There you are…wondering ‘is she ever going to publish anything again?’ Here is your answer, for better or worse. Yes. I am.
After the storm in November, Don and I both had health episodes that led us into Christmas and then our first major trip away in three years. We returned in late January and by the time I’d scraped away all the spider webs (not a metaphor), vacuumed and wiped up the gecko poop, washed a ton of dirty clothes, mourned a very damaged courtyard garden and finally gotten back my good humour, it was February.
No art work was done in all that time. However, I’m happy to say I’ve made a small return to the studio in the last week. I’ve changed genre from landscape to still life and so far, so good… but so small. This little baby is only 4 inches square, but I was happy with it and will continue soon. Meanwhile, urgent matters of a technical nature and home/garden repairs from the November storm are threatening to actually happen, all which distract my attention. This morning as I approached the clothesline with a load of towels to hang out and saw the silks of two days’ spider reconstruction work (still not a metaphor) I was grateful. I grabbed the old rag I keep in the laundry, dampened it slightly and set about wiping away the shimmering silks for the umpteenth time. As I did I recalled my mother and grandmother using a rag to wipe their clothes lines when I was a little girl. I was so lucky to have such wise role models to learn from. I wonder how many times a day I do things that became part of the fabric of my being all those decades ago. More than I am aware, I’m sure.
Having had what for us is considerable rain this summer, the golden orb weaving spiders and many other varieties have taken over the gardens and are willing to move inside if given half a chance. Two days ago I walked to the front door to go out and check the mail, having only come home from the grocery through the same door a couple of hours earlier, and there were spider silks that clung to my arms and face. They even blow through the air as I found when standing in a walking path talking to someone last week. I suddenly was enveloped in tiny silks across arms and neck. It’s not that I think spiders are horrible creatures. My problem with them is they are silent. They silently move around without our knowledge and it disquiets me. Though as many as there are at the moment if they made any noise at all it would be even more disturbing. Unless… wouldn’t it be lovely if they had tiny soft choral voices and could hum classical music? They are marvellous creatures if you read the facts. After all, I can’t throw a silk thread out of my bum to catch my dinner, can you? But let’s not let facts get in the way of a good blog post.
Our trip away to New Zealand saw us home only 8 days before the devastating floods and more floods they have had since. The worst of it has been in some of the areas we visited and of course we are terribly grateful for our good fortune in getting home to our nice, dry, albeit arachnid, environment before the disastrous floods and earthquake hit. It is a fabulously beautiful country with absolutely lovely people. We are so sorry to see them struggle and wish them well. If you wish to make a donation, this link is a reputable one: https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/cyclone-gabrielle-community-support
The trip was challenging as Don and I were both not quite recovered from health issues, his more serious than mine with a diagnosis of wet macular degeneration for which he now gets a monthly injection in his eye (yes, in his actual eye ball). However, I realised once home and emerged from wildlife and laundry issues, that trip certainly cleared some cobwebs out for me (yes a metaphor). It was perhaps not what I thought I wanted at the time, but it was certainly what I needed. Like all those lessons from my wise mother and grandmothers it was the mechanism to propel me forward through the next little while of challenges. And it was a reason to be very, very grateful. See you again soon.
On the evening of November 12 Alice Springs experienced a sudden and violent storm. It has helped me process it, to document the following 10 days or so and it seemed to me it might be of interest to others. It is not heavily edited, it is just a series of entries like a diary with accompanying photos. This is not a ‘pity party’ it is just what happens when we have these unexpected events. Ours was small compared to the many who have lost their homes and loved ones across the country and the world these last ten days…
24 Hrs after…
We have worked very hard today and with the help of several neighbours and friends are making some headway in the cleanup task. We were able to cut away enough of the large tree that fell into the courtyard and landed on my herb garden for me to uncover the herbs. I can’t believe they might even survive! Also my six week old Grevillea that was doing beautifully was smashed down flat, but when I uncovered it and stood it up this morning it looked pretty happy. We staked it and tied it to give it some extra stability and hopefully whoever comes to finish removing the tree will avoid crushing it again. There are about four suburbs that have been smashed by what really looks like a series of small tornadoes. The tops of trees are ripped off or ripped out of the ground by the roots, both typical of tornado damage, though our storm was classified as a ‘micro-burst’. Also we have a layer of red dust that was driven through the cracks of our rammed earth house and onto every surface inside. I have been dusting and wiping and vacuuming while Don has been repairing the watering system and removing branches until we are so weary we had to stop. Many people have it worse than us, which is always the case. We are grateful we are both fine and the house is intact. I did have a cry over the trees and consequently the birdsong that was absent this morning. But there has also been the kindness of neighbours to be happy about.
