Perimeter Walk

It’s just before a quarter to seven in the morning; the temperature is over 250 C and the sky is streaked with pink, purple and orange clouds.  It should be autumn, but it’s still summer.  Waking to a temperature that exceeds the normal average maximum for the time of year is not the best way to start the day.  Tea may sluice away some of the nights disturbance, but it does not make up for lost sleep. The roads are quiet even for this time of the morning.  Most people are still asleep in what passes for the cool of the morning.  I drive past a few houses where people stand in their gardens and, shaking their heads, look up the sky.  Another week will have to slip by before we see temperatures in the teens, before sleep is cool and refreshing.

The flags on the Westgate Bridge hang limp and unmoving as the sun burns away the cloud and sky turns from pale to bright. For me, it’s a well-worn path to the east, towards Queenscliff, towards a day on the bay.

I read the road signs, formal and informal, homemade and manufactured.  Voices from the radio talk about climate change and weather.  People phone in to complain about bias.  Its 280 C at 7.30 am.  I wonder if they have noticed, or whether they are buried under todays Australian, that calls for business as usual and supports the protestations of an English Lord who (unfortunately) shares my name.  I concentrate on the road; and smile at the found poetry of the painted signs.

Clean fill,
Fresh fruit,
Horse Poo.

Fresh Strawberries,
Lemons and Limes.

Park here for free,
Stop here for coffee,
Keep Left, Keep Right, Keep Going.

There are very few people in the car park at Queenscliff.  This select few, this band of birders, are pulling on old shoes, battered hats and buff coloured clothes.  The birds they watch are always better dressed than the watchers – even if the birds are in deep moult.  The air smells of sun block, insect replant and coffee.  Wafts of bacon drift from the harbour side cafes.  It still feels early and it feels hot.   I look at my bag and decide to take less food and more water.   

The boat is sleek and pointy – comfortable seats and some shade.  A rushing tide and contrary wind ruff up sharp waves in the Bay.  We go away from our destination to avoid the chop.   Wind and waves conspire to kick sprays of water over the edge of the boat.  If you want to look forward you need to keep one eye shut.  A few hats are dislodged, a few people dampened.  We swing off our distancing tack and head for Mud Islands, over water less than one meter deep.  It’s strange to feel all at sea, but know you could jump overboard and still stand with you head above water.  If there was ever an experience to show how much difference a change in sea level would cause it has to be this.  Australia is old enough for people to have watched as these shallows flooded grasslands and turned the land to sea.  Who knows if early Australians had the same mental myth of climate permanence as we do (did?), but to watch the land became the sea, the solid become fluid, must have cut away at what they knew to be true.

The islands are not that impressive from the sea – in fact they are almost invisible.  They don’t have the height to break the skyline of the shore and so merge into the background.  It’s only when you wade ashore – through ankle deep water – that they take on the form of real islands.  The highest point on the island becomes you own head and from that vantage point you can look down to sea, land and now a distant horizon.  And, despite the islands name, a lack of mud.

The beaches are squint-eyed bright under the cloudless sky.  A mixture of white sand and shells brings a sense of tropicalilty to these normally cooler beaches.  Welcome swallows flash over the sand, and groups seems to hover over the clumps of low plants that stud the upper beach.  Once you touch a plant its not hard to see why – swarms of small blue butterflies spring from the vegetation when ever it moves.  A wind shock or a footstep releases them and the swallows dive and dine.  Once the butterflies land again they almost disappear, their underwings a counterfeit of a leaf or a dried stem. 

The point of arrival is unremarkable except for two bright orange buoys floating just off shore that mark both the beginning and end of a circular walk.  The choice of pale clothes and old shoes is validated as soon as we start to walk.  The sun above and the reflections from below are harshly bright.  It feels good to wade through the water when needed, and it happens frequently enough for you feet never to gain that almost dry feeling that is far more annoying that simple wet feet.  A few people change shoes constantly between a dry pair and a wet pair.  These people balance on one leg and wobble in the wind.  The waders on the rocks seem to have the one legged standing routine better organised than the people.  I am reminded of and adapt the words of my brother:  wet feet are only a problem if you assume you can keep them dry in the first place.

