Around midnight last night the insides of my eyelids exploded with electric-purple light, followed almost instantaneously by a tremendous thunderclap that surely put the chooks off the lay for weeks. After leaping out of bed to madly shut doors and windows like preparing a submarine for its watery descent, I spent the next hour delightfully smug – at least I wasn’t camping in a tent.
Conditions outside were fast working themselves into a full-blown tempest. As I lay in my big, comfy bed, strobed by the incessant mania of clouds lit up like God’s synapses, I wondered what the experience might be like for a bird in the forest outside. My first thought was that it wouldn’t be pleasant. Not one bit.
Take the Eastern Spinebill for instance. This rather delicate little creature is Australia’s hummingbird. I could fit ten of them in my tea cup (if I shoved them a bit). By day, spinebills flit about probing their long, curved bills into flower-cups and supping sweet nectar to fuel their tiny metabolic engines.
As evening falls they retreat to a protective sleeping perch in dense foliage and hope like anything they live to see the next dawn. Most do.
Last night must have been a living hell for spinebills. Assaulted by pelting rain, blown ragged by blasting winds, they were doubtlessly frightened witless. Or is this just my anthropomorphic projection?
Certainly birds are capable of experiencing fear. Research with crows confirms they think, plan, innovate, play, mourn and devise cunning solutions for novel problems. Some crows even bring special gifts to people and belly-slide down snow-covered rooftops for fun.
I wanted to open the window and invite in all the rain-soaked birds. I was worried for them. But come morning, the Christmas day sun shone brightly and even before my bleary eyes winked open I could hear the merry song of a great throng of spinebills frolicking in the grevillea outside my bedroom window. It was folly to think they needed me after all. Go well my feathered friends.
I was walking through Chinatown in the big smoke of Sydney last week looking for fresh dumplings when my phone vibrated. It was a message from my friend Matt. He wanted to know if I’d seen any Topknot Pigeons flocking over the valley and if so what the heck are they eating? I looked around at the bright lights and swarming faces – it was truly bizarre. I texted Matt back – “yeah been seeing small mobs in valley – could be feeding on Native Tamarind which is fruiting at moment?” Then, later as my dumplings arrived I added “Rose-crowned Fruit-doves have arrived!!” I’d love to say I “tweeted” that last bit, but I actually don’t know how to tweet.
Let me unpack this exchange for you.
Early settler accounts of the late 1800’s in Bellingen describe flocks of Topknot Pigeons so massive in number they dimmed the sun for hours as they flew over. These days, with 99% of the lowland rainforests cleared for agriculture and housing you’d be stoked to catch a flock of 50 birds. But nonetheless, when 50 of these enormous grey fruit pigeons swoop and wheel low across the sky, with a sound like silk rippling in a breeze, the effect is to add years to ones’ life for the pure joy it elicits.
Actually, what makes me smile the most about these birds is their unmistakable call. Topknot Pigeons are alone in the world as sounding exactly as if someone has just given them a birthday gift that they already have three of and never liked in the first place….a sort of depressing sigh. It’s one of Nature’s jokes.
And why was I so thrilled about the newly minted arrival of the Rose-crowned Fruit Dove?? Because I am a rabid bird nerd I hear some of you say? Well, yes…BUT, because they are AWESOME! The dove that I hear calling as I type these words has just arrived in the valley from a long-haul, overland flight from the rainforests of Northern QLD (fleeing One Nation supporters?) or Papua New Guinea. The first sounds of their deep, resonating call of “whoo-wooo, whoo-woo, whoo-woop-woop-woop” mark the exact timing of fruiting of several species of rainforests figs and vines.
Thus these sneaky, little colourful doves are a seasonal placeholder, and to mine and Matt’s ears at least form part of the ongoing symphony of nature. A symphony that extends back tens of millions of years and sings the forest into health.
There is a careful art to adventuring. The tricky part of any adventurous experience is ensuring your level of planning detail is not so overbearing as to snuff out any chance for misadventure. Too much misadventure and you likely won’t live long enough to tell the story (see film “Into the Wild”, for example), too little and the stories you do live to tell will be so mind-numbingly timid and boring that your audience will be left feeling empty and sad (for you).