36 hrs after…
Unaided by sleep, but with a need to see what the storm had brought to the scenery on my morning walk, I was up early and out the door by 5.45am. As I walked out the door I was still shocked by the 20 metre tree on its side, protruding through the courtyard fence. And yet, once again I was truly grateful it had fallen exactly between our house and the neighbours. No one injured and neither house damaged. Just the fence and spa pump/filter. The large tree at the top of our sloping block had also fallen graciously, aligned with the driveway and straight across the road, hurting no one. Had it fallen back it would have smashed our house. Had the tree out the front fallen to either side it would have smashed a house. So lucky. There will be no more big trees planted on this site. Message received. After the incessant clatter of chainsaws and leaf blowers on the weekend, the silence this morning was almost disturbing…a kind of grieving, exhausted quiet.
I walked the circuit I had done a few days before. The broken trees and damaged houses were evidence I had not dreamed it. Walking down the 8th fairway I looked ahead and saw my favourite tree. Still standing. But as I neared it I realised about a third of it lay on the ground at my feet. I studied the sight and out of my mouth came words ‘I’m so sorry baby. I’m so sorry.’ I photographed it to compare to the photo I printed that was taken on my walk three days before the ‘Blow’. It would be my next painting. It was especially poignant now seeing its diminished state. I couldn’t force my feet to move, they rooted me in place while I began grieving for the tree. When I finally moved along I saw other familiar shapes that I had photographed over the years, now sadly misshapen, which is saying a lot given some of my particular favourites are bent and have rather extreme shapes to begin with. To me they were beautiful. Wabi-sabi. (Perfectly imperfect) They will be again.
When I finally reached the home stretch I was devastated to see the damage to the grove of large old gum trees, again that I had photographed only days before as the morning light shone through the trees and grasses. It hit me like a blow to the gut as I walked home into the morning sun and cool breeze. When I arrived home Don was pulling his suitcase out to load into the car for our trip to the airport. He looked at me and asked ‘how was your walk?’. I pointed toward the west, from where the storm had come, and as my mouth opened my voice cracked into tears and I said ‘Oh the trees, the trees are so devastated. My favourite tree will recover but it will not be the same.’ He encouraged me by saying ‘You can document its recovery.’ Yes, I will.
Four Days after the storm…
The birds are trying to reorganise themselves, having lost the trees in which they had nests, and the perches from which they sang and watched the neighbourhood. The Galahs have taken to sitting in a tree that will be removed in due course and they will have to move on again. They seem strangely displaced but amenable to the new circumstances at the same time.
On Wednesday after the Saturday storm I am still trying to get someone to come and take away a huge broken branch that is sitting up in the tree near the road and the top of our driveway. Have rung Emergency Services twice and consulted with the Town Council who says they can’t help because it is on private property (though I note they CAN take lots of taxes from that same private property to pay for things other than public safety). I have also called multiple tree trimmers, yet I still have this problem of a dangerous branch hanging precariously over the road and the footpath! One fellow who is still cutting trees off of houses says he will come have a look when he gets a chance and that is the closest I’ve come to getting anything done. The worry and distraction of it has me unable to do anything creative so I’m washing windows (as it rains, but only windows that are under cover, out of the rain) and vacuuming and mopping up red dirt from the floors that came in during the storm. It is some of the least fun I’ve had in a while and today it occurred to me this entire year has been given over to renovations and renewal of the house, garden, and my physical person. I’m over it but do realise we have no say in these matters, we just have to go with the flow.
The herbs that were flattened have indeed declared their will to carry on and look perky and none the worse for their ordeal. The same is true for the grevillea bush.
