Awake suddenly at 4.48am my first thought was THIS is the morning. I’d read that Mars would be closer than it will ever be in our lifetime on this very morning. The closest it will ever be is 60 million miles away—the farthest will be 400 million. My second thought was ‘there is no way I’ll get back to sleep, so I may as well get up and see Mars’. Not the thoughts of an intrepid astronomer.
I’d read Mars would be the brightest thing in the sky that night. I was doubtful. I was just hoping I would be able to identify it. Our skies are so clear and dark that as long as there is no cloud, things can usually be seen, but I’m no expert at identification. My feet slid along the bare, cold tiles to the western end of the house. As I opened the French door to the patio there it was, golden yellow/orange, twinkling against the navy blue sky. “I’m seeing something I will never see again. No human alive will ever see this again. Something many people on earth won’t know about, or take time to notice, or have access to see.” And I stand there in the perfect early morning air gently ruffling my nightie and I watch Mars twinkle and I think, if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.
The first of our trips to places that were rebuilding after the bush fires was a trip ‘overseas’. More specifically during a trip to Adelaide (1500k/1000miles south of Alice) to visit our daughter, we had a side trip of a twenty-five minute plane ride over water to Kangaroo Island. Most of you will remember the horrible video from last December/January that documented the decimation of the Flinders Chase National park covering the entire western portion of the island. The loss was heart breaking. At the time, Don and I were sad for the loss, but also that we had not been there yet. We thought we’d have to wait for years to be able to see it. But that was before we hatched our plan to travel to the places that wanted visitors to come and help them re-establish tourism and put some money into the economy.
We were assured there was still plenty to see on the island by friends who had travelled there only weeks after the fires. They were so right. It was still gut wrenching to drive through kilometres of blackened national forest. But to go now, when things were starting to regrow was also very heartening.
The sustainable timber industry had forests of trees that were 95% ruined for use, but a few that were already shooting new growth. Beside this forest were dozens of grass trees. We have never traveled anywhere in Australia where we have seen as many grass trees (Xanthorrhoea australis). Interestingly, where we saw the ones that had been through the fires, they had shot enormous flower spikes, an urgent will to survive! But in areas we traveled that had not had the fires, hardly a flower spike was seen. Mother nature at her best. In some areas there were dozens of grass trees, kilometres of them along the roads even. It was staggering. Grass trees are extremely slow growing but seemingly, rather fire tolerant.
Of course the wildlife did not fare so well. But the rangers assured us they had seen platypus, kangaroo, goannas, wombats and birds returning. As the plants grow and become a greater source of shelter and food, they expect more animals to be seen. The fur seals and sea lions were plentiful, back from their near extinction from hunters a hundred years ago. The ranger at the gate of the national park said ‘Come back and see us in 7-10 years and we will be a different place’. That seems a long time on one hand, but not so much in other ways.
Each part of the island has a slightly different character. Emu Bay, where we spent the first two nights, is peaceful and green. There were plenty of Kangaroos, though most didn’t show themselves until it was too dark to get photos. However, upon our arrival we had only just gotten out of the car when we looked up to see a Koala, asleep in the gum tree beside the house we had rented. It was only the second wild Koala I’ve seen in the 37 years I’ve lived in Australia. Of course I’ve seen them up close in various sanctuaries around the country, but not in the wild. Much of their habitat is disappearing so they are dwindling in numbers.
Seal Bay was a fun place, even when I took my eye off the task at hand and had a large male seal decide to have a run at me. The hazards of concentrating on the subject when photographing wildlife!
The walk on the beach was very windy, but I absolutely love seeing and photographing the treasures that are washed up on the sand.
We had some delicious food at some characterful places, including Penneshaw’s The Fat Beagle (best brownie ever!), seafood selection near American River, and breakfast and lunch at Millie Mae’s Pantry (Penneshaw). Though, quite a few places were still closed from winter, and covid, and fire devastation. In each area we visited we found one or two good places to eat. And we self catered a couple of times as well. The local IGA had a good selection of fresh foods.
But one of my most lasting memories was seeing the smile that almost never left our daughter’s face the entire time we were there. It’s been a tough year for some…and a very tough year for others and the environment. Take heart, there is still joy to be had in life and remember at every opportunity the words of Kurt Vonnegut
I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is’.
This isn’t a piece about a sports team named the Falcons…these Falcons are athletes of a different species, diving and racing up to speeds of 300kph! As you would have noticed from the last post, I’m a bit of a bird nerd. Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother nursing an injured or fledgling house sparrow back to health. I’m sure she never realised, or would care, that the common house sparrow has come to be known as one of the most adaptable birds in the world, and very clever too! She just loved all creatures.
About a month ago I became aware of a bird project, supported by Birdlife Australia, that is rather extraordinary. It not only supports a population of Peregrin Falcons, but it has enabled the public to come along on the journey. About thirty years ago a group of avid Twitchers and lovers of the Peregrin Falcons realised that it was quite dangerous for the birds to be nesting in the nooks and crannies of the high rise office buildings in the city. (They naturally nest in crevices of rocky ledges.) They raised money and built nesting boxes which they installed in known Falcon nesting places, one of which was located in the high rise building at 367 Collins Street in downtown Melbourne, Australia. Thirty years on the boxes were mostly deteriorated but the birds had regularly used them. So this year Birdlife Australia again raised money to build stronger, metal nesting boxes and hired a crane to help place them.
