Monday, 19 July 2010

Not Much Here



[a eucalypt cutter's hut, Whipstick State Park near Bendigo, Victoria]

I’ve always been attracted to green: to well-watered landscapes, forests, mountains and fertile fields. In short to Tasmania. But despite this bias, I have spent time in Australia’s more arid areas, and have come to appreciate the subtle charms of the drier life.

While Bendigo is scarcely arid, it’s certainly drier and flatter than home. And during the droughts that have ravaged central Victoria over the last decade it has seemed desert-like at times. Exotic gardens and trees have died; lawns have turned to dust-bowls and water has become as precious as the gold on which the area was built.

That decade has coincided with regular visits to family living here. In that time I’ve grown to intensely appreciate the region’s ironbark forests. These brilliantly drought-adapted gum trees (Eucalyptus tricarpa) are characterised by dark and deeply furrowed trunks. Their rusty, teak-tough exterior is matched by their timber.


[Ironbark trunks, Whipstick State Park near Bendigo, Victoria]

On one visit, we happen across an old eucalypt cutter’s cottage in the Whipstick State Park, just west of Bendigo. As we stop to photograph the tumble-down cottage, the owner of the newer farmhouse behind whistles us over, thinking we’re heritage professionals. He tells us a bit about the cottage, and some of the timber-cutting history of the area. He’s surprised to learn we’re looking for somewhere to walk. “Oh there’s not much here” is his region-deprecating summary.

We drive off and find some nearby forest to investigate. We spend the next two hours walking just a few hundred metres and exploring the farmer’s “not much” in great detail. We’re totally enthralled by how the bush has responded to recent winter rains; by the amazing variety of its life-forms; by the subtle variations in plant species over just a small area. We laugh at a fungus that imitates animal poo; marvel at an ants’ nest that chimneys above a flood-prone hollow; are charmed by the tinkling calls of unseen birds; can’t resist photographing a fallen ragged blossom; play detective with animal tracks in the mud.


[fallen blossom in Whipstick State Reserve near Bendigo, Victoria]

We realise we’re the odd ones out, wandering on tracks made only by roos, lying in the dirt to shoot close-ups of wildflowers or ants or short-lived grasses. We know that by everyday standards these activities seem at best eccentric, at worst rather mad. But we can’t help feeling sad that most Aussies don’t know about or appreciate these sorts of environments; that for most of us there really is not much here in this wide brown land. If you think I’m exaggerating, read some popular travelogues of Australia – say Bill Bryson’s Down Under – and count how many times you read phrases like “vast emptiness” or “mile after mile of nothing”.

Alternatively, if you’d rather find out for yourself, get a bird book, a local plant guide, a pair of binoculars and a camera, and walk out into some Australian bush. If you take your time, ask yourself a few questions, and watch patiently, you might be pleasantly surprised to find what’s really out there.

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