This morning I walked yet another route, skirting by the Olive Pink Botanic Garden. The tree damage there is substantial too, ranging from large branches to whole trees being torn out. I have also noticed the local birds are busy trying to rearrange themselves now that their favourite roosting trees are gone. The gardener who came here to advise me about the dangling branch on the verge, was telling me after the storm on Saturday she sat out in her garden and was sure the birds sounded quite upset and disturbed by what had happened. No doubt.
The big guns have been throwing around the debris from the storm like it is chip packets, onto backs of trucks to become green waste at the tip. The sound of chainsaws and backhoes, leaf blowers and trucks on our small urban street are almost welcome now. I know it means progress in cleaning up what we cannot deny and what is done. Part of my brain goes into denial when I look out the kitchen window at the remnants of a beautiful tree that will no longer wear bird nests nor provide perches for the dawn chorus. We all grieve in different ways and for different relationships. Life is full of grief, as the Queen reminded us ‘grief is the price we pay for loving’. So I love trees, animals and art as well as humans and good health and a dozen other things, and likewise I grieve for them, each in my own way for what they have meant.
The wind is quite strong again just now and I wonder if I will ever get over the anxiety of it after last Saturday. Wind has never been my favourite of Mother Nature’s creations, and yet of course I know it is necessary, or at least unavoidable. We are the interlopers here, trying to live with nature in our unskilled human way. Hopefully when the tall trees left are trimmed and the loose debris carried away and the repairs are done I will lose this excess anxiety…and resume my normal anxiety.
The recovery is also down to Nature. I noticed this morning the little herb garden is flourishing, almost as if that smack on the head was a wake up call! Though I suspect it was more likely to be the 15ml or so rain and overcast skies we’ve had that have aided their recovery. There has been noticeable change every day since the storm. Gardens love warmth and rain and a little sun but not our usual very hot temps this time of year.
Today is a full week after the day after.
The insurance company is sending someone in a couple of days and there are no storms predicted this week. I’m feeling calmer and still mindful of those who have suffered so much worse in the terrible floods in New South Wales. Yesterday I was actually able to get into the studio again and do some creating. I began painting my favourite tree. It felt so good to be able to do something positive and especially something with a tree in it.
This morning I woke knowing the cooler, dryer change had come in over night. I walked before 6am and felt the cool breeze on my skin. The sun was already up and I needed sunglasses. Every day I see more tree damage that I hadn’t noticed previously. The estimate of 10,000 is probably right. The tree above and to the side of my clothesline rubs damaged branches together reminding me it will need a major trim as soon as someone is available to do it. The day is dry and breezy and a pleasure to hang sheets and clothes on the line. Most of the time I’m happy to not have a clothes dryer. I would miss the crystal sky, the sketchy clouds and the day the Wedge Tail Eagle rode the thermals above me.
Day 11 Final entry
The cleanup has begun in earnest at our place. The beaver patrol arrived before 9am yesterday and dispatched the once gorgeous Eucalyptus Sideroxylon into pieces. The skilled Kubota operator picking up each section operating delicate steel fingers and lifting it on the truck to be taken away. More grief. But relief. The grevillea was spared as was the small rosemary bush that struggled to live three times now, with serious disruptions but a will to grow.
Last evening a family of Pied Butcher Birds visited. They occasionally come to inspect the area where I feed the crested pigeons, but there is only ever seed, and they are meat/insect eaters. Seeing the largest one come up to inspect the feeding area, I quickly remembered the fresh ground beef mince I had in the fridge and grabbed a teaspoon or so of it and went outside. I slowly approached the feeding plate and the curious Butcher Bird surprisingly took a couple of steps toward me. I placed the meat on the plate in three small dabs all the while its large eyes following me. As soon as I backed away it grabbed all three dabs quickly and turned to a smaller bird to its side and fed it! Mum feeding her adolescent child. Magic.
After the good rain we had in February…rain that washed out the roads and the railway line and disrupted our lives even more than Covid…the rain that caused the river to flow and replenish the basin, the trees to be washed clean of red dust, and the grasses to grow lush and green and then turn golden…the rain that cooled the earth and peppered the sky with glorious clouds at sunrise and sunset. After that rain was when the little frog appeared.