One of the long known locations, at 367 Collins Street was also the recipient of a new live stream camera! The live stream emanates from the web address at 367collinsfalcons.com.au and also is on YouTube. When I first started watching it 6 or 7 weeks ago, there were no eggs. Then, in rapid succession the female falcon laid three eggs and began the tedious task of sitting on them. Occasionally the male would come to relieve her so she could hunt for food but she did most of the sitting, so I gather. Personally, I can’t tell the two of them apart yet.
Then, on Friday just before lunch time, the chicks made their entrance into the world. I was surprised to see that Mum still sits on them and think that most of us who have had babies would have liked to sit on them once in a while to quiet them, but the rest of it, I leave to the Falcon world. The tearing up of small prey and feeding to the young ones is most unappealing, and yet, very interesting to watch as first one squawks and then another. She’s such an attentive mum.
Melbourne weather is mostly cool-ish, ranging to muggy and warm in the summer, and I noticed yesterday as they were having a warm, humid day that rather than sitting on the chicks to keep them warm, she sat on the edge of the nesting box to shade the little darlings. This is very difficult for mum because she is always on alert for other birds or dangers that might harm her brood, and sitting with her back to the sun in order to shade the chicks is very awkward for her. I’ve only ever seen her close her eyes once, and only for a few seconds. I think she must get very tired.
The last few days as I have watched the nest cam, I have been taking screen shots, which I share with you in this post. I hope you will go to the live stream and watch this special bit of nature unfolding. You can read more about the Falcons on the site as well.
Like most people, at the beginning of 2020, we had plans. We had the long planned for trip to the Southern Ocean and South Africa, but as the year unfolded with tragic bushfires here in Australia, we added another plan to our itinerary. We decided to spend our travels over the next year or so going to places in our country that had been ravaged by the fires. With the trip to the Southern Ocean looming and bushfires still raging, we decided to wait until we returned to start making plans to put some money back into the various places that needed it. Little did we know…
Of course by the time we returned in late March the Pandemic was declared and borders were closing faster than a safety gate. Like everyone we followed along as weekly, even daily, changes were announced toward trying to control the spread of COVID-19. So familiar is it to our daily lives that we now have a shorthand language developing. No one says COVID-19 anymore, it’s just ‘covid’… and ’iso’ instead of isolation. But as things here in Australia have eased, we have picked up our plans again to help reinvigorate tourism. Our latest trip was three days and two nights, here in our own Territory.
A couple of months ago when the Northern Territory reopened the parks, but before the borders were reopened, we were encouraged to support the reopening tourist sites and businesses. There were a limited number of vouchers offered to locals as incentives to apply toward local travels. Two other couples, and we, decided a trip to Kings Canyon (no apostrophe in case you are wondering) in Watarrka National Park could be a good place to go before the weather heated up too much. The other two couples had previously visited, but we had not. We have strategically been saving some of our travels in Australia for our dotage, when International travel no longer seemed doable, or appealing. That would be now, on both counts!
Kings Canyon is about 325 kilometres from Alice, around 4 hours driving, depending on which route you take. There aren’t many things to stop for en route, unless you enjoy the subtle desert country as we do. But there are a couple of things, as well as the unique scenery. Unfortunately it remains very, very dry here at the moment, red dust turning green trees to brown. One good rain and it would all be rinsed clean and green again. Even with the dust, I managed to find a number of wild flowers to photograph.
We visited the Henbury Meteorite Reserve as well as a classic old bush style pub called Jim’s Place. The Meteorite craters were more impressive than I expected. You could plainly see where the meteors had hit and disrupted the normal land forms. The ‘larger’ meteors were only the size of a 200 litre fuel drum, but they blasted out enormous craters, one of which grew a small ecosystem of its own because it could hold precious water after the sparse rains.
The main attraction for the trip was, of course, Kings Canyon. It certainly was beautiful, but if you were expecting something like The Grand Canyon in the American southwest, you might be a little disappointed. Still, this one required 500 steps ascending up to the top of the rim and then was a 6 kilometre walk around the rim before coming down again. It takes about 3-4 hours. I made the decision to walk the shorter, less arduous, walk through the bottom of the canyon along the creek. You know I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, but I’d been having some problems with a muscle that affected my walking and would spasm afterward and decided 500 steps up seemed a little out of my reach on this occasion.
The other two women in the group decided to join me. We had a fun walk and conversation that easily filled a couple of hours. After we had all returned to the accommodation Don began telling me of a very curious encounter the men had as they were finishing the walk. Heading out of the canyon there is a water tap installed above a beautiful, large rock. Since they had been one of the first groups up that morning it didn’t appear anyone had used the water tap and the rock was dry. As they approached, a small Spinifex Pigeon scurrying along the path came up to one of the men’s shadows, circled around a couple of times, then scurried over to the rock, stopped, and stared back at the men. Not getting the hoped for response, the pigeon did it again. After the second time, one of the men ‘got’ the message–the pigeon wanted them to turn on the water so it could have a drink!! I’m always yammering on about how smart birds are and some of the amazing feats they’ve preformed over the years since humans have been recording such things. So Don knew this would interest me. I was also intensely envious. A Spinifex Pigeon has been at the top of my list of birds to see, and perhaps even photograph, for many years. As many times as we have been out bush in the 28 years we’ve lived in Central Australia, I had never seen a Spinifex Pigeon.
