Who needs Elizabeth?

Sixty years ago the landscape shifted in two different ways in two different countries. On one side of the world there was a shift in the political landscape that was a continuation of sorts, while on the other side of the world there was a shift in the physical landscape which marked a new beginning.

In England a young woman began a role which at her birth she would never have thought to be her destiny. The politics of tradition had prevented her uncle from being King, and her father had taken on the mantle. On his death the crown passed to her. Sixty years later she is still queen.

In Australia, probably after heavy rain, there was a landslide in a wooded valley. Trees fell and tonnes of soil moved, although I doubt anybody heard it. A small stream was blocked and the valley behind the slide began to fill with water. The valley side moved to the floor and a lake was born. Later, in a sign that Australia looked to the north rather than the region, the lake was christened Lake Elizabeth. Sixty years later it’s still there.

Lake Elizabeth lies within the Otways, a region of cool damp woodland, heavy rain and pure air. A region of small, surprising mists, of lichen and banks of moss, silver tipped with drops of water. Unimaginatively, but appropriately, the nearest settlement to the lake is called Forrest. We had planned to visit Lake Elizabeth on the long weekend used to celebrate the other Elizabeth’s birthday. But rain falls on all kinds of plans - it shows no preference for royalty or us common folk. It falls on those destined by the accident of birth to live in palaces and castles. It falls on those whose destiny is much more of their own making and whose accommodation is far less grand.
The rain over the last few weeks had fallen with the kind of temperate ferocity that probably mirrored the rain of 60 years earlier. In the valley near Forrest there were no landslides, but the river in the valley rose and rose until it broke its banks and covered the paths and steps that lead to the lake. The camp site flooded and the walk ways over the river were now under the river. According to the information we had you could not get to Lake Elizabeth. Especially not if you had kids in tow. This was a huge disappointment as we had hoped to watch that quiet Australian the platypus there. The weekend away had been based upon the idea that we would go to the Lake and watch until the sun when down. It would be fair to say we did not really have a Plan B.

Our base for the weekend was Lorne, a town that suffers from the seasonal schizophrenia of crowded summer madness and lonely winter solitude. I have come to prefer solitude over madness. Our path to Lorne took us along The Great Ocean Road, a winding strip of bitumen built in memory of the dead from the Great War and to provide work during the great depression of the 1930s. Now these curves are loved by motorcycle riders and loathed by tourists confused about which side of the road they should drive on, and missing the straight and wide freeways of home. In the madness of summer the road becomes a car park as the number of tourists grows and travel times stretch towards the too long. The free spirit bikers go elsewhere.

Whether you love or loathe the road you cannot help but be impressed by the views. The road follows the contours of the land in a plastic, flowing fashion. It overcomes the difficulty of steeping terrain by going around and avoiding. When it encounters the many rivers and creeks that flow down from the hills to the sea it runs inland. It flows out to the very points of the hilly spurs that push the land towards the sea and only cuts off a small seaward slice of land. It is on these parts of the road, with steep rock to one side and dragon’s teeth on the other, that you least want to meet a bike or a befuzzled tourist, especially if they are on your side of the road. Unfortunately such things still seem to happen with monotonous regularity. Despite its Accident Blackspot reputation, when you drive this road you know it was laid out in a way that was in tune with the lay of the land. The accidents are as much a product of human overconfidence and confusion as they are the flow of the road. It may not offer the landscape much respect, but it does not brutalise it in the same way that straight roads do – the knife cuts from A to B that bypass the interesting, the old and the indirect. This is a classic road on which to make “good time” in the Robert Pirsig sense of the word – a time which is good, rather than a time that is short. You really can make good time on the road to Lorne and still arrive late.

The road pushes up a slight hill and then the view opens out over Loutit Bay. In the slight crescent moon curve of the shore sits Lorne. Over on the far side of the bay a pier runs out to sea. Even in the poor light of a light rain you can see the fishermen lined up, lines out. The front street of Lorne has almost absolute beach front position. A belt of grass splits the beach from the road and the views are mostly uninterrupted. The wonderfully named Lorne Bowls club sits near the sea, and the smell from Andrew’s Chicken shop (where according to local information and inside gossip, the best chips in Lorne are served) fills the air with a mouth watering aroma.

We pull up outside the house, look around and then look upwards. Each house in this little road steps up the steep hill away from the road. Each house seems to have been built on many levels, sitting on strong stilts or deep, reinforced platforms. Huge footprints cut into the hillside as if a heavy footed giant had strode up the hill and away into the forests. The engineering is often more note worthy than the architecture. The concrete and steel hold the hillside together, so that in heavy rain or baking drought the houses do not follow the pull of gravity and walk down the hill.

