Sunday 21 August 2011

Slow Dance Into Spring

Swaying or dancing? Tenuiramis woodland in South Hobart

Have we been abandoned by the roaring forties? That fastidious sweeper of Tasmania’s weather threshold; that dependable bringer of showers and sunshine in equal measure, seems to have left us in the lumbering grip of moody, blunt-fingered low pressure troughs. Careless heavy rains, doldrum drear winds, and a long run of dreich* weather have been the result.

Whatever the weather, getting out is still essential, even if walking our dog in the bush has become a gum-boot affair. This morning everything is still wet. The background shush of the rivulet joins with the tickle of water in a newly eroded gully. As we climb the hill behind our house, the usually hard, dry soil,  where it’s not just plain muddy, has an unaccustomed give to it.

There is a feel of change in the air: sunshine for a start, and sunshine with warmth in it. But there are other sights and sounds of change too. The pee-paw of spotted pardalotes and the chip and chatter of other birds also signal the shift.

We find the season’s first orchids, greenhoods and spider orchids, thriving on the wet winter conditions. Wildflowers too are blossoming, from the whites and reds of epachrids to the creams and yellows of acacias and the deep gold of pultenaeas.

Signs of spring in our local bush

In places, however, water has turned from giver to destroyer. The sheer volume of winter rain – in concert with inept road drainage upstream – has stripped out great gobbets of topsoil and created open-cuts in the slopes. We climb steeply towards the head of the gully, where a huge dead tree straddles what is becoming a gorge. This survivor of the 1967 bushfires must soon be undermined and fall.

Lower down this new gully a crater has appeared. A garage-sized block of earth has collapsed due to undermining. Fully-grown stringybark trees have dropped into the hole intact. For the moment they live on, shaken and skewed, but alive. Still, given the instability of the soil, their struggle might just be beginning.

This freshly-collapsed block of earth, complete with trees, has been undermined by water.

We wander over to one of our favourite “character” trees, a Eucalyptus tenuiramis we’ve nick-named Lena on account of her near-horizontal angle of growth. Alas Lena too has been hit hard by the wildly wet winter. Already undermined by insect attack, her trunk has fractured near ground level. Instead of hovering above the earth, Lena has fallen fully to ground.

We inspect the tree, and find there are still some connections between the trunk and the rootstock. Her leaves are green and healthy looking too. She may, perhaps, live on in this state for some time. We will keep a regular eye on Lena, although we wonder whether we should rename her Reclina.

"Lena" the gum tree before (left) and after (right) the fall 
Elsewhere there are happier stories among the tenuiramis clan. The habitually dry, shallow soils have taken water deep. The tenuiramis woodlands seem to glow with health. I fancy they are swaying, dancing even: a long, slow dance to the wildly intricate rhythms of the seasons. If they know anything, they know to dance while they may. And what better reason than the stuttering, slow, but inevitable arrival of spring in Tasmania.

* a Scots word for grey and dismal.

Sunday 14 August 2011

A Passionate Pedestrian

It was a bizarre way to find out mainstream opinion on the activity we call bushwalking. I’d been involved in the production of a very brief promo for our national ABC television network. It was a series depicting people engaged in a particular activity, who then faced the camera and traced the ABC logo in the air.

The logo of Australia's ABC 

One of our bushwalking mates worked for the ABC at the time, and he took on the job of filming and producing the promo. It was shot in the Pine Valley/Labyrinth area, and included some lovely footage of wilderness landscapes, plus walkers brushing past bushes and boots crunching through ice.

The final scene had us gathering around a map outside Pine Valley Hut. At the appropriate moment we looked up, traced the ABC logo in the air, and chanted the eternal cry of the bushwalker: “How far now?”

It went to air over the succeeding couple of months, but then suddenly disappeared from our screens. When we asked our mate what had happened, he laughed and told us that Sydney had pulled the promo. The reason? What it depicted, according to ABC management, was too much of “a minority activity”. We were all quite miffed, but that turned to incredulous mirth when it was replaced by a promo with a yodelling, transvestite ice skater tracing the logo.

You learn to live with condescension when you’re Tasmanian. There’s many a metaphorical pat on the head – and not a few references to your second head – when mainland Australians hear you’re from the “tiny” island state.

But if wanting to get out into Tasmania’s wonderfully wild landscape is considered a quaint pastime suited to an eccentric minority, then I'll proudly wear that hat – on both my heads. Because bushwalking is certainly one of the things that brought me here in 1980.

Why we walk! A perfect spring day on the Acropolis, near Lake St Clair 

And as a bushwalker new to Tasmania, it was natural enough that I would seek out others to walk with. What surprised me at the time was that the bushwalking groups all seemed to cater for hard-core walkers, or those who aspired to be. A youngish new father, I wondered where those with children, or walkers who were less experienced or less ambitious, might find people to walk with.

And then I had one of those good ideas that comes along only a few times in your life (in my case, at least!) Why not start a group myself? It fitted in with my new job of organising school programs and outdoor activities. And although I’d never have put it this way back then, there also seemed to be an obvious market for a family-friendly bushwalking group in the north of Tassie.