Later in the afternoon, Don and I decided to take a little walk around the grounds of the ‘resort’. As we left our room, Julie came running out from their room two doors up and called to her husband who had just driven in, “Jim, hurry, there’s a lizard trying to eat something!” We immediately wheeled around and headed toward their room too. Once on the balcony we looked into the rocks 8 or so metres away and there was a large Perentie, probably 6 feet long, dragging a rabbit down the rocks in preparation to dine al fresco. Jim was brave, approaching to about half the distance between us and the lizard and with his high quality lens got some amazing photos and video. This was a truly unusual thing to see.
Just when we thought we had reached peak Perentie excitement, what should appear but a Dingo!! It was very keen to share the meal and began to climb down the rocks. The Perentie was equally keen to keep the rabbit to itself. The dingo looked up and saw all of us staring and must have decided things were a little too risky for his liking and he retreated as quickly as he had appeared. The Perentie gulped down a piece of rabbit about twice the size of its head and then disappeared into the rocks. We all agreed one or both would be back to finish the meal.
Sure enough about an hour and a half later, both the Perentie and the Dingo reappeared. The Dingo grabbed a hunk of rabbit, stopped to quickly swallow it whole, and the Perentie came back to the remains, but must have been full from its first meal and left again soon thereafter. You can bet money by dark that evening there was no rabbit left.
About twenty minutes before sunset we headed down along the boardwalk to the area where people brought their drinks and nibbles to watch the skies and mountains in the closing light of evening. I had been crouched over some wild flowers near the boardwalk and when I stood up to finish walking to the area under the desert oak tree, I was faced with a wild dingo staring down my husband!! Don was trying to ‘shoo’ the dingo in my direction but the dingo hesitated just long enough for me to get my iphone ready. Suddenly the dingo wheeled around and headed for me. I did get a bit of video but the more amazing photo is the one I almost blindly captured as the dingo trotted within inches of me on its way to wherever dingoes go! With the canyon walks and wildlife, it was a day we would remember for a long time.
The next morning, our driver (and friend) Jim, asked us if there was anything else we wanted to see before we left the area. Still intensely envious of the men’s encounter with the Spinifex Pigeon I laughingly said I would loved to have seen that. As the canyon was about 20 minutes’ drive from the accommodation I didn’t want to inconvenience everyone in pursuing my bird passion. But Jim insisted we should try and who was I to argue??
This time, as we approached, two Spinifex Pigeons came scurrying* out of the scrub and right up to us at the entrance. They raced over to the water fountains that were still dry as it was fairly early in the day. I got my iPhone ready and in position and then quickly pushed the button to allow some water down to the grate. It was like Pigeon magic, they scurried in, out and around like gleeful children in a public fountain in mid-summer.
But the men called me over to the other water tap that drained onto the rock. Once there I again squatted and got the camera settings right and Jim let the water do its magic. In seconds the Spinifex Pigeons purposefully made their way toward the water that settled into the crevices in the large rock. Whoever thought of this idea was a genius. I’m sure the birds think so too! Not only did my elusive Spinifex Pigeon appear, but another bird at the top of my list, the Zebra Finch. I had seen many Zebra Finches over the years, indeed many mornings on my walks I see them and hear their soft chirping sounds. But they are so tiny and skittish I have never been able to photograph them with my iPhone. And. there. they. were. Honestly, inside I was jumping up and down clapping hands and laughing gleefully. But outside, I was squatted and still, until my legs could no longer hold me and I had to brace myself to stand up. I’m never sure I’ve actually got the images I am after until I look at them, so I had no idea if the photos had turned out or not, but watching the action in person was enough in any case.
Our trip to Kings Canyon was a success on many levels, the company of good friends, the beautiful desert country, the canyon itself, and the animals and flora along the way. Why wouldn’t everyone be anxious to come and see the wonderful land of Oz?
*Note on ‘scurrying’… many birds hop, some waddle, others scratch their way around the ground. Pigeons most definitely ‘scurry’. That is their comical and very endearing mode of covering ground! Watch them sometime, they always scurry.
Minutes ago I was up to my forearms in purple gloves, digging in cow manure for an earthworm. If that sounds oddly reminiscent to you, like the story of the optimist and the pessimist twins who were both given a roomful of shit for their birthday, you may be on to me. The pessimist child was sad and thought all she deserved was a roomful of shit. But the optimist sibling enthusiastically dived into the shit-filled room and declared ‘With all this shit, there must be a pony in here somewhere!’
Last summer was a total disaster for my herb garden, and a new low point for my gardening skills in general. Admittedly, I’ve not embraced a lot of the maintenance and prep-work as I should have. Ours is a harsh climate and we were traveling more. And sometimes I’m just ridiculously hopeful. Given the chance this year to pursue my hermit tendencies has meant time to think…time to prepare, time to get my ass in gear and build a garden, albeit a small one to start with. And I have a secret weapon now that I have not always had…a gardening guru.
Here are her credentials:
It all started back in April when we contracted our favourite paving genius, Scott, to pull up the old pavers in the courtyard and re-lay them, removing tree roots and other impediments to a level paving surface once again. I really didn’t need to break a hip by falling on the way to the clothesline. As we were clearing away the various piles of old pavers and bricks, left over from at least four other jobs, as well as various stacked pots, the garden beds were clearly revealed. They were in an unimpressive state of compressed soil, so poor it was hard to believe I’d been growing herbs in them for some 20 years!
