Two Cats and a Dog

Condensation trickles down the outside of my un-Muslim drink and pools where the glass meets the table.  The drink is a temperature perfect for a desert evening, even if it’s not authentically Omani.  Late to bed gulls fly in military formation across the pale horizon.  Gentle sea songs drift up from the beach as waves rush and retreat.  Fishing boats drift, black shadow puppets, beyond the wave breaks. People, possibly fishermen, standing in knee deep water tend to the ropes the hold the boats firm to the shore.  The boats are wooden and timeless. On how many evenings has such a scene played out?  A long day of lows and highs winds towards its end.  It feels a long way from home and a short way from sleep.  But as ever, the anticipation is supplanted by adrenaline of surprise.

Out of the corner of my eye I notice something, a shape, flicker through the pale glow thrown from the lights that stud the grass and hedges.  I assume that it’s a bat, drawn to the insects that are themselves drawn to the light.  But then the shape lands on the grass and morphs into an indistinct brown lump. This does not seem to be bat-like behaviour.  A few seconds later the lump launches itself into the air, it looks like a handkerchief being picked from the floor by fussy fingers that pinch at the very middle of the cloth.  Briefly the now flying lump takes on a cone shape and disappears into the darkness.  I have no idea what I have just seen. The shape returns to circle the light and land once more lands with a flop on the grass.  This time it lands near enough for me to see it.  It’s not a bat, it’s a bird.  It’s nightjar. To say I’m surprised is an understatement.  Mentally I check the number of un-Muslim drinks I’ve had and I find I’m still in the zone of believable observation.  Photography is almost impossible – I can tell it’s a nightjar, probably a European Nightjar, but that’s about it.  For the second time in a day my work mates look at me as if I am a madman.  The adrenaline rush fades, the shore sounds wash over me and sleep beckons.  In the lift I am smiling like a lunatic, and now complete strangers are looking at me like I’m a madman too.  I don’t try to explain – that would only compound the issue.  Sleep in an empty bed comes easier than normal.

Morning light.  Startling hard brightness at the curtains edge. Air-conditioned eyes, sandy dry, slowly recover their function with a splash of water.  A drought-breaking sip unglues my tongue from the roof of my mouth.  Parrots call me to go outside. It’s a work day – but not yet – so I don’t resist the call. 

House crows, silky grey and black, hop around the hotel tables looking for last night’s scraps.  A small army of people, none of whom look like Omanis, try to sweep away the same scraps with wide headed brooms.  It’s a battle between the sharp eyed and the well armed.  A bird sits on a post with a chunk of bread; it has the look of victory about it. It’s chased loudly away from sight by others of the same species. The hotel sits above a small bay where a dry riverbed flows down to the sea.  More crows walk up and down the sand in rhythm to the waves.  Overhead a pair of ospreys drift in the light sea breezes, looking for fish, holding wing tips just so to grip the wind enough to fly in perfect looking circles.  It’s a world bird that you can see almost everywhere; a token of the connectedness of the air and the ocean.  They find a thermal and soar and soar and soar until they are just a speck, just a mote in the eye of an observer drawn to the movement and colour.  I blink and they disappear, too distant, too high. 

Behind me a glass shatters on the unyielding stone floor.  The crows, more sensitive to this than I expected, flush upwards and call to each other, maybe in warning of a threat that never comes, maybe simply in alarm.  A cormorant flies low and heavy over the sea.  A morning like this feels like a gift in compensation for the parts of yesterday that were all graft.  It’s a morning for deep breaths and long silence.  But like it or not, it’s also a work morning.  I turn and walk back towards the hotel.  Broken glass is being swept into a dustpan with a boom that seems to be too long for the task in hand.  House sparrows and myna birds try to join me for breakfast, but I’m saving the seats for other people.  They squabble and seek board and a lodging at another table where a crumb throwing American provides the accommodation it was refused elsewhere.  The light grows harder by the minute.  The shadows grow sharper.  By the time I leave the table the light has become brisk and businesslike. My focus shifts. 

Out past the airport half finished buildings have been scattered, seemingly haphazard, on dusty blocks.  Each one has a dragon’s teeth of steel reinforcement rods along their upper and outer edges, simultaneously defying invaders and awaiting extension.  Behind the building blocks the dragon’s scales lie ruffled as dry hill ridges step back into the distance.  All we need is fire and a golden unblinking eye and the beast would be complete.  The Sun suffices. What plants there are take on a dusty dun green hue, the same colour as old military gear, like the webbing I acquired as a kid, the ghosts of 1945. 

