Sunday 29 January 2012

The Oystercatchers' Fugue

South West Cape Walk, Part 3

A fickle sun lights offshore rocks, Hidden Bay 
The next morning we’re up late, a little sore perhaps, but still mightily pleased. Despite the worst that weather, mud, spills and strains have thrown at us, we are actually here. We’re out amongst some of the most exquisite wilderness you will ever find: part of more than 600 000 hectares of country in which the presence of the modern human is near enough to zero.

So what is it like being here? How does it feel to be immersersed in such an extraordinarily wild landscape, surrounded by so much that is more-than-human? Need I be ashamed to admit that a fair bit of our focus remains on the ordinary? We still fuss around getting food; preparing it, cooking it, eating it, talking about it and comparing it to the food of others.

We also take care of bodily functions, and – surprisingly perhaps – even talk about such things. If we’ve been out here long enough, and feel/smell/look rank enough, we may even go and bathe.

And then we busy ourselves getting more comfortable. We amuse each other with witty banter, or games, or perhaps readings. We eat and drink some more, and possibly sleep some more, especially if the showers return and our tolerance of wet and cold becomes too low. In other words we do what most other humans do during most other days that they’re suspended between this extraordinary sphere and the heavens above.

But eventually I find the raw wildness, the unfiltered otherness of the place, beginning to work on me. I get up to explore, walking alone along the shore, prodding the wrack for its secrets. Large, slow thoughts begin to coalesce as I witness the patterned, thunderous chaos of the waves, or observe the ponderous progress of bellied rain clouds, ready to empty a part of themselves over me at any moment.

Pied Oystercatchers take flight 

I turn towards the semi-shelter of the rocky shore, where an overhang becomes my poor man’s umbrella. There I settle to watch a pair of sooty oystercatchers (Haemotopus fuliginosus) as they hop and poke their way along the scraggy shore. Sooty oystercatchers are the rarer, and slightly heavier, relations of pied oystercatchers (Haemotopus longirostris). These two species, the former having all black plumage, the latter mixing black with white, have roughly divided the coast between them. Pieds prefer sandy and muddy shores, and sooties tend to stick to rocky shores.

A pair of Sooty Oystercatchers on a more tranquil shore 
I watch and listen as the pair of sooties move slowly southward along the rocks, just above the wave zone. They converse softly, mewling like newborn kittens. Now and again they let out louder semi-alarm calls; mostly they go silently about their business of finding morsels such as crabs, shellfish and other marine invertebrates.

For close on an hour I watch as they perform their fugue along the rocky shore, one hopping, the other following, all to the basso continuo of surging waves and thrashing kelp.

Despite the watery chaos of the rocky shore, I only once see the birds surprised by the wash from a wave. On this occasion, where they have usually hopped out of harms way, one of them actually flaps its wings perfunctorily. With little seeming effort it lifts momentarily, until the wave recedes, then lands afresh of another rock.

Towards the end of the hour Lynne joins me, and we chat quietly about birds and life in general. I wonder aloud whether the birds are watching us back. Do they possibly note – and here I slip into gentle mockery of the naturalist – our “atypical quietness and strangely non-aggressive behaviour”? I have an urge to tell them that perhaps our long, slow openness to what is happening here, now, has begun to slow us to wilderness pace. When the birds finally turn a corner and are beyond sight, we leave our watching post with a deep sense of contentment.

Later, as the weather brightens, the others join us on the beach and we all wander, sometimes all together, sometimes in smaller groups, but more or less in the same direction. We communally share our discoveries, a shell here, some driftwood there. Out to sea Maatsuyker Island and other off-shore islets are occasionally spot-lit by a fickle sun; a dramatic backdrop to our amazingly ordinary meandering.

Tiny treasure: an opalescent screw shell  (photo Lynne Grant) 

By the end of the afternoon we’re surprised, given the weather, to find that a couple of us are sunburnt. But I suspect we’re even more surprised by the treasures we’ve been able to share together just by being here.

Sunday 22 January 2012

A Choir of Waves

South West Cape Walk, Part 2

Tim takes in the wild south-west coast at New Harbour 

They say 24 hours is a long time in politics. Which just proves how little bushwalking has in common with “the art of the possible” (as von Bismarck defined politics).

For us 4 hours – the time it took to trudge, wade, grumble, leap and muddle our way from Melaleuca to New Harbour – felt an eternity. With our packs at their heaviest; our feet at their tenderest; the weather at its most recalcitrant; and the daylight waning, it felt like bushwalking had become the art of the impossible.