Scott and his helpers came and performed their levelling magic. But something inside me was niggling…level pavers was just not enough. Those garden beds were a wasted opportunity. My large kitchen window looks out over the courtyard, which, in summer when the spa is uncovered is pleasant enough, but the other 8 months of the year it is pretty ordinary. I’d managed to grow enough herbs over the years to sustain my culinary activities, but even that had dwindled to a paltry half dead mint plant and a lonely dwarfed parsley that wanted to survive, but needed intervention.
I’m always in awe of the creativity the human brain can conjure when allowed to ramble freely. Mine began to conceive of a built up herb garden, with completely fresh growing medium and something that added beauty to the area. My good friend who I call my ‘Gardening Guru’ (GG) told me of a growing medium she had stumbled upon a couple of years ago. Manure. Surprisingly, she said that she used PURE, dried out and decomposed cow manure. Knowing she grows the most amazing vegetables every year (see above photo), my ears pricked up. Could this be my transitioning agent, from lacklustre gardener to Miss Confident Gardner 2020? God knows 2020 needs to have been a good year for something!
Like a storm in my brain, the creative waves began to gather. I measured the space of my old herb garden and calculated if I dug down about 150mm, and built a retaining wall around the area, adding about 200mm height from ground level I would have a deep enough bed to put in gravel for drainage, and 3/4 cubic metre of cow poo as my growing medium. It would be deep enough to accommodate the root systems of herbs and some small veggies, like lettuce and rocket (arugula), should I feel more adventurous. Then, came the really creative part. Could I take five different sizes and colours of bricks, blocks and pavers, in varying quantities, left over from four different jobs and build one good looking garden surround?
First things first…transplant to a pot the poor little parsley plant that had survived the summer remaining almost the same size as when I planted it, six months previously. That done, in May I began digging out the 150mm of hard, packed old garden bed. It was just awful soil, full of rocks and very poor, compacted soil. What was I thinking? Knowing my 67 year old back is not used to hard labour, and that I also did not want to agitate fibromyalgia symptoms, I went about the project very slowly and carefully, digging with a pick and shovel a bucket of dirt at a time. I would carry the bucket of dirt to areas of the garden that just needed fill, but in which we didn’t want to grow anything. Engage abdominals, fill bucket, lift with my legs and lug the bucket of crappy soil from the courtyard to the receiving area. I could only do about six or eight buckets in one session. It was hard going.
After ten days or so the base soil was removed. Next I bought gravel to put in the bottom, for drainage. Then it was time to play with my blocks. I lost count of how many different patterns I considered but eventually I reasoned that the back of the bed could use the least attractive and even broken pieces because it would nearly all be covered by soil eventually. I began placing the best blocks and bricks into symmetrical patterns at the front, and things began to fall into place. After I laid the firm base using leftover driveway pavers, I could start at the front of the area, using the best bricks to make sure it looked attractive. Of course levels had to be maintained evenly so that once it was filled with the manure, it would look even and be easy to work around. Again, this phase had to be done in a number of sessions because… bricks. are. heavy. And they had to come from three different areas around the garden, where we had neatly stacked them. Fortunately, our little red hand-truck, gifted to my husband many years ago, was my valuable friend. (Thank you Chappie)
Purple gloves have been my gardening friends for years. They are sturdy and impervious and I know where my fingers are at all times. After months of serious hand washing and sanitising, the hands didn’t need any more wear and tear. Gradually the edge took shape. When I had finished, I had only ONE piece of a paver left. Every single other spare brick and paver had been used. No one was more amazed than me. In fact, I’m sure NO one will be amazed at all! When you look at the bed, it just looks like ‘oh, yeah, that looks normal.’ End of story. I hasten to add, I was not using cement to hold it all together, that would have been one skill too far for me, I think. But Scott had said he didn’t think I would need it, and so far it appears he was right.
Next I needed the cow manure to fill the remainder of the bed. Problem. The manure that was delivered had large chunks of very hard, decomposed material. GG told me it would be fine, just water down once it was in place and then use the spade or garden fork to break it up. Sounds much easier than it is, believe me. She said hers had been well broken down when she got it, but mine was still quite lumpy. She guessed that it was probably a local source and given our very dry couple of years, there had probably not been enough moisture to foster dung beetles who would have aided in breaking it down. The earth’s ecosystem at work, or not, in my case. Once again, my trusty bucket and I began shovelling shit and carrying it. This time it was actual shit. I carried from the pile on the edge of the yard, back to the courtyard and into the hole. Engage abdominals, shovel carefully, lift with your legs and carry to destination. Eight buckets a session. Every few days I would water it down and let the moisture soak the clumps then break it up with the gardening fork or the spade. And every couple of days I gave my body a rest day.