It’s a delicate thing to strike the balance between enjoying the cultivated safety of the moment and basking in the afterglow from barely surviving some unexpected horror. As with the CIA, my personal motto is – hope for the best / plan for the worst. That’s why my backpack is always so weighed down by all the navigational gadgetry and emergency-response paraphernalia needed to resolve a host of potential safety contingencies. Get bitten by a cranky tiger snake? Relax, no worries. Amputate a gangrenous limb? Messy, but doable. Need to light a fire in the rain in the dark but torch batteries have gone flat? Let me grab my waxed cardboard and solar-recharged spare batteries.
But the wilds are….well, they’re wild, so sometimes stuff gets around my nerdy planning. On such occasions I am left running on mere hominid instincts. And while that can be scary-as, it’s also exhilarating – the rush of adrenaline and the sphincter-contracting sense of careening down one of life’s unexpected black-run slopes with only your raw wits to guide you.
Most importantly though, there are unique conditions which unexpectedly emerge from the smoking ashes of our fallen plans and it is through the lens of these randomly altered circumstances that a story worth telling can take root. The following rather sweet little tale of misadventure is, I hope, just such a story.
A few months back my mate Tyler and I hefted a couple of mobile homes onto our backs and headed into the 110,000 hectares of the Guy Fawkes River wilderness. After a long and grueling steep descent into the gorge (note to self – trim toenails next time!) we met with a winding wild river whose temperature closely resembled that of the frozen blueberries in my freezer. Not only was it bloody cold, but the early spring rains had clearly had their way with it and every crossing was a touch-and-go affair. On one particularly memorable occasion I witnessed Tyler disappear entirely – dreadlocks and all – under the frigid waters. Evidently the large round boulders were deadly slippery. I chose the gravel crossings from then on.
Late in the day we decided to set up camp on a lovely shingle bank, overhung by River Oaks and conveniently close to the river. The oaks whispered in the breeze, their soft melancholic voices perhaps warning us of impending danger – but who knows – trees are notoriously unclear in their communication (unless they fall on you).
By the time we’d unpacked and set up all the incredible amounts of plush, high-tech crap we’d both carried in, it was charcoal-dark. Sometime, probably around 9pm, while taxiing for final approach to a much anticipated sleeping posture, I felt the first inklings of a subtle wrongness unfolding. At the time it just seemed like a weird chill breeze suddenly cropping up from up-river, so I put it out of mind.
We began to hear what sounded like brumbies wading slowly across the river. We both switched off our head torches and listened. The Guy Fawkes has thousands of wild horses living along its banks and I have often heard them crossing the river at night on previous hikes in the gorge, so this was not unusual in itself. Most people do not know this about me – not even Zoe I suspect – but I am highly fearful of cows. Up close I mean. In the paddock I couldn’t care less and on my plate in a lasagna I’m rather very casual about them. But up close they are enormous, reckless beasts with unstable brain waves. Brumbies at night are sort of like cows. I wasn’t palpitating with fear or anything but let’s just say I was listening very closely.
What was unusual and what gave me the first confirmation of a major something-not-right situation taking root, was when some ten minutes later the sound of brumbies fording the river was still going strong. In fact, the brumbies seemed to be getting bigger and more numerous by the minute now. Something about this struck me as hugely improbable. For one thing, the river upstream was deep and cranking along. It would be a stupid horse indeed that tried to cross there at night. For another, there was that weird chill breeze and where the hell did all these annoying crawling insects come from?? What the effing-heck was going on here?
I stood up and switched on my head torch. Sweet Jesus…what I saw in that brightly lit moment is a sight no camper set up on a river bank ever wants to see.
Only a few hours previously I had watched a slowly meandering river of highly personable demeanour ambling by our camp. I saw before me now a scene of swift-flowing dirty water churning past us, carrying so much leafy debris it looked as if a Jim’s Gardening mulch truck had driven into the river somewhere upstream. The most sure-fire indicator of wrongness being afoot was that the water’s edge, previously 20 metres from our cozy little camp, was now about 5 metres away…no, actually make that 4….ah crap it was rising faster than a hot bath.