Movement stands out like the proverbial sore thumb.  A cluster – maybe even a covey – of partridge like birds feed by the roadside.  They scatter, some flying, some running, at the approach of a man in his standard issue blue boiler suit.  Further investigation shows them to be Grey Francolin, a bird I have never heard of before.  Later, in the dust between the sea and a modern road, I see more of these birds.  They have the rapid flight rather than fight response of all birds that would form a tasty meal.  When they see me they flee with a rapid weaving path that probably evolved to avoid and confuse predators, but now works well as a way to avoid bullets or shot.

Outside the gates of the University an Indian Roller sits atop a road sign.  Although unrelated, it reminds me of a Kookaburra, with its solid frame and abundant colours.  I see it for long enough to know what it is, but no more. As we are waved through the front gates I can’t help but wish for just a small delay to allow me a better look at this bird.  But things don’t generally work like that; you get delays when you are in a hurry and pass swiftly when you would rather tarry. The university buildings are classically Omani, traditional and modern.  Eye popping white walls and delicate small details.  We are greeted by warm smiles, traditional dress and, disappointingly, instant coffee.  I feel foreign (which of course I am) in my shirt and trousers.  I wonder why some academics think the sandals and socks, matched with a 1000-year-old leather jacket are a good look.  Such things distract me.  I drain the last of my coffee and focus on the task at hand.

Room changes, missing PowerPoints, broken power points, everyday hassles that raise the blood pressure, but don’t really signify anything worth worrying about. The day passes, productive, strange and welcome.  Sparrows gather in the underroof shade, squabble over crumbs, flutter in the dusty garden beds.  We pass “Ladies Only” walkways that cry out for “Danger Women Crossing” signs.  The classrooms have front and back doors – the back opening to these segregated zones.  I find this out when I leave through the wrong door.  A young woman laughs at my blunder, an incandescent smile.  “We will forgive you, you are not from here”.  She is not wrong.

That evening we head off to the souk – the old market that sells trinkets, spice, scarfs and rimless hats.  It’s all corners and curves and beseeching shop owners offering the finest quality and the lowest prices. The stone floor is slick polished by time and a million feet.  In small dark alleys between the shops heavily carved doors – with double sliding locks – suggest that another place exists behind the fa├žade. As a visitor you can scratch the surface, but you rarely get to see the next layer.  Like the veil so many of women wear, the tourist sheen acts as a barrier to understanding – and no, for the last time, I do not want an Omani hat, regardless of its quality.

Down at the waterfront red legged feeder crabs side walk to shrinking sunny spots.  Legs wave and claws snap, the large displace the medium, the medium displace the small and the small suffer. Crag rocks, oyster pocked and sharp, slice and foam the incoming waves.  A rat, fleet footed, well fed, explores the tunnels within the tumbled rock wall.  Tail drips, whisker flicks.  An eye for a meal, a nose for a found bargain.

The red marble sea wall, the perfect leaning point, is fresh-toast warm to the touch. Fish, some large, some small, dart between the unseen food scraps.  Larger flecks and flakes of bread, thrown by day’s end fishermen, attract much attention.  Small red floats bob in the waves, the hook hiding bread they hold ignored.  Bait ignoring shoals of silver flicker in the last rays of the sun.  On the water the sultan’s yacht sits next to a golden cast wooden boat.  The yacht – at $1 million a foot we are reliably told – stretches on for foot after foot, million after million. Cranes stab upwards in back ground, linking land, sea and air.  Wealth by right and wealth by industry.  The fishermen keep fishing.  The fish keep swimming.

On a cliff behind the coast a fort of rough chopped pink stone sits, waiting, watching; facing the sea, facing its foes.  It seems to have traded thirst for security.  An evening sea breeze moves a large flag with sharp, rifle cracks; the ghost of something that may have never happened.  The sea sips at the edge of the land, the sun sinks below the wrapping hills. There is a sudden falling of night.

I see the Francolin the next day, but the Roller has left its sentinel post.  Our presentation goes well.  Most of the audience must have turned up to listen to somebody else. There can really be no other explanation. There are no curly questions.  The men leave through the front door, the women the back.  I feel the tension of protest and politeness.  I choose politeness.

