Sunday 22 March 2015

In Tents

There should be a word for it: the fear of touching the inside of your tent lest the water start dripping onto you. If there is such a word, it might now be considered archaic. Most tents don’t behave like that any more.

[Will it be warm and dry inside the tent?] 
In theory at least you shouldn’t have to worry that condensation on your inner wall will combine with rain on the outside to form pools in your tent. That’s largely thanks to bushwalking tents having double skins, with a mesh or solid inner tent held clear of the solid outer fly. And having a floor.

But when I first started bushwalking in the 1960s, single wall japara tents were state-of-the-art. Japara, a close-weave type of cotton impregnated with wax, repelled water quite well. However water on the outer surface could wick through and start dripping on you during persistent rain, especially if you helped it find a way in by brushing the inside wall of the tent. Our camp leaders hammered into us the need to avoid this.

[A 1970s Paddymade walled japara tent - a "Tassie" 4 man tent. Photo from a Gumtree ad. 
Consequently my vivid early memories of nights in tents include huddling towards the centre of it during rain. “Never touch the tent wall” was up there with “don’t bump the turntable” when a vinyl record was playing.

The strictness of the rules never prevented me from going camping; nor from buying records for that matter. By the early 70s I had saved up for my own Paddymade Glen two person tent. I was a nascent gear freak even then, because I remember it being a step up from earlier tents. Rather than being a straight A shape, it had small vertical walls at the bottom of the sloping roof. This all-important innovation helped keep the sloping wall further away from the sleeping camper, keeping them drier.

[A Paddy Pallin catalogue ca. 1970, featuring a Glen Tent (centre).
Scanned image via Ian Ross, with thanks.]

But they still had their issues. Firstly they didn’t yet have a built-in floor. In some settings we would put down bracken fronds as a tent base, and to keep the floor drier we might add a plastic groundsheet. To stop water from flowing through your tent, the common practice was to dig drainage ditches all around your tent. Many campsites still bear the scars.

We discovered another major problem when we took the tent to New Zealand during university holidays. The tent flaps had no zipper, and could only be tied together to secure them against insects. No matter how particular you were, you always left good sized air gaps. We suffered serial invasions of sandflies (until dark) and mosquitoes (after dark) whenever we slept in places where these bities were common.

[To hut or tent? Old Waterfall Valley, Tasmania] 
But tents have always had numerous virtues, and these only increased once floors, zippers and double skins were added to them. While a hut chooses an overnight site for you, a tent allows you to stop and camp almost anywhere. That sometimes proves to be a bigger plus than it sounds. What could be better than waking up to a billion dollar view that is just yours?

[Worth waking up to! Campsite scene from the Tasmanian highlands.] 
And having just a thin wall between you and the world can be an incredible experience when that world is devoid of mechanical noise and filled instead with the roar or whisper of wind; the crash or lap of waves; the trickle or chuckle of a creek; the thump or growl of the night’s beasts. And when the dawn chorus starts, stuttering at first, then building to a crowded crescendo of uniquely local song, a tent is a heavenly place to be.   

That’s when you lie back and feel thankful you live in a place like this.

Sunday 15 March 2015

On the Wallaby

[A Tasmanian pademelon, aka a rufous wallaby] 

Australia's a big country
An' Freedom's humping bluey,
An' Freedom's on the wallaby
Oh! don't you hear 'er cooey?

Henry Lawson’s 1891 poem, “Freedom on the Wallaby”, made famous an Australian saying that had already been around for half a century. It was the shearers’ strike of the 1890s that made going “on the wallaby” a commonplace. It meant travelling around the bush, carrying only your essential gear (“humping bluey”), looking for work.

It’s a notion that exerts a romantic pull on today’s overwhelmingly urban populace. While the original possibility of starvation might have been forgotten, the rest of the fantasy retains a strong hold on grey nomads and many other Australians. The freedom of the road; the ability to move on to wherever the weather or your fancy leads, has huge appeal.

But what about the actual wallaby from which the saying derives? Is there anything about the smaller relation of the kangaroo that we ought emulate or admire? For starters there’s its wonderfully warm, weather-proof coat. See one fluffed and hunched against the rain or snow of the Tasmanian highlands, and you see a creature perfectly adapted to its surroundings. Add its efficient mode of travel, its ability to find food and shelter almost anywhere, and its in-built load carrying pouch, and there’s much to envy.

[Bennetts wallabies in snow, Walls of Jerusalem National Park] 
Over the last few years our garden and local bush have given me ample opportunity to observe our two local wallaby species: the Bennetts wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus) and the Tasmanian pademelon (Thylogale billardierii). Both are abundant to the extent that we hear their foot-thumping and territorial coughing/growling during the night.

There’s joy enough in sharing our space with such wonderful creatures, but we also gain their services as grass removers. I could say lawnmowers, but that would imply that our bit of grass is lawn-like. They even re-process said grass in a pelletised form of manure. On the debit side we do lose the unprotected foliage of any tasty plants in our garden. They have even developed a taste for bay leaves and lemons. Still, overall we’re happy with the balance sheet between us.

