Sunday 24 June 2012

Kangaroos in My Top Paddock

[A male kangaroo, over 2m tall, relaxes in the grass] 

I’m about to fly home from Canberra. It’s cold and dark, and I’m glad to be in the warm shelter of the airport. There is food and drink – reasonable by airport standards – and comfortable seats with a view of the winter night. If I want it there is entertainment of sorts on a large-screen television. Or I can have internet access; shops with reading materials and souvenirs; people to chat with. You could almost believe the place has everything a person could want.

We are called to board, and move from one climate-controlled space to another. As I sit on the plane waiting to leave, I look across the brightly-lit tarmac to brightly-lit buildings where shiny machines move neat cargo. There are one or two visible workers moving between buildings, and for a moment I fancy I see a dog. I quickly realise my mistake: they would not allow an animal loose here.

There are no plants loose either. It’s all tarmac, glass and steel. This is no place for nature. It is a place of extreme control over nature, not much like the suburbs and towns where most of us live. And yet, I wonder, if we were given the chance, would we Australians choose in our millions to live in comfortable and controlled spaces like this?

It is a contrast to places I have just visited. Like Maloneys Beach, near Batemans Bay on the NSW South Coast. We have arrived at our friends’ place in the afternoon, and have gone for a leg stretch after the long drive. The estate is newish, part residential area, part holiday escape. The streets are all kerbed and guttered, the power is underground; it is no slap-dash shack settlement in the Tasmanian style.

And yet the first thing I spy on the neat lawns is what I take to be wallaby droppings. Mark corrects me: they are eastern grey kangaroo droppings. And yes, the neighbourhood is full of kangaroos and wallabies. We soon meet some, a whole mob lounging about on the lawn behind the beach.

[A mob of kangaroos at Maloneys Beach, NSW] 
It’s their rest time; most macropods are crepuscular (eating and active around dawn and dusk). These eastern greys, aka Forester kangaroos in Tasmania, have the luxury of the nearby Murramarang National Park as a retreat and a security.

They don’t seem to need it. On our walk we see roos looking relaxed on front lawns, ambling across streets, hopping around cars, even getting close to dogs. Drivers appear to take extra care, and dog owners seem aware of the danger of their dogs to young roos. A couple of them call dogs back into their yards as we walk by, and we don’t seen any dogs out roaming.

[Could wildlife be a selling point? Kangaroos in Maloneys Beach] 
A childhood pen-friend from the USA once asked me: “So do you have kangaroos hopping down the streets in Australia?” I had laughed at his naivity. But here at Maloneys Beach it is as though we are walking inside the clich√©. I start to wonder why this shouldn’t be the case in most of our towns and suburbs. Why shouldn’t we share our spaces and places with the plants and animals that belong there?

Australian slang has some pithy sayings that refer to madness and stupidity. Calling a person “a few chops short of a barbie” (not having enough meat for a full barbecue); or saying they’ve got “kangaroos in their top paddock”, are just two examples. The latter comes to mind in this context. I wonder if I’m being a bit daft suggesting we might integrate the wild into our everyday existence.

Then I think about the places I’ve been over the last few weeks, from Lake St Clair to Canberra to Batemans Bay to Jindabyne and back to Hobart, and I find that somehow the wild has been a common thread. It may not always be as obvious kangaroos, as alluring as orphaned wombats, or as grand as a spotted-gum forest. It may simply be a flock of rosellas or a flowering banksia. 

[Two orphaned wombats being hand-reared by carers] 

But the wild is always ready for us to notice it, if we’re willing to look. And it will stay that way if we decide it should. To me that is immeasurably preferable to the illusion of neat controlled space represented by an airport terminal.

Monday 18 June 2012

Walking With Dinosaurs

There is a moment on the walk that feels like passing through a door. On one side the vegetation is the familiar Tasmanian mix: open eucalypt forest with pandani, tea tree and bauera, interspersed with buttongrass. It is wet forest certainly, though not rainforest.