An evening walk ends the day.  A nature reserve runs along one side of the road, although a fence and warning notices prevent access.  Birds call in the dense undergrowth, fish top in the creeks and backwaters that dash off into the trees, herons stand with infinite patience waiting for the scales to tip in their favour.  On the barbed wire fence Green Bee-eaters hunt for evening insects.  A bird that is sharp at each end, with fine bill and tail they dash outwards and return again and again to the same spot.  Return that is until I move too close and then they move away.  I watch and watch in the dimming light of evening.  As I watch, a cat walks across the dust behind the fence and stops to watch us.  It seems sleek and healthy. The bee-eaters move further away.  I realise this is the first cat I have seen all week.  Ten minutes later I see another, down by some fishing boats pulled up on a muddy bank.  I have never seen a hungry cat by a fishing boat, and this one is no exception. 

The next day I see my first Omani dog – it looks thin and hungry.  It lies motionless on a doorstep.  I know why I prefer cats.  We fly back towards Dubai, along the coast; over two well fed cats and one sickly dog.  This time my bag manages to keep up with me.  I’ve only seen a tiny part of Oman.  I as I leave I know I want to come back; I can hear the bee-eaters calling.

A dream comes true.






The flight attendant sounds as bored as I feel.  My legs don’t feel at all, although, bizarrely, my feet ache.  You know it’s a long flight when breaking the “four hours to go” barrier feels like an achievement.  The engines drone. The pages of a book flick over, their contents read but immediately forgotten, a process that passes time but brings no enjoyment or understanding.  It reminds me of RE at school.  For some reason I stifle a yawn.  Three hours and fifty-eight minutes to go.  Sleep. Film. Angry Birds. Read. Dubai! (Brief relief) Hurried transfer. Muscat, Oman. Ah – a shower beckons.  No Bags. A shower recedes.  Relief recedes.  Stress gives me an energy hit to counteract the lack of sleep.
After twenty minutes of fruitless searching I give up and come to the fogged brain conclusion that my bag is taking an extended break in Dubai, while I, smelly from too long in the air, have moved on to Muscat.  I’m given a pale printed lost baggage receipt and a promise that the bag will arrive soon.  I treat the first like gold dust and the second with scepticism.   The taxi feels surprisingly spacious with so few bags.  My companions resist making the obvious joke, so I make it for them.  We all fall silent as the taxi pushes past 140 kmh and flirts with 150. The engine and gear box squeal in protest.  I try to ignore the constant beeping of a speed alarm.   It’s difficult.

The airport is ring fenced with building sites, new roads and bridges linking apparently empty sand to almost identical pieces of empty sand.  Later I learn this is all part of the Sultan’s response to Oman’s brief Arab Spring.  “We want jobs!” was the demand and “Infrastructure” was the response. Vast piles of sand dot the worksites, compacted berms of pale dust pushed by the bright yellow engines of industry. My memory flashes to childhood sand pits and Matchbox diggers. There are few plants, fewer rivers and next to no shade.  Wide drains seem to speak of days of weather I can’t imagine.  Behind the JCB dust clouds, lines of hills – mountains maybe – flow along next to the coast.  Muscat is a city hemmed by hills and waves – long, but thin. The soil, even the rock, looks open, dry and thirsty.  The hills could drink all the water in the world and still ask for more.  Yet closer to town many of the roads are flanked by strips of luminous green.  Grass coaxed from the ground with hand held water pipes and the detailed care of people in blue boiler suits.  This seems like a denial of nature, but with near limitless money I suppose you can ignore the need to be real. For today at least this may be possible, but I have to wonder about tomorrow or the next day.

It’s clear from the outset that Muscat is not Dubai.  Dubai is all thrust and mismatch, pale needle thin spires that reach ever upwards, great slabs of glass shaped like boats squeezed between pillars of steel.  It’s Blade Runner, with sunlight, no rain and (as far as I am aware) no killer replicants.  Muscat sits at both a lower and a higher level than Dubai.  Physically all its buildings are much, much lower.  Some form of legislation is in place that restricts the height of new buildings; nothing (with one possible exception) towers over you, although that does not mean the buildings are not impressive.  The buildings in Muscat seem to share a common architectural language that is missing in Dubai.  They may be low to the ground, but they have a far higher degree of connection. Dubai’s buildings are all “look at me” sort of things; they hold the eye by sheer force of individual difference and eccentricity.  Muscat’s buildings have a more collective appeal.  The conformity highlights rather than hides the differences, and the building to building continuity grounds the whole townscape in a single space.  It takes far more care to create differences when the starting point is always the same. For all the modern freeways being built, Muscat feels gentle, although I doubt the builders and gardeners in their all encompassing blue boiler suits would necessarily agree. 

