Monday 31 December 2012

A Gordon River Journey: Part 1

... And Then It All Stopped

[The Gordon River, western Tasmania] 
First there’s the long drive to Strahan, then the equally long ride across Macquarie Harbour aboard “Stormbreaker”; the one a lurching test for the stomach, the other a slow, rocking transition to the wild. For a time the ketch’s skipper is even able to hoist sail and cut the engine. It could be any time in the last few centuries.

In fact it’s 2012: and the end of a long and full year. I’ve worked right up till the night before this ten day sea kayaking trip on the Gordon River. But as “Stormbreaker” drops us at our remote campsite and chugs off up river, the year suddenly slows to a stop. An enveloping, welcoming silence falls. We put up tents and tarps, chatter a little, arrange a communal area for the five of us, and generally settle in. Then we notice how occupied the silence is.

[Sailing into the wilderness on "Stormbreaker"] 
Wavelets are licking at the shoreline, the wind is shushing through the foliage, birds are jikking, chipping, caroling and chattering, bees and march flies buzzing and humming. This is no silence: it is a chaotic symphony, at once serene and frenetic.

I try to get my ear and eye in by identifying birds and plants. It’s one way to manage the massive transition from busyness to wild pause. We’ve chosen to be away from the usual Christmas rush. We will celebrate Christmas on the Franklin River, if all goes to plan. It’s made me feel disconnected from the swelling streets and shops of Hobart; the trickle of Christmas cards; the torrent of Christmas marketing. As much as I love Christmas, this year will be different.

“10 days sea kayaking on the Gordon River” I’ve been telling anyone who would listen in the lead up to the trip. In my own mind I’ve conjured images of long days paddling deeper into the wilderness – as perhaps we will. But our first full day starts lazily, with nearly as much time practising our favourite beverage preparations as our paddling techniques. (Espresso coffee made with beans freshly ground on a hand grinder sets an agreeable if unusual tone for a “wilderness” trip!)

[Gordon River vegetation in profusion] 
But our paddling time soon reminds us we’re on a wild river. We see no other soul, just wide, calm, coffee-coloured water, unfathomably deep; fringed by high banks and hills decked in wildly luxuriant vegetation. Huon pine, tea-tree, paperbark, native laurel, horizontal and myrtle all grow wildly and well in this water-soaked place.

A different Christmas or not, one plant above all is determined to put up its decorations. Tasmanian Christmas bush, aka mountain lilac (Prostanthera lasianthos), is fully in bloom all along the river banks. A tree that is otherwise inconspicuous can put on a spectacular display at this time of the year. Its deeply lobed flowers are a range of whites, if such a thing can be imagined. Some trees have flowers with a pinkish tinge, others a pale mauve tint, some the purist, luminous white. But all flowers here have purple throats.

[Christmas bush reflections, Gordon River] 

Large sprays of flowers on the trees are mirrored in the calm waters, strongly contrasted with the trees’ dark green foliage. At times winds cause masses of flowers to fall into the river. At first we see just the odd flower floating, four of its lobes catching the wind like a miniature Spanish galleon. 

[A lone Prostanthera flower "sails" the Gordon] 
Before long we see a flotilla, and then what looks like a whole armada setting sail across the mighty Gordon. If they conquer nothing else, they win our hearts, distracting us from the rhythmic work of paddling, bringing us a wonderfully wild Christmas gift. 

[Massed Prostanthera flowers]

Friday 7 December 2012

What’s That You See, Skip?

It’s a nightly ritual. With just a hint of mystery. I walk the dog before feeding her and putting her to bed. We never go far. It’s out the front door – as often as not with the outside lights off – and across the driveway to the fence.

[a pademelon: hunched and wary]
A tangled vine, some sort of Kennedia, has colonised the fence, screening us from the vacant lot next door. As the dog finds a spot to urinate, I peer over the fence into the dark. I often make out shapes moving in the grass: the small furtive bundle of a bandicoot; the hunched suggestion of a pademelon, and just occasionally the bolder upright alertness of a Bennetts wallaby.

[a Bennetts wallaby]  

Our dog is nearly deaf, so she may not hear them even when they thump the ground in warning. She’s also half blind. But she knows they’re there, straining at the leash, keen to take her knowledge further. In the darkness I too lack visual accuity. I know only by hint, and by long practice, that the dark shape sitting alert is a pademelon not a bush. Some nights I say a soft hello, wondering what it can see or sense of me. I’m sure its vision is far better than mine. But, I wonder, how much better? And what does it actually see?

Zoology has been slow to answer these sorts of question. The strangeness of our marsupials – to European minds at least –  inclined scientists to consider them primitive at best; an evolutionary backwater at worst. When it came to understanding marsupial eye sight, our primate bias literally coloured our thinking. The long-held view was that few mammals – and then only primates – could see in colour. The rest, including marsupials, saw in black and white.

But some clever research at the University of Western Australia has found that marsupials do see in colour, and probably in more colours than we do. The human retina, the light-sensing part of the eye, has two types of cells called rods and cones. Rods help with vision in low light, while cones help with colour vision and detail. The retinas of most other mammals don’t have cone cells, so those mammals don’t see in colour. After the WA research, we now know that marsupials, like primates, have both rods and cones. In fact they have extra sensitivity in their cones, allowing some of them to see in the ultraviolet light range. In addition their vision span is around 300 degrees, in comparison to the human span of around 180 degrees.

[wallaby footprints]  
I guess I should have known about these special marsupial powers through watching episodes of “Skippy the Bush Kangaroo” on TV in the 1960s and ‘70s. In that bush melodrama, Skippy always seemed to come to the rescue of the humans by warning of danger ... (“What’s that Skip? The bank robbers are hiding in the bush!?”) ... or by untying the rope-bound humans (who knew kangaroos had prehensile paws?) ... and even by jumping on deadly snakes so the ranger and his son could escape.

Perhaps science has at last caught up, and can now explain why “Skip” was always a step ahead of the bad guys. She could see so much better than the humans, thanks to her wider vision and ability to see further along the spectrum.

["I'm watching you." A well-dressed pademelon.]  

Next time I’m weeing Noo late at night, I’ll have a new respect for “Skip” and her friends. As they peer back at me through the gloaming, I’ll be aware that they’re seeing a lot more than I’d previously guessed. I might even have to dress a little better, making sure I’m colour coordinated. It doesn’t do to upset the neighbours.