Water bottles are hidden in the bushes, not for fear of thievery, but to gain some shade and the promise (or hope) of cool water on our return to this point later in the day. We start to walk around the island – clockwise or so it seems from our starting point.   White gulls hang over the white beach, white waders – stilts – fly low over the gentle wave breaks just off shore.  Every thing is bright and clear.  The group of island walkers pick up bags and rucksacks, pull on straps and open and shut Velcro fasteners.  Fine-tuning complete we walk on.

At what feels like a corner on a circle a mixed flock of waders gather to roost.  Beak to the wind, tail feathers gently flickering they wait for the turning of the tide.  Long beaks, medium beaks, long legs short legs.  Mud probers, stone flickers.  Large birds, tiny birds.  As we slide slowly into an autumn that should already be here, a Red Knot is putting on its spring clothes.  Getting ready for a long flight north and a breeding party on arrival.  Most of the others of his kind are still dressed in the dull functionality of their work clothes.  No party suit for them yet.  A few Sharp-tailed sandpipers – sharpies - are starting to get dressed up, as are a few Godwit.  It seems a shame that they put on their showy breeding finery just to leave, and return in the drab colours of camouflage and safety. I settle at the back of the walking group and sit down.  Moving my tripod a metre at a time, I bum-shuffle down the beach, edging closer to the birds.  I end up with my feet in the water, a very wet bum and pictures I am pleased with.  That’s a fair trade. 

Overhead the small white birds are not gulls.  They distract me from the waders as they land, just a little out of lens range, on an open sand bar.  They are terns, but the question becomes what sort?  They are very small, with pale legs and dark bills.  Fairy Tern?  Little Tern?  Or the as yet undescribed hybrid The Tiny Tern!  As ever these birds seem to have a combination of the features of both birds.  And it does not help that I can see (or think I can see!) both species in the air over my head.  The ID of this bird becomes a Bridge Too Far.  I plan to consult my photographs when I get home in the hope of finding an answer – optimism never goes amiss.

The prospect of lunch hangs heavy in the air as we walk along a creek edge.  Pushing into the middle of the island, this creek splits the mud in two, hence the plural name – Mud Islands, rather than Mud Island.  Sitting on the edge of a salt marsh, rich with halophyte Salicornia,  Sausage shaped bulbous plants, ripe for the bursting by little fingers,  we are overflown by pelicans and ibis.  Egrets stab at fleeting targets and Buff Banded rails do a passable impression of chickens.  I nibble on an apple, doing a passable impression of a rodent.   The lunch ground smells of coffee, cheese sandwiches and the unmistakable aroma of warm chocolate.

Soft mud, the first we have found, oozes over the top of my shoes as we wade across the creek.  Dozens of small fish, the revealed target of the egret’s beak, flick away from my churning feet.  The water is warm and clear.  Life abounds.   Bigger fish break through the surface and a few crabs sidestep the issue in holes and under rocks.  Life is abundant as we enter a graveyard.

It the proper season the Islands are home to a colony of pelicans.  The birds raise their graceless chicks on nests of sun-bleached sticks, edged with sea cast weed.  But now the colony belongs to the dead.  Broken birds lie is slight, fractured disarray.  Desiccated beyond putrefaction, there no smell beyond that of salt and dust dry sand.  They look like feather rags and bones.   Some died in the nest where there bones join the sticks and their feathers flicker, catching the breeze, a memory of the life potion that failed. Some died under bushes, maybe seeking protection from the afternoon sun, maybe hoping for some hint of warmth and shelter on a chill night.  The economy of over production, safety in numbers, selection in action.  The weak, the failing or badly built, abandoned by genetics. The unfortunate, abandoned by chance.  But all left behind by the ones who did not die.  Those who passed the test and remain part of the DNA river that flows, generation to generation, away from the first cells, away from the well spring of life, branching as new species form.  It’s a site filled with brutal honesty, a clear lesson about the nature of the real.  To see such things is to be reminded of our place in the world.

We walk till we find the paired orange buoys, the hidden drink bottles and a boat to take us home.

I like islands.