We drive along the coast for a while and pale, white gulls float on the sea breezes. Flocks of waders bubble up from the water’s edge.  I wonder what species they are and think about my guide book.  It’s in my bag.  It’s still in Dubai.  Two-tone crows, black and silky grey, pick at beach wash and hang around the hotel car park in loose, talkative, groups.  Long tailed parrots, with rapid, blurring wing beats, land on window ledges and roof racks. Swallows flicker through the shade of the hotel entrance.  In the distance a large bird of prey swings round and round and round, soaring in a column of hot air rising into the cloudless blue sky.  

My bags as still on holiday as I shuffle into the back seat of another taxi.  Even with the limited self awareness of jet lag I know I need some new clothes.  It may have been better if I had sat in the front seat.  Trying to register for the conference turns out to be a waste of time: the information in the programme is as wrong as wrong can be.  Wrong place, wrong time, just plain wrong.  My sense of humour is stretched very, very thin.  And then something happens that bursts through the sense of gloom. 

Outside the hotel are hibiscus bushes, bright red flowers and dense shiny leaves.  But that’s not it.  It’s what’s under the bush that pushes away the grey gloom.  It’s a hoopoe.  The main body of the bird is an orange hued pink, the wings barred with black and white stripes, its bill sharply downturned.  The rarely raised crest points back from the crown of the head like a comic blur of motion.  It’s a lifer for me, but that’s not the point.  The real point is that this is a bird I have wanted to see for the best part of 40 years.  And here it is, in a hotel car park, under the punch bright sun of an Arabian sky.  It’s a long way from Somerset.  As a kid I would look at the few bird books I had then – The Observer’s Book of Birds and the Eye-spy Book of Birds – and wonder if birds like the Hoopoe were real, or whether they were just figments of ornithological imagination.  How could they be real when most of the birds I saw were sparrows, blackbirds and pigeons?  I would go out into the fields around my village with the hope that I would return with a prize catch, but it never happened.  I may as well have looked for the Phoenix or the Roc as a Hoopoe.  They were the kind of never bird that made you keep looking.  Even when birds were on the back-burner and I fished I didn’t forget what a hoopoe looked like – and the flash of a kingfisher or the chess board bob of a dipper kept birds alive in my head.  But I never saw a hoopoe.  Until there was one under the bushes, by a busy road in Oman.  Clearly it’s a distinctive bird, but there was never any possibility that the bird in the bush was anything but a hoopoe. There was an instant rush of recognition and that strange and rare feeling of a wish come true.  Seeing this bird won’t change the course of my life – it’s not that kind of wish – but it reinforces the truth that sometimes, under special and remarkable conditions, wishes can come true.

The hoopoe cooperated enough (just) to allow for some pictures before it floated off into the distance, through the traffic, on short rounded wings.  I tried to explain to my work mates why this was a red letter day, why this would be a day to scribble a big star in my diary, but while they seemed to understand each individual word I was saying,  I was talking another language.  You either know why this is important or you don’t.  If you do understand you are probably already a birder, and if you don’t understand I feel sorry for you.

In the late afternoon my bag arrived and I’d be lying if I said that did not rank almost as highly as the hoopoe.  That evening I watched the sun set over the long bay of Muscat.  The sky and the sea turned gold as the sun sank behind a jagged line of clouds.  It hung like a broken orange segment slowly slipping behind the curve of the Earth.  The short dusk wrapped us quickly in darkness.  It was day’s end, and I had many reasons to smile.


Winter Rain - A retrospective

A butterfly with a bright orange patches lands on the damp sand of a beach. Its wing is broken.

The food in the cafe is good, the coffee excellent.  I’m forced to listen to the atonal snobbery of jazz.

I’m on holiday.  It’s raining.

I have little or no control over any of these things.  They are the way they are because of accident, design or probability; I can alter none of them. 

I don’t really know where this idea came from, that things should always go to plan, that things should always be perfect, but it’s widespread and damaging.  The butterfly was beautiful, the company good, the weather passing. But each one caused an internal sigh of disappointment that the experience was less than perfect, that all the plans had come to nothing.  I also don’t know where this next idea came from – possibly my Zen karate brother – but I rather like it: Walking in the rain only becomes a problem if you believe that you are going to stay dry in the first place.  If dampness is acknowledged as a fact of life, you may as well rage against the waves of the sea as worry about getting wet.  OK, I know that in some places the difference between life and death can turn on your ability to stay dry, but I’m not half way up K2 or plodding, unsupported, through the icy wastes of Antarctica.  And of course I’d rather be dry than wet, but do damp shoulders or, horror of  horrors, wet underpants, really matter if a walk in the rain brings you to places of wonder, beauty and revealed mystery?  More often than not I’m on a made footpath, normally no more than an hour or two from the car, warmth, a tumble drier and the prospect of a glass of wine in the evening.  Under these circumstances, why should I worry about a little water? Or let it spoil the day?  Why should a butterfly of remarkable, simple, beauty be a disappointment because it has seen a little wear and tear? I don’t think it should.  So, I try to appreciate the beauty of imperfection, I try to ignore the sounds of jazz.  But above all else, I walk in the rain.