At that point, three thoughts went through my head simultaneously. 1. We are in the direct path of a flash flood; 2. that odd splashing sound upstream is not effing brumbies, it’s pressure waves breaking into churning rapids; and 3. the first thing I need to rescue from the rising flood waters is the coffee.
Ten minutes of manic kinetic energy later and we had unloaded the hitherto-immaculately -neat contents of our entire camp into a hideously wet pile up the bank on higher ground. A soft rain was falling as we looked back to the soft gravel flats below, still marked by the tell-tale impressions of the preparations for bed of two tired hikers, only moments ago. Already the flood waters were edging up across the campsite. I shuddered to imagine how it would have felt to awaken in the deep dark of night with the deathly cold river waters lapping at my face like a churlish dog. Even now, writing this story months later, I shudder in revulsion.
We eventually set up our second camp for the night on a high bank and after a few paranoid visits down through the malicious stinging nettle to check on the rising waters I finally fell into deep slumber. It was perhaps around 3am that I was abruptly awoken by what sounded like half the gorge sliding into the river. The sudden enormity and ominous crushing finality of the sound was awesome. But the spidery fingers of deep sleep reached up from their uncharted depths to drag me back to oblivion and if it had not been for Tyler’s prompting in the morning I might never have remembered the event.
It turned out the noise was not the result of a catastrophic landslide but rather came from an enormous old tree crashing to the ground barely 100 metres from our slumbering, squishy-bodied selves. Come to think of it, we did sort of forget in the rush of setting up camp No2 to look up for dead wood.
Our original plan had been to take 5 days to hike through the meandering gorge of the spectacular Guy Fawkes River, a one-way trip that would see us emerge some 70 kilometres north of where we’d started. By late afternoon on the second day however, with little recession of the enigmatic floodwaters it gradually dawned on us that our carefully laid plans were fast unraveling.
With each passing hour that we remained trapped by the river, the task of making up for lost distance over the remaining time became increasingly implausible, until finally by nightfall, a fateful moment arrived when we both accepted that our master plan had terminally flat-lined and could not be revived. The river crossings would remain insanely perilous for many days to come and the gorge either side of us was impossibly steep and peppered with high cliffs. We were going nowhere fast.
But where I had expected to feel a sense of forlorn defeat, I found instead that I was filled by an unexpected surge of relief. Here at last, I was freed from the relentless tyranny of needing to be in control of my life. Here at last, events beyond my control had intervened to overwhelm my own quixotic desire for dictatorship over my destiny and I could do sweet-effing-all about it.
As the days stacked up I found I became oblivious to any notion of time marked off by hours. Rather, we were guided by a new set of measures : the long arc of the sun across the gorge, a rumbling in our bellies (or in our bowels), the wandering shadows sneaking across camp or the penetrating whistle of quails seeking out wayward family towards evening. And everywhere the murmur of the river.
So it is then that misadventure sometimes brings unexpected gifts.
Regarding toilet-paper: A final word of advice for the Guy Fawkes wanderer.
I think it must have been at the end of breakfast on the first day that Tyler casually enquired as to the whereabouts of the toilet paper. We had previously agreed that I would bring this necessary item. However, even as his words travelled across the smoky campfire that morning a fleeting image appeared in my mind of the said-paper waiting on the lounge at home to be packed. That would have been shortly before I grabbed my coffee cup, hefted my pack and headed out the door. Bugger…
Quietly casting my eyes about across the river bank for my trusty alternative bog roll plant (ie. wild tobacco – see previous blog on bush toiletry tips) I spied a plant growing prolifically across the grassy banks which, upon closer inspection, held the unmistakable allure of bottom-loving softness and suitable ply strength. The plant in question was Lambs Ear (see image) and it will forever be regarded with deep affection by Tyler and myself.
Subsequent field testing of the moist leaves of Lambs Ear, high up on the newly minted “La Shittine Ridge” (see view from squat in following image) proved spectacularly successful, and no more was spoken on my lousy packing error.