Somewhere during this stage of things I realised my fitness was improving. I began to look around toward continuing the activity once the herb garden was established. I finished up with some extra manure, so I decided to dig up the other small areas and incorporate the remaining manure into them. I could feel my courtyard beginning to love me back. After previous success with water rooted basil cuttings, I began to make cuttings of some succulents I had bought last summer but not known how to care for properly. What was left were some wilted branches, which I snapped off and put into water. Presto, I now have 10 perky cuttings all with roots, six of which are planted into pots for future transplanting. Then I took my mostly dead, wholly root-bound mint and divided it into three clumps (mint will survive almost anything, even me) and planted those into pots of fresh potting mix. They have bounced back like curls in a hair commercial. Totally giddy with success, I gratefully accepted my next door neighbour’s offer of seeds from her very interesting looking basil that has purple tips on green leaves. I scattered them into pots of fresh mix and I have lots of tiny green leaves poking their heads up.
We are still a couple of weeks away from planting seedlings, due to frost risk, but I am hopeful. The nursery of seedlings grows, the growing medium becomes more lush by the day, and my soul has been gently lifted by the effort and achievement. GG and I realise, we are at our best when maintaining our positivity (see others who find solace in nature here and here )
So, what does digging around my garden wearing purple gloves, looking for a particular earthworm have to do with this story?
As I was preparing the last little space of garden bed to receive its share of the cow poo makeover, I moved the rescued, and completely transformed, pot of parsley from the bed, up out of the way of the digging. As I did so, there was a lovely fat earthworm enjoying the moisture. Not wanting to cut him in half with my spade, I carefully picked him up and placed him in the new bed. After consulting GG as to whether I’d done the right thing, she suggested he might like a more moist area. So I donned the purple gloves and raced back outside to retrieve him and place him elsewhere that is consistently moist. But I was too late. He had already made himself at home and disappeared into the moist manure, hopefully to enjoy many years of happy digging. In fact, maybe that will make two of us. Nature shows us in myriad small ways how to dig around and be grateful and move forward. I’m always looking for my pony.
This is the valley about five minutes’ walk from our house. I’m there most mornings ahead of the golfers, so, very early. The sun is not fully up and it is tingeing the mountains various shades of pink and orange that if you painted it people would say ‘that doesn’t look real’. But in person it does.
In this valley each morning I listen to the Pied Butcher Birds carolling to each other, practicing their glorious songs for all to hear. The Kites sweep the sky looking for early morning prey. Dingoes are ghosting along, dissolving into the scrub as if they are apparitions. On days when there are no dingoes I see kangaroos gliding across the fairways, racing to secret themselves away for a daytime sleep.
Occasionally I see other humans, some walking their dogs around the trails and we smile and greet each other—fellow nature lovers out in the wee hours. And just now the wee hours are hovering around freezing, zero if you are in the metric school of thought, 32 if you are of the Fahrenheit persuasion. I leave a trail, my breath blowing a pale white cloud after me as I puff up the hill to warm stiff muscles more quickly. At the crest of the hill, this valley stretches out its arms, never failing to impress still drowsy eyes.
It was down near the back of the buggy trail in this valley six months ago that I found the tiny, five month old joey, hissing and crying bitterly in its life threatening circumstance. I scooped him up, carrying him in my tee shirt, hurriedly back to the top of the hill and home to call for help. The Kangaroo Sanctuary came in an hour or so to collect him and we named him Amos. We surmised that his mother, in a bid for one or the other of them to survive, had jettisoned him from her pouch and into the cool air on the dusty track. Miraculously, he had escaped notice until I arrived.
A couple of days later I walked that trail again and could smell death all around. At least two bodies lay decaying in the hills of the valley. It was not a smell you would mistake. It saddened me to know that the little joey’s mum was probably one of them. For a while I couldn’t walk that way again.The reality was just too visceral.
For a couple of weeks the Kangaroo Sanctuary sent me regular photos and news of dear little Amos. He was healthy and had even started to grow some hair! And then, a week before we departed on our trip to the Southern Ocean, a message from the Sanctuary…Amos had suddenly declined and within less than two days had died. They told me this is the way it happens. Mostly they survive, but when they die, it is sudden, and for no apparent reason they can identify.
I could scarcely believe how much I had bonded with little Amos and how very sad I was that his life had ceased. I cried off and on all day when I found out. It was probably just as well that I couldn’t allow myself too much time to grieve because we had to prepare for the trip.
There has been so much sadness and hardship in the world since then, that I have not wanted to write this to you. Putting another sad thing out into the world seemed unnecessary, and probably still is, so I apologise. I kept waiting and hoping there would come some kind of clarity to me for the reason I would be chosen to save the tiny life and then have it taken away again. None came.
And then I remembered what Tahnee at the Sanctuary had said to me ‘You can take comfort in knowing he was safe and loved when he passed.’ His end was not violent, it was quiet and warm and in loving care.
Sometimes there are just no other reasons, there is just love.
I have been thinking. Hard. Listening better. Reading deeper. The world needs to change, and I do too. I’ve thought about change from various perspectives through the years. Every time I moved states or country I changed. I can’t recall an occasion when this wasn’t for the better.
I heard recently, being uncomfortable is necessary. Even some pain is necessary until we emerge renewed. The scars may remain, but they are reminders of how it/we used to be. We don’t like discomfort, let alone pain. Life is very hard a lot of the time, if we are doing it right. All the more reason we need to bathe in joy when we occasionally find it.
I’ve noticed when I’m going through troubling times there are a few things that stabilise me, even give me cause for hope. They are mostly small, simple things…walks…homemade food…learning something new…watching nature…being creative.