The little frog was the size of my thumb on my small hands. At first we only heard him. Chirrrrrup. Chirrrrup. He would announce his presence for a minute or two, only once or twice in a day, or sometimes at night. He was considerate enough not to carry on for hours. A week or so after we first heard him I switched the light on in the bathroom one evening and sensed a presence nearby. I glanced over and there he was looking at me. I must have looked like the biggest giant in the world to him but he didn’t try to escape, he just looked. When I came out of the bathroom and told my husband he said ‘Did you catch him so we can return him outside?’ ‘Well, no, I didn’t want to risk hurting him.’
We had a ‘spider jar’ and now we needed a ‘frog jar’. These jars formerly held my husband’s favourite sweet treat, chocolate covered almonds. I have a slight jar fetish, mostly for glass, but for any useful shaped jar. The almond jars are plastic with screw top lids and so if you are trying to catch and release something they are not likely to break and they are light weight too. I had a spare almond jar and I retrieved it so it would be handy for the next time we spotted the frog. He was gone by the time I had returned this time.
The next time came in the middle of the night and how or why I saw him in the dark I have no idea, but I ran for the frog jar and came back to him still waiting for me, this time in the toilet bowl! I carried him outside and released him into the very large bowl of water I keep for the kangaroos and birds. The moon was bright that night and I saw him swim quickly to the bottom of the bowl and then straight up again to perch on the edge of the bowl. And stare. At me. He looked at me like he either didn’t understand or was very disappointed at his new situation. I was moved to explain to him my reasoning but I didn’t. I couldn’t speak amphibious syllables and he wouldn’t have understood.
On subsequent occasions we spotted him in the toilet bowl again but were unable to capture him for relocation. And then he relocated himself. He disappeared for the coldest part of winter and then suddenly in August at the end of Winter when it was still quite cold, he reappeared singing happily from the hand basin drain in the ensuite bathroom. Attempts to relocate him were mostly unsuccessful this time, though we did mange to catch him a couple of times. Since we couldn’t figure out how he kept getting back in again each time, we kind of gave up and learned to live with each other. He was no bother, except for the occasional ‘chirrrrup’, and even that I began to listen for each morning, a kind of checking in that everything was ok with our houseguest.
And then the sightings and chirrrrupings stopped. Oh, but there it was once more and I realised I was relieved to hear it. And then it was no more. At all.
A few weeks later I was vacuuming, doing a rare clean into corners I usually didn’t bother with. What was that small dark oval shape? I leaned down and even without my glasses on I could see the desiccated silhouette of our houseguest. Even in death he had not been a bother, just crawled neatly into a corner and dried. Writing about this a couple of weeks later I have tears welling and a lump in my throat. Why should that be? There are unanswered questions. Aren’t there always? Among them I wonder, did the little frog enjoy his serenade to me each day from the echos of the basin drain? Or was it just me who enjoyed him?
A few days after finding him I read the writing below and commend it to you now. I think it might apply to tiny frogs who find an amiable house to live in, too.
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?” —Richard Dawkins
* Today, September 1 is the first day of Spring, also Wattle Day. The golden wattle are in blossom in the southern states but here I have captured our version of green and gold (our national colours), featuring wild budgerigars and the winter’s dried, golden grasses. I’ve been feeling a little poetic lately too…and by the way, a ‘chatter’ is what a large flock of budgies is called!
I love it when things in my life collide with one another—in a good way. I wrote a couple of months ago (hard to believe it’s been that long) about the garden I built and planted this winter. It continues to be a revelation in all kinds of unexpected ways.
I have learned that it is better, in most cases, to plant seeds in situ, rather than be tempted by the faster route of seedlings that are bobbing their little heads fetchingly from their tiny pots in the nursery and garden centres. Seeds sprouted in the exact place they will grow seem to understand they are at home and can grow accordingly. So, given enough water and some sunshine they get on with it. Whereas seedlings, sprouted and grown in their little pots thousands of kilometres away, in most cases, in hothouse conditions or entirely different places from where they finish up, are in shock when they end their journey in the middle of dry Central Australia. Even taking all care, I’ve watched them struggle and eventually not yield very well and then go to seed quickly. Whereas the things I’ve planted from the right, well chosen seed, take a couple of weeks longer but kick on and look hearty and the yield is very good. Don’t we all do better when planted in the right place?