All around are bird calls and the sounds of wings. Kookaburras laugh at us from the tall trees, sulphur-crested cockatoos screech and currawongs call and bounce from tree top to tree top. A small pool of water at the road’s edge is home to a flock of Wood Duck who chatter in a nervous quiet fashion as we unpack the car. One of the first things we see inside the house is a notice asking in a tone that made it plain we were being told rather than asked to not feed the birds. The birds sit on the rail of the balcony and look inside, seemingly imploring us the break the rules. I don’t, but the birds persist in begging. I photograph them, and get closer to King Parrots and Kookaburras than normal, and I end up knowing that while they may be wild in a technical sense, they are probably not fully birds of the deep wilderness. We settle in, go for a walk along the pier and watch the sky briefly flare. The day ends with fish and chips and the smell of salt air, wood smoke and red wine. Sleep is not difficult to find.

We wake to the rattle of rain on the windows and the continuing call of the birds. A Yellow Robin briefly visits and we pull on coats and head for the beach.

The white noise of waves and wind drowns out the calls of the gulls floating on the sea breezes, the barks of beach freed dogs and the voices of kids running and chasing. Round and round they go, winding down from the weeks of school by winding themselves up on the beach. Sharp angle turns that kick up sand and head down lead long sprints to finishing lines heel scratched into the sand. A dog slides through the drier sand at the top of the beach and pounds with rocket speed and ruler straightness towards a distant gull. Even when the bird takes to the air and gains mastery of the situation the dog does not give up. It jumps with a futile, boundless energy at the bird, which slowly drifts away to land just out of harm’s way. Thirty seconds later the process starts all over again. A cloud full sky, heavy with threatened rain, sits low over the sea. A few showers chase along the beach. The dog stands at the water’s edge and barks at the surfers slowly turning blue in the waves. I turn up my collar and wish I had a hat. The kids keep running and running and running.

We all hear the call of the rocks at the end of the beach. They are too tempting not to explore. We find star fish and sea anemones, crab claws and strange honeycomb rock. Some rocks flare red as oxygen and iron rust away. Domes of rock – which I later discover are called Cannon Ball Accretions – stand proud of the beach. H tries to fly. And although he does make some fleeting upward movement, he fails. A Little Pied Cormorant sits on the rocks and in its nervous state does something that sounds very similar, but looks much worse. In the background a Willie Wagtail tries to crash the party. The waves break and break and break and slowly the clouds lift.

We go to check if we can get to Lake Elizabeth. We can’t. But we find somewhere else. Clearly unused to seeing two young children almost reduced to tears by the lack of platypus, the lady at the tourist information station leans forward, and in a secret, conspiratorial way says “You could try Allen Reservoir”.


Who needs Elizabeth?

On Arrival

Whoever said it is better to travel than to arrive never had to deal with the British motorway system on a bank holiday weekend. Or maybe they did – for there would be no hope for timely arrival, so embracing the joy of the journey is the only option. The classic 1970s holiday solution of setting up a picnic table by the side of the road makes perfect sense in these situations. A solution based on the austerity of a war that had ended in 1945, but still echoed through the thoughts and actions of people like my parents. The modern family would probably take a different approach. Selling coffee by the side of the road would have been a decent business plan when I think about it. Plane travel is no better and possibly much worse. Entertainment is provided not because it’s entertaining, but because the journey will be almost unbearable, even if it goes without hitch or delay. For a plane journey to be better than arrival you need to be sitting in the seats at the front of the plane and you need to be going somewhere very, very dull.
But on the occasion of migration excitement merges beautifully with anxiety until you can’t tell which is which and this takes the edge off the boredom, at least for an hour or two.

My last days as a resident in the UK were spent in the South Lakes, in a region that slowly becomes the limestone of north Lancashire. In the spring the grey of the exposed stone and the green of the new ash leaves make people pull over to the side of the road to stare and take pictures. It’s a region blessed with a scale that approaches the grand, but still manages to be intimate. The hedgerows behind our house were full of flowers in the spring and gave up four kinds of berries in the autumn. A walk at any time of the year or day yielded something new. I did not live there long enough for it to become repetitive.
The manner of your departure makes a huge difference to the way you begin to see and feel about the place of your arrival. A place of unremitting dullness may seem like Eden remade if you are fleeing from death and fear. I was not doing this. I was leaving a place I loved to travel to a place I did not know. It was a departure marked by conflicting emotion and confusion. The company you keep at such times can make a difference between giving in to fear or embracing the possibility of unknown hope. I did not choose fear, but I was not entirely convinced by hope either.