I am of the age where I no longer have a protective thatch on the top of my head, so I wear a hat.  The outside pockets of most of my bags contain plastic bags – simple rain guards for cameras, lenses and binoculars.  And yes I do wear a coat that makes flamboyant claims for its waterproofness, but deep down I have long since stopped believing that they really work all that well. And thus armoured I walk in the rain.

The coincident arrival of overseas guests and rain was inevitable.  And while the first did not bring the second, the arrival of neither came as a surprise. Fat, heavy drops fell as we packed the car.  Fat heavy drops fell as we drove along. They paused briefly when we did for lunch and started to fall with renewed vigour as we unpacked the car at our destination. 

Waratah Bay is a beach village cul de sac by the sea. The road in is the road out - it’s not a place you would find by accident. The scattered houses walk back up the gentle slope away from the sea.  With careful design most houses could have a sea view.  Wave music drifts from the beach to fill the air and compete with (or complement)  the calls of the parrots and bush bound birds.  I choose to ignore the sound of the rain on the car roof, the swish flap of the wipers.

Settling in to a new house is always a challenge to your state of relaxation.  We played a number of well known party games; “Hunt The Mains Power Switch”, “Where’s My Hot Water” and finally “Pin The Blame On The Owner”.  We invent a new game called “Let’s chew the firewood into small enough pieces to use because there is no axe” – although I feel this game is destined to remain an obscure, family speciality.  As ever a holiday house starts to feel more homely as the kettle sings. The fire crackle catches in the hearth.  We pour tea and think about going for a walk.

Wave noises still come from the beach.  The hiss of rolling waves and the deeper, more muscular, crump of them breaking on the sand.  Sea-spray salt-smoke clouds back from the wave tops, pushed out to sea by the same wind that strikes our backs.  Waiting Silver Gulls huddle on the high tide strand line, sheltered by the small sand cliff at the back of the beach.  Occasional wing flicks and squawked comments ripple through the flock.  A running beach dog flushes them.  The sky fills with an energy and silver movement which pulls our eyes towards the far horizon. Away from the land, over the sea and towards each and everyone’s dreams of flight.

A bank of cloud, swirling grey, insubstantial, but massive, is moving though the sky.  Now and then lightning flashes through the cloud making a mockery of its internal darkness. Thunder rumbles over then beach many seconds after the flicker flash; the heart of the storm is far away, but we are about to come under its edge.  The sky is split into two-tone blue and grey; look one way along the beach it’s blue, spin round to look the other and it’s grey.  It’s only when you stop half way through the turn and look out to sea that you can see both skies at once.  It’s a division between the promise of spring and a reminder that winter has yet to pass. The wind cools and grows stronger, it smells of rain and energy. Its starts raining like a tap being turned on.  Heavy drops crash into the dry beach forming mini craters.  Here and there sand debris kicks up from the splash sites, the beach seems to buzz, its surface moving in short sharp jumps. The silver gulls land and huddle close to the ground, the rain falls heavier and harder.  We turn up collars, tug on hat brims and wonder about the wisdom of our actions.  We face the fact they we are going to get wet.  Grey clouds cover the sky overhead, a false dusk falls. Our walk home becomes the collateral damage of the pressure war being waged overhead.  Damp-footed we walk back to the house to see if the fire is still burning.

A rainbow gathers light to itself and passes it back to the world.  Cape Barren geese graze in the grassland, grey and distant.  A fox, bright eyed in the headlights, pauses as it runs from edge to hedge. The fragment scraps of evening flutter through the last light of day as heavy clouds blanket the stars to sleep. 

We head out the next day under a patchwork sky with small scraps of blue – not enough to make a pair of sailor’s trousers as my mother would have said in a lore wise predication of rain.  It’s time to show my visiting family The Prom. I’ve given it a deserved build up on account of its beauty and its abundant wildlife; I’ve down played its location on the flanks of the southern ocean, with its capacity for wild winds and soaking rain.  I’m beginning to think this duality of emphasis may have been foolish.

