge of Europe, surrounded by the sea – and its call was never silent. When I left and the voice was no longer there, I missed it, I felt lonely without it. Strangely I found an echo of it in the distant noise of traffic that was always there in the next place I stayed. In a place that had seen better days and felt ignored by the rest of the country I may have been making the best of a bad job, but that’s what happened).

As ever the kids arrive early and fill the space in the bed. Outside the sea calls. But there is something else as well, a gentle tapping and the buzz, rattle of wings from the window. When the blinds are open a tiny blue streak dashes away into the nearby bushes – it’s a Superb Blue Wren. Within minutes it has returned, pecking at the angle between glass and frame, a fragment here, a portion there. Every so often the bird would notice its own reflection, and driven by the hormonal imperative to defend place and space it would attack itself. With its beak pushed against the glass it would fly up in a whirl of tiny wings. Enragingly its reflection would do the same. For reasons as inexplicable as those that started the whole process it would end and the bird would drop back to the window sill and start feeding again. Later in the week I would watch the same bird (but how would I really know!) doing the same thing around the edge of the car’s windscreen. Food, frenzy and fighting all at the same time.

The beach was only a short walk away, ten minutes at the most and almost all downhill. Short steep uphills marked the slopes of old sand dunes, covered now in thick spongy grass. In places cows had poached the soil – around gates and feed troughs, along favourite pathways – and the sand broke through to the surface. For kids used only to cows on TV the real things are surprisingly large. And noisy. And smelly. I’m sure that the cows were thinking similar things about the kids.

The beach was that picture perfect combination of rock, sand and surf that lures people to their death somewhere around our coast every year. A deep tongue of greenish water cut past a rock bar and back out to sea. To fishermen this is a gutter – to most everybody else it’s a rip. Name it as you will, but it’s an undertow counter current that takes water – and you if you’re in it – away from the sand and back out to sea. It’s a naturally produced device to collect fish and drown the unwary. The water that gathers on the shore with each breaking wave takes the easiest route back to the deeper ocean, and the rock bar on the beach provides both a barrier and an opportunity. Being caught in a rip is like being trapped on a liquid conveyer belt, with a destination far off shore. Even in their smallest form you can feel the pull, and understand how water, soft and inviting one minute, can be deadly the next. You can feel how water can carve away the land and mock the defences that we put up to protect the coast. I fished near the edge of this rip later in the week (unsuccessfully again!), but knew not to wade too deep. And I retreated further up the beach than normal to await the bites that never came. For all the benefits brought by experiential learning, being trapped in a rip is something I can do without. RIP, rip. It’s probably a coincidence, but that does not mean it’s not significant.

On the other side rock bar that helps funnel the rip, the Johanna River comes down to the sea. It winds about as the beach levels out and dawdles a little before it meets the waves. Silver Gulls peck at the river’s edge and where the water comes through the dunes a White Faced Heron stands and watches. All the birds seem more timid than normal – maybe this beach is not as popular as others. The birds seem less used to humans, less acclimated to beach runners and splashing children. On the other side of the river a pair of Hooded Plovers run and peck. I don’t feel like wading today so the birds stay just a little too far away. The Plovers don’t do well on popular beaches – too much disturbance when nesting, too many misplaced feet, too many prying eyes. Just too much humanity. In the end they spook when a bird of prey flashes out of the sand dunes. They land a few hundred meters down the beach and start feeding again. Their lives a knife edge balance between the wasted energy of unneeded fear and the need to feed. Too much bravery and they get eaten, too much fear and they never have time to feed.

The kids are playing in the distance as we walk back to the cottage. This time the interest comes not from the size of the cows, but the sheer volume of snot running from their noses – that’s the cows’ noses just to be clear. That unique combination of revulsion and fascination keeps them interested - and in this case this could apply to both the cows and the kids!