Of course I would need local expertise, which I soon found in the shape of two experienced, passionate and generous Launceston walkers. And so, back in 1981, Boots’n’All was born. There are not many things you can look back on with a satisfying glow thirty years after you’ve helped get them started. In my case I would happily put having three children at the top of that list, but for most of us the list is short. Time so often dissolves our best efforts at making our mark.

The next generation on an early Boots'n'All walk (photo by KDM)
Boots’n’All allowed me to combine, at times, two pursuits I have always held dear: parenting and bushwalking. Slipping on a backpack as part of my work seemed privilege enough. But being able to put my young child in a carry pack lifted the privilege to a completely new level.

Those early walks carrying our first daughter – and later our other  two children – were moments to savour. Instead of a mute lump of shelter, clothing and food, my back was loaded with a sentient, giggling, chattering and completely delightful small person. I forgave her the odd grizzle or grasp of my beard, just as she forgave me the odd stumble. Together with the rest of the group we were out there, experiencing the world first-hand, as only walkers can.

Daughter No. 1 gets some walking experience with her eccentrically-hatted father in the early 1980s (photo by KDM) 
Thirty years later, living among so many children who suffer from what educator Richard Louv has dubbed nature deficit disorder, the idea of getting children and their parents out into the bush seems more urgent than ever.  So I will keep bushwalking, especially now that I've got grandchildren to initiate into this "eccentric" marvel. I'll leave it to someone else to show them how to ice skate.

Saturday 6 August 2011

Been Here A While

In the Top End they call this season “the dry”. It’s typically laconic, don’t-open-your-mouth-much-or-the-flies-will-get-in, Australian understatement. Like saying the Aboriginal people have “been here a while”.

Our visit to Kakadu puts some perspective on both weather and longevity. Weather first. The Bininj/Mungguy people of Kakadu recognise six different seasons, and many subtle transitions between those. For them the “dry” – or that part of it between June and August – is called Wurrgeng. They see it as “cold weather time”, although we sleep with the air conditioning on!

Sunset during the burn-off, Mirray Lookout, Kakadu 
In the Aboriginal calendar, it's time to burn country. The flowering of a local eucalypt, the Darwin woolybutt (Eucalyptus miniata), is a signal to start burning the woodlands. This has the twim aims of bringing on green fodder for grazing animals, and keeping fuel loads low as protection against wild fire.

When we are there fires trickle rather than rage, and many places combine a sooty dessication with vivid new greens. Burning practices are so ancient that birds and other animals have adapted. Remarkably the whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus), a species found throughout Australia, has locally learned to spread fire by picking up and dropping burning branches. This increases its likelihood of successfully finding the prey species which either flee or perish in the flames. I daresay pre-cooked is just as good as fresh to a hunter and carrion eater.

A whistling kite - minus the burning branch - in Kakadu 

We discover other subtleties about the dry. Certainly it doesn’t rain – that much is straightforward. But neither is it all blue skies and relentless heat. In July most days begin clear, but as the day progresses clouds tend to wander across the sun’s face. They gather in a desultory fashion, like school children who have yet to do a serious day’s work but are headed in that general direction.

When these trainee storm clouds gather, piling high enough to hint at darkness, it isn’t hard to imagine how things would change as temperature and humidity are lifted a notch. Those more serious clouds are part of Gunumeleng, known to many as the build-up. That will start in mid-October and culminate in Gudjewg, the monsoon season (December to March). While I love a good thunderstorm, I’ll be happy to spend that season back in the predictable uncertainty of temperate Tasmania.

During “the wet”, the floodplains of Kakadu will fill, and all non-aquatic life will move to higher country. Ubirr, with its vast views over the East Alligator floodplain, gives us a good sense of that. It is a place with a powerful presence. Rock walls, overhangs and cliffs hold more than a thousand generations of Aboriginal art.

“More than a thousand generations” may sit easily on the page, but in the mind it can create temporal vertigo. As we wander past these galleries in near-silence, wonder after wonder is revealed. Here a brilliantly sylised depiction of a hunter; there a portrayal of some of his food sources. 

A stylised hunter, Ubirr art-site 

As a Tasmanian I am stunned to see a thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) outlined on a wall. The creature became extinct in the 1930s in Tasmania, but has not lived in Kakadu for thousands of years. Its depiction high on the main gallery of Ubirr gives me a dizzying sense of how long Aboriginal people have belonged to this country.

A thylacine depicted in the main gallery, Ubirr art-site 

We end the day, along with many others, watching the sunset from the top of Ubirr. People wander about, chat in clusters, take photographs, or just sit and look. There is a quietness that borders on the reverential. 

Although it's the dry, the setting sun gives away the presence of large amounts of water, as tell-tale reflections shimmer from the vast floodplain. Climate scientists fear that Kakadu, and the floodplain we’re looking out over, could be profoundly changed by climate change and sea level rise. That is as sad and sobering as the toxic presence of the invasive cane toad. But somehow there’s something hopeful in the fact that the Aboriginal people have lived here long enough to have seen enormous changes like this before. And they’re still here.

Sunset from Ubirr Rock, Kakadu