On the other side of the door - to me marked by a couple of extravagantly tall guardian pandani - everything changes. Eucalypts suddenly become scarce, replaced by King Billy and celery top pine, myrtle beech and sassafras. The light turns softer, duller, greener. Sounds grow muted. We have unmistakably entered rainforest.

Pyramidal sassafras trees glow bright green, their toothed, glossy leaves, mirroring what light does break through. Above them mature myrtle beech trees dominate the canopy. Their individual leaves are small and inconspicuous; their compound effect lends an emerald tint to the whole forest. King Billy pines add vast vertical scale to the forest, deeply-fissured trunks thrusting high into the canopy, while their leaves, dark green on living branches, rusty-coloured on the forest floor, extend the green-brown colour spectrum.

The spectrum doesn't end at the leaves. The forest floor too is covered in mosses; trunks and branches wear luminous lichens, each species a subtly different shade of green. These, it seems to me, are the colours of Gondwana. The old super-continent may be long gone, but here on the approach to Tasmania's Pine Valley, we get a glimpse of the kind of vegetation that once thrived there.

We are less than an hour from the Pine Valley hut. The six of us are aiming to reach it early on Friday afternoon, ahead of any long-weekend rush. That at least is the plan. On many walks the last hour drags, but not on this one. This forest promotes calm, asks you to pay attention, to be present to its towering, ever-changing beauty.

As the track sidles through the forest, at times it moves closer to Cephissus Creek, where flooding and inundation keep the forest at bay. At such margins eucalypts take their chance, pushing into the rainforest. Further up slope, deeper into the forest, they wouldn't survive, having insufficient light to germinate, grow tall and seed. There the dinosaur trees of Gondwana are still dominant.

But here at the edges the eucalypts seem part of the rainforest, draped in lichen and buttressed as though to camouflage their presence. They are the trees of the future. As old Gondwana retreats before the drying, warming climate, fire and drought-tolerant trees such as eucalypts will take over. The yellow alpine gums here might be the frontline of such change, 'though on this cool, damp afternoon they seem in no haste.

We get to Pine Valley in time for a late lunch. The hut is a structure that would have suited a Gondwanan forest. It was certainly not built to take advantage of either views or sunshine. We quickly light the coal-burning heater to add an hospitable air to the chill.

The next day we climb higher through the forest and into the alpine zone of The Labyrinth. Parts of the television documentary Walking With Dinosaurs were filmed here. It was one of the few places they could find in Australia that had expansive landscapes without obvious stands of eucalypts, plants that had not developed by the dinosaur era.

It turns out to be one of those days on which you find yourself telling first-timers "of course on a clear day, you'd be looking at stunning mountains like Geryon and The Acropolis." Still to me, even in wet and cool conditions, it is always worth visiting The Labyrinth. And the newcomers seem content to be wandering in dinosaur territory too, and to be descending at day's end through more glorious Gondwanan forest, back to the hut.

Once back we are a little surprised to find that a party of 12 young walkers has arrived to celebrate the 33rd birthday of their "older" friend. It is, literally, a walking party. But if we "crusty" walkers, all in our 50s or above, fear a sleepless night of drunken, thoughtless revelry from the younger group, we are in for a pleasant surprise.

They turn out to be one of the most friendly and caring groups we've ever encountered while walking. We are included in their hilarious party games; given a taste of the birthday cake; brought into conversations, and generally made to feel anything but dinosaurs. These are the walkers of the future, fit, keen, adventurous, caring. If in comparison we feel somewhat Gondwanan, it seems there is still time and space for all of us.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday 3 June 2012

Bearable Burdens

I admit it upfront: I am fond of food. It is, as Dorcas Lane would say in “Lark Rise to Candleford”, my one weakness. It’s not just the consumption of food that matters. The smells and textures, sounds and sights of its preparation, plus the sociable chatter and growling tummy: all of these can be a feast in themselves. They intensify the anticipation and ultimate enjoyment of food.