[A tell-tale wallaby scat in the garden] 
Beyond our fence the bush is criss-crossed with wallaby tracks. They intersect with human bush tracks at various points, and reveal an instructive contrast. Where the human tracks tend to be linear, grid-like, the wallaby tracks (also called “pads”) at first appear rather random. But follow the pads for a while and you’ll often find they have a clever efficiency about them.

Where there is water to be found, the pads move neatly across the slope – diagonally where necessary – from shelter or food to the water source. Rarely are the tracks steeply straight up or down the slope. Often they are through, or close to, any sheltering foliage.

[A wallaby pad crosses a slope in our local bush] 
Bushwalking is my preferred form of going “on the wallaby”. My “bluey” is a backpack; my swag a sleeping bag and tent; my “toil” is to struggle up a mountain, around a lake or through a canyon. These places pay me back in a currency that can’t be counted.

In more remote parts of Tasmania I'll confess I've occasionally become confused between human tracks and animal pads, and have found myself literally on the wallaby (tracks). Given the multi-generational nature of animal movements, such animal pads can be a well-worn and efficient means of getting from one place to another. 

But there are a couple of caveats for following pads. Firstly I’ll want to know that the wallaby (or wombat, or whatever) was wanting to go the same way as I am. And secondly I’ll want to be sure I can actually, physically, follow their track. Wombats and pademelons in particular are very good at finding their way beneath and through thick bush. I’ve found to my cost that I’m next-to-useless at doing the same while wearing a large backpack. As Lawson could have told me, it's not always easy being on the wallaby.

Sunday 1 March 2015

Forbidden Fruit

It’s the time of the year for scrumping. Twice this weekend we’ve been into the bush – officially owned by our local brewery, but effectively open space used by the whole neighbourhood – to hunt for blackberries.

[Ripe blackberries: irresistible!] 

The dictionary characterises our activity as a form of stealing, but we perpetrators prefer to see it as the prevention of waste. Somewhere deep in our hunter-gatherer DNA is an aversion to leaving food to rot. And that’s what would happen to the fruit if we good citizens didn’t go about our business.

We could even argue that picking blackberries is a form of environmental action. That may be a bit of a stretch, but it is true that every blackberry kept from a bird’s gullet is one less bundle of seeds released into the bush.

In truth blackberries (Rubus fruticosus) are a scourge; officially a “weed of national significance” in Australia. Apart from being horribly prickly, they choke up great swathes of bush; infest river banks; take over otherwise productive land; and provide food and shelter for pest animals. On top of all that, they can grow very rapidly (50–80 mm a day), spread easily, and are extremely difficult to eradicate.

That’s not what we’re thinking about as we amble along the back track. Our hunter-gatherer eyes are solely focussed on finding the semi-hidden black fruit within the rambling brambles. It’s the sweet fruit that’s the undoubted prize of the hunt. And, I wonder, is the fruit also one possible reason for land owners sometimes being half-hearted about eradicating blackberries?

[One for us, not the birds!] 
Seeing berries is one thing; picking them is another. I remember childhood scrumping expeditions that involved a corrugated iron sheet, which we stored in the bush. Each picking season we’d uncover it, and use it as a ramp over the brambles. It gave us access to some otherwise unreachable fruit.

Lynne and I lack the corrugated iron, and have to rely on care and stealth. Sometimes the brambles seem to see us coming, and their prickles turn to face us. Even through my shirt I take the odd flesh wound, while Lynne is spiked in the thigh through her jeans. But it’s our hands that suffer the most. One especially savage thorn spikes my little finger, which spurts like Snow White’s.

The damage is all worth it. We carry home 2kg of fruit and a pair of smiles. We freeze some berries for later, and turn the rest into a pair of truly wonderful cobblers. Simpler and quicker to make than pies, and every bit as delicious, cobblers were often promoted during times of food shortage. They use less butter and less flour than a traditional pie. And somehow, if you’ve picked the blackberries yourself, the cobbler tastes even better! That “forbidden fruit” aspect of scrumping is surely one of the attractions.

[A load of new cobblers! Fresh from the oven.] 

But the proof of the cobbler is in the eating, so here’s our recipe.

Blackberry & Apple Cobbler Recipe

  • Prep time: 35 minutes
  • Cook time: 30 minutes
  • Makes: 1 large cobbler, 7-9 servings.


Berry mixture:
  • 3 cups blackberries, rinsed clean
  • 1 cup tart apple, peeled and cut into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup white sugar (less if your fruit is very ripe, or you prefer your cobbler less sweet)
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp cornflour

Cobbler topping:
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 cup plain flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten

·      Put the blackberries, apple, sugar, lemon zest and juice, cinnamon and cornflour in a 20cm X 20cm baking dish. Stir to combine everything and make sure that the berries are all evenly coated with the sugar. Leave for 30 minutes or so till the berries ooze juice.

·      Preheat your oven to 175°C (350°F). Whisk together the flour, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, the baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Cut the butter into the flour mixture using fingers or a fork until it looks like coarse crumbs. Make a well in the center and stir in the milk and beaten egg. Mix together until the dough is just moistened.

·      Scoop up the dough in a large spoonful, and drop spoonfuls roughly evenly over the berries in the baking dish. Bake for 30 minutes at 175°C, or until the berry mixture is bubbly and the topping is lightly browned.

·      Serve with natural yoghurt (or cream or ice-cream, if preferred).