I’d been trying to play the optimist card all day, reminding the group how beautiful the destination would be. Would there be mud, they’d asked early on? I’d pleaded that it was about 15 years since my last visit here. But yes, I did have memories of “a bit of mud” towards the end of the day’s walk.

As we hit the worst of that “bit of mud”, the promised hail came. Jim was almost gleeful, in an Eeyore kind of way. The rest of us pulled our rainhoods tighter and trudged on.

Memory is a fickle beast. Both precious and daunting memories are subject to the attrition of time. One particular fragment of memory chose to reactivate just as we started to hear the roaring of waves on the shore; just as we’d begun to grin at the nearness of our camp. I confided to Lynne my recollection that there was a scrub band guarding the beach.

“What’s that?” she asked innocently, trying hard to keep both energy and optimism intact. I explained that my vague memory of it was that we had to push through some “jungle” before we’d get to the beach. “And then it’s still a kilometre or so along the beach to our campsite.” I’m not sure I heard Lynne’s response but, bless her, she kept going. And so did everyone else.

At about 7pm we broke through the “jungle” – which actually wasn’t that bad – and stepped out onto New Harbour beach. We were greeted by a bedraggled and grizzled looking group of walkers who had occupied the easterly campsite. “It was more sheltered from the wind here” they told us “although there’s lots more room at the next campsite.” I would have taken this as a territorial hint had I not recalled that the next campsite was far superior to this one.

Lynne arriving at New Harbour as day fades 

We left the group to their dinner, and immediately had to work out how to cross the fast-flowing freshwater lagoon. Both Jim and I still had dry socks: something of a badge on a walk like this. We walked as far seaward as possible, and found the shallowest crossing point. The wet-socked ones were less worried, and soon we were all over and lumbering up the long beach towards home.

And what a home it would prove to be. New Harbour is a vast, wide bay held in the embrace of long, south-trending rocky headlands, all set about with hills variously wooded or buttongrassed. This evening, as must often be the case, wet and fresh winds were conversing loudly with long sets of waves, while oystercatchers, gulls and plovers strutted, flew and trotted along the strand.

Amid all this wildness it was oddly comforting to find a set of wooden steps leading from the beach to our campsite. There, sheltered under a dense stand of native laurel trees, we found plenty of fine tent-sites. We used the last of the day’s energy and light to set up tents and get dinner cooking.

Camping beneath native laurels at New Harbour 

And after that? How blissful was it to be horizontal, dry and warm inside a tent, and to be sung to sleep by a loud choir of waves? Worth the pain is my answer.

Saturday 21 January 2012

Nor Isobars a Cage

South West Cape Walk, Part 1

The track between Melaleuca and New Harbour 

It doesn’t pay to indebt yourself to the weather gods. After an unseasonally warm spring walk described here I had high hopes for our long-planned summer walk in the far south-west.
Yes, east is east, and south-west is south-west, and never the twain shall meet, in weather terms at least. But I was smiling as Christmas merged into New Year, and warm, dry weather patterns continued. With our group of five confirmed, we booked the light plane from Cambridge to Melaleuca for Monday the 9th. And almost immediately the long-term forecast started to go pear-shaped.
I’m a keen watcher of weather maps, having studied climatology for two years. It has made me wary of long-term forecasts, but as the day approached the forecasters unfortunately looked like being vindicated. Formerly bold high pressure systems suddenly became shy, shrinking like children at their mother’s skirt – in this case mainland Australia.
Isobars tightened as a series of cold fronts began to push up over Tasmania from the cold Southern Ocean. Four fronts in two days, gale warnings, forecasts of snow, swells to 7 metres off the south-west, winds over 100km/hour at Maatsuyker Island. These are NOT ideal precursors to a walk in the south-west!

Rain on the Plain, Melaleuca, Tasmania 
On Monday the 9th, after an almost sleepless night listening to wind howling through the trees, I was not surprised to get an early morning phone call from the airline saying our flights would be delayed till at least the afternoon by “unseasonally strong winds”. It was disappointing, but certainly not surprising.
What to do in the face of such news? My response was to go forecast shopping, as if to will the weather to recover from its ill disposition. I huddled over various different internet weather maps, checked ground observations, watched trends, assessed wind and precipitation projections. And of course I debated the future of the whole trip with other members of the party, some of them not all that keen to continue.
17th century English poet Richard Lovelace, once imprisoned for his political views, wrote the well known lines:

Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.
I tried to convince the group that a little wind and some showers need not stop us getting out there, changing Lovelace’s words to “nor isobars a cage.”
We agreed to set Tuesday afternoon as our flight deadline. Each of us had other commitments, and only a finite number of days off work. While we waited we cast around for other walks, all of them "softer", and all of them still prone to the very same weather pattern that seemed determined to engulf the state.
Around Tuesday lunchtime the call from the airline came, almost at the last possible minute.  We would be taking off at 1:30pm. We conferred, and agreed that this should give us enough time to arrive at Melaleuca, get organised, and walk to the New Harbour campsite before dark.