Even the damp of a recent shower does not hold down the dust as we head down a side road towards Millers Landing – this is a favourite side trip from the main road; a “D-tour” as my kids call them. The visitors from the placental part of the world are not disappointed by the marsupials.  Kangaroos graze with a kind of nonchalance by the side of the road, confident that a few bounces will take them away from us and into the safety of the bushes.  A wombat, displaying more fear than confidence, dashes across the road.  At the moment of shutter release it hides behind the wing mirror of the car and heads, unphotographed, into the bushes that the kangaroos reject. 

Flame Robins, bright red, buoyant and flighty, flee before the noise of the car.  Twenty metre flights from fear to safety, always just not close enough.  Through binoculars they live up to their name, with their chest feathers flaring brighter than the ground around them.  For once reality is matching the advertising – that is if you ignore the rain.

Sharp winds push equally sharp sand along the beach Sometimes it sneaks between boot top and trouser cuff and stings an exposed ankle.  Clouds of sand ghost through, falling where the wind fails, travelling onwards where it touches. The robins are here too, along with rain speckled oyster catchers and flights of distant gulls and terns.  It’s not picture book perfect, but it is real.

First light brings the unfamiliar, unwelcome, crisp chill of a half empty bed. There is little comfort in the mean, biscuit thin, duvet.  Behind my head, outside the curtain, water drips splash with metronomic regularity on the window ledge. The perfect product of steady rainfall and gravity ticks away the time.  Within seconds I can count the rhythm in my head. 4/4 maybe?   A windless morning leaves the world silent, save for the water clock outside my window.  Any movement pushes the errant arm or leg into a new region of cold; the probability of extra morning sleep falls.  The kids arrive and it reaches zero: but the temperature improves.

Outside damp kangaroos graze on wet grass.  Their fur is matted into thick fibres, but the rain sheds from the coat in silver slivers.  Drips form on the tips of their ears, producing rapid head-shakes which rid them of the irritation. One has lopsided ears that give a comical, resigned look. He stops eating and watches me and seems to be asking “why are you walking in the rain?” and I have to say I don’t have an answer I think he would understand. 

Spring Sunshine (and a parenthesis)

New oak leaves don’t seem to be real. They possess the kind of luminescent, incandescent colour normally associated with artificial dyes, plastic toys and warning labels. The leaves are paper thin and soft, new born into a world of light and air and water.  Born for the slow accumulation of sugar. The leaves emerge from sleepy winter buds to the wakening spring.  Pressure builds within the buds one cell at a time. Division after division after division. Daughter after daughter after daughter. The old become new, the new age and bring forth more youth. Cell division is rapid, but controlled, the execution of a process whose failure we all fear.  DNA, genes, proteins, and the coming of life. Not a celebration for the tree, just a response to stimuli I cannot feel.  The leaf in the bud grows and expands until escape, until bud burst, is the only option.  And at that point spring begins. And human celebrations begin with it.

Flushed with energy drawn from the returning Sun the oaks start the boom period of their boom and bust leaf economy. Only later in the year, as temperatures fall and the light begins to fade will they close down the leaves; shutting down the unprofitable branches, waiting for the next upturn in the flux from the Sun. The temptation to draw meaning from the brightness of spring feels as unavoidable as it does natural.  This year the leaves seem even brighter than usual, the number of greens seem to have expanded and my mood expands to fill this new horizon.

My son was born in the spring, his arrival coinciding with new leaves and bright flowers.  That was more than a decade ago – I’ve been a father for ten years and a dad for somewhat less.  Some years were lost to the storm inside my head – but spring, if it means anything at all, is always about growth from existing roots. Even in spring nothing comes forth from nothing.  Seeds and roots, bulbs and branches, create an illusion of newness, rather than newness itself; growing by the same means that make the buds swell and burst.  People are the same.  Given the chance they can grow and change, but like plants they will always be rooted in their own past, always connected to things that could have been.  The new leaves that grow from the cold grey limbs of winter are related and dependent on the growth of last summer.  If a new mind grows, its roots lie in the past as well. An understanding of this connection brings strength not weakness.  It brings resilience not fear. Spring is not possible without winter; and we all need spring, but some winters are almost too long to bear.