Looking at things more closely reminds me of the day I had just cleaned the bathroom and then needed to do something in there with my reading glasses on and suddenly I realised all the dust I had missed! Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know and it’s good to take a closer look. I’m learning all kinds of things about converting basil cuttings with water roots, so that they will then grow in soil. I paid attention and five out of the five cuttings have survived. More importantly, I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the plight of People of Colour everywhere, especially in Australia and the USA. It’s the least I can do given my white privilege. The two things that are most important in our lives are the two things we have no control over…where we are born (what country) and who our parents are. I heard this many years ago and completely believe it, but am gaining a fuller understanding now.
Turning the questions around is a very important exercise too. I remember sitting at a table in a friend’s house 8 or 9 years ago, having a discussion with a third person about when she had colon cancer, the same year I’d had breast cancer. It was a stark wake up call to me, that not everyone reacts the same to things. She said her first thought was ‘Oh, why me?’ And literally, my first thought was ‘Why not me?’ I’m no better or worse than anyone else and people get cancer all the time, so why would I be exempt? We are not exempt from life’s trials and challenges, so we pull on our big girl panties and learn from it. All. There is always something to be learned.
Our local groceries have been out of coffee filters for weeks. There’s a tiny little sticker on the shelf where they should be that says ‘sorry customers, we are currently unable to get this product’. So this morning I tried making my coffee the old way, the way I used to make it before pour-over coffee became a thing. You know what? It tastes better! I may not go back to filters. I could spend the money on something more fun than a piece of paper that gets thrown in the garbage, or I could even donate it to support something I believe in.
What’s my point? When you know better, you can do better. Thank you Maya Angelou, for putting it so clearly we can all understand. Have a great day each and every one of you, go out there and listen and learn and be kind. Let’s all do better.
What I’ve been listening to…
On Being – interview with Eula Biss (also this repeat interview with Isabel Wilkerson here – see mention below)
For weeks I have been ruminating over the whole isolation and distancing scenario, trying to figure out how it is effecting me, and observing how it seems to be effecting others, what we are being told, too. I imagine you are doing the same.
It occurs to me that social distancing in general is actually somewhat agreeable to me. First of all, I don’t like crowds or crowded situations, that’s obviously an advantage. Also I don’t appreciate the smell of certain individuals who either wear too much perfume/after shave, or who choose not to bathe regularly or who consume great volumes of garlic, or who have boisterous children. Keeping some distance is fine with me. I miss hugs.
However, these words advertising a new tv show really hit a nerve:
…a lifestyle show for a world where nobody has a life.
What on earth are they talking about? I have a life. We all have lives right now. They may not be exactly the same as the ones we had a few months ago, but they are our lives and for most of us there is still some room for a variety of experiences within them. I resent someone telling me I don’t have a life. I’m well aware that for the elderly who are being kept isolated from visitors and loved ones, and for the young families, isolated together while trying to home school and work from home, for carers and first responders and for those who have lost jobs or own small struggling businesses, it is very tough. But for a number of us the change has not been devastating. It has been inconvenient at times, for sure, but isn’t life this way from time to time anyway? And aren’t there always people who have it better or worse than us? Didn’t Australia just experience the worst bush fires ever recorded? Those were hellish and mostly completely out of anyone’s control. To be sure, I know people who have been hurting. But we all still have a life, which means we have possibilities and choices.
Looking after a home and the inhabitants’ needs, requires conscious living. It always has, and it still does.
There have been the well publicised shortages, some of which are ongoing in the form of empty shelves, thankfully, no longer people fighting over things. This has highlighted in our home one of the ways in which I manage it—I always keep a backup of things we use regularly, in the pantry. This meant that when we came home from being away and the world had changed, we did not have to worry about desperate procurement of toilet paper, soap, sugar etc. This is called planning and organisation and I have always done it. Previously, it has been met with humorous derision in the form of me ‘always being prepared for a small famine’. No one is laughing now. I’m not a hoarder, just someone who plans a little bit ahead. Partly that comes from living in a place where unexpected weather events sometimes cause shortages of products, both food and otherwise. When the railway line is flooded, goods can’t get to us. If there is a drought or cyclone in an area where certain fruits or vegetables are grown, we may have a lean season. I remember Dad telling me, running out of things causes urgency and inefficiency and it can be avoided by just anticipating one’s needs.
‘Now’ is part of life. And we still have a Now, though sometimes challenging.
Recently I broke a tiny corner off a back tooth. It was very sharp. Thankfully, our dentists are doing emergency work. I had to be at the dentist at 8.30 in the morning and I was not looking forward to it. Our old dentist had sold the practice and retired since last time I’d been. So I tried one of the ‘children’ dentists, as my friend calls the younger ones. He was very gentle and conservative and thought it best to just grind off the sharp corner and watch the tooth for a while. All good. The odd part was the protocol. First of all, they had told me to wait in the car in the parking lot when I arrived, because they aren’t allowed to use their waiting room. Apparently I was also supposed to call them when I arrived, which someone forgot to tell me, or I didn’t hear–it’s a lot to absorb sometimes with all the new regulations. But given they can look out the windows and see cars and the occupants, I thought perhaps they would just see that I was there. When I’d been sitting there for a few minutes, they called me and asked if I was coming. I said “yes, I’m here!” She replied “Oh, just come to the front door and we’ll meet you there.” The dentist met me at the front door with sanitiser, then when I got into his room, the dental assistant met me with more sanitiser, and after that I still had to wash my hands!! Then I had to rinse my mouth with disinfectant, spit into a paper cup that was then disposed of, and finally put on the extra large bib and plastic glasses. I did feel for a minute like I was living in a sci-fi film, or had leprosy and no one told me.