If you arrive by plane you often see nothing of your destination until you slide through the clouds and the world is revealed. In the rainy parts of the world you can be shockingly close to the ground when you first see it. A ground rush of legoland houses and roads, people’s backyards and gardens, a fly past over the everyday, the familiar and the seemingly safe. Then you have the bump touch of landing, sometimes soft, more often disconcertingly firm, followed by the rapid slow down. You are thrown forward in your seat by simple physics, the book end to the journey that started with you being pushed backwards; your body keen to leave its seat, so different to its apparent unwillingness at the start of the journey. An inertia to go and one to stay, but at the wrong ends of the journey. There is a sigh of relief from all, including the self consciously experienced, as the plane slows. An adrenaline rush followed by the long, long wait to leave the plane, and the subtle anxiety of the baggage claim – will it, won’t it, is that mine, no, yes, finally.

I prefer to arrive by boat. It still has an air of mystery that planes have lost. A gentler way to travel, where the journey may be part of the whole, rather than being something different and separate. Boats have the feeling of being in a strangely decorated house, rather than the badly disguised metal toilet roll of a plane’s interior. Sea sickness would be the only thing that could bring boat travel down to the hellish level of cattle class air travel – but thankfully I have only had to put up with that on a working boat, where I did not have kids to look after or excitement to contain. Being able to stand on deck, with the hope of whales or dolphins or seabirds, far exceeds the value any seat back entertainment system no matter how many channels it offers. One channel here, being better and more unpredictable than a dozen seat back ones. The blue green shape on the horizon slowly becomes clearer and larger, and soon it’s clear that it is land. Often it’s an island.

I arrived in Australia by plane. This is considered good form, as anybody who now arrives by boat, must, for reasons of political convenience and future electability, be considered suspect. I lost a season in a day. I left in winter and arrived in early summer. My birthday shifted from spring to autumn. I used to receive fishing tackle as a default birthday gift; a preparation for the long, slow days of summer. In the month between my birthday and the start of the fishing season I would dream of fish that rarely came. Now I receive books to read by the fire, gloves or red wine- warming gifts, indoor gifts to ward off the coming cold. The ancient fertility celebration that is Easter, long appropriated by the church has been shifted into the autumn. People fill up on chocolate eggs and rabbits in preparation for the winter, rather than in the anticipation of abundance. Christmas is in summer, but images of snow still fill shop windows. Fake snow lies deep and crisp and unmelting. At least I spoke the language, although even that bold assertion has been regularly challenged.

I spent most of that day sat on a plane, flying from the west coast of America to the east coast of Australia, passing over New Zealand. The first thing I did in Australia was to wait for my bags. I stood next to the only person I knew in the whole continent. A collision between two former strangers in a distant staff room had come, finally, to a surprise conclusion in the baggage claim area of Melbourne airport. Unlike swallows, my intention was not to return north on a regular basis. This was a different kind of migration, an arrival that marked an end as well as a beginning. The return of summer migrants is marked by celebration, by letters to The Times and a general feeling of well being. If I returned north as the seasons turned it would be with a heavy heart, and a sense of loss. Return in the spring would not be a marker that the world was still working, but an admission that something had broken.

I had no idea how much the simple British countryside meant to me until I no longer had it, just outside the window, on the drive to work or on the walk to the pub. Whatever I knew about the world around me was based on the things I had seen for so many years, but now they were gone. Some post boxes were yellow; the police were armed, in some places you had to turn right by waiting in the left hand lane. Football was played on an oval pitch with a pointy ball, and the teams did not play each other twice a year. There were drive-through bottle shops, with cheap beer and cheaper wine, and at the same time the TV had gut wrenching advertisements saying “don’t drink and drive”. I recognised almost nothing. Trees kept their leaves all year, herbivores bounced on long legs and mammals laid eggs. The trees were full of parrots and the grass was full of snakes. There were spiders that could kill you under the lid of the compost bin. And each summer a few people would be eaten by sharks. The few things I could name or recognised were pests or weeds.

I felt shipwrecked, floating in a sea surrounded by random pieces of other people’s luggage. I grabbed anything that came to hand hoping it would keep me afloat. Sometimes it did, sometimes it was just baggage I would later have to discard. Slowly, gradually, I came to know more and more of this new world. The birds began to have names and the flowers too. Some beaches and woodlands became familiar, I came to think of some places as my local patch. And every time I looked around the same sheet anchor stood next to me, as she had stood next to me at the baggage claim and in that staff room so many years ago. She stood next to me when my brain started to fall apart and she helped me pick up the pieces and put it back together again. She helped me remake my brain.

As the neurones reconnected words tumbled from my fingertips. This was a huge shift from the derisory comments of school English classes, from embarrassed spelling and an anger that hurt all around me. Each new post pushed me further towards some kind of understanding and further from rage.

The swallows will be back next summer – well most of them anyway. They will have swum in a sea sky so much larger than even the continents and the oceans. I wonder, when they look down, do they notice the things that have changed? Changed for the better, changed for the worse. Do they only know the sky as a home, and the strange flat land below them some kind of other? Or do they come to see, as I have done, that the world around them has changed and that the past can never be refound, and that they have no option but to look into future and fly with all their might.