The road out towards the Grampians is long and for the most part straight.  It’s been improved in recent years and the journey flows along with few hitches and fewer squabbles.  We stop for coffee and food - a bowl of strangely orange chips arrives at the table.  Long journeys are no place for health food.  Back in the UK, in the distant past, I hitch hiked for miles fuelled by coffee, donuts and a sense of optimism.  Over time I shed the donuts, kept the coffee and refound the optimism.   Sulphur Crested Cockatoos mine for roots in the grass by the side of the road.  Ravens pick at the scattering of road kill.  Black-shouldered  Kites hang in the air.  Travel, movement and food.  Tyre noise on the road.  The relief of a roundabout in Ararat.  Kangaroos in the paddocks outside of Halls Gap.  We arrive at a cold house, unpack and light the fire.  A collective sigh of relief from all of us as the holiday moves from epilogue to Chapter 1.   As we settle in for the evening there are ‘roos in the garden and a chorus of frogs from the other side of the fence.  Ah.

The window blinds rattle as I pull them up.  Something spooks from the garden, vaults the fence and pauses.  My first thoughts go to kangaroo, but there was something not quite right about the movement.  Just over the fence a small deer stands and stares back at me. Its front left foot hovers above the ground, frozen halfway through an alarm stamp.  I think about reaching for my cameras on the table behind me, but I know the deer is watching me, hanging on the turning point of flight or fight, with a flight being the better, the more likely, option. Its hoof moves slowly down towards the ground, not in a single fluid motion, but in a series of still frame pauses.  Even when the tip of the hoof touches the ground the knee stays bent, the leg held back for a warning stamp or a sprinter’s push. Then a change sweeps over the body of the deer, as it relaxes from tip to toe.  The elevated hoof rests firmly on the ground; the body looks alive and less like a carved object, the head turns slowly away from me.  The tension that was obvious, but which I could not really see in its absence, seems to have left the deer.  It walks into the shade of the pushing forest trees that hang over the fence.  Within three strides it’s almost invisible, within ten it may as well have been a ghost. 

The kangaroos on the vacant block next door seem less disturbed by the flickering movement of a person at a window.  They graze with a lazy looking efficiency, and lever themselves around with their thick muscular tails.  Each and every movement seems slow and considered, even when they bounce it seems to happen in slow motion.  Larger, fence hopping jumps seem to come from nowhere, from energy stored in ways which are invisible below the skin.  Some lie down to eat – reducing the need to hold themselves up: these animals are true energy misers. Most shake their head from time to time, chasing flies from around their ears.  A few are very large, a few very small.  They may be hanging around in loose, extended, family groups, held together by the pull of kinship and genetics.  The weather was set fair and for a while at least the sky is clear.  I stand beneath an oak tree and look through the branches, past the tissue thin leaves and into a deep blue sky.  The leaves lack the improbable tessellation of summer and sun specks freckle the ground.   Small insects pass in and out of the freckle beams, specks of life brought out by the warmth of the sun.  Winter passes into spring sunshine.

We walk old walks, embracing the familiar routine of too many treats and too few kilometres.  Red dust spills from the wheels, packs into the arches, powder coats the windows.  Shingleback lizards shuffle across the road, and we pass the evidence that many don’t make it.  Maybe I should have an “I slow down for lizards” bumper sticker.  Mt. Zero stands proud of the land around it – “pyramidal” according to the guide book.  Flowers punctuate the sides of the path, some are commas that cause a slight pause, others are full stops that bring us to a halt.  All are wonderful to see.  We count types and lose our place in the mid-twenties.  Most remain unnamed, few remain unobserved.  Steeper sections of the path require you to put hand on rock where skinks flee from human touch. Views open in all directions, studded with fields of bright yellow canola (sounding so much nicer than looking at oil seed rape) and olives. 

A shingleback lizard – a kind of large skink – stops us in our tracks. It lies along a shallow stone groove, overlooking the path, soaking up the radiant heat and the early stores of rock warmth.  Occasionally its long blue tongue slips out of its mouth and over its eye.  It only seems to lick its left eye, the one facing me, the one looking at danger.  Its tail is head shaped, or possibly its head is tail shaped.  Allegedly this is a form of defence, where predators have a half chance of attacking the wrong end.  Natural selection would favour those that attack the middle and never get tricked.  Other people hurry past, and despite our words seem not to be interested. One person says, “It looks like a dinosaur”, but hardly breaks stride as he walks by.  The shingleback waits patiently as I snap away; on the return leg of the trip it has moved on.

At the very top of the climb we are greeted by tiny wasps and floating swallow tail butterflies.  The wasps form an ever moving cloud and the butterflies are single points of movement, casting swift shadows on the bare stone.  Both resist photography; the wasps because of their tiny size, the butterflies by ceaseless, unpredictable, movement. The landscape seems to rotate about this point – in one direction ranges of hills stretch with fading colour into the distance, in the other the landscape becomes flat.  This point would be a map maker’s dream, a clear fixed point of triangulation and measurement, an origin to hang other places from, a point of observation bathed in clear spring sunshine.