But I still have a life and it is still filled with simple moments of joy.
Despite daily physical therapy exercises for years, occasionally the muscle in my upper left thigh still plays up. I know when it does that, if I jog uphill at the start of my morning walks, it somehow sorts out the problem, and in a few days or a week it stops hurting. After five days of pre-walk jogs, I started out of the house and realised it was fine, no more pain.
There was a full moon and I thought I’d jog up the steep hill to the third tee, just for extra measure. It had been months since I’d scrambled around the rocky outcrops, chasing early morning light for photo opportunities. That morning was the Flower Supermoon and it was especially bright and beautiful, so I had special incentive.
As I crunched around the rocks and dry plants, looking for good vantage points from which to photograph, I thought about how comforting it is to do something enjoyable, however simple it may be. In fact, I’m quite partial to simple things. I was also listening to a gentle discussion via a favourite podcast, about a favourite book by Pema Chödrön, ‘When Things Fall Apart’. It is so full of wise passages…
Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart
We still have a life, and the moments of joy amidst the inconvenience, anxiety and sadness, are there to be seen. We just have to look for them and allow them to exist with everything else.
We could have had one last safari, making six, before we left Gondwana. But the last two had taken a toll on my tummy that I just couldn’t shake. The effect was worse than the roughest seas on the cruise and Don was happy to be done as well. We decided to get an early start for Franschhoek (pronounced: Fran-chook). We knew we were running low on energy and we had to save some for whatever might happen on our trip home.
When we said farewell to Felix we could tell he was very worried about his family and how he would support them. Gondwana had announced they would be winding down at the end of that week, keeping only a basic crew to maintain the reserve.
‘last one out, turn off the lights’
Just as when we had arrived to a welcoming committee, we left with a cheeky farewell from the Gondwana inhabitants. As we drove past small towns and townships* we felt quite heavy and sad, for we could see what was coming. In the townships people live very close together and many have poor hygiene and no transport, so they were hitchhiking rides. A perfect ‘vehicle’ for an eager virus. Even though the government was being very proactive with regard to the virus, and there were only a few hundred cases at that stage, we just knew what would likely befall them.
The drive was, again, very pretty landscape, and we had a nice, albeit brief, refuel and loo stop in Swellendam. We watched a local woman making ‘rooster bread’ as it is called. There was a little cafe two doors away who would make the dough and this lady came every day to cook the bread for them. She would roll the dough into mounds, then one at a time she would place a mound on the grill and pat it down. When it cooked on one side she turned it over to the other side and then stacked them up ready for the cafe to use. Apparently they put anything in them you would use in a sandwich. I would loved to have tried one, but we weren’t the least bit hungry so I asked to take the photos and thanked the woman, and we were on our way again.
We drove through the Franschhoek Pass to get to the town and so we had a stunning view of the area even before we’d arrived. This region, as with Stellenbosch, was famous for wine, but we were not going to experience that side of things on this trip, due to the alcohol restrictions. Our accommodation was a rather unusual place, set beautifully with the mountain as backdrop and a stunning scene from the outside tables as well. The L’ermitage Franschhoek Chateau was what I would call a group of holiday apartments, large bedroom and sitting area, with kitchenette and luxurious bathroom. There were all kinds of balconies and outside areas to sit which we used to advantage, while planning our activity for the following day. The place was even set out for weddings, with its own chapel and small reception hall. That evening there was a small wedding and reception, without alcohol but nonetheless enjoyed.
When it came right down to it, the town was mostly empty and with the wineries and museums closed we had to get a bit creative. We had seen something about a large organic farm a short drive from town and decided we would drive there and see if they were open. Again, we were lucky. They were open and due to small crowds, we had a private tour around the main gardens. It was their last day to be open due to lockdown measures and it was the most incredible place of that type we have ever visited. Babylonstoren** used their own organic produce to make nearly everything that was sold on the farm. There was a winery (closed, of course), a farm shop with dairy products, breads, meats, olives and many other things. The Scent Factory used their own herbs to make soaps, creams, perfume and other products. Also there were two restaurants, one that served large meals and one with smaller offerings, called The Greenhouse, our choice later in the afternoon. The lamb and olive pie, halloumi and salad sandwich and a shared dessert, were all homemade using their own organic ingredients.
It was the most relaxing, nourishing and calm place you can imagine and a perfect choice for our last full day in South Africa.
The last morning we were away smartly, though CapeTown was only an hour’s drive. By the time we filled the car with petrol, dropped off the rental and got to the airport several hours had elapsed. We had an hour or so to wait but we had eaten breakfast before departing L’ermitage, even though breakfast was being served in the airport lounge. I noted the food was all open and subject to any airborne germs that might be around, so I was glad I wasn’t hungry. I was pretty sure that uncovered food would not be the case for much longer. We could feel the tension everywhere.
