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Published: March 26th 2015
“Ow!” A locust or grasshopper had hit me in the cheek. I looked down in my lap. No sign of the presumably concussed insect, but I picked up the one working its way up my trouser-leg, squinted at its markings, and chucked it out of the Polaris’ side window. “Another leopard grasshopper,” I said confidently. Keith wriggled in acknowledgement. Locusts seemed to like crawling up his legs underneath his trousers, which wasn’t wildly helpful while he was driving.
For an “arid zone research station”, Fowlers Gap was still looking remarkably lush, despite it now being two months since the downpour that had dumped more than 75% of the average annual rainfall on the property over the course of a weekend, dramatically filling and breaching dams that had been cracked mud for a couple of years and causing a burst of vegetation that had had friends claiming I’d Photoshopped my pictures.
Now, the sporadic eruptions of locusts and grasshoppers in front of us made driving round the property in a windscreen-less Polaris a little more eventful. I had soon learned to keep my mouth closed, and bought safety glasses to wear in the early evenings when the reduced light made
finding shade under the steps
Australian sealion, Seal Bay, Kangaroo Island
sunglasses impractical. Being pinged in the face was one thing; I didn’t fancy the temporary blindness of an eye-hit. But they were no dent in my exhilaration at being back the Outback, in fact they were fascinating in their variety. Although plague locusts were in the vast majority, they were not occurring in such numbers as to worry the Australian Plague Locust Commission for which Fowlers Gap keeps a watching brief. I thought ruefully of my all-too-soon return to the chill of early spring in London and the new job (albeit another part-time, short-term one whose sole purpose was to replenish my travel funds). Who’d willingly give up this remoteness? The company of kangaroos each quizzically checking out new all-terrain vehicle, trying to work out if it was a threat, and hopping away with that effortless elegance when we came too close. The occasional emus so easily spooked into that glorious Ministry-Of-Funny-Walks stepping-out stride. The majesty of a wedge-tailed eagle soaring on the late afternoon thermals. The chaotic chatter of a flock of galahs, pink-and-white cockatoos, heading for their evening perch. An unexpected sighting of budgies in the evening light. A flight of ducks lending credence to the newly re-established
Vivonne Bay, Kangaroo Island
No, London was not looking wildly appealing at the moment.
It had been an escape-the-British-winter sojourn with a difference. For once, Keith was taking holiday when I arrived, forced into a use-it-or-lose-it six week break from mid-December until Australia Day. We’d toyed with various destinations, but settled for a mini road-trip around the southeast coast of the country, all too easily clocking up 4,000 km as we wound our way from New South Wales’ Central Coast, via Melbourne and Adelaide, to South Australia’s Port Germein and inland to Broken Hill and the research station. I guesstimated that we’d maybe traced about an eighth of Australia’s coastline. Plenty more to go.
Scheduled works at Fowlers Gap meant that, in common with other non-essential personnel, I was then booted out for the month of February. This was not exactly going to be a hardship, I had to admit, with an invitation to go snorkelling in Jervis Bay for a week, hang out with cousins in the Southern Highlands and Brisbane, and extend my usual weekend visiting friends in Hobart, as well as seeing the usual suspects in Sydney.
All this meant that the ocean and sealife dominated
the first two months of my year, in contrast to my customary desert surroundings. At Ulladulla and Narooma, on the first full day of our road trip, the water’s clarity was incredible. I was enchanted to see sting and eagle rays gliding through shallow water, the latter nosing into the sand in search of food. When I was finally properly introduced to snorkelling – my teacher-friend incredulous I was effectively a virgin snorkeller (I didn’t really count my half-hearted and choking attempts off the side of a boat in the Whitsundays twenty years’ ago), this being an activity that he, with the luxury of having been brought up and still living beside the ocean, takes for granted – I had the chance to get up close and personal, swimming with the rays myself with all the time in the world to admire their fluidity and effortlessness of movement.
Rays weren’t the sole highlight of the week in Jervis Bay. The sheer volume and variety of fishlife was staggering: up-and-down stripy ones, sideways stripy ones, ones with pink bits, ones with yellow bits, ones with an iridescent sheen, shoals of light slivers, shoals of bigger things, and a huge great
blue thing lurking under the rocks (hmmm…time to get a fish-identification book, perhaps?). I’m told the snorkelling is superb here at this time of year anyway, but this was superlative, said the cognoscenti, thanks to a combination of king tides and the East Australian Current (the name alone redolent of the hippy turtles “surfin’ the E.A.C.” in “Finding Nemo”) running particularly close to the shore and in particularly vibrant form, bringing inshore a plethora of tropical species as well as the usual migrants and residents. The water was warmer than usual, though my considerate friends had ensured that I was very thoroughly “rugged up” (in local parlance) with a full wetsuit, thermal underlayer, hood, gloves and boots, and able to withstand an hour or more in this oceanic aquarium.