More than most other places I like islands, which I don’t suppose is an emotion to set me apart from the crowd.  Neither is it a badge of pride, it’s just a statement of fact.  Just one of those dichotomies that split us from some and join us to others. Beer or wine?  The fish or the chips?  Boots or shoes?  Offshore or onshore?  Many of life’s either/or splits seem to come from habit, tradition or inoculation. My fondness for islands seems to grow with the same inevitable path as my girth in middle age.  

But I need to define the terms of my affection before we move on. I am not talking about the huge, continental sized islands where, despite the best intentions of the ocean, you can still feel land locked.  Nor do I mean the nation sized ones whose coastlines expand off into a distance suitable only for charity walking ex-sportsmen still desperate to live in the affections of the public. And while I may adore these places for a raft of reasons they lack the intimacy of place that comes with the name “island”. They are islands in name only.

The islands of my mind’s eye are small and knowable, a place where the scale of the land does not turn casual exploration into an expedition.  This may sound small and domestic, a vision of home-made bread and jam, rather than one of exotic adventure, but I love the feel of being in a place, rather than just being on a place.  Ideally my island should connect to the mainland only by ferry – and the ferry should sell no tickets but return tickets.  The return only policy is a statement of confidence by the ferryman that anybody on the island who wants to leave the island must have been brought there on his (or her) own vessel.  You need a ticket to get on, but you don’t need one to leave. I don’t think an island can be joined to the mainland by a bridge – and once it is, it ceases to be a real island.  Today, is anybody likely to write a song that contains the lines “Over the bridge to Skye”?  I think not.

We pack the car and pull away from the house.  We have done this a little too often in the last two weeks.  Too much change, too many disrupted plans.  I try to remember how trivial all this is compared to the real impact of the fires.  We head to and through Hobart, from dry rural to the heated city and back into the long grass.    Tyre noise, road wind, the chatter of un-slept children – sometimes relaxed, sometimes not.   The unspoken knowledge that we are a little late concentrates the mind and builds frustration with slow moving traffic.  The contradiction of clock-watching on holiday, the tyranny of the timetable.  I barely have time to turn off the engine before we are asked to move towards the open doors of the ferry.  We have to pay in cash – none of this modernity of electronic money – the ferryman wants money he can fold.  Money you can put in your pocket.  The kind of money we had in the past.

It’s a smooth ride out to Bruny Island.  An island off an island.  To be in Tasmania is to be in a world of islands.  The mainland of Tasmania, Australia’s island state, sits at 26th in the league of world islands, just below Sri Lanka on goal difference, but with a game in hand.  Its coast is sparkled with a necklace of 334 islands.  Some obscure specks inhabited by little more than sea birds and the ghost voice of the wind.  Some larger, with farms and a few shops.  But none have become the kind of tourist meccas that flatten the land and dull the spirit.  
Bruny Island falls into the “some larger” category with a land area equal to that of Singapore – which rather contradicts my “smaller then nation state” criteria.  But, and this is a really important but, it has a population of about 500 souls.  That’s one medium sized hotel’s worth.  Or to put it another way – its about 1/14 of the number of people in 1 square kilometre of Singapore.  There are parts of Bruny Island so lacking in people that they don’t have a postcode.  These statistics alone make it sound a place of deep, almost genetic attractiveness.  And for once the statistics do not lie.

The ferry pulls from Kettering on the mainland and lands at a place with no name on North Bruny.  The island runs away to the south, and takes the form of a very, very battered hourglass.  South Bruny, the bottom of the hourglass, is connected to its northern twin by a narrow strip of sand that seems to holds little more than a single-track road and a belt of sand dunes.  From a strategically placed hill you can look along the length of this narrowing towards the south.  The land is impossibly thin, as if a heavy sneeze, let alone a storm howling from the icy southern ocean, would tear one island from another.  But it seems this neck, this isthmus, is made of sterner stuff than the fluff of sand and the dust of the road.  Herons walk in the water by the side of the road, gulls with sun flicker wings cast around for food in the shallows and at night the air is filled with a cascade of strange calls.  But in the daylight hours I follow the dust from the car in front, not driving into an unknown, but certain that the road is still there and, thin as it may be, that it still reaches the southern island. 