So you see, the things we worry will happen to us, seldom do. And the things that we never see coming are the ones to bring us undone. Our bags were never lost. We were never sick, or seasick. I seldom had any problem finding food I could eat or the appropriate clothes from my suitcase. Even my pants fit perfectly to the very end.
Big challenges yield big memories…and they don’t get much bigger.
*townships are loosely equivalent to Indigenous communities in Australia, or Indian reservations in the USA
**Babylonstoren, so called because of the various languages in South Africa, having been settled by the French Huganots and the Dutch centuries before. And ‘storen’ is the word for ‘hill’ taken from one of those languages. The garden was designed by French architect Patrice Taravella.
We had set our alarms for 5.20am the next morning. Somehow 5.30 didn’t seem quite enough for two people to be ready and present for a 6am safari departure. It was tough. The activity, anxiety and travel was beginning to wear on us. The early start, before sunrise, was the reverse of the evening before. It was cold at the outset, and so we were rugged up, and Felix’s polar fleece ponchos were gratefully received. Bouncing through the cold, damp morning air woke us up in a hurry. Having recently completed the Southern Ocean-course -in- zodiac-hair-and-makeup, I did not consider any preparation beyond clean face and teeth, but the Canadian woman looked like she’d just stepped out of a fashion spread. I tried to keep some distance between us. I did wonder how early she had to get up to look like that, but only for a moment. She was nice, and smart too, I hasten to add.
There was coffee and tea, again, which we did not have–breakfast would be after we returned in 2-3 hours. A short while out, we spotted a herd of Elands atop a ridge. Felix announced we were going to try and find the lions, because they could be quite elusive and it might take several safaris to locate them. But of course during the search we saw many other animals. There were blue wildebeests, zebras and various kinds of antelope, cape buffalo, hippos, and baboons. We stopped for morning tea. I took photos of plants.
The search for lions was fruitless. Felix explained, during hunting was the most active they would be. After a kill and feeding, they laze around in the shade and sleep for days, making them very difficult to spot. He further explained there was only one pride of five lions in the whole of the 26,000 acres of the reserve. This was because the reserve followed a balanced approach in the numbers of animals of each type. They could cohabitate and live as nature intended, killing to eat as required. It was all self-sustaining. He said the staff never, ever intervened in the animal behaviours as they interacted with each other. Even when the animals occasionally roamed through the villa and lodge area, they were allowed to do their own thing, as long as ‘their own thing’ didn’t include human consumption. One night, some time back, guests were trapped in the lodge restaurant a couple of extra hours after they had finished their meals, due to the lions deciding to have a look around. No one had seen lions for days before we had arrived, or while we were there, so it was just not to be. Curiously, they were the animals we were least interested in seeing.
Every safari showed us a different aspect of the animals and the environment. We had five in all. Our last morning safari was an astonishing encounter, again with elephants. Felix found a small herd, moving across the hillside, eating grass as they moved. If I told you that he spotted the herd from over a kilometre away, you wouldn’t think it possible. He had the most incredible eyesight. When we got to the location, Felix pulled the vehicle right in the path of where he thought they would walk. Everyone, except the four year old, was quiet. You could hear the elephants breathe and tear the grass from the ground as they quietly moved through. It was an unforgettable few minutes. The video, which this template won’t allow me to load onto this blog, is on my instagram page if you want to have a look @amosthemagicdog. Also, my other favourite video of a herd of young impalas is there as well.
We were surprised when Felix asked us not to post photos of the rhinos. Poaching is still very dangerous for rhinos, and the metadata that poachers can get from photos helps locate them. Even though Gondwana is strictly protected, you can imagine how difficult it must be to protect all 26,000 acres of hills and valleys. In some cases the reserve has cut off most of the rhinos’ horns, to protect them if poachers should find them. Nothing to see here, fellas. But a couple of rhinos had their original, natural horns, proving that nature knows what she is doing. The graceful, tapered curve of the natural horns created the perfect foil to their otherwise bulky shape.
We were repeatedly reminded that the animals are wild. They are kind of used to the vehicles filled with humans, as long as there are no surprises, but the animals are still wild. I suppose in that regard they were like the penguins and seals we saw on the cruise. I’m sure they don’t miss us pesky humans one bit while we are staying away just now!
On our second day, in the afternoon break between breakfast and evening safari, we decided to take a short hike through a protected area on the Reserve called the Fynbos. This is a very specific biome particular to southwestern, South Africa, but some of the plants are also seen in South America and Australia, due to the once large land mass called Gondwana. One of the most dominant plants outside of the protected area is the protea. I have never seen such expanse of protea, largely because the other Fynbos plants are not present in enough numbers to control it. The proteas become so dense they keep the wildlife from being able to move through, so controlled burning is used for the large areas. Also, as in Australia, some of the plants actually require the heat from fires to regenerate. The protected area where we walked was full of plants included in the Fynbos, as well as zebras and giraffes! They are timid creatures and so we were allowed to walk in this area, but they kept their distance. Below are the photos from that walk. Because we had to mostly stay in the vehicles, there were few chances to look closely at the vegetation.
On the evening of our last full day at Gondwana, we noticed the bar was closed. More COVID-19 restrictions were in place. No sale of alcohol, even with meals, was allowed. Even though this reserve was privately owned, the new rules applied. With every new restriction we became more anxious. We still had three nights left in South Africa, at least we hoped we did. We were in constant touch with Qantas and were reassured our flights were still in place.