Although the air is still, patches of grass shake and wave. What’sgoing on? Random patches of greenery move in ways that they should not. Silvereyes, small grey green birds, move through the plants with mouse-like movements. Darting from place to place, constantly on the move, constantly feeding – just like the plovers on the beach. When we get back to the cottage another flock is feeding in the flowerbeds that ring the front door. Many shots later I manage to capture a few of these fleeting birds. Overhead an Australasian Hobby flashes past, small and swift with glowing red brown underside. Tracking it was difficult with binoculars, but was next to impossible with a camera. It flies in straight lines and sweeping arcs, interrupted by sudden unpredictable jinks to the left or right. Each of these violent shifts marks an attack on a dragonfly. Eventually I watch the bird snatch a dragonfly in flight and eat it on the wing. It barely slows during the process. Fast food. The sun sets and we settle down for the evening, the sea grumbling in the background and the wind pushing the clouds into piles and pillars.

The next morning we set off on the short walk to feed the chickens and a longer walk to look for platypus. The chickens proved far more accommodating than the platypus. Standing looking across the fields the kids don’t know which way to go. Dozens of small paths flow out from the mud around the gate – cow paths that fan out to each corner of the green. “We need to go this way” I say. “Are you sure?” the kids ask. I realise that this is normal for me and very strange for them. As a kid I would wander around the fields and woods that surrounded my village. While there were marked paths, many were just smoothed lines in an otherwise rough field. You often wandered off the path when you wanted to go where the path did not. A walk would be a series of decisions that you made yourself. Over this farm gate, through that patch of woodland, along this stream until we can get over it. These were walks where you needed to “read” where you were going. It’s not that you were going to get lost; in fact you often found more than you lost. But unless you read the land you may not end up where you planned to be.

Most of the walks my kids have been on have followed paths that were built and maintained with the express purpose of getting to the place you were going. Tourist paths in National Parks are still controlled by the lie of the land, but they have been built with a more logical plan than those in the English countryside. They do not encourage wandering. They encourage movement. We follow no path at all but drop down a narrow spur, past a bridge and over a hill. It’s clear we are going in the right direction because we get to where we want to be. You could have probably got to that point dozens of other ways. This, and the small folded nature of the land, reminds me of England. The trees and the birds tell me I am elsewhere.

As we return to the cottage P finds an echidna. For all the memories and familiar wandering paths I can only be in one place in the world. All illusions to the contrary are false, all memories are simply that. I see the place for where it is, and say, once more, “Hello, Johanna”.


davesbrain said…
Great evocative post - I visited the area yeeeears ago and it was wonderful.
Arija said…
You bring the place to life so well. Beautiful shot of the echidna and a couple of the landscapes just left me speechless. A wonderful holiday indeed.
Anonymous said…
What a beautiful place - so lovely! And that echidna is so adorable!
RBenz said…
Beautiful pictures of a seemingly peaceful place. One thought I had as I read your post. I've never thought about cows watching small children on television before?? ; ) RB
Garry said…
Another great post about a place from my past. That is a really beautiful part of Victoria along the Shipwreck Coast, Stewart. Once again, your photo sets are wonderfully evocative and I especially love the one of the cow, which reminds me of the album cover of Atom Heart Mother more than just a little. Nice that you came upon an echidna - always a pleasant surprise - it was only last week that I slowed my car to allow one to cross the road at the bottom of my street as I was driving to work.
Roy said…
A masterly piece of writing Stewart.
Great photos, especially the little Blue Wren.
Kim, USA said…
Beautiful landscape. And the blue bird is a cutie, now what is this lurking is that what we call porcupine?
Arnab Majumdar said…
I've never visited this place. I've never even heard of the places that you talked about here. Yet, after reading this, I feel like I've known and visited there all my life.

Isn't that the whole point of writing a travel story? :) Great job done here...

Reminded me of a time when I saw the calm side of the ocean, which also held the potential to turn deadly in a matter of minutes. I wrote about it here. I hope it makes sense, as it uses a few characters I came up with in another story...

Arnab Majumdar
s.c said…
Is a echidna a kind of hedgehog. Nice blog you have and as a bird lover myself it is pleasant to see birds of an other continent. Thanks for visiting my blog.
Delwyn said…
Hi Stewart
I loved to read this story of your trip to the coast..so green it does look like England or NZ...
I have only ever seen one echidna in the National Park...in over 34 years...I wonder where they hide...
Liz said…
I love this blog Stewart! Thanks for sharing your holiday.

I too have another (but on Wordpress) where my deep thoughts rest... I originally started my blogspot for the purpose of thoughts, etc but it quickly became my photography blog!

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