Our house is just across the road from the sea, a long stone’s throw or a good cast.  An inviting balcony wraps around the cardinal points, with old and comfortable looking chairs facing placed to catch the sun.  The pale, slightly careworn wood gives it a warm feeling – the overgrown garden merges into the bush, rocks gathered in lines and curves, the ghosts of old flower beds, look like hut circles from a different time and place.  The whole house feels like it belongs here, as if it had come from the ground rather than been placed upon it.  This feeling of exaggerated homeliness sweeps over you again as you open the door. Door handle rattle, old hinge squeak.  Despite the transient nature of our visit the house feels like home – there are books on the shelves, toys in the cupboards and the cutlery draw speaks of slow accumulation rather then one stop shopping.  Although clean there are marks on the tables and floors that speak of domestic accidents, spilt wine and laughter.  It would have been no surprise to find the real owners sat in a sunny spot, with a mug of tea and a book.  Many holiday houses feel as if the heart of the building has slipped away in the night, leaving an empty shell in its place.  The sloughed off spider skin, which looks like a whole, living spider, but is just a ghost shell.  It never becomes cool enough at night to need to light the fire, but I wish we had anyway.  It would have been nice to smell wood smoke without the worry of bush fire, to hear the logs settle in the firebox as night sounds wrap the house.

The short walk to the sea is disturbed by an echidna, and the echidna is disturbed by a dog.  It bristles at the intrusion and sinks low to the ground, presenting nothing but sharp spines to the sniffing, inquisitive nose.  It becomes a war of patient endurance, in which the echidna has the advantage of time and the dog of innovation.  Soon the dog is distracted by some other scent and dashes off to investigate.   The echidna ignores its change of status and keeps waiting for the coast to be clear of barkings and wet nose, but spiked, snuffles.  I leave it to its stillness and walk the last few yards to the beach.  A small stream, still with a gentle flow of water, runs down to the sea.  It holds black ducks and a white faced heron.  Overhead swallows and martins dash, rapid and fluid through the insect sky, a thin, but nutritious, soup.  In the distance kelp gulls laugh, a counterfeit of the herring gull so beloved of sound effect men and film producers.  It takes me a while to notice the sound.  It remains such a classic part of my internal seaside soundscape that even an absence of almost 20 years does not erase it.  Eventually it breaks through as an unusual sound and I remember where I am and what I should hear.  The kelp gulls stand on a small rocky ledge,  grey backed, fine beaked, perfect Larus. Memory stirs. Cold winds blow, blown in from the North Sea, chill and sharp.  Warmer winds blow from the Atlantic, soft and heavy with rain. All bring gulls.  Following the plough.  Driven by the storm.  Seagulls as a kid, just gulls now.  A kind of constant, a kind of companion.

The shore is covered in rounded stones that clink clack as you walk over them, moving in the same way that rounded them in the first place.  It’s tempting to place them in stacks and piles, beach cairns in homage to Mr Goldsworthy.  A short shot of order in a world overturned by the force of the waves and the day-by-day march of the tides.  One day never the same as the next.

We wait in line for the boat, wondering if we are wearing enough clothes. Wondering if thin layers will work, when what we really want is a thick jumper and a woollen hat.  The brightly coloured boats pull away from Adventure Bay and motor towards the southern end of South Bruny – towards the bottom of the egg timer.  The guide tries a scattergun approach to humour and comment, mostly missing the mark, but noticing (slowly) when he hits the target.  It’s clear he has much to say, but seems embarrassed to do so, hiding his knowledge in jokes and silly over-simplifications.  Even H notices. 