Back in Sydney, I saw the harbour from a new perspective: between and below my feet as I climbed gingerly up the Harbour Bridge’s dramatic structure. I’d had a yen to do the Bridge Climb since I first saw human-shaped ant-sized figures atop this iconic Australian edifice, and unexpectedly managed to find a slot on a “sampler” climb that allowed Delia – the companion from some of my earliest travels
– to join me before she had to pick up her kids from school. It had been a 21 years, almost to the day, since we’d last had even an “adventure-ette” together.
History and exploration also became leitmotifs of these two months. As we trundled around the coast of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, and crossed over to Kangaroo Island, we were haunted by Matthew Flinders, described on an information board at the top of KI’s Prospect Hill, as Australia’s “first backpacker”, as well as Captain James Cook. Between them, they seemed to have named everywhere, albeit sometimes a touch erroneously, such as Cook’s failure to appreciate that Montague Island was actually an island, rather than simply a headland. Walking through the bush at the either end of Jervis Bay gave us a hint as to how hard the early settlers had had to work to establish any kind of permanent settlement. It seemed extraordinary that the materials to build an essential lighthouse could have been tramped through this impenetrable scrub. Over in Tasmania, Cindy and I, with a surprisingly good-humoured four-year-old Milo, spent an afternoon at Port Arthur, “a spot as lovely in its position as
it is ugly in its memories”, accordingly to a 1886 guidebook. Tragically that description is even more true now than when it was written. Not only the site of the infamous 1830s penal colony for repeat offenders, Port Arthur was more recently the scene of the truly horrendous massacre over two days in April 1996 that is still one of the deadliest shootings worldwide committed by a single person, that triggered a revolution in Australia’s gun laws.
On my return to Fowlers Gap, I had cause to offer up my very own thanks Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Waking one morning to discover that a near-definite work prospect in the UK had fallen through, I found myself within twelve hours with another offer of work through a contact dating back to the distant days of my pre-2006 career, notwithstanding the UK having been asleep for most of the intervening period. The joys of Skype messaging and email: tremendous when it works! I joined a confirmatory conference call-cum-interview from Keith’s kitchen (this time without simultaneously toileting an orphan joey – in contrast to my preparation for another work interview two years’ ago), my prospective colleagues sounding a touch bemused about my current
locale and relaxed approach to the ten-and-a-half hour time difference. It was a very long way away from the stresses of the morning commute.
Life on station soon resumed its customary form. I’d trudge up the track to the office block each morning to take advantage of its better internet connection to do some work. As I passed the large enclosure I’d have brief illusions of being a kangaroo whisperer when its inhabitants, a mixture of reds and western greys, hopped over to the fence line to greet me, noses poking through the wire. But I’d accept, reluctantly, that theirs was a friendship at a very prosaic level. Accustomed to the attentions of researchers, they simply associated humans with food. I knew my place. Closer to the office, a flock of galahs would take flight as one, screaming like an avian burglar alarm.
Apostlebirds were dramatically down in numbers this year, to my sorrow. So named because of their customary flock size, the group here had been widely studied for years and had become so habituated to people that they’d come up to the glass doors and peck until I emerged with rice, oats or breadcrumbs in my
hands for them to fight over. Who needed television when there were these guys on hand, their ever-changing social order, their playfulness, their quizzical intelligence? Now there were only five birds left, the one fledgling swept off in the talons of a black kite in front of Keith’s eyes, and, in the absence of regular feeding, they’d become wild again, only tentatively coming down to ground level when I was outside throwing food for them.
On my last couple of days, a trio of kangaroos appeared in the back yard, well-timed “lawnmowers” for Keith’s well-watered patch of grass. Flo – a six-year-old hand-reared western grey – hopped towards the door and I took her a carrot. Not since the days of the old doe four years’ ago had I had an adult kangaroo feeding from my hand, her front paws resting on my fingers as she gnawed at the carrot. I looked into her gentle brown eyes, and rubbed her chest. Would I really be scrubbed up and on my way into a Canary Wharf office in a week’s time?
Still, it’s all in the name of the next air ticket…
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