I’ve also learned I can plant less than I thought, now that I have a good growing base. We are about to drown in lettuce and rocket (arugula), for example! And don’t ask why I thought I needed 7 basil plants! Must be a throwback to the Italian genes. I’ve already put away one lot of pesto in the freezer and it’s not even summer yet. I dug up and gave away one of the basil plants because things were growing into one another. My lovely friend who does little paving and brick laying jobs was the happy recipient. I traded him for some pieces of old pavers on which we could sit our pots up out of the excess water that sometimes accumulates in the saucers.
In addition to the plant growth, it appears a potential family of Magpie Larks has moved into the palm tree that overlooks the new garden bed. They are not my favourite bird in appearance or sound, which is rather strident and irritating, but there is no bird who shows more joy having a bath in the residual water after rain. And I especially love the way they patrol the garden and eat insects! Whichever of the species builds the nest, I assume the female, decided this was a friendly place to raise her chicks. I keep a bowl of water for animals, there is soil around to build the mud base of the nest, and sugar cane mulch to fluff out the upper layer, ready for eggs and long spells of sitting. We also have a lot of native vegetation to attract birds, and no pets to bother them.
A few days ago I was tending my garden and there was a noisy crow sitting atop that chimney on the neighbour’s roof, only about six or so feet from the Lark who was working on the last stages of the nest. Suddenly the crow, about four times the size of the Lark, lunged at it, hoping, no doubt, to eat eggs in the nest. The little Lark loudly called out, threw her little feet in the air, flapping wings wildly to fight off the crow, just as her mate flew up from very nearby to assist and save his lady love. The crow was chastened and left immediately. I fear he will return, however. It’s a bird eat bird world out there.
Today I have seen the Lark sitting on the nest as if there might be something worth sitting for. I hope so. Or maybe she was just testing it for the fluff factor. It has been National Bird Week here and I participated in a bird count every day this week. Wouldn’t it be nice to boost the count with some little hatchlings? A bit too soon I know, but a girl can dream.
I’ve been doing further chick checks on the Peregrin Falcons in Melbourne, and taking photos for those of you who don’t have time to check. There isn’t always much to see except sleeping chicks, and gathering debris. Ugh, it’s a very unhygienic looking area now. Today I was watching the three somewhat comatose chicks rearrange themselves when one in the back raised its bum and squirted poop in a very impressive arc all over the one in the front–still asleep. Siblings, eh? Feeding time is not appealing either, but very interesting. I was lucky to catch both parents there for one feeding session and snapped a screen shot for you. The female is the larger of the two and if I may anthropomorphise for a moment, looks quite unimpressed at her mate who is doing the feeding and perhaps sneaking a bite for himself? Imagine raising triplets! These two are really working hard at this parenting thing.
We have had rain. Not a lot, but enough to green the place a bit. We had 21mm a couple of weeks ago and another 6mm since. For those of you who regularly get rain this will seem like a drizzle, but here it is substantial enough to bring changes. Rain is magic for gardens and everything, in fact. It washes the leaves free of their red dust and everything looks crisp and clean again. And the smell of eucalyptus and whatever magic is in moistened desert dust is divine. The La Niña weather pattern is predicted to bring us more of the wet stuff over the coming few months and we are all feeling a bit greedy for it. We dusted off our rain gauges and send text messages…
‘Did you get rain?’
‘Yes, we got 5mm, how about you?’
‘No, it missed us completely.’
And so on.
The cherry tomato vines are growing like stink, the fig tree has its first babies and they are growing daily, and my lovely Bay tree that is about 15 years old and has survived my benign neglect for most of those years, has hit its stride and joined the happily growing throng.
And finally. Filling in the spaces of time between the many and varied activities of a domestic engineer/gardener/tech consultant/sporadic blogger, I’m trying to again find my mojo as a practicing artist. To take away the intimidation of a white canvas, I cut up a cardboard box, primed it and painted a loose little scene of my beloved Spinifex Pigeons and Finches from our recent trip to Kings Canyon.