[Cooking in the bush: a necessity that can be a pleasure]      

That’s why I’ve always tended to be fussy about my bushwalking food, even if I’ve sometimes paid a price. Like the first time I walked Tasmania’s Western Arthur Range in my late 20s. “The Arthurs” is one of the most challenging bushwalks anywhere in Australia, and remains one of the finest, hardest, most exhilarating walks I’ve ever done.

We felt such exultation that at the end of our blessedly fine-weathered trip, a couple of us decided to race each other off the range, with full packs. (Perhaps competitiveness is my other “one” weakness!) The result of that mad careening descent was knees that would never quite be the same again.

What made it worse was that I carried fresh vegetables – whole potatoes, carrots, onions, zucchinis – all the way along the spectacular saw-toothed range. From memory I even carried in a huge steak – with a fry pan and all – for cooking on the first couple of nights. All of this bulky, heavy food was stuffed into an old canvas H-frame pack whose sole virtue was its robustness. Comfort and ergonomics weren’t in the bushwalker’s lexicon at that stage. It was the era of ex-army boots, heavy woollen trousers and oilskin waterproofs. And the only thermals were woollen long johns and singlets that chafed the skin as much as warmed it.

This bit of personal walking history gives some background to, and motivation for, my current preference for lighter weight walking. No-one’s body was meant to carry the kinds of weights we used to think necessary.

Now things have changed. The improvement in gear over the last few decades is a whole story in itself. But put briefly, new materials and technologies have helped to lighten a bushwalker’s burden considerably. And as long as this lighter weight gear can handle conditions as tough as Tasmania’s, where scrub, cold and wet are likely to figure, I am happy to embrace it.

But what of food? Are lightweight foods also worth embracing, or indeed consuming? To my mind too many of them are either cheap and nasty, or expensive and not-much-better. The former foods are exemplified by instant noodles, which some attempt to improve by throwing in a bit of salami. A bit like trying to polish a turd.

The latter, the expensive freeze-dried foods, are more variable. At their worst they all taste much the same, leaving you guessing whether you’re eating chicken, beef or lamb; and as likely to detect notes of chemical preservatives as any actual food taste.

[Will it be worth waiting for? That's part of the fun!] 
An army may travel on its stomach, but its morale is also vital. Food should be more than just fuel. I want it to satisfy the taste test. I want to look forward to it, enjoy cooking and eating it, and end the meal with a smile on my face. I want my morale boosted, not deflated.

Over the last several years I’ve found a compromise between weight and taste that works well for me. I use a home food dehydrator, the sort that are generally used for drying fruit and vegetables. After some research, and a certain amount of trial and error, I’ve found that many whole meals can be successfully dried as well. Curries, stews, soups, sauces, even bircher muesli can all be dehydrated.

In written guides there is a certain caution – probably wise – in relation to meat meals. Generally I will only dehydrate meat that has been minced and then cooked. This allows even drying of the cooked meat, and minimises the risk of bacterial growth inside the meat when it’s being stored or transported.

[Dinner for six and breakfast for six, vacuum-sealed and lightweight] 

As a further precaution I now vacuum-seal the dried meals and then store them in the freezer until walk day. It makes me feel a bit like the Irishman who wore two condoms (“to be sure to be sure!”), but gastro in the bush is well worth avoiding.

There are numerous advantages to drying your own food. Taste is number one for me, closely followed by weight. Removing most of the water from food makes it significantly lighter without removing the flavour. That allows food to simultaneously boost your morale and save your back and knees. There’s also a bit of a glow to be had from eating nutritious, preservative-free food whose origins you know.

[Beef Bolognese for two: lightweight & delicious] 

It’s enough to make me feel there’s been a genuine decrease in the burdens today’s bushwalkers have to bear. As for running off the Arthurs with a full pack, put that down to youthful folly and testosterone. And since they’re highly resistant to dehydration, I fear they're burdens that just have to be borne – at least for a while.