Rain on the Plane, Melaleuca Airstrip 
A few of the group popped airsick pills with our hurried lunch, and just before 2pm we lifted off into the showery and blustery beyond. Taking the coastal route via Cockle Creek and the south coast, we turned inland at Cox Bight and landed at Melaleuca during a light shower. Yes, the forecast was for further showers, and possibly storms with hail, but I still found that prospect better than the terrible cabin fever that had gripped me for 30 hours or more. As traveller Paul Theroux puts it, being kept waiting is the human conditon. So how good it was to be waiting no longer, and to be out in this wild and beautiful place!

Some of the planks on Tasmania's South Coast Track 
By 3pm we were walking the South Coast Track, the first few kilometres of which took us towards our own wilder, less-travelled track. By 3:10pm Jim, one of our most experienced walkers, had slipped and landed on his face and ribs on one of the first sections of planking. Bleeding and shaken, but still in one piece, he convinced us he was okay to continue. His ribs even coped with the mirth caused by our warnings against further “planking”. Still, it was not the happiest start to what was already a fraught trip.

Sunday 8 January 2012

Sharing the Shore

Summer surf on Tasmania's East Coast 

They come in boats, they come in cars, they come on foot. They bring their ragged temporary dwellings, their exotic foods, their noisy animals, their strange cultural practices. If it feels like an invasion, to the creatures that live on our shorelines it really IS an invasion.

Every summer, Tasmanians come down to the shore, to spend those few precious days or weeks with sand between their toes and salt on their skin. Whether the weather cooperates is almost beside the point. It’s about getting back in touch with saltwater and ourselves. It’s a primaeval ritual so deep and strong that it’s easy to believe those who say we came from the sea in the first place.

Scenes from East Coast Tasmania 
But as creatures of comfort and instant gratification, these days we’re inclined to overlook who we share the shoreline with. Shorebirds are one obvious example.

I am visiting the Bay of Fires in Tasmania’s north-east. Today it is living up to its name, in temperature at least. By the time we reach the shore at Policemans Point the temperature is in the high 30s. Unless you’re immersed in the water, the conditions are ideal for neither bird nor beast. We still manage to see a dozen different species of shorebirds, including a pair of endangered little tern (Sterna albifrons sinensis).

As we wander the estuary shore, we start to see why some of these birds are endangered. There are a few boats messing about in the water. On the beach there are a couple of dogs and about a dozen people. In Tasmania that constitutes a crowd! There are also tyre tracks all over the sand: in short a pretty normal summer’s afternoon  at the beach.

But if you’re a little tern or a hooded plover, both birds which lay eggs straight on the sand above high tide, it’s perilous. At any time eggs or chicks are vulnerable to crushing, trampling or harassment by humans or their agents.

People, their feet, and their machines, can harm what lives on the shoreline 

As we watch a dog lollops up the beach doing what dogs do. It sniffs, runs, jumps about in the water, barks its happiness, turns to see where its humans are. Meanwhile it is getting nearer to three pelicans resting on the water. It doesn’t appear to have designs on the huge birds, but nonetheless its presence is too much for them. They lift off like lumbering, feathered float planes, and circle the estuary looking for somewhere safer to be. It’s an innocent enough scenario, but one that is repeated – and worsted – all over Australia’s accessible coastlines. And it’s avoidable.

A dog innocently scares off a group of pelicans 

Only the most severely eco-pathic individual would deliberately want to harm shorebirds. But through ignorance and an over-strong focus on only our own needs, we can still be responsible for putting fatal pressure on the birds that share the shore with us.

One simple action here would be to have dogs on leashes when there are birds on beaches. Another would be to keep vehicles off beaches, or where they’re loading/unloading boats, only access the water via a straight line perpendicular to the shore. And for people walking on shorelines, the simple rule is to stick to the wetter sand, so as to avoid the nesting sites that may be in the drier, higher sands.

I would add one other suggestion. Get a pair of binoculars and a bird book, and start getting to know who it is we share the shore with. I’ve yet to hear anyone say they regretted taking up bird-watching.

Dog and pelican: both delightful, but not comfortable together