With four weekend field outings under their belt, the budding Young Naturalist Club, led by Andrew Turbill and Karina Davilas are beginning to get into a steady rhythm. The group of 11 – 15 year olds and a scattering of parents have been to various locations across the region, including searching for lyrebirds at Dorrigo Rainforest Centre, unraveling mysterious tracks on the beach at Bongil Bongil NP, spotting whales, scratching about in the mulch for Koala pooh at Botanic Gardens and drawing rare wildflowers at Moonee.
The Young Naturalist Club meets once a month for half a day (Sundays normally) and usually involve a special guest local ecologist to assist in our naturalist investigations. Future outings scheduled include searching for ground orchids on the Killungoondie Plains and watching the spectacle of thousands of Shearwater returning to their burrows on Muttonbird Island.
If you are interested in joining up your child to the club please email Andrew Turbill on theagitator (AT) bigpond.com
At some point in your life’s journey the day may arrive when you will be required to solve, perhaps with great urgency, the rather mucky dilemma of how best to make an unscheduled organic deposit (known in the trade as a “bush-poo”) while out roaming the wilds. Chances are you will be without the familiar assistance of conventional toilet paper. This will likely pose something of a unique crisis. A crisis for which you may have precious little time to contemplate your misfortune, but worry not – as always, Nature provides.
Harken dear reader, my advice may just save the day.
With the learned experience that comes of having lived much of my life in the wilds, I can advise in good faith that the soft, furry leaves of the ubiquitous local Wild Tobacco shrub make excellent bush toilet paper. Truth be told, there was a time in my twenties when I used Wild Tobacco-leaf ‘toilet paper’ exclusively for more than 2 years. That’s just the sort of thing most people do in their twenties right? In fact, I may have developed a mildly narcotic addiction to this peculiar toiletry habit. Even now, more than two decades later, I can’t go past a healthy young tobacco plant without feeling a twinge of sudden abdominal activity. I suppose I could try patches?
When this desperate circumstance does arise then my first word of advice is to stay calm and as a certain galactic travel guide famously inscribes on its cover: “DON’T PANIC!”. Panic will only lead to trouble, probably trouble of an unspeakable variety in fact, and soon.Rather, you should coolly assess thelandscape for the purpose of availing yourself of a large handful of furred leaves from the nearest Wild Tobacco plant. I say here to collect a “large handful”. Withtrial and error during my Mount Glorious days I quickly wised up to the limited tensile strength of these admirably soft leaves and as such, I strongly recommend you go with 4 or 5 ply to avoid mishap.
A quick but necessary word of warning here (from my lawyer). Take particular care in your haste tonsure that the large-leafed plant you are about to apply to your tender nether-regions is not, in fact, the Giant Stinging Tree. There are few field reliable tests for the novice which can reliably distinguish the Giant Stinging Tree from Wild Tobacco, other than that the former causes excruciating and enduring pain the instant it comes into contact with your skin, whereas the latter does not. Let that knowledge be a ready reckoner in the field.
I further advise where possible and if time permits, to seek out the absolutely newest, most tender of leaves on the Wild Tobacco and if you are fortunate enough to have your bowel move in the morning, there is much to be said for the dew-covered leaf. Much indeed…
A quick backstory here…At my peak wild tobacco-use time I was 21 years old and living a fabulously languid and bohemian lifestyle in a homemade teepee I’d set up amidst the lush rainforest of a place known as Mount Glorious (no really…that’s its actual name). The image which attends this blog is from that legendary time and clearly celebrates my lack of toilet facilities. Apparently the good people of Queensland thought it rather quaint and bizarre that a young dreadlocked hippy would not only have no toilet but would also volunteer to go off the dole (being on the dole in the 90s was a total hoot for us alternative types, not like today’s veritable Gulag).
It took me and a meticulous Swiss friend some 3 months of daily toil to clear a hectare or so of dense lantana to make room for my palatial teepee and another year before we completed planting out the fertile, volcanic soils with rainforest seedlings. My teepee, in breaking with thousands of years of Native American tradition (they never lived in Mount Glorious) was installed around a raised timber floor and heated by an internal combustion stove. It was cutting-edge feral living. I installed solar panels on a tall post in one of the only places the sun reliably found the ground and powered up such luxuries as lights, torch recharger and a charger for my primitive laptop.