There are plenty of unpleasant things going on around us too, but I choose to spend as much time as possible in the realm of nature, Rilke and Mary Oliver…
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’.
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.
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.
We had it on good advice that Gondwana* Game Reserve would not disappoint us in our desire to see African animals. But honestly, how many wonderful animal experiences could a person rightly expect from one trip? It was hard to believe that anything could live up to the experiences we had just witnessed on our cruise. But it turns out you can be incredibly lucky.
The game reserve was about a four and half hour drive from Stellenbosch. After a little bit of a lie-in, we enjoyed a lovely breakfast at our B&B and had a reasonably prompt start. Google map played one of its well known tricks and took us on a gravel road because it was the shortest route after we turned off the highway. We later discovered the paved road was faster, though technically not shorter.
From the highway, and for most of the drive on the gravel road, it was hard to believe this was the game reserve that had wild animals and had come so highly recommended. The lie of the land was unimpressive, though the drive there had been lovely. We arrived at the manned entrance, identified ourselves and were given a map to get to the lodge and accommodation. The minute we turned into the drive, it was as if we had come into an altered Universe. There were giraffes. I swear I nearly hyperventilated. No one is allowed to leave their vehicle so photos from the car window were required. It’s not as if we hadn’t seen giraffes close up before. We hand fed them at Monarto Zoo in South Australia a couple of years ago. But this was uncontrived and so casual…oh, yeah, those ole things, just giraffes, you know.
We arrived at the lodge and were shown to the villa that would be our accommodation for the next three nights. It was truly perfect. It was ‘glamping’**, and more…rustic but with a king size bed, and all the niceties. The view from the bed toward the stunning landscape and the other villas was very special. We were told our first ‘safari’ would be in an hour, but we were required to meet in half an hour so the guide could gather his group and so we could have afternoon tea before departing at 5pm. Thrust into it, we barely had time to change clothes and get to the meeting point which, fortunately, was the bar area, a stone’s throw from our villa.
There was no way I was going to have a cup of tea when about to leave on a three hour safari, but I could manage a couple of tiny tea cakes. After four weeks, I was learning to cope with semi-permanent dehydration. Our guide for the entire stay was Felix. What he didn’t know about the animals and the country probably wasn’t worth knowing. He was a really lovely man. Felix gathered everyone and showed us to our vehicle, which held 9 adults, plus the seat beside Felix. The three rows of seats were graduated in height from front to back so that everyone would have a clear view. Very clever. Don and I decided we would climb to the seats at the back…not realising they were also the least comfortable over bumpy terrain…and it was ALL bumpy terrain. But the main reason we decided the back seat was worth trying was the very precocious, and vocal, four year old with his parents. Fresh from a wilderness experience with only adults, a loud four year old was not something we had anticipated.
Our first safari that evening was our baptism by bump. Felix had decided to chase down one of the elephant herds. When I say we went over hill and dale, that is putting it mildly. My poor back and stomach were tortured to the limit and my bladder…well, once again, we were being stoic. We had been told there were no toilet facilities anywhere, which was plainly evident, so, when a man about thirty years younger than us asked if he could do a ‘necessary stop’, I wanted to say ‘Really?’
But we were rewarded with elephants. And not just elephants, but baby elephants. They were astonishingly majestic, as was the scenery. We would never ever have guessed that this incredible terrain lay only a few miles from the highway that carried us there.
As the sun set the temperature plummeted unbelievably. Felix handed out ponchos, which at first some accepted politely, but later snuggled into gratefully. It had been hot when we left so no one wore jackets, but now we were freezing. It was dark by the time we returned for dinner and we were tired and hungry and in desperate need of a ‘necessary stop’. I think all that bouncing around actually burns energy!
It was rather late by the time we’d eaten dinner and Felix had told us he would be calling us at 5.30 the next morning, for a 6am departure. All I could think of was the good ole days when I thought zodiac excursions were challenging…
**glamping is a combined word from ‘glamorous-camping’
*Gondwana: we hear a lot about Gondwana here in Australia as it is thought that about 550 million years ago, Australia, Africa and South America formed a single land mass and it has been given that name. It was readily visible in the shared plants we saw, both in South Africa and here in Australia.