We start off early the next day to beat the crowds and avoid the heat of spring’s first warm day.  The Pinnacle is a classic, and very well worn, walk in the Grampians.  Its full length takes you from Halls Gap on the valley floor to a rocky balcony that leans out from a steep rocky face.  In the past gaining the Pinnacle itself would have been a test of nerve and balance, but now it’s fenced in and convenient steps take you out to the final point.  This is understandable, but unattractive; a fence to stop the unwary or unfortunate from regaining the valley floor in a rapid, but fatal, fashion.   

(I have to take Sal to the station in Ararat.  She catches a Melbourne train to attend a funeral.  An old friend has been taken from his family, taken from his work. Taken by cancer, capricious and random.  The low afternoon sun casts long shadows.  They reach across the fields and point towards the road.  Between the shadows are open bright spaces, but it’s the shadows that seem to define the shape of the land. I can’t help but think over other the other Shadows that lay within in our lives.  The kids in the back seat talk about other things, unaware, as they should be, of what is going on inside my head.  The shadows grow and merge, darkening the end of a bright day.  By the time we reach home it’s dark inside and out – but light comes in a flashed smile and a question about dinner.  The Shadow retreats as I light the stove and stoke the fire.)

When the Sun drops behind the long ridges that flank the roads in and out of Halls Gap the temperature falls quickly.  A kind of hushed semi-darkness grows quickly in the new gloom, animals start to stir, and the spaces under the trees take on a new life.  We are sitting at the end of a no through road, surrounded by gum trees and bird calls.  Kookaburras call, laughing through the sunset.  Cockatoos and corellas gather in noisy flocks.  Kangaroos grow bold in the darkness and move on to people’s lawns and into people gardens.  Bats flash overhead.  The kids can hear them; I no longer can – that part of my sensory armoury long since lost to teenage concerts and middle age.  Blackbirds sing with slightly throaty voices; an imported sound from elsewhere, when home was very distant and very different.  The headlights of an approaching van briefly dazzle, cutting back the night vision, bringing on a brief darker darkness. 

Tonight we have a guide, Noel, to take us into the forests.  We are given torches with red lenses, a light we can see, but nocturnal animals cannot.  Primitive night vision gear for us diurnal primates.   The lights flash, waved by young excited hands, forming faint beams through a light night time mist. Occasional moths flicker in the torchlight, seeking food or mates, fleeing from bats. 

The other adults in the group keep their torches focussed on the ground, looking for roots and tripping points.  Missing the point of the whole thing really.  As we cross a bridge a mother Wood duck moves her ducklings from a fox proof mid-river log.  I’m going to feel bad in the morning if I find chewed feathers and blood.  A group of Kookaburras, possibly a family, gather on a high, bare branch.  They shuffle a little closer in the light.  Maybe birds are better at seeing red than the mammals.  A crashing in the tree tops brings a poor sight of a Brush-Tailed Possum.  Our accompanying night walkers become excited, my kids ask if it’s the same sort of possum that eats our vegetables at home and tries to get into our dustbin.  It’s with a heavy heart that I admit that it is.  A Powerful Owl calls from the darkness, and the wing flaps of another bird – not a silent owl – add to night music of frogs and small insects.

Two Ring-Tailed Possums – another familiar species – skitter through some low bushes.  They seem to scan the sky with anxious eyes, maybe they have heard the Powerful Owl as well.  They stand on their back legs and every muscle in their bodies seems tense.  It’s not a fight or flight situation – fighting would be pointless.  It’s a feed or flee situation; a calculated wager between nutrition and danger. 
Impressive spiders move over the forest floor with sets of tiny jewel eyes flashing back the torch light.  They may not be dangerous, but I still don’t want to find one on my arm.  P finds a scorpion, which freezes in the torch light, but eventually relaxes and walks on.  I envy her sharp eyes.  She is visibly pleased with herself.

As was drop back towards the river a Tawny Frogmouth drifts across the path in front of us and lands on an open branch.  Its head scans back and forth, looking for prey and sometimes looking at us.  It falls towards the ground and bounces back with something in its mouth – maybe a spider, maybe P’s scorpion.  Eventually it losses interest and flies off.

Tiredness is having the same effect on my kids as we go back across the bridge: the ducks have not come back.

The fire flares with new wood and the kids soon settle to sleep.  I think about light and dark.  I think about finding and looking.  I fall asleep hoping that tomorrow will bring more spring sunshine.