Now I can well imagine some of you younger-reader-types gasping like anoxic guppies in astonishment that laptops were even invented back then…well they were. Barely. And although their puny computing muscle was probably on par with a modern TV remote my little lappie was the only solar-powered, fancy typewriter I knew of. Which was, I thought, awesomely cool and hip.
In a biological sense the teepee served a similar purpose to the earthen display mounds that male lyrebirds make at this time of the year to dance on. Like a frisky Lyrebird and single at the time, I too desired a mate. Although I’m generally too shy to dance (in public) and singing is definitely NOT my strongest competency, I suppose my dreadlocks were kinda like a magnificent tail and my early trumpet playing attempts might conceivably be compared to the legendary troubadour talents of a lyrebird?
Ok, that’s probably not accurate – my trumpeting sounded more like the tortured bleating of a fatally wounded, lactose intolerant goat (who has just gorged on cheese) and my dreadies were totally manky and gross. Notwithstanding the above, I did eventually succeed in luring a partner to my conical lair.
I mention this only by way of introducing you to the wonderful yurt that we subsequently built by the creek. Because we lived DEEP in the rainforest with no road access and barely a path at all really, every part of this yurt construction had to be carried down through the forest and assembled on site. This included the 6m-wide timber floor, cast-iron fireplace, Singer treadle sewing machine and queen-sized futon mattress (and wasn’t that the most STUPID bed to have in a place so perennially dank and dark. We pretty much slept on a fetid lump of mold spores).
So close to the creek were we in fact that when it flooded, which it did often in Mount Glorious, the swollen creek waters would actually pass BENEATH the raised floor of the yurt. I vividly recall lying in bed listening with some apprehension to the throaty roar of dark water rushing, not 3 feet below me and was occasionally jolted out of my uneasy slumber by the sudden thud of drifting branches pummeling the footings. And the frogs!! Never have I heard such a deafening cacophony of sexual ardor as on those wet, dark nights on the creek at Mount Glorious.
By way of wrapping this shamelessly me-centric story up, I will quickly recount a visit I made earlier this year back to the same creek where my teepee and yurt once reigned supreme. Where, in the summer of 1992 I had faced off against a veritable army of old-growth lantana, I now walked amongst huge, majestic rainforest trees. Incredibly, these towering giants were the very same seedlings that I lovingly planted all those years ago. In some cases, the timber stakes I had used had remained and were deeply embedded in half a meter of buttressed trunk. I felt a strong paternal love and affection for these beautiful trees – they were after all, planted not only by my young hand, but also on the organic fertility provided by my daily bowel movements and thousands of recycled Wild Tobacco wipes.
On Mother’s Day Sunday (8th May), the newly minted Young Naturalist Club had its inaugural field outing to Dorrigo National Park. Led by Andrew Turbill and Karina Dàvila (who until recently worked as a tour guide in the Amazon), the outing was attended by 9 awesome young naturalists and a handful of parents. We’d set a goal for ourselves of finding a Superb Lyrebird, the males are frisky and singing their hearts out at this time of year, but though we did find fresh diggings besides the track, the lyrebirds remained elusive, as they so often are. So instead we climbed inside hollowed-out giant strangler figs, checked out whacky fungi, spotted cool rainforest birds like the King Parrot, Bassian Thrush and Grey Goshawk and did a 20 minute sit spot. For some in the group this was the first time they had experienced a “sit spot”, but the ability of the group to silently “disappear” into the forest was duly impressive and bodes well for future outings.
The next field outing of the Young Naturalist Club will be on Sunday 5th June, when we will explore for animal tracks along the coastal sand dunes and littoral rainforest of Bongil Bongil National Park. Anyone interested in joining the club, and is in aged between 10 and 15 (or very close to that), please email Andrew on theagitator(AT)bigpond.com. Half-day outings (8.30am to 12 noon) are held once a month to local natural landscapes with a theme or challenge set for the group one each. Children interested in joining should have a strong interest in nature, are able to participate in group activities which require quiet observation and concentration, and are independent. There is no cost for the first outing (trial basis) but subsequent outings are $10 donation. Andrew and Karina volunteer their time.