Dressed in full-length red jackets everybody looks like a character from a kid’s show, draped in lengths of cloth and pretending to be sea-farers.  The boats are agile and fast, slipping close to the coast where the rounded rocks gather waves, cormorants, but no rascals.  In perfect evening dinner jacket code, Black Faced Cormorants stand and preen their oily feathers, dry their wings in the coast edge breeze and wait for the turning of the tide.  Below their rock ledge roosts the cliffs are stained white from generations of use, the rocks themselves taking on the smell of old fish and partial digestion.  The boat stops and we watch, gazing up the steep faces.  Sea level sits at one age and the rock grows younger as you look upwards, following time’s arrow towards the sky.  Some rocks are twisted and torn, bent from the table flat origin.  Fractures, small points of weakness, are made larger by the pounding of the waves, bubbles burst with unseen explosive fury and one grain at a time, caves are carved, solid soil heartlands become open sea swept headlands.

The cliffs of South Bruny are some of the tallest in the southern Hemisphere, old beyond real understanding, tall beyond the reach of most.  Vertical lines pull the eye upwards and push the mind back towards thought of the old climbing boots and gear sitting in a blue cardboard box at home.  Where they will stay.   Chimneys and cracks evolve in areas of weakness, the removal of the weakest and the survival of the hardest.  A huge rock pillar – known as the Monument – stands on a solid platform, cut off from the shore by a narrow, foamy channel.  The boat passes through the gap, some form of needle thread, at high speed.  Passengers squeal, the boat captain laughs, the stone face atop the pillar is unmoved.  If I did not know better I would have thought the stone had been carved – a woman and child?  A man and boy?  The old and the young? I can’t help but think of the Argonath, the huge ancestor statues that sit on either side of River Anduin in Lord of the Rings.  I’m sure my passage beneath through the needle’s eye is nowhere near as significant. But it is as spectacular.  This is rock as sculpture, art and nature converging at a singularity of weathered coincidence and human interpretation.

As is the way with even the hardest rocks, flat platforms of stone jut out from the base of the cliff.  They form a wave washed home for Australasian Fur seals – seals with ears and semi-stiff front flippers.  They watch us, with heads cocked in partial interest, and slip into the water to swim beside the boat.  Fur, slicked by the water, shines like polished leather.  They swim because they can, and outrun the boat at will.  The waves that wash the rocks take away the olfactory assault normally associated with such places.  With sea spray damp clothes I’m rather glad they do.

The boat noses its way into caves and sits close to the rocks, the engine purrs – a cat by the fire, pleased with its power and grace.  Unaware of flaw or fault.  Land filtered water in spangled, diamond bright drops, falls from above.  I try to catch them in my hand to see if they are salt or fresh; sea water or air water.  Seaweeds, kelps, holding fast to the rocks at the very top of the low tide marks, wrap the rocks.  In some of the cracks between the rocks you can glimpse crabs.  The water washes clear and pure.  Life abounds.   Waves rush into a deep cut in the rocks and push the air into a smaller space with the whole weight of the ocean at its back.  When the waves pull back the air rushes back into the open space and the deep cut seems to breathe out vapours of life.  The rock seems to live.  In and out with the waves.  Jets of water from the lungs of the Earth.  The kids on the front of the boat, my kids, get wet.  They enjoy it at the time, but later complain of cold.

The sound of the boat’s engines changes as we head away from the cliffs and the breaking waves.  On the horizon I can see smoke – a filtered grey cloud that lifts from the sea in waves.  Some clouds go one way; some go the other, in contradiction of their true behaviour.  The closer we get the more granular the clouds become, as if you could I could see the molecules in a cloud, the particles themselves revealed.  The clouds are birds – uncountable numbers of short tailed shearwaters, mutton birds, gathered in floating and flying groups all over the sea.  Their motion seems random, some fly away from us, some fly towards us, some fain casual indifference and sit, becalmed on the waves.  Focus becomes almost impossible; it’s like being inside a blizzard looking for a single point of reference.  From above our boat may have looked like a still point, a centre, but from inside clarity is not possible.  Shy albatross fly on board stiff wings through the wing thrashes of the shearwaters.  Slate blue grey birds are fairy prions.  But the thousands and thousands  (who knows) of shearwaters clog the horizon and fill the mind.

At last we reach a still point where an albatross sits on the water, wings cocked above the water; bent, long and thin.  Impossibly light, but capable of such speed.  It turns its back on us and runs over the water and splash jumps into the air.

We turn our back on the birds and head back to our island from an island.  Back to the small mainland that is Bruny Island.